Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cult-TV Gallery: Star Trek: The Animated Series - Alien Spaceships

"More Tribbles, More Troubles"

"Beyond the Farthest Star"

"Time Trap"

"The Pirates of Orion"

"The Slaver Weapon"

"How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth"

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "Eye of the Beholder" (January 5, 1974)

STARDATE: 5501.2

The U.S.S. Enterprise sets course for the planet Lactra VII in order to discover the fate of a missing six member science team.  The crew finds a Class-M planet capable of supporting human life, but more atypically, a variety of alien creatures living on the surface.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) are soon captured by the Lactrans -- giant, intelligent, slug-like aliens -- and held captive in an alien zoo. 

There, they find that the missing science team is also being held.  Worse, the team’s navigator is ill and possibly dying…

Now it is more important than ever to talk with the telepathic Lactrans, who consider humans a lower life-form, especially if Kirk and his team are ever to return to the starship.

The “people zoo” is a recurring trope in the science fiction genre, and has appeared frequently throughout television history. 

The idea has been featured on The Twilight Zone (“People Are Alike All Over”) and even in Star Trek history, in the first pilot, “The Cage.”   

The Animated Series presents its own people zoo variation with “Eye of the Beholder,” a tale which finds the Enterprise crew trapped in a cage while alien masters regard them with curiosity, and not a little bit of disgust too.

Written by David P. Harmon (“The Deadly Years”) “Eye of the Beholder” is a pretty run-of-the-mill episode of the Filmation Star Trek series, neither an overt insult to the intelligence (like “Mudd’s Passion” or “More Tribbles, More Troubles”), nor a high-water mark such as “The Survivors,” “The Slaver Weapon” or “The Magicks of Megas-Tu.” 

“Eye of the Beholder” instead is a fairly routine show with an obvious message: both beauty and intelligence are in the “eye of the beholder.”  All life-forms, it seem, judge that which is "different" as something as less intelligent, and even ugly.  This is a fine message for a kid’s show on Saturday morning, but most adults will find the story conventional and a bit trite.  

One nice quality of this episode is that the Lactrans resemble giant slugs, the lowest of the low here on Earth. It's a clever idea that something which we regard as so disgusting is featured here as the zenith of refined intellect and sensitivity.  Therefore, the episode not only discusses prejudices based on appearances, but plays on viewer prejudices too.

Here, Spock is able to telepathically receive impressions of the Lactrans’ great intelligence, but communication is finally possible only after a Lactran child is imperiled, beamed up to the Enterprise transporter room.  The message here is that sometimes advanced life-forms may not want to communicate with that which they feel is inferior, unless they must do so to preserve their own.  Sometimes, we really need to have something at stake to consider communication, and thus compromise.

“Eye of the Beholder’s” ending scene also recalls the Original Series’ episode “Arena.”  There, the Metrons informed Captain Kirk that humanity had much promise, and that in many centuries, humanity would be a welcome friend.  Here, The Lactrans tell Spock that humans should return to their planet in twenty or thirty centuries…

Next week, a real classic of The Animated Series: “The Jihad.”

Friday, August 09, 2013

Cult Movie Review: Enemy Mine (1985)

Wolfgang Peterson's Enemy Mine (1985) is a Cold War Era film about the possibility of brotherhood between unlike people, in this case man and alien.  The story's backdrop is war itself; and the model for the film's conflict is clearly World War II, particularly the War in the Pacific fought between the U.S. and Japan.

Though based on Barry B. Longyear's story of the same title, the film version of Enemy Mine actually harks back to a 1968 film from director John Boorman: Hell in the Pacific.

In Hell in the Pacific, Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin play pilots in opposing air forces who crash on an inhospitable island and who, over time, accept each other -- and their differences -- in the battle for survival.

Hell in the Pacific's amazing natural photography, by Conrad Hall, captures the primacy of that difficult island landscape in the blossoming of the friendship between these sworn enemies. There is comparatively little dialogue spoken in the film (Mifune speaks only his native Japanese...), and the tension is often made bearable only by what Variety's reviewer called Marvin's "sardonic" lines, "which resemble wisecracks intended for onlookers."

In very precise terms, Enemy Mine strives for the same atmosphere, but does so under the bailiwick of a sci-fi veneer.

Storywise, the tale involves the Bilateral Terran Alliance (think the Allies...) battling in space (think the Pacific...) against the reptilian, stoic Dracs (think the Japanese...).

The pilots crash not on an island, but on the inhospitable planet of Fyrine IV, which is subject to wild seasonal changes, not to mention incessant meteor showers. The Terran pilot, Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) and Jeriba, the Drac (Louis Gossett Jr.) first fight with one another, before eventually joining forces to survive death from above (the meteors), and death from below in the form of carnivorous sand pit monsters.

Enemy Mine's screenplay also gives Davidge (Dennis Quaid) the same kind of sardonic banter that Marvin excelled with in Hell in the Pacific. From the very shape of that sarcastic language, we learn how Davidge feels about the Drac. He's given to derogatory nick-names (not "gook," but "Toad Face") and seems to view the Drac as inherently inferior, deigning to learn a "few words" of Drac's "crude lingo."

Over time -- and the togetherness of the three years -- Davidge begins to understand the grace, beauty and dignity of the Drac culture. In that regard, Jeriba comments on the fact that humans are "always alone" within themselves and thus somewhat capricious by nature. 
By contrast, the Dracs seem more at peace with themselves, a fact which allows them to give birth without the help of a mate. The Drac are also tied, explicitly, to their ancestors, and Jeriba teaches Davidge how to recite the "Jeriba Line" -- 170 generations of ancestors -- so he can testify for Jeriba's son, Zamis, at the Holy Council on Dracon.

It is never stated anywhere in the film, and this no doubt will make some viewers uncomfortable, but watching Enemy Mine this time around, I couldn't escape the notion that young Zamis is actually the spiritual offspring of Jeriba and Davidge's friendship. Not a literal, biological offspring, but the logical, inevitable result of a friendship as deep and intense as that shared by these two unlike men. 

On a more epic scale, Zamis becomes the bridge between Drac and Terra, and in the film's beautiful last sequence, we come to learn how the human Davidge literally becomes part of Jeriba's family. This is a beautiful message of peace and brotherhood, especially since it came at the height of the Cold War.

Although The New York Times derided Enemy Mine as a "costly, awful-looking science fiction epic," I disagree. Taking a cue from Hell in the Pacific, I submit that Enemy Mine is a beautifully-realized film, though -- as always -- it is best not to judge by today's standards of special effects. The visuals are as stirring, convincing, impassioned and persuasive as the film's central friendship.
Enemy Mine's very first shot stands as a stark example of this. It gives the audience a dynamic example of counterpoint.

On the soundtrack, Davidge's voice-over narration informs us that all the nations of the Earth have found peace. But on screen, we actually see the contrary: the next frontier; a war with an alien species.

The film opens with a creepy view of a human skeleton in a ruptured space suit -- a futuristic yet resonant image -- and then pulls back to reveal that this corpse drifts in a debris field in the aftermath of a star battle. Again, this shot could be accomplished easily with CGI today, but even for 1985, it remains gorgeous, macabre, and powerful. It shows us that even in space, our nature to "fight" that which we don't understand may be our worst enemy.

Later, the film lingers on long shots of lonely, rocky landscapes, as a solitary figure (Davidge), traverses the surface of an inhospitable world. Again, in the spirit of Hell in the Pacific, the landscape of Fyrine IV is almost a character in this particular play, always driving Human and Drac towards a friendship that might never have existed on another world.

Again and again, Peterson provides us shots of Jeriba and Davidge besieged by the natural Fyrine-ian elements: snow, rain and fire. And so we understand that petty differences (over territory) don't play a role in this harsh environment. 

In the battle for survival, there is no time for political differences.

While discussing visuals, it's necessary to make a special note of Chris Walas's make-up, which transforms Gossett Jr. into the reptilian Jeriba.

Whereas some of the mattes and optical composites of Enemy Mine have indeed aged in the intervening quarter-century since the film's theatrical release, the make-up has not.

Jeriba or "Jerry" is on screen for a tremendous amount of the film's running time, and transmits to my eyes as a completely believable being. Simply put this is some of the finest make-up in cinema history, especially given the fact that it is put up to such intense and long-lasting scrutiny. 

Gossett's performance is also impressive. His Drac is an inquisitive, bird-like thing of trilling, hissing language; cockeyed-looks, and a real sense of nobility. There's nothing stock, silly, or remotely derivative about the actor's performance. From the moment we first see the Drac (coming up out of a lake, naked...) to his last sequence, giving birth to his son, nothing about Gossett's make-up or performance rings phony in the slightest. I remember there was a lot of talk in 1985 that Gossett should have been nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, but sadly it never happened.

Perhaps the finest visual imagined by Enemy Mine arrives just before the final fade-out. In the film's stirring, awe-inspiring closing-shot, we see Davidge and Zamis standing at the Holy Council on Dracon. A human being -- for the first time in history -- recites a Drac lineage before the gathered peoples of the planet.

This watershed view of a beautiful, water-rich alien world is a truly glorious one. The prominence of the sun in the auburn Drac sky cements the parallel to the Hell in the Pacific template since Japan is known, in some corners, as "the Land of the Rising Sun."

A sun on ascent may also be an efficacious metaphor for the Drac/human relationship: a sign of impending peace between people under the new "light" of understanding.

The closing shot even serves as the perfect visual punctuation for Davidge's personal journey. Before life on Fyrine IV, the callow, All-American pilot had lived under the specter of jingoism and hatred/prjeducide for an "enemy," although he had no personal cause to hate Dracs ("It's funny, but I'd never even seen a Drac...").

By film's end, however, Davidge has been "illuminated" by an understanding of the Drac culture, So much so that he had fought to save Jeriba's son, Zamis, from slavers (fellow humans). He has traveled to this alien homeworld -- the enemy homeworld -- to speak on the boy's behalf. By film's end, Davidge basks in the sunlight of understanding, peace, and even the kind of belonging that Jeriba suggests evades humans.

Visually, Enemy Mine is unimpeachable. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then Enemy Mine achieves whatever greatness it possesses through those gorgeous, inspirational visualizations. In terms of words, and narrative, however, one wishes that Peterson's film had stuck more closely to the film's two central relationships: Davidge and Jerry/Davidge and Zamis, and not gotten bogged down in action-adventure set-piece at a slave ship compound.

Specifically, in the last third of the film, Zamis is captured by snarling, vicious human scavengers (led by the bug-eyed Brion James) and Davidge mounts a rescue operation to save the Drac boy. A film about relationships -- about survival in a harsh wilderness -- is suddenly transformed into a shoot-out: a Hollywood-ish stock battle that makes use of the most hackneyed movie cliches.

It is disappointing in the extreme that a movie which has toiled so hard to remind us that every person is more than the sum of stereotypes about their people descends to the easy stereotype of vicious, cruel, violent villains. I like and admire the late Brion James and he is always an effective villain, but his savage, wild-eyed, two-dimensional "evil" has no place in a film about shades of gray.

Enemy Mine gets back on track with that beautiful finale at Dracon and in that dynamic, heartbreaking last shot.  But I wish the film had heeded its central message and excised the unnecessary material with the silent-movie slavers. The third act of the film could simply have consisted of Davidge and Zamis working together to escape Fyrine; to build a "raft" to space (as in Hell in the Pacific), or something like that. The black hat villains just aren't necessary, and they drag down an imaginatively presented, near-great film of the 1980s.

Enemy Mine is a powerfully-told story about the universal nature of friendship, spectacular in presentation, and acted with authentic heart. The film would likely be remembered as a classic today were it not for the disappointing third act.

Movie Trailer: Enemy Mine (1985)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Karen Black (1939 - 2013)

It is now being reported widely in the press that legendary actress Karen Black has passed away.  

I have always had a special affection for this actress, in part because of her three starring roles in the great TV movie anthology, Trilogy of Terror (1975).  The most famous of these roles pitted Ms. Black against a Zuni Fetish doll of pure terror.  Many of us grew up rooting for Ms. Black to defeat that horrible little homunculus.

Ms. Black also starred in other classic 1970s horror movies, including The Pyx (1973) and another movie from director Dan Curtis that scared a generation: Burnt Offerings (1976).  

In broad terms, this actress was extraordinary in depicting madness, and slowly-dawning insanity, and Mrs. Black also, in many pictures, showcased tremendous sex appeal.  She was a one-of-a-kind.

On television, Mrs. Black appeared in such cult programming as Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972 - 1973) in the episode "Bad Connection," as well as in The Invaders (1966 - 1968).

Outside the genre, Ms. Black delivered unforgettable performances in such "new freedom" cinema classics as Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). 

Ms. Black will be terribly missed in the days ahead, but her work is beloved by a generation, and will be remembered for years to come.

The X-Files Promo: "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Theme Song of the Week: Welcome Back Kotter (1975 - 1979)

Lunch Box of the Week: Welcome Back Kotter

Collectible of the Week: Welcome Back Kotter Classroom (Mattel; 1976)

The ABC series Welcome Back Kotter (1975 - 1979) made a star out of John Travolta well before Saturday Night Fever did in 1977, and also resulted in a whole slew of merchandise and toys that have, over the years, become highly prized collectible.  

In particular, Mattel produced a line of nine-inch-tall action figures of the main cast, including the school teacher, Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) and his troubled students known in toto as "the Sweathogs.

Independently, the Sweathogs consisted of Barbarino (John Travolta), Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) Washington (Lawrence Hilton Jacobs), and Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo).  The molds for the action figures should look familiar: they were used by Mattel on every important line of the era, from Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) to Mork and Mindy (1978 - 1981) to the Sunshine Family.

To go along with the Kotter action figures, Mattel also released a very impressive playset of Mr. Kotter's classroom.  

As the promotional material described it: "The sweat hogs sneak in a little school work. Complete Kotter classroom has four chairs, four notebooks, teacher's desk, globe, blackboard with piece of chalk and coat-rack."

This "vinyl play area" could also fold up into "a carrying case."  A second, "deluxe" edition of the toy was also released which came with all the figures in the line, plus a record album of the actors playing in character.

Model Kit of the Week: Sweathogs 'Dream Machine' (MPC)

Board Game of the Week: Welcome Back Kotter - "The Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose Game" (Ideal)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Dark Skies (2013)

There are -- according to some definitions anyway -- two brands of horror film. 

In one type, the monster, alien, ghost, or demon signifies nothing beyond its own specific and terrifying characteristics or qualities.  Here, a ghost is just…a ghost.

But in the type of horror movie I much prefer, the monster is actually a placeholder for something more significant, perhaps even a symbol for some real-life, timely, and societal dread. 

Stephen King wrote ably about the latter style of horror movie production in his book Danse Macabre (1981).  

There, he interpreted The Amityville Horror (1979) -- a movie about a family grappling with a haunted house -- in terms of the economic fears that home ownership provokes.  The movie wasn’t really about evil demons or ghosts at all…it was about -- in coded, subconscious terms -- the bills that money pits can rack up.

Unexpectedly (but refreshingly…) the new horror film from writer/director Scott Stewart, titled Dark Skies --no relation to the 1996 NBC TV series -- is of the same-style and format as Amityville

On the surface, the movie concerns  normal American family, the Barretts, bedeviled by malicious alien abductors. 

But scratch that roiling surface just a little bit and the intrepid viewer can detect the movie concerns more directly the existential troubles of our times.  

In particular, the film’s over-stressed Barrett family is on the verge of economic oblivion in the Great Recession/Obama/Tea Party Era.  And the statistics of this epoch don’t look very good, as the facts reveal.  

For instance, from October 2007 (when Bush was President) to March 2009 (two months into Obama’s first term) the Dow saw 11.2 trillion dollars in stock-holder losses.  As of 2009, the year President Obama assumed office, unemployment had risen to 9.8 percent.  And foreclosures hit a record high the very same year, ensnaring a record three million American households.

We have indeed moved past some of this horrible history now, in 2013, but the fact remains that even with unemployment now under 8 percent, even with the Dow on blazing ascent, and even with foreclosures down 20% from last year, too many families are still struggling to make ends meet.  In the new normal, everyone is jockeying for a foothold on something secure.

This task involves working more than one job.  This task also involves juggling bills (and alternating payments on some monthly responsibilities).  And most trenchantly, this task also involves a lot of anxiety, particularly about Wall Street, but also about America's place in the world and in the future.

In the 2012 Republican primaries, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, for instance, worried explicitly about “vulture capitalists” who seemed to be preying on the Middle Class and gaming the system against them. These so-called vulture capitalists play by rules the average person doesn’t quite know or understand, and live by their own rules of conduct too.  

In other words, Main Street America today seems at the mercy of  predatory Wall Street America, and the government -- owned, operated and de-fanged by Wall Street -- isn’t able to help.  It may say its on our side, but is it capable of acting on our behalf?

This amorphous feeling of being preyed upon by some dark personality -- whether alien or from Wall Street -- is the true subject matter of Dark Skies.  

Or as one character notes in the film: the future is already written, and all hope is lost.  “The invasion already happenedthe presence of the greys is now a fact of life…like death and taxes.”

“Two possibilities exist... Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. - Arthur C. Clarke

The Barrett family is facing an economic apocalypse.  Dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) has been out of work for three months straight, and Mom, Lacy (Keri Russell) is a real estate agent trying to sell foreclosed houses in a down-market.  Bills are stacking-up, payments are late, and the family is holding on to the American dream by its finger-nails.

Then, things take a dramatic turn for the worse.  

At night -- every night for a week -- the Barret house is “breached” by some invisible force that triggers the security system.  This force also evades video monitoring, and acts in a mischievous, disturbing fashion.  It seems to be trying to scare the family.  

Then, three flocks of birds mysteriously converge on the house, and strike it all at once, causing a front-yard avian massacre. 

As Lacy investigates these events, she learns that these night-time incursions seem to focus on her youngest son, Sammy (Kadan Rockett).  The night-time visitors seem obsessed with him.  She and Daniel eventually go to visit a man named Edward Pollard (J.K. Simmons), who has some experience with these ominous nocturnal visitors.

He warns them that alien grays have focused on the Barrett family, and are planning to abduct someone close to them, likely Sammy.  The family must stick together and fight these aliens with their other son, Jesse (Dakota Goya).  

But this is no easy task: the aliens are above-the-law of  both man and nature, and may be unstoppable in their quest to steal all the family’s tomorrows…

“People think of aliens as these beings invading our planet in some great cataclysm, destroying monuments, stealing our natural resources.  But it’s not like that at all.  The invasion already happened.”

Dark Skies. That’s the forecast for the American middle-class moving into an uncertain future.  

Accordingly, Scott Stewart’s film is dominated by images of Americana.  The movie opens near the 4th of July, and so Old Glory appears fluttering in the breeze in several frames, thus contextualizing this narrative as an explicitly American tale.

And what’s the subject of conversation at the July 4th neighborhood picnic? 

Well, neighbors speak of “the Fed” trying to help the Economy, and the "terrifying" fear of other nations rising to global power.  Specifically China and India are name-checked.  

What might be interpreted here as xenophobia -- fear of the outsider -- is very important to any reading of the film.  Other economies threatening ours are not unlike the aliens of the film: invisible threats or pressures nonetheless affecting our day-to-day existences.  We have always assumed the immortality of American Exceptionalism;  that we will remain at the top of the global economy, or at the top of the food chain.  But recent events have shaken our faith that this is so, and fear has crept in.  What if something malevolent is working against us, and is more powerful than we are?

The Barrett family is under siege by forces like these, and dealing with very modern stresses. Daniel is out of a job and hasn’t worked for three months.  He can’t seem to find another job, either.  He applies for work in a steel, colorless office early in the film, and we never see his interviewer’s face.  Similarly, we never see the faces of the aliens in the film.  They are just one more “force” working against the American dream, and against the family.  In the context of this film, virtually every aspect of modern life -- from job interviews to real estate deals to alien invasion -- imperils the Middle Class.

The entire sub-text of the film is about these invisible but nonetheless real pressures building on the family.  

He’s our son, not a cable bill,” Lacy snaps when Jesse needs therapy, but Daniel says they can’t afford it.

At another point, we learn that payments on the security system monitoring have “lapsed.”  

There is also imagery in the film of a mortgage past-due notice, and at night, Lacy stays up working in bed with her laptop instead of accepting her husband’s sexual advances.  No time for love, Dr. Jones.  "We need this," she desperately asserts of a long-shot real estate closing. 

The feeling is indeed of pressure pressing down from all quarters.  One shot -- oft repeated -- in the film, transmits this notion perfectly.  Stewart’s camera often assumes a high-angle, bird’s eye view of the suburbia, as if the unseen force is watching every move that the Barrett family makes.  

Again, the aliens are depicted in Dark Skies as unstoppable, invincible, super-powerful vultures who prey on humans with impunity, so this conceit of “looking down” upon Main Street (and humanity) is a crucial aspect of the film’s equation.

In the economic reading of this horror film, the Federal Government's stand-in is likely the local police force.  Officers come to the Barrett house after every incursion by the Greys, but are powerless to prevent them, and they refuse to acknowledge that something terrible is happening to a decent family.  The police -- like government in the face of entrenched  moneyed interests -- are impotent. 

And in terms of the real fear expressed here, it’s one I’ve written about in regards to many horror films. Specifically, in Dark Skies, the Barretts stand to lose a child.  And “losing a child” in horror film vernacular is the same as having no future at all, or losing tomorrow.  This is what the middle class feels today: that all the pressure building on it will ultimately rob families of their children's future.  They won't get in to good schools.  They won't find jobs.  They'll never move out....

In terms of its horror credentials, Dark Skies is a more effective film than I imagined it would be, based on most of the reviews I'd read.  It very accurately and very cannily reflects today's dreads.

The first glimpse of the Greys is terrifying, but more than that, writer/director Stewart is skilled in creating a suffocating mood.  Throughout the film, the Barretts barely have their heads above water, and one wrong move could bring about financial oblivion.  This feeling of terror lurking beyond the next corner is palpable, and even though the film is rated PG, the scares are effective.  In part, this may be because -- as was the case with Amityville Horror all those years ago -- we all have to pay the bills, we all have bad months, and we all know what happens if we raid the kid’s college fund, put too much debt on our credits cards, or take out a second mortgage on our homes.

The Greys, invisible and faceless, will surely come to get us...demanding their pound of flesh.

Movie Trailer: Dark Skies (2013)

Monday, August 05, 2013

Late Blogging: More Don Adams Commercials

Ask JKM a Question: Is The Shining (1980) really one of the scariest movies ever made?

A regular reader, Trent, writes:

“I've seen hundreds of horror films and I am continually surprised to find that Kubrick's 'The Shining' is consistently on the scariest horror films list.

Now let me qualify that by saying that I believe Kubrick's film is a masterpiece. It is the most beautifully-shot horror film in history, the product of a master manipulator of both the camera, and the audience, at the peak of his powers. The opening sequence alone told you that this was going to be a special film. And the tracking shot of Danny Torrance on the big wheel is film school material.

That notwithstanding, while I find the film mesmerizing, I did not find it to be all. I found more scares present in 1980's 'The Changeling'. I thought Nicholson was too Nicholson-esque from the very first shot. That the relationship between Duvall and Nicholson was emotionally cold, robbing the film of the emotional wallop of the events to come. And that Kubrick ultimately did not understand horror and what made films scary.

Ultimately I believe that the high ranking of Kubrick's film is more the product of the film-goers low expectations and easy dismissal of horror films. That the stunning visuals, masterful direction, (and Nicholson's performance) are the true winners and not the scares.

Your thoughts please...”

Trent, that’s a wonderful and thoughtful question, and I certainly understand where you are coming from in your assessment of The Shining: as a great film but not necessarily one of the scariest films ever made.

No less a respected authority than Stephen King has voiced a similar opinion.

In particular, King felt that the horror (or scare…) set-ups and scenes in the film didn’t work in the way a good example of the genre should. He has also complained about Nicholson as Torrance.  

His concern, essentially, is that you know from Frame One that Nicholson’s Torrance is bad news, and therefore there’s no meaningful character arc going forward.

As far as my own perspective, I feel that the “Nicholson-esque” approach is very fresh in The Shining (1980), but today -- after  thirty years of similar performances from the actor -- it seems more pro forma (and therefore less effective…) in some sense.  

In other words, since The Shining we have seen Nicholson as the Devil in The Witches of Eastwick (1986) and as the Joker in Batman (1989).  He’s also been a territorial werewolf in Mike Nichols’ Wolf (1994).  So we now know very well how this (great) actor does the “madman” role.

But go back to 1980 -- the release date of The Shining -- and there are almost no prominent instances of the Nicholson “mad” persona as we understand it today.

It’s true that he’s always been wild-eyed and nutty (Little Shop of Horrors, Easy Rider), but we had never before seen him in the role of a homicidal maniac.  So I do feel that we reflect “back” on The Shining a familiar performance when in fact the opposite is true: Nicholson’s trademark, remarkable performance set off a chain of similar ones, but at the time was quite original and new. It's spiky enough that it raises significantly the scare quotient in The Shining, but familiarity softens its impact today. 

Regarding whether or not The Shining is scary overall -- and perhaps one of the scariest films ever made -- I tend to think that it is, although in an admittedly unconventional way.  It’s not a jump scare kind of movie to be certain, and The Shining isn’t scary in the sense of a haunted house movie like Poltergeist, where you feel deeply invested in the survival of the characters.

But there is more than one way to skin a cat (forgive the expression…), and more than one way to make a scary horror movie.  

For example, I have spoken with many individuals over the years that grew up in the home of an alcoholic father and find this film absolutely an almost unbearable degree.  The way that Torrance is unpredictable -- friendly one moment and caustic the next -- is, in and of itself, scary.  You never know what mood you're going to find this mercurial "Dad" in, and that fact sows uncertainty, the necessary precursor for heightened cinematic fear.  

Because of the winter and the isolation of the Overlook Hotel, there’s no escape from this intemperate, hot-and-cold, dangerous "bad father" and so his menace grows increasingly oppressive (and physically intimidating…) throughout the film.   

With apologies to to the genius of Stephen King, no character arc is really necessary here: the whole setting is a pressure-cooker...constantly inching towards a boil.  Accordingly, the film does feature a kind of adrenaline-provoking build-up of terror as Torrance's madness threatens to erupt…and then, finally, does erupt with bloody results.

In regards to the Duvall/Nicholson relationship, I feel that it almost perfectly mirrors the relationship of a victim/abuser in a domestic violence situation.  She’s a little shut-down, a bit of a people-pleaser, and she’s scared to death of her husband, especially when he’s been drinking.  The movie’s unique brand of “psychic” fear emerges from this dynamic of the bad, abusive and alcoholic father, and not necessarily from the ghosts it features.   

But importantly, the end result is the same: a deeply-layered sense of looming dread, building towards a fever of madness and violence.  I find almost the entire movie suspenseful, because the bomb that is Jack Torrance is going to go's just a question of when.

Given Kubrick's deployment of brilliant film grammar, and the bravura performance by Nicholson, as well as the icy, relentless chill of familial breakdown, I can certainly understand why people remember The Shining as one of the scariest movies ever made.    

Here's an example that may make my point clearer.  I have a dear friend who doesn't like The Descent (2006) at all, and claims that it it is only scary if you happen to be claustrophobic.  In other words, the viewer's own, pre-existing fear of tight-spots does a lot of the movie's heavy lifting in his opinion.

Similarly, The Shining plucks a certain set of fears and dreads -- about family, fathers and alcoholism -- but as always, individual viewer mileage may vary.  

In  the end, fear may be a subjective emotion...but The Shining, as you say, has scared at least a couple of generations silly...

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Cult-TV Theme Watch: Parasites

A parasite is the dominant partner in an unwelcome relationship of different organisms.  In other words, the parasite is a life form that benefits from an involuntary partnership, while the other creature in the relationship…does not.

Throughout cult-tv history, we’ve encountered many memorable and monstrous parasites, a fact which probably arises from the popularity of the 1951 alien invasion novel The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein.  

By some definitions, Star Trek’s the Borg might themselves be considered parasites, since, with their assimilation nanites, they transform and co-opt organic beings into Borg.  But for this post, I’m going to concentrate on some memorable and gruesome biological parasites, rather than mechanical ones.

What's the fear of parasites?  In short, it's the idea that our bodies can be used and abused by an intelligence not our own; that our bodies could be viewed as a resource or even food by some other creature.  Many of the creatures on this list assume control of our physical selves, and replace our intelligence with theirs.  Others see us, alarmingly, as just meat.

In a classic first season Outer Limits episode written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Conrad Hall and called "The Invisibles" an undercover GIA agent, Spain (Don Gordon) attempts to infiltrate a secret and subversive society called the Invisibles.  

Once inside the secret community, Spain learns that the strange group is led by hideous alien invaders: horrible crab-like creatures that attach themselves to the human spine and totally control minds.  If the joining process goes wrong, humans are rendered deformed and nearly lobotomized.

Gordon attempts to warn government officials about the alien invasion in the offing, but the Invisibles are already onto him, and just waiting to absorb him into their ranks.  In an absolutely tense and suspenseful scene near the episode’s climax, a wounded, prone, Spain is unable to escape as a skittering, multi-legged Invisible dashes towards him, attempting to join with him.   He pulls himself along, screaming for help, as the thing, in the background, looms ever nearer.  The feeling of vulnerability, entrapment and terror generated in that image, and throughout “The Invisibles,” remains incredibly potent fifty years later.  Being joined with these huge, inhuman things is indeed a fate worse than death… 

We never actually see the parasite in the classic episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery entitled "The Caterpillar," but we certainly learn all about it.

Here, a nasty civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey) covets a co-worker's wife (Joanna Pettet) and attempts to off her husband with a parasite called an earwig.  The murder scheme goes horribly wrong, however, when Stephen himself is exposed to the wee bug.

The earwig, you see, possesses a “decided liking” for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand-to-one. They can’t turn around, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route. The pain caused by these “stealthy chaps” is agonizing and horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Here, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands must be bound to his bed-posts so he doesn’t claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the bug chewing a path through his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an “agonizing, driving, itching pain,” and the earwig exits his ear.  Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy.  He learns that the earwig was female and laid eggs inside his brain.  The larvae will hatch soon, and find a ready source of food: his brain,  Despite its lack of overt horrific visuals, "The Caterpillar" proves utterly disgusting and macabre in its suggestion of a fate worse than death: a perpetual itch you just can’t scratch.  

A parasite appeared in the third season of the first Twilight Zone remake (1985 – 1989) called “The Hellgramite Method.”  In this tale by William Selby, an alcoholic named Miley Judson (Timothy Bottoms) realizes he risks losing his family if he doesn’t get off the booze permanently. Accordingly, he answers an ad for a cure for alcoholism and meets with Dr. Murrich (Leslie Yeo).  The doctor, -- who lost his own family to a drunk driver -- gives Judson a red pill to swallow.  Inside that pill, the drinker later learns, is a parasite called a Hellgramite: an unusual brand of tape worm that survives and thrives on alcohol. 

The more Judson drinks, the more the worm feeds and the bigger it grows.  Now, Judson doesn’t even get the buzz of feeling drunk, no matter how much liquor he consumes!  Eventually, if he keeps drinking, the Hellgramite will kill Miley, so the traumatized alcoholic must either starve the tapeworm and stop drinking for good, or let the thing kill him…

In this case, the cult-tv parasite, while quite horrible, is actually put to good use: curing alcoholism.  At episode’s end, the Hellgramite Method works, and Miley Judson is a new man.  As the voice-over reminds us, what this drinker needed “was something a little extra,” something that could only be found…in The Twilight Zone.

In “Conspiracy,” a late first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is warned by a friend, Captain Walker (Jonathan Farwell) that some kind of sinister agenda is afoot in Starfleet Command.  

After Walker’s ship, The Horatio explodes in an apparent accident, Picard fears there might be some truth behind his friend’s paranoia.  He orders the Enterprise back to Earth, and there discovers that the Admiralty itself has been infiltrated by parasitic aliens bent on conquering the Federation from within.  These small, crab-like aliens enter human beings through the mouth, and then completely control all higher mental functions.  The small parasites also report to a much-larger, dinosaur-like “mother” being that has found a home inside Commander Remmick (Robert Schenkkan).  The parasites die without this mother being in close proximity.

These creepy alien parasites (revealed in Star Trek novels to be related to the Trill…) can be detected by a sort of breathing gill that extends from the back of the host’s neck.  In the episode, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) rigs one for Riker (Jonathan Frakes) so that he will appear compromised, but can actually rescue Captain Picard from danger.

I must admit, I absolutely love this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It has a more sinister, diabolical vibe than most episodes.  In fact, it’s downright scary at times, especially the unresolved ending, which suggests the parasites could return one day, and have sent a message to their brethren out in space.   I also love the visual of Picard and Riker frying the alien mother organism with their phasers.  So much for respect and tolerance for all alien life forms!   I've always found it ironic that Gene Roddenberry so vociferously complained about Admiral Kirk's treatment of another parasite, the Ceti Eel in The Wrath of Khan (1982) -- how dare he shoot it! it's a life-form -- but then Picard and Riker reacted exactly the same way in this TNG episode, with revulsion and phasers firing.

Skittering, slimy, multi-tentacled parasites called "Ganglions" appeared in the short-lived alien invasion series Dark Skies (1996 – 1997).  The ganglions were first seen in the pilot episode, “The Awakening,” written by Brent Friedman and Bryce Zabel and directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper. 

The Ganglions enter the human head through either the nose, ear or mouth, and the assimilation process is slow and incredibly painful.  First, possession by the parasite causes a nervous breakdown, but eventually the host mind is erased completely, and the Ganglion is in total control of his human steed.  We learn in the course of the series that the Ganglions took over the Greys' planet, much in the same way that they intend to take over the human race.

In “Awakening,” cult-television gets one of its most gruesome and effectively shot scenes as the scientists of Majestic attempt to remove a ganglion from its human host, a farmer.  The results aren’t pretty.   The ganglion escapes, attempts to attach to another unlucky soul, and then is deposited in a jar by John Loengard, using very long tongs.  This scene remains harrowing, even today, and is splendidly shot by Hooper.

An eighth season X-Files episode, Roadrunners,” by Vince Gilligan, introduces a parasitic creature that may or may not be of this Earth.

Here, Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson), sans partner, visits Utah to investigate a strange death.  She soon runs afoul, instead, of a weird cult that believes a worm parasite represents the second coming of Jesus Christ on Earth. 

These committed cult members attempt to get the worm inside Scully – who is pregnant at this point – by allowing it to burrow underneath her flesh, inside her back.  This episode successfully gets under your skin too, by forging an atmosphere of extreme isolation and vulnerability.  In The X-Files, we are used to Mulder always having Scully’s back during a crisis.  But here, Mulder is gone, abducted by aliens, and we don’t quite trust Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) yet.  Here, Scully is the most alone we’ve ever seen her, in real physical danger, contending with villains who can't be reasoned with.  And she faces, clearly, a fate worse than death with that wriggling, monstrous worm in her back. In a truly upsetting scene, Scully is tied to a bed on her stomach, as the creature makes its subcutaneous approach.

A group of vocal folks like to complain about the last two, largely Mulder-less years of The X-Files, but episodes such as “Roadrunners” certainly  prove the series was effective as ever in generating authentic, deep-down scares.  I also appreciate the conceit that this particular parasite is never explained.  We don't know what it is, where it came from, or why it is here...