Saturday, December 22, 2012

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #10 (Two Days Remaining)

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Repairman" (October 2, 1976)

“Repairman,” the fourth episode of Land of the Lost’s third season, shows many signs of creative growing pains, though perhaps not as many as the previous two (dreadful) entries, “Survival Kit” and “The Orb.”

In “Repairman,” the Sleestak once again hatch a strategy to eradicate the Marshalls, and once again seize upon the notion of tampering with the Sun.  Using another heretofore unknown pylon -- a black one at that -- the Sleestak remove a vital “sun crystal” from the matrix table.  As a consequence, solar flares erupt, threatening to burn-up and destroy all life in the Altrusian valley.

Of course, there are a couple of problems with this plan. 

The Sleestak have tampered with the sun and daylight before.  In fact they did so in the previous episode, “The Orb,” so you’d think they might have learned their lesson.  Apparently not.

And secondly, it makes no sense that the Sleestak in the third season have become veritably obsessed with killing the Marshalls…to the exclusion of all other concerns.  On more than one occasion in the previous two seasons, the Marshalls came to the Sleestaks’ aid, and yet this fact is never acknowledged.   Suddenly the Sleestak are out-and-out bad guys, with little moral depth, and all they want to do is to kill the Marshalls.  The important subtext of the series – of cooperating with your neighbor – for the good of the environment or planet, is utterly lost.

After the solar flares erupt, a fastidious, unflappable “dandy” type named Blandings materializes in the Land of the Lost.  He reports that he is a “repairman” of sorts, and has a few short hours in which to stop the solar flares.  “Duty is duty,” he notes cheerily.  After Blandings returns the sun crystal back to the black pylon matrix disappears, he disappears…but not before revealing to Holly that the Marshalls will, one day, find a way home.

Again, if you’ve watched Land of the Lost, or even just kept up with my retrospectives here on the blog, you’ll realize the central problem with “Repairman.”  Basically, the Land of the Lost’s environmental control mechanisms have malfunctioned many times before (in “One of Our Pylons is Missing,” “The Longest Day,” and “Blackout” to name three occasions), but never before has a repairman appeared to fix them. 

Instead, The Marshalls have had to act decisively, often cooperating with Sleestak or Pakuni, to repair the damage themselves.  I submit that this is a superior story paradigm, as it makes the Marshalls co-stewards of their environment. 

Having a repairman show up to fix things in a jiffy isn’t nearly so dramatic a resolution, and the characters don’t seem to learn much from his presence, either.  In “Repairman,” the Marshalls must rescue Blandings from Sleestaks in the Lost City’s pit (as Will had to rescue Enik and Chaka in last week’s “The Orb”), but they are bystanders to the repair process, and thus cut out of the action.

Also, Blanding’s revelation that the Marshalls will find a way home seems misplaced, given series lore.  We already know that a future version of Holly has warned her that she will one day be left alone in the Land of the Lost, without her family’s companionship.  We have already seen Rick Marshall leave, albeit unintentionally, thus fulfilling a part of that destiny.  It seems odd that given the future we already know about, that Blandings would state something directly to the contrary.

And, finally, I must note once more that Holly (Kathy Coleman) is given virtually nothing to do in this installment.  She disappears for long stretches of the tale, and is not given the opportunity to join Jack (Ron Harper) and Will (Wesley Eure) on their rescue attempt.

Next week’s episode, “Medusa,” is a more Holly-centric segment and perhaps one of the finer episodes in the third season catalog.

Friday, December 21, 2012

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #9 (3 Days Remaining...)

The Films of 1983: Superman III

I wrote recently about the summer of 1983 -- the season of my “geek discontent -- in regards to Return of the Jedi.  Exhibit B in that geek discontent is Superman III, directed by Richard Lester and written by David and Leslie Newman.

You can read my reviews of Superman: The Movie and Superman II as preamble to this piece if you haven’t already done so already, but in short, I consider them two of the finest superhero films ever made, even in 2012.

In comparison to these films, Superman III is a colossal fall from grace, and a huge disappointment. 

With director Richard Donner completely out of the picture by now, it’s clear that a fundamental and vital respect for the Man of Steel is missing in action in this under-cooked sequel.  The series’ overarching symbolism (comparing the Kryptonian messiah to Jesus Christ) is gone, as is any sense of scope or majesty.  

Instead, Superman III lurches straight into comedy with lame physical gags and a dithering Richard Pryor in a starring role.

The third time is not the charm for the Superman series, and it has been called “the worst of the Superman visualizations” (Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend, Octavia Books, 1987, page 75).  

And while Sheila Benson at The Los Angeles Times appreciated the film’s sense of humor and noted that director Lester was “at the top of the physical sight gag form,” she also recognized that any sense of “innocence and invention” had been replaced with a “slight edge of nastiness.” (June 17, 1983).

My sense of Superman III, having watched it again recently for this review, is that the film’s humor -- while problematic -- isn’t the only significant hurdle for this sequel.  A much more rudimentary problem involves the nature of the screenplay.  It flat-out doesn’t make sense in terms of Superman’s history and decision-making process regarding a romantic relationship.  Furthermore, the script doesn’t make sense in terms of the capabilities of its central threat, a computer.

A “lighter” take on Superman might not necessarily be a bad thing in principle, but the vetting of that lighter material must be strong so that the “reality” of the character’s world remains intact even during jokes.  Superman III fails that test. 

And yet I do find some elements of the film quite laudable. Annette O’Toole is such a charming screen presence, and she’s great as Lana Lang in Superman III.  Additionally, there’s a compelling scene near the end of the film in which Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, duke it out for psychological/physical dominance.  Christopher Reeve is terrific playing the dissolute Superman here, and he gives the film the punch it so sorely lacks at other junctures.

Writing for Time, Richard Corliss wrote: “Superman is a role that offers as many pitfalls as opportunities: surrender to parody and the part becomes as two-dimensional as newsprint; emphasize the stalwart heroism and the audience falls asleep. Reeve brings both a light touch and sufficient muscle to Superman. And when he goes bad, he is a sketch of vice triumphant, swaggering toward the vixen Lorelei for a sulfurous kiss.”

To a significant degree, Reeve and O’Toole rescue Superman III from being a total loss. Still, nearly thirty years later, the film still disappoints, especially in comparison with its two high-flying predecessors. Superman III is a low-brow, low-impact, scatter shot  “blockbuster.”

“Never underestimate the power of computers.” 

With Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) leaving the Daily Planet for a vacation, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) returns to Smallville for a high school class reunion.  There, he catches up with his old flame, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) and her young son, who needs a father figure in his life.

While Clark plays family man and finds time, as Superman, to douse a chemical plant fire, a new evil rises in Metropolis.

An unemployed con-man, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) learns that he has a facility with computer programming and goes to work for unscrupulous tycoon, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn).  When Webster finds Gus embezzling money from his corporation, he puts the genius to work on his tyrannical plans to control the global economy.  Using a U.S. satellite, Webster manipulates the weather to destroy Colombia’s coffee harvest.

Standing in Webster’s way is Superman, but Webster uses Gus to create a deadly variant of Kryptonite that transforms the Man of Steel into a drinking, whoring, carousing “normal guy.”  Superman eventually overcomes this deficit, and duels with his own id in the process. 

Once recovered and whole once more, Superman learns that Webster has built a super computer that can control the world.  With Gorman’s help, Superman fights to stop Webster and the computer.

You know a wise man once said, I think it was Attila the Hun, "It is not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail."

In short order, Superman III dispatches with the Lois Lane/Clark Kent relationship.  Lois gets sent away on vacation, and appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the film.  I fully understand and appreciate the creative decision that a renewed focus on this romance was likely problematic, given how things turned in out in Superman II

That film had seen Lois discovering Superman’s secret identity, and the two embarking on a romantic relationship.  Clark even surrendered his Kryptonian heritage to be with her as a normal, mortal man.  But by film’s end, Clark came to understand that, in fact, by loving Lois he was actually jeopardizing her life and abdicating his responsibility to the planet Earth.  It was a sort of Last Temptation of Christ reckoning for the character.  At the end, he promised never to let the President (or us) down again in this regard.

So, certainly, Superman III had to make an important decision regarding Lois and Clark.  Was Clark just to pine away for her throughout the film?  She had lost her memory of their time together, so would some of the lost memory start to come back, to seep into her awareness?  These were questions the film might have answered, all while vetting a new story.

But instead, Superman III takes the easy way out and just sends Lois away -- as though punishing her for something -- and so Clark has a new romance…with Lana Lang.  I guess this qualifies as loving the one you’re with.

The problem, of course, is that Superman’s issue with romance was not purely about Lois Lane, or indeed, about any specific person he romances. 

It’s not about “her.”  It’s about him.

He can’t be Superman and have a “mortal” or “normal” love life.  That was the previous film’s point.  So why on Earth does Clark start romancing Lana Lang here?   If he were going to give romance a second try, wouldn’t it be with Lois, whom he genuinely loves?  Doesn’t he understand that he’s just going to get to the same point with Lana that he did with Lois, and have to make the same difficult choice?

Basically, to see Clark Kent/Superman engage in a romance with another character in Superman III makes no sense given the journey the audience has taken with the Man of Steel.  The last film showed Superman (and viewers) that love was not going to end well for the character.  That’s his cross to bear, I suppose you could say.  But here he is, trying again.  And insultingly, he’s not trying again with the woman he knows really loves him: Lois Lane.

It’s sort of a shitty thing to do, isn’t it?

Frankly, I don’t know that a “romance” needs even be featured as a primary aspect of the third film at all.  We know Lois and Clark work together and are in love.  There are plenty of Superman stories to tell outside the arena of romance.  This movie could have gone much like Superman: The Movie, with witty repartee and hints of deeper affection, all while Clark alone carried the burden of the truth.

Superman III seems to have no memory of the previous film, even though Lester directed (part of) it.

The year 1983 was also the year of the computer in blockbuster films.  A super-computer turns out to be the big threat in Superman III, and it was also the danger in War Games (1983), for instance.  But you get the distinct feeling watching Superman III that nobody really understands or cares how computers actually work. 

For one thing, in 1983, not all computers could communicate with one another directly as they do here, under Gorman’s guidance.  For another, there are instances in the film where people could rely on their judgment (or indeed, their eyes) rather than computer print-outs, but decide instead to blindly obey the machines.

In particular, all the oil tanker captains on the planet follow Webster’s instructions to remain in the middle of the ocean instead of bringing their supplies to port.  Only one captain chooses to disregard the instructions.  This sequence just doesn’t seem likely, given our understanding of human nature, and given the fact that oil tankers don’t possess infinite fuel, or infinite supplies.  Couldn’t a helicopter from the oil company just fly out to the middle of the ocean and deliver the message personally to high-tail it home? 

Similarly, Gus Gorman takes over a U.S. Government satellite that boasts the capability to control the weather, and nobody seems upset, alarmed or even particularly surprised that the government has developed a weapon that could, literally, destroy the Earth.  It’s just accepted as fact.

Oh yeah, you know that weather controlling satellite we have in orbit…let’s attack Colombia with it! 

If the U.S. did possess this awesome power in 1983, don’t you think the Soviet Union would have liked to know about it?  Or might even have had a weather control satellite of its very own as counter-balance? 

It’s just weird and very sloppy how Superman III raises the specter of a weather control weapon, and then acts like it’s no big deal at all that it exists and is used for evil.  It’s almost like the film’s writers feel like this is a technology we actually had in 1983.

The whole movie’s approach to computers is similar to the one we see in the opening credits sequence, wherein a street crossing/traffic signal comes to life, and the “no walk” and “walk” icons start battling each other.  This makes no sense whatsoever, isn’t particularly funny, and reveals that the movie is more interested in dumb easy laughs than in crafting a consistent and believable world. 

The presence of Richard Pryor in Superman III in such a prominent role adds to the problems about easy jokes.  There’s no doubt that Pryor was a great comedian.  But the problem is that in Superman III’s he starring in a PG-rated family film and thus can’t really deploy his edginess to comic effect.  Instead, Superman III gives Pryor dopey gags to execute, like skiing off a skyscraper while wearing a pink tablecloth as a cape, or pretending to be General Patton. 

Give him some credit though: Pryor swaggers through Superman III so confident that he’s funny that you nearly believe him.  Instead of actually being funny, he presents the aura of funny-ness (a corollary, I suppose of truthiness).   I don’t know how many comedians could -- with such weak material -- actually come as close to pulling it off as Pryor does in Superman III in a few notable instances. 

Funny or dire?

Funny or dire?
Still, Pryor’s presence sucks all the air out of the room, and all the menace out of the film.  There’s no feeling in Superman III that the Man of Steel is really in the fight of his life, or particularly challenged by anything.

When you couple the dumb slapstick humor with the fact that there’s no overarching idea or conflict in Superman III, the film’s narrative unravels.   It becomes a series of loosely connected incidents.  

Now we’re at Clark’s class reunion.  Now there’s a hurricane in Colombia.  Now there’s a chemical fire at a factory outside of Smallville.  Now there’s a sentient super-computer, and so on.

I should add, this kind of loosely-structured approach to narrative can work in a superhero film if there’s some ambitious, consistent overall vision for the world itself.  Look at Tim Burton’s  Batman (1989) by point of comparison.  In high school, one of my friends correctly pegged it as “pretty darn plot-less,” and yet the movie hangs together brilliantly because of the overarching vision of Gotham City and the thematic connection between Batman and The Joker.  It was “I Made You/You Made Me/Gotham made Both of Us,” essentially. And it worked like gangbusters.

Superman III possesses no such dramatic hook on which to rely, or build a compelling story.  It’s just a bunch of gags strung together, along with a nice but uninspiring romance between Clark and Lana.

It’s not a surprise, perhaps, that every now and then one gag works just fine in the film.  In Superman III, the gag that works involves Superman going “bad” for a time.  His blue suit gets dirty (or soiled), he grows stubble on that handsome face of his, and starts making global mischief.  Reeve is a delight in these scenes, giving us Superman…the horn dog alcoholic.  The idea is good, because it concerns Superman’s very character. 

What if Superman didn’t want to be, essentially, a messiah? What if he just was out to…feel good?  When you are the most powerful man on the planet, that becomes a problem, doesn’t it?

But again, scratch the surface a little, and even this idea doesn’t work all that well in terms of the overall plot specifics.  You tell me that Superman going bad wouldn’t be a global story of tremendous importance?  And that Lois Lane -- the one reporter who interviewed Superman -- wouldn’t race back from vacation to find out what was happening with him?  Again, it just doesn’t seem true to Superman’s world or history.

Still, even without super powers, we all have “sides” of ourselves that we must confront and vanquish.  I like the literal idea here, of Superman and Clark -- a split-personality -- physically duking it out for dominance.  It feels like an appropriately Superman-styled scene, even if it seems to need some more explicit connection to the narrative. 

All superheroes are in some sense men divided against themselves, but this idea doesn’t get any play in Superman III except after Superman’s bad Kryptonite trip.  If this idea had been a leitmotif throughout, perhaps it would have worked a lot better. Still, no need to deny it…it’s a high-point of Superman III.

Superman goes dark...

...and must confront himself.

The gravest problem with Superman III is that its makers mistake a comic-book world for a cartoon world.  You see that misunderstanding in the opening slapstick sequence, wherein we get a blind Mr. Magoo character, a man with an over-turned paint-can on his head, a mime, and even a pie in the face for one unlucky Metropolis denizen.  These aren’t comic-book ideas; they are cartoon ones. 

And if you reduce Superman’s world to a cartoon, then all of his travails and all of his struggles ultimately don’t matter.  A cartoon resolution will save the day, and in cartoons, anything can happen.  By contrast, comic-book stories involve history and continuity, and a strong sense of internal logic.  Those are all qualities missing from this film.

Blind men, mimes and the destruction of fine art: Comic book world or cartoon world?

A paint bucket on the head: Comic book world or cartoon world?

Stop and Go at war: Comic book world or cartoon world?

And a pie in the face: Comic book world or cartoon world?

The first two Superman films are almost like cinematic religious experiences in terms of symbolism and approach.  The third Superman film is like a bad Saturday morning cartoon with stupid pratfalls, dumb jokes, and gags that don’t work.

In the film, Robert Vaughn’s (dull) villain Ross Webster informs Gus Gorman that he would go down in history as “the Man who Killed Superman,” and that comment may be as close to any sense of reality or truth as this sequel ever gets.

You’ll believe a man can cry…

Thursday, December 20, 2012

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #8 (4 Days Remaining...)

Cult-TV Blogging: Brimstone: "Mourning After" (February 12, 1999)

The final episode of Brimstone (1998 – 1999), titled “Mourning After,” rivals “It’s a Helluva Life” as the best installment of the short-lived horror program.  The repetitious “investigation of the week” formula is dropped, and instead this story focuses squarely on Detective Stone (Peter Horton) and his predicament.

In particular, Stone desperately wants to reach out to his wife (or, technically, widow…) Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk), who still believes he is long dead.  But Stone isn't certain how to approach her, or even if it is right to burden Rosalyn with the truth of his situation as the Devil’s bounty hunter, essentially.

“Mourning After” takes place on Valentine’s Day as a lonely Stone reminisces about his life with Rosalyn.  In particular, he remembers the day they moved into a second story apartment together.

In the present, Stone follow Rosalyn home and discovers that she has a new man in her life, a handsome real estate attorney named Barry (Mark Valley).  But the more Stone probes, the more he grows concerned about this character.  As he soon learns, Barry is actually a vengeful Ashe (Teri Polo) in disguise.  She is looking to become Rosalyn, actually, so that Stone and she can share real love together.

A charming and heartfelt hour, “Mourning After” finds Stone battling his conscience.  Is it right to burden Rosalyn with his presence, and the facts of his (admittedly strange…) life?  Or, as his beloved wife, does she simply deserve to know the truth?  If she had him back, would she care about the circumstances?

Stone’s jealousy also pops up when he meets Barry, and there are some great moments here for Horton to play barely concealed rage as Barry keeps discussing how beautiful Rosalyn is, and how he just likes to just spend the weekends at home with her.  Of course, this is coded talk for sex, and Stone just quietly burns.

As the last episode of the series -- though not intended as such – “Mourning After” sees the return of the monstrous but incredibly sexy Ashe (Teri Polo), who is still on the loose when the credits roll.  The episode also brings Rosalyn a realization that her husband is alive.  

After saving Rosalyn from Ashe, Stone leaves his wife a Valentine’s Day snow-globe that boasts significance in their shared history.  But while Rosalyn now has information that her dead husband is actually alive, the series seems to leave Stone with the idea that, perhaps, he has seen Rosalyn for the last time.  

His final, emotional moments in the series -- looking back at Rosalyn while hiding on the side of a speeding garbage truck -- seem to indicate that Stone has made his peace and decided to put the past to rest, if only so Rosalyn can truly live, and truly move on.

It would have been wonderful to see the next chapter of this tragic love story, but of course, Fox canceled Brimstone (1998 – 1999) and brought the story to a premature end.   Originally, "It's a Helluva Life" and "Mourning After" aired consecutively, meaning that the series ended on a true high note, and an incredibly emotional one too.

Watching Brimstone for the first time since 1999 (when I wrote about it in my book Terror Television), I have been struck by how well the series holds up in 2012.  The visuals are beautiful, and Horton and Glover are really terrific in the series.  Glover has the flashier role, of course, but Horton just quietly holds the whole enterprise together, presenting audiences the portrait of a flawed but very human man.  

I just can't help but think that if Fox had shown a little more faith, Brimstone would have caught on, and run for at least three years or so.  It deserves to be more than a cult-tv obscurity.  It's really that good.

I hope an official DVD is forthcoming.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #7 (5 Days Remaining...)

Memory Bank: Alien (1979) vs. Prophecy (1979)

To this day, I boast a very distinct memory of being in a Ben Franklin-type store with my parents and sister in the year 1979, and sneaking over alone to the book rack to steal a look at two "scary" literary titles: Prophecy by David Seltzer and Alien by Alan Dean Foster.  

Of course, both books were based on film screenplays, and I remember thinking --- as a fourth grader -- that both seemed absolutely terrifying.  

I also remember feeling amazed and kind of free, maybe even giddy, that I could turn to any page in either book and read something that would torment my imagination for days and weeks to come.

And then I tried to imagine how scary the movies would actually be.  I had to imagine that factor because my parents are good ones, and they would never have let me see R-rated movies at the tender age of nine.  So if I was going to *know* about these horror stories...I had to read the books.

I didn't see either film until I was older, though I did read and enjoy Foster's Alien first.  Seltzer's Prophecy is also better than the movie, I think.

Today we know, of course, which of the two films has better stood the test of time: Ridley Scott's Alien over John Frankenheimer's Prophecy.  The former is a celebrated classic, and the latter is a kind of...hoot, a camp-classic. 

But interestingly, both films came out in the same year, and in very broad terms boast a few similarities. Both films involve reproduction, and a threat to human reproduction, in the form of something unknown and homicidal  And both films also involve a gigantic nemesis whose form is not immediately known or understood.  Prophecy draws its life force from American history and the American past, while Alien draws its energy from the future, and cosmic unknowns.

The advertising from both films, as you can see from images above and below (in the trailers), highlight images of eggs, and something evil growing inside an egg.  I think that was probably the key scare factor for me at age 9.  Something horrible was going to hatch in both stories. 

In terms of how it succeeds or fails Prophecy -- sometimes grandiosely termed "the monster movie" -- is really about the "past" of horror movie-making in 1979 terms: about a cinematic story scuttled by a ridiculous and unconvincing monster suit.  In contrast, Alien represents the defining line in modern horror  film where monsters became believable, even when shown on-screen for a long duration. 

Similarly, Prophecy is earthbound, while Alien looks to the stars.  

I know it probably seems odd, but today when I think of one film, I inevitably think of the other  one because of that experience in the book store, I suppose.  I'm sure this linkage has to do with where I was in my development at that time, gaining an awareness of books and movies that I wanted to see, but which I also knew would likely scare me.  I remember very vividly seeing commercials for both films on television and feeling truly conflicted.  Like I had to see both movies, and yet was afraid to see both movies.

At the age of nine, I couldn't have predicted that Prophecy would be a bust in terms or scares, or that Alien would generate approximately one million and one imitations.  I just knew that, for some reason, Hollywood was giving us two horror movies at the same time that seemed to have a broadly similar appeal.

Evil Eggs.

Pop Art: Hallmark Ornaments, DS9 Edition

Collectible of the Week: Kronoform Wargon (of the) Robotic World (Takara; 1984)

My six-year old son, Joel, and I both have an obsession with pre-Transformer Japanese robots. 

Exhibit A of the type might be this colossal Wargon robot from Takara, copyright date 1984.  It stands over eight inches tall and is formed from three individual insect robots (scorpion, "gorp" and "stinger" bugs).

As the box notes, the insect bots "separate from [a] giant Terminator Robot to form three insect attack robbots" [sic].  

Okay, so English spelling isn't a strong suit here.  

But the toy is intended for ages six-and-up, which is perfect for Joel at this juncture.  Truth is, he is far more capable of transforming these toys than I am, and I marvel, sometimes, watching his small hands expertly manipulate these toys.

Made of metal and plastic, and colored green and red, the insectoid Wargon is one very cool vintage robot combiner.  And don't tell Joel, but it's a Christmas present.  

Good thing he doesn't read my blog...yet.

Model Kit of the Week #10

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #6 (6 Days Remaining...)

Cult-TV Blogging: Brimstone: "Faces" (January 29, 1999)

“Faces” finds Brimstone (1998 – 1999) back on more formulaic ground.  Here, another Hell Convict is on the loose in Los Angeles, wreaking havoc, and it’s up to Det. Stone (Peter Horton) to send him back to the Devil. 

But, as we have come to see with Brimstone, even a more formulaic installment boasts a twist or two, and manages to make the “criminal of the week” story one about Stone himself, and his life and decisions.

In “Faces,” the Devil (John Glover) mysteriously directs Stone to 153 Green Street, a suburban street address where a man named Karl has just been murdered by a Hell escapee who suffers from multiple personalities. 

Stone befriends one of those personalities -- a helpless teenage boy named Brian -- and questions him about the others, including the violent Vic, and the protective Tammy.  Stone soon uncovers the fact that Brian was the subject of a 1957 book called Beaten Down, and that he went to Hell for murder.  But he’s back now to finish off his abusive step dad.

The problem, however, is that if Stone sends Vic back to Hell, the innocent Brian goes to Hell with him.  And Stone has begun thinking of Brian as the son he never had…

“Faces” opens at a batting cage in Los Angeles as Stone watches a loving father (Jerry Hardin) and a child bond together over baseball.  This sight gets Stone in a contemplative mood, especially since Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk) and Zeke were trying to have children at the time of his death in 1983.  Stone begins to take advice from Hardin’s character, and wonders what his life might have been like if his own father hadn’t been such a “brutal bastard.” 

Stone as a prospective father -- and Stone as the wounded son -- are the characters that dominate “Faces,” and make for an engaging, emotionally-affecting hour.  As has been the case for a while now, the actual investigation of the crimes is far less interesting than the focus on Stone and the issues he tackles.  This episode is filled with wisdom about fathers and sons and despite the formulaic investigation, manages to be a strong hour. That is especially true when Stone must send Brian back to Hell for eternity.

Since Brian is an innocent, this predicament raises a question of justice.  Though Vic is a guilty bastard, why should Brian – essentially an independent personality-- be punished for his sins?  This is one more notch in Brimstone’s obsession with moral shadings within the confines of a good/evil, black/white universe.

There are a number of powerful observations and jokes in this episode.  At one point, the Devil points out that he is a father…and points to members of Congress (then bent on impeaching President Clinton…) as his “sons.” 

Another moment suggests that some men become parents to “fill the empty space” where a “father’s love should have been.”  In another moment, the Devil suggests to Stone that men want sons so as to satisfy “the insatiable narcissism” of the male of the human species.  These are all caustic and powerful notes in a story about fatherhood.

Watching “Faces” today one can detect how the writers on Brimstone were virtually longing to escape the criminal of the week formula and venture into more character-based shows. The final episode of the series, “Mourning After” reveals just how well that approach could work.  It’s a shame that the series didn’t last beyond a dozen or so programs.

Next time, we finish off Brimstone with “Mourning After.”

Cult Movie Review: The Apparition (2012)

At just barely eighty-two minutes in duration, The Apparition, a 2012 horror movie from director Todd Lincoln, is an absolutely bare bones affair.  It features paper-thin characters, cardboard performances, and no meaningful third act or denouement.

And yet -- though unexcavated -- there is the seed, at least, of something intriguing in The Apparition.

In particular, the movie creeps up to the outer edge of ingenuity and imagination by conceiving of an incorporeal entity from another plane of existence, perhaps the after-life. 

However, other than a few speculations about this entity’s nature, and the dimension from which it hails, the movie doesn’t explore the notion of such life in any significant or interesting way.  

Instead, all the big fright moments seem transplanted from popular horror films of the last decade, especially of the Japanese remake variety.  A maleficent spot or stain on the ceiling may remind you of Dark Water (2005).  A scene with a female wraith crawling out into the open near a washing machine recalls a key (trademark) moment from The Ring (2002).  And the film’s closing image harks back to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s final scene in The Grudge (2004).

Finally, The Apparition throws in the occasional “found footage” touches, and you realize you’re trapped in the same narrow, predictable “jump scare” vein of your average Paranormal Activity sequel. A horror film that might have explored the idea of other planes of existence with awe and wonder as well as terror instead charts terrain you already probably know pretty well.  

So -- no bones about it -- The Apparition is not a very satisfying horror film.

And yet, one feels as though there might once have been more meat upon the film’s mostly-naked bones.  You might even detect some of that missing dramatic material in the theatrical trailer or preview, posted below on the blog.  The preview suggests a whole thematic through-line about “belief” manifesting or changing the nature of reality.  But that premise is hardly in the movie at all, likely excised at some point late in the game.

You can’t judge a movie on what’s not in it, of course, but you can still evince some sympathy for those involved with the resulting debacle.   I had the strong, almost unshakeable feeling watching The Apparition that it had been butchered in post-production, with almost all sense of nuance and humanity lopped out to make it nothing more than a routine, easily-digestible scare show.  I could be wrong, of course.  Maybe The Apparition is just generally awful.   But the previews, at least, suggest to me that there is a more interesting film in there somewhere, hoping to escape.

 The Apparition begins with a title card and flashback involving a super-8 film of an infamous (though fictitious) seance in the early 1970s.  There, a group of scientists attempted to contact the soul of their recently-dead colleague, Charles Reamer.  They get more than they expect in response.

Then we arrive at a modern college campus, where students use “science” (here, little more than a form of technobabble magic…) to recreate the experiment, only with five-hundred times the mental strength of the original.

The misguided experiment brings a malevolent entity through a “rift,” and that entity “takes” one of the students, Lydia (Julianna Guill), back into its reality, where she disappears.

A few years pass, and the students, led by Patrick (Tom Felton) now attempt to contain the entity, which is still on the loose. The attempt fails. 

Meanwhile, Ben (Sebastian Stan), one of the students who participated in the experiment, has moved on with his life.  He’s now dating Kelly (Ashley Greene), and together they have moved into an “investment house” owned by her parents.

Before long however, the malevolent entity comes looking for Ben, and seems to be obsessed with Kelly…

The Apparition begins with two scenes that serve an identical purpose: establishing the fact that paranormal entities exist.  These scenes fail to scare because in both instances there is no build-up, and we know none of the protagonists by name.  It’s all just paranormal pandemonium.  It’s all effects, in other words, and the effects aren’t that impressive because we don’t even know who’s at risk, or why they are at risk, or even why the risk is worthwhile.

Watching these moments, I wondered, at least initially, if there was a method to this madness; if The Apparition was seeking to go beyond simple scares in the early scenes and escort us, full bore, into the world of that unseen force, that evil paranormal entity.  Perhaps it was taking the paranormal as a given, and then moving forward to explore that terrain?

But of course, that doesn’t happen. 

The first two scenes are merely repetitive ones that laboriously lay the groundwork for the central narrative, but which fail to elicit goose bumps.  The whole Charles Reamer subplot could be taken out of the film, actually, and its absence would, essentially, change nothing.

Then, about half-way through The Apparition our man of exposition, the student scientist Patrick provides us some more information about the monster.  The entity is not only present in our world…it can re-shape or manipulate our reality.  This means that, in a critical moment, Kelly traps herself in the laundry room with the monster by mistake.  Or that, in another scene, Ben finds himself sleeping on a motel room ceiling, watching helplessly as the demon shrink-wraps Kelly in a normal bed-sheet-turned-fly-paper.

Obviously, any entity with the capacity to re-shape our reality to this degree is going to be impossible to defeat, at least by three none-too-bright twenty-year olds.  And yet the monster uses its admittedly-awesome powers entirely inconsistently and often illogically.

Sometimes, the entity kills people out-right, leaving their corpses behind.  Sometimes it drags people out of our reality, into its reality…and they are never seen again.

The entity also kills a dog, oddly, without seeming to lift even one malevolent finger.  One of the film’s most unintentionally funny lines involves the dog’s owner, a little girl, telling Kelly “Your house killed my dog.” 

Good luck proving that in a court of law, sister!  The dog just sits down on the laundry room linoleum, and then Kelly notes -- bafflingly-- that it’s suddenly on the verge of death.  We have to take her word for it, however, because the dog doesn’t bark, yelp, or otherwise appear to suffer in the slightest.  It just gingerly sits down, as if the entity ordered it to “Sit!”

The malevolent entity’s motives and reasoning are not exactly clear or consistent in The Apparition, indeed. Is the dog really a threat? 

Also, the entity desires to come into our world, apparently, yet it is already, undeniably, present in our world.  It never tries to “possess” a person or body, although it does, apparently, demonically possess a security/video camera (in another ludicrous scene…).  Without housing itself in a human body, how much more “in the world” can the Entity get?  It can already grow mold on every surface imaginable (like soap and linoleum) and re-shape the perimeters of reality.  It can already reach out and grope final girls in tent displays at Costco.  What does it want, the vote?

The Apparition has a lot of problems like that.

First, the film doesn’t explain why the entity must limit itself to terrorizing those who were involved with the experiment.  And then it breaks that rule by killing the dog and chasing Kelly, two acts which suggest the entity can go after anyone or anything.  Perhaps that’s the hook for the sequel?  

But if the entity can attack anyone, why is it bothering with Kelly at all?  She has absolutely nothing to do with its presence in our world.  Speaking of which, why is the Entity punishing its benefactors at all, the very people who allowed it a gateway into this mortal coil we call life?  That’s like biting the hand that feeds you, or holds the door open for you.

But here’s the rub, incongruities and all, The Apparition does indeed possess some nifty visualizations.  Not many, but at least a few. 

When the entity moves through our reality, for instance, it’s like our reality becomes malleable.  In the entity’s catastrophic wake, reality re-shapes in weird, unsettling ways.  During one moment, we see Lydia torn out of our reality, right through a solid wall.  In another moment, we see a corrupted house interior where everything is disordered, and television sets, tables, chairs and other furniture have been sort of molecularly-blended with the walls themselves.  These moments are powerful ones, and suggest how fragile our “reality” is.

While watching the film, I really hoped that The Apparition was going to follow through on its story, and reveal fully the “other side,” the reality from which the monster hails.  At one point, Lydia returns to our world as a kind of ashy wraith, as if she has lived for years in that “other space” and is now pushing her way back to ours. 

It would have been very intriguing to see Kelly sucked into the other world too, and have to navigate its physical laws and rules.  In fact, for a few moments I thought the film’s punch-line was going to be that the evil entity is just a dead human soul trying to get back here.  Maybe it was obsessed with the experimenters because it was actually Lydia…desperately trying to reach home, desperately trying to take back the life that was stolen from her..

But the movie never comes up with any plot point that clever, and so all the Charles Reamer material at the beginning is absolutely meaningless.  No one ever explains why that one séance (out of the hundreds that have been conducted in the last two centuries…) should open a rift, and why Patrick’s experiments should further open the same rift.  Nothing connects.

The whole “if you believe, you die” paradigm -- the film’s ad-line -- is also totally unexplored.  Nobody stops and tries not to believe in the entity.  Indeed, the movie accepts -- and asks you to accept -- from frame one that the supernatural is real.  There is precious little if any discussion of belief as a motivating factor of creation in the film, if memory serves.

The Apparition is an absolute mess, but it reminds me of the old adage that the best criticism of a movie is to make another movie you like better. 

Someone in Hollywood needs to take the ideas just barely brought up in The Apparition -- of a rift between realities -- and explore that aspect of the narrative. What if someone who wasn’t supposed to die fell through into that other world, and started haunting our reality, at least around the edges?  That could be a moving and terrifying story.

A horror movie that looks beyond our understanding of the boundaries of death could be a scary and fascinating one indeed, and not just a Paranormal Activity on the cheap.  Unfortunately, The Apparition isn’t that movie.