Saturday, February 18, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Mission to the Stars" (September 15, 1979)

Filmation's Jason of Star Command (1978 - 1980) was a live-action Saturday morning space adventure, created in the mold of Star Wars

Specifically, Jason of Star Command re-used the props, settings, and miniatures from an earlier Saturday morning effort, Space Academy (1977), which had featured a more didactic, Star-Trek-like quality in its storytelling. 

By contrast, Jason of Star Command was all space swashbuckling all the time. The first series aired as a fifteen-minute segment on Tarzan and the Super 7.  It was rather deliberately cast in the mold of the original Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, with cliffhangers at the end of each installment.

Jason of Star Command featured Craig Littler as the space adventurer, Jason.  He was a man who dressed a lot like Han Solo (black vest, white shirt) but was a bit less-roguish in demeanor.  Operating from Star Command headquarters on the Space Academy asteroid, he routinely battled an outer space despot named Dragos (Sid Haig).  At Jason's side was Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell), who was prone to trouble.  In the first season, James Doohan played the friendly base commander.

Dramatic changes were in the offing for the second season of Jason of Star Command, as the series became a standalone program, and episode length was increased to fit a half-hour time slot.  Doohan left the series to fulfill a commitment to appear in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and he was replaced by John Russell as Commander Stone.

In "Mission to the Stars," the second season premiere of Jason of Star Command, Jason, Parsafoot and their robot sidekicks Peepo and (a re-designed...) WiKi await the arrival of Commander Stone.  But an impatient Jason test-flies a newly modified Star Fire fighter -- the "fastest one this side of Beta 2" -- and accidentally strafes the new Commander as he arrives aboard a Seeker.  Stone dresses Jason down, indicating his desire to command "by the book."  "The galaxy is not your personal playground" he scolds Jason.  Jason reminds him that he is not officially under Star Command jurisdiction, but seems chastened by his bad first impression.

Before long, a derelict spaceship appears in the close vicinity of the Star Command asteroid, and Jason's unique daredevil skills are required to rescue any crew aboard it after a "destructor" is sent to destroy the wreckage.  Aboard the ship, Jason finds a beautiful, Amazonian woman in cryo-freeze, Samantha (Tamara Dobson).  He quickly awakens her and learns that she is an amnesiac.  All she remembers for certain is that her people were conquered by Dragos.

Jason attempts to rescue Samantha, but is injured when a ceiling beam falls on him.  Samantha utilizes super-human strength to save him, and the duo flees the derelict just as it blows up. 

But a new threat emerges quickly.  Drago has fired a "freeze ray" at Star Command, and it's up to Jason and Samantha to determine the source and disarm the device.

The first half-hour of Jason of Star Command's second season  flies by at a quick pace, and introduces new characters Stone and Samantha nicely.  In the former case, Russell makes a strong impression as a more strict, less-friendly commander than Canarvin.  He's a more imposing physical presence, and brings a much-needed sense of tension to the drama.

Although Jason of Star Command often comes off as mindless kid's stuff, without a deeper concentration on action than upon characters, this episode is a happy and distinct change.  Jason and Stone really clash, and the character sparks make the episode more interesting for forty-something adults than some earlier installments.  Samantha also looks like a strong new companion in "Mission to the Stars, and there is a mystery at the heart of her story.  Where did she come from, and how did she get on that derelict?  Is she part of Dragos' trap?

Jason of Star Command was explicitly designed for children and so there is a kind of two-dimensional, simplicity to the production.  The good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated, and there aren't many moral quandaries to sort out. 

And yet the series is fun, and features some great 1970s era special effects too.  The spaceship and starbase designs are really terrific, and are indicative of a kind of consistent approach to the universe, and to futuristictechnology.  Also, I could watch Sid Haig in anything, and he's always a lot of fun as Dragos.  Haig had certainly mastered the maniacal cackle here, playing almost a silent-screen-styled hissable villain.  Haig seems to be enjoying himself tremendously, and the result is that his scenes are always a kick.

As a kid, I loved Dragos, the Starfire fighter design and the special effects.  But even as a ten year old, I liked Space Academy better. 

There was more to latch onto in terms of each story.  I suspect this helps to explain why I was always more a Star Trek kid than a Star Wars kid.   I loved the hell out of Star Wars (and saw it in theaters 11 times...) but for me, Star Trek was superior because there was: a.) much more of it to enjoy (and I didn't have to wait three years between episodes), and b.) Star Trek was more thought provoking on a regular basis.  Star Wars had the unbelievable action, epic sweep and great special effects...but Star Trek had the brains, and to some extent, the heart. 

That's roughly the same dynamic you get between Space Academy and Jason of Star Command.

Next week, the adventure continues in "Frozen in Space."

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Films of 1982: The Secret of NIMH

Mainstream animated films, though often designed for children, don't universally shy away from real life problems. 

Many of us, of a certain generation, in particular, remember being traumatized by the death of Bambi's mother in the Walt Disney film, Bambi (1942).

But Don Bluth's 1982 animated feature The Secret of NIMH is perhaps a bit darker and more intense than the average animated fare.  On several occasions, the film showcases spilled blood, and it deals with, in straight-forward, open-eyed fashion, our very mortality.  Also, the movie features a message about the way that humans treat animals...and how animals, in fact, might feel about it.

As you may recall if you followed this riveting story in the early 1980s, Don Bluth and his team (including John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman) left Walt Disney Studios during production of The Fox and the Hound (1981) because the artists felt that too many creative shortcuts were being taken in terms of the animation.  

And Disney, in fact, had already dismissed the NIMH property as too overtly dark.  They already had a mouse in their stable, named Mickey, and saw little need for more.  Therefore, Bluth went rogue and produced the film under his own auspices at his Don Bluth Studios.  In creating The Secret of NIMH, Bluth hoped to usher in a "second age" of quality movie animation, following the passing of Mr. Disney.

Made on a small budget of seven million dollars and created in the exceedingly short time frame of roughly two years, The Secret of NIMH is based on an award-winning 1971 novel by Robert C.O. Brien entitled Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

NIMH, by the way, stands for National Institute of Mental Health, an American organization devoted to basic and clinical research into the issue of mental health.  In particular, O'Brien based the core idea of his novel -- intelligent rats -- on the work of ecologist John B. Calhoun, who studied rodents in the late 1960s, and in 1968 created a "mouse universe" for one separated population of mice to inhabit. 

There, he observed that in the absence of predators, other dangers, and day-to-day survival pursuits, the mouse society procreated and reproduced for a long time, but then began to break down.  Rodent society collapsed without the struggle for survival...and headed for extinction.  Reproduction stopped.  Social interaction ceased.  Calhoun thus concluded that the same thing could happen to man in an overpopulated, impersonal world, and his experiments caught the eye even of Pope Paul VI.

In keeping with the wisdom gleaned from that "mouse universe," Don Bluth's 1982 film doesn't shy away from contending with life's dark or disturbing qualities.  In the film, there are discussions of mortality, death and mourning, even, as they regard to a cute-as-buttons mouse family.  The film's central character, a widower named Mrs. Brisby, also learns, however, that she can cope with these abundant difficulties...and she emerges stronger.   Thus, for all the admittedly dark moments in the film, Secret of NIMH concerns the idea that we are all more resilient and resourceful than we believe, and we can cope with a sometimes scary world. 

It helps, of course, to possess a pure heart...

The Secret of NIMH  proved a moderately successful competitor at the summer box office of 1982, a real accomplishment given the competition, which included E.T. and Annie.  By-and-large critics also appreciated the film, especially Bluth's dedicated efforts to resurrect an age of animation that was more lush, more fully-realized, and, perhaps, more reflective of life's ambiguity.  

Writing for The New York Times, Vincent Canby regarded NIMH as "something of a technical and stylistic triumph. The anthropomorphic animal characters are, for the most part, charming to look at....The backgrounds, the colors, the perspectives, the soft differences in shades of light are extraordinarily lovely."

Similarly, Variety opined of NIMH that it was "certainly an homage to the best of an age ago. Every character moves fluidly and imaginatively against an extravaganza of detailed background and dazzling effects, all emboldened by fascinating colored textures."

The only complaint some critics had of this 1982 film was that there was no strong "anchor" for the film (in terms of their being a Dumbo or a Bambi, for example, as the central hero). Today this seems like a strange and off-the-mark criticism, since Mrs. Brisby -- a heroic Mom -- functions more than ably in this regard, at least speaking from the perspective of a parent.

Although perhaps not ideally suited for the very youngest of children, Secret of NIMH remains a stunning and deeper-than-normal animated achievement, one buttressed by abundantly gorgeous visuals and an affecting story that doesn't surrender to schmaltzy sentimentality or easy and safe platitudes.

"Courage of the heart is very rare."

The Secret of NIMH takes place on a small family farm in rural Pennsylvania, where a family of mice faces impending tragedy.  It's almost harvest time, and the Brisby house is going to be destroyed by tractor tilling.

But Mother Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a recent widow, can't relocate her family because her youngest son, Timothy (Ian Fried) is ill with pneumonia and requires several weeks of bed rest.

Mrs. Brisby seeks help -- with the help of a clumsy crow named Jeremy (Dom Deluise) --  of a local scientist rat named Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet). He provides medicine for the ailing child, but suggests that Mrs. Brisby seek the counsel of a Great Owl (John Carradine) in saving her family.  After a visit to the fearsome Great Owl, Mrs. Brisby earns the admiration of the rats of NIMH, who have escaped from captivity after being experimented upon; their very intelligence altered and augmented.  The rats of NIMH think fondly of Mrs. Brisby because her late husband helped free them from captivity in the lab, and wish to help, even as they commence "The Plan," a strategy to move their own home, in a rose bush.

The aged leader of the rats, Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) agrees to help Mrs. Brisby move her house, but a rat rebellion brews when Jenner (Paul Shenar) sees a way to kill thisleader and gain power for himself.   With the help of a heroic rat, Justin (Paul Strauss), Mrs. Brisby fights to save her sick boy, and keep the super-intelligent rats safe when the forces of NIMH threaten to return and capture them. 

In the end, Mrs. Brisby is aided by a magical amulet, one that recognizes her courage of the heart.

"You can unlock any door, if you only have the key."

Perhaps the most wondrous quality of film is the medium's almost unlimited capacity to transport audiences to new and different worlds.  The more detailed, the more credible, the more affecting that world, the greater our sense of "belief" and engagement.
On these terms, The Secret of NIMH is a remarkable success. 
Accompanied by an evocative score from Jerry Goldsmith, the imagery of NIMH is meticulously detailed and almost unbelievably rich. 
This is a world of spectacular golden hues and also of dark, moody blackness.  This world is created from a mouse's perspective, so that objects that we take for granted -- a fallen log, for instance -- take on a new luster and dimension.  More than that, perhaps, they take on exquisite texture, and as viewers, we feel that we are seeing this world for the first time.  The film pays remarkable attention to how the world might appear from the perspective of a mouse, or a rat, or a crow.
It's clear that no short-cuts were taken when crafting the film's special effects and seemingly impossible backgrounds. 
Just as impressively, the characters are also remarkably crafted, especially -- in my opinion -- Nicodemus and the Great Owl.  These are characters of tremendous individuality who radiate dignity, and even, at times, some sense of fear.  Gorgeous creations all around.   Also, John Carradine gives a great performance as the Great Owl.  His aged but still strong voice is pitch perfect for the character.
Nicodemus and the Great Owl, plus a villainous cat featured in an early scene, in conjunction with some of NIMH's dark imagery (finely detailed spider webs, craggy trees, and so forth), create the impression of a world that is not only real...but fearsome. 
This visual approach fits in well with the film's thesis about the challenges of a difficult world.  Early in the film, we are told at least twice that a child mouse may die from pneumonia. We learn of the father mouse's recent, untimely death.  We see a monstrous tractor threaten to smash the family homestead.  We learn of cruel animal experimentation (with long hypodermic needles, no less...) in a laboratory setting.  We see the family home sink into the mud -- disappearing below the surface -- with three mouse children trapped inside...drowning.  We see the good leader mouse, Nicodemus, destroyed by an evil strategy.  When the good rats and Jenner clash, we see the bloody wounds and cuts on their bodies.  It's not all hugs and puppies. 
But through it all -- driven by her love for her children -- Mrs. Brisby never surrenders.  No matter the setback, no matter the challenge (like meeting the Great Owl), she keeps fighting.  In the end, when she takes the mystical amulet and it amplifies her "heart," it's a wondrous special effects moment, but also a moment of terrific emotional impact.  As parents, we love our children and would do anything for them.  Sometimes it feels like our very hearts could pound out of her chest to help them and keep them safe from life's darkness.  The amulet amplifies Mrs. Brisby's strength and love...and you just how she feels.
The Secrets of NIMH attempts an awful lot in 82 minutes.  It is ambitious.  The plot line is very complicated.  And yet, the movie is also rewarding because it doesn't spoon-feed you platitudes, or talk down to children.  It imagines a beautiful (if dark) universe, and reveals how an individual of courage, endurance and love can master it.  If Mrs. Brisby's odyssey were an easy or simple one, the story would lose much meaning.
Also, NIMH clearly boasts a sort of animal-rights message.  I don't want to get on a soapbox about this, but it's all too easy to assume that people or animals who look different from us have no feelings, no souls.  I challenge anyone who has looked into the eyes of a beloved pet dog or beloved pet cat to believe that is actually so.  Animals, though of a different order of intelligence, deserve dignity.  I always remember Spock's line from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) about the whales.  He says that if the Enterprise crew "assumes" that the whales are "theirs" to "do with" as they please, they are as guilty as those who caused their extinction.  I'm not saying we shouldn't observe animals, study them, and attempt to learn more about life on our planet from them, but it seems a moral imperative that we always do so with...humanity and even respect. 
I love the "growing pains" of the intelligent rats as they are presented in The Secret of NIMH.  These animals have come to realize that "to be rats" is no longer sufficient given their brain boost.  Their super-intelligence requires a new way of living...a new set of laws and responsibilities.  Just as our intelligence means we have certain responsibilities too.  But of course, it's not always easy to accept that responsibility.  The law of the jungle is difficult to eradicate, even amongst the most civilized of us, and that's the quality I believe Jenner represents in the film.
The Secret of NIMH may not have spawned that glorious second age in quality animation that Don Bluth hoped for, but it is certainly a film of wondrous imagination and execution.  It's a high-point for the genre during an age when the trend was towards cheaper, quicker, and less morally complex. 

The "secret of" NIMH, perhaps, is that mice and people aren't that different at heart.

Movie Trailer: The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Lifeforce (1985)

"Lifeforce may come to be considered a noteworthy science-fiction film precisely because it is so relentlessly unsentimental and edgy.  This film displays a sensibility so odd, so unfamiliar, that it may prove one of the most subtly original sf films of the 1980s...[T]he film has something to offend almost everyone but offers much for serious analysis."

- Brooks Landon, The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1988, page 276.

Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985) is another one of those great horror films, like John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), that mainstream and genre critics seemed to venomously despise, and yet which I love and admire with something akin to enthusiastic passion.  For me, Lifeforce remains one of the essential titles in modern horror cinema history.

The Cannon film -- based on a novel by Colin Wilson called Space Vampires -- was a gigantic box office failure upon release, and yet a generation of admirers quickly found it on home video...and the film became legendary in some circles. 

I admire Lifeforce so deeply and so thoroughly because I feel that, like Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973), the film goes (far) out of its way to shock and transgress, leaving no taboo related to its subject matter -- sex -- untouched. 

Hooper is never one for Hollywood-styled movie decorum, and I've always found his subversive, bracing takes on horror tropes (vampires, ghosts, cannibals) authentically disturbing because of that very fact.  His movies, while speaking trenchantly in the language of film grammar, almost universally lack...tact.  You just don't know where this director is going to take you, or what he is going to show you.  As fellow horror maestro Wes Craven famously noted, a "filmmaker like Tobe Hooper can convince you you're really at risk in a theater." (Entertainment Weekly, October 23, 1992, page 41), and that is the essence of Hooper's ethos as far as I'm concerned.

I've written these words before, but a great horror film should: a.) deal cogently with some topic relevant to the culture of the movie's context and b.) deal with that subject matter in a fashion that genuinely troubles the psyche.   Lifeforce conforms to both points quite ably.

In short, Lifeforce is a big-budget, colossal-in-scope meditation on the consequences of sex in all sizes, shapes, forms, and perversions.  In part, the film is a straight-faced walking-tour of late 20th century sexual proclivities, from voyeurism to masochism, from homosexuality to fetishistic obsession.  Among other things, Lifeforce is about your deepest, most personal desires taking over, and that content is reflected in the film's dazzling, jaw-dropping form.

Even in the development of this core idea about sex, Hooper chooses incredibly unconventional pathways for his epic horror film.  In Lifeforce, the film's sexually-transmitted space vampire disease becomes a zombie epidemic that transforms London into something half-way between a George Romero Living Dead film and the weirdest orgy in cinematic history. 

Some reviewers viewed this ending as a mistake, an out-of-character u-turn for the film and a lapse in serious tone.  Yet if you're a longstanding Hooper aficionado you may realize that the strange climax of Lifeforce boasts clear antecedents in films such as Poltergeist as a kind of post-narrative, almost anti-narrative detour.  Remember, L.M. Kit Carson called Tobe Hooper the "no deal" kid, and that's the go-for-broke, breathless quality of Lifeforce that keeps me watching it more than a quarter century later.

Given the weird and controversial subject matter here and the blunt vetting of it by a confident, at-the-top-of-his-game Hooper, perhaps it is only natural that the film so divided critics.  Bruce Eder of Video Magazine called Lifeforce (possibly) "the last great science fiction film to come out of England," while film scholars Bill Warren and Bill Thomas (in American Film: "Great Balls of Fire, March 1986, page 70) felt the film got "the spectacle and weirdness right" but that the film lacked a "much-needed sense of humor." 

Others were less open to the Lifeforce experience.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times jokingly termed the film "sterile," while People Magazine's Ralph Novak found it "tiresome."  Cinefantastique even termed Lifeforce (in October 1985) "an object lesson in failure."   Space Vampires author Wilson called Lifeforce "the worst movie ever made."

I can't know this for certain, but I suspect that a great many of these critics actually found the Hooper film offensive.  Visually and narratively offensive.  They were responding to the decorum-shattering images and plot-line. 

But of course, being offensive is kind of the point in the horror genre, isn't it?  Horror can show us things that mainstream movies can't, or won't.  A truly strong horror film will rock the audience back on its heels so it is unprepared for what comes next.  And in that state, a talented director can mold audience expectations and emotions like putty. 

I would suggest that's exactly Hooper's accomplishment in Lifeforce.  Here he corrals such controversial visual elements as rampant frontal nudity and extreme gore to craft the feeling of a world rapidly spiraling out of control, consumed by an unquenchable desire in our very blood. Replete with narrative blind alleys and daring, unconventional imagery, plus controversial subject matter, Lifeforce establishes again that Hooper is the genre's most underrated, underestimated genius, a legitimate provocateur extraordinaire.

"I'm fascinated by death itself. What happens as we die, when we die. What happens after we die..."

As the space shuttle Churchill -- a joint American/European space exploration venture -- nears Halley's Comet, something alien and colossal is detected inside.  It's a vessel 250 miles long and two miles high.

Mission commander, Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback), leads a small team on a mission inside the derelict.  There, he finds a crew of dead bat-creatures, and more mysteriously, three perfect and naked humanoids: two men and a gorgeous woman (Mathilda May).

Sometime later, on Earth, a European Space Agency discovers the Churchill limping home from its rendezvous with the comet, unresponsive to communication attempts.  A rescue team finds all crew aboard dead, save for the three nude aliens.  These creatures are promptly brought back to Earth for study, and the Space Girl soon awakes.  She drains the "lifeforce" from a guard, and then escapes from the facility.  

Soon, soul survivor Carlsen's escape pod makes a landing on Earth, and he teams with England's stoic Colonel Caine (Peter Firth) and Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay)  to locate the Space Girl before she can pass her vampiric disease on to more unsuspecting humans.

While Carlsen and Caine track the Space Girl to a home for the criminally-insane outside of London, Dr. Fallada determines that the Girl and her brethren from the stars may be the source of  Earth legends of vampires.   Meanwhile, the Space Girl has been leading Carlsen and Caine on a very lengthy goose chase as the vampire "infection" multiplies and sweeps London.

Now Carlsen must confront the "feminine in his mind," as the Space Girl begins to deliver disembodied human souls or life-force to her orbiting starship...

"In a sense we're all vampires. We drain energy from other life forms. The difference is one of degree."

The societal context bubbling beneath the surface of Lifeforce (1985)  is the rising of the "wasting disease" of the mid-1980s, soon-to-be identified as AIDS and recognized as an epidemic that impacts individuals of all sexual persuasions. 

A comparison to Carpenter's The Thing is illustrative here.  Both horror films of the 1980s involve a shape-shifting evil passed from person-to-person, very much like a sexually transmitted disease.

In the case of Lifeforce, the metaphor is more overt, since sexual hypnosis/coupling -- with an alien vampire -- is actually the primary mode of disease transmission.   Invisible to conventional medical and visual detection, the alien infection in both of these films subverts people, unbeknownst to their neighbors.  Affected individuals appear normal to all outward appearances, healthy even, but in fact they are carriers of a secret, dreadful death.  

In terms of context, "disease" was one of the biggest bugaboos of the 1980s horror cinema, featured in films like Prince of Darkness (1987) as well as The Thing.  The point was, largely, that in the superficial world of Olivia Newton John's Physical, Jane Fonda's Aerobic Workout, or Jamie Lee Curtis's Perfect (1983), the worst thing that could happen to a person would be to discover that his or her beautiful, athletic lover was actually carrying a hidden disease, one that could sabotage the flesh, and also an individual's carefully cultivated physical beauty.

In particular, some film scholars have suggested that both The Thing and Lifeforce feature a substantial same-sex undercurrent. 

In The Thing, a deadly plague passes in the blood from person-to-person in an exclusively all-male setting: an Antarctic research outpost. 

In Lifeforce, the argument goes, there are also significant male-to-male couplings.  First, there is the jarring and impassioned kiss between Carlsen and Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), an embrace that is inarguably homosexual in form (even though May's Space Girl inhabits Armstrong's mind).

Secondly, a male victim of the Space Girl awakens on the operating table early in the film and mesmerizes a male pathologist. He quickly converts the poor physician into one of the disease's transmitters.  As Edward Guerrero described the scene in "AIDS as Monster in Science Fiction and Horror Cinema:"

"The film foregrounds homosexual transmission by focusing on the ravished bodies of male victims and by depicting in a key, horrific autopsy scene, an emaciated young male corpse who -- with outstretched arms -- hypnotically draws one of the male pathologists into a fatal energy draining, homoerotic embrace and kiss...the camera moves through...close-ups of the faces of the doctors trapped in the surgery as they register various reactions to the act and its gay proclamations, ranging from frozen panic and disavowal to an ambivalent fascination."

Guerrero also writes that Lifeforce's grisly corpses -- which receive considerable on-screen attention -- are depicted as young and starkly emaciated, resonant with the media's description in the 1980s of the "wasting" effects of the AIDs virus.

I agree with Guerrero's supposition that there is a homosexual component to be excavated in  Lifeforce, but I don't agree that it is foregrounded in the film proper. 

Rather, it's just one dish on the smorgasbord.

I submit that Lifeforce is actually a more general morality play and warning against succumbing to all manners of wanton sexual urges.  Early in the film, Carlsen faces this weakness: "She killed all my friends and I still didn't want to leave. Leaving her was the hardest thing I ever did," he declares.  What he fears is being unable to control himself, unable to assert his rational mind over his body's sexual desires.

Taken in its entirety, the film plays no favorites, targets no one lifestyle, and homosexuality is merely one aspect of the universal human sexual equation.   As I wrote above, the film is a tour through sexual proclivities of all types.

In charting this trajectory Lifeforce is actually as bold -- perhaps brazen -- about depicting sexual issues as The Texas Chainsaw Masssacre is about recording horrid, graphic violence.  Throughout the film, Hooper deploys one powerful symbol to represent "lust" in the human animal: the Space Girl.  Hooper parades this character about naked throughout the film in an absolutely immodest sense.  The film breaks ground and shatters decorum in this key approach. And the content, a so-called tour of human sexual issues, reflects the chosen form.  We are constantly reminded, in the nude persona of May, that Lifeforce concerns sex.

To wit: when Carlsen first boards the alien spaceship early in Lifeforce, he discovers that the interior chamber of the spaceship is something akin to a massive birth canal.  The similarity is so telling, in fact, that Carlsen states unequivocally, "I feel like I've been here before."  The tiny astronauts probing deep into the long tunnel to the hidden chamber beyond  this organic-looking tube may as well be tiny sperm navigating a woman's uterus. 

When the astronauts reach the hidden chamber, they discover May's Space Girl there, and their instant lust "births" her in some sense  When she is returned to Earth, she returns, importantly, as a creature of lust herself; a child of the astronauts' overwhelming desire.  She is "the feminine" of Carlsen's mind and begins her exploration of human sexuality, according -- it seems at times -- to his subconscious desires.

Consider, for a moment, the specific events portrayed in the Space Girl's walkabout outside of London.

She encounters sex as casual infidelity (with a married man in a parked car). 

She experiences male-to-male contact in the body of Armstrong in his homosexual kiss with Carlsen.  If she is part of Carlsen's mind, she must believe that some part of him desires this "form" of sexual encounter.

For a time, the Space Girl's consciousness also enters the body of a nurse who is described in the dialogue as a "devoted masochist."  This woman takes great joy in the fact that Carlsen must beat information out of her.  She showcases no modesty about this desire, and again, Carlsen showcases no trepidation about engaging in sadistic behavior to get the information he needs, and also provide her pleasure.

Even the staid Colonel Caine acknowledges his own sexual side when he notes that he is a natural voyeur, and quite willing to watch Carlsen rough-up the masochist nurse.  

Finally, even sex as grounds for political scandal is briefly touched upon here when the film's prime minister spreads the sexual infection to his unsuspecting secretary.  Beyond this Alice in Wonderland tour of human sexuality, there is also all the fiery, heterosexual coupling between Railsback and May, a devastating relationship that ends, incidentally, in a climactic double penetration (by sexual organs and by a fatal stab in the "energy center" from a sword blade.)

Considering the wide breadth of indiscriminate, unloosed sexual behavior that Lifeforce visualizes, it is no surprise that the film relies upon the vampire as a  villain.  Traditionally, vampires are alluring, magnetic and filled with strange, unsated appetites.  They thrive on blood and can transmit their own illness to unaware victims.  Their kiss brings only death.  But the space vampires of the film steal souls, not merely blood, and that's an important distinction in Hooper's allegory about the perils of promiscuous, wanton desire let loose in the Age of AIDS. 

What is at stake when you let go so fully?  When you shed all control and give in to your most base desire?  Is your soul at stake?  Or just your life?

Given such questions, the film ends appropriately in a grand British cathedral, a sanctuary for the pious, one would assume.

There in the church, the infected bodies of the sexually depleted await their judgment...spent and sick.  Their souls are carried away on a ray of light which focuses itself on the altar: the very fulcrum of all sermons and messages about chastity and abstinence. 

Consider the symbolism.  These souls have been dispatched to a nether realm, the alien spaceship, and it is surely an allegory for Hell.  In terms of visuals, this is a moral conclusion, a literalization of Christian puritanism.  Indulge in indiscriminate sex, and if it doesn't make you sick, it's still going to cost you your soul, and you'll dwell forevermore in Hell.  It's a harsh comment, perhaps, but given what some might view as the rise of casual sex in the culture (following the era of Looking for Mr. Goodbar [1977]) and the dawning of AIDS awareness and paranoia in the early 1980s -- which proved so strong it turned even James Bond into a one-woman-kind of guy -- it's an accurate reflection of what people seemed to fear at the time.  Carlsen's triumph at the end of the film is that he controls his desire again, and kills the Space Girl.  His victory asserts that human kind is not out of control, in thrall to subconscious appetites and desires.

If Lifeforce is an examination and perhaps even condemnation of promiscuous, rampant sexuality, it is also a supreme, unsettling entertainment.  It surprises constantly, and features a number of nice homages to classic horror cinema. I  mentioned George Romero's Dead cycle, but Lifeforce also harks back to an older, British tradition: the Quartermass and Nigel Kneale's legacy.  There, aliens from space were the source of our mythology.  They came to Earth and were reckoned with in terms of scientific and military solutions.  Lifeforce is very much the same huge heaping helpings of sex and visual effects.  I also happen to believe the film does possess a sense of humor, but that it makes those jokes straight faced, in a staccato rat-a-tat-tat of overlapping dialogue.

Lifeforce is about a "destroyer of worlds," but if you read the film closely, it suggests that our desires -- and our inability to resist them -- is the very thing that could destroy humanity.  It's a point that's easy to lose sight of when you're watching Mathilda May cavort about with no clothes on. 

But in terms of May, Hooper's directorial acumen, and the sexually-charged plot line, I find Lifeforce absolutely impossible to resist.

Movie Trailer: Lifeforce (1985)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"We can no longer live as rats. We know too much."

- The Secret of NIMH (1982), to be reviewed here tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Collectible of the Week: Starship U.S.S. Voyager (Playmates; 1995)

You can read my 2010 critical evaluation and dissection of Star Trek: Voyager (1995 - 2001) here, if you're interested in doing so, but the merits of the TV series aside, Voyager (NCC-74656) herself remains one gorgeous spaceship. 

I fell in love with this Starfleet vessel the first time I watched the program's picturesque, galaxy-spanning opening credits, I suppose.  The ship is absolutely gorgeous in terms of the aesthetics of Star Trek's future. 

I should add, I liked Voyager's lines a lot better than those of the dull Enterprise E design we saw in First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis.  But then again, it's tough to replace the Enterprise D, a beloved ship we all feel we traveled with for seven years.

Playmates released a whole line of Voyager toys in 1995, including this plastic representation of the Intrepid class vessel, "featuring sounds and lights from" the TV show.  

Today, this Voyager mock-up stands as one of the rarer and more sought-out of the Playmates Trek fleet, perhaps in part because many fans had begun to feel ennui with modern Star Trek by 1995 and were no longer buying the toys.  Or maybe fewer Voyagers were made (though mine is # 32,697....). I don't know for sure why, but Voyager seems to have become one of the more collectible Playmates ships in recent years.  On E-Bay the cost of Voyager, even outside the box, is often, well, astronomical.

As you can tell from the box art, Voyager features "automatic pivoting nacelles!" and "Two starship Voyager sounds: photon torpedoes and warp speed."  There's also "authentic Starfleet Detailing" and a "light up navigational deflector." 

In terms of attention to detail, the ship looks terrific, and is very show accurate.  The decals on mine, however, are starting to peel, much to my dismay.  I guess 1995 really was a long time ago...

As you can also see, I couldn't be disciplined and keep my Voyager packaged in the box.  Back in 1995, when Voyager started, I was really quite taken with it, and hopeful about what it could achieve.  So I had to open the toy.  Right?

Today, Voyager is displayed proudly in my home office, right above my First Contact, Borg-centric Trek toys.  Occasionally, Joel asks for  Janeway's starship to come down from its perch for a frantic game of spaceship-fu -- meaning we run up and down the hallways of my house battling with opposing starships -- and that's a good work out for this durable, fine old girl.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote #6: Alien Lizards (Saurian vs. Sirian)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #1 The Stay Awake Shot

As I've often written, the horror film possesses a visual vocabulary all its own.  At the basis of this vocabulary or lexicon, is film grammar, the agreed upon language filmmakers deploy to vet their cinematic narratives.

Director Tobe Hooper explains further (in Jeffrey Horsting's Stephen King Goes to Hollywood, New American Books, 1986, page 20):

"Brian De Palma actually coined a phrase, 'film grammar,' which refers to the way particular shots are put together by particular directors in order to tell the story....You build sequences, such as a shot of someone coming through a doorway who looks at a table across the room.  On the table, there is a dagger, and as the subject approaches the dagger, the camera dollies back across the long room with the subject approaching the table.  And cutting to that person's point-of-view, which would be a moving shot traveling toward the table, getting closer and closer to the dagger...that's grammar."

Film grammar is the basis upon which all (good) films are constructed, and certain compositions or "sentences" of film grammar are virtually guaranteed to make audiences feel specific emotions or feelings.  You are already familiar with this lingo, at least sub-consciously.  A high angle shot (looking down) makes our heroes look small...vulnerable.  A low angle shot (peering up), makes a villain seem huge and menacing.  A subjective point-of-view puts us inside the body and eyes of a specific character.  Hand-held camera-work makes the action feel more immediate and urgent, and so forth.

In this new type of post here, called "The Horror Lexicon," I'll be spotlighting and examining the horror film's distinctive visual language, the language we all understand, at least psychologically.

I've written previously about the "Stay Awake" genre convention in Horror Films of the 1980s and Horror Films of the 1990s.  In those two instances, I catalogued at least 125 instances of this particular visual in 1980s and 1990s horror cinema.   A favorite of director Brian De Palma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain), the "Stay Awake" shot represents a visual shorthand for post-traumatic stress, and the fall-off ofter a crescendo of highest dramatic intensity. 

The "Stay Awake" shot (named by me after a very bad 1987 film called The Stay Awake) is what I term "the trademark" composition of the once-popular rubber-reality horror film.  The Stay Awake  shot most often (but not universally) features a close-up of the beleaguered protagonist, all sweaty and bothered, awaking from a traumatic dream, usually on a bed or in a sofa.  You will see the shot frequently in A Nightmare on Elm Street films, which explicitly deal with nightmares.

The Stay Awake shot often arrives immediately after a horror film has tricked us with a sequence in which the protagonist appears to be in inescapable danger.  At the moment of greatest jeopardy and terror, we suddenly cut to the Stay Awake, as the protagonist comes to conciousness from the disturbing phantasm.  We have been tricked by the harrowing action too, and identify with the character's relief (and fast-breathing, perspiring demeanor).  The Stay Awake composition builds an important link between protagonist and audience. It portends universality (we've all had bad dreams), and we've both, in this instance, been tricked.

Many directors and film scholars have compared the act of watching a movie to dreaming, only with our eyes open.  The Stay Awake shot seems to be a self-reflexive, mirroring of this dynamic.   We're actually watching a character on screen dream within a dream, as we are observing the larger dream of the film itself.

Sometimes, the Stay Awake shot is a movie's final, climactic sting (think Carrie [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980]), and sometimes, when a director is being exceptionally playful or mischevious, the audience is treated to a double Stay Awake (a second dream within a dream; as in the case of Prince of Darkness [1987].)  Sometimes, the awaking figure clutches dream wounds, further evoking a feeling that the dream was physically dangerous.

Below are some well-known post-dream, post-traumatic "Stay Awake" shots of the horror cinema.  Again, consider how here one shot alone has become part of horror's communal language, a critical part of the horror director's quiver.

The Stay Awake a la Cameron: Aliens (1986)

The Stay Awake a la John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness (1987)

The Stay Awake a la Tobe Hooper: Lifeforce (1985)

The Stay Awake a la Brian De Palma: Dressed to Kill (1989)

The Stay Awake a la Neil Marshall: The Descent (2006)

The Stay Awake a la Mark Pellington: The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

De Palma redux: Carrie (1976)

See also these prominent examples: Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984),  George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), Alan Parker's Angel Heart (1987), Sam Raim's Evil Dead 2 (1987),  Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm (1988) Don Coscarelli's Phantasm 2 (1988), Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary (1989), Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990), Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990), Richard Stanley's Dust Devil (1992), Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate (1997) and David Koepp's Stir of Echoes (1999).

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Attack the Block (2011)

From the 1960s through the early 1980s, the anti-hero often dominated American genre cinema. 

The anti-hero might readily be defined as a character who questions authority, who is disillusioned by what society "has become," and who has succumbed to the nitty-gritty of life's vicissitudes while still possessing a personal code of ethics.

Director John Carpenter gave the world a number of great anti-heroes in his early cinematic efforts.  Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981) are two prime examples of the "noble criminal" archetype, one memorable brand of anti-hero. 

In all likelihood, Carpenter developed these great characters from his enduring love of the Western movie, a format which generated such notable anti-heroes as Clint Eastwood's "The Man with No Name" in films including A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).  

Other popular anti-heroes roiling the cinema during the 1970s included Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) of Death Wish (1974) and Dirty Harry Callahan -- Eastwood again -- of Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels.  A later example of the anti-hero includes the gang members from The Warriors (1979): thugs and criminals who audiences came to support and root for during their dangerous odyssey, despite the fact they were law-breakers.

To some extent, Star Wars (1977) was George Lucas's deliberate response to a pop culture world that seemed to champion anti-heroes above traditional heroes.  Yet the anti-hero has had a long life in films despite the success of Lucas's blockbuster.  David Twohy's and Vin Diesel's "Riddick" character is a prime example of this figure in more recent cinematic fare.

A careful observer will also note  that the 1970s the cinematic anti-heroes (not of the Western variety) mostly fought their battles in gritty urban settings.  They lived in a world of urban blight, rampant crime, and failed social policies.  The law of these cities was the same as that of the jungle: kill or be killed.

What is it about the anti-hero and his or her difficult environment that audiences find so fascinating?

I suspect the answer rests in the anti-hero's deliberate rejection of the status-quo: a state or culture that feels unjust or unfair, or that has failed to promote ideals of liberty, safety and even personal security.   I believe we all respond, perhaps unconsciously, to the trigger of rebellion, especially if that rebellion feels justified by easily identified wrongs or transgressions.  At least that's what Fascination author Sally Hogshead might tell us.

Given the economic realities of our post-Recession world today, it seems like a perfect time to champion the anti-hero once more, and that's precisely what the enormously exciting science-fiction horror film Attack the Block accomplishes with so much flair and delight.

The film elevates colorful characters we wouldn't normally approve of or sympathize with -- tough young gang members in South London -- and transforms them into the last line of defense against a brutal, highly-localized alien invasion.  In championing the anti-hero in such fashion, Attack the Block legitimately seems a throwback to Assault on Precinct 13, or The Warriors.   Like those films, it suggests that the "establishment" is not always the hero or the good guys and that real courage might emerge from the most unexpected of places.

Even the inner city.  

And like those films I've referenced above, Attack the Block is suffused with this strange, unfettered sense of joie de vivre.  It's as though the anti-heroes possess some deeper sense of self-knowledge and "truth" than the average person on the street, perhaps because regular folk have not lived the day-to-day survival game of the film's lead characters.  Here, the young characters boast a unique manner of self-expression, and on first blush even seem a little daft. But after a time you detect how the youngsters capably adapt and contend with their monstrous opponents in the pitched battle between "inner city" and "outer space."

I only wish Skyline (2010) and Battle L.A. (2010) had been able to tell their stories of an alien ground invasion with such flair, energy and coherence.

Populated by colorful characters and egregiously sinister monsters, boasting gory thrills, and buttressed by a wicked sense of humor, Attack the Block is a truly joyous cinematic experience, especially if you grew up in the 1970s and remember and admire this brand of exploitation film.

"Even if it is an alien invasion, they're four foot high, blind and got kicked to death by a bunch of kids. We got nothing to worry about."

In Attack the Block, a group of young gang members led by sullen Moses (John Boyega) mug a white girl, a young medical student, Sam (Jodie Whittaker).  She calls the police, but soon there are bigger fish to fry. 

A meteor strikes a parked car nearby, and Moses ends up fighting -- and defeating -- a white-haired alien monster. 

The gang, which consists of characters with names like "Biggz" and "Pest" (another call-back to The Warriors), drags their trophy across town and attempts to hide it inside the penthouse apartment of the local drug dealer, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter).  This is one of the funniest sequences in the film, and evidences that sense of joie-de-vivre.  The gang drags their alien trophy down the street, getting all kind of commentary on it, and the moment is both tense and intensely funny.  The director hangs back in long shots as much as possible, allowing us to find the humor in the moment for ourselves.

Soon, however, more meteors crash on Earth, and they house larger, more frightening, black-furred, glow-in-the-dark-toothed alien monsters. 

These monsters seem dead set on hunting and taking out Moses, like they are pursuing a gang vendetta, perhaps.   So Moses and his buddies seek refuge in his apartment building, Wyndham Towers.  There, Sam rejoins with Moses and his gang after the local police are eviscerated by the alien dog-creature/things in her very presence.

Only slowly beginning to trust one another, Sam and Moses begin to consider their options as the ferocious alien monsters begin scaling the walls of Wyndham Towers and infiltrating the building...

"I'd like to see the brother who's going to fight that."
Rarely pausing for obvious moments of verbal or visual introspection, Attack the Block is a rousing action, exploitation flick, and one which gets you solidly behind its anti-heroic characters.
The film's director, one Joe Cornish, is mightily adept at visually transmitting critical information without overdoing it.

One brilliantly-orchestrated and relatively subtle scene late in the film involves a pan across Moses' bedroom in the midst of the action, and you can tell from a single glance (at his Spider-Man bed sheets...) that he is nothing more than a child in a man's body.

This shot alone engenders a brand of deeply-rooted sympathy for this particular anti-hero. And this sympathy makes the film's final battle more than mere pissing contest between man and alien. Instead it's a battle between this one very unlucky, very lonely kid -- one who never got anything from anybody -- and an implacable alien horde.

The very fact that these gang members at Wyndham Towers have been conditioned to expect no help from any authority (either in the form of the police, parents, or a local drug lord) informs their decision-making process throughout the film, and you really start to understand how Moses thinks.  He's used to being pursued, attacked, chased and harassed.  The aliens are just the latest comers.

In fact, these kids -- living in a world of drug-dealing, video games and no parental guidance -- even suspect the establishment itself is out to destroy them.  At one point Moses notes: "Government probably bred those things to kill black boys. First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns and now they're sending monsters in to kill us. They don't care man. We ain't killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process."

It's a paranoid rant, but living in Moses' reality, it's easy to see how such paranoia could become pervasive. You see enough young men, young friends, go to prison or die violently, and you believe the deck is entirely stacked against you.

You come home each night to no one who cares -- except perhaps an alcoholic uncle -- and the world looks pretty grim, even before alien invaders show up on the scene to threaten you.  This is who Moses is, and one of the great things about Attack the Block is how Cornish gets us to see things through his eyes.

Traditionally, we expect our anti-heroes to be "hard boiled," so-to-speak and Moses fits the bill perfectly.  But he's also emotionally affecting because he's not a battle-hardened, disillusioned veteran, like Snake Plissken.  No, this is a kid who, by his early teenage years, has already given up on the possibility that life could be good.  The film doesn't dwell on the unfortunate nature of Moses' life, it just observes it in the course of telling a thrilling and bloody tale.

Boyega gives a great performance as Moses, a stoic character with a steely glare, and his charisma in the role also quickly lands you in his corner.  The more you watch him, the more intriguing he seems.

I also deeply admired how Attack the Block treats its female characters. Not just Sam, who is white and middle-class, but all the teenage denizens of Wyndham Towers. These girls are no mere appendages for the male characters, and in one bravura sequence, the girls collectively fend off a pack of the alien monsters in a small apartment.  Again, the film walks a narrow line between humor and thrills, and never falls from that tight rope.

I loved the use of language (and slang, specifically) in the film, and Attack the Block boasts some funny one liners too, including the description of the aliens as "big gorilla-wolf mo fos."  I also enjoyed Sam's rejoinder to the boys that she must have "missed" the "class on alien bite wounds."  The film's sense of humor extends to many of the gruesome and dangerous situations.  One of the young gang members gets trapped in a garbage bin for the bulk of the movie, and there's another scene in which a drug dealer ends up in an elevator with the monsters...and well, the confrontation is surprising.

Attack the Block is more than just a commendable study of anti-heroes.  The film asks us about violence itself, and even "pack" or "herd" instincts.  The aliens come to Earth because they are driven by an instinct to follow one of their own, no matter what.   They don't seem capable of defying their own animalistic, pack instincts.

Is the same thing true of the human beings at Wyndham Towers?  It is just the nature of these inner city kids to be thugs and crooks?   To form and join gangs?  Or is it the lack of compassionate and healthy nurture that has led them to such bad ends so early in life?    There's a sense here of the alienated within our own societies battling the aliens of another society.

A great, and optimistic quality about Attack the Block is that it suggests that human beings -- even woefully disadvantaged ones -- boast the capacity to grow beyond violent instincts, and to fight for the common good, for the neighborhood as it were.  As someone who has been vocally critical of the hero's journey or Monomyth because it is about the "chosen" individual rescuing society at large, I appreciated that Attack the Block, in addition to featuring anti-hero Moses, showcased a community effort to fend off alien invasion.

It's been a long while since I've seen an exploitation film this nimble, this playful, this downright thrilling, but Attack the Block actually had me and my wife on our feet by film's end, both with call backs to films like Assault on Precinct 13 and The Warriors,  and for its steadfast championing of those among us who always seem to have precious few champions in polite society 

Our first "instinct" when it was over was that we wanted to watch Attack the Block again...

Movie Trailer: Attack the Block (2011)

Theme Song of the Week: Cupid (1998)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Devils and Demons

Today's cult-tv faces gallery focuses on devils and demons as they appear throughout cult television history.  There are several images there, as you can see,  and these monstrous creatures have appeared in numerous guises, on numerous programs. 

Some other notable TV installments, including Kolchak: The Night Stalker's "The Devil's Platform" involve the Devil's interference in mankind's affairs without actually showcasing Satan physically.  In particular that Kolchak episode involved a politician (Tom Skerritt) who had made a deal with the devil.

A devil or demon is the ultimate personification of evil, in cultural shorthand, the enemy not just of man, but of God Himself.  The devil is a tempter, seducer and prince of lies, and demons represent his devoted minions.  In terms of cult television, the Devil is perhaps, then, the ultimate enemy a hero could face off against.  It's one thing to fight serial killers, Klingons, or government conspiracies, it's another to go head-on against Evil Supreme, in the form of Lucifer.

The Twilight Zone, created by Rod Serling, offered an inventive twist on the Devil, one that accounted for periods of peace and war in humanity's long history.  In the second season's "The Howling Man," a sick traveler was tricked into releasing a strange, howling man from custody inside a religious monastery.  That howling man was Satan himself, and the traveler had to devote his remaining years to re-capturing the Devil.  As long as Satan was free, man would find himself at war, and in perpetual strife.  But those years when Satan was a captive accounted for our progress and years of peace.  "The Howling Man" utilized the symbolism of the Devil to reveal something about the better and worse angels of human nature.

In Star Trek, the Devil has been referenced several times.  In the original series, a first season episode was titled "The Devil in the Dark" and it concerned a monster lurking in the shadows on a mining planet.  Over the course of the episode, that "devil" was determined to be a mother Horta protecting her eggs, and so, again a powerful idea about our perception of evil was transmitted.  The Horta had literally been "demonized" as a devil, a monster, until its motivations and nature was understood.

In "Day of the Dove" on Star Trek, a Klingon commander Kang (Michael Ansara) noted that Klingons had no devil "but understood the habits of" ours.  This meant, at least subconsciously, that Kang had knowingly taken on the attributes of the Devil, torturing Chekov, for instance, and inflicting pain and suffering on humans. 

Star Trek: The Animated Series actually featured a race of alien beings who were responsible for Earth mythology about the devil.  In "The Magicks of Megas Tu," the Enterprise encounters Megas-Tu, a world populated by ageless creatures with pointed ears and horns (the stereotypical Satanic guise).   One creature, Lucien is put on trial, and Kirk is forced to defend him, arguing against stereotypes which conjure images of evil beings.  Such imagery, the episode suggests, is the product of superstition and primitive thinking.  Talk about sympathy for the devil!

Star Trek's most famous personification of the Devil may be Ardra (Marta Du Bois) in the fourth season episode of The Next Generation, "Devil's Due." 

Here, the entire population of a civilized planet surrenders to fear and anxiety when a woman claiming to be their Devil, Ardra, arrives to claim their souls in accordance with a thousand-year old contract.  Ardra takes the form of Feklar, a Klingon devil...even though they aren't supposed to have one!  Later, Ardra assumes the form of Satan with the stereotypical red skin, horns, etc.   In the course of the episode, Picard exposes Ardra as a flim-flam artist, a woman playing on, again, primitive superstitions and beliefs.

"Devil's Due" captures the essence of Gene Roddenberry's humanistic philosophy perfectly.  I remember seeing an interview with the Great Bird of the Galaxy in 1991 in which he stated that aliens didn't build the Egyptian pyramids (in keeping with the Chariot of the Gods template), but humans did.  Why?  Because humans are clever and ingenious, and capable of great things

That's very much the message Captain Picard carries to Ardra's would be "property," the civilized population of a peaceful planet.  These men and women had a thousand years of peace not because of a contract with some mythical, supernatural being, but because the people of the planet worked hard to achieve that peace, themselves.   Once again, Star Trek eschews superstition and champions mankind.

Although Space: 1999 did not feature The Devil, per se, one Year One episode, "End of Eternity" might be analyzed as a metaphor for Lucifer's story. 

Written by Johnny Byrne, the tale involved a once well-regarded alien scientist Balor (Byrne's play on the name of a demon, Baal) who has been "cast out" from his planet Pogron, because of his sadistic ways.   Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) doesn't send Balor back to Hell, but he does kick the immortal being out of a nearby airlock, in a climax that forecast the last act of Alien (1979). 

In Battlestar Galactica, Satan was personified by the charismatic Count Iblis (Patrick Macnee) a renegade from a race of angels.  Iblis was bent on twisting the humans of the rag-tag fleet to his diabolical will, and performed three "miracles" to gain the trust of the people.  Iblis also seduced Sheba (Anne Lockhart), nearly displaced Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) as leader and even killed Apollo (Richard Hatch) before the angels on the "ship of lights" decided to intervene in human affairs.  In "War of the Gods," Iblis most often appeared as a regal, dignified human male, but when struck by the energy discharge from colonial pistol, he revealed his horrifying, demonic visage.

In the worlds of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, demons aren't mere mythology or superstition, but a kind of despised racial minority living in secret amongst the human race, trying to assimilate.  Like human beings, these demons run the gamut from incomparably evil to quite friendly (Doyle, Lorne, Anya etc.).   The point seems to be not to judge a whole group of people by the actions of one, or a few. Nonetheless, Buffy routinely and without question stakes vampires, perhaps because this particular brand of demon lacks a soul.  

Chris Carter's Millennium depicted a world in which demonic evil could occasionally interface with man's. 

Although the series often featured human brands of evil in terms of serial killers, stand-out episodes such as "Lamentation" "Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions," and "Somehow Satan Got Behind Me" suggested that demons were making mischief in the world of man, spurring him on to greater evils ("Room with No View"). 

"Lamentation" introduces the quite-possibly demonic Lucy Butler (Sarah-Jane Redmond) to the series, and Lucy captures both our revulsion at and attraction to Evil.  She is a seducer, a temptress...and an absolute monster, one of television's all-time classic characters.  Lucy reminds us that the Devil isn't always a beast...but sometimes, and terrifyingly, a beauty.

Over the years, programs such as American Gothic (1995 - 1996), Brimstone (1998 - 1999) and Reaper (2006 - 2008) featured the Devil (or a demon, in the case of Lucas Buck, perhaps) as primary characters, ones living and breathing in the world of man, and directing the world towards darker destinations.   In American Gothic, Buck seemed intent on raising his son, possibly an Anti-Christ.  In Brimstone and Reaper, the Devil was a very bad boss, one charged with returning evil spirits to the prison of Hell.  In all three of these instances, the Devil boasted a wicked sense of humor about his sinister "work."  In some cases -- on Brimstone and Reaper -- the Devil actually seemed to be a pretty nice guy at times.

But of course, that's all part of Old Scratch's trickery, isn't it?