Saturday, October 22, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1970)

What a gruesome (and entertaining) twosome - two seminal horror flicks from a late Hammer Studios (in decline?) in the 1970s. Both films are part of the so-called Karnstein saga (the third was called Twins of Evil), and both dramatize the twisted tale of a female vampire known as Carmilla/Mircalla. The stories are loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu's (1814-1873) novella, Carmilla, first published in 1872.

In The Vampire Lovers, a vampire from the Karnstein clan, Mircalla (Ingrid Pitt), makes a deadly enemy of Peter Cushing's steel-spined military general after she drains the blood of his beautiful and innocent daughter, Laura. Mircalla moves on to seduce another virginal beauty, Emma (Madeline Smith), but the General and a cadre of other Karnstein enemies gather to end the vampire curse.

In Lust for a Vampire, Mircalla is played by sexy Yutte Stensgaard and the story picks up in 1830, as the vampire mistress masquerades as a student and methodically sucks her way through a bevy of school girls.

The Vampire Lovers is a notch above some of the typical Hammer horror fare produced in the early 1970s, for a few notable reasons. First, it's the film (I believe...) that really makes a full-fledged star of Ingrid Pitt, a capable actress with not only the beauty and charisma to play a powerful vampire, but the gravitas too. Secondly, the film boasts the courage to offer interesting insights about Mircalla's cursed existence rather than relying merely on bloodletting and heaving bosoms (though there is plenty of each here, too, so breathe easy...)

"I want you to love me for all your life," a jealous Mircalla says to her dearly beloved Emma, a beautiful girl destined to be her victim in The Vampire Lovers. "It's not the same," Emma replies thoughtlessly, comparing her "fraternal" love for Carmilla to her more romantic feelings for a "boyfriend." This conversation highlights The Vampire Lovers' interesting decision to confront the sexual preference of its villain, and what it means in a society that clearly forbids "alternative" couplings.

For Mircalla genuinely loves Emma and, actually, each and every one of the women she seduces and kills. She doesn't want them to die, but nor does she want to lose them (specifically to men...) either. If they live, they will eventually be "taken" by their boyfriends, never to be hers again. Yet if Mircalla murders the girls she desires, draining their blood, they are just as lost to her. What a terrible dilemma. Accordingly, there is serious melancholy in this vampire...she is truly cursed.

In one monologue, Mircalla spells it all out, making it clear that she despises death for the things and people it takes away from her. This awareness of death, of her role in fostering it, differentiates Mircalla from Hammer's Dracula (usually Christopher Lee). He thrives on death, on seduction, on the corruption of life and innocence. By contrast, one feels fof Mircalla that she is a woman trapped by her nature and her preferences. Her appetites are unacceptable (i.e. lesbianism/vampirism), but she bows to them out of a sense of a biological imperative, out of desperation, also out of a sense of jealousy, perhaps.

In a strange way, these qualities make this cinematic vampire almost human...sympathetic. Are not all of us, at one time or another, slaves to desire? For most of us, those desires, those appetites, fall well into the consensus of "normal" society (heterosexuality). But what of those with "alternative" orientations? Are they merely to hide their needs in dark and secret, like vampires? That is the argument that The Vampire Lovers makes, and one it states rather successfully, I believe.

It is clear that Mircalla despises herself, and how her appetites force her to hurt the very people she longs to share life with. By facing this duality and dilemma in Mircalla's nature (she is both killer and lover to the objects of her desire), The Vampire Lovers offers something that many Hammer films - if I'm being brutaly honest - kinda lack: social subtext. The movie is not all period detail, lush forestry and beautiful woman in diaphanous gowns. There's a point to the violence, to the terror, and that makes it a worthwhile character study, and consequently, a worthwhile film.

And Ingrid Pitt - in my opinion - is the perfect actress to vet this material. She can be simultaneously seductress and vampire, or tragic anti-hero, depending on how the audience seeks to view her. Her portrayal has layers, something that probably cannot fairly be said of the fetching and charming Yutte Stensgaard in Lust for a Vampire. In that film, one does not truly understand who Mircalla is, or why she is that way. But Pitt is a strong actress, a powerful central presence that dominates this film in an unusually masculine and potent fashion. She has the raw power a vampire should embody, but is burdened with the seeds of a conscience as well. Pitt gives the role her all, embodying both the vampire and lover.

The remainder of the movie is, alasm the standard dated vampire thing. The ubiquitous Peter Cushing is present as an aggrieved father, out for revenge, and there are the requisite (and welcome) shots of Pitt's breasts and pubic zone, but The Vampire Lovers works well because it captures the core of the vampire aesthetic: the haunted soul, the eternal torment, the loneliness, the love lost forever. Mircalla is beutiful, powerful, and evil...but tortured. The Vampire Lovers works best when it remebers that even in monsters, the audience looks for identification, for itself.

Lust for a Vampire, as the title indicates, is another breed entirely. This movie is more a romp, as it throws humor, thrills and horrors into a blender yet doesn't emerge as anything of much nutritional substance. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Hammer Studios set a horror film at an all girl's school, and this setting permits for many lascivious moments, all wonderfully lit and composed. In one notable sequence, a bevy of adolescent girls frolic and dance on the school grounds in skimpy dresses that have slits cut all the way up their legs. In another scene, set in a dormitory room, the luscious Pippa Steel thoughtfully massages Mircalla's shoulders, and her blouse "inadvertently" (right!) drops to reveal her ample breasts. Then, because there may indeed by a God in Heaven, Steel obligingly suggest a midnight visit to the nearby lake...and a skinny dip.

At this point in the film, I was totally mesmerized, but my wife was grumbling, and, truth be told, growing a little suspicious. As the camera lingered longingly on the two beautiful girls mixing it up in the water - mostly topless - my wife thoughtfully pointed out that it still appeared to be broad daylight. "Midnight is really bright in England, isn't it?" she quipped with a hint of irritation.

All the better to see those breasts, my dear.

I counted no less than eight shots of beautiful female cleavage s in the film. And then came the immortal love scene in which Mircalla (Iron Willed Queen of the Damned!) is seduced against her will by a randy school teacher. Stensgaard's eyes go crossed and then roll back in her head as she makes love. Humorously, this all happens to the strains of a very seventies pop song entitled "Strange Love."

Predictably, the elements of Lust for a Vampire not involving female pulchritude don't really work at all. For instance, I like how a flaming two-by-four conveniently falls from a ceiling and stakes Mircalla right through the heart. Talk about a lucky shot! And of course, there's the ridiculous and sexist double standard at work here. Mircalla clearly enjoys going both ways (seducing men and women with equal aplomb), but gee, the audience never sees Christopher Lee's Dracula seducing a man, does it? Even more to the point, Mircalla is "taken" by that teacher, not vice-versa. Again, Dracula would hardly be so weak to fall victim to his own prey, right? Poor Mircalla. She's got a long way to go, baby.

All in all, Lust for A Vampire is a brilliantly-constructed male fantasy, but not nearly as interesting, memorable or as thematically resonant, in my opinion, as The Vampire Lovers.

TV Review: Threshold: "The Order"

In a ripped-from-the-headlines storyline, there's a "leak" inside Molly Caffrey's inner circle this week on the Threshold episode "The Order." On Night Stalker on Thursday, we saw a medititation on journalistic standards and "sources" and now we have this, the effect of a "leak" on government workers. I like that genre TV is attempting to address the "big" issues going on in the world, especially as indictments look imminent in the Valerie Plame scandal.

But, as far as Threshold is concerned, let me make my argument as to why I feel this show just isn't working. Last week's episode climaxed with the stalwart Threshold team detonating an electromagnetic pulse in Miami, and rendering the entiry city dead. This was an effort to stop the spread of the bio-forming (and we learn this week, terra-forming...) alien signal. That's a pretty big thing, even if Baylock (Dutton) claimed that the Corp of Engineers was already in the city and ready to bring the power grid back up within 24 hours.

So, I ask you, if we assume in series time that "The Order" takes place a week, maybe less, after the events of "Pulse," do you believe for a minute that a single journalist or newspaper or cable news network would be at all concerned with a small story about the Threshold project (the leak that so concerns everybody this week)? Of late, our media has proven it can't really walk and chew gum at the same time. I mean, when Natalee Holloway disappeared, did the media still cover the CIA leak? Where was the CIA leak probe coverage when, say, Katrina hit? When Rita was coming? Given the fact that in Threshold's fictional world an entire American city went without power just days/hours before this leak revelation, are we to seriously believe that Miami wouldn't be the topic du jour? No one would notice that little piece about Threshold in some little paper, sorry. And if they did, by chance, it wouldn't register.

And I see that as the primary problem with this show. The plotting is very reminiscent of later (and weaker) Star Treks, where huge crises are dramatically wrapped up in the last two minutes of the episode, and then never referred to again. I can accept that on an outer space show, because, let's face it, a massive starship goes to different planets every day (almost...) and solves all kinds of crises. That's just the nature of Star Trek as drama. I want to see Captain Picard divert an asteroid away from an endangered planet one week; then preserve our very timeline the next. It's built-in. It's expected.

But Threshold is supposed to be occurring in the "real world" in 2005. So I have some difficulty accepting that America wouldn't react in some major way to the Miami electromagnetic pulse, even if it was just thought to be a power outage caused by solar storms. There would still be a Congressional committee investigating it, and every two-bit pundit on the tube would be - as President Bush might say - "O-pining" about our lack of preparation in case of another solar flare.

To make matters worse, Threshold pulls the same thing this week. In the last two minutes, Molly orders an air force strike team to shoot down a jet with two U.S. Senators aboard! It's infected by aliens, so it's the right call, but it's the story equivalent of last week's climactic EM pulse. Will we hear about people in Washington D.C. in mourning next week? Will we hear about officials attending the funerals? (Remember what a big deal it was when Senator Paul Wellstone died? Or Governor Carnahan?) These events don't occur in a vacuum, never to come up again, but thus far I see no evidence that Threshold's writers are aware of this. Every episode starts with a "re-set," like everything is normal again. The team is just merrily out alien artifact hunting, "data mining," as they like to say. La-dee-da. La-dee-da.

People might wonder why I don't criticize Invasion or Surface like this. Here's why. Surface is staying true to the internal story, building up event after event, so that the existence of the sea creatures is rapidly becoming undeniable. They are still at the "unexplained phenomena" stage. Now, I don't know where the series is going, but it has taken off on a consistent trajectory, and keeps going step-by-step. As far as Invasion is concerned, it occurs on a much more personal level, the story is of a "blended" family and only now (several episodes in) are suspicions being raised about the behavior and nature of certain characters. Again, the trajectory is a consistent, building one. Both of these series may ultimately crap themselves if they don't face the ramifications of their plot, but they haven't done so yet. Threshold, by contrast, attempts to work up excitement for a "big" climax every week, like it's the end of the world (and let's face it, shooting down a jet with two U.S. Senators on board, or pulsing an entire American City is BIG), but then the next week, we're back to normal, just following up a lead on another element of the alien signal. This week, it's a piece of contaminated driftwood from the ship, Big Horn, they're hunting.

So as drama Threshold goes up and down in fits and starts, and seems to lack a real plan. Internet buzz suggests there is a plan for the series, a really interesting one, but I just don't see it yet. This series is still spending too much time "hunting" the threat of the week, and making big gestures, then re-setting the following week and starting all over again. This is the kind of genre plotting that can drive a guy crazy.

And don't even get me started on the ridiculous alien-signal infected cat that appeared on last night's episode.

SATURDAY MORNING TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "The Survivors of Zalon"

"Welcome to the most magnificent achievement in space, the man-made planetoid...Space Academy...founded in the star year 3732.

Here we have gathered young people from the farthest reaches of the known worlds. They have been chosen for their unique abilities, and are being trained to cope with the mysterious, the unknown, the unpredictable dangers lurking in the vast darkness of space."

With that opening narration, provided by Lost in Space's Dr. Smith, Jonathan Harris, so began the live-action, 1977 CBS TV series from Filmation (and producers Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer), entitled Space Academy. Created by Allen Ducovny, the series involved a group of cadets manning an asteroid complex called - naturally - Space Academy. Their teacher, mentor and commanding officer was the kindly, patient Isaac Gampu (Harris), and the group consisted of an eclectic group of students.

There was Chris Gentry (Ric Carrot), a hot-shot blond pilot who could "mind link" with his telepathic sister, Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin). Chris's love interest was another cadet, the dark-haired Adrian (Maggie Cooper). The headstrong Asian, Tee-Gar Soom (Brian Tochi) and African-American Paul (Ty Henderson) rounded out the diverse group. Watching over them (in case things got out of hand...) was a diminutive robot called Peepo.

In the first episode of Space Academy, "The Survivors of Zalon" (written by Lynn Barker and directed by Jeffrey Hayden), a confused Adrian detects an unusual "burst of red" on her computer monitor while scanning the mysterious planet Zalon, which is due to explode in just 48 hours. This means that there could be life on Zalon, even though the last survey two years indicated no life-forms existed there.

Gampu authorizes a (quick...) visit to Zalon's surface, and accompanies the cadets to the planet's barren, orange-hued surface, a trip they take via Academy shuttle, the sleek craft known as a "Seeker." But a strange scarlet energy field cripples communications with the Academy, and Gampu drops off the others on the surface while he returns to space to attempt to re-establish contact.

On the planet below, the intrepid cadets discover a young, flute-playing waif, a curly haired orphan (Eric Greene). He has no memory of how he arrived on Zalon, but the energy field from space has provided for his continued existence in return for his care of two small, glowing crystals. It turns out that these two orbs are the energy field's young ones. The destruction of the planet Zalon is actually a critical part of a "great life transformation process" for them, and the cadets- by collecting the crystals as samples - are interfering.

The crimson energy field in space permits Gampu to retrieve his cadets before the destruction of Zalon, provided he lets the evolution process of their kind continue unimpeded . Gampu agrees and returns to Zalon's surface. There, he agrees to adopt the waif - whom he names Loki, after the Norse God of Mischief. It turns out that Loki will prove quite a handful, since the youngster boasts "special vision" (the ability to see through walls...) and teleportation powers.

Space Academy comes from the same tradition that gave us great series like the live-action Land of the Lost. It's a show designed for children that aired on Saturday mornings, but it's no cartoon or time-waster. In fact, this series featured superb production values and special effects that were state of the art for 1977. The Seeker shuttlecraft, (though based on the Ark II design...) was represented both in full-size mock-up and highly-detailed miniature. In "The Survivors of Zalon," (which first aired September 10, 1977) the outer space and miniature sequences (supervised by Robert A. Maine and Chuck Comisky) are extensive, and accomplished with remarkable skill. There are no less than four in-depth shots of the craft departing from the Academy's hanger and heading out into space. These shots, so effective here, would also be repeated as "stock footage" in future episodes. Each episode of the series was 22 minutes long (to accommodate a half-hour block) and shot in 35mm, an unusual decision since most of its contemporaries were lensed on 16 mm.

Thematically, Space Academy is straight from the Star Trek/Space Patrol/Tom Corbett, Space Cadet school or morally-uplifting, "up with humans" space adventuring. The acting is slightly over-dramatic, as it is aimed at children, but the stories, including this one, reveal an attempt to grapple with some grown-up genre concepts (including alien biological diversity, evolution processes and the like), as well as "valuable" moral lessons (peacable first contact, general decency to others). The series had an educational advisor from U.C.L.A., Dr. Gordon L. Berry, and it's clear there was an effort to make the series educational as well as highly entertaining.

Though this is a show for kids, it's one of the Saturday morning TV series that (like Land of the Lost) adults can get into...given a little patience...especially if one is willing to overlook the "gee whiz!" enthusiastic demeanor of the over-enthusiastic (but solid) cast.

Saturday Morning TV was a wonderful facet of our pop culture in the 1970s and 1980s, and I miss it dearly in our corporate contemporary culture, so I decided I wanted to feature it on the blog as a regular feature (every Saturday). Again, I'm not arguing that Space Academy is artistic or great TV, only that it was fun, and that I've always remembered it with fondness. Im sure that - along with Land of the Lost, Jason of Star Command, and The Super Friends, it had some deep impact on the way in which I view the world as an adult. It's morally valuable, fun and for the 1970s, exquisitely-rendered.

And there are lots of cool spaceships and explosions.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 14: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"

For many years, critics have openly dismissed Rod Serling's second TV series, the genre anthology Night Gallery (1970-1973) as nothing but an inferior rip-off of The Twilight Zone. Because Serling (1921-1975) often voiced very public disappointment with some elements of the horror series, it seems like a Pandora's Box - or perhaps a can of whup-ass - was opened up on the program and hasn't ever been closed, not really even to this very day.

And yet, Night Gallery features so much of Rod Serling's original - and brilliant - creative voice. So it isn't that easy for me just to dismiss or neglect it. After all, Serling did pen some thirty segments for the series, and that number symbolizes a sizable chunk of work. It represents a whole new opportunity to examine Serling the artist as a writer, a storyteller and social moralist. To ignore or downgrade Night Gallery because it wasn't as consistently brilliant as The Twilight Zone is to basically close ourselves off to an entire work by one of TV's few undeniable geniuses. I just won't do it.

No less an authority than Stephen King called Night Gallery a "watered down Thriller with Serling doing the Boris Karloff hosting job..."(Danse Macabre, page 243). Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahigimi noted in their book, The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television that the series "was a sad departure from series activity for Serling," but also commented that the show did "contain moments of true horror and mood-drenched atmosphere."(E.P. Dutton, 1979, page 252). On the plus said, TV Zone magazine has called the series "occasionally inspired" (November 1992), and Bob Wisehard in The Best of Science Fiction Television opined that the series "was like the dark side of Rod Serling...a real change for television..."(Harmony Books, 1987, page 126).

The dark side of Rod Serling, imagine that! Or don't. Simply watch the stirring and emotionally-wrenching installment titled "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar."

In this deeply-moving work of "paint, pigment and desperation," a man named Randolph Lane (played by William Windom) copes with the inevitable march of time. Although he was a heroic paratrooper in World War II (as was Serling himself...) Lane has spent the 25 years since his service selling plastics and not feeling particularly special. His company doesn't value him, he has to fight every young upstart on the way up, ("with assistants like that, who needs assassins," he quips), and also there's the guilt. The terrible, haunting guilt. His beloved wife Katie died years ago of pneumonia. He wasn't there to help her, to take her to the hospital. Nope, he was "working," making a name for himself. And now, 25 years to the day that he began employment with Pritkin's Plastic Products, he gets fired without so much as a gold watch for compensation. Worse, a demolition company is getting ready to destroy his favorite drinking spot, Tim Riley's Bar. This is the very place where Randy's homecoming from Europe was celebrated in 1945. The very place where his Dad sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" to him. Where Katie and he used to go together and gaze into each other's eyes. Where Lane experienced what he now considers "the best years of his life."

Randy just can't let go of Tim Riley's bar. It's part of his very existence, and the past beckons to him there in a way that the empty present simply never can. He peers in at the bar's interior through dusty window panes and sees his dead father, his dead wife...his past inside. He sees 1945 laid out before him. Ghosts. But that wrecking ball is still coming, threatening to destroy the very past that he loves, all in the name of "progress." Soon a 20-floor banking establishment (replete with underground parking garage) will occupy the space where his memories live...

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" is not your typical Night Gallery episode. It isn't overtly horrific. There aren't big "scares" in it anywhere. There's almost no touch at all of the supernatural. The only horror is, indeed, the melancholy passage of time and the inevitable sense of aging too quickly. It is about, as Serling states so eloquently in his opening narration, "the quiet desperation of men over 40 who keep hearing heavy footsteps behind them and are torn between a fear and compulsion to look over their shoulders."

Randolph Lane is not just a man facing hallucinations from 1945, but a man who realizes with acute accuracy and insight that the best days of his life are far behind him. That he's had his shot, his one chance, and it will all soon be over. Done. In many ways, this episode is autobiographical, I'm sure, and it is important to note that Serling died just five years after writing it. In the episode, Windom's character makes note that he is 48 years old, and that his father passed away when he was just six years older (at 52). In a weird and sad twist of fate, that was just about the very age at which Mr. Serling himself passed away. It's as if Serling knew - like his protagonist, Randolph Lane - that he was fast running out of time.

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" serves as an excellent companion piece to the episode of The Twilight Zone called "Walking Distance," in which a harried businessman walks over a hill one day and finds himself back in a favorite summer from his long-gone youth. He encounters himself as a child at a merry-go-round and desperately urges the boy to cherish this time, because it will soon be gone. He is chastened, however, by his father, who tells him - a bit sadly - that we all get allotted just "one summer." Just one. And that this one belongs to the boy with a future, not the man living in the past. He must go home; must go back to the unhappy present.

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" is the logical and (very sad) continuation, after a fashion, of "Walking Distance," proving again the adage "you can't go home again." I guess this is kinda personal to me. The message resonates. I am 35 years old (36 on December 3rd...) and both of these stories grip me in ways I don't fully comprehend. I don't really think I'm old, and yet I have lived long enough now to see the artifacts of my past begin to age and disappear. There are people walking around in this world who weren't born when Star Wars was released, and furthermore don't understand why it's a touchstone. I mention Battlestar Galactica, and they discuss the remake. My sixth grade English teacher whom I loved and cherished as an early mentor, is long dead of cancer. Both my Grandfathers are from Parkinsons and the other Leukemia. A new family resides in the house where I grew up in Glen Ridge. I've now been with my beautiful wife for ten years of marriage, and six years of dating beyond even that benchmark. So I see and understand and - honestly - fear the march of time. I feel too close to that recognition that life is going by fast, and already the things and people that I have loved are disappearing into the mists of time; never to be seen again. I have not witnessed such emotions better expressed than in this episode Night Gallery. Rod Serling was grappling in this extraordinary story with nothing less than his own mortality, the eclipse and sunset of life itself.

And so I can think of no better reason than that to feature "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" as my fourteenth friday cult TV flashback. Especially because we lost this artist far too soon. He died just about thirty years ago, now. Yet Rod Serling had a special and singular perspective on life and on humanity, and this world we all share. Barry Eysman eulogized Mr. Serling in this fashion, in Writers' Digest (in November of 1975):

"Rod Serling saw dignity in people like this. He showed us the shadow people, the ones who dwell on the periphery, who dwell in the dark out-of-the-way bars, reliving, subsisting on past times. He showed us people we'd rather not think about. But with that keen perception and sparse dialogue, he grabbed you...and told you in no uncertain terms that these people deserved at least a little victory, breathing space, someone to care for, someone to care about."

Rod Serling's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar," is about one man hoping to be treated with dignity after a life of service and of sacrifices. It's about a man taking stock at the mid-point of his life and deciding where, ultimately, to dwell -- the past or the present. I suppose I find it a little shocking that Rod Serling could ever have, even for a second, doubted that his legacy would stretch decades far into the future, and that he would be remembered and honored as one of the greats of the medium. But perhaps it was that gnawing self-doubt, that deep-seated insecurity that drew him again and again to the typewriter; that made him create art in the first place; that forced him to top himself over and over. In the end, Serling need not have feared his own death as any kind of ending, because his writing -episodes of Twilight Zone such as "Walking Distance or Night Gallery's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" - has granted him the very immortality that I suppose we all seek.

CULT MOVIE Blogging: The Bad Seed (1956)

One of the best and most chilling horror films of the 1950s is Mervyn Le Roy's elegantly-directed The Bad Seed, an adaptation of the novel by William March (a best-seller) and the popular Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson. The Bad Seed not only forecasts such landmark films as Hitchcock's Psycho in its depiction of "evil" arising in an unexpected (family) setting, but such popular movies as The Exorcist for its use of a child as the fulcrum of terror.

The Bad Seed dramatizes the tale of young Rhoda Penmark (played with chilling cheeriness by Patty McCormack). This perfectly-dressed, pig-tailed little cherub, along with her doting parents, rents a nice apartment, attends a good school, and apparently comes from good stock...and yet this pre-adolescent girl is nothing less than a sociopath.

In the course of the film (while her absentee military father is away...), Rhoda's mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) must come to terms with the fact that Rhoda has murdered a little classmate named Claude...all because he beat her out for the school's coveted penmanship medal. Rhoda lies and twists the truth, even when confronted with it by the apartment's not-so-bright handyman, Leroy, and Claude's grieving mother, the drunk "lower class" lady, Mrs. Daigle (Eileen Heckart).

When Leroy dies in a mysterious fire (set by Rhoda...) and Christine discovers the penmanship award hidden away in Rhoda's treasure drawer, Mom is forced to confront the notion that even in a so-called good family, evil can still grow. And the reason for this evil shocks her. For it concerns Nancy's own special heritage, and sparks a heated debate about nature vs. nurture. Is evil encoded in the genes? Or does it arise out of environment? These are the questions The Bad Seed tackles in frightening and memorable fashion.

Today, we still discuss The Bad Seed in regards to children who we think of as really, really "bad;" it's a kind of pop-culture shorthand. There was a 1985 TV remake of the material, and also a 1990s film called The Good Son which made the evil child a boy (played by Macaulay Culkin). Even as I write this, a remake of The Bad Seed is on its way from Hollywood, under the auspices of Cabin Fever director Eli Roth. The reason for the story's longevity? Well, children always represent our tomorrows in horror films, and when children are corrupted, so is our future. Furthermore, on a much more basic level, the idea that something so innocent-appearing could actually be so evil is, I believe, a genuine and universal human fear. Especially if you're a parent.

One of the most illuminating aspects of the film is the manner in which it covers the "nature versus nurture" debate. The movie-going public in the 1950s was becoming more and more cognizant of psychology and the writings of Sigmund Freud, and the prevailing attitude of the era came from a fellow named John Watson. His approach was called "behavioralist," and it emphasized the importance of environmental determinants in shaping human behavior. B.F. Skinner was also a (later) advocate of this notion that external events - environment - dictate the occurrence of certain behaviors. So that's the "nurture" theory.

In the film, Rhoda's grandfather, an erudite crime reporter played by Paul Fix, advocates this theory. To him (and to Skinner and Watson), there's no such thing as a bad seed, or being bad by nature (or what we would say is bad by genetics/heritage.) It's easy to understand why Fix's character might believe this; why he might prefer "the nurture" theory. He is rich, white and privileged, after all. It is convenient and easy for the "upper class" of WASP-y aristocracy to believe that criminals are made, not born. That they come out of poverty; that they come out of lack-of-education; that they come out of poor upbringing. By believing this, you can blame bad acts on people who are less fortunate, and also make excuses for them at the same time. "Oh, they don't go to the right Church." Or those people don't have the "right" values. So make no mistake, The Bad Seed is also about America as a class society; just look at how the "poor" Mrs. Daigle is treated in the film.

But back to the point. The nature versus nurture debate remains one of the enduring controversies in developmental psychology. I believe it was Arthur Jensen who published an article (in the 70s?) arguing the opposite point as Skinner and Watson, that intelligence is largely inheritable. And if that's the case, as human beings we must begin to question - as Christine does in the film - what other traits or qualities are also inheritable? Conscience? Empathy? This is the terrain of The Bad Seed, and Christine comes to realize that her daughter, Rhoda, is not so much evil as she is handicapped. Christine twice makes reference to a sociopath as like a "child being born blind." In other words, a critical human sense is missing from Rhoda, if not eyesight then certainly soul. We don't kill blind children, do we? We don't mistreat the deaf, right? But a child who is a sociopath is a totally different story, because - as Rhoda proves so dramatically- she's dangerous to others. Always.

Because psychology was gaining mainstream acceptance in the 1950s, The Bad Seed is obsessed with the public at large attempting to practice psychology...without a license. The movie seems to be saying "don't try this at home; leave it to the professionals." The landlady character, Monica, is a prime example of this public misunderstanding the core tenets of psychology. She offhandedly states that "analysis" broke up her marriage. More to the point, she's always going around diagnosing - or rather, misdiagnosing - the people around her. She performs Freud's "free association" process like it's some sort of social parlor game, and is ultimately completely clueless about the real nature of those closest to her, particularly Rhoda. It's strongly suggested in the film that Monica herself will be the next victim of the "bad seed" because she had promised Rhoda ownership of her love bird when she dies. So the democratic voice of the people and psychology in the film - Monica - is clueless, helpless, and in fact, endangered.

The critical skinny on The Bad Seed is usually that is a very good, very solid film, but that the very theatrical nature of the drama makes it stagey and even a bit campy by today's standards. It's probably true that some aspects of the film are campy, but I also find it genuinely terrifying. Because the film is based on the play (and features, in fact, the play's cast...) it does come off as a bit stagey at times. The film is very theatrical, yes, I agree. For example, we get a soliloquy from Leroy the gardener at one point, and that's a good stage technique, but an awkward film one. And we don't often leave the apartment interior for the great outdoors, giving the film the feeling of a stage-bound production. Finally, we even get a bizarre, reality-shattering curtain-call at the end of the film to introduce the cast and even make light of the preceding horrors. But like Shakespeare's MacBeth and the murder of King Duncan, notice how much of the important action of the film takes place off-camera. This is intentional. We never actually see Rhoda committing murder, and that's a crucial distinction. The film is much more concerned with how Rhoda covers up, how she appears normal, than with the abnormal and anti-social acts she commits.

What's more frightening, you may ask, than a child committing murder? How about the sight of a cute-as-a-button little girl making excuses, manipulating her parents, and having no sense of morality other than the fact that she wants what she wants? At one point, she coldly tells her Mother that she doesn't feel "any way at all" about the death of little Claude, and how it must make Mrs. Daigle feel. Sheesh. That's more terrifying than a girl pushing a boy into the water. Rhoda believes all along that she is "right," "justified" and "entitled" to do what is best for her, and it's all the more frightening, because the camera focuses on her dissembling and lying more than it visits the exact nature of her crimes. We are confronted with the idea that there exist human beings unable to feel remorse, pity, empathy - anything we remotely recognize as "moral" - and that they're out there; and that they sometimes hide undetected behind pig-tails and smiles. The movie would have gotten lost in psycho-killer cliches had it actually visualized Rhoda committing her "kills."

I submit that the stagey, theatrical approach of The Bad Seed actually works rather well with the material. It's an advantage, not a detriment. There's a palpable sense of claustrophobia to the film (and increasing hysteria, too...) since Christine is our protagonist and she feels helpless to resolve the crisis. Her husband is MIA most of the film, and let's face it, in 1950s Leave it to Beaver America our heroine has few options, and so therefore we stay and we stay and we stay in that damned apartment and our sense of discomfort grows exponentially. Had the film been opened up more, been made more conventionally cinematic, I feel the viewer would have lost the sense of Christine's entrapment with this monster. As it stands, we're right there in that apartment beside her. It would be much harder for us to accept Chrstine going mad at Rhoda's endless repetition of Claire de Lune on the piano if we could easily escape it for a corner cafe, a grocery store, a police station, a school, a church or the like.

The other critical slam against The Bad Seed involves the ending. Don't read any further if you want to be surprised. Okay? Still here? Fine. Here's the deal, the movie changed the play's original ending. In the movie, Rhoda goes to the pier where she killed Claude and tries to fish out her penmanship medal from the water (where her Mom dumped it.) A storm has rolled in, and Rhoda is carrying a big metal net on a stick. Well, she's struck by lightning and that's the end of the Bad Seed. Problem solved.

In the book and the play, things were different. Little Rhoda got away with her crimes, and society was unable to recognize her for what she clearly was, a monster. But, in America in 1956, we had the "The Motion Picture Production Code" to contend with and it stated something along the lines of "crime shall never be presented in such a way to throw sympathy with the criminal against law and order." This edict meant that The Bad Seed could not be dramatized on film as it had been on stage. Rhoda couldn't escape some form of justice.

So the ending of the film had to be altered. Critics complained because they saw the new ending (a lightning strike against Rhoda) as divine intervention, a Deus ex Machina answer. Well, I beg to differ with that assessment. I would argue that the new ending of the film works rather well, and furthermore, that director Le Roy builds it into the film with a sense of grace.

For example, the film opens with a shot of the pier where the murder of Claude (and ultimately, Rhoda's death...) takes place. Off in the horizon, hanging low in the black-and-white sky, we see thunder clouds gathering, and even lightning flares. So we are reminded of "nature" first off in the film, rendering the climax not something out of the blue, but rather a book end: a return-to-nature (and the scene of the crime).

Then, handyman Leroy taunts little Rhoda later in the film. He says that dying in the electric chair is like being "hit by lightning," again foreshadowing Rhoda's particular fate. So when the lightning finally strikes Rhoda, it has been adequately set-up. It's consistent with the opening shot of a storm, and Leroy's foreshadowing.

Also, I would say that any critical analysis of the film must consider that the core conflict of the film is what I discussed above: the nature vs. nurture debate. Rhoda is a "bad seed," a bad person by nature (by her heritage; since her real, biological mother was a murderer...). In the end, it is only correct then that Mother Nature (i.e. the lightning strike), not Mother Nurture (Christine herself) is the one to ultimately deal with Rhoda. This is not divine intervention, this is not God. This is Nature destroying that which is corrupt, that which is wrong. It is nature taking care of its own.

Lasting a mesmerizing 129 minutes, The Bad Seed should be at the top of every horror fan's list of "must see" films. It is a product of its time in that there is very little on-screen violence. It's also a pioneer in the way that it plumbs the depths and breadth of human psychology. In addition to presenting the nature vs. nurture debate in entertaining and provocative terms, I think it's also only fair to state that the movie gives us some of the most chilling dialogue to come out of 1950s horror cinema. You'll definitely catch a case of the chills from Rhoda's constant refrain, "What would you give me for a basket of kisses?", or Monica's unknowing comment to her father, "You still have Rhoda."

Like that is somehow comforting. To quote Leroy the handyman: "I've seen some mean little girls in my time...but you're the meanest."

TV Review: Night Stalker: "Burning Man"

I've been a sort-of defender of the new Night Stalker TV series. For a couple of important reasons. One, I miss The X-Files. Two, I feel that the series is slowly but surely developing two neat and quasi-original ideas. Visually, the series is adroit in capturing the isolation and inhumanity/alienation of the modern "American City": lots of lights and whistles, but not much sense of community or humanity. I enjoy how we see the interludes of cars passing each other in the dark, under glaring yellow headlights and lamp posts, etcetera - all heading in different directions, with no sense of unity or group purpose. This element is basically an accent to the show, but one that is unique, I believe.

More importantly, I sense that the episodes are going in an interesting direction. Unlike the original Kolchak (which I love and adore to the high heavens and will be blogging here as soon as I get the DVD set...) or The X-Files, I feel like the "monsters" in the new Night Stalker arise primarily from the auspices of human sin: guilt, obsession, memory, you name it. Although the pilot episode featured "hell hounds," the remaining new stories have moved in an all-together different direction. This doesn't seem like a program where we're going to run into a "fluke man" or a "vampire" or "a Mummy." This terrain - human psychology creating "monsters" in a de-humanized 21st century metropolis - makes the program unique, and that's why I'm staying with it.

Yet, my sense of objectivity and candor forces me to admit that "Burning Man" - while adhering nicely to the principles I just laid out above - was not a particularly good show. The installment concerned a terrorist called "the TerrorMaker," who sends toxic figurines to people he deems responsible for creating biological weapons. The plot was interesting, to be sure, but ultimately I had seen this episode (and its thesis) before. In this story, we learn that the TerrorMaker really is dead, and that it was the investigating officer in the FBI who is continuing his spree of crimes because he got too far "inside" the terrorist's head while profiling him. A third season episode of The X-Files, entitled "Grotesque," presented the same story a decade ago; and did so in superior fashion.

Unlike last week's denouement ("Three"), which I thought was superbly rendered and even surprising, I knew all along where this episode was heading, and that took some of the enjoyment out of it. And that was a disappointing development. There are no original stories, people always say, and I guess you could use this episode as proof of that theorem.

And yet - again - there was the kernel of an interesting idea here. One that really had nothing at all to do with the central plot. Let me explain. Night Stalker focuses on journalists; on reporters for a major metropolitan newspaper, and well, they're in a profession that's under some pretty intense scrutiny right now. In "Burning Man," a high-powered, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter of great stature named Howard Gorn (love that name...) basically peddles a false story for his "exclusive" access to FBI sources. He knows his story is composed of bald-faced lies; the paper knows the stories are a lie too, and yet they are printed and circulated anyway, without skepticism. Sound familiar?

This situation is a metaphor, I believe, for New York Times reporter Judith Miller selling the Iraq War and the non-existent WMD threat to the American people, in exchange for access to powerful folks like Scooter Libby. And when it finally came time to pay the piper and to tell the truth about her sources, what did Miller do? Allegedly, she copped out (under oath) and said she "couldn't recall" who gave her the information that ultimately did great damage, outing a covert CIA Agent and garnering support for a threat that didn't really exist. She went to jail claiming to protect her sources, but in fact, by my way of thinking, she hid only her culpability in a possible criminal conspiracy. Her immoral behavior is a stain on the profession of journalism, and the credibility of her paper, the New York Times. In a tender-footed, awkward way, "Burning Man" addresses these points about the profession of journalism, and I was happy to see this element of subtext on a show that otherwise felt overly-familiar.

It strikes me as interesting that Night Stalker and the original Kolchak series both arose out of critical junctures in the history of American journalism.

The original Kolchak, starring Darren McGavin, arrived on TV (as a series) in 1974, after Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein investigated Watergate and were seen by the public as "crusaders" who would speak truth to power and see to it that the American people knew what was really going on with their government. Kolchak - like these real-life investigative reporters - represented the Everyman fighting the giant bureaucracy of Washington D.C., or rather, "City Hall."

Kolchak was ignored, shunted aside, and dismissed, but goddamit, he was going to get his story and he was going to tell people what was really going on around them. In this case, it was that the streets and halls of power were literally filled with monsters (like werewolves, Succubi and even Helen of Troy). This is particularly relevant since many in the media at the time spoke of Nixon's White House in supernatural/horror movie terminology. As Ron Rosenbaum wrote in Harper's Magazine at the end of the decade, the White House was seen as "haunted" by Alexander Haig's "sinister outside force." John Mitchell spoke of "White House Horrors." Howard Hunt described "spooks." The list of illegal campaign contributions maintained by the President's secretary was referred to as "Rosemary's Baby." A horror TV program - Kolchak: the Night Stalker - literalized the "horrors" of a malevolent White House working against the people to hold onto power.

The new Night Stalker arrives in the very different world of the 21st century, one wherein we don't really trust the media anymore. Another scandal like Watergate, this time the CIA Leak Probe, threatens to bring down another Republican President in his second term. Only this time, journalists like Judith Miller have been found complicit in the lies that spawned the crisis.

They made Faustian (another horror term!) deals with powerful politicians, but did not fight to share the truth with us. Miller is not a crusader, but rather a collaborator, and so, like the fictional Howard Gorn, is ultimately matter how many six figure book deals she acquires. But Gorn could be any celebrity journalist who has sold out to this corrupt White House. Like Robert Novak, for instance, who pridefully describes himself in horror terminology as "The Prince of Darkness," and who attempted to destroy an individual who dare speak against "the War President."

And interestingly, why may this President ultimately fall ? Hubris, I would say...a very human (and tragic...) sin, the very "something" that makes monsters on the 2005 Night Stalker.

So I'm perfectly willing to admit that some episodes of Night Stalker just don't feel very fresh. "Malum" is the weakest of the lot since the pilot, I'd say. But even if stories such as "Burning Man" are predictable or somehow underwhelming, I ask you - the viewer - to consider the greater world of the new Night Stalker. It speaks directly and clearly to the issues of our time, to the Zeitgeist of now. Yes, the series needs to land quickly on more concrete narrative footing, yet I am sticking with this program for the overall vibe and atmosphere.

It is fascinating, the dehumanizing and transparent glass world of Night Stalker, one where human sin creates threatening monsters, and where journalists sell their souls to the demonic Karl Roves of the worlds...

So kudos to the new Night Stalker for having the balls to wade - even ham-handedly - into this debate about journalism and politics, and to ask pertinent and meaningful questions about the so-called standards of our society's "truth seekers."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

New and Upcoming Muir Books

As we spin ever closer to 2006, two John K. Muir books are coming out, and I'm putting out the early word! I recently had the chance to see "sneak" previews of the book covers, and thought it couldn't hurt to share 'em here on the blog as we near publication.

The first project is called Mercy in Her Eyes. This is my study of Indian-born director Mira Nair, the auteur who created Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!, Kama Sutra, Vanity Fair and Mississippi Masala. The book features interviews with Naveen Andrews (Lost), Academy-Award winning writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), Gena Rowlands, cinematographer Sandi Sissel, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala and a host of others.

Applause Theatre and Cinema Books is the publisher, and my text explores Mira Nair's career, placing it in a historical context: she's a female director working in a male-dominated industry in the age of globalization, when "Bollywood" films are growing more popular in the United States. Mira Nair is a world citizen (with homes in Uganda, New York, and India), and her films reflect her stature and importance in the global community. I compare her to another great Indian director, Satyajit Ray, and see her in a similar a social commentator as well as a popular movie maker. I also discuss Nair's years as a documentary filmmaker, and her ascent to popular filmmaking (she recently turned down the opportunity to direct the latest Harry Potter film).

One of the big things I wanted to stress is in this book is how Nair uses the auspices of film grammar (editing, slow-motion photography, jump-cuts, etcetera), to forge these amazing, lyrical "extended moments" of passion and emotion in her films. If you've seen her work, and I highly recommend Monsoon Wedding as a good place to start, you'll know precisely what I'm talking about.

My second release is due on the last day of '05 I think (though you can order it now at Amazon and other venues). It is actually a re-release, not a new work. McFarland is releasing in softcover (and at a cheaper price, $24.95), my Analytical Guide to Battlestar Galactica. This was my second book written (though my third printed...), and it was originally released in late 1998. I am a longtime fan of Battlestar Galactica, and this book was a labor of love. I'll never forget the joy I felt when I met Richard Hatch at Main Mission 2000 in Manhattan, and he told me that he loved my book because he thought it was the most objective and fair study of the series he had seen. That meant a lot to me, and it still does. I have for years believed my book was particularly controversial with original series fans, but I have learned differently in the last few days thanks to some really wonderful comments here on the blog from some TOS'ers. I appreciate their remarks so much, and I'm glad to see this book out in softcover because it has been a perennial good seller, and I'd like to see it reach a wider audience, especially now that the new show has changed so much of what made the original special.

Before 2006 is out, another Muir book should also be in release, but it is too early yet to talk about that one. So keep your eyes out for these two efforts as we get nearer to "next year." I'll be updating the blog on the progress of Mercy in Her Eyes as it gets close to print.

Full of Shat

I suppose you either get William Shatner, or you don't. I do get William Shatner. I love William Shatner. He's an icon to me and many in my generation.

Here are a few reasons for my man-sized (but hetero...) Shatner lovin':

1. He starred in a 1970s movie called Impulse lensed in the "language" (ahem...) Esperanto.

2. Remember when he sang "I Want To Sex You Up?" at some music awards show back in the early 1990s? Prince was there. Guns'n'Roses was there. But who does everybody remember? William Shatner!

3. KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN! Has there ever been a better cinematic spasm than Shatner's energetic scream to the Eugenic Superman in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?

4. In the 1977 movie Kingdom of the Spiders, Shatner is attacked by tarantulas, and lets himself be covered by dozens, maybe hundreds of the buggers. There are a whole lot of reasons I like this movie, but the fact that Shatner let himself be buried in live spiders - makes the movie scary. It sells the threat in a way that stunt doubles just can't. It could have been different. In Frogs (1972), Ray Milland never got in THE SAME SHOT as the attacking frogs. But no, Shatner goes for the gusto here. In fact, I think he enjoyed rolling around with the spiders a tad too much. I highly recommend this movie...

5. In last year's hysterical reality TV show, Invasion, Iowa, Shatner had the audacity to have some corn-fed local girl (about 18 years old, I think), be his love interest in the fake sci-fi movie he was "producing." She actually spoke the following line to Shatner: "I would rather carry your seed, than the seed that destroys the universe." Every man dreams of hearing that.

6. Denny Crane.

So what's up with my public expression of love for William Shatner? Why now? Well, I've always adored the guy, but my friend Chris, over at his blog, Wat Tambor's War Journal, posted a really thoughtful meditation on Monsieur Shatner this week, and it got me thinking about Captain James Tiberius Kirk and the actor who so ably portrayed him.

I am not ashamed in the least to admit that I am a William Shatner fanatic. I think the man, his career, and his personality are more compelling than any other celebrity out there. I will watch anything the man does. (Yes, one of these days I will get around to watching Groom Lake).

I also firmly believe that his charisma is a large part of why Star Trek is so successful and enduring. Jeff Hunter was a fine actor, but come on folks, it just wouldn't be the same without Bill.

Something struck me about Bill and his career last week after I watched the newest Boston Legal. He is the only actor I can think of who has explored the different stages of his own life through his high profile performances. Bill has a way of directly addressing where he's at in his real life through his fictional characters. In our current youth-obsessed culture, it is comforting to see that there is life and contemplation beyond your twenties.

So somebody tell me, does Patrick Stewart get this kind of love?

Retro-Toy Thursday Flashback #14: Action Figures Part II (1989 - 2005)

Last week I blogged about the era one might term the "golden age" of TV and movie action figures, from the Mego and Mattel span of the early 1970s, to Kenner's Star Wars line from 78-83, up to Galoob's Next Gen figs in the late 1980s.

One thing that all these action figure lines have in common - and I dearly love them all - is that they were made primarily for children to enjoy and play with. That's why sometimes the details (like costuming) are way off, but in general, the toys are durable. Kids want to play with action figures, not necessarily bitch that Helena Russell doesn't wear orange and tangerine on Space:1999. That's entirely my purview!!

The new age of action figures, from the 1990s to present, is surely the age of the "collector," the grown-up fan who is looking to own the most up-to-date, accurate and detailed version of his favorite franchise characters.

Often, these figures are packaged beautifully, and collectors do not even crack the bubble. (I must admit, I try both approaches: sometimes I MUST actually play with an action Khan; other times, I can resist and just stick the bloomin' thing up on my office wall). I think my comments here are especially true of what you might call "niche markets." In other words, kids today probably still play with Star Wars figures because Star Wars is still a popular franchise for children, but how many children do you know are racing to rip open their "Mysterious Alien" or "Alan Carter" action figure from Classic Toys' new release of Space:1999 figures?

See my point? Hence the age of the collector...

I think that new age of action figures began in earnest in 1992-1993 when a company called Playmates acquired the license to produce action figures from Star Trek: The Next Generation and SeaQuest DSV. The SeaQuest figures tanked, probably because the show wasn't so hot (though I've still got my Darwin action figure on its card...). Also, one of the action figures - Lt. Hitchcock - happens to look almost exactly like my wife Kathryn, so I keep it nearby. It gives me the illusion I can control her; having that tiny action figure of her...

But the Star Trek figures were a dream come true. I'll never forget waiting outside Toys R Us for the store to open back in 1992, running like a madman back to the action figures aisle, and haranguing a stock-room person to bring out the Trek toys. She opened up a whole box of the figures for me, and I got one of each. Then my very kind and tolerant parents bought me one of each figure too (yes, I was 22 or 23 at the time...) so I could open a set and play with them at the same time that I had one "mint." Then, I conveniently got "sick" the next day and didn't go to work. I stayed home and played with these figures and had the time of my adult life. Is that crazy? Anyway, from what I remember, the first line of figures included Captain Picard (in the jacket he wore in "Darmok" and the fifth season), Riker in a ripped shirt, Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi, Data, LaForge, Worf, a Romulan, a Borg and a Ferengi. I think some "classic" figures also came out, like Elderly McCoy from "Encounter at Farpoint," and Scotty from "Relics," and Ambassador Spock from "Unification."

The Playmates figures were larger than than the Kenner Star Wars line, closer in size to - of all things - the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And under one Starfleet-issued military boot on each figure was a collectors number. The figures also came with accessories galore: phasers, laptop computers, tricorders, dilithium crystals, etc. You could even remove Geordi's visor if you wanted. Playsets also were released by Playmates. That year, I bought the Enterprise D bridge - a gigantic playset - and a Transporter Room. There was also a collectors' carrying case for the figures. All very nice stuff.

By the next year, Playmates released more Next Gen figures (including Q in Robes, Tasha Yar, Sarek and Troi's Mother.) There was also a full line of DS9 figures to contend with, and a full-scale Runabout for the characters to fly around in. All the usual suspects were here: Commander Sisko, Odo, Dax, Miles O'Brien, Kira Nerys, Gul Dukat, Jake Sisko, Rom, Dr. Bashir, Quark and even Tosk!

But even better, Playmates released a line of original series characters in a big box that resembled the classic NCC-1701 Bridge. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, Uhura were in the box and they came with 23rd century gear and costuming we all know and love: electric shaver-style phasers and communicators, velour shirts, braids on the arm and for Uhura, a mini-skirt! This was around the time that I moved to North Carolina, and when I left my job at the Supreme Court of Virginia, the kind employees there banded together and purchased this for me as a going-away present. I still have it.

1994 brought the release of action-figures related to the first Next Gen movie, Generations. The characters - oddly - wore uniforms different from the ones they adorned in the film. But that's okay, because the company also released a Captain Kirk in movie era uniform and in a spacesuit. Since Kirk was (and remains...) my favorite character, this was great. I also enjoyed having a Malcolm McDowell figure (Dr. Soran) to torture. I held his eyelids open and made him watch "Haven" and "Imaginary Friend" over and over again for killing my hero...

By 1995, the Playmates onslaught of action figures seemed to be neverending. A new series called Voyager premiered in January, and by Christmas I was greedily grabbing up Voyager action figures. These included Captain Janeway, B'Elanna Torres, Kazon, Holographic Doctor, Paris, Harry Kim, Vidian, Tuvok, Kes and Neelix, among others (including Tom Paris as the horny reptile from "Threshold!").

I kept all of these figures mint in their boxes, but oddly enough, by young kitten Ezri (named after a character on DS9) decided to take action against Voyager by urinating on all the figures. Yep. Not too much damage was done, and now they're okay. I just wouldn't smell 'em too closely. Anyway, by this time (the mid-90s), my family was destitute and bankrupt.,...just kidding. I suspect Playmateshad the same impact on other Trekker families. I mean, I just couldn't get off the Playmates crack pipe. There were talking action figures, larger-sized figures of characters like Seven of Nine (mmmm...Seven of Nine...), phasers, spaceships, tricorders, you name it. There was even a "TRANSPORTER" series, where the figures appeared to be beaming up. It was just unbelievable. And then, one day, the company began releasing figures from the classic seeries. From episodes including "The Cage" (Captain Pike!), "My Private Little War" (The Mugato!" and even "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Oh, the old days...Star Trek fans never had it better.

In 1996, a whole new line of figures (including Zefram Cochrane!) and ships (including The Phoenix!) was released by Playmates to coincide with the premiere of Star Trek: First Contact. The Enterprise-E had officially arrived. Finally, by the late 1990s, I was buying large-sized Star Trek: Insurrection figures...but somehow losing the excitement of all these action figures at the same time. It wasn't F. Murray Abraham's fault, though, I'm sure. When you live in a world of paradise and plenty, somehow it just isn't as much fun as when you're stalking flea markets for the elusive Mego Cheron figure or Gorn from 1976.

But other companies followed Playmates' lead in the 1990s. Space Precinct, a series from Gerry Anderson that I (mercifully) only saw once or twice and then hid from with ferocity, had a line of figures produced and released. I do own them. Don't judge me for it.

Hasbro unveiled a new line of small figures based on the 1968 movie, Planet of the Apes. Among them were Taylor, Dr. Zaius, Cornelius and Gorilla Soldier. While I can always "go ape" with abandon, these figures somehow lack the allure of the old Mego ones. Or maybe I'm just old. In 2001, Tim Burton's "re-imagination" of Planet of the Apes came around and I despised it with a passion But I still picked up a few figures from Hasbro. My wife has checked more than once to see if Dirk Diggler is anatomically correct...

A company called Trendmasters then released a new line of Battlestar Galactica toys in 1997, with figures that included Cylons, Lt. Starbuck (who looked like he was pumped up on steroids), and the Imperious Leader. I understand a Cylon Raider and Colonial Viper were mass-produced for this line, but I've never seen them.

Finally, by the time of The X-Files ("Fight the Future") movie in summer of 1998, McFarlane Toys was producing small replicas of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Did I buy these figures? Yes, and yes. The agents came in standard FBI gear (meaning spiffy suits...) and also in the Antarctica gear they wore at the film's conclusion. The Texas caveman who died in the film's opener also got his own figure. I always thought of him as Prehistoric Mulder. I also bought McFarlane's figures based on Scream, John Carpenter's The Thing, Terminator 2, and on and on. This is the reason why I won't be able to afford to send my future child to college, and why I peddle my books on this blog every Wednesday...

In 1999, Star Wars returned to the big screen with The Phantom Menace. I made a pre-emptive strike before the movie was released and bought a whole bunch of figures before I even saw the movie. I didn't know who or what a Jar-Jar Binks was (ah, those were the days...), but I wanted one. Later, I regretted my zeal. Especially when - a year after the film - the Kenner figures were selling in discount bins at greatly reduced prices. The interesting thing about these figures was that they came with microchips that would allow them to speak lines from the movie, after a fashion. Too bad there were few things said in that film that actually merited repeating by action figures. "You will become a Jedi one day, I promise."

I bought a few Attack of the Clones figures in 2002, but my wife was in a car accident the day the movie opened and we ended buying a new car instead of Star Wars figures. I missed out on Revenge of the Sith figures all together. Ultimately (and don't tell anyone, since I will be blogging Star Wars here from Episode 1 to Ep 6 soo, I think I'm a Star Trek man first; a Star Wars fan second.) I'd much rather have a phaser replica than a light saber...

By the (poorly timed....) release of the last Star Trek: The Next Generation movie, Nemesis, Art Asylum had acquired the rights to produce the action figures, and the company unleashed a series of four very interesting figures that, though nicely sculpted, seemed a little too cool-looking for Star Trek. I miss Playmates now. I liked their approach: saturation, saturation, saturation. I still marvel at the fact that I own a Vorgon from the episode "Captain's Holiday." Or LaForge "transformed" from the episode "Identity."

I'm still collecting action figures today, 30 years after my first experience with the small, Mattel Eagle pilots I wrote about last week. Right now, I'm particularly excited with the Space:1999 line from Classic Toys. I've waited 29 years to own a Maya action figure, and I'm sure as hell not going to miss out now!!!

What's your favorite action figure and why? Do you remember the glory days of Playmates? Why were those figures so damn appealing? And do the newer action figures stack up to the old ones? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Does anyone out there collect all these things too?

TV Review: Invasion: "Unnatural Selection"

Oh my, things are getting creepier in the aftermath of Hurricane Eve on the Shaun Cassidy/ABC series, Invasion. This week, storm "survivors" (those who disappeared in the storm and then mysteriously washed up nude on the shore sometime later...) have gathered in a "Hurricane Survivors Group" that meets at the local church. Mariel attends, the priest attends, Veronica Cartwright (who survived the Invasion of the Body Snatchers...) attends, and most importantly, Sheriff Tom Underlay attends, and he has something to say...

Tom delivers a speech at the church altar that gives us the first big chunk of this strange character's backstory. It seems that back in 1996, Underlay and his first wife were on a flight to Atlanta. But the plane crashed and spread debris over a mile. There were no survivors...except Tom. He was pulled up from the ocean by rescue divers a full twenty-hours after the crash. What's clear then (and my friend, Howard Margolin, the host of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction said this in a private e-mail to me weeks ago...) is that Tom is the vanguard of the invasion; the advance scout. Very interesting.

"I emerged stronger and with a clearer purpose..." Tom tells the flock gathered around him, "and that's the gift Hurricane Eve gave you." By his way of thinking, they've all been "chosen" to rebuild the community "as they rebuild themselves." His words clearly can be interpreted two ways. Either Tom's just a really nice guy who's been through a terrible tragedy and he's encouraging others who have seen tragedy in their lives. Or, he's rallying the alien troops for the impending colonization.

I wonder if these aliens here on Earth in Invasion represent not a race coming to steal the Earth, but perhaps a group of refugees or aliens, just looking for a safe place to live. That would put an interesting spin on the series.

On other fronts, the series is clearly starting to more closely resemble the plot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This week, a man is killed by Tom because he had imperiled one of the mystery survivors, his wife Lucy. But their son, Gage, confides in Russell that something's wrong with Lucy. "She didn't come back the same," he whispers. Indeed. When family members start saying that they don't recognize family members, or that Mom's somehow "changed," we've landed clearly in the county of the pod people. Check those cellars for sea pods!

Invasion is still moving at a snail's pace; and yet I still like it best of all the new alien shows. Go figure.

TV Review: Lost: "...And Found"

So...what happened in last night's episode of Lost? Well, Sun lost her wedding ring (but found it...) and Jin saw the dirty, scabby ankles of the villainous "Others" as they walked by him in the jungle and he hid behind a bush. Did I miss anything?

If you've been reading my reviews of Lost, you know that my love for it is large. I enjoy the heck out of it. And I keep tuning in. But remember last week when I noted that I have a friend in Chesapeake who would probably call the show a cocktease? Well, this week's episode "...And Found" was again closer to the cocktease, further away from the brilliant science fiction show Lost can be.

Last week, I advised the makers of this series to drop the flashbacks, or at least curtail them severely. I hold by that opinion. With a vengeance. This is the third time (between "Adrift," "Everybody Hates Hugo" and "...And Found") that the flashbacks just add a big fat zilcho in terms of characterization or momentum. I like Sun and Jin as much as the next person, but we have already had splendid and touching flashbacks last season about how they met, how they fell secretly in love, and how working for her father nearly destroyed his soul...and created a distance between the couple. So now we have to see a flashback of the time before they first met? Is that really so important? I look forward to the flashback (coming soon...) in which Jin and Sun almost meet in a grocery store, but pick different express lanes and tragically don't yet meet. I mean, come on!

The same criticism holds true of the Hurley flashbacks last week. They were okay/interesting, I guess, but we already knew all this about Hurley. Just as the flashback about Michael in "Adrift" really didn't add much to our knowledge of the character. We already knew he had lost Walt.

Here's the problem as I see it: Lost did a great job with flashbacks last season. A great job. We learned everything we needed to know about where the characters had been prior to the accident to enjoy them being "stranded" together on the mysterious island. In most cases, we even got to see how the characters got to the airport and boarded the doomed plane, bringing us right up to the present. Now, be honest, who cares about stuff that takes place before all that? We already know what we need to know. This is the deal about writing a novel (and editing a good television show), there are certain things we just don't need to see. I don't really need to see Hurley quit his job at a fast food restaurant, or ask a girl out, or lose a friend to "get" the nature of his character. I don't really need to see Michael fighting for Walt in a legal case, because from his very actions, I understand that he loves his son, and feels guilt over losing him (twice). It's clear. The flashbacks don't add anything to the narrative, and in fact, simply hold it back. We're treading water here, folks.

What remains much more interesting on Lost than the tiresome and redundant flashbacks, is what's occurring in the present. Think about it! This season alone we've got the new hatch/bunker and all the new equipment that comes with it (like a washing machine and dryer...). We've met another camp of survivors. We've even (very, very, very briefly...) met the apparently barbarous Others. It seems like the creators of this show could construct some very fine storylines from those ingredients, without having to forage around deeper into the backgrounds of all the dramatis personae.

So come on Lost, stop living in the past. I love you like a brother, but my patience is wearing thin now. Come back to the present, end or curtail the flashbacks, and get down to the business of telling us some compelling and frightening human stories about the survivors of the crash and where they are now.

Not where they were. That's all a given now. We get it...

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Muir Book Wednesday # 2: Horror Films of the 1970s

Well, it's Wednesday again, and that means it is time for me to peddle another one of my books. Readers offended by blatant self-promotion please avert your There's another post below this one that isn't so self-aggrandizing. I promise. Really.

The year 2002 was a really good one for me, at least professionally. An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith was a huge hit for Applause, and so was my 662 page survey from McFarland, Horror Films of the 1970s. In fact, I'm busy working on the sequel right now, Horror Films of the 1980s.

And I guess that's why I wanted to feature Horror Films of the 1970s as my "Muir Book Wednesday number #2." I've been watching a lot of horror movies lately (over 330 since March...), and thinking about them all the time, and well, I just love the 1970s and '80s. But the seventies were the decade of Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Alien, Dawn of the Dead, Straw Dogs, Deliverance and many other classics that still shape how the genre looks in the 21st century.

I was deeply gratified that Horror Films of the 1970s became my then most recognized book, and was awarded a Booklist Editor's Choice for 2002, and cited as an Outstanding Reference Source for 2003 by RUSA (Reference and Users Service Association) and a "Best of the Best" Reference Book for 2002 by the ALA (American Libraries Association). When you work long hours on something that's a labor of love, and make your wife watch too many really bad movies, it's nice that someone recognizes your efforts. I don't know if it's really true or not, but I always feel in my gut that 2002 was my signature year as a writer, the year I got on the radar, so-to-speak, between Askew View and H70s.

Horror Films of the 1970s features an introduction, a history of the disco decade, and then I proceed to review (with critical reception, cast & crew, synopsis, commentary and legacy...) the films released from 1970-1979. In toto, over 225 films are catalogued here. Finally, the book concludes with a series of appendices, including Horror Film Conventions of the 1970s, The 1970s Horror Hall of Fame, Memorable Ad Lines, Then and Now - Recommended Viewing and The Best Horror Movies of the 1970s. There's a complete index, notes and extensive bibliography too.

Anyway, here's some of the reviews for Horror Films of the 1970s to give you a sense of how the book was received.


"A top notch overview of American horror movies of the 1970s...Muir opens with an entertaining and informative BRIEF HISTORY...Muir's commentaries are well worth impressive resource for all film collections...highly recommended."-LIBRARY JOURNAL."

"Muir is an irrespressible commentator, his comments are sharp and often very wry, and they make this volume very fun - yes, even for non-horror's an entertaining analysis. I don't know how many of you go for these films, but if you are interested, this is an excellent study. Muir's sense of humor even makes some of the undesirable ones sound bearable."- CLASSIC IMAGES, page 29.

"Brilliant and essential guide for the genre enthusiast and casual fan alike, film scholar John Kenneth Muir's comprehensive undertaking is likely to remain the last word on the subject for years to is erudite, incisive and most importantly unassuming...Muir hits all the bases in a beautifully succinct and informative introduction then proceeds to analyze and profile more than two hundred films...seminal..." -Dom Salemi, BRUTARIAN, Spring 2003, Issue # 38.

"Now for the first time ever in one amazing volume, John Kenneth Muir brings us HORROR FILMS OF THE 1970s, a detailed text...Muir's writing is concise, witty and intuitive....Muir gets it right. He sees humor in films where humor was intended. He sees humor in films where it was not intended. He understands, gets the joke and nicely parlays his wisdom to the written page...make room for this book on your shelf. It's an indispensable reference to a decade of truly eclectic extremes." - BOOK REVIEWS BY AL BACA, Page 49.

" well beyond the basics where it counts. His academic introduction is actually a pretty good read on its own and uses the art-imitates-life argument as a critical tool to determine how the disco decade spawned a plethora of new horror trends...Perhaps the coolest feature is Muir's extensive and humorous appendix section, in which he offers his Hall of Fame, best movies, recommended viewing and a list of horror film conventions...Good fun for casual fans and hardened intellectuals alike." - Tom Dragomir, RUE MORGUE: THE NINTH CIRCLE (BOOKS), page 67.

"The legendary Cushing stars in many of the films discussed, yet there is more than a retread of his filmography. More mainstream hits (Carrie, The Omen) are here, but the book also highlights such lesser known gems as Count Yorga and Sisters, as well as drive-in trash like Squirm and Grizzly. Everything for the devotee is here as each film is given a synopsis, credits and a look at the production. Another bonus is Muir's pithy critiques...An impressive, dedicated and amusing book. RATING: (FOUR STARS) * * * * " - FILM REVIEW, May 2003.

"Your reaction to learning of this book's existence may be similar to mine: near pants-wetting....[the book] surely will be referenced by horror fans for years (and decades) to come."- HITCH MAGAZINE # 33, Spring 2003.

"The title of this book says it all and fans of the genre have reason to rejoice. Muir, an authority on horror and science fiction cinema, has finally turned his attention to the decade when the modern horror film genre came into its own...The film descriptions communicate well to the reader, even when the film itself is unfamiliar. Each synopsis gives an overview that makes clear the subject and scope of the film; and his commentary is serious, thought-provoking, and helpful in understanding the meaning and importance of the film...I am aware of no similar reference that covers the same territory as Muir does in this work. It merits consideration on that basis alone, but academic libraries and larger public libraries will no doubt find it to be a useful - and much-used addition to their reference collections." - KEVIN BARRON, Reference and Service Users Quarterly, Volume 42, Number 3, Spring 2003, page 267.

"The commentary, which can go on for several pages, puts each film in context and discusses style and filmmaking technique. It also explores how topics such as racism, religion and women's rights are represented in films like BLACULA, THE EXORCIST, and THE STEPFORD WIVES, respectively...HORROR FILMS OF THE 1970s is an important reference tool for film collections in academic and public libraries and a must for Editor's Choice, 2002..."-BOOKLIST

"In his entertaining and scholarly filmography of over 200 films arranged by year, Muir sees the historical and social happenings of the 1970s as giving rise to the unusually high number of groundbreaking horror films of the decade, as well as the routine ones." - AMERICAN LIBRARIES: Best of the Best Reference Sources, The 2003 Reference and Users Service Association of distinguished reference works selected by public and academic librarians, by Vicki D. Bloom, May 2003

Excerpt (Introduction):

We've all heard the axiom that "art imitates life," and most of us have a pretty good idea what it signifies. Art does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it is inexorably bound to the time period from which it sprang. Sometimes an insight into a social or historical context in a work of art is entirely coincidental, arising from a set of understandings unknown even to the artist who rendered it. But more often than not, there is intent in art to reflect, compare, reveal, contrast or echo some important element of the creator's universe.

Another truism, one hoisted from the darker side of the aesthetic shelf, might offer an ancillary proclamation. Specifically, horror films have always mirrored the fears and anxieties of their "real life" epochs.

In the 1930s, protean genre films such as Dracula (1931) and King Kong (1933) represented a form of "escapism" for adventure-hungry and romance-starved audiences seeking to forget the daily drags and vicissitudes of the Great Depression. Likewise, 1950s-era horror gems such as Them! (1955), which concerned radiation-spawned giant ants, played on the not-so-hidden fears of the American audience that its own government had opened up a deadly Pandora's box by splitting in the atom. In the same era, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was viewed by many prominent critics as a thinly-veiled indictment of Communism, a particularly timely target considering the pitch of the Cold War with America's competitor, the Soviet Union, and the rampant paranoia of the McCarthy age.

Not surprisingly, the same paradigm proves true of yet another decade of the turbulent 20th century: the "free wheeling" 1970s. The myriad horror films of the disco era likewise represent a catalog of that time's mortal dreads and anxieties. Perhaps the only real significant difference between the 1930s or 1950s and the 1970s, however, is the sheer number of fears and apprehensions being evinced by the horror fims of the period. Bluntly expressed, there was a lot more to be afraid about in the seventies.

Consider that the decade found people, and especially Americans, anxious about virtually ever aspect of contemporary life. What was to be a woman's role in American society during the post-hippie women's lib, bicentennial world? The Stepford Wives (1975) offered one nightmarish answer. What was to be the upshot of all the random violence in the streets and the worst crime rates yet recorded in American history? Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) had a few thoughts about that subject. Could the average citizen's inadvertent exposure to microwave ovens, industrial pollution, X-rays, a weakening ozone layer or contaminated water alter the fundamental shape and evolution of human life? Larry Cohen's It's Alive (1973) explored that frightening notion.

Similarly, Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Michael Crichton's Westworld (1972) fretted that man's escalating reliance on machines might prove his undoing. At the same time, Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Squirm (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Empire of the Ants (1977), The Swarm (1978), Prophecy (1979) and other '70s horror films about rampaging animals traded on different fears. Beneath the hokey special effects, these films reflected genuine audience trepidation that Mother Nature would not stand for Man's continued pillaging and pollution of the Earth. These "eco-horrors" envisioned environmental apocalypse caused by humankind's own short-sightedness.

Even the innocence of the old King Kong was flipped on its head in the mid-1970s. The big-budget (and much loathed) 1976 remake of the 1930s classic found an American oil corporation (a surrogate for Exxon) exploiting Kong, like some natural resource, on a mission not of unbridled adventure and awesome exploration, but of imperialism and cynicism. Kong's new bride in the 1970s version was no innocent either, but a struggling, opportunistic actress looking to find her fifteen minutes of fame.

And it didn't stop there.

The Watergate scandal and President Nixon's impeachment erupted in the early 1970s, and so the long-standing American pillar of "trust in government" soon crumbled to dust too. Consequently, horror films began to posit "evil" conspiracies at all levels of governmental bureaucracy. The town elders of Amity kept the beaches open in Jaws (1975), even though they knew a killer shark was prowling the waters off their coast. The doctors and politicos of Coma (1978) were responsible for a vast conspiracy exploiting the weak and rewarding the rich and powerful. The presidential candidate of The Clonus Horror (1979) utilized living human clones as a bank of replacement body parts and organized a cover-up to keep it under wraps...all while playing the public role of "populist."...

So there you have it, a look at Horror Films of the 1970s. You can buy the book from
McFarland, or at