Saturday, April 13, 2013
The sub-plot in ‘The Lure of the Lost” about the evil drug dealer Brok (Ron Soble) is concluded in this episode of the live-action Filmation Saturday morning series, Shazam (1974 – 1977). In “The Road Back,” Billy and Mentor go back to help Gary (Christopher Nelson Guy) set-up Brok, but Gary’s friend, Mark (Derrel Maurry) is really working for the criminal.
In his initial contact with the Elders this week, Billy (Michael Gray) learns that the greatest gift is not trusting another person, but finding a person who trusts you. Mark fails that test, both with Billy and with Gary.
Finally, it’s up to Captain Marvel to make sure Brok -- the first adult villain and law-breaker we’ve seen on Shazam -- gets put behind bars.
Ron Soble’s performance is the undeniable highlight of this Shazam episode. In big sun-glasses and a suit jacket, he presents perfectly as the stereotypical 1970s TV drug dealer. But aside from the costume, Soble infuses the role of Brok with a sense of menace and the sinister. And again -- for Shazam -- that’s tradition-breaking. Brok is a much badder guy than teenage car thieves or a rancher who dislikes a horse, for sure, and he knows it
The moral of the week is that “finking” on friends who break the law actually does them a service in the long run. By telling on him, Gary prevents Mark from going down a road of crime that could have consumed his whole life.
It’s all so very After School Special in nature, and yet I can’t deny Shazam’s heart is in the right place. Today the whole series feels incredibly anachronistic in its small-potatoes storylines, heavy-handed didacticism and general lack of super-heroics.
Next Week: “The Athlete.” I smell a lecture about sportsmanship and cheating coming on…
Friday, April 12, 2013
“My visual sense -- and having talked with Sam a little bit when we were shooting -- I said, ‘Basically we’re shooting a nightmare – that’s the visual style I’m going for.’ …In relation to the film being shot in a nightmare way, the appropriateness of it, is [that the film is] a kind of paranoid fantasy of friends…It’s Bruce’s paranoid fantasy of his friends all turning against him as they turn, one-by-one, into zombies and throttle him.”
-Cinematographer Tim Philo in my book The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi (2004), page 67, describes the underpinnings of the original Evil Dead.
In some weird and wholly clever, under-the-surface fashion, Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead (1983) concerns Ashley’s (Bruce Campbell) worst social fears come to life, the personal apocalypse noted so cannily by Mr. Philo above.
In this incarnation of the character, Ash is not cool, he’s not tough, and all of his friends turn against him. They taunt him, mock him, humiliate him, and abuse him. Accordingly, the whole movie plays like his deep-seated inferiority-complex come to violent, demonic life. Ash is not man enough, not brother enough, not friend enough, not even boyfriend enough to help anyone. Finally, he must rally if he hopes to survive the night…
The new Evil Dead (2013) from director Fede Alvarez understands and develops the psychological underpinnings of the original horror film, and builds upon it in intelligent and faithful fashion. It too is a story of interpersonal frissons made manifest as monsters.
But Alvarez contextualizes those frissons and makes them specific, rather than merely generalized. In particular, his horror film is about an intervention gone very, very wrong, and the ways that one “monster” (drug addiction) allows another monster (Deadite) to thrive. The film also concerns the idea of how easy it is to go with the flow or deny the reality of a crisis, until finally it is too late to stop it.
Like its predecessor, this 2013 remake is also gory and intense, so be warned.
Some reviewers may claim that the new Evil Dead lacks the same sense of wacky humor as demonstrated by Raimi’s original 1980s films, but I suspect it is probably wise that Alvarez does not attempt to out-Raimi Sam Raimi. As Peter Jackson’s horror films often attest, that’s plainly an impossible task. Raimi is tops at cinematic sight-gags and Three Stooges-meets-the-supernatural antics. His damsel-in-distress-gagging-on-a-flying-eyeball shot is still a high-water, low-brow achievement in the genre.
Instead, Alvarez is actually restrained in terms of his style. He doesn’t push the material over-the-edge of realism, recognizing perhaps that there’s sufficient spiritual consistency between original and remake to refrain from actively aping Raimi’s sense of humor. His intelligent approach boasts both benefits and pitfalls, as I’ll describe below.
That spiritual consistency emerges not only in terms of the “personal apocalypse” theme enumerated above but in the gore’s visceral impact upon audiences. Laughter arises readily enough in the remake -- nervous laughter -- without the flying eyeballs or “Farewell to Arms” antics. Indeed, it wasn’t until Evil Dead II (1987) that Raimi truly began tipping the franchise’s balance towards outrageous humor. The new franchise may eventually get there, but I think it’s a good decision not to start there.
As a director and writer, Alvarez pays appropriate homage to the imagery and events of the original film but never rehashes for the sake of regurgitation. The result is a scarifying, thematically-consistent film that can appropriately be viewed side-by-side with the original Evil Dead, or enjoyed on its own terms.
In other words, The Evil Dead (2013) is a damned solid horror remake.
“This thing is attached to Mia's soul like a leech. If we want to help Mia... we're gonna have to kill her.”
The Evil Dead sees a group of friends staging an intervention for a troubled friend.
A nurse, Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and a teacher, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) attempt to help their friend, Mia (Levy) kick the drug habit cold turkey once-and for-all at an old cabin in the woods owned by her family.
Mia has attempted cold-turkey before and failed. But this time is decidedly different because her diffident brother David (Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) are going to be involved as well. In the past, David has been a disappointment to Mia, and his presence now means a lot to her.
Once at the cabin, however, the group of five uncovers a room in the basement where several dead cats are strung-up. They also find a book called Naturon Demonto, which Eric proceeds to read aloud. His incantation of demon resurrection words brings back a terrible evil that consumes Mia first, and then spreads to the others, one-by-one.
In a long night of terror, David attempts to restore Mia’s humanity, even as Eric warns him that an Abomination will rise if the Deadites take five souls.
At first, David just wants to avoid the crisis, but he soon realizes this is one moment in his life in which he can’t get by on denial or running away…
“Everything's gonna be fine? I don't know if you noticed this, but everything's been getting worse... every second.”
The Evil Dead remake features a different set of young adults, to be certain -- with Ash nowhere to be found (well, almost nowhere…) -- but the original film’s thematic conceit is held over to strong effect.
In this case, the lead character, Mia (Jane Levy) is a drug-addict attempting to survive “cold turkey” withdrawal symptoms. She comes to view all of her friends and even her brother as enemies while she undergoes the torturous process of reclaiming her soul.
The reclaiming-her-soul bit works on two levels as you’ve likely guessed from my description. Mia has a demon riding her back long before she has a demon riding her back, if you get my drift. And those dedicated “friends” do, in fact, become monsters trying to kill her before she kicks the habit.
Similarly Mia’s brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) is decidedly the most Ash-like character in the remake (if we are talking about original Ash and not the butt-kicking, sequel Ash).
David is slow to action, cowardly, and unable to come to terms with the difficult steps that must be broached if he wants his sister back. David can’t quite rally to the “tough-love” standard that his friends demand of him, and the result is that evil thrives for too long. His inaction is -- at least partially -- the cause of so many deaths. David’s cowardice is also part of the drug abuse parallel. Abusers continue to act badly because, often-times, those around them enable that behavior. That’s what David does here. He enables Mia to stay a “monster” and consequently harm others.
Given this drug abuse/Deadite parallelism, the new Evil Dead, treads beyond the general “inferiority complex”-styled paranoid nightmare of the original and concerns the idea of facing responsibility when you really, really don’t want to. There are no easy ways out from that cabin, and indeed, that’s the lesson both David and Mia learn. David must see Mia suffer in order to save her, yet he has spent his whole adult life avoiding the suffering of those he loves, like his now-deceased mother who died in an insane asylum. He ran away then, and he wants to run away now.
Similarly, Mia -- who has learned the lesson not to need or believe in anyone -- must come to accept the “grace” that David’s sacrifice affords her. Someone finally goes the distance for her, at great personal cost, and now she has to “earn” that sacrifice…and live. In a way, this is the very reason to live that has eluded Mia for so long, and accounted for her failure to kick drugs. No one has ever really believed in her.
Ashley and Cheryl are siblings in the original film, but we never learn this much about their relationship. The remake, by contrast, delves deeply into family-of-origin issues and reveals the connection and dysfunction in the brother-sister relationship. David and Mia are intimately connected, with their foibles and mistakes impacting one another and creating a kind of vicious circle of recriminations and failure.
For me, this works. Alvarez has taken a general relationship or idea from the first film (siblings and personal apocalypse) and deepened these qualities in a way that feels significant and fresh.
The great arc of movie history is away from artifice and theatricality towards ever-increasing naturalism and realism. We are some ways further down that long continuum than we were in the early 1980s, when Raimi’s film premiered. The fact that Alvarez is working now, in some sense, shapes the material here.
Thus, there’s a nice, realistic balance at work in The Evil Dead. David is alternatively weak and then strong, and so is Mia…but never both at the same time. I realize some horror films go into these productions seeking another butt-kicking Ash or, oppositely another stereotypically “strong woman,” like Alien’s Ripley. I tend to go in just looking for characters I can identify with; real people with flaws who, ultimately, try to do their best in impossible circumstances.
So I suppose I admire the fact that Evil Dead doesn’t turn Mia into Milla Jovovich or David into a Bruce Campbell wannabe. It’s nice to see a spin on the material that doesn’t require two-dimensional characterizations.
Indeed, films such as Cabin in the Woods (2012) have effectively reduced the core Evil Dead dramatis personae to signifiers, symbols, or place-holders for post-modern meta-storylines about horror conventions: the jock, the whore, the druggie, the final girl. The new Evil Dead would have withered and died on the vine if it came out employing similar two-dimensional stereotypes. Alvarez seems to have sensed this pitfall, and provided us abundantly human characters in response. Good for him.
Alas, the quest to achieve naturalism and realism in this context also means that some truly inventive touches from the original films are missing. I would have appreciated seeing more notice paid to the conceit of the Deadites suspending time, for instance, as they did in Raimi’s vision. Part of the Deadite terror is the fact that it usurps consensus reality and lands the heroes in a mad house for all eternity, or at least until the monsters are defeated. Here we get a climactic storm of bloody rain, but that’s as far the idea goes. I suppose I was hoping for a little bit more “magic realism.”
Similarly, the camera in the Raimi Evil Dead films is a crucial participant in the action, whether hurtling through the woods at warp speed or slamming repeatedly into Bruce Campbell’s tortured visage. Another symptom of our times is the fact that such expressive, formalistic techniques are not currently in favor.
So it’s funny to read in mainstream reviews how extreme the new Evil Dead is when, in fact, the camera work does not engage us at the same, frenetic, immediate, personal level as the 1983 film.
It’s one thing to be gory. It’s quite another thing to pound us relentlessly with the gore until we go wobbly in the knees.
Raimi’s film does both, while Alvarez’s film does only the former. Yes, the movie is more intense and bloody than any I’ve seen in a while, but it still doesn’t bludgeon us in the way that Raimi’s Evil Dead did.
Again, I feel that Alvarez is a strong thinker, and that he opted for originality and restraint here, which is, in the final analysis, a commendable selection for a responsible “re-maker.” But the Raimi-fan in me longed to be battered around a bit more in this Evil Dead.
Despite such minor quibbles, I still award high-marks to this remake for not forsaking the Evil Dead’s subtext of personal apocalypse, and in fact, deepening it. In the no-doubt inevitable sequel, I’d like to see Alvarez stretch his sense of visual style, and make the Deadites more of a non-corporeal threat. These monsters are scary not only because they are violent and resilient, but because they control the forces of nature: the woods, the night, and so on.
A real paranoid nightmare is one where even the woods are out to get you. And just when you think the dawn is coming, the clock rolls back twelve hours and you have to fight the same night, all over again. Though strongly vetted and peopled with three-dimensional characters, the new Evil Dead could use just a little bit more of that old black (Raimi) magic and mad artifice.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
One of my favorite toy-lines of the 1970s and early 1980s is the “Star Bird” from Milton Bradley.
I’ve featured the Star Bird Avenger and Command Base here on the blog before, but today I wanted to remember the final toy in this “franchise:” The Star Bird Intruder.
The box terms this menacing ship “the electronic space raider” featuring “exciting engine sounds, firing photon beams, battle sounds and a special target.”
Equipped with new “exciting electronics,” this toy features a pistol grip for dogfights with the Avenger but which takes away from the compact design and reality of the design a little. One really awesome element, however, is the “skull” cockpit decal which suggests that the space raider is actually a pirate ship.
I also never liked the fact that this “villain” ship in the line features the same nose component of the Star Bird. I would have preferred something entirely different or alien.
But, when I was a kid and played with this toy, the “pretend” story-line involved the fact that the bad guy “space raiders” had cannibalized a derelict Star Bird and re-purposed it. I wish I still had my Intruder today, but I only have a few pieces, the nose cone sans the outer shell, and a piece of one of the engine casings that came off.
Still, I love these Star Birds toys, and as a reader suggested not long ago, someone should come along and turn these toys into a great space movie. The design of the Avenger and the Command Base still hold up, and even the old Intruder could make a cameo appearance.
Tuesday, April 09, 2013
My review of The Evil Dead (2013), which I had hoped to post today, will now appear on Friday here on the blog. I'm sorry for the delay, but once more, graduate school deadlines and manuscript responsibilities have coincided -- unexpectedly -- at the worst possible time!
Monday, April 08, 2013
A reader, U., writes:
“Hi John, What's your take on peer-to-peer downloading? I know you buy what you see because you've mentioned that, but have you ever watched a movie or an episode that was downloaded from say The Pirate Bay?
I only ask because a lot of the times for things that have never been released on dvd officially, they can be found on these sites, or even on Youtube. This is especially the case of course for so many movies or shows you write about that are rare.
I was curious on your thoughts on all this.”
U, that’s a good question, and I’m afraid my answer reveals my age.
I have never downloaded any episode or movie from any site like the one you mentioned, mainly because I know almost nothing about any of them. I don’t know which sites are good, which ones are bad. I literally have no experience on that front.
I began my writing career in the mid-1990s, and so VHS was the prominent format of the day. I worked with a great tape trader in Pennsylvania, so I could see episodes of the series I wanted to cover in my book Terror Television, for instance. I was heavy into tape trading till about 2000, I suppose, because of that book, and because of the fact that I wanted to see as many episodes of each series as I possibly could. I cobbled together resources from libraries, video stores, on-air tapings, my own collection, and tape trades.
These days, I am usually able to find what I’m looking for on either Youtube, as you mention, or third party sites that sell “bootlegs” of programs otherwise not available.
Of course, as you know, I’m reviewing these obscurities for purposes of genre history, art appreciation, and scholarship.
You wouldn’t think there’s a huge demand for writing about Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected, but that post last week on the subject garnered quite a lot of hits. There are lots of folks out there who want to know about these older, unreleased programs, and are hungry for information about them.
I am hoping to get my act together and contact a friend about garnering some more TV obscurities, mainly from the 1970s. This is one of my favorite aspects of blogging: re-visiting old series that are hard to find, or not officially available. It would be a shame for great old programs to disappear down the memory hole, and if I can shine a new light on them, I’m always happy to do so.
But please, if you have any recommendations about the best peer-to-peer download sites, please let me know. Like I said, I really know nothing whatsoever about this subject.
Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com
The word “cult” refers to a religious movement or group whose rituals, beliefs, or practices might be judged bizarre by society as a whole.
I use the term “cult” an awful lot on this blog, partly because it denotes the fact that this site doesn’t (typically) discuss mainstream productions, and partly because “cult” is part of a term (“cult TV”) that is frequently searched on the Internet.
Of course, some people will tell you that the term “cult” is pejorative, and that such a descriptor diminishes the production which is described. This may indeed be true, though I don’t consider the adjective cult pejorative.
But cults -- odd and sinister religious or spiritual movements -- have indeed appeared prominently throughout television history.
Doctor Who (1963 – 1989) has probably featured more than its fair share of cults during its long run. In the early 1970s serial starring Jon Pertwee, “The Daemons,” for instance, the Master (Roger Delgado) masquerades as the Magister, the head of a pagan cult attempting to conjure the demon, Azal. As The
Doctor is quite happy to prove to Jo (Katy Manning), however, Azal is not a demon and does not derive his power from magic. Instead, he is an alien being with more advanced science than that known by man. The whole serial pits human superstition -- in the form of the cult -- against the Doctor’s enlightened rationale for science.
Another Doctor Who cult -- the Sisterhood of Karn (featured in the Tom Baker serial “Brain of Morbius”) -- is depicted as a Time Lord ally, and one in possession of the mystical “Elixir of Life.” It too seems an unholy blend of mysticism and science.
In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981), the first episode produced after the theatrical pilot, “Awakening” was titled “Planet of the Slave Girls.” It involves a charismatic leader, Kaleel (Jack Palance) with the capacity to mesmerize his flock. Such is his cult’s belief in him as Leader that the cult-members die upon Kaleel’s touch. This episode may have been inspired by the 1978 Jonestown incident, which also involved a cult following. The nine-hundred deaths at Jim Jones’ community occurred on November 18, 1978.
The short-lived series about an island in the Bermuda Triangle where all time-streams cross, The Fantastic Journey (1977), featured an episode called “An Act of Love” which served as indictment of religions in general and cults, specifically. Here, a colony built near a live volcano routinely performed human sacrifices in the hopes of quieting the mountain. At the end of the episode, Roddy McDowall’s Jonathan Willaway told the cult priestess: “You are trying to make deals with volcanoes." Then he tells her, very directly, to take her people from the time zone and "leave superstition behind."
In the Chris Carter series, Millennium (1996 – 1999), Scientology was ridiculed as a cult called “Selfosophy” in the Darin Morgan episode “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense.” In this case, those involved in the cult were instructed to purge themselves of all negativity, and buy-up every last copy of their guru’s science fiction novel. You may recognize the historical antecedents for this story *ahem.*
A fertility cult -- shades of The Wicker Man (1971) – appeared in rural America in the Smallville episode (“The Harvest”), and agent Scully (Gillian Anderson) found herself trapped with dangerous cult members in another small town in “Road Runners.” In this episode of The X-Files, the cult-members worshiped a strange, possibly extra-terrestrial worm that burrowed inside the backs of human beings. That was a fate Scully only narrowly avoided.
An episode of Ben 10: Ultimate Alien also saw humans worshiping (the living…) head of Vilgax as some kind of Cthulu-like deity.
|Identified by SGB: Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: "Legion of Demons."|
|Identified by David Lee Ingersoll: Erik Estrada in Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "Legacy of Terror"|
|Identified by Carl: Roger Delgado as The Master in Doctor Who: "The Daemons."|
|Identified by Andrew Glazebrook: Blake's 7: "Cygnus Alpha."|
|Not Identified: The Fantastic Journey: "An Act of Love."|
|Identified by Terri Wilson: Jack Palance as Kaleel in Buck Rogers: "Planet of the Slave Girls."|
|Identified by SGB: Gerrit Graham in The A-Team: "The Children of Jamestown."|
|Identified by Randal Graves: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Reptile Boy."|
|Identified by Adam Chamberlain: The X-Files: "Road Runners."|
|Not Identified. Smallville: "The Harvest."|
|Not Identified: Ben 10: Ultimate Alien.|
|Not Identified: Veronica Mars: "Clash of the Tritons."|
"I told them all in an email, “Do not imitate any of the actors in the original movie. Make it your own.” We told Fede, “Don’t imitate Sam’s shots or Sam’s style.” He didn’t shoot it like Sam shot it, he shot it in his own unique style which is pretty cool. He did a good job. It’s like dogs, wives, children, and directors, you’ve gotta let them run."
- Bruce Campbell discusses the remake of The Evil Dead (2013) at Fear.net.
Sunday, April 07, 2013
The time is now!
The good folks at Back to Frank Black are sponsoring a new competition to produce a fan trailer for a prospective Millennium (1996 - 1999) movie.
Here's a snippet:
"Create a trailer that teases the Millennium movie you want to see, and we will share it with a legion of eager fans. The creator of the winning trailer will receive a copy of the complete series DVD box set in their choice of either Region 1 or 2 format.
But that’s not all. The winning entry in this contest will have their work enhanced thanks to a truly unique prize. None other than the celebrated composer Mark Snow will provide the soundtrack to your trailer with original music written specifically for the segment.
This is your chance to produce something new and original with the help of the man who created Millennium’s atmospheric theme music and scored the entire series—not to mention the iconic theme and soundtrack to The X-Files both for television and its big screen outings, as well as the rest of Ten Thirteen Productions’ output.
Check out all the details at Back to Frank Black, and get those creative juices flowing. I can't wait to see what the fans come up with, and as always, I want to add my voice to the chorus supporting the return of Chris Carter's Millennium.
In this episode of animated series, Star Blazers (1979), The Argo’s energy transmission unit fails upon the vessel’s departure from Jupiter. To become functional again, the battleship now requires special “titanium” crystals only found on Saturn’s moon, Titan, an inhospitable, frozen world.
The Argo deploys small mining crafts to the icy surface, with Wildstar, Nova and IQ9 all participating in the recovery mission. Unfortunately, the Gamilons learn of the expedition, and deploy space tanks to run off the Star Force. IQ9 lifts and destroys one such tank, and Wildstar escapes from captivity after finding an operating hand-gun in the ice.
Incredibly, the gun belongs to Wildstar’s dead brother, Alex. Derek, Nova and IQ9 soon also locate Alex’s crashed ship -- now a derelict -- the Paladin. The heroes manage a return to the Argo before being captured again, and Wildstar wonders if his brother, even in death, is still looking after him.
Only 359 days remain until the extinction of all life on Earth…
“I see it would be hard to be human,” IQ9 notes in this episode, and that’s very much the point of the story. Here, Derek unexpectedly finds evidence of his brother’s death, and must come to terms with it. He is told by Avatar that Alex “survives” in him, and in “the Star Force” but the episode nonetheless carries a heavy emotional wallop. One of the final scene finds Wildstar and Captain Avatar talking about what Wildstar found on the planet, and a single tear drop falls from Avatar’s face. I wondered if he was crying for Alex Wildstar, who gave his life to save the Earth flagship, or for his only son, who also died in the Battle of Pluto.
Captain Avatar has been my favorite character on the series thus far, but Wildstar grew on me a bit in this episode, in part because his discovery of Alex’s hand-gun and the Paladin is so damned unexpected. A viewer definitely shares his sense of surprise at the discovery.
So far, Wildstar has seemed -- at least to me – hard-headed, impulsive and temperamental. This episode shows a bit more shading than that, and I appreciate it. I know that Star Blazers is actually his “hero’s journey,” so I’m watching his maturation closely.
Once again, the visuals in Star Blazers are quite dynamic, and even beautiful. There’s a shot I absolutely love here of the icy planet surface as the Argo suddenly becomes visible, moving into the frame, overhead, above mountains. It’s as though the great ship has been obscured in thick mist or fog, only to break through that barrier and emerge clearly. This composition while being quite beautiful, also “sells” Argo’s size. She’s a huge ship.
The most emotional visual section of the episode, however, involves a montage of the derelict Paladin on the ice cliff. A variety of shots show reveal the destroyed ship alone in the ice, an image of isolation and loneliness. On the last final withdraw from the ship, we see the ship from Wildstar's perspective as the Paladin seems to blend into the ice itself, a lost memory. It's haunting.
I also really admired the final flyby of Argo in this episode. As the ship goes by, Captain Avatar is visible standing alone in the top tier of the conning tower, presumably in an observation deck. He cuts a solitary, sad figure, but I loved the point of detail.
Once more, some of the science in a Star Blazers episode doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Dialogue suggests that Titan possess an environment “similar to Earth except it is very cold.”
Well, cold is putting it mildly, isn’t it? And it Titan doesn’t possess an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere like Earth? The expedition should thus all be wearing space suits throughout the journey. Again, my barometer is this on “distraction.” If I’m pulled out of the story by a technical point that seems wrong, it bears mentioning. This is another one of those details.
All these problems could have been removed from the series if only the writers specified that Argo had journeyed outside our solar system already, and was visiting new, unexplored worlds. Then, they would have no responsibility to conform to our understanding of our neighboring worlds.