Thursday, March 29, 2007

The House Between Episode # 4 ("Visited") Director's Notes

This week, I want to share my thoughts on The House Between, episode #4, titled "Visited."

In short: this is our cursed show. Although we had an amazingly smooth shoot, on the day we shot "Visited" our lights kept blowing out. One bulb after the other, after the other, after the other. Finally, production ground to a halt as we ran out of the entire back-up supply of bulbs in short order, and I had to send poor pregnant Kathryn 35 miles away to Uptown Charlotte to find a vendor with more of them. So that wasn't good. I began searching around my shed for a light bar I once utilized on my old movies. It's a device that I kiddingly referred to as "the artificial sun" because it generates so much light (and heat). Amazingly, my resourceful lighting directors Bobby and Kevin were able to make do with this substitute in the short term...and still deliver great work.

So we got through the shoot and put the lighting issue behind us. Then I went to dailies and saw that for some odd reason, the sound was absolutely sub-par for this episode. We used the same mic, the same actors, and the same location as we did every other day, but for some damn reason...the sound was rotten this day. I've restored it the best I possibly could.

Then I got to editing and - lo and behold - the episode started to vex me yet again. Why? Well, it's the most complex, special and sound effects heavy episode so far, and it has been kicking my ass for two weeks. More significantly, it's been kicking the ass of my editing program, Sony Vegas Platinum. I have not been able to get a decent render on the final version of the show yet...the editing program just keeps crashing and crashing. I keep getting an "Exception Error" that said there's an "access violation." Whatever! I've been at this night and day, day and night for over a week now, trying desperately to get a usable episode render. I'm not a happy camper. At this point, I still don't have a decent render, and it's getting perilously close to upload time. Boogers!

"Visited" is our scary and atmospheric episode. And I don't mean just because it's been scaring me this week, either. Part of my task in creating The House Between was to demonstrate how a seemingly basic and limited formula (five people in a house, no way out...) could actually afford the clever scenarist dozens if not hundreds of different and fascinating plots. So we've had our introductory episode ("Arrived"), we had our moody, metaphysical episode ("Settled"), we had our action episode ("Positioned") and now we come to the atmospheric, creepy "Visited." I hope you like what you see. Be sure to watch it with the lights down

Now, storywise, I can't point to any direct series or episode antecedents in "Visited." I will state that this episode introduces the series' recurring enemy, like the Klingon or Borg, the creepy "Outdwellers." Interestingly, if you've watched the series closely, you've already glimpsed these ghouls. Don't know what I'm talking about? Go back to "Arrived" and watch the first ten minutes again. Very closely. Keep a good eye out. There's an Outdweller there...just keep looking. They were always a part of my vision for the show, and a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Anyway, I did name the "Outdwellers" after the mutant "Underdwellers" in the animated 1970s series Return to the Planet of the Apes. Rob Floyd, our special effects guy, designed the creatures and did a hell of a job making them spooky. In garb and style, they are also reminiscent of the mutants from one of my favorite 1970s flicks, The Omega Man.

Ironically, I don't really have too many distinct memories of shooting this episode besides the bulb incident. I think the photography and compositions in this episode are amongst the best of the series. And there was a dramatic scene set in the Parlor from Hell that took forever. Other than that, I was happy with the performances, enthused by the creepy lighting design, excited by the look of our monsters and so forth.


We'll see what you have to say after you watch. If the bloody thing ever renders...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 56: Buena Vista Read Along Adventures.


Ah yes, another relic of a bygone age of toys (namely the 1970s and 1980s).

Almost two decades ago, well before DVD players (and in the era of VCRs...), another way for fans to experience the glory of their favorite sf movie (like Star Wars or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) involved the exciting technology of...cassettes. Perfect for Borat in Khazikstan today...

What's a cassette? Oh come on, you know! Search your memories....before CDs...after eight-tracks...you know! Anyway, Buena Vista Records manufactured a number of "Read-Along Adventures" for the young ones. These were cassettes that narrated an adventure while the youngling could read along in a 24-page book. "SEE the pictures. HEAR the tape. READ the book," read the material on the back cover of each 24-page book.

Also, Buena Vista noted, you could "give your child a head start in learning to read" with this "24-page book" "filled with full-color illustrations and a high quality read-along cassette." What could be more fun that? Besides DVDs and X-Box, of course...

The back cover also noted that each book features "word-for-word story narration, dramatic character dialogue, authentic sound effects and musical backgrounds." Neat.

In its day, the company released a variety of Star Wars books (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Planet of the Hoojibs, Droid World, The Ewoks Join the FIght) and didn't slight Star Trek either, making books based on The Motion Picture, The Wrath of Khan and The Search For Spock.

Other titles included Gremlins, The Dark Crystal, E.T. and The Black Stallion. One of my favorites was The Last Starfighter.

A thrill of these "book and cassette" combos was that in some cases (Star Trek and The Last Starfighter, for instance), the books utilized photographs from the actual productions rather than illustrations. This often meant you'd see images that weren't very common; or even better - had been deleted from the film. For instance, there's an interesting view of the U.S.S. Enterprise reckoning with the V'Ger cloud in The Motion Picture edition. And personally, in regards to The Last Starfighter, I can simply never see enough of Catherine Mary Stewart.

As the interior of each book implored on the first page, "LET'S BEGIN NOW!" Really, was there ever a better time to be a kid than the 1970s and 1980s? I guess, cuz now kids have the Internet too. But forgive me for being nostalgic, all right?

Monday, March 26, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: The Covenant (2006)

After watching The Covenant - possibly the worst expensive studio horror flick since Underworld and its misbegotten sequel - I realized that I was waaay too hard on The Return in my review last week. As limp, plodding, predictable and meandering as that film was...The Covenant is worse. Much, much worse. Heck, it's even worse than the remake of The Wicker Man...and you know, that's saying something.

The nicest thing I can think to write about The Covenant is this: at least it isn't a remake.

Seriously, at least someone (writer J.S. Cardone) attempted to tell a fresh story rather than re-hash The Wicker Man, The Hills Have Eyes, The Omen, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, When a Stranger Calls, or whatever happens to be the remake flavor of the month. Of course, on the other hand, J.S. Cardone is (presumably) the talent behind some of the most atrocious dialogue ever to grace a major movie. "Harry Potter can kiss my ass!," says one warlock character early in the film; if that gives you any idea of the level of discourse here. Still, the final insult is reserved for the climactic battle. An evil warlock calls an opponent his "we-yotch" as in 'bi-atch" with a 'w."

Good heavens...

The Covenant commences with a clumsy opening narration that intones how "no one knows how the Power Came to Be." Yeah, well no one knows how this movie got greenlit, either. Anyhoo, the "power" belongs to five WASP families (of witches) in the New England Colony of Ipswich. The narration continues to inform us that the five families and the warlocks who use the power in modern times (apparently, women don't get the supernatural gift...) share a "Covenant of Silence." Now, as I understand it, silence usually means you don't talk about something. For the film's remaining 96 minutes, however, all the teen characters do is talk about the gift; amongst each other; with their parents and groundskeeper, with a new girlfriend, Sarah, come to town, and so forth Here's an idea for a drinking game: every time someone talks about the power (and breaks the covenant of silence..) in the film, take a drink.

You'll be drunk in no time.

Which is probably the ideal state in which to enjoy this ridiculous horror movie. I was surprised to see that the director is Renny Harlin, whose career has been in a death spiral for the last couple of years. Sure, but Harlin directed A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master, which is generally high regarded by genre fans. Ditto his first flick, the low budget Prison. And, in terms of big-screen "thrillers" he directed Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. Heck, I even got a kick out of Deep Blue Sea...which I won't attempt to defend here. Then, came the travesty known as Exorcist: The Beginning, and now this disaster.

To re-cap the story: The four sons of Ipswich are studly, buff teenagers, about to "ascend" on their eighteenth birthdays and become true warlocks. Unfortunately, the "power" (which they got a taste of at 13) is addictive and "to use" the magicks is hard on the body (like heroin). Caleb Danvers' dad, for instance, got hooked on the power and pre-maturely aged. At 44, he's an ancient, shriveled, mindless thing. This fate is always on Caleb's mind as he prepares to ascend. The drug metaphor and constant talk of ascension reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer...and boy did I wish I was watching an episode of that series instead of this movie. Of course, when Buffy tread on these ideas, the series did so with wit, humor, intelligence and good performances. None of which you'll find here.

Back to the synopsis: The fifth family of Ipswich supposedly died out hundreds of years ago, but into town comes an interloper, Chase...and he's one bad dude. And played by a terrible actor who thinks he's a young Jack Nicholson, but comes off more like Jason Priestley in Beverly Hills 90210. Since he didn't know about the power as a youngster (the covenant of silence, remember?), he's already hooked on the power, and wants Caleb to will him his strength and supernatural abilities so that he won't shrivel up and die. But if Caleb does that, he'll die! Oh, cruel fate...

To make Caleb comply with his wishes, Chase sends a plague of spiders to attack a friend, Kate (and amusingly, her doctor refers to the spiders as insects...). Then, Chase arranges a car accident for Caleb's "bro," Pogue. Finally, he captures Sarah, Caleb's would-be girlfriend. The final battle is waged in an old barn on the night of Caleb's eighteenth birthday...

Oh boy. This is one of those movies where characters hurl glowing fireballs at each other, levitate, and quip as they're attacking one another. Early in the film, one warlock uses his "magic" power to make a drunk teenager projectile vomit on a bully. Like you really needed super powers for that feat...

The Covenant also fails to explain the re-occurring appearance of a wraith called a "Darkling." There's no explanation for this thing...which shows up for a few jump scares. But the oddest and most unnecessary moment in the film (besides the weyotch quip...) involves a car accident. Caleb is speeding down the highway in his car, when the darkling materializes beside him in the passenger seat (what is this, The Matrix Reloaded?) Caleb loses focus for a moment, and runs into a logging truck. Logs fly around, there's a fire, and Caleb's car explodes into a million CGI pieces. Then, Caleb uses his magic powers to miraculously re-form his car and continue driving. Huh?

He can do that, and he hasn't ascended yet? He can do that, but he can't beat Chase? I'd love to know he managed to do that trick. The accident is staged as a surprise, so Caleb's powers must have been activated at literally close-to-light speed or something, reacting to something he couldn't possibly have seen coming. It's totally ridiculous and maybe I would have forgiven the ludicrousness of the scene if the special effects were good. But they're not. They suck.

Finally, all the boys owe their power to a tome called "The Book of Damnation." Does that mean that their power is evil? That they're evil? The Covenant never tells you. The book serves no purpose except to provide exposition, and the power of the Ipswich boys goes unexplored.

There were times in The Covenant when I saw what this movie wanted to be: The Lost Boys with witches. But The Lost Boys adroitly balanced horror, comedy and thrills. The Covenant doesn't manage any such success. In fact, it achieves the holy trifecta of cinematic crap: bad acting, bad story and bad special effects.