Saturday, January 22, 2022

Guest Post: Scream (2022)



Scream – The Gang's All Here

By Jonas Schwartz

 

NOTE on spoilers, though I've kept all the secrets of Scream out of my review, I do allow anything that was revealed in the trailer, as well as any information given over the last 25 years of films. If you haven't seen the original ScreamScream 2, or Scream 4, rent them immediately. The less said about Scream 3, the better. 

 

Though there are unfortunate problems plaguing the new re-quel (reboot/sequel) of the 1996 classic Scream, after 25 years, the teaming of Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette still brings joy, like being reunited with your saviors. Campbell, specifically, brings such tenderness and empowerment to her legendary role of Sydney Prescott that your stomach drops when she arrives on the screen as if you have run into a loved one for the first time in decades. Neve Campbell has always been the franchise's secret weapon, but there was another component missing that cast a pall over the entire film. Though Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett are ambitious directors, the Wes Craven touch would have brought this film together more smoothly.


 

Once again, a vicious killer in the iconic Ghostface mask is terrorizing the town of Woodsboro. A high school student (Jenna Ortega) reluctantly answers a landline setting off a string of brutal stabbings. Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) returns to town with a dark secret — one that she believes has led to these current crimes, one tracing back to the original murders. 

 

As in the past Scream movies, the film features a cast of young up-and-comers. From Ortega (Jane the Virgin) to Barrera (Showtime's Vida and HBO Max's In The Heights) as well as Mikey Madison (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood), Jack Quaid (Amazon's The Boys) and Dylan Minnette (13 Reasons Why). But as always, the cast is anchored by the three that came from the very beginning: Campbell, Cox, and Arquette. 

 

It's obvious that both the writers, James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and Guy Busick (Ready or Not). and their directors (who hit a bullseye with Ready or Not), have meticulously studied the four previous films. There are shots beautifully recaptured, sequences that mirror the original but just slightly askew, that make it clear these filmmakers revere the franchise. The writers humorously incorporate some of the fan theories over the last 25 years about past films. The creatives imbibe the film with nasty humor and mock the meta world both we and the films inhabit. They pay visual homage to other horror films like Psycho. They even comment on the actors' past career.  One character suffers the same fate as their previous character in another film, while it can't be a coincidence that Gail Weathers (Cox) now hosts a morning show, remarkably similar to her "Friend" Jennifer Aniston on the award-winning Apple+ drama, The Morning Show.  Also without mentioning the world's current pandemic, they joyfully have one character maimed due to hand sanitizer.  One character even suffers with a dark passenger ala Showtime's Dexter.  So these are not people winging it or phoning it in. 

 


However, Scream feels like an A+ thesis paper at film school, not a movie. And here's where Craven would have been able to save the day. Craven had a knack for taking the most outrageous situations and grounding them so the audience could identify and follow the characters through a journey. The original four (yes even the subpar Scream 3) work because the audience has someone to follow through the story and empathize.  Even the murderers have some distorted rationality to them.  But in this film, all the characters are mouthpieces, pronouncing every meta reference with a jackhammer, instead of functioning people. They just don’t resonate. And without giving the ending away, the crimes' reasoning is flimsy, and for such hideous and cruel butchering, rather flippant. 

 

The latest also tries to reinforce a fiction that Stab, the fictional movie being distributed during Scream 2, was filmic art. A film starring Tori Spelling. I never got the sense that Stab was more than campy schlock in Craven's mind. He was mocking the industry with Stab. But the current film puts it on a pedestal that never seemed part of Craven's vision.

 

I remember leaving a viewing of Scream 4 10+ years ago. Though a full decade had past, the 2011 film jolted you with such ingenuity, including that jaw-droppingly hilarious opening to a villain that took the film to a new level. The current Scream could make you think, could make you giggle, but at least for me, it won't make you feel anything. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

30 Years Ago Today: Freejack (1992)


"There's people at the bottom.  There's people at the top..."

Freejack (1992)



Geoff Murphy's Freejack is a loose adaptation of Robert Sheckley's 1959 celebrated science fiction novel, Immortality, Inc.  

That literary work told a tale of the year 2110 in which a man named Blaine was reincarnated (by Rex Corp.) into a future world of suicide booths, body transplants and an after-life industry in which "only the rich" went to heaven.

By contrast, the 1992 film -- now 30 years old -- centers on a famous race car driver, Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) who, during a fatal accident, is zapped into the future year of 2009.There, Alex countenances a corporate dystopia in America; one where Big Business has its corrupt hands in everything, even the ownership of the human soul.  

In this future America, our nation has lost "a trade war" with the Far East (either China or Japan, it's not clear.). Accordingly, the middle class has disappeared entirely, leaving only the haves and the have-nots in perpetual conflict. Most of the population seems to live on the over-populated streets, in shanty-towns. This is a world in which you "either hide what you have...or you lose it," according to one character.

Alex quickly discovers that his very existence is on the line because a dying CEO, McCandless (Anthony Hopkins) has paid a considerable sum of money to transport him to this future, so that he can transfer his very consciousness into Alex's young, healthy body. McCandless has only thirty-six hours to make the soul switch, or his consciousness will disappear into a kind of virtual reality/storage device called "the spiritual switchboard."

Hunting Alex down for McCandless is a mercenary and "bone jacker" named Vacendak (Mick Jagger), a man looking to collect on a big payday. And, as Alex realizes, he is a "freejack," a person whose very body is up for grabs if you possess a big enough check book.

Taken in toto, Freejack is a familiar man-on-the-run story, and that narrative pattern conforms with many cinematic dystopias, including Minority Report (2002), The Island (2005) and Logan's Run (1975), among others.

The 1992 action film also seems to owe something important to Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), with its heavy focus on action, and on a hero attempting to navigate a world and personal relationships he doesn't fully understand yet.

On the latter front, Alex re-encounters his fiancee, Julie (Rene Russo) in 2009, now a business lawyer working for McCandless.  She could either be a traitor or an ally...


In depicting the "future" world of 2009, Freejack offers some intriguing speculation. For instance, it accurately predicts the erosion of the American middle class and the economic travails of the Great Recession, but on the other hand features a world with no Internet.  

The idea of a trade war is scarily plausible, of course, and Freejack's speculation about corporations grown unbound from legal authority seems right on the money given where we are culturally today.  This guess about burgeoning corporate power, in and of itself, however, is not necessarily a reason for a positive reaction to Freejack.  

Movies such as Blade Runner (1982), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Code 46 (2005) have all concerned the rise of corporate rights over individual ones. But this overlong iteration of such a future feels phoned in and clunky, no more than a mildly colorful back drop for car chases and gun fights.

What Freejack rather determinedly lacks is the coherent vision of a director such as Spielberg or Ridley Scott, and the larger-than-life presence of an anchor such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here, Emilio Estevez is completely underwhelming as protagonist Alex Furlong. Although he rattles off the requisite one liners ("Mom told me not to pick up hitchhikers..."), Estevez  isn't able to symbolically remain above the fray like Schwarzenegger did in The Running Man and thus convey a kind of irony or bemusement about the character's situations. Estevez has very little screen presence, and his decision to play the role straight only comes across as flat.


Mick Jagger doesn't fare much better. He looks sillier in a tank helmet than Michael Dukakis did in 1988, and Jagger's abundant personal charisma doesn't translate well to the taciturn role of Vacendak. Like Estevez, Jagger seems out of his element here.

Even Hopkins is a dud in the villainous role of McCandless, the corporate soul marauder. I remember reading an interview with  Hopkins in Starlog when this film was first released, and his key to understanding and playing the character of McCandless involved the fact that his character smoked cigars. That anecdote reveals just how shallow the performances and concepts in this movie really are. Under the surface, there's almost nothing of real interest.

There's little more desperate in terms of bad movies than a would-be blockbuster that can't entertain an audience, and that's, finally, what Freejack is.

Or, as Owen Gleiberman wrote in Entertainment Weekly: "The trouble with low-rent science-fiction movies is that beneath all the futuristic gimcrackery — the video phones and laser guns and hyperspace leaps, the obligatory time-travel setups — you realize, at some point, that you're watching a routine urban chase thriller: Lethal Weapon 2000."

Yep.  Clearly, the opportunity was here to present Freejack as what author and scholar Paul Meehan terms a "tech noir," the kind of gritty, involving film that fuses high technology with low, basic human impulses. 

But Freejack can't get there. The film doesn't dig deep enough  about the reasons why such a miserable future has come to pass, or even why the characters respond the way they do to such a world. The film's idea of humor is to feature a crotch-kicking, shotgun-armed nun in a habit (Amanda Plummer), but no thought or explanation is given to her demeanor or belief system. She's just a joke, not a person we can understand.

And the future world of Freejack looks ramshackle and cheap (a lot like Johnny Mnemonic, actually), with just a few "futuristic" cars dotting the streets. Worse,  the action scenes are incredibly dire.  The film lurches from one boring chase sequence to another and then -- finally -- ends with a trippy virtual reality light show that today seems conspicuously dated, a relic from the age of such films as The Lawnmower Man (1992).

To put it another way, the entire film stakes itself on action, and then, in the last scene, attempts to thrill with metaphysical gymnastics. It fails in both instances.

Perhaps Freejack's biggest hurdle is the film's thoroughly uncritical eye about the miserable future it attempts to portray.

At the end of the movie, Alex survives the cosmic switchboard and fools the authorities into believing he is actually McCandless, the CEO of the biggest and most powerful corporation in the world.  Now Alex has access to money, power and lots and lots of fast cars. He could change the world, save all the freejacks, and work for a better tomorrow. 

But does he?  

Of course not.

As the end credits roll on Freejack, Alex drives off in McCandless's luxury car, beautiful Rene Russo at his side. He's not looking back...or forward.  Nope, he just beat the bad guy and that's all the movie cares about.

With money and Russo to keep him flush and happy, Alex will get by in Corporate Land just fine...

So much for those have-nots on the streets below...

Sunday, January 16, 2022

50 Years Ago Today: The Sixth Sense (1972)


“You enter a strange room for the first time, yet you know you’ve been there before.  You dream about an event that happens some days later…A coincidence?  Maybe. But more than likely, it is extrasensory perception, a sixth sense that many scientists believe we all possess, but rarely use.”


-          From The Sixth Sense Press Kit, published in Senior Scholastic: “The Sixth Sense,” September 18, 1972, page 22).
-           

Writer Anthony Lawrence created the The Sixth Sense after the success of a 1971 TV movie titled Sweet, Sweet Rachel, which involved a parapsychology expert, Lucas Darrow (Alex Dreier) protecting two women from psychic assassins. When the television movie proved successful in terms of ratings, ABC wanted a quick follow-up. Lawrence and developer Stan Shpetner thus crafted The Sixth Sense, a series which would follow the adventures of another parapsychology expert, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins).  

The series premiered 50 years ago, today.

During every episode of The Sixth Sense the preternaturally patient and calm Dr. Rhodes would investigate a complex mystery featuring psychic overtones.  That case might involve astral projection (“Face of Ice”), premonitions (“If I Should Die Before I Wake,”) automatic writing (“I Do Not Belong to the Human World,”) aura photography (“The Man Who Died at Three and Nine”), witchcraft (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright”), apparitions (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), spiritual possession (“With Affection, Jack the Ripper) cryogenics (“Once Upon a Chilling”) or even organ transplant (“The Eyes That Would Not Die.” Usually Rhodes solved the mystery at hand by working closely with a beautiful woman in jeopardy.  

This damsel-in-distress role was played, in various installments, by beloved genre actresses such as Mariette Hartley (“Eye of the Haunted”), Pamela Franklin (“I Did Not Mean to Slay Thee”), Stefanie Powers (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), Tiffany Bolling (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright), Lucie Arnaz (“With This Ring I thee Kill), Mary Ann Mobley (“Shadow in the Well), Carol Lynley (“The House that Cried Murder) and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave?”)


And among those talents working behind-the-scenes on The Sixth Sense -- at least for a time -- were Gene Coon, Harlan Ellison and the late D.C. Fontana.  I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Fontana in 2001, and our conversation veered briefly to The Sixth Sense. She recalled to me that in her opinion, developer Shpetner was difficult to work with because he had so many story dislikes: 

He didn’t like children.  He didn’t like women.  He didn’t like men…He didn’t like stories about sick people, or emotionally ill people.  He didn’t like stories about poor people.  He didn’t like stories about ethnic people.  Essentially it came down to us doing stories about rich white people who didn’t have any problems.  And that was a problem for me.”

Fontana’s tenure on the show was, perhaps not surprisingly, short-lived:  “I left one day, and Harlan Ellison left either the day before me or the day after me.  It all happened in fast succession, I can tell you that much…It’s too bad, because the potential for stories about extra sensory perception and abilities was great.”

The abundant flaws of The Sixth Sense are apparent today. For one thing, Dr. Rhodes always helped beautiful, young (25 – 35) white women, but never actively romanced any of them. He just seemed to inhabit a white, upper-class world of beautiful, psychically gifted females. 

And secondly, as a character Rhodes was not permitted to grow or show much by way of passionate emotion.  Collins’ performance on the series is actually kind of brilliant in a weird way, simultaneously minimalist and intense.  

But the writing never ascribes much by way of humor or personal life to the man.  As a lead character, Rhodes is certainly dedicated and helpful -- and physically capable – but we know precisely nothing about him save for his unwavering support for ESP and parapsychology studies. It would have been great if the series had more fully explored his background, including his childhood and the development of his abilities as a “sensitive.” 


On the other hand, The Sixth Sense triumphed in two notable areas.  In the first, it features some great guest appearances by the likes of Joan Crawford (“Dear Joan: We Are Going to Scare You To Death”), William Shatner (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), and Lee Majors (“With This Ring, I Thee Kill.”).  Today, it’s a thrill to see Cloris Leachman, Patty Duke, Sandra Dee, Henry Silva, June Allyson and Sharon Gless, among others, get menaced by strange paranormal “phenomena.”

Of more legitimate interest is the series’ second strength: jarring and disturbing visuals and special effects.  Some of the imagery in the series remains downright haunting.  In “The Heart that Wouldn’t Stay Buried” a man is attacked by the statue of a bird, and it’s a trippy moment.   In “Witness Within,” jump-cuts, slow-motion photography and a nice eerie blend of light and shadow make a nocturnal attack almost pulse-pounding.  Likewise, in “Lady, Lady, Take My Life,” an insufferable bureaucrat is murdered by a psychic “cathexis,  and the he screen goes blood red (with terror) as the poor man suffers twin aneurysms.  

In one of my favorite episodes, the bizarre “Once Upon a Chilling” a man’s spirit is projected outside of his cryogenic chamber and his spectral face is coated in dripping, cracked ice…an image which terrifies rather than informs.  In moments such as these you can sense a real imagination in the visual presentation of the stories.  If the stories were all up to snuff, and not so predictable in terms of character, The Sixth Sense would have been a contender.


Some of the more intriguing episodes in the series include the one starring Shatner and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), written by Gene Coon.  And “With this Ring I Thee Kill,” starring Lee Majors and Lucie Arnaz proves a weird call back to Faustian legends and stories. The episode featuring Joan Crawford (and directed by John Newland) is also a humdinger, since it pits the Hollywood legend against Mansonite cult member crazies.  

In spite of flaws, The Sixth Sense must be viewed as something of a pioneer in terms of horror television programming.  It is the first horror-oriented series, for instance, to feature continuing characters rather than an anthology format.  It pre-dates Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) by two years, in this regard.  Considering that place of importance in the horror genre, the series certainly merits a good streaming or blu-ray release.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Fifty Years Ago Today: The Night Stalker (1972)


The Night Stalker, a TV movie first aired fifty years ago, on January 11, 1972, was -- and for many years after, remained -- the highest rated TV movie of a generation.

It also introduced a hero, Kolchak who returned in a second TV-movie, a TV series in 1974, and a reboot in the mid-2000s. 

Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970's.  

There, down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor, Tony Vincenzo. It seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out much hope.

In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their corpses drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit.

Kolchak considers this avenue of investigation, but runs into a brick wall erected by the mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die.

Finally, once the culprit is named - Janos Skorzeny - the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no effect on the oddly youthful assailant. Realizing it is up to him to put anen d to this nightmare, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. But In order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good. 

Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.

Richard Matheson (1926 - 2013) is a legitimate genre great, and as such penned some brilliant teleplays, including Duel (1973), too many Twilight Zones to name here and, of course, The Night Stalker

In this project, he provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even a sense of humor. The late Darren McGavin (1922 - 2006) does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat delivery that is unmatched to this day. 

Kolchak's not your typical TV protagonist, but rather a persistent voice for the truth, a fact which distinguishes him in this era of fake news. The Night Stalker introduces us to a man who lives on the edge, in a cynical time, and yet there is an optimism here that I appreciate, having a training in journalism. Embedded in Kolchak's DNA is the once-popular and common-held belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the telefilm and follow-up series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and a compliant media. Kolchak -- for all his failures as a human being -- is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a story...no matter where it takes him.

The made-for-TV movie's story itself -- about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas -- remains more intriguing, perhaps, for what it doesn't directly tell audiences. Rather than spoon-feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.



For instance, late in the story, Kolchak breaks into Skorzeny's house and finds an open traveler's crate. Inside the trunk, we see Skorzeny's disguises, and even some make-up. He finds face-paint and wigs, and instantly (but importantly, without comment...) we get a sense of the vampire's long history, and his travels from Berlin to London to Canada to the United States (as enumerated in a police press conference.) 

It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, well-traveled to boot.

I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was shot by director John Llewelyn Moxey. The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze

As a set-up for the first vampire attack in a dark alley, it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool -- a hand-held camera -- and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot, and an atmospheric one too. The hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're among the street walkers.  There's a feeling here that we're going to see an underside to an underside of Las Vegas.

Watching the tele-film, I also noticed how the soundtrack goes almost completely silent during Kolchak's long, tense exploration of Skorzeny's house. No mood music to speak of; very few sound effects, even. The sequence must have lasted a good four or five minutes, and when the music and sound effects did finally arrive (as Skorzeny returns home...) the transition from silence simply made the denouement all that more exciting.

One of the things that I will always love about Darren McGavin's Kolchak is the fact that we say he's a hero, but he really isn't a traditional, physical hero. As displayed here, Kolchak's great gift is that he speaks truth and common sense to power. That's a wonderful trait. But it's not exactly something that comes in handy while monster hunting. So he's vulnerable in a very sympathy-provoking way.

There's a great moment in this telefilm when Kolchak walks to his car at night. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense -- just a sense -- that there's someone in the car with him. 

He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of him. There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (or his embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human, and therefore realistic. McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale. 


None of the action in the film would work half-as-well if McGavin were a more traditionally handsome, more physically "capable" kind of action-hero. As it is, we breathe a sigh of relief that he made it through the night! (Let alone a TV series and a series of "monsters of the week.").  His colorful hero has endured for half-a-century now.

Monday, January 10, 2022

55 Years Ago Today: The Invaders (1967-1968)


For those who don't quite remember it, The Invaders is the grandfather of paranoia and horror television series; one of the first such ventures to posit that "THEY" are among us: alien invaders (hidden in human form save for a pinky finger that juts out at an odd angle...), bent on our destruction.

These alien invaders in human bodies "have a plan" -- to coin a phrase -- to occupy and dominate the Earth. Accordingly, much of The Invaders' suffocating aura of paranoia arises from the fact that it is difficult to distinguish between human beings and extra-terrestrials. And worse, the aliens have already infiltrated every level of American (and possibly global...) infrastructure.

The Invaders,
which began 55 years ago today, commences with a brilliantly-wrought pilot. The episode is titled "Beachhead" and in this inaugural program, audiences are introduced to dashing architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes). 


Thinnes is a perfect leading man for this venture and this era -- the late 1960s -- and this alpha male shares the belligerent but virile yin/yang of that era's other leading men like Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughn, William Shatner and Charlton Heston. 

Which means, basically, that's he's attractive and arrogant at the same time; both enticing and a little entitled. It's a master-stroke to put the beautiful but bellicose Thinnes into this particular situation -- facing an alien invasion alone -- because audiences expect this American paragon of white male virility to win and, shockingly, he doesn't. Or at least not usually. .

But let's not jump the gun. In "Beachhead," David Vincent is out on a road trip alone, driving by blackest night when takes a wrong turn (literally and figuratively). 


We see his car run roughshod over a sign reading "road closed" but it might as well have read "dead end." 

Vincent navigates his car through a thick mist and then parks near an abandoned roadside eatery, Bud's Diner. 

As a voice-over narrator asks viewers the question "how does a nightmare begin?" we see the answer for ourselves: Vincent awakens from his late-night highway-hypnosis to see an impressive alien saucer land in the field just feet beyond his car. 




Vincent's face lit in pulsating hues of alien crimson, and we watch as emotions like wonder, amazement and fear cross his face in extreme close-up. This moment is a watershed: an awakening for the character in more ways than one.

After Vincent's encounter with the alien saucer, things are never the same for this man, and since Larry Cohen (of It's Alive fame) is the creator of the series, that means we're in for something clever and even a bit subversive just beneath The Fugitive-like tableau of the series. 




In this case, the series depicts a WASP-y figure of the establishment (David Vincent) suddenly introduced to the new America of the mid-to-late 1960s; the sub-culture or emerging counter-culture. Through his "radical" belief in an alien invasion, Vincent finds himself shunned by figures of the American ruling class (co-workers, government officials, the wealthy, and so forth) and even hunted by them (particularly the police force). These individuals now view Vincent with disdain because he has forsaken his safe "role" in white, middle-class American society for that of a prophet...a doomsayer warning of planetary emergency.

In one episode, "Nightmare," a group of white rednecks in rural Kansas beat-up David at a diner called "The Lunch Counter" and it is impossible not to be reminded of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and how -- literally -- there was no seat at the table (or lunch counter) for those outside Nixon's "silent" and white majority. 


David is pulled off a lunch stool while minding his own business, beat up, dragged away by the police and jailed...with no charges leveled. The Invaders, in depicting an outcast member of the silent majority searching desperately for legitimacy, says much about the America of the day and the fears of that time about speaking out; about dissent.

Making David Vincent's claims of alien invasion that much harder to prove, some Invaders have "evolved" and no longer bear the telltale finger anomaly, which is oddly similar to a corrupted "peace" gesture from the 1960s).



Notice the pinky finger...

Even more dramatically, when destroyed in battle, the Invaders disintegrate in red flame, leaving behind no evidence of their presence. The end result is that Vincent just looks like a nut-case again and again, unable to co-opt others into his :paranoid fantasy."

The Invaders begins as a superb paranoia trip, and the second episode "The Experiment" ratchets up the fear-factor to an incredible degree for the 1960s. Here, the Invaders appear as archetypal men-in-black. These menacing figures in black fedoras and trench coats systematically kill enemies who have witnessed their plots. 


They do so with small black disks which - when applied to the nape of the human neck - cause cerebral hemorrhage and mimic a natural death. The Invaders also arrange for a plane crash in this episode, hoping to murder a prominent scientist who is about to reveal the alien plan to a conference in New York. The scientist is ultimately killed, betrayed by his son, (played by a young Roddy McDowall). 

This war of the generations (then known as "the Generation Gap"), with young Roddy decrying his father as an "enemy," is, not coincidentally, controlled by the Invaders. They keep the son in line with brainwashing drugs; another commentary on the 1960s, only this time the drug culture of the day.

Each episode of The Invaders finds David Vincent moving from locale to locale in hopes of providing evidence of the alien menace. He finds an abandoned town whose economy has been destroyed by Big Business (again - aliens!) in "Beachhead."




In "The Mutation" (January 24, 1967) he travels to Mexico and meets a female Invader (Suzanne Pleshette), one who is indistinguishable from humans because she has developed emotions, unlike the others. This particular plot is the well-spring for many episodes and concepts on the remade Battlestar Galactica, particularly the notion of an "inhuman" being feeling, well, human. 

In "Genesis," (February 7, 1967) Vincent learns that the Invaders have taken over a sea lab in hopes of resurrecting a dead leader. In "Nightmare," (February 21, 1967) the American farmland is targeted by the Invaders as the aliens deploy a weapon that causes locusts to swarm and attack. The photography in this episode alone makes it a worthwhile entry to the canon: there are an abundance of beautiful shots of in a wide open cornfield, Vincent outrunning the locusts like he's Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1960).

Each episode of The Invaders is fifty minutes long. The series aired before commercials had eaten into the broadcast hour (which today is 42 minutes). As a result, these episodes do tend to move more slowly than modern audiences might prefer. 


In addition, Thinnes is asked to carry much of the series without much aid from the writers.What I mean by that is that the screenplays do not delve -- at all -- into Vincent's background or even his human psychology. 

How does he keep fighting? Is he tired? Angry? Remorseful? Lonely? 

In his singular focus, Thinnes is almost always: facing down the enemy and consistently winning battles but losing the war (sounds like Vietnam, no?) There are no large story-arcs; no serialized stories on The Invaders and today that feels like a serious deficit. Instead, the episodes is often left wanting to know more about Vincent.

Were the series to be remade today, I suspect we'd get much more information about this hero as a human being - as a fallible man -- and a lot less of his Invader-smashing. 


As it stands, one episode after the other features Vincent stopping the alien plan of the day, only to move on and do the same thing again.That does get tiring, and truth be told, a little boring, but The Invaders is photographed so beautifully, and the social subtext of the series (going into the transitional and tumultuous year of 1968) makes the series much more than the sum of its occasionally inadequate parts.

In time, and over the course of the series, the black trench coats and fedoras give way to streamlined blue jumpsuits (blue seems to be the color of the alien technology too...), a format change that makes the aliens less scary, more like agents of SMERSH or something. 

But the first several episodes of The Invaders are hardcore horror. You almost can't believe how dark and sinister they are. These segments also remind me of The Prisoner with Vincent a scorned man alone facing conspiracies, corrupt authority, and multiple brain-washing techniques (including, inevitably, alien leeches).

The best way to enjoy The Invaders, in my opinion, is to view it as a product of its time (the late 60s) -- and also, perhaps, as a product significantly ahead of its time since there have been so many imitators. 

Despite the touches that date it, this cult-TV program is still a powerhouse of paranoia.

Saturday, January 08, 2022

It is the Year 2022... (Soylent Green [1973])



In the 21st century, virtually every film lover with a good movie IQ knows the secret of Soylent Green.

It's a punch-line that is surpassed only by the climactic revelation of another Charlton Heston sci-fi film, 1968's Planet of the Apes

Still, our familiarity with the movie's final narrative "twist" does Soylent Green, directed ably by Richard Fleischer, little disservice, for the film is a brilliantly-crafted example of dystopian futurism; a daring vision second only, perhaps, to Blade Runner.

And like that 1982 Ridley Scott classic, Soylent Green utilizes the parameters of a familiar genre -- the police procedural -- to weave its caustic story of a future world gone awry. 

This is a future noir; a detective story that boasts a devilish but cunning endgame: to lead the viewer, bread-crumb by bread-crumb to a commentary on the "path" mankind is currently on; and to a grim destiny it may not be able to evade if humanity doesn't change its ways. 

And soon…



In the crowded, over-populated, global-warming ravaged year of 2022, Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) and his researcher, Sol (Edward G. Robinson) must solve the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive, Simonson (Joseph Cotton) at the ritzy Chelsea West.

As Thorn questions Simonson’s body guard, Tab (Chuck Connors) and mistress, Shirl (Leigh Taylor Young), he comes to suspect that the murder was no simply break-in, as was believed.  Rather, it was an assassination.  

In particular, Simonson knew a secret about the popular protein food wafer, Soylent Green…one that could up-end the very social order of life in over-stressed New York City.

When Sol learns the horrible secret of Soylent Green, he chooses to “go home,” a euphemism for being euthanized by the State.  Thorn witnesses Sol’s going “home” ceremony, and gets a look at the beautiful Earth as it once was, before man soiled it.



Based on the novel "Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green evidences an authentic apocalypse mentality. It is a gloomy vision of the year 2022. New York City is populated by some forty million people; twenty million of them out of work. The city streets are bathed constantly in a nausea-provoking yellow haze, a result of "the greenhouse effect" of global warming.  

Meanwhile, the innumerable homeless denizens of this urban blight sleep on staircases, in parked cars, and street corners, all-the-while suffering in roasting temperatures (the average daily temperature according to the film is 90 degrees.) The Big Apple experiences numerous power black-outs in the film, yet it isn't just the city where things have turned bad.

We also learn from the dialogue that the oceans "are dying," "polluted," and that there is very little good farmland remaining in America. As for Gramercy Park, all that's left of the foliage there is a pitiful sanctuary where a few anemic trees grow in relative safety. Food supplies are incredible tight, and there is strict rationing of supplies. 

And in what is perhaps its most visually-stunning sequence, Soylent Green escorts the viewers to an outdoor urban market on a typical Tuesday ("Tuesday is Soylent Green Day!") and reveals what happens when supplies of food are exhausted. 



There's a riot, and then a violent confrontation between helmeted police forces and the throngs of starving people. It looks like a contemporary WTO riot multiplied by a factor of a hundred.

In 2007, the Associated Press reported that 50% percent of the world's population now lives in cities, so Soylent Green's phantasm of a stressed-out, overpopulated City-State, run by a craven politician, Governor Santini, looks markedly more plausible today than it did in 1973. And certainly the climate-change apocalypse feels more relevant in the Zeitgeist of the 21st century too. But where Soylent Green truly acquires psychic frisson as cinematic prophecy is in the depiction of "Two New Yorks.”  

To wit, there is no middle-class remaining in New York City. It's extinct. 


In this U.S. imagined here, you're either part of the teeming, homeless, starving masses that inhabit every nook and cranny in the metropolis or separated from the poor and the unpleasant squalor of street life in glorious and luxurious apartment complexes. 



There, in spacious air-conditioned quarters, the super-rich play video games on home consoles (another nice bit of prophecy for 1973...), enjoy hot and cold running water (another luxury denied the masses), purchase black market items like real vegetables and beef, and are protected by security systems.  

The rich also get another perk with their fancy domiciles: “furniture.” But in this case, “furniture” is the name for prostitutes, gorgeous young women who perform sexual acts for their masters in return for food, water, and the other luxuries of life.  

So in this world, the Haves and the Have Mores have separated themselves from the rest of humanity, and ignore their plight. It's easy to do, what with the video games, the TVs, the air-conditioning and the refrigerators...

Charlton Heston, again fronts what is undeniably a leftist science-fiction vision, and does so as only Heston can: with swaggering charm, arrogance, and unswerving intelligence. 

In this case, he plays Detective Thorn of the 14th Precinct; a man who is a product of his time; meaning that he is mostly ignorant of history and just trying to survive and do "his job." Thorn is just one among many corrupt cops. For instance, when he's assigned to investigate the murder (actually an assassination) of a rich man, William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten) of the Soylent Corporate Board, Thorn steals as much as he can from the crime scene. He takes a bottle of bourbon, some refrigerated beef (a rare commodity), and a few reference books about Soylent Green, a tightly-rationed "miracle food" that is ostensibly based on Plankton and other sea life.  

Thorn also partakes of another luxury in Simonson's apartment, the aforementioned “furniture." In this case, said furniture is a woman, Shirl, who comes with the apartment, regardless of tenant.  She’s just looking for a way to survive too.

Investigating the death of Simonson, Thorn is assisted by an assistant or colleague called a "Police Book." Since electric power routinely goes out, there are no longer any reliable police information databases, Google searches, or other electronic systems to rely on. Instead, every detective has an assistant or partner, a "book," a researcher who marshals what resources he can (including an elaborate “Book Exchange" – a kind of person-to-person Internet) to learn about relevant suspects and perpetrators. 

Thorn's "book" is named Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), an elderly man who remembers how things used to be: wide open spaces; beautiful oceans; untouched fields, and food aplenty. He recalls a world of hot/cold running water, "real" butter and strawberry jam that didn't cost $150.00 per jar. In one of Soylent Green's finest and most memorable scenes, Sol prepares for Thorn a dinner like the ones he used to eat years earlier; one that includes crisp apples, beef stew, and other lost delicacies. 

The time and attention spent on what viewers today would consider a normal meal  -- but which to these characters is a once-in-a-lifetime extravagance -- makes a cogent point about a life of limited resources; and a booming population's overtaxing of the planet. 

These little things that we take for granted are suddenly big things. Suddenly, the engaged viewer realizes how "lucky" we are in America; how we live in a world of plenty. We also realize how fragile that status of “lucky” might be. 

A later scene involves Thorn taking his first hot shower in months (with Shirl as his companion) and againSoylent Green deploys simple imagery to make its point. The movie focuses on the small, human things to establish a truly miserable future. The quiet, intimate nature of the dinner scene and later the shower scene not only establish much in terms of character relationships (for instance, Thorn doesn't know how to eat an apple...), but also reinforce that recurring idea of those things lost in this future; in the hustle-bustle of so-called "progress." 

It's all extremely touching and yet markedly unromantic and unsentimental too. There's no candy-coating in Soylent Green about days that were better in the past; when the human animal was a better species. 

"People were always rotten," establishes Sol. "But the world was beautiful."  In other words, man was just as bad in the past, but he had some environmental leeway, at least. 

 In this world of 2022, he has none.


Stylistically, Soylent Green is a much more accomplished film than it has often been credit for. It begins impressively with sepia tone images from American history joined together in a tightly-edited montage. We see in old photographs the advancement of technology during the American century; the rapid progression from a rural, agricultural country to an industrialized one. 

The movie escorts us in this montage from Huckleberry Finn-style views of wide open spaces and serenity to -- over just a few seconds of screen time -- overpopulated, bustling modernity. As the montage continues, the images come at the viewer faster and faster; form echoing content. The world of the cities, of airplanes, of cars, moves faster than the world of covered wagons and farmers so it's natural the images would move quicker too. 

Again, it's a touching and surprisingly effective way to commence a science fiction film, and it puts a larger context upon the story. This montage reminds the viewer where we've been, before taking us where we're going; into the uncertain future.  It also connects explicitly our behavior in the past to the results that behavior creates in the present and future. In the age of pandemic, it is interesting that Soylent Green features so much of imagery of citizens wearing face masks, in the montage, and later in the riot scene.




Later, the film's most often discussed scene occurs. A depressed and hopeless Sol Roth goes "home," to a place in the middle of the city (which resembles a sports arena...) where he can be quickly and cleanly euthanized by the State. 

In this location, he's provided a twenty-minute death ceremony in what looks like an I-Max theater and comfort salon, with the images of his youthful world projected all around him. Sol sees beautiful oceans, wild deer, endless fields of flowers and so forth, all while bathed in a light of his favorite color (orange) and to the tune of his favorite genre of music (classical; or “make that light classical”). 

This death montage, like the montage presented at the beginning of the film, reminds audiences of the past; of what has been lost in the modern technological age. It's important in the film not just as a tender goodbye to Sol. On the contrary, Thorn witnesses these amazing scenes too...and weeps at the power of them. He is a man who has grown up in the "ugly" future world -- a place literally devoid of nature -- and come to accept the limitations of his world. He didn't know, nay "couldn't have known" what the world once was. 



And so his mentor, Sol, has passed on one final bit of wisdom to him; to the next generation: a natural vision of what human existence COULD be. Until Thorn sees this pastoral montage, he didn't really know that there was an option; didn't really understand what had been lost in the crush of industrialization and over-population.

Soylent Green is a film dominated by powerful, stunning imagery. One vision that struck me, and which I had forgotten about entirely before a recent re-watch, finds Thorn stumbling upon the corpse of a woman in an alley by dark of night. Strapped to her by a makeshift wire leash is her still-living -- and weeping -- child. 

This image speaks of the film's narrative context in a manner that dialogue or exposition simply cannot. The child was strapped to her mother, no doubt, because Mom didn't want them to be separated from one another in the maddeningly overpopulated streets, perhaps at the outdoor food market. 

So she jury-rigged this leash of sorts to keep them together. 



What Mom couldn't have predicted was that she would die (either of starvation or perhaps she was murdered...) and that the child would still be anchored to her; trapped.

Good intentions have gone awry (likely another metaphor for the film's overriding theme: of something ostensibly good [technology and modernization] having unintended consequences…) 

But what is so meaningful about this image is that it remains wholly un-sentimentalized. Nobody comments on the event or the tragedy at all. Heston's character "rescues" the child by taking the little moppet to a nearby church. But he says nothing and offers no commentary. The movie has no “words” for either the child or the dead parent. This scene is so "normal" in the world of Soylent Green that it isn't worth a passing remark, even an exclamatory curse. Instead, the filmmakers just silently observe a devastating moment.

In the cutthroat world of Soylent Green, there is no time to for self-aggrandizing hand-wringing.  It’s too late for that.  Life is too difficult. Millions of tragedies go unnoticed on the streets every day, no doubt. Why is this gruesome sight of a dead mother and trapped child any different?

The film's ending also speaks to this truth in some fashion. The film offers a tight zoom on Thorn's bloody arm and hand as he is carried away on a stretcher. He shouts the truth for all to hear ("Soylent Green is made out of people") but he goes, essentially, unheard. 

We understand this because the film goes entirely black around his gnarled, dying hand, in essence restricting Thorn’s presence in the frame. The frame itself has shrunk. The association with this image is that the truth in Soylent Green's world can't be heard; it holds only a "sliver" of space in the overlapping, multitudinous dialogue of a City-State overrun and failing.



If you're so inclined, you can gaze at the things Soylent Green gets wrong and laugh at the picture, I guess. Charlton Heston wears neckerchiefs throughout the film, an odd and flamboyant fashion choice. There are rotary phones in evidence too, in 2022! 

But on balance, Soylent Green gets more right about "the future" than it gets wrong. It accurately predicts the erosion of the middle class, the obsession with global climate change, and the ever-growing and corrupting nexus of politics with corporations.  

Specifically, the Soylent Green Company and Governor Santini are in on a deep dark conspiracy. The specter of "illegal immigration" and a "third world invasion" that some pundits now fear so greatly is also bubbling just beneath the surface in the film.  Just look at how many of the extras in the film are non-whites or non-Europeans. 

In broad strokes, Soylent Green also addresses the danger and inevitability of a police state to regulate a rapidly increasing population. In some senses, Soylent Green even points to the ubiquitous nature of contemporary entertainment: we even watch TV when we're about to die. Death is rendered palatable through the comfort of zoning out; of being -- literally -- a couch potato. Instead of seeking comfort in death from family members, we seek it in enjoying our favorite “TV show.”

In addition to these still-relevant themes, Soylent Green is a handsome production. There are some remarkably effective matte paintings in the film; ones that still hold up well. And Fleischer makes good use of his "extras," filling every frame and every moment of the film, save those at the spacious apartment at Chelsea West, with unkempt, exhausted-looking, world-weary bodies.

Soylent Green presents an oppressive, dark future. There's no "out" for the characters as there is in Blade Runner, for instance, with the inclusion of the off-world colonies and other worlds to explore. 

Indeed, Shirl suggests "running" at some point to Thorn, and he rightfully replies "where are we going to go?"

Every city in America is just like this city; and it is illegal to leave the country. In bringing forward this point, Soylent Green suggests that if we don't change our ways, we will all be living in a purgatory of our own making. 

We can’t escape the planet Earth, but just look at the way we are treating our only home… 

70 Years Ago: The Adventures of Superman: "Superman on Earth"

“Come now on a far journey…a journey that takes us millions of miles from Earth…” -           -  Adventures of Superman:  “Superman on Earth...