Saturday, January 21, 2006

Singing a New Tune in The Washington Post

Theater critic Celia Wren reviews my latest book, Singing a New Tune this weekend in The Washington Post (Sunday Books Section; page BW09) and gives it...a resounding "meh."

The reviewer, who kindly terms me a "prolific chronicler of popular culture" notes that:

"he [meaning me] rustles up a few smart apercus about releases from the last decade, -- for example his eye-opening analysis of how the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut lampooned musical comedy tropes."

But then Wren objects to the fact that I quoted Joss Whedon frequently; and dislikes my "painstaking" critiques of such bombs as Spice World and From Justin to Kelly.

So this is a solid "thumbs horizontal."

Pick Your Favorite Irritating Sci-Fi Kid!

Watching Space Academy this week, I was reminded that little Loki makes trouble every single week. He stows away on missions, steals Seekers and generally, he's a pain in the you know what.

And then I realized, this character is as much a "stock" plot device in the sci-fi genre as the robotic sidekick. And since here on the blog we've been picking dream crew (like a robot sidekick) aboard our dream ship (the movie version of the Enterprise, per your choice), it occurs to me we have to take the bad with the good.

So here's the deal. You're assembling your "perfect" crew, and yet sci-fi genre conventions require that - as captain of your vessel - you select an obnoxious kid as part of the team. After all, who are we going to rescue from danger when we stop facing evil twins, living machines, alternature universes and parallel planet evolutions?

The first obnoxious kid up for consideration is none other than Anakin Skywalker. He's a little too enthusiastic for my taste (prone to shouting "yahoo"), but he's cute as a button and can pilot a racing pod like nobody's business. He gets into trouble constantly (stowing away on a Naboo fighter) and hanging out with Jar-Jar, but the upside is that Anakin's midochlorian count is through the roof, and therefore he has a way with the Force. So he's our first selection. Just, uh, let's ditch him before he turns twenty or so...he's got a dark side.

Our second nominee is Wesley Crusher, son of Dr. Bev. He's been known to block off Main Engineering with a home-made forcefield when intoxicated. And in the episode "Justice," he caused an interstellar incident when he trampled on the grass and interfered in another culture. Wesley is smart (but insecure), yet he does have a knack for saving the ship. We might want to consider him. When he gets really annoying, let's just contact the Traveller again, and Wesley will go off to the end of the universe or something, only showing up for crew weddings ("Nemesis.")

Then there's the aforementioned Loki. From Space Academy. This orphan is always getting into trouble. He's been known to unwittingly conspire with aliens ("There's No Place Like Home,") take seekers out on joy rides, and even stow away on critical missions (with chimpanzees and robots, no less). Looking at the bright side for this curly-haired moppet, Loki possesses the power to transport himself across small distances, and has x-ray vision. Those abilities could come in handy.

Adric, anybody? I'm talkin' bout the Doctor's doomed companion on the British television series, Doctor Who. He's extremely bright, but like the others, has a knack for getting himself into trouble. If we pick him, let's be sure to encounter the Cybermen quickly...

Apollo's son, Boxey, on Battlestar Galactica, is another candidate. He's basically obsessed with his robotic dog, Muffit, and that's how he gets into trouble all the time. In "Saga of a Star World," he chases Muffit out onto the barren surface of Carillon and is promptly captured by Ovions. In "Gun on Ice Planet Zero," Boxey stows away on a shuttle craft to be near his dad. And worst of all, he grows up to ride a flying motorcycle in Galactica: 1980. Boxey is less irritating than most of the other candidates here, but unluckily for him, he possesses no super powers. Maybe we could throw in the robot dog?

And then there's Will Robinson from the original Lost in Space in the 1960s. Frankly, I don't think Will's really irritating at all. In fact, he saves the Jupiter 2, Dr. Smith and the Robot constantly. He's resourceful, intelligent, and can play the guitar.

Other candidates include Jake on Deep Space Nine...but honestly, I never found him irritating. I liked the fact that he became a journalist (rather than going into Starfleet), and I thought the actor did a great job with the character. Other possibilities (let's not be sexist here): Holly on Land of the Lost, and Buffy's prone-to-trouble sister, Dawn, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So who's it gonna be, folks? Which kid gets a berth on our "fantasy" starship and crew? Don't demure. You must pick one...

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "Monkey Business"

I've been blogging Space Academy (one episode a week) for a while now, and re-acquainting myself with this nearly thirty-year old Saturday morning, live action show. It's been an enjoyable experience for the most part, mainly because I watched the series as a child and feel tremendous nostalgia for those bygone days of the 1970s.

But, every now and then, an episode of this Filmation series is just not very good. "Monkey Business" is one of those. As if an explanation is in order, just let me state, the episode involves a chimpanzee named Jake. You see, Adrian is working on an experiment involving chimpanzee/human communications. At around the same time, there's a disaster on a nearby asteroid mirror array, and Tee Gar and Professor Bolt are trapped on a planetoid as it freezes. As the temperature drops, both men are reduced to cowering underneath what appear to be tarps. This is actually an improvement, because the professor had been wearing what looks like a gold velour jogging outfit.

Anyway, Chris Gentry and Paul set out in a Seeker to help, but Loki and Jake the ape have stowed away in the ship's rear compartment. Loki stows away every week, I've noticed. I'm serious. Jeez.

Anyway, in attempting to repair the array, Chris must climb the scaffolding of a tower to reach a malfunctioning circuit board. But then he falls, and can't get up. So guess who has to fix the machinery? Yep, it's Jake the monkey, who just happens to be there on that mission. Exactly when he's needed. With Adrian's experiment and Laura's psychic abilities, the monkey does good.

Afterwards, Loki gets grounded for two weeks. His punishment should have been watching this episode again...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Open City Dialogue Posted!

Hey friendly readers, my friend George (a frequent comment writer here on the blog) just posted an e-mail dialogue with me that he conducted the other day, on the films of John Carpenter (the subject of my upcoming talk at Fantasmo, February 3rd, 2006), and in particular, the 1988 Carpenter film, They Live.

George's questions were really good, and very detailed, and I answered 'em the best I could, but then I had to run off towards the end and get back to writing Horror Films of the 1980s. It's still a great piece, though! Check it out here!

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "Power"

I think there's a big, green pod growing somewhere in Invasion's collective basement. The molasses-slow, short-on-information ABC series I've been watching with interest (and occasional irritation...) for a few months now has been "snatched" away all the sudden and replaced by a compelling, funny, rich - and fast moving drama. In fact, Wednesday's episode of Invasion was far superior to its lead-in (another Jack-centric, flashback-heavy episode of Lost).

I hope audiences are still watching...

The appropriately titled "Power" deals with Sheriff Tom Underlay's power play to get his wife back. He's taken the kids (Kira, Jessie and Rose) on vacation to a remote cabin, but as far as Mariel and Russell are concerned, it's an abduction. While these former spouses try to figure things out, the Underlay house is plagued with mysterious phone calls. "You betrayed me," the caller says at one point. "You poisoned my house," he says later. Then Russell confronts hooded prowlers...who may just be Tom's minions on the police force. Creepy.

By the end of the day, Mariel has reconciled with Tom, but the cost is her children. She grants temporary custody to Russell, an act that devastates her, but protects the kids.

This episode is so good and so strong in character fireworks, I almost don't know where to begin. Russell and Mariel are clearly feeling drawn to each other again, and they almost kiss a second time in "Power." Their attraction to one another is now palpable, and I wonder where this is going to go. The expecting Larkin is now highly suspicious of Russell, and thinks his affections have been alienated (literally). Meanwhile, Tom - singing a hybrid Karoake version of Frank Sinatra's My Way - orchestrates everything from afar like the puppet master he is. Yes, he's a fan of Sun Tzu, which means that this is all part of his strategy. And in the end, the bad guy wins.

Amazingly, some of Tom's strategy is actually being revealed. This is a new thing for Invasion, which has depended on misdirection and miscues for a while now. In the closing minutes of "Power," we see that Tom is shipping firearms to castaway hybrids inhabiting a key 122 miles from Miami. Oh yeah, the invasion is coming...

But what I really enjoyed most about this installment of Invasion is that for the first time, the writer (in this case, creator Shaun Cassidy) appears to let himself have a bit of fun with the premise and the characters. The protagonists aren't so lugubrious in this installment, and there are jokes about The Shining (a tale of another father gone bonkers...), about the aliens "eating their young," and the like. And then there's Tom's Karoake duet with Rose, a song that clearly has a double thematic meaning. Perhaps more to the point, there's significant suspense generated here, as the audience wonders what Tom is hiding in the duffle bag (in two duffle bags, actually).

This episode moves along at a fast clip, evidences a droll sense of with and humor, and even has a jolt or two. If Invasion had been this good from the beginning, it would have Lost-sized ratings right now.

TV REVIEW: Book of Daniel: "Temptation," & "Forgiveness"

Well, I finally watched Book of Daniel's first two episodes (presented as a two-hour event on NBC January 6 of this year. All I can say is...Heaven help me!

Meet the Webster family. Here's the score card (and believe me, you'll need one): There's a pill-popping father/Episcopal minister, Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn), his gay son, Peter, and his adopted Asian son. There's his daughter Grace, who has been arrested selling drugs (to make money for her manga comic), and Daniel's wife Judith (former Borg Queen, Suzanna Thompson), who enjoyeth the "occasional" martini too much, methinks.

Wait, I'm still going down my list. There's also Daniel's mother, Catherine...who suffers from the worst case of TV Alzheimers I've ever seen, meaning that she makes funny comments at the Sunday dinner table and then, every now and then, says something poignant, like the interrogative to Daniel, "I'm your mother?" All together now: Awwwwwww.

Oh, and Judith's brother-in-law, Charlie, has left his wife (Judith's sister...) and stolen 3.2 million dollars from Daniel's church. Meanwhile, Judith's sister seems to be engaged in a lesbian affair with Charlie's secretary. And Daniel's father (James Rebhorn) is an intolerant bigot. Oh, and in "Temptation," Daniel must deal with a "sensitive" Terri Schiavo/euthanasia, end-of-life-type issue amongst his flock at St. Barnabus.

All this, and a Buddy Christ too...

I can't remember another drama/soap-opera so front-loaded with contrived elements. And frankly, it is contrived. It's hackneyed, trite, and as far from reality as anything airing on the Sci-Fi Channel. The result is that Book of Daniel wobbles and lurches from one quasi-meaningful "issue of the day" to another without really substantively focusing on anything. The template here appears to be Desperate Housewives, and Book of Daniel attempts to walk the same fine line of humor/melodrama as that popular ABC show. Yet - and this is important - Book of Daniel is staggeringly unfunny. Near the end of "Temptation," for example, there's a scene set at a funeral in which an angry widow (Judith's sister) spots the mistress of her dead husband, and goes on a rampage in the cemetery. It should be funny, but there's not a laugh or giggle to be found. It goes over like a lead balloon. I didn't even crack a smile....

I also have a real problem with the way the "Buddy Christ" (a term from Kevin Smith's Dogma) is utilized in the TV show. If he's supposed to really be Christ, and not a fantasy in Daniel's head, then the program is guilty of trivializing a figure that millions worship and revere. I'm not a religious wacko or anything, but really - could you imagine a Hollywood film with a Buddy Buddha or a Buddy Allah? How many special interest groups would be up in arms about that? Personally - and again, this is just my opinion - I believe that some radical Republicans have hijacked Christianity for personal political purposes, (Pat Robertson, Rick Santorum -- I'm talking to you!), but I don't think that unfortunate fact should grant TV the license to commit the same crime. I point this out in regards to politics, so I would be a hypocrite not to point it out in entertainment. It's wrong when the right does it; it's equally wrong when the left does it.

And if the Buddy Christ in Book of Daniel is merely a fantasy, part of Daniel's interior dialogue with himself, then he's really just a self-righteous crutch of the character. Why? Because in these episodes at least, Jesus is constantly soothing Daniel and making Webster feel that his decisions are okay. In other words, Daniel is rest assured in his self-righteousness, because Jesus is literally his co-pilot.

Ironically, Jesus Christ as depicted in The Book of Daniel, doesn't object to the fact that the Webster family employs, essentially, an African-American manservant. One who has very few lines, and just looks at the other characters with angelic disapproval. Even more to the point, Jesus doesn't object to a WASP-ish American family living in the lap of luxury in a wealthy community and huge house, while much of the outside world (and parts of America too...) suffer from hunger and live in poverty. Nope, instead, Jesus is fully engaged in the family's petty drama. Should Grandpa know that Peter is gay? Should Daniel just learn to "talk to his daughter?" To me, this approach merely reinforces the worst notions of modern American Christianity: that Jesus is perched on your shoulder, validating your personal, chosen lifestyle, instead of challenging it. By chosen, I refer to the choice to pursue the almighty dollar as the One True God. Just wanted to be clear about that. I think that's probably a worse sin than drug abuse, alcoholism or anything else. Because doesn't the Bible state something along the lines that a "rich man in heaven is like a camel through the eye of a needle," (roughly paraphrased). So why is Jesus even bothering with Daniel?

I find all this really insulting. I'm no Jesus expert, but I think that if Christ exists, God's son has more important things to do with his time than ride shotgun beside a wealthy priest with a prescription pill habit. Here's a sample of Jesus's homespun wisdom: "Life is hard for everyone, Daniel. That's why there's a nice reward at the end of it." You know, that should be on a hallmark card. "Life is Hard." Deep.

Yes my friends, this show's philosophy is feel-good pabulum. As is all of Book of Daniel. Heretofore, I will refer to this program as Jesus Whisperer, because it's at about that level of maturity and depth.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror: "Deer Woman"

"You wanna see something really scary?" Dan Ackroyd's ghoulish character asked in Twilight Zone: The Movie (back in 1983), a movie with one segment directed by John Landis.

Why yes, sir. Please. I would like to see something scary...

Alas, I won't find it on Showtime....

For I've just seen the least effective installment thus far of the Showtime Original Series, Masters of Horror. Though I am thrilled to learn that the series will be back for a second season, I've detected an alarming trend here (this is the seventh episode I've watched). And that trend is this: the episodes purely and simply aren't scary.

So far, the only episode that made me jump out of my seat and my heart beat out of my chest was Don Coscarelli's brilliantly paced installment, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road." Now, that's not to say that I haven't enjoyed other installments a great deal. I deeply respect Tobe Hooper's "Dance of the Dead." It was unrelenting, harrowing, difficult to watch, and disturbing. But it wasn't scary; at least not in the traditional, "I just pissed my pants" sense. The last episode I reviewed here on the blog, Joe Dante's "Homecoming" is also a worthwhile segment. It's a very funny, very astute political satire. But again, NOT SCARY.

And then comes this travesty. A nail in the coffin, if you will.

Listen, I appreciate the body of work created by John Landis. American Werewolf in London is - inarguably - one of the great horror movies of the 1980s. I got nothing against the guy (even after the famous Twilight Zone court case). But this episode of Masters of Horrors isn't funny, isn't thought- provoking, and sure as hell isn't scary.

Here's the story, a down-on-his-luck police detective (played by an unshaven Brian Benben) investigates the murder of a trucker outside a bar called Morgan's. The victim left the establishment with a gorgeous Native American woman, and was soon found trampled to death inside his truck. No sign of the woman.

When these strange trampling murders continue, and another crime scene turns up "deer DNA," the detective, Faraday, realizes he is dealing with a siren from Native American Mythology, "The Deer Woman." Yep, she's got deer legs, but a smokin' hot human torso. (And she's played by the luscious Cinthia Moura). And yes, you get to see her topless. It's glorious.

However, in the end, there's no explanation for the attacks, no motive behind the Deer Woman's murders (and not even any reasoning behind why she chooses the victims she does). Instead, the viewer is treated to a very long hour of silliness, with a little nudity and bad CGI thrown in for good measure.

Objectivity forces me to admit that there is a moment in the episode that I enjoyed (besides the aforementioned topless moments). Benben's character refers to an "animal sexual assault" that occurred in London in in 1981; a possible wolf attack. Of course, this was the finale of the director's American
Werewolf in London. So this is what? The unofficial sequel?

But really, shouldn't we expect more from Landis (and his co-writer, Max Landis) at this point than a director just paying homage to his own, superior work? That's a lot like resting on your laurels, if you ask me. Shouldn't "masters of horror" like these guys be expected - on more than one occasion out of six or seven - to actually scare us?

I don't know about you, but I hope the remaining episodes are really scary. I haven't seen Argento or Carpenter's offerings yet, so I'm hoping there'll be a turnaround here.

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 26: Phasers on Stun!

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I guess I lived in a much simpler world than today's. You see, I played with toy guns all the time growing up, and I didn't up twisted, murderous or ultra-violent. At least I don't *think* I did.

Maybe it's because the toy guns I mostly played with as a kid all had a very unique feature you don't find on contemporary toy firearms: the stun setting.

Yep, you guessed it, one of my favorite toys as a kid was a plastic Star Trek phaser - the "defensive" weapon of choice of Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Bones and the rest of the Enterprise crew. And lucky me, this particular toy came in all shapes and sizes, (and with all kinds of functions.)

The first Starfleet-issue (not really...) phaser I remember from my childhood was actually a model kit. It came in the AMT "Exploration Kit" set (alongside a tricorder and communicator). This version of the popular phaser pistol didn't have any special features, but to my young mind, it was accurate enough, molded in plastic and silver, and seemed like the ultimate toy.

I remember my Dad built me this model way back when I was a little kid in the early 1970s. It must have been 1974 and I was either four or five. He assembled and decal-ed the kit for me on a Friday evening, and left it outside my room for me for a fresh adventure on Saturday morning. I know it was the early 1970s because Star Trek: The Animated Series was on the television that Saturday, and I remember watching the episode while clutching my new phaser. If I only I could have been "beamed up."

Later, other "toy" phasers came out. One of the best was the Star Trek "Super Phaser II Target Game" manufactured "exclusively" by Mego. This weapon "was light sensitive," according to the box "and operates best when used indoors in subdued light." You would just " the trigger...A powerful beam of light shoots out!"

And you were encouraged to "hit the target reflector badge on your friend," and thereby "activate the sonic buzzer device." So this model phaser was the forerunner of Photon and Laser Tag, I guess. The set came with a "Super Phaser II Gun with sonic buzzer device" and a target reflector badge that featured the image of a Klingon D7 battle cruiser. My parents bought me two of these guns so I could blast away, willy-nilly, at friends on the playground and they could return fire.

Around the same time, Remco produced the "Official Star Trek transistorized Electronic Phaser Gun." That's a fancy way of saying that the toy was a flashlight that was molded to look like a Phaser. This toy featured a realistic phaser sound, a phaser light beam, and could "project a target" (like the Enterprise) on a far wall. Why, there was even a secret compartment in which to stow things (on top of the phaser)! I still own this toy, but it's much the worse for wear, as you can tell from the picture. Played it out, I guess.

Over the years, the Star Trek phaser toys grew more and more advanced. In 1979, in tandem with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a company called South Bend released the latest thing, a set of "Duel Phaser II" guns. These were battery-driven electronic devices, and again, were kind of like laser tag, except the users would target each other instead of a reflector. Again, I still own my original pair, but they too appear played out. The model of the phaser was different, more streamlined, to echo the design seen (briefly) in the film. The same phaser got more of a work out in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and that version became a favorite.

By the late 1980s, Star Trek: The Next Generation was upon us, and I never particularly cared for the "dustbuster" variety of new hand phaser featured on the program. Yes, I'm an old school Trekker. Give me Kirk and Spock and communicators with copper grills anyday. Still, some of the early episodes of this new series revealed how phaser technology had been upgraded for the 24th century. In the first season episode "Arsenal of Freedom," Tasha, Riker and Data utilized the handy weapon a lot, and I realized that it was like the first no-brainer phaser. You didn't even have to aim. Just pull the trigger and rake the continuous beam across space until you struck your target (which, in this case, was an aliens' automatic weapon system gone awry).

But the good thing was that after Playmates got through producing Star Trek: Next Gen toys - like the dustbuster phaser - they began delving into classic Trek props too. And this meant that the most accurate original series Phaser II (up to that point), was released in toy stores across America in 1994, thanks to the company's auspices. The Playmates' "Classic Phaser" had a "light up beam emitter," A "forward lock plate," a power display, a phaser setting dial, a beam intensity control, and anything else you could want in a Federation sidearm. Very, very cool.

Even better, Playmates later released a version of the Phaser pre-cursor, Captain Pike's "ray gun" as seen in the original pilot, "The Cage," and later in such early first season episodes as "The Man Trap" (Dr. Crater used one...) and "What Are Little Girls Made Of" (in which a really hot female android used one to dispatch the villainous Ruk. "Protect!")

But just a couple years ago, these great and cherished achievements by Playmates were blown out of the water by the release of an even more accurate toy phaser; and one with better sound effects to boot. Straight from Art Asylum, this sleek, ultra-realistic version of the phaser (pictured) could separate into its two component parts (Phaser I and Phaser II), and more than that, featured a variety of effects ripped from the show's soundtrack. This means you could set your phaser on overload (just like in the first season episode, "The Conscience of the King"). I couldn't manage to keep this one in the box. Sorry. I had to play with it. And - I confess - when nobody's paying attention, I sometimes carry the little pocket-sized Phaser One around in my jacket. Just in case of Mugato attack...

Although the subject of this retro toy flashback is Star Trek's phaser, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Space:1999 also boasted a really cool "stun gun" in the 1970s (see, there's that stun setting again...) Sure it looked like a staple gun a little bit, but it was way cool (and the "laser" effects on the show were very dramatic!) So yes, I collected these weapons as well, and pretended I was living on Moonbase Alpha and battling Tony Cellini's "dragon." One of the best such Space:1999 replications was like, Star Trek's phaser, a Remco "flashlight" type thing. This model had a "three function actuator" -- whatever that means.

AHI also released a Space:1999 water gun based on the Alphan laser weapon. I found a damaged one on E-bay a couple years ago to replace the one I trashed in youth. I don't think it still sprays, but what the makes a great display.

I'm sure that as we head deeper into the future, the next version of the Star Trek phaser (which I will surely own...) might just be one that actually works. This "defensive" weapon would be great to carry along on visits to Florida, especially after that recent law was passed that basically allows gun fights in the street. With the phaser set on stun - at least - nobody will get hurt. At least not permanently.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror: "Homecoming"

One aspect of Showtime's new original series, Masters of Horror, that I've really appreciated thus far is the sheer variety of stories. There's been old school, savage horror (Coscarelli), a sampling of Lovecraft (Gordon), film-noir (Garris), post-apocalyptic nihilism (from sentimentalist Tobe Hooper...), and more. With Joe Dante's contribution, "Homecoming," the series presents a political satire that fuses the zombie plot of Night of the Living Dead (1968) with the behind-the-scenes political posturing of Primary Colors (1998).

Since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was released nearly forty years ago, many critics (including me!) have interpreted the ghoulish dead rising from their graves in symbolic fashion; as a kind of protest of the Vietnam War; a return of the dead soldiers to menace the homeland that let their deaths occur in an unjust conflict.

"Homecoming" makes that concept literal, when - on a talk show that looks a lot like CNN's Larry King Live (only here it's Mandy Clark Live) - a political operative for a Bush-like president named Shelly trades commentary with a Gold Star Mother (just like Cindy Sheehan...) who has seen her boy die in the Iraq War, and wonders what it was all for. This conservative operative, David Murch (Jon Tenny) says that if he had just one wish, it would be that all the dead soldiers could come back to they could testify about how proud they are to have given their lives for this war.

The president likes that line so much, he actually uses it in his convention speech, as Election Day draws near. Meanwhile, the line also wins Murch the not-very-tender sexual affections of an Ann Coulter knock-off named Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill). The episode's satire works particularly well in this aspect of the tale: there's a photo of Jane on her new book cover that mirrors the famous "distorted" legs photo of Coulter from Time Magazine last year.

Anyway, Murch's wishes do come true. Dead veterans of "this engagement" arise from the dead...and the only way to stop them is to let them vote in the election. At first, the Karl-Rove like Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo) believes that this will be the perfect propaganda for a President running as a war hero (even though he never served in a war), and the Religious Right (led by a Falwell look-a-like) quickly notes that the zombies are giving the President "a stamp of heavenly approval" for his war.

But - shock - the zombie soldiers are against the war. They're against it because they fought it based on a lie and misinformation: no weapons of mass destruction; no nuclear program. Suddenly, Kurt Rand, David Murch and the President don't like these undead veterans anymore (since they no longer agree with them), and begin rounding up the ghouls in internment camps. But the zombies still cause a problem as election day looms. "What if we just ignored em?" asks one official. "Treated 'em like regular veterans?"

As you can guess from this description, Joe Dante's "Homecoming" serves as a scathing indictment of the Bush Administration and its approach on everything from re-election to prosecuting the War on Terror. The zombie soldiers just want to be heard; want our citizenry to look into the faces of those who sacrificed their lives based on misinformation and lies.

Of course, this is gazing into the eyes of those who sacrificed is not permitted in the United States today. Remember how right wing groups threatened to boycott Ted Koppel's Nightline in 2004 when it was going to honor them by featuring photographs of fallen soldiers? Even more to the point, the Administration doesn't let the press see (let alone photograph) the flag-draped coffins returning home to American soil from Iraq. This is ostensibly so that Americans won't lose faith in the cause, but honestly, the policy shortchanges these veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice. They died for the highest calling imaginable: protecting their country, and for some reason, our leaders don't want to acknowledge that. Which is weird. The President tells us constantly that we are engaged in a war that will last our lifetimes (though it is undeclared, actually...), and you'd think he'd want to remind Americans exactly what's at stake by honoring the troops on the front line of that conflict. But I guess that's just too messy...

Back to "Homecoming:" This episode had some great humor in it (particularly the line about the Ann Coulter knock-off being a "skank"), and more to that, a great point about how "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," and how entrenched power - on any side of the political aisle - will say and do anything to stay that way. Picardo plays his Karl Rovian character to perfection, and the result is a trenchant satire.

Of course, one might argue that this episode is in bad taste. That it too uses the soldiers as props (like the President at his carefully-screened "major speeches.") Perhaps that is so, but yet turnabout is fair play, and all art (even horror) has the responsibility to make us think about the times we live in. "Homecoming" isn't really scary, but if you keep abreast of politics, you'll get a big kick out of it.

This episode also makes of fun of voting irregularities, and offers the best explanation of President Bush's so-called popularity I've yet heard. "He's not stupid," says Murch of President Shelly. "He makes stupid people feel that they're just as smart as he is."

Dante's "Homecoming" reveals the real problem with Bush and his war. It's not that he was wrong-headed or made a mistake, or that he's not liberal "enough". It's that, when it comes down to it, he's a hypocrite. He pretends to be one thing (a God Fearing Conservative who loves the troops) when the opposite appears true. He cavalierly dispatches men to die and the cost to America in blood and treasure just keeps growing and growing. (What, after all, is conservative about "nation building" without the aid of a significant coalition to share the burden?) Bush claims to love the troops, but he won't stop fund-raising long enough to meet with a grieving mother, and many soldiers still don't possess adequate body armor in combat. Three years after the war started...

And there's nothing conservative- or decent - about that either. It's nice to see Masters of Horror wade into the great debate of our times, especially with so much humor. But I fear it's just preaching to the converted.

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY # 8: The Films of John Carpenter (2000)

I originally wanted to call this book Dark Star: The Films of John Carpenter, but the general consensus was that a title like that was a teensy bit obscure, and so here's my Muir book of the week, the plain-titled (but very successful...) 2000 effort (recently republished in soft-cover) by yours truly: The Films of John Carpenter.

I thought it would be appropriate to feature this book today, since Monday was John Carpenter's 58th birthday, and because I'll be discussing Carpenter's work preceding a double feature of They Live (1988) and The Fog (1980) at an upcoming Fantasmo Cult Movie Night in Chesapeake, Va.

Carpenter has been one of my favorite directors since I was old enough to spell - and string sentences together. He forged a remarkable run of great genre movies in the 1980s, all ones straddling genres in some fashion or another. From Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to at least They Live, he never created a less-than-satisfactory motion picture.

After that, well, things get hazy. There isn't as much consensus about his films. You'll find fans of In The Mouth of Madness (1994), but few takers on Village of the Damned (1995) or, yikes, Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1990). Still, I enjoy much of the director's later work, including Escape from L.A. (a prophetic satire that predicted an evangelical Christian in the White House, waaay back in 1996), Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001)

But let's get on with it. Here's what the critics said about my book, The Films of John Carpenter:

"...wonderfully comprehensive...a veritable primer on the cinema of Carpenter...elegantly written, incredibly insightful, and simply a real blast to read...thanks to John Kenneth Muir, the foundation for all future studies of Carpenter's films has been laid."-Mike Bracken, CULTUREDOSE.COM, 08/09/02.

"John Kenneth Muir is a fine writer and a first-rate historian who knows his subject well."-GADFLY ONLINE.

"John Muir's THE FILMS OF JOHN CARPENTER will have you heading for the Horror and Sci FI Section at your local video store." -CULT MOVIES.

"If you're a fan of Carpenter...get this most enjoyable book."-HITCH MAGAZINE.

"...a textbook that you'll probably find at the USC film school next semester. It's also an entertaining and informative fan guide to some pretty cool flicks."-FANDOM.COM.

"Muir's affectionate, conversational style - with a few wordy stabs into professorial prose - makes THE FILMS OF JOHN CARPENTER likable and readable." -MARK BURGER, U.S. JOURNAL BOOK PAGE.

"An ample study...pure Muir." -Anthony Ambrogio, VIDEO WATCHDOG.

"Unlike many 'Films of' books, which only provide brief analysis, Muir takes a very detailed approach to all of John Carpenter's output...[it] will delight Carpenter fans seeking hidden meanings in his multi-layered works."-THE BURLINGTON COUNTY TIMES.

"Muir does a fine job covering Carpenter's career and examining his films...I came away from this book with an even greater admiration for the gleefully politically-incorrect and anarchistic auteur director."-KEVIN ROSS, CINESCAPE ONLINE.

"This work is informative and entertaining for both film scholars and enthusiasts."-Cari Ringelheim, ARBA 2001.

"Muir's text covers it all...a welcome addition to the author's growing list of film and television analyses."-J.Robert Craig, JOURNAL OF EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, 03/02."

With the unalloyed affection of an avid movie enthusiast, Muir extols the auteur career of John Carpenter...Sketching Carpenter as a Hollywood maverick, a dark star....Muir details the 16 films directed by this entertaining artist...Recommended for all aficionados and students of Carpenter and his adventurous and scary films." - CHOICE, October 2000.

"Following a nearly fifty-page historical overview of Carpenter's film career, Muir provides a synopsis for each movie followed by a commentary that is...cogent and insightful...Particularly interesting is his argument that Halloween despite contrary claims, used predominantly non-subjective camera techniques to position Michael Myers as a character who is frightening because his motive and movements evade rationality."-Jay McRoy, SFRA REVIEW, Sept-Dec, 2001.

"...provides a thorough coverage and examination of the filmmaker's body of work, with ample space devoted to each of his projects..THE FILMS OF JOHN CARPENTER...makes an enjoyable read."-John Harrrison, CRIMSON CELLULOID.

"I enjoyed Muir's Wes Craven, so I was intrigued to see how he would handle Carpenter, a great favorite...The book starts with a great overview and history of Carpenter and his films filled with stories and comments...The coverage of the films...emphasize[s] the reasoning behind the films. Obviously more esoteric but still a very interesting read."-LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS, page 13.

And here's an excerpt from my intro:

Importantly, Carpenter envisions himself not as a "personal" director who directs "individual" message films for limited audiences. He is a studio director, like Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock, who directs stylish films designed solely to entertain mass audiences. His desire is not to connect with the viewer on an independent, "small" scale (like the cinema of Ed Burns, Woody Allen or Jim Jarmusch), but rather to entertain and manipulate the masses in the manner of the Hitchcock or Hawks blockbusters he remembers from his own youth. But, like Hawks before him, Carpenter's taste also tends to be the audience's taste. Carpenter dramatizes the stories he personally wants to tell, yet is uncannily skilled and luring audiences to his way of thinking.

There is another side to John Carpenter and his motion pictures: His films frequently reflect the mischievous side of the director's personality. For John Carpenter is surely the last maverick standing in Hollywood - a director who does what he wants, when he wants, and for wholly personal reasons. This anti-authoritarian streak, this rampant individualism, has resulted in Carpenter turning down directorial assignments on films as diverse as Top Gun (1985), Fatal Attraction (1987), and even H20 (1998), the twentieth anniversary sequel to his own horror masterpiece, Halloween. Simply stated, he is not at all interesting in directing films that do not stimulate his creative juices.

Carpenter not only makes the film he wants, he infuses each project with his own strong, anti-authoritarian, laconic bent. In Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., Carpenter's protagonists are convicted criminals, anti-heroes who loathe society's repressive laws and institutions. In The Thing, the officially appointed leader of the Antarctican research team is removed from authority early on in the picture and replaced by the more individual common man, MacReady. In They Live, Village of the Damned (1995) and Memoirs of An Invisible Man, Carpenter's heroes find themselves aligned not with the "national interest," but against the government, the police, scientists, and other groups that have traditionally been dramatized in films as almost innately heroic. This tactic is not a result of Carpenter's specific dislike of any of the above-listed organizations; it only reflects his total displeasure with authority, and the establishment as a whole. Censorship is the issue of In The Mouth of Madness; lack of religious freedom is the theme of Escape from L.A.; the inherent greed of the Reagan era is the dynamite that causes They Live to explode into violence, etc.

In each of these films, Carpenter sees the state working against the people, and he shoots it as he sees it, often lampooning such American pillars as Jerry Falwell (Escape from L.A.), Ronald Reagan (They Live), Stephen King (In The Mouth of Madness), and even TV film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (They Live).

...[But] a close viewing of Carpenter's work reveals a romantic streak beneath the skepticism: a belief somewhere down deep - far below the anti-establishment hatred - that a single committed and idealistic person can make a difference, even if society does not recognize that person as valuable or good. The Snake Plisskens, the Napoleon Wilsons, the MacReadys and the John Nadas of the world are out of step with their times because, underneath the machismo, they are essentially romantics who "still believe in America" (per They Live) and the nation's stated ideals of liberty and opportunity. Their beliefs but them in constant opposition with the law and current "forces that be," but nonetheless secure their position as true patriots.

When Snake Plissken plunges the world into darkness in the finale of Escape from L.A., he is striking a blow not for anarchy, but for freedom and liberty. Snake points out that freedom in America "died a long time ago," and thus he spawns a reparation and renewal of those sleeping ideals. When John Nada destroys the alien hypno-transmitter in They Live, he is likewise restoring, not destroying, America by delivering a wake-up call for freedom. Despite the authority-bashing nature of his heroes, the belief in American ideals and in man himself is inherent in the work of John Carpenter. He believes that man can do better, and his heroes consistently prove that worthy goals (such as saving Earth from malevolent shape-shifters) can be accomplished, but only through individuality.

...In Big Trouble in Little China, Wang bemoans the fact that his "mind" and "spirit" are "going north and south," a problem that could never be attributed to the film's atypical director. Though his steadfast consistency has often irked critics who wish he would take a new tack, John Carpenter remains admirable in his devotion to being the latter day Howard Hawks. Auteur, anti-authoritarian and consummate entertainer, John Carpenter is a supernova of talent, and Hollywood's tenacious "dark star."

The Films of John Carpenter
is available now. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"There is only one language. One law. One people. There is no war. No hunger. The strong do not victimize the helpless. We are civilized, but we have lost something. You are much alive, so different. I will miss the cooks and the dancing and the singing and the eating."

-An outsider (Jeff Bridges) describes his world, then ours, in John Carpenter's 1984 film, Starman.

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1973)

Following her recovery from a nervous breakdown, a sensitive woman named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) "starts over" with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and a buddy, Woody (Kevin O'Connor), relocating to New England, where a new home awaits them.

In a quiet, rural town, Jessica and her friends move in to a grand old mansion...and find a strange squatter already living there, a mysterious woman named Emily...who claims to be a traveler. In fact, Emily seems to be attracted to Duncan, and soon a disturbed Jessica, spurred by her insecurities perhaps, begins to hear whispers in their new house. She also experiences visions of a young woman in white. The girl seems to be trying to warn her about something...

When Jessica visits the local antique store, she learns from the proprietor that her "new house" once belonged to Abigail Bishop...back in the 1880s. Abigail, a beautiful woman, drowned in the cove on the eve of her wedding, but some folk suggest she yet some kind of treacherous, ravenous, man-eating vampire. This thought terrifies Jessica, and when she goes swimming in the creek later, Emily tries to drown her, as if aware of her terror.

Before long, Jessica starts to grow suspicious of her husband, Duncan too . For one thing, he has a strange mark on his neck, just like all the old men in the nearby village. For another, he refuses to acknowledge that strange things are happening. Jessica fears she is losing her mind, but then -- one night -- in the stillness of her bedroom -- , a community of decrepit vampires arrive to take her. She flees to a rowboat, as an army of the dead pursue her...

That's the core plot-line of Let's Scare Jessica to Death, one of my favorite horror films of the early 1970s. At the time the movie was released, the critics didn't have many kind words for this John Hancock production. "With the exception of Zohra Lampert's subtle and knowledgeable performance," wrote Time Magazine on September 20, 1971, "no one in the cast has enough substance even to be considered humanoid."

The New York Times was not much kinder, arguing that Let's Scare Jessica to Death "tends to lose much sense of what kind of movie it is...Among the actors, only Miss Lampert develops a characterization."

Despite these notices, I always fall back on my common theme when reviewing horror films. The bottom line is that genre films are supposed to be scary. How a movie reaches that common denominator is a matter of taste, style, and the individual gifts of the director. Alas, today many in the industry think that CGI is scary. I don't. CGI is okay in a science fiction film; but for me the technique rarely works in horror.

Oppositely, Hitchcock believed he could terrify audiences with misdirection, surprise, and shock. He utilized every arrow in a formalist's quiver (expressionist angles; shock cutting and the like) to generate fear. William Friedkin, auteur of The Exorcist adopted an almost documentary-style approach to his horrific material, making it feel "real" to involved audiences.

Yet Let's Scare Jessica to Death finds another way to reach that pinnacle of "scariness." It's a more difficult and more subjective approach, perhaps, as it involves the auspices of texture, feeling and mood. Indeed, the film's overall narrative makes precious little sense if taken as a whole. There are few dramatic "action" scenes where anything really happens (save for an exquisite jolt moment early on), and even fewer special effects. Yet the film remains, in the best sense of the word, creepy. It is a scary little production that gets under audience nerves, and puts a viewer ill-at- ease almost from the first frame.

It'd difficult to chart the manner in which this "mood" is achieved. One might make mention of the brilliant cinematography as a start. The film is hazy and overcast at times, feeling like a dream. Or one could point to the gothic imagery and overarching aesthetic: the beautiful opening view that reveals a fog settling over the still waters of a cove. The sun is orange and low in an apricot sky, forecasting night, and a sad, isolated figure (Jessica) sits alone in a canoe, a post-modern Lady of Shallotte. The villain is a porcelain woman in flowing white dress, a contemporary Rappaccini's daughter, who brings terror and death to anyone who treads too close.

On a simple level, Jessica's abandoned mansion is an imposing edifice too, inspiring dread. It is well filmed from multiple low angles to inspire feelings of menace and fear. This, and the film's other canny visuals, play on old dreads, perhaps, but effective ones nonetheless, and so Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a lovely and even poetic horror film, at least in a visual sense. And film, of course, is a visual medium.

Director Hancock has also taken special care to suggest (rather than definitively depict) the movie's most horrific encounters. That's another trick for mood-drenched horror movies. Consider for a moment the impact of The Blair Witch Project. Almost nothing overtly horrific is seen on screen, but the overall effect of seeing the witch's icons and figures (which she leaves behind in the woods), the uncertainty of being lost, and the paranoia of the kids, combines to create a mood approaching abject terror.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death adopts a similar modus operandi. There's an unsettling moment in a darkened attic when a shadowy figure shifts suddenly in the frame's foreground, while Jessica is seen in the background. This dark blur is never clearly detected. It is visible merely as a black movement; for a split second. What is it? Who is it? We don't know, yet its presence unnerves us.

Similarly, the old men of the town are often referred to in film books (and this post too...) as "vampires." As is the winsome Abigail. Yet these characters aren't your garden-variety cape-and-fangs, Euro-trash sort. They're more like a mob of undead zombies, moving slowly, strangely - gnarled in their old age and enigmatic in their agenda. Had Hancock desired it, he could have provided increased clarity about these aged specters; their nature and history. Instead, like that fast-moving and frightening blur in the attic, the director merely hints at what they are. A tried- and-true method of scaring audiences involves the removal of clarity, of explanation, from reality's equation. Ambiguity, as was once stated on MST3K, is scary. The audience starts to wonder, along with Jessica, if it has really seen or understood what is occurring here.

New England Gothic - that's the mood of Let's Scare Jessica to Death. There's an ancient evil here, a town with a dark secret, one woman's struggle with sanity...and a coven of blood-thirsty old men. What else could one want out of the horror movie? Director Hancock sets a grim, dreamy mood, and viewers get to revel in it for eight nine hypnotic minutes...

CATNAP # 27: Ezri needs attention...

Well, I'm working hard to meet an upcoming (and fast approaching....) deadline on a book, and that means my folders, papers, notes, spiral journals, magazines, photocopied articles and the like are spread out EVERYWHERE. And that also means that the cats, particularly Ezri, aren't getting all the attention they'd like.

You can see that Ezri here looks a little glum. It may also be that she knows she goes back to the doctor soon for a follow-up ultrasound to check on that troublesome heart-murmur. I hope we're going to get good news about her...

Monday, January 16, 2006

Name Your Favorite Robot Sidekick!

Okay, last week about this time, readers on the blog selected their favorite science fiction movie or television spaceship, our "fantasy" vehicle or conveyance.

It seems that the winner there, by the way, was the movie version of the starship Enterprise, the version featured in the six original feature films (1979-1991) starring Star Trek's original cast. Very cool.

This week, we begin adding our fantasy crew. An absolutely essential crewmember for any fantasy adventure is our robotic girl/boy friday, or droid sidekick. Let's leave out humanoid androids for the moment (like Data or REM) but pick one of those cute, diminutive robots that always seems to save the day.

The only place to start this selection is with one of the greatest, most-famous droids in cinema history, an "astromech" constructed on Naboo, named R2-D2. Artoo (as he is known sometimes) starred in all six Star Wars films, and though he speaks in whistles and beeps, is really the go-to guy for any intrepid hero battling an evil empire.

R2 can even fly (as we saw in Attack of the Clones), pilot fighters, and repair spaceships on their hulls during battle (Phantom Menace). Of course, he's more useful even than that because he can interface with any computer system in the galaxy (as depicted in A New Hope and on Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back). R2-D2 also has a heart of gold, and is famous for his last minute rescues (like repairing the Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive).

In the same vein, there's another robot "companion" who is so useful to his master that he was eventually taken off his own show! Yes, K-9, the Doctor's long-time friend and robotic pup, became such a crutch for writers on Doctor Who, that producers had to get rid of the cut little Time Lord helper. Good news is, K-9 got a pilot (with Sarah Jane Smith) for a spin-off. Anyway, K-9 can do virtually all the same things that R2 can, but - of course - he speaks English. So there's no language barrier to contend with there.

The Black Hole's robot star, V.I.N.CENT (voiced by the late Roddy McDowall) is also a pretty darn useful droid. He also can perform all the same tasks as R2 can (including flying...), and more than that, this robot's not afraid to use his front-mounted laser weapons against bad guys (like Sentry robots and the evil Maximillian). Even better, V.I.N.CENT has a "psychic" link with some humans (like Dr. Kate McRae), which makes human-droid communication easier, and at important moments, clandestine.

And on and on our choices go. Muffit on the original Battlestar Galactica was a cybernetic daggit, or "dog." Although he doesn't possess all of Artoo Detoo's accoutrements, Boxey's pet is certainly a loyal friend. In a pinch, he can crawl through air-ducts ("Fire in Space") and carry back air-masks to imperiled crewmembers. He's also got a great little mechanical bark...

Of course, we must also make some mention of the prototype robot sidekick, Forbidden Planet's (1956) Robby the Robot. He not only obeys Asimov's three laws dictating robot behavior...he can mass-produce alcohol for parties! He's the perfect robot butler.

If Robby isn't your speed, there's the bubble-headed booby from Lost in Space, who can warn the Robinson family of "danger, danger!" There's Bubo the mechanical owl, perhaps the first robot in history (from Clash of the Titans). Then there's little Peepo, the Space Academy's resident sidekick, built by Commander Gampu. And - god forbid - don't forget about the ambuquad of Buck Rogers; that little guy named Twiki. He can wisecrack with the best of 'em ("eat lead, sucker!" "let's boogie...") If you choose Twiki, I'll even throw in his bling, Dr. Theopolis.


So you're captaining your spanking new Constitution class starship, and you get to choose your robot sidekick from any production in history. Who's it going to be? Though I'm tempted to select R2 right off the bat, it's actually a close race. I've always loved K-9...

Happy Birthday to a Horror Maestro!

Just a quick shout out to a legendary horror icon on this Monday, January 16th.

Today is director John Carpenter's birthday and he deserves a very, very happy one, because this talent has given us classics like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), and on and on, the list goes.

And by the way, I loved Ghosts of Mars (2001) and would gladly debate its quality with all comers. If I don't watch that movie at least once a month, I'm not a happy camper...

Sunday, January 15, 2006

CULT MADE-FOR-TV-MOVIE BLOGGING: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

This is a TV-movie that I first saw as a child, and it absolutely terrified me.

I watched it again this morning for the first time in about thirty years, I would guess, and to my delight, it's just as disturbing and hair-raising as I recalled.

A perennial in syndication throughout the 1970s, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - directed by the late, great John Newland (the talent who hosted and directed 96 episodes of the classic paranormal anthology, One Step Beyond) - first aired near Halloween in 1973.

The film depicts the chilling tale of Sally Farnum (Kim Darby), a bored housewife. Along with her work-obsessed husband, Alex (Jim Hutton) - who is devoted to becoming a partner in his law firm - she moves into her grandmother's grand old country estate. There, she discovers an oddity in the basement study: the fireplace is sealed up. Not just sealed up, in fact, but blocked! The bricks are reinforced with iron bars, and go back four deep.

"Some things are better left as they are," warns Mr. Harris, the groundskeeper and repairman, "especially that fireplace..."

But Sally wants the fireplace operable, and so unbolts the ash-door on the side of the mantel. As she peers inside with a flashlight, we see that the chimney shaft seems to stretch down and down, into blackest darkness. Perhaps all the way down to Hell itself...

Before long, a cadre of hairy, shriveled creatures, "ferocious little animals," as Sally describes them, are loosed upon the house. They thrive in darkness, and terrorize Sally. They knock an ashtray from her night stand in the middle of the night; they tug at her skirt and won't let go; they turn off the lights in the bathroom while she's showering - and go at her with a straight razor. And then things really escalate. The monstrous gremloids murder the interior decorator, tripping him up on the house's ornate and grant staircase. And then, finally, they come for Sally.

But nobody, especially not the work-consumed Alex, believes Sally's fantastic story that there are tiny monsters inhabiting the house; and worse - that they want to take "her spirit."

Then, one night, a skeptical Alex finally gets the full-story from old Mr. Harris. Turns out that Sally's grandfather opened up that fireplace once before -- for the first time since the house was constructed in the 1880s, in fact. And he paid the price. One night, his wife heard cries and screams from the downstairs study. And something horrible dragged her husband down into the fireplace shaft, and he was never seen again.

"To this day, I think he's still down there..." warns Mr. Harris.

In the conclusion of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - in a twisted, malevolent variation of imagery straight out of Gulliver's Travels - the gnomes lasso the sedated Sally, and drag her down the stairs, towards that fireplace, and the long, dark chasm within. She awakens in time to see the rope tying her ankles together, and she clutches the nearby furniture for dear life as her diminutive nemeses tug and tug. She grabs a flash camera and snaps their picture, exposing them to the damaging light of the flash bulb for an instant. But the battle is a losing one, and down, down Sally goes...

Arising from the same period in horror film history that gave us the brilliant, and equally chilling Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1973), Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is essentially the tale of a woman trapped in an unhappy and lonely marriage...and slowly but surely losing her grasp on reality. Sally's husband is mostly absent,and treats as though she's a child. All Alex cares about is that she's the "perfect hostess" for a dinner party, and the film functions literally as a metaphor of an unhappy marital relationship. Little things - literally, little monsters - keep getting in the way of the relationship, driving a wedge between the couple.

The terrifying idea at the heart of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the opening of a Pandora's Box, the fear of breaking down a wall and releasing something that can't be put back in its place. Again, without putting too fine a point on it, there's a psychological equivalent to this Pandora's Box (the fireplace...) in the film.

To wit, Sally deals with her fears about being just an "adjunct" to the successful, career-obsessed Alex, but her friend, Joan (Barbara Anderson) warns her that she's building "emotional mountains out of imaginary mole hills." But quite the contrary, by probing and questioning the way things are in her marriage, Sally is chipping away at the brick and mortar foundation of unquestioned, traditional male/female roles in such relationships. Just as she takes a hammer and - silly woman - cracks open the brick in that fireplace, releasing anarchy, chaos and terror, she won't take for granted the
status quo in her personal life either. Not unexpectedly, Alex is incapable of doing the same; and in the end, he fails his wife miserably. He loses her to the "darkness."

For a made-for-TV production, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark boasts a fascinating retro film style, a form that enhances its unsettling content. Though the picture is replete with '70s era techniques like the "zoom" (which corrupts the frame to a large extent...), director Newland also clearly understood the value of suspense and effective imagery. On the former front, the creepy little trolls in the basement aren't revealed before the camera (and then only in half-light) until after the thirty minute point (of a 74 minute production). On the latter front, I would point to a beautiful shot of the depressed, terrified Sally sitting in a white-walled ante-room. She's bracketed by curtains, and outside them (but all around Sally; yet still in the frame - is darkness; the domain of the little devils). It's clear from this deliberate "bracketing" that Sally's space - even in a large house - is becoming increasingly constricted and small. Much how she feels about her own role in he marriage to Alex.

The gremlins themselves are played by little people (Felix Silla and Patty Maloney, among them...) acting on oversized, Land of the Giant-sized mock-ups of the Farnum house. This technique actually works rather well, since it becomes unnecessary to include mattes or expensive optical superimposition to feature the creatures. Instead - in various shades of blue and black darkness - the gremlin shots and Sally shots match-up almost perfectly. Another strength of this telefilm is the creepy, subtly disturbing musical score composed and performed by Billy Goldenberg....which makes effective some scenes that, perhaps, would be staged differently today.

In toto, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a retro 1970s horror treat. It comes from the era of such made-for-TV classics as Gargoyles (1972), Duel (1971), Fear No Evil (1969) and yes, Satan's School for Girls (1972). All of these telefilms, but especially this John Newland entry, featured a cinematic flair and a deep, palpable sense of dread. Hard to believe they were made for TV, and played to mass audience. Today, these things seem more chilling (and filled with disturbing implications) than many PG-13 horror flicks.

Because, as you may have guessed, there are no happy endings in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. And that's another reason the film is so chilling, so fear-provoking, to this day.