Saturday, December 20, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Okay. So perhaps this movie is a guilty pleasure.

Or perhaps I simply harbor deep-seated feelings of nostalgia for this "revenge of nature" flick from the year 1977.

Whatever the reasons, I love Kingdom of the Spiders. With irrational exuberance. God, I love it...

Listen, I've seen how bad spider invasion movies can turn out (The Giant Spider Invasion [1975.] A
nd I've also seen how big-budget, mainstreamed spider movies turn out (Arachnophobia [1990]). So I can declare with some confidence that Kingdom of the Spiders remains the best of the eight-legged arac-pack.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) stars William Shatner (yes!) as veterinarian Rack Hansen, a cowboy doctor who lives in peaceful but poor Verde Valley in Arizona. Rack's brother John died his second day in 'Nam, and now Rack takes care of his brother's widow, Terry (Marcy Lafferty) and little daughter, Linda (Natasha Ryan) during his off-hours.

One day -- while out in the desert lasso-ing cattle and sister-in-law, Rack receives an emergency call from a local, Colby (the great Woody Strode!), whose prized cow has been felled by what appears to be a mysterious illness. The cow dies, and Rack sends blood samples to a lab in Flagstaff to help find answers.

Those answers arrive in town with the fetching Dr. Diane Ashley (a yowza Tiffany Bolling). She's an expert in venomous animals and concludes that Colby's cow died from dozens of extremely poisonous spider bites. A closer investigation reveals a giant tarantula hill on Colby's property. This is an unusual development because the spiders are working together in harmony, not attacking each other.

"Why would spiders suddenly turn aggressive?" Rack asks.

Diane's answer -- in the tried-and-true tradition of environmental/when-animal-attack/1970s revenge-of-nature movies like Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Empire of the Ants (1977) and others -- is a chilling one: human interference.

Specifically, "through excessive use of pesticide" man has killed off all the local insects -- the spiders' primary "source of food." Now desperate, the spiders are turning on livestock and casting hungry eyes towards mankind, particularly the souls populating scenic Camp Verde.

Spiders gotta eat!

Rack and Diane recommend a quarantine to destroy the aggressive spiders. Unfortunately for the denizens of Camp Verde, however, Kingdom of the Spiders was produced post-Watergate (and post-Jaws [1975]), which means that the town mayor is a craven politician who steadfastly refuses to take effective action against the enemy in their midst. See there's a big town fair scheduled in two weeks with a lot of money at stake. So the beaches have to stay open, if you get my drift. The result? Carnage candy. Spiders rampage through Verde, cocooning their prey in webs and causing all manner of chaos.

Rack, Diane, Linda and a dopey tourist couple -- the Johnsons-- hold up at Emma Washburn's remote lodge, but the spiders lay siege.

And when I write "lay siege," I'm not kidding. Spiders drop out of ceiling air vents like mad sky divers, crack open windows, jump down chimneys into open fireplaces, short out the power box in the basement, and generally go blood simple. The film's protagonists retaliate with murderous force, and I can tell you without doubt...real spiders were harmed during the making of this film. Yep. They were stomped, crushed, rolled over by cars, pelted with chemical fire-extinguisher spray and burned.

Ah, the good old days before digital technology.

Really, you must see this movie to believe it. There's no CGI trickery or phoniness, and the actors -- not stuntmen for the most part -- wage real, intense close-quarters battle with thousands of crawling, skittering tarantulas. In one harrowing sequence, William Shatner crawls up a basement staircase with probably two-dozen spiders on his torso, legs, head and even his famous toupee. The Shat obligingly points his flashlight at his own face during the scene so we can get the full impact of the stunt in the dim light.

Tiffany Bolling is pretty damn courageous too, casually (and expertly..) plucking up spiders and petting them like she really loves them. The only giveaway: in the tighter shots you can see her hands shake.

I can't blame her.

This movie's final half hour is so intense, so non-stop spidery that a lot more than your hands will shake. It's a Night of the Living Dead-style siege on a single, remote location, but think of spiders pressing at the boarded-up doors and windows instead of zombies. There's a great moment wherein little Natasha Ryan is endangered...standing trapped and surrounded on a bed filled with a good dozen or so live spiders. Shatner bursts into the room to save her, admonishing the child to jump over the spiders on the bed sheets into his ready arms. He's about five or six feet away. Well, without hesitation this kid leaps blindly for him -- over the teeming beasties and - shit! - your adrenalin races.

What makes all this action hang together, however, is the fact that Kingdom of the Spiders has devoted the time and energy to develop its characters in more than rudimentary fashion. Old Emma Washburn still loves the town sheriff even though their romance died years ago; Rack and Diane share a fun romantic rivalry (though by film's end, the "liberated" Bolling character is subserviently fetching Shatner his beer...), and -- as surprised as you may be how they get under your skin -- you actually come to care about what happens to these people.

It's a lesson that today's horror spectaculars could stand to learn: you can't drive at 100 miles an hour for 90 minutes, and expect viewers to remain involved, much less scared. If you're always driving fast...you're never driving fast; there's no opportunity to breathe, relax...or let your guard down. Sometimes, for the big moments to pay off, they have to arrive after slow ones; after quiet character moments. For all its inherent silliness, Kingdom of the Spiders understands that fact. Sure, It owes a lot of its gonzo life blood from Hitchcock's The Birds and from Spielberg's Jaws yet it consistently pleases because it is consistently and thoroughly scary.

Not to mention absolutely brilliantly-staged at points. There's a plane crash stunt at about the one-hour mark that is achieved so deftly, so realistically, you actually believe the film's actors (including Shatner and Bolling) are in real danger. There's a sustained spider attack on the town of Verde that cuts no corners and pulls no punches, depicting citizens running in panic, and even young children overcome by spiders. It's gruesome, nasty and entirely effective. And I love how sound is used in one sequence preceding a scare, when all the crickets mysteriously go quiet.

John "Bud" Cardos direction and John Morrill's cinematography are also much finer, much more clever than you might expect of such a low budget effort. The camera in Kingdom of the Spiders has a funny but confident way of tilting down from a scene in progress, then gliding away from the action to pinpoint a crawling spider somewhere on the floor. And how can you not love the opening "stealth" attack on a grazing cow? One that features the spider's point of view (through tall grass...) and ends with a freeze-frame of the beleaguered cow's shocked eyeball (while the soundtrack plays a cow "mooing" in anxiety and pain)?

Sure, some of the dialogue here is really, really funny. I particularly enjoyed Altovise Davis's reading of the line "This is our home and no damn spiders are going to run us out." She doesn't do it badly; don't get me wrong. On the contrary, the actress commits to it so sincerely, so fully, so guilelessly, it takes practically your breath away. The gung-ho, go-for-broke style of performances is really affecting. No one's playing anything for laughs or for camp.

And Shatner? My God, the man upstages 5,000 spiders. He doesn't just lasso cattle in this film, he lassos the spotlight. His performance is 100% ham bone, but fine, delicious ham bone. Say what you will about the Shat, but the man's got presence, and more pertinently, the right presence for this movie. His trademark quirks and idiosyncrasies as a performer keep us firmly anchored in the "human" sub-plots and so the movie never descends to level of simple geek show.

Yes, yes, yes, Kingdom of the Spiders is an old, cheap B-movie, but it's a wondrous, terrifying, and wholly charming one. The film's coda (featuring an atrocious matte-painting) packs a gut-punch wallop too, despite the weak visual presentation because -- again -- you've honestly come to care about Rack and the others.

I know it's probably just me, but I cannot help but to fall in love (and stay in love...) with a horror movie about killer spiders that has the audacity to open with a yearning country ballad called "Peaceful Verde Valley." Composed and performed by Dorsey Burnette, this song asks us (in the lyrics) "What will tomorrow bring?" and then provides a multiple choice answer.

A.) Will it (tomorrow) "bring the love we need to last forever more?"

or

B.) Will it bring "the unknown that we've never seen before?"
Since this is a horror movie, you'd be tempted to choose "B," of course.

But the amazing thing about Kingdom of the Spiders is that because it focuses so much on its characters and their humanity in a crisis, the right answer is actually: C.) this movie brings the love and the unknown.

How unexpected, and how wonderful is that?

ACRL Likes The Encyclopedia of Superheroes On Film and Television

Money quote from Association of College and Research Libraries review of my Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television 2nd Edition:

"Muir (the author of Horror Films of the 1970s and Horror Films of the 1980s) is at his best in analyzing trends and critiquing plots, and he pulls no superpunches in his reviews: “Ghost Rider is one of those movies in which you know the next bad line even before it’s spoken.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958)

Apparently, Mars isn't the only planet that needs women.

Nope, aliens from Andromeda ("half way across the universe") are here on Earth, stealing our most precious natural resource -- our females! -- right out from under our oblivious noses.


That's the nightmarish premise of I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), a disturbing Eisenhower-era cautionary tale of marital emotional alienation. On the surface, it's a sci-fi chiller cloaked in genre conventions such as flying saucers, disintegration-rays and shape-shifting alien invaders, but the sub-text is all human.

Written by Louis Vittes and directed by Gene Fowler, Jr., I Married a Monster from Outer Space dramatizes in noir-ish black-and-the-white the sense of horror experienced by young bride-to-be, Marge (Gloria Talbott), when the man she fell in love with, Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon), is replaced by the man she actually marries: an emotionally-distant, extra-terrestrial doppelganger.

This insidious replacement occurs on the night before the wedding. The real Bill spends the evening partying with his marriage-fearing buddies at a local diner. They unleash a torrent of bad jokes about marriage and conclude the only answer to the misery it causes for men is likely "mass suicide."

Bill unwittingly discovers his own escape route from wedded bliss when -- on a late-night drive around a nearby lake -- he experiences a close encounter of the worst kind. He's unexpectedly intercepted by methane-breathing alien invaders. After he is touched by one monstrous alien creature, Bill is enveloped in creepy black smoke (a good 1950s-style effect...) and an interloper takes his place...and steals his life.

The wedding ceremony goes on as planned the next day, but Marge has an unpleasant surprise in store for her on the honeymoon. Bill -- who so assiduously and romantically courted her before their nuptials -- now seems bored, lethargic and uninterested. He isn't even interested in small talk.

"Why do we have to talk?" the doppelganger husband asks Marge before bed time, already bored.

Following the honeymoon debacle, Marge writes a letter to her mom revealing that "Bill isn't the man" she fell in love with and that he's "almost a stranger..."

On Bill's birthday a year later, Marge buys him a present -- a little puppy -- and Bill relegates the new pet to the basement...where he promptly strangles it. Understandably, Marge is disturbed by this anti-social behavior, but she has an agenda too. "We've been married a year..." she tells Bill, and they still haven't had children. Again, Bill's feelings about the matter seem...impenetrable.

Marge grows ever more desperate about her domestic prison and soon learns conclusively that an alien is inhabiting her husband's body. Marge confides in various (male) authority figures, but all the men in her life (including the police chief...) are already alien doppelganger, and therefore entirely unsympathetic to her pleas.

Finally, Marge is able to enlist the help of her family doctor (Ken Lynch), who comes to believe the specifics of her crazy story. With several new fathers-to-be in tow (men who are clearly human beings, because the "alien" men can't yet successfully reproduce...), Marge and the doctor attack the alien spaceship. The Earth mission "fails" and the aliens decide to continue on to "another galaxy." Bill and all the other men once replaced by aliens are freed from enslavement on the spaceship and return to lead happy lives with their wives and girlfriends...

Despite its unfortunately exploitation-style title, I Married a Monster From Outer Space succeeds as a horror film because what it actually concerns is us; not "them" (the aliens). Indeed, the film offers some subversive commentary about the very nature of men and women in that time (and perhaps even more universally).

Although the alien invasion plot specifics clearly reflect the fear and excitement involved in the rapidly emerging space race of the late 1950s (Russia had launched Sputnik and Sputnik 2 in late 1957...), more earthbound matters dominate I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

The late 1950s, for instance, represented the the cusp of second-wave feminism in America, as many women began to see their status in society as unfairly secondary -- and needlessly subservient -- to men. A whole new world would open up soon with the availability of the birth control pill in 1961, but in the late 1950s women depended entirely on men for economic stability and had few opportunities in terms of career advancement and placement.

You can see this notion implicitly played out in I Married a Monster From Outer Space as Marge ping-pongs from male authority figure to male authority figure, desperate for someone -- anyone -- to listen to her fear that something is deeply wrong with her husband. However, the men in her life -- all aliens -- are more interested in preserving the status quo than in helping Marge achieve marital independence. They listen politely to her ramblings about Bill, but when Marge threatens to step outside her assigned purpose/role in the invasion, she is threatened with the possibility of psychiatric incarceration. Warning to women: accept your lot.

Every possible method of communication with society-at-large in the film is controlled by aliens (again, read: men). The phone-lines to Washington D.C. are always busy, and Marge can't get a warning telegram out of her town (Morrisville) to the FBI because the male worker at the telegram office crumples up her message and throws it in the garbage before her very eyes. Marge can't even leave the city because there's a police roadblock. Escape -- like divorce -- is literally not an option. All avenues are closed to Marge. The aliens -- the men -- control absolutely everything.

When Bill won't talk to her; when Marge can't understand why something has made Bill change into a cold fish, she is understandably depressed. But when society refuses to listen to her fears, Marge feels isolated, powerless. When she can't fulfill the role society expects of her (child-bearer), Marge feels unworthy too. Her life truly seems to be a trap designed to prevent Marge from ever really attaining true happiness or self-confidence.

The creepiest and most disturbing scene in I Married a Monster from Outer Space is directly related to the dominant 1950s view of a woman's "proper" role in decent American society. The scene involves a hooker named Francine, who, late one night, decides to approach a prospective, anonymous John on a street corner.

The camera depicts this strange man from the rear, obscuring his features, as Francine approaches and solicits him for sex. We see only that the man is wearing a slicker with a hood, and we can't make out his face. But he steadfastly ignores Francine's entreaties and seems mesmerized by an object in a storefront window display. It's a baby doll.

When approached by the hooker -- a woman expressing sexuality for purposes other than reproduction -- the man turns to the camera to reveal that he is a horrifying alien invader. He promptly fires his ray gun at Francine and shoots her in the back, disintegrating her. Then, as if nothing happened, the alien male returns his gaze to the object that so consumes and fascinates him: the baby doll.

This scene is pretty clearly a statement on both the alien patriarchy of Andromeda and the American one of the 1950s; how men exerted control over a woman's life, sexuality and reproduction, even meting out punishment to those who transgressed.

As for the men in I Married a Monster From Outer Space, they are portrayed in a pretty ruthless fashion. Sam, Bill's friend, is depicted as an alcoholic louse, one who has kept his desperate fiancee on the hook for years without proposing. Not until he is an inhuman alien invader does Sam decide to marry her. Bill's other friends are all cynics who whine and complain about marriage and women. When one friend complains that he hasn't seen the married Bill in a year, he notes: "even coal miners get time off..."

Of course, Bill is an alien, but the way the story is structured, he loses his romantic "interest" in Marge almost immediately after the wedding. Preceding his statement to Marge that they "don't need to talk," Bill is made to feel small when -- of all things -- Marge criticizes his driving ability (reminding him to turn the headlights on; and showing him where the headlight controls are on the dashboard...).

In fact, one might even suggest that Bill is depicted in the film as something less than, um...fully "manly." When alienated from Marge, he notes wimpily that "there's always the guest room." More significantly, Marge fears that something has "crept" inside Bill, a description of the alien replacement procedure that certainly hints that Bill is in some way rendered feminine or even homosexual.

The longer he is an alien, the more Bill talks about emotions and feelings. "Along with these bodies, we inherited other things. Human desire. Emotions," he states. Even as he dies, the best this alien can muster is "I've just begun to learn..."


By contrast, The film's climax involves real armed men (those plucked from a hospital maternity ward; those who have just fathered children!) attacking the alien spaceship under Marge's direction. You might interpret this scene as a re-establishment of heterosexuality or patriarchy, but in this case, I see a different, more liberated answer: the men have been roused from inaction and lassitude by a woman; by Marge. In getting them to finally act decisively, Marge has at last achieved the power she had been denied as Bill's wife. The human "Bill" is likely to find that, after a year married to an alien, his new wife (now no longer a virgin, by the way...) is a bit more head strong and assertive.

I Married A Monster From Outer Space may not quite be in the class of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but it's certainly darn close. There are some odd scientific quirks, for example, that mitigate the movie's success. The aliens breathe methane and die from exposure to oxygen. Given that limitation, they certainly picked the wrong planet to invade, no? Also, we see dramatic example of the fact that the aliens can't recognize each other when "wearing" human forms. That sure makes an invasion difficult too; if the invaders don't even know who is on their side. In various incarnations of Body Snatchers, the aliens always knew who was in the club, so-to-speak.

Still, I Married a Monster From Outer Space showcases some terrific visuals. The aforementioned scene at the storefront with the baby doll is pure nightmare fodder, and occasionally director Fowler conjures up other unsettling imagery too. When the unlucky dog is strangled, for instance, Fowler cuts to a point-of-view subjective shot from the puppy's perspective, so it feels like we're being strangled as Bill's groping, alien hands reach out to encircle us. And, from time to time, the Bill doppelganger happens by a table lamp and is illuminated entirely from below. This lighting technique casts long shadows up across his face, and serve as a reminder of his alien nature.

But I Married A Monster From Outer Space is most worthwhile for the things it expresses about the occasionally strained relationship between married men and women. Perhaps marriage does encourage "alienation," and a woman can't just blindly stand by her man.

Or by her alien...

Majel Barrett Roddenberry (1932 - 2008)

The First Lady of Star Trek has passed away.

The AP is now reporting that Majel Barrett Roddenberry died yesterday, on December 18, 2008, at 76.

In the universe of Star Trek (1966-1968), Ms. Roddenberry portrayed Nurse Christine Chapel, Dr. McCoy's assistant in sick bay and a human Starfleet officer who fell in love with the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock.

Some of Ms. Roddenberry's most prominent performances came early in first season Star Trek episodes such as "The Naked Time" and "What Are Little Girls Made Of." Roddenberry reprised the character for the Filmation animated Star Trek series of the early 1970s (along with an alien communications officer named M'Ress) and in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994), Ms. Roddenberry portrayed Counselor Troi's Betazoid mother, Lwaxana, in a handful of episodes including "Haven," and "Menage-a-Troi." She played the same part in an early first season episode of Deep Space Nine.

Throughout various incarnations of Trek -- including the upcoming Abrams film -- Ms. Roddenberry also gave memorable voice to the Enterprise's computer.

Between Treks, Mrs. Roddenberry had supporting roles in the pilots created by her husband, Gene Roddenberry, including Genesis II, The Questor Tapes and Spectre. Outside of Star Trek, she guested on such genre programs as The Next Step Beyond (1978) and Babylon 5 (1993-1998). She also appeared in sci-fi films including Westworld (1972).

On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Mrs. Roddenberry in the year 2000, when she was planning an animated Roddenberry/Stan Lee collaboration entitled Starship. We also discussed Star Trek: The Animated Series for a "vintage vision" article for the now-defunct Cinescape, and the possibility of 21st century revivals of both Genesis II and Spectre.

My memory from that interview is of a charming person -- one at ease with herself -- who answered all my questions with humor, wit and grace.

My deepest condolences go out to Mrs. Roddenberry's son, Eugene, to whom the "Great Bird of the Galaxy" torch is now passed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 66: The Lone Gunmen: "Pilot" (2001)

An old proverb reminds us that truth can be stranger than fiction. Where genre television is concerned, however that line is occasionally blurred. The truth…is sometimes – shall we say? - …Out There.

Case in point: the Chris Carter X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen (2001). This series aired on Fox TV for a dozen or so hour-long episodes at the beginning of 2001. Cancellation came quickly, though the series is currently available on DVD.

Interestingly, however, one particular episode of The Lone Gunmen has not only endured...but become the stuff of legend, not to mention notorious conspiracy fodder.

The pilot episode -- written by Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz (and directed by Rob Bowman) -- aired originally on March 4, 2001.

This was mere months after the Supreme Court called the contested presidential election of 2000 for George W. Bush. The United States of America had a new president, but the country was still very much in the Peace and Prosperity Age of Clinton. We had no idea what lay ahead in the twenty-first century.

The inaugural episode of The Lone Gunmen unfolds pretty much as you might expect and hope, given the series' premise and quirky dramatis personae. Our heroes are Fox Mulder’s old buddies: the (relatively hapless…) trio of computer geeks-cum-editors at a Maryland-based conspiracy-theory newspaper called The Lone Gunman (latest headline: Teletubbies = Mind Control!). We first join these unconventional heroes in media res, during a covert op in progress.

Specifically, our triumvirate of protagonists crashes a ritzy party at E-Comm Con (remember the tech bubble of the late 1990s?). Their mission: to steal the new, ultra-fast Octium IV micro-chip, a technological advancement which the Lone Gunmen –- Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood) and Langley (Dean Haglund) -- believe is actually designed to invade user privacy and collect personal information. The Lone Gunmen want to examine the chip so they can pen an expose in their newspaper; one featuring cold, hard evidence of their accusations.

But remember, these guys – once the comic relief on the X-Files are not traditional TV heroes, either in appearance or skill set. They are closer in spirit, actually, to the original Kolchak than to the hyper-competent Mulder, Scully, or Frank Black. Their hearts are in the right place but...

...they make mistakes, bungles and foul-ups. However, after a funny riff on Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) involving the diminutive Frohike on a harness, the pilot episode unexpectedly turns serious. The E Comm Con caper fails and another thief – the enigmatic but beautiful Eve Adele Harlow (her name is an anagram for Lee Harvey Oswald) – steals the chip out from under the Gunmen’s noses.

This mission failure is followed by another bombshell. Conservative, buttoned-up Lone Gunman, John Fitzgerald Byers learns that his father, a high-ranking government official, has been assassinated because of his highly-classified work at the Department of Defense.

Much of the pilot episode involves Byers, Frohike and Langly helping another government official, Mr. Helm (code-named Overlord…) prove that Old Man Byers (George Coe) is actually still alive and in hiding…afraid the government will send a second assassin after him.

What’s Mr. Byers secret? The one that a “small faction” inside the federal government would commit murder to protect? Well, my friends, that’s where the controversy, notoriety – and conspiracy – comes in. Mr. Byers is privy to information about a Department of Defense counter-terrorism war game known as...Scenario D 12.

This particular military scenario involves a “Domestic Airline In-Flight Terrorist Act.”

Unfortunately, Scenario D 12 is no longer a game, as Byers learns directly from his father. No, it is horrifyingly real. A small faction inside the U.S. Government plans to utilize a remote control device to hijack an American airliner in-flight and crash it into a heavily populated urban area. The cover for this false flag operation will be a hijacking, a terrorist take-over of the plane.

Why would anyone want to commit such a horrible act?

Here’s what Mr. Byers tells his son. This is a direct quote from the episode, by the way:

“The Cold War is over, John, but with no clear enemy to stockpile against, the arms business is flat.

But bring down a fully-loaded 727 into the middle of New York City and you’ll find a dozen tin-pot dictators all over the world just clamoring to take responsibility, and begging to be smart bombed
.”

Byers and his father board a jet bound for Boston; the very one that will be used as a flying bomb over New York City. The exact target in Manhattan: The World Trade Center.

The final act of this Lone Gunmen pilot involves Byers aboard the imperiled plane -- and Frohike and Langley on the ground -- trying to avert the collision between plane and skyscraper and in the process rescue the 110 souls aboard the flight. At the last instant, we see the jet-liner veer up and away from the Twin Towers. Disaster -- and tragedy -- averted.

As everybody now knows all too well, a scarce seven months later, on September 11, 2001, two “fully loaded” domestic airliners did strike New York City and the Twin Towers. In the aftermath, at least one “tin-pot” terrorist claimed responsibility (Bin Laden) and another, Saddam Hussein, was – I guess – just “begging to be smart bombed.” We obliged him in 2003.

After that horrific Tuesday in September, arms sales boomed too, just as The Lone Gunmen predicted they would in the event of such a disaster. According to the Center for Defense Information, in 2006 alone, the U.S. was responsible for 16.9 billion dollars in international arms deals, over 41 percent of all arm sales globally.

After 9/11, our government disavowed any advance knowledge of these horrible terrorist attacks. "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center" said national security advisor Condoleezza Rice at a White House Briefing on the afternoon. May 16, 2002.

Really?

The Lone Gunmen TV series predicted the exact thing. On national television (with viewers ostensibly in the tens of millions...). And it did so six months before the attack occurred.

And here I thought everyone in the Bush Administration had to keep their TV sets tuned to Fox at all times...


But isn't it strange -- not to mention creepy as hell -- that The Lone Gunmen, a series about crazy conspiracy theories, by-and-large "guessed" the precise nature of the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history? It accurately guessed about the use of planes as weapons; plus it pointed out the target state, city and actual buildings. The episode even got the aftermath right: war against tin-pot dictators, using our expensive smart bombs as "shock and awe."

More than that, however, this Lone Gunmen episode anticipated the "conspiracy response" to 9/11 that has also arisen in the wake of the attacks. Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. A certain percentage (36%?) of American citizens don't believe the official story (Al Qaeda hijackers) and instead maintain that the government orchestrated the attacks. Indeed, this is Lone Gunmen's pre-event "explanation" of such an attack.

It's eerie and disturbing to contemplate all this. Yet, this isn't the first time that fact and imagination have mingled uncomfortably surrounding a global tragedy. To wit, in 1898, a writer named Morgan Robertson wrote a novel entitled Futility. The plot concerned the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner ever built. On an April night, this fictitious vessel struck an iceberg. And -- because there were not enough lifeboats aboard -- more than one thousand passengers died in freezing waters. The name of the ship in that novel Futility is...Titan.

So, fourteen years before the Titanic disaster in 1912, author Robertson imagined a disaster at sea that would indeed come to pass. Consider some of the eerie similarities there. Titan was 70,000 tons in Futility; the Titanic 66,000 tons. Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic 882 feet. The top sailing speed of both fictitious and real ocean liner was 25 knots. And even more bizarrely, both Futility's Titan and the real life Titanic were described with one memorable adjective: unsinkable. Both ships -- real and fictional -- struck icebergs and sank in the month of April.

The paranormal anthology One Step Beyond (1959-1961) dramatized a story based on this Titanic mystery titled "Night of April 14," in 1959, and I researched the story for my book. To my fascination, I found it authentic.

So, are writers such as Morgan Robertson and TV programs such as The Lone Gunmen just lucky (or unlucky...) guessers about terrible things, or is what we have here some strange form of synchronicity: some form of intuitive "knowing" divined subconsciously or unconsciously?

Submitted for your approval, from The Twilight Zone, perhaps. But seriously, rent The Lone Gunmen from Netflix and watch this pilot episode. But prepare yourself. It's a sharp, scary, well-crafted piece of TV fiction; and one that *happens* to have a very disturbing relationship with our "real" history.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Theme Song of the Week # 38: G.I. Joe (1985-1986)

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Star Trek Communicator (Hallmark; 2008)

Look what beamed down to my home office...

Just in time for Christmas (or my belated birthday...) arrives this new Hallmark Star Trek "keepsake" tree ornament for Stardate 2008. My mother-in-law in Richmond, VA, sent this gift to me yesterday, and Joel and I have been playing with it since. (So much for keeping it in mint condition...).

From the back of the box:

If you had to invent a futuristic communications device, what would it look like? Decades before flip phones became commonplace, the visionary prop artists of STAR TREK created this convincing, portable, and highly desirable method for 23rd century Starfleet crew members to keep in touch with each other."

When you open the communicator's golden grill, this ornament makes the trademark "clicking" sound from the original series.

Then, when you press the lower-left-hand button on the small device, you activate an array of Capt. Kirk (Shatner) quotes, including: "Bridge, this is the captain," "As you can see, we have another problem," "Kirk to Enterprise." "We're beaming up. Notify transporter room," "Standby, no one is to leave the ship," and a classic from "The Doomsday Machine:" "Never mind about me, protect my ship!!!"

The button on the right-hand side activates remarks from other Enterprise crew members. Mr. Spock says: "Captain, shall I beam down an armed party?," "Spock here, are you all right, Captain?" "Getting strange readings from the planet surface, Captain," and "Your signal is very weak. Can you turn up your gain?

Scotty declares: "We're putting everything but the kitchen sink into the impulse power, sir," "Enterprise to Captain Kirk," "Condition Red! Condition Red! and "We can't make transporter contact, sir!"

Uhura also hails Captain Kirk, "Enterprise to Captain Kirk, come in captain..."

You know, I'd swear she;s hailing me, personally....

Sunday, December 14, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Hostel Part II (2007)

I'll never forget the elegant opening line of Roger Ebert's review of Halloween 2 (1981).

He wrote: "It's a little sad to witness a fall from greatness," and that turn-of-phrase has stuck with me ever since. It's a fine way of expressing disappointment over an inferior -- though not disastrous -- sequel to a movie you love.

Which brings me to Hostel Part 2 (2007), the follow-up to Eli Roth's brilliant 2005 horror film. The original, by the way, I count as one of this decade's true horror masterpieces. I wrote a very positive review of it here, if you're interested.

The cliff notes version is that I praised the original as "scary, intelligent, occasionally humorous in a macabre way, and highly relevant to the times we live in." I defended the first film against charges of xenophobia and felt it was both transgressive and self-reflexive...and therefore highly impressive. I even credited the Roth original with an ingenious subtext in which it was "the system" that was the real bad guy.

Hostel Part 2?

It's a little sad to witness a fall from greatness...

This unnecessary sequel commences almost immediately where Hostel ended, with the last survivor of the Elite Hunting victim pool,
Paxton (Jay Hernandez), returning home to the States. Hiding out at the home of his girlfriend's grandmother, the terrorized Paxton now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the horrors he witnessed in Slovakia, including the brutal murder of his friend Josh.

Fortunately, Paxton doesn't suffer for long. When last we see him, Paxton is sitting headless at the breakfast table with a cute kitty licking blood from his neck stump...

After that preamble, we're off into a retread of an overly familiar story. This time, three female art students in Rome -- Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo) -- are lured to the hostel in Slovakia by the beautiful model, Axelle (Vera Jordanava). She raves about the country's therapeutic hot springs.

This set-up in itself is a funny comment on gender, I suppose. The boys who died in Hostel did so on the promise of free and multitudinous pussy. These women of Hostel Part 2 just want to have a nice spa day...

Anyway, on the train ride to Slovakia, the trio of young women run afoul of several creepy foreign-seeming men. In fact, every non-American in this film appears overtly sinister, menacing, secretive and possibly murderous, a fact which makes Hostel 2 not merely xenophobic, but over-the-top too. One or two shots of suspicous-seeming Eastern-Europeans would have sufficed...

Then it's back to Slovakia where the cookie-cutter main characters are separated from one another with ridiculous ease and then dragged kicking and screaming to the familiar torture rooms. Inside, two girls meet their gory doom, and one survives...because she's rich and can pay her way out, another commentary on the worldwide ascendancy of American-style capitalism, I suppose.

From time to time, the delinquent street children of the original also re-appear, their loyalties uncertain. And every now and then, we return to the titular hostel (where Pulp Fiction seems to be on an endless loop. Again.) What I'm saying is that all the old ingredients you expect are here, trotted out a second time for your viewing pleasure.

My diagnosis for what ails Hostel Part 2 is simple: sequelitis. Here are the symptoms:

1. The element of surprise is gone. We already know where the protagonists are headed and what's going to happen to them once they get there. The movie therefore wastes unnecessary time on the set-up and first act. The sequel adheres closely to the outline of the first film, only this time, tension is absent because familiarity breeds contempt.

2. The characters this time around are far less interesting (and by my reckoning, far less intelligent), than their male predecessors. Whereas the boys of Hostel were smarmy, cocky, arrogant and nasty, they were -- at least --interesting, not to mention well-delineated by the appealing actors. The girls of Hostel 2 are barely distinguishable. It's a cliche, but these girls aren't people...they're officially Victims In Waiting.

For instance, once in Slovakia, shy Lorna goes off alone (at night) for a moonlit boat ride with a total stranger she meets at a party...one who doesn't speak English. Of course, he promptly throws a black sack over Lorna's head, tosses her in the water, knocks her out and abducts her. The guys of Hostel weren't that stupid...they were drugged.

Come to think of it, the bad guys weren't that stupid back in Hostel either: they went to some effort to hide their murderous activities, including sending cryptic text messages back to worried friends, and so forth. Here, everything's right out in the open for all to detect. The result: the movie has no sense of subtlety and therefore an essential quality of verisimilitude is missing.

3. The dread-filled, suspenseful (and somewhat realistic) murder scenes of the original Hostel have been replaced with what a character in Wes Craven's Scream 2 (1997) termed "carnage candy." In the original Hostel, we stayed in the torture room -- firmly planted -- as the boys (Josh and Paxton) were tortured and maimed. Much of the tension arose from the fear of immobility, of entrapment. There seemed to be no escape. Their torturers were average-looking workaday butchers...anonymous serial killers off in their own little perverted fantasylands. What you carried away from that film was the terror of the chair; of your life (and death) being in the hands of a stranger.

Hostel Part 2 utterly blows it by introducing a gorgeous super-model butcher (a woman...) who promptly disrobes, slices open a naked girl (hanging upside down...) and then bathes exploitatively in a bath of her blood. The killer erotically and sensuously massages her ample titties as she does so. I realize this sequence represents a variation of the Bathory legend, but the industrial, grungy quality of the Slovakian torture rooms is sacrificed when the equivalent of a hot porn star takes center stage and performs, essentially, a "routine." There's nothing real about this.

4. As I mentioned before, the xenophobia in the sequel is ratcheted-up to absurd, nutty levels. So much so that it becomes a joke.

5. Hostel 2 promptly becomes an exercise in convention, rather than innovation. The first scene of the film -- in the traditional style of the slasher paradigm -- involves killing the last survivor of the first movie. I have to wonder why this is necessary. A clever writer couldn't have found a way to incorporate Paxton as the lead? Or simply gone in a new direction, leaving him out of the picture all together? As it stands now, the scenes with Paxton are the best in the film because the audience feels invested in him and his survival. We know what he's been through; we've taken a journey with him. When the action shifts away from Paxton to the three cookie-cutter art students, all interest in the characters evaporates.

Hostel Part 2 also feels more stereotypically misogynist than its predecessor. Since when did Elite Hunting become an all-girl (victim's) dormitory? I realize Roth attempts to inoculate himself from this charge by featuring a castration scene in the last act, but this unkindest cut of all is too little too late.


6. Situational logic gets thrown out the window. Take for example the fate of one of Elite Hunting's high-powered, rich American customers, played by Richard Burgi. Todd (Burgi) decides he can't go through with the murder of a girl, and backs out. Rather than solve the issue diplomatically, the thugs at Elite Hunting unleash ferocious dogs and the canines disembowel him.

You tell me: is that good business? Note to Elite Hunting: You don't stay in business long if word gets out to your customers that you will very likely kill them. The resolution of Hostel Part 2 hinges on the fact that Elite Hunting is a business first (killing ground second...) and that money talks while bullshit walks. So why -- in that setting -- kill a perfectly good customer?

It makes no sense whatsoever, especially given the resolution of Beth's dilemma later. It's like a prostitute murdering her john because he can't get it up. More likely she'd say, "it's okay dear...come back next week...oh, and no refund."

Despite all these problems, I should be clear: Hostel 2 is not a terrible movie. The subplot involving Burgi and Bart (as Todd and Stuart, respectively) -- two rich Americans on "vacation" at the killing grounds -- is worthwhile and compelling. For instance, Roth utilizes split-screens during a brief montage to show us the process of "bidding" on victims. We see "respectable" men playing golf, in the board room, at home with their families, casually checking their blackberries and -- under the nose of those around them -- bidding for a chance to kill.

This sequence worked amazingly well because it concerns the long-lived horror trope of the "underneath," the darkness that walks side-bys-side with normality, often undetected. Todd and Stuart obviously feel neutered by a PC, feminized American society, and so decide, with a surfeit of machismo, to re-claim their god-given roles as "hunters." Stuart goes to Elite Hunting because, as he tells Beth, he "can't kill his wife." In Slovakia, his "rage" can find expression.

This is quality, subversive material and it grants the largely suspenseless, mostly mechanical Hostel Part 2 a real lift.

In the final analysis, however, it's not nearly enough to make this sequel more than an average horror film. If I were rewriting Hostel Part 2, I would have begun in America with Todd and Stuart, and followed these characters along their entire journey. I would have introduced their wives; and depicted the men at home and at work. The art students (the eye candy...) and the regurgitation of the original Hostel storyline are entirely unnecessary and off-point. The real meat of the story is a commentary (somewhat satirical) on "civilized" American family men and what they do during their "hobby time." Had that been the steady focus, Hostel Part 2 would have been a worthy sequel to Roth's transgressive original.

Yep, Hostel Part 2 is a fall from greatness, all right.

Still, permit me to give the devil his due: Hostel Part 2's very last scene is some kind of delirious, inspired, over-the-top act of cinematic genius: a masterpiece of absurd grand guignol that elevates the film to some weird, oddly whimsical terrain. I wasn't sure whether to scream or laugh my ass off, but I tip my hat to Roth for his outrageous finale.

It's a remarkably confident and unconventional note to go out on, and one that makes the rest of Hostel Part 2 seem even more mundane and conventional. If Roth had this much cheeky ingenuity up his sleeve, why not unfurl it much earlier?