Friday, November 04, 2005

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Night Strangler (1972)

The TV-movie sequel to the 1971 hit The Night Stalker finds our hero, downtrodden reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in Seattle, Washington -- still trying to sell his incredible story about vampires in Las Vegas. In a dingy bar one night, his former editor Tony Vincenzo hears him making his case, and - taking pity on the guy - hires Kolchak as a reporter at Seattle's Daily Chronicle (run by John Carradine!) Of course, (and Vincenzo knows this...) he's just asking for trouble bringing Carl Kolchak aboard.

For before long, Carl has run smack into another bizarre, perhaps even supernatural case. Several beautiful belly dancers have been murdered (strangled...) in the Pioneer Square Area of the city. A little research reveals that women have been attacked there, in that very spot, every 21 years. There were crimes in 1952, 1931, 1910, 1889 and 1868. Interestingly, the murders in 1868 took place before a massive earthquake, in a portion of the town now underground.

Kolchak's quest to find the perpetrator of these horrid crimes leads to a scientist once interviewed by Mark Twain, named Richard Malcolm (Richard Anderson). It seems this man was a Union Soldier in the Civil War and has been keeping himself alive ever since with a home made "elixir of life" consisting of milk, meat, hair...and blood extracted from the necks of healthy women! Karl ventures into the old underground city to confront this nearly immortal (and clearly psychotic...) man, and ends the reign of terror once and for all. Of course, Karl gets fired AGAIN for interfering with the police; and this time his editor Vincenzo gets fired too! Together, the two bickering friends drive out of Seattle together, hoping for a better future in New York.

The Night Strangler, written by the incomparable Richard Matheson, is not quite in the class of The Night Stalker, perhaps because at times it feels like a note-for-note repetition of the original TV movie, with Kolchak running up against bull-headed, CYA-type authorities (mayors, policemen, bureaucrats...) while he plunges on to solve a supernatural case. What's interesting this time is Matheson's decision to feature a scientific, rather than supernatural explanation for the crimes. The monster is still a vampire (one who strangles his victims), but one who operates via science, not biology. Seen as bookends, the two telemovies make interesting sides of the same coin, even if the original isn't quite as good as the original.

Bu watching The Night Strangler, I am beginning to crystallize the reasons I love Darren McGavin's portrayal of Kolchak. This reporter wears white sneakers, you may notice if you watch the telefilms and TV episodes. Not much is said about this, but these are running shoes, worn because Kolchak is always running after a story. I just love that small, little detail; that Kolchak wears the same suit and hat, but also the very shoes that help him track down interviewees during an investigation.

The Night Strangler also makes clear just what an influence Kolchak was on The X-Files. The story of an immortal killer, needing infusions of new life (by murder...) every twenty one years, reminded me instantly of a first season episode called "Squeeze," the first part of the Tooms saga wherein a strange serial killer needs to eat the livers of healthy humans. The idea of elongating life; of a killer coming out of shadows every few decades; and the skepticism of the police all are common features between The Night Strangler and the adventures of Mulder and Scully.

I also got a real kick out of The Night Strangler's humorous finale, with Vincenzo and Kolchak hollering at each other over every little detail. Despite all the yelling, it's clear that they are best buddies. And that, quite nicely, is an element continued in the TV series.

Next up: the first episode "The Ripper!"

The Night Stalker/Night Strangler two-movie combo is available on DVD.

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "Crypt"

The seventh episode of the short-lived 1977-1978 Logan's Run TV series is also the best, at least so far. "Crypt" comes from a story by Harlan Ellison (teleplay by Al Hayes), and the installment is directed by Michael Caffey.

Here's the story: Logan, Jessica and REM drive their solar craft into an honest-to-goodness destroyed metropolis this time - a ruined modern city, not just the California countryside. REM informs us that the poison air killed most of the people there, not the bombs. In one of the buildings, the threesome discovers a recorded message from March of 2120. A very sick woman tells us that the last survivors of the scientific community - six chosen people - are frozen in cryogenic units in the basement. Though they are alive, they suffer from a plague that arose after the thermonuclear war. Fortunately, there are still two vials of serum left -- enough for all six scientists. The staff died and a door malfunctioned before the scientists could be saved. Now, the woman leaving the message begs for the visitors to complete her mission.

After fixing the stuck door, Logan, Jessica and REM head for the crypt in the basement to revive humanity's last hope, only to suffer through a terrible tremor. In the earthquake, one of the vials is destroyed, meaning that only enough serum remains to save three of the all-important scientists. Logan and his friends awaken all six sleepers, but now must decide which three will survive. Among the choices: a robotics expert (Neva Patterson), a bureaucrat/administrator, a telekinetic, a medical doctor (Ellen Preston), and an engineer (Christopher Stone). One of the scientists is a hottie prodigy named Sylvia, who immediately comes on to Logan, hoping to get her share of the serum that way. Despite her herculean seduction effort, Logan resists.

While Logan and Jessica interview the awakened scientists to determine who should live and who must die, REM discovers an alarming fact from the facility's computers: one of the scientists is actually an imposter. And then a murder takes place! Therefore, one of the scientific minds of the future is not merely a fake, but a murderer, willing to resort to criminal behavior to survive.

Now, Logan and Jessica's task takes on an even bigger meaning. If they choose wrongly, a murderer will decide the future of humanity!

Like I wrote above, "Crypt" is probably the best Logan's Run episode I've watched thus far (just nosing out Noah Ward's "Man out of Time.") For once, Logan and Jessica actually have something critically important to do: choose the path of the future. If they choose wrong in this situation, their world could face the repercussions for generations. More to the point, the writers of this episode put it into a kind of personal context for Logan, a world-view which generally seems missing from the series. Here, Logan sees this predicament in very human, very specific terms relating to his tenure in the City of the Domes. There, as he points out, a select handful of people (The council of the Elders) chose who lived and who died, making an arbitrary date (the age of thirty). Now Logan is put in the position of making such choices, anddoesn't want to be arbitrary like that, or choose unwisely. The question here is: do moral obligations still exist (as one character asks)? And more importantly, what are those moral obligations? "Crypt" answers that question in an interesting way.

It is also clear from this episode that REM, by far, is the character that the writers seemed to enjoy writing for the most. Here, the kindly android becomes a mehcanical Sherlock Holmes, forced to solve a lockedroom (or closed crypt) mystery, as the secret murderer begins picking off the scientists. Using deductive reasoning and his intellect (and his understanding of human nature), REM comes to his conclusion, and in classic mystery fashion gathers all the suspects together to declare his findings. Afterwards, one of the scientists claims that REM's reward for ferreting out the murder should be a city named after him. "REMSville," REM suggests. Or even better, "REMsylvania."

Because it has a sense of humor, because the episode is about more than a straw man society easily toppled, because the episode stops to think about Logan's point of view, "Crypt" is quite an entertaining hour of this series. Well done.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

CULT TV BLOGGING: Kolchak: "The Night Stalker" (1971)

Well, even as I continue with Logan's Run: The TV Series, I'm now beginning to blog the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and figured it would be appropriate to begin my effort all the way back at the beginning; with the original TV movie written by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished story by Jeff Rice) that aired back in 1971. It was - and for many years after, remained - the highest rated TV movie of a generation.

Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970s, where down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor Tony Vincenzo. I
t seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out too much hope.

In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their bodies drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit.

Kolchak considers this avenue, but runs into a brick wall erected by the stone-walling mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die. Finally, once the culprit is named - Janos Skorzeny - the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no affect on the oddly youthful assailant. Realizing it is up to him, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. But In order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good. Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.

Richard Matheson is a genre great, and as such has written some brilliant teleplays, including Duel (1973), too many Twilight Zones to enumerate here and, of course, The Night Stalker. In this project, he provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even a sense of humor. McGavin does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat delivery that is unmatched to this day. He's not your typical protagonist, but rather a persistent little irritant with a nose for news, and gosh, I love him! The story itself, about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas, remains more interesting for what it doesn't tell you. Rather than spoon feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.

For instance, late in the story, Kolchak breaks into Skorzeny's house and finds an open traveler's crate. Inside the trunk, we see Skorzeny's disguises, and even some make-up. There's face paint, wigs, etcetera, and instantly (but importantly, without comment...) we get a sense of the vampire's long history, and his travels from Berlin to London to Canada to the United States (as enumerated in a police press conference.) It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, well-traveled to boot.

I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was lensed (by director John Llewelyn Moxey). The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze. As a set-up for the first vampire attack (in a dark alley...), it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool (a shaky cam) and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot, and an atmospheric one too. The hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're amongst the street walkers.

Finally, I have to say that it has been about six years since I last saw this telefilm, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it holds up today. For one thing, the climactic moments of the film are much scarier and much more suspenseful than I remembered. Watching it this time, I noticed how the soundtrack goes almost completely silent during Kolchak's long, tense exploration of Skorzeny's house. No mood music to speak of; very few sound effects, even. The result is that the only sound I could hear during this extended sequence was my own heart beating in anticipation and fear. The sequence must have lasted a good four or five minutes, and when the music and sound effects did finally arrive (as Skorzeny returns home...) the transition from silence simply made the denouement all that more exciting.

One of the things that I will always love about Darren McGavin's Kolchak is the fact that we say he's a hero, but he really isn't a traditional, physical hero. As displayed here, Kolchak's great gift is that he speaks truth and common sense to power. That's a wonderful trait. But it's not exactly something that comes in handy while monster hunting. So he's vulnerable in a very sympathy-provoking way.

There's a great moment ini this telefilm when Kolchak walks to his car by pitch of black nighttime. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense - just a sense - that there's someone in the car with him. He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of him. There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (and embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human -- and realistic. McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale. It wouldn't work half-as-well if McGavin were a more traditionally handsome, more physically "capable" kind of action-hero. As it is, we breathe a sigh of relief that he made it through the night! (Let alone a TV series...)

Next up - the second Tele-Movie - The Night Strangler!

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "Half Life"

Well, I'm nearly half-way through blogging the short-lived 1970s TV series, Logan's Run. The sixth episode, "Half Life" is written by Shimon Wincelberg and directed by Steven Stern. The story concerns a society where all the citizens are "processed" through a machine that separates the individual into two parts, a good person (known as a "positive") and a bad person, known as a "cast out." The bad folks get thrown out of the city to live in primitive barbarism outside the walls, while the "positives" live inside, in luxury.

So, the people of this community have by design recreated the accident that split Captain Kirk into good/bad parts in the classic first season Star Trek episode, "The Enemy Within." In this story, Jessica goes through the procedure and becomes two warring parts, while Logan and REM endeavor to put her back together and bring justice to the community.

In this story of a "city where all are perfected," there's one individual worth noting: a character named Rama 2, played by a very young (and very beautiful) Kim Cattrall. Seems she's actually a cast-out living among the Positives. When she went through the processor as a child, Rama's positive side died...leaving only her cast-out side. But ever since then, there's been a deception. Rama has been living as the consort of the Patron, the community leader (played by William Smith) and hiding her "negative" nature. Because she has been successful, Rama's presence proves that the processing procedure doesn't really work. A little good and a little evil resides in each split part of the citizenry...and so the attempt to separate these essential human qualities is foolhardy. That fact makes Logan and REM's task easier, repairing the society.

The "Enemy Within" plotline and the use of easily-recognizable Star Trek sound effects for the processor machine only serve to reveal what a pervasive influence Gene Roddenberry's creation had on the rest of science fiction TV in the 1970s. Logan's Run's "Half Life" is, like "The Innocent," diverting and entertaining enough, yet still ultimately rather derivative. At least - finally -there's a whole society on display here, not just a little community with one citizen. That's a bonus, I guess.

It is kind of neat that Logan and REM (and sometimes Jessica) feel absolutely free to interfere in any society they run across. You see, these guys have no Non-Interference Prime Directive, so if their lives are threatened, they can meddle. I thought this clarity would be refreshing, but actually I miss the Star Trek rule. There, Captain Kirk had to justify his interference; and find ways around acting selfishly or rashly. Here, there's one layer less of drama because Logan can engineer any societal changes he deems necessary, and he often does so with the business end of his Sandman-issue weapon. Somehow, that makes things too easy...

McFarland's November 2005 Film & TV Book Schedule!

As y'all may know, I've written eleven books for North Carolina publisher, McFarland (and I'm toiling on number 12 right now...). McFarland prints some of the finest books in the film and TV reference categories you could ever hope to find, with a bent towards the scholarly (and exhaustively researched). Anyway, here's what they've got coming up this this month.

Oh, and please notice the last title on the re-published list (*ahem*) - it's my Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica!

New Releases:

Austrian Cinema,
by Robert von Dassanowsky

Austria, the multicultural crossroad of the European continent, has been the genesis of many artistic concepts. Just as late 19th and early 20th century Austria gave influential modernism to the world in the fields of medicine, urban planning, architecture, design, literature, music, and theater, so its film industry created a significant national cinema that seeded talents and concepts internationally. Nevertheless, the value of Austrian cinema to international film has been long obscured. Austria’s important bond with American film is also underappreciated because of the lack of accessible English language scholarship on the early careers of Austro-Hollywood artists and on influential developments in Austrian film history.

This first comprehensive English survey of Austrian film introduces more than a century of cinema, following the development of the industry chronologically through the nation’s various transformations since 1895. Important industry movements, genres and films are highlighted with sociopolitical, cultural and aesthetic details. An analysis of the economic trends that have influenced Austrian film is also provided. The survey considers the directors, actors, producers, writers, cinematographers, editors, composers and other film artists who have been essential to the development and influence of Austrian cinema. The closing chapter anticipates new faces of the Austrian film industry in the 21st century.

The Opera Singer and the Silent Film
By Paul Fryer

Film technology developments in the early 20th century opened up a new world of possibilities for the motion picture industry, and opera, relying as it did on the melodramatic storyline and grand pantomime acting, was an ideal subject for early silent film. Even deprived of their principal glory—their voices—opera singers were among the first prominent screen stars.

This book examines the relationship between the established operatic stars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the newly developing motion picture industry. It concentrates primarily on developments between 1895 and 1926, from the invention of the commercially exploitable motion picture to the coming of viable sound on film. Early chapters discuss the changing role of the opera star prior to and during the development of film as a popular commercial medium, and explore the technological innovations that eventually enabled opera to move out of the strict confines of the opera house and to be viewed by a global audience. Later chapters expose the fragile relationship between art and the entertainment industry in the early decades of the motion picture, and show how the opera helped establish a balance between film as a new art form and its commercial exploitation. Also discussed is the extent to which the inclusion of opera in early motion pictures contributed to the broader democratization of art. The book concludes with four detailed case studies that examine the experiences of operatic performers who made the transition to the silent screen and who made a notable impact on the early movie industry. An extensive filmography is included to provide the reader with full details of films cited and archival locations of surviving materials.

The Films of Fay Wray
By Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich

Widely acclaimed as a horror movie actress, Fay Wray is best remembered for her performances in King Kong and four other classic 1930s film thrillers, Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game, Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat. Yet her film career encompassed much more than these memorable turns as a damsel in distress. Wray appeared in 77 feature films between 1925 and 1958, playing leading roles in 67 of these. Sadly, the true breadth of Wray’s film career is not readily apparent today, as many of her films, including her entire silent film output, have been lost or are available only on a limited archival basis.This heavily illustrated filmography of Wray’s work at last makes obvious her sizeable contribution to the film industry. It begins with an overview of her professional acting career, from her period of great demand after the making of King Kong to her gradual decline in the late 1930s. The filmography is divided into three sections that describe and discuss the complete collection of Fay Wray’s films. The first section introduces Wray’s early silent feature film appearances; the second covers her “leading lady” period in popular horror thrillers and other films in the sound era; and the third covers her latter-day supporting roles. Two appendices document her work in theatrical film shorts and her television appearances. Commentary throughout also includes first-person interviews with Fay Wray.

Mexican Cinema
Carl J. Mora

From its early beginnings in 1896 to its present condition, the historical development of Mexican filmmaking is traced here. Of particular interest are the great changes in Mexico’s film industry from 1990 to 2004: the confluence of talented and dedicated filmmakers, the important changes in Mexican cinematic infrastructure and the country’s significant social and cultural transformations. From Nicolás Echevarría’s Cabeza de Vaca (1991), to the 1992 releases of Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos and Alfonso Arau’s Como agua para chocolate, to Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001), this work provides a close look at Mexican films that received international commercial success and critical acclaim and put Mexico on the cinematic world map.Arranged chronologically, this completely updated and revised edition covers the entire scope of Mexican cinema. The main films and their directors are discussed, together with the political, social and economic context of the times. Appendices offer selected filmographies and useful addresses.

The Greek Film Musical
Lydia Papadimitriou

The Greek film musical was the most popular film genre in Greece in the 1960s. The songs became instant hits, the dances were performed at parties, and the fashions were imitated by people of all ages. Challenging assumptions that the Greek film musical was a culturally lacking imitation of Hollywood, this work examines the genre as a cinematic and historical phenomenon that condensed key social and cultural concerns of its time, and contributed to the development of a national popular culture in the light of the rapid Americanization of postwar Greece. During two decades characterized by affluence and upward mobility in Greek society, the musical expressed and reinforced the optimism of the times while capturing the tensions and contradictions that emerged as a result of rapid social changes.Beginning with an introduction to modern Greece and cultural identity, the book locates the genre in its historical context and argues that it consists of different layers of cultural appropriation and transformation that redefine traditionally fixed notions of identity. Old Greek cinema is examined, the Greek musical is defined, and a number of key films are analyzed with particular emphasis on the style and structure of the musical numbers. The work concludes with a filmography of Greek musicals; lists of the annual outputs of the production companies Finos Films, Karagiannis-Karatzopoulos, Klak Films, and Damaskinos Michailidis; a glossary; and bibliographies in English, Greek, and French.

Empires of the Imagination
By Alec Worley
Foreword by Brian Sibley

The warlocks and ghosts of fantasy film haunt our popular culture, but the genre has too long been ignored by critics. This comprehensive critical survey of fantasy cinema demonstrates that the fantasy genre amounts to more than escapism. Through a meticulously researched analysis of over a century of fantasy pictures—from the seminal work of Georges Méliès to Peter Jackson’s recent tours of Middle–earth—the work identifies narrative strategies and their recurring components and studies patterns of challenge and return, setting and character.First addressing the difficult task of defining the genre, the work examines fantasy as a cultural force in both film and literature and explores its relation to science fiction, horror, and fairy tales. Fantasy’s development is traced from the first days of film, with emphasis on how the evolving genre reflected such events as economic depression and war. Also considered is fantasy’s expression of politics, as either the subject of satire or fuel for the fires of propaganda. Discussion ventures into the subgenres, from stories of invented lands inhabited by fantastic creatures to magical adventures set in the familiar world, and addresses clashes between fantasy and faith, such as the religious opposition to the Harry Potter phenomenon. From the money-making classics to little-known arthouse films, this richly illustrated work covers every aspect of fantasy film.

Books Republished:

The Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia
Howard M. Berlin

The first film featuring Charlie Chan, The House Without a Key, appeared in 1925. Forty-seven films and six Charlies later, the series still delights audiences. Charlie Chan connoisseurs cite a variety of reasons for the honorable detective’s longevity and appeal, ranging from his wit and personality to the films’ fascinating casts that often included future celebrities.This encyclopedia contains over 1,900 entries for characters, actors, crew members, plot devices, and facts, as well as film summaries and Charlie’s famous aphorisms. Photographs accompany the text and the entries are arranged alphabetically for easy reference and access. Practically anything a fan of these films might want to know is thoroughly analyzed here.

Film Cartoons

By Douglas L. McCall

This work covers ninety years of animation from James Stuart Blackton’s 1906 short Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, in which astonished viewers saw a hand draw faces that moved and changed, to Anastasia, Don Bluth’s 1997 feature-length challenge to the Walt Disney animation empire. Readers will come across such characters as the Animaniacs, Woody Woodpecker, Will Vinton’s inventive Claymation figures (including Mark Twain as well as the California Raisins), and the Beatles trying to save the happy kingdom of Pepperland from the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine (1968).Part One covers 180 animated feature films. Part Two identifies feature films that have animation sequences and provides details thereof. Part Three covers over 1,500 animated shorts. All entries offer basic data, credits, brief synopsis, production information, and notes where available. An appendix covers the major animation studios.

An Analytical Guide to Television’s Battlestar Galactica-
By John Kenneth Muir

When the space drama Battlestar Galactica debuted on ABC in 1978, it was expected to be the most popular new program of the year. Instead, it was attacked as a Star Wars rip-off and canceled after a mere 17 stories. The author acknowledges the show was full of dramatic clichés and scientific inaccuracies, but despite these shortcomings, Battlestar Galactica was a dramatically resonant series full of unique and individual characters, such as Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) and ace warrior Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch). The author contends that Battlestar Galactica was a memorable attempt to make science fiction accessible to mainstream television audiences. The brilliant work of artist John Dykstra brought a new world of special effects to network television. Battlestar Galactica also skillfully exploited legends and names from both the Bible and ancient mythology, which added a layer of depth and maturity to the weekly drama.

Muir Book Wednesday # 3: Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company

Well, it's Hump-Day, and that means it's time for the blog here to plug one of my own literary works! This Wednesday, I want to feature one of my favorite projects; and one that was a tremendous amount of fun to write: Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company.

Published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books just about a year ago, this is my study of auteur Guest and his "documentary-style" (don't call them mockumentaries!) comedies Waiting for Guffman (1997), Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003).

The book also features a detailed section on Guest's history in Hollywood, from his stint with National Lampoon in the early 1970s, to Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, and even the classic This is Spinal Tap. The book also features brand new (and extensive) interviews with a whole cast of characters from Mr. Guest's informal repertory company, including Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Michael Hitchcock and Jim Piddock.

Here's what the critics say about Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest & Company.

"Muir reports the mechanics behind Guest's improvisation on film, then proceeds to full background and smart analyses (for which he draws on interviews with the principal cast and crew) of Guest's classics: Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. In addition to Guest cultists, this book should interest fans of Robert Altman, Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Richard Lester, indeed British and American comedy in general. Muir eschews the academic tone for zippy journalese, but this insightful study certainly establishes Guest as a solid, coherent, and original artist...Highly recommended." - CHOICE, March 2005.

"Guest is an original, and Muir does a superb job of illuminating Guest's qualities as a person, performer and director...The great value of reading about this quirky creator is absorbing his message, which applies to moviemakers and laymen alike: blaze your own path and have enough self-belief to buck the tide of conventional opinion."-PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, Oct. 25, 2004, page 35.

"...a nicely informative overview and critical study of Guest's improv flicks, including a lot of background on their rather unorthodox construction and methodology." - IGN FILM FORCE, "Weekend Shopping Guide," 11/12/04.

"Although only three films directed by Christopher Guest are highlighted in this book, writer John Kenneth Muir is on to something in treating them like an oeuvre...there are fascinating tidbits of information here, from the initial appearance of Tap's guitarist Nigel how the filmmakers had to get clearance rights for Guffman's oddball series of action figures such as The Remains of the Day and My Dinner With Andre - and had to convince hesitant Brat Packers that it was a good idea. This is an enjoyable read for fans of Guest..." - Terry Morgan, BACKSTAGE WEST, October 28, 2004, page 3-A.

"If you agree that Christopher Guest is the funniest director of the last decade, if you're waiting impatiently to buy the deluxe boxed set of "Waiting for Guffman" "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," then give yourself a book for a Christmas present: "Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company."...Muir has written an entertaining combination of behind-the-scenes tale and quick analysis of Guest's work....After touching on Guest's other directing (notably "Almost Heroes") and his memorable work in "This is Spinal Tap," Muir delves into the three masterpieces of ensemble acting and improvisation...If you haven't seen them, you should - and use Muir's book afterward to relive your pleasure." - Lawrence Toppman, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER: "The Skinny on Movies: Monroe writer's Guest shot merits readers' attention." December 10, 2004.

"Lovers of hilariously gentle satire will want to look at Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, by John Kenneth Muir...Film writer Muir follows the fortunes of cast members and traces the evolution and development of the films. Rock'n'roll, believers!" - GLOBE & MAIL, December 18, 2004.

"Muir's book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, is riddled with rich, behind-the-scenes anecdotes that paint Guest as a daring yet patient innovator who kindles actors to act through spontaneity rather than rehearsal. Muir is able to construct a book that shows off an amazing research effort without coming off as too academic. In other words, it's informative and still highly entertaining." - Mike Ward, "Guest Work,", Jan. 20, 2005.

So, if you're looking for a fun read about some very funny flicks, click on the link below!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "The Innocent"

"If there's one thing I don't pretend to understand, it's the human mind," declares our friendly neighborhood android, REM (Donald Moffat) in this, the fifth episode of the short-lived CBS Logan's Run TV series from 1977. It's an interesting line from an interesting character, and this Metallic Mr. Spock has fast become the series' most valuable player. Logan and Jessica remain rather uncharismatic and bland - but REM - now he's cool.

"The Innocent" finds our intrepid heroes seeking to escape the Hapless Pursuer, Francis (Randy Powell), who is haplessly pursuing Logan and Jessica's solar craft with a Sandman ground car. Why the City of Domes - a hermetically-sealed metropolis steadfastly ignoring the existence of "outside" - would need to produce ground cars in the first place is a question we won't ask.

Anyway, Logan drives the solar craft into an "energy mine" field and discovers a a heavily guarded bunker behind a forcefield. Upon investigation, Logan, Jessica and REM find the facility (a pre-nuclear war test center for people with psychokinetic powers...) run by two servile robots, Nanny and Friend (Gene Tyburn) . These two (really lame-looking...) machines care for a lonely adolescent girl named Lisa (Lisa Eilbacher). She's lived there in that underground bunker all her life, and following the death of her father, has been all alone. But now she's an adolescent and suffering from pangs of love for the handsome Logan. She quickly determines that Jessica is an impediment and - like Anthony in The Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life" - wishes Jessica away to a kind of limbo.

Besides featuring two of the goofiest robot designs you've ever seen, "The Innocents" is also a none-too-subtle re-do of the Star Trek episode "Charlie X," in which a lonely teenager has trouble adjusting to life on the Enterprise, forms a "crush" on Yeoman Rand, and is ultimately lectured to by Captain Kirk. This isn't a terrible Logan's Run episode, but nor is it a high point either. The best two installments so far are still the pilot and "Man Out of Time."

My problem with Logan's Run (the TV series) is simply that it is accomplished so cheaply...and that seems to limit the imagination of the series writers. Obviously, the creators of this TV program couldn't afford to create believable societies for Logan, Jessica and REM to encounter each week, so instead, the plan seemed to involve having them accidnetally happen upon laboratories, hospitals ("Fear Factor"), dream clinics ("Futurepast") and other unlikely mini-settlements.

This idea just doesn't really work for me. In my post-apocalyptic worlds, I want to see the societies that have been built from the ashes, not discover tiny enclaves with one guest star. Besides, hunters with a fully-powered house ("The Collector") and the like just raise too many questions. Where do they get power? How do they sustain it? Fortunately, "The Innocent" provides a nice easy answer to these questions: Lisa powers the whole facility with her psionic abilities. Oh, okay.

Like many episodes of Logan's Run so far, "The Innocent" is okay but not great. It feels like it would be more at home on The Fantastic Journey than here. I'll have to blog that series some day soon...

November Column up at Far Sector

Hey folks, my November column is up at Far Sector. You can find it here. It's a meditation on Star Trek's 39th birthday.

Here's a sample.

"Star Trek, the venerated sci-fi TV series and world cult phenomenon, just turned thirty-nine in September. By most reckonings not based on denial, this is—officially—middle age. So the Great Bird of the Galaxy’s legendary creation, birthed on September 8, 1966, no longer remains a spring chicken, and no longer may boast that it’s the hip and happening thing in pop entertainment. And—in fact—for the first time in eighteen years, nobody in Hollywood is exploiting the property on television."

So when you get a chance, go check it out and see what you think.

Your Favorite Doctor Who Companion?

Billie Piper has made quite the splash on the new BBC Doctor Who series. But as a companion to a traveling Time Lord, she's merely the latest in a long and honorable line of characters. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, Doctor Who "girls" could give Bond girls a run for their money!

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to remember today the actresses and characters who worked so hard to bring us years of adventure and enjoyment on the original Doctor Who television series. Which one of these characters is your favorite? You can rate 'em based on looks and sexiness, acting skill, or values their character brought to the continuing series and the TARDIS, but I'd love to know who is your favorite, who you rate as the single best. For the purposes of this post, I'm focusing only on old school Doctor Who (1968-1989); and just females. No Adric (!) and no K-9 either.

To refresh your memory, the following women have been traveling companions to the Doctor over the decades:

Susan (played by Carole Ann Ford)
Barbara (played by Jacqueline Hill)
Vicki (played by Maureen O'Brien)
Dodo (played by Jackie Lane)
Polly (played by Anneke Willis)
Victoria (played by Deborah Watling)
Zoe (played by Wendy Padbury)
Liz Shaw (played by Caroline John)
Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning)
Sarah Jane Smith (played by Elizabeth Sladen)
Leela (played by Louise Jameson)
Romana # 1 (played by Mary Tamm)
Romana # 2 (played by Lalla Ward)
Tegan (played by Janet Fielding)
Nyssa (played by Sarah Sutton)
Peri (played by Nicola Bryant)
Mel (played by Bonnie Langford)
Ace (played by Sophie Aldred).

I have to say, I'm a real fan of all these characters, and an admirer of the long-running series to boot. I really enjoyed the icy intelligence and crisp delivery of Liz Shaw (Caroline John) in the Pertwee years. I adored the cute-as-a-button Zoe (Wendy Padbury) in the Patrick Troughton era. I got a kick out of the haughtiness and humor of the first Romana (Mary Tamm), and was physically attracted to Peri (Nicola Bryant). I know many people absolutely loved and adored Ace (Sophie Aldred) in Sylvester McCoy's tenure, and I liked her a great deal as well. A tough cookie (but with a tender side.)

But, proving, perhaps, the pull of nostalgia, my two favorite female companions to the Doctor both come from the era of the fourth incarnation, Tom Baker. That was the era I first saw on television (on WWOR TV) in the 1970s-1980s.

My runner-up is Leela (Louise Jameson; pictured at top left). She was the "warrior" character, and I thought it really interesting that the Doctor should have a female protector; female muscle. That was a new twist on a series that was often derided as sexist. Secondly, I loved her interaction with the Doctor: society was new to Leela since she was essentially "a primitive," and so she and the Doctor shared a charming and funny mentior/student relationship. Also, I happen to think that many of the serials from this period, including "Talons of Weng Chiang," "Face of Evil," and "Robots of Death" are among the very best of the series.

And yet, I think I must say that my favorite Doctor Who companion of all time is Sarah Jane Smith, played by the tiny (but resilient and strong!) Elizabeth Sladen (pictured second from top). She was the first companion I ever "met", and in some senses, she's the prototype as far as I'm concerned. She's curious, resourceful and adept at finding trouble, but she's also incredibly charming, and boy was I sorry to see her leave the series. Sladen's Sarah worked with two Time Lords, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and again, she was aboard the production at one of the absolute best times (the mid-1970s). She starred in such stories as "Ark in Space" (one of the best), "Genesis of the Daleks" (which introduced Davros to the Dalek storyline...), "The Sontaran Experiment" and one of my personal all-time favorites, "Planet of Evil."

So who is it for you? But don't just give me a name. Tell me why. What makes one particular (female) Doctor Who companion a special memory for you?

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "Man out of Time"

Leave it to David Gerrold, the talented creator of "The Trouble with Tribbles" on Star Trek and the story editor for the best year of Land of the Lost, to give us a reprieve here, one of the very best early episodes of Logan's Run: The Series (1977).

Now, I imagine there's probably one heck of a behind-the-scenes story to go with this fourth installment of LR , because David Gerrold also had his name removed from the final episode; replacing it with his pseudonym, Noah Ward (No Award - get it?) Looking back on the episode, I wonder if he regrets not taking credit. I mean, perhaps in the great scheme of the universe, this episode may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but "Man out of Time" is an inarguable high point in the Logan's Run TV canon.

"Man Out of Time" (by Noah Ward and directed by Nicholas Colasanto) begins in December 2118, only a short time before the nuclear war that will destroy the world and lead to the shattered landscape Logan, Jessica and REM are familiar with. A group of scientists are working on "The Sanctuary Project," an experiment with time travel. They can open a time portal to the future for 22 hours, and plan to send scientist David Eakins (Paul Shenar) through to invesetigate the future, determine the cause of the nuclear war, and then come back in time and (hopefully...) prevent it from ever occurring in the first place. Finally, Eakins travels to the 23rd century and meets Logan, as well as the primitive, barbarous descendants of the Sancutary Project...people who worship the project computers and can't even read. While Logan, Jessica and REM try to help these people grow more self-sufficient, David Eakins realizes that if he undoes the future, he'll also be preventing the births of his new friends, Logan and Jessica.

But still, David heads back to the past to see what he can change. His last contact with Logan and Jessica and REM is a shattering message sent to the future. Back in the past, he's discovered the cause of the nuclear's him. David's discovery of time travel and subsequent successful journey through time has spawned a new and deadly arms race, with enemy nations demanding the technology to travel through time. The United States, of course, wants to keep the knowledge as a secret. And that's the beginning of the end...

"Only 12 more shopping days till Armageddon," Eakins quips at one point, and that kind of snappy humor is only a part of this fine episode of Logan's Run. More importantly, all the dramatis personae come across as well-developed individuals for a change (including Logan and Jessica), and each acts according to the strengths and weaknesses of his own unique character, not stepping out that parameter because of plot demands. But more importantly, the episode builds logically and inevitably to the shattering conclusion described here. "History has a way of catching up with mankind," says REM, and he's right...there's no going back, no matter how hard David Eakins attempts to change things.

Sure, "Man out of Time" is a little preachy at times, and the same information is conveyed perhaps one too many times, but hey, this was the seventies! This was before DS9 and story arcs; before we took so much for granted in the genre and brought a wide knowledge to our TV shows. After getting through "The Collectors" and "The Capture" I'm thrilled with a meatier story that actually means something; that boasts a point of view. Still, I bet David Gerrold's version was even better. Wish we could have seen that on Logan's Run!

Catnap Tuesday # 16: Lily Goes to Moonbase Alpha

Well, I spent Halloween assembling my brand new desk (after re-painting my toy-filled office), and re-arranging the displays. Anyway, my youngest cat, Lily, is the first to venture in there with the paint smell and the new furniture. I have a new desk and a new chair, and I feel like Commander Koenig sitting here at this massive work station... a feeling helped by the fact that I'm surrounded by Space:1999 collectibles.

Anyway, here's my adventurous black kitten, Lily, over the moon with me at my new set-up.

Sci-Fi TV's Wisdom of the Week

"There are a million things in this universe you can have, and there are a million things you can't have. It's no fun facing that, but that's the way things are."
-Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek: "Charlie X"

Monday, October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween!!!

Watch out for the Boogeyman tonight. He's wearing a William Shatner mask...

Sunday, October 30, 2005

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "The Capture"

Oh no, why'd they do it?! It's yet another TV version of The Most Dangerous Game! We all know that story; it's the one where a hunter decides that the best prey is humankind and sets about hunting nice decent folk on his big estate. It's a great story, but it's also a science fiction TV cliche, alas.

The Most Dangerous Game was done as an episode of The Incredible Hulk on December 7, 1979 ("The Snare") and Space:1999 even took a kind of swipe at it called "Devil's Planet" during Year Two. Well, now, it looks like Logan's Run's third episode "The Capture" is The Most Dangerous Game redux.

In "The Capture (written by Michael Richards and directed by Irving J. Moore), Francis - a.k.a. the Hapless Pursuer - finally captures Logan, Jessica and REM. It's not hard, since they're laying around by the shore of a lake taking it easy. Anyway, Francis plans to take the "criminals" back to the City of Domes. But soon they all runs afoul of a married couple, James Borden (Horst Bucholtz) and Irene (Mary Woronov), who share an unhealthy passion for hunting. They've been hunting Runners lately (you can tell by their trophy board consisting entirely of Ankhs...), but now is their opportunity for some real prey: Sandmen! While Jessica is imprisoned on the grounds of the Borden estate, Logan and Francis are forced to work together to beat the hunter at his own game. But, Borden has planted all kinds of booby traps in the wilderness, including a pit, and a cage that materializes out of nowhere.

I have so many questions about this episode, I almost don't know where to begin. Like, where do Irene and James get the power to run their house? How is that they came to have this house and its collection of fine 17th-through-21st century weaponry in the first place? How did they survive the war? Where did they come from, if not from the City of Domes or one of the primitive settlements? I mean, they must have had parents, right? Then they must have met and married at some point? So where's their underlying social circle? Where were they educated in the history and use of these weapons? There are no answers here.

Lastly, why does it seem that each Logan's Run episode has the budget for precisely two and no more than two "name" guest stars? You'd think they'd do a better job of hiding that deficit, but in each story so far, we've gotten exactly two major guest roles/villains. In the pilot it was Siri and Draco. In "The Collectors" it was John and Joanna. Here, it's James and Irene. Methinks the producers of Logan's Run could be more subtle.

I must also say, I'm really not impressed with Sandmen anymore. Given their pedigree from the novel and the movie, you'd think they'd be impressive killers. You would think that, at least until you get a load of Logan and Francis engaged in an ultra-lame fistfight with each other this week. Jeez! They walk around in a circle, hunched over and pawing at each other like little kids. It's ridiculous. I thought these guys were the best of the best? Then, as if they didn't seem goofy enough, they proceed to fall into pits, get snared in cages, and only manage to survive the hunt at all because Francis is armed. Like the "Riders" segment of the pilot, there's a problem dramatically when gunplay solves all the plot problems. Imagine if on Star Trek, a good blast from a phaser solved the dilemma every week. That's what it's like on Logan's Run, at least so far.

That said, I love the design of the Sandman flare gun (from the movie), and there are several wonderful close-up shots of the gun in action in this episode; flaring in all four quadrants of the nozzle. Very cool, but I would have preferred a solution that didn't again involve the winner possessing only the superior weapon.

I guess the thing that most bums me out about "The Capture" is that, like "The Collectors," it feels as though the makers of this series don't know what the series is about. How realistic is it that a couple living alone in the woods in a post-apocalyptic society would be gun aficionados who want to hunt living prey? There's no underlying basis or reality to these characters, so the whole story just seems ridiculous. Again, Logan's Run should be exploring a messed-up post-apocalyptic world, as Logan and Jessica grapple with the idea of starting over, of seeing what exists outside the Domed City. There could be all kind of savagery and weird civilizations out there, but so far we've seen androids, aliens and now mean old hunters. That just doesn't feel true.

But fear not, Runners, for the series is about to take a turn for the better with a teleplay from none other than David Gerrold! Yes, it's true that he took his name off the episode and was featured under the alias Noah Ward (get it?). Still, his story ain't half bad. But that's a post and an episode for another day!

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: The Dark Crystal (1982)

"Another World. Another Time. In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good...until the Crystal cracked. A single piece was lost, a shard of the Crystal. Then strife began and two new races appeared: the cruel Skeksis and the gentle Mystics..."

And so begins The Dark Crystal, a remarkable Jim Henson genre film from the early 1980s. It's an elaborate film fantasy packed with scope, color, and vibrant, fascinating creations the likes of which the movies have never witnessed...not in over a hundred years of cinema history. And best of all, there's nary a human being in sight. This is an alien world complete unto itself, shared with the audience through the creative auspices of conceptual designer Brian Froud, production designer Harry Lange, scenarist David Odell and co-directors Frank Oz and Henson. Simply stated, the craftsmanship of this film is just astonishing.

By my assessment, The Dark Crystal is as rich and rewarding a fantasy enterprise as has yet been released theatrically (and yes, I'm counting the Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy). This isn't a world of human beings in elaborate prosthetics or with pointed ears, or shrunken to appear as though they are gnome-like/hobbit creatures. On the contrary, this is the richly-imagined dimension of wonders like Aughra the Witch, Podlings, Land-Striders, Garthim, Gelfings, Fizzgigg, Crystal-Bats, and other fabulous inventions. It's the world of "Dream Fasting," "The Great Conjunction," and the Skeksis "Trial by Stone."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this film is that each of these creations had to actually exist to be filmed. By that, I mean they weren't created by a few keystrokes on a computer and then added to a live-action sequence later on. These things - the denizens of this unique world - had to be designed and built. They had to be a real physical presence on the set. They had to be puppeteered, wrangled and managed for the camera. Really, when you pause to think about what that means, you can detect what a labor of love this film must have been.

The Dark Crystal opens as the next "Great Conjunction" of three stars grows near. The Mystics and the Skeksis, two sides of the same coin, but splintered into two "opposite" races, await this cosmic coming together with vastly different emotions. The Skeksis fear it, for prophecy indicates that a Gelfling will heal the schism caused by the shattering of the Crystal, thus ending the Skeksis reign. In fact, the Skeksis are so afraid that they murdered all the Gelflings they could find to prevent a "Chosen One" from aborting their rule. On the other hand, the Mystics look forward to their eventual re-unification, and know that if the Gelfling fails now, evil will reign in the land for another thousand eternity of darkness.

On the day that the elderly Skeksis Emperor and his opposite number among the Mystics finally dies, young Jen, a Gelfling is told of his role in the scheme of things by his dying master. He sets off on a dangerous quest to find the shard, the missing piece of the Crystal that can heal the land. His first stop takes him to Aughra's home in the mountains, where he locates the shard and escapes from the grasp of the skittering, clicking, hard-shelled foot-soldiers of the Skeksis, the Garthim. Later, Jen meets the only other surviving Gelfing, a female named Kira and her pet, Fizzgigg. She joins his quest, and together they make for the Skeksis castle, where the Dark Crystal awaits. But treachery is just around the corner as an outcast Skeksis, the Chamberlain plots for a triumphant return to the new Emperor's Court...

Although unfortunately derided by many critics upon its release (December 17, 1982) as nothing but another "muppet movie," The Dark Crystal is actually a robustly entertaining fantasy epic with a rich, mythological theme that went mostly unnoticed by people looking to detect the wires.

But instead the creators of the film make a great effort - both in word and in imagery - to countenance the theme of a world split down the middle, and suffering for the disunion. Several times throughout the opening narration, the voice-over reminds us that a "ritual grants no comfort on this day." Not for the Emperor of the Skeksis. Not for the Mystic either. And in terms of visualization, we see this theme repeatedly - for when a Skeksis dies (like the Emperor), the same thing happens to his opposite number among the gentle mystics. A bloody hand on a Skeksis results in a wound on the hand of a Mystic, and so forth. This is a literalization of the idea that united we stand, divided we fall. And that an action against an enemy may actually rebound and hurt an ally. In the United States today, we often hear how our citizens are "more divided" than ever; how the Red State vs. Blue State conflict is the prevailing dynamic. Yet what The Dark Crystal skillfully makes clear is that all races on this faraway planet (like all Americans, or all humans for that matter...) share the same fate. As the "angel"-like creature at the end of the film (the reunification of the Skeksis/Mystics) informs Jen, we are all a part of each other.

Delightfully, this unique theme is not treated in a heavy-handed fashion, and instead the filmmakers primarily get in their points via the auspices of canny visualizations. Again, production design is critically important in any reading of this film. The Mystics - gentle, wise creatures - are adorned in loose fitting robes, and seen in sandy earth tones. Their realm is of the "earth," an abode cut out of stone and clay. They seem to have few possessions and are hence not material creatures. They represent conventional "good" traits like humility, modesty, love of nature and environment.

By contrast, the Skeksis represent the dark side of humanity. Greed, avarice, malice. Their territory looks like a strip-mined wasteland, save for the castle. The Skeksis dress in elaborate, ostentatious robes of ornate design and bold color (crimson, gold, purple, and orange) and surround themselves with material wealth: giant hanging tapestries, high-backed banquet chairs, wide cushioned beds, and so forth. These material possessions are so important to the Skeksis that they appear literally hunched over by the weight of their cloaks and the elaborate, bony gear they wear over their spines.

Above all else, these creatures (who resemble nothing so much as giant buzzards...) value possessions. That's why it is the ultimate punishment in this society to be stripped of robes, as the Chamberlain is after his failed bid for leadership. When stripped of his costuming and place in Skeksis society, Chamberlain is revealed to be nothing but a scrawny, bony creation with bad posture. Underneath the costuming, these creatures are physically corrupt. In the case of both the Skeksis and the Mystics, the colors that we see, the costumes that they wear, the very imagery tells the viewer everything you need to know to understand their world.

The Dark Crystal is a movie that lives up to the often-utilized adjective, "wondrous," and it is a visual treat the likes of which has rarely been seen. Aughra's mountaintop residence, replete with a gigantic, metallic, spinning machine of a hundred parts, is a gorgeous bit of arcane design. The notorious banquet scene involving the Skekses is a truly disgusting set-piece, revealing the appetite of these creatures (and setting the stage, a year later, for Jabba the Hutt's appetites, one might guess...). And Kira's beautiful, overgrown forest is a splendid, lively creation...a place of overflowing life, where the very shrubbery seems to breathe.

One could make the argument that The Dark Crystal concerns a class society where the rich (the Skeksis) lord it over the poor (the Podlings), literally draining their vital life energies. You could debate Jen's role as "the Chosen One" and the prophecy he is so crucial a part of. And yes, all that is built-in, but what doesn't seem debatable here is the brawny visual imagination evidenced by the production team. This is a film that makes full use of the frame, and in many gorgeous location shots, stands far enough back for the audience to gain a real sense of scale....of the epic. The view of the Mystics on the march to the Castle -- a sun rise behind them -- is merely one example of the film's ability to capture and evoke a genuine sense of place. You must remember, after all, that these marching creatures set against a clouded sky and a low-hanging sun, are not real, but manmade creations. Yet placed against a real landscape, the illusion is impossible to see through.

Ultimately, The Dark Crystal succeeds beyond expectations because even in the midst of an utterly alien, utterly convincing landscape, the story speaks to a critical aspect of human nature. Aren't we all split, in some senses, right down the middle, just like the Skeksis and the Mystics? Hoping for the best, yet often clinging to the worst angels of our nature? This is a movie that "crystallizes" that dichotomy in an artistic fashion, and the result is a rare fantasy film of beauty, vision and epic scope.

The Dark Crystal is available on DVD.