Friday, February 28, 2014

Moonraker (Revell Edition)

Moonraker James Bond Action Figure (Mego; 1979)

In terms of sci-fi movies and collectible toys, 1979 was a banner year. 

Movies such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Black Hole and Moonraker premiered that year, and every title on that list also saw memorable toys produced by Mego Corp.

I collected toys from all those sci-fi franchises, but never had the full line of Moonraker action-figures, alas. 

Still, I vividly recall seeing these 12.5” -tall action figures on the shelves at Toys R Us and wishing for them.

Recommended for children three and over was this action-figure of Roger Moore as James Bond, described here as “The World’s Greatest Secret Agent…Legendary Commander 007.”  On the box is emblazoned the legend: “Action-packed Spy Adventures in the Fabulous Realm of Space.”

The most amusing facet of the action-figure, however, is that Bond wears a (loose) bow tie over his space suit.

Other figures in the “fully articulated, fully poseable” line included Holly Goodhead, the menacing Jaws and Drax. I remember seeing all of the figures in stores many times, save for Drax, and to this day, Jaws fetches a pretty penny on E-Bay.

What makes this particular Bond toy special and memorable to me is that Moonraker represents the first occasion since the 1960s, I believe, that James Bond action-figures were mass produced and widely available.  This is the first time, in other words, Bond was in toy stores in his 1970s Roger Moore persona.

I also had a Moonraker model kit in 1979, which, of course, was merely a space shuttle model with special decals.

At Anorak: Shaken Not Stirred -- Five Great Character Moments in the Roger Moore James Bond Era

In keeping with my James Bond theme today, my latest essay at Anorak involves the Roger Moore James Bond era.  Shaken not stirred looks at five great character moments from that span (1973 - 1985).

"I VERY happily grew up with Sir Roger Moore in the role of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and thus maintain a deep well of affection and nostalgia for his seven films…even if some Bond fans do not
Moore’s epoch as Agent 007 isn’t usually considered the most creatively fertile time in the franchise’s history, in part because the Bond films of the day pursued “hot” movie trends instead of initiating them, as had been the case in the 1960s.

To wit, the Bond movies of the Moore era attempted to jump on the bandwagon of Blaxploitation cinema (Live and Let Die [1973]), martial arts/Kung-Fu films (The Man with the Golden Gun[1974]), and even the Star Wars craze (Moonraker [1979]).

Despite the fact that Bond films of this time period seem desperate to pinpoint some – any — pop culture relevance, the Roger Moore efforts nonetheless boast some surprising character moments that could have been ripped straight from the novels…and Fleming’s literary descriptions of the character.

For instance, at least two films of the Roger Moore era (The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only) make explicit mention of the character’s tragic history — namely his dead wife, Tracy — a background that the last Connery film, Diamonds are Forever (1971) totally ignored.

Although it is undeniable that some James Bond films of the Roger Moore indeed tread heavily into unfortunate slapstick comedy (see: the pigeon doing a double-take at a gondola-turned-hovercraft in Moonraker), the actor’s finest moments in the famous role arrive not when he is called upon to play scenes broadly or cheekily, but rather when he is tasked with expressing Bond’s humanity.
Some of these “human” moments are small, even throwaway ones, but each one reminds the audience that 007 is not just a superhuman quipster in a white-dinner jacket.  He’s still a man who bleeds, sweats, and struggles.

In chronological order then, here are five character moments from the James Bond Era of Roger Moore..."

Cult-Movie Review: Moonraker (1979)

This may be the most schizophrenic review I’ve ever written, and I would like to apologize in advance.

But for this space-kid of the 1970s -- and also long-time fan of the James Bond films -- the 1979 film Moonraker represents a serious difficulty.

On one hand, the film is undeniably one of the silliest of all the 007 pictures made in the franchise’s fifty years.

The epic comes replete with hover-craft gondolas, pigeons performing double-takes, and other really cheesy comedic shtick, like Jaws (Richard Kiel) flapping his arms -- trying to fly -- when his parachute cord breaks at 35,000 feet.

On the other hand, Moonraker arises from that magical year of my youth: 1979.

This was the stellar season of Alien, The Black Hole, the theatrical release of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In other words, 1979 was the first full year of the post-Star Wars (1977) boom, and thus a great time to be a kid. All the aforementioned films were set in space, visually-dazzling, and adventurous and imaginative to boot.

Moonraker fits right in. I will forever associate the film (positively) with that time in my life.

There are non-nostalgia reasons to praise the film as well.The film’s special visual effects by Derek Medding are astonishingly good, even today.

And the final battle in space -- while undeniably a re-imagining of the infantry battles in such Bond classics as You Only Live Twice (1967) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) -- seems dazzlingly original in its execution. Two teams of astronaut soldiers pour forth from open space shuttle cargo-bay doors, wielding blue-light lasers that zip across the heavens.

To a nine year old kid -- not to mention a 44 year old adult -- that finale is, simply, outer space nirvana.

Yet, my biases established, Moonraker today doesn’t seem a particularly strong entry in the James Bond film canon.

I don’t count it among the very worst of the franchise (a position I reserve for Die Another Day [2002], Diamonds are Forever [1971], and A View to a Kill [1985]).

But Moonraker isn’t in the series’ top tier.

And maybe it isn’t even in the middle tier, either.

I grew up with Roger Moore as James Bond, so I bear no dislike for him, or his films. He was my “first” Bond, and so I can’t even complain about his arch, knowing, borderline-parody approach to the material.

It was 1983 -- when I saw at Cinema 23 in New Jersey a double-feature of From Russia with Love (1963) and Never Say Never Again (1983) -- that I was introduced to Sean Connery, and his Bond-ian style. After that, From Russia with Love became my all-time favorite Bond film, and it has not yet been knocked from its perch (though Casino Royale [2006] and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [1969] have come close…)

But back to Moonraker: the film is still spectacular and exciting, even if it doesn’t represent the best of the Bond brand. 

Furthermore, there’s much evidence to suggest the film achieved precisely what it set to do. That mission, simply, was to appeal to the kids who loved Star Wars. 

Writing in the St. Petersburg Times, for instance, critic Roy Peter Clark wrote that Moonraker was “designed to please children….” and that the film would “appeal to the generation of Luke Skywalker.” (July 30, 1979, page 5B).

The Miami News put it another way: “Roger Moore is suave, the villains are treacherous, the women are gorgeous, and the special effects outstanding.  The formula never changes, and neither does the result. James Bond is as delightful as ever.”
So what’s my beef? The film was a huge hit! In fact, Moonraker quickly became the highest-grossing Bond film of all time immediately following its release.

From a certain 1970s perspective, I can really buy into The Miami News’ positive description of the film. That’s certainly how I experienced Moonraker as a nine year old kid. It has only been in adulthood -- and with the rest of the Bond franchise as comparative context -- that reservations about this 1979 film have crystallized.

Long story short: Moonraker is a helluva lot of fun in a post-Star Wars context, but not a great Bond film, in almost any context. The movie is entertaining as hell, but it turns the serious world of Bond into a place for silly laughs. 

And, finally, when you get down to the film’s narrative terms, Moonraker is also just a thinly-disguised remake of The Spy Who Loved Me, with space shuttles replacing submarines, Drax replacing Stromberg, and space replacing the bottom of the sea.

When the high-tech Moonraker space shuttle is stolen from British custody, agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore) is assigned by his superior, M (Bernard Lee) to recover it.

Bond’s mission commences at the headquarters for Drax Industries, the manufacturer of the shuttle in California.  The company is owned by a man named Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) who is “obsessed with the conquest of space.” 

Soon, Bond teams up with a beautiful C.I.A. agent, Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) to investigate Drax, further, and the globe-hopping adventures leads them to Venice, Rio De Janeiro, and finally to the final frontier itself.  In each of those locations, the Drax Organization seems to be manufacturing elements for…something.

Soon Bond learns the horrifying truth: Drax has prepared a space shuttle fleet for a space rendezvous with his secret space station. 

From there, he intends to eliminate the Earth’s population with several globes containing deadly nerve gas.  His scheme is to re-seed the Earth with his hand-picked, genetically superior men and women, and create “the ultimate dynasty,” one in which man will look to the Heavens and see not anarchy, but “law and order.” 

Bond must now prevent Drax’s deadly plan from coming to fruition, but three of the toxic globes -- each capable of killing millions of people -- have already been launched from the station. With the help of a former enemy, Jaws (Kiel), Bond races to save the Earth before it’s too late.

As I note above, Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me, which in turn was a remake of 1967’s You Only Live Twice.  

Here, the unflappable James Bond confronts a megalomaniac bent on destroying the Earth’s population and then becoming the ruler of his own carefully-selected population. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Stromberg was obsessed with the sea, and planned to rule from the underwater complex called Atlantis.

In Moonraker, Drax (Lonsdale) is obsessed with the realm of outer space, and plans to rule his New Earth from his orbiting space station. 

The soldier villain in both films is Jaws (Kiel), the assassin with sharp metal teeth.

Unlike The Spy Who Loved Me, however, Moonraker goes rather far down the path of comedy, evidencing a campy sense of humor that comes to dominate -- and then destroy -- much of the proceedings. 

Here, potentially great action sequences take a twist not towards excitement, but cheap laughs.

The film’s stunning (and then risible…) pre-title sequence finds Bond being pushed out of a plane without a parachute.  He struggles to survive, battling a parachute out of the hands of a committed nemesis. 

But then Jaws shows up out of the blue on the tiny plane -- where was he hiding? -- and transforms the whole sequence into a living cartoon, a live-action version of Wily Coyote and Road-Runner. 

When his parachute cord rips, Jaws flaps his arms like a giant bird, and then plummets downwards into a circus tent.  Frankly, the circus tent is an apt destination for him since Moonraker often returns to a kind of circus atmosphere in its sense of humor.

Why do I find this sequence bothersome?

Perhaps it is because greatness was just within reach. In my opinion, the pre-title sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me is the very best in Bond history. It features a chase on skis, and Bond plunging over a mountainside, only to open his Union Jack parachute at the last possible moment.  The stunt is surprising, and jaw-dropping.

It would be difficult, I think, to devise a more deadly predicament for Bond, but Moonraker manages that feat. 

The film sees him tossed out of a plane with no chute, and thus with precious few options for survival. As I noted above, he must steal a parachute from another skydiver, battling in mid-air for possession of it.  This deadly fight is stunningly achieved in terms of visuals. The skydiving stunts are amazing, and there is a minimum of fakery involved. The stunt-man is a pretty good double for Moore, too.

Had the sequence played matters straight -- with Bond getting the parachute at the last minute, and then soaring to safety -- it might have been legitimately comparable to Spy’s opener. 

Perhaps even better.

Instead, we get a great villain – Jaws – turned into a figure of fun. We see him flap his wings like an idiot, and on the soundtrack, the song we associate with the circus plays, thereby completely deflating the character’s sense of menace. 

More than that, the-flapping-his-arms, falling-into-a-circus-tent Jaws absolutely deflates the entire threat of the sequence.

Well, Jaws survives, unharmed, from his fall.  So Bond could have too.  He might have also landed on a circus tent and walked away…

The jokey finale to this pre-title sequence robs Moonraker of its sense of danger. Worse, it’s a mistake the movie keeps making.

Later in the film, for instance, Bond is in Venice when attacked by assassins. Surprisingly, his gondola transforms into a land vehicle -- a hovercraft -- and the film then cuts to a ludicrous series of reaction shots.

A pigeon does a double take.

A waiter spills food on a customer.

A dog does a double take.

A sailor stares, open-mouthed, at Bond.

And a man looks at his bottle of wine, convinced he must be drunk.

One such reaction shot might have been sufficient. 

There are literally half-a-dozen of them here. So Moonraker tells a joke, comments on the joke, and then pounds the joke into your head until you beg for mercy.

Name just one other Bond film that edits so desperately for laughs.

The film’s barometer of tone is way off, and the jokey moments are notably at odds with the genuinely suspenseful ones, such as Bond’s near fatal “ride” in a centrifuge, or his last-minute attempt to destroy a nerve-gas bearing globe as it re-enters Earth orbit. 

Those moments represent two of Roger Moore’s best, in my opinion, as I wrote in an Anorak article, “Shaken,not Stirred.”

In the case of the centrifuge sequence, I love how a wounded, off-center Bond pushes away Goodhead’s entreaties for help. He’s pissed as hell, and he doesn’t want to talk about it. He just wants to be left alone.  I love that Moore’s typical suave composure as Bond is undercut here, and we see him get mad.  It’s clear he’s grappling with his pain.

In terms of the denouement, I love the moment when Bond must activate the Moonraker’s manual controls to shoot-down Drax’s final nerve-gas globe.  So many times during the Bond franchise, 007 must save the world with his actions, it seems. 

This is that idea taken to the nth degree. 

Bond gets one shot with a laser -- one shot -- and if he misses, a whole population will be wiped out. 

Moore is terrific in this particular sequence, which nicely reminds us of the responsibilities Bond must often face.  The scene is shot well too, with extreme-close-ups of Bond’s sweaty face as he blocks out all other stimuli and attempts to concentrate on his target.  John Barry’s tense score also helps to forge a moment of remarkable suspense.

It’s just too bad that this highly-effective moment follows a scene -- set in maudlin slow-motion -- with Jaws and the diminutive love his life reuniting.

It’s a shame that Moonraker so often goes for the easy laugh when the film clearly could have stretched for a more cerebral brand of humor.

For example, the movie has a lot of fun aping the “space craze” of the 1970s, and it could have stuck, perhaps to that notion.  In one instance, the three-note overture to 2001: A Space Odyssey is sounded (during Drax’s pheasant hunting expedition), and the key code to his secret lab is Close Encounter’s famous five-note “greeting.”  Those are funny -- and quickly passing -- touches, which don’t undercut character or drama.  We get the joke, but they don’t take us out of the film’s reality.

Perhaps the more legitimate gripe against Moonraker is that circus atmosphere I mentioned earlier.

James Bond as a consistent, human character is nearly lost in the film, and he’s much more like a jolly ring-master encountering a series of loosely-related perils and stunts. This epic, cartoon approach is fun and entertaining, to be certain -- and swashbuckling fun was the name of the game in the immediate-post Star Wars film boomlet -- but there’s also the feel that the 007 saga has run too far afield of realism or verisimilitude.

If Moonraker’s tone is wobbly, I can find absolutely nothing negative to say about the film’s stunning production design and visual effects. Everything on these fronts is top-notch.  In fact, Moonraker launched the space shuttle two years before the American space program did, and really nailed the opticals of that event.

There’s not a single moment of Derek Meddings’ work that tips one off that these are models, and not genuine spaceship launches. 

So…I love Moonraker…and I don’t love Moonraker.

It’s a big, fun, spectacular movie, and yet, at the same time, it loses track of the reasons why we like watching James Bond in the first place. It lunges into cheap laughs when, as we see from certain scenes, it could have sought out tremendous suspense instead.

For Your Eyes Only premiered in 1981, and that (excellent) film re-grounded James Bond in wonderful ways, in my opinion. It featured a much more human, rough tone, one much more in keeping with the era of From Russia with Love (1963). That’s my favorite Roger Moore Bond Film.

But there were no space shuttles or laser beams to enjoy, either…

Movie Trailer: Moonraker (1979)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Movie Trailer: Grave Encounters (2011)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Martin Landau and Barbara Bain

The Twilight Zone: They Call Him Mr. Death

The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) is an anthology series and thus it features no continuing characters save for Rod Serling’s staccato-voiced narrator. However, in one memorable circumstance, a character does recur in the series. 

His name is Mr. Death.

This distinctive character -- this personification or embodiment of mortality -- appears in three episodes of The Twilight Zone: “One for the Angels,” “The Hitch-hiker” and “Nothing in the Dark.”

And in each installment Mr. Death serves roughly the same thematic and narrative purpose: to provoke first fear, and then, finally, a sense of acceptance about mortality. 

In other words, those characters that come to interface with Mr. Death in The Twilight Zone first consider him an existential “terror,” but upon closer contact come to understand that his presence, beyond being inevitable, is not so dreadful. 

In fact, Mr. Death -- in shape and deed -- is a reminder of the natural order.

My wife, a psychologist and therapist, often reminds me of her belief that virtually all Twilight Zone episodes concern Rod Serling’s fear of impending death or lost youth. So perhaps it is no surprise that Mr. Death is the only continuing character in the writer’s most famous canon. 

Uniquely, Mr. Death is never physically depicted on The Twilight Zone as a fearsome “Grim Reaper”-styled or “Charon”-type creature, but rather as a human being who appears, well, relatively mundane

He’s a well-groomed, Don Draper-esque businessman (Murray Hamilton) in “One for the Angels,” a handsome police officer (played by Robert Redford, no less…) in “Nothing in the Dark” and an amused, smiling Hitch-hiker (Leonard Strong) in the scariest episode of the bunch, “The Hitch-Hiker.” 

No matter how, specifically, Mr. Death appears to his prey in a physical sense, he is first greeted with the emotions of terror, dread and disbelief. 

In “One for the Angels,” an almost-seventy year-old street peddler, Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn) is shocked to learn that Mr. Death has scheduled him for “departure” at midnight. He categorically refuses to accept that Death has come for him, and then attempts to find a technicality in Death’s “law” that will allow him to remain on Earth.

In “The Hitch-hiker,” a woman, Nan Martin (Inger Stevens) on a cross-country trip has (unknowingly) died in a car accident, and keeps seeing the same Hitchhiker appear on the open road before her. She grows to dread seeing this figure, and the fear that she feels – and which the audience also feels – is a throat-clenching one. 

Who is this grinning stranger?  What does he want?  Why is he stalking her?  Why does she keep seeing him?

In “Nothing in the Dark,” poor old Wanda Dunn (Gladys Cooper) has spent the last few years of her long life locked away inside a dark, condemned basement apartment. She steadfastly refuses to reckon with the outside world – or any outsiders – for fear that Mr. Death will come for her should she open her door even a crack. 

All three cases reflect a similar notion: these protagonists steadfastly attempt to ignore and defy the fact of their own mortality, specifically through the recognizable and nearly Kubler-Ross-ian stages of bargaining (“One for the Angels”), denial (“The Hitch-hiker”) and even anger (“Nothing in the Dark.”)    

But by denying and rebelling against death, in fact, The Twilight Zone reminds us that these individuals may be denying the vibrancy of life itself…the meaning of our moment-to-moment existence.

The protagonists soon learn the error of their ways.  By denying Mr. Death, Mr. Bookman causes an unfortunate chain reaction. Since Death can’t take him, the personification of mortality arranges to take a little girl, Maggie, in his place. Bookman attempts to trick Mr. Death and delay him from this deadly rendezvous, in the process fulfilling a life of dream of making a “big pitch…one for the angels.” He knows that the vetting of this pitch will result in Mr. Death taking him from our mortal coil, but Mr. Bookman is able to see and detect a value greater than his own ending at this point: a little girl’s continued survival.  He sees detects how precious life is, especially for the very young.  He has already lived; she has not.

Nan Martin’s epiphany in “The Hitch-hiker” is that death has been her co-pilot all along, at least since her accident. Mr. Death thus represents a force she can’t escape from, no matter how fast she drives or how much highway her car covers. And this realization too, reflects our human condition. We’re all mortal, and death is part of the natural order of life. In the end, we can’t outrun it.

Old Ms. Dunn in “Nothing in the Dark” learns that her fear of death has cordoned her off from the rest of humanity unnecessarily.  She has tried so hard not to let Mr. Death into her apartment that her life has hardly been worth continuing, or living.  What is life if it is lived in perpetual fear of “the dark.” 

When Mr. Death “wins” -- as death inevitably wins -- he is not a gloating, cackling, monstrous victor.  Instead, he’s charming, and sometimes downright soothing. He politely informs Mr. Bookman that “he’s made it,” meaning he’ll be going to Heaven. He tells Nan Martin, without irony that she is “going” his way (a foregone conclusion at that point). And finally, Death offers beautiful, comforting words for Ms. Dunn:

You see. No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.

That last line suggests Mr. Death’s third “gift.”First he brings fear, then acceptance and finally…transcendence?  Mr. Bookman will go to Heaven…to join the angels, no doubt. Nan Martin too is being taken on a continuing journey (destination: unknown…), and Ms. Dunn faces not annihilation, but what Death describes enigmatically as “a beginning.”

Thus in all three Twilight Zone episodes featuring Mr. Death there exists, at least a little, the specter of hope, of an existence beyond this mortal coil where humanity can find something…different. Interestingly, other episodes of the series dwell on what that something different may look like (“A Nice Place to Visit,” for instance)

But for these three Mr. Death episodes, the most important thing to focus on is the paradigm he represents. I call it the inevitability of mortality and the natural order inherent in death.

In some horror films, such as Final Destination (2000), death is viewed as an ominous, vengeful, dark force. What I enjoy so much about The Twilight Zone Mr. Death episodes, however, is the Grim Reaper’s obvious humanity. He is by turns gullible (“One for the Angels”), jocular (“The Hitch-hiker”) and gentle (“Nothing in the Dark”).

In other words, when Death comes a calling for human beings, The Twilight Zone promises that he will arrive in forms that we automatically understand, recognize, and can relate to. 

The only proper end to a human life comes from a death that is also…human.

Message conveyed…in The Twilight Zone. 

The Twilight Zone: "Come Wander with Me" (1964)

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuable, and more resonant in a simple, emotional sense than "Come Wander with Me." Many Twilight Zone segments also boast superior twist endings.

And yet, for my money, there are few segments more haunting or dream-like than this superb fifth season phantasm, penned by Anthony Wilson and directed by a young Richard Donner (The Omen [1976]; Superman: The Movie [1978], Ladyhawke [1985]).

Whenever I return to The Twilight Zone DVD Box Set, this episode ranks near the top of my list of episodes to see again -- even if I've watched it recently; even though I know the story by heart. There's just something that draws me to it.

Simply stated, "Come Wander With Me" casts a hypnotic spell.

"Come Wander With Me" was the final episode of The Twilight Zone filmed/produced for CBS, and the third-to-last episode to air on that network in prime time. It premiered on May 22, 1964 and dramatized the tale of Floyd Burney (Gary Crosby), the so-called "Rock-a-Billy Kid."

Burney is a cocky but insecure "celebrity," an up-and-coming music star without the slightest sense of originality, individuality or artistry. As the episode begins, Burney has arrived at the foothills of Appalachia in hopes of "stealing" a song from the naive locals there and "conjuring" another hit to augment his singing career. He justifies this act of creative theft by noting that all the folk-music stars of the day do it...

This narrative set-up mirrors a real-life context of the times. From the 1950s-to-early 1960s, there was a folk music revival movement in the U.S., one in which a wide variety of artists imported the fiddle and banjo-style of Appalachian folk songs (often ballads...) from remote, poverty-stricken Appalachia into the nation's musical mainstream.

This local music style proved increasingly popular -- especially as the Beatnik "coffeehouse" movement came to life -- but so did the notion of Appalachia as a backward, violent, isolated realm of cultural separation and inscrutable mystique.This geographical region in the South East U.S. became increasingly feared and derided because of popular stereotypes; for the sense of it as a setting of oppressive fundamental religion and...ghost stories.

In "Come Wander with Me," we see such a world-view fully articulated.This Appalachia is a dangerous, foreign place that doesn't conform to the "rules" of life as Burney understands them. In other words, cash isn't God; and actions (such as pre-marital sex...) have consequences. And far from being an authentic musician (or even boasting a particularly "Up with People" attitude...) Floyd Burney is but a slick, self-centered celebrity looking simply to steal a resource. Even his car is gaudily decorated with the titles of his insipid hit songs. We recognize immediately that he's out-of-his-element...and playing with fire.

There's a great visual touch that inaugurates "Come Wander with Me." As Burney stops his car at the foot of a rickety, damaged bridge, we can see that a floorboard is missing directly ahead. So Burney exits his car, and steps over that gulf himself, unawares.

That missing plank in the bridge, however, is the specific demarcation point between reality and the supernatural; between the American mainstream and isolated Appalachia. And, as Rod Serling would no doubt declare, it's our point-of-entrance into...The Twilight Zone.

Once in the woods, the hungry, exploitative Burney begins hunting for his "new" song. He tells a gargoyle-esque junk/music shop owner "Anything you got is PD - public domain! You've got no rights!" and then graciously (!) offers to buy the old man's songs for a meager handful of cash. The local declines to help, but Burney refuses to relent...until he hears a recurrent, eerie melody emanating from somewhere deep within the forest ahead.

Burney passes into a heavy mist as he treads deeper into the seemingly-endless woods, and is so consumed with his mission that he misses something important nearby: his own grave-stone, jutting roughly out of the Earth.

As Burney goes in search of the obsessive melody, he misses something else too. In at least two separate shots, we detect a mystery figure shrouded in black...reaching out for him in the distance. This apparition appears in the background of the frame (as Burney hunts in the foreground...), and the long-shot, deep-focus composition crafted by Donner is creepy as hell. Because the figure is at first stationary -- and almost camouflaged -- we don't see it right off the bat amid the ancient woods. When we do see it, we're startled. 

This Life and the After-Life have merged...

Burney soon discovers that the source of the song is an innocent young woman, Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher). This siren is beautiful, a bit sad, and all-together reluctant to sing Burney the entire song.

Ever the smooth operator, Burney romances Mary Rachel, even though she's already "be-spoke" to a local gent named Billy Rayford. Successfully taken-in by promises of a life with Burney, Mary Rachel finally reveals the melancholy song in its apparent entirety: a haunting, timeless composition by Jeff Alexander, called, appropriately, "Come Wander with Me."

As the song is repeated -- and as Floyd and Mary Rachel consummate their relationship 'neath an old willow tree -- the episode cuts to another montage that seems to fracture time: a series of progressive zooms leading into crisp dissolves. The zooms always draw us nearer to the intermingled duo (sometimes from doom-laden high angles). It's as though Fate itself has locked them in its cross-hairs.

"That song was meant for me." Floyd declares, more accurate than he realizes.

"It can't be bought," Mary Rachel counters, but Burney doesn't understand what she means.

Then a jealous Billy Rayford shows up -- a man with the odd, shambling gait and blind, lifeless stare of the living dead. There's a scuffle, and Burney (too easily, perhaps...) kills him.

Suddenly, Mary's song changes. It is no longer soft and melancholy. Now it is loud, strident, and fearful. A new verse emanates from the tape recorder and states "You Killed Billy Rayford...bespoke unto me..."

In fact, as Billy's brothers relentlessly hunt down Floyd Burney to avenge the death of their kin, Mary Rachel's song continues to morph and grow, adding new, more disturbing verses all the time.

Mary Rachel begs Floyd not to run "this time," but he does it anyway. As he flees, he sees Mary Rachel once more, now garbed in black...a mourner at his grave

And when the Rayfords finally come for Floyd, we never actually see them as human beings. Rather, they are suggested as inhuman Furies. They are depicted as long black shadows which stretch malevolently across the ground, and then, finally, eclipse the light over Floyd Burney's terrified face...

What "Come Wander with Me" circumscribes, however, is truly a vicious circle. A cycle without end and without beginning, very much like a song being composed before our eyes and ears. If we could ever truly feel what it likes to be trapped inside a song -- inside a personal melody -- I have the feeling it would seem just like "Come Wander with Me" because the story is graced with a sense of the inevitable, the inescapable.

And the main character, Floyd Burney, has already been "conceived" or "imagined" by the composer as the subject of this tune, and therefore cannot change his path, his destiny, his crescendo. He will always be the Rock-A-Billy Kid...the one who trespassed (by stealing a song and a woman...), and who paid with his life. The song tells us who he is; and he can never change because those verses are already written and sung. The song which can't be bought...defines him. He already "owns" it.

Or it owns him.

The less-important supporting characters, like the doomed Billy Rayford, are barely "human" at all. They are merely ciphers -- musical notes, perhaps -- who help bring the song round to its final stanza. As Mary Rachel explains, they do only what is expected of them. "He always comes here," she says, in regards to Billy. He has no choice in the matter, because this isn't his's Floyd's.

If you remember the story of Sisyphus, you might recognize "Come Wander with Me" as something more than a never-ending song. 

It's also a personal Hell for Floyd Burney (meaning, perhaps, that it occurs after his mortality ends, in Hell itself). 

Just as Sisyphus's punishment was to always push a rock up a hill, only to see it roll back down, and have to start over, our Floyd Burney must likewise re-live -- again and again -- the avaricious song hunt (and personal manipulation of Mary Rachel) that led him to his trespass and demise. 

In each refrain of the song (and of his personal Hell...) Mary Rachel begs Floyd to change his course (to hide, rather than run...) but Floyd is stuck in a rut -- like a record repeating on the same groove again and again. Even Fate (or is the Devil?) is seemingly against Floyd: when he returns to the junk music store to hide, all the musical instruments come miraculously to life to reveal his position to the Rayfords.

And, finally, when Burney states that he has "come too far, too fast to be buried in Sticksville," I wondered if he meant, perchance Styx-ville.

There's a majestic sweep, and subtle, cerebral horror underlining "Come Wander with Me." The song was deployed to similar haunting effect in Vincent Gallo's 2003 film, Brown Bunny. Several contemporary bands have covered the tune too, and it even appeared in a Dutch insurance commercial in 2006.

But for me, it's virtually impossible to separate "Come Wander with Me" from Bonnie Beecher, Floyd Burney's personal hell, Applachia, or this unique, brilliantly-crafted episode of The Twilight Zone

This is a song (and an episode) you just can't get out of your head...

The Twilight Zone: "It's a Good Life" (1961) and "It's Still a Good Life" (2003)

In 1953, acclaimed author Jerome Bixby penned "It's a Good Life," a terrifying story later voted one of the greatest in sci-fi history.

Nearly a decade after the story's publication, television legend and producer Rod Serling famously adapted Bixby's story of a God-like (or Devil-Like?) child, Anthony Fremont (Bill Mumy), for The Twilight Zone during its memorable third season.

The result, which first aired on November 3, 1961, remains among the most famous -- and creepy -- installments of the landmark anthology program.

In his opening narration of "It's a Good Life," Rod Serling stands before a map of the United States and introduces viewers to the quaint little town of Peaksville, Ohio.

As our guide soon relates in staccato, clipped tone, something strange happened in this little American burg. "A monster had arrived" there and the "rest of the world disappeared," leaving Peaksville in a New Dark Age without electricity; without any modern conveniences at all, for that matter.

This monster, Serling quickly informs the viewers, is "a six-year old boy" named Anthony Fremont, who can make things happen...with his mind.

Anthony can also "hear" what others are thinking and has a nasty habit of wishing away his enemies "to the cornfield."

This frightening psychic power means that the grown-ups of Peaksville are constantly re-assuring and excusing the boy's bad behavior, so he doesn't turn his laser-like glare towards them. 

"That's a good thing you did, Anthony. That's a real good thing you did."

On the night of a birthday party, Anthony's neighbor Dan Hollis learns about the terror of the cornfield the hard way when -- after drinking too much -- he urges his terrified neighbors to kill the dictatorial child. Nobody moves. Although Aunt Amy does contemplate a fireplace poker, at least for an instant...

You're a very bad man," Anthony tells Dan before transforming the poor sap -- in a horrifying moment -- into a living toy; a macabre, bouncing jack-in-the-box.

Anthony's father then urges the boy to wish the monstrosity away to that cornfield, where all of Anthony's misshapen, monstrous creations dwell.

The capper of the episode is overtly pessimistic. On a whim, Anthony causes a snow blizzard. This sudden, drastic alteration in the weather will likely result in the destruction of half the crops supplying the town's food supply...

For almost fifty-years, "It's a Good Life" has resonated with generations of TV audiences, and I suppose that's primarily because the episode expresses some brand of universal truth about children and parents. 

When a child doesn't know limits, when a child isn't taught limits, the result may very well be a selfish, entitled monster. Not a monster who can destroy the world, like Anthony perhaps, but a monster nonetheless. 

When a child goes out-of-control, and the community does nothing, everyone suffers. Or as Ben Franklin once famously suggested: "educate your child to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society."

So it takes a village to raise a child. Or the village suffers. Or something like that. 

Considering this notion, it's not difficult to parse this iconic episode of The Twilight Zone as a commentary on what I sometimes term parenting paralysis. Nobody is entirely immune to this condition. Not me, certainly, though I try to be aware of it. 

I define parenting paralysis as the refusal of a parent to step up and do something that needs to be done "in the moment," even if it's distinctly unpleasant. But the downside of avoiding conflict is tremendous. The next time the same behavior pops up, it will be even harder to address...

Instead of confronting Anthony, the Fremonts in "It's a Good Life" just keep appeasing him over and over, refusing to acknowledge that every time they engage in this appeasement they simultaneously encourage Anthony's bad behavior. 

Behavior like creating three-headed gophers...that bite.

I don't know that Anthony is actually evil, as some have suggested. Rather, he's merely Id unloosed. He's six, and he wants what he wants he wants, and there is no one in his family courageous enough to subject those selfish desires to an "upright and reasoning will."

I have to say, Captain Kirk did substantially better addressing a teenager with the same powers, Charles Evans (in the episode "Charlie X"). As a father figure, Kirk understood he had a kind of psychological authority over the boy, even if the boy was the one with all the powers. There's no one like that in Anthony's world.

One aspect of "It's a Good Life" that I still find remarkable is the meticulous attention paid to detail. Specifically, the episode's screenplay informs the audience that Anthony doesn't like singing, and that he doesn't like people to talk while the TV is on. But Anthony also, apparently, does not like art work. And if you look closely, every painting, photograph or other piece of artwork in the Fremont house is missing...sent to the cornfield, I would presume. Throughout the episode, you can see shading on the walls, tell-tale signs of locations where picture frames once hung.

Again, the episode doesn't specify this particular dislike by Anthony, but again and again we detect those rectangular outlines and variations in shading...reminding us that once upon a time, art work was present. 

What's the larger purpose of such a background detail? Not to sound cruel, because I am a happy father who loves his child to the moon and back, but "It's a Good Life" suggests that in having and indulging a spoiled child, parents stand to lose a lot. The "comfortable" elements of their lives (electricity, art work, music, bars of soap etc.) virtually evaporate as the child becomes the sole focus of their lives.

I also have to admit, I get a kick out of the episode's not-so-veiled critique of television. There is no television in Peaksville, save for what Anthony generates from his strange and childish mind. The drama he creates consists of dinosaurs endlessly growling and duking it out on volcano tops. There's no human interaction whatsoever.

To please Anthony, one of his neighbors notes, deadpan, "It's much better than the old television..." Now, on one hand, she's trying to ingratiate herself with the boy and this is an entirely appropriate remark. 

On the other hand, I think I hear Serling's voice there, commenting on the quality of a medium designed to sell cigarettes and laundry detergent.

Perhaps the freakiest element of "It's a Good Life," -- and as a kid I was absolutely terrorized out by this -- is the fate of Dan Hollis. The episode utilizes two shots to reveal this fellow's metamorphosis into a Jack in the Box. In the first shot, we see a close-up of Dan's bobbing head, wearing a pointed cap. In the next shot, sequentially, we see a silhouette of Dan's head, the springs, and the box, on the wall.

Somehow, this one-two punch seems more psychologically effective than seeing some special effect deployed. Because the transformation involves two shots -- and is never viewed entirely in one frame -- it's as if the viewer's brain has to assemble the pieces. And when it does, the image is grotesque and disturbing.

I also love that at the denouement of the episode, Rod Serling feels no need to expand or explain any of what has occurred in the narrative during the preceding half hour. 

"No comment here," he says. "No comment at all." Again, I think that gets at the universality of the theme: that parents make monsters of their children by not disciplining them; by avoiding conflict.  The parents are, therefore, the ones to blame.

On February 19, 2003, the UPN update of The Twilight Zone broadcast a follow-up to this tale called "It's Still a Good Life." The story involves a grown Anthony (Bill Mumy) still holding Peaksville hostage to his narcissistic whims. But now he has a young daughter, Audrey (Liliana Mumy), who has kept her similar powers a secret. Anthony's Mom, Agnes (Cloris Leachman) believes that Audrey can be made to turn against her father, and save the town.

In addition, Audrey possesses a psychic power Anthony lacks: a creative power. She can return everyone and everything that Anthony has banished into the cornfield over the years. I felt that this was an interesting narrative development, and an effective counterpoint to Anthony's destructive abilities.

In fact, if you view the end of the episode in this light, I would submit that Audrey pulls a fast-one on her Dad. She beats him at his own game by making Anthony feel, for the first time, what it's like to lonely. This is the very thing that allows Audrey to use her power and actually restore the entirety of the world. I guess some people felt that this episode features a downer ending, that it lets two "monsters" rule the day. 

I would argue the opposite. Audrey doesn't so much as join up with her Dad, as skillfully undermine him. She wishes away all of Peaksville residents so that she and her Dad are really and truly alone. When he confesses he's feeling the effects of that isolation, Audrey brings back the world. Airplanes. Cities. Communities

That's a happy ending, isn't it? 

Sure, if you ever see these tourists in your town, you should think only happy thoughts, but least the planet and human race are restored. The wrong of four decades ago is set right, at last. So if you want to see how things turned out for Anthony and his Mom, I recommend this follow-up episode so you can get a sense of closure.

However, If you are hoping that the story will be vetted with the same confidence, visual distinction and resonant imagery as the original you're going to be sorely disappointed by the pedestrian nature of the presentation.  The Twilight Zone's brand, for me, is expressive black-and-white photography, and staccato Serling-esque dialogue.  

"It's Still a Good Life" doesn't get the sound or images right, even if it is nice to see what became of indulged little Anthony.  

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...