Saturday, June 06, 2009

From The Vanishing Hitchhiker to the Killer in the Back Seat: A Brief Survey of Urban Legends in Film and TV

I feel extremely fortunate in the fact that I was blessed with a happy and secure childhood. Yet despite my suburban cocoon of safety and contentment, I do recall -- sometimes only hazily -- that the outer fringes of my universe in the 1970s seemed populated by bizarre and inexplicable stories.

As a child, I didn't understand where these odd tales originated, but they circulated in and out of my buttoned-up world in hushed whispers and muted warnings, and they made me wonder about the nature of life beyond the borders of Glen Ridge, my affluent home town.

There were spider-eggs in Bubble Yum, you see...

And Little Mikey -- that freckled, friendly kid from the Life Cereal commercial ("He likes it! Mikey likes it!") -- died horribly when he drank soda and ate Pop Rocks at the same time.

Allegedly, his stomach exploded from the excessive carbonation...

Even as I grew older and more discerning, additional strange stories seemed to seep into the corners of my formerly inviolable daily life, suffusing the outer limits of my existence with a free-floating sense of mystery, irrationality and the unknown. And those "new" legends were even more bizarre than the two listed above.

To wit: a certain popular male movie star of the 1980s had appeared at the emergency room late one night with a, um..."colo-rectal" intruder.

And did you hear about the two teenagers who got...stuck...while having sexual intercourse? They had to be pried apart by rescue workers using heavy machinery...

These are America's urban legends, and for whatever reason, my safe, comfortable, upper middle-class town in the late 1970s-and-early-1980s seemed like a hot-bed for many of the most notorious ones. A breeding ground, actually, because we even had specific urban legends on my very street (Clinton Road); ones that didn't proliferate widely like the well-known examples, but that were just as potent and affecting to my impressionable young mind.

If you peeled the same scab off three times, your skin wouldn't grow back
...

Oh, and there was a haunted house on the hill leading down to the Magic Fountain Ice Cream Parlor (near Bloomfield Avenue), and you had to hold your breath when you walked by it...or the house would steal it.

I bring up these stories -- and these odd, half-memories -- because, in the last few weeks, I've had the pleasure of reading two meticulous, scholarly resources on the sources, transmission, and nature of such urban legends; both penned by the amazing, acknowledged pioneer in the field: Professor Jan Harold Brunvand. These books are: 1981's The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, and the exhaustive follow-up, 2001's Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.

Brunvand's life work is the collection, researching, tracking down, and explanation (with occasional debunking...) of America's urban legends. The resourceful author isn't merely a dogged investigator, he's a skilled communicator and storyteller, and his rigorous, academic books actually make damn fine cover-to-cover reads too. In fact, I couldn't put them down.

As our informative guide into the shadowy realm of contemporary myth, Brunvand explains that urban legends are those "bizarre, whimsical, 99 percent apocryphal yet believable stories "that are too good to be true." They are too odd, too coincidental, and too neatly plotted to be accepted as literal truth in every place they are told." (Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Norton, "Introduction," 2001, xxiii).

Brunvand furthermore reports that urban legends are folk narratives involving both the recent past and normal human beings (rather than ancient epochs, and characters like kings and knights...).

He also states that urban legends "gain credibility from specific details of time and place or from references to source authorities." (The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Norton, 1981 page 3). This means, essentially, that urban legends are transmitted from a friend of a friend...right to you. Somehow, we tend to believe that the transmitted tale is only removed from us (and our normal lives...) by one, measly degree of separation. And often, police or other "officials" (like fire-men or hospital workers) are dragged into the bizarre stories so as to lend them further verisimilitude and a veneer of authenticity.

So far as general theme and purposes go, urban legends appear to concern, primarily, the terrain of subconscious fears. Fears of "foreigners" and their customs (the Chinese restaurant, for instance, seems to be a hot zone for urban legends...); fears of marital infidelity ("The Cement Cadillac" story), and even fear of women. Urban legends also reflect fears of embarrassment/humiliation ("The Surprise Party"); fears of big, impersonal corporations ("The Spider-eggs in the Bubble Yum"/"the Rat in the Coke Bottle"); fear of sexual perversity ("The Colo-Rectal Rat/Gerbil"); even fear of technology ("The Cat/Baby in the Microwave").

In short, all the common anxieties of modern life and in particular "progress," seem to have at least one urban legend attached to them.

In his comprehensive Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Brunvand discusses briefly the relationship between urban legends and mass media (film and TV), focusing the conversation in particular on the 1998 slasher film Urban Legend, and a few other productions (notably Candyman ([1992] and When a Stranger Calls [1979]). These references fascinated me, and I began to weigh some of the myriad connections between the horror genre and urban legends.

If You See Sally: One Step Beyond's Ghost in the Road
In the spirit (hopefully...) of Brunvand's work, I've decided to survey here some further examples of filmed urban legends. For instance, the great paranormal anthology hosted by John Newland, One Step Beyond (1959-1961), leapt head-first into the long-lived, much-told and constantly-evolving urban legend of the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" with the classic episode "If You See Sally."

That third-season installment (directed by Newland and written by Howard Rodman and Roberta Martin) aired in prime time on October 18, 1960, and concerned a lonely, sleepy night driver who picked up winsome Sally Ellis (Anne Whitfield) -- a grieving, tragic figure trying to find her way home -- only to learn that she had actually died years earlier. He had been sharing his front seat with a ghost...

This story of a phantom hitchhiker proved so powerful -- and so resonant -- that the makers of One Step Beyond received a whopping forty-five letters from viewers in which those audience-members described their own similar experiences. "In one variation," a letter described, the tired driver gives the young hitchhiker his sweater because she was cold. "When he is told that the child is dead...he immediately asks what happened to his sweater. The garment is retrieved on the headstone of the child's grave..." (Gary Gerani, Fantastic Television, Harmony Books, 1977, page 29).

The common urban legend of the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" likely goes all the way back to early America, and the age of horse-drawn carriages. The legend is considered by some academics a "rare hallucinatory event," one that "lingers in our collective imagination from a time when man first drove horse and chariots. Late at night, exhausted and alone on a dark road, the vulnerable driver may summon the ancient hitchhiker from his unconscious." (Remy Chauvin. Parapsychology - When the Irrational Rejoins Science, translated by Katharine M. Banham, McFarland, 1985, page 71).

One Step Beyond was not alone in depicting the story of the "Vanishing Hitchhiker," though "If You See Sally" is the most accurate and faithful filmed interpretation of this urban legend. Angelic/demonic hitchhikers have also sprung up on The Twilight Zone ("The Hitchhiker"). And one ghostly hitchhiker even hosted his self-named anthology series, HBO's The Hitchhiker. What seems most potently expressed by the story of the Vanishing Hitchhiker is the fear that -- alone on a dark stretch of road -- your trajectory crosses with that of the supernatural; that alone in your vehicle (with no recourse and no help...), you somehow pierce the invisible world of the supernatural and interact with it.

Over the years, this urban legend has continued to develop in unique ways. The ghostly hitchhiker -- eternally wandering the back roads of purgatory -- has morphed, in many such stories, into a "well-dressed" prophecy man: one warning of impending disasters, both natural and man-made.

Check The Children: The Baby-sitter and the Man Upstairs

The 1979 film, When a Stranger Calls, directed by Fred Walton, dramatizes the harrowing story of a teenage babysitter, Jill (Carol Kane). She is harassed on the job (and late at night to boot...) by unsettling phone calls. Alone in the dark house of her employer, Dr. Mandrakis, she becomes increasingly terrified as the calls grow more explicit...and more threatening.

More accurately described, this element of the narrative is the subject of the film's fifteen minute preamble, an almost perfect, text-book cinematic visualization of isolation, fear of the dark, and escalating terror.

In this taut sequence, Walton's camera often adopts the perspective of the long-shot angle and thus establishes Jill's location, but also the emptiness and quiet all around her. These moments are interspersed with "jolts" on the soundtrack that remind us how Jill is unfamiliar with her surroundings. The refrigerator ice-maker suddenly kicks in, for instance, with a loud ca-chunk, and the audience feels startled along with Jill. Walton also cuts to various insert shots of seemingly-innocuous house decorations (lamps, phones, the chain-lock on the front door, the fireplace, a ticking clock...) not only to establish the terrain of the incident, but to interrupt the cinematic flow of space/time.

Instead of a long, immaculate master shots -- suggestive of continuity and fluidity - these dramatic close-ups start to jangle our nerves in a manner reminiscent of the jarring and sudden (and frequent) ringing of the telephone. The insert shots come quicker and quicker as the menacing phone calls repeat, and Jill seems to wander increasingly into dark, unlit corners of the house..

We know, of course, the punch-line. The menacing caller is already inside the house, upstairs (where he has brutally murdered the Mandrakis children.) The killer was actually calling downstairs on a second phone line!

In his texts, Brunvand explains that stories like "The Baby-Sitter and The Man Upstairs" are designed as a warning to women; that the murder of the innocent children therein represents the young woman's "ultimate failure as a future home-maker and mother;" and that "the killer's positioning upstairs -- above the female sitter -- may signify the traditional dominant role of men in sexual and power relationships." (Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, page 29).

The urban legend inspiring When a Stranger Calls also boasts two other narrative components worth mentioning. First and foremost: a fear of modern technology subverted. The "convenience" of the household telephone becomes a gateway to terror and deceit; a trick that keeps the imperiled baby sitter tethered to the phone cord (and plugged in to the wall...) when she should be running like hell to escape.

And secondly, there's the notion here of an important "first job," a first responsibility egregiously failed. Young adulthood or adolescence is a span of extreme anxiety because it's the first time that a person engages with the outside world (beyond family and school...) in a way evoking, duty, responsibility and even monetary recompense. A failure the first time out on such an important endeavor is a very real fear for the young and diligent, and this urban legend exploits that fear...ruthlessly.

This latter explanation (a first responsibility failed...) may even explain one of the subconscious fears elicited in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), another horror film involving a killer...and babysitters. Note that Linda and Annie are murdered by Michael Myers, and that they are the teenagers who forsake their "duties" (babysitting) for sexual interludes with boyfriends. Laurie Strode ultimately survives, perhaps, in part because she never lost sight of her responsibility (protecting her wards Tommy Doyle and Lindsey). It's not just that she's a virgin and then are promiscuous. It's that she takes her responsibilities and job seriously, and they don't.


Don't Flush Your Pets Down the Toilet: Alligators in New York's Sewers

There is a long-standing myth (repeated in an "urban legend" graduate class in Candyman in 1992...) that vacationers to sunny Florida returned to their New York City apartments with baby-alligators as pets.

Then, when the alligators grew too large (and inconvenient), the same pet-owners flushed the wee beasties down their toilets. Thus, -- as it became known around the world -- giant, hungry alligators dwell in New York's sewer system..

This myth was the impetus behind the humorous, Jaws-styled 1980 horror film Alligator, directed by Lewis Teague and starring the redoubtable Robert Forster.

In fact, the urban legend about alligators in the sewers was the very reason the director made the film in the first place. "The reason I said 'yes' to Alligator is that I always found the myth that there alligators in the sewers of New York amusing," he told me in an interview for Horror Films of the 1980s, "so I wanted to make an amusing film."

There are many "messages" that serve as the foundation of this strange urban legend, but primarily we see the theme of responsibility ignored. Pet owners take their "beloved" pets out of their natural environment and then treat them poorly -- and Mother Nature is scorned. Despite an attempt to get rid of the baby alligators, nature finds a way, to quote Jurassic Park (1993), and the alligators unexpectedly thrive in the new "technological" eco-system of the sewers.

Later in the 1980s, fear of radioactive fallout and contamination (no doubt-enhanced by well-attended anti-nuclear rallies across the States, productions like The Day After, and the escalating Cold War) led to a variation on the alligators in the sewer meme. The legend morphed into "radioactive waste" in the sewers, and that idea informed horror films like C.H.U.D. (1984) and Jason Takes Manhattan (1989). Here, the idea of irresponsibility was transferred from individual pet-owners to a bloated Federal Government.

Interestingly, as Brunvand points out in the Vanishing Hitchhiker (page 96), there is some basis in fact for the urban legend about alligators in the Big Apple's sewers. In his book, Brunvand reproduces a story, in fact, from The New York Times, dated February 10, 1935, entitled "Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer." Apparently, a group of youths found the offending beast in a manhole near East 123rd Street and the Harlem River. Yikes!

The Killer in the Back Seat; Or Smoking Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

The 1983 horror anthology Nightmares, directed by Joseph Sargent, also dwells explicitly in the terrain of urban legends. The first story in the film, "Terror in Topanga," depicts the misadventure of a harried, disorganized housewife, played by Cristina Raines. She runs out for cigarettes late one night. And even though an escaped mental patient and psycho-killer is loose in the nearby Topanga area, she needs her fix ("non-addicts cannot understand," she tells her irritated, baffled husband).

By herself, the housewife drives away in the family car, and nearly runs out of gas on her cigarette run. She stops at an isolated gas station (the only one that happens to still be open at such a late hour...) and is unexpectedly accosted there by a suspicious-looking attendant. The terrified housewife is unaware that the attendant is actually trying to protect her...and that the escaped mental patient is already in her back seat...waiting to strike.

"The Killer in the Back Seat" (and the narrative of "Terror in Topanga") seems an amalgamation of a few core ideas common to urban legends. Again, the lonely car ride becomes an opportunity for interface with something out of the ordinary (as in "The Vanishing Hitchhiker"). Again, as in "The Killer Upstairs," a female is isolated and alone (an aspect enhanced by the Nightmares filmmakers; here with the sounds of crickets and coyotes on the soundtrack during the late night excursion...). And again, a woman is tricked and arrives at the wrong conclusion (the mistaken identity of the killer).

Furthermore, this is a cautionary, anti-progressive tale in two ways. First, the female "caretaker" has failed in her "female" duties (having run out of groceries/supplies/cigarettes at an inopportune time). And secondly, her "need" for cigarettes (a dangerous vice...) imperils her life and well-being. Anti-smoking messages -- in which smoking was literally a fatal habit -- also appeared frequently in horror films of the 1980s, serving as the impetus for a tale in another anthology, Cat's Eye (1985).

Brunvand writes (on page 229 of The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends) that this "classic automobile horror legend" of the killer in the backseat was first reported in 1968 by Indiana University students. Given that specific derivation, one can't help but note that this legend arose shortly after the era of "cruising," a popular teenage activity of the early 1960s (and featured prominently in the George Lucas movie American Graffiti.) Given that teenagers engaging in this activity spent an inordinate amount of time in their cars (whether dining with window trays, attending drive-in movies, or just making out...), it's entirely logical that tales of horror would thus shift their primary locale from houses to automobiles.

The film Urban Legend (1998) repeated the "killer in the back seat" trope as its opening gambit, too.

Defrost, Cook or Explode? The Baby/Cat/Gremlin in the Microwave Oven

Since the 1950s and the so-called Age of Anxiety, Americans have embraced and integrated a remarkable number of technological advances into the very hearth and sanctuary of family life: the home.

Telephones, dishwashers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, computers, security/alarm systems, and more have come along and changed (and ostensibly improved...) the way we manage our lives.

It's only natural then, that each of these "advances" has been met with some form of push-back, resistance, and suspicion. And indeed, many urban legends concern an extreme paranoia regarding out-of-control or dangerous technology. We saw this dread manifested with the treacherous telephone in "The Baby-Sitter and the Killer Upstairs." Another trenchant example involves the microwave oven.

Again in this case, there seems to be a direct connection between women and urban legends: the backwards idea that women are abdicating their "kitchen" or "cooking" responsibilities by preparing meals with the "miraculous" and time-saving microwave oven.

And the fact that it is often a baby who ends up sizzled inside a microwave oven in urban legends represents another warning against progressive, non-traditional women: it's a failure of their responsibility as care-givers, since the child days. Amazing how many of these urban legends are often really about maintaining the status quo between men and women, isn't it?
The 1984 Joe Dante horror film, Gremlins, trades on a fear of technology (one evidenced as early as World War II). Here, malevolent little creatures gum up the works of a Norman Rockwell-style small town and wreak havoc. They cause automatic elevator chairs to become dangerous projectiles; they drive heavy construction vehicles into houses; they cause traffic accidents by changing traffic light signals willy-nilly. The gremlins are Loki (the spirit of mischief) personified...but always with an angle towards recognizing the hazards of modern technology. The victim is heartland America, and the American Dream.

In an interesting reversal of the "Baby/Cat in the Microwave Oven" urban legend, a dedicated Mom (Mrs. Peltzer) defeats the perils of technology (a malicious Mogwai) by harnessing another technology: the microwave oven. She gets the creature inside the device and broils him alive...in a memorably gory (and oddly PG-13...) sequence. Here, the Mother is decidedly the hero figure and the microwave is a weapon defending order, not a weapon of chaos and disorder. Thus Gremlins qualifies, perhaps, as an urban legend subverted or upturned.

The Man with the Hook meets Bloody Mary
Candyman (Tony Todd) -- a modern horror icon -- is actually a hybrid of two of the most notorious urban legends. The first such legend is the story of "The Hook" or the "Killer with A Hook."

This tale involves -- again -- an escaped and murderous mental patient who, for some arcane reason, boasts a hook for a hand. Cut to lover's lane, as two teenagers are passionately making out. It's coitus interruptus as they hear a warning on the radio to look out for the killer with a hook; that he is loose in the area.

The male teenager desires to ignore the warning, of course, but the girl is spooked and demands that they leave lover's lane immediately. Realizing he's not going to get laid on this night, the boy angrily drives the car away. It's not until he arrives at his girlfriend's house and opens the car door for his scared prospective partner that the boyfriend sees the strange metal hook stuck to a door handle. Brunvand sees the severed appendage -- a hook -- as a phallic symbol, a representation of the frustrated teen male's unsuccessful bid to get laid.

The story of "the killer with a hook" became the teaser sequence for a second season segment of Chris Carter's Millennium. That episode, "The Pest House" was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Allen Coulter. It aired February 27th, 1998 (the same year, incidentally, the story appeared in Urban Legend). On Millennium, the entire "Hook" legend was lovingly re-staged, but with a new and gruesome ending: the amorous boyfriend (Brandan Fehr) ends up gutted and hanging upside down over the roof of his car...for his girlfriend to find.

The second urban legend recruited by the makers of Candyman is known, sometimes, as "Bloody Mary." In this legend, a group of teenage girls share a sleep-over and dare each other to say Mary's name five times aloud while gazing directly into a bathroom mirror. If they should do so, it is believed that Mary will leap out of the mirror and scratch the face of the summoner. As Brunvand describes it, "Bloody Mary" -- with a bathroom setting, with teenage girls as percipients, with blood-letting as a theme -- is a thinly-concealed parable about the onset of menses.

Candyman blends the idea of the Hook-Man Killer with the legend of Bloody Mary. Here, Candyman is summoned by a person calling out his name in the mirror five times. When Candyman appears, he doesn't scratch you...but rather cuts you "gullet to groin" with his sharp, rusty hook. In the original film, a graduate student (Virginia Madsen) crafting her thesis on the subject of urban legends uncovers the story of Candyman at the dangerous urban projects, called Cabrini Green. It's interesting to note that Candyman only continues to "exist" as a bogeyman so long as his story (the urban legend) is disseminated among followers (his "congregation.") Candyman seduces his victims with the promise that they -- like he -- will become immortal as new elements of his tale, of his oft-repeated myth. It's the Gospel of Candyman.

At the same time that Candyman depicts a hybrid of urban legends, it also comments on urban legends. At Cabrini Green, dangerous black gangs prey on innocent residents (also black Americans). The underlying message seems to be that rather than taking on black-on-black violence in such communities, it is easier and more convenient to create mythological/phony "boogeymen" who can be blamed for it. Instead of looking at the mirror, literally, and honestly facing problems within the community, it is simpler to look "outside" for an external monster.

As the title of this piece indicates, this post is but a brief survey of urban legends appearing on film and television. There are many other titles to explore. The CW series Supernatural crafted an episode about the "Bloody Mary" myth during its first season, for instance. Also, films like The Hitcher (1986) deal with other elements of popular urban legends, namely what Brunvand calls "The Dreadful Contamination" (for example, human fingers in a plate of french fries). Indeed, horror films and urban legends overlap to a remarkable degree. Both forms serve as cautionary tales, warnings, taboo-breakers, and modern myths. And the dedicated works of Professor Brunvand go a long way towards explaining why there is this connection, this symbiosis between horror and urban legends. Both "genres" know what scares us.

Which urban legends did you grow up with? And which ones stay with you to this day? Ever find any Bubble Yum with spider-eggs inside?

And by the way, Little Mikey is apparently alive and well...

Friday, June 05, 2009

Latter-Day Carpenter Part 3: Fantasmo Remembers Memoirs of an Invisible Man

Over at his terrific blog, Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion, Jim Blanton joins the debate on 1990-2001 era John Carpenter films, offering a spirited defense of the much-disliked Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992).

In a detailed, illuminating piece, Jim contextualizes the film as a Carpenter-style updating of the Hitchcock suspense thriller, a "wrong man" picture such as North by Northwest (1960):

If Vampires is a play on Red River, and Ghost of Mars a play on Rio Bravo, then Memoirs is certainly Carpenter’s tribute to Hitchcock. It is nothing less than North By Northwest meets The Invisible Man, with Chevy Case as Cary Grant, Daryl Hannah as Eva Marie Saint, and Sam Neill as James Mason.

In a nutshell it’s a wrong man, cross-country chase, featuring visually dazzling set pieces, an expansive orchestral score, and an undercurrent of humor. They even get on a train at one point. Having read the book (I’ll touch on that more in a moment) I can tell you that this Hitchcockian approach was developed for the movie, and I have to believe that’s what attracted Carpenter to this project. So with Memoirs I’d argue that Carpenter is doing nothing less than what he has done with so many of his movies, by adapting a version of a film favorite into another genre (sci-fi) perceived more agreeable to modern (circa-1992) audiences. So his name being absent before the title notwithstanding, this is most definitely a Carpenter film in the most important sense.


Now, anyone out there want to stand up and blog in support for Village of the Damned (1995)?

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 75: Lost in Space: "The War of the Robots"

In one corner, we have Robby the Robot, famous cinematic automaton of the classic film, Forbidden Planet (1956).

And in the other corner, we have lovable B-9, mechanical guardian of our space family Robinson and popular hero of Lost in Space.

May the best robot win...

In very silly terms, that's the set-up for this classic first season Lost in Space (1965-1968) episode, "The War of the Robots," which aired originally on CBS on February 9, 1966.

Here, the stranded Robinsons (trapped on a desolate alien planet...), unexpectedly discover a quiescent "robotoid" in an overgrown grove near their homestead.

The Robinsons' protective robot insists the alien machine (Robby...) is an "extreme danger" to the humans, in part because of Robby's very nature: he's a "robotoid" (unlike the Robot), and robotoids are advanced machines which can go beyond the bounds of their programming.

Robotoids have a "choice" -- according to the Robot -- in the way they follow (or don't follow...) orders and instructions. The Robinsons and especially Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) believe their Robot is just jealous of the new machine, which -- when activated by Will (Bill Mumy) -- shows an affinity for repairing watches, the damaged chariot, and other devices.


Dr. Smith derides the family robot as a "clumsy has-been" and "obsolete" as Robby the Robotoid in short order becomes practically invaluable to the marooned Robinsons (save for Penny, who has mysteriously vanished from the entire episode...without it being noticed by her Mom or Dad). Soon, Robby confronts the B-9 and tells him that the Robinsons no longer need their original robot and that "in comparison" to himself, the B-9 is "very ignorant."

Alone and abandoned, B-9 skulks away into the rocks -- having lost his family -- and soon Robby's true motives emerge. He is actually the dedicated servant to an alien scientist (a kind of dog-alien that very much resembles the Anticans from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Lonely Among Us" that was produced and broadcast twenty-one years later...). The Robotoid's mission is not to serve the Robinsons, but rather to disarm them, render them "harmless" and deliver them as experimental subjects to the aliens. "You are weak and vulnerable creatures," Robby tells the Robinsons, "but there are others who have need of you..."

In the end, it's a battle-to-the-death between a nearly-invincible Robby (the most famous mechanical man of the movies, pre-Star Wars...) and a vastly-under-powered Bubble-Headed Booby, the most famous mechanical man of television...

Honestly I have a weird sort of love/hate fascination with Lost in Space. I absolutely adore the optimistic 1960s futurism on display in the series, not to mention the wonderful conceit that space program technology has become the purview of the American nuclear family in the near future.

Also, I almost universally find the set designs, gadgets, and general production values of the first season highly commendable....they outstrip the original Star Trek by a rather wide margin. Thus, I'm a huge admirer of the first season's approach: lensed in moody black-and-white (like the Twilight Zone) and dominated by this clunky (but gorgeous) "retro-tech." Every time I see the Robinsons' full-sized, working chariot or the incredibly-detailed interior of the Jupiter 2, I'm virtually spellbound. Those sets and vehicles appear fantastic and realistic at the same time, and seem completely functional.

I love the way the first season is shot too. In "The War of the Robots," for instance, a fluid camera glides in menacingly towards Robby the Robot at least twice -- pushing portentously towards the inscrutable juggernaut. A less efficient production might have used a zoom instead of taking the time and energy to move the camera, but you can tell that there was no expense spared in early Lost in Space, and generally, the series was well-filmed. There's even a sense of visual ingenuity (and wit...) in the episode's final battle between clunky metal men

All that established, I really can't stomach the second and third seasons of Lost in Space, the color years which give "campy" entertainment (not to mention sci-fi TV...) a bad name for years and years. I've tried (with considerable dedication) to watch many of those later episodes, but overall they lack internal consistency, paint a silly picture of the universe, and feature no real character growth or humanity. In the second and third years of Lost in Space, "science" may as well be "magic" for all the logic or intelligence applied by the writers.

But -- again -- I must stress that Lost in Space's first season, with its gorgeous photography and solid balance of characters, features some truly intriguing and (even creepy...) stories. Of course, you can't judge those forty-year old stories by the standards of today's science fiction. I mean, the audience that loves and admires the new Battlestar Galactica or Firefly isn't going to find a whole lot of meat here; or a whole lot of complexity either.

That established, there's something undeniably sweet and sort of pure about these black-and-white shows. They endure as science fiction parables about the nature of families. "The War of the Robots" is no exception to that rule. Here, the Robot feels squeezed out by his new "sibling," Robby, and becomes jealous that, well, there's somebody newer and more exciting in the room. The Robot begins striking out at those who love him (refusing to help Will...), becomes petulant and even self loathing (describing the fact that he has been denied or "cheated" out of human characteristics evidenced by the Robotoid.)

Let's face it: haven't we all felt displaced like that from time to time? By a brother or a sister? By your best friend's 'new' buddy? It's strange that a story so plainly concerning sibling rivalry involves an ostensibly "emotion-less" robot, but again, that's the great thing about science fiction on television: it can dramatize stories in a way a regular drama can't.

Even in this episode, however, there are matters of concern in terms of logic and consistency. Early on, Robby's alien master reveals that he left the Robotoid on the planet many years before. Later in the story, the same alien master explains that if Robby can't send a homing signal nsoon, they won't be able to find him, or the planet. Plainly, something doesn't connect between those two conversations. If the aliens left the robot on the planet, why can't they find it again? Similarly, I enjoyed the Robot's explanation of the subtle distinctions between robot and robotoid, but how, exactly, does a Robot from Earth (from 20th century Earth) come by this information about advanced alien robotoids?

In the end, I suppose it doesn't really matter. "The War of the Robots" is a fable or lesson about jealousy, and every other consideration is secondary. And besides, if you grew up in the 1970s with an affection for Forbidden Planet's Robby and the Lost in Space Robot, there's no probably way on Earth (or in space...) you can resist an episode involving their robot-on-robot smack down...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Lady, nothing surprises me anymore. We fucked up the air, the water...we fucked up each other. Why don't we just finish the job by flushing our brains down the toilet?"

- Trent (Sam Neil), In The Mouth of Madness (1994
)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Maddrey Misc. Shines Light on John Carpenter's Vampires (1998)

Joe Maddrey, author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film (and creator of the film of the same name...) takes a good long look at John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) at his blog, Maddrey Misc.

Since Carpenter's later career (the 1990s forward...) has been a source of some discussion and debate here following my review of Ghosts of Mars, I know Joe's thoughtful and well-researched piece would interest readers:

"Carpenter says that the VAMPIRES characters Jack Crow (James Woods) and Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) were inspired by the onscreen chemistry between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in RED RIVER...

...Crow and Montoya’s relationship is limited to the mutual respect of fellow warriors – a far cry from the father/son relationship in RED RIVER. Crow’s relationship with Father Guiteau is even more strained, smacking of homophobia – hardly comparable to Thomas Dunson’s relationship with his loyal friend Groot (played by Walter Brennan).

Whereas RED RIVER was something of a “love story between men,” VAMPIRES does not allow for such affection because Carpenter’s world is not the Old West of Howard Hawks. Rather, VAMPIRES seems to take place in the cynical universe of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah’s cold-blooded revisionist westerns. Carpenter has acknowledged his debt to Leone through Snake Plissken’s mimicry of The Man with No Name in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. In the DVD commentary on VAMPIRES, he also notes that the first appearance of Jack Crow is shot as an homage to Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) – one of Carpenter’s favorite films. Vlad’s first appearance, in a sequence that pits him against Jack’s team, is described as “THE WILD BUNCH meets Vlad the Impaler.” Thus I say that if ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and GHOSTS OF MARS are Carpenter’s classic westerns, then VAMPIRES is his spaghetti western. It’s all flashy bravado, sound and fury signifying existential angst."

I have to admit, since I wrote The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland; 2000) back in 1998, I've been itching to go back and revisit Vampires. I don't really think I gave the movie the fairest of hearings in my review at the time. Now, reading Joe's expert analysis, I see that there was more there than I acknowledged. Fascinating stuff.

Monday, June 01, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001)

"I got into this business wanting to make westerns, but they stopped making them - so I figured I had to find something I could do in this profession that was more popular than westerns. And you might not think so, but there are a lot of similarities between westerns and horror movies. They're both about archetypal characters, good and evil. So I adapted."

-
John Carpenter

Today, Hollywood is obsessively remaking John Carpenter’s films at a blazing rate. In fact, much of the auteur’s early career has already been re-tooled and re-imagined, with remakes of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), and the in-production Halloween 2 proving notable examples of the trend.

Similarly, remakes of Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988) have also been announced.

Despite the fact that an unprecedented percentage of Carpenter’s big-screen career (roughly 33% of his output…) has already been exhumed and re-purposed for modern silver-screen consumption, his reputation with modern critics is -- to phrase it politely -- not so good.

In August of 2001, his last theatrical release, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, was met with almost universal critical scorn, and -- even more alarmingly -- an almost casual sense of dismissal.


But very few, if any, of Ghosts of Mars’ myriad detractors paused for even a minute to seriously gaze at the artistic choices underlining the film’s storytelling approach, particularly Carpenter's Godard-esque fracturing of time with the device of the flashback.

Instead, callow reviewers categorized the film as "shoddy,” “lazy” and even one created on “auto-pilot.”

Although Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both awarded John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars two thumbs-up, they were among the few critics -- and in my eyes -- the proud ones, who recognized this unusual and intriguing film for what it was. Instead of reflexively disdaining it for what it simply was not. They reviewed the film; not their own expectations or misperceptions.

So what is it about John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars that irritated so many critics so deeply? And why were contemporary audiences so grievously out of step with Carpenter’s 2001 horror-thriller? In discovering the answers to those questions, we must look back at Carpenter’s film career as a whole, as well as the cinematic influences (or “homages”) underlining Ghosts of Mars. But first, a recap of the film’s plot.

This is About Dominion: It’s Not Their Planet Anymore.

Ghosts of Mars’ narrative commences in the year 2176 AD, on the partially-terra-formed frontier planet Mars. The ruling government is a Matriarchy known as "The Matronage," and said Administration apparently answers to a shadowy business conglomeration called “The Cartel.”

One day, a train -- an ore freighter, number 74 Yankee Trans-Mariner -- barrels through the harsh Martian wasteland into the capitol city of Chryse. The sole person aboard the vehicle is a hand-cuffed Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a veteran police officer with a troubling drug habit. She's addicted to a street narcotic called "Clear."

In her “after action” report to a quorum of the Matronage, Ballard reports on the disposition of her missing team. Under the command of Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), Ballard’s squad -- including rookie Bashira (Clea Du Vall), and boastful male “breeder” Jericho (Jason Statham) -- set out several days earlier for a frontier town called Shining Canyon in the Southern Sector. The team’s assignment was to take into custody the notorious, dangerous and storied criminal, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube).

However, upon arrival in the mining town, the police found virtually all the civilians there sadistically murdered…cut up, disemboweled and strung up. And Williams - the obvious suspect -- was locked safely in a cell the whole time, meaning that he could not have committed the crimes himself.

Another survivor in town was a squirrely scientist named Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy). She had arrived in Shining Canyon following a disaster in another part of the valley. While mining an unexplored mountain, she and several workers discovered a “tomb” locked away deep in a Martian mountainside. By coming into physical contact with the door/seal of the ancient tomb, Whitlock activated some kind of malevolent “hurricane,” actually the “ghosts” or spirits of long dead, warrior Martians. "I opened Pandora's Box, we woke it up" she told Ballard and the other cops.

These mysterious Martian spirits could be carried on the wind and were capable of possessing one human being after another. When one human host died, the ghost inside would simply migrate to another human body, making the aliens virtually unstoppable. The ghosts’ purpose was simple: “vengeance on anything or anything that tries to lay claim” to Mars.

Ballard reports about how Desolation and his criminal associates (Uno, Dos and Tres) joined forces with the surviving police officers to escape from town, which quickly became overrun with homicidal Martian Warriors in (mutilated) human bodies. For a time, Ballard even became possessed by one such alien ghost, but her addiction to tetromonochloride (or “Clear”) actually enabled her to beat back the invasion inside her very body.


Although Ballard, Desolation and several others evacuated safely to the returning train, Melanie soon recognized that the war with the Martians would not simply be contained to one insignificant frontier town. Rather, she realized this war was about “dominion” and so decided with the others to reverse trajectory, and attempt to destroy the Martians by blowing up the town’s nuclear reactor.

During the course of the crisis, Melanie and Desolation Williams developed a rivalry, friendship and sense of admiration for each other’s abilities, a camaraderie that ultimately made their campaign successful, even with heavy casualties.

Now, however, the officials of the Matronage view Ballard’s story with cynicism and suspicion. They order her to rest as they continue to investigate her unbelievable testimony. But before long, a strange, malicious wind blows into the City…
A Scientifically Significant Find: Ghosts of Movies & Genres Past
One important way to judge the caliber of an artist and his body of work is to study how he brings “himself” and his personal set of interests and aesthetics from one cinematic project to the next. If you gaze at all those projects together, you should then be able to ascertain the points of a career ethos, an umbrella of consistency that helps you better understand individual productions.

In Carpenter’s case, one might point to his visual legerdemain: that trademark, slow-moving and elegant camera work which forges a kind of “trance” state that leaves lulled audiences susceptible to foreground jolts and soundtrack stingers. Alternately, you could point to his self-styled, martial sounding, hard-driving musical cues on the soundtrack. In terms of theme, Carpenter's narratives often feature a heightened sense of “male bonding” or camaraderie among ethnically-diverse characters, not to mention a distinct distaste or unease for authority, the status quo, or "The establishment."

These brush strokes help students view Carpenter as a consistent artist with a wide variety of films stretching over four decades. In his case, we also have at least one other possible guide post: the important quote at the top of this very piece. It reminds us that Carpenter deeply admires the Western genre and knowingly brings many elements of that form to each of his films.

Again, a love of old Hollywood Westerns (and also old Hollywood films in general) is neither a surprise nor a revelation, especially considering that Carpenter grew up – not unlike his movie brat brethren (Spielberg, Lucas, Landis, Dante) -- watching the big screen efforts of Howard Hawks, John Ford and John Huston.

But specifically, Carpenter’s much-acknowledged favorite film is 1959’s Rio Bravo, a Western starring John Wayne. Over Carpenter's long career, that Hawks film has served as the specific template or blueprint for no less than three Carpenter films: Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness (1987), and, yes, Ghosts of Mars.

Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, Rio Bravo is an early siege-style film in which a group of heroic characters must work together to repel the equivalent of a hostile invading force. In Rio Bravo, audiences meet the unlikely “heroic” triumvirate of a “sheriff, a barfly” and a cripple.” In order, they are: Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Dude (Dean Martin) – an alcoholic – and an old man, named Stumpy (Walter Brennan).

The face of evil is represented by wealthy Nathan Burdette, whose brother Joe is being incarcerated by the honorable Chance inside the local jail. Burdette proceeds to close down the town so that Chance and his men can’t leave, and -- importantly -- so that no additional law enforcement can get in. Then Burdette sends in hired killers to “prod” Chance into releasing his brother from behind bars. Our three heroes (at least two of them quite untraditional...) work together to combat this siege and defeat Burdette. In the process, they come to understand, admire and depend on one another. Their bond is unbreakable.

Carpenter recreated the central premise of Rio Bravo in Assault on Precinct 13. In that film, it was Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) assuming the John Wayne role of honorable law enforcement official. He was assisted not by a drunk, however, but by a notorious criminal named Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), and a Hawksian woman, a police secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer). In this case, they were protecting an imperiled citizen from a local (and extremely violent...) gang, Street Thunder.
Going into specifics, one can pinpoint how cleverly Carpenter updated the Rio Bravo template from the Old West to the urban, inncer city blight of the1970s exploitation era. The so-called"cut-throat song" of Hawks’ film is transformed into the gang banner or cholo in Assault on Precinct 13. The wagon filled with dynamite that initiates Burdette’s ultimate defeat in Rio Bravo becomes a cast-off acetylene canister in the Carpenter’s film, and so on.

Assault on Precinct 13 even repeats the trademark action moment in Rio Bravo in which Colorado (Ricky Nelson) throws Chance his shotgun as hit men close in for the kill, but only here the quick action is shared by Bishop and Wilson in the under-siege police station.

In Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter creates another heroic troika of equally unlikely origins, and -- once again -- changes the setting, the terrain for the battle. The Old West/Inner City location becomes instead a frontier town on Mars (also replete with a jail building). The heroic Ballard, like Dude before her, must overcome a devastating personal vice (drug addiction, rather than alcoholism), and Desolation Williams is but a future variation of noble crook, Napoleon Wilson (you can even detect the similarity in names there…Williams/Wilson).

Howard Hawks (unofficially) re-made Rio Bravo as El Dorado in 1967 and as Rio Lobo in 1970 and he is championed as an auteur for, among many fine qualities, his sense of consistency. Now Carpenter has also vetted the same Western archetype three times, but modern audiences are so distant from the original Rio Bravo (or original Assault on Precinct 13, for that matter...), that his method, his "homage" is not recognized, let alone championed for the clever alterations and updates he has injected into the longstanding formula.

Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 aren’t the only important antecedents to 2001's Ghosts of Mars. The film also serves as a futuristic, sci-fi version of the 1964 British classic Zulu, which was also a “transplanted” version of the American Western genre (and particularly the sub-genre of the siege.)

Zulu recounted the (true) story of a landmark 1879 battle at "Rorke's Drift" in Africa. Miraculously, 150 British soldiers held out (and survived) a siege by 4,000 Zulu warriors at a small supply depot and hospital. The Zulu attackers in the film were deliberately modeled after the Western genre's (mostly innaccurate) stereotype of Indians as frightening, aggressive savages, ones with vastly different rules of warfare than those of the “civilized” West. Zulu's director, Cy Endfield even had his Zulu extras watch Western films to get down the behavior of Indian marauders in preparation for their attack scenes.

The Martian warriors of Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars clearly perform the same function, and -- like their Zulu or Indian predecessors in film history -- are visually differentiated from the force of the establishment/civilization. The Martians are the savage "uncivilized" attackers, and with their strange body piercings, sharpened teeth and battle paints, they represent an “alien” or unfamiliar aesthetic. More than that, the Martian ghosts represent the indigenous population resisting an Imperialist occupation. Following Ghosts of Mars' release, Peter Jackson's The Two Towers (2002) similarly utilized some of the impressive compositions and ideas of Zulu (as well as the seemingly impossible battle/siege scenario) as the foundation for the Helm's Deep sequence of that fantasy.

Fans of Zulu may find other corollaries between that film's presentation of scoundrel Henry Hook and Ghosts of Mars’ thief, Desolation Williams. Both are rebellious characters (or anti-heroes) who fight successfully against the Establishment...and the enemy.

Also, Zulu opens with the narration of a communique detailing the shocking defeat of a British Outpost in Africa (at Isandhlwana) by the Zulu forces. Melanie Ballard in Ghosts of Mars fulfills the same function in Carpenter's 2001 narrative; her voice-over narration representing the “early” warning of a coming storm on Mars..

In much more general terms, Carpenter has also crafted Ghosts of Mars as a clever homage to the Western format. overall. His film features a primitive frontier town (not the Tech-Noir metropolis of Blade Runner, for example), employs trains and balloons as conveyances, rather than spaceships or hover-crafts, and he arms his police with rifles and pistols…not lasers or light sabers. Basically, Carpenter has “terra-formed” the conventions of one genre to make them fit another, transforming his Martian movie into a pitched battle between futuristic cowboys and extra-terrestrial Indians.

Again, if consistency of purpose and mode of operation represent the trademarks of a talented and committed artist, consider how often Carpenter has appropriated the concepts associated with the Western and nudged them into new (and currently popular) genres. It happened not merely with Assault on Precinct 13 and the form of the 70s exploitation film, but with Vampires (1998) as well, a horror film which opened with a sunlit siege on an abandoned Western farmhouse. That film also gave us another Neo-Rio Bravo group of bantering heroic characters: Jack Crow, Father Guiteau, and the afflicted (by vampirism, not alcoholism…) Montoya. There is also -- no doubt intentionally -- a set-piece set in a jail in Vampires, again recalling Rio Bravo. Even the general settings of Vampires -- brutal deserts and “ghost towns” -- is far more simpatico with Western film tradition than the established conventions of the vampire movie.

On at least one memorable occasion, Carpenter even noted that his Lovecraft-inspired, cerebral horror film, In The Mouth of Madness (1994) was really...a Western. He has spent his career, then, re-purposing the tenets of an old, out-of-fashion form for new, fresh consumption. Any reasonable review of Ghosts of Mars, it seems, would -- by necessity -- judge Carpenter on how well he accomplishes this feat; and on how the film fits into his career tradition.

Finally, in addition to his well-documented love of Westerns (and even transplanted Westerns like Zulu), Carpenter has long been a genre fan, with a particular affection for the British Quatermass film of the 1950s and 1960s (The Creeping Unknown, Enemy from Space and Five Million Years to Earth). In particular, Five Million Years to Earth (1968) dealt with the concept of a Martian psychic force sweeping through London (after a buried rocket was excavated by workers toiling on a new underground subway line.)

These Martians had changed our human evolution (and were responsible for aspects of human mythology...), and they also exerted a strange, malevolent mental power. Of course, that last bit represents the set-up and Nature of the Martian Enemy in Ghosts of Mars as well. Incorporeal spirits of deadly and evil desires, and ones fully capable of possessing the living.
So, what we really have here in Ghosts of Mars is two-fold: it’s a deliberate tribute to the admired films of Carpenter’s youth (most importantly Rio Bravo, Zulu and Five Million Years to Earth), and a consistent continuation of Carpenter’s obsession with Westerns, and with transplanting Western conventions to new genres and new locations.

Damn, Girl! I Like You Already: The Vocabulary of Macho Bonding

One frequent point of contention about Ghosts of Mars involves the film’s stylized dialogue, which has been described by some critics as hackneyed, hopless or corny. But once again, it appears that a little context is necessary for an understanding of the film's modus operandi.

The characters in Ghosts of Mars do indeed boast a special brand of verbal sparring and linguistics, and it is explicitly the macho, virtually "mock-tough" dialogue of Howard Hawks Rio Bravo. In our gritty age of movie naturalism, this approach seems artificial and theatrical to many viewers who are unfamiliar with it. To people who grew up with Westerns in the 1950s, it just seems...natural (and actually, right.)

Melanie Ballard isn’t a slasher movie's “Final Girl” as such, but rather, perhaps, the ultimate evolution of the so-called Hawksian Woman (think Angie Dickinson), a character who “trusts completely her own spontaneous impulses of attraction and repulsion,” (as witnessed in her passionate, unexpected kiss with Jericho and her earlier turn-down of Braddock.) Ballard also boasts a “sense of identity beyond her alliances (with high society) and she is committed only to those personal ties she wishes to acknowledge.” (Tim Bywater, Thomas Sobchack, Introduction to Film Criticism: Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film, Longman, 1989, page 72).

In other words, Ballard’s is nobody’s unquestioning fool: she just doesn’t take orders; she doesn’t obediently side with higher-ups. Instead, she boasts her own (cowboy?) “code,” and she’s not a joiner unless she chooses to be one. As she states to the avaricious Helena, she's as "straight as they come," a line laced with double meaning. She's a rebel (a heterosexual in a predominantly homosexual society), and she's a law enforcement official for her own purposes, not the purposes of her higher ups. She keeps her personal reasons for being a cop close to the vest, a sign of the "personal ties" she apparently has no wish to share.

Many of Carpenter’s films feature the tough, macho-talk associated with Old Hollywood's male-bonding, Western epics. This manner of expression is especially notable in Vampires -- but with updated 90s vulgarity -- between Crow and Guiteau, and in Assault on Precinct 13, where Wilson is given to such grandiose comments as that he was "born out of time!" Here, the same theatrical, slightly-overdramatic style is extended to include -- for the first time in Carpenter lore -- a woman in essentially the John Wayne role.

This style of wordplay also means that Ballard and Desolation share a tough-talking bond that borders on the flirtatious. “I never give my word,” Desolation says. “I never make deals with crooks,” Ballard shoots back. And on and on. It's banter. It's one-up-manship. It's...deliberate.

In the film’s last scene, Desolation notes with admiration that Ballard would make a great criminal, and Ballard responds in kind, saying he’d make a great cop. Then they look at each other and say "Nah!" Again, it’s a kind of duet: two “opposites” circle one another with admiration, having learned to respect each other despite their obvious differences. It’s the same dance step that Bishop and Wilson shared in Assault on Precinct 13, although in that case, the line crossed was not sex-based (male/female) but race-based (black/white).

When confronted with certain death and total apocalypse, Ballard and Desolation intensify their dance, revealing aspects of their personal codes of conduct. Ballard wonders what makes Desolation tick. He answers that if she sticks around, he’ll tell her some day. She wonders when that will be, and Desolation answer “when the tide is high, and the water’s rising…” To some folks, this sort of dialogue may seem cliched, but it's more accurately just old-fashioned, and a reflection of the kind of film Ghosts of Mars seeks to be: a deliberate evocation of the 1950s Hollywood Western. People seemed to like this approach to dialogue just fine in Assault on Precinct 13, but deride it in Ghosts of Mars.

Note too that the characters in Ghosts of Mars are prone to long, extensive monologues about their backgrounds and histories; about the places they came from, and the lessons they learned. “I don’t give a damn about this planet,” says Desolation, “It’s been trying to kill me since the day I was born.” This too is Western-speak. To complain about it or call it corny would be like decrying the Iambic Pentameter of Shakespeare as archaic, or calling the gutter vocabulary of Quentin Tarantino films unnecessary. When in a space western...you talk as though you are in a space western.
Your Rights Are Protected by the Matronage: Women are from Mars and Men are from Venus.

John Carpenter has always been a maverick, one who uses his films to brazenly question authority and "the Establishment."

In They Live, Carpenter revealed Republicans, Yuppies, and even film critics were secret alien invaders. In Vampires, he suggested that the Catholic Church was corrupt, and in league with devilish vampires. In Escape from L.A., Carpenter had his hero, Snake Plissken, plunge the world into total darkness and primitivism because it needed a fresh start after the (lifetime) term of an evangelical Christian president. Even in Halloween, Carpenter didn’t restore order…but let the Boogeyman remain on the loose.

Ghosts of Mars is possessed of a similarly anarchic, anti-authority bent. In the future envisioned by the film, patriarchy is entirely discredited (and remember, the film was made and released shortly after the Clinton Lewinsky scandal and Impeachment Trial). But Carpenter’s argument in this case seems to be that the more things change, the more things actually stay the same. The Matronage is described in unflattering terms as being in thrall to big business (the unseen, mysterious Cartel). And sexual harassment is still a huge concern in 2176, though here it is played out between the arrogant ruling lesbians (like Pam Grier’s character) who can advance the careers of “straights” (like Ballard, and Bashira) if only they submit to sexual demands. It's an Old Girls Club instead of an Old Boy's Club, but the abuse of power remains the same.

Even with women in charge, “the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe” to quote Star Trek IV. Here, the women of the Matronage are so concerned with procedure and their reputations that they are unable to conceive of the grave Martian threat until it is much too late. They have becomeimpotent, unimaginative and foolish, and they will soon be destroyed for their traspasses. Just as Order was overturned in They Live, Escape from L.A., In The Mouth of Madness and other Carpenter films.

Men are clearly the underclass here. Jericho (Statham) is around, apparently only as a sex object. He’s known as a “breeder” and consistently brags about his bedroom abilities throughout the film. In this world, a man has been reduced, essentially, the size of his “dick.” He’s nothing more. At one point, Desolation Williams even notes (without a trace of irony or humor...) that he’s been on the run from The Woman (not The Man) his whole life. In other words, Ghosts of Mars envisions the same minorities existing in the future, but different overlords...and the same discrimination. It’s politically incorrect, perhaps, but again, classic, maverick Carpenter. He doesn’t see humans as “evolving.” The planet may change, the dominant sex may change, but our human nature won’t. This is especially important in a film that pits man and woman against another kind of nature (Martian nature…).

Some critics and audiences felt that the matriarchy aspect of Ghosts of Mars was just thrown in to make the film seem different or unique. On the contrary, it is critical to the film's themes. Without it, Carpenter would not have an Establishment to rail against. The Matronage also exists so Carpenter can contrast "pure" (if evil...) Martian nature and corruptible human nature. The existence of a matriarchy also allows for the ultimate evolution of the Hawksian Woman. Ballard is now -- in this world of dominant females -- able to be a crucial part of the heroic triumvirate or club that in the Old West was limited to male membership.

You Men Love to Exaggerate: The Flashback and the Human Equation

I'm not certain precisely why, but many critics and viewers also seemed to have a terrible time with the fractured narrative flow of Ghosts of Mars. iThe film's story is recounted as a series of progressive flashbacks within flashbacks. Again, the accusation was made that Carpenter's decision to utilize flashbacks was somehow random or unconsidered. Again, it seems to me that no one was giving Carpenter the benefit of the doubt that he deserved.

Consider that Ghosts of Mars concerns, in a very potent way, the differences between two species (Man and Martian). Then consider the ways in which these species are so veru different. One such difference is the fact that as human beings, we must rely on the perspective of others, on eyewitness testimony, on hearsay, on reports, if we hope to grasp the full picture. Because of that fact, humans have the luxury of denial; of discounting that which is unpleasant, or counter to expectations. They can deny the truth because they haven't seen "everything" with their own eyes. Indeed, this is exactly what the Matronage does (and the reason it will lose the war with the single-minded Martians).

The Martians, by contrast, move from body to body with ease and impunity. They are, literally, immortal. When one corporeal host dies, the Martian parasites take another (if necessary spending a period of time "on the wind" between possessions). What this means, essentially, is that there is no such thing as "history." to a Martian. A Martian warrior is a witness to all of history as part of his/her natural life-span. He need not depend on books to tell him of the past, or previous generations to inform him about codes of conduct or laws. The Martian is...eternal.

The flashback story-structure of Ghosts of Mars -- adopting the perspectives of humans Ballard, Braddock, Jericho and Wilson, among others -- makes plain this very important distinction between species. As human beings we live on after death only in the memories of others (which the film obligingly plays out for us...). Again, this is completely unlike Martian nature, because the aliens move from body to body after corporeal death and no cessation.

When Melanie becomes possessed by the Martians, Jericho gives her some "Clear" (the drug she is addicted to...) The chemical substance allows Ballard's mind to stay free (or again, clear...) of Martian influence, and at the same time she is witness to a montage representing the militant history of all of Mars. This is why Ballard ultimately fights back at Shining Canyon: she has seen the superior (and different) nature of the enemy, and realizes that it must be fought now, not later. She was "clear" headed about it.

Listen, I fully realize that John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is not -- by any means -- a highly regarded genre film, but it nonetheless remains one of my personal favorites of recent vintage. I admire it for all the reasons I have enumerated above. I consider it admirably consistent with Carpenter's entire, multi-decade body of work, and it plays well as a variation on his familiar anti-authoritarian themes, as well as his love of the Western form.

Ghosts of Mars also came out the same year as Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001) and shares a great deal in common with that production. Both films concern a failed law enforcement action against a "primitive" but numerically-superior force. Both films concern competing world views, and both films certainly involve a siege of sorts. In fact, Ghosts of Mars may be the ultimate genre film about asymmetrical warfare. Since Martians don't die...they just possess more bodies...it's almost a perfect metaphor for the Iraq War today. One member of the insurgency dies; and another pops up to replace him. These ideas resonate very strongly in today's culture, even if the film came out in the pre-9/11.

On a much simpler level, Carpenter remains a classicist in terms of visuals, and I appreciate that. He is an expert at staging action, and he never once in Ghosts of Mars resorts to shaky cams, offensive lens flares (the critique du jour, apparently...), or quick cuts to cloak his stunts. In this film, we always have a clear sense of where we are, the geography of the battlefield, and the combatants involved. Without resorting to the cheap tricks of the trade, Carpenter manages to make his film exciting, tense and, in the end, rather spectacular.

Many critics seemed to walk in to John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars totally unprepared, without any knowledge of the filmmaker's history or predilections as a filmmaker. Some even called the movie a rip-off of Pitch Black (2000), when it is abundantly clear that the movie's antecedents have precious little to do with that (admirable) modern film and a helluva lot more to do with Carpenter's own background (and tradition of making anti-hero criminals his protagonists). The general perception of critics seemed to be that John Carpenter was just doing the same old thing, and that, for some reason, he needed to do something completely new.

Imagine -- just imagine -- if critics had greeted Martin Scorsese's latest gangster picture, The Departed (2007) that way (following Mean Streets, Good Fellas, Casino, etc.). Or if they had Tarantino's welcomed third crime picture (Jackie Brown) in such a fashion. Nobody comes out of those films and says, "Marty, Quentin break with your entire multi-decade history as a filmmaker and give me something..totally different. I'm bored of, you know, the stuff you like."

I'm not trying to be petulant here, but the savage reviews of Ghosts of Mars suggest that's exactly what critics expected of John Carpenter. They wanted him to make a movie as if though he were a different human being altogether, and as though he had no history, no track record, and no background as a filmmaker. He should have just abandoned all of his influences, and you know, not ripped off Pitch Black. I don't think it would bother me so much if the reviews didn't tend to be so dismissive of Carpenter as an artist, and of his entire career (one critic even called his "good" movies "half-accidents.")

I'm tempted to say the critics were possessed by Martians in this case, but I'm clearly in the minority in appreciating this picture. So maybe I'm the Martian...

There, I said it. I grok John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

What I'm Reading Now: The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1981)


"We are not aware of our own folklore any more than we are aware of the grammatical rules of our language. When we follow the ancient practice of informally transmitting "lore" - wisdom, knowledge, or accepted modes of behavior - by word of mouth and customary example from person to person, we do not concentrate on the form or content of our folklore; instead, we simply listen to information that others tell us and then pass it on - more or less accurately - to other listeners."

-Jan Harold Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker (W.W. Norton & Company, 1981, page 1).