Friday, September 22, 2023

The Starlost 50th Anniversary: "Children of Methuselah"

 The Starlost, “Children of Methuselah” is one that seems very familiar in terms of sci-fi TV tropes.  

The idea of a society of wayward children -- with no adults present to temper them -- likely goes back to the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies (1954) and has been featured on Star Trek (1966 – 1969) in “Miri” and on The Fantastic Journey’s (1977) “Children of the Gods” to name only two examples. The notion underlying the trope is that, without the aid of parents and mature adults, societies of exclusively young folk lack critical qualities like experience, wisdom and even empathy.   Usually, when this trope is featured on TV, outsiders arrive and provide leadership by example for the children.

In “Children of Methuselah,” Devon (Ker Dullea), Rachel (Gay Rowan) and Garth (Robin Ward) discover a chamber they at first presume to be the Ark’s back-up bridge, which they have been seeking since “The Goddess Calabra.”  The bridge, however, is guarded by a group of apparently immortal children.  

Hundreds of years earlier, these children were deliberately injected with a serum that instantly regenerates their cells.  They also possess a serum to restore “natural aging” once the ship’s crew returns.  Meanwhile the children, led by Captain One (David Tyrell) have been training on the bridge’s controls for hundreds of years.

When Devon insists that the Earth Ship Ark is on a collision course with a star, Captain One is able to demonstrate, via the bridge’s equipment, that he is wrong.  These controls register course corrections, enable trajectory plotting, and warn of impending collisions.  Because Devon has passed false information, to bridge officers, Captain One tries him for lying in court, and orders both Devon and Garth executed, while Rachel is made a “ward of the dome.”

As Rachel soon learns, all of the children seem to be suffering from a lack of play and freedom in their lives.  They no neither “innocence” nor “joy,” and Rachel attempts to rectify this by giving the children real names, not numbers, and by teaching them how to play Blind Man’s Bluff.  At first, the children are resistant to this new information, but soon two children, Sarah and David, come to trust Rachel.

With Rachel’s help, Devon escapes from custody and proves to Captain One that his culture of children is built on an error.  Their dome is not the back-up bridge at all, but a training center, and all the controls are simulations used for instruction.  The trio from Cypress Corners has found, essentially, the Ark’s school, only with the students left in charge…for centuries.

In “Children of Methuselah,” the wayward children are gifted with incredible telepathic powers and can “think pain,” a skill which makes them formidable foes.  And a central portion of the episode concerns a court-room trial of Devon and his friends, but it is the very definition of a kangaroo court.  In both cases, the threat doesn’t seem particularly overt, and yet the story is an interesting one, seeing how it involves, primarily, perception and assumption.  

The finest aspects of “Children of Methuselah” involve Rachel, who is rapidly becoming the most likable and human of the series’ main characters.  After Rachel becomes a ward of the dome, she is sent to a play center, where relaxing children experience visual hallucinations through a head-set that very much resembles 1990s virtual reality machines.  In these sequences, and in the naming of the children, Rachel proves a likable and sympathetic person.  Where Devon has become a very single-focus character, understandably, Rachel is able to show a softer, more human side.

Not so successful, perhaps, is the through-line here involving One and his attempts to hold power over the society of children.  It’s not clear why he is so resistant to Devon’s pleas to check and confirm his story of a collision course, and so One’s resistance seems the product of stubborn pride more than anything else. 

This may be intentional -- a commentary on the fact that children are not so different from adults -- but it plays as a cheap plot mechanism nonetheless.  Captain One isn’t evil or misguided; he’s just doing what he believes he must do to survive.  But there would be no conflict (and no fifty minute episode…) if he allowed himself to test Devon’s theory, I suppose, and so he resists, right through the last minute, independent verification.

I don’t know if The Starlost is breaking down my resistance an episode at a time, or what, but I found “Children of Methuselah” to be a pretty decent outing for this Canadian science fiction series. 

The Starlost 50th Anniversary: "The Goddess Calabra."

The third episode of The Starlost (1973) is titled “The Goddess Calabra,” and it arrives replete with a story credit from famed sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin.  

Don’t let that factoid get your hopes up, however.  

Despite the presence of cult-television favorites Barry Morse and John Colicos in prominent roles, this story is mostly straight from the genre convention playbook.   Our heroes arrive in a corrupt, post-apocalyptic culture -- one populated only by men -- and must escape when the leader wants Rachel as his bride.  But to save Rachel and achieve his freedom, Devon (Keir Dullea) must battle The Governor (Colicos) in a fight to the death.

Yep, you’ve pretty much seen it all before…

“The Goddess Calabra” features two central points, and one comes across rather powerfully, while the other comes across as half-baked.

Let’s get the bad news out-of-the-way first.   

This episode involves the biosphere of Omicron, an enclosed world where, after years of devastating war, only men exist.  Since the XX chromosome has been lost to history, the men of Omicron mix their sperm with artificial eggs inside tiny, computerized machines.  “We bred out the weak, the soft, and the intellectuals,” the Governor reports to Rachel (Gay Rowan).  Only the “best and strongest” remain.

Love in this all-male culture is considered “unnatural,” the Governor also reveals, but the episode doesn’t go any further than that declaration, and that’s the problem.

In the total absence of women, one must wonder, what about sex?  Do the men of Omicron have sex with each other, or is that also deemed “unnatural?”  

The problem is that you can’t introduce a one-sex, human culture, and then avoid entirely the issue of sex drive, and how it is…satisfied.  This oversight might have been addressed simply by having the Governor accompanied at all times by a male partner.  Nothing overt since this was the 1970s just something to indicate that -- even in the far future -- human beings remain human beings.

Because “The Goddess Calabra” doesn’t explain at all many crucial aspects of this all-male culture, the scenes between the Governor and Rachel don’t really work as intended.  He seems to really fall in love with Rachel, but we must ask if this is a believable or likely development.  In a society with no women, where the “ideal” is male strength and power, would a citizen of that culture find a woman attractive in the slightest?  Wouldn’t he be conditioned socially not to find her so?

Again, it’s all just terribly half-baked, a high-concept post-apocalyptic culture that for not even a second passes the smell-test of realism. It’s a silly idea when rendered in such a neutered fashion.

Worse, in culture of all men -- where strength is prized -- Colicos is not even slightly believable as a governor who maintains his rule through daily combat and challenges.  He’s got a sizable gut, for one thing.  But in general, Colicos lacks the physique of a man who fights back enemies on a regular basis.  The scenes with the actor battling more physically-fit men (including Devon), just don’t ring true, and are terribly choreographed.  The story notes that the Governor is getting old, and worries about the day he will be defeated, but still it’s plain that the man is not in fighting shape right now. 

I appreciated much more in “The Goddess Calabra” the other sub-plot, the one involving Shaliff (Barry Morse), a monk who has dedicated his life to preserving the sacred scrolls in his monastery.  

These scrolls are actually technical schematics of the Ark, but I love the quasi-historical reference.  Shaliff and his dedicated flock are like the Irish monks who preserved Western history in the Dark Ages by laboriously transcribing and copying works of art.  Those works would have been lost for all time if not for their dedication.  I rather like the idea of this period in Earth Ship Ark’s history as a kind of “Dark Ages,” with the Omicron Monks preserving the blueprints and tech-sheets for future generations.  It’s a good touch in an otherwise dopey episode.  The preserved blueprints also serve a role in the series's story arc.  They reveal that in the "nethermost" dome, there is a back-up bridge, one that may still be functional.

The best scenes in “The Goddess Calabra” are those in which Shaliff (Morse), representing religion, and The Governor (Colicos) representing the State, battle for dominance, and discuss their long-standing friendship and competition.  It’s a pleasure to watch these two accomplished cult-tv actors interact, and some of the writing in these scenes is more nuanced than is usual.

As Starlost’s first visit to another biosphere culture, “The Goddess Calabra” is mostly a disappointment.

The Starlost 50th Anniversary: "Lazarus in the Mist"

In some ways, “Lazarus from the Mist” -- the second episode of the 1970s Canadian science fiction series The Starlost -- plays like the second part of the pilot, “Voyage of Discovery.”  

Here, our naïve protagonists Devon (Keir Dullea), Rachel (Gay Rowan) and Garth (Robin Ward) learn that the key to changing the Earthship Ark’s (collision) course may rest in forgotten documents and archives preserved throughout the ship’s domes, thus necessitating a dome-by-dome exploration of the vast generation ship.  That dome-tod0ome exploration consists of the remaining fourteen episodes or so of the series.

In “Lazarus from the Mist,” Devon and his friends are still standing on the Ark’s ruined bridge when they detect an automated distress call apparently emanating from a command/medical section nearby.  They attempted to find that section, but are promptly waylaid by primitive “Tube People,” service-personnel of the ark who, over the centuries, have developed a kind of nomadic society in the corridors.  They have never seen sky, nor soil.  They have never seen night or day.

While Garth holds the Tube People at bay, Devon and Rachel locate the medical section and a vast cryonic vault.  There, preserved in stasis, are dozens of engineers and designers who may be able to set the Ark’s collision course right. Devon and Rachel awake one man, Dr. Gerald Aaron (Frank Converse) only to learn that he is dying from a “radiation virus” and doesn’t possess the knowledge they need to alter course.  Instead, he explains to the duo about the documents, blueprints and schematics located throughout the domes.

Later Garth, Devon and Rachel use the medical bay’s advanced equipment to save the Tube People’s leader from a bloody wound, and peace is forged.  The Tube People are led to an agricultural dome, where they begin a new life…

I must admit, I have watched this episode of The Starlost twice, and the first time I did so I found it virtually interminable. It’s slow-moving, and there's no real sense of danger or conflict. Much of the shooting-style remains unbearably claustrophobic.

On the second viewing, with expectations in hand, I began to register some of the episode’s more intriguing and interesting points. Among these, I count Rachel and Devon’s moral debate about waking up the engineer, Aaron.  Rachel believes that such matters “should be left up to the creator” and worries that “we’re tampering with something we have no right to.”  

By contrast, Devon argues that everyone on the Ark is going to die if they don’t get the information they seek, so therefore the risk to one man is justified.  I tend to agree with Devon. 

He makes a ough call in this episode, and shows some of the same spine he revealed in “Voyage of Discovery.”  Speifically, Devon wakes up a man suffering from a (nebulous “radiation virus” with the direct knowledge that he is, in essence, sentencing him to death.  And yet Devon makes a very human decision.  Wouldn’t any one of us accept a death sentence if we understood that it would save the entirety of the human race?

I suppose my biggest problem with the episode involves the “tube people,” subplot.  I love the idea of generational space travelers essentially going native over the long centuries, an idea well-dramatized in Space: 1999’s “Mission of the Darians” and also Pandorum (2009). But the actors playing the Tube People are encouraged here, for some reason, to act like mental cases, or very young children. I don’t think this concept really works very well. 

After all, the Tube People have had a hard life scavenging for food, in a world of no daylight and no darkness.  They would be harder and tougher, I think, than the episode portrays them…and not so silly.  At the end, when the Tube People happily wave goodbye to Rachel, Devon and Garth, the moment is wince-inducing.  In another scene, they are depicted tossing around a ball to one another like pre-schoolers.

I also am ambivalent about the happy solution to the Tube People dilemma.  The awakened engineer, Araon, reports of a conveniently-located “agricultural” dome very nearby, where they can settle and begin life anew.  This works as a one-time solution, but if Starlost is to have any veneer of realism, it can’t just hand out vacant domes to every society Devon encounters.  Hopefully the resolution won’t recur.

But for every questionable moment or plot solution like that one, “Lazarus from the Mist” also provides a good moment or two.  Here, there’s a strong, emotional moment wherein Aaron watches listens to a video recording from his wife…made over five hundred years ago.  It’s a very human, very moving moment, and suggestive of The Starlost’s approach to character.  Devon, Rachel and Garth aren’t technical wizards and they don’t know a whole lot about theirown world (the Ark), but they do possess the capacity to remind the people they encounter and meet of their humanity.  I think that idea comes through loud and clear in this second episode.

I also like some of the weird sets in this episode.  The Cryonic Vault, for instance, looks pretty convincing, given the low, low budget of the series.  I doubt it’s a set that will get any use again, but it is nicely utilitarian and therefore convincing.  It compares not unfavorably to the “Ark in Space” set from vintage Doctor Who, in 1975.

50 Years Ago Today: The Starlost: "Voyage of Discovery"

The Starlost (1973 – 1974) premiered fifty years ago today! 

The series commences in a pastoral "biosphere" numbered AG-3 on a vast generational ship called Earthship Ark, and which is described as "an organic cluster of domes linked to each other." 

This "biosphere" is known as Cypress Corners by its inhabitants, human beings who eschew technology and live in an "ethnic agrarian community." 

Essentially, the people of Cypress Corners are Mennonites or Amish. And although there are signs of advanced technology all about the dome, including a computer interface which their leader, Jeremiah (Sterling Hayden) calls "The Creator,” the people mostly ignore these oddities and live a life of primitive religious asceticism.  The “Creator” determines who can marry, and when they can marry.  It establishes and enforces draconian laws.

Also -- and critically -- none of the simple denizens of Cypress Corners are aware that they live aboard a spaceship in flight. The doorway to another ship compartment -- a long connecting corridor to another dome and another society -- is sealed off and decorated with fearsome graffiti which reads: "Beyond is Death." 

Jeremiah (Sterling Hayden), leader of the sect, has also stated that he who goes beyond the door "abandons all hope...never to return," equating the "outside" of Cypress Corners with a Biblical Hell.  It is, in his words, a “bottomless pit.”  In Cypress Corners, knowledge equates to “evil.”

Our hero is a young and inquisitive man from Cypress Corners named Devon (Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey). He is an orphan, a "Ward of the Elders." He has no station, no craft, no inheritance, and no land, and thus has not been permitted to marry the love of his life, beautiful Rachel (Gay Rowan). 

Instead, she has been betrothed (or "pledged") -- against her will -- to the local blacksmith, Garth (Robin Ward), a man of few words and great strength.  But Devon doesn't understand why this is so, and he begins to ask forbidden questions about the nature of things.

"Where does the water come from?" He asks Jeremiah. "Why does the sun move through the sky the way it does?" "Why must we not ask questions?"

"Questioning is blasphemy," answers old Jeremiah, hoping to stamp down an insurrection before it spins out of control. 

When Devon learns that Jeremiah himself programs the voice of the computer, the "Creator" to do his oppressive bidding, he attempts to warn the people of Cypress Corners about the fraud being perpetrated against them in the name of God. 

For his troubles, Devon is sentenced to death by Jeremiah...a death by crushing stones (and Rachel is ordered to cast the first stone...). However, Devon escapes captivity with Garth's help, and flees to the edge of the territory, where an old, banished "fool" named Abraham holds the key to his escape.

At the doorway to Hell, Devon must make a choice.  Future or past?   Truth or ignorance?

He escapes Cypress Corners and abruptly finds himself in a technologically-advanced corridor leading to other domes (and other cultures). He soon finds a library computer ("programmed for general information") that informs him of the truth.

And here is the truth that Jeremiah willfully denies: In 2285 AD, the Earth was threatened by a global catastrophe that would destroy all human life. Panic and riots ensued, but the "preservable" elements of many Earth cultures (and roughly three million people) were placed aboard Earthship Ark to seed another world. 

These travelers were locked in "separate ecologies" (like Cypress Corners) so they could not interfere with another and lose their special or unique cultural nature, presumably to the dangers of assimilation. 

The Ark's destination was a distant planet orbiting a Class G which could support human life. 

Unfortunately, an accident occurred 100 years into the flight from Earth, and the Ark is now on a collision course with that Class G. Star. It is 2790, and all that remains of humanity (Earthship Ark) hurtles towards blindly towards total destruction.

Aware of the truth, Devon returns to Cypress Corners to liberate Rachel. The lovers escape, but are pursued by Garth, who also loves Rachel and refuses to give her up. 

In the pilot’s most impressive visual sequence, the three refugees then discover the ruined bridge of the ark...and see the massive, dangerous star looming in the black void of space. Now it is up to these three "young people" to find the controls that can avoid the deadly collision. This is the journey that makes up the remainder of the series, as the three naive, inexperienced refugees from religious oppression encounter strange and futuristic cultures in the various domes or "biospheres" of Earthship Ark.

Screening "Voyage of Discovery" today, one can sense both the promises and the pitfalls of this unique and oft-maligned genre series from the disco decade. 

On the negative side, several sequences are indeed terribly static and claustrophobic, which makes for some dull moments. Additionally, the lighting tends towards the garish and the overdone in a few scenes, especially the ones featuring Abraham and a bright red hue, which may symbolize "the hell" beyond the Cypress Corners hatch, but which is hardly nuanced.

Also, the three lead characters -- Dullea, Rowan and Ward -- are likable enough, but not particularly memorable or distinctive. I very much appreciate the idea of three protagonists who know nothing about their situation setting out on a "voyage of discovery," because it is so different from Star Trek (where the Starfleet officers know everything...), but this very premise also runs the risk of making the characters appear dull-witted, rather than merely inexperienced or naive.

Logan’s Run: The Series (1977) features characters that are very similar in some sense: naïfs who, outside of their own culture, have very limited knowledge and understanding.  Writers tend to have a difficult time with this character premise, because heroes, inevitably, must use intelligence and cunning to outwit opponents, especially those possessing superior technology.  It’s hard for simpletons from an “agrarian, ethnic” community to succeed on such terms.

Speaking bluntly, the production values here are at the level of a Blake's 7 or Dr. Who from the early 1970s.  Thus you must watch The Starlost in the frame of mind that nearly forty years have passed since it was produced.  The series is plainly far below the visual bar established by Space: 1999 (which was shot concurrently in Great Britain).  

In particular, the scenes involving a "bounce corridor" -- an anti-gravity device that hurtles wayward travelers from one dome to another  -- are unintentionally comic as the actors flip through the air (obviously strung up on wires), growing or diminishing in size not by moving, but via the camera's movement; zooming in or zooming out. 

However - and this is important - I've never, ever in all my years, seen this concept (the bounce corridor) used in another sci-fi show. So it is an original and fun idea, but like so much of The Starlost, poorly executed in terms of visuals (and a result of limited budget and limited time.)

However, fair is fair -- there is one scene in which the visuals of "Voyage of Discovery" absolutely excel.  I mentioned it above.  Near the climax of this pilot, Devon and his mates find the destroyed bridge of Earthship Ark, and walk amidst the ruins and detritus, where they find the skeleton of a crew member. 

There is a beautifully constructed shot of the characters looking out through the gigantic bridge windows or view port...gazing upon the impressive miles-long length of Earthship Ark. 

This is the kind of shot Star Trek could neither have afforded nor pulled off circa 1966-1969 and is quite beautifully vetted here. It is done with chroma key/blue screen in the manner of Land of the Lost (1975), yet still epic in presentation. By 1970s standards, of course

Thematically, "Voyage of Discovery" has something vital to say about life here on Earth, and I enjoyed how the metaphor (or subtext) was created and carried out.

On Earthship Ark, all the various cultures exist in self-contained, isolated "bubbles," consumed with their own internal lives and rules, while the world (in this case, the generational ark...) heads towards total annihilation. 

The Elders of Cypress Corners are so consumed with maintaining their rigid control (which they maintain with a fraudulent God Vision) that they are blind to their "real" situation, to the disaster waits.  

This is a powerful comment on life on Earth. We wage wars, we fight over ideology and religion...but meanwhile, what becomes of the Earth itself? There's an environmental and human message in The Starlost that -- in the Age of Global Climate Change -- feels even more relevant today, perhaps.

Also, it’s impossible not to gaze at “Voyage of Discovery” in terms of our enlightened age of globalism.   The denizens of Earthship Ark find themselves in danger because they have prized societal identities and local traditions over communal knowledge, scientific advances, and the cross-pollination of ideas.  But by fearing cross-cultural contamination, the people in the domes risk absolute annihilation.  The question becomes, is it better to hew to parochial tradition, or reach out for new ideas and new facts.  

The answer is plain. "Separate ecologies," in the terminology of the program, are ultimately dead ends, places where learning and evolution come to a standstill.

In terms of storytelling, “Voyage of Discovery,” perhaps because it is first out the gate, is one of the stronger tales.  A strong conflict emerges between Devon, a thinker and questioner, and Jeremiah, the establishment figure who thrives by hiding the truth and restricting knowledge.   I love the idea of a religious cult living on a spaceship and transforming a doorway to the “outer” ship a gateway to Hell.  In so many ways, organized religion always seeks to control independent thinking, and the door with the legend “Beyond is Death” is a function of that control.

There are certainly elements to criticize in “Voyage of Discovery,” from the slow-pace and claustrophobic shots, to the weak special effects. And yet, as the first chapter of the saga, it is not without charm and thematic heft.  Later episodes don't work nearly as well.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

One Week From Today: "Old Skin" (9/27/23)


One week from today!

Next week on Enter The House Between, our denizens come face-to-face with their own demons in the dark matter dimension, the "old skin" of the universe...

Don't miss the series that Nerd Alert News calls a "must-listen!"

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

50 Years Ago: Satan's School for Girls (1973)

All considerations of quality aside for the moment,  a conscientious reviewer has to give the 50 year-old TV movie Satan's School for Girls (1973) some pretty serious plaudits over that incredible title.  

But then again, Satan's School for Girls comes to us from the great age of TV-movies; when they boasted colorful and memorable monikers such as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), or A Cold Night's Death (1973).  

As the title makes abundantly clear, this made-for-TV movie was also produced during the rarefied age of  1970s Devil film: the wonderful spell between Brotherhood of Satan (1971) and The Exorcist  (1973). 

Specifically, this Aaron Spelling TV-movie first aired on September 19, 1973, and later earned a reputation, according to The New York Times, as one of the most "memorable" made-for TV horrors of the disco decade.  It was even re-made in the year 2000, with Shanen Doherty in the lead role.

The original Satan's School for Girls stars fetching scream queen Pamela Franklin (And Soon the Darkness [1970], Legend of Hell House [1974]) as Elizabeth Sayers, a young woman investigating the apparent suicide of her beloved sister Martha.  

To that end, Elizabeth masquerades as a new student at Martha's former school, the exclusive and 300-year old Salem Academy for Women.

Elizabeth enrolls immediately in two classes: Behavioral Psychology with creepy Professor Delacroix (Lloyd Bochner) and an art class with hunky Dr. Clampett (Roy Thinnes).   In the latter class, Clampett urges the female students to "hang loose" and remember that everything in life is both "illusion and reality." 

Elizabeth soon befriends several students, including resourceful Roberta Lockhart (Kate Jackson), popular Jody (Cheryl Ladd) and the troubled Debbie (Jamie Smith-Jackson).  Debbie, in particular, appears afraid...and has painted a creepy portrait of the dead Martha trapped in what appears to be an old cellar.

Elizabeth locates that ancient cellar in her very dorm, Standish Hall, and learns from Roberta about a creepy local legend; about eight Salem witches who were hanged in a cellar just like that.  

After Elizabeth discovers that Debbie has also committed suicide, she investigates the files in the office of the Headmistress.  She learns that all the students at the school have been orphaned; just as Elizabeth herself has been orphaned.  She also learns that student files on Debbie and Martha are missing...

Then, late at night, when the power goes out, Dr.Clampett evacuates the campus save for Roberta and Elizabeth.  

In the dark, quiet loneliness of the cellar, Satan soon makes his play for eight young, impressionable and father-less souls to replace the ones he lost in Salem all those years ago.  

"I welcome what man rejects," he tells his would-be acolytes with open arms

And he's reserved a spot  just for Elizabeth...

Now, I'm not quite old enough (but almost old enough!) to remember Satan's School for Girls from its original transmission  Rather, I first saw it sometime in the early 1980s in weekend syndication.  I probably saw it when I was eleven or twelve, and it has stayed with me ever since.

And now, after watching Satan's School for Girls again, at least I have a better understanding of why that's the case.  

The movie, released on DVD by an outfit called "Cheezy Movies," looks like a relic from another lifetime.  The TV-movie is simple, straight-forward and even innocent in a weird sort of way by today's standards.  Yet some of the horror moments really do get the blood pumping.  This is a major accomplishment, because it's clear the movie was made for next to nothing.  There are no real visual or make-up effects to speak of, and almost the entire film takes place in just four of five interiors.

But Laurence Rosenthal's steroidal musical score works over-time to build shivers and anxiety, and director David Lowell Rich does an effective job keeping to the basics.  Many scenes have been lensed entirely at night, or in the dark, Gothic passages on the campus.  Thunder roars on the soundtrack, lightning crackles, and heavy doors creak regularly.  The fear expressed here -- simply -- is of being alone at night, in the darkness, and wondering if something malevolent might be hiding in the impenetrable blackness close-by.  

Nothing more complicated than that.

Yet it's amazing how many modern horror movies forget that it is the simple things that scare us the most.  A basement in the dark.  A storm at midnight.  The intimation of the diabolical.  Roy Thinnes in tight polyester pants...

Okay, I try not to do snark, in part because there are so many other places on the Internet where you can so readily find it, but if you're inclined to laugh or giggle at Satan's School of Girls, it's probably easy to do so.  I can't, in good conscience, deny that. 

The performances -- much like the narrative -- are oddly naive and almost child-like.  But if you're willing to buy into the movie (and it helps if you have some nostalgia for it), Satan's School for Girls unnerves in a very efficient, very 1970s fashion. You want to giggle and assure yourself that a cheap TV-movie effort like this couldn't possibly bother you.

But just try watching it alone in the dark. At night. The cheesiness sort of evaporates and you find yourself in the midst of this very sincere, very straight-forward and eminently creepy tale. Everyone involved really committed to it (just look at that actress screaming for her life in the still near the top of this post!) so what the hell is our excuse for not doing likewise, right?

And, if you dig just a little under the surface of Satan's School for Girls the movie actually features some interesting  ideas. It's a movie about girls who don't have fathers, and who try to find a father figure in either Professor Clampett or Professor Delacroix. Clampett urges the girls to "condemn nothing" and "embrace everything" -- the 1970s equivalent of "just do what feels good," and Delacroix treats the students like rats in a maze; hoping to awake them from their "passivity" should they ever encounter real "terror."

If you've seen the film, you know which of these guys is really the Devil in the disguise -- either the liberal artist or the paranoid psychologist -- but the push-pull between the clashing philosophies at least gives the viewer something to think about between scenes of screaming ingenues.

Satan's School for Girls is worth a curiosity viewing just for the cheeky title (as well as the bizarre opening sequence in which Martha grows terrified -- terrified I tell you! -- at the  sudden, unexplained appearance of not one, but two strange old men). But more than that, if you let yourself buy into the premise of this 1973 made-for-TV movie, you might just get a good schooling in old-fashioned terror.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Enter The House Between Episode 8, "Old Skin," Premieres Next Wednesday, 9/27!

Enter The House Between's next new episode, "Old Skin," premieres next Wednesday, 9/27, on YouTube, Spotify,  Audible, etc. 

This episode, the penultimate before the season finale, follows immediately after the climax of "Temple of Immensity,"and features some unforgettable character moments, not to mention the arrival of a mysterious guest character (and guest performer) as well. 

"Old Skin," is a different kind of tale, one more aligned with the rubber reality sub-genre of the horror movie genre.  Think Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Phantasm.

As many of you know, I love to play with the expectations and tropes of various genres, so before we finish up the season, you'll have listened to blockbuster action ("The Oneness Intended for Us All,"),  a love story ("Love Conducted Unto One Death,") a mind-bending mental hospital story ("Folie a Famille"), a closed room mystery, ("Dresden,") and next, rubber reality. 

Each type of story has its own challenges and pitfalls, of course, but its fun putting the denizens through a "multiverse" of genres in a single season.

Anyway, I can't wait for you to listen to "Old Skin" next week. I'm already counting down...

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Outer Limits' 60th: "The Invisible Enemy"

As I've written here before, I'm a big fan for the "doomed space expedition"-style story featured in horror/sci-fi films like Alien (1979), and Europa Report (2013) or depicted on TV series such as Space:1999 ("Dragon's Domain,") Dr. Who ("Planet of Evil") and The Twilight Zone ("Death Ship").

I harbor endless fascination with these tales about courageous astronauts who brave dangers alien and eerie in remote corners of the universe; cut off from Earth; cut off from help.

It's just a thing with me, I suppose...a frontier spirit maybe; or perhaps just a deeply-held belief that the next hill is always worth climbing, whatever the danger lurking on the other side. That danger doesn't have to be a monster in these macabre stories, just something unknown...and perhaps inexplicable. Like the planet in Solaris (1972), for instance.

And that brings us to one of my favorite TV examples of the form; one that does feature a (very memorable) monster: an Outer Limits episode (from the second season) titled "The Invisible Enemy." 

Appropriately enough, the episode (written by Jerry Sohl and directed by Byron Haskin) first aired on Halloween in 1964, and it's guaranteed -- even today -- to give you a little shiver.

The Control Voice (our series narrator) describes this tale as a "painful step from the crib of destiny" and "part of the saga of the space pioneers." More specifically, the episode involves a rocket, called M2 that lands on the chalky surface of Mars to investigate the disappearance, three years earlier, of the first mission to the Red Planet by the M1.

Commanding this rescue/exploratory mission is Major Merritt, played by a pre-Batman Adam West. His first mate is the scoundrel Buckley (Rudy Solari), who describes himself -- pre Dr. McCoy -- as just an old "country astronaut." The entire crew of the M2 has been ordered by Earth Control (and a computer named Telly...) to remain constantly in eye sight of one another while on the surface. The M1 crew separated. And disappeared. In the blink of an eye...

Even with this edict in place, a subordinate, Mr. Lazzari suddenly disappears on the crumbly planet surface. Lazzari's fate may also prove amusing to Star Trek fans since he is played by Peter Marko -- doomed Mr. Gaetano in the Trek episode "The Galileo 7." Then another astronaut, Frank Johnson, also disappears...also in an impossibly fast fashion.

In short order, Merritt and Buckley discover that the sand on Mars is actually a living ocean of sorts. And that swimming beneath the surface of this glittering sea is a race of monstrous, carnivorous sand sharks. The astronauts Lazzari and Johnson were pulled down below...and eaten. The monsters, in fact, can smell human blood...

Merritt discovers the subterranean sharks while trapped atop a rock in the middle of the "ocean" even as a sand storm blows the tide higher and higher. It is at this moment -- with man and beast in the same shot -- that the audience realizes for the first time how colossal the sand shark is. One step into the sand, and Merritt will meet the same grim fate as his crew members.

In the end, the surviving Earth men escape the hungry sand sharks and return safely to Earth. The episode makes a big point of the fact that the astronauts both survive, in large part, because they willfully ignored Ground Control (and Telly...) and made "human" decisions in the heat of the moment instead.'s a kind of pioneer spirit. Free from bureaucracy and committee; with life or death on the line.

One reason I enjoy "The Invisible Enemy" so much (besides my fetish with 1960s future-tech...) is the exquisite, black-and-white visualization of the Martian landscape. 

Though scientifically inaccurate -- there's air on Mars!? --- the terrain is nonetheless foreboding, barren...and gorgeous. Rocky outcroppings dot the horizon, and the endless sand ocean glimmers and brims with mystery. In one evocative shot (from Buckley's perspective), the sandy sea actually transforms into an Earth-style, watery sea, and that's how the astronaut begins to suspect the existence of, well, sea life.

But the image I've always remembered most from this episode involves the monster itself: the roaring, hungry sea shark. We first see an ugly dorsal spine cut above the sand, like a shark fin cutting over a watery-surface. 

And then, over time, more of the beast is revealed until we understand it to be some sort of huge, malevolent, gliding, under-sand dragon. One of the episode's final shots is a humdinger too: a whole school of the beasts -- six or seven, perhaps -- breaking the surface after their brethren is killed...with vulnerable man just outside reach, on the rocky shore beyond. 

"The Invisible Enemy" also reminds me of a (buried) fear of mine from childhood (no doubt brought on by my exposure to Blood Beach [1980]): the idea of disappearing beneath the sand on the beach, grabbed and eaten by something invisible and avaricious.

When we do get to Mars, there likely won't be giant sand sharks waiting for us in dusty seas, but there will, no doubt, be other Invisible Enemies. 

Perhaps just the elements themselves. 

Hopefully we'll meet those challenges with the same insight and resourcefulness demonstrated by Merritt and Buckley in this classic Outer Limits episode.

The Outer Limits' 60th: "The Guests"

In the Outer Limits episode called “The Guests,” a drifter in a leather jacket named Wade (Geoffrey Horne) is inexplicably trapped in the past -- metaphorically and literally -- when he happens inside an alien “brain” that has assumed the shape of a Victorian mansion atop a hill summit.            

This imposing edifice -- which occupies a space entirely outside the Laws of Physics -- serves as home to several strangers including a faded silent screen star, Florinda Patten (Gloria Graham), a Wall Street investment banker of questionable morality, Randall Latimer (Vaughn Taylor), and his gleefully cruel wife, Ethel (Nellie Burt).  All these souls have been denizens of the alien house since 1928 and evidence little interest in leaving it.

The hidden master inside this dark old house is an inquisitive monstrosity: a quivering, gelatinous thing from another dimension who seeks the “missing vector” that will enable him to better comprehend the human race.  

The emotionless, questing creature probes Wade’s mind several times and discovers at last the missing “one note in the symphony.”  

It is, simply, “love.” 

Specifically, Wade’s romantic, selfless attachment to another captive in the house, the lovely Tess (Luana Anders), ultimately proves the factor that resolves the alien’s incomplete equation. When Tess leaves the safe temporal “bubble” of the house, super-ages and dies in a matter of seconds to preserve Wade’s freedom, the house begins to shift back to the alien’s dimension.  

After escaping the strange trap, Wade watches the alien brain fade into nothingness, and continues down the road on his journey…

Strange, unsettling and dominated by extreme camera angles that suggest the cinema of German Expressionism, “The Guests” is a gloom-laden, visually-dazzling, and often surreal entry in The Outer Limits canon.  

Specifically, the Donald Sanford (Thriller) entry is a deliberate and artful blending of literary movements, old and new.  The episode has widely and appropriately been described as “Gothic" for its familiar horror and romantic flourishes, settings, and characters.  At the same time, however, this episode of The Outer Limits also mirrors the perspective of the post-war, Beat Generation, especially the movement’s dedicated opposition to modern warfare, military technology, and such middle class balms as leisure and material affluence.

Regarding its Gothic influences, “The Guests” highlights a common setting in the genre: a house that appears to be haunted both by an external, self-organizing “supernatural” force and by the personal, individual secrets and sins of the human dwellers within.  Unlike Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), however, there’s no mad woman hiding in the attic, but rather a monster holding court in an upstairs bedroom.  

Furthermore, the character of Tess -- who harbors a grotesque secret about her age and true physical appearance until “The Guest’s” last act -- also recalls the attractive/repulsive romantic duality one might expect to find in such Gothic standards as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844).  

In both stories, scientific advancement transforms a young woman of pure innocence and beauty into something inhuman and grotesque.  In the case of “The Guests,” however, it is alien custodianship and the instantaneous passage of decades that is responsible for Tess’s final crone-like appearance, not the interference of her flawed, human, scientist father.

Most significantly, however, “The Guests” veritably obsesses upon the familiar Gothic trope of ancestral, historical sins cursing future generations.  Here affluent American society is represented by the triumvirate of Randall, Ethel and Florinda.  Each one of these characters from the early 20th century is presented as being corrupt in some essential fashion.  

Randall was on his way to face legal charges for unethical behavior on Wall Street (shortly before the Great Depression…) when he was captured and waylaid by the brain.  

Ethel, Randall’s wife, makes verbal cruelty a sport and favorite pastime.  This is a commentary, perhaps, on the fact that, as an aristocrat’s wife, she has no other productive activity to contribute to the culture.  Idle hands make for the devil’s work. And for a forked tongue too.

And finally, Florinda is the living embodiment of vanity or self-love, hoping to retain her Hollywood celebrity and youthful appearance for eternity.  She is concerned only with herself, not the planet, and certainly not her fellow man. She is all about narcissism.

Importantly, only Wade -- the Jack Kerouac-styled, Beat Generation drifter -- can reveal to the alien being something positive and valuable about human nature; something not tethered to the institutions and established “ancestral” sins of the species and the culture. 

Specifically, Wade is willing to remain in the house out of love for a woman from a different time period, Tess. He is willing to put his freedom on the line, and even his mind itself.  

The Guests” aired in 1964, a scant few years after the publication of such Beat Generation literary landmarks as William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) and Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl (1960), so perhaps it is no surprise that this new school of American philosophy would find prominence in at least one outing of this literary-minded science fiction TV series.

By the time of The Outer Limits, the Beats were already morphing into “Beatniks” (and well on their way to becoming hippies by the end of the decade…), but still, this episode adeptly homes in on such then-contemporary Beat Generation conventions as evil capitalists (the unscrupulous Latimer), the futility of war, and the heroic depiction of the protagonist Wade as one of the so-called “angel-headed hipsters” of Ginsberg.

Gazing closely at “The Guests,” one can discern how many Beat Generation obsessions dominate the narrative. When Wade is confronted with the Monster Upstairs, it dispassionately tallies for him the positives and negatives of the human condition.  Amongst the negative factors are fear and hatred, hopelessness and, importantly, war.  

One of the positive conditions is art. “Art could be mankind’s destiny,” the alien determines.  

This is very much a Beat-styled assessment: that the individuality encompassed in art can lead man out of the dark, materialistic and militaristic mindset of American in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the epoch when President Dwight Eisenhower warned citizens about the increasing and dangerous influence of the military-industrial complex. 

Twice in “The Guests,” images of nuclear detonations – mushroom clouds -- are highlighted, and in one conversation with Tess, Wade expressly describes the atom bomb's horrible power.   This imagery is reflective of Beat Generation anti-war sympathies and also an embodiment of Gothic sin; a sin grown from the American past that Wade has opted out of by becoming a drifter and taking his life “on the road.”

Examined in this light,  “The Guests” is very much a pitched battle between historical literary traditions, with the Gothic aspects representing a secretive, corrupt, even “monstrous” past, and the Beat movement representing a new hope of sorts; a new paradigm or outline for human happiness in the age of technology unchained.  

For example, the people inside the scary old house attempt to forestall inevitable fate and live forever.  They knowingly defy “the forlorn rags of growing old,” a human eventuality which Kerouac considered the only certainty in life…and in the end they pay the price for their hubris, and for cheating Nature herself.   

By contrast, the drifter, Wade, and his lover, Tess, embody the opposite impulse.  They each broach personal sacrifice, imprisonment, and death for the possibility of the other’s happiness. This idea is very much the beginning of a Beat-styled “second religiousness” for Wade.  He recognizes that a better future can be forged on love and personal sacrifice than on material wealth and warfare.

“The Guests” connection to Beat Generation writers actually extends beyond even a straight-forward interpretation of the episode’s theme or “message.”  The form of the episode -- the visuals -- reflect the content to a powerful degree.  The works of Beat Generation authors such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs are frequently described with adjectives such as “surreal,” “Dadaist” or simply “dream-like,” in part because these notorious authors were not shy in their use of illegal drugs to spur their sense of creativity.  

Accordingly, dream imagery and discussions of dream states permeate the “The Guests.”  At one point, Wade discusses how he feels as though he is “having a bad dream.”   He is also told that the alien will “control” his “dreams now” and that the alien has even “undreamed” the house’s windows and front door. 

Finally, there’s a discussion of “dreaming a life” or “living a dream,” and the (real?) distinction between those two descriptions.  But the point here is that the visuals themselves are determinedly dream-like, or more aptly, nightmarish.

“The Guests” opens with expressive film techniques that overtly suggest a Gothic, traditional influence, in keeping with the story’s central locale.  When Wade first approaches the house/brain, director Paul Stanley’s camera views the man from inside a second-story window, through dangling curtains.  However, the curtains draw down mysteriously, falling around Wade in the frame and effectively squeezing out his space. This is a visual cue to suggest that Wade is walking into a trap, and the next shot -- an ominous overhead, extreme-high-angle view of the haunted house’s Victorian foyer -- takes that thought even further.

Eventually, such expressive, Gothic horror compositions give way to more avant-garde, surreal, modern, Beat Generation-styled ones.  While attempting to escape the house later in the episode, for example, Wade ventures into a seemingly infinite realm of darkness, one punctuated only by the occasional Greek column.  Here, there is no end and no beginning.  As viewers, we suspect that we have entered the corridors of the alien’s mind.  

“Interesting architecture?” asks one character in the drama, but that description hardly covers it.  Indeed, in the course of an hour, The Outer Limits goes from employing familiar Gothic, horror-styled visuals to surreal images instead. Doors appear without walls to support them.  Wade seems to walk on a path of light down a hallway of infinite dimensions. Interiors open mysteriously into exterior graveyards, and so forth.

Perhaps because Donald S. Sanford’s story plants its feet for so long within the confines of that dark, old house, “The Guests” thrives as one of the mostly deeply unsettling and claustrophobic episodes of The Outer Limits pantheon.  From the first time that house on the hill appears, the episode aims for throat-tightening fear, and hits the target.  On the soundtrack, a weird, syncopated heart-beat rhythm plays -- repetitious and ominous -- a reflection of the evils trapped inside the edifice.  

Another frightening moment sees Wade dragged up a long, dark, shadowy staircase into the realm of the monster, entirely against his will, while the others watch…smiling at his misfortune.

Perhaps it is that moment of involuntary action that best reflects the point of this Outer Limits episode.  It is a point ably expressed in Tess’s final sacrificial act, and in the work of the Beat Poets.

Sometimes in life, we fear we are being dragged, helpless, out of control, towards a future we haven’t chosen for ourselves. 

But that’s the illusion we must battle, argues “The Guests.”   We can choose love over hate, individuality over conformity, and escape over imprisonment.  We can solve the human equation to our liking and not to the tune of tradition or conventions like capitalism.

There’s a reason, this episode isn’t called “The Prisoners.”  In its clash of Gothic and Beat Generation aesthetics, “The Guests” reminds audiences how easy it is for humans to decorate even the most horrible cages to appear “acceptable.”   Here, Ethel, Latimer, Florinda and even Tess -- at least for a time -- opt to remain trapped in the known but unsatisfactory past rather than countenance an unknown future.   

Many Outer Limits episodes are anti-war and pro-human in sentiment, but by marrying the terrors of Gothic expression to the criticisms and solutions of the contemporary Beat Generation, “The Guests” proves one of the most emotional, artistic and purely human of the series canon.  It's a weird, weird episode, but one that contributes greatly to an understanding of where America "was" in the early 1960s. 

(Note: A version of this essay also appeared at We Are Controlling Transmission in 2011, a blog devoted to The Outer Limits.).

The Starlost 50th Anniversary: "Children of Methuselah"

  The Starlost,  “Children of Methuselah” is one that seems very familiar in terms of sci-fi TV tropes.   The idea of a society of wayward c...