Friday, March 31, 2017

Cult-Movie Review: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Based on Ira Levin’s best-selling novel, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) presents viewers with a dark, mirror-image of the Christian nativity scene during its final, horrifying moments. 

Here, a human mother -- Rosemary rather than Mary -- gives birth not to the savior Jesus Christ, but to the Anti-Christ.  At the same time, craven worshipers and sycophantic attendants gather to witness the historic occasion. 

This is the beginning of “Year One…”

Meanwhile, surrounding Rosemary (Mia Farrow) are several signs and symbols of encroaching darkness and societal collapse, from the Time Magazine headline that asks the question “Is God Dead?” to the deliberate betrayal of marriage vows which stem from her husband’s (John Cassavetes) insatiable narcissism.

Even the architecturally-imposing but dilapidated and decaying Dakota Building -- infested by creepy old denizens like the Castevets -- expresses something deeply unsavory and perverse about “modern life” in the American 1960s.  Man’s world has been twisted and left to ruin…

For decades now, critics and scholars have written about Rosemary’s Baby in terms of the fears the film reflects and expresses. They have pinpointed those dreads as either “fear of pregnancy” or “fear of children/parenthood.”

Yet both examples clearly miss the film’s point. 

Rosemary’s Baby is explicitly about women, and the sexual politics that stem from that identity. 

Accordingly, the film concerns the fear of a life that is out of one’s control.

It is the fear that arises when a woman can’t exert control over her own body, and therefore her own destiny.  The out-of-control and devilish pregnancy explored in the film is but another embodiment of Rosemary’s inability to shape her own life, as well as the connected fear that others are determined to shape it to perfidious ends.

If God is indeed dead, suggests Rosemary’s Baby, it is because the 20th century American patriarchy killed Him, substituting its own narcissistic, preferential rules for the human values of liberty and freedom for all (even women).

This 1968 horror film, which critic Tim Grierson at The Village Voice termed “defiantly feminist,” thus explores vividly and memorably “the anxieties of women trapped in a male-driven society.”

“Awful things happen in every apartment house.”

In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy move into the old Dakota apartment building after a tenant on the seventh floor has died.  There, Rosemary and Guy soon meet the neighbors, the Castevets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon).  One night, Roman Castavet makes a clandestine, dark proposal to Guy, a struggling actor.

Soon after that secret deal is arranged, Rosemary is drugged by the Castavets and, while under the influence, ushered into a religious ritual wherein she is forced to copulate with Satan.  Rosemary awakens the next day to finds scratches on her back, but Guy lies and tells her he just took some liberties with her while she slept.  

Rosemary soon learns she is pregnant.  This news coincides with the fact that Guy’s acting career finally seems to be taking off.

As the pregnancy progresses, Rosemary grows more and suspicious about it.  Her doctor, Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) refuses to tend to her excessive daily pain, and Guy won’t let her schedule an appointment with the doctor she prefers, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin). 

Meanwhile, Rosemary’s friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) falls into an inexplicable coma after warning her that he has some grave news regarding the situation…

Soon, Rosemary comes to the realization that no one in her life is looking out for her, and that if she is to save her baby, and her future, she must act.  But is it already too late? 

“We're your friends, Rosemary. There's nothing to be scared about. Honest and truly there isn't!

Rosemary’s Baby serves as a blistering social critique of what one might term the Mad Men Era in the 20th century, which by the mid-1960s was beginning to show cracks, if not outright crumble.

But this was an era in which a wife could be treated as a child, and boasted very little control over her own destiny.  Rosemary fits that description perfectly.  She speaks in a sing-songy voice and is infantalized by all the men around her.  She is not the competent, capable heroine of today's horror genre, the final girl.  Instead, Rosemary is a woman who is only just beginning to realize how little control she asserts over her own life.

Andrew Sarris in his review of the Polanski film writes that: “What is frightening about Rosemary's condition is her suspicion that she is being used by other people for ulterior purposes. She has no family of her own to turn to, but must rely on a husband who seems insensitive to her pain, neighbors who seem suspiciously solicitous, a doctor whose manner seems more reassuring than his medicine, and a world that seems curiously indifferent to her plight. When she tells her story to a disinterested doctor, he dismisses it as pure paranoia…”

But here’s the thing: Rosemary’s situation -- pregnancy by Satan -- is odd enough, but her treatment by the patriarchal society is completely routine for the epoch.

Consider that Rosemary is not permitted to decide where she wants to live. Instead, she must petition her husband for the right to make that choice.  She does not get to choose her own obstetrician either. That duty is also assigned to her husband. 

Guy (John Cassavetes) even gets to dictate (with a handy calendar no less), when “they” should begin attempting to get pregnant.   She has desired to have children for some time, but her feelings have not been taken into account, until now, when that desire can be co-opted by others.

Later, when Rosemary’s pregnancy begins to go awry, the doctor, her husband, and the neighbors all poo-poo her very legitimate concerns about pain and weight-loss.  

And when Rosemary runs, helpless, to another doctor, Hill, he betrays her because he’s part of the dominant culture’s “boy’s club,” though not a devil-worshiper.

Lest this aspect of life in the 1960's be dismissed as part and parcel of the film’s considerable (and effective) atmosphere of paranoia, one should remember the facts of women’s health in the 1960's:

In the 1960's, a woman had to get permission from her husband to have a tubal ligation,” for instance, “a procedure that made pregnancy impossible.  Single women were generally refused such procedures.” (Laban Carrick Hill, American Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the 1960s; 2009, Hochette Book Group, NY.) 

Similarly, author Sue Vilhauer Rosser reminds readers in Women, Science and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present (ABL-CIO, 2005, page 407) that “women sought to control their own bodies” in the 1960's “through access to safe birth control, abortion and information about their physiology and anatomy; to define their experience as a valid aspect of their health needs; and to question the androcentric bias found in the hierarchy of the male-dominated health care system and its approach to research and practice.

The relevant line there, perhaps, involves a woman’s ability to define as valid her own health needs

That’s precisely the war that Rosemary repeatedly wages in the Polanski film. Her pain is routinely dismissed by others, and her dislike of the “vitamin” drink prepared by Mrs. Castavet is similarly ignored. 

The reason why? 

Men such as Guy, Sapirstein and Roman boast an alternate agenda for Rosemary. Her pain is irrelevant to that agenda. Finally, Rosemary acts out or rebels against her male masters in the only way the culture permits, in terms of fashion; in terms of her appearance.  She gets a very severe hair-cut. 

Perhaps one of the scariest qualities of Rosemary’s Baby today is the fact that there are still folks out there who want to go back to the 1960's in terms of women’s health care. Oddly, these are usually the self-same men arguing that government shouldn’t intrude into people’s private lives. That libertarian principle, however, is ritually sacrificed when it comes to control over the uterus.

On a connected note, the most unpleasant interaction I’ve likely ever had with a horror movie fan arose over a discussion Rosemary’s Baby that came down to sexual politics. 

At a horror convention, a fan approached  me at a vendor’s table and began asking my cinematic likes and dislikes.  He almost immediately went into chapter and verse regarding his dislike of Rosemary’s Baby.  He went so far as to say that Mia Farrow’s character “deserved to be raped.” 

I questioned him about that.  I asked two questions, actually. 

First, what did Rosemary do, precisely, to deserve being raped? 

And secondly, why did she deserve to be raped by the Devil

His response was -- verbatim -- that she was “too whiny,” and that because she was so whiny, she had it coming. 

To "whine" means “to complain” and this fellow clearly disliked Rosemary because she had the audacity to complain about her plight, her terrible misuse by husband, doctor, and neighbor.

So there you have it. Even today, some folks feel threatened by the fact that a woman may not do exactly what men want her to do. She steps out of that narrow box, and deserves rape…and rape by the Devil, no less.  

Why would anyone who loves his mother, sister, daughter, or wife hold such a draconian belief?

Fortunately, such beliefs have, in my experience, been the rare exception in terms of horror fandom. Horror film fans -- often judged harshly by others, themselves -- are not usually the type to repeat the mistake.

But Rosemary’s Baby and this fan’s hostile viewpoint towards it lead characters always reminds me of a famous quote from the great Rod Serling:  

If you want to prove that God is not dead, first prove that man is alive."

Movie Trailer: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "Night Visitors" (January 23, 1978)

After the relative success of "Carousel," the last Logan's Run episode I blogged about here, I had high hopes that the series was going to finish out its fourteen episode run in decent fashion.

Well, episode twelve, "Night Visitor" terminates that hope like a Sandman shooting Runners.

Instead of delving deeper into character interaction, or the background of the world the protagonists inhabit, “Night Visitors” attempts, sadly, to tell a supernatural story, one of “possession” in the Logan’s Run universe. 

The episode actually possesses the audacity to ape the “devil” craze of the seventies (The Exorcist [1973], The Omen [196]) and then, disappointingly, have REM (Donald Moffat) validate the occult as something real.

The problems with this idea -- at least in universe -- are myriad.  Consider that the denizens of the City of Domes don’t believe in a conventional afterlife with a Heaven and Hell. They believe in a cycle of “Last Day” and “Renewal.”  It isn’t easy to understand how the Devil, spirits, ghosts, or other occult forces would figure into their world view.

In fact, Logan and Jessica should be completely stunned and unfamiliar with the concept of ghosts and hauntings. In their world (City of Domes), nobody ever really dies (or so it appears), and so there is no such things as ghosts.

They wouldn’t even understand the concept.  But “Night Visitors” forgets that fact, either for convenience sake, or because of sheer incompetence.

In this installment of the short-lived 1977 series, Logan, Jessica and REM experience the futuristic equivalent of running out of gas: their solar craft's energy cells power down during a night-time rain storm.

While parked in the rain, Jessica thinks she spies someone: two figures beckoning in the darkness.

Logan, Jessica and REM then find their way to an old Victorian (pre-holocaust) house owned by the very odd duo of Bart (Paul Mantee) and Marianna Clay (Barbara Babcock). They claim to be waiting for the return of someone named Gavin (George Maharis), who apparently disappeared quite a long time ago.

On this very night, the long-missing Gavin does return and decides that Jessica is a gift from Heaven...or in this case, Hell

For long ago, Gavin made a deal with the Prince of Darkness to trade the life of a virtuous woman for that of his comatose wife. Now he wants his wife back, and he wants Jessica to help him conduct a spiritual ritual that will make this transfer complete. Naturally, Jessica is not too keen on the idea. She's transported to a cave-like dwelling under the house for the occult ritual, but Logan and REM are in hot pursuit.

“Night Visitors” is perhaps the weakest Logan's Run episode yet, mixing as it does the post-apocalyptic world with the supernatural or occult world. Again, in lieu of finding and interacting with an interesting post-holocaust society, the writers of Logan's Run choose to have their protagonists encounter just a couple strangers at a Victorian house.

The Victorian House looks great.  The story that occurs within its walls, however, is awful.

As I wrote above, Logan and Jessica should not even understand the concept of ghosts, or the Devil.  This should all be incredibly alien to them.

Even more disturbing is REM's easy acceptance of the existence of ghosts and demons. He even suggests the house is haunted. I don't know how he could possibly back up such an assertion being a creature of “fact and “logic,” but there it is.

Finally, the show relies on its worst trope: Logan blasting something with his flame gun.  He saves the day by destroying the coffin with the body of the dead wife.  That ends the ritual.  Too often, the series relies on him blasting something, whether a computer, a coffin, or anything else.

I understand budgetary limitations, but still, you'd think the series could come up with something more imaginative and interesting than this tale of supernatural possession in a haunted house.

However, there is one good scene in "Night Visitors." Logan and Jessica share a tender moment in her bedroom. 

"It's hard to think of my life without you in it," Logan says. "It's as if we've always been together." 

Then Logan and Jessica actually kiss.

My goodness, for twelve episodes the writers on this program have assiduously avoided suggesting any kind of romantic relationship (even though that was the core of the relationship in the novels and the movie...).

And now they change their minds all of the sudden. Still, it's nice to see that the relationships are developing, at least a little.

Too bad this development came with only two episodes remaining, when there was precious little time to change the character dynamics...

Next Week: “Turnabout.”

Cult-TV Movie Review: Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby (1976)

Well -- look indeed -- at what has happened here.

Basically, a brilliant, disturbing horror film about a woman who feels she doesn’t control her own life has been transformed into a cheap-jack, shlocky 1970’s horror TV-movie.

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby aired originally on ABC, on October 29, 1976, and attempted to continue the story of Rosemary and her son, Adrian/Andy. But the effort is mostly forgotten by modern audiences.

At the very least, this telefilm isn’t often considered a worthy heir to the 1968 film.

If you’re like me, however, you may have -- at times -- wished for a sequel to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). That film ended with several important questions unanswered. 

For example: what would Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) do next, having mothered the Anti-Christ? 

Would she kill her child, or would she raise him, and attempt to impart some humanity to him via her maternal drive? Or would Rosemary simply steal the child and run away, attempting to escape the Coven run by the Castavets?

And what of the boy? Would he follow the path of nature (following in his father’s footsteps), or the path of nurture (represented by his Mom?)

Ira Levin, author of the novel, Rosemary’s Baby, wrote a sequel to his story in 1997 called Son of Rosemary, to offer some answers.

And then you have this TV movie, which dramatizes a different story all together.

Neither sequel quite lives up to the feelings of sheer paranoia and helplessness transmitted in the original Polanski film. The core problem with Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby is that it blatantly lacks the artistry of its predecessor, and -- because of its low-budget -- can’t take advantage of the inherently intriguing aspects of the story. Wouldn't you like to see what a grown up Anti-Christ can do to his enemies?

I know I would.

In the case of this film, however, Andrew/Adrian causes a few road accidents, and that's about it.

So if we “look” at “what’s happened” to Rosemary’s Baby, we can see that the source material has been degraded in virtually all regards. 

“They want to be turned on by the far out.”

Rosemary Woodhouse (Patti Duke Astin) cares of her young son, eight-year old Andrew -- the Anti-Christ, -- under the watchful eyes of the Coven, led by Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon) and her husband, Roman (Ray Milland).

The boy is sensitive and, boasts the capacity to do both good, and evil. Seeing that -- at least to some extent -- Andrew possesses free will, Rosemary flees the coven with him.  Unfortunately, one of his first acts outside the Coven’s care is to murder a group of children who torment him.

Meanwhile, the Castavets use Rosemary’s ex-husband, movie star Guy Woodhouse (George Maharis) to track the fugitives down, and re-capture the boy.  In Nevada, Rosemary ends up trapped on a bus while a hooker named Marjean (Tina Louise) now in league with the Coven, raises the boy in her absence

The years pass, and Andrew becomes a young man. He has only one friend, a drop-out from divinity school named Peter (David Huffman). Andrew is into music, but is often in trouble with law too. As his 21st birthday, the Coven plans a ritual in which -- if Andrew is evil enough -- Satan will take his body and soul, and become manifest on Earth.

That doesn’t happen, however, and sometime later, an amnesiac Andrew tells his story to a nurse (Donna Mills).  Although Andrew doesn’t know it, she is the grand-daughter of the Castavets. She seduces Andrew so she can carry his seed -- the seed of the Anti-Christ -- to term.

“Win a few, lose a few…”

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby is, most intriguing, perhaps, for its unusual three part structure.  Each of the three pieces of the film are titled like the Bible, with a specific person’s name (think: The Book of Ruth, The Book of Joshua, etc).

In this case, we get The Book of Rosemary first, then the Book of Adrian, and finally, the Book of Andrew. The obvioius inference here is that we are reading/watching/learning from the Evil Holy Book, (well-after Roman’s Year One, no doubt…), and that it’s a mirror image of The Bible.  Light has had its day (2000 years), and now Darkness, and its messiah, shall have its span.

The down-side of the intriguing structure involves character and time.  We don't spend enough time with Rosemary to get effectively re-acquainted with her. And we don't meet Andrew/Adrian as an adult until the second act.

Beyond the original structural conceit, this TV movie sadly has very little to recommend it, alas. The only cast member from the Polanski film who returns is Ruth Gordon, playing quirky Minnie Castavet.  All the other replacements are mostly inferior selections

Ray Milland is much more overtly sinister in the role of Roman Castavet than quirky Sydney Blackmer was, in the 1968 version for instance.  The result is that a level of nuance is lost, and the character seems more cartoon-like in this iteration.  There's menace, but no subtlety to the menace.

Patti Duke Astin doesn’t connect well as Rosemary, either, playing mostly hysteria and panic. Her best moment as Rosemary involves the story she tells to her son, about a prince who has two fathers. Her dramatic line reading (which recurs in the epilogue) is, at least, soulful.  Frankly, Patti Duke Astin isn't in the telefilm long enough to make the role her own, and successfully erase the memory of Mia Farrow.

The character of Guy Woodhouse -- who peddled his wife's flesh to the devil -- undergoes a major development in this film, essentially redeeming himself in the last act, but the teleplay provides George Maharis no key moment to explore the motivations behind this change of heart.  One moment Guy is killing an innocent (Peter) in service of the Coven, and the next he is seeking to murder the Castavets’ grand-daughter, the new receptacle/vessel for the Anti-Christ. Why the change of heart?

Of all the performances, Stephen McHattie’s -- as Andrew -- fares best, perhaps because he musn't contend with invidious comparisons to other actors in famous roles. McHattie does a solid job of excavating Andrew’s central conflict, and choice.  Andrew is a man who is lost, and uncertain of which road to take.

It’s just a shame that McHattie must undergo a scene here in which he is made-up to look like a mime, and then undergo a seductive kind of dance (on the night of his birthday) in white pancake make-up. It’s impossible to escape how strange the slow-motion casino dance sequence in mime make-up is, even forty years later.  I readily admit I don't know much about devil worship, but I wager that mime make-up isn't an essential ingredient.

The movie has other problems too. First, Rosemary gives birth in 1969, or thereabouts, and so Andrew can’t turn 18 or 21, until the late 1980's or early 1990's. 

However, there is no visual indication of time passing at all. The whole movie -- which encompasses decades -- is set in the seventies, at least in terms of fashion, cars, hair-cuts, and so forth. And folks who were elderly in 1968 -- Castavets -- look exactly the same in what would be the mid 1990's.  A deal with the Devil, I guess?

Another, perhaps larger problem, is that Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby features no elaborate death scenes or set-pieces.  The whole thing is such a low-budget, low-intensity affair that the most response is boredom. The movie is slow-going, with very little to recommend it in terms of meaningful action.  Now, I am currently reviewing all of these TV-movies because they prove, on many occasions, that imagination can trump budgetary concerns.  But this telefilm doesn't find any creative visuals or symbolism with which to vet its tale.

In 1976, just a few months before this TV movie aired, a new horror franchise about the Anti-Christ was dawning.  It began with Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976).  This sequel to the Polanski classic feels very much like as thought it is trying to cash in on the popularity of that film. The Omen, however, was renowned for its graphic violence and death scenes.  This movie may feature the Anti-Christ, but he doesn’t use his powers very often, except to kill bikers and bullies. He's an under-whelming presence.

To treat the rich, layered world of Rosemary Woodhouse -- so memorably imagined by Polanski and Levin -- as just another devilish cash cow to compete with The Omen is, perhaps, the ultimate betrayal of Rosemary’s Baby’s legacy.

ABC Friday Night Promo: Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby (1976)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A View to a Kill Champagne (Bollinger)

A View to a Kill Drinking Glass

Video Game of the Week: A View to a Kill (Angelsoft)

A View to a Kill Spy Sun Glasses (Imperial)

A View to a Kill Deluxe Talking Storybook

Pop Art: A View to a Kill (1985) Storybook

Theme Song of the Week: A View to A Kill (1985; Duran Duran)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Spock's Brain" (September 20, 1968)

Stardate: 5431.4

An ion-drive powered alien spaceship intercepts the U.S.S Enterprise, and deposits one life-form on the bridge. This strange woman, Kara (Marj Dusay), incapacitates the crew, rendering everyone unconscious.

When the crew awakes, a startling discovery is made. The interloper stole Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy’s) brain. Now, Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) suggests he can only keep the half-Vulcan alive for 24 hours without Spock’s brain.

But Captain Kirk (William Shatner) insists that in that 24 hours, he will recover that missing brain.  

To start, the Enterprise follows the spaceship’s ion trail to the Sigma Draconis system.

There, on the sixth planet, humanoid Morgs (men) and Eymorgs (women) live apart. The men are primitive and live together on the icy surface, fearful of the eymorgs; the “givers of pain and delight.”

Beneath the surface, the women live in a subterranean technological society; all their needs for survival met by a computer.

There, underground, Kirk learns, that Spock’s brain is being used to power and regulate the entire complex.  Now Kirk must negotiate for the return of Spock’s brain, but even if he succeeds, the surgery is impossible by current standards.

Fortunately, a device called the Teacher holds the answer…if only McCoy can avail himself of it, and then remember the knowledge.

It will come as no surprise to readers when I note that “Spock’s Brain” is considered the very worst episode of the original Star Trek (1966-1969).  Many words, sentences, and paragraphs have been devoted to this installment’s many flaws.

However, I disagree with that assertion that “Spock’s Brain” is the worst episode of the series for a few reasons, though I acknowledge it is, indeed, a very bad episode.

But there are at least two stories which are worse. 

My two selections for worst episode of Star Trek are actually “And the Children Shall Lead,” which is hobbled by a dreadfully-stilted central performance from attorney Melvin Belli and a humorless, unsavory plot-line (the corruption of children), and “Requiem for Methuselah,” which features an unbelievable (and utterly unconvincing) love-story for Captain Kirk.

But “Spock’s Brain?”

Well, it’s extremely low-brow, and yet it manages never to bore. It’s Star Trek, just Star Trek on a really dumb, superficial level. It is juvenilia, and most episodes of the series are never even in the same solar system as juvenilia.  On the other hand, it would be difficult for me to deny that “Spock’s Brain” moves at a faster-clip than last week’s episode, “Assignment: Earth.”

But this episode is so distinctive, so memorable, in its utter weirdness and wrongness, that it’s easy to see why people remember it as the worst. Once you’ve watched it, you’re not likely to forget it.

In fact, even twenty years after its first airing “Spock’s Brain “was being recalled and parodied, which proves, if nothing else, the story’s utter uniqueness, or hapless charm. It may be bad, but somehow this  badness has stood the test of time, and people feel affectionate towards it.

I’ve never met a Star Trek fan, by contrast, who feels affectionate towards “And the Children Shall Lead.”

Look at this clip from The Wonder Years (1988-1993), for example, to get a sense of how the imagery and sound effects of “Spock’s Brain” worked their way into the pop culture:

So why does “Spock’s Brain” fail…so colorfully?

Well, for one thing, I have a theory about William Shatner and his acting style, and it goes like this: The worse that the material is that he must contend with, the more Shatners invests, emotionally, and even in terms of his energy level.  It’s as if he’s facing a mountain he must climb. He steels himself, and gives it everything -- EVERYTHING -- he can, so as to breathe life into it.

Here -- given a patently absurd teleplay -- Shatner simply over-invests to the point of near-insanity, hoping to pull off the drama.  He makes Kirk bitchy and obsessed, and single-minded to the nth degree. I actually commend him for his efforts, but Shatner’s performance contributes, finally, to the feeling that the episode has adopted some weird, hyperbolic, hysterical tenor.

And DeForest Kelley faces a similar problem. He goes from dead-pan seriousness to over-the-top bug-eyed, failing to modulate his performance effectively from scene to scene. One minute he’s asking (seriously) the (awful) question: “In the whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock’s brain?” with utter solemnity. And in the next he is marveling, wide-eyed, that a child could complete the brain surgery.

Understand, please, that I love both these actors, and don’t intend to insult them. They were faced with a crappy script, and had to figure out some way to make it sing. They made choices, according to their particular gifts, and yet those choices don’t, ultimately, work towards the story’s success.

Instead, they make the story feel campy.

Finally, the marvelous Leonard Nimoy often grants a weak Star Trek story some facet of dignity. He is someone who underplays a scene to perfection, and restrains his emotions brilliantly. Here, Nimoy is reduced to the level of a walking piece of furniture. Mindless, but ever-present.  And no, it doesn’t seem terribly dignified.

The actual mechanics of the story are baffling too.  Spock’s brain is stolen, and re-inserted into his skull, and yet -- in neither instance -- is his head shaved, his skin cut.  The idea of high-tech brain surgery might have worked a bit better if we had a constant physical reminder of what Spock endured, physically.  We don’t.

Or, the stolen brain concept might have worked had we been given the information that the brain had been “beamed” out, rather than cut out. This would be in keeping with Trek technology, and also permitted us to understand why Spock’s hair was not cut off.  But it seems ridiculous for the man to go through two brain surgeries in an hour-long episode, and never have even one hair out-of-place.

And don’t even get me started on the idea of Spock leading Bones through brain surgery, once his voice box is reconnected. 

For one thing, this help from Spock diminishes the dignity of Dr. McCoy, who should be able to get through a surgery without the verbal instructions of his patient.

And for another thing, it diminishes Spock too, making him seem invincible. He can actually give a doctor instructions for reattaching his brain.  That feels very….cartoon-ish.

The episode is sloppy too. Sigma Draconis VI is twice called Sigma Draconis VII by principal cast members, for example. This is not a small detail in a system of many planets, right?

All of these problems suggest that “Spock’s Brain” is a train wreck.

Yet it is a train-wreck, as I’ve intimated above, that you can’t stop watching, that you can’t quite turn your back on. The episode is dynamic in terms of its color, its movement, even its eye-brow raising hysteria.

It’s unforgettable, really.  These qualities make it odd, but they don’t make it the very worst Star Trek.

The silliest episode? Perhaps so.

The most over-the-top in terms of acting? Indeed.

The most ill-conceived?  No argument. 

“Spock’s Brain” should have never gotten past the idea stage in the first place. But beyond that, it should never have been slated as the premiere for the third season, either. 

As a kid, I first saw the series in local affiliate reruns, so I never had to see “Spock’s Brain” as a premiere and suffer that sinking feeling that things were taking a turn for the worse.  Instead, I merely saw it as a bizarre and not very good episode. I can only imagine what dedicated fans felt, tuning in to a new season and seeing…this.

I would suggest that my reading is correct, however.  This is a bad episode, sure.

But others are worse, in part because they simply aren’t as gonzo-nuts and flat-out unforgettable as “Spock’s Brain” remains.

Next week: “The Enterprise Incident.”

The Films of 1985: A View to a Kill

Roger Moore’s final cinematic outing as James Bond, A View to a Kill (1985), is not generally considered one of the better titles in the 007 canon.  

In fact, the critical consensus suggests precisely the opposite. Most aficionados consider the film to be Moore’s worst title, and place it in the (dreadful) company of Diamonds are Forever (1971), Sean Connery’s last canon film, and Die Another Die (2002), Pierce Brosnan’s final Bond film.

One reason that folks tend to dislike the film involves Moore himself. Even he acknowledges that, at 57 years old, he was likely too old to play 007. Moore's age is usually the elephant in the room when critics discuss this film, and yet I think there's a counterpoint worth making. 

First, I hope I look as fit and handsome at the age of 57 as Moore does, in A View to A Kill. We should all be that fortunate.

And secondly, I actually prefer Moore's Bond with a little age on him, when he's less the smirking, somehow arrogant pretty boy.  

Yes, Moore is sort of leathery and grizzled here, and yet, with age also comes experience. We look at Moore's deep-lined, but still-attractive visage here, and we can see life experience all over his face. His 007 has been to the rodeo before (six times, actually...), which is important to consider because experience is, perhaps, the one advantage Bond has in a battle against a brilliant sociopath: Max Zorin.  Lest we forget, the posters for A View to a Kill asked, specifically: "Has James Bond finally met his match?"  

If this tag-line is the movie's chosen thematic terrain, then the character of each combatant in this contest is significant, as I'll write about further. Moore's humanity (reflected in his graceful, but obvious aging) thus plays into the movie's central juxtaposition of genetic perfection/moral emptiness vs. humanity/morality.

Critics complain so much about Moore's age because -- let's face it -- it's an easy target. I remember back when Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) was released, critics were calling the Enterprise crew "the over the hill gang."  Well, what I wouldn't give, in 2017, to have four or five more Star Trek films, today, featuring that particular "over the hill" crew.

Broadly speaking, I would hope people could judge a work of art on more than just the superficial quality of age, and looks. But that hope is, frankly, in vain. Critics often go for the low-hanging fruit. 

Despite the brickbats, I have -- since first seeing A View to a Kill in theaters in 1985 -- found myself frequently re-watching the film, as though checking in again to see if it remains such a poor effort.  I always return thinking that there is something -- something -- there.

But on re-assessment, I absolutely see the same deficits.

And yet A View to a Kill still intrigues me quite a bit. In fact, I would argue it is not nearly as bad as the other two 007 films that I name-checked above. Moore’s final outing carries such an endless fascination for me, I suppose, because it is all over the map. The tone is wildly inconsistent, for example.  It is a film of notable highs, and dramatic lows.

Consider that A View to a Kill features -- courtesy of Duran Duran -- one of the most memorable title tracks in the whole franchise (right up there with Goldfinger [1964], Live and Let Die [1973], and Skyfall [2012).

Consider, also, the film’s (generally) superior casting. The film features Christopher Walken, Grace Jones, and Patrick Macnee. That’s an “A” list supporting cast. (Let's just not talk about Tanya Roberts, yet).

In addition, many of the set pieces include amazing stunt-work and beautiful location photography, all scored to thrilling and lugubrious perfection by John Barry.

Still -- quite clearly – there’s something amiss with the film overall. Sir Roger Moore himself reported his dislike of A View to a Kill. It’s his least favorite of all his 007 appearances. He found it too violent, too sadistic, and, as noted above, judged himself too old to play the part.

Drilling down further, I suspect that what fascinates me about the film is precisely what troubled Moore. The film is darker than most of the other Bond films from this era, and in that way, an absolutely appropriate lead-in to the reality-grounded Timothy Dalton era. 

Yet for every foray into darkness and sadism, A View to A Kill hedges its bets with an unnecessary and silly joke, or action scene. The film keeps teetering towards an abyss of darkness, and then keeps backing away from it, into comic inanity.

Unlike Moore, I believe the film would have worked much more effectively if it maintained or sustained the dark atmosphere, and didn’t attempt to play so many moments lightly. A serious approach makes more sense, thematically, given the nature of the film’s villain: genetically engineered Max Zorin, and his plan for human carnage and cataclysm.

Lacking thematic and tonal consistency, A View to a Kill is a sometimes satisfying, sometimes inadequate Bond film, but ceaselessly fascinating. I understand why so many scholars and critics count it as Moore’s worst, while simultaneously feeling that there is also much to appreciate here.

Perhaps a better way of enunciating my point about the film is to say that I can view how the movie, with a few changes, could have been one of the strongest entries in this durable action series, especially as Bond prepared for a big transition to another actor, and to  another style and epoch of action filmmaking.

“Intuitive improvisation is the secret of genius.”

In Siberia, James Bond, 007 (Roger Moore) follows up on the investigation of the deceased 003, tracking down a computer microchip, produced by Zorin Industries, that can withstand an electromagnetic pulse.  The Soviets also want the chip recovered, and attempt to kill Bond before he makes a successful escape (in a submarine that looks like an ice berg).

Back in London, M (Robert Brown), assigns Bond to investigate Zorin (Christopher Walken), a former KGB agent, now entrepreneur. 

Zorin’s interests are varied. Beyond his tech company (which produces microchips), he breeds and sells horses.  At Ascot Racetrack, Bond, Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), and M16 agent Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee), observe Zorin’s newest colt, Pegasus, an animal that may be the result of genetic manipulation, like Zorin himself is rumored to be.

Bond then heads to Paris to meet an informant, Aubergine (Jean Rougerie), at the Eiffel Tower, who possesses information about an upcoming horse auction at Zorin’s extravagant French estate. The informant is killed by Zorin’s hench-person, the imposing May Day (Grace Jones), who flees Bond by parachuting from the Tower.  

Bond pursues, and sees Zorin and May Day escaping together in a boat.

Bond then goes undercover, with Tibbett at his side, as a wealthy horse buyer, at Zorin’s event. There, he confirms that Pegasus is the product of genetic manipulation and steroid use. He also encounters a mystery woman, Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), whom Zorin pays five million dollars.

The next phase of Bond’s investigation leads him to San Francisco, where Sutton lives, and where Zorin is planning Operation Main Strike, a man-made earthquake that will destroy Silicon Valley, and leave Zorin the sole world provider of computer micro-chips.

After Bond teams with Mayday to stop the earthquake, Zorin abducts Stacey, and flees the city by blimp.  Bond pursues, and the nemeses fight to the death atop the Golden Gate Bridge.

“What’s there to say?”

A View to a Kill feels so schizophrenic because it vacillates between extreme seriousness or darkness, and then moments of ridiculous humor. Instead, the film should have stayed with the serious tone, which benefited Moore’s Bond immensely in my favorite from his era: For Your Eyes Only (1981).

Why should the jokey moments have been downplayed, or jettisoned, and the darker moments, highlighted?  

For a few reasons. Consider, first the sweep or trajectory of film history.  Overall, it might be viewed as a shift from the artificial and stagey, to the naturalistic and real, or gritty. Certainly, that is the direction the Bond films have headed in, moving to Dalton, and then, finally, to Craig. Modern audiences apparently seek more reality, and less theatricality and camp in their thrillers.  A View to a Kill demonstrates the damaging juxtaposition of these two approaches, and should have settled on one.

I choose the darker, more serious approach for this film, because of the gravity of the conflict. Here, Bond challenges Zorin, a sociopath, and a person not bound by morals or laws. Zorin is also engineered (by his mentor and father-figure, a Nazi scientist named Dr. Mortner) to be physically strong, and, frankly, a (mad) genius).

Bond, by contrast, is the product of natural biology, and bound by laws and some code of ethics or morality. But 007 has his experience and training to benefit him, and make him a contender. This is a conflict of two very unlike men. In a way, the dynamic is not entirely unlike Khan vs. Kirk in Star Trek, except for the fact that Kirk is much more up-front about his deficits than Bond is. 

Except for rare occasions such as Never Say Never Again (1983), the films do not acknowledge Bond’s aging. In the Roger Moore films, furthermore, audiences don’t really know Bond’s deficits as a human being. Instead, he’s a bit of a plastic-man in this incarnation, able to undertake any physical challenge with perfect acuity. Because Bond's aging is not acknowledged in A View to the Kill, the real nature of the conflict between Zorin and Bond is lost to a certain degree.

Moore’s age could have worked for the picture, instead of against it, had it been acknowledged with Moore's sense of humor, and again, his grace. Imagine an older, more world-weary, less physically “perfect” Bond being forced to confront a kind of superman with no sense of morality or humanity.  It could have been his greatest test, and acknowledging Bond’s age would have created a greater contrast between the two characters and their respective traits.

Still, the grave or serious attitude in A View to a Kill is justified. 

One can dislike the sadistic violence, of course, but the violence makes sense given this tale. Zorin possesses as little regard for underlings as he does for his enemies. People are just a means to an end to him. They may be loyal to him, but he doesn’t care.  

His lack of caring, of empathy, is what gives him his power. Zorin can gun down his employees without caring, and then offhandedly quip that his operation is moving "right on schedule." He can kill a million people in Silicon Valley for his own ends, and not see how evil his plan is.  He can achieve his ambitious ends because he possesses no sense of his limitations, and no sense that other people matter.

These qualities make Zorin different from the Bond villains of recent vintage, who were more grounded in reality. Kamal Khan (Octopussy [1983]) was a glorified jewel thief who became enmeshed in the Cold War  plot. In the end, he was still a jewel thief. And before him, Kristatos was, similarly, a grounded-in-reality “agent” for the Soviet Union, attempting to conduct an act of espionage (acquire the ATAC and return it to his KGB masters).  

Zorin represents a dramatic return to the Drax/Stromberg school of villainy, but in far less cartoon-like terms.  The camp elements of Drax and Stromberg’s stories are mostly absent here, at least in terms of Zorin’s world, and so he emerges as a dire, physical and mental threat to Bond’s success.

Christopher Walken brings his patented weirdness -- and brilliant unpredictability -- to the role, making Zorin a dramatic and legitimate danger to 007, and the world at large.  

Significantly Drax and Stromberg were no physical match for Bond, and their megalomania had a kind of predictable movie villain logic to it. Zorin is determinedly different.  Scene to scene, the audience is uncertain how Zorin will react, or respond to challenges. Walken brings the character to life in a dramatic way, and contrary to what some critics claimed, does not take the role lightly. Instead, Walken's Zorin is an almost perfect (crack'd) mirror, actually for 007. He is a fully developed individual with sense of humor and mastery over his world, but one who lacks morality, humanity, and empathy.

May Day fits in too with the idea of A View to a Kill as a grave, serious, violent film. She works for a sociopath, and is attracted to him; to his power and strength. But ultimately, May Day possesses something Zorin lacks:  a conscience.  How do we know? Because she makes emotional connections to people (like Jenny Flex), that Zorin can’t make, or  can't even understand. 

Unfortunately May Day’s conflict could also have been developed far more than it is.  Her decision to fight Zorin plays more like a third-act gimmick than a credible character development, even if the seeds for that character development are right there, in the script, and on screen.

A View to a Kill should have been the supreme contrast between a man who kills for reasons of morality (Queen and Country, essentially) and a man who kills for no moral reason whatsoever.  The other characters, like May Day, are the collateral damage in their contest.  

Instead, however, the movie’s essential schizophrenia -- perhaps cowardice -- diminishes its effectiveness.

Let’s gaze for a moment at the (almost...) fantastic pre-title sequence in Siberia, which highlights some of the most amazing (and well-photographed) stunts of the entire Moore era…and that’s saying something, given the pre-title sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me, or the mountain climbing sequence in For Your Eyes Only. 

Barry’s score here is moody and serious, the matters at hand are absolutely life and death, and then…in the middle of it, we get a dumb joke to break the mood: California Girls by the Beach Boys (but performed by cover band) gets played as Bond uses one ski (from a bob-sled) to surf a lake. The tension of the set-up -- so assiduously established -- is punctured, and we are asked, as we are asked frequently in Moore’s era, to laugh instead of legitimately invest in 007's world.

Again and again, the movie lunges for the cheap gag, rather than embracing the seriousness of the affair. 

After Zorin has committed point-blank, brutal murder and devastating arson in San Francisco, and is about to detonate a bomb that will cause a massive earthquake and kill millions, we are treated to a joke action sequence with Bond and Sutton aboard a run-away fire engine.  

The stunts are impressive, sure, but to no meaningful, thematic, or even tonal point.  Do we really need to see a put-upon cop get his squad car pulped, while he reacts with angst?  Do we really need the draw-bridge operator  joke, as he shrinks back in his booth, recoiling from the demolition? Do we really need to see Bond swinging haplessly side-to-side, on an un-tethered fire engine ladder?

Only minutes after audiences gasp over Bond’s delicate rescue of Stacey from the roof of City Hall -- losing his footing and nearly falling from a tall ladder -- we’re suddenly in The Cannonball Run (1981), or some such thing.

As the movie leads into its amazing finale, a legitimately tense (and very realistic seeming and vertigo-inducing) fight atop the Golden Gate Bridge, we also have to get the requisite shot of Bond’s manhood in danger, as the blimp flies too near an offending antenna, and threatens his crotch. 

I’ll be honest here: The Golden Gate Bridge set-piece is one of my all-time favorites in the Bond series. 

The location shooting is amazing. The score is pulse-pounding, and the dizzying heights of the bridge rival For Your Eyes Only’s mountain-top finale. There’s a sense of chaos unloosed too, as Mortner arms himself with a grenade, it detonates, and the blimp shift.  

And then there’s the physical fight, at those vertiginous heights, between Zorin and Bond.  

Zorin is armed with an axe. Bond has nothing to rely on but his wits. It’s a great, splendidly orchestrated sequence, and very few phony rear-projection shots take away from the stunt and location work.  The fight's outcome is perfect too. Starting to slip  from his perch, Zorin giggles a little, before plunging from the bridge to his death.  

I love that little laugh, and Zorin’s brief moment of realization, before he falls. 

But before reaching that incredible conclusion, we have to deal with such absurdities as a large, loud blimp sneaking up on Stacey, a return visit to our put upon SF cop (now directing traffic), and Bond’s crotch in danger from that antenna.

These gags are not only dumb and unnecessary, they take away from the movie’s serious approach; an approach that could have led us smoothly into the Dalton era of a more realistic, graver 007 universe. We have seen so many fan edits of Star Trek or Star Wars movies in recent years. I’d love to see a fan edit of A View to a Kill in which some of the cringe-worthy gags got omitted, and the grave tone of the movie, instead, was maintained throughout. 

Obviously, such an edit would not fix some things. 

I would much have preferred to see a tired, bloodied Bond here, instead of one who can run at top speed, leap on draw bridges, or ski, and surf flawlessly through dangerous terrain. I would have rather seen a tired, huffing and puffing Bond these challenges, using his wits. I feel like that my preferred approach to A View to a Kill would have made it easier to invest in the story, and been a real proper send-off for Moore’s Bond, whom I grew up with...and love without reservation.

Could the movie have -- with that approach -- gotten beyond Tanya Roberts’ grating performance as Sutton? 

Would the strangely brutal violence in Zorin's mine have felt more appropriate, or better justified?  I suspect these deficits would have been judged differently, had a consistent tone been applied to A View to a Kill.

Again this film fascinates me almost endlessly. Sometimes -- such as in the Golden Gate climax -- it’s nearly a great James Bond movie. And some of the time a View to a Kill is a terrible Bond movie (the fire engine chase).

And the incredible thing is that from minute to minute, A View to a Kill vacillates between those two poles. There’s no middle ground.  Diamonds are Forever is glib, glitzy, inconsequential and dumb throughout; Die Another Die, ridiculous and campy to its core. 

But Moore’s final hour as James Bond is an animal all its own. A View to a Kill is a schizophrenic reach for greatness (and for the future direction of the Bond films…) that, simultaneously, plumbs the worst depths of the actor’s tenure in the role.

So, curse the bad, or appreciate the good?  I guess that's your this film.

The Road Warrior (1982)

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