Friday, January 04, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Carnival of Souls (1962)

Directed by Kansas native and regional filmmaker Harvey Herk on a super-low budget (by some accounts 33,000 dollars; by some accounts 17,000 dollars), the 1962 Carnival of Souls is a fascinating and disturbing horror film that - despite some bumps (including a few bad performances here and there and weak audio) - plays more as creepy art film than graphic horror picture. The black-and-white film remains deeply unnerving (and oddly beautiful) to this day, primarily because of two critical factors: excellent, canny visualizations, and a strong narrative focus on an intriguing central protagonist and her plight.

Carnival of Souls stars lovely Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry, a talented young organ player. As the film commences, she's involved in a bad accident (following a drag race), and trapped in a car (with two friends...) that goes off a bridge. Mary emerges from the swirling river some time later, apparently the only survivor of the tragedy, and leaves town, headed for a new job (as a church organ player) in a brand new city. But on the way to her new post, Mary begins to experience macabre visions of a strange, smiling, white-faced stranger. And she feels irrevocably drawn to a lonely, deserted dance hall/carnival she passes on the highway by night. There, at Saltair, white-faced souls emerge from a river and dance at a merry go-round. They beckon Mary to join them...

Though this is undeniably a low-budget, slowly-paced film (even at 81 minutes), Carnival of Souls admirably remains focused on its central character, and her "horror" plight reflects her unique and individual characteristics as a human being. Or to put it another way, the film's form reflects its content. What this means is that Mary is a remote, icy woman who - even before her accident - feels separated from the rest of the human race. Some accuse the distant (frigid?) woman of not possessing a soul to begin with. A cold fish (but not a bad person), Mary feels detached from those she works with, and doesn't even evidence sorrow about the accident. Mary just She wants to connect with other human beings, but somehow just can't do it. She has never been able to do it.

The screenplay is a good one because Mary's crisis is that, post-accident, she indeed begins to slip away from humanity, into the nether world of death. Her lack of connection becomes a real, tangible thing. Her feeling that she has "no place in the world" and "no part of life" is literalized when she begins to drift slowly into the eerie, dead world of the carnival of souls. At one point in the film, while in a department store dressing room, Mary sees the surrounding world ripple around her (as if underwater...), and when she emerges into the store proper, nobody can see her, and she can't hear anything. She has gone from being a voluntary (but distant) observer of her fellow man, to an involuntary one, and it's frightening to see it happen. Later, the same phenomenon occurs a second time, and Mary flees to a bus station. Here, she is given an opportunity to board a bus, one filled with white-faced ghouls, and the moment is legitimately terrifying. A gaggle of the dead sit in their seats, staring and smiling, waiting to add to their number. The message is clear: there is no escape from death.

Another moment in Carnival of Souls finds Mary slipping into a fugue state while playing the organ, and experiencing visions of the dance pavilion, where the dead whirl in endless circles, waltzing for all eternity. As Mary drifts ever further from the land of the living to the Tartarus of the dead, she desperately tries to hold on to her humanity, to connect with a skanky neighbor in her boarding house. "I don't want to be alone tonight. I want to be near you," she begs, trying desperately to hold onto the existence she knew, but once took for granted. The date goes badly, however, after Mary witnesses a disturbing image in a mirror. Nuzzling on her neck is not the skeevy would-be suitor, but rather the white-faced stranger. It is the emptiness and isolation of death courting Mary now.

Buttressed by unconventional and - in some sense - avant-garde scene transitions (ones that seem to presage David Lynch's brilliant Lost Highways), Carnival of Souls culminates with Mary's final visit (in this life...) to the abandoned pavilion. Herk utilizes a series of high-angle shots to express Mary's doom, and one shot, viewing the protagonist from behind a chain-link fence, dramatizes her ultimate entrapment. What follows a brilliantly-shot chase sequence (which features ghouls in close-up, popping up unexpectedly into the foreground of the frame), is the ending zinger or "twist." By now, this ending probably feels familiar (and you can see it coming). But back in 1962, it probably worked better than it does now. For a generation weaned on multiple incarnations of The Twilight Zone, we've been trained to expect such a reversal.

This film won't prove everybody's cup of tea, no doubt, especially based on its budgetary limitations, but Carnival of Souls is admirably mounted as an exploitation film without any real exploitation. It is ambitious in that it doesn't rely on violence, gore or titillation to achieve chilling effects. Instead, the film is paced lugubriously (but deliberately) as a character piece. The narrative unfurls with the illogic of a dream or a nightmare and consequently the film casts a spell or aura of doom and foreboding. Let's take the make-up on the ghouls. It is fairly obvious that white pancake make-up was applied heavily and rather roughly to the extras, with black make-up around the eyes. At times, you can actually see brush lines where the make-up is applied. Yet this would-be problem is instead part of the film's terrifying mood, a piece of the crude but ambitious artistry. The ghouls remain scary, even if we can see that they are wearing badly-applied make-up. I don't know why, exactly, but here realism isn't necessary in forging the spell, and the shabbiness (at points) of the production values instead serves to enhance the feeling of surrealism.

Herk also does really well with "the creep factor" underlining Carnival of Souls. The first time that a white-faced "soul" appears in the reflection of a car's passenger-side window is a terrifying humdinger (and an inventively staged shot). The moment wherein the ghoul reappears at the bottom of the staircase (and we get opposing zoom shots: of the grinning stranger and of the terrified Mary at the top of the staircase), generates a legitimate sense of suspense and horror, especially as the ghoul ascends the staircase.

Performances in Carnival of Souls are truly variable, from the exquisite and sublime (the entrancing Hilligoss) to the terrible (there's a moment when a stranger by a water fountain addresses the camera directly), but there's an alchemy at work in Carnival of Souls, one impossible to dismiss. The film's production deficits somehow manage to play into the overriding sense of the unreal and dream-like. There are no zombie attacks, no fierce action sequences, no bouts of blood-letting here. Instead, the venture methodically and memorably (and with unforgettable imagery) charts one woman's tragic plight as she slips slowly -piece by piece - from the world of the living to the world of the dead. In that half-detected twilight between life and death, she begins to regret that she never embraced life as meaningfully as she should have. Because now, death's cold embrace - a dance partner in the carnival of souls - is all she has to look forward to.

There are better, more accomplished horror films out there, but few as lyrical and psychically unnerving as Carnival of Souls. It's one of those films you should really watch in total darkness, in the middle of the night. You'll appreciate it best while feeling the tug of sleep, as dreams beckon and nightmares loom. Carnival of Souls artistically navigates the tightrope of the unconscious and perhaps subconscious world, creating a gloomy trance-like state of attention; one occasionally punctuated by moments of sheer, palpable terror.

CULT TV BLOGGING: Star Maidens: "Nightmare Cannon"

Star Maidens' descent into utter, unswerving camp continues unabated with the third episode (by Eric Paice and directed by Wolfgang Starch), called "Nightmare Cannon." Hmmm. A show about dominating women and meek men; their sexual slaves. What might a "nightmare cannon" be? Let's find out.

Watching this installment of the 1970s Brit series, I have to admit, one can detect that the hard right shift towards comedy and shtick may actually be intentional. There's no other explanation for some of the dialogue and situations here.

"Nightmare Cannon" commences as Medusan refugees Shem and Adam - free in England - commandeer medieval Wessex castle and hide there (after freezing a kindly security guard they mistake for a Baron) to escape the clutches of their would-be captors and female overlords, Fulvia and Octavia.

Meanwhile, Earth scientist Liz Becker (Liza Harrow) and her German (and highly-excitable) assistant take advantage of the fact that the Medusans left the door to their advanced spaceship, Nemesis, wide-open. Oopsy. The Earthers sneak aboard, and Liz's assistant is blinded by a high-tech control panel while snapping photos of the advanced technology. His condition requires the help of an absolutely terrifying robot physician. This female doctor boasts needles on the end of her fingers, has dead white eyes, wears horrific blue lipstick and speaks with a grating, metallic voice. Apparently, the Medusans have never heard of a good bedside manner. (Her prototype must have been programmed by Nurse Ratched).

Using her "man finder" device (which - remember - hunts down scent...), Octavia tracks Adam and Shem to the castle and decides to re-capture them by firing a Medusan device called a "nightmare cannon" at them. It is explained that this device "projects" a series of sonic sounds at the target to "disturb the hypothalamus" and cause visual hallucinations and nightmares. In the castle, Shem and Adam go nuts, seeing weird phantasms of Octavia and Fulvia. This sequence includes the worst special effects yet seen on the series, as the faces of the Medusan ladies are superimposed awkwardly over live footage in the castle (and at one point, inside the clanking armor of medieval knights).

While all this is going on, the English government finally sends a representative to the scene (the Minister for Interior Security). About time. You might think that advanced aliens armed with immobilizing stun guns, nightmare-cannons, Nemesis spaceships, and "man finders" might be a matter of interest and some import to the national government. But sure, take your time, Tony Blair. Heckuva job.

Medusan Factoids revealed in "Nightmare Cannon":

*Taking life is against the Medusan religion. (But scaring people with the nightmare cannon is apparently okay).

*According to Octavia, the English language can be learned by an "educated" Medusan in five minutes.

*Medusan proverb/quote: the male's fear of the female on Medusa is "the key to good government." (This is apparently also Hillary Clinton's motto. But I tease Hillary Clinton...)

DVD REVIEW: Extras: The Complete Series

After a triumphant first season, Extras returned to HBO for an even funnier and more self-assured second sortie of six episodes last winter. The entire series (twelve episodes) - as well as a devastating Christmas special - is now available on DVD.

Masterminded by funny men Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the creative duo behind The Office, this brilliantly-crafted follow-up series eschews the now overly-familiar mockumentary format as it follows film extra Andy Millman (Gervais) and his thick-headed best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) through their day-to-day adventures on the periphery of motion picture production. Merchant portrays Darren Lamb, Millman’s inept agent and Shaun Williamson takes on the regular role of Lamb’s out-of-work, simple-minded client, Barry.

As the second year of Extras commences, Andy Millman’s perpetual bad luck appears to have changed for the better. To wit, he’s starring in a brand new BBC sitcom, “When the Whistle Blows,” that he created. To Andy’s dismay, however, the sitcom has been badly dumbed-down by the network and he is now relegated to playing an obnoxious character with funny glasses and a curly wig; a character whose catchphrase (“Are you having a laugh? Is he having a laugh?”) suddenly becomes a national sensation and a sticking point for Andy.

Pirates of the Caribbean star Orlando Bloom appears in one episode of Extras as himself. The young heartthrob is horrified to learn while on the set of a legal court room drama/romance film that an extra – Maggie - doesn’t find him attractive and actually prefers Johnny Depp! In response, he endlessly attempts to woo her.

Rock star David Bowie appears in another installment, singing a derisive song about Andy in an exclusive restaurant/club. Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe shows up for some fun too, satirizing his wholesome image to portray himself as a horny, self-obsessed louse. Radcliffe spends most of the episode hitting on Maggie and in one incredibly funny moment, flings a condom into the face of Dame Diana Rigg. This is also the notorious episode in which Andy knocks out a dwarf, Willow (1987) star Warwick Davis.

Later in the season, Andy is involved in a celebrity scandal when he inadvertently behaves rudely to a child with Downs Syndrome. Andy also clashes with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who appears on “When the Whistle Blows” to hawk his newly-released album.

Before the season ends, Andy is publicly humiliated at the BAFTA awards when during an acceptance speech by another performer his When The Whistle Blows action figure won’t stop chattering his popular but inane catchphrase. Andy’s most humiliating moment, however, likely occurs on stage when his rampant homophobia causes him to ruin the play he is appearing in, one directed by Sir Ian McKellen.

Extras proves simultaneously more uncomfortable and more confident here than in its first season, and also offers a number of fun stylistic flourishes. One episode begins with Millman’s disingenuous public service announcement (penance for the Down Syndrome debacle…), and another episode features the opening credits of his dreadful sitcom. The last episode culminates with a guest appearance by Robert De Niro.

The Christmas special is a blistering ninety-minute critique of the entertainment industry and what passes for celebrity culture these days. In the spirit of a Christopher Guest film, this special gazes at a person (Millman) who dreams big and wants to be famous, but doesn’t really understand why it is so important to him. After all, Andy has his own sitcom, and he even appears on the BBC’s Doctor Who as a guest villain (in a ridiculous costume) with David Tennant on hand for a wicked cameo. Yet Andy disdains all of his success because he wants to do “quality work” like an acting competitor who recently finished a bio-pic about Byron and Shelley.

As his new agent tells Andy, some people are never meant for “quality” work. He gives him a choice: be famous for doing something silly or have no fame at all. This is a wake-up call for Andy because he puts down the fans of his sitcom to their faces, proving increasingly ungrateful. The message: be grateful for the fans you have, because you might have none at all. (David Caruso and David Duchovny could have learned this message some years back...).

Andy’s spiral from being a popular TV star to fifth-rung, D-list celebrity on a reality series is contrasted with two additional downward spirals. Stephen Merchant’s character, Darren Lamb loses his agenting business in the Special when Andy fires him and ends up working at a cell-phone retail store.

And poor Maggie – after an on-set altercation with guest star Clive Owen (who wants to throw shit in her face after having on-screen sex with her…) – leaves the “film extras” business. She loses her apartment, finds herself out of work, and slips quietly and without fanfare into genuine poverty.

There’s an uplifting ending (of sorts) to the Extras Christmas special, one that serves as a giant upturned middle-finger to the entertainment industry, but the balance of comedy and pathos so deftly managed by the series is missing here. It’s a depressing (if truthful…) and cynical show that drags the series’ character through desperate, unhappy times, but basically ends their journey in the exact same place that the second season ended (where Andy chose friendship with Maggie over an opportunity to work with Robert De Niro).

Season One and Two of Extras are terrific fun and totally worth your time, but unless you’re in the mood for a massive downer, don’t view the Christmas special around the holidays.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

To Boldly Blog...

In honor of the upcoming Star Trek movie, I'll be blogging some episodes of the original series. Only thing is, I don't want to choose which ones. I want you to choose. I'll probably blog a dozen or so over the year (maybe one a month?), including one Star Trek movie. So in the comments below, let me know which episodes/movie you think I should write about.

Is "And the Children Shall Lead" in my future? "The Way to Eden?" Or will it be "The Squire of Gothos?" (And don't ask me to do re-mastered episodes - which I like - I just want this to be Old School).

Seriously, pick a Trek (classic) and let me know...

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Corgi's 1960s Batmobile

Yesterday I wrote that 2008 is the year of Star Trek, but it may also be the year of Batman with the summer release of the sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight. I'm looking forward to the film even though I really, really hate the design of the new batmobile. It looks clunky, not cool (but it is nicely explained in the Batman Begins script, nonetheless.) My favorite batmobile has always been the one driven by Adam West in the 1966 series, Batman. But, as Batmobiles go, this Corgi toy variation is pretty darn neat too. It's the 1960s Batmobile as seen in DC comics, and it has a detailed engine and a hood you can lift up. Crafted in die-cast metal, this batmobile is 1:24 scale.

What's your favorite Batmobile? I guess my runner-up choice would likely be the Burton batmobile from the 1989 movie. I didn't particularly care for the wall-climbing batmobile of Batman Forever.

CULT TV BLOGGING: Star Maidens: "Nemesis"

The second episode of the 1970s war-of-the-sexes space opera Star Maidens opens with the thought: "space holds no fury like a female planet scorned." This comment drew a roar of laughter from my dearest Kathryn, but no matter.

This story involves the Medusan pursuit ship Nemesis following Adam and Shem to Earth. The two escaped "domestics" have fled their space-age parachute (a giant bubble of sorts) and head across the English countryside looking for food. The men are happy to be "free at last," (they actually speak those famous words...) and walking around on a world where no woman can "command them." They soon encounter a cow pasture and see cows decide to eat the grass too. This doesn't speak well of their intelligence, I think. Later, Adam and Shem happen across a farm and find apples to eat, but not before a little Earth girl chases them off the grounds. They flee the property by jumping over a tall brick wall in a single bound, pointing to the fact that Medusa and Earth have different gravity. Or something.

The women from Medusa - Fulvia and Octavia - land on Earth and meet with Liz and Professor Evans. They demand the return of Adam and Shem, and bark orders at the local police chief. When he tries to explain what is happening, Octavia curtly tells him to "be quiet." In the same sequence, Octavia utilizes superior Medusan weaponry to immobilize another police officer. Their weaponry is a kind of "paralysis" or "freeze ray," which is the equivalent of turning a person to stone and thus the perfect weapon for a citizen of Medusa, I guess.

More genuinely humorous is the device that Fulvia uses to track down Adam. It's called a "man finder" (I'm not joking...) and it hunts down a man by his "scent." The theory being that each man has his own specific scent. I swear, I'm not making any of this up.

The episode culminates with Adam and Shem riding around dirt roads in a computer-controlled police car, and sending the Earthbound police on a merry chase. It all happens to the tune of a groovy seventies musical score. It's like Doctor Who meets Smokey and the Bandit.

It's pretty clear from this second installment of the series that Star Maidens has descended into outright camp in record time. It may not be intentional, but something in the presentation of "Nemesis" is skewed towards the absurd and laughable. I could mention again the moment wherein the none-too-bright man-folk from Medusa sample grass along with generous cows. Or the moment wherein the Nemesis ship lands in a wide-open field, two gorgeous alien women disembark and none of the gathered earth people bat an eye, gasp, or react with surprise or shock. Nope. A conversation immediately begins about the Medusans wanting their men back. It's like a conversation officials from two countries might have over the subject of extradition. But officials from two planets?

And the scene in which the caped, futuristic women from Medusa enter a police station and start issuing's more of the same. It plays as comedy, and it's difficult to tell if it is intentional or not.

Still, since (according to Fulvia in this episode...) "most of outer space is very boring," I guess I can be grateful that Star Maidens is as entertaining as it is.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

CULT TV BLOGGING: Star Maidens: "Escape to Paradise"

Who or what are Star Maidens? Ahh, that's a great question. Allow me to explain. Given my recent debate here on the blog about the nature of feminism vs. post-feminism (see the Veronica Mars post...) and my discussions with various readers about where, precisely, our American culture is on the subject at this particular moment, I decided that I should begin blogging about a sci-fi series about the war between the sexes.

Star Maidens is a British/German co-production created by Eric Paice. It's a short-lived series (with a run of just thirteen episodes) that made the war between sexes its central dramatic issue. The series was filmed in 1975, and I still remember watching it in first run on Channel 5, WNEW in the mid-1970s. Star Maidens is produced by James Gatward and features production design from Keith Wilson, the genius who crafted the minimalist but spectacular look of Space: 1999. Given this connection, the series looks and sounds (courtesy of some library sound effects...) like the unholy love child of Space:1999 mated with Doctor Who or Blake's 7. So - in case you couldn't tell - it's right up my genre alley.

The first 22 minute episode of Star Maidens commences with a voice over narration explaining the "golden years" of history on the distant planet Medusa. There, in "Proxima Centauri," the planet developed a peaceful, advanced, art-centric culture wherein women were the unquestioned rulers (and thinkers...) and servile, lowly men functioned as "domestics" or servants. Then, however, a pesky comet called Dionysus (noticeably a male figure in myth, by the way...) swung too close to Medusa (hate when that happens, don't you?) and pulled the planet out of her natural orbit. Consequently, the "vast mass" of Medusa (go on a diet, why don't you?) was "dragged" into the "frozen infinity of space." The surface of the planet grew uninhabitable as it turned to ice (read: frigid), and the survivors of the disaster moved into underground cities, where the female-dominated culture continued and solidified power due to the crisis. Medusa drifted through space for generations until it arrived our solar system.

What did the Medusans find on Earth? Well, if you ask the female scientists of that world, only a "great disappointment." Because, "in violation of all common sense," men ruled the planet Earth. Accordingly, this backward planet was judged "out of bounds" for all "civilized" space travelers.

At this point in the episode, while watching a Medusan Mistress (played by Judy Geeson) writhe around on a large, comfortable bed of lush animal fur while attended to by a hunky man in white tights and a Han Solo haircut, my wife, Kathryn quipped, "I was born on the wrong planet."

As we pick up the first episode of Star Maidens, entitled "Escape to Paradise," two slaves, Shem (Gareth Thomas of Blake's 7) and Adam (Pierre Brice) are planning an escape from the female-managed Medusa. They are tired of being taken for granted. ("Who looks after the kids?" one man asks, citing his importance in Medusa's social strata.) However, before Shem and Adam can escape Medusa in Counselor Fulvia's (Judy Geeson) space yacht, Medusa's secretive and hostile-to-men head of security, Octavia (Christiane Kruger) gets a disturbing prediction from the Destiny Computer (think the Oracle at Delphi). The computer suggests that the illegal men's liberation movement is about to begin again, and that one such insurgent will be Fulvia's domestic, Adam. Uh oh.

Adam and Shem barely escape Medusa in a phallic-shaped space yacht. Fulvia and Octavia pursue in their vaginal shaped spaceship. But where are Adam and Shem off to? A "paradise," of course, where men rule over women. In other words, the planet Earth. Boy, are they going to be disappointed...

"Escape to Paradise" concludes with Shem and Adam crashing their ship on Earth. ("It's too difficult for a man!" cries Shem, worrying over his landing vectors...). Meanwhile, a group of Earthlings from the Institute of Radio Astronomy, led by beautiful and resourceful Liz (Liza Harrow) are on their way to the crash site.

"Was life really so bad on Medusa?" asks Counselor Fulvia of her escaped domestic, Adam, during a point of high tension in this episode. That's a loaded question, I guess. On one hand, the security forces of Medusa are all Amazonian women who wear skimpy two-piece uniforms (exposing bare midriff and muscular abs). On the other hand, the sexy women really do lord it over the men. It's all "prepare me something to eat," or "prepare my hypnomat" (meaning bed...). Of course, the women also demanded sexual service. "Kiss me," Fulvia orders Adam at one point. Beyond all reason, this militant male-ist finds that order difficult to comply with.

Despite any tongue-in-cheek tone here, the first episode of Star Maidens flashes by at warp speed, and is relatively entertaining. The production values are great for 1970s British science fiction, the actors are pretty good, and we get enough glimpses of the Medusan culture (technology and setting...) that you want to come back and see how it all turns out. Also, watching Gareth Thomas - the fiery rebel leader of Blake's 7 - playing a milquetoast, self-hating man (who's bought into the culture's myth about his sex..) is a riot.

So tune in tomorrow, as the war of the sexes (and the planets...) heats up in episode # 2, "Nemesis." Now I'm going to hit the hypnomat. I'm tired from preparing meals and looking after the kids.

Happy 2008!

Hey everybody, welcome back to work (and back to the blog). As far as 2007 goes, I just wanted to say thank you one last time for the blog's biggest year yet. We had nearly 18,000 more visitors than last year according to my stats. Whoo-hoo!!

As far as 2008 and what's in store: Not only will my independent sci-fi web series The House Between return in just a few short weeks for a new and improved second season, but since 2008 is the year of Star Trek (or the re-birth of the franchise...), I'll be blogging some classic episodes of the original series here over time. What's more, I'll be back to some cult-tv blogging oddities (see my next post...) and hopefully (if I can get around my little one, Joel...) there will be a return to some Saturday morning blogging later in the year.

Since I'm finally beginning to catch up on last summer's big movies, I'll also be reviewing some recent box office ventures, and continuing my look at some cinematic horror oddities from the 1950s and 1960s. Today the blog...tomorrow the world!

Anyway, welcome back. This year is gonna be a blast. Hopefully I'll be able to break some big news here soon (or sometime in 2008.) Just not yet.