Friday, April 08, 2011

Coming Soon: Lance Henriksen Blogathon; May 2 - May 7, 2011

I'm very proud and honored to announce that this blog, Reflections on Film and TV, will soon host a blogathon dedicated to the great actor, Lance Henriksen.  The dates for the Lance Henriksen Blogathon are May 2 - May 7, 2011, and the event is open to any and all bloggers with an interest in this amazing talent.

The week of May 2nd has been selected for two important reasons.  First, Mr. Henriksen's birthday is on May 5th, 2011, and secondly he is releasing his new biography on the same day, entitled Not Bad for a Human.  The book is being published over at Bloody Pulp Books, an imprint of Steve Niles, and you can read more about the project here.

Co-hosting the blogathon with me will be the book's co-author, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue writer/producer, Joseph Maddrey.  You can check out Joe's blog devoted to Not Bad for a Human, here.

I'm thrilled to have Joe aboard with me for a week dedicated to one of the greatest and most versatile character actors of his generation, and a man who has had a tremendous impact on science fiction and horror films, as well as cult-television. 

I have had the good fortune to speak with Lance Henriksen a few times;  once for a telephone interview featured in The Unseen Forces: The Films of Sam Raimi, and once, more recently, when he was working on Not Bad for a Human with Joe.  In both instances, I got a good feeling for Henriksen's personal and professional aesthetic or credo: total commitment, total honesty, and total freedom of artistic expression.

So those are truly the only guidelines for the upcoming blogathon. 

Basically, any blogger who wants to write about Lance Henriksen during the blogathon week should do so on his or her blog (as often as you like), and then e-mail me the links at the address in my contact information (on my blogger profile page) so I can post a snippet or excerpt of your work and link back to your blog.  I'll be checking my e-mail many times a day, every day, that week, and putting up links and snippets regularly, as well as my own original Henriksen content.

As far as content is actually concerned, the sky is absolutely the limit.  We're looking for film or TV reviews, lists, photo essays, poetry, videos, podcasts, birthday wishes...anything that floats your boat, Henriksen-related.   There's certainly a universe of content to consider, since Henriksen has appeared in over 160 films, from westerns to action films to sci-fi and horror, and also starred in three seasons of Millennium.

So please join me and Joe right here for the Lance Henriksen Blogathon, from May 2 - 7.  I know there are great treats in store, with special pieces written by friends across the blogosophere. Hopefully the event will really kick off Mr. Henriksen's birthday celebration in high style.

Below (and also above), I have posted a few banners for the upcoming blogathon. Please feel free to copy them and post them on your blog if you're planning to participate. 

We can't wait to see what everyone comes up with!


Thursday, April 07, 2011

CULT TV MOVIE REVIEW: Something Evil (1972)

It certainly seems to me that the magical alchemy of good made-for-tv horror movies involves one particular equation above all others: accomplishing a lot with very little. 

Exhibit A: the most memorable horror TV-movies of yesteryear, such as Duel (1971) Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), Trilogy of Terror (1975), and Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) create moods of suffocating, overwhelming terror without necessarily showing viewers much by way of monsters, blood or other visual effects. 

Instead, in each of these productions the audience is strongly encouraged to identify with one "everyman" (or every-woman) character, and then watch as reality seems to slip further away from that protagonist and they descend into situations of the surreal or nightmarish. 

A salesman experiences supernatural road rageA woman battles a Zuni Fetish doll come inexplicably to life, and so forth. 

These stories are models of simplicity and efficiency, but each effort also boasts unexpected high impact due to brawny, virtuoso directorial flourishes.

Yet another TV-movie that epitomizes this brand of low-budget ingenuity and inventive spirit is 1972's Something Evil, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Clouse.  This tele-film was made during the rise of Exorcist fever in the United States -- after the book's release and before the premiere of the movie -- and the plot line indeed seems familiar to fans of the Friedkin venture. 

But the point here isn't necessarily the originality of any specific narrative details. Rather, the point is how ably Spielberg manipulates film grammar to forge an overarching atmosphere of free-floating, amorphous dread.  There is something at evil at work in the film all right, but at various times, one might suggest that the "something evil" of the title is madness, family dysfunction, or demonic possession.

First aired in prime time on CBS in 1972, Something Evil concerns the Worden family as it moves into an old, recently vacated farmhouse in Pennsylvania Dutch country.  The patriarch of the family, Paul (Darren McGavin) is a TV ad-man and producer, who is often away in New York City.  His wife, Margery (Dennis) is an artist who stays at home and cares for the family's two children, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) and young Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lampert).

After the Wordens purchase the country home -- which is suspiciously decorated with supernatural pentacles -- Sandy begins to experience regrets about their move.  For one thing, a surly neighbor, Gehrmann (Jeff Corey) keeps ritualistically killing chickens in plain view of her bedroom window.  For another, Sandy frequently awakens in the night to the terrible sounds of a child crying.   

Another local, Harry Lincoln (Ralph Bellamy) informs Sandy that pentacles represent a form of protection against devils and demons, and that he himself believes in such devils.  In fact, Lincoln has made a study of them his hobby.  With Paul away in the city for longer and longer intervals, Sandy grows increasingly paranoid about the house, especially when two of Paul's employees die in a car "accident" after filming a commercial on the premises. 

Convinced she is becoming spiritually possessed, Sandy locks herself off from her children, only to realize -- at long last -- that she is not the target of the Devil's attacks at all...

Again, the story in Something Evil is one we've all likely seen before. A lonely housewife believes in the supernatural and insists on the supernatural while her "rational" husband refuses to join in and share a meaningful dialogue about it.    He's just worried about money.  "If we sell this house now, I'd take a terrible loss," he states at one point.   On a (very) superficial level, the narrative is similar to Rosemary's Baby, for instance.

Then, of course, there are the young children imperiled by demonic possession, and  local experts warning of a house's dark history with the mystical and supernatural.  These plot details suggest The Exorcist, The Haunting and other horror tales we all know and love.

Yet Something Evil is perfectly titled. There is indeed "something evil" at work in this horror story, some amorphous aspect of the diabolical, and Spielberg carefully refrains from showing the Evil Thing's presence or even its shape on Earth throughout the film.  Rather, the director rigorously crafts unsettling, almost surreal set-pieces that effectively tap into our shared, subconscious language of nightmares. 

For instance, twice in the tele-film Sandy detects a strange noise in the thick of the night.  Both times, the noise sounds like a cat crying at first.  Then, as it continues more loudly, we can discern it is the voice of a terrified human child, crying and whimpering incessantly.  Sandy follows this unnerving voice down a dark staircase, out into the night, and into an outbuilding, a garden shed.  She can find no source for the cries, and returns to bed.

The second night that Marge hears the sound, something more terrifying occurs.  She follows it to the garden shed a second time, and this time the voice appears to be emanating from a mason's jar filled with a thick red, gelatinous substance

The substance moves in the jar as if it is alive, as if the child's essence or soul is trapped inside.  Now, pretty clearly, this doesn't make a lot of "awake" or conscious sense, but it makes perfect nightmare sense.  It's irrational and yet wholly terrifying.  Amazing what a little food coloring and a mason's jar can achieve when utilized thoughtfully, isn't it? The discovery of the mason jar is just so weird, incongruous and unsettling that you can't quite shake the imagery.

To augment the idea of the shed as a source of something unspeakably evil, Spielberg often films his exterior sequences from a vantage point inside the structure, looking out into the surrounding yard.  This perspective accomplishes two things of consequence.  First, it restricts the available space of the characters visible in the frame.  The children are seen playing in the yard, but they are bracketed -- trapped, essentially -- by the arch of the doorway. 

Secondly, and perhaps even more significantly, this perspective suggests the notion that something is alive in the shed, and gazing out from inside it.  This could be the point-of-view shot of a devil or demon. The demonic jar and its contents, perhaps?

Another, almost throwaway moment is nearly as unnerving as these canny visual perspectives.  Late in the film, Paul is at work in the city, reviewing the commercial footage he shot at his home.  A technician enters his office only to show him something weird that inexplicably appears on the film, even on the negative.  It's a set of red, glowing eyes...inside one window frame. 

Again, we're not seeing a CGI demon, or even a man in a costume.  We're just seeing a phtographic still of eyes where none should be, and the effect is pretty shocking.

Finally, during the climax of Something Evil, Margery must reclaim the soul of her son, Stevie, who has become possessed.  Again, Spielberg selects a simple but effective shot to convey the demon's sense of power.  He positions the child in the center of the room -- but higher than any child could possibly stand -- and lets all hell break loose around this stationary force, meaning demonic wind, doors swinging open, etc.  The child's back is to the camera, so we can't see his face; can;t see what he actually looks like as an instrument of the Devil. 

Again, when we think of demonic possession we remember the incredible visual effects of The Exorcist: twisted heads and pea soup, namely.  With little budget to speak of, Spielberg instead implies the demon's power by positioning him like a pillar -- unmoving --- in the center of the frame; letting others react to his powerful presence.  Low-budget filmmakers today really ought to study Spielberg's excellent staging.  It's a virtual master's thesis in attaining high impact sans major special effects.  Instead, every really chilling moment in Something Evil is achieved through applied film grammar; through positional intimation, to coin a phrase.

In narrative terms Something Evil might be  interpreted as a story in which a  family is torn apart by a sensitive mother's increasing sense of alienation and isolation.  Margery physically strikes Stevie at one point, and then delivers a heart-wrenching speech in which she says, essentially, that she is leaving the family (children included), because she no longer trusts herself.  She might as well be an alcoholic, given the particulars of her dialogue, and her actions. 

Conjuring an evil force as the motivation for Mommy's bad behavior seems a perfect metaphor for childhood logic.  Mommy isn't herself.  There's "something evil" at work inside her.  Similarly, Stevie becomes "possessed" by something evil when Mother's love is no longer available.  Something else...something of a more sinister shade, steps in to fill that void.  Finally, Mom is told that "love is a powerful force" and re-asserts her role in the family.  But in some ways, the damage is already done.

Though in horror terms, Something Evil offers a pretty hoary, familiar storyline, it succeeds mainly because of Spielberg's staging.  By the time audiences get to Marge's second nocturnal visit to the garden shed -- and the sight of that oozing red gelatin in the mason jar -- Spielberg has us by the throat.  Then, the TV movie reaches a fever pitch of terror before ending on another unsettling visual:  The family car pulls away from the house of evil, but Stevie -- now free again -- sits backwards in the car, peering towards the camera (and the house), out the back window. 

If not demonic, Stevie's eyes certainly appear traumatized.  His positioning  (backwards, essentially, intimating the opposite of order) denies the film a clean restoration of  balance and of the natural world, and suggests that Stevie's family problems may just be beginning.  In other words, what's encoded here  under the supernatural veneer of Something Evil is the idea of how a family's dysfunction damages and destroys children.   Something evil happens to the Wordens.   Is it demons, or the specter of looming divorce?

I often wonder what networks executives were thinking about, green lighting such terrifying tv-movies for family audiences in the 1970s.  And then I realize that on paper, Something Evil probably didn't appear too traumatic.  Just another, run-of-the-mill demon possession story.  But when Steven Spielberg entered the picture, the director lifted the material.  He took Something Evil from the realm of the routine and the familiar to the plateau of trauma.

And we should really thank him for a job extraordinarily well done.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week:

"Live fast, fight well and have a beautiful ending."

- Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: F.A.Q.: Frequently Asked Questions (2004)

"You do not need to trouble your thoughts.  You do not need to remember the past.  Failure would be inevitable."

- Words from "The Sisterhood of Meta- Control" in F.A.Q: Frequently Asked Questions (2004).

In Carlo Atane's independently-made low-budget 2004 feature,  FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions, Europe has become a super-matriarchy and one that "grows stronger every day."

For the men of Europe, this is not necessarily a positive development. 

The less-fair sex is revealed on state-sponsored television programs to consist either of irrational war-mongers or obese, giggling monstrosities. 

And worse, men and women are no longer permitted direct physical contact of any type in this dystopian future.  Sexual intercourse is a thing of the past.  Illegal Internet porn is all the rage.

"You live in a clean society.  Avoid physical contact," urges the State in ubiquitous  loudspeaker announcements.

It's not just the nature of man that the Sisterhood of Meta-Control seeks to control and eliminate, but all of nature itself.  "Nature has been abolished," notes one character in the film, and in France of the Sisterhood, only the Pyranees Nature Reserve remains.  Soon, it too will be destroyed by the Matriarchy, along with the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower's offense? 

It symbolizes the phallus, and therefore must necessarily fall victim to what one agent of the Sisterhood terms "architectural castration."  Late in the film, we see the monument and historical landmark destroyed.  The message: there is no past.  There is just the endurance of the Sisterhood.

A bit slow-moving, even at 82-minutes, and not always well-rendered, F.A.Q. is one of the few science fiction films to come out of Spain in recent years.  The film boasts a cheap, digital look, with poorly achieved green screen effects (especially one lengthy scene in front of the Eiffel Tower).  Furthermore, the brooding, lugubrious characters don't exactly enhance the audience's sense of identification with this fictional world.  F.A.Q. is a movie of many startling ideas -- perhaps too many -- but the story is not shaped or molded in a coherent way, which gives film a pretentious and occasionally unintentionally comic feel.

Everything living is lethal

The totalitarian-minded edicts and acts of the Sisterhood are just one piece of F.A.Q.'s odd, ponderous, tapestry.

In human terms, the film tells the tale of a man named Nono (Xavier Tort), and the woman he serves, a scientist named Angeline (Anne Celine Auche). They share a mutual physical attraction that neither one really dares to enunciate or express, at least in this repressive world.

When Nono -- a sound specialist - records the sounds of Angeline's heart beating, her less-than-romantic reply to his overture is only a callous: "your intentions are ethically unclean."

Two men from the resistance -- in the porn industry, no less -- visit Nono and attempt to recruit him to record the sounds of nature before Nature itself is destroyed.  The dissidents hope to store the recorded sounds in an archive for some future generation. 

Nono has no comment about this task or his role, but continues his work, nonetheless.   There is some talk about Nono being "special" because he can see beyond the reality of the Matriarchy, into another reality all-together.  In some ways, he seems an idiot-savant, and is mostly silent.  Others impress their perceptions of Nono upon him, but he generally shows little reaction to any provocation.

Later, after Angeline dies from exposure to lentils at the Nature Reserve (!), Nono wanders onto a porno movie shoot, and inadvertently draws the forces of the Sisterhood to the scene.  Both Nono and the resistance fighters/pornographers are captured and tried before the State in what is likely the film's most powerful scene.   In a darkened room, before a brick wall, the accused stand in a line and are made to beg for their lives, and announce how they could effectively punish themselves rather than face the punishment of the State.  One prisoner offers to immolate himself before the end of the year.  Another offers to open his own belly with a spoon, before the next year. 

When one prisoner cannot decide how he should punish himself, the State steps in, obligingly.  The man will have his testicles fed to red ants.

Nono is spared such a grim fate by the State itself, which suspects that he must possess some latent talent since the resistance movement was so interested in recruiting him.  Nono is taken to the Home of the State's Number Three, and offered a life of luxury and safety should he submit to the Matriarchy's will and share what he knows of this reality "beyond" the Matriarchy. 

As before, Nono has no comment, and his silence is interpreted by his new masters as resistance.

The ending of the film involves Nono seeing Angeline again, on an Internet porno movie this time, and then walking -- literally -- into that reality, and kissing her passionately.   This coda could be read as a metaphor for life after death; as a self-reflexive acknowledgement that all the faces in the film inhabit two realities (their own, and that of the actors making the movie) or perhaps it is simply commentary on the necessity of physical connection in human travails; and such contact only occur in the pornography of this particular dystopia.  Frankly, your guess is as good as mine.

While watching the film, my wife had some suspicion that F.A.Q. was making a misogynist argument; showing how bad things could be under female domination.  I can see precisely why she felt that way, but I didn't entirely agree.  I think the point of the movie is that when any singular force (sexual, religious, or governmental) gains total control over life, corruption is inevitable and inescapable. In this case, that single force just happens to be female in composition.  But certainly, the final scenes reveal how the members of the Sisterhood live, and suggest an overt and inarguable level of hypocrisy.  The women of the Sisterhood of Meta-Control don't abide by their own edicts, and Number Three, at least, hints at her immense pleasure in the sexual activity her party denies to others.

F.A.Q. is not without some fine qualities, but the film is ultimately less-than-successful because it blends too casually its literal story with the metaphorical point the director hopes to make.  Now, I'm all for subtext and metaphor in film.  Indeed, the art form is perfectly suited for the expression of such metaphors. Yet metaphor also requires a special kind of dedication and attention on the part of an artist.   

It's just as infuriating, in other words, to end F.A.Q. with a shot of the actor playing Nono on the film's studio set, walking away from a blue screen, as it is to end Skyline (2010) nearly mid-breath, in the hopes of making a sequel.  Neither ending satisfies, because neither ending resolves the narrative organically and honestly; in terms of the characters' actual experiences.

If Nono is just Xavier Tort acting in a dystopic movie, then the plight of Nono is made less important, less vital a concern.  If there is a ready escape to this grim "reality," then there is no "Meta-Control" at all, because the Matriarchy can be escaped at any time. See my point? 

I would have preferred to actually see Nono executed, then re-discover Angeline, rather than watch him simply slip seamlessly from one reality to the next, as if this has always been a a viable option for the character.  The ending as it stands reeks of post-modern game playing, and resolves nothing of the film's storyline.

There are games and then there's storytelling, and F.A.Q. moves away from satisfactory storytelling in its last act, to the detriment of the whole enterprise.  This is a low budget film, and I don't begrudge the film the weak effects, the limited settings, or any other overt sign of cheapness.  Those are all things that can be overlooked easily when a director is engaged with his material and ideas. 

What I dislike, rather, in F.A.Q. is the director's choice to so powerfully set up a dystopian reality, and then, capriciously, abandon it in an ending that, on a literal level, undercuts the previous eighty minutes.  I don't know that the science fiction film is the right vehicle for a post-modern ending that reminds us we're all just watching a movie.  The purpose of the genre film is transport us to that other reality in the most effective way  imaginable and make is seem plausible, believable and, yes, possible.

F.A.Q. goes to some length to paint a grim picture of a totalitarian matriarchy, but then decides it would rather be about the self-reflexivity of movies as an art-form.  That's a distraction, a sleight of hand, not a valid ending. 

The most frequently asked question about this 2004 sci-fi movie might just be: what the heck happened to the movie's last act?