Saturday, April 23, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar (1981): "City of the Ancient Ones" (September 19, 1981)

In the first episode of the Filmation animated series Blackstar (1981) -- titled “City of the Ancient Ones” --the evil Overlord (Alan Oppenheimer) awakens the sorceress Amber from stasis in the temple of the Cave Apes.

The villain hypnotizes Amber to believe that Mara (Linda Gary) and Blackstar (George DiCenzo) are her enemies, and then asks her to take him to the city of Tamborian, where he hopes to learn the secret powers of the Ancients.

In particular, Tamborian is the home of the Sanctum of Wisdom, where secret scrolls are stored.

Blackstar and Mara -- who was once Amber’s close friend -- must put a stop to the Overlord’s quest, and contend with Tamborian’s giant robot guardian.

When the Trobbits attempt to help too, Amber captures them inside her power ring…

“City of the Ancient Ones” sets the template for future Blackstar episodes. The Overlord hatches a plan that could give him supreme power, using the magic of a minion (in this case the brainwashed Amber), but runs straight into the muscular brick wall that is John Blackstar.

The episode ends with order or the status quo restored and the Overlord foiled.

Much more intriguing than this cut-and-paste plot-line, however, are the little details of the story and characters. 

For example, Blackstar notes straight-up that he will “never get used to having such incredible strength,” suggesting that the gravity or atmosphere of alien Sagar makes him more powerful than he would be on Earth.  Flash noted the same thing of his strength on Mongo in an episode of Filmation’s Flash Gordon (1979-1981), but it was smart for Blackstar to get that explanation out of the way in the initial episode.

Also, I appreciate this episode because it suggests that Sagar boasts a long and interesting history. The object of the Overlord’s quest is a city where power awaits him, a city that only Amber knows the location of. 

We are left to ponder how Sagar went from civilizations like Tamborian to the relative barbarism we see in these 1 episodes.  Perhaps warlords like Overlord have plundered its treasures and squelched its freedoms for generations. This idea is implied in Mara’s dialogue. “I wonder if the planet will ever get back to the peacefulness of ancient times,” she muses.  So, like Altrusia on Land of the Lost (1975-1977), Sagar offers a civilization not on ascent, but in decline.

One sub-plot in “City of the Ancient Ones” that seems strange involves the fact that Mara apparently knows where Amber is trapped (in the caverns of the cave-apes), but has never sought to rescue her friend.  I like the idea, however, that a woman named “Amber” has a bejeweled ring that can trap enemies inside it.  The Trobbits are frozen, essentially by Amber, if not actually in Amber.

Next week: “Search for the Star Sword.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "The Desert Hawk" (December 22, 1979)

When we last left Flash Gordon, he was trapped deep inside the caverns of Tropica with fugitive Queen Desira, Dale Arden, and Dr. Hans Zarkov. Their enemy, Brasnor, is hot on their heels. A traitor, Brasnor wishes to kill Desira and take her kingdom. To that end, he claims she is an imposter and fosters confusion.

A strange energy pull, however, yanks our stalwart heroes out of an underground pool towards the roof of the cavern. We find out in Chapter Fourteen, "The Desert Hawk," that a meteorite of "superior density" has caused "suspended gravity" and that's why it's all funky in these parts. A giant bat attacks, but Flash knocks it out.

Meanwhile, far away in Arboria, Aura and Barin trade loving words on a castle ledge until interrupted by King Vultan. His "hawk sense" tells him that Flash is in trouble and requires assistance.

Back in Tropica, Flash and the other refugees escape into the desert, their "
only avenue of escape," and proceed to get separated. In a time-honored cliche of sci-fi TV, Zarkov sends up "Morse Code" in the form of smoke signals, and Flash deciphers it to find him. Morse code, of course, has popped up in Star Trek, Space: 1999 and just about every other series imaginable…

Together, the heroes encounter Gandar, lord of the desert, a very-thinly disguised corollary for a terrestrial Arab king (he actually wears a turban...).

Gandar takes them back to his desert kingdom, which resembles Baghdad (at least what Baghdad once looked like...). There's even a building that resembles a mosque. Together, Flash and Gandar mount a defense of the city against Brasnor, who approaches in a caravan of laser-equipped armored cars.

Flash Gordon of Arabia?  

In fact, that's right. Going back to our World War II metaphor, this episode of Flash Gordon seems to remember that the Axis and Allied Forces didn't battle only in their own lands, but in Africa, and throughout the Middle East. Why?  Resources, for one thing.

Back to the story: the battle looks grim until -- at the last minute -- the cavalry arrives in the form in King Vultan and his Hawkmen (and several Arborian hunters.) Brasnor is defeated and Gandar is impressed. "Earth men never fail to amaze me with their unsuspected abilities," he says.

Finally, Queen Desira is triumphant over Brasnor, and offers her help to Flash in the rebellion against Ming. "
Count on my help," she says.

Flash is confident. "No more we do run," he says. "The free men and women of Mongo are coming," adds a roaring Thun.

Two chapters to go before the fall of Ming!  Next Week: “Revolt of the Power Men.”

Friday, April 22, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Something Evil (1972)

It certainly seems to me that the magical alchemy of good made-for-tv horror movies involves one particular equation above all others: accomplishing a lot with very little. 

Exhibit A: the most memorable horror TV-movies of yesteryear, such as Duel (1971) Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), Trilogy of Terror (1975), and Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) create moods of suffocating, overwhelming terror without necessarily showing viewers much by way of monsters, blood or other visual effects. 

Instead, in each of these productions the audience is strongly encouraged to identify with one "everyman" (or every-woman) character, and then watch as reality seems to slip further away from that protagonist and they descend into situations of the surreal or nightmarish. 

A salesman experiences supernatural road rageA woman battles a Zuni Fetish doll come inexplicably to life, and so forth. 

These stories are models of simplicity and efficiency, but each effort also boasts unexpected high impact due to virtuoso directorial flourishes.

Yet another TV-movie that epitomizes this brand of low-budget ingenuity and inventive spirit is 1972's Something Evil, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Clouse.

This tele-film was made during the rise of Exorcist fever in the United States -- after the book's release and before the premiere of the movie -- and the plot line indeed seems familiar to fans of the Friedkin venture. 

But the point here isn't necessarily the originality of any specific narrative details. Rather, the point is how ably Spielberg manipulates film grammar to forge an overarching atmosphere of free-floating, amorphous dread.

There is something at evil at work in the film all right, but at various times, one might suggest that the "something evil" of the title is madness, family dysfunction, or demonic possession.

First aired in prime time on CBS in 1972, Something Evil concerns the Worden family as it moves into an old, recently vacated farmhouse in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

The patriarch of the family, Paul (Darren McGavin) is a TV ad-man and producer, who is often away in New York City.  His wife, Margery (Dennis) is an artist who stays at home and cares for the family's two children, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) and young Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lampert).

After the Wordens purchase the country home -- which is suspiciously decorated with supernatural pentacles -- Sandy begins to experience regrets about their move.

For one thing, a surly neighbor, Gehrmann (Jeff Corey) keeps ritualistically killing chickens in plain view of her bedroom window. For another, Margery frequently awakens in the night to the terrible sounds of a child crying.   

Another local, Harry Lincoln (Ralph Bellamy) informs Margery that pentacles represent a form of protection against devils and demons, and that he himself believes in such devils.  In fact, Lincoln has made a study of them his hobby.  With Paul away in the city for longer and longer intervals, Margery grows increasingly paranoid about the house, especially when two of Paul's employees die in a car "accident" after filming a commercial on the premises. 

Convinced she is becoming spiritually possessed, Margery locks herself off from her children, only to realize -- at long last -- that she is not the target of the Devil's attacks at all...

Again, the story in Something Evil is one we've all likely seen before. A lonely housewife believes in the supernatural and insists on the supernatural while her "rational" husband refuses to join in and share a meaningful dialogue about it.  

He's just worried about money.  "If we sell this house now, I'd take a terrible loss," he states at one point.  On a (very) superficial level, the narrative is similar to Rosemary's Baby, for instance.

Then, of course, there are the young children imperiled by demonic possession, and  local experts warning of a house's dark history with the mystical and supernatural. These plot details suggest The Exorcist, The Haunting and other horror tales horror fans know and love.

Yet Something Evil is perfectly titled. There is indeed "something evil" at work in this horror story, some amorphous aspect of the diabolical, and Spielberg carefully refrains from showing the Evil Thing's presence or even its shape on Earth throughout the film.

Rather, the director rigorously crafts unsettling, almost surreal set-pieces that effectively tap into our shared, subconscious language of nightmares. 

For instance, twice in the tele-film Margery detects a strange noise in the thick of the night.  Both times, the noise sounds like a cat crying at first. Then, as it continues more loudly, we can discern it is the voice of a terrified human child, crying and whimpering incessantly. Margery follows this unnerving voice down a dark staircase, out into the night, and into an outbuilding, a garden shed.  She can find no source for the cries, and returns to bed.

The second night that Margery hears the sound, something more terrifying occurs.  She follows it to the garden shed a second time, and this time the voice appears to be emanating from a mason's jar filled with a thick red, gelatinous substance.

The substance moves in the jar as if it is alive, as if the child's essence or soul is trapped inside.  Now, pretty clearly, this doesn't make a lot of "awake" or conscious sense, but it makes perfect nightmare sense.  It's irrational and yet wholly terrifying.

Amazing what a little food coloring and a mason's jar can achieve when utilized thoughtfully, isn't it? The discovery of the mason jar is just so weird, incongruous and unsettling that you can't quite shake the imagery.

To augment the idea of the shed as a source of something unspeakably evil, Spielberg often films his exterior sequences from a vantage point inside the structure, looking out into the surrounding yard.  This perspective accomplishes two things of consequence.  First, it restricts the available space of the characters visible in the frame. The children are seen playing in the yard, but they are bracketed -- trapped, essentially -- by the arch of the doorway. 

Secondly, and perhaps even more significantly, this perspective suggests the notion that something is alive in the shed, and gazing out from inside it. This could be the point-of-view shot of a devil or demon. The demonic jar and its contents, perhaps?

Another, almost throwaway moment is nearly as unnerving as these canny visual perspectives. Late in the film, Paul is at work in the city, reviewing the commercial footage he shot at his home.  A technician enters his office only to show him something weird that inexplicably appears on the film, even on the negative.  It's a set of red, glowing eyes...inside one window frame. 

Again, we're not seeing a CGI demon, or even a man in a costume.  We're just seeing a photographic still of eyes where none should be, and the effect is pretty shocking.

Finally, during the climax of Something Evil, Margery must reclaim the soul of her son, Stevie, who has become possessed.  Again, Spielberg selects a simple but effective shot to convey the demon's sense of power. He positions the child in the center of the room -- but higher than any child could possibly stand -- and lets all hell break loose around this stationary force, meaning demonic wind, doors swinging open, etc.  The child's back is to the camera, so we can't see his face; can;t see what he actually looks like as an instrument of the Devil. 

Again, when we think of demonic possession we remember the incredible visual effects of The Exorcist: twisted heads and pea soup, namely.  With little budget to speak of, Spielberg instead implies the demon's power by positioning him like a pillar -- unmoving --- in the center of the frame; letting others react to his powerful presence.

Low-budget filmmakers today really ought to study Spielberg's excellent staging. Every truly chilling moment in Something Evil is achieved through applied film grammar; through positional intimation, to coin a phrase.

In narrative terms Something Evil might be  interpreted as a story in which a  family is torn apart by a sensitive mother's increasing sense of alienation and isolation.

Margery physically strikes Stevie at one point, and then delivers a heart-wrenching speech in which she says, essentially, that she is leaving the family (children included), because she no longer trusts herself.  She might as well be an alcoholic, given the particulars of her dialogue, and her actions. 

Conjuring an evil force as the motivation for Mommy's bad behavior seems a perfect metaphor for childhood logic.  Mommy isn't herself.  There's "something evil" at work inside her.

Similarly, Stevie becomes "possessed" by something evil when Mother's love is no longer available.  Something else...something of a more sinister shade, steps in to fill that void. Finally, Mom is told that "love is a powerful force" and re-asserts her role in the family.  But in some ways, the damage is already done.

Though in horror terms, Something Evil offers a pretty hoary, familiar story-line, it succeeds mainly because of Spielberg's staging. By the time audiences get to Marge's second nocturnal visit to the garden shed -- and the sight of that oozing red gelatin in the mason jar -- Spielberg has us by the throat.  Then, the TV movie reaches a fever pitch of terror before ending on another unsettling visual:  The family car pulls away from the house of evil, but Stevie -- now free again -- sits backwards in the car, peering towards the camera (and the house), out the back window. 

If not demonic, Stevie's eyes certainly appear traumatized.  His positioning  (backwards, essentially, intimating the opposite of order) denies the film a clean restoration of  balance and of the natural world, and suggests that Stevie's family problems may just be beginning.

In other words, what's encoded here under the supernatural veneer of Something Evil is the idea of how a family's dysfunction damages and destroys children.  Something evil happens to the Wordens.  Is it demons, or the specter of looming divorce?

I often wonder what networks executives were thinking about, green-lighting such terrifying tv-movies for family audiences in the 1970s.

And then I realize that on paper, Something Evil probably didn't appear too traumatic. Just another, run-of-the-mill demon possession story.

But when Steven Spielberg entered the picture, the director lifted the material.  He took Something Evil from the realm of the routine and the familiar to a level of authentic horror, conscious and subconscious, that remains effective to this day.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Tribute: Guy Hamilton (1922-2016)

The world lost another remarkable talent from the world of film today.

Director Guy Hamilton  (1922-20160, who helmed four early James Bond movies -- including Goldfinger (1964) -- has passed away.

With his work on Goldfinger, Hamilton did much to cement the tone and style of the Bond films.  He brought a light, and even satirical touch to that film, which others attempted to emulate.  

In other words, Hamilton gifted the Bond films, for lack of a better word, with real wit. The James Bond "craze" of the mid-1960s arose because of Goldfinger, so Hamilton's work establishing the franchise is crucial to an understanding of it.

Hamilton also directed the last of the Bond films to star Sean Connery in 1971, Diamonds Are Forever.  

And he helped to establish Roger Moore in the role in that actor's 007 debut, Live and Let Die (1973) and its follow-up, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

Mr. Hamilton also directed one of my favorite cult movies of the 1980s, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985) which, sadly, did not produce a franchise.

Other films directed by Mr. Hamilton included two Agatha Christie murder mystery adaptations -- The Mirror Crack'd  (1978), and Evil Under the Sun (1982). He also directed Force 10 from Navarone.

Not every filmmaker out there boasts the dexterity and discipline to operate -- for more than a decade -- at the top of the big studio game. But Hamilton not only managed that feat; he managed to imbue his films with his trademark style and humor.

He will be missed, and his films will be watched for years and decades to come.

Tribute: Prince (1958-2016)

Today, we have lost, unexpectedly and tragically, a pop culture icon.

In my book, Music on Film: Purple Rain (2012), I wrote the following passage regarding Prince (1958-2016):

"...[W]e fade in on a solitary figure standing on stage...The Kid is silhouetted in the dead center of the frame, his hands gripping a guitar. 

Fog surrounds this un-moving stranger, a man stationed beneath a haze of red and blue strobe lights...

...this guitar hero simply speaks and the audience holds its collective breath, listening to and absorbing every last word of the monologue...

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life..."

Now, sadly, Prince himself, has left us once more; he has receded into that mist. 

But the artist's remarkable legacy is that his words, in that unforgettable moment, were true.  

Prince got so many of us  -- day-to-day -- through this thing called life.  

He did so with his remarkable talent, and his unforgettable music. He did so with his incredible style. 

After all, this is a man who did not follow trends, either in music, fashion, or film.  

No, Prince invented them.

My site is a film and TV blog primarily, so I will focus the rest of my comments on Prince's remarkable work in that terrain.  

On a personal note, Purple Rain is one of my all-time favorite films, and I will never forget experiencing it for the first time at the age of fifteen, in the summer of 1984. 

This was the amazing summer of Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.   

Going in, I knew absolutely nothing about Prince, or Minneapolis, or the music scene there. The film, from director Albert Magnoli, absolutely landed me in that world. It was a baptism by fire, and a whole world seemed to open up, right there. 

Later, after the movie, I must have played the soundtrack approximately a gazillion times.

The movie was an immersive, unforgettable experience. To me, Purple Rain still captures 1984, and more broadly, the feeling of the mid-1980s.

The film not only gave us a fictionalized version of Prince -- the aforementioned Kid -- it gave us such memorable compositions as "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," "Darling Nikki" "I Would Die 4 U," "Purple Rain," and of course -- absolute truth in advertising  -- "Baby, I'm a Star."

Prince's music was soon everywhere, appearing in TV programming such as Knight Rider and Fame on a regular basis.  

Prince had broken through every demographic barrier imaginable. All the travails making the film -- including a meeting in which a studio executive reportedly asked if John Travolta could play Prince -- had been worthwhile. Prince's words, vision, and persona had connected to the culture, to America, to the world, even.

Prince twice attempted to re-capture the cinematic glory of Purple Rain -- which critics Siskel and Ebert both counted among the ten best films in a very competitive year -- but Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) were generally not as well-loved.  

Strictly speaking for myself, I feel that Purple Rain is the closest I ever got to seeing Prince emerge from that mist, and understanding him.  

His follow-up movies were fascinating and ambitious, but as far as understanding him, understanding the man, nothing compared to the story of "the Kid."

Prince also became associated, for a time, with a genre hero: Batman. Prince composed many of he songs heard in the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman film of 1989. 

Again, I carry powerful memories of that summer -- one of the first, if I recall, that I had both a driver's license and a car -- and listening to Prince's soundtrack over and over again. I loved "Batdance."

We lose Prince at age 57, and I mourn both the man and the years -- decades -- of Prince music we will never get to listen to.

Thank you, Prince, for getting us through this thing called life.

Cult-Movie Review: Emelie (2015)

I love the fact that the 1990s “interloper”-style horror film is making something of a cinematic comeback of late, at least between The Gift (2015) and now Emelie (2015).

This is how I recently (and in Horror Films of the 1990s too); defined the interloper as a boogeyman:

“The interloper as an “invader” a person who “deliberately interferes with the affairs of another, or who trespasses into a place, situation, or activity without permission or invite.”

The setting of said invasion might be the workplace (The Temp [1993], The Fan [1996]), the home (The Guardian [1990], Pacific Heights [1990], The Hand That Rocks the Cradle [1992], Single White Female [1992]) or even a family vacation (The River Wild [1994]).

In regards to The Gift and the interloper sub-genre I also attempted to define the conventions of this notable of the form in the following way.

Convention #1, as I noted, “we’re all accountable,” meaning that in an Interloper movie, the film’s protagonist commits some act that sparks the interest or activity of the invader in the first place. For instance, a hero might break the law (like Nick Nolte's character does in Cape Fear [1991]), invade a roommate’s personal space (as Bridget Fonda does to Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female), or “fudge the numbers” to achieve a certain end (as Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine do in Pacific Heights). So it’s fair to state that the Interloper film is all about characters realizing that bouts of immorality carry a considerable cost.

Convention #2 of the Interloper film I termed “What’s Your Childhood Trauma,” and it involves the fact that Interlopers are often psychologically damaged, having undergone severe psychological or mental trauma, often during their childhood. Hedy in Single White Female once had a twin who drowned, for instance. Judith (Jamie Lee Curtis), the psychotic mother of Mother’s Boys (1994), saw her father commit suicide. The Interlopers in these films are generally sick people, at least in terms of emotion and personal experience. Something about their trauma triggers their behavior in the movie’s present (and unfolding narrative).

Convention #3 is “Big Problems Start Small” and it reflects the idea that an Interloper’s attacks begin with little, thought disturbing things. A pet disappears or is killed (Cape Fear, Man’s Best Friend, The River Wild), a car gets scratched (The Crush [1993), Fear [1996] for example.

The fourth and final convention of the Interloper Horror Film I titled “Your Life is Up For Grabs.” What it means is that the Interloper gets inside the protagonist’s life, and causes the hero to lose a job, lose his or her family, or make other terrible sacrifices. In other words, the Interloper’s invasion affects someone on a deep, personal level.

What was once stable is now unstable. What was once unquestioned is now in total jeopardy.

The Interloper films and their structure became much less popular after the 1990s, though the form has been resurrected in films such as Orphan (2009).

Emelie is the latest example of this resurrection, and like The Gift, is a well-made and effective film. Emelie involves an angel-faced young babysitter, Anna/Emelie (Sarah Bolger) who is not who she claims to be, and who nearly destroys a typical suburban family in one night.  Her invasion is of the home, and her target is the nuclear family she encounters: the Thompsons.

In this case, Emelie hits at least two key notes from the interloper formula pretty hard. Namely, Convention #2 (about personal trauma) and Convention #4 (your life is up for grabs).  The other conventions are present, but to a less prominent degree.

Going beyond the structure of interloper films, Emelie is really about the corruption of innocence, and it plays as something akin to a parent’s ultimate nightmare.

The invasion in the film is all about how a child’s innocence -- a precious commodity to any parent -- can be ruthlessly, and seemingly effortlessly, ripped away. Emelie Liroux’s actions aren’t just dangerous, they are committed with absolutely no regard for the psyches of the children in her care.

Harrowing, effective, and occasionally even taboo-shattering, Emelie is likely the best babysitter horror movie to come down the pike in quite some time. Its adroit handling of the interloper formula suggests that there is still a lot of life left there if the material is handled with intelligence and cunning.

“Pretending is this super power that we all have.”

Suburban parents Dan and Joyce Thompson (Chris Beetam and Susan Pourfar) want to go out for their anniversary, but when their regular babysitter cancels, they may have to cancel their evening away from their three children, Jacob (Joshua Rush), Sally (Carly Adams) and young Christopher (Thomas Bair).

Fortunately, they find another babysitter, whom they have never met, Anna, who agrees to work on short-notice.  

What the Thompsons don’t know is that Anna has been killed by a wanted fugitive named Emelie Liroux. And Liroux is masquerading as a babysitter for a very important, personal purpose. And Christopher is part of that purpose.

After their parents leave for the evening, Jacob, Sally and Christopher are left to the not very tender mercies of Emelie…

“Sometimes it is okay to destroy things for fun.”

In terms of the Interloper Formula, tConvention #1, Emelie doesn’t go too hard on the parents, at least so far as assigning guilt. 

The Thompsons want a night out and don’t do their due diligence. Still, Dad hasn’t had an affair with Emelie, or anything like that. These parents do, literally, invite the interloper into their home, but their worst crime is not checking on the credentials or identity of their sitter.  Their “fault” is in assuming that all things are normal. Their regular sitter has vouched for Anna…but Emelie isn’t Anna.

So, what we can establish here is that the Thompsons are exhausted from raising three kids, and are so desperate for the escape valve of a night out that they cut corners. They do so on the assumption that they live in a "safe world."

Convention #2 is where Emelie proves very intriguing. Emelie's middle name is “Medea,” apparently, and that may give you a clue as to her nature, and trauma. 

Emelie has had a break with sanity after an event we witness in (heart-breaking) flashback, and yes it relates to the crime of Medea, a figure from Greek myth.  

I have read some critical complaints regarding the fact that we see this trauma played out, in flashback form. I understand that criticism, but viewers needed to see this happen, and it fits the convention/structure of the Interloper film. 

We need to be aware of the thing that spurs Emelie’s psychotic break, just as we became aware of character histories in Single White Female, The Temp, and Mother’s Boys.  That background is baked into the equation: the violence and insanity are motivated not by abstract things, but by personal history.  

In this case, the trauma occurs not in Emelie’s childhood, but rather in her adulthood; her immediate past. And what happens is visceral and terrible. It's nobody's fault, either.  It goes back, actually to the blame I assigned to the parents. Their responsibility (or guilt) stems from exhaustion. Emelie's guilt arises from her exhaustion too.

Emelie also hits Convention 3. In a horrifying scene, the babysitter feeds Sally’s pet hamster to Jacob’s pet snake.

However, this murder of a family pet is not the first indicator of her unnatural or monstrous nature. When we first meet Emelie, for example, we see her blood-caked sneakers (ostensibly from the murder of Anna). And her first act with the Thompsons is to steal Jacob’s hand-held video game from his mother’s purse.  So the terror or incursion still starts small, but the murder of a family pet is not the earliest sign of the interloper’s sickness.  Still, it's nice that the movie incorporates this old standard of the format.

I suppose Convention #4 is handled best by Emelie. While the parents are gone, Emelie does horrible things to the children; things that it won’t be easy to come back from.  

She encourages their destruction of personal (and family property), noting that it is okay to destroy things just for fun.  

Then, she demands that Jacob talk to her during a game of hide-and-seek while she sits on the toilet and informs him that she is menstruating. 

The fact that she is on her period doesn't make her by nature an alien or a monster -- just  biologically a woman -- but the casual way Emily forces Jacob to contend with something unknown or grown-up suggests that she doesn't have his best interests at heart.

Next Emelie sits the children down for “movie night” and pops in a VHS tape of their parents having sexual intercourse.  

Yes, she has found their sex tape, and is showing it to their three pre-pubescent children.  

Again, even if the children survive their night with Emelie, this violation will not disappear and cannot be undone. The tape cannot be unseen. The children have been exposed to something (involving their parents, too…) that will need explaining, and will inform their understanding of sex for the rest of their lives.

Before the night is done, Christopher has a loaded gun in his hand, Jacob witnesses the death of his babysitter, Maggie, and Sally has been drugged…after seeing her pet hamster eaten alive by a python.

In one night, they have been forced to grow up far too fast. And in some way, this is a re-enactment of what happened to Emelie.  Her trauma also made her grow up far too young.

But basically, Emelie takes special care to disturb and unsettle the children, to unbalance them and show them things they are not yet ready to experience.  The invasion of the Thompsons’ family is therefore physical and psychological. 

It is physical in the sense that she nearly escapes with Christopher, taking the boy from his rightful family. And it is psychological in all the senses listed above.  

She has waged all-out assault on the innocence of the kids.

At one point in the film, things get especially nasty. It is learned that Emelie has an accomplice, someone whose mission it is to murder the kids’ parents. In short then, she is really playing for keeps. 

She not only wants to take Christopher away, she wants to destroy the parents, leaving Jacob and Sally orphans.  That is the ultimate way, perhaps, to make them grow up too young.

In the final analysis, perhaps, the film’s message is that Jacob is already more adult than the others, and therefore that he no longer needs to be coddled, or be treated as innocent.  After the initial stages of shock and fear, he comes back and fights for his family; for his siblings. He reveals that he is grown up enough to take care of himself, and that he can “take responsibility” as his parents have often instructed.  He also must make a tough choice at one point, deciding which sibling to save, and which to leave vulnerable.

Emelie works more often than not, and triumphs over its weak-ish ending, I would assess, because of the solid lead performances from Bolger, who plays Emelie, and Rush, who portrays Jacob. Their personality clash makes up most of the movie. 

Also on the negative side, the film seems to exist in a kind of technology Twilight Zone. Nobody here owns a modern iPhone-type device, and Josh’s video game looks distinctively last generation in nature.  So either the film was meant to be set a few years back, or was held out of release for a few years.  It’s a small point, but one that occasionally makes one ask questions.

If you enjoy interloper-style horror films, Emelie is a real treat. The film is quite tense, and well-shot, and though it adheres to the interloper structure, it is never a slave to it. 

The distinctive nature of Emelie’s trauma, and Bolger’s angel-faced demeanor make her a worthy heir to the interlopers of nineties films like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The Guardian, and Single White Female.

Movie Trailer: Emelie (2015)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Galileo Seven" (January 5, 1967)

Stardate: 2821.5

Aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise is Galactic High Commissioner Ferris (John Crawford), a dignitary who is being transported, along with medicine, to Makus III. There, a terrible plague has broken out in the New Paris Colony.

En route to Makus III, however, the Enterprise encounters the quasar phenomenon known as Murasaki 312. Captain Kirk has standing orders to investigate all quasars, no matter the circumstances, and prepares a shuttle mission to do so over Ferris’s objections. The Enterprise has just two days to learn about the quasar before the ship must resume course for the plague-ridden planet.

Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) commands the shuttle mission, and must soon contend with more than anyone bargained for.  The “Murasaki” effect blinds the shuttle’s instruments -- and the Enterprise too -- and hurls the Galileo to the inhospitable surface of nearby Taurus II. 

There, on the mist-enshrouded planet, a tribe of hostile, ape-like giants threaten the shuttle crew, which includes Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley), Chief Engineer Scott (James Doohan), Yeoman Mears (Phyllis Douglas), Lt. Gaetano (Peter Marko) Lt. Latimer (Rees Vaughn), and Lt. Boma (Don Marshall).

The humans resist Spock’s attempts to command logically, especially as the situation grows increasingly deadly, and their numbers begin to die.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise searches for the missing shuttle, even as Kirk laments that the search is like “looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Much like “Balance of Terror,” “The Galileo Seven” seems largely inspired by another production from film history.  In this case, that film is Five Came Back (1939), the story of a small airliner, the Silver Queen, which crashes in a South American jungle with nine people aboard.

As is the case in “The Galileo Seven,” a number of difficult choices must be made if anyone is to survive the crash in Five Came Back. As the survivors in the Amazon repair the plane, they must cast off any unnecessary weight, repair a fuel leak, and contend with hostile natives and their deadly weaponry).  

All three of these concepts are translated “The Galileo Seven." 

The crew removes unnecessary equipment (to lighten the load for escape velocity), and Scotty drains the crew’s phasers to use as energy after a fuel leak. And, of course, those giant ape monsters and their over-sized spears substitute for the natives in Five Came Back.

Intriguingly, Spock's inspiration -- to electrify the shuttle hull and scare off the aliens -- seems piped in from another work of art, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In that book, by Jules Verne, the Nautilus's hull is similarly electrified, so as to repel attacking cannibals.

But as was the case in “Balance of Terror,” Star Trek (1966-1969) is not content merely to emulate.  Instead, it utilizes the outline or structure of Five Came Back (which starred a young Lucille Ball) to examine more deeply the character of Mr. Spock.

We are told, explicitly, for example, that this mission represents Mr. Spock’s first command.  Although in “The Menagerie” we learn that he has been in the service for at least 18 years, this is apparently Spock's first opportunity to lead a landing party. Naturally, Spock believes that logic is the basis by which he should lead (and which others should follow), yet must contend with a boatload of highly-emotional and occasionally down-right insubordinate humans.

In "The Galileo Seven" Spock serves as the veritable calm in the storm that surrounds those agitated individuals, and one wonders what, exactly they think would be served if he were to join them in their panic and dismay. 

In times of a crisis, cool heads -- not panicky, reactive ones -- are what is required, and Spock proves his dignity and intelligence again and again in this episode by not taking the bait from Boma, Gaetano and even McCoy on several occasions.  They are combative, insulting and rude, but he never stops being analytical and decisive.

Therefore, one can see how this episode is really about leadership, and what it takes to lead, inspire, and save lives in a crisis situation.  Spock proceeds from a brilliant point of view, that “there are always alternatives,” and then uses logic as long as it seems useful in achieving its ends.  When logic is no longer useful, Spock does what any good leader would: he adapts to the facts on the ground.  

In the episode’s final scenes, he determinedly commits an illogical act, realizing it offers the only possibility of survival for those wards he commands. Specifically, Spock ignites the remaining fuel, creating a visible distress signal in space. His hope is that the Enterprise will see it...and he is right.

The line “there are always alternatives” comes back in Star Trek history, after a fashion, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), but as the synonymous “there are always possibilities” instead.

Another great line in the episode establishes Spock’s respect for all life, even if it is openly hostile. “I’m frequently appalled by the low regard you Earthmen have for life,” he says, and Spock has a point.  

The denizens of Taurus II -- as blood-thirsty as they may seem -- are on their own planet, and it is the crew of the Galileo that comprises the invading force under these circumstances. These primitive beings don’t act all that differently than we might, were an alien vessel to land on the surface of Earth, in close proximity to our homes. The humans aren’t able to contextualize this experience, and thus prove as vexing to Spock as the ape creatures do.  They just want to kill, out of a need to defend themselves.  Spock's saner head prevails, though at a cost (especially for Latimer and Gaetano.)

What I love about Spock is that as an outsider, he can comment on this matter of humanity's low regard for life. At the same time that he is on humanity’s side, he can point out that our brutal, murderous, fearful impulses run deep. 

Boma and Gaetano are extremely disrespectful and rude to Spock, yet he still does everything within his means to save their lives, thus actually proving his respect for life. They view him as callous and disregarding of life, yet the opposite is true. Spock is playing an a whole different level, realizing that he must save his crew while not attacking or destroying alien life…which abundantly has a right to exist on its own world.

When “The Galileo Seven” focuses on Spock, his value system, and his attempt to better understand what leadership is, the episode really works brilliantly. 

By contrast, the scenes aboard the Enterprise are not nearly so effective or well-wrought.

For example, Kirk is nasty and mean-spirited to Commissioner Ferris from the first moment the character appears on the bridge.  

And here’s the thing: Ferris is right. Many people are dying in New Paris, and so that is where the captain’s primary responsibility must rest.  No matter Kirk’s standing orders regarding quasars, he makes a mistake putting a scientific study ahead of an emergency. 

One must assume Kirk had some idea that a quasar could result in scrambled scanners and communications.  One must also assume that Kirk knew he would be working against an extremely tight deadline: just 48 hours.

Also baffling is the fact that Kirk assigned his first officer, chief medical officer, and chief engineer to such a dangerous, time-limited mission.  

What exactly is Scotty’s purpose in this investigation? McCoy’s? 

Yet instead of taking responsibility for his choice -- and also decimating his command staff -- all Kirk does in “The Galileo Seven” is take a piss on Ferris.   

Really, given Kirk’s verbal affronts, Ferris acts with tremendous (and commendable) restraint. Kirk really should be reported to his higher-ups for jeopardizing not one mission, but two, and then for taking out his anger on the commissioner.

But, “The Galileo Seven” also sadly includes a not-really-great aspect of Star Trek that re-appears in the franchise again and again. 

What is this trope?  

That Starfleet officials (and particularly diplomats) are viewed as arrogant, know-nothing, power-hungry, and occasionally corrupt individuals.

These officers have names like Stocker (“The Deadly Years,”) Fox (“A Taste of Armageddon,”) Nilz Baris (“The Trouble with Tribbles,”) and Morrow (The Search for Spock) to name just a few. The overall impression is that only Kirk and Enterprise crew members know best, and are reacting from honest or pure motives.

It's a little naive.

Outside of that select group of crew-members stands the “the purview of the diplomats” (to quote The Undiscovered Country), and it is a terrifying place, apparently. 

This cliché of wrong-headed superiors continues into the era of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and it’s a bit offensive not because diplomats are always right, but because these individuals usually appear to create some sort of artificial dramatic threat or challenge for the main characters and their camaraderie.

It’s easy to create an outsider to do that, instead of having a regular character voicing a provocative view-point. yet it would be wonderful, too, to show that the wisdom of the Federation and Starfleet extends to those high-up in hierarchy, as well as those on the front lines of battle/exploration.

Basically, “The Galileo Seven” has an A story and a B story. The A story is a space-age Five Came Back and a fascinating exploration of Spock’s ability to lead (and deal with human prejudice). 

The B story on the Enterprise is a time waster that relies on Kirk making bad decisions, and also on the presence of a character who exists solely to be a pain in his ass, even though his cause is actually just and worthwhile.

Finally, the episode has an absolutely risible conclusion. Everybody on the Enterprise bridge guffaws -- for an uncomfortably long time -- at Spock's stubbornness, and boy is the scene cringe-inducing.  Spock's comments aren't that funny.

And on a realistic basis, should Captain Kirk be encouraging the tormenting and mocking of the dignified Vulcan science officer on the command deck of his starship?  

After all, we just saw, on the planet surface, what happens when humans treat this character so informally, and lightly.  They are encouraged to be nasty to him, and to question his orders. 

One last observation about "The Galileo Seven:" I like the actress who plays Yeoman Mears, but it is impossible, again, not to consider how much stronger a show this would be if it were Grace Lee Whitney’s Yeoman Rand aboard the Galileo with Spock and the others.  Rand is greatly missed in these shows, and instead we get a rotating list of mostly interchangeable yeoman (Barrows, Mears, Ross) instead.

Next week: “The Squire of Gothos.”