Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween, 2015: Millennium: "Thirteen Years Later"

While investigating “The Madman Maniac” case on a horror movie set in Trinity, South Carolina, F.B.I. detective Emma Hollis (Klea Scott) asks profiler extraordinaire Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) an important question about their current investigation.

She asks him if he recalls the serial killer called “The Frenchman” -- a figure depicted so memorably in Millennium’s pilot episode in 1996 -- and wonders if this case could be similar in an important way. Except that instead of a Scripture-quoting serial killer, the contemporary investigation involves one who utilizes horror movie “quotations” or allusions as his source of creativity.

Quite reasonably, this raises a procedural question. Shouldn’t the case’s investigators be watching and researching horror films to glean a sense of the Madman Maniac killer’s next move, as well as his motivations?

Frank is impressed and agreeable regarding this course of action.

Queue John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)…

This short scene is very much the lynchpin of the Millennium third season episode, “Thirteen Years Later,” and for two important reasons.

First and foremost, it suggests the leitmotif of Michael B. Perry’s complex story: horror movies serving as important clues in capturing a serial killer. And secondly, the very act of a horror-themed TV show delving into the horror genre (and referring to a previous episode in Millennium canon too…) heavily reflects the cultural context of the episode’s epoch.

Specifically, the year 1998 represented the pinnacle of the 1990s self-reflexive, post-modernist horror movement in cinema. This was the era of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Scream 2 (1997), Urban Legend (1997) and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998).

More or less, all of these scary movies thrived upon the notion of killers taking horror movies as inspiration for violent behavior. And to varying degrees, the characters in these new-styled slasher films, realize they have actually landed in a horror film and either act accordingly and survive, or fail to…and die.

Intentionally mimicking this then-popular horror movie format, “Thirteen Years Later” both gazes at Millennium’s internal history (the events of the pilot, as well as Frank’s old case of over a dozen years ago) and the genre the series belongs to.

To succeed as self-reflexive satire of the horror format, this Millennium episode must first ape that form, and this is where “Thirteen Years Later” proves rather clever. In particular terms, the episode closely mirrors and rigorously conforms to the “Slasher Movie Paradigm” I excavated in my 2007 McFarland book, Horror Films of the 1980s.

As the title of the Millennium episode suggests, the narrative involves a crime or transgression in the past, in this case, a crime Frank investigated over a decade back. More significantly, it boasts what I termed an organizing principle or “umbrella of unity” too, in this case a world or venue from which all the killings draw inspiration and creativity.

In my book, I noted that: “The organizing principle is what every slasher film ultimately hangs its hooks upon. It is the key to every aspect of the film: from setting to character motivations to mode of kills and even final chase.” (page 20).

In Friday the 13th (1980), that organizing principle was the summer camp, Camp Crystal Lake. In He Knows You’re Alone (1981), the organizing principle was the world of weddings (brides, a church, a dress shop, a dress tailor…). In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the killings by Freddy Krueger all occurred in the dream world.

In “Thirteen Years Later,” the organizing principle is simply the cutthroat world of contemporary, Hollywood: a 1990s-era movie set. This organizing principle makes way for the episode’s prospective victim pool (personal trainers, producers, ingénues, pampered Shakespearean actors, etc.), muddies the water in terms of useful clues (is that human blood or stage blood at the crime scenes?) and provides the critical clue about secret identity of the killer (hint: he’s a method actor).

Delightfully, the episode also positions Emma Hollis as that archetypal slasher movie character: the Final Girl. The final girl -- a term created by Carol J. Clover -- is “chased, cornered, wounded…but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (Ending A) or to kill him herself (Ending B).” (Carol J. Clover. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press, 1992, page 35).

n “Thirteen Years Later’s” tense finale, after the killings are believed to be over, the real killer threatens Emma in her hotel room while she is alone, and she must summon the strength and composure to defeat him…even if he sounds an awful lot like her beloved mentor, Frank Black. She succeeds ably and proves her worth as a horror movie Final Girl.

By co-opting the crime in the past, the organizing principle, the victim pool and the Final Girl character from the Slasher Paradigm, “Thirteen Years Later” emerges as a full-on, affectionate celebration of the slasher genre. The segment’s best scene, not coincidentally, involves Frank Black’s lightning fast, unimpressed (but impressive) psychological profile of such slasher film icons as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and even Norman Bates.

We’ve all seen these films and these characters over and over again – and cherished them – and yet Frank comes in -- and after watching only a little clip from each film -- diagnoses these Bogeymen in the most nonplussed and clinical (and therefore amusing) manner imaginable. This is a terrific moment, and one that reveals how adeptly Lance Henriksen broaches humor in what many viewers might perceive as an essentially humorless role. He plays the scene straight, thereby allowing the audience to detect the humor for itself instead of camping-it-up and going for obvious laughs. The moment is funny because Frank accomplishes in mere moments what a century of film heroes, psychologists and final girls cannot: he unearths the motivations for the seemingly unstoppable silver screen slashers.

The self-reflexive component of “Thirteen Years Later,” largely emerges -- Kevin Williamson-style -- in the number and specificity of the horror movie allusions. The episode tags not only Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, it pauses to remember The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Omen (1976), Motel Hell (1980) and The Hitcher (1987). The killer re-creates the chainsaw attack from Leatherface’s film, and the severed finger in a lunch meal, from The Hitcher, to offer some specifics.

But most interesting, perhaps, is one relatively obscure literary reference seeded into the proceedings. Specifically, a relaxing Emma Hollis is seen reading an interesting book: Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths (1962).

This is a critically-feted collection of short stories by a celebrated modernist who subscribed to the theory that anarchy and chaos dominate the world; and who, on several occasions, actually wrote “hoax” reviews of literary works that did not actually exist…by authors that likewise, did not exist.

Ultimately then, author Borges played with literary form in the same fashion that “Thirteen Years Later” plays with cinematic or visual form. The episode is about a killer who has no understandable pattern, but who is making a movie (that doesn’t exist) about a historical case (that also doesn’t exist). This is a fake form referencing a fake form, referencing a fake event.

You can’t get much more post-modern than that.

In terms of visuals “Thirteen Years Later” also deliberately apes the slasher milieu. The installment opens with imagery reminiscent of Psycho: a shower-head facing the camera (screen-wise above and before the audience), a playful composition which makes the audience remember Janet Leigh’s infamous stay at the Bates Motel and ultimately puts us in the shower.

The film’s first death set-piece then co-mingles stage-blood and real human blood; a visual metaphor for a twisting narrative which purposefully blends “the reality” of Frank’s old case with the illusions produced by commercial Hollywood,

After the action settles down in Trinity, South Carolina (a town named after the central location of the 1995 Sam Raimi/Shaun Cassidy horror serial, American Gothic), the visuals grow increasingly claustrophobic. By the time of the climax, in which Emma is imperiled, tight horror movie-styled framing rules the day. Thanks to accomplished director Thomas J. Wright, we get some lovely close-ups of Scott, and Emma’s space in the frame is increasingly restricted, bracketed on both sides by encroaching door frames and other objects.

In some ways, “Thirteen Years Later” feels like an atypical, out-of-step installment of the very serious Millennium. But digging a little deeper, one detects how the episode’s crazy killer echoes the modus operandi of previous serial killers seen on the program, only with a horror movie twist.

And more so, the self-reflexive, post-modern message -- epitomized by the presence of that book, Labyrinths -- reveals much about the episode’s intelligent approach.

Trying to determine reality and not artifice in “Thirteen Years Later” is enough to make even the stalwart Frank Black go insane, for the third time in his life.

Two severed thumbs up?

Happy Halloween, 2015: Brimstone: "It's a Helluva Life" (1999)

“It’s a Helluva Life” is one of Brimstone’s (1998 – 1999) finest episodes, a playful and often moving variation on the classic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.  Only here, Detective Stone (Peter Horton) is the one who gets a tour of his life... in this case by the Devil and a lookalike angel, both played by the delightful and acerbic John Glover.

In “It’s a Helluva Life,” Stone unexpectedly spots his wife, Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk) during his pursuit of a bank-robbing Hell escapee, and then debates with the Devil about the arc of his life. 

The Devil suggests that Stone was always been a bad, irredeemable man, destined for eternity in Hell, and then reminds Stone (via flashbacks) of the time he framed a notorious criminal for drug possession. The Devil also shows Stone his continued neglect of Rosalyn, and reveals how Stone started down the dark path as a young boy.  In one vision, Stone sees how his father's own bully-like ways were passed down to him.

But then an angel shows up and reminds Stone that the truth is not nearly so black-and-white as the Devil suggests, and that Stone’s final chapter on Earth is yet unwritten.   The Angel takes Stone back to his first meeting with Rosalyn, decades earlier, and reminds him how their love began at the Policeman’s ball in 1980.  Finally, the Angel suggests that Stone boasts “a divine purpose.”

Once more in Brimstone, the nature of good and evil is explored in a significant and nuanced way.  In “It’s a Helluva Life,” the audience is once more asked to countenance shades of gray.  Is it right to bring a known criminal to justice by manufacturing evidence against him if that is the only avenue to make the populace safe?  Can we forgive a boy for his adult trespasses because he was mistreated by an abusive father?    There aren't any clear-cut answers.

What this episode truly discusses is this: what is “evil” in human nature really about?  Can it ever be mitigated or forgiven because of extenuating circumstances (like intent, and upbringing)?  

Or, contrarily, is evil but a deed which once wrought, cannot be undone. Once you have committed evil, does that act of evil forever shade your future?

For instance, The Devil suggests to Stone that even the “thought” of evil counts, because it poisons the soul. Yet the Angel contradicts Satan, and suggests to Stone that “Universal law,” essentially is open to the idea of mitigating circumstances.  I’ve written it before in these blog reviews, but the magic and genius of Brimstone is the way it explores moral relativism within the confines/context of a dramatic universe of absolutes. God and the Devil exist, and so good and evil must exist in their purest form.  But how man chooses navigates the universe involves shades of gray.

I believe that “It’s a Helluva Life” is the finest episode in the Brimstone canon because it breaks established formula and doesn’t focus intently on the hunt for the Hell convict of the week.  

Instead, Stone’s choices -- and Stone’s nature as a human being -- are at the core of the drama.  We learn a lot about his history in this story, and Stacy Haiduk  delivers a great performance as the tragic and winsome Rosalyn.  She comes across as beautiful in spirit and form in this episode, and the scenes in which Stone delivers emotional hurt upon her are almost unbearably painful to watch, because we know where they are both heading.  

Perhaps above everything else, “It’s a Helluva Life” reminds you to cherish those you love in the time you have on Earth, because that time could be unexpectedly cut short.  In the fast hubbub of life, it’s all-too easy to let a hurt go unacknowledged.  Here, Stone is burdened with regrets and paths not taken, and there's no easy way forward.

I admire that “It’s a Helluva Life” is emotionally moving without being schmaltzy.  In large part, this is because Horton underplays Stone’s revelations, always keeping the character’s emotions close to the vest.  But the schmaltz factor is also reduced because John Glover is so damned good as the Devil, forever puncturing any moment that threatens to become pretentious.  Glover gets a great line here about Stone and “zooming” away on the Highway to Heaven.  In that moment, the series truly lives up to its nickname: Touched by a Devil.

With only two episodes left to go in its abbreviated run, Brimstone hits a high-point with "It's a Helluva Life."

Happy Halloween, 2015: Nightmare Cafe (1992)

"Lost somewhere between life and death, time and eternity, there are places which...leave you forever changed. This is one such place...Each door leads someone to that second chance that will turn their life around and to others that reckoning that will end their sleep forever. Welcome to...the Nightmare Cafe."

- The opening narration to Wes Craven's Nightmare Cafe (1992).

On January 29, 1992, auteur Wes Craven and horror icon Robert Englund introduced the world to their latest genre collaboration: the NBC TV series called Nightmare Cafe. 

Although the series only lasted for six hour-long episodes before abrupt cancellation, it nonetheless remains a fascinating and unusual entry in the cult-tv Valhalla. 

At the time the show premiered (the year following David Lynch's Twin Peaks...), many people involved in the production referred to the program as "The Twilight Zone meets Cheers."

Writing for New York Magazine, critic John Leonard called the Craven TV series "rather witty" (March 2, 1992, page 59) though, in contrast, Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker opined that Nightmare Cafe was "Dull, stupid, and really annoying." (February 28, 1992, page 42).                         

Nightmare Cafe involves two "average joes," Faye Perronovic (Lindsay Frost) and Frank Nolan (Jack Coleman) as they unexpectedly become entangled with a supernatural, or perhaps mystical edifice: the Nightmare Cafe. 

The cafe itself is a kind of art deco, retro-noir-styled eating establishment perched on a seedy waterfront; the kind of joint -- or "dive" -- that is open all night every night, and no one seems to notice...or care.  In one episode, the diner is even called "a dump."

Already stationed inside the mysterious cafe is a third character: Blackie (Robert Englund), a sardonic, faintly-demonic man of unknown origin, motives and agenda.  In the first episode of Nightmare Cafe, he informs Faye and Frank that "Good or bad, dead or alive," the Cafe gets "all kinds" and that this duo  has "been selected" (by the cafe...) to help such strangers "and maybe learn something" about themselves "along the way."

So, rather unconventionally, Blackie serves as both the "Rod Serling" of the unusual TV series -- a narrator and master of ceremonies in the individual installments -- and an unpredictable, Loki-like player in the proceedings themselves.   At various points, you wonder if Blackie is the Devil, or simply a reformed soul doing "penance" for bad deeds in life.

In various guises and appearances, Blackie leads men and women (the series guest stars...) either to redemption or doom, and Englund is perfect in this unique role.  After all, Englund had played both the innocent Willie on V: The Series (1985) and the most famous screen-monster of the 1980s, Freddy Krueger.  A truly versatile player, Englund's Blackie proves a "wild card" and his very presence in Nightmare Cafe -- so ambiguous and unexcavated -- adds a sense of fun to each segment.

After confronting their own personal demons in the pilot episode directed by Philip Noyce, Faye becomes waitress in the cafe; Frank the short order cook.  And their weekly clientele is anyone who happens to wander in, perhaps at the heeding of the sentient Cafe itself. 

Various doorways in the colorful cafe lead to other worlds, to other times, and to alternate possibilities.  In fact, the Cafe is not entirely unlike Dr. Who's famous TARDIS: it can come and go to different locales as it chooses, and seems very much alive.  In one episode, "Faye and Ivy," the Cafe even nurses hurt feelings for a time.

In interviews at the time, Wes Craven described the Nightmare Cafe premise this way: "two people inherit a cafe that's somewhere between life and death," and that "People come to experience their worst nightmare...turning point...comeuppance...breakthrough. (Steve Biodrowski. Cinefantastique, Volume # 22, Number 2: "Wes Craven, Alive and Shocking." October 1991, page 11).

In other words, imagine the Twilight Zone as a diner; but with a set of continuing characters to shepherd visitors through the strange happenings and twisty narratives.  Thus Nightmare Cafe is a wholly unique show: part-anthology and part serial adventure with regular characters.  Perhaps the clearest, most familiar TV antecedent is ABC's Fantasy Island (1977 - 1984), which also saw regular characters (Mr. Roarke and Tattoo...) leading guest stars through weekly stories that could leap across established genres.  Romances, horror tales, fantasy, etc...

Accordingly, the six episodes in Nightmare Cafe's stable really run the gamut in terms of narratives and style. 

"Dying Well is the Best Revenge" (March 6, 1992) is a film  noir-styled murder story, replete with a femme-fatale and a would-be "patsy," Frank himself. 

"Faye and Ivy" (March 13, 1992) is a kind of family drama about Faye making peace with her long-estranged sister, Ivy (Penny Fuller). 

"The Heart of the Mystery" (March 20, 1992) involves another interesting variation on noir conventions, with an obsessed detective (Timothy Carhart) offered the opportunity to travel back in time and witness a crime that he has never been able to solve. 

"Sanctuary for a Child" (March 27, 1992) -- starring Angela Bassett and William B. Davis -- involves a dying boy, Luke (Brandon Adams, of Craven's The People Under the Stairs [1991]) -- who cannot ascend to the spiritual realm until his bickering, resentful parents reconcile. 

And finally, "Aliens Ate My Lunch" (April 3, 1992) is a crazy satire about a Tabloid reporter who makes up a story about alien invaders.  The Cafe makes his unbelievable story all too true, and Craven uses this story (which he penned) to make a comment on the "mob mentality," in the very spirit of Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street."

In many ways, Nightmare Cafe remains an important element in the career of the late Wes Craven. At the time of the program's broadcast, it was the latest development in his "rubber reality" horror formula (which included the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Serpent and the Rainbow [1987], and Shocker [1989]) and an indication of the Pirandello-esque direction he would soon take in cinematic efforts such as Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) and the blockbuster, Scream (1996).

I've always believed that given a little more time -- and some patience from NBC -- Nightmare Cafe could have proved a really potent, beloved, and long-lived horror series.  But with only six episodes in its canon, one might feel rightly that the show never truly found a consistent voice or approach.

Happy Halloween, 2015: Dracula: The Series (1990)

By the closing days of Reagan's eighties, the scariest monsters in American society were rampaging, unethical businessmen.

Remember Ivan Boesky, convicted of insider trading, who was fined 100 million dollars and eventually served a two year sentence at Lompoc? 

Boesky was the model for Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street (1987) and had allegedly said (in a speech): "I think greed can be healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."

Then there was Michael Milken, indicted on a whopping ninety-eight counts of racketeering and fraud involving insider trading. 

The "Junk Bond" King eventually copped to six counts and paid 200 million in fines.

And then, of course, there was Alexander Lucard, Dracula himself, played by actor Geordie Johnson...

What? You don't remember that last guy?

In 1990, Dracula: The Series aired in syndication all around America (on 115 stations...) and featured, in campy, tongue-in-cheek style, a central vampire who was as much unethical corporate raider as literal blood sucker. 

In fact, the very idea of vampire was re-tooled for the series to incorporate all the latest business malfeasance from a time when laissez-faire, crony-capitalism had run amok.

In the Dracula: The Series press-kit, series executive producer David Patterson noted that the Boesky/Milken interpretation of Dracula was but a "logical extension of the vampire legend as if he were operating in our world today," and asked "what could be more relevant" than Gordon Gekko as an undead bloodsucker, seeking eternal life.

A really fun novel idea, or heresy to the legacy of literary Stoker? 

Or could it be both at the same time?

Dracula: The Series was filmed in Luxembourg, and aired for 21 half-hour episodes. The series involved two pre-teeny-bopper American brothers (and teenagers...) abroad, Max (Jacob Tierney) and Christopher Townsend (Joe Roncelli), as they endured a strange adventure. 

They relocated to the home of their Uncle Gustav Van Helsing (Bernard Behrens) in Eastern Europe and learned that the old man was locked in a perpetual battle with playboy billionaire, industrialist, and creature of the night, Dracula/Lucard (Johnson). This latter-day Dracula had an appetite for cold hard cash as well as hemoglobin, and was obsessed with exercising to keep himself fit.

A very youthful Mia Kirshner played the object of the boy's affections -- and perpetual damsel-in-distress --Sophie Metternich. 

The series was ultimately canceled before resolving a cliffhanger finale entitled "Klaus Encounters of the Interred Kind." That last episode saw Max and Chris on the verge of being sent home to Philadelphia, as well as the opening of a portal "outside of time and space" that could end the vampire curse once and for all. Gustav hoped to open the portal to rescue his vampire son, Klaus (Geraint Wyn-Davies, pre-Forever Knight)

Critics didn't care much for William Laurin and Glenn Davis's modern re-interpretation of the Stoker character, or a TV series which was described far and wide in the press materials as an "all-family action-adventure!." 

Epilog's William Anchors called the series "sort of the television equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space," (Epilog Journal #41, Page 31). Although People Magazine made note of the "frequently stylish" aspects of the series as well as the "good special effects," it didn't fail to comment on the repetitive nature of the series' stories, which saw the American boys breaking into Dracula's castle on a regular basis...and always managing to survive. It became so tiresome a convention on the show that Dracula once quipped "Does everyone have the key to this castle?"

Longtime horror fans also vehemently disliked this short-lived 1990 series (distributed in the U.S. by Blair Entertainment) for three reasons: first, the re-vamped nature of Dracula as a yuppie, tread-mill-using capitalist. 

Second, the tongue-in-cheek nature of the individual stories (which featured titles such as "My Dinner with Lucard" and "My Fair Vampire,") and third, the childish nature of the lead characters. 

Think back to how Adric, or Wesley Crusher were received in their various fandoms, and you can imagine how fans took to the pre-adolescent leads of this show. 

Also, hardcore Dracula fans were never going to approve of a version of the legend which featured Dracula's silly come-back to the question "are you Dracula?" His answer. "No...I'm Milli Vanilli." Still, the program has maintained a small but devoted fan base.

When I wrote about Dracula: The Series in Terror Television back in the late-1990s, I noted that the series often resembled "The Hardy Boys on speed" and that description still seems apt. Watching this series today (and back in the 1990s), you had to understand that it was aimed primarily at kids, and then (mercifully...) judge it on that basis. 

I mean, the show was not (and is not) scary in the's campy, but the series still has its moments. For instance, "I Love Lucard" ends with a romantic airport scene right out of Casablanca, but then culminates with a moment that annihilates any romantic notions about Lucard. 

"What A Pleasant Surprise" pays homage to the silent horror films of the 1920s with a sense of respect, and a bottle-show, "Decline of the Romanian Vampire" featured an extended dialogue between Gustav Van Helsing and Dracula about the nature of good and evil.

I also rather appreciated the fact that Dracula: The Series cast the very young (children)... and the very old (senior citizens) as our heroes, acknowledging -- if sub-textually -- that only the young and the very old are capable of really believing in things like ghosts and vampires; either because of naive innocence (or senile dementia!). 

In the world of Dracula, the kids are taken seriously...even though they are young and silly. In these moments, you realize it was truly Dracula's ambition to be a family show and not a spine-tingling chiller.

On the same theme, I think it's worth noting that the series casts those between the ages of 20 and 50 as the villains or as the enablers of villains...often as un-dead personifications of contemporary yuppie values. Gustav's son Klaus, the boys' mother Eileen, and Dracula himself represented the upwardly mobile, self-involved, greed-is-good Reagan generation, and they can only be combated here by the disenfranchised, out-of-power groups like kids and seniors.

Hokey as hell and woefully juvenile, Dracula: The Series was often quite stale, hackneyed, and unacceptably repetitive. Dracula: The Series is not the beneficiary of warm nostalgia, but remains eminently suitable for your (young) children. For me, it's an intriguing, bizarre series and not much else: one conceived out of late 1980s adult context (the corporate raiders and yuppies of the time), but pitched right to children.

Dracula: The Series is also interesting in terms of genre history. It's one of those missing link series from approximately 1987- 1991 like Friday the 13th: The Series, She Wolf of London and Werewolf, when the horror genre was really standing up on its feet on TV and greatness was just around the corner in the form of Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Millennium, Buffy, and so forth. 

Today, Dracula: the Series is kid's stuff, but as kid's stuff, it pre-dates such franchises as Goosebumps.

Happy Halloween, 2015: Monsters: "The Match Game" (1988)

In “The Match Game,” four teenagers -- Jody (Ashley Laurence), Paul (Byron James), Matthew (Sasha Jensen) and Bev (Tori Spelling) -- decide to spend the night in the old Waverly Mansion, which stands on a thick swamp called Becker’s Pond.

As night approaches, the group decides to play “the match game,” wherein each teen lights a match and tell a portion of a horror story, until their match dims. Then, the next person lights a match, and continues to tell the same story. 

Little do the teenagers realize, however, that one of their number boasts the power to make the stories come true. 

And therefore, on this night, monstrous old Herbert Waverly (Tom Woodruff Jr.) will rise from his watery grave in misty Becker’s Pond to take vengeance on anyone he finds trespassing in his home...

“The Match Game” is such a great capsule of the late 1980s, in part because of its cast, in part because of its rubber-reality nature. 

Regarding the cast, it is headlined by Hellraiser’s (1987) Kirsty, Ashley Laurence, and by Halloween IV’s Sasha Jensen. 

Intriguingly, Jensen’s character, Matthew, is killed the same way  in “The Match Game” as his character, Brady, is in The Return of Michael Myers. There, his head is crushed by the Shape. Here it is crushed by Herbert Waverly.

More intriguingly, perhaps, “The Match Game” feels like a missing link between the rubber-reality films of the late 1980s and the post-modern horrors of the 1990s, like Candyman (1992), In The Mouth of Madness (1994) or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). 

Specifically, the story involves a ghoul at the bottom of a swamp who comes to life because he is “created” in a fictional campfire tale (or thereabouts) by four teenagers. 

Paul’s energy, specifically, brings the rotting Herbert Waverly to horrid life, and the monster can only be dispatched when Paul conceives and repeats aloud an ending to the story.  “We made it up,” Jody notes “But you brought it were. We have got to finish the story!

In this case, finishing the story means limiting the corpse’s life to one night, and suggesting that by light of dawn he must return to his watery grave.  That’s precisely what happens, and “The Match Game” suggests that evil can’t be vanquished, at least not fully, until its story is told to an appropriate conclusion.  

Again, this idea would be treated (with greater depth) in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.  That brilliant film acknowledges the fact that children, listening to bed time stories, need closure in their tales, or the story's monster can roam free in their psyche.

This is also one episode of Monsters that eschews humor or irreverence and goes right for the horror jugular.  There’s a moment here when one of the match game participants, in the dark, discusses the rules of dealing with Waverly. If he looks you in the eye, “Don’t look back. Don’t look into his eyes. One look will drain the soul from your very body.” 

Poor Tori Spelling learns the hard way that this warning is not hyperbole.

But the horror of the episode is carefully constructed from a filmmaking standpoint as well, not merely through chilling dialogue. Specifically, long takes are deployed. At one point, we move around the players of the match-game in a long, slow circle, as the story continues, develops, and grows ever more menacing.

This is one episode of Monsters that I saw on its original broadcast in 1988, and I remember, afterward, that “The Match Game” troubled my slumber. That's appropriate, because the episode reminds us that the greatest power in the world is that of imagination.

Happy Halloween, 2015: Friday the 13th: The Series: "Hallowe'en" (1987)

Although Friday the 13th: The Series features plenty of good episodes, the best of them invariably feature the late, great R.G. Armstrong as Lewis Vendredi, original owner of Curious Goods.  Armstrong could really portray a great villain, as one can detect from his performances in movies such as Race with the Devil (1975).  

And on Friday the 13th, he made for a very malevolent, if recurring presence.

“Hallowe’en” (original airdate, October 26, 1987) is an early first season episode of this syndicated series, and the first one to feature the return of Vendredi.  

In this story written by William Taub and directed by Timothy Bond, Ryan (John D. Le May) and Micki (Robey) host a Halloween costume party at Curious Goods in an attempt to allay the fears of the (rightfully…) concerned neighbors.  The basement vault where all the cursed items are locked away is marked as “off-limits” by Ryan for the occasion, but two partiers ignore the warning and conjure up a spirit in a glowing crystal ball: the spirit of Vendredi, himself.

While Jack (Chris Wiggins) is mysteriously led away from the party (and Micki and Ryan) by a lost little trick-or-treater, Greta (Adrienne Pocock), Vendredi appears as a ghost in Curious Goods and begs Micki and Ryan for their help with an act of mercy.  He claims to desire only to save the soul of his long-suffering, deceased wife, Grace.  He even takes them to her corpse…which happens to be in a secret room in the store.

But in truth, Vendredi seeks only a powerful relic called the Amulet of Zohar so he can make himself flesh for a few hours…until daylight.  

Misled by their uncle, Micki and Ryan give Vendredi what he needs to save Grace, and then learn they have been deceived, and that he has roughly three hours on Halloween night to find an undamaged corpse where he can permanently house his soul.

Unfortunately for Micki, Ryan and Jack, they must also contend with a demon dwarf, Greta (Victoria Deslaurier) who has come from Hell to do Vendredi’s diabolical bidding…

“Hellowe’en” proves a rather bizarre episode in the canon, in part because of the aforementioned demon dwarf (described in the teleplay and episode as a “midget,”), Greta.  At first she appears as a cute-as-a-button little girl, but then she literally becomes a hell spawn, with the power to levitate and hypnotize victims.  

The episode’s climax descends into something like high camp as Ryan and Micki attempt to escape from Greta in a mortuary, and she tears the place up, pulps coffins and attempts to keep them away from Vendredi as he conducts his all-important ritual.  Greta as a soldier villain from hell -- small in size; big in stature -- adds an unusual wrinkle to the story, for certain.

Otherwise, you have to wonder about a plot-line that sees Micki and Ryan hosting a Halloween party just one floor above a repository for hundreds of cursed antiques.  That’s just asking for trouble, certainly, and probably not the brightest move, wary neighbors or not.  

On the other hand, one of the welcome character touches on Friday the 13th: The Series (at least starting out) is that Micki and Ryan are naïve and inexperienced, and they make mistakes.  They aren’t professionals, and they clearly have a lot to learn about battling ghosts and demons..  If they pulled this stunt in the second season, it would seem a lot dumber, but since “Hallowe’en” is the fifth episode of the first season, perhaps the narrative isn’t so far-fetched.

After “Hellowe’en,” R.G. Armstrong returned in four additional Friday the 13th: The Series episodes including “What A Mother Wouldn’t Do” (about a cradle from the Titanic), “Bottle of Dreams,” the second season premiere “Doorway to Hell,” and “Night Hunger.”  

Happy Halloween, 2015: Tales from the Darkside: "Answer Me"

Tales from the Darkside's one-woman show, "Answer Me" recognizes how annoying a persistently ringing telephone can be, and utilizes that sound to punctuate a droll half-hour of escalating terror.

The episode exists in a kind of irrational, illogical zone of terror, featuring the scatter shot logic of a dream.  And yet, "Answer Me" boasts some genuine psychic power and gravitas because we all hate technology that we can't control.  Like a damned telephone that rings all hours of the night, undeterred by our desire to silence it.

In "Answer Me," a woman named Joan (Jean Marsh) has sub-let an apartment in New York City from her friend.  But all night, every night, the telephone in the next apartment, 12F rings.  Worse, there is  an occasional pounding on the wall too, just as she is about to drift off to sleep.

Joan grows increasingly agitated and restless as the days go by, and the damned phone won't stop its plaintive ringing.  She learns, however, that the apartment is vacant and that the woman who once lived next door...died in the apartment.   She apparently committed suicide.  She strangled herself.

As the phone continues to ring, unabated, all day and all night, Joan finally breaks into Apartment 12F to have a look...

If you apply logical standards to this episode of Tales from the Darkside, you can see how it collapses under the daylight of rationality.  If Joan is truly vexed by the ringing phone, she has any number of options.  She could go stay at a hotel, for instance.  She could go to Apartment 12F and cut the phone cord.  Or, even, she could purchase ear-plugs.

And yet, undeniably, horror is not always about rationality or logic.

Sometimes the genre works quite effectively on a different level, a surreal nightmare level, and that's the quality "Answer Me" possesses in spades.

There's the possibility Joan's entire experience is a nightmare itself; or that she has found her way into Hell.  For instance, is Joan actually the woman (the English woman...) who died in the apartment netx door, strangled by the phone, but somehow reliving the event?  Her experiences with an uncooperative telephone operator certainly hint at such a possibility.  And  the fact that Joan never sees another human being during the episode's proceedings might even be interpreted not as a sign of the production's low budget, but as an indicator of the fact that the world itself is not right.  That Joan has traveled to some "dark side."

The final moments of "Answer Me" are ridiculous, and yet delightful, even inspired on some level.  The vexing telephone physically assaults Joan, and there's a wonderfully silly p.o.v. shot from the phone's subjective viewpoint during the siege.

Of course, a telephone as a malevolent evil force is kind of funny.

And yet again, somehow the idea works in this context, as an avatar for fear.  Not just as a symbol of intrusive technology, but as a representation of the fact that some objects we believe we control and dominate actually seem to take on a life of their own, especially when we're agitated, or thinking irrationally.

"Answer Me" is one of my favorite episodes of Tales from the Darkside.  It's another one that I remember from the series' first run some twenty-seven years ago.  As a teenager, it troubled my slumber and my psyche, although I readily acknowledge it's ridiculous in concept and execution.

Still, I've never forgotten the imagery of a woman driven mad by the incessant ringing of a telephone, and her final, mortal tussle with "convenient" technology.   

Tales from the Darkside rarely ceases to impress me because it forges a real sense of imaginative terror from the thinnest of premises, and "Answer Me" is a perfect example of this quality.

Happy Halloween, 2015; Darkroom: "Siege of August 31" (1981)

"You're in a house. Maybe your own. Maybe one you've never seen before. You feel it. Something evil. You run. But there's no escape. Nowhere to turn. You feel something beckoning you. Drawing you into the terror that awaits you in...the darkroom."
-James Coburn's opening narration to Darkroom, a 1981-1982 horror anthology

On Friday nights in 1981, the place for avid horror fans was the Darkroom, a creepy ABC anthology that ran for seven hour-long episodes before cancellation. 

Produced by Christopher Crowe and executive story consultant Jeffrey Bloom, Darkroom was very much a series in the spirit of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. 

Each 60-minute story featured one or more macabre tale, usually with a supernatural bent and some diabolical twist ending. Not available on DVD today, this is one of those fondly remembered horror shows that hasn't seen the light of day in a long time. In the 1990s it sometimes appeared on the USA Network or the Sci-Fi Channel.

The series' opening montage was a work of art in its own right. A camera positioned low-to-the-ground - and likely a steadicam - races at warp speed through an entirely empty but ornate, Gothic-style Victorian house. 

The camera whips down the stairs, cruises across long empty spaces, and rockets about to the baritone words of James Coburn's narration (above), until it stops at the imposing door of...the Darkroom. Perhaps this sequence was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's similar charting of inner space via steadicam in The Shining (1981).

The trademark Darkroom episode, perhaps the most heavily publicized and most eagerly anticipated of the short run, was a special effects extravaganza entitled "Siege of August 31" which involves a Vietnam veteran and southern farmer named Neil (played by Ronny Cox) locked in combat with toy soldiers (and toy vehicles, including a helicopter) made animate.

The final confrontation, an impressive collage of rear projection, blue screen and miniature effects, occurs in a barn by black of night as the veteran adorns his uniform and literally returns to the war that haunts his dreams. 

The specifics of the tale involve Neil bringing home to his son Ben two toy play sets of "Company B" -- American soldiers. 

As the ten year old boy is forced to attend military school by his demanding father, the toy soldiers begin speaking to the boy, telling him about the atrocities committed by American military men in Vietnam. 

Neil thinks the boy is trying to spite him, since there is no way young Ben could possibly know about his wartime experiences. The last straw is when Neil stumbles upon a toy Vietnam destroyed in flames. Neil's wife (Gail Strickland) begs Neil to let the boy stay home and not attend the school but the father refuses to relent. In fact, he decides to send the boy the very next day. It is that night that Neil meets his destiny in the barn, fighting a toy army and air force.

Based on a short story by Davis Grubb, and written for television by Peter S. Fischer, "Siege of August 31" is directed by Peter Crane. 

Watching it today, one gets a sense of how deeply conflicted the story is, a reflection of how ambiguous the Vietnam War experience was for the nation, I suppose. 

On the one hand, Neil (Cox) is portrayed as a veteran who was wounded in war (he lost a leg...) and who wants what is best for his son. He wants Ben to be more than him, more than "just a dumb old dirt farmer." 

The best he ever felt, he claims, was as as a soldier. "I felt like I counted as something. Like I had something to give." 

His wife is not so pleased about the whole military academy thing. She doesn't want Ben to be a soldier.. "They got your leg," she tells Neil. "You want them to get your son too?"

On the other hand, Neil is depicted in deliberately unflattering, villainous terms as well. He strikes his wife across the face not once but twice, and is merciless -- nay, actually vicious -- with Ben, his son. He refuses to relent in his quest to send the boy off to a military academy against his will. 

Which leaves the toys no alternative, I suppose, but to intervene and stop him. 

In the end, Neil is a casualty of this personal and very odd war, and his wife eulogizes him. "He was a good man, a fine man," she tells Ben. "[That was] before he went off to war. He used to laugh all the time."

So, on one hand, "Siege of August 31" is an anti-war statement, commenting on atrocities committed under orders (the same mantra used by the Nazis tried for war crimes...), but on the other it wants to support the troops, saying that they did what they had to do. 

Basically, the story doesn't make a lot of narrative sense, especially since the teleplay explicitly states that Neil did not participate in the particular atrocities depicted by the toys. In fact, he has to phone his colonel to ask about that particular village. So, as a soldier, is he responsible for what the other soldiers do? Is he responsible for being part of a corrupt system? Is that the real "villain" of the piece, the government that sends men to war in the first place?

This is not a small question. Perhaps I'm being pedantic in demanding the story pick a definitive side in what is a complicated issue, but the story is less than it should because it never decides what the point here is. 

Had Rod Serling been writing, he would have picked a side, either choosing the soldiers and coming down on the side of nationalism, or -- much more likely -- making the Neil character someone who has to pay for his bad deeds. As it is, the story is diffident instead of forceful. I mean, if it is the system at fault, then both the animate toys and Neil are collateral damage. Why are they fighting each other and not Washington D.C.?

Yet "Siege of August 31" remains incredibly memorable because of that great special effects denouement (which was trumpeted in commercials and previews for the series).

One suspects that the battle between Cox and the toy army is the show's real raison d'etre, and truth be told, the special effects hold up pretty damn well today. As a signature episode of Darkroom, the episode is a nostalgic blast, but one wishes that the producers had decided to tell the story in more convincing and clear-headed terms. 

Instead, the series wants to play things both ways. Neil is both a victim and an aggressor, and that makes the role of the vengeful toys that much harder to ferret out. Ultimately, in the end - during that great spfx battle - you don't know who to cheer for. And for the story to work well, you really, really should. 

Instead, you're kind of left feeling sorry for everybody. Ben has no father because the toys killed him. Neil was brought down by his blind patriotism and learned nothing. 

And what force brought the toys to life? 

Happy Halloween, 2015; Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected: "Force of Evil"

“In everyone, it has been said, there is a spark of the divine…But in others it is snuffed out.  Another force begins to stir…a force of evil.”
    Opening narration of “Force of Evil,” from Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (1977).

Perhaps the oddest episode of the short-lived Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (1977) -- and therefore the most enduring -- is the two-part epic titled “Force of Evil.” 

Good Times released this feature-length story on VHS in the mid-1980s, all while keeping intact the series’ opening credits and voice-over narration (from baritone William Conrad).

But the fact that “Force of Evil” ended up on videotape as a stand-alone “feature” isn’t the only quality that has rendered this particular episode immortal. For those who have seen it, the episode (by Robert Malcolm Young) is unforgettable because it largely plays as a G-rated, TV version of the great psychological horror film, Cape Fear (1962). 

In that classic film, a lawyer named Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is stalked and pursued by Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), because Sam testified against the criminal in court. 

Now, Max Cady makes Sam’s life a living hell, and threatens the lawyer’s family.  The story ends in a conflict on a house-boat.  A remake from Martin Scorsese came along in 1991, with Robert De Niro playing Cady.

“Force of Evil” stars Lloyd Bridges as Dr. Carrington, a physician who has also testified against a criminal, Ted Jakes (William Watson)…who has now been released.  Ted immediately starts to make Carrington’s life a living hell by threatening his family, including his teenage daughter Cindy (Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch).

In Cape Fear, Cady killed the Bowden’s pet dog. In “Force of Evil” Jakes burns down the family’s horse stable. 

Amazingly, “Force of Evil” comes to an end with Carrington also sending his family to hide on a houseboat, where Jakes ultimately shows up, and a final confrontation ensues in the surf.

The narrative details in common between productions are numerous, but “Force of Evil” distinguishes itself in a few ways. 

First, since this is a TV production, there is no way to depict any real physical violence, especially against children.  Instead, Carrington and Jakes just kind of endlessly brawl in “Force of Evil,” with neither achieving the upper hand.  The violence is pure TV western fisticuffs.  And because this is a TV show, no mention is ever made of what Jakes actually does to his victims?  Rape? Molestation? Murder?  We just know that he’s a really bad guy.

In the second instance, “Force of Evil” suggests that its villain, Teddy Jakes, is no ordinary man, but some kind of spectral avenger, literally a force of evil.  Dr. Carrington and his brother, a sheriff, attempt to kill Teddy and dump his body in a well.  But like Michael Myers in Halloween, Teddy Jakes just won’t die.  He keeps attacking, even though “by every law of human physiology” he should be dead.   The episode provides some nice visuals as clues to Jakes’ inhuman nature.  At one point, the episode surges towards him from a slightly low angle, while he stands stationary in the desert, and we get a sense of his powerful nature.  Also, throughout most of the episode Jakes wears sun-glasses, which hide “the window to the soul,” his eyes.

Finally, the episode ends on an ambiguous note.  Jakes’ body disappears, and so audiences can’t be certain if he is really good for gone, or merely waiting to deliver another strike. 

As the episode ends, Carrington’s wife receives a box of flowers.  Before we know what is in that closed box, however, the narrator Conrad, closes up shop:  “If you believe in the goodness of man, then the box contains roses.  But if you believe in a force of evil…it could contain almost anything!”

Cue End Credits.

I don’t know exactly precisely, but “Force of Evil” really fascinates me.  It is such an obvious cribbing of Cape Fear and yet, on some basic level, it is effective, and plays like a nightmare from which you can’t awake.  Even the inconclusive nature of the violence – made for television – reinforces the idea that this is some kind of surreal of dream event, and that Jakes can’t be stopped.  I also credit William Watson for delivering a great sleazy performance as Jakes.  He constantly snaps his gum and wears a shit-eating grin. 

Watching him scene-to-scene, you want to punch Jakes’ lights out too.

Adding to the notion that “Force of Evil” is some kind of dream-story, there is no logic whatsoever behind the narrative.  Carrington’s brother, the Sheriff (John Anderson), keeps claiming that there’s nothing the law can to do to stop Jakes.  But Jakes’ throws Carrington’s wife (Pat Crowley) down a well, and she could certainly testify to that fact.

Similarly, Jakes kills the Sheriff, but Carrington never notifies any police department of this fact.  The belief that “the law can’t do anything!” pervades this production even when the facts of the narrative overtly suggest otherwise, and that’s a byproduct of the episode’s origins in the cynical post-Dirty Harry mid-1970s, I would suggest.  In that paranoid world, only the criminals have rights, and the rest of us have to fend for ourselves, even against -- wait for it -- “a force of evil.”

Over the years, I have watched “Force of Evil” probably three or four times, and I have no idea why I keep going to the trouble to haul out the VC.  I feel very conflicted about the merits of the thing and yet I am drawn, periodically, to re-experience it.   

To some extent, my desire to see “Force of Evil” again and again must arise from the episode’s surreal, dream-like air.  The idea of being faced with a cackling monster that just won’t die remains good nightmare fodder, I guess.

“Force of Evil” is the only episode of Tales from the Unexpected you can purchase commercially today (on the second hand market, however), but it sure would be nice to get an official DVD release of the series one of these days.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...