Saturday, September 24, 2005

Link of the Week: Garn's Guides

I've been an admirer and user of this site for a long time now, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to feature it now. It's your one-stop shopping site to research television, genre television in particular. Garn's Episode Guides of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Animation is obviously a work of love from a very committed writer. The site contains several sections, including episode guides for Current Programs, Animated Series, a Live Action Archive, and even a section for genre books.

Can't remember when an episode of Millennium aired? Wondering about the title of the next Lost episode, which you might need for your blog review (as I did)? Well, then Garn's Guides is an amazing and detailed resource. What impresses me is not just the level of detail and accuracy here, but the depth of the material. Garn's Guides features information on programming back to the 1960s and seventies, like my favorite, Space:1999. It's also up-to-the-minute current with entries on Prison Break, Threshold, Surface and Invasion. That's just amazing. I wish I had known about this site when researching some of my earlier books on specific SF TV series, but boy am I glad now that it's round and I know about it! It's a well-designed and attractive site, and very user friendly. It's perfect for cross-reference and easy access, and that's why
Garn's Guides is my link of the week! Check it out!

TV Review: Threshold, Episode # 2: "Blood of the Children"

There is one reason and one reason alone to watch the underwhelming Brannon Braga produced "invasion" series Threshold (airing on CBS, Friday nights at 9:00 pm). That reason is named Brent Spiner. This charming actor plays the scientist Nigel Fenway, and brings a vitality and energy to the role that is otherwise missing from this - *ahem*- enterprise. Of course, Spiner starred as Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation and did a brilliant job there over the years, so Threshold could scarcely have a better actor to rattle off techno-babble dialogue and make it seem utterly believable. More than that, we hang on his every word, so delicious is Spiner's delivery. But more to the point, as Nigel, Spiner seems 100% unleashed to display his wicked, droll sense of humor. He is sarcastic, funny, cynical and everything else we might want from a world-weary character like this. He also gets all the best lines. His delivery of the joke about Blue Cross/Blue Shield co-pays in last evening's sophomore episode, "Blood of the Children" was utter perfection. His spinning of that line took the joke (about a 5 on a scale of 10...) up to perhaps an 8 or 9.

Alas, the rest of the show is grim. Especially the other performances. Charles Dutton is a great actor - no bones about it - but as Baylock he is bombastic and goes way over the top in his line-readings. Someone should tell him to tone it down. Carla Gugino, an actress I have admired in films such as The Singing Detective and Sin City, seems lost here, or at least though she isn't quite sure which scene she's in or what notes she's supposed to hit. And "Blood of the Children" also features the worst attempt at a Southern accent I've heard in the last decade; provided by a guest star playing a military cadet. Apparently, nobody involved in Theshold, top down, has ever been anywhere near the South. People in Virginia don't talk like that. And they probably haven't for at least a hundred and fifty years. This accent is so bad (Kevin Costner Robin Hood bad...) it literally jarred me out of the storyline. I'm married to a Richmonder, and we live in North Carolina, so I know about this stuff. After ten years living near Charlotte (following six years in Richmond...) I've never heard an accent like that.

The wildly variable performances (Spiner and the fantastic Rob Benedict, late of the much-missed Felicity, are great...and Dutton, Gugino and the bland Van Holt are not so good) aren't the only problem on this program. The story presented last night was utterly confusing. For instance, during one tense moment, team leader Molly (Gugino) is chased through an Academy Library, down a flight of stairs and into a map room. She is pursued by a group of blank-faced pre-adolescent cadets, presumably under the influence of the series' alien invaders. They look robotic, and in a quick cut, as they descend a staircase after Molly, there is an odd green glow contributing to the feeling that they are aliens. But then, a few minutes later, it is established that they are just normal cadets (pre-adolescents can't be invaded by the aliens because of the thymus, apparently...) following a possessed older cadet - Jenklow - the one with the miserable Southern accent. Okay, then why did they chase Molly looking like Body Snatchers? Why the weird green glow? Hmmm? This moment of tension is revealed to be "false tension," a cheap shot.

I'm more confused and bothered by the alien plan. Apparently, the whole invasion of the Military Academy was to gain access to the Internet. Cuz you see, if the aliens could upload their genetics-altering signal to the worldwide web, something like 33% percent of the country would be infected in hours, at least according to Molly, who uses the spread of the "Paris Hilton sex tape" as her statistical model. The first thing is, that line about Paris Hilton isn't funny; the second is that you're comparing apples and oranges here. A lot of people are going to download something called "One Night in Paris," how many will download something that basically, according to the characters in the drama, looks like spyware? Are the aliens embedding their signal in porn? Because if that's the case, then Molly's joke would have made sense. Otherwise, it's a weak reach for humor.

But the worst part of all this is the overriding alien plan. A number of humans are infected by the aliens, right? So why did the aliens choose the Military Academy, where only one room (the library...) is wired up for the Internet? Why not go somewhere else and just upload the signal, off of any home computer, out of any public library, from any dorm room in Virginia, at any Internet cafe, and on and on and on? This must be one of the weakest plot devices I've seen on TV since...last week's Supernatural. The aliens must not be much of a threat if their "big plan" is to upload a signal to the Internet....and they can't even manage that relatively modest accomplishment. Yes, the danger in Threshold is an alien race that can travel across the void of space, alter genetics with a signal...but can't upload a file on the Net. Scary...

I've got to wonder, too, where this series is really going? Next week's episode, "The Burning" is set at a mental hospital where some of the patients may have been infected. How many times has a mental hospital been a setting for science fiction/horror TV shows like this? And is this going to be the nature of the series, a lot of running around at a different signature location each week? This week a Military Academy; next week a Mental Hospital? I'll wait with eager anticipation for the episode set in Chinatown, or the one on the Indian Reservation. Come on folks!

I knew the series was in trouble when my wife turned to me and commented "This feels like an episode of Enterprise." Yikes! My advice to the makers of Threshold: Unleash Brent Spiner and Rob Benedict now! With a little creative tweaking, this show could be the Monk of alien invasion set, especially if you put the babe (Molly) and the hunk (Van Holt) on the back-burner and made these two interesting actors (Spiner and Benedict) the leads instead. Imagine the two of these guys investigating cases, confronting aliens. That would be very, very interesting.

Until that happens, I'm giving Threshold the same deal as Supernatural. Five weeks - five episodes to prove the series has the right stuff. That's how long I hang with it. If it doesn't improve in five weeks - bye bye!

So far in the 2005 Fall season, I would consider Invasion the best new drama. I enjoy and am entertained (so far...) by Prison Break, Reunion, and Surface. Threshold is the weakest of the three new "alien" dramas, but still head-and-shoulders above the worst new show of the season, Supernatural. Next week, The Night Stalker premieres, and I'll be posting about it here too.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Monsterfest 2: The Armageddon!

It's baaaaaaaack!

The second annual Monsterfest Convention has been scheduled for Saturday, October 8th, 2005 at the Chesapeake Central Library in Chesapeake, Virginia, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. I'll be there as a guest to discuss horror films of the 1980s - including the slasher paradigm, "rubber reality," horror iconography, and other trends from the "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid" Decade.

Other notable guests at Monsterfest 2: The Sequel (or Bride of Monsterfest...) include TV host Dr. Madblood and his crew, and Christopher Wayne Curry, co-author of Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who I interviewed on this site not too long ago. As you can tell from the cool flyer (left), the show is open and free to the public, and there'll be costume contests and the world premiere of the Madblood documentary. Very cool.

Plan to attend this great horror con if you can. Last year was a blast! I'll be there selling and signing copies of my books, peddling used horror videos (and DVDs), and I would love it if you stopped by at my table to chat.

It's gonna be a spooky good time. Find more about it the con at the Bride of Monsterfest web-site!!

Friday Retro-TV Flashback # 10: Chris Carter's Millennium: The Lucy Butler Trilogy

Has there ever been a more influential television program than Chris Carter's brilliant and underrated crime/horror program, Millennium (1996-1999)? I think not, and as evidence I suggest you merely check out the new 2005 Fall TV schedule. Millennium clones dot the schedules of all the major networks, with titles such as Bones, Criminal Minds and Killer Instinct. Don't even get me started on the immensely popular CSI and its various and sundry spin-offs. Millennium focused on forensic pathology, oddball criminals and crafty, perverted serial killers almost a decade ago, and frankly, it did it better than any of these aforementioned shows. Why someone hasn't seriously considered producing a Millennium feature film - or a spin-off/sequel series - is seriously beyond me. But then, nobody pays me to make those decisions.

Millennium ran for three glorious and all too brief seasons on FOX TV in the late nineties, in total broadcasting some sixty-six episodes. All three seasons are now available (and affordable) on DVD Box Sets and I suggest you buy them. The time is now.

Millennium starred the incredibly versatile and charismatic Lance Henriksen in the role of his career, ex-F.B.I. profiler Frank Black, a quiet, haunted man who has suffered two mental breakdowns in his life because of his capacity to "see inside" the minds of killers. As the series begins, he's just moved to a beautiful yellow house in Seattle with his wife, a therapist named Catherine (Megan Gallagher) and his young, gifted daughter, Jordan (Britanny Tiplady). Frank helps the Seattle PD solve difficult crimes from time-to-time, and consults for the mysterious Millennium Group, an organization of ex-F.B.I. professionals (based on the real like Academy Group) dedicated to understanding and apprehending criminals...and also, perhaps, cultivating The End Times. Frank's friend, and later - nemesis - is his sponsor in the Millennium Group, Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn). After a series of catastrophic events in the second season, Frank loses confidence in the secretive Group and returns to the F.B.I. Academy at Quantico, teaming up with a young, intelligent agent, Emma Hollis (Klea Scott). Most of his cases there involve the mysterious and odd misdeeds of The Millennium Group. As fans of The X-Files remember, a closing episode of that show, titled - appropriately - "Millennium," brought some sense of closure (but not enough...) to the series.

According to Variety at the time of its premiere near Halloween in '96, Millennium "makes Twin Peaks look like a morning in Romper Room," and the magazine called the series "literate, well-acted and blessed with an irresistible hook...the best new show of the season."(Jeremy Gerard, Variety, October 21-27, 1996, page 212.) John J. O'Connor, writing for The New York Times suggests that creator "Carter pushes all the right apocalyptic buttons...The production values darkly mirror the text."(The New York Times: "The Evil That Lurks All Around," October 25, 1996, page B16). In 1999, after the program finally and sadly left the air, X-Pose Magazine insightfully commented that "Millennium surpassed itself in cultivating relationships between its principal cast" and called the show "a clear artistic success, making sense out of an often chaotic, disturbing world with consummate intelligence and powerful emotions."(X-Pose # 35, "Inner Demons," June 1999, pages 49-51.) Right on.

There are many fine episodes of Millennium that we could focus on for this blog's tenth retro-TV flashback, including the feature-film quality pilot by Chris Carter, the inspiring installment, "Luminary," or the apocalyptic season two cliffhanger "The Fourth Horseman/The Time is Now," but instead I want to highlight a very special trilogy of shows. In each season of Millennium, Frank faced a truly frightening, and if truth be told, enormously sexy antagonis named: Lucy Butler. Played by the gorgeous Sarah-Jane Redmond with diabolical intensity, this was a character who might very well be the devil itself. The audience is introduced to Lucy in the eighteenth episode of the series, aired on April 18, 1997, titled "Lamentation." It's a great show, because it begins with a heavy focus on a Hannibal Lecter-type serious killer, only to shift focus suddenly to a much more evil character, Lucy herself. In this episode, we witness Lucy perform surgery on an unwilling patient...without anesthesia. Written by Chris Carter and directed by Winrich Kolbe, "Lamentation" is also a pivotal episode of Millennium because - after seventeen weeks of serial killers and odd crimes - the series makes its first (stunning...) supernatural twist. Not only is Lucy Butler able to change form into a frightening, dark-haired man at will, but also, perhaps, a horrible demon straight from Hell. You know this episode means business not just for its terrifying set-piece in Frank Black's house, wherein Jordan disappears and Catherine finds a bloody kidney on a plate in the refrigerator, but in the death of a main series character, Frank's pal at the Seattle Police Department, Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich). So powerful is this episode, so important to the evolving series mythos is it, that Lucy Butler re-appears briefly in the follow-up show, "Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions."

In the second season, Lucy Butler returned to vex Frank in what is certainly one of the best episodes of the series, if not the very best. Titled "A Room with No View," this show aired on April 24, 1998, and was written by Ken Horton and directed by series stalwart Thomas Wright. This time, Lucy is abducting exceptional young men - future leaders - and bringing them to a hotel of horrors to break their spirits. If she can succeed in making them "ordinary," she will have killed our future. This is just a brilliant show, featuring Malcolm in the Middle's Christopher Kennedy Masterson as one of the boys doomed to Lucy's tender, horrible ministrations. In horror movies, and horror TV shows, children always represent tomorrow; or the future. So if you kill or destroy the children, you are destroying the future, and this episode literalizes that metaphor. Since Millennium concerns the impending apocalypse, the end of the world by our own hands, this episode about leaders rendered "ordinary" fits in just perfectly with series tenets. After the failures we have seen recently at all levels of government in all our leaders, can anyone deny that, perhaps, Lucy Butler has succeeded?

Ms. Redmond's Lucy Butler returned in Season Three for what is probably the weakest of the three stories featuring her, though still a good one overall. In "Antipas," written by Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter and directed by Thomas Wright, Lucy - longing for a child of her own to subvert - infiltrates the family of an up-and-coming state politician as a "nanny." Before long she is wreaking havoc on the family, killing the senator's wife and corrupting her young daughter, Divina, into a life of evil. Frank intervenes along with Emma Hollis, but Lucy is up to her devilish old tricks. Especially creepy (and sensual...) is Lucy's late-night visitation to Frank in a motel room. She mounts him and goes to town riding him, only later revealing she is pregnant with his child from this - ahem - encounter. Fortunately, she loses the baby, since that's one more crisis Frank Black just shouldn't have to handle! The final appearance of Lucy Butler in Millennium occurs in the episode "Saturn Dreaming of Mercury," when Frank discovers - again - that evil has a very distinctive face, even in comforting suburbia.

So many episodes of Millennium dealt brilliantly with the idea of "evil" as a concept; of the "End of the World" as a cerebral, intellectual fear. Were we racing to an "apocalypse of our own making?" Were we guaranteed another thousand years, and if so, would it be the "same old crap?" Yet what makes the Lucy Butler trilogy so special is the fact that in these episodes, evil boasts a beguiling and very human form, simultaneously repellant and attractive. This is sort of a perfect expression of the Gothic aesthetic. Whereas many of the lunatics in Millennium are deviant, repugnant characters, Lucy Butler makes evil charming, charismatic...and all the more frightening. It's a good thing Frank is such a steady presence in the series, because he's the only person in the world, I think, who could fight this demon- given-female-form and not be taken in by her treachery and alluring evil. Had the series gone into a fourth season, one wonders what the next clash of Lucy and Frank would have been like, especially given the personal nature of their conflict in "Antipas."

was so ahead of its time in about a million ways. Back in the 1990s, it featured stories on avian flu-type bugs ("The Fourth Horseman"), stem cell research ("Bardo Thodol"), the Human Genome Project ("Sense and Anti-Sense"), end-of-life issues ("Goodbye Charlie"), the Y2K threat ("TEOTWAWKI") and other stories that would come to dramatically affect the 21st century, and yet, despite such forward-thinking plot scenarios, you could hardly do better than to revisit the terrifying "Lamentation," the highly-disturbing and deeply resonant "Room with No View," and The Omen-like "Antipas." Just three examples of how Millennium had everything you could want in a horror TV series: style, subtext, theme, and brilliant characterization. Lucy Butler is a character - and villain - for the ages.

If you want to read more about Millennium, and other horror series aired from 1970-1999, check out my book, Terror Television. This is how I summarized Millennium there:

"For those who gave up on Millennium and never looked back, please - seek it out now in reruns [DVD!]. Commit to viewing it from start to finish. Such an undertaking will not prove a waste, and on the contrary, will leave one with a bold and invigorating universe of horror to contemplate."

, suffice it to say, is the reason my house is painted yellow...

Thursday, September 22, 2005

TV Review: ABC's Invasion, Episode # 1

So far so good...

Critics may be right. This certainly looks like the season's most promising new genre program. My initial impression of the premiere? Well, I was struck by the similarities to American Gothic: particularly the setting of a Southern town; the importance of a local Sheriff (with a dark side...) and a reporter among the dramatis personae.

However, if there are similarities between the two series in the concept of characters, the set-up is completely different, and the first episode of Invasion actually reaches some poetic heights in its visualizations. The view of the alien lights landing lightly in the water, like glowing snow-drops, is a beautiful and resonant image. The appearance of a hurricane survivor - mysteriously naked and unconscious on the shore - is terrifying and creepy. And the storm itself is dramatized off with tense aplomb, though the views of the Hurricane Plane are obviously C.G.I. and not particularly convincing. Can anything be done to make computer generated effects look less cartoony? Probably not, at least not on a TV budget.

Most of Invasion's first hour is consumed by set-up; so a lot of time is spent introducing characters and relationships. That's okay though. If we're in this for the long haul, we need to like and relate to the characters, so it is time well-spent. You can just tell that this is going to be one of those "slow burn" series like Lost or Millennium, where new plot developments come few and far between, but when they do, you're hooked.

Not too much else to say at this early stage, except that Invasion looks decent. The characters seem three-dimensional, and the story (so far...) is tantalizing. I'll continue to watch, and see how things develop.

TV Review: Lost: Season Two, Episode #1: "Man of Science, Man of Faith"

After two weeks of the flat, distinctly un-scary (at least so far...)Supernatural, it was with great delight that I sat down to screen something worlds better. Yes, I was held utterly rapt by last night's Lost season opener. This is a show that *gets* what horror is all about, and the premiere built up the creepy-crawlies by focusing on something relatively small: a long, dark passageway reaching deep into the Earth.

This is a lesson that other TV producers and writers need to learn. It doesn't take a Wendigo or a Lady in White to scare us out of our socks; sometimes, just the idea of a dark tunnel will do. Small things, well handled, generate terror. In Lost, we witnessed Kate, Locke and Shepard stare down this long, black tunnel leading into utter darkness, and the opening in the Earth called up call kinds of primal fears. The presence of this manmade object cut into the earth touched on the notion of claustrophobia; on the fear of being buried alive; on endless descent; and on the fear of what lays in the dark, and more. Perhaps more to the point, the presence of that cave indicated a dark presence; that something else lived on the island and might, in fact, be watching the survivors of flight 815. Lost is so good because it often squeezes suspense out of these seemingly small things, for instance, in last year's finale, a plume of black smoke on the horizon generated a feverish terror for an hour.

Now, some critics (and audiences...) may not approve of Lost's distinctive approach, because - by obsessing on the details - Lost each week provides fans only a tiny piece of "the big story," and viewers today have been taught to be spoon fed information; to have everything presented in a neat package. They want the answers to mysteries all at once. Lost steadfastly refuses to play that game, and as a series is all the stronger for it.

In the opening of its second season, Lost remains one of the best shows on television, because of this dedicated refusal to rush. It doesn't curtail its ambiguity, and it doesn't fall all over itself to explain things. Although some people consider it a sci-fi show, it also boasts that crucial element of horror: the not knowing. Last night's program proved yet again that this series - perhaps unlike any since The X-Files and Millennium - really knows how to scare us. I love the fact that the series is going to take its time doing it, too. The atmosphere of terror, awe and mystery (which reminds of me Space:1999) is ultimately more important than any answer to the island's riddles. It's a classic case of the journey being more important, ultimately, than the destination.

Thank God for Lost. It's going to be one helluva season on that island...

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

TV Review: Supernatural episode #2: "Wendigo"

Last night, I gave the WB's Supernatural a second chance to impress, and with open-mind tuned in to "Wendigo." In this sophomore episode of the new horror series, brothers Sam and Dean Winchester head off into the Colorado woods to find their missing dad, and encounter a deadly mystery involving missing young campers. Turns out an ancient hunter, a cannibal-turned-subhuman called a Wendigo is attacking campers, eating them alive and - in some cases - storing them for the long, cold winter.

This episode was a slight improvement over the unscary "Pilot." At least the creators of the program this week opted to hide their monster of the week, keeping the frightening-looking Wendigo in shadows for the majority of the episode, and letting our imaginations do the heavy lifting for us. Then, at the episode's climax, the beast appears (in quick flashes...), and it doesn't disappoint. This is a creepy-looking beast, and the final battle boasts a moment or two of real suspense. Well-done.

Otherwise, however, the same flaws that plagued the pilot (about a Lady in White) hold true for this second installment of Supernatural. For one, the Winchester boys don't have to stretch those good-looking brain muscles much, since - again - their Dad has been kind enough to leave them all the information they need to know about the Wendigo in his journal. This is a really underwhelming approach. The glory of such shows as Millennium, and The X-Files was the sense of an investigation in progress; the sense of learning with the characters as they go. That's not to be found here, since everything is in the journal already. It's established there's a Wendigo, Dean tells us how to kill it (fire) and then - wait for it - he kills it. It's just not very interesting.

The episode also reminded me - again - of a decidedly superior X-Files episode. It was one that aired early in the fifth season and was called "Detour," and it involved a mothman in the woods attacking campers, interlopers and others; taking them to its lair and storing them as food. In other words, same story; different monster. In that program, there was an actual theme: Mulder and Scully's sense of trust, contrasted with the obnoxious "team building" of the corporate seminar they were headed to; They had to depend on one another, and - in the end - build a heap of bodies together to escape the Mothman's lair.

The other main problem in "Wendigo" involves the protagonists themselves. The fact that Sam and Dean are virtually interchangeable (save for hair length) is highlighted in "Wendigo" as Sam becomes the belligerent brother and Dean the more sensitive one, the opposite dynamic of last week. That's not character's switching roles. Next week, they'll likely switch again. Also, the dialogue is not really organic to who these young men should be. At mid-show, Sam - a young twenty-something - declares to his brother, Dean. "We need to get these people to safety." In other words, he speaks exactly as though he is a seasoned FBI agent, a fireman, a policeman or some other public official. Yet he is none of those things. He's just a kid hunting monsters - and that line of dialogue doesn't fit his character in the slightest. The creators of this show really need to find some distinctive personalities/world view for their protagonists fast, or this program is going to burn out early.

What remains missing from Supernatural is a sense of fear or heck, even excitement on the parts of the dramatis personae. I never get the sense that Sam and Dean are endangered; or worse, that THEY feel endangered. And that's because the characters have no real or interesting personalities. How would I correct that? Well, I would have made Dean Winchester, for instance, totally irresponsible and nuts. I'd make him an extreme sportsman-type, one with lots of skiing and skateboarding "scars" and who gets off on being in danger for the adrenaline rush. Then his brother, the buttoned-down conservative law student, would have something real to play against. It would be the two world views I want to see: adventure vs. responsibility, and it would give these actors a chance to do something other than look hunky. It would also give the series some kind of subtext (which approach is better), which it desperately, desperately needs.

I also decry again the lack of "the road" as an impact on Supernatural. If this is truly Route 66 Meets The X-Files, then I want to get a sense of endless, yawning highways, out of the way rest-stops, hitchhikers, all-nighters driving to get to a remote location. I want some road-weary characters; I want the Winchesters to have black-circles under their eyes like they've been going for days. This episode, like the pilot, has none of that, no atmosphere at all. And worse, it's sloppy technically. At the end of "Wendigo," it is black ngiht and Sam insists he's driving the car from now on. The closing shot of the show is in daylight, and it can clearly be seen (by the length and style of his hair...) that Sam is in the passenger seat, and - thus contradicting the dialogue - Dean is driving. This happened because stock footage from earlier in the episode (the Winchesters arriving in the forest...) was cut into the coda inappropriately. In the age of DVD box sets, TiVo and the like, this is a continuity error that is obvious, and should have been avoided.

So, two episodes down. I'm watching three more, and if this thing doesn't improve radically, I'm finished with Supernatural. It'll be another Haunted or Freaky Links - a lost opportunity in a genre in need of new and fresh ideas. Let's hope that the admittedly-slight learning curve from "Pilot" to "Wendigo" continues next week. I remember watching the first several dire episodes of Tru Calling, and sticking with it long enough to see the series make massive and interesting improvements, until - by the end of the first season - it was must-see-TV. I'd like to see Supernatural make the same adjustment; I want it to succeed. But more importantly, I want it to be good.

Tonight, Lost (season two) premieres, along with Shaun Cassidy's Invasion, a series I'm excited about, given Cassidy's involvement in the brilliant American Gothic a decade ago. More on these premieres tomorrow...

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Movie Review: The Exorcism of Emily Rose

A great number of long-time horror fans (rightly) complain about this modern era of "PG-13" horror, exemplified by such efforts as The Ring (2002) and its Japanese-inspired progeny. I'm one of 'em (though I think The Ring and The Grudge are both great horror ilms...especially in their discussion of the mass-broadcast of terror to innocent victims). The problem in the genre isn't those two fine films, it's the seemingly infinite PG-13 knock-offs they've generated.

I mean, I find it troubling to consider how deeply conservative our society and art have become, even since the already-conservative 1980s, when the single-most common shot in a horror film was a woman taking off her shirt (and the second-most common shot was a couple of teenagers smoking weed.) Today, relegated to PG-13, horror can't get away with showing either shot, alas. And the horror genre should always be cutting edge; always one step ahead of where society knows it is. Instead, what I see in most horror films of recent vintage (like White Noise, for instance) is horror playing it safe, and depending primarily on CGI special effects.

But this debate is all prologue. I went to see The Exorcism of Emily Rose not expecting much in terms of quality or horror because a.) I knew it was PG-13 and b.) I'm old enough to remember the late Robert Wise's very good Audrey Rose (1977), a film concerning the legal ramifications of re-incarnation and spirit possession, and I figured this movie was just a sorry Hollywood retread.

I was wrong on both counts.

Simply stated, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one of the finest and most unique horror films to come out of Hollywood since 1999, when The Blair Witch Project broke the mold of audience expectations both in technique and subject matter, and went on to become a blockbuster. Emily Rose's screenplay, would - at first glance - appear to be littered with land mines, dependant on two genres that can easily become cliched, the first horror, the second, the courtroom drama. Amazingly, the director and co-writer, Scott Derrickson, avoids the cliches and melodrama (for the most part), and instead forges a film of undeniable power, and quite a bit of creepiness.

In this space just days ago, I wrote with considerable irritation about the WB's new series, Supernatural, and its disappointing approach to horror: taking the supernatural for granted and playing it with all the consistency (and boredom...) of the Mob. The Exorcism of Emily Rose doesn't repeat this kind of basic mistake, and in dramatizing the tale of a young woman (played by Jennifer Carpenter) who may have been possessed, leaves the door wide open for other, more mundane possibilities.

Since much of the film involves a priest, Father Moore, on trial for "negligent homicide" during Emily's exorcism, the story of Emily's life is told in flashbacks. I generally don't like a flashback structure unless it is somehow used to fracture a narrative in interesting ways (think Pulp Fiction; or even John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars), but the flashbacks work well in this film, in part because director Derrickson has - in many cases - given us two versions of the same events. In other words, one flashback encourages the "possession" angle of the story; the next encourages the idea that Emily was an epileptic, given to body-contorting spasms, and possibly psychotic. Similarly, the priest who failed to exorcise her, played by the brilliant Tom Wilkerson, believes that wounds on her hand are stigmata, signs of God's handiwork. We see that explanation in one flashback. Yet in another, we get a contrary view: that Emily intentionally gouged her hands on a barbed wire fence. This is precisely the kind of ambiguity, duelling world-perspectives I wanted to see so badly in Supernatural; the acknowledgment that our world can't be reduced easily to one answer or another. Here, the film's framework is medical/psychiatric vs. supernatural/religious explanations, and the parameters of this debate hold the film in good standing throughout. By revealing to us alternatives, Derrickson gives the horror genre its very own Rashomon (1950), and audiences get to choose what they believe. This isn't a film that forces answers down your throat, and I like that, because too often Hollywood films want to tell you EVERYTHING.

This "choosing" is an important part of the film's climax. Laura Linney plays Erin Bruner, the lawyer defending Father Moore against charges of negligent homicide, and her closing statement is a metaphor for the film itself. She doesn't ask the jury to believe the incredible story of possession (and in a sense, we're all the jury, those who watch this movie...) but instead, merely entertain the idea that there are some things in this world which medicine can't diagnose. And more to the point, that Father Moore and Emily Rose certainly believed in the phenomena of demonic possession. I thought this was all brilliantly well-done, and Laura Linney is fantastic in the part of an open-minded agnostic.

Another strength of the film is Jennifer Carpenter's performance as Emily. This is a performer who can appear completely normal one moment, then stark raving mad the next; and sometimes the shifts are literally that fast. I found her characterization and physicality in this role quite believable; and she boasts a vulnerability (an important characteristic for a possessed "hyper sensitive") that is quite fetching. Carpenter is aided by outstanding but subdued special effects. When Emily begins to see demons, the effects are terrifying, but the film is always quick to clarify that we are being told what Emily believed she saw; not that which actually existed. And the exorcism itself - unlike perhaps the greatest horror film ever made - The Exorcist - is again, open to interpretation. Emily Rose's head doesn't spin around, but her neck does contort, her joints freeze, and her pupils go black. Interestingly, every one of these "manifestations" of possession is easily explained by medical science; again giving audiences two distinct perspectives on what happened.

If The Exorcism of Emily Rose falters any one place, it is in trying to keep the "scares" going. When the film opens, Emily Rose is already dead, the exorcism having failed. The film attempts to generate suspense and terror in the present (during the trial...) by having Linney's character, Erin, experience her own brush with evil. This is an unnecessary and contradictory part of the film; precious screen time that could have been better spent on flashbacks of Emily's home life; her first days away at college, the relationship with her first boyfriend, Jason, etc. (all important indicators of how either mental illness or possession developed...). Had this film aspired to be great art, like The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original), it would have made the lawyers less-important characters, and instead, simply focused on their arguments, and flashbacks that support them. A cool, detached, intellectual approach, carefully revealing each side of the medicine/supernatural debate would have made for an even more thoughtful film, and one infinitely more frightening on a cerebral level. Yet perhaps that is too much to expect out of Hollywood horror today, which insists on the cat scare (a cat jumps at an unwitting victim), CGI special effects, and other predictabilities.

Still, within the boundaries Hollywood and our time set up for it, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a minor miracle, a film that brilliantly and intelligently examines the debate about the role of medicine and religion in our culture, just as end of life/abortion/intelligent design fights are brewing everywhere from Florida to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of John Roberts. I suppose "scary" is a subjective thing, but I also found the film very frightening, and at times, subtly so. I highly recommend it, and only wish that the film could have been even more dispassionate, more even-handed.

But then it would have been an indie, I guess, and not the blockbuster it has already proven to be. Still, it's one of the best horror movies of the new millennium, and for that, we can be grateful.

Catnap Tuesday # 10: Ready for Their Close-ups

Okay, okay, I'm a mean Daddy! I caught these candid photos of my kitty twins, Ezri (top) and Lila (foreground; bottom), early one morning, when they were both still sleepy, and camera (flash) shy. The photos are from my foyer, and as you can probably tell, neither cat is yet in the best mood. But they're still adorable...