Saturday, December 01, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK #40: The Evil Touch (1974): "They"

Now here's another horror anthology curiosity from a bygone era, but unlike Darkroom (1981), this half-hour program aired in the early 1970s in syndication (1973-1974) and was made in Australia by American producer Mende Brown. The series featured a variety of American guest stars including Darren McGavin, Ray Walston, Vic Morrow and Leslie Nielson. The show was hosted by Anthony Quayle, who would walk out from a black background to address the audience during each installment (usually behind wisps of what appeared to be blue cigarette smoke...), and introduce and conclude each macabre story. His typical end note reminded audiences that "there is a touch of evil in all of us." Then, sardonically, he would add "Good night. Pleasant dreams."

Perhaps the weirdest entry of The Evil Touch (and that's quite an honor given some of the stories...) was "They", which aired in the New York market on June 2, 1974, and was written by Norman Thaddeus Vane and directed by Mende Brown. Harry Guardino stars as Dr. Fenton, a man who is on vacation in the English countryside with his young son, Peter...a boy who has dreamed of the remote landscape and even the old English village that is their destination. Just recently, a series of deaths have occurred there on the moors, on the rocks overlooking the ocean side. Narrator Quayle ponders "They say the sea can kill you," and then meditates on the nature of fate. "What makes people travel long distances?" He asks. "Is it destiny that leads them, or is the journey part of their destiny?"

Once you get your mind around that question, "They" descends into a world of barely linear storytelling that, despite this unconventional quirk, is actually quite compellingly surreal and horrifying; perhaps because it feels so dreamlike; or more accurately, nightmarish. What happens next in the story is that Peter gets lost on the moors and runs into a cult of malevolent children who wear rings of black make-up around their eyes...a sort of quasi punk affectation. They (the children) are led by a porcelain young beauty, a black-haired wraith called Lydia (Alexandra Hynes). She has already met Peter in his dreams. "I've come to show you my favorite game," she tells young Peter in one nocturnal visit to his bedroom. "It's called...touch."

Show me on the doll where the evil siren touched you...

Anyway, Lydia and her cult of evil children want to initiate Peter into their "new order" and so therefore play another game with him (which isn't as much fun as "touch"), this time "blind man's bluff," to see if he is worthy of membership. (And membership has its privileges). Blind-folded, Peter almost walks off the cliff where the other five corpses were found dead, but his father, Dr. Fenton, finds him and rescues him as he is about to take a giant step for child-kind.

The boy and his father flee to what they hope is safety in a nearby cottage and lighthouse, only to discover that it is the residence of Lydia and her minions. What follows is a confrontation between Fenton and Lydia for possession of Peter's soul. It plays like Village of the Damned meets Lord of the Flies meets The Wicker Man on acid at Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate. And dammit if it isn't effectively unnerving.

Lydia tells Dr. Fenton - who is a renowned advocate and lecturer on the subject of birth control (because overpopulation leads to starvation and "the population bomb," he says, "is more dangerous than the atom bomb,") - that they are enemies. She is the leader of "the Children of the New Order," (no, not the British rock band...) a new cult with dozens of groups across England alone. The children of the new order have given up on the Old Ones (meaning grown-ups) and are converting children to their cause. They want a world of perfection...a world of children. One-upping the Hippie generation in their philosophy, they believe that they can't trust anyone over fifteen...that with age comes corruption. The age of twelve is considered middle-aged by these kids.

Dr. Fenton attempts to reason with Lydia, "where do you get the experience, the maturity to rule?" He asks. Experience is sorrow, the cult suggests, maturity unnecessary.

In the final battle, Peter breaks Lydia's spell over him, and he and Dr. Fenton escape to the moors. But suddenly Dr. Fenton is trampled by a local bookshop owner whom Lydia has maliciously transformed into a wild pony (don't ask...). And then...on the bluff overlooking his father's corpse, Peter dons the black eyeshadow and...joins "They."

In closing, Quayle - our host - says "They are probably still somewhere on the moors..."

In that case, I'm never visiting England.

Seriously, what the heck does this story mean? Naturally, it feels very 1970s in a lot of ways, and that's the era that the great Irish poet (and story editor on Space:1999), Johnny Byrne has often called "the wake-up from the hippie dream." The Evil Touch's "They" portrays a generational clash in a world of limited resources, and does so in the language of "cultism." The great civic leaders of the 1960s (JFK, Robert Kennedy, MLK), had been replaced by radical cult leaders like Charles Manson, Jim Jones and the like. It was an era of war (Vietnam), scandal (Watergate), and an Energy Crisis, and there was a feeling that things had to change in a drastic, revolutionary way, if the human race was to survive the next decade. That's how cult leaders became powerful, because people were seeking answers in unconventional places. Of course, we did survive that era...but "They" plays into a fear of the impending end of the world, of an insurgency from "within" and it does so in the unsettling language of dreamscapes and phantasms. Fenton's murder by the horse, for example, is cut as a lyrical montage, utilizing slow-motion photography, extreme close-ups of the horse braying, and a super-imposed close-up of Fenton's agonized face as he is crushed. There are jump-cuts, flashbacks and other "trippy" film techniques here that we associate from the disco decade era, and the film grain, naturalistic approach and isolated, picturesque setting all add-up to something strangely disturbing. The gaps in conventional narrative are filled in by the imagination, and the result is something that - no matter how weird (and it is very weird...) deserves to be considered artistic.

Not many people remember The Evil Touch (and it ain't available on DVD...), and that's shame because it often told very weird stories like "They," on a super-low budget. But with that super-low budget came a super zeal and energy that the most expensive series mysteriously find difficult to replicate. The Evil Touch's "Kadaitcha Country" pitted Leif Erickson (as a Christian missionary) against an aborigine God in the Australian outback; "The Trial" found a haughty tycoon (with a secret) Ray Walston trapped in a nighttime carnival and pursued by a discredited brain surgeon-turned-tattoo-artist who wanted to perform a lobotomy on him. Another good one, "A Game of Hearts" saw a surgeon, Darren McGavin, terrorized by a donor (jokingly named Skorzeny) whose heart he had transplanted to another patient. These synopses make the whole enterprise sound strange, I guess, but The Evil Touch is strange in its own gloriously individual way...and I love that.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK #39: Darkroom (1981): "Siege of August 31"

"You're in a house. Maybe your own. Maybe one you've never seen before. You feel it. Something evil. You run. But there's no escape. Nowhere to turn. You feel something beckoning you. Drawing you into the terror that awaits you in...the darkroom."
-James Coburn's opening narration to Darkroom, a 1981-1982 horror anthology

On Friday nights in 1981, the place for avid horror fans was the Darkroom, a creepy ABC anthology that ran for seven hour-long episodes before cancellation. Produced by Christopher Crowe and executive story consultant Jeffrey Bloom, Darkroom was very much a series in the spirit of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. Each 60-minute story featured one or more macabre tale, usually with a supernatural bent and some diabolical twist ending. Not available on DVD today, this is one of those fondly remembered horror shows that hasn't seen the light of day in a long time. In the 1990s it sometimes appeared on the USA Network or the Sci-Fi Channel.

The series' opening montage was a work of art in its own right. A camera positioned low-to-the-ground - and likely a steadicam - races at warp speed through an entirely empty but ornate, gothic-style Victorian house. The camera whips down the stairs, cruises across long empty spaces, and rockets about to the baritone words of James Coburn's narration (above), until it stops at the imposing door of...the Darkroom. Perhaps this sequence was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's similar charting of inner space via steadicam in The Shining (1981), but I also wondered while re-watching this sequence if some part of it played into my earliest, formative imaginations and psychic gestalt on The House Between: a ghostly, empty house with - as the narration establishes "nowhere to turn." Anyway, it's a damn good opening sequence.

The trademark Darkroom episode, perhaps the most heavily publicized and most eagerly anticipated of the short run, was a special effects extravaganza entitled "Siege of August 31" which involved a Vietnam veteran and southern farmer named Neil (played by Ronny Cox) locked in combat with toy soldiers (and toy vehicles, including a helicopter) made animate.

The final confrontation, an impressive collage of rear projection, blue screen and miniature effects, occurs in a barn by black of night as the veteran adorns his uniform and literally returns to the war that haunts his dreams. The specifics of the tale involve Neil bringing home to his son Ben two toy play sets of "Company B" -- American soldiers. As the ten year old boy is forced to attend military school by his demanding father, the toy soldiers begin speaking to the boy, telling him about the atrocities committed by American military men in Vietnam. Neil thinks the boy is trying to spite him, since there is no way young Ben could possibly know about his wartime experiences. The last straw is when Neil stumbles upon a toy Vietnam destroyed in flames. Neil's wife (Gail Strickland) begs Neil to let the boy stay home and not attend the school but the father refuses to relent. In fact, he decides to send the boy the very next day. It is that night that Neil meets his destiny in the barn, fighting a toy army and air force.

Based on a short story by Davis Grubb, and written for television by Peter S. Fischer, "Siege of August 31" is directed by Peter Crane. Watching it today, one gets a sense of how deeply conflicted the story is, a reflection of how ambiguous the Vietnam War experience was for the nation, I suppose. On the one hand, Neil (Cox) is portrayed as a veteran who was wounded in war (he lost a leg...) and who wants what is best for his son. He wants Ben to be more than him, more than "just a dumb old dirt farmer." The best he ever felt, he claims, was as as a soldier. "I felt like I counted as something. Like I had something to give." His wife is not so pleased about the whole military academy thing. She doesn't want Ben to be a soldier.. "They got your leg," she tells Neil. "You want them to get your son too?"

On the other hand, Neil is depicted in deliberately unflattering, villainous terms as well. He strikes his wife across the face not once but twice, and is merciless - nay, actually vicious - with Ben, his son. He refuses to relent in his quest to send the boy off to a military academy against his will. Which leaves the toys no alternative, I suppose, but to intervene and stop him. In the end, Neil is a casualty of this personal and very odd war, and his wife eulogizes him. "He was a good man, a fine man," she tells Ben. "[That was] before he went off to war. He used to laugh all the time."

So, on one hand, "Siege of August 31" is an anti-war statement, commenting on atrocities committed under orders (the same mantra used by the Nazis tried for war crimes...), but on the other it wants to support the troops, saying that they did what they had to do. Basically, the story doesn't make a lot of narrative sense, especially since the teleplay explicitly states that Neil did not participate in the particular atrocities depicted by the toys. In fact, he has to phone his colonel to ask about that particular village. So, as a soldier, is he responsible for what the other soldiers do? Is he responsible for being part of a corrupt system? Is that the real "villain" of the piece, the government that sends men to war in the first place?

This is not a small question, and even more pertinent today given the situation in Iraq. Perhaps I'm being pedantic in demanding the story pick a definitive side in what is a complicated issue, but the story is less than it should because it never decides what the point here is. Had Rod Serling been writing, he would have picked a side, either choosing the soldiers and coming down on the side of nationalism, or - much more likely - making the Neil character someone who has to pay for his bad deeds. As it is, the story is diffident instead of forceful. I mean, if it is the system at fault, then both the animate toys and Neil are collateral damage. Why are they fighting each other and not Washington D.C.?

Yet "Siege of August 31" remains incredibly memorable because of that great special effects denouement (which was trumpeted in commercials and previews for the series). One suspects that the battle between Cox and the toy army is the show's real raison d'etre, and truth be told, the special effects hold up pretty damn well today. As a signature episode of Darkroom, the episode is a nostalgic blast, but one wishes that the producers had decided to tell the story in more convincing and clear-headed terms. Instead, the series wants to play things both ways. Neil is both a victim and an aggressor, and that makes the role of the vengeful toys that much harder to ferret out. Ultimately, in the end - during that great spfx battle - you don't know who to cheer for. And for the story to work well, you really, really should. Instead, you're kind of left feeling sorry for everybody. Ben has no father because the toys killed him. Neil was brought down by his blind patriotism and learned nothing. And what force brought the toys to life? Hmmm...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

TV REVIEW: Mad Men (Season One; AMC)

I hope you'll forgive the lateness of this review. Having a year-old baby to look after means that some programs (and films...) remain in my DVR queue longer than I'd like. At any rate, I've now watched every compelling episode of this summer series right up to the finale and all I can say Mad Men, a dramatic series from former Sopranos’ writer Matthew Weiner, is surely one of the best efforts on television, summer, winter or fall.

Set in early 1960, sometime before the Kennedy-Nixon election (which plays an important part in later episodes), this is the story of “life” (and work..) at Sterling Cooper Advertising, a high-powered Madison Avenue advertising firm. With lavish visuals and meticulous attention to detail, this unexpectedly riveting period piece paints a picture of life in corporate America as it once was (and how many Republicans would once again like it to be...).

The audience’s entrée into the world of Mad Men comes from the character of young Peggy (Moss), a female secretary recently hired by Sterling Cooper. In the series premiere, the audience is escorted alongside Peggy on a tour of the office. Ensconced on her desk is an electric typewriter and a rotary phone, and her boss in the secretarial pool, Joan (Hendricks) encouragingly suggests Peggy not be “afraid” of all that intimidating technology. Such a quip not only rings true for the characters but suggests the double layers of meaning inherent in this show. To the contemporary viewer – in the age of I-Pods and I-Phones - these over sized, clattering devices look antiquated and so the comment feels ironic or humorous; yet in the world of 1960, these characters are justifiably proud of this state-of-the-art instrumentation.

Later in the same show, Peggy meets the women who control the phone lines – the operators (who are relegated to a tiny rectangular room dominated by large machinery) that connect calls for the ad men - and she is instructed to be nice to them, lest they don’t connect her calls for her boss. That’s how the last secretary got fired, in point of fact: she couldn’t get her boss’s calls connected anymore. Who could imagine doing business that way today?

Mad Men beautifully and artistically depicts the business world of nearly fifty years ago. It is a world of cigarettes and constant smoking, non-stop martinis, and the utter, unquestionable sexual and professional dominance of the white man, the World War II generation. That final piece is what comes across loud and clear here: the manner in which the advertising men rule the roost both at home and on the job. Women truly are second-class citizens, staying at home, caring for children and tending house, while those who do go to work are treated like sexual opportunities. Minorities aren't in good shape, either. They’re waiters or elevator operators and don’t even rate on the hierarchy; they’re invisible, nothing more than wallpaper. And don’t get me started about the way that divorced women are regarded and treated...

This background detail is critically important to Mad Men, which focuses primarily on two white men of different ages and their end-of-season collision. The first character in this rat race is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), an extraordinary war veteran and ad-man who is afraid he is no longer at the top of his game. The name "Draper" sounds a lot like "dapper," and that's one thing Don surely is: all hat and no cattle, so-to-speak because - as we soon learn - his life story is actually as manufactured as his ad campaigns. Don is married to a beautiful but anxious young woman whose hands often shake, Betty (January Jones), and Don is having an affair with an artist in the city. Later in the run of episodes, he has a second extra-marital affair. He’s a cold fish too, skipping out on his young daughter’s birthday party because he can no longer stand the social niceties. This is after boozing it up all day.

Don’s competitor at the firm is the young lion, Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) an up-and-comer brimming with arrogance. He’s an immediate thorn in Draper’s side, though in one episode, “New Amsterdam” the audience sees how Campbell is also trapped, saddled with a grasping, condescending wife and a rich family that has certain "expectations" for him. Campbell is desperate to be seen as a legitimate talent (and in one episode he takes up writing to prove he is as talented as one of his peers), and even more desperate to climb the corporate ladder. As the season ends, he resorts to blackmailing Draper, with unusual results.

The reason to watch Mad Men is not just that the characters and drama are entirely fascinating. They are, but what Weiner has so commendably done here is opened a time-capsule to reveal to audiences just how much America has changed in the past-half century. This is no longer a country where pregnant women smoke and drink. This is no longer a world where going to see a psychologist holds such a dramatic stigma. Instead, the series takes place at the very end of that bygone era, a moving into the world of “Camelot,” which then gives way to the British invasion in music (The Beatles), the controversial Vietnam War, and the Kennedy assassination. Understandably, many people consider this era (of Mad Men) the end of innocence, but what Mad Men depicts is not innocence; just a different world, and an extinct one: a Boy’s Business Club. Many of us tend to wish for simpler times, or to look at the past with nostalgic eyes, but Mad Men dramatically slaps off any such rose-colored glasses. If you were a white man, heck yeah this world was great. If not...tough luck.

As drama, and as an artifact of “another world,” but one that comments rather successfully on ours, this is one of the most fascinating TV series of the year. It has been renewed for a second season, and I’m looking forward to season two next summer.

Monday, November 26, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 70: Mr. Spock Decanter (Grenadier, 1979)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on December 7, 1979, the Grenadier Spirits Company unveiled this fascinating and unusual franchise collectible, a "beautifully handcrafted ceramic bust" of the half-Vulcan science officer played by Leonard Nimoy.

According to the literature on the packaging, this Grenadier Original "has captured in each handpainted figurine the uncanny likeness of our favorite Vulcan using only the finest quality porcelain."

And if that's not enough, each Mr. Spock decanter is filled with "Cielo" Liqueur(!) and, according to the back of the box "will be an eye-catching addition for every fan's showcase." The Cielo is 48 proof, in case you were interested, and there's 750 ml. What, no Romulan Ale? Or Tranya?

The back of the box, which features a nice head-onillustration of the classic NCC-1701 (after two-and-half-years in dry dock...) also includes some background on the series and film. "Since its creation, Star Trek has spawned millions of fans and hundreds of fan clubs, publications and conventions," it says in part. Then there's some info on Nimoy, noting he was nominated for three successive Emmys for his portrayal of this beloved character.

I picked up one of these Grenadier Spock decanters mint-in-box back at a huge antiques show in Maryland back in 1990, and was pleased to find it. I always enjoy some of the weirder Star Trek items (for instance, the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier marshmallow dispenser...), though I'm sure Mr. Spock would raise an eyebrow at an alcohol decanter molded in his image. That this item is from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and features the science-officer in a uniform he was only seen in once also makes it a pretty cool example of series memorabilia.

Finally, I have to wonder...will I be adding a Zachary Quinto Mr. Spock decanter to my collection come next Christmas?