Saturday, May 01, 2010

TV REVIEW: Happy Town: "In This Home on Ice"

Terror television boasts a long and noble history of escorting audiences to dark, mysterious burbs in out-of-the-way corners of America.

Starting way back on Dan Curtis's Dark Shadows (1966 - 1971), with a detour to David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-1991), with a jog over to Trinity, South Carolina (in Shaun Cassidy's American Gothic [1995-1996]), right up to last year's slasher paradigm revival, set on scenic Harper's Island, it's been quite the exciting and imaginative tour.

This week, ABC introduced viewers to the latest strange destination: Haplin, or "Happy Town," Minnesota, a hotbed of intrigue, lies and dark secrets.

Directed by Gary Fleder, the first episode of Happy Town kicks off with bloody murder. In an ice shack on frozen Mack's Pond, a hooded killer murders an unpopular local by pounding a spike through his head with a mallet. This inaugural scene is assembled almost entirely out of quick cuts, but the violence is intense...and messy.

It turns out this fresh murder isn't the first major crime to occur in the normally quiet Haplin, either. Twelve years ago, a psychopath called "The Magic Man" began abducting residents; one a year for five long years. Locals now live in fear that this "Magic Man" may return, and continue his evil pastime. Some folks seem to think that he might even be of supernatural origin.

What I enjoyed about the premiere episode of Happy Town is the way the pilot episode establishes several mysteries. The first and most intriguing one involves the "eternally dashing" but highly-sinister, Luciferian figure played by Sam Neill, Mr. Merritt Grieves.

Grieves owns a movie memorabilia shop on Main Street, and discusses, in an impressive and unsettling sequence, his favorite movie from childhood: a 1921 movie called "The Blue Door," concerning a gateway "into the heart of man."

I have the feeling we'll be hearing a lot more about this fictional old film in future episodes, and hope we even get to see some clips from the production. Already, from first mention, The Blue Door got me thinking about Twin Peaks' malevolent Black Lodge.

Another mystery is even more simple, but equally interesting. In the local boarding house, new Haplin arrivee, Henley Boone (Lauren German), learns that the third floor is off-limits to all renters. We are provided a brief peek up a long, dark staircase (with an eerie blue light emanating from above...). As the first episode ends, Henley resolves to check it out, and I, for one, would like to know what's up there.

One element of the pilot I didn't care much for involved the local sheriff, played by M.C. Gainey, constantly disassociating in the middle of important police interviews and repetitively mentioning a mystery character named "Chloe." Personally, I think he's been hypnotized to do this by the sardonic Mr. Grieves, but still, some degree of subtlety in the subplot would have been a nice choice. The sheriff disassociates and mentions Chloe three times in just the first 33-minutes of the episode.

We get it.

Chloe's someone important and the episode's surprise ending revelation bears that out.

I can't say that I warmed much to many of the dramatis personae in Happy Town. At least not yet. The Conroy family, consisting of bread-factory worker and mother, Rachel (Amy Acker) and milquetoast cop Dad,Tom (Geoff Stults) didn't seem particularly interesting, impressive or intelligent. They are very white-bread indeed. Contrarily, I found the colorful widow's club at the boarding house and mysterious Mr. Grieves far more compelling. And besides, who wouldn't want to visit his movie memorabilia shop, called "The House of Ushers?" I don't want to say I'd sell my soul to get a look at the store's movie merchandise, because I feel certain Grieves would comply...

I caught CBS's Harper's Island on DVD not long ago and fell in love with that blunt, brutal, inventive show, but this season's fresh TV fare has left me cold. For the most part, it's been woefully stupid and pitched low (V, FlashForward, and The Vampire Diaries -- j'accuse!)

With a few exceptions, the pilot of Happy Town looks to be a bit smarter than those series, though I realize that's faint praise. I hope Happy Town doesn't rush to solve all of its mysteries too fast, but since the ratings for the premiere episode last Wednesday were pretty terrible, I have the feeling our visit to this unusual, but interesting town may be short-lived. I've been told, after all, that ABC stands for Already Been Canceled.

Friday, April 30, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #107: The A-Team: "Children of Jamestown" (1983)

During the original NBC run of The A-Team (1983 - 1986), my father had a word he used to describe the Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo series:


Now, diverting can mean "entertaining" or "amusing," but it can also mean to "turn aside" or "distract from a serious occupation."

In the case of The A-Team, my Dad probably meant all of the above.

The A-Team is a vintage action series of unmatched cartoon violence, colorful but superficial characters, outrageous stunts...and not much narrative or thematic depth to speak of. But taken on those very limited terms, The A-Team truly and fully "diverts."

What does this mean, exactly? Well, even today, you can't take your eyes off the bloody thing.

Oh, there are significant causes to complain, I suppose, if that's your stock and trade. Nobody on the show ever dies or is badly wounded...even in the most horrific car crash or gun-fight.

And women? They are pretty much utilized as set decoration.

How about realism? Well, let's just say that any TV series featuring John Saxon as a drugged-out religious cult leader probably isn't aiming strictly for realism.

But again, you either take a series like this on its own terms, or you don't take it at all. Your rational, logical mind may complain or rebel about some very important aspects of storyline, plot resolution and yeah, physics, but after watching an A-Team episode you may nonetheless find yourself smiling almost uncontrollably. There's a joie-de-vivre about the players on this classic TV program, and it acts like a giant black hole...sucking you in, even if you put up resistance.

The A-Team, which aired for 98 hour-long episodes, follows a group of Vietnam veterans hunted by the U.S. military. Renegades and modern-day cowboys, these team members now serve as sort of on-the-run mercenaries.

So, as the series' opening narration reminds viewers -- at least before staccato machine-gun fire kicks in -- "if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.

Team members include leader John "Hannibal" Smith (George Peppard), whose catchphrase is "I love it when a plan comes together," charming con man Lt. Templeton "Face" Peck (Dirk Benedict), crazy helicopter pilot "Howling Mad" Murdock (Dwight Schultz) and perpetually-cranky mechanic/driver B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, played by Mr. T. Melina Culea portrays reporter Amy Allen in the early seasons of the series.

The first season A-Team episode "Children of Jamestown" is a perfect representation of the series' aesthetic. It begins in mid-mission (and in relatively tense fashion, I was surprised to see...) with the team attempting the rescue of ra ich girl from the clutches of Martin James (Saxon), a sun-glass wearing, religious cult leader. The freed girl is delivered safely to her wealthy father, but Face, B.A., Hannibal and Amy are captured and taken to the Jamestown compound for "judgment."

There, the A-Team is granted an audience before James, who pretentiously recites a poem to them. Hannibal recites a poem in kind: "Hickory, Dickory, Dock..." he begins.

Outraged, James orders his machine-gun armed acolytes -- hulking muscle men in brown monks robes -- to free the prisoners and then hunt them down. In a convoy of surplus Army jeeps that the compound conveniently maintains

So, it's kind of like The Most Dangerous Game at Jonestown...

Now, right here, an engaged (and sober) viewer will start asking some mighty pertinent questions. Why do these macho, grim acolytes feel it necessary to wear monk robes? More trenchantly, what do they get by serving the egotistical and difficult (and clearly bonkers) James? Why did they join the order? Furthermore, why all the jeeps and machine guns at a religious commune? What is the religious foundation for this order that it can incorporate both monks robes and heavy artillery?

But okay, the A-Team requires an army to fight every week, and in this episode, we get an army plus a wacky cult leader. It might not make strict sense, but there you have it.

So anyway, the A-Team escapes to a nearby farm, where a farmer and his gorgeous daughter live in fear of the cult and the cult leader. The family helps the team out, and Face has a little romance with the farmer's daughter, unaware, apparently, that the "farmer's daughter" scenario is the set-up of too many dirty jokes to count.

But hey! This is no ordinary farmer, let me tell you. He also happens to be an artist who sculpts metal in his spare time. His back yard thus resembles an auto junk yard. So in short order, Hannibal, B.A., Amy and Face construct a flame-thrower turret on top of a commandeered jeep. Then, using a hot water heater and acetylene tanks, they build a missile launcher.

Then they take the battle right to James, who is leading his jeep convoy against the uncooperative farmer.

I love it when a plan comes together. Don't you?

I've watched several seasons of Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) recently, and was very, very impressed. Every single week, that series played matters absolutely straight, with a real, sincere attempt to seem realistic...even with strange gadgets, face-masks, and complicated plots in the mix. In other words, Mission: Impossible crafted a larger sense of "truth" around its stories, settings and characters. And the suspense was almost universally intense.

The A-Team, by contrast, plays nothing straight. It's a knowing put-up job from start-to-finish. For instance, this episode doesn't look seriously at cults, or at cult leaders. It doesn't examine the reasons why a farmer in the middle of nowhere would also have a machine shop. Nor does the narrative see the main characters -- except for Amy -- break a sweat. Instead, the narrative is but a hook for the action scenes and a lot of admittedly funny jokes.

What holds "this plan" together, in simple terms is the grace of the performers, and the unfettered sense of violent fun. Again, I can't argue that the A-Team is socially valuable stuff, only that -- as my Dad stated so memorably on a Tuesday night long, long ago -- it "diverts."

The A-Team hangs a lot on the chemistry between the actors. So it's a good thing they're such an agreeable bunch. Watching Face describe "the jazz," or having Hannibal get mad over the fact that James has taken his prized boots may not sound like scintillating television, but somehow -- with these guys, with these jokers, -- that's exactly what it is.

"Children of Jamestown" attempts, at one point, to wax serious, with Baracus telling Amy that the only to get through a situation like this is to "accept death." Why? Because it "frees you."

And the playful attitude of the A-Team TV series, I suppose, "frees you" too. After an especially hard day's work, the the knowing silliness of this show is oddly infectious.

I featured the A-Team as my cult-tv flashback today because, very shortly, a feature film revival (starring Liam Neeson as Hannibal) will be playing in theaters. I'm sure the temptation will be to update the series by making the film "dark" and "bloody." But in keeping with the tenor, spirit and odd fun of this weird old TV show, I hope the movie evidences absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever.

It should remember instead just to include..."the jazz." If it doesn't, well -- to coin a phrase -- I pity the fool....

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Every Town Has An Elm Street: The Tao of Freddy K.

In William Schoell and James Spencer's superlative companion, The Nightmare Never Ends: The Official History of Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street Films (Citadel, 1992), director and horror icon Wes Craven briefly recounts the youthful experience that led him to create cinematic dream-killer Freddy Krueger.

Specifically, Craven reported that -- as an eleven year-old -- he awoke one night from slumber to the sound of strange, scuffling sounds outside his bedroom window.

Young Craven got up out of his bed, went to the window, and gazed down to the avenue below. There, a mysterious stranger stood. The man looked up at the window and met young Craven's stare. A terrified Craven hid for several minutes.

When Craven returned to the window, the stranger was still standing there; still looking up at the the exact same position. He hadn't moved.

Then, the man entered Wes Craven's building, slowly climbed the stairs to the family apartment -- his footsteps audible -- and neared the front door...

"As an adult, I can look back and say that that was one of the most profoundly frightening experiences I have ever had," Craven told the authors of The Nightmare Never Ends. "That guy has never left my mind, nor has the feeling of how frightening an adult stranger can be. He was not only frightening, but he was amused by the fact that he was frightening and able to anticipate my inner thoughts..." (page 179).

Meet Freddy Krueger, the villain of Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and unarguably the most popular movie boogeyman of a generation.

This Friday the legend of Freddy K. is re-born with a big budget remake of the seminal Nightmare on Elm Street but -- disappointingly -- without Craven's input, advice or participation.

Considering the imminent silver-screen re-birth of Krueger, this seemed like the ideal time to go back and remember those qualities that made Robert Englund's Freddy such a powerful cultural influence in the mid-to-late 1980s.

1. When the Parents Are Away, Freddy Plays:

In Craven's original film, Freddy's teenage victims have literally no place to turn.

Tina's Mom is more interested in shacking up with her boyfriend than in helping Tina (Amanda Wyss) deal with her night terrors. Nancy's Mom (Ronee Blakeley) is a (mostly) useless drunk. Nancy's Dad (John Saxon) is a police detective, and always "on the job." Instead of listening to Nancy and helping her fight Freddy Krueger, he uses Nancy as bait to catch the wrong person (Rod). Glenn's Dad, Mr. Lantz (Ed Call) hangs-up on Nancy when she calls to check up on Glenn (Johnny Depp). "You've got to be firm with these kids!" he barks. The price of that self-righteous telephone hang-up: Glenn gets torn up by Freddy in the blood-flood to end all blood floods.

The adult world depicted in A Nightmare on Elm Street is not one friendly to children. In fact, local children sing the famous jump rope song ("one, two, Freddy's coming for you...") from one generation to the next, to warn one another about Krueger and his monstrous actions. The parents themselves are too busy burying the past; too busy burying the "truth" in the hope that what they repress and deny will simply stay buried. Of course, it doesn't.

Freddy visits the sins of the parents (murder) on the children, and because their parents aren't honest with them, the children of Elm Street don't even know why this is happening to them.

Writing for People in May of 1985, critic Ralph Novak wrote that "Craven is something of a generational turncoat. While he is 35, all of his adult characters have the intelligence and courage of cantaloupes."

That's exactly design. Nightmare on Elm Street is about the younger generation learning to make it on its own; about recognizing the terrors of adulthood. And yes, there are some things worse than lying or obfuscating parents.

And that's what Freddy is: the amused stranger from Craven's childhood who enjoys terrorizing children because he can.

There's something especially upsetting about this aspect of Freddy, the fact that he preys on children, on the young. The world can be a pretty frightening place even for adults (even without Krueger) in it, but just imagine being eighteen and finding out that this guy is after you. One of my favorite lines from the original film is Nancy's (Heather Langenkamp) shocked realization that -- without sleep -- she "looks twenty." That comment is so innocent, and yet so dead-pan. She means it. Not being forty years old like me for instance, she doesn't see that it's funny...that twenty years old is just a blip on the radar. Freddy is such a monster because he destroys such innocence. And he relishes the job.

2.) Freddy is the Man of Your Dreams:
Freddy is also incredibly frightening because, much like Michael Myers, he's utterly inescapable.

The great white shark from Jaws can't kill you if you don't go into the ocean, for instance. However, everyone must sleep sooner or later. Everybody has to dream. And that's the field where Freddy stalks his prey, on the dream plateau. Freddy can afford to be patient because he knows that he always has the home-field advantage. He lives in dreams, and we just visit that often-surreal place.

The dream sequences of a Nightmare on Elm Street -- at least before some of the more outrageous rubber reality set-pieces of the sequels set-in -- all play cannily on very basic human fears. That we're being chased for instance, and that our feet get, essentially, stuck in mud. Or that there's something hiding in the bubble bath unseen...where we're vulnerable. Or that the monster chasing us can stretch beyond human proportions to grab us.

Freddy scares us because we're all vulnerable to the irrationality of dreams. But again, Freddy thrives there. He uses that irrationality, that vulnerability against us. Our nightmare landscape is his playground.

3.) To Be Or Not To Be: That is the Question Freddy Poses:

I always say that Nancy Thompson is Hamlet for the horror set.

Consider that A Nightmare on Elm Street serves as a direct thematic counterpoint to John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).

In Halloween, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) sits in high school English class while an unseen adult teacher drones on about "fate" and "destiny." In the midst of the class, Laurie sees Michael Myers' car on the street: she thus glimpses her fate. As the teacher explains on the soundtrack that "you can't escape fate," we are led (through the visuals) to understand the connection: that Laurie cannot escape her impending connection to an escaped serial killer.
By contrast, A Nightmare on Elm Street finds Nancy Thomas in another high school English class as a teacher discusses the resourcefulness of the melancholy prince in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The teacher notes that Hamlet "stamps out the lies" of his mother, something which Nancy will do in Elm Street as well, and that the prince "probes and digs" to find the truth. Again, that's the very task Nancy undertakes: seeking information about the life and death of Freddy Krueger, and her parents' role in his murder.

The Elm Street philosophy suggest that only by digging beneath the surface, by learning the truth of a thing, can one overcome the sins of one's parents and survive. The key to beating Freddy is to know and understand him: to see that he thrives on the energy of your hate, and then rob him of that energy.

4.) Freddy is the 1980s Personified: Apocalypse, Armageddon, and Deficit Spending

I realize that my conservative friends and readers get exasperated with me for pointing out some, er, unpleasant facets of the Ronald Reagan years in America.

Like the fact that Reagan repeatedly expressed a belief that we were living in the Bilbical End Times.

Like the fact that he joked about bombing Russia on an open mic, or claimed, erroneously that nuclear missiles could be recalled after launch.

Or that his tax cuts for the utra-rich turned an 80 billion dollar deficit into a 200 billion deficit in just two years.

Or that 35 million more Americans lived below the poverty line in 1983 than did before he was inaugurated.

It was in this decade, as well, that middle-class American families, by trying to keep up with the yuppie Joneses, had to become two-income households. And that meant the advent of the "latch-key kid" syndrome: the child who came home from school to find...nobody at home.

All of this context plays into the terror that is Freddy Krueger. The sins of the father -- the national debt -- is visited onto the children; just as the sins of the father (murder) was visited upon the children of Elm Street. More than that, the ascent of Freddy - a hellish demon -- in supposedly secure middle America suggested nothing less than an apocalypse in the making.

In Freddy's Dead we saw what ultimately became of Freddy's Springwood. As you may recall, the affluent community had turned into a ghost-town. And today, to continue the economic metaphor, there are hundreds of small towns in America where Main Street looks just like Springwood: places where the economic policies of the last thirty years have destroyed prosperity.

This is who Freddy was. Who Freddy has been for a quarter-century.
After Friday, I'm not sure who he will be. If the talents behind the remake are smart, they have paid adequate note to our unsettled times; to America's continuing dreads and fears.

If the new Freddy can tap into these 2010 bugaboos, then the long-lived dream demon will survive the translation to the next generation.

If Freddy becomes, instead, just a ring-master shepherding a circus of impressive special effects, this new iteration of the legend may not carry the power of his predecessor. I wish Craven had been involved in the making of the film; at least then we would know for certain that the film would carry some sub textual meaning, or genuflect to the ideas that have currency in today's America.

If you're interested in reading more about Freddy and his creator's history, don't forget to check out my 1998 book:
Wes Craven: The Art of Horror.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Collectible of the Week: Big Jim Rescue Rig (Mattel; 1971)

Well, I haven't focused much on nostalgia and toys here for a while (since before Christmas 2009, and my post on Kenner's Super Powers Line, I believe.)

But, as you may or may not recall, I have been endeavoring to get for my boy, Joel (age 3) the entire Big Jim toy line that I had as a kid. Of course, this occurs as time and budget permits...or whenever the mood strikes and I get a few minutes alone on E-Bay. Don't tell Kathryn! (Kidding, Honey, really...).

I have already acquired for Joel the Big Jim Camper, the Sky Commander playset and the Big Jim Safari House. But just this week, I nabbed one of the most well-known vehicles from the Mattel line: The Big Jim "Rescue Rig" from 1971.

The rig, though made from the same mold as the sports van, is a bit longer than the camper, and originally sold for about $13.00 back in the disco decade. The huge vehicle, described as "a large mobile unit," features an "Adjustable Rescue Boom" cherry picker, plus such accessories as a fire-axe and hook pole. The Rescue Rig came originally with a remote control "communications center" that could "relay six emergency calls" too. Unlike the camper, the Rescue Rig's entire aft section opens up to serve as a kind of first-aid station.

Replete with intensive care unit and rescue basket, the Big Jim "Rescue Rig" is quite the cool 1970s toy actually, and Joel's arrived yesterday afternoon in the mail (in a huge box.)

As of 8:30 am this morning, The Rescue Rig has already done approximately 100 "rescue runs" down our long drive-way...and is no doubt bound for further adventures in the wilds of our back yard.