Friday, February 03, 2012

The Films of 1982: Poltergeist


"It knows what scares you."

- Poltergeist (1982)

The words quoted above are spoken by Poltergeist's resident psychic medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) near the climax of this harrowing film.  They reflect -- with near-perfection -- the nature of this horror classic from the great summer of 1982. 

Poltergeist is a film that knows not only what scares you, but how to scare you.  If E.T. (1982) represents the softer side of Steven Spielberg, and  suggests his trademark ability to make you see the world from a lonely child's perspective, then Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Spielberg accomplishes the same impressive feat...only with a darker, harder, more malicious  and mischievous edge.

Poltergeist deftly, ruthlessly. and perpetually frightens audiences by reminding them of those irrational (and yet somehow palpable...) things we feared so much as children: a noise from under the bed, a closet door cracked open, an approaching thunderstorm, or other bedroom, night-time terrors.  For me, the one that terrifies me no matter how many times I see the film is that damned clown...

What seems perhaps less apparent is that Poltergeist also terrifies from the perspective of a parent, something I did not fully account for and internalize, perhaps, until my screening of the film this week; the first time I had seen Poltergeist since Joel was born. 

Previously, I had always considered the film a kind of call-back to juvenile fears associated with going to sleep, of being conscious in the dark and alone in bed with only one's thoughts (and fears) for company.  Now, I also realize how cogently Poltergeist plays to the fears of adulthood: the irrational fear that a child could be injured by a terrain that, in daylight, seems perfectly safe. The danger of sleepwalking, for instance, near a backyard pool.  This brand of irrational fear plucks adult insecurities and anxieties that our parenting is not good enough, not careful enough to prevent cruel acts of fate.

There's absolutely no question that Poltergeist terrifies and thrills, even thirty years later.  For me, that's always the prime and primal test of the good horror film.  Does it get the blood pumping faster?  

Even as I answer that interrogative in the affirmative, however, I'm conscious that Poltergeist achieves a greatness beyond mere genre thrills because of the double social critiques it explores with such dedication and humor.  Specifically, Poltergeist lodges some well-placed shots at the ubiquity of television -- here a portal for spectral evil -- in American life. 

And, though I realize this will be a controversial statement, the film also knowingly questions the growing Yuppie mentality of the 1980s, an era of "greed is good" ushered in by the election of President Reagan in 1980.  Reagan's laissez-faire economic policies stressed the accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of morality. Regulations designed to protect consumers were cut, and big business was allowed, virtually unencumbered, to test the outer limits of the public welfare and good.  In many ways, we are still paying for Reaganomics today.  It's the poltergeist that haunts our economy, even in 2012.

For me, this double-faceted, carefully embedded social commentary results in a great film. Poltergeist is no political diatribe, no partisan horror film trying to cheaply score points.  On the contrary, this movie is nimble and playful as it terrorizes us, and taps into the prevailing Zeitgeist of the increasingly affluent, but also increasingly unequal 1980s.  Here, spectral revenge "trickles down" upon a suburban family, the aptly-named "Freelings," who have profited,  unknowingly, from a corrupt system that disenfranchise the many but makes the few obscenely wealthy.

Writing for The New York Times, critic Vincent Canby expressed well Poltergeist's unique and entertaining equation. He called the film a "marvelously spooky ghost story" and one that was "also witty in a fashion that Alfred Hitchcock might appreciate." (June 4, 1982).  In Time Magazine, Richard Corliss categorized Poltergeist as a "sly comedy" supporting the "proposition that violence on TV...or precisely, in it, can have an influence on children who watch it." ("Steve's Summer Magic," June 1982, page 56)

Creative authorship of Poltergeist has been much debated.  Did Tobe Hooper direct the film, or did Steven Spielberg take the helm?  I've always leaned towards the belief that Hooper deserves the lion's share of the credit for Poltergeist, at least in terms of visualization and atmospheric tenor because the film shares two important trademarks with his other films, namely that the narrative does not, in any way, shape or form, restore order to the universe at the end (and such restoration is a trademark of Spielberg's film).

Secondly, specific images and compositions in Poltergeist, as also seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) highlight the notion that the world has grown disordered and unnatural, under a "malefic influence." Again, this is a virtual trademark of Hooper's canon.  Think of the upside armadillo in the highway or the corpse atop a gravestone in Chain Saw.  Those images find distinct and unique corollaries in Poltergeist.  A woman is attacked by a ghost and the ceiling.  A family's pet bird is found dead on its back behind the bars of its cage, and so forth.

If one is so inclined, one can also gaze intently at the films of Spielberg and observe how he uses product placement and pop-culture imagery to craft a sincere commentary on how it feels to be a child in the 1970s or 1980s.  Consider how he deployed images of "good" monsters like the Hulk or Greedo in E.T. (1982) to sort of "pave the way" for an acceptance of E.T. in Elliott's life.  By contrast, Poltergeist rather firmly carries its tongue in its cheek in terms of how it views the pop culture.  The primary mode here is not treacly sincerity or sentimentality, but ruthless, cutting satire.

Watching Poltergeist, I'm reminded of Hooper's particular gifts as a filmmaker, as ably described by L.M. Kit Carson in the 1980s:

 "De Palma and...Romero had only recently corkscrewed fresh blood into the horror genre...but they were sophisto guys who'd kept the "it's-only-a-movie" deal with the audience.  Hooper was a new deal -- simply this; no deal.  Hooper was a scare-director who was methodically unsafe, who the audience (you) finally just couldn't trust...He'd go too far, then go farther...and go farther again, and kick it again...then get an extra kick, then it's over...then one more kick...No deal, friend."  (L.M. Kit Carson, Film Comment: "Saw Thru." July/August 1986, pages 9 - 12.)

Poltergeist is a perfect reflection of this particular Hooper aesthetic.  In terms of logic and narrative, the film should resolve almost immediately after Tangina triumphantly declares "This house is clean" and order is restored to the universe. 

Of course, that  doesn't happen. 

We get one more kick, then another kick, then another, until all sense of grounded logic and reality is gone, replaced by heart-pounding terror.  Where Spielberg ends his lyrical and emotional cinematic efforts in triumphant narrative resolution, Hooper's endings (in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) tend to be super real or surreal, over-the-top, and sometimes virtually independent -- or even contradictory-- to conventional narrative expectations, as I wrote in my book, Eaten Alive: The Films of Tobe Hooper (McFarland; 2002).  Tobe Hooper's bargain, as the passage above indicates, is no bargain.  That's why Hooper's films, despite some notable lows, also feel unfettered...fearless...dangerous.

But perhaps creative "authorship" is not the point about Poltergeist.  As I wrote above, the film knows exactly what scares and how to scare us too.  That ability is forged in the film's ability to understand us as a people, and who we were in the year 1982, a year of economic uncertainty and the dawn of a political movement that lasts to this day.

"You can't choose between life and death when we're dealing with what is in between..."

In the comfortable suburb of Cuesta Verde, the Freeling family becomes unnerved when young Carol Ann (Heather O'Rourke) begins to communicate with the television set. 

One night, after what seems like an earthquake inside the house, the child declares "They're Here," and refers enigmatically to "the TV People."

Not long after this event, a supernatural force punches a hole into the Freeling house and abducts Carol Anne, leaving her shell-shocked parents Diane (JoBeth Williams) and Steve (Craig T. Nelson) to seek help from a local parapsychologist, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight).

An investigation of the house reveals "poltergeist" activity, and Dr. Lesh recruits a medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to "clean" the house and recover Carol Anne.  Ultimately, Diane must travel into another plane of existence (described as a "membrane" around our world) to get back Carol Anne from a terrifying spirit Tangina terms"The Beast."

Diane is successful on her dangerous odyssey, and Tangina declares the Freeling house "clean," but the nightmare is not over.  A terrible secret from Steve's boss, Mr.Teague (James Karen) about the real estate of Cuesta Verde puts a whole new spin on the Freeling haunting, and the spirits from the other world make one last, devastating attempt to reach our reality... 

"It lies to her. It tells her things only a child can understand. It's been using her to restrain the others. To her, it simply is another child. To us, it is The Beast."

In the passage immediately above this sentence, Tangina describes the nature of "the Beast" that has taken away Carol Anne Freeling. 

If you re-read the passage, however, one might -- with a little bit of imagination -- apply the description not to a supernatural monster or spirit, but to the influence of television in American culture.  

 In many instances, television does appear to lie (r at least paint an inaccurate picture), and in many instances, advertisers direct their efforts to "fascinate" directly at children, who are psychologically unequipped to understand how they are being manipulated to believe certain things, or purchase certain products. 

Is TV "the beast?"  From a certain perspective, yes.

Poltergeist positions the television (and television transmissions) as a portal through which "evil" enters the American home.  It does so, importantly, as a wolf in sheep's clothing.  The images that open the film are of familiar American monuments and national landmarks.  The song that introduces the film is the National Anthem.  But the images are pixelated and indistinct, symbolizing the notion that something is rotten in the state of Denmark; that something has gone wrong in this purported paradise. What message is the television sending out to people?

Throughout the film, the television is made a figure for horror, ridicule and social commentary.  At one point, Carol Anne is watching a blank, static-filled screen, close-up, in the Freeling kitchen, and her mother tells her that the television will hurt her eyes.  Mom then switches the channel to a violent war film, with infantrymen firing machine guns and soldiers dying on the battlefield. 

This is better for Carol Anne's eyes? 

The implication of this moment is that TV is not a "safe" place for kids, whether or not it is a portal for spirits.  It's an insidious influence upon American culture and American youth.

This idea is reinforced in the dialogue of the film, which establishes that the Freeling haunting may end up featured not on 60 Minutes, but the cheesy (if popular...) "That's Incredible," a bizarre reality/magazine show of the era.  In other words, the suffering of an American family is fodder for the entertainment of the masses, but not a story to be taken seriously on a news program.  Another sequence reveals Steve and his neighbor locked in a war of TV remote controls, each attempting to establish "domination" over the airwaves, of the material that is being beamed into their homes.  Football or Mr. Rogers?

The final shot of the film, of course, represents the Freelings' total rejection of television and its influence in their lives. 

After leaving their haunted home, the Freelings go to a hotel, and push the hotel room's television set out on a ledge.  The last shot of Poltergeist is a long, slow withdraw or pull-back from that dark set, a shot which suggests, literally, that the American family must back away from this "beast" of television, lest it suffer the same kind of agony as the Freelings experienced.

I should note, especially because I'm fixin' to criticize President Reagan and his economic policies, that Poltergeist's commentary on television is, of course, a common conservative one.   Briefly state, it goes: television is too violent, too out-of-touch with our values, and actually a danger to many of those who watch it.  I don't know about you, but I've actually heard the TV media referred to as "The Beast" by some right-wing elements (and also jokingly on the Fox sitcom "King of the Hill.")

Given the connection between the evil of "the other side" and television, it is no accident in Poltergeist that the television's strobing white light is almost constantly reflected upon the faces of the film's principal characters, and that the self-same, strobing blue/white coloring and lighting scheme is used to render the closet "portal" to the supernatural realm. 

The static blue of the television and the spectral blue of the TV set represent, literally, two heads of the same monster,  the self same thing: portals to places that can steal your children away from your influence.  Both venues can overtake your life and both can be evil if allowed to run rampant.

The argument here is certainly debatable, at least.  TV signals are beamed into our hearths and our homes, and we don't have control over the content of those signals.  And since television is frequently utilized as a "babysitter" for children in an age where two parents work full-time at careers outside the home, we must wonder: what is the impact of this "beast" on our impressionable young? Poltergeist plays wickedly with this notion without ever seeming too serious, and ends with the visually-established notion that the best thing to do is kick the boob tube to the curb, literally.  I love it when a filmmaker uses form to mirror content, and that occurs again and again in Poltergeist.  Over and over, the TV is made a symbol of evil's entrance into suburbia.

"You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!"

If you're a fierce  proponent of the Saint Ronnie legend in the GOP that cherishes Ronald Reagan as a veritable God among men and new founding father of American values, you may want to skip the next portion of this review.  

Still here?

All right.  When Reagan was elected in an absolute electoral landslide in 1980, he enacted a laissez-faire approach to the American economy.  Laissez-faire means, literally, "let it be."  One of the four cornerstones of Reaganomics was a reduction of government regulation so private parties were free to enact economic transactions without significant interference or oversight.  Reagan espoused with fervor the notion that government regulation stifles market competition.   In accordance with his values,  he streamlined and eliminated many regulations in the energy, transportation, and most importantly, banking sectors. 

The thing about letting the market decide, of course, is that the market doesn't boast human morality.  It can select economic winners and losers based on supply and demand, but it can't make a determination if the winners utilized ethical means to achieve domination.  Some people argue that the government has no right to interfere in economics, but of course, the free market revolves around the bottom line, and corporate pursuit of the bottom line is often downright unethical.  We'vee have seen this truth played out again and again vis-a-vis Enron, Worldcom, Countrywide, and so on.  Businesses simply cannot be trusted to police themselves in terms of moral and ethical  behavior. 

I don't know why this fact comes as a surprise to people.  As a nation, we boast law enforcement officials and a judiciary (also arms of the government), because, quite simply, we believe the citizenry can't police/regulate itself on an individual basis.  Contrarily, it needs policemen to back up our collective sense of moral and ethical rectitude.  Likewise, some regulations are absolutely necessary to keep businesses honest.  After all, corporations are (made up of) people, my friends, to quote somebody often in the news these days.  And people don't always pursue "right" when they are pursuing profit.  And please don't quote me any fantasyland Ron Paulisms about how the market will punish wrong-doers.  Tell that to the executives at many banks who, despite unethical procedures, kept their million dollar bonuses while investors lost pensions and life savings. 

Now, truth be told, you can't really blame Ronald Reagan alone for all the banking de-regulation that nearly brought this nation to economic ruin four years ago.  Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton share a measure of responsibility.  But Ronald Reagan was the herald and spokesperson for the movement, and is often remembered explicitly for the so-called "anti-regulation" Presidency.  Today, Republican candidates hold him up as an example of what they wish to do in terms of cutting so-called "job killing" regulations.

It is that image of Reagan as anti-regulator, as laissez-faire advocate -- that ghost, if you will -- that Poltergeist plays upon.  Early in the film, for instance, Steve Freeling is seen reading a biography of, you guessed it, Ronald Reagan, titled  Reagan: The Man, The Presidency.  You get the feeling Steve is reading the book because he holds up Reagan (and his pillars of economics) as a role model.

Indeed, when we see Steve attempting to sell a new home near Cuesta Verde to prospective buyers, he slips (unconsciously, we presume)  into slick spin, business-speak and Gordon Gekko-ism.  "The grass grows greener on every side," he ridiculously suggests, attempting to sell the real-estate as if there is no downside to it. 

And, of course, as the film reveals, there is a downside to it.  The market has "permitted" Mr. Teague to cut corners.  In building the homes of Cuesta Verde, he moved a cemetery.  But it was too expensive to move the actual corpses under the ground.  So he only moved the headstones, but told no one.  And boy did the profits go through the roof!  The market chose a winner here, right?

Our protagonist Steve is an upwardly mobile but essentially decent guy, a family man.  But he is also responsible, we're told, for 42 percent of sales of new homes in Cuesta Verde.  He is thus complicit in Teague's crime, sacrilegiously building new homes over the discarded bodies of the dead.  Again, in the free market, means don't really matter; the ends do.  But the spiritual infestation of Steve's house reveals that reality doesn't necessarily work according to the whims of the free market and the devotion to black ink and the bottom line  There is, literally, a spiritual price for unethical, immoral behavior.  Steve's house is foreclosed upon, spectrally speaking.  The original owners want their land back.

So what Poltergeist actually implie is that we are all accountable when we benefit from a corrupt system.  The Freelings go through hell because they profited from an unseemly business practice at Steve's firm.  Given this, Steve's choice of heroes, Reagan, is certainly a crux of the movie.  If you think I'm reading too much into the film, or stoking some partisan hatred of Reagan, ask yourself why the book appears in the film at all  Why not a Kennedy or Eisenhower bio?  Choices such as Reagan: The Man, The  Presidency are not accidents, and contribute to a full understanding of the film's themes. 

Consider also the name "Freeling" seems to pivot off this idea of laissez-faire run amok, the notion that the family may think that's its middle-class that success is "free."..but it isn't.  There are consequences one when cuts corners, when free enterprise is allowed to run amok, unrestricted.  Here, those disenfranchised by illicit real estate deals "punch a hole" into the Freelings' house, making their voices and concerns heard most memorably.  Occupy Cuesta Verde?

We were wondering if you had experienced any... disturbances?

One of the most intriguing facets of Poltergeist remains that, in terms of visualization -- much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- this film is obsessed with the idea of order overturned.  Here, the overturning is in suburbia, not rural Texas, but the idea is the same.
For instance, the suburban trees of Cuesta Verde are lifeless, leafless things that look sad and out-of-place because real estate development has gone wild. 

Then, Carol Anne's little bird, Tweety, dies unexpectedly, and later, we see the bird's grave overturned in the dirt when a construction  bull-dozer sweeps through the Freeling's yard.  Another shot shows us the shadow of the bird's corpse being lowered into a toiled, a small metaphor for the fim's central thesis about respecting the dead.  In short order, we also see overturned bicycles on the street and thunder-clouds roiling over suburbia.

The overall impression here is of a storm coming.  That this previously wholesome realm of surbubia has been overturned by something dark and dangerous.  Depending on how you interpret the film, that "something" is either vengeful spirits (who have been wronged), or bad business malpractices which have literally upset the balance of the supernatural world.

Finally, Hooper courageously ends Poltergeist with matters disordered.  Teague's business practices haven't changed, and so there is no restoration of order in the film. 

Rather, the Freelings end up fleeing their home, never to return, as neighbors watch in horror at the madness unfolding upon their property.  Mr. Teague is left screaming "lies! lies!" like a cowardly ninny, though the nature of his trespass is now plain.  He cut corners and now the dead themselves are rising up against his immorality.

Interestingly, one shot in Poltergeist seems to get to the heart of this disorder in paradise.  We see Steve and Mr. Teague walking together on a pastoral hill.  In front of them is a long, white picket fence...universally the symbol of Americana and small towns.  Then, Hooper changes perspectives, and suddenly we see tombstones blotting out the white picket fence. 

After another perspective change, we see the full picture: the white picket fence is dilapidated and in need of repair, and it borders a vast graveyard.  Read that image symbolically, and combine it with the "fuzzy" images of national monuments in the film's opening scene, and you begin to detect the breadth of Poltergeist's social commentary.  The film reveals that something has gone awry in Reagan's America.  Priorities -- morality itself -- has been misplaced for yuppie-ism.

Sometimes, people write me and tell me to leave the interpreting/analysis out of my reviews, and just reveal whether or not a movie entertains.  For me, of course, "entertainment" is the beginning of a discussion on film theory, never the final destination.   It's plain that Poltergeist is entertaining.  You certainly don't need me to tell you that.  The film features heart-felt performances, astonishing visual effects, a great score from Jerry Goldsmith, and a wicked sense of humor. 

But beyond the film's entertainment value, the film conforms to the best tradition of the horror genre.  Poltergeist asks us to look in the mirror at ourselves, and ask questions about the role of television in society, or the wisdom of letting the "free market" determine morality.  These values, coupled with Hooper's devotion to the meaningful and trenchant use of film grammar, render Poltergeist immortal...classic.

This 1982 film makes us ask, at last: when we see "the light" do we acknowledge it, or "stop where we are?"  Do we "turn away from it" and "not even look at it," or do we confront the things that make us uncomfortable about ourselves and our very human nature? 

Despite its various and sundry New Age touches, Poltergeist is very much a Christian film.  It asserts that our behavior here will have repercussions in the afterlife.  That message sometimes get lost in a decade when "upwardly mobile" doesn't meaning saving your soul, but enriching your bank account.

Poltergeist Trailer

Thursday, February 02, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Innkeepers (2012)

The Innkeepers (2012), the newest horror movie from director Ti West, combines the world view of Kevin Smith's landmark working-class comedy Clerks (1994) with the precise visuals of Stanley Kubrick's glacial, blood-freezing The Shining (1980) and emerges, rather commendably, as a new genre masterpiece. 

West's previous film, House of the Devil (2008) was one of the finest horror films of its year because West slowly, methodically, and determinedly generated an atmosphere of escalating, suffocating tension and anxiety.  He repeats that accomplishment to great effect in The Innkeepers, unexpectedly transforming what could easily be a shaggy dog story into an impressive character piece that reminds the audience of the fact that we're all connected, and that death is inevitable.

Kevin Smith's brilliant freshman film, Clerks, might best be expressed quickly by its funny ad line: "Just because they serve you doesn't mean they like you."   As you no doubt recall, the film involved two convenience store employees, Dante and Randal, who were smart and savvy enough to write their own tickets in the professional world and yet, for some reason, couldn't seem to leave their extended adolescence and low-paying work behind.  The low-budget film remains something of a Generation X touchstone, and one of my favorite films.

That very vibe has been picked up, developed, and updated well in The Innkeepers, particularly in the depiction of the two lead characters: hotel clerks at the soon-to-be-closed Yankee Pedlar Hotel.   Sara Paxton plays Claire, a fetching young woman of admirable intelligence and wit who is nonetheless wasting time at a dead-end job.  She tells a guest in the house she is "between stuff," and that description suits the character and her ennui perfectly.  Claire could indeed write her ticket, if she so chose, but seems to be waiting for something...for a signal, perhaps, that her life should begin in earnest.  Her cohort on the job is laconic, vaguely hostile Luke (Pat Healy), an anti-social geek who spends his spare time looking for ghosts in the hotel, and designing a web site related to paranormal activity.  Luke has a crush on Claire, even though she is a good deal younger, and is also totally uncommitted to the job at hand.

The Innkeepers does a good job of charting the exigencies of life in the Yankee Pedlar Inn. One scene has Claire wrestling a recalcitrant garbage bag, trying to get it inside a dumpster on the street.  The scene might as well serve as a metaphor for life and its inherent frustrations.  At times, we all feel like we're the ones hauling around that messy garbage bag, and not quite getting it where it's supposed to go.

Other scenes explicitly involve Luke's anti-social nature. He's the more distinctly "Randal" component of the duo.  He can't seem to remember to bring his guests their towels, no matter how often he is asked.  And worse, he actively insults the guests, revealing his true contempt for them.

Throughout the film, these two clerks banter, drink, and occasionally search for the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, the spirit believed to be haunting the premises.   Claire relates to the myth of O'Malley more than even she fully understands.  "Imagine how she feels, being stuck here forever?" Claire asks at one point, drawing an explicit comparison between her dead end job and O'Malley's dead-end afterlife. 

What could be worse than spending eternity in the place you died?  Perhaps spending eternity in the low-paying job you absolutely hate...

Soon, an element of the unknown enters the clerks' lives when a new guest, played by Kelly McGillis, stays at the hotel on closing weekend.  She's a dedicated psychic medium, one who believes she can contact the spirit world.  More than that, she informs Claire that there is no present, no past, no future, and that all humans -- throughout time -- share a membrane of connection.  Rather dramatically, this psychic, Leanne, reveals to Claire that there are actually three spirits inhabiting the hotel, not one. 

She also reveals, incidentally,  that Claire should -- at all costs -- stay out of the basement...

Naturally, since this is a horror movie, Claire does finally go down into the basement, and her decision to defy the medium's instructions presents the film it's hair-raising, spellbinding and absolutely scarring climax. 

The last ten minutes of the movie are wholly terrifying, and they actually troubled my slumber the night my wife and I screened the film.  I've heard some people describe the film as boring, but what this comes down to, I suspect, is the kind of horror fan you are.  If you're in it just for the kicks and the gore, The Innkeepers won't be your cup of tea.  It's too deliberate, too precise (like The Shining) to appeal as a visceral thrill-fest.  Oppositely, if you're into the horror genre because you appreciate a slow burn and spine-tingling suspense, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.  This film delivers.

From The Shining and Kubrick, Ti West adopts much of his visual template.  The Innkeepers is dominated by long, slow, quiet shots of empty hallways, dark corridors, and vacant rooms.  West patiently erects a sense of suspense around these still moments so that when the ghosts "appear" (and boy do they appear...), the feeling of shock is palpable.  Also, West breaks up his narrative into separate, almost self-contained  "episodes" (The Long Weekend, Madeline O'Malley and The Final Guest), much in the way Kubrick broke up segments of The Shining to present a sense of routine and boredom; a distinct contrast to the film's final, violent action.

As much as West masters the inner-space of the gloomy, creepy Yankee Pedlar Hotel, he likewise masters the psychology of his lead characters.  Right now, we seem to be on the cusp of another "lost generation," especially given the Great Recession and the slow recovery.   

If you think about it, Clerks really did emerge from an analagous  historical context, only there it was the Recession after the first President Bush, rather than the Recession after the second President Bush.

Accordingly, The Innkeepers plays in the uncomfortable terrain of economic uncertainty: of hotel closings and dead-end jobs that you don't dare quit...because you know there's nothing else out there.   The narrative deals with people who have changed careers (Leanne used to be a TV star), who are losing their jobs (the hotel is closing) and are looking for a second or third act (Luke, with the webs site).  The uncertainty of our times plays well with the uncertainty of the film's text, and you must assume this is exactly what West intended.

Sara Paxton, Paul Healy and Kelly McGillis all do extraordinary jobs of creating quirky, intriguing and most of all, real people in this all-too-familiar context.  Paxton and Healy also share some great chemistry, and their scenes together are alive with wit and humor.  These clerks of The Innkeepers are -- like the immortal Randal and Dante --  two people you feel you already know in your life.

Which, of course, makes their ordeal in the film all the more harrowing, and affecting.  As it should be.

I would like to write much more about The Innkeepers, but I really shouldn't.  The film's conclusion is so intelligently wrought, so perfectly executed, that I don't wish to do the film (or West) the disservice of over-explaining or over-analyzing before many people get to the chance to see the thing.

Suffice it to say that Ti West's The Innkeepers unfolds with a sense of  inevitability that is, simply, mind-blowing.   The Innkeepers is a triumph, one of those rare and wondrous horror movies that you must watch twice just to pick up all the clues, and to see how everything holds together.   This "ghost story for the minimum wage" impressed me on every level, and and makes me look forward to West's next film with tremendous excitement.

Movie Trailer: The Innkeepers (2012)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Some people believe that when you die, your soul goes to Heaven...Some believe that when people die there's a wonderful light as bright as the sun, but it doesn't hurt to look into it.  All the answers to all the questions you ever want to know are inside that light.  And when you walk into it, you become part of it forever.  And then some people die but don't know that they're gone...They resist going into that light, however hard the light wants them...And some people just get lost on the way to the light and they need someone to guide them to it."

- Poltergeist (1982) (to be reviewed here tomorrow)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Collectible of the Week: Big Trak (1979; Milton Bradley)

On the cusp of the futuristic 1980s (!), Milton Bradley's electronic toys seemed truly amazing and forward-looking.  The toy company created the Star Bird (and later, Star Bird Avenger), as well as its nemesis, the Star Bird Intruder.  And, of course, MB created Big Trak, the "fully programmable electronic" vehicle.

As you can see from the box photos, Big Trak is a big, land rover-type vehicle, one with a nice futuristic sheen.  The craft is sleek and it looks bad-ass.  On the dorsal side of the tank is a rectangular computer panel, fully programmable.  As the box establishes:

"BIG TRAK's computerized Control Center -- with its intricate electronic memory -- can accept complex programs of up to 16 separate commands.  Big Trak can go out of the room and return to you; it can maneuver around furniture.  Detailed instruction booklet (with sample programs) included."

So Big Trak could "respond to your commands" and the box invites kids to "watch Big Trak perform!  Goes forward and reverse, turns, spins, and fires."

An accessory (sold separately, naturally) was the Big Trak Transport, which could be atached to Big Trak to "haul light loads for long distances."  You could also deploy the transport as a kind of dump truck, which was very cool. 

Alas, I don't currently have the transport...

But Joel and I have played with Big Trak up and down our driveway, across the street, and into the woods.  It's super easy to program, and the laser spotlight is pretty cool, especally in the dark. 

I believe a company (in England?) recently re-released Big Trak for the collectible crowd, but I'm not sure.  One thing I am sure of, though: this is a toy that really holds up.  Our Big Trak has been around for over thirty years and all the functions still operate perfectly. 

Also, as a side note, Big Trak has several brief cameo appearances (box and toy) in this week's The Films of 1982 feature, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote #5: The Draconia/Ferengi Marauder

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CULT TV FLASHBACK #148: Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Royale (1989)

This year is the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994), though truthfully, I find that fact nearly impossible to believe.   In the past few months, I've been looking back at Next Gen episodes that I suspect are better than their reputations indicate, and thus far I've featured the first season stories "11001001" and "Skin of Evil." 

To briefly reiterate what I wrote in the earlier posts, I'm not gazing at acknowledged series classics (such as "Best of Both Worlds" or "Yesterday's Enterprise"), at least not initially, because most Trekkies already know those episodes are good ones.  Instead, my goal is to excavate some of the rougher jewels in the catalogue, and perhaps spur a more positive evaluation or re-think.  Long story short: sometimes the ambitious failures look far more interesting in retrospect than the obvious triumphs.

Last week, I defended Apollo 18 (2011), a found-footage horror movie everyone seems to hate.  In keeping with that theme, today I'm going out on a limb again  to remember a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that nobody seems to like either, but which I nonetheless enjoy and believe boasts some merit.

Some context: The main problem that plagued Star Trek: The Next Generation during its first season, as I perceive it, is that the crew of the Enterprise-D appears rather smug and self-satisfied. 

In various episodes our heroes rail against patriotism ("Encounter at Farpoint"), eating red meat ("Lonely Among Us"), patriarchy and matriarchy ("Angel One,") and even capitalism ("The Last Outpost," "The Neutral Zone.")

I have absolutely no beef at all with any of that social commentary, or any of those particular ideological stances.  I welcome the gadfly approach to exploring issues of the late twentieth century.

Rather, my problem is in how the social commentary is often broached.  I realize the humans of The Next Generation are "evolved" ones (and I like that idea too...) but in too many episodes, these 24th century humans lecture, preach and harrumph about how man overcame his age of "barbarism." 

There's a looking-down-their-collective noses at races like the Anticans and Selay, or the denizens of "Angel One" that is, frankly, unappealing, and a bit too self-congratulatory.

When this smug vibe is coupled with the fact that the Enterprise is the  flagship of the Federation, and therefore technologically superior to almost all comers (including the new enemy, the Ferengi), a real sense of drama and conflict bleeds away from many first season installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Everything seems too easy for this team.  Specifically, the Enterprise crew often defeats the bad guys without too much difficulty, and usually through extended "talk."  Riker convinces an Ancient Guardian, Portal, not to be hostile -- through talk -- in "The Last Outpost."  Picard resolves a dilemma with a silicon life form -- again by talk -- in "Home Soil."  

Over and over, a spirit of danger and adventure -- a core element of the original Star Trek series -- seems missing from the first season of The Next Generation.  Getting through some of these early episodes (like "Haven," or "The Battle," or "Code of Honor," or "The Last Outpost") is really a tough slog.

But I give kudos to the creators and writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation because, by the end of the first season, they were clearly working out the kinks in the less-than-satisfactory format.  Episodes such as "Heart of Glory," "Skin of Evil," and "Conspiracy" ramped up the danger level in the stories, and boasted a more unpredictable aura than the first segments.

And if you had to give Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season catalog a name or theme, I would call it, simply, "A Kick in the Complacency." 

That's the term Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) famously coined in the stellar episode "Q-Who," which introduced the cybernetic organisms, the Borg, to the series.  Surveying the episodes of the second season, you can detect how a number of the stories explicitly involve pulling the rug out from under the Enterprise crew, and showcasing the fact that outer space may be wondrous...but it's also dangerous and mysterious. 

And even more importantly, the Enterprise isn't always the big man on campus.  Other forces out there in space may be superior in terms of their understanding of the universe and technological capacities.  The upshot of many of these episodes is that the crew's smugness is kicked off rather dramatically. And that's a very good thing for the development of the series, which would hit its stride (and apex) in Season Three.

The "Kick in the Complacency" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season include "Where Silence Has Lease,"during which the Enterprise explores a black spot in space that seems to twist and defy the principles of physics.  Then there's "Elementary Dear Data," wherein Starfleet technology and a slip-of-the-tongue on the part of a fallible human being (Geordi) create a deadly menace for the Enterprise.  Similarly, "Unnatural Selection" showcases how Dr. Pulaski's (Diana Muldaur's) hubris nearly gets her killed, vis-a-vis a deadly disease. 

The "Kick in the Complacency" segments reach their pinnacle with "Q Who, " which finds the Enterprise outmatched in every conceivable way during that initial encounter with the Borg.   But two relatively unpopular episodes are also necessary steps in that journey towards this zenith.  These programs are "Time Squared" and "The Royale." 

In "Time Squared," the crew is  asked to solve a life-and-death riddle that involves "anti-sense," to put it mildly.  No easy answers are provided regarding the hows and whys of the story.  In this tale, an incarnation of Captain Picard from six hours in the future returns to the present, with a warning of the Enterprise's destruction.  The incident is baffling, but Starfleet officers should occasionally be knocked for a loop by a WTF moment in outer space, and that's what "Time Squared" gives a pensive, traumatized Picard.

But for today, I've picked "The Royale" as the tale of this nature I wanted to focus intently upon. 

As I mentioned above, it seems everybody hates "The Royale." 

Episode writer Tracy Torme hates it.  Fans despise it.  Critics don't like it either.  You may even find it named on lists for the worst ten episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation

And yet, I'll be honest, I've always enjoyed "The Royale" given the parameters of the "kick in the complacency" second season.  This episode fits that recurring theme well, and more than that, adheres beautifully to the Star Trek tradition of presenting "fish out of water" comedies.

To briefly recap the plot, "The Royale" commences as the Enterprise, on a clue from the Klingons, discovers the debris from a 22nd Century NASA ship in orbit around remote Theta 8.   While studying the mystery of Fermat's last theorem, Captain Picard orders Cmdr. Riker to take an away team to the planet surface, where a single structure has been detected in an oxygen-nitrogen envelope (beneath planet-wide ammonia storms).

Riker, Data and Worf soon discover that the structure is a 20th century hotel and casino, the Royale. 

Though human in appearance, the beings inhabiting the structure are not authentic life forms.  And yet they seem to be marching along on their own bizarre story lines.

Riker, Data and Worf find a clue regarding this mystery in one of the hotel state rooms. They discover the skeletal remains of Colonel Richey, an officer on the destroyed NASA ship. 

Richey's diary reveals that aliens interfaced with his vessel and accidentally killed all the Terran crew members save for him.  Apparently in payment over their accidental actions, the aliens built Richey a world based on a book -- The Hotel Royale -- they found aboard the NASA ship.  Then, they deposited Richey in that world....where he would spend the rest of his days. 

They thought they had built him a paradise, but it turned out to be Hell...

Trapped in the Royale, Riker, Data and Worf realize that the key to escape rests in resolving the (bad) novel's major plot points.  From the Enterprise, Picard and Troi help out by reading the novel...which proves trying. 

After the away team escapes, Riker wonders about the whole incident, and Picard concludes that some mysteries simply have no logical resolution...

The first and most significant thing to understand about "The Royale" is how well the episode fits into Star Trek convention.  The franchise boasts a long tradition of bewildered crew members interfacing with other time periods from human history.  We see this in programs such as "Tomorrow is Yesterday" and the film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).  The fish-out-of-water humor in such tales allows us to see our confident Starfleet heroes from another perspective; from a perspective of vulnerability.  They are truly strangers in a strange land, trying to account for human culture at an earlier stage of development.  

What's commendable about "The Royale" (in the same way that "Spectre of the Gun" is kind of cool) is that the writer has not relied on the commonly-seen Trek tropes of either time travel or the "holodeck adventure" to vet this particular fish-out-of-water story.  Instead, Torme (Keith Mills on screen) wraps the human adventure inside an alien-based mystery.

In specific terms, "The Royale" finds humor in Worf and Data's responses to the hotel/casino staff and clientele.  Already out of place among 24th century humans, the Klingon and Soong android are even more baffled (and in Worf's case, irritated...) by human behavior inside the strange structure.  The future depicted in Star Trek is not a hedonistic one (usually, save for Risa...), but this casino is a den of hedonism.  Here, humanity is at his worst: avaricious, thieving, gluttonous.  It's a strong contrast to the Utopian world we see on the Enterprise.

Some good character humor also emerges from Picard, aboard the Enterprise.  This is the guy who is, for lack of a better word, a dedicated scholar.  The good captain knows Shakespeare backwards and forwards (as "Hide and Q" demonstrates), and considers James Joyce light reading ("Captain's Holiday.")  Here he's forced to dive into a bad dime-store novel, and it's clear he's impatient with the process...and the subject material.

But in addition to "The Royale's" sense of humor (which involves Worf using a 20th century telephone and Data playing blackjack), the episode works admirably as a kind of spine-tingling mystery. 

"In our arrogance, we feel we're so advanced," Picard notes early in the episode, and that's the "theorem" of "The Royale."  The crew encounters an alien "shrine" that seems to make no sense because it is based entirely on a limited, alien understanding of our culture.

This is one strange corner of the universe, both a little funny, a little scary and a little sad.  And it suggests nicely that not all "first contacts" go smoothly, or as expected.

I also appreciate the idea portrayed here, and carried over from "A Piece of the Action" on the Original Series, that no one book should be used as a model for an entire culture; that no single tome should be taken literally as the guide to life

And yes, I absolutely view this as a  pointed commentary and critique of people who interpret The Bible (or any religious book) literally.  Meaning that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and Jesus rode dinosaurs around the streets of the Roman Empire.   In ways "subtle and gross," to quote Q, "The Royale" reminds us that no one book explains the mystery or wonder of human nature.  Humanity is more complex than any one vision contained between two covers.

In that light, "The Royale" is one of the few Star Trek episodes that can be legitimately called surreal or absurdist.  Here, you have the unexpected juxtapositions one expects of the surreal (a 20th century casino on an inhospitable planet, a revolving door in the middle of a black void, etc.), but more than that, a meditation on the human tendency to seek the meaning of life in a situation wherein such a conclusion is unknowable

In "The Royale," a terrible, dime-store book becomes the basis for alien contact and the continuance of human life, but the book itself is a collection of conventions and cliches.  How could anyone think life is really like a bad crime novel?  Well, if you're an wouldn't pick up those nuances, I suppose.  Cliches are cliches because we encounter them so often. Presumably, aliens would not recognize them as such because they've never read a book from Earth.

I also appreciate the episode's conceit that  the aliens tried to inject some meaning into their accidental actions, but by doing so robbed Richey's remaining days of meaning and thus only compounded their error.   It's a pretty deft formulation, I submit.

Why didn't Star Trek  tread more often into the surreal?  Well, that's the rub, and part of the reason that I suspect "The Royale" is disliked by many fans.  Famously, Star Trek is about mankind mastering his destiny, discovering the meaning of life, conquering technology, medicine and space itself.  Surrealism could be interpreted as an opposite philosophy.  Absurdism suggests say that no such domination of existence is possible, because life is inherently meaningless.   Magic in Star Trek is merely technology we don't understand yet, a point of development we have not yet reached, but the underlying message is that we WILL get there, one day.  If the universe is surreal in nature, then this is not the case at all.

Ironically, Star Trek: The Next Generation is at its dramatic best when the paradise of the UFP is challenged, when there is an acknowledgment that the human equation has not been solved, and when the status quo is up-ended.  The "Kick in the Complacency" episodes remember that the human adventure is merely "beginning" and not yet settled.  Stories like "The Royale" are indeed about the human adventure just beginning; about the starting point of self-knowledge not the ending point.  It's my bias, but I  tend to prefer that point of attack in terms of sci-fi drama.

There was a great Twilight Zone episode entitled "Elegy," about astronauts encountering a planet of apparently frozen humanoids, carefully posed (by someone) in the midst of their daily routines.  The planet turned out to be not a wax museum, nor a moment of frozen time.  Instead, the humans were all dead and stuffed by a kind of galactic funeral director/taxidermist.  In some sense, "The Royale" captures the same absurd vibe as that episode.  It features a world that shouldn't be threatening...but is.  And that threat exists because aliens are not always understandable.

Some mysteries just can't be solved, as Captain Picard reminds us in "The Royale."

I believe that in "Kick in the Complacency" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation such as "The Royale," the series began to restore the necessary danger to the enterprise (ahem) of space travel.  A core component of drama involves the notion that our heroes always must be endangered.  They can't always possess the upper hand, or the most powerful phaser banks.  Real drama is wrought from facing an enemy who is more powerful, or who holds all the cards, to use a "Royale"-based metaphor.  

In the final analysis, "The Royale" is spiky and weird and funny, and a bit disturbing, and it reminds the audience that human beings -- no matter how advanced or evolved -- can't always see and understand the mysteries of the infinite.

No, "The Royale" certainly isn't one of the twenty-five greatest Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, but it fits in well with the second season's overall milieu.  It's good for a re-watch on these terms especially in conjunction with "Time Squared and "Q-Who."  That's the great thing about Star Trek existing as a long-lived TV series rather than a movie series.  There's time to visit these strange, oddball corners of the universe, and no need to tell a "huge" story about universal Armageddon every week.

"The Royale" may be off-message, a narrative detour of sorts.  But it's one worth taking, at least every now and again, especially when you a need a kick in your own complacency.

TNG Teaser: "The Royale"

Theme Song of the Week: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968 - 1970)

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Most Dangerous Game

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space: "Hunter's Moon."


Identified by Le0pard13: Rory Calhoun in Gilligan's Island: "The Hunter."

Identified by Hugh: Space:1999: "Devil's Planet"

Identified by George Eichler: Logan's Run: "The Capture."

Identified by Chris G.: The Incredible Hulk: "The Snare."

Identified by Jay-Jay: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Captive Pursuit."

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Homecoming"


Identified by Hugh: The Simpsons: "Survival of the Fattest"

Identified by Hugh: Dollhouse: "The Target."

Television and Cinema Verities: In the Words of the Creators # 4

"I knew Rod [Serling] and he knew me as a director, and he was a splendid person to work with, and a real supporter.  He called me up and asked me to meet him for drinks.  Well, once we were at the bar, Serling told me he was going to be producing and writing an anthology series of his own. He assured me that The Twilight Zone was going to be pure fantasy, with no discussion of proof of psychic powers...[H]e was a class act.  He just wanted to let me know, in person, that he wasn't going to rip us off."

- One Step Beyond host and director John Newland (1917 - 2000) on his meeting with Rod Serling, prior to the first airing of The Twilight Zone in 1959.  From Filmfax Plus #101, Jan/March 2004, page 97.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Children of the Gods" (February 24, 1977)

In The Fantastic Journey's fourth episode, "Children of the Gods," our wayward travelers in the Bermuda Triangle -- Varian, Scott, Lianna, Fred, Willaway and Sil-El --  happen into a strange province that reveals signs of both the ancient past, namely Greek ruins from 500 BC, and the distant future, particularly a bombed-out, ruined metropolis on the horizon.

Very soon, the travelers learn that the city remains inhabited, but only by a tribe of uniformed, militant teenagers and children.  All the grown-ups -- "The Elders"-- have been driven off by "the Power," a particle beam weapon,  after making some children their slaves.  Entrenched in the society then, is a deep-seated mistrust of adults of all stripes.

When Willaway enters the sacred Greek temple and finds a cache of high-tech laser weapons, he is promptly sentenced to death by Alpha, leader of the children, for his trespass. 

Realizing only he can save Willaway from impending execution, Scott prepares for  ceremonial combat with Alpha.  If he wins,  he can take the leadership role in the society and save his friend's life...

In reading the synopsis of "Children of the Gods," you'll probably recognize several literary and TV influences.  In terms of literature, the episode harks back to William Golding's 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, which involved a society crafted solely by children.  In the novel, that society was designed to serve as a microcosm for all of human society, and the author debated human nature.  In "Children of the Gods," the same issue is broached. 

Specifically, The Fantastic Journey appears to subscribe to the idea that power corrupts.  Here, Alpha is just as much a tyrant as any adult who ruled before him.  "You've become the very thing you say you hate," Varian informs Alpha, near episode's conclusion, sounding very Captain Kirk-like. 

Another issue roiling in "Children of the Gods" is clearly the Generation Gap, the notion that adults and teens are literally enemies, locked in a war for all time.  There can be no peace between them, apparently.

If you're a fan of Star Trek and other televised science fiction, "Children of the Gods" may strongly remind you of the first season Trek episode, "Miri," which also concerned a society where children had graduated to positions of power and authority, and deeply disliked adults, or "Grups." 

In both stories, the children are finally reminded of their common humanity, and of the fact that the "leader" will soon be an adult, himself.  

The Lord of the Flies premise also  appeared throughout science fiction film and television in the 1970s quite a bit, from the "cubs" in Logan's Run (1976), to the "Children of Methuselah" episode of The Starlost in 1973.  

In terms of The Fantastic Journey's continuity and development, "Children of the Gods" accents a number of elements that would appear again and again in the series.  Here, Willaway's curiosity gets the better of him, and he inserts himself into the middle of a crisis.   We'll see that again. Perhaps more importantly, Willaway is often utilized by writers as the informal historian of the group.  In "Children of the Gods," he recognizes the Greek ruins, and quotes Pindar (522 - 443 BC), a lyric poet and author of choral songs.  Uniquely, Pindar often wrote of athletic victories and championships in Greece, and his "temple" here is the site of the society's combat rituals. 

Willaway also gets to demonstrate again his characteristic world-weariness when he wonders: "Are people ever going to stop killing each other?"

In terms of other character touches in "Children of the Gods," Varian again uses his handy sonic energizer, which is able to "manipulate matter" this week, and Lianna demonstrates the ability to render enemies  unconcious by placing her hands on their temples.  It's sort of a Vulcan nerve pinch variation, I guess you'd say. 

In both instances, these "tools" feel a little bit like crutches.  They are easy outs for the characters (and for writers...) when confrontations occur.

Other than Willaway -- who is featured in a great visual composition as he appears from behind a Greek bust -- Ike Eisenmann's Scott probably comes off the best in "Children of the Gods."  His character boasts a strong sense of morality, and a sympathetic heart.  Here, Scott volunteers for ritual combat with Alpha -- a much taller, stronger teenager -- knowing he will lose, but that he has no choice but to make the attempt.  He's a brave and likeable kid.  This is not a small accomplishment in terms of performance and character development since a lot of "sci fi kids" like Wesley Crusher or Adric end up somehow angering sci-fi fans, and, I think, unconsciously activating a sense of fandom's own deep-seated self-loathing.  

Meanwhile, our young doctor Fred (Carl Franklin) is as under-utilized as ever in "Children of the Gods," though the beginning of a Spock-McCoy bickering relationship between Fred and Willaway has now begun in earnest.  At least that gives him something to do, other thanmerely recite hip 1970s slang.

Taken in toto, "Children of the Gods" is a solid if somewhat uninspiring episode of The Fantastic Journey.  The theme about endless war -- and children repeating the mistakes of their fathers -- is a good, if familiar one.  There's not a lot new to see here, and so the episode plays as a little flat.  Some of the same issues of war and peace would be better handled in the next installment, "A Dream of Conquest," with guest star John Saxon.

Next week on cult-tv blogging: "A Dream of Conquest."