Saturday, July 30, 2022

50 Years Ago Today: Deliverance (1972)

“I think only one thing; that men…settle for too little in their lives. And this chance encounter in the river was for…Ed Gentry, some kind of opening to a dark place he would never know was there…John Berryman [the poet] once said that a man can live his whole life in this country without knowing if he is a coward or not.  I think it is necessary for him to know.”

-     - James Dickey, on Deliverance, in author David Zinman’s survey, Fifty Grand Movies of the 1960s and 1970s. (Crown Publishers, 1986, page 133).

Early in John Boorman’s harrowing and savage film
 Deliverance, a character notes, rightly: “You don’t beat it.  You don’t beat this river.

He is discussing, explicitly, the raw power of Mother Nature and a roaring river, but he might as well be communicating something significant about human nature.  You don’t beat it.  You don’t conquer it.  It is part of your essential make-up.  And when the situation calls for it, all those “evolved” senses of civilization and civility simply fall away by necessity. 

Or else you die.

Now 50 years old, Deliverance asks its audience some pretty serious questions about human nature by forging a streamlined but illuminating scenario wherein four men -- each one symbolizing elements of modern American life -- embark on a recreational journey down a river, but conquer there not a new apex or summit.  Instead, they countenance a particularly personal brand of horror.  And these men live or die largely based on the qualities they bring to the river with them.

In terms of the film’s deeper meaning, one must consider what it means, precisely, to be “delivered.” “Deliverance” is the act of being rescued or “set free.”  A few of the protagonists in the film escape the river and its challenges, of course.  They are literally “delivered” from mortal danger.  But I don’t believe this is the deliverance of which the title specifically speaks.

For one man, Ed (John Henry) the terrifying journey is all about setting his nature free so he can survive a life-and-death contest and thus see his family again.  Now, this may sound trite, simplistic, or even unnecessarily macho.  A terrible ordeal sets one free?  A man can only test himself through violence, or by meting out death?  

That criticism misses the point.  For Ed the point is very much the self-knowledge he gleans after he is forcibly set free. 

Who is he now? How does he go back to his civilized life with the things he has learned about himself? How does he stuff the ugly truth back down, and go about facing a meaningless job, or living a life of polite domesticity with his wife and children?   The ultimate irony is that Ed needed his “dark side” to return to his family, but his dark side – now alive – has no place with that family.  Suddenly, Ed belongs in neither the civilized world nor the savage one.

So Deliverance reveals to its Every Man his dark side in living, breathing color.  Once knowledgeable about this hidden facet of his nature, there’s simply no going back to the innocence of paradise.  Ed ends the film suffering from traumatic nightmares of the experience, a changed man.  Thus Deliverance concerns a problem with our modern safe-and-secure lives.  Once forcibly exiled from the Garden of Eden, can a man or woman ever be a fit citizen to return?

“Don't ever do nothin' like this again. Don't come back up here.” 

In Deliverance, Ed (Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) brave the roaring rapids of the Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia.  They do so because the river will soon be gone:  transformed into a placid lake by bulldozers and other instruments of man’s modern technology.

On the trip, the friends unexpectedly encounter belligerent mountain men (Bill McKinney, Herbert Coward).  These mountain men rape Bobby, and threaten to do something much worse to Ed.  But the city men kill one of the locals, and then debate their moral responsibility in the matter.  Drew wants to inform the police.  But Lewis is convinced that the police will view them as outsiders, as automatically guilty.  Over Drew’s objections, the group decides to bury the body and not inform the authorities of the conflict.  Soon this river will be at the bottom of a lake, and no one will ever find out what happened… 

Unfortunately, one mountain man is still alive…and gunning for these weekend warriors.  When Lewis is badly injured on the rapids, Ed must scale a treacherous rock face to take out the threat.  But he’s never killed anyone before, and he’s scared to death… 

“Let's just wait and see what comes out of the river.

Nature gets raped too...

Deliverance plays almost like some fiendishly clever and sadistic psychology or personality test.  You take four diverse specimens of 1970s manhood and then make them endure existential threats from nature, and from frightening mountain men.  How will they react?

Our first subject is Drew (Cox), the affirmed “bleeding heart liberal” of the foursome, and the man who attempts to make certain that society’s established laws successfully transition to the wild.  In other words, Drew’s response to the violent attacks is an intellectual or a cerebral one.  Therefore, he still views the law as a viable solution to the dilemma. “It’s a matter of the law,” he declares of the mountain man’s murder.  

Yet there is no law present in the jungle or on the river to mediate the matter.  Disillusioned, Drew grows virtually catatonic at this knowledge.  And accordingly, he’s the first to die. What do we glean from this information?  

Perhaps that the voice of society or morality has little practical value in a Darwinian, kill-or-be-killed universe.

Drew can’t adapt to a world without the artificial infrastructure that made and nurtured him, and so he dies.   Drew’s skill set -- abstract thinking and an artistic bent (he’s a musician) -- don’t permit him to tap into his primitive self.  He dies because he can’t access that crucial part of his nature.  He won't put himself above the law -- symbolically refusing to put on his life jacket -- and so he dies.

Of all the characters in the film, Drew is probably the one I most sympathize with; the one I imagine I’m probably most like in a crisis.  I’d like to say I’m like Ed…but who knows?  I tend to seek answers in consensus and spend most of my time debating art.   So nobody take me on a trip to a river, okay?

By contrast, Lewis (Reynolds) is undeniably a representation of American swagger, arrogance and authority.  He’s a macho man who believes that all life is risk, and who lords it over his friends about what a tough guy he is.  He’s not so tough, however, once badly injured.  In fact, deprived of his physical acumen, Lewis becomes a whimpering suck-up to Ed, who has by then established his credibility as a capable man.  The message here is that overconfidence, vanity, and arrogance don’t survive in the wild, either.  Nature doesn’t like excess, whether in terms of abstract thinking (like Drew) or in terms of reckless, over-the-top muscle-flexing (like Lewis).  If Drew was all brain, Lewis is all muscle.  Neither one strikes the necessary balance to survive the river experience intact.

Poor Bobby (Beatty) likely represents American cynicism…or flab.  He depends on everybody else to carry his considerable weight on the river, rescued both by Lewis and then by Ed.  Worse, he is condescending and cruel to the locals…simply because he can be.  But this cruelty and anger is not supported by anything meaningful, as he soon learns.  

In other words, he can’t back up his snide jokes with actions.  Once his friends are out-of-power, then, Lewis is left vulnerable…and a prime target.  He is the ultimate representative, perhaps, of well-fed, modern man, convinced of his intelligence and superiority, but without the actual skills or chops to back up those perceived qualities.  He is the fat of our society, suddenly put in a situation where there’s nobody to protect him.  And yes, the Mountain man’s designation of Bobby as a “pig” is probably inevitable.  Bobby is the overstuffed, soft animal hat could only exist in a society of extreme comfort and leisure.

Finally, Ed (Voight) is the cherished Every Man. He’s a regular Joe, an average family man who holds down a job and is a good father and husband.  He has never really been forced to face too dangerous a situation, and therefore never had to reckon with his own, dark capabilities.  But the events in the film force this Every Man to reckon with the seemingly placid surface and look underneath it. 

That’s actually the film’s central metaphor: a deliberate comparison between Ed and the soon-to-be lobotomized river.  Modern life has the same effect on both characters, in essence.  The raging, dangerous river will be replaced by a serene – but dead – lake.  And Ed has lived a life as that tranquil lake, never understanding the forces roiling beneath it.  

You can't drown human nature. It will re-surface...

One of the film’s valedictory images -- of a dead hand reaching out above the black, still lake -- reminds us of Ed’s situation.  He now understands that something violent exists within him, beneath the milquetoast exterior.  And under the right circumstances, it will rear up again.   Just like that hand – a representation of violence and conflict – could re-surface in the calm lake.

As I’ve also written before, I see a lot of parallels to The Vietnam War in Deliverance.  Here, a group of Americans leave behind their home territory and comfort zone for enemy territory, so-to-speak.  They greet the locals with disdain and disrespect, and with an air of superiority. They have the best tools (canoes), the comforts of home (a guitar), and an arrogant attitude.  Despite Lewis’s unfamiliarity with the terrain, he attempts to race the local guides to the river, because, he just knows better.  Once in alien territory, however, Lewis and the others realize they are outmatched, and that domination isn’t going to be as easy as they imagined.

Deliverance is notorious in part because of the extremely unsettling scene in which a mountain man rapes Bobby….on screen.  The scene unfolds slowly and lasts for some duration.  It goes on and on, without interruption or reprieve. There are few tactful cuts to relieve the audience of its burgeoning discomfort.  An air of suffocating desperation is crafted by Boorman in the process. Like Bobby, the audience starts the scene with a sense of disbelief that this violence could actually escalate so monstrously.  

Watching Deliverance for the first time, you can’t believe what you are seeing, and this slap in the face is part and parcel of the Savage Cinema's bracing alchemy.  It pushes right past the line of acceptability, and beyond the movie traditions and parameters of good taste and decorum.  In doing so, it makes the audience face that possibility that anything can happen; that all bets are off.  This is one of those movies where you feel vulnerable just watching it; like you might be forced to see things you had never really consciously considered before.

That’s fertile ground for a horror film to occupy.  In that place of extreme audience vulnerability, a good director has us exactly where he or she wants us.

Why would the mountain men attack Bobby in this brutal and bizarre fashion?  It goes back to the city folk’s disdain for the locals.  The city folk are arrogant and condescending, but the country folk – in their home territory – assert their dominance, their power, by raping Bobby and threatening Ed with another form of sodomy.  It’s not about sex for these mountain men, it’s about dominating the city people in the most degrading way imaginable.

The rape also reflects, in some way, the “rape of nature” theme in the film, specifically by man’s technology.  Bulldozers encroach upon the water, and dams force back the river’s edge.  The idea is that human nature is destructive, and seeks to assert dominance over the Earth, whether fellow man or Mother Nature.  The comparison between rapes extends to the dialogue, such as the assertion “we’re gonna rape the whole darn landscape…”

If the rape is the film’s most notorious sequence, then the “Duelling Banjos” scene between Drew and a local boy is, perhaps, the most widely remembered.  As you may recall, the scene finds Drew on guitar and a young, inbred boy on a banjo, talking the same language: the universal language of music.  

Who is looking down on whom?

This scene is the high point in the movie’s conflict between city and rural folk.  It’s clear that music could symbolize a common ground for understanding, if only both sides let it be so, but the gulf between the two cultures is too great to cross.  There’s too much suspicion, too much distrust to allow real communication or trust to occur on either side.  Therefore, this scene of would-be optimism instead emerges as one of further competition for dominance.  And to see who is dominant, you need only look at Boorman's framing.  Who is in the superior position here?

Cause and effect: In the foreground, the face of death.
In the background, animal instinct takes over.

In viewing Deliverance again recently, I came to the conclusion the film is not about manhood or machismo tested, but humanity tested.  One of the most unforgettable moments in the film reduces our four protagonists to thoughtless animals.  They desperately attempt to bury the murdered man in the dirt, but have no shovels with which to accomplish the task.  They sweat and claw at the ground feverishly as if primitive primates.  They have shed civilization entirely and returned to a basic, animal nature.  But again, gaze at Boorman's choice in terms of composition.  In the foreground: the face of death.  In the background: the animal response to danger.  It's a brilliant cause-and-effect image.  It reminds us that when threatened, civilization slips away.

No less an esteemed source than author James Dickey thinks Deliverance is about testing your courage.  I submit the film adaptation is actually about learning to deal with the things you keep buried and locked away.  Once you let the beast out, it doesn't drown easy.  It's always there, threatening to surface again, like that hand reaching up from the lake...

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Tales of Sley House: Interview with author Matthew Allair

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Matt Allair, an author I have known and worked with many times over the years. He recently participated in a new horror anthology, Tales of Sley House, and I wanted to learn more about the genre collection, and his contribution, "Ghostly Visions," which evoked for me a sense of classic horror, reminiscent of both Lovecraft and 1970's TV efforts like Night Gallery.

John Kenneth Muir: Share with the readers how you came to be involved with Tales of Sley House, and what the anthology is all about.  What can you tell us about the publisher, and the project?


Matthew Anthony Allair: I am online friends with Richard Billingsley, a very fine author, due to our shared interest in the Paranormal. When his son Jeremy, another fine author, announced the launch of Sley House Publishing, and would soon be accepting submissions for short story authors, I leapt at the chance to be a part of the first anthology collection. I guess the flavor of the anthology is a little like the Crypt Keeper from the old 50s EC comics Tales from The Crypt. Sley House is a place to give new authors a chance to showcase their work. I like the attitude of the editors at Sley House, very pro author friendly. The editors, K.A. Hough and Trevor Williamson are quite good. I can’t go into specifics, but there were over sixty submissions and fifteen authors selected, so it’s a real honor to be a part of it. 


JKM: Tell me about your story, "Ghostly Visions." 


MAA: “Ghostly Visions” is about an art historian named Rogelio who is recruited by an art curator to visit a small town near Madrid, Spain to review a recently unearthed Francisco Goya painting titled ‘Ghostly Vision’ that connected to Goya’s black paintings period, but there’s a strange a dark history that connects all of it and things take a supernatural turn. A lot of my prose work is very cinematic. 


JKM: What made you want to tell this story, in particular?  What themes did you want to explore in a horror setting?


MAA: Well, a friend shared news about this recently rediscovered painting titled ‘Ghostly Vision’ which was credited to Francisco Goya, so it appears to be a very real work, I had already been writing prose since Jan 2021, when I saw the painting, the first idea that came to mind was Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, I then thought – someone should build a story around the painting, - then I realized I might as well do it. I had some strong ideas, but it wasn’t until I had completed the research into Francisco Goya, his work with the Black Painting period, and some of the stranger work like the Colossus, some of the stranger things about Goya’s personal life, then all of the dots connected, and the story almost wrote itself, uncanny really. For example, there’s a small sequence where the characters pass through a town where they find an open coffin with a headless corpse, that is taken from Goya’s passing, and the strangeness over his burial. The themes have to do with the power of symbols, mythology, and self belief in the power of fate. There’s a fixation towards Apocalyptic imagery, or a romanticism towards Dystopia’s. ‘Ghostly Visions’ and several others tales in my work are a reaction or comment to such interests.  Most people are prone to self destruction I have found, and it takes a lot of work to not lose your way. Be careful what you wish for. 


JKM: I know you, from years back, because we are both obsessed with The X-Files, and have both written about it in length. The idea in "Ghostly Visions" of belief vs. nonbelief, and figurative demons vs. psychological demons, feels apiece with the series' terrain.  Would you say that is the case?  Could the story of Rogelio be an X-File?


MAA: Well, The X-Files will always be close to my heart, the story isn’t directly influenced by The X-Files, I have very broad interests and influences aside from The X-Files, the themes of belief vs. non belief, and figurative vs. psychological demons have always fascinated me, there’s a lot of truth to the idea of Carl Jung’s notions about the shadow self, and how we need to overcome it. I suppose post event, that Mulder and Scully would be interested in the case. Yet being that it is set within international waters - unless the painting made the rounds in the United States - and an investigation called for their travel to Spain, I suspect the case would be out of their jurisdiction. I have always found a connection between Rod Serling, Leslie Stevens, Gene Roddenberry, and Chris Carter. I think all four are visionaries. 


JKM: You set "Ghostly Visions" in the world of art collection, and European history.  Are those subjects that are of special interest for you, and how does it the idea of a lost historic masterpiece fit with your vision? (And were you inspired at all by Lovecraft?)


MAA: I have an art college background, as much as film and story telling have always been my passion, so using the setting of the art world felt very much at home. As much as I have real problems with the industry politics of the art world, it’s a subject I am familiar with - the pros and cons. As far as lost masterpieces are concerned, there’s a lot of hidden history that people keep rediscovering, it doesn’t help that the world is in such turmoil at the moment. We have entered the 21st century and there’s a lot of adjustments we are facing, and we don’t know which direction we are going to go towards. It seems we have to deal with the past before we can move forward as a society. 


As far as the Lovecraft influence, I saw Alien in 1979 and it scared the Hell out of me as a kid, but the film, and H.R. Giger, left an inkling, an imprint of ideas to explore. The Lovecraftian themes were embedded in me before I even knew who he was. A few years later in the early 80s when I got into Dungeons and Dragons, the Lovecraft mythos was used in campaigns, this would have been around sixth grade. Flash forwards a few years later when I was a freshman in High School, I got seriously into reading H.P. Lovecraft, and I mean, I read everything… including his poems and ‘Supernatural Horror In Literature’. But over time, the author and filmmaker who influenced me more was Clive Barker, there is a fearlessness in his work, his willingness to explore taboos, that influenced me to explore certain ideas, as much as I could never be as extreme as Clive is capable of being in his work, Clive really evolved my thinking about the terror and horror genres. 


JKM: Where can readers find Tales of Sley House, and what are you working on now? Where can we find other examples of your work?


MAA: The anthology collection Tales of Sley House has some very fine stories and authors, aside from my tale, so I hope people will check it out. You can order it through Amazon, Barnes and Nobles or directly through the publisher at Sley House. You can also special order it through Copperfields.


I started writing prose work in Jan 2021, and I hope the beginning association with Sley House will lead to something further, you never know. I have been pretty honest on Facebook about my journey with the work. I have two apocalyptic horror novellas, The Sea House and Trail of Tears that are pretty dark. I have a fantasy tale that is close to a novel, Sky Riders, could be described as Edgar Rice Burroughs meets George R.R. Martin. A hard science / science fiction tale, Redline, and various short terror and horror tales, The Silk Naif and The Gnat, Mesh, The Rooster That Would Not Stop, and The Last Shot. All of these are in various stages of editing, rewrites ,and proofing. My goal is to get a short story collection of these tales published, it depends on the marketplace. 


If I do get these published, I have nine other short story ideas, and two novel ideas, so a few more books in me, it all depends of future sales. I am also working with artists on three of these tales to do a graphic novel edition. One UK artist is in fact doing an illustrated version of Ghostly Visions, but again, it depends on if a comic publisher will be interested. I have been screen writing as well, and a friend is helping me to shoot a short horror film titled Roads before the summers end. I hope to get back on track with my three half hour films for Lotus Light Productions, a horror tale; a period gold rush tale; and a pre-World War II British espionage thriller that I am excited about. Basically, I am working in three mediums, prose work, graphic novels and films, so it’s stimulating for me. I hope all will see the light of day. That is what I am working on.

I want to thank Matt for sharing this information on the blog, and those looking to learn more about Tales of Sley House can visit the publisher, here

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

50 Years Ago Today: Night of the Lepus (1972)

The horror cinema of the 1970's is filled with tales depicting Earth’s imminent destruction at the hands (or paws...) of…animals.   

But make no mistake: while Mother Nature may launch her animal armies against us, it is mankind himself that is to blame for her righteous vengeance  By polluting natural environments, by dumping toxic wastes, and by using pesticide, he has only brought upon his own destruction. 

Message: it is not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

The Revenge of Nature Cycle may have started as the “when animals attack” genre, a movement exemplified by films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), or Willard (1972).  

But by the mid-point of the decade, filmmakers were almost constantly coupling vicious animal behavior with man’s massive and on-going mistreatment of the environment.

Accordingly, polluting man battles amphibians in Frogs (1972).  

Pesticide-spraying man battles spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).  

Toxic-waste dumping man faces insect rebellion in Empire of the Ants (1977).  

Other films of the same ilk including The Bug (1975), Squirm (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), and perhaps the most infamous revenge of nature movie of all: Night of the Lepus.

In Night of the Lepus -- a film derived from the satirical novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964) by Russell Braddon -- the careless mistake of two scientists results in the spread of a dangerous hormone that can cause “genetic deformity.” It becomes unloosed on the out-of-control giant rabbit population of Arizona. 

Before long, the ranchers and law enforcement officials near Ajo are waging a war against giant carnivorous bunnies with teeth the size of “saber tooth tigers.”

The guiding principle behind the movie, and indeed, behind the Revenge of Nature cycle is sound, and not entirely new in the 1970s.  Just as the original Godzilla (1954) is about a monster that represents out-of-control atomic power -- the opening of Pandora's Box, so-to-speak, the bunnies represent out-of-control science and irresponsible man tampering in God's domain, in Night of the Lepus.  

The big problem with the film is that as avatars of fear, rabbits are rather un-intimidating creatures.  Even with red paint splattered on their whiskery mouths. 

Ants, spiders, worms, and even frogs seem more appropriately terrifying.  And Night of the Lepus does itself no favors by showing the “enlarged” rabbits on screen constantly with tiresomely repeat or stock footage. 

 In fact, these giant rabbits hop around -- or rather “stampede” -- across miniature sets in slow-motion, in full view of the camera for long, dull stretches of the running time, and the result is underwhelming to say the least.

“Mommy, what’s a control group?”

A newscaster on TV hosts a special report about the “imbalance in the animal world,” and a “plague of rabbits” infesting Australia.  He then describes how the same situation is bedeviling the residents of Arizona.

There, rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is seeing his land overrun by ever-multiplying rabbits.  One day, his favorite steed trips on a rabbit hole, breaks its leg, and must be put down, and that’s the last straw. Cole asks a friend, Elgin Clark (De Forest Kelley), to help him solve the crisis.

Elgin contacts two scientists who work with animals, Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh).  With their daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) alongside them, the scientists examine the problem and begin to experiment with hormones in an attempt to suppress the mating drive of the rabbits.  The experiment doesn't work, and the scientists mix up a new concoction with results they can't predict, as they readily admit.

Unfortunately, Amanda accidentally frees an affected rabbit, Romeo, from captivity, and the new hormone it carries causes a mutant strain of giant rabbit to rapidly develop.

The Bennetts, Elgin and Cole attempt to stop the onslaught of the rabbits, even blowing up a mine-shaft where they have made their home.  

But a herd of giant carnivorous rabbits escape from this trap, and make a run for Ajo, where they have the capacity to do major damage in terms of life and property value.

“There’s a herd of killer rabbit headed this way!”

You may not realize it, but if you have watched The Matrix (1999), you have seen, at least momentarily, imagery from Night of the Lepus.  

The movie plays on-screen during the scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) visits the Oracle, and sees children bending spoons.  The subtle suggestion is that a movie like Night of the Lepus -- about a “herd of killer rabbit” -- could only exist in a weird facsimile of reality.

That’s a good point, because Night of the Lepus is surely one of the most unintentionally hilarious horror movies of its day, particularly with Amanda, the Bennett’s little girl, asking exposition-heavy questions such as “Mommy, what’s a control group?” or speaking for the audience and noting “I like rabbits!"

Even the humorless narrator of the “Rabbit War” news report at the film’s beginning adds to the film's unintentional sense of humor by noting that these “cuddly pets” could become a terrible “menace.”  

As a general rule, it’s a good idea not to refer to your monster as “cuddly,” because an adjective like that undercuts the sense of horror. In a movie about slobbering, jumping, man-eating rabbits, the word cuddly should simply never be spoken at all.

Another moment of funny dialogue comes from Whitman who worries “Heaven help us if any of them [rabbits] get away before we know the effects of this serum.”

Guess what happens in the very next scene?

If you said that one of the affected rabbits gets loose, you are absolutely right. Amanda switches rabbits without her parents realizing it, and then the infected rabbit gets loose after Amanda keeps it as a pet for a time.  The Bennets are not merely lousy scientists, they are lousy parents too, for taking Amanda to work with them and not paying attention to her actions. It's clear they recognize what dangers could await if a rabbit escapes.

Even Janet Leigh, the great star of Psycho (1960) seems diminished by the film’s ridiculous dialogue. When she comforts Amanda after a lepus attack she soothes her.  It’s gone,” she assures her daughter.  “The rabbit is gone.”

Yes dear, the cuddly pet rabbit is gone now, and you have nothing to fear.  

Again, this is a fear that should not be named, specifically.  Even the very word, "rabbit," doesn't promote scares.

Let's be clear: Night of the Lepus features a monster that would be difficult to make scary under the absolute best of circumstances, but the movie doesn’t create or promote the best of circumstances. Director William Claxton allows for the rabbit scenes to linger on-creen -- in slow motion -- for long spells, and any illusion that they are giant, or dangerous, is lost because of their familiarity.  In fact, you get to the point where you start to recognize the rabbits.  There's the black one, the orange one, and so forth.  

And as the friendly-seeming rabbits hop across miniature sets it is painfully obvious that they are not gargantuan. The sound effects that accompany their runs  may “sound like a cattle stampede” to bystanders, but that too is kind of funny.

I should be clear, it’s not just that the shots linger beyond reason, in agonizing slow-motion, it’s that they repeat.  A scene with rabbits leaping a chasm is seen at least twice, and many scenes of the rabbits traversing a highway seem to repeat as well. Either that or are the roads are so similar as to be visually indistinguishable.

Director William Claxton -- a talent who directed several outstanding episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959 -1965) including the sensitive “I Sing the Body Electric” --  seems to approach this horror film as more of a Western, right down to Hill’s motivation for fighting the rabbits (the death of a horse), and some attractive, even picturesque landscape shots.  The rabbits are treated more as a stampede of out-of-control animals than as a threat resulting from science-run-amok, and nature’s reprisal. 

Now, on one hand, treating the film’s threat as fairly realistic could be a good thing…if the monsters inspired fear. 

But on the other hand, Claxton goes way over-the-top in terms of fake-looking gore, a step which moves the film out of the zone of realism. The scene vacillates between deadly dull conversations and over-the-top moments of ridiculous violence, and the approach is not pleasing.

As one might expect from this approach, critics weren’t terribly impressed with the results of Claxton’s efforts.  

Roger Greenspun, writing in The New York Times, noted the “technical laziness,” “stupid story” and “dumb direction,” a kind of trifecta of utter terrible-ness. 

Alan Frank, in 1982, treated the film more gently, though drew the same conclusion, noting that the “enlarged rabbits” don’t “really carry a genuine monstrous charge.

Watching the film again for the first time since I wrote Horror Films of the 1970's I felt a little bad for the out-dated wonders of Night of the Lepus. The movie features a lot of likable performers in it -- it’s great to see De Forest Kelley again, for instance -- and it surely capitalizes on the eco-terror Zeitgeist of its moment.  

And yet beyond that, this is a horror film unable to enunciate even a single moment of authentic horror.

Almost funnier than the movie itself is the trailer, which discusses a “night of total terror” and a “devil creature.”  It asks “what happened the night science made its greatest mistake?”

Well, what happens when the horror film makes a great mistake?  

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Five Favorite Frank Black Moments from Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-1999)

There can be little doubt that Lance Henriksen's Frank Black is our sturdy anchor in the great Chris Carter series, Millennium (1996 - 1999).  

Over a span of three seasons and more than sixty episodes, this remarkable dramatic program accommodated many different brands and styles of storytelling -- including some unexpected lunges into comedy -- and the face who always held it all together belongs to Lance Henriksen.

Selecting just five favorite Frank Black moments is not an easy task because Henriksen and the series writers/producers/directors gave us so damn many of 'em in those three wondrous seasons.  

Anyway, these five "great Frank Black moments" come in no particular order, and from all three seasons of the series.

1. "Pilot" Frank introduces his family to their perfect yellow house.  

As the series opens, Frank Black and his family relocate to rainy Seattle, but -- caring spouse and supporting father that he is -- Frank has made certain that their lives have at least a ray of sunshine in them.  

Here, he shows them their gorgeous new home, a shining yellow house far away from the repellent darkness of Frank's work.  

In a beautiful, spontaneous moment, little Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) is so excited to see the new family home, she licks her Daddy's nose.  It's an innocent, childish gesture (caught in perfect close-up) that really cements the Black family bond, and reveals the closeness between father and daughter.  

2. "Lamentations"  Frank is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Far away from the yellow house in Seattle, Frank Black deciphers a clue that suggests Evil Itself (in the form of Sarah Jane-Redmond's Lucy Butler), is on the way to "visit" his imperiled family.  And this time, Frank is too far away to help them.  

The expressions that cross Frank's face as he attempts to figure out what is happening, and if his family is safe, probably represent the closest thing to panic we ever see on the guy.  

If something can drive the solid, even-tempered, brave Frank Black to that unprecedented level of  

And sure enough, when Frank's friend Bletch enters the yellow house during a storm -- now a yellow house of horrors -- be afraid.  Be very afraid...

3. "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense:" Don't Be Dark, Frank.

In this caustic satire of Scientology (called Self-osophy in Millennium), Frank attempts to ferret out the identity of a killer by using a copyrighted Self-osophy self-help technique.  

With a tape titled "How Not to Be Dark" and a gimmicky head set, Frank engages in "Easy Visualization Therapy," and is asked by the taped voice to "picture something that disturbed him."

At that exact moment, the episode cuts ironically to a blood-curdling montage of every grisly vision from Millennium's first season and-a-half.

Horrified, Black rips off the head-set and nurses the mother of all headaches. But the point is that Frank doesn't run from the darkness or try to deny it.  He faces it.  He isn't about "self" (or Self-osophy) and sometimes we all genuinely need to "be dark."

4. "Luminary:" Frank Black to the rescue.

An exhausted, freezing Frank Black carries an injured young man named Alex through the hostile, wooded terrain of wild Alaska in the uplifting "Luminary."  

When the young man's stretcher tilts and dumps the boy in the river rapids far below, Frank -- without batting an eye or hesitating a second -- jumps in after the boy.  

This courageous and self-less act represents Frank's ethos in a nutshell.  It's that father instinct.  It's that tenacious unwillingness to give up on someone he has sworn to protect. He will literally do anything to help another human being, even at great risk to himself.

5. "The Sound of Snow:"  "Every day, I want to be with you."

Alone in the wild again, Frank is badly injured and experiences a vision that, in some small way, forces him to face his greatest loss.  

This moment reveals to us Frank at his most vulnerable and emotional, and does so with the one person that he can be so vulnerable with, his beloved Catherine (Megan Gallagher).  

It's a haunting, affecting moment, because we see beneath Frank's strong facade and see -- truly see -- his sense of pain and loss.  This moment always moves me, every time I watch "The Sound of Snow."  Frank faces guilt, loss, sadness and a future that isn't what he hoped it would be.  But finally, he gets to say goodbye...

Chris Carter's Millennium (1996 - 1999): Opening Montage

One of the most beautiful introductory montages ever devised for television comes from Chris Carter's Millennium (1996 - 1999).  In part this is so because the Millennium montage plays more like a disturbing dream...or vision of an uncertain future.  

The emotional theme song by Mark Snow is heavy on violins, and seems to feature a sense of grievous, portentous sadness, even as an occasional and hard two-beat strike drives the composition forward.  

Those two repeating beats -- thump, thump -- remind us that there is danger here, as well as the feelings of sadness about the shape of things to come.

The overriding feeling expressed in the theme song, and in the imagery featured below, is what I have termed (vis-a-vis Chris Carter's TV work...) anticipatory anxiety.  

In other words, the viewer can't escape the feeling that something terrible is going to occur. 

In the moment, all seems well, but the moment is

In 1996, the very title of this series, Millennium, put a specific date on the approaching doomsday: the year 2000. Accordingly, this introductory montage obsesses on images of autumn, sunset, darkness, and danger looming.

The first images we see in the montage are of golden sunset. A female figure stands silhouetted before apricot sunlight.Surrounding her on three sides is a black arch, an edifice which suggests (like the sunset...) encroaching darkness.  In other words, the female figure's space in the frame is limited, cut off.  It's as if an umbrella of darkness hangs over her.

The figure in this image then undergoes a transition.  She goes from standing up-right to slumping, as if the weight of the world -- or some terrible event -- is pushing her down.  She has been, for lack of a better word, defeated.

In the next few shots, sunlight itself seems to vanish. 

Suddenly, we are in the dark, seeing disconnected -- but frightening -- images in blue-and-silver tones of night.  

One disturbing shot shows a groping hand reaching out from behind an unlocked door.  

The dis-mantled locking device and key-hole are apparent in the frame too.  The inference is that this person (or thing) was locked inside some place, kept out of sight.

To me, these images suggest a terror being unleashed....a door opening, a mystery unveiled.  The darkness is free now.

The next image in sequence follows on that idea. It is a film noir-styled composition of another silhouetted figure, this one walking through pounding rain.  

Since it comes soon after the preceding image of a door being opened, we can intuit that this image represents the Evil Unloosed Upon Us, on our streets. 

The fact that the Evil is a shadow is important, I submit. At this point, we don't quite know what shape the evil or disaster will take, but we know it stalks us.  The terror is still anonymous, undefined.  

But the creature walks among us.

Next there's a quick cut of a woman's naked legs. Her hands are held together (as if in prayer...or perhaps merely submission...), between her tightly-braced legs. This positioning of the body -- as well as the surfeit of nude flesh -- suggests to me embarrassment, shame, guilt, or even defensiveness in the face of a monster. 

There's the suggestion, then, that the Dark Shadow that consumes us all may emerge from our Id; from human sexuality or other instincts.

The next image is of a dark room, with the windows left conspicuously open at night-time. 

White drapes flutter uneasily in the breeze. An ill-wind blows...

Once more, the image hones in on this atmosphere of creeping dread, on anticipatory anxiety. 

We are vulnerable, this image tells us. We have left open our windows at a time of danger, and are totally unaware of what horrors await. 

A human skull burns in the follow-up imagery, a representation, I believe, of what we all fear most: that our way of life is going to die horribly.  Our world is going to go up in flames.  Humanity is burning.  

Again, the feeling is that we are on the verge of a terrible event or apocalypse. Could it be nuclear in nature?

As disaster looms,  the road ahead is unknown.  How do we avert the crisis? Stay in the same lane? Change lanes?  What course do we take?

Can we run away from the Evil?

Once more, the montage features a short view that seems to overtly involve sexuality (and hence morality). 

A female figure uses what appears to be a straight razor to cut through her garb, her white clothing. 

 If the white clothing represents purity, then its tearing asunder represents the approaching "stain" or disaster.

The aura of anticipatory anxiety is firmly established once more in the next shot.

A car head-light goes if the battery has died (a forecast, perhaps of Y2K and the fear of power grids failing...). 

Then, the legend "wait" appears.  It seems to tell us that something bad is approaching, and there's nothing we can do about it.  The terror will arrive in its own time. Waiting is, apparently, our only option.

Next, we get another shot of a stranger moving alone, unnoticed, in our society, positioned against a fence.  

The imagery is of an interloper on the perimeter, trying to find away in.

The follow-up image is the second one in the introductory montage that includes a razor. Here, the cast-off razor may have been used in a suicide attempt.  

At least that's the immediate "resonance" it produces in me. Once more, there seems to be the idea encoded in the montage of sin, or guilt, or shame.  

In the next two shots of the Millennium montage, something truly horrific occurs. 

The "stranger" or interloper gains access to the fortress -- to our home (or, writ large, to America itself).  

We see the silhouetted stranger push open a door, and enter a suburban bed-room.We adopt his point of view as he approaches a home's master bedroom, a symbol, perhaps, of sexuality or morality, again.

We seem to be stalking a shadowy woman in the next shot as the legend "worry" appears on screen.  This word is yet another symbol of an overwhelming sensory fear, this anticipatory anxiety.

In this case, the woman -- whose face remains unseen  -- walks towards the light, but the position of the shot reveals important information that she does not have access to. 

We are watching her from the bushes.  We are spying on her.  The evil is ready to jump, to reveal itself...and she is unprepared.

Then comes the kicker and a sort of "reverse:" we get a foggy, out-of-focus shot of a woman or child holding her head, as if in pain or torment. 

The villain we were expecting is exposed...and it may be us.  

It could be our very thoughts and fears.  

We are anticipating pain and suffering...but are we also creating it?  

Next, we discover the antidote to this culture of fear.  

Bathed in light, we see profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen). He wears a white shirt (proof of his immaculate morality and stature...), and a beatific expression, as he puts his adoring child to bed.  He is our guardian and protector, our shepherd through these dark times.

The second such figure is Katherine, who is also bathed in white light.  She looks radiant.

Together, the Blacks are a couple, and parents...the head of a family unit. 

And if there is darkness looming outside our walls -- or on our country's perimeter -- then our salvation will arise where the danger strikes: in the family hearth.

The title card that credits Chris Carter appears next, and it showcases what is perhaps my favorite image from the Millennium montage.  

A child (a surrogate for Jordan Black?) walks uneasily upon a high roof. We watch her from a low-angle, so she seems very far away, and quite high up.

It's as though she's navigating a balance beam. There's a "pillar" -- a light post -- behind her, and craggy branches ahead of her in the frame. These objects bracket her.  Her positioning between them is vital.

It's as if this image conveys the notion that we have moved past our traditional pillars (nationalism, faith in leaders, faith itself...) and crossed into dangerous, uncharted, territory.  

This child is walking a balance beam into a precarious, irregularly-shaped future. 

Again, anticipatory anxiety is the phrase which best captures the feeling.

Finally, the montage ends with our place of safety: Frank Blacks beautiful yellow house.  

This is sanctuary; this is safety.

But the appearance of the legend "who cares?" is troublesome.  

The answer to the question "who cares?" may be, simply, Frank Black.  He cares.

Or it could be the final punctuation of a sentence (and montage) about anticipatory anxiety.

The world is ending. The dark shadow is free. We are waiting and we are worrying, but what else are we doing to forestall the end?

Is everyone so distracted that they can't detect the looming danger?  

If so, then the idea here is simply that something bad is coming...and nobody cares. Nobody can be bothered to stop it.

Taken together, The Millennium montage is beautifully filmed and scored, and captures perfectly the essence of the Chris Carter aesthetic.

We are all feeling fear about something (conspiracies? government? the year 2000? aliens?) but we are also experiencing the boom, enjoying the Internet, and living a post-Cold War peace.  

Can that peace last?

Millennium -- and its gorgeous but discomforting introduction montage -- showcases the idea that the wolf is already at our door...and perhaps inside the house.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...