Saturday, November 02, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975): "Lagoon of Peril" (September 20, 1975)

In this week’s episode of the Saturday morning animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes, the Ape war machine (under Urko’s command), ramps-up for the “all-out” destruction of the humanoids. 

The ape media doesn’t help quell this strategy for genocide, and reports an invasion of the planet of the apes by intelligent “aliens” -- really the human astronauts, Bill and Jeff. A kind of mass panic spreads through the simian capital, and now Zaius must agree to go with Urko to the Forbidden Zone to discern the truth.  He’s not very happy about that.  And yes, this aspect of the story very much mirrors events depicted in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).

The astronauts, meanwhile, return to the lagoon in the Forbidden Zone where their capsule originally went down.  They attempt to dive to the bottom of the body of water, and salvage the equipment they need, including their laser drill.  Unfortunately, their time is short.  Urko’s army is on the march, and if his soldiers see the astronaut’s spaceship, the apes will commit genocide for certain. The astronauts must self-destruct their ship and let no sign remain, lest the apes learn the truth.

There’s a bit of narrative muddle in “Lagoon of Peril” that deserves mentioning.

The Ape City prepares to go to all-out war to eliminate any intelligent humanoids. Yet when the Ape army is confronted with the illusions of the Under Dwellers in the Forbidden Zone – including a floating skull that belches fire -- they dismiss these phantasms as being the work of the Under Dwellers.  So the apes accept the presence of Under Dwellers nearby, but not the possibility of intelligent humans?  They’ll settle for having illusion-creating mutants as neighbors, but not one or two normal humans?

I don’t really understand the thinking there, I confess.  It seems to me that the Under Dwellers provide the very proof the Apes seek of an intelligent (and hostile) “humanoid” country near their borders.  They should be Urko’s target.

Like last week’s show, there is an outbreak of out-and-out fantasy here, in “Lagoon of Peril,” as Bill and Jeff’s attempt to retrieve the laser drill is impeded by a giant, squawking sea dragon. 

Nova calls the beast “Ohoya,” but any way you slice it, the monster is a fanciful creation, and one that doesn’t seem entirely at home (like the giant sewer spider last week) in the hard science-fiction Apes saga.  Both the spider and the sea monster seem like flagrant instances of hedging bets on the part of the producer, to make certain that their series appeals to younger children.  Talking apes and discussions of morality are nice, but there’s nothing like squawking sea monster to hold the attention, right?

“Lagoon of Peril” ends with the apes convinced that their borders are safe, though again, how the apes came to this conclusion – especially after enduring the hostile visions of the Under Dwellers – is a bit of a mystery.

Next week: “Terror at Ice Mountain”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost 1991: "The Crystal"

In “The Crystal,” the fifth episode of the 1991 Land of the Lost remake, Shung and his Sleestak cohorts manage to lose his prized crystal sword (seen for the first time in “Shung the Terrible.”)

The weapon unexpectedly comes into Annie Porter’s possession, and she decides to use it to get back at Kevin for his bad treatment of her.  Unfortunately, every time Annie uses the alien crystal, she seems to lose a bit more of her humanity, becoming more and more unforgiving, and more and more cruel to boot.

Mr. Porter, Kevin and Shung himself attempt to get the dark crystal out of Annie’s possession, but she becomes fiercely protective of it.  Finally, Mr. Porter convinces her that the crystal is “evil” and “wrong,” and that she will end up like Shung if she continues to use it.  Annie willingly gives it up, ashamed of her behavior…

Driven by a strong moral and thematic through-line, “The Crystal” is another decent (if not inspired) episode of Land of the Lost (1991 – 1992).  In some sense, the episode is a thinly-veiled remake of an original series episode called “Scarab,” which saw Chaka (Philip Paley) bitten by a golden insect, and transformed into a hostile, deceitful creature.  Shung’s crystal here has roughly the same effect on Annie, and it’s up to her loving family (which includes Stink and Tasha) to bring her back into the fold.

Visually, “The Crystal” is a strong episode, and possession of the sword begins to transform cute little Annie into something not-so-cute.  She stops wearing her glasses, and we see dark circles under her eyes. Her hair grows more wild, and her acts of evil seem to become easier and easier for the youngster to parse.  Annie’s mental degeneration is matched, then, by her physical one.

I also like the implications inherent in “The Crystal.”  If Shung has been in possession of this weapon for a long time, has it totally devoured his soul too?  Is he such a rotten bastard because he owns this crystal weapon?   If he were separated it from any length of time, would he become more humane?

Certainly, that’s one possible reading of the context of this episode.  And “The Crystal’s” end -- in which sword knowingly seeks out Shung again—absolutely suggests that the Sleestak is not in control.  Rather, the crystal dominates his actions.

I know I complained a lot about Shung and the Sleestak a couple weeks back when I reviewed “Shung the Terrible,” but I can’t object to their use here.  They support the story-line ably, and the notion of Shung as victim of the crystal actually deepens a character that I assumed to be one-dimensional.  At least the 1990s Land of the Lost seems to be deploying the Sleestak sparingly, rather than making them the center of attention.  So far…

As my friend and regular reader SGB pointed out a few weeks ago, Land of the Lost is indeed made for children, and in some ways, the 1991 variation on the franchise is much more childish than the 1970s version.   “The Crystal” is a highly-didactic show that sends a good message to kids about the allure of evil, and the dangers to oneself from that allure.

In other words, “The Crystal” lives up to the best tradition of the original Sid and Marty Krofft Land of the Lost. It doesn’t talk down to kids.

Next week: “Wild Thing.”

Friday, November 01, 2013

Cult-TV Flashback: Farscape: "Different Destinations"

The Sci-Fi Channel series Farscape (1999 - 2003) remains one of the finest space adventure TV programs of recent decades, and the third season episode "...Different Destinations," which aired originally on April 13, 2001, is a good example of why that's so abundantly the case.

It's a time travel story -- a relative rarity on Farscape -- but much like so many series installments, "...Different Destinations" is absolutely unconventional in terms of genre TV tropes.  It's also cutthroat in nature, uncompromising in vision, and beautifully, emotionally depicted.

In the Farscape canon, "...Different Destinations" is apparently a stand-alone episode, one outside of the big story arc and larger narrative concerns, and yet -- despite the superficial "throwaway" status of the show -- it's an absolute gut-punch to John Crichton, Aeryn Sun and indeed, to the audience itself.

In "...Different Destinations," the living ship Moya delivers her rag-tag crew of bickering fugitives to a planet that houses an historical "Peace Memorial." Down on the planet surface five hundred years earlier, thirty Peacekeeper soldiers defended a band of innocent nurses and children from the Venek Horde, a barbarous army renowned for being "bloodthirsty and almost impossible to control." The last stand was inside an isolated mountaintop monastery.

According to Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), a Peacekeeper herself, a heroic officer, Dacon (Dan Spielman)brokered a peace deal that saved the lives of the nurses and the young ones, but only at the cost of his own life. As Crichton (Ben Browder) describes Dacon, he's "Davy Crockett at the Alamo." Jool (Tammy McIntosh) contrarily argues that the story is militaristic propaganda, designed to prop up loyalty and patriotism.

Thanks to a pair of alien "tourist" goggles available at the cloisters, Crichton and the others can actually view the planet's final, historical battle unfold.

But something goes awry when the enigmatic Stark (Paul Goddard) views the events of the distant past.

When Stark watches, he somehow creates a "tear" in the fabric of time and space; a tear that transports Aeryn, John, Jool, D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) and himself back in time to the very day of the conflict.

Now trapped in the turbulent past, the shipmates debate the "elasticity of time" and whether or not it is a "brittle framework."

In other words, they wonder if their presence at the battle can change the course of history, and thus affect the future itself; the very "future" they dwell in. There's even a little arrogance in a conversation between Aeryn and John early on, as they wonder if there's a way they might actually "improve" the future.

This being Farscape and not Star Trek, no such improvement occurs. Not by a long shot. Quite the opposite in fact.

What "...Different Destinations" actually depicts is a kind of royal screw-up on the part of the Moya's argumentative crew. For instance, when Aeryn sees that Dacon is just a rookie -- and a cook, no less -- she does everything she can to shield the young man from his grim but pre-ordained fate. And unbeknownst to the others, John strikes a secret deal with the Venek General, one that ends in disaster when the general is murdered on the monastery ramparts by a nurse.

History recorded the military leader as a reasonable man who worked with Dacon to subdue the blood lust of the Horde. Now that he's gone, there's absolutely no buffer between the nurses and the violent warriors at the gates.

John notes after the death of the Venek leader: "I'm in a hell of a slump hereEverything I do just makes things worse." 


Before long, John is actually seeking the advice of the Scorpius implant in his head (Wayne Pygram).  That's how desperate he becomes to find a way out of this complicated temporal puzzle.

Meanwhile, D'Argo eschews the complexity of time travel theories and befriends one of the children in the monastery.

He informs her that the only way to make herself immortal is to be remembered. She takes his words to heart, and carves her name - Centrina -- into the walls of the fortress.

As a long night progresses, John and Aeryn make every attempt to right the time line in the absence of a key player, the Venek General. They even offer up Dacon. But this time when he dies, there's still no peace.  Now Aeryn feels even worse.  In this reality, Dacon died for nothing.

Back on Moya, Chiana, Pilot and Rygel watch in horror as the planet they orbit keeps changing.  The once-beautiful world becomes a burned out cinder and then, finally, disappears all together...totally annihilated in a conflict of hate and violence.

Down on the surface, with the Veneks swarming the monastery, the crew of Moya has no option left but to use their advanced pulse pistol weaponry and fight the conquering horde to a standstill. Making like an army, John, Aeryn and D'Argo fight for their lives and for the lives of the innocent. Then they escape through another "time tear" and return to the present in full belief that their combat efforts have made a truce possible.

But when they view the events of history through the tourist goggles, the time travelers learn a hard truth:  The Venek mob murdered all the nurses and children.  They were angry because they refused to give up the location of the Peacekeeper named...Crichton.

"I screwed up," a mourning John admits.

Crichton may have screwed up, but Farscape certainly didn't, and "...Different Destinations" is an absolutely inventive hour of action and science fiction, one that remembers that people (even astronauts; even aliens...) are flawed and don't always make the right choices.  Even more so, the right choice in the moment may not be the right choice, historically-speaking.

John and Aeryn, in particular, face the ramifications of their interference.  Both young Dacon and the unlucky nurses die horrible deaths, and there's no sense of "heroism" or "glory" to be found anywhere.  

It's a decidedly unromantic, unglamorous view of war, and the episode ultimately confirms Jool's point about propaganda.  Aeryn realizes she's been living with a lie since childhood. 

But this Farscape episode remains a remarkable one because it's just so far astray of audience expectations.  In a latter generation of Star Trek, for instance, the men and women of Starfleet would have certainly repaired the time line and rescued the innocent nurses and children.  And there's almost zero chance they would have held the day by employing their advanced weaponry against primitives. 

But in Steve Worland's "...Different Destinations," there are no higher rules (like Starfleet regulations) to contend with, and furthermore no unity whatsoever amongst the time-traveling participants about how to proceed.   It's trial and error all the way, and John and Aeryn argue vociferously about what should be done.

Interestingly, D'Argo -- often a sort of father figure, given the loss of his son in the series -- befriends Centrina and sees immediately the human cost of failure.  While Aeryn and John talk tactics, he discusses mortality, memory and loss.  It's a potent contrast to the behavior of Crichton and Sun.  They're struggling on concepts: how do we fix this; how do we repair that.  But D'Argo looks at something else: at youth and innocence, and the death of both.  The final moment of this subplot, with D'Argo discovering Centrina's names carved in the monastery wall, is downright haunting.

I admire how "...Different Destinations" is gleefully politically incorrect in terms of genre standards.  The heroes fail egregiously.  The innocent die...horribly.  Standard methods of success (attempting to maintain the timeline; adhering to accepted time travel philosophy) prove counterproductive.   Most importantly, the temptation to "re-boot" the time line and tie everything up with a nice, neat ribbon is avoided. What we have instead then is a series interested in examining cliches and carving out new...and uncharted territory.

Economically shot -- almost entirely on one set, the monastery courtyard -- "...Different Destinations" is impressive in just about every way one can tally.   In particular, it very adroitly utilizes its pop culture references (a mainstay of Farscape), with John finally alluding to the last stand of Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983).

There, Tony -- a gangster and thug -- fought impossible odds and lost, destroyed by his enemies but also by his own self-destructive nature. 

It's extremely interesting, then, that in this episode John goes from referencing Davy Crockett at the Alamo -- an example of great heroism in a last stand -- to Tony Montana, a man who has isolated himself through his bad behavior and went out not in a blaze of glory, but infamy.   The siege situation on the planet has descended from one of heroic last stand, then, to a purposeless battle to the death.  Again, this is a very unromantic, unglamorous view of war, and more trenchantly, of heroes.

What are the reasons for the crew's egregious failure in this episode?  Well, Stark says it well: "...different beliefs...different destinations."  John believes in one thing; Aeryn another, and they don't really work together until it is far too late.  Their different beliefs have created successively -- as we see from Moya's observation deck -- different destinations.  And all those destinations are increasingly horrible.   

In short, this is a story in which our heroes stumble into a tough situation...and make it infinitely worse through their involvement.

That's the kind of thing that didn't often happen to Captain Picard...

Cult-TV Flashback: Farscape: "The Way We Weren't"

Back in the day, I actually had the honor of writing original short stories for The Official Farscape Magazine (particularly "Make a Wish" and "That Old Voodoo" back in 2002)  and one of my greatest career disappointments remains the fact that Farscape was unceremoniously canceled just as the possibility arose that I might get to pen an epic series novel based on a proposal I wrote for Tor called "Dominar." 


Although the Henson/O'Bannon series is widely commented on and praised for the colorful, original and utterly wonderful presentation of aliens and other-worldly environments -- I just watched an episode called "Home on the Remains"  that took place entirely inside the carcass of a giant space creature -- Farscape nonetheless appears to  reach its apex of quality when focusing front-and-center on its very conflicted and very flawed dramatis personae.

Case in point is the jaw-dropping, heart-breaking "The Way We Weren't," a grim if thoroughly involving episode from Farscape's second season, which originally aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in April of 2000. 

"The Way We Weren't" moves with a relentless sense of urgency, pace and inevitability, and spares the main characters (and thus the viewer) no pain whatsoever.  There are no lengthy excursions to other worlds in this particular story; and no "new" alien creations, either.  Instead, the sharp focus is on...the intimate; on inner space, if you will.

In fact, this particular installment points to the reason I deeply admire Farscape so much, even on a second viewing a decade later.  The overall stance/philosophy here is realistic rather than overtly operatic, idealistic, or heroic. 

This creative approach boasts two distinct advantages. 

One: the sense of realism in terms of character interaction and history grounds the far-out proceedings.  Farscape is visually dazzling in a fashion that few science fiction series have ever achieved (Space: 1999 is another notable example of such an achievement), and if the characters in Farscape were all perfect, idealized beings (as is the case on TNG, for instance...), there would be nothing to hold onto; no way to identify with the adventures or their participants.  The colorful world of Farscape and its inhabitants would seem remote.

And two: the realistic, fully-dimensional approach to the colorful characters makes their eventual bonding and infrequent unions of purpose and mission seem all the more grand and inspiring. 

The main characters on Farscape are exiles, thieves, cheats, a fish-out-of-water, and even an ex-fascist.  When this motley crew gets it together and somehow beats the Powers that Be, you not only sigh with relief, you actually cheer.  

In short, the series' writers keep setting the main characters at each other's throats, separated by their divisions and differences, experiencing set-backs and then -- at just the right time -- they bring everyone back together.  It can be quite rousing, even rather emotional at times. 

Farscape brilliantly mastered this particular narrative structure.

But getting to specifics, in the second season's "The Way We Weren't," Chiana (Gigi Edgley) unexpectedly discovers a shocking video recording.  It depicts the brutal murder of Moya's first pilot by Peacekeepers...under the direction of draconian Captain Crais (Lani Tupu). 

This is a double shock, actually, because no one aboard the bio-ship even knew that Moya's current Pilot was not her first. 

Aeryn participates in the brutal murder of a Pilot.
The next surprise is that one of the Peacekeeper soldiers carrying out the brutal blaster massacre is none other than current Moya resident, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black).  

Pilot and Aeryn have long since learned to get along, and even bonded, so this recording could be a huge problem.

And of course, it is.  As usual, Rygel makes trouble for his shipmates and sees to it that Pilot gets his hands (claws?) on the violent recording. 

Angry, Pilot promptly demands that Aeryn leave Moya permanently.  She is no longer welcome. 

The scenes involving Pilot's out-of-control rage and Aeryn's deep, sincere regret are incredibly raw and incredibly powerful in "The Way We Weren't.   You will swear, countenancing Pilot's unrestrained grief and rage, that this is a real alien being and not an accomplished special effect; not a "muppet."

Reluctantly, Aeryn agrees to depart from Moya, and no one seems eager to keep her around.  Only John (Ben Browder) is at all sympathetic

Still Aeryn asks for forgiveness from Pilot and Moya.  Importantly, she doesn't try to evade responsibility for her act of murder, she simply states that she is "no longer" the "same person" she was when she pulled that trigger so long ago.   To the others aboard Moya, this hardly seems like an excuse, given Aeryn's culpability. 

This dynamic amongst the crew (D'Argo, Chiana, Zahn, and Rygel)  powerfully illuminates an important issue in modern American culture vis-a-vis crime and punishment.  When a person has committed a crime, but changed in the years since that we punish that person for his or her initial deed, or honor the redemption?  When pronouncing punishment, do we consider good deeds or positive "change" as mitigating factors? 

Aeryn has no right to ask for mercy and understanding, especially seeing how -- in the episode's flashbacks -- she also callously betrays the man she loves, a Peacekeeper officer with deep feelings for her.  And yet Aeryn is right...she isn't the same person anymore. We've seen her save her ship-mates and Moya herself on more than one occasion.

Pilot wants to "see the stars."  Maybe too much.
"The Way We Weren't" is downright fascinating in its depiction of Aeryn during her Peacekeeper past, and in terms of revealing how limited a person she once was in terms of her connections to others, her aspirations, even in the simple terms of her imagination.

But then, commendably, the story goes one better and reveals, also via flashback, Pilot's original connection with Moya too.   

Shockingly, even this kindly creature -- a veritable rock of stability on the Leviathan since the series' premiere-- boasts a personal history that he is ashamed of too...and also keeping secrets about. 

Specifically, Pilot was never approved to be "joined" with Moya (or any Leviathan), and so teamed with the Peacekeepers to link with Moya outside of the hierarchy of his people and his laws.   Pilot was impatient.  He wanted to "see the stars" and he didn't want to wait. 

That burning desire,that impatience, led Pilot to commit a grievous error...a crime.

In this way, Pilot is as much responsible for the first pilot's death as is Aeryn...and he knows it.  The knowledge of this guilt, the memory of this betrayal, nearly destroys Pilot, in fact.  In an agonizing moment, he literally rips himself out of his piloting console, a suicidal act which immobilizes Moya, but also -- ironically -- frees Pilot of the pain he has always felt because of his actions, and also because of his "artificial" joining to the Leviathan.

In "The Way We Weren't," Aeryn's and Pilot's personal stories mirror and parallel one another in unqieu artistic fashion.  Aeryn once committed a betrayal against her lover to get what she wanted (an assignment flying prowlers, for heaven's sake), and Pilot essentially did the same thing.  He let himself be manipulated by Crais and the Peacekeepers so that he could achieve his dream of joining with a Leviathan.  He was a willing pawn.

As John Crichton notes in the episode, everyone has secrets in their past; secrets that they don't want exposed, and "The Way We Weren't" is a beautiful and edgy excavation of Aeryn and Pilot's deepest, darkest skeletons.  

The episode works so well because it never candy coats what these characters did in the past.  It never makes excuses for their mistakes and behavior.  It just reveals that Pilot and Aeryn have made mistakes, and that, today, they truly are different people.  That's a lot like real life, no?

"The Way We Weren't" also features several stand-out scenes and visualizations.  The flashback moments are rendered in a kind of bleached-out, de-saturated palette, which lends a deeper feeling of "colorlessness" to the milieu of the Peacekeepers; who all march in lock-step and don't deviate from rigid behavior and personal emotional repression. 

It's a world without real love -- as Aeryn describes it to John -- and in one of the episode's most interesting scenes, Aeryn leverages what authentically seems like true love for a simple job transfer.  This is an unheroic, unflattering view of Aeryn. She was once so limited, so parochial, she didn't even know how to value love -- the human (okay, Sebacean...) connection -- over an assignment she liked.  You feel pity for her.

The second scene from the episode that I find deeply affecting finds Aeryn's lover, Valerek, visiting Pilot on what I assume is Pilot's home world.  Pilot is ensconced in a planetary surface of heavy though sitting in a swamp or a bog.  High above him, the black, clear sky is filled with bright stars.  A shooting star even races by overhead.  In this moment, you can understand the young Pilot's yearning and impatience to be free. 

To escape from the restraining fog below and touch those distant constellations above... 

If you're a fan of space adventures, or even just science fiction in general, you've likely felt this simple tug before: to leave behind the mundane environment of terra firma and touch the magic and mystery of the stars. 

I admire how this scene looks; and especially how it plays.  And again, I must state how endearing, how emotionally-resonant the performance by Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu) truly is in this moment.  You look at those big expressive, alien eyes and you don't see a technician's carefully calibrated creation; you see a fully-realized alien being longing for an escape from his earthbound existence.

Without ever being preachy or pushing hard some kind of overt "moral" message, "The Way We Weren't" engenders real viewer sympathy for Aeryn and Pilot through these two powerful sequences. 

With Aeryn for following her ambition instead of her heart. 

And with Pilot for letting his impatience to achieve a dream get the better of him. 

But the important thing to consider is this simple fact: the mistakes these aliens make are easily ones we could see ourselves making.  Following orders we shouldn't have followed. Or skipping a crucial step to get ahead of someone else.

Once more, the point is that in a heightened world of lasers, starbursts, alien wizards, monsters, and incredible fantasy, Farscape gives us a peek at recognizable, flawed individuals.   So we identify with them.   We like them; even when they make poor choices.  Rygel is actually my favorite character on the program, and I think the series' realistic approach is another reason why. He's such a thorn-in-the-side and a royal (literally...) pain-in-the-ass, but Rygel's motives (if not stomachs) are entirely human.

Pilot is lowered into Moya's command console...for the first time.

"The Way We Weren't" dispatches with larger  Farscape story arc concerns like Scorpius's pursuit, blossoming romances, and the desperation for provisions. 

It simply and elegantly reveals characters who have made terrible mistakes and, who -- more than anything, --wish they hadn't.

In this episode, Aeryn and Pilot both get second chances.  Aeryn gets to stay aboard Moya, and Pilot -- putting all the years of pain and guilt aside -- finally achieves his dream: a natural joining with the Leviathan he clearly loves.

It's silly to write this, but this Farscape denouement may just bring a tear to your eye.  We all hope for forgiveness.  So we relate.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween-a-Thon 2013: Trick or Treating in the 1970s

That's five year old JKM as The Six Million Dollar Man!
Given my penchant for horror films, it won’t surprise you to learn that Halloween is a big holiday at the Muir house. 

I still dress up along with Joel every October 31st, and head out into the neighborhood collecting candy.  We have one amazing neighbor up the street who only gives out “movie”-style candy, giant, over-sized boxes of Raisinets and the like.  I pretty much have to muscle my seven year old out of the way to get to them.

Just kidding. I let Joel get the loot. 

My love of Halloween goes back to my earliest memories in the seventies.  I grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, a picturesque Essex County suburb, and the trick-or-treating there was pretty great. 

Glen Ridge is a small town, so a kid could cover a lot of ground in one night, if he or she was willing to do a lot of walking.  

My sister and I would get started on Halloween at about 4:30 pm (in costume), trick-or-treat for an hour, eat dinner, and then go back out and trick-or-treat until nine o’clock at night.  

Then, we’d return home, dump our bags out on the kitchen table, and assess the sweet loot.  For many years, it seemed, we went trick-or-treating “for UNICEF” (United Nation’s Children’s Fund) as well, and I still remember carrying along those little orange boxes filled with change.

Part of the fun of Halloween in the 1970s involved those classic, if flimsy, Ben Cooper costumes of the era.  One year, I went out trick-or-treating as Ben Cooper’s Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.  As you can tell from the photograph, however, I look more like President Ronald Reagan than Colonel Austin.  

Another year, I went out as Ben Cooper’s Darth Vader, and the next year, as the same company’s Cylon from Battlestar Galactica.  If I’m being honest, these costumes weren’t really very good, and certainly not “show accurate” to any degree.  

And after a long night of wearing those masks, they always smelled like sweat.

I still went trick-or-treating in high school, and one year dressed up as Freddy Krueger.  I had an Indiana Jones fedora, a red-and-white sweater, a Freddy glove and a pull-over mask. 

Instead of focusing on trick or treating, however, I focused on scaring my sister.  I remember that I waited until it was about 8:30 pm, and I found a great perch at the nearby railroad tracks where we had often played as children. The tracks were near -- I kid you not -- a graveyard. 

As my sister crossed the railroad tracks on her return journey, I jumped out from behind a tall signal post and scared the heck out of her.  And man, was it fun.

It’s Halloween.  Everyone is entitled to one good scare, right?

Actually, I had my own bad scare one year while trick-or-treating in Glen Ridge. 

I think I must have been nine or so at the time.  I’m pretty sure it was the year I went out as a Cylon.  There I was in my costume, collecting candy in Glen Ridge, when I approached a large suburban house from the side. 

I should have stayed in the light, and out on the front walk.  Instead, I ran up the side yard trying to beat the other kids.  I ran by a large hedge, and then quite unexpectedly fell into a seven or eight foot hole, dug right out of the yard.  It was quite a shock.  I remember wondering what the hell happened, but fortunately I was rescued after about a minute or so “buried alive” in that ditch. 

One good scare indeed!

Just a week until Halloween now, and I’m super excited to go out trick-or-treating with Joel.  He’s dressing up as The Grim Reaper, and I’m probably going (again) as Mr. Spock, as I often do. 

I’ll make certain, however, we both stay on the path, and avoid any ditches…or dream demons.  

Happy Halloween to all!

Halloween-a-thon 2013: Frozen (2010)

It's an understatement to declare that I didn't care for director Adam Green's first feature, Hatchet (2007).  In fact, I called it a "hack job." 

In short, I felt Hatchet was a poorly-executed skit involving the slasher film paradigm, a one-dimensional, tongue-in-cheek exercise that never managed to establish, even minimally, a legitimate sense of place despite being set in a picturesque Louisiana bayou.  The film never offered a compelling or believable reality and instead seemed like an overlong and obvious joke.

But I feel very differently about Green's extraordinary 2010 horror film, Frozen. Unlike Hatchet, Frozen settles down immediately in a well-drawn locale, and Green reveals  a fine eye for detail, nuance, and character.  In the first fifteen minutes alone, the director imbues his film with an authentic sense of anticipation and dread.

More than that, this inventive horror movie doesn't attempt to be cute or precious by directing audience attention to familiar genre conventions.  Instead,  Frozen dramatically eschews all such post-modern trappings and depicts a simple, harrowing narrative of survival in a fashion that -- as the title indicates --makes your blood run cold. 

In Frozen, three college students, Joe Lynch (Shawn Ashmore), Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Dan's girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell) take a weekend ski trip to Mount Holliston.  Then, as the sun sets, they decide to make one last night-time run on the slopes. 

Because of a simple misunderstanding and shift change, however, the employees at the lodge shut off the ski-lift while the threesome is in mid-passage to the distant summit.  The machine grinds to a halt, and the three students become trapped on the lift. 

At first, Lynch, Dan and Parker try to dismiss the gravity of their situation high above the mountain, in hopes that they will soon be discovered and rescued.  Before long, however, the college students realize that it is Sunday evening, and that the park doesn't open again for five days...until Friday. 

Worse, a storm is coming.  If they don't find a way down from the immobile air-lift (where they sit side-by-side like sardines), they are certain to freeze to death.

What follows this grim realization is roughly forty five minutes of pure, gut-wrenching terror as one attempt after another to reach safety goes horribly, wretchedly awry.  Challenges and dangers lurk everywhere.  On the ground, for instance, hungry wolves soon begin to gather.  And high-up, ensconced on the lift, Parker develops a bad case of frost bite. 

Dan suggests jumping to the ground far below, but that avenue carries significant risk of grievous bodily harm...

Soon, Frozen's protagonists make fateful decisions in an attempt to stay alive, and survive the increasingly unfriendly elements.

So forget the colorfully-named Three on a Meathook (1973), this is Three on a Ski-Lift

While watching  Frozen, I was pleasantly reminded of Open Water (2004), another take-no-prisoners horror film about unlucky people attempting to survive in an inhospitable location, in that instance the deep blue sea.  

Both films represent the brand of horror film I admire the most: those which deal explicitly with the cruel application of random fate.  As if to suggest the wheels of fate or destiny forever spinning, Green commences his film with close-up views of the ski lift's whirring, over-sized gears.  These gears work efficiently and endlessly,  but also without consideration for human concerns, these composition assert. Much like Mother Nature herself.

To put this bluntly, Frozen revolves around the big, unanswered questions of our human existence (and the reason why so many people seek the comfort of religion):  why do terrible things happen to us , or to the people we love?  How can a seemingly perfect day turn on a dime and become a horrible nightmare?  What does it all mean?

Likewise, in Frozen, the three intelligent and likable protagonists could not --- at the beginning of the day -- have possibly imagined where they would be at the end of the same day.  They embark on a rather terrible "wrong turn" and must suddenly reckon with their mortality.  Their previous concerns, which include Joe remembering a girl's telephone number, suddenly seem incredibly trivial.  This is a reminder that we take our lives pretty much for granted every single day.  We go about our tasks and our hobbies without real regard for the fact that, out of the blue, it could end.  The shadow of death is upon us, whether we see and recognize it or not.

As Dan, Lynch and Parker grapple with their rapidly worsening situation on the ski lift, drastic measures eventually become necessary, and it's fascinating -- and terrifying -- to watch as they broach such life-and- death decisions.  For me, this aspect of Frozen represents the very beating heart of the great horror movie aesthetic.  When you separate the genre from its mitigating and ameliorative fantasy elements like vampires, monster,s or aliens, this is precisely the equation you're left with: a palpable recognition and fear of impending death. 

The battle for survival is all, and intractable, uncaring nature itself is the enemy.  All along, watching a film such as Frozen, the audience meaningfully ponders the idea "there but for the grace of God go I..." because any one of us, could, reasonably speaking, end up in a similarly dangerous situation, forced to make painful choices. 

Who is going to live and who is going to die?  Is there a pecking order in terms of survival?  Who should be the one to jump from the chair? 

Even, how am I going to take a piss up here?

One of Frozen's best and most moving moments involve a character's final act as he is set upon by a pack of very angry-looking wolves.  Without a word, this character pulls his hat down over his eyes so he can't see what's coming, and the simple gesture feels very, very real.  There's little else to do in that moment, but to look away from the inevitable.  Frozen is unblinking about death, but the film's human protagonists, appropriately, are not.  Again, this gesture is pretty darn metaphorical: we all pull the hat down over our eyes in regards to the fact that we don't really control nature.  Or the fact that one day, for each of us, this ride towards an unknown summit is going to come to an end.  And probably before we reach what we feel should be our destination.

So make no mistake, in reckoning with all of  this existentialist angst, Frozen is unrelentingly grim. 

The characters in the film inevitably debate the worst way to die, and then even discuss the traumatic horrors of 9/11. 

By film's end, the same characters are contemplating the fact that their pets could very well starve to death if they don't get down from the lift.  It's not exactly a mood lifter.

The cast in Frozen is pretty terrific, but Shawn Ashmore as Lynch is the stand-out.  Early on, we can see that Lynch feels guilty as the "odd man out" when the threesome must decide who should jump from the lift.  He doesn't want to be the one to jump, but it's clear to him that he should, morally, be the one to do it, since he is not part of the "couple."  This doesn't mean he does the right thing.

Later, Lynch deals with recriminations over his actions (and lack of action) and recounts some humanizing stories about the lost opportunities in his life.  Rarely, if ever, do these revelations feel like the machinations of a writer, but rather like real life human expressions of regret as the end, inevitably, nears.

Green utilizes a lot of close-ups to tell his tale which is an appropriate tactic for fostering empathy.  We're clearly meant to sympathize with these protagonists, and Lynch, Dan and Parker are not extraordinary in any particular way.  They aren't heroes and they aren't assholes who "have it coming."  Instead, they are just like you and me: people who are living their lives, not really thinking about matters such as life and death. 

As you probably know by now, I often very much enjoy films that accomplish a lot with only a few resources.  The low budget Frozen is basically a three person show occurring in just one setting.  But it's never dull, the ending is never pre-ordained, and Green masterfully sustains tension throughout the full hour-and-a-half running time.  This is no small challenge, but Green, in vetting his story well, reminds the viewer how all our lives hang by a thread (or a metal cable, perhaps).  Sometimes, we don't realize that fact until it's too late.

A note to the squeamish: Frozen is pretty gory.  There are only three primary characters, and one scene of intense gore proved so disgusting and upsetting that my (patient) wife actually leapt up from the sofa and refused to sit back down.  I had to freeze the movie and literally talk her back down. I had to convince her to watch the rest of the movie with me...and -- believe me -- it wasn't easy.   My wife's reaction was absolutely appropriate, of course.  Something so awful happens to a truly likable character here that you'll be tempted to tune out and say "enough's enough."

But of course, the chareacters in the drama don't have that out, do they?  Instead, they have a front row seat to a friend's horrible and violent death, with no opportunity to protest the absolute unfairness of the situation.   In exploring that situation -- that human truth about our mortality -- Frozen proves damned serious business.

After the film, my wife and I debated it rather heatedly.  She said Frozen was depressing because it was just about watching nice people suffer and die.  I countered that I never find a well-done horror movie about the human condition depressing, because at least it's about something important: how we face existence and its inevitable end.  The films that I find depressing are the ones that don't mean anything at all; that just waste my time (like Hatchet). 

Frozen definitely won't waste your time.  It won't exactly make you happy, but it won't waste your time, either.

Halloween-a-Thon 2013: The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring (2013) is a slick and entertaining horror film buttressed by solid performances, good production values, and quite a few highly-effective jump scares.

The film’s recreation of the 1970s milieu is also effective, and pinpoints genuine terror in a time of our national “crisis of confidence.”  

For some reason, there’s just something about the 1970s -- the era of The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979) -- that remains scary to many of us.  

Perhaps it is because the 1970s was the last time we really let ambiguity seep deeply into the national Zeitgeist, before it was “morning in America” again -- and eternally -- even in times of war or other strife.

There’s also some solid suspense wrought in The Conjuring’s first act, particularly in a chilling prologue involving a doll possessed by a demonic entity. This opening sequence plays like a mini-movie (or mini-Twilight Zone episode) in its own right, and gets things started off in good, creepy fashion.

All these values earn the film a positive recommendation from this writer, yet many aspects of The Conjuring don’t work nearly as well as they ought to, and manifest as a kind of carelessness in terms of storytelling.

In short, The Conjuring is a good movie, but not a particularly deep one.

Elements of the film feel very familiar, and on top of that, narratively inconsistent.  The story makes a mincemeat over its central debate (the difference between a ghost and a demon), and even gets a key historical date wrong, all while banking on a “based-on-a-true-story” approach to add to the effectiveness of the horror. Then, the film ends with a paean to superstition, suggesting an ardent belief "in the fairy tale" (of an afterlife) rather than in the auspices of science and reason.

Also, and in some very crucial ways, The Conjuring feels more like a TV pilot  -- an inducement to franchise-i-fication -- than a horror film with the potential and desire to transgress, shatter decorum, or undercut convention.

To put this all another way: The Conjuring is a great roller-coaster ride and you’ll have a good time watching it.  Have no mistake about that.

But it simply isn’t the kind of horror movie that will trouble your slumber, or linger in your memory.  The film is entertaining in a generic “summer blockbuster way,” yet never quite succeeds as a work of transgressive art…which is the highest calling of the horror movie, in my opinion.

The Perron family moves into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island in the year 1971, and almost immediately begins to encounter strange, supernatural manifestations.  After the death of the dog, Sadie, events spiral out of control.  The girls report imaginary friends, the smell of rancid meat saturates the house, and the family even discovers a dark, hidden cellar. 
Bruised and oppressed by an unseen “ghost,”  matriarch Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor) seeks the assistance of paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Verma Farmiga).  The couple visits the house and confirms that a demonic entity has “latched on” to the family.  The Warrens plan for an exorcism, but first must gather information so the Catholic Church can approve the procedure.
Research reveals that the Perron’s house was once home to a witch, Bathsheba, who murdered her infant child in an attempt to gain favor with the devil.  Bathsheba hanged herself soon thereafter, but not before cursing any and all trespassers on her land.
Ed and Lorraine worry that Bathsheba is now attempting to possess one of the Perrons, the most psychologically vulnerable of the clan. 
Before long, their fears come to fruition…even as Bathsheba also attempts to latch onto Lorraine, and her daughter…

When The Conjuring stays focused on the Perron family and their haunted farm house, or explores the possibilities of a malevolent ambulatory doll in its prologue (arguably the film’s most effective sequence), The Conjuring absolutely qualifies as an adroit horror machine, a roller-coaster ride with all the requisite bells and whistles.  The film is a big, successful crowd-pleaser.

And shit, what’s wrong with that?  

The film is a machine that works.

But test drive the machine some, and the film’s narrative doesn’t cohere.  For example, consider the film’s menace: a witch called Bathsheba who possesses mothers and makes them kill their children. 

The Conjuring spends a great deal of its early running time describing in detail the important differences between ghosts and demonic entities.  Ghosts haunt places; demonic entities latch onto people, the Warrens explain.  Demonic entities never walked the Earth as humans, but ghosts did.

All these “facts” are ably related by the film’s screenplay, but in terms of Bathsheba, the whole idea is terribly muddled. Bathsheba is a witch who died years ago, and who -- actually -- walked the Earth as a human.  So quite clearly, then, and by the Warrens’ own definition, she’s a ghost, not a demonic entity, right?

Yet the film continually refers to Bathsheba as a demonic entity who latches onto people (not to a place, like a ghost), when in fact she simply can’t be, since she was formerly a human being. 

The Conjuring thus seems terminally confused about the very nature of its monster.  

If Bathsheba’s a dead personality continuing to exist after the end of her life on this mortal coil, she’s a ghost. By Ed’s own definition -- provided in the prologue -- she can’t be a demon.  So our question to the film’s writers must be this: why go to such great lengths to present these definitions of ghosts and demons, then simply to ignore them?  Better not to bring up all these details in the first place if the script can't stick to them.

Secondly, Bathsheba’s range of powers shifts radically depending on the needs of the screenwriters.  At one point, Lorraine Warren turns her glance skyward, and ominous clouds blot out the sun, moving in around the house.  

The inference is that Bathsheba is literally casting a shadow over the land.  Similarly, Bathsheba can appear anywhere, at any time, and literally throw people around the room (gripping them by their hair).  She can press the trigger on a shotgun, and even shoot at people, too.

But yet Bathsheba can’t endure in the physical body of a mother who…wait for it…loves her children. 

The conclusion of The Conjuring literally suggests that Perron’s love of her children is the very thing that repels Bathsheba’s presence. 

This is a lovely sentiment about a mother’s love, to be certain, but not one that survives close scrutiny.  Given such facts, are we then to assume that the ghostly Rory’s mother didn’t love him, since Bathsheba possessed her, and she killed her own son? 

Or does Carolyn Perron just love her son more than Rory’s mother loved him?

Mother’s “love” is kind of an occupational hazard of the job, isn’t it?  Wouldn’t Bathsheba take that into account when possessing Moms?  It's like saying that a ghost who is allergic to garlic decides to possess only people who eat garlic.

The problem here is, frankly, a deeper one.  

The Conjuring simply doesn’t leave any room for ambiguity. It settles on its rules fairly quickly, and then attempts to show how those rules work in practice. Demonic entities are not ghosts, but beings that can latch onto people, and this demon, Bathsheba, exists to make mothers kill their children as she killed her own. The antidote for possession by Bathsheba is, per the climactic scene, a mother’s love. 

It’s all neatly tied up in bows for the audience, but that kind of clear-cut explanation of a supernatural entity’s motivation is the enemy of successful horror, which seeks to foster uncertainty, not bring clarity.

Even in terms of getting historical details right, The Conjuring trips over its feet. It is established that the events at the Perron family farm occur in the year 1971, for example. 

When the possession crisis ends, the Warrens return home, and get a call from a priest to investigate another haunting on Long Island: the Amityville Horror Case.

But history clearly records that the Lutzs didn’t even move into the house at Amityville until 1975.  If the Warrens are investigating the DeFeo case at the same house, well, those murders didn’t occur until 1974.

For a film that tries so hard to squeeze mileage out of a “based on a true story” approach, The Conjuring places fast and loose with the Warrens’ chronology (not to mention the actual fate of Bathsheba, in real life…).

I would agree that I am nitpicking heere were it not for the fact that The Conjuring works so assiduously to succeed on its claims of veracity.  The movie even ends with authentic photographs of the Warrens and the Perrons, furthering the apparent connection to historical “fact.”  But the photographs are less persuasive than they appear.  All we see are personalities, never anything supernatural.  Given all the “demonic activity” that the Warrens witness (and record on film...) in The Conjuring, why not end this movie with their authentic footage, with excerpts from some of their "sessions" curing people of possession?  Or, the film could play the audio of the possessed woman that apparently spawned the making of the film

But instead, this true story only throws up a few photos which establish, simply, that the Warrens and the Perrons knew each other, in the 1970s.

The very structure of The Conjuring actually diminishes real psychic fear or terror too.  Ed and Lorraine are presented as demonologists who do this kind of work on a regular basis.  The film opens with one of their previous cases (and again, quite effectively so…).  The movie ends with the promise that we will see their future cases.  In the middle, we see their present “case.”

So, essentially, then, we know that Ed and Lorraine, a priori, are going to survive whatever horrors they face in the film. 

That’s why I made the comparison to a TV pilot in my introduction: The Conjuring feels more like a set-up for a (perhaps very good…) TV series: one in which we follow a pair of investigators on their quest to deal with supernatural entities. But most horror movies are built around their monster, not their protagonists, and the could be a problem, going forward, for the franchise.  We know the Warrens are going to "make it," don't we?

The true concern here, however, is that in terms of the horror genre all of this franchise setting-up only serves to diminish the terror of this entry. We’re being prepared, from start to finish, in The Conjuring for a movie series…and that very fact takes away the filmmakers’ ability to surprise audiences, or take risks with structure, format and theme.

A really good, really memorable horror movie must subvert expectations and play with those things -- think Psycho, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even Wolf Creek.  

Or think instead about the sub-textual messaging of The Amityville Horror (1979), a very like-minded haunted house film from 1979 that treads in economic woes (as a source no less than Stephen King commented on...).  The haunted house there, in other words, was a metaphor for something else; something disturbing the society of the Carter recession.  

By contrast, there is no meaningful structural or thematic subtext in The Conjuring.  It is simply – and I don’t mean to minimize the accomplishment – a strikingly effective “scare” machine.  The "bumps" and jump scares are orchestrated brilliantly and effectively.

But the supernatural encounters in The Conjuring, while well-vetted in terms of visual presentation (make-up, wire-work, and so forth), are also, alas from the same stew of genre clichés we’ve seen many times in recent years. 

The exorcism angle we’ve seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Devil Inside (2012) to name just three films of the last decade. 

The ghost hunters we’ve met recently in films like Apartment 143 (2012), and the malevolent entity endangering families might as well be the demon from The Possession (2012), the evil inter-dimensional interloper from The Apparition (2012), or the child-killer of Sinister (2012).  

While I enjoy the fact that The Conjuring locates the 1970s as America’s decade of true terror (it was, in a very real sense, given the Oil Embargo of 1973, Watergate, Three Mile Island, and the Vietnam War), the period trappings are simply not enough to make The Conjuring feel original or fresh.

Again, I wish to be plain.  I enjoyed The Conjuring.  It passed the time pleasantly and scarily, and I jumped a few times, but there is not one quality about this film that takes a chance or risk, or that challenges the audience’s perceptions of reality. 

Imagine how we’d look at Psycho, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, or other films deemed “classic” today, if they had adopted the same commercial approach.

So The Conjuring will entertain you, but it will not, I suspect, endure as a horror classic.  An equally effective scare machine will show up next summer, and replace it in audience affections.  

In fact, that movie might even be the inevitable sequel…