Friday, March 19, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Fourth Kind (2009)

In terms of UFO stories, there is this strange tradition in the modern cinema of the pseudo-documentary: a film that mixes stock footage of purported flying saucer sightings with newly-filmed, "dramatized" material.

For three decades, the "real" and the staged have been mixed in movie ventures including Target: Earth?, a film which featured actor Victor Buono playing an alien, plus real scientists including Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov.

The 1970s and early 1980s truly represented the heyday of UFO pseudo-documentary explorations like that, including UFOs: It Has Begun (1976), UFOs are Real (1979), UFO-Exclusive (1979) and UFO Syndrome (1981).

In the same decade, there were also a number of pseudo-documentaries pursuing author Erich von Däniken's popular hypothesis about "ancient astronauts" visiting man in pre-history, the whole Chariot of the Gods (1970)/In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973) approach.

Surprisingly, the year 2009 brought a dedicated revival of these "alien encounter" formats...with a new twist, director Olatunde Osunsanmi's out-and-out horror effort The Fourth Kind.

Here, the filmmakers have also adopted The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity's (2009) marketing scheme: selling their genre film as being entirely based on fact. The truth, of course, is that all the "authentic archival footage" featured throughout the film (captured by police cameras, home video cameras and other sources) is staged; prepared exclusively for this movie. Like the first-person camera approach of Paranormal Activity, this conceit is designed specifically to scare viewers: to make audiences believe that what it is witnessing is authentic.

The underlying conceit here is incredibly interesting, if a little complex. Director Osunsami employs split-screens on several occasions to place purportedly "real" archival footage (say of a police hostage situation on a front porch...) side-by-side with his staged representation/re-enactments of the same moments.

The trick, of course, is that both incidents are staged for the film; both are faked. Yet placed side-by-side in one frame-- with one heightened artificial image reinforcing the authenticity of the other -- audiences are asked to seek out the visual differences between grainy home video and apparent Hollywood confabulation. In this hunt, our eyes conclude that the home video is realistic, and actually buy into that (false) footage as being truthful. In other words, Osunsami deliberately deploys slightly-exaggerated Hollywood artifice to make us believe in the veracity of the cheap, home video material. And he's largely successful in his clever game too.

Indoctrinated in everything from America's Funniest Home Videos to Cops to World's Wildest Police Videos, modern TV and film viewers have come to instinctively trust the shaky, grainy, cheap approach to filmmaking, and, oppositely, inherently distrust the more accomplished, romantic, Hollywood approach. The latter is exemplified here by the presence of movie star Milla Jovovich in the lead role of "Dr. Abigail Tyler," a woman who uncovers a rash of alien abductions in Nome, Alaska during the first five days of October, 2000. Modern audiences crave (and subscribe) to naturalism in films these days, eschewing artifice and theatricality as much as possible. This movie encourages that impulse; asking us to reject the artifice of the Jovovich dramatizations and believe the naturalism (the lie...) of the 911 tapes, the police camera videos, the home video sources, and so forth.

Case in point: our main character. The Fourth Kind also presents another woman as the real Dr. Abigail Tyler, and let's just say, to paraphrase Wes Craven's Scream, she's no Milla Jovovich. Presented in an archival video "interview" from Chapman University (with director Osunsanmi, no less), we come to believe this unglamorous woman as "the real thing" because she is awkward, halting, relatively unattractive, and distinctly un-movie star-like. Of course, she's an actress made to appear that way.

This is where the movie proves genuinely smart. The "staged" re-enactment of scenes feature lovely Jovovich looking great and sexy in her stylish wardrobe, playing out hypnosis regression scenes against backgrounds that are more romantic, more affluent than what we see in the home video. Osunsanmi deliberately plays up the exaggerated production design in these sequences; they are an artist's heightened version of reality and we detect that fakery. Thus the documentary footage, lensed in less elaborate, less-stylish surroundings, seem increasingly real. The supposedly "documentary," archival footage moments deploy available light, less attractive actors than Hollywood would permit, poorer sound, and more naturalistic blocking and camera work. People step out of frame. The blocking cuts off heads during shots, action occurs off-screen, at the corners of perception, etc.

It takes about twenty-three minutes or so for the head to get accommodated to The Fourth Kind's fashion of operating, and you have to get through a cheesy opening by Jovovich, directly addressing the audience. She comes out of a blurry fog, as if awakening from a dream, and breaks the fourth wall. But here's the thing: we must remember that this is all part of the format and genre (the UFO pseudo-documentary) too. Hollywood "stars" (often slumming it, in need of a paycheck) were always asked to front this goofball stuff with all sincerity and pomposity, whether it was Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith or Rod Serling.

And Osunsanmi is uncannily skilled even at excavating the right visuals in the movie's re-enactments too. For instance, he finds exactly the right shot during a domestic dining room scene to visually express the absence of Tyler's husband, Will (who has died under mysterious circumstances). He also forges a scintillating sense of uneasiness and scope with the first shots of Tyler arriving in picturesque Nome, an isolated town that can only be reached by airplane. You get the impression from Tyler's flight over Nome -- an outcropping of human technology and community blanketed on all sounds by green mountain ranges -- that the town is the perfect "test tube" environment for alien abduction and experimentation. And no one has to say a word about that idea for it to carry thematic currency.

Occasionally, the movie missteps, no doubt. Early on, there's a crisply-edited montage of hypnosis sequences (featuring three of Tyler's clients) as they all discuss exactly the same thing: a menacing white owl watching them from their bedroom windows. The montage, a time-saving measure, actually deprives us of Abigail's "learning curve." It's the wrong technique for the sequence because we should gradually learn that all of her insomniac clients have experienced an identical terror -- the presence of the owl (actually a mnemonic avatar for the extra-terrestrials). And we should see this unnerving truth dawn on Abigail slowly too. Instead, by cutting between three separate hypnosis sessions at lightning speed, there's no sense of learning, no graduation of suspense, no escalation of terror. It's one of the few scenes in the movie that absolutely doesn't work.

Yet what does work, remarkably well, actually, is Osunsanmi's "documentary"-style footage, which -- at about the forty-five minute point -- kicks off into absolute horror when two patients, named Tommy (Corey Johnson) and Scott (Enzo Cilenti) are regressed to the time of their alien abductions. These actors (and the ones in the side-by-side "documentary scenes", featured in split-screen) do an absolutely amazing job of expressing and countenancing terror, using only their body movements as vehicle for expression. You actually think they are experiencing alien-generated seizures or spasms.

And then, later, we see archival footage of Scott actually being "possessed" by an alien and the static-ridden, rolling video footage provides a psychic jolt. Against your better judgment, you feel frightened (or at least unnerved), and in part it is because of Osunsanmi's conceit of pitting the documentary-style faked stuff against the Hollywood-style faked stuff. I also especiallyadmired the way that the film attempted to bring in the Chariot of the Gods aspect of the form, by explicitly referencing Sumerian cuneiform and artwork. Again, some people may claim that this subplot is a real stretch in believability (that ancient astronauts or aliens formed our race's perception of "God"), but the movie is working in a specific genre and therefore must abide by the rules of that genre.

By and large, critics absolutely hated The Fourth Kind. It has something like an 18% positive review rate on Rotten Tomatoes. I submit there are two important reasons for this, and they have nothing to with the technical skill or entertainment value of The Fourth Kind.

The first is that many modern journalists/critics may not be familiar with the style and history of the UFO pseudo-documentaries of the 1970s, and thus don't understand the genre the film is deliberately and delicately aping. They have no idea that this is an updating of a historica moviel form. Therefore, they have no way to put The Fourth Kind into any kind of meaningful context for their readers.

And secondly -- by and large -- critics really, really don't like to be tricked or outstmarted by movies. They don't want to admit, essentially, that a movie has gotten one over on them (which is why they all watch M. Night Shyalaman movies obsessed with picking apart a so-called trick ending...whether there is one or not) .

Therefore, it is easier to belittle or dismiss that which they don't "get." For example, many critics found the "dramatizations" of The Fourth Kind to be cumbersome, the Hollywood scenes over-designed (Abigail's "log-cabin Arts & Crafts office looks like it was surely subleased from a (Bulgarian) millionaire" wrote Roger Ebert in his review, for example). Yet this is the crux of the issue; it's the point of the movie. It's a leitmotif. The Fourth Kind encourages our eyes to note the unrealistic, romantic affluence of Abigail's surrounds (typical of Hollywood movies since at least the 1990s...), and then note, by side-by-side comparison, the relative naturalism of the archival, supposedly-documentary footage. In that distance between staged, A-movie re-enactment and "direct cinema"-style documentary footage, the movie pushes us to believe the veracity of the latter over the former. The point is to scare us silly and, again, as a horror film, The Fourth Kind is supremely effective on that front.

Ironically, all the same critics who disliked The Fourth Kind fell all over themselves loving Paranormal Activity, and sure, that film was easy to get...obvious even (especially by comparison). For me, that's what killed my enjoyment of Paranormal Activity. The camera there captured "supernatural" events absolutely perfectly; a feat which no one in real life has managed to do in a hundred years of photography and cinema. But this Micah chap accomplished it effortlessly. A ouija board explodes into fire on cue, perfectly framed in the middle of one composition. To me, that's just tipping the filmmaker's hand. It lacks not just subtlety and skill, but artistry.

The Fourth Kind is never that obvious; and you watch as some sort of technical (alien?) "interference" scuttles our attempts to witness alien saucers, and alien possession. We make out enough to be horrified, and to get a general visual impression of what is occurring. But critically, we're never spoon fed CGI-close-ups of demons, for instance, in The Fourth Kind. We are asked, instead -- again in cheesy pseudo-documentary format -- to consider simply what we have seen, and what we believe. And yes, it is a little cheesy, but once again: that's the nature of the form. It is part and parcel of the pseudo-documentary paradigm. We don't have hard proof of UFO alien abductions, so what we're left with is earnest "believers" like Milla Jovovich, (or in the earlier instances, Rod Serling, Jose Ferrer or Burgess Meredith...) building a spine-tingling but sensational case for us.

The Fourth Kind involves some splendid trickery and it is a good, effective horror movie. It won't make you believe in alien abductions or UFOs, but it will scare you. It certainly scared me. The exciting thing is the fashion in which it visually generates its overaching mood of terror. Here, something as simple as an audio-tape recording that starts normally and drifts off suddenly into nightmare territory is more than enough; thanks especially to the way the director laboriously sets-up and rigorously maintains his real/fake dynamic. He is aiming at something deeper too (and we see that in the explicit comparison of the aliens to "God"): we deeply fear being powerless in our own lives. The Fourth Kind gets at that idea; how our sense of purpose, superiority and direction is undercut if there are indeed "higher beings" acting upon us with impunity and without mercy. Our human connections (to our children, for example), mean nothing if we're just laboratory rats.

Is The Fourth Kind's all-out attempt to subvert our "truth radar" just some intellectual game? Perhaps so, but in vetting this particular game, the director of The Fourth Kind has successfull updated a genre (the UFO pseudo-documentary) and breathed new life into the currently in-vogue mockumentary horror film. This film just reinforces my belief that 2009 has been the best year for horror in a long, long time. The year brought us Trick'r'Treat, Drag Me to Hell, Pandorum, Zombieland, Halloween II, Paranormal Activity, Antichrist and The Fourth Kind. Even the "failures" on that list are ambitious, original, and endlessly fascinating. And -- taken on its own terms, and in the right context -- The Fourth Kind is no failure.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

CULT TV BLOGGING: Thriller: "The Hungry Glass"

Today's post combines two of my favorite things in the world: 1960s TV horror anthologies...and William Shatner.

Adding to my pleasure, this first-season segment of Thriller, "The Hungry Glass," is based on a short story by none other than Robert Bloch, the author who first introduced audiences to Norman Bates.

Like "Pigeons from Hell," "The Hungry Glass" is a kind of regional-based horror story of the supernatural variety. Only here we've left behind the Deep South for a chilly "New England autumn" and a sleepy seaside community. It is in this setting that photographer Gil Thrasher (Shatner) and his wife, Marsha (Joanna Heyes), purchase the Bellman old mansion strangely devoid of mirrors.

The Thrashers are upset to learn from locals that their new real estate purchase is not only the site of a fatal accident, but it may actually be haunted. It seems that the woman who once owned the home in the 1860s, Laura Bellman was so vain -- so obsessed with her own beauty -- that when she died, her spirit moved into any and every object that would cast a reflection, whether a mirror or a window. The Thrasher's real estate agent, Adam (Gilligan Island's Russell Johnson) attempts to assuage the couples' fears, but soon Marsha finds a locked door in the attic. Inside, in the dark, is a room of more than-a-dozen mirrors. Laura is watching...

Almost immediately upon moving into their new home, Marsha and Gil are startled by images of Laura,'s ghost, the woman in the mirror...beckoning to them. She is trying to "break through," to "reach you" and there is no doubt that she is murderous.

The terror builds and builds in "The Hungry Glass" until the malevolent ghost (another old crone...) pulls unlucky Marsha into the looking glass with her, leaving her husband to destroy the mirror. Before the episode ends, there's another shocking death too...

Like "Pigeons from Hell," this Thriller episode features some remarkable visual compositions. As the show commences, we get a view of the vain homeowner, Laura -- a beautiful woman. Or rather a view of her reflection, for she is seen only through a row of mirrors mounted on the wall. We move with Laura as she dances and plays to the looking-glass, and our vision of this character hops from mirror to mirror as she whirls and spins. In each mirror, we ponder, exists a universe unto itself. Then, when Laura is forced by circumstances to open the front door, we see the real Laura for the first time: an elderly hag who looks like she's already been embalmed, in the words of the teleplay.

We also get a great Shatner-ian performance here. In fact, Shatner plays the same type of character he has played in other contemporary genre anthologies: vulnerable but strong. For some reason, his "horror" characters always have feet of clay, and Gil Thrasher is no exception. In Twilight Zone's "Nick of Time," Shatner's newlywed character became paralyzed because of his superstitious nature. In "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Shatner was (again) a married man with a problem: he had just suffered a nervous breakdown so no one believed him when he claimed to have seen a gremlin on the wing of a plane in flight. If you think of Shatner's
bomb de-fuser in One Step Beyond's "The Promise" and also his imperiled astronaut in The Outer Limits' "Cold Hand, Warm Heart," you see the same combination of vulnerability and strength showcased.

"The Hungry Glass" is exactly the same. Here, Gil is a Korean War veteran who experienced hallucinations and also "the shakes" after his tour of duty ended. Now, when he begins to experience hallucinations again in the Bellman House, Gil's wife is doubtful about his sanity. And as the episode builds to its inevitable climax, Shatner's character gets closer and closer to the edge and, finally, goes over it in most dramatic fashion. As the lead, Shatner is saddled with a lot of exposition in "The Hungry Glass," but he's marvelous in such scenes because it's clear his character -- while delivering words about Laura's after-life -- has become a shattered basket case. Shatner gets a faraway look in his eyes as he recounts Laura's final disposition, and it's clear he's lost his grip on reality.

And yes, Shatner does get to scream in "The Hungry Glass." So in his horror anthologies, I think he's three for four in that category.

"The Hungry Glass" is also filled with ironic commentary about mirrors. "Mirrors never lie," "mirrors bring a house to life," "Every time you look in a mirror, you see death," etc., and Boris Karloff's ghoulish introduction gets in on the fun too. He notes to the audience that it should "make sure that your television casts no reflection..." It really is enough to give you a chill.

Douglas Heyes directed several classic, timeless Twilight Zone episodes including "The Howling Man," "The Invaders" and "Eye of the Beholder." Thriller's "The Hungry Glass" is right up there with the best of those in terms of presentation and impact. A pervasive sense of evil hangs over the Bellman House, influencing everything. Those who survive the night bid a hasty exit from the haunted mansion, never to return But as a viewer, this is one haunted house you'll definitely want to re-visit.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Julie Newmar

The amazing Julie Newmar gets my vote as the sexiest cult-tv actress of all-time. This charismatic performer alyways played strong, smart, seductive characters, even on the cultiest of programs in the 1960s and 1970s. How many of Newmar's series and episode appearances featured here can you name?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 105: Thriller (1961): "Pigeons from Hell"

It's always of interest to me the manner in which some TV series grow immortal and increasingly popular over the span of decades (like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits), whereas other program of equally high quality seem -- for the most part -- to wither on the vine, disappearing from mainstream pop-culture awareness after just a single generation, much like the brilliant One Step Beyond (1959-1961) or the macabre subject of today's cult TV flashback, Thriller.
Thriller ran for two glorious seasons on NBC, from 1960 to 1962. The episode roster came to include sixty-seven hour-long installments, all lensed in stark black-and-white. Horror icon Boris Karloff served as the series host, and Hubbell Robinson produced. Some episodes boasted scores by a young Jerry Goldsmith. In its early days, Thriller alternated between "thrilling" crime adventures and out-and-out horror stories, but before long, the series moved deeper into the horror genre, and offered a number of memorable tales in that venue.

Perhaps the most famous of these efforts was "Pigeons from Hell," written by John Knuebuhl and adapted from Robert E. Howard's 1938 short story that was first published in Weird Tales (and recently adapted again as a Dark Horse comic-book in 2008). Shot by golden-TV age cameraman extraordinaire Lionel Lindon (1905 -1971), the episode was directed by One Step Beyond's John Newland, and it first aired in prime time on June 6, 1961.

"Pigeons from Hell" is a dedicated Southern Gothic, a horror sub-genre that excavates the "cultural character" of the American South, features frequent grotesqueries and evidences an atmosphere of pure, creeping, unadulterated dread.

The televised tale begins as two likable young brothers, Tim (Brandon De Wilde) and John Branner (David Whorf) take an unexpected detour on their road trip through the Deep South. They come upon an abandoned Plantation, the Blassenville Estate, as night falls. The introductory shot of this Estate is rather masterfully vetted: the camera pivots from the thick woods suddenly; to a veil of hanging Spanish moss that juts down into frame. Beyond, the dilapidated Southern castle stands in the distance. Half occluded. Half in another world.

The two brothers spend the night in the house, and Karloff's opening narration (from a misty swamp...) informs us that this is a bad idea. That "spirits of the dead" have come back to "guard their ancestral home" from these northern invaders. Then it's back to the story as Tim and John sleep downstairs, by a roaring fire. John is awakened in the night by the odd sound of cooing pigeons...which have mysteriously congregated around the house -- on the porch and veranda. At first, the cooing of these birds is kind of comforting, but then it belies a certain madness, and the perpetual noise grows menacing and the sound of blood coming to a boil.

In the middle of the night, John is drawn upstairs (across a winding, damaged staircase of grand proportions) by the call of a female voice. This disembodied voice sings to him. He disappears into an upstairs room and we hear a blood-curdling scream (but don't see what occurs). Tim rushes to his aide, only to find John -- his head split open and bloodied-- now an axe-wielding zombie.

Tim flees the Blassenville house and returns later that night with Sheriff Buckner (Crahan Denton), a no-nonsense law-enforcement official. They explore the darkened house together -- finding a bloody staircase first and then heading upstairs...into the dark.

It is here that "Pigeons from Hell" grows incredibly creepy. On every instance in which Sheriff Buckner enters a certain room...his lantern goes out. It works just fine downstairs. It operates perfectly on the staircase and in the upper hallway. But when he and Tim enter that is mysteriously and permanently snuffed out. Something inside waits for them, and these scenes are absolutely shiver-provoking.

Soon, Tim and the Sheriff discover the diary of the house's last known resident, Elizabeth Blassenville. Over fifty years ago, she wrote of a time when the Plantation had turned to "weeds" and something evil prowled outside her house. By night, she would hear a strange rfumbling at the door...

The resolution to this mystery involves the last known plantation worker, a slave named Jacob Blount (Ken Renard). In terrified fashion, he reveals to Tim and the Sheriff a story of "zuvembies" - inhuman women who "live forever." For them "time means nothing." And in the great tradition of the Southern Gothic, the resolution of the Blassenville story involves the family tree, and a heretofore unknown, half-sister to the Blassenvilles, the African-American Eulilee.

The last several moments of "Pigeons from Hell" are filled with authentic, throat-tightening terror, as the voice of the ancient siren beckons Timothy the dark room. And then, out of the darkness (in a lovely shot transitioning from blurry to crystal clear), a murderous old crone -- with hatchet -- appears. Following that sequence, we get a good look at what has become of the Blassenville sisters.

Thriller in general, and "Pigeons from Hell" specifically, were lauded by Stephen King in his book on horror, Danse Macabre (1981) and for good reason. Under Newland's expert direction (by this point he had directed over ninety-episodes of One Step Beyond...), the episode never lags, and the creepy atmosphere is so thick it is almost tangible. There's a lovely push-in on a painting of Elizabeth at one point, cob-webs framing and surrounding her very alive-looking face. The image suggests her entrapment, and indeed that's the crux of the story. Another terrific and evocative shot climaxes this long night of Southern terror: the old crone -- in the background of the shot -- is silhouetted by a powerful ring of light, just as she is about to launch her final bloody attack.

The feeling underlying this Southern Gothic is one of trespass: John and Tim step into a world they know nothing about, and are punished for the transgression. More than trespass even, the story involves a family legacy of hatred, racism and revenge that stretches from beyond the grave and chokes those still in the mortal coil. The old Lady "monster" in this episode is a sight to behold, and this sinister old crone represents the long history of secrets stretching into the present. Like the Old South herself, this Evil never forgets the past.
In the days and weeks ahead, I'll be blogging further episodes of Thriller, in part because I feel it deserves some renewed attention (and isn't available officially on DVD), and in part because it's so damned good. But for today, it's enough to remember (with a chill...), the series' finest installment, "Pigeons from Hell." John Newland was a damned good director of horror (he also helmed the amazing TV-movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark starring Kim Darby and several episodes of Night Gallery). I admire the way Newland selected his shots here: not just because they were scary, per se, but because they were scary in a way that explicitly reflected the episodes' narrative content. "Pigeons from Hell" is Newland at his best too, and that just makes the episode all the more effective.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Peter Graves (1926 - 2010)

The AP is reporting this morning the death of Peter Graves, the silver-haired actor who brought American agent Jim Phelps so memorably to life on Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) and its 1988-1990 follow-up. He was 83-years old.

I've been watching Seasons Two and Three of Mission: Impossible over the last several months, and become quite enamored with Graves for this classic portrayal of a TV icon. As the leader of the IM Force and the defender of America against plots by foreign dictators and the domestic Syndicate, Graves was a kind of silver-haired, athletically-built American God.

Graves once described his character as an "invulnerable genius," but Phelps also boasted a distinctive, human side, revealing a true loyalty to his team members in episodes such as "Exchange" (during which Barbara Bain's Cinnamon Carter was captured), and even falling for a double agent, played by Joan Collins in "Nicole." Beneath the invulnerable genius beat the heart of a very human man. Phelps even managed to bring a subtle sense of humor to the character.

But Mission:Impossible was first and foremost about the job; about completing the mission. And Phelps was a scion of America power in the turbulent 1960s: forever loyal and forever patriotic. He didn't ask questions about his covert espionage missions, he just accomplished them and moved on. There was no cynicism in dashing Jim Phelps, and no cynicism in the portrayal by Graves, either. Graves' Phelps character projected American power with grace, charm and without attitude.

Peter Graves was also well-known outside of Mission: Impossible for a variety of prominent roles. He memorably lampooned his heroic stature and demeanor as the pilot in disaster-movie spoof, Airplane (1980) and its sequel, Airplane 2: The Sequel (1982), for instance.

Throughout his career, mostly in the early years, Graves also appeared in low-budget science fiction films such as Killers from Space (1954), and It Conquered The World (1956). In the 1960s and 1970s, he was a staple of science fiction television, appearing in such series as The Invaders, Fantasy Island and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Peter Graves, much like William Shatner or Charlton Heston, is one of those classy 1960 actors who always projects strength and decency in his varied roles, and consequently has been viewed as a role model by many youngsters of Generation X. My condolences go out to Mr. Graves' friends and family on this sad occasion. I hope those in mourning can take some solace in the fact that, thanks to DVD, his life's work is constantly being discovered and re-discovered. Seeing Mission: Impossible again this year has been a revelation for me -- it's a TV series of consistent high-quality, tremendous intelligence and a lot of suspense -- and I have come to admire Peter Graves more than ever.