Saturday, January 05, 2013

Cult-TV Gallery: Ron Harper

On Garrison's Gorillas (1967 - 1968).

On Planet of the Apes (1974)

On Land of the Lost (1976)

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Cornered" (October 16, 1976)

This week on Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977), the episode is titled “Cornered” and it involves a fire-breathing dinosaur, nicknamed Torchy.  This Dimetrodon-like dino arrives in the Lost City and begins spraying flame into the Sleestak tunnels.   Torchy also battles Big Alice, at least briefly.  The mighty Allosaurus turns tail and leaves her territory in a hurry rather than confront the biological flame thrower.

The Sleestak blame the Marshalls (again!) for the presence of Torchy in their valley and Enik (Walker Edmiston) demands that the humans eliminate the threat by nightfall.  As leverage, Enik offers Uncle Jack (Ron Harper) the cure to a mysterious illness that has felled Will (Wesley Eure).  

The young man was struck by Torchy’s poisonous tail and now risks falling into an eternal sleep.  Enik promises that if Torchy is dispatched by sundown, he will give the Marshalls the cure.

With Holly (Kathy Coleman) and Chaka (Philip Paley) in tow, Uncle Jack attempts to lure Torchy out of the valley, using giant coal bricks as breadcrumbs.  The mission is successful, and Will heals on his own. 

In other words, Enik was tricking them…

Although “Cornered” is perhaps not as downright, upfront awful as “Survival Kit” or “The Orb,” it’s pretty close. 

Once more, the Sleestaks are out to destroy the Marshalls, despite a past history of cooperation.  And once again, Enik lets himself be used as the Sleestak mouthpiece…as though he is just a slightly-less evil member of that race.   

It’s actually grating to watch the scenes of the Sleestak Leader ordering Enik around because these scenes forget that Enik is an evolved Altrusian from another era, not a lapdog or lackey for the barbaric Sleestak.  Why Enik allows himself to be used this way is a mystery.

Once more, in “Cornered” we get a strange reference (from Uncle Jack) to Enik’s “famous logic,” an allusion not to the real Enik, but to the “Mr. Spock Enik” that this season has introduced.

Finally, just when you think “Cornered” can’t possibly get any worse, Will wakes up and sings a syrupy song while plucking the guitar.  At this juncture, the series loses any sense of respectability and dignity, and emerges as ridiculous high-camp, going from fire-breathing dragons one minute to terrible musical-numbers the next.

Then, the episode just stops…mid-moment, as though in terminal embarrassment.   The final cut and lead-in to the end credits is jarring and sudden…but you can’t blame the editor for pulling out.

I don’t object in theory to the idea of a fire-breathing dinosaur in the Land of the Lost, but as usual, the third season writers seem to forget that the land boasts rules.  Altrusia maintains a sense of balance, and it is also closed universe.  Given these facts, where did Torchy come from?  Why hasn’t he been seen before?  I’d be perfectly happy to accept that the earthquake of “Aftershock” stirred him from a long subterranean slumber.  But no such explanation is provided.

Next episode: “Flying Dutchman.”

Friday, January 04, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Eco Horrors

Cult Movie Review: Prophecy (1979)

Prophecy (1979) is a socially-conscious “environmental” horror movie from prestigious director John Frankenheimer (1930 – 2002), the talent behind cinematic classics Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and, more recently, Ronin (1998).

All those films have in common a brand of technical precision and visual brilliance that isn’t often paralleled, especially in today’s cinema. 

So the clumsy nature of Prophecy indeed remains a baffling puzzle.  The film is alternately brilliant and inept in terms of staging, editing, direction, and pacing.  Some scenes of suspense are absolutely spell-binding, whereas many of the more visceral moments -- including an animal attack on unsuspecting campers -- play as unintentionally hilarious.

Recently, I reviewed another environmental horror movie from a “mainstream” director, The Bay (2012) by Barry Levinson. That film, however, managed to maintain a consistent tone throughout, even if in the final analysis the director’s message (about water contamination) played as more important than the movie’s genre trappings. 

The odd thing about Prophecy is that the film is so damned inconsistent.  It’s a work of art of great, praise-worthy highs and sad, sad lows. 

On one hand, the movie intelligently charts the uncomfortable nexus of big business/government/environment/pollution, and on the other hand, it consumes itself with gory moments of decapitation, bloody mutations, and other macabre tricks of the trade.  Now, I happen to like such tricks of the trade, but Prophecy proves jarring at significant junctures because it can’t stick to a particularly tone, either the high-minded “cerebral” horror route, or the messy pathway of bleeding viscera.

As I wrote in a Memory Bank post before Christmas, here, I remember well the year 1979 and the cinematic battle royale between Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Prophecy, two horror films that involved (at least in their ad campaigns…) horrible monstrosities hatched from eggs.  Alien, however, ascended to masterpiece status while Prophecy remains a cult oddity.  Watching the two films back-to-back, one can see why one effort succeeded and the other effort failed. Scott’s film maintains a consistent tone of suspense, surprise and curiosity, while Prophecy lurches from environmental polemic to soap opera, to mad monster party.

At the time of the film’s release, critics were generally unkind to Frankenheimer’s genre film too.

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote:Mr. Frankenheimer treats this material with the kind of majesty usually reserved for movies about Cleopatra, Napoleon and General Patton.  "Prophecy," which opens today at Loews Astor Plaza and other theaters, is full of lingering lap-dissolves and elegant camera movements that suggest history is being made. Leonard Rosenman's soundtrack music is so grand it could be played at a coronation, and it's so loud that it pierces the ears and threatens the head.  None of this fits the movie, which includes a fight between a man with an ax and a man with a portable power saw, and a number of attacks by the mutant monsters on random campers and forest rangers as well as on the film's principal players. For extra gore, there's the obligatory decapitation and the strong suggestion that one fellow is bitten in half at the waist.”

Writing in The New Yorker, Susan Lardner likened the Frankenheimer horror film to an “ill-cut jigsaw puzzle re-assembled by force by someone who has lost a few of the pieces.” (July 2, 1979, pages 66-67). 

And writing for The Progressive, Kenneth Turan noted the goofiness of the monster: “Unfortunately, Prophecy begins to unravel the first time we get a good look at the monster, a berserk mess that resembles a nightmare version of Smokey the Bear.” (September 1979, pages 38 – 39).

Still, the film had at least one prominent defender in Master of Horror Stephen King, who copped to having seen the film three times.  He felt that “settling into Prophecy is as comfortable as settling into an old easy-chair and visiting with good friends.”  While he noted that the monster is “pretty hokey looking,” he admitted to loving the “old monster” as a spiritual sister to Godzilla, Mighty Joe Young, or Gorgo. (Danse Macabre; A Berkley Book; 1981, pages 205–206).

I should admit that I have seen this particular film, myself, considerably more than three times, and that I possess a kind of love/hate relationship with the bloody thing.  Portions of Prophecy are extraordinarily rendered, namely a scene of high-suspense set in an underground tunnel, while other scenes are either cringe-worthy or intoxicating in their badness, depending on your love of bad movie tropes.  Prophecy is self-important and preachy, yet it also possesses wondrous bad taste in terms of what it reveals on screen.

Some might (accurately) note that I have often praised horror movies on the blog that showcase just such lack of decorum.  The problem arises, for this viewer anyway, in balancing the film’s incredible highs and lows. I can appreciate bad taste as much as the next fellow, but Prophecy is schizophrenic in approach.

“Here everything grows big.  Real big.”

In a forest in Maine, a rescue expedition is murdered by an unseen monster. 

Not long after, an environmentalist named Rob (Robert Foxworth) is assigned to determine the destiny of that very forest, because it is at the center of a dispute between American Indians and a local, industrial paper mill.  Rob visits the forest with his wife, Maggie (Talia Shire) a cellist who has just learned that she is pregnant, but is reluctant to reveal the information to her husband.

In Maine, Rob and Maggie meet Mr. Isely (Richard Dysart), the paper mill owner, who tells them that lumberjacks and rescuers have disappeared in the woods and that he feels the Indians are responsible.  He thinks they are attempting to bring to life an ancient legend about a monster with the eyes of a dragon, called Katadin.  Rob soon meets John Hawkes (Armande Assante), the leader of the local Native Americans, and is not so certain his motives are impure.

Upon deeper investigation of the forest, Rob learns that the Indian people are suffering from a host of unusual maladies.  Their babies are being born deformed, and many locals are losing their mental faculties, as if suffering from brain damage. 

When Rob sees several mutated examples of the local wildlife (including a giant tadpole…) he becomes convinced that the paper mill is somehow contaminating the water supply.  He finds evidence that mercury is being used in the mill’s refining process because it is cheap and effective. However, mercury contamination can also decimate healthy nervous systems.  Worse, it can jump the placental barrier and deform a developing fetus, a fact which terrifies Maggie since she has eaten contaminated fish.

As Rob, Maggie, and Hawkes investigate further, Katadin -- a giant, mutated bear -- strikes again and again, even murdering a family of campers. 

After Rob and Maggie take possession of one of Katadin’s mutated offspring, the Mama Bear turns her murderous eye towards their party, and a night of terror and death ensues.

“It’s not the hours.  It’s the damned futility.”

Bad reputation to the contrary, there are moments of pure beauty and sleek terror in Prophecy.  The film was lensed in gorgeous, mountainous British Columbia, and Frankenheimer and cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. certainly have an eye for capturing the picturesque terrain.  The movie features moments of breathtaking natural beauty, particularly in long, establishing shots.  Much of the film’s running time is spent outdoors, in mysterious terrains of heavy mist, or impenetrable black lakes.

In contrast to those moments, the film also features moments of pure human ugliness.  The paper mill is first seen in a long, moving establishing shot (from the vantage point of a helicopter in flight, approaching), and its dominance over the natural landscape is evident immediately.  The approach to the environment-destroying paper mill is accompanied by Leonard Rosenman’s Wagnerian score, and the moment achieves a kind of portentous, ominous feel.

Similarly, I can’t write enough positive words about a sustained scene, late in the film, during which Rob, Maggie, Isely, Hawkes and a few others hide from Mama Katadin in a subterranean tunnel system. 

These shots of terrified survivors are artistically composed, making extraordinary use of foreground and background fields, to capture the terror of those trapped in the caves.  Frankenheimer’s editor (Tom Rolf) cuts brilliantly from one shot of worried survivors’ faces to another shot, to another…and the suspense builds and builds until it feels palpable.

I admire this sequence in Prophecy in large part because it remembers that horror films must possess peaks and valleys, cacophony and silences.  This scene represents the (brief) calm between surrounding storms, but every moment of apparent “peace” is spent worrying about the next attack.

Just look at some of these beautiful shots, pictured below.  The blocking, the color palette, the focus on faces near and far, big and small, sell the terror of what remains unseen in the frame. 

Note as well the image of the old Indian man, Ramona’s grandfather M’rai (George Clutesi) as flames are reflected upon his eye glasses.  This is a shot that visually reveals how his world has been destroyed; how his people’s “protector” (Katadin) is actually but another destroyer, a monster.  

Again, you’ve got to give the devil his due here.  Frankenheimer knows how to stage and execute powerful visuals, and Prophecy features many such compositions.

Yet for every such moment of eloquent, sterling visualization, Prophecy also features sequences of horror that are, in a word, laughable.

The most ridiculous (and yet beloved…) of these sequences involves the giant bear attack on a family of innocent campers.  The bear approaches the sleeping campers, and one young camper -- wrapped up in a yellow sleeping bag and resembling nothing so much as a giant banana (or perhaps a condom…) -- tries to hop away from danger. 

The hopping away from danger is funny enough on its own, but then Katadin’s tail whacks the unlucky lad, hurtling him into a rock at warp speed…where the camper literally explodes on-screen.  
After the camper and sleeping bag are pulped, feathers (from the sleeping bag, apparently), rain down, blanketing the frame.    Generously speaking, the moment plays as high camp.

Or to put it another way, this scene is hilarious in a way the filmmakers surely did not intend.  We were not meant to laugh at the murder of an innocent child, yet all the creative decisions in the scene are questionable…and risible. 

Why make the unfortunate camper hop about vainly in the sleeping bag, instead of unzipping the bag, exiting it, and running from danger? 

Why does the strike of Katadin’s tail hurl the camper through the air at speeds defying the laws of Physics? 

And why make the camper and bag literally explode, and include the ridiculous sight of what appear to be chicken feathers falling to Earth?

Listen, I love horror movies and also boast a tremendous love for “bad” movies, or even genre movies that violate decorum.  But the sleeping bag scene is so ridiculously vetted that it actually damages the credibility of Prophecy. 

Similarly, the film’s valedictory moment -- with a rubbery second mutant rearing its ugly head -- ends Prophecy on a low note.  The monster looks awful in the light of day, under the full glare of sunlight, and the moment is simply a pitiful “sting in the tail/tale” hoping against hope for a sequel.  Like the sleeping bag scene, the final punch of Prophecy is humorously inept.

I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) that Prophecy is “sometimes obvious, sometimes clever” in its approach to its thematic material, and over a decade later, I feel I can stand by that assessment. 

The film’s best scene is actually one far away from the “monster movie” material, and set at a place of "real-life: human horror: the paper mill.  As if shooting a documentary, Frankenheimer’s probing camera tours a real-life factory, a massive industrial park dedicated to transforming nature’s logs into shredded pulp.

Filmed in both exterior and interior with long informative pans across its grotesque girth, the mill is revealed to be an ugly, dehumanizing place dedicated solely to environmental destruction.  Chemicals such as chlorine are deployed here, and the plant’s interior is bathed in an ugly, sterile, green-white light.

No preaching is necessary here because one of the prime gifts of film as an art form is its ability to reveal things to audiences that they have never seen before, but which nonetheless exist.  I’ve never been to a paper mill, but Prophecy certainly makes a compelling case about one's capacity for destruction.  I also like how the film attempts to portray Isely’s character in less-than-villainous terms.  The paper mill owner makes a memorable speech about supply and demand, one that reminded me of my own career as a professional writer and consumer of paper.

I’ve written how many books?  And how many copies have been sold?  How many pieces of paper is that, exactly?

How many trees destroyed is that?

I’m also on the fence here regarding Frankenheimer’s treatment of Maggie.  This is a character that learns she is likely carrying a mutated fetus in her womb.  Maggie becomes so obsessed with this (horrific) idea that she takes Katadin’s youngling as her own, essentially, during the film’s last act, carrying it round on her shoulder and protecting it from harm.  At one point, the monster baby seems to nurse from the blood on Maggie’s neck-wound, furthering the metaphor of mother-and-child.  Yet the film gives the audience no catharsis regarding Maggie’s ultimate disposition. 

Does she deliver the baby or undergo an abortion? Is the baby born mutated or healthy?  If it is mutated, can Maggie and Rob love it anyway?

Prophecy doesn’t provide any information or dramatic closure on this key character/plot point, instead focusing on that rubbery final sting-in-the-tail/tale.  In the end, the dopey monster movie aspects of the film thus win out over the excavation of character and theme.  I sure hope Talia Shire complained, because it's clear from her performance she gave the film her all.

Prophecy is one of those horror films that I return to at least once or twice every five or so years, and I suspect that is the case because there’s so much potential evident in the film.  In certain moments, Prophecy possesses a kind of undeniable visual poetry.  In other moments, it is pure, unadulterated schlock. 

I suppose that as an optimistic film reviewer I return to Prophecy again and again because I keep hoping to see something that I’ve missed or overlooked, or to discover that somehow the balance of poetry to schlock has changed for the better.

As of this 2013 viewing, however, it hasn’t. 

I’ll let you know in 2020 if I feel differently.  Meanwhile, below you'll find Prophecy sleeping bag kill in all its bloody glory.

Movie Trailer: Prophecy

Thursday, January 03, 2013

X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: Series Primer

“If there is one thing that gives the series a broad, universal appeal, it’s that we are all afraid of the same things.”

Chris Carter, in Starlog #221: “X-aminations” by James Swallow. (December 1995, page 31.)

It’s virtually impossible for me to believe that Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993 – 2002) premiered two decades ago this coming September.  I still possess vivid memories of watching the first season episodes on Fox TV (Channel 35) in Richmond, Virginia. 

My girlfriend (now wife) and I were engaged in 1993 and lived together for the first time during that span in an apartment we rented in Henrico County, while I commuted downtown every day to a job at the Supreme Court of Virginia.  

I also remember that the fall TV season of 1993 -- at least as described by the press -- was shaping up to be a genre slugfest on Sunday nights between Steven Spielberg’s Sea Quest DSV (1993 – 1995) and ABC’s romantic superhero-lite adventure, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993 – 1996). 

Nobody in their right mind would have or could have predicted back in September 1993 that a series about the paranormal -- airing on upstart Fox -- would out-live both of the aforementioned high-profile genre programs, and garner much more popularity and critical success than either. 

In fact, as I’ve written before, when most people remember TV in the 1990s, they think, at least in my experience, of two specific series: Seinfeld and The X-Files.

I’ll be using this year on the blog -- The X-Files twentieth anniversary -- to remember the latter series, which remains very much a benchmark for television horror. 

Many series since The X-Files have built upon its considerable successes, but few (if any) have surpassed the program or achieved the same level of wide cultural popularity. 

To me, The X-Files is indeed the Star Trek of the 1990s, and therefore one of the most important titles in the history of the genre, on a par with The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, certainly. 

Like Star Trek before it, The X-Files boasts a rabid and large fan base, has made the transition to the big screen, and seen its storytelling translated to the venues of comic-books, video games, and novels.  Catchphrases from the series, (like “the truth is out there,” “Trust No One,” and “I want to believe”) have become part of our shared pop culture landscape as well. The X-Files also generated spin-offs (including Millennium and The Lone Gunmen) and literally dozens of (some quite worthy) imitators, from The Burning Zone to Prey to Strange World to the more recent Fringe.

As you likely recall with clarity, The X-Files is the continuing story of two F.B.I. agents of vastly different qualifications and temperaments, but a common ground in the quality of curiosity.

On one hand is the believer: Oxford-educated psychologist Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). 

On the other is Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a medical doctor and devout Catholic who demands that all of Mulder’s “beliefs” about alleged paranormal events achieve a high-threshold in terms of scientific accuracy and empirical evidence.

Working out of the F.B.I. Building’s basement in Washington D.C., Scully and Mulder -- utilizing their vastly different “seeing” lenses of skepticism and belief -- investigate during the course of the series alien abduction (“Pilot,” “Duane Barry”), demonology (“The Calusari,” “Die Hand der Verletz”), local legends (“The Jersey Devil”), weird genetic mutants (“Squeeze,” “The Host,” “Teliko,” “2Shy”), prehistoric or ancient monsters (“Ice,” “Darkness Falls,” “Detour”), global conspiracies (“Erlenmeyer Flask,” “The Red and the Black”), serial killers (“Irresistible,” “Unruhe,” “Paper Hearts”) and even vampires (“3,” “Bad Blood.”)

They also explore cases involving astral projection (“The Walk,”) reincarnation (“Lazarus,” “The Field Where I Died”), telepathy (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Pusher”), and psychic surgery (“Milagro.”)

Yet this thumbnail description of the premise and characters hardly does The X-Files justice. 

Historically-speaking, there have been other TV series about the paranormal (One Step Beyond [1959 – 1961], The Sixth Sense [1972 – 1973] and Beyond Reality [1991 – 1993] to name just three), so the subject matter isn’t necessarily the thing that makes The X-Files so special.  That isn’t the key to the series’ continuing popularity.

Contrarily, The X-Files’ intelligent writing -- which assumed that audiences could keep up and pay attention -- was both cutting edge (focused often on the details of forensic pathology), and emotionally resonant. 

Similarly, stars Duchovny and Anderson developed a scintillating chemistry and rapport over time that made every new adventure a delight.  Scully and Mulder were partners…but also, in a way, competitors.  They were dancers circling each other and in some sense attempting to gain the higher ground in terms of their curiosity and world view.  The Mulder/Scully back-and-forth repartee elevated each story of the paranormal or supernatural on The X-Files to a new level, one where it was the human condition itself – and our assumptions about it -- that was up for debate.

As creator Chris Carter once noted of his two protagonists:  “They [Mulder and Scully] are equal parts of my desire to believe in something and my inability to believe in something.  My skepticism and my faith…I want, like a lot of people do, to have the experience of witnessing a paranormal phenomenon.  At the same time, I want not to accept it, but to question it.” (David Bischoff; Omni, December 1994, page 44).

In the points-of-view of characters Scully and Mulder then, the audience essentially gets one “whole” person: a complete but conflicted world-view.  It’s no surprise that the characters complete one another, because they form, essentially, a well-rounded, curious outlook on life.  This creative writing structure -- with Mulder and Scully each voicing one half of a “universal” personality -- plays an important role in the series’ ultimate success.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the series’ photography, production design and overall look.  The series regularly makes use of film grammar to visually create tension, forge suspense, and develop an often trance-like mood or atmosphere.

There is a certain kind of shot, for instance, that I associate irrevocably with The X-Files.  It involves a low-perched camera, near floor level, untethered and on the prowl.  The camera moves forward through unknown terrain (a high tech office, a Victorian home, or anywhere else) and constantly probes for something new -- something unseen or undetected -- in regular, daily life.  

The low-perched camera, moving forward into undiscovered countries thus mimics the series’ thematic material, which concerns the exploration of “extreme possibilities.”

The X-Files also arrived, historically, at the beginning of an era when television was moving away from standalone dramas to serials and “arcs.” 

What this means is that Mulder and Scully could not simply walk away from a case they were investigating and forget all about it.  They didn’t begin their next story with no memory of what had happened before.

On the contrary, many cases caused repercussions for the characters that would last for seasons, or even for the duration of the series.   For instance, Mulder underwent a many-seasons-long search for his missing sister, Samantha, whom he believed had been abducted by aliens.  Scully was apparently abducted by aliens in the second season, grappled with terminal cancer in the fourth season, and struggled with problems of infertility in the later years. 

The cases were connected in other ways too, by a thread that X-Files fans have come to understand as “The Mytharc.”  These tales were of a global Syndicate or Conspiracy prepping for an alien colonization of Earth. But like the Hydra, this conspiracy of men had many heads, or many facets, and for years Mulder and Scully nibbled around the edges of the master-plan, able to discern only pieces of the larger puzzle.

Again, in the age of Dexter, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and other serials, The X-Files’ achievement of sustained, always-developing story lines may not seem like a big deal. But The X-Files remains a critical “bridge” series between the standalone era and the more heavily serialized era. 

By 1994, critics had begun to detect that The X-Files was something special.  Writing for Omni in December of 1994 (pages 43 – 50), David Bischoff noted that “The direction is atmospheric, the scripts are tight, the dialogue is crisp, the tone uneasy and grim….How can anyone not love this show?”

In The New Leader, James Wolcott called The X-Files “as scary as The Twilight Zone and much sexier…What’s erotic about the show is its slow progression from reverie to revelation, stopping just short of rapture.  It wants to swoon, but swooning would mean shutting its eyes, and there’s so much to see.” (April 18, 1994, pages 98, - 100).

In 1999, TV Guide’s Matt Roush accurately noted that “Many weeks…The X-Files is as good as any movie,” and indeed, the horror genre suffered something of an identity crisis in the 1990s while attempting to compete with Chris Carter’s sterling creation.  Why go out to see an untested commodity (like a new film), when The X-Files promised quality “scares” week-in and week-out?
Going forward into 2013, I’ll be writing at least one X-Files episode review a week, and attempting to do this classic Chris Carter series justice.  I’ll be picking my favorite episodes, but also trying to pull from the various sub-genres this spectacular horror series explores. 

These categories do feature many cross-overs and are (in no particular order):

Trust No One

This category includes episodes in which the U.S. Government (and sometimes private corporations) conduct secret experiments on citizens for nefarious purposes..  Some of these stories directly involve the Myth-Arc, but others do not. 

Examples: “Eve,” “Ghost in the Machine,” “Blood,” “Sleepless,” “Red Museum,” “F. Emasculata,” “Soft Light,” “Wetwired,” “The Pine Bluff Variant,” “Drive,” and “Dreamland.”

Freaks of Nature

In these stories, mutants and monsters feed on and otherwise exploit the human populace.  Some of the freaks of nature are inbred and deformed (“Home”), whereas others are genetic mutations and possibly a strange dark alley (or dead end…) of human evolution.  Often the freaks are caused by human irresponsibility (“The Host”), but other times they are merely trying to fulfill a biological need (“2Shy,” “Teliko.”)  In one instance, “Hungry,” the freak of the week’s point of view is explored rather fully and found to be pitiable.

Examples: “Squeeze,” “Tooms,” “The Jersey Devil,” “The Host,” “Humbug,” “D.P.O.,” “2Shy,” “Teliko,” “Home,” “Small Potatoes,” “Leonard Betts,” “Detour.”

Xenophobia (or Foreign Fears)

In these stories, ancient ethnic legends are seen to have a basis in fact.  This particular X-Files story-type plays on the idea that Western-based “science” does not see the whole picture when it comes to life (and death) on the planet.  In these tales, ethnic legends and curses from around the globe inevitably prove true, even though they operate outside our concepts of reality and even sense.

Examples: “Teso Dos Bichos,” “Kaddish,” “Hell Money,” “El Mundo Gira,” “Badlaa.”

From the Dawn of Time

These X-Files episodes concern life-forms from prehistory.   Unfortunately, they re-assert themselves in the present because of climactic changes or man’s encroachment on long-standing territory.  These life-forms are millions of years old and exhibit qualities inimical to human survival.  Sometimes, they exist in remote locations (a volcano, or the Arctic, for example), and sometimes they are just around the corner, in the Appalachians.

Examples: “Ice,” “Darkness Falls,” “Firewalker,” “Quagmire,” “Field Trip,” “Agua Mala,” “Detour.”


Extra-terrestrial life is at the center of many X-Files stories, though ultimately not validated empirically within the continuity (for the most part).  There is some heavy overlap between aliens and the Mytharc stories since the latter involve the colonization of Earth and the restoration of an alien virus (the black oil) that was the planet’s original inhabitant.

Examples: “Pilot,” “Space,” “E.B.E.,” “Genderbender,” “Little Green Men,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” “Colony,” “End Game,” “Talitha Cumi,” “Herrenvolk,” “War of the Coprophages,” “Travelers,” “The Beginning,” “The Unnatural,” “Biogenesis.”

God’s Masterplan

These stories explore aspects of Christian mythology and ask questions about it.  Is God real?  Is the Devil?  Why can Mulder so readily believe in aliens, monsters, and time loops but not in Scripture?  Conversely, why does Scully permit herself faith in Christian lore, but not the paranormal?  Where is her precious science when it comes to the Bible?  This kind of story, involving Christian mythology also exposes the protagonists’ inability to see outside their own world-view. 

Examples: “Miracle Man,” “Die Hand der Verletzt,” “Revelations,” “All Souls,” “Terms of Endearment.”

The Serial Killer

This style of X-Files tale was minimized late in the program’s run to accommodate the format on Millennium (1996 – 1999).  Originally, however, serial killers appeared quite frequently on The X-Files to represent the “evil within” humanity.

Examples: “Irresistible,” “Grotesque,” “Unruhe,” “Paper Hearts.”

Psychic Phenomena

From astral projection to clairvoyance, from soul migration to astrology (the effect of heavenly bodies on human bodies), The X-Files obsessed on psychic phenomena throughout its nine year run. 

Examples: “Fire,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Shadows,” “Born Again,” “Lazarus,” “Young at Heart,” “Roland,” “The List,” “The Walk,” “Excelsius Dei,” “Aubrey,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Oubliette,” “Syzygy,” “Pusher,” “The Field Where I Died,” “Elegy,” “Kitsunegari,” “Mind’s Eye,” “Trevor,” “Milagro,” “Via Negativa.”

The Mytharc/Conspiracy

In these stories, The X-Files charts the U.S. government’s association with aliens, and secret plans for impending alien colonization.  Mulder’s family history and association with the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), as well as Scully’s abduction fit into this subset of narrative. 

This brand of story features a large recurring/supporting cast, including Agent Krycek (Nicholas Lea), The Well-Manicured Man, Agent Spender, and Cassandrea Spender (Veronica Cartwright).  There is heavy overlap between this story type and the “Aliens” sub-type.

Examples: “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” “Duane Barry,” “Ascension,” “Colony,” “End Game,” “Anasazi,” “The Blessing Way,” “Paper Clip,” “Piper Maru,” “Apocrypha,” “Terma,” “Tunguska,” “Tempus Fugit,” “Max,” “731,” “Nisei,” “Redux,” “Redux II,” “The End,” “Two Fathers, One Son.”

The Horror Standards/Tropes

Horror television features a set of standard stories or tropes that are hauled out again and again.  The X-Files demonstrates real wit and innovation dealing with stories and characters that have appeared on Night Gallery, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and Tales from The Crypt, among others. 

These standards include stories about vampires, werewolves, ghosts, crazy computers, succubi, cannibalism, science run amok, time loops, evil dolls, and zombies.

Examples: “Shapes,” “The Ghost in the Machine,” “3,” “Dod Kalm,” “Our Town,” “Avatar,” “Never Again,” “Post-Modern Prometheus,” “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” “Bad Blood,” “Kill Switch,” “Chinga,” “Monday,” “Millennium.”

As I blog about The X-Files this year, I’ll be selecting stories from each sub-set for retrospectives, and also posting a giant Mytharc post/survey at one point, likely late in the year when I’ve re-watched all the episodes and have something new (and hopefully intriguing…) to offer on the subject.

I hope you’ll join me in remembering The X-Files this year.  The truth is out there.

We begin the survey soon with the first episode: “Pilot” (September 10, 1993).


Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Late Night Blogging: The X-Files Promos


Memory Bank: The Variety Show, 1970s Style

One form of television entertainment or programming that seems to have largely fallen out of favor with the American public -- but which I remember from my childhood in the 1970s -- is the variety show

For those who don’t remember variety shows, they represent an unholy blend or combination of genres, but usually feature both comedy skits and musical production numbers.

The seventies represent the last age of variety programs on the tube. Why did these programs begin to diminish in popularity in the decade of Nixon and Carter? One can only speculate, but the musical form lost its relevance perhaps because of the new film “reality” aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Popular films featured more violence and seemed more gritty and realistic, as in the case of the blockbuster hit The French Connection, or even Jaws. The musical form -- which is all about artifice -- became less and less relevant in age which prized naturalism over theatricality or artifice.

It may also be that, in the 1970s, there was a growing belief among viewers at home that the conventions of the variety show -- now colored in polyester and bell bottoms -- had grown stale, and were threatening to descend into full-on, high-camp.

Still, in disco decade, some variety programming managed to remain popular for a time.  The most successful of these programs was no doubt Donny and Marie (1976 – 1979) starring the Osmonds. 

This ABC series ran for several years and featured the likable, smiling young hosts singing both country and rock-and-roll songs.  I recall that, as a kid, I watched the show for its relevant if not particularly good pop culture skits.  In its time, Donny and Marie parodied Star Wars and ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, for example. The former featured R2-D2 and C3PO, plus Red Foxx (as Ben Kenobi) and Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo.

ABC attempted to duplicate Donny and Marie’s breakthrough success with a second musical duo on The Captain and Tennille, which saw such guest stars as John Travolta, Leonard Nimoy, Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope. The series was canceled after a year, but the ratings never dropped, and several Captain and Tennille specials followed.

Interestingly, both Donny and Marie and The Captain and Tennille were considered popular enough to merit toy merchandise.  Donny and Marie had action figures and a TV studio available from Mattel, and Captain and Tennille Action figures were manufactured and sold by Mego.  Today, these items are all highly-prized collectibles.  One of the best toy/nostalgia blogs, Plaid Stallions, recently featured a look at the 1977 Donny and Marie Catalog, here.

One of the truly bizarre variety shows of the 1970s was The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, a spin-off of the popular sitcom, and sponsored by Sid and Marty Kroftt.  The series featured the mixed-family in the unlikely role of disco singers and hosts.  It (mercifully) lasted only a handful of episodes before a prompt cancellation and today remains a strange television artifact.  The singing and dancing are awful for the most part, and more often than not the Bradys are decked out in the tightest jump suits humanly possible.

Just about the last prominent variety show I can think of also came from Sid and Marty Krofft: 1980’s Barbara Mandrell and The Mandrell Sisters.  This country-themed series ran for two successful seasons, and I remember watching it every week in my house.  I don’t know exactly why that was the case, since I’m not a huge fan of country music…except that my family didn’t own a VCR yet.

Perhaps the most successful variety program of the 1970s is the one still airing today: Saturday Night Live (1975 - ).  The series is billed today largely as a comedy, but pretty clearly it remains a mix of music and comedy, and just tries to avoid the old-fashioned label of “variety” show.

Below, please enjoy some of the weirder moments of the mid-1970s variety shows.  They remain a (mostly) extinct relic of a time long gone, and an aesthetic that has lost its relevance in the pop culture.