Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Five Scariest Episodes of Cult Television, 1970 - 1980

In the macabre spirit of the nearing holiday, today I present another horror TV-themed list.  Hope this will tide you over until the bewitching hour arrives... 

Today, I select my candidates for the five scariest episodes of cult television, circa 1970 - 1980.  The blanket descriptor "cult television" means that these choices can emerge either from straight-up horror TV, or -- non-traditionally -- from sci-fi TV. 

And for some reason, there were some really scary sci-fi TV episodes in the ten year span from 1970 to 1980.  Maybe it was just the times, since art mirrors life.  All the problems roiling in the culture -- the energy crisis, Watergate, The Vietnam War, etc. -- meant that perhaps even "safe" TV wasn't quite so safe anymore.

As I was compiling this list of five, I realized that I had written about many of these individual installments before -- as individual cult-tv flashbacks -- which just goes to prove their effectiveness, I suppose. 

These shows continue to startle, scare and generate shivers even today, when disco itself  feels like a long ago national nightmare.

All right, let's go...

5. Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "The Zombie"

Shot mostly in dark hues of nighttime by cinematographer Alric Edens, this episode of Kolchak remains terrifying, especially during the tense, unforgettable climax.

As I mentioned the other day, Kolchak, The Night Stalker aired in the era of "hero" journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, during the Watergate Scandal. Embedded in the series' DNA is the then-popular belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference....

"The Zombie" reveals this "man against City Hall" aesthetic in spades. While investigating a gangland syndicate killing, investigative report Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) begins to suspect that a Mamalois, a Haitian voodoo priestess, has activated a zombie to kill the mobsters who put out a hit on her grandson, Francois Edmonds.

Kolchak works every angle of the case, which allows him to consult the series' colorful recurring cast members, like John Fiedler's on-the-take "Gordy the Ghoul," an enthusiastic informant who works in City Morgue. The case also puts Kolchak in direct opposition with police captain Leo Winwood (Charles Aidman), who has a dark involvement with the mob case. In voice-over, Kolchak describes his relationship with Winwood as "long and bloody; like the Crusades...only without the chivalry."

The political undercurrents of Kolchak and the pervasive context of Watergate are always fascinating elements of the series, but as a horror fan I especially love "The Zombie" for its spine-tingling denouement. Convinced that a zombie is being resurrected nightly for revenge killings, Kolchak researches the ways to kill it.

He discovers that zombies often rest in the "places of the dead" (mortuaries, graveyards, etc.) and that to kill one he must pour salt into the mouth, and then use needle-and-thread to sew the lips "very tightly" together.

However, that mode of execution only works if the zombie is dormant. If awake, the undead can be killed by strangulation. But ever try strangling a zombie before?

Kolchak finds his living-dead quarry at an unconventional "place of the dead," an auto junkyard (where cars go to die...). In particular, Kolchak happens across the zombie in a wrecked funeral hearse. We watch with mounting suspense as a sweat-drenched Kolchak crawls in through the back of the hearse and methodically pours salt into the zombie's mouth. He slowly takes out the needle and is about to begin sewing the lips shut when...

...the zombie's eyes open and Kolchak - terrified - shrieks like a little girl and hightails it out of the hearse.

I have to admit, this is one of the things I absolutely love about this character. So often in horror movies and television lately, characters face extreme situations (like vampires, zombies and werewolves) with a bit too much composure and acceptance for my taste.

In keeping with Kolchak's 1970s-vibe and "everyman" nature, the character is foolhardy, but when faced with a monster, pretty damn terrified. Upon seeing the zombie awake, Kolchak turns tail and runs like hell, the white-eyed zombie hot on his heels. With a degree of ingenuity, Kolchak manages to trick the lunging zombie into a noose, hence the necessary strangulation of the creature.

But the point is that it all looks very unplanned, very spontaneous and therefore very human (and very dangerous).  Of course, the very nature of episodic television assures viewers that the protagonist survives his or her travails week-to-week, but the very fallible nature of this particular protagonist actually makes the viewer forget such convention and hold on tight to that critical suspension of disbelief.

Carl has heart, but he's hapless and - like most of us - not exactly courageous in the face of the unknown.  His fear augments our fear, and when that zombie rises in the back of that hearse...the pulse races.
4. Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Caterpillar"

This classic Night Gallery episode concerns a "little beastie" called an earwig.

This tiny insect from Borneo boasts a fondness for the warmth of a human ear., but -- as host Rod Serling reminds viewers -- it doesn't exactly "whisper sweet nothings" once inside.

Nope. It does something...horrifying.

"The Caterpillar," directed by Jeannot Szwarc) aired in March of 1972 and is based on the famous short story by Oscar Cook (1888-1952), a former civil servant who actually served in Borneo from 1911-1919.

"The Caterpillar" (adapted by Rod Serling) follows the arrival in Borneo of one extremely prickly British civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey). This cruel, nasty, arrogant man moves into the home of two other Brits, sixty-sixty year-old Mr. Warwick (Tom Helmore) and his gorgeous young wife ("an absolute knock-out"), Rhona (Joanna Pettet).

As you might suspect, Macy soon makes trouble. He is disturbed by the incessant rain in the tropical location, and -- battling cabin-fever -- turns his obsessive eyes towards Rhona.

Macy is convinced that Rhona should be with him rather than the kindly old man, and meets with a local rogue, Tommy Robinson (Don Knight), in a bar. Robinson suggests not an assassination, but rather an "act of destiny." For a price, Tommy will send one of his native friends to deposit an earwig on Mr. Warwick's pillow.

These bugs are so light, so small, that they are practically unnoticeable. And, according to Robinson, earwigs have this "decided liking" for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand to one. They can't turn around you see, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route.

The pain caused by these "stealthy chaps" is agonizing, horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Still, this sadistic plan appeals to Macy. He feels that after her antiquated husband dies, 28-year old Rhona will turn her affections to him. With little shame, Macy authorizes the plan. However, Robinson's thug makes a fatal mistake that very night...and puts the earwig on Macy's pillow instead of Mr. Warwick's.

Macy wakes up the following morning with a bloody ear and immediately realizes what has occurred. The earwig is inside his ear! In the ensuing two weeks, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands have to be bound to his bed-posts so Macy doesn't claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the skittering bug chewing a path through his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an "agonizing, driving, itching pain," and the earwig exits his ear. An unrepentant Macy tells the Warwicks that what he did, he did "for love," and that he paid the price with two weeks of Hell.

Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy; a fact you will recall if you remember the segment's final punch-line before the fade-out (one revealed in intense, declarative close-up). I won't spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say that "The Caterpillar" boasts one of the nastiest and most macabre twists ever featured on Night Gallery (and likely network television, for that matter.)

There's no real gore in "The Caterpillar," and the titular insect is never glimpsed, even for a second. Instead, we simply see what the bloody thing does from the outside: a torture painted on Harvey's expressive, gaunt face. And we listen as a physician (John Williams), Robinson, and a survivor describe the pain experienced...and more significantly, the pain yet to come.

Despite a lack of overt horrific visuals, the episode proves utterly harrowing in its suggestion of a fate worse than death, an itch you just can't scratch.  "The Caterpillar" is probably Night Gallery's most famous episode; and for very good reason. Next time you have an ear ache, I defy you not to think of this episode. And of earwigs.
3. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Space Vampire"

Although Buck Rogers might rightly be accused of exploiting the popularity of Dracula in the pop culture in 1979 -- a year which saw the release of John Badham's Dracula, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu and even Love at First Bite -- the "Space Vampire" episode of the first season nonetheless remains one of the series highlights.

It is unnervingly creepy, uncharacteristically somber, and wholly dread-filled.

This is true even if by adult standards we today judge the program to border on camp.  Who says camp can't be scary?

In "Space Vampire" a "space age vampire stalks a lonely space station," according to the teaser, and that summary pretty much nails the whole story. Buck and Wilma drop off Twiki for repairs at Theta Station but instead of getting away for their vacation on Genesia, they witness a starship plunge through Stargate Nine and collide with the station.

The inner atmosphere of Theta is contaminated, and the logs of the derelict -- the I.S. Demeter -- suggest the crew and passengers were suffering from hallucinations and "mental deterioration" brought on by the Denebian virus EL7.

After the station's Dr Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) reveals to Buck that the crew of Demeter is not dead, but rather drained of "spirit," Buck suspects a being, not a disease, is the culprit.

He's right: The evil Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann) creates undead minions out of the station crew (who appear replete with two discolorations on their neck...). He then prepares to make the uncharacteristically terrified Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) his immortal bride.

One aspect of "Space Vampire" I really dig is the deliberate homage to the epistolary nature of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. As you'll recall, the literary Dracula was crafted in the form of various collected letters and communiques. The whole story was conjured through the filter of newspaper clippings, Mina's Diary, Seward's phonograph recordings, and Jonathan Harker's journal.

For all its disco-decade glitz, tacky sets and occasionally callow characterizations, Buck Rogers actually pinpoints a decent "space age" corollary to Stoker's literary approach, permitting the stalwart Buck to assemble the story and history of the Vorvon from various 25th century media sources, though all visual in nature: the captain's log from the Demeter, the servo drone recordings of a Demeter passenger (and bounty hunter) from "New London" named Helson (Van Helsing), and even helpful communiques from Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis on Earth.

The other parallels to Dracula are much more obvious. The only thing to ward off the Vorvon is called an "ancient power lock," the "25th century equivalent of a cross," in Buck's own words.

The Vorvon can also mesmerize his victims and change forms at will, another recognizable trait. Just as Dracula could turn to mist, wolf, bat or other form, the Vorvon here often takes the shape of a red, pulsating energy blob that hovers overhead. This non-corporeal form gives the makers of the episode license to provide some examples of crimson-hued, P.O.V. shots. Call it "Vorvon Vision," all rendered from dramatic and doom-laden high-angles as Wilma is stalked by the relentless Monster.

Similarly, a slow pan marks the Vorvon's first appearance as a humanoid. We pan across the Theta Station Lounge and see Buck ordering drinks at the bar. When the camera pans back (all in one shot), the Vorvon is suddenly seated at a previously empty table...staring at Wilma with malevolent, hungry eyes.

There's also a great shot (above) in which the undead Dr. Ecbar is struck down and collapses directly in front of a bright flashlight, his ghoulish pallor suddenly illuminated in the relative darkness. Together, a few clever compositions like these economically enhance Wilma's stated fear of "death as a tangible presence."

What makes "Space Vampire" resonate, I think, is Wilma's pervasive fear of the Vorvon, and the fact that nobody believes that it is hunting her. Wilma just knows she can't escape it...and she almost doesn't. There's a feeling of powerless here; and a sweeping inevitability in the narrative. It may not be Shakespeare -- or Stoker -- but it works. 

As children, we all believe in the monster under the bed or in the closet, and just know that it will stop at nothing to get us.  In some way, "Space Vampire" exemplifies that childhood fear in very potent fashion.  As a grown-up, you may laugh at this episode's depiction of evil...but will be nervous laughter.

2. The Evil Touch: "The Trial"

This episode of the Australian-made horror anthology (syndicated in the U.S. in 1973 and 1974) was written by Michael Fisher and directed by Mende Brown, also the series producer.   "The Trial" concerns a nasty millionaire, Lon Zachary (Ray Walston) who is abducted by the angry circus freaks who took him in twenty years ago and treated him as family. 

Since his upbringing, Lon (once known as "Elmo the Geek") has scorned the carnies and gone so far as to sell their home at the old amusement park so that condominiums can go up in its place.  The circus denizens "hold" Zachary for trial for his evil, selfish deeds, but the circus's tattoo artist -- once a brain surgeon -- suggests a unique plea bargain that could save Zachary's life.  At least after a fashion.

Filmed on location in a run-down, ocean-side amusement park, and in shades of impenetrable night, "The Trial" is one of the most terrifying, insane things ever aired on TV.  The episode is populated by an assortment of dwarfs, strong men and "freaks" of nature, and somehow, the installment manages to recall the danger and uncertainty of the exploitation, grind house cinema of the day.  You are never exactly how far the episode will go, or what you will be forced to see (and endure).  For horror fans, that's good stuff.

As I wrote in my book, Terror Television, this episode of The Evil Touch asks the question, "how does feel to be really afraid?" 

The late Ray Walston -- in character as selfish Lon Zachary -- is forced to answer that question in hard-hitting, fear-inducing terms.  The coda of this story, after Lon's punishment is served, remains one of the most chilling things you'll ever see on television.

(And here's a hint: it involves a lobotomy and a return to the carnie family.)

1. Space:1999: "Dragon's Domain"

In so many ways, this remarkable episode of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson sci-fi spectacular (written by Christopher Penfold) is a direct precursor to 1979's Alien.

The important thing, however, is that the installment remains incredibly horrific even today. I guarantee you, if you watch it in the dark you'll be creeped out.

"Dragon's Domain" is an episode recounted by Moonbase Alpha's chief medical officer, Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain). She reports in voice-over narration that her tale occurs on the errant moon's "877th" day wandering in deep space, when the lost natural satellite is "between galaxies" and "three months eagle's flight time from the nearest solar system."  

In other words, they're alone, in the middle of nowhere...a perfect setting for terror.

It was during this span that one astronaut, Tony Cellini (Gianno Garko) began to feel convinced that "he was closing for a second time" on his "mortal enemy."

In flashbacks, the episode further reveals the details of Tony's first encounter with this unusual nemesis. In years past, he led a (doomed...) space mission to a newly discovered planet named Ultra on the fringes of the solar system. Upon nearing the planet, Tony and his crew pinpointed several unexpected metallic contacts at one orbital reference point. These turned out to be ancient but highly advanced derelict and alien spaceships trapped in a cosmic graveyard. After docking with one vessel, Tony and his crew opened an airlock and encountered a flurry of "wind, noise," and "light."

Then something much, much worse appeared aboard their vessel: a cyclopean, tentacled alien creature; one which didn't register at all on their instruments. This monstrous, screeching thing materialized on the Ultra Probe and killed Tony's three crew members, first by hypnotizing them and then by dragging them into its grotesque, orange-hued gullet...and rapidly devouring them.

After eating the astronauts alive, the monster then quickly regurgitated their steaming, dessicated skeletons.

This macabre image -- of steaming, skeletal astronaut corpses sliding across a pristine spaceship floor, jaws open in terror and pain -- is one that I have never in all my years forgotten. 

The monstrous creature featured here could be a beast straight out of H.P. Lovecraft's writings. The monster of "Dragon's Domain" is a mysterious, hideous thing, an ancient killer -- an Old One -- that ensnares aliens of all races in a trap that resembles a "spider's web" (in Victor Bergman's words). It can't be quantified by our science, and it seems to breach our reality by transporting in and out of it by will.

The creepy thing about this monster is indeed the very thing upon which Helena elaborates in the finale: we don't know where it originated, what it is, or anything about it's life-cycle.  This is the Bogeyman personified, a monster not responsive to our science or technology, that is free to appear and disappear, to terrorize at will. 

If we never could say it was alive, how do we know it's really dead?

That's the shiver-inducing note we leave "Dragon's Domain" (and this post...) on, and it's pure nightmare fodder. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

My Favorite Twenty Horror Movies List posted at Final Girl

If you're a big fan of the blog Final Girl (and blogger extraordinaire Stacie Ponder) -- as I am -- you're no doubt caught up in all the SHOCKtober 2010 Madness.

This is no routine holiday celebration; this is a month-long Halloween-o-palooza as Stacie presents an on-going tally counting readers' favorite horror movies of all time. 

In a month's time, we've gone from movies that received one vote each to the near-top of the list, with films that have garnered up to forty-three votes.  

In the next few days or so, we get to see the top twenty favorite horror films selected by Stacie's colossal readership, and, well, the suspense of the thing is practically killing me.  It's been very intriguing to see the trends, not to mention the surprisingly strong showing for 1990s horror films.

Also -- as a side-effect of Stacie's dedicated SHOCKtober presentation -- many enthusiasts have even discovered a horror soul mate...through a mutual but apparently uncommon love of titles such as The Legend of Boggy Creek

All month long, Stacie has also been posting top twenty favorite horrors from other writers in the blogosphere, including Amanda by Night, Zane and Brea Grant, Lena Headey, Buzz, and Eric Spudic. 

And tonight, Stacie posted my list of my top 20 favorite horror movies as well. Yay! You can check out my selections here.

I want to thank Stacie for including my list as part of the fun, but especially for making 2010 another Halloween to remember at Final Girl.  This SHOCKtober was the best yet, and I can't even imagine what Stacie's going to do in 2011 to top it, but I know she will.  And then some...

On Movie Geeks United Tonight: State of the Horror Genre!

The subject is the horror genre in general, and Jamey and I discuss at length the Romero Living Dead Cycle, Last House on the Left, The Shining and other topics related to the genre and its film history.

The program starts at 10:00 pm tonight. Don't miss it! 

Also, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jamey and everyone at Movie Geeks United for preparing and assembling such a wonderful week of Halloween shows. It's been an amazing set of broadcasts, and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

On another Muir-related note, The Inside Story: Halloween on The Biography Channel is running again Halloween night (Oct 31st) at 10:00 pm, if you missed the initial broadcasts.  I actually get a good amount of screen-time on this two-hour special; but more than that, the program is really informative, and it's fascinating to watch John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis and other high-profile talents discuss the horror film that launched their careers.

The Ten Best Horror TV Title Sequences in History

In the past several years, lengthy title sequences and even theme songs have gone the way of the Dodo in television.  In other words, they are becoming extinct.  As commercial time cuts deeper into story time (the average "hour" length show is now just about 40 minutes...), there's apparently little time for the luxury of a really good title sequence.

This trend is unfortunate and certainly a bit sad, because a good title sequence reveals everything the audience needs to understand about a given TV program.  The short, usually punchy montage of music and imagery can create a powerful mood, a feeling or vibe.  A good title sequence "primes" you for the adventure or storytelling to come.  It also brands the series in a permanent and unforgettable way.  Who can think of Star Trek without the Alexander Courage theme song?  Or the 1960s Batman? Or the original Hawaii 5-0?  Or Get Smart?  Or Mission: Impossible?

These facts are especially true in the horror genre, where success is dependent on crafting and sustaining an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. 

I wrote in my book, Terror Television: American TV Series, 1970-1999 that horror television has it hard anyway because it seeks to blend a homogenized, mass entertainment venue (television) with heightened, discomforting emotions.  In other words, horror and the medium of television are at odds.  Horror seeks spiky, uncertain heights.  Television wants to sell you a car, or a cheeseburger, and therefore make you feel good.

But given these difficulties, there have been a surprising number of truly great horror show title sequences over the years.  These are my personal choices for the ten finest; though there are many other  fantastic examples too.  Not all of these will be popular choices, but I'll endeavor to explain each of my selections.

Again, your mileage may vary.

10. Beyond Reality (1991 - 1993)

Okay, so this is an ultra-cheap USA Network series that was shot in Canada and starred Shari Belafonte  and Carl Marotte.  But the subject of the series is parapsychology, and the hidden, even buried "psychic" capabilities of the human race in the modern, high-tech age.   The title sequence is lensed in dark night, and the camera prowls a modern metropolis at an extreme low-angle so that the mirrored skyscrapers look even more enormous...and menacing.  Then we pan across windswept, rain-swept avenues, as though searching for the "buried," ancient qualities of the human brain.  As the title sequence goes on and on -- and a drumbeat plays in Fred Molli's composition -- it becomes ever more Twilight Zon-ish, but also seems to "find" the psychic qualities it seeks, in  human hands, for instance; even in a human baby.  Weird and wild, the content of this title montage colorfully reflects the content of the series itself. a

9. Dark Skies (1996 - 1997)

Coming in at number nine is the soon-to-be-released cult series from the 1990s, Dark Skies.  Watching these credits, you realize that this series -- which focuses on an alien conspiracy inside the U.S. government, -- was ahead of its time by about a decade-and-a-half.  Right now, we're living in Conspiracy America, with a fear of secret agendas everywhere..or at least on Fox News .  But this title sequence is so good because it depicts a kind of an "evil wind" blowing across a rippling American flag; buffeting it, a reflection of the urgent warning (and narration) from series lead Eric Close that "we may not live through the nineties" and that "history as we know it is a lie."  The  imagery begins with a perfect view of a man and a woman in a kind of Camelot-styled, 1960s environment (before the U.S. Capitol Building) but then a ticker races from the 1960s through 1998.  The urgent notion heightened by the fast score from Michael Hoenig and Close's line reading?   We may be running out of history.  And fast.  The enemy is already here.

8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)

She is not your traditional damsel in distress.  Nor is she your traditional vampire slayer.  And this infectious tune from Nerfherder reminds viewers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of these facts.  We start with traditional visual and audio elements of the horror genre: a wolf baying at the moon, a look at a gravestone, but then the rock beats kicks in and shatters tradition and expectation, just like Sarah Michelle Gellar's iconic hero.  The title montage takes us from horror convention to horror trail-blazing and does so with a jaunty sense of fun and pace that lets the audience know it is in for a good time.

Alas, you'll have to take my word on this one.  No official Buffy title sequences (except fan-made ones) available on YouTube today.  Instead, I just put up the song, so you have to kind of imagine the imagery (or stick in a DVD...).

7. Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977 - 1978)

This is a forgotten, short-lived anthology from the disco decade, but one with a great and memorable title sequence.  It opens with quick-cuts of an eyeball, to a fast, jazzy, addictive tune.  Then, trippily, we start to see horror images inside the rotating eyeball as the song's pace gets faster and more intense.  Before long, we're bracing quick cut views of horror staples like haunted houses, black cats, graveyards, snakes and the like.  The whole thing skates by with its sense of extreme pace, and quick cuttting.  David Shire wrote the pacey theme song that accompanies the trippy imagery.

 6. Kolchak: the Night Stalker (1974 - 1975)

This series from the age of Woodward and Bernstein is all about the little guy fighting City Hall; in this case a dedicated journalist fighting monsters in 1970s urban Chicago.  Given the theme of a "man alone" fighting monsters (and city bureaucracy too...), the title sequence displays Kolchak (Darren McGavin) alone in his office, whistling a happy tune and getting down to the task of writing.  It's very...intimate.  But as Kolchak clacks away at his typewriter and the word "victim" appears on the paper before him, the tune begins to turn darker and and more sour.  The clock stops.  We get a fast zoom, and then Kolchak turns to his side, as if seeing something monstrous out of the corner of his eye.  We freeze frame, going into the corner of his eye, actually.  Like the series itself, this title is surprisingly idiosyncratic and unusual.  Very memorable.

5. Tales from the Darkside (1984-1988)

Simplicity can also be elegance.  That's the case in this ultra-creepy title sequence for the low-budget 1980s Laurel anthology, Tales from the Darkside.  We start with cloudy skies, and then simply gaze at these lovely pastoral views of nature as a macabre-sounding narrator warns us that there is another world too; one that we don't see.  One just as real as these pastoral worlds, "but not as brightly lit, ...a darkside"  If that bit of flowery voice-over doesn't give you goosebumps, nothing will.

 4. Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970 - 1973)

We're endlessly falling through successive realities here, both gazing at ghoulish works of arts, and seemingly being gazed upon by really creepy old crones (whose faces appear distorted and horrible).  The Night Gallery intro represents a fast, endless series of alternate worlds, all represented by paintings of different stripes and styles.  All they share in common is the fact that they are downright scary.  There's a space helmet on the moon surface -- a sign of disorder.  And then a view of an M.C. Escher landscape/labyrinth.  And it's all accompanied by that diabolical sounding, repetitive, non-traditional score.

3. Millennium (1996 - 1999)

This opening to Chris Carter's artistic nineties masterpiece is a montage of unsettling images, all accompanied by an absolutely haunting violin score from Mark Snow.  On screen, messages warn us to "wait" and "worry," and then one pointedly ask "who cares?"  The images are subtle, but discomforting.  A woman slumps over as though life is too much for her to bear.  A child walks uncertainly across the tightrope of a  roof, threatening to fall (a symbol of children heading into an uncertain future?).   Over Frank's sanctuary -- the perfect yellow house -- the sky itself appears unsettled; as though time is racing too fast.  We are surging, out of control, into a dark future.  Also, there are signs of elements out of balance in the Millennium montage: fire burning; wind blowing open drapes, etc.  It's subtle, gorgeous and extremely powerful. 


2. Dexter (2005 - )

It's tough being a serial killer out there.  This delicious and brilliantly designed-and-shot title sequence from Showtime's Dexter reveals the morning activities of work-a-day blood-spatter analyst, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), who also just happens to be a serial killer.  The music by Rolfe Kent is playful and heightens expectations.  The "normal" morning routine -- shot in extreme detail -- makes us believe that pulping oranges, slicing ham and even flossing are all activities related to the handiwork of a death-obsessed sociopath.  And the last smile from Dexter is both  funny AND chilling.  Right now, on an unrelated note, Dexter gets my vote as the best series on television.  I just finished watching Seasons Three and Four, and this is truly one of the new classics.  Even as I write this, I'm listening to the Miami-flavored soundtrack...


1. Darkroom (1981 - 1982)
Okay, an unconventional choice given that about three people remember this early 1980s horror anthology hosted by James Coburn.  But as a ten year old kid, this title sequence sent me scurrying behind the sofa...or under a blanket.  The music is eerie as hell, even spine-tingling, and the first-person, steadicam tour of an empty mansion is nothing short of terrifying.  It feels inescapable and inevitable as we barrel relentlessly towards our dark destination, a locked door...and the Darkroom!  Again, much like Tales from the Darkside, simplicity is elegance.   Believe me, if you were to see this opening at 3:00 am, alone in the house, you'd be looking over your shoulder.  Constantly...


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lisa Blount (1957 - 2010)

The AP is now reporting the death of Academy-Award winning filmmaker and actress Lisa Blount, at age 53. 

Blount may not be a household name to some, but in the horror genre, this talented actress remains beloved and remembered for her starring turns in 1980s films including John Carpenter's criminally-underrated  Prince of Darkness (1987) and Nightflyers (1987). 

In Prince of Darkness, the soulful Blount really made a tremendous and lasting impression as vulnerable and lost Catherine Danforth, a graduate student seeking meaning and attachment in the modern world.   Catherine's  final, heroic sacrifice in that film saved a human race she never felt fully connected to, and also provides the Carpenter movie a last, ferocious kick before end credits roll. 

Whenever I think of Blount, I always think of Catherine Danforth's final appearance in the film: eclipsed in the shadows, emerging from that creepy Los Angeles church, and the words echoing on the soundtrack -- a transmission from the future -- "This is a message from the year 1 9 9 9..."   

In this Carpenter film, Blount was the perfect 1980s embodiment of the archetypal Hawks woman: tough and resourceful; but also a little sad.  Heroic, but on a very human, very identifiable scale. 

Lisa Blount also had a long and distinguished history in genre TV, having made guest appearances on the anthology The Hitchhiker ("One Last Prayer") and Starman in 1986 ("Secrets").  Another role that showcased Blount's tough exterior and vulnerable inner self came in Moonlighting's "Sleep Talkin' Guy," also in 1986.

"LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A publicist for Lisa Blount confirms that the Arkansas-born actor and Academy Award winning filmmaker has died at age 53...Blount won an Academy Award in 2001 for best live-action short film as producer of "The Accountant." Her husband Ray McKinnon directed and starred in the film...She also earned a Golden Globe nomination for playing Debra Winger's best friend in "An Officer and a Gentleman" in 1982.

It's a sad day for horror movie fans, losing a beloved and talented actress this young.   In this sad time, my thoughts are for her family.  Lisa Blount will be missed.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

At Back to Frank Black: Millennium/"Thirteen Years Later" Post Now Up!

Back-to-Frank-Black -- a dedicated and wonderful organization committed to the resurrection of Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-1999) -- is now posting my contribution to this year's Halloween week celebration. 

In particular, I've written a critical analysis of 1998's horror-themed episode titled, "Thirteen Years Later."  It's a very self-reflexive installment featuring a guest-appearance by KISS, not to mention clips of many horror movies (including John Carpenter's Halloween [1978]).

Please visit the site, support BacktoFrankBlack, and check out my article when you can.  It's always an honor and a privilege to work with T.L. and James, and I want to thank them for including my work in their annual Halloween Millennium bash.
Here's a snippet:

"While investigating “The Madman Maniac” case on a horror movie set in Trinity, South Carolina, F.B.I. detective Emma Hollis (Klea Scott) asks profiler extraordinaire Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) an important question about their current investigation.

She asks him if he recalls the serial killer called “The Frenchman” -- a figure depicted so memorably in Millennium’s pilot episode in 1996 -- and wonders if this case could be similar in an important way. Except that instead of a Scripture-quoting serial killer, the contemporary investigation involves one who utilizes horror movie “quotations” or allusions as his source of creativity.

Quite reasonably, this raises a procedural question. Shouldn’t the case’s investigators be watching and researching horror films to glean a sense of the Madman Maniac killer’s next move, as well as his motivations?

Frank is impressed and agreeable regarding this course of action.

Queue John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)…

This short scene is very much the lynchpin of the Millennium third season episode, “Thirteen Years Later,” and for two important reasons.

First and foremost, it suggests the leitmotif of Michael B. Perry’s complex story: horror movies serving as important clues in capturing a serial killer. And secondly, the very act of a horror-themed TV show delving into the horror genre (and referring to a previous episode in Millennium canon too…) heavily reflects the cultural context of the episode’s epoch.

Specifically, the year 1998 represented the pinnacle of the 1990s self-reflexive, post-modernist horror movement in cinema. This was the era of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Scream 2 (1997), Urban Legend (1997) and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998).

More or less, all of these scary movies thrived upon the notion of killers taking horror movies as inspiration for violent behavior. And to varying degrees, the characters in these new-styled slasher films, realize they have actually landed in a horror film and either act accordingly and survive, or fail to…and die.

Intentionally mimicking this then-popular horror movie format, “Thirteen Years Later” both gazes at Millennium’s internal history (the events of the pilot, as well as Frank’s old case of over a dozen years ago) and the genre the series belongs to..."

Today on Movie Geeks United: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Today on Movie Geeks United, check out the discussion, analysis and retrospective of The Blair Witch Project (1999) with directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, actor Michael Williams, and yours truly.

Now, I know that there are some horror enthusiasts who vehemently dislike The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Some folks feel they were taken in by the movie's (very successful) hype and marketing.  Others feel The Blair Witch Project is a shaggy dog story that never reveals the titular "monster" and ultimately goes nowhere. 

So it's a controversial genre film, to say the least. 

However, I firmly believe The Blair Witch Project holds up as both great horror movie and also as a great, immediate movie-going experience more-than-a-decade after its theatrical release.  The film is a neo-classic of the 1990s self-reflexive age; a decidedly ambiguous film that either concerns three film students bedeviled by an evil witch in the woods, or three film students be-deviled by their own inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I will never argue that The Blair Witch Project isn't chaotic and even a bit messy.

I only argue that it is chaotic and messy in a manner of tremendous significance and artistry; in a manner that very craftily supports the movie's thesis: the idea of chasing your own tail, alone, when your technology can't be of assistance and -- in fact -- hinders you. 

Out in the woods, a movie camera can record your shrieking terror or tape your final confessional, but it can't telephone the police for you, or point in you in the right direction to find your way home.

The manner of the film's first-person presentation reflects this content strongly, this idea that multiple interpretations of reality are possible.  So the movie sometimes has the audience watching video tape, sometimes watching film stock.  Sometimes the action is a live event unfolding before our eyes, apparently unstaged.  And sometimes, we're watching staged bits of a student's documentary project...deliberately staged. 

All these visualizations successfully fragment the film's sense of reality, making said reality that much harder to find.  Hoax or horror?  Is the movie about arrogant kids who can't cope with nature; or about kids attacked by a force of the supernatural?

What's the point of the movie's meditation?  The point is that this was life in America at the turn of the Millennium, and even more so today, in 2010. 

I like to use President Bill Clinton -- impeached in 1999 -- as a perfect example of this facet of our public discourse.  Was he a great commander-in-chief who through his steady stewardship saved the American economy and brought prosperity and boom times to a nation formerly in recession?  Or was he the cheating "Big Creep" as Monica Lewinsky called him, and worthy of the impeachment the Republicans so gleefully prosecuted?

Or -- and here's the tricky part -- is he simultaneously both things at the same time?  Meet the moral relativity of the 1990s. Again.

By the end of that decade, we had 24-hour news cable stations, the Internet, and even the nascent blogosphere, yet we were no closer to understanding the truth in the important case of this one man, the most famous man in the nation

In other words, technology wasn't helping in the quest for answers.  We had at the end of the 1990s (and now as well...) more science and technology at our disposal than ever before in the history of our species and yet we couldn't agree even on the most basic facts, let alone the interpretation of those facts.  As a nation, we devoted more hours and more words to the Monica Lewinsky affair than any event in modern history up to that point, yet we remained divided about what it was all about, why it mattered, and what it represented.

In a nutshell, that's what The Blair Witch Project is all about:  the unresolved anxieties of the new technological age (the age of the boom and bust).  We are asked to pull the narrative pieces together -- pieces of media, literally found footage -- and to seek sense, reality and truth for ourselves.  But the tools aren't up to the task.

And, heck, why is no horrific special effects monster revealed at the end of this motion picture?

Well, when was the last time you were certain you saw the real Loch Ness Monster uploaded in a YouTube video? 

When was the last time you had a 100% clarity that you were watching a video of the real Sasquatch on Veoh or Vimeo or whatever? 

Never, you say?  Exactly right.  

For every such claim of "authenticity" you must now bring your experience, skepticism and technological know-how.  Was the video a special effect?  A green screen? A matte?  Photo-shopped?  Very cunningly staged?

This is the bailiwick of The Blair Witch Project.  It dwells meaningfully in that haze of tech-savvy uncertainty; factoring in technology and your experience with the tools you use every day.  Think you see something?  What did you see?  Are you certain? 

Again, the point of a good, transgressive horror movie is to disturb, to unsettle.  In The Blair Witch Project's deliberate ambiguity, we do feel uncomfortable.  Human life is ambiguous too: we don't always get the answers we want about why things happen to us; why fate can be cruel.  And movies, through their three act structure and process of "learning," cheat about that simple fact.  Movies give us answers.  They show us monsters.  They resolve mysteries.  We are...content.

But horror movies, especially decorum shattering ones, have no such responsibility to preserve our peace of mind.  To the contrary.

So The Blair Witch Project is really about those things in our existence that, even with the best technology available, remain disturbingly opaque.  We can put a boom mic on things, and point a camera at them, and still, we can't understand them.

Information doesn't always provide clarity.  Sometimes it merely confounds and obfuscates.   Thus the Blair Witch Project also concerns the way that mass media often shields viewers from reality; for better or for worse distancing us from unpleasant facts. 

Late in the film, this theme is given voice.  Joshua picks up Heather's video camera and notes that the image it captures "is not quite reality."  Rather, "it's totally like, filtered reality.  You can pretend everything isn't quite the way it is."

He's right.  The modern audience is accustomed (nay, conditioned) to the longstanding rules of filmmaking and television production, where the rectangular (or square) frame itself is structured rigorously, and compositions of film grammar symbolize certain accessible and concrete concepts. 

But life isn't like that.  Life is --at its best -- disordered.  It doesn't exist within a frame; you can't capture life's complexities within a frame or a traditional narrative.  And The Blair Witch Project, with its oft-imitated first person point-of-view and semi-improvised screenplay, reminds us of that. Like life itself, the movie is gloriously messy.

As I've written before, The Blair Witch Project takes a very simple Hansel and Gretel story and then re-casts it in a technological, modern culture, and suggests that these three filmmakers are lost -- metaphorically and literally -- because technology has failed them.  They are abandoned by a culture that believes science and technology can solve any mystery and explain everything.

And the intense images in the film are but the bread crumbs for the audience to follow in vain; in a circle.  Reality is elusive in those flickering pictures, and finally the only end is silence. Our last act in a technological world is turn away; to face the corner.  But the camera still rolls.

You can hear more about my thoughts on this unique and controversial film on Movies Geeks United today.  Check out the show.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Today on Movie Geeks United: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Today on Movie Geeks United, we discuss Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), one of my all-time favorite horror films, and certainly one of the best movies the genre has yet produced.  

I hope you will listen in to the show; not just to hear me (!) but to listen to an interview with the film's amazing cinematographer, Daniel Pearl.  The Movie Geeks team always does an amazing job and I know this will be no exception.

Regarding, the film, director Tobe Hooper never gets enough credit, as far as I'm concerned, for masterminded one of the most significant titles in film history; one that -- like Psycho (1960) before it -- literally re-writes the rules of screen decorum, and shatters all sense of convention.

Where Hitchcock artfully fractured the act of learning amongst three sets of protagonists in Psycho, Hooper takes the next, trailblazing step.  He subtracts the idea of learning all together from Chainsaw, to incredible and often harrowing effect. 

In broad strokes, this colorfully-titled 1974 film arises from the context of the "savage cinema," which we associate with such titles as Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Last House on the Left and Deliverance. In keeping with that sub-genre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn't spare the sensibilities, or dodge dark issues concerning human nature.

The Texas Chainsaw Masssacre depicts a kind of uncaring, disordered cosmos in its powerful visuals and in the discordant musical cues that open the film.  For instance, the first clear composition of Chainsaw is of a rotting corpse propped up outside its grave, and this is an early visual indication that something is universally wrong. 

This ghoulish scarecrow symbolizes the idea that "death has risen" and order has been overturned.  This visual is later re-inforced by a shot of road kill in the path of the protagonists.  It's an armadillo, dead on the road, and it rests upside down in the frame, a visual composition/symbol of death in the cinema since the beginning of the art form.

Over and over again, disorder reigns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  A spider web flourishes inside a house, a human dwelling.  There's talk of a watering hole...but it's just dry earth.  The kids visit a gas station, but there's no gas.  Again and again our expectation of order is confounded.  Insanity has supplanted sanity in the film, right down to its core, taboo--breaking genetic structure.

If Hitchcock denied the audience of a single identification point with the murder of Marion (Janet Leigh) in the shower, Hooper in Chainsaw denies us the idea of heroism (and therefore learning...) all together.  Each of three kids goes into that cannibal farmhouse in rural Texas and violently meets his or her death, without passing on any knowledge or learning whatsoever.  Forget about mounting a defense or beating the bad guys; Leatherface and his kin.  The movie offers no constructive second and third acts, at least not in a traditional narrative sense.

The film's structure, essentially repetitious, blocks every attempt for us to learn more; for the protagonists to learn more about their terrifying plight.  This structure subverts our expectations and literally makes us feel endangered in theater.  The movie's young cast, and by extension the audience, feel like it has no chance.  Madness reigns. 

Indeed, even at film's end, order is not restored.  Leatherface just keeps on spinning.  The world around him may be out of gas, but he's still sputtering, twirling and dancing in unending insanity and blood lust.

You can listen in on more of my observations about this classic horror film today on Movie Geeks United

And don't forget to check out my 2003 monograph on Hooper: Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...