Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Mimi's Secret" (November 24, 1979)

In Jason of Star Command’s “Mimi’s Secret,” Jason (Craig Littler), Samantha (Tamara Dobson), Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) and young Heidi (Heather Connell) escape an attack by Dragos’ (Sid Haig) drones, and then return to Star Command.  Once there, they meet with Queen Medusa (Francine York), who, under a flag of truce, promises to exchange Heidi’s missing father for her doll, Mimi.

By this point, Parsafoot has realized that “Mimi” is actually a codename for M1M1, an acronym which pinpoints the location (planet M1) of a secret “guardsman” mineral vein.  The valuable material is used throughout the galaxy as a power source, and Dragos would find it incredibly valuable.  Meanwhile, Heidi stows away on Medusa’s ship.

Finally, Jason and the others rescue Heidi and her father on the surface of M1, and fight keep the mineral out of the hands of Queen Medusa…

“Mimi’s Secret, the second-to-last Jason of Star Command episode, boasts some nice flourishes.  One of those is the visual of Queen Medusa’s starship.  It discharges energetic particles while traveling through space; particles that are pink and purple, the very colors of Medusa’s skin tight, spandex uniform.  Hmmm…

Another point of interest is the episode’s brief commentary on prejudice based on skin color.  Young Heidi asks Commander Stone (John Russell) why his skin is blue, and he responds with a comment about not judging people by color, because color doesn’t reveal their true selves.  It’s a brief moment, but a good one that feels, perhaps more in keeping with Space Academy (1977).

In terms of production values, “Mimi’s Secret” is a noticeably weak episode.  M1 is represented by the same studio planet set we’ve seen a dozen times this season.  Worse, the interior of Medusa’s ship is just a re-dressed Seeker/Star Fire interior, with the seats white instead of red.  Kind of a disappointment, and it’s one of the few instances in the series where the miniature work doesn’t match a live-action interior.

No monsters or stop-motion aliens this week, but “Mimi’s Secret” opens with a pitched space battle between Dragos’ drones and Jason’s Star-fire.  Jason defeats the enemy fighters by tapping into their control panels and jamming their “control frequencies.”  It sounds a little like what Admiral Kirk did to Khan aboard the Reliant a few years later in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

As far as Mimi (and her secret…) go, it turns out the doll is hiding information about the important power source, but the episode never really explains how she lives.  In this segment, Mimi even shoots laser beams out of her eyes.  But, unlike many of her cult-tv brethren, she’s not an evil doll, just a living one.

One last JOSC episode to go, next week: “Battle for Freedom.”

Friday, April 27, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Stargate (1994)

Roland Emmerich’s Stargate (1994) is the movie that launched a thousand ships, or at least several hundred episodes of popular cult television.  As the initiator of the durable (though now dormant…) Stargate franchise, the film sets up a universe that, broadly-speaking, is based on the once-popular Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods (1968) notion that “God” is an ancient astronaut…an alien.

In movie-based terms, Stargate is the film that landed Emmerich on the map in A-list Hollywood.  Although Emmerich had already directed Universal Soldier (1992), Stargate quickly proved a massive, world-wide hit, and paved the way for the director’s busy career, which has included such films as Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 10,000 BC (2008), and 2012 (2010). 

Frankly, I don’t regard the bulk of Emmerich’s oeuvre in very positive terms.   Despite the bad reviews it received on release, Stargate likely dominates even today as the best Emmerich sci-fi film in the aforementioned pack. In part that’s because the film’s opening act is so engaging, and it builds up a real sense of anticipation, mystery, and excitement.

Not that a number of critics would agree with that assessment.

Roger Ebert awarded Stargate one star (out of four) and derided the film’s use of “action movie clichés.” Hal Hinson at The Washington Post felt that the film degenerated by the end into “routine pyrotechnics,” and The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mike LaSalle termed the film “imitation Spielberg” that “crashed inside 20 minutes.”  

Probably all of those comments are accurate to some degree.  The movie is indeed girded with action movie clichés, it does resolve with fireballs and pyrotechnics, and Stargate plays, at points, like low-grade Spielberg.  The film’s first half-hour is also undeniably its strongest. 

And yet, in spite of these admittedly on-the-mark criticisms, Stargate is a hell of a lot of fun.  .

In part, that fun emerges from the cast’s dedicated and sometimes herculean efforts.  James Spader plays the comedy and wonder aspects of the tale wittily, while Kurt Russell – acting as though he’s starring in a hard-boiled John Carpenter or Howard Hawks adventure – brilliantly essays the role of laconic but tortured Colonel O’Neil. 

And although Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game [1992]) remains a decidedly unconventional choice for a primary villain -- being delicate and androgynous rather than physically menacing in the conventional sense -- the very unpredictability of his physical presence adds to the film’s sense of menace, as well as the villain’s unique decadence and obsession with youth and beauty.  Davidson’s Ra is bizarre, but also incredibly sinister.

I remember when I first screened Stargate in the theater in October of 1994. There was much talk that it was “the next Star Wars.”  That kind of chatter proved to be hyperbole, and yet Stargate is a film that, somehow – and indeed a lot like Star Wars – is much more than the sum of its individual parts.  The heroic theme music by David Arnold, the knowing performances from Russell and Spader, and the film’s strong action chops combine with the intriguing Von Daniken presence to render a film experience much more buoyant and enjoyable than it surely could have been. 

In other words, Stargate works on a crowd-pleasing, blockbuster level, and in this case, that’s more than enough.  The film has been assaulted as being stupid on many occasions, but in some fashion Stargate is very canny in how it manipulates the audience and audience expectations.  It’s a film about guns winning the day, and yet it also delivers an anti-gun message, underneath. It’s a film that reveals the Ancient Astronauts, not mankind, achieved wonders in our antiquity, and yet the film also showcases modern man confronting those astronauts and proving his worth. 

In short, Stargate boasts a great premise, some terrific production design, capable actors who are clearly having fun, and enough sci-fi gadgetry to, well, sturdily launch a franchise.  I should probably add that the film absolutely plays like high-art in comparison to underwhelming and even laughable Emmerich fare such as 10,000 BC or 2012.

“I created your civilization. Now I will destroy it.”

Down-on-his-luck linguist and translator Daniel Jackson (Spader) is recruited by the Air Force to help translate an ancient Egyptian artifact, one unearthed in 1928, near the Great Pyramids.  He determines that a series of symbols on the artifact represent not letters in an alphabet, but coordinates in outer space.  The artifact is actually a stargate: a door connecting Earth to a world on the other side of the known galaxy.

Jackson and a team of soldiers, led by Colonel O’Neil (Russell), travel through the stargate and find a barren desert world where human slaves toil to build a pyramid for a “God” called Ra (Davidson).  With the help of a beautiful local, Sha’uri (Mili Avital), Jackson learns Ra’s story. He is a ruthless alien being who survived his race’s extinction and went out into the galaxy seeking a way to extend his life.

Ra found that way on ancient Earth by possessing the body of a young man, and setting himself up as a God.  The primitive people were amazed by Ra’s technology, and fell in line.  But a group of slaves rebelled against the alien king’s authority, and Ra’s stargate to Earth was buried and forgotten, so he could no longer return.

Now, Ra – who possesses the power to resurrect the dead – plans to punish Earth for that long ago rebellion and its recent incursion.  O’Neil has brought a bomb through the Stargate to destroy any threats, and now Ra plans to send it back…to destroy the planet.

Jackson and O’Neil must not only find a way home now, they must help the humans of this faraway planet defeat Ra, and save the Earth in the process.

So you think you've solved in fourteen days what they couldn't solve in two years? 

Erich Von Daniken’s published works about “ancient astronauts” represented a major fad in the 1970s, even though the books were widely debunked and ridiculed by the scientific establishment.  Von Daniken’s theory suggests that artifacts and constructs of the ancient world -- such as the Pyramids or Stonehenge -- are the works of advanced, star-faring aliens because humans of those historic eras did not possess the technology or skill to build them. 

Primitive man thus perceived the builders – aliens – as “Gods.”  Von Daniken interpreted stories from the Old Testament (like Ezekiel’s description of a ship of angels in the Old Testaments) as being literal stories of alien encounters and incursions.

Von Daniken’s ideas have found significant currency in science fiction television and cinema over the decades since Chariots of the Gods was published.  Battlestar Galactica (1978) and The Phoenix (1982) both traded on the idea of ancient astronauts and “brothers of man” in space.  More recent films such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Knowing (2009) also developed these Von Daniken-esque notions.  The upcoming Prometheus (2012) also appears as though it will mine this idea rather thoroughly: that aliens visited man in antiquity and helped shape his future and his very world.

The appeal of these stories (and thus the appeal of Stargate) rests on twin concepts.  First, that we are not alone in the universe.  And secondly, that we are intimately connected with the alien races out there, existing beyond the stars.  Meeting these alien races, we are faced with the resolution of a mystery that connects our most distant past to our immediate future.  The promise is that we will join our cosmic brothers one day, and with a full understanding of where we came from.  In other words, the key to knowing who and what we really are rests on contacting the ancient peoples who set our culture in motion.  In space, then, we find our both our origin and our ultimate destination as a species.

The first twenty-three minutes or so of Stargate, -- the film’s strongest -- tread deeply into such ancient mysteries.  Who built the pyramids? Why were they built?  And what can we learn from the Ancients? 

As Stargate opens, Dr. Jackson is asked to translate the symbols that will activate a stargate, the doorway to the other side of the known universe.  The film lands the audience on Jackson’s side almost immediately, as he is ruthlessly mocked by his narrow-minded colleagues.  Then, the audience shares Jackson’s excitement as he translates the alien language inscribed on a 10,000 year old alien device. 

This part of the film races by with intrigue, humor and excitement. The sense of anticipation, of wonder, is palpable.  Spader proves especially strong here as the audience surrogate and as a committed detective.   Jackson’s obsession with “knowing” becomes the audience’s obsession thanks to Spader’s enthusiastic portrayal, and his self-deprecating sense of humor.  A lot of this could seem like dry, dull exposition, but Spader makes the material riveting to watch, and colors it with his character's idiosyncrasies.

Once the Stargate is discovered and activated, however, the film gets mired down in familiar-seeming desert terrains and the like.   After the visually-amazing “ultimate trip” to another planet, it’s a little disconcerting to come down to Earth, literally, and see familiar sand dunes and sky.  And watching Jackson and O’Neil encounter a city of primitive slaves is not exactly heart-pounding. 

But by the time the first hour is over, Ra arrives and the film picks up again. Emmerich makes the most of the film’s unseen menace at this juncture.  In particular, he shoots an underground siege absolutely perfectly by utilizing P.O.V. shots.  Members of O’Neil’s team are picked off one at a time, and we don’t see the hunters.  Instead, the camera creeps up on the unsuspecting soldiers, and then the film cuts to their bodies being dragged off-screen by unseen creatures.  It’s almost as though we’ve shifted gears into a horror movie, and the grunting, inhuman sound effects of Ra’s soldiers augment the idea of a terrifying, unknown presence.  Even the final, momentous reveal of these minions remains quite powerful.  Looking at these glowing eyes, metal-headed soldiers, it’s easy to see how man could misinterpret them to be Gods. 

When Ra is finally introduced, he isn’t at all what we expect.  But in an action film, that kind of surprise can be a good thing, indeed.  We expect a seven-foot tall monster -- a Darth Vader, perhaps -- and are instead presented with a wispy, lithe, uncomfortable presence in Jaye Davidson.  Ra lives inside a human form, so it’s appropriate that we feel ambivalent about his appearance. We don’t know how to process him, at least not initially.  Is he male? Female?  Some strange combination of both?   Impressively, Jaye Davidson conveys a sense of both uncomfortable beauty and absolute malevolence at the same time.  He may look beautiful on the surface, but his eyes and movements pulsate with a brand of wickedness that suggests the alien’s true nature.

Again, there’s something to be said for choosing an atypical direction in a spectacular like Stargate.  The filmmakers might have cast a bulky strong-man as Ra, but their selection of the slight, whisper-thing Davidson unhinges matters a bit.  The story becomes almost instantly more unpredictable because there is a sense in watching Davidson that we don’t know what he is, literally, and therefore what he will do.  On the few occasions that his alien features shine through his skin, we get a sense of the diabolical Ra’s inner ugliness.

Action films made today depend a great deal on quick cutting and herky-jerky, hand-held camera moves to transmit a sense of urgency.  However, the nearly twenty-year old Stargate plays as refreshingly retro during its accomplished action scenes. The film builds a sense of pace and immediacy through cross-cutting, first between two opposing scenes, and then, finally, between three.  The approach generates a strong sense of momentum leading into the climax, and it’s carefully-wrought.  It helps too, no doubt, to have the muscular, steely-eyed Russell fronting an action scene.  No one in the film is made out to be a superhero, and there’s something refreshingly human and tenacious about the way Colonel O’Neil just dukes it out, punch-after-punch, with Ra’s muscle-bound minion.  I admire this scene because it doesn’t rely on special effects (except for the macabre punctuation…) or even wild (but improbable) stunts.   Instead, it’s just an old-fashioned slug-fest.

I would like to comment again -- as I have in the past – about at what an absolutely great leading man Russell is.  His O’Neil is distinctly different from his Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, or MacReady in The Thing.  There’s a kind of retro, non-showy grittiness in Russell’s performance here.  The film features a number of scenes during which he stands back in the corner of a frame and just silently smokes a cigarette, an act which is pretty unusual in mid-1990s cinema but which reminds one of Humphrey Bogart or some other leading man of yesteryear. 

In these moments, Russell quietly dominates, and all eyes reflexively turn to him.  Even if the script doesn’t exactly give the actor emotional layers to explore, Russell’s taciturn approach suggests a contemplative mind at work, a man silently watching and reacting to everything happening around him.

Perhaps Stargate seems less-than-impressive mainly in several canned, off-the-shelf moments.  O’Neil’s subplot about losing a son is all-too-familiar in this genre, for example, but Russell’s sincerity in vetting it makes it less-than groan-worthy.  His expressive, guilt-ridden eyes go a long way towards making the commonly-seen trope seem powerful and new again. 

Not so strong, however, is the moment -- rendered in over-the-top slow motion photography -- when one of the rebellious slave youngsters goes down in a blaze of glory, and the last we see of him is a tumbling army helmet.  It feels like a moment that would be right at home in Team America: World Police (2004).

Another moment – a trade of salutes between the former slaves and O’Neil – also plays as eminently cheesy and way over-the-top.  You’ve got to wonder why a film that can foster a sense of wonder (in the first twenty-minutes), transmit a strong sense of menace (at the hour point), and convey strong action (at the climax), feels the need to go schmaltzy and sentimental in conclusion.   I suppose it’s just Hollywood: a land where implication isn’t enough and you must be spoon-fed “emotions” so you know EXACTLY how to feel all the time.  It’s insulting.

Despite such missteps, Stargate is nimble in its special effects (especially the depiction of the stargate itself) and boasts a nice through-line about technology.  Technology doesn’t necessarily make one superior, at least in the long run, the film seems to state.  Here, the slave community comes together to stop Ra (just as slaves did on Earth, in antiquity), and the idea that gets conveyed is that we succeed when we work together.

Although I have distinct memories of the late Gene Roddenberry complaining about the ancient astronaut theory because it failed to take into account human intelligence and human ingenuity, Stargate actually possesses a commendably optimistic streak too.  Humankind here is ready to confront its former gods.  Primitive superstition is behind us.

Of course, on the other hand, both Ra and the military men of Earth still attempt to dominate situations through violent means: with bombs, guns and other weapons of destruction.  We may not literally be slaves anymore, but even as advanced as we are, we’re still slaves to our destructive (and self-destructive) impulses.  

Stargate is never quite smart enough to square that circle.

Still, this is one of those “big” sci-fi movies where it helps if you allow yourself to get swept up by the bigness of it all.  The bigness of the soundtrack. Of the performances. Of the (high) concept. Of the desert vistas. And of the special effects. 

If you do let yourself succumb to all of that impressive eye candy, Stargate is a film of wonder, humor, imagination, and not a small degree of charm.

Movie Trailer: Stargate (1994)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Give my regards to King Tut, asshole."

- Stargate (1994)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Eight Most Disgusting Cult-TV Parasites

A parasite is defined as the dominant partner in an unwelcome relationship of different organisms.  In other words, the parasite is a life form that benefits from an involuntary partnership, while the other creature in the relationship…does not.

Throughout cult-tv history, we’ve encountered many memorable and monstrous parasites, a fact which probably arises from the popularity of the 1951 alien invasion novel The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein.  By some definitions, Star Trek’s the Borg might themselves be considered parasites, since, with their assimilation nanites, they transform and co-opt organic beings into Borg.  But for this post, I’m going to concentrate on some memorable and gruesome biological parasites, rather than mechanical ones.

What's the fear of parasites?  In short, it's the idea that our bodies can be used and abused by an intelligence not our own; that our bodies could be viewed as a resource or even food by some other creature.  Many of the creatures on this list assume control of our physical selves, and replace our intelligence with theirs.  Others see us, alarmingly, as just meat.

So here are eight truly horrific, incredibly disgusting cult-tv parasites.  These are the monkeys you most definitely don’t want on your back…or anywhere else inside you for that matter.

8. Prehistoric tape worm.  This revolting creature appeared in the fourth episode of Primeval, which aired in March of 2007 in the UK.  

Here, a flock of adorable dodos  waddle through one of the series' colorful time anomalies into modern England, but a few of these extinct, flightless birds are carrying a parasite that can temporarily seize control of the host and act aggressively to assure reproduction.  One of Connor's (Andrew-Lee Potts) friends, Tom (Jake Curran), is infected with the organism after a dodo bite on his arm.  He soon suffers debilitating headaches, massive pain and increased paranoia as the worm inside him...grows.  At one point in the episode, we see a high-resolution scan of Tom's skull, and this large, lively worm wriggling about inside it.  

7. The Hellgramite.  This parasite appeared in the third season of the first Twilight Zone remake (1985 – 1989) called “The Hellgramite Method.”  In this tale by William Selby, an alcoholic named Miley Judson (Timothy Bottoms) realizes he risks losing his family if he doesn’t get off the booze permanently. Accordingly, he answers an ad for a cure for alcoholism and meets with Dr. Murrich (Leslie Yeo).  The doctor, -- who lost his own family to a drunk driver -- gives Judson a red pill to swallow.  Inside that pill, the drinker later learns, is a parasite called a Hellgramite: an unusual brand of tape worm that survives and thrives on alcohol. The more Judson drinks, the more the worm feeds and the bigger it grows.  Now, Judson doesn’t even get the buzz of feeling drunk, no matter how much liquor he consumes!  Eventually, if he keeps drinking, the Hellgramite will kill Miley, so the traumatized alcoholic must either starve the tapeworm and stop drinking for good, or let the thing kill him…

In this case, the cult-tv parasite, while quite horrible, is actually put to good use: curing alcoholism.  At episode’s end, the Hellgramite Method works, and Miley Judson is a new man.  As the voice-over reminds us, what this drinker needed “was something a little extra,” something that could only be found…in The Twilight Zone.

6. The Selminth.  This parasitic creature appeared in the fifth and last season of Angel (1999 – 2005), in an episode entitled “Soul Purpose,” written by Brent Fletcher and directed by David Boreanaz.  

In this entry, Angel becomes trapped in a vegetative state while under the influence of a slimy worm-like creature called a Selminth Parasite.  This creature causes hallucinations in its host, and in the episode, Angel dreams that Spike has replaced him as the champion of the Shansu Prophecy.  Here, the worm is used as a weapon by a sinister agent (Eve), and alters the very mind-state of the host.  Angel must wake up and remove the parasite from his chest, or live in a a nightmare for the remainder of his days...

5. "Conspiracy.”  In “Conspiracy,” a late first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is warned by a friend, Captain Walker (Jonathan Farwell) that some kind of sinister agenda is afoot in Starfleet Command.  

After Walker’s ship, The Horatio explodes in an apparent accident, Picard fears there might be some truth behind his friend’s paranoia.  He orders the Enterprise back to Earth, and there discovers that the Admiralty itself has been infiltrated by parasitic aliens bent on conquering the Federation from within.  These small, crab-like aliens enter human beings through the mouth, and then completely control all higher mental functions.  The small parasites also report to a much-larger, dinosaur-like “mother” being that has found a home inside Commander Remmick (Robert Schenkkan).  The parasites die without this mother being in close proximity.

These creepy alien parasites (revealed in Star Trek novels to be related to the Trill…) can be detected by a sort of breathing gill that extends from the back of the host’s neck.  In the episode, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) rigs one for Riker (Jonathan Frakes) so that he will appear compromised, but can actually rescue Captain Picard from danger.

I must admit, I absolutely love this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It has a more sinister, diabolical vibe than most episodes.  In fact, it’s downright scary at times, especially the unresolved ending, which suggests the parasites could return one day, and have sent a message to their brethren out in space.   I also love the visual of Picard and Riker frying the alien mother organism with their phasers.  So much for respect and tolerance for all alien life forms!   I've always found it ironic that Gene Roddenberry so vociferously complained about Admiral Kirk's treatment of another parasite, the Ceti Eel in The Wrath of Khan (1982) -- how dare he shoot it! it's a life-form -- but then Picard and Riker reacted exactly the same way in this TNG episode, with revulsion and phasers firing.

4. The Ganglions.  These skittering, slimy, multi-tentacled parasites appeared in the short-lived alien invasion series Dark Skies (1996 – 1997).  The ganglions were first seen in the pilot episode, “The Awakening,” written by Brent Friedman and Bryce Zabel and directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper. 

The Ganglions enter the human head through either the nose, ear or mouth, and the assimilation process is slow and incredibly painful.  First, possession by the parasite causes a nervous breakdown, but eventually the host mind is erased completely, and the Ganglion is in total control of his human steed.  We learn in the course of the series that the Ganglions took over the Greys' planet, much in the same way that they intend to take over the human race.

In “Awakening,” cult-television gets one of its most gruesome and effectively shot scenes as the scientists of Majestic attempt to remove a ganglion from its human host, a farmer.  The results aren’t pretty.   The ganglion escapes, attempts to attach to another unlucky soul, and then is deposited in a jar by John Loengard, using very long tongs.  This scene remains harrowing, even today, and is splendidly shot by Hooper.

3. “Roadrunners.”  An eighth season X-Files episode, Roadrunners,” by Vince Gilligan, introduces a parasitic creature that may or may not be of this Earth.

Here, Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson), sans partner, visits Utah to investigate a strange death.  She soon runs afoul, instead, of a weird cult that believes a worm parasite represents the second coming of Jesus Christ on Earth. 

These committed cult members attempt to get the worm inside Scully – who is pregnant at this point – by allowing it to burrow underneath her flesh, inside her back.  This episode successfully gets under your skin too, by forging an atmosphere of extreme isolation and vulnerability.  In The X-Files, we are used to Mulder always having Scully’s back during a crisis.  But here, Mulder is gone, abducted by aliens, and we don’t quite trust Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) yet.  Here, Scully is the most alone we’ve ever seen her, in real physical danger, contending with villains who can't be reasoned with.  And she faces, clearly, a fate worse than death with that wriggling, monstrous worm in her back. In a truly upsetting scene, Scully is tied to a bed on her stomach, as the creature makes its subcutaneous approach.

A group of vocal folks like to complain about the last two, largely Mulder-less years of The X-Files, but episodes such as “Roadrunners” certainly  prove the series was effective as ever in generating authentic, deep-down scares.  I also appreciate the conceit that this particular parasite is never explained.  We don't know what it is, where it came from, or why it is here.  Creepy.

2. The Invisibles. In a classic first season Outer Limits episode written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Conrad Hall, an undercover GIA agent, Spain (Don Gordon) attempts to infiltrate a secret and subversive society called the Invisibles.  

Once inside the secret community, Spain learns that the strange group is led by hideous alien invaders: horrible crab-like creatures that attach themselves to the human spine and totally control minds.  If the joining process goes wrong, humans are rendered deformed and nearly lobotomized.

Gordon attempts to warn government officials about the alien invasion in the offing, but the Invisibles are already onto him, and just waiting to absorb him into their ranks.  In an absolutely tense and suspenseful scene near the episode’s climax, a wounded, prone, Spain is unable to escape as a skittering, multi-legged Invisible dashes towards him, attempting to join with him.   He pulls himself along, screaming for help, as the thing, in the background, looms ever nearer.  The feeling of vulnerability, entrapment and terror generated in that image, and throughout “The Invisibles,” remains incredibly potent almost fifty years later.  Being joined with these huge, inhuman things is indeed a fate worse than death… 

1. Earwig.  We never actually see the parasite in the classic episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery entitled "The Caterpillar," but we certainly learn all about it.

Here, a nasty civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey) covets a co-worker's wife (Joanna Pettet) and attempts to off her husband with a parasite called an earwig.  The murder scheme goes horribly wrong, however, when Stephen himself is exposed to the wee bug.

The earwig, you see, possesses a “decided liking” for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand-to-one. They can’t turn around, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route. The pain caused by these “stealthy chaps” is agonizing and horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Here, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands must be bound to his bed-posts so he doesn’t claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the bug chewing a path through his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an “agonizing, driving, itching pain,” and the earwig exits his ear.  Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy.  He learns that the earwig was female and laid eggs inside his brain.  The larvae will hatch soon, and find a ready source of food: his brain,  Despite its lack of overt horrific visuals, "The Caterpillar" proves utterly disgusting and macabre in its suggestion of a fate worse than death: a perpetual itch you just can’t scratch.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pop Art: Read-Along Adventures/Buena Vista Records Edition

Collectible of the Week: Knight of Darkness (Ideal; 1977)

Just keep telling yourself, this eleven inch tall action figure from Ideal, and manufactured in 1977, is not Darth Vader.  

Try it again: the Knight of Darkness is NOT Darth Vader.

Okay.  Deep breath.

Whether or not the Knight of Darkness resembles Darth Vader (d'oh!) is likely immaterial, because this "fearsome enemy from outer space" remains one awesome-looking sci-fi enemy and a great toy to boot.

Perhaps, Darth Vader, the Knight of Darkness and Baron Karza could all get together for lunch at the Mos Eisley cantina and compare notes on the Dark Side...

Anyway, The Knight of Darkness (No. 4603 - 7) looked so much like Darth Vader that allegedly George Lucas sued Ideal for copyright infringement.  He reportedly lost the case, in part because Ideal's S.T.A.R. Team (of which the Knight was a new part) already had a history on the toy market of over a decade.  Still, looking at the box art, at ZEM-21 (C-3PO) and the Knight in particular, it's tough not to feel a Star Wars vibe.  At least a little.

I remember as a kid in 1977 that I really wanted Star Wars toys, and  then my grandparents suddenly showed up for my birthday with a Zeroid (R2-D2?), ZEM-21, the Knight of Darkness and the Star Hawk ("the spacecraft of the Zeroid.")  At first I was tremendously disappointed and confused.  My grandparents had been snookered by a Star Wars knock-off and even at age seven, I knew it.

But then, I actually started playing with awesome Ideal S.T.A.R. Team toys, and creating my own space adventures.  I must admit,  it was actually a bit more fun inventing a universe than merely recreating scenes from Star Wars. 

So let's hear it for the Star Wars knock-offs.  There have been some great ones over the years, but none perhaps, more malevolent-appearing and yes, fearsome, than this Knight of Darkness, "dressed in his special uniform and boots," to quote the box.   The Knight, based on Captain Action figure molds, also came complete with a mean-looking laser pistol.

If only Ideal had released some minions for this Knight of Darkness to command, all would have been right with the universe.

Hatched from a Mutual Zygote: Downstream

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cult Movie Review: The Darkest Hour (2011)

The Darkest Hour (2011) is an “empty city” alien invasion movie.  And the element that most distinguishes the film is the nature of the particular empty city, namely Moscow.  The Darkest Hour takes its heroes to Red Square, Lenin Square and other incredible locations in the former Soviet Union, and that’s certainly a notable distinction for a genre film.  So often alien invasion productions center the action in America, usually New York (Independence Day [1996]]) or Los Angeles (Skyline [2010], Battle: LA [2010].)  Accordingly, The Darkest Hour deserves some hosannas for setting its familiar story in this unfamiliar and interesting environment.

But it’s the film’s all-too familiar story that creates the problem.  Frankly, there’s very little in The Darkest Hour you haven’t seen before.

Directed by Chris Gorak and produced by Timuk Bekmambetov, The Darkest Hour concerns two young American software designers – Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) – as they unexpectedly contend with an alien invasion while on a business trip to Moscow.  The aliens in this case are glowing balls of golden energy that rain down from the night sky and are first mistaken for the Northern Lights.  The alien touch is instantly lethal, and human victims spontaneously combust in horrifying and gruesome detail. 

The aliens suck you in and then churn you out in a million pieces.

Sean and Ben manage to survive the devastating and global first strike along with a morally-suspect associate, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) and two gorgeous female tourists, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor).  They do so by hiding in a night-club basement/store room for several days.  You might think that other residents of Moscow, and of other cities, would also think to hide in a basement for a time, but apparently not.

When the group finally emerges from the sanctuary, it finds an empty, devastated city, and the end of human supremacy on Earth. The tourists soon run across another fellow survivor, Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze), a crazy electrician “or plumber” who has created a microwave gun to destroy the aliens.  This weapon proves quite helpful as the group attempts to reach a nuclear submarine that is docked in a nearby river.

The idea of American citizens trapped on foreign soil during a world-changing event is a pretty good one, but The Darkest Hour does little with the notion.  Basically, Sean and Ben get their hands on a map and explore the city competently according to that helpful guide, with little fuss or muss.  And the Russians they meet, for the most part, obligingly speak English.  

So while the visuals of a foreign city are awesome (especially a shot of a ruined bridge, and a crashed plane in a mall interior), and I enjoyed seeing the feisty Russian freedom fighters strike back against the aliens (who are here on Earth to suck up our planet’s mineral wealth…), none of this material adds a whole lot to the movie, especially when it boasts some notable weak points.

The characters represent one primary weak point.  They are not especially well-distinguished or interesting.  Sean, Ben, Natalie and Anne (and later Vika) are all young, gorgeous and obviously indulged, but they don’t add much to the action.  It doesn’t help that the weak script, by John Spaihts doesn’t permit the characters to be particularly smart, particularly funny, particularly scared or even boast long memories. 

For instance, in one early scene, Ben and Sean learn that they can escape detection from the roaming aliens -- who are invisible in daylight -- by hiding underneath cars.   In a later scene -- when they are off to rescue the rogue Skyler -- all the characters apparently forget that they can hide under any of the dozen parked cars surrounding them as the aliens move in for the kill with force. 

I’m also baffled that survivors, namely Skylar, continue to feel safe when bearing conventional firearms.  Bullets are absolutely ineffectual against these amorphous, whirl-a-gig light-beings, as the movie shows us several times.  Even more to the point, the aliens seemingly consist of swirling, moving air and wind as well as light.  How would an average guy boast any confidence that he could even hit the thing, given that he can see through it, and that it is constantly shifting form?

Certainly, I appreciated what The Darkest Hour has to say about how mankind achieves his greatest ingenuity in the darkest hour (or “team work makes the dream work.”)  I also liked that the movie points out that other people, besides Americans, also love their countries and are willing to fight for it.  We talk about American Exceptionalism all the time, but this movie shows us that determination and true grit are universal human characteristics, not one confined to a single country.

Still, I wish the script had showcased a bit more ingenuity.  I don’t object to the fact that the aliens are largely invisible in the film, as some critics did.  After all, the alien was largely invisible in the first Predator (1987), and that film worked in spades.  Rather, it’s that the film doesn’t really tread believably into the rampant hopelessness of the central situation.  Nine-tenths of the human race is gone, alien monsters patrol the world and are systematically raping our planet, and yet by movie’s end – and in a ridiculous, unnecessary double coda – the human survivors (after one successful campaign…) seem positive that they’ll turn the tide, win the war and reclaim Earth. 

From what I’ve seen, this level of optimism isn’t exactly justified.  For one thing, making enough microwave guns to destroy the numerically-superior aliens isn’t going to be very easy. 

The false, Hollywood-styled happy-ending of The Darkest Hour reminded me of a film I liked better, A Vanishing on 7th Street (2010).  Sure, it had its own set of problems, but that empty city movie ended in a thematically-consistent bleak fashion.  Once the end came, there wasn’t any cheery Pollyanna talk.  There was no last minute miracle to save the human race.

I was also reminded of Attack the Block (2011), another alien invasion film of recent vintage.  It offered a happy ending, yes, but so distinguished its colorful characters in speech and action that you could accept their victory as both legitimate and possible, at least on a surface level.

While watching The Darkest Hour, I kept thinking there had to be more to the story than the film depicts.  That it was going to offer a cool twist at the end.  For example, I felt certain that the spontaneous-combustion alien monsters were but a mechanism of the real invaders, an alien tool deployed to “clean” Earth’s surface and make it habitable for another race.  In keeping with this theory, I was convinced the film’s ending would depict the arrival of the real Big Bad, and that then the real fight would commence. 

Nothing that clever or thoughtful happens in the film, though.  

The aliens – who look like angry, levitating octopodes once they stop glowing – don’t offer anything by way of surprise after we’ve witnessed the monsters violently pulping human bodies.   What you see is what you get.

There are probably at least ten alien invasion movies that are better and more believable than The Darkest Hour, and yet I can’t find it in my heart to truly work up any hate for this movie.   It isn’t that the film is egregiously bad, in other words, it’s just that it tracks along such thoroughly predictable paths that it can’t rouse much by way of terror, suspense or involvement. 

The Darkest Hour is more like the blandest one. 

Movie Trailer: The Darkest Hour (2011)

Theme Song of the Week: Strange World (1999)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Dolls, Dummies and Puppets

Automatonophobia is the (irrational?) fear of anything that falsely represents a sentient human being.  A resident, perhaps, of the Uncanny Valley, the automaton -- the doll, the dummy, or the puppet -- is often featured on cult-tv programs, especially of the horror variety.  The long-standing fear of automatons may originate from ancient religious rituals, which suggested that inanimate objects could sometimes house the voices of the "unliving."

Both Rod Serling's Night Gallery ("The Doll") and Chris Carter's The X-Files ("Chinga) showcased episodes about children's dolls "coming to life" under the auspices of witchcraft or sorcery.  In each case, the doll was not only dangerous, but actually murderous.  In "Chinga" by Stephen King, for example, the evil doll caused unlucky souls to gouge out their own eyes.  Scully (Gillian Anderson) finally found an appropriate venue in which to dispense with the evil doll: a microwave oven.

As recently as September 2011, evil dolls have appeared on cult television, in this case on the sixth series of Doctor Who.  "Night Terrors" involves the Doctor's encounter with creepy, living "peg dolls" that are the embodiment of one young child's overwhelming fear.

Interestingly, not all dolls in cult-tv history have been straight-up evil.  The Twilight Zone's Talky Tina ("Living Doll) for instance, had a nasty mouth on her ("I'm Talky Tina, and I'm going to kill you..."), but her goal was to protect her master -- a little girl -- from a cruel and abusive adult (Telly Savalas).  

Likewise, Sid the Ventriloquist's Dummy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "The Puppet Show was actually a heroic demon hunter, a man who had been cursed to live out his days in that wooden form. He proved to be a steadfast (if horny...) ally to Buffy in that installment.  He later re-appeared as a sidekick in the Buffy video game, Chaos Bleeds.

In the Amazing Stories (1985 - 1986) first season segment, "The Doll," a lonely man, John (John Lithgow) buys a lovely doll for his niece from a strange old man's toy shop, but the doll is not evil.  Instead, John finds that the doll fascinates and intrigues him.  In fact, it leads him to the love of his life.  And more bizarrely, the woman he loves (who resembles his doll...) possesses a doll that is a dead ringer for him!  As we learn at the conclusion of the episode, the doll maker's name is "Liebemacher," which means "maker of love," you see, and so with the dolls he has acted as matchmaker for lonely John and his lady love.

So while our memory most often jumps to evil dolls or evil ventriloquist's dummies, cult television has actually probably done as much to defuse automatonophobia as encourage it.  If you run into a living doll, just hope that it' more Amazing Stories or Buffy and less Twilight Zone or X-Files...

Seven Years Blogging Anniversary!

It's difficult for me to believe this, but I began this blog seven years ago today, on April 23, 2005.  That's 2,464 posts, 9 books and one web-series ago.  If I were keeping count, of course...

I want to sincerely thank all the readers who have joined Reflections since that April day in 2005, stuck around, and continue to frequent this joint.  

I feel especially fortunate to be joined here by such a curious, civil, intelligent and educated readership.  This is more true than ever.  I read the great, thorough, incisive comments here and invariably think, "I wish I had thought of that!"

But I suppose that's the best aspect of blogging: the back-and-forth that occurs in the on-going conversation.  It's always nice to meet folks who love film and television with such devotion, attention-to-detail, and passion.

As I like to say, stick around.  The best is yet to come.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Dolls, Dummies and Puppets

Identified by Chadillac: Talky Tina from The Twilight Zone's "Living Doll."

Identified by Chris G: The Twilight Zone: "The Dummy."  "Caesar and Me."

Identified by Jane Considine: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Doll."

Identified by SGB: Jason of Star Command's Mimi, from "Little Girl Lost."


Identified by Randal Graves: Friday the 13th: The Series: "Read My Lips."

Identified by Jose: Don Rickles in Tales from the Crypt: "The Ventriloquist's Dummy."

Identified by Randal Graves: Sid in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "The Puppet Show."


Identified by Randal Graves: The X-Files: "Chinga."

Identified by Chris G: Mike Nelson in MST3K: "Devil Doll."

Identified by Randal Graves: Krusty Doll in The Simpsons: "Treehouse of Horror III."

Identified by Randal: Angel: "Smile Time."

Identified by Carl: Doctor Who: "Night Terrors."