Saturday, September 12, 2009

TV REVIEW: The Vampire Diaries:"Pilot" (2009)


"It's important to stay away from fads," one smoldering vampire brother, Damon (Ian Somerholder) warns his equally-smoldering, vampire sibling, Stefan (Paul Wesley), in the top-rated premiere of the CW's The Vampire Diaries.

That also happens to be good advice for the writers behind this fledgling series...

While allegedly based on several young adult novels by L.J. Smith (originally published in 1991 and 1992), this new TV initiative brazenly attempts to suck the teeny-bopper life-force right out of Twilight's beating, undead heart.

Let's see: we've got your ancient vampire male/troubled-teen-girl love affair here. We've got your bad vampire element in the small, parochial town of Mystic Falls, making things tough for nice, God-fearing, James-Dean-looking vamps. We've even got your mawkish sentimentality and high school tropes. Sound familiar?

Painfully earnest, agonizingly derivative, tortuously superficial, The Vampire Diaries, at least in the pilot episode, is literally Twi-Lite. It exists not because of some grassroots, urgent fan desire to see the nineties novels adapted for the small screen, but because romantic vampires are in vogue right now. Because, as Damon would say, there's a "fad." But let's take his advice and beware of that fad, okay?

Not to go off on a tangent here, but I should probably state for the record that I don't hate Twilight.

Yet -- I should also explain -- I don't hate Twilight in the same way that Robert De Niro didn't hate Juliette Lewis's character in Cape Fear (1991), if you catch my drift. That lack of animosity doesn't mean Twilight shouldn't be taught a few hard lessons (mainly in genre history...), you know?

I didn't judge the first Twilight movie to be particularly good, let alone original. Overall, I would generously rate it about a "C." I've seen worse, and I've seen better. Transformers was worse, by comparison. The Spirit was worse. Hell, the remake of Friday the 13th was worse. I am not at all despondent about a sequel to Twilight because I do believe the cast was promising; and that there was, undeniably, room for improvement. A good Twilight movie could still be made, theoretically.

Furthermore, I am genuinely delighted that the Twilight books are so wildly successful, and that a younger generation is reading them with avarice and devotion. Exposure to popular fiction like Twilight will inevitably lead these same teens to other books; other literature. Just as -- for many in my generation -- Star Wars (which some older fans also criticized as painfully derivative and juvenile...) led us to an appreciation of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and other science-fiction authors. So if the Twilight franchise gets even one teenager hooked on the reading habit, I judge it a net positive. There's nothing wrong with appreciating romance novels for themselves, either, if that's your bag.

Frankly, I don't see a reason to look down my nose at Twilight fans any more than I would look down my nose at fans of Dark Shadows. Twilight is merely the latest version of an oft-told tale: the vampire/human soap opera (also dramatized in 1996's Fox TV series, Kindred: The Embraced). And apparently this tale speaks powerfully to the up-and-coming generation. I could speculate why. Teens today have lived their lives in the shadow of 9/11; of violence and terror and death as constant backdrop. The literary/celluloid vampire, Edward Cullen, also exists in a world of perpetual violence...but manages to go on, to deny the violence that is part-and-parcel of his nature...and seek happiness. Our society is also rapidly accepting gay marriage, assimilating millions of new immigrants, and coming to a new social compact about the role of government in our daily lives, in our health, in our economy. A (reformed) vampire -- the outside "foreigner" -- represents that alternative life-style, the unknown, peaceably integrating into the traditional American way of life.


I suppose older horror fans are upset over Twilight because now a lot of studio money is going into knock-off Twilight productions like The Vampire Diaries instead of more original ventures. Of course, it's highly debatable whether crappy teenage vampire movies are any worse, in toto, than crappy remakes of American and Japanese horror films (or 3-D horror films...). To those negatively obsessed with Bella's story, I can offer only this comfort: Twilight too shall pass.

Why? Because for a film, book series or TV series to really earn the (relative) immortality of a James Bond, Star Wars or even Harry Potter, it must speak, at least a little, to more than one generation at a time. I mean, I can see executives scoffing and making excuses for this new CW series, pointing out that some almost-forty year old guy like me isn't exactly the intended audience for The Vampire Diaries.

Perhaps that's true, but nor was I the intended audience for "teen" dramas such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002), or Veronica Mars (2004-2007). Yet those programs were so continuously clever, so spectacularly well-written, so relentlessly intriguing...that I kept tuning in, week-after-week, year after year. It wasn't "what" Buffy or Veronica concerned so much as "how" the creators of those series approached their narratives. And, from my perspective that's what appears missing from Twilight and The Vampire Diaries. Some overarching perspective or world view that could take the interesting and resonant context behind these vampire productions and make them more meaningful, more powerful...more human.

It's hard (and no doubt, a little unfair....) to judge from just one episode, but The Vampire Diaries doesn't appear to be in the same class as either either of the aforementioned teen-oriented series from the WB/CW. This show is depressingly unoriginal in general, not just in the genre. We get Dawson's Creek-style soulful pop-music playing over angst-ridden voice-over entries in teenage journals (all the better to sell albums, my dear..). We get frankly explicit sex talk from cynical, too-grown-up teens...which is kind of unsavory. We also get genre cliches as old as Dracula himself. From the vampire who seeks a modern doppelganger of the woman he once loved and lost (see: Fright Night [1985]), to the mystical jewelry that prevents a vampire from burning up in sunlight (think Buffy's "Ring of Amara"), this material just seems depressingly familiar if you've been around the pop culture block more than once.

And, then, of course, we have the baffling fact that that hunky vampire, Stefan Salvatore, keeps returning to high school without explanation. Once around is enough for most folks, thank you very much. Does Stefan keep repeating just so he can show off his historical knowledge to arrogant school teachers? Why waste immortality on driver's-ed, sex-ed, algebra and final exams? I would hate to spend my eternal days trying to remember my locker combination, avoiding jocks, and making goo-goo eyes at stuck-up cheerleaders. The fact that Stefan chooses to repeat high school (rather than, say, college...) suggests to me that this vamp is developmentally arrested.

It isn't just what The Vampire Diaries inherits from other vampire dramas that makes it flat and lifeless. It's what it so clearly and blatantly lacks: a sense of humor and perspective about itself. Everything is played deadpan earnest here -- as though this is War and Peace dunked in the burning fires of puberty. A show that so greedily and parasitically feeds off the life-blood of older, superior productions (like Dark Shadows, Forever Knight, Kindred, Buffy, Twilight, etc.) should at least boast the decency to playfully acknowledge those genre roots. Something played in a lighter vein, if you'll excuse the pun.

In closing, I'll quote another axiom from The Vampire Diaries: "The bad things stay with you. They follow you."

Believe me, the one thing we don't need right now is a Twilight-Wannabe following us around.

November 2011 Update:  Well, I'm watching follow-up episodes of The Vampire Diaries' first season at this juncture, and I can say that -- starting at about episode five -- the show begins to improve notably. I'm still in the early days of the first year, but these follow-up episodes aren't nearly as dire as the pilot.  The show is showing a very humorous side (with Damon's reading of Twilight, for instance),  and I begin to understand why some people have become devotees of the program.  At some point, when I'm caught up with the first three seasons, I intend to write a new review, one that more accurately explores the strengths of the series, rather than the abundant weakness of the pilot.


Friday, September 11, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Carrie (1976)

Although he had directed many fine feature films before this 1976 thriller (including the exquisite Sisters [1973] and the wacky Phantom of the Paradise [1974]), it was Carrie that truly landed Brian De Palma on the cinematic A list.

The director's critically and financially successful adaptation of the Stephen King novel not only assured De Palma a long and storied career in Hollywood, it also set off a virtual blizzard of celluloid King adaptations vetted by high-profile film directors (Tobe Hooper and Salem's Lot [1978], Stanley Kubrick and The Shining [1980], David Cronenberg and The Dead Zone [1981], George Romero and Creepshow [1982], John Carpenter and Christine [1983], Rob Reiner and Misery, etc.). This is a horror trend that endured well into the 1990s, and even to into this decade, though to perhaps a less-significant degree.


Carrie proved so resonant as a horror genre initiative, in fact, that it spawned a fad, a significant number of B movie imitations. These were films about wronged, lonely teens seeking bloody vengeance against their cruel school mates. These films had titles such as Ruby (1977), Jennifer (1978), Laserblast (1978) and Evilspeak (1981)

With his keen and accomplished visual sense, De Palma creates an intimate portrait in Carrie of this aforementioned adolescent, high-school cruelty. It's Lord of the Flies in a locker room...only with mean girls instead of wild boys. In her review of the film for New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael noted that prior to De Palma's film, "no one else has ever caught the thrill that teenagers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture," terming Carrie a "terrifyingly lyrical thriller."

Most critics strongly agreed with the assessment that King's novel found perfect expression in De Palma's capable hands. Film Quarterly, Volume XXI (page 32) in 1977 noted that "De Palma develops his familiar motifs of exploitation, guilt and sexual repression with a sure hand, so that his visual fireworks for the first time do not seem themselves obsessional and out of control." Roger Ebert wrote in his review of January 1, 1976 that: Brian De Palma's Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that's the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It's also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn't another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she's a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who's a lot like kids we once knew."

Today, no less than three major sequences in Carrie have entered the pop-culture lexicon (and endured there for over thirty years.) These three sequences are so well-directed, so brilliantly-staged that they jump immediately to mind when considering the film. More importantly, they visually support the film's narrative: forging an understanding of Carrie's world and what it means, in some cases, to "grow up." Those scenes are set in a girl's locker room, at the senior prom, and finally, (ominously...) grave side.

We're All Very Sorry For This Incident: The Curse of Blood

In part, Carrie works so splendidly, because of the universality of the high school experience. Sometimes it feels like high school is a realm where cruelty -- along with apathy -- has become institutionalized.

Teenagers often seem to boast a sixth sense (or is it a killer instinct?) about those students who are less well-adjusted, who come from bad homes, or who are just more sensitive...and therefore vulnerable. And then those kids are ridiculed, teased, shunned and mocked sometimes, to the point of sadism.

Probably nothing could expose this milieu more clearly (or more artfully) than the locker room scene that opens Carrie. After a game of volleyball (shot from a high angle, as if to clue in the audience to the fact that something terrible is soon to occur...), De Palma cuts to the gym locker room. The steam from the showers softens the image on screen, providing the impression of a lulling dream, or even a sexual fantasy. Immediately, we start to understand how high school represents a time of sexual awakening.

As the camera pans right, accompanied by the romantic strains of Pino Donaggio's score, the audience sees gorgeous young women frolicking, nude or half-nude after their exertions on the court. As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s, this is an "erotic image of wood nymphs at play," one intended to arouse, titillate and stimulate. But as the camera moves past this fanciful action in a forward motion, we soon spy Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) alone in a shower. It's a strangely solitary, personal and erotic moment too. The young woman caresses herself in slow-motion. Glistening water drops decorate her euphoric face. A phallic-shaped shower-head sprays water down upon her.

Carrie's hands wander innocently down to her stomach, then her legs -- and, as curious viewers -- we wonder how far this scene is going to go. As Carrie's hands continue to spiral downwards to her legs, scarlet blood suddenly stains her skin, mixing with the pounding water. It's menstrual blood. On her fingers, on her legs. On the floor.

This is a typical De Palma bait-and-switch, a deliberate reversal or undoing of expectations. Those males in the audience aroused by the sight of female nudity are no doubt -- much like the disturbed school principal featured in the next scene -- not at all aroused by the visual of a high school girl getting her period. A sexy fantasy has given way to common reality

The dream-like nature of this sequence dissipates quickly now, giving way to abject horror. Carrie does not know or understanding what is happening to her. She believes she is dying. From a subjective point-of-view shot, we now see harsh reality: the other high school girls categorically reject Carries' entreaties for help and the "misty" look of the scene has evaporated. With startling cruelty, the girls even toss tampons at the desperate Carrie. We get close-ups of taunting, ugly faces, and hear the girls' mean chants. Those beautiful bodies in the slow-motion dream have given way to the cruel reality of high school. Mocking, teasing, the mob mentality. Like pack animals, the teen girls can smell the weak number in their pack...and go in for the kill.

This scene serves a few important narrative functions. First, the visual obsession on young, sexy bodies (and Carrie's body, in particular...) serve to note the full extent of this character's burgeoning womanhood. Though shy and awkward, Carrie is also beautiful in an innocent way...stepping into the realm of sexual maturity with awkwardness.

Secondly, the hurling of the tampons and the close-ups of twisted, evil faces mocking Carrie help to dramatize what a delicate, uncomfortable, embarrassing time this can be for those undergoing puberty. Through the cruelty of the girls in the locker room, we comes to sympathize for Carrie's feelings of isolation and separation. In addition to her sexual maturation, this scene charts Carrie's first steps into "psychic" maturity as well. Her outrage at the cruel treatment causes a telekinetic burst: the shattering of a lamp bulb over the shower enclosure. This is clear foreshadowing...

Another scene -- less showy and far less notorious than the locker room sequence -- also reveals much about Carrie's school life and builds on our compassion. The only bright light in Carrie White's world is her quiet, heretofore secret affection for classmate Tommy Ross (William Katt). De Palma finds a unique way to connect these characters visually the first time that they share a scene. In English Class, Tommy is highlighted in the foreground of one shot, in an extreme close-up. Meanwhile, Carrie is depicted as diminutive and tiny, in the background of the self-same shot. Interpreting what our eyes see, he is thus paramount -- a towering paragon -- and she is literally almost a midget, an after-thought in distant orbit of his "star." Yet importantly, the characters share the same frame. De Palma's choice of shots here expresses Carrie's own (insecure) view of self. To her, Tommy is "big" and "shiny," at center stage, while she is "small" and far from attention. Almost unseen.

In Horror and Science Fiction Films II (Scarecrow Press, 1982, page 52), critic Donald C Willis noted that "it's debatable who's meaner to Carrie - her fellow students or her director, who draws out their elaborate prank for 90 minutes, then lovingly shoots its penultimate moments...in slow motion."

I understand his point, but, as always, we should ask the question "why?" I submit that that De Palma makes much of the film a torturous build-up to Carrie's moment of explosive rage not so we can mock her; but so we sympathize with her. The film spends much time on Carrie's home life with her stark-raving-crazy mother (Piper Laurie), a zealous, Christian, fundamentalist freak. Between these harrowing home sequences and those set in high school, the audience rightly wonders how much this poor girl can endure Then, De Palma grants us that gleaming moment of hope as Tommy and Carrie appear to develop a meaningful relationship. De Palma again pulls a bait-and-switch (with his lying camera, dammit!), letting the hope linger in our minds that perhaps, just perhaps, Carrie has found the very kindred spirit who will allow her to join the rest of the world and vanquish her intense loneliness and awkwardness. Of course, this is not to be...

Split-Screen Prom Queen

De Palma is renowned for the cleverness of his climactic set-pieces, and Carrie gives us one of his most terrifying, and his most accomplished. His camera prowls the prom as Carrie and Tommy attend the dance and Carrie -- for the first time in the movie -- is all smiles. She is still tender, vulnerable, but her hopes have been raised (as have ours). The gym coach, Mrs. Collins (Buckley) even shares a tender story with Carrie about her own prom.

This is the brand of personal, human story another horror film might not pause to record with such meticulous attention, but again, De Palma pulls the rug right out from under us (and his characters). Mrs. Collins' anecdote -- like the dream-like moment in the shower, or like the hope of a relationship with Tommy -- encourages us in the hope that Carrie is going to have a beautiful experience too. To that end, De Palma's camera dizzily revolves around the happy couple (Carrie and Tommy) as they dance together.

At first, these camera revolutions are euphoric and romantic, an intoxicating moment of hope realized, dreams come true. But then the rotating accelerates, out of control, faster and faster. Because of the off-kilter, fast-moving camera, we just know things are not going to go well. When De Palma's camera then tracks one of the mean girls, P.J. Soles, onto the stage, and the camera determinedly banks up to the rafters, to a shaky pail filled with pig's blood, our hearts sink.

The trap is set.
And again, De Palma gives us a happy moment. Carrie and Tommy are crowned king and queen of the prom, and this revelation is shot using triumphant slow-motion photography. Only this time, we don't feel dreamy or intoxicated...or even triumphant. On the contrary, we're agonized. We know what is coming now, and the slow-motion victory lap drags out our tight-throated feelings of anticipation and dread to an almost unbearable degree. We see what is going to happen but we can't stop it. Now the film marches inexorably towards terror, and the explosion of Carrie's monstrous rage; the force of her anger.

When Carrie is finally "crowned" in pig's blood on stage, the horrifying moment is a specific reflection of the locker-room/shower debacle at the beginning of the film, wherein Carrie first confronted the flowing of her vaginal blood; her messy, confusing entrance into adulthood. Her mother has told her that blood represents sin ("First comes the blood, then comes the sin,") so imagine poor Carrie's terror at being covered in such blood in public; worse -- on stage. By loving Tommy, she must fear, she has again brought the flowing of blood.

Carrie's climactic psychic outburst is depicted utilizing one of De Palma's favorite techniques: the split screen. In this case, the split-screen connotes the instantaneous, light speed transmission of telekinesis; the cause-and-effect relationship of the psychic power. Visualized in one side of the frame, Carrie turns her head, widens her eyes, and casts her gaze upon a specific tormentor. In the other side of the frame, we see the simultaneous psychic effect of the murderous gaze. Someone falls down, someone catches fire, or there is an explosion.

The prom apocalypse also flashily reflects the film's themes. Adults in Carrie are depicted in various shades of negativity. They are colored as uncaring (the principal, who can't remember Carrie's name), utterly mad (Mrs. White), sedated and drunk (Mrs. Snell), or heartless and bitter (Carrie's mocking English teacher). At their very best, the adults might come off as capricious, like Mrs. Collins, whose draconian punishment of the mean girls spawns the revenge against Carrie.

But now that Carrie is an adult -- covered in blood -- we can therefore no longer sympathize with her. Accordingly, she goes beyond the bounds of the "sane" during her incredible telekinetic attack, killing friends (Mrs. Collins) and foes without distinguishing between them. The innocent and the guilty both fall to her wrath and in the end, that's what makes Carrie a monster here...an adult monster like all those around her. De Palma has proven successful at making Carrie sympathetic until this point, until Carrie's "real" entrance into adulthood. The world has taught Carrie to be cruel, and at the Prom, she learns that lesson too well.

Carrie White Burns in Hell. Or, Did You Ever Stop to think that Carrie White Has Feelings?

The third "famous" moment in Carrie arrives at film's end. It's possibly the best sting-in-the-tail/tale ending ever captured on film. It's certainly the most-imitated. Shot in misty slow-motion (again like the locker room sequence preamble...), Sue Snell (Amy Irving) lovingly deposits flowers on Carrie's grave. Her intentions had been good; and despite all the horror Carrie wrought, Sue still has some residual feelings of compassion for the girl who everybody teased. But then, without warning, Sue is pulled down into the grave by Carrie's groping, burned claw. The message: even the innocent must fear Carrie, because she has lost control of her hate.

Sue awakens from the nightmare, traumatized and terrified, and the movie ends with heart-pumping, breathless intensity. We understand that Sue will never be the same; will never view the world the same way. If Carrie has moved into adulthood in the film; so has Sue. She has learned that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Carrie is a terrifying film dominated by the three memorable scenes I have outlined in this review (the locker room opening; the prom set-piece, and the terrifying coda). But it is more than that too.

Again, as I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s, what you ultimately take away from Brian De Palma's adaptation is a sense of growing frustration with a world that allows good people to be tormented and then turned into monsters themselves. Carrie was so harried, so abused by everyone in her life that she finally retaliated with the very force of hatred she despised so much in others. In charting this story, Stephen King and Brian De Palma chart a cycle of violence. They remind us how children turn to us -- adults -- for guidance and compassion. How they turn to us as role models, and how they sometimes fall through the cracks and find themselves lost, rudderless..emulating only the worst angels of human nature.

De Palma executes Carrie like a perfectly-realized cruel practical joke indeed; but not to debauch us; not to make us gawk or laugh at lonely Carrie White. On the contrary, De Palma victimizes the audience, much as Carrie is herself victimized throughout this harrowing film. He reminds us that in youth (and indeed, adulthood) we've all had to contend with our own Chris Hargensons and Billly Nolans: people who are cruel simply for the sake of cruelty. With his dream visions shattered by harsh reality, with his dazzling split screens, even with his anticipatory, anxiety-provoking slow-motion photography, De Palma reminds us to stop and remember that other people have feelings too.

Carrie White burned in Hell all right. But that Hell was called high school. And the real thing could hardly have been worse than gym class.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What I'm Reading Now: A Cinema of the Psychic Realm


"The medium of film is ideally suite to render the fantastic world of psi visible. A technique as simple as an off-screen voice-over can simulate mental telepathy. Unusual lighting, set design, fades, dissolves and other optical tricks can conjure clairvoyant visions. The advent of ultra-sophisticated computer graphics and other exotic cinematic techniques have made it possible to picture any conceivable visionary state, no matter how unusual or bizarre."

- Paul Meehan, A Cinema of the Psychic Realm: A Critical Survey (McFarland, 2009, page 2)

Monday, September 07, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fire in the Sky (1993)

On November 5, 1975, in Sitgreave National Forest in Arizona, blue-collar logger Travis Walton disappeared without a trace.

Five friends and co-workers, including so-called "pillar of the community," Mike Rogers, re-counted a harrowing tale of a flying saucer encounter...but the local authorities immediately suspected a more earthbound solution: foul play.

But then Walton miraculously returned -- more or less intact -- to the small town of Snowflake five days later, and gave the world one of the most notorious "alien abduction" cases ever reported. The media, UFOlogists and sight-seekers descended on the town, creating a circus atmosphere.

Some investigators believed Walton's incredible tale of flying saucers, alien abduction, Greys, and probing medical tests, especially since it is one of the few UFO-related stories to feature multiple eyewitnesses (and furthermore, eyewitnesses who have passed lie detector tests on more than one occasion).


Other investigators viewed the bizarre incident as a brilliantly and elaborately orchestrated hoax. On the latter front, the skeptics pointed to Walton's apparent involvement in a check fraud scam some years earlier, and the fact that the alien abduction drama The UFO Incident had aired on television shortly before his disappearance. Is that where Travis got the idea to "stage" his own disappearance? Was this all just a scheme to hit "the big time" and make some money from the story-hungry national tabloids?

Where does the truth reside? Of course, we can never know the answer for certain, but 1993's drama Fire in the Sky, written by Tracy Torme and directed by Robert Lieberman dramatizes Travis Walton's unusual story from the perspective of the men who initially reported this "close encounter."

What remains so unique about Fire in the Sky is that it eschews sensationalism and focuses intently on the human cost of those involved in Travis's disappearance, particularly family man Mike Rogers.

Robert Patrick ably and sympathetically portrays Rogers, and despite his second billing, Fire in the Sky is really his movie. We follow the agonized, haunted Rogers as he deals with his own pervasive guilt over leaving an unconscious Travis behind in a field on the night of the UFO encounter, as he becomes a pariah in Snowflake, and as his family and friends turn against him one-by-one. Adding insult to injury, even Travis ultimately blames Rogers for his actions on the night of November 5, without truly considering that Rogers -- as leader of a logging crew -- had four other men he was responsible for protecting in that situation.

In terms of drama, it's illuminating to note how the UFO encounter reflects the dynamics of the already-existing friendship between Travis and Mike. (In the film) Travis daydreams of opening up a huge motorcycle dealership with Mike. He flits from one get-rich-quick-scheme to the next, never landing long enough to consider reality. He speaks of romantic notions like love (for Mike's sister, Dana), and doesn't seem tethered to any real responsibilities. Mike is the polar oposite: "grounded" by conventional concerns like mortgage, money and family. He has no time to fantasize about impossible things. He's worried about the next paycheck, the next contract...the well-being of his daughters and wife.

When the UFO spirits away Travis -- whose feet are already metaphorically off-the-ground -- it is again, Mike who must clean-up and interface with the unpleasantness of the "real world." He must contend with the responsibilities and repercussions associated with Travis's disappearance and return. Mike must be the stalwart leader of men and still, somehow, hold out hope for their joined future, so that his co-workers don't succumb to hysteria and pressure from law enforcement.

Travis's encounter with the aliens (aboard their spaceship) in Fire in the Sky is dramatized in the film's last fifteen minutes or so, in a self-contained set-piece of sorts. The depiction of the alien ship (exterior and interior) leans heavily towards the terrifying, an interpretation which doesn't accurately reflect Walton's real-life testimony about his experience. In fact, screenwriter Torme reportedly apologized for the frightening views of the aliens in the film, noting that the "horror" aspect of the journey had been insisted upon by higher-ups in the production.

Yet, in terms of theme and narrative, the horror movie approach to the alien experience remains undeniably effective because it seems to scare Travis straight. After he returns to Earth and recovers (arriving almost as a newborn: naked and in the fetal position), he stops dreaming impossible dreams, marries Mike's sister, and commits to a stable job and the family life. He has metaphorically been "reborn." By contrast, a shattered Mike -- who has taken all the heat for Travis over his sojourn -- retreats from the world entirely; at least until Travis arrives offering conciliation and forgiveness. Rogers -- a meat and potatoes guy if there ever was one -- has been forced to open his mind to possibilities (to dreams and fantasies?) he had never before considered, so he has become a reflection of Travis, pre-ordeal. When they resume their friendship, Mike and Travis again balance one other.

The alien abduction scene in Fire in the Sky is probably the scene that most viewers remember most from the film. And that's entirely understandable, as it presents the interior of the alien spaceship as a world approximating a charnel house: a dark, dank locale of enormous and inhuman suffering and pain. With vertigo-provoking photography, we travel with Travis (via flashback..) inside an extra-terrestrial chamber that looks like something akin to the mad cannibal house in Tobe Hooper's seminal Texas Chain Saw Massacre. We are even treated to a trademark Hooper shot from that film: a close-up view of a victim's eyeball, wide and almost popping with unbearable terror.

The alien spaceship set-piece begins as Travis -- feeling pancake syrup fall on his face after hiding under a kitchen table -- recalls a similar feeling: something moist and goopy touching his lips aboard the alien ship. He opens his eyes to find himself inside a chamber that resembles a fleshy coffin made of coruscating human fat tissue. Travis then breaks through a membrane wall only to find himself weightless inside a huge, organic chamber. He finds himself in a room of alien space suits, and there is a splendid jolt involving one such space suit coming to life, unobserved, behind him. Then Travis is captured by aliens and dragged down a claustrophobic tunnel to an examining room.

The long trip to the operating theater is grotesque, and horrifying. The floors are ashy -- as if composed of ground-up human bone. Relics of previous experiments have been mindlessly cast-off everywhere: eye glasses, boots, sneakers, etc. Then the aliens come at Travis with unclean, byzantine surgical instruments including saws, drills and needles. It's clear that these aliens -- unaware or uninterested in human pain and discomfort -- boast a very different concept of "hygiene" than we do. Lieberman's camera then barrels down from a high angle, right into Travis's terrified face, and it's here that we get that familiar Hooper eyeball shot.

Without exaggeration, this fifteen-minute or-so sequence in Fire in the Sky is a masterpiece of production design, special effects, camera-work and editing. There is a deeply diabolical, intelligent nature to these alien invaders (they have the eyes of old men...), and you never once get a sense that you are looking at animatronics, constructed sets, or special effects. On the contrary, the persistent use of the P.O.V. perspective lands us in Travis's (shaking...) boots as he countenances the impossible, and the terrifying.

There are aspects of Fire in the Sky that simply don't work, which is the reason why, I suspect, the film has not achieved much mainstream or genre critical success. The police procedural aspects of the tale (seemingly de rigueur in the 1990s) go nowhere and fail to resolve in any satisfactory fashion. And, for much of the film, Travis (D.B Sweeney) remains something of an enigma; an opaque "dreamer" but not so much an identifiable or individual personality. And I also suspect that many audience members were non-plussed by the film's straight-faced dramatic approach. The film more or less takes Walton's incredible story as simple fact, rather than attempting to punch holes in it, and then proceeds to calculate the human toll of such a strange encounter.

Where it counts most: as a human story of loyalty and friendship, and one focusing on Mike Rogers, Fire in the Sky succeeds. And that (admittedly-inaccurate) tour of an alien saucer remains nightmare fodder, pure and simple. Taken in tandem, an image starts to coalesce here: of simple, groping humanity opening his eyes to the great mysteries of our time, and coming to understand that his connection to other men is the thing he needs to take with him into that vast unknown.