Saturday, June 27, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 81: Monster Squad (1976)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vote Now in the 2009 Portal Awards!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes Mysteries Don’t Get Solved

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2009

Radiator Heaven Remembers Carpenter's They Live (1988)

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

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

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

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

Airlock Alpha Hails Web Sites and Series

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

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

Of The House Between he writes:

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

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

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