Thursday, April 23, 2020

15 Years Blogging Today!

Today marks the 15th anniversary of this blog's beginning, on April 23, 2005.  

Since that time, I have written 11,031 blog entries...which is a lot,

I have enjoyed every minute of the blog, and wish to apologize to regular and long-time readers for the fall-off in posting in 2020.  

My deepest hope is to return to blogging on a more regular basis, but I also don't want to over-promise in such an unsettling world. 

This is a crazy time to be alive, and we are all dealing with a new world order because of COVID-19.

I suppose one of the supreme ironies of my professional life is that when people really need more original content, like that featured on this blog, I have less time than ever before in my professional life, to create it.  

That's just how life goes sometimes.

I have come to learn, through a decade-and-a-half of blogging, that the work I compose here ebbs and flows. There are times of great creativity and energy and momentum, and times when that creativity just can't seem to do anything but stick to idle.

Before the pandemic hit, I was growing a lot less enthusiastic about writing on many genre matters. The extremely negative fan responses to The Last Jedi, The X-Files, Star Trek: Discovery and other new programs I found disheartening, and counter to my creativity and writing process. 

Not that everyone must like and appreciate those things that I like and appreciate, but there were over-the-top fan responses to these works of art that exposed a seedy underbelly to a community that I had long supported and believed in, and felt a part of. 

At some point, in 2018-2019, I felt totally sapped and drained by the hostility and anger that I saw growing and thriving on the Internet. The loud voices were crowding out the reasonable ones. It felt easier to retreat than to engage.

Also, oddly -- and perhaps counterintuitively -- in the last few years (pre Coronavirus) I realized that I am writing now from a world in which fans pretty much get everything they want. The X-Files returned. Twin Peaks returned. Mystery Science Theater 3000 returned. Star Trek returned. Star Trek: The Next Generation returned. Star Wars kept returning and branched out to TV.  Jamie Lee Curtis returned in Halloween, and Linda Hamilton returned in Terminator: Dark Fate.

There is a danger, I suppose, in  getting everything you wish for. 

I suppose part of my brand/obsession/style/appeal is writing passionately about the value of programs and films that for whatever reason, left the popular consciousness, and explaining why they should be valued and why they mattered.  

These days, I often think of Spock's comment to Stonn in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time:" "After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true."

Now, everything is back in one form or another, and no genre program or film ever really seems to die.  

That's great. 

I'm enjoying it all, but I feel less compelled to write about these things or champion them, I suppose. 

Those battles were won. We are living in a geek world!

So, this blog is fifteen years old, and perhaps going through its mid-life crisis.  

I don't envision ending it, because, since 2005, it has been a positive force in my life, and, I hope, for readers too. I hope it is -- or was -- a place to consider different viewpoints on science fiction, horror, and the culture. Lately, it has not been what it once was, and I know that.  I'm in a period, I guess you could say, of discovering, all over again, where my voice fits in with this culture as it stands.  

Most of all, as I write this, I want to thank all the readers who have visited, stayed, and returned (and continue to return) over this decade-and-a-half.  I'm gonna keep trying if you keep trying!
Again, we live in strange and upsetting times because of this pandemic. 

My deepest wish to everyone who reads this is that you and your family stay safe and healthy in a time when what we once imagined as science fiction has become unfortunate reality.   

But, also even in the midst of this darkness, remember that out of pain and despair -- out of shocks to the system -- can also grow great good.  

That's why the human adventure, on this blog and elsewhere, is still just beginning.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Guest Post: Gretel & Hansel (2020)

Gretel & Hansel: "The Seduction of Gretel"’

By Jonas Schwartz

Ozgood Perkins, son of the horror movie legend Anthony Perkins, has spun the classic fairy tale Hansel & Gretel into a feminist tome on gaining power in a despairing time. It's no misprint that the filmmakers reversed the title order in this version, Gretel & Hansel, since this is definitely the sister's story. Perkins has a keen eye for evoking visual dread, but like the two waifs in the original tale, the plot meanders off the path for too long to keep audiences invested. 

Like most fairy tales, Gretel & Hansel begins with a narration, a prologue about a beautiful child with a black heart. It is a fable that all the kids in town have been told about the child gaining supernatural energy and feeding off the village children. That legend is well-known to adolescent Gretel (Sophia Lillis). She and her baby brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) are evicted from their home by their desperate mother so they wander the woods for shelter. They find a kindly old lady (Alice Krige), who offers them protection and food. The old lady recognizes innate powers in Gretel and begins to teach the girl to harness her abilities, but their new home is anything but safe. Ghostly children call out from behind the walls and the old lady has agendas that frighten the little boy. Gretel, on the other hand, has become transfixed.

Perkins' masterful mise-en-scène is a visual feast that sets a foreboding mood. Foggy woods with sun beams cutting through like razors and fall colors of orange and yellow present a pastoral setting, where evil lingers just off-screen. There is one scene where a tree bends to Gretel's will, reaching down to touch her, that exemplifies the heroine's burgeoning skills and emancipation from her out-of-control life. 

The script by Rob Hayes is a bit slow and he fails to build enough of an impression of each character to interest the viewer. Hansel is a cypher of the dependent younger sibling. We have no sense of who he is, so he merely becomes a ball and chain around Gretel's leg. Several sequences, such as a sojourn to an abandoned cabin, are badly paced, and a scene with a hunter (Charles Babalola) adds nothing to the plot or pacing. The 14th-15th Century dialogue, instead of lending authenticity, comes off stilted and affected. It takes great talent -- Arthur Miller perfected it with his play The Crucible -- to utilize that mid-millennium cadence without sounding forced, and Hayes does not achieve the same artistry. 

The cast is fine, but few stand out. Lillis, the horror film flavor of the decade after IT and Netflix's gruesome black comedy I’m Not Ok With This, has the most meat and is a captivating protagonist. Krige finds little to add distinction to the old lady, and young Leakey has been led adrift by his thin characterization. Perkins seems more attentive to the sights and sounds than the story and performances.

Osgood Perkins, without a doubt, is a director to watch. While still early in his directing career, he captures dread with his camera as the German expressionists did in the silent age. It will be interesting to see what he conjures with a wiser script.  

Jonas Schwartz is Vice President / Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle,  West Coast Critic for TheaterMania, Contributing Critic for Broadway World, and a Contributing Critic for ArtsInLA

Monday, April 20, 2020

Memory Bank: Totowa NJ (1970's Edition)

In case you can’t tell from my toy collection, I had a wonderful and happy childhood in New Jersey of the 1970's. 

Although my family lived in the town of Glen Ridge (between Montclair and Bloomfield), we would sometimes spend a night in Totowa, New Jersey, about forty five minutes away from our home on Clinton Road.


Well, for one thing, Totowa was the location, in the late 1970s, of the Totowa Drive-In, on Rte. 46.  

It was there, in that venue, that my parents saw such films as Last House on the Left (1972), The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), and Death Race 2000 (1975) while my sister and I were expected to go to sleep in the back of the car. 

As I've written about before...we stayed up and peeked.

Of course, we also saw plenty of kid’s movies at the Totowa Drive-In too, mostly Herbie movies from Disney, if memory serves. 

But on a day we were going to the Drive-In to see a movie, my Mom would pack us all sub sandwiches, potato chips and homemade blueberry muffins, and we’d all sit in the car together watching the featured movie on the big screen. I remember how twitchy the sound system was, at times, and the big, clunky speakers we'd hang on our windows so we could hear the audio.  

But sometimes, when we were in Totowa for  movie, we also visited a store that I possess vivid memories of to this day: Two Guys.  

What was Two Guys?  Well, it was a discount chain that had a hundred or so locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Jersey from about 1946 to 1982. 

The store sold Vornado Brand appliances and fans, but had much more to offer as well. The giant store in Totowa had a lumber department, a grocery store, a toy department, a soda/ice cream counter, and a house wares section, for instance.  I know there were Two Guys locations in Middletown, East Hanover and Cherry Hill too, but I remember primarily, the Totowa store.

When you first walked in, there was a huge midway. And there, on that path, was a pre-Atari 2600, free-standing Pong game unit, at least for a while.  So we would go to Two Guys, buy sodas and my parents would engage in Pong battles for a good long while.  

When I discussed Two Guys (originally known as Two Guys from Harrison) with my Dad the other day, he mentioned to me that we also got our first screen tent -- for cross-country camping -- at the Two Guys located in Totowa.

In 2015, I still carry memories of at least one particular visit to Two Guys. It was late at night -- or at least dark out -- perhaps after a trip to the Drive-In, and we went inside.  

In the toy department there were rows of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) toys that I had never seen in Toys R Us or other toy store, and which I would never see for sale again, except in the collectible market.  

For example, I remember distinctly seeing the Electronic U.S.S. Enterprise from South Bend, as well as the electronic “phaser guns” and belt buckles from the same manufacturer.

I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Two Guys -- a discount store -- had these toys in stock because they were poor sellers. I remember wanting these toys very badly, but for seventies dollars, they were very expensive. 

Not long after that visit -- in the early 1980s -- Two Guys went out of business and was replaced by a store called Bradlees, another chain that is out of business now too.  

The Totowa Drive-In is no longer operating, either.  

Yet all these places live on in my memories.

I haven't been to Totowa in many years (probably since the late 1980s...), but I do remember the great times I spent there with my family long, long ago, watching movies, playing Pong, and lusting for starship toys.

I told my son, Joel the other night that if I could time travel with him, I'd take him to Totowa in the late seventies to see Star Wars at the drive-in theater, and then buy him some ice cream and toys at Two Guys.  

He told me, without batting an eye, that it was a bad idea, because I might run into my younger self.  

And what if I bought him a toy that young JKM was supposed to own?  

The whole universe would succumb to a reality-shattering paradox!

That's my boy.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Memory Bank: Seaside Heights in the 1970's

I remember vividly -- as a very young kid, maybe six or seven -- going to the Boardwalk at Seaside Heights (the Casino Pier, I believe) in Ocean County, eating waffles and ice cream, and getting sick on an amusement park ride called The Octopus.

To this day, I have never gone back on one of those Octopus rides. The mere sight of one makes my stomach belly flop.

Also, the Wild Mouse ride that was located on the boardwalk was an important part of my personal history, at least obliquely. 

My parents had one of their first dates at Seaside Heights, and always tell stories about (the now defunct) Wild Mouse. Apparently, my mother screamed so loud on the Wild Mouse that the operator extended the ride for a second run. And then she screamed even louder...

But I also remember, from my youth, a haunted house attraction there that scared the living hell out of me.  I don't know if it was The Gates of Hell, or some other ride.  For a time in the seventies, there was a "double decker dark ride" Haunted House located there, so that maybe what I remember, but my memory is decidedly fuzzy.

What I do remember is seeing all these ghoulish, twisted faces on an exterior wall, looming above me, as we walked by the haunted house on the causeway. I remember doubling my pace to get by them.

A lot of the haunted house attractions in New Jersey were collateral damage from the 1984 fire at Great Adventure.  In the immediate aftermath of that fire, at least two haunted houses on the Jersey shore were shut down because of safety concerns.  So I doubt that the haunted house attraction I went through is still there, let alone functional.

In 2012, Seaside Heights was hit hard by Hurrican Sandy, and much Jersey Shore/boardwalk history has been destroyed. I never watched Jersey Shore (not much of a reality TV show fan...), but apparently it was also located in Seaside Heights.

The Seaside Heights I recall, however, was of the disco decade.  I remember a cool wind coming off the ocean, and this amazing feeling of having all day to explore the Boardwalk.  I recall the sensation that summer would never end.

Today, of course, I know that, according to Rod Serling, we all only get "one summer," in our lives. Seaside Heights was part of mine, I guess you'd say.

Here's a tourism video from sometime circa 1969-1975, that reveals the sights and sound of Seaside Heights as they were then.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Memory Bank: Englishtown Flea Market

English town Flea Market,
Today we have E-Bay, the greatest marketplace of collectibles in the civilized universe. But when I was growing up in New Jersey during the 1970s and 1980s there was a toy mecca of a different sort. 

It was called the Englishtown Flea Market.

The Englishtown Flea Market first opened in 1929, more than ninety years ago. It started out, according to the official history, as a “meeting place for farmers to buy, trade and sell livestock, farm equipment and produce.”

By the time I went to Englishtown for the first time, circa 1976 -- when I was seven or eight -- it was no longer a farmer’s market, but perhaps the biggest flea market/second-hand market on the East coast.  But when I first heard we were going to spend a precious Saturday there, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the news.  

We had to get up before the sun rose, drive for over an hour, and then spend the day walking around a giant flea market? 

When I could be at home watching Land of the Lost?!

Clearly, I had no idea what awaited me at Englishtown. 

But as I soon found out, the Englishtown Flea Market of that era was an incredible place to buy second-hand toys, dirt cheap.  

Photo from Mego Museum
In the span of two years, I made some great purchases at Englishtown, from the original Franz Joseph Star Trek Technical Manual (1975), to a (bobble-head) Tyrannosaur from the Mego’s One Million BC toy line.  

One time at Englishtown, I found a Kenner Six-Million Dollar Man Bionic Bigfoot/Sasquatch figure, and paid the princely sum of three dollars for him (and he even still had his pop-off chest compartment intact…).

After the first visit, we traveled to Englishtown Flea Market in Central Jersey several times a year, and every time we went, I came home with more of these unbelievable treasures.  One indoor comic-book store not only sold Marvel Planet of the Apes magazines and comics (which I always bought for the read home…) but the latest issues of Starlog as well.

There was also a late 1970s visit I distinctly remember because a dealer was selling spanking new Kenner Star Wars toys -- the Dewback, a landspeeder and Land of the Jawas play-set.  Without me saying a word, my Dad raced over to the table, asked how much for all of them, and then bought all of the toys for eight dollars.  

I remember thinking I might faint…

Going right on into the early eighties, Englishtown Flea Market never disappointed me.  I couldn’t wait for our Saturday excursions.  During that era, Englishtown was a great place to pick up old AMT model kits, and in 1982 I found an AMT Romulan Bird of Prey for a dollar (still in its box), and the Interplanetary UFO (MIB) for five dollars. I was indeed in seventh-heaven.

Some of the sights and smells of Englishtown Flea Market remain permanently impressed upon my memory to this day.  

There was a small walking bridge leading from the parking lot to the market that, when icy, became incredibly slippery and dangerous.  

And, I remember in the late 1970s that the market auctioneer was constantly announcing over the loudspeaker an exhibit for some kind of Middle Eastern Mummy Princess. We never saw the Mummy; we were sure it was a rip-off. 

There was also, the world-famous Hubcap Man, a vendor who stacked -- probably ten feet high on a wood shack -- hubcaps from every make and model of car throughout history.   I always reckoned that when we reached the Hubcap Man, we were about half-way done with the market.  
To finish the whole thing generally took several hours…but was worth it.

I also vividly recall visiting Englishtown at the depths of winter, bundled up in winter coat, hat and gloves.  

Early in the morning, my Mom and Dad would buy us bagels and hot chocolate for breakfast to help us endure the sub-zero temperatures.  My parents were good souls, too, because my sister and I would always bring our allowance to spend at the flea market, but they would always supplement it with an occasional dollar, five dollars, or ten dollars, if something special should materialize. 

Universal Task Force
Some of the weirder “special” toys I remember buying at Englishtown included a Starroid Raiders fighter ship, which was pretty clearly a knock-off of a Colonial Viper from Battlestar Galactica, and several Universal Task Force letra sets from Ideal, each being sold for around a buck.  Unfortunately, the dealer never had the one I wanted the most, “Karl the Korrector!”

I also have vivid memories of loading up so fully with neat toys half-way through Englishtown that I would walk back to our Ford van ahead of the rest of the family, unload, and start playing while I waited for the rest of the family to return.

These days, it’s nice to hunt collectibles without enduring the driving cold, without getting up before dawn, and without a long car ride through Jersey.  E-Bay and other auction sites have really made toy collecting a hell of a lot easier in some senses.  Yet the experience of visiting Englishtown Flea Market -- and the thrill of wondering what you would find there -- are ones I will not soon forget.

I last visited Englishtown Flea Market in 1990, so my wife (then girlfriend), Kathryn, got to visit it at least once.  As I recall, it was still a pretty good market at that point…but that was thirty years ago.  

Friday, April 17, 2020

Memory Bank: The Bermuda Triangle

As you no doubt recall, the Bermuda Triangle is an area in the North Atlantic Ocean where -- across the long decades -- many ships and planes have allegedly disappeared without a trace.  Stories of such vanishings were being reported as early as 1950, but it was during President Carter's 1970s that America’s obsession with this “cursed” area of the sea really took hold on a colossal scale.

One of the most famous stories involving the Bermuda Triangle involves the disappearance of a training mission consisting of five Avenger fighter planes in December of 1945.  To this day, the planes have not been located, and there are reports that the pilots reported “green smoke” or mist before they literally went off the radar.  If you saw Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), you'll remember that film's explanation: alien abduction in the Bermuda Triangle!

As the 1960s became the 1970s, several authors began writing about the vanishing of Flight 19 and other strange incidents in The Bermuda Triangle (like the 1881 case of the Meta).  Interest began to rise. 

In 1969, author John Spencer published a book called Limbo of the Lost.  And in 1974, two additional texts on the subject were published Richard Winer’s The Devil’s Triangle and Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, the latter of which became a best-seller, moving over twenty-million copies world-wide.

After those successes in print, the floodgates opened in terms of visual media.  TV movies such as Satan’s Triangle (1974) starring Doug McClure and Kim Novak, and Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (1975) starring Sam Groom, Dana Plato and Fred MacMurray soon began terrifying at-home audiences.   

The most memorable and weirdest of these 1970s TV-movies, however, was likely Rankin-Bass’s The Bermuda Depths (1978), starring Connie Sellecca, Burl Ives, and Carl Weathers. The plot concerned a giant turtle, a mysterious woman from the sea named Jenny, and the Triangle itself.

Not to be outdone, several ambitious filmmakers began to produce documentaries on the subject of the Bermuda Triangle.  Sunn Classic Pictures -- the Utah outfit behind In Search of Noah's Ark (1977), The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977) and In Search of Historic Jesus (1979) -- released The Bermuda Triangle in 1979, but that was relatively late in the game, following efforts such as The Devil’s Triangle (1974), narrated by Vincent Price, and Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle (1978).

On television, the subject was all the rage as well.  An episode of the Saturday morning series Jabber Jaw -- basically Scooby Doo with a talking shark instead of a talking dog -- in 1976 aired a story called “The Bermuda Triangle Tangle.”  Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman got into the act as well with “The Bermuda Triangle Crisis.”  

Most notable of all, however, was The Fantastic Journey (1977), a short-lived sci-fi series about a group of students who plunge through a green cloud in the Bermuda Triangle and end up on an island that straddles all periods of time.  The series starred Jared Martin, Ike Eisenmann, Katie Saylor, Carl Franklin, and Roddy McDowall.

Even non-fiction programs such as Nova (“The Case of the Bermuda Triangle”) and the Leonard Nimoy-hosted In Search Of (“The Bermuda Triangle) in the 1970s featured stories about the mysterious realm where people and vehicles would disappear from the face of the Earth.

I remember from my childhood that tales of the Bermuda Triangle absolutely fascinated the hell out of me.  

It was a mystery that could have involved time travel, aliens, or even monsters.  It was a promise, implicitly, that we had not yet learned everything about the world, and that, in some dark, mysterious realms…the impossible could still exist.     I still love the idea that we haven't explored everything, and that great mysteries still require our attention.

Of course, there a million things that could explain the various Bermuda Triangle disappearances over the years in different, more science-based terms.  But isn’t the idea of a “Devil’s Triangle” a lot more fun, spooky…and downright imaginative?  

Readers, viewers and filmmakers in the 1970s certainly thought so... 

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...