Friday, February 23, 2007

The House Between: Preview for Episode # 2, "Settled"

Hey folks,

Offered up on the blog today is a preview for The House Between, episode # 2, "Settled," which airs right here - next Friday, March 2nd - on the blog. Hope these clips whet your appetite to watch!

I'll be blogging my director's notes and observations on "Settled" next week too. Although I love all seven episodes, "Settled" is one of my personal favorites, for a number of reasons. But I'll write about all that next week.

In the meantime, watch this clip, and please don't forget to tune into Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction tonight at 11:30 pm, EST. Our host, Dr. Howard Margolin will be interviewing me about The House Between for my seventh appearance on Destinies. I'm looking forward to the show, and hope you'll listen in.

Tune in here, tonight.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

COMIC-BOOK FLASHBACK # 6: "The Computer Masters of Metropolis"

Now this is a very different sort of superhero crossover. Back in 1982, Radio Shack ("the biggest name in little computers") and DC Comics - the home of icons Superman and Wonder Woman - joined forces to promote the future of home computing, and in particular, the TRS-80. The result is a bizarre, "educational" adventure that I think is sort of funny to remember today, especially given that so much about both comic-books and computers has changed in the intervening 25 years.

Superman and Wonder Woman star in "The Computer Masters of Metropolis," written by Paul Kupperberg and featuring art by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte. Our story opens with Alec and Shanna - two corn-fed American middle schoolers - happily tapping away on their TRS 80s in class ("It sure beats using a pen and paper, that's for sure!" enthuses Alec...).

That day, their surprise visitor in class is none other than Wonder Woman, who promises to take the whole class to the World's Fair of 1982, being held in Metropolis. The theme of the fair is the celebration of the "advancements of science and technology in the 1980s."

Meanwhile, Superman is already scoping out the World's Fair and has learned from the man running it, Mr. Murphy, that Lex Luthor has made a threat against the celebration. You see, Luthor believed he should get some prime exhibition space at the fair since he considers himself the leading mind in science. But Murphy refused to support the criminal's aspirations, and now Luthor threatens to destroy the fair unless paid a billion dollars. Yikes!

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman visits the fair with her class, and recounts the history of these new-fangled devices known as "computers." "Computers had their beginning in the United States," she recounts, "when the world's first all electronic unit was completed in the fall of 1945." After explaining how computers are utilized on the new NASA space shuttle, Wonder Woman goes on to ponder the future of the devices.

This is the part of the story I especially enjoyed reading today. She suggests computers will one day share "everything from national weather reports to up-to-the-minute news reports from a major wire services." Boldly, the heroine even predicts that one day people will "play games...with people thousands of miles away," and that "you can go shopping through a computerized catalog."

You know, I think she has a point. Is this where Al Gore got the idea to create the Internet?

Anyway, Luthor rigs a trap for Superman at the Planetarium. He exposes the Man of Steel to "red solar radiation," which is "the only force capable of robbing" Superman of his "powers instantly." I guess Luthor's just been waiting for the right opportunity - like a snub from the World's Fair - to spring his trap on Supes.

With Superman in trouble, the imperiled hero from Krypton calls in help from middle-schoolers Alec and Shanna and their trusty TRS-80. With the computer's help, they stop Luthor, and when Mr. Murphy presents the Key to the World's Fair to Superman and Wonder Woman, they demure...suggesting the prize should go to Alex and Shanna and the TRS 80, the new "computer masters" of "Metropolis."

This educational comic-book also features a student guide to computer lingo with a glossary of terms like "basic," "byte," "cassette"(!), "RAM" and "software." There's even a "Quick Quiz" in the back of the mag, to make certain that students get "programmed" to love their TRS-80s..

While it's a worthwhile endeavor for DC Comics to attempt to make computers "cool" way back in the day, by employing their greatest heroes for the cause, today the whole thing reads like a ridiculous promotion not for computers, but for the TRS 80. I guess Superman, Wonder Woman and all the rest of the superheroes might as well hang up their cowls and go home, now that the crafty TRS-80 is on the scene!

That sort of thinking weakens Superman more quickly than red solar energy, I'd wager. It's sort of humiliating to see these great heroes depending on a specific (and now dated...) technology to solve their problems, rather than their wits and smarts.

But the magazine is still fun, even with the opening advertisement entitled "Continuing Education in Computers," which implores readers to "Ask about Radio Shack's Scholarships for Teachers."

Note: This blog brought to you courtesy of of my new computer overlord, the TRS-80...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The House Between on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction

Hey everybody, I'll be returning to that stellar radio program, Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction this Friday night, February the 23rd, at 11:30 pm, EST.

The stalwart host, Dr. Howard Margolin, and I will be discussing my new Internet series, The House Between. Howard's watched the first episode, "Arrived" and I'm looking forward to chatting with him about the series. Hope you've watched by now too. If not, check it out right now.

In the past, I've been on Destinies to discuss my original Space:1999 novel, The Forsaken, Horror Films of the 1970s, Terror Television and The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, but this will be my first appearance there as an editor/director as well as writer! So I'm really looking forward to the show, and hope you'll tune in.

You can catch the action on WUSB 901. FM, on Destinies, this Friday night right here. Don't forget.

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 28: Beauty and the Beast (1987): "Once Upon a Time in the City of New York

Twenty years ago, all the way back in 1987, a fairy tale came to vivid and beautiful life on our television sets. This was the year that Star Trek returned (The Next Generation), but it was also the year that the story of "Beauty and the Beast" was re-imagined for prime-time television on CBS. The series ran for three years and drew good ratings for a time. More to the point, it earned a great deal of fan devotion. Now - at long last - the romantic vision returns, this time on DVD.

Today, watching the pilot episode of the series for the first time in two decades, one can determine clearly why the series was so beloved. Beauty and the Beast is indeed a fairy tale, a very specific form of "escapism." Accordingly the series opens with a delightful conjunction of fantasy and reality. The opening legend reads: "Once upon a time," the classic first line of all great fairy tales, and then adds for good measure " the city of New York," thus making viewers aware this will be a modern story. In other words, a fairy tale with a twist.

In 1987 (as today...) we desperately needed good, moral fairy tales like the one this series provided. Urban crime rates were at their highest in (recorded) American history, and the "greed is good decade" had taken its toll on the country and the economy. At the top of the social ladder were the yuppies - young upwardly mobile professionals - vying for stock options and corner offices, and at the bottom of the heap were Ronald Reagan's forgotten Americans, the homeless whom publicly he deemed "homeless by choice." Their ranks swelled in the 1980s. By the millions. This was also the time of Gordon Gekko, or in real life, Ivan Boesky. It was an era when criminals made millions on Wall Street, and when violent wildings occurred in Central Park. It was a time (much like today...) of fear. And, it must be pointed out, Beauty and the Beast came to television just when racism - and racial tension - was again becoming major national news. There was the Howard Beach incident of December 20, 1986 and the Tawana Brawley incident of November 28, 1987, to name but two such attention-grabbing headlines. But the issue was clear: the racial divide had not been healed in America. And what is "racism" if not the "fear of the other," the person who is "different" from one's self? Beauty and The Beast successful addresses and incorporates all these facets of American culture in the late 1980s, and so today practically reads as a time capsule of the epoch.

So imagine if you will, one Friday night in 1987. When - without warning or preamble - a glorious world appears on your television set, a classic fairy tale made modern and relevant. In this first episode by Ron Koslow (and directed by the brilliant Richard Franklin, of Psycho 2 fame), the ugly "above" world of New York, that of corporations and yuppies, is revealed (literally...) to be a nightmare for lead character Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton). She's stuck with a smarmy business-man fiancee, Tom (Ray Wise), working a thankless job as a corporate lawyer, and wondering what her life is really all about. After an argument with Tom, Catherine leaves a party early one night and runs smack into the realities of street crime. She's abducted by several thugs, taken to a van...and cut with a knife. Her face scarred, she's dumped in a park and left to die...bleeding. Later, when she re-imagines this crime as a dream phantasm, Catherine sees Tom and his circle of friends mocking her. Her co-workers do so as well. They have no sympathy for the victim of a violent crime, and instead mock her. Why? Well, because she's scarred, and in 1980s America (the U.S.A. of aerobics and Perfect [1985]) the one thing you can't be if you hope to be ugly.

Near death that terrible night, Catherine is miraculously rescued by an unusual stranger. On this strange, fog-shrouded evening, a colossal, shadowy figure named Vincent rescues her and brings her to his subterranean home, to the world underneath. To the world where the poor and disenfranchised live...unnoticed....forgotten. But Vincent's world, beneath the city and beneath the subways, is not one of sadness, desolation or hopelessness. On the contrary, as he establishes to Catherine quite early in the show, "You're safe here." In this underworld, he claims "no one can hurt you." Which is quite different from the street crime above, and the white-collar crime of Tom's world. Catherine feels safe there, and begins a friendship with Vincent, who reads to her passages from Great Expectations while her wounds heal.

You probably know the rest of the story. Vincent (Ron Perlman) is a survivor too, a strange, hulking lion-man. And he develops a bond with Catherine, an empathic one. So that even once she's healed and returned to the world above (now re-born with purpose as a crusading district attorney...), he is still "bonded" to her.

That synopsis may sound cheesy, but this is a fantasy after all, and a lovely one at that. Vincent makes for a glorious hero, not just physically powerful, but also gentle and intellectual and highly moral. And Catherine, of course, is strong and resourceful. A perfect fantasy (and TV couple). But what makes Beauty and the Beast such a wonderful and rewarding viewing experience, even today, isn't just the romance, it's the very world the TV series so carefully forges. Like Star Trek, this is a highly moral universe, one about people who work hard to do the right thing and take care of each other. Even when it isn't easy to do that. It's a fantasy utopia, in a sense, but Beauty and the Beast crafts a world, like that of the 23rd Century, that viewers can feel good about escaping to.

With admiration, I noted how Koslow's screenplay for the pilot creates the character of Vincent and how Perlman interprets it. He's a man of deep feelings, with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong. Unlike many heroes of our cynical time, when Vincent commits violence, it's clear he feels shame. Here, we see it in a close-up of his eyes after he's killed a thug trying to hurt Catherine. For him, violence isn't something to be relished. No, it's part of his dark side; not the good side that his father (Roy Dotrice) says boasts "the soul of a doctor." I also like how Vincent sees New York, or "the world above." It's a world of "frightened people," he says, where his face - a different face - reflects the "aloneness" of others. This is great fairy tale stuff, and almost explicitly a comment on racism. Vincent hides in the shadows, lives in darkness, not because he is ugly (he isn't...), but merely because he is different. And differences - in this world - are to be feared.

Although now twenty years old, Beauty and the Beast, especially in this pilot (the only episode of the set I've watched so far...), is dominated by great production values and filled with wondrous sets. There are long spiral staircases leading down, down into the golden-bronze underworld. There are libraries stacked with books, cut from solid rock. In one iconic shot composed entirely for its visual poetry and dynamism, Catherine is depicted walking away from Vincent - in silhouette - into a blue ray of light.

Also, there's a brilliantly crafted moment in the middle of the show wherein Vincent begins to describe the fairy tale world beneath the city, "where the people care for one another." Instead of focusing on a close-up of the character, or of Catherine, for that matter, director Franklin chooses instead to to pan across Vincent's room...a place of books and trinkets and statuary. We "see" the world he is describing as he describes it. Many moments in this pilot feel equally cinematic.

The writing here is also surprisingly good...and often downright poetic. There will be those cynics who can't stomach the genuine sense of romance on display here, the slightly purple prose, the syrupy music. Yet Beauty and the Beast isn't just a fairy tale, it's a romance...a love story. So, if you ask me, the violins are perfectly appropriate, and even welcome. And I believe the series writers' were correct to make Vincent speak in a manner of almost Shakespearean classicism and greatness. The purpose of a program like this is indeed "wish fulfillment," the idea that we can step into a tunnel and walk into a utopian world below the streets, Vincent's world. It would not be appealing or interesting if everyone there spoke in the exact same manner as those of the "above" world.

No, the romance between Catherine and Vincent is timeless, tragic and touching, and therefore their mode of expression must be grand, rarefied and poetic. We've seen sparks fly on television before (the banter of Moonlighting, the back and forth of The X-Files), but rarely before (and rarely since...) has a love story been vetted for the masses with such an august sense of style, and such an authentic heartbeat. There's a literary feeling to the writing here that is almost startling. The dialogue feels like it would be better read in a book then actually spoken by actors. But, by the same token, it's highly individual and original...a look and feel all it's own. Some people really won't like it, or may term it over-the-top and corny. But hey, I can appreciate a show that wears it's heart on its sleeve. And I hope you can too. If you can, experience Beauty and the Beast again. All you'll need to enjoy it is an open heart.

And a box of kleenex.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 54: Whitman Frame-Tray Puzzles

"It's Kid Tested!" blares the logo (a smiley face wearing a W-shaped crown...) for the venerable Whitman "Frame-Tray" Puzzles, a mainstay of jigsaw puzzles from the last forty years.

I don't know about you, but I own a bunch of these very basic Whitman puzzles (for very young kids, apparently, since you can put them together with your eyes about two seconds).

Why collect such simple jigsaw puzzles? Well, because - of course - the Whitman company developed them using pop-culture characters and situations from science fiction television and superhero comics.

The frame tray puzzle format, which "develops coordination and motor control" consists usually of just ten pieces or thereabouts, so again it's not much of a puzzle. But the art - I think - is terrific pop culture kitsch. I love this stuff...

Just last weekend, my parents found for me at a yard sale a Superman frame-tray puzzle, copyrighted from the year 1966. The puzzle depicts the Man of Steel (my favorite superhero...) walloping a very 1960s version of a menacing robot (complete with flying transistors and widgets!)

Other superhero frame-tray puzzles from Whitman dramatize the adventures of Batman and The Hulk, among others. Non-superhero characters that figure in the line include everyone from Porky Pig and Little Lulu to Zorro.

I also have in my office collection, three Frame-Tray puzzles from the years 1978 and 1979, and in particular Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As you'll see from the puzzle faces, the images are not actually from the movie, but rather the TV show. The Trek logo, however, is straight from the Robert Wise-directed movie.

On the first one of these Whitman Frame-Tray puzzles, you'll see there's a Tholian ship on the viewscreen. There's also a mistake: That's Spock in the command chair (I can see the pointed ears...) but he's wearing a golden jersey, not his typical blue one. Oopsy.

The second Trek "Frame tray puzzle" depicted here (and noted as being from Merrigold Press...) is also my favorite of the ones I own. It reveals Captain James T. Kirk in a series-era space suit (seen in the third season episode "The Tholian Web") taking a space walk. An engine nacelle from the U.S.S. Enterprise is visible in the background.

He's also carrying some sort of glowing box, which I *think* is the Medusan ambassador from "Is There In Truth No Beauty?" If so, he should be wearing a visor, just for safety...

The third puzzle from Trek reveals a landing party getting ready to beam down, and the crew is wearing uniforms with back packs, if I'm not mistaken. I also think that's Nurse Chapel on the platform, and there aren't that many collectibles which featur her character, so that's cool.

Other sci-fi series that eventually got the Whitman Frame-Tray Puzzle treatment include Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981). I think Disney's The Black Hole (also 1979) may have one of these puzzles too, but I haven't seen it.

Again, these may not be the most grown-up of puzzles, but they'll pretty much be the first ones I let my young son, Joel play with. I've got to hook him early on Star Trek...and I've got just the stash (and the puzzles...) to do it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: An American Haunting (2006)

Watching an overwrought, two-dimensional horror flick such as An American Haunting, I can only conclude there are two reasons for the general lousiness of the enterprise. The first is that audiences today can brook no sense of ambiguity and must be spoon fed every last detail. Even in a story involving a mystery, the possibility of life-after-death and the existence of ghosts. This is otherwise known as the "we get the movies we deserve" explanation. Reason number two, which I suspect is more likely, since most of us recognize movies like this for what they are - crap - is the following: Some Hollywood producers believe audiences today can brook no ambiguity and must be spoon fed every last detail.

Either way, it's a sad commentary on our mass entertainment, and the result is the same: a very bad horror movie. Still, this film isn't jaw-droppingly bad in the stupid, empty-headed sense that the remake of When A Stranger Calls is stupid. No, An American Haunting clearly aims higher, and it has some nice muscle to attempt to reach those aspirations. For instance, Adrian Biddle is the cinematographer, and he's a giant in the industry. The film stars Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, and their talent is also inarguable. The costumes are lovely, the attention to period detail splendid, and the story itself, of a haunting in 1888 American heartland, is undeniably compelling.

So, one must ask: what went wrong? Why does a horror film with such great potential almost immediately go south and stay in the crapper for its running time of 83 minutes? Again, I go back to the first paragraph of this review: someone, somewhere (a producer, a director - who knows?) doesn't trust that we as viewers can watch patiently a movie like this one, and understand subtleties. Instead of creating a mood, the movie depends entirely on phantasmagoria, on over-the-top mechanical effects.

So, what we're left with in An American Haunting is a grossly manipulative, vividly overdone freak show that lacks nuance, charm and any sense of grace or tragedy whatsoever. The first mistake the film makes is that it opens in the present (gotta keep those cell-phone-owning teens in their seats!), in mid-chase sequence, which isn't terribly effective. I like a movie that commences in media res, but this is ridiculous...and misconceived. We don't know the character being chased, where she is, or why she's being pursued. More to the point, there's no build-up to the chase and therefore no gradually dawning horror. The movie wants to start in full "scare" mode and it hasn't earned the right do so.

From this inauspicious opener, An American Haunting settles down with a voice over narration from 1888. The reading of these lines (which take us back to the past...) is so over-the-top, so laughably "period" that humor is actually generated. There's no sense of authenticity, and the movie takes a second broadside right out the chute.

Once we're back in the 19th century, we're introduced to John Bell (Donald Sutherland), wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) and their comely daughter, Betsy, who has caught the eye of the local school teacher, Richard (James D'Arcy). John is involved in a dispute with a witchcraft-practicing neighbor, Kate Batts, and that's causing strife. Forecasting the ascent of credit card companies a century later, he's charged her an onerous interest rate (20%!) on a loan, thus violating Church law. Naturally, she's angry about it. Batts tells Bell that she will curse him and his "precious" daughter in a scene played with all the nuance and humanity of the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz. It's all horribly cartoonish. You half expect her to mention Bell's "little dog too."

Sure enough, the Bell family begins suffering ghostly intrusions on their property. But this isn't a "haunting" so much as a full-on supernatural Exorcist/Blair Witch/Amityville Horror assault. On steroids. The unseen force of evil blows open windows, burns down candles in seconds flat, lifts poor Betsy in the air and slaps her around silly, like she's one of the Three Stooges. The director adopts the perspective of a flying demon - call it demon cam - so often that the movie makes you want to reach for the Dramamine, not clutch an armrest in terror. Then, when that nausea-provoking trick grows old (and how it grows old...), the movie trots out fast-motion demon cam...with bad CGI. Inexplicably, the movie switches from black-and-white to color and back to black-and-white during the demonic ambushes. I hasten to add, there's no rhyme or reason to any of this sound and fury.

Again, as little subtlety as there is in this review, there's less in An American Haunting. "There's something evil" one character solemnly declares and before he's even taken a breath, a crucifix flies off a wall across the room. It's not a vindication of his dialogue so much as punctuation to the sentence. Later, one of the characters declares "The fog is awfully thick for this time of day." All the better for those evil wolves to attack you then, my dear.

An American Haunting also (lamely) resorts to black-and-white flashbacks of events we've already seen depicted in the film (a nod, perhaps to the old series, Poltergeist: The Legacy, which endlessly padded out stories with black-and-white flashbacks of previously seen events, just so viewers who made potty breaks wouldn't miss any important plot...). And worse, this movie provides a conclusion that is totally unearned and, frankly, nonsensical. I'd hate to ruin it for anybody, but until the last ten minutes of the film or so, there's absolutely no indication of "the truth" about what's happening here. Maybe it was supposed to be a surprise, but it's just facile, and not very convincing. Without spoiling the end, let me ask this question to those who've seen the movie: If we're to believe the ending, then how do you explain the wolves? And the fact that they constantly attack Betsy and her protectors?

On the other hand, An American Haunting does get the idea of poltergeists right in the strictest sense of paranormal studies. Poltergeist disturbances are not believed to be like those featured in the Tobe Hooper film of 1982, but rather are often tied to children experiencing turbulent adolescence. A clever viewer will understand that most of the horror in this film takes place in Betsy's bedroom at night. She is going through maturation, a sexual awakening, as an early scene with Richard and mistletoe makes clear. When all is revealed, and you know who is punishing whom, it sorta makes sense...but really...there's no precedent for it in the film.

Perhaps alone among horror movie sub-types, the ghost story offers an artistic and skilled director the chance to be classy. I make no bones about the fact that I love slasher films and also those savage movies of the 1970s like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They possess a poetry all their own....but you can't rightly claim they've got class. But the ghost story - well-orchestrated - can prove itself something lyrical and beautiful in the cinema. I would point to John Carpenter's The Fog (1979), which utilizes the leitmotif of ghost stories as oral tradition to paint its tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Or perhaps, The Changeling (1980), a glorious and shiver-provoking creepfest starring George C. Scott that charts an odd symbiosis between a child ghost and a widower who has lost his own child. Of recent vintage, The Others (2001) was remarkably restrained and effective. Tasteful, really. AND classy.

An American Haunting forsakes this noble heritage for an hour-and-a-half of dodging and weaving camera-work, a facile conclusion, bad CGI and a "heightened" pace that never lets the audience breathe. The problem with that breathless pace is that if you're always dramatizing ruthless spectral attacks, never pausing for a bump in the night here or a little chill there, adrenaline isn't actually induced. It's reduced. A movie needs to build to the big stuff. There's no build in this film. It starts at full throttle and stays there the whole time, but somehow is never scary or exciting. Everything's played at the same accelerated tempo, until you just don't care anymore, and the director runs out of tricks.

An American Haunting even gets another horror movie tradition wrong. It foolishly sticks it's opening card (which reads: "This film is based on true events") at the END of the movie instead of at the opener. Every good horror movie, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Return of the Living Dead to The Blair Witch Project is savvy enough to understand that you must tell the audience the events of the film are true (even if they're not...) before the movie, so viewers will be thinking about that factoid the whole time. But here, the declaration is a wasted breath, an after-thought.

Ghost stories should be about artistry and shivers, not weaving cameras and CGI effects. An American Haunting proves that movies today have forgotten how to tell us good, scary campfire tales. This movie panders to the wrong-headed need to "thrill" when I would have happily settled for a well-told "chill."