Saturday, September 05, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

"You will never forget Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot," blared the trailers to this 1975 Amicus film starring Doug McClure.

And you know what?

The advertisements were truthful. I first saw The Land That Time Forgot in theaters in 1975 -- when I was only five years old -- and I have never, ever forgotten the adventurous Kevin Connor film.

In fact, I affectionately count this disco decade "lost world" production as one of my key, youthful "gateway" productions (like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea [1954], The Golden Voyage of Sinbad [1974], Land of the Lost [1974-1976], Logan's Run [1976] and Space: 1999 [1975-1977]).

What I mean by that "gateway" descriptor is this: a love and enjoyment of these particular visual productions led me to learn more about the genre and to explore science fiction, fantasy and horror in literature, in comics, in film, and on television.

The Land That Time Forgot
, for instance, ignited my life-long love affair with the works of Burroughs and fed my fascination with all-things dinosaur and submarine-related. I was inspired to reflect upon all this childhood stuff by a good post on the subject from B-Sol at Facebook a couple of weeks ago or so (yes; that's how far behind I am at checking my Facebook account...)

Over the years I have returned frequently to The Land That Time Forgot from the perspective of nostalgia. The film was something I enjoyed watching as a child, and so it holds a safe, cherished place in my heart.

However, that fact doesn't mean that the film is actually childish or lacking in quality, like, for instance, the wretched Dinosaurus! (1960), a film I enjoyed as a child but ultimately outgrew upon adult re-viewing. I guess what I'm trying to say is that some movies hold up over time...and some don't, and I'm not so blinded by nostalgia that I can't detect the difference.

And after I watched The Land That Time Forgot again last night for the first time in a few years, I realized that, for the most part, this modestly-budgeted film still holds up really well as solid fantasy entertainment.

Although The Land That Time Forgot's aged dinosaur effects -- accomplished with rubbery puppets -- may appear horribly primitive by today's CGI post-Jurassic Park standards, this 1970s film still boasts a surfeit of impressive qualities, particularly a most welcome sense of wonder. In an age in which our movie blockbusters pummel, bruise and batter us with sound and fury, but not much imagination and wonder, that's no small accomplishment, to be certain.

More than that, The Land That Time Forgot has been shot (by the legendary Alan Hume) and assembled by Connor in more than your typical workman-like fashion. Some of the meticulous composite shots are actually pretty gorgeous, not to mention impactful. Many of the miniatures, produced by Derek Medding, are also convincing...though some shots are notably less effective than others.

Learn the Secret of Evolution

Based on the 1918 book by Edgar Rice Burroughs and adapted for the screen by a young Michael Moorcock, The Land That Time Forgot begins in portentous, enigmatic fashion. The first shot is of a small object -- a thermos -- careening over the side of a high, craggy cliff...and landing in a turbulent, cresting sea.

A montage of views of the rough ocean follow, until the wayward canister arrives at a small fishing community. and an old sailor retrieves it. Inside is a wrinkled, aged manuscript, written by a marooned American, Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure).

Narrated in voice-over -- and commencing with the words "I do not expect anyone to believe the story I am about to relate" -- Tyler's manuscript describes the strange events of June 3, 1916, when German U-Boat-33 torpedoed a British merchant ship, the Montrose on the high sea.

Tyler, a beautiful biologist named Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon), and several crew-members of the British ship survived the attack and managed to commandeer the attacking sub. After several pitched battles between opposing, loyal crews, however, a tender peace was forged with the reasonable U-Boat captain Von Schoenvorts (John McEnery) when it was learned that the ship -- headed due south -- had become irrevocably lost after six days in uncharted waters.

With fuel and supplies low, the submarine happened into a frozen sea. There, it came upon a forbidding, undiscovered continent named Caprona after an explorer who, in 1721, had first spotted it its jagged cliffs. At Tyler's instructions, the sub sailed inland through a subterranean river passage, only to surface in the lagoon of a prehistoric terrain...a world of dinosaurs, volcanoes and lush vegetation.

During the course of his stay there, Tyler learned from Lisa and Von Shoenvorts that the continent was populated not just by prehistoric beasts, but by creatures "at every stage of evolutionary development" including Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man (called "Galu").

Tyler and his associates -- for whom the "war in Europe" had now been rendered meaningless -- then braved tyrannosaur attacks, ambushes by cave-man, quick- sand pits and other threats on Caprona before a volcanic eruption that ultimately destroyed the sub and left all but Tyler and Liz dead. The survivors were left to -- much like evolution on Caprona -- "move ever forward;" to explore the island, and if possible, share their miraculous story with the faraway world of 20th century man...

We Must All Work Together

The Land That Time Forgot's inaugural act is -- in many criticals ways -- the film's tightest and most impressively drawn. After the sinking of the British ship in a misty sea, Germans, Brits and Americans are confined to the claustrophobic confines of U-33, and pitted against one another. There's one battle on the deck of the sub, in particularly, which is expertly shot and well-edited.

Connor's camera is deliberately shaky and immediacy-provoking without proving so jerky that the motion hides the action choreography (the case with much of the hand-held work/quick cuts vetted in today's blockbusters). The film's characters -- looking authentically grimy, exhausted and weary -- plot against one another until faced with a common threat that unites them: starvation and death. The impressive and atmospheric live-action submarine scenes that open the picture were shot on H. Stage at Shepperton Studios over a span of a week, and they nicely set up the isolation of the crews..the hunger for landfall and the feel of terra firma.

In some sense, The Land That Time Forgot is also distinctively anti-war in nature, since the British, American and Germans decide to leave behind petty concerns about territory and work together in unison for the common good. This was an idea which had special resonance in 1918 when Burroughs wrote the story, and also highly relevant in 1975...the final year of America's involvement in Vietnam. Together, the "evolved" men of the 20th century combine here --among other qualities -- "German metaphysics" and "British empiricism" in the service of learning about the wonders of Caprona.

Indeed, one of the film's explicit plot threads involves the fact that life in Caprona is constantly evolving, moving forward. As Tyler puts it simply "You cannot go back to the beginning." When a villainous German officer, Dietz (Anthony Ainley) attempts to do just that by reviving the old national feuds, the result is total destruction and annihilation for the warring parties. War belongs in the past, with the dinosaurs, the film seems to suggest, at least implicitly.

The Land That Time Forgot's second act is also strong and direct, focused on the discoveries and dangers of the undiscovered continent and the strange life-forms inhabiting it. Many of the film's most impressive special effects are featured in this portion of the action, particularly some beautiful blending of fantasy matte-paintings with the live-action.

Director Kevin Connor told me in an interview for Filmfax (No. 117, April/June 2008, page 56) that the idea of "shooting on Vista-Vision plates for rear projection was fairly new" at the time of The Land That Time Forgot and that the production shot "all the monster plates over two weeks before main shooting." The approach was, in his words, "a combination of live action and hand puppets."

It's only in the film's cataclysmic, explosive third act climax -- with one threat looming after another -- that Connor's sturdy film tends to appear less than entirely impressive. The careful characterization and plot development give way, inevitably, to fisticuffs, battles and (admittedly-impressive) on-set pyrotechnics. The result is that some level of intimacy is sacrificed, especially as the cool-headed, affable Van Schoenvarts character is relegated to the background. There's just something anti-climactic about this span in the movie (though, as a kid, I loved the action and fireworks...).

This lapse in tone is rectified, however, by the elegiac and picturesque book-end finale (shot on the Island of Skye by Peter Alliwork, an aerial camera man). These moments finds lonely survivors Taylor and Clayton in the frozen north of Caprona, tossing the thermos canister (and manuscript) into the cleansing sea, saying their goodbyes to civilization and the possibility of rescue.

What I took away from The Land That Time Forgot as a child was the thrill of exploring a new and dangerous land...the prehistoric world of the pterodactyl, the diplodocus and the tyrannosaur. As an adult, the film's themes about moving "ever forward" -- away from a history of bloodshed, ignorance and war -- really crystallized for me. On the island of Caprona, World War I era man -- with all his flaws and foibles -- was just one evolutionary step beyond the Neanderthals and the Galu, and not as entirely evolved as man could (and can yet...) be.

In 1975, The Land That Time Forgot proved an unexpected box office hit, and was followed promptly by the Burroughs film At The Earth's Core (1976) -- also starring McClure and directed by Connor -- as well as the (disappointing) direct sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1977). By the time of People, of course, the pop culture had moved on from lost worlds, dinosaurs and the Vietnam conflict, and a small film called Star Wars came to dominate the national imagination. "Our distributors didn't want to spend any large amounts promoting the film, and neither did the backers want to go into huge-budget pictures," Kevin Connor told me about his time adapting Burroughs. "They said there was no money in kids' films! How wrong they were..."

Even with a low-budget and some dated effects, this initial Amicus fantasy outing deserves to be much more than the movie that time forgot. Our pop culture has evolved significantly since The Land That Time Forgot, I suppose, but in this case, "going back" to the prehistoric past is an option I recommend wholeheartedly.

Friday, September 04, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mission: Impossible (1996)

Created by the late Bruce Geller, the TV series Mission: Impossible ran for seven high-rated seasons -- from 1966 - 1973 -- and was followed by a sequel series of the same title that ran for two years, beginning in 1988.

Each TV iteration of the espionage series depicted the top-secret and dangerous activities of the American IMF (Impossible Missions Force) Team as it brought low bad guys foreign and domestic utilizing a combination of high-tech and low-tech trickery.

Gun play was rarely involved in the series, and instead the IMF agents often waged a kind of psychological warfare against enemies in order to make the evil doers bring themselves to ruin. All told, star Peter Graves played IMF team leader Jim Phelps in a whopping 178 hour-long episodes (accounting for both series).

Director Brian De Palma came to the Mission: Impossible franchise in the 1990s after he had successfully revived another classic TV series at the box office, 1987's The Untouchables.

In many ways, the Geller 1960s creation was a perfect property for a director who believes that "the camera lies 24 times a second," since that axiom is the underlying essence of Mission: Impossible: the "lie" committed against the villain that makes him believe something false. That lie may involve a prosthetic mask that cloaks the identity of an IMF agent, or that lie may involve a camera broadcasting images that are believed to be real (like the death of an operative...), but which, are, in fact, lies. Our perception of reality -- according to De Palma and the IMF force -- can be manipulated by the dedicated (and cunning) use of technical inventions.

And for the tech-obsessed De Palma -- who in his youth had won a science fair prize for a project titled "An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations" -- the focus in Mission: Impossible on gimmicks, devices and high-tech toys (like cameras embedded in eye glasses and TV screens on wristwatches...) also appeared a perfect fit.

"My Team is Gone!" -- TV Series vs. Film Series

Where the new Mission: Impossible film of the Clinton Era diverges most dramatically from the TV series heritage is in the nature of the protagonists. The series universally featured a team of IMF operatives, each one flawlessly and emotionlessly fulfilling a designated role in a large, complex plot.

But because box office sensation Tom Cruise was attached to star in the new movie, the updated Brian De Palma Mission: Impossible was designed instead as a star vehicle. That means one man at the forefront of the action...not an ensemble piece, like the original. Cruise's new character, Ethan Hunt, survives the massacre of the team in the film's dynamic first act and then spends the bulk of the narrative working on an unofficial mission to clear his name from the "disavowed" list.

This deliberate change in focus riled some long-time fans of the classic series (as well as the former stars...) because Mission: Impossible had always concerned cooperation and team work; the sublimation of the personal for the greater cause or mission. Indeed, on the TV series, audiences knew virtually nothing of the characters' lives outside of the job. Emotions, personal connections, even humanity itself were downplayed and the "con" was everything. As producer Herb Solow described Mission: Impossible in Patrick J. White's excellent The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier (Avon, 1991 pages 10 and 11): "The story was always what pushed the program forward, not the characters."

When I interviewed original series star Martin Landau (Rollin Hand) for Cinescape in 2000 (November/December, Volume 6, Number 8, page 79, ) he was not particularly enamored with the re-direction of the continuing film series (particular after John Woo's MI:2). "The TV show was about a team getting in and out and no one ever knowing it was there," he reminds us. "They've turned it into an action-adventure with fireballs and chases...It's Mission: Impossible in name only."

Another reason the new film adaptation angered some longtime fans of the popular series: Jim Phelps (here played by a pre-dementia Jon Voight...) is actually the film's villain, not the hero. Original star Peter Graves had been offered the opportunity to resurrect the beloved character, but turned it down rather than participate in a film that would see the character transformed into a disloyal mercenary and, ultimately, killed while conducting an illicit, personal mission.

The other original team members, including Landau, were offered a chance to participate in the film too, and -- down to the very last actor (Emmy winner Barbara Bain, Greg Morris, and Peter Lupus) -- they all turned it down. "They wanted the old team in the first movie..to kill 'em off," Oscar-winner Landau reported, and he was all too-glad not to accept that particular mission. "I said, 'no way.' Rollin Hand will live on in reruns."

Despite this controversy, the 1996 Mission: Impossible film remains one of De Palma's mainstream blockbuster masterpieces. It was the third-highest grossing film of 1996, and the highest-grossing film of De Palma's career. It is true that the thrust of the movie version of Mission: Impossible is quite different from the predecessor series (featuring an individual James Bond-style hero rather than a team effort...), and it is also true that Jim Phelps is featured as a double-agent/villain. And yet -- to some extent -- that latter development serves its purpose well in De Palma's snake-like narrative: proving itself the king of all surprise twists.

I submit that this climactic twist would have worked even better had Graves returned to the TV role he originated...because then nobody at all would have seen the villainous turn coming. I am sympathetic to the fans who decry the transformation of the property into a Tom Cruise vehicle, but in the case of the first Mission: Impossible, it is difficult to deny that the film is a thrilling, kinetic, invigorating experience, regardless of the perceived fidelity to the TV source material.

And -- after 178 "missions" in two TV series -- you might even wish to commend De Palma (and his writers, Steve Zaillian, Robert Towne and David Koepp) for featuring something the audience had never seen before: "IMF blow back." Here -- for the first time -- we see a mission go disastrously, catastrophically, irrevocably off-track and desperate agents forced to improvise on the spot, under fire and in constant life-threatening dangers. Perhaps that's not the core principle of the long-standing Mission: Impossible franchise, but as a one-off adventure, it's an intriguing tale. I can defend the artistic integrity of M:I as a film -- and as a De Palma film -- till the cows come home. I just don't know if I can do the same for MI:2 or MI:3 which have -- essentially -- become James Bond films on (Tom) Cruise control.

Homage, McGuffins and Lies: Avowing The De Palma Touches

One of the qualities I most admire in Brian De Palma is his unswerving ability to enliven material not his own (such as The Untouchables or Mission: Impossible) with his unique and individual film sensibilities.

Thus, even so-called "paycheck" films (a term I rather like, coined by my friend and colleague, J.D. at the great film review blog, RADIATOR HEAVEN...), are valuable when discussed in light of De Palma's overall career and history. In other words, no matter the subject matter, De Palma brings his own sense of artistry and taste to a project. You can never watch one of his films and mistake it as belonging to anyone else.

In Mission: Impossible, we get another classic, familiar De Palma touch: the tribute or homage. First off,
Mission: Impossible pays tribute to one of De Palma's enduring inspirations: Alfred Hitchcock. Much of the hullabaloo in the film involves something called "The NOC List." In short, this list of clandestine American operatives -- which seems to change hands frequently -- serves as a modern variation on Hitchcock's favorite thriller device, the McGuffin (a plot element that drives a narrative in terms of structure, and is generic enough for easy, quick comprehension). In Mission: Impossible, everybody wants the NOC List, everybody is obsessed with the NOC List, and it is the raison d'etre for each character's behavior and misbehavior.

Another object of homage here is clearly the film canon and stylistic conceits of filmmaker Jules Dassin, who directed two of the all-time great heist films, Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964). Indeed, the trademark "black vault" heist in Mission: Impossible has been described as a direct updating of the scene in Topkapi involving the theft of an emerald dagger in a glass case. And the exquisite, meticulous attention to detail during the course of the central crime in Rififi (a film that eschewed sound, music and dialogue for a focus on the details of a jewel heist) is also mirrored in De Palma's exhaustive direction of the film's three impossible missions (in Kiev, in Langley, and in London, respectively). Ironically, it was these two films (Topkapi and Rififi) that reputedly inspired Bruce Geller to create Mission: Impossible in the first place.

More important than either of these two tributes, however, is De Palma's return to his common thesis that the camera lies 24 times a second. In Mission: Impossible, the duplicitous Jim Phelps secretly runs a mission op within a mission op, so-to-speak, in Kiev. His operatives are running one mission; and Phelps is actually working against them, right under their noses. But the camera lies about this fact: we don't see Phelps' hands in-frame as he operates the computer that sends IMF agent Jack (Emilio Estevez) to his death in an elevator shaft. We don't see Phelps douse himself in stage blood before his eye-glass-mounted camera registers a shot of his bloody hands, fumbling at an apparent gunshot wound near his abdomen. Instead, we see Phelps apparently get shot by an independent assailant (on Ethan's wristwatch screen...) and then -- in master shot -- he fall offs a bridge into a river (a death that forecasts a similar scene in De Palma's Femme Fatale).

Next, during a splendid, third-act sequence involving Hunt and Phelps, we get the truth for the first time, or at least one possible version of the truth. We see the images of Phelp's nefarious activities -- depicted as Hunt's thoughts; his unvoiced suspicions. On this pass of the events, we see Phelps operating the computer to murderous effect. This time, we see him "act out" his own death for the glasses-camera (and Ethan's benefit). Meanwhile, in the dialogue itself, Phelps lies to us again about what actually occurred and who might be behind it. He fingers IMF supervisor, Kittredge (Henry Czerny)

In another brilliantly vetted moment, Hunt even "re-thinks" the moment that one agent's car was destroyed, first imagining Claire (Phelp's wife) detonating the bomb; and then -- in more palatablefashion -- imagining Phelps doing the deed himself. In this case, we never know the exact truth. This is in keeping with the ambiguous characterization of Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), who is either -- in another typical De Palma move -- a Madonna or a whore.


The Mount Everest of Hacks, (Or a Simple Game For Four Players...): The Black Vault Sequence

The Langley interlude in Mission: Impossible, or the so-called "Black Vault Sequence," remains so accomplished, so tense, so remembered that it has emerged, perhaps, as the most parodied scene in mainstream movies over the last decade.

Basically, this harrowing scene involves four operatives breaking into CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia. Their mission: to download the NOC List from a small chamber called The Black Vault.

First, De Palma lays out the specifics of the difficult operation, showing the audience all the relevant information while Hunt describes it in voice over. For instance, we learn that the console is a standalone mainframe...which means that the expert hacker Luther (Ving Rhames) can't access it from outside. Furthermore, the security checks (voice-print ID, 6-digit access code, retinal scan, and intrusion counter-measure key cards...) prevent conventional access.

Therefore, Hunt, "our point man," must enter the vault through the ceiling, positioned some 30-feet above the console. But the vault itself is wired with counter-measures to prevent just such an invasion. The room is sound sensitive, meaning that if the sound goes up even a few decibels, an alarm will be tripped. A sensor also registers body heat, meaning that if heat rises in the room just a single degree -- again -- the alarm is tripped. And finally, the floors are pressure sensitive, and if they are tripped by any additional weight at all, an "automatic lock down" is initiated.

That's the mountain to climb, and in the film's second act, subtitled "Langley," Hunt and his team broach the impossible mission of accessing the Black Vault console. Hunt is lowered via harness, upside down, through a ceiling vent (initially protected by lasers...), wearing his camera/eye-glasses.

And then, once he's inside, De Palma puts the screws to him and to us. The console operator, William Donloe, for instance, interrupts Hunt in the vault, and the agent is forced to dangle just feet over his head. Donloe need to glance upwards but once, and the mission fails. Importantly, De Palma positions Hunt and Donloe in the same shot to cycle up the anxiety factor: the close-proximity between men becomes plain (and terrifying) as they share space within the same frame.

Secondly, a rat (first viewed in a rack focus, distracting our attention), enters the vent shaft and causes Jean Reno's character to lose a grip on Hunt's harness. Accordingly, Hunt plummets downward and nearly smashes into the pressure-sensitive floor. Hunt then swings uselessly and impotently, trying to maintain equilibrium (an act revealed in long shot, so we can note his spatial relationship to the dangerous floor). And then, in close-up, we see a single, glistening drop of sweat fall down across Hunt's harried face. We trace it down his eye glasses, and down towards the floor....

At the last second, Hunt catches the drop in his open palm...

The punch-line is a humdinger. As a successful Hunt climbs out of the vault, with Reno's help...a knife falls down (in agonizing slow-motion) towards the pressure-sensitive floor below. Miraculously (and humorously) it lands on the console, point down...avoiding immediate detection. At least until Donloe re-enters the room. This is a perfect example of De Palma's wicked sense of humor, the knife functioning as a kind of unintentional "flag" planting by Hunt and his team in the conquered territory.

All throughout this sequence, De Palma utilizes the Dassin motif as seen in Rififi, minimizing dialogue, music and sound effects to great impact. The idea is that the movie -- like the audience itself - is virtually holding its breath throughout the Black Vault Sequence, focusing on the details of the operations with a singular sense of focus, and nail-biting.

The Black Vault Sequence is superlative film style, the trademark De Palma set-piece we have come to expect and cherish in his films (and the climactic equivalent, essentially, to the Odessa Steps scene in The Untouchables). Every shot, every camera move -- every technical parry and every thrust -- is perfectly calibrated to play the audience like a piano.

I had not seen Mission: Impossible in thirteen years before screening it again last night, and I must admit, it was a much stronger, cleverer, and witty film than I recalled from my single theatrical viewing in 1996. De Palma gives us three distinctive impossible missions here, makes clever use of technology and gadgets, and admirable downplays conventional violence (such as gun battles) in the same fashion as the classic series did. Indeed, watching De Palma's tale of a rogue, "disavowed" agent trying to clear his name and outwit his own intelligence superiors reminded me a great deal of the popular Bourne films. It makes you wonder if this movie was somehow a template or inspiration for those (great) movies.

Although fans may certainly feel justified in quibbling over the fact that their beloved series was handed over lock-stock-and-barrel to action-star Cruise, for Brian De Palma Mission: Impossible is Mission Accomplished. No need to disavow the film -- or the director for that matter -- for a job capably and stylishly done.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #90: One Step Beyond: "Night of April 14" (1959)

“What you are about to see is a matter of human record. Explain it? We cannot. Disprove it? We cannot. We simply invite you to explore with us the amazing world of the unknown, to take that One Step Beyond…”

- Host John Newland’s introduction to Alcoa Presents, or One Step Beyond (1959-1961)

In just a matter of days, CBS will unveil the official DVD release, One Step Beyond: The Complete First Season. Surprisingly -- especially for a series of this vintage -- this upcoming release represents the first time in history that One Step Beyond has been given such treatment. In the past, this beloved paranormal anthology of the Golden Age (which was broadcast starting ten months before The Twilight Zone...) has languished in the public domain…and all previous DVD releases have been, well, scatter shot in terms of visual and sound quality.

But no more.

These fifty-year old episodes of One Step Beyond have been lovingly, painstakingly, re-mastered by CBS. Additionally, the DVD release features original episode trailers and an alternate version of the series’ pilot, "The Bride Possessed."

So today, given the occasion of the new release, I want to celebrate One Step Beyond’s long-awaited return to the pop-culture by gazing back at one episode; an exemplary half-hour installment that strongly exemplifies the spooky program’s central claim. Specifically, that many of the paranormal incidents dramatized in various episodes were actually based on “fact.”

In this case, “fact” might loosely be interpreted to mean documented reports, eyewitness testimony or even an unswerving fidelity to the paranormal literature/research of the day. As the late John Newland told me during an extensive phone interview in 1999, all the episodes had to feature proof, either anecdotal or documented. A technical adviser, Ivan Klapper, was also retained on the program to assure accuracy.

The episode I like to point to in this matter is titled “Night of April 14,” written by Collier Young and directed by John Newland. You’ll find this one on the upcoming First Season release too, and it concerns a young couple that books a honeymoon trip on the maiden voyage of the Titanic in April of 1912.


Leading up to the sea journey, the bride-to-be, Grace (Barbara Lord) dreams of drowning in icy water. Ultimately, she survives the sinking, but her husband (played by a very young Patrick Macnee) dies in the turbulent seas. Also, "Night of April 14" involves examples of precognitive or psychic awareness of the Titanic’s sinking around the globe. For instance, a Methodist minister in Canada reportedly changed his hymn of the evening of 04/14/12 to "Pray for Those in Peril on The Sea" after a vision of the incident. Also, a magazine cartoonist sketched specifics of the Titanic disaster well before the news of the disaster came.

Airing originally on January 27, 1959, the black-and-white “Night of April 14” remains creepy as hell today because it ends with a real kicker. Host John Newland approaches the camera with that trademark, cat-ate-the-canary grin and speaks of a book, a “novel" written in 1898 (14 years before the Titanic disaster...). Our "guide to the world of the unknown" then claims that this book -- this work of fiction -- accurately predicted many specifics about the 1912 disaster.

When I wrote An Analytical Guide to TV’s One Step Beyond in 1999, I knew that this story was a turning point of sorts. If I could find that book and verify Newland’s claims, then the show's argument that it was based on “fact” was at least plausible. On the other hand, if the prophetic novel was but a calculated fiction created for One Step Beyond, then I knew that any claim of veracity was likely to be bunk.

Well, the book existed (and is still extant), and I've written about it on the blog before (in relation to The Lone Gunmen, I believe.). The novel is titled Futility and it was written by a novelist named Morgan Robertson. Futility’s plot concerns the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner ever built. On an April night – in the story – this fictitious vessel (described in the text by the adjective “unsinkable”) strikes an iceberg and – because there are not enough lifeboats aboard – over one thousand passengers die in freezing waters.

The name of the ocean liner in Futility is…Titan. In fiction, the Titan could travel 25 knots; the same speed as the real Titanic. In fiction, the Titan was 70,000 tons to Titanic's 66,000 tons. But the big similarities are plain: a disaster on an April night, an "unsinkable" ship, the striking of an iceberg...and over 1,000 casualties. Plus the similarity in vessel names. One or two such similarities you could easily write off as coincidence...but the exact month of the incident? The ship's top speed? The reason for the huge number of casualties? To turn a phrase, it boggles the mind...

Watching John Newland describe (accurately) the book Futility and the novelist's accurate prediction of the Titanic disaster (to the moody strains of Harry Lubin's atmospheric score..), you'll get a serious case of the creeps. My research, I should also point out, verified other aspects of "Night of April 14," particularly those claims of a "psychic web" around the tragedy. A professor at the University of Virginia, for instance, collected nineteen documented reports about the Titanic sinking. Six were of the precognitive variety, like the one experienced by the heroine, Grace, in "Night of April 14." One report involved a crew member on Titanic who fled the ship because of persistent dreams of drowning.

The remarkable thing about One Step Beyond is that "Night of April 14" is not alone in attempting to accurately dramatize reports of paranormal incidents. "The Day The World Wept: The Lincoln Story" gazed at President Lincoln's recurring visions of his own demise while in the White House. "Where Are They?" involved a strange story about rocks falling from the same sky -- every day at the same time -- in the city of Chico, California. The events were reported in the San Francisco Examiner in March of 1922, and so on.

I'm a confirmed skeptic. I don't much care for Ronald Reagan, but I am often reminded of his warning about dealing with the Russians: "Trust, but Verify." That's sort of how I feel about the paranormal (and indeed, about God). Yet I find these spooky old campfire tales (many with corroboration from percipients...) positively tantalizing. Perhaps that's because One Step Beyond always featured great acting, atmospheric direction, moody black-and-white photography and that haunting Lubin score. The series sweeps you away in these strange visions and the proof it offers up (usually in the closing narration....) is just enough to give you pause; to trouble your peaceful slumber.

So if you're in the mood for some spine-tingling strangeness from the Golden Age of Television, check out One Step Beyond, available on DVD in September for the first time ever. I hope you'll purchase the set, especially so we can get season two and season three released in the months to come. Because -- if you didn't know -- the third season includes the notorious "documentary" episode entitled "The Sacred Mushroom" in which host Newland samples peyote while the camera rolls. You just have to see that episode to believe it...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

One More Time: Biggest Month Ever!

Dear Readers:

Here at Reflections on Film and Television, August was our biggest month ever. In fact, we topped the previous "best" month by over two-thousand additional visitors. The upshot is this: the blog is now on the path to topping 2008's yearly readership well before the end of September. In 2009, we've already surpassed the yearly readership for 2007. Wow.

So, my humble and sincere thanks for continuing to stop by and checking out my thoughts on film and television. Currently, I'm in the midst of a re-organization/move and setting up a new office, but I will return to blogging on Wednesday (when my Internet connection is hooked up). I hope to get back up to five or six posts a week once this huge re-organization is behind me. I appreciate your patience.

And look forward to this Friday, when our De Palma study will pick up with a review of Mission: Impossible (1996).

Thanks again, and see you tomorrow,

JKM