Tuesday, October 25, 2011

From the Archive: Millennium: "Thirteen Years Later"

While investigating “The Madman Maniac” case on a horror movie set in Trinity, South Carolina, F.B.I. detective Emma Hollis (Klea Scott) asks profiler extraordinaire Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) an important question about their current investigation.

She asks him if he recalls the serial killer called “The Frenchman” -- a figure depicted so memorably in Millennium’s pilot episode in 1996 -- and wonders if this case could be similar in an important way. Except that instead of a Scripture-quoting serial killer, the contemporary investigation involves one who utilizes horror movie “quotations” or allusions as his source of creativity.

Quite reasonably, this raises a procedural question. Shouldn’t the case’s investigators be watching and researching horror films to glean a sense of the Madman Maniac killer’s next move, as well as his motivations?

Frank is impressed and agreeable regarding this course of action.

Queue John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)…

This short scene is very much the lynchpin of the Millennium third season episode, “Thirteen Years Later,” and for two important reasons.

First and foremost, it suggests the leitmotif of Michael B. Perry’s complex story: horror movies serving as important clues in capturing a serial killer. And secondly, the very act of a horror-themed TV show delving into the horror genre (and referring to a previous episode in Millennium canon too…) heavily reflects the cultural context of the episode’s epoch.

Specifically, the year 1998 represented the pinnacle of the 1990s self-reflexive, post-modernist horror movement in cinema. This was the era of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Scream 2 (1997), Urban Legend (1997) and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998).

More or less, all of these scary movies thrived upon the notion of killers taking horror movies as inspiration for violent behavior. And to varying degrees, the characters in these new-styled slasher films, realize they have actually landed in a horror film and either act accordingly and survive, or fail to…and die.

Intentionally mimicking this then-popular horror movie format, “Thirteen Years Later” both gazes at Millennium’s internal history (the events of the pilot, as well as Frank’s old case of over a dozen years ago) and the genre the series belongs to.

To succeed as self-reflexive satire of the horror format, this Millennium episode must first ape that form, and this is where “Thirteen Years Later” proves rather clever. In particular terms, the episode closely mirrors and rigorously conforms to the “Slasher Movie Paradigm” I excavated in my 2007 McFarland book, Horror Films of the 1980s.

As the title of the Millennium episode suggests, the narrative involves a crime or transgression in the past, in this case, a crime Frank investigated over a decade back. More significantly, it boasts what I termed an organizing principle or “umbrella of unity” too, in this case a world or venue from which all the killings draw inspiration and creativity.

In my book, I noted that: “The organizing principle is what every slasher film ultimately hangs its hooks upon. It is the key to every aspect of the film: from setting to character motivations to mode of kills and even final chase.” (page 20).

In Friday the 13th (1980), that organizing principle was the summer camp, Camp Crystal Lake. In He Knows You’re Alone (1981), the organizing principle was the world of weddings (brides, a church, a dress shop, a dress tailor…). In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the killings by Freddy Krueger all occurred in the dream world.

In “Thirteen Years Later,” the organizing principle is simply the cutthroat world of contemporary, Hollywood: a 1990s-era movie set. This organizing principle makes way for the episode’s prospective victim pool (personal trainers, producers, ingénues, pampered Shakespearean actors, etc.), muddies the water in terms of useful clues (is that human blood or stage blood at the crime scenes?) and provides the critical clue about secret identity of the killer (hint: he’s a method actor).

Delightfully, the episode also positions Emma Hollis as that archetypal slasher movie character: the Final Girl. The final girl -- a term created by Carol J. Clover -- is “chased, cornered, wounded…but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (Ending A) or to kill him herself (Ending B).” (Carol J. Clover. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press, 1992, page 35).

In “Thirteen Years Later’s” tense finale, after the killings are believed to be over, the real killer threatens Emma in her hotel room while she is alone, and she must summon the strength and composure to defeat him…even if he sounds an awful lot like her beloved mentor, Frank Black. She succeeds ably and proves her worth as a horror movie Final Girl.

By co-opting the crime in the past, the organizing principle, the victim pool and the Final Girl character from the Slasher Paradigm, “Thirteen Years Later” emerges as a full-on, affectionate celebration of the slasher genre. The segment’s best scene, not coincidentally, involves Frank Black’s lightning fast, unimpressed (but impressive) psychological profile of such slasher film icons as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and even Norman Bates.

We’ve all seen these films and these characters over and over again – and cherished them – and yet Frank comes in -- and after watching only a little clip from each film -- diagnoses these Bogeymen in the most nonplussed and clinical (and therefore amusing) manner imaginable. This is a terrific moment, and one that reveals how adeptly Lance Henriksen broaches humor in what many viewers might perceive as an essentially humorless role. He plays the scene straight, thereby allowing the audience to detect the humor for itself instead of camping-it-up and going for obvious laughs. The moment is funny because Frank accomplishes in mere moments what a century of film heroes, psychologists and final girls cannot: he unearths the motivations for the seemingly unstoppable silver screen slashers.

The self-reflexive component of “Thirteen Years Later,” largely emerges -- Kevin Williamson-style -- in the number and specificity of the horror movie allusions. The episode tags not only Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, it pauses to remember The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Omen (1976), Motel Hell (1980) and The Hitcher (1987). The killer re-creates the chainsaw attack from Leatherface’s film, and the severed finger in a lunch meal, from The Hitcher, to offer some specifics.

But most interesting, perhaps, is one relatively obscure literary reference seeded into the proceedings. Specifically, a relaxing Emma Hollis is seen reading an interesting book: Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths (1962).

This is a critically-feted collection of short stories by a celebrated modernist who subscribed to the theory that anarchy and chaos dominate the world; and who, on several occasions, actually wrote “hoax” reviews of literary works that did not actually exist…by authors that likewise, did not exist.

Ultimately then, author Borges played with literary form in the same fashion that “Thirteen Years Later” plays with cinematic or visual form. The episode is about a killer who has no understandable pattern, but who is making a movie (that doesn’t exist) about a historical case (that also doesn’t exist). This is a fake form referencing a fake form, referencing a fake event.

You can’t get much more post-modern than that.

In terms of visuals “Thirteen Years Later” also deliberately apes the slasher milieu. The installment opens with imagery reminiscent of Psycho: a shower-head facing the camera (screen-wise above and before the audience), a playful composition which makes the audience remember Janet Leigh’s infamous stay at the Bates Motel and ultimately puts us in the shower.

The film’s first death set-piece then co-mingles stage-blood and real human blood; a visual metaphor for a twisting narrative which purposefully blends “the reality” of Frank’s old case with the illusions produced by commercial Hollywood,

After the action settles down in Trinity, South Carolina (a town named after the central location of the 1995 Sam Raimi/Shaun Cassidy horror serial, American Gothic), the visuals grow increasingly claustrophobic. By the time of the climax, in which Emma is imperiled, tight horror movie-styled framing rules the day. Thanks to accomplished director Thomas J. Wright, we get some lovely close-ups of Scott, and Emma’s space in the frame is increasingly restricted, bracketed on both sides by encroaching door frames and other objects.

In some ways, “Thirteen Years Later” feels like an atypical, out-of-step installment of the very serious Millennium. But digging a little deeper, one detects how the episode’s crazy killer echoes the modus operandi of previous serial killers seen on the program, only with a horror movie twist.

And more so, the self-reflexive, post-modern message -- epitomized by the presence of that book, Labyrinths -- reveals much about the episode’s intelligent approach.

Trying to determine reality and not artifice in “Thirteen Years Later” is enough to make even the stalwart Frank Black go insane, for the third time in his life.

Two severed thumbs up?

3 comments:

  1. I am a Klea Scott admirer, John. That began with the short-lived BROOKLYN SOUTH TV series with her Nona Valentine character (right before her MILLENNIUM stint). She really is a talent (and not because she's gorgeous) and under utilized. So, when she was paired up with Frank Black, I was thrilled. If there's ever a MILLENNIUM film down the line, I want her back in there with Lance, that's for sure. Fine write-up to an excellent episode, John. Thanks.

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  2. Hi Michael,

    I too am a Klea Scott admirer. As Agent Hollis, she exudes intelligence, honesty and great sex appeal. She's gorgeous.

    I know this is heresy in some Millennium circles, but I've also liked the Frank/Emma relationship best amongst all the Frank/female roles in the series. The mentor/protege relationship really works for the show, and I wish we had the opportunity to see it continue.

    best wishes,
    John

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  3. Tl Foreman11:29 PM

    Guys, I couldn't agree with you more...she is just an amazing performer..I too am on the klea scott bandwagon. I've had the privilege to talk with her several times and she is just the nicest person. this episode is always overlooked, but to me..it's a gem!

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