Thursday, December 27, 2007

Horror Films of the 1980s Mania


McFarland just e-mailed me this review of Horror Films of the 1980s. It's from Mania columnist Tim Janson. The review is dated November 30th, 2007. The book receives a grade of "A" and here's the red meat (but you can read the review in its entirety here.)

Horror Films of the 1980’s” by John Kenneth Muir, is an exhaustive guide to perhaps the most memorable era of horror films. Over 300 films are covered in detail within this massive, 800 plus page hardcover tome...As I thumbed through the book I felt like I was looking at an old scrapbook or photo album of friends and family members that I had not seen in many years...

...Muir, and his small group of reviewers show a depth of knowledge, but more importantly, a true love of this era of horror films..

...This is simply one of the finest horror reference books I’ve ever read. Well worth the $60 price tag!"

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Shot in Italy on a shoe-string budget and released by American International Pictures, this nihilistic and impressive black-and-white adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1956 novel, I am Legend has long been a favorite of cultists and genre scholars -- and for good reasons. Although Matheson removed his name from the completed film (writing here as "Logan Swanson" instead), this horror piece from the sixties remains my favorite interpretation of the material; though I also like The Omega Man (1971) quite a bit.

Of course, there's also blockbuster film called I am Legend playing in theaters right now (which I haven't seen yet...), but for the moment let's pause to remember this Vincent Price vehicle of the mid-1960s, a gritty, prescient endeavor in terms of style, content and cinematic presentation.

The Last Man on Earth opens with stark black-and-white images of urban desolation and emptiness. Scattered corpses lay strewn across lonely streets and byways, and the placard of a Community Church reads "The End Has Come."

It is three years post-apocalypse as we pick up the tale of Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), the titular last man on Earth. We learn (in relatively lengthy...) flashback that a plague of vampirism began in Europe, carried "on the wind" and then arrived in the United States, precipitating a national disaster and the declaration of martial law. But that's all the past. Robert, a scientist working at the Mercer Institute of Chemical Research (!) has lost his young daughter and loving wife to the plague and now lives a solitary, pleasure-less existence. We can tell immediately from Robert's posture and demeanor that he is a beaten man, one who does not want to make eye contact with the terrifying and gloomy world around him. Yet still he forces himself to adhere to the daily "routine" that keeps him alive in the face of the vampire menace.

In his own words, Robert lives merely "a heartbeat from Hell," and survives each long night as roaming vampires lay siege to his home, calling out his name and entreating him to come out and fight. The leader of the vampires is a former friend, now a monster. Robert protects his cluttered, disordered house with garlic, defends himself from the vampires with mirrors, and by sun-lit day goes out in methodical search of vampire nests...where he stakes sleeping vampires in the heart. We watch a montage of overlapping, superimposed images of many a death blow, as Robert hammers his rage into the fiendish, monstrous descendants of humanity.

The early (and most remarkable and affecting...) portions of The Last Man on Earth play out as a grotesque commentary on the modern "rat race," as we follow Price in the "day of the life" of the last man on Earth. He lives a very regimented life and one can practically see him mentally ticking off his "to-do" list. After the initial views of a ruined, (mostly) unpopulated metropolis, the film targets in on Price's character, his dilemma and his m.o.

As the film proper starts, the camera glides through a suburban house's bedroom window as Robert sleeps fitfully...and then his alarm clock goes off. He rouses himself and walks past a wall of hand-drawn calendars (years and years of calendars, we see...), and then gets down to grim business. Robert sharpens his stakes, replaces the garlic on the front door of his home, cleans up the corpses sprawled in his front yard and then realizes he needs supplies (gasoline and fresh garlic). Robert sits down and tallies up the stops he'll need to make that day on "the job" before the sun sets - from shopping at an eerily lifeless grocery store to going about the ghoulish business of disposing of vampire bodies in a huge, fiery pit.

These moments in the film expose how deeply human beings cling to the idea of routine, especially in times of stress, to impose a sense of control, order and comfort over our chaotic lives. Robert - a man who states he has no time for "the luxury of anger" - busies himself with the hunting/gathering of daily survival but seems to do so on almost automatic pilot. The film has no huge signature moments during this portion of its running time; it merely charts the almost boring routine of the last man alive. The result is an oddly intimate and small film that captures the horror of the apocalypse more successfully than many a special effects extravaganza because we feel connected to the man and his situation.


As The Last Man on Earth continues, the film is practically littered with images and sounds of time passing by, from the tic-tock of clocks on the soundtrack, to images of those calendars dotting his walls or views of alarm clocks. "Another day to start all over again," Robert laments, and the viewer comes to understand that the routine of this miserable existence is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it busies Robert; a curse because it feels never ending and there is no joy - or love - in any of it.

Basically, this is a one man show, Price's show, and The Last Man on Earth is as much character piece as action film. Action scenes arise because of character, in fact. When Robert succumbs to self-pity and sentimentality by visiting his old church, for instance, he falls asleep and stays out after sundown...meaning he'll have to engage the vampires on their terms. This is splendid storytelling because he pays a price (the loss of his automobile) and then must account for that surprise by car shopping on another day. Every action and mistake on Robert's part spurs an interesting effect, and that's how the film generates suspense.



Later, Robert's desire to connect with another human being, an infected survivor named Ruth, leads to his downfall. Price is terrific in the film, but this isn't the larger-than-life Price of the Dr Phibes films or Theater of Blood (1973). On the contrary, this is a more naturalistic Price. He is a huge man physically (and one can see why the vampires are afraid of him...), but Price gives a convincing performance. He has a terrific scene as Robert Morgan in which he watches old home movies and laughs at them, absent-mindedly. Then, the laughing turns into a mental breakdown, a crying jag, as the full impact of Robert's loss settles in. This isn't campy, but very, very human, and Price refrains from taking it over the top. He anchors the film in reality, and The Last Man on Earth benefits enormously from both his physical presence and his erudite voice-over narration.

In regards to cinematic aesthetics, this film is legend. The Last Man on Earth heralds the future of horror cinema (brutal, gritty and realistic, sans iconic monsters like Dracula and the Wolf Man...) and though produced by an American, appears ripped from the Italian school of neo-realism, post-World War II. The film is lensed in bracing, grainy black-and-white, and like the neo-realist films of the 1940s and 1950s, is shot mostly outdoors, on the streets (an easily available location).

Thematically, the Price film actually shares something in common with the neo-realist movement as well. The cinema of that period in Italy's history portrayed post-war economic and social changes in a mostly negative manner (I'm thinking The Bicycle Thief here...), and the very subject of this film, (life in a post-apocalyptic world as a new society arises) hits some of the same philosophies, only in genre-specific terms.

Price is a man alone representing "the old system" while black-uniformed, heavily armed men form the gestalt of the new order. They hunt down and rub out remnants of the old order. The cruel nature of life you'll see captured so well (and so poetically) in the cinema of Vittorio De Sica is present here too, only made "fantastic" by the imaginative storyline and presence of vampires. Though today we hardly blanch at such things, this film includes the startling images of corpses being burned in a pit by the U.S. Army (including Robert's daughter) and the unlikely sight of a vampire dog staked through the heart (though covered by a blanket). It is blunt and graphic, but not overdone. It all feels alarmingly really and - unlike most Hollywood cinema - not exaggerated for effect. Romero and Cronenberg later went in the very direction spearheaded by this film in efforts as diverse as The Crazies and Rabid.


This film is cheap, no doubt, but gloriously cheap. It makes the best out of a limited set of resources, focusing on the nature of one man (Robert), rather than hordes of rampaging monsters. Frankly, you don't need state-of-the-art CGI to dramatize the story of the last man on Earth, you just need a good actor, some fine character moments, a few convincing views of an abandoned city and a believable threat. In fact, having an abundance of special effects would only take away from the very individual story vetted here, the story of a man who did not see the end coming ("I'm a scientist, not an alarmist," he insists...) and paid the price for his blinders by losing his wife, his family, his society and ultimately his life. I don't really need jumping and drooling monsters when I have a strong narrative about a person I care about, living through a frightening situation.

Not just in terms of dialogue, but in terms of presentation, The Last Man on Earth certainly points the way to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Here, Robert notes of the vampires that "individually they are weak, mentally incompetent" but in groups dangerous...which is a perfect way to describe Romero's ghouls. Similarly, the vampires are rather zombie-like, lurching towards Robert's home and trying to break in. Watching the vampire/zombie scenes of Last Man on Earth I was reminded, as well, why I've always preferred slow-moving zombies to their new, blazingly-fast brethren.

Fast-moving zombies offer shock and surprise: boom! Something attacks from out of the shadows! But slow-motion zombies offer something better in my mind: suspense. A few slow-moving zombies (or vampires, here) can be warded off with a little physical strength and peripheral vision (which characters in horror movies always lack). Ten zombies can be dealt with. But fifteen? Twenty? When protagonists like Robert in The Last Man on Earth or Ben in Night of the Living Dead step out into the darkness, suspense builds because they usually dispatch the first several zombies they encounter with relative ease. But then something hangs up our heroes (a locked door; a friend who has fallen and twisted an ankle; whatever...) and then the zombies keep coming in greater numbers. One by one. And it is there - in that moment - that the zombie horror is inescapable, as heroes become buried in sheer numbers, and it no longer possible to simply duck and weave. Let alone shoot or lob grenades. The Last Man on Earth plays with that suspense here and does so surprisingly well. Who needs the shock and awe of digital effects when suspense will do the trick?


True to the spirit of its Matheson source material if not all the details, The Last Man on Earth ultimately concerns the changing-of-the-guard, of one society in rapid descent as another ascends. About the old guard falling while the new guard rises. This version of the material offers less hope than The Omega Man, which is more a polemic about race relations in post-sixties America (and offers the possibility that Charlton Heston's messianic blood could save the human race). In the end, the armies of the new order hunt down Vincent Price and destroy him without remorse (and without even hearing his case). He dies in a church, of all places, telling his murderers that they are "freaks." However, the truth is not so simple. Throughout the film, the vampire plague is regarded not merely as a disease, but something more. It is suggested, actually that the plague is "a strange evolutionary process," a natural development of the human animal. Would we - as man - allow the last dinosaur to survive and rampage (killing our citizens by night?) in our cities, or would we stamp out the old to make room for the new? In the perspective of the new order, this film ends with the monster destroyed. We just have sympathy for that monster, because he's...us.

"Your new society sounds charming," Robert quips to Ruth at one point during The Last Man on Earth, and that comment gets to the heart of the film. Robert's people - mankind - had their turn in the sun and waged war, killed one another by the million, developed weapons to destroy the world and used up the resources of the planet without looking back. His society wasn't so charming either. Yet as bad as those things are, our species also boasts love, decency, kindness, individuality and family...and none of us wants to see the human race go the way of the dodo. In charting this incredible change on the Earth, and the passing of the torch for planetary supremacy, one can see how - in the age of global warming, suitcase nukes and SARS - The Last Man on Earth remains eerily relevant. The apocalypse mentality is apparently here to stay, and though we don't face an impending threat from vampires (that I know of...), why is it that this "last man on earth" scenario still holds so much power for us? And why can we, in the closing days of 2007, think of so many ways that such a disaster could befall us? Will it be an environmental crisis? A terror attack? A nuclear explosion? A meteor strike? A virus? What? Why are we obsessed with doomsday (and what comes after?)

I love The Last Man on Earth because it is basic and blunt. It is so effectively shot and mounted that it features a timeless quality which grants it tremendous currency today. I haven't seen Will Smith's film (and so can't comment on it, yea or nay), but I must wonder if it addresses all these notions in as clever and efficient fashion...or if it's merely another burst of sound and fury without this film's psychic heft and powerful ambience.

Rockin' Through The Holidays


I just returned from a wonderful Christmas holiday with in-laws in Virginia to find a clutch of good reviews for The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia on my doorstep like presents from Santa Claus himself. What thoughtful stocking stuffers!

Here's some of the excerpts:

"this is one totally rockin’ A-to-Z reference book way too groovy to gather dust on a bookshelf."
—Neil Pond, American Profile

"Popular film critic Muir's latest volume is a comprehensive encyclopedia (231 entries) devoted to the pairing of rock music and film from 1956 to 2005...a good choice for popular film collections...Recommended." - Choice

"The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia is a perfect book, jam-packed full of pictures, reviews and descriptions of every rock'n'roll film ever made, and is a guaranteed parent's Netflix queue filler for up to a year." -azTeenMagazine. (This review lists the book as a holiday gift "for Dad" in the article called "Page Pleasures").

"The list of rock'n'roll movies includes landmarks such as "A Hard Day's Night" and "Woodstock," as well as a shelf of Elvis Presley flicks too forgettable to mention (OK, just one: "Clambake"). John Kenneth Muir's The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia (358 pages, Applause, $19.95) seems to cover them all, along with a number of feature films in which the music simply sounds really good. While Muir clearly loves his subject, he's not blind to its excesses. Witness his refreshingly arch entry for "circular logic" -- "Wherein a rocker / musician attempts to say something meaningful and deep, but only succeeds in confusing the audience, and usually himself." - "Wrapped up in words," The Richmond-Times Dispatch.

If you've got some cash on hand or some gift cards to redeem post-holiday, you can still find the Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia at http://www.applausepub.com or here, at Amazon. But hurry: I checked with my publisher recently and the first edition is almost sold out!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Holidays!



Dear friends,

I want to wish each and every one of you a happy and safe holiday vacation as 2007 slips into history. I'm off to start my holiday travels with Kathryn and Joel in tow. Be back blogging soon.


In the meantime, I hope Santa Claus is good to you. (Have you been naughty or nice?) If you should need a JKM blog fix, here's looking back at some of what occurred here in 2007. (Or you could just check out the archives; at right). Hopefully there will be lots of exciting news and events to report in 2008.

In Cult TV Flashbacks:

Angel: "Smile Time"
The Outer Limits: "The Architects of Fear"
Planet of the Apes: "Escape from Tomorrow"
Circle of Fear: "Death's Head"
The Evil Touch: "They"
The Twilight Zone: "Walking Distance"
Space: Above and Beyond
Veronica Mars (Third Season)
The Fantastic Journey: "Beyond the Mountain"
Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "Zombie"

Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Manos - The Hands of Fate"
Jason of Star Command
Beauty and the Beast: "Once Upon a Time in New York"


In Retro Toy Flashbacks:

Pulsar - The Ultimate Man of Adventure
Star Bird Avenger
Computer Perfection
MERLIN


In Cult Movie Reviews:

Journey to The Far Side of the Sun
2001: A Space Odyssey

and don't forget The House Between at
http://www.thehousebetween.com/ The new season of the online series starts January 25, 2008. Exciting times.

best wishes to one and all,

John K. Muir

Thursday, December 20, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 43: The Outer Limits (1963): "The Architects of Fear"

"There is nothing wrong with your Internet Browser. Do not attempt to control the picture. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical..."

Okay, so that's not quite the introduction to the classic horror, science-fiction anthology series The Outer Limits, but it's close. The opening narration to the series (the voice of God termed "the control voice") also informed viewers that they were "invited to participate in a great adventure," one that stretches from "the inner mind" to "the outer limits."

This invitation to the dance for two amazing seasons proved utterly irresistible for many (and prominent series admirers include Stephen King). Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, in shades that can only be described adequately as luscious, The Outer Limits remains one of the most overtly cinematic television programs in terms of visual presentation. Darkness and light, shadow and white hot glare: these are as much critical players in the drama as are the great actors (a stellar cast that includes Cliff Robertson, Robert Culp, Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman and others) and the great storytelling. This is a series that understands the primary principle of film grammar: that how something is photographed is ultimately as important as the object itself. The form of The Outer Limits reflects its content: stark, moody, alternately grim and jarring. In the 1970s, some British television (I'm thinking of Space:1999 in particular), approached and sometimes achieved this level of cinematography, and The X-Files certainly boasted some fine achievements in that terrain. But I'll go out on a limb and say that The Outer Limits is the most dazzling and gorgeously photographed genre piece yet forged for television.

Which is an achievement, because the story-telling (overseen by producer Joseph Stefano) keeps pace with the visuals. The series is famous for its unforgettable "bears," the macabre and terrifying monsters it depicted week-in and week-out. Again, however, the real terror came in the storytelling and presentation of these monsters: stories so rife with suspense and shock that it's hard to believe this was actually TV fare.

Among the unforgettable monsters crafted by The Outer Limits are the Zanti Misfits (insectoid invaders from another world), the alien sand shark (battling Adam West!) of "The Invisible Enemy," and the creepy Venusian that menaced a young William Shatner in "Cold Hands, Warm Heart." But the suspense of "The Hundred Days of the Dragon," a terrifyingly plausible variant on "The Manchurian Candidate," or the claustrophobic, stomach-churning isolation and dread of "The Guests," or the inexplicable and utterly nightmarish surrealism of "Don't Open Till Doomsday" are the most significant reasons to praise and remember this series. This is one of those productions that - for me anyway - is transformative in the finest sense of that word.

Much in the same manner of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits episodes have evolved beyond the 1960s confines and contexts that gave birth to them. Once seen, these unforgettable episodes dwell in the mind and you can't forget them, escape them, or scrub them out. They are no longer merely remote dramas that you passively watch, but in some sense, impressionistic nightmares wired directly to the reptilian portion of your brain. You experience these shows...and the memory of that experience lingers. We've all felt like we've had a "twilight zone" moment, or stepped into the chaotic terrain of the Outer Limits, haven't we? These are the nightmares - scientific and personal - of 20th century America, and I suppose that's why they resonate so strongly and linger so powerfully in the brain. In terms of the anthology format, neither series has really been improved upon, that I can see. The black-and-white photography in both cases contributes some sense of "timelessness" that significantly enhances the creep factor.

"The Architects of Fear" is an early episode of The Outer Limits, and a prime example of the brawny imagination at work behind-the-scenes and the fearlessness (forgive the pun) of the narratives. The episode commences with a montage of pure panic and 20th century angst: the specter of a nuclear attack. Civilians dash about the streets of a bustling metropolis and a missile is seen streaking across the sky. A nuclear mushroom - the enduring and iconic image of terror during the Cold War Era - flashes on the screen suddenly.

"Is this the day?" The Control Voice asks. "Is this the beginning of the end?" The voice continues to meditate on the possibility (or probability?) of man's self destruction, noting that when the apocalypse of nuclear destruction arrives, there will be no time to ask "why." It's a terrifying and grim thought.

And that single thought is the terrifying place where a cabal of very intelligent, very learned men at "United Laboratories" dwell and obsess. They live in that moment, in that instant, in the terror of "what if" and so begin to hatch a misguided plan that they believe will insure the survival of the human race. This was the fourth "scare" about nuclear arms in recent weeks, and so these men, led by Professor Gainer, come to the conclusion that the nations of the Earth must "unite" against a common foe if man is to survive the nuclear age. And furthermore, that it is one of this brain trust who "must submit to the ordeal." As if in explanation of this remark, the camera focuses on something sitting near the good doctor. Beside Professor Gainer sits a chattering, monstrous thing in a box, a beast seen in shadows but heard squealing. It is not just a monster, it is the embodiment of the cabal's fear...calling them to a grotesque and horrible mistake. One that they will all regret..

The men at United Laboratories draw straws in a lottery and Allan Leighton is selected for the "ordeal." Here's the plan: over a few short weeks he will be transformed into a "perfect inhabitant of the planet Theta," an experiment the scientists have also completed on that poor, pitiable thing dwelling in the box. Every organ in Allan's body will be transformed. After a series of surgeries and hormone shots, the complete physiological transformation of a man will have taken place. Why? The earth needs a "common enemy," a "common foe," to unite against. The scientists believe that if Allan shows up at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City...as an authentic extra-terrestial, this "Thetan" thing, the world will panic, frightened by their "scarecrow" and come together to fight the ills of the world. Uniting through terror. Sound familiar?

So these men of science, these respected men of great intelligence, set about concocting the greatest hoax in human history with Leighton as their willing guinea pig. Allan accepts his macabre fate in stride ("can't see how making a fuss is going to help...") but there are drawbacks, even besides his own transformation and eventual death. For one thing, Allan is hopelessly in love with his wife, Yvette (Geraldine Brooks). They have been trying for years to conceive a child and now - just moments after Allen takes the first hormone shot spurring his "Thetan" side - he learns that their problems are gone...that Yvette can (and is...) pregnant. Carrying his child. Suddenly, this symbolic act, this scarecrow-ing of the human race, doesn't seem that important to him. But he sticks with the plan, trying to believe in the mission.

What follows in "The Architects of Fear" is the story of a rational man who - like Brundefly in Cronenberg's remake of The Fly in 1986 - becomes a thing and faces the slow, steady dissipation of his humanity. Unlike that (great) film, here the physical transformation is suggested, not seen. The process is mostly hidden in shadows and hinted at via other cinematic tricks (the careful placement of objects in the forefront of the frame). As the humanity drains away from Allan, he explains what this process has done to him. He no longer possess a human mouth, so he is forced to speak through an electronic voice box, a visual symbol of his separation from his natural species. What Allan says says in this condition speaks to much about the human condition. The pain of the surgeries is gone now, he tells Gainer, and his mind is consumed with one thing: strange dreams of Yvette, the wife he had to leave behind. This is all that's left of Allan's humanity: this spark of love, this connection to another soul. It lingers in him, and nothing about the transformation can take it away.

Allan asks Gainer if their plan can work, and Gainer replies that "millions have soldiers have gone into wars of hate with worse odds." This is true, but Allan's very humanity is the thing that makes the mission fail. And the scientists never accounted for this factor in their equation. Once in space (and bound for a landing at the U.N.) some part of Allan's latent humanity calls to him and either consciously or subconsciously he changes course. He lands his ship not at the U.N. headquarters, but near the lab...near his Yvette. A group of hunters shoot this alien "Thetan" when they encounter it, and a wounded Allan ultimately dies in the arms of his wife. When the "monster" before her shows a familiar gesture, Yvette realizes that this thing - this monstrosity - is her husband. Allan's entire journey has been not about saving the world, but about holding onto his humanity; reconnecting with the wife (and unborn child) he was separated from.

Naturally, Yvette is disgusted with Gainer and the others. She believes that there is no honor in dying for a remote, ivory tower ideal. That such a death means nothing in terms of love and family. "Men like you...playing tricks," she says angrily. "A scarecrow would change everything!" she mocks them.

"The Architects of Fear" ends with the Control Voice acknowledging this mistake and furthermore adding that "scarecrows and magic and other fatal fears do not bring people together." On the contrary, suggests the narrator: a humble attitude, hard-work and sacrifice - like Allan's sacrifice - are the only things that make our world a better place in the end.

Today, we in the U.S. live in a culture of pervasive all-consuming fear. It is a culture in which fear (and anger...) is ramped up at every opportunity. It is a fear of the other, whether that "other" is of a different religion, a different political group, a different race or from a different country of origin. "The Architects of Fear" remains timely and so very vital because it suggests that there are no easy answers to conquering fear. Even a "scarecrow" (like "a war on terror?") can't unite us for long. What can unite us? E
ducation, understanding, compassion, decency....our core human values.. Things that are occasionally in short supply 'round these parts, whether on the wild, wild west of the Internet or in our public and national discourse.

In one sense, "The Architects of Fear" offers the tired old acorn of "egg head" scientists going off and doing something stupid; tampering in God's domain, as it were. But on the other hand, what the story truly and deeply concerns is the dissection of the human organism. Take away our ability to speak, replace our kidneys, transform our skin and replace it with green scales...and still the "human in us" (the soul?) calls out for the things that make human existence special. A wife. A child. A dream for a better tomorrow.

In real life, I don't know how many human beings have been turned into peg-legged Thetans, but I do know that across this globe of ours, "grotesque" mistakes like Allan's story occur every day. They happen under different names, but we might know them as Tuskegee, Chernobyl, or the War in Iraq. Horrors committed under idealistic banners. Atrocities committed as "good deeds," for ideals like liberty and freedom, for empty words like "progress" or under the bailiwick of science. Those ideals feel very, very empty when you a lose a father or a mother, a sister or a brother.


The Control Voice understood that in 1963.

I now return control of your Internet Browser to you. But seriously, watch The Outer Limits. It is available on DVD for purchase at the price of $34.99 -- the whole series! Believe me, that's a steal.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thanks

I just wanted to write today to say "thanks" to you - all the visitors to this blog -- for making 2007 the biggest year yet at Reflections on Film and Television. I was just checking my stats, and it looks like (with two weeks or so left in the year), we've already surpassed last year's visit total by 15,149. Nice. I'm committed to keeping the blog vibrant and growing, and it looks like at the end of the second full year, we're headed in the right direction. When I started this thing back in April of 2005, I had no idea I'd be reaching so many readers.

But seriously, thanks for sticking with me through Joel's first 15 months,when it has been harder than ever to blog on a regular basis. As we get closer to 2008, I'll begin writing about what we can look forward to here next year. I've got some tricks (and treats...) in store.

You guys are the best!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 42: Planet of the Apes (1974): "Escape from Tomorrow"

In the fall of 1974, the successful Planet of the Apes film franchise moved to network television for fourteen-hour long episodes. Planet of the Apes - the series - featured the continuing adventures of astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (Jim Naughton), in the far-flung year of 3085 (starting March 21, 3085, if we're to believe the spaceship chronometer...) on a world run by -- wait for it -- intelligent, talking simians.

In "Escape from Tomorrow," the introductory episode written by Art Wallace and directed by Don Weis, we begin with an old man (in a bad wig...) being chased by a child chimpanzee and his pet dog in a rural setting. My first thought watching this sequence was that it was a canon violation (alert! alert!), since Conquest of the Planet of the Apes had established that a space plague had arrived on Earth in the late 20th century and killed off all the cats and dogs. It was the death of "beloved pets," in fact, that led humans to enslave apes...which would then lead to the uprising of the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. This seems like something that the producers of the series should have remembered, since it is a lynch pin of Apes continuity.

Putting aside this sloppy faux pas, the story continues as the old man hears a strange aircraft overhead and then finds the crash site of a spaceship in a nearby field. He rescues two astronauts (Virdon and Burke) but the third (Jones) is dead. When the shaken, disoriented astronauts awaken, the old man explains to the humans that apes rule this planet and that humans (who still have the power of speech here...) are inferior underlings. Alan immediately wants to find a way to return home to his family (a wife and son). He recounts how the ship experienced radioactive turbulence near Alpha Centauri and he ordered Jones to activate the homing beacon. Burke is more defeatist. "This is home now, and you know it," he says. His words, however, carry a double meaning even he is not aware of.

After the Old Man presents the astronauts with a book of pictures from New York City in the year 2505 (another troublesome continuity point that contradicts the movies...), the astronauts realized that they have returned home indeed. That the planet of the apes...is Earth.

As the episode progresses, Alan and Pete meet Galen (Roddy McDowall) a friendly chimpanzee (and member of the ape aristocracy) who possesses a lot of misconceptions about human beings, never having gotten to really know any. Worse, the astronauts face off with Urko (Mark Lenard), the chief security officer in Ape City who wants them dead. Now. Chief Counselor Zaius (Booth Colman) is willing to keep the astronauts alive, if only to learn of their technology and find a way to keep them from influencing the primitive humans of his world. Zaius is worried that the astronauts' love of freedom and independence will transfer to the indigenous humans and foster an uprising.

In the scenes with Zaius and Urko, the writers did something interesting and forward-thinking for episodic television in 1974. They began to develop - from this first episodes - series mysteries that - presumably - would have been solved had the series lasted more than half-a-season. For instance, during a confidential tete-a-tete, Zaius asks Galen "did you ever have a recurring nightmare?" He then launches into a discussion of the fact that other human astronauts have arrived on the planet before (and again - it can't be the characters [like Taylor or Brent] we saw in the original films, because those events occurred in 3978...almost a thousand years after the TV series). "Another ship, Zaius," states Urko, "it's hard to believe." One can imagine that had the series lasted, viewers would have heard much more about these other astronauts and their (apparently-not-very-pleasant) adventures on the planet of the apes. If that had been the case, the series would have been all the stronger for it.

"Escape from Tomorrow" ends with Virdon, Burke and Galen allied and on the run, while Ape forces destroy their spacecraft. Fortunately for the humans, Virdon has recovered a small magnetic computer disk from the ship which - if they can find a computer in this post apocalyptic topsy-turvy world - might help them find a way back to their time. Future episodes involve the triumvirate going from one human province to another, in search of technology that can help them return to the Earth of the past.

The original Planet of the Apes films served as brilliant social commentary on the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. They concerned (among other things): nuclear war, man's self-destructive nature, and the pitfalls and total hypocrisy of religious zealotry. By contrast, the television series limits its commentary to one fascinating subject: the issue of race relations, of a class society separated by race and species. This is an important point, considering this was the era after the Watts Riots and near the time of the Camden Riots (1971). The Civil Rights Movement was coming to an end for all intents and purposes, and suddenly here's a sci-fi TV show about "species" stereotypes and irrational biases.

"Escape from Tomorrow" is illuminating in the language it utilizes to describe humans, here deemed the "lesser" or "inferior" class. Both humans themselves and the ruling apes make pervasive derogatory comments in "Escape from Tomorrow" that we - living today - would certainly understand as bigoted or as examples of stereotypes. "Humans know their place," one chimpanzee prefect notes, "that musn't change. They'd begin to think they're as good as we are..."

A nearby village, Chollo, is described (by a human...) as "the village where humans are supposed to live," in other words a ghetto.

Galen describes humans as "laborers, farmers and servants" and was always taught to believe that they are an inferior breed. To suggest otherwise is heresy and treason on this world. But Galen is inquisitive and smart and looks past the stereotypes, finally. His experience with Alan and Burke makes him realize that human beings have feelings and dreams and hopes too. He asks Zaius's human serf what it is "like to be human" and then confronts Zaius after he learns that human beings have a history of technical and scientific achievement. "Why Zaius?" He asks. "Why should truth be against the law?"

Galen also suggests that "maybe the world would be better if no creature" was deemed superior to another. This makes him a strong ally for the fugitive astronauts, but his objective, inquisitive nature also makes him a radical and fugitive among his own people.


Another element of the Planet of the Apes series also seems to derive from a timely real life source. Namely, Zaius and Urko engage in a secret cover-up to destroy the spaceship and keep knowledge of the astronauts a secret from the general populace. In other words, the ape ruling class is working against its people (both human and simian). The apes live in a rigidly conservative or traditional society here, one where the status quo must remain intact at all costs and the aristrocracy lives in mortal dread of losing control, of seeing their imposed "natural" order change. "Heresy" and "treason" are common accusations for those who reject ape dogma. The idea of a cover-up and an authoritarian government (it's legal if the president says its legal...) surely reflect the Watergate Era, and Nixon's imperial presidency. All of that was coming to a head in 1974 America as this series aired.

Yet too often on the Planet of the Apes TV series, the storylines and plot details felt uninspired and repetitive. It all usually came down to one of the three heroes captured by the apes and then rescued by the other two cohorts before the hour was up. And yet, I remember this series with tremendous fondness and affection because it had a great deal of value in terms of depicting a society separated by class and race. By putting white humans in the inferior position, the series makes quite a few trenchant progressive points. Ultimately, that's the purpose of good science fiction....to comment on society, and here the set-up is almost Swiftian. On top of these elements, the series features good actors and a well-drawn future world, thanks in part to the costumes left over from the feature films and the occasional use of stock footage (for Ape City exteriors, for instance). I watched this series with Kathryn on DVD not long ago, and we were both a little surprised how much we liked it...and how utterly entertaining it is. I suppose to enjoy the show to its fullest, you must forgive the repetitive, action-oriented storytelling a bit and be willing to see the underlying points. They're present in most episodes (especially the one that finds a gorilla and a human - Urko and Burke - trapped in an underground subway system together...), but also just a tiny resonance in quite a few.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Shopping? Have A Very Muir Christmas

Hey there movie buffs! If you've got some loose change in your pockets this holiday season, and you're out there buying movie books for someone you love (or even for yourself...), don't forget to check out some of my critically-acclaimed film titles. Since it's never as convincing to toot your horn, I'll let the critics speak for my work.

Lots of critics...

Horror Films of the 1980s. This covers of 300 films from the decade of Reagan. The book was recently recommended by
AMC's Monsterfest Blog on the annual Christmas wish list. Check out these rave reviews at Amazon.com, here and here, And here's what the critics say:

"The author watched hundreds of films, interviewed talents behind the movies and invited guest reviewers and critics to round out the details...Writing is clear, with a personal but expert tone. The 2-column layout facilitates reading the dense text. Can a horror film reference book be pleasurable browsing? This volume does a good job, combining useful information and enjoyable commentaries, and is recommended..." - Booklist

"As readable and entertaining as it predecessor, this tremendous tome of terror is the quintessential concordance to the films of the dead teenager decade...Muir opts for comprehensiveness, covering each of the 300 horror flicks released between 1980 and 1989......Muir's genius lies in his giving context to the films. He offers a time line of events for each year, and his introductory essay documents the 1980s uncertainty that led the genre to become both influential and profitable...With the skill of a Jason, Muir has carved out a niche for himself with this kind of reference work. As fun as the films it documents, it will make readers run screaming for the local video store..." - Choice

"Muir again plunges into the dark, following his Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland, 2002), named an ALA Outstanding Reference Source in 2003. Appropriate to the so-called era of greed, he has this time added more of everything: films, background, appendixes, and critical analyses. Part 1 provides a concise, overarching summary of the decade's social and political climate; juxtaposed photos of President Ronald Reagan and A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger encapsulate the period's startling contradictions...A time line highlighting noteworthy current events accompanies each year and is followed by ample, witty, well-versed entries on films ranging from Poltergeist and Aliens to Cellar Dweller and Hide and Go Shriek...BOTTOM LINE: The summary in Part 1 would befit a college history lecture; the book as a whole is highly recommended..." -
Library Journal

"Like Jason, Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, John Kenneth Muir keeps returning to horror films for a little more fiendish fun. In this episode, Muir surveys 300 films of the 1980's, or as he calls it, the "Dead Teenager Decade."...Muir closely examines organizing principles, plot devices, and the use of conventional characters. He looks hard for points to praise, but never lets sloppy work go without comment...Muir weaves contemporary commentary, thoughtful analyses and humor into a true art form. His entertaining guide will find fans in academic and public libraries. " - Gale Thomson

"As his foreword suggests, he pays special attention to the political subtext of the films he covers. He examines Poltergeist as a yuppie dream turned nightmare, while The Stepfather, Parents and A Nightmare on Elm Street are posited as a calculated slap in the face of Republican "family values" propaganda. He also maintains that body image issues surface in a variety of titles from Altered States to An American Werewolf in London to The Beast Within and beyond. Muir spends ample time identifying trends in '80s horror, particularly the slasher film..." - Rue Morgue


Or read the critically-acclaimed predecessor, a multiple award winner (Booklist Editor's Choice; ALA Outstanding Reference, "Best of Reference" 2003 etc.) Horror Films of the 1970s.

Here are some reviews:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A seminal tome to the horror films of the '70s, this offers up reviews of rare gems, honored classics and offbeat oddities. A must. - The Terror Trap: Books and Scares
.

If horror TV is your bag, there' s my award winner, Terror Television (Booklist Editor's Choice 2001). Here are some reviews:

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

"Muir is well-known in the horror/sci-fi reference field, with previous well-received guides to Wes Craven, John Carpenter and the TV series SPACE:1999...an essential purchase." -Anthony Adam, Reference and User Services Quarterly, Winter 2001.

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

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

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

How about superheroes? There's my award-winning (New York Public Library Best of Reference, 2005), Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television. Again, I'll let the critics describe the book:

"The over-the-top, first-stop-in-pop-culture maven, McFarland has unearthed another killer-kryptonite jewel. This bounteous reference cornucopia documents 50-plus years of 71 superheroes in film and television, providing both basic and detailed information for films and episodic listings for television shows. This is genre guru Muir's 11th book for McFarland, and he knows the landscape like Aquaman knows Atlantis...Divided into four sections, the text includes a history of film and television superheroes, a conclusion, and numerous fun and quirky appendixes. The bling-bling, of course, is the mondo-hefty Part 2, encyclopedia of shows, each entry of which provides a full origin and history of the superhero, full credits, format, cross-references, episode-by-episode descriptions for the television shows, and critical notes. If you can swing it, get two copies...you'll need them both. Rock on, Muir and McFarland! A Library Journal "Starred" Review." -Libary Journal, May 15, 2004, pages 77-79.

"For years I have wanted a book on superhero movies, and the new 600 + page brick known as THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SUPERHEROES ON FILM AND TELEVISION by John Kenneth Muir goes one better by including TV shows too. From the early days of Adam West camping the cape of Batman to the current Marvel movie bonanza of X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN, this book covers them all...Each title gets an individual discussion and review, with the TV shows often accompanied by detailed episode guides. The book's introduction is a terrific history of the genre, with Muir demonstrating he knows his stuff..." - Rod Lott, Hitch Daily, March 8, 2004.

"Those seeking a highly detailed guide to such colorful crime fighters should discover John Kenneth Muir's 'The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.'...Going back more than 50 years, the author offers a history, episode guide, film description and critical commentary for every entry. Muir also details information on arch-villains, gadgets, origins and super powers."-Lou Gaul, The Burlington County Times, March 4, 2004, page C1-C2.

"* * * * (FOUR STARS/OUT OF FOUR)...The book opens with a succinct history of the subgenre, and notes how various eras have presented comic book figures, on home and cinema screens, from the straight-faced gung-ho action of postwar America through a camp phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a decade of nostalgia, to the 'dark age' of hard-edged cynicism that characterised 1990s' vigilantes...Having written books about Blake's 7, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999 and the films of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and Kevin Smith, author John Kenneth Muir is well-grounded in the lore and minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy adventure...This is the first book where all three Captain America movies are featured. Coverage of The Crow is particularly welcome...and [the book] provides the most comprehensive section on The Six Million Dollar Man...I've yet seen in print. Of course Superman, the mainstay of this book's entire subject, demands and gets a suitably expansive chapter-size entry and along with the write-ups for Superboy and Supergirl, this offers the most extensive coverage of DC Comics' veteran figurehead outside of those specialist single-character books." - Tony Lee, The Zone: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Mystery Website, June 13, 2004.

"There seems to be no end in sight for the dominance of comic-book heroes at the movies. That's why it's a good time to dive into this hefty 600-page-plus compendium of trivia and essays about caped crusader types from the past half century. John Kenneth Muir, whose credits include Horror Films of the 1970s and Terror Television is our knowledgeable guide through this tour of supernatural heroes. Each entry includes a detailed history, cast and credits, TV episodes and live-action and animated film descriptions, as well as critical commentaries and entertaining data on origins, catch phrases, gadgets and arch-villains. There are some great focuses on recurring themes - almost-exposed secrets, lost powers, misfits, crossover shows, etc. - and nice appendixes such as "The Best, Worst and Most Influential Productions...[a] must-have geek reference book." -Animation Magazine: "BOOKS WE LOVE" July 2004, page 6.

"John Kenneth Muir must have had one mis-spent youth. In his 'Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television' he gives superhero fans a good resource to the various movie/TV incarnations of our favorite heroes. Covering animation as well, this book is current up to mid-2003, and reaches back to the early 1950s. His presentation covers comic book and comic book-inspired heroes in an entertaining 'Did you know'/documentary format...Filled with great anecdotal and historical information, the entries are illustrated with a smattering of photographs...I love superheroes. And during the course of this writing I was 'lost' several times in numerous entries. That is the beauty of the book, no matter what information was missed due to space, or time limitations you can enjoy it fully...Buy this book. And wait for the second edition where John Kenneth Muir updates the entries and gives us more delight and comic book/superhero video fodder...Happy reading. May your cape never need dry cleaning!"- Penguin Comics, June 2004.

"John Kenneth Muir's books for McFarland are distinctive because of their authority and effective research. The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television is no different...the detail is mind-boggling." - Classic Images, May 2004.

"...riveting...Muir sandwiches entries on 71 superheroic individuals or teams from the past 50-plus years of broadcast media between a pithy historical overview and back matter that includes a compendium of plot cliches and several "Best/Worst" lists...Where else are readers going to find such depth of detail, not only on such major figures as Superman or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the likes of Captain Nice, Isis and Saturday Night Live's Ambiguously Gay Duo?...this is a browser's delight." - SLJ August 2004.

"Muir characterizes the superhero genre as a uniquely American myth that he tracks from the early age of straight-faced crime fighters through its camp and nostalgic phases and to more recent incarnations as dark heroes powerful heroines...and re-imagined characters." - C&RL News, June 2004 page 338.

"...the encyclopedia is well-researched and provides a wide array of television and film superhero characters' backgrounds, histories, ways they were perceived by critics, plus valuable facts about the TV shows and motion pictures that will prove useful to library patrons who are researching topics as varied as female superheroes in TV and film to the evolution of superheroes from comic book characters to TV and/or film central subjects. As this work is unique in its subject matter...academic, public, school and special librarians will find this title to be a good jumping off point for patrons when they are beginning research on TV and film superheroes. It will also be a good ready reference tool to consult for a particular fact or piece of data on a specific movie or TV programme that centres on a superhero. It is a valuable addition to any library's reference collection." - Carolyn Frenger, Reference Reviews, Volume 18, Number 6, 2004, pages 49-50.

"This book is to be read and referenced. Hardcore superhero enthusiasts will treasure it...Recommended." -Library Media Connection, Nov/Dec 2004, page 185

"An amazing collection of superhero biographies...detailed." - THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, "Best of Reference, 2005" Selection.

"Muir's encyclopedia should find much use, issued at a time when superheroes have made a strong comeback in feature films and animation...The book is recommended for libraries...and superhero researchers and fans." - ARBA, Volume 36.


Maybe a director book? How about The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi. Here's what the critics say:

"Enter prolific genre scribe John Kenneth Muir, an aficionado and unapologetically hardcore fanboy who's already authored tomes on John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, as well as the indispensable coffee-table crusher Horror Films of the 1970s. Muir's gift for recognizing and interpreting film grammar serves him well once again, and while most of us could immediately (and correctly) identify Raimi trademarks like camera gymnastics and Three Stooges references, Muir digs even deeper to analyze themes and visual hooks that have evolved throughout films as diverse as Army of Darkness, The Gift and Spider-Man...Muir continues to prove himself as one of horror film's more gifted and passionate commentators." - John Bowen, Rue Morgue, August 2004, page 18.

"Muir, author of Horror Films of the 1970s, admires and enjoys Raimi's highly praised work. Examining Raimi's oeuvre, from the cult classic low-budget horror film The Evil Dead (1981) through the mega-hit Spider-Man (2002), he offers lively, behind-the-scenes accounts via interviews with many of Raimi's collaborators. For example, he divulges the trade secrets of Tom Sullivan, the man responsible for the special effects in The Evil Dead, which illustrate the resourcefulness Raimi inspires in his colleagues...Muir shows how signature flourishes (e.g., his "Point of View subective shot") pop up in Raimi's fledgling works yet still thrill when used in Spider-Man. If there is a downside to the nonconformist director, Muir has yet to find it." - Publisher's Weekly, May 31, 2004.

"...Author Muir is a staunch Raimi fan, waxing enthusiastic about each of Raimi's films - they're given a chapter apiece...it's more than a cut-and-paste job; he's interviewed assorted cast and crew and makes excellent use of their recollections. And he writes splendidly. An insightful chapter, for example, on the Raimi film I most admire, A Simple Plan, demonstrates how much it owes to the Cain and Abel story, Macbeth, Of Mice and Men and...The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Chapter by chapter, the book builds a case for Raimi as one of our most accomplished filmmakers...GRADE: A-." - Lawrence Tucker Sci-Fi Magazine, Page 78. July 04.

"With two sections of photographs, including 20 never-before-seen stills detailing the making of the first two Evil Dead films, not to mention an amusing Raimi lexicon...The Unseen Force is in the end a must for the director's enthusiasts. " - Jeremiah Kipp, Fangoria #235 page 79.

"The Unseen Force is a welcome and greatly appreciated contribution to the annals of filmmaking and filmmaker histories."-
Midwest Book Review.

"This is, overall, an excellent book by noted film author John Kenneth Muir. It takes us behind the scenes of every Sam Raimi movie from Evil Dead up to the newly released Spider-Man 2 and is for the most part, a riveting read...The most interesting thing about the study is the depth of detail to which Muir goes using information provided by key principals (where possible) to provide a neat analysis of each movie...the amount of information revealed is fascinating...a must for lovers of Evil Dead...Great for Raimi fans and Evil Dead fans alike with a strong analytical approach to keep prospective film students happy. RATING: 4.5 CHAINSAWS (out of 5)." -
WITHIN THE WOODS: The Evil Dead Appreciation Site

So if you like my blog, chances are you'll like my books too. And the books pay the bills...

Friday, December 14, 2007

MORE COLLECTIBLES OF THE WEEK: Star Trek Oddities

All right, so I'm re-arranging my home office this morning. This old parlor (built in 1912) is filled with toys, models, and memorabilia, and my desk is a vast mess of sci-fi and horror clutter. I'm currently working on a book, fine tuning some articles, completing a short story, and editing The House Between. Surrounding me at the moment is Electroman (Ideal; 1977), whom I will get around to blogging about at some point, my cats Lila and Ezri, and a calendar, plus stacks of DVD screeners I haven't gotten to yet (Viva Laughlin, anybody?) and more.

So today, while I re-arrange and make some "sanity" space for myself, I'm going to gaze at some of the weirder Star Trek items in my office before I either re-display them or box 'em up and take them out of rotation. And you, lucky reader, get to learn all about them!!!

First, we've got Star Trek: First Contact "flavored lip balm" with a cap that is shaped in the form of the Enterprise E. "Protect and moisturize your lips with our Star Trek lip balm," reads the back of the box. For particularly dangerous away team missions, no doubt. "Its special formulation helps to smooth and protect lips from sun, wind and cold weather. Everyone will enjoy playing and collecting toppers from Star Trek: First Contact." I wonder...is this what the Borg Queen wears? Dr. Crusher?

Next, I'm looking at a Star Trek thirtieth anniversary "commemorative anniversary pen." The box here reads: "In conjunction with Paramount Pictures, to commemorate 30 years of Star Trek, Fisher Space Pen presents the 30th Anniversary Space Pen. This pen's unique cartridge allows you to write in zero-gravity." Ironically, this is how I sign all my Lulu Show LLC checks (in zero gravity), but hopefully not with zero-balance.

Next are - yuck - some collectibles I should have gotten rid of a long time ago, because they are getting increasingly disgusting by the day. I have procrastinated too long, and now Kathryn is giving me strange looks. These are Hollywood Star Trek First Contact chocolate bars. They are a "limited edition," with six different wrappers featuring images of the Next Generation crew. These are also from 1996, which means the candy bars are eleven years old now. I took one off the shelf today and it turned to toxic dust in my fingers. Now I'm breathing it in. I collected all six of these candy bars at the time of the film's release, and just couldn't get rid of them. As per Kathryn, they are going in the trash today. Some collectibles...well...you just have to let go.

Let's see, what's next in my array of oddities? Oh yes, The Star Trek The Next Generation "Phaser Universal Remote Control" from TeleMania. With authentic lights and sounds. It features "Star Trek sound effects on - Volume Up, Volume Down, Channel Up, Channel Down, Power on and Power off." This came out in 1999. I have a weird story to tell about this particular remote control, and I hope you'll forgive me for telling it. Okay, so I'm a spiritual person right, but not a religious one. I am an atheist who believes in quarks and quantum theory, but not conventional "God" imagery. I want to believe in God and the afterlife...but I can't. (Remind me to tell you my Jesus vs. Dracula dream some time....)

So anyway, this remote was a favorite toy of my beloved first cat, Lulu. I don't know why, but that cat used to love this thing. She would always activate it when it was sitting on the night stand or sofa. I always just thought she liked Star Trek. She died on April 17, 2003 of chronic renal failure, and - bear with me - I was heartbroken. But that very night, the first night Lulu was gone (I had buried her late on a very gray afternoon in my parents' backyard, near the house she loved), during the middle of the night while we slept - and far out of my reach - the phaser remote control began randomly firing (set on stun, I think). Not activating the TV, but making the Star Trek sounds. This was unusual in and of itself, since it was set on TV, not for sounds. But why would it activate by itself? As the wanna-be believer, I convinced myself this was my cat's message from beyond the grave. Live long and prosper...

Next up: It's a Star Trek: The Next Generation Dinnerware Set (From Zak Design). It has a cup, bowl and plate. I still have this one mint in box. One day, I'm going to open it and refuse to eat off of anything else. The next day, Kathryn will disown me.

Then, from 1992, I've got Enesco's Star Trek: The Next Generation Playing Cards in Tin Box. If you can't watch Star Trek, the next best thing is playing with a deck of cards, apparently, emblazoned with United Federations of Planets imagery.

Yes, my collection runs deep - and strange.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Star Trek Talking Alarm Clock (1994, Top Banana)


Now here's a beauty, as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott might say!

It's a Star Trek talking alarm clock from the early 1990s (and released by a company called Top Banana.) It features "voice alarm sound of communicator" followed by "landing party to Enterprise. Beam us up Scotty."

Then the "transporter beam sound is heard while a shaft of light beams down on the planet's surface."

There's also a "snooze feature," and a four event digital clock. I have two of these now, one in a box, and one loose.

Many years ago, on one of the first nights Kathryn and I had moved into our own home here in Monroe, this alarm clock scared the heck out of us by going haywire in the middle of the night. From the upstairs, it sounded like someone was talking (very loudly...) in our first floor foyer. But no...just the transporter chief.

Energize.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Four Reasons to Love Aurora


DVD REVIEW: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007)

One the most highly-anticipated new dramas of last season, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, from The West Wing (1999-2006) mastermind Aaron Sorkin, was considered, to coin a phrase – a “slam dunk” - to achieve critical acclaim and audience interest. Ultimately, that didn’t prove the case and the self-important series was quickly eclipsed in popularity and hosannas by other newcomers, including NBC’s own Heroes and Friday Night Lights. Now the "Complete Series" is available for your viewing pleasure (or derision...) on DVD.

Gazing back at the series, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip fared poorly for a couple of reasons. The first is that the drama is so relentlessly and dogmatically “liberal” that even the most dedicated progressives (including this author) would still find it maudlin, preachy and condescending. It comes off as hectoring and certainly preaches to the converted. One-sided drama, whether from the right or from the left, is rarely very engaging (unless produced by my hero - and a national treasure - documentarian Michael Moore).

Perhaps more problematic than even its political sermonizing, however, is the fact that the subject matter of the series itself - TV producers creating a Saturday Night Live-style “sketch” program – is treated as though it is literally life and death stuff. The characters are handled not just with incredible seriousness, but nearly religious reverence; their every decision scrutinized as heroic and meaningful and important, as though there could be no higher calling in this day and age than to educate dumb Red State Americans, to bring the glories of liberal sketch comedy to the unwashed masses of the middle United States.

That the sketches themselves when briefly presented on the series are staggeringly unfunny doesn’t exactly help matters either. This is one of those cases where the Emperor wears no clothes, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is more often than not self-important tripe. It’s elitist, and on occasions, insulting.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip follows neurotic TV producer and writer, Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry, who feels gun-shy and diffident after he was called unpatriotic following the attacks of 9/11 (paging Bill Maher: someone stole your biography...). However, Matt now has the opportunity at network NBS to get his brand of liberal politics back on the air for this new sketch comedy series. On his side, but feeling pressure herself, is Amanda Peet’s newly appointed network programming chief, Jordan McDeere. She wants to do important work, create "meaningful" television (like a pet project about life behind-the-scenes at the United Nations), but her colorful past (including a drunk driving incident; which gets her unwanted attention on Access Hollywood) prevent her from being taken seriously in the industry. She is also stifled by her Machiavellian network boss, Jack Rudolph, played with diabolical glee by Steven Weber.

Meanwhile, Perry’s character, Matt, is paired with producer Whitley Bradford’s Danny, who has grappled with cocaine addiction, but is now older and wiser and serves as the guru of the bunch.

Among the other characters are a black comedian named Simon played by D.L. Hughley, who wonders why there aren’t more black writers on the comedy show; and a Christian “Red State” comedian played by Sarah Paulson, Perry’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Harriet. She finds some of the liberal humor, like the skit “Science Schmience,” offensive to her religious beliefs, but her character is basically the "straw man" stand-in for conservative beliefs, easily buffeted and knocked down by The Wisdom of Liberals.

In one episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, intern Tom Jeter’s (Nathan Corddry) family arrives from Ohio and is treated by the drama as uninformed rubes. It’s as though they are from another planet and so the audience can feel smug and superior that they, in their liberal wisdom, are smarter than these backward folks. The episode actually attempts to create moral equivalency between one son, who is serving in the military in Iraq, and the other son who is a comedian working on TV. Frankly, this attempted comparison reveals that President Bush isn’t the only one living in an ideological bubble. I believe writers are incredibly important in a free society (and I wholeheartedly support the goals of the writers' currently on strike...), but writers are not putting their life on the line every day to defend a free country. Their mission in Iraq may be flawed, but the soldiers there have sacrificed a lot to serve this nation. The writers of sketch comedy? Not so much...

The same episode finds Simon complaining that there is not one black writer on the show, and so he and Perry’s character trek to a comedy club to meet a hot young comic who is a walking/talking stereotype of black humor (his stand-up material is all “bitches” and “hos”). They then decry how bad this humor is, and in self-important, grandiose language, discuss the issue of why so often African-American humor is based on bad and demeaning language. A more obviously "white friendly" African-American (one who bombs in the night club), is selected instead, apparently because he will stick to the agenda of bleeding heart liberal humor.

And that my friends, is your sermon for the week.

Another episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip finds Christine Lahti guest-starring as a hard-hitting journalist who is covering the show, and who reminds viewers that – nudge, nudge - “popular culture is important.” Sting guest stars in this episode as the show’s musical guest and performs a number that plays as background for Harriet and Perry to reconnect. Here's the thing: I totally agree with Lahti's comment. Pop culture is important. I've devoted my adult life and career (and this blog, and my books...) to popular culture. It tells us where we've been, where we are, and where we might be headed. Film and TV at their best are indeed artistic ventures, worthy of examination and analysis and functioning as valuable, nay indispensable, parts of our society. But Studio 60 is so self-satisfied, so smug in its "correctness" and "value" that even a guy like me - the biggest defender of horror movies you could find blogging today - winces at the self-righteousness of the enterprise.

Aaron Sorkin is known for his whip-smart dialogue, and while it is true that everyone on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip speaks with poise (and a great vocabulary...) at virtually warp speed, none of the character say anything worth listening to; especially for audiences outside of Los Angeles. Instead, every character sounds identical, like an attack of the Sorkin Clones, and everyone mouths inconsequential jargon about “focus groups,” “audience retention” and other behind-the-scenes industry lingo. It may be smart, it may be knowledgeable but it is monumentally uninteresting and ultimately irrelevant; lacking any immediacy or connection to the human experience.

It would be very tempting for me to write a book about the heroic, self-sacrificing efforts of a noble North Carolina writer as he brings his meaningful and artful movie and TV reviews to uninformed readers across middle America. But it would also be self-indulgent and that’s the problem here. Sorkin has succumbed to that very temptation. Again, I feel it important to re-establish that I am - check my reviews, please - a pretty progressive, dare I say "liberal" guy. But this show rubs even me the wrong way and strikes me as very, very misguided. Here's the deal in a nutshell: Borat (2006) makes all the same points about the evils of the Bush Administration ("I support your War on Terror!") but it does so with wit, with humor and without climbing on a soapbox. Studio 60 lectures and points fingers instead. I was once called a liberal of the "brain dead" variety by a crazy fan who didn't like my critique of a science fiction series. If I truly were, I guess I would like Studio 60 more...

Wow, that was hard to write. Let me do a gut check real quick: Yeah, I still despise President Bush and want him impeached. I still think the War on Iraq was wrong. I still believe the War on Terror a stupid frame for a legitimate attack on Afghanistan. I still support gay marriage. I am for the legalization of marijuana. And yes, I still support amending the Constitution to include universal health care as a guaranteed right for all citizens (after all, you can't pursue life, liberty and happiness if you're sick and can't afford the doctor bills).

Yep. Still liberal. But Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is so dogmatic and patronizing it almost converted even me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Journey To The Far Side of the Sun (British title: Doppelganger) was a perennial on WABC Channel 7''s 4:30 pm movie in the mid-to-late 1970s, and as such, an early fascination both for me and my sister. To this day, you can ask my sister about that strange science fiction movie from her youth in which a man removes his eyeball in a red-lit darkroom, or pile-drives his wheelchair into a mirror, and get a visceral response out of her.

This film arises from the stable of British producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who from 1968 to 1975 - a period which encompasses this film, the TV series UFO and the first season of Space:1999 - developed their own signature brand of creepy, speculative tech-horror. What does that brand entail, precisely? It's a simple equation, really: high-tech gadgetry galore (created with an eye towards scientific accuracy, and with elaborate, state-of-the-art costumes, props and miniatures...), a focus on the near future "space age" (which apparently was to occur soon after the 1960s...), and then a macabre, deeply disturbing "twist" that exposes the nature of the universe as being something much less than benevolent. Personally, it's one of my favorite types of drama, and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a potent mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the James Bond films of the Connery era, and even a little bit of Planet of the Apes (1968). In other words, the film has one foot in the future, one foot in the espionage film craze of the 1960s...and a third foot (!) on the surface of a distant planet where things are off-kilter.

Journey To The Far Side of the Sun dramatizes the story of EuroSec, a European space agency run by the hard-driving Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark), a man who is determined to launch a second Sun Probe to examine a new planet discovered in the solar system, one that we can't observe from Earth because it is constantly on the opposite side of the sun. The first Sun Probe snapped images of the alien world using its "cine camera" and brought back to Earth the "first photographic evidence" of the heretofore undetected planet. This discovery is vetted in a sequence that forecasts today's video-conferencing capability, with Webb making an address and visual presentation to EuroSec members across the globe.

It's here in the story that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson offer one of their trademark themes and motifs, which is one not often featured in science fiction movies, probably because it isn't fun. They present here the notion and plot point that space travel is damn expensive and that it requires a huge amount of funding. This also plays out in Space:1999 episodes such as "Dragon's Domain" and in several UFO episodes, which feature Commander Straker going before the unimpressed faces of bureaucracy to request more funds for SHADO. Again, I see this as a bow to reality and accuracy, and in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, Webb is able to afford to build the Phoenix - the rocket bound for the alien world - only with the support of NASA;s representative (Ed Bishop!) and the American government. However, there are stipulations. EuroSec will get the money, but an American - Colonel Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes) - will have to command the mission. Poor Glenn Ross has Earthbound problems to contend with too; he's not able to conceive a child with his go-go booted, sexy wife, and she believes it is due to space radiation. "You went up there a man, but you came back less than a man," she tells him. Nice.

Ross is the "world's most experienced astronaut," and his partner on the six week trip to the new world is the Earth's "leading scientist," John Kane (Ian Hendry). Together, these men train for the mission, and the film follows every detail of the process. From there, we are treated to sweepings shots of rockets on launch pads (courtesy of special effects wizard Derek Medding), pans across vast mission control centers and intense close-ups of space-suited astronauts ready to commence the mission. Through it all, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun offers the aura of can-do, Apollo-Age optimism and futurism. This was a world where man had just landed on the moon and where space travel - despite bureaucratic kerfuffles and expense - was just around the corner...as are shattering discoveries about the nature of the universe itself.

Three weeks into the interplanetary mission (three weeks early...), and following a trippy "sleep" sequence of spinning colors (orange, blue and yellow) and electronic peaks and valleys seemingly inspiring by 2001's Stargate sequence, the film's plot takes a major turn. The astronauts arrive at the alien planet (via the crash of a landing vehicle...) only to discover that they have actually returned to Earth. In a splendid sequence that begins with miniature effects, pyrotechnics and impressive stunt work, the audience is tricked into believing that the astronauts are being captured by monstrous aliens. There's sound, light and strange helmeted figures. But it's just a rescue team from China; the rescuers adorned in state-of-the-art "sea and air" rescue suits.

But something doesn't sit right with Glenn Ross as he convalesces on what he believes to be his planet. For one thing, he has no memory of having turned back to Earth, and the three week flight period seems all wrong. Worse, he feels disoriented. His house's layout is completely reversed, clocks are running backwards, and words read from right to left, not left to right. Cars even appear to be driving on the wrong side of the street. Before long, Ross is aware of a physiological aberration too: medical tests reveal that he and Kane have hearts on the wrong sides of their chests!

What Glen Ross soon proposes to Jason Webb is staggering (and bizarre): "a complete duplication of matter...except that it's in reverse." In other words, the planet on the far side of the sun is Earth's exact reflection, with all the same people, all the same countries, all the same problems. There is a physical connection between the worlds in that "one is the mirror image of the other," but otherwise they are separated by thousands of miles. Now before anyone complains how scientifically inaccurate this concept sounds, I should pause to note that I read an article last May in which scientists posited that somewhere in this vast universe, it is indeed likely that each and every one of us has an identical twin. Weird, huh? Well, that's the idea of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. Without being overbearing about the idea, the film is creepy because it subtly asks questions regarding this unusual premise. What if there were two of you? Of me? What if everyone here on Earth had an exact duplicate? Would that fact take away from our own sense of identity? From the uniqueness of the individual? Could we claim Earth is the center of the universe (and center of God's universe), if across the solar system was a second Earth, exact in every way save that the polarity of electricity isn't reversed? If you are on a different planet and see your wife, isn't true that you've never actually "met" her? Because this is your wife's reflection, not the being you know (even if you share the same memories). It's mind-boggling if you think about it.

The climax of the film involves Ross's desperate attempt to return to his "Earth" and it ends in ultimate disaster for everyone at EuroSec, paving the way for an epilogue in which an elderly Jason Webb - wheelchair bound and debilitated by heart disease - ponders the very questions I ask above. He spies his reflection, his double in a wall-sized mirror and reaches out for it. It is just out of reach, and he begins racing for it...an attempt to touch the unknown, to understand the self, to bring together two opposites. To say the end of the film is "shattering" is putting it mildly, and a bad pun. Sorry.

Certainly, there will be those among us who gaze at Journey at the Far Side of the Sun and decry the deliberate, methodical pace (a trait it shares in common with Kubrick's Space Odyssey). In our day and age, we've become accustomed to shock cutting, myriad close-ups, and the whiz-bang pace of films like The Matrix or Star Wars. By contrast, this film is perhaps a relic of an earlier, less adrenaline-addicted age. This movie literally wallows in the details and minutiae (but also the beauty...) of space travel. It attempts to methodically and prcisely capture the details of the endeavor, from its accurate depiction of weightlessness to the impact of G-forces on the fragile human body. I'm afraid this is the kind of thing that movies today just don't have the time for. CGI monstrosities and vistas have made us forget about the wonders of our age: rocket launches, weightlessness, the view of Earth from space. Just show me drooling monsters, please...

In fact, I'll go further. I believe that Journey to the Far Side of the Sun attempted, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey to craft a new cinematic lexicon, to depict - literally - the poetry of the space age; a future where machines were not only functional...but actually beautiful....masterpieces of the human imagination and spirit. The opening of Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain (1971) accomplished the same thing a few years later, but there is a gorgeous montage at the opening of this film, an Information Age credits sequence which plays high-tech gadgetry and electronics to Barry Gray's lush, orchestral store. In swooning close-up we get a collage of spinning tape wheels, beeping indicator lights, rolling print-outs and computer punch-out cards. Outdated? Perhaps, but strangely lyrical, and this sequence reveals the pre-Microsoft mainstream meme on computers: that they are our creations and that they will make human life easier. Or as Jason Webb states late in the film: "never distrust a computer." Obviously, he's never seen the blue screen of death, which may be even more frightening than confronting one's doppelganger in the mirror.

Another beautiful image in the film: as the Phoenix arrives at the duplicate Earth, there's a gorgeous shot of the space capsule cruising from the darkness of interplanetary space into the golden illumination of sunlight in planetary orbit. It's convincing in a way that we are not accustomed to today, in the era of CGI. There's a sense of real bodies and machines in motion; not merely digital cartoons "animated" on the screen. There's an artistry here that is different from computer programming.

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun proved a dry run of sorts for UFO, which re-used props, vehicles and costumes from the film, and another reason to love it (if you are so inclined) is the manner in which ithe production fetishizes both space program and secret agent gadgetry. The film opens with a spy getting into the EuroSec vault. His glass eyeball is actually a miniature camera (!), and in a great, amusing sequence, we see the agent remove his eye, develop the photographs, and display them on a wall. In glorious, obsessive detail, the audience is treated to several views of the machine doing its work until we are left to conclude that the implausible has been made absolutely plausible. That's a trademark of the Andersons too, I would say.

Directed by Robert Parrish from a screenplay by the Andersons and Donald James, and lensed with an eye towards detail by John Read, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is surely a tech's wet dream. We see that Webb wears a watch that monitors his heart and triggers an alarm if he has a cardiac irregularity. Dick Cheney could probably use one of those. Later, the film gives us great shots of rockets on launch pads, capsules in space, and most impressively of all, a botched docking maneuver that is absolutely convincing down to the most minute detail. Not fast-paced, mind you, just very...right. This is part and parcel of the Anderson mystique and magic, if you ask me (and present in spades in UFO and Space:1999). Though some viewers are easily (and understandably) bored with the focus on technology and what it does, this obsession with the details brings a reality and versimilitude to the world absent from a lot of televised and filmed sci-fi.

Believability; optimism, tech-poetry, and a shattering discovery about the universe: these are the hallmarks of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and one of the reasons I have admired the film since I was a youth. You may insert your own "wooden" joke here about the performances, since critics find it irresistible, apparently, to comment on the Andersons' history with puppets and supermarionation. Yet in my eyes, the performances here (as on Space:1999) are perfect. These are scientists and astronauts and engineers doing a job, facing crises with poise and skill and intelligence. Must they also showcase emotional histrionics and soap opera antics? Another part of the Anderson mystique - and the part most often criticized by critics, I should add - is this depiction of man as a balanced, intelligent and curious creature facing the mysteries of outer space with all his intellectual gifts intact and at the forefront. In its very British way, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is both scary and subtle; both intelligent and poetic. It isn't a perfect film, and it isn't a classic, but it is a very good science fiction phantasm, and one with distinctive, unforgettable images and a great twist.

Burton Binge: Mars Attacks (1996)

I distinctly recall reading a review of  Mars Attacks!  which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic  Ed Wood  (1994) ha...