Saturday, October 11, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)

"Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear... The Lone Ranger rides again!"

Oh, if only that were so...
When I was a little boy living in New Jersey, a local TV station (WPIX, I think...) ran an afternoon block of heroic programming. First The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), then Batman (1966-1969) and then, finally...The Lone Ranger (1949-1957). 

This went on every weekday for a long time...and boy...I was in kiddie heaven. I remember some days begging my Mother to take me home from Brookdale Park so I could get home in time to see these TV programs!

Anyway, Clayton Moore portrayed the heroic Lone Ranger in the 1950s series (along with John Hart, for two years), and I admired the Lone Ranger as a child (and now, as a man) because of his moral creed. He didn't drink or smoke. Not only did he speak beautifully (never indulging in slang or jargon), but he believed that "all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world." Most importantly, the Lone Ranger never shot to kill.

Despite my love for the 1950s Lone Ranger TV series (and I even owned a complete set of Gabriel's 1973 10-inch Lone Ranger figures...), I would have certainly welcomed, by 1981, a modern take on the classic material; just as I had welcomed with open arms the updated Superman: The Movie (1978). 

But with The Legend of The Lone Ranger (1981), a notorious box office bomb, something went wrong.

I watched The Legend of the Lone Ranger again last week, for the first time in years, and was shocked anew at just how bad this film is. In fact, I was unpleasantly reminded of Tarzan: The Ape Man another 1981 film which failed to do justice to an iconic hero. At least Tarzan: The Ape Man has Bo Derek starring (and disrobing...) in it, and boasts a high-degree of camp value. The Legend of the Lone Ranger is just plodding.

Actually, The Legend of the Lone Ranger fails on three distinct fronts. But before I get to each particular failure, a brief re-cap is in order: The Legend of the Lone Ranger tells the story of the "man behind the mask" (as per the ballad of the Lone Ranger, performed by Merle Haggard).

In the Old West (Texas, 1854), young John Reid sees his parents brutally murdered by bandits and is taken in by friendly Indians to live as one of the natives. Reid's "blood brother" is Tonto, and at this early age, Reid decides irrevocably to follow "the trail of justice." Soon, however, he is removed from his Indian life by his older brother, Dan, a ranger who sends John back East to become an attorney.

Several years later, a grown John (Klinton Spilsbury) returns to the wild west hoping to make it a terrain where justice prevails, but in local "Del Rio," (a town in trouble, Merle Haggard tells us...) he finds that much of the territory is already in thrall to the power-hungry, psychotic Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), a warlord who seeks to kidnap President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards). 

Before long, John, his brother Dan and a team of rangers are led into a Cavendish trap by a traitor in the ranger ranks and -- after a brutal gun fight -- left for dead.

Only John survives the massacre. He is nursed back to health by a now-adult Tonto (who happened by the crime scene at just the right moment...) and soon launches his quest for justice. But first, John must "dig a grave for John Reid" and become The Lone Ranger; a masked man who rides a white steed named Silver, and who uses silver bullets in combat.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger's first and most egregious failing is that it doesn't seem to know its audience (which, if you ask me, would include generations of "grown up" boys and girls who loved the TV show). By this, I mean that Legend of the Lone Ranger is the ugliest, gauziest, dustiest-looking western since Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980).

It's not just that the movie is unpleasant to's actually unpleasant to look at. You can hardly make out faces, the film is so gritty and soiled-looking. I would argue that this is precisely the wrong visual for any Lone Ranger production. We should be inspired by the beauty of the West, by those gorgeous wide open skies and natural landscapes; just as the Lone Ranger is himself inspired by the promise of America. I mean, I know dark things happen in the Lone Ranger's origin, but no one in their right mind would live in a Wild West that looked like this, forever inside its own whirling Dust Bowl.

Secondly, this is a film that, in the first few minutes, depicts innocent Mrs. Reid (John's mother) dragged behind a horse by bandits, and then shot and killed at point-blank range. Later, the film doesn't cut away when two bandits are executed by Cavendish, and we see the bloody impact wounds blossom on their chests. I'm no prude, but the Lone Ranger in the past was a franchise that didn't exploit graphic violence. The Lone Ranger himself never killed his enemies; and furthermore lived by a code of justice that he applied to all: criminals and honest citizens alike. It's a mistake, I submit, given the history of the franchise, to revel in bloody demises like those depicted here. It seems antithetical to what the Lone Ranger is all about.

I'd also state that The Legend of the Lone Ranger doesn't know its audience because it makes several basic mistakes in franchise information and background. For instance, this film transforms heroic John Reid into a rookie attorney (!) not an experienced ranger, when he is involved in the massacre. It also establishes that he is a terrible shot, one whose skill is miraculously improved only when Tonto gives him silver bullets. In most incarnations of the Lone Ranger, Reid is a talented marksman and ranger before the events that change his life. Frankly, that origin makes more sense. Silver bullets aren't magic in and of themselves (though I guess they can kill werewolves...). I just don't see how silver bullets make a person's aim more true, even if, according to Tonto, "silver is pure."

The Legend of the Lone Ranger's second, and perhaps most catastrophic failing is that it is dull beyond  conventional forms of measurement. This is an action movie that moves at a snail's pace. It takes thirty-eight long minutes just to get to the ranger massacre in the gully. It takes to forty-eight minutes to introduce Silver. Key scenes are notably and irrevocably dull. For instance, the moment when Reid tames Silver is extended relentlessly by slow motion photography (think of Tarzan's wrestling match with a boa in Tarzan the Ape Man), and becomes almost laughable in its duration. I'm a long-time admirer of composer John Barry, but his lugubrious, ponderous score only contributes to the sense that this movie is a dead weight around your shoulders...never ending, ugly, and with nothing of significance occurring. 

"Thrilling days of yesteryear?" You won't find them here...

The film's final flaw is simple: basic incompetence. Through the entire film, Klinton Salisbury's voice is badly dubbed by James Keach, and you can tell. Worse, in key moments, (particularly the horse whispering moment), it is obvious that Silver is played by at least two very different horses. You know a movie is in trouble when you have the time to notice that the lead horse is being stunt-doubled...

The only time this movie comes to life is when that inspiring William Tell Overture is dragged out of mothballs and the pulse quickens.

What a disappointment. The children of 1981 deserved better.

The Science Fiction Research Association reviews A Critical History of Dr. Who on Television

The SFRA Review, Number 285 (Summer 2008) prints a thoughtful and lengthy review of my book, A Critical History of Dr. Who (1999) on pages 14 and 15 this month.

The Science Fiction Research Association, according to Wikipedia, "was founded in 1970 and is the oldest, non-profit professional organization committed to encouraging, facilitating, and rewarding the study
of science fiction, fantasy literature, film, and other media. The organization’s international membership includes academically affiliated scholars, librarians, and archivists, as well as authors, editors, publishers, and readers."

Here's a snipppet of what writer Karen Hellekson noted in her analytical review of my Doctor Who text:

In addition to screening the episodes and talking about things like cinematography, story structure and special effects, Muir discusses behind-the-scenes players and the politics of the show. Muir links many stories to other TV shows and films, revealing an impressive breadth of knowledge that contextualizes the show and draws useful connections."

The review also notes that:

"Newbies and dedicated fans alike will enjoy the "Recommended Viewing" list, which is articulated as a three-step process: "First Watch" (a particular Doctor Who episode), "Then Watch" (a film, a particular episode of a TV show) that you might "Look For" (common themes, situations, treatments.)

Muir's listing of "The 20 Best Episodes of Doctor Who" may be taken to task by some fans - I noted with disapproval the omission of 1970's "Inferno" - but Muir's intent is to show the program's "quintessential characteristics" in episodes that are available, and a glance at the 20 best reveals not a bad one in the bunch."

I must say that as the author of this book, I also deeply appreciate that reviewer Karen Hellekson notes that the book has not been updated in this 2007 reprint edition. I was not given the opportunity to update the text, alas. Oddly, some notable and respected film magazines failed to acknowledge this simple fact in their critiques, and actually reviewed the book on the basis of 2008 knowledge; essentially faulting me for failing to note the new series and other 2000-2008 franchise developments.

By contrast, Hellekson writes:

"I find this book useful as it is: an informational tour, taken in 1999, with a witty, well-read guide, with entertaining pictures. It's a great beginning place for an overview on classic Doctor Who."

Hellekson concludes the review with the thought that A Critical History of Dr. Who on Television is a "must-have" episode guide for fans.

A Critical History of Dr. Who on Television is available at McFarland here. Or order A Critical History of Dr. Who on Television at Amazon.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

CULT TV BLOGGING: Quark Round-up!

First, I want to apologize for the scarcity of posts this week. I have been felled by a bad cold (and my wife Kathryn has it worse.) We haven't been doing much besides taking care of little Joel (who turns two tomorrow!) and trying to get some sleep.

But, in the last week or so, I have - at least - managed to catch-up on watching Quark episodes! That's not only because I enjoy the 1977 sci-fi/comedy series very much, but because at 25-minutes an episode, it's about the only production I can stay awake through before the medicine kicks in...

In fact, the medicine is kicking in right now. So beware of any strange typos or turns-of-phrase. I mean, I might end this post by calling you "my fellow prisoners" or something equally odd.

Okay, we last left Captain Adam Quark (Richard Benjamin) and his strange crew in "May the Source Be With You," a Star Wars parody featuring Henry (Killer Kane) Silva as the Gorgon leader. Remember the crew? Ficus: emotionless Vegeton and Mr. Spock parody; Gene/Jean: the transmute (possessed of male and female chromosomes); The Bettys (gorgeous but argumentative clones); and Andy the cowardly (and cussing robot).

Episode # 3: "The Old and the Beautiful:" Another clever parody of Star Trek, this episode involves Quark suddenly and inexplicably aging after his exposure to a strange virus. Yes, it's "The Deadly Years" (or if you're a TNG fan, "Unnatural Selection") all over again. What remains so rewarding about Quark, however, is that it doesn't merely skim the surface of Star Trek parody; it goes deep. For instance, Quark here struggles to retain command of his ship as he becomes much the same way that Kirk did in "The Deadly Years." He even must engage with a Zorgan battleship (as Old Kirk had to deal with the Romulans when Commodore Stocker took a detour through the Neutral Zone).

At the same time it parodies "The Deadly Years," Quark pokes fun at another classic third season Trek called "Elaan of Troyius." There, as you might recall, Captain Kirk ended up romancing a hot alien princess after succumbing to her "irresistible" tears. In the end, Kirk escaped the heretofore inescapable trap of a Dohlman's Tears because he boasted a greater love: his love for the starship Enterprise. In "The Old and the Beautiful," Quark is assigned to romance an alien princess too, one who is so uh, frisky, in bed that the very act of love-making could kill a healthy, strapping 22- year old man. Let alone a 72 year old man.

In the end, Quark - ergh - comes through, and takes one for the team. And by doing so, sees his youth and vitality restored.

Episode 4: "The Good, The Bad and The Ficus": In this parody of "The Enemy Within" and "Mirror, Mirror" (two of the all time great Star Treks), Quark and his crew are duplicated by an accidental journey through a black hole. The only problem: their duplicates are thoroughly and relentlessly evil. In fact, the Evil Quark launches a campaign of terror throughout the known worlds by sneaking up on Confederation spaceships and blowing them to smithereens when they open their garbage hatches. Back on Perma One, a jingoistic military man is convinced Quark has gone rogue, and plots to kill him. The final battle -- in shades of "Arena" -- involves Quark staging a duel with his evil "self" on a planet surface.

Episode # 5: "Goodbye, Polumbus": Another parody of yet another great Trek, this time season one's "Shore Leave." Here, Quark and his crew are assigned to investigate a planet (Polumbus) that no one has ever returned from. It's a world where all your dreams and fantasies miraculously come true. Ficus romances a hot mathematician (and they flirt through algebraic equations...), Gene/Jean conjures up his childhood comic-book superhero idol, and Quark imagines a lost love from his Academy days (just like Kirk conjured up Ruth.) The episode's title is a riff on the classic 1969 Richard Benjamin film, Goodbye, Columbus.

Episodes 6 & 7: "All the Emperor's Quasi-Norms" (Part I and Part II): All right, this episode had Kathryn and me in stitches. Maybe it was the cold medicine kicking in, or maybe it's just really that funny. This two-part episode of Quark is a dedicated parody of Flash Gordon as Zorgon the Malevolent (think: Ming the Merciless) captures Quark's ship and forces Quark on a quest to recover the mysterious "It" (a stone from the distant planet called "Poo-Poo.") On the asteroid Rhombar, Quark joins up with "The Baron of the Forest People" (think Prince Barin) to recover the stone and defeat Zorgon.

Meanwhile, Zorgon's daughter, the Empress Libido (Joan Van Ark) has fallen in love with the unemotional Ficus. In a scene that comes right out of Star Trek's "The Cloud Minders," Ficus explains how, precisely, an emotionless Vegeton mates. In this case the act is called "pollination" and involves two Vegetons on their backs making silly noises...while waiting for a bee to drop by.

There's a jab here at Star Wars' trash compactor scene too, but the funniest moment involves Quark's false sense of security after he has obtained "It," which turns out to be nothing but a useless rock. Quark keeps putting himself in extreme danger because he believes he's protected by "It", and in fact it's all just blind happenstance that he survives. Unfortunately for Quark, Ficus points out that the rock is useless just as Quark is entering hand-to-hand combat with Zorgon's champion, the evil Cycloid.

Episode # 8: "Vanessa 38-24-36:" In this comedic version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and also the Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer," Quark and his crew are rendered obsolete by a new supercomputer called Vanessa. When Vanessa endangers Quark on a space walk and nearly causes a space collision, Quark realizes it's time to pull the plug. Small problem: there's no plug.

This episode -- and the series itself -- ends with Vanessa finally defeated,floating through outer space singing "Born Free." It's not exactly the HAL 9000 singing Daisy; but you get the point.

So: my honest assessment of Quark? The humor is somewhat dated. (But hey, I'm somewhat dated.) The series is simultaneously corny and addictive as hell. The laugh track is distracting at first, and some of the jokes are so hokey, you sort of cringe. But then -- if you give yourself over (and if you have a working knowledge of the source material being parodied...) -- the series becomes strangely and unexpectedly involving. By the end of the last episode, I was cracking up at every stupid joke the robot Andy made. I don't usually like lowbrow humor, but there's a moment in "The Good, The Bad and The Ficus" wherein Andy the Robot telephones his evil counterpart and they have nasty words. Andy ends up passing gas during the conversation. The rest of the crew joins Andy at the telescreen, and Andy -- moving away -- warns them they may not want to stand there. God help me, that moment cracked me up.

Andy the Flatulent Robot -- Bender couldn't have done it better. Richard Benjamin is also great on this show, playing a man of Kirk's optimism but with none of Kirk's intelligence, agility or heroism. And Richard Kelton is an absolute revelation as Ficus, my favorite character. He is Mr. Spock, of course, made a million times more loquacious and annoying. And where Spock did in fact possess emotion (and occasionally surrender to sentiment), Ficus is absolutely brutal with his disinterest and lack of human understanding.

So yeah, it was a kick to see Quark again (after thirty years!) I just wish there were more episodes to enjoy. In particular, the last three episodes of Quark were really great. To use more Trek terminology, Quark truly seemed to be finding its "space legs" when it got canceled.

Okay, now I must sleep.

Theme Song of the Week #30: Millennium (1996-1999)

Monday, October 06, 2008

Theofantastique interviews Muir

Theofantastique, a terrific site that serves as a "meeting place for myth, imagination and mystery in pop culture," has just posted an interview with me regarding two of my books, Horror Films of the 1980s and Eaten Alive At a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper.

Here's an excerpt:

TheoFantastique: With the exception of Halloween, I have not been a fan of teenage slasher films. But in this book you devote a chapter to “A History of the Dead Teenager Decade” which was very helpful. In this chapter you reference the dissatisfaction of film critics like Roger Ebert with such films who look back for a more innocent cinematic age in the portrayal of the teen. How did horror films in the 1980s help teens and others grapple with the spectre of global annihilation and disease, like AIDS?

John Muir: Another critic I admire tremendously, Janet Maslin, also derided the slasher movie formula and said that slashers made the world (and specifically audiences…) mean. I strongly disagree. I think the world was already mean and ugly (thanks to Three Mile Island, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of Mart Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, the Manson Murders, the Vietnam War, Watergate, etc.). Slasher movies arrived at a time when teens were rightly wondering how many tomorrows they could count on, especially with Reagan’s finger poised on the red button.

So I’m not surprised or in any way judgemental that the entertainment of choice for a generation (the slasher film) concerned what I term in the book a “crucible of survival” in which only the clever, the moral, the resolute and the resourceful manage to survive an apocalyptic world that seems stacked against them. Slasher movies don’t take make audiences meaner (as Maslin suggested); they simply take the real world as it exists and demonstrate to teens that they can survive it; especially with the right skill set. Slasher films are a test; a gauntlet. Much like life itself.

Honestly, I believe that - when well-done - slasher films are cathartic and harmless. At least here, death boasts consequence and meaning. By contrast, look at something like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), which says, basically, it’s okay to put an arrow in the head of someone else if he’s a communist; for “nationalist” reasons. I believe that message is far more harmful than anything contained in any Halloween or Friday the 13th film.

And let’s remember too: it wasn’t just horror films grappling with this kind of apocalypse mentality in the 1980s; it was punk music and punk fashion too. The aesthetic of the peace generation was replaced in the 1980s by the punk ethos.

Check out the rest of the interview here.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Time is Now

Now this is genre news you can use! Or at least I can use it. An Internet campaign to bring back Frank Black -- the hero of Millennium (the incomparable Lance Henriksen) -- has officially launched. The actual goal: get a Millennium movie starring Lance Henriksen (and created by Chris Carter) on the launching pad.

Millennium (1996-1999) remains one of the creepiest, most symbolic, and most beautifully-visualized genre TV programs of all time. This is a snippet of how I described the series in my book, Terror Television (page 473):

From frame one of episode one, Millennium announces its ambition to be much more than filler between fast food commercials. Each story, including the pilot, opens with a white-lettered quotation from a literary or religious source, and then serves to unveil a drama which echoes or contrasts with that opening selection. Yeats ("Pilot"), Dostoyevsky ("Dead Letters"), Herman Melville ("The Judge"), Jean-Paul Sartre ("522666"), Robert Louis Stevenson ("The Well Worn Lock"), Cicero ("Walkabout"), Nietzsche ("Broken World", William Rose Benet ("The Paper Dove") and, inevitably, Shakespeare ("Monster") are just some of the great figures Millennium has referenced and then mirrored.

...The opening quotations serve an invigorating purpose: they remind active viewers that there is a connection between past and present, a universality of human condition. The situations Frank Black encounters are situations that Shakespeare or Cicero might have contemplated or written about. The opening quotes of Millennium connect the series to a literary and historical past...

...[I]t is illuminating to witness how Millennium was devised in sheer artistic terms - from its opening quotations to its very interesting application of symbols and imagery (an application which catapults it to the same plateau of high quality as David Lynch's Twin Peaks.) That oft-mentioned yellow house, for instance, is a resonant, important symbol. Viewers naturally associate the color yellow with brightness, and with bright happy things like the sun. Of course, the house represents Frank Black's bright place away from the darkness and horrors which he sees on the job and even inside his own tortured mind.

...In the first season, the house is seen primarily as a sanctuary, a place of safety. In the second, it is a representation of paradise lost and the object of a heroic quest. In the third season, the house is but a memory, a sad one, but one that remains intact inside Frank's head. Frank visits his former home in the episode "The Sound of Snow" and it has been painted pure white. Frank -- ever perceptive - still sees into the past, still sees his yellow house, standing there on Ezekial Drive. Perhaps he still sees the yellow in the white because he is aware (as we are) that any chronicle of Frank Black will always involve that yellow house in some fashion. For it is not merely a shelter, not merely a comfortable abode, it is Frank's ideal, the very place of joy and innocence that he seeks to protect and find inside himself every day. It is an externalization of the perfect place he cherishes in his mind as paradise or bliss. It represents family, safety, sanctuary, succor.

One can argue that the yellow house of Millennium also represents an escape from the evils of the outside world, yet contrarily, it is also the very reason Frank faces the heart of human darkness every single day. By facing "the black" inside and out, Frank preserves the yellow, inside and out. So the yellow house could also symbolize, on a more basic scale, small town America. Frank must save it from the encroaching evil all around as the millennium turns. Thus the yellow house is not just beautiful architecture, it is a brilliant (and artistic symbol) because it immediately shares with viewers an insight into Frank's personality, his interior architecture, if you will...

Just re-reading these passages makes me really, really miss Millennium. I remember the episode that satirized Scientology (on Millennium amusingly termed Self-osophy). I remember the trilogy featuring Lucy Butler (Sarah Jane Redmond)r - one of the most diabolical and seductive villains ever to appear on network television. I recall the transcendent and transormative beauty of "Luminary," about a search for a missing young man in the Alaskan wilderness. I recollect - with horror - one of the most macabre (and goriest...) scenes I've ever seen on television: an American nuclear family felled suddenly by disease around the Sunday dinner table in "The Fourth Horseman."

A Millennium movie could be made relatively cheaply today. All it needs is Lance Henriksen, Terry O'Quinn, Brittany Tiplady and a clever Chris Carter/Frank Spotnitz script. And Mark Snow's evocative, sad violins. If you believe in the cause...the time is now. This is who we are.