Saturday, September 30, 2023

40 Years Ago: Brainstorm

Although deemed “provocative” and at least somewhat “redeemed by its special effects” (according to a review by Hal Goodman in Psychology Today), Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm is nonetheless one of those genre films that never quite gets its due.  

In part, this lack of widespread appreciation may result from the fact that the 1983 movie seems to defy easy categorization. 

Is Brainstorm a science fiction film? A horror movie? Or is it fantasy?  

Like Altered States (1980), and Dreamscape (1984), Brainstorm seems to straddle all those genres. There’s even a “head film” aspect to its trippy visions of the after-life, and the movie’s final moments of cosmic transcendence.

Secondly, Brainstorm is the final film of beloved actress Natalie Wood, who died in unfortunate circumstances before the movie was completed. And the film’s very subject matter -- regarding the death experience – seems distinctly uncomfortable in light of the real life tragedy. 

Watching the film today, it’s difficult not to think about what happened to Wood.

And yet despite such concerns, Brainstorm is indeed a provocative and meticulously-crafted work of art. With intelligence and dedication, the Trumball film imagines what might happen once scientists develop a machine that blows “communication as we know it right out of the water.”

In the year1983, forty years ago now, that colorful-sounding achievement probably felt rather remote and woefully futuristic.  

Yet in 2023, we reckon with -- on nearly a daily basis, too -- the myriad ways that new communication technologies change how human beings relate to one another.  

In the span since Trumball made his film, we have seen the rise of cell-phones, social media, the Internet, and even the first steps towards virtual reality.

This sense of a rapidly-shifting communications landscape wasn’t always clear to audiences in the context of Brainstorm’s original release in the early eighties. However, time seems to have at last caught up with the forward-thinking film. Viewed now, it is plain that Brainstorm gazes meaningfully at the ways that a revolutionary communications device (one that records and transmits brain impulses…) impacts every aspect of human relationships, and even our belief systems.  

Commendably, the film is even-handed and judicious in its musings. Unlike WarGames, Blue Thunder Superman III, Never Say Never Again or Nightmares, which all worried about a future of computerization and increasingly inhuman technology, Brainstorm suggests and visualizes the idea that new technology can actually repair relationships, or bring peace of mind about our ultimate dread: death itself. The yang to that yin is that such technology can also be used to hurt people, albeit sometimes inadvertently.

Seen in light of everything that has come down in the pike in the world of “communication” since the Trumbull film premiered, we might today regard Brainstorm not just as provocative, but actually revelatory. 

“We blew it, didn’t we?”

Scientists Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) have developed a revolutionary new technology. They have created a special helmet-like device that can read and record the impulses of one human brain, and then make those impulses available (on a copper-like tape…) for other humans to view. 

But it’s not strictly a matter of viewing the world through another person’s eyes. While experiencing a pre-recorded tape, a percipient also feels everything that happened during the recording. They can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel those experiences.

Lillian and Michael’s boss, Terson (Cliff Robertson) is determined to get this new device on the market as quickly as possible, but also invites the U.S. Government to participate in the research. This act spurs a flat-out revolt on Lillian’s part.  She is certain the device will be applied to purposes of spying and war. A new weapon is the last thing she wants or desires.

Meanwhile, Michael learns that the machine is helpful in another way. He and his wife, PR expert Karen (Wood) have been on the verge of separation and divorce. But the new machine allows them each to “see” one another in a new light.  The invention saves -- and renews -- their romantic, intimate relationship.

When Lillian suffers a devastating heart attack in the laboratory, she puts on the helmet and records the death experience itself. 

Afterwards, Michael becomes desperate to screen her last tape, but again, the U.S. military stands in the way.

“There’s more to it than just practical application and packaging.”

In Brainstorm, Douglas Trumbull utilizes the brain impulse device as a vehicle for exploring human relationships, and the way that advancing technology in the field of communication can affect those relationships.  If the film seems somewhat episodic (and occasionally incoherent…) it is because, primarily, the screenplay charts the device’s impact on several different aspects of life, and upon several different characters or groups.

For example, the U.S. government sees the device as something that can be used in war, to torture prisoners.

At one point in the film, Michael learns that the military has recorded a mental patient’s experience of a “psychotic break,” and that this tape can drive a man or woman to the brink of madness. Michael’s own son accidentally views the tape, and goes insane.

For a moment, just imagine being able to impose a psychotic break on a political enemy, or rival. Such an assault would appear to outsiders as a natural problem, not as an external attack.  Today, our country has debated about what constitutes “torture,” and Brainstorm seems to understand the terrible danger of a device that can destroy the mind, or cause terrible physical suffering, but leave no physical marks.

But in terms of communication specifically, our government has also entered into clandestine relationships with commercial giants like Verizon and Google so that it can access their data and learn more about their customer base…us.  This very brand of government-business alliance is forecast here, as the military is given total access to the privately-constructed communications device and Michael’s laboratory. The military’s intent is to weaponize the brain impulse device, and possibly even use it against the public. The point, however, is that in a world of governments launching cyber-attacks on other governments, this idea hardly seems far-fetched anymore.

One of the other scientists on Michael’s and Lillian’s team sees the device in another way. He watches a tape of a fellow scientist engaging in sexual intercourse, but then cuts the tape so it is a repeating loop of the moment of orgasm. 

Like a drug addict, this scientist eventually loses all interest in life, his job, and his family, and simply re-plays the tape, experiencing moment of ecstasy after moment of ecstasy. Nothing else matters.

This subplot is no doubt Brainstorm’s spikiest and most outré application of technology, but we know today that it is also not terribly far-fetched. A generation has grown up watching readily-available Internet porn.  In other words, Brainstorm forecasts the ease and speed at which a communications device, like the Internet, can deliver sexual imagery. Today, we often read of people being addicted to “Internet porn,” or Internet porn ruining a marriage. In Brainstorm, an intervention is necessary when a new brand of porn is invented, and it becomes irresistible to the “user.”

The aspect of Brainstorm that I admire most, perhaps, is its consideration of a new communications technology as a tool for psychological therapy; for generating empathy. At one juncture, Michael experiences life through his wife’s eyes, and is suddenly granted a view of himself that no one has ever been afforded in real life.  

Suddenly, he understands what it is like to live with himself; with a man who is obsessed with his work, emotionally distant, and sometimes even emotionally absent. The key to empathy is being able to put yourself in the mind-set of another person, and the machine permits that. It is the ultimate in role-playing. You don’t have to imagine your partner’s feelings anymore, you can actually experience them. Brainstorm thus suggests that this machine could change the nature of our most basic relationships; that it could be a useful and productive tool for therapy. 

There are long sections of Brainstorm that concern Michael and Karen’s relationship, but the strife is resolved when they can really understand each other’s point of view for the first time.  I don’t know about you, but my wife says she often wonders what I’m thinking (!).  Perhaps all couple relationships could be improved if we could feel what our spouse or significant other feels.

In its denouement, Brainstorm goes big…and trippy. 

Lillian’s death tape is played, and Trumbull escorts viewers to the very edge of creation, and beyond.  The death tape reveals Lillian having an OBE (out of body experience), looking down at herself from outside her own eyes. Then the imagery resolves to a series of tear drop-like bubbles. Each one seems to represent an isolated but accessible moment from Lillian’s life.

Once this imagery is left behind, the film cuts to a brief view of humans trapped -- and writhing -- in fleshy-outgrowths like organic prison cells. This composition symbolizes not merely the possibility of Hell, but the fear that comes with being separated from the material or physical universe.  We go through our lives trapped in our bodies, and physically separated from one another, the imagery suggests.

Finally, we follow Lillian’s disembodied soul on a journey through galactic space. We see her soul join a million butterfly-like -- or angel-like -- organisms (more souls) as they move gently and slowly into a warm and welcoming light.  This is what comes at the end of life, finally: a new interconnectedness, a new togetherness not fully possible in our mortal, separate, individual form.

What I find most fascinating about this view of the afterlife, is that it is, simply, an augmentation of what Lillian and Michael’s machine already accomplishes.  

Their “revolutionary” form of communication allows a different brand of togetherness. It permits empathy, as opposed to physical (or energetic, I guess…) connection. But that empathy, that understanding, is a real step closer to the cosmic union portrayed in the film’s final phantasm. In this case, a communications technology allows us to “reach out and touch someone” in a way previously unimaginable 

In the end, Brainstorm suggests that Heaven is not a place. Instead, it is the accumulated light of our all our souls together, shining as one. And the communications breakthrough wrought by the film’s scientists not only reveals this truth, but in some senses mimics aspects of that togetherness.  

As I noted above, Brainstorm moves in episodic fits and starts. Yet, at the same time, it is never anything less than wildly cinematic.  There’s an incredible P.O.V. journey on a rollercoaster (and through a water slide…), for instance, and other visual wonders here.  

Accordingly, one can’t help but wonder if Trumbull is suggesting that the communal experience of movie-watching (another form of communications technology) is the real antecedent to the machine depicted in the film. We see through the eyes of several characters in the film, including Lillian as she faces her own death.  Given this first-person or POV perspective, the idea of feeling their emotions hardly seems out of the realm of possibility.

Brainstorm is, perhaps, a good deal better than its reputation suggests. Louise Fletcher delivers a brilliant performance, particularly during her heart attack scene, and the film ends on a cosmic high-note, explicitly comparing (with its North Carolina locations…) the Wright Bros. achievement of flight with Lillian and Michael’s discovery of what exists beyond the boundary of death. The only place the 1983 film creaks is during an extended action sequence at a manufacturing plant, where an assembly line goes comically -- and interminably -- haywire.

Other than that low point, Brainstorm lives up to its device’s PR/advertising pitch. The Trumball movie plays (commendably) like “research for a better tomorrow.”

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Enter The House Between, Season 1, Episode 8: "Old Skin"

For your listening pleasure, "Old Skin," the newest episode of Enter The House Between.  

This story finds the denizens at their lowest point, isolated and trapped in the corridors of Hell (or the Dark Matter Dimension, if you prefer...).  

It's all a big lead up to our shattering final episode of the season, "The Last Dream of My Soul."

As usual, Tony Mercer, our sound designer, has crafted an incredible aural experience, this time crafting those aforementioned corridors of Hell, the "Old Skin" of the universe.

And, it is my pleasure to announce that the episode also features a very special guest star, the one and only Craig T. Adams of Dr. Madblood!

This episode is also dedicated to the late Paul Knight, Paulzilla, a friend to and supporter of the creative team of Enter The House Between for many years.

So, without further ado, here is "Old Skin:"

On YouTube:


 On Spotify:

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Remembering David McCallum: His Cult-TV Performances

 as Gwyllim Griffiths  in The Outer Limits' "The Sixth Finger"

as Ilya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

  as Dr. Joel Winter in Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Phantom Farmhouse"

 As Daniel Westin in The Invisible Man (1975)

 As Steel in Sapphire and Steel.

 from SeaQuest DSV, "Sea West."

as: Professor Paradox on Ben 10.

Remembering David McCallum: Monsters: "The Feverman"

In “The Feverman” -- the very first episode of Monsters -- a desperate family man in Victorian England, Mr. Mason (John C. Vennema), takes his feverish daughter to an alternative healer called “The Feverman” over the objections of his traditional physician, Dr. Burke (Patrick Garner).

At first, Burke’s concerns about the Feverman, Mr. Boyle (David McCallum), seem well-placed, since he is a grumpy, ill-mannered alcoholic.  

However, when Mr. Burke interferes in Boyle’s ritual to cure the Mason girl, he is surprised to learn the truth of the matter: The Feverman engages each disease he encounters in mortal, physical combat, and in this case, the girl’s fever presents as a blubbery, tumorous monster.

When Burke’s interference causes Boyle to be mortally-wounded, the Feverman tells the conventional physician that he must take his place, and kill the hulking, fleshy fever with his bare hands.

With the great David McCallum (veteran of such anthologies as The Outer Limits [1962 – 1964]) leading the way, “The Feverman” qualifies as an assured debut for Monsters. At its heart, the premiere story concerns the idea, deeply ingrained in our culture, that only Western-style medicine can “heal” the sick and that anything else -- or from any other tradition -- qualifies as quackery.

In “The Feverman,” for example, Dr. Burke is disrespectful and cynical about Boyle’s approach to healing the sick, and he even calls him a “trickster.” He worries that Mason is being conned. He also asks Boyle if he will refund Mason’s money if his patient dies. 

Boyle’s response is perfect. He asks if Burke also refunds his fee when his patients die. The implication is that they are both doctors, but that their approaches differ.  In some way, this seems a subtle acknowledgment of the East/West divide in terms of how to approach healing.

Of course, in real life there are charlatans and fakers the world around, but “The Feverman” suggests that in this case, Boyle is the real deal. The episode reaches its apex when Burke comes to understand that fact, and is faced with a very grotesque and memorable monster, the first in the series’ stable.

In this case, the Mason girl’s fever is depicted as a giant, fleshy obese thing, one that is “big and strong” in Boyle’s words, and which knows how to “attack, but not defend.”  The key to destroying it is to attack it full-on, and that’s, finally, exactly what Boyle does. He literally wrestles the hulking, tumor-covered infection to the ground, and then snaps its neck.

In a very real sense, doctors do battle with the diseases of their patients every day, but it is fun how this Monsters episode visualizes that conflict as a real-life, physical wrestling match, one where the doctor has as much skin in the game as does his patient.   

Indeed, from a certain perspective, “The Feverman” is really all about Burke, and how he travels from being set in his ways, attached to convention and protocol, but finally breaks out of that thinking to save a life.  

It’s probably a romantic notion, but I like to believe that good doctors sometimes operate in this fashion, trying everything they *know* to do first, and then, failing the conventional, launch into the unconventional or untried methods.  In the final analysis, “The Feverman” is about a set-in-his-ways physician opening his mind to new possibilities, new avenues of healing, and a new way of viewing the world. 

Remembering David McCallum: The Man from U.N.C.L.E: "The Quadripartite Affair"

In “The Quadrapartite Affair,” a scientist in Yugoslavia, Dr. Raven, is infected with a terrible “fear gas.” His grown daughter, Marion (Jill Ireland) manages to return to the States and warn U.N.C.L.E. about the situation. 

Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) is assigned to protect her, should the forces of THRUSH seek to capture her.  But a delivery man drops off a box of chocolates that emits the fear gas, incapacitating the agent.  

Consumed by fear, Ilya is unable to save Marion.

Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) stages a dangerous rescue mission of Marion, freeing her from imprisonment on the yacht of a deadly THRUSH operative, Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis).  

Then, Napoleon, Marion and Ilya head to Yugoslavia to meet up with a local scoundrel who may be able to provide information about the fear gas, first developed in World War II.  

But can they trust Milan Horth (Roger C. Carmel)?

The “Quadrapartite Affair” opens with the unusual sight of our favorite U.N.C.L.E. operatives breaking the fourth wall and introducing themselves to the audience.  After a narrator reveals the HQ in an “ordinary tailor shop” (or “is it?”), Solo, Kuryakin and Waverly all tell us their names, and their positions in the organization. 

I suppose this was deemed necessary, to make certain that viewers were caught up with the details of the series, but today it nonetheless plays as a bit strange, and labored.  Imagine if, on Star Trek, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) suddenly broke the fourth wall, addressed us directly, and began discussing the details of Starfleet hierarchy.

Otherwise, this early episode of the series in notable, perhaps, for the increased role played by Kuryakin. 

The Soviet agent comes across in the episode as supremely self-confident, but also physically edgy in a way that Solo is not, really. Solo is dashing and debonair.  Kuryakin, it is clear -- especially from his flirtations with Marion -- is more direct, or more basic. There is real attraction in the air here, and that may be a result of the fact that McCallum and Ireland had been married since 1957. They starred in five episodes of Man from U.N.C.L.E. together, the last in 1967.

One extremely impressive aspect of “The Quadrapartite Affair” is the interlude aboard Gervaise’s yacht.  Solo breaks Marion out of the brig, and then must get her off the ship, which is sailing in New York Harbor.  

The chase goes up to the deck of ship, over the deck roof, back down to the deck, up and down stairways, and finally onto a waiting skiff, and is genuinely exciting.  There is no fakery or studio-bound footage here, and it looks like Vaughn and Ireland really jump onto the boat’s bow seconds before it speeds off.  This is a sustained, well-directed action set-piece, and a nice reminder who well assembled some 1960s cult-television really was.

The main threat of the episode a “fear gas,” is one that, for some reason, was extraordinarily popular in 1960s cult-television. An episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (also from 1964) called “The Fear Makers” involved fear gas.  

Similarly, an episode of Batman (1966 – 1968) saw Shame (Cliff Robertson) unleash a similar type of fear gas on the Dynamic Duo.

Remembering David McCallum: Sapphire and Steel Assignment #4

David McCallum passed away yesterday at the age of 90, and so today I wanted to remember him with a few posts.

First, my favorite McCallum performances were on Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982), a textbook example of a TV series that does a lot with very, very little. This resourceful genre series ran for four years on British television over thirty-five years ago, and there were six, multi-part stories overall. 

Usually, an entire multi-part serial is  set at just one location (like a haunted train station, an isolated country house; an abandoned antique shop, or even a futuristic penthouse apartment building). 

Each of the serials also features absolutely minimal special effects, and for the most part only a handful of guest cast. The result, however is a triumph of mood and atmosphere; one of the most suspenseful, creative and compelling (not to mention weirdest...) series of all time. It's also one of my personal favorites. 

It's portentous. It's mysterious. It raises more questions than it answers. It is...unnerving and enigmatic. Sapphire and Steel (created by Peter Hammond) is like a puzzle; one that demands to be solved and understood. As a series, it focuses intensely on the notion of of "The Unseen." Of Evil Forces lurking in the periphery of reality, just out of sight, in the shadows...but present, powerful and malicious.

In particular, Sapphire and Steel recounts the adventures of two distinctly non-human protagonists who combat such forces.

Sapphire (a beautiful and charismatic woman, played by Joanna Lumley) and un-emotional, arrogant Steel (David McCallum) are our enigmatic leads. They are "Operatives" working at the behest of another Unseen Force to repair breaches and incursions into Time Itself (which in one episode is described as "a long tunnel.")

Such "irregularities" in time, according to the opening narration of the series are "handled by the forces controlling each dimension." In the cases we see, "Sapphire and Steel" have been "assigned;" though they are sometimes aided by "Specialists" such as Silver.

What this all amounts to is - in essence - a paranormal police procedural of a most unique and singular quality, with Sapphire and Steel utilizing their special unearthly skills to preserve the integrity of time. 

Sapphire is a touch-telepath capable of psychometry, for instance. She also possess the unusual ability to "take back time" twelve hours."

Meanwhile, the cold-blooded (and calculating...) Steel can reduce his body's core temperature to "absolute zero," is incredibly strong, and possesses the ability to open any lock on any door. 

Sapphire and Steel also communicate telepathically on several occasions throughout the series; as if the very act of talking is beneath them; somehow primitive or human. And that's one aspect of the series I really like: humanity is not at the center of this show's drama or narrative. 

We're not delicate snowflakes; we are not the prized children of the universe (like in Star Trek or Dr. Who). Humanity is involved in the stories; at the center of several time breaches, but mankind is treated more as a nuisance and less as God's gift to creation. That's an inventive, ingenious and unconventional view.

There's always a great joy in watching opposites Mulder and Scully interact on The X-Files and there's a similar thrill in watching the partnership of Sapphire and Steel here. Steel is a tough-minded, a bossy brooder; Sapphire boasts a devilish sense of humor and has a gleam in her eye. Although the actors' deliver their lines deadpan and non-emotionally, a whole universe of subtle emotion flourishes between the lines; in their eye-contact; in their physicality; in their tone, in Sapphire's occasional smile, even in their proximity to one another. These are amazing performances which strongly "hint" alien, but are also filled with a kind of nuanced complexity as well..

Today, I've decided to focus on the fourth adventure in the series, which is sometimes known as "The Man Without A Face." 

Here, Sapphire and Steel are assigned to investigate a new breach in time, one that occurs at an English antique shop (and connected upstairs apartments) in England of 1980. 

In particular, a "time break" involving antique photographs has occurred. A faceless man -- one who won't show his real face -- has broken out of his prison inside an old photograph, and come into the real world with a devilish agenda. 

Sapphire and Steel attempt to deal with this interloper, and early in the episode share a spirited debate about their purpose and mission, wondering whether it is better to arrive after Time's integrity has been breached; or rather to sit around waiting for it to happen. Sapphire notes that "there aren't enough of us" to wait in the locations of Time Breaks, to which Steel scoffs. This enigmatic conversation -- with precious few specifics -- is about as much background as we get on Sapphire an Steel's world per serial, and that's just as it should be. Just hints. Just touches.

This fourth adventure deals explicitly with the idea that a life-form -- an evil one -- dwells inside every photograph across the span of human history. 

It lived inside the first photo ever taken; and it lives inside the photo you just took this morning before you read my blog. 

"Each and every photo is mine," it says with coiled menace. 

Apparently, this thing was trapped within the world of the photograph (an infinite world, Steel suggests), but the amateur conjuring of a photographer living in this very building -- the combining of a very old image with a new image inside a kaleidoscope -- has released it into our reality. 

This monster possesses fearsome powers too. For instance, he can trap living beings inside photographs. In one of the most horrific (not gory, but horrific...) scenes I've ever seen on television, Sapphire and Steel stand by helpless while the Man with No Face burns up a photograph with a living woman trapped inside it. We see the photograph burn to ash, and we hear her dying screams as she is seared alive.

Before she is killed, this innocent woman communicates to Sapphire her first sight of the released Man with No Face. She does so not in straight eyewitness testimony, but in the creepy sing-song of a poem she half-remembers. 

She recites the poetry as if in a daze, a trance. "As I was going up a stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today; [although] I wish he'd stay away..." The delivery of this monologue/poem is just great; a kind of vacant, half-remembered terror, like a nursery rhyme from childhood.

I love this artistic way of generating chills, and in general, greatly admire the manner in which Sapphire and Steel utilizes clever, memorable and intelligent language to foster authentic and deep scares. It has no monster costumes and no special effects to rely on, so it reaches for (and frequently grasps) a more literary, more cerebral style of horror. 

For instance, this serial also involves the unnerving repetition of another old Nursery rhyme, "This is the way to London Town..." 

A clutch of sepia-tone "ghost" children (replete with deathly pallor) whisper this rhyme again and again in the adventure and it gets under the skin real quick. Combined with eerie sound effects (particularly in a scene in which Sapphire attempts to turn back time to see the "real face" of the Photograph Man), these vocal touches are very effective.

But I reserve my greatest admiration for the precise, meticulous camera-work of Sapphire and Steel. The photography is so beautifully-vetted, so utterly painstaking that it actually creates scares too. All by itself

I note, for instance, the preponderance of shots in this fourth adventure featuring our protagonists (Sapphire and Steel) perched behind bars (of a half-lit staircase; of an iron gate, and so on), indicating a sense of entrapment and doom. I note also the shadows on the walls, simultaneously frozen and yet foreboding -- suggesting the presence of the Unseen. 

Every episode of Sapphire and Steel is like this: rigorously, scrupulously-mounted. I know of few series (besides The X-Files and Millennium) where the staging is so picture-perfect; so chilling. It's fascinating, but in eschewing transitory special effects and focusing instead on extremely careful camerawork, Sapphire and Steel today looks not dated...but rather...timeless.

Even the climax of this fourth episode is something of an audacious masterwork; a master's thesis on economy of storytelling. Sapphire and Steel themselves become frozen inside an old photograph, and must telepathically communicate with a human woman to free them. 

All the while, the Man with No Face nears...ready to burn our heroes to cinders. The scene thus involves a long sequence in which the audience is gazing at nothing but a photograph of Sapphire and Steel. Over this un-moving image, we hear their dazed conversation. They are frozen, slow, unable to concentrate, and the visual lingering on a "still" serves as the perfect reflection of their paralysis. As evil approaches, the paralysis becomes practically tangible.

Some of the greatest horror in history involves the idea that commonplace things (or locations) are dangerous. For instance, the shower in Psycho. Or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which suggests that sleep is the venue through which mankind will lose his soul. Well, we all have to sleep, don't we? 

This adventure of Sapphire and Steel taps the same kind of horror, suggesting that you can actually see this "Monster" in every photograph you keep in those old family albums. That...maybe he's that figure in the background; the one with his back to the camera; or half-turned away from you. 

Or maybe he lurks in the distance, in one of the upper windows of that building far back in the frame. 

This idea is chilling, and this kind of horror requires very little by way of special effects. The episode's valedictory frisson arises from the universal nature of this beast (once more trapped, but not killed). Sapphire and steel warn the young lady (a dancer) who rescued them: "never to have another photograph taken." 

Why? Because that thing will always be there with her, lurking. 

"In years to come," it tells her with a hiss, "I'll find a photograph...nothing lasts but me."

Impressive in narrative and awe-inspiring in visualization, Sapphire and Steel's fourth serial is a perfect little horror gem. One setting. A few characters. A terrible menace. The Unseen lurks in the shadows, in photographs...even in mirrors, and you get the unsettling feeling that Sapphire and Steel barely scrape by unscathed.

And that last bit? About escaping unscathed? It's not always the case on this remarkable science-fiction/horror series...

Monday, September 25, 2023

Memory Bank: The Star Trek Compendium by Allan Asherman

It was Christmas, 1981, I believe, when I visited my aunt Patty and uncle Bob at their house in Summit, New Jersey.  

I was 11-years old, and absolutely obsessed with Star Trek

In part, that obsession had been super-charged by the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), which I found to be a challenging and beautiful cinematic experience.  

Basically, I lived and breathed Star Trek, and was desperate to see all the episodes of the original series again, because our local station, WPIX, always seemed to air the same handful of episodes ("That Which Survives" seemed to be on the air every other week, for some reason.)

Anyway, Patty and Bob presented me with a Christmas present, and one which absolutely inspired me: Allan Asherman's Star Trek: Compendium (Wallaby/Pocket Books), which was described on its cover as "the most thoroughly researched and complete Star Trek reference work ever published."

First, I have to say, I loved the look of the book cover. 

This was a crucial part of the experience. 

It was very futuristic, colored in metallic blue and silver (much like a poster of the Enterprise that hangs in my home office to this day). The Star Trek logo was that of The Motion Picture vintage, in golden or yellow lettering. 

Future editions of the book lost the metallic sheen and the futuristic feel, I felt, though added photos from the TV series in its place. The lettering also changed back to the sixties TV show logo style.

The Star Trek Compendium -- which has indeed been reprinted and updated four times since the early eighties -- featured fascinating information on (according to the back cover): "photography and production," "technical matters," "series concept and continuity," "symbolism and trivia," "episode titles, dates of production and discussion of plots," and "career and biographical information of actors and production personnel."

In short, it was a treasure trove of information about my then-favorite TV series (and favorite new movie, too). The Compendium lived up to its description on the back cover as a "gold mine" of information about Star Trek.

I read, re-read and then read again The Star Trek Compendium, and basically took it with me wherever I went. I read it in the car on shopping trips.  I read it before bedtime. I read it with breakfast, the next day. 

Sadly, the book came apart from the heavy usage, by about 1984. I continued to read it, even with pages falling out. I finally got a new copy at a used book store in Montclair sometime later, but it was one of the later editions, and didn't have the same feel/look of that first edition.

Today, decades later, I still remember unwrapping this book at the holiday season, and thrill of leafing through the pages of the Star Trek Compendium for the first time.  

For me, it was a magical time, and a magical book too. 

I am certain that this is among the handful of books that inspired me to become a writer.

I have just learned that author Allan Asherman passed away on 9/22, and I want to offer my deepest condolences to his family. 

But I also want to offer the author my sincerest thanks for a book that was my constant compendium as I grew up.  

You made a difference, Mr. Asherman, in this young Trekker's life.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

30 Years Ago Today: "Squeeze" (The X-Files)

“Squeeze” is The X-Files (1993 – 2002) first “monster-of-the-week” installment. As such, it represents a template for future entries such as “2Shy,” “Teliko,” “Hungry,” and “Alone.” It is 30 years old today!

Most of these monster-of-the-week-styled outings deal with a murderous genetic mutation of one type or another, but one who -- out of some biological deficiency -- kills human beings in order to survive.  This mutant pinpoints in the human physiology, then, the key to controlling its own existence and satisfying that aforementioned deficiency.  

Watching the “genetic mutants” of The X-Files, it’s easy to imagine that we are gazing at the blind alleys or dead ends of human evolution.  With just a little variation, we could become them, and that factor lends a certain degree of empathy to some of these tales, and to some of these monsters.

But not to Eugene Victor Tooms, importantly, who remains an opaque and monstrous presence, and one that the episode contextualizes in grand, even historic terms.

Despite an apparently-troubled production history, this early episode works splendidly, and is abundantly creepy and disturbing. In fact, “Squeeze” is likely one of the best remembered first season entries.  “Squeeze’s” success as a drama and as horror piece might be measured by the fact that a sequel was produced and broadcast later in the first season (titled “Tooms,”) and that the episode essentially became the benchmark by which later monster-of-the-week episodes would be judged.

Doug Hutchison’s unsettling, focused (and largely internal) performance as the anti-social, monstrous Tooms brings genuine menace to the hour, and the final sequence set in Scully’s bathroom features some subtle but effective visual effects which ably depict the serial killer’s unique, mutant capacities.

But ultimately “Squeeze” is an important tale for The X-Files not merely because of its early placement and impact in terms of later storytelling, but because of several unique thematic conceits. 

The first of these involves a kind of thesis about the nature of evil, and how a certain brand of “evil” sees the world.  This thesis is forwarded mainly through the eyewitness testimony of a retired police detective, Briggs.

The second conceit involves the way that everyday bureaucracy and record-keeping rituals can actually cloud the truth, rather than excavate it.  We see this idea most clearly in the details of Mulder’s investigation into Tooms’ long history.  Over and over again, a man named Tooms seems to live at the same address at Exeter Street but never, before Mulder, have these records been exhumed, weighed, and connected.

The third conceit is perhaps the most crucial in terms of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), and their rapidly blossoming relationship.  On this front, one might view “Squeeze” as the story of “Scully’s Choice,” wherein she must choose between the Bureau (and old friends), and a crusade at Mulder’s side.  

One selection could bring her promotion, success, and notoriety, while the other promises only epistemological honesty.  She chooses the latter, and I think that says a lot about Scully as a partner and as a human being.

In “Squeeze,” Scully’s old friend and fellow agent Tom Colton (Donal Logue) asks her to consult on a difficult murder case in Baltimore.  An unknown assailant has managed to break into a locked office and kill a businessman…removing his liver in the process.  Scully agrees to consult on the investigation, but “spooky” Mulder’s involvement worries Colton, who is bucking for a fast promotion.

Mulder begins to suspect that the murderer is a most unusual killer: the sullen, Eugene Victor Tooms (Doug Hutchison)…a man who has resided in Baltimore, apparently, since before 1930, but who doesn’t look a day over thirty.  

Mulder consults with Detective Frank Briggs (Henry Beckman), a detective who worked on an identical case decades earlier and also considered Tooms the primary suspect.  Briggs likens Tooms’ brand of “evil” to that of the Holocaust, or the Bosnian ethnic cleansing.

Although it is almost impossible for Scully to accept Mulder’s theory of a nearly immortal mutant killer who kills five victims and consumes their livers every thirty years to stay alive (and young), she casts her lot with her partner, rather than with Colton, who is more interested in racking up successful collars than solving the case and honoring the victims.  

Finally, Tooms -- whose strange physicality allows him to “stretches” into impossible positions -- decides to make Scully his latest victim…

A very human brand of evil...

Across three decades, “Squeeze” has drawn heavy criticism from those who cast the episode’s comparison of the Tooms’ murders to the Holocaust and the Bosnian conflict as either pretentious or somehow inappropriate in what is essentially a mainstream entertainment. 

However, the comparison succeeds in The X-Files for a few significant reasons.

First, the comparison is explicitly made as one of Det. Briggs’ personal observations.  If, as a character in the play, he makes that connection himself, based on his particular experience, who are we to judge whether he is right or wrong?  The comparison is a representation of his viewpoint, based on his experience.

In their official capacity, Scully and Mulder never explicitly compare the Tooms killings to real life atrocities, though they do note that the killer’s environs create a kind of aura of death and decay.  

Instead, the comparison is simply the opinion of a retired -- and very shaken -- old man…one who has lost faith in the human capacity for goodness, at least until the coda, which serves explicitly as his catharsis.

Secondly, if one chooses to compare Tooms, the Holocaust, and the horror of ethnic cleansing, there is clearly a data point in common.  All the murderers -- all the perpetrators in such events -- share a common point of view: they don’t see their victims as fully human. 

Instead, the victims are deemed not entitled to human dignities and freedoms because they are somehow inferior, and thus can be used/misused/abused as the “monster” in question sees fit.  

It’s always much easier to hurt someone if you decide they aren’t fully human or equal.  In our history this viewpoint has accounted for genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, prejudice, and other horrors.  So I submit that this is the specific horror at the core of the Holocaust, Bosnia, and, yes, Baltimore.  

What’s so intriguing about the comparison of Tooms’ bloody handiwork to these real-life atrocities is that the two historical events are very closely linked with the worst human behavior imaginable.  The idea here is that Tooms may be physically different from us but he shares in common with us this human capacity for evil.  Tooms is not the “monster outside” then.  Instead, he is the monster with a very human nature.

One of the qualities of “Squeeze” that I very much admire is its critical look at record-keeping and bureaucracy.  When I managed a metropolitan hospital’s laboratory billing department way back in the mid-1990s, I spearheaded an initiative in accurate record-keeping that insisted “registration is as important as results.”  

The goal was to significantly improve record-keeping so that John Kenneth Muir wouldn’t get confused with a patient named Kenneth Muir, and that a six year old wouldn’t be mistaken for a 90-year old with the same name.   The point I was attempting to make back then, in 1995, was very similar to what we see in “Squeeze.” 

Tooms has left a considerable paper trail across the decades, but  the elements of this trail don’t connect, and therefore can’t clarify anyone’s thinking about the investigation, save for Mulder’s.  The investigation of Tooms is held hostage to the fact that paper-work is filled out, dutifully recorded on micro-film, but then never looked at again by human eyes.  

Only Mulder can connect the dots (while humorously going blind at micro-film machine…), filling in the invisible connections between official documents.  The global point seems to be that humans want to record and categorize everything, but that once the initial categorization is done, there is no looking back, no more thinking to be done.  We see the same issue in Mulder’s manipulation of Toom’s fingerprints.  The fingerprints are already on file…if only someone had the wherewithal to look…and speculate. 

Is the maintenance and furtherance of databases, micro-films, and paper documents just busy-work to keep the gears of bureaucracy spinning and grinding endlessly?   Does important, life-saving information disappear into archives, never again to be looked at, measured, or considered?

The information age is one of value only if data-points connect, and someone looks at the information with an engaged intellect.  We see in “Squeeze” that this is one of Mulder’s gifts.  The show is called the X-Files, accent on files, after all.

Last week I wrote about the epistolary quality of The X-Files; how the story is told in terms of Scully and Mulder's case reports on their PCs.  Continuing this epistolary quality, "Squeeze" is able to convey its story both through newspaper headlines (see above photo) and county census records and the like (see photo below).

Is anyone checking the records?
In terms of the characters themselves, “Squeeze” puts Scully in the position of having to choose where she ultimately wishes to cast her lot. 

Should she cast it with Colton, who is slick, successful, snarky, and wholly unimaginative?  

Or should Scully cast her lot with Mulder, who is unconcerned about his reputation, but unfailingly honest from an intellectual standpoint?  

Scully has a choice to make.

This guy.

Or this one.

If you gaze at the images above, you can see the outlines of Scully’s choice in starkly visual terms.  Colton is a man of lunch dates, meetings, and buttoned-down suits and ties.  He’s a man of surfaces and superficial qualities.

By contrast, Mulder is the kind of guy who takes off that suit jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and does the hard work himself because he knows that in the vetting of hard work, answers come to the surface.  Mulder may possess ideas and theories that some people consider ludicrous or insane, but he pursues his answers through rigorous investigation.  He doesn’t close off any possibility (usually) and thus is intellectually honest and open-minded.  Colton by contrast, does no investigating whatsoever.  Instead, he just brings in Scully to write the behavioral profile he isn’t imaginative or skilled enough to craft himself.

In “Squeeze,” Scully realizes she would rather work with a guy who cares about digging for the truth, even if the truth is unpalatable, rather than a fellow who just wants check a career box and move up the F.B.I ladder.

It was important that Scully make this decision early on.  The decision does two things, primarily.  First, Scully’s decision isolates her.  Like Spooky Mulder, she soon must live with the jokes about little green men and the like.  She must also contend with the disrespect of her peers.

But her decision to commit to Mulder and his quest also locks Scully into an on-going intellectual or cerebral debate.  Scully will now be present alongside Mulder to make certain that every crazy theory, every strange hypothesis, boasts a solid basis in fact, and empirical science.

All of this character development starts to cohere in “Squeeze”...and it’s only The X-Files third episode.

The hunter sees his prey.

In terms of horror visuals, “Squeeze” is unimpeachable.  We see the impossible made convincingly manifest in Tooms physicality.  We see his jaundiced, predator eyes gazing out from the darkness, and we get a great point-of-view from his (twisted) perspective.  The world appears black-and-white, and his victims move in slow motion, unaware of his sinister presence.  

The black-and-white photography reminds us that Tooms doesn’t see us as fully human, but as prey.  And the slow-motion photography indicates that this hunter is one step ahead of his quarry, a fact we can attribute to his unique physical abilities. We move slowly, unaware we are hunted.  But he moves with lightning-fast rapidity, and that’s very, very scary. 

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...