Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Horror Lexicon 10: The Crime in the Past


The past is never dead, William Faulkner writes. And the author is certainly correct when in it comes to horror movies and their lexicon.  

In many modern cinematic horrors, particularly those of the slasher milieu, a terrible event in the past is the very thing that so dramatically shapes the present, and the future. Accordingly this “crime in the past,” is often dramatized in a scene I term “the deadly preamble,” an ultra-violent, motivating incident for a terrifying crime spree in the film’s body proper.

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980's (2007), horror movies utilize the crime in the past (or “the transgression”) and the deadly preamble for two reasons, primarily.  

The first concerns narrative: the trope provides a specific character motivation for the murders featured in the film, a wrong that must be righted.

Secondly, the deadly preamble starts the film off with a literal bang, with a colorful, violent, and scary murder scene that primes the audience for an hour-and-a-half of terror and violence.

In many significant ways, the 1980's represent the golden age for the “crime in the past”/”Deadly Preamble” productions.  

Two camp counselors are murdered by an unseen assailant in 1958 at “Camp Blood” in Friday the 13th (1980).  

A jilted soldier arrives home from World War II to find his girlfriend dancing with another boy.  He rectifies that insult with a pitchfork, in The Prowler (1981). 

In Prom Night (1980), we see a practical joke at an abandoned school go horribly, murderous wrong for a group of school children.  

And in Pieces (1983), we go back to 1942 to witness a disturbed young boy wield an axe against his mother when she refuses to let him finish assembling a (sexually-explicit) jigsaw puzzle.   

Terror Train (1980) begins with another sexual humiliation.


One of the most notorious, artful and (best…) examples of the Deadly Preamble occurs in John Carpenter’s incredibly influential Halloween (1978).  We see young Michael’s brutal murder of his sexually-active sister, Judith, on Halloween night, 1963, the event that precipitates Myers’ bloody return some fifteen years later, in 1978, during the body of the film. The nature of this crime is so brutal and unexpected, that as punctuation, Carpenter’s camera retracts, up, up and away, in horror as it ends.

In some interesting cases, the crime in the past isn’t dramatized in a violent pre-title sequence or deadly preamble. Sometimes it is revealed through exposition (like the creepy campfire story that opens The Fog [1980] for instance.)  In other cases, such as Poltergeist (1982), the crime in the past is not revealed until nearly the end of the movie, as an explanation for all the haunting in Questa Verde. 

More recently, a crime in the past -- or several crimes in the past, to be precise -- dominates the legend of the Blair Witch in The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Sometimes the crime in the past is one that affects the film’s protagonist and the villain simultaneously (Cape Fear [1991]) and sometimes the crime in the past is actually the “tragedy” in the past, as we see in Interloper films such as Single White Female (1992), The Temp (1993) or Mother’s Boys (1994).


But the crime in the past is especially useful in those slasher films that feature masked killers, or killers of otherwise unknown identity.  The crime in the past often involves an innocent child and a trauma, and when the murders start – years later — that child is an adult, and therefore unrecognizable to audiences. 

We must ask ourselves: what was the impact of the transgression on that child?  Who is responsible, or who is to be held responsible?  And why are the specific victims being asked to pay, in most cases, with their lives?

In this century, the Saw films have played rather dramatically with the “crime in the past” trope.  Jigsaw, the killer, sees himself as a decider of justice, making immoral people pay for their past indiscretions and trespasses. Jigsaw himself suffered an injustice at one point, but on a whole, he punishes people for their flawed characters, and not only what they did to him, or to his life, specifically. 

The crime in the past is featured in films including (but not limited to): Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), He Knows You’re Alone (1980), Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), The Prowler (1981), The Burning (1982), Funeral Home (1982), Humongous (1982), Madman (1982), Cape Fear (1991), Single White Female (1992), The Temp (1992), Dario Argento’s Trauma (1994), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and virtually all the Saw films.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The View from My Screen #11


Which series? Which episode?

Remembering Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018): The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)






In 2011, film critic Marc Mohan termed he late Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth a "dreamlike, disjointed and frustrating piece of work." It's a good description of a film that speakings in the language of sunning visuals and symbolic imagery, but features a confusing plot. Like the late David Bowie himself, The Man Who Fell to Earth is beautiful to gaze upon.

 Yet in the final analysis, this science fiction film is impenetrable, or at the very least, emotionally distancing. 

It's entirely possible that this Roeg film seeks to express how the innocent or weak are often destroyed in a toxic, contemporary culture of luxury, vice, addiction, and sin.  But somehow even that perspective is not enough to render the film entirely successful.

It's one thing for the alien -- an apparent Christ figure -- to suffer for our sins, but need his innocent family suffer too?

I understand some people mourn The Man Who Fell to Earth as sort of the last of its breed before science fiction films such as Star Wars (1977) premiered and changed the nature of the genre.  I get it.  The Man Who Fell to Earth feels very individual, very personal in the way it moves and expresses itself,  and should be commended for that virtue.  It's a film worth watching at least once, even if, when it's over, you're left feeling a little cold.

Steven Rea termed The Man Who Fell to Earth  a "strange creature," and that too is a description I can appreciate, even as I admire the film's unforgettable and occasionally haunting imagery.



An alien from a dying world, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) lands on Earth and begins developing patents based on his world’s incredibly technological innovation so that he can fund a space program that will take him home to his wife and children, and save the famine-stricken population from extinction.

Once on Earth for some time, however, Thomas meets a young woman, Mary Lou (Candy Clark), who introduces him to vices such as sex and alcohol, and which leads to Thomas losing focus on his task. 

Thomas is eventually captured and interrogated by the CIA, and prevented from carrying out his mission of mercy.


Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth tells the story of an alien world called Anthea that through dozens of nuclear wars, now suffers from a life-threatening, planet-wide drought. 

Only a few Antheans, a mere three hundred, survive. One of their number, named Thomas Jerome Newtown is selected as hardy enough to survive a trip to Earth, where he will construct a larger spaceship to pick up his people so that they can seed the planet. 

Part of the reason for the Anthean plan and choice of destination is that Earth seems to be mirroring Anthea’s path, and within ten years it could destroy itself too. 

Thomas’s mission is therefore not only to save his own people, but our people as well. 

But Earth people, he finds, are emotional and illogical, and he is drawn into their petty squabbles at the expense of larger issues.  He becomes a victim of politics, and man’s self-destructive nature in a story that is about the futility of the Cold War, among other issues.

Nicholas Roeg’s film version of The Man Who Fell to Earth does not coherently convey Walter Tevis’s story, and if a viewer seeks that particular story, he or she will not find it. 

Instead, Roeg’s film is a visually dazzling but often maddening “abstract” approach to the story, one that focuses not on the details of Thomas Jerome Newton’s mission, or the history of his world, but rather on his seduction here on Earth to the human “way of life.”

At first a kind of perfect or messianic being, Newton eventually becomes a fragile, broken thing instead, and his story is very much a variation or inversion of a Christ parable: A God comes to Earth, and man makes him as weak and mortal as he is. Newton suffers and suffers for our sins, and in return provides man a (technological) paradise.  


The story also seems to play like a coded biography of Howard Hughes in that reclusive, lonely, oddball geniuses get used up and exploited by society, but are never fully understood or loved. 

The emotional core of the two-and-half-hour film is Newton’s haunting memories of his family on the desert world, and the struggle to survive in his protracted absence. 

He imagines their existential miseries, while he lives in a veritable paradise of wealth, sex, movies, and booze. 

Although Thomas realizes that if stays on Earth, he “shall die,” he doesn’t make very meaningful moves to leave the planet before it is too late, and the government swoops in to experiment on him just when he is about to make good his escape and his family’s rescue. 

By movie’s end Newton is a free man, but one who has surrendered to the nihilism he sees all around him.  It’s too late to save his family, and he will never return to his world, he realizes.  The very things that distracted him -- the pleasures of his own flesh -- are the only company he has left.  The movie tags religion, sex, alcoholism and Hollywood movies as the seductive factors that turn him away from a meaningful life and a meaningful purpose. 

By the movie’s last sequence, Newton has contextualized his existence as a film noir, a format in which good, law-abiding men get transformed, through circumstances and life, into a life of crime, or a life of sin, or become victim to his own unsavory desires.  The film noir format is considered erotic and multi-layered, a comment which could be applied to The Man Who Fell to Earth as well. 

Rather than live in ugly reality, Newton’s decision to “go Hollywood’ and dress in the manner of a film noir anti-hero like Humphrey Bogart suggests that he has moved permanently to the realm of fantasy.


Clumsily-written but brilliantly directed, The Man Who Fell to Earth has also been considered a metaphor for the stages of alcoholism, and the way that the addiction can consume an entire life, step-by-step.  

This may interpretation may be accurate, and even profound, and it could explain the film’s lack of narrative clarity as well. 

Newton lives in a hazy world of drunkenness, and can’t pull himself out of the death spiral.  And his death spiral, incidentally, takes down his wife and children before it takes down him, another reflection of alcoholism as a “disease.”

Although it is gorgeously-made, The Man Who Fell to Earth isn’t an easy science fiction film to love because the filmmakers boast no genuine interest in Newton’s alien world, its history, or the specifics of his journey. 

All the concrete details of Tevis’s novel are given short-shrift (a n approach that Under the Skin apes, but more successfully). 

Instead, the movie functions entirely as a chronicle of one man’s deterioration from well-meaning genius to irrelevant, dissolute burn-out. 

But the science fiction veneer is almost entirely unnecessary to the movie’s core themes, even though those moments in the alien desert, with a lonely family in waiting forever, prove absolutely haunting.

In 1984, John Carpenter’s Starman also contextualized the story of a man who fell to Earth, an alien life-form.  And that story too featured elements of the story of Jesus Christ.  Although the imagery may not have been as dazzling and abstract, the story made sense on a concrete level and touched the heart even more deeply. 

Roeg has made at least two masterpieces of modern cinema, Walkabout (1972) and Don’t Look Now (1974), but The Man Who Fell to Earth can’t join that select list because how it tells its story -- in stylistic, avant garde fashion -- doesn’t give the audience a better understanding of the character’s inner life, or his choices. 

In this film, we’re always outsiders to Newton’s decision process, and though we can chart his disintegration and mourn it intellectually, we never feel it as deeply as we should.  

Instead, we grow impatient with him.  Part of the problem may rest with David Bowie's performance.  He is great to look at and appropriately strange in appearance and mannerism, but we don't ever see and understand his true nature.   We don't even really understand his crippling inertia.  

His family is on the line. Why doesn’t he act?

Remembering Nicolas Roeg (1928 - 2018): Walkabout (1971)


Before director Nicolas Roeg gave the world one of the finest and most disturbing horror films ever made, Don't Look Now, in 1973, he crafted an equally brilliant but very different film set in the Australian Outback, 1971's Walkabout.  

Based loosely on a 1959 adventure novel by James Vance Marshall, Walkabout amply displays the director's unfettered, prodigious talent for crafting symbolic visuals. Roeg's considerable efforts here remind the engaged viewer that film -- in the final analysis -- is truly a visual art form. 

To wit, Walkabout is a film consisting of very little dialogue, and the shooting script was reportedly just fourteen pages long.  And yet there isn't a moment of "emptiness" to be found anywhere in Walkabout.  Rather, through the repeating motif of cross-cuts, director Roeg encourages audiences to consider a story about innocence, and perhaps more specifically, the death of innocence.

With the Outback serving as both a backdrop and character in the film's narrative, and by marshaling a voice-over poem at just the right moment (from Alfred Edward Housman's 1896 work "A Shropshire Lad,") Roeg crafts an immensely emotional film; one that will deeply affect you for days after a screening.  This is even more the case now, since Roeg's director's cut is featured on the blu ray edition rather than the original theatrical release (which trimmed much of the film's full frontal nudity).

When Walkabout was released in 1971, Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars but sheepishly discouraged reading too much into the film's overwhelming symbolism.   Other critics have generally been more willing to engage the film on its own terms.  Writing in The San Francisco Chronicle, critic Edward Guthmann (in 1997) wrote that Walkabout is a "a film that's part anthem to the primitive world and part rebuke to the dull, overinsulated selfishness of contemporary man." 


Dominated by dazzling photography, gorgeous images and a lush John Barry score, Walkabout ably serves up a side-by-side comparison between disparate worlds: city life in modern Adelaide (though it looks like Sydney) and the wild, untamed life of the Outback. 

Unexpectedly, the crueler, more savage  and difficult world, according to the film, is that of the modern and "civilized" man. In the desert, at least, you can understand your enemies.


"I don't suppose it matters which way we go..."



In Walkabout, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her pre-adolescent brother (Lucien John) are transported out into the desert by their emotionally-distant father, a "structural geologist."  While the girl prepares a picnic in the desert and the boy plays with a toy airplane, the father -- seen rifling through work papers -- unexpectedly snaps.  Taking out a gun, he begins shooting at his own children.

The girl and the boy escape the surprising homicide attempt, and only the girl witnesses her father kill himself.  While their Volkswagen burns in the desert, the forsaken girl and boy begin a long, lonely trek through the desert, hoping to find their way home. 

This 1970s equivalent of Hansel & Gretel, the boy and girl, walk for days until coming upon a miraculous oasis: a small pond and a fruit-bearing tree.  After a few days, however, they have used it  all up and the slice of paradise becomes a haven for serpents; for snakes.


Soon, the girl and boy encounter an Aborigine teenager (David Gulpilil) on a "walkabout," a rite of passage in which young men trace the heritage of their ancestors on the land. 

This kindly Aborigine leads the boy and girl through the desert safely, provides for their survival needs (by kangaroo hunting and fishing...) and teaches them his ways.  The white boy even picks up his language.  After a time, these three youngsters cohere like a true family, and the Aborigine develops an unspoken -- and forbidden -- romantic love for the girl.

After some time in the desert, the Aborigine young man gets the lost youngsters to an abandoned farm, another safe haven for this "family" to play house. But when the lovestruck Aborigine launches into a courtship dance before the English girl, she coolly and silently rejects him. 

The next day, the girl and the boy find out exactly what that rejection has meant to their generous friend, and then head on...down the road, in hopes of returning to civilization.

Some years later, the grown girl -- now a bored housewife in Sydney -- tunes out her dullard husband's vacuous talk of office politics and remembers those long-gone days in the Outback; her days with the Aborigine boy and her brother... 

A final voice over ends the film on a melancholy and wistful note.  "That is the land of lost content/I see it shining plain/The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again."

"Every man, every woman, is a star."


As noted above, Walkabout is a comparison of disparate worlds. To achieve that comparison, Nicolas Roeg uses a variety of visual symbols in Walkabout to suggest the corruption -- or at least strangeness -- of the so-called "civilized world."

Early in the film, for example, we see Agutter's character setting-up a blanket and picnic lunch out in harsh desert; clearly a misguided attempt to tame the unspoiled Earth. While she imposes mankind's sense of order on the desert, the film cross-cuts to views of lizards and other inhabitants, going about their business, oblivious to her attempts.

In the same scene, the girl's father goes crazy after Roeg cuts to insert shots of work papers: seemingly endless alphabetical lists of minerals and sheets of byzantine maps. The visual implication set up by the editing is that the father's madness is caused by his job; that the pressure (represented by his work papers) makes him irrevocably snap. The civilized world has made him deranged.

This critique of civilization recurs throughout the film.  For instance, as mentioned above, the boy and the girl find an oasis of life in the desert -- water and food -- and without thought of consequences, use it up in a matter of days.  When they leave, the land is dry; the fruit is stale and only snakes inhabit the tree. 

It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that this image is a veiled reference to the Garden of Eden parable; and the idea of man expelled from paradise


Perhaps more plainly, the destruction of the desert oasis and its resources is referenced late in the film when the boy and the girl come across a similar setting, writ large: a virtually abandoned mining town. 

The town is now nothing but a scrap heap, a garbage junk in the middle of the Outback.  Everything of value has been taken from it (as was the case at the desert oasis) and man has left behind only his garbage and detritus; mountains of twisted steel and rubber.

Another scene, mid-way through the film, also deliberately critiques modern man.  The Aborigine, the boy and the girl come in close proximity to a plantation where a white man is exploiting the local Aborigine youth to create cheap plaster statues of kangaroos and the like.  Again, the idea here is one of taking a resource (in this case, a human resource) and using it for self-interest; to line one's own pockets.

Later in the film, Gulpilil's character spies  white hunters shooting game near the abandoned farm.  We see an animal die in slow motion, struck by bullets.  The sight of this deeply upsets the Aborigine, a hunter himself.  And the reason, I suspect is that the hunters have evidenced no respect for their quarry.  Their technology (their guns and their jeeps) gives them an unfair advantage over the land, and a distance from their behavior.  Skill does not come into the picture. 

By contrast, the Aborigine boy hunts to provide for his new family; and and does not kill more than the family can eat.  He survives based on his skill; not based on the technology he possesses. To express this point, Roeg again crosscuts between images of the Aborigine boy cutting up a kangaroo and images of a city butcher chopping up meat in his store.  The idea implicit here, again, is that one culture is interested in survival, the other in commerce; in making money off the land

Eventually, even the heroic Aborigine boy played by Gulpilil is contextualized as a resource to be used up.  He rescues the boy and the girl, even leading them safely to a highway and a home of sorts.  But when he seeks a deeper meaning -- an emotional connection with the English girl -- she shuts him down.  She ignores him.  He has crossed a barrier she will not tread across and she essentially ignores him and spurns him for it.  Her attitude, now that  personal survival safety has been established, seems to be "what have you done for me lately?" 

Only in the film's last scene, do we see an older, reflective woman consider the Aborigine boy; and what he meant in her life; and what he gave to  her.  She imagines a scene right out of Paradise: the three wanderers in the desert frolicking in the water; on a rock.  It is an image of lost innocence, and it is the image we leave on in Walkabout.

In toto, the image of civilized man in Walkabout is not at all positive.  He is a creature who uses the land, rather than living off it in harmony, and he is obsessed with things that -- in the context of the desert -- have no significant meaning (consider the read weather balloons set loose in the wild by a group of horny European scientists in one scene...what purpose do they serve?).

Roeg's point isn't so much that we should all live in the wild and hunt for our own food.  The point is that in the vast desert, commerce, alphabetical lists of minerals, weather balloons and society's rules concerning miscegenation serve no useful or meaningful purpose.  Rather, torn from their context in city life, they actually go against nature, even human nature.

Although it is uncomfortable to write about this in our morally judgmental society today -- especially given that both Jenny Agutter's and David Gulpilil's characters are minors in Walkabout -- the plain fact of the matter is that as the film plays out, the Aborigine boy and the English girl become very much aware of each other's sexuality.  An attraction forms, and in this environment who can say it would be wrong for them to act on it?  They are, essentially, the only inhabitants of this vast desert, and also the mother and father figure in the ad hoc family.

Gulpilil's character -- a man of nature -- understands that this is a relationship that could and should happen, given the circumstances. 

But returned to modern civilization (and bred to that civilization), Agutter's character cannot make the same leap.  Instead, she denies any feeling she might have for the Aborigine boy and falls back on the "etiquette" of her culture.  Early in Walkabout we see her practicing etiquette lessons while listening to a program on the radio; and that's the very world the English girl retreats to at film's end.

One of the best sequences in Walkabout (and one trimmed upon theatrical release) finds Roeg  again cross-cutting, this time between the Aborigine boy hunting with the English boy, and Agutter's young girl swimming sensuously in a desert pool, nude.  The feeling evoked here is of total freedom and innocence; of doing what comes naturally to survive. Of just living --and enjoying life -- in such an unforgiving, chaotic terrain.

Walkabout suggests that living off a harsh, natural land is tough work.  You have scorpions, ants, dehydration and other challenges to overcome.  You have to find water and hunt for your supper.  But I believe the film's ultimate point is that there is nothing harsher and more difficult than living a life that goes against your very nature

I submit that's the unhappy destination where Agutter's character finds herself at film's end.  A caged bird in an antiseptic high-rise apartment building, with only her memories of freedom to sustain her.  Certainly, the wistful nature of the final voice over suggests the idea of a paradise lost.

Walkabout's ending diagrams the death of innocence.  Gulpilil's character has learned that he cannot adapt  to the strange rules of  modern "civilization."  And in that coda -- set years after his demise - Agutter's sense of hopelessness is tangible.  It reflects, purposefully, the little boy's sense of defeat early in the film, upon reckoning with the unending desert, one stretching to unknown horizons.

"We're lost, aren't we?"

Monday, November 19, 2018

The View from My Screen #10


The Monster Movies of Thanksgiving




When I was growing up in the New Jersey burbs during the seventies and early eighties there was a great Thanksgiving Day tradition that I’d like to share with you today, on the eve of the holiday in 2015. 

Every year, WOR Channel 9 would broadcast King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) on Turkey Day.

Then, on Friday, the same station would host a Godzilla marathon consisting of such films as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971) and many others. Some years, if memory serves, War of the Gargantuas (1968) also played.

I remember showering and dressing early on those Thanksgiving Days, so I could be lodged near the TV when the Kong movies started.  

Meanwhile, my Mom and Dad would be busy in the kitchen preparing a great meal of turkey, stuffing, baked carrots with cinnamon, and home-made biscuits. The house would fill with the delectable aromas of the feast, and even downstairs -- while glued to WOR-TV -- I could feel my appetite for dinner building.

Our guests, usually my grandparents and aunts and uncles, would arrive sometime in the early afternoon, around 1:00 pm and I would socialize with them, and then sneak back to the family room for more King Kong.  Sometimes my uncle Larry, a horror fan after a fashion, would join me.

Then the meal and dessert -- a chocolate cream pie and a pumpkin pie -- would be served, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company over the delicious food.  After an appropriate interval of visiting and socializing, I’d high-tail it once more back down the stairs to watch more of the movies.

I’m certain my description of Thanksgiving makes it sound weird and anti-social, but you must remember that in the seventies, there were no VCRs (let alone DVRs or movie streaming), which meant that if you wanted to see a movie like King Kong, you had to seize your moment, or else wait for another year.

I believe it took me the better part of four Thanksgivings to see all of King Kong, and then not even in chronological order.  I actually saw the entirety of Son of Kong first, perhaps because it was often scheduled between our early afternoon dinner and dessert course.

This tradition of King Kong Thanksgiving and Godzilla Black Friday continued over a long period at my house -- the better part of a decade -- so much so that I still irrevocably associate the Holiday season with WOR Channel 9 and its monster movie broadcasts.  

I still remember, a bit guiltily, forcing my parents to watch the seventies Godzilla movies on Fridays, while we ate Thanksgiving leftovers in the family room.  My folks liked the King Kong movies, but when it came to Japanese monster movies, they weren’t exactly big fans..

Anyway, if you decide to spend the holiday with giant monsters, make sure to bring the pumpkin pie...and Happy Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Model Kit of the Week: Zorro (Aurora)


Trading Cards of the Week: Zorro (Topps)



Comic Book of the Week: Zorro (Dell)


Halloween Costume of the Week: Zorro (Ben Cooper)


Zorro GAF Viewmaster



Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: Zorro


Board Game of the Week: Zorro (Walt Disney)


Lunch Box of the Week: Zorro (1958)


Theme Song of the Week: Zorro (1958; Disney)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Twilight Zone: "One for the Angels" (October 9, 1959)


The second episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) is a marked improvement over the first installment, "Where is Everybody?" and, more than that, a remarkably affecting and sweet tale. It's amazing to consider that this fledgling series manages to hit its stride just two weeks into its run, but that's pretty much exactly what happens with this tale by Rod Serling, the first to introduce the series' recurring character: Mr. Death.

"One for the Angels" opens with Rod Serling's staccato narration about "summer in the present." His words introduce us to Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn), a "pitch man whose life is a tread-mill," a character aged about 60. Today, Lou lives alone on a bustling city block, and is well-loved by the local children, who take an interest in the toys he sells on his stoop.


Then, one day, Mr. Death (Murray Hamilton) shows up in Lou's one-room apartment, and tells Mr. Bookman that the old man's departure from this mortal coil has been scheduled for midnight. The "pre-ordination is death in your sleep."

Lou tries to escape his death, and learns that there are only three valid reasons for appealing a death verdict: family hardship, priority for important individuals (a scientist working on a cure for a disease, for example) or unfinished business of a major nature. 

Lou feels his appeal falls under the third category because he's never made a truly big pitch, "for the angels." Mr. Death reluctantly agrees to give him more time to achieve that dream, but quickly learns that Lou has exploited the loophole. Now Bookman plans never to do another pitch again...so he will never die.

Unwilling to be outmaneuvered by a mortal, Mr. Death selects an alternative soul to take with him that night. He decides to take a little girl from the street, a friend of Lou's. When Lou realizes she is to be taken at midnight, he tries to delay Mr. Death by launching into a pitch for the ages, and the angels...


As the above-synopsis makes plain, this early Twilight Zone concerns both mortality and morality. In our effort to avoid one (mortality), we can, somehow, manage to ignore or circumvent the other (morality).  

Lou Bookman is 69 years old, and yet he very much wants to continue to live. He believes that he can trick death, and manages to do just that.  But Death chooses to kill a little girl, and that is an immoral thing, a that, for Lou, he cannot abide. So Lou steps in and makes his pitch for the angels, knowing full well that it is he, not the girl, who will travel with Death that night. Bookman's understanding of right and wrong ultimately wins out over his desire to keep on living.

"One for the Angels" is both sweet and sad for its depiction of Lou, a kindly, unmarried senior citizen, scraping by, barely making a living, and having lived in a one-room apartment for 21 years. And yet Rod Serling sees a kind of dignity in this man, and his life. Lou leaves the mortal coil having saved a child's life, having made room for another soul. Lou's life is not one we might choose for ourselves, but it matters, both to him, the children whom he has befriended, and, in fact, the cosmos itself. 

"One for the Angels" also remains memorable for its depiction of Mr. Death as a kind of mid-level bureaucrat. He is smartly-dressed, attractive (but not too attractive), and he uses the jargon of his job ("pre-ordination," etc.) He seems to rather dislike having to prove his identity, and he is obsessively concerned with administrative details. "When might we expect it?" He asks of Bookman's pitch "for the angels."  Like many bureaucrats, Mr. Death also seems to possess a limited imagination.  

Or, that's one reading of his character, anyway.  


Perhaps, Mr. Death knew all along that Bookman was going to try to outsmart him, and his ploy with the little girl was all pre-meditated, part of the overall plan to make Bookman feel his death was more meaningful, more palatable. Again, this goes back to Serling's view of humanity, and the notion that all people are valuable, that all people matter. 

The episode's only let-down, perhaps, is the underwhelming presentation of Bookman's big pitch. The episode cuts to shots of Mr. Death sweating, forking over cash, etc., but the audiences doesn't get to hear all of the sales pitch "for the angels." This is a bit disappointing since Lou's gift of gab is the thing, in a way, that saves a child's life. It feels like a failure of writing and presentation for the pitch not to come across with more stellar specificity than it ultimately does.

"One for the Angels" is sweet and humanistic. In this outing, Mr. Death is not someone to be feared or loathed, but  just a regular guy doing his job. In the end, this Not-So-Grim Reaper and Mr. Bookman walk off together, under the moonlight, and it's not hard to imagine that both men feel they have done a good night's work.

Next up: "Mr. Denton on Doomsday."

Monday, November 12, 2018

The View from My Screen #9



Guess which series. Which episode?

Horror Lexicon #9: The Organizing Principle


I wrote about this genre convention extensively in my reference book Horror Films of the 1980's (2007; McFarland) but if you seek to create a horror film in the slasher milieu, your first step must be to determine an organizing principle.

The organizing principle is a facet beyond mere setting or location.  It provides a horror film with a series of connected leitmotifs, and therefore a sense of unity.  In other words, the organizing principle is a film's central idea, transmitted or expressed across creative factors such as setting, motive, and even characterization.


I utilized this example in the book, but it illuminates what I mean when I discuss the organizing principle. Imagine that a producer seeks to create a knife-kill film titled The Librarian.

The organizing principle is therefore a character of a certain vocation, as the title indicates. That vocation lands that character in a specific place (a public library), and determines exploitable elements in the story: a card-catalog, a drop-off box, a study room, the long, dark aisles filled with books, and so on.

A decapitated head might be discovered in the drop-off box at a climactic moment, the key to the killer's identity might be discovered in the card catalog, and the last-act chase of the final girl (a grad student) could occur in a labyrinth of book rows.  The crime causing the murders could be a defaced library book, or a book that was returned late.

See how the library provides more than one element of the film's creative gestalt?  It grants you a lead character (a book-smart college student, let's say), a villain (a psycho librarian), and a story (a crime in the past causing a murder spree in the present).  It might even provide specific weapons (like a heavy book, for instance, wielded at a crucial juncture).  

So the organizing principle is the very thing the slasher film hangs its (blood-soaked) hooks upon.  It is the key to motivation, setting, slasher and more.  


Let's consider a real historical example, Terror Train (1980) in terms of the organizing principle.  In this film, the organizing principle is not the train, as one might suspect, but rather magic, or illusion.

Master-magician David Copperfield appears in the film as a red herring (a distraction in terms of determining the identity of the killer), and a magic show occurs on the train at one point.  Finally, the revelation of the killer's identity depends on illusion-versus-reality. Do you trust your eyes, or are they tricking you?

In virtually every slasher production you can name, the organizing principle determines virtually every ingredient the movie will require to succeed; a whole world of connections upon which to hang the narrative.  This is so important, I submit, because the slasher format is episodic by nature.  The narrative in most of these films consists of a series of stitched-together, almost complete-unto-themselves short films in which a victim is stalked and murdered.  When one victim dies, you rinse and repeat...and move to the next set-piece until, finally, the killer is destroyed. The organizing principle unifies all these episodes and gives them consistency of setting, location, motivation and victim.

Below is a chart slightly modified from the one I used in Horror Films of the 1980's.  It illustrates the organizing principle's usefulness in making coherent all the creative elements of a slasher movie.  I added two 1990's examples to the chart to show how, even after the 1980's, the organizing principle was utilized to make the format work.

Movie Title
Organizing Principle
Setting
Crime in the Past
Victim Pool
Friday the 13th
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
drowning;
negligence
Camp counselors.


He Knows You’re alone
Weddings
Dress shop, bride’s home, chapel
Bride jilts fiancé.
The wedding party, dress tailor…

Night School
College
Classrooms, dean’s home
Infidelity
Students, dean of college, professors.

Prom Night
Prom night
High school
Accident caused by classmates as children
Prom goers who as children participated in accident.

The Dorm that Dripped Blood
College campus
College campus (cafeterias, dorms, basement, etc.)
Unpopularity with fellow students
College students



Final Exam
Exam Week
College campus, et.
NA
College students

Friday the 13th Part II
Summer Camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
Murder of Mrs. Voorhees
Camp counselors


Graduation Day
Track Team
Track field, high school, locker room, prom
Death of a young track student
Track coach, track team members

Happy Birthday to Me
Birthday parties
College, birthday party
Family break-up on birthday
Birthday party invitees

The Prowler
Jilted Lover
School dance
Dear John Letter
Young lovers at a dance

The Burning
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods, island
An accidental burning
Campers, counselors
Slumber Party Massacre
Slumber party
High school, slumber party location, the house next door
NA
Slumber party attendees
Curtains
Theatre/acting
A casting retreat weekend
Losing an important role
Young ingénues; older actress, director
Sleepaway Camp
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
Twisted sex role
Camp employees, campers
The Initiation
Sororities
Sorority house, campus
Witnessing of burning and infidelity
Pledges, sorority girls, frat boys
Silent Night, Deadly Night
Christmas
Toy store at Christmas, Christmas eve
Santa Claus kills parents
Naughty teens.
Terror at Tenkiller
Summer vacation at a lake
Cabin, lake, local diner
NA
Vacationers
Scream
Horror movies
Video store, high school, movie party
Marital infidelity
Movie-loving teenagers
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Fishing community
Fishing boat, fishery, local store, fishing holiday pageant
Murder
Teens of the fishing community trying to make good and leave hometown.


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