Saturday, February 11, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Olympiads" (December 11, 1976)

In “Tarzan and the Olympiads,” Tarzan rescues two escaped slaves, Dmitri and Logos, from Roman troops marching in his jungle.

These Roman troops hail from a (lost) city where the physically strong rule the roost, and the losers in athletic games become slaves. The tyrant of Olympus is named Cronos.

Tarzan is captured by the Romans and must fight to regain his freedom, but he must also help bring freedom to the city.

“Tarzan and the Olympiads” is a not-very compelling installment of this 1976 Filmation Saturday morning series. All the elements present here we have seen in episodes before, and handled better, too. We get a lost city, for example, that apes some other famous historical time period in human civilization, (The Roman Empire) and we also get the young people that must be freed from captivity. Finally, we encounter the evil tyrant, Cronos, who resists change.

The only fresh angle is the fact that physical or athletic games form the centerpiece of this particular civilization. Athletes prove their worth by competing in the pole vault, the long jump, spear throwing (!) and foot races. Naturally, Tarzan is well-equipped to win in all those events, and thus challenge Cronos. In fact, he saves Cronos from a crocodile during one athletic event.

What’s weird here is that the city appears to have no women in it all. This fact adds a whole other subtext to the installment. It’s all about half-naked men and their acts of physical prowess. I’m not saying there’s a problem with that, or that this subtext was intentional, just that the total lack of females on screen encourages a different reading of the tale. And it’s a little strange too.  Someone has to be giving birth to the children, right? Wouldn't the women have to compete in games too?

“Tarzan and the Olympiads” ends, naturally, with Tarzan victorious and Cronos changing his ways. “We must stop conquering and staring caring,” is the message for audience at home. 

Of course, the city also needs to find some women…

Next Week: “Tarzan’s Trial.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters (1975): "The Maltese Monkey" (September 6, 1975)

Just a few years after the highly-rated Night Stalker movies premiered to high ratings and one year after the Kolchak (1974-1975) TV series, Lou Scheimer’s Filmation created a kind of comedy variation on the premise for Saturday mornings.

The live-action series The Ghost Busters (1975) follows the unusual adventures of three down-on-their-luck paranormal investigators: Spenser (Larry Storch), Kong (Forest Tucker) and the gorilla, Tracy (played, or rather “trained” by Bob Burns.)

The series ran for fifteen episodes, and is most famous, today, because it landed in the pop-culture nearly a full-decade before the similarly-named blockbuster Ivan Reitman movie of 1984.  It should be remembered by all that this series spearheaded The Ghost Busters concept (which includes anti-ghost technology, a team of inept investigators, supernatural foes, and slapstick comedy) well-before the 1984 film also went there.

After 1984, the two versions of the material duked it out in Saturday morning cartons, one based on the 1970s Filmation program, the other one based on the popular movie.

In the original series, Spenser, Kong, and Tracy receive assignments, Mission: Impossible-style from self-destructing tapes, and then go after various monsters or legends, including the Mummy, the Frankenstein Monster, evil witches, and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  

The first episode of the series is "The Maltese Monkey," A bizarre riff on the classic film noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941). 

The evil duo the Fatman (Johnny Brown) and The Rabbit (Billy Barty) use a crystal ball to conjure the ghost of notorious gangster, Big Al (Larry Storch). Only Big Al knows the secret location of the "thing," the valuable statue, The Maltese Monkey.

Spenser, Kong, and Tracy are ordered to apprehend the Fatman and the Rabbit, but are shocked to learn that Big Al and Spenser are dead ringers for one another, right down to a taste in fashion.

At first, Kong plans to use Spenser's resemblance to Al to trick the evil duo, but Big Al pulls a fast one and gets Tracy and Kong to steal the Maltese Monkey with him.

Although its humor is incredibly juvenile, "The Maltese Monkey" is cartoonish on purpose, I would assess. In fact, it pulls -- in its freshman episode, no less -- a cartoon gage that kids could watch on Scooby Doo every week.

The joke involves a corridor with doors on both sides of the chamber, and people emerging and disappearing, alternately, on each side, in several doors; in defiance of physics.  It's an old, stupid joke, but it captures, almost perfectly, apparent ambition to be a live-action cartoon.

This is a show clearly designed for kids, and yet there are some fascinating things to consider here.

First, "The Maltese Monkey" features relatively well-shot split screens for various compositions, pitting Larry Storch against...Larry Storch. I wasn't expecting that degree of visual sophistication from such a cheap production.

To the negative, however, the castle as depicted in the film appears to be a drawing or painting, and at one point during the aforementioned corridor chase, one can see the flimsy walls actually shake.

But, again focusing on the positive, Larry Storch goes for broke in both roles. He plays Spenser, and Big Al. But then he plays Big Al pretending to be Spenser, and Spenser pretending to be big Al.  As Big Al, he performs a flawless imitation of Marlon Brando from The Godfather (1972).  And as Spenser imitating Big Al, he pulls an equally perfect Jimmy Cagney.

I confess to not being a very big fan of this Saturday morning series, and for finding the humor, for the most part, cringe inducing. Still, I'm going to blog the whole series here with an open mind, and see how it shakes out.

One quality I do appreciate about this series is the "monsters for kids" aspect.  Children are fascinated by horror films and big screen monsters, and those obsessions are definitely here.  It's just that they are couched in the most ridiculous scripts and situations impossible, presumably to make sure the terror isn't merely tolerable, but toothless.

Next week: "Dr. Whatsisname."

Friday, February 10, 2017

Room for One More, Honey: The 7 Cult-TV Flights You Don't Want to Board

I must confess that I have never been very comfortable with flying. 

The last time I flew, in fact, was in the year 2005, I believe. So I’m (happily…) going on over ten years since I boarded a commercial air-liner.  I'd be happy to make it twenty.

Anyway, I don’t want to blame my aviatophobia on my mis-spent youth TV-watching, but there’s little doubt that cult-television, has, for decades, featured terrifying stories of flights imperiled, flights lost, and commercial air-liners crashed. 

With that frightening thought in mind, here is a list of the seven cult-television commercial flights you hope you never end up queuing to board…

And yes, The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) features heavily on this list, since it re-visited the premise of doomed air-line flights fairly regularly.

7. Spartan Air Flight 602 (“Souls on Board,” The Others, 2000).

The short-lived The Others was a great horror series that should have gone on for many seasons, but one of its finest efforts was “Souls on Board.”  In this macabre tale, the protagonists -- a diverse team of psychics -- board a plane reputed to be haunted.  The team-members soon learned that the plane has been retrofitted with parts from Flight 390 which crashed…killing all hands aboard.  Now, the ghostly crew of lost Flight 390 haunts the new plane…

So imagine boarding a plane on a routine flight only to discover that: a.) the plane is built from crash scraps.  And b.) the salvaged parts are haunted.  How's that for flying the friendly skies?

6. Sub-orbital flight in 1983, aboard the Spindrift (“Crash,” Land of the Giants, 1968).

A sub-orbital ship, The Spindrift, encounters "solar turbulence" upon final sub-orbital approach to London. Before long, the small commercial vessel crashes on a strange world, and the crew and passengers encounter the peculiar dangers of this planet, namely giant spiders, cats, lizards...and (apparently) giant, hostile humans.

This is the premise of Irwin Allen’s final science fiction series Land of the Giants.  Again, a routine commercial flight leads to an unexpected danger, in this case permanent exile on a planet where you are, essentially, an ant, compared to the indigenous population.

5. Bound for Bomano, South Pacific (The New People, 1969).

In the 1969 generation-gap series The New People (from Rod Serling and Aaron Spelling) a group of thirty or forty college students in the South Pacific on a "good will" trip are recalled to America because of international tensions.  Their plane goes off course in a pounding storm, however, and crashes on remote Bomano, where the U.S. has abandoned its Atomic Energy Testing Site.  The site is now a ghost town populated only by creepy human dummies.  “The New People “-- with no chance of getting home -- must start a new life with no adults, no government, and limited provisions…

So what starts out as a routine flight ends, essentially, in Lord of the Flies.  The only adult trapped in this nightmare, played by Richard Kiley, wisely dies before the end of the first hour...

4. Flight 22 (“Twenty-Two,” The Twilight Zone, 1962)

In this classic The Twilight Zone tale, Liz Powell, a dancer, has experienced for weeks a strange and terrifying nightmare about a morgue, a pleasant though sinister-looking nurse, and the number 22.  

Room for one more, honey…” the nurse repeatedly intones, offering a slot in the morgue.  

After exorcising the fear of this baffling nightmare, Liz leaves the hospital, travels to the airport and prepares to board a plane.

But when she is about to board, Liz learns that this is Flight 22, and the pleasant stewardess intones -- wait for it -- “room for one more honey…”  

Appropriately, Liz freaks out and leaves the tarmac.  Moments later, the plane explodes on take-off, killing all aboard.

Although shot on video-tape (as a cost-saving measure) this is one of the all-time classic Twilight Zone episodes, and one that many viewers still remember from the original airing.  Although my mother often explicitly recalls the terror of "The After Hours" and "Eye of the Beholder," it is "Twenty-Two" that terrified by Dad as a young man..

3. Global Airlines Flight 33 (“The Odyssey of Flight 33, The Twilight Zone, 1961).

This is another remarkable Twilight Zone story about unlucky plane passengers.  

In this case, a commercial air liner en route from London to New York somehow jumps a time track. Instead of arriving at Idlewild Airport in the present, the plane flies over New York to find it inhabited by dinosaurs.  The plane retraces its steps, makes a second approach, and the passengers see the 1939 World’s Fair this time  Finally, the plane makes one final attempt and…

…well, let’s just say that if you ever hear something in the sky above -- the strain of over-taxed engines, for instance -- it may very well be the sound of lost Flight 33, still trying to reach home…the Flying Dutchman of cult-television history.

2. Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 (Lost; 2004)

The year 2004 brought scripted dramatic television back to the forefront with a bang (in the era of reality TV) with Lost (2004 – 2011).  This science-fiction drama from J.J. Abrams concerned the passengers of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, which crashed on a mysterious island and was soon confronted with a “smoke monster,” hostile “Others” and even a strange, subterranean hatch.  

The crash itself was depicted in harrowing and vivid terms in Lost's extraordinary pilot, and the plane was seen to split into sections.  In the second year of the series, some survivors met up with the “tailies,” passengers who survived impact in another part of the plane.

Before Lost was through, the passengers of Flight 815 were subjected to flash-backs, flash-forwards, and even flash-sideways...

1. Flight of the Gremlin (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,The Twilight Zone, 1963).

This is surely the acknowledged classic of the terror-on-an-air-liner sub-genre.  A passenger named Robert Wilson (played with twitchy authenticity by a young William Shatner) becomes convinced that a monstrous, mischievous gremlin is on the wing of the his plane, imperiling the flight.  A taut and tense half-hour from director Richard Donner finds Shatner -- believed to be insane by his wife and fellow passengers -- battling the Gremlin, and attempting to prevent a crash.  Although the monster isn't very convincing, this episode remains incredibly suspenseful, and oddly touching.  At some point, Shatner's Wilson realizes that he is totally and completely alone, patronized and written off, and takes matters into his hands.

God knows just how many people this single half-hour of a fifty-something year old series scared permanently away from commercial air travel.

And if you're traveling that route today...have a nice flight, and watch out for detours into...the Twilight Zone.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "Half Life" (October 31st, 1977)

The sixth episode of Logan’s Run (1977) -- "Half Life" -- is written by Shimon Wincelberg and directed by Steven Stern.

The story concerns a society where all the citizens are "processed" through a machine that separates each individual into two parts, a good person (known as a "positive") and a bad person, known as a "cast out."

The bad folks get thrown out of the city to live in primitive barbarism outside the walls, while the "positives" live inside, in luxury. A force field barrier separates the two areas.

Logan (Gregory Harrison), Jessica (Heather Menzies) and REM (Donald Moffat) happen upon this society and are welcomed by the Positives.

In secret, however, the primitive leader, The Patron (William Smith) plans to “process” them all in the same way.  Apparently, he is unaware that his own wife, Rama 2 (Kim Cattrall) is actually a cast-out, one struggling to suppress her emotions.

Jessica is processed, and her “cast-out” half is sent outside the barrier.  Now Logan and REM must not only rescue her, but put all her pieces back together again.

So, the people of this strange post-apocalyptic community in “Half Life” have by design recreated the accident that split Captain Kirk into good/bad parts in the classic first season Star Trek episode, "The Enemy Within."  

It’s the same story, basically.

Logan and REM even share a conversation in “Half Life” which they discuss the light and dark sides of human nature, and assess both of them necessary to survival. 

It’s easy to forget it today, in 2017, but once upon the time, Star Trek cast a very long shadow across sci-fi TV.  The same stories (and same moral lessons) were often repeated, from one series to the next.

“Half Life” goes off in its own direction, however, in its exploration of a government that has gone too far to socially (and apparently, genetically…) engineer the nature of its citizenry.  “No one has ever shed a drop of blood in our society,” Logan and the others are told, and yet the society seems cruel. People such as Jessica are abducted against their will and forced to submit to the equivalent of an unnecessary medical procedure.  REM has a good perspective on this “experiment to tidy up human nature.” He understands it is a fool’s errand.

In this story of a "city where all are perfected," there's one individual worth noting in further detail: Rama 2. When she went through the processor as a child, Rama's positive side died...leaving only her cast-out side remaining. But ever since then, there's been a deception. Rama has been living as the consort of the Patron, the community leader and hiding her "negative" nature. Because she has been successful, Rama's presence proves that the processing procedure doesn't really work. A little good and a little evil resides in each split part of the citizenry...and so the attempt to separate these essential human qualities is foolhardy indeed.

 That fact makes Logan and REM's task easier, repairing -- or re-unifying -- the society.

"Half Life" is, like "The Innocent," diverting and entertaining enough, yet still ultimately rather derivative, and not grounded closely enough in the idea behind the series (exploration of a ruined, post-apocalyptic landscape). At least - finally -there's a whole society on display here, not just a little community with one citizen. That's a positive sign, I hope.

But the problems here are also severe. How did a post-holocaust society devise and construct the technology to separate two people into two physically identical (though opposite, emotionally) individuals?  That’s basically like someone in the Dark Ages inventing the transporter, and it doesn’t make much sense.

And again, how does the processor get its power in this post-apocalyptic landscape? Finally, with the society restored, and such abundant technology (including security in the form of the force field), why don’t Logan, Jessica and REM settle here instead of continuing the search for a hazy Sanctuary

Next week: the best episode of Logan’s Run: “The Crypt.”

Cult-TV Movie Review: Night Slaves (1970)

The TV movie Night Slaves (1970), by Jerry Sohl, is the story of a man named Clay Howard (James Franciscus) who has grown tired of 20th century living, and its conspicuous consumption. “No more accumulations,” he insists to his business partner, Matt. “No more things.” 

Accordingly, Clay sells his business, and decides it is a time for a change in his marriage to Marjorie (Lee Grant), as well.

Before he can make any changes however, Clay is involved in a car accident and must undergo emergency surgery. The doctors implant a metal plate in his skull during the operation. Afterwards, Clay's surgeon recommends a vacation, one with "no pressure at all." 

So Clay and Marjorie head off together to the sleepy little burb of Eldrid, California, a dusty old town that advertises itself as "a bit of the Old West."

After he and his wife decide to stay in a local boarding house, Clay experiences a nightmare. When he awakes, however he finds he is living in one.

He sees his wife and other town people in a trance, being "herded like sheep" onto trucks and transported out of town to perform menial tasks for Noel (Andrew Prine), an alien life form who has possessed the human form of the local simpleton. Noel's space craft suffered "internal damage" while in flight and now Noel steals "four hours a night" from his human servants. He is a psychokinetic life form who means no harm, but also will stand for no interference.

Because of the metal plate lodged in his head, Clay is immune to Noel's mental control. Instead, he falls in love with the alien leader's only crew member; a naive technician named Nailil (Trish Sterling). Nailil shows Clay her damaged spaceship, as well as a selective invisible force field which she can pass through, but which Clay cannot. It blankets the town and prevents egress during the nightly work shift.

Clay and Nailil talk, and grow close. Both feel disenfranchised by their respective societies.

So when Noel's spacecraft plans to lift-off at 5:30 am one morning, Clay means to shed his Earthly form and be on board it...

Night Slaves is an unusually sedate and modest TV-movie of the 1970s, with no real special effects, and no real scares, either. Instead, it plays like a variation on It Came from Outer Space (1953), a classic science fiction film about aliens harnessing human workers in another quiet, out-of-the-way town.

What distinguishes Night Slaves -- and has made it memorable for those who saw it on its original broadcast -- is the underlying social commentary. 

Clay and Nailil both feel like outcasts in their respective societies. Clay no longer wants to be a “slave” to his possessions, or his profession, and seeks to break out of the “box” of 20th century society. 

He finds himself in a situation, intriguingly, where can shed not only all his material wealth for love, but his actual body, too.  His very name, Clay, tells us that he is not rigid and locked in, but able to re-shape himself and his life in new ways.

Niailil is similarly a slave to her “over-one,” (meaning overlord), Noel. She lives just to be a “technician” but longs to be a mother, a spouse…to feel love. Her interactions with Clay open up the doorway to those possibilities.

And what about those night slaves? Well, that’s the point commentary, I suppose. Marjorie, the town sheriff (Leslie Nielsen) and everyone else goes about his or her business in a trance, not seeing who is pulling their strings, why they are doing what they are doing, or how empty the whole endeavor is. And then, the next night, they get up, put on their clothes, and repeat the same task. It's a mindless, repetitive life.

And itt’s a metaphor, of course, for people trapped in the rat race, people who don’t have the wherewithal to “get off the treadmill,” or be a “drop out,” like Clay.  They are slaves, and they don’t realize it.

I once wrote an unnecessarily cruel and snarky review of Night Slaves -- sorry, it was a (short) phase I went through -- and I enumerated some of the drawbacks of this telefilm. Some of those observations are still valid, but in my desire to be funny, or witty, I missed some of the underlying value of the film.  So I am glad to revisit it today and correct an old mistake.

This is a story of star-crossed lovers, “drop outs” from different worlds, who find each other.  On a very basic level, it’s a lovely tale.  Part of its charm is, indeed, its modesty; its simplicity.

But sometimes the execution here isn’t great, or is somehow clichéd. For instance, one of the final scenes of the film reveals Clay and Nialil running in a picturesque field in slow motion, towards one another. It is a clichéd visualization that feels more appropriate for a breath mint commercial. And yet I don’t question director Ted Post’s sincerity in visualizing it this way.

Similarly, it seems that there should have been at least one or two scenes here of Clay in recovery, with bandages on his head, following surgery. Instead, we go from the accident, basically, to scenes of him with a full-head of hair, and the steel plate in his head.  Between those two scenes, logically, there had to be weeks of recovery.

Also, I love the idea of an alien and human falling in love, but what kind of love can it truly be without physicality? I suppose the idea of leaving material things behind is the point, but I feel that Clay should know a little more fully what he is leaving corporeal existence for.  How do non corporeal beings understand the concept of family. How do they have children?

And, finally, why do incorporeal aliens fly in spaceships that can only be repaired by corporeal beings? That seems like a really bad idea.

There are some narrative and stylistic (and pacing) lapses in Night Slaves, but underneath all these problems is a kind of fierce urgency to leave behind a system that doesn’t create happiness, but instead the impression of unending servitude.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Pop Art: Pee Wee's Playhouse (Mad Magazine Edition)

Trading Cards of the Week: Pee Wee's Playhouse

Pee-Wee's Playhouse GAF Viewmaster

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Shrinky Dinks

Pee-Wee Herman Halloween Costume (Collegeville)

Pee Wee's Playhouse Colorforms

Action Figure of the Week: Talking Pee-Wee Herman (Matchbox)

Playset of the Week: Pee-Wee's Playhouse (Matchbox)

Lunch Box of the Week: Pee Wee's Playhouse

Theme Song of the Week: Pee Wee's Playhouse (1988)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Tribute 2017: Richard Hatch (1945 - 2017)

The press is now reporting the death of Richard Hatch (1945 - 2017), the actor (and gentleman) who portrayed Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), and Tom Zarek in the rebooted version of the same property (2004 - 2009).

Richard Hatch had a long and illustrious career in Hollywood, starring in Santa Barbara (1990), and The Streets of San Francisco (1977), and guest-starring in series such as Fantasy Island, T.J. Hooker, Riptide, MacGyver and even Baywatch.

In terms of genre, Mr. Hatch also starred in the movie Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983) and spearheaded his own property: The Great War of Magellan (2005).  

But it is for playing Captain Apollo that Mr. Hatch is best loved, at least by my generation. Mr. Hatch brought such sincerity to that role, and made Apollo a character worth admiring.

I had the great pleasure of getting to know Richard Hatch at the Main Mission Convention in New York City, in the fall of 2000.  My wife and I attended dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Mr. Hatch, Destinies host Dr. Howard Margolin, and film director Kevin Connor (Motel Hell), among others.  

We walked several blocks back to the hotel together and -- I've never forgotten it -- Mr. Hatch exuberantly jumped out into the street, acting out some crazy story.  My wife pulled him back onto the curb just in time, as a yellow cab raced by.  I told her, "you just saved Captain Apollo's life." Undaunted, Mr. Hatch went back to (exuberantly) sharing his story. The man seemed to possess boundless energy and enthusiasm.

After the convention, Mr. Hatch and I stayed in touch, and spoke on the phone several times over the next few years. We looked for awhile, for some project we could work on together, possibly one of his Battlestar books.  It was an honor to know him, and to call him friend. 

I have been planning for 2018 a look back here on the blog at Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), in celebration of its 40th anniversary. I will still do so, but it will be bittersweet indeed to reach that benchmark without the man who made Captain Apollo such a beacon of decency, kindness, humanity and bravery.

Rest in Peace, Richard Hatch.

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Patterns of Force" (February 16, 1968)

Stardate: 2534.0

In the M43 Alpha solar system, the Enterprise travels in search of a missing Federation history professor whom Captain Kirk (William Shatner) once admired: John Gill.

The Enterprise approaches the M-class world Gill was last known to be studying -- Ekos -- and Kirk is surprised to see the ship fall under attack from a missile. The Enterprise avoids destruction, and closer examination of Ekos reveals a horrifying discovery.

The world has been transformed into a planetary Nazi regime, presumably because of Gill’s interference, and is now launching a “final solution”-style genocide against its peaceful neighbor world, Zeon.  Kirk and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must undo Gill’s interference on the planet and save Zeon.  

They join the resistance to do so, and learn that John Gill is the “Fuhrer” of this alien Nazi state.

Star Trek’s (1966-1969) “Patterns of Force” is a cautionary tale of vigilance, and one that reminds audiences that a hostile ideology rooted in guter emotions like hatred, resentment, and scapegoating can crop up anywhere, at any time. We are never safe from it. Especially if we forget our history.

The Nazis can rise in the 23rd century on the distant world of Ekos, for example, or even right here, in America, 2017.  This is why vigilance is a responsibility and duty of every citizen.

The antidote to such terror is the very thing we witnessed in the 1940s, and Star Trek shows us a corollary in “Patterns of Force:” allies of diverse backgrounds banding together to stop this nativist, racist form of evil.  

In “Patterns of Force,” Kirk and Spock join the resistance, which sees both prosecuted Zeons and good-hearted Ekosians rebelling against the evil regime.  People of good conscience fight what they see as a betrayal, essentially, of human decency. The Ekosians want their world restored. Zeons want the attacks to end.  Their differences in nature (being from different worlds) don't prevent them from joining forces and fighting the Nazis.

Yet the story of John Gill is, perhaps, a perplexing one, and Kirk actually acknowledges this fact in-story. Gill states that “even historians fail to learn from history,” and yet it is a total mystery why Gill picked Nazi Germany as a “model society” to impress upon the Ekosians. How could anyone make such a catastrophic misjudgement?

As if in support of Gill’s theory (though of course not his actions...), Spock notes in the episode that Nazi Germany was the “most efficient state” ever known on Earth. Sadly, this is “fake news,” to coin a phrase, and a comment which prominent historians have widely debunked. 

Nazi Germany was a bureaucratic nightmare, apparently, because each leader felt that he held more power, and had more jurisdiction, than he actually did; thus creating an environment of competition, backbiting, and in-fighting. Hitler himself was reputedly quite disorganized.  So Gill’s notion of Nazi Germany as an ideal, or super-efficient state is more fiction than fact. The Roman Republic (pre-Empire) might actually have been a preferable model for state-run efficiency, though there are Roman influenced societies in Star Trek already, including in “Bread and Circuses” and the Romulans.

But how could any self-respecting historian possess  the arrogance, or vanity, to believe he could impose a “good” Nazi society on another one?  Not only is such an act a clear violation of the Prime Directive, it suggests a bad mis-reading of history, or at least an extremely…selective reading of it.

Why? Well, what actually held Nazi Germany together? The historical record tells us it was a constant state of warfare, nationalistic propaganda, and the scapegoating of populations that didn’t conform to Hitler’s preferences.  It’s difficult to see how these particular traits could be marshaled into a society that is benign, or benevolent.

I’m not complaining about the episode, and indeed, the whole idea is “baked in,” because of Kirk’s comment of bewilderment to Gill. We are left, simply, to wonder if John Gill went senile, and his dementia somehow played a role in his selection of Nazi, Germany as the paradigm for Ekos.

Gill’s plan skirts plausibility, and yet I nonetheless feel it is important for Star Trek to dramatize this particular story.  

"Patterns of Force" reminds us that sometimes good people go along, at least for a while, as fascism rises.  

It reminds us that even a technological, modern state can succumb to the worst aspects of human nature. 

It reminds us that when we are faced with those in po234 who break the law and betray our human values, we can, in a word, resist.

And "Patterns of Force" reminds us, finally, that if we must be ever vigilant, lest mankind make the same mistake all over again.  “Patterns of Force” is worthwhile for all such reasons.

Given that the subject matter is so severe -- one scene includes dialogue about an innocent women, a Zeon, beaten to death, her body spat upon by Nazis -- it is a surprise to report that “Patterns of Force” also utilizes a good bit of humor, ostensibly so the going doesn’t get too dark.  

Spock tells Kirk “You should make a very convincing Nazi,” for instance, in a perfect deadpan.  And Bones gets to pretend to be a drunk Gestapo doctor in another scene.  Kirk and Spock’s escape from a jail cell, with Spock babbling about scientific theory, and Kirk enduring great pain, is similarly amusing.

The subject matter is never treated lightly, but the episode’s seriousness is leavened just enough by the series’ quirky sense of humor.

In the second season of Star Trek, Kirk and the Enterprise crew keep encountering “cultural contamination.” In “A Piece of the Action,” a book from Earth about Chicago Mobs of the 20s changes the very face of a culture.  In “Bread and Circuses,” human beings from a spaceship end up as “barbarians” fighting in a modern Roman gladiatorial game.  And in “Patterns of Force,” of course, a historian exports the Nazi ideology to an innocent people.  In all such instances, Kirk investigates, and the wisdom of the Prime Directive is reinforced, I suppose one might conclude. 

But there's another conclusion to draw as well. 

If mankind is to touch the stars, he’s going to bring the worst angels of his nature (and history) with him, at least sometimes. But via the noble example of the Enterprise crew, we see that his best angels will be well-represented  out there, on the final frontier, as well.

Next week: “By Any Other Name.”

The Films of 2016: Ouija: Origin of Evil

Another week, another utterly mundane modern Hollywood horror film to review.

Ouija: The Origin of Evil (2016) is the second production in the Ouija franchise, a series of movies based on the popular Hasbro game. Although it is difficult to imagine how this is possible, this prequel proves less intriguing and less satisfying than its mediocre predecessor was.

The original Ouija played out, at the very least, like a teenage slasher movie of the 1980s, and thus had nostalgia going for it.

The new film is but another derivative, supernatural movie with a cute-as-a-button child contacting a malevolent spirit who, at first, is believed to be friendly. It’s straight from the (overcrowded) school of Insidious (2011), The Conjuring 2 (2016), and The Darkness (2016) and thus qualifies as instantly forgettable, despite the 1960s setting.

The film’s narrative is not only overly familiar, but lacking in coherence too. It is not clear, at film’s end, for example, why things have occurred as they did. Ouija: Origin of Evil is so poorly structured (and perhaps poorly edited), in fact, that it can’t even keep track of the three simple rules behind the Ouija game.  

Specifically, after the rules are presented (via an on-screen cut-in, or insert shot), every major character proceeds to break one of those rules, scene after scene. This rule-breaking is so egregious and repetitive that the three rules lose meaning. Thus when one character offers a would-be meaningful revelation about one such rule in the third act (“we were playing in a graveyard!”) the exclamation has literally no power, except to bewilder. You’ll want to shout at the characters, “but you also played the game alone,” and frequently didn’t “say goodbye” when you stopped playing!

So how do you know which rule the evil spirit is mad about you violating?

The film’s supernatural effects are also frequently executed in poor fashion, eliciting confusion and giggles rather than scares, and the film’s final “jump scare” is probably the worst moment in the whole movie.

There are some dedicated efforts here to make Ouija: Origin of Evil look a bit like a 1970s horror movie. The seventies era Universal Studios logo is utilized, for instance, before the film starts.  And an Exorcist (1973)-style spider-walk is utilized often, though to poor impact. But other than these small, ultimately inconsequential touches, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a film lacking a meaningful creative voice, and featuring a botched special effects finale, and a story that, finally, makes no sense.

The movie is a massive disappointment.

“Just because you can’t hear him doesn’t mean that he isn’t there.”

In Los Angeles, in 1967, a lonely widower, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), makes a living by working as a (fraudulent) medium, selling people “supernatural” mourning experiences with the dead that make them feel at peace. 

Meanwhile, she raises two daughters: rebellious teenager Lina (Annalise Basso), and young Doris (Lulu Wilson). Doris is having troubles fitting in at her Catholic primary school, run by administrator Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas). Lina is discovering boys.

After a late night party, Lina suggests that her mother should incorporate a new “trick” into her medium act -- a Hasbro game called Ouija, consisting of a spirit board. Alice agrees to do so, but it is Doris who becomes proficient, apparently, in contacting the spirits of the dead. 

In fact, Doris feels that she has been in contact with the spirit of her dead father, who left them the house they live in.

In truth, Doris is in communication with a dark, malevolent spirit, and is becoming more alienated from reality – and her family -- on a daily basis…

“We can actually do what we’ve been pretending to do.”

Early on in Ouija: Origin of Evil, the camera favors the audience with a shot of a placard or card; one that establishes clearly the rules of the titular board game. These are: 1. Never play alone. 2. Never play in a graveyard. 3. Always say goodbye.

The card is favored visually, in a cut-in or insert giving the image the weight, essentially, of a close-up angle.

Very quickly, however, all the Ouija rules are violated. Alice plays alone. And when she finishes, she doesn’t say goodbye.

Lina plays alone, and doesn’t say goodbye.

Doris plays alone, and doesn’t say goodbye. Literally each of the female protagonists violates two of the three stated rules at some point in the picture.  Then, as I noted in the introduction to this review, it is stated breathlessly, near the film’s climax, that all this has happened, and the spirit has been given power, because the family “played in a graveyard.”  The line has zero impact because the other two rules were violated (in conjunction) no less than six times.

To offer a comparison for purposes of illustration, imagine you are watching Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984). We are told the three rules of caring for Mogwai: No bright light; don’t let them get wet; and don’t feed them after midnight. However, now imagine that Billy, his Dad and his Mom then proceed to take Gizmo out in sunlight and get him wet too, but nothing happens. Then they feed him after midnight, and something does happen.

You’d have a right to complain about consistency of the discourse. Why tell us the rules if you just intend to break them, and then ignore the fact that you broke them?  That’s precisely what Ouija: Origin of Evil does. It sets up the rules, breaks the rules without comment, and then tries to make a big deal over the fact that one particular rule (playing in a graveyard) was violated. 

I’ll be honest, I even have problems with the way that final rule is utilized. A graveyard is defined as a “burial ground, especially one beside a church.”  The house in Ouija: Origin of Evil is definitely not near a church, and it isn’t a burial ground, either. A crazy doctor disposed of a few bodies there, while conducting mad experiments.  I think it’s an exaggeration and misnomer to call that a graveyard. It isn’t a burial ground (an area of ground set aside for the burying of human bodies) in any accepted sense or definition.

So even here, the movie is playing fast and loose. I would argue that “playing in a graveyard” is actually the one rule that Alice, Lina and Doris don’t break during the movie’s running time.

Even if we set aside the movie’s utterly incoherent attention and understanding of the three important rules of Ouija, the plot is confusing. A mad doctor conducted experiments in the house in World War II from a secret laboratory that nobody knows about? And then kept the bodies in the walls too? Why? Who was this doctor, and why was he conducting these sadistic experiments in the 1940s?  This seems like an over-complicated sub-plot -- and an incredibly far-fetched one too -- that the movie only half-explains.

All this reminds me, once more, of just how much influence Poltergeist (1982) has had on the modern cinema.  That Tobe Hooper film gave us playful spirits who turn out not to be so playful. It gave us the secret underneath a house (in that case, a family was literally living, if not playing, in a graveyard). And Poltergeist II gave us the idea of kindly spirit in the family defending us in the hereafter from the bad guys.  All these ideas recur in the current factory-assembled horror movies of Hollywood, and in Ouija: Origin of Evil, specifically.

The special effects are the next stumbling block. There’s a scene here in which an evil spirit hangs Lina’s boyfriend, killing him. We never see (until sometime after the murder scene) what the boy is actually hanging from. We see the swinging body and the rope, but not what holds up the rope. It might be nice to know what the rope is tied to, when this moment occurs, or -- you know -- actually have it in frame.  And then later, the rope miraculously transforms into a bungee cord before our very eyes, as it stretches elastically to let the corpse grab someone. It’s a groan-worthy effect in a scene that doesn’t work.

The special effects at film’s end -- of a final, awkward, lurching, demonic Doris -- are also disappointing.  The effect looks so bad it takes you right out of the movie. As this is the end of the film, there’s no opportunity to re-engage. The viewer is forcibly ripped from the movie’s sense of reality. The ending feels like a half-baked after-thought too, not like a moment that grows organically from the characters or their situation.

Good horror movies have over overcome bad effects before, however, and it’s fair to note that the central performances in the film are quite good. Elizabeth Reaser is excellent, actually. But the film’s story is rote and familiar, and the execution of the score elicits boredom, not excitement or thrills.

At this juncture, I could recommend at least three far superior horror films from the same director -- Mike Flanagan -- that you should watch instead of this one: Absentia (2011), Oculus (2012) or Hush (2016).

Take your pick from that list, but watching Ouija: Origin of Evil is like playing in an (artistic) graveyard. 

Worse, all the bodies in this graveyard are familiar ones; the picked-over corpses of titles such as The Conjuring, or Insidious.