Thursday, October 27, 2016

Millennium: "The Curse of Frank Black" (October 31, 1997)

On Halloween night, Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) takes Jordan (dressed as Marge Simpson) trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. A fleeting glimpse of a ghost spurs Frank’s memory of a Halloween night from his own childhood.

A freak breakdown of Frank’s car and cellphone then lands him back at his yellow house. Now, it is a strangely vacant (and ominous….) place filled with ghosts too. 

One such ghost belongs to a tortured World War II veteran who knew Frank as a child, and who has returned, on this night, with a grave warning about the afterlife.

My favorite Halloween TV episode has to be Millennium’s “The Curse of Frank Black,” the second season entry by Glen Morgan and James Wong.  I admire this story for its human dimension and its importance to the larger series continuity, but mainly as an exploration of Halloween, and the idea that Frank Black has become --thanks to teenagers in the neighborhood -- the stuff of urban legends and local fears.

If we didn’t know Frank as we do, if we only had gossip and news stories to go on, what would we think of him?  This episode of Millennium allows us to adopt a dual perspective of the character.

The episode features a perfect symmetry in my opinion.  There are the flashback scenes of Frank as a child, trick-or-treating in the early 1950s and visiting the home of a troubled veteran (Dean Winters).  Frank and his buddies think that the “old man” is weird and scary, and tip-toe around his place.  They fear what they don’t understand.  And they most certainly don’t understand him.

Meanwhile, in the present, Frank finds himself in the familiar position of that long-dead veteran.  Now he is the one who is being whispered about by the young. Now he is the creepy adult; the one with secrets and mysterious.

I have always felt this is a great commentary on how quickly life seems to pass one by.  One minute, you’re the kid afraid of that strange, inscrutable grown-up who lives down the street.  Then before you know it, you’re the grown-up the kids are talking about so suspiciously. 

Life goes by in a flash.

“The Curse of Frank Black” features a lot of iconic (and quite welcome) Halloween symbolism, from Frank’s fearsome jack-o-lantern and the black cat perched outside his bungalow, to the trick-or-treating ritual with his child, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady), who is dressed-up as Marge Simpson.

But I particularly enjoy how the episode suggests that every day in Frank's life is, essentially, Halloween.  Or at least it could be, if he allows it to happen.  

After all, Frank sees monsters and demons lurking in the corner of his periphery and must, by sheer force of will, force himself not to notice them.  He must constantly avert his gaze.  At least if we are to believe he is gifted not just with insight, but with psychic abilities.

There’s something incredibly lonely and sad about this element of Black’s life, and it reminds us that Frank’s gift of insight is indeed the character’s curse.  He sees evil’s presence even when he wants to be blind to it; even at the moments we all take for granted (like trick or treating with our kids.)

I also get a kick out of the way “The Curse of Frank Black” uses legends about Halloween.  The episode remembers that this is a night in which the spirits of the dead can return to visit the living.  Accordingly, a ghost issues Frank a dire warning about how dangerously anti-social he risks becoming if he doesn't change his ways. Other series have also utilized this premise (“Hellowe’en” on Friday the 13th: The Series, for instance), but none have done so better than Millennium's holiday themed show.  Basically, in this case, a ghost tells Frank to lighten up.

I also often return to this episode of Millennium because it’s nearly a one man show, with Lance Henriksen holding the screen alone for the better part of an hour and proving absolutely riveting.  I can think of a lot worse ways to spend Halloween than with his Frank Black character, or in the care of this particular actor.  I find the character tragic, and a little sad in this hour of the drama. Frank manages to finds moment of delight and bemusement when he is alone, but overall, seems very sad and lonely.

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