Tuesday, June 30, 2009

This is a Message from the Year 1999...

Terry Wickham Reviews The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi

Author, journalist and filmmaker Terry Wickham has just posted a review of my 2004 Sam Raimi study, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi at MantaRay Pictures.

Here's a snippet:

"John Kenneth Muir does a masterful job of assembling the information shared in the book...Muir gives each Raimi film three hundred & sixty degree attention by covering the perspective of the audience, critics and box office. Many of the people who worked on the films share their experience and feelings about the director. What comes across is that Sam Raimi is a passionate, professional film director who has re-invented himself over the course of his career to reach the success he has accomplished today.

The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi is a book every film scholar, aspiring director, horror geek, deadite and Sam Raimi fan absolutely must have."

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"From Job's friends insisting that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished, to the scientists of the 1930's proving to their horror the theorem that not everything can be proved, we've sought to impose order on the universe. But we've discovered something very surprising. While order does exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind."

- John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987)

Monday, June 29, 2009

A July 4th Refresher...

CULT TV FLASHBACK #82: Night Gallery: "Camera Obscura" (1971)

Although dwelling often in the shadow of the better-known The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-1973) offered quite a few masterpieces during its three-season run on network television.

I’ve highlighted some of these triumphs on the blog before, among them Serling’s award-winning “They’re Tearing down Tim Riley’s Bar,” the gruesome earwig show called “The Caterpillar,” and a poetic little terror about the onset of schizophrenia, entitled “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.”

But today, I want to focus attention on a different Night Gallery favorite: “Camera Obscura.” The tale was adapted for TV by Rod Serling and based on a short story by Basil Copper. Viewed now, this creepy 1971 segment boasts a high degree of relevance to our contemporary era; the age of bail-outs, bubbles, and the Great Recession.

Set in London during the early 20th century, “Camera Obscura’s” morality play depicts a prissy money-lender named Mr. Sharsted (Rene Auberjonois) as he makes a collection house call on a “shrewd old dog,” Mr. Gingold (Ross Martin). Gingold is an eccentric collector, and his loan – accumulating 13% interest – has come due.

But Gingold wants to discuss something important with his creditor before he gets around to “payment.” Accordingly, he demonstrates for Mr. Sharsted an instrument called a camera obscura – a device consisting of prisms and lenses – that can view (and then broadcast…) the whole panorama of London on a circular table.

In particular, Gingold focuses this arcane instrument’s lens on the image of a foreclosed home belonging to a 76-year old man. Sharsted charged the old man “injurious interest” on a loan and when the sick man couldn’t keep up with the mortgage payments, Sharsted re-possessed his house.

“I charged the legal rate!” Sharsted insists.

Gingold replies that “what is legal is not always just.” He bemoans Sharsted’s lack of humanity.

But Sharsted remains unrepentant. He notes -- in signature Serling cadence -- that “humanity applies to funeral eulogies and Valentine cards,” but most assuredly not business.

Realizing that Sharsted has irrevocably forsaken decency, Gingold utilizes an occult camera obscura (located in a secret chamber…) to exact moral payment from this emotionally-bankrupt money lender. He uses the instrument to trap Sharsted in a Dickensian-style personal Hell, one depicted in a green, lurid lighting scheme.

This Stygian snare is the City of London as it existed in the 1890s. But more than that, it’s a twilight world populated by the greedy, the avaricious. The souls who congregate there have turned into monsters; their faces twisted by the greed and inhumanity they once carried only inside.

Sharsted attempts to flee these creeps, but no matter where he turns…he ends up right back where he started. Director John Badham deploys slow-motion photography and jump cuts to visualize the idea of an inescapable Tartarus and the segment builds to a fever pitch.

Surrounded by the grinning ghouls, Sharsted finally begs for mercy, though he himself has never shown mercy to anyone. He insists to Gingold that these cretins are not his kind. That they are “ghouls and grave robbers, bloodsuckers and users…”

Gingold’s final comment on the matter is that, yes, indeed, Sharsted is correct. That’s exactly what they are. And so Sharsted is finally with his colleagues and peers. And there he shall remain for all eternity...

Rod Serling always boasted a real affinity for the “shadow people,” for the little guy who just couldn’t catch a break in an increasingly impersonal and heartless world. “Camera Obscura” is perfect material for the author since the outline of Copper’s story permits him to mete out cosmic justice against a man who preys on the weak, the desperate and the hopeless. As the script establishes, Sharsted “backs people into the corner of despair” and so richly deserves his nasty fate.

As is noted above, “Camera Obscura” pointedly notes that what is “legal” is not always “just,” an argument that some people still don’t seem to get, even today. If the rich and powerful are the ones who lobby for laws, and Congress is in their pocket…then how, truly, can a society arrive at “just” and fair rules?

In the news today, credit card company executives whine that laws favoring the consumer are unfair, or anti-business. We hear health insurance companies jabber about the terrors of the public option in health care, even as 46 million Americans (many of them children) go uninsured. We see price gouging at the pumps every holiday season, and then – inevitably – watch as gas companies brazenly announce record profits at the end of each quarter.

Maybe Mr. Gingold needs to pay those folks a visit too. Come on guys: smile and say cheese for the camera (obscura…).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 81: Monster Squad (1976)

Developed by Stanley Ralph Ross, one of the talents behind the Adam West Batman series of 1960s, the live action TV series Monster Squad aired on Saturday mornings from September 11, 1976 to November 4, 1976.

The D'Angelo-Bullock-Allen production ran for thirteen half-hour episodes and over the long years has developed a cult following of sorts. Indeed, some Generation X-ers (myself included...) remember this one season program with fondness. Many kids of the era even played with Monster Squad ancillary products (such as a board game from Milton Bradley).

Over the decades, however, the Monster Squad TV series has frequently been mistaken for the 1980s cult film of the same name. But the story here is slightly different: the classic monsters (Dracula, Werewolf and Frankenstein Monster) appear as campy, tongue-in-cheek superheroes! In fact, the series exploits two trends from the pop culture of the disco era: a fascination with superheroes (seen in TV productions as diverse as Shazam, Isis, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman), and young Generation X's introduction to the Universal Monsters thanks to TV reruns of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and other classics on local stations around the country.

Monster Squad was finally released on DVD on June 23rd of this year. And you know what? After watching all the episodes, I kinda wish it had stayed buried in my memory instead of excavated for fresh reappraisal.

Monster Squad tells the story of Walt (Fred Grandy), a nerdy criminologist who wears a yellow sweater all the time, and during his off-hours at a Wax Museum, constructs a super "crime computer" (located in a vacant sarcophagus). The "oscillating vibrations" of this crime computer mysteriously bring to life three wax figures: Drac (Henry Polic II), Frank N. Stein (Michael Lane) and Bruce W. Wolf (Bruce Kartalian). Although these creatures are "cursed and feared" by mankind, they are nonetheless "determined to make up for their past misbehaving by fighting crime wherever they find it." This means, essentially, that Walt sends out the three monsters from their HQ, "The Chamber of Horrors," in a black van (with siren on the roof...) to hunt down nefarious no-goodniks threatening domestic tranquility.

One of those no-goodniks is "The Astrologer" (Jonathan Harris), a ninny who plants a "30-year old atomic bomb" in the "San Angelica" Fault (which is located somewhere between "Old McDonald Farm and Frankie Valley...") in order to make his prediction of an Earthquake come true. Dracula (code-named "Nightflyer") de-activates the bomb using instructions from a textbook titled "How to De-Fuse a 30 Year Old Atomic Bomb" and then kicks it, just to make sure the procedure worked. Meanwhile, Frankenstein and the Wolfman are incapacitated by the Astrologer's "Knock Out Drops."

Another villain is Queen Bee (Alice Ghostley), who -- in the tradition of Batman's Egghead (Vincent Price) or Catwoman (Julie Newmar) -- speaks in an endless string of puns related to her name. Here, every line of dialogue is a riff on the word "bee." You know, "Bee-lieve me," "bee-ware," "bee-dazzling" etc. Like every super-villain featured on the series, Queen Bee has exactly two henchmen, no more and no less. Her strategy is to take over the world with South American killer bees who, according to Walt, buzz with a "Spanish accent."

Monster Squad's other villains include Ultra Witch (Julie Newmar) -- who delivers an "ultra-matum," etc., Mr. Mephisto, who creates an evil doll of the city mayor so as to raise property taxes 1000%, and on and on. If you've seen one episode of the 1960s Batman, you get the idea in short order. Monster Squad appropriates that Batman playbook with glee, down to the obsessive labeling of every "super device" (from the crime computer to a typewriter, to an atom bomb). Even the cliffhanger aspect of the Batman series has been retained here, with almost every Monster Squad episode featuring the monsters getting caught in a terrible trap before escaping. In "The Astrologer," for instance, Frankenstein Monster and the Wolfman get caught in a giant clam named Carlo.

Accompanied by an incessant and insanity-provoking laugh track, Monster Squad makes Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl look like the epitome of high art. The special guest villains are encouraged to over-act to the point of madness and beyond (and believe me, you don't want to see Jonathan Harris overact to the point of madness...), and the titular monsters are mostly just fang-less, toothless boobs...reduced to silly shtick. It's kind of ignoble, really, especially if you are a fan of the Universal monsters. Even the Abbott and Costello flick treats these screen ghouls with more respect.

Monster Squad functions best today as a time capsule of sorts. Much of the humor is aimed at adults, and references events of the Bicentennial Era. For instance, various episodes poke fun at Barbara Walters ("The Astrologer"), Sonny and Cher ("Ultra-Witch"), Smokey the Bear ("Queen Bee"), or involve Cold War jibes about Russia ("Queen Bee") and even the Energy Crisis and OPEC ("Ultra-Witch). Unlike Batman, however, Monster Squad isn't really very amusing and it certainly isn't produced with the same verve. Honestly, it's more headache-inducing than entertaining

It's also a cheap-jack production. One prop that gets used again and again is the Mego Star Trek communicator/walkie-talkie. This recognizable toy serves as Walt's remote control for his crime computer and also (painted pink...) as the Queen Bee's radio transmitter. And the timer on that 30-year old atom bomb looks like a paper board game spinner stuck to the device. Yikes! I know shows were produced cheaply, but each Monster Squad episode features only two or three sets: the Chamber of Horrors dungeon and the villain hq, usually.

I absolutely adored Monster Squad when I was seven years old, but after watching it again as an almost-40 year old, I am reminded that all live-action Saturday morning TV series are not created equal. At the top of the hierarchy is Sid and Marty Krofft's Land of the Lost, which remains watchable, consistent and intelligent (and which doesn't talk down to children...). A rung below that is such expensively-crafted, visually-dazzling Filmation fare such as Space Academy, Ark II and Jason of Star Command.

Monster Squad lands somewhere near the bottom of the Saturday morning barrel. If Batman isn't available, and you can't find Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl, Monster Squad might suffice for a seven year old in a pinch. But otherwise, this is a really dire show. Watching the opening credits montage, and hearing the theme song again gave me a real nostalgic thrill, but once you get over your fond memories and settle down with the actual program, you're bound to be disappointed.

Why couldn't Will Ferrell have starred in a remake of this Saturday morning program instead of Land of the Lost? As silly, inconsequential and tongue-in-cheek as it is, Monster Squad is perfect material for him.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vote Now in the 2009 Portal Awards!

Make your voice heard today: The 2009 Portal Award voting is now open.

Click here
to cast your ballot for your favorite movies, actors, TV series, web sites and web series. You may vote once a day, every day, between today and August 25th, using a valid e-mail account. And be sure to check your e-mail after you vote for a "confirmation" message. So favorite that link and get crackin'!

And finally, if you enjoyed watching my web series, The House Between, I humbly ask for your votes (and your votes and your votes and your votes...).

CULT TV FLASHBACK #80: The Outer Limits: "The Invisible Enemy" (1964)

As I've written here before, I'm a sucker for the "doomed space expedition"-style story featured in horror/sci-fi films like Alien (1979) or depicted on TV series such as Space:1999 ("Dragon's Domain,") Dr. Who ("Planet of Evil") and The Twilight Zone ("Death Ship").

I harbor endless fascination with these tales about courageous astronauts who brave dangers alien and eerie in remote corners of the universe; cut off from Earth; cut off from help.

It's just a thing with me, I suppose...a frontier spirit maybe; or perhaps just a deeply-held belief that the next hill is always worth climbing, whatever the danger lurking on the other side. That danger doesn't have to be a monster in these macabre stories, just something unknown...and perhaps inexplicable. Like the planet in Solaris (1973), for instance.

And that brings us to one of my favorite TV examples of the form; one that does feature a (very memorable) monster: an Outer Limits episode (from the second season) titled "The Invisible Enemy." Appropriately enough, the episode (written by Jerry Sohl and directed by Byron Haskin) first aired on Halloween in 1964, and it's guaranteed -- even today -- to give you a little shiver.

The Control Voice (our series narrator) describes this tale as a "painful step from the crib of destiny" and "part of the saga of the space pioneers." More specifically, the episode involves a rocket, called M2 that lands on the chalky surface of Mars to investigate the disappearance, three years earlier, of the first mission to the Red Planet by the M1.

Commanding this rescue/exploratory mission is Major Merritt, played by a pre-Batman Adam West. His first mate is the scoundrel Buckley (Rudy Solari), who describes himself -- pre Dr. McCoy -- as just an old "country astronaut." The entire crew of the M2 has been ordered by Earth Control (and a computer named Telly...) to remain constantly in eye sight of one another while on the surface. The M1 crew separated. And disappeared. In the blink of an eye...

Even with this edict in place, a subordinate, Mr. Lazzari suddenly disappears on the crumbly planet surface. Lazzari's fate may also prove amusing to Star Trek fans since he is played by Peter Marko -- doomed Mr. Gaetano in the Trek episode "The Galileo 7." Then another astronaut, Frank Johnson, also disappears...in an impossibly fast fashion.

In short order, Merritt and Buckley discover that the sand on Mars is actually a living ocean of sorts. And that swimming beneath the surface of this glittering sea is a race of monstrous, carnivorous sand sharks. The astronauts Lazzari and Johnson were pulled down below...and eaten. The monsters, in fact, can smell human blood...

Merritt discovers the subterranean sharks while trapped atop a rock in the middle of the "ocean" (see picture above), even as a sand storm blows the tide higher and higher. It is at this moment -- with man and beast in the same shot -- that the audience realizes for the first time how colossal the sand shark is. One step into the sand, and Merritt will meet the same grim fate as his crew members.

In the end, the surviving Earth men escape the hungry sand sharks and return safely to Earth. The episode makes a big point of the fact that the astronauts both survive, in large part, because they willfully ignored Ground Control (and Telly...) and made "human" decisions in the heat of the moment instead. Again...it's a kind of pioneer spirit. Free from bureaucracy and committee; with life or death on the line.

One reason I enjoy "The Invisible Enemy" so much (besides my fetish with 1960s future-tech...) is the exquisite, black-and-white visualization of the Martian landscape. Though scientifically inaccurate -- there's air on Mars!? --- the terrain is nonetheless foreboding, barren...and gorgeous. Rocky outcroppings dot the horizon, and the endless sand ocean glimmers and brims with mystery. In one evocative shot (from Buckley's perspective), the sandy sea actually transforms into an Earth-style, watery sea, and that's how the astronaut begins to suspect the existence of, well, sea life.

But the image I've always remembered most from this episode involves the monster itself: the roaring, hungry sea shark. We first see an ugly dorsal spine cut above the sand, like a shark fin cutting over a watery-surface. And then, over time, more of the beast is revealed until we understand it to be some sort of huge, malevolent, gliding under-sand dragon. One of the episode's final shots is a humdinger too: a whole school of the beasts -- six or seven, perhaps -- breaking the surface after their brethren is killed...with vulnerable man just outside reach, on the rocky shore beyond. "The Invisible Enemy" also reminds me of a (buried) fear of mine from childhood (no doubt brought on by my exposure to Blood Beach [1980]): the idea of disappearing beneath the sand on the beach, grabbed and eaten by something invisible and avaricious.

When we do get to Mars, there likely won't be giant sand sharks waiting for us in dusty seas, but there will, no doubt, be other Invisible Enemies. Perhaps just the elements themselves. Hopefully we'll meet those challenges with the same insight and resourcefulness demonstrated by Merritt and Buckley in this classic Outer Limits episode.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"The United States is a non-smoking nation! No smoking, no drugs, no alcohol, no women -- unless you're married -- no foul language, no red meat!"

-Malloy, (Stacy Keach), John Carpenter's
Escape from L.A. (1996)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: John Carpenter's Village of the Damned (1995)

"God said let us make man in our own image after our likeness. But image does not mean outer image, or every statue or photograph would be man. It means the inner image, the spirit, the soul...but what of those in our midst who do not have individual souls or spirits?...They have the look of man, but not the nature of mankind."

- Reverend George (Mark Hamill) discusses "the children" of Midwich in John Carpenter's Village of the Damned.

Over the last several weeks, a number of intrepid fellow bloggers have -- with great enthusiasm and meticulous attention -- excavated the controversial 1988-2001 span of John Carpenter’s directorial career.

I tackled Ghosts of Mars (2001) here on the blog. Joseph Maddrey wrote compellingly of his admiration and affection for Vampires (1998) at Maddrey Misc. Jim Blanton stepped up with a spirited defense of Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) at his Fantasmo blog. And just yesterday, J.D. at Radiator Heaven offered a detailed retrospective of They Live (1988).

One effort not yet examined in detail during this online burst of renewed interest is John Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned (1995), a film was not particularly well-liked by critics, general audiences or Carpenter fans. In my less charitable moments, I have even suggested it is the weakest film in the director's canon. Writing for Critics Corner in 1995, Brandon Judell noted the film was "so bad, so unimaginative, so poorly directed, you end up gawking at the screen entranced." Entertainment Weekly noted the film's "made-for-cable" feel (EW #296, October 13, 1995, page 86).

Yet when I screened John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned a few weeks ago, I detected some intriguing qualities that I had missed in the past, and that had entirely escaped my attention in my earlier reviews of the film.

And although I don’t believe that -- by any means -- I’ve successfully unlocked the “key” to assessing John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned as a great or masterful work of cinema, I do feel that perhaps a few of these observations could at least open up a new discussion of the film’s virtues. The bottom line is that the film -- while battered by deficits on a number of fronts -- is better than I remembered it.

They Have the Look of Man, but Not the Spirit of Mankind: Something Strange is Happening in Midwich

John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is a remake of the beloved 1960 black-and-white classic directed by Wolf Rilla (itself an adaptation of John Wyndham’s book: The Midwich Cuckoos). All three productions focus on children of extra-terrestrial origin, and the world's response to these changelings.

The J.C. film dramatizes the story of a sleepy town in scenic, quiet Southern California. On the day of the annual town picnic, something unseen and malicious moves quietly over the placid, wide-open skies of Midwich. The presence of this invisible interloper is just barely perceived by some locals, including Dr. Alan Chafee (Christopher Reeve). But -- by and large -- it remains undetected...moving on a secret agenda.
Then, at 10:00 am, the object strikes. Everyone within the town boundaries of Midwich falls inexplicably unconscious. When the citizenry spontaneously awakens at 4:00 pm, all the women of child-rearing age are…pregnant. Even the town virgin. Even the faithfully married woman whose husband (Peter Jason) has been away in Japan for several months.

Before long, a secretive employee of the United States Government, Dr. Verner (Kirstie Alley) arrives in Midwich and encourages the pregnant women to carry their babies to term with the promise of Federal funding.

The women – perhaps affected by alien brainwashing – keep the babies. We experience one of these possibly alien brainwashing dreams too: a strange vision of euphoric emotions and roiling storm clouds. The women are garbed in simple garments and they caress their abdomens with a sense of exaltation.

In nine months, the mystery children of Midwich are born, and though they initially appear human, the platinum-haired children possess a distinctive “hive” or group intelligence. They also lack all human emotions. Over the ensuing six or seven years, the children separate themselves from the human citizenry of Midwich (even their parents) and protect themselves from human interference with terrifying psycho-kinetic abilities. In short, these alien children can “persuade” the weak human mind to commit terrible acts of violence; acts including suicide. The townspeople come to hate the children, just as the children come to regard humans as inferiors.

Unfortunately, the children grow more powerful over time, led by Chafee’s icy daughter, Mara (Lindsey Haun). Sensing a losing battle, Dr. Verner finally reveals the childrens’ true alien nature to Chafee. Now their school teacher, Chafee attempts to destroy the emotionless alien progeny before their influence can spread beyond Midwich.

Only one of the children, named David (Thomas Dekker), seems to possess a human side. Perhaps this is so because his female “twin” or partner died in childbirth years earlier. That intense sense of loss has granted David a first-hand understanding of loneliness, and the human quality of “empathy.”

Hive Mind: One Size Fits All in This Village
There are many aspects of this particular Carpenter film that just don’t seem to work as well as they should; and these problems all stem from one particular creative decision: the apparent necessity of transplanting the events of the drama from an isolated, homogeneous English village in the 1960s to modern, diverse America in the 1990s. In other words, many of the problems exist at a script level; or at the level of intention.

For instance, in a small, isolated English community of decades past, it is possible to believe that all the villagers attend the same church, and are of the same religious persuasion. Somehow, we can accept the uniform nature of the indigenous population in that foreign, slightly timeless setting.

In John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned, however, there is just one church and one priest (played by an oddly-bitchy Mark Hamill) in Midwich, and all the new mothers without exception even attend the same “mass Baptism” service. This may sound like a small matter, but it means -- essentially -- that there are no Jews, no Muslims, and no Atheists in Midwich. Just Christians. And Christians of the same denomination, apparently.

Again, that just doesn’t quite ring true. I live in small town North Carolina, and all around me there are people of various colors, religions, and political beliefs. On a purely human level, would every mother and father involved agree to a mass baptism instead of an individual one?

I call this the “one-size fits all” dilemma, and it extends even beyond the film's central narrative to the very appearance of the children themselves. In the original film, the children wore relatively ascetic-looking clothing that was contextually accurate to a life in the 1960s (and in England). The clothing read to our eyes as “gray” or “black” because, simply, the film was shot in black-and-white. Again, there's a sort of timeless quality to it.

In John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned, the Midwich children – all from different families – universally wear similar gray clothes…but a color world surrounds them. I understand that the filmmakers were groping for an “equivalent” look to that which was utilized in the 1960s original, but it’s a “one size fits all” solution that doesn’t make sense on more than a surface level.

Are viewers to assume these children – at age 7 – have no older (human) half-brothers and sisters in their families, and therefore no hand-me-downs to wear? That the children shop at the nearest Gap, but that their parents only purchase slate-gray outfits for them? Even if the parents were forced to somehow purchase only gray clothes, it seems likely that someone might comment on this oddity. Do the children wear gray underclothes too? You could argue that there is a distinct leitmotif in the film concerning "eyes." It is the eyes which are the source of the alien power; and Mara and Chafee discuss eyes being "windows of the soul." Perhaps the gray clothes result from the fact that the children are color blind. That's a shot in the dark, however. The film does not establish that idea even indirectly. You get the feeling that this was a visual decision, to garb all the children in grays (in a color world), and it doesn't quite make logical sense.

That kind of unquestioned, “one size fits all” thinking is all over Village of the Damned. Take for instance, the impressive night-time shot of the caravan heading to the hospital. Car headlights stretch over the horizon as the delivery date finally arrives. Again, a beautiful composition and a great visual, but we are made to understand that the pregnant women deliver at exactly the same time on the same night.

I understand the women have been implanted by aliens, but the aliens are gestating inside the bodies of human women; and those human bodies are individual. Each one is unique. I assume that during their pregnancies, the mothers-to-be had different diets and different exercise regimes, for example.

Seems to me those factors would also determine how fast or how strongly the baby develops in each woman. Just like all the children wearing gray, or all the denizens of Midwich attending the same Church, this mass exodus to the hospital reeks of plot contrivance or convenience. On a simpler level, is it believable that every woman would still be living in the same town at delivery time, anyway? (Again, that could be a stipulation for the Federal funding, but that’s not established in the text of the film anywhere…)

And, as I belabored in my book, The Films of John Carpenter, the plot of Village of the Damned clearly encompasses several years. By my reckoning at least seven or eight years pass, considering the age of the children by the film’s climax. And yet there is no on-screen indication that time has passed for any characters other than the children. The Washington Post review picked up on this and noted that Carpenter shows "no grasp of character development, plot line or time passage," (Richard Harrington, The Washington Post, April 28, 1995).

Just think for a moment how greatly cars have changed from 2000 to 2008. Think of how different your street looks today than it did eight years ago. Look in a mirror and judge yourself for a second: even the healthiest amongst us “ages” in eight years in a variety of ways and I’ll testify to this: having a baby ages you faster than any force in the world.
But seriously, fashions change, hair-cuts change, people move from one home to another, and people gain weight over the years. Yet, Village of the Damned skips over seven or eight years in the blink of an eye, and adult characters don’t change at all. Not what they wear; not how they style their hair; nothing!

For once in a Carpenter film, the action scenes aren’t particularly well-handled either. They come across as minor and not particularly scary. One character is injured when she is forced to squeeze painful medical drops into her eyes.

That incident may have read as dramatic on the page, but on the screen it just seems, well…silly.
Some of the pacing seems off too. Carpenter does well with the film’s climax: with Chafee blocking his thoughts (with images of a brick wall…) from the children; even as a bomb ticks down to destruction. But the scene leading up to that finale -- a sustained assault on the children by local police and a helicopter --seems entirely unnecessary. For one thing, we know the government is going to bomb the dickens out of Midwich anyway (because that’s what they did with the other “colonies"), so why bother to send police forces in on the ground where they’ll just be cannon fodder? For another thing, how do the children make a helicopter pilot (at night, no less) crash his chopper? Another moment, involving Midwich-ers of the 1990s spontaneously taking up torches (!) on Main Street also seems very off. Torches? Really? In 1995 America?

Village of the Damned fails because of the relentless accumulation of little things like these aforementioned points. By itself, not one of these issues is enough to scuttle the film. But taken in combination, the film seems slap-dash; careless. Writing in Magill's Cinema Annual of 1996, Kirby Tepper noted that while Village of the Damned was well-intentioned, something was missing. He called the film "a bit shallow," and noted that the "lack of depth in the film can be seen in its campy dialogue and its discrepancies." Although I disagree, to an extent on the comment about dialogue, I agree with the rest of that criticism. Something just feels...off.

Why Can’t We Just Live Together? Race Relations in America and in Midwich

On my first viewing, the most troublesome aspect of John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned was its apparent (and bland) passing-over of an important hot-button issue during the Age of Clinton: reproductive rights.

After all, Village of the Damned concerns women forcibly impregnated during an alien rape…who all decide to carry their pregnancies to term.

I just felt that the film left the whole issue of reproductive rights entirely unexcavated. When does society consider it right to “terminate” a pregnancy? Is life sacred, no matter what the origin? As I wrote in The Films of John Carpenter, I felt that the movie missed so many possibilities and opportunities by avoiding the issue of abortion all together.

Today, upon reading this complaint, I realize that I was reviewing the film I had expected and hoped for, rather than the film that was made. And that's not fair. I was wearing blinders. It wasn’t the first time, and it likely won’t be the last time, either. But I can see now that I made a mistake.

John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned does indeed concern a hot-button issue of the 1990s, but it isn’t reproductive rights. Rather, it is race relations. This is entirely appropriate given some of the startling events of the decade.

On March 3, 1991, for instance, a twenty-five year old black man, Rodney King, was stopped by officers of the LAPD for speeding while attempting to dodge a traffic ticket. The policemen beat Mr. King so savagely that one eye socket was shattered, one leg was broken, a cheekbone was fractured, and some of his fillings were knocked loose from his teeth.

Soon after the event, CNN re-played the amateur videotaping of that beating around the clock. When a poll was conducted about the incident, some 92% of Los Angeles residents believed that the very men sworn to protect and serve the community had utilized excessive force on this occasion. Frankly, it was hard to see it otherwise: King was outnumbered by the police, and didn’t seem to be putting up much by way of resistance. And certainly not after the beating began. Yet on April 29, 1992, the four police officers most deeply-involved in the beating of Rodney King were acquitted of all wrong doing by a jury of peers. As a result, Los Angeles…exploded.
A riot ensued on April 29, 1992 – the worst in American history -- in which 3800 buildings were vandalized, thousands of buildings were burned, and property damage spiraled to a cost of one billion dollars. Fifty-three people were killed. On TV, we saw looters and…worse. We saw a white trucker, Reginald Denny, pulled from his cab and attacked on live television. But whites weren’t the only victims of the riot: 60% of the buildings destroyed in the Los Angeles riots belonged to Korean-Americans.

So it wasn’t just the King verdict that had sparked this conflagration. Something else had been unleashed. Hatred begat hatred, begat hatred, again and again, across the diverse population of Los Angeles. A shaken Rodney King timidly went before a camera crew in an attempt to stop the violence.

He famously asked: "Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?...It’s just not right. It’s not right."

That question -- "can we get along?" -- is the very question that appears to underline Village of the Damned, produced just two years after the L.A. riots. Late in the film, a character involved in the racially-charged battle between the alien children and defensive mankind asks - in a clear echo of King's appeal - “Why can’t we just live together?”

Examine the scenario closely, and you can detect how this remake involves two races in one society jockeying for superiority...and survival. Even young David feels intense race-based pressure to conform to his kind, to side with, essentially, his “skin color.” Meanwhile, t
he majority race (the humans) fear that which is new, different and “alien” among them. They fear a loss of humanity’s role as the master of the planet. The humans want to protect what which is theirs, and which has always been theirs: the “human” way of life. They want things to be as they have been traditionally (and hence, theirs is the conservative, safeguard argument).

By contrast, the minority (the alien children) views the same battle not in terms of “hate” but rather as a “biological imperative,” a stand for their own culture; which is in danger of being either assimilated or destroyed by the larger, more powerful culture.

In the end, standing between these two entrenched racial viewpoints is -- literally -- a brick wall that seemingly cannot be breached. Chafee talks about competition vs. cooperation, and the superiority of human emotions, but even he is not impartial in his judgment. His prejudices are already set in stone. Mara – the leader of the children – calls him “a prisoner of his values.” She is thus arguing for a progressive cause: an acceptance of a new viewpoint outside that which is traditional and known.

The children (violently) stand up for their way of life (“there are going to be changes...”) while the adults of Midwich attempt to kill or bully them. Religion turns them into a convenient scapegoat, and the Reverend of Midwich compares them to devils, or demons. George Buck Flower, appearing in a cameo, attempts to frighten and intimidate the children, telling them directly, “you ain’t right!” The children fight back with lethal, ugly, force.

Viewed in terms of “race” relations, one can start to see how some of Village of the Damned's apparent weaknesses start to be mitigated, at least a little. It even seems necessary that the adults are treated in as monolithic a fashion as the children (as merely humans, rather than as Catholics, atheists, Jews, liberals or conservatives) because every little difference begins to take away from the central metaphor. It is much more important to see the battle as being between humans on one side and the children on the other.

Even the distinguishing features of the aliens – those trademark gray clothes and bad platinum wigs – visually characterize the race “differences” we are meant to note . And the lethargic, overlong police attack on the children? In some way that too reflects the specifics of a race war: the law enforcement arm of the Majority has come to wipe out the minority. It’s Rodney King all over again, only here Rodney King is telekinetic, mad and quite capable of defending himself. And when the children riot, it is bloody...

And consider this too…perhaps the townspeople of Midwich are picking up those objectionable torches, willy-nilly, because they’re going to a “high-tech” genre lynching (President Bush Sr.'s description of another racially-tinged event of the 1990s: the 1991 confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas). . The image of the torch is resonant in American history, and consistent with the overall racial motif. The torch explicitly reminds one of a KKK rally, or some such thing: of a mad mob out to destroy the reviled “other,” the “outsider” living in “our town.”
Although many townspeople and the Children die in the film, Village of the Damned is not without hope on the subject of race relations. David shows the capacity for love and other “human emotions” and is thus a bridge between man and alien...the hope for the future. Interestingly, he character of David was not featured in the original film, and therefore one must conclude that hw was added here -- in a turbulent time -- so as to show that a peace was possible between the races; that race different need not necessarily end in riot, death or assimilation.

Maybe all the awkward, weird elements of Village of the Damned actually further the film’s leitmotif of a looming race war; of race intolerance and hatred in America.

We Have Become Accustomed to the Power of Science
Nearly all of John Carpenter’s films feature some strong anti-authoritarian message. Prince of Darkness and Vampires take aim at the Catholic Church. Escape from L.A. and They Live go after the Republican Party, and even Halloween exposes “holes” in our apparently safe infrastructure (law enforcement, medicine, parents, psychology…).

Village of the Damned
is no different, but here the target of Carpenter’s maverick streak seems to be irresponsible, grasping science.

It is irresponsible science that allows the alien children to grow inside human women, out of “curiosity.” It is irresponsible science (represented by Alley's Verner) that keeps the secret of the aliens for so long, from the affected populace. It is alien science, of course, responsible for the strangest experimentation of all: the implantation of alien embryos into human wombs.

This anti-science message was part and parcel of the 1990s too. The X-Files (1993-2002) concerned, rather explicitly, alien experiments involving human gestation (in episodes such as "The Beginning" and in the first feature film, Fight The Future). Episodes such as "Soft Light" revealed the danger of forward-pushing science carried too far too fast. This whole philosophy of "tampering in God's domain" again came into vogue because of rapid technological advances in the 1990s. This was the era that saw Big Blue beat a chess master, cloning become a reality, and the development of the human genome project. But what was the moral authority behind such science? If you reject the race war analysis of Village of the Damned, you might consider in its stead, the film as an anti-science screed, one concerning the danger of genetic experiments carried to – literally – Aryan ends (blond haired, physically-perfect white children are the result…). These Aryans wear uniforms (the gray outfits) that visually recall the uniformity of Hitler Youth. The children are also frighteningly dispassionate in the pursuit of their goals.

Sometimes Mysteries Don’t Get Solved

Village of the Damned is not a great film. However, like all works of art, it reflects the issues of its day (the mid 1990s), whether that issue is the blazing pace of scientific advancement or turbulent race relations. For me, the film has never quite worked as more than the sum of its parts; but studying it in terms of the race aspect has proven illuminating to me in the last week.

There is another facet of Village of the Damned I more thoroughly appreciate now than I did on original viewing: the visual component. In particular, the first half of Village of the Damned is very strong. The movie opens as an alien shadow goes by overhead, in a series of menacing aerial shots. On the soundtrack, we hear an inhuman whispering…like a storm is slowly building; like something is watching. Carpenter handles this section of the film deftly, generating a strong sense of paranoia and also voyeurism. The aliens are among us – chattering – but we don’t see them. In her review of the film, critic Janet Maslin praised Carpenter's staging of this opening, noting that Village of the Damned "has one of the eeriest opening sequences in horror history." (The New York Times, April 28, 1995).

Carpenter’s macabre sense of humor is also entirely intact here. One of my favorite moments the film involves the Midwich fellow cooking hot dogs at the Town Picnic. Last year he burned the hot dogs, goes the gossip. This year,however, he falls asleep on the grill during the time of the alien “black out” – and burns himself to a crisp. When the picnic-goers awake, Carpenter cuts to a shot of the grill and we see a smoking, flame-broiled human form splayed out there. This is wicked fun, pure and simple, and the kind of nightmarish vision we expect in a carefully-crafted Carpenter film.

Many Carpenter films look better across the passage of years, as the director’s neo-classic virtues stand out more and more from today's interchangeable, TV-style movies. Ultimately, I submit that is also the case for Village of the Damned. Carpenter’s skill behind the camera makes a difference, and elevates the film. In the final analysis, Village of the Damned may not be a good film. But thanks to Carpenter’s visual aplomb, it at least looks like a good film.

On some days -- or at least until Carpenter's next film is released -- that’s enough...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Radiator Heaven Remembers Carpenter's They Live (1988)

The John Carpenter retrospectives/analyses/re-evaluations continue to spread across the blogosphere like Sutter Cane's latest best-sellers. (Well, I hope not...).

The outstanding (and award-winning...) movie blog
Radiator Heaven (which I follow religiously...) has today posted a terrific remembrance of Carpenter's 1988 cult favorite (and masterpiece), They Live.

Here's a snippet of J.D.'s history and analysis:

"One of the reasons why They Live works so well is the film's pacing. It starts off like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the threat of alien invasion being implicit at first. Everything seems normal enough but after a half hour into the film, the threat suddenly becomes shockingly explicit when Nada puts on the sunglasses. From there, the film's pacing speeds up and They Live begins to incorporate action film sequences into its science fiction premise. And yet, throughout the film, there is always thought-provoking commentary. This is represented by the pirate television broadcasts which, initially, seem like some lone conspiracy nut but eventually his ravings are revealed to be right on the money. His presence is the first sign that something is amiss. The television is presented as an electronic sedative in They Live. It's a drug to the masses. When the TV pirate appears, the mind-numbing routine is broken and people get headaches as a result."

Airlock Alpha Hails Web Sites and Series

With voting on the 2009 Portal Award set to commence on June 25 (just a few short days now...), Airlock Alpha's Editor-in-Chief, Michael Hinman has written about a number of the award categories, including best actor and best actress.

Today, Michael turned his attention to Best Web Sites and Best Web Series, and makes note of my independent online series, The House Between, as well as the other nominees in the category "Best Web Production." These include works by Joss Whedon, David Gerrold, and Jane Espenson, among others.

Of The House Between he writes:

"The House Between," which was not produced by a studio but instead by author John Kenneth Muir, wrapped up its final season in recent months and was very popular with fans.

This is the second time it was nominated for a Portie, almost winning last year. Muir stepped it up for the show's final season, and even named characters after me and former Airlock Alpha writer Marx Pyle."

The Portal Awards voting period begins June 25th, so as I like to say, vote early and vote often...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Friday the 13th (2009)

Although I've objected vociferously to some horror film remakes in the past, I can't say that I had any real strong issues with a remake of Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980 - 1993) mythos. This may simply because several entries in the durable slasher franchise are already remakes of the very same story.

That story goes something like this: Young, irresponsible adults go to Camp Crystal Lake, even though they are warned not to (by the town drunk.) Once there, they smoke weed. They have pre-marital sex. Storm rolls in. Killer rolls in (usually with machete). Killer hacks up all but one of the youngsters, in inventive, gory fashion.

Rinse and repeat.

Now, of course, there are variations on that theme. The killer was Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th; Jason in Part II, and a Jason impostor in Part V: A New Beginning. Camp Crystal Lake was closed (Friday the 13th), turned into a camp for training counselors (Part II), then re-named and re-opened (Part VI), and so forth.

But basically, you always knew that you were going to get your money's worth with the original Friday the 13 films. You'd get to see all the stock high-school characters again: the jock, the bitch, the geek/nerd/stoner and the Final Girl, who would battle it out heroically with the invincible killer. You'd get the conservative vice-precedes-slice-and-dice paradigm (moral transgression results in bloody demise...), the sting in the tail/tale (the surprise ending as the killer pops up ONE LAST TIME!), and the coup de grace (the gory, over-the-top death scene).

In some ways, the original films benefited from low expectations too. By slavishly repeating essentially the same tale (and same stock characters...) time in and time out, fans were conditioned not to expect anything utterly original or terribly surprising. And yet, some of the original films did manage to carve out unique territory, usually through gimmickry like 3-D, a humorous, self-mocking slant (Jason Lives!), or even the surprise addition of the supernatural (The New Blood),

But a contemporary remake of the Friday the 13th mythos promised, among other potential glories, the chance to stitch together something better and more cohesive than the lumpy, patch-work continuity of the scattershot Friday the 13th films. Those old movies swerved merrily from narrative contradiction to narrative contradiction (Jason was revenging his dead mother, who had been revenging her dead son, Jason...). Those movies took three entries to establish the iconic look for Jason (the hockey mask). In the later years, those movies even veered like a drunken sailor from Toronto...I mean Manhattan, to the depths of outer space, and on and on. By the 1990s, and the body-hopping Jason Goes To Hell, the whiff of desperation and creative exhaustion was all over the Friday the 13th movies.

With benefit of almost thirty years of reflection, a good remaker was in the enviable position to stand back, analyze, and then adopt all that was good about the Friday the 13th film series while discarding the bad and the stupid. So it seemed to me like a "remake" might really be that rare thing in the re-imagination sweepstakes: a win-win.

Also, I was buoyed when I read that Marcus Nispel was directing this new Friday the 13th movie. I admired and appreciated his Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (2003) for what it was -- a gruesomely effective scare machine -- rather than what it wasn't (a brilliant and mad work of art, like Tobe Hooper's classic original). Nispel's re-imagination had charismatic Lee Ermey in a deranged, villainous role, and staked out some original territory that seemed to honor the slaughterhouse spirit of Hooper and Henkel's masterpiece.

So I guess I'm just doubly disappointed that the new Friday the 13th movie is such...dead weight. It's a lethargic, by-the-numbers effort entirely lacking in either suspense or scares. Whenever the young adult protagonists are on screen, the film drags and dips to a mind-numbing flat line. Only during the kill sequences, ironically, does this remake come to life even in the most modest sense. Unlike Nispel's Chainsaw, there's not the slightest atmosphere of dread or inevitability in this picture. On the contrary, Jason does not seem particularly menacing or superhuman. He's brutal and quick (too much caffeine, maybe?) but not terrifying. Even the final subterranean chase sequence lacks intensity. This film just has no...spirit.

It's not that I was expecting Shakespeare, either.

I was not expecting the characters to be believable or identifiable people, and indeed they aren't. They are the same high school stereotypes writ large that have always populated these Friday films, given to endless drinking games and topless water sports. A mean bitch screws her best friend's boyfriend without a second thought; rich jocks believe that they're better than everyone else by reason of family legacy and wealth; and harmless "supporting" minorities (Asians and Blacks) smoke weed and dream about screwing the rich kid's girl before wandering face first into buzz-saws, screw-drivers or other destructive implements.

And I'm okay with that.

Nor was I expecting a deep social context beyond the conservative transgression results in retribution chestnut, and indeed, there isn't one here. Bad, immoral behavior indeed results in skewering, impaling, arrows-through-the-head and so on. The stuck-up Jock gets what's coming to him. So does the boyfriend-stealing bitch.

And I'm okay with that too.

It's not that I wanted something original or new in Nispel's film, and indeed, there's nothing original or new here. Instead, Nispel ransacks the best of the Friday the 13th lineage for the most effective imagery and storyline. He repeats the Jason bursting-through-window-shot from the climax of Part II, and the Jason-jumps-out-of-the-water jolt from the 1980 original. He repeats Jason's Mother Fixation from Part II, the Mrs. Voorhees decapitation from the 1980 film, and he even sort of revives the Jason-hunter/sister-seeker character from The Final Chapter. We also get to see the potato sack replaced by the hockey mask, as we did in Part 3D.

And I'm absolutely okay with all that too. Again, I expected a clever director to plunder and re-purpose the best moments of the previous ten films and incorporate them into this "unifying" tale of Jason. Why else remake Friday the 13th?

But what I'm not okay with, I suppose, is the fact that this entire enterprise appears to lack enthusiasm, energy, zeal and pace. What I'm saying is that I just wanted to feel..excitement. The rush of adrenaline. A little surge of fear generated by the fact that a fast-moving, machete-armed titan is pursuing some nubile young flesh in the dark woods.

But this film, much like Zombie's Halloween (2007), can't seem to function on the fundamental, most important basis of any slasher film: It simply does not frighten. It doesn't arouse or animate. At least in the case of Zombie's film, the remake narrative had something to offer in substitution for scares (Loomis's tabloid agenda; an exploration of Michael's white-trash background; etc.). Not exactly a fair trade, but at least the movie wasn't sleep-inducing. By comparison, Friday the 13th's narrative is a colossal dead zone. This 2009 film eats up time, but squanders it. It is brutal, but not bruising.

The thrill, alas, is gone.

And that's the one ingredient I hoped this remake would retain. An acknowledgment that the sturdy slasher form -- for all its ritualistic repetition -- can still eke out a few simple scares, still galvanize the blood. With the right director at the helm, our blood -- and Jason's blood - could surely pump anew, could surely be stirred. After all, these modern campfire stories survive for a reason: they speak trenchantly to our fear of the dark woods; to our subconscious need in a "safe" law-enforced society to face down predators; even to our belief that those who transgress against us will pay for their wrongs. And that those who are resourceful, brave, and moral will survive and endure. Even in the face of True Evil.

But this film just seems closed off to all such possibilities. You won't find any stimulation here. You won't find any fear here. You won't find anything to trouble your slumber, or make you fear a hike in the woods alone. The flaccid Friday the 13th makes me want to suggest a new, Horror/Hippocratic Oath for Remakers: First, Make Your Movie Scary. After that, genuflect, pay tribute, innovate, or surprise till the cows come home. But first, Do Our Psyches Harm. Scare us. Rattle us. Please...

In the final analysis, there are only two significant ways in which this Friday the 13th updates the franchise mythos for the twenty-first century. First, genuflecting to a cinematic epoch in which commerce is more important than entertainment, the discussion around a creepy campfire here focuses not so much on Jason and his legend, but rather on explicit product placement and beer brands. (Heineken of Pabst?)

And secondly, the very first breasts unveiled on screen...are fake. They are ugly, unnatural breasts, as egregiously phony, enhanced, and artificial as Jason's mongoloid-al make-up.

I remember the days when the tits were real, and so was the titillation.

Friday, June 19, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #79: The Twilight Zone: "Come Wander with Me" (1964)

There are, perhaps, many episodes of Rod Serling's classic The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuable, and more resonant in a simple, emotional sense than "Come Wander with Me." Many Twilight Zone segments also boast superior twist endings.

And yet, for my money, there are few segments more haunting or more dream-like than this fifth season phantasm, penned by Anthony Wilson and directed by a young Richard Donner (The Omen [1976]; Superman: The Movie [1978], Ladyhawke [1985]).

Whenever I return to The Twilight Zone DVD Box Set, this episode ranks near the top of my list of episodes to see again -- even if I've watched it recently; even though I know the story by heart. There's just something that draws me to it.

Simply stated, "Come Wander With Me" casts a hypnotic spell.

"Come Wander With Me" was the final episode of The Twilight Zone filmed/produced for CBS, and the third-to-last episode to air on that network in prime time. It premiered on May 22, 1964 and dramatized the tale of Floyd Burney (Gary Crosby), the so-called "Rock-a-Billy Kid." Burney is a cocky but insecure "celebrity," an up-and-coming music star without the slightest sense of originality, individuality or artistry.

As the episode begins, Burney has arrived at the foothills of Appalachia in hopes of "stealing" a song from the naive locals there and "conjuring" another hit to augment his singing career. He justifies this act of creative theft by noting that all the folk-music stars of the day do it...

This narrative set-up mirrors a real-life context of the times. From the 1950s-to-early 1960s, there was a folk music revival movement in the U.S., one in which a wide variety of artists imported the fiddle and banjo-style of Appalachian folk songs (often ballads...) from remote, poverty-stricken Appalachia into the nation's musical mainstream.

This local music style proved increasingly popular -- especially as the Beatnik "coffeehouse" movement came to life -- but so did the notion of Appalachia as a backward, violent, isolated realm of cultural separation and inscrutable mystique. This geographical region in the South East U.S. became increasingly feared and derided because of popular stereotypes; for the sense of it as a setting of oppressive fundamental religion and...ghost stories.

In "Come Wander with Me," we see such a world-view fully articulated. This Appalachia is a dangerous, foreign place that doesn't conform to the "rules" of life as Burney understands them. In other words, cash isn't God; and actions (such as pre-marital sex...) have consequences. And far from being an authentic musician (or even boasting a particularly "Up with People" attitude...) Floyd Burney is but a slick, self-centered celebrity looking simply to steal a resource. Even his car is gaudily decorated with the titles of his insipid hit songs. We recognize immediately that he's out-of-his-element...and playing with fire.

There's a great visual touch that inaugurates "Come Wander with Me." As Burney stops his car at the foot of a rickety, damaged bridge, we can see that a floorboard is missing directly ahead. So Burney exits his car, and steps over that gulf himself, unawares.

That missing plank in the bridge, however, is the specific demarcation point between reality and the supernatural; between the American mainstream and isolated Appalachia. And, as Rod Serling would no doubt declare, it's our point-of-entrance into...The Twilight Zone.

Once in the woods, the hungry, exploitative Burney begins hunting for his "new" song. He tells a gargoyle-esque junk/music shop owner "Anything you got is PD - public domain! You've got no rights!" and then graciously (!) offers to buy the old man's songs for a meager handful of cash. The local declines to help, but Burney refuses to relent...until he hears a recurrent, eerie melody emanating from somewhere deep within the forest ahead.

Burney passes into a heavy mist as he treads deeper into the seemingly-endless woods, and is so consumed with his mission that he misses something important nearby: his own grave-stone, jutting roughly out of the Earth.

As Burney goes in search of the obsessive melody, he misses something else too. In at least two separate shots, we detect a mystery figure shrouded in black...reaching out for him in the distance. This apparition appears in the background of the frame (as Burney hunts in the foreground...), and the long-shot, deep-focus composition crafted by Donner is creepy as hell. Because the figure is at first stationary -- and almost camouflaged -- we don't see it right off the bat amidst the ancient woods. When we do see it, we're startled. This Life and the After-Life have merged...

Burney soon discovers that the source of the song is an innocent young woman, Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher). This siren is beautiful, a bit sad, and all-together reluctant to sing Burney the entire song.

Ever the smooth operator, Burney romances Mary Rachel, even though she's already "be-spoke" to a local gent named Billy Rayford. Successfully taken-in by promises of a life with Burney, Mary Rachel finally reveals the melancholy song in its apparent entirety: a haunting, timeless composition by Jeff Alexander, called, appropriately, "Come Wander with Me."

As the song is repeated -- and as Floyd and Mary Rachel consummate their relationship 'neath an old willow tree -- the episode cuts to another montage that seems to fracture time: a series of progressive zooms leading into crisp dissolves. The zooms always draw us nearer to the intermingled duo (sometimes from doom-laden high angles). It's as though Fate itself has locked them in its cross hairs.

"That song was meant for me
," Floyd declares, more accurate than he realizes.

"It can't be bought," Mary Rachel counters, but Burney doesn't understand what she means.

Then a jealous Billy Rayford shows up -- a man with the odd, shambling gait and blind, lifeless stare of the living dead. There's a scuffle, and Burney (too easily, perhaps...) kills him.

Suddenly, Mary's song changes. It is no longer soft and melancholy. Now it is loud, strident, and fearful. A new verse emanates from the tape recorder and states "You Killed Billy Rayford...bespoke unto me..."

In fact, as Billy's brothers relentlessly hunt down Floyd Burney to avenge the death of their kin, Mary Rachel's song continues to morph and grow, adding new, more disturbing verses all the time.

Mary Rachel begs Floyd not to run "this time," but he does it anyway. As he flees, he sees Mary Rachel once more, now garbed in black...a mourner at his grave. And when the Rayfords finally come for Floyd, we never actually see them as human beings. Rather, they are suggested as inhuman Furies. They are depicted as long black shadows which stretch malevolently across the ground, and then, finally, eclipse the light over Floyd Burney's terrified face...

What "Come Wander with Me" circumscribes, however, is truly a vicious circle. A cycle without end and without beginning, very much like a song being composed before our eyes and ears. If we could ever truly feel what it likes to be trapped inside a song -- inside a personal melody -- I have the feeling it would seem just like "Come Wander with Me" because the story is graced with a sense of the inevitable, the inescapable.

And the main character, Floyd Burney, has already been "conceived" or "imagined" by the composer as the subject of this tune, and therefore cannot change his path, his destiny, his crescendo. He will always be the Rock-A-Billy Kid...the one who trespassed (by stealing a song and a woman...), and who paid with his life. The song tells us who he is; and he can never change because those verses are already written and sung. The song which can't be bought...defines him. He already "owns" it.

Or it owns him.

The less-important supporting characters, like the doomed Billy Rayford, are barely "human" at all. They are merely ciphers -- musical notes, perhaps -- who help bring the song round to its final stanza. As Mary Rachel explains, they do only what is expected of them. "He always comes here," she says, in regards to Billy. He has no choice in the matter, because this isn't his song...it's Floyd's.

If you remember the story of Sisyphus, you might recognize "Come Wander with Me" as something more than a never-ending song. It's also a personal Hell for Floyd Burney (meaning, perhaps, that it occurs after his mortality ends, in Hell itself). Just as Sisyphus's punishment was to always push a rock up a hill, only to see it roll back down, and have to start over, our Floyd Burney must likewise re-live -- again and again -- the avaricious song hunt (and personal manipulation of Mary Rachel) that led him to his trespass and demise. In each refrain of the song (and of his personal Hell...) Mary Rachel begs Floyd to change his course (to hide, rather than run...) but Floyd is stuck in a rut -- like a record repeating on the same groove again and again. Even Fate (or is the Devil?) is seemingly against Floyd: when he returns to the junk music store to hide, all the musical instruments come miraculously to life to reveal his position to the Rayfords.

And, finally, when Burney states that he has "come too far, too fast to be buried in Sticksville," I wondered if he meant, perchance Styx-ville.

There's a majestic sweep, and subtle, cerebral horror underlining "Come Wander with Me." I'm deeply affected by the show, and have never forgotten it. I adopted the idea of a (different) "haunted song" to underline an early episode of my independent web series, The House Between ("Settled") in homage to "Come Wander with Me." And Jeff Alexander's particular composition has certainly outlived the specifics of this TV episode. The song was deployed to similar haunting effect in Vincent Gallo's 2003 film, Brown Bunny. Several contemporary bands have covered the tune too, and it even appeared in a Dutch insurance commercial in 2006.

But for me, it's virtually impossible to separate "Come Wander with Me" from Bonnie Beecher, Floyd Burney's personal hell, Applachia, or this unique, brilliantly-crafted episode of The Twilight Zone. This is a song (and an episode) I just can't get out of my head...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Happy 30th Anniversary McFarland!

Friday, June 19, 2009 is a very special day. That date marks the auspicious 30th birthday of McFarland and Company, Inc, a publisher located here in North Carolina (in Jefferson).

If you enjoy reading reference books about film or television, you certainly know all about McFarland and the company's considerable achievements by now. McFarland regularly produces exhaustive, scholarly books on a variety of cinematic and video ventures, and many of these texts have become reference book standards over the years. Bill Warren's Keep Watching the Skies is one such durable, widely-read classic. As is virtually any book authored by scholars and historians such as Tom Weaver or Vincent Terrace.

Over the years, McFarland has also introduced me to the stellar works of such authors as Eric Greene (Planet of the Apes as American Myth), Paul Kane (The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy), Joseph Maddrey (Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film), Paul Meehan (Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir), and Alec Worley (Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Méliès to The Lord of the Rings) to mention just a few stand-outs. I've become a fan of every one of those authors and I return to their works often.

Reading any of the above-mentioned titles, you can easily detect how careful research, breadth of coverage and intellectual imagination are trademarks of McFarland's extensive catalog.

As hard as it is for me to believe that so much time has passed, I began writing reference books for McFarland way back in 1994, some fifteen years ago. Back then, the company took a gamble on an unknown, twenty-four year-old author writing a monograph about a mostly-forgotten sci-fi TV series, Space:1999. Since that time, I've written approximately a dozen books for the publisher (with three award-winners in the mix...) and McFarland has been a major positive force and influence in my life. From my wedding in 1995 to the purchase of my first home in 1999, to the birth of my child in 2006, McFarland has been there.

So as June 19th, 2009 approaches, I raise my champagne glass to toast McFarland and thirty years of great books. If you want to read more about the company's illustrious history, check it out here. And let's plan on thirty more years of fantastic reading from McFarland...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #78: Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "Horror in the Heights"

"I've seen more corpses than you've eaten TV dinners..."

- Kolchak, to a metro cop, in "Horror in the Heights."

On December 20, 1974, the short-lived ABC supernatural TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker aired one of its creepiest and most memorable installments.

In "Horror in the Heights," our Watergate-Era, crusading investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) combats a devilish creature who can appear to an unwary victim as that person's most trusted friend or relative.

Penned by Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein [1970], Fear in the Night [1972]), "Horror in the Heights" specifically concerns a mythical Indian beast called a "Rakshasa" preying on Jewish senior citizens in Roosevelt Heights, a section of Chicago that Kolchak (Darren McGavin) reports doesn't "appear in the city guidebook." That's probably so because municipal authorities don't want to draw attention to the poverty-ridden slum. It's a place, in the INS reporter's words, where "fixed incomes" battle "galloping inflation."

Lately, there have been a rash of deaths in the Heights, and the non-plussed police officers blame hungry rats for the corpses -- stripped of skin -- that seem to be popping up at an alarming rate. Senior citizen Harry Starman (Phil Silvers) has a different opinion, however. He believes that the owner of a local Indian Restaurant is actually a Nazi, and that this foreigner is behind the killings of the elderly locals. As his evidence Harry shows Kolchak the swastika graffiti painted all over the Heights, and particularly in the Hindu's backyard.

What Kolchak discovers, however, is that the Swastika is actually a Hindu symbol, one often deployed to "ward off evil spirits." And it isn't the rats doing the killing either, but rather the demonic Rakshasa or "flesh-eater."

Far from being a Nazi, the old Hindu has devoted sixty years of his life to hunting the Rakshasas, beasts who "send emissaries into the living world" to see if the time is ripe for a re-appearance.

And when, precisely is the time ripe for the Rakshasa's return? The old Indian confides in Kolchak that it will be an epoch of "mistrust," "moral decline" and "decadence."

In other words...now.

The only weapon that can destroy a Rakshasa is a crossbow loaded with steel bolts, but the Hindu warns Kolchak that the Rakshasa is fiendishly clever...that it can appear to its enemy in the guise of a person most trusted and most beloved.

Kolchak isn't certain he believes all this, but then-- in darkest night -- he spots his dear friend, elderly Miss Emily, alone in the dark before him. Kolchak tells her not to approach, but she reaches out for him gently, saying that she's frightened...

Like virtually all episodes of this exquisite old horror series, there's a seedy, twilight, slightly unhinged aura to "Horror in the Heights." Early in the episode, for instance, an old Jewish man named Buck is confronted by the Rakshasa after playing an illicit game of poker on Friday night. Gambling on Friday is against Hebrew edict, and the Rakshasa takes the form of Buck's guilt: as his disapproving rabbi. Caught in the act, the repentent old man confesses to his rabbi, and the beast...takes him.

In a clever composition, the monster appears as the smiling rabbi when Buck's back is to the camera. But when Buck's front is facing the camera (in the reverse angle...) we see the back of an inhuman, hulking creature...moving into an embrace of death.

Another creepy scene involves a sweet, bickering, elderly couple taking a detour through a dark alley by nightfall, and encountering the Rakshasa. The camera goes wobbly in an immediacy-provoking first-person subjective shot, and the blighted urban location is convincing...and menacing.

The underlying theme of the show is that, in modern society, the elderly are preyed upon by all sorts of "monsters." In real life, those monsters are called poverty or crime. In the twilight world of Kolchak, the monster is a Rakshasa, a living embodiment of an old man's fear that he doesn't know "who to trust" in a world that has passed him by. Kolchak and his boss, Vincenzo, argue about the reliability of Harry's beliefs and Kolchak points out that "Old doesn't have to be synonymous with senility."

Old Age is an issue also affecting the Hindu Rakshasa hunter, who has grown so infirm that he can no longer complete his life's work: destroying the monster. He says to Kolchak, in a line I love (and I'm afraid that we will all eventually relate to, over the years): "I never thought I would be old, but look at me now..."

Kolchak: The Night Stalker often traded in ethnic myth and lore, and "Horror of the Heights" is no exception to that rule. There's some nice misdirection in the use of the Swastika, a symbol which has come to be associated with Nazis, hate-crime, racism and anti-Semitism. Here, the symbol -- in a Hindu incarnation -- represents the "Sun" and "groundedness." Similarly, the episode gets the ghoulish details of the Rakshasa mythology right: According to Wikipedia, "Rakshasas are notorious for disturbing sacrifices, desecrating graves, harassing priests, possessing human beings, and so on. Their fingernails are venomous, and they feed on human flesh and spoiled food. They are shapechangers, illusionists, and magicians."

Kolchak: The Night Stalker often made for rewarding viewing not merely because of the scary scenarios, or the seedy texture, but because of the colorful performances and overraching sense of gallows or black humor. That trait is in evidence here, too. Phil Silvers is terrific as the frightened Harry Starman, and there's a scene involving an obnoxious exterminator who eats a sandwich while spraying toxic chemicals on a yard. And Kolchak's inteview of a bored waiter at the Indian Restaurant is droll to say the least. And of course, McGavin always made Kolchak a true individual, not the cookie-cutter style "investigator" we see populating so many police procedurals or crime shows in the twenty-first century.

Finally, "Horror in the Heights" ends in the manner of all truly chilling campfire stories; by explicitly reminding us that the terror is still out there. As Kolchak dictates the tale of the Rakshasa and Roosevelt Heights into his tape recorder, he looks up -- almost at us -- and reminds travelers to be wary should they ever be walking alone at night on a "lonely country road"... and happen to see their "favorite aunt" coming towards them in the moonlight.