Monday, November 30, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 95: The All-New Super Friends Hour (1977-78)

This morning, my three-year old son, Joel, asked me what I write about on the computer all the time, and I told him that I write about TV shows and movies.

Without missing a beat, Joel then asked me if I've written about his favorite show yet: The All New Super Friends Hour (1977-1978), which he saw for the first time about three weeks ago. I realized I hadn't written about the classic cartoon series yet, and Joel asked me if I would do so.

So today's post is for Joel...

The All-New Super Friends Hour aired from 1977 to 1978 on ABC television, and featured the adventures of the denizens of the Hall of Justice.

These DC Comics superheroes include Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Wonder Twins (Zan and Jayna...) and their "space monkey" Gleek.

And week after week, these "Super Friends" battle the likes of outer mind-controlling space ants ("Coming of the Arthropods") and corporate conspiracies ("The Secret Four." They travel back and forward through time ("Planet of the Neanderthals") and destroy deadly weapons (like "meson energizers,") put out forest fires, expose impostors ("The Marsh Monsters") and lecture villains about the use of force.

Back in the days of The Super Friends, there was no cable television...and no secondary market for DVDs either, which meant that, essentially, come Saturday morning, children ages 3 to 13 had only three channels to choose from. Thus the programming had to be suitable for those ages...and homogenized. For superhero programming like The All-New Super Friends Hour, this meant very little "real" violence (punching, kicking, etc.) but lots of morally valuable conflicts and discussions about what it means to be a good person.

Each episode of The All-New Super Friends Hour is split into several short segments. The initial story usually highlights two of the Super Friends working in tandem to solve a problem. Often, there is a special guest star Super Friend in the mix too. For instance, Wonder Woman and Apache Chief worked together in "The Antidote," and Aquaman and Black Vulcan helped save a runaway ship in "The Whirlpool." Among the other guest heroes: Atom, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Black Vulcan, Rima the Jungle Girl and Joel's current obsession, Toshi Eto...Samurai.

A second segment is termed "Safety" and features an adult Super Friend offering children guidance about the perils of every day life. For instance, in one segment, Wonder Woman warns little kids about the danger of chewing on pen caps and Styrofoam cups. D'oh! Another entry sees the Paradise Island native praise a boy for carefully crossing the street. "I saw you from my invisible jet and had to stop by..."

Another short segment is called "Decoder" and features different superheroes offering clues about puzzle words such as "caveman," "insect," and "bedrock." The third short segment is truly bizarre: A Super Friend Magic Trick showcase, again demonstrated by your favorite heroes. Examples included Superman's "Scissor Sorcery!" and Aquaman's "Disappearing Coin Illusion!"

Every episode of the All-New Super Friends Hour also features a morally valuable adventure of the Wonder Twins. Each tale commences with Zan and Jayna happily involved in some activity like volleyball or miniature golf when they receive a "teen trouble alert" via special wristwatches. Then, they leap to the rescue of misbehaving teens. Said rescue always entails the Wonder Twins using their shape shifting abilities. Jayna often morphs into a polar bear, an eagle or a camel, while Zan transforms into water, a lake, a ski-slope(!) and an ice sled. After the danger is resolved and the guilty, crest-fallen teens learn their lessons, these segments universally end with Gleek's comic shtick.

Among the Wonder Twin stories are titles such as "Hitchhiking," "Vandals," "Runaways," "Joy Ride," "Initiation," "Shark," "Tiger on the Loose" and even "Prejudice!" One story warns against the danger of "jumping to conclusions," which -- truth be told -- is a refresher we can all use. Joel in particular has fallen in love with the Wonder Twins, but he gets very upset by the misbehaving teens in the stories like "Hitchhikers," "Runaways" and "Vandals." He has also begun instructing me and his mother: "Don't Smoke!" (Neither of us smokes...).

Another segment on The All New Super Friends Hour pits the entire Hall of Justice team against some alien or earthbound evil. "Super Friends vs. Super Friends" lands our heroes in the undersea kingdom of Oceania, where they are forced to battle one another in a kind of underwater Roman Colosseum. "City in a Bottle" takes the Super Friends to a frozen planet to rescue the Wonder Twins and a miniaturized Mid City. "Invasion of the Earthors" pits the Hall of Justice Regulars against mole men at the center of the Earth.

These All New Super Friends episodes are truly relics of a different age...though wholly enjoyable on their own terms. For instance, Batman is not dark or angsty in the slightest in this incarnation. And Superman does not feel the pressure/isolation of his "otherness." The Flash is not a smart-alecky quipper either. The Aquaman you see here is old school too -- not the angry-looking, long-haired, hook-equipped revenger of recent vintage. Instead, all the Super Friends seem virtually interchangeable, save for their specific powers, costumes and devices. On that note, some of the Bat devices featured here are truly absurd. Kathryn and I got a good chuckle out of the "Bat-Lube," a utility belt item that is always handy to keep around, in a pinch, I guess...

Yet, I can't complain. The series is perfect for me as nostalgia, and perfect for Joel as straight-up superhero action-adventure. There's no real violence to attempt to explain away to an inquisitive toddler, and in just a few short weeks Joel has begun accurately using words such as "telepathy," "monolith," "invisible," origin," "toboggan" and "activate." He dressed up as Black Vulcan last week; and this morning has been a Wonder Twin with Kathryn, yelling "Wonder Twin Powers...Activate!" Just a few moments ago, Joel/Zan transformed into a drill and broke through one of his Daddy's bear hug squeezes...

If you didn't grow up with The Super Friends, or don't have a child, I can't imagine that this will be the version of the DC Legends you choose to enjoy, especially with the terrific JLA of this decade also available on DVD. But if you remember the disco decade, and if you have an enthusiastic child to share them with, the All New Super Friends Hour is really terrific fun. It's a perfect superhero/comic-book primer for Joel and a great memory for his Dad.

Now please excuse me while I say...Inyuk-chuk!

Friday, November 27, 2009

She-Wolf of London Lands on DVD

One of my recent CULT TV flashbacks here on the blog focused on the 1990-1991 syndicated horror series, She-Wolf of London (1990 - 1991). I never thought I would see this happen -- simply because it is such an obscure show -- but a DVD release has been announced for the complete series.

TV Shows on DVD made the official announcement not long ago, noting that the show will be released from Universal Studios on February 2nd, 2010. You can pre-order the box set at Amazon, here.

In the original incarnation (set in London), the series was something quite special: a pre-X-Files excavation of common international horror legends and myths, with a touch of romance. It was enormously appealing, atmospheric and occasionally scary.

The series changed formats (and title...) with a production move to L.A., and Love & Curses became something a bit more light-hearted; more in the spirit of Moonlighting than a straight-up horror show. But now, you can judge the series and the format shifts for yourself...and if you're a horror TV fan, I encourage you to do so.

Now, if we could just finally get Werewolf: The Series on DVD too...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

To All My Readers,

I hope you enjoy a safe, happy, and healthy Thanksgiving holiday with your loved ones today.

Thank you for making 2009 the biggest, most successful year ever on the blog. I'm nearing my 1500th published post, and the site has already had 26,000 more visitors this year than in the entire year of 2008. And we still have over a month to go before 2010.

And thank you, too, for continuing to support my writing about genre film and television. (And don't forget, high-tech Christmas shoppers, this blog is now available on Kindle...)

Regards and best wishes,

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

TV REVIEW: V: "It's Only The Beginning"

Last night, ABC's V actually remembered that it is supposed to be a science fiction series.

The episode, entitled "It's Only The Beginning," featured a tantalizing glimpse of a Visitor narcotic called "Bliss," a view of the mothership engine room and propulsion system, and then climaxed with galactic implications: a cosmic pull-back from Mother Earth. It was a CGI push away from our world, through the asteroid belt, to the fringe of the solar system itself -- a move designed to reveal a fleet of V ships...waiting for the order to colonize.

This final, impressive shot seemed like a spiritual heir (and homage...) to an iconic shot from the original 1980s series: a similar pull-back through orbital space that revealed a slew of Visitor saucers hidden behind our moon. It was a nice, ominous touch.

Contrarily, the episode last night opened with one of those hackneyed "Fourteen Hours Earlier" tricks that is tell-tale sign of post-production editing pickles. I know: I had to deploy the same gimmick myself in one episode of The House Between when fashioning a difficult third season episode almost out-of-whole-cloth. But once beyond that underwhelming beginning, this episode moved fast and revealed a lot; much more, in fact, than the previous three episodes combined.

For instance, we saw that the Visitors are equipped with suicide pills that disintegrate their bodies should they be captured or discovered. The suicide pill leaves nothing behind but ash, and is surely an homage to another alien invasion series, the brilliant 1960s endeavor The Invaders. As you may recall from that Roy Thinnes program, David Vincent could never prove his case about the aliens because the corpses of the invaders always went up in smoke and spontaneously combusted before authorities could arrive.

Also -- finally -- this new V acknowledged in "It's Only The Beginning" that "skinning" a Visitor could be the very thing to wake up our people from apparent mindless devotion to our new extra-terrestrial "friends." When this idea is brought up, however, Ryan goes ballistic and tells the Resistance fighters he better not ever hear them talking about such a thing again. The reason, ostensibly, is that the Visitors would retaliate with tremendous force and wipe everybody out. I don't know how believable Ryan's explanation is, but I'm happy to see that the issue was addressed. This was exactly what I was seeking; just a simple acknowledgment that skinning a Visitor on TV was a legitimate battle option.

Last night's show also revived the anti-Obama subtext of the pilot. Ryan -- a secret Visitor -- has a faked birth certificate showing he was born in "Hawaiian Gardens," California. As Orly Taitz will tell you, Obama's purportedly "fake" birth certificate names Hawaii as the state of (fake) birth. Coincidence?

Also, the episode's central plot -- a Visitor scheme to poison our seasonal flu shots with an alien substance called R6 -- clearly parallels the tea bagger furor and resistance over government-mandated flu vaccinations. Again, I don't agree with V's paranoid right-wing view of Obama (I'm still waiting for the FEMA concentration camps -- or at least our taxes to go up -- before I resist). But if you want a timely subtext or context, there it is, enunciated between the lines.

V clearly has a long way to go before it becomes "must see TV," but I do feel the series is clawing itself out of the deep ditch it dug in the first two awful weeks. Personally, I find Erica Mitchell's character, Agent Evans, difficult to warm up to as a lead character. She's more reptilian and cold than the Visitors, to tell you the truth. No wonder her son, Tyler is looking elsewhere for warmth.

Yet last night -- for the first time -- momentum was undeniably building. I actually found myself caring about finding what was going to happen next.

And, of course, that means we must now to wait till March 2010 for the next episode...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Joel's Christmas Tree Beams Down

Friday, November 20, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Home Sweet Home (1980)

"A little craziness never hurt anyone..."

- Dialogue from Home Sweet Home (1980)

In honor of the approaching holiday, today I'm looking back at a really terrible horror film that I first encountered while writing Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).

Conveniently, it's both Thanksgiving-themed and a turkey.

Advertised with the ad-line "The Bradleys won't be leaving home. Ever," Home Sweet Home (1981) is the not-so-riveting story of a deranged serial killer and his holiday rampage.

Said serial killer is portrayed by Body by Jake's (1988) gleeful Jake Steinfeld. The enthusiastic exercise guru -- also known for his music label, "Don't Quit Music" -- plays this muscular madman as a cackling, bulging-eyed freak. This looney killer has the tattoo "home sweet home" emblazoned on his fist, and was incarcerated for eight years over the bludgeoning death of his parents.

In one of the film's first scenes, this hyperactive, super-fit killer takes PCP by injecting it into his tongue, guns his car engine rowdily, and then runs over a little old lady crossing the street.

Lots of maniacal, silent-movie-style, villlainous cackling over that. Unfortunately, Jake has no moustache to twirl.

Meanwhile, at a Southern California ranch, the unconventional Bradley family is preparing for a holiday that may or may not be Thanksgiving. Let's see: there's a turkey. There's a celebratory meal. There's a family gathering. And there are guests. But no one mentions Turkey Day by name. The VHS box does it for us.

Anyway -- for some reason -- the obnoxious Bradley son, charmingly named "Mistake," is dressed as a mime for the occasion. He's a practical joke-playing mime, no less. And did I mention, Mistake also dabbles in the electric guitar?

Unfortunately, the mime is one of the last characters to die in Home Sweet Home, meaning the audience must endure Mistake's lame antics for a very long time before the movie arrives at his fateful, and wholly-deserved electrocution.

The holiday meal with the Bradley family promises to be an unusual one too, not just because Mistake is a mime and because an uninvited serial killer is on his way, but because one of the invitees "won't drink anything," since "she hates to go to the bathroom." WTF? You know, I don't particularly like going to the bathroom either. I think I'll stop drinking too. I didn't realize it was that simple...

And did I mention that some crack cops are on the case, investigating the murders and pursuing the body-builder killer? The classy cops gawk at one character's overripe breasts after stopping her for speeding, and share this colloquy:

"Did you see that chick with the big bazooms?"

Since Home Sweet Home is incompetently shot, written and acted, one might hope that the violence Jake ultimately inflicts on the Bradley family would at least prove entertaining. But it isn't (well, except for the death of the mime, to be fair...). One character dies when she falls over and cracks her head against a rock. Can you really blame Ole Jack for that? Another character gets his head crushed under the hood of a car.

Home Sweet Home exhibits the familiar flaw of the worst slasher films, meaning that the killer is always positioned right where he should be in order to kill the one character who happens to be left alone at any given moment. You might accept that level of expertise from a Michael Myers or a Jason...but by Jake Steinfeld? I just can't ascribe supernatural abilities to this guy. Enthusiasm, gung-ho inspiration, yes. Boogeyman

Mere words can't truly convey how irrevocably horrible this movie is. So Happy Thanksgiving, caveat emptor, and...gobble, gobble.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

TV REVIEW: V: "A Bright New Day"

If you've been keeping up with this blog, you know I'm not the world's most devout fan of the new ABC version of V.

However, last night's episode, "A Bright New Day," was aptly-named by my reckoning. It seemed like the first installment of the series that was at all promising. In other words...a distinct improvement.

I feel this way because some of my gripes about the new series were actually addressed. For instance, instead of merely hearing about the general reaction of Americans to the Visitors, in last night's segment we actually witnessed some of that reaction.

Early in "A Bright New Day," we got a lightning-quick montage of various confused people in the confession booth at St. Josephine's. "Are the Visitors demons or angels?" "Is everything we believe a lie?" "Can they heal my sister's cancer?"
They asked Father Jack. A
gain, this was a lightning-quick touch -- a token move, perhaps -- but it was nonetheless a start at constructing the larger global context that has largely been absent thus far.

We also met the wife of the U.S. Air Force pilot killed in the first episode, Mary Faulkner, and learned of her issues with the aliens. In the spirit of Diana, the tricky Anna co-opted this human leader and even (finally...) had a good scene (told in jump cuts...) during which she rehearsed the correct human emotions for dealing with grief. A very slippery lizard, this Anna.

"A Bright New Day" also afforded the series the first mention by name of the Visitor's Fifth Column, an important ingredient of the original series. And beyond that, we got more detailed glimpses of Visitor technology, Visitor written language...and Visitor's lady's underwear. These are all steps in the right direction and signs, I hope, that the show is making a much-needed course correction.

Most impressively, "A Bright New Day" featured at least two authentic, jaw-dropping surprises during the hour. I'm an old hand with genre TV, but I didn't see either of these shocks coming. Again, for perhaps the first time, I felt last night that V was actually making a concerted effort to entertain, rather than just kind of plodding around on automatic pilot.

My big concern with the series now is something that a clever reader brought to my attention last week. In the comments for the review of last week's episode, a reader named Pete noted "if the V traitor *really* wants to fight the V, why doesn't he just go on TV and expose himself as a reptile?"

As hard as I've tried to suspend disbelief since reading that comment...I just can't do it. This is the elephant (or reptile...) in the room.

The whole premise of V and a Visitor Fifth Column just crumbles when you consider this idea; that Ryan, the Fifth Columnist, could defeat the Visitors in one swift stroke by going on television and cutting open his human skin to reveal his scales before a live global audience. Last night, even Anna noted herself the importance of public opinion; and keeping public opinion in favor of the Visitors. Imagine how public opinion would swing against the aliens if Ryan went on TV and revealed to the world that the Visitors were a pack of liars? All the material in "A Bright New Day" about Ryan re-organizing the Fifth Column is a runaround; a time-waste., a cheat. If he wants to win in one fell swoop, Ryan would simply himself to the world.

Now two things. First, some people might say Ryan doesn't want his fiance to know he's a lizard. My answer: priorities, Ryan, priorities! How happy of a marriage can he hope to have if the Visitors are ruling the world? If their love is true, his girlfriend would forgive him his lizardly nature. Secondly, the series could get around this point simply by acknowledging it: by having a throwaway line from Ryan in which he says he can't reveal himself on TV because he's afraid of his girlfriend's reaction or something. It would still be stupid; but at least it would be acknowledged.

However, that's not the end of it. Here's my sinister, paranoid side coming out. There is one other way in which Ryan's unwillingness to reveal his lizard-nature makes narrative sense. What if the Fifth Column is not only anti-Visitor, but also anti-human? What if Ryan, as part of the Fifth Column, is actually carrying water for another malevolent force out to harm humanity, and thus can't reveal himself for that purpose? Remember, the original V miniseries ended with the Resistance sending a message to the Visitor's wartime enemy, another alien race. out there in space

So is V setting this subplot up with Ryan's refusal to strip for the camera? We'll see. I hope that I'm not being cleverer than the writers of the series here...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bad Editing: A Klingon in the bush is worth...?

So...I was re-watching Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) on the weekend, and I caught this blooper that I had long ago forgotten about. Actually, it's not a blooper per se, but actually an example of some really sloppy editing.

At about the 57 minute point of the movie, Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis) is on the surface of the Genesis Planet resting (top picture), when a tree in the foreground suddenly pops up (as part of the "unstable" matrix of the artificial planet). Saavik then stands up, as the ground spits steam (bottom picture). Saavik approaches adolescent Spock, who is about to undergo Pon Farr.

But between these two shots, the editor inserted a brief view of a huge tree rippling in the wind...and you can see a Klingon warrior standing there, in the shadow of the tree (middle picture). Look closely. At the right side of the photo. Contextually, he shouldn't be there...

This got me thinking, what's the worst example of editing/cutting you've seen in a major motion picture?

Monday, November 16, 2009

TV REVIEW: The Prisoner: "Arrival" (2009)

"Breathe in. Breath Out. Village Life Goes On."

-- Number 2 (Ian McKellen) in AMC's mini-series, The Prisoner.

Railing against remakes and re-imaginations is becoming something of a full-time job around these parts, and yet, as a blogger, I have no desire to write the same review over and over again.

That review consists, basically, of my disappointment that a remake of a popular, even classic property has been dumbed down for modern audiences by sacrificing the subtext and social commentary.

You may have read that particular review in regards to ABC's V, of late.

And yet, here I am, confronted with AMC's new mini-series, The Prisoner, which is based on one of my favorite genre TV series of all time, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner (1967-1968).

And once more, I am conflicted between my real, heartfelt desire to embrace new genre television and my objective critical reaction; essentially a wholesale rejection of that which has been delivered to us because, simply, the quality of the thing is not up to snuff.

Regarding the original Prisoner's first episode (also entitled "Arrival,") I wrote: "In the valhalla of genre television there is nothing even remotely like The Prisoner, the late-1960s British allegory that focuses explicitly on the idea that "no man is just a number." With steadfast zeal and an almost radical sense of dedication and single-mindedness The Prisoner devotes itself to the ideals of individual freedom and liberty, and finds that contemporary Western society -- here represented by a hermetically-sealed Village -- doesn't measure up."

The new Prisoner is so confused, so hopelessly muddled, you can't tell what it's about (or even what it wants to be about).

On a purely literal reading, you can't even easily discern what information, precisely, Number 2 (Ian McKellen) hopes to extract from the new Number 6 (Jim Caviezel). The original program saw sharp-tongued McGoohan match wits -- week-after-week -- with a different, desperate Number 2, over the reasons behind his resignation from the British secret service. Even in apparent surrender to brain-washing, emotional betrayal, and outright torture, the original Number 6 remained...indomitable.

The new Number # 6 isn't cut from the same stubborn cloth. "Please, I'm nobody," he whimpers pitifully in the first hour, making a personal admission McGoohan's character would just never make, under any circumstances. Then, this Number 6 actually has to be told otherwise by his doctor at the Village clinic. "You're a free man," she insists helpfully.

If this Number 6 is that close to the breaking point at the beginning of his stay at the Village, where's the fun of watching Number 2 go at him for six episodes?

But -- okay, fine -- Hamlet gets re-interpreted all the time. Mel Gibson even made him a man of action, so perhaps this Number Six is going to stiffen his spine in the course of the mini-series.

But a more egregious sin committed by the remake is that it unnecessarily muddles the crisp premise of the original. For instance, the new program adds mysterious Crystal Towers (which look like the World Trade Center towers...) to the skyline of the Village, as well as the not-very cryptic instruction to "follow the towers" to find escape. If that's all it takes to escape, grab a few inmates and that tour bus and go. On foot, the Rover (still a big white ball...) might get you, but in a large vehicle?

The mini-series also resorts to frustrating, momentum-halting, Lost-style flashbacks so audiences can see this Number 6 working on the job he unceremoniously quit, and learn about his reasons for resigning (something we were never, EVER told on the original series).

Again, in the original series, Number 6's refusal to reveal the the reason of his resignation was about a larger, thematic issue. About privacy. About the fact that a government that catalogued, numbered and tagged people still didn't have the right to be privy to individual, personal decisions. Number 6's reasons were his own; and that's why he didn't share them.

Here, I suspect we're going to discover some noble reason for Number 6's resignation. That -- as a data analyst observing human behavior -- he was asked to do something immoral; or that he saw something that he didn't like. That's a corruption of the original program's philosopy. It wasn't that the original Number 6 was trying to do something good, necessarily, by resigning. It's that he believed he had the right to make personal decisions independent of Big Brother. He fought to preserve that right -- the liberty of the individual to make choices for himself.

The new mini-series also throws in mind-altering drugs, and cripples the new Villagers with an arbitrary case of selective amnesia. This means they can apparently remember Thomas Edison and Darwin (mentioned by name...), but have only vague flashes of the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben (images scrawled in secret by Village rebels). This means that the denizens can quote the number of stars in the heaven, but not the source of that information.

You see, this Village isn't just an inescapable burg that happens to be geographically isolated. On the contrary, Number 2 makes the case that the Village is the only civilization in the entire world; and that it is the only civilization where any of the prisoners have ever lived; that has ever existed in human history. This makes no sense, because human memory is a web of connections; a network of context. Can you remember Darwin without remembering the idea of evolution? And if you think of evolution, might you not also think of the Scopes Trial? And Tennessee? And then the American South? See my point? You can't know Thomas Edison, but not know how his inventions were put to use.

In broad terms, the new version of "Arrival" follows the outline of the original premire episode. In other words, Number 6 arrives in a daze, takes a taxi that travels to "local destinations only," and then buys a map that shows only the territory of the Village.

Finally, he becomes entangled with a woman who might be a traitor (the doctor at the clinic) and matches wits with Number 2. But the new show -- in a telltale sign of our age -- also mistakes soap opera-storytelling for mature drama.

Therefore, we are introduced, at length, to Number 2's family, including his sick wife (or rather, a wife he may be keeping sick...) and his curious son, who may be ready to rebel against his Dad and the Village.

Therefore, the cab driver and his family become recurring characters too, and we see their home life as well.

Therefore, we get those disruptive flashbacks showing Number 6 hooking up with a strange woman following his resignation.

The lovely female doctor at the clinic is also apparently a regular character here, a prospective love interest.

Again, this is all just totally unnecessary and burdensome material. The original Prisoner concerned one individual bucking the system in the here and now of the Village; battling his incarceration in the present. He had no friends. He could trust no one. He was a man alone, and his mind -- and his privacy -- were his own too. The new Prisoner spreads the focus around, both in terms of characters and of time line. The result of this unnecessary opening-up is that a sense of immediacy and place is sacrificed.

The thing I most disliked about this new version of The Prisoner is that it is edited exactly like everything else you see on TV these days. It relies on flash cuts, shaky-cam action, and sped-up/slowed-down footage. There's nothing original in the execution And that too is a betrayal of the surreal qualities inherent in the original (right down to production design). Again, this is how I wrote of the original series: "One of the facets that I've always admired about The Prisoner is this powerful sense of place, of another world (and the Village is, in fact, a place called Portmeiron in North Wales.) The series would not be so effective if the Village seemed fake. This is the oddest "jail" you've ever seen, yet it feels real, not gimmicky or the product of special effects.

Well, the new Village looks like a typical movie construct; and because it has been made so large -- more "The City" than "The Village" -- it's impossible to get a real feel for it. The original Village was small enough that Number 6 could explore it, prod at the boundaries, and become familiar with every aspect of it. The new Village -- of greater size -- could never be fully explored by one man.

In fairness, this new Prisoner is much better than the remake of V. And I enjoyed how it attempted to position itself as a sequel to as well as a remake of the McGoohan series. On the latter front, note that old Number 93 is dressed as Number 6 from the original series, that he lives in a similarly-decorated house (down to the lava lamp), and was also obsessed with escape. More importantly take a look at his number. 93. 9 - 3 = 6. Get it?

But overall I found this new Prisoner unnecessarily lugubrious. It is underwhelming from a visual standpoint; soap-opera-ish in the extreme, and it layers too many complications upon the franchise's clean, vibrant premise.

Be seeing you? Perhaps not...

New Film and TV Books from McFarland

Irwin Allen Television Productions, 1964–1970

Before establishing himself as the “master of disaster” with the 1970s films The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Irwin Allen created four of television’s most exciting and enduring science-fiction series: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants.

These 1960s series were full of Allen’s favorite tricks, techniques and characteristic touches, and influenced other productions from the original Star Trek forward. Every science-fiction show owes something to Allen, yet none has equaled his series’ pace, excitement, or originality.

This detailed examination and documentation of the premise and origin of the four shows offers an objective evaluation of every episode—and demonstrates that when Irwin Allen’s television episodes were good, they were great, and when they were bad, they were still terrific fun.

Terrorism in American Cinema

The American cinema of terrorism, although coming to prominence primarily in the 1970s amidst high-profile Palestinian terrorist activity, actually dates back to the beginnings of the Cold War. But this early terrorist cinema was centered largely around the Bomb—who had it, who would use it, when—and differs greatly from the terrorist cinema that would follow. Changing world events soon broadened the cinema of terrorism to address emerging international conflicts, including Black September, pre–9/11 Middle Eastern conflicts, and the post–9/11 “War on Terror.” This analytical filmography of American terrorist films establishes terrorist cinema as a unique subgenre with distinct thematic narrative and stylistic trends. It covers all major American films dealing with terrorism, from Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960) to Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (2008).

Peter Cushing

From his film debut in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) through Biggles (1985), here is the movie career of Peter Cushing, known as “the gentle man of horror.” From interviews and extensive personal correspondence, the authors are able to provide Cushing’s own views on many of his 91 films.

A plot synopsis for each film is followed by production data and credits and contemporary reviews.

Encyclopedia of Television Law Shows

When media coverage of courtroom trials came under intense fire in the aftermath of the infamous New Jersey v. Hauptmann lawsuit (a.k.a. the Lindbergh kidnapping case,) a new wave of fictionalized courtroom programming arose to satiate the public’s appetite for legal drama. This book is an alphabetical examination of the nearly 200 shows telecast in the U.S. from 1948 through 2008 involving courtrooms, lawyers and judges, complete with cast and production credits, airdates, detailed synopses and background information. Included are such familiar titles as Perry Mason, Divorce Court, Judge Judy, LA Law, and The Practice, along with such obscure series as They Stand Accused, The Verdict Is Yours Sam Benedict, Trials of O’Brien, and The Law and Mr. Jones. The book includes an introductory overview of law-oriented radio and TV broadcasts from the 1920s to the present, including actual courtroom coverage (or lack of same during those years in which cameras and microphones were forbidden in the courtroom) and historical events within TV’s factual and fictional treatment of the legal system. Also included in the introduction is an analysis of the rise and fall of cable’s Court TV channel.

The Christopher Lee Filmography

The career of Christopher Lee has stretched over half a century in every sort of film from comedy to horror and in such diverse roles as the Man With the Golden Gun, Frankenstein’s monster, Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes.

From Corridor of Mirrors in 1948 to Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones in 2002, this reference book covers 166 theatrical feature films: all production information, full cast and crew credits, a synopsis, and a critical analysis, with a detailed account of its making and commentary drawn from some thirty hours of interviews with Lee himself. Two appendices list Lee’s television feature films and miniseries and his short films.

The work concludes with an afterword by Christopher Lee himself. Photographs from the actor’s private collection are included.

Grande Dame Guignol Cinema

This critically analytical filmography examines 45 movies featuring “grande dames” in horror settings. Following a history of women in horror before 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which launched the “Grande Dame Guignol” subgenre of older women featured as morally ambiguous leading ladies, are all such films (mostly U.S.) that came after that landmark release. The filmographic data includes cast, crew, reviews, synopses, and production notes, as well as recurring motifs and each role’s effect on the star’s career.

A History of the Doc Savage Adventures in Pulps, Paperbacks, Comics, Fanzines, Radio and Film

Doc Savage is the prototype of the modern fictional superhero. The character exploded onto the scene in 1933, with the Great Depression and1the gathering clouds of war as a cultural backdrop. The adventure series is examined in relation to historical events and the changing tastes of readers, with special attention paid to the horror and science fiction elements. The artwork features illustrations, covers, and original art. Chapters cover Doc Savage paperbacks, pulp magazines, comic books, and fanzines, and an appendix offers biographies of all major contributors to the series.

Dark Dreams 2.0

Greatly expanded and updated from the 1977 original, this new edition explores the evolution of the modern horror film, particularly as it reflects anxieties associated with the atomic bomb, the Cold War, 1960s violence, sexual liberation, the Reagan revolution, 9/11 and the Iraq War. It divides modern horror into three varieties (psychological, demonic and apocalyptic) and demonstrates how horror cinema represents the popular expression of everyday fears while revealing the forces that influence American ideological and political values. Directors given a close reading include Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Michael Haneke, Robert Aldrich, Mel Gibson and George A. Romero. Additional material discusses postmodern remakes, horror franchises and Asian millennial horror. This book also contains more than 950 frame grabs and a very extensive filmography.

Screen Sirens Scream!

These twenty heroines portrayed imperiled women in science fiction, horror, film noir and mystery movies from the 1930s to the 1960s. Some—like Sandy Descher, who confronted the giant ants of Them!—were only girls when they faced their screen perils. Others—such as Mary Murphy, who played opposite Marlon Brando in The Wild One—were leading ladies in other film genres. Yet others—such as June Wilkinson, considered by many as Playboy’s greatest model—came from outside the acting world.

Each interview is preceded by an introduction. Besides the three above, the interviewees are Ramsay Ames, Claudia Barrett, Jean Byron, Linda Christian, Faith Domergue, Amanda Duff, Evangelina Elizondo, Margaret Field, Mimi Gibson, Marilyn Harris, Kitty de Hoyos, Donna Martel, Joyce Meadows, Noreen Nash, Cynthia Patrick, Paula Raymond and Joan Taylor. Among the films they starred in are The Mummy’s Ghost, Robot Monster, Tarzan and the Mermaids, This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Where Danger Lives, The Man from Planet X, The Monster That Challenged the World, Frankenstein, The Brain from Planet Arous, Phantom from Space, The Mole People, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers. Some interviews were previously published in a different form in fan magazines.

Food in the Movies, 2d ed.

Although food has been part of motion pictures since the silent era, for the most part it has been treated with about as much respect as movie extras: it’s always been there on the screen but seldom noticed.

For the most part filmmakers have settled on three basic ways to treat food: as a prop in which the food is usually obscured from sight or ignored by the actors; as a transition device to compress time and help advance the plot; as a symbol or metaphor, or in some other meaningful way, to make a dramatic point or to reveal an aspect of an actor’s character, mood or thought process.

This hugely expanded and revised edition details 400 food scenes, in addition to the 400 films reviewed for the first edition, and an introduction tracing the technical, artistic and cultural forces that contributed to the emergence of food films as a new genre—originated by such films as Tampopo, Babette’s Feast and more recently by films like Mostly Martha, No Reservations and Ratatouille. A filmography is included as an appendix.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Cinema of the Psychic Realm: A Critical Survey

I have already read and admired two books on film from author and scholar Paul Meehan: Saucer Movies (Scarecrow Press, 1998) and Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir (McFarland 2008). Tech-Noir, in particular, is one of the best film books I've encountered in the last several years.

Not long ago, I received a review copy of Meehan's latest effort from McFarland, 2009's Cinema of the Psychic Realm: A Critical Survey. Essentially, it's a guided tour across a century of productions that feature ESP, telekinesis, clairvoyance, and the like.

The book's first chapter, "A Brief History of the Paranormal in Fact and Fiction" sets the stage for the study, escorting readers from the Age of Antiquity (the Oracle at Delphi, "Psi in the Bible") to the Age of Aquarius. Meehan also includes crisp discussions of notable works of fiction that feature psychic themes, including Odd John (1935), Slan (1946) Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953), and Bester's The Demolished Man (1953).

The author's descriptions of these literary works proves illuminating because -- at least to a certain extent -- much of the modern Hollywood viewpoint on psychic power seems derived from one or all of them. This inaugural chapter ends with Meehan's notation that the paranormal's "shadow world of visions, mind-reading and prophecy would find its most popular expression in the medium of film."

In the following seven chapters, Meehan leaves no stone-unturned pursuing this thesis, excavating the fusion of the psychic world with art form of the film. He ponders silent films in Chapter Two "Early Paranormal Films," and "ESP in Drama, Comedy and Children's Films" in Chapter 3. He looks at the role of ESP in "Paranormal Crime and Melodrama" in Chapter Four. In the last half of the book, the author veers towards what is traditionally regarded as "genre" films, with a careful, thorough view of "The dark side of ESP," "Alien ESP," and even "Science Fiction Blockbusters."

I often tell anyone who will listen that the secret to penning a good reference book about film is not choice of topic; but organization of topic. Meehan understands this, and accordingly uses his premise to make connections that are inventive and rewarding. For instance, Star Wars (1977) and the franchise sequels/prequels have been reviewed approximately a million times in film books over the years, but Meehan thoroughly re-contextualizes the George Lucas film cycle in terms of the depiction of the psychic; in terms of the mystical "Force" that powers both the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords.

Meehan notes the 1977 film's unexposed core theme: "the conflict between the intuitive, preternatural realm of the Force and the futuristic universe of technology and machines." Continuing, he writes "Darth Vader's seemingly counter-intuitive contention that the "technological terror" and overwhelming military might represented by the Death Star is vulnerable to the mystical workings of the Force proves to be correct." (page 145).

The same discussion notes how the Jedi represent an "atavistic return to the ancient shamanic traditions" of the past whereas Vader represents the "co-opting of these shamanic traditions by the machine world, his human identity having been subsumed" by mechanical life-extension techniques and devices. Another worthwhile insight about the Star Wars films arrives on page 161, where Meehan notes the Jedi Order's "hyper-masculinity," and how it takes over "what are traditionally thought of as aspects of feminine mysticism and magic" (a reliance on feelings and intuition, for instance...)

As you can detect by this example, the application of Meehan's organizing umbrella of the "psychic realm" provides new and interesting readings of many films you've watched a dozen times. And that's a great service, because the author makes you want to watch these movies all over again. In Cinema of the Psychic Realm, you'll find persuasive discussions about Minority Report, Dune and other films you've loved over the years.

If Cinema of The Psychic Realm exhibits any drawback worth noting it's that you want this compelling book to be...longer. The discussion is limited mostly to film, and you want Meehan to occasionally break-out to ancillary productions so he can keep making this valuable connections about the psychic realm. For instance, there's a valid argument to be made that psychic powers have found their most powerful expression not in film at all, but in film's cousin: television. From One Step Beyond (1959-1961) -- an anthology devoted entirely to the paranormal -- to programs such as Beyond Reality, Millennium, The X-Files, Medium, Ghost Whisperer, and Fringe, TV has become the dominant domain of the psychic realm on a near-weekly basis for the last two decades or so.

Of course, this book's topic -- as it states right there in the title for all to see -- is Cinema, not TV, so Meehan can't be faulted. Yet it would certainly be rewarding to see Meehan tackle Television of the Psychic Realm next; a necessary book-end to his thorough and valuable survey of the psychic in film.

Paul Meehan's Cinema of the Psychic Realm: A Critical Survey is currently available for purchase from McFarland here, and it's a book I can recommend to readers of this blog without reservation. And while you're at the McFarland site, pick up a copy of Tech-Noir too...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Four Underrated Vampire Movies to Watch Instead of Twilight

Do you have an insatiable appetite to watch a really good, really original, vampire flick? One that takes the familiar, tired concept of the long-lived bloodsucker and twists it to new, subversive ends? (And by that, I don't mean tween romance...).

If so, I humbly submit this list of four bizarre, ghoulish, and off-beat vampire flicks that are certainly worth a second look, especially for the horror connoisseur.

Again, I'm leaving out the obvious examples of well-known vampire movies here (Let the Right One In [2008], The Hunger [1983], Near Dark [1987]] in favor of more obscure, more oddball titles that carry the vampire myth in new and daring directions.

1. The Addiction (1996) : This incendiary film by Abel Ferrara connects the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the atrocities of the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to vampirism and blood lust. "Our addiction is evil" declares grad student Kathleen Conklin (Lily Taylor) after vampire siren Anabelle Sciorra passes the appetite for hemoglobin onto her during a vicious attack on a New York street corner.
What follows this savage torch-passing is a cinematic meditation on philosophy, human nature and the face of evil. The film quotes Descartes, Jung, Sartre, Kierkegaard and William S. Burroughs. Lensed in stark black-and-white, The Addiction even features an extended cameo by Christopher Walken. He's a vegetarian vampire who quotes Naked Lunch and informs a vampiric Kathleen that "you learn, like the Tibetans, to survive on a little." This is advice she ultimately rejects, and there's a metaphor for self-actualization here; for finding a mentor figure, absorbing all of his or her knowledge, and then, in due time, utterly rejecting that which was given freely. Both a satire of modern academia and a commentary on human nature (we're all vampires...), The Addiction is one fascinating, thoughtful, and disturbing vampire flick.

2. The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998). Jude Law portrays handsome but cold Steve Grlscz, an urbane, city-dwelling vampire, in this underrated gem. Steve's body is rapidly breaking down and he needs the blood of women to hold it together. But there's a catch: Grlscz needs the perfect love of those women too, which means he must romance them -- must make them fall in love with him -- and then kill them. "Love is what I feel; what I eat," he explains.
Human emotions, you see, are carried in the blood, according to Grlscz, and he needs that love as a primary ingredient in his feasts. Cold, spare, and unrelentingly wicked, The Wisdom of Crocodiles envisions Grlscz as a kind of evolutionary throwback. Human beings have three brains, he confides in one lover, a human brain -- which is built upon a mammal brain -- which in turn is built upon a reptilian brain. Grlscz, it seems, in his coldness and emotional emptiness, has much of the crocodile in him. The Wisdom of Crocodiles even exhibits a great metaphor about the ultimate boredom of immortality; discussing the "agony of holding on," and the "wonderful feeling of letting go" in connection with Grlscz's childhood plunge from a tree. Can a crocodile (or a vampire) experience real love, real connection? Or does a vampire only cry crocodile tears so as to lure his next meal? That's the question this movie raises.

3. Blood Couple (aka Ganja & Hess) (1973):
This is an odd, inventive work that re-interprets vampirism in the context of the African-American community and experience. Written and directed by Bill Gunn, the story revolves around Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones), a black scholar investigating the long-dead culture of Myrthia in Africa. After he is stabbed with an infected ceremonial dagger from the long-dead civilization, Green falls prey to the same plague of vampirism that corrupted and destroyed that advanced society.
Before long, the noble Green reluctantly begins feeding on the "lesser" members of American (black) society, including pimps, junkies and hookers. The movie is about race loyalty and betrayal; about the way the upper class feeds off the lower class, and more. Even debating the role of Christianity in the black community, Blood Couple defines vampirism as essentially addiction; on the feeding off of others.
Critic Harry Benshoff captured well the film's essence in his essay "Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription," Cinema Journal, Volume 39, No. 2, Winter 2000, pages 43 - 45.: "At the heart of the film lies vampirism as a metaphor for capitalism and cultural imperialism, dramatizing in horror movie iconography how some human beings live off the blood, sweat, and toil of others."

4. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971): I've written before (at length...) -- here -- about this remarkable horror film from the disco decade. Let's Scare Jessica to Death depicts the travails of a woman named Jessica (Zohra Lampert). Only recently, she has recovered from a nervous breakdown. With her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman) and a friend named Woody (Kevin O'Connor), Jessica relocates to a small town in Connecticut, a town haunted by the memory (and perhaps presence...) of a vampire woman named Abigail Bishop.

Directed by John Hancock, the film is beautifully photographed, and it captures hazy, dream-like images in a powerful way. One shot (of Jessica alone in a canoe by sunrise) calls up resonances of The Lady of Shallot. And the villainous Abigail -- a porcelain specter in diaphanous white gown -- is a contemporary Rappaccini's daughter who brings terror and death to anyone who falls under her spell.
The vampires of the film, other than Abigail, are all wrinkled old men and denizens of the town. At one point, the geriatric vampire brigade accosts Jessica in her bedroom -- a hungry mob -- and it's a freaky, disturbing moment. In Horror Films of the 1970s, I termed Let's Scare Jessica To Death a great example of "New England Gothic," and that's exactly what it is. There's an ancient evil, a town with a dark secret, a struggle with personal sanity ,and a coven of blood-thirsty, gnarled old vampires. The result is one of the most hypnotic, unsettling horror films of the decade.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dollhouse Canceled...

The AP is currently reporting the cancellation of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. The report reads, in part:

The Joss Whedon fantasy drama ends after its current 13-episode order, with the series finale scheduled to air Jan. 22, according to a person familiar with the show who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss it.

Well, given the ratings situation, this move is hardly a surprise. And actually, you can't really fault Fox either, at least this time. Granting the low-rated series a second season was a bold move in the first place, and I'm sad that it didn't pay off.

TV REVIEW: V: "There is No Normal Anymore"

Last week, I didn't have much complimentary to say about ABC's re-imagination of the 1980s classic V. The new series pilot was woefully flat; lacking in suspense, scares, visual distinction, and much by way of interesting characters.

The second episode, last night's "There Is No Normal Anymore," isn't much of an improvement. In fairness, the sophomore episode opens with a full-head of steam. We get signs that the Visitors are illicitly monitoring and intercepting earthbound 911 telephone calls, and also witness another Visitor seeker weapon in action (though it resembles a CGI version of the famous Phantasm ball...).

There was even one sequence last night that actually accelerated the heart-beat a bit. Specifically, the hunky, cussin' priest and Agent Evans were interrogated -- in separate settings -- about their individual encounters with the Visitors. The sharp cross-cutting here did a good job of building tension. At least until it was all bled away by the 20 minute mark...

But other than that aggressive start? The new V most decidedly lacks imagination and, perhaps more importantly, science fiction color. I wonder how long it will be before we get interviews with the producers declaring that V isn't supposed to be science fiction at all, because everything indicative of the genre is downplayed here to an alarming extent. For instance, there's been zero on-screen speculation about the Visitors' world of origin, their technology, or even the idea of parallel evolution, since the Vs apparently (on the surface...) so closely resemble human beings. Wouldn't someone on the 24 hour cable networks be talking about alien biology, alien ship design, anything?! How about civil defense matters in the case of a surprise attack?

Worse than this apparent oversight, our lead -- Agent Evans -- has apparently taken it entirely in stride that the Visitors are humanoid Lizards in men's clothing. She's very upset, you see, that her FBI partner of seven years is a traitor and possibly a terrorist. But she never expresses astonishment or horror that, gee, he's also a sentient reptile. In fact, nobody comments on that at all this week. It's almost like, behind-the-scenes, the makers of V are actually embarrassed by their very premise.

Damningly, the new V doesn't even seem to know what the Visitors are doing here on Earth yet, either. Perhaps the show is hedging its bets because of all the behind-the-scenes turmoil, but it means, in practice, that we get a lot of shots of High Commander Anna simply staring at underlings; possibly bemused; possibly sinister; possibly impatient. Your guess is as good as mine. But three or four of these shots an episode is just gilding the lily; at least until we have a better idea of what she's thinking.

Costs must be out of control on the new series too, judging by the dearth of effects shots and interesting sets in last night's show. In the original V, we saw more laser blasts, more alien make-up, more ship take-offs and landings, more mother-ship interiors in a single hour than we have seen in the first two episodes here. Again, there's just nothing in this re-imagination that remotely suggests "event" television or a sense of scope commiserate with the idea that aliens have arrived on Earth for the first time. Agent Evans declares "there is no normal anymore," but the problem with the new V is that, pretty much, everything is exactly as it was before. People still go to work; people still send their kids to school; everyone still watches 24 hour news and worries about TV ratings. The alien problem ranks about as high as illegal immigration, health care, or the winner of the next American Idol, it seems.

Honestly, if aliens hovered over our cities and wanted to open diplomatic relations, claiming to be "at peace, always," wouldn't our government (or the Chinese Government, or the Russian government...) respond: okay, space brothers, but in the meantime, how about vacating our sovereign airspace and backing the fuck off? If I were President, my answer would be: I would be happy to consider diplomatic relations with your people. Till I decide, all your ships and personnel are to remain in orbit around the moon. But the new V can't even imagine that the premise of the show is real, and thus the show itself doesn't feel like a thoughtful meditation on an alien arrival.

My gut instinct about the new V is that it is attempting for a fast, earthbound 24-vibe -- with aliens as terrorists -- but at the expense of the intelligent, science fiction allegory of the original.

Virtually by definition, that seems like dumbing down.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Happy 40th Birthday Sesame Street!

Since 1969, Jim Henson's Sesame Street has been a staple of American kid culture. It was "born" in '69 just a few weeks before I was, which means we both turn forty this year.

I always enjoyed the muppet-centric series as a kid, but as an adult watching it with my energetic three-year old son, I appreciate it even more. Joel's on the move all the time, but when Sesame Street airs, he stops everything to check out "Murray Had a Little Lamb" and "Elmo's World." If I manage to stay conscious on the sofa beside him, I watch too.

A couple of weeks ago, I caught a Sesame Street skit that satirized the Indiana Jones movies, entitled "Texas Telly and the Golden Triangle of Destiny" In a word, it was perfect; right down to the heroic musical overture and Telly's attempt to outrun a big rolling boulder...

I also enjoyed the Law & Order riff (replete with a Belzer muppet), the Mission: Impossible gag (with Cookie Monster in the role of Tom Cruise). Pre-School Musical, and the other myriad pop culture references. These movie/tv jokes go right over Joel's head, but as a stay-at-home dad spending 15 hour days with my child, I'm certainly grateful for the under-the-radar Gen X humor and an hour-long daily respite.

There's been a kerfuffle lately over Sesame Street and the Tea Baggers (hee hee...). They're upset because even Sesame Street has acknowledged the patently obvious; that Fox News is....trashy. On the series, Oscar the Grouch refers to the FOX News Network as POX News...

Anyway, I hope Sesame Street continues educating American kids about the alphabet, numbers, and right wing extremism for another forty years.

Just for kicks, take a look at this great video of Ricky Gervais giving Elmo a hard time...:

Sunday, November 08, 2009

There's Always an (Over-Sized) Vent Shaft When Our Hero Needs One

Back in September, the great Den of Geek's Martin Anderson posted a compelling essay (and terrific photo collection..) concerning the visualization of corridors in science fiction cinema history.

In Praise of the Sci-Fi Corridor included this commentary: "Corridors make science-fiction believable, because they're so utilitarian by nature - really they're just a conduit to get from one (often overblown) set to another. So if any thought or love is put into one, if the production designer is smart enough to realise that corridors are the foundation on which larger sets are 'sold' to viewers, movie magic is close at hand."

I couldn't agree more about corridors; and yet this interesting blog post got me thinking about the opposite. About bad production design; about bad writing; about a cheap device/design that can stall the conjuration of movie magic.

It was then that I recalled perhaps the great sci-fi convention in the history of the genre on film and TV: The Over-Sized Vent Shaft.

I don't know about your experience, but in my house, vents are actually pretty small. This is not true, however, of virtually all of the science fiction movies and TV programs featuring vent shafts. These movies and TV shows are often set in the future too; an epoch when (we hope...) technology would prove more efficient. And if history is any judge, "more efficient" means smaller.

Yet in genre productions. The vent shaft or "air shaft" is actually so roomy, so large, it can comfortably accommodate not just a single person, but hordes of people. Not to mention drooling xenomorphs...

A short survey of the genre vent shaft -- an easy escape route for an imprisoned hero -- reveals the myriad narrative purposes of this over-used cliche.

In Dr. No (1962), the first film of the long-lived James Bond series, an imprisoned 007 (Sean Connery) discovers a large rectangular vent shaft leading out of his jail cell in the Crab Key HQ of the villainous Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). The vent's convenient placement in a prison cell strains believability, of course, but at least Dr. No provides some precautions against tampering: the vent cover/grate is electrified.

Good for keeping prisoners trapped; not so good for routine maintenance.

In fact, this example remains one of the oddest vent shafts in film history. Once Bond actually crawls through the vent shaft, it fills with sea water...which nearly drowns him. Yet logically, if you consider the path of the vent shaft...that water would have led right out to the electrified grate...and into the prison cell. First what is sea water doing in a vent shaft anyway? And second, why is sea water being routed into a prison cell at all? Third, wouldn't the designer of such a vent system at least consider the idea that sea water and electrified grates don't , uh, mix?

The great Star Trek often made use of the over-sized vent shaft to get Enterprise crew out of trouble. The first season episode "Dagger of the Mind," set in the subterranean Tantalus Penal Colony (a rehabilitation center for criminals) is a notable example.

This colony is set up in the dialogue as a high-security, impenetrable installation. It takes a long elevator (turbo-lift) ride underground to enter the hermetically-sealed installation in the first place.

Additionally, the entire asylum is shielded from the rest of the civilized galaxy by a protective force field which prevents beaming. Finally, the prisoners inside the colony are controlled by a fiendish brainwashing device called a "neural neutralizer."

Sounds like quite the trap, right? Well, after Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is captured and brain-washed by the neural neutralizer, he is taken and held inside a locked ward room. Guess what should be conveniently located on the wall of his prison?

Yep, an over-sized vent-shaft with decorative wall-grate. And naturally, this vent leads to the control room for the installation's security force field, so Kirk's associate, Dr. Helen Noel, can de-activate it. Again, why go to the trouble of building a facility deep underground, of surrounding it with an impenetrable force field, and controlling your wards by mind-control devices if you're just going to leave high-security areas accessible from ward room vent shafts?

In Space:1999's final second season episode, "The Dorcons," the over-sized vent shaft comes in handy yet again. Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) has become trapped aboard the flagship of the Dorcons, the most terrifying military force in the universe.

Aboard the Dorcon ship, Koenig breaks free, climbs into a comfortable, over-sized vent shaft, and then uses it -- undetected -- to travel throughout the warship. He bypasses security, rescues his friend, Maya (Catherine Schell) and then manages to escape back to Moonbase Alpha with Maya in tow.

Again, you might think the most fearsome military force in the galaxy would have better security, and do away with those gigantic and oh-so-convenient vent shafts.

At least in this case, Koenig pays a physical price for the welcome convenience of the easily accessible, roomy vent shaft: the vent grate cuts open and bloodies his fingers when he shimmies it loose.

And here's an odd quirk of Space:1999. The Dorcons represent a super-advanced society and yet are equipped with man-sized vent shafts, right? Well, the much-less technologically-advanced Alphans (denizens of our 20th century...) have normal-sized vent shafts. In an earlier second season episode, "The Beta Cloud," we saw that Maya (a metamorphing Psychon) must transform into a cockroach to pass through the small vents of the man-made moon base...

Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) boasts an episode called "Fire in Space" -- an ode to Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno -- in which a Cylon kamikaze attack starts a raging conflagration aboard the imperiled colonial battlestar.

A group of off-duty humans, including Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr), Athena (Maren Jensen) and young Boxey (Noah Hathaway) are trapped inside a rec center as the fire grows hotter, and smoke inhalation becomes a deadly risk.

Fortunately, there's -- you guessed it -- a convenient vent shaft in the back of the rec center, and the robot daggit Muffit is sent inside it (he fits easily, of course...) to travel the length of the rather large battlestar and retrieve a bag of oxygen masks for the threatened Galactica crew. Along the way, Muffit also spots (and later rescues...) an injured fire crew worker.

Just look at that photograph of the battlestar vent shaft for a second. If Muffit can fit through it comfortably and his robotic fur coat is no badly burned (just a little singed...) in the process, why don't the trapped Galacticans just travel to safety through the vent shaft too, using ripped clothing as protection over their hands and knees?

The brilliant Alien movie series has also employed the convention of the vent shaft to resolve narrative issues or further the plot.

In Ridley Scott's original Alien (1979), Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) travels inside an over-sized air-shaft because the film's titular xenomorph is using it to move back and forth through the vast Nostromo.

The vent shaft in this film is actually a gigantic vent complex, consisting of multiple horizontal and vertical levels. The vent system features many spiral-shaped doors that open and close on command...yet has no internal lighting system, which means that overloaded Dallas (weighted down with a flame-thrower in one hand and a flash-light in the other...), can bump into the monster in the dark and not have a fighting chance. Oopsy...

In the sequel, Aliens (1986), the alien monsters are everywhere: inside the ceiling, in subterranean pipes...but not, at least initially, inside the over-sized vent shafts that connect buildings. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) escape a battle with the aliens by fleeing inside a vent shaft that Newt is already familiar with.

In fact, Newt has survived the alien threat by living inside these vent shafts for weeks. So, just to contextualize: in Alien (1979) the monster utilized the vent shafts of the Nostromo to get around. In the sequel, the aliens totally ignore vent shafts, and a little girl survives for weeks inside them.

Another question: if the vents connect buildings and areas of the terraforming complex, why does poor Bishop (Lance Henriksen) have to scoot on his belly through a claustrophobic, subterranean pipe to reach the communications center?

Make no mistake: I'm a huge admirer of all the productions discussed in this post. But the use of the over-sized vent shaft in each production is sure...convenient, and hackneyed.

Note to intrepid science fiction film and TV writers: the over-sized vent shaft -- always there when our hero needs it -- is a convention due for retirement.

Friday, November 06, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #94: Twin Peaks: "Pilot" (1990)

Writing about David Lynch's classic and creepy Twin Peaks (1990-1991), critic Terrance Rafferty noted in The New Leader (April 9, 1990, page 86) that the "all-American surrealist takes to television like a parasite to an especially nourishing host."

In more straightforward terms, author Robert J. Thompson noted that Twin Peaks is one of television's "most interesting and compelling aesthetic achievements." (From Hill Street Blues to ER: Television's Second Golden Age, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1996, page 155.)

Indeed, thinking back to the year 1990, I remember a nation utterly captivated by the soap opera. Twin Peaks was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon in those days, down to the parodies ("Twin Beaks" on Sesame Street), down to the New York Times best-seller The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, down to the Time Magazine cover story on Lynch, and even the Twin Peaks Access Guide to the Town (which featured a recipe for some damn-fine cherry pie...).

I also recall with great clarity attending parties at college wherein suddenly the word would go out (usually loudly...) that it was time for Twin Peaks, and there would be this mad rush for the nearest TV set. Students huddled before the tube with rapt attention, and as soon as Angelo Badalementi's moody theme song began it grew so quiet you could actually hear a pin drop. That spell was not broken for the entire hour as active viewers sussed out clues, sought revelations, and reveled in the program's quirky symbolism.

Another potent personal memory of Twin Peaks involves the surprising collapse of the phenomenon early in the series' second season. The oft-heard complaint was simply that dedicated viewers had -- because of family or job obligations -- missed a single episode and found themselves utterly lost; unable to keep up with the twists and turns of Mark Frost and David Lynch's bizarre, labyrinthine program. This feeling of missing out, of not keeping up, of being on "the outs" with something popular, actually generated a kind of vicious backlash. When the feature film based on the movie, Fire Walk with Me (1991), was released at a later point, it was (unfairly...) greeted with derisive boos and hisses by critics and fans alike.

The fashionable had turned into the unfashionable, seemingly overnight...

Twin Peaks was the tale of a small, Douglas Fir-lined town in the Pacific-Northwest (population: 51, 201) that suffered a terrible tragedy on February the 24th of 1990. The corpse of beloved high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) was discovered - wrapped in plastic -- on the banks of the river near the Packard Saw Mill. The crime was so horrendous, so awful, that it sent the town into a literal tail-spin of suspicion and accusations, and resulted in an FBI investigation led by fastidious agent, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).

As Cooper and town sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) sought answers about the brutal crime, a dark underside was also unearthed. Seventeen year-old Laura Palmer -- the "golden girl" of the local high school -- had been a cocaine user. She had also kept a secret diary of her kinky sexual escapades, and had at least two lovers. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Those memorable characters and intriguing situations are all set up -- ably and artistically -- in the ninety minute pilot episode of Twin Peaks that aired on ABC on April 8, 1990. For purposes of this review, I screened the original TV version of the pilot (rather than the International version) simply because this post is a "flashback" to the series as it aired on American television. And even in 2009 -- almost twenty-years after it originally aired -- the Twin Peaks pilot is mesmerizing; and certainly one of the ten greatest TV pilots of all-time.

Who's The Lady With The Log? We Call Her The Log Lady...

One of the reasons this pilot stands up so well involves Lynch's multi-layered approach to the material. In other words, Twin Peaks is concurrently a "thing" (a melodrama; a soap opera, a serialized TV series) and a parody of that very "thing."

Specifically, melodrama -- literally "a play with music" -- is a drama of heightened emotions that concerns family crises, hardships, and domestic tragedies. In Twin Peaks, Lynch parodies this hot-house, emotionally-unrestrained genre, and in particular, the melodrama as it has existed throughout American television history.

Accordingly, Badalementi's droning, monotonous, ubiquitous (but gorgeous...) musical score serves as the 1990s equivalent of the maudlin organs you might hear supporting a General Hospital or Guiding Light episode of the early 1960s. This exaggerated musical score is integral to the soap opera aura of Twin Peaks, and it constantly lifts the tenor of the pilot from grounded reality to a brand of rarefied, hyper-reality.

Tragedy arrives hard and fast in the Twin Peaks pilot with Pete Martell's (Jack Nance) discovery of Laura Palmer's corpse. Again, this is a terrible turn-of-events, especially for Laura's parents, Leland (Ray Wise) and Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). These fine actors weep and wail, shouting to the Heavens over their grievous loss in the earnest tradition of the soap opera or melodrama.

Yet, Lynch quickly and methodically distances us from that continual and genuine suffering, almost literally turning it comedic in the process. To wit, Sarah learns that Laura is dead while conversing with Leland on the telephone. Leland drops the telephone in shock at the news (reported by Sheriff Truman), but Lynch's camera doesn't follow Leland, as we might expect.

Instead, we suddenly get a close-up of the phone, and the camera pans down and down -- ever-so-slowly -- the long telephone wire, all-the-way to the dangling receiver. Emanating from that receiver are Sarah's tortured cries, still audible even though nobody is listening. But those cries -- now disembodied -- go on and on and on, ad nauseum, and make the moment read as funny, not tragic. Again, this augmentation occurs in tandem with the overblown musical score. The crying has gone on so long, and with such sustained passion that it turns silly, and Lynch informs us that is so by removing the crier from the frame so we're not actually laughing at the person's pain; we're laughing at the over-the-top reaction.

The deadpan, circular dialogue in Twin Peaks likewise adds to the strong sense that the soap opera form is being parodied here. Straight answers are given to straight questions, and yet everything about the interrogatives and their rebuttals are absurd. "Who is the lady with the log?" asks Dale Cooper. "We call her the log lady," replies Sheriff Truman. Tell me, do you glean any important contextual information from that particular back-and-forth?

Again and again, Lynch undercuts the seriousness of the tale to parody the soap opera form. After the discovery of the corpse, he cuts to shots of a blubbering detective at the crime scene, a sobbing idiot named Andy. Again, this isn't typical crime-scene behavior. Later, as Sheriff Truman is about to get the call about Laura's death, his receptionist, Lucy, goes off on a sustained riff about how she is going to transfer that particular call. To that phone. By the lamp. The black one. On the table.

Again, the very serious form of the soap opera is successfully undercut here by Lucy's focus on the picayune. The examples are too numerous to mention just in the pilot alone, but I must admit, I nurture a special affection for a very funny camera set-up in the local high school. Sheriff Truman is just about to arrive to tell the students of the bad news, but before we see him (in the background of the frame), a young high school student inexplicably and robotically moonwalks from his locker (on the right of the frame) to the left side of the screen. It's unmotivated, it's bizarre, and it's funny as hell.

Later in the series, Twin Peaks further satirized soap opera forms in everything from crazy character contrivances (like Laura's lookalike cousin Mattie...) to direct reference to the genre. In the latter case, the characters would often be seen watching a sophomoric soap opera entitled Invitation to Love. With Twin Peaks, Lynch seemed to be telling audiences how silly the form of the melodrama was at the same time that he was enticing the audience with a superlative example of the form.

The Girl in the Plastic Bag

The strange alchemy of Twin Peaks is so compelling because the series is part soap opera, part soap opera parody, and much more too. The show veers into mystery, into horror, and even bizarre police procedural. The pilot changes tenors easily and quickly, and we're often left feeling deeply discomforted by the unconventional shifts.

The death of Laura Palmer is greeted with terrible mourning throughout the first episode (even on the part of the taciturn school principal...) and Lynch seems to be playing on societal stereotypes about young blond women. The victim here is not randomly selected.

On the contrary, Laura Palmer symbolizes something significant. Mid-way through the pilot, Lynch's camera pushes in towards an athletic trophy case...where an iconic portrait of Laura stands -- dead center of the shot. The implication drawn from the photograph's placement in both the frame and the case, of course, is that golden-locked Laura is the ultimate trophy in America of the 1990s.

In traditional folklore, fairies and other spirits of the forest are universally drawn to blond-haired women, and if you've watched all of Twin Peaks, that's a subtle clue about the nature of this particular crime. But there's more than that going on too. Blond hair is often considered part and parcel of the "essential female" in our culture, and hair color is "entangled not only with the concepts of femininity and beauty, but also with intimations of mortality in a youth-oriented society," according to author Anthony Synnott in The Body Social, Self & Society (page 109).

Sometimes, blondes are also stereotypically associated with loose morals or promiscuity, and as a character, Laura seems to encompass every aspect of the Blond Mystique.. She's highly-desirable (a trophy) in terms of male sexual ownership of her. She's a symbol of life, vitality and the future in the youth culture, and she's also derided (the Madonna/Whore Complex...) because of her overtly sexual nature in what appears a conservative (but ultimately corrupt...) adult society. I find fascinating the many ways this pilot contextualizes and re-contextualizes Laura: as loving daughter (to her parents), as romantic fantasy (to James), as best friend (to Donna Hayward), as crime victim (to the investigators), as innocent school girl (to the principal and others), and even as kindly tutor/ teacher (to the Horne 's son). But, at least in the pilot, it is impossible to say that we "know" Laura. That's part of Twin Peaks' great appeal: that Laura is different things to different people and the audience can only guess at the "real" Palmer.

By making a golden-haired, "All-American" beauty the victim of a terrible crime, Lynch is granted an opening to study a lot of things about society. How men view women; how women view other women; how society glorifies and then destroys women, and female beauty, even. It's the same delicate dance Lynch waltzed in Blue Velvet (1984), a film that in many ways a prototype for Twin Peaks. He likes to gaze at the underneath; at the meaning behind symbols we take for granted on a conscious level.

A "Pretty Simple Town:" The Evil That Lurks in the Woods

One of the most important symbols in Twin Peaks is the dense forest that surrounds the town. In literature -- as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne -- the forest has often been considered a place of evil.

Hawthorne wrote powerfully (in Young Goodman Brown, for instance...) that the American forests were inhabited by things both inhuman and devilish. His books were built around that belief; just as Twin Peaks is also built around them. Over the course of the series, we learn about the forest's Black Lodge and the inhabitants within: dwarves, giants and sadistic murderers. But the Forest also reflects a very human evil.

Consider this description of the forest (from the forest is a "place where vegetable life thrives and luxuriates, free from any control or cultivation. And since its foliage obscures the light of the sun, it is therefore regarded as opposed to the sun's power and as a symbol of the earth...Since the female principle is identified with the unconsciousness in Man, it follows that the forest is also a symbol of the unconsciousness. It is for this reason that Jung maintains that the sylvan terrors that figure so prominently in childrens' tales symbolize the perilous aspects of the unconsciousness, that is, its tendency to devour or obscure reason."

The woods have proven a dangerous place to fictional characters in works such as Little Red Riding Hood, The Blair Witch Project (1999), and, yes, Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer doesn't survive her night in the woods...a night of unconscious unbound. Rona, another resident of the town, also emerges bloody and beaten from the forest, and the pilot provides us a stunning shot of the girl "coming home," crossing a rusted bridge -- white-capped mountains and forest behind her in the distance -- as she returns to civilization. Depending on interpretation, the forest in Twin Peaks is either the realm where the Human Id goes wild and murder results; or the place where the human psyche is possessed by external spirits and specters of tremendous madness. But either way, the pilot begins to establish the symbolism of the forest as an important catalyst for series events. Between scenes, we see wind rustling through the trees, with a strange, sinister quality. Later we see traffic lights shining red -- warning us not to go any further (into the woods?) -- blowing in the wind at night. The forest represents an invisible malevolence, ever-present but virtually ignored.

On one level, Twin Peaks is about a girl who went astray (morally?) in the woods (adulthood?), and paid the ultimate price. It's a metaphor for life traps like drug use and exploitive sex. But Twin Peaks is no Afterschool Special. It is so weird, so spiky, so dark and demented that it encourages many interpretations, That's why the series dwells in the memory, in the imagination, even in the subconscious.

Even after all these years, Twin Peaks is a great mystery waiting to be re-opened and re-visited. And the punch line -- "the sequence of staccato images where we finally discovered who killed Laura Palmer " (Cult Times, October 1996, page 53) -- is one of the most terrifying scenes you'll find in television history. Like life itself, the series was wild, and weird; inexplicably absurd...and, at some moments, paralyzing. Lynch lulls you into complacency with the belief that his show is a put-on, a stab at soap operas, but then he hits you with his trademark whammies (like our final, alarming visit with Laura Palmer in the Black Lodge).

This "simple little town" is as as strange and surreal a place as mainstream TV has ever taken us, an often-dark reminder that "fate and coincidence figure largely in our lives."

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