Monday, October 31, 2011

Tales from the Darkside: "Answer Me" (1984)

My wife has informed me on more than one occasion that I become highly offended when the telephone in our house rings during the evening, and she's absolutely right. 

I hate telephone interruptions when I'm screening a movie or TV episode, eating dinner, or writing. 

Now, I don't object to calls from friends and family, mind you, but the ubiquitous calls from political parties, telemarketers, doctors' offices and the like drive me absolutely up the wall.  In fact, I've developed what I can only term a Pavlovian response to the telephone's loud ring. I simultaneously feel a pit of acid in my stomach, and a dawning sense of agitation and anger.

Tales from the Darkside's one-woman show, "Answer Me" recognizes how annoying a persistently ringing telephone can be, and utilizes that sound to punctuate a droll half-hour of escalating terror. The episode exists in a kind of irrational, illogical zone of terror, featuring the scatter shot logic of a dream.  And yet, "Answer Me" boasts some genuine psychic power and gravitas because we all hate technology that we can't control.  Like a damned telephone that rings all hours of the night, undeterred by our desire to silence it.

In "Answer Me," a woman named Joan (Jean Marsh) has sub-let an apartment in New York City from her friend.  But all night, every night, the telephone in the next apartment, 12F rings.  Worse, there is  anoccasional pounding on the wall too, just as she is about to drift off to sleep.

Joan grows increasingly agitated and restless as the days go by, and the damned phone won't stop its plaintive ringing.  She learns, however, that the apartment is vacant and that the woman who once lived next door...died in the apartment.   She apparently committed suicide.  She strangled herself.

As the phone continues to ring, unabated, all day and all night, Joan fiinally breaks into Apartment 12F to have a look...

If you apply logical standards to this episode of Tales from the Darkside, you can see how it collapses under the daylight of rationality.  If Joan is truly vexed by the ringing phone, she has any number of options.  She could go stay at a hotel, for instance.  She could go to Apartment 12F and cut the phone cord.  Or, even, she could purchase ear-plugs.

And yet, undeniably, horror is not always about rationality or logic.

Sometimes the genre works quite effectively on a different level, a surreal nightmare level, and that's the quality "Answer Me" possesses in spades.

There's the possibility Joan's entire experience is a nightmare itself; or that she has found her way into Hell.  For instance, is Joan actually the woman (the English woman...) who died in the apartment netx door, strangled by the phone, but somehow reliving the event?  Her experiences with an uncooperative telephone operator certainly hint at such a possibility.  And  the fact that Joan never sees another human being during the episode's proceedings might even be interpreted not as a sign of the production's low budget, but as an indicator of the fact that the world itself is not right.  That Joan has traveled to some "dark side."

The final moments of "Answer Me" are ridiculous, and yet delightful, even inspired on some level.  The vexing telephone physically assaults Joan, and there's a wonderfully silly p.o.v. shot from the phone's subjective viewpoint during the siege. 

Of course, a telephone as a malevolent evil force is kind of funny. 

And yet again, somehow the idea works in this context, as an avatar for fear.  Not just as a symbol of intrusive technology, but as a representation of the fact that some objects we believe we control and dominate actually seem to take on a life of their own, especially when we're agitated, or thinking irrationally.

"Answer Me" is one of my favorite episodes of Tales from the Darkside.  It's another one that I remember from the series' first run some twenty-seven years ago.  As a teenager, it troubled my slumber and my psyche, although I readily acknowledge it's ridiculous in concept and execution. 

Still, I've never forgotten the imagery of a woman driven mad by the incessant ringing of a telephone, and her final, mortal tussle with "convenient" technology.   

Tales from the Darkside rarely ceases to impress me because it forges a real sense of imaginative terror from the thinnest of premises, and "Answer Me" is a perfect example of this quality.

Tales from the Darkside: "Slippage" (1984)

If "Trick or Treat" utilized the horror genre as a vehicle for didactic social commentary, and "Inside the Closet" demonstrated how formalist film techniques might be effectively marshaled to forge a visceral sense of terror, then Tales from the Darkside's "Slippage" reveals another side of the anthology series' creative equation. 

Here, a cerebral, existential terror is broached.  There are no monsters or ghouls to speak of in this half-hour, simply the terrifying notion that we do not hold as firm a grasp upon our lives and our identities as we might believe. 

As mortal human beings what many of us fear most is oblivion, our absence from existence itself.  Religions have been created, in fact, simply to temper our fear of such oblivion.  Instead of obivion, we face an eternal and Utopian afterlife in a different, spiritual form, many religions inform us in a dedicated attempt to make the unimaginable and unacceptable palatable.  But "Slippage" dwells explicitly in that universal fear of "winking out," veritably gazing at the bogeyman of oblivion in the mirror.

In "Slippage," written by Mark Durand and Michael McDowell and directed by Michael Gornick, a commercial artist, Richard Hall (David Patrick Kelly) unexpectedly has a very bad day.  His paycheck has gone missing, and the portfolio he sent to a prospective employer, Commercial Graphics, has also disappeared.

At home, Hall is perturbed when his wife, Elaine (Kerry Armstrong) appears to have registered their car in her name only. 

And why wasn't he invited to his high school reunion?

In very short order, Rich worries that "a gremlin is out to rob me of all documentation."  Soon, the fear -- though disturbingly amorphous -- becomes more pronounced: Rich goes to visit his Mother (Harriet Rogers) and she doesn't recognize him.  In fact, she claims not to have a son at all.  Some dark force is systematically wiping out Rich's past...and getting perilously close to his present.

Thus, in the spirit of Twilight Zone stories such as "A World of Difference and "I Shot An Arrow in the Air," "Slippage" suggests that, through some dark supernatural or paranormal auspices, we could be wiped out of existence. That existence itself, seemingly, bears a grudge against us.

Such an idea is frightening enough on its own, but if you peel back the layers of the onion you see that the terror goes even deeper.  If we become lost to oblivion as if we never were at all, the world's memory of us vanishes too.   Since remembrance is the only immortality our species can achieve, the idea of all our loved ones forgetting we ever existed is a potent fear. 

At one point, Elaine asks Richard "you don't want them to forget you, do you?" in regards to his new employers, but her question is actually about a larger, existential issue.  We must accept the fact of physical death, but not one of us wants to accept the idea that we could be forgotten by our loved ones, or that our good deeds on this Earth will disappear into the fog of time.

Simply put, we don't want to be forgotten. We don't want to be invisible.

"Slippage" is consumed with the idea of self/identity, and the episode highlights numerous shots of Richard gazing into the mirror, considering his reflection.  He draws sketches of himself as a baby, as an adult, and as an old man as well.  All such compositions remind the viewer how important we hold our own image, our visage and sense of self.  The message is, simply -- as scrawled out in a Yearbook quote from Rich's classmate -- "Remember thyself to thyself."

As Richard starts to slip through the cracks of time, no more than a "memory that's slipping fast now," he suggests to his friend, who still remembers him, that it is easy in the grind of daily life not to remember thyself, but simply to grind along, unthinking, taking existence itself for granted.

The mechanism of the "Darkside" or "Other World" in this episode causes unfortunate Richard to consider those very things he has neglected.  His favorite movie may be It's a Wonderful Life, but Richard hasn't learned the film's lesson.

Although not as stylistically accomplished as "In the Closet," "Slippage" reveals a how Tales from the Darkside could, even on an egregiously low budget, reckon with human terrors beyond ghouls, witches and devils. 

Tales from the Darkside: "Inside the Closet" (1984)

Earlier today, I wrote about "Trick or Treat" one of the more didactic episodes of the 1980s syndicated horror anthology, Tales from the Darkside

Now, I want to focus on an episode that boasts no greater thematic intent than to get your ghost; to scare the hell out of you.

The episode I refer to is "Inside the Closet," a first season entry written by Michael McDowell and directed by Tom Savini. 

This particular tale involves a young student, Gail (Roberta Weiss) who rents a room in the home of prickly old professor, Dr. Fenner (Fritz Weaver).  The officious prig lives alone, he claims. His wife died of cancer, and his daughter is apparently away at graduate school. 

In her rented attic bedroom, however, Gail starts to suspect a different truth when she hears scratching noises emanating from inside the walls.  Worse, a crawlspace door seems to open and close of its own volition. 

On one occasion, Gail finds the crawlspace decorated like a child's room. She sets a trap for rats, only to see the trap mysteriously disappear...and re-appear under her bed.

Gail's final horrifying discovery -- and that discovery's unusual relation to Dr. Fenner -- comprises the final punctuation of this particular installment of Tales from the Darkside, which first aired on November 18, 1984. 

Like many episodes of Tales from the Darkside, it's plain that "Inside the Closet" was cheaply produced.  At one point, the press reported that the weekly special effects budget for the series was a mere $188.00 dollars.  Here, the economical aspects of the production are seen in the small cast (just two people) and the number of sets, again just two (an attic bedroom and a downstairs foyer).

Despite such apparent limitations, director Tom Savini transforms "Inside the Closet" into a veritable horror masterwork. 

With imaginative staging and mise-en-scene, he generates a sustained and disturbing atmosphere of terror until the final, macabre revelation.  There's very little dialogue in "Inside the Closet," and thus Savini relies on two creative elements to create the dark atmosphere. 

In the first instance, he deploys expressionistic angles to lift up the terror quotient.  In the second instance, he lets ominous music help sell the story. In fact, the music is almost a character itself in the drama.

This is a spine-tingling and effective combination of techniques and I marveled while watching "Inside the Closet" at how expertly Savini engages the viewer's interest and fear.  There's a great silhouette shot of Gail at the eight-minute point, for instance -- pushing into the frame -- as she hears a suspicious noise.  Savini also deploys slow zooms and pull-backs to accent certain important (and portentous) conversations, and even works in a Trilogy of Terror-styled "homunculus" cam./P.O.V. shot.

There are also several featured shots here of slowly turning doorknobs, hinting at the unseen terror behind the door (in a manner reminiscent of Wise's The Haunting). One provocative and carefully crafted composition involves a rack focus: an ominous shift from Gail's foot dangling off the bed in the foreground to the terrifying crawlspace in the background.

The best of these moments involves simple camera motion: a pan down from Gail in bed -- her head resting on the pillow -- to the thing below her bed, eyes red, malevolent and jaundiced.  It's a frightfully well-conceived shot, and part of a truly effective stylistic tapestry. 

Too bad then, that, finally, the reveal of the "monster" is largely ineffective.  Once you see the beast in the daylight, it no longer scares or even impressive. 

But of course, given the creature's nature and relationship to Dr. Fenner, this quality may be appropriate too.  The final, sympathetic shots of "Inside the Closet" suggest that even monsters need love too.

There's an authentic simplicity and innocence about "Inside the Closet" that proves really appealing in this day and age of CGI, digital creatures, and high-tech horrors.  The story doesn't strive for explanations, grasp for far-fetched, gimmicky twists, or wallow in unnecessary narrative complications.  "Inside the Closet"  is about a monster in hiding, and the atmosphere of terror that  this monster creates for one, unlucky woman.  Finally, we get a shift a perspective and are asked to regard the monster differently...as a child.   And supporting everything here is the universal fear of a closed closet door, and the thing that may or may not lurk inside.

That's plenty of efficacious terrain for a 22-minute story.

I remember first seeing this episode late at night when I was fifteen or so, and being utterly transfixed by it. I watched it again last night, and felt almost precisely the same way.

CULT TV FLASHBACK #145: Tales from the Darkside: "Trick or Treat" (1983)

The low budget Laurel horror anthology, Tales from the Darkside, may be a relic from the 1980s, but it's one relic eminently worth excavating, especially around Halloween time.  

Like its brethren, Rod Serling's Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside -- produced by George A. Romero, Richard Rubinstein and Jerry Golod -- remains a highly didactic horror television enterprise, one very concerned with  social commentary. 

As I wrote in Terror Television (1999): "if one looks beneath the veneer of gore and grue, it seems fairly clear that many episodes of this series" are "modern morality plays, cautionary tales about what might happen to an individual who acts selfishly or maliciously."

The Writer's Bible for Tales from the Darkside made this conceit explicit.  "The Other World" or "Darkside" intervention featured in each 30-minute tale was a deliberate mechanism or tool by which the cosmic scales of justice could be balanced. 

And yes indeed, this notion is squarely rooted in the great and noble tradition of EC's Tales from The Crypt or Vault of Horror.

Exhibit A regarding this didactic aesthetic is the series' sterling premiere segment, "Trick or Treat" written by George Romero himself.   Although set in rural America in the 1940s, the program aired in the early Reagan years, and remains just as powerful a parable about greed in 2011 as it was during the time of its original broadcast. 

Directed adroitly and economically by Bob Balaban, "Trick or Treat" involves a nasty old miser, Mr. Hackles (Barnard Hughes) who "collects every penny" that is due him, and gives nothing back to the poor farmers in his community who support his business at a general store. 

And in point of fact, Hackles has even set himself up as a sort of local bank by offering the farmers ample credit when the chips are down.  With nowhere to turn, they accept his "kind" help, only to see him ruthlessly leverage control of their very lives.

Explicitly, the vulture-like Hackles views the people in his town as "backward" primitives, and notes that "people make their own misfortune."  Hackles also derides "the little people and their little lives."   Accordingly, on Halloween night, this "self-made" man doesn't give out candy.  Instead, he dispenses advice.  He tells young Trick or Treaters that "I made my fortune...and so should you."

In today's vernacular, then, old Mr. Hackles is clearly part of the 1 percent.

Each year on Halloween night, Mr. Hackles makes it his business (and pleasure...) to torment the so-called little people of his town.  In particular, he instructs the poor farmers to deliver to his house their children every October 31st.  There, they will be permitted to search the imposing home for his I.O.U.s.  If the children find them, their parents' debt will be completely absolved.  If not, the debt stands. 

Of course, in all the years Hackle has played this sadistic game, no child has ever found the stash of creditor's notes, in part because Hackle's arranges nightmarish "frights" for the children: booby traps and  monster effigies that scare the kids away.

Essentially, Mr. Hackles demands that the good citizens of his town literally turn their children into "debt slaves," becoming his play things for a night in the vain hope that one lucky family might get a reprieve from their bills. 

Again, this idea represents a metaphorical commentary on the nature of the American dream.   Studies have revealed that many low-income Americans don't want the rich to pay their fair share in taxes because they believe they too will one day be rich.  After all, they might just win the lottery, right?  And every Halloween night, Mr. Hackles organizes just such a lottery...but with no real winners.  It's hard to win a game in which one man (or one percent...) leverages all the power and holds all the cards.

In "Trick or Treat's" denouement, Mr. Hackles inevitably gets the tables turned on him.  This Halloween night, it is not children who show up to play his game...it is an array of ghouls, including a terrifying witch

One might say that these ghouls occupy his house, even...

In short order, these representatives from "The Other Side" play a little trick on Hackles: they cast his cash (and his prized I.O.U.s) to the four winds.  Hackles attempts in vain to retrieve his "belongings" and ends up chasing the almighty dollar right down the corridors of Hell. 

"You're getting warmer now.  Warmer..." a hideous devil informs Hackles as the miser goes at last to his just reward in the Lake of Fire.  Notably, Hackles feels treated unfairly by those who wield more power than he.

But Mr. Hackles...I thought we all made our own misfortune?  Aren't you a self-made man?

Produced on a budget of just $200,000, "Trick or Treat" dominated the 1983 Halloween weekend Nielsen ratings in major markets such as New York, thereby assuring that Tales from the Darkside would soon become a weekly series; a series that lasted for four years and eighty-nine episodes. 

Episodes such as "Trick or Treat" were generally the norm rather than the exception, and various series installments tackled issues of racism, "hate" radio and other topics from the national discourse of the day.   "Trick or Treat," of course, serves as a pretty explicit and ghoulish reminder (in the early Yuppie era, no less) that "upward mobility" should concern more than the bottom line on a bank account; that our final, eternal "upward mobility" might depend on our accumulation of other currency, namely decency, empathy and compassion. 

In other words, the episode conforms to that line from Matthew: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven."

Today, in celebration of Halloween, I'll be blogging about other memorable episodes from the first season of this memorable horror anthology from the 1980s.

Trick or Treat...

Happy Halloween


Hope you have a frightfully great holiday. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Beetlejuice (1988)


Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988) remains a  perfect Halloween treat, a movie by turns ghoulish, garish, goofy, and giggle-provoking. 

The 1988 film was a huge box office hit when originally released theatrically, a fact which enabled Burton to assume directing duties on his blockbuster, Batman (1989). 

The comedy also spawned a 1989 animated series named after its titular character, a "bio-exorcist" played in the film by an over-the-top Michael Keaton. 

Today, progress is apparently being made towards a long-awaited sequel.

Never scary or frightening in the traditional sense, Beetlejuice plays throughout its duration like a cartoon come to vivid, three-dimensional life. Critic Roger Ebert didn't care for the film much (he felt it was gimmicky, like a TV sitcom) yet nonetheless cannily observed the overriding aesthetic as "cartoon surrealistic." 

Frankly, you can't describe the movie in better or more accurate terms than that.  Beetlejuice is both exaggerated in nature (like a cartoon) and utterly bizarre (hence surreal), a dazzling conjunction of the real and the fantastic. 

The masterful if deliberately quirky visuals are macabre indeed -- from shrunken heads to giant sandworms --yet this Burton movie doesn't play such brawny imagery for the inherent chill factor. 

Instead, as is often the case in the filmmaker's distinctive canon, the audience feels if though it has wandered into the fully-realized (and extremely personal) fantasy world of a highly-imaginative artist; one with a dark side, but also boasting a pronounced sense of, well...whimsy.

In terms of the particulars of the Burton Brief, we're back once more to the notion of outsiders bonding together to form a family of sorts, a quality we've already witnessed in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Ed Wood (1994).  Here, a couple of innocent (and child-less) ghosts played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin end up the "spiritual" parents of an isolated, vulnerable, goth girl, Winona Ryder's Lydia. 

Uniquely, this relationship is depicted as wholly symmetrical: Barb and Adam Maitland appear to learn as much from the young woman as she gleans from her experience with them.  It's a nice, folksy aesthetic, especially considering what the protagonists are up against in the scheme of things.

And what are they up against? 

Well, the protagonists and their latent misfit-ism run smack dab against two very negative characteristics of  real life: exploitative, avaricious people on one hand and an uncaring and byzantine bureaucracy on the other.  In particular, Lydia's Dad (Jeffrey Jones) and step-mom (Catherine O'Hara), the Deetzs -- much like Beetlejuice (Keaton) himself -- view the Maitlands as exploitable resources; tickets to personal satisfaction, embodied by wealth or celebrity. 

And in the halls of the Afterlife, the Maitlands find only hellish levels of barely functional bureaucracy.  The Afterlife is depicted as an endless maze of waiting rooms, foreboding cartoon architecture, "lost souls," and put-upon, uncaring civil servants.  People are encouraged to "take a number" and wait to be helped...forever.

Although Adam tells Barb that as dead people, they have little to worry about, that belief proves patently untrue in short order.  In the Great Beyond -- as in life upon this mortal coil -- success seems to belong to those who seek to leverage "the upper hand" in every situation, to utilize the movie's terminology.

Goofy and fun, Beetlejuice thus makes its case for family -- a social support net -- against the vast canvas of spectral officiousness and mortal narcissism.  An extended tour of the afterlife mid-way through the proceedings permits Burton's unfettered imagination to run wild, and his vision of a bureaucratic Great Beyond plays nicely against the idyllic qualities of the Maitlands' historic house and the pastoral New England environs. 

When Burton's idiosyncratic visual jokes and colorful paint strokes are combined with the movie's creative high concept -- the idea of a haunted house from the ghost's perspective -- Beetlejuice emerges as an inventive treat indeed.

"Maybe you can relax in a haunted house, but I can't."

Beetlejuice depicts the tale of a perfect American life ruined.  Adam and Barb Maitland live in a beautiful old house atop a hill in grassy New England.  But one day, things go awry and the couple dies in a car accident. 

They return to their home as ghosts, only to find there an incomprehensible, indecipherable and impersonal manual to their new existence: The Handbook for the Recently Deceased.

Soon, a new family, the Deetzs, moves into the old Maitland place.  Step-Mom Delia is a self-centered, narcissistic woman, and Dad is too busy conjuring ways to make money to spend time with his daughter, the alienated Lydia. 

Unwilling to share their beloved home with this cosmolitan but dysfunctional family from the city, the Maitlands set out to haunt the Deetzs.  It's not as easy as it sounds, however, and after failing to succeed, the Maitlands take the conceivably dangerous step of "hiring" a manic bio-exorcist named Beetlejuice to complete the job.

Although the Maitland's spectral case-worker, Juno (Sylvia Sidney) urges restraint, the Maitlands bring in Beetlejuice and a difficult situation immediately goes from bad to worse...

"I have a chance to teach you something here. You have got to take the upper hand in all situations or people -- whether they're dead or alive -- will walk all over you."

From a certain perspective, Beetlejuice is a literalization of the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Specifically, the film depicts three different levels of existence that, despite their differences, share something in common.   To wit, the production showcases life in idealized miniature (in Adam's table-top representation of the nearby town), life in the Maitland's

Beetlejuice -- a Loki-like force of mischief -- shifts constantly from one level of reality to the next, bringing with him chaos, uncertainty and, inevitably, disaster.  After he's through with them, not one of these levels of existence is safe or unchanged.

In whatever manner these three levels of existence (tabletop miniature, mortal life, and the afterlife) seem to differ from one another on a superficial nature, the more they are revealed to be precisely the same.  At various points, all three "fields" prove prisons for Adam and Barb, for instance. 

In all three levels, there are also rules to obey and follow (and if necessary, to manipulate).  That seems to be the point.  "Why don't they tell us something?" Barb asks at one point, frustrated.  "I mean, where are all the other dead people in the world? Why is it just you and me?"  In other words, the rules in any level of reality are not always clear. 

Commendably, the film's opening shot -- a pan up the hill to the Maitland's house -- reveals this quality on a visual level.  As the shot commences, we assume we are looking at a real landscape (and a real aerial shot...) only to recognize later that we are actually gazing at Adam's miniature world.  Full realization of this fact comes as a spider -- apparently a giant -- crawls over the model of the Maitland home.

Extrapolating from that tricky opening shot and the three levels of existence portrayed throughout the film,  Beetlejuice might be said to concern the ways that people navigate uncaring or at least difficult social systems.  People are either part of the establishment (like Juno), or work against the system (like Beetlejuice), taking advantage of its size and flaws. 

In between these poles are the regular people -- the Maitlands -- for whom the system does not always work. And yet they do not wish to entirely destroy the system, either.  More than anything, the Maitlands seem like good people trying to...understand a complicated tax code

They want to do right, but aren't sure how to do right.

The Maitlands are the typical Burton outsiders because these freshly dead souls are confused about the shape of their new  "lives."  They are vexed by both the living (the Deetzs) and the dead (the exploitative Beetlejuice). Left to handle their problems on their own -- without a usable guide, really, since their handbook resembles a "stereo instruction manual" --  they don't know where to turn.  Lydia is a lot like them in that way, boasting very different values than her yuppie parents.  She also doesn't understand who she should be.   This quality of "not knowing" is the thing that binds outsiders Adam and Barb, and Lydia together.

Meanwhile, both the Deetzes and Beetlejuice seem to live by Delia's advice (enumerated above) that people must take the upper hand in all situations.  In the final analysis, this is a lesson that the Maitlands and Lydia both learn, but in less-callous, less-thoughtless terms than either the Deetzs or Beetlejuice.  At the very least, the Maitlands and Lydia learn to look out for each other. Again, the focus is on a family, even an ad-hoc family, as the center of existence.

So what we have here is a (very) light social satire of the way things are.  One on side you have impossibly big bureaucracy, unable to tend effectively to the needs of the individual.  On the  other side, you've got individual hucksters and frauds such as Beetlejuice -- exemplifying  a laissez fair approach -- deliberately taking advantage of the individual.  In the middle are the regular folk, ones caught between an unworkable, officious bureaucracy and an unscrupulous character who might as well live by the motto caveat emptor. 

Or as the "ghost with the most" puts it: "These aren't my rules. Come to think of it, I don't have any rules!" 

For me, this is an especially intriguing reading of the film given Keaton's role in the drama.  After Beetlejuice, he appeared in a horror film entitled Pacific Heights (1990) wherein he performed essentially the same grifter-type role, vexing another married couple (played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) by skirting and manipulating the law to his own selfish ends. Here the accent is on outrageous comedy, there the accent is on terror. But the commonalities are interesting.

In Beetlejuice, the Maitlands are truly trapped in limbo, between a rock and a hard place.  And yet in this positioning, they come to gain...perspective. "Being dead doesn't really make things easier," Adam tells a suicidal Lydia at one point, and that's just one grace note in the film,  the idea that avoiding a problem doesn't solve a problem.  The Maitlands, at first, leave Beetlejuice to freely roam their miniature metropolis in the attic, a plan of action that leads to his return and near ascent (not to mention ill-advised wedding to Lydia).  Finally, Lydia and Maitland join forces to actively stop Beetlejuice.  Once the family is whole (or on the same page) it can conquer the interloper, and does so, making way for the happy (and very domestic) ending.

Beetlejuice is loaded with creative invention, not the least of which occurs in its trademark scene of spiritual possession.  Here, the essentially harmless Maitlands use their ghostly powers to make the narcissistic city folk, including the Deetzs -- and Dick Cavett -- perform to The Banana Boat Song, (Day-O).  Spiritual possession as musical number is a good joke all on its own, but the film also garners laughs from the Deetzs's response to their spiritual slavery.  They love it!  They want to use it to make money, to enhance their reputations and wealth. "I didn't know I could do the Calypso" enthuses Delia. 

Coming in 1988 -- in the age of Gordon Gekko - this is surely a comment on yuppieism.  Even haunted houses are apparently a path to upward mobility.

In obliquely dealing with this idea, Beetlejuice emerges as a uniquely American fairy tale.  It's the story of ghosts who lost their home...but gained a daughter.  And that surely represents a triumph of traditional American values over the ideals of conspicuous consumption. 

Like all great fairy tales, Beetlejuice is also about the dark side of life, about a fate worse than death (the room for lost souls), about monsters at the door (giant sandworms) and about a system that doesn't really care if you succeed or not. 

Delightfully, Beetlejuice remains absolutely timely today, in part because its message resonates in the era of Occupy Wall Street, but also because Tim Burton did not apt for a strict adherence to realism in crafting his crazy world.  The special effects in the film have not aged dramatically because they are so expressive, so explicitly emblematic of a whimsical (if dark) nature 

But Beetlejuice works best as a reminder that the human predicament seems to be a constant.  Even in death, it seems, he has to claw, scratch, and fight to find happines.  And as in life, the thing that makes that effort bearable is the company of family.

Like Beetlejuice himself, Burton's 1988 comedy "turns on the juice" and then "see what shakes loose," which, quite frankly, is more than you might rightly expect from a surreal, silver screen cartoon. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

(Halloween) Collectible of the Week: Talking Freddy Krueger (Matchbox; 1989)




You may not be old enough to remember this arcane bit of Americana, but there was a spell in the late 1980s of...Freddy-mania. 

Okay, perhaps the movement wasn't as big as Beatlemania in the 1960s, but it was still a considerable commercial force. 

Specifically, three A Nightmare on Elm Street pictures starring Robert Englund were released between 1987 and 1989, along with rap songs about this famous bastard son of a 100 maniacs. 

Also, toys of Freddy (and his notorious finger-knives) were hot items.  In particular, I always like to remember one particular statistic from 1988 that showed more five year olds of the day recognized Freddy Krueger than they did Abraham Lincoln.  

You can imagine how that went over with the Moral Majority.

Ah, the good old days...

So in honor of Halloween, I'm trotting out my prized "Talking Freddy Krueger" (Matchbock; 1989) from the heyday of Freddy-mania. 

This gruesome representation of Wes Craven's horror movie icon (intended for ages "8 and up") stands a whopping 18-inches all, and comes adorned in the character's trademark fedora and ratty red-and-green sweater.  

And yes, he's wearing his finger knives.

The figure also features "poseable arms and legs," but best of all, croaks out juicy (and evil...) bon-mots, just like his quipping, silver-screen counterpart.

"Each time you pull Freddy's string, he has a special message just for you!" notes the legend on the back of the box. 

Among Freddy's catchphrases:  "Hi, I'm Freddy," "Pleasant Dreams," "Let's Be Friends," "Welcome to Elm Street," and "Watch out, Freddy's back!" 

Imaginatively, the interior of the Talking Freddy's box is designed to look like Krueger's boiler room, the very place he stalks and traps his prey.

It's a little strange to think about America's eight year olds playing with a large action figure of a notorious (fictional) child murderer, but on the other hand, children have always had a real (and I'd argue, healthy...) fascination with cinematic monsters. 

Seen in that context, Freddy was merely the latest iteration of that fascination, after Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Godzilla.  After all, his TV series, Freddy's Nightmares (1988 - 1990) even made Freddy a regular fixture in living rooms for a while, a "hosting" job that softened his more horrific movie image.

By 1994, Wes Craven himself was commenting on the yin and yang of Freddy-mania in his Pirandello-esque re-imagination, Wes Craven's New Nightmare.   I think he found a pretty good answer about the whole situation, likening Freddy to the witch from Hansel & Gretel

In other words, there's an appropriate place for old Pizza Face in our culture, and that place emerges from our long cultural tradition for enjoying the macabre and the terrifying. 

In other words, Freddy is part and parcel of the Halloween spirit.  

So trick or treat..."and pleasant dreams..." 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Back to Frank Black's New Book

Back to Frank Black, the dedicated campaign to resurrect Millennium's profiler Frank Black in a film or TV-movie, today has offered some terrific news in conjunction with the series' 15th anniversary.

Together with Fourth Horseman Press, the talents behind the campaign are launching a new book about the series.

Here are the details, from the press release:

Fourth Horseman Press is proud to announce Back to Frank Black, an upcoming book based on the Fox television series Millennium (1996-1999) and produced in association with the titular campaign to return its protagonist and television’s greatest criminal profiler, Frank Black, to the screen.

Back to Frank Black offers fans of Millennium a hitherto unprecedented volume of material exploring this landmark series. The book features original essays from a number of authors with in-depth knowledge of the series—including Joseph Maddrey, co-author of Lance Henriksen’s autobiography Not Bad for a Human (2011), and media critic John Kenneth Muir—as well as exclusive material from the cast and crew, much of which is drawn from the wealth of interviews that the Back to Frank Black campaign has conducted for its distinctive series of online podcasts.

Back to Frank Black will be edited by Adam Chamberlain and Brian A. Dixon, publishers for Fourth Horseman Press and consultants to the Back to Frank Black campaign. The book will be made available in both print and digital editions with an expected publication date of early 2012. The collection will not be sold for profit and all proceeds will be donated to Lance Henriksen’s preferred registered charity, Children of the Night. For the latest news on the book’s release, visit backtofrankblack.com or follow the Back to Frank Black campaign on Twitter and Facebook. Publisher’s updates will be made available at fourthhorsemanpress.com as well as on Fourth Horseman Press’s Twitter and Facebook feeds.
 
I'll write more about ordering and publication details regarding the book as they become available.  But just let me say for the moment that I'm proud to be involved with the project and have already submitted some material for it.

From the Archive: Millennium: "Seven and One"

The future in full flower.
"Evil dwells where fear lives.  In a heart without fear, Evil can find no purchase. 

God, love, goodness...these things reside in our connections with other people...

...it is those who feel the strongest that Evil wants the most."

- from "Seven and One," by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz.



There are a few programs and films I absolutely refuse to watch when I'm at home alone.  The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978)...and select episodes of Millennium. 

Or to paraphrase Lance Henriksen's android Bishop in Aliens, I may be an atheist...but I'm not stupid.

Why do I find Millennium (1996-1999) so disturbing?  Well, occasionally Chris Carter's second series achieves a level of deep, unrelenting spiritual terror.  That terror is not necessarily due to the egregious presence of a drooling demon or an insane serial killer.  Instead that sense of evil -- of wrongness-- is somehow amorphous, yet suffusing.  It casts this doom-laden shadow over the entire enterprise.  It's a cerebral, existential terror...and it has an inescapable feel.

In my interview with Chris Carter last December, I termed this unsettling brand of horror (which was also featured in The X-Files...) as something like anticipatory anxiety.  It was a mood of looming paranoia; it was a feeling of intense uncertainty about our shared future.

Frank Black senses the presence of Evil close to home.
This unsettled vibe was partially a result of events in the narrative on any given week, but with Millennium, sometimes you can't necessarily point to any clear or comprehensible source of the feeling -- of the fear -- if that makes sense. 

In other words, evil things are clearly occurring, but you don't always understand exactly what, who is doing it, or precisely why. Clarity eludes you...and your imagination starts to fill in the black spots.

This paradigm was especially evident in Millennium's final season, 1998-1999 on Fox.   As Millennium moved towards its inconclusive last hour  and crept up towards Y2K the storytelling grew creepier and yet -- at the same time -- more deliciously opaque. 

Stories such as "Bardo Thodol," "Saturn Dreaming of Mercury" and the subject of this review, "Seven and One" were utterly bizarre, ambiguous...and unnerving.  All these episodes are laden with potent symbolism and require some amount of deciphering; of interpretation.  They are mysteries wrapped in enigmas...just the way an active, engaged viewer might prefer.

Birthday cakes and butcher knives.
"Seven and One" -- written by the team of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz -- opens immediately with that sense of amorphous anxiety, and with a surfeit of symbols. 

It is young Jordan Black's (Brittany Tiplady) eighth birthday, which should be a joyous occasion.   

But, as is so often the case in Millennium, peaceful domesticity is violated by an unexpected invasion, a home invasion often.

Here, director Peter Markle shoots the little girl's birthday party in a manner roughly akin to Benjamin Braddock's graduation party in The Graduate (1967) -- it's almost a first-person point-of-view assault on the senses.  We're down on kid's eye level, surrounded by dancing children, and it's a little weird; a little off. 

Very shortly, another disturbing image occurs: Jordan's grandfather gleefully cuts the birthday cake with a very large butcher knife.  This is a foreshadowing that something is amiss, a hint of dangers to come. 

Finally, Frank Black -- the incomparable Henriksen -- senses something is wrong in paradise, and the clock on the wall literally stops ticking (in an expressive shot highly reminiscent of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2). 

The doorbell rings, and the heretofore unseen (but already felt) Evil finally arrives.  Someone has sent Frank creepy polaroid photographs; photographs that reveal Frank drowned in his own bath tub.

Polaroid prophecy.

The F.B.I. investigates the polaroids, led by Frank's partner, Emma Hollis (Klea Scott). 

A profiler, Boxer (Dean Norris) begins to live up to his name, subsequently "boxing in" Frank, and arriving at the conclusion that Frank himself is the culprit behind the photographs;  that he is experiencing "the beginnings of a breakdown." 

Though he can't prove it, Frank understands something else is occurring.  Someone is attempting to terrify him using personal fears only he knows about.  Specifically, Frank has long held a fear of drowning, following a childhood incident at a swimming hole (recounted in  glorious silver-and-black, night-time flashbacks.)  It is a terror that Frank simply can't get past, as he unhappily acknowledges to Emma.

Meanwhile, the shadowy, violent figure behind the polaroids escalates his criminal activities.  He murders Frank's psychiatrist, further framing Frank by utilizing the same butcher knife we saw deployed at Jordan's party.  And the killer also buries Emma alive (her worst fear, we are led to understand...), though Frank rescues her.

Finally -- alone in his house -- Frank confronts his fear of drowing as his locked bathroom floods and escape proves impossible.  Sinking deep beneath the surface of the roiling water, Frank finally "comes out the other side" of his fear, so-to-speak, and accepts his own mortality.  He experiences a vision in which his life (with Catherine and Jordan flashes )before his eyes.  He sees flickering candles in the dream too -- a symbolic lamp-post; a light in the darkness.

In extreme high angle, Frank faces his fear of drowning.

At this point, the bathroom door suddenly opens, and Frank escapes, the flood gates literally having been opened (another canny symbol; the dam of Frank's emotions and fears finally shattering...).  

The tidal wave of water also represents the flood gates of understanding opening up. 

Having moved past his own personal sense of fear, Frank insightfully ties his experience here  -- confronting his terror at drowning -- with a Millennial Prophecy about seven  plus one equaling not just 8, but the year 1999 (and also Jordan's age in 1999; at her birthday party)...the so-called last year of peace before the onset of millennial catastrophe.

The episode concludes with a voiceover from Frank, as he holds a terrorized Emma Hollis (who has seen her own doppelganger apparently commit suicide...).   In that voice-over, Frank concludes that if he does see into the darkness, it is because there is also light there; and that the light can guide him. 

Furthermore, Black notes that the world seems to be in for a spell of trials and tribulations the likes of which it has not encountered before.  He doesn't know how right he is, at least if we go by real life.  The peace and prosperity of the 1990s was coming to an end indeed as the millennium changed, and since 2000 (and the U.S.S. Cole bombing, perhaps), the world has seen a decade of war, torture, and natural disasters (tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes of terrible proportions).

Of course, writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz could not have known this would be the path of the decade, but they adroitly plug into this communal fear of the future.  And in retrospect, it's surprising (and a little bit freaky...) how this and other millennial-type prophecies featured on the series often ring true, at least after a fashion.

But on the surface,  "Seven and One" is a baffling, mysterious and opaque installment of Millennium.  An unknown, possibly demonic, shape-shifting villain frames Frank for murder, attempts to drive him from the F.B.I, shape-shifts into Boxer and Hollis, threatens Frank and Jordan, and then, after apparently committing suicide in the form of Hollis, disappears into thin air. 

Very briefly, the episode reveals this Loki-type character as Mabius (Bob Wilde), the assassin we have seen before, in the employ of the shadowy Millennium Group.

The flood gates of water -- and understanding -- are opened.

But Mabius is never seen by the dramatis personae for who he really is (or if they do...they die, as in the case of the psychiatrist).  Furthermore, the Millennium Group is never even mentioned by name at all. 

The episode thus expects intelligence and puzzle-solving capability from the audience, and we are left to ponder a big question. 

Is the Millennium Group trying to drive Frank Black insane -- separating him from the F.B.I. -- so as to prepare him for his role in their diabolical turn-of-the-century plot? (As seen in the X-Files episode Millennium, Frank was being groomed for suicide...and zombie resurrection, right?)

Or contrarily, is the Millennium Group helping Frank -- albeit in extremely bloody fashion -- to move past his personal fear so that he can see the terror of the millennium without such fear when it finally  arrives?  This seems to fit the pattern.  In the past, the Millennium Group has also attempted to "innoculate" Frank from a contagion; though in that case it was viral, not one based in the emotion of fear.

Again, this is all speculative material that must be sussed out from the action that occurs on screen.  Carter and Spotnitz spoon-feed the audience almost nothing.  They expect us to keep up.

Thus, the best way to understand what occurs in "Seven in One" is to understand and track the highly-cinematic visuals.

First, we have the butcher knife -- the murder weapon -- cutting into the future (as represented by a child's birthday cake).  In horror films and programs, children always represent tomorrow/the future, and that's what is being explicitly imperiled here. 

Then we have the idea that Frank is "drowning," literally, without Catherine....without human connection.  He has lost his wife and his yellow house, and is teetering on the breaking point.  As he tells his psychiatrist in a session (seen on video in "Seven and One,") he isn't sure he wants to get better "this time."  Life for Frank Black has turned fearful and frightening because he feels alone.

Frank confronts his fear, and experiences the happy vision of his life -- of the good things (as initiated by the imagery of a red flower in boom; see top of post).   He sees the light (the flickering candles...) too. 

Ending on Connectedness.
Frank recognizes Catherine, Jordan and his yellow house, and comes through the fear at last.  

Then the floodgates of understanding (the flood in the bathroom) are opened, literally, and understanding comes to Frank. 

He knows he will be a warrior in the darkness against the grave and gathering threats of the rapidly-approaching 21st century.

Finally, Frank understands that to be that warrior, he must follow the advice of the Catholic priest at Catherine's parish at St. Timothy's...he must not run away from his fears and separate himself from humanity (which is what Boxer recommends), he must seek humanity out; gain strength from those bonds. 

The episode ends on the explicit visual of Frank doing just that with his young apprentice of sorts, Emma Hollis.

I might add, this "connectedness" to the world seems to be the great challenge of the archetypal Chris Carter male, so far as The X-Files and Millennium are concerned.  Both Mulder and Frank Black are extremely intelligent men who go to great lengths to help others; but always seem to refuse help themselves, even from their loved ones.  They demand emotional clarity from others, but themselves are emotionally remote; distant.

"Seven and One" is an authentically creepy episode of Millennium, an installment about the (changing) shape of fears yet to come; yet known.  Since anticipatory anxiety is hard if not to impossible to feature or embody as a character, I submit that "Seven and One" captures the vibe of the upcoming Millennial "doomsday" with all effective symbolism, a cerebral, cinematic intimation of indescribable Evil.  I don't know that Millennium could always operate on this highly visual, highly symbolic level, but I appreciate this episode for dwelling at that apex with so much audacity, confidence and mystery.

What's even more terrifying than "Seven and One," perhaps, is the downward spiral of the series' last few episodes.  Emma Hollis -- Frank's apprentice and true friend -- allies herself to the Millennium Group, leaving him very much alone in his battle against the darkness. 

And, finally, betrayed, Frank does have to run away.  Staying connected to the dangerous world is not a viable option when he learns of the Millennium Group's plans for his daughter.  He takes Jordan out of school, grabs her hand...and flees.

The darkness has won, at least for the moment.  But we have not yet seen the last stand of Frank Black.

Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Return of the Fighting 69th" (October 25, 1979)

In “Return of the Fighting 69 th ,” Colonel Wilma Deering ( Erin Gray) finds that her past has caught up with her in two ways. Fi...