Saturday, November 04, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Lost Saucer: "Return to the Valley of the Chickaphants"

The last episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s The Lost Saucer (1975) available currently for viewing on YouTube is “Return to the Valley of the Chickaphants” by John Greene and Arthur Phillip. It is a sequel to another episode -- currently unavailable -- titled “Valley of the Chickaphants.”

What is a chickaphant? Well, it’s a giant chicken-elephant hybrid, of course. Or more accurately, it is an animal with the legs of a chicken and the head of an elephant.

In this episode, the lost saucer’s “year-o-meter” breaks down again, and the spaceship lands in a jungle that looks very familiar to the passengers. It turns out they have all been here before. In fact, they last visited this locale 700 years ago, and are blamed by the current caveman populace for the down-fall of their society.

The cavemen capture Fi (Ruth Buzzi) and make her sweep their cave with a broom, which necessitates a rescue attempt by Fum (Jim Nabors).

Meanwhile, a baby chickaphant boards the saucer after hatching, and its mother comes looking for her wayward clucker.

In a funny way, “Return to the Valley of the Chickaphants” anticipates the plot-line of The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 (1997) since it features a baby monster captured by protagonists, and its mother’s quest to get it back. As you may guess, however, the productions aren’t exactly comparable.

There’s not much else to note about this episode, except that it probably isn’t the series’ finest hour.  Despite this fact, I’d very much like to see a full, official release of the series, so I can continue blogging it here on Saturdays.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Schoolhouse Rock (1973-1986)

Today, I credit three diverse and valuable sources with my ability to write well.

The first is my study of Latin. I minored in the subject at the University of Richmond and have never regretted it. Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī.

The second source is a deep stable of wonderful and inspiring English professors; stretching from my grade school experience through the university years.

And, last but never least, is...Schoolhouse Rock, the ABC animated musical series (1973-1986) that demonstrated -- in superbly entertaining fashion -- how to accurately utilize conjunctions ("Conjunction Junction"), adverbs ("Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here,") interjections ("Interjections!") and more. Yep, these "lessons" were all facets of the series' memorable class on "Grammar Rock."

Schoolhouse Rock premiered on the ABC Network in early January of 1973, the brainchild of ad man David McCall, musician Bob Dorough and artist Tom Yohe. 

Network executive Michael Eisner approved the project for broadcast during ABC's Saturday morning schedule, and accordingly three minutes "bits" were cut (over producer protests!) from the entertainment programming (such as Scooby Doo) to make "elbow room" for these educational and amusing shorts.

The series' mission: "to link math [and other subjects] with contemporary music...[so] kids will breeze through school on a song."

Over roughly a dozen years, Schoolhouse Rock accomplished that task in spades. It offered a deep, amusing, highly-addictive and toe-tapping TV curriculum in a variety of academic subjects.

Celebrating the bicentennial in 1976, Schoolhouse Rock's "America Rock" featured such shorts as "I'm Just a Bill," (following a bill's progress from idea to committee to law or veto...), "Elbow Room" (about the American expansion West after the Louisiana Purchase..."), "Mother Necessity" (about American ingenuity and inventions...), and "The Preamble," which concerned the specific words and meanings of the U.S. Constitution.

In the subject of math, audiences were offered "Multiplication Rock," with shorts called "My Hero, Zero," "Three is a Magic Number" (a personal favorite that I used to sing to my son, Joel, when he was a baby) and "Figure Eight."

In "Science Rock," youngsters learned about "Electricity, "Electricity" and "Interplanet Janet" (a ditty about the heavenly bodies of our solar system.)

For Generation X (my generation) specifically, these shorts (particularly the catchy tunes) are nothing less than indelible. 

Friday, November 03, 2017

Savage Friday: Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs (2008) is a controversial and incredibly gory horror film of the New French Extremity. Upon its theatrical release almost a decade ago, the film from director Pascal Laugier fiercely divided critics.

Some reviewers felt it was gratuitous and over-the-top in its violence and cruelty. Others believed that Martyrs carried significant social value, and that there was, indeed, an artistic point to all the terrible, graphic violence.

Importantly -- at least for our purposes, today -- the savage cinema is all about pushing boundaries and breaking taboos. It’s about the very idea that the actions we deem ourselves incapable of committing, or contending with, become, in some sense, necessary in the face of extreme, unrelenting violence. 

Viewed in this way, Martyrs is a textbook example of the format. The violence in the film is absolutely staggering, but the violence is not the whole story.

Historically, Martyrs arises from the epoch of torture porn films like Hostel (2005) or Saw (2004), but in wholly unique manner, Laugier’s film actually suggests apotheosis, not degradation. The key idea underlining the movie is that some people -- when they face incredibly suffering and pain -- transcend their harsh reality.

Moving beyond pain, they see God, or cross-the-veil to another world. When they return to this mortal coil, they offer their testimony about what they saw in the Hereafter.

In short, these sufferers become more than mere “victims” of savage acts. Instead, they become “witnesses” to the divine order of the universe. And what they witness apparently provides a sense of relief, joy, or even ecstasy.

This is a controversial idea to portray in a horror film, and rightly so.

Taken abstractly, the (noble) idea is that suffering has an end, a light at the end of the tunnel; and that this end to suffering is a doorway to understanding the mysteries of the universe. When faced with extreme, pain, terror and agony, the end is not just more agony and nothingness. The end is transfiguration. Fear is left behind, replaced by knowledge.

Taken literally, however, the movie might be interpreted (by some) as a validation for abuse or violence. When you hurt somebody, perhaps they will transcend the pain you caused, and come out of the experience having grown or evolved. 

So you did them a service by hurting them, right?

Well, not exactly.

I see how some scholars and critics have read the film in that fashion, and I’m sensitive to the notion that these same interpreters see the film as a validation of violence, in particular, towards women.


Because, as the film suggests “women are more responsive to transfiguration” than men are.

However, I would submit that this reading does not take into consideration the full picture of Martyrs. In some way, the film is about finding a way to endure, to win, when, frankly, there is no real way to win.

When facing the possibility of only further suffering in this world, some people transcend; they put fear and pain aside.  “You’re not scared anymore,” one character notes of the central martyr figure. Anna can’t escape her captivity. She can’t return to her life. She can’t stop the brutal beatings. But no longer can she be victimized, hurt, or controlled, either, at least spiritually, or emotionally. In the final act, one can rightly make the claim that she has transcended herself, and escaped, even if only in her mind.

If this is indeed the film’s point, the pro-social message is plain. Many people, including women and men, may be trapped in situations without ready escape or outlet. Life may be unbearable, physically or emotionally. Their lives may be cruel and inhumane. Unceasingly so.

But even in that state, the spirit is indomitable. It quests for -- it seeks out -- a place of peace, enlightenment and joy. 

Some people can make it there. Others can’t. The key is what is inside you.

A key facet of Martyrs is the film’s definition of the titular term. In a traditional definition, a martyr is someone who suffers persecution, and refuses to renounce a belief, even under extreme duress. The movie, however, chooses a different, less well-known definition.  It characterizes a martyr as a “witness,” someone who sees something and reports back what is seen.

What is seen? Something characterized, in some instances, as proof, or evidence.

But evidence of what? In the movie, the martyr is a witness to God’s existence, or the existence of an afterlife.

Given this definition, one can detect the complexity and symbolism of Martyrs’ discourse. Consider the witnesses in the film for a moment.

We have the primary sufferer, Anna (Morgana Alaoui), and we have the Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin).

Finally, we -- the audience -- are witnesses too. We see all the violence, cruelty, and inhumanity at point blank range and must, finally, process it in such a way that gives it meaning, or purpose. In this way, the director makes his case. In the face of violence and pain, every person attempts to bring clarity and purpose to chaotic terrain, an absurd existence that seems purposeless.

Ironically, the key to finding purpose, is encoded in the controversial violence of the film.  How do we grapple with Martyrs’ incredible, upsetting violence?  Is it pro-social commentary about human nature? Or is it sleazy, lurid violence that merely demeans us?

The answer is in the journey. Keep doubting.

“There are nothing but victims now.”

A young woman, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), bruised and beaten, escapes from brutal captivity. Refusing to tell the authorities what she endured while a hostage, she befriends another young girl, Anna, at an orphanage. 

They grow up together, learning to lean on one another, despite Lucie’s instability and stabs at self-mutilation.

Fifteen years later, an adult Lucie breaks into what seems a normal suburban family home, and murders the entire family there in cold blood, using a shotgun. She believes that somehow the parents in that house are connected to her torture more than a decade earlier.

Anna has her doubts, and Lucie, after committing the murders, kills herself.

Anna discovers, however, that Lucie was correct. Underneath the normal exterior of the home is a laboratory -- or dungeon -- where a strange cabal tortures and brutalizes an emaciated, cut-up woman. 

Anna attempts to nurse the victim back to health, but too much of the victim’s humanity is already lost.

And then the torturers return.

Anna meets the Mademoiselle, the leader of this strange organization that believes suffering and pain -- in some extraordinary individuals -- will lead to martyrdom, to the witnessing of the afterlife, and perhaps even God’s existence. 

Anna now undergoes that process, enduring days and weeks of grueling pain and suffering.

Finally, Anna becomes a witness, and reveals to the Mademoiselle what she saw on “the other side.”

“How do you stop being scared?”

Director Pascal Laugier takes the audience on a harrowing journey of pain and suffering in Martyrs, making the audience wonder, or doubt, if there is a purpose to it at all.  We see innocent children shot down in cold-blood by the movie’s ostensible protagonist, Lucie, in the first act. We witness a human being so cut-up, so starved, so brutalized, that we barely recognize her as a human being. We see our other protagonist, Anna, undergo surgery in which her skin is removed from her body.

It’s all savage and utterly disgusting, and I argue, purposeful.  What is that purpose?

This isn’t a hedge, but I can’t answer that for you.  At least not entirely. Or in the way you might prefer.  We are left, as individual movie-goers, to determine purpose for ourselves. Rather than spoon-feeds us the answers, the director of Martyrs reveals to us a parade of ultra-realistic horrors, intimates a purpose behind the surface, and then tells us, with a final gunshot exclamation point, to “keep doubting” if there is a purpose to it all.

This is a perfect mirror for human existence, is it not?

We countenance the loss of loved ones to disease, accidents, war, or old age. We endure our own physical and emotional pain too, and wonder what could be the reason for it all. We seek certainty in religion, in spirituality, in human connection, but we never know if our reward for this journey is merely oblivion -- a winking out at the time of death -- or some form of transcendence to another form of life.

If there is an afterlife, or a God, or reincarnation, or anything like that, we will have our certainty that our life is worth the agony we sometimes endure.

But what if we were to acquire that certainty in life, without the pain, without the struggle?

Would we still strive to overcome the daily bombardment of tragedy and seemingly arbitrary suffering? 

I think not, and that’s the motivation for Mademoiselle’s final edict to her second in command. She instructs him to keep doubting, because doubt -- not certainty -- is the very quality that gives meaning to human life.

In her last moments of life, Mademoiselle gets her certainty, from Anna. She is the witness, or martyr, in other words, to Anna’s testimony about the next world.

We can’t know if what she hears from Anna is good, or bad. We can’t know if Anna’s revelation/testimony damns the Mademoiselle, or saves her. What we can know, definitively, is that Anna’s testimony ends the Mademoiselle’s quest. And without that quest, Mademoiselle kills herself, apparently having nothing left to live for. 

She has gone her whole life brutalizing others in search of certainty, which I believe is a metaphor for fundamentalist religious dogma, and found that knowing the answer is not as satisfying, perhaps, as asking the question.

Her advice to her second-in-command, I believe, is neither cruel, vindictive, nor sadistic. It is genuine. If he wants to discover the path to self-knowledge, he must keep doubting.

And by that, I mean doubting religion, belief, and every decision he makes in life.  It is only through the process of doubting, which in archaic terms meaning “having fear” that his existence here, on this plane of existence, is rendered meaningful.

The beauty of the film’s denouement is that the director lands us in the shoes of the second command. Like him, we are denied Anna’s testimony, and left wondering if the destination was worth the journey. The parade of horrors we have witnessed leads us to no good answer.  Was it just to debauch us? Or was the brutality used to keep us guessing, and seeing that -- whether or not there is an afterlife, or God -- we must make sense of our world for ourselves.

Consider Anna’s journey. She is estranged from her mother. She was abused as a child. She is alone, with no direction in life, which explains her co-dependent friendship with Lucie. Her reward for all of her suffering seems to be more suffering. But perhaps it is her life of suffering that makes her able to “bear all the sins of the Earth” and see what lays beyond. You can’t separate her martyrdom from her life experiences.

And, I admit, this is where my doubt comes in.

I wonder, does Anna actually see another world?

Or is she, in the end, merely delusional? Is she simply dying, and her brain chemistry providing hallucinations or perceptions that are mistaken as “objective” visions of the afterlife, or God?

There’s a part of me that believes the whole film is about a fool’s errand, the delusion of belief of faith.  Why take Anna’s word for what she sees, when it may be entirely a product of her mind, and her individual journey?  The testimony she gives may be the testimony of delusional, dying woman.

Doubt, you see, has me in its grips. From a certain perspective, the entire film is a messy, shaggy dog story that demonstrates the foolhardiness of seeking objective evidence for religious belief. I don’t believe such evidence is available to be gotten, at least at our current stage of development. The religious mindset is about professing certainty, or having certainty (faith), and the fact is, none of us actually has that certainty. Those who profess it are liars. Extremely confident (or misguided?) liars.

In that regard, I don’t have certainty about Martyrs, I have my viewpoint and perception of the film. 

And my perception is that it is a great, savage horror film -- perhaps one of the ten greatest of its decade -- because it opens the door way to so many interpretations.

This is a movie that starts as a direct, pandering appeal to the gut. The film is stomach turning, and literally sickening. But Martyrs then ends with an appeal to the brain, a fiercely thoughtful meditation on the human condition, and the necessity to “keep doubting,” so that life continues to carry meaning for those of us left on this mortal coil to experience it.

I don’t know how you will feel about being a “witness” to this particularly savage journey, but for me, the journey is unforgettable.

Movie Trailer: Martyrs (2008)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Cult-TV Blogging: Star Maidens: "What Have They Done To The Rain?" (1976)

In “What Have They Done to the Rain?,” the ninth episode of Star Maidens (1976), Dr. Rudy Schmidt (Christian Quadflieg) -- a human, male prisoner on Medusa -- is working surface detail on the planet when he notes a dangerous chemical change occurring there. His men are endangered, and a Medusan supervisor sentry slips into the mud, and is destroyed.

Rudy warns Medusa’s president, Clara (Dawn Addams) that something deadly is occurring on the planet, and Medusa’s “Destiny” computer makes the same dire prediction, but can’t compute the reasons why. The computer observes that the “entire planet is under threat.”

Rudy and Liz (Lisa Harrow) conduct their own investigation -- over Octavia’s (Christiane Kruger) objections about a man contributing to the planet’s knowledge-base -- and find that structural areas of the city are collapsing. Toxic waste dumped on the surface of Medusa by the government have created chemical deposits that are eating through the crust of the planet…which is now starting to split. The rain, in conjunction with Medusa’s artificially-produced atmosphere, are accelerating the process of splitting the “shell” of the planet.

With mud-slides occurring regularly, Rudy warns that the Medusans must de-activate their current, dangerous atmospheric processor, and go back to an older model. Octavia refuses to believe it, but President Addams, seeing the wisdom of Rudy’s warning, agrees to make the change.

Once more, we are back on Medusa for an episode of Star Maidens, which means the focus is not on satire and male/female romantic relationships/power dynamics, but on sci-fi storytelling.  In “What Have They Done to the Rain?” Rudy asks a question that might be asked of our people, here on Earth: “Are you going to let your prejudices affect your lives?”

To wit: The vast majority of scientists here on Earth, in 2017, believe that humans are contributing to catastrophic climate change in a significant way, but some lawmakers and citizens refuse to believe the facts, because they disagree with the politics of the scientists, or because the facts conflict with their religious biases.  Or maybe, they economically benefit from not changing, from not adjusting to the facts.

But facts are facts, even if they come from someone who disagrees with you. Notice the title here, which is prophetic: What Have They Done..."  The "They" in question covers the government of Medusa, which is damaging the planet, without thought to the consequences.

So in this episode, facts are facts too, even if they come from a man (a lower class citizen in the matriarchy of Star Maidens). President Clara is, fortunately, able to allow reason to overcome her built in prejudice against men. Octavia, by contrast, is not able to do so. She can’t even believe that a man may have the knowledge to save her planet, because men are inherently inferior in her eyes.

As Rudy suggests in the episode’s coda, he wins a “triumph” for men, by proving his science accurate to the President and governing council of Medusa. But beyond that, he also proves that science and facts are superior to self-aggrandizing mythology and the forces of inertia or the status quo. He is assisted in this effort by Liz, whose position as a woman on Medusa allows her to pick her own team for the investigation. She promptly picks Rudy, giving him a platform to address the problem, and have a voice in its solution.

In some ways, “What Have They Done to the Rain?” is very reminiscent of Space: 1999 (1975-1977).

First, the episode makes extensive use of sound effects heard on the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series, especially those heard in “Dragon’s Domain” and “Collision Course.”  If you are a fan of 1999, this heavy use of familiar sound effects can be very distracting.

Secondly, the story concerns a man (or woman…)-made problem -- toxins and pollution in the atmosphere -- and predicts disaster of the citizens of a planet do not change their short-sighted ways. In “Breakaway,” the 1999 premiere, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) learns that the waste disposal area on the Moon, housing Earth’s atomic waste, is dangerous and unstable. 

Those in power, such as Commissioner Simmonds (the late Roy Dotrice) refuse to accept the truth. Koenig attempts to resolve the problem, but fails, and a cataclysm occurs.  In this episode of Star Maidens, at least, Rudy helps the Medusans avoid this environmental disaster.

The only downside to this Medusa-focused episode is that a pattern is emerging. Rudy keeps proving the female population and government wrong, and that subtly suggests the series viewpoint.  It seems the makers of the series are implying that women are unfit or unsuitable to lead or govern. The next episode, "The End of Time," follows on in this pattern.

Next week: "The End of Time."

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Pop Art: Gilligan's Island (TV Guide Edition)

Video Game of the Week: Gilligan's Island (Bandai)

Gilligan's Island Pinball Machine (Bally)

Gilligan's Island Floating Island Playset (Playskool)

Gilligan's Island Coloring Book

Trading Cards of the Week: Gilligan's Island (Topps; 1965)

Board Game of the Week: Gilligan's Island

Theme Song of the Week: Gilligan's Island (1965)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A 1970's Halloween: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The late great movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote that the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was “the American movie of the year – a new classic…the best movie of its kind ever made.”

Even at this late date, I can find no reason to quibble with that assessment.

In particular, Invasion of the Body Snatchers craftily updates the 1950s context of the original Jack Finney novel, as well as the Don Siegel film adaptation.  It does so in order to deliberately comment on the contentious 1970s: the decade of “The Me Generation” and the Watergate conspiracy and cover-up. 

Accordingly, the film’s conclusion seems to be that human life in the decade of “self-realization” seems to hamper, not encourage, real connection between people, while an overt, even paranoid lack of trust in society’s institutions and hierarchies makes that disconnect exponentially worse. 

In the absence of real connection and real love, a seed grows, and terror blossoms.  

Invasion of the Body Snatchers thus concerns, as film scholar Michael Dempsey noted in Film Quarterly (February 1979, page 120), “the manifold pressures which life brings upon people to abandon that ambiguous blessing, humanity.”

In San Francisco, lab tech Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) grows increasingly convinced that her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is not himself.  When she brings her worries to her boss, Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), he recommends she see his friend, pop psychologist and relationship guru, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy).  Kibner promptly reports that he has seen six similar cases in just one week, and suspects that the cause is the fast-moving 1970s life-style, in which people move in and out of relationships too fast, without really getting to know each other.

But as Matthew, Elizabeth, and their fiends Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) and Jack (Jeff Goldblum) soon discover, the problem in San Francisco is much graver than that.  Alien plants from a dying solar system have arrived on Earth and are rapidly producing emotionless doppelgangers of the human race.  They desire a world of peace, with no hate…but also no love. 

Matthew, Elizabeth, Nancy and Jack attempt to escape San Francisco, but the conspiracy has grown too big, and the human race stands on the brink…

The 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by director Philip Kaufman primarily concerns shape and form, and the myriad ways that human beings misperceive shape and form, and thus make unwarranted assumptions that fit pre-conceived notions about those qualities. The film itself depicts an invasion of alien “pod people” -- essentially sentient plants -- who secretly  replace human beings (while they sleep…) in a vast 1970s liberal metropolis, San Francisco. 

But unlike its 1950s predecessor, which was either an indictment of communism or an indictment of McCarthyism depending on your personal Rorschach, the remake plays meaningfully against the unmistakable backdrop of an increasing divorce rate in the United States and the ascent of the so-called “Me Generation.” 

Or, as the psychiatrist in the film, Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) trenchantly notes: “people are moving in and out of relationships too quickly,” and therefore never really getting to know people they presumably love. Accordingly, when individuals make discoveries about their intended loves ones that they don’t like, it is easier to disassociate from them, to blame the “other” for being “different” and then just move on.

But if you are so focused on self and can’t get to really know other people, how can you tell if they are even human at all?  They may look and act human -- their shape and form could be human -- but they could be…pods.

In terms of background context, the Me Generation famously consists of Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964, generally-speaking) who, because of rising disposable income in the 1970s and perhaps as a direct response to the ethos of the World War II generation, began to place a new importance on “the self” over the well-being, necessarily, of the community.

In fact, the 1970s was determinedly the decade of the “self,” a fact reflected in the hedonism of disco music, and the blazing ascent in popularity of the “self-help” book genre.  Popular buzz-words of the day included “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment,” yet as the movement of “self” grew, many people saw the new age as merely one of “self-involvement.  The consumption-oriented life-style of immediate gratification soon gave rise to President Carter’s notorious 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which warned against judging success on material wealth rather than intrinsic human qualities of character and morality.  Meanwhile, we kept building more shopping malls, and imagined worlds futuristic (Logan’s Run) and apocalyptic (Dawn of the Dead) set at them.

Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays meaningfully with the idea of form and shape in its visuals by depicting a world where “disconnected” people can’t distinguish between genuine humanity and invading, emotionless aliens.  This tension between form and reality occurs almost immediately in the film when a health inspector -- the film’s protagonist, Bennell (Sutherland) -- starts a fight in a restaurant kitchen, arguing over whether a small black object is actually a caper or a rat turd.  This debate is actually a metaphor for the entire film.

The only way to know for sure about the caper/rat turd is to eat it…and by then it’s too late, isn’t it?  By then, what you fear is actually inside you, doing you harm…

Forecasting its bleak, terrifying, and legitimately unforgettable finale, Kaufman’s camera proves deeply ambivalent even about Bennell -- the hero -- and his “true” human nature.   For example, when Bennell first appears in the film, he is seen through the restaurant’s door, through a peep-hole, and the audience gazes at him through the filter of what seems like a fish-eye.  Bennell appears distorted and strange, and not fully human. 

Later, at a book party for Dr. Kibner, we see a distorted visual representation of Bennell again.  As he talks on the telephone to the police, he stands before what seems to be a funhouse mirror, and it corrupts his features once more. 

And when Bennell goes to rescue Elizabeth from her boyfriend’s house, he is deliberately lit from below, a visual selection which casts shadows upon his features and makes him look diabolical or sinister.

All these visualizations of the good guy prove a point in Invasion of the Body Snatchers:  You can’t trust appearances.

That lesson is learned the hard way by Veronica Cartwright’s character, Nancy, in the film’s last moment.

To approach this facet of Invasion of the Body Snatchers another way, the aliens are creatures who do understand, mimic and manipulate form and shape to their advantage.  Late in the film, a pod merges the body of a dog with the head of a homeless man because the host’s genetic materials were damaged during the duplication process.  What emerges is nothing less than an abomination (and one my earliest movie-going experiences with a jump scare, at that).  But that’s okay to the aliens because they don’t possess emotions. They don’t know fear, disgust or horror.

The protagonists further misunderstand the pods because of their “familiar”-seeming forms.  First, the pods are accepted as harmless plants and brought into human homes, where they commence the invasion. Secondly, these plants are not considered a viable “host” for aliens, as Nancy observantly points out.   Why do we expect UFOS to be metal ships?

And thirdly, the heroes operate on incorrect assumptions about plants, and those assumptions prove deadly.  Even though Nancy notes that plants do respond to music, Bennell leaves Elizabeth for a time because he hears music playing nearby, on a boat.  The song he hears is “Amazing Grace,” one of the most moving compositions ever written, and he assumes it must be sign or symbol of emotional, feeling mankind. 

On the contrary, however, the tune emanates from a cargo ship transporting pods.  There is no hope here, no “grace” to speak of.  The pods, though emotionless, listen to music as well, though it is doubtful they would ever compose new music.

Again, we believe that music is unique to us, but this scene proves that it isn’t, and that mistake costs Bennell the love of his life.  He should know better. When he breaks into Geoffrey's house, the pod Geoffrey is also listening to music.

Over and over, Kaufman’s film attempts to trick us or mislead with its visuals, making the case that in this day and age, we can’t really know anyone else.  Sometimes, the director throws the audience a bone and offers up a visual composition that makes the point we need to learn, or provides an important clue, even before the dialogue tells us.  In one scene set at Matthew’s apartment, for instance, a tower bisects the frame vertically, separating Matthew and Kibner on opposite sides of rectangle, a visual representation of the fact that they aren’t working towards a common end.  We get verbal verification of that fact in the very next scene, but the visuals tell us first, and that’s a remarkable and deft achievement.

The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also plays deliberately with the lack of confidence Americans felt in their government following the Watergate Scandal.  President Nixon authorized criminal activities from the Oval Office and resigned from office in disgrace, and then his successor, President Ford immediately pardoned him.  Citizens, to a certain extent, were left out of the loop, and Nixon didn’t seem to pay much for betraying the public trust.  So there was a sense that government, and government bureaucracy was not working for the good of the people, but rather to corrupt ends.  Government (Ford) took care of its own (Nixon).  I don’t necessarily agree with that reading, and I believe Ford did what was necessary to begin the healing process in America.  But others felt differently, and throughout this movie, the paranoia of Watergate proves quite pronounced as shadowy figures rendezvous and talk in hushed tones about plots and strategies.  

At one point, the specter of Watergate is directly referenced, when Matthew realizes that he and all his friends are being watched, and their phones are being tapped.  A telephone operator calls him by name before he gives it. This is, perhaps, the most chilling moment in the movie.

To Philip Kaufman’s credit, he orchestrates the conspiracy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers right under our (unaware) noses, much as President Nixon managed to do for a time.  If Watergate had its “plumbers,” then Invasion has its “garbage men.”  Throughout the film, unobserved and unremarked upon, garbage trucks enter the frame and cart off this weird organic-looking soot or fluff. 

The conspiracy's garbage men are here.

Notice the dumpster behind Leonard Nimoy.

Could that body have disappeared into the garbage truck sitting outside the window?

We don’t learn until the end of the film that this grotesque material is all that remains of the human body after the duplication process.  But at four or five different junctures in the film -- starting in the first shots after the opening credits finish – anonymous-looking garbage trucks, garbage men and dumpsters are captured in the frame, along with this mystery substance.  Only in the film’s final moments does the full breadth of the conspiracy -- and its duration -- become plain.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers also makes literal that old proverb “you can’t fight City Hall.” Here Matthew realizes that the invaders (garbage men and aliens) “control the whole city,” just as we learned they ran the country in Watergate.

Between extreme paranoia about the motives of trusted officials, and the lack of connection between citizens in a permissive utopia of “self,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers fosters deep uneasiness about how easily our natures might be mimicked or mocked.  The final scene, which sees Bennell revealed as a “pod person,” is the ultimate exclamation point on that theme.  He does everything that he did before he was an alien, and so we hope, like Nancy, that he could be “hiding” around the other aliens.  But instead we’ve missed the truth again.  We have mistaken form for substance.  He’s been “born again” into an untroubled world that has no need of hate, and no need of love, either.

Tellingly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers proposes that the alien duplication occurs while the original human sleeps.  Sleep is a universal must and biological need among human beings, so the process is both inescapable and inevitable.  Furthermore, how often have we heard from friends and family that that they “just woke up one day” and felt different about someone important in their lives. This Invasion of the Body Snatchers lives in paranoid suspicion of such a revelation.

A 1970's Halloween: The Fury (1978)

In terms of the cinema, 1978 was The Year of the Conspiracy.” 

NASA faked a Mars landing in ITC’s paranoid Capricorn One, Genevieve Bujold discovered a major metropolitan hospital’s plot to harvest the organs of comatose patients in Michael Crichton’s unsettling Coma, and alien pods infiltrated every level of government and commerce in San Francisco in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Brian De Palma’s The Fury fits in perfectly with this “The Year of The Conspiracy” label because the film, based on a novel by John Farris, depicts a covert government agency’s kidnapping of an American citizen, the attempted murder of that citizen’s father, and the agency’s efforts to transform the captive into a psychic assassin. 

The Fury brilliantly captures the unsettled and angry mood of the country with its very title.  The American people were indeed “fury”-ious with leaders in Washington D.C. at the time because of the Watergate Scandal, the dismissive pardoning of Nixon, the illegal bombing campaigns in Cambodia, the Energy Crisis, stagflation, and other economic issues.  Trust in government stood at its lowest ebb in this era…at least until present times.

The Fury “transmits” this righteous anger in, literally, explosive terms. 

Specifically, De Palma’s film about youngsters who possess psychic abilities tells the story of a passive “receiver,” Gillian -- played by Amy Irving -- who is transformed finally, into a potent “sender” because of  her ever-growing anger at the government, represented by Cassavete’s villainous character, Childress. 

The film culminates with the completion of Gillian’s transformation, and the ensuing total physical destruction of Childress, witnessed in loving-but-bloody detail from more than half—a-dozen angles.

Like virtually all of Brian De Palma’s films, The Fury is devilishly playful, and in this case, buoyed considerably by the director’s masterful orchestration of three stunning set-pieces.  One is a slow-motion escape from repressive authority, another is an expression of fury meted at an amusement park, and the last –and best -- is the bloody denouement, the final dispatch of Childress.

The result of all these moments  is a tense and extremely gory film that captures perfectly the Zeitgeist of its age, and continues to impress today on the basis of its almost completely unexpected emotional impact. 

In short, The Fury evokes rage and upset in the viewer as again and again the good guys lose, and the bad guys win. At least, that is, until the unspooling of the film’s cathartic last sequence, which is as sharp and spiky an exclamation point as has ever been used to punctuate a genre film.

“…what a culture can’t assimilate, it destroys…”

A powerful young psychic, Robin Sandza (Stevens) is made to believe that his father, a government agent, Peter (Douglas) has been killed in a terrorist attack.  Now in the care of Peter’s ruthless partner, Childress (Cassavetes), Robin is trained to be a psychic assassin, his powers held in check by Dr. Susan Charles (Lewis), also his lover.
For eleven months, Peter searches for his son with the help of a nurse, Hester (Snodgress), who works at the Paragon Institute, a school for psychically-gifted students.  There, a new arrival, a troubled young woman named Gillian (Irving) grapples with her powers, and comes to realize that she is “receiving” messages from a “sender,” Robin.
Peter and Hester break Gillian out of Paragon -- which is secretly allied with Childress -- and after Hester is killed, go in search of Robin. 

The duo finally finds Robin at a secret, wooded estate, but he is now almost totally devoid of humanity.  His psychic powers have grown to such an extent that he has become inhuman, and a murderer…

After Peter and Robin are killed, Childress captures Gillian, but the agent finds that her psychic powers are also very well-developed.

They’re always watching…”

Created in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate Scandal and the resignation of President Nixon (which followed not long after the resignation of Vice-President Agnew…), The Fury evidences a serious distrust of the United States government. 

In fact, the film portrays Childress and his secretive agency as a malevolent shadow lurking, vulture-like over the American family, bent on separating family members, harassing citizens, and creating monsters for a secret agenda and other dark purposes.

The apparent protagonist of the film, Peter (Kirk Douglas) expresses fear and dislike of the government at several junctures in the film.  “They needed him,” he explains about Peter, “and they took him.  They just took him.” 

At another juncture, Peter notes that “They” (meaning Childress’s agents) “are always watching.”  What he expresses hear is a fear directly borne of Watergate: of government spying, and intrusion in the private lives of families. 

Peter also fears for his lover, Hester’s, because she “takes too much for granted.”  She trusts “too many people.”  In the mid-to-late 1970s, the government had lost the trust of many Americans, and that’s the idea being expressed in The Fury.  This was not a time for optimism or idealism.

Early in The Fury, Peter hides out in an apartment belonging to a blue-collar family.  He meets a character named “Mother Nuckalls,” and it turns out she wants to help him evade capture.  She tells him flat out that if he encounters “Feds,” Peter should “kill them.”   Again, the idea expressed is absolute contempt towards and hate for the government.

Today, the right wing tends be the most vehemently anti-government demographic, but in the 1970s that title went to the left side of the political spectrum, and indeed, the government agency depicted here is seen as a dangerous international aggressor, a son of Nixon.  Childress wants to possess Robin -- a psychic assassin – because, explicitly “the Chinese don’t have one,” and “The Soviets don’t have one” like him. 

In other words, Robin represents the latest achievement in Cold War one-upmanship.

In keeping with the idea of a malevolent but also bungling or incompetent government, De Palma stages his action scenes with a fine sense of the chaotic, or the random.  In the film’s most stirring action scene  -- Gillian’s escape from the Paragon Institute -- an innocent woman, Hester, is killed, when the government gives chase in a car, and Peter, also a government agent, remember, opens fire.  Caught between opposing (partisan?) enemies, Hester is violently and accidentally killed, in slow-motion no less, and the idea transmitted is one of events spiraling absolutely out-of-control.

This particular scene works so brilliantly because De Palma rivets our attention with the slow-motion photography, and also with the total lack of sound-effects we might expect, such as gunshots or screams. Instead, we simply get John Williams’ gorgeous, Hitchcock-ian score as the scene’s soundtrack, and the pulse absolutely quickens. 

Why approach the material this way?  On one hand, it’s an application of formalist film technique.  But on the other, if you’ve ever been in a car accident, you might remember how time seems to slow-down, and you are aware of every event, every instant, every reflex, ever move.  The escape scene here, rendered in compelling slow-motion photography, very adroitly recreates that feeling of a catastrophic event happening around you, and event after event overwhelming the senses.

Late in the film, Peter also fails to rescue Robin, and Robin -- again, the “transmitter” or “sender” -- dies, but not before passing on his finely-developed rage to Gillian, who has witnessed all the bungling, all the violence, and has had a stomach full of it.  In the film’s last scene, Gillian’s eyes go blue (like Robin’s), and she lets loose, overcoming her passivity as a receiver.  She blows Childress apart. 

Long story short: the only appropriate response to how things were going in America of the mid-1970s was…the fury.

Indeed, throughout the film, De Palma links psychic expression or outbursts directly to feelings of rage.  Another of The Fury’s great set-pieces occurs at an indoor amusement park.  Robin first feels jealousy regarding Susan Charles when he sees her with two other men. 

And then, he sees innocent Middle-Eastern men boarding a tilt-a-whirl.  But, Robin remembers their (stereotypically) Arab garb from the terrorist attack that he believes killed his father, and so he lets his rage -- his fury -- take over.   He causes the tilt-a-whirl roller-coaster car to break loose from its moorings, and sends the Arab passengers hurtling into another party of unsuspecting Middle-Easterners.  Again, the impetus for such an outburst is explicitly anger.

The idea that fury builds psychic power to a boiling point can be explored in relation to Carrie (1976), De Palma's previous film involving telekinesis.  There, the director utilized a split-screen image to suggest the cause-and-instantaneous-effect nature of Carrie's anger.  There was no built up...telekinesis was simultaneous.  In The Fury, by contrast, the psychic power builds and builds.  We see this explicitly during a scene in which Gillian uses the power of her mind to move a toy train faster and faster around a track.  Her abilities reach a fever pitch as the train spins around the track, and then we get a vision from the future.   In The Fury, it takes time for psychic powers to reach full capacity.  And range and anger augment those powers.

Although Kirk Douglas is the star of The Fury, in many ways, the film really dramatizes the story of Gillian, played by Irving.  She starts out as a virtual innocent.  She’s just a kid living her life without much thought for much beyond herself.  But very soon Gillian finds that her “gifts” are coveted by Childress and his murky agency, and that atrocities have been committed by the government against those just like her. 

At first, all Gillian can do is empathize with Robin,  witnessing the visions of his torture and subjugation.  But by film’s end, Gillian reverses her role and becomes an active player in her own destiny.  In brief then, the film depicts the process of how an activist is born, first by witnessing the pain of others, and then, finally, by taking a stand against corruption or malfeasance.

The last scene in The Fury, in which Gillian takes a personal stand,  is one for the ages.  Gillian summons all her “fury” and literally rips apart Childress with her psychic powers.  He explodes into several pieces, and we see his utter de-construction in view-after-view, in the most loving, exhaustive detail imaginable.  When severed Childress’s head – eyes still open -- hits the white carpet on the floor (and the viewer’s jaw simultaneously hits the ground in disbelief…), the movie merely goes to black without comment.

De Palma has built up to this amazing catharsis from the film’s first moments.  A family is separated, a beautiful nurse is killed, a father loses his son, and then commits suicide.  And through it all, the forces of Childress and a dark government win.  But finally, the tables are turned, and all the rage of the day is released in a magnificent explosion of blood and guts, a flower coaxed to bloom.

Some critics thought The Fury’s ending was over-the-top.  Others felt that it had been a long time coming…