Tuesday, December 26, 2023

50 Years Ago: The Exorcist (1973)

Fifty years ago today, The Exorcist (1973) was released in United States theaters, and in many senses, the age of the modern horror film truly began.  

At the time, William Friedkin's film met with tremendous controversy, instead of the universal acclaim many people associate with it today. 

The Nation's Robert Hatch called it an "exceedingly well-made bad picture" and noted that The Exorcist "denigrates medicine and psychiatry, it involves the Catholic Church in mumbo-jumbo and, by grotesque make-up and camera trickery...it turns a 12 year old girl into a spectacle of loathsome ugliness for the sole purpose of mindless entertainment.  It should be scorned." (February 2, 1974, page 157).

Jay Cocks at Time Magazine called The Exorcist "vile and brutalizing," and Film Quarterly termed it "the trash bombshell of 1973, the aesthetic equivalent of being run over by a truck...a gloating, ugly, exploitation picture..."

The Reverend Billy Graham went even further, and accused The Exorcist of causing depression and spiritual angst in 1970s movie audiences.  

He said: "A psychiatrist friend of mine has told me that he is seeing new patients all the time whose troubles can be directly traced to their having seen this film. They report recurring nightmares and problems they never had before.  My friend is concerned, as I am, that there will be more of it, if people continue to flock to the box office."

Other critics were more approving. Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic called it the "most scary" picture he had seen in years and declared that "The Exorcist will scare the hell out of you."

Similarly, Films in Review noted that "the horror film will never be the same," while Roger Ebert called it "one of the best movie of its type ever made; it not only transcends the genre of terror, horror and the supernatural, but it transcends such serious, ambitious efforts in the same direction as Roman Polanski'Rosemary's Baby."

I agree with the critics who detect the artistry in William Friedkin's film.  

I credit the early parts of the film (the scenes set in Iraq, and later in a Georgetown Hospital) for rendering the special-effects-driven last act so damned effective, and so damned scary. Friedkin directs these early sequences as if they are a documentary -- like a cinema-verite travelogue -- and the result is a grounded, gritty sense of reality that completely captures the senses and absorbs attention.  These first two acts are so believably vetted that the third act -- even with the spinning head and split-pea vomit -- still plays, somehow, as realistic.

Novelist William Peter Blatty based his tale of demonic possession on a real-life story he had heard at George Washington University in 1949, but developed it so that it would become the terrifying story of a mother losing a child, and of a child corrupted.  The film isn't exploitative (particularly of Blair), because the point is indeed, childhood destroyed, ravaged by evil. When our children are threatened in movies, all our futures or tomorrows are imperiled.

Also, I often consider The Exorcist a deliberate meditation about the structure of the universe.  Is there such a thing as the Devil, or is what we perceive as the devil really just a mental illness?  

The film’s first act suggests one answer, based in the knowledge of antiquity.  

The second act, set in the hospital (replete with painful-looking spinal tap) suggests the latter. And then the third act goes nuts with violence and graphic effects, but also examples of human heroism and nobility.  The film thus provides two answers about life and the cosmos. The first is that if there is a Devil there must, by implication, be a God too.  

And secondly, that acts of human courage and kindness can, finally, beat the Devil.  

The Exorcist may be brutal, but it is not vile. On the contrary, it suggests that where evil exists, good exists too.  

And that, finally, mankind can make a difference about which force succeeds in our lives.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone, and remember this: Die Hard (1988), Gremlins (1984), On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), and Prometheus (2012) are ALL Christmas movies.

So you have cover to watch them today, no questions asked!

I wish a very happy holiday to all the readers and their families out there in the Quantumsphere! 

Thank you for your continued friendship, support and fellowship in 2023!

Thursday, December 21, 2023

60 Years Ago: "The Daleks"

Although it follows the first serial -- “An Unearthly Child” -- in terms of continuity, the second ever installment of this British cult-TV series might very well be tagged as the “true” beginning of Doctor Who.    

“The Daleks” by Terry Nation --  and recently colorized for its anniversary -- establishes that the series’ real bread-and-butter is not time travel to Earth’s various historical time periods, but rather adventures set on faraway worlds in which the (sometimes unreliable?) protagonist must choose between warring opponents, and in doing so, validate humanity over more sinister “alien”  people and qualities.

In addition to serving as a template for the long-lived series as a whole,  Terry Nation's“The Daleks” does a remarkable job diagramming the eccentricity, and often dangerous eccentricity of its titular character.  

The Doctor in this story as played by the late William Hartnell is a stubborn and selfish sort, one whose heroic qualities only come to the forefront under duress and in conflict.  He is crafty and intelligent, but not warm and cuddly (like many latter day Doctors).

The most delightful quality about Hartnell’s portrayal, perhaps, is that, on retrospect, we can view it not as being indicative of “old age” and cantankerousness -- as was once believed -- but of intemperate, self-centered youth instead. 

In other words, this Doctor, despite his elderly appearance, is not quite yet grown-up, and is quite fallible and mercurial.

In "The Daleks," the TARDIS lands in a creepy petrified forest on a dead planet and the Doctor (William Hartnell) theorizes that the condition of the wooded glade must be the result of a terrible nuclear war.  

Although Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Ian (William Russell), and Susan (Carole Ann Ford) all want to leave the planet immediately, the Doctor desires to explore a nearby city.  To that end, he knowingly sabotages the TARDIS’s fluid link so that the group is stranded.  

Then the Doctor explains to his companions that he requires mercury to get the fluid link working again, and hopefully they will find some in the fantastically advanced city…

Inside the alien metropolis, however, Barbara and the others are promptly captured by the Daleks, sinister armored beings in tank-like “radiation” or protective suits.  Completely mobile within the confines of the city, the Daleks are not robots, but tentacled mutants with an aversion to all living creatures not like them.

With the Doctor and his companions suffering from radiation sickness, the Daleks plan to destroy their longtime enemy, the humanoid Thals, and gain total control of the planet once and for all. 

The Doctor and the others realize they must destroy the Daleks, even though the Thals desire only peace…

The “Time Machine Syndrome” is in full effect in “The Daleks.” In this case, the Morlock/Eloi schism imagined by H.G. Wells has become the Daleks/Thal conflict. And again, one side in the ongoing war represents cold or heartless technology while the other side seems to represent total innocence.  

Doctor Who would re-play this central scenario again and again over its first two-and-half decades, though the story has fallen out of favor on New Who, perhaps because of the paradigm’s overuse circa 1963 – 1989.  The Doctor makes for an intriguing middle-man, to be certain.  As a man of science, he understands the value of technology, but as a rebel and a renegade, he also understands the value of resistance, and fighting.  He thus helps the Thals stand up against the Daleks in this story-line.

Although it is tempting to write about the introduction of the visually-impressive Daleks as the most crucial element of this sophomore serial, I found upon re-watch that it is the character touches which are actually among the best aspects of the tale.  

For instance, Barbara misses “seeing things” that she recognizes and she knows she can trust. She is an unwilling adventurer, then, and again, this is a quality that modern Who has not often highlighted.  

Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, and even Clara in the new series hear the clarion call of a life “bigger” than one on Earth, and travel with the doctor quite willingly.  By contrast, Ian and Barbara are trapped with the doctor, and acknowledge the plain fact that he may not even know how to get them home. It's clear from this early serial that The Doctor and his school-teacher companions do not yet trust one-another

The Doctor himself is really a fascinating character in these early stories because only generously could he be described as kindly, or courageous.  

On the contrary, Ian and Barbara correctly peg this incarnation of the Doctor as being one with a “knack for getting himself into danger.”  More than that, this Doctor is selfish and deceitful.  He lies to his companions and arranges to get his way, exposing them, in the process, to radiation sickness and, of course, the Daleks. 

When questioned about his behavior, the Doctor is prickly and defensive.  “I would not be questioned,” he warns at one point.  “I shall do what I want to do,” he imperiously declares at another juncture.  

Again, fans of the new Doctor Who are accustomed to a Doctor who, in the words of River Song, “lies,” but this first iteration of the character doesn’t even put on a smile or a cheery façade when he does so.  It isn't clear, in other words, that the Doctor is lying to execute any grand strategy beyond satisfying his own curiosity.  

In terms of its actual narrative, “The Daleks” is strong, compelling work for three of its six segments, and a dull run-around for the rest.  There’s a lot of wasted time here, particularly in a Thal march through a dark cavern.  In this sense, the series early days have not aged well.  It’s not that long stories are bad, per se it’s that for long spells, “The Daleks” involves capture, escape, rescue, and then capture, escape, and another rescue.  Parts One through Three, and Part Six actually move the narrative well, and the rest plays like filler.  This is no doubt heresy to many Doctor Who fans, yet it’s hard to deny that “The Daleks” could tell the same story more concisely and effectively in four parts rather than in six.

Of course, “The Daleks” introduces the series’ most famous, most long-lived villains. I always find it amazing to ponder that Doctor Who introduced a non-humanoid alien design to the world before Star Trek ran, before 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered, and when even the James Bond film franchise was in its infancy.  Today, we might judge the tennis balls and toilet plungers of the Daleks to be rather humorous in appearance, but I can imagine how chilling their first appearance must have been…when it was unclear completely who or what these…things…might be.  

It is largely on the basis of that first appearance (a point-of-view-style shot stalking a cornered Barbara) that the Dalek legacy rests.  

Had the Daleks been presented, initially, in less fearsome and less mysterious terms, they might not have triggered such a powerful, and long-lasting reputation.  

I make that claim not to diminish the creature design and construction, but to note that in film and television the choice of camera angles is crucial.  If shot poorly, even the best suits or costumes can fail to convince.  

One of my perpetual joys with black-and-white Doctor Who involves the visual aesthetics, which hark back to German Expressionism.  The angles, sets and production design all express a feeling of doom, or approaching dread.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't point out another fact about this serial. The first appearance of the Daleks seconds before the end credits is meticulously prepared for.  The first twenty minutes or so, in the petrified forest, are downright creepy, and the moment when Susan feels the touch of a mysterious stranger is unnerving to say the least.  The episode works hard to generate terror before we ever get to the famous P.O.V. shot.  The P.O.V. Dalek shot is merely the zenith, the pay-off, for all the carefully-wrought tension.

In terms of its themes, “The Daleks” is very clearly anti-war in nature.  The Daleks discuss a five hundred year conflict, here called “The Neutronic Wars” and yet are determined to continue the blood-shed and violence, only this time in their mechanical suits and shells.  

The fear expressed here is of humanity’s unchanging, self-destructive nature.  His technology may develop and improve, but until his nature also changes, war will always be with us.  "The Daleks" expresses the idea with frightening simplicity.  

The Daleks take a path that we, as human beings, must not...or we'll be every bit as monstrous as they are

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

50 Years Ago: Fantastic Planet (1973)

Fifty years ago, a wondrous animated science fiction film premiered at Cannes. Today, Fantastic Planet still holds up beautifully, a non-franchise, non-sequel picture of great symbolic power and continued relevance.

The story commences on a faraway planet known as Ygam. There, humans are  pets called "Oms," and cared for by giant blue creatures, Draags. One Om named Ter breaks free from captivity, and using his knowledge of Draag domestic life and history, joins up with a band of rebel humans to free his people from their enslavement. Ter’s escape, however, only confirms the Draags’ biases about the tiny (Earth) creatures, and a pogrom of genocide is launched.

Fantastic Planet is filled with amazing visuals of another world. Tiny humans like Ter occupy only the ground level of this world and make their homes and communities wherever they can, amid unearthly flora and fauna. One scene of ritual combat involves the Oms strapping weird lobster creatures to their chests.These as well as other visuals are as imaginative as they are impressive, and the vehicle of animation permits for al sense of scope not possible in live action.

A special point is made in Fantastic Planet of noting that the Oms have no schools and therefore no real freedom or understanding of freedom. As a result, perhaps, of this absence, the Oms are afraid of knowledge and consider it “evil.”  They see it as something that the Draags “own.”  Importantly, the Oms’ journey towards independence in the film comes only when Ter can convince his fellow fighters that knowledge is the answer that will free them. This point is underlined by the finale, which finds the humans taking possession of a rocket, flying to another world, and there unlocking the strange secret of the Draags as well as the secret of their own self-destructive history. This message holds great relevance in 2023, as book banning, and, indeed, book burning is on the rise. An educated populace is a strong populace, but a populace without knowledge, without education, is easily controlled.

Fantastic Planet effectively handles the concept of slavery, or even owning pets, since it makes us consider how we would feel to live at the whim of a thoughtless giant. Masters may not knowingly be cruel, but all creatures – including slaves and pets – possess feelings, and even a right to things we take for granted as absolute, like family.  The first scene in the film is especially terrifying in its depiction of this idea. A mother Om and her baby run from the Draags, but are separated and then used as playthings, ones without destiny, self-determination, or any other rights.  Ter survives. His mother does not.


Fantastic Planet is remarkable in its depiction of the aliens. At first, the Draags don’t seem so bad. They simply seem unaware that their little pets, the Oms, are sentient creatures with the right to be free. But as the Oms rebel, the “evolved” Draags behave poorly. They call the Oms  “vermin…that reproduce at an appalling rate” and launch a campaign of genocide against them. Perhaps a comparison to Planet of the Apes is merited here.  In both films, the ruling culture is savage to humanity, but that savagery is, in some fashion, also justified by humanity’s behavior. Would you allow to grow unchecked a population of beings that, on their own world and under their own auspices, destroyed itself?

Fantastic Planet is an involving movie because it asks that question. After a race has destroyed itself, it may not boast the right to be free, or determine its destiny. It may even merit all the cruelty and fear demonstrated by the Oms.  

Of course, the opposite side of the coin is that it is wrong to blame individual living now for the behavior of people that lived generations earlier.  

But can mankind change? Or must he be forced to change? Again, these are not small questions, a full half-century after the release of Fantastic Planet.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

50 Years Ago: Day of the Dolphin

Now 50 years old, The Day of the Dolphin (1973) is a thoughtful and highly-emotional science fiction movie that explores the connection between man and dolphin, and wears its heart on its sleeve. 

And for this crime, the movie has long-been ridiculed.  

Critic Pauline Kael called The Day of the Dolphin “the most expensive Rin Tin Tin movie ever made, with a gimmick the Rin Tin Tin pictures never stooped to: the dolphins here are dubbed with plaintive, childish voices and speak in English.” (5001 Nights at the Movies, Holt Paperbacks, 1982, page 175.)

The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson, meanwhile dubbed The Day of the Dolphin “absurdly earnest.”

He may be right. The Day of the Dolphin is absurdly earnest to its core…but I’ll take that quality over ones like “crassly cynical,” or “blatant cash grab” any day of the week.  

The fact of the matter is that this 1973 film -- much like its dolphin co-stars -- today seems absolutely without guile.  

And that quality makes for powerful contrast with the film’s human villains, and also with the species called “movie reviewers” too.

At a secret, privately-run research facility by the sea, a team of scientists led by Dr. Jacob Terrell (George C. Scott) attempt to teach the first dolphin born into captivity, Alpha, to speak.  

When Alpha grows uncooperative and bored with his learning, a female dolphin, Beta, becomes his companion.  As Dr. Terrell grows closer to announcing his breakthrough in human/dolphin communication to the world, however, a dark conspiracy is hatched in secret.  

The dolphins are captured and taken away from the facility.  On the sea, they are trained to plant mines on boats…a task that will be used in an assassination attempt targeting the President of the United States.

Now Terrell must rescue the dolphins, stop their mission, and teach his wards that not all human beings can be trusted…

Many science fiction films of the 1970s deal with mankind’s always-changing relationship with animals, those fellow creatures he shares the Earth with.  

I wrote that the relationship is “ever changing,” and that process of change involves the boundaries of man’s science and knowledge.  As he better understands himself and the world, mankind’s understanding of animals -- and responsibility for them -- also changes.  

The Planet of the Apes sequels of the early 1970s directly involve mankind’s uneasy relationship with a close mammal cousin, and the fight for dominion. Mike Nichol’s The Day of the Dolphin concerns another highly intelligent inhabitant of the Earth -- the dolphin -- and asks the question: is dolphin-kind better off learning from us at our current stage of development, or should it remain far, far away from 20th century human beings all together?

The Day of the Dolphin centers on a character played by George C. Scott named Dr. Jake Terrell.  As the film opens, we see him lecturing about dolphin intelligence and communication to a rapt audience, and later, we seem him playing God, of a sort, at his marine research institute.  

There, he is the father figure for Alpha, the first dolphin raised in captivity.  He makes the decisions for Alpha, teaching him linguistics and semantics, and demanding obedience.  

When Alpha won’t obey, Terrell separates him from his mate/companion, the dolphin Beta, and the film depicts a heart-breaking scene of Alpha banging at a door plate, attempting to reach her.  He doesn’t understand being punished.

Finally, realizing that humans hold all the cards, Alpha obeys Terrell’s edicts. He submits. While hoping to teach the animals important human qualities, Terrell seems to lack one himself: compassion.  All he has taught Alpha is that man is “the boss.”

As the film continues, however, the audience detects a change in Terrell.  When he encounters those who would more cruelly exploit Alpha and Beta -- for purposes of political assassination, no less -- he sees the error of his ways.  

We should become like them…instinct and energy,” Terrell muses at one point.  He wonders explicitly why he has sought to re-cast the dolphins in terms of human standards and learning.  Furthermore, he realizes what a disservice he has done them.  

They trust us more than their own instincts,” he realizes.  “They’ve never been lied to…”

The Day of the Dolphin ends with Terrell making the ultimate parental sacrifice for his wards, to whom he has done wrong.

He is cruel, on purpose, to the dolphins, and thus knowingly drives them away….never to see them again.  

He knows they will be used badly by mankind again, and can’t let it happen. But they do not understand why he rejects them now.  They have no basis for understanding, and are without guile. 

The last several minutes of the film will make audiences weep as the dolphins call after Jake in despair, and it takes every ounce of courage and resolve for him to reject and ignore their entreaties.  In this case, as Jake realizes, the dolphins are better off without human interference, better off hating humans, even. 

Even outside the commentary on humans and how they treat animals, the film works as a metaphor for parenting, for children and adults.  At some point, the children must walk (or swim) alone, and indulgence or assistance will do no further good.  

Some children won’t learn that lesson from gentleness and softness. Sometimes the lesson has to be hard, and that is a heartbreaking thing for everyone involved.

The Day of the Dolphin dramatizes its emotional tale with a minimum of obvious fakery, and the scenes of affection between Scott and the dolphins feel incredibly real, and therefore touching.  The scenes of Terrell and Alpha together, learning from one another, showing each other affection, represent the best angels of human nature: mankind’s capacity to reach out to other beings in peace and love.  

In keeping with the Watergate context of the era, however, the film also offers a yang to that yin.  The movie very deliberately charts a conspiracy, and notes that it is no longer possible to “trust the good old establishment.”  

On the contrary, the establishment here resorts to bugging the marine research center and stonewalling the public about real intentions. The final end game for this group of conspirators is the murder of the President of the United States.  The dolphins are but mere pawns in such a plot.

At its most basic level, The Day of the Dolphin emotionally explores the simple interrogative that Terrell asks of Alpha.  

“Why is man good?”  

One possible answer is that man, as in the case of Jake, has the ability to step back from his self-centered, petty concerns, learn from his mistakes, and make good decisions…decisions that benefit others.

 But oppositelyThe Day of the Dolphin also suggests that the “good old establishment” is always going to exploit new science and new technology for anti-social reasons, and that those caught in the middle are, often, complete innocents, like Alpha and Beta.

As my introduction suggests, The Day of the Dolphin didn’t win many great reviews on its release in theaters in 1973, but it nonetheless impresses on an emotional level.  

Not only as a time-capsule of the Watergate Era, and the dawn of conspiracies in the science fiction cinema, but as a film that intelligently ponders human nature and behavior.  

When we are going to become “good” parents not just to our own biological children, but to the beings we share this world with?

Saturday, December 16, 2023

40 Years Ago: The Keep

One of the glories of film as an art form involves its capacity to forge a powerful mood or “feeling” outside or beyond strict narrative parameters.This sense of atmosphere can be created through a combination of editing montage, musical soundtrack, and even pacing. 

In other words, if the resultant overall mood of a film is potent enough, the moment-to-moment specifics of a movie’s plot don’t matter that much. Viewers can get carried away not in specific details, but in strong emotional resonances.

This is especially so in the horror genre, in which a well-realized vision or “atmosphere” can, eerily, mirror our universal sense of dreaming, or our experience of a nightmare.  

In 1983 -- forty years ago,when I was thirteen -- I first saw in theaters a new horror film that, on a purely plot level, indeed seemed ludicrous and poorly constructed.  But the visuals were so charged with spiky energy, the editing and music so utterly mesmerizing, that the film became something of a favorite with me.  If my mind reeled at the silliness of the story and the banality of the dialogue, it also responded enthusiastically to the deft, unconventional visualization of the tale.

That film is Michael Mann’s The Keep, based ever so loosely on the popular novel by F. Paul Wilson.  That author, I suspect, has ample reason to complain about how his literary work was translated to the silver screen. 

And yet for all its notable flaws in terms of narrative clarity, dialogue, and character development, the film version of The Keep is inarguably hypnotic, even mesmerizing.  Supported by a stunning electronic score from Tangerine Dream, and an almost early-MTV music-video sensibility in some key action sequences, this film plays like a surreal dream turned into a wild, epic opera.

Again, The Keep is not without faults, notably including the design and make-up for the central monster, Molasar.  Instead of appearing fearsome and frightening, he looks like a man in a bad rubber suit, with red glowing eyes.  So there is ample reason to criticize The Keep, if that’s the game.  

But if one chooses to engage with The Keep on its own strange, unconventional terms, the film casts a remarkable trance-like power that I find, well, irresistible.  In the film, those individuals who take refuge and sanctuary in the remote, titular Keep  are swept away by bizarre, frightening dreams that seem to reshape reality itself.  

Mann’s film actually expresses that very idea in its DNA, revealing in all its idiosyncratic glory a dream world of dark and light, good and evil, right and wrong.  The film casts a spell that sweeps you away, even if you don’t always understand the story, what motivates the characters, or why things are happening. 

One can certainly argue that a more straightforward approach might have made for a better or perhaps more easily digestible film, but Mann’s oddball, emotional approach here certainly gets at the true nature of the story he vets.  We experience “the dream” of the Keep as the characters in the play do the same. And as I like to write frequently, there’s something to be said for a film’s form mirroring its content. 

During World War II, a Nazi caravan led by Captain Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) arrives in a small town in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. There, Woermann reluctantly takes command of his new headquarters:  an ancient Keep decorated with one-hundred-and-eight small crosses made of nickel.

The caretaker of the Keep (Morgan Sheppard) warns Woermann and his soldiers not to remain in the Keep, because they will suffer horrible nightmares if they sleep within the walls of the mountain fortress.

His warnings go ignored, however, and soldiers instead attempt to loot the Keep, removing a thick rock from an underlying structure and finding a passageway into the heart of the mountain itself, into a vast, seemly empty chamber.

In truth, the Nazis have actually released a ferocious and ancient evil force.  When five soldiers are murdered under mysterious circumstances in the Keep following the breach of the mountain, a new, harsher Nazi commander, Koempferr (Gabriel Byrne) arrives and imposes draconian law on the nearby village.

But meanwhile, far away in Athens, a mysterious stranger called Glaeken (Scott Glenn) heads for the Keep, even as a Jewish scientist, Dr. Duza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Albert Watson) are transported there from a death camp to translate a message scrawled on the wall of the fortress.  

It reads: “I Will Be Free.”

Suffering from a debilitating disease and knowing that the end of his life is near, Dr. Cuza comes to realize that the monster in the Keep -- Molasar -- can strike a blow against Nazi power around the world if only he can be released from this ancient structure, his prison. 

But is Cuza’s plan to release True Evil actually worse than the evil unleashed by the Nazis?

From a visual standpoint, The Keep is an incredibly dynamic film, even when viewed in 2023.  The most impressive and memorable shot, in my opinion, involves the initial breaching of the mountain interior.  

A Nazi soldier pushes away a rock, and Mann treats the audience to what could be the longest, most dramatic pull-back in film movie history, at least pre-CGI.  Star Trek: First Contact (1996) boasted a corollary, although digitally-rendered, in its opening scene on a Borg cube.  

But here, we pull back and back and back…for a seeming eternity, through impenetrable shades of darkness, until we reach a distant cave floor.  And then the shot extends further yet, escorting audiences through what appears to be an ancient rock-hewn temple.  In the far, upper right corner of the frame, we can see where we began the shot: a Nazi soldier gazing out upon a stone precipice, and an open interior space of terror yawning before him.

It’s a gorgeous, masterfully-created composition that expresses beautifully the nature and setting of Molasar’s imprisonment.  The shot suggests a scale beyond our human ability to conceive, as if we are opening up into another realm of Hell itself.  

The film’s opening sequence is equally masterful, and it adroitly sets the tenor for the dream-like quality of the film’s remainder.  The Nazi caravan drives through mist-enshrouded mountains on a small, winding road, and the local figures move through the fairy tale landscape in slow-motion.

Extreme close-ups of Prochnow’s wide-eyes also suggest the idea of a percipient awakening (or perhaps falling asleep…), and piercing a barrier into a new, unexpected realm.  It’s as though the caravan has breached the wall separating reality and nightmare, real-scape and dream-scape.

When I reviewed The Keep in Horror Films of the 1980s, I noted that these misty, expressive visualizations, augmented by Tangerine Dream’s compositions, can make enraptured viewers feel as though they’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole into a universe of the strange and surreal.  That observation is just as true today. 

The first time we meet Molasar, the visuals are impressive too. We don’t see the (inferior) costume/make-up, but rather a roiling, tornado or storm moving purposefully through the stone corridors of the Keep.  Smoke rises and falls, billows and rolls, coruscating and affording us only glimpses of the monster’s true nature.  Once more this scene suggests a kind of dream-like quality, of monsters perceived but not quite seen or understood.

 The novel upon which The Keep is based was more overtly a vampire story than the movie is, but one can detect the outer edges of a vampire story in this weird and wonderful film.  Yet Mann has escaped and avoided silver screen vampire clichés by positioning his “monster” inside the world of dreams and half-understood visions.  The unexpected use of neon lasers, slow-motion photography, and music-video-style cutting also subverts expectation about what a “vampire movie” can be, or how it should look.

If the film boasts any specific disappointment beyond the revelation of Molasar’s true character, it arises from a lack of exposition about Glaeken, the immortal vampire killer who has waited a seeming eternity for Molasar to awake so he can fulfill his duty as slayer.   

Memorably, Glaeken makes love to a human woman, Eva, in a beautiful but patently weird sequence that is as much as about religious apotheosis (notice the lovers in the form of the cross…) as it is about sexual fulfillment.  

But beyond his capacity to love Eva and destroy Evil, we know almost nothing about Glaeken, or what he “is,” human or otherwise.  That established, Scott Glenn looks absolutely stunning in the role: a glowing-eyed, perfectly-muscled physical embodiment of the divine in man’s body.

The most satisfying thematic element in The Keep perhaps involves Dr. Cuza.  He’s a man who hates the Nazis so much that he releases a monster several magnitudes worse to destroy them.  His hatred has thus blinded him in a very significant way.  The lesson there is that hate doesn’t make one strong, but rather weak…and that wanting to see your enemy destroyed so badly may in fact only perpetuate a greater evil.

Ultimately, how much you enjoy The Keep may be determined by how much reality,  you demand of your horror movies. 

If you desire to see expressed a strict, Euclidian “sense” of reality, I suppose the film is something of a bust.  

But if you are willing to be swept away -- like Eva in Molasar’s arms, carried through the ancient corridors of the stone castle  -- by Michael Mann’s unconventional “dream sense,” The Keep is a singular and stunning viewing experience.  It remains one of the most bizarre and memorable films of 1983.  Furthermore, The Keep is one of those movies I can return to again and again, and always see something new -- and beautiful -- in.  

Friday, December 15, 2023

40 Years Ago: Automan

From Glen Larson -- the man who brought the world Manimal (1983) and Nightman (1997-99) -- came this short-lived 1983 ABC series, an hour-long dramatic superhero adventure entitled Automan. The series ran for 13 hour long episodes before untimely cancellation. The final Automan episode actually went unaired until a 1990s broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel (now Sy Fy).

This vintage series starred Desi Arnaz, Jr., as Walter Nebicher, a computer expert and nerd working at the L.A. Police Department. Nebicher dreamed of action, adventure and romance, but his cranky superior, Captain Boyd had other ideas and wanted the genius to stay at his desk in the Computer Room. 

So -- in rebellious desperation -- Walter spent his free time creating a heroic, handsome alter ego, Automan (Chuck Wagner), a computerized hologram that looked, sounded, and felt real: the world's first “truly automatic man,” (hence the handle Automan.) So special was Auto that he actually considered himself perfect. “On a scale of one to 10, think of me as an 11,” he boasted in one episode.

This unique superhero didn’t wear a costume—Automan was the costume, and his torso glowed bright blue with powerful "holographic energy." Automan also boasted a helpful sidekick, a buzzing computerized pal called Cursor, a hologram generator that -- in the lingo of the program -- could “rezz up” anything needed to pursue the bad guys of the week, particularly customized transportation. Cursor outfitted Automan with a zippy Autocar, an Autocopter and even an Automotorcycle!

Automan also had one defensive capability in his crime-fighting arsenal. In times of extreme danger, he and Walter could merge into a single unified entity (“The Great Pretender”) to avoid death or catastrophic injury. This perfect symbiosis allowed Walter to actually become the hero he had created. 

But Automan was a successful police detective for another reason: he could interface with computers and mechanical devices of all shape and sizes, including slot machines (“Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever”), thereby permitting him access to a whole new kind of “street” informant. On one occasion (“Zippers”), Auto even seduced a female super computer, scandalously boasting that he would “penetrate” her memory core! A braggart, Automan was also prone to spontaneous and bizarre declarations such as, “I suddenly sense the presence of a microchip!”

Automan even had his own Achilles heel/Kryptonite, originating from the fact that his complex program required a tremendous amount of power. Sometimes, he was unable to operate during the daytime -- when demands on the California power grid were especially high. Luckily, Auto could re-charge himself via proximity to electrical outlets, sucking nourishing power through his fingers (“The Biggest Game in Town”).

Automan’s other major weakness was a psychological foible based on his personality. Like Lieutenant Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94), this artificial life form a literal thinker. Although he fancied himself the “finest deductive reasoner on the planet,” he did not comprehend human nature. Instead, he would sort of mindlessly receive pertinent input (often “downloads” of movies and TV series) about human nature, and then he would studiously mimic that behavior to catch the bad guys. Think Neo in The Matrix (1999)...only sillier.

In the episode “The Great Pretender,” Automan absorbed data on gangster movies such as The Godfather (1972) and out-gangstered the bad guys... as a new mob chief called “Otto.” In “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever,” he viewed Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Flashdance (1983), and these MTV-age productions provided our hero with studly moves on the dance floor; right down to his John Travolta white-suit.

Automan and the Tinkerbell-ish/R2-D2-like Cursor represented the only fantasy elements featured on the series, and the bad guys were run-of-the-mill “crooks” and thugs. In “The Biggest Game in Town” there was a trio of gamers conducting high-tech extortion; in “Renegade Run,” a corrupt sheriff (played by the ubiquitous Richard Lynch...) threatened Walter. No costumed freaks or aliens here, thank you very much. There wasn't even an evil holographic twin for Automan to combat.

Although it was far more entertaining and droll than Manimal (Glen Larson’s other superhero series of the same vintage), Automan did not fare well in the ratings sweepstakes. It aired for one month (December) in 1983 on Thursday nights from 8:00 to 9:00 and was crushed by the competition, the mega-hit Magnum P.I. on CBS and the Nell Carter comedy Gimme a Break on NBC. 

Then it was shuffled off the ABC schedule until March of 1984, where it lasted barely another month on Monday nights at 8:00, this time competing against Dick Clark’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes (NBC) and Scarecrow and Mrs. King (CBS). Still -- in some ways -- Automan seemed the right superhero at the right time. In the early 1980s, home computers had started to supplant the Atari 2600 as the technological gadget of choice in American dens, and the hologram Automan seemed tailored to prove that high-tech gadgetry was helpful and "user friendly." Unlike the Terminator, Automan showed that mankind could control his tools and harness them for beneficial purposes.

These days, Automan functions best, perhaps, as a time capsule of the 1980s. The series was surely inspired by the 1980s Disney epic, Tron, which likewise had been set in the world of computers and featured "computerized" dramatis personae and environments. Another Reagan Age touch the late Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” plays in the background of “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever"...an episode set entirely inside a disco. And stylistically, each story culminates with a humorous (and hackneyed) “freeze frame,” an old television tradition that was lampooned in comedies like Police Squad. Also unlike TV series of today, Automan consisted entirely of interchangeable, standalone stories that could pretty much be viewed in any order desirable.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

30 Years Ago: "Eve" (The X-Files)

“Eve” is our X-Files episode this week as we continue to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the classic Chris Carter TV series.  This eleventh episode of the fledgling series was penned by Kenneth Biller and Chris Brancato, and directed by Fred Gerber.

“Eve” commences as Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) fly to Greenwich, Connecticut to investigate the death of a suburban man who was drained of blood.  Mulder suspects alien abduction is behind the murder, citing examples of cattle-mutilations with a similar modus operandi.  At first, the only witness, young Teena Simmons (Sabrina Krievans), seems to obliquely corroborate this theory.

When an identical murder occurs in Marin County, California, however, and the only witness is a dead ringer for Teena, little Cindy Reardon (Erica Krievans).  Scully and Mulder realize that they are looking not at an alien abduction case, but a case involving illicit experiments in in-vitro fertilization.  

While Scully investigates the activities of a doctor named Sally Kendrick (Harriet Sansom Harris) at the Luther Stapes fertility clinic, Mulder learns more on the subject from his covert government informant, Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin).  

Deep Throat reveals a top-secret genetic experiment of the 1950s called “The Litchfield Project” that was designed to compete with a similar eugenics program in the Soviet Union.  The goal was to breed a new race of super-soldiers.  The American version of the project created a number of “Adams” and “Eves,” all identical, all incredibly-intelligent…and all homicidal.

After visiting with the incarcerated Eve 6 (Sansom Harris) at the Whiting Institute for the Criminally Insane, Scully and Mulder realize that Eve 7 and Eve 8 may still be free, and even attempting to kill Cindy and Teena, the grandchildren of the program, essentially. 

Unfortunately, their suspicions prove absolutely wrong, and Teena and Cindy prove to be far more cunning adversaries than either F.B.I. agent could have possibly predicted.

At the heart of “Eve” is a well-worn horror trope involving evil children.  In the 1950s, the movie The Bad Seed famously raised a crucial issue regarding diabolical children: nature or nature?  

Could a child be evil by dint of the genetic material passed on from his or her parents? Or did that evil arise out of the manner in which he or she was raised? 

The X-Files takes that notion a step further – and straight into the post-modern 1990s -- by noting that an evil child might actually be designed so by over-reaching scientists run amuck. Although the twins possess superior intellect and cunning, these girls were not gifted with a superior sense of morality, and that fact makes them monsters.

Didn’t the scientists ever stop to think about morality? How about mere emotional stability?

The 1990s was indeed a perfect time to re-visit the notion of evil children, and accordingly a few horror movies of the era did so, including The Good Son (1993).  The reason this issue was so timely a concern involves the development, in 1990, of the Human Genome Project, an initiative designed to map fully our DNA.  

In terms of the horror genre and its development, this scientific project was every bit as important, creatively, as was the Manhattan Project to an earlier era.  In both cases, creative artists explored the notion that “tampering in God’s domain” could effectively destroy mankind.  By harnessing the atom in the 1940s, and by mapping the human genome in the 1990s, mankind was opening “Pandora’s Box.”  The “real” monster in “Eve” is thus wanton genetic experiment, vetted without a controlling, moral authority. 

The Krievan twins portray Teena and Cindy here, and do a remarkable job.  They play their roles, at first, as though everything happening to the girls is observed from some great emotional distance.  They are disassociated from the horrific and monstrous things happening around them.  

Late in the episode, we understand that this distance arises from a lack of empathy.  The deaths of their foster-fathers means nothing to the girls, emotionally-speaking, and their almost blank facades embodies not shock, but mere boredom.  

In the finale, when the audience learns their true nature, the twins finally reveal a new aspect: childish glee in their anti-social activities. To the very end, Teena and Cindy try to manipulate others with their childish appearances.  “We didn’t do anything wrong,” they insist, “we’re just little girls…”

The distance between Teena and Cindy’s youthful appearance and their evil acts is one factor that makes this episode so chilling, and therefore so successful.  There’s something deeply disturbing about children who are disconnected from their emotions, and also, deceitful and manipulative.  

Again and again in the episode, Scully and Mulder make mistakes because they can’t quite reckon with the idea that these little girls could possibly be monsters.  They can’t make the leap that appearance isn’t reality.

Interestingly, “Eve” doesn’t end without an important, if brief glance towards the “nurture” end of the eternal debate about children.  Cindy’s mother, after learning of her daughter’s evil behavior, completely abandons her.  She cuts her off.  She rips up her photograph of Cindy and burns it in a fire.  This is not the act of a loving mother, even one whose child has acted badly.

Call this the Frankenstein Principle.  We make life in our own image, but when we don’t like that image, we dismiss that life as “monstrous.”  Suddenly, it’s not a part of the family anymore.  It can never be spoken of aloud…just burn all the photographs in the fireplace.  

This act or purging a family member, depicted in the finale of “Eve,” suggests that Cindy and Teena aren’t the only ones who lack empathy, and perhaps that “missing” factor is indeed a matter of nurture. 

If these girls had been raised in loving homes, would they have resorted to murder, even factoring in the genetic predisposition towards instability?  

In terms of the character development, “Eve” is a necessary piece of The X-Files puzzle for a few reasons.  I often read other critical evaluations of the series, and some reviewers have complained (loudly) that the series is not actually concerned with the science vs. belief battle, but rather with a strange kind of faith in which Mulder is always right, a priori, no matter what.  These critics see Mulder as unrealistic.  They term him infallible, always able to guess what is happening and deduce correctly the solution to a mystery. 

As a reviewer, I don’t see this as a legitimate complaint about the series, and could point to “Eve” as Exhibit A refuting it. 

Here, the episode begins with Mulder hell-bent on proving a case of alien abduction.  He discusses missing time (a call-back to the pilot episode), cattle-mutilations and the like.  He obsesses over the idea of a “red cloud” in the sky on the day of the crime.  Young Teena – sensing Mulder’s desire to reach a pre-ordained conclusion -- plays into his vanity and supports Mulder’s reading of the investigation.  She is doing this merely to trick him and throw him off the scent.

As the investigation unravels, Mulder realizes he is barking up the wrong tree, and drops his theory, as any smart investigator concerned with the facts rightly would.  The conclusion to draw here is that he saw a commonality between a contemporary case and some old case in his X-Files, but that the lead didn’t pan out.  

So, already -- just ten episodes in -- the series is proving that Mulder can be wrong, and in his zealousness to be right, even make mistakes.  This quality makes him a fallible and interesting protagonist, not the kind of “infallible” master detective I’ve seen him described as in other reviews. His viewpoint is not constantly validated. 

There’s also a very nice, very effective moment in “Eve” that plays upon audience expectations and desires regarding the Scully/Mulder relationship.  Scully and Mulder have “rescued’ the two girls, and are unaware of their true, homicidal natures.  They decide to take care of the girls, and drive them to their next destination.  On the long road trip, the girls need to use the bathroom, and Mulder, slightly annoyed, pulls over at a rest-stop restaurant. 

With a slight smile, Scully takes the two girls to the bathroom with her, while Mulder gets their order of four sodas.  While he uses the rest-room, one of the girls poisons two of the sodas, the ones meant for the F.B.I. agents.

There’s a great dramatic conflict in this scene between what Scully and Mulder (and a waitress) believe is happening, and what is actually happening. 

Scully and Mulder are knowingly playing Mom and Dad, and seem to recognize it…and even enjoy the roleplaying a little.  That waitress thinks Mulder is the twins’ dad, and says so.  

As viewers tantalized by the Mulder/Scully relationship, we too are pulled into this world of sudden parentage, though we know better.  Despite our knowledge, we are suddenly contextualizing these folks in terms of a “family,” something that has explicitly always been denied the original Adams and Eves.  

Then, of course, the illusion is shattered, and Mulder realizes at the last moment that the girls have poisoned the sodas.  It’s a wonderful moment when he realizes the truth, and realizes, fully, how successfully the girls can play on the illusion that they are made of sugar and spice and everything nice…plus, apparently, a healthy dollop of foxglove.

A tense, intriguing, and fun episode, “Eve” is another bonafide victory for the first season team.  In terms of The X-Files canon, it points towards the series’ obsession with genetic experimentation and research.  “Eve” is sort of the tip of that iceberg on that front, and the theme will return in a big way in later seasons, though in a more intimate fashion that affects Scully and Mulder directly.  

“Eve” thus represents a promise of things to come -- and another indicator of past government malfeasance -- rather than a direct connection to the overarching Mytharc.

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...