Monday, March 31, 2008

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Just Toys "Bend 'Em" Rocketeer




"Blast off for adventure" with this 1991 collectible figure from the Disney superhero flick, The Rocketeer. Made by Just Toys under license for Disney, this "Bend-Em" figure includes a removable rocket pack.

I remember seeing this film in 1991 with Kathryn (hard-to-believe it was seventeen years ago) and loving everything about it, from the performances (William Campbell, Paul Sorvino, Jennifer Connolly, Timothy Dalton) to the great art-deco production design. The film was a box-office flop, but I'll never figure out why. It was grand, exciting superhero entertainment, but it also fits into my rule about retro-superheroes always bombing at the box office (witness The Shadow [1994], The Phantom [1996] and even Sky Captain).
Somewhere, I have a Rocketeer poster - absolutely gorgeous - that I need to frame.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

It was a turbulent, post-war world that saw the release of director Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956. Nazism had long been defeated in Europe, but the Red Menace (communism) represented by the Soviet Union and Red China was growing. In January of 1955, the United States Congress authorized President Eisenhower to defend Formosa from China. On May 14 of the the same year, the Soviet Union and seven other communist nations joined forces under the Warsaw Pact. But these were only the most recent developments. At home, on the domestic front, there was a virtual red hysteria roiling.

Going back a few years to 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his campaign to unearth Communists in the American government. McCarthy, later known to be an alcoholic, imagined "Reds" everywhere, from inside the upper echelons of the Truman Administration, to the U.S. Army to the State Department. Another, earlier (and arguably easier...) target of the Communist witch hunt was the liberal entertainment industry itself. Specifically, the House of Representatives' investigative arm, called HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) sought to root out communists inside the film industry.

Ironically, membership in the American Communist Party was not (and is not) a crime in the United States. Membership in various political parties is part and parcel of our democratic liberty, and yet here - with no sanction from the Constitution and no evidence of any actual crime committed, the American government began to oppress citizens who, at worst, found themselves involved in what today we would consider progressive or humanitarian causes. Actors, actresses, writers, producers and directors were regularly summoned to testify in Washington D.C. and name "names" in the hunt for commies and communist associations. Those who didn't submit to the will of HUAC were blacklisted and named in a pamphlet called "Red Channels."

Among those black-listed was a left-leaning writer and novelist named Daniel Mainwaring. He was the man who adapted Jack Finney's science-fiction novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to the screen. Given this background, one can begin to detect how an anti-McCarthyite message or sub-text runs through the science fiction film. Consider, for example, that those who join the alien pod "herd" develop a kind of mob mentality. Their first course of action, as we see in the film with the example of Becky (transformed in the last moments of the film), is to "out" or testify against those who are still human. This pointing of the finger is the equivalent of naming names to the Committee. Pointing out someone who is "different" and alerting the boiling mob to their presence. The mob then seeks to stamp out those individuals who think differently.

Furthermore, the specific characters in the film are ones who may carry untrustworthy (communist?) backgrounds according to inquisitors like Joseph McCarthy. For example, Becky has just returned to the United States after five years in Europe (an invention of the screenplay, not the novel), and therefore her loyalties are suspect -- who knows how she's been influenced by the socialists of Old Europe?


Becky and Miles have both rejected the patriotic bedrock of marriage: they are divorcees, so they are outside social norms in 1950's America as well. And the other "targeted" character in the film is Jack Belicec, a writer. It is his occupation that's of paramount importance here: he is a representative, in a sense, of the under-siege entertainment industry. One of those damned, dreamy-eyed writers who might fall under the spell of socialists and communists, and begin spreading his godless ideas to innocent Americans who don't know better.

And really, that was the essence of McCarthy's argument: that Communism was Godless and should not be spread in the Christian States of America. Consider, it was on June 14th, 1956 that the words "under God" were officially added to the Pledge of Allegiance by law. It was on July 30th of 1956 that "In God We Trust" became the National Motto by law. Politicians - fearful of being labeled communists by Red Hunters, bent over backwards to prove they were patriotic, Christian Americans.The message here, spawned by the red baiting inquisitors: conform! conform! conform!

Given Daniel Mainwaring's background and history, as well as proclamations from the cast (including Dana Wynter) it is easy to see how Invasion of the Body Snatchers might be interpreted as an anti-McCarthy film. One railing against the right-wing machine urging conformity of religion and ideology.

However, there is another side to this story too, one that is the polar opposite of what I've just described above. It is entirely possible to read Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a contrary way. That the film is -- in fact -- not about McCarthyism at all, but rather about the deadly dangers of the encroaching Red Menace. 


Let's gaze at Don Siegel for a moment, the director of the film. He was widely-known to be an ardent right-winger in terms of his politics, and his career began under the bailiwick of pro-government propaganda films like 1946's Hitler Lives! His films, including 1971's Dirty Harry, have often been interpreted as right-wing. Considering this background, and the fact that film in general is not - alas - primarily a writer's venue -- one can make the argument with some confidence that Invasion of the Body Snatchers '56 is an aggressively anti-communist diatribe.

Notice, for example, how late in the film, Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is on the run and seeks help from his nurse and secretary, Sally. He goes to her house, peers in the window, and finds that she is hosting a gathering of the pod people. It is a secret meeting, a secret meeting not unlike the kind McCarthy imagined: communists and communist sympathizers working under closed door against the common good of patriotic Americans. 


Secondly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this incarnation, though extremely faithful in dialogue to Finney's novel adds a new word to Miles' diatribe against the aliens' emotionless gestalt. In the book, Miles complains that without emotions there is no ambition and no love. In the film, he tellingly adds "faith" to that list. Again, the fear of "godless" communism is apparent in the film, and the addition of the word "faith" to those qualities lost under pod-ism ties back directly to those acts of Congress I mentioned above, the ones re-establishing a Christian God as America's sponsor.

Also, the idea of being re-born into an "untroubled world" where "everyone is the same" seems to smack of an attack against Communism, not McCarthyism, no? 


A little more digging, and you can discern how this Invasion of the Body Snatcher views "collectivism," the group -think of the emotionless pods. It can't be a coincidence that the Grimaldi vegetable stand - once a very successful and thriving enterprise (under human ownership) - goes under when managed by the emotionless, communist pod people. In a world of collectivism, the film seems to be saying, capitalism dies. As author/producer Joseph Maddrey wrote in the comments section of this blog here a few days ago, there seems to be a pro-capitalism bent to both Finney's novel as well as this incarnation of the film.

So the question for us, as intrepid and questioning interpreters of this cinematic art, is, simply: what is this Invasion of the Body Snatchers attempting to say to us, or rather to the intended audience of mid-1950's middle America? 


Is it vehemently anti-McCarthy, or willfully anti-Communist? I submit that the film is likely railing against both "evils"; that it is actually a movie about resisting group think or the mob mentality under any guise. After all, what is inherently the difference between rabid communists and rabid anti-communists? Both factions are extreme, and seek to impose their will, ideology, and philosophy on the unaligned. 

Extremism, in any form, is oppressive and undesirable. I don't know if it's worse to live under a fascist dictatorship or a communist one, and in the end I don't think it matters. Whether you a far leftist or a far rightist, your ultimate goal is to push your dogmatic set of beliefs on those in small town America who just want to be free: free to work; free to love; free to be free from such rancorous divisions.

Miles' warning at the end of the film fits both interpretations of the material. It is delivered directly to the camera, in extreme close-up, and thus directly to us, the audience. "They're after all of us! You're next!" I submit that's a warning that skews in both directions. If allowed, unabated, the HUAC hearings would continue the witch hunt into small towns and middle America. Contrarily, it could be a warning that the Soviet Union was not about to let freedom reign in America, and that subversive communists were already here, corrupting our country.

It is undeniable that this Invasion of the Body Snatchers is extremely faithful to the novel by Finney and so in seeking answers about the intent of this art, we must return to the source material. Entire passages of dialogue and narration have been lifted from the book for the film, and so the concept of personal alienation is also critically important to the film. That idea of personal alienation finds its greatest expression in a beautifully-staged moment that is absolutely and totally inconsistent with everything the film has told us. However, it is so important, I believe, that the filmmakers let it go.

Let me explain. Throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the filmmakers carefully explain the life-cycle of the alien invaders to us. A pod, in close proximity to a human, expels a human-sized "blank" (an impression, the film calls it...). That blank then absorbs the mind and appearance of the nearby human while he or she sleeps. The original human body itself is then destroyed, reduced to "grey filth" and the pod body takes over without missing a step. The distinction I am trying to make is that the pods don't take over the human body. They inhabit duplicate bodies. The original body is...disposed of.

And yet, at the climax of this film, Miles returns to Becky after leaving her briefly to investigate the sound of music nearby (where the hills are alive, he hopes). In his absence, she has fallen asleep - the kiss of death, the period of duplication. Yet, in the same body, her eyes open, showing coldness and iciness. She says "I fell asleep and it happened, Miles," or some such thing, and that is absolutely inconsistent with the duplication process the film describes. She fell asleep, and the pods took over HER body. What should have happened, had the film been true to its own internal logic, is that her body should have dissolved away into dust, and another Becky should have sprung up nearby (wherever the pod was...). This is precisely what happens in the remake of the 1970's. Someone saw the inconsistency there and fixed it.

Yet, going out on a limb here, I would suggest that Siegel, Mainwaring and the producers were smart enough to know this, but that they wanted to get across the message of romantic alienation, the fear of "my wife isn't my wife anymore." How can I claim such a thing? Consider how, visually, this scene plays out as dramatized. Miles returns to Becky and she falls asleep right there on him. They fall over together, and he lands on top of her. They end up in an embrace in the mud.

Essentially, looking at them - this man and this woman are ensconced in the missionary position. Miles kisses Becky desperately and passionately, trying to wake her up, trying to rouse or stimulate her. This is the 1950's equivalent of making love on screen (you couldn't show much else.) Then, the film cuts to a first-person perspective, Miles' point of view, looking down Becky, his love. He expects her to return his affection, but this is not to be. It is from that first-person angle that we see Becky slowly open her eyes...and we know just from Wynter's performance that she is no longer Becky. This choice of angles, of mise-en-scene determinedly reveals to us the fear of romantic alienation. That the woman we love might one morning..suddenly not be that woman anymore. That romantic love can...slip away like a thief in the night, and we are left with something...cold, affection-less.

Critically, this message of alienation could not have carried across in this fashion if the filmmakers had stuck strictly to the "rules" of the pod people. We could not have been afforded - literally - an eye-to-eye look at romantic alienation. So yes, there is a huge inconsistency here, but this is one of those occasions, I submit, when breaking the rules is acceptable because there is an artistic purpose underlining it. If the message of the film is alienation, then you the fillm needs this shot.

Much has been made over the years over the "framing" story of this Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you've seen the film, you know it begins and ends with a raving, lunatic Miles in a hospital, trying to make a psychiatrist and a doctor believe his crazy tale of an alien invasion in Santa Mira (not the Mill Valley of the book). For years and years, I have read from genre reviewers how this framing device and the subsequent optimistic ending (the fight is joined!) sullies the message and intent of the film. It's received wisdom however, and I'm all for questioning received wisdom.

For one thing, the book-end framing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers allows us to hear Miles' recount the adventure in his own words and expressions, in voice-over. This is the film equivalent of the book's first person voice. Hence, it is true to the spirit of the book


Secondly, had the film ended merely with Miles screaming in traffic "they're here! they're coming after you!" it would have been a deliberately downbeat climax directly in contradiction to the upbeat ending of the book (which saw the pods head off into space). The book-ends, with the doctors believing Miles after the discovery of the pods - is actually closer in spirit to the novel than the more downbeat ending that many critics have argued for over the years. Maybe they didn't read the book. My point is that the story frame doesn't diminish the film; but actually brings the film in closer alignment to the source material.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, beyond the search for cultural subtext and meaning, is the visualization of the material, the careful staging. For instance, Siegel arranges numerous shots with an eye towards visually expressing entrapment. There are shots through staircase posts (bars of a sort), shots through grills in doors (another jail-like visual), even through wooden floorboards in an abandoned mine. The upshot is that we often view our on-the-run protagonists (Miles and Becky) through some kind of visual barrier...something preventing their escape. I believe that this approach helps to enhance the mood of hysteria and paranoia the film is so famous for generating. I hadn't watched the film in a good long while, perhaps eight or nine years, so I wasn't prepared either for the fact that Invasion of the Body Snatchers boasts two jump-out-of-your seat jolts in the first five minutes. This film was made over fifty years ago and those stingers still work. That's a testament to the technical skill of the film-making.

There seems to be a great deal to discuss about this film, its message and its implications, but I hope to leave some of that to you, my intelligent and curious readers. I was thinking about writing about how, in some sense, this film is about the age of small towns in America (an age that has passed in history; I submit we're now in the Wal-Mart Age). And that in some fashion, this Invasion is about how foreign ideas can poison or an infect a small town. But I think I've explored enough ideas for one post and one movie, and now I want to know what you think.

Is Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 an anti-communist film? Or is it Anti-McCarthy? Or do you agree with me: is it simply a warning against extremism on either pole? Can't wait to read your thoughts...

Next up: I'm Okay, You're a Pod: Invasion 1978.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pod Sex

An addendum to my post on Finney's Body Snatchers: I neglected to note that Finney's novel is the only version of the material that specifies the sexual habits of the duplicated beings, or "pod people." In particular, the pod people do not sexually reproduce at all, according to the book. I think this is a critical aspect of Finney's narrative and central argument. Because if you don't feel some form of emotion, why would you make love? In a sense, I think that Finney is saying that emotions - love in particular - are the things that drive us to perpetuate the species and reproduce. If you take emotion out of our genetic equation, the human race dies. This eventuality seems borne out in the life cycle of the pods: without the capacity to reproduce, their duplicated bodies die out after five years, and the parasitic seeds must seek more "fertile" (if you'll pardon the expression) terrain on other worlds.

I thought this was worth mentioning in light of the fact that virtually every cinematic incarnation of Body Snatchers involves some sort of love relationship gone awry. We have divorcees Becky and Miles in the 1950s version -- both the products of failed marriages. We have unhappily married Elizabeth attracted to Bennell in the 1978 take, and her husband is one of the parasites. Even the latest version, in 2007, lands a female Bennell (Nicole Kidman) in a failed marriage and seeking love with another suitor (Daniel Craig). The romantic love relationship - this passionate, connection to a human being - is always the "thing" that is in danger of being lost in the films, though (for better or worse...) The Invasion adds the element of parental love. But more than that when we get to it.

Tomorrow: "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: Invasion 1956."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Body Snatchers

In 1954, Dell published a science fiction novel entitled The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. Finney's landmark work has been translated to film a whopping four times, in 1956, 1978, in 1993 and just last year, in 2007 (as The Invasion). Some of the terminology associated with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers franchise, including the descriptor "pod people" has landed in the pop culture firmament of our country and remained there for decades. We have seen variations of the paranoid tale in efforts such as The Stepford Wives (1975), and even on Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Bad Eggs"). There have also been entire TV series titled The Invaders and Invasion which grapple with some of the same core concepts as Finney's story.

Considering the importance of this novel in genre film history, I thought it might be interesting to go back to the beginning and examine first Finney's novel, and then all four celluloid adaptations of the story. We can survey the whole franchise together, surveying the efforts for similarities, differences, and variations on a theme. In particular, I enjoy gazing at how the tale changes with the passage of time, reflecting the decade in which the particular film was made. So if you happen to be near a library, pick up a copy of Finney's novel so you can contribute to the discussion. I've also just queued the various cinematic versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers at Netflix and urge you to do the same. This is always more fun if we do it together and have points in common to discuss. I won't start blogging the films till next week, so you can catch up with me, if so inclined, by acting now.


Finney's novel (which was first appeared serialized in Colliers Magazine) commences with this paragraph, and one might consider it a mission statement for the book, and also for the film adaptations :

"I warn you that what you're starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me, it won't anyway. Because I can't say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I've been right in the thick of it. Now if you don't like that kind of story, I'm sorry and you'd better not read it. All I can do is tell what I know."

After this disclaimer of sorts, Finney escorts us to the evening of October 28, 1976 in a small-town in southern California called Mill Valley. It's a Thursday around 5:00, and the book's main character, Dr. Miles Bennell continues to narrate the story in the first person. He's a young family practitioner, having inherited the local medical practice from his father, and is well-known and well-liked by the locals. Miles is an effective literary protagonist for Finney to deploy here because his style of narration is crisp and at times it feels as though we're actually reading doctors notes, narrated directly into a tape recorder. The voice is intelligent, the language smart, but there's nothing too flowery, too knowledgeable, too over-the-top or melodramatic to break the spell. And Miles never gets to see the whole picture...he just reports what he sees. A kind of literary Cloverfield, in a sense. We aren't privy to the big picture, only on how the events impact Miles and the town of Mill Valley.

In short order, the divorced 28-year old Miles is met at his office by his old flame, the recently divorced Becky Driscoll. She wants to talk business not pleasure, however. Her aunt, Wilma Lentz, has begun acting...strangely. She claims that her uncle Ira is not her Uncle Ira at all. Oh he looks like Uncle Ira, sounds like Uncle Ira, moves like Uncle Ira and has all of Uncle Ira's memories...but Wilma is sure -- just sure -- he is not the same man. Hot for Becky but also genuinely concerned for his patient, Miles goes to see Ms. Lentz and question her about this. "Miles, there is no difference you can actually see," asserts Wilma to the town doctor. She won't be moved from her position, and Miles attempts to talk some sense to her in what is the first of the novel's many comments on psychology and psychiatry, which in the 1950s were moving rapidly into the American mainstream.

"Now listen to me," says Miles..."I don't expect you to stop feeling emotionally that this isn't your uncle. But I do want you to realize that he's your uncle, no matter what you feel, and that the trouble is inside you. It's absolutely impossible for two people to look exactly alike, no matter what you've read in stories or seen in the movies. Even identical twins can always be told apart - always - by their intimates. No one could possibly impersonate your Uncle Ira for more than a moment without you, Becky or even me seeing a million little differences. Realize that, Wilma, think about it, and get it into your head, and you'll know the trouble is inside you. And then we'll be able to do something about it."

The preceding paragraph is critical to an informed reading of Finney's novel because it lays down the underlying subtext and dynamic of Finney's novel: the idea that psychology/psychiatry and rationality has in essence - by exploring the human mind - killed God, faith and belief and most significantly, imagination. Wilma Lentz just knows that her Uncle isn't the same man that he was, but she can't prove it, and there is no scientific rationale - no acceptable scientific rationale, for her beliefs. Therefore, she must be sick. Right? If you know the story of the Body Snatchers, you know that Uncle Ira is indeed not himself, but a "snatched man," a replicated man, an alien invader who duplicated Ira but who lacks the emotionality of mankind. This new being, one who looks and sounds like us, is the ultimate triumph of the rational age, the age of such sciences as psychology, one might assert. The aliens have not merely sublimated emotion (as Miles has asked Wilma Lentz to do), but have eliminated it from the gene pool.

Miles is torn between two competing belief systems in the book. On one hand is the intelligent, rational, steadfast psychology of his friend Mannie Kaufman, a local psychiatrist. Mannie suggests that Wilma and the others who begin to suspect that their loved ones are not their loved ones, are actually delusional. That the madness is all within their sick minds, not in reality. He lays out a convincing case that this strange belief is merely a "contagious neurosis." In compelling terms, he describes case histories of mob hysteria (including the Mattoon Maniac of Illinois...) to prove his point. You want to believe him, he makes the case so powerfully and so logically.

But the other voice in Miles' head, the voice that ultimately allows him to believe in the alien invasion, belongs to an imaginative writer named Jack Belicec. As a hobby, Jack collects newspaper clippings that involve inexplicable happenings around America. Like the time frogs fell from the sky in Edgeville Alabama. Or that story in Idaho, about a man who spontaneously combusted...but his clothes were unharmed. Jack is the opposite side of the human equation from Kaufman, the side that can conceive of things beyond science, beyond psychosis. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in Kaufman's philosophy (or in the DSM IV), and Jack is the character who gives voice in the novel to that aspect of "us."

Ultimately, the novel serves a as a rejection of "cold" science and also as plea for humanity to hold fast to the sometimes strange beliefs he holds. From the valedictory passage in the book, as expressed by Miles:

"But...showers of small frogs, tiny fish and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously-written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time - or you hear vague distorted rumours of them. And this much I know. Some of them - some of them - are true."

Besides the battle between science and belief, Finney's The Body Snatchers
treads primarily on the idea of relationship "alienation" made literal. Those alienated from their families are actually dealing with alien life forms. That's pretty clever, actually. But if one gazes at the characters in the book, many are also coping with the fall-out of bad relationships. It can't be a coincidence that the two main characters - Becky and Miles - are both divorced. And that's the ultimate form of human alienation, isn't? You live with a person you love for years and years and then you wake up one day and suddenly don't feel the same way about that person anymore. Without warning, something has changed. Overnight, you "don't know" that other person anymore, that husband, that wife, that uncle, aunt, parent or child. Alienation of affection is what I'm talking about here, and it happens all the time in normal, mundane relationships. The alien invaders of Invasion of the Body Snatchers symbolize this strangeness in human interactions. I don't believe it a coincidence either that the changeover from human to alien comes like a thief in the night, during sleep. Alienation of affection can go on for months or years but when grappling with it, it seems to have come all at once. You don't recognize the person in bed beside you anymore. They feel like a stranger. They look like your mate; they have your mate's memories...but they feel like an interloper, a changeling.

What the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers lack is the core of humanity and the human experience: emotions. They can pretend to have feelings and they can skillfully mimic emotions, but they don't feel anything at all. Without emotions, there is no excitement. Without excitement there is no ambition, no love. Without ambition, nobody writes books anymore...imagination vanishes. Kaufman - now an alien - will never finish the textbook about Psychiatry he began as a human being. That is the fate mankind is doomed to here in the novel if the aliens win; if we abandon the imaginative side of ourselves.

Late in The Body Snatchers, Miles confers with Kaufman as well as with a "converted" professor. They explain to Miles the end game of the aliens, beings who have arrived on Earth in giant seeds, pods for lack of a better word:

"What do you do and for what reason? Why do you breathe, eat, sleep, make love and reproduce your kind? Because it's your function, your reason for being. There's no other reason, and none needed...You look shocked, actually sick, and yet what has the human race done except spread over this planet till it swarms the globe several billion strong? What have you done with this very continent but expand till you fill it? And where are the buffalo who roamed the land before you? Gone. Where is the passenger pigeon who once literally darkened the skies of America in flocks of billions? The last one died in a Philadelphia zoo in 1913. Doctor, the function of life is to live if it can and no other motive can ever be allowed to interfere with that. There is no malice involved; did you hate the buffalo? We must continue because we must..."

You have to admit, there's a cold logic to the alien motive for their takeover of Earth, but the difference is that we still feel pity for the buffalo or the passenger pigeon. If we could change their fates, I submit we likely would. With cold science, there's no need for pity, no need for remorse, no need for compassion.

Some other interesting notations about the book and how it differs from the film versions. First, the ending. The climax of Finney's Body Snatchers is not inherently nihilistic, bleak, depressing or dark, as some have claimed over the years. In fact, at least two film versions feature abundantly darker endings than what is featured here. In the novel, the pods flee Earth when they realize how irrational human beings are (again, human emotions!), after Miles and Becky wage a hopeless war burning fields of the alien pods.

Secondly, the alien countenance: In this novel, the aliens are not easily detectable. They lack strong emotions, but as I wrote above, they have the capacity to mimic human emotions. It isn't so easy to spot them in the novel as it is in all the film versions.

Thirdly, Finney goes to great lengths to describe the science behind the "body snatching" procedure and why that procedure occurs during sleep. The explanation involves "tiny electrical force-lines that hold together the very atoms that constitute" human beings. These force-lines are in constant flux, constant change, but they change less, according to Finney, during sleep. And during sleep, that "pattern can be taken from you, absorbed like static electricity, from one body to another." Only the 2007 version of the material came this close to offering a scientific explanation for why the changeover occurs during sleep.

Also, Finney reveals what the future is for planet Earth should the aliens win: all organisms on the planet will die within five years and the the pods will seek another world to duplicate. The novel indicates that there was once life on Mars and even on our Moon, but that the pods duplicated - and then destroyed - all life there. Not one of the four films have picked up on this element, to my recollection. (I'll be watching them all soon - hopefully you will too -- so I may be wrong about this.)

With this information about the novel behind us, I hope you get the chance to read Finney's stand-out work and study some of these points, and find others of interest too. Let's see your comments below. I may have missed something important, but these are my initial thoughts about the novel after a quick reading. I'll update, perhaps, after I sleep on it...assuming I'm not a pod person by tomorrow morning.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The House Between 2.8: "Ruined"

The final episode of The House Between's second season finds the denizens fighting for their lives against the Dark Matter Entity. Astrid holds the key to salvation...or destruction. Produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Written and directed by: John Kenneth Muir.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The House Between Episode 2.8 "Ruined" Director Notes


Tomorrow we arrive at “Ruined,” the blazing second season finale of The House Between. As I contemplate these director notes today, I realize that there are so many things I can’t say or reveal, because the final story is utterly jam-packed with surprises, shocks, reversals and twists. So, if you’ll forgive me, I have to speak in infuriating generalities today. Also: fewer episode photographs than usual. Can’t show too much of “Ruined.” Not yet. Many of the surprises are visual ones. Especially the last five minutes of the show.

The blog has been sparse of late (the last two weeks…) because I have been sleepless and sick, but also because “Ruined” has been an absolute ball buster to edit and assemble. There are more effects shots contained in this one episode than in the entire House Between series so far. If we actually had a budget, this would be a budget buster. We don’t have a budget (not to speak of…) so it has been a “time” buster instead, as I compose layer after layer of effect. To paraphrase Scotty on Star Trek, my Dell hard-drive “canna’ take much more of this!”

Storywise, “Ruined” picks up in exactly the same instant that “Caged” ended last week. The entirety of Season Two has been leading to this climax, this denouement. This is the moment (and episode) where plot threads, story arcs, throwaway lines and character crises come together and everything makes sense. The circle gets squared. Or something like that. Full circle.

“Ruined” features a new villain and an old one; it also resurrects previous interludes in season one and two and infuses them with new, altered and powerful meaning. It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. It is the end of the status quo and a giant step off a precipice into unchartered waters.


My producer Joseph Maddrey pulled me back from the edge of total annihilation in the writing stage and added a single, brilliant line (for Bill) that would lead us down the path of Season Three. I’m glad he did that. If only so I have somewhere to go in the writing.

See? Generalities. Infuriating ones.

Looking at literary and filmic antecedents, “Ruined” is The House Between’s version of A Christmas Carol…meets The Evil Dead. When I first began conceiving every arc for Season Two, I knew this episode was where the season needed to end, though the exact events did change a little bit, based on intervening stories. Visually, ‘Ruined” references the second Sapphire & Steel serial (which involved a creeping blackness consuming an abandoned rail station), Bride of Frankenstein and – in my favorite moment – a tribute to the classic Twilight Zone opening. Honestly, crafting my own Twilight Zone-style shot has been a kick (but time consuming…).

I remember that shooting “Ruined” was one of the worst days of the entire production. The cast and crew were sick and exhausted. Honestly, it was extremely rough. I missed my son. I missed my wife. I missed my bed.

Plus, it was heartbreaking contemplating the farewells. I’m not one for goodbyes. Alicia finished the day first and had to leave early to meet another commitment (a wedding I think). And it actually hurt to say goodbye to her. I can’t explain it exactly, but these actors (and behind-the-scenes crew) are simultaneously like children, friends, and siblings to me. Contemplating Alicia’s early departure, I realized it was truly the end of the family reunion. I remember a special night during the second season when Kathryn, Alicia and I decided to hang out at the house at the end of the universe long after shooting was done…just the three of us. We were all exhausted, but we three stayed together in the kitchen, drank beers, and talked about friendship, love, and the future. It’s an occasion I’ll always cherish. That night was on my mind as Alicia (my Theresa!) said her farewells.

And off they went, one by one. We lost Craig Eckrich next, soon after Alicia. If you ever meet Craig, you’ve made a friend for life. This guy is the epitome of the word “team player,” and will do anything to pitch in. No task is too small or too big. He lives by a simple and decent code: if you need him, he’s there. His character, Brick, finished second.

And then Arlo was done, and poor Jim – still under the weather – finally got to sit down and begin healing. Then Travis went, and I remember congratulating Lee for surviving the second season. Then Bill’s turn came, and Tony’s last moment before the camera was a disturbing one. If you follow the series, you know what I mean. Bill always has something terrible happen to him at least once a season. God knows why we saved that moment for his last this year, but it was oddly and disconcertingly…final.

One by one, these characters I had long since fallen in love with, these remarkable performers and friends, stepped before the cameras for the last time, and it was difficult saying goodbye to them. I was now sad as well as tired.

But the day ended in a magical and unexpected way. For the first time in days, the house was all but empty, most of the cast and crew gone home, and I had the chance to share that space “at the end of the universe” with a small creative team and the last cast member, Kim Breeding. How strange and right, I thought, that The House Between Year Two should end in the same way that The House Between Year One had begun. With Astrid (and Kim) in that limbo in (mostly) isolation. With few pages left to shoot, with the bulk of the work behind us, with the set feeling like a “house with all the children gone,” I just found time to enjoy Kim doing some of her finest work ever. It was a nice way to go out. All the pressure had dropped away for a change, and though the scenes were harsh and disturbing, there was also a relaxed element to the shoot.

But that was just shooting, believe me. There’s nothing relaxed about the way “Ruined” punctuates the season, and tomorrow you’ll get to see for yourself. I hope you enjoy the show, and I hope you have enjoyed the second season. Please write in here or on the discussion boards at Sy Fy Portal and let us know what you think of our efforts.

Next week – the blog gets back to normal business: movie reviews, TV flashbacks, and retro-toys. But tomorrow..."Ruined."

Friday, March 14, 2008

The House Between 2.7: "caged"

Vitality - the household lar - unexpectedly faces an attack from outside, one that forces her to join with one of the human denizens at the house at the end of the universe. Written and produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Directed by: John Kenneth Muir. www.thehousebetween.com

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The House Between Director's Notes, Episode 2.7: "Caged"


There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the original Star Trek episode, “By Any Other Name.” That in the process of crafting the story, accomplished author Jerome Bixby – in the words of the Great Bird of Galaxy (Gene Roddenberry) - had gotten caught up or rather bogged down in “the bigness of it all,” a cerebral approach which didn’t really work on the action-adventure space-faring 1960s classic series. I’ve always remembered that turn of phrase, “the bigness of it all,” and one of the primary reasons I enjoy and admire Space:1999 so deeply is because it regularly faces “the bigness of it all.” Man’s journey to the stars…countenancing a universe of endless possibilities…is there anything bigger?

This discussion brings us to “Caged,” the penultimate season two episode of The House Between. The story is written by Joseph Maddrey, our producer and a veteran TV writer. He's also the author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. As we were planning the second season arc, I told Joe of my strong passion for last year’s “Settled,” a story that I felt was about the characters but which also had a cerebral, almost icy British sci-fi feel (like Space:1999 or Sapphire & Steel). And, Joe, to my delight then contributed a story in that mode; one that is simultaneously intimate and also concerned with “the bigness of it all.” But the bigness of it all in this context isn’t the universe or outer space, but rather the inner space these characters traverse and what it means to them emotionally; what it represents. "Caged" is about the meaning of life, or as one character says, the lens “through which to view the meaning of life.”

So “Caged” is a cerebral, meditative story and I like to (only half-jokingly) call it The House Between by way of Ingmar Bergman. As a writer, I have frequently utilized the series as a vehicle to express my social, political or moral interests. What I find endlessly fascinating about “Caged” is that Joe has taken the driver’s wheel and utilizes the series to express some unique philosophical component of his own persona; of how he views “the meaning of life.” And if you know Joe, you realize this means lots of brooding and much existential angst. Even story-wise, the episode "Caged" has a singularly interesting component: it all occurs in one very long, very sleepless night in the house at the end of the universe. It feels like an extended moment, a dark night of the soul or calm before the storm. Perhaps more than any show we've done yet, I feel like "Caged" puts the viewer inside that house with the characters. You get a feel of the "space" around the characters as never before.

To refresh a little, the end of the season finds character strife running higher even than usual. Bill is locked up in his room, working on his “damned” equations. He and Astrid aren’t speaking. After the events of “Distressed,” Astrid and Travis aren’t exactly on great terms either. And Bill and Travis? As we saw in “Populated,” they’re practically at each other’s throats. Now comes “Caged,” a story that leads us finally and irrevocably down a path with no turns. And no turning back.

Here are some of Joe’s thoughts on the creation of this episode, how he devised it, and what it means:



When you asked me if I'd write an episode for season two, we were working on the final edit of "Trashed." I was intrigued by something the character Sange said in that episode about "animals trapped in individual cages... but the cages were always changing... filled with isolation, alienation and bitterness." This, according to Sange, was the fate of the old world... and, with all of the in-fighting in The House Between, it seemed like it could well be the eventual fate of the smart house. To me, this series is ultimately about a group of very different people who have to work together to survive, so that's what I wanted "Caged" to be about.

In the first season episode "Settled," Astrid gets a glimpse of another dimension, but she's the only one who "sees" outside the walls of the house. I wondered why. In "Caged," everyone gets their own private glimpse into another reality. This has the ability to make them feel very isolated from each other. And in a way it makes Astrid feel isolated from herself....

The big question is WHY -- why is the house suddenly showing them these things? Coming at the end of a very violent season that has put a lot of stress on the smart house, it seemed to me that Vitality might be struggling, just as desperately as the human characters, to survive...

Our approach to shooting “Caged” was markedly different from the other season two episodes. This has been a season of experimentation to a high degree, with unconventional stories such as “Separated” and “Populated.” “Caged” follows in that ambitious tradition. Although there is still a lot of dialogue, the episode also reveals glimpses of characters in silence: in sleep, or in meditation, without the “noise” of the strife around them. To chart this “inner” world of the house at the end of the universe, our DP Rick Coulter mounted him his camera on a board as an ad-hoc steadicam and did lots of “roving’ POV shots. Thanks to lighting directors Kevin Flanagan and Bobby Schweizer, we also adopted a new, more low-key lighting scheme to showcase the notion of half-lit nighttime in the smart house. Joe’s meditative, contemplative script, coupled with the lighting and camera-work provides us a different, perhaps more lugubrious feel than ever before.

I believe too that the performances have adapted to fit the shift in material. Here, body language and expression are more important than ever, as we observe these characters in silence, alone…wanting. Again, this is something I’m glad we had the opportunity to do. I've often described The House Between as a conversation about the world that refuses to end. This episode hits like a train because a lot of that conversation is actually...in intermission in "Caged." It's kind of a shock.. Also, a personal note, if you will indulge me: watching this episode you get a true sense of just what an interesting group of “faces” we have assembled here. I enjoy that “Caged” grants the opportunity do things we haven’t seen these characters do before (like pray, or fix a midnight snack…) These quiet, simple and human touches, I suspect, make the characters that much more real, and in some cases, that much more heartbreaking.

One of the primary ideas informing the editing of “Caged” was that I wanted certain frames, and certain shots to evoke the feeling that you are looking a painting, at a work of art. Life unfolding in both motion and stillness. The faces of Astrid, Theresa, Bill, Arlo, Brick or Travis painted on a canvas created by Vitality…who makes a re-appearance here. I’m also happy about this episode because there is so much “inner space,” so much silence, that Mateo Latosa’s music gets a chance to be heard without the vicissitudes of constant dialogue. His compositions are another character in the house, and I’m glad we have an episode here that gives his efforts a moment in the sun. For this episode, he composed a particularly lovely and serene piece for Theresa, called “Cape Cod.”

So “Caged” leaves us at the cusp of our gut-wrenching, destructive, take-your-breath away season finale, “Ruined.” I hope you enjoy this installment of the show, and will be back to see how everything turns out next week. Please, comment away!

Friday, March 07, 2008

The House Between 2.6: "Distressed"

Ghosts migrate to the house at the end of the universe, and provide the key to a series of historical mysteries. The ghosts grow increasingly dangerous, possessing the living and injuring the denizens. Now it's up to Astrid (Kim Breeding), Theresa (Alicia A. Wood), Arlo (Jim Blanton) and Sgt. Brick (Craig Eckrich) to solve the mystery. What they find has repercussions for Travis (Lee Hansen). Written and directed by: John Kenneth Muir. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey. www.thehousebetween.com

www.thehousebetween.com

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The House Between 2.6 Director Notes: "Distressed"


“Distressed,” airing tomorrow, is a bonus episode of sorts for The House Between. I had originally conceived seven episodes for the program's second season, and begun a concept called “Distressed” in case of a problem or in the unlikely event that we beat our crazy production schedule and had extra time. I didn’t really expect there to be a problem, or that the bonus episode would be required, or that we would have extra time. I'm just a guy who likes to be prepared.

However, on Day Six of our second season shoot, my dear Tony Mercer (who plays Bill) grew gravely and dramatically ill. He was suffering in massive amounts of pain and could not work. In point of fact, he should have probably gone to the hospital. The day after we finished our shoot, he did go to the hospital. The day after that, he was in surgery. Without going into any details, that’s how serious this was…

I should add, Tony was more than willing to work, but I assessed his situation and told him he needed to rest and recuperate. We still had another two days to go, and my fear was that if he stressed himself now…the entire end of the season would be compromised and we’d be left with no resolution, and no finale. The theory was that a day of rest would re-energize him, and we could hopefully finish the season as intended. Tony felt bad about this. He was more concerned for the show than his own health, but the ultimate decision was mine, and I think I made the right call. I didn’t want to have to send for the ambulance at the end of the universe.

But the problem was…what could we shoot without Tony? His character is present in spades in the last two climactic episodes, “Caged” and “Ruined,” so we could spend the morning shooting the scenes he wasn’t in for “Caged,” but after that? I couldn’t have the cast sitting around, with time running out and a rented and paid for “house at the end of the universe.” That didn’t make any sense. Also, if Tony didn’t get better, we needed to go out on a note that would draw viewers back for a third season. Otherwise, our last episode would be “Populated,” which was a terrific show, but it was smack dab in the middle of the arc and was pretty neatly resolved.

So I dispatched my producer Joe Maddrey and my dp Rick Coulter and cameraman Bobby Schweizer to begin shooting the Mercer-less scenes of “Caged,” while I sequestered myself in Astrid’s room at the house at the end of the universe and wrote, re-wrote and polished “Distressed.”

We began shooting the completed episode cold at 1:00 pm. I knew we risked being up all night to finish, but amazingly we completed the entire episode (32 pages) by 10:30 pm. Most episodes of The House Between take us sixteen-to-eighteen hours to shoot, but fate unexpectedly turned our way, and everybody worked really hard and shot the episode in half-the-normal time. We did it, literally, on a wing and a prayer.

And there were further hardships to tell you about. Jim Blanton, who plays Arlo, began to feel ill before noon the same day. By mid-afternoon, he had a fever of 104 degrees which just wouldn’t break. Jim acted the entire episode – and it featured a substantial part for Arlo – with that raging fever. By eight pm that night, Jim was caked in sweat. By nine that night, he could hardly stand-up…he had to literally be propped up for his scenes. By the time we finished shooting, I swear he had lost five pounds in a day. It was frightening because if you've seen Jim, you know he doesn't have five pounds to lose. I’ve talked to Jim recently about “Distressed” and he has no memory of shooting it; or what went on. That's probably a good thing...

But we got “Distressed” in the can, and by late in the evening, just as Jim was fading into a final delirium. Miraculously, Tony started feeling better and we were even able to work Bill into the episode for an important scene. I tell you -- it was crazy. The next day, Tony and Jim both returned to the set and – still not feeling well – went on to finish the season with the rest of the team.

I’m not finished, either. Rob Floyd, our special effects guru, had to create a new camera-worthy prop for “Distressed” with no warning and no time – a Ouija or spirit board – and he was under the weather too. He had developed a terrible allergy to something in the house at the end of the universe and his eyes were red and raw. But he came through, and did a fantastic job.

Maybe the show should have been titled “Cursed…”

Truly, everybody persevered on that dark day. The cast including Lee, Kim, Craig Jim and Alicia had to perform a script they had never read, never even laid eyes on. We were printing the scripts at 12:45 pm, and because of the alacrity at which we were moving, some of the actors didn’t even get their own copies of “Distressed.” But they all did a great job dealing with the challenges of the script. Watching the episode, I am blown away by all the performances, because the script calls for a different set of challenges than usual. “Distressed” features a side of Travis never before excavated; Astrid has a ton to do and is responsible, basically for "moving" the story; Theresa deals with a new challenge that had to believable and affecting; Brick has his biggest role to date; and Arlo had to contend with a weird situation too. It’s not like this was an easy or rote script where the actors could just glide or walk through familiar roles. It was a steep challenge in terms of schedule and concentration.

So that’s how “Distressed” got made. I’m glad we shot it, because it adds a piece of the puzzle in moving towards Season Three. If we had not had the opportunity to shoot it, this piece of the overall arc would not have fallen into place till much later and that would have certainly been problematic for the series. Now, I can’t imagine “Distressed” not being the queue, and truth be told, I think even negating all the hardship that went into it, it’s a strong addition to the second season roster. In particular, I have to compliment our lighting team, Bobby and Kevin for doing their finest work yet on the series. They did a lot with shadow and light in this stuff. It's just gorgeous (and I hope the contrast survives the Veoh compression process). Also, Rick's camera work was the best it's been. In terms of visuals, I love "Distressed."

In terms of storyline, “Distressed” deals with the paranormal, the ideas of ghosts (or “disembodied spirits”) moving into the zone of blackness around the house at the end of the universe. Psychometry, spirit boards, spirit possession, automatic writing and the like all play a part in the tale. I was thrilled to get these concepts into the show because I remember feeling during the preparation for the second season that perhaps we were beginning to rely too heavily on the science/quantum reality stuff, and not paying heed to my edict that the house at the end of the universe is a crossroads where imagination, science, religion and the paranormal all combine. Certainly we’ve seen science in “Separated” to explain alternate realities, and imagination played a critical role in Bobby Schweizer’s “Populated,” but I am happy that the mystical, the psychical, gets some expression in “Distressed.” Religion is a point of importance in the upcoming “Caged.”

The entrance point to “Distressed” is an historical mystery, and the episode is rife with them: from the lost colony at Roanoke to the Mary Celeste to the Bermuda Triangle. I have always been obsessed with these historical enigmas and was thrilled to get the chance to explore them a bit on The House Between. One of my old scripts, written in 1998 was for a feature film called Insula Temporis (Time Island or Island of Time), about a group of contemporary scientists discovering the trail of the Roanoke survivors. Eventually it leads them to a kind of temporal meridian, a place where all historical time periods intersects. It was my homage to The Fantastic Journey (1977), one of my favorite disco decade sci-fi shows. We started shooting that script in the summer of 1998, but my lead actress had a breakdown and we never finished it, so it was a pleasure to get to use some of my research and ideas from it on The House Between.

The genre-knowledgeable viewer will find brief touches (in one case, merely visual...) of Star Trek’s “Operation: Annihilate” and “Day of the Dove” in “Distressed,” as well as an allusion or two to The Fantastic Journey. Also, the Mary Celeste element is something I simply had to add, because I love British science fiction television of the 1960s-1970s, and the disappearance of that ship's crew is constantly being mentioned in some of my favorite programs. The Daleks were responsible for the missing crew in one Doctor Who serial. Space:1999 mentioned the "ghost ship" in "Guardian of Piri" and one Sapphire & Steel episode also made reference to it.

In terms of meaning and metaphor, this episode brings The House Between back to the territory of “Returned,” our season premiere, and in particular, the question: how do you define life? Here, question raised is: what makes life worth living? In particular, “Distressed” offers my answer about end-of-life issues.

The editing of “Distressed” was actually relatively trouble free, and producer Joe Maddrey had some good notes, but only relatively minor changes. He had been otherwise engaged for much of the shooting on this episode; desperately trying to schedule out the rest of the season’s shooting schedule, so this episode played as a kind of ‘fresh experience” for him. He’d never even gotten to read the script on set!

So that’s the long and complicated story behind the appropriately-titled “Distressed.” I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to your comments. Next week, we move into the first part of our season finale, “Caged.”

I'm happy with where the series is right now. All the story points -- all the bowling pins -- are now standing. In the next two weeks...we knock 'em down. All of 'em...

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Sy Fy Portal Reviews The House Between 2.1: "Returned"


This week, journalist Marx Pyle at Sy Fy Portal reviews our second season premiere, "Returned." Here's a sample of the critique:

"Again, John Kenneth Muir’s writing is strong and bumps this low-budget series into a high quality show. This episode acts as a great starting point for the new season. It has introduced new mysteries that I feel confident will be answered by the end of the season, which is a refreshing change compared to many TV shows that seem to make it up as they go.

I picked on the camera work, lighting and sound in my review of season one. This time around, though, I can tell that JKM and his crew learned a lot from their experience making the first season. There is a big improvement in lighting, the framing is a great deal stronger and we get more close-ups, which really help the actors shine in their performances.

The acting is stronger this season. I can really tell that the actors have grown into their roles and have a deeper understanding of their characters..."

The Shat versus The Devil Bobblehead

My daily screening of The Twilight Zone has landed me at the second season entry entitled "Nick of Time." This is yet another Richard Matheson story, and one of my all-time favorite installments of the 1959-1964 Rod Serling series. There are flashier shows, there are scarier shows, but I really enjoy how ambiguous this story is.

"Nick of Time" is the story of Don S. Carter (William Shatner -- again!) and his new wife, Pam (Patricia Breslin). Their car has broken down on their honeymoon trip to New York, and the couple is forced to make a pit stop for repairs in the sleepy little town of Ridgeview, Ohio. It is there, in the Busy Bee Diner, that this couple will -- according to narrator Serling -- find "a gift most humans will never receive," the ability to "learn the future." Why? Well, because this town and this diner rests on "the outskirts" of The Twilight Zone.

Our central character Don is an interesting cat here and this is another classic Shatner performance. Don's the superstitious type, with a rabbits foot on his key chain right beside a four-leaf clover. He is given to expressing himself in phrases such as "keep your fingers crossed." "It's like you married an alcoholic" he admits to Pam in one of his more lucid moments, aware of how superstitious he really is.

But on now to Don's unusual nemesis. It's a rinky-dink napkin dispenser with a Devil Bobblehead perched on top. It's the "one cent" "Mystic Seer," a fortune telling-device that for one penny will read you your future. It does so by ejecting little cards that cryptically answer yes or no questions.

Sounds harmless enough, right? Not so fast...

First, the machine accurately predicts that Don will get the promotion he's been waiting for. Then it reports that the couple's car will not take four hours to be repaired, as was told the couple. Don grows ever more convinced that the "gizmo" is actually telling him his future. "Why was it so specific?" He asks Pam. "Every answer seems to fit," he insists. Pam isn't so sure.

And then things get really spooky. Don asks the machine if something will happen to the couple if they leave town. The answer: "if you move soon." He then asks, "should we stay here?" The answer: "that makes a good deal of sense." Finally, Bob interprets a message from the Devil Bobblehead to mean that he and Pam shouldn't leave the diner until after 3:00 pm that afternoon.

Pam objects and forces Don to leave the diner. At one minute to three, on the street outside, they are nearly run over by a speeding car...

Convinced and stubborn, Don returns to the diner and begins asking the Mystic Seer more questions, even though Pam begs him not to. "You made up all the details, and all that thing did is give back generalities," she tells him. He still won't leave. Not until his new wife tells him that the machine is running his life, and that she can't be married to a man who "believes more in luck and fortune" than in himself.

Don and Pam escape this trap, what Serling terms "the tyranny of fear and superstition," but in the episode's final shot, we see that another couple isn't so lucky. "Can we ask some more questions today?" They ask the machine. "Do you think we might leave Ridgeview today?"

"Is there any way out?"

So again, in the most wonderful and entertaining terms imaginable, The Twilight Zone has presented us with a morality play of sorts, one about human nature. Yet what's so enjoyable about "Nick of Time" is that we don't know whether Don is right (and the Devil machine is predicting the future), or if, in fact, he's merely superstitious and all the right answers are mere "coincidence" as Pam suggests. The ultimate point is, I suppose, what you choose to believe in: fear or hope. You can choose to believe that you are small and in danger; or you can take control of your life and face the hardships with strength - and with the ones you love.

Beyond a fortune telling device that may or may not be supernatural, there is no overt fantastical element in this installment of the Twilight Zone and yet it is oddly effective, and affecting despite this fact. Visually, it's assembled in clever fashion by director Richard Bare. The first shot of the episode is a wobbly view from a tow truck bed, looking down from a high angle at the car being towed, with Don and Pam inside. This is an important view, because it establishes right from the beginning of the episode that Don is not "driving" his life (nor his car). He's simply being pulled in one direction or another, towed by his fear and superstition.

Later, when the couple first enters the Busy Bee Diner with the Devil Bobblehead/Mystic Seer, the camera views Don and Pat from the far side of a lattice-work room separator/divider, a sort of visual frame-within-a-frame signifying entrapment or doom. This same camera set-up recurs at several important moments in the show. The first time, we view two other local residents in thrall to the Mystic Seer at the dining booth, also through this "entrapment" lens (the criss-cross frame of the lattice). Finally, when Pam encourages Don to summon his inner courage, the shot has changed to reflect their strength. The lattice wall is no longer between camera and character - a visual obstacle and blockade - but rather behind the characters. They have escaped the trap. They have moved literally past it.

I also get a kick out of the extreme (and I mean, EXTREME) close-up shots of the Devil Bobblehead, always jittering ever so slightly, but nonetheless playing his Satanic cards close to the vest. He's an interesting villain: inanimate and yet we "impose" some sense of fear or personality on the Devil trinket. If it were just a napkin dispenser, minus the Bobblehead, this episode wouldn't work nearly so well.

Shatner's performance is so good because - again, like "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," he's playing a character suffering from a lack of confidence. That's funny, given that he's the guy who plays Captain Kirk, but I would argue that even there, in Star Trek, that's what makes the character work so well. Kirk is a human being, a leader of men, but he still second guesses himself ("Balance of Terror") or fears losing his job ("The Ultimate Computer"). Watching these early Shatner performances you get a sense at how deft the actor is in playing a likable yet vulnerable character. He doesn't quite reach the heights of hysteria in "Nick of Time" that he would achieve later in "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," but the script calls for different things. I like Shatner in this kind of every man persona. To me, he represents the perfect 60s young male: a self-aware, intelligent, resourceful, JFK-type with just enough self doubt and neurosis to make him thoroughly disarming.

I find it fascinating that Shatner's two Twilight Zones and one Outer Limits ("Cold Hands, Warm Heart") all place the actor in the thick of a couple relationship in crisis. He's always playing a husband countenancing something terrible, and trying to convince his wife that he isn't insane. Gremlins on planes, Venusians on "Project Vulcan" or a fortune telling machine that may be the genuine article. Captain Kirk never got a mate in the original Star Trek that lasted more than an episode, but given these performances, I rather think that's rather a shame. But who needs a wife, when you have Doctor McCoy dispensing Romulan ale and home spun country doctor advice, right?

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Shat at 20,000 Feet

As I reported last week, I've been (in my spare time...hah!) screening episodes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone with a special eye towards the photography and the camera set-ups (in anticipation of Season Three of The House Between). So, in the wee hours of this morning, not long after the bewitching hour, I watched The Twilight Zone's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner. It aired originally on October 11, 1963, and is one of the show's most legendary efforts. It's one of those stories that has become part of the American pop culture lexicon, and seems to have effortlessly survived the test and passage of time (and was even remade, in 1983's Twilight Zone: the Movie).

You all know the plot by now: a man named Robert Wilson (age 37), played by William Shatner, has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by "over-stress" and "under confidence." The incident that spurred his six months in a sanitarium occurred on a plane in flight...

Now, apparently well again, Bob and his wife Ruth (Christine White) take a plane ride home, returning to the scene of the crime as it were, but this time the flight's trajectory is through "the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone," and an increasingly hysterical Robert Wilson is certain he sees a man - a gremlin - walking on the wing of the plane in flight. As the plane flies into a storm and is buffeted by turbulence, the pesky gremlin rips up the cowling plate on one of the engines, leaving Wilson no choice but to take matters into his own hands...

I'll be blunt: if there is a more pitch-perfect half-hour of horror television in the medium's history, I haven't seen it. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which I've watched probably a dozen times, loses none of its power (or terror...) on repeat viewing. In fact, only seconds after the episode begins, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck one by one and you get the shivers. In a word, this episode is riveting.

I watched with a close critical eye this time, attempting to determine the precise alchemy that makes the installment transcend weak special effects (a hairy fat gremlin with padded feet!) and its original 1960s context. I came up with three points, which I suppose are obvious, but which bear examination nonetheless.

1. Matheson's screenplay. Don't get me started on my Matheson worship, because I'll be here all day. He's an incredible writer who contributed many great Twilight Zones (including the one I looked at last week, "Death Ship.") But what he has done here is authentically worth excavating. In general, the feeling of "terror" is one that is best exploited on film and television when two concepts come together in perfect unison. Those concepts are: vulnerability and universality of human experience.

Allow me to explain. Psycho is scary, because of the infamous shower scene. Why? Well, because In the shower we are all naked and therefore vulnerable. Our sight is limited because there's a curtain occluding our view of the world. And our hearing is limited too by the sound of the pounding water. We can't hear footsteps approaching. perhaps more importantly, we have all taken showers: it's a universal experience we share. Ditto with the great white shark in Jaws. The water isn't our terrain, it's the shark's (making us vulnerable) and all of us (or most of us...) have gone swimming in the ocean (so the experience is universal and common.)

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" locates another situation in which we are vulnerable or out-of-control, a "routine" air flight and once more, this is an experience the vast majority of us has shared. I'll never forget my flight back from the the 1999 Los Angeles "Breakaway" Convention. We were eastern bound over the Rockies when the plane hit five minutes of intense, unyielding turbulence. Food trays turned over, the food cart careened down the aisle into a passenger, and for what felt like an eternity there was non-stop pounding and shaking all around. It was - truly - one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Kathryn was sitting to one side of me, a woman (a stranger...) was sitting on the other, and it got so bad that we all ended up holding hands for the duration of the event. After it was over, this woman told us a story about another flight she had been on; a night-flight bound for Georgia. During the journey there was a serious storm - lightning, thunder, the whole works - and in one minute the plane plunged 10,000 feet.

Matheson's screenplay captures the universal fears associated with flying in a way that not merely makes us feel vulnerable, but which we all can relate to. The sound of the engines revving up (a kind of harbinger for tension...), the no-smoking sign, the flight attendant, the emergency exit, the seat-belts...all the facets of "routine" flight experience are here, but tweaked for maximum terror. From the moment "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" begins, we are primed for anxiety because we relate -- boy do we relate -- to Robert Wilson's situation.

2. Richard Donner's direction. I admire Donner's work tremendously and on the Zone he directed one of my favorite episodes, "Come Wander with Me." His direction of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is enormously efficient and successful without being overtly flashy. For instance, he focuses a lot on insert shots. Of those "No Smoking" lights flashing, on the instructions for releasing the emergency exit, and so forth. In other words, if this is a war, Donner is showing us the details of the battle field, of the terrain. Again, we recognize these things, we relate.

Secondly, as is often appropriate for horror, Donner deploys "tight framing" for much of the episode. We're often in close-up mode on Shatner's expressive face (glistening with sweat...) or spying him through a visual "cage" of sorts, a frame-within-a-frame (the brackets of the window looking out upon the wing). The effect of the "large" close-ups of objects and of Shatner himself is what I sometimes term the fishbowl effect. It's like we're right there, in that tin can with Shatner. It's claustrophobic and terror inducing.

There's also some nice subliminal imagery in the episode. Rod Serling offers his trademark staccato narration in front of an airport gate. Emblazoned behind him in giant letters (all caps) - stretching across the frame - is a single word: TERMINAL. Now, of course, that word carries a double meaning in this situation, doesn't it? Not just an airport terminal...but the fear we all face when we board the plane and the doors slam shut for the last time. That we are, in fact...terminal.

And last but not least...

3. The Shat. Before he portrayed Captain Kirk, William Shatner was apparently known in Hollywood for having one of the best screams in the business. This episode of the Twilight Zone, and an episode of The Outer Limits ("Cold Hands, Warm Heart") seem to support that assertion. I know this sounds weird but I mean it as a compliment: few actors -- few men, especially -- of the 1960s better express hysteria. Some may insist that Shatner goes over the top with his wide-eyed performance, but I don't think so. The part called for hysteria, and he plays that emotion brilliantly.

John Lithgow played the same part in the 1983 Twilight Zone movie and didn't do as well, frankly. It wasn't his fault, so much as the change in the nature of the role, perhaps. Lithgow played a weirdo, someone who wasn't really likable and who - even before he saw the gremlin on the wing - seemed to be a nutcase. This choice in screenplay, direction in performance undercuts my first point in this post. If we can't relate to a character, we can't feel vulnerable for him. In the case of Shatner, and the TV series version, we have a character who - despite a mental health problem - is not that different from any of us. He's a man trying to hold on to his sanity, but a man who is likable and good. We relate to Shatner in a way we don't with Lithgow.

One aspect of Shatner's performance I love is the pride he brings to the character. At one point, the flight engineer comes back to the passenger section to talk to Wilson. Wilson desperately tells him the gremlin is monkeying with the engine on the wing, and the flight engineer begins to calmly explain that he knows. He says that the pilots are aware of the problem and are working on it, and that the flight crew needs Mr. Wilson to keep quiet, so as not to alarm the passengers.

This is where Shatner's performance is utterly brilliant. In one instant - literally in seconds - his face changes from one of terror and paranoia to one of relief and vindication, and then - not a second later - changes to something else entirely. He realizes the pilot is lying to him, that he is trying to "handle" Wilson. All of this gets reflected on Shatner's face in fast succession (in close-up), and we really identify with the guy. "Get out of here," he tells the pilot. "
I'll keep quiet. I'll see us crash first..."

Now I just have to figure how to do a variation of this story on The House Between. Arlo: "There's a gremlin on the door of my oven." Not quite the same thing, but I'll keep thinking about "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet..."

New Voices in Horror interviews Muir!

Hey everybody, the web magazine New Voices in Horror (dedicated to exploring "new and old terrains in horror") posted an interview with me as their "surprise guest interview") recently. Go on over to the magazine and check out the article by David Byron. Here's a snippet:


....I should have asked this question first; What made you want to be a writer/journalist? My inspiration came from watching old Hammer films and reading the EC comics like Tales From The Crypt....

You know, I became infatuated with film and television at a young age. An episode of the series Space:1999 had an indelible impact on me in 1975, when I was six years old. The story was called "Dragon's Domain" and it was about this monster lurking on an abandoned spaceship. It had a glowing eye and dozens of tentacles, and it would hypnotize victims, sucking them into this gaping, orange maw. Then, the monster would digest them and spit-up their steaming bones. The episode ended with the series hero, Commander Koenig, planting an axe in the creature's eyeball...which then dripped runny blood.

The imagery in that episode was absolutely unforgettable to me, and even though it was on a science fiction show, I think "Dragon's Domain" cemented my love of horror.

By the time I was in sixth grade, I was telling everybody that one day I would be a movie critic. And there you go. Here I am!