Saturday, November 05, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Melancholia (2011)

 "Life is only on Earth. And not for long."

- Justine (Kirsten Dunst) makes a startling prediction in Melancholia (2011).

I woke up this morning to read  headline news that Asteroid 2005 YU55 will narrowly miss Earth during its cosmic flyby on this coming Tuesday night, at 6:28 pm.  In fact, the aircraft-carrier-sized asteroid will pass nearer our planet than the moon's orbit.

Apparently, there is no danger that the asteroid will strike our home, and yet I'm still unsettled by this news, in part because of the strange synchronicity of life. 

You see, last night I screened Lars Von Trier's visionary and poignant new film, Melancholia (2011). 

And as you may or may not have read, this production concerns a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth, and two sisters' vastly differently responses to the end of all life on our planet. 

Late in the film, one sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) reviews the trajectory of the approaching planet on a web site, gazing intently at a chart of Melancholia's path.  The trajectory is named, menacingly, "the dance of death."    

Coincidentally, you can read The Huffington Post story about 2005 YU55 this morning and also view a not entirely dissimilar animation of the approaching asteroid's path. 

No, there's no dance of death here, but this is clearly a close call. 

It's close enough, in fact, to help you more effectviely imagine what the end of the world might be like, and what your own personal response might be to such an event.  And in the end, that's the concern of Melancholia too.  It's a film that asks what personal qualities prepare one to meet inevitable death, and even implies that someone who is depressed and unhappy might countenance the end with more grace than a happy, whole person might.

That's likely a gross oversimplification of this stirring, lyrical film, however.  And as is his wont, Lars Von Trier never takes the direct or expected trajectory to reach this conclusion.  For instance, in Melancholia, the viewer must follow the unique narrative through a pre-credit "storybook" presentation of the entire tale.  Then, the audience lands in an extended "Part I" that involves sister Justine's ill-fated wedding (and her battle with depression).  Finally, in Part II (titled "Claire"), we reach the "end of the world" story in all its terrifying dimensions and tragedy. 

And yet, to misquote Morpheus in The Matrix films, it happens the way it happens, and it couldn't happen in any other way.

In Melancholia's Part I, there is only the slightest hint of cosmic disaster.  Instead, the film focuses on Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) on their wedding day. 

They are two hours late for their own reception, and we slowly grow aware of how deeply unhappy and inconsiderate a person Justine (Dunst) is.  For instance, she blithely refuses to take part in a contest at the reception to guess the number of beans in a jar.  

Later, Justine leaves the reception mid-way through to tuck her nephew into bed...and then takes a nap with him.  Then, while everyone is waiting for her to cut the wedding cake, she takes a bath.  Next, Justine returns to the reception and openly swigs whisky from a bottle. 

Meanwhile, the hosts for the expensive wedding -- Justine's sister Claire and Claire's husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) -- remark about Justine's ability to act and be unhappy in the face of such a wonderful celebration. What's her problem?  Is she stark raving mad?

The groom, Michael, also learns of Justine's intense and unshakable "melancholy."  He gives her a gift: a photograph of an apple orchard -- a deed of land he has purchased.  He asks his bride to keep the photograph close to her heart whenever she feels overcome by sadness.  In this way, she will be reminded of happy things, and their happy future together.  Almost immediately, however, Justine rejects his advice, leaving the photograph behind as if what it represents (the future) means absolutely nothing to her.  She seems so cruel.

In fact, Justine's continued behavior throughout the late night reception suggests she has no regard for her future -- or anyone else's -- at all.  She tells off her boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) and he fires her on the spot.  She has sexual intercourse on her wedding night...but not with her husband, Michael.  By the end of the night, Justine separates from her new husband and slips into an irrevocable "melancholy," a state in which she can hardly exert energy or even move.

In Melancholia's Part II, the despondent Justine comes to live with John, Claire and their son, Leo.  At first, Justine hardly seems to take notice that a rogue planet, Melancholia, is on a course to pass very near Earth.  It has already passed Mercury and Venus, and in just three days will complete its dance with our planet. 

Claire is terrified, though assured by John's rational, scientific arguments that the planet could not possibly collide with ours.

As Melancholia (the planet) grows closer, Justine seems to perk up.  By night, she sneaks out of Claire's home and in the neaerby forest strips down naked under the blue, luminescent glow of the rogue space body.  As disaster looms, Justine baffingly becomes more functional and more communicative.  The others, meanwhile -- notably John and Claire -- begin to fall apart. 

And then, unexpectedly, Justine makes an admission to Claire about herself and life on Earth that changes everything we know and understand about the character, and also about what the film has shown us thus far. 

I won't reveal Justine's admission in any specficity, but it explains everything about her actions and her seeming cruelty.  Suddenly, we understand her pervasive depression and "black bile," her lack of care about the future, and even why she could never really buy into Michael's dream of a home on an apple orchard. 

In other words, you spend the first two-thirds of Melancholia despising Justine as a self-involved, capricious woman who can't overcome her own selfish concerns to show even a minimal amount of decency and courtesy to those around her, but then -- in the last act -- understand the unique and woefully heavy burden that she carries. 

This revelation makes Justine perhaps the most unusual of Von Trier's cinematic "Golden Hearts."  In the director's films such as Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Breaking the Waves (1996), Von Trier featured female characters who underwent terrible, life draining trials, and yet still were good inside.  They maintained their goodness in spite of everything.

 Justine is similarly tortured, similarly burdened by a twist of fate, but she can't quite bring herself to be good to least until the very end.  In particular, as the planet Melancholia approaches, Justine builds a "magic cave" for little Leo, one which she claims will protect him from the Earth's impending death.

It's no coincidence that "melancholia" is both the name of the rogue planet and of the mental disorder from which Justine so dramatically suffers.  In fact, the two melancholia cause approximiately the same symptoms, only on vastly different orders of scale. 

In the first half of the film, we see how proximity to Justine and her depression impacts those around her like a force of nature, like gravity itself.  Her cruelty causes a cascade effect of unhappiness and pain.  Because of her actions, other "bodies" nearby (Michael, Claire, John) spin out of control and face emotional swells and discontent. 

In the second half of the film, we watch as the rogue planet's Melancholia's proximity to Mother Earth does roughly the same thing, unsettling nature, sucking the oxygen out of the atmosphere, and wielding an inescapable weight on all human life as apocalypse nears.  Melancholia and Justine are kindred.

Interestingly, melancholia is also a term for "mourning" and in the case of Justine and this film in toto, that's the most significant definition to consider.  After roughly two-hours, you will start to realize that Justine's behavior has not been self-involved, not capricious, but related very much to the act of mourning. 

Later, she comes to the conclusion that "the Earth is evil.  We don't need to grieve for it," in part because of the behavior of her mother (Charlotte Rampling) and father (John Hurt) at her wedding reception.  She has overcome her grief and is able to emotionally handle the end of all life on the planet (and in the universe itself, she suggests...) because she has already mourned it.  By contrast, Claire -- the mother of a small child -- does not share Justine's particular burden/gift/curse and must face the end of the world without such preparation, without a mourning period.

Consequently, the film's final scene in the "magic cave" features two very different emotional approaches to the impending cessation of existence. 

In this moment, we must contemplate our own responses to global apocalypse.  Is it better to "know" ahead of time, or better to face the terror as it comes, at the very end?

Because this emotional reckoning is Von Trier's endgame in Melancholia, he doesn't attempt to generate any sort of suspense about the end of the world.  The film's pre-title sequence features images that seem reflective of a child's storybook, and reveal the film's entire story, from Justine's wedding to Melancholia's catstrophic "touch" on Earth.  Therefore, you know the end before it comes, and may focus instead on the characters and their emotional states.

Much of the film re-purposes Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (1865) as soundtrack, and as you may recall, that opera involved a love affair that ended tragically.  Melancholia too is a story of love that ends tragically, the "dance" between the rogue planet and Earth, not to mention the marriage between caring Michael and discontented Justine.  There's even some possibility that, in a weird sense, the planet Melancholia and Justine are like lovers, acting in a strange symbiosis.

In terms of allusion to classics, Justine takes her name from the Marquis de Sade's literary work of 1787, Justine.  The narrative there involved a woman who, in reaching maturity, went through terrible trials and degradations.  The book involved the belief that tradition was corrupt and that capricious nature itself ruled man.  Some of those themes also find voice in this 2011 Von Trier film.  Justine, like her literary counterpart, faces trials, though not explicitly of a sexual nature.  Instead, her trials involve "knowing," and how "knowing" impacts Justine's behavior towards and consideration of societal conventions, such as marriage. 

Finally, the notion that nature rules man is made literal in Melancholia, as the Heavens themselves conspire to to dominate (and end) his existence.

Although far less overtly gruesome than Von Trier's horror masterpiece, Antichrist (2009), Melancholia may not be as approachable a film as that remarkable effort.  Dunst gives an amazing performance here -- perhaps her best ever -- but Justine's very nature is distancing.  She is cruel and thoughtless to those around her, and even if she boasts sufficient reason for such behavior, she is not an especially sympathetic heroine.  One feels that she has assessed all life on Earth as evil (again, a De Sade-an-type revelation) unfairly, especially given the presence of true love (Michael) and innocence (Leo) in her life.

It is widely understood that Von Trier crafted Melancholia as a response to his own bout of severe depression, a few years ago, and the film's steadfast viewpoint is that the state of unhappiness is one that better prepares us for unhappy news (like, for instance, universal Armageddon).  In other words, the film is a validation of pessimism as a  life choice.  

That may or may not be your cup of tea. 

For if you are always expecting the worst out of life, it will inevitably "taste like ashes." 

Accordingly then, this is a case where I don't agree with a film maker's perspective while I simultaneously laud -- fully -- how effectively and gorgeously he has stated his case.  Melancholia is by turns brilliant and engaging, haunting and poetic, even if the director's attempt to legitimaze depression as a necessary life skill falls somewhat short in the end.

If we are all going to die in a global apocalypse, it would be my preference that we treat each other well -- and with love and grace (vis-a-vis Malick's Tree of Life) -- than spiral into pessimism and despair during our last moments.  Such an approach might make the last moments more difficult, but the moments leading up to them will be better for everyone.

Friday, November 04, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Technically-speaking, Tim Burton's 1990 hit Edward Scissorhands is structured as a myth.  In other words, it's deliberately a bed-time tale (told from a grandmother to her grandchild) that helps to explain some aspect of nature or existence

In this case, the book-end sequences in the film reveal the reasons why it often snows in one particular American town when, historically, it never snowed there before.

Beyond this unique aspect of the film's structure, Edward Scissorhands conforms to another long-standing tradition of mythology or folklore by explicitly conveying a message that is aimed at illuminating social aspects of the film's contemporary culture, meaning us, here, in modern America. 

In particular, the film serves as an excavation of not just another notable Burton outcast or misfit -- and perhaps his most memorable one at that -- but as a careful and moving indictment of a conformist dominant culture that is unable to accommodate an outsider's presence. 

Underneath the almost Dr. Seuss-styled surface of Edward Scissorhands, the movie serves as an indictment of racism in white America, particularly 20th century America.  Although colored in cheery, light pastels, the film portrays a 1950s era "traditional" America (down to character name choices like "Peg"), that reveals an alarming sense of homogeneity and parochial thinking.  In terms of history, this was the span in which segregation laws (or Jim Crow laws) were still on the books, though the court system was slowly beginning to change that fact.

Beyond the social commentary,  Edward Scissorhands is entirely persuasive as fantasy, with an opening composition that literally invites the viewer through a slowly opening door, into the domain of Burton's vivid and singular imagination.  The film also revels in Burton's familiar obsession with Rube Goldberg-styled inventions, and even makes some trenchant observations about parenthood, notably comparing two father characters: the inventor (Vincent Price) and Bill (Alan Arkin).

Haunting and emotional, Edward Scissorhands stands amongst of my favorite Burton films, in part because it features a deliberately unhappy (if emotional...) ending, and doesn't candy-coat its commentary in typical Hollywood bromides. 

In the end, the innocent and just Edward leaves the world at large, and his community too, but in notation of what has been lost because of his absence, some magic seems to go out of that world.   Except, of course, on the nights that it snows. 

That last wistful notation -- that idea that magic can exist in our life if only we allow it to do so -- is especially resonant, and a virtual trademark of Burton's aesthetic.

"You can't touch anything without destroying it!"

In Edward Scissorhands, a struggling make-up saleswoman, Peg (Dianne Wiest), leaves the safety of her suburban neighborhood to visit a Gothic mansion atop a nearby hill. 

There, she encounters a strange young man, Edward (Johnny Depp), who -- alone after the death of his father, an inventor (Price) -- now lives alone there.

Edward is unusual not only because of his gentle demeanor, but because he possesses long, sharp scissors for hands.

Peg brings Edward home with her to live in her family's house, and the neighborhood quickly begins to gossip about this unusual newcomer.   Seeking to fit in, Edward begins to work for the people of the town in different capacities (and all for free). 

At first, he trims their hedges into the shapes of animals and other fanciful creatures.  Then, Edward uses his skill with scissors to groom the neighborhood dogs.  Before long, Edward is giving the stay-at-home wives in the neighborhoods elaborate new hair cuts.

At first, a neighbor named Joyce (Kathy Baker) is aroused by the presence of Edward -- this "foreign" individual - in her humdrum, routine life, but when he refuses her aggressive sexual advances, she turns against him.  Then, the true target of Edward's affection, Peg's daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) involves Edward in a robbery at the behest of her obnoxious boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall).  Edward nearly goes to jail.

Even more than before, the town turns against Edward, leaving him no choice but to return to the lonely castle where his idiosyncratic inventor once lived.  Kim and and Jim follow him to this retreat, and Edward is left with no choice but to kill the violent Jim.  Kim, who has developed feelings for Edward, realizes that she has no option but to say goodbye to this most unusual man. 

Kim leaves Edward alone in his castle.  But years later, she knows he still lives -- immortal -- because it snows in town.  Edward creates the snow himself: cast-off shavings of ice from the elaborate sculptures he creates of his one true love...

"I am not finished."

A man with scissors for hands is certainly an original and unique creation, but Edward Scissorhands thrives as much on its depiction of Peg and Kim's pastel suburban world as it does from the singular nature of its title character.

In particular, Burton imagines a flat world in which all the houses and cars look exactly the same.  There are only four of five pastel colors to choose from, and the very flatness of the terrain -- lacking mountains and high trees -- suggest the two-dimensionality and conformity of the neighborhood, the culture and the denizens.

In particular, Burton creates for us a so-called "Googie" town deliberately evocative of  the popular 1950s design.  In other words, the houses that appear in the film conform to the architecture popularized in the 1950s and termed "Googie" by House & Home writer Julius Shulman.  These popular tract homes featured such elements as large windows, up-swept roofs, pastel color schemes, and on the interior, star burst wall-clocks. And you see all of these touches explicitly visualized in Edward Scissorhands.  The production design by Bo Welch thus specifically harks back to the 1950s, that time of racial conformity in the United States and not incidentally, the span of Tim Burton's youth.

Googie architecture was essentially mid-century modern in style, associated with the burgeoning space age and thus a spirit of can-do optimism.  But, counter-intuitively, Burton utilizes the Googie neighborhood as an indicator of the unthinking and yet visceral demand of the times to conform to the majority in terms of personal beliefs and mores, right down to choice and color of family homes.  What was designed to be an optimistic look at the "future" in America instead becomes here a signifier of the sameness of the people and their narrow or limited outlook on what it means to be a "real" American. 

When Edward enters this cookie-cutter Googie town, he is, at first, an object of curiosity.  Peg attempts to help him assimilate into the mainstream by modifying his facial complexion (with Avon make-up); so he won't, essentially "stand out."  He won't be noticed and thus derided.  Again, considering the metaphor involving racism in the 1950s, it's crucial that one note how Edward is made to change his skin color to be accepted in the neighborhood.

All the women (who seem to remain at home all day) gossip about Edward and desire to meet him.  But the only person who is cruel to Edward right from the beginning of his stay is the overtly Christian fundamentalist neighbor, who warns the neighbors that Edward is evil; Satanic actually.  And of course, this attitude also alludes to the 1950s milieu, and frequent white treatment of blacks.  In particular, black music was considered "devilish" and there was a terrible fear that the sexual, insidious music would infect upstanding white youths.  Even today, this ridiculous stereotype thrives.  How many U.S. Presidents, for instance, before Obama, have been widely termed the anti-Christ by religious authorities?

Still, Edward is welcomed into the homes of most of his neighbors, at least initially.  Importantly, however, it is in the capacity of worker or servant.  Edward tends to yards, grooms the dogs, and cuts hair.  He is, essentially, then, a harmless manservant able to do the domestic work that the middle class women do not wish to do.  He is fine as long as he knows his place and understands his role as a servant; as an assistant.

Importantly, the neighborhood goes from accepting Edward in this limited capacity to actually despising and hunting him (much like the Frankenstein Monster in James Whales' masterpiece) after he is accused of making a sexual advance against Joyce...a white woman.  Notably, Joyce is actually the one who made sexual advances upon Edward, after vocally fetishizing his "foreign-ness" or "difference;" wondering aloud what tricks he could do (or undo) with those sharp scissor hands of his.  But she turns the tables and blames Edward for sexual advances, and the town takes her word for it.

Additionally, whenever Edward makes mistakes or misunderstands the nature of his place in the Googie neighborhood, the more accepting whites among the town make paternalistic excuses for him, without actually considering how he was treated by those around him. 

"He can't help the way he is," says one character.  He must learn "not to take everything literally," says Bill.  In both cases, Edward -- definitively "the other" -- is blamed when things go awry. Fault cannot rest, apparently, in such a happy, pastel, Googie place.  Instead, fault must rest with the guy who is different; not in the response of the society to the guy who's different.  That's a significant distinction.

In the end, the neighbors run Edward out of town permanently, back into the dark, menacing Gothic mansion on the hill, a place where he apparently belongs as a non-white, non-conforming "monster."  This action thus represents the town's way of rejecting racial integration, and insisting on the separate status of someone who looks different.  It's an ugly display of parochial thinking, but also a once widespread attitude.

And yet, the film makes the case -- in the last act -- that the town has lost something beautiful by driving Edward away.  The magic and happiness he brought (diversity, perhaps?) has been sacrificed and lost.  Now, he occasionally bestows his magic -- the snow -- upon the town, but he is nonetheless forever apart from those who would benefit from his presence and particular skills.

The only man with scissor hands in the 1950s-styled Googie town, Edward remains quite the outsider and misfit.  His very touch is awkward and dangerous, and we see this quality clearly as he attempts to interface with Kim's family.  On his first day in town, he accidentally punctures with his scissor hands Kim's water bed, an act which on some metaphorical level suggests his implied/believed (sexual?) danger to the women of town.  By being different, he seems to be dangerous.

The social commentary about racism in Edward Scissorhands is a vital part of the film's creative tapestry, and yet Burton creates sympathy for the character by establishing his total sense of alone-ness and incompleteness.  "I'm not finished yet," Edwards declares at one point, and there are many of us who feel exactly the same way.  Like Edward, we are in the act of "becoming," of growing and turning into something.  Because of his poor treatment at the hand of the town's people, Edward does not become part of the community.  Instead, his destiny is to be alone.  What he becomes is...separate.

Tim Burton has occasionally stated that all his films come down to issues of parenthood, or fatherhood in particular. Here, Vincent Price plays the Inventor, a kindly man who created life, but was not able to perfect it before his untimely death.  In flashback scenes, we witness the old man's kindness, but also his desire to play God, to create a life and control it.  Although it is not his fault that he died when he did, the scientist becomes an absentee father figure, unable to help Edward countenance the world when the young man needs him the most. 

Notably, Bill -- despite some kindnesses -- also fails Edward at a critical juncture.  He is never able to turn the town back to Edward's side, and does not complain or object when Edward makes his final departure.  In both cases, the fathers don't seem to want to take responsibility for the son they have made.

One of the most beautiful and emotional aspects of Edward Scissorhands involves the climax, in which Edward creates a blizzard, a snow storm, from his perch high over the town.  Like the rest of the film, this denouement is highly symbolic, and emblematic of Burton's argument in favor of diversity and against conformity (or racism, particularly). 

For instance, some people believe that in the snow we see the reflection of God him (or her)self.  Snow is pure (like Edward) and incredibly individual: no two snow flakes are exactly like.  There is diversity amongst snow flakes and that's a good thing...for each is beautiful in its own way and evidence of God's ability create beauty in all forms.  By extension, Edward's differences from the rest of the folks in the Googie town should make him an object of beauty and reverence, not a monster.

At the heart of Edward Scissorhands echoes the belief that we need not fear that which, upon first blush, appears different from the norm.  Sometimes what is different can change our life for the better and make us see life in a totally new light. 

"You see, before he came down here, it never snowed," Kim explains to her granddaughter with a sense of wonder.  "And afterwards, it did."

Watching and experiencing Edward Scissorhands, you must decide if you want to be one of the villagers, trying to destroy that which appears different just because you're afraid of the new, or someone who regards the snow...and wants to dance in it.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"The years spent in isolation have not equipped him with the tools necessary to judge right from wrong. He's had no context. He's been completely without guidance. Furthermore, his work -- the garden sculptures, hairstyles and so forth -- indicate that he's a highly imaginative...character. It seems clear that his awareness of what we call reality is radically underdeveloped."

- Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Not Bad for a Human Contest!

Joseph Maddrey, co-author of the Lance Henriksen biography, Not Bad for A Human, just notified me about a new promotion/contest regarding the book and since many of the readers here are Millennium and Lance fans, I wanted to pass it along.

Here's the deal:

Between November 1 and December 31, 2011, we’re offering a holiday deal on Lance Henriksen’s biography… while supplies last. When you buy the AUTOGRAPHED LIMITED EDITION through this website, you will also receive a personalized 8 x 10 publicity photo from one of Lance’s film or TV projects. On top of that, you’ll be entered in a contest to win the dust jacket pictured above — one of only ten existing copies signed by both authors, the publisher and all six artists featured in the book!

More details here.

Collectible of the Week: Space:1999 Moonbase Alpha Set (Mattel; 1976)

The year 1976 was America's bicentennial, but much more importantly (!) the heyday of Space:1999 toys and memorabilia. 

Mattel released its three-foot-long Eagle toy in 1976 and also a line of  action figures to go with this play set, the Space:1999 Moonbase Alpha "control room & launch center."  On television, this area was called "Main Mission" and was a colossal, two-level chamber replete with big screen and observation deck.

This toy doesn't quite live up to the impressive set from the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series, but is a lot of fun nonetheless. 

It comes with a cool "Starflash Computer" that "really lights up!" and  vaguely resembles one of Alpha's trademark "comm-posts." 

Eagle-eyed collectors, however, will also notice that the Starflash computer is actually a toy re-purposed from the popular Matt Mason toy line of the sixties.

Other than the Starflash Computer, this set is basically a vinyl mat with  a swivel chair, a console chair and table, TV monitor screens, console readout dials, and vinyl covered walls. 

You could apply decals to the playset, to recreate scenes from Year One of the series.  Most importantly, however, this set was a place where your Commander Koenig, Dr. Russell and Victor Bergman action figures could hang out and fight Planet of the Apes figures, or the aliens from Mego's Star Trek line.

The back of the box described the set this way: "18" x 30" x 11" control room & launch center designed for 9" Space: 1999 action figures. Control panels are printed, label set and instructions included.  Action figures not included. Flasher light "D" battery sold separately."

Today, as an adult collector, I long for a more accurate representation of Moonbase Alpha, one that  captures the minimalist, Kubrickian aesthetic of the TV series a bit more closely. 

But I still have a lot of nostalgia for this toy, in part because I remember seeing it in toy stores back in the disco decade and begging my parents for it. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: Pets

Identified by Michael Falkner: I'Chaya the Sehlat in Star Trek The Animated Series: "Yesteryear."

Identified by Will: Dopey in Land of the Lost: "Dopey."


Identified by Michael Falkner: Muffit in Battlestar Galactica: "Saga of a Star World."


Identified by Michael Falkner: Millennium: "Pilot."

Identified by Michael Falkner: Spot in Star Trek: The Next Generation: "In Theory."


Identified by Michael Falkner: Porthos in Star Trek: Enterprise.

Identified by Michael Falkner: Vincent in Lost: "Pilot."


Identified by Chadzilla: Nim on Surface (2005).

Monday, October 31, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales from the Darkside: "Slippage" (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trick or Treat...

Happy Halloween

Hope you have a frightfully great holiday.