Monday, June 17, 2024

60 Years Ago: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

George Pal and Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) is sixty years old this year and remains beloved by the generation that grew up with it. By and large, genre critics praised the sci-fi film upon its original theatrical release and soon after, as well.

For example, author and scholar Jeff Rovin termed the film an “excellent and offbeat ride” and a “thoroughly convincing retelling of the classic tale” in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films (Citadel Press; 1975, page 131).

And while noting that the film is “not fast-paced,” the authors of Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films observed that Robinson Crusoe on Mars “succeeds…in its ability to evoke a sense of wonder in the minds of its audience at the exploration of a new and different kind of world.” 

Furthermore, the same authors wrote that director Haskin accomplished this task by making Mars itself one of the film’s essential or key characters (Arlington House; 1982, page 174).

That last observation is the most trenchant one because Robinson Crusoe on Mars impresses even today on the basis of many of its colorful and dynamic visualizations. Shot in Death Valley and buttressed by some still-impressive matte paintings, the film feels both authentic and vivid in its depiction of a desolate, lonely planetary surface. 

At times in the film, the landscape itself feels almost oppressive in its craggy, mountainous appearance, and at other junctures -- such as the discovery of the polar ice caps -- it appears downright wondrous.  The film conveys the idea of not just a single locale, but of an entire, harsh ecosystem, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

In terms of narrative, Robinson Crusoe on Mars succeeds too because it clearly has the literary model -- Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book -- to fall back on, and it needn’t veer too far from that impressive source material.

In fact, by retelling Defoe’s famous story in a “final frontier” setting, the 1964 film suggests some universal qualities about mankind. Specifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars meditates about both the human desire to survive even when survival is damn near impossible, and about our need for companionship.  

In fact, companionship is right up there with the other essentials to human life -- air, food, and water -- and Robinson Crusoe on Mars does a good job of exploring that powerful notion. 

I count Robinson Crusoe as one of my favorite stories of all time, and find that in 2024 Robinson Crusoe on Mars still captures the essence of that classic tale well, even if all the details of life on Mars in the film don’t conform to modern scientific knowledge. 

Indeed, this George Pal production remains just the brand of imaginative, colorful sci-fi epic that spurred my fascination with outer space and other worlds in the first place. And in its exploration of companionship as a key “resource” permitting humans to survive in any frontier, Robinson Crusoe on Mars makes a case about man in space that we must not forget.

When at last we travel to the stars, we should go in great numbers, because we will likely find it impossible to thrive there in isolation. As Robinson Crusoe on Mars reminds us, we need each other, whether here on Earth, in darkest space, or on the surface of the red planet.

In the near future, Mars Gravity Probe 1 narrowly avoids a disaster in planetary orbit, specifically a collision with an asteroid.

Unfortunately, the ship cannot hold altitude after altering its trajectory, and the crew must eject from the vessel.  

Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) lands his craft in a crater, scuttling it, and finds that his commanding officer, McReady (Adam West) has died during his landing attempt. The ship’s monkey, Mona (The Woolly Monkey), however, has survived.

With Mona in tow, Draper attempts to solve the problems of human survival on Mars. He finds the atmosphere thin, and therefore breathable only for short durations, and must determine a way to maintain a breathable air supply. With the use of native rocks, he does just that.  Draper’s next problem is locating water on Mars. When Mona doesn’t evidence signs of thirst, Draper decides to investigate her daily routine, and discovers a water source.

Sometime later, Draper sees a ship landing in the distance, and realizes that it is an interstellar craft.  Alien slavers have come to Mars, but one of their slaves -- whom Crusoe names Friday (Victor Lundin) -- escapes from their custody. The two survivors become friends, and set about to evade the aliens for as long as possible.

Draper and Friday make a long trek to the polar ice caps, and there receive a happy transmission from an Earth vessel and rescue ship.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars remembers and translates to the “space age” virtually all of the important story beats of the famous Defoe literary antecedent. 

In Robinson Crusoe, as you may recall, the sea-going protagonist escapes a shipwreck, and salvages what he can from it, with only the captain’s dog (and a cat or two) for companions. Crusoe then lives on an inhospitable island alone for some time, dwelling in a cave and growing his own food. 

Over the course of his stay on the island, Crusoe becomes more religious, reading the Bible, and ultimately saves a man, whom he names Friday, from cannibals. He eventually converts Friday to Christianity, and together the men leave the island on an English ship.

In Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Kip Draper is marooned on the planet Mars, rather than on an island. He has no humans to keep him company, but rather an animal companion like the captain’s dog: the monkey named Mona. The alien slavers substitute for the novel’s cannibals, and of course, Crusoe’s Friday is a one-to-one corollary with Draper’s alien friend. The topic of the Divine and religion come up in both stories as well, with Draper quoting Scripture to the alien at times in the film. Finally, the two men are rescued by an Earth ship as the film closes. 

Beyond its relocation of narrative points from the Defoe story, Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ strongest interlude occurs shortly before Draper first encounters Friday. He is ensconced in his home cave, at night, and the shadow of a humanoid falls across his transparent-rock cave door. Draper opens the door and suddenly encounters a silent, zombie-like McReady, who refuses to speak to him, or even acknowledge him. 

Draper awakens --sleepwalking -- and realizes he has experienced a nightmare. This scene is creepy as hell, from the first appearance of the silhouette (surrounded by weird Martian lighting), to McReady’s unearthly demeanor as Draper desperately tries to make him talk to him. The scene beautifully expresses the absolute terror of Draper’s predicament as the only intelligent being, essentially, on an entire planet. He also, no doubt, feels survivor’s guilt. He lived, and McReady didn’t.

Importantly, this sequence in the film follows those in which the resourceful Draper has licked a number of survival problems. He has learned how to breathe on Mars (using yellow, air-producing rocks) and he has found food and water. 

But the problem of companionship is not something he can tackle alone, and his so Draper fears his mind will fall apart, that he will start to lose his grip on sanity. Draper notes that the “hairiest” problem for astronauts is “isolation,” and also makes a special point of describing how for astronaut training he was in an isolation tank for a month to prepare for the hazards of lonely space travel. But, as he says, he knew, at that point, that he would be with people again. At this juncture, there is no certainty. He could live the rest of his days without seeing anyone else. That is a tremendous psychic weight to carry. Thus the movie equates companionship with the survival necessities of air or water, or food.

If the small, intimate scene of McReady’s visitation sells Draper’s terror at being the only living being on Mars (outside of Mona), then the many shots of the astronaut traversing the landscape alone help enormously as well. 

In sustained long shot after sustained long shot, we witness Draper making his way from one dead zone to another, from one rocky outcropping to the next. Seen against the land, he looks truly small, truly insignificant. Some shots see the camera pointed at our eye level (and below) so that we don’t even see the red sky.  Instead, we see a lot of ground.  On one hand, this prevents the need for every shot to be fixed with a Martian skyline in post-production. On the other hand, the effect is that we see just this one tiny figure moving against a sea of rock and sand.  He seems truly lost there.

But impressively, the film’s visuals aren’t boring or repetitive, and don’t sacrifice interest, even considering the desert landscape. There’s one scene set in a grotto or grove, where Draper goes swimming, and the view is magnificently imaginative.  

At another point, Draper and Friday seek to escape the slavers, and head down into a subterranean world, where they must navigate a narrow ledge. 

Again, the effects work is stunning, and a reminder of how Hollywood successfully performed “world building” in an age before CGI. The film’s final visual flourish plays as catharsis and relief. We see Friday and Draper at the polar ice caps, surrounded by cleansing water and immaculate white ice. They have been delivered from the red, fiery Hell of Mars’ surface. This is a great note to go out on.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars also features what modern critics would call a strong colonial tone. Almost immediately after meeting Friday, Crusoe assumes his superiority over his new friend and tells him that he is the boss, demands that Friday learn English, and attempts to convert him to his own religion. In 1964, this attitude would not have been questioned, but today it seems as dated as the portrayal of Mars’ atmosphere as breathable by humans.  

Later films of this type, like Enemy Mine (1985), go out of their way to suggest that representatives of different cultures have much to teach each other, but here a lot of the teaching is one way: Draper to Friday. In fairness, however, this was also the nature of the Defoe literary work. It concerned a "civilized" Englishman sharing his culture (and breeding) with a savage.

It is not fair, perhaps, nor entirely appropriate, to judge a film made sixty years ago on the basis of knowledge we possess today, but if Robinson Crusoe on Mars is judged not to pass muster by any viewers today, it is likely because the film doesn’t conform to our 21st century fund of knowledge about the red planet.  

To put this another way, film lovers and science fiction lovers can and will look past this particular deficit, and judge the film accordingly, based on its historical context. But there will be some viewers who can’t do that, and who will be put off by Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ flights of fancy about a Mars consisting of subterranean water pools, ample (purple) vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere.

The film’s re-use of some stock props and miniatures, such as the costumes from Destination: Moon (1950) and the Martian war machines from War of the Worlds (1953) -- as well as some oft-repeated footage of those alien ships -- may prove more legitimately disturbing to some fans than do these scientific errors.  The alien slaver ships are seen, in particular, in the same three or four shots, and these shots are repeated over and over again. For a film that features such lush visuals in other arenas, the sort of cheap-jack depiction of the slavers is doubly disappointing. 

These points diminish Robinson Crusoe on Mars significantly, but they do suggest how far ahead of their time later works, like 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were by comparison. In some ways, the Pal film feels like the last gasp of a 1950s version of outer space, while Kubrick’s film (followed by efforts like Moon Zero Two and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) feel much more modern. 

Yet what doesn’t age Robinson Crusoe on Mars -- and indeed what renders it relevant sixty years later -- is its focus on the human equation, and its message that friendship is as nourishing -- and as necessary -- to the human animal as oxygen, or fresh water.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

70 Years Ago: Them! (1954)

"When man entered the atomic age," warns Dr. Harold Medford -- our oracle of wisdom and science in Gordon Douglas's sci-fi chiller, Them! (1954) -- "he opened a door to a new world." 

And what terrors exists in that "new" world? 

Well, according to Medford, "no one can predict..." But if Them! is any indication, our planet today should be overrun by gigantic, whistling, man-eating ants...

Since I was a kid, Them!, starring James Arness and James Whitmore, has been one of my absolute favorite 1950s horror flicks. Like It Came From Outer Space, directed by Jack Arnold, the film regards  the terrain of the desert as a strange, alien place where mysteries hatch in secret. "The wind is pretty freakish in these parts," one character explains early on, and indeed much of the film's first hour involves the desert, and its unknown terrors.

Is that the wind howling, you may ask, or the whistle of a giant, malevolent ant? 

You never know...

Them! commences with an impressive aerial shot of an adorable little girl thoughtlessly clutching a baby doll as she walks aimlessly through the vast desert, until rescued by the police. 


No, shock.

This little tyke survived an attack by giant mutated ants, apparently created when the U.S. government detonated an atomic bomb in the sands of New Mexico nine years earlier.

This fantastic mutation, caused by "lingering atomic radiation," represents a new breed of pest: a savage ant colony where the smallest warrior is still nine feet in length. 

New Mexico policeman Ben Peterson (Whitmore) and F.B.I. agent Robert Graham (James Arness), team with the Drs. Medford -- Harold (Edmund Gwenn) and lovely Pat (Joan Weldon) -- to neutralize the colony, only to learn that two new Queens have hatched, flown away under the radar, and probably started new colonies elsewhere in the continental United States.

If these ant colonies aren't destroyed quickly, mankind will become an extinct species within a calendar year. 

"We may be witness to a Biblical prophecy come true," Harold Medford realizes with slow-dawning horror...

A lean 94 minutes in length, Them! jumps confidently from strength to strength. For the first half-hour (or at least 28 minutes), there is no monster ant in sight; just the wrecked aftermath of the insect attacks, and that ubiquitous desert. We see a trailer in the arid no-man's land, peeled open like a tin can. Then Gramps' general store, similarly ripped asunder. 

And finally, before we see even one of the giant critters come nosing up over a plateau, we hear something: that horrifying, signature whistle...a screech once heard it's never forgotten. 

These first thirty minutes of the film prove crucial in erecting a mood of tension, suspense, and terror, and indeed, this is precisely the kind of atmosphere often missing from many a horror flick these days. These thirty minutes grant Them! a sense of place and texture; a necessary pre-condition to being scared. The audience must know the know the terrain before it knows to be scared by the secrets lurking there.

After the first confrontation with the ants, the film leaps into action-mode with the effective government response (unlike real life, probably...) wherein a mission is launched to destroy the somewhat-larger-than-ordinary ant-hill. 

This is the point in Them! when one of my favorite - and one of the grisliest - images occurs. There's a macabre shot of one of the colossal ants standing astride the opening of the nest, a human rib-cage clutched in its over-sized pincers. The ant tosses down the bones, and the camera pans down the ant hill to a substantial collection of human skeletal remains, including a skull, and the holster of Peterson's missing partner. This moment signifies the beginning of a new order, an order in which humans are literally tossed down to the bottom of the food chain.

You'd think that a movie made seven decades years ago would seem positively antique today, but Them! holds up remarkably well, even in the special effects department. The giant ants look surprisingly mobile and realistic. I think this is so because Douglas and the special effects men wisely keep the ants in motion at all times. They rise from their ant-hills, nose into frames, bear down on prey, and so forth, and so we never get the chance to observe them at rest and detect their phoniness in the actual film (although stills are a different story...). 

The editor did a remarkable job integrating these shots, and some sequences remain staggeringly impressive. For instance, I love the multi-layered shot of a ship's communications room, where we can see ants attacking behind an opaque, wall-sized window. 

In the midst of the shot, our attention is diverted. The ants crack the glass, breaking in, and then, suddenly, another ant lunges into the shot from the left and rapidly crushes the radio man. By keeping these monsters (these special effects...) kinetic, and by seeing the frame as three-dimensional, the artists behind this film have kept their threat lively and viable, even a half-century plus later.

And I challenge anybody to watch the finale of this film (set in the Los Angeles sewers) without getting at least a little uncomfortable. Robert Graham (Arness) has found the ant stronghold there, but the ceiling has caved in behind him, leaving him with just one machine gun as a line of defense against the ants, who are gathering at the lip of the nest before him. The ants jut into the frame with their razor-sharp pincers, attempting to grasp him...and his gun jams. He dodges, but another ant attacks from the opposite side.

Again, the sense of the ants in constant motion and the vulnerability of our hero make this moment remarkably suspenseful 

Perhaps this scene works so well because Them! has so assiduously constructed the terror of the ants, right down to, essentially, an informative background video on them. At one point, the film's action veritably stops to give us a long, five-minute documentary-style premise on the nature of ants, using real nature footage. Watching real ants scrap and scrape, wage war, and move heavy obstacles (like rocks...) from their path, the viewer is....disarmed. A little suspension of disbelief, and suddenly the thought of gigantic ants really is terrifying. These little guys wage strategic campaigns, take slave labor, and protect their own, and it's clear that we ignore them only because of their minuscule nature. 

Well, just imagine that they were indeed, nine feet tall.  Their strengths -- their organization, their loyalty, their coordination -- would dwarf mankind's.

In some ways the seventy-year old Them! also seems to forecast hits like Aliens (with a cleaning out of the enemy nest, and a military response to an insectoid threat...). It's one of those "the soldiers-go-in-to-destroy-monsters" movies, and still one of the best ever made, at that.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dark new worlds. Necromongers, they're called. And if they cannot convert you, they will kill you. Leading them: the Lord Marshal. He alone has made a pilgrimage to the gates of the UnderVerse... and returned a different being. Stronger. Stranger. Half alive and half... something else. If we are to survive, a new balance must be found. In normal times, evil would be fought by good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.

-          Introductory voice-over narration, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

Following the box office success of Pitch Black (2000), writer/director David Twohy was afforded the opportunity to construct a big-budget franchise around the film’s break-out character: Vin Diesel’s anti-hero, Riddick. 

In 2004, The Chronicles of Riddick -- a sort of “Riddick meets Dune” re-vamp of the Riddick-verse -- was released to mixed critical reviews and middling box office.  Heavy on CGI landscapes and quick-cut fight sequences The Chronicles of Riddick undeniably proved imaginative and ambitious…perhaps to a fault.

A decade later, the film’s extensive special effects appear highly-dated, and one can also detect how the film shoe-horns two good stories together, even though, perhaps, they should have remained as two separate chapters.  One story involves Riddick’s escape from a burning planet called “Crematoria” and the rescue of a friend, Jack, while the other involves his interactions with a malevolent cosmic army the Necromongers, and unexpected ascent to the empire’s throne.  

Each story in its own right would have made a great second Riddick picture, but The Chronicles of Riddick often experiences trouble finding the right balance between them, and erects too vast a “mythic” architecture around Riddick.  

No longer is he merely a gifted and clever outlaw.  Instead, Riddick is the subject of sacred galactic prophecy, and the man who can save the universe from slipping into perpetual darkness. Riddick thus carries more weight on his muscular shoulders than Atlas himself, and there are times in the film when it’s all too much.  Choosing one story (and saving the next for a sequel) would have streamlined the movie and resulted in a more appealing, cohesive sequel.

When I first screened The Chronicles of Riddick in theaters, I felt profoundly disappointed with it, feeling that the film was over-stuffed and over-burdened in terms of “world building” and mythology-building.  What I had connected with so deeply in Pitch Black was the simple idea of a man surviving an inhospitable planetary environment and eco-system using his wits, and his own code of morality.  The Chronicles of Riddick features moments that reflect that particular (original) aesthetic, but everything has been made so grand and “galactic,” that much humanity is lost in the process.

Watching the film again for this review, I must acknowledge that I enjoyed and appreciated The Chronicles of Riddick much more than I had before, while still feeling that Twohy had miscalculated somewhat in terms of approach.  

Riddick is Riddick, and he can thrive or survive anywhere. He doesn’t need to be “The Chosen One” or the messiah for audiences to feel interest in his adventures. Yet today, I can also detect how The Chronicles of Riddick -- released in 2004 -- meaningfully reflects its War on Terror Age context.  The film involves a group of fundamentalist radicals, so called “World Enders” that have hijacked “established” civilization (think Iran, or Iraq) for belligerent purposes.  This subplot is pretty clearly a metaphor for radical Islam.

Also -- and I never picked up on this element before, blogger Roman J. Martel once noted in the comments section of the Pitch Black review that my description of Riddick reminded him “strongly” of Robert E. Howard’s vision of Conan.  Roman’s insight is doubly true of The Chronicles of Riddick.  

Much of the mythology that comes to surround Riddick in this sequel feels like a space age variation on Conan’s mythology.  Many details match, or at least line-up. That insight and literary context from Roman actually brings new luster to The Chronicles of Riddick, and makes the film much more intriguing to discuss and debate.  

So there is plainly more in The Chronicles of Riddick than I saw in 2004, even while some of the film’s flaws have not been ameliorated with the passing of two decades.

“There's gonna be one speed: mine. If you can't keep up, don't step up. You'll just die.

On a planet consisting only of ultra-violet light, the bounty hunter Toombs (Nick Chinlund) attempts to capture the escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel), who has not been seen in five years.  Riddick promptly kills Toombs’ crew, strands Toombs on the planet, and steals his ship.

Riddick learns that the man who put the price on his head lives in New Mecca, in the Helion System.  Specifically, his old friend, the Imam (Keith David) is responsible for the bounty.  As the Imam -- now a husband and father -- reports to Riddick, the highly-advanced and civilized planet is under threat of invasion from an army of militant religious zealots called “Necromongers.”

Because Imam knows the story of Riddick’s birth -- that he was nearly strangled to death with his own umbilical cord and left for dead in a dumpster -- he suspects that the convict may play a role in the prophecy of the Necromongers’ destruction.  

Specifically, it is known that only a Furyan can destroy the Necromongers’ Lord Marshal (Colm Feore). So the Imam sent Toombs to retrieve Riddick, and share this information. 

Riddick refuses to take sides in the conflict, but when the Necromongers swarm the planet, and kill the Imam, he fights the Lord Marshal and his soldier tooth-and-nail.  Like all the people of New Mecca, Riddick is given a simple choice by the invaders: convert or die.

Riddick escapes from custody, and allows himself to be re-captured by Toombs, in hopes that the bounty hunter will take him to Crematoria, the prison world where his old friend, Jack (Alexa Davalos) has been reported incarcerated.  

Toombs complies, and Riddick is dumped in the subterranean “slam” on Crematoria, a planet with an inhospitable, charred surface.  Riddick and Jack are reunited, but she now goes by the name of Kyra, and holds a grudge against Riddick for abandoning her five years earlier.  Riddick counters that he went into hiding so all the mercenaries gunning for him wouldn’t endanger her.

Putting their differences aside, Riddick and Kyra engineer a jail break to the fiery surface of the planet, even as the Lord Marshal’s top underling, Vaako (Keith Urban) arrives to bring Riddick back to Helion.  

But Vaako and his manipulative wife (Thandie Newton) are enmeshed in courtly politics, and believe that Riddick is the key to ridding the Necromongers of the Lord Marshal once and for all.  Using Riddick as his assassin, Dame Vaako hopes to install her husband in the Lord Marshal’s place.

 “We all began as something else.

In very basic terms, The Chronicles of Riddick involves an invasion of a highly-civilized planet by fundamentalists that want to either “convert or kill” all sentient beings.  There is no negotiation with these violent radicals, either. You either become one of them, or you are destroyed.  Concepts such as democracy, education, and civilization mean nothing to these theocrats.  They care only for their draconian faith, and their (promised) ascent into another realm, the UnderVerse.

Very plainly, the Necromongers are meant to represent the Taliban, or other radical Islamists who had declared war on the Western world in the first decade of the 21st century. Like the Necromongers, these radicals practice a restrictive, draconian faith, and claim that their (violent) actions in this reality will meet with a reward in the after-life. 

This real-life context is reinforced in The Chronicles of Riddick via the setting of the planet Helion and the city of New Mecca.  

Specifically, there is a distinctive Middle Eastern design to the visualization of the Imam’s planet. New Mecca looks like it could be a space-age Tehran, or even Baghdad -- on Earth, once the home of the Islamic Golden Age -- before the fever of religious radicalism takes hold. In short, a planet of reason, technology and democracy falls to tyranny.  All the progress towards a just and fair society is lost.

The Necromongers are terrifying for the same reason that radical Islam is, in my opinion.  Imagine spending generations arduously lifting your culture out of ignorance, fear and superstition through the development of science, education and social justice, only to see a military coup which knowingly reinstates all those vices.  

Welcome to the New Dark Ages…

In my introduction, I mentioned the stories of Conan, and The Chronicles of Riddick also offers some unique parallels to that character’s life as it has been depicted in both literary and film form.  

In particular we learn that Riddick comes from an extinct planet called Furya.  Conan is, likewise, a Cimmerian, another survivor of a dead and gone society.  

Furthermore, in both Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Chronicles of Riddick, we learn that a religious cult leader (either Thulsa Doom or the Lord Marshal…) is directly responsible for the death of the hero’s parents.  Thus, the life-time quest for that hero -- although he doesn’t know it, initially -- is to avenge his parents’ deaths and vanquish the war lord.

Similarly, Riddick and Conan have both functioned, throughout their narratives, as occasional thieves and outlaws. But they boast one other vocation in common, and it is of vital significance. 

They are both kings.

During the denouement of The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick assumes, uneasily, the Necromonger throne. 

Similarly, in Howard’s mythology (and we see the image briefly in Conan the Barbarian…), Conan also usurps the throne of an enemy.  He replaces the tyrant of Aquilonia and becomes that kingdom’s ruler.

In terms of fantasy settings, The Chronicles of Riddick and Conan may even have something else in common: they are both set in a kind of baroque “mythological” age rather than an historical one.  Conan’s adventures are set in the long-gone -- and fictional -- age of Hyboria, and The Chronicles of Riddick is set in a distant future epoch.

One other inspiration also helps to lift The Chronicles of Riddick above its over-used CGI and chop-suey cutting: the works of Shakespeare.  

Vaako and Dame Vaako are very patently futuristic versions of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.  Like their literary predecessors, these characters ambitiously scheme to control the kingdom, and eliminate the rightful ruler, whether King Duncan or the Lord Marshal.  

As befitting MacBeth’s characters, Vaako is the conspirator with doubts and some residual sense of loyalty. And by contrast, Dame Vaako is the one with murderous certainty.  Part of the reason that the Necromonger sequences work at all here is because of this Shakespearean dynamic made fresh.  The underlings of the Lord Marshal could have been fairly anonymous or lacking in definition, but the MacBeth “homage” adds resonance in a most welcome fashion.

Finally, I also appreciate the welcome visual imagination of The Chronicles of Riddick.  

The opening scene set on Planet U.V. is visually-distinctive, and the escape from Crematoria is, perhaps, the film’s adventure high-point. 

In the latter case, a group of survivors flee across a desolate planet surface as walls of treacherous fire encroach on them.  When Jack becomes trapped on a mountain peak, Riddick must brave the scorching fires to pull her out of mortal danger.  It’s all pretty exciting, and dynamically wrought.

In space operas like Star Trek, Dune, and Star Wars, audiences have seen again and again the desert planet, the ice planet, and so on, but The Chronicles of Riddick tries hard to mix things up a bit with its unusual (and dangerous) planetary environments, and that’s certainly a point in the movie’s favor.

My deepest concern about The Chronicles of Riddick has always been the fact that a great (and Carpenter-ian…) anti-hero is ret-conned into being a sort of “Chosen One” on a heroic quest.  The comparisons to Conan’s story help ameliorate that concern to a large degree, it’s true, but the thing I’ve always liked about Riddick is that he seems like a very “in the moment” kind of character; one who measures his situation and his options, and acts according his moral code.  

Somehow, knowing that Riddick is the “instrument of fate” as it were diminishes some of his virtues.  He has been “ordained,” in other words to be special, because of his unique heritage….not because of his experience.  I suppose I just like my Riddick movies lean and mean, and without all the pretensions to grandeur.  I like the character as a bad-ass…I don’t need him to be a mythology-fueled, supernatural bad ass.

In terms of production design and imagery, I love the concepts of The Chronicles of Riddick, but dislike the execution. I fully realize that CGI is the preferred mode for visualizing other worlds at this juncture in cinema history, and will be for the foreseeable future.  But there’s so much CGI in The Chronicles of Riddick that your eyes don’t always know where to look, and they nearly get burned out by the over-stimulation.  When absolutely every edifice is colossal and baroque, nothing really looks impressive or stands out anymore.  Instead, it all looks kind of…flat.

Similarly, the fight scenes in the film have been turned into nonsensical hash. The quick-cutting ruins any sense of rhythm or momentum, and instead, we’re just watching sheer spectacle: (beautiful) bodies in motion.  In these fights, men and women defy gravity (courtesy of wires), but we never really know how or why they do so.  In conjunction with the CGI overkill, the editing approach for the fight scenes creates a sense of distance from Riddick.

And so while I remain authentically impressed with the real world War on Terror context and the Conan influences in The Chronicles of Riddick, I am also disappointed by the film’s colossal-ness, to coin a term. 

The one quality I sought most in a Riddick sequel was to re-connect with the character emotionally. Riddick has some great lines of dialogue here, and Vin Diesel still moves great, but all the world-building around Riddick keeps us away from getting as close to the guy and his struggles as perhaps viewers would like to be.  

Pitch Black was thrilling, spectacular, and most importantly, intimate.  The Chronicles of Riddick is….spectacular on a whole other level, but often at the expense of intimacy.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Now Available: The Soul of Wes Craven by Joe Maddrey

Joseph Maddrey, author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, and many other superb works of genre scholarship is back with a new and exciting project: a meticulous, assiduously researched biography of the late, great horror icon (and so much more...), Wes Craven.

 The Soul of Wes Craven is available for purchase now, and Joe and I recently had the opportunity to talk about his amazing new book, and the incredible work that went into it.

JKM: Let’s begin with the obvious. How and when did you decide to write a biography of Wes Craven? Why did you choose Craven as your subject?


Joe: I started thinking about it in 2010, when I interviewed Wes. We had a great conversation and we talked about a book, but at the time I was busy writing a biography of Lance Henriksen. It took me a couple years to come back to the idea, and by then John Wooley had published his biography of Wes. Soon after that, Wes died and I felt like I’d missed my chance. 


Then in December 2019, I became interested in Wes’s early writings. He wrote a column for his high school newspaper (titled “Craven’s Ravin’s”), and he had a lot of poems and short stories published in the literary magazine at Wheaton College. While he was pursuing a Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins, he also wrote a novel, which has never been published. I tracked down those manuscripts, then started tracking down Wes’s peers from high school and college. None of them had ever been interviewed about Wes, so that became the foundation of a new biography. 

JKM:  I have always admired your diligence and completeness in terms of research. This book explores facets of Wes Craven’s life I knew nothing about, even having written my own book about Craven’s canon back in 1997. Talk to us a little about your process, and your interviewees.


Joe: I believe the best interviews are more than Q&A. It has to be a real dialogue. When I met Wes in 2010, we had a dialogue. He actually preempted my interview questions by interviewing me. “Where are you coming from? Why are you interested in talking to me? What do you want to write about my films?” He was genuinely curious, so I told him. It turned out we had some similar early life experiences, similar beliefs, and similar taste in literature. 

As a result, our conversation quickly became personal. That’s one of the reasons I had to write the book; it was important to me to pursue answers to the big questions at the center of Wes’s life and work, even though I didn’t have access to Wes anymore.


When I started reaching out to his college peers in early 2020, I wasn’t sure anyone would talk to me. Wes went to Wheaton, an evangelical school, and I didn’t think most Wheaton alums be eager to talk about the man who created Freddy Krueger. But everyone I talked to remembered Wes and remembered him fondly. The more I learned about him, the more questions I had, so I just kept moving forward through the chronology of his life, tracking down new manuscripts (a lot of unproduced screenplays) and new people, having great conversations, and finding the storyline as I went.


JKM:  There have been many books about the films of Craven, including my own, The Art of Horror.  How does The Soul of Wes Craven differ from these other books, would you say? Why is Craven’s story one that needs to be told?


Joe: For me, the big ones were yours, Brian J. Robb’s Screams & Nightmares, and John Wooley’s Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares—but there are also hundreds of smaller articles, essays, interviews, etc. I read as many as I could because I wanted to have a comprehensive overview of Wes’s evolution. Then it was a matter of filling in the gaps with new research. I think most of the information in the first three chapters of The Soul of Wes Craven will be completely new to even the most die-hard Wes fans. The same is true of the last three chapters, plus the chapter on Wes’s “lost years” working in adult cinema. And even if you think you know everything about A Nightmare on Elm Street, I promise you don’t.


But my goal was not just to generate new Wes Craven trivia. I wanted to present a more comprehensive and humanizing view of the man behind the work, and to treat the work with the kind of seriousness that an academic scholar would apply to great literature. To me, Wes’s work deserves that kind of attention. I have written a couple of books about T.S. Eliot (one of the subjects that Wes and I connected on), and Eliot believed that in order to fully appreciate an artist, you have to know the whole of their work. You don’t have to like it all, but if you make yourself aware of it all, you can see how the artist’s mind evolves, and how all the different individual works complement each other. If an artist’s work speaks to you, you can learn a lot about yourself and your world by studying theirs. That’s why we do this, right?


JKM: The book is riveting, frankly. My eyes were really opened by the chapter about Craven’s college years. Tell the audience a bit about this very special chapter. What did you find out, and why do you think it’s so surprising and interesting to Craven scholars and fans?


Joe: Through my interviews, I learned that Wes had been a part of (if not a leader of) a group of brilliant “literary rebels” at Wheaton. I’d always imagined him as an outsider at Wheaton, but it turns out there were quite a few outsiders at Wheaton in the early 1960s. They were all wrestling with the same issues Wes was wrestling with at that time in his life, which had to do with belief in God, or definitions of God. This is a brilliant, brilliant group of people, many of whom went on to become successful writers and artists in their own right. Wheaton challenged all of them in life-altering ways. 


One of Wes’s most formative experiences at Wheaton was when the president of the college “denounced” him publicly during a church service—because Wes, as editor of the school literary magazine, had published a couple of short stories that were deemed inappropriate by some board members. I think this admonishment really brought out Wes’s rebellious streak and played a big role in making him the “Wes Craven” that we know. Wes was always impish, but I think his experience with the literary magazine transformed him. Like his peers, he was forged in fire. The stories of that time and place really help to explain his complexity as a literary thinker, and also the strength of his character.


JKM:  Again, most folks familiar with Craven know that he had -- let’s call it a “flirtation” -- with the adult film industry. Your book covers that phase in remarkable detail. How do you think the details of this time in his career add to our understanding of Craven as an artist?


Joe: Yes, but most people get the details wrong. Wes did work in adult cinema, because that’s the work he could get as an aspiring filmmaker. That became his film school. He didn’t study to be a filmmaker as an undergraduate. He wanted to be a novelist, then he became a Humanities professor, then he decided to get into filmmaking when he was about 30 years old. He was starting late, he had no c.v., and he had a lot of catching up to do. You also have to remember that in the early 1970s, adult cinema was (briefly) a mainstream phenomenon. Deep Throat was the 5th highest-grossing film of 1972, behind The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, What’s Up Doc?, and Deliverance. Certain filmmakers were making artistically ambitious films in that arena. Especially in New York, where Wes was working. 


Wes never shied away from admitting he made adult films, but I imagine he would have mixed feelings about the amount of attention I focused on The Fireworks Woman, the one hardcore film he wrote and directed. I gave it extra attention for two reasons: (1) because not much has been written about it, and (2) because the film is, in some ways, very Wes. The major themes of his later work are present in this film, and I don’t think you can talk about Wes’s oeuvre without considering The Fireworks Woman. In much the way that Last House on the Left was conceived as a reflection on American attitudes toward violence, The Fireworks Woman was a serious, and very personal, attempt to explore American attitudes about sex. The former is celebrated today is because the horror genre has achieved some mainstream acceptance. The latter is a dirty secret because adult cinema does not have the cultural currency it did in the 1970s.


JKM:  Let’s talk about My Soul to Take (2010), a film that is not beloved by many horror fans, including me. Why was it so important to Wes Craven? Why was it so personal?


Joe: One of the reasons I titled my book The Soul of Wes Craven is because Wes said he felt like his generation of horror filmmakers drew more deeply on personal experience when they were telling stories. Younger filmmakers, he felt, draw too much on the old films. They might be more technically adept, but their stories are too often recycled or reheated. With My Soul to Take, Wes was trying to go back to his deepest well, drawing on his early life experiences for inspiration. Ironically, he ended up writing and directing a film that recycled elements of several of his earlier films, because he (or his financiers) felt like he had to meet certain audience expectations for “a Wes Craven film.” 


My Soul to Take is a hot mess and I don’t think Wes fully understood why. I believe it could have been a good miniseries or a great novel, with each episode / chapter focusing on a different character. There are too many characters, and the film doesn’t develop them adequately. But the central metaphor—about a collective soul—is intriguing, and I think Wes could have done something brilliant with it, if he’d had a bigger canvas and more time to develop the story. Unfortunately, the film was hastily written and rushed into production during a brief lull between Hollywood strikes. That commercial failure pretty much ended his filmmaking career.

JKM: The final chapters of the book are a bit more emotional, and affecting, or at least I read them that way. Were they harder to write? Was that your intent? A result of you getting closer and closer to your subject, as you continued to write?


Joe: Wes was disappointed that the success of the Scream films didn’t give him the freedom to make non-horror films. That’s what he wanted, and he tried really hard to break out of the horror genre in the new century. There’s an entire chapter about unrealized dream projects. As a result, it is tempting the interpret the last 15 years of Wes’s biography as an anticlimax. But that’s only part of the story, because Wes was more than his films. In the middle of the book, the story of his personal life gets overwhelmed by the stories behind the films, because that’s where he was putting so much of his energy and enthusiasm. In the last fifteen years, I think his personal life was more rewarding and fulfilling than the film work. During that time, he met and married his wife Iya, and they built a beautiful home and a new life together on Martha’s Vineyard. And he was writing prose again, instead of just screenplays. Had he lived a little longer, I think we might have a few more Wes Craven novels.


The book illustrates that artists have a meaningful life beyond their art. Art comes out of our life experience and informs our life experience, but art is not life. This is something I thought about a lot while working with my friend Bruce Joel Rubin on his new memoir, It’s Only a Movie. Initially, I thought that would be a book about intersections between Bruce’s spiritual life and his film work, but the book Bruce ended up writing is so much more—because his life is so much more. I wish Wes had written his own memoir. For years, he talked about it. In lieu of a true autobiography, there’s The Soul of Wes Craven, a “collective soul,” incorporating the voices of many of the people who knew and loved Wes.


JKM:  What lessons do you think Wes Craven’s life teaches us about horror, and, more broadly, about art, today, in 2024?


Joe: You mean, does a book about a dead horror filmmaker really matter in our crisis-driven everyday world? Yeah, I think it does. Making art and telling stories are things we do to understand the world, cope with the world, engage with the world, disengage from the world (when necessary), transcend the world and transform the world. Wes did those things in a sincere and meaningful way, so we can learn from him. Anyone who dismisses that opportunity because Wes was a horror filmmaker is missing out on a powerful life story.


JKM:  What’s next for you? Can we look forward to another horror icon biography? 


Joe: Honestly, I don’t know. I have a few new book ideas—and even a few works in progress—but right now I’m waiting to see how this one is received. Believe it or not, I’ve been writing nonfiction books about filmmakers for twenty years. My first book was published in 2004, and it ended with a chapter on Wes Craven. I feel like I’ve come full circle, so now I have to figure out what’s next. 


JKM: Finally, where can readers find the book?


Joe: Dustin McNeil of Harker Press, who has been a wonderful collaborator on this project, has created a website for the book.


For now, the easiest way to get The Soul of Wes Craven is on Amazon, but it will eventually be available via Barnes & Nobles, Walmart, Target, and the usual online retailers. Thanks for your interest!


60 Years Ago: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

George Pal and Byron Haskin’s  Robinson Crusoe on Mars  (1964) is sixty years old this year and remains beloved by the generation that grew ...