Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: Tarzan the Hated"

In “Tarzan, the Hated,” the Mangani accuse Tarzan of destroying their food supplies. 

Tarzan claims innocence. When he investigates, he learns that the Bolgani are actually responsible, and are seeking to re-locate their civilization to the geologically unstable region of Opar, which stands above lava pits.

The Bolmangi capture a human female archaeologist, and now Tarzan must rescue her as well as prevent the relocation to the dangerous land.

The final episode of the first season Filmation series, Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1976) is another pleasant enough time waster, with Tarzan battling intelligent apes.  The episode, like “Tarzan’s Trial” incorporates stock footage into it, and the menace of the Emperor Ape is undercut some by the fact he appears to be wearing a pink gown. It's a strange fashion choice for an ape hoping to intimidate.

Although the last few episodes of the season are not as good as some of the earlier installments, and show signs of being produced in a terrible rush, I still feel that Tarzan is a high-quality show of its era. The formula is repetitive and familiar by this episode, and yet some episodes in the canon offer genuine surprise, adding science fiction concepts to the adventure in stories like “Tarzan’s Rival” or “Tarzan and the Strange Visitors.”

The stories are still entertaining at this point, even if no new ground is being broken. We’ve had a season of lost worlds and high adventure, and for Saturday mornings in the 1970s, it must have felt like a dream come true. At a minimum, Tarzan and his world are treated with respect and dignity here.

For that reason, I would rank this show near other Filmation efforts that I like very much, including Star Trek (1973-1975) and Flash Gordon (1979-1981). I certainly appreciate the attempt on the part of Filmation to tell stories that are faithful to Burroughs’ vision, though there have been some missed opportunities too (see: “Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.”)

Next week, I’m going to leave Filmation behind, and visit the weird and wild world of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Liddsville (1970).

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters: "The Canterville Ghost" (September 20, 1975)

A woman named Carola de Canterville (Kathy Garver) lives in the mansion in the graveyard, and is haunted, routinely by the clumsy and cowardly ghost of Simon de Canterville (Ted Knight). This spirit is cursed to remain in the castle for all eternity, or until he commits a brave act.

An evil gangster, Mr. C. (Len Lesser) pretends to be Simon, the Ghost of Canterville, to run Carole out of her house and find the priceless Canterville Diamond.

Fortunately, the Ghost Busters are assigned to help Carole uncover the truth of the haunting.  And as a happy but totally unintended side-effect of their involvement, Simon’s curse is broken.

This week on The Ghost Busters (1975), we meet Carola Canterville, and finds that she lives in the castle we’ve seen occupied by various spooks in every other episode of the series thus far. We see her ironing, and going about her (domestic) business, when Mr. C. begins “haunting” her.  We also learn that a spirit  -- Simon -- has dwelt in the castle for centuries, even though he too has not been seen in previous episodes. 

This castle gets a lot of action. And also, each episode of the series apparently occurs in its own parallel universe.  These are the facts we can draw from events this week.

What distinguishes this episode from the others, largely, is the presence of Ted Knight as the cowardly spirit. 

At this point, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) was still on the air, and the actor was at the height of his popularity as a scene-stealing second banana. It’s a bit of a surprise to see him on this series, which is so cheaply produced, and a haven, mostly, for those on the way down the ladder to D-celebrity status.

Otherwise, this episode includes another corridor gag, and Tracy shadows by a mobile suit of armor (really Mr. C.).  Again, this sequence could be a gag right out of Scooby Doo, cementing the idea that this series is a cartoon come to live action.   

This episode also features such antique gags as the painting with moving eyes, which goes back as far as the films of Abbott and Costello, and likely further.

Next Week: “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Films of 2012: Sinister

Sinister (2012) is the kind of horror movie I have a difficult time assessing, and I left a viewing of it deeply conflicted.  The first hour or so of this horror film from Scott Derrickson is beyond reproach: serious, grim, legitimately-disturbing, and very original in terms of visual presentation. 

But the movie’s last act falls apart, and all the carefully-generated suspense just bleeds out of the proceedings.  By the time of the film’s final and lame bump, Sinister has plummeted so far from its apex of terror that you’ll feel deflated and also a little angry.   Greatness was within its grasp.

So, do I champion what’s good about Sinister, or criticize the fact that things fall completely apart in the third act? 

As is my wont, I’ll pay attention to both factors in this review, but I can’t lie about the bottom line: the weak, discordant ending casts a retroactive pall over a film that might have been in contention for the title of genre classic.

“Your father writes about terrible things.”

In Sinister, a once-famous author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into the home where a terrible crime recently occurred.  In the backyard of the Oswalts’ new property, a family was hanged by an unseen assailant.  One child survived the hanging, but has vanished entirely.

While Oswalt’s son, Trevor experiences night terrors on a regular basis and his daughter Ashley begins painting weird murals on the walls, Ellison investigates the hanging in hopes of writing a follow-up best-seller to his literary calling card, Kentucky Blood.

Ellison is unexpectedly assisted in this endeavor by the discovery of a crate in his new home’s attic.  Inside the crate are several old 8 mm film reels, all “home movies.”  These amateur recordings, however, are filled with horrific murders.  Technically, they are snuff films. 

One, “Pool Party ‘66,” reveals a family being drowned in a swimming pool.  Another, “Barbecue ‘79” shows a different family being burned alive in its car.  “Lawn Work ‘86” showcases a family bloodily murdered with a lawnmower, and “Family Hanging Out, ’11,” shows the previous homeowners being hanged.”  Sleepy Time ‘98 may be the most disturbing of all, as it showcases a family murdered while asleep, throats slit on-camera.

In one of the films, Pool Party ’66, Ellison catches sight of a strange, demonic-looking figure in the pool.  Further examination reveals this being’s presence at each of the crime scenes. Also at each crime scene: some sort of demonic iconography.  When Ellison asks a local professor, Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio) about the occult symbols, the academician reports they are associated with a pagan God named Bughul…a god who steals children and -- over time -- devours their very souls.

As Ellison becomes more and more obsessed with the dark imagery of the home movies and his own quest for fame, his beleaguered wife (Juliet Rylance) begs him to give up writing, give up the house, and get the family to safety before it is too late…

“This is my shot.”

The greatest horror movies involve some kind of metaphor of sub-text that grants the film additional meaning and depth.  Sinister very much concerns what it means to be a writer, and how a writing career -- if not successful -- can actually tear a family apart.  

In the film, Ellison doesn’t want to quit writing, even though family finances are grim, and even though his family is in mortal danger.  Why?  He still remembers the “high” of Kentucky Blood’s release, when he went on TV talk shows, won awards, and was a figure of some national repute.  Ellison feels that this current case is now his “shot” to have all that celebrity again.   He wants to take that shot, no matter the consequences.  

And importantly, he thinks there’s nothing he can’t handle.

As a professional writer since 1996, I very much appreciated this thematic through-line in Sinister.  Every author who has struck with writing for any significant span -- and witnessed economic fortunes rise and fall with each project -- will recognize some of the hard yet truthful conversations shared by the husband and wife here.   Ellison’s wife urges him to teach or edit to supplement their income, but he doesn’t want those careers.  He wants to write, to do things his own way, on his own terms. 

In the end, however -- as his wife tells him -- it is Ellison’s family that must sacrifice so he can attempt to achieve his dreams of fame.  Not coincidentally, Sinister also features a demon stealing away children’s futures, and that’s the key metaphor or sub-text.  That soul-sucking demon who demands almost constant sacrifice is actually the writing career that takes Daddy away, and limits family resources.

These moments of husband/wife frisson in Sinister are powerfully observed and uncomfortable true.   Writing is a solitary profession, and one lacking stability and security.  A writing career can skyrocket and flame-out in a surprisingly short span.  One success can fool you into thinking you’ve made it, but then every successive time up at bat (or in print), you have to make it again, all over again.  You’re only as good as your last success.  

Ellison is an egotistical man, to be certain, but not a bad man.  At night, when not watching the horrific snuff films, he watches old VHS recordings of his TV talk show appearances, and narcissistically revels in his image, his celebrity, and his wit.  Fame is like a drug to Ellison, and we see (though his constant whiskey drinking) that he is an addictive personality.  For some reason, the approbation of the media feels more real and important to him than his family’s love.  He craves it. 

Hawke is intelligent and interesting as Ellison, and the actor carries almost the entire movie on his shoulders.  The movie, however, lets Hawke down in the last act, when it requires for Ellison to learn from his mistakes and -- with his family at stake -- he doesn’t.  Instead, he acts incompetently.

Without revealing too many specifics, Sinister’s last act requires Ellison to ignore important phone calls and voice-mails from a deputy for a long span, and then relapse into behavior that he explicitly has been informed will re-conjure Bughul. 

At this point, Ellison has given up writing his book, so there is no rational reason for him to go down this road.  It’s not like he does it on a whim either.  He sits down and cuts together film footage from every Bughul home movie, a time-consuming activity that would offer any sane person plenty of time to reconsider.

So the Sinister screenplay switches over from clever and closely-observed to cruising on genre auto-pilot…all in time for the catastrophic finale.

And yet by the time of that switch-over auto-pilot, Sinister has also proven itself a profoundly intriguing found-footage-styled horror film.  Much of the movie’s set-pieces involve the home movies, shot over various decades, and featuring the horrible murders of whole families. 

These videos look authentic and real to an alarming degree, and are absolutely disturbing.  The moment in which Elliot first detects Mr. Bughul in one of the films is also a real seat-jumper.  Bughul looks horrible and alien and wrong, and yet, at the same time, real.  The home movies in the film -- literally found footage -- are unblinking in their commitment to scaring audiences, and to transgressing beyond standard movie decorum.

And then it all goes south.  One scene late in the film features a shift-of-perspective that reveals ghostly children all around Ellison, in the murder house.  The revelation of their presence -- made manifest with child actors in ghoulish make-up, trying to make “scary” faces -- diffuses the real-life horror of the Bughul movies, and even his inexplicable presence in them. 

Then, Ellison behaves irrationally and inexplicably, as I noted above, and fails to safeguard his family. 

The coup de grace is the ending.  Sinister culminates with one of the worst sequel hooks I’ve ever witnessed.  The grotesque Mr. Bughul pops his head into the frame, essentially mugging for the camera.  

Until the last act, Sinister is indeed imbued with an air of the, well, sinister.  And that balloon is punctured abruptly by the suddenly comical-appearance of Mr. Bughul as a kind of Freddy Krueger-like ringmaster.

At this point, we’re in no mood to laugh, and not easily amused.  The ending is egregiously off-tone, and it irreparably damages the film.

Horror movies sometimes end darkly, with a failure to kill the monster, or the death of a protagonist. But the catastrophically unhappy ending in Sinister undercuts Ellison’s very journey as a character.  He finally learns that his family is more important to him than his writing, but then still ends up dying.  So everything he learned is, essentially, for nothing.  And on top of it, Ellison isn’t the only one who dies because of his behavior.  His entire family dies, and his daughter gets her eternal soul taken by Mr. Bughul.

Sinister’s ending isn’t only bleak…it’s the bleakest of all conceivable endings.  So, given the seriousness of it, why should Mr. Bughul pop up smiling at the end of the movie -- why-so-serious?-style -- like Sinister is some sort of light-hearted genre lark?  It isn’t.  The movie has showcased extreme violence and horror, aimed right at suburban families. Children drown.  Throats are slit.  The movie is about the corruption of innocence and the destruction of the hearth and home.  This is not light-hearted material in the slightest. 

Again, it’s not that I object on principle to movies with dark or downbeat endings.   Don’t Look Now (1973) is one of my all-time favorite horror films, for example, and it features an incredibly dark denouement.  But Sinister can’t seemingly commit to its overwhelming sense of darkness, and goes for the lame sequel hook and the last minute, jokey appearance of Bughul. 

Honestly, I would almost have preferred it if Sinister had been poorly-done, or lacking in conviction all along, because then, at least, the final act wouldn’t serve as such a grievous, tonally-misshapen disappointment.

So Sinister is a horror movie simultaneously good enough to get your hopes up, and bad enough to dash every last one of them.

This was Sinister’s “shot,” to paraphrase Ellison, and the movie blew it!

Movie Trailer: Sinister (2012)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "Fear Factor" (November 14, 1977)

We now move from one of the best Logan's Run episodes ("Crypt") to one of the absolute worst.

In "Fear Factor" -- a title that presages a popular reality TV series of the 21st century -- our intrepid heroes Logan (Gregory Harrison), Jessica (Heather Menzies) and REM (Donald Moffat) come across a beautiful estate in the middle of nowhere, and also a strange woman writhing around on the grounds in mortal fear. She seems to be suffering from what REM diagnoses as "mind-numbing trauma."

Logan, REM and Jessica return the woman to the facility. They learn it is a mental hospital where the lead psychologist, Dr. Rowan (Ed Nelson) is a psychopath himself. As the leader of the "Inner Circle," he controls all the inmates (here known as "menials") as well as the doctors at this "convalescent" sanitarium by forcing upon them virtual lobotomies, crushing their "militant" independence with his own thoughts.

Meeting Jessica and diagnosing her as a revolutionary, Dr. Rowan feels she's a natural for the procedure. Logan and REM attempt to intervene, but are dropped into a basement survival track, an obstacle course which includes a wind-tunnel and an area where fireballs are hurled at them. When they survive these trials, Rowan attempts to recruit Logan, but he'll have no part of it.

Finally. Logan teams with another psychologist, Dr. Paulson (The Fantastic Journey's Varian, Jared Martin!) to topple this odd society. He does so not a moment too soon, because Dr. Rowan wants to raise an army of re-programmed individuals...literally, since he has a machine that can accelerate the growth of any human.

At the end of the day, REM -- stating my feelings about this episode perfectly – notes: "I've had enough of this place.”

I don’t blame him a bit.

My problem -- as I've elaborated upon before in my reviews of the series -- is this recurring and absurd notion that some little enclave of society like a lunatic asylum could continue to exist unimpeded after a nuclear war. After hundreds of years. Where does this asylum generate its power? (Remember, there's no power grid). Yet this facility has heat; it has light; it is technologically advanced and it looks exactly like a 20th century asylum...out in the middle of nowhere.

I just find that these kind of stories are unsupported from the standpoint of rationality. Where does this clinic get patients, anyway? From runners who happen out of the City of Domes once in a blue moon?  And how are the doctors trained? What medical schools do they attend?  Dr. Rowan notes that he has picked Dr. Paulson to succeed him, as though it is a great and prestigious honor.  How many apprentices did he have to choose from?

And why would a mental sanitarium have a basement obstacle course that shoots fire-balls and blows heavy wind at patients?  Again, this would seem to require a lot of power, and it’s doubtful to me that a pre-holocaust facility would have had this kind of room.  There’s also a trap door in a corridor that drops people into the fire/wind tunnel.

In short, there’s just no logical underpinnings for this tale.  At the very least, we might ask, who mows the lawn at this place, and with what equipment?

Also, the Star Trek variations are growing old. There was a Logan's Run version of "Charlie X" ("The Innocent"), a Logan's Run version of "The Enemy Within" ("Half Life") and now this is Logan's Run's version of "Dagger of the Mind." In that tale (which, frankly, wasn’t very good), a mad scientist, Dr. Adams (James Gregory) was experimenting on the minds of mental patients. Here Rowan is doing the same thing, though at least he has a motive: world conquest. He wants to build an army.

The most intriguing aspect of the episode is the treatment of the Jessica character. She is characterized by Rowan (and Logan) as a fiery rebel and independent thinker, which sounds more like Agutter’s interpretation of the character, from the 1976 movie. Here, Jessica, who was part of the underground in the City of Domes, notes that “If people think for themselves, it’s a threat to the system.” 

To Rowan, this kind of thinking is indeed a threat, and he plans to destroy Jessica’s mind. It’s clear he takes a special delight in destroying her, because she has questioned him.  This plot would have more power if we had seen more of Jessica’s “fire” in the actual series. Already we have seen her immediately buy into an illusion of Sanctuary (“The Collectors”), for instance, which doesn't say a lot for her critical thinking..  She has not been written as the powerful rebel that the character originated as, which makes the story-line in “Fear Factor” surprising, but welcome.

Looking across the Logan’s Run catalog, one can see how several stories all fit the same thesis, of advanced and complex states that should be helping people be better, but don’t help to do that at all. Instead, they  only subjugate or enslave people. We’ve seen the computer installation of “Man out of Time,” an empty and baffling relic of another age, the bunker for psychic research (“The Innocent”), the machine in “Half-Life” and now the asylum in “Fear Factor.”  Many of these tales display a distrust of facilities/installations that are designed explicitly to aid and heal. This is perfectly in keeping with early 1970's dystopian cinema, which often involved failed states, and failed state apparatus.

But what doesn’t make sense -- in all these tales -- is that these facilities keep operating independently centuries after the holocaust, still receiving power, personnel, and with technology still functioning.

Next week, a better episode: “The Judas Goat” 

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Last Child (1971)

Set in “the not too distant future,” The Last Child (1971) is a TV-movie concerning overpopulation, and, specifically, the ways that the U.S. Government might respond to such a crisis.

Overpopulation surfaced as a major issue of the 1970s science fiction cinema, in films such as Z.P.G. Zero Population Growth (1972) and Logan’s Run (1976), in part because of Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist and bestselling text, The Population Bomb (1968), which predicted whole populations starving into the 1970s and 1980s, and recommended draconian procedures to resolve the issue.

The Last Child doesn’t boast the imagination or budget of a Logan’s Run or Z.P.G., but it is an exciting and highly disturbing TV-movie about a dark future.  It resolves, finally, into action tropes -- with a car chase, no less -- but remains engaging and provocative nonetheless.

In The Last Child, it is against the law for American families to conceive more than one child. If a family’s child dies after more ten days, this law remains in effect, and a second child cannot be conceived legally.

By the same token, anyone sixty-five or over may not be treated with any medicine that would cure a disease. Instead, senior citizens can get pain medication for their suffering, and that’s it.

In response to these new laws the U.S. has developed a powerful legal agency: The Population Control Enforcement Section. 

Agents in this section can arrest and incarcerate women pregnant with second children. They can also induce abortion in women who are less than six months pregnant. 

Those fetuses with more than six months of development are allowed to be carried to term, and then executed after birth. Doctors who perform the procedure insist that this “disposal” of babies is done with “kindness,” and “quickly…with efficiency.”

As the film begins, a couple -- Allan (Michael Cole) and Karen Miller (Jane Margolin) -- secretly get pregnant with a second child. Their first child died after 15 days, and they still want desperately to be parents.  Unfortunately, an agent for Population Control Enforcement, Barstow (Ed Asner), arrests Karen at a grocery store and she is incarcerated, pending delivery and disposal of the baby.

Karen’s brother, Howard (Harry Guardino), however, works in the government and is able to get her released quickly, so long as she agrees to relinquish the baby on delivery. Karen and Allan agree with these terms, but only to get Karen released from custody. Afterwards, the Millers flee New York on a train after stealing a ticket, and head for Massachusetts.

Barstow pursues the couple, but the Millers receive unexpected help in the person of retired senator, Quincy George (Van Heflin), who gives the pregnant couple sanctuary in his house.

Barstow attempts to arrest them, but Quincy won’t allow it. Barstow strikes back by refusing to allow the elderly senator, a diabetic, to receive his insulin shots. Technically, they are against the law at his age (72).

Howard attempts to bring Karen and Allan back to New York, but ends up assisting them escape Barstow. Together, Howard and the Millers flee for the Canadian border…

“In this day and age, not every human being has the right to live...”

The Last Child is a scary “what if” story that -- because it was made pre-Roe v. Wade -- is often held up as an example of a vehemently pro-life film.

This is a bit of a stretch.

Abortions do occur (and are state-sponsored) in the frightening totalitarian world of the film, but, of course, in real life, Roe v. Wade didn’t cause the government to go around aborting babies without a mother’s permission.

And, I guess, the film also drew some attention in 2011, as “death panels” entered the national discourse, since The Last Child also imagines a world in which the elderly are denied medication that would treat their conditions.  Again, we know now that the whole “death panels” discussion was hyperbolic fake news, designed to build resistance to the Affordable Care Act. No grandmothers or grandfathers have been harmed (or denied medicine) through participation in Obamacare.

The Last Child is still scary, however, for a few significant reasons, even if not as “predictive” of the future as some conspiracy theorists would have you believe.

First, the way that the physician discusses “disposal” of a living baby with the Millers is dehumanizing and awful. He isn’t talking about a medically-necessary procedure, after all, but one which conforms with a government policy. His assessment is that not all people, in this future, have the right to live.

That is a monstrous philosophy, in and of itself, but it is even more monstrous in terms of how the law is applied.

Late in the film, for instance, Barstow wants to negotiate with Senator George about his insulin. The officer is willing to overlook the law, and make certain that George gets his medicine, so long as he gets custody of the Millers. 

The question, of course, is why is a rich and powerful (white) man above the law? But a young couple, with no power, are not? 

Why can Barstow look the other way regarding the Senator’s medical infraction, but not look the other way for the Millers?

Laws like this wouldn’t work, hopefully, because they are inhuman, but also because -- as The Last Child suggests -- they would likely be applied unevenly, and unfairly.

The Last Child is also scary because it imagines a totalitarian world in which everyone’s legal and parental history is recorded on a national identity card.  Police and population enforcement agents can access private information through the card.  

And worse, the card is also a credit card, suitable for making payments with.  This means that the government can “freeze” your access (and your accounts) if it discovers you have broken the law regarding two children.  This is a really terrifying invasion of privacy, and the film does a good job of exploring just how difficult it is to hide or defy a technologically-advanced totalitarian state.

Alas, The Last Child falters in some key areas. 

First, what has occurred in the world that has led the United States to take such a hardline approach in this “future”? This made-for-TV movie doesn’t give the law any kind of context, except to note that it exists. 

What made the representatives of the people push for such a harsh law in the first place?

It’s vital to know that information, otherwise the laws as pictured here just some totally arbitrary and vicious.  Even bad laws have a context behind them (think: Prohibition). The movie leaves out a crucial piece of the puzzle by failing to explain how this “future” world got to this point.

There must have been some event, or incident, that led the United States to take such drastic steps.  Without telling us what that was, The Last Child is just, in some senses, kowtowing to feelings of paranoia.

Secondly, all the action in The Last Child devolves into a car chase near the Canadian border, and that’s disappointing. Too many thoughtful issues have been brought up for the film simply to go into “action” mode.  And the death of Asner’s character -- his car careens off a cliff -- is emblematic of the film’s two-dimensional thinking.

Barstow, like him or hate him, is an official law enforcement agent of the United States. Presumably, he is doing his job with the Millers. Yet the movie treats him like a silent movie villain; someone to hate and despise (even though he is obeying, not defying the law).

The Last Child succeeds because of the focus on Karen and Allan, and their dilemma. It puts us in their place. 

What would you do, if you wanted to be a parent, but the State forbid it?

I suspect many of us would do actually what the Millers do in this film: defy an unjust law, and make a run for it.

I just wish that the film provided more background detail about its future world, and thus allowed us to understand why such a terrible law could come into place.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Coloring Book of the Week: Spider-Man

Action Figure of the Week: Energized Spider-Man (Remco)

Spider-Man Colorforms

Spider-Man Halloween Costume (Ben Cooper)

Spider-Man Action Transfer Letraset

GAF Viewmaster: Spider-Man

Action Figure of the Week: Spider-Man (Mego)

Model Kit of the Week: Spider-Man (Aurora)

Lunch Box of the Week: Spider-Man (Marvel Superheroes)

Board Game of the Week: Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Spider-Man (1967)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Omega Glory" (March 1, 1968)

Stardate: Unknown

The U.S.S Enterprise discovers the missing starship Exeter in orbit of remote planet Omega IV. A landing party beams over to the vessel and finds that the crew has died as a result of a mysterious illness, ostensibly exposure to contaminants on the planet.

A recorded message from the ship’s chief medical officer reports that anyone boarding the ship will also become infected, and that the only antidote rests on the planet.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his landing party leave the Exeter and beam to the surface, hoping to buy survival time from the infection.  Kirk and the others find that Exeter’s Captain Ron Tracey (Morgan Woodward) is alive, and has, quite possibly, violated the Prime Directive in order to save the planet’s peaceful humanoid villagers, Kohms, from the wild hordes nearby, known as Yangs.

Tracey has taken this action because he believes that the Kohms have discovered the secret of eternal life, or the Fountain of Youth.  As Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) investigates this possibility, Kirk weighs his responsibilities, vis-à-vis Tracey’s violation of General Order One. Meanwhile, Tracey wants the Enterprise to beam down more phasers, and more phaser packs to help him in his quest to defeat the Yangs.

When the Yangs invade the Kohm village, however, retaking lands they held long ago, Kirk realizes that a kind of parallel to Earth’s history is playing out. 

The Kohms were once “communists.”  The Yangs were…Yankees….

“The Omega Glory,” is a strange, strange episode of Star Trek. The narrative begins with a strange disease killing a starship crew, moves into a meditation on the Prime Directive, and ends with Kirk nodding, knowingly and approvingly at a (parallel) version of Old Glory, our American flag.

And yet, despite these wide-ranging subjects, the episode is never less than “fascinating,” to echo Mr. Spock’s famous exclamation.  In part, this is because the scenarios are memorably realized in visual terms, and buttressed by a soundtrack that underscores the weird, and discomforting nature of the tale.

I have long found “The Omega Glory” to be a pleasure to watch because of the imagery.  The episode begins with pure eeriness, as Kirk’s landing party discovers Exeter’s dead crew.  There are no traditional corpses, however.  Only uniforms and chunks of white chemical compound are left behind.  This is a remarkable and original visualization, and one that is terrifying.  Basically, the crew decomposed to these chunks of chemical residue.  The uniforms -- and the remnants -- are draped over stations, positioned in chairs, suggesting a truly alien condition, and a terrifying danger in the final frontier.

Later, the episode focuses on intense close-ups of Spock’s magnetic, slightly devilish eyes, and cuts to literary images of a Vulcan-like interpretation of the devil making quite explicit the comparison between Spock’s nature and the Devil’s. If Kirk is “The Evil One,” as the Yangs believe, Spock is his dark minion. The views we get of Spock in this episode -- especially as he hypnotizes Sirrah – support this notion visually.

By the time we get to the image of a ratty, torn relic of American flag -- introduced with a dissonant, creepy, alternate version of The Star Spangled Banner -- the episode has demonstrated a visual and aural ingenuity that sets “The Omega Glory” apart.

Another key strength of the episode is Morgan Woodward’s performance as Ron Tracey. Woodward is a charismatic personality, one who projects physical strength and mental toughness.  Indeed, if you look at the original series “captains” -- Kirk, Decker, and Tracey, specifically -- one detects some commonalities.  These are all men of uncommon will and constitution.  Decker is undone by a tragedy not his fault.  Tracey too deals with tragedy (though in a way we may not approve of) but both men represents lessons, in a way, for Kirk to learn from.

Of course, however, “The Omega Glory’s” plot of a parallel Earth is often criticized by fans and scholars. When Spock notes that the parallel of Yangs/Yanks and Kohms/Communists is almost “too close” to be believed, there are many who will agree with his assessment. 

And yet, let us remember that the key analogy between Star Trek and our reality of the late 1960s is undoubtedly the Cold War.  In most cases, Klingons sub for the Soviets, and the UFP stands in for the USA.  Here, Kirk and company stumble across a world that fought a World War over the ideologies of these two forces, and destroyed themselves. 

So, at least in a sense, “The Omega Glory” remains true to the underlying conceits of the Roddenberry series, even if in this case, the comparison may be very “on the nose.”  Also, it’s clear, given Kirk’s reverence for the United States flag and the U.S. Constitution that this episode revels in national patriotism.

Kirk’s argument that the worship words of the Constitution are for all the people, Yangs and Kohms is rousing, indeed, and meaningful, in this context.  The words must apply to all people, he says, or they are rendered meaningless.  The underlying idea here is that words, over time, and through crises, can lose their meaning, if not read closely; if not read carefully; if not remembered.  The Yangs want their country back, but have lost the meaning of the words they supposedly revere. Kirk puts meaning back in those ideals with his dramatic reading of the worship words.

Of course, a key problem here is that it takes two to tango, and though the episode advises mercy for the Kohms (the words of worship are for everyone!), no commentary is given to the fact that if two ideological forces go beyond the brink, to nuclear war, both ideologies and both nations bear the responsibility. The “glory” of “Errand of Mercy,” for instance, was Kirk’s realization, forced by the Organians, that he was part of the problem too; hungering for a conflict with the (admittedly aggressive) Klingons.  There’s no such even-handedness here.

As a Prime Directive episode, “The Omega Glory” is also highly intriguing.  Tracey loses his whole crew, and then sees peaceful people being massacred by wild men, and so intervenes to protect them. It is not at all impossible to see Kirk doing the same thing in the same situation. Would you stand by and let the last apparent refuge of civilization fall on Omega IV?

But Tracey goes further, believing that he can somehow redeem himself and his actions by bringing a (mythical) Fountain of Youth to the Federation. He goes from interfering to save lives, for interfering to acquire something for his own people.  I would argue that this is his great violation of the Prime Directive, his vainglorious desire to be seen, perhaps, as a savior to his own people; an act which would mitigate the loss of his ship and his crew.

Some fans have judged “The Omega Glory” corny, both for the reverence to the American flag in a 23rd century context, and for Shatner’s impassioned reading of the “worship words.”  I understand that, and yet feel the episode remains visually fascinating, and conceptually unusual.  One thing is for certain: the episode is never less than entertaining.

Next week: “The Ultimate Computer.”

The Films of 2001: The Others

The Others (2001) is a stylish and emotionally affecting horror film all about one thing: selective exposure.  

For those who want a specific definition of that term, selective exposure is an “individual’s tendency to favor information which reinforces their pre-existing views while avoiding contradictory information.

In the case of The Others, a widower, Grace (Nicole Kidman) believes she possess all the answers in her life; answers brought to her by experience, her religious upbringing, and by Catholic dogma. However, in the course of the film, Grace comes to understand that she does not possess the sense of knowledge or control over her life that she believes she does.

Specifically, she keeps interpreting her life -- and the lives of her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley) -- in terms of her faith’s precepts. In doing so, she refuses to see what’s really happening in her home, because the truth exists outside her pre-existing perceptual set, the invisible luggage she carries with her.

In short, she’s in denial. She denies what she did. And she denies that her existence now contradicts her faith.

Grace’s journey in the film is one in which she is forced from her bubble of selective perception to countenance a larger, more mysterious (and less certain…) world. 

The most remarkable quality about The Others is that, via Alejandro Amenabar’s direction and blocking choices, the visualizations reflect Grace’s spiritual journey.

Grace knowingly (and obtusely) keeps her children in the dark of an old country estate; always keeping the curtains drawn to block out sunlight. Similarly, Grace only keeps one room -- out of dozens -- unlocked in the house at any given time. This behavior also suggests her limitations as a thinker. She keeps all data locked away, in small boxes, exploring only small, separate pieces, so as to maintain the integrity of her world view.

Critics and film scholars have long compared The Others to a horror film of 1999, The Sixth Sense, because both productions end with a twist or revelation about the nature of the main characters. However, The Others establishes its own artistic identity ably.  

For example, the film obsesses on the impediments that Grace creates for herself and her children. Those impediments might fall under the umbrella category of “mental rigidity,” but are visualized in the films in terms of brick-and-mortar – or tangible -- boundaries and barriers, whether they be iron gates, endless fog, locked doors, or sight-impairing curtains. 

The house is therefore a reflection of Grace’s mental state (denial). The Sixth Sense is quite wonderful in its own approach, but it doesn’t use the same creative device to vet its narrative.

The twist at the end of The Others represents the long-awaited destination for Grace; a place where she can no longer hide or block the truth.  All the boundaries that she has controlled and enforced, fall way.

And what is the truth Grace faces? That she acted in a way that is utterly contradictory to her stated belief system and faith. The closed gates, the locked doors, and the closed curtains, finally, aren’t enough to maintain her illusions of belief.  She can no longer hide from herself.

“I think that sometimes the world of the dead gets mixed up with the world of the living.”

In Jersey, in 1945, a widower, Grace Stewart (Kidman) lives in a vast, dark estate with her photo-sensitive children, Anne (Mann) and Nicholas (Bentley). 

When the servants disappear without a trace, Grace welcomes three new servants: Mrs. Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes), and mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). They once worked at the house, many years earlier, and are familiar with the grounds and the estate.

Nonetheless, Grace drills them about keeping the curtains closed, and unlocking only one room at a time.  She is adamant that these precautions are necessary for the safety of the children. The servants agree to her strange terms.

Soon, Anne detects frightening intruders in the house, including a boy named Victor. Grace becomes convinced that the house is haunted, and finds a book of the dead in the upstairs room as well.  This discovery unnerves her, and she is convinced that Victor is the ghost of a dead child who once dwelt in their home.

As the disturbances caused by the Others or intruders grow worse, Grace resolves to seek help from the local priest. She leaves the house and finds herself lost in a realm of endless mist.  There, she encounters her presumed dead husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston).  He returns home, and is disturbed to learn from Anne that Grace is growing more unhinged and temperamental by the day.

After Charles inexplicably leaves the home, Grace attacks Anne; seeing the child not as her daughter, but as a sightless old woman.

A terrified Anne attempts to flee the house with Nicholas, even as Grace makes a startling discovery about Mrs. Mills and the other servants…

“I don’t like fantasies; strange ideas…”

From the first frames of The Others, it is clear that Grace -- whose name means “God’s favor”-- views the world through the orderly (and indeed, comforting) perspective of a devout Catholic. She recounts to her children the story of Genesis, when only God existed, and she exerts a strong sense of knowledge and control in terms of her surroundings. For instance, Grace reports that she doesn’t like “fantasies” or “strange stories” and later, is described as only “believing” what she has been “taught.”

In other words, Grace is a character believed “favored” by God, who dislikes mysteries, and who depends on the precepts of faith to understand the mysterious of existence. From her name and her recitation of the Genesis story, to her drilling of the children about the various realms of Hell or limbo, it is clear that Grace exists in a world in which she feels she knows the answers; or controls the answers.

We see this sense of control played out in the actual physical lay-out of the house. Grace does not allow the children to move about freely (because of their condition), and the result is that she controls the opening and closing of portals.  She controls, as well, the light that enters the house, by keeping the drapes closed. Even controls sound, locking the piano so others can’t play it.

Her children dwell in the dark of the house, however, the dark imposed and continued by their mother’s ministrations.

The gate outside the house -- which looks a lot like the vertical bars you might find in a prison -- further seal off Grace’s realm from outside influence and beliefs.

The only interlopers allowed into Grace’s realm of order are the three servants, and, again, Grace seeks to rigorously control them and their actions too. She questions them. She monitors them. She berates them for failing to live up to her rules.

As The Others develops, however, Grace gradually loses control over her sense of order. She hears children crying in the house, despite the safeguards she has erected to keep Nicholas and Anne in their specific (locked) rooms. 

She also ignores the cognitive dissonance she faces by believing in the miracles of the Bible, but at the same time refusing to believe in the possibility of ghosts. She doesn’t see Heaven and Hell, or a God-created universe as a “fantasy,” but ghosts she dismisses as such out of hand.  We see then that Grace chooses that which is acceptable to believe, and that which she decides is fantasy. 

But more and more, Grace’s selective exposure of facts and details failed. She is continually confronted with things that make her question more and more the controlled existence she patrols. She encounters her husband in the endless mist. And he should be dead

And she reckons with the macabre Book of the Dead, which represents a belief system about death (and the afterlife) different from her own.

Finally, these challenges to Grace’s epistemic closure prove too much to bear, and Grace loses the control she covets.  Victor’s parents rip down the curtains all at once, allowing “light” to flood into her dark house. Instead of remaining locked, doors inexplicably open; refusing to keep secrets closed off, hidden away.

In the film’s last moments, Grace must reckon with the truth that she can’t control and can no longer hide; the fact that her carefully constructed reality is full of lies and untruths. She believes she is a good Christian, and yet she has murdered her own children, and committed suicide. 

Furthermore, there is no apparent Heaven in the afterlife. Rather, she and the children continue to exist in the house, an existence that will have no apparent end.  She thus closes out the film thoroughly humbled. Grace even admits to Anne, “I am no wiser than you are.”

This is the first uncertainty the character has expressed. From her recitation of the universe’s creation, to her insistence about the shape of purgatory and Hell, to her refusal to accept her husband’s death (or her own, murderous actions), Grace has seen only what she wished to see.  Now, as the film ends, she realizes that the control she sought was an illusion, and that she has no great wisdom or insight about what lays ahead.

Therefore, The Others concerns selective exposure, and the way it deludes us, as human beings; how we choose to perceive things only which fit into our acceptable world view. Grace “remakes” the house to her world view, only to see it change to reflect, finally, her new reality.  The new house, which features light and open rooms, forces her to acknowledge what she did, and tried so hard to keep hidden; keep buried.

My biggest concern with The Others, as a work of art, involves the necessity of keeping the audience (as well as the children), in the dark for so long. Much like The Sixth Sense (1999), or Ghost (1990), or any film in which the main characters are actually “already dead,” the filmmakers have to cheat, essentially, to keep the illusion of a living reality that resembles our own. Here, ghosts hold keys, lamps and shotguns. They sleep in beds, eat food, and drink tea, and so forth.  In other words, the ghosts act in such a way that it is impossible for us to reckon with the idea that they are not alive, at least until the big reveal comes.

If one dismisses this concern, and gazes instead at The Others as a story simply about a woman who works hard not to see her true nature (and her crime, as well), it is possible to understand the film as a remarkable character piece.

Grace is so strong-willed that she nearly makes the afterlife bend to her “beliefs.”  Of course, in the end, that is a vain strategy, and Grace must reckon with what she has done, and what she actually is. Her pat, now-disproven views can’t guide her to salvation.

The last moments of the film suggest, ironically, that Grace still covets mortal things; reminding the children that the house is theirs and will remain so forever, no matter what “others” may come.

As the camera pulls away from them, retreating through a window, there’s the feeling that Grace has fashioned for herself and her children the very limbo she wished so much for them to avoid.  This house will be their prison for eternity.  It will not be the prison of denial, as it was before, but it will nonetheless be a prison; one that will house them and block them from change (and therefore growth) for time immemorial.

Watching the film again in 2017, I did not find The Others particularly scary, but I admired, more than before, Nicole Kidman’s strong performance.  She creates a character named Grace who lives, ironically, in the clear absence of grace.

The Others succeeds to the degree it does, because it isn’t really a film about a haunted house. Instead, it’s about a haunted person; one who bends a large, dark house to her will and tries to reshape reality itself so as to avoid seeing the terrible thing she did to her children, and to herself.  

The miracle is that Grace succeeds for so long, before the scales fall from her eyes.