Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #17: One Movie on a Desert Isle?

A reader, Sarah, writes:

“I want to know your answer to the ‘desert island scenario.’  To refresh your memory, you’re stranded alone on a desert island and you can only pick one movie to take with you to watch. What is it?”

Hi Sarah, that’s actually one that I’ve thought about from time-to-time. I’m not sure why, however.  It seems like an eminently illogical scenario that I would be alone on a desert island, and yet have the capability and time to watch a movie.


In terms of my “one movie,” to watch on a desert island, I’ve decided, regretfully, that it can’t be a horror film. 

I know that probably sounds silly, but I enjoy horror so much, in part, because it’s so different from my real life.  I lead a happy, sheltered, comfortable existence.  But if I’m stranded alone, away from my wife and son on a desert island -- with little hope of rescue -- I definitely won’t be picking Halloween (1978), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Alien (1979), The Thing (1981), The Blair Witch Project (1999), or any other personal favorites of the form.

Although a comedy sounds appealing on first blush (preferably something from Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), the problem there is that most comedies -- the good ones anyway -- clock in at ninety minutes or shorter.  If I’m only going to get one film to watch for the rest of my natural life, I want to squeeze every minute out of the experience.

Considering these factors, I think I’m going to select my all-time favorite film, and the movie I consider the best science fiction movie ever made: Planet of the Apes (1968).  The film has moments of humor, moments of incredible humanity, and some great action.  The script is brilliant, and the look of the film amazing.  Plus, uh, Linda Harrison is in the movie.  Planet of the Apes also runs a good long time (112 minutes).

Plus – and this is important – it may help me understand the local wildlife…

Don’t forget, e-mail me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

Cult Movie Review: King Kong (1976)

Over a decade ago, I had a strange professional experience. The editor on a book I wrote about a classic British science-fiction TV series marked out in red ink every single reference I made in my text to the 1976 version of King Kong. 

As explanation, the editor opined that such a “bomb” could not be discussed as part of legitimate King Kong history.  If I needed to refer to King Kong, then the 1933 film would do just fine.

This anecdote reveals two things.

First, it exposes how editors can impress their own viewpoints and biases on a manuscript. 

Secondly -- and more relevantly for this review --  this story suggests the depth of hatred the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake has aroused over the long decades since it premiered.  The film is apparently not only “a bomb,” but it should actually be erased from the history books and our collective cultural memory.  You…can’t…even…write…about…it.

As you may have guessed, I disagree with the questionable conventional wisdom that King Kong (1976) is a bomb, and one unworthy of debate, examination, and analysis.

In the first case, the film grossed over eighty million dollars worldwide on a budget of twenty-four million dollars, with a marketing budget of fifteen million.  King Kong thus cleared its budget and turned a nifty profit, especially in 1970s terms.  In fact, the remake had approximately the same opening weekend gross as Jaws (1975), about seven million dollars. 

So financially speaking, King Kong was definitively not a bomb. The industry expectation recounted in various articles of the day (including in Time Magazine) established that the film should gross between fifty and one hundred million dollars.  Receipts landed just about in the middle of that ballpark, with eighty million.

And in terms of critical response, was King Kong really a bomb?

Critic Pauline Kael certainly didn’t think so.  She wrote in The New Yorker that the new King Kong was a “romantic adventure fantasy – colossal, silly, touching” and even termed it an “absurdist love story.”

Meanwhile, Time Magazine called the film a “confidently conceived, exuberantly executed work of popular movie art.”  

Roger Ebert also praised the film (and gave it “thumbs up” rating) during a 1976 episode of Sneak 
Previews.  Also, the periodical America noted that “in making a comment on the tragedy of the human spirit in an industrialist age, it [the film] speaks directly to and about its audience.”

So while the film undeniably received many negative reviews, it might be more accurate to state that 1976 Kong was controversial, or faced mixed critical reactions.  Those who declared that King Kong was a “bomb” were primarily die-hard fans of the original 1933 film, and members of the protean genre press (the same class that also, incidentally, savaged Space:1999 [1975 – 1977]).

Considering this dynamic and the timing of the film's release, King Kong may actually represent the occasion of the very first “remake” fan war.  As is the case with all remakes, I can see both sides of the debate, but elect to take each remake on a case-by-case basis. Some remakes are worthy and interesting and others...are not.

In the case of King Kong, there are indeed some fascinating aspects of the film to remember and praise.  It’s true that the special effects in the latter half of this Oscar-winning film are an absolute mess, especially in the film’s bungled finale atop the World Trade Center.  And one can only cringe at the craven attempts to sell the man-in-the-monkey suit (Rick Baker) scenes as featuring a giant Kong robot.  Yikes...

Yet -- warts and all -- this King Kong speaks to the 1970s as trenchantly as the original Kong spoke to audiences of the 1930s.   The film contextualizes Kong as an exploited natural resource, as a metaphor for the 1970s Energy Crisis and America’s dependency on petroleum.  And secondly, on a far more personal level, the film comments on the pursuit of fame and its consequences in our modern culture.

I grew up with the 1970s King Kong and thus possess great nostalgic affection for the film.  I’ll be covering 1976 “Kong Mania” here tomorrow afternoon, in my weekly Memory Bank piece, for example.  But childhood affection for it or not, I maintain King Kong is not the “bomb” -- either financially or creatively -- that conventional wisdom has so often suggested.

“Ah, the power of it. Ah, the superpower! Hail to the power! Hail to the power of Kong! And Petrox!” 

In Surabaya, primate researcher Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridge) sneaks aboard the Petrox Explorer as it prepares to set sail for a mysterious destination.  As Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), executive for Petrox Oil explains, he has discovered in the Pacific what he believes is an uninhabited island hidden behind a perpetual fogbank.  Satellite footage suggests the island could be a rich source of oil.

En route to this remote destination, the Petrox Explorer rescues the lone survivor of a yacht explosion, the gorgeous would-be movie star, Dwan (Jessica Lange).  And upon reaching the island, Jack, Fred and Dwan learn that it is indeed inhabited.  The natives who dwell there cower behind a huge wall in fear of a God called Kong,” in actuality a colossal gorilla.

By night, Dwan is abducted by the natives and transformed into a “bride” or human sacrifice for Kong.  But as Dwan soon learns, the giant gorilla is not a dangerous enemy, but a valiant and loyal protector.  The men from the Petrox Explorer set out to rescue Dwan from Kong even as Fred learns that there is no gusher on the island…no oil.  So as to spare his professional reputation and save his job, Wilson decides to capture Kong and bring him back to civilization as a “commercial” for Petrox.

After Kong is captured and brought to New York City, the regal ape breaks free and causes chaos in Manhattan.  Finding Dwan again, Kong carries her to the top of the Twin Towers.  Before long, helicopters armed with machine guns close in for the kill…

“Well, here's to the big one…” 

Leaving behind the context of the 1930s and the Great Depression, King Kong (1976) is truly a remake with a modern spin. The film revolves around the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, particularly the 1973 Oil Crisis. 

As you may recall, that incident occurred when OPEC slashed oil production by five percent and then increased prices dramatically, something on the order of seventy percent.  The Arab organization used this so-called “oil weapon” to protest the U.S. government’s support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War.  

At home, American consumers were soon urged not to be “fuelish” about consumption, and to conserve gasoline.  The embargo was lifted, finally, when the Nixon Administration negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.

But the OPEC incident revealed to many Americans the heretofore un-excavated nexus between government action, international relationships, oil companies, and fossil fuel.  If America was to become truly energy independent -- and avoid a repeat Energy Crisis in the process -- it would need to discover and dig up new sources of petroleum.

King Kong (1976) is explicitly about this quest, and the mighty Kong himself stands in -- literally, in one case -- for petroleum; for a precious and exploitable natural resource. 

In the specific scene I mention, Kong is rolled out before an American audience in Manhattan…ensconced inside a giant Petrox gas tank.  It would be foolish to deny the potent symbolism of this imagery. An audience stands in awe of a giant container of gasoline, the very life-line to its twentieth century life-style of leisure and consumption.

But underneath that tank is...what, precisely?

A monster that -- if set free – could threaten or destroy everything in our modern world, here symbolized by the Big Apple

If one stops to consider that the ownership and control of foreign oil has been the precipitating cause of global conflicts on several occasions, one may begin to detect the underlying context of this Kong remake.  The race to possess and control oil could lead not to a world of plenty, but to destruction and chaos.  We try to control oil (or Kong), but look what happens?

Furthering the symbolism, Kong is brought to America inside the vast cargo hold of an oil super tanker, a fact which also visually equates the ape with petroleum, a valuable resource taken from a foreign locale and made to serve American interests.

In the original film, Kong was “the eighth wonder of the world,” an amazing spectacle captured to relieve the boredom and anxiety of a people enmeshed in an economic depression.  

In the 1976 remake, Kong is literally a mascot, a “commercial” (in the words of the script) for an oil company hoping to beat its corporate competition to larger profits.  In fact, a literal comparison is made between Kong and the famous Exxon campaign “put a tiger in your tank.” Only here the royal and regal natural power is embodied by a primate rather than a feline.

In toto, the “Kong as natural resource” angle of the remake works surprisingly well.  Wilson is described aptly in the film as an “environmental rapist” and Prescott worries about what will happen to the island culture once it is bereft of the “energy” (in this case creative and spiritual energy…) that Kong’s presence provides it. Kong is “the juice,” in other words, that powers every aspect of their lives, from organized religion to national security.  When Kong taken from them….does their culture die? What does it run on?

As Richard Eder wrote in The New York Times the impulse to explore, to discover, to bring back something that you’ve discovered - [that which we found in the first King Kong] is now replaced by simple greed – the greed of the oil company representative Fred Wilson, to find a gusher.”

In the same vein, the film is veritably loaded with references to Gulf, Shell and Exxon.  And Skull Island itself is termed in dialogue a “huge tank just waiting for us to twist the top off.”  

The idea expressed, then, is that of out-of-control oil companies hoping to sustain our 20th century life style.  In support of this endeavor, they can travel anywhere in the world, claim natural resources as their own property, and in the process destroy the natural beauty and even the people of those terrains.  The excuse?  “There’s a national energy crisis!,” as Wilson says. 

In charting this dynamic, the remake of King Kong evokes a far more cynical and troubled world than the one dramatized in the original 1930s film.  If the original film is a fairy tale of mythic proportions, the remake is, by contrast, a cautionary tale about a world running out of gas, creatively, spiritually and in terms of natural resources.  It’s a world that hopes to latch onto anything “new,” and exploit it for its monetary value even if that “new” thing is destroyed in the process. Going even further, the decision for Kong to climb the World Trade Center -- a representation of western economic and global powers -- is symbolic in some sense too.  As Time Magazine opined, the film might be seen as a "projection of Western fears of what might happen if the Third World should develop its potential power and fight back."

Menaced, literally, by Big Oil.

Kong comes to America...in an oil tanker.

In the remade Kong, Dwan also fits into the leitmotif about exploitation. She is an aspiring actress who desires, more than anything, to be famous.  Her experience on Skull Island with Kong is Dwan’s ticket to fame, and she realizes it.  Dwan is, in essence, seduced by the possibility of being a “star” and so betrays Kong…the beast who protected her and sheltered her in a dangerous jungle.  By contrast, Prescott possesses the wherewithal to detect Wilson’s exploitation of Kong, and he terms the whole affair a “grotesque farce.” 

But Dwan can’t see or acknowledge the truth fully because she is obsessed with herself, and with fame. 

This idea is woven nimbly into the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.  Early on, we learn that the character changed her name from Dawn to Dwan in order to make it “more memorable,” a sign of the character’s true aspiration to be a celebrity. 

And when Kong is captured, and feeling morose about his captivity, Dwan tells the great beast not to worry, that he’s “going to America to be a star.”  This line also suggests that for Dwan, fame is the highest achievement in our culture. 

Finally, Dwan can’t risk rebelling against Fred’s wishes for her, or else, as Wilson says, “I promise you'll never get another booking in your life. You'll end up tap-dancing at Rotary clubs. This threat of public obscurity keeps Dwan in place as a team member in the “grotesque farce.”  Dwan rarely asks if Kong’s imprisonment and loss of freedom – his exploitation – is an acceptable price for her media super stardom. 

One of the primary reasons I appreciate the artistry of the 1970s King Kong involves the clever blocking and staging of the final scene at the foot of the twin towers.   

Kong is dead and Dwan stands before the cameras at his side, playing up her sadness and tears for maximum press impact.  Prescott attempts to approach Dwan through the crowd of photographers, to rescue her from the paparazzi (just as Kong did earlier, at his unveiling in Manhattan). But then Jack stops short.  A dark expression crosses his face as he recognizes that Dwan is exactly where she wants to be: at the center of attention

The blocking and reaction shot (from Bridges) represent a visual way of establishing a philosophical line of dialogue from the original film, but one not included in the remake.

It was not the planes (or helicopters in this case) that killed Kong.  It was Beauty who killed the Beast.

As the scene continues, the photographers grow so aggressive that even the attention-hungry Dwan looks legitimately disturbed and menaced by their actions.  But both of her dedicated protectors – Kong and Prescott – are now gone.  As flash bulbs explode all around her, Dwan looks dismayed, but the implication is clear.  This is the bed she made for herself, and now she must lie in it

Importantly, Prescott has witnessed another man -- Kong -- destroyed attempting to “protect” Dwan from that which she actively seeks – attention -- and so he, finally, makes a different decision.  He leaves Dwan to the tender mercies of the press.  Thus we leave King Kong on a deliberately down-beat note. There is no happy ending to be found.

For Dwan, it’s be careful what you wish for…you just might get it.  For Jack, it's his realization that everything for Dawn – even the death of Kong – is a thing to be used to further fame and fortune.

Dwan is ready for her close-up?

Jack realizes that she  will always be a fame-seeker

The press is her boyfriend now...and she knows it.
In the years since King Kong premiered, we have, as a nation, descended much deeper into this kind of craven celebrity culture, where truly unworthy people become famous for fifteen minutes for participation in a tragedy, a trauma or a scandal.  King Kong is an early commentary on this facet of modern life, granting Dwan her fifteen minutes of fame at the expense, literally, of a king among animals.  Kong had no concern but to protect Dwan, and was (innocently) unaware that she could not reciprocate emotionally.  In essence, Kong is exploited twice in the film: first by Wilson (as a natural resource) and secondly by Dwan (as a gateway to fame and celebrity).   This depth in terms of narrative strikes me as being more than enough meat for a "monster" movie.

In terms of forging a hypnotic spell, King Kong is quite an intoxicating picture, at least in its first hour or so.  Real locations (in Hawaii, I believe) provide awe-inspiring natural vistas.  There are some shots featured here that are so gorgeous, so unimaginable on a visual scale, that they literally prove jaw-dropping.  One lengthy “zoom out” from a tight shot in a natural canyon suggests a scale far beyond our capability to fully process.  Such visuals seem that much more amazing for having been lensed in the age before digital effects and CGI.  It’s absolutely appropriate that the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

About mid-way through King Kong, the film transitions from real life locations to studio sets that, alas reek of sound-stage fakery. Yet the transition -- while jarring -- may work thematically. In other words, the island seems to turn “uglier” and more claustrophobic as Fred Wilson’s motives for it (and its inhabitants) also turn ugly  As man grows dominant (and Kong comes nearer to man's world), the visuals take a turn for the desolate and despairing.

At first, the island is a place of unfettered beauty and innocence – God’s hand on Earth.  But then, technological, 20th century man shows up to put a stamp on it, and the land itself seems to change, revealing a craggy, hard-edged, ugly and ominous side.  By the time we’ve gotten to Kong’s smoky, desolate lair, Skull Island looks as though it could be a harsh, crater-filled landscape on the moon, or perhaps Mars.  And then, of course, the movie takes us to a REAL jungle...New York City.

From this...

...to this...

...to this...

...to this...

..at last, to this.

King Kong’s final scenes, atop the Twin Towers, are also pretty terrible in terms of visuals.  In part this is so because of blue screen and rear projection work that fails to maintain, in proper ratio, the size of Kong and the size of the attacking helicopters.  It’s also a matter of the lighting of the various component parts of the scene.  The night-shots of the helicopters and night sky look washed out and dim compared to the footage of Kong.

And yet, in the final analysis, I can forgive the special effects lapses of King Kong because I feel the film attempts to imbue the “monster movie” form with a new sense of social relevance. King Kong’s game is to ask questions about how, in modern times, we steal from nature and often destroy nature for our own selfish purposes.  The Dwan and Wilson characters represent two sides of that particular coin.  They are indeed selfish and foolish (or is it "fuelish?").

It ought to be noted, as well, that the 1970s King Kong is the first version of the material to suggest more than a rudimentary monster/victim dynamic between Kong and his would-be bride.  This is an important element also featured in the Jackson remake of 2005.  Here, in one of the film’s best and most poetic scenes, Kong takes Dwan -- now covered in mud -- to bathe under a natural waterfall.  

The moment is magical (and erotic, strangely...) not merely because of Jessica Lange’s extreme and ravishing physical beauty, but because of Kong’s gentleness and yes, even sweetness.  I don’t know that either of those qualities could be ascribed to the 1933 version of this “monster” character.  This Kong seems a lot more humane and less violent than his predecessor.  The waterfall scene is supported brilliantly, I should add, by the late John Barry's lush and romantic score, which -- accompanying the visuals -- practically causes swooning.  In lyrical, visually ravishing moments such as this, it's awful hard to totally hate this production of Kong.

Yet if the end game is to hate all over King Kong (1976), there’s obviously plenty to latch onto too.  No stop-motion effects, weak optical-effects in the last half, and a script that probably features too many in-jokes about “male chauvinist pig apes,”the Empire State Building” and the like.  And yet, for all its obvious failings, it must also be said that this (sentimental) Kong wears its heart on its sleeve.

Or as Pauline Kael astutely noted, “I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a movie that was a comic-strip great romance in the way this one is… it’s a joke that can make you cry.”

Movie Trailer: King Kong (1976)

Theme Song of the Week: Manimal

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #16: Best and Most Promising Horror Directors, Now?

A reader, Jerry, asks:

“Part 1, who are the best directors working right now in the horror genre?  And part 2, who are the most promising directors? 

P.S. Don’t just list your favorite ‘classic’ directors who you have written books about, i.e. John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper.”

Very interesting question, Jerry. Thanks for sending it along.

I’m going to interpret your use of the word “now” to mean a director who has either just had a film in the genre released, or is in the process of having one released in the next few months.

By that definition, I’d have to assert that the best directors working in the horror genre -- or its vicinity -- right now, circa late 2012, are.

Ridley Scott.  Scott boasts a painter’s eye and a philosopher’s mind.  As a director, he reveals an almost unequaled capacity to frame his stories in symbolic ways.  Certainly Prometheus reveals his visual acumen, and his unswerving ability to forge a horror story that impresses and makes itself available to interpretation on many levels simultaneously. 

There’s a chilly, intellectual quality to Prometheus that makes it a legitimate horror genre corollary to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  I have a feeling that Scott doesn’t view himself as a “horror” director, per se, but certainly the artist gave us this summer’s most high-profile, most visually-accomplished, and most intriguing fright film.  You have to take the nitpickers with a grain of salt here.  In ten years, Prometheus will be remembered as an absolute apex of the form.

Brian De Palma. We can look forward to this directors’ next psychological horror effort, Passion in early 2013, so we’ll know more about how, precisely, he’s doing at that point. 

But for my money, no contemporary film director is better able to arouse fierce passion, scintillating fear and mind-shattering anxiety via the brilliant application of film grammar.  De Palma’s films are intellectual exercises – almost like games or puzzles, to be precise -- but also lush, ecstatic affairs that revel in poetic and, yes, manipulative imagery.   

If Ridley Scott gazes at and considers the pitfalls we face when reckoning with great human issues (like immortality and the existence of God), I see De Palma as an artist who knows how to viscerally exploit our frailties and emotional weaknesses as a species.  Together, these two directors are almost a perfect yin-yang, actually.

Part 2 of your question involves “promising” horror directors.  By promising, I mean that their most recent work reveals the seed of future artistic success.

Right now, I put Ti West at the top of that category.  His two recent genre films, House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2012) are brilliant works of art, and perhaps even neo-classics of the form.  Time will tell for certain.  I know some folks consider West overrated, but a director who made those two films – back to back, no less – deserves all the hosannas the press can think up.

I am also keeping my eyes on Gregg Holtgrewe, the director who gave us the low-budget and deeply unsettling Dawning (2009).  With almost no resources available to draw upon, and a familiar setting to contend with (a cabin in the woods), Holtgrewe made unconventional cutting and composition choices that breathed vivid life into his film. There’s no monster Dawning and yet it is filled with dread and disquietude.

I just screened Mike Flanagan’s Absentia (2011), and came away similarly impressed by that director’s capacity to forge feelings of apprehension and even panic, also with very little by way of production values.

I hope that answers your question!  

Don't forget, send your questions for me at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com.  I'm about a week behind at this point, but working through them. Keep 'em coming!

Cult-TV Theme Watch: The Moon

If you grew up in the late 1960s or early 1970s, Earth’s moon -- our only natural satellite – represented a first step…and a promise of more good things to come.

In other words, the moon was, in those bygone days, the very place where our journey to the stars would begin in earnest, a stepping-stone to the solar system, and then, perhaps, to the galaxy at large. 

And no, that idea did not seem at all far-fetched in those days; certainly not with the ongoing missions and developments of the era, like Skylab (1973), Apollo-Soyuz (1975), and the space shuttle (1976).  As distant and barren as it was, the moon was the very place where mankind’s future was destined to start.

Shortly before I was born, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and a new era of exploration commenced.  There was nothing the human race couldn’t accomplish, no summit we couldn’t reach.  An American generation of dreamers grew up with toys like Major Matt Mason, an astronaut whose adventures took place on the moon and in near Earth space.

Alas, today our politics are small, and our politicians are even smaller.  Mention a plan to construct a moon-base and it’s a one-way ticket to pop culture mocking and wise-cracks like “you’re fired” from venture-capitalists.  These days, we are told, we can’t afford the space program. 

We can’t afford, in essence, our very future. 

It’s a sad state of affairs, and certainly, in cult-tv history, creative artists have boasted a far bigger vision for our moon than most of our contemporary politicians.  In fact, moon bases were practically a guarantee in the future imagined by cult television programming as diverse as The Outer Limits (“Moonstone”), Doctor Who (“The Moonbase,”) The Six Million-Dollar Man (“Dark Side of the Moon”), and The Super Friends (“Giants of Doom”). 

Other series -- mostly of British origin, for some reason -- featured the moon base as the central locale for adventure in “the future.”  These series were Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970), Moonbase 3 (1973) and Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977).  In all these visions of a better tomorrow, the moon base was indeed a fait accompli.  In the 1990s, another series pilot, Plymouth (1991), promised the on-going story of a town or colony transplanted to the Moon.

The other use of the moon in cult-tv history relates to the horror genre, of course.  In horror series of all stripes, the cycles of the moon spur the transformation of man into werewolf.  This trope occurs in Werewolf (1987), She Wolf of London (1990), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003), Wolf Lake (2001) and the current hit, Teen Wolf (2012), among others.

A new series, Space: 2099 is in the planning stages.  I wonder if it will feature a new Moonbase Alpha, or set its adventures elsewhere.

One thing is for certain, however if our race wishes to survive and evolve, we must return to the moon one day, and in a serious effort.  At some point, we must stop looking inward and cast our eyes back to the heavens. 

I don’t know about you, but I hope that day arrives soon.  If not, it's time to make like the late Andy Griffith in Salvage 1 (1978) and make plans for an independent moon journey...in a spaceship made from junk, if need-be.

As Neil Armstrong once famously said, I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It's by the nature of his deep inner soul... we're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.

It’s a swim upstream all right, but it can still happen in our lifetime.

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Moon

Identified by SGB: The Outer Limits: "Moonstone."

Identified by Carl: Dr. Who: "The Moonbase."

Identified by Pierre: UFO: "Survival."

Identified by SGB: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "Nature of the Enemy."


Identified by Pierre: Space:1999 "Breakaway."

Identified by SGB: The Six Million Dollar Man: "Dark Side of the Moon."


Identified by Pierre: Salvage 1 (1978).

Identified by Carl: Battlestar Galactica: "The Hand of God."

Identified by Carl: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, opening credits.

Identified by Carl: V: The Series: "Liberation Day."

Identified by Carl: Teen Wolf (2012), starring Tyler Posey.

Television and Cinema Verities #30

"I realized that because the special effects were so good I was able to underplay the character. In the past they never had such convincing special effects, so a lot of Superman's mystique was created by poses. In contrast, I was able to be casual, and a good example of that is the balcony scene with Lois, where I talk about my background and I offer to take her flying. It's all done with the mood of two people getting to know each other on a first date. I was really glad that I could play the part in a naturalistic way, and that was only possible because the special effects were state of the art for their time."

- The late and great Christopher Reeve details his approach to playing the Man of Steel in Superman: The Movie. From a BBC interview with Almar Haflidasan at BBC Films in 2001.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tribute: R.G. Armstrong (1917 - 2012)

A great and versatile character actor in the horror genre, R.G. Armstrong (1917 – 2012), has passed away. 

Mr. Armstrong’s impressive film and television career stretched beyond half-a-century, and the talent made a name for himself in genre films such as Race with the Devil (1975), The Car (1977), Evilspeak (1981), The Beast Within (1982), and Children of the Corn (1984).  

He also played an American general (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commanding officer) in the original Predator (1987).

On TV, Armstrong made appearances in a number of horror anthologies including The Twilight Zone (“Nothing in the Dark,”), Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (“The Final Chapter), and Darkroom (“The Bogeyman Will Get You.”)

It is for two recurring roles in the genre, however, that Mr. Armstrong is widely known and beloved.

First, he portrayed the evil Lewis Vendredi – original owner of Curious Goods – in several episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series (1989 – 1990), including “The Inheritance,” “Hellowe’en,” “What a Mother Wouldn’t Do,” “Bottle of Dreams” “Doorway to Hell” and “Night Hunger.”

Secondly, Armstrong is recognized and beloved for his six appearances during the second season of Chris Carter’s Millennium as “the Old Man,” the leader and guru of the Millennium Group.  Armstrong’s Old Man appeared in “Beware of the Dog,” “Owls,” “Roosters,” “The Fourth Horseman” and “The Time is Now.”

Outside of horror, Armstrong appeared in TV series such as Salvage 1 (“Confederate Gold,”) Beauty and the Beast (“Kingdom by the Sea”) and Quantum Leap (“A Single Drop of Rain.”)

In all his roles, Armstrong was incredibly authentic, combining a homespun sort of wisdom with, on occasion, the capacity to seem absolutely fearsome.  His rich talent shall be missed, but as is always the case with great artists, his work will live on and continue to be discovered and appreciated for years to come. 

Cult-TV Blogging: Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: "House of Evil" (November 10, 1972)

If you remember any episode at all from the 1972, NBC horror anthology, Ghost Story, it is likely this strange and compelling installment, “House of Evil.” 

Written by Robert Bloch, this tale stars a very young Jodie Foster as a deaf-mute named Judy, and Melvyn Douglas as her diabolical grandfather.  That description doesn’t convey enough information, however. 

The real star of the episode is a large dollhouse and its unique inhabitants: cookie “voodoo dolls” with raisins for eyes and noses, and tooth-picks for arms and legs.

Our host, Winston Essex (Sebastian Cabot), begins “House of Evil” by discussing dolls and the “little girls” who “cherish” them.  This thought leads him into a discussion of voodoo dolls, which can be used to control “the life or death of a person the doll represents.”

Then, the narrative proper commences and we meet Grandpa: a man filled with hatred and bile.  His beloved adult daughter died in childbirth, you see, and he boasts the telepathic capacity to speak with her spirit even now, in death.  Although she is at peace, Grandpa nonetheless blames her husband, Tom (Richard Muligan) for her untimely demise.  Tom has now remarried and has adopted a sibling for Judy, named Kevin (Brad Savage).

Grandpa pays the family visit, ostensibly a friendly one.  But in fact he has brought along a dollhouse replica of their home.  It’s a gift for Judy, whom he can also communicate with telepathically.  Then, when the maid, Mrs. Rule (Mildred Dunnock), bakes a batch of cookies, Grandpa sits with Judy and transforms the treats into bizarre little voodoo dolls – representative of the family – to inhabit the house. 

Then, Grandpa teaches Judy how to move the dolls through the house, and at the same time, unknowingly control her family members.

Unaware she is being manipulated by an evil, vengeful adult, Judy learns dutifully from Grandpa’s instructions.  She unknowingly traps her families in their bedrooms one night.  And then, Grandpa instructs her to start a fire in the dollhouse (by lighting candles…) and lock all the dolls inside it.

Finally, only her mother’s spirit can save Judy and the family from Grandpa’s wrath.  In the end, Grandpa’s plan backfires, and his own voodoo doll falls prey to a fire in the dollhouse…

 “House of Evil” covers a great deal of territory, from the manipulation of the innocent to communication with the dead.  But at the center of it all is a character that thrives on hate and doesn’t know the meaning of the word “forgiveness.” 

Unable to see that Tom loved his daughter, Grandpa arranges this byzantine revenge for his son-in-law, Tom’s innocent wife and even an adopted child as well.  It’s a particularly cruel form of revenge, and Douglas is hypnotic in the role of an evil man who hides under a guise of affability.

The episode’s strange imagery – of cookie voodoo dolls living in a dollhouse – is especially noteworthy, especially since the story ends with one of the cookies being “cooked” in a fire.  The visuals are just so unusual -- and kind of freaky – that the story lingers in the imagination.

But today it is “House of Evil’s” meditation on revenge that I find the most interesting on repeat viewing.  Grandpa ostensibly mounts this campaign of terror for her daughter. But from beyond the grave she repeatedly tells him not to proceed with his strategy.  He refuses to listen and doubles down on his hatred instead. 

Thus, Grandpa is exposed as a selfish man focusing not his daughter, but his own needs.  That he would exploit children (Judy) and even try to a kill a child (Kevin) makes him one of Ghost Story’s most thoroughly evil characters. There’s a sense of justice when he falls victim to his own plans.

Jodie Foster does a great job portraying Judy too.  She’s an interesting character because although she has learned to read lips Judy has never before actually heard a human voice.  The first one she does hear belongs to her Grandpa, a fact which explains why they quickly develop a bond…a bond that he exploits.  

But one can easily understand why the isolated Judy would find it hard to defy Grandpa at first.  It’s difficult enough for children to question authority figures and adults, but even more so when an adult becomes the center of the child’s universe. Lose him, and Judy loses her closest “human” connection, or so she believes.

For its weird and memorable imagery and welcome commentary on hatred and vengeance, “House of Evil” ascends to the top tier of Ghost Story tales.

Next week: “Cry of the Cat.”

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