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, talks are underway for 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.

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, ingĂ©nues, 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?

From the Archive: My Five Favorite Frank Black Moments

Over a span of three seasons and more than sixty-five episodes, Millennium  accommodated many different brands and styles of storytelling -- including some unexpected lunges into comedy -- and the face that always held it everything together belonged to Lance Henriksen.

Selecting just five favorite Frank Black moments is not an easy task because Henriksen and the series writers/producers/directors gave us so damn many of 'em in those three wondrous seasons. 

Anyway, these five "great Frank Black moments" come in no particular order, and from all three seasons of the series.

1. "Pilot" Frank introduces his family to their perfect yellow house. 

As the series opens, Frank Black and his family relocate to rainy Seattle, but -- caring spouse and supporting father that he is -- Frank has made certain that their lives have at least a ray of sunshine in them. 

Here, he shows them their gorgeous new home, a shining yellow house far away from the repellent darkness of Frank's work. 

In a beautiful, spontaneous moment, little Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) is so excited to see the new family home, she licks her Daddy's nose.  It's an innocent, childish gesture (lensed in close-up) that really cements the Black family bond, and reveals the closeness between father and daughter.  


2. "Lamentations"  Frank is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Far away from the yellow house in Seattle, Frank Black deciphers a clue that suggests Evil Itself (in the form of Sarah Jane-Redmond's Lucy Butler), is on the way to "visit" his imperiled family.  And this time, Frank is too far away to help them. 

The expressions that cross Frank's face as he attempts to figure out what is happening, and if his family is safe, probably represent the closest thing to panic we ever see on the guy. 

If something can drive the solid, even-tempered, brave Frank Black to that unprecedented level of concern...watch-out. 

And sure enough, when Frank's friend Bletch enters the yellow house during a storm -- now a yellow house of horrors -- be afraid.  Be very afraid...

3. "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense:" Don't Be Dark, Frank.

In this caustic satire of Scientology (called Self-osophy in Millennium), Frank attempts to ferret out the identity of a killer by using a copyrighted Self-osophy self-help technique. 

With a tape entitled "How Not to Be Dark" and a gimmicky head set, Frank engages in "Easy Visualization Therapy," and is asked by the taped voice to "picture something that disturbed him."

At that exact moment, the episode cuts ironically to a blood-curdling montage of every grisly vision from Millennium's first season and-a-half.  Horrified, Black rips off the head-set and nurses the mother of all headaches.  But the point is that Frank doesn't run from the darkness or try to deny it.  He faces it.  He isn't about "self" (or Self-osophy) and sometimes we all genuinely need to "be dark."

4. "Luminary:" Frank Black to the rescue.


An exhausted, freezing Frank Black carries an injured young man named Alex through the hostile, wooded terrain of wild Alaska in the uplifting "Luminary." 

When the young man's stretcher tilts and dumps the boy in the river rapids far below, Frank -- without batting an eye or hesitating a second -- jumps in after the boy. 

This courageous and self-less act represents Frank's ethos in a nutshell.  It's that father instinct.  It's that tenacious unwillingness to give up on someone he has sworn to protect.  He will literally do anything to help another human being, even at great risk to himself.

5. "The Sound of Snow:"  "Every day, I want to be with you."

Alone in the wild again, Frank is badly injured and experiences a vision that, in some small way, forces him to face his greatest loss. 

This moment reveals to us Frank at his most vulnerable and emotional, and does so with the one person that he can be so vulnerable with, his beloved Catherine (Megan Gallagher). 

It's a haunting, affecting moment, because we see beneath Frank's strong facade and see -- truly see -- his sense of pain and loss.  This moment always moves me, every time I watch "The Sound of Snow."  Frank faces guilt, loss, sadness and a future that isn't what he hoped it would be.

From the Archive: Millennum: "Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions"

What comes after someone survives a terrible and terrifying event? What truths or new perspectives follow in the wake of pure, blood-pumping terror?

These are the pertinent questions raised and answered at least obliquely by “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions,” the Millennium first season segment that directly follows “Lamentation,” the unforgettable introduction of Sarah Jane Redmond’s demonic villain, Lucy Butler.

The battlefield or thematic terrain of the episode is well-enunciated in the week’s opening quotation from Charles Manson, which reads: “Paranoia is just a kind of awareness, and awareness is just a form of love.”

In other words, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” concerns awareness in general, and specifically Frank’s dawning awareness of a Cosmic Order outside the ken of mankind. This awareness comes to him only after an extended and painful period of self-doubt and grief.

But ironically, awareness would also not be possible without that self-same period of self-doubt and grief.

Penned by Ted Mann and Howard Rosenthal, and superbly directed by Thomas J. Wright, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” thus finds the series’ lead protagonist, Frank Black at his lowest and most world-weary ebb and then -- surprisingly -- opens his eyes to an unseen world; the world of angels, demons and cosmic hierarchies.

The title of the episode itself indicates the nature of those cosmic schemes or hierarchies. According to some Biblical scholars, “Thrones” are living symbols of God’s justice and authority, “Dominions” are beings who regulate the lower angels, “Powers” are the bearers of conscience and keepers of history and “Principalities” are the educators and guardians of the realm of Earth.

Or contrarily, “Thrones,” “Dominions,” “Powers” and “Principalities” may be the categories of evil Minions existing on Earth; the twelve principalities of Satan, for instance (death, anti-christ, covetousness, witchcraft, idolatry, sedition, hypocrisy, disobedience, rejection, hypocrisy, etc.).

Similarly, in Ephesians 6:12 the apostle Paul wrote: “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

This was the author’s manner of suggesting that anti-God, malevolent forces existed in places of state, in places of Empire, in places of government.

Thus, in pondering this episode of Millennium, we (along with Frank) find ourselves plunged into a war involving supernatural beings on Earth. On one hand are angel-like agents of God such as Sammael, who seems a “guardian of the realm of Earth.” On the other hand is Alesteir Pepper, a man of worldly wealth and power and perhaps, actually, a demon. Even Aleister’s name suggests evil, as he jokes with Frank, making an almost-cryptic allusion to the notorious poet and Satanist mystic, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947).

In terms of Millennium history, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” plays tonally almost like the epilogue or coda of “Lamentation,” and represents one of the earliest instances in the Carter series of direct supernatural involvement in human affairs. To recap, in “Lamentation,” Frank’s family is threatened by Lucy Butler, and his best friend, Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich) is murdered in Frank’s own sanctuary, the yellow house where Frank tries in vain to “paint away” the darkness in life, per the words of series creator Chris Carter.

As “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” opens, Frank grapples heavily with the death of “Bletch” and the invasion of his yellow sanctuary. Accordingly, the episode’s dialogue continuously maps Frank’s sense of world-weariness, confusion, and diffidence. “I’m not ready to come back to work yet,” he tells Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn) with resignation during one phone conversation.

When Frank does become involved in a new case for the Millennium Group -- a seemingly-Satanic ritual-turned-homicide -- Frank admits that his “clarity is not what” he “had hoped it would be.” At home, Catherine worries what will happen to Frank if he cannot right his ship; if he cannot return to his true nature as a crusader against the darkness. “You can’t deny who you are Frank…if you let things go on this way, it’s only a matter of time…”

The unspoken ending to Catherine’s last sentence is no doubt an allusion to Frank’s nervous breakdown; the last time he lost his grip on his identity and his true, best self. Catherine clearly fears the same thing could occur again if Frank doesn’t find his emotional footing.

Interestingly, when Frank is confronted by Pepper, a man who may be a demon, he notes – in maddeningly ambiguous tones -- that “you’ve come to me before.”

This seems an implicit suggestion that Frank’s previous mental breakdown arose as a result of the works of a demon, even, perhaps, the Devil himself. Only now – upon recognizing the demon again (although perhaps in a different form) - does Frank understand what he is really battling.

Admirably, director Thomas J. Wright’s selection of compositions during the early portions of “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominion’s” echo Frank’s crisis; his sense of uncertainty about himself, his gifts, and the nature of the world around him. Thanks in large part to these shot choices, death itself seems to oppress Frank in this episode, like an anchor pulling him down farther and farther.

To augment this perception of a man overwhelmed and oppressed by death, Wright stages shots of Lance Henriksen visually entrapped between support beams in Frank’s basements (the site of Bletch’s murder). This mise-en-scene limits Frank’s space in the frame and creates, in essence, a visual “cage” around the character.

Director Wright – a veteran of such programs as Beauty and the Beast, Otherworld, Dark Skies, and Nowhere Man -- also frequently positions Frank underneath heavy stone archways or obscured behind objects in the frame. These choices by Wright in general reinforce the lugubrious or heavy nature of the story, of Frank “denying who he is,” in the words of his wife, Catherine, and feeling defeated and overwhelmed by recent, tragic events.

At about the ten minute point of the episode, for instance, in the scene that finds Frank and Peter Watts discussing Sammael, Wright even positions Frank behind two coffins in the foreground, a visual indicator that death is foremost on his mind, and occluding, again, his space or freedom in the frame.

Another moment, early in the episode, also expresses Frank’s conflict. He gazes at his reflection in a bathroom mirror, and the idea, expressed by the director’s selection of angles, is that he is battling himself, (his reflection); battling his sense of doubt and uncertainty.

As the episode continues and Frank is drawn further into the seemingly unconnected case of a murderer named Martin, the profiler continues to flash on mental images of Bletch’s murder. But instead of denying the connection to the event that consumes his mind, Frank begins to explore it more fully. This is Frank’s perennial strength, his ability to face the darkness head on. Soon, he is listening to his visions instead of trying to dismiss them as symptoms of trauma or stress.

Again, Thomas J. Wright cannily finds exactly the right visuals to suggest Frank’s restored confidence. When, during the climax of the episode, Frank witnesses a parking lot confrontation between a diabolical attorney named Aleister and a stranger -- really the “angel of death” Sammael, for instance, Wright presents two competing visions of the conflict in fast succession.

In the consensus view of reality, Sammael is armed with a gun and fires it at Pepper at point blank range. But in Frank’s personalized, insightful view of the event, a kind of supernatural energy beam is emitted from Sammael’s palm and strikes the demonic lawyer. These rapidly alternating views of the same event make the audience aware that Frank again has confidence in his insights. He sees the event for what it is: a supernatural assassination; one of God’s agents (Sammael, who in literature is sometimes good and sometimes evil) “binding” and defeating an agent of Satan, Aleister Pepper.

Likewise, when Frank disarms Sammael after the confrontation, Wright’s camera adopts a low angle perspective, one that in cinema history traditionally represents power or strength. Frank and Sammael – again, an angel or supernatural creature of some variety – share a tight two shot, as Frank puzzles over the gun.

Both the perspective and the staging reveal Frank’s intrinsic strength. Visually, he is on equal footing with the angel in this case. The shot selection thus makes one wonder if Frank is actually a critical part of God’s hierarchy as well. Like a “Throne” is a symbol of “justice” and like a “Power” is a force of conscience, so thus is Frank himself, discerning truthfully that which other humans cannot see. The two-shot reinforces this notion, as it suggests a comparison, a kinship between the two objects or people sharing space in the shot.

When Frank declares that whatever force killed the man named Martin was “anything but natural” in “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions,” he is evidencing his sense of “awareness” (after the paranoia and doubt) as referenced in the episode’s opening quote. Frank has begun to detect that something bigger than man is involved in man’s affairs, and that he is, in fact, a crucial player in that supernatural war.

This idea represents a huge opening up of Millennium’s mythology, an embrace of religious mythology or “faith” in very literal, concrete terms. But what remains so remarkable about this episode is that Frank’s journey from awkward self-doubt to awakened awareness is charted not just in terms of dialogue or narrative details, but in the director’s artistic and meaningful selection of angles and viewpoints.

I often write on my blog that film and TV work best when form follows or reflects content, and this axiom is also true in spades of Thomas J. Wright’s work on Millennium, and this episode in particular.

Another way to put it: The teleplay for “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” makes Frank aware that there is more on Earth than is dreamed of in man’s philosophy; but Wright’s clever, crisp and expressionist visualization of the teleplay makes the audience actually feel that another world exists side-by-side our own.

More than that, Wright’s steady direction shows us Frank’s place within the larger battlefield, and allows us to take the measure of the man. The Devil wants more than anything to co-opt Frank, to turn him to darkness, but the message of “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” is that if Frank can maintain confidence in his “gift,” he will see through the Devil every single time.