Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The CULT-TV Faces of: Martin Landau

Before he picked-up a well-deserved Oscar for portraying Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), actor Martin Landau starred and guest-starred in a number of cult-TV series. I appreciate many aspects of Landau's fine work across the years on television, but I've especially admired the fact that he is a leading actor who is totally unafraid to go under heavy-make-up for the demands of a specific role. Even when "carrying" a series as the "romantic" leading man, you still find Landau beneath the latex, in disguise, wearing wigs, and crafting these highly individual, memorable performances. In a word, he's incredible. How many specific roles/episode titles can you name here?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978) Surfaces

I reviewed The Amazing Captain Nemo (a mini-series from 1978) under the title The Return of Captain Nemo last year, but regardless of the title, it looks like the rare Irwin Allen production is headed to DVD on April 6.

Now you can see the Space:1999 Eagles-turned-into-submarines for yourself! If you dare...

Here's a snippet of my review from April of last year:

On March 8, 1978, CBS begain airing in prime-time the latest science-fiction TV series from the master of disaster Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, etc.)

This new venture -- which represented Allen's final attempt at series work -- was an unholy hodgepodge of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) mixed with a little Jules Verne, and with a huge helping of Star Wars, which was still playing in theaters and had become nothing less than a national craze. The extremely short-lived series was called The Return of Captain Nemo, though some viewers may remember it by its foreign, theatrical title, The Amazing Captain Nemo.

Only three hour-long episodes of The Return of Captain Nemo ("Deadly Black Mail," "Duel in The Deep" and "Atlantis Dead Ahead") were produced and aired, and the obscure, extremely rare series has mostly been seen since in an abbreviated compilation movie format. This strange broadcast and distribution history has resulted in some apparent confusion about whether or not the original production was a mini-series, a made-for-TV movie or simply a series. All the evidence suggests the latter, since the three 45-minute segments feature individual titles and writer/director/guest star credits. The series aired in prime time, drew terrible ratings, was unceremoniously canceled, and then exhumed from its watery grave as the theatrical or TV-movie that many nostalgic folk of my generation remember.

The first episode of The Return of Captain Nemo, "Deadly Blackmail" commences as a diabolical mad scientist, Dr. Waldo Cunningham (Burgess Meredith) blackmails Washington D.C. for the princely sum of one billion dollars from his perch in the command center of his highly-advanced submarine, the Raven.

Unless the President pays up in one week's time, Cunningham will fire a nuclear "doomsday" missile at the city. To prove his intent is serious, Cunningham destroys a nearby island with a laser called "a delta ray." The creature in charge of firing this weapon is a frog-faced golden robot in a silver suit and gloves. Every time the delta ray is fired (over the three episodes...), we cut back to identical footage of this strange frog robot activating the deadly device.

This introductory scene sets the breathless tone and pace for much of the brief series, proving immediately and distinctly reminiscent of George Lucas's Star Wars. Specifically, Cunningham's right-hand man in the command center is a giant, baritone-voiced robot/man called "Tor." This villain -- when not speaking directly into a communications device that resembles a high-tech bong -- looks and sounds like the cheapest Darth Vader knock-off you can imagine, right down to the rip-off James Earl Jones voice.

Tor even boasts psychic abilities not unlike the power of the Force. When intruders steal aboard the Raven, for instance, Tor can psychically senses their presence there; just as Vader could sense the presence of Obi-Wan aboard the Death Star. Yes, I know Darth Vader isn't actually a robot and his power wasn't actually psychic, but this is the kind of distinction that escaped the creators of
The Return of Captain Nemo.

And speaking of The Death Star, Cunningham -- who essentially plays Governor Tarkin to Tor's Lord Vader -- the submarine Raven's deadly delta ray looks an awful lot like the primary weapon of that destructive imperial space station. Much more troubling, however, is the fact that the Raven, Cunningham's powerful submarine, is actually a just barely re-dressed Space:1999 eagle spaceship, replete with the four rear-mounted rocket engines, the dorsal lattice-work spine, the modular body, and the front, bottle nose capsule. Yep, it's all there. Many of the underwater sequences in The Return of Captain Nemo are incredibly murky and feature superimposed bubbles and dust in the foreground (probably to hide how bad the miniatures look...), but I've attempted to post a few photographs of the Raven here, so you can see for yourself that, yep, Cunningham's ship is an underwater Moonbase Alpha eagle transporter.

Monday, March 29, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Begotten (1991)

Director E. Elias Merhige’s 1991 film Begotten is a unique reminder that movies don’t all have to be cut from the same cloth.

Instead, a daring motion picture, forged by an inspired artist might eschew tradition and flout expectations. Susan Sontag, for instance, famously termed the experimental Begotten "one of the ten most important films of modern times."

A bizarre, incredibly gory parable about life, death, and re-birth Begotten is expressed entirely in grainy black-and-white imagery and told without benefit of dialogue.

As the film begins, a God-like being kills itself, but “Mother Earth” takes its seed and (at great length...) gives birth to a human-seeming son, who is then dragged away and abused by strange, robed natives from a nearby community. The “Son of Earth” creates life and food for them in a kind of enforced fertility rite, and the villagers then proceed to kill Mother Earth and her son. Life springs anew from their grave, and the cycle of life and death continues anew.

Four years in the making, at a cost of $33,000.00, Begotten never explains its narrative, and fails even to comment on its setting. It is the medium of film reduced to blunt, genetic building blocks: virtually silent, with images of light and darkness indistinct, that we must interpret for ourselves. An opening card gives us a sole clue: “Like a flame burning away to darkness, life is flesh on bone convulsing above the ground.”

Sometimes during Begotten, our eyes can only register the fundamentals of shape and shade. The photography is grainy, pixelized, dirty, deliberately obscuring, and the result is that the movie, as it commences, sows a deep sense of uncertainty and discomfort. Because we have never seen anything like this before, anything seems possible. And in those possibilities --- and in that unpredictability -- horror blooms, at least for a while. There's an early scene involving a razor blade, and much blood, for example.

What we do successfully register throughout the duration of Begotten seems wholly concerned with suffering and brutality. The film thus resembles a subconscious nightmare made manifest; as though the Earth itself could “dream” and transmit that disturbing phantasm to us -- its wards -- a chronicle of its long, ever-changing violent seasons.

This is likely the first and only movie I've seen that concerns itself legitimately with a real non-human viewpoint, if that's even possible given human creators. The director, Merhige (who went on to make such films as the acclaimed Shadow of the Vampire [2000] and Suspect Zero [2004]), seems to have sensed that Begotten was literally "possessed" of an unusual spirit. He informed Filmmaker Magazine in 2000: "The actual making of the film turned out to be an extraordinary, tribal, shamanic experience: it felt like we were acting out some sort of cosmological ritual.”

Considering this almost prehistoric, primal shape, Begotten appears as though it has been recovered from the dawn of time itself, from the cradle of antiquity. Of course, film is a technology that wasn’t invented in antiquity, but had it been, one can imagine Begotten is exactly what we would see. The images are powerful and stark, as if imprinted on hard, unforgiving stone, not celluloid, and then rubbed into being by pure force-of-will, like strange, moving etchings developed in a primordial dark room. As critic J. Hoberman wrote in The Magic Hour: Film at fin de siècle (Temple University Press, 2003): "The movie seems to exist in an advanced state of decomposition..”

Lacking narrative and visual certainties, Begotten is something of a Rorschach test "for the adventurous eye", as film critic and historian Richard Corliss wrote in his review for Time Magazine. "It’s as if a druidical cult had re-enacted, for real, three Bible stories of creation, the Nativity and Jesus’s torture and death on Golgotha – and some demented genius were there to film it. No names, no dialogue, no compromises, no exit. No apologies either, for Begotten is a spectacular one-of-a-kind (you wouldn’t want there to be two), filmed in speckled chiaroscuro so that each image is a seductive mystery."

I don't know that I would use the term "seductive" in regards to Merhige's work, as Begotten seems very...painful. The malformed "Son of Earth" is burned, beaten, buried, clubbed with a mallet, and generally mistreated throughout the latter portions of the drama. Watching this pageant of suffering, our minds jump to the idea of man assiduously, painfully re-shaping the hard soil of Earth to gain a foothold and grow crops; to bring life from unforgiving terra firma. Is this how the Earth "feels" to be under our yoke? To be shaped to our purposes?

After some interval of suffering, cleansing, cathartic water falls upon the tortured, twisted ground in the form of rain (and we hear water bubbling on the soundtrack, which otherwise mostly consists of crickets and inhuman-sounding moaning...). Flowers wilt in fast-motion, but new stalks grow up in their place, visible in front of a distant horizon.

Again, we think almost unconsciously of the seasons changing, of the Earth renewing herself, of creation/destruction/creation played out with only quasi-human things as our symbolic lead characters. The film has often been categorized as horror because it is bloody, violent, deeply disturbing and quite a bit more than “surreal.” In shorthand, it’s The Passion of the Malformed; or perhaps The Passion of Mother Nature. But this is not conventional horror. There's nothing conventional here at all.

The central debate about Begotten remains this: is Merhige's 1991 film a genius work of art, or an overlong pretentious work of enormous self-indulgence? The answer is complicated, alas. The film is unarguably fascinating in presentation, and I’m surprised more aspiring filmmakers have not aped this dynamic visual approach, utilizing black-and-white reversal film, plus frame-by-frame re-photography (a lengthy process which took ten hours for each minute of running time).

Yet beyond the distinctive, one-of-a-kind appearance of Begotten -- the absolutely amazing visual presentation -- the film falters. Scenes go on and on, lingering far past the viewer’s breaking point, and since the film rebuffs attempts even to adequately “see” it, the overall effect tends to generate a sense of distance. What intrigues and frightens us at first seems to push us away by the film's midpoint. The film hammers us so hard, we retreat.

If Merhige's goal was to challenge film conventions (as a medium of expression) and eschew audience comforts such as dialogue, visual clarity, sound, plus conventional narrative and characterization, then there is simply no need for his movie to last nearly eighty minutes. Running time is a convention of the form too. Begotten could be substantively the same film at a half-hour length, or – pushing it – an hour. It would make a helluva short, in other words, while it is a hellish, hard-to-sit through feature film. Merhige removes so many comforts of traditional narratives in Begotten, yet maintains the one convention (a feature-length) that might make the film more palatable without sacrificing its theme or visualization. I don’t know if this flaw arises from sadism, is a deliberate artistic choice I haven't adequately comprehended here, or merely a miscalculation in audience tolerance levels.

An experiment, we must remember, can be both a success and a failure. It depends, I suppose, on what is being tested.

Begotten is indeed a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience, even if ultimately it outstays its welcome and we long for a more human connection to the bizarre imagery. The characters are but symbols of concepts, and they suffer terribly. Yet we still wish to understand more, and the movie blocks deeper understanding through its very unwatchable approach, its chosen form. Conventions are conventions for a reason. Within them we seek comfort, familiarity and yes, innovation. I applaud Merhige for making a film of such remarkable visual distinction and symbolism, even while finding the overall film a bit too much to really embrace. I was impressed with Begotten, but I can't say I enjoyed it (or liked it).

Not all film has to be the same, it’s true, and Begotten is totally original, totally intriguing. I recommend it for the daring visuals, the courageous approach, and the general untraditional nature of the thing. But I wouldn't expect anyone to stick with the whole bloody thing for eighty minutes.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Robert Culp (1930 - 2010)

Only a week or so after losing the talented Peter Graves, another great cult-TV actor who became famous in the 1960s has passed away; this time the incomparable Robert Culp.

Culp is perhaps most well-known -- also like Graves -- for his lead role on a popular espionage series, I Spy (1965-1968), for which he was nominated for an Emmy as best actor. His co-star was Bill Cosby.

But Culp is also beloved to Generation X'ers like myself for his role as the surly but heroic F.B.I. agent Bill Maxwell in The Greatest American Hero (1982-1983).

In that ABC series, he joined William Katt and Connie Sellecca to form a heroic, funny, charming triumvirate. On Hero, Maxwell often talked about "the scenario," a catchphrase for the mission of the week. Also, Maxwell often goaded the reluctant superhero Ralph (Katt) into action by telling him "this is the one the suit was meant for." Despite the repetition of these remarks week-to-week, episode-to-episode, Culp always made them feel fresh, and more than that...funny.

In addition to starring on The Greatest American Hero, Culp also wrote episodes of the superhero series, including season two's "Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell" (April 28, 1982) and the third season installment, "Vanity, Says the Preacher."

Culp also guest-starred in two of the greatest episodes of The Outer Limits (1963-1964) ever produced. First, there was "The Architects of Fear," about a dedicated scientist and pacifist (Culp) who altered his very biology to appear as an invading alien (a Thetan) and thus unite the warring factions of Earth. In Harlan Ellison's "Demon with a Glass Hand," Robert Culp played Trent, a man with the power to save the future...if only he could remember who he was.

Culp also appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He even appeared in one of the finest horror pilots ever produced, Gene Roddenberry's spooky Spectre (1977). Outside of the genre, Robert Culp starred in the theatrical box office hit, Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice (1969).

I've always admired Culp's approach to creating his memorable characters. Even when he played a straight-up hero, like Bill Maxwell or Kelly Robinson, Culp always gifted those personalities with his strong sense of humanity. This vision included fallibility, temper, attitude and a core of decency. Mr. Culp will be sorely missed, but his range and talent is preserved in his fine performances.

Tonight, I think I'm going to watch "Architects of Fear" again...

The Cult-TV Faces of: John Colicos

John Colicos (1928 - 2000) gave the genre several beloved and terrific cult-tv performances over the decades, usually of the villainous variety. Can you name the series and the episodes of these five frames?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CULT TV BLOGGING: Thriller: "The Cheaters"

"The Cheaters" is another remarkable and chilling episode of the two-season, classic horror anthology series from the 1960s, Thriller.

Like "The Hungry Glass," this installment is based on a story by genre legend Robert Bloch. Although there's no William Shatner headlining this particular segment, it still boasts a special treat for horror enthusiasts: a creepy score by none other than Jerry Goldsmith.

In "The Cheaters," a scientist creates a very special pair of eye-glasses in the 1800s. Inscribed with the word "VERITAS" (Latin for "truth"), these glasses permit the wearer to hear the true thoughts of anybody he cast his eyes upon.

In a bizarre opening twist, the inventor peers into the mirror and sees the "truth of his mind." He promptly goes insane and dies in the throes of terror. We don't see what he sees in the looking glass, however. Instead, the picture blurs on an image of his screaming visage (a technique reminding us of the nature of eyesight...), and we join host Boris Karloff as he introduces the tale.

The story then picks up a hundred years later, as a kindly junk dealer, Joe (Paul Newlan) comes across the cursed spectacles. He puts them and learns that his wife, Maggie, and his business-partner, Charlie, are planning his murder. Consequently, he bludgeons them both to death with a tire-iron before a policeman shoots him down. As it sounds, this is an exceptionally violent passage, especially for 1960s television.

Before long, the seemingly-cursed eyeglasses become the property of an elderly woman, Miriam Olcott (Mildred Dunnock). While wearing the glasses, she learns that her heirs, including Edward (Jack Weston), plan to have her murdered for her wealth.

In fact, her attorney, Clarence, plans to push her down the stairs so he can claim half her estate for himself. Like Joe before her, Miriam retaliates, impaling Clarence on a knitting needle. She then drinks whiskey and toasts the dead man. "To what is most precious between friends," she declares, "the truth..."

There are more disasters to come involving Edward, and finally the eyeglasses become the property of one fortune-seeking Sebastian Grimm (Harry Townes). He tracks down the history of the glasses and, in a reflection of the opening scene, views himself (wearing the spectacles) in the same mirror as the inventor did. At the urging of a malevolent, disembodied voice Sebastian "dares" to gaze into his own mind, and this time Thriller spares us no horror: Grimm's true self looks twisted and depraved, monstrous...and he promptly dies of the horror. But not, at last, before smashing the offending eye-wear.

Frankly, I can't imagine watching "The Cheaters" and "The Hungry Glass" week-to-week, back-to-back (December 27, 1960 and January 3, 1961), as they originally aired. I think if I had, I would have been too frightened to ever watch Thriller again. Both episodes are pretty intense.

Yet in some ways, "The Cheaters" is even more frightening than either "The Hungry Glass" or "Pigeons form Hell." The story is incredibly disturbing, and paints an entirely unflattering picture of mankind. Every character, in some fashion is a cheater: whether in love, in cards, or in the attainment of wealth.

Every character also nurses a secret and hides some internal ugliness behind the mask of normality. That's ultimately what we see embodied in the mirror during the climax: a portrait of human insincerity and ugliness. I just can't imagine a horror TV series on the air today making a statement this strong, or this downbeat. "The Cheaters" pulls no punches.

It's fascinating that the eyeglasses in "The Cheaters" never expose or excavate feelings of love, sympathy, generosity, empathy or caring. Every person those glasses "see" is bedeviled by malevolence, avarice or self-delusion. Therefore, while watching the episode unfold, you wonder if the glasses themselves are really truthful, or are pure evil themselves...the very opposite of the proverbial "rose colored glasses." Tellingly, the spectacles are also known as "the cheaters," and you wonder if this refers to the fact that they "cheat" by giving us a secret insight. Or perhaps they cheat in another, deeper, trickier way.

"The Cheaters" of this episode's title may also refer to all humans beings. According to Thriller, these foolish creatures say one thing but think different things entirely. It's a scary thought, and I love how Thriller visualizes the exposed, unfortunate cheaters. Their faces exist half-in-shadow, and their eyes are bulbous, exaggerated orbs of hate. Very creepy stuff from director Donald S. Sanford, and another stand-out episode of the series.

Monday, March 22, 2010

An Homage to a Vanished Loved One: The Vanishing (1988) vs. The Vanishing (1993)

Almost two decades ago, Dutch film director George Sluizer was afforded a rare opportunity.

In short, he directed the same cinematic thriller twice: first the original Spoorloos or The Vanishing (released in America in 1991), and then the Americanized 1993 remake, also titled The Vanishing and starring Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges.

Sluizer's first version of the material was met with widespread hosannas, the second with hostility and brickbats.

Yet both of Sluizer's films depict, in broad strokes, the same tale. The Vanishing is the chilling story of a beautiful young woman who disappears without a trace at a gas station, and the obsessed boyfriend desperate to learn what became of her.
In fact, this boyfriend spends three years in search of the missing woman.

Another prominent character in both films is the perpetrator of the crime, a self-professed "sociopath," at least in the Dutch version. He is a strange bird too: both a perfectionist and, paradoxically, a bit hapless. In the third act of both motion pictures, this madman offers the hero a tantalizing " chance to find out everything." To retrace, literally, the steps of the missing woman. But it's a trap...

Both movie versions of The Vanishing are also based on the 1984 Tim Krabbe novel, The Golden Egg, but the importance of that strange and poetic title is evident only in the superior Dutch film.

There, early in the proceedings, the not-yet-missing woman, Saskia (Johannah Ter Steege) explains to her boyfriend, Rex (Gene Bervoets) that she has recently experienced "another nightmare."

In that nightmare, Saskia dreamed that she was trapped in a golden egg flying through space for all eternity. And worse, she envisioned Rex in a golden egg of his own, but separated from her. If you've seen the Dutch version of the film, you understand the import of this imagery; and what the "golden egg" actually represents. To say that it symbolizes something horrific is to underestimate wildly.

The original Spoorloos, a film liberated entirely from American commercial concerns, treads deeply into symbolism, and utilizes film grammar to visually buttress the narrative's main points. The opening shot of the original, for instance, is of great import. It's a long, lingering look at a stick bug clinging to a tree. The bug is camouflaged, and is the same brown color as the tree branch. On first, cursory glance, it could be mistaken for being an outcropping of the tree itself.

What this image represents is that the stick bug is like something else (the tree), and can pass as something else (again, the tree), but, significantly, it is not something else. It is unique. After watching the film, the viewer comes to understand that this image pertains to the most important quality of Saskia's heartless abductor, Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). He is a sociopath -- a man without feelings of empathy for other humans beings -- yet he functions in French society both as a teacher and a family man. It is that last descriptor, "family man," that enables Saskia to trust Lemorne on the eve of her kidnapping. She "sees" Lemorne, but does not sense or understand what he truly is. And what is he? In more ways than one, he's a reflection of the stick-bug. His "hiding"-in-plain-sight status mirror's the bug's similar status. Lemorne lives among men, but he is a monster, a breed apart.

Another finely-crafted composition early in the Dutch gilm also highlights a sense of ominous foreboding. Rex and Saskia's car has run out of gas in a long, dark tunnel. Rex leaves Saskia in the pitch-black tunnel and walks for more gas. When he returns, she is not at the car, but at the far lip of the tunnel instead.

In other words, Saskia is in the white (day)light at the end of the tunnel, a figure half-discerned. We understand visually then, that the movie is foreshadowing her approach death. She is literally in the light at the end of the tunnel, a common descriptor for "death" in many circles, and sure enough, at film's climax, we see this evocative framing recur. Rex travels the same terrifying miles as Saskia and upon his final disposition detects Saskia in the light at the end of the tunnel again. This time, he is joining her in death.

The Dutch version of The Vanishing also charts the similarities and differences between Rex and Lemorne's personalities. Both men are obsessive to the point of dysfunction, and both are determined to battle -- to the death -- the hand that they presume Destiny has dealt them.

Lemorne has learned from childhood that to feel special, he must push limits. This means he is willing to make dangerous leaps, literally, and test his very nature. If he is capable of heroism (and "capable of rash gestures"), he wonders, is he also capable of great evil? His abduction and handling of Saskia is his answer to that question. In the film, we see him rehearse his planned abduction repeatedly, even testing his own pulse rate to see if it spikes during the personal violence and tense confrontation of the kidnapping.

Similarly, Rex is overtly obsessed with Saskia and her fate. In part, this may be because in the moments before they separated, he promised he would never abandon her. That seems to be the very thing Rex can't let go of; his vow never to leave Saskia. If he slips into a new life with his girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), he is not a man of his word, and he understands that.

Like Lemorne, Rex seems to rehearse his own personal (imagined) moment of truth; in this case the decision whether to "not know" and perhaps let Saskia to live, or to "know" and, in the process, let Saskia die. Rex's need to know the truth ultimately drives him to act heroically (again, rashly, per the vocabulary of the movie), and he sets himself up to learn his beloved's fate. But the act is rash: it is not her life at stake this time, it is his.

The original The Vanishing ends with one of the most harrowing, panic-inducing scenes ever put to celluloid, an end to "uncertainty" for Rex, no doubt, but also a reflection of the Golden Egg nightmare introduced by Saskia. In a truly horrifying moment, Rex -- with his last breath on this Earth -- defiantly shouts out his own name for the Heavens to hear; a desperate, last attempt to assert his identity before going under, to the Hades constructed for him by the unfeeling Lemorne.

Featuring very little by way of traditional music, the Dutch The Vanishing is icy, precise, gripping and surprising. Rex's final destination is shocking and grotesque. One facet of the film that remains so fascinating is the fact that Sluizer doesn't attempt to cloak the identity of Saskia's abductor from the audience. On the contrary, he exposes Lemorne early -- and fully -- so that the audience can balance hero against villain; sanity against insanity; empathy against emptiness. The Vanishing also concerns the way people make assumptions about other people, and whether emotion colors those assumptions, for better or worse. Shorn of emotions, Lemorne pursues his ruthless game. Confused by emotions, Rex plunges headlong into his grim destiny, all while believing he is going against the grain.

Is it Predestined that a Man Should Die? The Vanishing, American-style

While crafting his remake of The Vanishing for American audiences, there must have been a point at which director Sluizer was asked -- in the style of his dramatis personae -- if it was predestined that this movie should tell the exact same story as the original film.

Having told his story once one way, was it necessary to tell it the same way again?
Commercial interests would demand, for instance, that the hero survive and the villain face punishment (and even death).

This time around, the characters involved in the action are the boyfriend, Jeff (Sutherland), the abducted girlfriend, Diane (Bullock) and the perverse abductor, Barney (Bridges).

But more importantly, the American version of The Vanishing adds a great deal of weight to the character of Jeff's new girlfriend, Rita (Travis). A kind of sullen, bump-on-a-log in the Dutch version, this upgraded girlfriend character of the remake is far more assertive and domineering. In fact, she's downright egotistical. While spying on Jeff, Rita tries to crack his computer password and, for some reason, she thinks it could be her own name. Now here's a man obsessed with the disappearance of his previous girlfriend -- to the point that he's been asked to write a book about the experience of losing her -- and this woman thinks she's password-worthy material?

At another juncture, Rita dresses up as the missing Diane to make a point to Jeff, which is not merely insensitive, but downright cruel. Thus in this version of the material, we have a third important personality to balance out the emotional (Jeff) and the emotionless (Barney). And importantly, this character, Rita, also battles the memory of Diane as strongly as she comes to battle Barney.

Consider, in weighing the success of the remake, that in the original film, we have no idea how Rex and Lieneke get together. In fact, it's impossible to imagine the sullen, internally-driven character, Rex, actually initiating a romantic relationship with another woman. It never seems remotely plausible. Here, the remake goes to great lengths to show audience how and why Rita enters Jeff's life. This is a new and critical element, at least in terms of narrative and theme.

And ultimately, it is this human connection that saves Jeff. Rita weaves for him the fate he can't weave for himself. She resorts to kidnapping, violence, lies and more to do so. He seems incapable of all these things. The upshot: we get is a meditation on the fact that in life there are hedgehogs and foxes. Jeff is a hedgehog; Rita is a fox. And that's why she beats Barney at his own game. Looking at this along class lines is illuminating too: Jeff is a well-to-do white collar man. Rita is a blue-collar woman: a waitress at a small diner. But goddammit, she's going to stand by her man (sorry, Tammy Wynette...) and keep him safe. Even from his own worst, self-destructive instincts.

What critics complained about in regards to the American The Vanishing is the fact that the remake subtracted the "perfect ending" from its equation. That's not all it subtracted, to put it bluntly. Also gone is the golden egg dream, and the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel sequence. The reason for these deletions is simple: Jeff survives, and is reunited with Rita. He does not rejoin Diane in death and therefore the tunnel shot and the golden egg reference carry no currency. Instead, Sluizer finds a different thematic angle in his remake. This Vanishing is more specifically about ego than its predecessor.

Consider, the assertive Rita is so driven by ego that she won't let Jeff go, even though he is obsessed with Diane. She mocks, cajoles, and eventually goes all out to win Jeff back -- rescuing him from the brink of death in the process.

Similarly, the malevolent Barney is driven wholly by ego. Unlike in the original film, this sociopath does not attempt to contact Jeff until Jeff has already stopped searching for Diane (at Rita's demand, no less). Barney cannot live with the fact that the one person connected with his "act of evil" may let it go and his genius might go unexplained, unacknowledged. Barney feels he is powerful and worthwhile only so long as he can control and dominate Jeff's mind. "Your obsession is my weapon," he tells Jeff, "I provided the material; you built the cage." Without that obsession, Barney is just another loser, and that's something his ego cannot tolerate.

Finally, look at Jeff. He too is driven by ego. Barney recognizes this fact, and that's how, in this version, he gets Jeff to drink the drugged coffee. "Who is Jeff Harriman if he's not the guy looking for Diane?" He asks. And yes, that's a question of ego. Jeff has defined himself by his obsession, and without it he has "no job, no money, no love, no peace of mind."

There's a sweep of the inevitable in the Dutch The Vanishing. We don't know how it's going to end, but we know that Rex is bound for trouble. The American The Vanishing features more overt violence, a more conventional conclusion, and it forsakes that aura of inevitability for an ending that is, well, determinedly not...pre-destined. But there's no reason why this ending is not valid, given Rita's tenacious character/ego in the remake. Here, Jeff gets to "know" (discovering the fate of Diane) and he gets to live. In retrospect, that isn't so horrible, is it?

Especially since we already have one version of the film in which this isn't the case. If we consider the remake as a film about ego, then it is Rita, not Barney (and certainly not Jeff) who comes out on top. She gets everything she wants: namely a devoted man, (of a higher station, so-to-speak) and one no longer distracted by the ghost of Diane.

I suppose this argument comes back to an important question about the nature of remakes. Are they supposed to be literal translations of previous films, or are they permitted to play around in the terrain of the originals, and draw different conclusions from them?

It's entirely possible that Sluizer could not have made a remake that critics approved of, even if he had slavishly re-shot, angle for angle, his original film. In that case, perhaps the critics would have noted that the remake offered nothing new.

In the final analysis, Sluizer has given us two distinct, parallel versions of the same terrifying story. The Dutch film is undeniably a work of art, a masterpiece in every sense, about human nature. The American version is a solid thriller, and probably about as good as the studio system and process of committee filmmaking would permit in 1993. There's a difference in quality, yes, between versions of The Vanishing, but perhaps it is not one so wide as many would have you believe.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Good? He's the BEST!

Friday, March 19, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Fourth Kind (2009)

COMMENTARY: In terms of UFO stories, there is this strange tradition in the modern cinema of the pseudo-documentary: a film that mixes stock footage of purported flying saucer sightings with newly-filmed, "dramatized" material. For three decades, the "real" and the staged have been mixed in movie ventures including Target: Earth?, a film which featured actor Victor Buono playing an alien, plus real scientists including Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. The 1970s and early 1980s truly represented the heyday of UFO pseudo-documentary explorations like that, including UFOs: It Has Begun (1976), UFOs are Real (1979), UFO-Exclusive (1979) and UFO Syndrome (1981). In the same decade, there were also a number of pseudo-documentaries pursuing author Erich von Däniken's popular hypothesis about "ancient astronauts" visiting man in pre-history, the whole Chariot of the Gods (1970)/In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973) approach.

Surprisingly, the year 2009 brought a dedicated revival of these "alien encounter" formats with a new twist, director Olatunde Osunsanmi's out-and-out horror effort The Fourth Kind.  Here, the filmmakers have also adopted The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity's (2009) marketing scheme: selling their genre film as being entirely based on fact. The truth, of course, is that all the "authentic archival footage" featured throughout the film, captured by police cameras, home video cameras and other sources is staged; prepared exclusively for this movie. Like the first-person camera approach of Paranormal Activity, this conceit is designed specifically to scare viewers, to make audiences believe that what it is witnessing is authentic. The underlying conceit here is incredibly interesting, if a little complex. Director Osunsami employs split-screens on several occasions to place purportedly "real" archival footage (say of a police hostage situation on a front porch, side-by-side with his staged representation/re-enactments of the same moments. The trick, of course, is that both incidents are staged for the film; both are faked. Yet placed side-by-side in one frame-- with one heightened artificial image reinforcing the authenticity of the other -- audiences are asked to seek out the visual differences between grainy home video and apparent Hollywood confabulation. In this hunt, our eyes conclude that the home video is realistic, and actually buy into that (false) footage as being truthful. In other words, Osunsami deliberately deploys slightly-exaggerated Hollywood artifice to make us believe in the veracity of the cheap, home video material. And he's largely successful in his clever game too.

Indoctrinated in everything from America's Funniest Home Videos to Cops to World's Wildest Police Videos, modern TV and film viewers have come to instinctively trust the shaky, grainy, cheap approach to filmmaking, and, oppositely, inherently distrust the more accomplished, romantic, Hollywood approach. The latter is exemplified here by the presence of movie star Milla Jovovich in the lead role of Dr. Abigail Tyler, a woman who uncovers a rash of alien abductions in Nome, Alaska during the first five days of October, 2000. Modern audiences crave and subscribe to naturalism in films these days, eschewing artifice and theatricality as much as possible. This movie encourages that impulse; asking us to reject the artifice of the Jovovich dramatizations and believe the naturalism (the lie) of the 911 tapes, the police camera videos, the home video sources, and so forth.

Case in point: our main character. The Fourth Kind also presents another woman as the real Dr. Abigail Tyler, and let's just say, to paraphrase Wes Craven's Scream, she's no Milla Jovovich. Presented in an archival video "interview" from Chapman University (with director Osunsanmi, no less), we come to believe this unglamorous woman as "the real thing" because she is awkward, halting, relatively unattractive, and distinctly un-movie star-like. Of course, she's an actress made to appear that way. This is where the movie proves genuinely smart. The "staged" re-enactment of scenes feature lovely Jovovich looking great and sexy in her stylish wardrobe, playing out hypnosis regression scenes against backgrounds that are more romantic, more affluent than what we see in the home video. Osunsanmi deliberately plays up the exaggerated production design in these sequences; they are an artist's heightened version of reality and audiences detect that fakery. Thus the documentary footage, lensed in less elaborate, less-stylish surroundings, seem increasingly real. The supposedly "documentary," archival footage moments deploy available light, less attractive actors than Hollywood would permit, poorer sound, and more naturalistic blocking and camera work. People step out of frame. The blocking cuts off heads during shots, action occurs off-screen, at the corners of perception, etc.

It takes about twenty-three minutes or so for the head to get accommodated to The Fourth Kind's fashion of operating, and audiences must endure a cheesy opening by Jovovich, directly addressing the audience. She comes out of a blurry fog, as if awakening from a dream, and breaks the fourth wall. But here's the thing: we must remember that this is all part of the format and genre (the UFO pseudo-documentary) too. Hollywood "stars" (often slumming it, in need of a paycheck) were always asked to front this goofball stuff with all sincerity and pomposity, whether it was Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith or Rod Serling.

And Osunsanmi is uncannily skilled even at excavating the right visuals in the movie's re-enactments too. For instance, he finds exactly the right shot during a domestic dining room scene to visually express the absence of Tyler's husband, Will (who has died under mysterious circumstances). He also forges a scintillating sense of uneasiness and scope with the first shots of Tyler arriving in picturesque Nome, an isolated town that can only be reached by airplane. You get the impression from Tyler's flight over Nome -- an outcropping of human technology and community blanketed on all sounds by green mountain ranges -- that the town is the perfect "test tube" environment for alien abduction and experimentation. And no one has to say a word about that idea for it to carry thematic currency.

Occasionally, the movie missteps, no doubt. Early on, there's a crisply-edited montage of hypnosis sequences featuring three of Tyler's clients as they all discuss exactly the same thing: a menacing white owl watching them from their bedroom windows. The montage, a time-saving measure, actually deprives us of Abigail's "learning curve." It's the wrong technique for the sequence because the audience should gradually learn that all of her insomniac clients have experienced an identical terror, the presence of the owls actually a mnemonic avatar for the extra-terrestrials. And the audience should see this unnerving truth dawn on Abigail slowly too. Instead, by cutting between three separate hypnosis sessions at lightning speed, there's no sense of learning, no graduation of suspense, no escalation of terror. It's one of the few scenes in the movie that absolutely doesn't work.

Yet what does work, remarkably well, actually, is Osunsanmi's "documentary"-style footage, which -- at about the forty-five minute point -- kicks off into absolute horror when two patients, named Tommy (Corey Johnson) and Scott (Enzo Cilenti) are regressed to the time of their alien abductions. These actors, and the ones in the side-by-side "documentary scenes", featured in split-screen, do an absolutely amazing job of expressing terror, using only their body movements to carry the scares. You actually think they are experiencing alien-generated seizures or spasms.

And then, later, we see archival footage of Scott actually being "possessed" by an alien and the static-ridden, rolling video footage provides a psychic jolt. Against your better judgment, you may feel frightened or at least unnerved) and in part it is because of Osunsanmi's conceit of pitting the documentary-style faked stuff against the Hollywood-style faked stuff.  Especially admirable is the way that the film attempts to bring in the Chariot of the Gods aspect of the form, by explicitly referencing Sumerian cuneiform and artwork. Again, some people may claim that this subplot is a real stretch in believability (that ancient astronauts or aliens formed our race's perception of "God"), but the movie is working in a specific genre and therefore must abide by the rules of that genre.

By and large, critics absolutely hated The Fourth Kind. There are two important reasons for this, and they have nothing to with the technical skill or entertainment value of The Fourth Kind. The first is that many modern journalists/critics may not be familiar with the style and history of the UFO pseudo-documentaries of the 1970's, and thus don't understand the genre the film is deliberately and delicately aping. They have no idea that this is an updating of a historica movie form. Therefore, they have no way to put The Fourth Kind into any kind of meaningful context for their readers. And secondly -- by and large -- critics really, really don't like to be tricked or out-smarted by movies. They don't want to admit, essentially, that a movie has gotten one over on them (which is why they all watch M. Night Shyalaman movies obsessed with picking apart a so-called trick ending...whether there is one or not). 
Therefore, it is easier to belittle or dismiss that which they don't "get." For example, many critics found the "dramatizations" of The Fourth Kind to be cumbersome, and the Hollywood scenes over-designed. Yet this is the crux of the issue; it's the point of the movie. It's a leitmotif. The Fourth Kind encourages our eyes to note the unrealistic, romantic affluence of Abigail's surroundings, so typical of Hollywood movies since at least the 1990s), and then note, by side-by-side comparison, the relative naturalism of the archival, supposedly-documentary footage. In that distance between staged, A-movie re-enactment and "direct cinema"-style documentary footage, the movie pushes its viewers to believe the veracity of the latter over the former. The point is to scare us silly and, again, as a horror film, The Fourth Kind is supremely effective on that front.

The Fourth Kind is never obvious. We make out enough here to be horrified, and to get a general visual impression of what is occurring. But critically, we're never spoon fed CGI-close-ups of aliens for instance, in The Fourth Kind. We are asked, instead -- again in cheesy pseudo-documentary format -- to consider simply what we have seen, and what we believe. And yes, it is a little cheesy, but once again: that's the nature of the form. It is part and parcel of the pseudo-documentary paradigm. We don't have hard proof of UFO alien abductions, so what we're left with is earnest "believers" like Milla Jovovich, (or in the earlier instances, Rod Serling, Jose Ferrer or Burgess Meredith) building a spine-tingling but sensational case for us.

The Fourth Kind involves some splendid trickery and it is a good, effective horror movie. It won't make you believe in alien abductions or UFOs, but it will scare you. The exciting thing is the fashion in which it visually generates its overaching mood of terror. Here, something as simple as an audio-tape recording that starts normally and drifts off suddenly into nightmare territory is more than enough; thanks especially to the way the director laboriously sets-up and rigorously maintains his real/fake dynamic. He is aiming at something deeper too, and this is seen in the explicit comparison of the aliens to "God."  Specifically,  humans deeply fear being powerless in their own lives. The Fourth Kind gets at that idea; how our sense of purpose, superiority and direction is undercut if there are indeed "higher beings" acting upon us with impunity and without mercy. Our human connections (to our children, for example), mean nothing if we're just laboratory rats. It's the same kind of horror that The Mothman Prophecies generated so expertly. Movies like these succeed in making the human experience, and the bounds of human knowledge, seem terribly small.

Is The Fourth Kind's all-out attempt to subvert our "truth radar" just some intellectual game? Perhaps so, but in vetting this particular game, the director of The Fourth Kind has successfully updated a genre (the UFO pseudo-documentary) and breathed new life into the mockumentary or found footage horror film. Taken on its own terms, and in the right context, The Fourth Kind is a powerful and well-made horror film.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

CULT TV BLOGGING: Thriller: "The Hungry Glass"

Today's post combines two of my favorite things in the world: 1960s TV horror anthologies...and William Shatner.

Adding to my pleasure, this first-season segment of Thriller, "The Hungry Glass," is based on a short story by none other than Robert Bloch, the author who first introduced audiences to Norman Bates.

Like "Pigeons from Hell," "The Hungry Glass" is a kind of regional-based horror story of the supernatural variety. Only here we've left behind the Deep South for a chilly "New England autumn" and a sleepy seaside community. It is in this setting that photographer Gil Thrasher (Shatner) and his wife, Marsha (Joanna Heyes), purchase the Bellman old mansion strangely devoid of mirrors.

The Thrashers are upset to learn from locals that their new real estate purchase is not only the site of a fatal accident, but it may actually be haunted. It seems that the woman who once owned the home in the 1860s, Laura Bellman was so vain -- so obsessed with her own beauty -- that when she died, her spirit moved into any and every object that would cast a reflection, whether a mirror or a window. The Thrasher's real estate agent, Adam (Gilligan Island's Russell Johnson) attempts to assuage the couples' fears, but soon Marsha finds a locked door in the attic. Inside, in the dark, is a room of more than-a-dozen mirrors. Laura is watching...

Almost immediately upon moving into their new home, Marsha and Gil are startled by images of Laura,'s ghost, the woman in the mirror...beckoning to them. She is trying to "break through," to "reach you" and there is no doubt that she is murderous.

The terror builds and builds in "The Hungry Glass" until the malevolent ghost (another old crone...) pulls unlucky Marsha into the looking glass with her, leaving her husband to destroy the mirror. Before the episode ends, there's another shocking death too...

Like "Pigeons from Hell," this Thriller episode features some remarkable visual compositions. As the show commences, we get a view of the vain homeowner, Laura -- a beautiful woman. Or rather a view of her reflection, for she is seen only through a row of mirrors mounted on the wall. We move with Laura as she dances and plays to the looking-glass, and our vision of this character hops from mirror to mirror as she whirls and spins. In each mirror, we ponder, exists a universe unto itself. Then, when Laura is forced by circumstances to open the front door, we see the real Laura for the first time: an elderly hag who looks like she's already been embalmed, in the words of the teleplay.

We also get a great Shatner-ian performance here. In fact, Shatner plays the same type of character he has played in other contemporary genre anthologies: vulnerable but strong. For some reason, his "horror" characters always have feet of clay, and Gil Thrasher is no exception. In Twilight Zone's "Nick of Time," Shatner's newlywed character became paralyzed because of his superstitious nature. In "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Shatner was (again) a married man with a problem: he had just suffered a nervous breakdown so no one believed him when he claimed to have seen a gremlin on the wing of a plane in flight. If you think of Shatner's
bomb de-fuser in One Step Beyond's "The Promise" and also his imperiled astronaut in The Outer Limits' "Cold Hand, Warm Heart," you see the same combination of vulnerability and strength showcased.

"The Hungry Glass" is exactly the same. Here, Gil is a Korean War veteran who experienced hallucinations and also "the shakes" after his tour of duty ended. Now, when he begins to experience hallucinations again in the Bellman House, Gil's wife is doubtful about his sanity. And as the episode builds to its inevitable climax, Shatner's character gets closer and closer to the edge and, finally, goes over it in most dramatic fashion. As the lead, Shatner is saddled with a lot of exposition in "The Hungry Glass," but he's marvelous in such scenes because it's clear his character -- while delivering words about Laura's after-life -- has become a shattered basket case. Shatner gets a faraway look in his eyes as he recounts Laura's final disposition, and it's clear he's lost his grip on reality.

And yes, Shatner does get to scream in "The Hungry Glass." So in his horror anthologies, I think he's three for four in that category.

"The Hungry Glass" is also filled with ironic commentary about mirrors. "Mirrors never lie," "mirrors bring a house to life," "Every time you look in a mirror, you see death," etc., and Boris Karloff's ghoulish introduction gets in on the fun too. He notes to the audience that it should "make sure that your television casts no reflection..." It really is enough to give you a chill.

Douglas Heyes directed several classic, timeless Twilight Zone episodes including "The Howling Man," "The Invaders" and "Eye of the Beholder." Thriller's "The Hungry Glass" is right up there with the best of those in terms of presentation and impact. A pervasive sense of evil hangs over the Bellman House, influencing everything. Those who survive the night bid a hasty exit from the haunted mansion, never to return But as a viewer, this is one haunted house you'll definitely want to re-visit.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Julie Newmar

The amazing Julie Newmar gets my vote as the sexiest cult-tv actress of all-time. This charismatic performer alyways played strong, smart, seductive characters, even on the cultiest of programs in the 1960s and 1970s. How many of Newmar's series and episode appearances featured here can you name?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 105: Thriller (1961): "Pigeons from Hell"

It's always of interest to me the manner in which some TV series grow immortal and increasingly popular over the span of decades (like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits), whereas other program of equally high quality seem -- for the most part -- to wither on the vine, disappearing from mainstream pop-culture awareness after just a single generation, much like the brilliant One Step Beyond (1959-1961) or the macabre subject of today's cult TV flashback, Thriller.
Thriller ran for two glorious seasons on NBC, from 1960 to 1962. The episode roster came to include sixty-seven hour-long installments, all lensed in stark black-and-white. Horror icon Boris Karloff served as the series host, and Hubbell Robinson produced. Some episodes boasted scores by a young Jerry Goldsmith. In its early days, Thriller alternated between "thrilling" crime adventures and out-and-out horror stories, but before long, the series moved deeper into the horror genre, and offered a number of memorable tales in that venue.

Perhaps the most famous of these efforts was "Pigeons from Hell," written by John Knuebuhl and adapted from Robert E. Howard's 1938 short story that was first published in Weird Tales (and recently adapted again as a Dark Horse comic-book in 2008). Shot by golden-TV age cameraman extraordinaire Lionel Lindon (1905 -1971), the episode was directed by One Step Beyond's John Newland, and it first aired in prime time on June 6, 1961.

"Pigeons from Hell" is a dedicated Southern Gothic, a horror sub-genre that excavates the "cultural character" of the American South, features frequent grotesqueries and evidences an atmosphere of pure, creeping, unadulterated dread.

The televised tale begins as two likable young brothers, Tim (Brandon De Wilde) and John Branner (David Whorf) take an unexpected detour on their road trip through the Deep South. They come upon an abandoned Plantation, the Blassenville Estate, as night falls. The introductory shot of this Estate is rather masterfully vetted: the camera pivots from the thick woods suddenly; to a veil of hanging Spanish moss that juts down into frame. Beyond, the dilapidated Southern castle stands in the distance. Half occluded. Half in another world.

The two brothers spend the night in the house, and Karloff's opening narration (from a misty swamp...) informs us that this is a bad idea. That "spirits of the dead" have come back to "guard their ancestral home" from these northern invaders. Then it's back to the story as Tim and John sleep downstairs, by a roaring fire. John is awakened in the night by the odd sound of cooing pigeons...which have mysteriously congregated around the house -- on the porch and veranda. At first, the cooing of these birds is kind of comforting, but then it belies a certain madness, and the perpetual noise grows menacing and the sound of blood coming to a boil.

In the middle of the night, John is drawn upstairs (across a winding, damaged staircase of grand proportions) by the call of a female voice. This disembodied voice sings to him. He disappears into an upstairs room and we hear a blood-curdling scream (but don't see what occurs). Tim rushes to his aide, only to find John -- his head split open and bloodied-- now an axe-wielding zombie.

Tim flees the Blassenville house and returns later that night with Sheriff Buckner (Crahan Denton), a no-nonsense law-enforcement official. They explore the darkened house together -- finding a bloody staircase first and then heading upstairs...into the dark.

It is here that "Pigeons from Hell" grows incredibly creepy. On every instance in which Sheriff Buckner enters a certain room...his lantern goes out. It works just fine downstairs. It operates perfectly on the staircase and in the upper hallway. But when he and Tim enter that is mysteriously and permanently snuffed out. Something inside waits for them, and these scenes are absolutely shiver-provoking.

Soon, Tim and the Sheriff discover the diary of the house's last known resident, Elizabeth Blassenville. Over fifty years ago, she wrote of a time when the Plantation had turned to "weeds" and something evil prowled outside her house. By night, she would hear a strange rfumbling at the door...

The resolution to this mystery involves the last known plantation worker, a slave named Jacob Blount (Ken Renard). In terrified fashion, he reveals to Tim and the Sheriff a story of "zuvembies" - inhuman women who "live forever." For them "time means nothing." And in the great tradition of the Southern Gothic, the resolution of the Blassenville story involves the family tree, and a heretofore unknown, half-sister to the Blassenvilles, the African-American Eulilee.

The last several moments of "Pigeons from Hell" are filled with authentic, throat-tightening terror, as the voice of the ancient siren beckons Timothy the dark room. And then, out of the darkness (in a lovely shot transitioning from blurry to crystal clear), a murderous old crone -- with hatchet -- appears. Following that sequence, we get a good look at what has become of the Blassenville sisters.

Thriller in general, and "Pigeons from Hell" specifically, were lauded by Stephen King in his book on horror, Danse Macabre (1981) and for good reason. Under Newland's expert direction (by this point he had directed over ninety-episodes of One Step Beyond...), the episode never lags, and the creepy atmosphere is so thick it is almost tangible. There's a lovely push-in on a painting of Elizabeth at one point, cob-webs framing and surrounding her very alive-looking face. The image suggests her entrapment, and indeed that's the crux of the story. Another terrific and evocative shot climaxes this long night of Southern terror: the old crone -- in the background of the shot -- is silhouetted by a powerful ring of light, just as she is about to launch her final bloody attack.

The feeling underlying this Southern Gothic is one of trespass: John and Tim step into a world they know nothing about, and are punished for the transgression. More than trespass even, the story involves a family legacy of hatred, racism and revenge that stretches from beyond the grave and chokes those still in the mortal coil. The old Lady "monster" in this episode is a sight to behold, and this sinister old crone represents the long history of secrets stretching into the present. Like the Old South herself, this Evil never forgets the past.
In the days and weeks ahead, I'll be blogging further episodes of Thriller, in part because I feel it deserves some renewed attention (and isn't available officially on DVD), and in part because it's so damned good. But for today, it's enough to remember (with a chill...), the series' finest installment, "Pigeons from Hell." John Newland was a damned good director of horror (he also helmed the amazing TV-movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark starring Kim Darby and several episodes of Night Gallery). I admire the way Newland selected his shots here: not just because they were scary, per se, but because they were scary in a way that explicitly reflected the episodes' narrative content. "Pigeons from Hell" is Newland at his best too, and that just makes the episode all the more effective.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Peter Graves (1926 - 2010)

The AP is reporting this morning the death of Peter Graves, the silver-haired actor who brought American agent Jim Phelps so memorably to life on Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) and its 1988-1990 follow-up. He was 83-years old.

I've been watching Seasons Two and Three of Mission: Impossible over the last several months, and become quite enamored with Graves for this classic portrayal of a TV icon. As the leader of the IM Force and the defender of America against plots by foreign dictators and the domestic Syndicate, Graves was a kind of silver-haired, athletically-built American God.

Graves once described his character as an "invulnerable genius," but Phelps also boasted a distinctive, human side, revealing a true loyalty to his team members in episodes such as "Exchange" (during which Barbara Bain's Cinnamon Carter was captured), and even falling for a double agent, played by Joan Collins in "Nicole." Beneath the invulnerable genius beat the heart of a very human man. Phelps even managed to bring a subtle sense of humor to the character.

But Mission:Impossible was first and foremost about the job; about completing the mission. And Phelps was a scion of America power in the turbulent 1960s: forever loyal and forever patriotic. He didn't ask questions about his covert espionage missions, he just accomplished them and moved on. There was no cynicism in dashing Jim Phelps, and no cynicism in the portrayal by Graves, either. Graves' Phelps character projected American power with grace, charm and without attitude.

Peter Graves was also well-known outside of Mission: Impossible for a variety of prominent roles. He memorably lampooned his heroic stature and demeanor as the pilot in disaster-movie spoof, Airplane (1980) and its sequel, Airplane 2: The Sequel (1982), for instance.

Throughout his career, mostly in the early years, Graves also appeared in low-budget science fiction films such as Killers from Space (1954), and It Conquered The World (1956). In the 1960s and 1970s, he was a staple of science fiction television, appearing in such series as The Invaders, Fantasy Island and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Peter Graves, much like William Shatner or Charlton Heston, is one of those classy 1960 actors who always projects strength and decency in his varied roles, and consequently has been viewed as a role model by many youngsters of Generation X. My condolences go out to Mr. Graves' friends and family on this sad occasion. I hope those in mourning can take some solace in the fact that, thanks to DVD, his life's work is constantly being discovered and re-discovered. Seeing Mission: Impossible again this year has been a revelation for me -- it's a TV series of consistent high-quality, tremendous intelligence and a lot of suspense -- and I have come to admire Peter Graves more than ever.

Friday, March 12, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Following two surreal hours of ultra-violent imagery and deep social criticism, Oliver Stone's controversial 1990s masterpiece, Natural Born Killers concludes with fact.

Specifically, the film ends with real-life footage of the Waco/David Koresh stand-off, disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding taking a tumble, Lorena Bobbitt on the witness stand (on trial for cutting off her husband's penis...), the murderous Menendez Brothers, murder suspect O.J. Simpson, and even Rodney King asking (famously): "can't we all just get along?"

This montage is an exclamation point; a sharp punctuation capping off a fiercely presented argument. It seems to say, "welcome to the tabloid-TV culture of America in the 1990s; where crime pays, and pays well." Commit a notorious murder and you are...a superstar.

Who's that on the phone? The Jenny Jones Show is calling...

Accordingly, Natural Born Killers was advertised on theatrical release as a "bold new film that takes a look at a country seduced by fame, obsessed by crime, and consumed by the media."

And yes, that indeed represents truth in advertising. Natural Born Killers -- a sensational bombardment of incendiary sound and imagery -- burns through its expansive running time with a blazing indictment of the mainstream media. The charge? Lowering the national discourse. Finally, director Stone makes his explicit closing argument with real-life archival footage.

Natural Born Killer's closing montage declares, essentially: You think we're exaggerating? You think we're kidding? Well, lookie here: this is who we are (to appropriate Millennium's confrontational [1996-1999] tag-line). The documentary-style final montage pointedly connects the misadventures of fictional mass-murderers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) to the real-life celebrities who found fame and fortune the same way. It tells us that even though Natural Born Killers qualifies as satire, it is hardly exaggerated in terms of narrative content (though style and presentation are different arguments entirely.)

This closing documentary montage also represents Oliver Stone's inoculation from critics who complained that he was coarsening the dialogue himself. On the contrary, Natural Born Killers represents cinematic commentary at its finest because it draws together so many disparate cultural elements and synthesizes them into a lucid, pointed critique of the times. After making its case in fictional and artistic terms, it graduates to the terrain of the real and we see there is little gap between what Stone has imagined and was happening every day on our televisions.

Sitcom America: Or I Love Mallory

Early in Natural Born Killers, the film re-constructs, in flashback, the first, fateful meeting of Mickey and Mallory. This sequence is presented as a black-and-white TV sitcom from the 1950s. Something along the lines of Leave it to Beaver (1957-1962), or, of course, I Love Lucy (1951-1957).

This "sitcom" of Mallory's family life in Natural Born Killers charts the colossal gulf between the imagery sold to America regarding family life, and the truth, for many Americans, of such family life in the 1990s.

Specifically, a greasy, monstrous Rodney Dangerfield portrays Mallory's Dad in this sequence and, well, let's just establish he is hardly Robert Young in Father Knows Best (1954-1960). On the contrary, he is verbally and physically abusive to his wife (Edie McClurg) and his children. He gropes his own daughter and even sexually abuses her. Again, this is a far cry from the perfect domestic bliss of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952-1956).

When one of the first national surveys regarding childhood sexual abuse was conducted in 1989, researchers discovered that such abuse was prevalent in a whopping 27% of respondents. To parse that figure, on the cusp of the 1990s more than one-in-four American women reported being sexually abused by family members during their formative years. That's not just a shameful statistic, it's an epidemic. But the media wasn't going to connect the dots for us. It was too busy feeding us reinforcing images about the American family (in empty-headed sitcoms), and, at the opposite pole, entertaining us with the bread & circuses of talk shows. Natural Born Killers threads together these two disparate worlds. One commercial image was patently idealized and false (dangerously so), and the other encouraged our worst rubber-necking instincts. Was it any wonder our culture had become so schizophrenic? Self-righteously moral on one hand, and voyeuristic on the other?

In Natural Born Killers, the form of the sitcom or "situation comedy" reveals Mallory's life as she imagined it should be (replete with an oppressive laugh-track eradicating any scary sense of ambiguity). But the content of that domestic drama reveals the grim truth of it. "She has a sad sickness," Mickey notes of Mallory at one point. She "wanders in a world of ghosts." Those ghosts are black-and-white ones transmitted by a flickering cathode ray tube; images of perfect sitcom personalities who don't exist in real life. Mallory is haunted by the media's image of family life, unaware that it can never be.

You're Buying and Selling Fear: Mass Media as The Devil

In Natural Born Killers, Robert Downey Jr. plays Wayne Gale, the arrogant host of a lurid "true crime" TV series called American Maniacs.

Gale is not, however, concerned with truth or objectivity, merely with high ratings...which will bring him wealth and personal fame. Gale is so smug that he looks upon his subjects as "apes" and notes he is the "God" of his own world.

Mickey and Mallory's cross-country killing spree is thus an opportunity for Wayne to grand-stand, to look powerful in front of his audience. He schedules a live interview with the incarcerated Mickey for Superbowl Sunday. And there, the vainglorious Wayne shall show off to the high heavens. He will look heroic by verbally jousting with the "monster," Mickey.

When a riot begins in Mickey's prison, however, Wayne blurs the lines. He goes from reporting on the crimes to participating in them. He picks up a gun and actually starts shooting police officers to keep the broadcast going, to keep the story alive (even as mortals die). The message is clear here, isn't it? The media is complicit in the crime sprees it reports with such verve.

Occasionally in Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone jump cuts -- in almost subliminal fashion -- to expressionistic visuals depicting Wayne Gale as the Devil. Actually, as a blood-soaked Devil. Since this character symbolizes the media in the film, Stone is making a comparison of "evils," and finding the mainstream media amongst the worst. Natural Born Killers reveals clearly how criminals and the media work hand-in-hand. The media transforms criminals into celebrities, and the criminals in turn, hand the media high ratings. It's a win-win arrangement in what Stone calls a "fast food culture."

In keeping with this theme, there's a great montage midway through the film that features "people on the street" in London, Tokyo, Paris and America professing their undying love of killers Mickey and Mallory. The spree-murderers also make the covers of People, Esquire, Newsweek, The New York Post and other periodicals. That which is famous must be good, right? Stone even cuts to Brian De Palma's Scarface at one point, and, as viewers, we are asked to ponder an important question. Why do we, as Americans, worship our gangsters? Why do we admire killers?

Like Remy Belvaux's brilliant satire, Man Bites Dog (1992), Stone's Natural Born Killers suggests that, in the unending quest for a greater audience share, the media can't help but participate and encourage the violent stories it reports on and profits from. The irony is that Mickey and Mallory understand this "evil," and put an end to Wayne Gale: they kill him on camera, effectively killing the media's role in their particular story. To some people, this makes these bad guys -- on some weird level -- admirable.

Many right wing critics complained vociferously about Natural Born Killers. It indeed seems to present unrepentant murderers as the "heroes" of the piece. My response to this argument is two-pronged. First, Natural Born Killers is a surreal, avant-garde expression of Mickey and Mallory's story, and to them, they certainly are the heroes of their adventure. And secondly, Stone boasts no illusions about his protagonists. In fact, he continually associates the two killers with the symbol of the rattlesnake.

A rattlesnake is not, in a strict sense, evil. A rattlesnake is, however, a dangerous killer. And, in the lingo of the film (and Mickey himself), Mickey and Mallory are "natural" born killers, meaning that they were made this the rattlesnake. I take this to mean they were socialized to become society's rattlesnakes. They are not evil, per se, they are merely living according to their nature. And even though they are murderous, at least they love each other.

This is not a glorification of violence or brutality, it's a notation , I submit, about honesty. Mickey and Mallory are honest about themselves. They are the only people in the film who can make this particular claim. They are exactly what they appear to be: Natural Born Killers. Mallory's Dad is not a loving force of paternal wisdom as the sitcom form suggests he should be...he's an exploitative sexual abuser. Wayne Gale is not a tribune of the people and honest broker of the facts, he's a sideshow barker and rubber-necker seeking personal fame and glory. Even Tommy Lee Jones' warden and Tom Sizemore's police detective, Scagnetti, are not symbols of legitimate law enforcement, but rather sick sadists looking to get their piece of the pie.

In a world of such personalities, Mickey and Mallory are indeed a lesser evil because they know what they are and don't pretend to be something else. At the very least, they aren't "buying and selling" an artificial image.

It's no coincidence that Mallory is depicted, at one point in the film, reading Sylvia Plath's 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. That story was set in a complacent, slick modern society of tremendous hypocrisy. The main character, Esther, was a tabloid writer aware of the lurid details of the jet-set. In real life, Plath chose suicide rather than continued existence in such a culture. In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory choose homicide as a solution, but in both cases, the act seems a protest against a garish, excessive world built on tabloid pillars.

Oliver Stone's film stops very far short of endorsing Mickey and Mallory as role models or model citizens, however. During one powerful scene, a window in a hotel becomes a TV screen of sorts. Behind Mickey and Mallory we see images of Stalin and Hitler prominently displayed. Worship these people at your own risk, the movie seems to say. It's a slippery slope indeed from Mickey and Mallory to O.J. Simpson to The Menendez Brothers to Hitler or Stalin. Why? The celebrity culture thrives on ratings, not on inherent worth or morality. We should not mistake fame or infamy for virtue, and that's a key message of Stone's movie.

It's a well-known fact that Columbine Killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris used the term "NBK" (Natural Born Killers) as code for their own horrific killing spree. But these young killers certainly took away the wrong lesson from Stone's film. They imagined being famous, whereas fame is something that Mickey and Mallory never covet or desire in the film. Stone's film criticized such fame, and specifically, we have that ending montage to confirm that Natural Born Killers is intended, indeed, as social criticism.

Mickey and Mallory are rattlesnakes in Natural Born Killers, and they almost die while crossing a field of authentic rattlesnakes. That image, perhaps, is the film's most resonant one. It's not just a regurgitation of the old live-by-the-sword/die-by-the-sword truism, but a comment on the very nature of our culture and corporate media. Navigating a straight, safe trajectory, isn't always easy.

Natural Born Killers? Mickey and Mallory are practically babes in the woods compared to the cynicism of Wayne Gale, Jack Scagnetti and the other vultures they encounter in this film.

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