Saturday, June 23, 2007

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "What Goes Up..."

The second half-hour episode of the animated series Valley of the Dinosaurs aired on September 14, 1974, and it opens with a stampede of angry dinosaurs - including a tyrannosaur derivatively named "Konga" - charging through the jungle. The prehistoric brutes are agitated because millions of over sized ants are on the march towards the valley.

Before you can say "Naked Jungle," the Butlers and their prehistoric friends are grappling with this new and troublesome issue. They realize that no force in the valley can stop the onslaught of the army ants, and so decide to create a defense line of "fire rocks" (or hot coals...) as a barrier between their cave and the marauding ants. "Back home, we'd just call the exterminator," quips Katie.

Mrs. Butler, however, suggests another more helpful alternative. She wants to create a hot air balloon that could transport both families and their pets to the mountaintop and out of harm's way. In short order, this mission is accomplished, Gorok makes a visit to the cave of "giant snakes" and steals their cast-off skins for the weaving of the balloon. Convenient, huh?

Disaster is averted when the Butlers and their prehistoric counterparts fly away in the balloon, and the ants obligingly retreat during a storm. Yes, the ants are literally - as one character notes - "eating and running."

As you might guess from this synopsis, "What Goes Up?" probably isn't Valley of the Dinosaurs' proudest moment. In part because it introduces the grave threat of the "tagas" or "targas'" (the ants...) but then cheerily sends them away at the end with very little damage done to any of the surrounding land or peoples (or dinosaurs, for that matter). Didn't the ants decimate the valley? The village? What made the ants turn and leave -- thunder and lightning? So the ants end up being nothing but a minor inconvenience, when it seems they could have (and should have) wreaked real havoc.

Also, if the Butlers can make a hot air balloon and fly to the cliff top -- why not fly out of the valley of the dinosaurs all together? One of the Butlers' actually suggests this notion in the episode, but then, at the end, the balloon is destroyed and Kim says something along the lines of "so much for going home." Why? Can't they just build another balloon? I mean, there's a cave full of giant snakes nearby, and their skins make for great balloons. Hello, people...

The use of the family pets (Digger and Glump) as stupid comic relief - doesn't really help matters either. Which is probably why most kids were tuning into Land of the Lost rather than this cartoon. Land of the Lost - though aimed at children - never talked down to them.

I also find it interesting that Land of the Lost habitually and purposefully made Holly (even though a whiner...) a character children could respect. She took a back-seat to nobody and was a positive role model for girls. There were episodes in which she saved her father and Will, or came up with the answer that would solve the problem of the week. I can't help but contrast that positive character with the women featured here. It's true that Mrs. Butler conceives and develops the balloon idea, but she is nonetheless relegated (along with the cave wife...) to gathering vegetables for much of the episode. And also, I noticed this week that in the opening credits of the show, only Mr. Butler and his son Greg are rowing the inflatable raft when it gets sucked into the whirlpool. The women are just sitting there idly. I object to this depiction not so much in terms of sexism, but realism. Imagine you're careening towards a vortex...wouldn't you start trying to paddle away from it, even if you didn't have an oar? Wouldn't you do...something?

Nah! Let us menfolk do this work!

Friday, June 22, 2007

TV REVIEW: John From Cincinnati

David Milch, the talent behind the late, lamented and brilliant HBO western Deadwood, returns to television with the disappointing John From Cincinnati, an often-intriguing but ultimately self-indulgent dramatic series that exhausts and baffles more frequently than it entertains.

Set at Imperial Beach, California, John from Cincinnati is the story of three generations in one dysfunctional, surfing family: The Yosts. There's Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), a Surfer God who injured his knee many years ago and - with much bitterness - had to leave the sport. Then there's Mitch's son, Butchie (Threshold's Brian Van Holt), who revolutionized surfing, but had to leave the sport - with much bitterness - because of his bad boy ways, namely a heroin addiction. And finally, there's Butchie's son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), who is now a monosyllabic teenager and just starting his surfing career. However, he is badly injured during a competition at Huntington in episode 2 ("His Visit: Day 2.") Bitterness, we assume, to follow...

My first question: doesn't anything good or happy occur in the world of surfing? Apparently not.

Anyway, Mitch is married to one hot grandma, Cissy, played with energy by Rebecca De Mornay. She is tired of Mitch's bitching yet enabling at the same time. Still, at least Cissy demonstrates more humanity than her husband. Which is a blessing among the tedium.

Other regulars on the series include a troupe of good actors stuck in baffling, nonsensical and ultimately irrelevant supporting roles. Luiz Guzman plays motel manager Ramon and Willie Garson plays attorney Meyer Dickstein. They're two guys who hang out at the run-down El Camino Motel - where Butchie lives - and, like the proverbial Greek chorus comment on the action. Then there's the prone-to-anger slightly off-kilter Bill, played by Ed O'Neill, a friend of the Yosts, plus a "shark" in the world of professional surfing, Luke Perry's Linc Stark...who wants to sign-up Shaun.

Finally, there's that titular stranger in this not-terribly compelling circle, an innocent fellow named John Monad (Austin Nichols). He miraculously shows up one day, spouting wisdom like "The End is Near," and then intersects with the Yost family; Butchie in particular. He asks him repeatedly: "What do you want, Butchie?"

John, we soon learn, apparently possesses magic pants pockets. Yep, you read that right. Anything he needs - credit cards, cash, cell phones - just miraculously appear in his pockets when required. But this gag is nothing compared to John's quickly-grown-tiresome "stranger in a strange land" routine, which requires the young man to spout non-sequiturs and repeat the words of others, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. This is supposed to be funny and spiritual and meaningful, but the John character feels derivative; like a hunky hybrid of Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man routine and the Peter Sellers' shtick from Being There.

While John Monad - a Christ figure with miraculous powers - wanders about Imperial Beach with with the debauched Butchie, learning how to "dump out" (use a toilet...) and so forth, Mitch begins to sporadically levitate. Yep, you read that right too. On a couple of occasions, he finds himself hovering a few inches in the air. At first, he fears he has a brain tumor, but Butchie actually sees the miracle occur too, and confirms the levitation. Not that anybody seems to care, or make much note of the amazing event. "Just another day at the beach..." as one character notes.

The most impressive aspect of John From Cincinnati may just be the opening montage of ocean waves and surfing footage that looks culled from that classic, The Endless Summer. This montage establishes a 1970s kind of vibe, down to the presentation of the title in distinctive 1970s lettering, but - like so much of the show - even that's a blind alley. What's with the old surfing footage? Does it actually mean anything? Or is it, like the levitation, the magic pockets and other idiosyncrasies, merely an affectation?

At this point, it's difficult to tell, frankly. The two episodes that have aired thus far on HBO are lugubriously paced. Worse, many of the characters tend to scream, curse and swear at each other throughout the installments. Which wouldn't be bad, necessarily, except the shouting is supposed to be funny when in fact it's just downright monotonous. Also troubling is the fact that most of the characters aren't very likable, or even, really, tolerable. Mitch Yost, played by the great Bruce Greenwood, is a thoroughly unpleasant, unhappy individual (given to rumbling sour grapes comments such as "all my fans are in retirement homes.") Even sex with Grandma - the ever-hot Rebecca De Mornay - fails to rouse Mitch out of a self-centered stupor.

The much ballyhooed "spirituality" of John From Cincinnati at this point feels contrived, preposterous and pretentious. It plays awkwardly, like a deus ex machina; present more for plot convenience than any genuine sense of "belief" in a higher order. Not that the characters in this drama would notice Jesus Christ in their midst anyway. They're too self-involved, too arrogant, too unpleasant to look beyond their own petty problems and concerns.

Perhaps that's the point of the series, yet it seems a shame to bring a messiah down to Earth just to hitch him to a surfer-dude; a waste to land a savior in Imperial Beach if all he's doing is taking dumps and catching waves.

You get the feeling watching this disappointing drama unfold that John isn't the only one taking a dump.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bad Omens: Captions that Didn't Make the Cut...

In my books, Horror Films of the 1970s and Horror Films of the 1980s, I included some photographs and captions that didn't quite make the cut in the book. I thought the captions were funny, but perhaps they crossed a line of appropriateness (especially in a scholarly-type book...). Interestingly, both of the deleted or altered captions come from The Omen film series. What's that about?

In Horror Films of the 1970s, I captioned this photo (left) of Gregory Peck and Patrick Troughton (My favorite Time Lord...) with the phrase, "Pull My Finger." Too much?

Then, in Horror Films of the 1980s, I captioned this portrait of the Anti-Christ (Sam Neill) from The Final Conflict: Omen III (1981) with the sentence: "He'll Get You in The End." For those who haven't seen the film, that's a not-very subtle reference to Damien's *ahem* preferences in the bedroom. If you've seen the film, hopefully you get it.

But anyway...just thought I'd share that with you today.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Sacred Mushrooms of Mexico...and me.

One of the great things about writing books for a living is that over the years you encounter very interesting fellow authors who are also writing books, and whose paths intersect with yours. Such is the case of Brian P. Akers, a professor at Pasco Hernando Community College who, approximately a year-and-a-half ago, I guess, contacted me about my One Step Beyond research. In particular, he wanted to know about one episode of the series that I covered in my 2001 book, An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond.

You see, way back in 1961, One Step Beyond (also known as Alcoa Presents) aired one of its weirdest and most notorious installments. Although every other half-hour episode of this paranormal anthology is "fictionalized," this particular episode, "The Sacred Mushroom," was not. Instead, it was a legitimate documentary, a black-and-white travelogue of host John Newland and his camera crew heading down to a remote village in Mexico...for the purpose of sampling mushrooms and determining if they could endow the "user" with psychic powers. Even better, after the trip to Mexico, host Newland returned to America and a lab in Palo Alto, where he personally sampled the hallucinogenic "sacred mushrooms" and admitting feeling some...strange sensations.

Here's an excerpt from my interview with the late John Newland, covering "The Sacred Mushroom. (You can read the rest here.)

MUIR: That portion of the episode involved Dr. Barbara Brown (a neuro-pharmacologist), David Grey (A Hawaiian spiritual leader), Dr. Jeffrey Smith (a philosophy professor from Stanford) and Dr. Andrija Puharch sampling a mushroom called "X," given to them by a local with doctor called a brujo. The peyote was supposed to enhance psychic abilities, and it was pretty damn unusual to see people getting high on TV in 1961, wasn't it?

NEWLAND: Alcoa told us that the show was so bizarre, that we don't dare put it on the air.

MUIR: So how did you salvage the episode?

NEWLAND: Well, Puharich asked me to take the mushroom, and I was game, so we took a camera crew and drove to Palo Alto and Puharich's laboratory. Once there, I had three cameras rolling the whole time, and I told the cameramen to just keep shooting until we ran out of film. We decided to shoot and shoot and shoot and see what happened.

MUIR: Did you feel anything strange when you sampled the mushroom?

NEWLAND: I felt light-headed...and a sense of well being...the stuff was distilled. It was very powerful, but not poisonous, so I didn't have any trepidations.

MUIR: Were there after-effects?"

NEWLAND: I had flashbacks and hallucinatory moments for about a month...

This is quite the radical TV episode, as you can guess from my description and Mr. Newland's comments.. To see a major TV personality getting high on the air...well, it's an amazing thing. "The Sacred Mushroom" isn't just bizarre, isn't just's TV history. Anyway, Brian contacted me over a year ago to see if I had that particularly odd episode of One Step Beyond in my possession. I did, and gladly presented him a copy for his viewing pleasure and research. I'm happy to learn it proved useful in his research and even happier to see that his book The Sacred Mushrooms of Mexico has just been released by the University Press of America.

Here's the skinny, from the back of the book:

This work presents significant new readings in ethnomycology, a discipline that examines the role of fungi in human affairs. The greatest cultural and historical impact of mushrooms has resulted from psychoactive compounds found in certain species, and native interpretations of their mental effects in humans, as revealed through intensive multidisciplinary studies coordinated by the late R. Gordon Wasson, the father of ethnomycology.

Wasson's research in the 1950s led to the elucidation of mushroom cultism in Mexico, a phenomenon dismissed as unfounded rumor by "experts" only a few decades earlier. Discoveries made by Wasson and his collaborators intersect a staggering number of disciplines, so much so that individual fields have had difficulty assimilating them. The Sacred Mushrooms of Mexico presents six texts concerning the mushrooms. Five of them are translations of relevant scholarly sources in Spanish previously unavailable in English. The sixth is a transcript of "The Sacred Mushroom," a celebrated episode of the classic television series One Step Beyond. This television program my have been the only show in broadcast history in which the host ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms and endured their effects on camera for the viewing pleasure of the home audience.

About Brian Akers: He has written a number of ethnomycology and fungal systematics published in scientific journals. He is a member of the Mycological Society of America and the North American Mycological Association.

I'll say this: Life is full of odd twists and turns. I never imagined when I wrote a reference guide to One Step Beyond, that I would one day see my work (and my name...) quoted in a book about hallucinogenic mushrooms. But I'm absolutely delighted about it. Congrats, Brian!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Rue Morgue Likes Horror Films of the 1980s!

This month's issue of Rue Morgue (# 68) features a great article by John W. Bowen on my new book, Horror Films of the 1980s. You'll find it on page 63, in the Ninth Circle Books section.
Among the many nice things that Bowen writes, he notes that I've become one of horror "most widely read critics," and that my "indispensible" Horror Films of the 1970s earned "raves" everywhere. He goes on to note that this follow-up "could well be the definitive guide" for the 1980s. Wow!

Here's an excerpt: "As his foreward 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 #68 is on sale now, so check it out!

Library Journal likes Horror Films of the 1980s

Another great review just came in for Horror Films of the 1980s, this time from Library Journal.

Here's an excerpt:

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..."