Saturday, July 11, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Fire" (November 16, 1974)

In “Fire,” an episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974), a tribe of nomads sees a fire start in the valley because of the dry, hot season.

Instead of helping, however, the wanderers wait until the cave family and the Butler family go to fight the flames and then rob their home cave of food, water, medicine and even tools.

The Butlers fight the fire, creating a “back fire” to repel it, and then learn that their homes have been looted.  They go to confront the nomads, or wanderers, but see that the interlopers have fallen prey to the conflagration too. Now they are the ones in need of help.

The Butlers and Gorak’s family built a fire wagon with a make-shift pumper/hose and extinguish the fire, teaching the nomads a lesson in compassion and friendship.

The series protagonists of Valley of the Dinosaurs face a double threat this week: man and nature. 

Not surprisingly, perhaps, nature proves more manageable, at least at first.  Using his science background, John Butler manages to put out the fire and save the valley.  This is a key aspect of the series. Science is always put to good use, and helps tame the prehistoric, wild environment.

Meanwhile, the nomads, described by Goraks family as “bad people” who “steal other people’s food,” are a greater challenge. Their way of life is a menace, and they don’t want to change it.  In fact, the nomads don’t want help at first, and are untrustworthy.  And, of course, they are thieves. 

But as Gara points out to them, “we’re all the same people,” and it is wrong to prey on one another.  The nomads accept this, but whether the lesson is really learned is another question.

“Fire” features some nice (and surprising…) series continuity. The events of “S.O.S.” are explicitly remembered here, with discussion of the dam and water irrigation in the lagoon. This hard work is put to good use here, as Gorak and the Butlers stop the fire from destroying everything in its path, even as the villagers flee the valley.

More importantly, however, there’s a strong acknowledgement in “Fire” of the friendship the two families share.  Mr. Butler notes that without the help of Gorak’s family, his family might very well be nomads today too.  “We’re mighty grateful for the home you’ve given us,” he says.

Gorak responds in kind, thanking the Butlers for all the modern family has done to help them conquer their environment.

Next week: "Rain of Meteors."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: ElectraWoman and DynaGirl: "Glitter Rock" (September 18, 1976)

In “Glitter Rock,” the King of Tourembourg, Alex X (Michael Blodgett) visits with Lori (Deidre Hall) and Judy (Judy Strangis) while attending his high school reunion in the States.  

He has brought with him the valuable Key of Tourembourg.  Anyone who wears the key automatically becomes ruler of the country.

Unfortunately, a villain operating out of an abandoned theater, Glitter Rock (John Mark Robinson), tricks Alex into meeting him, and steals the crystal.  

His plan, however, is not to take over Tourembourg…but the world.  Specifically, he wants to put the key’s beautiful crystal into a satellite he plans to launch, and make the world's population his slaves.

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl race to save Alex, but instead fall into Glitter Rock’s trap.  He puts them in a “tight squeeze” and the only thing can get them out of it is the new Electra-Vibe app on their Electro-Comps.

This is the episode of ElectraWoman and DynaGirl that I most clearly remember watching on the series original run in the Bicentennial Year.  I recall, specifically, Glitter Rock’s crazy outfits, and the fact that, just a few years later, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century 1979-1981) used the same plot line in “Space Rockers.”

Because of Glitter Rock’s outrageous appearance, this episode may qualify as being one of the campier of the bunch.  That notion is amplified by Glitter Rock’s song titles and overall plan for world domination, which involves funny song titles, and a satellite launched into space.  That satellite is represented on-screen by a lunar lander model kit, commercially available at the time.

One thing I noticed watching this time is that “Glitter Rock” and indeed, many EW and DG episodes, have nary a wasted breath. There are many scenes (and camera set-ups...) but all are extremely terse and short, meaning that there weren’t a lot of lines to learn per scene.  

The short, numerous scenes give the series a kind of breathless quality that is commendable, and harks back, in a way to the serials of the 1930s.

This episode also features a good long look at the Electra Car. There’s a scene in which the heroes board the vehicle, and then we track it as it leaves the Electra Tunnel Base.

The camera-work is impressive, and the ca -- though built over the body of a boat, I think -- is still kind of cool in a retro-futuristic way.

Next week: “Empress of Evil.”

Friday, July 10, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Atrocious (2010)

Despite the film’s title, Atrocious (2010) is not bad or unpleasant at all. 

In fact, Atrocious is a well-made and effective horror film of the found footage variety. It succeeds in large part, however, because it cribs material from a different horror sub-genre: the Italian giallo. 

In films of this type -- ones made by filmmakers such as Dario Argento, for example -- there is often a strong mystery aspect featured in the narrative.Specifically, there is an ambiguity or misunderstanding, at least at first, on the part of the protagonist about the nature/identity of the violent killer. 

And the psychological motivation for that killer’s violence in the giallo format is inevitably revealed (in the denouement) as being connected to a past trauma suffered; often one of a sexual or family-of-origin nature.

Atrocious conforms to both elements of the giallo paradigm. It hinges on a misunderstanding about the nature of the threat faced by the lead characters, and reveals the true villain as an individual psychologically damaged by a traumatic event years earlier.

More importantly, the Spanish-made Atrocious, directed by Fernando Barreda Luna, thoroughly understands the giallo format and its story beats, and even, at one point, features a Dario Argento movie (or video cassette) on screen, to clue the viewer in to its creative roots. 

It's true that Atrocious play on a superficial level a bit like a shaggy dog story at first, a wild-goose chase or game of misdirection that all comes together, finally, in the last few frames of the film. It is only then, after the surprising finale (and act of brutal violence), that one can look back and contextualize the effort as being of or at least related to the giallo tradition.

Like many found footage films, Atrocious also depends on the idea of characters getting lost, and here that trope plays out in a wooded maze that seems inspired, at least in part, by the finale of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). That film involved a very bad parent figure, Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, and Atrocious ultimately works towards the same end, though quite unexpectedly.

Although some lost-in-the-wood passages in the film go on a stretch too long, and defy credibility since one character has actually marked a path out of the woods on statuary, Atrocious nonetheless demonstrates the elasticity of the found footage format.  

Sure, the film hits all the notes we all expect -- the title cards giving us the time stamp of recovered footage, the night vision sequences, and the lost-in-the-woods chestnut -- but the director's canny use of giallo elements and patient approach developing suspense makes Atrocious a worthwhile addition to a format that is so often discredited.

This must be really spooky at night.”

Video footage found at the scene of a massacre in Sitges reveals the unusual story of young Cristian (Critian Valencia) and his sister, July (Clara Morelada). 

For the Easter holiday, they traveled with their mother, father, and brother, Jose, to a family house near the Garraf Park or Forest.  They were excited to travel to that region because together Cristian and July produced a web-show about urban legends. 

In particular, they were intrigued by the story of Melinda, a girl who disappeared in the nearby woods in 1940.  Some versions of the story claim she fell down a well and died there. Others claim she is not a ghost at all, but a devil trying to trick you.  

But the story is widely known as one parents tell their children so they don’t get lost in the woods at night.

Once at the long uninhabited family house, Cristian and July explored the home, and found a VCR and several videotapes in the basement.  Those tapes (of films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage [1970]) have not been touched in over a decade.

Then, hoping to solve the mystery of Melinda, the siblings violated their father’s orders not to go into a wooded maze at night. Instead, they explored it, and came upon a well.  Melinda's well?  

The next day, the family dog was discovered dead at the bottom of that well.

Then, one night, Cristian and July’s mother ran to them in terror, claiming that her youngest child, Jose was missing. 

Cristian and July ran into the maze at night, hoping to find their little brother there, unaware that a different terror awaited them in the darkness.

“At night, it’s different.”

Like most found footage films, Atrocious is not long. It runs just about eighty minutes. And a significant portion of that running time is spent in the dark woods, in the maze near the Quintanilla house. 

Hansel and Gretel-style, Cristian and July attempt to find their way out of the labyrinth, and also locate their missing brother (and mother). These scenes are well-shot, and genuinely creepy, even though they go on for a long time.  

When one makes the connection, thematically and visually, to The Shining, one can see why so much time is spent in that dark, endless maze.  My only concern is that it takes a long time for Cristian to seek out his “bread crumbs” -- orange markings he made in the maze -- so he can find his way out. If I got lost in that confusing labyrinth at night, that would be my first strategy: find the markings I left in daylight to work my way to freedom.

Beyond that slight miscalculation in terms of pacing and plausibility Atrocious comes together surprisingly well the more one thinks about it. At one point, a character notes that “at night, it’s different,” referring to the maze and its terrifying, confusing landscape. 

The same observation is true, however, of a psychologically damaged character.  There, the mental landscape is different at night, and just as terrifying. This character suffered a terrible incident in youth, and the audience is informed that the trauma resulting from that incident can recur not only in adulthood (as it does in the film), but at night as well. The night-time brings out ghost, but in this case, it's not the ghost the audience expects.

My synopsis above mentioned The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, directed by Argento.  That film concerns a killer whose descent into violence is spurred by the viewing of a painting.  It also concerns a protagonist who thinks he sees one thing, but in fact, sees something else. 

It’s an appropriate choice of reference for Atrocious because this found-footage film involves a descent into madness caused by returning to a particular location, the house and maze, and revolves around a misunderstanding of the threat. Cristian and July believe they are investigating the supernatural “ghost” Melinda, but in fact are contending with an evil that is quite different.  They see the results or handiwork of the killer’s violence -- a dog corpse at the bottom of a dry well, a body burned beyond recognition in the family hearth (another visual indicator that the killer’s trauma stems from family), and so on.  They fear they are dealing with some kind of supernatural entity, but the horror is much closer to home than they recognize.

On a surface level, it’s easy not to see much in the film. Two kids go on vacation, get lost in a maze, and get hunted down by something evil.  But scratch that surface a bit, and contextualize Atrocious for its relationship to the giallo format, and films including The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Shining, and one can see how meticulously the narrative has been assembled. A lot of careful thought went into the details of the story so it would all line up at the end.

I should add, as well, that the film’s last act is terrifying.  By sheer luck, it seems, Cristian and July make it back to their house from the wooded maze.  They get inside, are confronted with the corpse in the fireplace, and before they can ponder it, the power goes out. 

Then something comes for them.  Relentlessly.

There are real moments of terror in this sequence as Cristian and July realize that the killer is in the house with them, and armed for an axe. Cristian finds a hiding place for July in the pantry, but it turns out to be not such a good gambit.

So Cristian barricades himself in the upstairs bedroom, and waits for the killer to come.  And the killer does come..

The found-footage format -- for all its deficits in terms of formal style (traditional film grammar) -- can whip up a visual frenzy with its herky-jerky camera-work, dark corners, and immediacy-provoking chase scenes.  Atrocious may have a cerebral intent -- to pay homage to the giallo tradition -- but it doesn’t skimp on the visceral thrills one expects of a horror film either. The last act of the film sustains some remarkable tension.

In fact, Atrocious may just stay with you for a long while after viewing. I admire the way that the film makes the audience believe it is seeing one kind of story (Paranormal Activity meets the Blair Witch Project) but then, in its final moments, reveals that it led the audience astray.  We're actually in an Argento film, or a De Palma film.  This is a clever conceit, and such cleverness is often in short supply in films of this type.

The word “atrocious” can mean bad or unpleasant, but it can also mean horrifying wickedness. It’s a pleasure to report that Atrocious conforms to the latter definition, not the former. 

This is one horrifying and wicked found footage movie.

Movie Trailer: Atrocious (2010)

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: The Rocketeer (1991)

A strange factoid about superhero movies is that period pieces rarely succeed at the box office.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) are all examples of superhero movies set in yesteryear that failed to succeed with audiences. 

In 2011, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger beat that long-standing curse. Perhaps that success happened because the director had faced the same problem once before with 1991’s The Rocketeer, a brilliant and beautiful genre film that never achieved the success it so abundantly deserves.

Why do fans prefer modern superheroes over ones operating in the past? 

Perhaps it is because the superhero template is -- broadly -- similar to the Western format, only with some technological upgrades. Substitute a cool car like the Batmobile for Silver, and a man in a cape for a cowboy in a ten gallon hat, and one can detect how alike the genres truly are.

In both brands of stories, singular men (or sometimes women) tackle corruption and evil, and then, largely, go on their way…until needed again. 

So take a superhero hero movie out of the present, and you might just as well be watching a Western. 

Or perhaps it is just too difficult for us to suspend disbelief in a period superhero film. Audiences might accept a man in a cape fighting criminals in a modern day urban jungle, but if it happened in, say, 1939, how come nobody ever heard of the guy? 

My point is that a period superhero not only asks us to believe in one fantasy element (a person with super powers, for instance), but two, if you count alternate history.

One can speculate any number of reasons why modern audiences will readily accept an Indiana Jones, but not a Kit Walker or Lamont Cranston.  The point is, I suppose, that audiences seem to prefer superheroes with a hard, technological -- even futuristic -- edge.  We want them saving our world, today, operating on the bleeding edge of now.

And in the case of The Rocketeer, it’s a crying shame that our tastes run in this direction.  As critic David Ansen observed, regarding the film, it is “determinedly sweet,” and features “action scenes that are more bouncy than bone-crunching.”

Because of such virtues, I have always considered The Rocketeer the spiritual heir to Superman: The Movie (1978), my choice -- still -- for the best superhero film of all time. 

At one point in The Rocketeer, a character notes “you’d pay to see a man to fly, wouldn’t you?” And indeed, Superman’s famous tag-line was “You’ll believe a man can fly.” 

People flocked to Superman: The Movie in 1978 (in the immediate post-Watergate Age) because they wanted to dream about just such a thing being a reality; they wanted to “believe again.”

The Rocketeer understands perfectly that brand of emotional longing in general, and the long-standing human fascination with flight in particular. 

It depicts the magic of leaving terra firma behind as pilots attempt to touch Heaven itself.  Indeed, the film’s hero, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) discusses flight in precisely -- nay, explicitly -- those terms. 

In the film’s denouement, he discusses wearing the film’s rocket pack and getting as close to Heaven as is possible for a living mortal. “It was the closest I’ll ever get,” he says.

In pure human terms, The Rocketeer is very much about that yearning to touch the sky, and few modern superhero pictures feature such a direct and delightful, human through-line. Instead, they get bogged down in character backgrounds, villainous plans, and byzantine back-stories.

Beyond that accomplishment, The Rocketeer lovingly (and meticulously) revives 1930s Los Angeles, and features a great turn by Timothy Dalton as a flamboyant villain. 

Significantly, there is no angst in The Rocketeer.

There is no trademark genre darkness, cynicism or bitterness. 

The film doesn’t focus on revenge, either. 

Instead, The Rocketeer is really about joy; the joy of flight, and, in a way that can’t be diminished, the fact that love of country can bring people of unlike backgrounds together. The movie, after all, ends with Italian mobsters, a failed pilot, government agents and Howard Hughes banding together to stop a Nazi invasion.

What could be more American, or more ennobling, than that “flight” of fancy?

“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”

A young pilot, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) becomes embroiled, accidentally in a battle between Federal agents and gangsters. Through a strange set of coincidences, he ends up with his hands on a new super-weapon, a rocket-pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) called the X-3.

Hoping to make a living after his plane is destroyed in the battle, Secord secretly keeps the X-3, and has his resourceful mechanic friend, Peeve (Alan Arkin) make him a helmet to go with the rocket.  

Before long, he emerges as a hero the press dubs “The Rocketeer.”

Unfortunately, the number 3 box office draw in America, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), is actually a Nazi spy and has been tasked with stealing the X-3 and returning it to the Fatherland.   He is allied with mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), though Valentine doesn’t know Sinclair’s true allegiance.

Sinclair attempts to ingratiate himself with Secord’s aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) to get close to the X-3.  When that doesn’t work, however, he resorts to force. He abducts Jenny and makes a bargain with Secord: the rocket pack for the girl.

Unfortunately, Howard Hughes and the U.S. government also want the rocket pack back, and Cliff must make a difficult choice.

“How did it feel? Strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of Hell?

The Rocketeer is adapted from the work of graphic novel writer-illustrator Dave Stevens, who first published the title in 1982.  And overall, the title, like the film, is an homage to and pastiche of the pulpy genre entertainment of yesteryear.

For example, the visual look of the title character seems inspired by Commando Cody, a hero who wears a leather flight suit, a bullet-shaped helmet, and a jet pack. The character head-lined in King of the Rocketmen (1952) and Radar Men of the Moon (1953).

The film, however, focuses much of its artistic vision on the 1930s milieu. The audience encounters Hollywood legends Clark Gable and W.C. Fields, for example. A singer in the South Seas Club croons tunes from Cole Porter.  And the soldier villain, Lothar (Tiny Ron) is a dead ringer for Rondo Hatton (1894-1946), a screen actor who suffered from Acromegaly, and put his fearsome visage to menacing use in films like The Brute Man (1946). 

The film also reveals the evolution of the landmark Hollywood sign. It goes from reading Hollywoodland (in 1923) to reading Hollywood (1949), all because of a Nazi incursion on American soil.  And Neville Sinclair, of course, is a variation on film idol Errol Flynn (who was once believed to be a Nazi spy, oddly enough…).

One of the best moments in The Rocketeer, for my money, however is the Nazi propaganda film featured in the last act. In a sort of Art Deco (or Futura) style, we see an animated representation of the Nazi plan for world domination using the X-3.  The terrifying (but beautifully-wrought) imagery shows rocket men destroying Washington DC, burning the American flag, and raising the Swastika.  This short film sells perfectly (and cheaply) the threat that America faces.

Thanks to production designer Jim Bissell and director of photography Hiro Narita, The Rocketeer looks fantastic.  But just as powerful, if not more so, is the movie’s sense of heart, and innocence. 

After Secord saves a fellow pilot (dressed as a clown for an air show), and takes off using the rocket for the first time, the film veritably soars.  One might attribute this feeling of emotional flight to James Horner’s musical score, or to the setting -- wide open wheat fields under Big American Sky. 

Whatever the cause, this inaugural flight sequence is one of the few in superhero movie history that legitimately deserves comparison to the Smallville interlude in Donner’s Superman: the Movie.  The overwhelming feeling is for an age -- an innocence -- lost, but also a yearning for Americana and the American Dream. 

What is that American Dream? In films such as The Rocketeer it involves the achievement of something more than wealth or success.  It involves doing great things; breaking barriers; going where none have gone before. Touching the sky.

It is an indicator of The Rocketeer’s unfettered gentleness and innocence that its call to patriotism in the final act plays not as cheesy or overdone, but as authentically stirring. We see a mobster, Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) make common cause with G-Men to stop a threat to America’s future: Nazi soldiers. 

Then, after he implores Secord to “go get” the bad-guys, we get the glorious shot of The Rocketeer posed next to Old Glory herself, the American flag. The not subtle (yet still wonderful…) message behind this imagery is that Americans may have many, many differences, but in times of strife and crisis, they come together. 

Mobster or G-Man, Americans draw strength from one another and defend their country -- and the ideals of their country -- when they are threatened. I still remember seeing the film in the theater, and the audience hooted and hollered with raucous energy when the Valentine expressed his love of country, and his urging for Secord to fight the good fight.  It gives me chills thinking about it, even today.

In some way, superhero movies are really about (or should be about…) the things we can’t always do; the ideals we can’t always live by, even though we wish to.

Like rising to the occasion in a crisis. 

Or strapping on a rocket pack and taking off into the sky; touching Heaven.  The Rocketeer absolutely understands this facet of the genre, and presents a kind of wish-fulfillment genre story of the highest order.

The Rocketeer is a light, joyous film that never focuses on special effects over people. The film’s feet never touch the ground, and the action scenes, particularly the final set-piece on the Nazi dirigible, are memorable and well-orchestrated.

So why didn’t audiences flock to the film?

I think that goes back to my original point about audiences deliberately not-seeking out period superhero efforts. Even Captain America, Joe Johnston’s genre follow-up to The Rocketeer, eventually reaches the 21st century, right?  Some people might see that development as hedging a bet; protecting against an undesirable outcome (financial failure).

Today, superhero films have largely become mechanical and formulaic. They give us everything we expect as part of some multi-media franchise experience (the teaser, the trailer, the second act surprise, and the post-credits reveal or preview for the next picture), but somehow forget to hold up as narratives, as movies that live and breathe and tell us something about human nature.

The Rocketeer makes us believe that a man (and America with him, in one of its darkest hours)…can fly. 

You’d pay to see that, wouldn’t you?

I know I would.

Movie Trailer: The Rocketeer (1991)

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: The Rocketeer (1991)

Pop Art: The Rocketeer (1991; The Official Movie Adaptation)

Coloring Book of the Week: The Rocketeer (1991)

Trading Cards of the Week: The Rocketeer (Topps; 1991)

Video Game of the Week: The Rocketeer (1991; Super Nintendo)

Model Kit of the Week: The Rocketeer (Screamin)

Lunch Box of the Week: The Rocketeer

Movie Trailer: The Rocketeer (1991)

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Truth is Out There: the 201 Days of The X-Files Begins!

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Lost Civilization" (April 13, 1966)

In “Lost Civilization,” Professor Robinson (Guy Williams), Don West (Mark Goddard), Will (Bill Mumy) and the Robot (Dick Tufeld) go in search of drinking water in the chariot, but run afoul of natural disasters, including a volcanic eruption and a planet quake.

Separated from the adults, Will and the Robot end up in an underground world. 

There, Will finds a sleeping beauty, a young princess (Kym Karath). At the Robot’s urging, Will kisses her and awakens her.

Unfortunately, this was not the right thing to do. 

The princess’s people, commanded by the sinister Major Domo (Royal Dano) are planning the historic conquest of the universe.  And their first target is the planet Earth, because Will -- the first to kiss the princess -- is from that distant world.

Now Professor Robinson, Will, Don and the Robot must escape the underground empire…

Well, at least “The Lost Civilization” isn’t a Dr. Smith episode...and it’s the first time in five weeks I can write those words. 

Instead, “The Lost Civilization” tries to do some real heavy lifting and get Lost in Space back on solid ground.  The episode concerns the men of the Robinson party (and the robot) exploring distant territory in search of drinking water for the settlement.  After many, many weeks away, we are back on the solid terrain of charting new territory, and reckoning with the nature of this dangerous and unstable frontier.

Alas, the specifics of the story are not particularly good or noteworthy. There’s a little bit of Lost in Space's fairy tale principle here (namely in terms of Sleeping Beauty), but also a huge heaping of Flash Gordon tropes.  

In particular, the Major Domo is made-up to closely resemble Ming the Merciless, and the focus on action and cliffhangers may remind you of 1930s sci-fi serials.

I have also read that some people see this story as an “homage” to Flash Gordon and 1930s serials, but the episode isn’t really reflexive in any meaningful way.  It’s a straight-forward appropriation of pulp tropes, without any meaningful comment on them.  Similarly, the sets here are taken directly from the Seaview on Irwin Allen's sister series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964 - 1968), so even the visual aspects of "The Lost Civilization" feel derivative.

Thus, while “The Lost Civilization” moves at a fast clip, and hops from scene to scene quickly, one may feel that opportunities are nonetheless being missed. 

Will gets a tender sub-plot here with the princess, a girl who does not know what it means to have fun.  And the men must deal with an army of soldiers in suspended animation, bent on destroying Earth.  But both stories feel half-thought out.

It’s a lot to take in, and so, not surprisingly, it all ends unsatisfactorily. The Robinsons escape the underground world, and a planet quake buries it, meaning that at some future date, another wanderer may awake the princess and start the whole cycle all over again.  

Professor Robinsons’ commentary about all this is amusing and a little out of character.  He says, basically, he just hopes they aren’t around to see it when these soldiers conquer the universe.

Not exactly a pro-active response to the threat.  One gets the feeling that -- like so many stories on Lost in Space -- everything learned by the characters this week will be forgotten by next week’s installment.

Consider this: how safe would you feel if you knew that an army of technologically superior soldiers awaits, just a day away from your settlement?  

Over the generations, this would certainly mean war. Or at least preparations for war.

Alas, “The Lost Civilization” doesn’t even tie in to an obvious connection in Lost in Space history. 

In the early episodes, “There Were Giants in the Earth” and “The Hungry Sea,” the Robinson party encounters an old city inside a cave, a long-forgotten place of skeletons and weird, ancient architecture.  It would have been great to see “The Lost Civilization” connect those unexplored ruins to the world of these aliens, here….who have been preparing for galactic war for so long.

But again, continuity isn’t the series’ strong point.  Even obvious connections are missed.

Next week: “A Change of Space.”

Cult-Movie Review: It Follows (2015)

Beware of spoilers! Proceed at your own risk!

The new horror film It Follows (2015) has earned a tremendous amount of industry and viewer buzz, and for good reason. 

Not unlike The Babadook (2014) before it, the film is unceasingly scary and smart. But horror aficionados have additional reasons to rejoice, beyond the fact that the movie delivers the entertainment it promises.

In addition to being legitimately terror-inducing, It Follows succeeds artistically on two dynamic fronts. 

In the first case, it beautifully apes the look, sound, and feel of a horror classic: John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The film is a weird remake, in a sense, of that classic picture, but one that eschews the slasher film paradigm and reveals why Halloween’s narrative and thematic structure works on a human, rather, than formulaic, basis.

On the second front, It Follows possesses veritable layers upon layers of visual and thematic subtext. Many critics and audiences have rightly picked up and enumerated on the strong sexual themes. The film involves a kind of “curse” passed via sexual intercourse; a curse that can only be lifted by passing it to another lover. 

It is not difficult, then, to read the film as a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases. Once you contract it, it follows you to your next lover. And behind you, on the same chain, are all the other people who were compromised before you were.

But underneath that particular metaphor, It Follows actually features a powerful subtext of an economic nature. One apparent message of this horror film is that bad choices follow you around through your life. 

That's not just a personal, sexual's a civics thing too. It's a governance thing.

To wit, the film is set in post-Great Recession Detroit, a realm rendered a post-apocalyptic-seeming nightmare through one bad choice after another. The movie could occur in no other modern city, really, because of its blighted, decaying landscape, and due to the visual notion that you can’t escape bad choices. 

Instead, all you can hope to do is pass the suffering and misery onto the next generation, or the next unwitting victim. In some fashion, this actually makes the film a close relative of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) too.

No matter how you choose to read or interpret the film, It Follows doesn’t follow the pack in terms of modern horror films and their cliches. 

Eschewing jump scares for mood and atmosphere, and harnessing patient, diligent, perfectly-crafted camera-work, It Follows leads the pack.

“It’s never about going anywhere, really.”

In Michigan, young high-school student Jay (Maika Monroe) dates an older boy, Hugh (Jake Weary), and decides to have sexual intercourse with him.  Afterwards, Hugh drugs her, ties her to a chair, and tells her a terrible and incredible story.

By having sex with her, Hugh has given Jay a curse. 

A strange, solitary monster -- one that can appear as any person -- will now follow her and attempt to kill her.  Jay can escape this curse only by having sexual intercourse with someone else; by passing the curse on to someone else; someone who does not suspect the truth. 

And if Jay or her victim dies at the hands of that monster, the monster goes down the chain, and kills the originator of the curse.  In other words, if Jay dies, Hugh is in danger again. And if he dies, the girl who gave it to him is next in pecking order.

Jay does not believe the story at first, but soon realizes that Hugh has been truthful about the curse, if not about his identity, or even his name. Her friends try to help her deal with her new reality, but Jay is hunted relentlessly by the monster, which follows her everywhere.

Another boy, Greg (Daniel Zovatti) elects to have sex with Jay, but he doesn’t believe in the curse.  When he dies, Jay is again vulnerable to attack. A sexually-inexperienced friend, Paul (Keir Gilchrest), meanwhile, wants Jay to have sex with him, but she is reluctant to endanger him.

Jay, Paul and two other friends attempt to electrocute the monster in a swimming pool in Detroit, hoping that the strange curse can be ended once and for all.

“Do you feel any different?”

It’s no great secret -- nor any great revelation -- that the horror film, as a format, has always been intimately and inextricably linked with sex.  In the 1980s, this connection became clear again by sheer dint of repetition.  Many post-Halloween slasher films repeated, ad nauseum, the principle that “vice precedes slice and dice.”  

In other words, if a young, unmarried individual has premarital sex, or smokes weed, it’s a virtual guarantee in this format, that he or she is “fair” game to the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, to name just two assailants. The (conservative) message underlining the 1980s slashers is that if you break the laws of man and God, a supernatural-seeming predator will hack you down in your prime.

It Follows plays an intriguing game with this idea. Here, sexual intercourse transmits a fatal curse; pursuit by some malevolent being that can take various forms. Like Michael Myers (and later, the Terminator) this boogeyman will absolutely not stop until it kills the intended victim.  Sex is the catalyst for the violence.

However, though sexual intercourse is what passes the curse to the next victim, but -- and here’s where it gets truly interesting -- by having intercourse with another stranger, the curse is passed along.  So sex is actually both the thing that brings the curse to its victim; and the thing that takes it away.  It is both damnation and salvation.

Like the best of horror movies that establish such rules (think: Gremlins [1984]). It Follows doesn’t spend too much time lingering on the exact specifics of the curse. For the sex to bring the curse, does it have to be unprotected sex, so that fluids pass from one individual to another?  

Does the sex have to be consummated by either ejaculation or orgasm, or is penetration enough to bring it on?  

And, what about non-heterosexual sex?

By leaving the concept vague and amorphous -- and yet clearly understandable at the same time -- It Follows opens up, much like Halloween’s "Shape" -- Michael Myers --a world of interpretations and possibilities.  

For example, the film clearly raises issues of morality and responsibility. Is it right to doom another person to this horrid curse if you know you are infected?  And again, relate that idea directly to STDs. 

In this case, however, there’s actually an another level to consider. The curse, after it kills you, will go back along the chain of the infected.  

So whatever a “cursed” person decides to do, someone is going to die; either a total innocent (someone new on the chain who is randomly infected), or someone who has been a part of it already (and passed it on intentionally.)  This is a no-win situation.

In some fashion, then, It Follows concerns the way that one bad choice (sex with someone who may not be trust-worthy) can lead to another bad choice, and then another. The film ends with a nod towards the stability (and predictability?) of monogamy, as two of the cursed individuals -- Jay and Paul -- seek each other out and stay together.

In the film’s final shots, we see them walking together, holding hands, committed to each other.   The monster, however, is still present in the background, a visual warning that if either of them strays, the curse will be back.  

At least that’s one possible interpretation.

What’s remarkable about It Follows is the manner in which it nails teenage attitudes toward sex. 

Jay believes that sex with Hugh will somehow liberate her. She will feel free, and grown-up.  Jay associates intercourse with adulthood, romance, and freedom. What she finds, however, is that Jay used her; not to get off, not because her loved her, but to save his skin.  He “dumped” the curse on her, and therefore their sex was not about romance, or respect, or regard.  

It was about a selfish desire.

By contrast, Paul, a nerdy friend of Jay's, is so desperate just to have sex that he would happily risk the curse just to get laid. He knows he will be endangered by engaging in intercourse with Jay, but he is so desperate not to be a virgin that he is all-in, literally speaking. He acts, in a way, in the same manner that Hugh does. 

He wants to have sex with Jay for his own selfish reasons. And by passing on the infection to him, Jay shifts her beliefs too. Now she is just being selfish too, not dreaming about what the act of sex can portend in a life, or in a relationship.

The film's monster, when we see it, adopts human form, and is a kind of twisted amalgam of human sexuality. It is depicted, on at least two occasions, urinating relentlessly. That's a reminder that humans often expel waste from the same region of the body where they make love; a connection that makes some folks believe that sex is, by its very bodily geography, a "dirty" process.  

And when it catches its prey, the monster seems to ride the victims to their death.  

One embodiment of the monster also appears to be the victim of rape, missing one sock, wearing smeared, garish lipstick. In this case, the monster is like a stalking, mobile, unsolved sex crime. Perhaps it is the embodiment or manifestation of sexual violence, even.

John Carpenter’s Halloween featured a sexual subtext, certainly, involving the virgin, Laurie, and her more promiscuous friends, Annie and Lynda. But It Follows, clearly, makes the sexual material much more...overt.  

What may not be immediately apparent is that It Follows is indeed a spiritual remake of Carpenter’s film, and, simultaneously, the best such remake of the material.  David Robert Mitchell has captured the essence of the material, both in terms of narrative and theme, but has done it outside the paradigm (and formula) which gave rise to Friday the 13th (1980), Happy Birthday to Me (1980), Prom Night (1980) and the like.

In terms of visualizations, it's fair to say that Mitchell goes full Carpenter, opting for long, slow pushes in towards characters. He uses slow, meticulous pans extensively.  In both cases, the patient, anddiligent camera-work creates the impression of a real world, a real terrain.

Over-use of fast cuts would fracture the space of this world and break the spell, and Mitchell is careful to avoid this pitfall.  Instead, he lets scenes build and build, creating powerful suspense in the process.   The film plays as infinitely more real or true than many recent horror films do because the camera is so assiduously planted in our reality, moving through the space rather than violating it for the purposes of shock.

It Follows, like Halloween, concerns an inexplicable being intruding into a real town. Like The Shape, the “thing” in It Follows walks, but never runs. 

Yet it always catches up with its prey.  

And also like Halloween, It Follows generates significant frisson from showing not where the monster is, but where it is not.  Knowing the landscape of the town, or the neighborhood, thus becomes essential. We have to understand the battlefield.  We have to sense when something is off, or wrong.


It Follows
Consider the final montage of Halloween, wherein Carpenter cuts together -- in reverse order -- all the places that Myers has been seen.  These locations are now empty, devoid of his monstrous presence.  And yet we still hear him breathing. We know he is there...somewhere.  It Follows features similar montages mid-way throughout, with a ruptured above-ground pool (signifying that something destroyed it…), a half-open gate, and other visual signs of invasion, intrusion, or life disordered.  We don’t need to see the monster to be afraid.  

We just have to know it is close, and that it has been here; that it continues to stalk, or follow as the case may be.

The musical score from Richard Vreeland has earned a lot of attention in the press, and rightly so, since, without stealing any cues, it sounds very much like Halloween: a kind of synthetic, trance-inducing drone, but one punctuated by moments of harsh, angry repetition and intensity.  

But the Halloween comparison is notable elsewhere. Many shots in Halloween establish “normality,” the town with the wide streets, sparse trees, and long cement sidewalks. There are scenes in It Follows that deliberately evoke these ground-level moments. One scene, with Jay and a friend walking and talking, is almost a perfect mirror for the scenes early in Halloween of Laurie and Annie walking home from school.


It Follows
Also consider that in Halloween, a horror movie marathon is on the television. Films that appear in the movie include Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Thing (1951).  They comment on the action in a way. Michael is a Monster from the Id, like the creature in the former, and has been buried in the ice, in a way (locked in a mental hospital), like the monster in the latter. 

Here, other 1950s horror movies are also often on screen. I was able to pick out Killers from Space (1955), for example. There, the solution to stopping the invading aliens involved electricity, and the final strategy in It Follows does as well.


It Follows
And then, of course, there’s the classroom. 

In both It Follows and Halloween, our hero sits in a high school English class, gazes out the windows, and sees the Monster that no one else can detect.

Laurie sees Michael and his car across the street, while a teacher drones on about “fate.”  Nobody can escape fate, she says. It is like a force of nature. And Michael, therefore, is a force of nature too, meting out fates for the kids of Haddonfield on Halloween night.

In It Follows, Jay sees the monster as an old, infirm woman, on the school campus, while the teacher discusses T.S. Eliot (1888-1964), and quotes “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915). 

Another line, quoted in It Follows, establishes “I am Lazarus, come from the dead.”  

In scholarly circles, there is great debate about the meaning in Eliot’s work here. Some believe the main character is talking to himself, discussing a romantic longing for a woman he hopes to court. Others suggest that the words reference mortality, and surely they do, on a literal basis.  The moment of greatness that flickers is our mortal life. And in Lazarus is a figure who has defeated death. 

In Halloween, Laurie could not escape her fate -- to be hunted by the Boogeyman -- and in It Follows, Eliot’s poem similarly diagrams Jay’s destiny.  She is hungry for adulthood, for the freedom and romance she has imagined it would bring with it. 

Instead, however, she has learned that adulthood has made her confront her own mortality, and its impending demise.  Some of the figures that the monster assumes similarly seem to be of the dead or the soon-to-be-dead (Greg, for example).


It Follows.

I have written about the importance of the high school classroom in Halloween, but also in A Nightmare on Elm Street.  In that film, the hero, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is explicitly compared to Hamlet in Shakespeare’s tragedy. 

She is a character who, like the literary prince, must dig and dig to discover the truth about her parents and their sins.  So It Follows conforms closely to horror movie tradition by allowing some aspect of literary philosophy to “leak” into the movie through a high school English class.

When you consider the nature of the monster -- a thing which walks but doesn’t run, and yet still catches you -- as well the soundtrack, camera-work, and settings (a lower-middle class neighborhood, a high school class room, an intimate walk with a friend), one can see how It Follows takes all the symbols of Halloween and re-uses them for its own purposes.  

There is even a scene in It Follows in which the hero hears something outside, and gazes into the back yard, aware of a malevolent presence. 

In Halloween, Laurie sees Michael for an instant in the shadow of a fluttering sheet on a clothes line. 

In It Follows, a ball hits the window, startling her, and she looks out, only to see nothing.  But still, the presence of the monster hangs in the air.


It Follows
Many diverse elements of Craven’s Elm Street are here too. For instance, Jay has a single, alcoholic mother, and is estranged from her father.  

I believe -- unless I missed something -- that he is either dead or otherwise abandoned the family. He shows up, however, as a “Bad Father” (like Freddy) when the monster takes his form during the film’s denouement. 

Similarly, the film’s Greg character lives across the street from the Final Girl, Jay, and she watches his house through her bedroom window.  Greg, like Johnny Depp’s Glenn, also meets a terrible fate that Jay attempts to stop, but can’t.  The monster is her boyfriend now.

Much more significantly, I have often diagrammed an economic reading of A Nightmare on Elm Street, to the consternation of some, and the fascination of others.  That Craven film is very much about a monster who suffers the sins of the father upon the children.  In real life, in 1984, that was a topic much very in debate, regarding America’s deficit.  The country was spending money it didn’t have to support tax cuts and military spending; thereby visiting the sins of the father upon the next generation.  

It Follows closely echoes A Nightmare on Elm Street in terms of the way it erects a similar economic case. (And just for a similar analysis, read Stephen King’s brilliant description of The Amityville Horror [1979] in Danse Macabre sometime to register how that horror film is also, about, finally, economic concerns).

Consider: It Follows is set in Detroit, the largest city in American history that has ever filed for bankruptcy protection. The city is some 14 billion dollars in debt (operating with a deficit of over 380 million dollars) after decades of borrowing money to continue running.

What killed Detroit? 

A series of bad decisions, or bad choices, one might claim. Not only did the auto industry shrink nationally, it all but abandoned Detroit, taking most of the good jobs when it left. Whites and blacks alike fled the city for the suburbs, reducing the city's population from over a million to approximately 750,000. That flight then reduced the tax base, which meant that the city became even more starved for funds. 

In It Follows, the camera captures several views of urban blight, of  a ruined Detroit that is, literally, a dead man walking. Homes are abandoned, falling into decay, and Jay, Paul and the others explicitly discuss warnings from their parents not to walk alone beyond a certain point on 8 Mile Road, the border between suburbs and privilege, and the city and poverty.

Significantly, the film’s climactic scene is set on the wrong-side of the tracks, at an abandoned city swimming pool where the American flag is prominently seen hanging on the wall.  

The implication seems to be that Detroit, like Jay, is the victim of bad decisions, bad choices, made over a very long period of time. 

The first time that we see the monster in the film, importantly, she is actually crossing a set of railroad tracks, coming from the side of the failed city to Jay’s suburban side.  

This moment qualified as a book-end image for the pool scene, where the suburban kids attempt to lure it back to its side of the economic divide, and kill it.

Furthermore, the monster takes the form of the “absent” or "bad" father at the pool in Detroit, a symbol perhaps, for the abandonment of the city by its metaphorical fathers; by those who fled to the suburbs. The absent father could be the city fathers, the state government, or the Federal government.

On a similar note, after Paul has sex with Jay, he passes the curse to prostitutes, to hookers working the wrong-side of the tracks again.  Paul is making the curse their problem, not the concern of other suburbanites, like Jay, or himself.

So -- as every critic will tell you -- It Follows is about sexual politics, and specifically, a sexually-transmitted curse. 

But more than that, this horror film seems to concern bad choices on a global, collective scale, one including the economic background. Here, one bad decision is passed on to another generation or group, and then that group is “screwed” (hence the sexual metaphor), forced to make another decision (like bankruptcy) that screws up yet another group.  

The infection of bad economic stewardship keeps claiming additional victims.

In my introduction, I compared It Follows to The Babadook. And there’s a very good reason for that which goes beyond the fact that both movies are scary and well-made.  Specifically, both films conclude with the idea that the monster can’t be killed.  It can’t be destroyed. 

In The Babadook, the monster lives on in the basement (a symbol for the mother’s psyche, and her suppression of her fears about raising her child). 

In It Follows, the monster is seen in the background, still following, still waiting for an opportunity to return.  

Now, you might remind me here that Halloween ends with Michael Myers still prowling (or at least vanished) and that A Nightmare on Elm Street literally puts Freddy back in the driver’s seat for the final jolt. 

But importantly, in both of those cases, the monster is put down for an interval of peace. Loomis shoots Michael six times, and he falls from a ledge, into the yard.  At least momentarily, he is out of action.  

And Nancy turns her back on Freddy, reducing him to no more than atoms, again, assuring at least a brief respite from his murderous agenda.  

In The Babadook and It Follows there is no real relief, no interval of victory.  

Instead, these 21st century horror movies tell us that we will have to learn how to adapt to our lives, to the monsters that dwell in them, and that follow us each and every day. Defeating them, even briefly, isn’t really an option. They will always be there, in the basement, or ten paces back.

Unless we get our house in order, these monsters will follow us for the rest of our days. In It Follows, as long as we make bad choices -- about sex, about commitment, about our cities and our economy -- we will have a “monster” shadowing our every move.  Again, that's one possible reading of the images.

In my books and here on my blog, I write often about how horror movies must always shape-shift with the times, to be scary to us in the nowKing Kong (1933) or Dracula (1931) can be considered great, classic horror movies, but they aren’t scary to audiences today because the culture has moved on to a different set of dreads.

It Follows updates the symbols, narrative and even subtexts of classic horror films including Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street so that we recognize those dreads as part of our twenty-first century Zeitgeist.  The film injects fresh blood into old narratives and themes.

It only “follows,” then, that David Robert Mitchell has directed one of the truly great horror pictures of our Age.