Saturday, January 07, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 18: Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: "Escape Into Space"

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger is a space adventure TV series from waaaaay before my time. It aired in 1954, some fifteen years or so before I was even born. But that means that the syndicated TV show (which ultimately aired some 3-dozen episodes...) also pre-dated Doctor Who in the UK by nine years and Star Trek in the USA by twelve years.

So, I think it's more than fair to state that Rocky Jones is a genre pioneer (and I also put Space Patrol and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet) in that category.)

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger chronicles the adventures of a well-muscled, straight arrow hero named - you guessed it - Rocky Jones (a beefy Richard Crane) who captains an XP-2 class rocket called an "Orbit Jet." His co-pilot is a whisper-thin sidekick-type named Winky (Scotty Beckett), and occasionally Rocky takes a pseudo-girlfriend, Vena (Sally Mansfield) and a kid named Bobby (Robert Lyden) on his voyages. A bulwark of decency and honor in space, Rocky takes his orders from the "Secretary of Space" Drake (Charles Meredith).

In the episode "Escape into Space," a criminal named Truck Harmon (known for trafficking the dangerous 'tarantula weed') and his buddy, Lawson, go an "unlicensed flight" in a space ranger rocketship. In our language, that means they steal it. You see, Harmon has committed many crimes on Earth, but none in space, and so - according to the space ranger guidebook - he can't be arrested in space.

Drake assigns Rocky Jones and the orbit jet to pursue Harmon, and it isn't long before they locate him. Turns out Harmon's ship flew through a meteor shower and has been badly damaged. There is "air seepage" aboard, and Harmon kills Lawson to preserve his air supply. Harmon is taken into custody by Rocky, but lies about Lawson's death. He says it was a tragic accident. With no evidence to support a charge of murder, Rocky must allow the nefarious Harmon to leave the nearby moon of Fornax. A free man...

But that sticks in Rocky's craw. Still what can he do? As Rocky says, "We can't go against the laws of freedom and immunity." Fortunately, little Bobby has the answer. He's been teaching the pagan natives of Fornax about Earth holidays, and Halloween is coming up. And hey, Truck Harmon is a superstitious guy, so Rocky and Winky decide to confront him with "the ghost of Lawson," and make him confess to murder.

"Your confession of a crime in space is a one-way ticket to Earth!" Rocky declares after getting the goods on Harmon, in this episode directed by Hollingsworth Morse and shot by Walter Strenge.

Okay, Rocky, but isn't that entrapment? Isn't THAT against space ranger laws too?

Anyway, in my blog's "cult TV flashback series" (usually written on Fridays, but this time on a Saturday because I'm behind...) I've covered TV shows from the 1960s right up to today. I thought that on this occasion it would be only fair and right to acknowledge that science fiction TV shows did not start with Star Trek.

Once upon a time, Rocky Jones was the Captain Kirk of his day! A stolid, law-abiding, fair-minded hero who wears a uniform, in this case one that consists of a ball-cap, and an insignia-ed white short-sleeve T-shirt. But still, Rocky was out there in the "black" early *along with Buzz Corry and Tom Corbett and Rod Brown...), and I'm sure that a generation grew up loving him and his adventures. He espouses unambiguous, core American values (of the 1950s) and there's no angst or brooding anywhere. Of course, that means there's very little character-depth too, but jeez, this was a show for kids, and it made outer space look as exciting as the wild west, all fisticuffs, alien savages, and damsels in distress. The attitude may be "gee whiz," but today - sometimes - our pop culture can overdose on the "dark" (the new Battlestar Galactica, anybody?)

Today, we look at the Orbit Jet's technology, the TV-set "visiographs" and cucumber-like(!) walkie-talkies, and are tempted to laugh at the oddities. But once, long ago - in the 1950s - this was cutting edge stuff. And truth be told, the Orbit Jet still looks awfully cool today. I wouldn't mind taking a spin aboard her...

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "Space Hookey"

I want to play space hookey too! (That's not space hockey, by the way, but space hookey). No, seriously, I do. It looks fun....

Anyway, this week on the 1977 Saturday morning, live-action, Filmation production Space Academy, space orphan Loki and his diminutive robot, Peepo (actually a "self-determining type-A manu-droid," according to this episode) decide to skip out on boring Astrography Class (in classroom 5), steal a Seeker, and go on a joy ride through space.

Alas, the Seeker is shadowed by a comet, and Peepo and Loki go to visit. There, they discover two glowing amorphous life-forms who happen to be playing hookey too. One is a red glowing ball, the other a white one. These chipmunk-voiced aliens cause Loki to go schizophrenic. "It's crowded in here," they complain of his mind.

When Loki and Peepo get hauled back to the Academy, one of the non-corporeal aliens takes over Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) and makes him mince around the control room counting numbers like a kindergartener. "Onesie, Twosie, threesie, foursie" he says as he skips about merrily... Oh, the pain, the pain...

Though this embarrassing display should surely be enough to remove the Commander from duty, the cadets just stare at Gampu in shock. Then he orders a course for "Terazoid," which would be fine, I guess, except to get there, the Academy planetoid will have to cut through hostile Denebian Territory. And that's against a space treaty! While Chris, Laura, Tee Gar and Adrian try to figure out what to do, a really awesome (and menacing-looking) Denebian "space drone" starts taking pot shots at the approaching Academy.

Finally, in a crib from Star Trek's "Squire of Gothos," the glowing aliens get caught by their Daddy, a blue glowing light. "Your mother and I will deal with you when you get home!" he says. The aliens quickly vacate from Gampu, and also from Paul, who became possessed after Loki.

Okay, I'm not a kid anymore - I'm 36 - so I noticed something grown-up about this episode of Space Academy. The actress playing Adrian (Maggie Cooper) wears a really short skirt in this episode. A much shorter one than the skirt Laura wears, by the way. And in this installment of Space Academy, there are a few shots of Peepo, shot at the robot's eye level (which is about an adult waist). In these shots, you get a great look at Adrian's really fine legs.

Okay so sue me, I'm a dirty old man...

Friday, January 06, 2006

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror, Episode # 2: "Dreams in the Witch House"

Stuart Gordon is no doubt a solid choice to direct this second episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror. After all, this is an H.P. Lovecraft story (adapted by Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon), and Gordon has worked brilliantly with Lovecraft source material before, giving the world two eighties classics, The Re-Animator (1985) and the vastly-underrated but genius, From Beyond (1987).

But (and this is a big but, so-to-speak), "Dreams in the Witch House" is a pretty confusing, meandering and overlong episode of this new show. As I wrote in my previous post, what seems suspenseful, concise and brilliant at thirty minutes becomes flabby and dull for an hour, and this effort suffers from that syndrome. Rod Serling learned this lesson with The Twilight Zone back in the early 1960s when The Twilight Zone went (in its fourth season) from being a half-hour to an hour. Guess what? By the fifth season, the show was back to a half hour. Anthologies just don't hold up (usually...) for sixty minutes.

"Dreams in the Witch House" concerns a physics student from Miskatonic University who rents a room in a creepy, sleazy boarding house. He's working on a theory about the intersection of universes, and soon realizes - from the scratching noises in the wall - that this very house (which is 300 years old) represents one such nexus. In fact, an evil witch and her familiar, a talkative rat with a human face, go to-and-from dimensions willy-nilly, stealing away human babies for ritual sacrifice. The witch seduces the Physics student because she needs a male to perform the ritual, and plans to use him as her "arms" for the next murder, of a lovely neighbor's child, Danny.

Although the story is pure Lovecraft, it's just too slow and repetitive to be particularly effective or involving. How many times do we need to see the protagonist fall asleep and wake up in a different locale, before we get the concept? Why - if different universes are aligning behind the walls of his room - can they be breached using just a hammer and a strong arm? It doesn't appear that the lead character actually signs his name in blood in the Necronomicon, so how is it he is made servant to the witch?

There's some exciting sex scenes in this episode to be sure, and some frightening gore, but ultimately this one just doesn't hold up for me. Bummer. I'm really disappointed.

When I think of Re-Animator or From Beyond, I think of an almost lunatic pace, and of Gordon's devilish, wicked sense of humor. Those are the two elements that kept those productions afloat and - indeed -transformed them into latter-day classics. Yet the pace in this episode is leaden, and there's really not much humor. Instead, - with the human-faced rat scurrying around, it all just plays as kind of ludicrous and campy. There's no surprise or real sting in the climax either. The lead is set up as a murderer, nobody believes his wacky story, and he's committed to an asylum. As a long-time fan of horror, I predicted all those plot points well in advance of their occurrence. Which would leave just style and pace as a way to impress me...

I want to stress that I'm a huge admirer of Gordon's work, and that - at a half hour - this episode could have moved along at a dynamite clip. Gordon is rightly a "Master of Horror," but if I wanted to give a dissertation on his many talents and skills in the genre, I'd book a screening of Re-Animator or From Beyond, not this episode.

I understand why H.P. Lovecraft was selected as source material (there's hardly any better in terms of classic horror...) but you know something? I'd like to see how Gordon does with a story outside the Lovecraft canon...I mean, the first episode of Masters of Horror really landed Don Coscarelli in new territory. His work has been either humorous (like Bubba Ho-Tep) or weird and esoteric (like Phantasm). His installment on Masters of Horror, by contrast, was a straight-on survival/chase story along the lines of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or some such thing. The result is that his show revealed a new side of the director. I came away convinced - heck yeah - this guy IS a master of horror.

In the final analysis, "Dreams in the Witch House," while diverting enough, really doesn't show me any new shades of a talent I've long admired. I hope the series returns for a second season, and we really get to see Gordon strut his stuff. He's a great director...

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror, Episode # 1: "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road"

I think it's terrific that Showtime has devoted time and energy to this new horror anthology series, Masters of Horror, and after getting through some writing deadlines, I've finally had the opportunity to take a gander at a few installments. So far, I really like what I see.

The first episode, "Incident On and Off A Mountain Road" is directed by Don Coscarelli, the genius who gave the world Phantasm (1979) and Bubba Ho Tep (2003). The Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, guest stars in this episode, which also features Bree Taylor and a pumped-up Ethan Embry. The source material is Joe K. Lansdale's short story, adapted by Coscarelli and Stephen Romano.

This episode deals with a motorist named Ellen, who - on a cold and dark road in the middle of nowhere - runs into a terrible speed trap set by what appears to be a ghoulish mountain man (replete with metal teeth). This pale, bald monstrosity chases her through the woods and forests of the nearby mountain terrain, but Ellen is steeled to fight back by her (mostly bad...) relationship with her former husband, Bruce (Embry).

Even while pursued by this strange local devil, Ellen hears the voice and words of her survivalist husband. "I believe anything can happen to anyone at at any time, in any place," he warns in the first memory, featured as a flashback. "Crazy always works," he advises, when things get rough for Ellen. And "When all else fails, try anything," that inner voice suggests in the moment of greatest crisis and least hope.

So what we get is a grueling, harrowing hour of Deliverance/Wrong Turn-style drama that sort-of resembles 1970s savage cinema, as Ellen tries to claw, scratch and bite her way to freedom. This becomes especially important after she is captured and taken to the mountain man's strange house, where he straps his victims to a table and carves out their eyes with a nasty-looking drill-bit.

Ultimately, Ellen does fight back (with some gory blowback), just like hubby Bruce would want her to; but the episode ends on a unique twist involving Bruce, and I don't want to spoil the climax for those who haven't seen it.

Suffice it to say that I was held rapt by the episode, and involved wholly in Ellen's plight from start to finish. The flashback structure (similar, in fact, to Lost's) actually has a point to it - tracing Ellen's relationship with Bruce - and plays as critical in the denouement.

I've always been of the opinion that anthologies work best at a half-hour length, and I think immediately of The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, or even Tales from the Crypt. There are exceptions to that rule, to be certain, and The Outer Limits (original) leaps to mind. This first installment of Masters of Horror works pretty darn well at the hour-length, in part because the performances are good; in part because of the feature-film production values and "Rated R" gore quotient (from special effects gurus Nicotero and Berger at KNB). Yet, a word to the wise here...the show would work even better at a half-hour.

Of the three Masters of Horror episodes I've screened so far, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" is not only the best acted, but the best paced of the bunch. Which is probably why it's the lead-off episode. At close to an hour, there's too much a chance for these shows to drag, instead of feeling punchy and suspenseful, and indeed my concern is validated with the second show. But that's the subject of another post...

McFarland's Movie and TV Titles, January 2006

What's McFarland, the North Carolina publisher of scholarly (and invaluable...) reference books got up its exquisite sleeve (and in the works) for the first month of 2006?

I checked out the company's release schedule, and here's a few of their film/TV oriented titles:

Masculinity in the Interracial Buddy Film
-by Melvin Donalson
Feature films function as a keeper of America’s collective conscience—a repository of fears, guilt, and hopes. “Buddy films” about men of different races depict a world where a peaceful balance is possible and conflicts can be resolved. Since the 1930s these films have presented various forms of masculinity, reflecting dominant mainstream social traditions, images of men and manhood within the culture.Interracial buddy films include such examples as the Silver Streak, 48 Hrs, Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon and The Shawshank Redemption. Many of these films have been made into franchises, furthering their cultural importance as filmic versions of interracial equality.This critical study analyzes the idealized interracial relationships, the heterosexual masculine roles within the films and the appearances of this kind of film in various genres. The book is arranged in six major chapters, each focusing upon a particular era in the development of the interracial buddy film. The book also examines the film sequel as a validation of the enduring significance of interracial interaction. The scope of the work is not limited to Caucasian/African-American pairings. Films with a myriad of racial and ethnic combinations are also analyzed, such as Tin Cup, Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon and Ocean’s Eleven.

Science Fiction America
- Edited by David Hogan
- http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?isbn=0-7864-2149-5
From the inception of the science fiction film, writers, directors, producers, and actors have understood that the genre lends itself to a level of social commentary not available in other formats. Viewers find it easier to accept explorations of such issues as domestic violence, war, xenophobia, faith, identity, racism, and other difficult topics when the protagonists exist in future times or other worlds that are only vaguely similar to our own.The 22 original essays in this collection examine how the issues in particular science fiction films—from 1930’s High Treason to 1999’s The Iron Giant—reflect and comment on the prevailing issues of their time. The 16 writers (including such noted contributors as Ted Okuda, Gary Don Rhodes, Bryan Senn, John Soister and Ken Weiss) provide insight on how the genre’s wistful daydreaming, forthcoming wonders, and nightmarish scenarios are often grounded in the grimmer realities of the human condition. Films covered include It Came from Outer Space, Godzilla, The 27th Day, Alien and Starship Troopers, plus television’s The Adventures of Superman, the Flash Gordon serials, and vintage space cartoons by Fleischer.

Television Characters
- By Vincent Terrace
Did you know that Alice Kramden’s (The Honeymooners) first job was as a jelly donut stuffer—and that she was then promoted to donut taster? Or that John Robinson (Lost in Space) was a professor at the University of Stellar Dynamics and that his daughter Penny had an IQ of 147? How about the fact that Sam Malone (Cheers) graduated from Boston Prep School and then was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox (jersey number 16) before he bought the bar where everybody knows your name?Highly detailed biographical information on 1,485 television characters who appeared on the small screen from 1947 through 2004 is provided in this extensive reference work (there are over 200,000 facts). Characters are arranged by first name and entries provide such information as full character names, years and place of birth, education, home address, marital status, jobs and much more. The broad range of characters is primarily from prime time network, cable and syndicated series. There is a performer’s index and an appendix for characters by series and for characters by last name.

The Biology of Science Fiction Cinema
- By Mark C. Glassy
Science fiction films of the 1930s and 1940s were often set in dark laboratories that had strange looking glass containers with bubbling fluids and mad scientists conducting glandular and hormonal experiments. In the 1950s, films were more focused on radiation induced mutations. The 1960s and 1970s brought more sophisticated biological sciences to the movies and focused on such relatively new concepts as immunology, cyrobiology, and biochemistry. In the 1980s and 1990s, the focus of science fiction films has been DNA. This work of film criticism relates 71 science fiction films to the biological sciences. The author covers cell biology, pharmacology, endocrinology, hematology, and entomology, to name just a few topics. An analysis of each film includes a brief plot synopsis, the author’s favorite quotations, the biological principles involved, the accuracy of the laboratory, and correct and incorrect biological information. In his analyses, the author sets out what would be required to achieve in real life the results seen in the movies and whether these experiments or events could actually happen.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

John's Link of the Week: Technovelgy

I came across this really fascinating site the other day, a genre site "devoted to the creative inventions of science fiction authors and movie-makers." The site boasts an amazing amount of information about inventions by genre minds...roughly 933 inventions in all (categorized in the glossary of science fiction technology by story, author, and year of invention.)

There's also a time-line of science fiction inventions, which is cool, since it gives you an overarching picture of "where" technology is (and where it's headed). Even better, the site includes a link to an accompanying
blog, with frequent entries on new sci-fi inventions, and how they are meeting "science" with each progressive day.

I also appreciate that the author of the site includes the visual arts, and pauses to note where TV producers got things right. For instance, scientists are now working on a robot plane that can be launched from the ocean...a synthesis of UFO's Skydiver (created by Gerry & Sylvia Anderson) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's flying submarine. How cool is that? Science fiction cinema and television have predicted fashion, technology and political happenings with great success over the years, so I enjoy this aspect of the site a lot.


If you get a chance, and a little free time to explore, head on over to Technovelgy, and discover "where science meets fiction."

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 24: Pop-Up Books

Ah yes, pop-up storybooks...the gateway drug - *ahem* - product (along with coloring books) to movie and TV novelizations (which, in turn, are the gateway drug to great literature....).

That's how it was for me, anyway.

As a little kid, I loved to read and draw all the time and an early love of books eventually led me to James Blish's Star Trek "Logs," then to the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and ultimately to modern classics like Lord of the Rings and Dune.

I wonder, if my parents hadn't bought me pop-up books at a tender age, would I love the written word
so much today? Would I be an avid reader (and a published author?)

Ah heck, I don't know that I can make much of a grab for the educational value of "pop-up" books, but as an unrehabilitated Star Wars and Star Trek addict, I've always appreciated franchise pop-up books, because - in some primitive way - as a reader you get to be part of the action.

Pull a tab here, and R2-D2 walks across the page; tug on a tab there, and the Millennium Falcon rockets to the stars. Listen - I was a kid in the pre-VCR age (an ancient time...), and anything I could find to help me relive my favorite TV show or movie was manna from heaven, so far as I was concerned.

I still have a few pop-up books in this home-office memorabilia collection of mine, so I figured that twenty-four weeks into this "retro toy" blog series, why not feature 'em? I know this: when I have my own children (a future not too distant, I hope...) I intend to share with them very young the glory of pop-up books. I want to start them out immediately (like, from the womb...) with a love of reading and a love of words. If they like the moving illustrations, what's the harm, right?

The 2006 Bloggies!

Hey everybody, if you visit and read blogs regularly, think about clicking over to The Bloggies Site and nominating your favorite 2005 blogs (in multiple categories.) You can nominate your favorite political blogs, your favorite humorous blogs, and even your favorite entertainment blogs. Categories include best new blog of 2005, best blog featuring photography and other interesting awards. You can even pick favorite international blogs. I just filled out a form.

I don't know about you, but I visit at least four blogs every single day (I used to just read the New York Times), so now's the time to share the love with some of 'em at least in a small way. It's a good way to show bloggers (many of whom are unpaid, or just grossly underpaid...) that you appreciate the work they're doing; regardless of the field they toil in.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Legend (1985) - Directors Cut

I am the Lord of Darkness. I require the solace of shadows and the dark of night. Sunlight is my destroyer. Tonight, this shall all change...There shall never be another dawn..."

-Darkness (Tim Curry), plots humanity's annihilation, in a voiceover from Legend.

Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors. How could he not be? He's given the world science fiction masterpieces such as Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), as well as new classics such as Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001). The latter is just about my favorite war movie of all time.

But in 1985, director Ridley Scott presented an epic fantasy - a fairy tale - to the movie-going world, and the world responded with a big, fat raspberry. That film is Legend, starring a very young Tom Cruise as the "champion" Jack and Mia Sara as the princess, Lily.

Essentially, the tale of Legend is one of innocent love, as Jack determines to marry his princess and -- in an attempt to impress her -- shows Lily the grounds of the most sacred animals on the planet: a pair of beautiful, majestic unicorns.

Unable to suppress her desire to possess the animals, Lily attempts to touch a unicorn. She is unaware, however, that Blix, the "most loathsome of Goblins" awaits in the shadows of the forest to capture the unicorn, sever its horn, and present it as a trophy for his master, the fiendish Darkness. By killing the innocent unicorns, Darkness can transform the world "to ice...every goblin's paradise." This means day will become eternal night; spring will morph into eternal winter, and the Lord of Darkness will dominate the future of all creatures.

When Lily is captured attempting to save the unicorn she accidentally betrayed, it is up to Jack and an entourage of stock fantasy characters -- elves like Gump (no, not Forrest...) and a sprite named Oona -- to undertake a most important quest. They must rescue Lily, recover the unicorn, and destroy darkness forever. Along the way to Darkness's subterranean palace, Jack will acquire weaponry and armor in a dark cave, and face a swamp monster (Robert Picardo!) and other terrible challenges...

I still remember seeing the shortened, 94 minute version of Legend when it played in theaters back in the mid-1980s. I saw it on a trip to visit my aunt and uncle in Florida, and - well - just about everybody in my family hated the movie. I remember being bowled over by the visuals (the lush forest...), the make-up (Darkness remains an incredible creation...), and Mia Sara (especially in black...), but ultimately I felt that the film was a triumph of style over substance. A disappointment, then.

Now, twenty years later, I've watched Legend as it was intended to be seen, the so-called "Ultimate Edition" replete with the "lost" Jerry Goldsmith score, and I tend to agree with those who view it as something of a lost masterpiece. At its restored 114 minutes, the film boasts currents and thematic turns that were missing before, and more so, captures a wonderful feeling of melancholy (not unlike Dragonslayer and Excalibur...) for a world where mankind still believed in magic and magical creatures.

On the surface, one can look at all the elements incorporating Legend and decipher the tale's origins in our most popular myths and literature. In one sense, the story is an Adam & Eve parable, since it is Lily's transgression that transforms the world to darkness. (though Jack too is guilty of a sin; in his case - pride.) Oona's story evokes memories of Tinker Bell and Peter Pan...she's a sprite who loves a man (Jack) and can be vengeful over his love. And the creature of the swamp encountered en route to Darkness's lair is certainly a Lord of the Rings, Gollum-like character (only even more dreadful in appearance...). Finally, Darkness is nothing short of a Miltonian-tragic character, an evocation of Lucifer as a near-sympathetic figure. Yes, Darkness is terrible and monstrous (in appearance and appetite), but he's also lonely and misunderstood, one suspects. Maybe reigning in Hell isn't such a great thing after all...

But beyond this "fantasy" template of not hard-to-discern sources, Legend works so beautifully because it understands that the world of "fairy tales" is one lost to us today. This forest lush with greenery and gold with sunlight is a place where mankind simply cannot remain. The unicorns are mythological beasts, and as long as they remain on Earth, evil cannot hurt the pure of heart. Dark thoughts, we are told, are unknown to the unicorns...

Well, we don't see any unicorns running around today, do we? And the pure of heart die just as regularly in our lives as do the wicked, right? So, has "evil" won in our universe of 2006? Perhaps, perhaps not, as Legend informs us, for good and evil, knowledge and innocence, must go hand in hand.

In other words (and other worlds...), Legend presents a lost world paradise, a place where simple rules governed man. If he only had protected the unicorns -- the last of their kind -- and not sought to "own" them (as Lily seeks to touch them...), he might have dwelled in paradise forever. Of course, would we really want to live in a world like that, without knowledge? Is that truly a desirable outcome? That's one of the questions Legend asks, underneath all of the unbelievably gorgeous fantasy imagery. "Light and dark" are brothers eternal, Legend reminds us, and perhaps mankind needs his baser, dark instincts - as well as his noble ones - to reach his full potential.

"The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity"...
That's another great line from Legend and one that captures the melancholy feel of the film. There's a great, seductive moment near the climax, wherein Lily willingly (and literally) dances with evil. She embraces it for an instant, and is transformed by her materialistic desires into a black-clad (and ebony lip-stick wearing) goddess of darkness. Importantly, she looks more ravishing than ever before, and thus the film captures the allure, the seductive power of evil.

Finally, when the quest is over, and Darkness is vanquished (for the moment), Jack and Lily return to their lives in the nurturing forest, agreeing to meet there again the following day. In the distance, Scott's camera captures an interesting image of Gump, Screwball, and Oona. These mythic creatures wave frantically to the camera from the forest setting, as they recede into the distance and the end credits roll. This ultimate image reveals not just the end of a magnificent quest (and the movie too), but the end of an era. The fantasy creatures of a mystic and magic age know that their time is done; and they wave madly to us...perhaps to be remembered. As the camera pulls away further and further from them, the feeling of leaving innocence behind is highlighted.

Legend is not a perfect film by any means. Even in this director's cut, some scenes in the middle sag badly and feel overlong. Yet these isolated moments do not sag as badly as the middling second piece of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers. And also, Legend boasts something that Jackson's trilogy definitively lacks: a real villain with a discernible motivation. Quick, who's the villain in Lord of the Rings and what does he want? What's his plan? We never really know anything about the Dark Lord Sauron except that he's a big flaming eyeball. By contrast, Darkness (Tim Curry) in Legend is a creature of desires and emotions, and he actually has a strategy to take over the world; one that kinda even makes sense. Also, I think it important to highlight that the terror in Legend comes from the fact that mankind has caused his own downfall by mistreating and attempting to covet the natural world (the unicorn). In the Lord of the Rings, the ring is merely a tool of evil designed to trick mankind, but man's failing comes not from his own inherent flaws, rather from a piece of jewelry that entrances the wearer. You tell me, which is more dramatic, and true?

Another reason to enjoy Legend today is that it comes from an era in movie history (the 1980s), before CGI, when everything imagined had to actually be created on set. The forest had to built from scratch. The creature in the swamp too. No computers existed to (imperfectly) blend actors with cartoony digital creations. Yes, perhaps I'm "old school," but I stand by my assertion that direction and performance are much improved when talents can actually interact with mechanical creations on the set, rather than simply stand in front of a green screen and imagine something that will be composited later.

Say what you will about Legend's admittedly imperfect pacing, but there isn't a single moment in the film that rings false. Watching it, you are transported to this lush, gorgeous fairy tale world, and much of that authenticity comes from carefully constructed sets, creatures and make-ups. Tim Curry gives one of the genre's great performances under pounds of red make-up and facial appliances, and his Darkness is not easily forgotten. Would a CGI Darkness have worked so well? Been so memorable?

Today we live in the age of reason, the age of a God called the Computer. The age of Magic - the age of Legend - may truly be gone, in movies too...


Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Clocks are made by men, God creates time. No man can prolong his allotted hours, he can only live them to the fullest - in this world, or in the Twilight Zone."
- The Twilight Zone, "Ninety Years Without Slumbering," December 20th, 1960 (by Richard deRoy).

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY # 6: Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper (2003)

Having now written well over a dozen books (I'm edging up to two-dozen, actually...), I sometimes wonder why some books sell great and become hits (like Askew View, Best in Show, Horror Films of the 1970s and Encyclopedia of Superheroes...), and others merely do okay. Why some garner huge amounts of attention, and others disappear into the ether with little comment.

Because they're my first love in terms of filmmakers, I've written several scholarly studies of horror film directors (Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, John Carpenter...), and my last such study for McFarland was one on Tobe Hooper, mastermind behind a true classic, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Though this book, Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre, won me terrific notices from critics, it didn't sell as well as the other horror director tomes. Is that because of Hooper, I wonder, or because of me?

Anyway, now it's time for my bi-weekly attempt at self-promotion, and this time I'm featuring a John K. Muir book that I feel was overlooked by general readers, at least in comparison to my other horror movie books. So if you don't like self-promotion, that's okay, just read the next post...

Anyhoo, here's what the critics had to say about Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper:

"...Muir does an excellent job of chronicling his [Tobe Hooper's] career. The history and overview section tells us how the films were made, supplying us with behind-the-scenes stories....I don't know how many of you are going to rush out and rent the director's films...but the author does a great job talking about each movie, finding parallels in a few of his films to, of all things, Alice in Wonderland...I'm all for studies about different directors, and Tobe Hooper...is an inspired choice. That it [the book] is so appreciative and smart is a bonus."-CLASSIC IMAGES, January 2003, page 38.

"...John Kenneth Muir [whose mammoth tome HORROR FILMS OF THE 1970s received some well-deserved kudos in our last issue) asserts that plenty of trademarks are present in Hooper's films, even if spotting them requires more than a cursory glance. Muir's talent for identifying patterns among the minutiae (visual, thematic or otherwise) serves him well in this exhaustive critique....Muir also documents Hooper's penchant for subtle satire and his long-standing affinity for storylines featuring multiple antagonists working in tandem....Accordingly, Muir paints us a picture of an important horror icon..."-John W. Bowen, RUE MORGUE: NINTH CIRCLE BOOKS, January/February 2003, page 57.

"...the opening career overview and the following critiques contain much of interest, resulting in a never less than readable if not entirely convincing attempt to re-position Hooper as an overlooked master of the macabre. Rating: FOUR STARS * * * *" - FILM REVIEW, SUMMER 2003

"The book kicks off with a well-written and curt introduction...The 'commentary' sections are what Muir is all about...he really scrapes beneath the surface of the film and looks for the subtext; every nuance is analysed. It makes for fantastic reading for the film enthusiast...My two favourite allegories though are his comparison of TCM to Alice in Wonderland and Poltergeist as an attack on president Ronald Reagan's lassez-faire domestic policies. Engrossing stuff...If you are a fan of Hooper, a film analyst or want to re-examine his work then this book is essential. It drips with a care and attention that would put some authors of similar material to shame. Muir's passion for the genre and his appreciation for Hooper, are infectious. 4 (out of 5) Chainsaws." WITHIN THE WOODS, September, 2004.

."Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre is a zany and entertaining examination of a director often overlooked in his field...Muir deftly places Hooper among the inarguable masters of the horror film such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven and George Romero. Recommended for all large film collections and also to be added to libraries with Muir's previous books on directors John Carpenter...and Wes Craven."- Mimi Davis, THE SHY LIBRARIAN, Summer 2003, page 39.

"His reporting on the first two CHAINSAW films makes for compelling reading on behind-the-scenes terrors; he also delves deeply into the Hooper-or-Spielberg controversy surrounding POLTERGEIST....Horror fans will want to read this, regardless of their stance on the director." - HITCH MAGAZINE # 33, Spring 2003.

"With an informal and accessible tone...Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of of Tobe Hooper examines the cinematic offerings of director Hooper with both a biographical section and a 'films of' section. All the important films - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, Salem's Lot - are well-covered, as are the oft-told production stories...Muir offers some good insights into Hooper's films...a valuable reference...Eaten Alive...also contains information on Hooper's telefilms and episodic television work, and appendices." - Mike Malloy, CULT MOVIES, September 2003, Issue 39, page 80.

"This 30-year career overview and in-depth critical study of the director's film and TV work champions Hooper's neglected genius...[a] worthwhile retro[spective]...score: Boss [8 out of 10]." - DRAGON's BREATH, Issue # 71.

And here's an excerpt from my introduction to the book:

Nearly thirty years after its premiere, director Tobe Hooper's (1943 - ) breakthrough film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) remains a blessing and a curse for the larger-than-life Texas-born filmmaker, at least so far as his career in Hollywood is concerned.

A blessing, because, despite its notorious title, the film remains a smash hit with critics and horror film audiences; a classic of its kind, even.

A curse because its reputation hounds Hooper wherever he goes and limits the opportunities open to him as a working filmmaker in the youth-centric entertainment industry of the new millennium.

Like fellow baby boomer genre directors Wes Craven and John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper is renowned first and foremost as a "horror movie" director and much of his cinematic work has been limited to that genre despite his considerable gifts with comedic and action-oriented material. Hooper so expertly (and so viscerally) directed the Grand Guignol tale of a bizarre rural psychopath named Leatherface that the buzz (of both the chainsaw and the notorious film) has proven inescapable. Even detours to music videos (for Billy Idol and the Cars) and dramatic television (CBS's The Equalizer) have proved unsuccessful in changing that.
The saw, it seems, really is family.

Unlike his horror film compatriot Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper has not overseen any mainstream box office hits (such as Scream [1996]) and its 1997 and 1999 follow-ups) in some twenty years.

And, unlike that genre-bending auteur, John Carpenter, he isn't famous for any movie franchises outside the popular (and seemingly endless...) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre series. While Carpenter has consistently held audience attention with classics like The Thing (1982) and Halloween (1978), he has simultaneously directed big budget sequels such as Escape from L.A. (1996) and shepherded notable independent releases such as Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001). These new releases inevitably carry attention back to Carpenter's previous body of work at the same time they earn him new fans.

By contrast, Tobe Hooper's last theatrical release was 1995's The Mangler, a largely forgettable adaptation of a minor Stephen King short story. His genre work since then has been relegated mostly to television and direct-to-video features, and many of those are low-profile at best.

And yet, amongst the knowledgeable about such things, Tobe Hooper remains solidly ensconced as one of the "big five" horror maestros of the late 20th century. Along with Craven, Carpenter, George Romero and David Cronenberg, Hooper is amongst the most skilled of all genre directors toiling in Hollywood, able to tap into audience fears and adrenaline rhythms with seemingly boundless energy, directorial ingenuity and even a richly ironic sense of humor. There is something inherently dangerous and liberating about the works of this artist, and even the weakest of his films breaks barriers, heightens the viewer's blood pressure, and seems to plug into a no-holds-barred sense of escalating insanity...

Still, Hooper is probably the least acknowledged and sparsely praised of the five aforementioned horror film directors, for reasons that concern politics, Hollywood power games, luck, and coincidence more than his unique skills as a filmmaker...

So that's a little peek at Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre, designed to hopefully whet your whistle. If you want to show the book some belated love, you can find my monograph on Tobe Hooper at Amazon.com.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

A dear friend and colleague from France stopped by at my home office during the holidays, and gave me and Kathryn a wonderful gift - a DVD of the early serial killer drama, The Spiral Staircase, directed by Robert Siodmak.

This elegantly made, deeply creepy film (with a screenplay by Mel Dinelli, based on the novel "Some Must Watch" by Ethel Lina White) is the harrowing tale of a small town dealing with a rash of brutal murders.

An unknown killer is methodically offing local women who possess some kind of imperfection. One victim is "mentally deficient," another bore a scar on her face. One of the first scenes in the film (and a truly terrifying one...) involves a woman entering her hotel room - totally unaware of danger - only to be confronted with the fiendish murderer waiting in the closet. We witness the attack (briefly), but never catch the identity of the killer. Instead, we see only his hateful, rage-filled eyeball...

Who is the killer?

"Somebody in this town. Somebody we all know. Someone we see in this town everyday. Could be me. Could be you,"suggests the Constable with more than a trace of paranoia. The police may not know the identity of the killer, but they suspect that the next victim may be Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a lovely young woman who went mute after a childhood trauma involving a fire.

Helen is one of many servants at the Gothic, old Warren Mansion, a foreboding place surrounded by a black, wrought-iron fence. There, in one of the many bedrooms, Old Lady Warren (Ethel Barrymore) is bed-ridden and dying. Near-hysterical, she warns Helen to leave the house that very night...that dark and stormy night...lest she die.

"There was a girl murdered here, long ago..." she warns. Significantly, Mrs. Warren keeps a pistol by her bedside...

Also residing in the grand old house is Stephen Warren (Gordon Oliver) a sarcastic playboy whose visits to America always coincides with murder. He's there with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming).

Stephen's brother (Blanche's former boyfriend), the erudite Professor Warren (George Brent), also lives in the home, but keeps mostly to himself. Finally, Helen's would-be husband, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), promises to get Helen out of the house before she can be attacked, but then is called away into the pouring rain on important medical business, leaving the young lady to fend for herself in a house filled with secrets and a diabolical killer...

In it's technical perfection and chilly, elegant story-telling, The Spiral Staircase looks and feels like a vintage Alfred Hitchcock film. It's from the theatrical school of filmmaking of its era, not the more naturalistic style we've become accustomed to in newer horror films, such as High Tension or Wrong Turn. This means that characters are given to long expositional monologues and speeches with flourish, rather than reacting naturally as would expect in, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Nonetheless, the fear is palpable in this film, for a few critical reasons. Paramount among these is the central location: the entire film occurs during one long night, as a terrible storm rages outside the house (an externalization of the killer's rage?) The Warren house is a vast, dark place, with many places to die (including a dark basement...) and the killer watches from the shadows. The final confrontation occurs on - you guessed it - a spiral staircase, as the killer begins to reveal the perverted labyrinth of his mind...

Beyond the claustrophobic setting, Dorothy McGuire's character, Helen, represents the perfect horror movie "final girl" in a sense, because she can't even scream to warn others or to get help. Other characters are killed around her, and she must convey to the survivors what has occurred, but without the all-important ability to speak. We've seen blind characters in horror films before, like Mia Farrow in See No Evil (1971) or Audrey Hepburn in the classic Wait Until Dark, but this is something else entirely. Helen's dilemma is made abundantly clear during a "fantasy" wedding sequence wherein she imagines herself marrying Dr. Parry. It comes time for her to recite her vows, to say "I do," but she is helpless to say anything...and the fantasy becomes a nightmare. In another scene, she races to a telephone to call for help, but then can't utter a word, even as an impatient operator asks if anybody is on the line.

There's also a nice psychological underpinning in the film. Helen is mute because of a "mental trauma" from her past, and forced to confront these events by the Doctor. Sort of an aggressive form of psychotherapy.

But more unique is the mental instability of the killer. Thanks to Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock, we are all-too familiar with films in which the "mother" is the source of all the murderous rage and insanity. In The Spiral Staircase, it is a long-dead father who is responsible for creating madness in one of his boys. For this "Bad Father" derided weakness in his boys, and made them feel inadequate. One responded by rooting out weakness (imperfection...) in women, and snuffing it out. But which one? That's the crux of the movie's suspense...

"Too many trees stretch their branches...try to get in...creep up to the house..." warns dying Ms. Warren, describing perfectly the insanity of one son (she knows not which...). His mind has been infiltrated by twisted, gnarled thoughts; ones that creep up on his goodness and turn him mad.

Film comes in two distinct schools: the realistic approach and the formalist approach. Like all of Hitchcock's films (which attempt to manipulate reality so as to create strong emotions in viewers...), Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase is formalist in the extreme; born of an age where theatricality was something to be proud of, and wherein extreme angles could symbolize the twisted mentality of a monster.

The Spiral Staircase is a masterpiece of its day, and a terrific and early example of the serial killer in the cinema. I had a great time watching it. I especially liked a self-reflexive scene early in the film. Mute Helen sits down and watches a silent movie unspool before her eyes, one entitled The Kiss. A woman plays a piano nearby, to the accompanying the images on screen. Because she's mute, Helen will be starring in a silent movie of her own before the night is through, not one about a kiss, but about a kill, instead...

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 11

Surface unexpectedly "surfaced" last night at 8:00 pm. I was surprised to see that NBC had a new episode scheduled so early into 2006. I figured people were still vacationing and away from the TV; but apparently not...

Anyway, there are only four episodes remaining in this season of the 2005-2006 sci-fi show about a new species of carnivore living at the bottom of the ocean.

When last we left our heroes, Laura Daughtery and Rich Connelly had been rescued after videotaping the beasties in their spawning ground; and poor Nimrod, the pet of teenage Miles in Wilmington, NC, had been shot.

This week, the series created by the Pate brothers (G vs. E) dispenses with suspense before the end of the opening teaser, and we learn that Nimrod is actually alive. Miles goes to visit the little guy and he kind of sneezes while laying in a tray of ice cubes. The scientists at the aquarium thus surmise the lizardly Nim possesses "really advanced healing capabilities." You think? The long term upshot of this may be that the "monsters" are resistant to gunfire. That could be a problem down the road, no?

Meanwhile, Laura and Rich hitchhike to San Francisco and peddle their videotape to a reporter who works for NBC (cross-promotion synergy!!!!). Their footage of the "American Nessie" is aired on MSNBC's "Countdown" starring Keith Olbermann (who guest stars on the show...), but Laura is discredited and made to look like a fool on national TV. Damn! At least she can comfort herself by the knowledge that only a couple hundred thousand people watch MSNBC each night. I'm one of 'em, though. I watch Hardball (except when right-wing loony-bird Norah O'Donnell subs for Chris Matthews), and I'm addicted to Countdown...

My wife wasn't too keen to see Surface back on the schedule (though was comforted that she would never have to sit through another episode of Threshold...), but I was thrilled. I continue to enjoy this program, especially the depiction of Miles. He's not a super genius like Wesley Crusher, just a regular kid who has done some extraordinary things because he has an extraordinary heart. It used to be - a long, long time ago - that science fiction film and TV were filled with regular kids like this. Remember the kid on NBC's Voyagers? Or the little boy in Invaders from Mars (either version?) Or Eliot in E.T.? They were just regular joes who happened to be helpful and very resourceful. The character of Miles on Surface brings to mind those examples, and it's kinda nostalgic.

Another subplot involving Miles: now that he's shared some sort of "communion" with Nimrod, he also possesses some of the lizard's abilities, apparently. His hands don't prune after being in water (!) and more importantly, Miles now appears capable of affecting nearby electrical fields. But can he down salt by the pound and eat poodles, I wonder...

I'm curious to see where this series will go in the four remaining episodes for the season. Anybody heard if Surface has been picked up yet for next year?

CATNAP TUESDAY #25: 2006 & Back to Work...




Well, I'm back on the job again today, with deadlines piling high.

Fortunately, my three loyal and loving cats - (from top to bottom) Lila, baby Lily and Ezri - have all decided to help me out and are swarming my desk.

Too bad they can't type...

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Column at Far Sector

My January '06 Media Transmissions column is up over at the Far Sector web-zine right now. My topic this month is the 2005 "slump" at the box office. The column is called Diagnosing Hollywood; 2005: The Year of the Movie Slump.

Here's an Excerpt:

It’s sort of ironic. After years as a dirty cousin to cinema, television is coming into its own as a valid art form, primarily because the advent of cable has splintered network viewership, permitting niche dramas and comedies to flourish where once they would have been cancelled out of the chute, or never made it past the pilot stage. Contrarily, movies today feel more and more 'mass produced' in an industrial process (and are therefore less satisfying…) as desperate studios attempt to grasp ever wider audiences. And the wider the audience, the less individual—and the less challenging—the movie...

So head on over to
Far Sector and check out the rest if you get a chance...