Friday, March 12, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Following two surreal hours of ultra-violent imagery and deep social criticism, Oliver Stone's controversial 1990s masterpiece, Natural Born Killers concludes with fact.

Specifically, the film ends with real-life footage of the Waco/David Koresh stand-off, disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding taking a tumble, Lorena Bobbitt on the witness stand (on trial for cutting off her husband's penis...), the murderous Menendez Brothers, murder suspect O.J. Simpson, and even Rodney King asking (famously): "can't we all just get along?"

This montage is an exclamation point; a sharp punctuation capping off a fiercely presented argument. It seems to say, "welcome to the tabloid-TV culture of America in the 1990s; where crime pays, and pays well." Commit a notorious murder and you are...a superstar.

Who's that on the phone? The Jenny Jones Show is calling...

Accordingly, Natural Born Killers was advertised on theatrical release as a "bold new film that takes a look at a country seduced by fame, obsessed by crime, and consumed by the media."

And yes, that indeed represents truth in advertising. Natural Born Killers -- a sensational bombardment of incendiary sound and imagery -- burns through its expansive running time with a blazing indictment of the mainstream media. The charge? Lowering the national discourse. Finally, director Stone makes his explicit closing argument with real-life archival footage.

Natural Born Killer's closing montage declares, essentially: You think we're exaggerating? You think we're kidding? Well, lookie here: this is who we are (to appropriate Millennium's confrontational [1996-1999] tag-line). The documentary-style final montage pointedly connects the misadventures of fictional mass-murderers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) to the real-life celebrities who found fame and fortune the same way. It tells us that even though Natural Born Killers qualifies as satire, it is hardly exaggerated in terms of narrative content (though style and presentation are different arguments entirely.)

This closing documentary montage also represents Oliver Stone's inoculation from critics who complained that he was coarsening the dialogue himself. On the contrary, Natural Born Killers represents cinematic commentary at its finest because it draws together so many disparate cultural elements and synthesizes them into a lucid, pointed critique of the times. After making its case in fictional and artistic terms, it graduates to the terrain of the real and we see there is little gap between what Stone has imagined and was happening every day on our televisions.

Sitcom America: Or I Love Mallory

Early in Natural Born Killers, the film re-constructs, in flashback, the first, fateful meeting of Mickey and Mallory. This sequence is presented as a black-and-white TV sitcom from the 1950s. Something along the lines of Leave it to Beaver (1957-1962), or, of course, I Love Lucy (1951-1957).

This "sitcom" of Mallory's family life in Natural Born Killers charts the colossal gulf between the imagery sold to America regarding family life, and the truth, for many Americans, of such family life in the 1990s.

Specifically, a greasy, monstrous Rodney Dangerfield portrays Mallory's Dad in this sequence and, well, let's just establish he is hardly Robert Young in Father Knows Best (1954-1960). On the contrary, he is verbally and physically abusive to his wife (Edie McClurg) and his children. He gropes his own daughter and even sexually abuses her. Again, this is a far cry from the perfect domestic bliss of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952-1956).

When one of the first national surveys regarding childhood sexual abuse was conducted in 1989, researchers discovered that such abuse was prevalent in a whopping 27% of respondents. To parse that figure, on the cusp of the 1990s more than one-in-four American women reported being sexually abused by family members during their formative years. That's not just a shameful statistic, it's an epidemic. But the media wasn't going to connect the dots for us. It was too busy feeding us reinforcing images about the American family (in empty-headed sitcoms), and, at the opposite pole, entertaining us with the bread & circuses of talk shows. Natural Born Killers threads together these two disparate worlds. One commercial image was patently idealized and false (dangerously so), and the other encouraged our worst rubber-necking instincts. Was it any wonder our culture had become so schizophrenic? Self-righteously moral on one hand, and voyeuristic on the other?

In Natural Born Killers, the form of the sitcom or "situation comedy" reveals Mallory's life as she imagined it should be (replete with an oppressive laugh-track eradicating any scary sense of ambiguity). But the content of that domestic drama reveals the grim truth of it. "She has a sad sickness," Mickey notes of Mallory at one point. She "wanders in a world of ghosts." Those ghosts are black-and-white ones transmitted by a flickering cathode ray tube; images of perfect sitcom personalities who don't exist in real life. Mallory is haunted by the media's image of family life, unaware that it can never be.

You're Buying and Selling Fear: Mass Media as The Devil

In Natural Born Killers, Robert Downey Jr. plays Wayne Gale, the arrogant host of a lurid "true crime" TV series called American Maniacs.

Gale is not, however, concerned with truth or objectivity, merely with high ratings...which will bring him wealth and personal fame. Gale is so smug that he looks upon his subjects as "apes" and notes he is the "God" of his own world.

Mickey and Mallory's cross-country killing spree is thus an opportunity for Wayne to grand-stand, to look powerful in front of his audience. He schedules a live interview with the incarcerated Mickey for Superbowl Sunday. And there, the vainglorious Wayne shall show off to the high heavens. He will look heroic by verbally jousting with the "monster," Mickey.

When a riot begins in Mickey's prison, however, Wayne blurs the lines. He goes from reporting on the crimes to participating in them. He picks up a gun and actually starts shooting police officers to keep the broadcast going, to keep the story alive (even as mortals die). The message is clear here, isn't it? The media is complicit in the crime sprees it reports with such verve.

Occasionally in Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone jump cuts -- in almost subliminal fashion -- to expressionistic visuals depicting Wayne Gale as the Devil. Actually, as a blood-soaked Devil. Since this character symbolizes the media in the film, Stone is making a comparison of "evils," and finding the mainstream media amongst the worst. Natural Born Killers reveals clearly how criminals and the media work hand-in-hand. The media transforms criminals into celebrities, and the criminals in turn, hand the media high ratings. It's a win-win arrangement in what Stone calls a "fast food culture."

In keeping with this theme, there's a great montage midway through the film that features "people on the street" in London, Tokyo, Paris and America professing their undying love of killers Mickey and Mallory. The spree-murderers also make the covers of People, Esquire, Newsweek, The New York Post and other periodicals. That which is famous must be good, right? Stone even cuts to Brian De Palma's Scarface at one point, and, as viewers, we are asked to ponder an important question. Why do we, as Americans, worship our gangsters? Why do we admire killers?

Like Remy Belvaux's brilliant satire, Man Bites Dog (1992), Stone's Natural Born Killers suggests that, in the unending quest for a greater audience share, the media can't help but participate and encourage the violent stories it reports on and profits from. The irony is that Mickey and Mallory understand this "evil," and put an end to Wayne Gale: they kill him on camera, effectively killing the media's role in their particular story. To some people, this makes these bad guys -- on some weird level -- admirable.

Many right wing critics complained vociferously about Natural Born Killers. It indeed seems to present unrepentant murderers as the "heroes" of the piece. My response to this argument is two-pronged. First, Natural Born Killers is a surreal, avant-garde expression of Mickey and Mallory's story, and to them, they certainly are the heroes of their adventure. And secondly, Stone boasts no illusions about his protagonists. In fact, he continually associates the two killers with the symbol of the rattlesnake.

A rattlesnake is not, in a strict sense, evil. A rattlesnake is, however, a dangerous killer. And, in the lingo of the film (and Mickey himself), Mickey and Mallory are "natural" born killers, meaning that they were made this the rattlesnake. I take this to mean they were socialized to become society's rattlesnakes. They are not evil, per se, they are merely living according to their nature. And even though they are murderous, at least they love each other.

This is not a glorification of violence or brutality, it's a notation , I submit, about honesty. Mickey and Mallory are honest about themselves. They are the only people in the film who can make this particular claim. They are exactly what they appear to be: Natural Born Killers. Mallory's Dad is not a loving force of paternal wisdom as the sitcom form suggests he should be...he's an exploitative sexual abuser. Wayne Gale is not a tribune of the people and honest broker of the facts, he's a sideshow barker and rubber-necker seeking personal fame and glory. Even Tommy Lee Jones' warden and Tom Sizemore's police detective, Scagnetti, are not symbols of legitimate law enforcement, but rather sick sadists looking to get their piece of the pie.

In a world of such personalities, Mickey and Mallory are indeed a lesser evil because they know what they are and don't pretend to be something else. At the very least, they aren't "buying and selling" an artificial image.

It's no coincidence that Mallory is depicted, at one point in the film, reading Sylvia Plath's 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. That story was set in a complacent, slick modern society of tremendous hypocrisy. The main character, Esther, was a tabloid writer aware of the lurid details of the jet-set. In real life, Plath chose suicide rather than continued existence in such a culture. In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory choose homicide as a solution, but in both cases, the act seems a protest against a garish, excessive world built on tabloid pillars.

Oliver Stone's film stops very far short of endorsing Mickey and Mallory as role models or model citizens, however. During one powerful scene, a window in a hotel becomes a TV screen of sorts. Behind Mickey and Mallory we see images of Stalin and Hitler prominently displayed. Worship these people at your own risk, the movie seems to say. It's a slippery slope indeed from Mickey and Mallory to O.J. Simpson to The Menendez Brothers to Hitler or Stalin. Why? The celebrity culture thrives on ratings, not on inherent worth or morality. We should not mistake fame or infamy for virtue, and that's a key message of Stone's movie.

It's a well-known fact that Columbine Killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris used the term "NBK" (Natural Born Killers) as code for their own horrific killing spree. But these young killers certainly took away the wrong lesson from Stone's film. They imagined being famous, whereas fame is something that Mickey and Mallory never covet or desire in the film. Stone's film criticized such fame, and specifically, we have that ending montage to confirm that Natural Born Killers is intended, indeed, as social criticism.

Mickey and Mallory are rattlesnakes in Natural Born Killers, and they almost die while crossing a field of authentic rattlesnakes. That image, perhaps, is the film's most resonant one. It's not just a regurgitation of the old live-by-the-sword/die-by-the-sword truism, but a comment on the very nature of our culture and corporate media. Navigating a straight, safe trajectory, isn't always easy.

Natural Born Killers? Mickey and Mallory are practically babes in the woods compared to the cynicism of Wayne Gale, Jack Scagnetti and the other vultures they encounter in this film.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 104: Star Trek: Voyager - The Early Seasons (1995-1996)

So...I've been wanting to post an article here to celebrate 2010 as the fifteenth anniversary of Star Trek Voyager's premiere on the (now-defunct) UPN Network.

Actually, I can't really believe it's already been fifteen years since Voyager debuted. I vividly recall watching the series for the first time in 1995. I was 25-years old...and met Voyager with great enthusiasm and hope as a continuation of the Star Trek mythos.

The series premise - a solitary Starfleet vessel lost in another quadrant of deep space -- promised an important quality in 1995: accessibility.

At last, general viewers could experience an untangling of the intricate, overlapping, dense mythologies that had transformed Gene Roddenberry's once clear-cut, moral universe into Space Politics 101. Voyager's Delta Quadrant format was thus a restoration of the formula vetted in the Kennedy-1960s: going where no man has gone before on a weekly basis. Voyager also promised the uncertainty of an effort like Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space:1999 by sending Starfleet officers on an unplanned galactic sojourn without back-up, without infinite resources, and without allies.

Starting out the journey, I was impressed. Voyager was indeed more accessible than the other latter-day Treks (DS9 and Next Gen). It's also the only Star Trek besides the original series that my wife, a novice fan, can stomach. In addition -- strikingly -- Voyager seems far stronger in terms of ensemble acting. In fact, no Star Trek TV cast before or after Voyager gelled quite so quickly or so ably.

Kate Mulgrew's Captain Kathryn Janeway promptly became my favorite Star Trek Captain after James Kirk, and I loved the way that Mulgrew's distinctive voice, -- her command "purr" -- would transform into a sort of guttural tiger's "growl" as her ship faced off against the menace of the week.

I also appreciated Mulgrew's seemingly boundless energy level. Janeway was a captain who hardly ever sat down in her center seat. She was constantly in motion on her command bridge; as though to sit down was to slow down the mind; to miss a vital fact or necessary information.

Mulgrew was, in my opinion, a great anchor. She brought a larger-than-lfe dimension to Janeway on Day One (like Shatner's Kirk) and I appreciated that mythic approach after the more work-a-day performances of Stewart and Brooks in the other programs.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for Star Trek: Voyager waned significantly. Looking back at the first two seasons today, you can see how the writers relied too heavily on fictional Star Trek techno-babble to save the day. Optronic relays, ODN circuits, EPS systems, baryon sweeps, Heisenberg compensators and so all just makes your eyes glaze over. There's no connection between this imaginary tech and the human experience. It's all just jargon.

Simply put, there was no crisis that a good deus ex machina couldn't get the crew out of. Next Gen and DS9 suffer equally from the same affliction, so this malady was hardly unique to Voyager...but it was still disappointing to see it replicated and re-transmitted. In the humanist realm of Star Trek, reshuffling the tech-of-the-week shouldn't have been the solution to so many important crises. Not when you had a woman as strong as Janeway as our moral, emotional guide.

Another problem was that the series never seemed to authentically cope with the very important idea of limited resources. I was deeply disappointed to see Voyager resort to familiar holodeck stories (only here based on Victorian literature rather than 1940s film noir). I mean, in a universe of limitations, was it really prudent to use the holodeck (especially since use of the replicator was rationed)? The series attempted to explain that that holodeck worked on a different kind of energy matrix than the rest of Voyager, and therefore its energy couldn't be harnessed in other realms.

Uh-huh. This was really just a crutch for the writers, and seemed to negate the very premise of the series. I see this failure of creativity as an example of Voyager refusal take real chances, and play it safe instead. I once asked Johnny Byrne, story editor of Space:1999 what he thought of Voyager, since it boasted a similar premise. He said, famously, "Look, when I start to see people with big ridges on their heads, I tune out...Voyager is the antithesis of Space:1999. I think it's dull and formulaic. It's lost any sense of urgency. My problem is that the characters have so much, but accomplish so fucking little."

Then, when Voyager unceremoniously sacked one of the most interesting characters ever created in the Star Trek universe, Kes (Jennifer Lien) -- an alien nymph (Ocampa) who had the limited lifespan of nine years -- for a 7-foot tall Amazon in a cat-suit, Borg babe Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), I knew the series was really and truly on creative life support.

For the character of Kes offered talented writers everything a Star Trek series could possibly require in terms of story lines.

Here, embodied in one package, was a person who could go from childhood to puberty, to adulthood, to old age, to death. Every aspect and stage of "humanity" and the mortal existence could have been examined through Kes alone over a seven-to-nine year series span. Youthful exuberance, teenage rebellion, adult drive, middle-age regret, wise old age...acceptance of death. Just imagine the stories that could have been told.

Finally, here was a character as rich in potential as the logical Mr. Spock had been in the 1960s, but one not in a Spock-imitation mode (like Data or Seven, or T-Pol). Watching Kes age across a seven year span, our crew would have been forced to consider their own human mortality too. And the best part was Kes wasn't suffering from a "disease," and her impending death wasn't was natural. Kes and her friends on the crew just had to "accept" her life-span as a fact of life.

But Kes -- and all her potential -- was dumped for overt sexuality. Ryan was fine as Seven of Nine, but the commercial crassness of her appearance and her sudden prominence in the story lines (to the detriment of the other characters) was hard to forgive in a show supposedly about "human" values. Imagine just for a moment how unforgettable it would have been had Kes stayed with Voyager throughout the series and actually died of natural causes as the ship neared home in the Alpha Quadrant. This character-based story would have granted the final episode, "Endgame," a kind of melancholy, emotional, character-based lift that it clearly lacked. The joyous (a return to Earth) would have been mixed with the sad (Kes's demise), and the episode would have reflected more accurately the essence of our human existence; the way that the good goes hand-in-hand with the bad.

But okay okay, this post isn't supposed to about cursing the darkness, but rather praising the things that were indeed good and memorable about Star Trek Voyager. I can say this with some degree of certainty: the early Voyager years, produced by Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller and featuring Kes, are a great deal stronger than some of the later episodes. Here's a brief survey of some high points from Season 1 and 2.

The first story after the pilot "Caretaker," titled "Parallax" is a techno-babble story in terms of the scientific threat-of-the-week, but the installment nonetheless boasts authentic character fireworks as Chakotay (Robert Beltran) lobbies Captain Janeway on behalf of the volatile half-Klingon, B'Elanna Torres. Chakotay thinks she should be chief engineer; Janeway thinks she's not Starfleet material. This story is written with real passion, and is one of the few Voyager episodes that pays more than lip service to the concept of two unlike crews (Starfleet and Maquis) attempting to blend. Over the course of the episode, Janeway comes to realize that Torres boasts a thirst for knowledge similar to her own, and the rapid-fire theoretical dialogue comes across at warp speed. This show is alive with the possibilities of new discoveries, and since the characters are engaged, so is the audience.

"Prime Factors" is another great episode, primarily because it involves Voyager running afoul of an advanced, peaceful civilization that refuses to share its superior technology (and send Voyager home...)...simply on principle. This is exactly what Starfleet officers do every day with General Order One, or the Prime Directive. They deny those planets more primitive the benefit of their know-how and help. I'll never forget smug Captain Picard condemning a drug-addicted race to a horrible, painful fate in the Next Gen episode "Symbiosis," for instance. In Voyager's "Prime Factors," the shoe is finally on the other foot as Janeway must contend with somebody else's self-righteous sense of morality. Some Voyager crew members ultimately attempt to steal the alien technology in this episode, in a surprisingly real (rather than idealistic) portrayal of human beings.

"Phage," "Faces" and "Deadlock" are three episodes that feature Voyager's best villain: the Vidiians, an alien race dying of a terrible plague. The Vidiians aren't interested in diplomatic relationships or treaties. They show up in space, lock onto your ship, and harvest your seconds (thanks to a weapon/medical device based on transporter-style technology). All the Vidiians care about is their continued survival, and that single-mindedness makes them Star Trek's scariest and most effective villain after the Borg. It also makes them, perhaps, the most tragic. We learn in their introductory episode ("Phage") that the Vidiians were once a race of artists and musicians, for instance, but now their entire economy and culture is geared towards fighting the plague, the phage. In one downright vicious episode ("Deadlock"), we witness the Vidiians overtaking Voyager, and cutting crew members down in the corridors for organ harvest. It's all incredibly nightmarish.

One of my favorite of all Voyager episodes is "Alliances," during which Chakotay urges a "new" way for Janeway, suggesting she makes alliances with races (like the evil Kazon) she finds reprehensible. It's a good episode that could have been the basis for a multi-episode arc in the vein of Coppola's Godfather, since it involves betrayal on an epic scale, and even a mob-like "hit" at episode's end. Alas, the segment ends with utter retrenchment: Janeway would rather have a philosophical ally in Starfleet rules and regulations than an alliance in real life, with flawed partners. If her kind of thinking ruled in the Alpha Quadrant, the Feds would have never made peace with the Klingons...

One of the best episodes of Voyager -- one so good it takes your breath away -- is "The Thaw." It concerns a conceit I hate: holodecks, but manages to do something interesting and new with the concept. In this case, Voyager runs across a group of scientists on an alien world who are wired into their own holodeck/virtual reality environment. To everyone's terror, this computer-generated realm is dominated by a surreal carnivalesque atmosphere and a gruesome clown (Michael McKean), Fear Itself. And the trick of this world is familiar to fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series: if you die in the holodeck, you die in real life. And that clown has a nasty habit of putting those who disobey him under the guillotine...

What I admire about this episode is that it deploys all these surreal, bizarre visual compositions to assert the clown's total dominance over the dream scape and ends without bells and whistles, but rather with a one-on-one, intimate battle of the wits between Janeway and Fear. Like I said above, it's just stunningly good and superbly written and orchestrated.

In "Resolutions," Voyager is forced to strand Captain Janeway and Chakotay together on an idyllic forest planet, and -- without regard for the cliches of the genre (evil aliens, etc.) -- the story observes simply how the two characters cope with their sudden marooning. Chakotay finds acceptance quickly, and settles into his new life without looking back or asking questions. Janeway, on the other hand, never stops fighting, and never relaxes. If she's occupied, she believes, she won't feel alone...or left behind. Again, it's just a simple story of two alternate worldviews, but it is handled in a compelling, character-based fashion.

Star Trek: Voyager is clearly not the paradigm shifting sci-fi outer space series that Farscape or Firefly or Battlestar Galactica proved to be. It was just the latest in a familiar concept, tweaked and twisted to seem "new enough." I do believe that if the makers of the series had truly been bold in their choices -- turning off holodecks, featuring arguments between the two crews, and asking the characters to make moral compromises in a world of limited resources -- the series would be remembered today in much more positive terms.

The early seasons of Voyager are strangely inconsistent: one week the series daringly breaks formula and the next week it offers a storyline you've seen on Star Trek a dozen times. A prime example of the latter is Brannon Braga's "Threshold," which involves a galactic breakthrough and an unwelcome twist in human evolution. In other words, it's "Where No Man Has Gone Before," only dumber.

I don't know if you've given Voyager a try in the last fifteen years, but the good episodes are so good ("The Thaw," "Parallax," "Deadlock," "Resolutions") that you really mourn what amounts to a lost opportunity to update and modernize the increasingly-familiar and trite Star Trek universe.

I guess my ultimate statement on Voyager is this: a lifelong Star Trek fan, I stopped watching the series regularly by season six (about the time "The Rock" was guest-starring as an alien gladiator...). I didn't stick around to see the lost crew get home (though eventually I did watch that episode...), because I'd lost faith in the writers to wrap up the show in a novel, exciting and legitimately dramatic fashion.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Alfred Ryder

Alfred Ryder (1916-1995) appeared in virtually every American cult tv series ever made, and here are five snapshots of his (frequently villainous...) work. How many series and episodes can you name?

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Horror Mythology of Space:1999

"We're a long way from home, and we're going to have to start thinking differently if we're going to come to terms with space."

-Professor Victor Bergman, Space: 1999; "Matter of Life and Death."

One important quality that differentiates Space: 1999 (1975-1977) from virtually any other outer space adventure ever created, even after thirty-five years, is its heavy accent on horror. Unlike Star Trek, wherein planets are joined peacefully across the ocean of space as part of a cosmic, political United Nations, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 presents the universe as a realm of incomprehensible and total, abject terror.

Because the heroes of Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) -- the 311 astronauts and scientists stationed on Moonbase Alpha -- are psychologically and technologically unprepared for their unexpected journey into deepest space (it's the result of an accident on the moon's surface...) even the most wonderful or harmless mechanisms of the cosmos appear frightening, foreboding and unknown to these inexperienced, contemporary travelers. It's a metaphor, perhaps, for the way our cave-men ancestors may have regarded thunder, fire, the sun or the moon -- as inexplicable, fearsome elements of existence.

Given this revolutionary and fascinating aspect of Space: 1999, I thought it might prove interesting today to make note of many of the horror myths, legends and concepts that Space: 1999 re-purposed during its two year, 48-episode run. Virtually all of these conceits, you will note, were given a technological sheen or update for the series, a polish well in keeping with an overarching theme that Science Digest's editor, Arielle Emmett termed "the downfall of 20th century technological man."

1. The Premature Burial: "Earthbound"

In the nineteenth century, one of the great human dreads involved being buried alive. This fear was so widespread, in fact, that some people saw to it that they had emergency signalling devices installed in their coffins upon internment. Gothic author Edgar Allen Poe exploited this societal fear of being buried alive in The Fall of The House of Usher and his 1844 short story, The Premature Burial.

The horror trope of being buried alive has come to be associated with such concepts as claustrophobia (fear being trapped in a coffin, a confined space) and body paralysis, the inability to move or function within that confined space. The primary setting of premature burial fears, of course, is the casket: the small, final resting place of the human form. Modern films have also obsessed on the premature burial, namely Wes Craven's The Serpent and The Rainbow (1989) and The Vanishing (1988)

In Space: 1999, an episode entitled "Earthbound" by Anthony Terpiloff culminated with a high-tech, futuristic variation on the premature burial conceit. Earth's Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) becomes entombed in a suspended animation device aboard an alien spaceship for a 75-year journey to Earth. A bully and an opportunist, Simmonds has resorted to extortion and black mail to get this coveted "slot" on Captain Zantor's (Christopher Lee) ship. He pays for his moral infraction, however, when, -- just hours into the trip -- he awakens inside the transparent suspended animation chamber, the high-tech equivalent of a coffin.

Simmonds even has an emergency signalling device on his person, an Alphan communicator called a "commlock." He alerts Moonbase Alpha to his mortal plight, but the wandering moon is too far distant to come to his assistance. Simmonds is thus left behind -- alive and conscious -- in the claustrophobic container, without the possibility of help or rescue, a perfect metaphor for the terror inherent in the convention of the premature burial.

2. The Siren: "The Guardian of Piri"

Ancient Greek mythology gave the world the concept of Sirens: seductresses of the not-quite human variety who lured sailors to their isolated island with a tempting song, and then kept them trapped there for all eternity. The Sirens, uniquely, were temptresses of the mind or spirit, not the flesh, and boasted knowledge beyond the confines of linear time. Always depicted as females, the Sirens bore knowledge of both the past and future.

In Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, sea captain and warrior Odysseus -- on his long journey home -- had himself physically strapped to the mast of his vessel so he could experience the Siren song for himself. Let's just say it drove him to distraction.

In Space: 1999's "The Guardian of Piri," written by Christopher Penfold, the wandering moon (also searching for "home,"much like Odysseus) falls under the tantalizing spell of "The Guardian" on an alien world.

The Guardian, like the mythical sirens of the Greeks, extends its purview beyond the linear progression of time. In fostering "perfection" in its captive wards it can actually freeze time, holding living life-forms in a permanent stasis. Space:1999's Odysseus surrogate, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), doesn't tie himself to the mast of Moonbase Alpha to resist the lure, but he is the only man on the installation able to resist the beguiling, female face of the Guardian, played by lovely Catherine Schell. Even Moonbase Alpha's oracle, Victor Bergman falls under the spell, describing, briefly, an "old man's fantasies." Finally, Computer itself is tempted by the Siren song and is "removed" to Piri.

3. The Midas Touch: "Force of Life"

In Greek mythology, there was also a man named King Midas of Phyrgia, a man who was gifted with the power to turn everything he touched to gold. This frightful power soon became a curse, however, when his food and water turned to gold, and even his beloved daughter was transformed into a gold statue. In the end, King Midas returned his power to the Earth, by spreading into a running river. After doing so, Midas left behind his love of the material world and material wealth. He came to despise the gold he had once coveted.

Johnny Byrne's outstanding Space: 1999 episode "Force of Life" involves an Alphan technician, Anton Zoref (Ian McShane), who, because of an alien "gift," develops the terrifying ability to freeze objects and people on contact. The name Zoref is an anagram for FROZE, and Phyrgia even sounds a bit like Frigid. Likewise, when the tale climaxes, Zoref casts off his earthly life, becoming a power of pure energy. In his new form, Zoref, like Midas in a sense, leaves human concerns behind.

The Midas connection in "Force of Life" is perhaps more obscure than some of the other mythology in Space:1999 and story editor Johnny Byrne once described the episode as one in which a life-form "rises above human form." He told me. "The majesty of the creature (though unfortunate for Zoref) was that it was one step closer to attaining the next stage of existence."

4. The Midwich Cuckoos: "Alpha Child"

Our literary, cinematic and TV tradition is filled with examples of sinister, even demonic "changeling" children. John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos (made as the 1960 film Village of the Damned) featured otherworldy but human-appearing children who pursued an evil alien agenda against mankind. The 1950s also gave the world sociopath Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed of novelist William March: a child without the empathy and innocence we associate with children. By the disco-decade of the 1970s, we were introduced to the demonically possessed Regan in The Exorcist (1973) and little Damien, The Anti-Christ, in The Omen (1976).

Christopher Penfold's "Alpha Child" presents the tale of the first Alphan born in space, little Jackie Crawford, and the alien changeling (Jarak) who steals his place, possesses his body and accelerates his growth. This terrifying episode is dominated by unforgettable horrific imagery, including that of a child psychically torturing his mother, and a grown child trapped within the too-small confines of a baby incubator. That last visual is a sign of "horror" overcoming technology, an important idea in Space:1999.

5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "The Full Circle"

The dual, split-personality nature of the human being was observed and charted in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There, the crux of the story involved the separation of the "sinful" from "the moral" into two distinct beings, the savage Mr. Hyde and the civilized Dr. Jekyll.

Space:1999 also dramatizes a variation of this story, in Jesse Lasky Jr., and Pat Silver's "The Full Circle." Here, the Alphans explore a planet called Retha and soon encounter a tribe of primitive stone-age cavemen. Later, it is learned that the Alphans themselves were the cave-men, having passed through a strange, misty time-warp and regressed to a less-advanced state. This time-warp is beautifully realized as a kind of waterfall of mist in a primeval jungle.

Uniquely, this premise is explored in didactic terms: the Alphans have been separated not into sinful and moral versions of themselves like Jekyll/Hyde, but "primitive" and "technological" versions. And, ironically, it is the technological, modern model (personified by Alan Carter and Sandra Benes) who resort to physical violence.

At the end of the story, a bewildered Koenig notes that there no aliens on the planet to contend with...just flawed human nature. "Because we couldn't speak to each other, couldn't communicate, we misunderstood," Koenig notes. "Yet it was only us there..."

6. Faust: "End of Eternity"

As early as the 1500s, Germany presented the legend of a learned mortal, Johann Fausten, or Dr. Faust, who was willing to trade his immortal soul for knowledge beyond human ken. His partner-in -trade was no one less than Satan, the Devil. A dissatisfied intellectual, Faust had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding, and went into the devil's bargain with his eyes wide open. Again, it's important: he was a man of science, a doctor.

In Space: 1999's chilling "End of Eternity" by Johnny Byrne, the Alphans free a man called Balor (think Baal), from his own personal Hell: an inescapable asteroid prison cell. Balor,like Faust, is a scientist who has discovered the secret to eternal life; the spontaneous regeneration of human tissue. But, this alien devil with the secret of immortality demands a high price of the Alphans if they are to share in his information wealth: eternal submission to his sadistic, violent, Devilish ways. At least one Alphan, a grounded pilot named Baxter, makes a Faustian deal with this alien Lucifer. Koenig, however, refuses to cooperate and in a David & Goliath-like conclusion (that pre-dates Ridley Scott's Alien [1979]) sends Balor hurtling out an airlock.

7. The Ghost: "The Troubled Spirit"

Space: 1999's
"The Troubled Spirit" is an out-and-out, up-front horror story, one involving a ghost that haunts the spirit of a living man, technician Dan Mateo. In fact, the ghost is Dan Mateo himself...a spirit from the future haunting his present, mortal self. Johnny Byrne here sought to "mix two things," and was stimulated by the idea of "combining horror and science fiction." The Alphans, led by their oracle, Victor, must "exorcise" the murderous ghost, but in doing so, end up killing Dan Mateo and scarring him in the exact same fashion as his ghostly specter.

"The Troubled Spirit" also showcases one of the most lyrical, brilliantly-staged opening sequences in all of television history, as a supernatural "wind" blows through the high-tech, white-on-white halls of Moonbase Alpha. Another example of the supernatural or horrific over-powering the auspices of technology and science.

8. St. George vs. The Dragon: "Dragon's Domain"

Saint George was a Christian martyr who saved a king's daughter from being killed by a plague-bearing, giant dragon. George committed this act, however, only after a guarantee that the king's land would soon be converted to Christianity.

Christopher Penfold's outstanding Space: 1999 "Dragon's Domain" actually references the tale of St. George vs. The Dragon in its text. Here, the paradigm has been updated: it's astronaut Tony Cellini (Gianno Giarko) versus a tentacled cyclops which haunts a spaceship graveyard. Tony is not able to slay this dragon (that act is left to Koenig, armed with a hatchet), and Tony never forces a conversion to Christianity. However, Tony does aggressively push the Alphans, especially Helena Russell, to embrace, let's say, the philosophy of "extreme possibilities" and not cling to earthbound belief systems. "I want you all to throw out the criteria by which you judge what's real....You must believe!" He insists, when faced with disbelievers.

At the end of the story, Koenig, Victor and Helena flee the spaceship graveyard (and the dead monster), essentially converted to Cellini's way of thinking. They have witnessed the impossible with their own eyes: a mesmeric alien creature which does not register on their instruments, and which devours human life forms. Helena brings up the example of Saint George and the Dragon, and suggests that Tony and the Monster will be a part of the new Alphan society's long-term mythology.

9. The Picture of Dorian Gray: "The Exiles"

Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray involved a handsome young man, Dorian Gray, who was beautiful, immoral and also a criminal. While he undertook his reign of terror, Gray's portrait -- in secret -- became aged and horrible, reflecting his morality, his vanity, and his sins. As for Gray, he himself showed no physical or biological signs of his perversions and presented the appearance of remaining forever young.

In the second season Space: 1999 episode, "The Exiles," Moonbase Alpha encounters two apparently benign alien teenagers, Cantar (Peter Duncan) and Zova (Stacy Dorning). In fact, these innocent-seeming (and physically beautiful) youngsters are alien insurrectionists. They are centuries-old, but protected by a physical membrane that prevent physical degeneration and aging. At story's end, Helena scratches Cantar's protective membrane, and, like Dorian Gray in Wilde's novel, the weight of the decades lands upon the vain villain in seconds: he super-ages and dies in horrible, gruesome fashion.

10. The Zombie: "All That Glisters "

Before George Romero's stellar re-interpretation of the Zombie mythology in Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombies were often simply mindless human beings; laborers working at the behest of an evil master. They were, in essence, unthinking henchmen in the White Zombie (1932) sense.

episode "All That Glisters" resurrects this older interpretation of the zombie on a distant planet inhabited by sentient, silicon life-forms. These alien rocks murder Security Chief (Tony Verdeschi) and then re-animate him as a zombie, essentially, to serve as their arms and legs. The horror-overtones of this episode are also quite dramatic. Director Ray Austin deploys some tight-framing, dark-lighting and claustrophobic settings to express the horror of the situation.

Other episodes of Space: 1999 also dealt explicitly in horror tropes. "Mission of the Darians" concerned the taboo of cannibalism (a concept we see in literature such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). "Brian the Brain" was a Frankenstein story, with a renegade, technological monster (a murderous robot) murdering his creator/father, Captain Michael (Bernard Cribbins).

"Seed of Destruction" was a variation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" only with Koenig confronting an alien doppelganger, rather than a wizardly ancestor of identical physical characteristics. "Death's Other Dominion also involved scientific hubris and super-aging in its unforgettable climax, and "The Testament of Arkadia" highlighted a valley of death - a necropolis of sorts -- on an alien world, as well as ghostly force influencing the Alphans.

Of course, a relevant question is this: why create a technology-based, outer space series utilizing so many instances of horror in mythology, literature and even the movies. The answer lies in Penfold's and Byrne's unique concept of the series.

Specifically, Johnny Byrne once informed me that Space: 1999 "is a modern day (near future) origin story of a people. The Celts, the Aztecs and the Hebrews all have origin stories. But Space: 1999 took place in real time, not pre-history. It was a futuristic rendering of that old story: of people cast out from their home with no plan, no direction, and no control. There are elements of faith, magic and religion in the series, and nobody seems to understand and accept that. In Space: 1999, we are witnessing the foundation of a culture."

Now imagine that culture established, some two hundred years after the events of Space: 1999. The stories those "future" citizens might tell would involve terrifying tales of their founding: of the premature burial, of the encounter with sirens, of St. George and the Dragon, and so forth.

It is this mythic (and horrific) perspective, truly, which makes Space:1999 so unique a science fiction drama. The series repeatedly pinpoints high-tech corollaries for the ideas that have scared us throughout human history and then takes its characters on a mythic journey through that macabre realm of the unknown. Thrillingly, the series also includes amazing guest performances by horror icons including Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Richard Johnson

If you're interested in learning more about Space:1999's futuristic "origin myth," don't forget to check out my critically-acclaimed book, Exploring Space:1999, now available on Kindle.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Cyber Horror Awards are Here!

Forget about the Oscars! Take a stroll down the bloody red carpet instead: The 2009 Cyber Horror Awards are live!

Along with B-Sol and Iloz Zoc, I was part of the award nominating committee this year before the official voting period began.

I must say, the final results are really fascinating. I'm especially pleased to see some of the Drag Me To Hell love, particularly for composer Christopher Young and actress Lorna Raver.

Are the results controversial? Perhaps so, but 2009 was, in my opinion, an outstanding year for the horror genre. In addition to Sam Raimi's triumphant return to horror, we had Zombieland, Orphan, Antichrist, Trick'r'Treat, Pandorum, plus Jennifer's Body and the ever-divisive (but endlessly fascinating) Halloween 2.

Go over that list again, slowly this time and consider each title: there's a zombie comedy set in a post-apocalyptic, post "hateful" America, an Interloper "Bad Seed" film with a twist, a symbolic psychological horror of enormous power, a quasi-anthology about the rituals of Halloween, a high-tech space horror, a quirky teenage romp with a feminist bent, and a remake that strays far from the source material but offers a singular personal vision in its stead.

Frankly, I wish all years had offerings as diverse, as exciting, as controversial, and as original as what we saw in 2009. In any other year, Orphan, Antichrist, Drag Me to Hell, Zombieland, Jennifer's Body and Pandorum might have been a safe bet for best horror film. But this year, competition was fierce.

Read the whole tally of Awards here.