Saturday, January 10, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Rogue (2007)

"We're perfectly safe on the boat. They won't attack anything bigger than they are."

- Famous last words, in
Rogue

So...how fast can you swim?
If you're trapped in a tidal river with a hungry salt-water crocodile -- a veritable "living dinosaur" -- you better pray that you can swim really, really fast.

According to Greg McLean's exceptional horror movie, Rogue, these ancient animals can swim underwater at twenty miles-per-hour (without leaving even a single ripple on the surface...).

Worse, these two-ton predators have perfected the art of the hunt after "200 million years" of practice and so they'll watch and wait...patiently learning your routines.

So if you don't vary those routines, you're gone in a single gulp; swallowed down the gullet of a 20-25 foot, prehistoric dragon.

These alarming statistics are likely enough to make Phagophobics very, very nervous. And for the rest of the audience, director McLean also delivers the goods; nudging his finely-crafted cinematic ship into the chaotic terrain of sheer terror; conjuring an unbearably tense, incredibly suspenseful "when animal attacks" movie.

I was perched on the edge of my seat for well-over half of Rogue's running time; and during one harrowing set piece (involving a thirteen year-old girl and her father traversing a rope bridge strung across shallow water...), my wife Kathryn had to get up off the sofa and walk away. She's a veteran of horror movies like I am, and the last time she had to absent herself from the action was during 2006's The Descent.

So long story short: Rogue is that scary.

McLean -- who directed the very impressive, very disturbing Wolf Creek (2005) -- is the writer, producer and director of this remarkable genre effort, one set entirely outdoors in the remote Australian Outback. The action and horror commence as a travel writer named Pete McKell (Michael Vartan) arrives at a scenic river and boards The Suzanne, the small river boat belonging to cute tour guide, Kate Ryan (Radha Mitchell).

Along with Pete and Kate, we are introduced to a group of colorful tourists who -- in short order -- form the movie's victim pool (otherwise known as lunch). There's the aforementioned teenager, her mother (who is sick with cancer...), a burly American dude promptly nick-named "John Wayne," a quiet nerdy-type delivering his wife's ashes into the river, and an obnoxious, loquacious vacationer who's quick with a quip. For good measure, there's also a cute, loyal dog named Kevin, and the Suzanne encounters two Australian rednecks on the water...among them Kate's ex-boyfriend, Neil (Sam Worthington).

The river tour goes smoothly until, on the way back to land, one of the tourists spies what appears to be a flare in the distance, up in the beautiful blue sky. Kate is duty-bound to respond to any call for help on the river and navigates her small ship down the river, into "sacred land."

While investigating a capsized boat in a small inlet, the Suzanne is violently struck by a territorial crocodile and irreparably damaged. Kate and the tourists quickly evacuate to a small slice of land in the middle of the river, while the crocodile circles...and hunts.

Unfortunately, as one of the tourists points out, this tiny sanctuary is a tidal river, meaning that by nightfall, the entire island will be submerged...gone The tourists now have a choice: wait until dark and swim to land then (when they can't see anything...). Or try to get to land now, with the crocodile nearby.

As the tide rises inch by inch, shrinking the island, Neil determines that he can swim to shore. He plans to attach a rope to a tree, and build a make-shift line for the other tourists to traverse. The rope dangles dangerously low over the river -- and we've already seen crocs leap four feet out of the water.

And then the first tourist across, Mary Ellen, loses her nerve and freezes...half-way to land. Then, a tourist on the island panics and jumps on the rope, adding weight. And then he makes his teenage daughter join him on the rope too, adding additional weight....

...And then...

...Well, let's just say it's a comedy of errors and mistakes. And with an avaricious crocodile -- "a fucking steam train with teeth" --stalking his prey on his own home turf, those mistakes prove fatal to more than just one tourist.

This excruciating, perfectly-executed sequence of survival, death and more death represents everything I love and admire about the horror genre. In Rogue, fate is cruel, surprising and unmerciful; actions have unintended consequences, and those who survive the longest are those who quickest accept the reality of their situation and attempt to think their way out of it. Unpleasant alternatives (like feeding poor Kevin to the crocodile as bait...) are countenanced, and the entire world seems to shrinks down to a simple mathematical equation: man against monster; human mind against reptile mind. Which is the superior species?

McLean successfully layers on shocks and jolts -- at an alarming pace -- leaving you shaken, uneasy and occasionally breathless. Yet his greatest achievement in Rogue involves the successful engagement of the audience's imagination (and fear response).

Learning a valuable, timeless lesson from Steven Spielberg and Jaws, McLean never reveals much of the crocodile until the shocking climax (set in the crocodile's underground lair). Instead, he shows us other crocs in action; provides scads of factoids about these salt-water monsters, and reveals their nasty handiwork (mainly popping boats out of the water...). By the time McLean reveals his impressive monster, we're already hooked, and terrified. The sequence in which Vartan attempts to slip by the sleeping juggernaut, one agonizing step at a time is a modern masterpiece in provoking anxiety.

McLean also succeeds due to a skill he clearly developed on Wolf Creek. He understands how to fashion a striking "sense of place" on film. Rogue's Northern Territory landscape (and waterscape) is an important character in the film, and accordingly we get beautiful views of natural vistas and local wildlife. The swooping aerial shots and other impressive nature shots serve a critical purpose beyond the picturesque: they establish -- beyond doubt -- the isolation of the trapped tourists. As we plainly see, even if our protagonists could get off the tiny island to shore, they'd still be surrounded by forest.

And surrounding the forest are high mountain peaks.

And beyond those canyon peaks are miles of desert.

Seeing this rough, inhospitable terrain, we begin to comprehend why only ancient, hardened crocodiles call this prehistoric world home. The battlefield is a treacherous one.

If you see just one "when animals attack" movie in 2009, see Rogue . It's an accomplished horror film, and...a fucking steam train with teeth.

Friday, January 09, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Death Race (2008)

Where's Richard Dawson when you really need him?

I'm not certain precisely how this occurred, but in setting out to remake Paul Bartel's iconic Death Race 2000 (1975), director Paul W.S. Anderson (Soldier [1998], Resident Evil [2002] and AVP [2004]) instead ended up with a film highly derivative of the Governator's 1987 sci-fi actioner, The Running Man.

Unfortunately, it's a second-rate copy. Of both films.

The original Death Race 2000, as you may or may not recall, was a deliberately ironic social commentary about the surfeit of violence in our contemporary society (and media); a kind of bread and circuses/Decay of the Empire-type tale.

The seventies Corman film (which starred David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone) concerned a futuristic cross-country race in which racers would mow down pedestrians, thereby scoring points in a popular driving contest.

Death Race 2000 also concerned - on a larger scale - the undoing of the corrupt regime that fostered such mindless, violent entertainment. The production values were low, but god the entertainment level was high

By point of comparison, Arnie's The Running Man was set in the year 2017, after the U.S. economy had collapsed. Americans distracted themselves from their financial woes with a murderous reality/game show in which convicted criminals would run for their lives from armed, American-Gladiator-style nemeses. These criminals would gain their freedom if they survived a dangerous gauntlet: a murderous and wide-ranging game field. The film's protagonist was Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger), a man wrongly convicted of murder. His dedicated enemy was smarmy Killian (Family Feud host Richard Dawson), the game show ring-master and ratings-hungry celebrity who controlled the corrupt games.

So along comes Death Race (2008), set in 2012 -- the year the U.S. Economy collapses (hey, I thought that happened in 2008...). Crime has spiraled out-of-control and our prisons have been modified to generate a profit. In particular, there's a popular reality show stream on the Internet called "death race." In this competition, convicted criminals drive an obstacle course (in three stages) and kill one another in the fierce quest to arrive at the finish line first. The game is a ratings and money winner for its designer, prison Warden Hennessey (a very puffy, apparently-botoxed Joan Allen).

When her prized racer, the masked Frankenstein, dies, evil Hennessey decides to resurrect the legend and make an invisible substitution. She frames an innocent man and former professional driver, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) for the murder of his beloved wife. When Ames is conveniently remanded to Hennessey's Terminal Island Prison six months later, he is offered his freedom...if he participates in the death race.

Unlike either The Running Man or the original Death Race 2000, however, this new Death Race lacks wit, intelligence, and meaningful sub-text. Whereas the previous films featured a point-of-view on their corrupt future cultures as well as an opinion about the purpose/presentation of violence in the pop culture, Anderson's entry in these sweepstakes represents nothing beyond the obvious. This isn't a comment on a death race, it's just a violent death race. It is the very thing that The Running Man and Death Race 2000 mocked.

The most grievous missing ingredient, however, is humor. Both Death Race 2000 and The Running Man understood how to capitalize on the premise of an insidious game/race/event with tongue planted firmly-in-cheek, with grace, even with a sense of wicked fun. You could enjoy the action but not feel totally debauched because your mind was also engaged. This Death Race is a lumbering tale told by idiots, signifying nothing.

There are two ways, I reckon, in which this movie could have succeeded under the terms it set for itself. The first way involves style. The film could have been so spectacularly-shot, so tightly-edited, so rigorously-paced that the details of the race (and who survives it) would have proven exhilarating and involving. Unfortunately, the film's style is sledge-hammer stupid to match the tone.

The cinematography is a perfect example. In Death Race, film style is reduced literally to the level of the Hokey-Pokey. You zoom your camera in. You zoom your camera out. You zoom your camera in. And you shake-it-all about. You do the herky jerky and you turn yourself around. That's what it's all about.

By the end of the movie's prologue you've already figured out the movie's big stylistic gun: all the car interior scenes are rendered "exciting" and "kinetic" by the camera man's unceasing and spastic varying of focal length. After two minutes, this hokey-pokey gets old. After ten minutes, it's a joke. After ninety minutes, you want a barf bag.

Visually, the film is unceasingly dull. The race track look exactly like your average, run-of-the-mill warehouse row (only with water matted around the periphery, so the action appears to be set on an island). And all the cars are virtually indistinguishable...pieces of junk that lack the flourish and creativity of the original's vehicles. Their machine gun fire appears optically created with bad CGI.

And don't get me started on the two Michael Bay-style "slow motion" sequences in which gorgeous ladies (meaning Eye Candy) arrive via bus (or car), and we get lingering, lascivious T & A shots, accompanied by aggressive, pounding rap music. These moments are ridiculous and cliched, but Death Race isn't smart enough to realize it.

Much more significantly, there's not a single memorable or distinctive action scene in the entire film. And that's bad for a cinematic contest that prides itself on being "the ultimate auto carnage."

The only aspect of Death Race I can praise with any degree of enthusiasm is Jason Statham. As always, he's engaging, charismatic and a dynamic physical presence. And he deserves a better script.

With a little care, Death Race might have distinguished itself right there: via narrative clarity and an air-tight plot; by making all the characters act in consistent, reasonable, recognizably human fashion. To do that, again, you require a good script. Unfortunately, Paul Anderson mistook the idea of critiquing bread and circuses for simply presenting bread-and-circuses.

An example of narrative confusion: the "Death Race" event occurs in three separate stages. It's a money-making affair (viewers pay 99 dollars per stage; 250 dollars for the whole show...). So the idea, obviously, is to stretch the race out as long as possible -- to all three stages -- so as to pick up new viewers and rake in the bucks. (Indeed, the race's final stage draws 70 million viewers, so you do the math...).

So what does Hennessey do? In Stage 2 -- Stage 2, mind you! -- she unleashes her secret weapon, a colossal and intimidating attack vehicle called the "Dreadnought." It promptly takes out a celebrity racer named 14K, and almost offs both Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe, the two top racers. In fact, it is such a dangerous "surprise" on the track that it forces these dedicated enemies (Frank and Joe) to team up. Heck of a job, Hennessey.

Now tell me, why introduce a secret weapon like that...one that in all likelihood will end the race...during Stage Two? Now, if you introduced the attack vehicle in Stage Three, say, to prevent any of the survivors from gaining their promised freedom, I'd understand. I might even applaud. But to introduce a doomsday weapon in Stage Two when you want there to be a Stage Three (for the Benjamins...) makes absolutely no sense.

And tell me too: why would Hennessey go to all the trouble of arranging the murder of Ames' wife, bringing Ames to Terminal Island and reviving Frankenstein only to introduce a vehicle that could kill him off before he's made it Stage Three?

I understand it is widely-accepted to trash and bash director Paul W.S. Anderson. I know he's not popular with Fan Boys. Personally, I'm no hater. I'm a staunch defender of his Event Horizon (1997), and -- mea culpa -- I even enjoyed many aspects of his Soldier (1998), primarily Kurt Russell's central performance. I don't believe Anderson is the Anti-Christ or anything like that.

On the other hand, Anderson totally botched AVP (2004) -- a venture that should have been a slam dunk, given the pedigree of the Alien and Predator franchises. And now he brings us this tepid, empty-headed Death Race remake.

To (misquote) Oscar Wilde: To destroy one popular franchise may be regarded as a misfortune; to destroy two looks like carelessness...

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Theme Song of the Week #41: Honey West (1965)

Vault of Horror Reviews Nightmares in Red, White and Blue

B-Sol over at Vault of Horror (one of my favorite bloggers...) focuses his gaze on Joseph Maddrey's new documentary on horror films in a thoughtful new post.

Here's a snippet from "Finally, the Horror Doc We've Been Hoping For:"

"Based on Maddrey's 2004 book, this as-yet-undistributed doc, produced/written by Maddrey and directed/edited by Monument, is a potent, jam-packed study of the fright flick in the context of the United States' evolution over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries..."

"...It's a fascinating watch for both passionate and casual fans, made by people who really seem to care about their subject matter."


Read the full review of Nightmares in Red, White & Blue over at Vault of Horror
.

And B-Sol, thanks also for noting the fact that I'm a big, bright, shining star. We all have one special thing, I guess.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fantastic Voyage (1966)

"Maybe the philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity; between outer and inner space..."

-Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy) ponders the miracle of life in Fantastic Voyage.

This memorable Richard Fleischer effort was the special effects spectacular of 1966; an imaginative, big budget (6.5. million dollar...), award-winning science fiction adventure. If you grew up in the late 1960s or 1970s, Fantastic Voyage was also likely one of your favorite genre movies; one filled with action, danger and special effects spectacle the likes of which you had never conceived.

This well-regarded genre film escorts the audience inside the HQ of the CMDF (Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces), an American military-intelligence agency that has developed the ability to shrink down to microscopic levels everything from people and equipment to large-scale vehicles. The problem with their technique is that the miniaturization process becomes unstable after a mere sixty minutes, and all shrunken persons or objects then return to normal size.

Only one scientist -- a Soviet named Jan Benes -- knows the answer to this riddle. Unfortunately, he's been badly wounded during his defection to the West. An inoperable brain injury threatens his life and all of his advanced knowledge. CMDF doctors quickly realize that the only way to clear a large blood clot from the scientist's brain is to arrange a "little trip." Specifically, a nuclear submarine named Proteus (model U91035) and a team of medical men are to be miniaturized and injected into the dying man's blood-stream. The strategy is to travel by artery to the brain clot, slice open the dangerous occlusion with experimental laser beam, and wait for removal at the base of the neck. All this must occur in just sixty minutes.

The mission doesn't quite turn out that way. Security agent Grant (Stephen Boyd), neuro-surgeon Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy), his beautiful assistant Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch), sub Captain Owens (William Redfield) and team leader, Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence) encounter an array of unexpected and wild dangers on their fantastic voyage.

A whirlpool at an artery branch shunts the Proteus into the veins, forcing a dangerous journey directly through the human heart (which is stopped for sixty seconds to permit transit). Then, the Proteus's air supply mysteriously fails, requiring a pit-stop in the lungs, where the oxygenation process is observed and then exploited. A trip through the inner ear is equally dangerous, because any vibration inside the operating theatre could rattle the ship and crew into pieces.

Before the mission ends, the surgical laser is damaged (sabotaged?) and jury rigged, and an enemy agent is found amongst the crew. Take a look at the cast members, and then take a good guess at who the saboteur might be. Finally, a swarm of puffy, jelly-fish like white corpuscles attack the Proteus, crushing the marvelous high-tech sub completely. After a successful operation to remove the clot (conducted in four minutes, no less...), the mission survivors evacuate through the Benes' tear ducts...just in the nick of time. Their "full reduction" reverses and they are restored to normal dimensions as the end credits roll.

I've always loved Fantastic Voyage, but watching it again in 2009, it is not difficult for the objective viewer to discern some of the film's more notable shortcomings. All the characters are two-dimensional and deadly dull, their dialogue stiff and uninteresting. The film also wastes an inordinate amount of valuable screen time on military brass arguing amongst itself and barking orders at subordinates, who dutifully carry these technical instructions out in mission-control-style environs. Most troublesome, it takes nearly a full thirty minutes to get to the miniaturization process and the actual impossible mission, so the movie starts out at a snail's pace. The pace does pick up, but some won't have the patience to stick with the film.

Still, I would have to say that all of these drawbacks are pretty damn immaterial, given the movie's strengths. Depending on your perspective, the movie's Hail Mary plot line is either pure genius or simply asinine. I choose the former interpretation, mainly because movies often exist for the express purpose of revealing to us worlds and vistas we've never imagined or seen before. On that criteria alone, the wacky miniaturization plot of Fantastic Voyage succeeds magnificently. It's the doorway to a world of awesome visual delights and some great 1960s-era effects.

Some of the amazing and jaw-dropping sights you'll see in Fantastic Voyage include: a nuclear submarine submerging inside the choppy waters of a hypodermic needle; a roller coaster ride through that needle into human flesh; a passage through a school of globular red blood cells; a flight through a human heart; a close-up view of the oxygenation process, an exchange of gases that is one of the "miracles of the universe;" and even a rendering of a "blazing" single thought, as Benes' sparkling synapses fire all about the rocketing Proteus.

My two favorite images, however, occur late in the film. There's a terrifying moment in which a white corpuscle descends on the dorsal dome of the Proteus, where Captain Michaels (Pleasence) has become trapped following a crash. The corpuscle crushes the glass of the dome, and proceeds to envelope Michaels' (screaming) head before our eyes. That fatal moment -- which Pleasence really sells -- has haunted me since I was a kid..

And secondly, I love the shot that finds the mission survivors swimming wildly in a single tear drop -- to them the size of a lake -- after evacuating the body through the corner of the eyeball. I remember I once owned the Fantastic Voyage comic-book too (long gone, alas...), and this image really resonated with me both in print and on screen. The kid in me has also nurtured a long fondness for that high-tech submarine, the Proteus ("quite a canoe," as one character describes it...). I always wished there had been a model kit of that ship.

As a dazzling visual travelogue into inner space, a journey into a contained universe all its own, Fantastic Voyage remains an involving cinematic experience. I also detect now a thematic leitmotif I missed as a kid: an early debate about intelligent design vs. evolution. Dr. Duval (the good guy...) sees the oxygenation process as a sure sign of a "Creator's" hand, while the godless communist agent, Michaels, views it as nothing more than evolution. As you can guess, the movie falls philosophically on the side of intelligent design. Message: do not tamper in God's domain. Bitches.

So Fantastic Voyage is a nostalgic favorite that features some imaginative sets and more than a handful of grand physical effects. It also generate a fair degree of tension in the final act (especially during the hair-raising "absolute silence" scene involving the journey through the inner ear).

But -- and I can't believe I'm saying this -- it's one of those rare genre movies that might actually benefit from a remake. The acting, the screenplay, the characters...they're all rather shallow here. The film was always designed to be a special effects masterpiece first and foremost, and, well, special effects have improved a great deal since 1966. You could probably excavate the 1966 script, re-shoot it word-for-word (except all the sexist crap involving Raquel Welch...) with modern effects and successfully fashion mind-blowing visual experience for 2009. Again, I'm as surprised as you are that I feel this way, but done with modern spfx a journey through the microverse of the human body could today prove even more "fantastic."

The only problem I can see is that today if we wanted to seem both "futuristic" and accurate, we'd send in microscopic nanobots, not tiny humans, to repair the blood clot. And that little factoid would take away all of the fun of this fantasy voyage.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 68: The Hitchhiker (1983-1991)

Here’s a 1980s flashback (or hangover...): the HBO (later USA Network) horror anthology entitled The Hitchhiker (1983-1991). This long-running TV series commenced before the first Reagan term was over, and that epoch makes it an early example of the premium cable horror series (a trend pursued by HBO with Tales from The Crypt in the 1990s and later by Showtime with examples such as Masters of Horror and True Blood).

This new broadcasting venue meant that The Hitchhiker was free from the limiting restrictions (and censorship...) of mass audience, basic network television. In other words, The Hitchhiker was willing and able to spotlight gory blood-letting, much nudity, and even simulated sex. It was a half-hour of soft-core porn and hardcore horror. Whoo-hoo!

As The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery established so dramatically in earlier decades, the anthology can be an excellent format for the horror genre. Since you get a new character every week, you’re able to kill off your lead if you so desire. That's a trick The X-Files or Kolchak: The Night Stalker, for instance, couldn’t get away with. Since your leads are always vulnerable in an anthology, there’s a heightened sense of vulnerability or unpredictability...and that's always good in horror. Throw in a little graphic violence and a pinch of sexy T & A and you’ve got yourself a real contender. At least that was the idea.

Our tour guide and narrator on The Hitchhiker was a mysterious wanderer with Miami Vice stubble, one who wore tight acid-wash jeans and thumbed his way across an endless desert road. Played by Nicholas Campbell and then Page Fletcher, this hitcher introduced each tale on the series, and then returned for a closing narration. The underlying conceit, which I quite like, is that we -- as viewers – symbolically "pick up" this enigmatic stranger on the highway and he regales us with a bizarre, frightening tale of the “road.” It’s kind of like a campfire story, I suppose, but modernized to include a specter of modern life (the hitchhiker/stranger) and the isolation/alienation of endless highways, endless night drives. Quite spooky if you think about it.

In general, The Hitchhiker sought to tell horror stories in which -- in the great tradition of EC Comics – the scales of justice were balanced. In other words, bad people were punished for their misdeeds. The universe boasted a sense of decency, even if some men did not.

The early installment “Night Shift,” (written by William Darrid and directed by Phillip Noyce), for example, involved a cruel nurse, Jane Reynolds (Margot Kidder), who worked the night shift at the Golden Age Nursing Home. This bitter, mean nurse ruled the old folks there with an “iron hand,” even going so far as to steal their prized jewelry so that she could sell it to her no-good boyfriend, Johnny (Stephen McHattie). But, as the Hitchhiker’s opening narration reminds viewers, this nurse learns that “some rules bend when the night shifts…”

Specifically,Jane's latest ward is “The Old Man” (Darren McGavin), an apparently comatose stranger who wears a very special ring. After Johnny and Jane attempt to steal it, the Old Man awakes and pursues them to get it back. Turns out the ring has a nasty blade embedded under the stone, one that is very efficient at slitting throats. The Old Man is actually a vampire you see, and before the tale is over he has hunted the cruel Jane and Johnny, draining them of their blood and youth, physically rendering them “old” like the very wards Jane so cavalierly abused.

At the coda of “Night Shift,” The Hitchhiker explains that “fate delivered an ancient evil to” Jane’s “doorstep” so that “the predator knows what it’s like to be the prey.”

Like most early episodes of The Hitchhiker, “Night Shift” is filmed extraordinarily well, relying on fine use of dramatic, well-composed close-ups and eerie lighting. When McGavin – the vampire – arrives at the nursing home, his room is bathed in an ethereal white light, one which seems to accentuate his age and suggest his immortality. And when Jane is hunted by the vampire in a storage closet the light palette shifts to a terrifying, sickly green. It’s as though the institution – the nursing home itself – has turned against the transgressor.

Another HBO era story, “Last Scene” was written by Robert J. Avrech and directed by Robocop (1987) helmer Paul Verhoeven. It stars Peter Coyote as a desperate first-time movie director (and former actor…) who has limited time and resources in which to help his wooden leading lady, Leda (La Gena Hart) develop the acting chops deemed necessary to sell the shocking final scene of his debut thriller. Coyote’s character goes to extreme and frightening lengths to terrify Leda and elicit a “real” reaction from the bad actress. The plan goes awry, however, and soon it’s the director who is learning about the nature of authentic terror.

As Page Fletcher's hitchhiker declares here, “the creatures created” by filmmakers “often have the last laugh.” As the creator and director of The House Between, this is a lesson I’ve learned myself; that “manufacturing illusion and manipulating the way people feel” may result in the creator himself being “tricked by his own sleight of hand.”

Even during the HBO run, critics were not overly charmed by The Hitchhiker. Starlog admonished the series for using “gratuitous blood, gore and naked flesh in place of good scripts and solid performances.” (Starlog # 96, 1984-1985, page 35.) Meanwhile, The New York Times complained that “each episode becomes a game of guessing when an opportunity would be devised for the featured performers to take off all their clothes.” (John J. O’Connor, The New York Times, November 26, 1985, page C22.)

The reviewers weren’t necessarily wrong in this critique. The series indeed tended to exploit rather than authentically explore issues surrounding sexuality and sexual relationships. Many of The Hitchhiker episodes provided more-than-adequate eye candy thanks to guest stars including Kirstie Alley, Shannon Tweed, Helen Hunt, Karen Lych, Ornella Muti, Virginia Madsen, and Karen Black -- thus satisfying prurient interest. Still, most of these shows aren’t genuinely sexy because sex is just a marketing tool of the producers; not a legitimate thematic undercurrent.

There were notable exceptions. In “Videodate, a womanizer named Rhodes (Gregg Henry) who ritually exploited women and even kept a bulletin board tally of his conquests, was bested by a sexy performance artist (Shannon Tweed) who played his game better than he did. The subject here truly was sex (and sexual sport/sexual dominance), and the ways in which every human being can be manipulated by his or her desire. Rhodes believed that he was a student of human nature, that he could push those buttons in others, but that he was somehow immune to it. In the end, he wasn’t; he was as much a slave (and a victim) as those he victimized. Again, not deep and not too original (another "moral" reiteration of the cosmic scales balanced cliche...) but still, overall, a…ahem…satisfying half-hour.

“Hired Help” was another quirky revenge story that succeeded based largely on its bizarre and daring sexual imagery. Here, another exploiter of fellow human beings (this time Karen Black, exploiting illegal immigrants) ends up unknowingly bedding down a Mexican devil or “Diablo” and is…er…put to Hell's service herself.

The centerpiece sex scene -- with Karen doing the heavy lifting -- is spiky, sadistic and memorable. The scene is shot in silhouette, and during intercourse, the Devil Man unexpectedly sheds his human shape and sprouts demonic wings (not to mention glowing emerald eyes). Without warning, this devil – in media res, as it were – starts brutally man-handling Black, slapping her around with a belt (!) and contorting her compliant naked body in a vicious, pounding rhythm. What’s kinky about this sequence is, well, everything. It’s arousing in a very perverse, freaky sense. Shakespeare it ain’t, but it sure keeps your attention. Even had they been inclined to include such odd sequences, Hitchcock and Serling could not have gotten away with this sort of thing on broadcast television.

When The Hitchhiker went out on a limb and expressed the powerful notion that sex can be scary, dangerous and exciting, the imaginative imagery and subversive implications of the show's creators triumphed over often banal writing and trite plots. But these stories were the exception rather than the rule.

By the time that The Hitchhiker shifted over to the basic cable USA Network, it was in its fourth season. Unfortunately, that’s where things took a decided turn for the worse. The series could no longer get away with HBO levels of violence and sex, so the two trademarks of the anthology -- sex and gore -- were stripped away. And I mean totally stripped away.

Also, the entire production high-tailed it up to Canada (to cut costs), meaning that the series no longer featured movie star-caliber performers or directors. On USA, The Hitchhiker became a very bad, very dull potboiler with tepid twist endings that wouldn't surprise a four year old. At least the HBO edition stands as an interesting testimony to its context in the world and history of cable television: sex and violence were highlighted because they could be highlighted.

So if you're in a frisky, freaky mood, The Hitchhiker is certainly a fun horror anthology to re-visit. Just be certain you see the premium cable edition. The USA stuff is pure, G-rated dreck.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Interrupted Journey

This riveting forty-year old account of the Barney and Betty Hill Abduction is a cause celebre in UFO literature and lore. The story, told expertly by journalist John G. Fuller, has also become fodder for TV movies such as The UFO Incident (1975) and fictionalized hour-long dramas such as Dark Skies (1996-1997).

The Interrupted Journey recounts (in meticulous detail) the events of the evening of September 19, 1961, a span when an unassuming interracial couple -- the Hills -- saw their weekend drive in New England interrupted by a...flying saucer.

A UFO not only shadowed these unlucky sojourners for a time, but aliens actually took the humans aboard their craft, the Hills alleged. There, a slew of medical exams were conducted before the couple's release.

After this event, as Fuller recounts, the Hills returned to their home and their jobs. Life went on, but they both felt mysteriously unsettled, with significant gaps in their memories. Betty experienced nightmares for a time. Barney saw a flare-up of his ulcer.

Soon, Betty began to remember bits and pieces of the unnerving experience, even as Barney resisted the idea of aliens and flying saucers all together, fearing that friends and family would find his story ludicrous. But slowly and surely, the couple began to come to terms with the bizarre, inexplicable events of that night.


The Hills were aided in this endeavor by a reputable, rock-solid psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Simon, who utilized hypnosis to excavate the Hills' buried (or blocked?) memories of the close encounter on September 19th 1961.

Their stories -- told separately in marathon individual sessions -- matched one another's very closely. Husband and wife both spoke of an alien visitation that featured missing time (a span erased by the aliens...), medical exams (including a painful pregnancy test for Betty...) and so on.

These thorough hypnosis sessions -- which often read as decisive, even prosecutorial cross-examinations -- are featured in The Interrupted Journey in the form of transcripts. These word-for-word accounts make for absorbing, provocative and even anxiety-provoking reading.

Fuller does well with the remainder of the text too, his prose devoid of unnecessary or distracting drama, hysteria, or silliness. In fact, Fuller downplays everything in a just-the-facts writing-style that disarms the inner skeptic and generates a fair bit of, well, uneasiness. The idea of alien visitation is rendered entirely believable here...and palpable.

Ultimately, we come to judge this oddly disturbing story on a human basis, a personal basis. The Hills don't seem like craven attention-seekers (on the contrary actually...). They waited for years to come forward in the public square to tell their version of the story, and then only after an unscrupulous journalist published their story without permission or input.

In The Interrupted Journey, when Barney first sees the alien leader's inhuman black eyes glaring down at him (pressing telepathically into his skull), the reader shares Barney's sense of primal terror; mainly because Fuller's sketched the man in such realistic, human fashion.

The Interrupted Journey is a remarkable work of literature, and I recommend the book as such. Just don't take it at face value or as a priori, Gospel Truth. On the (admittedly-limited) basis of literature, however, The Interrupted Journey is entirely successful. You sympathize with the characters; you're caught up in the drama, and the book evokes a strange feeling that somehow, some way, you're being watched while you turn the pages. It's not good material to read while you're alone in the house. Or after dark. The book makes you feel paranoid; like you're under a microscope.

Yet the inner skeptic in me still had some questions and concerns about the veracity of the Hill tale. Let me play devil's advocate for a bit, if you don't mind.

To start with during her encounter with the aliens, Betty is offered an extra-terrestrial book as proof of the aliens' existence. The aliens ultimately take the book back, however, conveniently defying Betty any hard evidence of the encounter.

But my problem is with the idea of the alien book itself. We're nowhere near the advent of interstellar flight, but in a few short years, print books will go the way of the dodo on Earth, totally extinct; relics. Would aliens capable of interstellar flight and mind-bending amnesia tricks still carry around books on their space ship (where space and weight would presumably be at a premium....)? Wouldn't they at least have Kindle?

Secondly, there's the alien confusion about "time." To The Interrupted Journey's credit, the book openly and fairly acknowledges this paradox. Specifically, the aliens tell Betty to "wait a minute" at one point but later, during her exam, confess no knowledge and/or understanding of time or even of the passage of time. For instance, concepts such as "years" and "old age" are beyond the Saucerites. If the aliens could translate thought well-enough to use the phrase "wait a minute," why couldn't the same technique bring them an understanding of time?

Thirdly, the physical description of the flying saucer -- Barney and Betty's mutual description -- feels uncomfortably like a 1960s phantasm of "future" technology. Barney sees (through his binoculars...) a group of aliens standing at a large black control panel. Again, in the decades since this book's publication, we've seen the revolution of miniaturization, not to mention the development of touch screen consoles. And if CNN Election Night Coverage is to be believed, we even now deploy holographic technology on a routine basis.

So why would aliens from a futuristic society (a society advanced enough to possess interstellar flight...) rely on old-fashioned, bulky, non-touch screen computer panels? More to the point, perhaps, why would four-foot tall aliens have laboratory bays with human-sized examination tables.

When Barney first detects the aliens (as reported in a startling hypnosis session) he briefly mistakes the uniformed extra-terrestrials for Nazis. In another portion of the book, he admits that he has a deep-seated affinity for the people of Israel. He identifies with them deeply, apparently fearing a similar form of persecution (as a black man married to a white woman in 1960s America). Given his initial description of the aliens as "Nazis" -- in tandem with this self-acknowledged psychological affinity for Israelis -- the intrepid reader may begin to suspect that this alien encounter could, in fact, be an hallucination, a folie-a-deux...an event entirely psychological and not what we would consider "real."

Also, there are a few notable difference in Betty and Barney's story that do bear a casual mention. Betty initially claims that the aliens possess "Jimmy Durante"-type noses. By contrast, Barney says that the aliens have no noses...only recessed nasal slits. I'd be willing to chalk this up to the fog of abduction, but it's a discrepancy nonetheless.

Finally, Betty admits that she and Barney do have some at least sub-conscious awareness of the burgeoning sci-fi pop-culture of the 1960s. In particular, she mentions The Twilight Zone by name during one of her hypnosis sessions. And then there's this little factoid, straight from Wikipedia:

"Entirely Unpredisposed author Martin Kottmeyer suggested that Barney's memories revealed under hypnosis might have been influenced by an episode of the science fiction television show The Outer Limits titled "The Bellero Shield", which was broadcast about two weeks before Barney's first hypnotic session. The episode featured an extraterrestrial with large eyes..."

But listen, I'm no debunker. I have no interest in that job assignment. In terms of UFOs, let's just say......I want to believe. I really do. More than that, I'm inclined to believe. But to protect myself, I also set a pretty high bar for that belief. Disappointment can be a bitch.

My feeling on the subject of UFOs has always been that, given the size of the universe, it seems entirely plausible that alien civilizations might indeed exist....somewhere.

It is also entirely plausible to me that some life forms "out there" would be sufficiently advanced for interstellar travel. There's a caveat, however. Space traveling requires considerable resources, not to mention a a tremendous amount of energy, and it seems to me you would only travel some place far away (like Earth...) for a matter of great import.

Which leaves me to consider four options in regards to the Hills. One: the abduction happened in exactly the way the couple described, and I'm incredibly wrong in whatever skepticism I harbor. I sure hope that's the case.

Or Two: the abduction happened all right, but it was a top secret government or military experiment (god, I love a good conspiracy theory...). Probably one involving mind-altering drugs.

Or Three: the abduction occurred, but the voyagers aboard the UFO were not aliens; rather evolved, time-traveling humans from a distant future (!). Okay, so that's far-fetched...

Or, lastly, the Hills (now both deceased, unfortunately...) experienced something traumatic but entirely human on September 19, 1961; something that they didn't understand, and that their minds couldn't adequately process, That mystery accounts for the story of The Interrupted Journey.

Again, I want to believe. And while reading this book -- for a time -- I did believe. Betty and Barney Hill seem like good people, caught up in a terrible mystery. I don't know that you could ask for better, more credible eye-witnesses. But in the end, one couple's word -- even word of honor -- is simply not good enough. Not to sway me, anyway.

I wish desperately that the Hill Abduction could be proven conclusively; that The Interrupted Journey could be respected as something more than a fine, remarkably frightening campfire tale.

Perhaps one day it will be. But for now, if I have to go on the record about this book, it's just one hell of a good read.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 84: Big Jim Sky Commander (Mattel; 1973)


Who is Big Jim? Well, he's not a porn star, I assure you that. If, uh, that's what you were thinking.

Instead, Big Jim is a globe-hopping adventurer and boy toy icon of my favorite decade: the dazzling 1970s. Big Jim was Mattel's alternative to Hasbro's popular G.I. Joe, a less overtly military, war-oriented action-figure line that endured for much of the decade.

Instead of being a soldier in the Army, Big Jim was what in you might call an "all rounder" -- an athlete, a secret agent, an astronaut, a scientist and even an outdoors man...a true renaissance man, I guess. His buddies included Big Jack, Big Josh, Big Jeff, Dr Steel and Chief Tankua. Many of these figures featured karate chop arms: you'd press a square in their backs and they'd deliver a karate chop to an enemy...like your brother or sister.

For the avid toy collector, there was a whole universe of Big Jim toys to collect back in the day. Big Jim had a very cool brown camper/van, for instance, one perfect for jungle expeditions. Big Jim also had a dune buggy, a rescue rig, a Corvette and even a Safari House, a green camping tent and his own Kung Fu Studio. He was also known to tangle -- occasionally -- with gorillas and sharks.

However, my favorite toy from the Big Jim line (after the ubiquitous camper...) was his aerial HQ...the Big Jim Sky Commander (1973).

This massive toy is four-and-a-half feet in length with when fully opened. It could also be folded up into the form of a compact carrying case, which makes it perfect for quick transportation in the event of an afternoon at granny's house.

The Sky Commander features four compartments overall. There's the cockpit (with chair and steering wheel...), the situation room (replete with maps, Morse Code device, navigation table, and tools), the bunk room (with bed, sink, food supplies, a storage unit on the floor and a rest room), and finally, the tail section.

The tail section is decorated with a cool Big Jim logo (a soaring eagle...) and you can make out the details of the engine technology too.

This "around-the-globe jet headquarters" transports Jim from one secret assignment (or vacation, I guess...) to another. To help with ultra-high-speed pick-ups, the Sky Commander also comes with a working winch and rescue basket/litter. So you can actually reel action figures up into the plane...

The Big Jim Sky Commander (according to the legend on the back of the box) was perfect for "air search and rescue," "ecology," "trouble-shooting" and even "science" as Big Jim "jets around the world."

I had one of these toys when I was a kid. I was at a garage sale with my parents when I was about five, I guess. For sale was an array of Mego Batman figures (good grief!) and also the Sky Commander plane...alongside a similarly-designed Barbie plane. My sister got Barbie, I got the Sky Commander (and Batman) and we were both happy for days.

I realize that in 2009 this toy probably looks pretty darn primitive (most of the cool equipment is merely drawn on the vinyl), but I had hours, probably months of fun imagining stories for Big Jim and this thing. The Sky Commander was a passport to great adventure for a young mind.

I found one of 'em recently on E-Bay , and bought a Sky Commander for my two-year old, Joel's Christmas. He's already running around the house shouting "Big Jim!"