Thursday, September 29, 2011

Deadline Looming!

I'm on a tight deadline, but with a little good fortune shall return to blogging sometime tomorrow.  Wish me luck!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

TV REVIEW: Terra Nova: "Genesis" (1 & 2) (2011)

If nothing else, the new Fox TV series Terra Nova from Brannon Braga and Steven Spielberg is a stark reminder that there are really two tiers of television entertainment or programming available these days.

On the first tier, you get nuanced, droll, dramatic, and highly-intellectual fare such as Dexter, The Walking Dead or True Blood

And on the other tier, you end up with pandering, appeals-to-the-masses hokum such as Terra Nova.   

This new sci-fi series, a superficial, rah-rah paean to the glories of  the American nuclear family -- even in the Cretaceous Period -- is generic, as bland as they come, and slathered with relatively weak CGI special effects.  As many critics have observed, the dinosaurs look pretty terrible. But then so do the CGI landscapes and cities. 

Still, the effects aren't the biggest problem.  The crisis for Terra Nova is that it is pitched so damn low in terms of intelligence, and even internal consistency.

The premise of Terra Nova, as you likely know by now, is that by 2149 AD, man has all but destroyed Mother Earth.  The atmosphere is polluted and virtually unbreathable.  American citizens must wear "re-breathers" on a daily basis just to survive.

However, mankind of the 22nd century discovers he may get a second chance.  A fracture in time-space has been detected, and so man of the future has begun to send "pilgrimages" back in time some 85 million start over. 

The discovery of this time fracture has also revealed that this gateway leads not to our own past; but to the past of an alternate reality.   Therefore, the people who go back in time are free to interfere in the affairs of the world without worrying about deleting their own histories from existence. 

Of course, they may be interfering with alternate selves or other, innocent human beings, but no one bothers to bring up that point.  If evolution unfolds as it does in our reality, the pilgrimages to Terra Nova are certainly usurping it.

The Shannon family, led by Jim (Jason O'Mara) and Elizabeth (Shelly Conn) are among those who travel back in time to Terra Nova for a "new dawn" for mankind.  Getting there isn't easy, however.  The parents have broken Federal laws concerning "population control" and given birth to a third child.  When this child, Zoe, is discovered, Jim -- a cop -- is incarcerated.  Two years later he breaks out of a maximum security prison to go back in time with his family and escape such restrictions.

Fortunately, the Shannons are warmly received by Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang) at Terra Nova, and quickly become top advisers to this charismatic military leader.  Their teenage son, Josh (Landon Liboiron), however, proves quite rebellious and begins exploring outside the Terra Nova compound with other young adults.  He does so despite the fact that dinosaurs called "slashers" roam freely about and like to feed on humans.

Meanwhile, Jim learns that there is unrest in Terra Nova, particularly from a group called "Sixers" (from the Sixth Pilgrimage).  The Sixers often steal supplies from Taylor's community, and have staked out a nearby quarry where valuable minerals are located.

In the first two-part episode, "Genesis," the viewer is introduced to the Shannons, their world of 2149 AD, and the community of Terra Nova in the distant past.  But for all the intriguing ideas evident in the premise, the show's big observations so far are all pure middle Americana sitcom: that teens will remain rebellious, even with dinosaurs about, and once-a-cop, always a cop.  The drama doesn't go much deeper than that, at least not yet.  And science fiction should be deep; it should be about examining the human equation from as many angles as possible.

And actually, Terra Nova plays on a dumber level than my critique above indicates. The series presents us with two basic facts that seem to have trouble co-existing.  The first is that overpopulation is destroying our planet, and that rigorous laws have been established in an attempt to slow down overpopulation -- an unsustainable lifestyle -- as much as possible. Such laws limit a family membership to four. 

And the second fact is that the Shannons, our protagonists and role models, have broken this law intentionally, and had a third child.  Why, we are not informed.

Amazingly, the writers of Terra Nova are never smart enough to draw a straight line here connecting these facts.  In the past, Taylor speaks of a new dawn for mankind, and how the old world was destroyed.  He notes, particularly, that man "blew it," that "he destroyed our home."  He did so, insists Taylor, through "greed and ignorance."  Now, 85 million years in the past, he has a chance to start again.

But the problem is this: the Shannon family is held up as heroes by the series, yet they are among those who willfully helped to destroy the planet by intentionally disobeying the laws and edicts of their culture.  Their world is in shambles...and they made it worse by breaking the laws regarding childbirth and personal responsibility. 

And we're supposed to like and respect them. 

At this point, I'm not sure why they, in particular, deserve a second chance.  This show is so dumb that it doesn't even make the connection between the necessity of the population control law to PRESERVE LIFE ON EARTH and the fact that the Shannons wantonly broke it...but now get a second chance in the Garden of Eden anyway.

Instead, the "Population Control" officers of the government are portrayed here as black-booted thugs who interfere in the private affairs of families.  These gestapo-styled soldiers enter a private home, turn it upside down, and find a hidden child.  At first, I believed that this scenario might represent some kind of metaphor for illegal immigration, with the Shannons desperate to find a way to get to their new home, even if illegally, with the family intact. 

But then I realized instead that the show is simply pandering to the selfish, myopic Tea Party mentality dominating our national discourse right now.  In other words, government is made to look evil (and anti-family, and anti-life) for interfering with the affairs of private citizens.

And yet, as is abundantly plain, this is an immensely stupid argument.  If you can't breathe the air, if the world is dying, the government of man must do something to save us, right?  Something like imposing population controls.  Given the dire environmental situation portrayed in Terra Nova, a limit of two children per family hardly seems unreasonable. Unlike Z.P.G (1972), for instance, there isn't a complete moratorium on child bearing here.  This law is not even as draconian as a "one-child" policy. No, instead, the government in this series is just saying limit the family to two children

But hey, that's taking away our destroy the planet.  I can hear the cries of "don't tread on me" already.  And in this case, the people shouting that phrase will literally choke on it, as the air becomes unbreathable for everyone.  What Terra Nova seems to indicate is that it is okay for the individual to defy the rules of the government -- rules made for the common good -- because they overstep some sense of personal liberty.  This is Ayn Randianism gone nuts.  Nobody seems to care about the common good anymore.

And again, this idea even seems embedded in the series premise.  Terra Nova is a community not just in an alternate world, but an alternate past.  By going there and interfering with history, the colonists are, essentially, dooming another human race (assuming similar evolution).  How would we feel if aliens from a world that they ruined traveled to our past and colonized it, taking away not just our liberty, but our very existence?    The more you think about it, Terra Nova is a program about very selfish people.  And again, we have to ask, do they really deserve the second chance, a second world to ruin?

Frankly, I don't know if this conceit was intentional, or just a result of shoddy thinking, but so far Terra Nova is rife with these gaps in logic. 

For instance, there have been ten pilgrimages back to the community of Terra Nova, and yet there is no sign or indication of a civilian government there.  Instead, a military man, Commander Taylor, runs the entire show, without oversight.  Now, with dinosaurs hopping around, I absolutely understand the need for a strong security force and a well-armed militia, but why doesn't one exist side-by-side with a citizen council?  Do the people of Terra Nova realize they have traveled back in time to participate in...a military dictatorship?  

That's their answer for escaping the restrictions of an overreaching government in 2149 AD...authoritarian military rule?  There's your freedom for you.

With all the happy talk of a new beginning and a new dawn for humanity, you'd expect that democracy might be one quality of America that would be exported to the Cretaceous Period, but apparently this is not the case.
Besides concerns such as these, the makers of this sci-fi series seem to work overtime to satisfy all audience demographics.  That's where more of  the pandering comes in.

In the span of a two-hour season premiere, the writers set up hunky/sexy prospective romantic partners for both the Shannon teenagers, for instance, thus assuring that teenagers will tune in.  So in the first show, you get teens in love, bromides about families sticking together in tough times, a vicious dinosaur attack, and enough bad green-screening to last you a lifetime.

In terms of genre history, Terra Nova owes a big debt to Lost in Space, which concerned an American family contending with another dangerous frontier, outer space.  Also, Lang's character and character history seems somewhat reminiscent of the actor's role in Avatar (2009).  In terms of visuals, the series references both Stargate and The Time Tunnel with its temporal hardware.

Terra Nova may yet improve, and I hope it does.  I'd like nothing more than to have a weekly engagement with intelligent science fiction television.   The two-hour premiere sets up some interesting mysteries regarding the motivations of the Sixers, and Taylor's long-missing son, so I hope I have some cause for optimism. 

I'm pretty disappointed with the opening chapter of this new drama,  but I will keep watching, and keep hoping that Terra Nova transcends its TV tier...and begins to be a science fiction series worthy of the genre.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From the Archive: Somewhere in Time (1980)

Very often, it appears that science fiction films are designed and mounted with a hard technological edge. It's easy to detect why this is so, and I imply no criticism of the fact.

Understandably, the specific, visual nature of the cinema offers the perfect opportunity to showcase state-of-the-art special effects, fancy modern vehicles, cool costumes and colorful flourishes. And the movies - a medium primarily of action and movement (hence the descriptor "moving pictures") -- also lend themselves organically to physical conflict: car chases, fisticuffs, sword-fights and the like.

Yet the upshot of this fact is that it's much easier to mount and sell a science fiction film about laser swords, superheroes, and transforming robot armies than one authentically about the mysteries of the human heart. A reliance on instrumentation (the camera) results, to a large degree, in a genre medium about instrumentation (batmobiles, HAL, atom bombs, etc.)

By explicit contrast, stories of the heart are always more difficult to dramatize...and downright chancy. In or out of the genre. The looming danger in crafting a truly emotional and romantic genre film is that by necessity it appeals to the emotions, not the intellect. And, well, some hearts are irrevocably...cold. Some hearts are guarded, impenetrable. And some are so stony and unresponsive that there's absolutely nothing that can be done to open them up.

To the cynical or mocking ear, sweet nothings and other deeply-held admissions of romantic affection shared between gazing and swooning lovers can sound alarmingly purple in perfectly-tuned stereo. These days, we love to say that such moments of romantic affection are "campy" or "corny" if they make a direct appeal to the heart. Witness the huge backlash against James Cameron's Titanic (1997). Recall also the accusing, snickering, pointed-fingers over Anakin's "sand" speech to Amidala in Attack of the Clones (2002).

These days, it's easier to blow up romantic leads (like Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight) than to write heartfelt romantic dialogue for them.

Why is this so? A couple reasons, I suspect. But when it comes down to it, it may simply be this: love is a deeply personal thing. It's an emotion shared between two; one not easily transmitted between the masses via a technological medium. Film, after all, is homogenized, collaborative...technical. As an audience -- as a mob even -- we are primed to laugh, shriek and gasp. But not necessarily, to open ourselves up; to peel away our defenses.

Yet by the same token, who can truly deny that the best movies in history -- like real love itself -- transcend such barriers of the medium and thereby seem authentically...magical. How intellectual, for instance, is "chemistry" between two actors? How is that alchemical relationship quantified in scientific terms? Film records it; film registers it; film captures it. But people (the actors involved) make it happen. Sometimes they do so between the lines of dialogue.

I raise this meditation on love and film in connection with Somewhere in Time (1980), the romantic film based on Richard Matheson's 1975 novel Bid Time Return.

The premise is simply that a lonely, empty man, a writer named Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) falls in love with a photograph of a radiant, long-dead stage actress, Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour). He becomes so consumed with her beautiful image, in fact, that he actually hypnotizes himself into time traveling from 1980 to court her.

In other words, this film is one romantic notion constructed upon another romantic notion, constructed upon a further one. For some viewers in today's generally caustic pop culture, perhaps this is simply too much to accept.

Some viewers. But not me.

Gazing across the vast swath of time travel films, the queue is replete with efforts that boast epic, earth-shattering concerns. What if the time traveler changes our collective past? What if human history is altered? What if one action in the past changes everything that we have come to know? Indeed, this is the beauty, opportunity and terrain of time travel films as a format.

Yet, Somewhere in Time differentiates itself from the temporal pack by brushing aside such cosmic concerns. Here we are simply drawn into another life; another world....because of love. There are no explicit conversations about paradoxes, about time machines, or about any of the time travel boilerplate techno-jargon we have come to expect from the sub-genre. Rather, this film asks us to ponder a love so powerful, so out of the ordinary, that it reaches beyond the veil of our reality. This element imbues Somewhere in Time with some appreciable sense of the spiritual; of the longing for the impossible and the mystical in our every day lives.

A lush, almost impossibly affecting score from John Barry serves as our constant companion on this voyage to the distant, naive world of 1912. The setting -- a picturesque Grand Hotel -- is romantic in and of itself.  And the time period -- the last age of naivete and simplicity before the first "technological" war (World War I) -- also evokes feelings of innocence, simplicity and lyricism. It is a world without e-mail or television; without cell phones or other modern distractions. Against this backdrop, a man of the present and a woman of the past fall in love before our very eyes. And this is where you either accept the story the film wants to share with you, or you step back, harden your heart, and denounce it as cheesy and corny.

And, of course, some romance literature and film is legitimately cheesy.

But that's because it's done poorly. I don't believe that's the case with Somewhere in Time. Specifically, director Jeannot Szwarc has crafted his film with a subtle sense of visual classicism. Many of his compositions, particularly one involving the lovers, a lighthouse, the ocean and a beached rowboat, evoke real paintings from the bygone era.

For another thing, Szwarc marshals his camera in a stately, anticipatory way. Anyone who has been separated from a lover for some length of time will know what I suggest by this. Just watch the gorgeous scene and camera work involving Collier's first "real" view of Elise in 1912. We initially catch a glimpse of her in long shot, in the reflection of a window-pane, and then, as Collier pivots, we cut to this beautiful and stately moving shot -- over the landscape -- as an eclipsed female figure comes slowly into view, the sea visible behind her. The build-up is deliberate and glorious, and if you've known love, you get it and your heart beats faster. If're reading the wrong review right now.

After this "reunion," we're into the meat of a star-crossed love story. It's well-written, but what we're ultimately left with is a rousing soundtrack augmenting the excellent chemistry between the two appealing leads. The late Christopher Reeve is at his goofy, innocent best. He was always wonderful and charming playing the fish-out-of-water, the man slightly out-of-step with his time and his world...and such is true here.

And Seymour, an ethereal, distant beauty, melts slowly and methodically, until she delivers a rousing, theatrical monologue about love that remains a high point for the actress in both this film and in her distinguished career. Again, if you think the words are cheesy, just consider the venue (the stage) on which this soliloquy is presented. Once more, Szwarc has done something more than modestly clever in his presentation.  He has provided a 1980s film audience with an old-fashioned pronouncement of love, but through the appropriate artifice of the 1912 stage. Seen in that light, everything is as it should be. Slightly larger than life.

I have concentrated in this review mostly on the romantic aspects of Somewhere in Time, and yet, in a sense that focus also does the film a disservice. Dig deeply into this movie, and you will find that it is teeming with ambiguities. For instance, ask yourself: where does the gold watch come from, originally? As the film opens in 1972, an elderly Elise McKenna gives a watch to young Richard Collier. She says the words "come back to me." After Collier has obliged, and traveled back to 1912, he gives the gold watch to she can one day again give it to him as a gift. It's a mind-bender, because the watch seems to originate...nowhere.

Ask yourself too, what is the real role of Christopher Plummer's character, Robinson? He claims to know who Collier really is; and argues that Collier will "destroy" McKenna. In a sense, that's exactly what happens. When Collier is yanked back into the present, leaving McKenna behind...her career is ruined; she's depressed and lost.

So the question becomes: is Robinson a fellow time traveler (perhaps another man who has fallen in love with that photo of Elise?) or is he merely a worried theater agent, fretting about his meal ticket? To its credit, Somewhere in Time makes absolutely no comment on this debate. Rather, it lets you sift through the clues and arrive at your own conclusion.

I remember when Somewhere in Time was first released, quite a few critics seemed to have a big problem with the idea that Collier had hypnotized himself into traveling back through time. But today, after having read so much about quantum physics, I wonder why it is that we so readily accept the idea that a machine could achieve time travel. But our brains can't? I mean, a time machine is always invented by the human brain, isn't it? Our mental abilities are the root creative force in both instances. But I very much like the idea here that it is the brain - the dedicated, passionate, individual human brain - that makes the seemingly-impossible leap without benefit of hardware or instrumentation.

Because if you've ever been in love, you do feel like you can move mountains with your bare hands. So why not time travel for love too?

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: Amazing Colossal Giants and Incredible Shrunken Men

Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone: "The Invaders."

Identified by Will: The Twilight Zone: "The Little People."

Identified by Dave: Lost in Space: "There Were Giants in the Earth."

Identified by Dave: Land of the Giants (1968).

Identified by Dave: Fantastic Voyage (1968).

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "Requiem for Methuselah."

Identified by Will: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Infinite Vulcan."

Identified by Will: Dr. Shrinker (1977).

Identified by Hugh: Dr. Who: "The Invisible Enemy."

Identified by Michael Falkner: Star Trek: Voyager: "Death Wish."

Identified by Will: Star Trek Deep Space Nine: "One Little Ship."

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Fear Itself."

Friday, September 23, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Insidious (2011)

Produced on a budget of under two million dollars, James Wan's Insidious is a horror film that truly lives up to its title.  The word "insidious" is defined as "proceeding in a gradual way but with harmful outcomes," or, simply, "crafty" and "treacherous." 

In very large measure, that definition (and therefore the title itself) explains perfectly how the movie proceeds, both narratively and in terms of effective film techniques.  Particularly, this horror film's "stealth" villain is one who clearly -- and malevolently -- boasts a plan to achieve a wicked goal.  In making the movie's form echo its content, Wan and writer Whannel work patiently and assiduously, though with abundant twists and turns in the mix, to generate an aura of escalating terror and suspense.

Although Insidious's last act is shockingly and brazenly derivative of Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) -- right down to the presence of two comedy relief parapsychologists and a female medium -- the movie still largely gets under the skin.  Insidious does so, in large part, without benefit of expensive special effects, instead opting for a patient, slow-build approach.  Insidious climbs to a highly disturbing climax, and as much as I felt  that the movie's slavish copying of the Poltergeist aesthetic was distracting, Wan's film nonetheless achieved its "insidious" goal: it successfully troubled my mind, and even my slumber.  The night I watched this motion picture, I felt deeply unsettled and anxious.  Despite the life force it clearly appropriates from Hooper's classic supernatural thriller, Insidious still terrifies.

Insidious dramatizes the frightening story of the Lamberts.  As the film begins, this harried middle class family has moved into a new home, and almost immediately, the audience detects that something is deeply amiss.  Books fall off the bookshelf of their own volition, and at night strange noises waken the family.  Then, young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is injured in the attic and falls into an inexplicable coma.  His concerned parents, Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Patrick Wilson) struggle to deal with this tragedy, but the night terrors don't cease.  Fearing the home is haunted, the family moves to another home...only to see the strange incidents resume.

Then, one day, Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) shows up and reveals that she knows the reasons behind Dalton's coma and also the strange phenomena.  She brings in a parapsychologist, Elise (Lin Shaye) who reveals that Dalton and Josh are both -- unwittingly -- accomplished "travelers."  In other words, during sleep hey can "astral project" out of their bodies. 

However, during these out of body experiences, there's always a risk of traveling too far, and getting lost.  That's precisely what has happened to Dalton.  He has trespassed into "the further," a world beyond our own and populated by the tortured souls of the dead.  And a dark figure there -- one who once sought to control Josh -- now seeks to control Dalton, and appropriate his body.

Desperate to save his son, Josh risks an astral projection to retrieve Dalton...

Insidious quickly proves itself an interesting blend of popular horror sub-genres.  For instance, the film commences as if a traditional haunted house movie, with strange phenomena roiling a busy suburban family.   Intriguingly -- and perhaps as a reflection of the hard times the middle class is now facing in America -- there's no "honeymoon" period here in the new house.  In most haunted house films, there's an early period of "euphoria" for the tenants  in the new home before the terror begins.  Here, scenes of domestic pandemonium occur virtually immediately, intercut with scenes of growing supernatural pandemonium.  The impression is of a family overcome from all sides.  Early on Renai complains to Josh about their marriage/life and says "I just want things to be different in this house," suggesting a troubled history.  "I'm scared nothing is going to change," she admits.

In raising but not overtly exploring this troubled background, Insidious begins from almost frame one to suggest a amorphous anxiety plaguing the Lamberts; a kind of siege mentality hovering over theim like a gray cloud. 

"I feel like the universe is just trying to see how far I bend before I break," states one of the characters, and again, that's a sentiment that a squeezed middle class -- dealing with foreclosures and unemployment -- can largely sympathize with.  In a country where families can't hold onto their houses or their jobs, Insidious suggest that malevolent forces are even after our bodies.

After the "haunting"-styled first act of Insidious, the films then shifts to a "possession"-type horror film, raising the dread that Dalton has been possessed by a demon or other supernatural creature.  Again, this set-up is undercut when we learn that he is not possessed at all...simply gone to "The Further."  And it is here, in this final reckoning that the Insidious, finally, disappoints by almost mindlessly, greviously aping every aspect of the Poltergeist screenplay. 

There, as you may recall, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) helped the Freeling family to recover its missing youngest child, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) from a hostile spiritual realm where she was being kept by an evil, avaricious spirit.  After explaining that realm in riveting detail, the parapsychologist and medium then sent the matriarch of the family, Diane (Jobeth Williams) to retrieve Carol Anne. 

In Insidious,  Elise plays the roles of Lesh and Tangina and provides all the necessary exposition about "The Further," and then sends family patriarch, Josh, off to retrieve his son.  It's so obvious and derivative a formula (down to the selection of shots in some cases...) that you get the feeling Insidious took the Poltergeist script and just performed a find and replace for character names and supernatural concepts.  Again, I can't be too blunt about this aspect of the film.  If you go back and watch the Lesh scene in Poltergeist and then the Elise scene in Insidious, you'll see for yourself just how uncomfortably close these moments truly are.   

In Hollywood, of course, this isn't called "stealing" or "copying," it's called homage. And in point of fact, the filmmakers could probably erect a good defense on such grounds.  For instance, Barbara Hershey appears in the film as a woman also targeted by supernatural forces, and this role clearly harks back to The Entity (1983), another great supernatural thriller that starred Hershey.  

Similarly, Elise's last name is "Rainier," a selection that suggest the original, true-life case upon which Blatty's The Exorcist (1973) is based.  In particular, a boy in 1949, living in Mount Rainier, was believed to be possessed by a demon.   Despite such reflexive touches, one still wishes Insidious could have found a way to dramatize its tale without so overtly aping Poltergeist's last act. 

Given this creative dilemma, why does Insidious work so well, overall?   Well, for one thing, the depiction of "The Further" is very well-done, and deeply unsettling.  There, lost souls wander the firmament and relive distorted, surreal "memories" of their lives.   The characters you see dwelling in "The Further" are eminently creepy and disturbing.   Furthermore, the film's stealth villain, an Old Crone, is deeply, monstrously frightening.  The film builds to a terrifying crescendo as the specifics of her "plan" fall into place, one rung at a time, and we detect how easily the Lamberts have been led astray. 

In other words, Insidious really creeps up on you, not truly revealing the villain's hand until the last act.  James Wan is well-known to genre fans as the director of Saw (2004), which sent horror films off in a particular direction that is often condemned as "torture porn."  Much has been made of the fact that Insidious is something of a corrective, relying on suspense rather than gore to horrify audiences.  I personally don't object to the Saw films -- any more than I disdain the slasher films of the 1980s -- but it's true that Insidious rewards patience and generates an atmosphere of authentic terror.  As much as my intellect had some deep reservations about the film, particularly the deeply nihilistic ending, my senses responded to Insidious precisely as the director wished.  I was deeply unsettled, and actually had trouble sleeping that night.   That's a nice sweet spot for any horror film to occupy.

Perhaps I felt so unsettled because the film's final twist -- so dark and hopeless -- mirrors, again, the feelings of many of Americans about the future right now. What malevolent forces are working against us while we're occupied trying to get the kids to school safely, or focusing on our careers?   While appropriating clearly and brazenly Poltergeist's essence, Insidious also ably and relentlessly charts this post-Great Recession Zeitgeist.

Poltergeist knew "what scares us" back in 1982, and Insidious updates that dynamic well enough for 2011.  How far can we bend before we break?  Does an angry, avaricious universe want to know the answer? 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

From the Archive: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

One of my favorite horror films of the early 1970s remains the weird and wonderful Let's Scare Jessica to Death. At the time the movie was released, the critics didn't have many kind words for this atmospheric John Hancock production. "With the exception of Zohra Lampert's subtle and knowledgeable performance," wrote Time Magazine, "no one in the cast has enough substance even to be considered humanoid."

The New York Times was not much kinder, arguing that Let's Scare Jessica to Death "tends to lose much sense of what kind of movie it is...Among the actors, only Miss Lampert develops a characterization."

Despite such disappointing notices, I always fall back on a specific equation when reviewing horror films. The bottom line is that genre films are supposed to be scary. How a movie reaches that common denominator is a matter of taste, style, and the individual gifts of the director. Alas, today many directors in the industry think that they can scare audiences with expensive visual special effects.  I believe that's an abundantly tricky proposition.

Oppositely, Alfred Hitchcock believed he could terrify audiences with misdirection, surprise, and shock. He utilized every arrow in a formalist's quiver (expressionist angles; shock cutting and the like) to generate feelings of fear. William Friedkin, auteur of The Exorcist adopted an almost documentary-style approach to his horrific material, making it feel "real" and authentic to involved audiences.  Basically, good horror director finds a way to "mine" audience terror, and keep it in play as long as possible. I submit that Hancock also accomplishes this task in Let's Scare Jessica to Death, and in relatively unconventional fashion.

In case you don't recall the specifics of the narrative, Let's Scare Jessica to Death involves a woman who has suffered a nervous breakdown, the sensitive Jessica (Zohra Lampert).  She "starts over" with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and a buddy, Woody (Kevin O'Connor), relocating to New England, where a new home awaits them.

In a quiet, rural town, Jessica and her friends move into a grand old mansion...and find a strange squatter already dwelling there, a mysterious woman named Emily...who claims to be a traveler. Emily seems to be attracted to Duncan, and soon a disturbed Jessica, spurred by her personal insecurities perhaps, begins to hear whispers in their new house. She also experiences visions of a young woman in white. The sentinel seems to be trying to warn her about something...

When Jessica visits the local antique store, she learns from the proprietor that her "new house" once belonged to Abigail Bishop...back in the 1880s. Abigail, a beautiful woman, drowned in the cove on the eve of her wedding, but some folk suggest she yet some kind of treacherous, ravenous, man-eating vampire. This thought terrifies Jessica, and when she goes swimming in the creek later, Emily attempts to drown her.

Before long, Jessica grows suspicious of her husband, Duncan, too . For one thing, he has a strange mark on his neck, just like all the old men in the nearby village. For another, he refuses to acknowledge that strange things are happening. Jessica fears she is losing her mind, but then  one night -- in the stillness of her bedroom --  a community of decrepit vampires arrive to feed on her. She flees to a rowboat as an army of the dead pursue...

In my opinion, Let's Scare Jessica to Death finds a commendable way to reach a pinnacle of "scariness." It's a more difficult and more subjective approach, perhaps, as it involves the auspices of texture, feeling and mood. Indeed, the film's overall narrative makes precious little sense if taken as a whole. There are few dramatic "action" scenes where anything substantial really happens (save for an exquisite jolt moment early on), and even fewer special effects.

Yet the film remains, in the best sense of the word, creepy. It is a scary, unnerving little production and one that puts a viewer ill-at-ease almost from the first frame. It is difficult to chart the manner in which this "mood" is achieved. One might make mention of the brilliant cinematography as a starting point. The film is hazy and overcast at times, feeling like a half-remembered dream.   And dreams, as we all intuitively understand, have no responsibility to unfold in a fashion that makes "logical" sense.  Instead, it's very possible that movie is crafted from the mental standpoint of a disturbed, off-kilter individual.

Additionally, one could point to the overtly Gothic imagery and overarching aesthetic: the beautiful opening view that reveals a fog settling over the placid waters of an idyllic cove, for instance.

The sun is orange and looms low but powerful in an apricot sky, forecasting night. A sad, isolated figure (Jessica) sits alone in a canoe, a kind of post-modern Lady of Shallotte. The villain is a porcelain woman adorned in flowing white dress, a contemporary version of Rappaccini's daughter, who brings terror and death to anyone who treads too close.

On a simple visual level, Jessica's abandoned mansion is an imposing edifice too, inspiring feelings of gloom and foreboding.  It's a place with a dark past, and the imagery reflect this dark "soul."  The architecture is ably filmed from multiple low angles to inspire subconscious feelings of menace and fear.  This choice, and the film's other canny images too, play on old dreads, perhaps, but effective ones nonetheless, and so Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a lovely and even poetic horror film, at least in the visual sense. And film, of course, is primarily a visual medium.

Director Hancock has also taken special care to suggest (rather than definitively depict) the movie's most horrific encounters. That's another trick for mood-drenched horror movies. Consider for a moment the impact of The Blair Witch Project. Almost nothing overtly horrific is seen on screen, but the overall effect of seeing the witch's icons and figures (which she leaves behind in the woods), the uncertainty of being lost, and the paranoia of the kids, combine to create a mood approaching abject, throat-tightening terror.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death adopts a similar modus operandi. There's an unsettling moment in a darkened attic when a shadowy figure shifts suddenly in the frame's foreground while Jessica is seen in the background. This dark blur is never clearly detected. It is visible merely as a black movement; for a split second. What is it? Who is it? We don't know, yet its presence unsettles us.

Similarly, the old men of the town are often referred to in film books (and in this post too...) as "vampires." As is the winsome Abigail. Yet these characters aren't your garden-variety cape-and-fangs, Euro-trash sort. They're more like a mob of undead zombies, moving slowly, strangely; gnarled in their old age and enigmatic in their agenda.   They aren't exactly what we expect then to be, and this break with genre convention and traditional depiction makes them all the more disturbing in nature.  There may even be some kind of unexcavated message here about how men "feed" on the life force of women, a fate which the troubled Jessica attempts to reject.

Had Hancock desired it, he could have provided increased clarity about these aged specters; their nature and history. Instead, like that fast-moving and frightening blur in the attic, the director merely hints at origins, nature and purpose. A tried-and-true horror momvie method of scaring audiences involves the removal of clarity, of explanation, from reality's equation. Ambiguity, as was once stated on MST3K, is scary.   Abundantly so.  Here, the audience starts to wonder, along with Jessica, if it has really seen or understood  the nature of what is happening.  Like Jessica, our grip on reality becomes questioned.

New England Gothic.  That's the overwhelming mood of Let's Scare Jessica to Death. There's an ancient evil here, a town with a dark secret, one woman's struggle with sanity...and a coven of blood-thirsty old men.  No spoon-fed explanations.  No familiar (and therefore "safe") villains or depictions of monsters.

What else could one desire from a  horror movie? Director Hancock sets a grim, dreamy mood, and viewers get to revel in his effective handiwork for eight nine hypnotic minutes.  Even today, Let's Scare Jessica to Death remains grim, surreal, and scary. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #142: The Secrets of Isis: "The Lights of Mystery Mountain"

The highest rated program on Saturday morning television circa 1975-1976 was the superhero program The Secrets of Isis, originally a portion of The Shazam/Isis Hour on CBS.

Created by Filmation under the aegis of Lou Scheimer, The Secrets of Isis starred beautiful Joanna Cameron as Andrea Thomas, a science teacher at Larkspur High School who – on a trip to Egypt – unearthed a golden Egyptian amulet that gave her “the powers of animals” and “power of the elements.” After this great discovery, Thomas became – in the words of the voice-over narrator – a “dual person,” both a mild-mannered teacher and the remarkable deity, Isis.

In “The Lights of Mystery Mountain,” which first aired on NBC on September 6, 1975, Andrea is faced with an unusual mystery. One of her students, Cindy Lee (Joanna Pang) photographs what appear to be flying saucers over Mystery Mountains.

Additionally, there are reports of an abandoned car in the area and “burn spots” on the ground nearby, telltale signs, perhaps, of an alien abduction. A panic begins to build amongst the locals. “What are you going to do if we bring you back a real life UFO?” Andrea asks her superior at Lakespur.

Andrew, Cindy and Rick Mason (Brian Cutler) investigate the mystery, and soon learn that a shady real estate developer, Mr. Moss, has been arranging false UFO sightings with the help of two teenage boys. The boys believed t it was all just a harmless prank at first, but soon realized that Moss meant business, and was trying to run off the denizens of Mystery Mountain so he could purchase the land and tap into a newly discovered vein of gold.

Fortunately, Isis teaches Mr. Moss a lesson. She first pursues him by air. “Oh Sun that changes day to night, help me stop this man in flight,” she declares, invoking the power to fly and chase him.

Later, Mighty Isis corners Mr. Moss by stating “Ancient Sphinx – all knowing and wise – confront this man with his own lies.” Suddenly, a desperate Moss is ambushed by tiny UFOs and -- his mind cracked -- begs for help from Isis. She takes him to the local sheriff and the matter is finally resolved.

As you can probably tell from the above-synopsis, The Secrets of Isis isn’t exactly high-brow entertainment, but nor was it meant to be. Instead, the episode plays – roughly – at the level of juvenile a Scooby Doo episode, or perhaps a Super Friends episode of the mid-1970s era. In other words, there’s no real violence to speak of, nothing particularly dangerous about the story, absolutely nothing distinctive about the main characters, and a strong moral lesson is conveyed by the end of the twenty-two minutes.

Much of the program plays like warmed-over Adventures of Superman clichés, with characters noting that they never see Isis and Andrea at the same place at the same time. Meanwhile, Rick Mason is the Lois Lane of the show; often in need of rescue and always condescending to Andrea while simultaneously in love with Isis.

What makes The Secrets of Isis particularly memorable for folks of Generation X is the presence of Joanna Cameron in the lead role. The actress conveys a strong sense of presence, decency and strength as Isis and -- by sheer force of charisma -- manages to overcome some of the poorer special effects and hackneyed plotting.

Dressed in a white, jewel-bedecked, sleeveless (and short….) gown and an Egyptian-style headdress, Cameron is  an absolute knock-out too.

In the mid-1970s, female superheroes were all the rage in the pop culture with the likes of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman, and Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl. Today, many kids of that era (myself included) retain strong memories and impressions of these super-powered women crime fighters, and it’s probably fair to state that the impression of strength, decency and power such characters exerted survives the sometimes weak storytelling on any particular series.

Of the bunch, The Bionic Woman is undoubtedly the best program overall, with Wonder Woman coming in a close second. The Secrets of Isis does not play its action as camp in the style of the Adam West Batman (1966-1968), like Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl, but today may nonetheless be interpreted as camp simply because tastes have changed so radically in the intervening thirty-five years.

That fact established, The Secrets of Isis is still perfect, unjaded entertainment for young children, and, I suppose, for those of interested in a sense of nostalgia.

One contextual, culture thing I observed in “The Lights of Mystery Mountain” is that the bad-acting teenagers learn their lesson, are repentant, and then treated with mercy and understanding by Isis. She sees that they are sorry for their actions, and sees no need to pursue the matter further, or ruin their futures over one mistake.

In today’s America, I don’t think we’d see such mercy. Instead, the kids would be tried as adults, and locked up in jail for five to ten years.

We have come a long way, baby, since 1975. But I’m not entirely sure we’re headed in the right direction. The Secrets of Isis is an innocent Saturday Morning TV series for a much more innocent time in American history.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Android

Identified by Anonymous: Alicia (Jean Marsh) in The Twilight Zone: "The Lonely."

Identified by Anonymous: Grandma (Josephine Hutchinson) in The Twilight Zone: "I Sing the Body Electric."

Identified by Wordboy: Trent (Robert Culp) in The Outer Limits: "Demon with a Glass Hand."

Identified by Anonymous: Rhoada (Julie Newmar) in "Living Doll."

Identified by Wordboy: Andrea (Shirley Jackson) in Star Trek: "What are Little Girls Made Of?"

Identified by Wordboy: Rayna (Louise Sorel) in Star Trek: "Requiem for Methuselah."

Identified by SGB: Zarl (Leigh Lawson) in Space:1999: "One Moment of Humanity."

Identified by Wordboy: A Fembot from The Bionic Woman.

Identified by SGB: Cyrus (John David Carson) in The Fantastic Journey: "Beyond the Mountain."

Identified by Wordboy: REM (Donald Moffat) in Logan's Run (The Series).

Identified by SGB: Hugo the Prison Guard (Walter Hunter) in Buck Rogers: "Unchained Woman."

Identified by Wordboy: Brent Spiner as Lt. Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Datalore."

Friday, September 16, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #141: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Visitor" (1995)

The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was one of authentic creative rejuvenation and rebirth for the series.  This sortie of episodes brought the addition of  actor Michael Dorn (Worf) to the ensemble cast, introduced a new Klingon-Federation conflict, and finally gave audiences a bald, bad-ass Captain Sisko (Avery Brook).  The season offered quite a few stunning episodes as well, including the epic "The Way of the Warrior" and my personal favorite Deep Space Nine episode of all time: "The Visitor."

Why do I enjoy this particular episode of Deep Space Nine so much?  In short, it concerns two topics that are near and dear to my heart: the father-son relationship, and...writing as a vocation.

Delightfully, the episode handles both subjects with flair, honesty and some real emotionality.  Where so many Star Trek shows are appropriately epic in scope, "The Visitor" is all about intimacy, and the intimacy of a tragic life-story -- shared between strangers -- on a  portentous, rainy night.

In "The Visitor,"  young Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) is hard at work trying to wrangle a recalcitrant short story when his dad, Captain Sisko (Brooks), asks him to join him aboard the Defiant to observe a twice-in-a-century phenomenon: wormhole "inversion" 

Jake reluctantly agrees to get his head out of his writing for a spell and does as his Dad asks. But on the mission, something goes terribly wrong.  The Defiant suffers a warp core breach and while repairing it, Captain Sisko is drawn into a realm of subspace beyond the reach of Federation science.  Although he re-appears infrequently, for all intents and purposes, Benjamin Sisko is lost...a ghost.

Jake mourns the loss of his father, and attempts to carry on with his life.  The years pass, and he marries a beautiful woman, and even becomes a successful, highly-respected author.  But still, Jake is scarred by what this episode tenderly and poetically terms "the worst thing that can happen to a young man:" the death of his father. 

Ultimately, Jake's driving obsession with rescuing his lost father drives away those that he loves.  He even abandons writing to focus on the problem of retrieving the captain.  When Sisko re-appears and finds that his now aged son (played with real sensitivity by Tony Todd) has given up everything -- companionship, happiness, life itself -- for his father, he is shattered by the knowledge.  Given a choice, Sisko would have wanted his boy  to live a complete life...a life with children and grandchildren...and love.  Jake tells his father that he did it for him, and "for the boy that I was."

Told from a late point of attack, with an aged Jake sharing his moving story to a young writing student, Melanie, "The Visitor" concerns the lengths we often go to to save the ones we love. 

And though I'm often a critic of latter day Star Trek's obsession with tongue-tied techno babble, I absolutely love how the tech talk is used in this particular segment. 

Like Kirk in "The Tholian Web," Sisko keeps reappearing as a ghost...or as a memory that just won't go away.  Jake discovers that there is an invisible "link" -- likened to an elastic cord --connecting the younger and elder Sisko to one another, and this description is a perfect metaphor for a familial connection.  We are all tethered to our loved ones by an invisible elastic cord, it seems like.  Life is the process of pulling that cord tight, giving it  some slack and loss...seeing it break.  And yet even in that loss, we feel like the connection is still present, even if we can't physically touch those who have left the mortal coil permanently.

I also admire how this episode frames the father-son dynamic.  Jake will stop at nothing to save his father.  And his father, Captain Sisko, simply wants Jake to have a life worth living.  Their purposes are crossed, and every time they meet, they re-engage in this debate.  The captain wants grandchildren.  He wants his son's happiness.  Yet his son desires only one thing: the return of the guiding influence in his life; an overturning of the loss that his life could never sustain  or overcome. 

It's an emotional and beautiful dynamic, wonderfully portrayed by all the talents involved, and the story gets at another truth about family.  We all believe we know what is best for a child or parent, and we fight for that outcome.  Even if, importantly, that child or parent desires something else.  Again, this is just...the nature of family.  I'll be honest, every time I watch "The Visitor," my wife and I tear up. I believe this is so because we both know in our hearts that we would do anything -- even die -- for our beloved son; and we both know that our fathers and mothers have felt the same way about us.  The parent-child connection we see played out so dramatically in "The Visitor" is a universal one. 

It's icing on the cake for me, I suppose, that "The Visitor" also concerns the profession of writing, and more than that, gets its observations about a writing career spot-on accurate. 

Jake is portrayed here as a mysterious, Salinger-esque figure who only wrote one book and then disappeared; the weight of crisis too heavy in his life to continue as a public figure.  That's a nice bit of myth making, but other aspects of the tale are more realistic.

For example, I absolutely  love the moment in the episode when Jake's gorgeous Bajoran wife tries to lure him to bed (and sex...), but it's clear he would rather be writing his story.  As crazy as that image sounds, writing -- getting it down right -- can sometimes be just like that.  It consumes the mind, and when it's going well, you don't want to stop.  For anything.  Not even hot sex with a beautiful Bajoran soul mate.

But Jake's writing career fits into the story in another way as well.  Writing is a consuming passion, and as a career, it can be a cruel master.  Even a writing career as established as my own (some fourteen years since my first book was published, and two-dozen books behind me...) is one of severe ups and downs.  You have years where everything you publish turns to gold, and years where nothing sticks. Your book sales go up.  Your book sales go down.  There's no security or consistency to a writing career, and yet -- because you love writing -- you stick at it.  You absolutely cannot stop.  And at some point, this dedication does take a toll on your family life.  It's silly to insist that it doesn't.  I'm blessed to have the support of those I love, but I'm sure that sometimes my wife, Kathryn, feels like she must share me with the art of writing.  I'm lucky she puts up with me.

The point of this meditation is that in "The Visitor," Jake does the one thing that every writer absolutely dreads doing yet must, at some juncture, seriously consider.  He gives up writing.  He gives up writing to save his father, and studies to become an engineer instead.  This kind of transition is just absolutely murder for creative types.  I'm always being asked by well-meaning people: why don't you become a lawyer?  Or being informed that I'd be great at writing advertisements! 

As a writer, there's always that invisible but considerable gravitational pull to undertake a career that is more secure, or pays better than writing.  And yet I stubbornly cling to my chosen profession, to this crazy roller-coaster of a career.  So Jake bravely makes two supreme sacrifices for his family: both his writing career and his life.   And I would like to hope that if it came down to it, I would make the exact same decision for Joel and for Kathryn.

Star Trek is often about intergalactic politics, space battles, and adventures.  Occasionally, in episodes such as "The Visitor" or "The Inner Light," the franchise really gets down to the nitty gritty; about what it really and truly means to human; about the connections that make us who we are, and the things that we would do to preserve and protect them. 

In its meditation on fathers and sons, "The Visitor" is one of the most affecting Star Trek programs of any generation, and a real masterpiece of the canon.  I strongly identify with Sisko in this episode, because I understand his agony at seeing Jake age and suffer.   When your child's life doesn't go as you hope -- even on a small, day-to-day level -- you don't merely feel real physical pain.  I see that pain in Avery Brooks' face and in his mannerisms too.   Yet "The Visitor" also reminds us Dads (and Moms) to live up to our child's image of us; to remember how large we loom in their imagination and psyche.   That's an ideal we must also seek to honor and cherish.

To read another writer's great retrospective on "The Visitor," I hope you will check out my friend Michael Alatorre's blog at It Rains...You Get Wet.  Michael also has some touching insights to share about fatherhood, family and Star Trek in his post.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"I haven't seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I'd been going all this time, I'd probably almost be cured by now. "

- Sleeper (1973)

Muir Book Wednesday: Horror Films of the 1990s

Very shortly now (in just days, I hope...), my book Horror Films of the 1990s will be published. If you've followed my work in print, you will realize that it is the long-awaited follow-up to my earlier texts, the award-winning Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) and Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).

Like its two predecessors, Horror Films of the 1990s is a seven-hundred-or-so page survey of a wide swath of scary (and not-so-scary) films. Over three-hundred films are reviewed in detail in the book, and I also contribute a lengthy history about the decade and the particular events that shaped the genre cinema from the years 1990 - 1999.

Basically, the thesis of all my "Horror Films of..." books is that art universally mirrors life, and that you can better understand the horror films of any particular epoch by learning more about what was occurring in the culture at the time. In other words, I write a great deal about context. Therefore, Horror Films of the 1990s gazes at quite a few historical trends, and how those trends found voice, sometimes surprisingly, in the horror films of the day.

Two important nineties "Zeitgeist" touchstones involved the Human Genome Project and the Internet, for instance. Many films in the decade looked at this scintillating notion of a new Pandora's Box being opened, either in terms of genetic science or computers. Films such as Jurassic Park, Mimic, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Deep Blue Sea focused on Frankenstein-like genetic horror, while films such as The Lawnmower Man, Brainscan, and Ghost in the Machine reflected fears involving new technology. Both trends were really expressions of our culture's long-standing fear about "science run amok."

Horror Films of the 1990s remembers other trends in 1990s horror films too. Another notable shift from the 1980s involved the "morphing" of the famous faceless slashers (like Jason) into "Interlopers," murderous and dynamic individuals who insinuated themselves into the lives of average Americans and American families. Films such as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The Guardian, The Temp, Single White Female and Cape Fear are notable examples of this particular trend.

This same decade was also very much about the "homogenization" of horror, as studios made genre films their A-products: beneficiaries of big budgets and more well-known casts. But with greater costs involved in production, horror films also had far less room to transgress, and that proved a problem for a genre based on the foundation of shattering moral decorum and tradition.

Another notable difference: In the 1970s, we saw films with titles such as I Spit on Your Grave and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the 1990s, we got films with generic-sounding titles such as Scream, Mimic or The Temp. So-called "brand name terrors were also produced with easy identification in mind, and for quick sale on the home video market.  The "Grim Fairy Tale" trend was one example of using famous historical myths or cultural icons (Leprechaun, Rumpelstiltskin, Uncle Sam, Jack Frost, etc...) to quickly and effectively capture audience attention.

In general, the 1990s aren't considered a particularly good time in horror film history. Many of the films produced in this era don't stand up well next to the films of the 1970s or 1980s, for instance.

And yet I came away from my experience writing the book appreciating the good horror films of the Clinton Era all the more, perhaps, since they were fewer and farther between than in the previous decades I'd investigated.

So if you're a fan or follower of this blog and my books, I hope you'll seek out Horror Films of the 1990s, and let me know what you think of the book.

You can order Horror Films of the 1990s at Amazon, or through the publisher, McFarland.  Also, if you get the chance, you can see me discussing Horror Films of the 1990s at my author's page on Mahalo, here.  

I appreciate all your support!

40 Years Ago: The NeverEnding Story (1984)

The NeverEnding Story  (1984), a child-like, innocent fantasy film made in Germany by director Wolfgang Peterson.  His is a name you will re...