Monday, August 30, 2010

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"When I told you screw yourself, I didn't mean for you to take it literally."
- The Sixth Day (2000)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

SGU Arrives on Blu-Ray October 5

Just as Season Two begins airing on September 28 (on Sy Fy), you can catch up with the sci-fi adventure of SGU through Stargate: SGU: The Complete Season One on Blu-Ray.   Now, I'm not a big fan of the Stargate franchise in general, but to my surprise I really, really loved the first season of SGU.  I'm looking forward to seeing where the  inventive show heads next

From my review a couple months ago:

Stargate Universe is a bit edgier, somewhat more serious in intent, and far more mysterious than what I've seen of the other Stargate series. It showcases flawed but interesting human characters instead of gun-toting, romanticized ideals. It's also -- at least from what I've seen -- not as overtly militarized in bent. There are still several military characters involved in the drama, but the show isn't all guns and salutes. Not hardly.

SGU dramatizes a tale of disaster and survival. A group of officers, scientists and technicians from Earth are unexpectedly forced to abandon an off-world base called Icarus following a surprise attack on the installation.

But when the group evacuates through a star gate, it returns not to Earth, but lands bumpily aboard a damaged, colossal spaceship traveling at faster-than-light velocities towards the end of the universe itself.
The man responsible for this selection of destination is the inscrutable Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), who has been working for years to puzzle out the last "chevron" on the Stargate technology in hopes of discovering more about the race that constructed it: The Ancients.

So, a group of about fifty or so people -- the "wrong people" -- according to Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) are now trapped together aboard this inhospitable vessel named Destiny. In the opening three-part episode, "Air," life-support power fails and the crew is forced to scour a desert planet for resources needed to repair the C02 scrubbers. In the second episode, "Darkness," the ship's power fails completely, and in the third, "Light," Destiny becomes trapped on an apparent collision course with an alien star. A lottery is held to see which fifteen people will board an escape shuttle, and who will be forced to remain aboard the ship as it plummets towards the sun...

Outside of the Stargate franchise, SGU is heir to a rich cinematic and television legacy of space adventuring. The series' impressive opening shot -- of the huge Destiny gliding through the void -- puts the Empire's Star Destroyer and the inaugural shot of Star Wars [1977] -- to shame. Then, in the very next shot, the opener cuts to a Ridley Scott-esque tour of quiescent interior corridors, evoking the Nostromo in Alien (1979).

The notion of boarding and deciphering a starship of alien construction reminds me of the Liberator and Terry Nation's Blake's 7. And the scenario of men and women trapped on an out-of-control "vessel" unable to control speed or trajectory made me think of Space:1999's Moonbase Alpha. For good measure, the opener also throws in some (largely unnecessary) character flashbacks that evoke the early years of Lost (2004-2010).

And did I mention that the soundtrack boasts the Far Eastern, melancholy feel of Firefly?

Despite all these familiar touchstones, SGU makes some intriguing and positive modifications on formula. For one thing, the series eschews the horrible techno-babble that scuttled late-era Star Trek (Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise).

On those 1990s programs (which have not aged well, for the most part...), the resolution of the crisis of the week always involved a simple re-shuffling of a deck of cards. Let's re-modulate the power array to shoot a graviton pulse at this tertiary domain of subspace that will seal the space/time rift blah blah blah.

Somehow, no matter what hand the crew of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine or Voyager was dealt, it always managed to pull an ace from that deck. Once or twice of course, this was fine but after a while, the cumulative effect was actually a negative statement about humanity and the supposedly-heroic Starfleet characters. They had no real resourcefulness or ingenuity of their own but they did have great technology, and simply by reshuffling the same deck every week, they could survive and flourish in the universe.

My hero and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne -- who served as story editor on the first year of Space: 1999 -- once compared late era Trek and Space: 1999 in the following way. He said that shows like Next Gen and Voyager assumed the characters already had everything they needed to succeed, whereas Space: 1999 adopted the perspective that the characters did not already have what they needed to survive.
Now...which approach do you think is inherently more dramatic?

And indeed, this is reason why so many episodes of Next Gen, Voyager and Enterprise feel so rote. The sense of danger is missing. In drama, when characters have everything that they need (even when separated from home base by a quadrant or two...), space adventuring just becomes a workaday job. And besides, the holodeck is open all night...

Refreshingly, SGU revives the earlier template, and adopts the perspective that the characters don't have the resources or know-how they need to survive, or, at the very least, don't yet understand how to master the technology that would permit survival to be anything approaching easy.

In other words, the Destiny may provide for all, but the crew -- again, the "wrong people" -- don't necessarily have the skill set to figure it all out. This is Johnny Byrne's Space:1999 principle applied, and applied well.

What I admire about SGU is that, even in these early shows, there's a lot of trial and error on display, a lot of attempts that go nowhere. At one crisis point in "Darkness," I was suddenly, out-of-the-blue, reminded of the Apollo 13 incident in 1970...of people working in space to solve pressing (nay, urgent...) problems with ingenuity, grace, available resources, and luck. The series really captures this vibe well. It's something about the danger of space travel and human inspiration intertwined...and it works. It's a concept that in large part, modern space adventure series have abandoned, and it's nice to see it back at the forefront of the medium.

SGU also gets something else right, and this is crucial. By and large, SGU allows the viewer to scan the drama for subtext rather than spelling out that subtext as, well, actual text.

This was always my primary concern with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica [2005-2009]. Not that the producers seemed more interested in telling stories about Abu Ghraib, September 11th, Al Qaeda, the Geneva Conventions and late 20th century East/West perceptions of God than tales of survival in hostile galaxy, but that they did so in such an on-the-nose, obvious fashion.

By contrast, the early episodes of SGU feature some vivid human drama, but the series isn't crushingly self-important or pretentious in the way that Galactica often was. It doesn't spoon-feed you with obvious analogs for current events. It doesn't pat viewers on the back for knowing that "go frak yourself" is the same as Dick Cheney's famous "go fuck yourself." I mean, we get it, right?

Also, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series was alarmingly lazy about creating the universe around its human characters. On alien planets half-way across the universe, people drove late 20th century, American-produced Humvees. This was basically an admission on the part of the producers that television can't believably do "sci fi" -- a theorem I disagree vehemently with -- and so no real imagination was afforded for the look or design of the show; to create believable alien vistas, technology or cultures. The only civilizations in all of Battlestar Galactica were humans and their creation, the human-looking Cylons.

I just find that idea...immensely depressing. Kind of like us getting to outer space and discovering that in all the cosmos, in all the stars, there are just Liberals and Conservatives, or just Muslims and Christians. As a sci-fi series taking place in the great unknown, Battlestar Galactica could dream nothing better for mankind than perpetual divisiveness and partisanship. Of course, this is an entirely valid philosophy and approach...just not one that engaged me, personally, I suppose. I could always watch the series as an adrenaline-inducing pressure worked very well in that sense. But the new BSG had no curiosity about the universe itself.

I have enjoyed what I've seen so far of Stargate SGU because it remembers that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our human philosophy. The universe is a riddle; human nature is a riddle. There are mysteries and terrors in space beyond anything we can imagine. The series is actually based on a riddle itself, the mastery of an alien ship, Destiny. Why was the ship built? Where is it headed? What was its mission?

Because I am so immersed in the history, details and minutiae of sci-fi television, I often check with my barometer, my wife, Kathryn to see how she registers new programs. She watched the first disc of SGU episodes with me and, if anything, enjoyed the show even more than I did. She's no pushover. On the contrary, because she is not strictly a "sci-fi" fan, Kathryn can be cutting, even brutal, in her assessments of these programs.

One of her observations I found especially trenchant. She noted that the actors in the series seemed to have been cast for their abilities, not for their looks or youth. There are few underwear models here, in other words. The characters aren't all "smoldering" hotties in their early twenties, but real people doing their best in a difficult environment. And again, being the "wrong people," being unprepared for this journey, makes them, by and large, interesting to follow. Young clings to his military training. Rush clings to his belief that he can learn everything on Destiny...if given time, Eli clings to his sense of humor, and so on.

You can never guess what right or wrong turns a series will take as it continues down the long years, but in these early episodes, SGU is promising, dramatic and much better than I expected it would be. It hasn't dropped any land mines that may come back to haunt it (like the identity of the fifth Cylon, or the invisible tree-shaking monsters), and instead seems focused on a good concept and, so far, solid scripts.

I appreciate SGU for the same reason that I've always enjoyed original Trek and Space:1999. It's a program about Humans -- us -- trying to make our way in the stars with danger -- and opportunity -- around every turn. In each adventure, human constitution and ingenuity gets put on the table. Sometimes it fails, sometimes it succeeds in completing the task at hand. But these are programs that tell us, in every hour, that despite the failures, the sky can still be the limit.

From the Official Press Release:

Emmy® nominated* for outstanding special visual effects, the first season of the hit show “SGU” debuts as a complete set on Blu-ray and DVD October 5 from MGM Home Entertainment. The collection features the opening chapter in the spectacular saga as it follows a group of people that is unexpectedly transported to the other side of the universe only to find that their sole mission is survival.

An exciting stylistic change from previous Stargate series, “SGU” Season One offers an in-depth look at human nature and the inner struggle between right and wrong. The latest series of the popular franchise features a brand new cast including Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty), Brian J. Smith

(Hate Crime), David Blue (“Ugly Betty”), Jamil Walker Smith (“Hey Arnold!”), and newcomers Louis Ferreira, Alaina Huffman, Patrick Gilmore and Elyse Levesque. Plus fans will enjoy special appearances by original cast members Richard Dean Anderson (“MacGyver”) and Amanda Tapping (“Stargate SG-1”).

Showcasing all 20 episodes, the “SGU” Season One Blu-ray and DVD feature an extended pilot with never-before-seen footage, exclusive behind-the-scenes featurettes, video diaries and commentary on every episode. In addition, fans can enjoy Blu-ray exclusive special features such as extra Destiny SML (Star Map Log) and the SGU: Survival Instinct Game. The brand new interactive game challenges players to use their knowledge, intelligence and skillfulness to jump through a series of time loops in order to return to the Destiny. The “SGU” Season One Blu-ray will be available as a five-disc set for the suggested retail price of $59.99 U.S./$69.99 Canada, and as a six-disc DVD collection for $49.98 U.S./$59.98 Canada. Prebook is September 8.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Enik Was Here: A Survey of Cult TV Graffiti

There's an old saying that goes "the handwriting is on the wall."  In terms of graffiti -- a "street" art form that has been around for a very long time (at least as far back as Ancient Rome...) -- this proverb is a literal truth.  The writing is on the wall.  And in the alley.  And carved into stone.

In terms of a useful working definition, graffiti can refer to writing, scrawlings, carvings, or paintings left anywhere  in what is commonly considered the public square or arena.  In daily life today, graffiti might simply be considered a nuisance -- a willful defacing of community property --  but in some cases, it may also function as highly-individualistic artistic expression.

Recently, I've watched a number of cult TV programs and noted -- to my surprise --that graffiti is frequently marshaled by storytellers to make their imaginative narratives about the future or other worlds seem even more exciting, terrifying or mysterious.  Perhaps graffiti is so often depicted in genre television because of the informality I mentioned above; it often appears spontaneous or unplanned. 

Additionally, graffiti functions as an (often ironic) addition to or overwriting of the "established culture."  Therefore, when graffiti appears in science-fiction and horror, it is often about disorder: about the expected order being subverted or otherwise overturned.

Given this recent epiphany, I thought today it might be illuminating to survey a few of the most memorable instances of graffiti appearances in cult-TV history.

One of the earliest examples comes from Star Trek (1966-1969), and an early first season entry entitled "The Naked Time." 

You might recall this story as the one in which the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is infected by a virus that mimics the effects of alcohol intoxication.   Under the influence, Kirk admits his deep loneliness; Mr. Spock weeps; and Sulu practices his fencing...on unwitting crew members.

But late in the episode, a random, cackling crewman carrying a can of crimson red paint defaces the corridors and immaculate turbo-lift of this 23rd century Federation starship with graffiti that reads: "Sinner Repent."  

As an inebriated Kirk makes his way to the bridge during an orbital crisis, he spots this graffiti and's a moment of tension and portentous doom as the clock ticks down to destruction. 

Here, the impromptu scrawling clearly represents out-of-control human nature slathered across sterile, impersonal technology.   Raw emotions have been freed by this strange disease, and the buttoned-down Starfleet crew lets loose, literally painting the starship red with such emotional, colorful outbursts.   The entire crisis has occurred because -- uninhibited -- the crew of the Enterprise has failed to act responsibly.  Kevin Riley has locked engineering and de-activated the engines.  Sulu has left his post.  Nurse Chapel can't stop mooning over Mr. Spock.  Duty has been replaced by self-indulgence. 
It's a splendid study in contrasts: high technology (or technology unchained, as Gene Roddenberry later termed it in the Next Gen) against uncontrolled, basic human passions and fears. 

The words "sinner repent" in red suggest that man has somehow lost touch with who he really is by exploring the final frontier.  This is a persistent subtext of the episode as well, involving Joe Tormolen, an infected crewman who also wonders what business Earthman has in the stars.  We must learn to control ourselves, says "The Naked Time" or we have no business in space at all...we'll kill our ourselves.  As Spock might remind us at this juncture, we must learn to "govern our passions".  The graffiti in the turbo list seems to ask the audience: are we on an upward trajectory, or going straight down?  Or we going to break out of this crazy orbit, or succumb to gravity?

Graffiti also serves  other thematic purposes in cult television history.  In some instances,  it's actually a blazing warning.  (I suppose "Sinner Repent" is also a blazing warning, but not a very useful or practical one.) 

In terms of serviceable warnings, both the Canadian-made  The Starlost (1973) and the Krofft Saturday morning series Land of the Lost (1974) provide mysterious markers in dangerous, frontier zones...written in graffiti.  These mysterious warnings standing "the forward edge" of knowledge are like the equivalent of that famous warning to ship navigators painted on old-fashioned maps: Here Be Dragons. 

Enter (or leave...) at your own risk.

In The Starlost, a young man named Devon (Keir Dullea) dwells in the small, self-contained world of Cypress Corners, a kind of agrarian, Quaker community.  In truth, the farmers and citizens of this community are living inside a huge dome...aboard a vast spaceship, the Ark.   Their entire existence is a lie.

Except for a few men in power, most of the people have long ago forgotten this critical information.  But at the door to the corridor connecting one dome to another -- at the juncture of the outside world and new knowledge-- stands a fearsome graffiti warning (again colored in red paint; and in this case, garish red lighting).  "Beyond is Death!" 

In this case, we are left to consider the notion that the repressive, religious regime in charge of Cypress Corners painted the warning itself (and made it appear so dire...) in order to hold back the citizenry from learning the truth about their origins.  Here, the warning in graffiti is not actually about what lies beyond; it is about controlling the people from seeking new knowledge.  In other words, this informal art is not so informal, and it is not anti-establishment as it appears.  It is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

In Land of the Lost's "The Sleestak God," a Revolutionary War private named Peter Koenig carves the warning "Beware of Sleestak" into a rock monolith near the Lost City of Altrusia.  This warning is pretty darn unambiguous, and serves no secret agenda whatsoever.  It is meant to be helpful to explorer, and it is indeed helpful to the Marshalls when they arrive in the pocket universe.  Will, Holly and Rick don't know what Sleestaks are, but they are essentially put on alert by the warning.  Another identical message is seen inside the Lost City in the episode "Follow that Dinosaur," and the cue to the audience is simple: forge ahead lightly.Wonders and terrors ahead.

One of cult-TV's most interesting and unconventional uses of graffiti arises in the 1974 horror venture Kolchak: The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin. 

In the classic episode, "Horror in the Heights," the fearsome swastika is painted all over the exterior walls and alleys of a Jewish community in Chicago. Naturally, the investigative reporter Kolchak and the residents fear an old anti-Semitic evil, and associate the swastikas with Nazis, or in America, the rise of neo-Nazis.   This graffiti seems entirely hate-based, in other words.

The truth turns out to be something far different.  The swastika is actually a Hindu symbol meant to ward off a shape-shifting illusionist, a flesh-eating monster called a Rakshasa.  A local Indian man has actually painted these swastikas to protect the elderly Jewish residents in the area, whom the Rakshasa is preying upon.  

Here, one can detect graffiti as an expression of good; of protection, but misunderstood as the workings of a "bad" or "villainous" agent.  This may be simply because the graffiti arises from a culture/belief system outside the American mainstream.  Thus the American mainstream misperceives its nature and purpose. 

In the 1980s updating of Sinclair Lewis's, It Can't Happen Here (1935) -- Kenneth Johnson's original V (1984-1986) -- spray-painted graffiti (again colored in shades of scarlet red...) serves another purpose all together. 

In this story, graffiti serves ably as a symbol of resistance against oppressive authority (rather than, perhaps, the tool of a secretive authority, as in the case of Starlost's "Voyage of Discovery"). 

Here, human citizens living under the thumb of the fascist, technologically-superior Visitors take every opportunity possible to deface Visitor propaganda; particularly posters which speak falsely of "universal friendship." 

The truth is far darker, of course, and the spray-painted graffiti reading "V" is a symbol of resistance, and a promise (or hope) of "V for Victory."  The spray-painted graffiti -- the ubiquitous "V" -- is so important to this franchise that it is even featured as the title image of the original program (and is also seen frequently in art for the remake as well.)  

Interestingly, the 2009-2010 remake comes at the same material not from the leftist stance of the original, but from a right-wing mode instead.  The remake re-purposes the "V" symbol as something other than resistance.  Here, the "V" graffiti is a symbol of a dangerous cult, of those who support and believe in the enigmatic, but mysterious alien visitors.  In not too subtle terms, the "V" here is a metaphor for the ubiquitous "O" (for Obama) that we saw in the 2008 election.  Remember, both the Visitors and Obama promised hope, change and better health care for all...

I've written thus far about graffiti rendered in paint.  But there is another "red" medium that is also utilized to hastily adorn crime-scenes and other locales in programs such as The X-Files, Millennium and American Gothic ("Someone's at the Door.") 

As you can perhaps guess...I'm writing here about blood...and usually human blood

In The X-Files seventh season episode, "Theef," for instance, the graffiti -- so fearsomely rendered on the wall of a modern mcmansion -- becomes a critical clue in the solving of a weird mystery. 

Scully and Mulder wonder, at first, about the message penned in human blood. Is it a misspelling of the word "thief" (the specter of Dan Quayle and potato is raised by Mulder...)? Or is it some kind of meaningful, secret anagram? 

The answer is neither: the word is being used ritualistically, by a someone imposing a curse or hex.  In this case, the task at hand is to understand the purpose and meaning of the bloody graffiti, and hopefully come to some kind of answer.  Here, the story is the opposite of what we saw in "Horror in the Heights."  The graffiti is the expression of an evil power; not a form of protection.

Although not so pleasant in day-to-day life, graffiti always looks terrific in future-based series, like Star Trek and the Starlost because it stands in such stark contrast to the crisp, cool, technological lines of those series settings (technologically-advanced spaceships primarily).  The art-form also works well in horror, as in the case of The X-Files or Kolchak, leading us down a rabbit hole of mysterious twists and turns in the search for meaning, and in some cases...for the artist himself (or herself).

In Land of the Lost, the graffiti is a challenge to explore uncharted territory (but safely), and the graffiti of V undeniably makes a political statement (left and right, depending on incarnation).  It's either: resist or perish; V for Victory, or watch out for false gods making big promises.

In all cases, however, the graffiti of cult TV is particularly memorable (and these are just a few of the most notable examples).  On a very basic level, these TV scrawlings reflect human nature; our need to put an individual stamp, and imprint, on our surroundings.

I was here.  I exist.  And I have something to say, something to tell history. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Requiem for HorrorBlips

For me, a little morsel of joy went out of the blogging experience this week when the Daily Blips site, Horror Blips suddenly -- and without explanation -- self-destructed.

If you visit the site formerly known as Horror Blips today, you get the following blanket message: "Thank you for your interest, but the website you are trying to visit is no longer being supported. We would like to take this opportunity to thank our bloggers, visitors, and advertisers who have supported our sites.
That's not a lot to hold onto.

Especially because Horror Blips had become an important public spot to me (and many, many others as well). It was a great "hub" where I could see at a glance what other bloggers in the horror genre were writing about at any given moment. It was a fantastic place to meet new friends and reconnect with old ones.

Most of all, it was -- literally -- a marketplace of great ideas and great writing. Good stories you could vote up, and it was nice to see just how much damn fine writing is going on every day (every hour, really...) in the horror blogosphere. I encountered so many great blogs through Horror was just incredible. I was already aware of many great writers from my membership at the LOTTD, but I discovered many more. Ranging from academic to absolutely balls-out crazy, nuts. And...I loved them all. Some of the headlines on those blog stories were just to die for in and of themselves....examples of great wit, charm and raunchy fun at times.

Sure, you can still find all those blogs out there in the bloggy ether, but Horror Blips was the one-stop-shopping hub that permitted easy, immediate access. I mean, you can still follow the blogs you like, still search on Google for new blogs you think you might enjoy...but the best directory, the living, breathing market place is gone now. If that makes sense...

And no, I was not EVER one of the top ranked bloggers on Horror Blips, not by any means (last time I checked I was down around 37 or 40 in the tally). And I was only on the site for approximately a year, I think. But I actually did become a top contributor in the last few months (well, since July...). And I really enjoyed that experience of finding and submitting interesting and fun material.

One of the things I appreciated the most about the Horror Blips experience was this notion that you could dig around and find interesting stories on the Web...and then promote them there. I really got into this task, particularly in regards to home-grown, local horror movie productions (which are cropping up everywhere, all over the country...) and horror film festivals (ditto). I found that sort of regional-based genre material absolutely fascinating, and I knew that even though I'm here working in North Carolina, another Horror Blips reader might be in the same town as an upcoming Zombie Walk, or the upcoming Hitchcock retrospective, or...etc., etc. I don't want to get high-and-mighty and claim I was doing anyone a big service or anything. I was just a middle man having fun, but I liked digging up weird and unusual stuff and then passing it on to others. And I really loved seeing what others had found too. I guess that's what a community is about, finding the niche where you are comfortable, and sharing what you like.

After losing Horror Blips, I've decided that even in the absence of the popular site, it's well-worth bringing some of this genre material to the attention of readers here. So, where and when I can, I'm going to post links here to stories about local horror movies in production, great film retrospectives at town libraries, and upcoming genre film festivals. I just really dig that stuff, and I hope you do as well.

I'll miss Horror Blips. But I'm glad it was there in the first place, and I know I take away a lot of "good" from having joined that one-stop hub of ideas, laughs and screams.

CULT TV FLASHBACK #116: Planet of the Apes (1974): "The Trap"

There's a long-standing, honorable and familiar tradition in cult television regarding a particular story scenario:

Two committed enemies are forced to work together to extract themselves from a difficult, life-threatening spot despite their extreme differences.

You may have seen this dramatic idea played out, large scale -- human pilot against alien Drac -- in Wolfgang Peterson's epic film, Enemy Mine (1985), for instance. But a similar tale has also been a staple of sci-fi TV programs across the decades

This "My Enemy/My Ally" narrative conceit, as I sometimes term it, proved especially popular during the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps it was a coded reflection of the Global Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a conflict that separated the world into two intractable sides, two ideologies, two superpowers.

Since many cult TV programs are geared explicitly towards the idea of imagining and presenting a better, more positive future -- pointing towards the evolution and growth of our species -- this explanation certainly makes abundant sense. Episodes of the "My Enemy/My Ally" variety often suggest that -- once thrown together into a life-threatening scenario -- enemies can find a common bond if only they leave their pre-existing, hostile, cultural beliefs behind. The notion is that understanding and trust are seeds that can grow inside people over time, and even blossom into peaceful co-existence, tolerance and hopefully, real friendship. In the era of mutually assured destruction, it was powerful for sci-fi television to suggest that -- just by being thrown together into a common danger with our mortal enemies -- we could prevent nuclear annihilation. By personally knowing our enemy, we could make a better choice...for the planet.

Gazing back across the decades, you can see several examples of this My Enemy/My Ally story template. For instance, in the year 1970, an episode of the jingoistic (but utterly brilliant...) Gerry Anderson series U.F.O. saw S.H.A.D.O. astronaut Paul Foster and an alien pilot work together to survive on the desolate lunar surface following a battle, in the installment called "Survival."
Different ideologies/different agenda, but a mutual, positive purpose outside the political confines of a larger war-between-the-planets.

Then, in 1974, a first season episode of the Krofft Saturday morning TV series Land of the Lost found a Sleestak named S'latch and human protagonist Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan) trapped in a deep, smoky pit inside the Lost City.

Again, these two opposing individuals had to learn to trust, and to work together, to escape...before the Sleestak God made them lunch. When S'latch was wounded during an escape attempt, Rick Marshall rescued the Sleestak from the pit, and earned the creature's loyalty and friendship.

Likewise, in "The Return of Starbuck," an episode of Galactica: 1980 from May of '80, Lt. Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) and a Cylon enemy crash-landed on a barren planet after (another) pitched space battle. A lonely Starbuck re-programmed "Cy" to become an ally, and they kept each other company for a time...until Cy gave his life to save his human friend from further Cylon troops.

As late as November of 1989, Star Trek: The Next Generation took a stab at this "My Enemy/My Ally"-fashioned narrative. In "The Enemy," Engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) became trapped on an inhospitable world, Galorndon Core, with only a zealous Romulan soldier for company. The sub-plot of two enemies finding understanding on the isolated planet was artfully balanced against a story of Worf refusing to give aid to an injured, dying Romulan aboard the Enterprise. On the surface: enemies helping one another, their mutual existences threatened. On the Enterprise (and inside the "culture war" between the Federation and the Romulans...), one man/Klingon just couldn't let go of the hate-filled past.

Another highly-intriguing variation of the "My Enemy/My Ally" theme involves the controversial issue of race relations in America. By and large, this sub-text was the thematic territory for most episodes of the short-lived, 1974 Planet of the Apes series that aired on Friday nights (on CBS) in the fall of 1974.

The series premise involved two human astronauts, Burke (James Naughton) and Virdon (Ron Harper) trapped on a future Earth where humans were a downtrodden, oppressed under-class. Apes, by contrast -- led by Councillor Zaius (Booth Colman) and General Urko (Mark Lenard) -- represented the brutal upper-class.

The most powerful and well-connected of these intelligent apes knew the truth that apes had once been pets (and circus attractions...) in ancient human culture, and zealously guarded that secret from their own kind, and from the human slaves. They did not want to acknowledge that humans were once the masters.

With a curious chimpanzee, Galen (Roddy McDowall) as their guide, Burke and Virdon sought a way to escape from the dangerous Planet of the Apes, but were perpetually considered a mortal threat to the existing class structure. The astronauts' advanced-technology, intelligence and sense of history about man's civilization all represented the possibility of revolution, and that was something the Ape council simply could not permit.

Writing about the TV series in his book, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture (Wesleyan University Press, 1998, page 157), author Eric Greene noted that the TV version of the popular franchise showed "the victory of "reverse racism" over equality, as the formerly oppressed apes lord it over the degraded humans, who are now apes' servants and, in some cases, slaves. (In this aspect, the Apes show may have anticipated the white cry of reverse racism that would later gain currency...)"

In "The Trap," (original airdate: September 27, 1974) written by Edward J. Lakso and directed by Arnold Laven, our three heroic fugitives make for a village called Numai that has "a reputation for harboring fugitives."

Nearby stands the ruins of San Francisco, and Virdon believes that there may be some operational computers there...some computers that could help them get back to their own time.

Unfortunately, General Urko and his Lieutenant, Zako (Norman Alden) are hot in pursuit. An earthquake rattles the ruined city, and Burke and Urko tumble down a deep hole into the Earth...into a subterranean subway system from years past...from a time when humans ruled the planet.

While Zako and Virdon negotiate above to rescue their trapped comrades, Urko and Burke attempt to forge an uneasy alliance below. Urko, a pro-apes, anti-human bigot repeatedly trades in insulting stereotypes. "I always assume a human is lying. It makes things easier," he notes. "I don't work with humans," he likewise insists. Finally, he refuses to help Pete build a steel support cross (a metaphor for a well-known religious symbol, perhaps, of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness), because to do so is "human labor" and, well, he doesn't do human labor.

Up above, Zako similarly informs Virdon, "No bargains with humans. You are worth nothing."

As human viewers living in modern America, the audience instantly recognizes Urko's protests for what they are: prejudice.

Urko boasts a pre-existing belief that humans are inferior, but his belief is not based on facts or science. It's just...a strongly-held (and absolutely wrong) personal belief. Burke actually shows Urko "the facts:" a line of posters for organ replacement technology, disposable clothing and mass transit. He even shows the gorilla a human-manufactured solar battery that has operated for centuries. All these artifacts reveal that human beings are intelligent, resourceful creatures, but Urko refuses to believe his lying eyes.

So the crux of "The Trap" involves a very interesting notion; that Urko's (and by extension Ape Culture's)... bigotry results from a deeply-felt sense of historical insecurity. The apes already know that their culture was built on man's civilization a long time ago and still feel inferior. Rather than face this truth, they deny it. They try to erase it.

When Urko discovers a poster in the subway for the San Francisco Zoo (depicting a primitive gorilla in a cage, eating a banana...) he goes ballistic because his irrational belief about humans has been challenged; his strongly-held racism has gone up against that inconvenience known as "reality." Facts will not sway him.

In gazing specifically at racism (and in making human beings -- all of us -- the victims of entrenched racism), "The Trap" exposes the vast gulf in understanding and sense of extreme anger that often precludes the development of trust between people of different backgrounds, whether ideological or based on skin color.

To both sides in the on-going "racism" debate, the long span of existing history becomes only an opportunity to relive old hurts. Thus, no progress is forged. It's just tit-for-tat. Urko can't let go of a past in which humans, he believes, threatened ape power and superiority. And Burke, at least tacitly, views the ape's world as "upside down." He wants to go back in time and prevent the ape planet from existing in the first place. So long as these attitudes remain locked, there can be little progress between opposed personalities/viewpoints.

Interestingly, "The Trap" offers a smidgen of hope about entrenched racism...and then skillfully draws back from that hope in time for a very dark ending. Zako gives his word that he will allow Burke, Virdon and Galen to go free once Urko and Burke have been rescued from the station below. Going up against Urko...the diffident Zako keeps his word. He is a man (er...Ape) of honor.

But then, after the fugitives are gone, Zako sees the point of contention between Urko and Burke: that poster of the San Francisco zoo; that relic of old hatreds. In a tirade of violence, Zako shreds it to pieces...realizing that there is a secret to be protected after all. He feels duped by the fugitives; like they used him. The implication is that he will not -- as he did here -- trust humans any time soon.

What "The Trap" intimates is that real progress can occur between racial "enemies" only when the past is no longer a daily prologue and incitement to anger. That's a tough lesson to learn...especially when people on all sides feel wronged.

But "The Trap" remains valuable because it occurs almost entirely in a location -- the post-holocaust city -- where out-of-control human hatreds finally turned on themselves and destroyed virtually everything.

That's the final destination of sustained ideological and racial hatred, isn't it? Annihilation. For everyone. (And we know, from Beneath the Planet of the Apes that's the destiny this franchise envisions for beings of the planet Earth).

And the real "trap" of the episode title is this: In a world where past grievances exist and continue to exist in the memory, someone has to be brave enough to go first and say "I forgive you."

That's a trap that our own world hasn't escaped yet. But in this dark "My Enemy/My Ally"-styled story from the Darwinian Planet of the Apes, audiences detect how deep-seated prejudice survives. And how learning -- and therefore forgiveness - is possible...but may be outright refused, even in the face of reality. And in the face of cold, rational facts.

In other words, you can show people a birth certificate, but you can't make them believe it...

Monday, August 23, 2010

You Play a Good Game, Boy: The Tao of the Tall Man

A phantasm has been defined as a "fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as in dreams."

But in terms of the Tall Man -- Angus Scrimm's iconic cinematic Bogeyman -- a phantasm can certainly be defined as a nightmare.

In Don Coscarelli's four Phantasm films -- spanning the years 1979 to 1998 -- the Tall Man has destroyed small-town America (not unlike Wal-Mart...), overturned the order of human life itself, and terrorized a triumvirate of heroic friends: Michael (Michael Baldwin), Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and Jody (Bill Thornbury).

Loping in gait, exceedingly grave of visage and utterly imposing in stature, The Tall Man reigns as one of the horror cinemas most fearsome, beloved, and long-lived Bogeyman. But what makes this creepy old ghoul tick? Why has The Tall Man endured as a figure of silver screen fear for so long?

The first answer, of course, rests with the actor essaying the role. Scrimm's menacing, growling performances are unforgettable, and that deep tenor voice is positively nightmare-inducing. Yet the character's mystique goes deeper. And so today, we must examine...the Tao of the Tall Man...

1.) He's the Personification of Death; the Personification of Adult "Knowledge:"

In my 2002 book Horror Films of the 1970s
, I wrote that the original 1979 Phantasm functions on many levels, but most effectively as the heroic dream fantasy of a lonely, sad boy (Michael) who feels haunted by the presence of death and betrayed by life; by reality itself.

This was my manner of accounting for the original film's captivating, almost child-like quality, wherein "something sinister" is lurking at the local cemetery and must be a rwelve-year old kid.

I don't mean that brief description of the inventive plot as any sort of put-down. Rather it is my belief that the film beautifully captures the world-view and perspective of a pre-adolescent boy, the film's protagonist and primary participant. I wrote in the book that "every bizarre event that happens in Phantasm can easily be interpreted as having occurred in one of the boy's twisted dreams/nightmares."
In the movie's sad "real life," depicted momentarily at the film's conclusion, Mike's beloved older brother Jody is -- like the boy's parents -- dead and gone. Mike is pretty much alone, at least in terms of biological family.

The preceding dream (the text of the film itself...) in which Jody is alive and well may thus be interpreted as a disturbed kid's anxiety dream. In that lengthy "phantasm," Michael represses knowledge of Jody's death and imagines he can conquer mortality. His enemy is Death Itself, the Tall Man. Michael destroys him; he buries the Tall Man in the ground with his brother's able assistance. But when he wakes up from this heroic dream, Michael sees that his victory was imaginary, illusory; that in real life, death is never defeated. Jody recedes into the wind...growing smaller and smaller in the imagination (and in the frame too...) because of his status as dead. The unchangeable fact here is that Jody is the one who is gone, not some menacing monster.

Mike can't play the hero in real life...only in his dreams. In the film's epilogue, the Tall Man returns for one last attack and that's because in real life death always returns too. The Tall Man takes Michael, and that act represents, perhaps, the ultimate childhood fear. Of being dragged into the darkness of death, kicking and screaming, with no one to help.

Throughout the film, Coscarelli transmits the idea of Mike running away from reality (and into dreams.) The notion is expressed in both the dialogue and the visuals. For instance, Mike literally can't keep up with his brother. "Jody's leaving soon," he notes (rather cryptically...) in the dream, processing his brother's real life death as but a "departure" that he might be able to stop.

And, in one particularly affecting shot, Mike's feeling of abandonment and isolation is portrayed in starkly visual terms. Mike follows desperately after Jody as his older brother rides down a long road on a bike...oblivious to his brother's pursuit. This moment embodies the idea that Jody is on a one-way journey, moving away from Mike. Forever. Mike can run and run, but he can't catch up with Jody. Jody is dead.

In Michael's powerful, movie-long dream, The Tall Man represents inexplicable, baffling adulthood; or even, simply, adult knowledge. For instance, when The Tall Man first appears, he is explicitly connected to the adult mystery of sex. Jody and one of his friends are "lured" into the grave yard by a sexy siren...really the Tall Man (shape-shifted to appear as a gorgeous female). Mike doesn't understand sex, and so he imagines it as something mysterious and fearsome...manifested in his dream as the Tall Man, also the vehicle of Death. After all, both sex and death threaten to take Jody away from Michael, right? Both are elements of life that a child isn't equipped to understand.

The Tall Man is thus the personification of fears surrounding growing-up. Encoded in that term "growing up" is the realization of one's own mortality; and sex, among other things. The Tall Man symbolizes the mysteries of human life that Mike doesn't yet understand...but deeply fears. Further enhancing the dream metaphor, The Tall Man seems to appear frequently in Michael's bedroom...the very place where a boy will worry about death or first grope with the mysteries of sex.

2.) Imagine There's No Heaven, Or He Doesn't Just Kill You:

I have long subscribed to the belief that many of the scariest "monsters" in horror history (on both TV and in film) are those beings that don't actually kill their victims.

What they do to their victims is -- actually -- far worse than death, and promises lasting, spiritual suffering well beyond a quick mortal demise.

Consider the Creeper, in Jeepers Creepers (2001), a monster who steals body parts to replenish his own life. The owners of those appropriated body parts eternally become a part of the horrifying monster; forever at one with Something Evil.

Or recall the cybernetic Borg on Star Trek.: The Next Generation...they don't want to kill you; they want to use your body and your mind against you, and make you serve an "evil" cause as a drone.

Again, that loss of identity, that loss of sovereignty, is much scarier than dying by a painful (but quick...) machete wound.

The Tall Man fits very well into this category of villain or monster. When mortals die, we learn quickly in Coscarelli's films, they are revived (with yellow blood in their veins), crushed to diminutive proportions and re-purposed as slaves, as dwarves on the Tall Man's barren, arid world (which could be Hell, really). The Tall Man thus harvests our human bodies, making us all slaves to his insidious, inhuman agenda.

An eternity spent as a monstrous, prowling, subservient dwarf isn't exactly something to eagerly look forward to, especially if you've been indoctrinated to believe the Kingdom of Heaven awaits in the after-life. As the Tall Man acknowledges in Phantasm II (1988): "You think that when you die, you go to Heaven. You come to us!" Thus the iconic character is frightening to audiences because he promises that the mystery of death is not a mystery at all, but a doorway to eternal servitude, eternal damnation in sub-human form. Yikes!

3.) There's Something Scary About Old People:

Technically, it's called Gerontophobia. And no, it's not nice, and it's not really fair...or even remotely rational.

But -- at least for a very young person, like Mike --- there's something deeply unsettling about very old people. Their ways seem alien. Their values are not yours, necessarily. They seem angry and temperamental. They want you to stay off their lawn, and they always seem to be hovering behind you, watching, making sure you are following "the rules." A kid might even note that they smell of death; they have one foot in the grave already...

Old people are not, in some cases (perhaps because of dementia, or extreme pain...), the trustworthy, capable, helpful adults a young child is familiar and comfortable with (think teachers, and hopefully, parents too.)

Some old people actually look scary too, like witches or monstrous crones. And that's part of The Tall Man's Tao: his frightening appearance as an angry, unapproachable, even inappropriate old man. Even his trademark shout, "Booooy!" is coded specifically to terrify the young; to spark a fear of the elderly...the dying.

4.) Last But Not Least...He's Got Balls:

As far as horror bogeymen go, an important rule is this: the right tool for the right job.

Freddy has his finger knives, Jason has his machete, and Leatherface has his trusty chainsaw.

The Tall Man too is associated with a weapon and, appropriately, it's a literal nightmare weapon (reflecting the dream-like/phantasm nature of the films).

That weapon, of course, is the famous silver sphere, the sentinel...the ball. Many of the franchise's most memorable and gruesome scenes involve these chrome, flying, autonomous things. These devices home in on an unwitting victim, sprout blades, embed themselves in the human skull...then drill into it. Finally, they spit out a torrent of blood, until the victim is dead, dead, dead. The balls are fast, utterly unreal, and even sentient.

In short, the chrome, reflective spheres are among the most inventive horror weapons ever devised and as the keeper of the balls (so-to-speak), the Tall Man controls them.

Personifying death and mortality (through his aged appearance), boasting a tragic past (as we see in 1998's OblIVion), procuring slaves and harnessing the power of the bloody ball, the Tall Man walks tall in the imagination of horror fans. Watching Angus Scrimm play this immortal character, one feels that, like Death, the Tall Man has always been with us...and always will.

Or, as the character himself might note: "The funeral is about to begin..."

Guest Post: M3GAN (2023)

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