Sunday, October 31, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Over the last several years, I've become something of a pragmatist in terms of horror movie remakes. 

There are so many of 'em out there (and so many still coming our way...) that the only to broach them fairly -- and at least relatively objectively --- is to take them on a case-by-case, individual basis. 

So I try to find the good where I can, even if it is a re-vamp of a classic that is under the spotlight. 

And facts are facts: "remakes" of The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Nosferatu (1979) and The Fly (1986) remain some of the  best horror films ever made.  You might even add 1988's The Blob to that select list too.

Given this reality, it makes no sense to boast a blanket philosophy against horror movie remakes.  You take the risk of dismissing something good if you do. 

The problem is that there are so many remakes -- arriving in such rapid, heavily-hyped succession -- that it's indeed difficult to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

What I've detected, in broad strokes, in this current crop of genre remakes  --  (2000 to 2010) -- is that the best ones appear to be those that replace the original's sub-text with an updated, relevant one

In other words, the remakes must reveal something valuable to us about our lives in the here-and-now.  They can't just be disposable "jump" and "jolt" roller-coaster rides.

In other words, a remake can't be the "same" movie as the original because times have changed and different talents are involved.  But if a remake excavates a comparative path to quality -- gazing at our world  as it is now; pushing the boundaries of today's cinema, etc. -- then it very may well offer something worthwhile to commend it.

I believe that Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes (2006) all fit that bill. 

Are these remade titles all-time classics like the originals from which they sprang? 

Only time can answer that question for certain.  But I think, at the very bare minimum, they are good movies that honor the memory of the originals and also boast their own distinctive visual and contextual identity.

Also -- and I realize this is a highly controversial judgment -- I feel that history may judge Rob Zombie's Halloween movies more kindly than many of us (including myself, at times...) do right now. 

Why?  Although Zombie's Halloween remakes are drastically different from Carpenter's in approach and aesthetic, they do substitute an artist's legitimate, if controversial, individual vision.  Is it the vision that I prefer for Michael Myers?  Absolutely not.  I prefer Carpenter's minimalism.  I prefer Michael Myers as the Shape -- as an ambiguous, mysterious figure -- not as an abused child.

But it seems both foolish and unfair to deny that Zombie's Halloween movies represent the efforts of a  distinctive artist taking risks, making bold choices and pushing things to the limit....especially given Zombie's other, generally well-regarded contributions to the genre (namely House of a 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects).

This is a very long preamble to a discussion of the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). 

But I believe it is abundantly necessary to spell this all out, in meticulous detail, because this is one case in which a remake is almost stereotypically awful.

I didn't want my distaste for this movie to be erroneously perceived as a complaint against the remake form in toto.  It's too easy to dismiss my review if that were the case, and I don't want that to happen. 

Long story short: Samuel Bayer's A Nightmare on Elm Street is shallow, poorly-made, and wholly lobotomized -- yes, downright stupid -- compared to the Wes Craven, 1984 source material.  The remake fails to scare; it fails, even, to generate interest around its by-the-numbers "investigative" storyline.  More than anything, the movie plays like a bad remake of  an obscure J-Horror, like One Missed Call, perhaps.

Of course, the new Nightmare on Elm Street cannot be the old one.  I don't expect it to be.  But it fails on the creative basis I wrote about above.  It doesn't replace what was so good about the original Craven film with anything of comparative value or quality.   The remake fundamentally misunderstands the original's point-of-view and is a pale, play-it-safe, whitebread effort.  It pushes no boundaries in terms of the genre; it is a dull, unimaginative piece of work.

Let's talk a bit about the original Nightmare on Elm Street for a moment. 

I often describe Wes Craven as the genre's social conscience, and his first Freddy Krueger film is Exhibit A.  The 1984 film is not merely about a dream killer stalking teenagers; it's about something much deeper in human nature.  In particular, A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns the idea that it is a sin to bury the truth -- no matter how painful -- and far better to face it...to dig it up and show it the sunlight.

Wes Craven gets at this important idea in a few significant ways.  The parents of Elm Street (who murdered Freddy), lie to their children, like Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), about their crime, and so the sins of the fathers -- the lies -- return to impact the children. 

We see the price of denial and repression all through the film.  The Thompsons have divorced.  Nancy's mother hides in the bottle -- she's an alcoholic -- so she doesn't have to face the truth about the vigilante action (murder...) against Krueger.

Unlike her parents, Nancy digs and prods at the truth to save her own life.  She won't hide from the truth about Krueger, and Craven actually makes an intelligent comparison in the original film (in an English high school class, no less), between Nancy and Shakespeare's Danish prince, Hamlet. 

Both characters seek the truth about "their fathers,"  even though those truths are uncomfortable.

Society wise -- and I'm authentically sorry this upsets or angers conservatives -- this dynamic also reflects dramatically what was happening in political America in the mid-1980s. 

Ronald Reagan, an avuncular, father-figure was by-and-large telling Americans that they could have it all.  They could have tax cuts and spend heavily on defense and not cut entitlement; and there would be no consequence, said Reaganomics.  There was a price, of course: the deficit ballooned dramatically in the 1980s.  

Again, the sins of the father were being visited upon the children.  Who would pay down the national debt?  The children of Elm Street all over America.

Again, I don't mean to offend, but genetically-encoded in A Nightmare on Elm Street is this notion of a battle between Americans generations.  The generation that denies and represses the truth (the middle class parents of Nancy's Elm Street; the Establishment of the 1980s) and the younger generation, which would hopefully learn to do better and grapple with problems rather than pawn them off to their own kids, a generational IOU.  

"I'm into survival," Nancy notes at one important point in the original film, and this is critical commentary about the times.  As youngsters of that era (and I was close to the same age as Nancy in 1984...) many of us indeed worried about our survival. 

Again, not to harp on President Reagan (whom I appreciate for his handling of the Challenger incident, for example), but he was the President who joked on an open mic that bombing of Russia would begin in "five minutes."  He was the President who incorrectly stated in a debate that nuclear missiles could be recalled from submarines after launch...which was not true.  He was the President who said that Jesus would return in his life time and that we were likely the last generation

This is not political attack or partisanship...these are facts.  These are the things the man said, and as children and teenagers, we heard and internalized the messages from the Bully Pulpit.  We had to be into survival, like Nancy.  It was up to us to determine the truth, and fight back against lies.

At the end of the original Craven film, the only way to defeat Freddy is for Nancy to turn her back on him.  Not ignore him, not deny his existence but -- knowing full well what and who is he is -- take away his power in the open.  In other words, take the wind out of his sails; solve the problem.  Give it no more power over the course we steer. 

This was an important turning point in the development of the character of the Final Girl in the Slasher Movie Paradigm.  Nancy took responsibility for defending herself; and for beating the Bogeyman.

The point is that -- if you so choose -- you can gaze at Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street on multiple layers.  As a frighteningly good horror film; as, thematically, the idea that things repressed return as symptoms...and must be faced.  Or, as a political point about the context under which the film was produced: the so-called "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s. 

Through Wes Craven's careful layering of elements (including literary allusion to Hamlet), the film opens itself up to interpretation and analysis.  It becomes about "something" other than a guy with finger knives, slicing and dicing nubile teenagers. 

In terms of structure -- and the act of  pushing the horror film format forward -- Craven blended the naturalistic-style Slasher Paradigm of the early 1980s with "Rubber Reality," infusing "knife-kille" horror again with the supernatural...and the spectacular.  That was a big deal at the time, and it opened the way for rubber reality horrors such as Hellraiser (1987) and even Candyman (1992).

So here comes the remake in 2010, and instead of similarly commenting on our society now, it plays it safe and sound in every regard, and actually subverts the messages and meaning of the original film.

How does this movie play it safe? Well, consider how characters have changed since 1984 to become more timid, more bland.  In the original film, Nancy's mother was an alcoholic because she buried the truth.  Here she is not.  Connie Britton plays a concerned mother who counseled against killing Freddy.  See, she's reasonable and nice, not a law breaker, not a vigilante, and certainly not a heavy drinker! 

In the original film, Rod was a legitimate juvenile delinquent -- a "rough" kid.  Here, his replacement, played by Thomas Dekker, is not.  He's just another typical suburban kid; one who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  In the original film, people believed Rod could be guilty of Tina's murder because he was a bad boy "from the wrong side of the tracks;" because he had a history, and because he was deemed unacceptably lower class by the middle class.  Not here.  

In the original film, the parents of Elm Street are depicted as outright negligent.  Remember Tina's Mom and her boyfriend, and how he asked "are you comin' back to the sack or what?" while Tina was facing the prospect of a terminal nightmare?  Not here.  Tina's surrogate -- Kris -- faces the exact some death as Tina, but there are two important differences.  First, her mother is not negligent; she's just a stewardess who needs to go to work, to take a flight.  And secondly, Kris does not have premarital sex before she dies (as Tina did, with the "bad boy," Rod.)

So this is a far more timid, milquetoast, safe depiction of the American middle class.  No parental negligence. No alcoholism.  No class warfare. No premarital sex, even. 

But the most important and sickening change is that this Nightmare on Elm Street believes it is absolutely okay (and even commendable) that the parents of Elm Street have lied to their children about the truth of their pre-school age-abuse at Freddy's hands, and his subsequent murder.  Where the original film was about digging and excavating the truth, no matter what, this film is about keeping the unpleasant things down and out of sight.  

At the end of the film -- I shit you not -- Nancy actually thanks her Mother for lying to her (to...her...face) about Freddy.  "I know you were just trying to protect me.  Thank you," she says. 

Okay, so the new A Nightmare on Elm Street totally undercuts the very theme of the original; the meaning of Nancy's journey.  That's established.  The question becomes: what does it replace that theme with?

Well, nothing really.  

The new film doesn't work on multiple levels.  It doesn't even work on one simple level actually; it's not remotely scary.  As far as I'm concerned that's the base-line for a horror movie.  It must scare.  It must excite.  It must get the blood pumping.

On that front, this remake tips its hand in the first five minutes, revealing Freddy in close-up during a "micro-nap" in a diner.  Remember how the original film kept Freddy in the shadows, giving the audience only glimpses of the dream avenger? 

Even that sense of artistry and patience is gone.  We know who we're up against from the get-go -- before the title card, actually -- and exactly what he looks like too.  True, this Freddy does look more like a burn-victim and less like a Halloween witch, but I'm not totally certain that's a fair trade.  After all, Freddy is supposed to be a supernatural avenger, not merely a walking corpse.   

Of course, one might argue legitimately that everyone knows who Freddy is by now, so the remakers had to show him -- full make-up monty-- early and get it out of the way.  I disagree: going into a remake a director/writer/producer can't just take as a given that the movie's Bogeyman villain is so well-known that he's not scary.   

Au contraire: the mission is to re-invent him so he is scary again.  Generating real horror requires patience. We should build up to Freddy's appearance; experience a sense of anticipation in his absence. What's he going to look like, now?

And this is not an impossible task, either.  Wes Craven did it well, re-inventing Freddy as a kind of Uber-Evil for Wes Craven's New Nightmare in 1994.  Explicitly, he connected Freddy to antecedents in the genre like Nosferatu (1922) and the story of Hansel & Gretel.  In this way, we understood that his brand of evil had always been with us.

So I don't ask for the impossible here, only that the movie provide us a new Freddy who is as terrifying to us today as the original was in '84, or in the re-imagined 1994 film. 

I should hasten to add, other directors have accomplished this task as well.  The zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) were rendered new and scary by their frightening speed, and a twist in their life cycle (only a bite passes the infection, not death in general).  And the clan of the new The Hills Have Eyes actually consisted of mutants; those who had been exposed to atomic testing in the desert.  That new wrinkle fit into the remake's argument about American international power, and Red and Blue States in the era of the War on Terror (and remember the death by American flag in the eyeball)? 

In all these cases,  significant changes to a classic "monster" (or group of monsters) were broached, but something imaginative was substituted for the old.  Nothing imaginative is substituted in A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).  Freddy talks a lot, but cracks fewer jokes.  This sort of makes him dull, and less scary too.  Now he's debating about "what he wants" from the teens before killing them?  Let's just have a conference call too...

In terms of the teen characterizations, the new Elm Street is a disaster.  In the original film, audiences strongly identified with Nancy.  She was a brave kid, digging and probing to learn the truth, and dealing with Freddy...even engineering booby traps to stop him. 

But we also identified with her because she was a regular kid, and the movie featured scenes with Nancy and her friends just being kids.  Remember the scenes at Glenn's (Johnny Depp's house) in which they goofed off with a boom box and a sound effects tape?  These scenes reminded us how young they were; and how precious their lives were.  For god's sake, -- premarital sex or not -- they were innocent kids.

The new movie never once shows Freddy's would-be-victims acting like people or teenagers we can identify with.  They are morose, pale, fatalistic and imperiled from the movie's beginning.  They are undistinguished and uninteresting in the extreme.  If this is an accurate reflection of kids today, then we're really in trouble.  They can google and text, all right, but not crack a smile (or apparently get a tan). 

The new Nightmare on Elm Street also lacks the slightly-seamy, lower-class vibe of the original, and especially the energy of Craven's original.  This movie is so dull, it's the audience who wishes for a micro-nap. 

It's true that the movie re-stages all of the "trademark" moments of the original film: Tina's death, the body bag dragged by invisible hands, Rod's death in a jail cell, the final sting-in-the-tail/tale with Nancy's Mom, the boiler room locale, and Nancy in the bath-tub with the Freddy glove.  But it gives these moments no psychic weight, no importance, no relevance.  We've seen these moments before.  What's the twist? 

Again, look at how Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hills Have Eyes played with expectations, and the set-pieces of the varied source material.

Again, it's like New Line made A Nightmare on Elm Street's "Greatest Hits" movie, but forgot to tell an interesting story, with interesting, human characters, within a context that is meaningful to us now.  The movie's opening dream set-piece is a prime example of how this film and the sterling original are determinedly different...and not in a good way.

In the first, original film, we see Tina (Amanda Wyss) emerging from a white light in a long, dank tunnel.  She is vulnerable, in her pajamas...and alone.  She walks towards us down that long hallway, and a lamb inexplicably crosses her path.  It's all slightly unreal, with strong dream imagery.  The corridor and light symbolize the tunnel, perhaps, between the dream world and the real world, and lamb is innocence being led to the slaughter.  The images mean something beyond a surface level.

In the new movie, a kid named Dean is in a diner, walks back into the kitchen, and meets Freddy.  He doesn't die.  He wakes up, and talks to his worried friends for five minutes.  Then, in plain view, he falls asleep again, meets Freddy and dies.   Again, in plain view. This is underwhelming and, more so, does not hint at the power and symbolism of our dream life.  It's so very literal and unimaginative, and this is, frankly, unforgivable in a film that should have great fun playing with the concept of dreams.

Here's my final assessment of the film: "Well, the producers got fat and Freddy got famous, but somebody forgot to make this movie more than a cliff-notes version of a classic, and Krueger wasn't scary anymore, just like that."

It's a shame.  New Line Cinema is "the House that Freddy Built" and the studio dishonors its benefactor with this by-the-numbers, uninspired remake.   A Nightmare on Elm Street, 2010 edition, isn't fun, isn't scary, and it doesn't mean a darn thing except a quick buck on opening weekend.

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 still...it 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.

LV 426 Day: Alien (1979)

It is quite difficult to believe, but in 2019, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) turns 40 years old.  Perhaps the most amazing thing a...