Thursday, September 24, 2020

Burton Binge: Mars Attacks (1996)


I distinctly recall reading a review of Mars Attacks! which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) had finally caught up with director Tim Burton.  After all, here he was - making an absolutely terrible 1950s-styled sci-fi movie all his own.

Something about that particular comment struck a chord with me at the time (though I don't remember the reviewer...). And yet the uncharitable remark doesn't tell the entire story of this 1996 Burton film, either.

Sure, Mars Attacks! might be considered a bad movie from a certain perspective. The actors, especially Jack Nicholson, go way over the top,  and the first thirty-five minutes of Mars Attacks! -- before the Martians arrive -- are pretty dire.  It's a mystery too why certain actors and their characters are present in the film at all, save for marquee value (Danny DeVito, j'accuse).  The film feels burdened with subplots that go nowhere, and characters who serve no narrative purpose.  The entire Art Land (Jack Nicholson) interlude is poorly-acted and contributes little.  It just dies on-screen.

Yet despite such apparent flaws, Mars Attacks! works effectively as a diabolical subversion of the Hollywood blockbuster format (see: Independence Day [1996]), and simultaneously as a commentary on American political life, circa 1996. Specifically, the alien Martians as depicted by Burton are a kind of joyful physical representation of Loki or Chaos.  They happily rip to shreds both the pillars of contemporary American political thinking (and PC thinking, specifically...) and the conventional pillars of Hollywood decorum.  

Simply stated, these cinematic aliens are a politically-incorrect, gleefully monstrous lot: a walking, quacking embodiment of the philosophy that to save a village (or planet...) you must destroy that village (or planet).  Everything from the Martian's bizarre croaking language to their byzantine technology and unhealthy obsession with Earth women (!) is thus fodder for outrageous laughs.  

For instance, these alien creatures go (far...) out of their way to murder boy scouts, or to sneak up on an unsuspecting granny with an over sized laser canon. In toto, their wanton behavior makes tolerance of them an absolute impossibility.  And that's what's so funny.  

The Martians reveal absolutely nothing of themselves beyond  unloosed Id; beyond the devilish inclination to destroy everything, everywhere.  And yet the world-at-large keeps attempting to treat these invaders as if they're just poor, misunderstood foreigners. Earth men give the Martians second chance after second chance, and every time the Martians revert to bloody, rapacious form.

This is a notable inversion or up-ending of the typical Burton aesthetic about sympathy for misfits and outsiders.  Mars Attacks! is not a heartfelt plea for tolerance (like Edward Scissorhands) but rather a pointed suggestion that tolerance can absolutely be taken too far in some instances.

As you may guess by the tenor of my comments thus far, my thoughts on this Burton film are decidedly mixed.  Mars Attacks! drags and sputters throughout its running time, often falling flat.  And yet it occasionally rises to the occasion too, with Burton's trademark, brilliant visual invention.  I also love how the picture looks, for instance; how it successfully and gorgeously evokes its unusual source material from the 1960s.

In the end, I must respectfully refuse to dismiss outright any film that ends with crooner Tom Jones breaking into a rendition of "It's Not Unusual" (accompanied by alighting birds...) as a re-assertion of order and nature, I suppose.   This just isn't something you see every day, especially coming from mainstream, conformist Tinsel Town.

Accordingly, Mars Attacks! is one of those rare cult movies that entertains me just about every time I choose to watch it. I always enjoy it on some ridiculous, fun level, even while openly acknowledging that parts of the enterprise flatly don't work.

"Why destroy when you can create?"

Mars Attacks! is based on Topps' popular trading card line from 1962, a perennial collector's item which featured some fifty colorful cards depicting Earth's invasion by nefarious, big-brained Martians.  

The Topps cards were a source of major controversy in their time for depicting Martians capturing and torturing human females. Much of the Mars Attack imagery also revealed brave American servicemen being burned alive ("Saucers Blast Our Jets"), frozen to death ("The Frost Ray"), bloodied, and otherwise abused by the sadistic Martians.

In Tim Burton's version of Mars Attacks! the imagery is arguably just as violent, but played in a much lighter vein.  

As the film's story commences, the world is taken by surprise when Martians land on Earth and prove not to be good-will ambassadors, but a wholly malevolent and destructive force.  

Although the President of the United States, James Dale (Jack Nicholson) again and again attempts to forge a peace with the alien invaders over the objections of his top General, Decker (Rod Steiger), the Martians persist in their all-out war on humanity.  

Finally, it is up to a shy teenage boy in Kansas, Richie (Lukas Haas), to locate the unlikely key to destroying the aliens: his grandmother's Slim Whitman records!  Once broadcast across the air-waves, the strange Slim Whitman performances pulp Martian brains and end the invasion of Earth once and for all.

If one bears any familiarity with the Mars Attacks card set, the first significant thing to note about the Burton film is that the handsomely-mounted production goes to great lengths to accurately capture the pulpy, 1950s/early-1960s vibe of the set.  It does so by visually aping a few of the more notable, specific cards.  

Cards such as "Burning Cattle," (pictured above)  "The Shrink Ray" and "Robot Terror" are all staged directly as action sequences in the film.  "Burning Cattle" actually opens the film, in a memorable scene set in Lockjaw, Kentucky).  

Meanwhile, another Topps card "Panic in Parliament" seems to be the direct inspiration for the Martian attack on both houses of Congress seen in the film.

Likewise, the card "Burning Flesh" reveals the full (disgusting) impact of advanced Martian weaponry on the human body; a perspective which is repeated (on Jack Black) in the film during the Martians' first landing in Nevada. 

Some of the more spectacular and bizarre card imagery is left deliberately unvetted ("Saucers blast our jets," "Terror in Times Square,") and the film also wisely avoids staging several Topps cards which shifted the focus from the Martian invaders to giant, overgrown hazards to mankind's domination of Earth (giant flies, giant spiders, giant tidal waves, etc.).   

The film incarnation of Mars Attacks! also features a different denouement than the card set.  In the cards,  the last act saw Earth man take his fight back to Mars, smash the Martian cities, and ultimately destroy the red planet.

Despite such notable differences, the movie version of Mars Attacks! does a fine job of bringing the imagery of the card set to vivid life, particularly in regards to the Martians, their colorful biology, their space age costumes and their wanton acts of violence.  These aspects of the film are delightfully and memorably rendered.

Some amusing scenes aboard the Martian saucer in the film even find the aliens in a surprising state of undress (wearing just tiny little underpants!) in much the same mode of trading card examples such as "Watching from Mars," which similarly saw Martian citizens luxuriating (but in their Martian homes) while watching the destruction of Washington D.C. on wall-sized television screens.


After the distinctive and impressive look of the film, however, Burton's Mars Attacks! plays an entirely different game.  Where the cards were gory and bloody, and sought to present a truly terrifying invasion of Earth by nightmarish monstrous creatures, the movie is played entirely for laughs, both as a satire of disaster movies and of Washington politics.  The Martians, though evil, are cinematic figures of fun and jokes, not of surreal, outer space terror.
"This could be a cultural misunderstanding."

In impressive fashion, Mars Attacks! knowingly adopts the familiar cliches and traditions  of 1950s era science fiction alien invasion film and then gazes at them through the prism of 1990s political correctness.  

The film is not overtly partisan in its targets, but rather casts blame across the entire spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.  

The film rather definitively does not find hope in politics (in Nicholson's president), in the military (as represented by Steiger's character), in big business (in Nicholson's Art Land), in the media (in Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox's attention-seeking but vapid reporters), in parental authority (represented by -- shudder -- Joe Don Baker), or in science (as represented by Pierce Brosnan's egghead character, Dr. Kessler).  

To one extent or the other, each human character in every one of those above-listed "categories" seems blinded by agendas which don't fit the pertinent debate (about how to handle the Martian invasion).  In other words, nobody really seems to address the pressing problem effectively.  There is never a compromise between the scientists and the military, for instance, just an "either/or," binary approach.  

And again, in real life this was the era of  hyper partisanship as exemplified by opponents President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.  It was the era of government shutdowns because successful compromise could not be broached and diverse viewpoints were not accommodated.

Here, Nicholson's Commander-in-Cief must deal with Steiger's jingoistic general, who rabidly wants to use nuclear weapons despite the fact that such weapons would render Earth largely uninhabitable for the human population.  That's a non-starter.

On the opposite side, the same President must also deal with Brosnan's bleeding-heart scientist, who can't seem to accept overt hostility for what it is, and keeps foolishly preaching peace in the face of definitive Martian malevolence.

Both sides of the debate are blinded by pre-existing belief systems.

Meanwhile, the mass media merely views the Martian invasion as another ratings-grabbing circus to cover endlessly, and redneck Joe Don Baker and his wife decide quickly that -- in times of war -- it's okay to write off Grandma (Sylvia Sidney) first.  That's the patriotic thing to do.  

Again, not a pretty picture in either case.

In the middle of all this turmoil stands an irresolute U.S. President who seems terrified to act one way or another, and keeps trying to contain the situation in decidedly milquetoast, half-measure terms.  Delightfully, this President isn't a jab at any specific Chief Executive in American history, but rather a lethal combination of at least three of 'em.  Nicholson's character boasts the cluelessness and affability of Reagan, the wimp factor of the first Bush, and Clinton's love of polls (to help him decide which way the wind was blowing.) 

As I noted above, the president's unfortunate character traits represent a lethal combination for the Earth in this situation. This President just won't stand up and fight, stating in PC-terms instead that the Martian bad behavior could be but a "cultural misunderstanding."  

Later, he invokes that famous plea for tolerance from another 1990s celebrity, Rodney King: "can't we all just get along?"   That's an interrogative later Burton revived, also jokingly, in his 2001 Planet of the Apes.  

Regardless, the overall effect of such ineffectual presidential leadership is the wholesale destruction of the Earth, and a kind of "Pox on Both Your Houses" message of principle from the film itself.

To wit, in Mars Attacks! last act, it is the next generation by necessity that takes the helm after the destruction of the military, scientists, parents and the ruling political class.  

With the establishment wiped out by its own dottering, indecisive ways, it's up to the president's resourceful  young daughter (Natalie Portman) and likable, common-sense Richie to lead the planet to a better future.

And again, the film's last scenes -- notably post-Martian and post-establishment -- re-assert visually a sense of natural order.  Even the cute little animals of the Earth can finally come out of hiding because both the Martians and human nincompoops are finally gone.

 On the ash heap of history, as I wrote above, are the politicians, businessmen, generals, scientists, parents, and the mainstream media.   And ensconced amongst the survivors, notably, are recovering alcoholics (Annette Benning), blue collar African-American folks (Pam Grier, Jim Brown), and idealistic kids (Portman, Haas).  In other words, the disenfranchised of America.  A new world order?  

Regardless, the Martians thus function in Mars Attacks! as a kind of wicked (but necessary?) "clean-up" crew, one malevolently destroying Earth and yet also taking out the very players that seem to keep our culture from ever truly moving forward: politicians, businessmen and even lawyers, in the case of DeVito's character.

Burton doesn't reserve all his satirical jabs for politics, either. His film comments on generic Hollywood blockbusters too.  Mars Attacks! thus concerns an in-vogue American  obsession of the 1990s  (alien invasions), one featured on TV in the X-Files and in theatrical productions such as Species (1995), The Arrival (1996) and Independence Day (1996). He also revives the Irwin Allen template for disaster films.  In other words, big, expensive casts, and lots of destruction.  Only in this case, he plays both aspects not for spectacle...but for humor.

Alas, one gets the impression that Burton is overwhelmed by the colossal cast (Nicholson, Glenn Close, Steiger, Martin Short, Lisa Marie, Christina Applegate, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Haas, Jim Brown, Danny De Vito, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pam Grier, and on and on...).  

Contrarily, the director seems to have a good time demolishing national monuments.  In Mars Attacks! Mount Rushmore gets re-painted with a Martian (not Martin) sheen, and the Washington Monument gets tipped over upon a squad of helpless Boy Scouts.   These moments are emblematic of a diabolical vicious streak, and accordingly, Mars Attacks! comes across as Tim Burton's nastiest picture.  

And yet, simultaneously, by the end of the movie, Mars Attacks! writes itself off as a lark, breaking into song with Tom Jones and lunging full-bore into tongue-in-cheek laughs.  This is a daring and wicked, if precarious, creative combination.  I can't  really say it's a very commercial one, either.   

Think about it: Tim Burton spent over eighty million dollars to create a schlocky, big budget satire of a 1960s trading card franchise in the same summer that Independence Day premiered.  Talk about brass balls.   But his film is schizophrenic too.  It's a little too gory to go over as easy comedy, and much too comedic to be taken as a serious sci-fi epic.

Instead, Mars Attacks! occupies a weird terrain in the Burton canon.  It's a box office disappointment of tremendous invention but also scatter shot execution.   Really, Mars Attacks! is the Cannonball Run of alien invasion movies.  The movie is girded with recognizable stars and top-notch production values, occasionally uproarious, and yet strangely self-indulgent all at the same time.

But damn if those Martians aren't completely awesome creations.  Someone should give them their own TV series. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Burton Binge: Edward Scissorhands (1990)


Technically-speaking, Tim Burton's 1990 hit Edward Scissorhands is structured as a myth.  In other words, it's deliberately a bed-time tale (told from a grandmother to her grandchild) that helps to explain some aspect of nature or existence.  

In this case, the book-end sequences in the film reveal the reasons why it often snows in one particular American town when, historically, it never snowed there before.

Beyond this unique aspect of the film's structure, Edward Scissorhands conforms to another long-standing tradition of mythology or folklore by explicitly conveying a message that is aimed at illuminating social aspects of the film's contemporary culture, meaning us, here, in modern America.  

In particular, the film serves as an excavation of not just another notable Burton outcast or misfit -- and perhaps his most memorable one at that -- but as a careful and moving indictment of a conformist dominant culture that is unable to accommodate an outsider's presence.  

Underneath the almost Dr. Seuss-styled surface of Edward Scissorhands, the movie serves as an indictment of racism in white America, particularly 20th century America.  Although colored in cheery, light pastels, the film portrays a 1950s era "traditional" America (down to character name choices like "Peg"), that reveals an alarming sense of homogeneity and parochial thinking.  In terms of history, this was the span in which segregation laws (or Jim Crow laws) were still on the books, though the court system was slowly beginning to change that fact.

Beyond the social commentary,  Edward Scissorhands is entirely persuasive as fantasy, with an opening composition that literally invites the viewer through a slowly opening door, into the domain of Burton's vivid and singular imagination.  The film also revels in Burton's familiar obsession with Rube Goldberg-styled inventions, and even makes some trenchant observations about parenthood, notably comparing two father characters: the inventor (Vincent Price) and Bill (Alan Arkin).

Haunting and emotional, Edward Scissorhands stands amongst of my favorite Burton films, in part because it features a deliberately unhappy (if emotional...) ending, and doesn't candy-coat its commentary in typical Hollywood bromides.  

In the end, the innocent and just Edward leaves the world at large, and his community too, but in notation of what has been lost because of his absence, some magic seems to go out of that world.   Except, of course, on the nights that it snows.  

That last wistful notation -- that idea that magic can exist in our life if only we allow it to do so -- is especially resonant, and a virtual trademark of Burton's aesthetic.

"You can't touch anything without destroying it!"


In Edward Scissorhands, a struggling make-up saleswoman, Peg (Dianne Wiest), leaves the safety of her suburban neighborhood to visit a Gothic mansion atop a nearby hill.  

There, she encounters a strange young man, Edward (Johnny Depp), who -- alone after the death of his father, an inventor (Price) -- now lives alone there.

Edward is unusual not only because of his gentle demeanor, but because he possesses long, sharp scissors for hands.

Peg brings Edward home with her to live in her family's house, and the neighborhood quickly begins to gossip about this unusual newcomer.   Seeking to fit in, Edward begins to work for the people of the town in different capacities (and all for free).  

At first, he trims their hedges into the shapes of animals and other fanciful creatures.  Then, Edward uses his skill with scissors to groom the neighborhood dogs.  Before long, Edward is giving the stay-at-home wives in the neighborhoods elaborate new hair cuts.

At first, a neighbor named Joyce (Kathy Baker) is aroused by the presence of Edward -- this "foreign" individual - in her humdrum, routine life, but when he refuses her aggressive sexual advances, she turns against him.  Then, the true target of Edward's affection, Peg's daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) involves Edward in a robbery at the behest of her obnoxious boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall).  Edward nearly goes to jail.

Even more than before, the town turns against Edward, leaving him no choice but to return to the lonely castle where his idiosyncratic inventor once lived.  Kim and and Jim follow him to this retreat, and Edward is left with no choice but to kill the violent Jim.  Kim, who has developed feelings for Edward, realizes that she has no option but to say goodbye to this most unusual man.  

Kim leaves Edward alone in his castle.  But years later, she knows he still lives -- immortal -- because it snows in town.  Edward creates the snow himself: cast-off shavings of ice from the elaborate sculptures he creates of his one true love...

"I am not finished."


A man with scissors for hands is certainly an original and unique creation, but Edward Scissorhands thrives as much on its depiction of Peg and Kim's pastel suburban world as it does from the singular nature of its title character.

In particular, Burton imagines a flat world in which all the houses and cars look exactly the same.  There are only four of five pastel colors to choose from, and the very flatness of the terrain -- lacking mountains and high trees -- suggest the two-dimensionality and conformity of the neighborhood, the culture and the denizens.

In particular, Burton creates for us a so-called "Googie" town deliberately evocative of  the popular 1950s design.  In other words, the houses that appear in the film conform to the architecture popularized in the 1950s and termed "Googie" by House & Home writer Julius Shulman.  These popular tract homes featured such elements as large windows, up-swept roofs, pastel color schemes, and on the interior, star burst wall-clocks. And you see all of these touches explicitly visualized in Edward Scissorhands.  The production design by Bo Welch thus specifically harks back to the 1950s, that time of racial conformity in the United States and not incidentally, the span of Tim Burton's youth.

Googie architecture was essentially mid-century modern in style, associated with the burgeoning space age and thus a spirit of can-do optimism.  But, counter-intuitively, Burton utilizes the Googie neighborhood as an indicator of the unthinking and yet visceral demand of the times to conform to the majority in terms of personal beliefs and mores, right down to choice and color of family homes.  What was designed to be an optimistic look at the "future" in America instead becomes here a signifier of the sameness of the people and their narrow or limited outlook on what it means to be a "real" American. 

When Edward enters this cookie-cutter Googie town, he is, at first, an object of curiosity.  Peg attempts to help him assimilate into the mainstream by modifying his facial complexion (with Avon make-up); so he won't, essentially "stand out."  He won't be noticed and thus derided.  Again, considering the metaphor involving racism in the 1950s, it's crucial that one note how Edward is made to change his skin color to be accepted in the neighborhood.

All the women (who seem to remain at home all day) gossip about Edward and desire to meet him.  But the only person who is cruel to Edward right from the beginning of his stay is the overtly Christian fundamentalist neighbor, who warns the neighbors that Edward is evil; Satanic actually.  And of course, this attitude also alludes to the 1950s milieu, and frequent white treatment of blacks.  In particular, black music was considered "devilish" and there was a terrible fear that the sexual, insidious music would infect upstanding white youths.  Even today, this ridiculous stereotype thrives.  How many U.S. Presidents, for instance, before Obama, have been widely termed the anti-Christ by religious authorities?

Still, Edward is welcomed into the homes of most of his neighbors, at least initially.  Importantly, however, it is in the capacity of worker or servant.  Edward tends to yards, grooms the dogs, and cuts hair.  He is, essentially, then, a harmless manservant able to do the domestic work that the middle class women do not wish to do.  He is fine as long as he knows his place and understands his role as a servant; as an assistant.

Importantly, the neighborhood goes from accepting Edward in this limited capacity to actually despising and hunting him (much like the Frankenstein Monster in James Whales' masterpiece) after he is accused of making a sexual advance against Joyce...a white woman.  Notably, Joyce is actually the one who made sexual advances upon Edward, after vocally fetishizing his "foreign-ness" or "difference;" wondering aloud what tricks he could do (or undo) with those sharp scissor hands of his.  But she turns the tables and blames Edward for sexual advances, and the town takes her word for it.

Additionally, whenever Edward makes mistakes or misunderstands the nature of his place in the Googie neighborhood, the more accepting whites among the town make paternalistic excuses for him, without actually considering how he was treated by those around him.  

"He can't help the way he is," says one character.  He must learn "not to take everything literally," says Bill.  In both cases, Edward -- definitively "the other" -- is blamed when things go awry. Fault cannot rest, apparently, in such a happy, pastel, Googie place.  Instead, fault must rest with the guy who is different; not in the response of the society to the guy who's different.  That's a significant distinction.

In the end, the neighbors run Edward out of town permanently, back into the dark, menacing Gothic mansion on the hill, a place where he apparently belongs as a non-white, non-conforming "monster."  This action thus represents the town's way of rejecting racial integration, and insisting on the separate status of someone who looks different.  It's an ugly display of parochial thinking, but also a once widespread attitude.

And yet, the film makes the case -- in the last act -- that the town has lost something beautiful by driving Edward away.  The magic and happiness he brought (diversity, perhaps?) has been sacrificed and lost.  Now, he occasionally bestows his magic -- the snow -- upon the town, but he is nonetheless forever apart from those who would benefit from his presence and particular skills.

The only man with scissor hands in the 1950s-styled Googie town, Edward remains quite the outsider and misfit.  His very touch is awkward and dangerous, and we see this quality clearly as he attempts to interface with Kim's family.  On his first day in town, he accidentally punctures with his scissor hands Kim's water bed, an act which on some metaphorical level suggests his implied/believed (sexual?) danger to the women of town.  By being different, he seems to be dangerous.

The social commentary about racism in Edward Scissorhands is a vital part of the film's creative tapestry, and yet Burton creates sympathy for the character by establishing his total sense of alone-ness and incompleteness.  "I'm not finished yet," Edwards declares at one point, and there are many of us who feel exactly the same way.  Like Edward, we are in the act of "becoming," of growing and turning into something.  Because of his poor treatment at the hand of the town's people, Edward does not become part of the community.  Instead, his destiny is to be alone.  What he becomes is...separate.

Tim Burton has occasionally stated that all his films come down to issues of parenthood, or fatherhood in particular. Here, Vincent Price plays the Inventor, a kindly man who created life, but was not able to perfect it before his untimely death.  In flashback scenes, we witness the old man's kindness, but also his desire to play God, to create a life and control it.  Although it is not his fault that he died when he did, the scientist becomes an absentee father figure, unable to help Edward countenance the world when the young man needs him the most.  

Notably, Bill -- despite some kindnesses -- also fails Edward at a critical juncture.  He is never able to turn the town back to Edward's side, and does not complain or object when Edward makes his final departure.  In both cases, the fathers don't seem to want to take responsibility for the son they have made.

One of the most beautiful and emotional aspects of Edward Scissorhands involves the climax, in which Edward creates a blizzard, a snow storm, from his perch high over the town.  Like the rest of the film, this denouement is highly symbolic, and emblematic of Burton's argument in favor of diversity and against conformity (or racism, particularly).  

For instance, some people believe that in the snow we see the reflection of God him (or her)self.  Snow is pure (like Edward) and incredibly individual: no two snow flakes are exactly like.  There is diversity amongst snow flakes and that's a good thing...for each is beautiful in its own way and evidence of God's ability create beauty in all forms.  By extension, Edward's differences from the rest of the folks in the Googie town should make him an object of beauty and reverence, not a monster.

At the heart of Edward Scissorhands echoes the belief that we need not fear that which, upon first blush, appears different from the norm.  Sometimes what is different can change our life for the better and make us see life in a totally new light.  

"You see, before he came down here, it never snowed," Kim explains to her granddaughter with a sense of wonder.  "And afterwards, it did."

Watching and experiencing Edward Scissorhands, you must decide if you want to be one of the villagers, trying to destroy that which appears different just because you're afraid of the new, or someone who regards the snow...and wants to dance in it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Burton Binge: Beetlejuice (1988)


Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988) remains a perfect Halloween treat, a movie by turns ghoulish, garish, goofy, and giggle-provoking.  

The 1988 film was a huge box office hit when originally released theatrically, a fact which enabled Burton to assume directing duties on his blockbuster, Batman (1989).  

The comedy also spawned a 1989 animated series named after its titular character, a "bio-exorcist" played in the film by an over-the-top Michael Keaton. 

Never scary or frightening in the traditional sense, Beetlejuice plays throughout its duration like a cartoon come to vivid, three-dimensional life. Critic Roger Ebert didn't care for the film much (he felt it was gimmicky, like a TV sitcom) yet nonetheless cannily observed the overriding aesthetic as "cartoon surrealistic."  

Frankly, you can't describe the movie in better or more accurate terms than that.  Beetlejuice is both exaggerated in nature (like a cartoon) and utterly bizarre (hence surreal), a dazzling conjunction of the real and the fantastic. 

The masterful if deliberately quirky visuals are macabre indeed -- from shrunken heads to giant sandworms --yet this Burton movie doesn't play such brawny imagery for the inherent chill factor. 

Instead, as is often the case in the filmmaker's distinctive canon, the audience feels if though it has wandered into the fully-realized (and extremely personal) fantasy world of a highly-imaginative artist; one with a dark side, but also boasting a pronounced sense of, well...whimsy.

In terms of the particulars of the Burton Brief, we're back once more to the notion of outsiders bonding together to form a family of sorts, a quality we've already witnessed in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Ed Wood (1994).  Here, a couple of innocent (and child-less) ghosts played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin end up the "spiritual" parents of an isolated, vulnerable, goth girl, Winona Ryder's Lydia.  

Uniquely, this relationship is depicted as wholly symmetrical: Barb and Adam Maitland appear to learn as much from the young woman as she gleans from her experience with them.  It's a nice, folksy aesthetic, especially considering what the protagonists are up against in the scheme of things.

And what are they up against?  

Well, the protagonists and their latent misfit-ism run smack dab against two very negative characteristics of  real life: exploitative, avaricious people on one hand and an uncaring and byzantine bureaucracy on the other.  In particular, Lydia's Dad (Jeffrey Jones) and step-mom (Catherine O'Hara), the Deetzs -- much like Beetlejuice (Keaton) himself -- view the Maitlands as exploitable resources; tickets to personal satisfaction, embodied by wealth or celebrity. 

And in the halls of the Afterlife, the Maitlands find only hellish levels of barely functional bureaucracy.  The Afterlife is depicted as an endless maze of waiting rooms, foreboding cartoon architecture, "lost souls," and put-upon, uncaring civil servants.  People are encouraged to "take a number" and wait to be helped...forever.

Although Adam tells Barb that as dead people, they have little to worry about, that belief proves patently untrue in short order.  In the Great Beyond -- as in life upon this mortal coil -- success seems to belong to those who seek to leverage "the upper hand" in every situation, to utilize the movie's terminology.

Goofy and fun, Beetlejuice thus makes its case for family -- a social support net -- against the vast canvas of spectral officiousness and mortal narcissism.  An extended tour of the afterlife mid-way through the proceedings permits Burton's unfettered imagination to run wild, and his vision of a bureaucratic Great Beyond plays nicely against the idyllic qualities of the Maitlands' historic house and the pastoral New England environs.  

When Burton's idiosyncratic visual jokes and colorful paint strokes are combined with the movie's creative high concept -- the idea of a haunted house from the ghost's perspective -- Beetlejuice emerges as an inventive treat indeed.

"Maybe you can relax in a haunted house, but I can't."


Beetlejuice depicts the tale of a perfect American life ruined.  Adam and Barb Maitland live in a beautiful old house atop a hill in grassy New England.  But one day, things go awry and the couple dies in a car accident.  

They return to their home as ghosts, only to find there an incomprehensible, indecipherable and impersonal manual to their new existence: The Handbook for the Recently Deceased.

Soon, a new family, the Deetzs, moves into the old Maitland place.  Step-Mom Delia is a self-centered, narcissistic woman, and Dad is too busy conjuring ways to make money to spend time with his daughter, the alienated Lydia.  

Unwilling to share their beloved home with this cosmolitan but dysfunctional family from the city, the Maitlands set out to haunt the Deetzs.  It's not as easy as it sounds, however, and after failing to succeed, the Maitlands take the conceivably dangerous step of "hiring" a manic bio-exorcist named Beetlejuice to complete the job.

Although the Maitland's spectral case-worker, Juno (Sylvia Sidney) urges restraint, the Maitlands bring in Beetlejuice and a difficult situation immediately goes from bad to worse...

"I have a chance to teach you something here. You have got to take the upper hand in all situations or people -- whether they're dead or alive -- will walk all over you."


From a certain perspective, Beetlejuice is a literalization of the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Specifically, the film depicts three different levels of existence that, despite their differences, share something in common.   To wit, the production showcases life in idealized miniature (in Adam's table-top representation of the nearby town), life in the Maitland's

Beetlejuice -- a Loki-like force of mischief -- shifts constantly from one level of reality to the next, bringing with him chaos, uncertainty and, inevitably, disaster.  After he's through with them, not one of these levels of existence is safe or unchanged.

In whatever manner these three levels of existence (tabletop miniature, mortal life, and the afterlife) seem to differ from one another on a superficial nature, the more they are revealed to be precisely the same.  At various points, all three "fields" prove prisons for Adam and Barb, for instance.  

In all three levels, there are also rules to obey and follow (and if necessary, to manipulate).  That seems to be the point.  "Why don't they tell us something?" Barb asks at one point, frustrated.  "I mean, where are all the other dead people in the world? Why is it just you and me?"  In other words, the rules in any level of reality are not always clear.  

Commendably, the film's opening shot -- a pan up the hill to the Maitland's house -- reveals this quality on a visual level.  As the shot commences, we assume we are looking at a real landscape (and a real aerial shot...) only to recognize later that we are actually gazing at Adam's miniature world.  Full realization of this fact comes as a spider -- apparently a giant -- crawls over the model of the Maitland home.

Extrapolating from that tricky opening shot and the three levels of existence portrayed throughout the film,  Beetlejuice might be said to concern the ways that people navigate uncaring or at least difficult social systems.  People are either part of the establishment (like Juno), or work against the system (like Beetlejuice), taking advantage of its size and flaws.  

In between these poles are the regular people -- the Maitlands -- for whom the system does not always work. And yet they do not wish to entirely destroy the system, either.  More than anything, the Maitlands seem like good people trying to...understand a complicated tax code.  

They want to do right, but aren't sure how to do right.

The Maitlands are the typical Burton outsiders because these freshly dead souls are confused about the shape of their new  "lives."  They are vexed by both the living (the Deetzs) and the dead (the exploitative Beetlejuice). Left to handle their problems on their own -- without a usable guide, really, since their handbook resembles a "stereo instruction manual" --  they don't know where to turn.  Lydia is a lot like them in that way, boasting very different values than her yuppie parents.  She also doesn't understand who she should be.   This quality of "not knowing" is the thing that binds outsiders Adam and Barb, and Lydia together.

Meanwhile, both the Deetzes and Beetlejuice seem to live by Delia's advice (enumerated above) that people must take the upper hand in all situations.  In the final analysis, this is a lesson that the Maitlands and Lydia both learn, but in less-callous, less-thoughtless terms than either the Deetzs or Beetlejuice.  At the very least, the Maitlands and Lydia learn to look out for each other. Again, the focus is on a family, even an ad-hoc family, as the center of existence.

So what we have here is a (very) light social satire of the way things are.  One on side you have impossibly big bureaucracy, unable to tend effectively to the needs of the individual.  On the  other side, you've got individual hucksters and frauds such as Beetlejuice -- exemplifying  a laissez fair approach -- deliberately taking advantage of the individual.  In the middle are the regular folk, ones caught between an unworkable, officious bureaucracy and an unscrupulous character who might as well live by the motto caveat emptor.  

Or as the "ghost with the most" puts it: "These aren't my rules. Come to think of it, I don't have any rules!" 

For me, this is an especially intriguing reading of the film given Keaton's role in the drama.  After Beetlejuice, he appeared in a horror film entitled Pacific Heights (1990) wherein he performed essentially the same grifter-type role, vexing another married couple (played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) by skirting and manipulating the law to his own selfish ends. Here the accent is on outrageous comedy, there the accent is on terror. But the commonalities are interesting.

In Beetlejuice, the Maitlands are truly trapped in limbo, between a rock and a hard place.  And yet in this positioning, they come to gain...perspective. "Being dead doesn't really make things easier," Adam tells a suicidal Lydia at one point, and that's just one grace note in the film,  the idea that avoiding a problem doesn't solve a problem.  The Maitlands, at first, leave Beetlejuice to freely roam their miniature metropolis in the attic, a plan of action that leads to his return and near ascent (not to mention ill-advised wedding to Lydia).  Finally, Lydia and Maitland join forces to actively stop Beetlejuice.  Once the family is whole (or on the same page) it can conquer the interloper, and does so, making way for the happy (and very domestic) ending.

Beetlejuice is loaded with creative invention, not the least of which occurs in its trademark scene of spiritual possession.  Here, the essentially harmless Maitlands use their ghostly powers to make the narcissistic city folk, including the Deetzs -- and Dick Cavett -- perform to The Banana Boat Song, (Day-O).  Spiritual possession as musical number is a good joke all on its own, but the film also garners laughs from the Deetzs's response to their spiritual slavery.  They love it!  They want to use it to make money, to enhance their reputations and wealth. "I didn't know I could do the Calypso" enthuses Delia. 

Coming in 1988 -- in the age of Gordon Gekko - this is surely a comment on yuppieism.  Even haunted houses are apparently a path to upward mobility.

In obliquely dealing with this idea, Beetlejuice emerges as a uniquely American fairy tale.  It's the story of ghosts who lost their home...but gained a daughter.  And that surely represents a triumph of traditional American values over the ideals of conspicuous consumption.  

Like all great fairy tales, Beetlejuice is also about the dark side of life, about a fate worse than death (the room for lost souls), about monsters at the door (giant sandworms) and about a system that doesn't really care if you succeed or not.  

Delightfully, Beetlejuice remains absolutely timely today, in part because its message resonates in the era of Occupy Wall Street, but also because Tim Burton did not apt for a strict adherence to realism in crafting his crazy world.  The special effects in the film have not aged dramatically because they are so expressive, so explicitly emblematic of a whimsical (if dark) nature 

But Beetlejuice works best as a reminder that the human predicament seems to be a constant.  Even in death, it seems, he has to claw, scratch, and fight to find happines.  And as in life, the thing that makes that effort bearable is the company of family. 

Like Beetlejuice himself, Burton's 1988 comedy "turns on the juice" and then "see what shakes loose," which, quite frankly, is more than you might rightly expect from a surreal, silver screen cartoon. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Burton Binge: Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)


This nearly thirty-five year old comedy remains a deft and amusing collaboration between Tim Burton and Paul Reubens, a comedian who, in the early 1980s, created the character of Pee Wee Herman and saw that persona rise to national fame.  

If you're unfamiliar with Pee Wee Herman, he's essentially  a big-hearted but emotionally-stunted man-child dressed in a suit. Pee Wee is both charmingly innocent in nature and yet diabolically aggressive when he doesn't get his way.  


In other words, Pee Wee Herman is the Peter Pan Syndrome personified, or -- as Ralph Emerson described the mercurial child -- a "curly, dimpled lunatic."    

Although the Pee Wee Herman persona was originally aimed at adult audiences, the character increasingly became popular with children over the years, eventually starring in an Award-winning Saturday morning TV series, Pee Wee's Playhouse.   

Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure retains the character's spiky edges, and in doing so acknowledges the difficulties of the adult world at the same time that it reveals Pee Wee's essentially good -- with some lapses -- childish nature.

To one extent or another, all of Tim Burton's films involve quirky misfits or oddballs, and perhaps there is no protagonist in the canon more quirky, or more oddball than Pee Wee Herman.  He's desperately afraid of girls, holds down no job, and focuses all of his obsessive  love upon a single, perfect object or toy: his bicycle.  Pee Wee thrives in a bubble of self-indulgent childhood and play, and when he looks outside that bubble, gazes enviously at those who may appear "cooler" than he does.

In the course of Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Pee Wee meets hostility from the "real" (adult) world in the form of an escaped criminal, a biker gang, the jealous boyfriend of an acquaintance, and not least of all, Francis Buxton.  Francis is a rich, indulged man-child, a kind of dark reflection of Pee Wee.  In all cases, except for Francis -- who is truly incorrigible and thus irredeemable -- Pee Wee works his child's magic upon his enemies, transforming them into friends and supporters.

The inference is obvious: unless you're a monster (like Francis...) you just can't hate Pee Wee for long.  We also saw this quality in the character of Ed Wood last week.  Through his eternal optimism and enthusiasm, Burton's Wood successfully drew others into his orbit, into his world of movie-making.  Through his child-like kindness and friendship, Pee Wee often accomplishes the same feat here, permitting other characters to "follow" their dreams the very way that he does.  Whatever his failings in terms of fitting in, Pee Wee is indomitable, and people around him pick-up on that admirable quality.

So what audiences get here is, basically, a very funny commentary on childhood; or perhaps upon society's view of children.  What makes the film so unrelentingly funny, however is that Pee Wee is most definitely not all sunshine and roses, and, certainly, neither are kids in real life.  Like any child, Pee Wee can be abundantly vindictive, capricious, out-of-control, and even ego maniacal.  The film often attains the pinnacle of silliness when Pee Wee -- in pursuit of his perfect bike -- must call upon his juvenile "id" to attain his goal.

It has been widely suggested by critics that Pee Wee Herman is an acquired taste, or that one's "mileage" for the character may vary.   Yet to some extent, Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure thrives even beyond one's appreciation or approval for the central character because of the wild, visual flights of fancy evident here.  Even if Pee Wee fails to impress as a character or a comedic concept, his dazzling fantasy world of Rube Goldberg-esque inventions and colorful, strange misfits proves eminently memorable.  With Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure, you get just not Pee Wee himself to enjoy, but access to Pee Wee's world.  In the final analysis, it's a pretty wild and imaginative place to visit.

Specifically, Burton executes a number of  clever visual jokes that reveal the essence of the unusual lead character and his world view.  In other words, Burton finds way to express with the camera the inner workings of Pee Wee's childish but ultimately admirable psyche.  To some degree, this practice makes the inscrutable, juvenile Pee Wee more sympathetic and heroic.  

And, of course, that's the point.

"Life can be so unfair."


Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) sets out on one lovely day to pick up a new horn for his beloved bike at Chuck's Bike-o-rama.  

Unfortunately, Herman's nasty nemesis, Francis Buxton (Mark Holton) hires someone to steal his  bike.  But when Herman goes on the radio to detail his campaign to get the stolen bike back, Buxton re-hires his underling to get rid of it so he won't get into trouble with his Dad.

After visiting a fortune teller, Herman learns that the missing bike may be "in the basement of the Alamo," and sets off for Texas.  Along the way, he meets an escaped criminal, a waitress who longs to see Paris, a ghost named "Large Marge," a hobo on a train and even a biker gang.  Through it all, Pee Wee admirably keeps his focus on his bike...and makes friends in the process.

Finally, when he learns that a famous child star, Kevin Morton (Jason Hervey) has possession of the bicycle, Pee Wee goes to Hollywood and sneaks onto the Warner Bros. lot to get it back.  Pee Wee recovers his stolen treasure, and after a lengthy chase, becomes a star in his own right.  

As it turns out, a studio exec at Warners think that Pee Wee's big adventure would make a hell of a movie, especially if it starred James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild...

"Everyone has a big "but"..."


Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure
 works so well as a comedy because Tim Burton unabashedly forgoes any sense of realism, and instead allows the audience to feel (Heaven forbid...) what it would be like to live in Pee Wee's world for ninety minutes.

For instance, as Pee Wee learns of the criminal and shocking theft of his bike, the camera goes cockeyed, Danny Elfman's score turns portentous, and we get extreme close-ups of a sinister-appearing robot Clown.  The bike had been chained to that clown, but now the clown seems to mock Pee Wee with it's very presence.  It's an evil Leviathan, passing judgment; mocking him.

In almost the very next scene, Pee Wee grows despondent over his loss of the bike, and once again, we seem to peek directly into his fevered brain.  Suddenly, everybody (even a mime...) rides by on wheels, implicitly mocking Pee Wee's lack of conveyance.  This is a particularly funny scene, as Pee Wee can't look anywhere without being reminded of the amazing treasure he has lost.  And we absolutely know that bike is amazing, because Pee Wee is practically blinded by the bike's radiance on the first occasion it is depicted in the film.

Soon, Pee Wee's unhappiness turns him into something of a monster, a fact we see expressed visually during a sequence set in a rain-swept alley.  Pee Wee enters the scene first as a shadow, as a giant, hunched over monster.  This image reveals how (an unfair) loss has informed the character's view of the world.  Again and again, Burton's exaggerated use of mise-en-scene tells us something critical about the emotional context of Pee Wee's world and his thoughts.


The film's first scene, in fact, is a pretty terrific reflection of Pee Wee's universe and psyche.  It's a dream sequence in which Pee Wee envisions himself racing in the tour de France.  

As the movie and scene commence, Pee Wee -- on his beloved bike -- passes the other racers effortlessly.  At first, he does so with that trademark little giggle of his.  Then, as he increases speed and vanquishes all of his opponents, the giggle turns to a cackle of ego maniacal glee.  There's something driving and a little out-of-control about this desire to win the race, to be the best, and the escalating insanity of Pee Wee's laughter reveals that.

He wins the race, but as Pee Wee is about to be crowned victorious, his alarm clock rings, exposing the scene as a dream. Instead of ending abruptly, however, the dream continues to unfold, and the gathered attendees just sort of wander away and disperse, a moment which reveals how "deflating" an awakening from fantasy can be.  And indeed, Pee Wee's whole world is fantasy.  When he awakens from it -- as is the case with the bike theft -- it's devastating to him.  Without making Pee Wee's Big Adventure sound like deep social commentary, there's clearly something here about a child's first experience countenancing the world. Witness Pee Wee's disappointment upon learning that the Alamo doesn't actually have a basement.  Why don't they tell kids thing like that, he practically asks.

As I wrote above, Pee Wee's Big Adventure seems to work at its apex of humor when the character's dark side is allowed free rein.  Pee Wee tackles Francis in a pool, and nearly drowns the cad, for instance.  At another point, Pee Wee is debauched when other bicycle riders in the park perform riding tricks, and he can't match them. Suddenly, he sets about to do so.  And when he fails rather clumsily, he nonetheless triumphantly opines "I meant to do that."

The idea here is of a child's id unloosed in a man's body and it is the very thing that makes Pee Wee's Big Adventure so funny.  We all possess an inner child making demands on us, and yet we can't act on those demands or impulses if we wish to be taken seriously.  When confronted with a name-calling bully, we can't just say "I know you are, but what am I?"  No, we must act like adults, even when we are challenged and insulted. The funny thing about Pee Wee Herman is that he possesses no such restraints.  Perhaps, Pee Wee's persona, in some way, is based on wish-fulfilment.


Sometimes, the childish id we carry inside is just about being recognized; about being the center of attention.  With that idea in mind, witness the wondrous and very funny moment in which Pee Wee -- playing a hotel clerk in a movie of his life -- almost unconsciously inches his way to center screen, upstaging "stars" James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild.

Pee Wee is not making this attention-grabbing move out of malice.  Rather it's as if the gravity of his own unquenchable ego pulls him towards the camera, demanding he take center stage.  Aren't we all like that, some days?  

Perhaps most of all, Pee Wee's Big Adventure is a delight because of the whimsical world Burton creates for Pee Wee to inhabit.  Hollywood is littered with instances of successful comedians trying to make a go of it in the movie business and failing (think Tom Green, or Andrew Dice Clay).   In such instances, the comedians transplanted themselves to the silver screen, but did not provide a compelling world to alongside their popular "characters."  

In the case of Paul Reubens, the comedian was clever to collaborate with Burton, a man who could build a cinematic world from the ground up, and more that, assure that it would work in conjunction with Pee Wee's essential nature.   It's pretty clear Tim Burton "gets" Pee Wee, or at least understands the concept of being different from the rest of the world.  That act of sympathy -- as well as a sense of daring visual imagination -- underlines all of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and it is also the quality, that, in some circles, earn this movie the descriptor of "classic."

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: The Ghost Busters: "The Maltese Monkey" (1975)



Just a few years after the highly-rated Night Stalker movies premiered to high ratings and one year after the Kolchak (1974-1975) TV series, Lou Scheimer’s Filmation created a kind of comedy variation on the premise for Saturday mornings.

The live-action series The Ghost Busters (1975) follows the unusual adventures of three down-on-their-luck paranormal investigators: Spenser (Larry Storch), Kong (Forest Tucker) and the gorilla, Tracy (played, or rather “trained” by Bob Burns.)




The series ran for fifteen episodes, and is most famous, today, because it landed in the pop-culture nearly a full-decade before the similarly-named blockbuster Ivan Reitman movie of 1984.  It should be remembered by all that this series spearheaded The Ghost Busters concept (which includes anti-ghost technology, a team of inept investigators, supernatural foes, and slapstick comedy) well-before the 1984 film also went there.


After 1984, the two versions of the material duked it out in Saturday morning cartons, one based on the 1970s Filmation program, the other one based on the popular movie.

In the original series, Spenser, Kong, and Tracy receive assignments, Mission: Impossible-style from self-destructing tapes, and then go after various monsters or legends, including the Mummy, the Frankenstein Monster, evil witches, and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  


The first episode of the series is "The Maltese Monkey," A bizarre riff on the classic film noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941). 

The evil duo the Fatman (Johnny Brown) and The Rabbit (Billy Barty) use a crystal ball to conjure the ghost of notorious gangster, Big Al (Larry Storch). Only Big Al knows the secret location of the "thing," the valuable statue, The Maltese Monkey.


Spenser, Kong, and Tracy are ordered to apprehend the Fatman and the Rabbit, but are shocked to learn that Big Al and Spenser are dead ringers for one another, right down to a taste in fashion. 

At first, Kong plans to use Spenser's resemblance to Al to trick the evil duo, but Big Al pulls a fast one and gets Tracy and Kong to steal the Maltese Monkey with him.


Although its humor is incredibly juvenile, "The Maltese Monkey" is cartoonish on purpose, I would assess. In fact, it pulls -- in its freshman episode, no less -- a cartoon gage that kids could watch on Scooby Doo every week.

The joke involves a corridor with doors on both sides of the chamber, and people emerging and disappearing, alternately, on each side, in several doors; in defiance of physics.  It's an old, stupid joke, but it captures, almost perfectly, apparent ambition to be a live-action cartoon.


This is a show clearly designed for kids, and yet there are some fascinating things to consider here.

First, "The Maltese Monkey" features relatively well-shot split screens for various compositions, pitting Larry Storch against...Larry Storch. I wasn't expecting that degree of visual sophistication from such a cheap production. 

To the negative, however, the castle as depicted in the film appears to be a drawing or painting, and at one point during the aforementioned corridor chase, one can see the flimsy walls actually shake.

But, again focusing on the positive, Larry Storch goes for broke in both roles. He plays Spenser, and Big Al. But then he plays Big Al pretending to be Spenser, and Spenser pretending to be big Al.  As Big Al, he performs a flawless imitation of Marlon Brando from The Godfather (1972).  And as Spenser imitating Big Al, he pulls an equally perfect Jimmy Cagney. 

I confess to not being a very big fan of this Saturday morning series, and for finding the humor, for the most part, cringe inducing. One quality I do appreciate about this series is the "monsters for kids" aspect.  Children are fascinated by horror films and big screen monsters, and those obsessions are definitely here.  It's just that they are couched in the most ridiculous scripts and situations impossible, presumably to make sure the terror isn't merely tolerable, but toothless.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Breakaway 2020 - The Horror Mythology of Space:1999

"We're a long way from home, and we're going to have to start thinking differently if we're going to come to terms with space."


-Professor Victor Bergman, Space: 1999; "Matter of Life and Death."

One important quality that differentiates Space: 1999 (1975-1977) from virtually any other outer space adventure ever created, even after forty-five years, is its heavy accent on horror. Unlike Star Trek, wherein planets are joined peacefully across the ocean of space as part of a cosmic, political United Nations, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 presents the universe as a realm of incomprehensible and total, abject terror.

Because the heroes of Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) -- the 311 astronauts and scientists stationed on Moonbase Alpha -- are psychologically and technologically unprepared for their unexpected journey into deepest space (it's the result of an accident on the moon's surface...) even the most wonderful or harmless mechanisms of the cosmos appear frightening, foreboding and unknown to these inexperienced, contemporary travelers. It's a metaphor, perhaps, for the way our cave-men ancestors may have regarded thunder, fire, the sun or the moon -- as inexplicable, fearsome elements of existence.

Given this revolutionary and fascinating aspect of Space: 1999, I thought it might prove interesting today to make note of many of the horror myths, legends and concepts that Space: 1999 re-purposed during its two year, 48-episode run. Virtually all of these conceits, you will note, were given a technological sheen or update for the series, a polish well in keeping with an overarching theme that Science Digest's editor, Arielle Emmett termed "the downfall of 20th century technological man."


1. The Premature Burial: "Earthbound"
In the nineteenth century, one of the great human dreads involved being buried alive.

This fear was so widespread, in fact, that some people saw to it that they had emergency signalling devices installed in their coffins upon internment. Gothic author Edgar Allen Poe exploited this societal fear of being buried alive in The Fall of The House of Usher and his 1844 short story, The Premature Burial.

The horror trope of being buried alive has come to be associated with such concepts as claustrophobia (fear of being trapped in a coffin, in a confined space) and body paralysis, the inability to move or function within that confined space.  The primary setting of premature burial fears, of course, is the casket: the narrow, tight final resting place of the human form.   Modern films have also obsessed on the premature burial, namely Wes Craven's The Serpent and The Rainbow (1989) and The Vanishing (1993).

In Space:1999, an episode entitled "Earthbound" by Anthony Terpiloff culminated with a high-tech, futuristic variation on the premature burial conceit.  Earth's Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) becomes entombed in a suspended animation device aboard an alien spaceship for a 75-year journey to Earth.  A bully and an opportunist, Simmonds has resorted to extortion and black mail to get this coveted "slot" on Captain Zantor's (Christopher Lee) ship. He pays for his moral infraction, however, when -- just hours into the trip -- he awakens inside the transparent suspended animation chamber, the futuristic equivalent of a coffin.. 

Simmonds even has an emergency signalling device on his person, an Alphan communicator called a "commlock." He alerts Moonbase Alpha to his mortal plight, but the wandering moon is too far distant to come to his assistance. Simmonds is thus left behind -- alive and conscious -- in the claustrophobic container, without the possibility of help or rescue, a perfect metaphor for the terror inherent in the convention of the premature burial.

2. The Siren: "The Guardian of Piri"
Ancient Greek mythology gave the world the concept of Sirens: seductresses of the not-quite human variety who lured sailors to their isolated island with a tempting song, and then kept them trapped there for all eternity. The Sirens, uniquely, were temptresses of the mind or spirit, not the flesh, and boasted knowledge beyond the confines of linear time. Always depicted as females, the Sirens bore knowledge of both the past and future.

In Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, sea captain and warrior Odysseus -- on his long journey home -- had himself physically strapped to the mast of his vessel so he could experience the Siren song for himself. Let's just say it drove him to distraction.

In Space: 1999's "The Guardian of Piri," written by Christopher Penfold, the wandering moon (also searching for "home,"much like Odysseus) falls under the tantalizing spell of "The Guardian" on an alien world.

The Guardian, like the mythical sirens of the Greeks, extends its purview beyond the linear progression of time. In fostering "perfection" in its captive wards it can actually freeze time, holding living life-forms in a permanent stasis. Space:1999's Odysseus surrogate, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), doesn't tie himself to the mast of Moonbase Alpha to resist the lure, but he is the only man on the installation able to resist the beguiling, female face of the Guardian, played by lovely Catherine Schell. Even Moonbase Alpha's oracle, Victor Bergman falls under the spell, describing, briefly, an "old man's fantasies." Finally, Computer itself is tempted by the Siren song and is "removed" to Piri.

3. The Midas Touch: "Force of Life"
In Greek mythology, there was also a man named King Midas of Phyrgia, a man who was gifted with the power to turn everything he touched to gold.

This frightful power soon became a curse, however, when his food and water turned to gold, and even his beloved daughter was transformed into a gold statue. In the end, King Midas returned his power to the Earth, by spreading into a running river. After doing so, Midas left behind his love of the material world and material wealth. He came to despise the gold he had once coveted.

Johnny Byrne's outstanding Space: 1999 episode "Force of Life" involves an Alphan technician, Anton Zoref (Ian McShane), who, because of an alien "gift," develops the terrifying ability to freeze objects and people on contact. The name Zoref is an anagram for FROZE, and Phyrgia even sounds a bit like Frigid. Likewise, when the tale climaxes, Zoref casts off his earthly life, becoming a power of pure energy. In his new form, Zoref, like Midas in a sense, leaves human concerns behind.

The Midas connection in "Force of Life" is perhaps more obscure than some of the other mythology in Space:1999 and story editor Johnny Byrne once described the episode as one in which a life-form "rises above human form." He told me. "The majesty of the creature (though unfortunate for Zoref) was that it was one step closer to attaining the next stage of existence."

4. The Midwich Cuckoos: "Alpha Child"
Our literary, cinematic and TV tradition is filled with examples of sinister, even demonic "changeling" children. John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos (made as the 1960 film Village of the Damned) featured otherworldy but human-appearing children who pursued an evil alien agenda against mankind.

The 1950s also gave the world sociopath Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed of novelist William March: a child without the empathy and innocence we associate with children. By the disco-decade of the 1970s, we were introduced to the demonically possessed Regan in The Exorcist (1973) and little Damien, The Anti-Christ, in The Omen (1976).

Christopher Penfold's "Alpha Child" presents the tale of the first Alphan born in space, little Jackie Crawford, and the alien changeling (Jarak) who steals his place, possesses his body and accelerates his growth. This terrifying episode is dominated by unforgettable horrific imagery, including that of a child psychically torturing his mother, and a grown child trapped within the too-small confines of a baby incubator. That last visual is a sign of "horror" overcoming technology, an important idea in Space:1999.

5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "The Full Circle" 

The dual, split-personality nature of the human being was observed and charted in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There, the crux of the story involved the separation of the "sinful" from "the moral" into two distinct beings, the savage Mr. Hyde and the civilized Dr. Jekyll.

Space:1999 also dramatizes a variation of this story, in Jesse Lasky Jr., and Pat Silver's "The Full Circle." Here, the Alphans explore a planet called Retha and soon encounter a tribe of primitive stone-age cavemen. Later, it is learned that the Alphans themselves were the cave-men, having passed through a strange, misty time-warp and regressed to a less-advanced state. This time-warp is beautifully realized as a kind of waterfall of mist in a primeval jungle.

Uniquely, this premise is explored in didactic terms: the Alphans have been separated not into sinful and moral versions of themselves like Jekyll/Hyde, but "primitive" and "technological" versions. And, ironically, it is the technological, modern model (personified by Alan Carter and Sandra Benes) who resort to physical violence.

At the end of the story, a bewildered Koenig notes that there no aliens on the planet to contend with...just flawed human nature. "Because we couldn't speak to each other, couldn't communicate, we misunderstood," Koenig notes. "Yet it was only us there..."

6. Faust: "End of Eternity"
As early as the 1500s, Germany presented the legend of a learned mortal, Johann Fausten, or Dr. Faust, who was willing to trade his immortal soul for knowledge beyond human ken. His partner-in -trade was no one less than Satan, the Devil.

A dissatisfied intellectual, Faust had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding, and went into the devil's bargain with his eyes wide open. Again, it's important: he was a man of science, a doctor.

In Space: 1999's chilling "End of Eternity" by Johnny Byrne, the Alphans free a man called Balor (think Baal), from his own personal Hell: an inescapable asteroid prison cell. Balor,like Faust, is a scientist who has discovered the secret to eternal life; the spontaneous regeneration of human tissue. But, this alien devil with the secret of immortality demands a high price of the Alphans if they are to share in his information wealth: eternal submission to his sadistic, violent, Devilish ways. At least one Alphan, a grounded pilot named Baxter, makes a Faustian deal with this alien Lucifer. Koenig, however, refuses to cooperate and in a David & Goliath-like conclusion (that pre-dates Ridley Scott's Alien [1979]) sends Balor hurtling out an airlock. 


7. The Ghost: "The Troubled Spirit"

Space: 1999's Johnny Byrne here sought to "mix two things," and was stimulated by the idea of "combining horror and science fiction."

"The Troubled Spirit" is an out-and-out, up-front horror story, one involving a ghost that haunts the spirit of a living man, technician Dan Mateo. In fact, the ghost is Dan Mateo himself...a spirit from the future haunting his present, mortal self.


The Alphans, led by their oracle, Victor, must "exorcise" the murderous ghost, but in doing so, end up killing Dan Mateo and scarring him in the exact same fashion as his ghostly specter.

"The Troubled Spirit" also showcases one of the most lyrical, brilliantly-staged opening sequences in all of television history, as a supernatural "wind" blows through the high-tech, white-on-white halls of Moonbase Alpha. Another example of the supernatural or horrific over-powering the auspices of technology and science.

8. St. George vs. The Dragon: "Dragon's Domain"

Saint George was a Christian martyr who saved a king's daughter from being killed by a plague-bearing, giant dragon. George committed this act, however, only after a guarantee that the king's land would soon be converted to Christianity.

Christopher Penfold's outstanding Space: 1999 "Dragon's Domain" actually references the tale of St. George vs. The Dragon in its text.

Here, the paradigm has been updated: it's astronaut Tony Cellini (Gianno Giarko) versus a tentacled cyclops which haunts a spaceship graveyard. Tony is not able to slay this dragon (that act is left to Koenig, armed with a hatchet), and Tony never forces a conversion to Christianity.

However, Tony does aggressively push the Alphans, especially Helena Russell, to embrace, let's say, the philosophy of "extreme possibilities" and not cling to earthbound belief systems. "I want you all to throw out the criteria by which you judge what's real....You must believe!" He insists, when faced with disbelievers.

At the end of the story, Koenig, Victor and Helena flee the spaceship graveyard (and the dead monster), essentially converted to Cellini's way of thinking. They have witnessed the impossible with their own eyes: a mesmeric alien creature which does not register on their instruments, and which devours human life forms. Helena brings up the example of Saint George and the Dragon, and suggests that Tony and the Monster will be a part of the new Alphan society's long-term mythology.

9. The Picture of Dorian Gray: "The Exiles"
Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray involved a handsome young man, Dorian Gray, who was beautiful, immoral and also a criminal. While he undertook his reign of terror, Gray's portrait -- in secret -- became aged and horrible, reflecting his morality, his vanity, and his sins.

As for Gray, he himself showed no physical or biological signs of his perversions and presented the appearance of remaining forever young.

In the second season Space: 1999 episode, "The Exiles," Moonbase Alpha encounters two apparently benign alien teenagers, Cantar (Peter Duncan) and Zova (Stacy Dorning). In fact, these innocent-seeming (and physically beautiful) youngsters are alien insurrectionists. They are centuries-old, but protected by a physical membrane that prevent physical degeneration and aging. At story's end, Helena scratches Cantar's protective membrane, and, like Dorian Gray in Wilde's novel, the weight of the decades lands upon the vain villain in seconds: he super-ages and dies in horrible, gruesome fashion.

10. The Zombie: "All That Glisters "

Before George Romero's stellar re-interpretation of the Zombie mythology in Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombies were often simply mindless human beings; laborers working at the behest of an evil master. They were, in essence, unthinking henchmen in the White Zombie (1932) sense.

Space:1999's
 episode "All That Glisters" resurrects this older interpretation of the zombie on a distant planet inhabited by sentient, silicon life-forms. These alien rocks murder Security Chief (Tony Verdeschi) and then re-animate him as a zombie, essentially, to serve as their arms and legs. The horror-overtones of this episode are also quite dramatic. Director Ray Austin deploys some tight-framing, dark-lighting and claustrophobic settings to express the horror of the situation.

Other episodes of Space: 1999 also dealt explicitly in horror tropes. "Mission of the Darians" concerned the taboo of cannibalism (a concept we see in literature such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). "Brian the Brain" was a Frankenstein story, with a renegade, technological monster (a murderous robot) murdering his creator/father, Captain Michael (Bernard Cribbins).

"Seed of Destruction" was a variation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" only with Koenig confronting an alien doppelganger, rather than a wizardly ancestor of identical physical characteristics. "Death's Other Dominion also involved scientific hubris and super-aging in its unforgettable climax, and "The Testament of Arkadia" highlighted a valley of death - a necropolis of sorts -- on an alien world, as well as ghostly force influencing the Alphans.

Of course, a relevant question is this: why create a technology-based, outer space series utilizing so many instances of horror in mythology, literature and even the movies. The answer lies in Penfold's and Byrne's unique concept of the series. 

Specifically, Johnny Byrne once informed me that Space: 1999 "is a modern day (near future) origin story of a people. The Celts, the Aztecs and the Hebrews all have origin stories. But Space: 1999 took place in real time, not pre-history. It was a futuristic rendering of that old story: of people cast out from their home with no plan, no direction, and no control. There are elements of faith, magic and religion in the series, and nobody seems to understand and accept that. In Space: 1999, we are witnessing the foundation of a culture."

Now imagine that culture established, some two hundred years after the events of Space: 1999. The stories those "future" citizens might tell would involve terrifying tales of their founding: of the premature burial, of the encounter with sirens, of St. George and the Dragon, and so forth.

It is this mythic (and horrific) perspective, truly, which makes Space:1999 so unique a science fiction drama. The series repeatedly pinpoints high-tech corollaries for the ideas that have scared us throughout human history and then takes its characters on a mythic journey through that macabre realm of the unknown. Thrillingly, the series also includes amazing guest performances by horror icons including Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Richard Johnson
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