Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saturday with Sinbad: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

I first saw Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) in theaters when I was seven or eight years old.  I absolutely loved it as a kid, and have thought of the film fondly for decades since...but without actually re-visiting it.

A recent re-screening of the film, however, for this Saturday series, reveals Eye of the Tiger to be the least successful of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad trilogy.

In Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Sinbad (now Patrick Wayne) must stop a diabolical sorceress -- "as malicious as a shark" --  named Zenobia (Margaret Whiting), who has turned the soon-to-be-coronated Caliph, Prince Kassim, into a baboon.  She has done so in hopes that her own son may assume the throne in Kassim's place. 

Engaged to Kassim's sister, Farah (Jane Seymour), Sinbad sets sail to find a cure for the transformed Kassim.  He meets up with a legendary Greek scientist, Melanthius (Patrick Troughton) and his lovely daughter, Dione (Taryn Power), and together they make for the foreboding ice cliffs of Hyperboria, where a cure may await. 

Meanwhile, Zenobia pursues Sinbad with her frightening automaton, the Minoton...

Directed by Sam Wanamaker, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was released in American theaters just six weeks after Star Wars premiered in 1977, and so it's clear that a dramatic shift was occurring in terms of movie fantasies.  Unfortunately, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger looks old and tired compared to Star Wars, with several disastrous scenes featuring unnecessary rear projection. 

I'm not certain what occurred here, but in several scenes it looks as though the major cast members (Wayne, Seymour and Troughton) never went on location, and so all of the exterior scenes on Melanthius's island reek of visual phoniness.  It's so bad as to take you out of the movie's reality for several minutes.

Secondly, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is the only Sinbad movie where the stop-motion animation itself proves a little tiresome.  The first fight in the film -- Sinbad against three insectoid/skeleton creatures from the underworld -- is dire. 

As Clash of the Titans also revealed, stop motion animation works less well in night-time settings (something about the mismatch in lighting between live and animated elements, I presume...). 

But what makes this battle with the insectoids worse than anything in Clash is the monsters' relative size compared to Wayne's.  They look just a tad shorter and smaller than Sinbad.  Not small enough to be homunculi or some other diminutive fantasy creature, mind you, but just short enough to make it appear as though the perspectives in the mating of the footage are wrong.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger would have also worked a lot better, in visual terms, if a real baboon had been used as Kassim, instead of a stop-motion figure.  The same thing with the Minoton.  There are instances here wherein a full-scale statue/person-in-suit (seen briefly, I think....) could have more effectively brought the creature to life for longer spells.  The poor visuals involving the baboon and the Minoton give one the impression that the Sinbad movies have fallen into a creative rut; one where the creators seem to think stop-motion animation is the only solution to a special effects problem.  No one was thinking outside that particular box. 

On top of these flaws, we've gone back to the 7th Voyage of Sinbad's non-ethnic, western portrayal of Sinbad, and Patrick Wayne seems to lack the intensity of John Phillip Law.  He's cheery and kind of bland.   This film is also the longest of the Sinbad features clocking it at nearly two hours, and the plot is so simplistic that much of the film feels like a drag.  Then, when we finally get to the happy conclusion (Kassim's delayed coronation), the film displays end credits over the footage so the audience can't make out what's happening.

God, I hate writing any of that, because Joel (my five year old son) enjoyed the heck out of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and it was for kids like him that the movie was made.  I understand that, and I'm thrilled he loved the film.

Therefore, I'm going to try to focus now on the things I liked most about the film.  First and foremost is the  Troglodyte creature of Hyperboria. 

This humanoid "monster" remains one of Harryhausen's greatest efforts, perhaps, and is absolutely brimming with humanity and personality.  The creature gives up its life to save Sinbad and his group in the climax, and it's a sacrifice you really feel.   It's amazing to countenace the idea that a "miniature" or sculpted model can make you feel strong emotions, but that's precisely what occurs with this sympathetic monster.

Secondly, the Minoton is an absolutely awesome villain and creation, and represents Joel's big imaginative "takeaway" from the movie.  More than anything in the world right now, my son wants a Minoton action figure.  The Minoton is actually a kind of golden bull robot, and cuts quite the imposing figure in the film.  But again, I must note that something goes amiss with the character's use: he's killed removing a brick from a pyramid (!) and never given the chance to challenge Sinbad in combat. 


This is a villain that absolutely required a more fitting and dramatic end.  The film's climax should have involved a brawl between Sinbad and the Minoton.  Even Joel, at five years old, knew something wasn't right.  He kept asking if the Minoton was going to pop up at the end.  But he didn't.

The other monsters in the film are a little underwhelming, a giant bee, a smilodon and a giant walrus, among them.   They look fine, but somehow lack an overt sense of menace.  The scene involving the bee happens to be spectacularly bad.  Troughton's character creates a giant bee to test Zenobia's transformation serum, and then it promptly runs wild, and allows for Zenobia to escape.  Ugh.

After having watched all the Sinbad movies now, I must say that Golden Voyage stands out as the best, with Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger bringing up the rear.   This film's most eye-opening (and unexpected effect), at least for a forty-something dad, is a nude scene by the gorgeous (and apparently never aging...) Jane Seymour.   

Somehow, as a seven year old, I didn't pick up on that.

I must have been too busy ogling the Minoton.

Next week on Saturday with Sinbad, a real classic from Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Movie Trailer: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Films of 1982: Firefox

Tense, cerebral, and confident in a kind of glacial, calculating fashion, director Clint Eastwood's Cold War techno-thriller Firefox was one of the unique offerings of the great summer of 1982. 

A literate and respectable adaptation of Craig Thomas' 1978 novel of the same name, Firefox took on the  Soviet Union -- the "Evil Empire" of President Reagan's famous conjuration -- and also imagined some chilling, futuristic developments in the dangerous international game of technological and ideological brinkmanship.

Although today Firefox seems a bit drawn out at two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes, and even a little emotionally flat in some respects, Eastwood's confident decision to eschew traditional movie sentimentality and mock heroics actually augments the film's artistic success, and notably strengthens its case for American-style freedom and democracy.

Although Firefox concerns an American pilot going undercover in Moscow to steal a high-tech warplane, in terms of substance much of the narrative involves Eastwood's pilot, Gant, interacting with  Soviet rebels; rebels who -- without flinching, and noticeably without narcissism -- give up their lives for a cause greater than personal success, wealth or gain. 

Again and again, these courageous dissidents do what is necessary, what is hard, and what is truly heroic (but not selfish...) to bring freedom not just to their country, but peace to the world at large.  The depiction of the Soviet Union in Firefox may or may not be entirely accurate -- Gant and his comrades are asked for their papers so often you'd swear you're in a World War II propaganda film -- but Eastwood's (and, incidentally, President Reagan's...) case is forged masterfully. Deny a people their freedom, their individual liberty long enough, and, eventually, you'll be consigned to the ash heap of history. Your "control" won't be a match for their dedication.

Unlike the James Bond films, which sometimes positioned SPECTRE or some other criminal organization as the real force of terror in the world while the U.S. and U.S.S.R were merely competitors, Firefox rather decidedly chooses sides in the Cold War struggle, recognizing that one nation embraces personal freedom while the other squelches it.  Although this may sound too black-and-white for some viewers, Eastwood has focused so intently and so masterfully on details of technology and espionage, -- and so masterfully cut-out all dramatic histrionics -- that the film often plays as quasi-documentary. 

In the film's final sequence, replete with masterful effects from John Dykstra, Firefox literally and metaphorically takes flight...and proves utterly rousing.

"If the Soviets can mass produce it, it will change the structure of our world..."

A former pilot and head of a U.S. military "aggressor" squad, Mitchell Gant (Eastwood) is recruited by American intelligence officials to go undercover in Moscow and steal a newly designed, experimental warplane, Firefox. 

The matter is one of national security because the Soviet craft can travel faster than Mach 5, and is virtually invisible to radar.  Perhaps more dramatically, the plane is controlled by "brain emissions" and "thought impulses" through helmet sensors, meaning that pilot response time in battle is greatly reduced.  "The greatest warplane ever built," Firefox could change the worldwide balance of power.

Though Gant is an outstanding pilot, he has precious little experience in the world of espionage, and worse, he's still haunted by a traumatic experience in the Vietnam War, during which he saw a young Vietnamese girl firebombed by American planes.  In moments along and in quiet, Gant often experiences seizures, reliving the troubling memories.

Gant travels to Moscow, masquerading as a business-man, but his cover is soon blown,  Helpful dissidents soon come to his aid, arranging again and again his safe passage, often at the expense of their lives.  When Gant finally reaches Firefox's hanger, the scientists who developed the plane also sacrifice themselves to give him cover, for escape and Gant takes off in the technological Goliath.

Unfortunately for Gant, there is a second Firefox ready to launch, and it soon takes to the skies in pursuit...,

"This is very important:  You must think in Russian."

What I admire most about Firefox is its streamlined, no-nonsense nature.  There's no ameliorating romance here, no juvenile comedic relief, and no pandering to the audience in terms of making the action easy or simple. 

This is a complicated film, like an old Mission: Impossible episode in some respects, and the film encourages engagement and attention in a way that few thrillers today manage.  We understand now that Eastwood is a great director, but that fact is also plain here.  He stages a number of elaborate sequences (including one in a Moscow subway station) with tremendous aplomb and visual clarity.  This is a far cry from last week's 1982 feature, Megaforce, which couldn't be bothered to lay out for viewers the spatial, geographical details of battle.

Even better than the film's visual distinction, it's clear that Firefox also has something important on its mind.  The film's overriding leitmotif is stated in the line of dialogue I excerpted above in the section break.  "You must think in Russian." 

On a literal level, of course, this admonition applies to Gant's mastery of Firefox's control systems.  It is a plane controlled by thought, but it was made in Russia, so Gant must phrase his mental commands in Russian.  That alone would be challenge for any pilot.

But on a metaphorical level, Eastwood's character is forced, while in the Iron Curtain, to think like a Russian in terms of what it means to live in a totalitarian regime.  He doesn't understand this distinction at first.  He can't think in Russian, because he's from an entirely different culture, a "free man."   At least twice in the film, Gant seeks to understand why the dissidents are so willing to buck the system, to fight City Hall when the end game is only death.  "What is it with you Jews, anyway?" he asks, rather insensitively.  "Don't you get tired of fighting City Hall?"

Later, when Gant asks a dissident what will happen to him, the rebel replies "It doesn't matter," and Gant takes the remark like a slap across the face.  Of course his life matters.  Every life matters.  But for the dissident, what remains of import here is doing something positive for the country, for his the cause of freedom. 

Some audiences may see this whole subplot as propagandistic or nationalistic, but remember the context: this film was produced at the height of the Cold War, after the Soviet Union had advanced into Afghanistan.  The film reflects that worrisome time, and more so, reflects the American perspective of that conflict.   There's no moral equivocation or relativism in Firefox, only a journey in which a hero is exposed, on his journey, to what it means to live without freedom.  He learns to "think like a Russian," to see life in a place where liberty is absent.  The film picks sides, and it's hard to disagree with Firefox's conclusion.  Freedom is universally the superior paradigm.

Many audiences of today's vintage may find Gant's tragic flaw -- his PTSD seizures -- woefully cliched.  We've seen this particular idea repeated so many times in 2011 that it is trite, and even a little silly.  And yet, in context of the picture, I'd again suggest that it works just fine.  The game here is to make a realistic thriller about a flawed man fighting for his country.  The PTSD takes the edge of invincibility off the familiar Eastwood persona, and makes him more dimensional.  Again, you must contrast Firefox's approach with the likes of something like Moonraker (1979), an espionage/spy film that leaves reality behind (not there's anything wrong, intrinsically with that approach). 

Here, reality comes first and foremost, and people are portrayed as innate courageous...but also innately flawed.  There's a great moment late in the film when Gant brutally takes down a Soviet pilot.  He ambushes him, but then stops, mid-beating, and reveals his humanity.  "Hell," he says, "you didn't do anything."   Mercy is a human trait, and one that many screen heroes of today, in their darkness and angst, eschew.

Of course, that good deed is punished when the beaten pilot -- angry over his treatment -- pilots the second Firefox in pursuit of Gant.  But still, the point of Gant's humanity is made very well.

The last forty-five minutes or so of Firefox involve Gant in the cockpit, in the sky, attempting to fake out, evade, and survive dedicated Soviet pursuit.  It's quite a strong third act, and it features some absolutely exhilarating first-person flight footage.  The special effects by Dykstra (involving miniatures) are not as dated as I thought they were before I re-screened the film, and in fact, very impressive.  The design of Firefox, for instance, is fantastic.  I'd love a model kit.   

I also wondered for the first time while watching this film for this review, if Airwolf was not actually a Blue Thunder knock-off (and a good one), but a Firefox knock-off.  Both productions involve the theft of a high-tech aircraft, both feature protagonists who are traumatized by the Vietnam conflict, and both crafts feature an element (air or fire) and mammal (wolf or fox) in their name.

Where the final, climactic segment of Firefox falls down, at least a little bit, is in the perhaps-unconscious but nevertheless obvious aping of Star Wars in one dramatic moment.

At one point in the aerial combat, Gant takes his Firefox down into an ice trench (like the Death Star technological trench), while his opponent pursues.  During the chase, we get a voice-over from Ben Kenobi, er Freddie Jones reminding him to think in Russian.  The voice-over is obvious and unnecessary, and the similarity to the Star Wars' climax merely takes away from all the respect Firefox achieves with its high-integrity, low-drama approach to storytelling.

Late in the film, the oily, villainous First Secretary of the U.S.S.R. taunts Gant with the questions "are you enjoying your ride, Mr. Gant? Like our new toy?"  In terms of the movie, the answer would have to be affirmative.  Firefox is a solid, well-crafted, intelligent ,techno-thriller, even today, and it earns your respect scene-by-scene.  More than that, it boasts a smart, contemplative core, asking its (predominantly American...) audience to think like a "Russian," and imagine what it means to live in a world without freedom, one where you can't fight City Hall.

Next Week on The Films of 1982: The Class of 1984.

Firefox (1982) Trailer

Thursday, January 19, 2012

TV REVIEW: Alcatraz: "Pilot" (2012)

To describe Alcatraz in a convenient shorthand, the new sci-fi mystery series from creators Elizabeth Sarnoff, Steven Lilien, Bryan Wynbrandt and executive producer J.J. Abrams is a lot like Brimstone (1998) meets Lost (2004 - 2010).

Don't remember Brimstone?  If not, a true shame, because it is worth remembering.

Brimstone was a terrific but short-lived Fox horror series (that aired on Fridays with  Millennium) and concerned a laconic cop (Peter Horton) working with Satan himself (John Glover) to send back to Hell some 200+ demon prisoners who had escaped from the underworld. 

Each week, there was a a different prisoner to catch, each with his or her own story  and unique modus operandi. 

What made Brimstone authentically great, however, wasn't necessarily the somewhat repetitive premise, but rather the scintillating chemistry between the stars, and the fact that the series dwelt much on the personal life of Det. Ezekiel Stone (Horton), who had also been a prisoner in Hell himself, and returned to Earth to find that his wife (Stacy Haiduk) had moved on. 

I wish the series had been more popular, or that Fox had shown a little faith in it and given it more time on the air.  One of these days, if I can get my hands on all the episodes, I should cult blog the series as I'm currently doing with The Fantastic Journey.  An official DVD set would sure be nice.

But back to Alcatraz.  The series premise is eerily similar.  In March of 1963, Alcatraz was closed and "officially speaking" all the prisoners were transferred to newer facilities.  But "that's not what happened.  Not at all."  Instead, in some kind of Philadelphia Experiment way, all the prisoners disappeared...never to be seen again.

Until now...

For some reason, these deadly criminals are re-appearing in 2012, and wreaking havoc in nearby San Francisco.  The prisoners not only seem to be following their own modus operandi, but appear to be working for some unknown group or conspiracy, in furtherance of some diabolical agenda.  They haven't aged a day since 1963, and appear to be performing tasks for some unknown overlords.

Working to apprehend the 300+ criminals is police detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and her partner, author and geek Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia).  They work for the mildly sinister Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who was a guard at Alcatraz the night the prisoners vanished from sight and knows much more than he is currently revealing.

So thus far, each week...another prisoner to catch, each with his distinctive methods.  "Ernest Cobb" was the Wichita Sniper, for instance, with a pattern of killing three innocent victims every three days, as per the second episode.  He gets caught in the second episode.

The Lost comparison comes into play because Alcatraz, at least in its pilot and first regular episode (the aforementioned "Ernest Cobb") heavily involves character flashbacks.  We see the prisoners' time on Alcatraz before disappearing, for instance, which serves as clue to the larger mystery.  The overall setting -- an island filled with temporal mysteries -- also clearly harks back to the earlier Abrams series, as does (the inspired_ casting of Garcia.

Although Alcatraz is mired in familiar elements from BrimstoneLost and about a dozen police procedurals currently on the air, I must admit I found it  modestly intriguing, and it held my interest for two hours  I was particularly gratified in the casting of Sarah Jones as Madsen and Garcia as De Soto.  They are an unconventional but intriguing pair, cast for their solid acting abilities, not merely their looks.  In fact, I found Sarah Jones quite fetching.  She's not traditionally beautiful (though she is lovely), yet she projects a distinctive personality and quality of reality that I appreciated.  Her casting reminded me a little bit of Gillian Anderson on The X-Files.  She's a woman who -- the more you look at her and spend time with her -- the more you see her inner and outer beauty. 

What's the point?  Well, even with all its derivative qualities, I sense that Alcatraz may be worth sticking with simply for the character interplay.  The performances of the actors and personalities of the characters may overcome some of the admittedly routine material.  That's my hope, anyway.  Sometimes watching a TV show isn't about a premise, or about a particular narrative, but about spending time with people who intrigue you.

In general, I must admit, I also found the pilot of Alcatraz smarter than anything I  ever saw on the re-made V, Terra Nova or Flash Forward.  Again, I realize that this compliment is like being voted the nicest inmate in prison (on Alcatraz?), but I suppose it's something.  Watching Alcatraz, I didn't feel that my intelligence was overtly being insulted (as was surely the case with both V and Terra Nova).

My wife, who watched both the Alcatraz pilot and "Ernest Cobb" with me was not so excited by the possibilities of the program.  When I asked her what bothered her, she stressed J.J. Abrams' involvement and noted her fear that Alcatraz was going to lead us around by the nose but never truly come together; that the central mystery was never going to be resolved satisfactorily.

Good point.  I hope the show doesn't just lead us on.  I hope it goes somewhere amazing; somewhere that is internally consistent, makes sense, and really wows the audience.  Let's have not only a grand mystery...but a grand, mind-blowing investigation and resolution too. 

Is that too much to ask?

Sc-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Mr. Gant, you are an American. You are a free man. I am not. There is a difference. If I resent the men in London who are ordering my death, then it is a small thing when compared with my resentment of the KGB."

- Firefox (1982), to be reviewed here tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Collectible of the Week: Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures (Galoob; 1988)

This year is the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I've been featuring episode retrospectives here on the blog to celebrate the occasion. 

Today, I want to diverge from that mission a little bit and remember the first line of toy action figures from the program, which were released in 1988 (near the end of the first season) and produced by Galoob.   

Years later, of course, Playmates produced a line of figures based on the series that far exceeded Galoob's in terms of selection and popularity.  But the Galoob Star Trek: The Next Generation figures remain cherished collectibles for me.  

 In part, this is because I remember the excitement and anticipation accompanying the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation -- the first new Trek series since 1973 --  and the thrill of seeing toys and model kits on the market anew.   My sweet and loving mother promptly ordered all the crew action figures for me, as well AMT's model kit of the Enterprise-D from a toy vendor in Florida, and I still remember the thrill of the toys arriving in the mail one afternoon 

Six crew members from the Enterprise-D were included with the first Galoob release in 1988.  These included Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Commander Will Riker (still beard-less at this point), Lt. Commander Data (in both golden speckled face and blue face variation, for some reason...), the ill-fated Lt. Tasha Yar, Lt. Geordi La Forge (before he became chief engineer), and Lt. Worf. 

These crew figures are all very much "show accurate" to employ a popular phrase, right down to the middle crease or ridge down the middle of their first season Starfleet uniform tunics.  Also,  the figures, like their namesakes, were of different heights and builds. 

The likenesses to the actors are also quite good, in my estimation.

Each of the crew members came equipped with a phaser 2, Dustbuster variation (the one seen in nice close-up in "The Arsenal of Freedom") molded in hand, and a tricorder (with strap) to sling over their shoulders.  I suppose the latter point was actually an inaccuracy, as characters only carried tricorders on straps in the Original Series, not in The Next Generation.

In addition to the stalwart crew members, Galoob released a group of early first season villains to challenge the crew, including Q in his judge's robes from "Encounter At Farpoint," the Ferengi from "The Last Outpost" and two singularly unmemorable races from "Lonely Among Us:" The Anticans and Selay. 

The line didn't stop with action figures, either.  Galoob also produced a Shuttlecraft Galileo vehicle for the Enterprise team and a neat but show-inaccurate Ferengi fighter for the bad guys.

A smaller, die-cast metal Enterprise-D was released, and it boasted the capacity to separate the saucer section.  Also released was a phaser one toy that acted as flashlight when activated.

Left widely unproduced and sold were planned figures, including a Romulan (seen in "The Neutral Zone") and acting ensign Wesley Crusher. 

I also vividly remember that the mail-order vendor from whom we purchased the available toys also offered for a time two or maybe three cardboard play sets, one of the Enterprise interior, and one -- if memory serves -- of the inhospitable planet surface from "The Last Outpost." 

Alas, those sets were never produced, and my money was refunded.  I would love to see photos of these play sets today, as I've become quasi-convinced over the long years that I hallucinated them.  Only a Toy Collector magazine article from 1996 confirms I haven't lost my mind...

As I've written before, we normally associate Star Trek toys with Mego and Playmates, but I've always appreciated the Galoob line quite a bit.  The action figures look great hanging on my office wall, and make a nice counterpoint to the larger, somewhat strange-looking Playmates figures.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote #3: Borellian Nomen and TMP Klingons

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Another week, another horror movie remake.

Seriously though, as I hope to have established in previous reviews (notably my recent review of Fright Night [2011]), I work hard to assess remakes on a case-by-case basis rather than simply trashing all of them, out-of-hand. 

Such a measured approach is the only way to prevent  errors of critical judgment in an age when Hollywood feels that every horror film should carry name brand identification and the possibility of franchise-a-fication. 

All these (seemingly endless...) remakes exist for a reason: because it is less risky to market a tested title than a fresh one.  But the crux of the matter is that some remakes are indeed better than others....and even downright good  They should be lauded for that achievement, not dismissed because they part of -- as a whole -- a mangy breed.  In the past, I have enjoyed and appreciated such remakes such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre  (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and The Ring (2002).

So I'm not a remake hater just for the sake of it. 

Nonetheless, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) just ain't one of the good ones.  It not only fails to understand why the original version of the material scared us as children, it fails to make much internal sense.  It's a double failure, then, first as re-imagination, and then, additionally, as an original work.

Co-written by one of my genre heroes, Guillermo Del Toro, and directed by Troy Nixey, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) is an elaborate remake of a 1973 TV movie of the same name.  You can read my review of that film here, which I posted a second time on the day last year the remake was released.  John Newland directed the original made-for-tv film, and it starred Kim Darby. 

The meat of my review of the original establishes that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is:

"...essentially the tale of a woman trapped in an unhappy and lonely marriage...and slowly but surely losing her grasp on reality (see also: Something Evil).

Sally's husband is mostly absent, and treats her as though she's a slow-witted child. All Alex cares about is that she's the "perfect hostess" for a dinner party, and the film functions literally as a metaphor of an unhappy marital relationship. Little things - literally, little monsters - keep getting in the way of the relationship, driving a wedge between the couple.

The terrifying notion at the heart of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the opening of a Pandora's Box, the fear of breaking down a wall and releasing something that can't be put back in its place.

Again, without putting too fine a point on it, there's a psychological equivalent to this Pandora's Box (the fireplace...) in the film too."

The 2011 remake fails so egregiously because it takes a relatively simple and yet resonant tale (as diagrammed in the excerpt above) and then  heaps more and more unnecessary story detail atop it.  

In other words, this movie does what all bad remakes feel the inexplicable need to do: it embellishes and embellishes until a once-sturdy foundation can no longer support the weight of all the new additions.

Consider: the original film concerned a country estate that was impressive, but not colossal or overwhelming, and involved little monsters about whom the audience knew almost nothing.  They were little devils, certainly, and they wanted to drag poor Kim Darby's Sally into a furnace...and perhaps Hell itself. 

That's pretty much everything.

But that simple blueprint is not enough for the re-told story.  In the spirit of Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999), the reasonably-proportioned country estate of the original has been turned into a goliath mansion of impossible interior decoration and dimension.  This mansion interior is so ornate, so over-sized that it would be difficult to imagine such a place actually existing.  It is a fantasyland castle.  This problem in presentation and tone is exacerbated, in fact, by the film's very first shot.  We open with a CGI view of the mansion exterior in the past, in the 1880s.  The view is abundantly phony, and immediately colors the film as fantasy, rather than as horror.  Reality is absent.

Beyond the fantasyland coloring and dimensions of the mansion in the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,  the film slathers on more detail, more exposition, and more background.  The audience receives a lengthy prologue revealing the monsters, the monsters' lair in the furnace, their 19th century victims, and their peculiar need for childrens' teeth.

Later in the film, the star's protagonist, Kim (Katie Holmes) visits a library and a special collection that explains the rest of the monsters' story.  The creatures are historical "fairies" who require children and their teeth to replenish their dwindled numbers.  We see artwork of the monsters, and learn of their interactions with the historical papacy in Europe.  The only thing we don't get is a specimen for our own personal dissection.

All of these informational, spoon-fed touches are absolutely antithetical to the generation of suspense and terror in horror cinema.  A good general rule of thumb in horror is that the less we know about certain elements of a narrative (namely what the monsters are, and what, precisely they want), the more successful the film is.   Horror rests in not-knowing, in ambiguity.  Why? Because that's the essence of human life.  We don't always understand why fate chooses us to suffer, or why bad things -- such as a car crash, or diagnosis of cancer -- occur.  The good horror movies reflect such real life ambiguity by not sharing absolutely everything about their menace, whether that menace is Michael  "The Shape" Myers, the birds of Bodega Bay, or the xenomorph in Alien (1979). 

Mystery enhances horror; knowledge diminishes it.

Conceptually, this remake just never surpasses this needy, continuous desire to make everything bigger, more elaborate, and more-spelled-out than the original. If you look at such classics as Psycho, Halloween and The Blair Witch Project, you understand the fallacy of such thinking.  We don't require impossible interior decoration to be scared.  We don't have to know the 'why' of a monster's behavior, either.

But I should be absolutely clear about this fact: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't even work on its own terms; even if you don't take the original into consideration.  The problem is sloppy writing.  The story just doesn't hold together, and the film will have you screaming over its multitudinous oversights and missed opportunities.

For instance, late in the film, the young heroine, Sally (Bailee Madison), is trapped in a dark library with the rampaging monsters.  She battles them valiantly, while outside the library, the dinner guests of her father, Alex (Guy Pearce) try to break in and rescue her. 

At this point in the narrative, everyone believes Sally is merely a disturbed or troubled child, and that the monsters are figments of her troubled imagination.

Eventually, the dinner guests break into the library, but not before Sally crushes one of the creatures against a library book shelf.  We see a severed arm fall to the floor as the monsters scurry away into darkness.  Instead of showcasing this rather dramatic evidence of her questionable story about monsters, Sally proffers a blurry photo, which is never revealed to the audience. 

So why doesn't Sally show the disbelieving adults, including her father, the severed arm? 

Incontrovertible proof of monsters would have rather niftily supported the child's case at this juncture.  You can be damn sure that if I were trying to make people believe I had seen a monster, I'd be waving around that severed arm to the high heavens.

This is only one problem of internal logic and consistency.  Another involves the monsters themselves.  Throughout the film, there are perhaps a half-dozen of them.  Just a handful.  But then suddenly -- and conveniently in time for the over-the-top climax -- there are literally dozens.  Where did the rest come from?  Where were they hiding during the rest of the film?  Lounging in the underworld?  If your population's survival depends on accomplishing one task, such as stealing a child, do you leave the bulk of your army languishing in the furnace until the last minute?

And if the purpose of stealing Sally and dragging her down into the furnace is indeed to replenish the monsters' dwindled numbers, then how the heck did there get to be so many of these hobgoblins down there in the first place?  The surfeit of monsters in the climax undercuts the monster's established motivation: the desperate need to reproduce.   By elaborating so fully about the monsters and their needs, the movie writes itself into a corner.  When suddenly a dozen monsters appear, it doesn't ring true; it smacks of gimmickry.

Thirdly, the finale of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark sees a character dragged down into the furnace; down, down underground, into a seemingly endless (but navigable...) tunnel of dirt, clay and earth.  In the original TV movie, Sally was dragged down into the furnace when nobody else was no one saw where she went and could rescue her.  She just...disappeared.  Her husband might easily have believed she had left him; that she had run away.

But here, two characters witness a family member dragged down into the hole, and do absolutely nothing in terms of follow-up.  In this day and age, the police would surely have excavators and work crews ripping up that basement to rescue the missing citizen in short order. 

Why doesn't Alex call the local fire crew and report that one of his family members has fallen down a deep hole, and that he requires assistance rescuing her? 

Seriously, would you leave a loved one down in a hole, and make no attempt to rescue him or her, especially if he/she was alive (and kicking...) when falling in?  I realize, of course,  that Alex can't immediately follow the missing family member down the hole himself, because he has another family member to look after, and he may consider the danger from the monsters far from over.  But he could drive away, make a cell phone call, drop off the family member, thenand go back and save the missing person from the well.  It makes absolutely no sense that this doesn't occur.  This is  yet another example of embellishing a story to the point that it can't stand up on its own.

Grievous errors of internal consistency and believability occur again and again in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.  A groundskeeper,  Mr. Harris, fights off the monsters about mid-way through the film.  They get into his toolbox and go at him with scissors, a utility knife, and other deadly implements.  He manages to escape, climb the basement stairs, and seek help from Sally and the housekeeper.  He still has scissors jutting out of his shoulder

Well -- incredibly -- the police, and Sally's Dad write off all of this carnage as a "work accident."  Really?  Scissors jutting out of the neck? Bloody cuts all over the man's body? 

And it was a workplace accident?  

Boy do I hate it when horror movies pull this shit, one of the dumbest of all genre movie tropes.  Nobody in their right mind would believe the attack was an "accident," but all the characters in the film automatically assume the unbelievable instead of the patently obvious.

Another flaw worth mentioning:  Alex and Kim have been re-fitting and restoring this historic mansion for months. They have sunk their financial fortune into this task.  There are groundskeepers and workers all over the premises, working around the clock for a photo-shoot in Architectural Digest.

You'd assume the couple has actually seen the original blueprints of the home if they are so enmeshed in an authentic restoration process, right?  Yet, a little girl, Sally, wanders onto the premises and on her second day there discovers a heretofore unknown basement!   Something architects, landscapers, painters, and historians all missed.  Again, all sense of reality just crumbles, and horror must possess a level of reality before layering on the scares.

Then, of course, there are flaws here originating from the fact that the remake attempts to be "faithful" to the original in some  misguided way.  In the climax of the original TV film, for instance, Sally utilized the flash of a polaroid camera to try to injure the photo-sensitive beasts.  At that point in history (the 1970s), polaroid cameras were commonplace, so the idea was pretty clever.  Sally used what was on hand to inventively attempt to save herself. 

In the remake, Sally's Dad is a collector of polaroid cameras (!) so that there happens to be one on hand to fight the ghouls; one which possesses seemingly endless flash capacity.  But here, the polaroid is such a damn stupid thing to use. If you were Sally, in this film, would you decide to use the ammo-limited Polaroid camera to fight these light-sensitive monsters, or would you pick up a flashlight ,which projects a steady stream of light and is pretty unlimited in terms of duration, assuming new batteries? 

Of course Sally keeps snapping pictures with the camera...instead of acting logically and using the flashlight.  Again, contextually-speaking, the polaroid made sense in the original.  It was an inventive weapon of last resort.  But it's resurrected here in a context that is nonsensical.

Finally, the ending of the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't make sense in terms of the background story the characters have been told about the monsters.  The audience has specifically been notified that the fairies want to take children to replenish their small numbers.  At the end of the film, the monsters abduct somebody, but it isn't a child, and add her to their ranks.  She is transformed into a monster (off-screen).   How does this work, precisely?  Aren't kids the the magic bullet?   Why bother to laboriously explain the rules of these monsters' existnece, if your movie isn't even going to stick to them?

All of these problems established, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is impressive in a few regards.  The movie boasts a humdinger of a jump scare involving a monster underneath Sally's bed covers.  Alas, if you've watched the film's trailer, you've already seen this bracing moment.  It's a major plot point -- the reveal of the monster -- and the impact of it is utterly ruined by the preview trailer.  I can't blame this issue on the film makers, but they must have surely been disappointed to see their big "boo!" moment ruined by advance advertisements.

Still, the monsters have been (masterfully) designed with a faithful eye towards the original creatures.  The gnomes/trolls are much more convincing and real here, and are genuinely scary in movement and look.  The wee beasts scurry around, and are truly malevolent, hateful little things.  You come to fear them.  And if you look closely at their faces...they share visages with their TV-movie counterparts.

Also, I can readily detect how this update attempts to craft a new and meaningful story about a child's alienation from parents, rather than the original's commentary on spousal alienation.  Little Sally is not really wanted by her mother or father, and is shifted about from house-to-house with little thought.  She is warned to be "gluten free" and take her "Adderall," dialogue points which convey the idea that her parents don't want to be bothered with her. 

 Just take your behavior-modification medicine, and shut up. 

Given this leitmotif, Sally's bed in the impossibly ornate mansion is represented as a kind of gilded, golden cage, and that's the point.  The child possesses everything (material) a kid could want, except love and affection.  So when those monsters tell Sally that "they [meaning her parents] don't want you, but we do," the line carries some resonance and power.   We all want to be with people who love us.  The monsters manipulate Sally at first to make her believe they care for her, and the attempted corruption of a child is indeed frightening.

I suspect this element of the film explains Del Toro's involvement.  He has almost universally featured children in his films and always evidenced a dramatic sensitivity towards a child's point of view.  The same is true here.  The jump scare I mentioned above works so well because it involves a universal dread.  As children, we all imagined strange worlds beneath our bedtime blankets. Sally explores one such world here, and it is monstrous, nightmarish and recognizable to our collective subconscious.

Yet even the conceit of a "lonely child's world" is carried out unevenly, as Sally is shunted to the periphery, and Kim becomes the main character.  Does she have the mettle to be a Mother?  What about her own tough childhood?   These new ideas are half-developed, and the final resolution of the story is not nearly as powerful as it should be because the movie spends so little time developing the growing bond between Kim and Sally.  The real question to consider: is this Sally's story, or is it Kim's?  The movie doesn't ever truly decide.  If this were a legitimate fairy tale, Sally would likely end up with the beasts in the furnace, finally finding her sense of "belonging" there which would serve as a lesson to all parents who neglect their children.  You either care for your kids and give them attention...or they could end up a monster.

A shame this movie doesn't have the gumption to follow through with its theme, and go in that unsettling direction.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark showcases dramatically all the common fallacies of modern horror remakes. It girds a simple story with too many bells and whistles, and it plays it safe in terms of its final act, sparing the child and spoiling the story.

Embellishing isn't necessarily improving, and the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark gets so big and fat, it forgets totell a story that makes sense, or that is capable of truly disturbing our slumber.  

The original 1973 telemovie did so much more with so much less.

Theme Song of the Week: Forever Knight (1989 - 1996)

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Cult-TV Faces of: Greek Mythology

Identified by Dave Colohan: The Cyclops from Lost in Space: "There Were Giants..."

Identified by the Sci-Fi Fanatic: Lethe (Susanne Wasson) in Star Trek: "Dagger of the Mind"

Identified by Randal Graves: Apollo (Michael Forest) in Star Trek: "Who Mourns for Adonis?"

Identified by Dave Colohan: Lorelei (Joan Collins), The Siren, in Batman.

Identified by Dave Colohan: Helen of Troy (Cathy Lee Crosby) in Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "The Youth Killer"

Identified by Randal Graves: Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter), an Amazonian.

Identified by Dave Colohan: the Gorgon Medusa (Marian Thompson) in Land of the Lost: "Medusa"

Identified by Dave Colohan: A unicorn in Battlestar Galactica: "The Young Lords."

Identified by Dave Colohan: Karibdis (Charybdis) (Lyman Ward) in Battlestar Galactica: "Murder on the Rising Star"

Identified by Dave Colohan: The Satyr (David Cass) in Buck Rogers: "The Satyr."

Identified by  Chris G.  Poseidon/Neptune in SeaQuest:"Watergate"

Identified by Josef: Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys

Identified by Josef: Xena (Lucy Lawless) in Xena: Warrior Princess.

Identified by: Randal Graves A Siren (Vivian Wu) in Millennium: "Siren"

Identified by Randal Graves: Fellig (Geoffrey Lewis) in The X-Files: "Tithonus"

Identified by Dave Colohan: Michelle Forbes as The Maenad in True Blood, Season 2.

Television and Cinema Verities: In the Words of the Creators # 2

"It's interesting, but the thing that is pinpointed as the weakness of Space: 1999, the premise, is in fact the stepping stone into everything that happened, all those inexplicable things. And if you take the even larger arc view, you seem to learn more about the series.

In your book, you spotted an overall arc, and I think you are right. It is there, but it has this almost unconscious kind of sweep. On most normal TV, the writers look for the purpose of it all, what is the point of it all.; I think on Space: 1999, it is nearly subliminal. The very circumstances of this story, of this epic journey, became, I believe, an unconscious arc. Had we been aware of it, perhaps we would have taken on a much more directed theme. Unconsciously, we started seeing similarities and patterns, and a way things could happen. The further into the show we got, the more we mirrored the Alphans in their situations, because it was happening to us on that very level. That carried over into the stories, the way in which the humanity of the thing unfolded."

- Space: 1999 story editor and writer Johnny Byrne (1935 - 2008) discusses transforming weakness into strength in storytelling.  From an interview first posted on my old web site.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Atlantium" (February 10, 1977)

After an elaborate re-cap of "Vortex" that eats up over five minutes of story time, "Atlantium" -- The Fantastic Journey's second episode -- commences in the futuristic city of the Atlantean people. 

In terms of exteriors, this metropolis is represented on-screen by the Bonaventure Hotel (also frequently seen as New Chicago in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century).  

Inside the city, it looks like a real life, 1970s shopping mall, perhaps in keeping with the Logan's Run (1976) vision of the future as a consumer's paradise.

As our protagonists Varian, Fred and Scott reach Atlantium, they learn that Eve, Jill and Paul have returned to their time (now characterized as 1977, despite the title card reading "June 1976" in "Vortex") via an instantaneous transfer device.  Understandably, Scott is pretty upset that his father has left him behind, but one of the Atlantean triumvirate hands him a note from Paul Jordan that explains the decision.  Basically, Paul  went back to let his wife know he was alive, since she believed them both dead.

Though Scott accepts this explanation with grace and maturity, it's still remarkably lame.  Scott's mother lives safely in 20th century suburban America, under the rule of law, and with available law enforcement.  She might be sad to believe her husband and son are dead, but certainly she would be safe and taken care of.  She'd be okay.

By contrast, Scott is trapped in the Bermuda Triangle, with danger and mystery on all sides. 

Perhaps more to the point, Paul could have sent Jill and Eve back with the message to his wife that he was "okay," while he waited for Scott in the city of Atlantium.  This explanation makes Paul a jerk and a bad father, no two-ways about it.  

Anyway you cut it, this is also bad writing.  As I wrote in the review of "Vortex," it should have been established that the Source and the Triumvirate of Guardians had Paul and the others killed.  Though grim, that explanation would have tied up the dangling loose ends a bit neater.  And Scott still would have wanted to get be with his only living parent; his Mom. 

After this unfortunate business is wrapped up, "Atlantium" gets down to its plot, which involves the power "Source" of Atlantium seeking to possess Scott so it can continue to live.  The Source is characterized here, and in "Vortex" as a pulsating brain in a bubble surrounded by boiling, crimson fluids.   Behind the Source's diabolical plans for Scott, the episode also features a variation on a powerful conceit from the 1927 classic Metropolis: particularly that of a bifurcated, class society.  

In Atlantium, specifically, we learn that the "Unders" (Underclass) toil mindlessly to grow food for the coddled City Dwellers.  But here things are even worse than un-equal: the Source actually controls the thoughts of the "Unders," so that individual consciousness is not possible.  With the Source losing power, however, the Unders are beginning to awaken to the idea of slavery...and freedom.  Imagine if the 1 percenters could actually control our memories and thoughts, and you get an idea of the total enslavement in Atlantium.

Helping the "Unders" nurture the ideals of individual liberty is a half-Atlantean/half-alien beauty, Lianna portrayed by Katie Saylor.   By the way, Saylor remains one of cult-tv's greatest mysteries.  The actress was beloved for her role on The Fantastic Journey, but then left the series suddenly (with two episodes remaining...), reportedly because of a terminal illness.  Ms. Saylor is believed to have passed away sometime later, in the early 1990s, from this illness.  The actress however, still boasts a considerable and avid following.  I receive e-mails literaly several times a year asking me to investigate what happened to Ms. Saylor, but there are precious few details available beyond those I have provided above.  I have researched the matter some (and there are some answers in print, in Phillips and Garcia's McFarland book, Science Fiction TV Series), and there's not much else in the public record.

I will state this: Katie Saylor was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, and created a hybrid/empath character a decade before Star Trek: The Next Generation went in the same direction with Counselor Deanna Troi.

As Lianna, Saylor veritably radiates warmth and sensitivity, and her magnetic presence gives The Fantastic Journey a tremendous emotional boost.  Though young (and yes, incredibly sexy) Saylor assumes the role of 'mother' in the group easily and confidently.  She is a boon to the program, and gives every episode a lift.

By the end of "Atlantium," the Source has been defeated, and Lianna joins up with Varian, Scott and Fred as they depart the re-formed City for the next time zone.  Notice I didn't include Lianna's cat Sil-El in that sentence.  The friendly (telepathic?) feline remains behind in Atlantium, only to re-appear, following Lianna, in the introduction to the next episode, "Beyond the Mountain."

In terms of The Fantastic Journey's canon, "Atlantium" picks up on "Vortex's" 1970s fascination with mysteries such as the Bermuda Triangle.  Only here, of course, the mystery of the week is Atlantis (a factor, naturally, in Man from Atlantis as well). 

In particular, Varian tells Scott in this episode that by 2230 mankind has proof that Atlantis existed, and that it possessed incredible technology, even by 23rd century standards.  When Atlantis was destroyed in the distant past, Varian insists, the Earth's continents "re-shaped" themselves.   Accordingly then, the city of Atlantium featured in this episode is from a zone in the distant past (like the zone of the pirate privateers in the previous installment.)  Thus, in a sneaky way, the writers have gotten around the network's edict about using the "boring" past.  Clearly, Atlantis thrived in the past, but a science fiction sheen accompanies the tale and the locale, so the network was appeased.

Beyond the central mystery of "what happened to Atlantis?" "Atlantium" more succinctly acts as a pilot for the series than "Vortex" did by featuring a dynamic that would be repeated again and again on the program.  Namely, it's the idea of a civilization of the week in crisis, with two factions attempting to right some social wrong.  Here, a class society is brought down when the Unders awaken to the slavery of the Source.  Upcoming segments including "Children of the Gods," "A Dream of Conquest" and "Turnabout," to name a few, repeat the scenario but using different topical issues (including animal abuse, militarism, and even the battle of the sexes).

I must admit, "Atlantium" is probably my least favorite episode of The Fantastic Journey.  Although it introduces lovely Lianna (and Saylor) to the series, it opens  so weakly, with the explanation of Paul's decision to leave Scott behind.  Additionally, the show looks cheap by any standard, between the coruscating brain in a bubble and the use of the Bonaventure Hotel.  Even the idea of a "giant brain" controlling minds is remarkably hackneyed.

All that established, the episode does feature some intriguing touches, namely Atlantium's "pool of dreams" (where you can visualize your loved ones...) and "The Hall of Dreams" (where your fantasies can come true.)    Still, even these touches reminded me of the Logan's Run milieu, which featured locales such as "The Love Shop" and "New You."

I also enjoyed this episode's meditation on immortality, another trope of the 1970s (seen frequently in Space:1999, The Starlost and other programs of the day).  Here, we are told the story of "the Source," a brilliant man and leader who ruled the city, but -- even on physical death -- could not let go of life.  Now nothing more than a brain, he seeks to steal the life of a youngster, his good "human" qualities long since gone.  As humans, we gain immortality from our good deeds (or evil deeds, I suppose...) and in the lives of our children and their children, not in our physical continuance.  In sci-fi TV, many characters have failed to heed that distinction.

At the end of "Atlantium," the travelers unite and  commence toward Evoland, on "journey towards the rising sun."  That was Fantastic Journey's destination too, on ascent as it headed for greener pastures in the upcoming episode, "Beyond the Mountain." 

That's where Dr. Willaway, Roddy McDowall's character, is introduced, and that's our next installment.