Friday, February 28, 2014
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.
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).
Here's a snippet:
"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 ), martial arts/Kung-Fu films (The Man with the Golden Gun), and even the Star Wars craze (Moonraker ).
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..."
Please check out the entire article, here, and leave a comment to let me know what you think.
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 , Diamonds are Forever , and A View to a Kill ).
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  and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service  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…
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Grave Encounters (2011), directed by The Vicious Brothers seems like a mirror reflection of the found-footage film I featured here last week, The Devil’s Pass (2013), at least in terms of its quality. That Renny Harlin horror movie commenced with the so-so actors on some pretty diffident footing, but the narrative steadily built-up steam and suspense until the gonzo, mind-blowing ending. The climax was so strong in fact that it necessitated a re-watch to detect how all the myriad threads fit together.
By contrast, Grave Encounters starts out brilliantly and with tremendous confidence, but peters out some in the last act. Make no mistake: the movie is still a good, solid horror film of the found-footage variety, but the denouement doesn’t exactly leave the viewer in shock and awe.
In truth, the movie is about ten or fifteen minutes too long, and some of the carefully-generated terror has enough time to dissipate a bit before the arrival of the just-adequate final imagery and sign-off.
But Grave Encounters’ first act is remarkably deft. The setting, a reality-TV show “lockdown” inside a haunted mental hospital, is promising. The actors are uniformly good, and the writers/directors offer-up a brilliant critique of both Ghost Hunter-style programming and reality TV shows in general.
In short, the movie is about turning approximately nothing -- literally a cold spot in a hallway or an open window -- into a source of high supernatural drama for the audience at home.
Appropriately, the film’s lead character, Lance Preston, has all the verve of a used car salesman. He’s a slickly handsome huckster who loves his own image, and the film has a lot of fun exposing his narcissism and seemingly lack of real interest in the supernatural.
At one point, Lance admonishes his cameraman to do some “arty shit” and “stuff we can cut into.”
While adhering to this tongue-in-cheek commentary on TV programs that attempt to make suckers out of gullible true believers Grave Encounters veritably rocks-and-rolls. It evidences wicked humor and knowing insight.
It’s really a blast.
By contrast, the film’s last act is but a series of jump scares that grow increasingly less effective. The final revelation involving the nature of the dark force behind the haunting is not quite the coherent shocker it should be, especially in comparison with the best of the found-footage breed, like the aforementioned The Devil’s Pass, or REC’s  unnerving conclusion.
I’d still assert that Grave Encounters earns a positive rating however. It’s far superior to just about any Paranormal Activity movie yet made, and I appreciate the film’s “cosmic justice” subtext too.
In other words, this film concerns a group of reality star wannabes that attempt to co-opt the genuine tragedy of thousands of patients in an insane asylum for purposes of, well, self-glorification.
But the dark force at the heart of that “haunted” hospital has other plans, and teaches those reality stars an unforgettable lesson in the true, painful nature of madness.
“We can all leave as soon as we’re better…”
In an interview with an unseen camera-man, TV producer Jerry Hartfield (Ben Wilkinson) introduces “found” footage from episode six of the infamous ghost hunter series Grave Encounters starring Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson).
The series was canceled after episode five because of the events that occurred in episode six. Hartfield assures the audience that the footage of episode six, recovered in 2010, has not been tampered with in any significant way.
The footage features Lance and his team, including “tech guy” Matt White (Juan Rieinger), psychic Houston Gray (Mackenzie Gray), camera-man T.C (Merwin Mondesir) and camera-woman/occult-expert Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko), visiting the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, purportedly the fulcrum for several paranormal events.
Collingwood was opened in the 1890s to address overcrowding in state hospitals and became known as a “dumping ground for embarrassing family members.” Although the facility has been closed since the early 1960s, tens of thousands of mental patients were treated -- or left -- there across seven decades.
An historian describes on camera how one famous doctor at the facility, Arthur Friedkin, conducted 140 lobotomies on site, and how he was, eventually, murdered by six patients.
The hospital’s custodian, Kenny Sandoval (Bob Rathie) takes the Grave Encounters group on a tour of the facility before locking them inside the hospital for eight hours. He shows them, among other things, an upper floor window that never seems to remain locked, and a bathtub where a young patient committed suicide.
Sandoval also warns them to carry flashlights at all times, especially in the subterranean tunnels, because the power is turned off, and at night, it is pitch-black inside.
After dismissing a warning painted on the facility’s front door which reads “Death Awaits,” Lance and his team set out to get “scary” footage of facility. They play up every little bump in the night to make their investigation seem more dramatic, and Houston even ad-libs about “a deep well of sadness” infecting the place.
Production does not go as planned, however, when the lockdown ends. Kenny does not show up to release the team, and Matt disappears while taking down his static cameras.
Soon, Lance and his team must reckon with the possibility that they have encountered the last thing they ever expected to find: a legitimate haunting.
Worse, a dark force inside the old hospital seems to know all about each of them, and is determined to keep them trapped inside…
“Be a fucking professional. Stay in character.”
In convincing and humorous fashion, Grave Encounters is actually all about the narcissism inherent in some facets and elements of show-business. For Lance Preston and his team, the game at the Collingwood Hospital is not to discover ghosts, or to expose the suffering of the long-gone inmates, but to put on a good show…whether it is true or not.
At one point in the action, for instance, Lance offers a gardener twenty dollars to report (on camera) that he saw a ghost on the hospital grounds. He is paying for false testimony, essentially. This moment discredits him as an honest investigator.
At another point, Lance admits that the hospital is “about as haunted as a sock drawer” but doesn’t let that fact him stop him from offering cravenly enthusiastic testimony about the difference between a “residual” haunting and more active types. He’s a salesman first and foremost, and the fact that over 80,000 people suffered incarceration in the Collingwood facility is but a creepy backdrop, good for generating audience scares, but nothing more.
Houston Gray, the would-be psychic, is just as bad. He improvises his emotional impressions of the hospital, and then asks for feedback from his fellow actors.
“Is that too much?” he questions, after raising the possibility that a demon could reside at Collingwood.
At another juncture, Houston worries about lockdown because he could miss an important audition the next day.
Again, his concern here is not legitimately for those who suffered lobotomies or other tortures. He’s “acting” for the camera in hopes of furthering his own show-business career. The hospital and all the suffering it keeps inside its walls? That’s just a stepping stone to something better…for him.
But Lance and Houston unexpectedly run up against something “real” in their lockdown experience at the mental hospital. In fact, the facility teaches them a lesson. It makes them experience the pain and suffering of insanity for themselves.
To wit, the hospital doesn’t merely throw ghosts at the show-business team - it re-arranges reality itself so that Lance, Houston, T.C., Sasha and Matt must all question their own sanity. When the team breaks down the exterior door, for instance, they find that it leads only into another interior corridor.
It wasn’t there before, in the daylight…
And there are no emergency exits under the signs which read “EXIT,” either.
Furthermore, roof access has been replaced by a seamless wall that looks to have been there for a hundred years.
This can’t be so, and the team knows it, but each team member must question his or her sense of reality.
This can’t be happening to them…but it is. It’s not possible…but they are living it.
So the hospital takes these cynical performers and makes them understand, in a very real way, what it is like to be mad. In one of the film’s spookiest moments, this malevolent force even provides them with hospital wrist-bands…complete with their names and dates of birth. They have literally become residents at Collingwood, and will now be treated as such by the spectral staff.
Thus Grave Encounters emerges as a very strong comeuppance story. That’s a familiar type (and often a good one) from the horror genre’s history. The protagonists in such stories serve as bad moral examples, and are punished by the universe for their infractions.
Appropriately, Lance and the others are reduced to weeping, cringing madness by film’s end, and so can see at last that insanity is not “simply” an act to put on for the cameras. Lance himself goes under Dr. Friedkin’s knife, and so comes to know first-hand how it feels to be “treated” like a lunatic.
Grave Encounters’ leitmotif about show business -- and about the hospital re-arranging reality itself to teach the cynical reality TV-performers a lesson -- is all really strong, even powerful stuff. But after several repetitive jump scares involving ghosts in the corner, ghosts on the ceiling, ghosts breaking out of windows, ghosts in the bath-tub and so forth, Grave Encounters seems to be repeating well-covered territory.
Before long, we’ve lost all sense of our placement in this madhouse, and the characters just seem to be running back and forth, willy-nilly, without a plan, without even a reckoning that reality has collapsed beneath their feet. They still babble about finding an escape route when it is clear that the hospital is never going to let them go.
Or at least not until they have been “treated.”
Grave Encounters’ final revelation scene also seems uncertain of what it wishes to convey. Lance wanders into a subterranean surgery theater. He finds the table where Dr. Friedkin conducted lobotomies, but also finds a weird religious altar (with runic text…) there.
Was Dr. Friedkin a devil worshiper in addition to being a sadistic surgeon?
If so, that’s one touch that just muddies the waters, and feels entirely unnecessary.
The ending raises other questions too. How does Lance address the camera lucidly and intelligently in the final moments, given the medical procedure he has just endured?
And why did Kenny never come back to retrieve the gang?
And how did producer Jerry Hartfield get all the footage from the team’s three days in Hell?
There are answers, of course, to some of those questions. Maybe Kenny did come back, and find only the team’s cameras. Perhaps the footage was uploaded to Jerry via Mike’s computer.
But the bottom line is that the movie’s last act just doesn’t seem as cogent or as well thought-out as the first two (great) acts. The jump scares are too repetitive, there’s the strange revelation of devil worship, and then an abrupt cut-off before we learn how the circle was squared; how this footage was “found.”
Overall, Grave Encounters is really pretty solid, but in a way, that’s the problem. This is a movie with a great sense of humor, and a meaningful theme or intent. The first sixty-minutes or so are so good that you may think you’ve stumbled into a minor masterpiece.
And then the last act provokes madness not just in the protagonists, but in the engaged viewer too…
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
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.
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.
A reader, Chuck, writes: "I know you have been busy and, frankly, I was not sure if you still have time for “Ask JKM a Quest...