Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Collectible of the Week: Interplanetary Star Fortress (Sears; 1979)


In the years following Star Wars (1977), outer space-related toys flooded the American toy market.  Many of these toys were what collectors today uncharitably term "knock-offs," meaning that the toys don't originate with a license like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century...but from an incredible simulation. 

In other words, these toys didn't belong to a specific set, but could easily co-exist with the other sets in terms of size and general "look" and vibe.

And -- I have to admit it -- I have a sort of crazy obsession for these knock-offs or so called "generic" play sets.  I guess it's because as a kid ,the knock-off toys offered me an opportunity to put  my Jedi Knights, Starfleet Officers, or Directorate Agents into "new" adventures; ones that didn't come specifically from any movie or TV episode.

A few months ago, I featured the Star Base Command Tower here, a glorious generic space play set.  Today, I wanted to remember another such toy from the same epoch, one offered only through the Sears Catalog back in the day: the Interplanetary Star Fortress.

It seems like an alien concept in the era of the Internet, but getting a Sears Catalog near Christmas every year was an incredible experience for kids back then.  I remember eagerly getting my hands on the catalog (after my sister was finished looking at Jordache jeans...) and leafing through the toy section, absolutely agog at the new toys being offered up for sale.  I remember one year, my Mom purchased for me the Star Wars Cantina, complete with Blue Snaggletooth.  The next year (I think...), I got this Interplanetary Star Fortress from the catalog.  And I loved it.

Alas, mine isn't in great shape anymore, as you can likely detect from the photos I'm providing.  If I'm correct, this particular set was sold through the "wish list" Sears Catalog for  only two-years running, both in 1979 (when it was coupled with Mego's Buck Rogers line) and in 1980 (when it was paired with Kenner's The Empire Strikes Back toys.) 

Basically, the toy is a giant laminated cylinder that "unfolds" (after turning a metal clasp) to reveal a kind of secret military base inside an asteroid crater.  Some of the detailing inside the crater looks like a landing platform, for instance.  

On the outside of the cylinder, there's some groovy Star Wars era space art featuring astronauts, laser blasts, and flying saucers, plus the logo.

You can't see it on my photos, because I'm missing pieces at this point, but the set also originally came with a shuttle pod and a plastic gun turret that could sit atop the cylinder "mountain."

You can see, I hope, those particular items from the catalog photo below.  Regardless, my memory is that the shuttle pod had engines painted on the bottom, and a hatch that could open up on the side of the thing.  The photo below shows the Mego Buck Rogers figures inhabiting the base.

Finally, I think the Interplanetary Star Fortress also came with a strap, so you could carry the folded-up cylinder around with you in the back yard.  And certainly, it was large enough to hold quite a few Star Wars figures, or their like.

I'd love to get my hands on one of these Sears "knock off" play sets in decent condition, or with the missing parts from my set.  Right now, my five year old son, Joel, uses The Interplanetary Star Fortress as the headquarters for the Predacons in his Beast War battles...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I'll Be Back!



Well, I missed Friday's Burton Brief (on Big Fish) because of the holiday and graduate school responsibilities, but I hope to resume the series by doubling up this week with reviews of  both Big Fish  and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

Thank you for all your patience, and I'll be back to blogging shortly.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ken Russell (1927 - 2011)



"Your senses will never be the same."

- Absolute truth in advertising, from Ken Russell's Tommy (1975)

The press is now reporting the untimely passing of legendary English film director, Ken Russell, one of the greatest visual artists in the history of the medium. As U.S.A. Today writes,  "Russell was a fiercely original director whose vision occasionally brought mainstream success, but often tested the patience of audiences and critics." 

If audiences and critics were indeed tested, it so because Russell knowingly, brilliantly, and persistently pushed the boundaries of decorum and convention in narrative film. 

With films such as 1971's classic, The Devils, Russell demonstrated his seemingly unquenchable penchant for coupling incendiary story content (involving religion) with blazing, unforgettable imagery. 

Not everyone was amused.  U.S.A. Today is correct that many critics dismissed Russell's canon as somehow being excessively visual (or "stylish"), a ridiculous complaint of a director toiling in a visual medium.

Although he did not consider himself a horror director, Russell very much set the path of 1980s genre cinema with early and distinctive  "rubber reality" efforts such as Altered States (1980), as well as Gothic (1986) and the satirical The Lair of the White Worm (1988).  

Altered States, in particular, remains something of an unheralded  masterpiece, one which Roger Ebert termed "the movie that Ken Russell was born to direct."  It's a tale laden with symbolic dream sequences and bizarre but memorable Christian-based hallucinations.   In this case, Russell utilizes such strange and unsettling imagery to portray a psychedelic, metaphysical quest: one man's spiritual chase after life's great truths.   

Outside the genre, Russell also directed arguably the greatest rock opera of the disco decade,  1975's Tommy, another project that succeeds almost entirely based on Russell's ability to convey a story in terms of sound and visual fury, without aid of conventional dialogue. 

Some of the set-pieces in Tommy -- namely one involving sultry Ann Margret in chain mail writhing on the floor in an ocean of baked beans -- remain unsurpassed so far as imaginative visualization. 

Among Russell's other films are Women in Love (1969), the utterly crazy Lisztomania (1975), the wicked Crimes of Passion (1984), which starred a mad, mad, mad Anthony Perkins, and last but not least, the bracing Whore (1991). 

With Russell's passing at the age of 84, let the re-examination of this singular film talent begin in earnest.  This remains the finest way to remember his unique work in film, and to celebrate an artist's life.

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Hang Out


Identified by Hugh: The Club Creole from V: The Series.


Identified by Michael Falkner: Ten Forward in Star Trek: The Next Generation ("The Child.")


Identified by Indiephantom: Twin Peaks.


Identified by Hugh: Nightmare Cafe


Identified by Michael Falkner: Quark's, Deep Space Nine.


Identified by Michael Falkner: Sandrine's, Star Trek: Voyager.

7

8


Identified by Hugh: The Bronze on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Identified by Will: Quake on Charmed.


Identified by Michael Falkner: Caritas on Angel.


Identified by Michael Falkner: The Talon on Smallville.

Identified by Hugh: Merlotte's on True Blood.
 
14


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week



"There's a time when a man needs to fight, and a time when he needs to accept that his destiny is lost.  The ship has sailed and only a fool would continue. Truth is, I've always been a fool."

- Big Fish (2003)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

From the Archive: Home Sweet Home (1980)

"A little craziness never hurt anyone..."

- Dialogue from Home Sweet Home (1980)



In honor of the approaching holiday, today I'm looking back at a really terrible horror film that I first encountered while writing Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).


Conveniently, it's both Thanksgiving-themed and a turkey.


Advertised with the ad-line "The Bradleys won't be leaving home. Ever," Home Sweet Home (1981) is the not-so-riveting story of a deranged serial killer and his holiday rampage.


Said serial killer is portrayed by Body by Jake's (1988) gleeful Jake Steinfeld. The enthusiastic exercise guru -- also known for his music label, "Don't Quit Music" -- plays this muscular madman as a cackling, bulging-eyed freak. This looney killer has the tattoo "home sweet home" emblazoned on his fist, and was incarcerated for eight years over the bludgeoning death of his parents.


In one of the film's first scenes, this hyperactive, super-fit killer takes PCP by injecting it into his tongue, guns his car engine rowdily, and then runs over a little old lady crossing the street.


Lots of maniacal, silent-movie-style, villlainous cackling over that. Unfortunately, Jake has no moustache to twirl.


Meanwhile, at a Southern California ranch, the unconventional Bradley family is preparing for a holiday that may or may not be Thanksgiving. Let's see: there's a turkey. There's a celebratory meal. There's a family gathering. And there are guests. But no one mentions Turkey Day by name. The VHS box does it for us.


Anyway -- for some reason -- the obnoxious Bradley son, charmingly named "Mistake," is dressed as a mime for the occasion. He's a practical joke-playing mime, no less. And did I mention, Mistake also dabbles in the electric guitar?


Unfortunately, the mime is one of the last characters to die in Home Sweet Home, meaning the audience must endure Mistake's lame antics for a very long time before the movie arrives at his fateful, and wholly-deserved electrocution.


The holiday meal with the Bradley family promises to be an unusual one too, not just because Mistake is a mime and because an uninvited serial killer is on his way, but because one of the invitees "won't drink anything," since "she hates to go to the bathroom." WTF? You know, I don't particularly like going to the bathroom either. I think I'll stop drinking too. I didn't realize it was that simple...


And did I mention that some crack cops are on the case, investigating the murders and pursuing the body-builder killer? The classy cops gawk at one character's overripe breasts after stopping her for speeding, and share this colloquy:


"Did you see that chick with the big bazooms?"


Since Home Sweet Home is incompetently shot, written and acted, one might hope that the violence Jake ultimately inflicts on the Bradley family would at least prove entertaining. But it isn't (well, except for the death of the mime, to be fair...). One character dies when she falls over and cracks her head against a rock. Can you really blame Ole Jack for that? Another character gets his head crushed under the hood of a car.


Home Sweet Home exhibits the familiar flaw of the worst slasher films, meaning that the killer is always positioned right where he should be in order to kill the one character who happens to be left alone at any given moment. You might accept that level of expertise from a Michael Myers or a Jason...but by Jake Steinfeld? I just can't ascribe supernatural abilities to this guy. Enthusiasm, gung-ho inspiration, yes. Boogeyman capabilities...no.


Mere words can't truly convey how irrevocably horrible this movie is. So Happy Thanksgiving, caveat emptor, and...gobble, gobble.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

New Book Reviews for Horror Films of the 1990s

Horror Films of the 1990s -- my third "horror films of" decade book -- has been racking up some  great early reviews, and I wanted to call your attention to a few of 'em as Black Friday approaches (hint, hint, nudge, nudge):

From Dread Central: "If you are at all familiar with the previous works John Kenneth Muir did on horror films of the 70s and 80s, then you should be excited that you can now add the 90s to your library...he has created an invaluable research book that horror fans NEED on their shelves (along with his books on the films of the 1970s and 1980s).. Rated: 4 1/2 out of 5."

From The Thunder Child:  "Fans of the horror genre will find much to enjoy in these pages.  John Kenneth Muir's writing is entertaining as well as informative, and will enable you to revisit each of your favorites with a somewhat different persective than usual...Such a detailed overview will also be of interest to the movie historian as well as the horror aficionado."

From Joseph Maddrey at Movies Made Me: "...Horror Films of the 1990s proves that John Muir is a master of explaining why horror films remain vital."

From the Archive: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Pangs"


Many horror and sci-fi TV programs boast a Halloween-themed episode -- like Star Trek’s “Catspaw” -- or even a Christmas episode, such as Millennium’s heartfelt “Midnight of the Century.”

But in broad terms, relatively few cult TV programs boast Turkey Day editions in their episode rosters.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) remains a notable exception to that rule. During its generally-underrated fourth season, this WB series from  creator Joss Whedon presented a funny and involving Thanksgiving installment titled “Pangs.”

The episode -- penned by Whedon and Jane Espenson, and directed by Michael Lange -- first aired on November 23, 1999.

Hard to believe that's already twelve years ago...

 In this particular installment Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the Scooby Gang investigate a murderous demon after the buried Sunnydale Mission -- believed destroyed in the earthquake of 1812 -- is accidentally unearthed.

Or rather, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) discovers the mission by falling into a hole during the dedication and ground-breaking ceremony of U.C. Sunnydale’s new and expensive “cultural center.”

Unfortunately, by breaking into the sealed subterranean chamber, Xander accidentally releases the vengeful spirit of a Chumash warrior named Hus (Tod Thawley). 


Hus's Native American people suffered imprisonment, forced labor and terrible disease when the white man arrived from Europe and quickly populated the American continent. Now, the demon’s first order of business is “re-creating the wrongs” done to his native people all those years and centuries ago.

Translated, this means that the demon gives Xander malaria, smallpox and syphilis. “I am vengeance,” declares Hus. “I am my people’s cry.” 
As Buffy tracks down the vengeful and murderous Hus, she also broaches another challenging undertaking.

She prepares a traditional, home-cooked Thanksgiving meal at Giles’ apartment.

In particular, Buffy recalls the happy holidays from her youth and -- during her first year away at college -- desires to recreate that experience.

Buffy talks meaningfully and wistfully in the narrative about the “sense-memory” of Thanksgiving that occurs every time she smells a roasted turkey.

The socially-minded Willow (Alyson Hannigan) is upset, however, because she believes Thanksgiving is really just a celebration of “one culture wiping out another.” It’s a “sham,” Willow complains, upset.

Buffy’s response? Perhaps it is a sham…but it’s a sham “...with yams.”

Giles (Anthony Head) and the recently neutered Spike (with a behavior-modification chip in his noggin) are bothered by Willow’s unflattering description of the autumnal holiday. They both see the situation more plainly. “You had better weapons…and you massacred them,” Spike (James Marsters) tells Willow of the Native-American population.

Simple as that. Or is it?

The debate raises an important question. Is it right for Buffy to “slay” Hus when he has a legitimate grievance against our ancestors?

What’s worse, isn’t he right to be upset that -- on his people’s former land – the conquering people are now building a “cultural center,” in effect a celebration of the genocide of the indigenous folks?

What remains so terrific and funny about “Pangs” a full decade later is that Buffy’s attempt to host a happy holiday dinner is undercut at every turn by these grave philosophical disagreements in her family, a unit which certainly does include the demonic Spike at this point.

The topic turns overtly political after a fashion, and everyone who has ever returned home for a family holiday knows that politics is the source of much indigestion at real-life gatherings, at real-life holiday feasts.

In-laws who hold different viewpoints are suddenly thrust together for a meal at the same table -- and there’s usually alcohol involved too -- and boy, the sparks can really fly.

The philosophical discussion underlining “Pangs” concerns a question not unfamiliar to most of us in modern American culture. Can a wrong in the past be repaired by a wrong in the present?

This idea has been discussed much, especially near the end of Clinton’s second term, specifically in relation to America’s ignoble history of slavery. Are modern Americans -- folks living right now -- to blame for  their ancestors' misdeeds several generation ago? In terms of the Native American genocide, the same question is raised. 

And if reparations forced upon a blameless current generation aren’t particular just either, does a simple apology to the families of the wronged feel like enough?  Is that the best we can muster?

Obviously, there are no simple answers to such deep questions of American history, but I love how Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes the context of Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings and then makes the dramatis personae debate the conflicted nature of the holiday, each according to his or her own personal beliefs.

Nobody is bad. Nobody is evil (well, nobody besides Spike…).  Everyone just boasts a different perspective on what remains a controversial subject.

Here -- treading deeper into the quagmire -- some hurtful comments are even made about a “minority” living in Buffy’s modern, diverse Sunnydale: demons. Xander lays down the law, and it sounds perilously like bigotry. “You don’t talk to vengeance demons, you kill them!” he stresses, angry and sick.

Well, of course, this remarks hurts Anya’s (Emma Caulfield's) feelings. She’s a demon after all. they? Not all of them are evil, are they?  What about Oz?  What about Angel?  And on and on.  Is killing them on sight the answer?

Finally, Hus and a “raiding party” of demons arrive at Buffy’s Thanksgiving meal, and there’s a colossal battle between the Slayer and a demon she has zero interest in killing. Buffy would prefer to offer an apology, rather than fisticuffs. To the direct-minded Spike, however, this approach is folly. “You exterminated his people,” he reminds Buffy of Hus.  An apology ain't gonna cut it.

Finally, Buffy does fight with lethal force, and the implication seems to be that some hurts, some breaches, just can’t be resolved peaceably.

Ultimately, even the politically-correct Willow feels like something of a hypocrite. When the Native-American demon spirits attack, she’s among those who pick up shovel and fight for their lives. As we all would under the same circumstances.

But the coda in "Pangs" involves a hope for the future instead of a conflict over the past.  In the episode's last scene, the threat of Hus is nullified and Buffy and her friends (including Spike) sit down together -- demon and human -- for an enjoyable "family" feast.

In some way, this final image of an ad-hoc, modern American family consisting of a demon, two vampires, two Brits, a Valley girl, a witch (and lesbian) and a construction worker seems to get at the point of the narrative's debate.  Just the fact that these diverse folk break bread at the same table may provide the key to healing old, historical wounds. 

Perhaps enemies old and new must share a Thanksgiving table, a special meal together, and start fresh. Build new, better memories. Let go of the angers of the past, even if they are justified. Otherwise, as Hus learns, the only possible future is death.  At least breaking bread, and passing the cranberry sauce, is a start.

As Xander happily notes at the conclusion of "Pangs," it’s the perfect Thanksgiving in Sunnydale after all: “a bunch of anticipation, a big fight, and now we’re all sleepy…”

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: High School Sweethearts


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Tony (Michael Pare) and Rhonda (Faye Grant) in The Greatest American Hero.


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Robin (Blair Tefkin) and Brian (Peter Nelson) in "V."

 
Identified by David Colohan:  Nova (Amanda Wyss) and Trace (Tony O'Dell) in Otherworld.


Identified by David Colohon: James (James Marshall) and Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Twin Peaks.

5



Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Angel (David Boreanaz) in Buffy.


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Max (Jason Behr) and Liz (Shiri Appleby) in Roswell.


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Clark Kent (Tom Welling) and Lana Lang (Kristen Kruek) in Smallville.


Identified by Hugh: Veronica (Kristen Bell), Duncan (Teddy Dunn), Lilly (Amanda Seyfried) and Logan (Jason Dohring) in Veronica Mars.


Identified by David Colohan: Caitlin (Linsey Godfrey) and Miles (Carter Jenkins) in Surface.


Identified by Hugh: Elena (Nina Dobrev) and Stefan (Paul Wesley) in The Vampire Diaries


Friday, November 18, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of Mars Attacks! (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in 1999 with the triumphant Sleepy Hollow, a dark fairy tale powered by the pervasive millennial angst of the era. 

Although the picture is set in the year 1799 rather than two centuries later, Sleepy Hollow nonetheless obsesses on roiling concerns regarding the future.  Would it belong to science or to superstition, knowledge or mysticism?  Would the future bring only a new dark age (Y2K) or the beginnings of paradise on Earth?

Widely recognized as an example of "gorgeous filmmaking," (Rolling Stone), Sleepy Hollow was lauded upon release for its lush production values and colorful, autumnal imagery.  Stephanie Zacharek at Salon, for instance, aptly termed the film a "visual seduction."

That's an excellent description, and a fine way of getting a good handle on the film's persuasive charm, for Sleepy Hollow is both egregiously violent (heads DO roll) and a throwback to a less graphic era in horror history.  It is dynamic and colorful in presentation and yet also strangely wistful, innocent and elegaic about the world it creates: the last spell  perhaps, before science truly erases magic from existence

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow opens with a droll visual joke that, in some fashion, very ably exemplifies the film's nature.  Perhaps this joke is one that only the longtime horror movie enthusiast will fully understand.   As the film commences, what appears to be very fake-looking red blood drips down upon a parchment. This fluid is soon revealed instead to be hot wax, used merely to seal an important letter. Yet for a fleeting -- and wonderful -- moment, the horror audience may believe it has actually returned to the wonderful and bygone world of Hammer Studios since the hot wax resembles that trademark Hammer-styled “fake” blood.

The joke is not only an example of inside baseball, so-to-speak, but an indicator that Burton has fashioned his entire 1999 film as an homage to the output of Hammer. As Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin write in Flickipedia, the director “continues his unique, idiosyncratic, and very personal career project: to re-experience and revivify the toy chest of pop-culture effluvia that sustained him – and many of us – through our ‘Nam era childhoods.” (Chicago Review Press, 2007, page 21.) 

Or, as Wesley Morris wrote in The San Francisco Examiner: "what Burton does perhaps better than even Steven Spielberg: transport you to a nook in your childhood, be it around a summer campfire or smack in front of a TV set on a Saturday afternoon."

In the visual language of a Hammer Studios film then, the impressive Sleepy Hollow asks its audience to contemplate the nature of life on Heaven and Earth.  Is science the key to understanding it?  Or is there room, yet, for magic in this world?  In scenes both lyrical and poetic (particularly those involving Lisa Marie as Ichabod's mother), Burton's Sleepy Hollow seeks the answer.

Less deliberately oddball than some of Burton's earlier works but nonetheless highly-stylized from a visual standpoint, Sleepy Hollow thus emerges as one of the top "tier" films in the director's canon; a bedtime story that maintains, even today, the kind of timeless, classic qualities of the best ghost stories.

"It is truth, but truth is not always appearance."

The rational, scientific constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent by his superior (Christopher Lee) to the Dutch farming community of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders allegedly caused by a spectral avenger called the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken). 

When he arrives, Crane begins to uncover evidence of witchcraft in the Van Tassel family, even as he grows close to Baltus Van Tassel’s (Michael Gambon) daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci).  The specter of witchcraft strikes a chord with the cowardly Ichabod, however, as Crane's mother (Marie) was also witch.

As the mystery of Sleepy Hollow deepens, Crane wonders if someone is summoning a dark, malevolent spirit for monetary gain, and if so, who it could be.  He realizes that to learn that answer, Crane must not depend on science alone, but open himself to the possibilities suggested by his mother; the possibilities of magic.

"The millennium is almost upon us..."

Although based very loosely on the 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1783-1859), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow serves instead as a dedicated tribute to the output of Hammer Studios, England’s pre-eminent exporter of horror during the late 1950s and 1960s.

Not only does this film feature familiar horror actors from the Hammer stable, including Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, it is also, like the works of that studio, largely set-bound, and it embodies a similar, heavy sense of Gothic romanticism.

In other words, Sleepy Hollow drips with atmosphere, depicts strange supernatural rituals, and generates extreme emotions in its dramatis personae and audience, namely terror. Writing in Entertainment Design, production designer John Calhoun reported that, from the outset of production on Sleepy Hollow, director Burton reported how he desired to “evoke the Hammer Film style,” one that was notably “artifice-heavy.” ("Headless in Sleepy Hollow," November 1999, page 38.)

Accordingly, the autumnal woods surrounding the town of Sleepy Hollow evoke Hammer’s visual tradition, dominated by fog, mist and craggy, ancient-seeming trees that could come to life at any moment.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote persuasively of the film's canvas: "Using a color palette more often associated with stories of the gulag, "Sleepy Hollow" creates a landscape so daunting that even a large tree bleeds."   Indeed, the artificial forest seems to reflect the very spirit of the film, of a world brought to life by the competing forces of science (the artifice of the production design) and magic (the special effects visualizations of the Hessian.)

Crane has put his faith in technology and reason, and believes that “to detect the guilty” science is the best tool.   He disdains the fact that he seems to be the only one "who can see that to solve crimes, we must use our brains, assisted by reason, using up-to-date scientific techniques."

That battle between the two ways (rational science and irrational mysicism) is the real thematic terrain of the film.

Almost immediately, Crane’s strategy is tested, and he encounters a world of very real superstition and witchcraft. Crane rejects these principles at first, in part because his Mother was a witch (a good witch…) and he lost her in a painful, violent manner to a society which condemns such practitioners. Looking at Crane’s dream sequences involving his mother, they pointedly contrast with the soot-and-industrial look of New York featured in the beginning of the film. The “cherry-blossom-filled reveries” (Interiors: "Here's Your Head, What's Your Hurry?" December 1999, page 62) suggest a world beyond reason and natural sciences; one more fully alive than what is depicted in the bleeding forest around the town.   The forest there appears so autumnal and brown, I would submit, because magic and witchraft are disappearing from the world: it is their final autumn before Ichabod's way will dominate the human race.  Even the (ostensibly happy) end of the film reinforces this idea, with the arrival of Katrina and Ichabod in "modern" New York...a realm of science.

Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow does-- at least partially --  seem to view the loss of magic and the victory of science as a loss for mankind.

Though whip smart, knowledgeable and clever, Ichabod suppresses his own “natural gift,” the one handed down to him by his mother: his capacity for belief in something greater than the resources and wonders of man’s mind. In this sense, one might gaze at Sleepy Hollow as a tale of one man’s spiritual, even religious, awakening. Crane comes to see that he can't depend on science alone, but also must understand the rules of magic; on his instinctive sense of wonder. 

And like many a Tim Burton hero, The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow is another outcast, but in this case, one who fits explicitly into the movie's dialogue about nature vs. supernature.  The  Hessian is doomed to walk the Earth at the behest of an evil mistress, and Sleepy Hollow involves the freeing of this spirit and outcast.  Thus the Hessian serves as almost a mirror for Crane.  The Headless Horseman is a man who exists in a purely supernatural (rather than scientific) state and must be put to rest; to the clinical, empirical state of death, upon which his release hinges.  His release rests in science, or release from the supernatural, in other words  Together, Crane and the Hessian make an interesting duo.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.

Uniquely, Ichabod's journey may also be a reflection of how cinema (particular the horror cinema) had grown cold and clinical in the 1990s.  This was the era of 1,001 police procedural horrors, roughly (The Silence of the Lambs, Jennifer 8, Se7en, Kiss the Girls, Resurrection, Copycat, The Bone Collector, etc.) and such films reduced the great act of "monster"-hunting to a science, a forensic science. 

Ichabod is clearly in the mold of such CSI-styled investigators (nay a progenitor of their mold...) and yet in the end it is not forensics that saves the day in Sleepy Hollow...it is the investigator's natural gift, his ability to countenance magic.  One might easily see this conceit as Burton's embedded critique of the increasingly stale take on horror at the turn of the millennium.  With its beautiful fairy tale forests and deliberate Hammer Studio artifice, Sleepy Hollow seems a deliberate and almost elegeic throwback to an era of imagination and theatricality instead of gritty psychological realism.

At one point in the film, it is noted that Crane is actually "bewitched by reason," and that comment perfectly captures the film's questioning spirit, the idea that science and belief must walk hand-in-hand in the human equation.  And so even though Katrina fears that Crane possesses no heart (only a mind), the same cannot be said for this lush, gorgeous, Tim Burton film...undeniably one of his finest.

Next Week: Big Fish.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week


"Villainy wears many masks, none of which so dangerous as virtue."

- Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) in Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Frozen (2010)

It's an understatement to declare that I didn't care much for director Adam Green's first feature, Hatchet (2007).  In fact, I called it a "hack job." 

In short, I felt Hatchet was a poorly-executed skit involving the slasher film paradigm, a one-dimensional, tongue-in-cheek exercise that never managed to establish, even minimally, a legitimate sense of place despite being set in a picturesque Louisiana bayou.  The film never offered a compelling or believable reality and instead seemed like an overlong and obvious joke.

But today, I'm singing a (happy) new tune regarding Adam Green's work because I just screened his extraordinary 2010 horror film, Frozen.

Unlike Hatchet, Frozen settles down immediately in a well-drawn locale, and Green here reveals  a fine eye for detail, nuance, and character.  In the first fifteen minutes alone, the director imbues his film with an authentic sense of anticipation and dread.

More than that, this inventive horror movie doesn't attempt to be cute or precious by directing audience attention to familiar genre conventions.  Instead,  Frozen dramatically eschews all such post-modern trappings and depicts a simple, harrowing narrative of survival in a fashion that -- as the title indicates --makes your blood run cold. 

In Frozen, three college students, Joe Lynch (Shawn Ashmore), Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Dan's girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell) take a weekend ski trip to Mount Holliston.  Then, as the sun sets, they decide to make one last night-time run on the slopes. 

Because of a simple misunderstanding and shift change, however, the employees at the lodge shut off the ski-lift while the threesome is in mid-passage to the distant summit.  The machine grinds to a halt, and the three students become trapped on the lift. 

At first, Lynch, Dan and Parker try to dismiss the gravity of their situation high above the mountain, in hopes that they will soon be discovered and rescued.  Before long, however, the college students realize that it is Sunday evening, and that the park doesn't open again for five days...until Friday. 

Worse, a storm is coming.  If they don't find a way down from the immobile air-lift (where they sit side-by-side like sardines), they are certain to freeze to death.

What follows this grim realization is roughly forty five minutes of pure, gut-wrenching terror as one attempt after another to reach safety goes horribly, wretchedly awry.  Challenges and dangers lurk everywhere.  On the ground, for instance, hungry wolves soon begin to gather.  And high-up, ensconced on the lift, Parker develops a bad case of frost bite. 

Dan suggests jumping to the ground far below, but that avenue carries significant risk of grievous bodily harm...

Soon, Frozen's protagonists make fateful decisions in an attempt to stay alive, and survive the increasingly unfriendly elements.

So forget the colorfully-named Three on a Meathook (1973), this is Three on a Ski-Lift

While watching  Frozen, I was pleasantly reminded of Open Water (2004), another take-no-prisoners horror film about unlucky people attempting to survive in an inhospitable location, in that instance the deep blue sea.  

Both films represent the brand of horror film I really and truly admire the most: those which deal explicitly with the cruel application of random fate.  As if to suggest the wheels of fate or destiny forever spinning, Green commences his film with close-up views of the ski lift's whirring, over sized gears.  These gears work efficiently and endlessly,  but also without consideration for human concerns, these compositions appear to assert. Much like Mother Nature herself.

To put this bluntly, Frozen revolves around the big, unanswered questions of our human existence (and the reason why so many people seek the comfort of religion):  why do terrible things happen to us , or to the people we love?  How can a seemingly perfect day turn on a dime and become a horrible nightmare?  What does it all mean?

Likewise, in Frozen, the three intelligent and likable protagonists could not --- at the beginning of the day -- have possibly imagined where they would be at the end of the same day.  They embark on a rather terrible "wrong turn" and must suddenly reckon with their very mortality.  Their previous concerns, which include Joe acquiring and remembering a girl's telephone number, suddenly seem incredibly trivial.  This is a reminder that we take our lives pretty much for granted every single day.  We go about our tasks and our hobbies without real regard for the fact that, out of the blue, it could end.  The shadow of death is upon us, whether we see and recognize it or not.

As Dan, Lynch and Parker grapple with their rapidly worsening situation on the ski lift, drastic measures eventually become necessary, and it's fascinating -- and terrifying -- to watch as they broach such life-and- death decisions.  For me, this aspect of Frozen represents the very beating heart of the great horror movie aesthetic.  When you separate the genre from its mitigating and ameloriating fantasy elements like vampires, monsters or aliens, this is precisely the equation you're left with: a palpable recognition and fear of impending death. 

The battle for survival is all, and intractable, uncaring nature itself is the enemy.  All along, watching a film such as Frozen, the audience meaningfully ponders the idea "there but for the grace of God go I..." because any one of us, could, reasonably speaking, end up in a similarly dangerous situation, forced to make painful choices. 

Who is going to live and who is going to die?  Is there a pecking order in terms of survival?  Who should be the one to jump from the chair? 

Even, how am I going to take a piss up here?

One of Frozen's best and most moving moments involve a character's final act as he is set upon by a pack of very angry-looking wolves.  Without a word, this character pulls his hat down over his eyes so he can't see what's coming, and the simple gesture feels very, very real.  There's little else to do in that moment, but to look away from the inevitable.  Frozen is unblinking about death, but the film's human protagonists, appropriately, are not.  Again, this gesture is pretty darn metaphorical: we all pull the hat down over our eyes in regards to the fact that we don't really control nature.  Or the fact that one day, for each of us, this ride towards an unknown summit is going to come to an end.

So make no mistake, in reckoning with all of  this existentialist angst, Frozen is unrelentingly grim. 

The characters in the film inevitably debate the worst way to die, and then even discuss the traumatic horrors of 9/11. 

By film's end, the same characters are contemplating the fact that their pets could very well starve to death if they don't get down from the lift.  It's not exactly a mood lifter.

The cast in Frozen is pretty terrific, but Shawn Ashmore as Lynch is the stand-out.  Early on, we can see that Lynch feels guilty as the "odd man out" when the threesome must decide who should jump from the lift.  He doesn't want to be the one to jump, but it's clear to him that he should, morally, be the one to do it, since he is not part of the "couple."  This doesn't mean he does the right thing.

Later, Lynch deals with recriminations over his actions (and lack of action) and recounts some humanizing stories about the lost opportunities in his life.  Rarely, if ever, do these revelations feel like the machinations of a writer, but rather like real life human expressions of regret as the end, inevitably, nears.  Green utilizes a lot of close-ups to tell his tale which is an appropriate tactic for fostering empathy.  We're clearly meant to sympathize with these protagonists, and  Lynch, Dan and Parker are not extraordinary in any particular way.  They aren't heroes and they aren't assholes who "have it coming."  Instead, they are just like you and me: people who are living their lives, not really thinking about matters such as life and death. 

As you probably know by now, I often very much enjoy films that accomplish a lot with only a few resources.  The low budget Frozen is basically a three person show occurring in just one setting.  But it's never dull, the ending is never pre-ordained, and Green masterfully sustains tension throughout the full hour-and-a-half running time.  This is no small challenge, but Green, in vetting his story well, reminds the viewer how all our lives hang by a thread (or a metal cable, perhaps).  Sometimes, we don't realize that fact until it's too late.

A note to the squeamish: Frozen is pretty gory.  There are only three primary characters, and one scene of intense gore proved so disgusting and upsetting that my (patient) wife actually leapt up from the sofa and refused to sit back down.  I had to freeze the movie and literally talk her back down. I had to convince her to watch the rest of the movie with me...and -- believe me -- it wasn't easy.   My wife's reaction was absolutely appropriate, of course.  Something so awful happens to a truly likable character here that you'll be tempted to tune out and say "enough's enough."

But of course, the chareacters in the drama don't have that out, do they?  Instead, they have a front row seat to a friend's horrible and violent death, with no opportunity to protest the absolute unfairness of the situation.   In exploring that situation -- that human truth about our mortality -- Frozen proves damned serious business.

After the film, my wife and I debated it rather heatedly.  She said Frozen was depressing because it was just about watching nice people suffer and die.  I countered that I never find a well-done horror movie about the human condition depressing, because at least it's about something important: how we face existence and its inevitable end.  The films that I find depressing are the ones that don't mean anything at all; that just waste my time (like Hatchet). 

Frozen definitely won't waste your time.  It won't exactly make you happy, but it won't waste your time, either.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Cult TV Faces of: Amnesia


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: George Reeves as Clark Ken in  The Adventures of Superman: "Panic in the Sky."


Identified by Anonymous/SGB: Anne Francis in The Twilight Zone: "The After Hours."


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: "Kirok" (William Shatner) in Star Trek: "The Paradise Syndrome."


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Mark Harris (Patrick Duffy) in The Man from Atlantis.


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Donovan (Marc Singer) in V: The Series: "The Deception."


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Lois Lane/Wanda Detroit in Lois & Clark.


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) in Millennium: "Walkabout."


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: The Scooby Gang in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Tabula Rasa."


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: John Doe (Dominic Purcell) in John Doe (2002).


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Clark Kent (Tom Welling) in Smallville.


Identified by David: Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in Alis: "The Two."


Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: The cast of Angel: "Spin the Bottle."


Identified by Chris G: Veronica (Kristen Bell) in the pilot episode of Veronica Mars.


Buck Rogers: "Happy Birthday, Buck!"

In “Happy Birthday, Buck” a long-time human captive on the planet Ovion (?) Colonel Cornell Traeger (Peter MacLean) escapes and returns...