Saturday, December 13, 2014

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #12: Captain Power Toys (Mattel)

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg 70,000 BC: "The Hill People"

In “The Hill People,” Korg (Jim Malinda) and his brother, Bok (Bill Ewing) watch the funeral rites of another tribe.  A man has died while hunting, leaving behind his widowed wife, Sala (Eileen Dietz). 

Bok very much wants to marry Sala, but Korg suggests the time isn’t right for such a move. Bok presses his case, and they learn that Sala is promised to the brother of her dead husband.

Unfortunately, Sala’s would be husband is mean (“he thinks only of himself”) and Sala runs off into the forest.  Bok tracks her and finds her, and explains his feelings for her. Bok brings her back to the Korg tribe, planning to marry her. “You will not be alone again," he promises.

Korg, however, is concerned. The Hill People are allies, and if they learn about Bok and Sala, the alliance could be threatened and all-out war could commence…

“The Hill People” is actually the finest episode of Korg 70,000 B.C. that I’ve watched so far. This happens to be so because the segment doesn’t concern an outside threat, necessarily, but a personal dilemma and social dilemma. Bok and Sala are in love, but because of the mores of the time, cannot be together.  Worse, every moment they are together, they endanger both of their tribes.

In the end, Sala chooses to return to her tribe, but it is not a happy ending. Sala returns to a man she hates, and who is bad to her. And Bok is left without the woman he loves.  The episode ends with a dramatic pull-back of Bok standing alone on the landscape, shattered by the loss of Sala.

The story succeeds not just as a love story, but as a demonstration of how a situation can spiral, suddenly, out of control. Here, both Korg and the leader of the Hill People are powerless, essentially, to stop the situation from snow-balling. By episode’s end, they have spears pointed at one another, despite alliances, despite protestations of friendship.  

In a way, the story aksi reminded me a little of the Helen of Troy myth, with Sala as Helen, the woman caught between two states (Troy/Korg’s tribe) and (Greece/The Hill People).  Bok substitutes for Paris, and Sala's would-be husband (who demands ten spears, ten spears, ten bearskins and ten cutting tools for her…), is Menelaus.

Also, the story makes a point of describing how for women -- who are viewed as property of men in the Neanderthal culture -- there is almost no freedom of choice. Sala cannot choose to spurn her brother's husband, and she cannot choose to marry whom she loves.

Buttressed by an unhappy ending, and the fact that the story doesn’t tie-up neatly or cleanly for everyone, “The Hill People” demonstrates how Korg 70,000 BC attempted daring and adult story-telling, even in a time-slot programmed for kids.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "The Witnesses"

In “The Witnesses,” a spaceship carrying stowaways arrives at Fort Kerium and they are arrested by Marshal BraveStarr.

Matters grow more complicated, however, when BraveStarr learns that the stowaways are witnesses to a dangerous crime…and are therefore being hunted by a criminal.

“The Witnesses” is another standard Western tale revamped to the futuristic outer space setting of Filmation’s BraveStarr.  In this case, we meet stowaways -- Dax and Botch -- that are attempting to escape the reach of a criminal called “Slug Moody,” (I think, if I caught it right), who is wanted on sixteen planets.

The episode’s message is that telling the truth is important, and that “just because you’re small” that doesn’t mean you can’t have “courage.”  In other words, the little stowaways must show fortitude and tell the truth, even though bad guys are after them, and could hurt them.

Again, it’s a pretty standard Saturday morning message, and BraveStarr has handled the “size doesn’t matter when it comes to character” trope before, especially regarding the Prairie people.  A story like “The Vigilantes” seems more relevant today than this fairly generic show.

"The Witnesses" also demonstrates aptly the source of my conflicted feelings about BraveStarr in terms of visuals and designs. I absolutely love the strange, almost Rube Goldberg-like backgrounds and architectural details (like the look of Fort Kerium), but the characters tend to appear, for my taste, a bit too Disney-cute. The Witnesses here are just a bit too talking-rodent-ish, or something.

Next week: “The Wrong Hands.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Patrick: Evil Awakens (2014)

Mark Hartley’s remake of Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1978), called Patrick: Evil Awakens (2014), is an enthusiastic but not entirely successful update of the classic Australian horror film. Unlike many horror remakes, this modern re-imagination at the very least boasts the impression that every choice made by its director has a coherent explanation underlining it, even if some of those choices don’t quite work out in execution.  The film is well made, but not very good, if that description makes sense.

Fortunately, Patrick: Evil Awakens is splendidly cast, with Charles Dance, Rachel Griffiths and Sharni Vinson contributing their considerable talents to the film. They all do good work here, especially Vinson. Her updated version of Kathy Jacquard is the audience’s primary point of identification, and she projects well both vulnerability and strength.

Also, I would have believed it impossible to improve on Brian May’s score for Patrick (1978), but Pino Donaggio’s swooning efforts here are truly remarkable, and provide the remake a dramatic and unexpected lift.  Some moments in the film that may have played as truly uninspiring if unaccompanied by his score instead get elevated to near Hitchcockian-territory.

Overall, it appears to me like Hartley made two big creative (and ambitious…) choices in terms of revamping Patrick. 

One was to, essentially, “Gothic-ize” every visual aspect of the film. The original film was very naturalistic, very “seventies” in its manner and mode of storytelling. The new approach renders the film classical in some sense…though at the same time more cartoonish.

The second creative choice involves clarification. Evil Awakens tightens up some loose ends (and trims about twenty minutes of story…which is a good thing) and makes Patrick’s abilities more understandable, more linear.  

Now, when Patrick reaches out from his comatose state, we actually go inside his brain and see his neurons sparking and zapping.  Again, however, there’s a pitfall to such visualization or clarification. We are scared, as human beings of the things we don’t understand, not the things that we do understand. Clarifying Patrick’s world (and abilities) solves some problems and streamlines some aspects of the narrative well, but by the same token, undercuts the titular character’s ability to transmit to audiences as genuinely frightening.

I’ll go into more detail below, but clearly there are good qualities and bad qualities in both these creative selections, which is why, in the end, Patrick: Evil Awakens (2014) may please some and repel others. The remake only works well about half-the-time, and in the end, one is left considering that, finally, even with hindsight and thirty years of technological advances, Richard Franklin told Patrick’s story more effectively (and more enjoyably) the first time around.

“When that door opens, your old ways die.”

A young nurse, Kathy (Vinson) is hired at the isolated Roget Clinic by Matron Cassidy (Griffiths) and Roget himself (Dance). She is immediately tasked with caring for a non-responsive coma patient, Patrick (Jackson Gallagher), in room 15.

Kathy is horrified to see Patrick subjected to terrible, painful tests by Dr. Roget, and develops a sense of affection and sympathy for the young patient. 

Soon, however, Patrick uses telekinesis to reach out and impact those around him, including Kathy…

“The only thing more dangerous than his hate is his love.”

The original Patrick had this kind of kitchen-sink reality to it. The hospital was a real place in the real world (on a real street), and apartments, offices and other locations all looked believable and authentic. The only point of fantasy, essentially, was Patrick, who -- from his silent, unmoving perch -- could shape events to his liking.

The Roget Clinic, circa 1978
In the new Patrick, all semblance of kitchen sink reality is gone, and intentionally so. The Roget Clinic is now a vast, mansion-like haunted house perched atop a mountain. On the edge of its grounds is an old lighthouse, and a turbulent cliff-side overlooking a roiled ocean.

The Roget Clinic, 215

Menacing-looking religious statuary dot the landscape, and thunder and lightning punctuate the night.  This is the realm not of reality but of Gothic horror.  On one hand, this choice offers an intriguing interpretation of the story, since we are asked to countenance Dr. Roget as not just a quirky, strange fellow this time, but a full-fledged mad scientist, particularly Dr. Frankenstein. The reality of Roget as a modern-day Frankenstein is reflected in the Gothic décor of his clinic. There’s even a horrific laboratory in the basement.

I can readily understand why it was decided to go with this visual approach -- modern Gothic -- but the downside is that it seems a little exaggerated, or one dimensional. By taking Patrick’s world to this formal realm of classic horror, the film almost automatically becomes a little less scary.  We know, from the frightful skies, unearthly mists, and menacing architecture that we aren’t quite in the world that we know.

Sometimes going big is just silly. For instance, in the original film, Patrick would sometimes spit at those around him, a supposedly involuntary or reflex action.  The idea was handled with restraint. 

Here, the first time Patrick spits on Kathy, it is a giant, wet, sloppy ejaculation of spit, so gooey and over-the-top that it evokes laughter, not surprise or horror.

Likewise, the clinic’s other patient, Old Captain Fraser, is now scarred and burned, a veritable monster in appearance.

When giant syringes start to show up in the story -- filled with glowing yellow-green chemicals -- Patrick: Evil Awakens inhabits an almost cartoon horror world.  And again, when reality is sacrificed or exaggerated to such a degree it’s harder to be intimately involved with the characters.  That we are intimately involved with Kathy in this case is a direct result of Vinson’s strong presence and extreme likability.  We are invested in her, and her survival.  The storyline does her no favors, either.  One dream sequence is so confusing that we’re left unsure whether or not she has actually slept with her doctor boyfriend, Brian, or it was just a phantasm.

All this established, I would nonetheless highly praise Hartley for his creation of some remarkable compositions in the film, including those that deploy extensive (and not always photo-real) CGI.  If Hitchcock were alive and working in cinema today, he would no doubt deploy CGI in a similar fashion. Hitch used special effects such as matte paintings extensively in his film work, and I feel he would probably utilize CGI the same way today, to expand the breadth and depth of his frame.

The only working director today I know who successfully apes Hitchcock’s approach -- but with CGI, not old school effects -- is David Fincher.  Today I would add to that list Mark Hartley, because he creates several very precise, very beautiful (and revealing) compositions that use both live-action and digital images. One interpret this integrated approach as an homage to Franklin, I suppose, since he was a Hitchcock protégé. Many shots in Patrick: Evil Awakens are orchestrated with real aplomb.

Perhaps because of the more formalist, expressive approach to the material, Patrick: Evil Awakens often cut to repetitive cut-away close ups of Patrick’s eyeballs, as they fill with blood and fury. The original film did not need to frequently resort to close-ups of the character. The creepy thing about him in the Franklin film was the fact that he was ever-present, but largely ignored by others.  He was always present, however, in the background, wheedling his malicious way into our world. The new film totally loses that idea by giving us so many dedicated, extreme close-ups of Gallagher.A consequence: subtlety and nuance is sacrificed. We aren’t asked to reckon with deep focus, or the background of the frame. Again, the big Gothic approach renders the story somehow more superficial or shallow.

The second choice I mentioned above involves clarification.  In the original film, some connections had to be made on the part of the film’s audience. How, precisely, did Patrick make Ed burn his hands in one scene, for instance? It wasn’t entirely clear. 

Well, the new film clears it up. Patrick psychokinetically dials his enemies’ phone numbers, and then sort of possesses them for a time, making them do what he wishes. We see this process in detail in the film, with him “mentally” dialing the phone, connecting to his quarry, and his neurons firing away.  This is fine, but in some ways clarification of this sort can diminish a sense of terror. Furthermore, the film isn’t consistent about Patrick’s “travels” If he has to move his consciousness on radio or electrical waves, then how can we explain his ability to write “You are Mine” on a mirror when he has not phoned someone and possessed a body?  Clarification is important, but so is consistency.  If you elaborate on the rules of the bogeyman, you have to stick to them.

Contrarily, sometimes the streamlining works nicely in the film. I liked the new and improved touch that Matron Cassidy is actually Roget’s daughter, and her rebellion in the film’s last act is not just a moral stance, but an affirmation of her independence from an overbearing, monstrous father figure.  I also admire the fact that this film is about twenty-minutes shorter than the original, which dragged in the third act.

In the final analysis, Patrick (1978) was very much a film about two people -- Kathy and Patrick -- who were living in a “trance.” When the met, they were both jolted out of that trance, essentially. 

The new film has many pretty toys and many pretty bells and whistles, but ultimately all the embellishments succeed only in distancing us from that particular story, and that particular leitmotif.  The bigger and more Gothic Patrick’s world becomes, the less a force he seems to be in it. 

By the end of the film he is using zombie minions and causing poltergeist-like psychokinetic disturbances, and -- again -- the feeling is not of adding meaningfully to the Patrick story, but of simply adding too much to it.

With all the CGI and special effects in the film, it is telling that one of the most powerful scenes in the film remains one in which Kathy innocently (and yet erotically) explores Patrick’s body, and asks him if he can “feel” her touch. 

Here, her hands slip under his pants, in plain view, and she starts to explore what she finds, before being interrupted by Matron Cassidy. Moments of pure human interaction like that one -- which probably couldn’t have been shown in such detail in the 1970s version – could have been at the heart of this remake instead of a decision to go big and Gothic.

I didn’t hate Patrick: Evil Awakens, in part because of the dedicated performances, in part because I feel Hartley is an intelligent presence, and one capable of executing some powerful shot.  But I just feel -- as I often do with modern horror remakes -- that somehow the spirit of the original gets lost in translation.

At one point in Patrick: Evil Awakens, a nurse warns Kathy not to put a potted plant in Patrick’s room.  “You’re wasting your time,” she says. “Nothing grows in here.”

Evil Awakens is proof of that idea. 

It tries in vain to recapture and make bigger Patrick’s dark world, but ends up, paradoxically, shrinking the material and making it all seem abundantly less interesting and human.  

Movie Trailer: Patrick: Evil Awakens (2014)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

At Flashbak: There Are Those Who Believe: The Ancient Astronauts of the 1970s and 1980s

My latest article at Flashbak is now up.  It concerns the ancient astronaut craze of the 1970s and early 1980s.

"In 1968, Swiss author Erich Von Daniken published a literary work called Chariots of the Gods, which explored the idea that ancient alien astronauts may have visited Earth in the distant past. These aliens were responsible for such “miracles” of architecture as the Great Pyramids. 

Though widely-dismissed by scientists, Von Daniken’s speculations about astronauts visiting Earth in prehistory proved immensely popular to a wide readership of the 1970s.  His book inspired several sequel texts including Gods from Outer Space (1971), Gold of the Gods (1973), Miracles of the Gods (1976), In Search of Ancient Gods (1976), Signs of the Gods (1980) and Pathways to the Gods (1980).

Chariots of the Gods thus ignited another disco decade trend or fad, and soon ancient astronauts were being explored on television in documentaries, and in fictional entertainment..."

Cult-Movie Review: Patrick (1978)

Richard Franklin (1948 – 2007) is a talent that more horror film fans ought to remember and celebrate. A protégé of Alfred Hitchcock, Franklin created a number of memorable genre movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s including Road Games (1981) starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Psycho II (1983), the vastly-underrated Link (1986) and the subject of this review: Patrick (1978).

Like contemporaries De Palma and Carpenter, Franklin had a very distinctive film style. His films featured elaborate, expressive compositions of near technical perfection, and because of his understanding of film grammar (film as a medium for visual symbolism) many of Franklin’s cinematic works are unparalleled in terms of their suspense. 

Naturally, Hollywood didn’t treat Franklin particularly well, and he returned home to his native Australia in the early 1990s.  I had the good fortune to interview him for my book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), wherein we discussed various aspects of his work in the Reagan Decade. Today, I recall him as a decent, well-spoken man who was generous with his time and open about every aspect of his career.

Patrick (1978) is not, perhaps, Franklin’s most accomplished or consistent work or art, though it remains intriguing in terms of its layered approach to the material. The film was something of a phenomenon in the late 1980s (in the post-Carrie [1976] aftermath) and was the movie that put Franklin on the map. Patrick was also remade this year as Patrick: Evil Awakens (2014), which I’ll review here tomorrow.

Although Patrick could use some judicious editing (to get it down to around 95 minutes or so) -- especially in its third act -- the film is considered a classic by many primarily because of Franklin’s slow-burn approach.

The movie features a comatose patient, Patrick, as its antagonist. This bug-eyed juggernaut never moves from his hospital bed and never even blinks, and yet is on-screen and present throughout the picture.  The film features at least two jump scares of epic proportions when, at long last, Patrick appears to break out of his standard paralysis. 

One such scare is pure simplicity. Patrick ever-so-slowly turns his head to face a nurse who has gone to open the window by his bed.  The slow-turn of his head, and the expression on his face as he does so are more than enough to make the skin crawl.

On a re-watch, I found other aspects of the film even more notable than I had remembered. Everett De Roche’s script is unfailingly intelligent, and literate too.  And Franklin’s wicked sense of humor is played out in terms of imagery, with certain sign posts forecasting danger. 

More trenchantly, Patrick appears to be a story about what it means to be a single, professional woman trying to make it alone in the 1970s. Susan Penhaligon plays the likable lead character, Nurse Kathy Jacquard, a woman who must navigate patriarchal expectations at every turn, whether from her employer, a mad scientist (Robert Helpmann), her stalker-ish husband Ed (Rod Mullinar), from whom she is separated, or the doctor, Brian (Bruce Barry) who wants so desperately to bed her.  

Given the aggressive behavior of all these men and her so-called “unstable domestic situation,” it seems natural, perhaps, that Kathy gravitates towards Patrick, a comatose patient who doesn’t demand, only rebuffs…at least at first.

Kathy -- a character termed “frigid” by her husband -- must negotiate the modern world alone (a new home, a new job, and a new social designation as single). Yet every man in her life seems to demand an “electric” connection with her. Patrick is all the more insidious, because he doesn’t encroach on her space, he invites her, essentially, into his own dark, malevolent world.

Patrick artfully touches on many good ideas, including the inhumanity of modern science, but the film is most successful if one considers it a chronicle of Kathy’s personal journey as she contends with a boogeyman whom the dialogue deliberately describes as a “creature from the Id.”

“Medicine can prolong death much more effectively than it can prolong life.”

A recently separated woman, Kathy Jacquard (Susan Penhaligan) moves to her own apartment, away from her estranged husband, Ed (Mullinar), and seeks employment at the private hospital for comatose patients, the Roget Clinic.

After an interview with the stern Matron Cassidy (Julia Blake), Kathy is hired and immediately taken to her new ward, the patient in Room 15: Patrick (Robert Thompson). 

Patrick, a young man (and murderer), has been comatose for three years, and shows no signs of interface with the outside world. Sometimes, however, he spits when nurses approach him, but Dr. Roget (Helpmann) dismisses this behavior as a mere reflex action. Using a dead frog as an example, Roget describes for Kathy how electrical impulses can travel through a body -- even appearing to animate it -- when life and consciousness are gone.

Kathy is intrigued by Patrick, and begins to show him a kindness not matched by the facility at the institute.

When Ed burns his hands mysteriously, however, and Brian -- an on-the-make doctor -- nearly drowns, Kathy begins to suspect that Patrick is somehow leaving his body and terrorizing the men in her life.

“How is our creature from the Id this morning?”

A recurring motif in Richard Franklin’s Patrick is electricity. 

In the film’s “crime in the past” prologue, the audience sees Patrick toss an electric heater into a bath-tub where his mother and her lover are canoodling. This is the first example of electricity being related to passion, and murder.

After the opening credits, and before we first see Kathy enter the Roget Clinic, we are treated to a close-up of electric sparks emanating from a moving cable car. This might be interpreted as indicator that the terror exemplified by Patrick is about to return, and enter Kathy’s life, specifically.

A neon entrance signs sparks as well (changing the word “entrance” to “trance,” importantly), and when Patrick attacks Brian in his swimming pool, the pool lights malfunction too. The film even opens with the sound effects of electrical sparking (against a black screen), and Matron Cassidy is electrocuted in the film’s last act.

The implication, on a literal level, is that Patrick is able to move his consciousness beyond the confines of his useless physical body via electrical impulses. 

On a more metaphorical level, the leitmotif of electricity, or “sparks” seems crucial to Kathy’s story, and her sense of ennui with her life.  She has been designated by that terrible word “frigid,” and both Brian and Ed assiduously pursue her, hoping to spark some kind of romantic or sexual activity in return. She largely resists these efforts, not because she is a cold fish (a male term for her condition), one feels, but because neither man seems interested in her on anything beyond a surface of physical level. She is clearly unhappy in her marriage, and seeks happiness and fulfillment outside it, in the professional realm, at the Roget Institute.

Ironically, Kathy is immediately drawn there to a man who cannot impose his physical wishes upon her, or even make the first move.  In fact, any attempt to be intimate with Patrick is rebuffed instantly by his reflexive spitting. 

But Kathy breaks down that wall, that barrier, and is able to show Patrick the kind of physical attention that she can’t apparently, show Ed. She brings Patrick back to life by touching him, all over his body, and asking him if he can “feel” it.  For once, she is in the driver’s seat, she is the one leading the dance, so-to-speak.

Whereas the aggressive, bordering-on-inappropriate attention of Ed only pushes Kathy further away, Patrick’s inability to relate or perform at all draws her closer, and brings her into his world. Where Ed stupidly attempts to force Kathy into sexual intercourse she doesn’t want (“so much for a woman’s rape fantasies,” he insensitively quips…), Patrick cannot, apparently, make any advances whatsoever. Dr. Roget even describes him in physically and sexually unthreatening terms, calling Patrick “160 pounds of limp flesh.”  The word limp has a pretty obvious connotation in terms of sexuality.

Finally, of course, Kathy realizes that this isn’t precisely so, that Patrick is ultimately no different than either Ed or Brian, and that he too makes aggressive demands on her.  The film’s most infamous line, perhaps, is “Patrick wants his hand job,” a statement that again forces an overt sexual demand upon Kathy that she finds uncomfortable.  The film’s last act sees Kathy, rather than being acted upon, taking dynamic action to end Patrick’s influence. But in a sense, she also rescues Ed and Brian, a turnaround of the relationship status quo that empowers her.

Intriguingly, Matron Cassidy, though emotionally distant, is also a strong female character. For a long stretch of the film she acts only according to Dr. Roget’s bizarre and draconian wishes and orders, but finally -- reckoning with her own morality – she takes a stand to end Patrick’s so-called “life.”  Patrick kills her before she can turn the power off on him, but in terms of the character, Cassidy undergoes the same sort of journey towards independence that we see in Kathy. She ultimately finds the confidence to live according to her own moral code, and not by the edicts of the domineering man in her life. She sees Patrick’s life as a cruel one that should not be prolonged, and she no longer ignores her own voice.

Above, I noted director Franklin’s sense of humor, and many visuals in the film humorously spell out warnings or codes to the characters.  Early on, when Kathy first visits the hospital, for instance, she walks across a painted warning on the street: Do Not Enter.   She crosses that threshold blindly, and the horror in her life commences.  But she literally ignores a giant sign, under her feet, warning her to consider her path.

Later, the sign at the Roget Clinic which reads “Emergency Entrance” shorts out and comes to read “Emergency Trance.” 

The pertinent question here is, whose trance is the sign referring to?  Is Patrick in a trance, in his comatose state? 

Perhaps so, but the overall structure of the film suggests that Kathy has lived her adult life in a trance as well, and that only by breaking out of it (as Patrick breaks out of his, leaping out of his bed…) can she find happiness, or at least satisfaction.

Patrick’s sub-plot about irresponsible science and its prolongation of death, not life, raises some interesting questions vis-à-vis Kathy as well. She and Dr. Roget discuss, at length, the point of death, the point at which the soul or life-force leave the body. Roget also -- using that frog demonstration -- suggests that a soul may have nothing whatsoever to do with the appearance of life. He report that a simple burst of electricity mimics the appearance of true life.  Kathy, who has struck out on her own, suffers from an amorphous, existential problem in the film. She is not satisfied in marriage, or her life in general. Like that frog (or by extension, Patrick), she has the appearance of a real life, but it is just a show, a façade.

There’s a school of thought regarding John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) that Laurie Strode and Michael Myers are psychologically connected. He is, some say, a manifestation of her Id, or her “hang-ups” to use a seventies colloquialism. Patrick rather directly forges a similar dynamic. Kathy and Patrick are both stuck in a trance, both not really living, both trying to find the spark that can make existence meaningful.  Both find asymmetric ways to assert independence and power.

Halloween is a better horror film, for certain, but Patrick is smart, well-rendered, and wholly deserving of its reputation as a kind of mini-classic. As I noted above, the film loses steam some in the third act, and could do with some trimming, but the clever screenplay, the great central performance by Penhaligon and Franklin’s crisp, knowing, technically-adroit direction all make the film worth a re-evaluation.

Tomorrow, I look at the 2014 remake.

Movie Trailer: Patrick (1978)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mad Max Fury Road (2015) Official Trailer

At Flashbak: Déjà vu All Over Again: Five Sci-Fi TV Clips Shows from the Depths of Hell

At Flashbak, my latest article remembers the horrors of science fiction TV clip shows!

"Once upon a time, major TV series in America were expected to be on the air and producing new material for twenty-five to thirty weeks a year.

Sometimes, production companies fell behind in this rigorous schedule. 

Sometimes they simply ran out of money, or were budgeting for an expensive, upcoming sweeps installment, and needed a breather.

And sometimes, the producers were just rushing to put something together in anticipation of a writers or actors strike.

All such production disruptions could necessitate the creation of the dreaded “clips show,” an episode of an otherwise beloved series in which protagonists convene to recollect “events” in their lives, sometimes to solve a mystery.  But the ploy was…transparent.

These “memories” are then visualized on screen as, literally, clips from previous episodes.  Even the best of shows in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were not immune to the horror of the “clips show.”

Here are five examples of this unfortunate necessity, and they are all pretty bad."

The Muppet Show Jigsaw Puzzles

The Muppet Show Colorforms

(Other) Lunch Box of the Week: Pigs in Space

Lunch Box of the Week: The Muppet Show

Board Game of the Week: The Muppet Show (Parker Bros.)

Theme Song of the Week: The Muppet Show

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

From the Archive: Outland (1981)

One of the best and perhaps most unsung science fiction films of the early 1980s is Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981), a movie which boasts the unforgettable tag-line: “Even in space, the ultimate enemy is man.” 

A 1980s re-imagination of High Noon (1952), Outland -- much like its Fred Zinneman directed predecessor -- thrives as both an action film and as a social critique of a particular span of the Cold War Era.

While High Noon allegorically concerned the McCarthy Hearings and Hollywood Blacklist, Outland concerns itself with out-of-control, unregulated business interests, and their deleterious impact on the average joe: the worker.  In both cases, a man alone faces a dangerous, corrupt establishment, and even though his cause is just, can't get his fellow-man to join him in the fight.

In terms of visualizations, Outland’s production design and special effects make the drama’s central location -- a mining town on Jupiter’s moon, Io -- feel abundantly like a real place.  The industrial, cramped, tactile sets generate a sense not only of verisimilitude, but of rampant claustrophobia.  One stunning, sprawling chase sequence in the film's second act makes outstanding use of the de-humanizing sets and the feelings they generate.  In some sense, the movie also plays like the space age equivalent of the gritty The French Connection (1971).

Finally, Sean Connery delivers an appealing lead performance as Marshal O’Niel in Outland, playing an older law enforcement official who realizes that he is part of a system that he despises, and attempts to change that fact.

“There's a whole machine that works because everybody does what they are supposed to. And I found out... I was supposed to be something I didn't like.”

Marshal O'Niel (Connery) has just been assigned to the Con-Am 27 installation on Io, the third moon of Jupiter. Seventy hours from the nearest space station, this mine boasts a population of 2,144 workers, and a supply shuttle visits once a week.

While O'Niel deals with his wife's (Kika Markham's) decision to take their son and leave the grim installation, there's also a rash of worker suicides to contend with. One miner rips open his atmosphere suit while on the surface, convinced that he is being attacked by spiders. Another worker walks into the airlock and mining elevator with no suit whatsoever...and leaves behind a boiling, bloody mess.

O'Niel is suspicious about these deaths, and learns from the post's dissolute doctor, named Lazarus (an outstanding Frances Sternhagen...) that there have been twenty-four such "suicides" in the past six months. O'Niel doesn't buy that explanation and learns that the station's administrator, Sheppard (Peter Boyle) is running an illegal drug operation.

Sheppard is using two workers -- Spota and Yario -- to pass the drugs to the population. The synthetic narcotic, an amphetamine, makes workers do their jobs much more quickly: 14 hours of work in 6 hours. Of course, this means a higher quota; which means the business is more profitable for Sheppard and his bosses.

But there's a down side, the drug also "fries the brain" and turns normal men psychotic.

O'Niel interferes with the drug-running operation, but learns he was given the assignment as Federal District Marshal on Io because it was expected he wouldn't rock the boat. He doesn't like that arrangement, and so confronts Sheppard. Sheppard responds by sending professional assassins to kill the meddling O'Niel.

Unfortunately, this frontier world is a place where nobody wants to stick their neck out, and O'Niel must face the killers alone...and the next shuttle is arriving soon.

I run a franchise. The company hired me to dig as much ore out of this hellhole as possible…The workers are happy. When the workers are happy, they dig more ore. They get paid more bonus money. When they dig more ore, the company's happy. When the company's happy, I'm happy.”

In High Noon, a retired law-man, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), learns that a train carrying a criminal he once put away, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is coming to town.  Miller seeks vengeance, and has three gang-members to help him achieve that goal.  Realizing he can’t succeed alone, Kane asks for help from the local towns-people in Hadleyville, but they rebuff his entreaties for help. 

High Noon thus views civilization as oppressive and corrupt, and critic Pauline Kael famously termed the movie “a microcosm of the evils of capitalist society.” (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Bantam Books, 1969, page 345.) 

High Noon's mythic, archetypal approach to storytelling -- which pits one man against a corrupt system -- likely explains why the western is widely beloved by people on all sides of the political spectrum, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It is a film about individual morality, and that morality balanced against the presiding morality of a society at large.

Specifically, the townspeople's refusal to assist a good man facing a death sentence in High Noon was mirrored in the 1950s by the idea of artists going before McCarthy’s committee, and being forced to name names without anyone taking their side, or defending their rights, either.  The Encyclopedia of Politics, Media, and Popular Culture refers to the “allegorical sell-out of the townspeople" (page 9) in High Noon, in particular.  

It’s easier to do nothing and let evil win, than step-up and become a target one’s self, the movie suggests.

Outland is very much a reiteration of High Noon’s stance, though updated to the milieu of the 1980s.  It’s a film about one man who finds himself in a corrupt system and determines that no matter the cost, he can’t simply be a cog in the wheel.  When he sees that the system -- run by a giant, inhuman corporation -- is not only corrupt but actually murderous, he endeavors to rally the citizens of Io to help him.  But once more, it is easier to accept corruption as the norm than stand-up to it and risk bodily harm for a just cause.

The first connection to consider between High Noon and Outland involves character.  Kane and O’Niel share the name William, and are both family men and law-enforcement officials.  

The second connection revolves around choice of location. High Noon and Outland are both set on the outer edge of the frontier, where established civilization is far distant indeed.  Perhaps it is more apt to say that in both locations there is a veneer of civilization, but it is possible to easily scrape that veneer away.

Outland's director, Peter Hyams references the earlier film in other ways as well.  In High Noon, a train was bound for town, carrying a murderer.  When the train arrived, a whistle blew, and the town came to a kind of dead standstill.  

In Outland, that approaching train has been replaced by a space shuttle preparing to dock.  When it landson the platform, an alarm klaxon sounds, and the whole mining facility, likewise comes to a stop.

Similarly, both Outland and High Noon are “ticking clock” movies.  Both productions frequently cut to compositions focusing on clocks so as to build suspense while the villain's conveyance (either train or space shuttle) nears.  The idea is plain: the clock in both cases is ticking down to a rendezvous with destiny, and possibly death.

As the space shuttle nears Jupiter’s moon, Outland again acknowledges its source of inspiration.  Here, O’Niele goes before a corporate board room and to a saloon to solicit help, or at least sympathy, and finds none.  In High Noon, Kane likewise asks help from churchgoers and drinkers at a saloon, and is similarly rebuffed.  

What’s most critical here, perhaps, is the idea that the “board room” has supplanted the “church” as a place of community authority and morality in Outland.  If anything, this substitution only enhances the idea of a corrupt system, and looking out for one’s self.

The substitution of the corporate board room for a town church, and the move to outer space (and to a grittier style of film-making), help Outland establish its own identity and view-point beyond the studied tribute to High Noon, In other words, Outland takes the ideas of High Noon a bit farther.  Here, the target is explicitly unregulated capitalism (whereas one could make the case that  High Noon concerns any corrupt establishment), and the inclusion of a board room (over a community church), points a finer point on the social critique.

Outside of homage and social commentary, one reason I appreciate Outland so much involves the visualization of difficult life on Io. Here, the movie makers take special pains to create a tangible sense of place, a futuristic frontier town that, according to Sheppard "is just like any other mining town."

Only here, the frontier is even more dangerous than one can imagine, and we see several gory de-pressurizations in the movie. There ain't nothing like that in High Noon, for certain.

But more importantly, the environs of this futuristic outpost on Io are completely and believably rendered in virtually aspect here.. Since space and atmosphere are both at a premium, miners sleep in tiny compartments stacked several levels high and several rows deep. These compartments are not much larger than a casket...and demonstrate visually why miners might lose their minds in this setting.

Likewise, every detail, down to the hookers in the Leisure Club and Sheppard's spacious office, reveal to the audience something important about this location, and how it affects the human psyche.

At about the fifty minute point of Outland, director Peter Hyams ramps up the pace and directs a sustained action sequence that sees O'Niel taking spirited pursuit of Spota. Lensed in long shot and with few cuts (at least at first), this chase is not only exhilarating, it lends an immeasurable sense of reality to the locale.

We see Connery chase his prey from locker room to sleeping quarters, to a cafeteria to a kitchen with precious few cuts and thus precious little fakery.  A sense of geography is preserved, and the result, again, is that we believe our eyes: this is all real.  In many ways, this chase/fight is the film's high point, a crazed, accelerated tour of a futuristic installation that is utilitarian, depressing, and completely believable as an extrapolation of future technology.

So many cinematic stories set on other worlds view humans as perfect (like Star Trek), focus on confrontations with monstrous extra-terrestrials (like Alien) or deal with colossal scope, like the events of a galactic war (Star Wars). All of those franchise films are great, and I absolutely love them all dearly, but I can also appreciate the uniqueness of Outland: that it concerns human characters in space, not phantasmagoria. The filmmakers didn't feel the need to include any other fantasy elements, and the film is all the stronger for its singularity of focus. It is what it is: a personal confrontation on the newest human frontier; a test of self when one’s established view of self has been shattered.

I always like to point one other fact regarding great science fiction or fantasy films of the past, and I’ll do so again here. 

Everything about Outland had to be created from scratch. 

Every set had to be built from the ground up. A believable world had to be imagined, and then erected with a fine eye towards detail.  There was no computer generated imagery to take the load off real world construction, miniature-building, and other tasks  The resulting film is immersive and tense and involving, and that means that the production designers and art directors did a magnificent job.

I'm old enough to remember how shabbily Outland was received upon release by critics both in and out of the genre. Today, most of their complaints don't really hold up.

For instance, I remember one prominent science fiction author of the day expressing disappointment that the film ends with O'Niel simply punching out his enemy, Sheppard. This critic complained that it was an anti-climax -- and sorely disappointing -- not to have Sheppard murdered by the hero.

Well, all I can say in response is that the review must not have paid close attention to the film. Because when Sheppard contacts his bosses to acquire assassins, they warn him in no uncertain terms that "the next guy coming for someone will be coming for you." 

In other words, by defeating Sheppard's assassins and exposing the drug ring, O'Niel has already beaten his enemy. Sheppard's own allies are going to kill him, so O'Niel doesn't need to commit murder.

I find this a rather elegant resolution, rather than simply having O'Niel blast Sheppard with a shotgun.


Well, O'Niel could have murdered Sheppard at any point in the story if he had wanted to. This isn't really a story about O'Niel committing murder to make his point; it's a story about O'Niel's redemption, and his individual method for beating "City Hall."  What would be the point of killing Sheppard and then going to jail? At least this way, O'Niel wins, and isn't permanently separated from his family.

It's much better, I believe, to leave Sheppard dangling on the hook, waiting to be offed by the very people he conspired with.  That's sweet justice, as opposed to blunt-faced murder.  Again, it's illuminating to remember that many people saw High Noon as a rejection of violence as a meaningful solution to problems.  Though there is violence aplenty in Outland, to be certain, one could make the same claim here.  The protagonist, O'Niel, doesn't engage in any violence that would land him on the wrong side of the law, and thus sacrifice his standing as a just man.

A long-time victim of misplaced criticism, Outland is a great film with one foot in the past, and one in the future.  With nods to cinematic history, and to the then-contemporary "space race" trend in the American cinema, the Peter Hyams film reminds audiences that even when man goes to the stars he will take all of his own strengths and weaknesses along for the ride.