Saturday, May 30, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Pteranodon" (October 12, 1974)

Kim, matriarch of the Butler family, suddenly falls ill during the Season of the Winds.  She runs a high fever and suffers from extreme lassitude.  Gara, matriarch of the cave family, believes she can help.  She knows how to cure the illness -- which threatens to be contagious -- but needs some rare ingredients for her remedy.

Accordingly, Gara sends Gorak and Mr. Butler off to collect a turtle egg.  Lok and Katie, meanwhile, must collect pteranodon eggs.  The prehistoric family knows the pteronodons as “Ardock,” and is aware that procuring the resource won’t be easy.  The plan is to make a “giant vitamin” that can heal anyone who gets sick.

Predictably, the pteranodons don’t wish to have their eggs taken, and chase Lok and Katie to remote Animal Island.

Meanwhile, Mr. Butler and Gorok come across a dinosaur boneyard during their quest, and Gara must grapple with a giant turtle.

This episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974), “Pteranodon,” is a decent one in part because it doesn’t feature, simply, the men solving the crisis-of-the-week.  Here, the female characters are prominent, particularly Gara.  She makes the medicine to save Kim, and also, in the denouement, battles the aforementioned turtle. 

Thus far, the series has focused a great deal on Gorak and his exploits, so it is nice to see Gara get her share of the action, and character development too.  It’s also rewarding that the episode reveals she is both smart and knowledgeable (developing the remedy), and strong and brave (defeating the turtle).

The most tiresome aspect of the episode involves the jokes Katie tells.  She keeps making wise cracks about dinosaurs or prehistoric animals being ugly.  It’s a one-note kind of thing, and not very funny.  I’m sure we look absolutely gorgeous to the dinosaurs, right?  I get the idea is that Katie is supposed to have a wicked sense of humor, but the jokes aren’t varied, and don’t stick the landing. Her running commentary very quickly becomes old hat.

Still, “Pteranodon” is an entertaining episode, and one that deepens the characters.  We feel concern for Kim, who faints and falls ill, and respect for Gara, as she treats her friend.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "Year of the Dragon" (October 16, 1976)

A top chemistry student, Julie Chen (Jeanne Jo) is embarrassed by her Chinese heritage, and her Chinese father (Victor Sen Young) who lives in Chinatown and conforms to the traditions of his homeland.

When Chen wins a top chemistry honor, and is to be given an award at a high school assembly, she takes steps to prevent her proud father from attending.  Mr. Chen learns that his daughter is ashamed of him, making matters worse.  Rennie tries to convince her that she is doing both her father and her friends a disservice, but Julie will hear none of it.

But when Julie falls down a well, her father comes to her rescue.

And when he falls down a well, Isis comes to his rescue….

The Secrets of Isis (1975 – 1976) presents another weird episode here. In “Year of the Dragon,” we meet the extremely touchy Julie Chen, who gets offended every time a student or teacher asks her anything about Chinese culture.  She says she is tired of being expected to know everything about the Chinese people from “Charlie Chan movies” to “chop suey.” 

The only problem is that no character in the program treats her this way at all.  So Julie just comes off looking extremely sensitive and touchy.  Week after week, we have seen Mrs. Thomas and her students treat all people with high levels of empathy and compassion, so Chen's anger and resentment is weird.  It basically comes off as her problem, which may or may not have been the episode's point.

Julie also has a lot of bad luck.  She runs away from those who want to be her friend, fearing they will mention her Chinese traditions.  The first time she runs away, Julie lands in an auto junkyard and nearly gets crushed in a junked car.  The second time she runs away, Julie falls down a well and is trapped.

Then, the episode ends in cloyingly cheesy fashion as Mr. and Mrs. Chen make stereotyped “Pidgen English” jokes about Mr. Mason’s inability to use chopsticks correctly.  This moment is legitimately off-putting.

Now that no one’s trapped in a well, it’s easy to make fun of your own culture (and others’ perceptions of it), I suppose.  This ending kind of misses the point.  The whole story wasn't about how it is okay to mock your own culture if you feel others are doing it.  The point was to show how you can balance your own cultural traditions and still embrace American culture too.

Still, it’s a good thing Isis is around this week, and she uses her powers of stop-motion animation to lower a ladder down to Mr. Chen in a well.  She offers this incantation: “Oh broken ladder with rungs too few, restore thyself as good as new!

Only two episodes of Isis left. Next week: “Now You See It…”

Friday, May 29, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Area 51 (2015)

Oren Peli -- director of Paranormal Activity (2009) -- returns to the found-footage format with the new horror film, Area 51 (2015). 

I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of Paranormal Activity because of the less-than-stylish, downright unsubtle staging of some key scenes there, not to mention the use of CGI front-and-center in the final, important, shots. 

But the good news is that Peli has dramatically improved in terms of how he utilizes visuals. Area 51 -- while not a high-water mark in the found footage format -- is nonetheless a solid horror film of this type that may even leave you wanting more.

In particular, the film’s third act explores an underground installation in Nevada -- the base below Area 51, as it were -- and leads the viewer through a series of imaginative and disturbing discoveries.  

This aspect of the film is riveting.  Some of the last act revelations are really fascinating, and seem to set up a larger mythology or world. I know I wouldn’t mind re-visiting it in a follow-up film.

Also, Area 51 features an innovative and original idea or central metaphor in regards to those beings who are incarcerated at Area 51.  The film likens the aliens imprisoned there to terrorists trapped in Guantanamo Bay. 

They have been held for a long tong time, and quite possibly been mistreated…but those facts don’t mean you want them released, either.

Area 51 takes a while to really get going, and features some early scenes that don’t build character or contribute to the overall narrative. You may also walk away from a screening with questions about security at Area 51…which seems remarkably lax given the prisoners there.

But still -- where it counts -- Area 51 is successful.  The film features some good jump scares, and there are some downright creepy scenes in the last act to challenge your sense of reality.

“Something is pulling me towards the base.”

A young man, Reid (Reid Warner) believes he was abducted by aliens while at a party with his friends, and three months later becomes obsessed with the idea to breaking into Area 51: the secret military base that UFO-logists believe houses a flying saucer, and possibly its extra-terrestrial crew.

With two friends, Ben and Darrin (Darrin Bragg) in tow, Reid drives to the base, and makes contact with an informant named Jelena (Jelena Nik) whose father worked at Area 51 before the government allegedly killed him. 

The group follows a plan -- using Freon suits -- to breach security at the installation and get inside, though Ben refuses to break in, and remains in the car.

The others manage to get inside Area 51, and start heading down a seemingly endless staircase towards the bottom levels of the mysterious facility…

“It would be easier to rob a bank than to break into Area 51.”

“Why does America deny UFOs?” One character asks in Area 51, and it’s a good question, actually, that informs a lot of the action in the film.  Reid boasts a personal reason for wanting to see the inside of the base, but Darrin’s reason is even better. He doesn’t like being lied to about important things. He wants to know the truth.

The question then becomes: is it better not to know the truth in this situation or live without knowing?  Does the government -- by maintaining the prison facility for the aliens -- have the best interests of the American people at heart?

Since Area 51 explicitly connects the UFO base to Guantanamo, we can extrapolate deeper meaning here. 

We know that a lot of the “combatants” at Guantanamo Bay were people sold into captivity by their country-men for a monetary reward, for instance, and that none have yet stood trial so that we can accurately and legally determine their guilt or innocence.  And this is after fourteen years or so of imprisonment.  The people trapped there are thus permanent prisoners, without hope, and apparently without legal recourse

Area 51 suggests that after nearly seventy years trapped in that subterranean cell, the aliens there are working their own cunning plan to get out; a plan for which they require the assistance of Reid. 

The scenes that discuss -- or rather speculate about the aliens -- are among the film’s best.  “They’re not cute,” one character asserts.  Instead, these beings can remotely cause migraine headaches, and probe your body and mind.  They exist in a kind of white-on-white world without end, without beginning, without upside-down and right-side up.  All these ideas come into play, little-by-little, in the film’s last act.  One of the creepiest scenes involves an elevator to the bottom floor of Area 51, where there is an apparent sleeping quarters (and play room!) for the captive aliens exists. The film also takes you inside an alien saucer, with interesting results.

In a way, all found-footage horror movies are about seeing something that has never been seen, and perhaps shouldn’t be seen.  Things like the Blair Witch, a rituals of the Illuminati (The Conspiracy), or even Bigfoot (Exists, Willow Creek). 

The question of the format’s plausibility arrives in the fact that often-times characters put themselves in real danger to see these (dangerous) things.  As Area 51 notes, “Looking and experiencing are two different things.”  

We all want to experience something out of the norm.  I have always felt this way (and I think Fox Mulder has always felt this way too): If we can just discover or experience something that society tells us isn’t real -- the Loch Ness Monster, aliens, what-have-you -- then we have proven, in some sense, the possibility of God.  There would be more in Heaven and Earth than our current stage of scientific development allows for, and thus we could, again, give ourselves the freedom to believe in magic.

Think about the categories of found footage films, so far.  We’ve seen movies about the supernatural (The Devil Inside, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Paranormal Activity, Final Prayer), aliens (Alien Abduction, Extraterrestrial, Dark Mountain, Area 51), urban legends, historical mysteries, and cryptids (Willow Creek, Crybaby Bridge, Devil’s Pass), and so forth.  All these categories involve proving the existence of something heretofore not captured on film.

Area 51 is about that journey of belief in sense.  Reid believes the answers regarding his abduction are in that base, but he’s really answering bigger questions.  Are we alone in the universe? What secrets do the aliens have?  Has the government known, all along (or at least since 1947) the truth about extra-terrestrial life?

In one stellar scene, Reid and Darrin engage in a home break-in, and the suspense is overwhelming.  They do so because they want to have that “belief” experience, and they expose themselves to real danger to get it.  They cross a line to reach that experience, and as the movie continues, they keep crossing lines. 

When delving into these issues, and taking a camera into Area 51’s research laboratories -- finding white alien blood and strange anti-gravity devices in the process -- Area 51 succeeds as a work of art. You want to keep watching, even though you know it’s all faked, because you want to see what’s revealed too.  Your curiosity gets the better of you.

At other times, though, Area 51 is a letdown. There’s a lot of running in and out of rooms, up and down staircases, and so on, and the frenetic action substitutes in some way for narrative development and even thematic closure.

Many found footage movies run out of steam after about 75 minutes, but Area 51 actually increases in interest during the last five minutes, and that’s why I noted in my introduction that you may wish for more.  There’s a feeling here that the viewer is close -- extraordinarily close -- to fascinating answers about aliens and their nature.  But then the movie steps back, and in true found-footage tradition charts the last moments of its primary characters instead of new horizons.

In this way, Area 51 ultimately ends up being trapped by the conventions of the found-footage format, rather than stretching its boundaries.  Still, this is a better “alien” found footage movie than either Extraterrestrial (2014) or Alien Abduction (2014), and there are moments here where you’ll be glued to the screen.

Movie Trailer: Area 51 (2015)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

From the Archive: Poltergeist (1982)


"It knows what scares you."

- Poltergeist (1982)

The words quoted above are spoken by Poltergeist's resident psychic medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) near the climax of this harrowing film.  They reflect -- with near-perfection -- the nature of this horror classic from the great summer of 1982. 

Poltergeist is a film that knows not only what scares you, but how to scare you. If E.T. (1982) represents the softer side of Steven Spielberg, and suggests his trademark ability to make you see the world from a lonely child's perspective, then Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Spielberg accomplishes the same impressive feat...only with a darker, harder, more malicious and mischievous edge.

Poltergeist deftly, ruthlessly. and perpetually frightens audiences by reminding them of those irrational (and yet somehow palpable...) things we feared so much as children: a noise from under the bed, a closet door cracked open, an approaching thunderstorm, or other bedroom, night-time terrors.

For me, the one that terrifies me no matter how many times I see the film is that damned clown...

What seems perhaps less apparent is that Poltergeist also terrifies from the perspective of a parent, something I did not fully account for and internalize, perhaps, until my screening of the film this week; the first time I had seen Poltergeist since Joel was born. 

Previously, I had always considered the film a kind of call-back to juvenile fears associated with going to sleep, of being conscious in the dark and alone in bed with only one's thoughts (and fears) for company. Now, I also realize how cogently Poltergeist plays to the fears of adulthood: the irrational fear that a child could be injured by a terrain that, in daylight, seems perfectly safe. The danger of sleepwalking, for instance, near a backyard pool.

This brand of irrational fear plucks adult insecurities and anxieties that our parenting is not good enough, not careful enough to prevent cruel acts of fate.

There's absolutely no question that Poltergeist terrifies and thrills, even thirty-three years later.  For me, that's always the prime and primal test of the good horror film.

Does it get the blood pumping faster?  

Even as I answer that interrogative in the affirmative, however, I'm conscious that Poltergeist achieves a greatness beyond mere genre thrills because of the double social critiques it explores with such dedication and humor.

Specifically, Poltergeist lodges some well-placed shots at the ubiquity of television -- here a portal for spectral evil -- in American life. 

And, though I realize this will be a controversial statement, the film also knowingly questions the growing Yuppie mentality of the 1980s, an era of "greed is good" ushered in by the election of President Reagan in 1980.

Reagan's laissez-faire economic policies stressed the accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of morality. Regulations designed to protect consumers were cut, and big business was allowed, virtually unencumbered, to test the outer limits of the public welfare and good.  In many ways, we are still paying for Reaganomics today.  It's the poltergeist that haunts our economy, even in 2015

For me, this double-faceted, carefully embedded social commentary results in a great film. Poltergeist is no political diatribe, no partisan horror film trying to cheaply score points.  On the contrary, this movie is nimble and playful as it terrorizes us, and taps into the prevailing Zeitgeist of the increasingly affluent, but also increasingly unequal 1980s.

Here, spectral revenge "trickles down" upon a suburban family, the aptly-named "Freelings," who have profited,  unknowingly, from a corrupt system that disenfranchise the many but makes the few obscenely wealthy.

Writing for The New York Times, critic Vincent Canby expressed well Poltergeist's unique and entertaining equation. He called the film a "marvelously spooky ghost story" and one that was "also witty in a fashion that Alfred Hitchcock might appreciate." (June 4, 1982).  In Time Magazine, Richard Corliss categorized Poltergeist as a "sly comedy" supporting the "proposition that violence on TV...or precisely, in it, can have an influence on children who watch it." ("Steve's Summer Magic," June 1982, page 56)

Creative authorship of Poltergeist has been much debated.  Did Tobe Hooper direct the film, or did Steven Spielberg take the helm?

I've always leaned towards the belief that Hooper deserves the lion's share of the credit for Poltergeist, at least in terms of visualization and atmospheric tenor because the film shares two important trademarks with his other films, namely that the narrative does not, in any way, shape or form, restore order to the universe at the end (and such restoration is a trademark of Spielberg's film).

Secondly, specific images and compositions in Poltergeist, as also seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) highlight the notion that the world has grown disordered and unnatural under a "malefic influence." Again, this is a virtual trademark of Hooper's canon.  Think of the upside-down armadillo on the highway or the corpse atop a gravestone in Chain Saw.  Those images find distinct and unique corollaries in Poltergeist.  A woman is attacked by a ghost and the ceiling.  A family's pet bird is found dead on its back behind the bars of its cage, and so forth.

If one is so inclined, one can also gaze intently at the films of Spielberg and observe how he uses product placement and pop-culture imagery to craft a sincere commentary on how it feels to be a child in the 1970s or 1980s.

Consider how he deployed images of "good" monsters like the Hulk or Greedo in E.T. (1982) to sort of "pave the way" for an acceptance of E.T. in Elliott's life.  By contrast, Poltergeist rather firmly carries its tongue in its cheek in terms of how it views the pop culture. The primary mode here is not treacly sincerity or sentimentality, but ruthless, cutting satire.

Watching Poltergeist, I'm reminded of Hooper's particular gifts as a filmmaker, as ably described by L.M. Kit Carson in the 1980s:

 "De Palma and...Romero had only recently corkscrewed fresh blood into the horror genre...but they were sophisto guys who'd kept the "it's-only-a-movie" deal with the audience.  Hooper was a new deal -- simply this; no deal. Hooper was a scare-director who was methodically unsafe, who the audience (you) finally just couldn't trust...He'd go too far, then go farther...and go farther again, and kick it again...then get an extra kick, then it's over...then one more kick...No deal, friend."  (L.M. Kit Carson, Film Comment: "Saw Thru." July/August 1986, pages 9 - 12.)

Poltergeist is a perfect reflection of this particular Hooper aesthetic.  In terms of logic and narrative, the film should resolve almost immediately after Tangina triumphantly declares "This house is clean" and order is restored to the universe. 

Of course, that  doesn't happen. 

We get one more kick, then another kick, then another, until all sense of grounded logic and reality is gone, replaced by heart-pounding terror.

Where Spielberg ends his lyrical and emotional cinematic efforts in triumphant narrative resolution, Hooper's endings (in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) tend to be super real or surreal, over-the-top, and sometimes virtually independent -- or even contradictory-- to conventional narrative expectations, as I wrote in my book, Eaten Alive: The Films of Tobe Hooper (McFarland; 2002).  Tobe Hooper's bargain, as the passage above indicates, is no bargain.  That's why Hooper's films, despite some notable lows, also feel unfettered...fearless...dangerous.

But perhaps creative "authorship" is not the point about Poltergeist.

As I wrote above, the film knows exactly what scares and how to scare us too. That ability is forged in the film's ability to understand us as a people, and who we were in the year 1982, a year of economic uncertainty and the dawn of a political movement that lasts to this day.

"You can't choose between life and death when we're dealing with what is in between..."

In the comfortable suburb of Cuesta Verde, the Freeling family becomes unnerved when young Carol Ann (Heather O'Rourke) begins to communicate with the television set. 

One night, after what seems like an earthquake inside the house, the child declares "They're Here," and refers enigmatically to "the TV People."

Not long after this event, a supernatural force punches a hole into the Freeling house and abducts Carol Anne, leaving her shell-shocked parents Diane (JoBeth Williams) and Steve (Craig T. Nelson) to seek help from a local parapsychologist, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight).

An investigation of the house reveals "poltergeist" activity, and Dr. Lesh recruits a medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to "clean" the house and recover Carol Anne. Ultimately, Diane must travel into another plane of existence (described as a "membrane" around our world) to get back Carol Anne from a terrifying spirit Tangina terms"The Beast."

Diane is successful on her dangerous odyssey, and Tangina declares the Freeling house "clean," but the nightmare is not over.

A terrible secret from Steve's boss, Mr.Teague (James Karen) about the real estate of Cuesta Verde puts a whole new spin on the Freeling haunting, and the spirits from the other world make one last, devastating attempt to reach our reality... 

"It lies to her. It tells her things only a child can understand. It's been using her to restrain the others. To her, it simply is another child. To us, it is The Beast."

In the passage immediately above this sentence, Tangina describes the nature of "the Beast" that has taken away Carol Anne Freeling. 

If you re-read the passage, however, one might -- with a little bit of imagination -- apply the description not to a supernatural monster or spirit, but to the influence of television in American culture.  

In many instances, television does appear to lie (or at least paint an inaccurate picture), and in many instances, advertisers direct their efforts to "fascinate" directly at children, who are psychologically unequipped to understand how they are being manipulated to believe certain things, or purchase certain products. 

Is TV "the beast?"  From a certain perspective, yes.

Poltergeist positions the television (and television transmissions) as a portal through which "evil" enters the American home. It does so, importantly, as a wolf in sheep's clothing.  The images that open the film are of familiar American monuments and national landmarks.  The song that introduces the film is the National Anthem.  But the images are pixelated and indistinct, symbolizing the notion that something is rotten in the state of Denmark; that something has gone wrong in this purported paradise. What message is the television sending out to people?

Throughout the film, the television is made a figure for horror, ridicule and social commentary.  At one point, Carol Anne is watching a blank, static-filled screen, close-up, in the Freeling kitchen, and her mother tells her that the static-saturated television image will hurt her eyes.  Mom then switches the channel to a violent war film, with infantrymen firing machine guns and soldiers dying on the battlefield. 

This is better for Carol Anne's eyes? 

The implication of this moment is that TV is not a "safe" place for kids, whether or not it is a portal for spirits.  It's an insidious influence upon American culture and American youth.

This idea is reinforced in the dialogue of the film, which establishes that the Freeling haunting may end up featured not on 60 Minutes, but the cheesy (if popular...) "That's Incredible," a bizarre reality/magazine show of the era.

In other words, the suffering of an American family is fodder for the entertainment of the masses, but not a story to be taken seriously on a news program.

Another sequence reveals Steve and his neighbor locked in a war of TV remote controls, each attempting to establish "domination" over the airwaves, of the material that is being beamed into their homes.  Football or Mr. Rogers?

The final shot of the film, of course, represents the Freelings' total rejection of television and its influence in their lives. 

After leaving their haunted home, the Freelings go to a hotel, and push the hotel room's television set out on a ledge.

The last shot of Poltergeist is thus a long, slow withdraw or pull-back from that dark set, a shot which suggests, literally, that the American family must back away from this "beast" of television, lest it suffer the same kind of agony as the Freelings experienced.

Briefly stated, one might summarize Poltergeist's point in this way: television is too violent, too out-of-touch with our values, and actually a danger to many of those who watch it.  I don't know about you, but I've actually heard the TV media referred to as "The Beast" by some right-wing elements (and also jokingly on the Fox sitcom "King of the Hill.")

Given the connection between the evil of "the other side" and the evil of television, it is no accident in Poltergeist that the TVs strobing white light is almost constantly reflected upon the faces of the film's principal characters, and that self-same, strobing blue/white coloring and lighting scheme is used to render the closet "portal" to the supernatural realm. 

The static blue of the television and the spectral blue of the TV set represent, literally, two heads of the same monster, the self same thing: portals to places that can steal your children away from your influence.  Both venues can overtake your life and both can be evil if allowed to run rampant.

The argument here is certainly debatable, at least.  TV signals are beamed into our hearths and our homes, and we don't have control over the content of those signals.  And since television is frequently utilized as a "babysitter" for children in an age where two parents work full-time at careers outside the home, we must wonder: what is the impact of this "beast" on our impressionable young?

Poltergeist plays wickedly with this notion without ever seeming too serious, and ends with the visually-established notion that the best thing to do is kick the boob tube to the curb, literally.  I love it when a filmmaker uses form to mirror content, and that occurs again and again in Poltergeist.  Over and over, the TV is made a symbol of evil's entrance into suburbia.

"You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!"

When Ronald Reagan was elected in an absolute electoral landslide in 1980, he enacted a laissez-faire approach to the American economy. Laissez-faire means, literally, "let it be." 

One of the four cornerstones of Reaganomics was a reduction of government regulation so private parties were free to enact economic transactions without significant interference or oversight. Reagan espoused the notion that government regulation stifles market competition. In accordance with his values, he streamlined and eliminated many regulations in the energy, transportation, and most importantly, banking sectors. Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton all share a measure of responsibility on this matter too. But Reagan was the herald and spokesperson for the movement, and is often remembered explicitly for the so-called "anti-regulation" Presidency.

But the thing about letting the market decide, of course, is that the market doesn't boast human morality. It can select economic winners and losers based on supply and demand, but it can't make a determination if the winners utilized ethical means to achieve domination.

We've have seen this truth played out again and again vis-a-vis Enron, Worldcom, Countrywide, and so on.  Big Business simply cannot be trusted to police itself responsibly in terms of moral and ethical behavior. Not when there's oodles of cash to be made.  I don't know why this fact comes as a surprise to people, or offends people. As a nation, we boast law enforcement officials and a judiciary, because, quite simply, we believe the citizenry can't police/regulate itself on an individual basis.  Contrarily, it needs policemen to back up our collective sense of moral and ethical rectitude. It isn't anti-business to say that business also requires oversight.

Some regulations are absolutely necessary to keep businesses honest. And please don't quote me any Rand Paul-isms about how the market will punish wrong-doers.  Tell that to the executives at many banks who, despite unethical procedures, kept their million dollar bonuses while investors lost pensions and life savings. How did the market punish those guys, again?

It is this image of Reagan as anti-regulator, as a laissez-faire advocate -- that ghost, if you will -- that Poltergeist plays deliberately upon.

Early in the film, for instance, Steve Freeling is seen reading a biography of, you guessed it, Ronald Reagan, titled  Reagan: The Man, The Presidency.

You get the feeling Steve is reading the book because he holds up Reagan (and his pillars of economics) as a role model.

Indeed, when we see Steve attempting to sell a new home near Cuesta Verde to prospective buyers, he slips (unconsciously, we presume)  into slick spin, business-speak, and Gordon Gekko-isms.

 "The grass grows greener on every side," he ridiculously asserts, attempting to sell the real-estate as if there is no downside to it.  That was a key aspect of the 1980s and Reaganomics  We could have it all.

In Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988," the authors write: "He said it was possible to have it all - to cut taxes and increase spending and at the same time fight terrorism, roll back Communism and the threat of nuclear war, all without risking American lives. Reagan seems to be offering a miracle cure."

And, of course, as the film reveals, you can't have it all.  There are downsides.  Your great new house? It's built on a lie, and on a cemetery.

The market has "permitted" Mr. Teague to cut corners. In building the homes of Cuesta Verde, he moved a cemetery. But it was too expensive to move the actual corpses under the ground.  Doing that cut too deep into his profit margin.

So he only moved the headstones, but told no one.  And boy did the profits go through the roof! 

The market chose a winner here, right?

Our protagonist Steve is an upwardly mobile but essentially decent guy, a family man. But he is also responsible, we're told, for 42 percent of sales of new homes in Cuesta Verde.  He is thus complicit in Teague's crime: sacrilegiously building new homes over the discarded bodies of the dead.

Again, in the free market, means don't really matter; the ends do.  But the spiritual infestation of Steve's house reveals that reality doesn't necessarily work according to the whims of the free market.  There is, literally, a spiritual price for unethical, immoral behavior. Steve's house is foreclosed upon, spectrally speaking. The original owners want their land back.

So what Poltergeist actually implies is that we are all accountable when we benefit from a corrupt system. The Freelings go through hell because they profited from an unseemly business practice at Steve's firm.  Given this, Steve's choice of heroes, Reagan, is certainly a crux of the movie.  If you think I'm reading too much into the film, or stoking some partisan hatred of Reagan, ask yourself why the book appears in the film at all.

Why not a Kennedy or Eisenhower bio?  Choices such as the appearance of Reagan: The Man, The  Presidency are not accidents.  Instead, they contribute to a fuller understanding of the film's themes. 

Consider also  that the name "Freeling" seems to pivot off this idea of laissez-faire run amok, the notion that the family may think that's its middle-class that success is "free," but it isn't.  There are consequences one when cuts corners, when free enterprise is allowed to run amok, unrestricted.

Here, those disenfranchised by illicit real estate deals "punch a hole" into the Freelings' house, making their voices and concerns heard most memorably.

We were wondering if you had experienced any... disturbances?

One of the most intriguing facets of Poltergeist remains that, in terms of visualization -- and much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- this film is obsessed with the idea of order overturned.  Here, the overturning is in suburbia, not rural Texas, but the idea is the same.

For instance, the suburban trees of Cuesta Verde are lifeless, leafless things that look sad and out-of-place because real estate development has gone wild. 

Then, Carol Anne's little bird, Tweety dies unexpectedly, and later, we see the bird's grave overturned in the dirt when a construction  bull-dozer sweeps through the Freeling's yard.

Another shot shows us the shadow of the bird's corpse being lowered into a toilet, a small metaphor for the film's central thesis about respecting the dead.  In short order, we also see overturned bicycles on the street and thunder-clouds roiling over suburbia.

The overall impression here is of a storm coming.

That this previously wholesome realm of surbubia has been overturned by something dark and dangerous.  Depending on how you interpret the film, that "something" is either vengeful spirits (who have been wronged), or bad business practices which have literally upset the balance of the supernatural world.

Finally, Hooper courageously ends Poltergeist with matters disordered. Teague's business practices haven't changed, and so there is no restoration of order in the film. 

Rather, the Freelings end up fleeing their home, never to return, as neighbors watch in horror at the madness unfolding upon their property.

Mr. Teague is left screaming "lies! lies!" like a cowardly ninny, though the nature of his trespass is now plain.  He cut corners and now the dead themselves are rising up against his immorality.

Interestingly, one shot in Poltergeist seems to get to the heart of this disorder in paradise.

We see Steve and Mr. Teague walking together on a pastoral hill. In front of them is a long, white picket fence...universally the symbol of Americana and small towns. Then, Hooper changes perspectives, and suddenly we see tombstones blotting out the white picket fence. 

After another perspective change, we see the full picture: the white picket fence is dilapidated and in need of repair, and it borders a vast graveyard.  Read that image symbolically, and combine it with the "fuzzy" images of national monuments in the film's opening scene, and you begin to detect the breadth of Poltergeist's social commentary.

The film reveals that something has gone awry in America. Priorities -- morality itself -- are misplaced for yuppie-ism.

Sometimes, people write me and tell me to leave the interpreting/analysis out of my reviews, and just reveal whether or not a movie entertains.  For me, of course, "entertainment" is the beginning of a discussion on film theory, never the final destination.   It's plain that Poltergeist is entertaining.  You certainly don't need me to tell you that.  The film features heart-felt performances, astonishing visual effects, a great score from Jerry Goldsmith, and a wicked sense of humor. 

But beyond the film's entertainment value, the film conforms to the best tradition of the horror genre. Poltergeist asks us to look in the mirror at ourselves, and ask questions about the role of television in society, or the wisdom of letting the "free market" determine morality.  These values, coupled with Hooper's devotion to the meaningful and trenchant use of film grammar, render Poltergeist immortal...classic.

This 1982 film makes us ask, at last: when we see "the light" do we acknowledge it, or "stop where we are?"  Do we "turn away from it" and "not even look at it," or do we confront the things that make us uncomfortable about ourselves and our very human nature? 

Despite its various and sundry New Age touches, Poltergeist is very much a Christian film.  It asserts that our behavior here will have repercussions in the afterlife.

That message sometimes get lost in a decade when "upwardly mobile" doesn't meaning saving your soul, but enriching your bank account.

Movie Trailer: Poltergeist (1982)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Harlem Globetrotters Handheld Electronic Basketball Game

Harlem Globetrotters Official Edition Basket (A Year Round Sports Game) (Cadaco)

Trading Cards of the Week: Harlem Globetrotters (Fleer; 1971 - 1972)

Pop Art: Harlem Globetrotters (Gold Key Edition)

Harlem Globetrotters GAF Viewmaster

Board Game of the Week: Harlem Globetrotters (Milton Bradley)

Lunch Box of the Week: Harlem Globetrotters

Theme Song of the Week: Harlem Globetrotters (Hanna Barbera; 1970)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Magic Mirror" (February 16, 1966)

In “The Magic Mirror,” a violent storm reveals a weird mystery: a solid platinum alien mirror.  Highly ornamental, the mirror has glowing eyes on its decorative top, and Penny (Angela Cartwright) is intrigued by it. Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) by contrast, wants to possess its wealth.

While Penny examines the mirror ore closely, Debbie the monkey actually travels inside it, revealing that the decoration is a portal to another world, a surreal one decorated in quasi-Egyptian fashion.  Penny also goes inside the mirror and finds there a young man (Michael J. Pollard) living alone.

This boy is a Peter Pan-type figure, one who never ages and never grows up.  He wants Penny to be his companion in this everlasting limbo, but she sees the world for what it is: a trap.

Frighteningly, there is also a cyclops/monster living in this world…

If “My Friend, Mr. Nobody” and “The Magic Mirror” are examples, then the Penny-centric episodes of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) tend to be the best installments of the series.  Perhaps that’s being too broad.

“The Magic Mirror” isn’t quite as terrific as “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” but -- more than many other installments of this fifty year old series -- it does tread into deeper themes and ideas.  The last Will-centric episode, “Return to Earth” was a puzzle box story about the boy returning to Earth and having to get back to his family in time, but it didn’t really examine Will as a character. By contrast, both Penny stories so far dig deeply into her psychology and feelings.

In “The Magic Mirror,” Penny -- on the verge of adolescence -- doesn’t want to grow up.  She wants to continue being a child, like Will is. She doesn’t care much about grown-up things, and we see this in light of her relationship with Judy.  Judy wants Penny to change her hair and care more for her physical appearance.  It’s a shame that these qualities are stereotypically and sexist female things (especially since Judy is a scientist…), but the series aired fifty years ago, when our culture had very different perceptions of what it means to be male and female.  Despite the kind of hackneyed or out-of-date example -- Penny should dress and wear her hair like a grown-up -- we still get the point. 

And that point is that you can’t resist change, or growing up. It’s inevitable.

Soon after Judy and Penny talk, Penny is thrown into the mirror’s odd universe, a place where there is never any change at all.  This idea of being frozen in time is captured visually by the fact that stopped clocks seem to litter this world, weird tokens without purpose or function.

In this world, a Peter Pan-like character, The Boy lives in eternal youth, never growing, never maturing.  He forever dwells in the land of games and play.

Penny is drawn to this youthful, exuberant character, but before long realizes how this stasis has trapped him, and diminished him.  The surreal world of the mirror is one of eternal life, but also eternal stagnation. 

What is the purpose of life if you never change, never grow?  The Boy notes “it’s just the way we always are,” and Penny, despite her affection for him, realizes that she doesn’t desire stagnation to be her destiny. 

She opts out. She tries to bring the boy with him, but he won’t come.

In the episode’ last scene, Penny no longer resists coming adolescence. She changes her hair-style, and thus symbolically she lets go of being a kid, and takes the first steps towards adult-hood.  She has learned, through the narrative’s events, that change is the essential process of all life, and it is better to embrace it than to resist it.  Stagnation is death, in a very real sense. 

Again, it is easy to quibble with how the episode parses being a “grown up” -- focused on external, physical qualities like hair-style and wardrobe – and yet “The Magic Mirror” is still sweet and, indeed, bittersweet. 

Although Penny faces growing up with composure, she is still bracing for an ending; for a loss.  Childhood does end, and that’s sad. But adulthood will possess wonders for her as well.  This story could be re-done today in a less simplistic (and yes, sexist…) way, and still be amazingly powerful and relevant.  All of us go through this transition, the letting go of childish things…but not always entirely willingly.

In terms of series continuity, “The Magic Mirror” continues the tradition of featuring Dr. Smith as an avaricious fool.  He really serves no purpose in this story except to take attention away from Penny, and the magical world she encounters in the mirror.  We already know that Smith is greedy, so his attempts to acquire the mirror don’t add to our understanding of the character.

More intriguing, perhaps, is the casting of Michael J. Pollard as “the Boy,” a Peter Pan figure, as I noted above, who lingers in eternal childhood.  He plays a variation of this role -- a man-child refusing to brace change or adulthood – in the classic Star Trek episode “Miri.”

Next week, Kurt Russell guest stars in “The Challenge.”

Cult-Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

Well, another beloved horror film has been strip-mined in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar. 

The new edition of Poltergeist (2015) is a sad, uninspired shadow of its cherished source material, a work of art lacking totally the visual lyricism of the Tobe Hooper film. 

Even more importantly, this remake lacks the original’s sense of spirituality and very humanity. 

Instead, the 2015 film is a 90 minute cash grab and little else.

I should preface my remarks, however, with a note.  We live in an age of remakes, and so -- lest I go insane -- I do not rail mindlessly against them. 

On the contrary, I take remakes on a case-by-case basis, so that the good ones -- and there are some -- doesn’t get tossed away with the bad. So I was open to a new Poltergeist, as I have been open to other remakes.

My criteria for the new Poltergeist are as follows:

One: Does the remake speak to issues of today in the way that the 1982 film expressed the Zeitgeist of its age? 

In other words, is the spirit and sub-text of the original carried forward into the remake?

Importantly, I don’t expect this new Poltergeist to be about the Reagan Age like the original was. No, I expect it instead, to reflect the Obama Age. Its mission,  therefore, is to show and tell us something about the world we live in now.

Two: does the remake derive creative inspiration from the original and find something new to say about the central ideas and characters, (a haunted house, and a suburban family)?  

I was seeking here, perhaps, to see a half-enunciated idea from the 1982 film developed and expanded upon, revealing to us another or fresh angle of the narrative and its individuals.

Finally -- and perhaps most fundamentally -- is the remake at least as scary a film as the original? 

In a way, this last bench-mark -- fear -- is related to the other two.  If this Poltergeist doesn’t speak trenchantly to 2015, it can’t really be scary.  If it doesn’t give us new shades of the familiar story, it won’t be scary either.

Sadly, the new Poltergeist fails all three tests rather egregiously. 

The down-on-its luck Bowen family, teetering on the edge of financial disaster, purchases a foreclosure in a near-abandoned neighborhood. 

Eric (Sam Rockwell) is out of a job, and Amy (Rosemary De Witt) is a stay-at-home writer who spends more time looking after the children than actually writing.

They are parents to Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), a sassy teen, perpetually-scared Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and gifted, open Maddy (Kennedi Clemons)

Before long, Maddy has detected the presence of spirits in the house. These spirits -- who communicate through the television -- quickly develop a profound interest in her. 

One night, when Eric and Amy are away at a dinner party, the spirits punch their way into our world, attacking Griffin and Kendra, and stealing Maddy away to the spectral plane.

With the help of a parapsychologist, Dr. Powell (Jane Adams), and later a reality-TV show medium, Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), the Bowens seek to retrieve their daughter from The Other Side.

As I "read" and understand the original Poltergeist, it establishes two key thematic ideas and develops and explores them thoroughly.  

The first is that television is a negative influence on children, and a portal of evil.  It is located in the house (often at the hearth), and therefore brings evil right into the heart of the family.

The second conceit involves the larger national economy. A family called “the Freelings” learn that there is no such thing as a free lunch.  If things seem to be too good to be true, they probably are.

Because of the corruption and lack of oversight in the economy of the 1980s, Mr. Freeling’s avaricious boss is free to commit a horribly immoral (but profitable!) act: moving the headstones at a local cemetery, without moving the bodies underneath them.  

This idea of irresponsible laissez-faire economics creating blow-back is punctuated in the film by a composition in which Steve Freeling is seen reading a copy of a Ronald Reagan Biography: Reagan: The Man, The President.

This remake actually begins quite promisingly, with tips of the hat towards both themes, only with a 2015 twist.

For example, the film opens with a close-up of the pixels on an I-Pad.  

As the camera pulls-back, the pixels form into the imagery of a horror video game and a zombie.  In short order, we also see that the new American family -- the Bowens --  has moved into a house near electrical towers.  

The family also learns that the former owner was a “techno-phile” and that he wired the entire house for universal wi-fi access.  I-Pads, I-Phones and flat screen TVs now take the place of the original’s portal of evil. 

The idea here could be that with the development of wi-fi and personal devices, the evil of the TV is now spread to every corner of the house, not just the living room, or the upstairs TV. 

Now evil can access you and your children anywhere and at anytime.  

On the second front, the new Poltergeist positions the Bowen family as struggling in an economic sense.  

The family moves into a foreclosure in the years after the 2008 Recession. Mom and Dad both are unemployed, and money is tight.  When we are doing poorly in terms of money, we sometimes cut corners, we sometimes make bad choices...and then have to live with those choices. We put off health care expenses. We accumulate credit card debt.  We delay a visit from the plumber, or an electrician.

Again there's ample material here to build a sub-textual case about the economy, and attempt to tie it in with the spectral outbreak.

Indeed, the first twenty minutes or so of Poltergeist are impressive -- the film's best -- because one can detect the filmmakers laying the thematic ground-work for some case about our world today, and how our technology and a weak economy are creating “evil spirits” to menace us. 

There’s a scene here, for instance, in which Mr. Bowen goes to the mall and comes back with an arm-ful of new (expensive) gadgets for the family, living the lie that the family can afford it, and “deserves” a treat.  

But after this scene (which follows one in which Eric learns, embarrassingly, that two family credit cards are over the limit…), absolutely nothing comes of the economy sub-text, or -- crushingly -- the technological one either.

The ideas are dropped without a look back, so that the movie can slavishly recycle the details of the original film instead of charting new territory. 

A malevolent tree grabs the boy on a stormy night. The little girl gets sucked into the closet.  Paranormal investigators come in and quantify the spirits as poltergeists; ones angry about the head-stone incident. Then an eccentric medium is called in to clean the house. The girl is rescued after an instance of bi-location, and then the spirits strike one more time.

It sounds familiar, but there is no sub-text here, no Zeitgeist moments that make us relate to or understand the characters better. There is no philosophical meaning to any of this action. Automatically, then, this remake is a lesser film than the original.  It doesn't operate successfully on multiple layers of meaning.

Let’s move on to the second criteria I enumerated above.  Does anything new happen to develop the ideas of the original?  

Well, we get the recycled family, the recycled house, the recycled medium (now a man), and the recycled paranormal investigators.  Nothing to new to see there.

So what does this movie add the mythos or franchise?

A toy drone that is flown into the other world, so that you can see “the Other Side” in 3-D with your own eyes.  

The original movie didn’t follow Mrs. Freeling’s journey to the spectral realm, but the remake does. The Other Side here doesn’t resemble an astral plane at all, oddly, but rather an organic one, where rotting corpses are piled upon each other, stretching out and trying to grab any one they can get.

The film’s one legitimate inspiration is that the Robbie/Griffin character has been given increased importance and depth. In many ways, this film is really his story.  We learn early on that his mother lost him in a mall three years ago, and so now he is afraid of literally, everything. The film is his journey towards courage, towards being “the super boy” his Mom wants him to be. 

Kyle Catlett gives the best performance in the film, too. Whatever good qualities this Poltergeist possesses owe mostly to his efforts.

Lastly -- and it must be said -- this version of Poltergeist just ain’t scary.

I suspect this sad result has much do with the slap-dash direction and pacing. By contrast, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist builds and builds, accelerating constantly. The last act is something akin to kinetic madness, but importantly, the original film starts out  small, with only omens of disorder, with things being…off.  The storm clouds must gather before it can rain.

In the original, the ghost attacks don’t start immediately There’s a period of time during which the Freelings learn of the spirits, and exhibit curiosity about them.  The mayhem only begins later. 

But here, there is absolutely no build-up, no character-development at all. Instead, the movie just picks from “They’re Here” to the tree attack.  And then the clown attack is moved from the finale to the middle of the film, a grave miscalculation that short-circuits suspense and tension.

Another comparison: the original Poltergeist is 114 minutes long. The new one is 93 minutes in duration. That’s an important distinction and one that bears mentioning. Twenty long minutes of plot/theme/character development are just...lopped off.  

So make no mistake: this is the slap-jack, cliff-notes version of the story, one with no time or patience for mood, nuance, under-score or character-building. All the stuff that makes the original Poltergeist something special -- like the funeral for Carol Ann’s bird, or Dr. Lesh’s explanation of death -- is omitted here. Presumably so the theater can pack in an extra showing a day.

As a consequence of this choice to simplify the story, the Bowen family feels a lot more generic and less real than did the Freelings.  And since we don’t care or sympathize with this family to the same high degree, the new film actually takes half-a-dozen toy clowns to achieve not even fifty-percent of the scares accomplished by one toy clown in the original.

Seriously, it takes a whole clown collection to make a jump scare here work, as opposed to the original film’s build-up to that under-the-bed terror.  

In fact, the presence of the clowns make no sense here.  A whole car's worth of clowns is discovered in a crawl-space outside Griffin's room.  Eric quips that people "collect" weird things, and that's the only explanation we get.

That's true, Eric.  

But if you go to the trouble to collect weird things -- like all these old fashioned clowns (some made of very expensive porcelain, apparently) -- you likely aren't going to leave them behind when you move.  

Especially if you have money problems. You'll either take them with you, or sell them on E-Bay in a bid for quick cash. The Great Recession Economy is also the E-Bay Economy.  Sometimes E-Bay or Craigslist money are all that gets people through the gaps between pay checks these days.

But this remake HAS to have clowns in it, right?  At the very least so you can plaster one on the poster...

Listen, I can understand remaking Poltergeist.  I can.  

The two ideas of the original film, as I’ve laid out here, involve the integration of technology into our home, and the way that families respond to shifts in economic policies. Those are ideas with huge relevance and importance today, in 2015.

But this Poltergeist is lobotomized, and doesn't know how to turn those ideas into meaningful themes.  And it it doesn't even know what it's about, how can the director make form reflect content?

Oddly, the remake doesn’t even seem to have the resources behind it that the original did.  Here, for example, the house doesn’t fold up on itself in the finale.  

And here, only one corpse bursts up out of the yard, instead of the virtual mob we get in the original, in the pool, in the house and in the yard.  

Here, we don’t get the visual manifestations of the ghosts/demons, either, or the wall-climbing scene.   
Spectacle-wise -- the one area you expect a horror film made in 2015 to improve on the 1982 original -- this film is a total downgrade. It's cut rate not just in terms of ideas, but in terms of special effects too.

The denouement of this Poltergeist is also a debacle.  Remember how the Freelings went to a motel and kicked their TV to the curb, pushing out the portal of evil?  

Here, the Bowens do the same thing…but with a new house.

And it makes no sense.  You can live without a TV in your house.  But if you won’t buy a new house, where the hell are you going to live? 

Out of your car? Gimme a break.

On top of all these deficits, the new Poltergeist looks just like Insidious, The Conjuring or a dozen other modern horror movies. There’s no appeal or value to the film's visual canvass, and no sense of the camera as an active player in the drama. There’s just no classicism, no lyricism, and no poetry in this film’s color schemes or compositions. It could have been made for TV, for all its use of film grammar.

One example: remember how the original Poltergeist connected visually the static blue of the TV screen with the blue “strobe” of the Other World, thereby drawing a visual connection to theme of “portals of evil?”  

Again, I don’t hate remakes as a rule. 

I don't.

But boy do I hate this one. This new Poltergeist doesn't know what scares you, and worse, doesn't know how to scare you.