Saturday, February 04, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Ice Creature" (December 4, 1976)

In “Tarzan and the Ice Creature,” an ice volcano erupts in the jungle, releasing a giant abominable snowman, or yeti, the legendary “Graykor.”

Tarzan knows that the beast is an innocent, like a cub, but two white hunters want to capture the snowman, and take him back to civilization so as to make their fortune.

Tarzan must defend the giant beast from the avarice of the modern world.

Tarzan comes to the aid of a cuddly (if gigantic) abominable snowman in “Tarzan and the Ice Creature,” and once again foils the plotting of nefarious white hunters, in this case Norcross and Phelps.

How exactly, however, Tarzan knows that the creature, Graykor, will prove harmless, is not discussed in the episode. Instead, he just knows, and sets out to preserve another being.  “We must figure out a plan to make sure you are never exploited,” he states to the (derpy-looking) snowman.

Speaking of exploitation, there’s a scene here of the giant ape-like ice creature battling a bi-plane and it is virtually impossible not to think of King Kong

So between last week’s episode -- which featured the title of one 1970s fantasy movie, At the Earth’s Core (1976) -- and this week’s episode -- which boasts resonances of another blockbuster of that year, King Kong (1976) --- this little Filmation show was tapping into the pop culture zeitgeist in a big way.

Still, one has to wonder why ice volcanoes (which are theoretically possible phenomena, called "cryovolcanoes") are sprouting up in Tarzan's tropical jungle? Is this a common happenstance? Do all ice volcanoes house hibernating innocent, giant, abominable snowmen?

Despite such questions, this one isn’t a bad episode, and it’s entertaining to think about how many Saturday morning shows of the 1970s, from Land of the Lost (1974-1977) to Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) featured abominable snowmen.  

Here, the yeti turns out to be friendly; the opposite of a traditional monster. Instead, real evil is again represented by outside forces, by the pillaging white hunters.

Next week: “Tarzan’s Trial.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "Finder's Keepers" (October 2, 1976)

In “Finder’s Keepers,” Billy (Michael Gray) is contacted by the Elders. They warn him that he will soon encounter a situation in which “dishonest action cannot be justified by a good deed.”  Instead, they insist, “lying always leads” to bad ends.

Meanwhile, two Catholic school girls (Carol Ann Williams, Susan Madigan) on the beach discover a  buried box of cash belonging to two criminals (Darwin Joston, Bill Dearth).  The girls, Kate and Laura, take the money, in hopes that it will help their wheelchair-bound teacher, Sister Mary Catherine (Dran Hamilton) be able to walk again.

The criminals however, pursue the girls. Laura and Kate flee onto a boat, and are menaced at sea by a shark.  Captain Marvel (John Daley) comes to the rescue, but the criminal have not yet given up.  

They abduct the two girls, and Billy knows that he needs the help of Mighty Isis (Joanna Cameron) to get the girls to safety.

I can only guess what was going on behind-the-scenes for the third season of Shazam (1974-1976), but the plot complexity of each episode -- as well as the action quotient -- is really ramped up in this final batch of episodes.  This episode features, for example, a nun in a wheelchair, a shark attack at sea, dangerous robbers, and a crossover with the Mighty Isis sister series.

Of course, it all transmit as a weird 1970s jumble. What are all the Catholic school kids and the nun doing hanging out at the beach? 

And what is Darwin Joston -- star of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) -- doing in this episode?

All kidding aside, this is an action packed episode, and it’s always great to see Captain Marvel and Isis teaming up for another adventure.  Also present is Tut, who summons Isis for Billy.

Next week:  “The Sound of a Different Drummer.”

Friday, February 03, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: Goliath Awaits (1981)

From "Operation Prime Time" ("for better programming...") came this 1981 made-for-television, prime time extravaganza starring the late Christopher Lee, Robert Forster, Mark Harmon, Emma Samms and Frank Gorshin (in the performance of his career).

If you were around in the 1980s and paying attention to pop culture currents, you likely will recall this Kevin (Motel Hell) Connor-directed genre TV venture; one which was advertised with the haunting image of a winsome woman (Samms) gazing out of a porthole on a ruined old ship; staring out at the murky depths beyond.

That evocative, Gothic image alone probably generated some great ratings for this impressive four hour mini-series (shown over two nights, as I recall.)

Goliath Awaits opens in 1939 as Edward R. Murrow reports that England has just declared war on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the British sea liner Goliath is already at sea and imperiled by a pack of German U-Boats.

Soon, the magnificent vessel is sunk with all 1800 hands aboard, and lost to the tides of time. Her exact fate (and location) becomes a nautical mystery.

In 1981, however, an exploratory ship captained by Peter Cabot (Harmon) discovers that Goliath is -- miraculously -- intact (and positioned upright) some 1000 feet beneath the surface of the sea. As a deadly hurricane approaches, Cabot dives to investigate. He hears an S.O.S. emanating from the rusting hull of the "most famous ship of all time" and more incredibly, peers into a porthole and sees that beautiful porcelain face staring back at him.

Cabot quickly goes to the U.S. Navy for help solving this mystery. Admiral Sloane (Eddie Albert) is intrigued by the discovery and orders Commander Jeff Selkirk (Forster) to lead a rescue team to Goliath

Sloan boasts a secret too. Aboard Goliath (and in the care of a U.S. Senator named Bartholomew...) is a diplomatic pouch with an eyes-only message for President Roosevelt. The contents of that communique could conceivably tear down the NATO alliance. Now there are two jobs for Selkirk: rescue Goliath's survivors and also acquire (and destroy) the communique, which is believed to be a Nazi forgery.

The British vessel Enterprise 4, from British Oceanics leads the rescue attempt. After receiving a message from Goliath in Morse Code (which warns the air is "toxic" and to "beware of McKenzie"), Enterprise's submarine docks with Goliath far below the surface, and a Navy team enters the ship through a torpedo breach. There, Peter, Jeff and Dr. Sam Marlowe (Alex Cord) learn that 337 souls now live aboard Goliath thanks to an air-bubble that has existed aboard the sunken ship once "equalization" occurred with the sea outside the hull.

In charge of this isolated society on Goliath is Mr. McKenzie (Lee), a former third-engineer and a man of extraordinary resources and intelligence. When the ship was struck by the torpedo all those years ago, McKenzie thought fast and managed to convert the ship's engines into air processors. Even more than that "miracle," he created an entire Utopian society, one featuring hydroponic gardens, fish hatcheries, and other wonders. Accordingly, the people of Goliath virtually worship the man.

Alas, there are also rebels aboard Goliath, deformed "Bow People" (suffering from the bends) who -- according to McKenzie -- just don't "fit in." They are lead by a man named Ryker (Duncan Regeher), a man who rejects McKenzie's brand of authoritarian leadership.

McKenzie's major domo is a petty Irish criminal, Wesker (Gorshin), who performs the difficult (and morally questionable...) tasks required to make a society like Goliath's thrive. This means that Wesker commands a virtual gestapo security force, and administers lethal injections to the physically or mentally infirm...those who can't work, but would use up precious resources.

Even as Peter finds himself growing attracted to McKenzie's fetching daughter, Lea (Samms), he starts to see the downside of Goliath's society and a the world where an "old man made himself king." 

Soon, he becomes convinced (thanks to Ryker) that McKenzie and Wesker will never permit the rescue, because they will  lose their hold on power. Commendably, McKenzie puts the decision up to a democratic vote, but lies to his people about the feasibility of continued survival aboard ship. In truth, the vessel is running out of fuel, and the environment will soon turn bitter cold and inhospitable.

What you get, then, in Goliath Awaits is a thoughtful meditation on the idea you find in some Space:1999 episodes of the 1970s: that (to quote the episode "Dorzak"), it is the battle for survival that makes monsters of us all. 

McKenzie is a fascinating character: a man who achieved technological miracles to save his people. He created a workable society from the ground up, one that -- amazingly -- flourished for forty years. Yet, at some point, he got used to the power, to "playing God," and his miraculous victory on Goliath became an oppressive terror to those whom he ruled.

You may recognize some elements of Goliath Awaits' plot from the fourth season Twilight Zone episode "On Thursday We Leave For Home," a story in which another charismatic, brilliant leader (James Whitmore) of an isolated community (on an inhospitable planet) came to resist a rescue mission because he simply couldn't give up his authority; can't give up the idea that he is "needed."

Goliath Awaits is sort of "On Thursday We Leave For Home" meets The Poseidon Adventure

Despite the fantastic nature of the scenario (300 people survive in an air bubble over the generations...), Goliath Awaits is contemplative, deliberate and smart. It doesn't skimp over the difficult aspects of a rescue mission at the bottom of the sea. 

In fact, it even paints a relatively full (and realistic) presentation of the world's reaction to the rescue, from White House Press conferences to TV news bulletins, to the diverse reaction of Goliath's citizenry. Since I've always been fascinated by stories about strange disappearances and mysteries at sea, I very much enjoyed the film and the fictional world it created.  Imagine if James Cameron took his submersible to the sunken Titanic and found three hundred people aboard, still alive.  That's Goliath Awaits in a nut-shell.

Kevin Connor (who also directed Land that Time Forgot and some episodes of Space:1999), executes several brilliant compositions on what was obviously a relatively limited budget too. For instance, there's a P.O.V. shot whereinthe camera adopts the position of a speeding torpedo, and we essentially "ride" it (underwater) as it strikes the Goliath's hull. 

Amazingly, the already-impressive shot doesn't end with the expected collision. Instead, there's a sort of optical cut and we actually enter the ship's interior with the torpedo, and see crew standing by unwittingly as it explodes. It's a fancy shot for the pre-CGI age, delightfully conceived and executed.

Another good composition also involves subjective P.O.V. A Navy rescue diver enters the Goliath, and emerges from the water, only to see Wesker standing before him, aiming a pistol at him. Before we can entirely register what's happening, the gun is fired, and we see the diving helmet's glass visor (over our eyes, essentially) shattered. Then blood hits it the visor in a spray.

Goliath Awaits also reminds me of Space:1999's "Mission of the Darians" or even The Starlost, genre entertainments in which a giant vessel is compromised, and mankind is forced to "evolve" or "adapt" based on limited resources. 

Here, the people of Goliath dwell not merely in an air bubble, but in the equivalent of a time bubble. They exist in a world where Hitler was not defeated, and where the ship's band is always playing "Happy Days are Here Again." John Carradine plays a movie star of the silent age, the only celebrity in residence on the ship, and another beacon of a long-gone age.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "Man out of Time" (October 17, 1977)

Leave it to David Gerrold -- the talented creator of "The Trouble with Tribbles" on Star Trek and the story editor for the best year of Land of the Lost -- to give audiences a reprieve here: the very best early episode of Logan's Run: The Series (1977).

Of course, you won’t find Gerrold’s name anywhere on the episode’s credits. This episode was penned by Noah Ward. (Get it: No Award).  Looking back on the episode, I wonder if Gerrold regrets not taking credit for the good work. I mean, perhaps -- in the great scheme of the universe -- this episode may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but "Man out of Time" is an inarguable high point in the Logan's Run TV canon. It also showcases the writer’s ethos; his essential morality as a human being. And that’s a beautiful thing.

"Man Out of Time" (by Noah Ward and directed by Nicholas Colasanto) begins in December 2118, only a short time before the nuclear war that will destroy the world and lead to the shattered landscape Logan, Jessica and REM dwell in.

A group of committed scientists are working on "The Sanctuary Project," an experiment with time travel. They can open a time portal to the future for 22 hours, and plan to send scientist David Eakins (Paul Shenar) through to investigate the future, determine the cause of the nuclear war, and then come back in time and (hopefully...) prevent it from ever occurring in the first place.

Eakins travels to the 23rd century and meets Logan, as well as the primitive, barbarous descendants of the Sancutary Project, people who worship the project computers and can't even read. While Logan, Jessica and REM try to help these people grow more self-sufficient, David Eakins realizes that if he undoes the future, he'll also be preventing the births of his new friends, Logan and Jessica.

But still, David heads back to the past to see what he can change. His last contact with Logan and Jessica and REM is a shattering message sent to the future.

Back in the past, he's discovered the cause of the nuclear's him. David's discovery of time travel and subsequent successful journey through time has spawned a new and deadly arms race, with enemy nations demanding the technology to travel through time.

The United States, of course, wants to keep the knowledge as a secret. And that's the beginning of the end...

"Only 12 more shopping days till Armageddon," Eakins quips in “Man out of Time” at one point, and that kind of snappy humor is only a part of this fine episode of Logan's Run. More importantly, all the dramatis personae come across as well-developed individuals for a change (including Logan and Jessica), and each acts according to the strengths and weaknesses of his own unique character, not stepping out of those parameters because of plot demands.

But more importantly, the episode builds logically and inevitably to the shattering conclusion described here. "History has a way of catching up with mankind," says REM, and he's right...there's no going back, no matter how hard David Eakins attempts to change things.

The events of this episode, and the particulars of time travel, force the audience to consider some key moral questions.  Is it right to “wipe out” one future -- Logan and Jessica’s -- to create another?  There are no guarantees if the future is changed, for example, that a different war won’t occur.  Or perhaps, eventually, great good can come from the great evil of the nuclear holocaust. Perhaps people like Logan and Jessica will build a more just world that would not be possible in any other reality.

But then again, perhaps, as David believes, he can save the 7 billion people who will die in the holocaust, and give Earth a new beginning that way.  It is a bit hard to imagine though, especially as he describes this world. He says our world is one “crowded and angry and full of hate.”

But is a world of empty desolation better?

There are so many factors involved in a decision of this magnitude, and there has been no issue of this “weight” yet in Logan’s Run: The Series.   The great thing, of course, is Eakins’ journey.  He lives up to the old proverb that man proposes and God disposes. He has spent his professional life developing a technology to save the future, only to find that his life’s work is the very thing that destroys that future. What a bitter pill. And yet, in his final message to Logan, there is grace, and even hope. “Don’t give up hope looking for your sanctuary,” he advises.

I also appreciate “Man out of Time” because it is the only episode thus far of the series to deal in any substantive way with the concept of Sanctuary. 

The Sanctuary Project of the 22nd century seems to be, at least, the spiritual ancestor of Logan and Jessica’s Sanctuary.  The word “Sanctuary” must have been one used by survivors of the project, in the early days of the nuclear winter, or holocaust. Eventually, it drifted into legend and myth, but was still spoken of, as a place of safety and hope. I only wish that this short-lived series could have described, in greater detail, the Runner legends of Sanctuary, and how it came to be existed.

This episode is as close as we get, and it’s a tantalizing piece of the puzzle, and I’m glad it’s in the canon. In a way, this episode, “Man out of Time,” is the viewer’s reward for making from the pilot (which is promising) through the first three regular episodes.

Next week: “Half-Life."

Cult-TV Movie Review: Snowbeast (April 28, 1977)

As the 50th annual winter carnival nears at the Rill Ski Lodge, a skier named Heidi reports that her friend Jennifer has been attacked by a monster out by the North Slope.

Rill (Sylvia Sidney), the first Winter Carnival Queen and owner of the lodge wants the disappearance kept quiet until after the seasonal festivities, lest there be a severe economic impact. Her grandson, Tony (Robert Logan), manages the lodge and refuses to keep the disappearance a secret, especially after discovering Heidi’s bloody ski jacket.

Sheriff Paraday (Clint Walker) gets involved when Jennifer’s body is discovered at the old Fairchild place. The corpse’s face has been torn off.

As Tony deals with these concerns, an old friend, Olympic Gold Medalist Gar Seberg (Bo Svenson) shows up at the lodge with his wife, a TV journalist, Ellen (Yvette Mimieux). Their marriage is in trouble because Gar feels he is a “has been,” and needs a job. 

Tony hires Gar to help hunt down the monster they fear is responsible for the attacks.  Gar thinks it may be a Big Foot, and that most Big Foot creatures are reportedly peaceful. When he sees Jennifer’s corpse, however, he changes his tune.

The creature continues to encroach on the Lodge, attacking during the crowning of the Winter Carnival Queen.

Later, it hunts Ellen on the slopes, and Gar skis to her rescue.

Finally, Tony, Gar, Paraday and Ellen hunt the beast in the wild on snowmobiles, and have one final confrontation with it.

This amusing and occasionally intense tele-film from the spring of 1977 (right before the release of Star Wars) is brimming with menacing first person subjective shots, otherwise known as P.O.V. shots, and at each commercial break, the film fades to bloody red for macabre effect following a freeze frame.

These transitional shots are disturbing and effective in a way. One freeze frame reveals a Red Cross rescue worker’s head grabbed by the burly claws of the snow-beast. Another freeze-frame before fade-to-red is an extreme close-up of Clint Walker’s terror as the snow-beast moves in for the kill.

Noticeably -- and totally in keeping with the aesthetic of these cheap jack TV movies of the 1970s, -- there are no real special effects to speak of in Snowbeast.  The monster suit is mostly (and wisely) kept hidden, except for the one time it presses its grisly face against the window of the Rill Lodge.

Every now and then, a furry arm and gnarled paw breaks into the frame to enliven the proceedings too, but mostly the monster is notable for NOT attacking. 

Instead, the snowbeast does a lot of stalking from behind tree branches, and so the P.O.V. subjective shot gets a huge work out. 

The visual approach is a double-edged sword in some ways. Snowbeast is filled with beautiful exterior tracking shots of skiers in the wild, but the P.O.V. stalk shot recurs so frequently that it creates ennui rather than terror.  I would be hard-pressed to remember a horror movie -- slasher or otherwise -- that so flagrantly over-uses this visual technique.

The great Joseph Stefano is the author of Snowbeast’s screenplay, but it likely wouldn’t rank as one of his greatest achievements. I do appreciate that his teleplay repeatedly makes the point that most Big Foot creatures are reputedly peaceful. 

That’s a good thing to remember, and is consistent with the literature on the creature. Yet in contrast, this beast is entirely malevolent. It decapitates victims on a whim, and stores the corpses in a barn for the long cold winter.  If it is a bigfoot, it's an angry one.

Directed by Herb Wallerstein and written by Joe Stefano and Roger Patterson, Snowbeast plays like a cheap-jack version of Jaws (1975). Basically, the movie is a reiteration of “The Beaches Stay Open” paradigm that the Spielberg film made famous.

Consider: the film is set in an area of scenic beauty and tourism (not a beach, but mountain ski slopes). Consider too, that the local economy is based on seasonal tourism (summer/winter), and dependent on participation in athletic, outdoor activities.  In Jaws we see swimmers and regatta races. Here, we are told about all the festivities: dog-sled racing, snowmobiling, alpine skiing, and the like. 

And in Snowbeast, the owner of the Rill Lodge steps in for the mayor of Amity in Jaws, attempting to enforce a conspiracy of silence.

Both productions also focus on P.O.V. shots, and feature intermittent attacks on those who wander out  into a dangerous domain (into the ocean, or on the slopes) alone. 

Finally, in the latter half of each story, a troika of men head out into the “monster’s” home turf (sea or snow) to challenge and kill it. 

Jaws gave us Brody-Hooper-Quint. Snowbeast gives us Rill-Seberg-Paraday, and also includes Seberg’s wife, Ellen, in the mix.

Snowbeast’s subplot about the Seberg marriage, ironically, feels more like a subplot from Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, than it does the Spielberg movie. Basically, Ellen admits to having (sexual) fantasies about Tony Rill because she can no longer respect her husband. At the end of the film, Seberg thrusts his ski pole into the snowbeast, killing the monster and earning his wife’s respect again.

The Jaws riffs are obvious, frequent, and easy to note, and yet Snowbeast never fails to entertain, and truth be told, remains a bit frightening, or at the very least, unnerving in spots.  The film has never been the beneficiary of good reviews, and I can understand that, given the repetitious P.O.V. visuals. 

Criticism of visual distinction aside, Snowbeast is just the kind of unassuming, enjoyable monster movie I love to watch on a cold winter night, while huddled under a blanket, drinking hot chocolate. I can practically feel the chill already...

Cult-TV Movie Trailer: Snowbeast (1977)

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Comic-Book of the Week: Shazam!

Coloring Book of the Week: Shazam! (Whitman)

Halloween Costume of the Week: Shazam! (Ben Cooper)

GAF Viewmaster: Shazam!

Action Figure of the Week: Shazam! (Captain Marvel; Mego)

Board Game of the Week: Shazam (Reed and Associates, Inc.)

Theme Song of the Week: Shazam!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Return to Tomorrow" (February 9, 1968)

Stardate 4768.3

The Enterprise receives a distress call from a dead planet, and is contacted by a being called Sargon.  This individual asks that a landing party beam down to a vault beneath one hundred miles of solid rock.  Mysteriously, Sargon refers to the crew as “my children.”

Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) and Dr. Ann Mulhall (Diana Muldaur) beam down and discover that Sargon is from a long-dead race of god-like beings who once explored the stars, and even visited the human race. 

A destructive and terrible war tore apart their world, Arret, half-a-million years ago, and now Sargon, his wife, Thalassa, and a representative from the other side, Henoch, are all that remain of the planet’s populace.

They exist, however, not as physical bodies, but as incorporeal forms encased in large orbs.  

Sargon’s proposal for Captain Kirk is simple. He, Henoch and Thalassa would like to use the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Mulhall to inhabit while they build robot bodies for themselves to spend eternity dwelling in.

McCoy is unhappy about the idea, because each body “possessed” undergoes dangerous spikes in cardiac function, and risks being “burned out.” Sargon insists that this symptom can be tempered with regular injections, but Kirk must sill convince his crew that they should take the risk, because the possibility of interacting with the incredibly wise Sargon, and his wealth of knowledge, promises to be worthwhile.

What Kirk has not counted on, however, is that Henoch has no desire to live in a robot body. Instead, Henoch would rather keep Spock’s. And knowing that Sargon would never let that happen, Henoch plans to murder his -- Kirk’s -- body…

Like last week’s “A Private Little War,” “Return to Tomorrow” is one of those thoroughly entertaining and impressive episodes of the original Star Trek (1966-1969) that seems to get forgotten when lists of ten best, twenty best, or even season best episodes are drafted.

“A Return to Tomorrow” deserves at least some consideration for ten best of Season Two, I would suggest, because of Kirk’s incredible speech about risk, and the reason that mankind must accept risk if he wishes to thrive, and move forward. It is an inspiring speech, and I like to think of it as the Kirk Doctrine, or the Kirk Manifesto.

It goes something like this:

“They used to say that if man could fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the moon, or that we hadn’t gone on to Mars, and to the nearest star? That’s like saying that you wished you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut…

…I'm in command. I could order this. But I'm not because Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this.

But I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great.

Risk….risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.”

Looking back, this doctrine isn’t merely inspirational, it’s a blueprint for the next steps that we need to take, right here, right now, in 2017, to move forward into the universe. I love this particular Kirk speech, and believe it speaks to the core appeal of Star Trek as a franchise, and indeed, as a philosophy, or futurist movement.

The speech also speaks to Captain Kirk’s character; his heroism, his innate optimism.  It demonstrates his ability to lead, to rally others to his cause, even to be an effective public speaker. (Sorry, I teach public speaking, and one lesson I enjoy teaching every semester concerns the art of persuasion, and how the great speakers summon us by calling to the best angels of our nature, not the gutter emotions.) Kirk’s speech in this episode is a textbook perfect example of that approach. He acknowledges that there is danger, but then moves right into the inspirational talk about the rewards that lay beyond the danger. He tells us not only to strive, but why we should strive. And he ties that striving right back to human history, and the history of space travel.

Because Captain Kirk has this opportunity to lead, and to inspire, “Return to Tomorrow” takes on a special quality, at least as far as I’m concerned. Kirk isn’t just reacting to a crisis here. He isn’t just choosing a course of action. He is proving why he sits in the center seat, and why his crew would follow him to the edge of the galaxy and beyond.

Of course, the episode possesses other values worth noting

In fact, “Return to Tomorrow” is nearly a textbook example of why William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were each cast in the series. Shatner gets the opportunity to go big, to make us feel inspired with his character’s rhetoric and discourse. 

And Leonard Nimoy -- who holds back so much as Spock -- gets to play a diabolical, smirking character, Henoch.  Since we are so accustomed to seeing Spock as an emotionless persona, it is a shock to the system to see small changes, like that devilish smirk, or Spock leaning casually against a door frame.  It’s as if Leonard Nimoy understands that just by doing little things – by turning outward his performance just a notch or two, the impact would be huge.  It was a brilliant calculation.

The theme underlining “Return to Tomorrow” is also powerful. The episode concerns vanity, or overconfidence (rather than a fear of progress). Sargon and his people reached a point of advancement so great that they began to consider themselves Gods. 

Considering oneself a god means that laws are no longer needed, or simply required for others. That rules no longer matter.

Henoch believes he is owed survival, and Spock’s body as well, because of the gifts he could bring the galaxy. Thalassa nearly travels this route too, until she sees how much she is privileging her own happiness over the existence of the others.  She is horrified to realize she has been so selfish, so impulsive.

The message is that even as we advance, even as we grow and develop, we maintain our “human equation,” which consists of jealousy, avarice, selfishness, and other emotions. We can walk forward into a brave future, but we will still carry these cave-man legacies with us.  We must master them, or they will be our undoing, as Spock might remind us.

That’s what happened to Sargon’s people. They thought they were Gods.  They forgot they were human, and still tethered to mortality, and fallibility.

The story is a powerful tale of love, too. Sargon and Thalassa have loved one another for 600,000 years, through war and a virtually incorporeal existence. Here, they face the possibility of oblivion, but face it together.  It’s a powerful argument for love, for connection, even for monogamy, if you wish to take the lesson that far.

I haven’t mentioned Diana Muldaur yet, and I must do so, before closing.  She is an important actor in Star Trek history, for her roles in the original series and The Next Generation. She is an exceptionally strong presence in this episode, and transmits brilliantly an understanding of the conflict that her character, Thalassa, faces.  She is not evil. She is not a menace to the universe. She is a person who wants, above anything else, to live, to be human again And in wanting that, she is able to look right past the rights of others. Muldaur makes Thalassa very human, both petty and transcendent.

Indeed, that seems to be the whole point of this episode, to explore the human condition and our ability to be those things.  We must take risks and strive as we move forward, but heaven help us if we ever forget that we are mortal and fallible.

Next week: “Patterns of Force.”

The Films of 2016: The Disappointments Room

[Beware of Spoilers]

So many of today’s big budget horror films out of Hollywood feel rote, and off-the-shelf. The Disappointments Room (2016) is a prime example of that sad trend. This movie from director DJ Caruso and writer Wentworth Miller feels like a bad sequel to Insidious, or Ouija, or The Darkness, or The Conjuring…except that you can’t tell which one, exactly. 

The movie is flat, generic, and utterly lacking in imaginative distinction.

At least the popular horror movies I just name-checked above tend to be competent in terms of their execution. They may not be much more, in the final analysis, than jump-scare roller-coaster rides, but basic matters are handled with a degree of care and some level of attention.

By that, I mean the audience can determine -- while watching those films -- what is happening to whom, and generally the reasons why it is happening.  There’s some narrative logic, in how things unfold. The monsters must obey certain rules, so that protagonists learn how to circumvent those rules to eke out a hard fought victory.

The Disappointments Room fails to reach even this modest threshold in terms of quality. Plot threads dangle. Storylines remain unresolved. At the end, there are a lot of questions to be asked, about the specifics of what was just witnessed, who survived, and even, finally, what was real, and what wasn’t.  The movie is a disaster, actually, in its lack of coherence.

“Disappointment” is exactly the right word to apply to this dull, formulaic horror film from 2016. Even at a mere 85 minutes, the movie is a long, tough slog through trite genre conventions and clichés.

“Nobody has lived in that house for quite a long time.”

Following the untimely death of their infant daughter in 2014, Dana (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Mel Raido) move to the Carolinas with their son, Lucas (Duncan Joiner). 

There, the family moves into a colossal, historic home in the country, one that was once home to a draconian judge and his family.  The plan is for Dana, an architect to heal from tragedy at the same time that she heals the old house, which is falling apart.

Upstairs, in the attic, Dana soon discovers a secret room. Once she has found the key, she opens up the door, and exposes herself to a dark piece of social and family history.

The Judge who built the house, Blacker (Gerald McRaney) apparently had a deformed daughter whom he kept locked up in his “disappointment room,” a chamber not uncommon in the past, in a less evolved era. Wealthy families, fearing social rejection, would hide their sick or unwell children in such rooms, and their offspring would live and die there, separated from society forever.

Now, Dana believes she is in communication with the spirit of the judge’s little girl, who lived her life – and died -- in that room.  

The ghost of the judge (and the ghost of his dog, apparently), are unhappy by Dana’s interference in their affairs and begin to strike out at both Dana and her family.

“Sometimes, bad things happen and we don’t know why.”

One of the strangest aspects of The Disappointments Room is the incoherent depiction of the evil ghost, and his dog sidekick.  These spirits can apparently physically harm living beings, and also, be physically harmed themselves. 

This means that the ghost dog can maul and murder the family cat, Rascal, with his sharp teeth.  This means that, when fighting the judge, Dana can bash his head in with a hammer. And the ghost’s head actually bleeds.

How is any of this possible?

The movie doesn’t say.

But the ghost’s powers are beyond the realm of the physical too. The judge can, for instance, recreate and replace family portraits that we have seen Dana take out of the house and burn.  When she returns to the house, they are back where they were before, untouched.

So these ghosts can affect matter in our world -- even though incorporeal. And they can re-arrange external matter (like the portraits), without actually touching them. 

Basically, these ghosts are all powerful, and can do, miraculously, whatever the screenplay demands they do, at any time. They can kill living beings brutally. They can restore burned artworks. And they 
can resurrect themselves, after apparently being killed (again).

And why are these ghosts killing people, or at least torturing them? Because the ghost of the judge’s little girl is trying to escape from her room, and Dana is trying to help her to that. 

But if ghosts are all-powerful -- as the judge and the dog aptly demonstrate -- what’s to keep the girl just from leaving the room? Or from fighting back with the same ghostly powers?

If a locked door can’t hold back the judge and the dog, why does it hold the ghost of the little girl? Why does she not possess the same powers as they do?

The questions in logic and consistency keep coming.

At the end of the movie, the ghost girl gets away, but the dog and the judge -- both of whom we have seen killed on screen -- are back in the house again, perfectly fine. What’s to stop them from going after the ghost of the little girl, and dragging her back to the disappointments room?

Basically, the problem is that there is no decision ever made, apparently, by the writers or director, about what a “ghost” is in The Disappointments Room.  There are no laws that these ghosts have to obey. There is no thought about what constitutes a spirit, or how it should behave.

If the ghost are as powerful as the film seems to indicates, why spend eternity hanging out in a haunted house?  Why does the spirit of judge even care that the spirit of his daughter is still in the disappointments room? Why does he want to keep her there? Who is judging his social worth in the afterlife?

It gets worse. Much worse.

At one point in the film, a young, sexy handyman, Ben (Lucas Till) is introduced. He is featured in a subplot during which he repeatedly hits on Dana while David is away. This subplot goes nowhere.

David doesn’t confront him, or even learn about his behavior.

So why is Ben even in the film? Well, I suspect he’s there to remind us that even at the age of 43, our star, Kate Beckinsale is quite attractive, even to men twenty years her junior.  Movies include female characters all the time for this very purpose when there is an older male lead, so turnabout is fair play, I suppose.

But in a horror movie, there has to be a good dramatic reason for characters to exist.

For example, Ben reappears later in The Disappointments Room, only to be killed, but no one in the family ever comments on the fact that he has been murdered. No police are called. The family just drives away, and the judge peers after the family members, from the house, as they go. 

No one even remembers poor Ben ever existed. 

So did Ben die at all? Was this all a hallucination by the grieving mother, Dana? 

Isn’t somebody going to notice that Ben is missing? 

And when they find him dead, won’t they have questions?  The movie just completely shoots itself in the foot with this character and his fate.

Other clichés abound.

We get the grieving parents, trying to move past their tragedy, characters we have seen so many times.

We get the little boy exposed to dark forces, perhaps manipulated by them. For a minute, it even looks like he’s going to have an imaginary friend (but it’s a cat, not a spirit, thankfully).

And we get the heroic protagonist, who rallies to fight evil, and in the process of saving another person, heals her own broken parts.

We even get half-hearted attempts by the writer and director to make us think that Dana is insane, subject to hallucinations, and in need of medication. Let’s Scare Dana to Death.

The Disappointments Room is terribly predictable, bland, and, well, unoriginal. The “disappointment room” is actually any room in which you decide to screen this movie.