Friday, March 31, 2023

Guest Post: Cocaine Bear (2023)

Cocaine Bear has the potency of talcum powder


By Jonas Schwartz-Owen


If you're going to go on the stage of the Academy Awards with one of the largest TV audiences of the year and promote your film, as Elizabeth Banks did this year, it had better be more intriguing than Cocaine Bear. Even with a stellar cast and an insane premise, the film sputters from unimaginative writing by Jimmy Warden and sluggish direction by Banks.


"Based" on a true story, Cocaine Bear starts off with a quick cameo performance and millions of cocaine crashing to the ground in a Tennessee national park. By time we meet the title character, she's already baked and ready to kill, which she does quickly and painfully. The fresh meat arrives like a Hometown Buffet, including mobsters, wayward children, amateur crooks, and useless authority. A single mother (Keri Russell, The Americans) searches for her daughter and friend in the vast woods and becomes the villain's drug-free doppelganger, once the script finally sets them both up as mother bears protecting their cubs. 


If you’re going to make a movie about a bear hooked on cocaine, you better go balls to the wall — and Cocaine Bear fails going insane. Imagine what Edgar Wright would do with the same premise. Writer Warden connects dots to get to the convenient end, instead of pushing his imagination. 


Banks lays on plenty of gore and ups the tension by involving children, but as she lets the story bandy about, she loses sight of the film's intentions. I'm not saying we didn't need a cocaine eating killer bear movie right now, but the director should have a reason why this story had to be told — other than a paycheck and a résumé genre-builder.


Russell is excellent as always in the main role. She brings earthiness and stakes just from her performance. Her Americans co-star, Emmy winner Margo Martindale, is hilariously wacko as a ranger with the hots for Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson. In his final role, Ray Liotta is sadistically funny as the mobster whose cocaine has become the picnic lunch for our titular titan. Even in a weaker film, Liotta is a volcanic presence, and his talent will be sorely missed on the big screen. 


The effects team do a good job of making the bears believable and the deaths look painful. Costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri and composer Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of the ’80s New Wave band Devo) set the mood for the bad fashion and quirky alternative of 1980s culture. 


Comedy-horror is such a difficult balance. So many slide into laugh-free schlock. Cocaine Bear is grisly enough to be horror, but not witty enough to be a comedy, so it just lays there — much like the film's multiple gutted victims.


Thursday, March 30, 2023

Day 13 Till Launch: Enter The House Between Web Site is Live!

Reality isn't what it used to be...

The web site and "smart hub" for my new audio-drama, Enter The House Between, is now live! 

Check it out to learn about cast biographies, series lore (chronology, glossary), watch trailers and more!

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Introducing...Enter The House Between


My friends,

I am thrilled to announce today, the launch of a brand new audio adventure/sci-fi series, Enter The House Between (2023), which I write, and direct alongside the most talented group of artists I have had the good fortune to work with during my career.

The audio-drama's first season - 8 episodes -- will commence streaming on Spotify, iTunes, etc., beginning two weeks from today, on April 12.

In the next two weeks, leading up to the premiere, I'll be unleashing character sketches, videos, and introducing you to the cast and characters of this speculative adventure series.

The first season of Enter The House Between is produced by Joseph Maddrey, and Tony Mercer, who has engineered, edited, and created from whole-cloth the environments our characters encounter in these tales. Tony's imagination, energy, and innovation has created an audio experience that I am deeply excited to share with everyone here.

I have spent so much of my career as a writer, toiling in solitude, and a great joy for me on this project has been the collaboration with cast and crew alike.  I truly believe we have created something special here.

So for today, just the announcement of the series premiere, with the tease of more to come soon.

The countdown to April 12 begins now. I humbly, and hopefully ask you to join us for a listen or two (or eight).

To whet your appetite, here is the series trailer!  Enter The House Between (at your own risk...)

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

60 Years Ago: The Birds

Dig long and dig deep into the annals of horror cinema history, and you will likely excavate a dozen or more titles traceable directly back to Alfred Hitchcock's seminal "revenge of nature" movie, The Birds (1963). 

John Carpenter's The Fog (1980), about a small town overcome by a creeping mist appropriates the Marin County location; the "local color" of a small town in jeopardy, and the final siege set-piece. 

Or take, for example, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), another siege picture with desperate heroes barricading themselves (with hammers and nails...) inside an isolated farmhouse while the menace grows outside -- a concept nearly identical to the last act of The Birds

On and on, you can tally your catalogue. 

Films from Frogs (1972) to Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) to Day of the Animals (1977) to Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008) derive much of their energy, drive and central scenarios from The Birds.

This is so because the film compellingly depicts a crisis (a war with homicidal birds) but finds no empirical solution for the mystery, instead focusing the viewer's search for "answers" as it were, on the vicissitudes of human nature and the human heart. Thus, the technically accomplished film, a horror thriller of the first order, is both enticingly and alarmingly ambiguous at the same time, with no scientific or rational explanation for the birds' attack on mankind in scenic Bodega Bay. The lack of a scientific or rational explanation lends the film a powerful -- and undeniably sexual -- subtext; and that's the element of the piece to focus on. The bird attacks, one can detect upon close viewing, occur because of turbulent human emotions. 

Yep, it's all about the birds and the bees.

But first some reminders about the storyline. The Birds opens on a seemingly normal day in the early 1960’s with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) happening into a bird shop in scenic San Francisco. As she enters the shop, a flock of birds are seen in the distance amongst the skyscrapers: circling and cawing, but otherwise nonthreatening. This is a foreshadowing of what is to come; a "simmering" before the inevitable boiling.

Once Melanie is in the store, however, things do heat up (as we anticipate). Melanie attempts to pull a prank on a handsome man, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) by pretending to be a bird shop employee. But Mitch -- who claims (critically) to be there to purchase two "love birds" -- is actually pulling a prank of his own, and soon gets the better of Melanie.

This game of cat and mouse spurs a veritable obsession in Melanie, and she soon tracks Mitch down to his home, sixty miles up the coast, in scenic Bodega Bay. a little hamlet described as a "a collection of shacks on a hillside." Her mission: to initiate a sexual relationship with Mitch, still more or less a stranger. Melanie does so under the guise of delivering him his love birds. Once in town, Melanie also meets the town's schoolteacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), another woman who once shared an intimate relationship with the apparently promiscuous Mitch. There is a quick rivalry between Annie and Melanie, and some jealousy there too. Meanwhile, as Melanie grows closer to Mitch, she is looked upon with stern disapproval by Mitch's shrewish, controlling mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Lydia is a cold, emotionally closed off woman, still despondent over the death of her husband years earlier.

And while all these tumultuous personal relationships shift and grow, the inexplicable suddenly occurs: birds of all varieties (sparrows, crows, gulls, etc.) launch a coordinated attack on Bodega Bay, ambushing the local school (killing Annie), dive-bombing the local diner, and laying merciless siege to Mitch's family farm house (reachable primarily by motor boat and therefore somewhat isolated).

In The Birds, now sixty years old, Alfred Hitchcock forges fascinating connections between the film's primary love relationship and these bird attacks. In fact, he seems to suggest that the relationship is indeed the very thing manifesting the homicidal rage among our fine feathered friends. Hitchcock's visual storytelling and connections suggest -- albeit in subtle terms -- that the Mitch/Melanie coupling, their perhaps "unnatural" or "inappropriate" relationship (at least in Lydia's eyes...) is the very factor that has caused the sudden and alarming up-ending of Mother Nature, and set off the murderous birds. I find this "stealth" explanation fascinating, because instead of locating an answer inside science (which would inevitably play like techno-babble), Hitchcock finds motivation in us; in the way we relate to another; in the things, even, we keep hidden and buried away from one another.

The film's first bird attack triggers this nearly subconscious connection in a most artful way. Early in the film, Melanie takes a skiff out to Mitch's isolated farmhouse. She parks the boat, sneaks into his home (through an unlocked door...), deposits the love birds and makes good her escape. Right under Mitch's nose: he's in the yard but doesn't see Melanie approaching. There is no music at all in this sequence (as there is no music, actually, in the film), but the suspense grows almost unbearable in the lingering silence as Hitchcock deploys quick cuts, and a series of point-of-view receding zooms to depict Melanie's hasty and illicit retreat from the private property. We then see Mitch discover the intrusion, grab a pair of binoculars, look through them and -- bam -- he sees her! She's been caught!

The two lovers are thus face-to-face (over some distance) for the first time with the revelation that something romantic (something sexual...) joins them. We're so obsessed with this flirtation, with this game of cat and mouse, that we are caught totally off guard when a (huge) gull swoops into the frame -- out of nowhere -- and literally takes a plug out of Melanie's scalp. The vicious and unexpected attack causes blood to run down her forehead, and Mitch tends to her wound, but the overall impression of this bird attack is that it serves as metaphor for being dumbstruck by love (or more accurately, desire). Lust bitch-slaps you when you least expect it.

Later that night, after Annie and Melanie have shared a long discussion about their mutual and sordid histories with Mitch, a bird attacks the boarding house's front door. The target again, not surprisingly, is Melanie. The next day, the birds attack once more: this time dive-bombing a group of children (including Veronica Cartwright, playing Mitch's sister Cathy). Importantly, the attack follows a very intense, very intimate conversation between Mitch and Melanie on the hillside beyond the party. Again, the timing is crucial, as if the birds are desperate -- insanely desperate -- to stop the relationship before it progresses any further.

Later, in Lydia's presence, the birds attack once more, flying into Mitch's living room through a chimney. And it is here that the full Oedipal nature of the film exposes itself most fully. Lydia is a possessive old woman, a "clinging, possessive mother" who disapproves of Melanie and her son's lascivious interest in her. For example, Lydia complains to Mitch how Melanie was featured in the gossip columns the previous year for jumping naked into a fountain in Rome. This brazenly sexual act doesn't seem to bother the stimulated Mitch, but it certainly bothers the fearful and closed-off Lydia, a widower who fears "abandonment." So, the question becomes: is Lydia subconsciously orchestrating the bird attacks on Melanie? The first bird attack (near the cottage) could have been a general warning of "stay away." The second attack (at Annie's house) was a strike against two of Mitch's women, and the attack in the living room may have been a result of Lydia's uncontrollable rage at seeing the two lovers circle each other with such blatant and brazen sexual intent.

A later attack also supports this thesis. Lydia is sick in bed mid-way through the film (after witnessing the aftermath of a bird attack on a neighbor), and she pointedly asks Melanie to go to Annie's school to check on her daughter. Not coincidentally, when Melanie gets there, the birds launch an attack on the school. Not before she arrives. Not after her arrival. While she is there. So, was this a trap for Melanie created by Lydia's "id?" And when Melanie managed to escape it, remember, it was Annie (the secondary threat for Mitch's affections), who got offed by the birds. If you'll forgive the expression, Lydia may have been killing two birds with one stone, by sending Melanie to the school, where Annie also happened to be.

As film aficionados, we recognize that Hitchcock has toiled in overt Oedipal themes before, notably with Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). In that film, a mother's love reached from beyond the grave, in a sense, to twist her adult son into a psychotic. In The Birds, Lydia's desperate desire not to be abandoned, not to see Mitch go off with another woman, somehow precipitates the bird attacks, and lashes out at those she perceives as threats or dangers to her own emotional safety. This idea tracks throughout the film, particularly in the climax.

The film's final act finds Mitch, Lydia, Cathy (the sister) and Melanie sequestered in the boarded-up farmhouse as the birds attack in waves. Melanie, hearing a noise, separates herself from the group, and goes into an upstairs bedroom. There, in a sequence that evokes the cutting-style of the notorious Janet Leigh shower scene in Psycho, the birds relentlessly -- endlessly -- peck at Melanie. Rending and tearing her flesh and clothes. Ripping her apart. Ultimately, she is saved in the nick of time, but is badly wounded and bloodied. This sequence, the film's piece-de-resistance in terms of shock editing, essentially eliminates Melanie as a threat to Lydia, does it not? She falls into catatonia and shock for the remainder of the film (right through the end credits) and is therefore no longer a danger to Lydia's supremacy as the woman in Mitch's life. This sexually carnivorous woman has been, essentially, de-clawed and de-fanged. Or more aptly, her wings have been clipped. 

The last shots of the film thus depict Lydia accepting and nurturing Melanie (in the car), as the group attempts to escape; caring for as she would for a helpless child. With Melanie's sexuality all-but eliminated, there is no reason Lydia cannot "love" Melanie as she would a child. In some senses, this is actually a win-win because the film has defined Melanie as a person who lacked the love of a mother (the motivation, we are led to believe, for her acts of reckless sexuality). Now Lydia can play that role with her. 

Another clue about the underlying (and human-spawned) motivation for the bird attacks comes in a throwaway line of dialogue. A character comments that in the night sky, the moon is full. In mythology, the moon is often linked with a person's emotional gestalt, and here's the kicker: to their unconscious emotions. More trenchantly, in mythology the moon is closely associated with the mother, with -- according to Wikipedia -- "maternal instincts or the urge to nurture, the home, and the past." Understanding this, one might detect the hidden importance Lydia plays in this Hitchcockian narrative. Her unconscious desire to protect Mitch from a sexually carnivorous woman, to live in the past (when she was protected by an alpha male, not unlike Mitch) is cloaked just beneath the surface in the film; and one might argue, the reason why the birds go nuts.

Late in the film, a hysterical woman in a diner looks at Melanie with utter hatred and notes that she is the cause of the unnatural bird behavior. "They said when you got here, the whole thing started," she accuses Melanie. Well, she's right. Melanie's presence is the reason for the attacks, but Melanie is not causing the attacks herself. Lydia has detected her as a threat and managed to rally the birds against her. What we have in The Birds is an example of an overbearing Mother Human subconsciously directing Mother Nature to do her bidding.

Of course, this is all just a theory that happens to track with a close reading of the film, but The Birds is so admirable for the very reason that it leaves itself open to interpretation. No answers are given. Nothing is spoon-fed (unlike the newscast ending of The Happening; or even the talky coda of Psycho, for that matter). The film is littered with clues about the birds and the reasons for their attack, but as an audience, we are asked to interpret; to speculate; to add our own intellect to that of a master filmmaker. There are many reasons why The Birds is a horror classic, from the beautiful choreography of the bird attacks (including one utterly amazing bird's eye view of Bodega Bay as a coordinated assault is launched from the sky) to the surprising wit of the screenplay. But as with all great horror cinema, the real (and lasting) value of this film rests in what it has to say about us; about humanity and human nature.

An old Asian proverb goes: "a bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." 

The angry, maddening song of the feathered ones in The Birds is written by the insecure id of frightened Lydia; but perhaps more importantly, it is one composed beautifully and artistically by that horror maestro for the ages, Mr. Hitchcock.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Guest Post: Scream VI (2023)

Scream VI does the franchise proud.

By Jones Schwartz-Owen



The sixth Scream in the franchise starts off completely as expected: A beautiful woman receives a harassing phone call from a stranger. Only now, the woman is surrounded by fellow New York bar-goers, so she feels safe amongst other revelers as she waits for her date. But writers Guy Busick and James Vanderbilt lead both the character and the audience down a dark, unfamiliar alley. Taking their cue from one of the ultimate giallo film openers, Mario Bava's classic Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve), the writers stun audiences with an opener even more rug-pulling than the two fake-outs in Scream 4. All the rules go completely out the window, and the filmmakers make that clear in the first 10 minutes.


The survivors of the Woodsboro Massacre covered in Scream (2020) move to Manhattan for a fresh start. But Ghostface has followed them with a vengeance. This new Ghostface uses new weapons (the trailer shows the shotgun in the bodega scene) and creates a museum to past crimes to honor those psychopaths who came before. Now Tara (Jenna Ortega), Sam (Melissa Barrera), Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) need to out-fox their predator if they expect to survive.


Jason Voorhees may not have had the gumption to actually TAKE MANHATTAN, but the gang from Woodsboro certainly have, finding themselves stalked at Central Park and around the crowded borough. There's something horrifying about a city of millions where everyone suckles to their cell phone, so they don't pay attention to others' danger. Also, unlike in Woodsboro, victims have lost the option to jump out of windows to escape. They're now trapped in high rises. 


Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have raised the ante with more graphic deaths, more twisted surprises, and a gallows humor that was often the late Wes Craven's calling card. Many sequences hark back to earlier films: the items in the museum, the masks, the crowded spaces containing many fake Ghostfaces (but also the real one), the van in plain sight becoming a space of danger, the usage of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand". The directors sprinkle easter eggs galore with punches, popcorn, and even a throwback to an iconic death from an early film.


The cast remains as superb as is the standard throughout the franchise. The central Woodsboro four are captivating characters, and the additions of Samara Weaving, Dermot Mulroney, and Jack Champion fit perfectly into the franchise's style. With the loss of Neve Campbell for this film, and David Arquette for the rest of the franchise, Courtney Cox is the original's touchstone. Though it is annoying that once again Gail backslides at the film's beginning as a muckraker (as she predictably does in each film), once she bares her teeth, she proves that Ghostface is impotent against her. Audiences were hungry for Scream 4 favorite Kirby's return, and Hayden Panettiere does not disappoint. Sly and witty, Panettiere plays one of the best characters invented for the films, and her return is a highlight. 


Ghostface may be a constant in our film future. This latest installment (according to Screen Rant) had the series' highest opening weekend. The caliber of the scripts and performances continue to remain strong, and the stories continue to shock and amaze. With the expectation of Campbell hopefully returning for VII, audiences will be anxiously awaiting news of the next Scream fest. 

Thursday, March 23, 2023

50 Years Ago: Genesis II

Fifty years ago, the Great Bird of the Galaxy and Star Trek revered creator Gene Roddenberry attempted to launch a new science fiction TV series titled Genesis II. Today, this program is something of a legend to fifty-something year old genre buffs. Myself included. I for one have often wished that a clever producer would inherit this promising property and remake it today as a new series.

For those whose memory banks have failed, the Genesis II pilot basically filled in a period of Earth "future" history, post 20th-century (and post-World War III, or in Genesis II terminology, "The Great Conflict") but pre-Star Trek Age. 

In other words, the proposed series would have depicted Earth's adolescent struggles as man emerged from a deadly childhood (consisting of war and lust...) and became -- in the words of of Gene Roddenberry's teleplay -- a "grown up."  Roddenberry commissioned twenty hour-long scripts for Genesis II, and they're all still out there, even in 2023: a veritable first season's worth of adventures ready to produce right now. One of those stories, by Alan Dean Foster ("Robot's Return") even became the basis for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and "V'Ger."

Despite a library of twenty scripts ready to produce, despite a fascinating premise about future Earth's evolution, CBS passed on Genesis II in favor of a TV version of Planet of the Apes (1974). Refusing to surrender, Roddenberry re-fashioned elements of the Genesis II premise and produced a second (more colorful and action-packed) version of the material called Planet Earth. If you're a fan of the 2000 - 2005
 syndicated outer space series Andromeda, you may also recall that certain elements of that Kevin Sorbo series (including the name of the Genesis II hero, Dylan Hunt), were incorporated from this 1970s TV movie and pilot.

Genesis II commences in the late 1970s with a Buck Rogers-style premise. American scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) takes part in a suspended animation experiment deep inside a NASA facility inside Carlsbad Caverns (and adjacent to the Continental Defense Command). As Dylan is put to sleep in a pressure chamber, there is an inconveniently-timed rock fall and the facility is permanently buried, destroyed. Hunt is left for dead. Abandoned.

In voice-over narration, Hunt reports "My name is Dylan Hunt...and my story begins the day on which I died." He then reports (accompanied by flashbacks...) how he served as the chief of the suspended animation project (known as Ganymede) since 1979, and how he arrived at the Carlsbad facility (from Washington DC) on a highly-advanced "sub-shuttle" which could travel 1135 kilometers an hour. The plan was to connect every nation in the world with these sub-shuttles, thus "bridging" continents. The sub-shuttles were necessary because surface and air travel had grown too vulnerable to attack (apparently, according to the prescient dialogue, China was on blazing ascent).

In the year 2133 AD -- some 154 years after the cavern accident -- Dylan Hunt is awakened by team members of an organization called PAX (Latin for "peace.") Pax's leader is a stoic, impressive black man, Primus Kimbridge (Percy Rodrigues), and he is accompanied on the rescue mission by a feisty human woman named Harper-Smythe (Lynne 
Marta) and a gorgeous half-Tyranian mutant, Lyra-a (the foxy Mariette Hartley).

In a scene demonstrating Gene Roddenberry's finely-developed penchant for kinkiness, Dylan Hunt's physiological revival nearly fails (his skin has actually turned blue...). To survive, Hunt's body needs to "want to live." Yes -- as Dylan reveals in voice over -- there is apparently a deep connection between "the will to survive" and "the need to reproduce." It is that connection that spurs metabolic revival post-suspension. 

Cutting through the techno-jargon, what this means simply is that Lyra-a must make love to Dylan to restore the twentieth-century scientist to health.

And did I mention that Lyra-a has two belly buttons?

o, from the haze of a half-coma, Dylan begs Lyra-a: "make me want to live." She happily obliges. Note to self: if I am ever in suspended animation for 154 years, I would like Lyra-a to be present to revive me.

Anyway, cut to sometime later (*ahem*) and Lyra-a is still nursing the recuperating Dylan Hunt back to health. She promptly asks if Dylan remembers how she "cared" for him and then strips down to a bikini and shows off her double-belly button. Okay: best post-apocalyptic TV pilot ever,

As Lyra-a flaunts her fetching twin navels, she also provides some critical story exposition. Tyranians are apparently mutants with two hearts, and vastly superior strength. And they need Dylan's help because their nuclear reactor is malfunctioning. Lyra-a also claims that the people of PAX are militaristic plunderers (looting various c

In other words, in a world ruined by war, the greatest wrong imaginable is killing...even the "justifiable" killing of an enemy. If the human race is to grow up, it must eschew violence totally. The people of PAX will not sacrifice their ideals for security; not murder other people in the name of "peace."

"I hope I'm up to it," says Hunt, committing to a bold, and perhaps difficult future.

I've written above, perhaps a bit too snarkily, about the sexual aspects of Genesis II, but in fairness, this pilot also boasts Roddenberry's penchant for intelligent social commentary. Not merely in terms of the anti-war, pro-peace message, either, but in terms of gender and race equality. For instance, the attentive viewer will notice immediately the "unisex" and integrated nature of PAX. Blacks, and whites, men and women, hold the title "Primus" and work together to build the future. There's also great (and highly-amusing) scene here in which Harper-Smythe complains bitterly that the world was destroyed by "lust" (lust between the sexes, lust for property, lust for power...), and it rings true enough that we recognize the concern.

And even though Genesis II occurs post-holocaust, there is room for hope (Roddenberry's famous, trademark optimism) in this troubled world. The Earth survives, and has been gifted with "a second chance." 

On the other hand, this message is muddled by some of the visuals. For instance, much of Genesis II occurs underground, in dark, unpleasant caves. True, some caves are decorated with art; and there's also a garden in evidence, but the visual reveals the truth: the peaceful (good) people of PAX have been relegated to living in a basement. They wear rags that look like potato sacks. Though the citizenry are idealistic, though they have hope, their "home" looks pretty grim. This is one element that is changed in Planet Earth. It infuses PAX's world with spiffy uniforms (recalling Star Trek) and vibrant, upbeat-colors (more Star Trek). Genesis II is probably more intellectually honest about what a post-apocalyptic state would look like; but Planet Earth is definitely more palatable in terms of visuals.

Other visuals are a mixed bag on Genesis II. The Tyranian City is a perfect example. It is depicted with a great matte painting (from a distance.) But up close, the city looks just like your friendly neighborhood community college campus. Likewise, some exterior vistas are impressive (like Hunt's first view of the outside world), while other locations look suspiciously like Southern California ranches. And, there's some clumsy insertion of stock footage here too. When Lyra-a and Dylan ride to the Tyranian city, the episode cuts to stock material of squirrels and raccoons gallivanting.

So, how is one to assess the pilot overall? Well, the climactic action in Genesis II is pretty darn uninspiring, truth be told, and the overall tone lacks Star Trek's joie-de-vivre. Also, there's little sense of esprit-de-corps between the protagonists. (Again, this is understandable, given the grave circumstances...) However, the set-up of the series (it's just one sub-shuttle ride to new civilizations and new life forms...) and the powerful ideals of the PAX characters (their evolved view towards violence and war) certainly held great potential. Also, the idea of a man like Hunt - who embodies both the best and worst of the 20th century - dealing with a "brave new world" seemed to promise so much.

I still think this would have been a great series and I mourn the decision not to green light it. The pilot offers the Roddenberry touch (and his writing style) in spades, and is immensely entertaining. Also, you can't deny Genesis II was ahead of its time. Just a few years later, the short-lived Logan's Run TV series would adopt a familiar formula. That series involved hover-craft (not sub-shuttle) trips to various post-apocalyptic cultures-of-the-week.

If you think about it, Roddenberry nearly accomplished the impossible here: he excavated a second great series formula, one that held for the possibility of so many exciting and diverse stories. I don't know that there is any Mr. Spock-style break out character in Genesis II, but Lyra-a, with her philosophy of "self-interest" and her inability to "feel love" as humans "understand" it, could have made for some very interesting moments and dynamic character interaction. Also, the idea of Earth getting a new beginning - a second genesis - is one of enormous optimism, something that over time (and some brighter photography...) might have resonated with audiences the way Star Trek's spirit of universal brotherhood did.

So why isn't anybody remaking this as a series, using the 20 original scripts as foundational material?
ivilizations for ancient treasures), descendants of the very soldiers responsible for the "Great Conflict" in the first place.

Lyra-a helps Dylan escape from PAX in a still-functioning sub-shuttle and escorts him to the grand Tyranian metropolis (located in old Arizona). There, Dylan learns the truth: Tyranians practice deceit as "a virtue" and believe that "self-interest is the natural order of life."  The Tyranians also enslave human beings, whom they euphemistically refer to as "Our Helpers."

Furthermore, the Tyranians control human beings with technological wands called "stims," devices which can deliver eight degrees of pain...or eight degrees of pleasure. Again, this is incredibly kinky when put in practice (what with all the wand touching and all...), but frankly, that's the patented Roddenberrian touch I missed most in the modern incarnations of the Trek franchise. Bring on the double-belly buttons and the pleasure sticks. Please.

The remainder of the TV-movie involves Dylan learning that PAX is actually a noble organization, one committed to "preserving the best of the past" and "letting the worst of it be forgotten." With the help of a PAX team, including a Native American named Isiah (Ted Cassidy), Dylan stages an insurrection to free the Tyranians' human slaves. He also learns why Lyra-a really brought him to the city: they have a nuclear missile aimed at PAX's headquarters, and need Dylan's help making it functional.

Genesis II ends with a nuclear detonation at the Tyranian nuclear facility (far from the city). Dylan has double-crossed the Tyranians and removed their weapons of mass destruction permanently. Interestingly, the pilot then ends on a strongly pacifist, philosophical note. The men and wo
men of PAX, though facing annihilation, are angry that Hunt has killed Tyranians. "Did you take lives?" They ask with disapproval. Of course, he has ("I saved everyone!" he says), but the people of PAX believe his choice was immoral, and don't just talk the talk. They walk the walk. "You must swear to give your life rather than to take another," they insist. 

Genesis II is now available on DVD, courtesy of the extensive Warner Archive.

Monday, March 20, 2023

40 Years Ago: Special Bulletin

Many folks of my generation still vividly recall the first prime-time broadcast of the grim TV movie, The Day After (1983). That landmark tele-film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, gazed at life in the American heartland immediately following a devastating nuclear exchange. 

So powerful in imagery and so bleak in narrative, The Day After actually altered the course of real-life international politics. After watching the TV-movie, President Reagan re-committed himself to peace with the Soviet Union, a strong shift away from the "we start bombing in five minutes"/"Evil Empire"-rhetoric of his young administration.

Although not as widely remembered as The Day After, another TV-movie of 1983 also dealt powerfully with the issue of nuclear annihilation.

On March 20, 1983, NBC aired a startling program from director Edward Zwick titled Special Bulletin that -- despite a disclaimer -- presented itself as an authentic news broadcast. In other words, Special Bulletin was the TV equivalent of Orson Welles' notorious 1938 War of the Worlds radio presentation.

Special Bulletin commences innocuously with an advertisement for the (fictional) RBS Network, replete with its catch-phrase, "we're moving up!" In the middle of the advertisement for game shows and soap operas, the screen goes to static and the title "Special Bulletin" pops up. Suddenly, we're in a bustling network news room following a breaking story in Charleston, South Carolina.

Specifically, a small tug boat has pulled into the Port of Charleston and is carrying aboard her a group of American terrorists.

After a shoot-out with dock security, a reporter and his cameraman are captured by the terrorists and taken hostages aboard the ship, the Liberty May. The terrorists promptly request a direct feed to RBS, so they can make their demands known to the world at large.

After very little discussion, RBS agrees to the terrorists' terms and soon the leader of the group, Bruce Limon (The Thing's David Clennon) speaks.  

According to his wishes, the U.S. will turn over 968 warhead detonators in its nuclear arsenal, or the terrorists will explode a home-made nuclear bomb in Charleston, effectively destroying the city and all of its people.  

Limon, we soon learn from the news reporters,  is a former Pentagon official who is upset at the hard-right shift in American policy to the belief that nuclear war is winnable.

Along with a brilliant physicist, Dr. McKeeson (David Rasche), Limon believes that nuclear blackmail is the only option left to save the planet from itself. He plans to illustrate "what we all have to fear," should his attempt at unilateral disarmament be rejected.

Without even the smallest hint of artifice, Special Bulletin structures itself as a real news program of the epoch, right down to communication glitches, infrequent bursts of static, shaky-images and the occasional dopey remark from a reporter or anchor-person.  

As RBS news anchors John Woodley (Ed Flanders) and Susan Miles (Kathryn Walker) monitor the crisis, as nuclear terrorism becomes "stark reality," we are asked to follow the story down blind alleys, countenance talking-head blowhard pundits, and detect truth in a multitude of conflicting images, all rendered on (appropriately) cheap-looking video.

The presentation of the story is pitch-perfect, in large part due to excellent supporting performances by the likes of Christopher Allport, Lane Smith and a very young Michael Madsen. Nobody show-boats and no one has a really substantive role, either. These are just "reporters on the street" and interviewees, reacting to events as they unfold. A perfect ensemble piece.

Occasionally the news anchors in Special Bulletin cut back to the live feed to watch events spiral out of control aboard Limon's ship, but they also consult experts on nuclear technology, and check in with reporters at the F.B.I Headquarters, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill. It's an effective, whip-smart presentation in a mock-documentary-style, and one that reportedly had quite a few Americans (especially in the South) wondering if the film could possibly be the real thing. I remember that at school the day after Special Bulletin first aired, all of my friends were talking about it and also the film's absolutely take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling.

As Special Bulletin continues into the story's second day and it is confirmed that McKeeson and Limon indeed have an operational nuclear bomb, an evacuation of Charleston commences. A countdown clock ticks down the minutes till 6:00 pm, the time when the terrorists have threatened to detonate their weapon. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, politicians dither about "negotiating with terrorists" and argue about whether an accommodation can or should be reached.

The last fifteen minutes of the film involve a government ruse to appease the terrorists, and a bloody assault by U.S. soldiers on the Liberty May. The terrorists are put down effectively, but the bomb still ticks down towards destruction. Then, terror follows short-lived relief. In the last few moments of the film, something truly unthinkable occurs, and in a weird, unsettling way, Limon's point about the hazards of nuclear weapons is made.

We see exactly what we have to fear in the event of a nuclear exchange.

Today, it's almost impossible to watch Special Bulletin without thinking of the harrowing events we've seen on the nightly news since 2001 and the 9/11 attacks. For instance, the evacuation of Charleston goes poorly, and one local reporter explains in detail about how the city's plans were not detailed enough, and did not take into account traffic congestion and other problems. This seems very much reminiscent of what our country witnessed during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in the mid-2000s.

But in general, what Special Bulletin gets so dead-on accurate is the horrifying sense of chaotic life spontaneously unfolding before our eyes, out-of-control, on the TV as our journalists and "experts" try to play catch-up in a game of TV ping-pong. I suppose the feeling here is roughly analogous to what seem people call the"fog of war:" False reports come to light, and even though we're watching events unfold live, we hesitate to believe our eyes that such a thing can happen here, in the United States.

I still remember listening to radio reports on 9/11 that the National Mall was on fire, and that Air Force One was imperiled. Neither of those things were actually true, but in the heat of the moment, reporters (and listeners and viewers) believed the reports.  Facts only became plain much, much later.

Thematically, Special Bulletin boasts two primary themes.

The first involves the media itself. How complicit is the media, the film asks, in creating and extending situations like the one depicted here?  In the film, RBS gives over a live feed to the terrorists, an act which gives their demands a national audience, and which spurs panic in the citizenry.  There's something to be said for the argument that had Limon and McKeeson not been given access to television, their plan would have failed rather dramatically. Or at the very least, the situation would have developed far more slowly, and allowed for a more reasoned response by the government. The movie explicitly raises a question about the role of the press: is it a witness to this story, or part of the story, or both?

More than that even, the film looks at the way TV networks package and "sell" crises for higher ratings. Here, a colorful logo -- wrapped in stars and stripes -- pops up that reads "Flashpoint: America Under Siege." The logo even comes with its own dramatic theme song. Although the news people are undeniably presented as heroic and straightforward in the film itself, there's also an undercurrent here; the uncomfortable feeling that RBS is riding this crisis all the way to the bank, with "exclusive" control of the live feed and a direct line to the action. At one point, McKeeson points this out to John Woodley, asking why RBS hasn't shared the feed with the other networks.

The end of Special Bulletin delivers a one-two punch that is hard to shake. After the nuclear bomb detonates and Charleston is no more, there is a period of mourning -- 3 days to be exact -- on RBS before the media begins to seek news stories elsewhere. 

This is, perhaps, the tele-film's sharpest and most incendiary insight.  

There's always more grist needed for the mill, and that fact is even more true today, in the age of cable television and the 24-hour news cycle than it was in the 1980s. We move willy-nilly from crisis to crisis without taking a breath because we have to be worried about something -- anything -- all the time.  

Don't touch that dial!  America Under Siege, indeed.

The second thematic concern of Special Bulletin involves, pretty clearly, the colossal danger of nuclear weapons.  

The "terrorists" in the film are actually concerned citizens who nonetheless cross the line and can't see how they have let their ideology blind them.  hey are hypocrites, threatening to destroy innocent people with nukes because the government can't see how dangerous nukes are to innocent people.  

Long story short, you can't preach peace by threatening force.  

And the government is culpable in all of this too. Attempting to look strong and resolute, the President and his people first attempt to dismiss the terrorists as hoaxers, and then seek to trick and manipulate them, finally overtaking them by force. The government experts never acknowledge or seem to believe Dr. McKeeson's all-too-sincere testimony that he has protected the bomb with an "anti-tamper" device. The government, essentially, plays a high-stakes game with the city of Charleston...and loses the gamble.

The message encoded in Special Bulletin is that nukes as deterrents or nukes as weapons are much too dangerous to trifle with, for ideologues in any party.  Why?  Purely and simply because the destruction caused by nuclear weapons is immense, beyond our worst imagining.

In Special Bulletin, Charleston is destroyed -- rendered a desert -- and a whole swath of South Carolina will remain uninhabitable for years to come following the detonation. And that's just the result of one nuke.  Imagine America's arsenal of 968 warheads in action, and the kind of devastation it could render.  This is destruction on a Biblical scale, and we would be fools to forget that fact. The final scenes of the film, set in a burning Charleston, with reports of "people burned beyond recognition" are the stuff or real nightmares.

One part a critique of the news business as show business, and one part a blunt-faced look at the terrifying power of nuclear weapons, Special Bulletin remains a blazing, unforgettable viewing experience. As far as mock-documentary films go, it's deftly-presented, and will leave you pondering, among other things, our strange, self-destructive nature.    

Not only are we fully capable of destroying ourselves, it seems. We actually want front row seats to the show.

Friday, March 17, 2023

50 Years Ago Today: Godzilla vs Megalon

Released on this day in 1973, Godzilla vs. Megalon, was not released in the United States until 1976, the very year of King Kong’s return to the silver screen under the auspices of Dino De Laurentiis.

Accordingly, this Japanese monster mash was a huge success in an America primed for a new monster movie.  

Godzilla vs. Megalon’s American success may have been due in part to the evocative and colorful poster art of the film which dramatically aped King Kong’s and showed Godzilla and Megalon standing astride the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

Needless to say, in the actual film, Godzilla and Megalon never got close to Manhattan, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter. Still, that poster is gorgeous.

After an incredibly successful run at the American box office, Godzilla vs. Megalon took another victory lap, airing on prime-time NBC in 1977 -- in an hour-long slot -- and it drew impressive ratings. John Belushi hosted the presentation.

In the early 1990s, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988 – 1999) gang riffed on Godzilla vs. Megalon to great comedic effect, and for years the series’ opening credits showed a clip of Godzilla’s impressive -- and bizarrely humorous -- jump kick in the movie.

Despite all the pop culture success and sense of nostalgia that surrounds this election year entry of the Godzilla saga, Godzilla vs. Megalon has never struck me as a particularly good movie, or a particularly strong entry in the Godzilla canon.

The reason why is simple: the movie needs more Godzilla and less Jet Jaguar.

The underwater kingdom of Seatopia sends a giant creature called Megalon, to destroy the surface world, which has been conducting dangerous nuclear tests for years, and therefore is threatening all life on the Earth. 

Meanwhile, a Japanese scientist, Goro and his young nephew, Rokuro test an amazing new robot called Jet Jaguar that becomes of great importance to the Seatopians and Megalon.  

Realizing that their robot can help save the world, Goro and Rokuro summon Jaguar to call on the help of Godzilla, who is now living on Monster Island.

But the Seatopians also call for reinforcements, and tag the monstrous Gigan to help Megalon destroy Godzilla.

With the survival of Tokyo and the world hanging in the balance, Jet Jaguar grows to enormous size to team up with Godzilla.

Simply put,Godzilla vs. Megalon is not one of my favorite Godzilla movies. In part, Godzilla vs. Megalon fails because Godzilla does not even appear until late in the action, and seems to be an after-thought in the narrative. Instead, the film functions largely as origin story for the unknown and new hero: Jet Jaguar, a robot with the baffling ability to grow to Godzilla-esque proportions and then shrink back.

How on Earth (or Seatopia for that matter) is his metal so flexible that it can stretch to giant size and then retract to human size?   

Alas, even putting aside such question of logic, Jet Jaguar -- a kind of poor man’s Ultraman -- just can’t carry the story on his silver shoulders, or make-up for Godzilla’s frequent absence.  Imagine a James Bond film in which 007 didn’t appear until sometime late in the second act, and you get the idea.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is not entirely bereft of good ideas, to be certain. Though barely enunciated, there’s absolutely a critique here about nuclear arms that fits in with the franchise’s noble tradition of questioning atomic power and man’s usage of it.  

Here, the Seatopians send Megalon to the surface because of the nuclear testing performed by the nations of the world.  

The Seatopians’ final solution to a world risking destruction…is to destroy that world.  Thus, they attempt to wring peace out of war, a metaphor very clear to audiences in the Vietnam Era of “You have to destroy the village to save it.”  

Still, this message does not transmit nearly as powerfully as the anti-pollution message of the superior Godzilla vs. Hedorah.

I would be a curmudgeon if I didn’t note that the movie features some really fun battles.  

That aforementioned Godzilla jump kick, for instance, is just so bizarre, gravity-defying and over-the-top.  I don’t know how it could elicit anything but laughs, but it is a clear indicator that the films of this era have moved definitively into fantasy territory.  

In the final analysis, however, this film looks like a TV pilot for a Jet Jaguar series, with Godzilla coming in for a cameo tag team, and that fact doesn’t do the big green dragon any favors. 

People go to see Godzilla movies for Godzilla, and in some critical sense, Godzilla vs. Megalon breaks (or at least severely stretches…) that contract with the audience with its bait-and-switch strategy.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

30 Years Ago; Fire in the Sky

On November 5, 1975, in Sitgreave National Forest in Arizona, blue-collar logger Travis Walton disappeared without a trace. Five friends and co-workers, including so-called "pillar of the community," Mike Rogers, re-counted a harrowing tale of a flying saucer encounter...but the local authorities immediately suspected a more earthbound solution: foul play

But then Walton miraculously returned -- more or less intact -- to the small town of Snowflake five days later, and gave the world one of the most notorious "alien abduction" cases ever reported. The media, UFOlogists and sight-seekers descended on the town, creating a circus atmosphere.Some investigators believed Walton's incredible tale of flying saucers, alien abduction, Greys, and probing medical tests, especially since it is one of the few UFO-related stories to feature multiple eyewitnesses (and furthermore, eyewitnesses who have passed lie detector tests on more than one occasion). Other investigators viewed the bizarre incident as a brilliantly and elaborately orchestrated hoax. 

On the latter front, the skeptics pointed to Walton's apparent involvement in a check fraud scam some years earlier, and the fact that the alien abduction drama The UFO Incident had aired on television shortly before his disappearance. Is that where Travis got the idea to "stage" his own disappearance? Was this all just a scheme to hit "the big time" and make some money from the story-hungry national tabloids?

Where does the truth reside? Of course, we can never know the answer for certain, but 1993's drama Fire in the Sky, written by Tracy Torme and directed by Robert Lieberman dramatizes Travis Walton's unusual story from the perspective of the men who initially reported this "close encounter." 

What remains so unique about Fire in the Sky is that it eschews sensationalism and focuses intently on the human cost of those involved in Travis's disappearance, particularly family man Mike Rogers. 

Robert Patrick ably and sympathetically portrays Rogers, and despite his second billing, Fire in the Sky is really his movie. We follow the agonized, haunted Rogers as he deals with his own pervasive guilt over leaving an unconscious Travis behind in a field on the night of the UFO encounter, as he becomes a pariah in Snowflake, and as his family and friends turn against him one-by-one. 

Adding insult to injury, even Travis ultimately blames Rogers for his actions on the night of November 5, without truly considering that Rogers -- as leader of a logging crew -- had four other men he was responsible for protecting in that situation. In terms of drama, it's illuminating to note how the UFO encounter reflects the dynamics of the already-existing friendship between Travis and Mike. (In the film) Travis daydreams of opening up a huge motorcycle dealership with Mike. He flits from one get-rich-quick-scheme to the next, never landing long enough to consider reality. He speaks of romantic notions like love (for Mike's sister, Dana), and doesn't seem tethered to any real responsibilities. 

Mike is the polar opposite: "grounded" by conventional concerns like mortgage, money and family. He has no time to fantasize about impossible things. He's worried about the next paycheck, the next contract...the well-being of his daughters and wife. When the UFO spirits away Travis -- whose feet are already metaphorically off-the-ground -- it is again, Mike who must clean-up and interface with the unpleasantness of the "real world." He must contend with the responsibilities and repercussions associated with Travis's disappearance and return. Mike must be the stalwart leader of men and still, somehow, hold out hope for their joined future, so that his co-workers don't succumb to hysteria and pressure from law enforcement. 

Travis's encounter with the aliens (aboard their spaceship) in Fire in the Sky is dramatized in the film's last fifteen minutes or so, in a self-contained set-piece. The depiction of the alien ship (exterior and interior) leans heavily towards the terrifying, an interpretation which doesn't accurately reflect Walton's real-life testimony about his experience. In fact, screenwriter Torme reportedly apologized for the frightening views of the aliens in the film, noting that the "horror" aspect of the journey had been insisted upon by higher-ups in the production. 

Yet, in terms of theme and narrative, the horror movie approach to the alien experience remains undeniably effective because it seems to scare Travis straight. After he returns to Earth and recovers (arriving almost as a newborn: naked and in the fetal position), he stops dreaming impossible dreams, marries Mike's sister, and commits to a stable job and the family life. He has metaphorically been "reborn." By contrast, a shattered Mike -- who has taken all the heat for Travis over his sojourn -- retreats from the world entirely; at least until Travis arrives offering conciliation and forgiveness. Rogers -- a meat and potatoes guy if there ever was one -- has been forced to open his mind to possibilities (to dreams and fantasies?) he had never before considered, so he has become a reflection of Travis, pre-ordeal. 

When they resume their friendship, Mike and Travis again balance one other. The alien abduction scene in Fire in the Sky is probably the scene that most viewers remember most from the film. And that's entirely understandable, as it presents the interior of the alien spaceship as a world approximating a charnel house: a dark, dank locale of enormous and inhuman suffering and pain. With vertigo-provoking photography, we travel with Travis (via flashback..) inside an extra-terrestrial chamber that looks like something akin to the mad cannibal house in Tobe Hooper's seminal Texas Chain Saw Massacre. We are even treated to a trademark Hooper shot from that film: a close-up view of a victim's eyeball, wide and almost popping with unbearable terror. 

The alien spaceship set-piece begins as Travis -- feeling pancake syrup fall on his face after hiding under a kitchen table -- recalls a similar feeling: something moist and goopy touching his lips aboard the alien ship. He opens his eyes to find himself inside a chamber that resembles a fleshy coffin made of coruscating human fat tissue. Travis then breaks through a membrane wall only to find himself weightless inside a huge, organic chamber. He finds himself in a room of alien space suits, and there is a splendid jolt involving one such space suit coming to life, unobserved, behind him.Then Travis is captured by aliens and dragged down a claustrophobic tunnel to an examining room.

The long trip to the operating theater is grotesque, and horrifying. The floors are ashy -- as if composed of ground-up human bone. Relics of previous experiments have been mindlessly cast-off everywhere: eye glasses, boots, sneakers, etc. Then the aliens come at Travis with unclean, byzantine surgical instruments including saws, drills and needles. It's clear that these aliens -- unaware or uninterested in human pain and discomfort -- boast a very different concept of "hygiene" than we do. Lieberman's camera then barrels down from a high angle, right into Travis's terrified face, and it's here that we get that familiar Hooper eyeball shot.

Without exaggeration, this fifteen-minute or-so sequence in Fire in the Sky is a masterpiece of production design, special effects, camera-work and editing. There is a deeply diabolical, intelligent nature to these alien invaders (they have the eyes of old men...), and you never once get a sense that you are looking at animatronics, constructed sets, or special effects. On the contrary, the persistent use of the P.O.V. perspective lands us in Travis's (shaking...) boots as he countenances the impossible, and the terrifying.

There are aspects of Fire in the Sky that simply don't work, which is the reason why, I suspect, the film has not achieved much mainstream or genre critical success. The police procedural aspects of the tale (seemingly de rigueur in the 1990s) go nowhere and fail to resolve in any satisfactory fashion. And, for much of the film, Travis (D.B Sweeney) remains an enigma; an opaque "dreamer" but not so much an identifiable or individual personality. And I also suspect that many audience members were non-plussed by the film's straight-faced dramatic approach. The film more or less takes Walton's incredible story as simple fact, rather than attempting to punch holes in it, and then proceeds to calculate the human toll of such a strange encounter.

Where it counts most: as a human story of loyalty and friendship, and one focusing on Mike Rogers, Fire in the Sky succeeds. And that (admittedly-inaccurate) tour of an alien saucer remains nightmare fodder, pure and simple. Taken in tandem, an image starts to coalesce here: of simple, groping humanity opening his eyes to the great mysteries of our time, and coming to understand that his connection to other men is the thing he needs to take with him into that vast unknown.

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...