Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sci-Fi Cityscapes #4: The Fifth Element (1997); circa the 23rd Century

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Hot-Air Artist" (October 30, 1976)

Every time I write something upbeat and positive about Land of the Lost’s third season, I’m rewarded with a dreadful follow-up show like this one, “Hot-Air Artist.” 

Last week, I found “Flying Dutchman” atmospheric and creepy, and generally well-vetted, and here we get a story that follows precisely the same beats, only with a different guest star of the week.

In “Hot-Air Artist,” a balloonist and adventurer, the self-important Colonel Roscoe Post (David Healey) arrives in the Land of the Lost through a hurricane-like vortex, and offers to take the Marshalls home on his journey, but only if they can help him repair his gondola and balloon.  This mirrors Captain Van Der Mere’s offer in last week’s episode, with the Marshall’s trading a negotiation with Malak (and a return of stolen items) for passage home.

But Post’s offer of escape, like the Dutchman’s, is not genuine.  As the Dutchman secretly coveted Holly for companionship, Post here plans to escape from the Land of the Lost only with Chaka, whom he sees as a “missing link” and a kind of cash cow.  He plans to exhibit the tiny Paku all over the world…at steep prices, and he even tricks Chaka into believing they will visit Pakuni cities together.

As in “Flying Dutchman,” Jack perceives the threat at literally the last instant and arranges a rescue before the guest villain of the week can depart the Land of the Lost with an unwanted traveler.  Here, Chaka jumps from the gondola in flight and escapes.  Meanwhile, Post merrily flees the prehistoric terrain.

So, all the narrative points of “Hot-Air Artist” align exactly with those in “Flying Dutchman,” making the the episode an absolute rerun, only with a balloon replacing a man-of-war, the blustery, self-important Post replacing Captain Van Der Mere, and Chaka replacing Holly.  It’s creative bankruptcy and its worst, and I would hasten to add that kids are quick to pick up on such things. 

One tenet of Land of the Lost originally was that it would never talk down to its (resourceful) audience of children, instead fostering imagination with challenging tales of time loops, closed pocket universes and the like.  I would argue that “Flying Dutchman,” despite some continuity problems, lives up to that ideal since it concerns world mythology, but that “Hot-Air Artist,” in recycling the same story just one week later, fails to do so.

Speaking of continuity problems, “Hot-Air Artist” has some weird touches.  For instance, we see Sleestaks in the Library of Skulls tapping on human skulls as though they are drums.  How did this particular ritual get started?  And where did the human skulls from? 

On the other hand, it’s nice that Chaka takes a moment in the episode to remember “Stone Soup,” A Rick Marshall creation from early in the season’s run.

Finally, one just has to take a deep breath and acknowledge that visitors are arriving in the Land of the Lost willy-nilly now, with no pre-text of reason or rationality.  We learned in the first two seasons that the Land maintains a constant sense of balance, and that for someone to enter Altrusia, someone must also leave…at the same time.  Yet in two weeks here, we’ve had two visitors -- by sea and by air -- with no explanation whatsoever.  At this point it seems that no one is even trying to be true to the series’ stated history.

Dramatically-speaking, the original rule was smart writing.  It meant that the Marshalls had very little chance of escape, unless they were able to balance the mechanisms of Altrusia.  Under this new rule, people come and go all the time – Dutch Sea Captains, Hot Air Artists from the 1920s, and even Cowboys and Indians (“Medicine Man”) and so it is tough to believe that given so many visitors and so many opportunities for escape the Marshalls always end up stuck. 

Call it the “Gilligan’s Island” effect.

Next week, another stinker: “Abominable Snowman.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

From the Archive: Catfish (2010 )

Given the importance of "cat-fishing" in the current news cycle, I thought it might be interesting to feature this documentary review from the archive today.

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's documentary Catfish is a cautionary tale for the Internet Age, a compelling and yet surprisingly emotional reminder to not always believe everything you see online. 

The controversial 2010 film is also a testament to how important the online or electronic experience has become to our society and our relationships in the twenty-first century, an epoch when you "sext" your prospective partner without ever having met her face-to-face, and when photos on Facebook are readily accepted as truthful identification of strangers.

Catfish depicts a strange and unnerving chapter in the life of successful New York photographer Yaniv Schulman, whose work was recently published in a prominent magazine. 

Following that publication, Yaniv  is contacted by 8-year old Abby Faccio, a child prodigy who produces a startling and life-like painting of his photo, and who, after that introduction, keeps sending him further gifts.  Each package has a new painting in it, and more: T-shirts and the like.

As Yaniv's brother and friend -- the film's directors -- record him in his studio responding to Abby's unusual artistry, Yaniv is drawn deeper and deeper into her world.  For instance, he learns of her beautiful and eccentric mother, Angela, and their home in Michigan.  One day, a snowstorm there topples their 150-year old maple tree, and it has to be bulldozed.  Yaniv reflects that their life sounds great " least from Facebook."

And then, finally, Yaniv starts to develop a long-distance relationship with Megan, Abby's 19-year old sister.  Megan, I should add, is a gorgeous ballet dancer who plays the cello and guitar, and rides horses on her farm.

Recognize this face?  It's Megan Faccio, or is it?
Soon, Yaniv is head-over-heels in love with a woman he has never met, and Catfish portrays this budding romance in totally electronic terms, with a dazzling flurry of images and posts on Facebook, with IM chats, music downloads, and even some establishing shot imagery that purposefully suggests the layout of Google Maps. 

YouTube makes an important appearance in the film too.  We get extreme close-ups of Internet transmission buttons reading "Send" and "Confirm."  The impression is instant connection, not to mention instant gratification.

But Yaniv's keyboard love life comes into question unexpectedly when he learns that the songs Megan has downloaded on Facebook and represented as her own work are actually already on YouTube; the recordings of other artists. 

Appropriately, the photographer begins to suspect that there is much more going on than meets the eye, and commences a road trip to Michigan (with his filmmaker friends, naturally...) to meet Megan, Angela and Abby face-to-face.  He wants to know if he's been lied to.    He wants to know if the Faccios are "complete psychopaths."

To tell you anything further about Catfish would probably ruin the effect of the film's heartfelt, even devastating third act.  But suffice it to say, before you learn the "secret" of Megan, Angela and Abby Faccio, these documentarians wring significant anxiety and mystery out of their cautionary tale. 

A 2:00 am, thick-of-the-night stop at an apparently abandoned horse farm supposedly belonging to Megan will have you on the edge of your seat, simply because you have no idea what to expect.  And once it is established that dishonesty is involved with the Facebook profiles, the movie makes the most with very little in terms of budget and location, causing you to wonder how strange, diabolical, or weird the journey's destination and resolution might be.  This is a brilliant feint, especially given the film's valedictory moments.

I wrote above that Catfish is controversial, and that's because many people (including some critics) don't believe it is a legitimate documentary.  Rather, they believe that elements of the film (particularly how things are set-up in the first half) are deliberately staged. 

I will state, unequivocally, that there is no way that anything that occurs in the third act could possibly be staged, or faked.  

Rather, it is one of the most unexpected, heart-rending twists you could rightly imagine, and no conventional Hollywood narrative would have dared taken this distinctly un-glamorous direction. The person who is the subject of this third act, in that Michigan house, does not give a movie performance; but delivers - staggeringly - the entirety of a real personality; of an individual life.  She presents everything that Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter can't, even at their pinnacle.   This human portrait that ends the film is so powerful it takes the breath away.

Whether any part of Catfish is faked may be of great interest for the historical record, but ultimately it doesn't matter in terms of how well the movie works. 

In this case, the idea that a documentary may not be exactly what it claims simply mirrors the subject matter; the idea that Facebook and other social networks aren't venues of strict truth.  As readers here well know, I  steadfastly believe that cinema reaches an apex of  quality when form echoes content, and so -- even if artificial to some extent -- Catfish passes that test.  The film's ultimately questionable form echoes the questionable content of Megan, Angela, and Abby's online, electronic lives.

Romance via Photoshop.
What's the take-away from Catfish? Perhaps only that human beings are strange, multi-faceted creatures, and that our Internet avatars are alter-egos that may represent many things, but not the totality of that human equation.  Those online "lives" may represent fragments of a personality.  Or projections of who we are...or would like to be.  They can be manifestations of fantasy, desire, or, at times, of a need to escape unpleasant reality.  But they, can't, finally, be the full person.

I've rarely seen a movie get at this relatively thoughtful and deep notion better than Catfish.  To quote Yaniv, this movie may really "freak you out," or it may, unexpectedly, rouse in you deep feelings of...sympathy.  

And the caution in the cautionary tale?  The Internet is life all right, only it is life Photo-shopped.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Pilot" (September 10, 1993)

The X-Files’ first episode, “Pilot” written by Chris Carter and directed by Robert Mandel, remains a strong introduction to this classic horror/sci-fi series.  The inaugural installment not only presents an intriguing mystery and introduces audiences to engaging characters caught up in life-changing events, it also presents a first and ominous peek at the dark forces aligned against the protagonists, and against “the truth” itself.

But even better, the X-Files “Pilot” is skillful in the manner by which it deploys (and co-opts) horror imagery or symbolism.   I admire The X-Files for many reasons, including the overall structure, which permits viewers to gaze at every mystery of the paranormal through the twin lenses of skepticism and belief, the strong writing, which resonates on a deep, philosophical level, and the powerful chemistry between the lead actors.  But I also appreciate the clever presentation of the “monsters” and other horror tropes because Chris Carter and his team have re-purposed and updated them for modern consumption.  You can see this quality in the series' non-romantic, non-glamorous approach to vampires (“3” or “Bad Blood,”) for instance.

The series' pilot episode commences this pattern, selecting from over a hundred-and-fifty years of horror literature and nearly a hundred years of  horror cinema some very iconic imagery that it converts to its own narrative purpose.  In the process, it infuses that imagery and literature with scintillating new meaning and enhanced relevance for the nineties.

“Welcome to the FBI’s most unwanted…”

The X-Files pilot follows a young, brilliant F.B.I. agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as she is summoned to meet Section Chief Blevins (Charles Cioffi).  He gives her a new assignment: partnering with “spooky” Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on the unit called "The X-Files," which is devoted to strange, unsolved, even inexplicable cases.

At first, Mulder is suspicious of Scully presence, believing she has been sent to spy and/or debunk his work.  They bond, however, on their first case, which takes them to Bellefleur, Oregon.  There, four high school students have died under unusual circumstances, with strange markings found on their corpses.  The latest victim is Karen Swenson. 

Mulder and Scully order the body of the third victim, Ray Soames, exhumed, and find a deformed body in the casket…a body that could be that of an orangutan...or an extra-terrestrial.  During an examination, Scully finds a strange implant embedded in the creature’s nasal cavity.

After the partners experience an incident of “missing time,” Mulder suspects that the students are alien abductees, but all the evidence they have to support that case is soon destroyed in a suspicious fire.  When Scully reports back to Blevins, she produces the only remaining evidence…the implant.

Soon after the investigation, a mysterious Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) takes the implant device and deposits it inside a vast, secret warehouse-like facility…in the Pentagon.

“I’m not a part of any agenda…”

As a series, The X-Files begins with two intriguing and unmistakable nods to horror film convention.

The first is an on-screen “card” with white lettering and black background.  It establishes that the following story is, in some sense, true, or at least adapted from true “documented accounts.”  

This is the same “based on a true story” gambit utilized by genre efforts as diverse as The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Return of the Living Dead (1985) to name just a few. 

Title Card: Last House on the Left.

Title Card: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Title Card: Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Title Card: Return of the Living Dead.

Title Card: The X-Files: "Pilot."
The general purpose of this technique is, broadly, to put audiences in the frame-of- mind to believe not so much that the featured story is accurate or actually completely true, but that elements of it could happen…or even possible.  The notation of “based on facts” creates a sense of urgency and closeness with the following tale.  Did this really happen?  Could it have really happened?

The presentation of the title card is also a call-back to genre history, and TV series such as One Step Beyond (1959 – 1961), a horror anthology which dramatized tales of the paranormal (including, even, alien abduction in an episode titled “Encounter.”)   The title card essentially classifies The X-Files as a series that plans to have one foot in fact, and one in fiction.  It is a development or evolution of series like One Step Beyond and Beyond Reality (1991 – 1993), however, because of its focus on hard science, and new investigative techniques.

The Gothic, Enchanted Forest.

The Gothic, Enchanted Forest #2.
Following the on-screen card, the pilot episode transports viewers to a haunted forest during impenetrable night.  There, a Gothic scene that could have come straight from any Hammer Studios horror film in the late 1950s or early 1960s occurs.  In particular, a young, beautiful heroine in a white nightgown is pursued and attacked by a mysterious (and apparently malevolent) specter.  This attack seems to upset the very balance of nature itself, and an atmospheric disturbance occurs in symbolic protest of the unnatural act.

This opening sequence establishes a few important and meaningful details.  

First is the idea -- found routinely in the series -- that The X-Files is dead-set on re-purposing old horror monsters and horror imagery and subverting or altering that imagery to make it relevant again in the contemporary nineties culture.  Over the years, the series featured encounters with vampires (“Bad Blood”), werewolves (“Shapes”), demons (“Terms of Endearment) and even a “post-modern” take on Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Post-Modern Prometheus.”)  The old monsters were made new again, and thus more meaningful to the culture. 

The endangered woman in the diaphanous white dress (a symbol of purity), pursued by some ghoulish figure who is so reprehensible that Nature Itself rebels in its presence represents a key paradigm of Gothic Literature.  In a sense, it is the most basic image of horror: the monster in pursuit of the damsel.

Secondly, this scene establishes that the wild -- or an “enchanted” forest, in particular -- is a key setting for horror.  And indeed, The X-Files would often to return to this brand of "wilderness" during its nine year run (in episodes as diverse as “Darkness Falls” and “Detour.”) 

But again, the setting also provides an explicit link to the American past, carried right into the American present.  From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1835) and Charles Brocken Brown’s Wieland (1789) right up through David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1991) and its demonic Black Lodge, the forest has been the anxious location of danger and mystery in the American psyche. 

Immediately, The X-Files inscribes the next chapter in that link, tying the forest not specifically to the devil or dark spirits, as was the case with both Hawthorne and Lynch, but with an inexplicable, modern phenomenon, alien abduction.  

Again, this idea boasts very clear antecedents.  Wieland concerns strange lights in a forest, the paranormal phenomenon of spontaneous combustion, and “modern” psychological disorders such as schizophrenia (played out through the new art of “ventriloquism”). That tale is in every way as cutting edge in terms of science and "belief" for 1789 as The X-Files is in 1993.

In much broader terms, The X-Files is “Gothic” in another fashion.  Gothic Literature is often described as the Romantic response to the Enlightenment.  It is a “belief” response to “science” and technological advancement, in other words.  Gothic stories often involve a “tug-of-war” between these ideals with the prize being the soul of the protagonist.  Plainly, one can see that tug-of-war played out in both Scully and Mulder. 

They are both incomplete personalities, whose world-views -- with their inherent limitations -- can’t complete them.  Mulder is the believer who attempts to use science to validate his (sometimes wild) beliefs.  Scully is the skeptic who can brook no belief beyond the parameters of accepted, consensus reality and empirical science.  They wage a tug of war not only with each other, but with themselves, specifically about what kind of world they live in.  Is it one of miracles and monsters (Romantic)?   Or is it one of science and rationality (Enlightenment)?  

In a sense then, The X-Files recreates the very context of another historical age: The Victorian Age

If you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), that epistolary novel concerns, in broad-strokes the collision of the new age of “science” (represented by typewriters, film, and hypnosis, among other things), with an irrational or romantic threat from the past: the magical, exotic (and foreign) threat of Count Dracula.  

With its cutting-edge 1990s science, setting and investigative techniques The X-Files similarly places its heroes in direct conflict with things that seem magic because they can’t be proved.  These things would similarly be described as magical, exotic or foreign because they originate from another world, the mists of prehistory, or genetic mutation. 

Interestingly, the first few seasons of The X-Files also focus intently on Mulder and Scully typing away field reports for their FBI superior on their (now-antiquated) PCs, a touch that actually mirrors the epistolary structure of Stoker’s work.  In that case, Dracula's story is told through letters, communiques, newspaper headlines and other messaging venues.  On The X-Files, Mulder and Scully seem to constantly be writing e-chronicles of their competing interpretations of strange events.

An epistolary structure, like Stoker's Dracula?
If one considers the Victorian Age to be Pax Brittanica, a time when England experienced prosperity because of colonial imports from Europe and Asia, and developed new technologies at homes (Kodak cameras, and early motion picture devices such as “cinematographs”), then one may also be tempted to look at the Age of the X-Files -- the Age of Bill Clinton -- as a version of Pax Americana.    Technological advance came in the form of the Internet, and that decade saw the dawn not of colonialism, but globalism (consider, NAFTA, for example). 

Yet in both the Victorian Age and the Clinton Age, many people began to suffer a spiritual ennui, and  experienced worry about the “mechanical” de-humanization of “modern” civilization and the loss of racial/cultural identity.  How could a single Age accommodate both the miracle of surgery and the terror of Jack the Ripper?  The science of Darwin and the magic of Dracula?   

Or for that matter, how could the World Wide Web and Jeffrey Dahmer exist side-by-side?

Essentially, The X-Files represents a new Gothic paradigm in which Enlightenment and Romanticism ideals compete again and go one more round, each trying to gain a foothold.  Whereas Dracula could transform into the form of wind, fog, thunder, owls, bats, wolves or foxes, consider the myriad villains of The X-Files.  They too are atmospheric (“D.P.O.”) in nature, or hail from the natural world.  There were bats (“Patience”), wolves (“Alpha”) and other strange, quasi-natural menaces to challenge Scully and Mulder.  These monsters were re-assertions of the Romantic Ideal in a world that was apparently enlightened.

If one is so inclined, certainly one can gaze the prologue in “Pilot” and see that it serves as a kind of metaphor for the entire series, for the new debate between science and superstition, knowledge and faith.

The final imagery of “Pilot” may seem familiar for another reason.  It appears a deliberate homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  In that Steven Spielberg film, the Lost Ark of the Covenant (a symbol, once more of Romanticism) is tucked away by 20th century man in a place where it can’t threaten Enlightenment, inside a giant, endless warehouse.

At the end of The X-Files’ pilot, The Cigarette-Smoking Man is depicted depositing a symbol of apparent Romanticism (but actually of Enlightenment…or the Truth) inside a similar warehouse…actually the Pentagon, where it will remain, essentially, buried.  

In both cases, the one who buries important knowledge is the U.S. Government.  However, in the conspiracy-heavy age of the 1990s, that act of hiding the truth is much more important in The X-Files than it is in Raiders.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark, denouement (1981).

The X-Files "Pilot," denouement.
In terms of The X-Files history and overall arc “Pilot” also functions on a very practical, very efficient level.  It ably introduces the players, the stakes, and investigative milieu.  Although Anderson and Duchovny have not yet entirely nailed down the staccato, rat-a-tat back-and-forth delivery that makes the series such a perennial joy, it is safe to say that the actors share an immediate chemistry.  They circle each other in "Pilot" with suspicion, curiosity, and ultimately, fascination.

One scene, in particular, stands out regarding the development of the relationship.  Late in the proceedings, Scully believes she has been “branded” with the same strange marks of the other victims, following an incident of missing time.  Anxious, she runs to Mulder and with almost no self-consciousness at all, disrobes before him so he can determine the nature of those marks.  This all happens in candle-light.

In going to Mulder and removing her clothing with such alacrity, Scully in some fashion takes off her armor.  She allows herself to be vulnerable and reveals that she trusts Mulder with something private, and indeed, something incredibly personal.

The writing and performances here are so elegant, because Mulder responds to this gesture of trust not with lust or humor, but with vulnerability of his own.  He lets down his emotional guard, and tells Scully the story of how he lost his sister, Samantha, possibly to alien abduction. 

In this scene, all the science, all the paranormal explanations, all the intimations of cogovernment nspiracy slip away and we are left simply with two vulnerable people connecting in a meaningful way.  What I find so intriguing about this scene is the manner of connection.  Stereotypically -- at least in terms of television history -- it would be the man who offers a physical gesture, while the woman would open up “emotionally.” 

Again, I wrote stereotypically, so don’t call me sexist.  In some sense, The X-Files seems to reverse the industry-standard dynamic between men and women in its pilot, allowing Mulder emotional vulnerability, in particular.   David Duchovny noted once that “I think the male/female roles are switched…Mulder is more intuitive, working from his emotions, his gut instinct.  Scully is more practical.” (Neil Blincow, Rob Lowing, Andrew Seidenfeld, Cult Times #12: “21st Century Fox,” September 1996, page 11).

This scene may be the first example we can point to in the series of that particular dynamic.  One of the aspects of the series we’ll be looking at in this 20th anniversary retrospective is the Scully/Mulder relationship, bboth in terms of symbolism and gender dynamics, and this scene is perhaps our first “key” to understanding.

Finally, I can’t complete a look back at the pilot episode of The X-Files without noting how it picks up the battle cry of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 – 1975).  That series featured a journalist in the immediate aftermath of Watergate trying desperately to make the "dangerous" truth known to the public  In Carl Kolchak’s battle against City Hall, he never got that truth out…that monsters exist and prey on citizens at all levels of society.   

Instead of adopting a journalist as its truth-teller, The X-Files puts forward someone of imagination (Mulder) and someone of science (Scully) as heralds.  This shift certainly reflects changing attitudes about the press in the 1990s, the decade that Fox News came into being, and also the changing attitudes about the kind of evidence that would be acceptable to the public.  The eyewitness reports of Carl Kolchak had to morph into the autopsies, DNA analyses, and behavioral profiles preferred by Scully and Mulder.

Next week for our continuing X-Files retrospective, I look back at our first freak or monster of the week, the genetic mutant Tooms, in “Squeeze.”  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Memory Bank: Starroid Raiders (1978 - 1981?)

My beloved Granny, also known, by her friends as Tippi, passed away in 2007 after a failed heart surgery.  But today, I still possess a lifetime of fond memories of her, especially from my early childhood.

Tippi was a funny character, both a bragging Texan and a gorgeous pin-up model in the days of World War II .  By the time I knew her, however, she was in her sixties had an absolutely terrible time keeping track of the toys I wanted for my birthday or Christmas. Not that it was an easy task to keep track of all that stuff given my affection for everything sci-fi rom Star Trek and Space: 1999 to Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica.

In the immediate aftermath of Star Wars (1977), for instance, a world of knock-off toys were released, flooding the market and perpetually confusing senior citizens who were trying to figure what it was all about. 

Of course, I always wanted authentic Kenner Star Wars figures for my collection, but because of my beloved granny, I kept ending up with the knock-offs, including a weird line called...Starroid Raiders.

These small action figures from Tomland had several points of articulation and came with accessories such as blasters and light swords.  One weird quality about them, that I recall, is that the figures all had soft, over-sized heads that could, rather easily, be pulled out of their neck slots.  And they were all aliens of unknown variety. It was thus difficult to be certain which were supposed to be good, and which were supposed to be evil.

The Starroid Raiders had hard-to-remember names such as “Aton,” “Haza,” “Newt” (presumably not Gingrich...) “Papi,” “Tior” and “Koga.”  I have memories of owning Koga, in particular.  I believe he was my first Starroid Raider.  But over several holiday seasons, I kept getting more of these figures from my Granny…even though I didn’t really want them. 

What’s worse is that year after year, I kept getting these figures under new, less-creative brand names.  I believe Tomland also released similar figures in the ensuing years as Space Raiders and Space Fighters.  I think they also released a ship called "Space Hawk" under the name “Star Force,” which looked like a mold of the Colonial Viper from Battlestar Galactica, only it boasted (detachable) upper wings as well as lowers ones, and a slightly different snub-nose configuration.

The great irony of my collection of Starroid Raiders -- which I no longer possess -- is that today they are considered incredibly valuable collectibles, and fetch unbelievably high prices on E-Bay.  I really wish I had kept my collection, but in my teenage years I had no idea they would eventually be anything other than sorta cheap Star Wars knock-offs.

So today, I want to thank Tippie for giving me all those action figures, and for being ahead of the curve with all those Starroid Raiders toys.   

Pop Art: Super Powers Collection Edition (Kenner)

Collectible of the Week: Space 1999 Adventure Playset (Amsco/MB 1975)

I first featured the Amsco Cardboard Adventure Sets of the 1970s here on my blog way back on September 29, 2005.  But, every now and then -- especially if the toy is Space: 1999 related -- I enjoy hauling out a collectible a second time.

So today, I’m once again featuring the Space: 1999 Cardboard Adventure Playset, with some new photographs I just snapped.

A little background: In the early-to-mid 1970s, Amsco and Milton Bradley cooperated to produce four cardboard play-sets (for Marvel Comics, Planet of the Apes, The Waltons and Space:1999 ). These giant Amsco dioramas were packaged in large, attractive and colorful rectangular boxes, were produced from "durable" cardboard, and were advertised as "fun to assemble,"

The kit you see pictured comes from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's outer space epic, Space:1999 (1975 -1977) and is a diorama of the lunar installation, Moonbase Alpha. 

As you can see, there's a landing pad, a cross-section of Moonbase Alpha's interior, including Main Mission Tower, a yellow moon-buggy, and plenty of cardboard representations of characters and aliens.  Also, the set comes with two Eagle spacecraft and two nuclear charges, the latter for detonating asteroids.

The heroes in the Space:1999 set are made in the likenesses of Martin Landau's Commander John Koenig, Barbara Bain's Helena Russell, Barry Morse's Professor Victor Bergman and even Clifton Jones' David Kano.  Unfortunately, the set was produced pre-Maya, so there's no Catherine Schell figure here.

One thing I enjoy about this particular set is that some effort was made towards accuracy in terms of the figure personalities (if not the Moonbase interiors). For instance, three cardboard figures in the Space:1999 set are aliens directly from Year One episodes. 

Peter Cushing's Raan, from "Missing Link" is here with his daughter, Vanna. The popular and horrifying octopus-like monster from "Dragon's Domain" is featured as well (with a puddle of drool/goo...).  Even the scorched Zoref (Ian McShane) from the episode, "Force of Life" is included in the set.

The Alphan figures can inhabit the base, and even ride a working elevator from one level to the next.  One door in the interior leads right out to the docking port, where the docked Eagle is stationed. One figure is a blond astronaut, who I insist is actually Captain Alan Carter (Nick Tate), although his hair isn’t quite right.

When I turn fifty, I plan on selling a large range of my prized collectibles as part of my retirement investment  plan (since freelance writers don’t get 401Ks or pensions…), but I don’t know that I can bring myself to sell this Amsco toy -- it was an anniversary gift from my wife -- or the other Space: 1999 collectibles.  We shall see...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: House at the End of the Street (2012)

Note: Below there be spoilers a plenty.  Proceed accordingly.

House at the End of the Street’s narrative feels like it arose from the early 1960s (think Psycho), and the film is titled as if it emerged from the 1970s (think Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane or Last House on the Left). 

Alas, the film’s questionable execution is very much a product of today’s slick filmmaking culture, trading on tricks, gimmicks, and hollow, surface values.

In short, this is one of the shallowest horror films imaginable, so much so that in its final moments House at the End of the Street actually encourages shallowness. The movie’s final message is -- undeniably, given the film’s symbolism -- don’t look for layers of meaning in life or in other people, look only at surfaces.  

Don’t reject the mob mentality.  Be the Mob Mentality.

This pitiless commentary is all the more shameful given that the first half-hour of the film actually reveals genuine promise, working hard to develop distinctive human characters and intriguing conflicts. 

By the time of the third act, however -- when a veteran police officer goes into a dangerous house without calling for back-up, and the killer rises from the dead for one last kill -- House at the End of the Street finds itself on automatic pilot, driven entirely by creaky clichés and genre conventions.

The film is a crushing, dispiriting disappointment.

“I think this place is going to be really good for us.”

House at the End of the Street finds single-mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and her teenage daughter, Elyssa (Jennifer Lawrence) moving into a new home in a new town.  The rent is cheap, and that’s because just across the way an old, dilapidated house blots the landscape.  It is home to the shattered Jacobsen family, which suffered a terrible incident there some years earlier.

Specifically, the Jacobsen girl, Carrie Ann went on a killing spree one dark and stormy night, murdering her Mother and Father.  Only Carrie Ann’s brother, Ryan (Max Theriot) survived, though urban legends suggest that Carrie Ann is still out there “somewhere.”  Today, the college-age Ryan is the town pariah -- shunned by school mates and dismissed by neighbors because his presence lowers their property values.

Elyssa begins to develop a friendship with Ryan, who is sensitive and sweet, but secretive.  Sarah grows enraged at her daughter’s new relationship with the derided outsider, and asks the local police sheriff, Weaver (Gil Bellows) about Ryan. Weaver knows that the entire community hates Ryan, but notes that he has always stood up for the boy in the name of fairness and decency.

As Elyssa grows close to Ryan, she learns a deadly secret about him.  Carrie Ann may not be dead.  In fact, there is a room in Ryan’s basement…where an adolescent girl is locked up…

“They like to bitch about him and their property values…”

In broad terms House at the End of the Street attempts to ape Psycho’s creative equation, but without any of the shocks or surprises we associate with Hitchcock’s landmark film. 

For instance, this film possesses no surprise on a par with Marion Crane’s death, and no shock on a par with the bloody shower murder.  Instead, House at the End of the Street plays it safe so far as gore and violence, and thus lacks much visceral punch.   Adding insult to injury, the film’s final sequence -- with a camera prowling an asylum corridor and falling upon on an insane character’s visage -- is a direct call-back to the Hitchcock classic.

Now, there is a way that House at the End of the Street might have worked, I submit. 

Conceivably, the film could thrive as a kind of high-minded, meditative character study instead of a psychological thriller.  But for that approach to work, the writing would have to be sterling.  And, simply put, it isn’t.  The characters don’t have enough depth, and they frequently spout clichés such as Shue’s dreadful line that she just knows the new house will be good for the family. Ugh.  

How many times have we heard a character make that silly comment in a horror movie before?

Thus House at the End of the Street is not surprising enough to authentically tantalize, and not smart enough to play on a deep, intellectual playing field.   Instead, it clumsily plods along its sullen way, only vaguely coughing up moments of interest. 

Worse, there’s no indication in this film why Jennifer Lawrence is such a special talent.  She sleepwalks through her performance here, making few if any interesting choices in terms of her characterization.  I write that as someone who was wowed by her performance in The Hunger Games.

Yet in the final analysis, House at the End of the Street goes from being merely a mediocre film experience to an absolutely insulting one because of the way it ultimately chooses to expresses its theme.

I noted in my introduction how House at the End of the Street encourages shallowness.  This quality of the film can be seen in the way characters respond to the outsider/misfit, Ryan, and how they, in turn, are treated for their unsympathetic attitudes and actions.

Two characters in the film show sympathy and humanity towards Ryan. One is the police officer, Weaver.  His trust is repaid by Ryan with bloody murder.  Weaver sticks his neck out for the boy, and the boy repays him with a bloody end.

Elyssa, similarly, puts herself on the line for Ryan and is rewarded for her humanity with torture, pain and suffering.

By contrast, the townspeople completely shun Ryan, and this point-of-view is shared by Sarah, Elissa’s mother.  She invites Ryan over for dinner one night just so she can, essentially, read him the riot act and throw him out.  She doesn’t trust him.  She spies on Ryan, and sets the police on him.

But here’s the point: the movie’s violent events validate the viewpoint of suspicion and even paranoia. 

Weaver and Elyssa were wrong to give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, and Sarah was right to be distrustful.  Ryan was a monster all along!  

And the mob out to get Ryan?  On some level it somehow knew he was “wrong” inside.

By making Ryan the film’s reprehensible irredeemable, unreachable villain, House at the End of the Street validates bullying and paranoid behavior.  It’s okay to pick on someone if he’s wrong, doesn’t wear the right clothes, drives an old car, or his house brings down property values.   

Now, some of you may insist I’m reading too much into the film.  I might agree with that assessment if the story stuck merely to the general twists and turns I enumerate above without underlining the thematic through-line I’ve pointed out.  The narrative’s outcome -- that Ryan is a monster -- need not necessarily be seen as a vindication of Sarah’s parochial, prejudiced view point.

But the film goes out of its way to provide an explicit metaphor so that there is no other way to see the outcome. 

Specifically, half-way through the film, Ryan informs Elyssa that everything in the world has a “secret.”  To prove his point, he takes her to a gnarled tree on his overgrown property.  He asks her to look at it.  She stares at the tree for a good long time, and finally sees something new, something previously undetectable.  There is a shape on the tree that looks like a human face.  But you can only detect that hidden face if you are willing to really study the tree, to really look below the surface of things.

At the end of the film, after Ryan is revealed as a monster, Elyssa returns to that self-same tree and asks her Mom, Sarah, what she sees. 

Sarah replies, deadpan, “a tree.” 

End of story.

The lesson, of course, is that it is better to be a person who can only see the tree, and not anything underneath, anything of deeper value. 

By seeing only the tree, you spare yourself the discomfort of a three-dimensional world view. 

The movie actually -- incredibly -- makes spectacularly explicit the notion that Elyssa’s journey has been to assure that in the future she will conform to the narrowness of her yucky, well-to-do neighbors, classmates and Mom, and not attempt to help people who don’t share her socio-economic demographic.  

It’s better to be with “dick-holes” to co-opt the movie’s terminology, than to face the possibility that by probing beneath the surface, you might find something unpleasant or difficult to contend with.

This is one of those cases where it’s not about “reading too much” into a film.  The tree metaphor is undeniably presents for all to see, understand, and process.  Thus House at the End of the Street encourages conformity, group-think and superficiality.

Early on, I felt the film wasn’t going to go that way.  Sarah was positioned in the drama as a flawed character that could not seemingly trust her daughter, and could not see that Elyssa’s desire to treat people like Ryan humanely was a great quality…one all parents should instill in their children.  But instead, the film completely validates Sarah’s narrow, parochial point of view.  She becomes the hero for sticking to her guns and only seeing “the tree.”

You can’t rescue all those misfits, honey.  Better not to try.  Those misfits can hurt you.  Now how about another glass of red wine?

I have rarely, if ever, encountered such a despicable message in a mainstream horror movie, and one so easy to pinpoint to a specific moment within the film’s text (the tree symbolism).  

One of the qualities that I love so much about horror in general is that the genre has often demonstrated sympathy for outsiders, misfits, and the monsters (think King Kong, The Frankenstein Monster or even Leatherface in his original incarnation).  They may be villains, monsters, and killers.  They may need to be punished. But they are worthy of our humanity, our mercy, and our understanding. 

As soon as we lose those qualities of empathy and compassion, we are the monsters.

But by House at the End of the Street’s reckoning, a wounded, abused kid like Ryan got what was coming to him, the little bastard. 

This is a movie that replaces human values with property values, and thinks that’s a fair exchange.