Saturday, August 24, 2013

Gil Taylor (1914 - 2013)

One of of the twentieth century's great cinematographers has passed away.  Gilbert Taylor -- the man who shot Star Wars (1977) for George Lucas -- died yesterday at the age of ninety-nine.

Mr. Taylor's impressive career in film saw the director of photography shoot not only the blockbuster space opera movie with Lucas, but the classic efforts of other luminaries such as Alfred Hitchcock (Frenzy [1972]), Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove [1964]), Roman Polanski (Macbeth [1971] and Repulsion [1965]), Richard Donner (The Omen [1976]) and Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night [1964]).  

In short this means that it was through Gil Taylor's "eyes" that audiences first encountered on film The Beatles, Luke Skywalker, General Jack the Ripper, and Damien. 

Gil Taylor also served as DP on John Badham's Dracula (1979) starring Frank Langella, and the visually opulent Dino De Laurentiis feature film version of Flash Gordon (1980) starring Sam Jones, Melody Anderson and Timothy Dalton.

Because Mr. Taylor worked steadily from 1975 - 1980 on films in the science fiction and horror genres, his work resonates strongly with me.  It was during that span of my youth that I began to regularly go to the movies, and experience remarkable visions like Star Wars, Dracula and Flash Gordon.  Even outside that span -- and as his career tally fully indicates -- Mr. Taylor's work is unimpeachable.  His film work will be viewed, analyzed and enjoyed for generations to come.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Terratin Incident" (November 17, 1973)

Note: As reader Donald G. pointed out last week, I managed somehow to never post my review for “The Terratin Incident.”  So I’ll double up with it today...

STARDATE: 5573.3

The U.S.S. Enterprise approaches a burned-out supernova while mapping a distant gas cloud.  From that region of space, it intercepts a transmission that consists of one word: “Terratin.”

Under Captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) orders, the Enterprise diverts to the source of the mysterious transmission: a class-M planet with a crystalline nature.  Soon, however, proximity to the unusual planet begins to smash the connections in every one of the starship’s dilithium crystals.  Worse, the “ship’s personnel have contracted…and may be continuing to shrink.

As the Enterprise crew grows smaller every hour, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) theorizes that soon the crew will no longer be able to control the ship.  Kirk beams down to the planet -- aware he may never be able to return -- and discovers a lost Earth colony on the surface, one originally known as “Terra Ten,” now referred to as Terratin…

The Terratin Incident” exposes again a particular strain of the storytelling style in Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973- 1974).  Although the series often features brilliant and complex continuity with the original live action Star Trek (1966 – 1969) as well as good science-fiction ideas, it also often belies its status as a Saturday morning TV program by featuring what can only be described as very juvenile concepts.

In this case, the crew of the Enterprise contracts, or shrinks.

Already on the series we’ve seen giant creatures or beings in “The Infinite Vulcan” and “More Tribbles, More Troubles,” and love potions in “Mudd’s Passion.”  Coming up, we get reverse aging in “The Counter-Clock Incident.” 

On one hand, these are all dynamic visual concepts well-suited to animation, ones that would have been impossible (or at least expensive…) to dramatize on the original series. 

Yet by the same token, these ideas seem very childish in comparison with the most complex, adult stories, like “The Survivor,” “The Jihad” and “The Magicks of Megas-Tu.”  The giants in both the tribbles sequel and “The Infinite Vulcan” don’t seem really necessary to the tale…instead they are merely high-concept notions appealing to the kiddies. 

In the case of “The Terratin Incident,” the story is about a lost colony that has changed its form unwittingly over the centuries, and so the idea of shrinking is actually intrinsic to the tale, at least, and not just a throwaway.   Additionally, the episode features some great images of a tiny Enterprise crew -- Lilliputian-sized -- attempting to control the ship as they grow ever smaller.  This means that Nurse Chapel falls into a fish aquarium in sick bay and almost drowns, and that Scotty and his engineers must essentially mountain-climb to reach the transporter panel.  These moments are fun, but also a little difficult to believe.

It’s also a little disappointing that this episode resolves around the notion that Kirk must threaten the Terratin people and their city with total destruction to get them to help the Enterprise crew to repair their depleted dilithium crystals.  This is gunboat diplomacy at its worst, and unfortunately, the idea occasionally recurs on Star Trek.  Star Trek, at its best, and in episodes such as “Mirror, Mirror” often notes that the forces of Starfleet will never use phaser banks to force a planet to bend to its will.  Yet in “The Terratin Incident,” that’s precisely what occurs.

The other plot resolution point in “The Terratin Incident” is also a cliché in terms of the Trek universe: the transporter device proves a deus ex machina, undoes the shrinking process, and restores everyone to normal.  Presto Magic!

The same thing happens in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) on occasion, in episodes such as “Lonely Among Us” and “Unnatural Selection,” and such stories lead to the notion that the transporter is really a miracle or magical device, one that can undo physiological disorders of any kind.  If the transporter were really so valuable in curing diseases, then all of Starfleet (and Federation) medicine would be based entirely on its application.  But of course, that's not the case.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Pirates of Orion" (September 7, 1974)

STARDATE: 6334.1

En route to dedicate a new Academy of Sciences on planet Deneb V, the Enterprise suffers an outbreak of Choriocytosis, a disease that is fatal to Vulcans.

When Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) falls ill from the disease, the Enterprise makes plans to secure a quantity of the only known cure, Strobaline, from a distant world.  The Enterprise is to rendezvous with the S.S. Huron, which will transport the medicine (along with a supply of dilithium crystals...) to the Federation starship.

Unfortunately, an Orion vessel intercepts the Huron first, and steals the cargo.  Kirk attempts to track down the pirates and make a trade for the medicine, but the pirates are duplicitous.  They are determined that their carefully orchestrated "neutrality" must not come under question, and plan to destroy themselves...along with the Enterprise.

The second season of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 - 1974) starts off with a decent episode from the then-young (under twenty) author Howard Weinstein.  The episode, "The Pirates of Orion," is a sequel of sorts to Dorothy Fontana's "Journey to Babel," and provides our first peek at male Orions.

Although the episode commences with the familiar gimmick of a beloved crew member suffering from a fatal condition (seen also in "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" and "Spock's Brain") the episode is nonetheless highly-engaging in terms of character interaction and banter.  Once more, the Kirk/Spock friendship really comes through, and is a strong anchor for the story-line.  The crew's concern for Mr. Spock is palpable, even as he maintains a stoic front.

Also impressive in "The Pirates of Orion" are the scenes of the (very sinister-looking) alien ship stalking the S.S. Huron and its crew.  Although this sequence does not feature the familiar characters, it's great to meet another 23rd century captain and his crew, especially one without the resources of the Enterprise to fall back on.  The Huron crew comports itself well, even when out-gunned and outmaneuvered.

Honestly, I'm a bit mixed on the design and physical characteristics of the Orions as depicted here.  They seem a little too fanciful and colorful -- almost juvenile -- in terms of the uniforms and gear.  There's something too cartoonish and "Flash Gordon"-esque about them, visually-speaking.

That said, I like the fact that the episode goes back to the issue of neutrality, so important in "Journey to Babel" and that Kirk finally gets to nail these aliens.  After this story, there can be no doubt that the Orions are are enemies of the Federation and peace.

Next week: "Bem." 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Cult Movie Review: Lost Highway (1997)

"There is no such thing as a bad coincidence."

-A pertinent line of dialogue from David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997)

"It should be acknowledged, straightaway," opined critic Eric Bryant Rhodes in Film Quarterly (Spring 1998, page 57), "that Lost Highway is, by design, extremely resistant to reduction into a definitive narrative account; by the film's end it is evident that Lynch has intentionally withheld the answers to questions inevitably provoked by the narrative's elusive and elliptical plot. It is virtually impossible to reconstruct a definitive and rational account of what happens in Lost Highway."

Critic Kenneth Turan called David Lynch's film the director's "most accomplished work since Blue Velvet" and termed it a "metaphysical stag film," (Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1997, page 10), while David Denby noted that the film is a "virtuoso exercise in spooky unintelligibility" (New York, March 3, 197, page 53).

Meanwhile, Jack Kroll at Newsweek suggested insightfully that with Lost Highway Lynch had become "the Heisenberg of cinema, telling us that the uncertainty principle rules our lives" (February 24, 1997, page 68).

Elusive. Metaphysical. Spooky. Uncertain.

All of these critical descriptors highlight the confounding essence of this beloved and beguiling David Lynch film noir. It's a movie that can't be intellectually "understood," perhaps, only "interpreted" in relation to the director's style and singular voice, in particular his pervasive use of "dream sense," the surreal language of dreams.

Specifically, Lynch has has publicly likened Lost Highway to a Psychogenic Fugue...a mental state of disassociation from oneself. That comparison could be the very key that unlocks a few of the film's most enduring and baffling mysteries.

We've met before, haven't we? Or We Got Some Spooky Shit Here...

Lost Highway depicts the startling descent into madness of a jealous saxophonist named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman).

Experiencing strange dreams about his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) -- whom he suspects is having an adulterous affair -- Fred also comes to believe that someone is watching him inside his own home; videotaping him as he sleeps. Fred is a paranoid man, and even his house -- painted in deep, dark shades of crimson and scarlet -- appears to reflect his intemperate, suspicious nature.

When Renee is discovered murdered, Fred is arrested for the bloody crime, but then something truly strange occurs.

In his jail cell: another man seems to take his physical place. Fred wakes up...and is different. He is now Peter (Balthazar Getty), a young fellow, a car mechanic, associated with gangster Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent (Loggia). And Eddy/Laurent’s girlfriend is Alice (Arquette)...a dead ringer for the murdered Renee.

Behind this strange metamorphosis -- and this strange new life -- is a terrifying and ubiquitous "Mystery Man" (Robert Blake) with a video camera...a man who can apparently be in two places simultaneously.

In the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they're sent to a place where they can't Escape: Or The Splintered Psyche as Madison's "Escape" Valve. 

A restless spirit of madness seems to haunt angry Fred Madison in Lost Highway. That spirit, while actually a part of Fred's psyche, is manifested externally in the film; as another "being" he physically encounters.

Specifically, this specter of violence, revenge and madness takes the form of the pasty-faced, grinning maniac portrayed by Robert Blake.

In the film’s most deeply unsettling, most dream-like sequence, this specter of violence and guilt confronts Fred at a party and informs the saxophonist that he, the Mystery Man, is at his house right now, killing his wife.

Of course, a person can’t be in two places at the same time but the Mystery Man urges Fred to call his own house to confirm his disturbing story. Fred does so, and at his house the Mystery Man answers the phone. “I told you I was here,” he says.

The idea underlining this horrific, surreal sequence is that Fred has effectively disassociated from himself, from his personal identity, in order to carry out an evil, brutal deed: the murder of Renee. Fred has created a Boogeyman, a monster, to complete the task for him, since -- as a rational, evolved human being -- murder is not an acceptable act. Instead, Madison has reached deep down into his reptilian brain and created this thing, this monster.

Psychogenic fugues or disassociative orders are often precipitated by intense stress, and there's plenty of that to go around in the early scenes of this Lynch film. Sexual intercourse between Fred and the gorgeous Renee goes poorly, for instance. After some slow-motion photography and the exaggerated sounds of panting, Fred loses his erection, and Renee appears frustrated. The impression is of a troubled marriage and of Fred's looming, impulsive rage, ready to be sated. The Mystery Man appears briefly in this scene too: superimposed over Renee's lovely face. The monster's sudden appearance here is Fred's "flash" of violent intent, of rage when he proves impotent.

Jealousy and looming rage are manifested again in the film's very color scheme, in Lynch's presentation of another important sequence. After a public musical performance, Fred rings Renee up on a red telephone and he's likewise bathed in hellish neon-sort of red light. She’s not home, and Madison's conviction that she is cheating on him grows exponentially. His very world seems to visualize this “red” streak of jealousy. Unable to get satisfaction from her husband, Renee has sought fulfillment outside the relationship...or so he imagines.

After creating the "mystery man" as an alternate identity from which to commit the murder of cheating Renee, Fred then disassociates again after the crime, creating an additional personality, Peter Dayton, where he can hide from his intense feelings of guilt and responsibility. Those unlucky souls who experience psychogenic fugues in real life often create totally new personalities, in new environs, with no memory of their real personalities or histories.

Of great significance, Madison's new personality, Dayton, is a heroic, young character who liberates Renee (now Alice...) from sexual humiliation and slavery at the hands of a powerful exploiter and abuser, Eddy/Dick Laurent.

Where Fred is impotent, Dayton is virile, engaging in satisfying sexual intercourse with Alice on a beach by night. He is the "dream" persona of Fred, as an unspoiled, vigorous, desirable youth. Fred Madison does not "snap back into being" until the film's conclusion when his Peter Dayton identity closes the loop and informs him that "Dick Laurent is dead." The death of his competitor for Renee's/Alice's affections allows Fred to be restored to his "real" state.

Importantly, this scene represents a kind of cinematic Möbius strip, relating back to one of the first scenes in the film. There are two ways to interpret it. The first is the psychogenic fugue approach. The early appearance of an unseen "stranger" at the door, informing Fred that "Dick Laurent is dead" is actually the fledgling start of Madison's disassociative mania; the sort of mental canary in the coal mine that pushes Fred to kill his wife and his competitor for her affections.

Or contrarily, one might read the entirety of the film as a murderous, disassociated fantasy occurring in Fred's dreams as he awakens to receive that cryptic message. He is only told once that "Dick Laurent is dead," and every event that happens in the film seems to occur in that very instant; his dream of murder; his escape into another identity, etc. This is the Jacob's Ladder (1990) reading of the film, I suppose.

David Lynch's description of the film as a Psychogenic Fugue also relates, in fascinating fashion, to musical terminology. A fugue is defined as a piece of music consisting of "two or more voices." Fred Madison, the Mystery Man, and Peter Dayton are all different voices inhabiting one psyche and their tale might appropriately be described as a musical fugue as well as a psychogenic one. For instance, a "fugue" often begins with an opening key (here, the "key" in which Fred Madison exists). Then, further episodes establish additional notes or keys (the Mystery Man, Dayton...). Finally, after expressing these "new" notes, the opening key in a musical fugue is re-asserted as the piece ends.

That is precisely the structure of Lost Highway, with Fred Madison -- our opening "key" -- brought back for the film's conclusion. A fugue (a psychological dream state) explains the movie's narrative, and a fugue (a piece of music) explains the movie's structure.

I swear I love that girl to death: The O.J. Simpson Connection?

Those associated with this Lynch film have reported that Lost Highway represents the director's free-association meditation on the O.J. Simpson trial which occurred mid-decade, shortly before the production of the film.

This clue helps us discern another layer of the film. Pullman plays a public figure (though a musician, not a sports hero), who becomes irrevocably connected to the murder of his beautiful wife.

The opening shot, a point-of-view from the dashboard of a car rocketing down a lonely highway by night -- the pavement illuminated only by headlights -- even recalls O.J.’s famous freeway chase in the white bronco.

Like O.J., Fred Madison also loudly proclaims his innocence, but he’s not necessarily a reliable witness. For one thing, Fred doesn’t like the prying eye of the video camera. “I like to remember things my own way,” he complains “not necessarily the way they happened...” But go deeper. If the glove does not fit, you must acquit. And if Fred Madison is Peter Dayton...who do you arrest for the crime?

A true appreciation of David Lynch’s cinematic work arises from interpreting his symbols and reading carefully his powerful, subconscious dream imagery. In the case of Lost Highway it feels like Lynch is attempting to capture the psychological condition of instinctual, unconscious, reptilian rage, the utter madness and insanity of a jealous husband who is destined to kill his wife. Even the settings reflect this rage, in shades of terracotta, crimson, and blood red.

The Lost Highway of the film's title is, perhaps Fred Madison's threadbare sanity; his psyche now fractured into blind alleys, dead-ends and avenues that go, approximately, nowhere. Lynch takes us into this nightmarish fugue state, showing us pieces of the splintered psyche and making us feel Fred's impotent, bubbling rage.

And some real "spooky shit."

Movie Trailer: Lost Highway (1997)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Now Available for Pre-Order: Horror Films FAQ (with a foreword by Chris Carter!)

My new book, Horror Films FAQ is now available for pre-order at, and is on sale now at Hal Leonard.  The books just came into the warehouse this morning...

The book is the latest addition to the long-standing FAQ series, which has been described as: "a one-stop source of info, history, and minutia on an array of performing arts subjects."

Basically, the book includes thirty chapters focusing on aspects of the horror film such as found footage horror films, slasher films, J-Slashers, remakes, horror history, directors, and so forth.  

There are two chapters on slasher films, two chapters on "alien" movies, and an array of information about everything from mad scientist films to "rape and revenge" films, to zombie films.  The final chapter deals with horror television.

But what pleases me so tremendously about the book is that the foreword is penned by The X-Files creator: writer/director Chris Carter.  

Mr. Carter's foreword not only introduces the terrain of the book's subject matter, but discusses his time making the The X-Files (and dealing with network censorship...) and details Carter's history with and love for the genre going back to his childhood.  It's a great read, and starts off the book in brilliant fashion.  

I hope as readers of the blog, you'll support Horror Films FAQ, and let me know what you think!

The X-Files promo: "Unruhe"

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Late Night Blogging: G.I. Joe Toy Commercials (1970s)

Ted Post (1918 - 2013)

The press reported last night the passing of legendary Hollywod film director Ted Post (1918 - 2013), a talent who worked in the science fiction genre throughout the 1970s. 

Although Mr. Post may be best known for directing the Dirty Harry (1971) sequel, Magnum Force (1973) as well as Hang 'Em High (1968), he is also remembered in s.f. circles for his helming of the second Planet of the Apes (1968) film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).  This first sequel saw the (book-end) return of Charlton Heston's Taylor, and ended in shocking fashion with the detonation oft he Alpha-Omega Bomb.

Ted Post also worked in genre television for many years.  He directed the TV movie (also starring Beneath actor James Franciscus...) Night Slaves (1970), and  lensed several episodes of Rod Serling's original The Twilight Zone (1959 - 1964), including "A World of Difference," "Mr. Garrity and the Graves," "Probe 7 over and Out," and "The Fear."  Post also directed two episodes of the Boris Karloff horror anthology, Thriller (1961 - 1962), from roughly the same vintage.

In the 1970s, Mr. Post directed several episodes of Filmation's Saturday morning post-apocalyptic/s.f. series, Ark II (1976) including "The Drought," "The Lottery," "Don Quixote" and "The Cryogenic Man."  He also lent his talents to such short-lived s.f. TV efforts as Future Cop (1977) and Beyond Westworld (1980).

I recently watched Beneath the Planet of the Apes again, and appreciated how successful many aspects of the film remain, despite a drastically reduced budget compared to its predecessor.  The film isn't widely appreciated or beloved, but Ted Post made it more than a knock-off or cheap sequel, and paved the way for the franchise to continue.  It's very unlikely we would see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the near future if Beneath the Planet of the Apes had not proven that sequel stories in that universe could work, and work well.

Today, our thoughts are for Mr. Post's family, and we remember his sturdy work on the silver screen and on our television screens.

Lunchbox of the Week: G.I. Joe (1967)

Collectible of the Week: G.I. Joe Sea Wolf Submarine (Hasbro; 1975)

One of the truly great, truly classic toys from my youth comes from the Hasbro G.I. Joe collection of the 1970s.  

In 1975, the company produced a large white one-man submersible (with transparent canopy) called the Sea Wolf, along with an underwater enemy: a giant squid.

The Sea Wolf was one of the "Action Team" vehicles of the era, and could hold a large-scale Joe figure.  More impressively, perhaps, the 1/6 scale submersible could actually operate underwater.

The Sea Wolf also came equipped with an undersea camera (non-functioning) for exploration, and pincer-arms for grabbing that pesky squid and other dangers.  The cockpit canopy could flip open, and there was also a long breathing hose for Joe, if memory serves.

I recall that for a short duration we had an above-ground pool on our back patio in Glen Ridge and I was able to put the Sea Wolf to sea, so-to-speak, for all manners of adventures.

That established, the giant squid was soon separated from the Sea Wolf, and recruited as the nemesis for my home-built (out of blocks) Nautilus submarine for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea pretend play. Honestly, the squid was as much fun as the Sea Wolf.  Two great toys for the price of one!

My Sea Wolf was sold at a yard sale some years back (though I think it had stopped being sea-worthy, and the canopy had yellowed...), but I'd love to get one for my son, Joel, for the bath tub.  I know he'd get a kick out of it.

Model Kit of the Week: G.I. Joe (Revell)

Board Game of the Week: G.I. Joe Commando Attack Game (Milton Bradley)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cult-TV Flashback: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected: "No Way Out" (August 24, 1977)

The cult-television Valhalla is populated by programs beloved and despised, old and new, popular and obscure.  One of the most obscure series -- and one of the most highly-sought for an official DVD release -- is the 1977 program Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected.

This horror anthology series ran for just eight episodes from February to August of 1977, and featured William Conrad as the host, in voice-over form only.  The basic premise of the series is that there are twists and turns in our lives, and we often can’t see them coming or prepare for them.  Many episodes feature surprise endings, or ones with unusual “twists.”

The the final one aired, “No Way Out,” was written by James Schmerer and directed by Walter Grauman, and was broadcast on August 24, 1977, and is set in 1952.  It stars Bill Bixby as a Navy man, John Kelty who is too busy with his career and his hobby -- sailing -- to give much love or attention to his young son.  On the eve of a sea trip with his friend, Richard (Dean Stockwell), John’s wife tries to shine a light on the problem.  “I think that boat’s your real love,” she tells him.  She isn’t really joking, either.

So John and Richard set off on a weekend boat trip, and promptly disappear into the Bermuda Triangle.  When John emerges from a terrifying storm as the sole survivor, however, he discovers that it is the year 1977. 

He has missed the last twenty-five years with his wife and son. Time has passed him by.

At first, John refuses to accept the fact that he has somehow become lost in time, but when he sees a 1977 calendar hanging on a hospital wall, he realizes the truth.  John attempts to track down his wife, only to learn that she has moved on.  She remarried some years earlier, and now seems quite happy, and cherished.

And then -- in an emotionally-wrenching scene – John discovers his son is now grown-up, and a successful cardiologist. 

Worse, John’s son is making precisely the same mistakes in his family life that his father did.  He is not spending enough time with his son and wife, and is focusing entirely on his business.  So -- pretending to be an “old” friend of his father’s -- John tells his adult son: “The circle completes itself, doesn’t it?”  He urges his boy to spend time with his children.  That it is that time, and that relationship that matters.

Finally, John decides to go back to sea, to attempt to find the portal back to his life in 1952.  If only he can get there, he swears that things will be different this time.  He won’t neglect his family…

The episode’s final, shocking moment reveals, alas, that no matter how hard you try…you simply can’t go home again.

To use a rough analogy, “No Way Out” is sort of the Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected’s version of The Twilight Zone’s stand-out episode, Walking Distance.”  In that story, as you may recall, a man, played by Gig Young returned to his home town and found he had traveled back in time to his own childhood.  But, as he learned the hard way, every customer -- every child – gets only one summer.  You can’t run away to the past.  You can only make the present better.

Of course, “No Way Out” concerns not going back, not returning to a cherished time long gone, but rather traveling forward, and the realization that if you are not present in your life – moment to moment – it will pass you by in a flash. 

The episode is a good reminder, as well -- to busy Dads, especially -- that there is nothing more important than spending time with their children while they are young.  John Kelty is occupied by his own wants and needs to the exclusions of his son’s interests.  And yet his son grows up to be a mirror image, making the same mistakes.

The finale of “No Way Out” is unexpectedly dark and grim, and a direct refutation of John’s mantra that “if there is a way in, there must be a way out.”  His failure to pinpoint that way out is, again, an explicit reminder to audiences that you literally can’t make up for lost time.  Time moves in only one direction: forward.  So again, don’t squander the present.

“No Way Out” is by turns intense and tragic.  Kelty is desperate to return home, desperate to get back that which he once failed to value, and his story is a very human one.  We all make mistakes, but “No Way Out” is terrifying because Kelty makes a mistake his life can’t recover from, and which impacts his family.

For fans of seventies sci-fi franchises, this story not only provides a unique variation on Twilight Zone-style storytelling but features a famous toy of the era.  At about the twenty-one minute point, Kelty goes to a toy store in a Califonia mall, and there, displayed (upside down) is a Mattel Eagle One toy from Space:1999 (1975 – 1977).

I’ve covered Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected before on the blog (way back in 2008, I think), and in my book, Terror Television (2001).  The series certainly had its share of stinkers (like “A Hand for Sonny Blue”) but yet it also boasted some remarkably effective shows, like “The Nomads” and this emotionally-charged.

As I wrote earlier today in regards to "Force of Evil," I’d love to see this series available on DVD.  It’s a piece of genre history that is too often forgotten, and I think modern audiences would still enjoy “No Way Out."

Cult-TV Flashback: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected: "Force of Evil" (May 13, 1977)

“In everyone, it has been said, there is a spark of the divine…But in others it is snuffed out.  Another force begins to stir…a force of evil.”
    Opening narration of “Force of Evil,” from Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (1977).

Perhaps the oddest episode of the short-lived Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (1977) -- and therefore the most enduring -- is the two-part epic titled “Force of Evil.” 

Good Times released this feature-length story on VHS in the mid-1980s, all while keeping intact the series’ opening credits and voice-over narration (from baritone William Conrad).

But the fact that “Force of Evil” ended up on videotape as a stand-alone “feature” isn’t the only quality that has rendered this particular episode immortal. For those who have seen it, the episode (by Robert Malcolm Young) is unforgettable because it largely plays as a G-rated, TV version of the great psychological horror film, Cape Fear (1962). 

In that classic film, a lawyer named Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is stalked and pursued by Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), because Sam testified against the criminal in court. 

Now, Max Cady makes Sam’s life a living hell, and threatens the lawyer’s family.  The story ends in a conflict on a house-boat.  A remake from Martin Scorsese came along in 1991, with Robert De Niro playing Cady.

“Force of Evil” stars Lloyd Bridges as Dr. Carrington, a physician who has also testified against a criminal, Ted Jakes (William Watson)…who has now been released.  Ted immediately starts to make Carrington’s life a living hell by threatening his family, including his teenage daughter Cindy (Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch).

In Cape Fear, Cady killed the Bowden’s pet dog. In “Force of Evil” Jakes burns down the family’s horse stable. 

Amazingly, “Force of Evil” comes to an end with Carrington also sending his family to hide on a houseboat, where Jakes ultimately shows up, and a final confrontation ensues in the surf.

The narrative details in common between productions are numerous, but “Force of Evil” distinguishes itself in a few ways. 

First, since this is a TV production, there is no way to depict any real physical violence, especially against children.  Instead, Carrington and Jakes just kind of endlessly brawl in “Force of Evil,” with neither achieving the upper hand.  The violence is pure TV western fisticuffs.  And because this is a TV show, no mention is ever made of what Jakes actually does to his victims?  Rape? Molestation? Murder?  We just know that he’s a really bad guy.

In the second instance, “Force of Evil” suggests that its villain, Teddy Jakes, is no ordinary man, but some kind of spectral avenger, literally a force of evil.  Dr. Carrington and his brother, a sheriff, attempt to kill Teddy and dump his body in a well.  But like Michael Myers in Halloween, Teddy Jakes just won’t die.  He keeps attacking, even though “by every law of human physiology” he should be dead.   The episode provides some nice visuals as clues to Jakes’ inhuman nature.  At one point, the episode surges towards him from a slightly low angle, while he stands stationary in the desert, and we get a sense of his powerful nature.  Also, throughout most of the episode Jakes wears sun-glasses, which hide “the window to the soul,” his eyes.

Finally, the episode ends on an ambiguous note.  Jakes’ body disappears, and so audiences can’t be certain if he is really good for gone, or merely waiting to deliver another strike. 

As the episode ends, Carrington’s wife receives a box of flowers.  Before we know what is in that closed box, however, the narrator Conrad, closes up shop:  “If you believe in the goodness of man, then the box contains roses.  But if you believe in a force of evil…it could contain almost anything!”

Cue End Credits.

I don’t know exactly precisely, but “Force of Evil” really fascinates me.  It is such an obvious cribbing of Cape Fear and yet, on some basic level, it is effective, and plays like a nightmare from which you can’t awake.  Even the inconclusive nature of the violence – made for television – reinforces the idea that this is some kind of surreal of dream event, and that Jakes can’t be stopped.  I also credit William Watson for delivering a great sleazy performance as Jakes.  He constantly snaps his gum and wears a shit-eating grin. 

Watching him scene-to-scene, you want to punch Jakes’ lights out too.

Adding to the notion that “Force of Evil” is some kind of dream-story, there is no logic whatsoever behind the narrative.  Carrington’s brother, the Sheriff (John Anderson), keeps claiming that there’s nothing the law can to do to stop Jakes.  But Jakes’ throws Carrington’s wife (Pat Crowley) down a well, and she could certainly testify to that fact.

Similarly, Jakes kills the Sheriff, but Carrington never notifies any police department of this fact.  The belief that “the law can’t do anything!” pervades this production even when the facts of the narrative overtly suggest otherwise, and that’s a byproduct of the episode’s origins in the cynical post-Dirty Harry mid-1970s, I would suggest.  In that paranoid world, only the criminals have rights, and the rest of us have to fend for ourselves, even against -- wait for it -- “a force of evil.”

Over the years, I have watched “Force of Evil” probably three or four times, and I have no idea why I keep going to the trouble to haul out the VC.  I feel very conflicted about the merits of the thing and yet I am drawn, periodically, to re-experience it.   

To some extent, my desire to see “Force of Evil” again and again must arise from the episode’s surreal, dream-like air.  The idea of being faced with a cackling monster that just won’t die remains good nightmare fodder, I guess.

“Force of Evil” is the only episode of Tales from the Unexpected you can purchase commercially today (on the second hand market, however), but it sure would be nice to get an official DVD release of the series one of these days.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: What destroys suspension of disbelief?

A regular reader, Jason, asks:

When you're watching a movie or TV series, what breaks your willing suspension of disbelief?  What takes you out of the experience?”

Is it bad special effects?  Poor acting?  Plot holes?  Easter eggs?”

Jason, that’s a great question.

I would say that bad special effects are not generally a major stumbling block for me, even though I do register and note them. 

Perhaps this is so because I grew up with 1960s-1980s television, and there were a lot of bad special effects but great stories to go around in that milieu.

I am a huge admirer of the BBC’s Blake’s 7 (1979 – 1981) for instance, but the special effects are atrocious.  After some practice -- I watched the first episode, “The Way Back” three times to get past the cheapness of the enterprise -- I was able to simply enjoy the storytelling in spite of the production values and effects.  Now, I sort of automatically “tune” myself to the visual frequency of something like original Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 or Land of the Lost while watching. 

Poor acting can indeed ruin a moment, but it doesn’t often break my willing suspension of disbelief, either.  Generally, if there is bad acting to reckon with, there are other problems in a film too, so it’s rarely the acting alone that jars me out of the production

I think the answer, for me anyway, rests in dialogue that fails to ring true, or tries to carry too much thematic weight. 

The best example I can think of at the moment actually occurs in a movie I admire deeply, Cabin in the Woods (2012). 

I consider this film an amusing, smart, totally worthwhile horror film.  However, near the climax, a twenty-something heroine, Dana -- who has fought tooth-and-nail to survive up till this point -- says something like Humanity…it’s time to give someone else a chance.”

This line of dialogue is so transparently the work/philosophy of the writer, and not the character that it yanked me right out of the movie, destroyed suspension of disbelief, and actually ruined the (clever) end of the movie for me. 

That line is not Dana talking. 

There’s no way she would reasonably, possibly say such a thing, given what she’s gone through and how she’s reacted thus far.  It’s a terrible, terrible line that should have never been spoken.  Marty could have gotten away with it, but not Dana.  

So for one thing, the line is out of character. For another, it’s crushingly obvious, given the conceits of the film, and therefore pretentious.  The movie would work just as well (and perhaps much, much better...) with the omission of that single line of dialogue.

I shouldn’t give the impression that Cabin in the Woods is the only film that suffers from this flaw.  I remember Mississippi Burning -- a critical darling of 1988 -- ending with one character stating  vapidly “Maybe we’re all bad.”

Maybe we’re all bad?  

This is a movie about regional, entrenched racism in the United States in the 1960s and the effort to overcome it; to beat City Hall, essentially.  And the point that the filmmakers’ want audiences to leave with is “maybe we’re all bad?” 


Recently in Man of Steel (2013), Superman came up with the idea of opening a singularity over Metropolis to destroy General Zod, and a U.S. General wanted confirmation that this plan was a good idea.  He got it from Christopher Meloni’s character. 

But in this case, what was not said is what bothered me, and had me wanting to address the screen.  Not a single line about the importance of closing the freshly opened singularity.  And why ask Meloni’s character?  

What the hell does he know about opening and closing singularities?

Sometimes, what is said -- and what isn’t said -- in a movie can really harsh my mellow, and shatter that magical suspension of disbelief.

Don't forget to ask me a question at

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Weddings

Wedding ceremonies -- the joyous union of two individuals before the law (and the Lord?) in holy matrimony -- have been a regular feature of cult television for decades, going back at least as far as the episode of Adventures of Superman titled "The Wedding of Superman" in 1958.  In that case, the episode actually involved Lois Lane's (Noel Neill) fantasy or dream of a wedding to the Man of Steel.

In the 1960s, Star Trek (1966 - 1969) featured a wedding ceremony in the early-first season story "Balance of Terror" by Paul Schneider.  In this case, two young crew-members aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson, celebrate their joyous wedding day aboard ship.  Scotty (James Doohan) gives away the blushing bride, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) officiates at the ceremony,  Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) at his side.  Things turn tragic before the end of the episode, however, when the groom is killed during a space battle with the Romulans.

At the wedding, Kirk says: "Since the days of the first wooden vessels, all ship masters have had one happy privilege: that of uniting two people in the bonds of matrimony."  

Uniquely, Kirk's words officiating the Tomlinson wedding are repeated, nearly verbatim in the fourth season Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994) episode "Data's Day."  Here, Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) and Keiko are joined in marriage via those words (spoken by Captain Jean Luc Picard).

On Deep Space Nine (1993 - 1999) -- in the midst of the galactic war with the Dominion -- Worf (Michael Dorn) and Lt. Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) planned to wed in a traditional Klingon ceremony.

There's only one hitch in this plan: the mistress of the House of Martok, Sirella, isn't exactly keen on having a non-Klingon such as Dax as a family member. Dax refuses to humble herself for the proud Sirella, and it looks like the wedding won't come off unless she changes her mind.

Klingon bachelor parties aside, this episode of Deep Space Nine gazes at the underlying meaning of marriage: the total combination of two lives and the total dedication of one life to another. Dax shouldn't exactly be surprised that her hubby-to-be, Worf, so deeply desires a traditional Klingon wedding, and she shouldn't be surprised that she must jump through some hoops to win over her future "in-laws," given Klingon pride and xenophobia.

With a little help from Captain Sisko, Dax realizes that she must give her soul-mate the wedding he desires, and that it is actually only her own pride standing in the way.  There are plenty of times in marriage when the only way to get over a problem is to tuck away the ego and make a sacrifice for the spouse, and this episode understands that fact.  If Dax is going to be part of the family, she must respect family tradition, and again, that's something that all prospective brides and grooms realize.  It would have been interesting, however, to see Worf do some compromising too.  How far would he have gone for Dax, to experience a traditional Trill wedding, I wonder?

On Star Trek: Voyager's   (1995 - 2001) "Course: Oblivion," Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) are married in the Delta Quadrant, but the ceremony viewers witness turns out to be that of a duplicate or "alternate" crew that was fated to die.   Because of this plot twist, the wedding felt like just another gimmick in an already gimmicky narrative.

Weddings have been a staple of other genre programs outside the Star Trek universe too. 

For instance, an important wedding ceremony occurs in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) episode "Lost Planet of the Gods."  While the rag-tag, fugitive fleet faces two problems, a deadly plague and a strange "void" in space, Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch) and former news-woman, Serina (Jane Seymour) select a date for their joining ceremony, to be officiated by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene).

Apollo and Serina's "sealing" ceremony is celebrated in a candle-lit chamber beneath the darkness of the starless void, but at the height of the nuptials, a star appears to guide the Galactica and her wards to a planet called Kobol, the very world from which all Colonial life sprang.

Apollo and Serina explore the planet with Adama and encounter Baltar -- and tragedy -- on the planet surface.

A year later, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) featured a far less romantic wedding in "Escape from Wedded Bliss."  Here, the Draconian Princess, Ardala (Pamela Hensley) returns to Earth with an orbital doomsday weapon and demands that Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) marry her, lest she destroy the world.  The Earth Defense Directorate surrenders Buck to the Princess aboard her flagship, the Draconia.

There, Buck learns the rules of Draconian courtship and marriage.  In short, he must battle Tigerman in the arena to prove he is worthy of a Draconian princess.  Then, in the final stages of the wedding ceremony, Buck is to wear not a traditional wedding ring, but rather a wedding collar which constricts and tightens around his neck when he displeases his new bride.  This "shotgun wedding" is averted at the last instant, and Buck destroys the doomsday weapon, leaving a jilted Ardala at the altar.

"Escape from Wedded Bliss" is a primal male fantasy.  A gorgeous, powerful and sexy princess will destroy the world unless you and only you agree to make her your bride?  What red-blooded American guy wouldn't be in favor of that arrangement?  Then again, there's the wedding collar to think about.  But all kidding aside, this episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century does a pretty fine job of revealing how sad and lonely a figure Princess Ardala truly is.  As a member of Draco's royal family, Ardala feels isolated and alone, and suspects that Buck -- because of his "out-of-time" nature -- might feel those emotions too.

In V: The Series' "The Rescue" the bride wears scales.  The priest is a lizard in cardinal hat.  And the wedding banquet consists of gerbils, spiders, and rats.  The bride, Diana (Jane Badler) and groom, Charles (Duncan Regher) share not a delicious wedding cake, but rather "a ceremonial mouse" at the lovely reception.

Yep, it's just another day aboard the Visitor mothership. 

Here, Diana is manipulated into marriage by her rivals Lydia (June Chadwick) and Charles.  Surprisingly, however, Diana and Charles actually seem to fall in love, or at least in lust.  This development outrages Lydia, who then plots to kill Diana with "cat poison."  The murder attempt goes wrong, however, and it is Charles who ends up dead on his wedding night.

From start to finish, "The Rescue" is utterly outrageous.  It's high camp and V: The Series knew it.  Why?  Well, consider that on July 29, 1981, a very different Charles and Diana were wed at St. Paul's Cathedral in London before a global TV audience of one billion people.  "The Rescue's" Charles/Diana nuptials were not viewed by nearly so many, but it was worth a try, wasn't it? 

The fun of this episode (and of V: The Series in general) was in watching the wicked machinations and tactics of Lydia and Diana as they forever sought to one-up each other, all while devouring small rodents and other terrestrial creatures.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "The Prom" teased an Angel/Buffy wedding day that quickly became a nightmare.  This sad wedding was followed up with another.  In "Hell's Bells" in 2002,Xander left Anya at the altar.

Other weddings have appeared in The Greatest American Hero's (1981-1983) "Newlywed Game" as Ralph (William Katt) and Pam (Connie Sellecca) tied the knot under some less-than-ideal circumstances.  "Do  You Take Dexter Morgan" on Dexter features the serial killer's murder to lovely...and short-lived Rita.

Smallville, like Lois and Clark before it, featured a wedding episode. In fact, it featured three.

In the first, "Promise" (2007), Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) and Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) were married.  In the second, titled "Bride" Jimmy and Chloe were married, and in the third, Clark (Tom Welling) and Lois (Erica Durance) almost tied the knot.