Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Little Girl Lost" (November 17, 1979)




This week, on Jason of Star Command, Jason (Craig Litteler), Samantha (Tamara Dobson) and Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) rescue a young girl, Heidi (Heather O’Connell) from a spaceship crash on a desolate planetoid.  Unfortunately, strange things are afoot there.  Dragos (Sid Haig) has shown an interest in the mission, and worse, Heidi’s toy doll, Mimi seems to be alive.

Even as Dragos dispatches Queen Medusa (Francine York) to the planet, Jason learns that Heidi’s father is a renowned scientist, Eric Van Demon.  But where is he, and what’s become of him?  What was he working on before he disappeared, and what does Dragos want with him?

“Little Girl Lost” is actually a fairly interesting episode of Jason of Star Command, one that plays its cards close to the vest, presumably for a lot of reveals in the next episode, “Mimi.”  The special effects are again incredibly good for a 1970s Saturday morning adventure, and this week we get to see Jason and his friends go toe-to-toe with a giant, ape-like monster.  It’s a man-in-a-suit, not a stop-motion creation (Think the 1976 King Kong), and yet it still looks pretty good.  Mimi – the living, and apparently malevolent doll – is created through stop-motion animation, however, and she’s very creepy, even though at this point we don't know her motives.

One of the reasons I continue to find Jason of Star Command so visually impressive is the care in the vetting of the miniature effects.  For instance, this week, Samantha takes off from the planet in the Star-fire capsule, leaving the body of the vessel on the ground.  Throughout the remainder of the episode, the miniature is seen landed on the surface without that pod, which accurately reflects the story.  This was something that a contemporary, prime time series, Buck Rogers, didn’t always get right.  If you watch Buck episodes closely, there are constant special effects mismatches with the miniatures, particularly with the Directorate starfighters (two seaters vs. single seaters).  The Jason special effects are emblematic of a lot of love, and a tremendous attention to detail. 

If only the stories here were a little deeper, a little less bad guy vs. good guy.  But of course, as I have written before, the show was aimed at children, so thematic complexity just wasn’t in the cards.  Which is too bad, because the production looks so good.

Next week, Heidi’s mysterious story continues with “Mimi.”

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Jurassic Park III (2001)






Jurassic Park III (2001) is another step-down in quality for what should have been a durable movie franchise.  Although Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) featured a troublesome script and some considerable third-act problems, Jurassic Park III pales in comparison even to that sequel.  In large part, this is because the action scenes featured here don’t seem to escalate or build in any substantive fashion, and because the script – about a rescue mission on Isla Sorna – is distinctly minor league.  On top of all that, the film features a mawkish sub-plot about a splintered family coming back together over the threats of imminent death-by-dino.  About the only arena where the film truly works, and works well (at least from time to time) is in the depiction of the dinosaurs, particularly the upgraded look of the awesome Velociraptors.

Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer [1991], The Wolfman [2010], Captain America [2011]) takes over the directing reins from Steven Spielberg for Jurassic Park III, and it’s not a pretty sight.  The third film is choppy and episodic instead of spectacular, and even some should-be-great moments such as the franchise’s first glimpse of an Anklyosaurus are presented in half-hearted fashion, in the equivalent of a cutaway or insert shot.  The film ends after only a scant 82 minutes, but even at that short length Jurassic Park III feels over-long because the movie is essentially a plot-less runaround, featuring no significant or meaningful narrative. 

Last week, I wrote about The Lost World as a dip or fall from greatness. Jurassic Park III is a plunge from greatness, and precipitous one at that.  I enjoy any fantasy film that features wondrous dinosaurs in action, however, and I can’t deny that Jurassic Park III is entertaining and often amusing, but today it just feels like small potatoes in comparison to the other series entries.  Accordingly, Jurassic Park III is the franchise’s Son of Kong:  a fun film to revisit on occasion, but really only a shadow of the original.

“This is how you make dinosaurs?

The Kirbys (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) recruit Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and his apprentice, Billy (Alessandro Nivola) to act as tour guides for a fly-by of Isla Sorna, Jurassic Park’s Site B.  Grant only reluctantly agrees, having lost both the love of his life, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and his love of dinosaurs. He's now a man without "faith."

Against Dr. Grant’s wishes, the Kirbys’ plane sets down on the dinosaur island, and Grant learns the truth about the flight.  The Kirby’s young son, Eric (Trevor Morgan) went down on the island eight weeks earlier during a para-gliding accident, and they are attempting to rescue him.  While the group searches for young Eric, it must also contend with a giant Spinosaurus that is hunting them. 

Even worse, Billy has stolen two Velociraptor eggs, and the dangerous pack-hunters want them back…

“Reverse Darwinism - survival of the most idiotic…”

The film that Jurassic Park III hopes to be is actually one of interest.  It’s the story of Dr. Alan Grant’s loss of faith.  Dr. Sattler has married another man, and had a child with him.  And the realities of Isla Nublar and Isla Sorna have totally changed how Grant views the profession of paleontology.  His whole world has been turned upside and he has forgotten how to gaze at it with a sense of wonder.  Upon seeing the dinosaurs again for the first time, Grant admits “My God, I’d forgotten…” and it’s a nice character moment.  As usual, Sam Neill is terrific in this film, finding every scrap of good material in the lackluster script and augmenting it through his interpretation of the prickly Grant.

Unfortunately, Dr. Grant’s loss of faith is not at the center of the action.  Instead, we waste time with cartoon character, comedy-relief mercenaries who may as well have the words “dinosaur fodder” stamped on their heads.   They belong in another reality, not the hard-earned reality of the Jurassic Park franchise.  And when the screaming, dopey mercenaries are gone, the movie seeks relentlessly to hammer home the Kirby reconciliation sub-plot, which is handled with extreme schmaltz and sentimentality.  The Jurassic Park movies have always mixed dinosaurs and families (and kids), but Jurassic Park III wants to consider this “walk in the park” some kind of family psychotherapy, with each Kirby realizing how much they love the others.  After awhile, the loving gazes and heartfelt stares are just a little too much to bear.  If the subplot were handled with a greater degree of humor or subtlety, it might be tolerable, but the sentimentality factor is through the roof.

Even worse, what seems absent from Jurassic Park III is Steven Spielberg’s impressive capacity to transform an action "moment" into something truly epic, an example of multiplying chaos and tension.  There are plenty of action scenes here to be sure, but they begin without lead up or pre-amble, rumble along quickly, and end before they make a real impression.  The battle between the Spinosaurus and the T-Rex is one prime example.  It goes by so quickly that it almost feels like a throwaway.  I should hasten to add, complex action scenes with dinosaurs are the reason we go to see these movies.  Spielberg understood that fact, and in even in The Lost World was able to construct a colossal amount of tension around a scene with a trailer hanging off a precipice.  He was patient and thorough, making us experience each agonizing, chaotic moment.  The action scenes in Jurassic Park III are veritable drive-bys in comparison.

I also must confess that, on a purely personal level, I didn’t appreciate this film’s treatment of the T-Rex. The noble T-Rex saved the day at the climax of Jurassic Park, combating two vicious Velicoraptors and essentially saving the humans.  The mighty T-Rex took center stage and held it magnificently (remember the fluttering banner “When Dinosaurs ruled the Earth?”)  Then, The Lost World revealed to us that T-Rexs make good parents, and again, there was a sense of sympathy built up for the dinosaur. Like a lion, the T-Rex was the regal king of the jungle  Well, in Jurassic Park III a T-Rex gets bloodied and killed by the Spinosaurus in a matter of seconds and it seems rather…ignoble.  I understand that the Spinosaurus is the Big Bad this time around, but it just feels like a cheap shot to treat the T-Rex so shabbily.  Had it put up a more sustained fight, or allowed the human heroes to escape, I might feel differently.  Is it crazy to feel kinship for a tyrannosaur?  Perhaps so, but that's also what the JP movies are about: making audiences understand (and yes, love...) the dinosaurs.  We don't ever really know enough about the Spinosaurus or its habits (how it sees, for instance...) to identify with it, hate it or love it.  It's just a monster chasing the heroes.

By contrast, the Velociraptors – now sporting colorful stripes and small head fathers – are handled very well.  Our “dino lesson” in this installment involves the fact that raptors were “socially sophisticated” and could vocalize and communicate with each other.  Grant informs us that Raptors were smarter than whales, dolphins or primates, and could have very well ruled the Earth if not for the asteroid that rendered them extinct.  I love that idea, and I love how the Raptors are portrayed in all three films.  That said, JPIII reveals their softer side.  They have an opportunity, after recovering their eggs, to kill the human intruders, but don’t take it.  That feels a little anticlimactic, especially since U.S. Marines are about to arrive.  I realize budget must have been a factor here, but imagine a pitched battle between a  Velociraptor pack and the Marines…

The pterodactyls are another high point in this sequel  They look absolutely amazing (even a decade after the film was made), and their presence, unlike that of the Ankylosaurs, is well-integrated into the action.  The best action scene in the film involves the Pterodactyls and the giant bird cage where they make a home.

For so many reasons, Jurassic Park III feels like it suffers from sequel-itis.  The characters are not particularly interesting, and frequently disposable.  The movie is short, as though the makers couldn’t be bothered to give us our money’s worth.  The Lost World clocked in at two hours and nine minutes.  This one, as I said above, barely gets above eighty minutes.  And by and large the action of the film feels rushed and choppy.   I am an absolute sucker for the dinosaur action as featured in all three JP movies, but this one just feels like it is phoning in the all-important sense of wonder.  The few lines that re-hash the "Playing God" aspect of the film feel old and tired, too.  We get it.

I understand that a Jurassic Park IV is imminent. My recommendation to the filmmakers would be to drop the "kids" angle from the franchise and move towards a different paradigm.  After three films, we’ve seen enough kids outsmarting dinosaurs to last us a lifetime.  Instead let’s have a mean, violent, hard-nosed action-packed installment, one that restores the original’s wicked humor, but also Jurassic Park's Darwinian sensibilities about survival.  Go for hard science and hard action instead of hard schmaltz.

Movie Trailer: Jurassic Park III (2001)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week



"I have a theory that there are two kinds of boys. There are those that want to be astronomers, and those that want to be astronauts...That's the difference between imagining and seeing."

-- Jurassic Park III (2001)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jonathan Frid (1924 - 2012)

Some terrible news today for genre fans and for Dark Shadows fans especially.  The great Jonathan Frid, who portrayed the noble, tortured vampire Barnabas Collins in both the original series and the feature film House of Dark Shadows (1970) has passed away at the age of 87.

Frid, who also had a starring turn in Oliver Stone's horror film, Seizure (1974), created a classic character in Barnabas, a prototype for the "noble" or "tragic," Byronic vampire seen frequently on television now in modern series such as Forever Knight, Angel, Moonlight and Being Human.    In so many ways, Barnabas was the prototype for this type, and Frid emanated both incredible strength and a strange vulnerability in the role.  There is little doubt that Barnabas remains one of the greatest of all cult-TV characters in the genre pantheon, and in part this is because Frid understood so capably how to humanize the monster; how to make the audience understand his torment and pain.

Mr. Frid shall be missed, but his performances as Barnabas Collins shall endure.  The actor created a character that is legend.  And that legend transformed Dark Shadows from afternoon soap opera to feature film, to 1990s TV remake, to 2012 re-imagination.  Quite a legacy...


The Six Cult-TV Diseases You Don't Want to Contract...


Disease has often been termed the greatest enemy mankind has ever faced.  If you go by cult-television history, that idea certainly seems true.  A wide swath of genre programs have memorably showcased the (often-gory) impact of disease on the fragile human life form.

Of course, some of these fictional diseases are much more hideous and horrible than others.  Below is a tally of six truly dreadful, nightmare-inducing cult-TV diseases you really, REALLY don't want to contract.

6. "Venusian Plague."  (From the Space: 1999 episode "The Lambda Factor.")  In this Year Two episode of the 1970s Gerry Anderson outer space series, Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) relates a horrifying story from his days as an astronaut cadet.  On a routine re-supply mission to a Venus space station, two of Koenig's friends and ship-mates, Sam and Tessa, became infected with the plague there.  Rather than risk bringing the incurable disease back to Earth, Koenig had to leave his friends behind to die.  In the episode, Koenig relates this harrowing story to Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and we also see the "ghosts" of his guilt, namely Sam and Tessa...but as plague-infected ghouls.  Their faces are scarred and marred by blisters, and well, it isn't a pleasant sight.  I recounted the full, gory details of the Venusian plague in one of my contributions to the officially-licensed Space: 1999 short story anthology, Shepherd Moon (2010).  But the scary notion underlining this disease is its origin.  The Venusian Plague originates on another world, but affects us.  Was it engineered?  Created to keep us away? I've always wondered...

5. "Gamma Hydra IV Disease."  (From the Star Trek episode "The Deadly Years.").  In this tale, Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones and Lt. Galway are infected with a strange form of radiation while on a planet called Gamma Hydra IV.  Because of their exposure, the landing party begins to age rapidly.  Kirk loses command of the Enterprise, and Spock loses something worse: Kirk's friendship.  It's terrible to witness these vibrant, intelligent, young heroes succumb to the frailties of the flesh, and "The Deadly Years" is an affecting installment because of this. Here, the infected crew members develop arthritis, senility and other maladies associated with extreme old age, and as audience members we get to reflect that there's nothing worse than growing old before your time.  In 1988, Star Trek: The Next Generation re-visited the idea of an "aging" disease in the episode "Unnatural Selection."

4. "The Angel of Death" (From The Burning Zone pilot)  In the premiere episode of this short-lived 1996-1997 UPN series, archaeologists in Costa Rica excavate a cave that has been sealed for 15,000 years and inadvertently let loose a sentient disease.   The infected can be detected from hemorrhagic-appearing (bloody) eyes.  This disease is also sentient, part of an intelligent "hive" (shades of Doctor Who: "The Invisible Enemy.") It can even control and direct subordinate "warrior viruses" to further infect and distract humanity.  The fear at work here is one regarding our enemy's "intent," and perhaps even one involving...scale.  Can something as microscopic as a virus think, plan, and conquer the human race?  Being struck with a disease is terrible enough, but to imagine that there is insidious purpose or malevolence behind that disease ups the ante considerably.  I have often described The Burning Zone as "disease of the week," and other shows involved an outbreak of spontaneous combustion (!) and an epidemic of malaria.

3. "F. Emasculata." (from The X-Files episode of the same name.)  This second season segment of the Chris Carter  series also begins with the discovery of something terrible in the rain forest of Costa Rica, namely an insect parasite that burrows inside living human hosts and creates grotesque, white, pulsating pustules on the skin.  These boils throb and grow, and ultimately explode, spreading the disease all around in a sickly, moist burst.  It's absolutely the most nauseating thing you've ever seen. My wife still refuses to watch this episode of The X-Files, in part because of a final, tense stand-off set on a bus.  A badly infected man -- with pustules growing and threatening to burst on his cheek -- uses a young, innocent child as a hostage.  Mulder (David Duchovny) must free the boy, and do it before that damned zit bursts.  

2. "The Marburg Virus" (From Millennium's two-part "The Fourth Horseman/The Time is Now.")  I covered this episode in some detail last week in my post about savage TV programs, but the disease featured in this episode of Millennium remains absolutely horrifying. One scene -- set at a middle-class family's Mother's Day dinner -- depicts an American family bleeding out before our eyes.  The disease (originating from contaminated chicken, of all things...) quickly sets in, and dark brown pustules begin to form on the infected family members.  The Mom dies first as her white blouse becomes awash in crimson.  Then, all at once, these poor folks sweat out their whole blood supply in a matter of seconds.  This is also the disease that costs Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) dearly in terms of his family...

1. "The Phage" (From Star Trek: Voyager's "The Phage.")  The Vidiians remain one of the most creepy and disturbing alien races ever featured on Star Trek.  Residents of the Delta Quadrant, the Vidiians suffer from a necrotizing -- flesh eating -- virus.  Infected souls must undergo skin transplants and skin grafts regularly to combat the effects of the deadly disease, but even after such "healing" operations still appear absolutely hideous, like rotting corpses.  Perhaps the creepiest thing about the Phage is that the disease has also, essentially, devoured the Vidiian Sodality's culture.  These advanced, once-peaceful aliens have forsaken art, commerce and other noble pursuits in order to save themselves from extinction.  The Vidiians are thus terrifying because they embody two fears about our mortality.  First, that we could succumb to a deadly, disfiguring disease ourselves.  And second, that it could sweep away all of our loved ones, and even destroy our very civilization.  Imagine not only being disfigured and ill yourself, but watching your children and spouse suffering and dying from the Phage every single day.  It would be Hell on Earth...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pop Art: Music to Read James Bond By (United Artists Records Edition)








Collectible of the Week: Official Space:1999 Stun Gun (Remco; 1976)



I've always loved the look, feel and atmosphere of Space:1999 (1975 - 1977).   

When I was a kid, I was certain that this was exactly what the future would look like. I'm disappointed to this day that it hasn't been the case.

My admiration for the Space: 1999 vibe extends to the series' inventive and futuristic props, such as the comm-lock and the staple-gun-styled stun gun used by The Alphans.  Accordingly, as a child, one of my most prized possessions was indeed an "official" Space:1999 stun gun,  a toy produced by Remco.  

Featuring "realistic space sound" and "3 function actuator," this stun gun toy was actually little more than a flashlight, I suppose you could say.  But when you de-pressed the trigger (located above the handle), you could "fire" a "lazer beam," "project a light target" on a wall (like an Eagle, for instance...) or enjoy the "sequential color lights."

If memory serves, Remco also produced a Star Trek phaser very much like this toy, with similar light and sound effects, and the same capability to project images on the wall.  I'm pretty sure I had that one too, though I no longer own one today.

Recommended for children over five, the Remco stun gun operated on 2 "C" batteries, and proved a critical part of  many interplanetary adventures...in my own backyard, of course.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Fear is the Mind Killer


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #10: Based on a True Story

From: The Last House on the Left (1972)

I wrote in some detail about the Savage Cinema last week, and the way that this particular genre sub-type positions horror situations not in foreign locales and other time periods, but right here and now, where we live and breathe.  In this fashion, horror films somehow seem more related to our modern lives, and play as more realistic...and thus more emotionally and viscerally immediate.  

Another long-standing trick of the trade designed to enhance further a horror film's sense of urgency and "closeness" to the audience is to suggest on-screen -- usually before the opening credits -- that the film is actually "based on a true story."  

From: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Of course, a whole lot of territory is covered in those words "based on," right?  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is very loosely based on the story of serial killer Ed Gein, but the details of the narrative and the incredible presentation both arise from Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel and DP Daniel Pearl, among others, not from accurate historical details.

Even though as intelligent viewers we absolutely realize that the claim of being "based on a true story" is often total bunk, it works on our psyches anyway.  It gives us pause. It creates uncertainty.  It also makes us sympathize, and consider what it might be like to drive to rural Texas and run out of gas, or to accidentally pick up a gang of four criminals, etc. 

Do we fall for this "based on a true story" trick because we're all just suckers at heart?  Or is it because we have all heard atrocious but mesmerizing true stories that expose the dark side of human nature? The horror movies that employ the on-screen "based on a true story" card deliberately play on this fact; the fact that the darkness inside us is very real, and present in reality.

From: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Sometimes, just a screen card's positioning at the front of the film suggests to us we're about to see a true story.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), for instance, both provide details about a story...but neither film actually out-and-out declares the story is true.  In this way, I suppose, the filmmakers' avoid an outright lie.  We just think the films are claiming a truthful basis because that's what we are conditioned to expect.

In the horror movie, claims of veracity hook us, render us unsettled, and prepare us for what is to come.  All the while, in the back of  our traumatized minds, we wonder: did this really happen?  Could this even happen at all? 

Or even better: I'm sure as hell glad this didn't happen to me...


From: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

From: Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Cult Movie Review: Phantasm (1979)



In some fashion direct or indirect, all horror films grapple with the ultimate human fear, mortality.  But Don Coscarelli’s landmark 1979 horror Phantasm is a film veritably obsessed with the cessation of life, and also the terrible grief that accompanies death for those left behind on this mortal coil. 

In fact, it is not at all difficult to interpret the film’s events as one teenager’s powerful subconscious fantasy, his sublimation and re-direction of grief as he attempts to make sense of all the death happening around him, in life and in his immediate family.  The film’s almost childish tale of a Fairy Tale monster -- a witch-like “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) who enslaves the dead -- is actually but 
Michael’s (Michael Baldwin’s) self-constructed mythology regarding mortality. 

Simply put, it’s easier to deal with that orderly “horror” – a world of monsters and villains and happy endings – than one in which those Michael loves are lost and gone forever.

Surreal and haunting, Phantasm confidently moves and tracks like almost no other horror movie ever made.  It vacillates between scenes of outright terror and ridiculous comedy, and treads into terrains not exactly…realistic.  The universe as expressed in the film doesn’t seem to conform to order or rationality as we understand it, frankly.  But importantly, all of this disorder, chaos and pain feels as though it arises from a deep understanding and sympathy for childhood.  The film’s trademark soundtrack composition -- which repeats frequently and effectively -- adds to the overwhelming sense of a lullaby or trance, one we can’t quite awake from.

So many horror fans (rightly) love and cherish Phantasm because of the horror, because of the flying silver “ball” and the gore it creates in its monstrous wake.  Yet for me the film is actually a horror character-piece of the highest magnitude, and actually a tender, even whimsical reminder of how the world might appear to a sad and lonely adolescent. 

 “I just don't get off on funerals, man, they give me the creeps.” 

The shadow of death hovers behind Michael.
In Phantasm, a lonely kid, Michael, investigates the creepy-goings on at Morningside Funeral Home.  In particular, the Tall Man seems to be ensnaring young, able-bodied men with a sexy siren, and then leading them to their bloody doom.  But death is not the end of their journey, Michael learns.  Instead, he discovers that the Tall Man is crushing down the corpses to half-size and reviving them as slave labor for his arid, Hellish other world.

Michael attempts to convince his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), of this bizarre truth, but Jody is burned out and skeptical.  Since their parents died, he’s been caring for Michael full time, and wants to leave town.  Michael knows this, and is deathly afraid of abandonment.  But soon, however, Jody is swayed by Michael’s evidence and together with a friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the trio launches a frontal assault on the Tall Man…

After the Tall Man is defeated, Michael awakes from the long dream to face hard reality.  Not only are his parents dead, but Jody is gone too.  He died in a car crash.  Now Reggie promises to take care of him, but the specter of death is not yet gone from Michael’s life…

“First he took Mom and Dad, then he took Jody, now he's after me.” 

Surrounded by the trappings of death
In terms of psychology, we now understand that an adolescent’s understanding of death rivals that of an adult.  In other words, an adolescent is old enough to understand the idea of permanence, and also the idea that anyone, not just the very old, can die at any time.  Furthermore, we know that in many cases, adolescents react more intensely to death than adults do.  And lastly, that the two most difficult deaths for a teenager to cope with are those of his parents and that of a sibling. 

In some instances, however, teenagers do not react to such losses as expected, with tears and outright declarations of sadness or pain.  Instead, they may not confront their grief at all.  Rather they sublimate and deny it, even crafting complex stories and belief systems around the death of their loved ones, such as the fiction that they are somehow responsible or guilty for those deaths.

We are confronted in Phantasm, then, with a young protagonist, Michael, who has seen the death of both his parents, and also -- as we learn at film’s end -- the death of his brother, Jody.   Instead of coping outright with the grief, however, his mind has fashioned a phantasm, a dream which to attempts to “re-order” his disordered life.  In this story, Michael and Jody are still a team, defeating monsters and solving the mystery of Morningside.  In this dream, death has become embodied in a person, the Tall Man, and as something that Michael, importantly, can combat and defeat.

Michael (left, background) is left behind, while Jody heads...where?
But even in the dream, Michael can’t quite completely banish the specter of mortality, the fear of being left behind.   In one scene, we see him running in the background of a frame, attempting to keep up with Jody (on a bike). But Jody, oddly unaware, pulls further and further away.  In this evocative shot, the camera  leaves Michael in the dust.  Soon he stands alone in the frame, and it’s clear his fear is real.  He is being left behind.  Growing smaller and smaller in the frame.  “It’s Jody again,” he notes at one point, “I found out that he’s leaving.

In terms of grappling with the idea of death, the film proper actually opens with it, as a friend of Jody’s named Tommy is killed.  Michael observes the funeral from a distance, with a set of binoculars.  This particular shot stresses the importance of how Michael sees, and later scenes in the film are similarly composed to reflect the same thing: effectively highlighting Michael’s eyes (as he sees through a crack in an open coffin, for instance) as he views the world.  This visual framing is our cue that the film itself is Michael’s “phantasm,” his way of perceiving and interpreting the things he experiences. 

How Michael sees #1
And what does Michael see?  Again and again, the film depicts not just a fear of death, but the various and sundry trappings of death.  We see mortuaries, caskets, funerals, hearses, graves and other elements of what could only be termed, politely, “the death industry.” 

As adults, these things are accepted, perhaps reluctantly, as part of the landscape, and don’t necessarily have the power to frighten or disturb us.  We know such things exist, and we deal with them. But because Michael is obsessed with death, the film reflects his fetish most vividly, creating a world where the trappings of death are visible and prominent in nearly every frame, and suffused with a dark malevolence.  The funeral director is a monstrous crone (The Tall Man), the graveyard is a place of darkness, danger and entrapment.  The hearse is a vehicle for the enslaved “dead” dwarves employed by the Tall Man, and so on.  The Tall Man hovers in the background of some shots like the Angel of Death himself.  He marshals all these familiar trappings of death and renders them frightening once more.  They serve him.

How Michael sees #2
The implication here is, perhaps, that as adults we accept the “death industry” and its trappings. But for Michael, they symbolize constant, nightmarish reminders of what he has lost.  They are monoliths constantly highlighting the unacceptability and permanence of death, yet hardly noticed by adult eyes.  Michael has not yet matured to the point where he accepts the presence of death in his life.

I’ve written above that some aspects of Phantasm seem childish or childlike.  This is not an insult or a put-down.  For instance, Michael and Jody easily destroy the Tall Man, essentially trapping him in a hole in the Earth (a mine shaft).  That this simple, almost cartoon-styled plan works against a Dedicated Agent of Evil reminds us that we are dealing with a child-like intelligence as the primary mover of the action.  We are seeing Michael’s dreams made manifest before our eyes.  We can destroy the devil by burying him up on that mountain! 

How Michael sees #3
It doesn’t make a lot of rational sense unless we consider the action a child’s phantasm.  Similarly, the whole vibe of the movie is something akin to what I described in Horror Films of the 1970s as a Hardy Boy’s mystery where “something sinister” is happening at the local cemetery.   To describe this almost innocent quality of the film another way, I would say that Phantasm understands the adolescent mind, and crafts successfully and movingly a world around that perspective.

I believe this interpretation is borne out, to some degree, by the depiction of the film’s deadly siren, the Lady in Lavender.  She is a mysterious figure promising sex but delivering death.  She is very much a product of a fearful teen’s imagination and fear.  That teen does not yet understand what sex is, or the power of sex as a desire and appetite.  Instead, the “unknowns” of sex become, in the film, disturbingly intermingled with death.  The moans of love-making transform, in short order, into the groaning of a monster lurking in the nearby bushes.  Both sex and death are things that seem to take Jody away from his brother, after all.

Although all the Phantasm sequels surely preclude the possibility that this film is but the dream of a sad, grief-ridden teenager, the interpretation tracks admirably if you take Coscarelli’s original as a standalone effort and not part of a “franchise.”  As I have also written before, I believe this quality of the film (as a teen’s dream) is also made clear by Michael’s unbelievably good survival rate.  He tangles with the Tall Man and his minions no less than four times in the film, and always emerges unscathed, only to prove, finally, victorious in his campaign.  I submit that this “luck” too is a reflection of a youthful mentality: the belief that you are somehow immune to death.  Furthermore, it reflects the idea that we all place ourselves at the center of our fantasies, as the heroes in our own adventures.  Here, Michael deals with death by becoming a superhero of sorts, one who conquers long-lived monsters and solves mysteries.


Our last, wistful view of Jody, from a distance and bound for parts unknown.
I admire the film because its distinctive visuals so beautifully mirror Phantasm's themes.  In some shots, the Tall Man seems to be the shadow of death himself.  And in one haunting composition, Michael sees Jody for the last time (before waking up into a world where he is dead).  Jody stands high in the frame, atop a mountain.  Jody stands on that pinnacle, a heavenly light (like angel wings?) behind him.  It's the distant, final view of a man going to the great beyond, and Coscarelli's imagery captures it with wonder and a degree of lyricism.

Charting the disturbed mental landscape of a grieving boy, Phantasm gets to a very simple and emotional truth about human existence.  It is often easier to live in a fantasy world (even one with monsters, dwarves, giant flies, and alien worlds…) than it is to face head-on the fact that, in the final analysis, we are all going to lose our loved ones.  Because it deals so sensitively and succinctly with that tough, hard-to-accept idea, Phantasm always gets to me on some deep level.  The film makes me ask myself an important question: Why do I like and enjoy horror movies so much?  Why do I love being scared and challenged by them?

With films like Phantasm, am I actually preparing myself, in some way, for the inevitable?

Perhaps so

I know only this: I deeply fear death, and sometimes obsess on it, both in relation to the end of my own life, and deaths of those I love.  In Phantasm Michael reveals one way to grieve, or perhaps to escape grieving.  Phantasm makes me wonder about my own solution to the Phantasm equation.  Am I going to be that boy, left behind on the bike while others leave me behind? Or will the Tall Man show up for me first?

At some point, the Tall Man is going to look all of us straight in the eye, commend us for a good game -- now finished -- and remind us it is time to die.  You don’t have to be a teenager to fear that day, and in some way Phantasm helps us to explore meaningfully the ideas of grief, loss, and the inevitability of death.

Movie Trailer: Phantasm (1979)

Theme Song of the Week: Space Rangers (1993)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Guardians



A guardian is defined as a "defender, protector or keeper."  Many cult-TV series throughout history have highlighted so-called "guardian" characters who protect some crucial aspect of life in the universe, and reveal, in the process, the hidden order or hierarchy of the cosmos.

The positive aspect of cult-TV guardians is that mankind -- upon learning the nature of things -- finds that there are benevolent beings protecting the mechanisms of the time/space continuum.  They are our superiors in terms of knowledge and wisdom.  And with great selflessness, such guardians preserve things as they are.   They are devoted to our welfare and to the welfare of the universe. 

On the negative side of the equation, some guardians are not benevolent, but quite the opposite.  And furthermore, what does this desire to be "guarded" say about us, as human beings, anyway?  Why do guardian figures appear so frequently in our genre programs?  Do we feel we need guardians to manage our own affairs, to look after us in the big, bad universe?  Are we incompetent shepherds of the universe, ourselves?  Or will we one day "grow" into the guardian ship role?

In The Twilight Zone's "The Howling Man," a group of monks are the guardians of a secret that could destroy humanity.  That strange, howling man in the basement of the monastery is not a mortal prisoner, but the Devil himself.  And if he is set free, mankind suffers.  Man can only find peace, we learn, when Lucifer is safely locked away and guarded.  I have always  viewed this particular Twilight Zone episode as a metaphor for man's attempts at self-discipline.  When we exercise self-control and rationality, we progress and find peace.  When we succumb to irrationality and hatred, that devil escapes.  We are thus the guardians of our own better and lesser angels.

Star Trek's "The Guardian of Forever" may be cult-television's most famous "guardian."  Featured in the episode "City on the Edge of Forever" by Harlan Ellison, the Guardian is a solitary creature, neither machine nor man, who has waited a seeming eternity for a "question" from a visitor.  The Guardian is its own beginning and its own ending, it states. But what, precisely, it protects or defends is a bit of a mystery.  Clearly the Guardian of Forever does not protect any particular flow of time.  If that's the task it performs, it does a woefully poor job considering how easily McCoy reshapes reality.  Rather, the Guardian exposes time to change and alteration, as we see from the events that unfold in both this story and in the Animated Series' "Yesteryear."

Is The Guardian of Forever actually protecting free will?  The freedom of man (or other beings) to shape reality and time as it likes?  That might be a valid speculation since exposure to the Guardian tends to change things, rather than preserve things as they are.  If a spaceship crew can approach the planet (through the deadly time waves) and make contact, perhaps it has earned the right to "control" time.

In Space: 1999's "The Guardian of Piri," another strange machine-like device, the Guardian, is featured in a Year One story.  Designed by alien beings on a faraway world, its purpose was to render "perfect" the lives of those it cared for.  This task the machine did too well.  It froze time (because perfection must last forever...), and transformed living people into mindless "cabbages" in the words of Commander Koenig (Martin Landau).  To be perfect, apparently, by a machine's definition is to remain untroubled and incurious, sedentary and sedated. 

In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode "The Guardians," Buck and the crew of the starship Searcher are tasked with delivering a strange jade box from one dying "guardian" to another.  The ship travels to the end of the galaxy as Buck and his friends search for the next Guardian, one of a series of "saintly figures" seen throughout many cultures on many different worlds.  In a reflection of "The Howling Man," we learn here that when a Guardian does not possess the box, the galaxy falls into chaos.  In this episode, the crew experiences strange visions related to time because the box is meant for "The Time Guardian."

Sometimes a guardian protects only vestiges of a forgotten past.   In both Jason of Star Command's "The Power of the Star Disk" and Star Trek The Next Generation's "The Last Outpost," series protagonists encounter lonely "guardians" who are the last of their kind, Tantalution and T'kon, respectively.  In the case of Jason of Star Command, the guardian wishes to pass on the knowledge of his now-dead race, and has remained alive and as a sentry until his people's descendants could make contact with him.  The "Portal" of the T'kon Empire in "The Last Outpost" is unaware that his empire his long gone, and that there is no need to vigilantly guard against visitors in his region of outer space.

The original Dr. Who series showcased a Manichean world view for a time through the presence  of mirror-image guardians in Season 16, during the Tom Baker era.  The White Guardian was a personification of order, while the Black Guardian was a representation of evil and chaos.   Again, the presence of such guardians revealed much about the order of the universe and the status quo that keeps reality from collapse.

Another interesting facet of cult-tv guardians: despite their great power, they remain fallible.  They need, in different programs, the help of the Enterprise crew, a renegade Time Lord, a man from the 20th century and in Jason of Star Command, aliens from another dimensions, to make things "right."  Maybe this development is a way for humans to understand our importance in the scheme of things.  Even the Guardians who control the universe need a helping hand from time to time...

And a Few More Purple Rain: Music on Film Reviews...

Well, the critic's reviews are coming in fast and furious now.

Popstars Plus says: "“Music on Film: Purple Rain” is very well written by Muir, who has written a number of well known books on movies and entertainment, has done an excellent job of research and writing this book as well...If you liked the movie, this is a perfect book Music on Film for you..."


and


Cinema Sentries says:  "The  series issues short works (about 130 pages or less) analyzing key movies portraying music in some fashion. The short length limits the detail, only allowing for a general overview of the film. Despite that limitation, Muir's examination of Purple Rain provides a fascinating look at a classic rock film, and Magnoli's stories emphasize the roadblocks filmmakers may encounter, even before shooting a single frame."

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Guardians

Identified by Hugh: John Carradine as Brother Jerome in The Twilight Zone: "The Howling Man."

Identified by Woodchuckgod: The Guardian of Forever in Star Trek: "City on the Edge of Forever."

Identified by Chris G.: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "Yesteryear."

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Space:1999: "The Guardian of Piri."

Identified by Hugh: Valentine Dyall as The Black Guardian in Doctor Who, "Enlightenment."

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Jason of Star Command: "The Power of the Star Disk."
Identified by Carl: Buck Rogers: "The Guardians."


Identified by Woodchuckgod: The Guardians in Challenge of the Gobots.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Portal of the T'Kon Empire in Star Trek: The Next Generation: "TheI Last Outpost."

Identified by Chris G.: Simon Baker in The Guardian.