Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween-a-Thon 2013: Trick or Treating in the 1970s

That's five year old JKM as The Six Million Dollar Man!
Given my penchant for horror films, it won’t surprise you to learn that Halloween is a big holiday at the Muir house. 

I still dress up along with Joel every October 31st, and head out into the neighborhood collecting candy.  We have one amazing neighbor up the street who only gives out “movie”-style candy, giant, over-sized boxes of Raisinets and the like.  I pretty much have to muscle my seven year old out of the way to get to them.

Just kidding. I let Joel get the loot. 

My love of Halloween goes back to my earliest memories in the seventies.  I grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, a picturesque Essex County suburb, and the trick-or-treating there was pretty great. 

Glen Ridge is a small town, so a kid could cover a lot of ground in one night, if he or she was willing to do a lot of walking.  

My sister and I would get started on Halloween at about 4:30 pm (in costume), trick-or-treat for an hour, eat dinner, and then go back out and trick-or-treat until nine o’clock at night.  

Then, we’d return home, dump our bags out on the kitchen table, and assess the sweet loot.  For many years, it seemed, we went trick-or-treating “for UNICEF” (United Nation’s Children’s Fund) as well, and I still remember carrying along those little orange boxes filled with change.

Part of the fun of Halloween in the 1970s involved those classic, if flimsy, Ben Cooper costumes of the era.  One year, I went out trick-or-treating as Ben Cooper’s Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.  As you can tell from the photograph, however, I look more like President Ronald Reagan than Colonel Austin.  

Another year, I went out as Ben Cooper’s Darth Vader, and the next year, as the same company’s Cylon from Battlestar Galactica.  If I’m being honest, these costumes weren’t really very good, and certainly not “show accurate” to any degree.  

And after a long night of wearing those masks, they always smelled like sweat.

I still went trick-or-treating in high school, and one year dressed up as Freddy Krueger.  I had an Indiana Jones fedora, a red-and-white sweater, a Freddy glove and a pull-over mask. 

Instead of focusing on trick or treating, however, I focused on scaring my sister.  I remember that I waited until it was about 8:30 pm, and I found a great perch at the nearby railroad tracks where we had often played as children. The tracks were near -- I kid you not -- a graveyard. 

As my sister crossed the railroad tracks on her return journey, I jumped out from behind a tall signal post and scared the heck out of her.  And man, was it fun.

It’s Halloween.  Everyone is entitled to one good scare, right?

Actually, I had my own bad scare one year while trick-or-treating in Glen Ridge. 

I think I must have been nine or so at the time.  I’m pretty sure it was the year I went out as a Cylon.  There I was in my costume, collecting candy in Glen Ridge, when I approached a large suburban house from the side. 

I should have stayed in the light, and out on the front walk.  Instead, I ran up the side yard trying to beat the other kids.  I ran by a large hedge, and then quite unexpectedly fell into a seven or eight foot hole, dug right out of the yard.  It was quite a shock.  I remember wondering what the hell happened, but fortunately I was rescued after about a minute or so “buried alive” in that ditch. 

One good scare indeed!

Just a week until Halloween now, and I’m super excited to go out trick-or-treating with Joel.  He’s dressing up as The Grim Reaper, and I’m probably going (again) as Mr. Spock, as I often do. 

I’ll make certain, however, we both stay on the path, and avoid any ditches…or dream demons.  

Happy Halloween to all!

Movie Trailer: The Conjuring (2013)

Movie Trailer: The Invoking (2013)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lunchbox of the Week: The Real Ghostbusters

Collectible of the Week: The Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters (Kenner; 1987)

Over the last year or so my son Joel and I  have become hooked on The Real Ghostbusters (1986 – 1991), the long-lived Saturday morning cartoon adapted from the popular 1984 movie starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd.   

These episodes, which pit the intrepid Ghostbusters against the Bogeyman, Samhain (The Spirit of Halloween), the Sandman and other ghouls are a lot of fun, and clearly written with affection for the horror genre.  We’ve probably watched the first season together three times by now…

Anyway, this adventure continues for Joel and me with The Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters (1987) from Kenner, a really great multi-story play-set from the mid-1980s.

The over-sized set features a containment unit for the ghosts and a three level spinning elevator pole so the Ghostbusters can race to their car and get to any emergency.  

The bottom story of the firehouse is large enough to house the Ecto 1, though we have only the Kenner Haunted Highway vehicle, which is a yellow Volkswagen that transforms into a giant praying mantis.

Originally, the Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters also came with some “Ecto-Plazm” slime, but since these toys are twenty-five years old, we’re missing that particular accessory.

To my delight, Joel has ceded the firehouse play set largely to me and the heroic Ghostbusters, while he has set up a haunted castle for the ghosts from the series, which include “Haunted Humans” like “X-Cop,” “Granny Gross,” “Tombstone Tackle,” “Hard Hat” and “Terror Trash.”

These beasts are currently in league with his other ghouls, which include a haunted toilet called “Fearsome Flush” (!) and several creepy-looking ghost “mini-traps.”   There's also a skeleton monster called "Bad to the Bone."

All spoken for, Joel has probably about twenty ghosts from the Kenner series, and he loves to make them launch an attack on the fire station, which the Ghostbusters (played by me…) must then defend.  And by the way,  I do a mean Peter Venkman impersonation (half-way between Bill Murray and Garfield…).

If only we had a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man…

Model Kit of the Week: Ghostbusters II Ecto 1A (AMT/ERTL)

Board Game of the Week: The Real Ghostbusters

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween-a-thon 2013: Blade (1998)

Based on a disco-decade comic-book written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Gene Colan, Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) is an underrated and action-packed gem of its era.

This late-nineties film highlights several effective horror movie-style jolts and blazing martial arts sequences, but remains notable and noble today for its dedicated attempts to re-contextualize the vampire and vampire lore for millennial audiences. More than that -- and from the perspective of a decade later -- Norrington film seems a treatise on issues of race in modern America.

In Blade, the vampires are not the romantic, Byron-esque, "tragic" breed of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1994) or Forever Knight (1992-1996). Nor are they the pack hunters, savages and desert bugs of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). 

Rather, the vampires of Blade appear as a purposeful reflection of the decade's conspiracy-phobia, and under-the-surface fear of an unseen, rich cabal pulling the strings in America.

Blade commences in 1967, at the dawn of the counter-culture era in American history. A baby is born to an African-American woman (Sanaa Lathan) who has been bitten by a vampire.

Some thirty years later, the counter-culture movement is dead, Big Business reigns during the "dot-com boom" and that child -- that orphan -- is a man called Blade (Wesley Snipes). 

This vampire-human hybrid is also known as "The Daywalker" in some circles because of his human ability to survive in sunlight. With the help of his mentor and friend, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade now wages a war against the un-dead scourge infesting Los Angeles.

After interrupting a vampire rave called "Bloodbath," Blade rescues a hematologist named Karen (N'Bushe Wright) from a vampire gangster, and then begins to investigate the latest scheme of vampire warlord, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff). 

Frost is attempting to bring about a brand of un-dead Armageddon by raising an ancient vampire God,: La Magra. This attempted resurrection not only raises Blade's ire, but disturbs the leader of the status-quo-seeking Vampire Nation, Dragonetti (Udo Kier). Finally, Frost attempts to use Blade's very blood to bring about La Magra's ascension....

The character of Blade -- for all intents and purposes a superhero -- first came to life in Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula, issue # 10 in 1972. Originally, he was a tough-talking, shade-wearing representation of the blaxploitation era of filmmaking. In the comic, Blade's enemy was an elder, white-haired vamp, Deacon Frost, not the young rebel and upstart of the film who shares his name. Also, in the comic books Blade was raised by Jamal Afari, a vampire hunter.

Over the years, Blade appeared in comics including Nightstalkers (where he teamed up with the slayer Hannibal King) and even Dr. Strange

But it took more than two decades for the character to come to the big screen. And when he finally arrived, Blade certainly did so with a (bloody...) splash. Genre historians often credit Bryan Singer's The X-Men (2000) for revitalizing the superhero in the cinema, but Blade was actually one of the first such genre films to follow the disastrous Batman and Robin (1997) and accrue overwhelming box-office success.

You Gotta Understand, They're Everywhere: The Secret History of the Vampire Nation

The vampires of Blade are frightening creatures: they're lawyers. No joke: in Norrington's film the vampire overlords are presented as perfectly-groomed but predatory businessmen in Armani suits.  And as the movie's dialogue suggests, these wealthy individuals "own the police." Equally worrisome, this Old World cabal relies on high-tech tools, secret back-room alliances with human political conspirators, plus a smug sense of racial superiority to lord it over less desirable half-castes. 

Importantly, Blade himself notes that these corporate monsters “have got their claws” into all walks of human life…from finance to real-estate. The vampires own “half of downtown” Los Angeles in point of fact. 

And, when the Vampire Nation meets mid-way through the film's narrative, the discussion of most-importance concerns not literal blood sucking, but the status of “off-shore accounts.”

Thus the vampiric ruling class of Blade serves as a metaphor for the “One World” movement often mentioned (and feared) in conspiracy circles. Such theorists believe that the Rockefeller family, large banks, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission secretly run the United States and the world itself.

In other words, the ruling class of the globe is a Rich, White Boy’s Club of Bankers and politicians, one that metaphorically “feeds” on the rest of us.

Blade just makes that blood-sucking literal.

This idea carried a lot of relevance in the decade of the 1990s, because on September 11, 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced in a televised speech his dream for a "A New World Order." 

Some suspicious-minded folks believed that this grandiose-sounding turn of phrase was actually a coded message to let the take-over by the Conspiracy begin. 

Adding fuel to the fire, Bush had once been a member of the Trilateral Commission. Similarly, the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in the mid-1990s was supported by both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and was believed by many to be the gateway to an expanded America that would soon incorporate Mexico and Canada. You still hear a lot of this conspiracy stuff today, especially if you watch Glenn Beck.

In fascinating terms, Deacon Frost, Blade's central villain, is an outsider to this Secret Boy's Club as much as Blade is. 

But importantly, Frost views himself as a victim of race and of a hierarchy that refuses to accept him because of it. You see, Frost was merely “turned” into a vampire, not a “pure blood” of noble (vampiric) birth. The other vampires, including board CEO-type Dragonetti use this impure origin as a way to demean and control Frost. He may serve the cause, but he will never be one of the Chosen. 

Outside of race, and going back to the Conspiracy theory for a moment, one might see this relationship as a metaphor for the way The Trilateral Commission and Zbigniew Brzezinski viewed Jimmy Carter in 1976. He wasn't one of their own, but he was useful and could be educated, or trained.

The wholesale derision of Frost by the Vampire Nation is like the Old Rich deriding the Nouveau Rich; or an exclusive white man’s club refusing to accept a black man of great accomplishment. Blade proves clever, however, in orchestrating Frost’s revenge. It is clearly a racial revenge, a kind of supernatural brand of affirmative action (another hot-button issue of the 1990s...).

Specifically, Frost attempts to bring to life an ancient Vampire blood god called La Magra who will render all such genetic differences like "impure" or "pure blood" moot.

 Once La Magra rules "all will serve" the cause as equals. Deacon's selected utopia, oddly enough, involves the total erasure of class and race lines.

Thus, much of Blade involves the concept of racial identity. Blade himself is genetically half-vampire/half-man and an African-American to boot. But he rejects his vampire heritage by utilizing drugs to suppress is hunger for blood. 

At film’s conclusion, however, Blade realizes that he can never be at home among the human race, either. Dr. Jensen offers him a cure for his vampirism, but this medical solution (a symbol, perhaps for another form of cultural assimilation?) will rob him of his strength, speed, and other vampire-enhanced qualities. 

Blade realizes that this is an impossible accommodation since the war with the vampires still rages. By necessity he must remain what he is: an outsider in two worlds; the one and only “Daywalker.”

Interestingly, neither race -- vampire or human -- accepts Blade. 

The human world sees him as a law-breaker by and large, a man who needs to be stopped. The Vampire Nation also views Blade as an enemy who must be destroyed. 

It is Frost, however, who is most disappointed in Blade because he clearly senses that they have much in common. They are both derided by the vampire establishment; they are both rebels. But Frost also finds it mystifying that Blade should protect human beings, the equivalent of cattle in his eyes. 

Spare me the Uncle Tom routine,” he barks at Blade in their first face-to-face meeting, thus contextualizing their shared experiences explicitly in racial terms. Frost pretends to serve a master, "the Vampire Nation," while actually plotting an overthrow, so he finds it baffling that Blade should allow the beliefs of the human world (compassion, etc.) to be his "master."

Bloodbath: The Veneer of a "Sugar Coated Topping"

Blade's racial sub-text and 1990s obsession over conspiracies prove fascinating components of the film, but to many viewers it is the movie’s aggressive and colorful style that ultimately makes it so memorable.

For instance, at several points in the film, the movie incorporates fast-motion photography of Blade’s metropolis transitioning from safe daylight to dangerous darkness. The shift is rapid so that the shadows themselves seem to crawl and creep up and across glass skyscrapers. These shadows take on a life of their own (not entirely unlike Dracula’s creeping silhouette in Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992], or the earliest vision of screen vampires, the silent Nosferatu).

But the transitional technique (of fast-motion photograph) also reflects an essential characteristic of the vampire world (and the vampire conspiracy). This world is unmoving, patient and seemingly eternal, a direct contrast to the speedy human "march of days:" a never-ending procession from night to day and back to night. Indeed, this is how the mortal realm might very well look to an immortal creature of the night.

In addition to a hyper-kinetic sense of pace set in what The New York Post termed a "techno-styled urban landscape" (Rod Dreher, August 21, 1998, page 57), Blade offers breath-taking vistas of extreme and stylish violence. 

The opening set piece -- a pulse-pounding, party or "rave" for vampires -- starts the film off in blistering fashion. A sexy woman (secretly a vampire) leads an unsuspecting human male into the crowded subterranean party. But before long, the real "underneath" is revealed as overhead sprinklers douse the gyrating revelers in gallons of human blood. Rapidly, the human realizes he’s surrounded by vampires,and that he's the only mortal in attendance. As vampires sensuously rub blood all over their bodies, the color palette of the film morphs from cold metallic blue to hot, lurid red.

Down on all fours -- a position exposing his position in the food chain in this hidden world -- our imperiled human reveler crawls for safety until he comes upon an immovable object: Blade, making his stunning arrival in the film. The vampires back-away in horror at the sight of the Daywalker, and Snipes remains frozen in the frame, literally a stone.

That the vampires retreat (and retreat quickly) and that Blade does not move at all (at least at first...) provides the viewer a visual cue about who is dominant in this situation. The framing and choice of blocking asserts the Daywalker's “power” over his vampire prey.

What quickly follows this stellar introduction is a furious action scene. 

This bload-soaked battle between Blade and scores of vampires is a tour-de-force of choreography, stunt work, scoring, and editing. And Snipes himself is poetry in motion. Gene Seymour at the Los Angeles Times describes the actor as "the movie's biggest asset." The reviewer added, "He may snarl, hiss and twitch in ways that are often disorienting, but you can't take your eyes off of him." (August 21, 1998, page 4). Indeed, it's a star performance.

To some extent, the film’s final battle between a possessed Frost and the wounded Blade in the temple of La Magra can’t match the pure exhilaration of that vigorous, red-blooded opening fight scene. Yet Blade still impresses with its sub-textual commentary on a conspiracy of the rich preying on the weak and poor, and with its impressive sense of visual style.

As many critics suggested, the Norrington film is also part "Oedipal Drama" (Justine Elias, The Village Voice, September 1, 1998), since Blade must in the course of his battle and heroic journey face down his own mother, now a twisted, perverted "assimilated" vampire. 

Momma Vanessa (Lathan) offers Blade belonging, succor, and even sexual comfort. On the latter front, it is noted, quite literally, that Blade, Vanessa and Frost can be one "big happy fucking family.

But Blade understands that his Mother has bought into the sick value of Deacon Frost and resists the proffered family ties. By breaking the human taboo of incest, Blade understands that he is playing into Frost's chosen method of domination: erasure of "traditional" cultural barriers and differences.

Watching Blade today, and looking past some of the superficial 1990s cliches (a hero garbed in black leather finding his destiny as The Chosen One), one senses a genre film grappling with big, intriguing ideas. Blade, the Daywalker navigates the knife's edge between two cultures that want to own him; but to which he doesn't, and can't ever, truly belong. Today we've had two sequels and even a Blade TV series (which aired on Spike), but in some ways, this first, blazing journey into Blade's world remains the most satisfying and artistic one.

In Blade, the "world we live in is just a sugar-coated topping." 

Beneath that topping is racial strife and resentment, conspiracy, domination, and even the difficult quest for independent identity.

Hallween-a-thon 2013: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

To aggressively analyze and interpret a David Lynch film is to invite agitation. 

On one hand, many critics suggest the artist's movies are dense and impenetrable; that they are weird just for the sake of weirdness. Therefore, no possible interpretation for what occurs on screen exists, and the interpreter is simply partaking in a wild goose chase. Or worse, being self-indulgent.

Reviewing Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), for instance, one of my favorite critics, the late Roger Ebert, admitted "I've seen it twice, hoping to make sense of it. There is no sense to be made of it. To try is to miss the point. What you see is all you get."

Yet, David Lynch's films are so abundant with symbolic representation; so rife with abstruse dream sequences; so criss-crossed with narrative alleyways, and so thoroughly dominated by opaque characterizations that they virtually cry out for contextualization and analysis.

To leave such treasure troves of figuration uninterpreted or unexamined is to abandon a half-solved puzzle.

Contrarily, to delve into the mysteries of David Lynch's cinema is to grow nearer the mind (and dream state...) of a most singular American film artist. For me, the temptation to dive in is...well...irresistible.

Sometimes, audiences, scholars and critics have also been willing to take that giant leap of faith and gaze -- unblinking and unbowed -- at the secrets and enigmas presented in Lynch's twisting, tricky narratives. Many of Lynch's productions, such as Blue Velvet (1984), are indeed held in high critical esteem. 

But at the same time, other Lynch films have not met with the same aggressive intellectual curiosity. Exhibit A: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) a prequel to the popular TV series; a movie produced a year after the program was canceled.

As you may recall, the movie was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and New York Times critic Vincent Canby suggested "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree."

Jay Scott at Toronto's Globe and Mail called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me "a disgusting, misanthropic movie," and compared a viewing of the film to "cocaine-induced paranoia."

To many critics, the layered, perplexing Fire Walk with Me is but "as blank as a fart," to quote one of the film's quirkier characters.

Yet taken at simple face value, Fire Walk With Me is a disquieting exhumation of the "underneath" in America. In the film, we encounter homecoming queen and Twin Peaks resident Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). We follow her through her harrowing last week on this mortal coil, and see that this "typical" teenager is anything but.

If the movie feels like a case of cocaine-induced paranoia, that is likely intentional. Because Laura is indeed experiencing a cocaine-induced paranoia throughout much of the movie. She's a junkie (and the film depicts Laura snorting coke on several occasions; as well as participating in a drug deal gone wrong.) Thus the film's lurid, jittery, unpleasant shape perfectly reflects the piece's content. 

Long story short: we seem to be viewing the film from inside a drug fever.

Quit Trying to Hold on So Tight...I'm Gone: Laura Palmer as Victim of Incest

David Lynch's films work on different metaphorical layers, and one thematic layer of Fire Walk with Me involves a truly unpleasant topic: incest.

Beautiful Laura Palmer -- the envy of every girl at Twin Peaks high school -- is the victim of incest. She has been the victim of sexual molestation by her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), for several years.

Unable to cope with this monstrous reality, Laura's shattered mind has come to visually re-interpret her father's nocturnal bedroom visits as the home invasions of a swarthy stranger, a monster named "Bob."

Laura informs her psychiatrist, Harold ,that "Bob is real. He's been having me since I was twelve." Furthermore, she notes "he comes through my window at night...he's getting to know me. He wants to be me...or he'll kill me."

And sure enough, one day, Laura arrives home from school early and sees Bob prowling around in her bedroom. As if sniffing her out. It's a terrifying scene: we suddenly register the unexpected intruder in a place of safety and comfort, and almost physically blanch at his intrusive presence. Scared, Laura runs out of the house, terrified, only to see not the Evil Bob emerge after her...but rather her beloved father, Leland. He is the Monster of Her Id.

In another disturbing scene, Bob slips inside the Palmer house through Laura's window at night. In electric blue moonlight, he seduces her. In the throes of their mutual passion, Laura suddenly sees that the stranger is actually her father, Leland, and nearly goes mad at the revelation. Again, this is the thing she is trying to bury under mountains of cocaine or in alcohol. The betrayal of a trusted loved one.

How does a the typical victim deal with persistent sexual abuse and incest? According to author Ken Chisholm's article on the subject, "Some of the social maladjustments arising from incest are alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and promiscuity."

Consider these factors in relationship to Laura Palmer. We already know she is addicted to cocaine. We already know she drinks.

But Laura is also sexually-involved with at least two boyfriends at school: the temperamental Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and James-Dean-ish James Hurley (James Marshall). She seems to ping-pong back and forth between them. And, as prescribed above, prostitution is part of Laura's life too. We learn in Fire Walk With Me that (as in the series before...), Laura has been selling her body both at One Eyed Jacks and at the film's sleazy Bang Bang Bar.

In other words, a history and pattern of incest leads to self-destructive behavior on the part of the victim. 

It leads to the destruction of -- and disassociation from -- the healthy ego. This is also evident in Fire Walk with Me. "Your Laura disappeared," Laura informs James blankly, feeling unworthy and undeserved of his authentic, romantic love. "It's just me now," she explains, feeling ashamed and guilty over her behavior.

At one point, late in the film, even Laura's guardian angel seems to abandon her, vanishing from a painting in her bedroom. 

It's thus clear that Laura blames herself for her father's behavior, and consequently that she views herself as ugly and corrupted. She isn't the golden girl anymore, she's tarnished.

This self-hatred becomes especially plain during the moment when Laura confides in her psychiatrist Harold about "Bob's" visits.

Suddenly, the film cuts to a nightmarish view of Laura as an ivory white crone; one with alabaster skin, but yellowed teeth, scarlet gums and blackened lips. She looks like a terrible, corrupted monster: an outward reflection of her low self-esteem. 

This is how she sees herself.

Later in the film, we see Leland Palmer -- suffering his own personal hell of guilt and shame -- imagining himself in identical terms, right down to the black lips. This is the form of the bad conscience made manifest.

Those who endure incest and sexual abuse also, over time, may experience night terrors, hallucinations, or insomnia. Laura is not immune from these symptoms either. She lives through terrifying nightmares, especially ones that involve a creepy painting. 

On that painting is rendered a half-open door; and in Laura's dream she mindlessly treads though that door into the evil world of the Black Lodge. The Black Lodge is a place were "garmonbozia" (pain and suffering) is eaten like creamed corn, and her suffering will provide a feast. Laura is, literally, the Devil's candy. And she knows it.

Laura is aware that she is a moth driven to the flame (a woman consigned to Hell...) and again and again, Fire Walk With Me brings up the idea of fire in connection to Laura. Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) asks Laura a weird question. "If you fall in outer space, do you think you'd slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?"

Laura's telling answer is that she would go faster and faster...without knowing it, and then spontaneously burn up. No angels could save her...because they're all gone. The world is devoid of angels.

Again, this answer appears to be a metaphor for Laura's increasingly "fast" life (a life made even more jittery and fast by the cocaine use): dating two boys; scoring drugs; acting as a prostitute...trying desperately to escape her real life and the sexual abuse.

In the end, however, no matter how fast she goes, Laura will still be consumed by flame; destroyed. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) tells Laura -- in an important, if brief, scene -- that "When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy."

Once more, you've got to contextualize this remark in terms of the incest: the act which has made the self-loathing Laura change from golden girl to promiscuous drug abuser and prostitute. 

In the execution of that bad behavior, the first victim is Laura's innocence...her childhood. 

The second is her goodness (and now she can't even volunteer to feed the hungry in the meals on wheels program...). 

The third existence itself. Laura understands this. She realizes she is headed ""  In this case, nowhere means oblivion.

Another frequent quality of incest victims is a protective impulse; an overriding need to save or rescue younger siblings from the life-destroying behavior that has ruined them. In Fire Walk with Me, Donna goes to the Bang Bang Bar with Laura. Donna drinks alcohol, takes drugs, and seduces a john. When Laura witnesses Donna's craven behavior -- the tender boughs of innocence about to burn -- she is roused to act. 

Unable to save herself, Laura does the next best thing: she rescues naive Donna. Afterwards, Laura warns Donna cryptically "don't wear my stuff," an indication that Donna has "tried on" Laura's lifestyle. But it doesn't fit Donna; and Laura doesn't want Donna to be like her.

There's No Tomorrow; It Will Never Get Here: The Spirit World in Fire Walk With Me

A central question regarding Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me involves the rogue's gallery in the Black Lodge. This gallery includes Bob, The (backwards-talking) Man from Another Place (Michael Anderson) and the One-Armed Man. They dwell in that sitting room (the velvet-lined room with zig-zag floor). Are they real? Or imaginary? Are they sentient, or symbolic?

Is Leland an all-too "human" sexual abuser? Or is he an unlucky man possessed by an evil spirit? Who do we blame for the incest: the spirit (Bob) or the body (Leland)?

In a sense, it doesn't matter a whit. It is immaterial. When criminals commit terrible acts, they often claim the "devil made them do it," right? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me may suggest a universe of Hell (in the form of the Black Lodge) and Heaven too (in the form or Ronette Pulaski's and Laura's individual guardian angels), but it never suggests that Leland is innocent.

There may be a "monster" cowering inside him; but there is a monster cowering inside all abusers, isn't there? 

If evil dwells in the human psyche, then it dwells in the human psyche...and we must combat it. Leland never does that. He murders Teresa Banks, and eventually he murders his own daughter, Laura, because he is so consumed of "the evil spirit." That's what makes him a villain.

That really was something with the dancing girl, wasn't it? What exactly did all that mean?
Encoded in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a self-commentary on David Lynch's approach to symbolic story telling.

Early in the film, FBI agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) and Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) are tasked by Lynch's deaf FBI chief with the investigation of Teresa's murder. 

After briefing them in very general terms, Lynch's character then maddeningly introduces the two agents to "Lil" a woman in a red dress wearing a blue rose. He says, in essence, that she represents the case that the men have embarked upon.

Then, in a bewildering moment, the strange Lil dances up to the two agents, grimaces -- revealing a sour face -- and makes a fist.

Then, Lil is never seen or heard from again as a living, breathing, human character. 

But soon after this scene, Desmond and Stanley interpret her presence. They analyze her facial expressions. They note the color of her dress. They register the presence of the blue rose, and ponder the meaning of her balled fist. 

On one hand, this is Lynch's oddball humor, acknowledging the Twin Peaks' aficionado's propensity for analyzing every little detail.

But in another sense, Lil -- and Desmond's explanation of Lil -- is the audience's primer to successfully reading or interpreting the figurations of this movie. 

Following Desmond's example, the viewer is meant to weigh characters and events symbolically. We are supposed to "see" Bob as Laura's "safe" interpretation of her father's criminal, unacceptable behavior. We are supposed to understand the drug use and prostitution as a victim's escape from guilt and shame. 

Even the passing of Theresa's ring we are to comprehend as a legacy of death, carried from one victim to the next. 

And the creamed corn? Human pain and suffering as the food of the gods.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
is really The Tragedy of Laura Palmer and the Tragedy of Small Town America. The golden girl -- the cheerleader beloved by all -- is actually a secret victim of sexual abuse...and no one sees it. 

Or no one cares to see it.

This is the roiling "underneath" that Lynch so frequently expose in his films, and it was never more relevant, perhaps, than in the early 1990s when this film was made. These were the early years after the notorious 1989 Glen Ridge rape case (wherein popular football jocks repeatedly raped a retarded girl with a baseball bat and broom); these were the years of the Spur Posse. 

Suburbia's shameful secrets were spilling out into the tabloid culture in creamed-corn torrents.

Perhaps an entire American generation of teenagers was actually fire walking with us; possessed by its darkest impulses.

What remains profound about Laura Palmer's tragedy today is that, in the end, David Lynch grants the character a small measure of contentment. 

The guardian angel she believed she lost during her last, brutal hours on Earth, returns anew (in the afterlife) to heal her pain; even as good Dale Cooper lands a comforting, supportive arm on her shoulder. Our last view of the cheerleader is of Laura smiling.

In life, Laura was relentlessly victimized...her goodness burned away by life's ugliness. In death's sitting room, of all places, peace is finally at hand.

Although this may seem decidedly bleak, it is also Lynch's balancing of the spiritual world. It may be a place of garmonbozia -- death and suffering -- but it isn't populated merely by the likes of Bob and the Man From Another Place. The winged celestial being is there too, the seraph, and that means that forgiveness is possible.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
isn't misanthropic or misogynistic. In Laura Palmer, there's sympathy for the victim of abuse. Even in Leland Palmer, there's sympathy for the devil. 

If we do "live in a dream," as one character suggests in the film, then it is also up to us to shape that dream, and keep Evil Bob at bay.

Halloween-a-Thon 2013: John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987)

More than the work of any major director since Howard Hawks, John Carpenter’s films have undergone a unique "second life" -- a period of intense re-evaluation…and new-found appreciation.

Even the classic Halloween (1978) originally drew bad reviews and nearly faded into obscurity until a laudatory Village Voice review by Tom Allen, and a well-timed holiday release rescued the film's reputation. Today, Halloween is a fixed star in the horror firmament; even a companion piece for Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

Likewise, Carpenter’s The Thing (1981) was ignored by audiences and vilified by critics in the summer of E.T. (1982). Carpenter was even termed a “pornographer of violence” by some short-sighted critics because of the film’s intensity and pioneering (though admittedly gruesome...) special effects. 

Yet by the 1990s, The Thing was exerting enormous influence on the genre in Hollywood productions almost too numerous to list. From The X-Files (“Ice”) and the main adversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- the shape-shifting “Dominion” (detectable only by blood test…) -- to the T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991), Thing imitations were practically ubiquitous.

In recent years, critical estimations of In the Mouth of Madness (1994), They Live (1988), The Fog (1980), Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) have also trended positive. But perhaps it is the director’s 1987 Nigel Kneale homage, Prince of Darkness that has witnessed the most meteoric rise in appreciation. Once derided as "second rate" and "klutzy," the film is now beloved for its brawny narrative twists, not to mention Carpenter's crisp direction.

The second movement of Carpenter’s so-called “Apocalypse Trilogy” (a cycle including The Thing and In The Mouth of Madness…), Prince of Darkness is elegantly shot, suffused with a gloomy, unsettling vibe of cerebral terror (the more you understand, the more afraid you feel…) and punctuated with periodic jolts or "stingers" of extreme intensity. It is, as L.A. Times critic Michael Wilmington opined, a film "filled with graceful, gliding tracking shots, and icily precise Hitchcockian setups of the bleak decor and scary effects." (October 23, 1987).

Prince of Darkness
also features one of Carpenter’s most memorable, arresting and pulse-pounding soundtracks. The score’s “ominous intonations…grab you and take command of your heartbeat.” (Allen Malmquist, Cinefantastique Volume 13, # 2, March 1988, page 117).

In all, this Carpenter film fires on all cylinders, and holds up exceedingly well on repeated viewing. At the film's heart is a discussion of science as the new "faith;" and an examination of a population -- an alienated population -- searching for spiritual and emotional meaning in a world apparently devoid of it. 

He Lives in the Smallest Part of It

Prince of Darkness features a number of John Carpenter touchstones, both visual and thematic. First and foremost, this is a siege picture (like Assault on Precinct 13 or Ghosts of Mars), meaning that the action focuses on a small group of protagonists inside fighting off superior forces outside.

The abandoned police precinct of Assault has become the abandoned Church -- Saint Godard's -- of Prince of Darkness. In both scenarios, the location of the battle is important. The buildings are relics; ones without contemporary meaning or importance. Society has passed them by in both cases; they are symbols, essentially, of impotent infrastructure or bureaucracy.

Writing for Monthly Film Bulletin in May of 1985, Philip Strick compared the two Carpenter films in a way that is illuminating for our discussion: "With Prince of Darkness, the siege of Assault on Precinct 13 is vividly reconstructed: the derelict fortress, the comfortless corridors, the silent army in the night outside, the collapse of logic and security." 

You may recall that the oft-repeated "siege" element in Carpenter's films is an homage to the cinema of Howard Hawks, notably Rio Bravo (1959). 

But Prince of Darkness is also an homage to one of Carpenter's favorite writers : Nigel Kneale. Kneale was the prime talent behind the British Quatermass films of the 1950s and 1960s (The Creeping Unknown, Enemy from Space and Five Million Years to Earth). His films (as well as TV serials) popularized the notion that threats mistaken as being of supernatural origin are actually...extra-terrestrial. In Five Million Years to Earth (1968) it was a Martian psychic force, not the Devil, sweeping through London, and so on. Carpenter resurrected this concept for Ghosts of Mars in 2001, but first he employed it in Prince of Darkness.

In Prince of Darkness, Jesus is an ancient astronaut, and Satan and his Father (the Anti-God) are also extra-terrestrials. In a tip of his hat to Howard Hawks, Carpenter edited the film Assault on Precinct 13 under the name "John T. Chance," the name of John Wayne's character in Rio Bravo. Likewise, Carpenter penned Prince of Darkness under the name "Martin Quatermass." Quatermass, of course, is the protagonist of Kneale's most famous works.

Prince of Darkness also evidences Carpenter's distinctive anti-authoritarian voice. Here, the Catholic Church has hidden the truth about the nature of Evil for 2000 years. "We were salesmen," says Pleasence's priest with disgust. "We were selling our product."

In various films -- as we've seen -- Carpenter also went after movie critics and Reaganites (They Live), religious fundamentalists (Escape from L.A.), and even used the Catholic Church as a target again in Vampires. There, another Catholic sect was hiding a different Devilish secret: a black crucifix that created the world's first vampires.

Where Prince of Darkness pinpoints so much new energy, however, is not in these commonly-found Carpenter homages or themes, but rather in the endless possibilities of Quantum Physics. It's a whole new playground for the director, and he makes the most of the territory. The film discusses every important concept from Schrodinger's Cat to "causality violation" (time travel), and does so with a sort of breathless, fast-paced intelligence that challenges the audience to keep up.

Let’s Talk About Our Beliefs, and What We Can Learn From Them…

Prince of Darkness begins with the discovery of an ancient and secret Catholic sect known as "The Brotherhood of Sleep." 

The guardian priest of this mysterious sect dies while clutching a miniature box containing a key; a key to the basement of a rundown Church in poverty-stricken L.A. called Saint Godard's.

There, upon an altar in the a seven million year old canister of volatile, swirling fluid. The liquid is, in fact, Pure Evil: Satan himself.

In hopes of comprehending and defeating this unusual threat, a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasence) teams up with Professor Birack (Victor Wong), a teacher of quantum physics at the Doppler Institute of Physics. 

Along with a group of dedicated graduate students -- including lonely Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) and Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) -- the man of science and the man of faith spend the weekend at the old church and undertake a study of the canister and the liquid, as well as the corrupted Latin palimpsest that details its history and secrets.

Over a long, horrifying night, as revelation follows revelation, the forces of darkness invade the Church. As the devilish, pre-biotic liquid "self-organizes," it assumes psychokinetic control over small organisms (such as insects) first, then L.A.'s wretched homeless, and, finally, it makes zombie minions of many of the graduate students themselves. 

The evil liquid also selects a human host, Kelly (Susan Blanchard), and plots to bring its demonic father -- the Anti-God -- into our dimension. 

At the same time, all the graduate students experience a recurring nightmare: a tachyon S.O.S. warning from the year 1999...

Very much like 1982's The Thing, John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness concerns flawed, lonely, awkward human beings living in a world in which there is no real faith or human inter-connection. In fact, Prince of Darkness repeats verbatim a line uttered by R.J. McReady (Kurt Russell) in The Thing: "Faith is a hard thing to come by these days." 

As in that earlier film the line is spoken by Carpenter's unconventional protagonist and voice for the audience, here a graduate student in quantum physics named Brian Marsh.

The problem is that in a world of advancing science and human knowledge, the old platitudes of religious faith and belief seem antiquated and stale. At least until dressed up with such scientific candy-coating as "differential equations," "tachyons," "indeterminancy," and the like. Yet importantly, those "new" scientific concepts don't tell us who we are (or who we should be...) in the same authoritative sense that old-fashioned belief systems did. 

Thus...a void.

Carpenter -- ever the visual artist -- finds an imaginative way of expressing this crisis in spirituality. 

As Pleasence's priest views St. Godard for the first time, the camera presents an establishing view of the church from behind an old iron gate, and a holy cross -- a Catholic Crucifix -- can be seen jutting heavenward from the church's roof. Yet above the church is another gate slat, this one horizontal in direction. In other words, the cross (representing religion or faith) is boxed in on all sides, from above and from left and right. Visually, it is trapped --confined and caged -- by its inability to answer the questions that so many people ask in today's world. 

Professor Birack -- a wise elder and interpreter of the quantum runes -- seems aware of these problems in human connection, and he seeks amongs his students -- again according to the dialogue, -- "philosophers" rather than "scientists." 

Philosophers, he understands, will understand how to place scientific knowledge within the context of man's spiritual or emotional world; whereas scientists, by implication, may not. 

In Birack's students, we see disciples in waiting: lost souls who, for the most part, have forgotten the art of being human. 

Instead, they have come as boxed-in as the crucifix over the church. They have labeled themselves using the prevailing and simplistic lingo of their culture. "I'm a confirmed sexist," Brian tells Catherine proudly while trying to court her, unaware of how silly and bigoted he sounds.

Later, Walter (Dennis Dun) tells a racist Jewish Mother joke ("I said rich doctor, not witch doctor!"), and also comments, condescendingly that Lisa, the team translator, could "pass for Asian." 

This is a world in which it doesn't matter so much that a woman like Susan (the radiologist) is married, but rather the degree of her marriage ("how married?" a potential suitor asks). 

Thus communication between people -- especially between people of opposite sexes -- is dominated in Prince of Darkness by what Catherine terms "miscues." These are wrong, defensive interpretations based on pre-conceived notions of others and even a pervasive non-understanding of self. 

In his essay, "John Carpenter: Cinema of Isolation" scholar John Thonen saw these graduate students as "selfish," and "lifeless" (Cinefantastique, Volume 30, Number 7/8, October 1998, page 71). 

What these lost souls seem to lack is the very thing religion once provided for many: a sense of belonging, a sense of man's innate goodness. These young scientists, as the film notes, get romantic when discussing The New Faith (Quantum Physics) but "clam-up" when it comes to talking about emotions, feelings and humanity. Perhaps that's because science provides no guide-lines, no rules, no equations in such matters. 

Catherine and Brian are seekers of truth and more than that, they are seekers of love...which is something more meaningful than just good sex (which ironically, is their first connection). Catherine desires to know "what the numbers mean," a search beyond scientific jargon, and Brian's obsession with card tricks represents a need for an understanding of life beyond mere probability tests; in something like...luck.

Each character has an idea of what specific path will lead them to personal enlightenment, but what they wish to make room for is the person -- the other -- who may bring them, via philosophies unknown and unexpected, to the missing piece of life's puzzle. To love. To real intimacy. 

The tragic love story in Prince of Darkness plays out, interestingly enough, as a modern Christ analogy. 

Because of her burgeoning relationship with Brian, Catherine is finally open to love, to giving. Ultimately, she sacrifices herself to save mankind. She vanquishes the evil, but at the cost of her own life and future. 

"She died for us," Birack states succinctly, putting Catherine's sacrifice in decidedly religious, Christian terms. Catherine knew what was at stake and made a conscious decision to consider others above her own well-being and survival. She saved, literally, a wicked world (one controlled by the Anti-God). She thus changed everything, preserving our future. Her Gospel, perhaps, is the message heretofore incomplete: the one beamed back through time (a causality violation) as an unconscious message. 

Will that message be different after her choice to save our world, or will it simply cease to exist all together?

No Prison Will Hold Him Now

Prince of Darkness debuted in the Age of AIDS, in 1987. This was the very year, in fact, that President Reagan made his first public statement on the epidemic. It was also the year that the formerly promiscuous James Bond 007 (Timothy Dalton) became a one-woman kind of guy in The Living Daylights.

The AIDS epidemic (as it was understood at the time) serves as an important backdrop to Carpenter’s film, since the “Evil” force depicted here is a fluid passed from person-to-person (usually mouth-to-mouth). Susan infects Calder by kissing him and forcing the evil fluid down his throat. 

Likewise, she contaminates Lisa in a sexually-charged sequence. As Lisa reclines on her bed, supine, Susan mounts her -- ascending into a dominant position -- straddling her. She then ejaculates the fluid into Lisa's protesting, open mouth. 

In the case of both AIDS and the Devil Liquid, transmission occurs through what appears to be sexual behavior; and the danger is carried in the equivalent of bodily fluids.

AIDS was largely seen originally (in the very early 1980s) as a "gay" disease, because it decimated that population first. If you look at the pattern of transmission in Prince of Darkness, you may note that same-sex transmission is highlighted. Susan infects Lisa. Susan and Lisa infect Kelly (all women). Professor Leahy (Peter Jason) and Calder (both men...) go after Brian. 

The one instance in which a woman does infect a man (Susan to Calder) could be read as representing another sexual taboo: interracial coupling. 

And come to think of it, Susan -- the first to be infected and spread the disease -- is married; thus acting out, essentially, an infidelity. 

What we're talking about here then isn't just sexual behavior then but perhaps sexual misbehavior. Remember, The Thing too featured a single sex population in peril and posited Evil as an easily-transmitted disease; one "hidden" in the blood. In that film as well as in Prince of Darkness, Carpenter reflects American society's rampant fear of and paranoia about AIDs, about disease transmitted from person-to-person during promiscuous, impulsive acts.

Another important context underlining Prince of Darkness involves the 1980s epidemic of homelessness. By 1983, there were 35 million Americans living in poverty, some five million more than when Reagan had been inaugurated in January 1981. Reagan's economic policies involved what The Christian Science Monitor termed "deep budget cuts in the social service area" in order to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans. The result was that more and more people lost their homes. Reagan once stated that many of these unfortunates were “homeless by choice.”

In Prince of Darkness, it is these homeless who first become human minions to the army of streetwalkers and hobos who -- ostensibly aimless -- have found malevolent purpose. Idle hands and all. 

Carpenter returned to the the theme of poverty and the homeless in his next film, They Live (1988), setting much of the action in a Shantytown called "Justiceville."

Say Goodbye to Classical Reality

Carpenter's Prince of Darkness screenplay asserts a "universal min,d" or God if you will. However, because this is a Kneale-ean homage anchored in science, it also asserts the Laws of Physics. In particular, the film reminds us that every particle has an opposite or anti-particle. Therefore, if there is a universal mind or God, by inference there is also an anti-God.

In the film, a shorthand for this duality is quickly established via mirrors, via reflections. Accordingly, much of Prince of Darkness visually and contextually deals with doubling, opposites, and mirror images. The mirror becomes the portal to the other world; where our "opposites" exist.

Birack and Pleasence's Priest are mirror images of sorts, possessing contrasting world views (science vs. religion) and Carpenter even uses mirror image compositions throughout the film, most notably during Brian's "test" leap into the alley beyond the church, and the subsequent attack of the homeless "antibodies." The film cuts to opposing reverse angles moving in on Brian from both sides. It's a visual mirror, with Brian as our point of reference in both shots, from both angles. Brian's prominent placement in the frame even presages Prince of Darkness's electric, portentous climax: a further "test" by Brian...this one staged as he reaches out for his own, possibly malicious anti-self in a mirror.

These final images resonate. They get under the skin. They promise so much yet explain so little. 

As Brian reaches for the mirror, gazing into his own reflection, the film's many themes converge. He is not only wondering if Catherine is watching him from the other side -- from the anti-verse -- but he is looking into his own face -- sweaty and pale -- and seeking answers.

 Brian is wondering, perhaps, if, the evil, the contamination could pass to him next. Only a moment earlier, he imagined himself in bed beside a rotting corpse...(the ultimate fear of the AIDS era...) and the uncertainty, the fear of infection, is palpable. 

It is this moment that Carpenter leaves us to ponder as the film concludes: a close shot of a groping hand reaching for (but not actually touching...) a mirror; the portal to darkness.

Prince of Darkness remains one of John Carpenter's most frightening films, not merely because of the superb soundtrack, the AIDS-subtext, or the clever use of Quantum Physics, but because the screenplay spotlights how much we take for granted in our daily lives.

In Prince of Darkness we witness a world where logic is of no use (it collapses on the subatomic level...) and in which Evil is Real. 

There is indeed an order to the universe, John Carpenter reminds us...but it's not at all what we had in mind...

The Road Warrior (1982)

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