Saturday, July 07, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Wild Boy" (September 25, 1976)

This week on Filmation's post-apocalyptic Saturday morning TV series Ark II,  Captain Jonah (Terry Lester) and his crew conduct a geophysical survey in Sector 14, Area 31.  The mission is to discover “rare minerals.”  But before long, a primitive-appearing young human, Isaiah (Mitch Vogel), interferes with their work, and Jonah is nearly trapped in a dark cave.

Local villagers warn the Ark II team that Isaiah is dangerous and that they plan to “put him in a cage and take him out to the great desert.”  Rather than allowing this exile to happen, the crew attempts to befriend the wild boy.  Isaiah is welcomed aboard the Ark  II vehicle and taught how to operate the craft's systems.  However, when Isaiah spots the recently mined crystals, he grows violent and angry, and runs away.

Soon, Isaiah's reasons are all too clear.  The crystals release a dangerous gas that sucks up oxygen, making the Ark II crew suffer from lassitude and fatigue.   While Jonah and Ruth go off to find Isaiah, Samuel loses control of the Ark II, and Jonah must re-board it while the great vehicle is in motion.

Isaiah reveals that his parents died in the cave where the minerals were recovered, and now he fears both it and the crystal.  Understanding this, the villagers make peace with Isaiah and welcome him into the family.  Jonah, meanwhile, arranges for the cave with the dangerous minerals to be permanently sealed.

The twin lessons on Ark II this week are “trust and affection can accomplish more than fear,” and, no less important, even evolved, peaceful folks like Jonah and Ruth can “still learn from those who haven’t had,” the same level of education.

In less didactic terms, “The Wild Boy” is a cool episode of this 1970s Saturday morning TV series for a few reasons.  The first is that this story provides for the closest thing to a car chase we  get on the program's roster.  Samuel loses control of the Ark II, and Jonah and Ruth must catch up in the Roamer and board the craft in motion.  This sequence is well-shot, and amps up the action quotient of the episode and the series considerably.

Secondly, and I know this probably seems minor, but this episode features a great aft-to-fore pan of the interior Ark II set.  It’s one thing to see the set in close-ups, or in establishing shots.  It’s quite another to track the whole set, and see the breadth and scope of it.  It’s really an impressive design, and so far as I can discern, this is a new shot.

Next Week: Robby guest stars in “The Robot.”

Friday, July 06, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Independence Day (1996)

"In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. "Mankind." That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night!" We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day! "

- President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) delivers an historic address in Independence Day (1996).

Independence Day (1996) remains one of the big “event” movies of the 1990s, a sci-fi blockbuster of monumental, almost unimaginable proportions.  The crowd-pleasing film successfully tapped into the decade’s unending fascination with aliens and UFOs (The X-Files, for example) and significantly augmented that interest too, resulting in a slew of further alien films and TV programs from Dark Skies (1996) to Men in Black (1997).

As an inside-the-industry cautionary tale, Independence Day also represented the (unfortunate) cementing of the Emmerich/Devlin blockbuster “formula” -- a revival of 1970s disaster film tropes.  This format would meet its Waterloo in 1998’s Godzilla, but nonetheless continues right into this decade with films such as the dreadful 2012 (2010).

Of all the Emmerich genre fare, I’m most fond of 1994’s Stargate, as it seems to strike the right balance between spectacle and intelligence.  After that film’s release, the scales in further efforts kept tipping towards spectacle and away from brains, and so the ensuing films suffer mightily for the imbalance. 

That established, I was certainly part of the enthusiastic audience for Independence Day upon its summer release, and I still remember how great the film looked on the big screen.  A recent re-watch confirms how terrific the miniature effects remain.  The scenes of awesome alien saucers lumbering to position over major world cities -- though obviously reminiscent of Kenneth Johnson’s V (1984) -- remain downright staggering.

What ages Independence Day most significantly, instead, is the pervasive shtick and the schmaltzy, sentimentality-drenched characters. At every step of the way during its narrative, Independence Day punctures its end-of-the-world majesty and gravitas with low humor and over-the-top sentimentality, qualities which today render the whole affair close to camp. 

Science fiction fans, of course, experienced conniption fits over Independence Day’s unlikely finale: a third act which sees an Earth-produced computer virus successfully uploaded to an alien computer aboard a mother-ship, thus giving humans the opportunity to strike back…on July 4th, no less. 

The movie doesn’t pay even lip service to the idea that aliens from another solar system might have developed anti-virus software (!), let alone computer systems totally incompatible with our 20th century Earth technology. 

Given how badly things go for Earth in the first hour of Independence Day, it’s difficult to countenance the film’s final veer into outright fantasy as every heroic campaign – with split-second timing – comes together perfectly.

Despite my misgivings about the film’s humor, sentimentality, and narrative resolution, however, I still find the grave, apocalyptic, anxiety-provoking tone of Independence Day’s first hour worthwhile, especially the President’s grim choice to deploy nuclear weapons in an American city to drive off the aliens.   

It would be absolutely foolish to deny, too, that some of Independence Day’s imagery has become iconic in the annals of cinema history.  We all remember that portentous shot of hovering saucer pulping the White House for instance.  Thus -- even while criticizing this over-sized beast -- I've got to give the Devil his due for getting matters right on a visual terms

In terms of theme, Independence Day works overtime to remind all of us that although we are separated by oceans and other Earthly partitions, we are all nonetheless citizens of the same planet. It’s a laudable message in an age of hyper-partisanship to be certain, even if delivered with little nuance or subtlety.  This through-line in the film is consistently and well-conveyed, both in terms of incident and in the make-up of the diverse dramatis personae.  Who would have imagined our precious Earth could be saved by a war veteran, a drunk crop-duster, a Jewish cable repairman and an African-American fighter pilot?

Movie critics were understandably divided on Independence Day.  At The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: “Guess what: "Independence Day" lives up to expectations in a rush of gleeful, audience-friendly exhilaration, with inspiring notions of bravery that depart nicely from the macho cynicism of this movie season. Its innocence and enthusiasm are so welcome that this new spin on "Star Wars" is likely to wreak worldwide box-office havoc, the kind that will make the space aliens' onscreen antics look like small change.

Writing for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley opined: "Independence Day" is primarily a $70 million kid's toy, a star-spangled excess of Roman candles and commando games designed to draw repeat business from 9- to 12-year-old boys. Little girls won't find any role models among the barnstormers, though a plucky exotic dancer is featured among the heroines. Even with the end of the world in sight, she shakes her booty. It's for her kid. No, really.  Maybe the moviemakers' mission was to boldly go where everyone in Hollywood has gone before: the bank.

Honestly, I can see both sides of the critical equation in this case. Independence Day is such dumb fun, and yet fun nonetheless.

“A the end of the world.”

The people of planet Earth watch with anxiety and wonder as three-dozen alien saucers descend from orbital space to take up positions over cities around the globe.  President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former jet pilot in Desert Storm, advises calm, but new information from genius cable repair man David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) suggests the alien ships have initiated a countdown and are preparing a coordinated attack.

As the countdown ends, Levinson’s suspicions are confirmed, and the alien ships destroy Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York and other population hubs. President Whitmore survives the attack on the Oval Office and escapes by Air Force One.  He promptly orders a retaliatory strike.  Pilot, top-gun, and would-be astronaut Steven Hiller (Will Smith) downs an alien ship during battle, and captures one of the fearsome aliens for study.  The rest of the fight, however, is a rout, and the U.S. jets are unable to penetrate alien shields.  Humanity stands upon the edge of extinction.

The President visits the secret military base at Area 51, and learns there that scientists there have been experimenting with an alien ship for close to fifty years.  When Hiller arrives, the President attempts to communicate with Hiller's captured alien, but finds the being implacably hostile.  The aliens, he soon learns, are like locusts.  They travel from solar system to solar system using up planetary systems and then moving on…leaving only carnage and waste in their wake.

After nuclear weapons prove ineffective against the aliens, President Whitmore is at a loss how to save the planet, or the human race.  But David comes through again.  He believes he can take the captured alien ship at Area 51 to the mother-ship and upload a computer virus there, thus bringing down alien shields…at least for a few minutes.  When Steven volunteers to fly that risky mission, it’s up to the President himself to coordinate and lead a huge aerial attack against the alien saucers, both in America, and world-wide…

It's a fine line between standing behind a principle and hiding behind one. You can tolerate a little compromise, if you're actually managing to get something accomplished.

For a film about such a terrifying topic – an alien invasion Independence Day frequently plays thing...light.  At least a half-dozen major supporting characters in the film are defined by their shtick. Judd Hirsch plays a nagging Jewish Dad, Julius Levinson, and his lines and delivery are pure Borscht Belt ham-bone.   Harvey Fierstein plays another kitschy character, Marty, who hams it up and makes jokes about his therapist and his (presumably overbearing...) mother.  Harry Connick Jr. portrays a cocksure pilot who provides the film at least one dopey gay joke.

But the worst character is likely Randy Quaid’s Russell Casse, a drunken crop-duster (and alien abductee) who joins the air battle against the aliens during the film's denouement.  Quaid’s dialogue is so incredibly dreadful that it has become the stuff of legend and MST3K fodder.  “I picked the wrong day to stop drinking,” springs immediately to mind. 

Among all these actors hamming it up and stealing time, Brent Spiner likely fares the best as aging ex-hippie and scientist Dr. Okun. Spiner comes off as weird and eccentric, but not so dreadfully hammy that you want to turn away from the screen in shame for watching.  His last scene -- played with alien tentacles pressing against his larynx -- is also genuinely unsettling.

Why do I have a problem with the film's pervasive moments of low humor?  Well, Independence Day already boasts Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith continually cracking wise in leading roles.  Their dialogue is dreadful too, from "Welcome to Earth" to "Now that's what I call a close encounter!"  Given all this material from our leads, do we really need Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein, Harry Connick Jr., Randy Quaid and even Brent Spiner dishing out lame one liners too?  The ubiquitous nature of these characters makes Independence Day, at times, resemble an overblown sitcom.  Maybe if the material were stronger, these characters would not seem so objectionable. I guess what I'm saying, is that these moments are rarely actually funny.

Another weak character is Secretary of Defense Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), a man who in one scene advises the full scale nuking of many American cities, but in a later scene argues against a “risky” maneuver to attack the alien mother-ship and upload the virus.  His objections to the (ultimately) successful plan make no sense, and aren’t consistent with the “war hawk” image he projects in the film all along; a guy who advises going to Def-Con 2 before the President has made his final decision.  Instead, Nimzicki is contradictory simply so the audience can boo at him, and the President can dress him down…thus appearing tough and resolute. 

While I have real disdain for much of the writing and characterization in Independence Day, I do feel that the film's visuals often still shock, and often still carry real emotional resonance.  One shot, set on July 3rd, reveals the Statue of Liberty toppled, face down in the harbor...a massive saucer hovering low in the sky.  Colored in autumnal browns,  this is a terrifying composition of American culture annihilated.  It’s tough indeed to compete with the amazing Statue of Liberty imagery of Planet of the Apes, yet this moment in Independence Day remains quite upsetting.    The film is also anxiety-provoking in the way it reveals American military might crushed before a more technologically-advanced enemy.  The battle sequences, the nuclear option, and other heavy moments are all deeply scary because one realizes that if America can’t save the world…the world ain’t getting saved.  Indeed, Independence Day plays up the alien threat so successfully in terms of spectacular visuals and special effects that there’s almost no way the scripted, climactic victory can ring true.  It’s like we’ve slipped into an alternate movie or something.

The first half of Independence Day is undeniably the strongest, as alien saucers push through storm and cloud fronts, and emerge over our cities, casting dark shadows upon bewildered and amazed populations.  These moments continue to impress, and pack an almost visceral gut punch.  We’ve all wondered if, one day, we’ll wake up to something like this imagery…a new dawn in which we learn definitively we are no longer alone.   As much as I deride Independence Day’s silly humor and bad dialogue, I have no quibbles whatsoever with the way that these scenes of “arrival” are vetted.  As I said in my introduction, many of these scenes still carry a staggering punch.

From its first shots to its final ones, Independence Day also makes an interesting point about mankind being unified by a threat from the outside.  The film opens with imagery of a plaque on the moon which reads “We came in peace for all mankind.”  That’s a wonderful thought, the movie seems to suggest, but then the filmmakers set up a paradigm by which that hopeful expression of common cause is tested.  Suddenly, all mankind must work together to defeat the alien threat, putting competition and petty differences aside.  This idea is expressed through scenes set in Iraq, the location of America’s most recent war (Gulf War I).  There, in the desert, British and Iraqi soldiers join the battle against the mother ships.  The implication of such scenes is that mankind is indeed capable of working together.

The same idea is presented in the film in the (positive) character of President Whitmore.  Before the alien crisis, he is viewed not as a warrior, but as a “wimp.”  He can’t even get his Crime Bill passed by a hostile Congress.  Whitmore laments that “it’s just not simple, anymore” and that people don’t seem to understand that compromise is the only path towards moving everyone ahead, together.  He then works with the nations of the world to defeat the aliens, and in the process transforms an American holiday into an Earth holiday.   Again, the message implicit in Independence Day is that we can apply ourselves to solve big problems, not just alien invasions.  Why can’t we all band together to keep our neighbors and our neighbors' children from starving?  Or to eliminate poverty?  Once we acknowledge our common humanity, petty partisan differences shouldn’t really matter, should they?

In this sense, Independence Day -- set in part on July 4th -- acknowledges a new, evolved brand of patriotism.  It is a patriotism not merely to party or to one nation, but to all of humanity.  As a fan of Star Trek and a person who believes we can achieve great things if we sometimes accept compromise, I appreciate the film’s ultimate message of hope about human nature.  This consistently-applied theme almost mollifies my concerns about the film’s ridiculous and ill-conceived conclusion, and the surfeit of characters who spew cliché after cliché, bad joke after bad joke.  Almost, but not quite.    Still, I know I'm spitting in the wind against an 800 million dollar blockbuster, a veritable entertainment machine.

So am I a hopeless sentimental for recognizing Independence Day’s entertainment and social value, even amidst so many stupid groaners and moments of cynical, calculated humor?  

Or, like Randy Quaid's character...did I just pick the wrong day to stop drinking?

Movie Trailer: Independence Day (1996)

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #7: Solaris? (2002)

A reader named Chris writes:

"I'd love to read a 'Muir' analysis (and hopefully an appreciation too) of the Soderbergh re-make of Solaris (11/27/2002). The film impacted me in ways I did not expect when I saw it 4 years back. In the same way I sense that you do, I derive the most enjoyment from films that deliver real identifiable characters, and subtext.

In terms of psychology and subtext, the Solaris re-make has it (no, I haven't seen the Lem original yet, I'm holding off on that for now, while I continue to experience the resonance wave patterns of the remake), and then, some.  It's not only good Sci-Fi, but good horror, and a sort of "Eyes Wide Shut" type film too." 

Hi ChrisI saw the remake in the theater back when it was released in 2002, and the ticket sales-lady actually tried to discourage me and my wife from seeing the film.  She said that "nothing happens" in the movie and by that I presume she meant that there are no laser battles, no spaceships fighting, and no other obvious action scenes.  Then I talked to a manager about turning down the heat in the auditorium, and told him offhandedly that I heard the movie was "kind of slow." He replied that I was wrong and that it was a brilliant movie.  Thus two very different perspectives came at me regarding the film right out of the gate, before I even saw it.

Well, guess who was right?  Solaris is a brilliant movie, and what it lacks in terms of sci-fi movie bells and whistles in gains through its dedicated excavation of character.  The film is a profound meditation on identity, and how identity is actually an internally-constructed quality.  It can't be constructed from outside by someone else, even someone who loves us very much.  It's a haunting and memorable thesis, told in the context of a tragic love story.

I own the film on DVD -- it's a favorite -- so it looks like it's time to haul Solaris out and do a full-scale review.  Look for it in the days ahead, and thanks for reminding me of a great movie from last decade.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Collectible of the Week: The Six Million Dollar Man: A Game By Parker Brothers (1975)

I was just five years old during “Bionic Mania” that all-too-short a span in the 1970s when The Six Million Dollar Man (1974 -1978) and his spin-off, The Bionic Woman (1976 – 1978) reigned supreme on television, and at toy stores thanks to the efforts of Kenner and Parker Brothers.

Not long ago, my parents found a fun little reminder of those days in the mid-1970s at a local yard sale: The Six Million Dollar Man board game from Parker Brothers, manufactured in 1975. 

The back of the box spells out the game’s specifics:

“Four bionic men each claim to have Steve Austin’s powers.  Your job is to prove that YOU ARE THE REAL SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN.

The Computer Spinner reads out your moves and gives you the power to handle assignments for NASA, INTERPOL, the CIA and the Defense Department.  You’ll take part in dangerous missions – encountering imposters and waging Bionic Battles.

Each assignment will make you stronger.  And the stronger you become the faster you’ll move around the board and back to the Bionic Research Lab where you’ll win the game.

On the box front, you can see images from the four scenarios you get to explore in the game: “Steve Austin rescues stranded astronaut,” “Steve Austin prevents nuclear blackmail attempt,” “Steve Austin knocks out International Crime Ring” and “Steve Austin locates underwater missile network.”

Unfortunately, there is not a scenario called Steve Austin fights Bionic Big Foot.

Anyway, the first player to complete all four assignments proves that he’s the real Six Million Dollar Man.  Bionic battles ensue when a “player lands on a space which is occupied by another player.” 

Where many games from this era seem to have nothing to do with the TV series they are related to, this game’s description actually sounds like it could be a Six Million Dollar Man plot-line.  I can just see Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) now, informing an alarmed Colonel Austin (Lee Majors) that three bionic imposters have been spotted all over the globe…and he’s got to stop them.

Happy Fourth of July!

Game Board of the Week Alien (Kenner; 1979)

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: V vs. ID4 Mothership Edition

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #6: Black Swan (2010)?

A regular reader named Todd asks me:

"Have you seen the movie Black Swan?  If so, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.  I thought it was a great psychological thriller with deep meaning and symbolism.  I love reading your insight into various films.  You pick up on stuff that  I would never think of.  It amazes me every time.  Thanks for writing this great blog."

Thank you for your affirmative remarks about the blog, Todd, and about my writing.  I have indeed seen Black Swan (2010), and I too find it a deeply disturbing yet weirdly beautiful work of art.  That established, I also consider it a (brilliant) horror film.

Accordingly, I'll be reviewing Black Swan one week from today, on Tuesday, July 10th.  So tune in that morning for my analysis and interpretation of this Darren Aronofsky film.  Thanks for writing!

Don't forget readers, ask me a question at  

The Horror Lexicon #18: The Tour of the Dead

While dissecting what he called “Dead Teenager Movies,” critic Roger Ebert once came up with a pretty funny joke.  I’m paraphrasing a little, because I don’t remember the words exactly.  But the joke went something like this: “How do you know when a Dead Teenage Movie is over?”

The same dead teenager turns up twice.”

Turns out, this was a pretty apt observation.  Though I don’t share Ebert’s disdain for the Slasher movie format, it’s undeniable that “The Tour of the Dead,” as I term it, has become a de rigueur component of the sub-genre.

In the so-called Tour of the Dead – universally set during the final act -- the resilient Final Girl flees from a terrifying mad-dog killer (usually masked), but the bloodied and savaged corpses of her friends and associates begin popping up in her path...sometimes quite violently.  The sudden re-appearance of these murdered characters provides both authentic jolt scares for the audience, as well as horrifying obstacles to the character’s successful escape trajectory.

One of the earliest (and still best…) Tours of the Dead appeared in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and thus fits in with that film’s organizing principle: Halloween festivities, including trick-or-treat pranks. 

Here, poor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) visits the house across the street in suburban Haddonfield, and sees the body of her friend Annie (Nancy Loomis) posed on a bed…underneath a tombstone.  As Laurie recoils in horror from this macabre sight, other corpses pop out to terrify her, thus providing more than Laurie’s Halloween quotient of “one good scare.”  Laurie grows so terrified that she absently seeks retreat (walking backwards, a  big horror movie no-no…) at the doorway of a dark room…where the white-masked Shape emerges from impenetrable blackness.

The Friday the 13th movies adopted the “Tour of the Dead” convention, starting in the first, 1980-era film. There Alice (Adrienne King) runs from nutty Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), and navigates a veritable battlefield of dead bodies.  Steve’s corpse comes down swinging from a Camp Crystal Lake sign, for instance.  Another corpse gets tossed through a window at Alice.  Yet another ends up hanged on a cabin door. 

For the sequels, it was a case of rinse-and-repeat as imperiled Final Girls ran similar corpse gauntlets.  The Tour of the Dead convention is entertaining in these franchise films, but entirely devoid of the "trick or treat" context of Halloween it doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense. Mrs. Voorhees (and later Jason)  not only move from place to place killing camp counselors, but apparently pose the bodies, and calculate -- with precision accuracy -- what path the prey (like Alice) will ultimately take. What makes the conceit interesting (and a little funny...) in the original Friday the 13th is the way that director Sean Cunningham uses signage like "Danger," or "Keep Out" to subtly punctuate the gruesome exhibits on the Tour of the Dead.

In some fashion, the Tour of the Dead is is not just a final challenge to navigate and a visual signifier that the Final Girl is really and truly alone and therefore without help, but a bloody reminder (to the character and to the audience) that she was right about sensing danger. Where the other characters blissfully ignored warning signs of impending massacre, the Final Girl heeded them.  I’m aware that some critics may term the Final Girl’s equation as being something akin to “Survival of the Chaste-st,” but I propose something more along the lines of “Survival of the Smartest.”   Final Girls – at least the good ones – boast insights, feelings and behaviors that their more impulsive friends lack.  And by undergoing the Tour of the Dead, the Final Girl gets confirmation of her greatest character traits.  She was right..and is still alive.  Her friends were wrong and are now...ornaments.

In some Slasher movies, the Tour of the Dead is more ritualized than in others.  In films such as Happy Birthday to Me (1981)  for instance, victims' bodies are propped up at a table (with a birthday cake…) and posed as if at an actual birthday party.  In Tobe Hooper's brilliant The Funhouse (1981), the bloody corpses become part of the amusement park environs, therefor blending entertaining, funhouse-style horror with the real thing.  

As is the case with other elements of the horror lexicon, "The Tour of the Dead" reveals how the best horror directors deploy familiar conventions to good and inventive effect, while others just ape and imitate for the heck of it, for the sake of doing something that's expected, rather than what best tells the story. 

Cult-TV Flashback: The Sixth Sense (1972)

“You enter a strange room for the first time, yet you know you’ve been there before.  You dream about an event that happens some days later…A coincidence?  Maybe. But more than likely, it is extrasensory perception, a sixth sense that many scientists believe we all possess, but rarely use.”

-          From The Sixth Sense Press Kit, published in Senior Scholastic: “The Sixth Sense,” September 18, 1972, page 22).
About a week ago, I made the unexpected discovery that is streaming episodes of the 1972 sci-fi/horror/paranormal series The Sixth Sense, starring Gary Collins for $1.99 apiece.  This is a major discovery because of the sad and bizarre fate the Anthony Lawrence-created TV series has endured across the long decades.

After originally airing for two seasons on ABC in the early 1970s, this hour-long series was brutally cut-down to a half-hour length so as to be syndicated along with the episode catalogue of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.  Mr. Serling even filmed new introductions in the famous black gallery for the re-crafted The Sixth Sense episodes. 

But The Sixth Sense’s “Night Gallery” stories, if you ever saw them, were always nonsensical, in part because they were trimmed down literally fifty-percent from their original running time.  It was this abbreviated, hacked-up The Sixth Sense that aired on The Sci Fi Channel in the 1990s, for instance.  In 2007, Chiller ran episodes of The Sixth Sense, but I'm not certain if it was the chopped-up version, or the original.

Butchered in syndicated format, The Sixth Sense episodes are almost unwatchable.  Characters appear without introduction or preamble, and allude to events that are no longer depicted.  Characters are alive in one scene and dead the next, with no explanation for how, why or when, their demise occurred. The series in this corrupted format is baffling and incoherent, to put it mildly.

Today, The Sixth Sense is still joined at the hip with Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. But for the first time since 1973, a curious watcher can actually see a handful of full-length, hour long episodes under the title Night Gallery Season One on Amazon.  I’ve watched a couple already, and though they are slow-paced, some episodes are pretty intriguing and even visually dynamic.

I don’t mean to suggest The Sixth Sense is some kind of unexcavated genre masterpiece, only that it hasn’t been granted a hearing by genre fans in an uncorrupted form for literally forty years.  No series deserves such a fate, frankly.

Imagine how well Star Trek would play cut down to a half-hour, or Kolchak, or Mission: Impossible.

Writer Anthony Lawrence originally created The Sixth Sense after the success of a 1971 TV movie titled Sweet, Sweet Rachel, which involved a parapsychology expert, Lucas Darrow (Alex Dreier) protecting two women from psychic assassins.  When the television movie proved successful in terms of ratings, ABC wanted a quick follow-up.  Lawrence and developer Stan Shpetner thus crafted The Sixth Sense, a series which would follow the adventures of another parapsychology expert, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins). 

During every episode of The Sixth Sense the preternaturally patient and calm Dr. Rhodes would investigate a complex mystery featuring psychic overtones.  That case might involve astral projection (“Face of Ice”), premonitions (“If I Should Die Before I Wake,”) automatic writing (“I Do Not Belong to the Human World,”) aura photography (“The Man Who Died at Three and Nine”), witchcraft (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright”), apparitions (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), spiritual possession (“With Affection, Jack the Ripper) cryogenics (“Once Upon a Chilling”) or even organ transplant (“The Eyes That Would Not Die.” Usually Rhodes solved the mystery at hand by working closely with a beautiful woman in jeopardy. 

This damsel-in-distress role was played, in various installments, by beloved genre actresses such as Mariette Hartley (“Eye of the Haunted”), Pamela Franklin (“I Did Not Mean to Slay Thee”), Stefanie Powers (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), Tiffany Bolling (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright), Lucie Arnaz (“With This Ring I thee Kill), Mary Ann Mobley (“Shadow in the Well), Carol Lynley (“The House that Cried Murder) and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave?”)

And among those talents working behind-the-scenes on The Sixth Sense -- at least for a time -- were Gene Coon, Harlan Ellison and D.C. Fontana.  I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Fontana in 2001, and our conversation veered briefly to The Sixth Sense.  She recalled to me that in her opinion, developer Shpetner was difficult to work with because he had so many story dislikes:

He didn’t like children.  He didn’t like women.  He didn’t like men…He didn’t like stories about sick people, or emotionally ill people.  He didn’t like stories about poor people.  He didn’t like stories about ethnic people.  Essentially it came down to us doing stories about rich white people who didn’t have any problems.  And that was a problem for me.”

Fontana’s tenure on the show was, perhaps not surprisingly, short-lived:  “I left one day, and Harlan Ellison left either the day before me or the day after me.  It all happened in fast succession, I can tell you that much…It’s too bad, because the potential for stories about extra sensory perception and abilities was great.”

The abundant flaws of The Sixth Sense are apparent today, even with restored episodes to view. For one thing, Dr. Rhodes always helped beautiful, young (25 – 35) white women, but never actively romanced any of them.  He just seemed to inhabit a white, upper-class world of beautiful, psychically gifted females. 

And secondly, as a character Rhodes was not permitted to grow or show much by way of passionate emotion.  Collins’ performance on the series is actually kind of brilliant in a weird way, simultaneously minimalist and intense. 

But the writing never ascribes much by way of humor or personal life to the man.  As a lead character, Rhodes is certainly dedicated and helpful -- and physically capable – but we know precisely nothing about him save for his unwavering support for ESP and parapsychology studies. It would have been great if the series had more fully explored his background, including his childhood and the development of his abilities as a “sensitive.”

On the other hand, The Sixth Sense triumphed in two notable areas.  In the first, it features some great guest appearances by the likes of Joan Crawford (“Dear Joan: We Are Going to Scare You To Death”), William Shatner (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), and Lee Majors (“With This Ring, I Thee Kill.”).  Today, it’s a thrill to see Cloris Leachman, Patty Duke, Sandra Dee, Henry Silva, June Allyson and Sharon Gless, among others, get menaced by strange paranormal “phenomena.”

Of more legitimate interest is the series’ second strength: jarring and disturbing visuals and special effects.  Some of the imagery in the series remains downright haunting.  In “The Heart that Wouldn’t Stay Buried” a man is attacked by the statue of a bird, and it’s a trippy moment.   In “Witness Within,” jump-cuts, slow-motion photography and a nice eerie blend of light and shadow make a nocturnal attack almost pulse-pounding.  Likewise, in “Lady, Lady, Take My Life,” an insufferable bureaucrat is murdered by a psychic “cathexis,  and the he screen goes blood red (with terror) as the poor man suffers twin aneurysms. 

In one of my favorite episodes, the bizarre “Once Upon a Chilling” a man’s spirit is projected outside of his cryogenic chamber and his spectral face is coated in dripping, cracked ice…an image which terrifies rather than informs.  In moments such as these you can sense a real imagination in the visual presentation of the stories.  If the stories were all up to snuff, and not so predictable in terms of character, The Sixth Sense would have been a contender.

Some of the more intriguing episodes in the series include the one starring Shatner and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), written by Gene Coon.  And “With this Ring I Thee Kill,” starring Lee Majors and Lucie Arnaz proves a weird call back to Faustian legends and stories. The episode featuring Joan Crawford (and directed by John Newland) is also a humdinger, since it pits the Hollywood legend against Mansonite cult member crazies.  

In spite of flaws, The Sixth Sense must be viewed as something of a pioneer in terms of horror television programming.  It is the first horror-oriented series, for instance, to feature continuing characters rather than an anthology format.  It pre-dates Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) by two years, in this regard.  Considering that place of importance in the horror genre, the series certainly merits a better fate than to be cut to ribbons and offered only in a corrupt format. 

Although only a handful of season one episodes of The Sixth Sense are currently available on Amazon streaming, my hope is that this will soon change.  Failures and all, The Sixth Sense deserves a full DVD release with all twenty-five episodes restored to original formatting.

Theme Song of the Week: The Sixth Sense (1972)

Monday, July 02, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #5: Where Do You Get Obscure Titles?

A reader, Hugh Davis, instructor of English, writes:

I am a fan of your writing and enjoy your blog. I will likely send you a variety of questions along the way, but I thought I would ask something more pragmatic first. What is your main source for seeing/collecting/(and especially) finding old shows and movies, particularly those which have never been released commercially? E-Bay used to be an occasional option, but they’ve really blocked selling non-commercial recordings, and iOffer can be hit or miss. What suggestions do you have?"

Hugh, that's a terrific question.  I'll answer it as best I can.

Back in the 1990s, when I wrote Terror Television and Horror Films of the 1970s, I interacted with some great tape traders who encouraged historical scholarship by offering up obscure, never-commercially released TV programs, mostly.

At the same time (the 1990s) I created a vast library of video recordings -- taped off the air -- of cult-tv programming.  I wish I had done even more of this, given the obscurity of some series today.  Some of these programs were complete when I taped them, and some were Sci-Fi Channel re-airings, therefore all cut to hell.  But my reasoning was that getting to see some of these shows -- even butchered -- was better than never seeing them at all.

You ask about my main source.  For right now, my main source is likely the flea markets, yard sales and conventions that I frequent.  You never know what people taped off the air, and what they are selling.  The first two venues are obviously pretty hit or miss, though I've been gratified to find some crazy titles there.  The third venue -- genre conventions -- is probably the most reliable.

For out-of-print titles, no venue is better, perhaps, than Movies Unlimited, which features a huge catalog of such titles.  The prices are sometimes high, but this is a dependable company with excellent customer service, and a great selection.  Honestly, it's fun to spend hours going through their catalog.  And no, they aren't paying me for an endorsement.  When I needed to see Let's Scare Jessica To Death again, back in the 1990s, for instance, when I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s, Movies Unlimited is where I turned.  But again, this venue is for out-of-print titles rather than never-released ones.

I hope that helps!  Happy hunting, and feel free to ask any further questions you like. If readers would like to add anything to my answer, please help out in the comments sections.  I know a lot of you are collectors...for historical scholarship, too.

Don't forget, you can ask me a question by e-mailing me at, and putting "Ask JKM a Question" in the subject line. And let me know if I can use your name and your full e-mail.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Ambassadors

Because of the ambassador’s function as a go-between between two divergent or even opposite interests, this functionary has often appeared in cult-television programming as a person of duplicitous or suspicious motives.   Much like the defector character trope, which I featured a few weeks back, the ambassador is someone who can appear to be one thing, but may actually be something else.

With ambassadors, hidden agendas abound.

In TV series of political intrigue and competition -- such as the original Bruce Geller Cold War era program, Mission: Impossible (1966 – 1973) -- the ambassador may be an important figure who requires rescuing.  This is the premise of the first season installment, “Shock,” which features James Daly as a captured ambassador secretly replaced by an enemy imposter of an Eastern Bloc nation.

Revealing the political nature, perhaps, of space adventuring, ambassadors have often been featured in prominent roles in episodes of virtually every Star Trek incarnation. 

Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard) was not only Spock’s father, but a target for elimination in “The Journey for Babel,” where his opinion on the admission of a planet to the Federation was highly influential, and therefore dangerous.  Another ambassador, Robert Fox (Gene Lyons) nearly caused the Enterprise’s destruction when he ordered Captain Kirk to take the Enterprise into orbit of Eminiar VII in the episode “A Taste of Armageddon.”

Throughout Star Trek’s many incarnations, we’ve met many other ambassadors, including Nancy Hedford (Elinor Donohue), Spock himself (“Unification), Soval (Gary Graham), and even Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) in one “fantasy” scenario, “Future Imperfect.” 

In virtually all these scenarios, the ambassador is seen as a difficult sort; one whose need for successful diplomacy tends to endanger missions, crew members or otherwise lead to danger.

Often in science fiction television, it is the job, explicitly, of the Ambassador to act as peacekeeper, to prevent a war during a cosmic or interstellar incident.  Sometimes these ambassadors are malevolent themselves, as was the case in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s “Planet of the Amazon Women.” Mark Lenard, meanwhile played a different kind of alien ambassador, Duvoe, in the Buck Rogers second season episode, “Journey to Oasis.”   His species could, oddly, separate into two parts: head and trunk.  It’s a skill that his people have successfully kept hidden.  But as war looms with Earth, Duvoe and his people must finally reveal more of their true nature.

JMS’s Babylon 5 (1994 – 1999) featured a number of colorful ambassadors among its regular cast of characters.  These included the Minbari Ambassador, Delenn (Mira Furlan), Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) of the Centauri Republic, G’Kar of the Narn (Andreas Katsulas) and the fearsome-looking Vorlon Ambassador.  As you might suspect, the sheer number of ambassadors stationed on the space station Babylon 5 resulted in frequent intrigue, espionage, and bickering.

Come See Me at Fantasci this Saturday

I'll be speaking at the Fantasci Tenth Anniversary Convention in Chesapeake, Virginia, this Saturday morning, and I hope to see some readers there.  

I go on at 10:30 am to give a talk I call "The Horror Genome Project," about the horror films of the 1990s.  The premise is basically that genetic science is to horror films of the nineties (like Mimic, Deep Blue Sea, Jurassic Park, X-Files: Fight the Future, etc.) what the atomic bomb was to horror films of the fifties: a galvanizing theme and a reflection of fears about science (and scientists) run amok.

Check out the link to the party, here, and if you happen to be close-by, come and see me and watch the presentation!  I plan to attend the con from 9:00 to noon, or thereabouts and would love to say hello.

I’m really looking forward to being back at Fantasci.  It was at this show, five years ago, where I premiered my web series, The House Between (2007 – 2009), which I hope to have fully available – all 21 episodes, newly re-edited – on DVD and streaming soon.

And remember, if you work at a University or for a convention that would like to have me speak (or deliver one of my seminars, like "Savage Cinema,") contact me at and we'll see what we can work out.