Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sci-Fi Cityscapes #2: Logan's Run (1976) City of Domes, circa 2274 AD

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Flying Dutchman" (October 23, 1976)

While it is undeniable that the third season of Land of the Lost suffers in terms of its continuity with the preceding two years’ worth of episodes, I nonetheless appreciate how the third season occasionally adapts creepy elements of world mythology to the world of Altrusia.  It’s a different take than the original vision, to be certain, but the mythology-based episodes make for intriguing adventures, at least on a few occasions.

Such is the case with “Flying Dutchman,” this week’s installment, which first aired on October 23, 1976. 

The story uses as its basis the legend of a Dutch man-of-war “ghost ship,” reported as early as the 18th century by sailors and other travelers on the high seas. 

In some stories, the captain of the Flying Dutchman (known as Bernard Fokke) is believed to be in league with Satan himself….a devil.  In other variations of the folklore, the captain (sometimes Vander Decker) is being punished for some moral failing by this eternal life on the seas, never able to reach port again. 

The Flying Dutchman is also sometimes reported to be a pirate ship, lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and a young King George V once reported seeing the eerie vessel off the coast of Australia.

In Land of the Lost’s “Flying Dutchman,” The Marshalls discover a wrecked man-of-war in the Mist Marsh (former home of the Zarn), but the area is not referred to on-screen as such, which is disappointing.

The Marshalls hear ghostly voices emanating from the ship’s deck, and find a lonely captain, Van Der Mere (Rex Holman) alone on board.  Although he promises to take Uncle Jack, Holly, Will and Chaka back out through the vortex by which he arrived, the captain secretly plans to leave with only Holly (Kathy Coleman) on board.  She is a dead ringer for his long-lost daughter, Wilhelmina, and he misses his child’s companionship.

Uncle Jack (Ron Harper) realizes that Van Der Mere’s ship is the legendary Dutchman and saves a drugged Holly at the last moment.  The Captain apologizes for his behavior.  “I am ashamed,” he admits. “You have my apologies…it’s so terribly lonely.”

In the episode’s final moments, the Marshalls and Chaka watch in awe as the Flying Dutchman takes to the air, and sails out of view...though how it escapes Altrusia (and the land’s one in/one out rule of entry/exit) is left unexplained.

On the plus side of the equation, “Flying Dutchman” is an episode filled with creepy imagery of the derelict ship in the Mist Marsh.  These moments are atmospheric, and a real sense of danger and terror dominates the show (at least in Saturday morning terms). 

On the down-side, this episode sees the return of the single-worst character in Land of the Lost history, the cave-man Malak (Richard Kiel).  Too much time is wasted in “Flying Dutchman” as Jack and Will negotiate with Malak for the release of Captain Van Der Mere’s nautical belongings, including a sextant and a compass.

Some viewers, I remember, found this episode sexually perverse, with an adult man professing his love for a much, much younger woman, Holly.  But the text of the episode makes it  absolutely clear that Van Der Mere’s affections are not sexual, but those of a father who misses his daughter, and can never be reunited with her so long as he is cursed to travel the endless corridors of time.  For me, the episode doesn’t play as particularly perverse, though I admit it features a scary undercurrent about children being kidnapped and swept away by dark forces.

Despite the fact that “Flying Dutchman” plays fast and loose with the established rules of Altrusia, I still feel that the episode, much like “Medusa” works as a sort of children’s horror show.  I remember that I liked this installment very much as a child, and was obsessed with the legend of the Flying Dutchman for months after viewing.  I still find the legend compelling, and accordingly, I would rate this episode of the third season pretty highly in the roster.

Next week: “Hot-Air Artist.”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Late Night Blogging: John Badham Theater

The Films of 1983 John Badham Double Feature: Blue Thunder

John Badham had a banner year in 1983 as the director of two blockbuster techno-thrillers: War Games and Blue Thunder. 

Both films involve the bugaboo of advanced computer technology, which was, generally speaking, the broad theme of many genre films in 1983.  Films from Superman III and Never Say Never Again to the anthology Nightmares circled around the frightening notion that our technology might run amok, or at the very least fall into the wrong hands. 

Blue Thunder is among the most entertaining of this 1983 techno-bunch, and it pushes the pedal hard on action and spectacular fireworks. Although some of the character dialogue is undeniably clunky, the movie nonetheless accurately forecasts the rise of the modern surveillance state, one fact that makes the film relevant in 2012.  Today, however, the helicopter prototype’s spying capability looks positively quaint.

Certainly, Blue Thunder owes some creative debt to 1982’s Firefox, another film concerning a deadly hi-tech aircraft and a protagonist battling PTSD following the Vietnam War.  Yet the action here is so rousing that it is easy to gloss over the film’s occasionally contrived plot mechanisms or its transparent debt to other cinematic thrillers.

In fact, Blue Thunder was so well-received by audiences of the day that it spawned a TV spin-off (also titled Blue Thunder), a terrific TV knock-off (Airwolf), and a model kit of the titular vehicle, which I owned, built…and cherished.  Wish I still had it…

Although this film is nearly thirty years old, Blue Thunder’s visceral obsession with state-of-the-art aerial combat (over a modern American city, Los Angeles, no less), permits it to hold up much better than WarGames.  Also, the film remains relevant in part because of the strongly enunciated social commentary about man and his machines. 

In short, machines don’t yet boast the capacity for morality, and so man must decide how to use his new toys.  In Frank Murphy -- a veteran who witnessed immorality among men in Vietnam -- the audience gets a hero who represents mankind’s inherent struggle against entrenched power, and power unconcerned with the good of the many, but rather the riches of a few.  Yet despite being outnumbered and outgunned, Murphy won’t let the machine take over, even if that outcome is precisely what big government and big business apparently desire.

In gazing intently at conspiracy and corruption (not to mention the nexus of government and big business government contractors), Blue Thunder in some fashion feels like a product of the 1970s, the great age of conspiracy movies.  But the strong focus on computers and technology also gives it the Video Game Age sheen of the early 1980s. 

In whatever way one chooses to parse the film, Blue Thunder remains a hell of a lot of fun.

“I love morals, and the moral of this story is: If you're walkin' on eggs, don't hop.”

Cop Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) and his rookie co-pilot Lymangood (Daniel Stern) of Los Angeles Air Support test fly a new urban pacification helicopter nicknamed “Blue Thunder,” over the city streets, and while on surveillance or “whisper” mode, learn of a wide-ranging conspiracy involving corruption and murder. 

The makers of Blue Thunder prototype have been making trouble in L.A.’s barrio so the city will requisition more copters to manage the crime problem before the upcoming 1984 Olympics.  This top secret project to create urban mayhem is called Project T.H.O.R. (Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response).  Worse, Murphy’s old nemesis from the Vietnam War, Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell) is one of the key conspirators behind the scenes.

Murphy and Lymangood -- or JAFO (Just Another F’ing Observer) -- secretly videotape a conversation about T.H.O.R. from the cockpit of Blue Thunder but soon become fugitives from the police and City Hall.  When Lymangood is murdered by Cochrane’s goons, Murphy steals Blue Thunder and asks his girlfriend, Kate (Candy Clark) to deliver the incriminating videotape to a local news station.

While Kate eludes the police on the ground, Blue Thunder and Murphy are called upon to battle police helicopters, state-of-the-art Air force jets (armed with heat-seeking missiles), and Cochrane’s gun ship…

You're really riding with the angels, sweetheart.

The Blue Thunder screenplay by the late Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby certainly sets up some amazing action sequences, but it’s also clumsy and contrived at crucial points. 

For instance, McDowell utters his character’s catchphrase -- “Catch you later!” -- a whopping three times in the first forty five minutes of the film, thus paving the way for a triumphant turnaround from Murphy at the denouement.  When Murphy blows up Cochrane’s gunship, he says, inevitably, “Catch you later!”  The laborious repetition of the phrase is so contrived and stupid that it’s easy to see the punch line coming.  That established, the audience I saw the film with in the theater in 1983 absolutely loved it, so who am I to complain?

Similarly, there’s a weird scene early in the film wherein Kate, Murphy’s girlfriend, takes a wrong turn on the way to a Sunday family outing with Frank and her son.  She recklessly drives her car into oncoming traffic to get back on course, and, well, let’s just say it’s an egregiously hazardous act, especially with a child on board.  But, of course, Kate’s slightly-crazy nature (not to mention demolition-derby driving skills…) are important ingredients in the film’s climax, so again, we’re seeing a laborious and somewhat clumsy set-up.

You could probably make the same point about all the exposition regarding Murphy’s aerodynamically-impossible “loop” in a chopper.  It gets brought up so many times before the film’s end that we just know there’s going to be a “pay off.”  

Certainly, Blue Thunder is not alone in harvesting seeds like this early in the film, for cropping at the climax. It’s just that the set-ups here are so brazenly transparent.

Yet here’s the thing.  You absolutely will not care.

The film’s final thirty minutes feature jaw-dropping stunt after jaw-dropping stunt, both on the ground and in the air.  And Blue Thunder vets this material with almost no fakery, which is incredible.  As an adrenaline ride, then, Blue Thunder succeeds wildly.  This film also made me realize just how long it’s been since we’ve seen an action movie like this one; one that doesn’t rely, to some unhealthy extent, on digital effects.  The car chase, in particular, is riveting. 

It may not be politically-correct to write this, but there’s a thrill that comes from knowing that movie stuntmen and stunt pilots really performed the actions in question.  Here, some of the helicopter stunts near the ground, and weaving in and around a sewer and bridge system, are downright stunning (and terrifying). As a result, you leave a viewing of the movie feeling exhilarated.

Blue Thunder in action.

And again...

To its credit, Blue Thunder also finds a perfect metaphor for the relationship between man and machine. Murphy wears a clunky-looking wrist-watch that can count up to a minute, or sixty seconds.

As it does so, it displays a very 1980s-style, spiro-graph-looking graphic of a circle moving towards completion.  Murphy utilizes this stop-watch function to test his sanity….several times-a-day.  If he can still tell time, or possess a “feeling” about the reality of time, he’s sure he isn’t going insane. 

In terms of psychology, this timed “sanity test” might be considered a little bit hokey.  In terms of metaphor, it’s actually pretty good.  The watch, like Blue Thunder itself, is a machine that humans can control…if they choose to do so.  

Technology too is a test, then, to be mastered, not something that should be allowed to oppress or control mankind. Murphy understands this fact of life.  He masters his life (represented by the watch) and uses that same determination to master the helicopter, and, finally, make an ethical final decision about it.  If he can master terrifying memories (represented by the Vietnam flashbacks), then certainly Murphy and others can master machines and computers.

Mastering self; mastering the machine.

At its heart, Blue Thunder concerns this idea, that man must rein in and manage his machines, and not vice-versa, or humanity will pay the price.  In addition, however, the film worries about new technologies which could diminish privacy and create a Big Brother-type world where no one’s secrets are safe. 

At one point, Murphy and Lymangood track a motorcycle cop to an assignation with a bored housewife.  They listen in on him making love to her, and then, afterwards, erase the tape, realizing that it is a horrible invasion of privacy.  Again, Murphy acts as the film’s moral barometer.  That motorcycle cop may be a laughing stock, and he may be engaged in a morally-questionable act, but, as Murphy concludes, people deserve to have their “quickies” in peace.  

That’s a silly example, perhaps, of what’s at stake in the modern surveillance society, but like the stop-watch metaphor, it concisely makes an important point.  If we are to remain free, we must have some surveillance free zones where we can simply be….human.  We must have some places to let down and simply be ourselves, without fear of being observed, or worse, blackmailed.

What happens when machines are everywhere, and they see and hear everything?
From an amazingly graphic scene of naked calisthenics (!) early-on to a great supporting performance by Warren Oates as Murphy’s put-upon superior at Air Support, Blue Thunder flies by with almost no wasted energy, and a surfeit of good humor, intrigue and action.  If I had to select one film today, I’d probably choose Blue Thunder over WarGames, in terms of Badham’s oeuvre, in part because of the performances, in part because of the rousing action, and in part because of that gorgeous helicopter, which even today looks like absolute poetry in motion. 

The film’s final scene, which sees Murphy pulp Blue Thunder in a final act of defiance to City Hall, makes perfect sense in terms of the film’s theme and story line.  But I still hate to see the old girl go up in a fireball.  

Of course, It’s the right climactic move for a movie about conspiracies and about concerns over privacy.  But the thirteen year old kid who first saw Blue Thunder just knew there should have been further adventures, with Murphy again mastering the (wonderful) machine.

The Films of 1983, John Badham Double Feature: WarGames

The genre films of 1983 focused largely on two subjects.  The first was computers and computer video games.  And the second was nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  

And in some rare instances -- such as WarGames (1983) -- the two topics aligned perfectly.

The year 1983 saw Richard Pryor’s super-computer menace the Man of Steel in Superman III, and Sean Connery’s James Bond back in action in Never Say Never Again to battle Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) over a video game of (nuclear) “Global Domination.”

Meanwhile, in the horror anthology Nightmares, Emilio Estevez got zapped into an arcade game to combat the artificial intelligence called “The Bishop of Battle.” 

In terms of nuclear war, 1983 was the year of the terrifying Nicholas Meyer TV-movie The Day After.   That unforgettable film showcased the gruesome effects of a nuclear war on Americans in Kansas.  Another affecting film of 1983 concerning nuclear war was Testament, starring Jane Alexander.

Why the Hollywood obsession with both computerized games and nuclear war in 1983? 

On the former front, Atari, Intellivision, the Commodore Vic20 and other technological platforms had altered the American landscape permanently in terms of home media gaming and computing.  Suddenly, computers were making the move into every middle-class home in the nation.  The “future” was here.

On the latter front, President Ronald Reagan had been swept into office in 1980 on a platform of economic recovery, but he was also, at least initially, a hawk regarding nuclear war.  In fact, his administration was a strong proponent for a concept called winnable nuclear war, as the historical record clearly demonstrates.

President Reagan’s adviser, Richard Pipes, in 1982, for instance, noted the “probability of nuclear war is forty percent….and our strategy is winnable nuclear war.” 

Meanwhile, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, T.K. Jones remarked in 1981 that “The United States could recover from an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union in just two to four years…Nuclear war is not nearly as devastating as we have been led to believe.  If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.  Dig a hole in the ground, cover it up with a couple of doors, and then cover the doors with three feet of dirt…”

In 1981 President Reagan himself noted that there could (safely) be a “limited nuclear war in Europe.” His vice-president, George H.W. Bush, in 1980 even described how to prove victorious in the nuclear war scenario:  “You have a survivability of command and control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have the capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict upon you.  That’s the way you have a winner.”

Meanwhile, on February 5, 1981, future Secretary of the Interior James Watt noted to Congress that there might not be "many future generations...before the Lord returns."  

When one couples the pervasive rah-rah attitude about waging winnable nuclear war with the apocalyptic Christianist visions of many Administration officials, including Reagan himself -- as was reported in People Magazine in December 1983 (where he explained that the eighties represented the first time in history that so many Biblical prophecies were coming true...) -- one can understand why many Americans, especially young ones, felt very afraid about the future

Some have credited his viewing of The Day After (1983) as the very thing that turned Ronald Reagan from an ardent warrior in the winnable-nuclear war sweepstakes to a staunch proponent for peace with the Soviet Union. He had to face down the more right-wing elements of his own party -- including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (who wrote a letter to the Washington Post urging the president not to give up the nuclear store) -- to wage that fight

Today, we can be grateful for President Reagan’s change of heart, and for his persistence at Geneva and Reykjavik in the mid-to-late 1980s, but WarGames -- released in 1983 -- very clearly obsesses on the inherent madness of the “winnable” nuclear war scenario; the very attitude still prevalent in our national defense establishment in 1982.

Specifically, WarGames sees advanced computers as bringing man one step closer to all-out nuclear Armageddon, primarily because machines don’t boast any sense of morality. 

If men can't act according to human decency and conscience, what are the chances their machines will? 

For a movie about the end of the world, however, WarGames is surprisingly sweet and gentle in its prognosis. The “villainous” computer that nearly initiates World War III is treated with humanity by the film's protagonist, and eventually taught the error of its ways. It is “schooled” by the best of the human race -- kids -- so that it understands that the only way to win a nuclear war is simply not to play. 

Interestingly, the case the humans make in the film is not one explicitly about morality (which a machine can’t fathom, I suppose), but about futility, as empirically demonstrated by numbers..  The computer runs through a nearly-infinite series of test war simulations in a matter of seconds and determines that, in every conceivable permutation of thermonuclear war, there is no winner.  

Why engage in a game in which there is no victor?

Nearly thirty years after it premiered, WarGames remains a lot of fun, even if it is not as powerful as it once was.  In particular, the John Badham film features some deft visuals and certainly has a lot of heart.  Of course, the threat of nuclear apocalypse no longer hangs over the world and so it is easier, in some sense, to dismiss the film and its eighties era fears as fantasies, or relics of a time long gone.  

Robbed of its timely currency, WarGames loses some impact in 2012 and even seems dull at spots.  It’s a good film, to be certain, but I remember seeing it in 1983 and thinking how terribly plausible it all seemed.  Watching it this weekend, I was struck by pleasant feelings of nostalgia, but not consumed with excitement or fear.

 “Let’s play Global Thermonuclear War.”

Hoping to preview a new exciting game from a company called Protovision, high-school student and computer whiz David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) accidentally hacks into a computer at NORAD, the W.O.P.R. (War Operations Plan Response).  

David engages the machine in a game of Global Thermonuclear War, unaware that the game could have catastrophic real life ramifications.

After David is arrested by officials at NORAD, he learns that the machine is still playing the war game, and that only some know-how insight from its creator, Dr. Falken (John Wood) can stop W.O.P.R., or “Joshua.”  David escapes from custody and with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), sets out to find Falken, now a recluse following the death of his family.

At first, Falken is unwilling to help, believing that “extinction is part of the natural order,” but David and Jennifer soon persuade him to help them stop the countdown to nuclear Armageddon. 

“People sometimes make mistakes.”

WarGames opens with a frightening scenario. Two military men in a bunker are given the order to launch nuclear missiles and, in essence, destroy 20 million lives.  

One man can’t do it.  One man can. But without both men on the same page, the missiles don’t fire. 

Upon audit of this event, the Army and Administration officials are very upset.

If the President wants to launch a nuclear attack, he can’t have a 22% failure rate because his soldiers have an outbreak of morality over causing mass murder, can he?

Instead of honoring human morality, the Armed Forces and Administration decide that the way to remedy this situation is to remove mankind from the loop entirely; to take men out of those launch stations and replace them with computer relays that operate automatically, and are connected to a machine called W.O.P.R.

In other words, it is better to double down on the concept of winnable nuclear war than to question if global self-destruction and mass murder are actually rational courses of action.

This opening sequence remains one of WarGames' finest.  It is tense, well-acted, and it immediately sets the stakes.  We quickly sympathize with the soldiers tasked with destroying the world, and gasp at how stupid the bureaucrats are.  They want to have their nuclear war no matter what, and are not going to let a little thing like individual conscience stop them.  By stumbling down this particularly repugnant path (and never looking back…), they nearly doom the entire human race to extinction.

On a much more human and intimate level, WarGames also proves intriguing today because it understands that the future of human race involves, largely, people gazing at screens.  

In this movie, there are big screens, little screens, arcade game screens, home computer screens, and wall-sized screens displaying Missile Command-like graphics, not to mention Tic-Tac-Toe playing boards.  

Plainly, the idea here is that man has crossed a threshold into a new world, one where computers are at the center of every facet of life, whether it is playing games, booking airline tickets, or waging war.  And yes, this observation is prophetic in terms of 1983's understanding of the future.  Today, we do all those things by computer on a regular basis, and many of us spend eight-hours a day, five days a week gazing at monitor screens.

Screens, screens everywhere...

Would you like to play a game?

Accordingly, several times throughout WarGames, director Badham cuts to images of these myriad screens, and we detect a human face reflected upon them.  This image could be considered a visual way of “boxing in” the characters’ usable space in the composition, positioning them in a frame-within-a-frame, and thus revealing their entrapment or enslavement by the machine.   

Or it could be, perhaps more trenchantly, a way of suggesting a shared world.  People like David are seen, literally, inside the confines of the computer screens, via their reflections.  Have we built "children" that will one day be our equals?

The question this brand of composition raises is simple: Are we a reflection of our computers?  Or are they a reflection of us?  If we fail to teach our machines our morality, how can they accurately reflect us, their masters and "parents"?  

Contrarily, we could ask: do the computers we stare at all day succeed, instead, in “de-humanizing” us, turning matters of life and death into exercises in statistics, percentages and other equations?

What happens to mankind when life-and-death decisions are reduced to math?  In examining that question, WarGames is a cautionary tale about handing over too much authority, and ceding too much humanity, to computers.

The frequent compositions in WarGames that reveal computer screens, and human reflections “locked” inside them, suggest in uncomfortable ways, a fear of computers and technology, but also a fear of deeper symbiosis with our tools and instrumentation.   If the world were destroyed in the scenario presented by this film, it would be because we failed to make our machines a real reflection of our hopes and dreams, it seems.  It will be because we have failed as parents.

Are we reflections of our creations?

Or are they reflections of us?

In some oblique way, WarGames also implies that self-annihilation is in our very nature.  Falken suggests that “nature knows when to give up,” and seems to believe that man has reached that threshold because he has constructed machines -- computerized sons and daughters, essentially -- who lack our conscience and capacity to care.   Only when W.O.P.R. creates a “computer enhanced hallucination” of the end of the world do people readily detect how they are gambling with the world’s future, and humanity’s future by handing over control of our weaponry to the machines.

One quality I have always admired about the film involves the solution to this problem.  There isn’t some all-out effort to destroy or unplug W.O.P.R. in WarGames.  Instead, David runs the seemingly-curious machine through the rounds of Tic-Tac-Toe so it can understand futility; how two sides of equal strength can fight to a draw…but  no better. 

This solution suggests that machines are not really such bad sorts after all, if they can -- like us -- gain practical experience.  Fortunately, W.O.P.R. can play a few thousand simulations of Tic-Tac-Toe and Global Thermonuclear War in a few minutes and arrive at the conclusion that there is no winning strategy.   He just needs to be taught, and humanity needs to teach him.

In the character of Falken, we very much see this idea of a “father” figure.  He has even named W.O.P.R. “Joshua” after his dead son.  But because W.O.P.R. is a machine, Falken has been able to walk away from his creation both physically and emotionally, and become a kind of absentee parent.  When David communicates with W.O.P.R. as Dr. Falken by using his password, there even seems to be a longing on the machine’s part for his father’s presence.  He seems to have missed him, after a fashion.  

In many ways, that idea of being “responsible parents” to our technology is more timely today than the nuclear countdown or thriller aspects of WarGames.  The technology is different in 2012, but the problem, perhaps, hasn't really changed.

I remember first seeing WarGames in 1983 and being absolutely terrified by it.  Today, that emotional response seems a little silly, given the film’s abundant sense of humor and the jokey scenes involving Broderick and Sheedy as they hack into NORAD and evade capture. 

But what’s impossible to convey if you didn’t live through the eighties is just how pervasive the fear of nuclear war was, circa 1980 – 1983.  I remember going to sleep almost every night and worrying about nuclear war.  

Where would we go to survive?  How would we live?  What if it happened when I was away at college, and I couldn't re-connect with my family?  

These were not remote, intellectual issues for cerebral or dispassionate debate.  

As a thirteen year old, these were the thoughts that I ended each day with as I fell into slumber. These thoughts were never far from consciousness, and certainly many films of the era, from the Mad Max trilogy to Dreamscape (1984), from Night of the Comet (1984) to WarGames tapped into this pervasive apocalypse mentality.

But today, divorced from its original context, WarGames almost seems gentle or quaint compared to our modern entertainment.  It hasn't aged terrifically well.  

Still, I can assure you, when I was thirteen years old this John Badham movie had me on the edge of my seat throughout, and I wondered -- and worried -- if today could be doomsday.   I'm very grateful that in 2012 my son has no such thing to worry about, and that his sleep is untroubled by the specter of idiocies like "winnable" nuclear war. 

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Dr. Who and the Daleks

Pop Art:Dinky Edition

Collectible of the Week: Voltron Coffin of Doom/Coffin of Darkness (Panosh Place; 1984)

Joel and I have been watching and enjoying Voltron: Defender of the Universe (1984) on Netflix over the holidays. 

Although Voltron hasn’t quite reached the level of Joel’s current/ongoing Cyberman/Doctor Who obsession, he loves one aspect in particular of the Japanese animated series.

In each episode, Haggar the Witch sends a fierce ro-beast to challenge Voltron and the heroes of the Galaxy Alliance.  These ro-beasts arrive on planetary surfaces in kitted-up space coffins: weird colorful caskets that “birth” the monstrosities

In 1984, the company Panosh Place created a whole line of really great Voltron toys -- ships and figures -- including the Coffin of Doom (containing the Ro-Beast Scorpius) and the Coffin of Darkness, which houses the Ro-Beast memorably called “Mutilor.”

Both of these swing open coffins house Voltron action figures, and feature forward-aiming armament, as you can see from the photographs.  The back of the coffin box describes the grim vehicles thusly: “Only a dreaded Ro-beast could live in this evil coffin.  But this is no ordinary resting place, because this horrific flying machine takes Scorpius/Mutilor on his barbaric missions.

It goes on to say: “Combat and chaos, that’s why Haggar the Witch created the Coffin of Doom/Darkness.  And with its wings spread, war lamp lit and clicking battle sound, it more than lives up to its creator’s most diabolical dreams.”

The boxes also describe the terrifying pilots.  They thrive on “combat” and pilot the coffins. 

From the moment you see” their "eerie glow” and hear their “forbidding sound, you know that evil is on the way.

“Voltron, beware!”

Alas, the pilots are sold separately from the coffins of doom/darkness. 

Now I just need to get my hands on a Panosh Place Voltron and Castle of Lions…

Model Kit of the Week #13

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Found Footage

Comic-Book Review: To Hell You Ride Issue #2

The second issue of Dark Horse’s horror comic series from Lance Henriksen, Joseph Maddrey, and Tom Mandrake, To Hell You Ride, releases tomorrow, on January 9th.  I reviewed the first issue here and was quite taken with it.  And last week, I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at the second issue.

As was the case in the inaugural chapter, To Hell You Ride #2 depicts its intriguing tale across multiple time periods.  One portion of the tale is set in the Colorado Mountains in 1974, and involves a Native American man named Six George who takes his own life…at the emotional expense of his son’s. 

Another track in the story is set in “Present Day” as that son, now grown-up, realizes he has been living in the equivalent of an “emotional coma.”  We also get hints of his capacity to connect with others -- though still buried -- through the presence of a new character named Mary.

Additionally, the authors depict another time track in this issue: a facet of the tale set in Vietnam during the year 1969, at the height of the war.  This latter flashback grants Lance Henriksen’s character -- the decent and honorable Jim Shipps -- more exposure than he has had in the story thus far. 

Finally, we get a macabre interlude -- one worthy of an X-Files prologue -- set on the ski slopes.  A skier undergoes a frightening, inexplicable, and gory transformation…

As we saw in the first issue, To Hell You Ride boasts an extremely powerful authorial voice, both in terms of words and trenchant imagery.  That trademark facet continues here, and some of the lyrical words -- especially when coupled with haunting images -- again prove impossible to forget.  “Bullets don’t have eyes.  They don’t know who they kill,” for instance.  The psychic punch of those words is considerable when matched with the accompanying art. 

Perhaps more on-point in terms of the overall story arc, there’s a wonderful passage later in the book that discusses the modern, morally-bankrupt culture which de-values the land, and which measures that culture against what it could be.  

That passage reads: “We speak when we should be silent.  We overlook nature, craving noise and activity, distractions and illusive forms of intimacy.  We act like we control everything.” 

These words lead into the grotesque interlude with the skier, and the most overtly horrific imagery we’ve encountered thus far in terms of the wider tale.  This is a great sequence in the book, primarily because the words concern the specific skier (and his attempt to control nature), and can be interpreted on a wider scale, about our culture as a whole.

I also noticed in Issue #2 that one particular term repeats at least three times: the word “contamination.” 

To be contaminated is to be soiled by something, to be rendered impure by it.  Contamination might also be deemed “absorption” of some quality that is negative.  The word, if memory serves, also appears in at least two different time periods in this issue of To Hell You Ride.  I must assume then that “contamination” is a key pillar of the larger narrative or theme.

In Issue #1, we learned about a universe of messages ignored, and the importance of being open to messages…whatever their form.  Issue #2, by contrast, veritably obsesses on this notion of contamination.  It could be contamination of the body or physical form (in relation to Six George and the unlucky skier), and it could also be the contamination of the land itself by the “new miners,” the decadent consumers and vacationers who descend upon Mother Nature with the express permission of a loathsome new character, the obese, avaricious (and constantly perspiring…) Mayor Cubby Boyers. 

Or, perhaps, we are sensing the tip of a deeper linkage here: how contamination of the land leads to contamination of the spirit, and of the culture.

At this point, To Hell Your Ride’s ultimate direction is still ominously and commendably opaque, yet rife with “messages” of the direction it may ultimately take.  But the shift this month to an obsession on “contamination” suggests that dark times and dark happenings are ahead. 

What I continue to enjoy most about To Hell You Ride is its powerful and rich voice, reflected in word and art, and its sprawling didactic tapestry, a tapestry whose strands inch closer together with each interlocking piece of the puzzle.

I can’t wait to see how the third chapter builds on the first two…

Remember, To Hell You Ride Issue # 2 goes on sale tomorrow here, so check it out!  I recommend reading the first two issues back-to-back, because the experience is even richer and more rewarding.

Cult Movie Review: The Devil Inside (2012)

Director William Brent Bell’s The Devil Inside (2012) is another “found footage” horror film of recent vintage, and one that has met with -- big surprise here -- widespread critical and audience derision. 

And yet plainly, The Devil Inside is not a profoundly bad movie in the way that The Apparition (2012) is, for example.

In fact, much of the Bell film is intriguing, involving, and well-acted. 

In addition, this horror film intelligently addresses its fascinating subject matter -- the apparently similar natures of mental illness and demonic possession in terms of “brain functioning”-- right up until its emotionally unsatisfying and borderline craven valedictory moment.

I’m a stalwart defender of found footage horror films…at least the good ones.  I’ve come to the conclusion that most mainstream critics simply don’t like the form, just as they also never liked the slasher format, or the torture porn format, and have thus tuned out even the better examples of the sub-genre.   These reviewers aren’t taking each example of the found-footage film on its own merits, in other words, but instead lumping ‘em all together as “bad,” a priori.

And indeed, there are plenty of superior found footage movies out there (again, The Blair Witch Project [1999], [REC] [2007] and Cloverfield [2008] leap to mind), but at least The Devil Inside doesn’t make some of the (apparently crowd-pleasing) mistakes of the Paranormal Activity series in terms of spoon-feeding the audience information.  I suppose I enjoyed the film on that basis alone.  It doesn’t talk down to you.

Even The Devil Inside’s unsatisfactory ending is borderline defensible, after a fashion, on the basis of the found-footage template and structure, even if the denouement fails to satisfy intellectually and on human terms. 

In short, The Devil Inside is a good deal more accomplished than most critics claimed argued, though not a film without some considerable flaws, as I’ll acknowledge and enumerate below.

 “In all my years in the Church, I’ve seen the Devil more often than I’ve seen God.”

The Devil Inside opens with a 911 recording from a murderer in the year 1989.  Housewife Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) confesses to the murder of three clergy (two priests and a nun) in her home, and is quickly taken into custody by the police. 

In 2009, Maria’s grown daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) teams up with a filmmaker, Michael Shaeffer (Ionut Grama) to make a documentary about her mother’s case. 

In particular, Isabella worries that madness is in her genes and that it is “just a matter of time” before she goes insane like her mother did.

Isabella and Michael travel to Rome and the Vatican, where Isabella attends a Catholic class on the subject of exorcism.  Although the Church denies that Maria is demonically possessed, two excitable young priests, Father David (Evan Helmuth) and Father Ben (Simon Quarterman) agree to help Isabella understand the rite of exorcism by allowing her to film their illicit, non-sanctioned exorcisms.

At the site of the first exorcism -- in a  creepy basement -- David warns Michael to keep Isabella behind him, an oblique reference to “transference,” the capacity of a demon to leap from one body to another.

Then, after examining Maria at the Centrino Hospital, Ben and David unadvisedly rush into an exorcism of Isabella’s mother, and determine that four separate demonic entities may be residing inside her. 

Finally, after the exorcism apparently releases Maria from torment and possession, David, Michael, Ben and Isabella each begin to act strangely…belligerently.  During a routine baptism, Father David attempts to drown a baby.  Then, upon returning home to his apartment, he kills himself…

When Isabella begins to seize and undergo unnatural contortions, Ben and Michael rush her to the nearest hospital, wondering if the evil inside Maria has spread to them.

“Is it in my genes?”

Bell’s 2012 horror film seems to suffer from two primary and not inconsiderable flaws. The first is the film’s widely-despised and inconclusive ending, and the second involves some third-act “reality TV confessional”-style hemming-and-hawing that plays more like housemate bickering on Big Brother than legitimate character interaction, at least given the film’s setting and situation.

First, let’s dissect the ending.  

The movie reaches a kind of crescendo of madness in a speeding car and then…it stops.  It just stops. Nothing gets resolved and nothing gets fixed.  There's no closure. The film cuts to black, and a URL is thrown-up (though not literally vomited...) onto black screen.  The broadcasting of a URL so quickly -- instead of following the end credits, for instance -- plays as insulting to an audience still engaged in the narrative and characters.  The joke “too soon” comes to mind.  The marketing ploy -- go to this web site to learn more! -- plays as slick advertisement.

Yet, much of the wide-spread criticism of The Devil Inside’s ending qualifies as sort of damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t thinking.  I’ve read dozens of reviews of found footage films in which critics complain vociferously about characters in said films “filming everything,” even beyond sense and their own survival instinct.  I agree, it can seem contrived if done poorly.  The standard, blanket refrain in the REC movies, for instance, is that "the people deserve to know what's happening!"  Therefore, the camera-person keeps filming.  It can get...silly.

So along comes a movie -- The Devil Inside -- that exploits the form of the “found footage”-style and comes to a final, irrevocable stop at a catastrophic but logical point…a point when nobody could rightly continue filming the story. 

So do the same critics applaud the filmmakers for adhering rigorously to “realism" in their chosen format?

Of course, not.  Instead, they complain that the movie has no formalized or conventional ending.

While I can understand the complaints about the ending seeming like a marketing ploy (with the sudden, poorly-timed broadcasting of a URL on the screen), I would ask for some degree of consistency of argument on the part of the critics.  You can’t complain all the time that the form of found footage is contrived, and then also turn around complain when a found footage film attempts to overcome that contrivance logically.

I actually found the second problem I named above more irksome: the reality TV aspects of the narrative.  

I’ve seen many found footage films of late -- as the reviews on this blog attest -- and many of the films feature relatively weak or diffident acting.  I was impressed in The Devil Inside, however with Crowley, Quartman, and Helmuth, particularly.  

But at one point during the third act, the main characters go before the camera and in talking-head confessional style, begin to bitch about their friends.  I get, of course, the idea that they are becoming argumentative and disruptive because of latent demonic possession/transference (!), but a decade of bad reality programming doesn’t allow the moment to play successfully in that vein.  It’s all very Big Brother-esque, and not in a good way, either.  These moments, especially with Michael on camera being contrary for no particular or apparent reason, nearly sink the film’s last act.

On the plus side, however, The Devil Inside features two point-blank scenes of exorcism which are harrowing and horrific in the extreme.  The first scene occurs in a dark, dank basement and is, in a word, unforgettable.  The setting is grim and scary, and the physical effects -- including a moment of prodigious vaginal bleeding -- will shock you.  

The second exorcism occurs in the Centrino Medical Facility (in Rome) and is effectively shot, if not quite as startling as the first scene.

Also worthy of mention here is actress Suzan Crowley, who gives a kudos-worthy, utterly unglamorous performance as the possibly-possessed, possibly mentally-ill character, Maria Rossi.  There’s a scene early in the film wherein Maria’s daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) visits the sick woman in the Centrino sanitarium, and Crowley crafts a moment of spiraling madness that proves quite powerful.  

In this “interview” scene there are no Exorcist-style pyrotechnics or Emily Rose-type make-up effects to fall back on, but Crowley -- alternately docile and tempestuous -- puts a fine point on the movie’s central debate: pinpointing the line between psychiatric disorder and demonic possession.  The actress gives a truly accomplished and three-dimensional performance in a way that is, in some fashion, scarier than the scenes featuring a contortionist.  When you look at Crowley's Rossi, you see a very sick, very deranged, very dangerous person, whatever the specifics of her ailment.  Crowley imbues all her scenes with a strong sense of unpredictability, and that unpredictability creates anxiety in the viewer.

I also appreciated how the film spells out the four qualifications for recognizing demonic possession, and how the young priests use cutting-edge science to help them make a diagnosis, ultimately.  Much of what happens in the film’s last act involves the fulfillment (and subversion) of the four stated qualifications.   Furthermore, I admired the way the film took Isabella's  personal quest from one of self-discovery to one of self-fulfilling prophecy.   I’ll confess, I found these touches clever enough  to keep me engaged and interested.

If you love horror films and found footage horror films, and if -- God bless you – you followed me through my positive review of Apollo 18 (2011) and agreed with my conclusions, then The Devil Inside may be right up your alley.