Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "Kerium Fever"

In “Kerium Fever,” a shortage of the valuable mineral Kerium worries prospectors, with some folks fearing that New Texas is played out.

When two Prairie People show up with a rich load of Kerium, however, some trouble-making prospectors reveal their worst instincts, threatening to steal their treasure, and using the racist epithet “critter” to describe them.

BraveStarr steps in to help the Prairie People when Tex Hex resolves to steal their Kerium whle everyone else “goes broke.”

The synopsis above makes it pretty plain, but “Kerium Fever” concerns racism.

In particular, prospectors envious of the Prairie People’s success in mining set out to diminish and marginalize them.

Accordingly, BraveStarr tells the hobbit-like Prairie People that sometimes people “blame problems on people who are different from them,” rather than actively seeking good answers to the dilemma.

What’s intriguing and relevant about “Kerium Fever” is that BraveStarr himself uses the racist term “Critters” and then immediately apologizes for doing so.  It was a lapse, and he sets to correct it at once.  He quickly demonstrates humility and sincerity in his apology.

I really like that the series writers allow BraveStarr to make an error in judgment like this, and then have him act forthrightly to correct his mistake. His apology is accepted, and the incident ends with friendships intact.
If only our national dialogue were always so cordial, right?

But the discussion of racism and BraveStarr’s apology suggests again, at least to me, that this series seeks to operate, at least at times, on an adult level, and that’s commendable.  The show, for all its moralizing, tries to look at the "space frontier" in a way that grown-ups can enjoy, right alongside their children.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Godzilla (1978): "The Firebird"

In 1978, Toho and Hanna-Barbera combined forces to bring Godzilla to Saturday morning television on NBC. This animated or cartoon version of Godzilla, aired from 1978 to 1981, and was a ratings success.

This Godzilla TV series followed the adventures of the crew of a research ship called the Calico.  Aboard the Calico was a scientist, Dr. Quinn Darrien, her nephew, Pete, and her research assistant, Brock.  Running the Calico (think: Jacque Cousteau’s Calypso) was Captain Carl Majors.

The last crew-member was the strangest: Godzilla’s cousin “Godzooky.”

The crew of the Calico always traveled with a kind of distress signal, a Godzila “button” which the crew members could push to summon Godzilla, and get his (virtually immediate…) help.

When Godzilla appeared on the series, his trademark roar was missing in action, and his dorsal spikes didn’t quite look the same as they had in the movies.  In this iteration of the legend, Godzilla could also shoot laser beams from his eyes, as well as breathe fire at his enemies.

The series format in the Godzilla cartoon is fairly repetitive.  

The Calico inadvertently gets into danger and encounters a new monster or otherwise giant threat.  The crew calls for Godzilla, and the defender arrives to save the day.  As he fights, Godzilla is cheered on by his human friends (“Watch it, Godzilla…behind you!”).  

Then, when it is all over, Godzooky does his shtick, usually something comical...but juvenile.

In the first episode of Godzilla, “The Firebird” (September 9, 1978), the Calico – which is equipped with helicopter and hovercraft -- encounters a tidal wave and Earth tremor.  

The origin of this disaster is an island in the Pacific. A volcano there has been dormant for millions of years but now it erupts, and a giant pterodactyl (though not Rodan, alas…) emerges from it to wreak havoc.

When the tidal wave imperils the ship, the crew notes “We better call Godzilla, it’s our only chance!” Godzilla shows-up, on cue, and lifts the ship out of the water.

Before long, Godzilla ends up battling the giant pterodactyl for dominance. Quinn worries the creature may be seeking to reproduce, and lay eggs, but Godzilla traps it in a cave and is thus victorious.

“The Firebird” sets the tenor for the series, in large part.  Godzilla functions, drama-wise, as a pinch-hitter for the humans.  As soon as they are faced with a crisis they can’t handle, they press the Godzilla-button and the atomic lizards substitutes for them.

In animated form -- at least starting out -- this iteration of Godzilla doesn’t seem to have a lot of character or personality, at least in comparison to his live-action counterpart, who would occasionally do something nutty and exuberant, like perform a victory dance (Monster Zero).

Instead, Godzilla largely comes off as a friendly T-Rex.  We don’t know what really motivates him, or why he feels compelled to rescue the Calico.  We get no background on how he met Dr. Quinn or Pete, or how Goodzooky joined up with the crew.  All that material is set in stone by episode one and un-remarked on.  It might have been interesting to explore, during the series, Godzilla's origin, or history.

Thus, the episodes of the 1970s Godzilla cartoon are largely predictable and repetitive, and their prime value is as nostalgia.  It is neat, however, to see different locales (like San Francisco...) get totally in destroyed in cartoon form.

And, of course, the series theme song rocks.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Delivery: The Beast Within (2014)

From a certain perspective, found-footage horror films may be to our era today what the slasher films were to the early 1980s. 

To wit: as works of popular art they are relatively cheap and easy to produce, usually devoid of big stars…and they are also constantly derided by an older generation of critics and horror fans as being creatively bankrupt.

We are now getting a deluge of found-footage horror films, and just like the slasher efforts of the early 1980s, many are bad…but just as many are quite good. Some happen to be brilliant.

Therefore, “creatively bankrupt” isn’t a term I’d apply to the found-footage genre…at least not yet.  I’ve been reviewing about one found-footage movie a week (sometimes two…) going back some months on the blog, and thus far I have seen very few efforts that entirely lack merit, or that don’t attempt to corkscrew the genre in a new or fresh direction. 

Delivery: The Beast Within (2014) is a case in point.  It’s another found-footage film that, like the recent Willow Creek (2014) demonstrates the director’s sense of gamesmanship.  It’s a feisty re-think of the genre, one featuring cerebral horror and less by way of jump scares.  

This new found-footage horror film from director Brian Netto succeeds in large part because it satirizes reality TV tropes (although Grave Encounters [2011] accomplished that feat too), but also because it treads a line of ambiguity that remains terrifying.  Additionally, the film culminates in one of the most shocking endings I’ve seen in a horror film of late.

I won’t spoil the denouement for you, but the end of this movie surprised me -- which doesn’t happen often -- and sent my wife leaping off the sofa in shock.  Without describing any particulars, I’ll just note that you won’t see it coming.  This isn’t a savage cinema movie, but the end of Delivery: The Beast Within is savage as Hell.

Delivery: The Beast Within starts strong, ends strong, and has an intriguing enough through-line that it doesn’t out-stay its welcome on your TV.  Some found-footage horror (like Alien Abduction [2014]) features a great premise, but doesn’t know what to do with it after about a half-hour, and it’s nice to see that Delivery doesn’t suffer from similar labor pains.

“I think I have the nesting instinct.”

In Delivery: The Beast Within, a reality-TV show director, Rick (Rob Cobuzio) is interviewed on camera involving the tragic circumstances around the Massys, a couple that was slated to appear on the cable TV series “Delivery.” 

Rick shows the interviewer the first episode of “Delivery,” which reveals how Kyle (Danny Barclay) and Rachel (Laurel Vail) Massy learned that they were expecting a child following an earlier miscarriage. 

But after the episode of “Delivery” ends, Rick shows the interviewers uncut unseen footage of the ensuing pregnancy.  He also expresses the belief that Rachel was “haunted” by something.

The newly-revealed footage is horrifying, and reveals an increasingly disturbed Rachel fearing that a demon called Alastor has taken root in her womb. 

At the same time, the audience learns that Rachel is off her prescription drugs, and that she had a psychotic break with reality in the past…

“There was someone else in the room with me.”

The opening sections of Delivery nicely satirize reality TV by presenting -- down to the title montage --the first complete episode of an insipid fictional series called “Delivery.”

You’ve seen this show a dozen times on basic cable: a happy, attractive (but not too attractive..) couple talks about what they expect in their life (whether from a vacation, a new home, a wedding, a pet, or a pregnancy…) and speaks in clichéd “happy” language of their dreams and aspirations. 

Here, Delivery even apes the vapid, relentlessly upbeat musical soundtrack of such programming, which underscores every emotion from its “stars,” turning molehills into mountains, transforming the mundane into Earth-shattering crises.

As a result of this approach, the first half-hour or so of the movie is a spot-on parody of the popular TV format, and even though it is indeed vapid, we feel -- sometimes against our better judgment -- that we have gotten to “know” Kyle and Rachel. 

That’s the gimmick of reality TV, isn’t it?  Just by watching -- by having these “real” people in our living rooms episode-after-episode -- we feel qualified to say that we know them, or have gotten a sense of them as real people.

Ultimately, Delivery overturns that faulty notion, especially in regards to Rachel.

As the movie continues, we learn about her past, and discover that the “truth” as presented by the canned episode of “Delivery” that we’ve witnessed, doesn’t represent the whole story.

The film’s admirable sense of ambiguity comes into play regarding the pregnancy of a troubled woman.

As you watch Rachel fall apart before your eyes, and learn of her mental history, you must wonder if demons are really after her baby, or if the monsters are all psychological in nature. 

Certainly, this milieu -- a young, expectant mother, and the possible influence of demons -- calls to mind Rosemary’s Baby (1968),  but Delivery strikes off into fresh territory because it provides an alternate or parallel reading to go along with the dominant “horror” narrative.

In this case, we learn that an (anonymous) crew-member on Delivery has accused the director, Rick, of staging several terrifying incidents in the film, including a break-in at the Massy house. He may also have left behind occult symbols on the Massy’s doors and windows. 

The director, Rick, steadfastly denies these accusations, but acknowledges what his motive might be: a bid for higher ratings.

Still there is nothing in Delivery -- not even the brief image of a figure running furtively up the staircase behind Rachel -- that overtly suggests a demon is involved in the action.

Instead -- for those seeking such things -- we get in the third act a subtle connection to the critique of reality television in the film’s first act; a notation that everything you see on screen in such ventures is a lie designed to ramp up drama, and make people react more wildly. 

In this case -- if Rick is indeed responsible for the break-in and other “phenomena” -- he made a dreadful and perhaps criminal mistake.  Rachel is not psychologically stable enough to handle such strife, and her sanity crumbles.  Thus the film’s climax depicts a human tragedy, or perhaps the logical outcome of somebody interfering with another person’s life.

If you just want to see demons, there’s that possibility too. Rachel’s experience at a hospital involving her miscarriage suggests the possibility that her baby died and was replaced in her womb by Alastor.  Rachel even states that she felt a presence in her hospital room, and assumes it was her dead Father.  

But, of course, it could have been the demon…

Such questions aside, Delivery gets exactly right the whole miscarriage sequence, from the tests run to the doctor’s hang-dog expression of futility when there is only bad news to report.  There was simply nothing he could do to prevent this outcome...

Delivery thus concerns legendary demons (in the form of a fella called Alastor), psychological demons (in terms of Rachel’s past), and cultural ones, in terms of reality TV, and the form’s voracious appetite for material fresh and different.

Thinking back on it now, Delivery’s shocking ending seems well-placed, and hard-earned.  It is the final thematic stab against reality-TV too. On reality TV nothing every truly unpleasant happens.

At the end of Delivery, by contrast, something truly unpleasant does occur, and you will leave a viewing in shock that you witnessed it.  The message may just be that reality TV doesn't showcase "reality."  Instead, it insulates viewers from it.

Movie Trailer: Delivery: The Beast Within (2014)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Guest Post: Sex Tape (2014)

Sex Tape Shoots Blanks

By Jonas Schwartz

The new comedy Sex Tape starts off solid, pulling the audience into relatable situations. A couple (Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz) discovers that their kids and jobs have drained the passion out of their marriage. They had started dating in college, when their libidos were in full bloom, but now they have to schedule appointments in advanced to get naked with one another.

After a few drinks, the wife comes up with a new way to spice up their love life, by recording their private moments on an iPad. Some savvy computer duplication software intervenes and suddenly several friends and one enemy have access to their three-hour interpretation of “The Joy of Sex.”

So far, the notion works. Who hasn’t feared the spark in their marriage has been extinguished? Who hasn’t been humiliated when a moment of privacy was witnessed by a parent, colleagues or strangers? Since the advent of the Internet, many’s very intimate moments wound up being broadcast around the world, sometimes without the leading player’s permission or knowledge. Once iPhones and Androids appeared with their ubiquitous cameras, nothing was ever private.

Therefore, writer Segel (who shares credit with Kate Angelo and Nicholas Stoller) and director Jake Kasdan have tapped into the zeitgeist with their concept. They even poke fun at the common man’s ignorance of what exactly “The Cloud” is. That is UNTIL the film’s halfway mark when the characters have lobotomies and act like jerks.

People in desperate situations do crazy things. They cheat, rob banks, and even murder. But they don’t often snort cocaine in order to impress a client or put their children’s lives in jeopardy by dragging them to a burglary of a mobster, at least not in a comedy where the audience is meant to identify with these people. The characters in Gilligan’s Island apply more deductive reasoning than the two here.

Then there’s the film’s villain, a wholly unbelievable character, but with no motivation to destroy our heroes so maliciously. The film doesn’t even dislike the villain and lets him off the hook as just a peck’s bad boy as opposed to the sociopath he truly is.

Who is this careless and unimaginative director, Jake Kasdan? He can’t possibly be the one who helmed the sly thriller Zero Effect with Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller as a haunted modern detective and his “Watson.” There is no way he’s the creator of the riotous documentary spoof of musical biographies, Walk Hard with a pitch-perfect score of Country music parodies and a bold performance by John C Reilly. THAT director, the son of 80’s genius Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Big Chill), was an up-and-coming super-director, one who wisely toyed with genre and wrote conversational dialogue. This new director, the guy who thrilled few with Bad Teacher, has made generic, sex comedies missing both the erotic and the funny. It’s time for the old Jake Kasdan to return.

Segel and Diaz are likable as the unwilling porn stars. Segel’s brand of goofiness works here and Diaz is both sexy and approachable, until the script starts selling them out. Casting the original victim of sex tape mania, Rob Lowe, was a clever conceit, but his character is so outlandish and preposterous, it wastes his talents. Also squandered is the wildly funny Rob Corddry as Segel’s supposed best friend (who is barely a friend and more of a putz).

Did Sex Tape need to be made? Possibly. It taps into our basest fears of losing our potency and also our privacy. But the script took detours that ruined the humor, the astuteness, and the audience’s patience.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

At Flashbak: The Ten Most Ridiculous (But Awesome...) Horror Movie Tag-Lines of the 1990s

My latest article at Flashbak remembers some crazy horror movie tag-lines from the 1990s.

"By the beginning of the 1990s, horror movies had changed significantly from previous decades, and their tag-lines changed with the times too. 

In the 1970s, horror movies had titles such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) or The Last House on the Left (1972), but movies of the 1990s were titled The Temp (1993) or Scream (1996). 

Additionally, horror movies of the 1990s were often big studio products, featuring A-list stars like Julia Roberts, which meant that they required a degree of decorum and respectability. Everything, including tag-lines, was becoming more…generic.

The great age of ridiculous but awesome movie tag-lines was largely at an end.

But, some movies still bucked the prevailing trend towards homogenization and featured some good olf-fashioned, sleazy, funny, inspired tag-lines.

Here are ten of the most ridiculous and yet awesome from that span."

Cult-TV Flashback: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "Camera Obscura" (1971)

This tale was adapted for TV by Rod Serling and based on a short story by Basil Copper. Viewed now, this creepy 1971 segment boasts a high degree of relevance to our contemporary era; the age of big-business, bail-outs, bubbles, and economic inequality.

Set in London during the early 20th century, “Camera Obscura’s” morality play depicts a prissy money-lender named Mr. Sharsted (Rene Auberjonois) as he makes a collection house call on a “shrewd old dog,” Mr. Gingold (Ross Martin). 

Gingold is an eccentric collector, and his loan -- accumulating 13% interest -- has come due.

But Gingold wants to discuss something important with his creditor before he gets around to “payment.” 

Accordingly, he demonstrates for Mr. Sharsted an instrument called a camera obscura -- a device consisting of prisms and lenses -- that can view (and then broadcast…) the whole panorama of London on a circular table.

In particular, Gingold focuses this arcane instrument’s lens on the image of a foreclosed home belonging to a 76-year old man. Sharsted charged the old man “injurious interest” on a loan and when the sick man couldn’t keep up with the mortgage payments, Sharsted re-possessed his house.

“I charged the legal rate!” Sharsted insists.

Gingold replies that “what is legal is not always just.” He bemoans Sharsted’s lack of humanity.

But Sharsted remains unrepentant. He notes -- in signature Serling cadences -- that “humanity applies to funeral eulogies and Valentine cards,” but most assuredly not to business.

Realizing that Sharsted has irrevocably forsaken decency, Gingold utilizes an occult camera obscura (located in a secret chamber…) to exact moral payment from this emotionally-bankrupt money lender. 

He uses the instrument to trap Sharsted in a Dickensian-style personal Hell, one depicted in a green, lurid lighting scheme.

This Stygian snare is the City of London as it existed in the 1890s. But more than that, it’s a twilight world populated by the greedy, the avaricious. The souls who congregate there have turned into monsters; their faces twisted by the greed and inhumanity they once carried only inside.

Sharsted attempts to flee these creeps, but no matter where he turns…he ends up right back where he started. 

Director John Badham deploys slow-motion photography and jump cuts to visualize the idea of an inescapable Tartarus, and the segment builds to a fever pitch.

Surrounded by the grinning ghouls, Sharsted finally begs for mercy, though he himself has never shown mercy to anyone. He insists to Gingold that these cretins are not his kind. 

That they are “ghouls and grave robbers, bloodsuckers and users…”

Gingold’s final comment on the matter is that, yes, indeed, Sharsted is correct. That’s exactly what they are. 

And so Sharsted is finally with his colleagues and peers. And there he shall remain for all eternity...

Rod Serling always boasted a real affinity for the “shadow people,” for the little guy who just couldn’t catch a break in an increasingly impersonal and heartless world. “Camera Obscura” is perfect material for the author since the outline of Copper’s story permits him to mete out cosmic justice against a man who preys on the weak, the desperate and the hopeless. 

As the script establishes, Sharsted “backs people into the corner of despair” and so richly deserves his nasty fate.

As is noted above, “Camera Obscura” pointedly notes that what is “legal” is not always “just,” an argument that some people still don’t seem to get, even today. If the rich and powerful are the ones who lobby for laws, and Congress is in their pocket…then how, truly, can a society arrive at “just” and fair rules?

In the news today, credit card company executives whine that laws favoring the consumer are unfair, or anti-business. We see price gouging at the pumps every holiday season, and then -- inevitably -- watch as gas companies brazenly announce record profits at the end of each quarter.

Maybe Mr. Gingold needs to pay those folks a visit too. 

Come on guys: smile and say cheese for the camera (obscura…).

Cult-TV Flashback: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "Tell David..."

In “Tell David...,” woman prone to jealousy, Ann Bolt (Sandra Dee) is caught in a terrible storm, and stops at the first house she can find in the deluge. 

There, she finds a loving young couple, David Blessington (Jared Martin) and Pat (Jenny Sullivan), but is baffled by the advanced equipment in their house, including a video phone, and closed-circuit TV monitors.

When David tells Ann about his troubled youth, Ann realizes she has somehow ended up twenty-years in the future and that the grown man is actually her own son.  David tells her about the mistakes she is destined to make -- caused by jealousy -- and begs her not to make them a second time.

“Tell David...” is a promising Night Gallery story that ultimately fails to achieve its potential. Rod Serling’s opening narration suggests that the story is about “jealousy” but that suggestion is ultimately off-point. 

Given the fact that Ann’s husband, Tony (also Jared Martin) is cheating on her with the family maid, all the discussion by Serling and by David about the “old green-eyed monster” is misplaced.

Ann’s suspicions are actually right on the money.  Her problem is not jealousy, but rather poor impulse-control and defeatism. 

To wit, Ann knows that she is destined to shoot and murder her husband, because David has warned her that she will.

No matter what, then, she should not take that particular course. Instead, Ann should tell her husband she wants a divorce, take David out of the house, and leave immediately.

But Ann doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, she surrenders to a future that has not yet been written, but which she has the capacity to re-write.  She mindlessly lets fate take the course that she assumes is pre-determined, and commits murder.

Then, we must assume, she follows through with the timeline David diagrammed, and commits suicide in prison, before going to trial.

Again, none of this is really about jealousy at all.  Accordingly, the episode’s whole tenor is off.  Sandra Dee’s character, Ann, has been manipulated grievously by her husband, and then her son blames her for that manipulation…accusing her of being jealous and claiming that said jealousy destroyed his childhood.

Talk about blaming the victim!  Didn’t his Dad’s lies and infidelity play a part in scuttling his childhood too?  

Why does Mom get all the blame?

The most intriguing aspect of Night Gallery’s “Tell David...,” perhaps, is its imagination regarding the future.  In the world depicted here -- of far-flung 1989 -- home security systems consist of CCTV.  And of course, if you watch British TV like Torchwood, Primeval and Doctor Who, you know that CCTV is now ubiquitous in the UK, if not in America. So that prediction seems spot-on.

Secondly, “Tell David” imagines video phones in common usage, which we don’t have, and electronic music…which does exist, though not exactly like the weird, atonal tunes featured here.

Other than these interesting touches, however, “Tell David..” is pretty seriously wrong-headed.  It also fails the test of believability.  David and Tony are dead-ringers, and so it makes no sense whatsoever that Ann fails to recognize David as being related to him. Especially since her son’s name is David. It’s contrived that she can’t put two and two together sooner

So, “Tell David..?”

Well, someone should “Tell David...” that his father is a cheating asshole, and that he is the one, ultimately, to blame, for David’s piss-poor childhood. 

Mom may be impulsive and self-loathing, but she’s not the cause of all his pain.  “Tell David...” shouldn’t suggest otherwise.

Cult-TV Flashback: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Different Ones"

The Night Gallery episode “The Different Ones” serves as an adequate -- if not inspired -- companion piece to the famous The Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder.” 

You may recall that “Eye of the Beholder” concerns a desperate woman -- with her face in bandages -- who believes that she is ugly.  She has had a few operations already, to make herself more attractive, but they’ve all failed miserably.

When the bandages come off, however, the viewers see that the woman is absolutely beautiful by our standards.  The rest of the world -- the doctors and the nurses -- are hideous by comparison. 

And yet because the staff represents the “norm” in this society, they are considered the pinnacle of aesthetic perfection.

In Night Gallery’s “The Different Ones” -- a story set a few decades in the future -- a boy named Victor is physically repugnant by normal or typical human standards. He sits in his room all day with his head under a black bag, while the neighborhood children shout at him from the front yard.  They call him a “freak” and “ugly.”

Victor’s father, Paul Koch (Dana Andrews), is desperate to help his derided son live some semblance of a normal life, and contacts the government for help 

Although nothing can be done for Victor in terms of surgery, he can -- pursuant to the “Federal Conformity Act of 1993” -- be relocated to another place…another planet. 

In this case, a planet called “Borean” is extremely anxious for visitors from Earth.  So Paul says goodbye to his son, and Victor finds, on the distant world, that he is no longer considered ugly…but beautiful instead

The similarities between “The Different Ones” and “Eye of the Beholder are worth noting. 

In both stories, the main character spends significant running time with his/her face shrouded from the audience, in bandages or under a bag.

Likewise, both characters hail from a society in which conformity is enforced, apparently by law. 

And finally, the solution for both characters in terms of living a happy life is relocation to a place where there are with kindred individuals. In “Eye of the Beholder” that place is a colony to the North (think a leper colony…). In “The Different Ones,” it’s a distant world.

But the two stories differ in some significant ways too, as well as in terms of final impact. 

The first time you watch it, “Eye of the Beholder” generates surprise, shock and terror.  The cinematic techniques trick us, essentially, into believing that the world of the narrative is the same as our world.  We don’t learn about that mistaken assumption until the bandages come off the hospital patient.  The impact is forceful, and astounding. 

“The Different Ones” has no such comparable cinematic technique, and so the punch-line, that Victor goes to visit a world where everyone looks like him feels like simply a whimsical one.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with whimsy. 

Indeed, there’s a certain charm to the conclusion here, which suggests that there’s a place for everyone in this universe.  But I would argue that whimsy is ultimately inferior, as a tone, to stark horror.  That’s especially true if an artist is attempting to make a point about conformity, and the way that society enforces norms.  A sledge-hammer, in this case, is more effective than a feather.

In addition, “Eye of the Beholder” does a powerful job of depicting how the establishment of the alternate world is one of strict, ruthless conformity.  We see the leader of the society on a view-screen, for example, and he gesticulates like Adolf Hitler, and imposes his edict of genetic conformity on his culture.  

Watching this leader, we can’t help but think of the Nazis, and the eugenics program they enforced through genocide. 

In “The Different Ones,” Mr. Koch, by contrast, must deal with a huge futuristic bureaucracy to help his son…but help is acquired.  So here we might get the idea of an over-developed nanny state, in other words, but never the notion that the State is actively evil. 

Sure, one option is for Victor to submit to a suicide regimen, but the State only suggests that avenue and doesn’t enforce it.  In other words, death panels are optional.

One idea that doesn’t age so well, in either case, is that a “happy” ending for those who are different is, essentially, consignment to a ghetto for the rest of their natural lives. 

Frankly, this was as happy an ending as we were going to get in the dark, melancholy “Eye of the Beholder.” 

But “The Different Ones” doesn’t really address the fact that the exchange program between planets is all about getting rid of “undesirables” and those who are different.  Instead, the program seems like a win-win.  On Borean, normal humans are considered ugly, and go to Earth.  And on Earth, ugly folks like Victor look just like the inhabitants of Borean.

It’s all a little pat and contrived.

In short, “The Different Ones” isn’t truly in the same class as “Eye of the Beholder,” despite thematic corollaries.  Instead, the Night Gallery story is a watered-down version of the same tale, but its critique of conformity has largely been rendered toothless. 

Instead, we get the final joke that everybody is beautiful to someone. 

You just have to be in the right room, with the right people.

Cult-TV Flashback: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "Silent Snow, Secret Snow"

In 1934, writer Conrad Aiken penned a short story of a most unusual variety: one concerning a seemingly normal pre-adolescent boy named Paul who succumbs to a voice "inside" his head; the voice of immaculate, glittering, and unending...snow. The boy uses his mental "snow" as a barrier "between himself and the world."

Paul's concerned, frightened parents attempt desperately to reach their son, to pull the boy back to their reality, but the ubiquitous snow -- an all-consuming yet strangely intimate mental blizzard -- buries Paul's mind inside itself. This progression towards isolation continues until Paul is simply...unreachable.

"Silent Snow, Secret Snow" was dramatized on radio in the 1950s and also very memorably on Rod Serling's Night Gallery in 1971. It's one of my all-time favorite installments of Night Gallery, actually. It's very, very disturbing, but also beautiful. 

One of the things I admire most about Night Gallery is that it dealt with horrors of all varieties, whether monstrous (like vampires and ghouls) or very real. On the latter front, it mused seriously about the horror of loneliness and regret ("They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"). 

Or, as is the case here, the horror of mental illness.

Whether you view this Night Gallery tale and young Paul's plight as a metaphor for autism or for schizophrenia, it's a terrifying journey.  "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" taps into a universal parental fear of losing your grip on your child; of losing him (or her) to something insidious that you can't control.

Orson Welles narrates this distinctive segment of Night Gallery, and his mellifluous voice captures some strange, artistic quality about this story. As scary as Paul's turn "inward" remains, the narration reads like fine, lyrical poetry; and the visuals are dynamic, glorious and well-chosen. 

In a certain sense, this is simply the darkest story of winter ever created because it concerns an interior winter; a metaphorical season of death that arrives like a storm and heralds the cessation of innocent youth.

As the story commences, Welles' recounts for us how Paul's unusual journey into mental illness originated; how his descent into the the never ending snow started simply as "nothing...just an idea. 

But then Paul's fantasy methodically grew worse and worse, becoming an obsession he couldn't turn away from. The notion is that Paul's real world is somehow dirty, muddled or confusing, and so his mind seeks out "the counterpoint of snow," that immaculate, perfect cleanliness of snow fall. 

His mind finds the purity it desires, and can't let go of it once it is located.

In keeping with this visual theme of "whiteness" symbolizing purity, there are moments in the episode in which the audience sees Paul drinking milk (notably also white), or glaring at a glass chandelier, which promptly transforms into ice-laden tree branches. Everything Paul sees is soon affected by the unique filter (his filter) of snow.

When Paul's disassociation from reality grows more pronounced, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" begins to depict outsiders (a school teacher, parents, and a prying doctor) in the point-of-view subjective shot. They appear more than a little distorted this way; almost like aliens. The effect is that we -- like Paul -- find ourselves distanced from them and their hysterical concerns.

In a despairing, unhappy denouement, Paul finally turns away from the "inquisition" of the outside world for another place, an interior dwelling that "no one will ever again be able to enter."

In this white blizzard, the snow beckons more strongly than before, promising to tell Paul a beautiful story. It is a tale that gets "smaller and smaller," like a "flower that blooms into a seed." 

Again, that's a perfect metaphor for Paul's unexpected turn inward; for his shrinking world. In pre-adolescence, we expect the youthful seed to bloom; for a child to "mature" and become something more than the sum of his or her parts. 

Imagine the terror a parent must feel when a child's journey is the opposite: a doubling down, a turn away from the wonders of the outside world. Welles' narration is especially good in this latter part of the episode, whipped-up into a strange, almost sensual frenzy.

Mental illness can blot out life's colors. It can blot out life's vibrancy and nuance, creating a kind of obsessive blindness, and .here it is visualized as a snow blindness.

 I don't want to say something corny or cheap about an elegant, scary show like this, but "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" is truly and inescapably...chilling. The pristine, cold beauty of this most singular Night Gallery episode will make your blood run cold. Especially if you happen to be a Mom or Dad....

Cult-TV Flashback: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Caterpillar"

This classic Night Gallery episode concerns a "little beastie" called an earwig. This tiny insect from Borneo boasts a fondness for the warmth of a human ear...but -- as host Rod Serling reminds viewers -- it doesn't exactly "whisper sweet nothings" once inside. 

Nope. It does something...horrifying.

"The Caterpillar," directed by Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws II, Somewhere in Time) aired in March of 1972 and is based on the famous short story by Oscar Cook (1888-1952), a former civil servant who actually served in Borneo from 1911-1919. 

Cook's story is set in Borneo, but the old wives tale about earwigs burrowing inside human ears (and brains...) has been chronicled as early in history as 1000 AD. A quick search on the Internet will reveal a number of news and science sites debunking the gruesome notion that Earwigs can crawl through the human skull. But still...ick.

"The Caterpillar" (adapted by Rod Serling) follows the arrival in Borneo of one extremely prickly British civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey). 

This cruel, nasty, arrogant man moves into the home of two other Brits, sixty-sixty year-old Mr. Warwick (Tom Helmore) and his gorgeous young wife ("an absolute knock-out"), Rhona (Joanna Pettet). As you might suspect, Macy soon makes trouble. He is disturbed by the incessant rain in the tropical location, and -- battling cabin-fever -- turns his obsessive eyes towards Rhona.

Macy's attentions are unwanted, but that hardly stops him from making lewd remarks and undressing the married woman with his eyes. When asked if he is hungry for dinner, if he has an appetite, Macy stares right at Rhona and notes that indeed his appetite is "slowly growing." 

Later, Rhona advises a cure for Macy's loneliness and abstinence: a "cold bath."

But Macy is a prick, and isn't content with the status quo. He is convinced that Rhona should be with him rather than the kindly old man, and meets with a local rogue, Tommy Robinson (Don Knight), in a bar. Robinson suggests not an assassination, but rather an "act of destiny." 

For a price, Tommy will send one of his native friends to deposit an earwig on Mr. Warwick's pillow.

These bugs are so light, so small, that they are practically unnoticeable. And, according to Robinson, earwigs have this"decided liking" for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand to one. They can't turn around you see, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route.

The pain caused by these "stealthy chaps" is agonizing, horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Still, this sadistic plan appeals to Macy. He feels that after her antiquated husband dies, 28-year old Rhona will turn her affections to him. 

With little shame, Macy authorizes the plan. However, Robinson's thug makes a fatal mistake that very night...and puts the earwig on Macy's pillow instead of Mr. Warwick's.

Macy wakes up the following morning with a bloody ear and immediately realizes what has occurred. The earwig is inside his ear! In the ensuing two weeks, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands have to be bound to his bed-posts so Macy doesn't claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the skittering bug feasting on his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an "agonizing, driving, itching pain," and the earwig exits his ear. 

An unrepentant Macy tells the Warwicks that what he did, he did "for love," and that he paid the price with two weeks of Hell.

Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy; a fact you will recall if you remember the segment's final punch-line before the fade-out (one revealed in intense, declarative close-up). 

I won't spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say that "The Caterpillar" boasts one of the nastiest and most macabre twists ever featured on Night Gallery (and likely network television, for that matter.)

Rod Serling's teleplay is whip-smart, witty and terrifying, but the episode likely belongs to Laurence Harvey, who plays Macy as a smarmy, monstrous bastard. You may hate Macy, but after witnessing his ordeal (again, in harrowing, unrelenting close-up...), you do feel some compassion for the man and his painful odyssey. 

There are moments here -- with Macy tied to the bed, gasping for air -- when it looks as though Harvey's bulging eyes are actually going to explode out of his head. His pain is palpable, and you can just imagine what's going on inside; how that thing is probing and pushing its way through his skull.

There's no real gore in "The Caterpillar," and the titular insect is never glimpsed, even for a second. Instead, we simply see what the bloody thing does, a torture painted on Harvey's expressive, gaunt face. 

And we listen intently as a physician (John Williams), Robinson, and a survivor describe the pain experienced...and the pain yet to come. Despite a lack of horrific visuals, the episode proves utterly harrowing (and involving).  My wife, Kathryn, had to turn away from the last ten minutes because she felt the episode was so disturbing in nature.

"The Caterpillar" is probably Night Gallery's most famous episode; and for very good reason. Next time you have an ear ache, I defy you not to think of this episode. And of earwigs.