Saturday, August 27, 2005

Cult TV Flashback # 7: The X-Files: "Home"

From 1993 to 2001 - on Fox TV, of all places - The X-Files produced some of the best genre programming in two decades. Chris Carter's landmark series (a child, perhaps, of Kolchak: The Night Stalker [1974]) featured two F.B.I. agents - Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating unusual criminal cases involving the paranormal; so-called "X" files. The series ran for nine spectacular years, and drew the raves of critics everywhere for its sharp-as-a-razor presentation of material that could have been classified as "hokey" or "marginal."

"The direction is atmospheric, the scripts are tight, the dialogue is crisp, the tone uneasy and grim...How can anyone not love this show?" asked Omni columnist David Bischoff (December 1994, pages 43-50). Matt Roush, the TV Guide critic at the time, agreed: "Many weeks...The X-Files is as good as any movie, satirizing the characters' obsessions while still delivering shudders." "What's erotic about the show," suggested reviewer James Wolcott in The New Leader ("X Factor,'" April 18, 1994, pages 98-100), "is its slow progression from reverie to revelation, stopping just short of rapture. It wants to swoon, but swooning would mean shutting its eyes, and there's so much to see..."

All these critics are right on the money, and The X-Files, I believe, is right up there with the best genre programming in TV's long history: Star Trek (1966-1969), The Prisoner (1969), The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and my own personal - and highly controversial - favorites, Space: 1999 (1975-1977), Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-1998), Sapphire & Steel (1979-81), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002).

I could pick any number of X-Files episodes to feature in this flashback edition (most of 'em from the show's exemplary first six seasons...). There's the brilliant and highly literary "Milagro," which gazes deep into the heart of agent Dana Scully. There's the Roshomon-like fifth season entry, "Bad Blood," which shows us (quite comically...) how Scully and Mulder see themselves, and each other. There's "The Host," the story of a flukeman living in the New Jersey sewers(!), "War of the Coprophages" - about extra-terrestrial cockroaches, "Unruhe," a serial-killer piece done extraordinarywell, and on-and on. For years, this show never produced a stinker.

But the best - and most disgusting - episode, has to be the one that was banned from network television after its initial airing on October 11, 1996. The episode I write of is the second of the program's best year, the fourth season. It is called "Home," and was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, and directed by Kim Manners. For those who don't recall the episode, it concerns a a small Pennsylvania town, "Home." There, a family of deformed brothers (with their crippled, limbless mother...) - The Peacocks - dwell in an isolated farmhouse, minding their own business. But when a dead fetus is found near the imposing, dilipadated house, Sheriff Andy Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) calls in Mulder and Scully to investigate. What the F.B.I. agents discover inside the Peacock home s a rotten, stinking farm filled with sharp-edged, home-made booby traps, and four monsters who barely qualify as "human." The wrecked Peacock home - filthy in the extreme - is reminiscent of the Leatherface estate in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the savage family dynamic presented in the early Wes Craven chiller, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The savage cinema returns!

I have never seen anything like "Home" on TV. It features: a bloody murder with a baseball bat, scenes of the brothers Peacock chewing their mother's food for her (though, thankfully, her impregnation occurs off-screen...) and the corpse of a deformed infant, who was buried alive. The show is cutthroat, terrrifying, and a sense of danger goes waaaay beyond the "safety" and decorum we expect (or used to expect...) from our boob tube programming.

But the show is artistic and worthwhile for other reasons. The horror creds are unimpeachable, but the hour is truly memorable for the way in which it sets up the locale of the town and its unspoken "rules." The Peacocks mind their own business - and so do the police - and each faction is left alone. However, the death of the infant and the subsequent arrival of the F.B.I throws these long-standing "rules" out of synch, and the Peacocks engage the police with brutal, animal ferocity. In the 1990s, this kind of encounter reflected the Zeitgeist - call it Waco or Ruby Ridge - but the idea of people dwelling out in the wilderness, waiting for a spark to go off and begin killing, was certainly one ripped from the headlines.

The episode also takes great pains to develop the dramatis personae. Scully is deeply affected by the discovery of the dead baby, and wonders "what a mother must go through," dealing with a deformed child. Later in the episode, the Peacock Mommy makes it explicit: telling Scully how "proud" she is of her boys. In Mulder's case, we not only get a great reminiscence from him about pick-up baseball games in his youth (a terrific, heartfelt moment...), but his sudden realization that Scully could be..well...maternal. "I've never thought of you as a mother before," he says at one point; and clearly, he likes the notion. (Later in the series, Mulder and Scully do have a baby together).

The X-Files almost always features some kind of satirical edge, and indeed, "Home" includes this element. Sheriff "Andy Taylor" should ring a bell. That's the name of Andy Griffith's character on The Andy Griffith Show. It could be a cheap joke to name the sheriff of a town after this character, but much of the episode actually concerns the manner in which modern America is changing, how the Mayberrys of our nation are no longer places, perhaps, where you can leave the door unlocked and still remain safe. It is a chilling premise, and the use of the name "Andy Taylor" explicitly alludes to a gentler time in America, and certainly in American TV.

So as August becomes September, as hot summer turns autumnal, let's remember the scariest, most dynamic, and pulse-pounding X-Files episode produced in nine years. "Home" is where the heart of this great show resides. To this day, it still chills, and raises questions about the small towns where we live. From a terrifying teaser, which commences with the unholy birth, to the final moment, wherein two Peacocks escape the house of horrors and drive away to the tune of "Wonderful," "Home" fits in beautifully with a recurring X-Files obsession: terror underneath the surface of so-called "normal" America. Other episodes (including the exemplary "Our Town" and "Die Hand der Verletz") also tread through this queasy territory, but "Home" surpasses the already high gross-out factor in the series, and is an episode that anyone who has seen, never forgets. As I wrote in my 2001 book, Terror Television, "Home" represents "terror TV at an apex of both style and substance."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Retro Toy Thursday Flashback # 7: Ideal's S*t*a*r* Team

Back in that magical and happy year, 1977 (when I was but seven...), when Kenner's Star Wars action-figures were tearing up the toy market in a way not seen since Mego's Planet of the Apes line, a number of other companies wanted to get in on the outer space action too. From that great company called Ideal came a toy line with a special place in my heart, a modification of a long-standing toy-line called Zeroids (from the 1960s). These robot figures and ships were brought out of mothballs and re-imagined for the post-Star Wars kids, and christened...S*T*A*R* TEAM!

My grandmother and grandfather on my father's side bought me my first toys from the line for my eighth birthday, in particular, a red and white flying-saucer like spaceship called STAR HAWK (No. 4601-1). This is, as described by the box, "the spacecraft of ZEROID." Zeroid, in case you are wondering, is a nifty robot with a "twin tread base" that looks a little bit like R2-D2, if you're inclined to make comparisons (pictured left, with the ship). His arms have positive/negative symbols for hands, and his head dome lights up and flashes when activated with the two AA batteries (not included).

Anyway, the STAR HAWK came complete withfour gray landing "pods," the ZEROID robot himself, and a special motor that would rotate the canopy and open the ship's front hatch. All I can say is that with this toy, I was in Heaven. It was great. I sent that little 'droid and his spacecraft on a number of cosmic adventures, mixing-and-matching with G.I. Joes, and Mego superhero kits to build a universe around the toy.

But soon, I really got into the STAR TEAM action when I found at a yard sale somewhere in New Jersey the Zeroid's mortal Enemy, KNIGHT OF DARKNESS (Number 4603-7). "This fearsome enemy of Zeroid and ZEM-21" is a Lord Darth Vader look-alike (again, if you're into comparisons), with a neat black and silver uniform (and cape). He comes equipped with a nasty laser gun, and in his black boots and control panel belt stands at 11' tall. The Knight of Darkness is indeed a fearsome adversary, and now I had a new villain to chase Zeroid's Star Hawk around outer space. Though I still lacked minions and so had to rely on Apes figures, Six-Million Dollar Man figures (like Bigfoot or Maskatron!) and the like. The Knight of Darkness is pictured to the right.

And hey, did the box mention a fella called ZEM-21? Whoa! I soon found out who he is. Well, Zemmy Baby is sort of the C-3PO of this particular toy line, (No. 4602-9), a bipedal, green-faced "metal plated humanoid robot." His metallic skin is silver, and he proved to be the perfect companion to ZEROID on those adventures. He is pictured immediately to the left. You can see, his box isn't in such good condition these days.

Last week, I wrote a little bit about the joy of my Starcruiser 1 model kit, from Gerry Anderson, and how I liked to invent the universe around the kit. I found the same joy with these robots, their neat spaceship, and their black-and-silver nemesis, designed by Ideal for ages 5 & up. Even if the toys appear modestly derivative of Star Wars, this was yet another opportunity (as a kid) to put my own imprint on original adventures. I'm sure that somehow, someway, these toys contributed to me becoming a writer in adulthood.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun sharing time with these 28-year old toys, and today, the Star Hawk, Zeroid, Zem-21 and the Knight of Darkness have a shelf of honor in my office (see below). Does anyone out there remember the Zeroids? I know there are a lot of collectors of the 1960s versions (which are some friggin' awesome toys). But can anyone remember having played with or seen on shelves the S*T*A*R* Team? Sometimes I think I'm the only one who remembers 'em...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Book Review: A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis

To be honest, for the longest time I pussy-footed around the B-movie cinema of Herschell Gordon Lewis, maestro of such cinematic creations as Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and The Wizard of Gore. Don't ask me why I did it. I'm a horror lover since pre-adolescence, since my baptism by fire watching Tobe Hooper's 1981 grueling flick The Funhouse at a friend's eighth grade party. Yet for years throughout my adulthood - even as I wrote books with titles like Terror Television or Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, some deep-seated part of me feared the fringe world of Lewis. His efforts (what I had seen of 'em...) seemed so raw; so bare; so unrefined and therefore totally and utterly dangerous.

Of course, a feeling of endangerment is precisely the mood one desires to achieve while watching a horror film, so my feelings about Mr. Lewis's films were paradoxical and confusing, to say the least, and I'm glad I got over my own moral cowardice and watched a few of his crimson-stained pics in recent years. They're important historically, and they certainly resonate with a kind of low-budget energy that can't easily be dismissed. Seeing them also helped me understand horror of the 1960s, a world I needed to understand to write some of my later books for McFarland, including Horror Films of the 1970s and Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper.

But even watching a few of his films, I always felt I was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle, and it is for that reason that I recently picked up a film book co-authored by Christopher Wayne Curry and John W. Curry, A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Creating Cinema Collection, volume 14, 1998).

First off, I must establish that this is a beautifully designed and illustrated work, and even a valuable time-capsule after a fashion - featuring pages upon pages of original newspaper artwork and advertising copy ("Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror!" shouts an advert for Blood Feast). The book also boasts a color insert (dripping with blood...), and a great selection of rare photographs, virtually all of which I've never seen before.

But that's just icing on the cake, or blood spraying off the corpse, so-to-speak. When I began reading the text, I immediately felt comfortable with the prose of the authors. They explain in their easy-going but succinct introduction how (Christopher Curry in particular...) came to intersect with world of Monsieur Lewis in 1985...and from there an obsession grew. This is, perhaps, a universal theme for the hard-core horror aficionado. We've all been there - checking out the racks of mom and pop video stores in the late eighties and early nineties for buried treasures that have somehow escaped the notice of the genre press - but that common experience, re-told well in these pages, let me sigh a breath of relief. I understood immediately that the Currys are my peeps. This is a world and a journey I could understand and appreciate - even if the subject matter somehow frightened me - and so I knew I wasn't going to be scandalized, or subjected to any weird analysis or hardcore claims for Gordon's pure artistry.

The authors maintain their friendly, highly-readable tone throughout the book, and the style really keeps the reader at ease. Perhaps understanding that their subject matter is a bit - well, controversial - in these politically correct days of PG-13 horror films, the authors don't attempt to articulate some kind of grand case for Gordon's genius. They merely appreciate his work, and escort us on a guided tour of his long and remarkably successful career. I found this straightforward approach refreshing, and the book is simultaneously unpretentious and infectiously enthusiastic in its presentation. The authors are smart - and they present copious amounts of information - but they don't make you feel like you should be taking notes because there's going to be a test later.

While reading, I found the details of Gordon's career compelling. I knew something about Gordon's ethos from the horror films I had watched, but I learned about another whole world here - particularly his work outside the genre. As the authors insightfully and knowledgeably enumerate in their prologue:

"Herschell Gordon Lewis is unsurpassed in the number of subjects he exploited in his films. In keeping with 'making pictures that either the majors (in Hollywood) couldn't or wouldn't make,' Lewis took taboos and ran with them. Whether it be rock'n'roll, birth control, juvenile delinquency, wife swapping, or extreme violence, a Lewis picture was sure to be an unpredictable, unpretentious treat."

Therefore, Gordon made films like Suburban Roulette, The Girl, The Body And The Pill and She-Devils on Wheels. I haven't seen any of these, but boy would I like to. They sound intriguing, and rife with the Zeitgeist of the era from which they sprang. In reading about these works, I felt like a new avenue in film history had opened up to me, and I devoured these chapters with special interest.

The second part of the book is equally illuminating, devoted to several interviews with key players, and the first one is with H.G. Lewis himself. The director comes off particularly well here, waxing philosophical about everything from his childhood (and favorite films), to reflections on his career and the actors who appeared in the movies. One senses that he's really a decent guy, and that those horrorific, bloody images are just part of his work; part of presenting the best "horror package" he could imagine.

In toto, A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordo n Lewis is filled with energy, valuable primary sources (both photographic and textual), and therefore an endearing addition to my reference film library. Since I began writing film books myself back in 1996, I have found it harder and harder to enjoy many horror film books - for reasons too numerous to count. But that simply wasn't the case here. I was enlightened, intrigued and immersed in a world of independent filmmaking that doesn't really exist anymore. So, If you're interested in this director, or just what it was like to make so-called "exploitation" films in the decade of Kennedy, the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King Jr., I wholeheartedly recommend the work of Christopher and Wayne Curry. They've done their homework and presented a refreshing, behind-the-scenes glimpse of a so-called "fringe" filmmaker.

Now, if they can just be persuaded to do a book on my latest obsession, Basket Case and Brain Damage director Frank Henenlotter...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Tuesday Catnap # 7

Though she sometimes is mistaken as aggressive and skittish, Ezri (pictured here) is actually one of the most affectionate cats I've ever known. She's a sweet lap kitty, and she likes to sleep on my back at night. In the mornings, when she's ready for breakfast, she jumps on an end table beside the bed and rattles a fragile Victorian lamp to wake me and Kathryn up. Then she jumps on my kidneys and kneads them relentlessly till I get up. If that doesn't work, she starts strumming the window-shades. Anyway, Ezri's a tad big-boned, but absolutely adorable. Here she is showing off her tummy, and her beautiful white tuft of hair.