Friday, February 15, 2008

The House Between 2.4: "Estranged"

In the fourth episode of the second season of THE HOUSE BETWEEN (the conclusion to "Reunited,"), Dr. Sam Clark's misbegotten plan to capture an Outdweller has left the denizens separated, terrified and under siege. Astrid (Kim Breeding) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) are trapped upstairs. Travis (Lee Hansen) and Arlo (Jim Blanton) are locked in the sun-room with advancing outdwellers. And Bill (Tony Mercer), Brick (Craig Eckrich) and Sam face the prospect of combat in the foyer. While tempers rage, Astrid and Theresa attempt to solve the riddle of the group's collective amnesia. Produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Written and directed by: John Kenneth Muir.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The House Between 2.4: "Estranged" Director Notes

“Estranged” is the action-packed finale to the two-parter that The House Between began with last week’s episode, “Reunited.” This episode continues the story of Dr. Sam Clark (me!) and his misconceived plan to capture an Outdweller in the house at the end of the universe. In some senses, the first four episodes of the second season come together in this show. Questions are answered, mysteries are solved, and story arcs resolved, or at least turned back down to “simmer” for a moment. The next two episodes “Populated” and “Distressed” are great standalones (with hints of the future...) that give the show time to breathe (while still ratcheting up tension). Then we’re off into a two-part descent into darkness, “Caged” and “Ruined” that caps off the second season and leads us right into the third year (going into production soon!).

You’d think that writing “Estranged,” the second part of a larger story (including “Reunited”) would be easy stuff. After all, the characters (including guest characters) and episode foundation were all set already. Yet I found this a particularly difficult episode to conclude, as I recall, because so many “dangling” elements had to be tied together and there was just so much I wanted to accomplish. I can’t vouch for this, but I seem to remember my original script for “Estranged” was over fifty pages. Fortunately, my stalwart producer, Joseph Maddrey, stepped in and took over the rewrite. He streamlined the episode, pulled everything together, and cut the script down to a still-lengthy 42 pages. I don’t know what I would have done without Joe's help. I would have loved to see the cast’s face when they saw a 50 page script…to be completed in a day!!!

In terms of precedent, “Estranged” is the latest “action” episode of The House Between. As longtime watchers know, one of my missions crafting this low-budget show was to prove just how elastic and flexible a format the show offers. We’ve done horror shows (“Visited”), cerebral science fiction (“Settled”), comedies (“Mirrored”), fiery character drama (“Reunited”), and even Die Hard in a Kitchen with “Positioned.” What we attempted here, in this story, was a hell of a lot frankly, in terms of scope. One thing I don’t lack is ambition. The other thing I don’t lack is faith in my cast and crew to pull off the impossible on next to nothing. Which they did here. Kudos.

Anyway, there is one scene in “Estranged” I’m particularly fond of, and which took me three days to cut: a slow-motion, Sam Peckinpah battle in the foyer between humans and Outdwellers. In the original script, there was blood splattering the walls, severed limbs hitting the floor, and other grotesqueries but again, Joe (wisely) reminded me that this was a rented location. We couldn’t exactly be throwing gallons of stage blood on the stairs or walls. So I scaled back a little. Now there is just one severed limb, and no blood. There is, in one instance, an exploding Outdweller (don’t ask…).

I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but Mateo composed a great “fight background” piece for the Peckinpah-esque battle, something with a heavy John Carpenter/Escape from New York vibe. It’s very cool. And it's the perfect finishing touch on the battle royale.

So far as shooting, I found “Estranged” the most difficult and stressful day of either THB shoot. I was ostensibly directing the episode (though Joe, Rick and Rob Floyd all collaborated on a LOT of shots) as well as acting in it, and I just about collapsed from the strain of it all. I felt in very low spirits at the end of the shooting day, because I felt that my performance as Sam – the delivery of the dialogue – was slowing the whole shoot down. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t learn the lines; it was that I couldn’t actually physically speak them. I couldn’t get my tongue to actually say all the words in the right order. I kept tripping over my own mouth. It was a weird experience. Tony Mercer often says to me, “you can write this shit, but you can’t say it,” (a remark coined by Harrison Ford in regards to the Star Wars script) and I always laughed it off. You know what? He’s right. It’s easy to write these lines; it’s pure hell to deliver them. Especially under the pressure and time constraints we face on the production (one episode a day, for eight days straight).

On paper, “Estranged” didn’t look that complex to shoot (okay, maybe it did...), but it was actually incredibly complex. We had several people in costume and under heavy make-up for much of the day (our Outdweller Brigade!), and we had guns, telemeters, Outdweller weapons, and other props to account for all the time from scene to scene. Boy was it difficult! Who’s got a gun? Who’s got the telemeters? Real headache-inducing territory.

Even with the complexities, so many exciting things happened making "Estranged" to balance the experience. Unfortunately, there are few I can actually talk about here, because revealing them would spoil the surprises of the episode. But let’s just say I had a great experience working with Rob Floyd (and he did some amazing make-up work in this episode), and I had the thrill of seeing some of my main characters go into “battle” with Outdwellers. We were all like kids playing cowboys and Indians all of the sudden, blowing away monsters and having a blast. Note to filmmakers: having guns on a set turns everyone into a ten year old kid. But it's great.

“Estranged” is also the only House Between episode that takes us “outside” the confines of the house at the end of the universe. This was for the “hypnosis” revelation featured in the episode (and you’ve seen flashes of that world in “Returned,” “Separated” and “Reunited”). I have to say, this was an utter and absolute kick to shoot. It was about two in the morning, Rob had the fog machine on full blast, we had more outdwellers roaming around (welcome to the neighborhood!), and then we had our cast come out, one at a time, and reckon – for the first time in series history – with the great outdoors. I remember Tony Mercer shouting "Muir!" at me during the experience, because he had to keep repeating a line that - even at 2:00 am - seemed absolutely ridiculous without any supporting context. I intend to post the scene's
raw footage on the net one day (kidding). Anyway, this footage really turned out beautiful, and for me, the hypnosis scene in “Estranged” (in which the collective amnesia of the denizens is finally explained…), is one of the best aspects of the episode, and likely the first half of the second season too.

As usual, Mateo contributed a number of great new compositions for “Estranged.” I’m particularly fond of one that I can’t name, because it gives away a plot point; but which is suitably discomforting and menacing. I love his “fight background” too; it gives new meaning to the word pulse-pounding. And I resurrect both Sam and Brick’s themes for this episode too; since those characters are still with us.

So in a nutshell that’s the story behind “Estranged” as I remember it. It was a day of great highs and great lows, to quote Spinal Tap, and yet watching it all assembled, it all works just fine. Joe Maddrey says it is our most “fun" episode of the season, with the characters rallying and working together and arming up. I think he’s right.

Let me know how you like it tomorrow!. Let’s get the comments going!

Also, a brief note about future season two episodes. Next week on Friday, we are showing a documentary “The House Between: The Story So Far” to bring viewers up to date on the series. As you may now, the show has been picking up several new fans and much new attention this season, and we thought that a little background detail on the program’s first season (and some of its mysteries) might prove a good thing at this juncture. We’ll be back with episode #5, “Populated” in two short weeks, and then run straight through “Ruined,” the season finale, without further interruption. Half a season down; half to go, and the best is yet to come...

Finally, just let me say that I wish we could do twenty episodes a year. I plan to sell my cast on that idea soon: Just come down to Monroe for twenty days to shoot the show. Sleeping on the floor of my living room isn’t that bad, is it? Living with fifteen people isn't so hard, right? Right?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Roy Scheider

Lately it feels like "another week, another obituary." Last week the world lost the great Barry Morse, and now we are saddened to learn of actor Roy Scheider's passing at age 75 after a long battle with cancer. These two talents - in some ways worlds apart in terms of approach to performances - nonetheless shared some very important qualities. Specifically, they were both able to convey humanity and individuality in cinematic worlds where that wasn't necessarily easy or common. In worlds of the future and even - in Scheider's case - in the musical format.

Scheider was a terrific actor, one who will always be remembered for Jaws (1975). In that Spielberg film he brilliantly essayed the role of Chief Brody of Amity and wasn't afraid to reveal the character's weak side. Yes Brody was a protagonist. Yes he was a police officer. But Brody was damn scared of the water and that great white shark. Part of what made the film so involving was Scheider's pitch-perfect performance, his utter believability in the role, and the fact that audiences identified with both his fear and his humanity.

Looking across the scope of Scheider's impressive career, you can see he brought the same skill and dedication to a variety of landmark roles. I remember Still of the Night, an early 80s psychological thriller in which he played a therapist becoming involved with a femme fatale (Meryl Streep) and a case of murder. Again, audiences identified with Scheider's character and in the film's tense moments - on a lonely walk through Central Park, or a late-night visit to a laundry room in an apartment building basement - we were totally with Scheider's character and facing those problems with him.

In 2010 (1984), the scene I remember most vividly is the one involving a frightened Scheider as he embraces a female Russian astronaut during a crisis. The two scared, tiny humans huddled together in fear while their ship conducted a dangerous maneuver in outer space, and again, Scheider was our surrogate and emotional barometer: registering the fear and anxiety of a place we have never been, in a situation we have never experienced. But he made it feel real and vivid.

And then there's Scheider's brilliant, unimpeachable work in All that Jazz (1979), as a man forever reckoning with clocks - both internal and external - and the irrevocable slippage of time. That character (a Bob Fosse surrogate) faced his mortal reckoning at the end of that film; a reckoning on a surgical table. Once more, Scheider was utterly authentic and heartbreaking in the role.

Scheider made Jaws II (1978) worth seeing. He transformed Blue Thunder (1983) from a run-of-the-mill action-thriller into a blockbuster. He gave audiences decades of enjoyment and entertainment, and this week, we lost a truly great American actor.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

RETRO TOY UPDATE # 1: Amsco Cardboard Playsets, Again

Back on September 29, 2005, I wrote Retro Toy Flashback 11 about the Space:1999 Amsco Cardboard Playset. You see, back in the 1970s, Amsco and Milton Bradley joined forces to create these very detailed, very sturdy dioramas from popular film and TV franchises. There was the Space:1999 Moonbase Alpha set I featured in that post, the Marvel World superheroes set (which I never owned and now can't afford...) and last but not least, The Planet of the Apes playset.

When I was a kid, I was proud owner of the Planet of the Apes playset. This "Adventure Set" was selling at Toys R Us for one dollar in the late 1970s, as I recall, and I sprung for it. I will never forget this image ingrained on my brain: there were maybe a dozen such playsets stacked on a clearance shelf. To this day, I wish I could travel back in time and buy all of them. Oh well. *Sigh*

Regardless, this was a glorious, highly detailed set that combined several incarnations of the Apes saga. For instance, there was Zira and Cornelius's house on one side of the set, with a view out the window to the Forbidden Zone and the half-sunken-in-the-sand Statue of Liberty.

On the opposite side of the set, there was the grand (two story!) buried cathedral where the mutants worshipped the Alpha and Omega Bomb. Here it was called the "Cave of the Doomsday Bomb." Other locales recreated for this toy included "Ape Headquarters," "Villagers Hut," "Underground Ruins" and a "Jail Cage with Moving Doors." The set even included cardboard "figures" of Virdon and Burke - the heroes of the TV series, not the film series. A small cardboard version of the ANSA Icarus spaceship seen in all the Apes films was another item in the set (see photo; right).

Although I was already into Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek by the time I got my hands on this set, the Amsco Apes diorama held my attention for weeks, perhaps months. I loved that toy. Unfortunately, it did not survive my adolescence (and my messy bedroom closet...) and disappeared permanently somewhere during the dark years of the mid-1980s.

Lo and behold, super collector Jeff Locklear (who sent me those scans of the Batman trading cards last week), still owns his Planet of the Apes Amsco Cardboard Playset and sent me scans of it. Since I no longer own this toy, these photos are the next best thing. I thought it might be fun to update the original post and show you this rare (and valuable) set today.

Enjoy the pics.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Unhitched & Unhinged

The trouble with writing about today's horror movie remakes is that my own reviews inevitably make me appear surly, old and unfair. As a critic, I continually find myself in the position of lauding the old at the expense of the new, and I don't appreciate that position in the slightest. Why? Well, if I appear biased by my age, by my generational preferences, it is too easy to dismiss what I say as being the screed of someone who has some unrealistic and disproportionate loyalty to the films and productions of his youth; and not the films of today. It's a real pickle for me.

Because I'm not that guy. Seriously. You will find on these web pages, positive reviews for such horrors as Vacancy (just last week!), The Descent, and even the giant crocodile movie, Primeval. Of course, those movies aren't remakes of classics, just modern films that I happened to enjoy and find value in. In terms of remakes, the closest thing you'll probably find to praise is in my Rob Zombie Halloween (2007) review. I find that horror remake utterly inferior to the original Carpenter film, but I acknowledge that at the very least Zombie boasts an interesting visual and narrative aesthetic and attempted to say something original and unique with his remake. I don't think it was always successul, but it was not slavish, and at times it was quite powerful. He had a vision for that film, and it wasn't by-the-numbers.

The film that today has me ruminating on horror remakes and my response to them is the 2007 Michael Bay disaster, The Hitcher. It's a re-do of the 1986 Robert Harmon film that starred Rutger Hauer as a psychotic, unkillable hitchhiker. Some kid named Dave Meyers directs the 2007 remake and it's an utterly atrocious and botched film, worse even than the remake of When a Stranger Calls, which had been the benchmark for bad genre remakes as far as I was concerned.

But here's the thing: I can thank this shitty remake for helping me clarify my feelings about remakes in general. This new version of The Hitcher is so brain-dead, so poorly-executed, so ill-conceived that it crystallized the point for me. It's the point that hopefully gets me off the hook, I believe, as just cranky old nostalgia-boy, and legitimatizes my critical point of view.

And that is this: the original films in most cases (whether The Hitcher or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) are about something larger than themselves, usually in terms of sociology or politics. Simply put, they feature subtexts. And what is implied (and not actually depicted) in horror films is often as important as what is seen on screen. I accept this as an axiom.

Yet the new films, the remakes - are about precisely nothing...other than the mechanics of the familiar plot. And this is a problem, because with remakes, we already know the plot, don't we? That's why the threshold for enjoyment is so low in these films, I believe, at least for anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the genre's history. Some remakes can get around this "familiarity breeds contempt" rule with technical skill (the 2003 Chain Saw remake was a well-crafted scare machine if not the artistic Hooper masterpiece), or by re-imagining the original with a modern context. In that regard, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes proved interesting since it imposed the Red State/Blue State divide and context of the Iraq War on the proceedings. Again, not a perfect horror film, but at least there was an attempt to make the horror relevant and meaningful to us today. I respect that.

But for the most part, today's horror remakes are like this dreadful version of The Hitcher: lacking in imagination, originality, visual aplomb and totally absent any meaningful comment on our society.

And it all goes back to a statement that Fright Night's film editor, Kent Beyda, made when I interviewed him for Horror Films of the 1980s. He noted how that 1985 vampire film featured rich sub-text about adolescent sexuality. He said: "To me, that's what makes a great movie. It works on more than one level. That's what you want. These days, they don't make those movies any more. They don't allow it. I worked on the first Scooby-Doo movie and that was designed to be layed and it had lots of interesting subtext and the studio made us drop every bit of it. So yeah, a movie like Fright Night couldn't be made these days, at least not by a major studio."

That declaration explains better than anything why today's horror remakes are so bad. Although there have been advancements in digital effects and other film technologies in the last several years, we have moved backwards since the 1970s and 1980s in terms of constructing films that matter, that carry meaning, that resonate in our psyches. The original horror films featured strong sub-texts; most of the remakes don't and therefore play as lobotomized, Cliff-Notes versions of smarter, more original material.

Why was the original The Hitcher (1986) a great horror film? It had almost nothing to do with the premise or the action scenes (though they were superb). No, the reason The Hitcher was great (and the reason Roger Ebvert called the film "diseased" and "corrupt") was that it boasted a fascinating and dangerous sexual subtext. It was about more than flipping cars and severed fingers in french fries.

"There's something strange going on between the two of you," a police official noted about the deadly game being played on America's lonely highways by unlucky protagonist Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) and the psycho John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). Indeed there was: the relationship between these men was distinctly homo-erotic and all the duels, revving engines and gunfights couldn't hide that the game being played here was the equivalent of sadomasochistic foreplay.

When the two men first meet in the original film, it played like a forbidden and random sexual encounter (Larry Craig, you're on notice...). On a lonely stretch of road, a single male (Halsey) picks up a male hitchhiker. His first nervous words to John Ryder (a name which boasts a sexual meaning too...), are: "My Mom told me never to do this." Ryder's response is to grope Jim's knee and say: "Just looking."

Things escalate from there. The Hitcher (Ryder) eliminates competition for Jim's affection, killing the film's only significant female character, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Another moment also reflects the sexual attraction between the two men. Halsey spits defiantly in Ryder's face and the Hitcher covets his spittle as though it is a gesture of affection and release. And in a sense, maybe it is, since it's an ejaculation, the passing of a bodily fluid from one man to another.

Other moments reinforce the decidedly kinky nature of the relationship between Ryder and Halsey. During the finale, Halsey slowly caresses Ryder - ostensibly his mortal enemy - with a rifle barrel, an obvious phallic symbol. The film's closing shot finds Halsey lighting up a cigarette (also how the film opened - only it was Ryder...), and the message is explicitly one of after-glow. The game is over, and a cigarette is the post-sex indulgence.

What I'm attempting to indicate here is that there's a lot more to the 1986 Hitcher than a cross-country chase between a psycho and an innocent bystander. The film's subtext grants the film a deeper meaning. In a society where a man can't express his desire for another man in the open, is this how one such man handles his "repression," by going postal? Perhaps, perhaps not, but the point is that - at the very least - The Hitcher is worth debating, worth talking about. It's not merely a mechanical thrill ride, but an attempt to say something interesting (and unique) in artistic and not terribly obvious manner.

One can't make the same claim of the 2007 The Hitcher, starring Sean Bean as John Ryder. The director, Dave Meyers, comes from the world of Britney Spears music videos and appears exceptionally young (from the bonus materials). Judging from the quality of his work here, he didn't understand the original Hitcher at all. He didn't sense what the movie was really about. All he saw was an action flick. So do you see what's happening? The studio system is reaping the rewards of its own bad decision-making here. If you don't allow subtext in films; an audience grows up that can't detect subtext. When they mature and make their movies --- surprise, no subtext. We all suffer.

Frankly, Meyers shoots this film like a music video. A major action scene on the highway is cut to the Nine Inch Nails tune "Closer," which is perfectly in keepng with the kinky subtext of the original film, but here -- what does it mean? Again, precisely nothing. Nothing backs it up; nothing connects to it. It's just a musical action interlude, and the cars get blowed up good.

Why doesn't this well-picked tune connect to the psycho-sexual game at the heart of The Hitcher? Well, apparently in a bid to offend no one and play well in Kansas, this new Hitcher involves Ryder threatening not a single young man, but rather a young college couple, a guy named Jim and a sexy gal named Grace. Yep, no homosexual underpinnings here, thank you very much! Instead, Ryder comes after this insipid but oh so gorgeous couple because they left him on a stretch of road during a storm. It's just revenge.

Oh, okay.

The new Hitcher also slavishly recreates situations from the original, including a truck-stop murder and a massacre at a police station, but there's no punch and no meaning because the script is bereft of intelligence, humor, wit, and anything approximating a subtext.

Sean Bean is a good actor, of course. Perhaps a better actor, empirically speaking than Rutger Hauer (though it's debatable). Yet Hauer was off-kilter and larger-than-life in the original film. He brought a twisted perspective to the role of John Ryder. He came at the part sideways, registering enjoyment, attraction and derangement. Disappointingly, Bean plays a boiler-plate, garden variety psychopath. He's grim and focused, but his performance feels phoned in. You've seen this kind of character a million times before.

Again, allow me to make the point about remakes based on one simple scene featured in both versions of the material. In the original Hitcher, Jim Halsey asks Ryder why he is tormenting him. The answer from Ryder is cryptic: "I want you to stop me." In Hauer's brilliant interpretation, this line is possibly a come-on, a flirtation. It is laden with meanings. It could mean Ryder knows he's insane and wants to be stopped. Or it could be - simply - an invitation to the dance. A beckoning to Jim to join him in the sadomasochistic game Ryder plays. Hauer plays it ambiguously, so that we don't quite know what Ryder means. This discomforts us because of the ambivalence inherent in the delivery. And discomfort is important in the set-up of any horror movie.

In the remake, Ryder answers the same question with the same words. But there's no double meaning. He tells Grace and Jim (on two occasions) that he wants them to "stop him." But here - in contrast and defiance of the original film - there is no innuendo or second possible interpretation in the delivery or the line. Ryder's agenda is simply that he wants to be killed. He wants to die. He literally wants to be stopped. Because of the glaring lack of subtext in the film, there's no other way to read Ryder's intentions. Jim and Grace are made to look stupid by the screenplay because they don't take multiple opportunities to kill him and fulfill his wishes. I mean, the guy says what he wants, and they still don't get it. Jim has to die before Grace is willing to take the psychopath at his word. At one point, she has a pistol lodged at Ryder's head, and her beloved boyfriend is strapped between two trucks, about to be torn apart. Ryder tells her directly, "I want you to stop me." He means it.

But she can't bring herself to kill him. So Ryder kills Jim and continues on his reign of terror.

If you haven't already lost interest in the remake, this scene will just kill it for you. People used to complain about characters being stupid in horror movies, but they were never this stupid. Not only can writers and directors not understand subtext in films these days, but apparently the dramatis personae in the narratives can't understand simple, plainspoken English. There is nothing ambiguous about Ryder's desire to die in this film, and Grace is an idiot.

Horror remains the genre of the imagination, of the unspoken; of the hinted-at. It is the genre of the double meaning, the unconscious AND subconscious. I'm so unforgiving on the horror movie remakes of today because most of them are just like this remake of The Hitcher. They are devoid of intelligence and consist only of action and violence. Sure, hyperkinetic editing and a shaky cam are great tools that enhance the "realism" and intimacy of a film like The Hitcher, but give me a rich subtext any day, so that the sound and fury means something. Don't insult my intelligence.

The Hitcher remake opens with an on-screen card noting that 42,000 people die on highways every year. Watching this movie, watching fools like Jim and Grace grapple with John Ryder, you'll wish that number was 42,002.