Saturday, November 19, 2005


My latest book review (of Peter Dendle's seminal Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Robert Cettl's An Analytical Filmography: Serial Killer Cinema, and Alec Worley's Empires of the Imagination) is now up at NCFLIX.

Check it out!

TV REVIEW: A Haunting: "Cursed"

A Haunting's fourth installment, "Cursed," may be the most intriguing episode of this "true-to-life" Discovery Channel series yet aired. As I wrote last week, I'm regarding this show not as a truthful documentary, but rather as a horror anthology like One Step Beyond or Tales from the Darkside, one that manipulates the tools of the documentary format to augment the scare quotient. My review is based on that perception, so don't ask me to vouch for any of the "truth" in these scenarios. I won't go there.

Okay, leaving that explanation behind for the time-being, here's the story of "Cursed": Romi and Fernando, a couple living in Tucson, Arizona with four young children, go house-hunting, and during one expedition, Romi becomes obsessed with the purchase of an abandoned, ramshackle place. The family eventually moves in, but according to the voice-over narration, the house proves to a be a "trial of sanity,"(!) as well as a "gateway" both into the world of ghosts and into the dark recesses of Romi's mind. Yikes!

Let me just say that I get a kick out of these deadpan, ominous opening narrations, which state matters so dramatically, and with such portentous certainty. Wouldn't you love to have that deep-voiced narrator record your answering machine message? "John is not HOME at the TIME BEING. HE is AWAY....from his desk. BUT leave a MESSAGE at the beep. HE WILL return your call. EVENTUALLY..."

Anyway, I wrote last week about the ironclad story-structure (thus far) of A Haunting, and my concern that it would grow tiresome if repeated too frequently. To recap, here are the four stages of each story: The Honeymoon (find a house cheap, fix it up and move in!), The Uncertainty Stage (there's something weird going on here...), The Recognition Stage (this place is haunted, we better bring in a priest and/or paranormal investigator!) and the Let's All Take A Deep Breath Conclusion (in which everything is resolved, and order is restored in the universe). Okay, that's fine. This episode closely adheres to this established pattern. But - and this is a big but - "Cursed" distinguishes itself nicely from the other episodes by offering a different, and much more personal perspective on a haunting.

We've had fine protagonists in other installments, but nothing on the scale of how Romi is portrayed this week. "Cursed" is all about her; and about her very individual manner of "haunting." In fact, this whole story, in just about every aspect, involves Romi: her past, and what we come to learn about her. This viewpoint is more than enough of a "focus" shift to make the episode feel fresh, and it's a good move for the series to tweak the approach.

Romi is interesting. She has experienced recurring nightmares all her life (involving a hose spigot pouring water into a skeleton's mouth...) and feels herself "being pulled towards something" when she first spots the house in question. Once settled in there, Romi becomes the target of the supernatural forces, and suffers the attacks alone because she loves the house and never wants to leave it. Her children and husband are safe, so she believes she's the target of the "entity" and determines to secretly endure "the restless nights." The years pass, and Romi manages, but when she has a grandchild, Alec, the ghosts return more powerfully than before, and now the stakes are much higher -- she has something to fight for besides herself. Finally, in the end, Romi realizes that she is the source of the paranormal activity...her mind is creating the very poltergeist that is terrorizing everybody. The answer - as it has always been - lays within her very psyche. (And since my wife is a therapist, I enjoyed the post-script of the story, which recommended therapy for people like Romi who are suffering and need to talk about it...)

The story of Romi, my friends, works as a fully developed character arc. A good one too, in part because we haven't yet seen it on A Haunting before. So the particulars of "Cursed" nicely overcome the formulaic outline of the plot.

Some other twists got thrown into the mix this week too. In virtually every installment thus far, we've seen a Priest or some other Man of God bless the haunted house (usually without positive result...), yet this week, the Deacon is one of the people who is actually interviewed by the production. So instead of just seeing such a character in a re-enactment, we actually get this particular man's point of view about a haunting experience. Again, this is something I want to see explored on the show. I want perspectives outside the family's and the investigators. Someone a little further removed.

Above, I wrote about not caring whether or not these stories are true. You see, I have a different standard for judging A Haunting, and it's the same one I applied to One Step Beyond. I don't expect these shows to convince me that ghosts are real, but I do expect them to accurately reflect the current thinking in the study of the paranormal. This week, I was happy to see that A Haunting did not just copy the Hollywood idea of a "poltergeist" (like from the Tobe Hooper movie...) but rather adhered to the research on this phenomenon. In other words, "Cursed" reports accurately on poltergeist activity. Poltergeists are (according to research) not discarnate spirits at all, but the result of a living person with unusual (and usually subconscious...) abilities. Often, it is adolescents - kids going through puberty - who manifest poltergeist-like activity, but I don't find it a stretch at all to believe that Romi could be the source of such manifestations. It works, and it's true to research. Another aspect of the tale, regarding the location of the house between TV towers and the proximity of heightened electromagnetic fields, is also - believe it or don't - a frequently reported aspect of paranormal cases.

My biggest concern with "Cursed" is that the episode never really gets to the bottom of what's eating Romi. What does her dream (which we see visualized at least twice) mean? Are these images related to a trauma in childhood? The "real" Romi says in an interview that she has had this dream all her life, and so I must wonder what she thinks it means. I would have liked to see the dream and its significance explained more fully, especially since this episode focuses on this character so much. But the fact that I was left wanting to know more (and not less, like Ghost Whisperer) only means that A Haunting is getting the job done: telling interesting human stories based on reported paranormal happenings.

So I'm still watching; and still enjoying.

TV REVIEW: Ghost Whisperer: "The Voices"

On this week's installment of CBS's Ghost Whisperer, entitled "The Voices," a teenager steals Jim and Melinda Gordon's SUV and goes on a joy-ride. But when the Gordons get the vehicle back, Melinda finds that the radio is transmitting EVP or White Noise...the voices of the dead! Worse, her cell phone and answering machine are also malfunctioning, and the result is that Melinda starts to experience bad headaches. It's as though she's on overload, receiving messages from those who can't cross over.

Turns out, the car thief's mother died in the woods recently (during an adulterous tryst), and wants to contact her juvenile delinquent son and tell him - wait for it - that she loves him. So she's giving Melinda the headaches trying to get her message through the fog in the Ghost Whisperer's skull. Meanwhile, Jim's mother (Christine Baranski) comes to visit with a new boyfriend, and Jim is suspicious...

Gosh, I gave Ghost Whisperer my best sarcastic shots last week. This time around, I'd just like to comment that the series is a total vanity production for Jennifer Love Hewitt. It's dominated by close-up shots of the actress (making me wonder if she's expecting or something, and the producers are trying to hide her condition...). Thus we get long, lingering, even slow-motion views of the performer's face.

Watching the seemingly unending string of close and medium shots targeted at her face, I became mesmerized by it. Is that a real mole under her right eye, or an affectation? And then I became entranced by her hair, because it appears to have a mind of its own, as well as the unique ability to self-direct. It appears to literally change styles in almost every shot. Just how many hairstyles is Ms. Hewitt getting per episode? My guess is at least four...which seems excessive, even for a Ghost Whisperer.

Also, I must say that close-up after close-up on this show just accents one thing: Hewitt's deficiencies as an actress. That's not to say that she's a bad actress; only that if you're in a close-up for the better part of an hour, you had better be darned good. We better be in absolute love with that face. It better hold our attention like friggin' Helen of Troy. But like I said, I was distracted by the mole, and the constantly-shifting hair style.

So, the plot of "The Voices" involves a dead Mommy who wants her misbehaving son to know that she loves him, even though she was having an affair. Oh, and she wants him to come out of the closet to his father. Okay. Let me just ask: is this really something that's so cosmically important that it would keep a spirit from "crossing over"? Do the dead really hang around just to confirm to loved ones that they were indeed loved? And to encourage them to be "themselves?" Aren't there better things to do? If this is really the most important thing the dead have to communicate, I look forward to future episodes where ghosts return with other urgent messages: like the mayonnaise in the refrigerator is past the expiration date.

The entire EVP subplot this week was a big joke. First of all, the episode had the audacity to imitate The Outer Limits' classic opening narration ("do not attempt to adjust your picture.") I feel that this was really just a tit-for-tat with NBC's Medium, since that program is raising Rod Serling for an introduction on Monday's upcoming 3-D show (which I'll be blogging here).

But more to the point, this episode makes the argument that the spirit of the mother can communicate through EVP/white noise because she worked with electronic equipment in life. Wow! That's pretty impressive. So let me ask this question: what if a spirit worked in a deli ? Would he or she be able to send messages (like images of the Virgin Mary) in club sandwiches and so forth? Also, it seemed awfully convenient that this mother-spirit could go to exactly the right TV, radio, cell phone, etcetera, just as the percipient was nearby to experience it. It's amazing how everything is so simple and easy when you're a ghost. But then, in all seriousness, that's the critical flaw of this show: every plot element fits so neatly into place and the supernatural is made so orderly and sensible that it's actually boring.

Again, I return to the feeling that this is a vanity production, and one that exploits some sort of basic female wish-fulfillment syndrome. Hewitt is married to an understanding husband, who spends the bulk of every episode tending to her every need, fretting over her constantly. Why, there's even a scene in "The Voices" where Ms. Hewitt is made up to look like a tiny little girl, with pig tails! She sits in bed and her hubby delicately and lovingly spoonfeeds her chicken soup. All because those meanie ghosts are giving her bad headaches!!!

It appears to me that Ghost Whisperer is trying to win the Somatoform Disorder/Hypochondriacal/stay-at-home Mom demographic -- and succeeding!


This is an action-packed (but nonetheless goofy...) installment of the 1977 "space adventure" kid's show, Space Academy. "Countdown" begins in silly fashion with each of the main characters showing off their super-human abilities while attempting to move a storage crate. Laura and Chris Gentry demonstrate their PK abilities; Loki flaunts his teleportation skills, and Tee Gar Soom reveals his super-duper strength. Poor Paul and Adrian...they don't have any superpowers, which must be tough for them...

Anyhoo, Commander Gampu contacts the gang from the control room to tell them it's their job to clean up floating space debris leftover from the Vegan Wars, three hundred years ago. Seem the debris poses a "potential danger" to space navigation; but Paul isn't too happy about it. "The Academy isn't here to teach garbage collecting," he whines. Gampu's response? "The Academy is all things to all people." Okay, Gampu, well I think the Academy is a grapefruit...

The team sets out in a Seeker to blow up the offending debris, but stumbles across a chunk of Vegan dreadnought from the "Third Star War" (Revenge of the Sith?), which occurred 200 years ago, near "Proxima Centauri." The Seeker docks with the spinning debris (in a splendidly-realized miniature sequence...) and Laura, Chris and Loki discover a "Frozen Vegan" in a suspended animation chamber. Wonder if he eats meat...

Meanwhile, a small space mine attaches to the Seeker's hull and begins a countdown to destruction. The debris field is a mine trap! (And at this point, I realize that Star Trek: The Next Generation told a suspiciously similar story to "Countdown" in its third season, a dozen years after Space Academy! It was a cool episode called "Booby Trap," but jeez, did Next Gen ever manage an original story?)

While Chris attempts to de-power the mine, the frozen Vegan -- named Roarg -- breaks out of the freezer and goes on a rampage, trapping Tee Gar in cryogenic storage. This part of the plotline reminded me of that old nugget about a Japanese soldier living on a jungle island, not believing the war is over, even when he encounters friendly Americans.

Anyway, now Chris must convince Roarg that the war is indeed over, and he should help them defuse the space mine. Eventually Roarg, a fleet communications officer, agrees, and aids Chris. The experience teaches Tee Gar "a valuable lesson" (oh no!). He tells Gampu that the mission taught him a couple of things: 1. "There's no such thing as an unimportant mission," and 2. "You never know when you'll find a new friend." Oh boy.

As Tee Gar rattled off these remarks, essential the equivalent of Stan on South Park saying "I learned something important today..." (a running joke), my wife groaned and remarked that Space Academy is "really queer." Hey now!!! It's a show for kids, I reminded her...from the 1970s! It was educationally valuable; it taught good morals...

That seemed to settle her least until next week...

Friday, November 18, 2005

CULT TV FRIDAY FLASHBACK # 16: American Gothic: "Strong Arm of the Law"

Nobody beats Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole) at his own game. Nobody. And that's the message of "Strong Arm of the Law," an early episode from the 1995 CBS one-season wonder and cult series, American Gothic.

Created by Shaun (Invasion) Cassidy, and produced by Sam Raimi and Renaissance Pictures, this ten-year old programs remains one of the finest horror serials ever to air on American prime-time television. And despite some early CG/video special effects that today appear a bit cheesy, it looks better than ever on DVD.

American Gothic is the story of a youngster of questionable lineage, named Caleb Temple (the unbelievably good Lucas Black). In the first episode, little Caleb sees his father go blood simple, and his sister Merlyn (Sarah Paulson) murdered by the nefarious sheriff of Trinity, South Carolina...the nefarious Lucas Buck. Turns out that Lucas is Caleb's biological father and is just about ready to take custody of the boy. Only problem is that Lucas Buck may just be the devil...

But before Sheriff Buck can seduce Caleb to the dark side, he must contend with two most unwelcome "do-gooders" in Trinity: Gail Emory (Paige Turco) and a yankee upstart, Dr. Matt Crower (Jack Weber). They both realize Buck's up to no good, and take steps to protect Caleb at the same time they deal with their own personal demons. Gail's parents, you see, died in Trinity twenty years earlier...and Lucas Buck just happened to be the one to discover their bodies. And Matt is still recovering from a drunk driving incident in which his wife and daughter were killed.

The New York Times called American Gothic "small town America as an eerie place somewhere between Mayberry RFD and Twin Peaks." Writing in Rolling Stone, critic David Wild noted that "American Gothic...benefits from a fine, frightening cast, particularly Gary Cole, who plays Lucas Buck...Indeed, the players throw themselves into these self-consciously bizarre proceeding as if the show were the inspired work of collaboration between Tennessee Williams and Stephen King..."

American Gothic is a series that works so well, I believe, because it lives up to the two parts of its interesting title. Thus it serves as a passage from mundane reality to a dark region governed by a supernatural, evil being. It is both uniquely American and uniquely Gothic. Discuss...

Let's examine that belief in terms of characters first. Matt Crower leaves Boston a shattered man, only to move to beautiful Trinity, where he discovers that Lucas Buck - a figure of strange abilities and allegiances - influences and rules the town with dark powers. As in Bram Stoker's Dracula, evil predominates here and Lucas Buck, like the count, is at the center of the action. As portrayed by Cole, Buck is alluring and repulsive at the same time; capable of terrific evil at the same time he is charming. This is the essential yin/yang of any Gothic romantic villain. He must be beautiful and monstrous at the same time.

Gail Emory serves as the Gothic heroine here. She explores dark family secrets, digging deep into the mysteries of her own lineage. As Buck says of her quest (in the episode "Ring of Fire,"): "The Secret History of the South is hidden in blood...history, family, genealogy." What could be more Gothic than this belief that the past infects the presents, creating a kind of "secret history" in which the trials and grief of the dead (like Merlyn) cast a pall over the living?

In terms of setting, American Gothic also is from the Gothic school. It features a world where death and decay are always close at hand. Rotting corpses abound in episodes such as "Rebirth" and Meet the Beetles" and symbols of mortality and rot feature prominently in episodes such as "A Tree Grows in Trinity," "The Plague Sower" and "To Hell and Back." In "Resurrector," Caleb throws a "going-away party" for the dead, establishing that Trinity is a town where the buried past lives and breathes, and where the dead could very well be visitors at your boarding house (as the Boston Strangler turns out to be in "Strangler." )

But lastly, American Gothic has located and exploited a successful U.S. metaphor for the Gothic period in literature. Originally, the late 18th century and early 19th were the heyday of the Gothic-style romance, and the movement featured the crumbling castles and ruins of Europe. American Gothic transplants this exotic locale to the post-Civil War American South, a world where farms and Southern plantations are essentially "the crumbling castles" of a different culture. Rusting bridges (in "Rebirth"), forgotten bungalows (in "Ring of Fire"), and even the count's castle (Buck's home) echo decaying Gothic settings of old. In particular, Buck's estate is reveled to be a vast, cold place with a seemingly endless, narrow staircase stretching up and up, out of sight. Shadows line the walls, and the house's interior is filmed from off-kilter angles to suggest the corruption of its owner. The domicile is thus the modern-day equivalent of the House of Seven Gables, or the like.

"America" is half the title in American Gothic. And so this horror series deals specifically with us. It has transplanted the Gothic story of alluring evil to the New World, and manages to explore several American notions and truisms. The concept that "nothin' is for free" is nowhere better exemplified than in Buck's Trinity, where a favor given always costs a favor in return. The transient nature of contemporary American living, the fact that folks move easily and freely from city to city, is exemplified by the heroes of American Gothic: Crower is a Yank; Gail grew up in Charleston. But the American lifestyle, coupled with fate ("there's no such thing as free will," Buck reminds us) brings them both to Trinity and a rendezvous with the evil that has already touched their lives (through the death of loved ones).

I'm choosing the episode "Strong Arm of the Law" for this specific flashback, not because it is the best episode of the entire American Gothic run, but because this story, which aired November 3, 1995, reveals Sheriff Buck at his most powerful and magnetic. The storyline (by Michael R. Perry and Stephen Gaghan) involves a gang of criminal "Northerners" who arrive in Trinity and immediately begin shaking down the local business owners, collecting money for a bogus charity, the Sheriff's Retirement Home. Trinity's citizenry immediately suspects that Buck is pulling the strings behind this illegal activity, but he isn't. And he doesn't like being falsely accused...or being beaten at his own game. So Buck exercises the most evil and deadly form of retribution imaginable against these carpetbaggers. He sees that the claustrophobic one in the gang gets buried alive with a corpse. He bludgeons another with a shovel. And finally, he takes the two ring leaders (played by Matt Craven and Richard Edson) and arranges a nice little car accident for them. They survive the wreck, but Buck hand-cuffs them together in their overturned car and then puts a lit flare in their gas tank. But Buck doesn't want it said he didn't give them a chance. He provides them a switchblade so the Yankees can cut through their wrists to freedom...

"Strong Arm of the Law" perfectly captures the dual nature of Sheriff Buck. His vengeance against the carpetbaggers (all murderers and thieves...) is absolutely evil, and certainly unlawful. And yet, there is an aspect of gleeful wish-fulfillment involved in his actions. He dispatches the killers with such grace and charm (and the occasional bon mot...) that one can't help but be attracted to this gentleman devil. In the course of the episode, he rescues Gail Emory from rape, and cleans up the town, so there's even a certain amount of heroism involved in Buck's feats. Yet his motives are selfish (clearing his own name), and his methods are positively draconian. This episode captures these Gothic qualities of Buck better than just about any other in the series, I think.

Gary Cole's affable and charming performance as the evil Sheriff Buck remains one of television's most underrated gems. "You make the choice that the material is laying out the premise and the information that, yes, this guy is in fact an arm of evil and can be destructive," Cole told me in an interview for my book, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi. "Therefore, you get out of the way and don't play that at all. You let the writing take care of that. If you try to play the character trying to be dark and menacing to people, it's not as interesting...and not as menacing. It's much more disturbing to see someone smiling and patting people on the back, knowing that he can destroy them at any moment with a smile on his face."

We see a lot of that trademark Sheriff Buck "smile" in "Strong Arm of the Law," which aired just about ten years ago this month. It's a terrific example of American Gothic at its most clever, most fiendish and - dare I say it? - most Gothic. And that's why I chose it for this sixteenth cult-tv Friday flashback. Trinity's a great place to visit...but I wouldn't want to live there.


"When man entered the atomic age," warns Dr. Harold Medford, our oracle of wisdom and science in Gordon Douglas's sci-fi chiller, Them (1954), "he opened a door to a new world." And what terrors exists in that "new" world? Well, according to Medford, "no one can predict..." But if Them! is any indication, our planet today should be overrun by gigantic, whistling, man-eating ants...

Since I was a kid, Them!, starring James Arness and James Whitmore, has been one of my absolute favorite 1950s sci-fi flicks. Like It Came From Outer Space, directed by Jack Arnold, the film views the terrain of the desert as a strange, alien place, where mysteries hatch in secret. "The wind is pretty freakish in these parts," one character explains early on, and indeed much of the film's first hour involves the desert, and its unknown terrors. Is that the wind howling, you may ask, or the whistle of a giant, malevolent ant? You never know...

commences with a terrific aerial shot of an adorable little girl thoughtlessly clutching a baby doll as she walks aimlessly through the vast desert, until rescued by the police. "Sunstroke?" No, shock: this little tyke survived an attack by giant mutated ants, apparently created when the U.S. government detonated an atomic bomb in the sands of New Mexico nine years earlier.

This fantastic mutation, caused by "lingering atomic radiation," represents a new breed of pest: a savage ant colony where the smallest warrior is still nine feet in length. New Mexico policeman Ben Peterson (Whitmore) and F.B.I. agent Robert Graham (James Arness), team with the Drs. Medford -- Harold (Edmund Gwenn) and lovely Pat (Joan Weldon) -- to neutralize the colony, only to learn that two new Queens have hatched, flown away under the radar and probably started new colonies elsewhere in the continental United States. If these ant colonies aren't destroyed quickly, mankind will become an extinct species within a calendar year. "We may be witness to a Biblical prophecy come true," Harold Medford intones with a solemnity reserved for 1950s giant bug movies.

Of which Them! is no doubt the cream of the crop. A lean 94 minutes in length, Them! jumps confidently from strength to strength. For the first half-hour (or at least 28 minutes), there is no monster ant in sight; just the wrecked aftermath of the insect assaults. We see a trailer in the desert peeled open like a tin can. Then Gramps' general store, similarly ripped apart.

And finally, before we see even one of the giant critters come nosing up over a plateau, we hear that horrifying, signature whistle...a screech once heard it's never forgotten. These first thirty minutes of the film prove critical in building a mood of tension, suspense and terror, and this is just the kind of atmosphere missing from many a horror flick these days. These thirty minutes grant Them! a sense of place and texture, a necessary pre-condition to being have to know the terrain.

After the first confrontation with the ants, the film leaps into action-mode with the effective government response (unlike real life, probably...) wherein a mission is launched to destroy the somewhat-larger-than-ordinary ant-hill. This is the point in the film when one of my favorite - and one of the grisliest - images occurs. There's a macabre shot of one of the colossal ants standing astride the opening of the nest, a human rib-cage clutched in its over-sized pincers. The ant tosses down the bones, and the camera pans down the ant hill to a substantial collection of human skeletal remains, including a skull, and the holster of Peterson's missing partner. Grrr. Sends shivers down my spine every time...

You'd think that a movie made fifty one years ago would seem positively antique today, but Them! holds up remarkably well, even in the special effects department. The giant ants look surprisingly mobile and realistic. I think this is so because Douglas and the special effects men wisely kept the ants moving at all times. They rise from their ant-hills, nose into frames, bear down, and so forth, and so we never have a chance to see them at rest and detect their phoniness in the actual film (although stills are a different story...). The editor did a fine job with these shots, and some sequences are classic: I love the multi-layered shot of a ship's communications room, where we can see ants attacking behind an opaque, wall-sized window. In the midst of the shot, the ants crack the glass, breaking in, and then another ant lunges into the shot unexpectedly from the left and crushes the radio man. By keeping these monsters (these special effects...) kinetic, and by seeing the frame as three-dimensional, the artists behind this film have kept their threat lively and viable, even a half-century later.

And I challenge anybody to watch the finale of this film (set in the Los Angeles sewers) without getting at least a little uncomfortable. Robert Graham (Arness) has found the ant stronghold there, but the ceiling has caved in behind him, leaving him with just one machine gun as a line of defense against the ants, gathering at the lip of the nest before him. The ants jut into the frame with their pincers, attempting to grasp him, and his gun jams. He dodges, but another ant attacks from the opposite side. Yikes!

Man, that scene still holds up today, and my wife and I found ourselves starting and jumping with tension. This is a scare machine that works. And nicely -- as my wife pointed out -- the movie takes the utmost care to make the ant threat as plausible as possible. Perhaps this is a ridiculous premise, but I love how the film stops to give us a long, five-minute documentary-style premise on the nature of ants, using real nature footage. Watching real ants scrap and scrape, wage war, and move heavy obstacles (like rocks...) from their path, the viewer is disarmed. A little suspension of disbelief, and suddenly the thought of gigantic ants really is terrifying. These little guys wage strategic campaigns, take slave labor, and protect their own, and we ignore them because of their minuscule nature. Well, just imagine that they were indeed, nine feet tall, it's pretty scary.

Or don't. But anyway, Them! is a ruthlessly efficient scare machine for its time. My mother remembers seeing the film in a theater in Bloomfield, NJ with her sister back in the day, and she still recalls the film as a terrifying one. And really, it is. The movie doesn't play favorites, and at least one heroic character gets crushed by the favorite character, actually. Dammit!

Although I'm of Gen' X, the generation of Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the like, I grew up with great older films like Them! and Creature from the Black Lagoon on television, and it's nice occasionally to re-visit them. If anything, these movies are even better, more artful, than I remembered. Them! especially so. In some ways, it seems to forecast modern hits like Aliens (with a cleaning out of the enemy nest, and a military response to an insectoid threat...)

And watch out for a pre-Star Trek Leonard Nimoy in a small role!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 17: Media Tie-In Storybooks

Over the months here, I've remembered all sorts of toys, memorabilia and publications that were important to me growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Last week, I wrote about photonovels, and this week I want to feature a different kind of ancillary product: the movie/tv-tie in storybook.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, popular movies like Star Wars could be enjoyed a number of ways at home, though not yet through the splendor of DVD. One way was to
read a novelization (often written by the ubiquitous but quite wonderful Alan Dean Foster...).

But as a little kid, sometimes the novels were just too "grown up." So - as a kid first learning to read - your outstanding alternative was to purchase the storybook, a lavishly illustrated (and always colorful...) version of the film, made child-friendly. That's a euphemism for less gratuitous violence and no sex.

I remember reading the Star Wars storybook as a little kid, and enjoying the opening photo spread,
which featured little boxed photos of all the main characters. Here, I was introduced to the idea that Han Solo was a Corellian. I had never picked up that notion before, but storybooks were great for including just such unusual information.

Storybooks usually costed around $6.95 or so in the day, and were published by all kinds of publishing houses that had acquired the licenses to popular movies, including Random House, and Simon & Schuster. Storybooks are also usually printed in large "type" t
o make reading easy, and are often no longer than fifty pages. As a little kid, I sure loved reading 'em.

As an adult, I enjoy the storybooks for different reasons. They often feature a plethora of outstanding (and colorful) stills from the movie in question. For instance, the Star Trek III: The Search for Spock storybook features almost sixty gorgeous photos, many full-page in size. Even better, the storybooks sometimes featured shots that you didn't remember from the movie.

The Search for Spock storybook (by Lawrence
Weinberg) is again a perfect example, because it features two photos of a Klingon spy named Valkris wearing an elaborate mask/headpiece that is only glimpsed for an instant in the Leonard Nimoy film (and then only the lower portion). In the storybook, you get two bites at the apple, so-to-speak, and can view this neglected example of Klingon costume design.

Storybooks are still produced today (for films as diverse as Batman & Robin [1997] and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace [1999]), but more often than not they're flimsy softback products rather than the old-school hardcovers which I loved so dearly as a rug rat.

I've collected a number of storybooks over the years (including A View To A Kill, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and E.T.), and this week I'm displaying a bunch of 'em here. Unfortunately, my Dune Storybook is water damaged (pictured right). D'oh! You can see that my collection leans heavily towards films of the early teen years when I collected EVERYTHING.

I think my favorite storybook is from 1982's Tron, just because it's kinda rare. I would kill (well, not really...maybe just maim...) to get my hands on a Clash of the Titans Storybook
...don't even know if one was actually produced...

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "The Cradle"

I've been in Invasion's corner since the beginning. I guess you could say it had me at "Da Doo Run Run," since it was created by Shaun Cassidy, a former Hardy Boy and the progenitor of that classic bit of cult tv from 1995, American Gothic.

I have watched Invasion religiously (or semi-religiously, anyway...) and mostly enjoyed it, but often found myself wondering why it isn't nearly as engaging as American Gothic (which I'm now watching on DVD). More than that, I've found the going so slow on Invasion that NBC's cheesy sea monster epic from the Pate Brothers, Surface, has actually eclipsed this show in my affections. My wife still likes Invasion more, and lectures patience.

Last night, the patience paid off, and Invasion came roaring back with the second great episode in a row, one that finally (F I N A L L Y!) doles out a little more information about what's happened to Dr. Mariel Underlay. I mean, anyone who's been watching the show knows that she didn't pick herself up out of the water the night of the hurricane and come back to Homestead normal. But the early weeks of the program were riddled with so many questions. Is she possessed? Does she know she's an alien? Hell, is she an alien? What are her motivations? How has she changed?

Well, last night's episode, "The Cradle" finally revealed what we've all suspected...that Mariel was somehow physically recreated by the aliens in a spanking new (and equally hot...) body. She boasts the same memories as the real Mariel, but the real, human Mariel is at the bottom of a pond somewhere...rotting. I enjoyed seeing that grisly image in last night's show. Very creepy. You know you're in trouble when you go for a moonlit swim, look down beneath the surface and see your own decomposing corpse. That's not a good sign.

Of course, maybe I missed something. Didn't Russell pluck Mariel's missing wedding ring off a different corpse a few episodes back? I mean, her body can't be rotting in the water and be the body that was in Russell's trunk, right? I don't think I dozed off or anything, but I feel there's a disconnect here.

Anyway, "The Cradle" was great, because we finally got a "replaced" person (an alien...) who was wiling to spill the beans. In a riveting sequence set in a jail cell, this young mother spelled out a lot of the details to Mariel about how she's changed, and at last the series seems to be moving towards something big. Which is good, because sometimes I think Shaun Cassidy's taken lessons in stall tactics from the producers of Lost.

I'm probably wrong to compare Invasion to Surface. Surface is much more an action-thriller than Invasion. So far, Invasion feels like a sustained mood piece...all texture and vibe, and little forward momentum. It's as though the first twenty minutes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been stretched out to six or seven hour-long installments. I certainly understand that a series needs to take its time (or it'll be off the air before you know it,) but I don't know how appealing this approach is to most viewers. I think some people may find the slow, methodical, clue-by-clue strategy a tad frustrating. I realize suspense is dependent on learning a bit at a time, but come on folks, we could use a little more red meat here!

At least this series doesn't get mired in soap opera flashbacks all the time. And last night's installment featured some real character fireworks (I like how both marriages went south and were played against each other...) The moment when Russell called Larkin "Mariel" was great, and a nice nod to realism. And Mariel's confrontation with Tom was good stuff too. Wonder why the good Sheriff is lying about what he saw in the lake? Seems like this would have been the opportunity to bring Mariel in on the "conspiracy."

But I'll wait and see. Next week we get another new episode, so hopefully the momentum will continue.

TV REVIEW: Lost: "The Other 48 Days"

This is another superb installment from the second season of the ABC powerhouse, Lost. Except for a few moments at the end of the hour, the "The Other 48 Days" features no regular cast members from the popular series, and instead focuses on the survivors from Oceanic Flight 815's tail section (which went down in the surf). Our protagonist for the hour is Ana Lucia (Michelle Rodriguez), a tough-as-nails (but ultimately kinda sweet) heroine, and Rodriguez carries this episode with such skill, grace and guts that I feel a spin-off might have been in order instead. After all, it's a big island...

As the title indicates, "The Other 48 Days" takes us through the survivors' first month-and-a-half on the island, and the events transpiring on these days closely mirror and connect to what we already know about the other group of survivors. For instance, there's a "mole" in this tail-section group; just as "Ethan" was the mole in Jack's group early on. There's the discovery of a "Dharma" bunker (though it's less elaborate and not as kitted-up as the one Locke and Boone found...), and finally there's the explanation of that mysterious radio contact Boone had from the cockpit of the airplane in the episode wherein he bit the dust. Remember that? Boone raised somebody on the line and said he was a survivor of Flight 815. The answer was shocking: "We're the survivors of Flight 815." Now we know who spoke those words: Sam Anderson's character, Bernard.

If anything, "The Other 48 Days" proves that Lost's team of writers can push a story forward at warp speed when so inclined. Shorn of the deep, but ultimately annoying "character flashbacks" we've become accustomed to, "The Other 48 Days" moves like a freight train, at a 24 or Prison Break-like pace. Very exciting stuff. Of course, one might make the claim that this entire episode is a "flashback," and while that's technically true, this is a flashback not about Charlie selling copy-machines, Hurley asking a girl out or some other mostly irrelevant nonsense, but the heart of the show's material:
survival on the island, instead. So it works nicely, and "The Other 48 Days" takes the overall story arc forward, especially since we get new (visual...) information about "The Others." Here we see them garbed in beige, raggy outfits with no brand names or other identifying marks. But they otherwise look like normal folk...which brings up more interesting questions...

"The Other 48 Days" establishes Ana Lucia as the unequivocal leader of her "band" of survivors. She's tough, resilient and clever...even if she made the mistake of killing Shannon and torturing the wrong guy in the pit. I'm curious to see how this is all going to play out when she runs into Jack, the undeniable leader of the group we're already familiar with. Sure, Ana Lucia is going to have problems with Sayid (biiiiig problems...) but ultimately what happened to Shannon was an accident, and you have to assume that at some point Ana Lucia is going to butt-heads with the "kinder and gentler" Jack. Frankly, Ana Lucia is just what Lost needs, a viable, strong and hawkish alternative voice to Jack's humane style of leadership...

In some ways, this was the best episode of the season thus far (and certainly the most densely-packed regarding new information...), and so Lost remains "must see TV." On ABC.

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run Round-up: "Turnabout and "Stargate"

Well, I'm just about finished with my second cult-tv blogging experience (the first was Push, Nevada). For those of you who've been keeping up, I've been blogging the 1977 CBS series, Logan's Run. There were fourteen hour-long episodes in all, and many episodes were quite enjoyable ("Pilot," "Man Out of Time," "Crypt," "The Judas Goat" and "Carousel"), though there were also quite a few stinkers ("Fear Factor," "Futurepast" and "Night Visitors.") The mediocre or average ones ("The Collectors," "The Capture," "The Innocent") make-up the rest of the canon.

Sadly, the series ends with two more not-so-hot episodes, "Turnabout" and "Stargate." The production team must have been cranking these episodes out at warp speed to make network deadlines, and the mediocre results speak for themselves. I didn't really have the heart to blog them individually, since I'm a fan of Logan's Run: The TV Series and don't want to pillory it. And like I said, there are a number of good episodes here to enjoy, and the show was produced nearly thirty years ago. I know, I'm an apologist...

So anyway, I'm blogging a "round-up," the two final episodes in one post.

"Turnabout" is a run-around by Michael Michaelian and Al Hayes in which Logan, Jessica and REM stop for water in desert and find an unconscious woman in the sand. She's wearking a berka to hide her face. An armed patrol on horseback finds the Runners and escorts them to the city of Zidar, a repressive, religious society where books aren't permitted. Francis and another Sandman show up in pursuit and are captured too, and both groups are taken before "the Judgment Chair," where the city leader proclaims they should be executed. With the help of the woman they saved, Mia, Logan and his pals escape the city, but then must stop and go back to save Francis, and so forth. There are a series of rescues/captures/rescues before it's over, and Francis is forced into a "duel" before the Judgment Chair. At the end of the day, there is regime change in Zidor, and the Runners continue on their way.

When this episode started, I believed it was going to be pretty cool, especially since it focused on a society - at least to surface appearances - that seemed based on Islamic principles. My enthusiasm petered out, however, sometime in the middle of all the chasing around and captures. This is another of those "straw man" societies for Logan to knock down (or in this case, repair), and though I'm relieved to see him taking on more than a "dream clinic" ("Futurepast"), a psych ward ("Fear Factor") or a one-person bunker ("The Innocent"), most of the story just feels like a waste of time. Who's rescuing whom? Who's going back for whom? It's all become increasingly tedious...

"Stargate" just isn't much better...sadly. Logan, Jessica and REM encounter another city, one run by aliens who wear thermal clothing because they can't stand the cold of Earth. They want to invade the planet and have a "stargate" or transporter which can bring aliens to Earth, but it's broken, and they need some of REM's parts to repair it. The aliens start disassembling REM, but Logan and Jessica seek the help of a human survivor and attempt to set things right, preventing the alien invasion...especially because they know that they will soon be "replaced" by alien doppelgangers in thermal suits.

I've always loved the novel, Logan's Run, and also the movie starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter. I've always had a fondness for the TV series too, but stories like "Stargate" just don't seem to fit with the premise very well. I think there would be enough material involving the re-building of a post-nuclear world without bringing in invading aliens. E.T.s should never enter the picture as far as I'm concerned...and after "The Collectors," this is actually the second episode of fourteen to feature would-be alien conquerors.

So Logan's Run is done. I started out really enthusiastic about the opportunity to re-visit this program, but I've found that its truest value seems to be in nostalgia. I love seeing the Sandman uniforms and flare guns again; I love witnessing Carousel and seeing stock footage of The City of the Domes. Except for some highlights like "Man Out Of Time" and "Crypt," however, there's not a whole lot of thematic stuff here worth championing, and I feel that ultimately neither the characters nor the plotlines were very well developed.

Logan, Jessica (and my favorite character, REM) never found Sanctuary, but I leave the series wondering if there ever was one to begin with. In the movie, there was not, but the characters speak about it so plainly and with such conviction on the TV series, that I wonder if somewhere out there a haven for the Runners actually existed. Had Logan's Run continued, we would have discovered the answer to the Sanctuary question, and hopefully the series would have also gotten down to the nitty-gritty of addressing a post-apocalyptic world of desperation and hope; savagery and humanity; hatred and love. That's the series I wanted to see...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

STAR WARS BLOGGING: Episode II: Attack of the Clones

The second episode in the six-part Star Wars saga opens in a time of "unrest" for the Galactic Senate. A separatist movement - encompassing thousands of solar systems - has begun to stir. Senator Padme Amidala returns to the Senate to debate the creation of a Republic Army, but on the landing pad at the capitol, is nearly killed in a vicious terrorist attack. Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and his young padewan learner, Anakin Skywalker (now played by Hayden Christensen), are assigned to protect Senator Amidala, and the quest to do so takes them on separate paths.

For Obi Wan, the mystery of a clone army on Kamino he must solve (I'm writing like Master Yoda!). For Anakin, the apprentice returns to Naboo, and then to his home world of Tatooine when he experiences nightmares about his mother's fate. All the while, he falls more deeply in love with Padme, a love that's forbidden by the Jedi code....

The Jedi partners re-team (inadvertently...) in the earthen coliseum on Geonosis, the headquarters for the Separatist movement and its leader, a former Jedi Knight named Count Dooku. Meanwhile, in the Galactic Senate, Chancellor Palpatine orchestrates "emergency powers" to create a grand army of the Republic in which to fight the Separatists...and so it turns out those clones on Kamino will prove quite useful! While Mace Windu races to Geonosis to rescue the imperiled Anakin, Padme Amidala and Obi-Wan from a gladitorial spectacle, Yoda wrangles the Clone Army for its first test in warfare. Begun this Clone War has...

Released in 2002, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, returns to the story commenced in The Phantom Menace...but picks up ten years later. Anakin is an adult (kind of...) and Palpatine is still chancellor of the Republic. Amidala is a Senator instead of Queen, and Jar-Jar is still around as "Representative Binks," but his presence in the adventure has been greatly diminished.

If the theme of the first episode in the series was a "phantom menace," an "elusive" and "elsewhere" sort-of menace that could threaten a government that has stood for 2,000 years, than the theme of Attack of the Clones involves the next step in the downfall of the Republic. That next step involves one thing, not the unrest of the first film, but arrogance.

Arrogance is a character trait and thematic thread that runs throughout this film, in a number of unique ways. Young Anakin has grown arrogant in his Jedi powers, claiming that "in some ways - a lot of ways..." he is actually ahead of Obi-Wan, his mentor. And when Obi-Wan notes Anakin's arrogance to Master Yoda, Yoda replies only that it is a flaw "more and more" common among the Jedi...suggesting, perhaps, that Obi-Wan suffers from the malady as well. As viewers, we witness this arrogance for ourselves in the Jedi Archive. "If an item doesn't appear in our records," scoffs a librarian, "it doesn't exist." So certain are you, hmmm? So blind?

And what is the result of all this rampant Jedi arrogance? I think it is exactly as Yoda and Mace Windu discuss in one critical, and under-analyzed scene: their power and ability to "use the Force" is ..."diminished."

I find this a really fascinating subtext in Attack of the Clones. Why? Well, consider that it is Anakin's role as "The Chosen One" to "bring balance to the Force." Then consider that the Force must necessarily be out of balance since there are only two Sith (master and apprentice) representing the Dark Side, but literally hundreds of Jed representing the light side. Why is it out of balance? Is it...arrogance?

Anyway, the good side exists in numbers far in excess of the "dark side" of the Force, right? This means that for Anakin to bring the Force into balance, he must indeed (as we see in Part III) be responsible for the death of the vast majority of the Jedi. Consider that when Revenge of the Sith ends, there is indeed a new balance: two Jedi in hiding (Yoda and Obi-Wan), and two Sith in power (Palpatine and Vader). Importantly, neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan is arrogant anymore, but humbled. It is the Emperor who grows arrogant, confident he can turn Luke, as he did Vader. So I believe that the Jedi constantly misread the "Chosen One" prophecy in the early films. They think it is the destiny of Anakin to bring balance to the Force and destroy the Sith...but if the Sith is destroyed, will there truly be balance of any kind? There can't be! I think both sides must always exist at equal strength, sans arrogance. I think that this would be the story of Parts VII, VIII, and IX, if we were ever to see them.

Arrogance is critical to an understanding of Anakin, in particular, I think, because his political views get some air time here. He tells Padme that he doesn't think the "system works" and that a strong leader is necessary to control the partisanship and bickering. "Someone wise," he suggests. What he's saying is that he would like to see a dictatorship. And in a sense, why shouldn't he? Anakin and his mother were slaves on Tatooine, and what did that great democracy, the Galactic Republic do about their plight? As a youngster, Anakin asked Qui Gonn if he had come to Tatooine to free the slaves, and let's face it, that was the furthest thing from Qui Gonn's mind. Living in such an unfair system, one where government doesn't help, one can see why Anakin would wish to cut through the bureaucracy and install a leader who gets results. Ultimately, in some twisted fashion, Palpatine offers safety and security for a chaotic galaxy, and there must be some aspect of that promise that appeals to Anakin...who has been a slave and watched his mother die in the anarchic, even multi-cultural (Jawa, Sandpeople, Hutts, humans...) deserts of Tatooine.

Anakin's turn to the dark side is begun in earnest by his murder of the Sand People in the desert, his need to exact retribution rather than wait for justice to be meted by an inefficient, uncaring government. Anakin is frustrated, one senses, because he is surrounded by bureaucracy. The Galactic Senate is awash in rules; and the Jedi have rules governing behavior too, but they both claim to be "good" and operating in the cause of "justice." Yet what have these "good" forces done to save a slave woman abducted by the Tusken Raiders? Absolutely nothing! In taking matters into his own hands and meting out eye-for-an-eye, horrible justice against the Sandpeople, Anakin has taken the first steps towards deciding that he should be the one to make the decisions for others. That his personal moral compass is superior. It's an understandable choice, but one that ultimately seduces him to the dark side.

In The Phantom Menace blog, I wrote about George Lucas as a cinematic classicist who recreates in fantasy settings such classic movie moments and scenes as the Ben-Hur chariot race. In Attack of the Clones, the director gives us a scene in a coliseum that is reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Gladiator, and a scene in a 1950s-style diner that evokes his own classic, American Graffiti. The latter scene, I think, could be interpreted as a stylistic mistake. Why would there be a greasy spoon diner on Coruscant (one with a fat cook, a waitress droid on a wheel and 1950s-style stools?) I hate to be a nitpicker, but this sequence involving Obi-Wan's informant "Dex" would have been much better set somewhere else. The Pod Race/Chariot Race allusion worked well in Phantom Menace, but let's face it, the art and architecture of 1950s Americana arises from a specific set of circumstances and context unique to the United States on Earth. I don't understand the currency of these images in the universe of Star Wars, of a place in a "galaxy far, far away."

Unless, of course, George Lucas is trying to make a subtle point about America in the 1950s and comparing that epoch to the world of Star Wars in Attack of the Clones. In my Phantom Menace blog, I noted how that film's spaceship design and futura/art-deco look reflected the world of the 1930s. Is it Lucas's intention here to tell us something important about America in the 1950s? In the 1950s, America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, living through the "Red Scare" and facing repression at the hands of Senator McCarthy. Perhaps more trenchantly, by the end of the decade, President Eisenhower left office and warned the country about the power of the military-industrial complex. I realize this is no-doubt reaching, but Attack of the Clones involves the raising of an army; a clone army. That Clone Army is the last piece of the puzzle that Palpatine needs to seize power and control the government and its people. By harnessing this "military-industrial complex," one man makes a Republic an Empire. Again, that's a stretch, but this is the only possible way I can read the diner scene and not believe that Lucas has made a mistake, or just picked a setting because he feels nostalgia towards it. Instead, he's showing us a last age of innocence before corruption and totalitarianism.

There's a great moment in Attack of the Clones when Palpatine declares that he "loves democracy" and then promptly seeks the power to overturn it. He is aided, by of all creatures, Jar-Jar Binks. Jar-Jar has been left at the Senate to fill in for Amidala, and the poor wretch thinks Amidala would want for him to vote for the Emergency Powers Act granting Palpatine the authority to raise an Army. Why? Loyalty. Jar-Jar mistakes loyalty for wisdom, and personally, I think that has happened a great deal throughout history. Loyalty is a virtue, no doubt, but carried to extremes is itself a terrible form of blindness. The Republic falls, in a sense, because people like Jar-Jar are loyal to Palpatine and believe that he has their best interest at heart. And of course, he does not.

Some comments left on the Phantom Menace blog have discussed how I tied Valorum to Clinton, and the ascent of Palpatine/Bush to the need for a "strong leader" who could restore honor and dignity to a perceived corrupt government. I understand it is hairy to get involved in politics these days, because we all have our "sides." So even if you disagree with the politics I ascribe to these films, see if the metaphor describeds holds true/consistent. In other words, you may have your opinion of things that differ from this blog's (and hey, I'm all for that!), but ask yourself: is the metaphor a fair one, accurately read? In Attack of The Clones I see much more of the same "line." The Separatist Threat is clearly a "War on Terror" brand menace, one that can be used by the government to push a secret and long-lasting agenda. The Emergency Powers of Palpatine are not unlike the civil-rights curbing Patriot Act, and this film even begins with a terrorist-like strike on a landing pad. Palpatine claims to love and foster democracy, but he's actually furthering his own power base. He's manipulating a war (Count Dooku is his secret ally) that is not being fought for the reasons he claims. He is misleading the Republic about its very nature.

Speaking stylistically, I've discovered that I don't actually enjoy Attack of the Clones quite as much now as The Phantom Menace or Revenge of the Sith. That may be simply a structural flaw: the middle-part of the trilogy is always difficult to navigate (though Empire Strikes Back is extraordinary). My ennui with this installment of the saga has much to do with the action sequences, in particular. I hate to say it, but I don't find the flying speeder chase over Coruscant's capitol, or even the battle in the Colisseum that involving or exciting; Even the light saber duel with Count Dooku and Yoda is not much of a climax, given the extraordinary choreography and pace of the Darth Maul battle in Phantom Menace. I still get a little giggle out of Yoda flying around like a crazed mosquito.

The flying speeder bit gets me too. Anakin and Obi Wan exhibit split-second awareness and timing here, falling hundreds of feet in seconds and landing on the backs of speeding cars, etcetera, throughout this early action sequence. Gravity doesn't seem to be a factor for them, nor do the random movements/behaviors of all the other drivers in the sky. The characters reveal no signs of fear about these death-defying falls and leaps, and I get it - they're Jedi. But after seeing these two Jedi survive this incredible, hectic car-chase in the sky, how are we to take seriously the other threats of the film? A battle on a landing platform on Kamino with Jango Fett? Why, that's not even as high-up off the ground as the car chase! And the three monsters in the gladiator games at the finale? Easy stuff, especially after hurtling through the sky without a parachute and landing on the slippery dashboards of speeders! Right? This is the inconsistency I detect in the prequels, and I don't like it. Maybe somebody out there has a way of fitting this in with the movies? I'd love to read a theory...

Finally - and unlike many reviewers - I don't hate the Anakin/Padme romantic scenes. For one thing, they're necessary. And for another, these characters are young and they've never been in love before, so it's kinda natural that they'd be sappy and say stupid things (like comparing Padme's skin to sand). We've all been the "victims" of young, obsessive love, so I'm cutting Padme and Anakin a break here. Besides, there's a formality about the way that all the characters speak in this prequel trilogy, so it's natural that their "love"/"courtship" talk would sound formal and strange too, right? I've always thought of the Jedi Order as equivalent to some medieval order of Knights; one with a unique code (like chivalry). So really, the fact that these sequences feel cliched and stilted doesn't bother me in the slightest.

One element of Attack of the Clones which I wish I understood with more certainty is the role of a dead Jedi named Sifo Dyas. He is the fella who put in the order for the Clone Army ten years before the film (right around the time of The Phantom Menace). By Attack of the Clones, this character is deceased. So, my question is this: Did Palpatine go to Kamino pretending to be Sifo Dyas, a jedi, and put in an order for the Army? Or was Sifo Dyas actually a Sith Apprentice working for Palpatine, which would have put him in succession somewhere between Maul and Dooku? I just wish there was a little more information in the film about who this guy was, and how his mission to Kamino played out.

Also, it's always bothered me a little that the wise (but arrogant!) Jedi just take possession of a Clone Army, no questions asked. It seems like they should all be just a shade more suspicious that a Clone Army would appear precisely at the exact time it is needed most by the Republic. But then again, their arrogance has apparently blinded them to such contradictions...and arrogance is the word of the day.

What do you think of Attack of the Clones? Have I missed any interesting facets of it? Let me know! Next up for Star Wars blogging: Revenge of the Sith (next week!)

Sci-Fi TV's Wisdom of the Week

"My dear family, it's painful knowing that I'll not see your faces anymore. But I must take a stand for what I know is right. You may think that an old man wouldn't be afraid to die, but this old man is very frightened. I'm hoping that I'll find a little of your mother's dignity and strength. So far, I'm as frightened as a child who fears the dark. But we must fight this darkness that is threatening to engulf us. Each of us must be a ray of hope and do our part, and join with the others until we become a blinding light, triumphant over darkness. Until that task is accomplished, life will have no meaning. More than anything, you must remember always which side you're on -- and fight for it. Your mother and I will march beside you, holding hands again. We'll sing your song of victory..."

- Abraham Bernstein (Leonardo Cimino) in Kenneth Johnson's miniseries, V (1983).

Muir Book Wednesday # 4: Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999 (2001)

I had such a great time writing this book, Terror Television. It's one of my most decorated (and also one of my longest) efforts, coming in at over 670 pages. In 2001, the year of its publication, it was selected as a Booklist Magazine's "Editor's Choice."

It was a blast to write it (back in 1999...) because in the process, I was able to re-visit so many (40...) of the genre's best and worst efforts, along with a plethora of personal favorites. I also wrote the book just after I had moved into my first house, a historic home in Monroe, N.C. (where I still write...) so there are special memories because of that experience too. I'll never forget staying up late at night screening episodes of Twin Peaks and freaking myself out...

I also wrote the book before the age of DVD box sets, so my "research mode" on this book was one of my favorites, if most difficult. I tracked down episodes from traders, over the Internet, and found syndicated movies and the like to attempt to see as much as I could. It's an experience I'll never forget. Today, many of the series I wrote about I now own on DVD, including American Gothic, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Millennium, X-Files and more.

Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999 examines in detail some 40 horror TV series from these important thirty years. Among the series discussed in detail are

Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1973)
The Sixth Sense (1972),
Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972-1973)
The Evil Touch (1973-1974)
Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75)
Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977-1978)
The Next Step Beyond (1978-1979)
Cliffhangers: The Curse of Dracula (1979)
Darkroom (1981-1982)
The Hitchhiker (1983-1991)
Tales from the Darkside (1984-1988)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-1990)
Werewolf (1987-1988)
Friday the 13th: the Series (1987-1990)
Freddy's Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series (1988-1990)
Monsters (1988-1991)
Tales from the Crypt (1989-1997)
Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Dracula: The Series (1990-1991)
She Wolf of London/Love and Curses (1990-1991)
Stephen King's The Golden Years (1991)
Dark Shadows (1991)
Beyond Reality (1991-1993)
Nightmare Cafe (1992)
Forever Knight (1992-1996)
The X-Files (1993)
American Gothic (1995-1996)
Kindred: The Embraced (1996)
Poltergeist: The Legacy (1996-1999)
Dark Skies (1996-1997)
The Burning Zone (1996-1997)
Millennium (1996-1999)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997)
Sleepwalkers (1997)
Prey (1998)
Charmed (1998)
Brimstone (1998-1999)
Strange World (1999)
G vs. E (1999)
Angel (1999 - )

There's also a less detailed section in the back of the book that gazes at anthologies that sometimes featured horror (along with fantasy and sci-fi), including Amazing Stories (1985-1987), The Twilight Zone (1985-1987), The Outer Limits (1995-999), The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992), Nightmare Classics (1989) and Welcome to Paradox (1998). Another section featured horror 'Man on the Run' series including Dead at 21 (1994) and Nowhere Man (1995). I even had a section on horror reality TV including Sightings, and Psi-Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal.

Here's what the critics had to say about
Terror Television:

"....the book he [Muir] was born to write....His analyses are first-rate and based on a wide knowledge of the subject...TERROR TELEVISION is superlative television history." -BIG REEL, June 2001.

"Muir is well-known in the horror/sci-fi reference field, with previous well-received guides to Wes Craven, John Carpenter and the TV series essential purchase." -Anthony Adam, REFERENCE AND USER SERVICES QUARTERLY, Winter 2001.

"Fans and researchers will appreciate the detailed episode-by-episode documentation and even nonfans will be engaged by Muir's informed and opinionated analyses." - Editor's Choice 2001- BOOKLIST, 2001.

"TERROR TELEVISION is a massive 685 page reference guide that documents the history of modern television horror from 1970 to 1999....Muir provides a good format for discussing each series...Not shy to share his views...Muir has obviously done his homework in researching the shows listed in this book...[it] gives an excellent analysis of shows produced during the period of 1970 - indispensable volume of useful reference information..."-CHILLER THEATER # 17, page 57.

"...highly readable, extremely literate...the real strength of the book lies in his unflinching opinions. When a show is lousy, he wastes no words showing where it went wrong; when a show succeeds, he skillfully defines the elements that made it rise above the drivel. All film libraries will want a copy of this book..."-Joseph L. Carlson, ARBA, 2002.

And here's an excerpt from my introduction to Terror Television:

"Terror" and "television" are two words (and two worlds) which, at first glance, do not appear to fit easily side by side. The word "terror" portends an adrenaline rush, heightened emotions, suspense and heart-pounding horror. All these elements seem at odds with the medium of television - a venue of the masses, a homogenized entertainment. Implicit in this term "terror television" is the conjunction of the extreme with the mild, the extraordinary with the mundane. Yet, in the last thirty or so years, visionary artists and technicians have labored to make the horror genre a success on American television, despite such intrinsic contradictions. Such a venture is no small enterprise, and accordingly, these craftsmen are no slouches.

Rod Serling, William Castle, Quinn Martin, John Newland, Kenneth Johnson, George Romero, David Lynch, Dan Curtis, Stephen King, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, Chris Carter, Joss Whedon, the Pate Brothers and even Aaron Spelling are only some of the recognizable names to be found in this cavalcade of creepy cathode imaginings.

Why begin a review of television horror in the year 1970, when television as an art form stretches back to the late '40s? First of all, because "terror television" truly came into its own in the freewheeling early 1970s. Although there were many noteworthy genre series in the 1950s and 1960s such as Alcoa Presents/One Step Beyond (1959-1961), The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Thriller (1960-1962) and The Outer Limits (1962-1964), these landmark programs aired in black-and-white and tended to highlight science fiction (The Outer Limits), fantasy (The Twilight Zone), and even crime melodrama (Thriller) in conjunction with the occasional outright horror programming. Rod Serling's Night Gallery was thus the first prime-time, color network TV series devoted exclusively to macabre tales. As such, it represents the beginning of modern horror television.

Furthermore, the early 1970s represent a period of transition in another arena which is vitally important to the efficacy of the modern horror drama: make-up and special effects. Spurred on by the incredible success of Planet of the Apes (1968), perhaps the biggest prosthetics show in Hollywood history, Rod Serling's Night Gallery showcased some of the most grotesque and complex make-ups (courtesy of John Chambers and Bud Westmore) then seen on network television. It is important to note that these unusual make-up creations (such as the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired monster in "Pickman's Model" and the Dickensian ghouls in "Camera Obscura") were not extraterrestrials, as were the famous "bears" of Joseph Stefano's and Leslie Steven's The Outer Limits. Instead, they were honest-to-goodness ghouls and monsters designed wholly to terrify audiences, thus forever severing the genres of science fiction (which seeks to illuminate) and horror (which seeks to cast its audiences into darkness and doubt.)

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

CULT MOVIE MUSINGS: The Satirical & Social Politics of RoboCop (1987)

I admire a movie with the guts to totally rip the very people who were filling theater seats to see it. The popular 1987 film RoboCop - in addition to being a brilliantly-crafted (and very funny...) action/superhero movie - when viewed today proves to be a forward-looking and trenchant satire of American values in the 21st century. Why? Well, in no small part because we're living in the very corporate-owned and-operated world that RoboCop predicted nearly twenty years ago.

But let's review how this popular film came to serve as a pop-culture, social critique. It was made in the mid-1980s, and so it's important that we understand that history, that context. During that time, many big American cities were in something of a pickle. Because of the fiscally irresponsible "trickle down" economic policies of the U.S. Federal Government, it wasn't necessarily "morning in America" as some claimed. Here are some statistics to back that up assertion: First, the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was cut from 32.2 billion dollars in 1981 to a measly 7.5 billion in 1987-1988, meaning that government aid was less available for the indigent. Secondly, the number of Americans living beneath the Federal poverty line rose from 24.5 million to over 32 million in the late eighties. And finally, more than two million American citizens were homeless by the latter part of the decade, though President Ronald Reagan countered that many of them were "homeless by choice."

So the poor grew poorer during the balance of the "greed" decade, the rich grew richer, and the middle class suffered too (home mortgage interest rates stood at 12%) The bottom echelon of American society was ravaged by street crime, and the yuppies at the top of society - the corporate millionaires - were corrupt (Ivan Boesky, anybody? Michael Milken?), stealing millions through insider trading. This was the era that gave rise to Frank Miller's satire, The Dark Knight Returns, as well as RoboCop.

This was also the "greed is good" era as personified so memorably by the Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) character in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. The homeless were frequently portrayed (in film) as outsiders (in such classic films as John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness [1987] and They Live [1988]).

Disturbingly, cynical politicians also played on the average citizen's fear of increased violent crime to win high office, notably with the highly divisive Willie Horton TV advertisement in Campaign '88, which made note of a criminal African-American convict robbing, raping and killing a white woman during a prison furlough. The truth was lost in that attack sound-byte: the Federal Government also ran the same furlough program that candidate and vice-president George Bush criticized Michael Dukakis for administering. This illuminates an important point. The message of this epoch was plain: winning was everything; the ends justified the means.

In 1987, Hollywood responded - as only Hollywood can - to the prevailing Zeitgeist, and a new kind of superhero film gazed closely at all these societal ills. The result was not only a blockbuster action film, but the creation of a popular character that has not yet disappeared from the pop culture terrain, appearing over the decades in films, TV series, cartoons, comic books and toy stores.

Described by his corporate owners as "the future of law enforcement," RoboCop was this character's given name. He was a crime-fighting cyborg, a hero (and former cop...) who could walk the savage streets of a city in chaos (in this case, Detroit), as well as clean up the board rooms where the decadent rich snorted cocaine, soaked the poor, and went unregulated by a winking government. Part-Charles Bronson, part-Batman and part-Clint Eastwood, RoboCop was introduced in the 1987 film directed by Dutchman Paul Verhoeven. It starred Peter Weller as RoboCop.

RoboCop was shot in 13 weeks in the late summer of 1986 on a budget of just ten million dollars, and Verhoeven was reportedly attracted to the material because of its comic-book type of "origin story" as well as the comedic atmosphere and content. Part of the glorious satire involved poking fun at American culture and politics, and the course both were taking. Indeed, RoboCop accurately predicted two important facets of our contemporary American life: the corporatization of American culture and the coarsening of the mainstream media.

Some of the more pertinent jokes in the screenplay (by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner) involved a "Lee Iococca Elementary School" (equating a business leader as a child's role model) and a family electronic game glorifying nuclear war (based on Milton Bradley's Battleship), called Nuke'Em! The film was made, after all, in a time in which President Reagan had made a cavalier joke about outlawing "Russia forever" and even threatened that "we begin bombing in five minutes." (August 11, 1984). He had also made the claim that nuclear missiles fired from a submarine could be recalled after launch (which they couldn't...), so the idea of a future America where nuclear bombs were accepted as part of the military landscape didn't seem so far-fetched. And today, haven't we heard about plans to start a new nuke program with mini-nukes and "bunker busting" nukes?

Even America's endless propensity to drive gas-guzzling, gigantic automobiles was satirized in the prescient RoboCop. Commercials depicted in RoboCop advertised a new vehicle, the 6000 SUX (not SUV mind you, SUX). The 6000 SUX offered a whopping 18 miles to the gallon, meaning it literally "sucked" gas. Hmmm, haven't we all seen just such lousy mileage numbers today in our sports utility vehicles??

The film was also brutally funny in its depiction of cutthroat corporate one-upmanship, with OCP businessmen not only vying for stock options and promotions, but actually killing one another left and right to gain advantage. Today, we know that the fallen corporate giant Enron held discussions about the "death star" and the like in their efforts to bilk the consumer, although there's been no murder charges attached to the company's corruption (at least so far...)

also accurately predicted the right-wing push towards the privatization of municipal and government programs, the dismantling of the social safety net, such as President George W. Bush's (now stalled...) desire to privatize Social Security. Particularly, much of RoboCop involved OCP's funding and running of the Detroit Police Department "as a business" - designed to make money and worried only about the bottom line. Of course, the police force should protect and serve the entire community, not serve at the behest of a particular corporate interest, but if the market is to be unfettered and unregulated (as many believe...) who knows where the push towards privatization will stop?

In all, RoboCop's Detroit was an unregulated world of business run amuck, and street criminals and boardroom executives worked hand-in-glove to ruin the life of the average American Joe. Ronny Cox played Richard Jones, the Bill Gates-like businessman who wanted to push his pet project, an "Urban Pacification" droid program called the ED 209 into production, despite the fact it was riddled with murderous glitches. At least Microsoft Windows hasn't killed anybody yet. Again, at least not that we know of...

Critics raved about RoboCop, noting its social value as satire. Author William Latham (Mary's Monster, Eternity Unbound) noted in my book, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television that "seeing a corporation as the ultimate savior and the villain at the same time, where a man becomes a product, gave this film a special meaning in the 1980s." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington noted that RoboCop had been "assembled with ferocious, gleeful expertise, crammed with human cynicism and jolts of energy. In many ways it's the best action movie of the year." In New Statesman, Judith Williamson praised the film because the "pace is zippy, the script is witty and the political satire is acute."

Some media watchdogs decried the level of violence in the film, essentially a big screen comic-book, but even the blood and guts were relevant to Verhoeven's indictment of contemporary morals. Just two years earlier, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) depicted similar levels of horrific violence, but cloaked the bloodshed under the patriotic fabric of the U.S. flag and nationalistic pride, thus escaping the same criticism. Those that condemned RoboCop for its gore missed an important and telling point: its violence was actually meaningful, criticizing (or satirizing) the violence deemed acceptable in our mainstream entertainment.

Frankly, except maybe for They Live, I can't think of another 1980s genre movie that so ably and pointedly satirized the time of its production, and that's why I wanted to remember RoboCop today. It's not only a rip-roaring action film, it boasts layers of subtext that remind us what the future looked like in 1987.

Amazingly, RoboCop got just about everything right. Today, we seldom get movies with such social criticism embedded in their cinematic DNA, least of all in an "entertainment." Why? Because the same corporations that lobby our politicians for favors also control the news media and entertainment conglomerates. So in many ways, we're living in RoboCop's world.