Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday Morning TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Secret of the Ancients" (October 13, 1979)

The Saturday morning adventures continue in Jason of Star Command's swashbuckling episode "Secret of the Ancients," first aired in late 1979.  

Here, the manipulative Dragos (Sid Haig) promises to save Jason's (Craig Littler's) life if only Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) deciphers the mysterious star disk of the "Tantalutions" now in the despot's possession.

Parsafoot agrees, and Jason is rescued from space.  Very quickly, Parsafoot learns that the disk functions as a "matter transmitter."  Specifically, it can send any life-form into another dimension, a kind of cosmic "limbo."

When Commander Stone (John Russell) attacks Dragos' dragon ship, Dragos sends the unfortunate commander into this very limbo.  And when Matt Daringstar betrays Dragos, the madman sends the boy, Parsafoot and Jason into  the eerie limbo world as well...

Although it lacks a stop-motion monster, "Secret of the Ancients" is a fun episode in terms of characterization.  Parsafoot must make a choice between helping Jason and sacrificing his principles, or letting Jason die.  Jason -- though alive -- is disappointed at his final selection.

Even more interestingly, Jason continues his unofficial tutorship of Matt Daringstar (Clete Keith), turning the conflicted boy from the dark side, as it were, and towards the light.  Jason does so, largely, by asking Matt if he'd rather be rich, or have friends who really care about him. In the age of President Carter's "Crisis of  Confidence" speech, this is not a small concern, and Jason of Star Command does a nice job of depicting Daringstar's choice.  Would he rather be rich, in the service of a monster, or be his own man; one that he can take pride in?

I also enjoyed the deepening of the Commander Stone character here.  In "Secret of the Ancients," Stone reveals that he bears some unknown "personal score" to settle with Dragos, and launches Star Fire 3 to take him on.  The mission fails, but Jason ribs the by-the-book commander about his decision to endanger himself on a mission.  "Not exactly by the book," he notes, and Stone admits that "there are times when the book is inadequate," but then quickly recants.  "I'll deny I ever said that."

Alas, despite the fast pace and excellent outer space effects for the age, Jason of Star Command showcases the limit of its budget this week.

When Jason escapes from prison, he leads one of Dragos' spaghetti-monster aliens on a merry chase down a high-tech corridor.  One hallway is seen again and again, from different angles during the chase, and the re-use of the set is plain.  Also, when Jason disables one of Drago's computers, it's not clear what he precisely has done to it.  He just stamps his feet behind the console, and it explodes! 

Finally, the episode ends with another cool JOSC cliffhanger: the roar of an unseen monster in the mist-filled limbo.  I hope this promises a cool stop-motion monster in next week's show...

All in all, this episode is a pretty good build-up from last week's arc opener, but it's a disappointment that Samantha (Tamara Dobson) continues to be sidelined when there is so much more to explore regarding her "amnesia" and character background.

Next week: "The Power of the Star Disk."  

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Films of 1982 (From the Archive): Quest for Fire

Released in America on February 12, 1982, director Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest for Fire (1982) is an adventure film that is authentically epic in scale and attempts accuracy in the language and physical depictions of its cave-man protagonists.

Importantly, Quest for Fire isn't historically inaccurate in a fashion that causes audience to laugh or wince. The cave-men here don't hunt a woolly mammoth and then wander immediately into Giza and find the Great Pyramids under construction, as was the case in Roland Emmerich's dreadful 10,000 BC (2008) for example.

Accordingly, critics approved of the Annaud initiative.  Variety's reviewer called Quest for Fire an "engaging prehistoric yarn that happily never degenerates into a club and lion skin spin-off of Star Wars and resolutely refuses to bludgeon the viewer with facile or gratuitous effects."  

In The New York Times, Janet Maslin concurred, terming the film "more than just a hugely enterprising science lesson, although it certainly is that. It's also a touching, funny and suspenseful drama about pre-humans."

In terms of theme, Quest for Fire -- based on the novel by J.H. Rasny - offers a unique narrative and commentary about man's unique capacity to evolve, to adapt to new technologies and developments in his always-difficult existence.  It conveys that theme in the milieu of our prehistory, when life was nasty, brutish and short. 

Set some "80,000 years ago," this "science fantasy adventure" (as it was billed in the original theatrical trailer) specifically concerns the primitive Ulam tribe. Director Jean-Jacque Annaud's observant camera introduces us to this Cro-Magnon clan and to the rhythms of the clan's primitive daily life.  These early scenes recall the opening of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), at least to some degree.  As is the case in other Annaud films like The Bear (1988), it also feels like we're watching a documentary for the first fifteen minutes or so.  The realism factor is extremely high, thanks to the use of stunning natural locations in Kenya, Iceland, Scotland and Canada.

As a quasi-nature documentary, Quest for Fire is intense, revealing and involving. We see the tribes' people sleep (together, in a large communal cave), share a meal, battle enemies, and mate. Finally, the Ulam tend to their fire and this last bit is especially significant because the Ulam lack the capacity to make fire for themselves.  Accordingly, they have assigned a Fire Keeper or guardian to keep a small flame eternally lit.  

The on-set of rain is thus a major crisis.

Fire is "the great mystery" according to the film's opening card, and it is the one thing that keeps the tribe alive. It provides warmth; light, and the means to cook food. Without it, the Ulam would descend into darkness, cold and despair.

Yet, importantly, the Ulam don't understand the fire they covet. It's a thing to be captured, maintained and controlled.

Then, one day, the lurking Wagabu -- a tribe of primitive homo erectus -- launch a surprise attack upon the peaceful Ulam, and it's like a Stone Age 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. 

The sanctuary of the Ulam cave is breached. Men are killed in extremely violent and bloody fashion, and women are dragged away. And the sacred fire is nearly extinguished. The Fire Keeper manages to keep the flame lit for a short time, but soon it winks out, leaving the Ulam tribe -- now reduced to wandering in a primordial, misty bog --- little hope for continued survival.

The situation dire, three of the best warriors in the tribe, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) are tasked with a seemingly-impossible mission: to find fire and bring it back to the tribe. The quest begins, and on this incredible odyssey across a wild landscape, the three men encounter sabre-toothed tigers (which chase them up a tree...), mastodons, and other terrors of the Paleolithic Age.   Although the film's subject matter is serious -- the very survival of the tribe -- Annaud incorporates wonder and humor into Quest for Fire's tapestry as well.

Not to mention horror...

In the film's most frightening scene, the Ulam triumvirate confronts the Kzamm, a neanderthal tribe of cannibals. Our heroes attempt to steal fire from these monstrous, hulking creatures, but it's a botched attempt that is tense and frightening. Still, during the struggle, Naoh and the others manage to free the beautiful Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a beautiful female of the advanced Ivaka tribe. 

Adorned solely in body paint and otherwise totally nude, Ika is resourceful, bright and one of us...a homo sapien. 

She introduces the Ulam warriors to the concept of laughter, not to mention the wonders of the missionary position.  She soon becomes the team's most valuable player.  Soon, however, she grows homesick and decides to return to her tribe. 

Heartbroken by her departure, a smitten Naoh follows Ika back to her people, and after a series of ritual humiliations (including public sex with a line-up of very obese women...), is introduced to a world of new technology and knowledge. 

The Ivaka, you see, can make fire. It is an art they share with Naoh. Also, the Ivaka craft arrows, make pottery, and build free-standing shelters. It's all a brave new world to Naoh.  But after some time living happily among his new friends, Naoh is coerced by Amoukar and Gaw to return to their people   Ika, who has fallen in love with Naoh, goes with them on the trip. In the end, Naoh vanquishes a rival in his clan, and Ika teaches the Ulam to make fire. No longer is fire "magic;" something beyond the grasp of their understanding. Now it is a tool, well-understood and successfully harnessed.

Quest for Fire's final scene -- a beautifully staged, evocative medium shot -- reveals a pregnant Ika cradled tenderly in Naoh's strong arms as the couple expectantly gazes skyward, bathed in dazzling moonlight.  The implication is clear: the next generation will be one born with the knowledge to make fire, to build shelter, to carry light spears/arrows. Mankind has taken a big leap forward and we have witnessed the first steps of that journey.  There is no turning back to the dark caves of ignorance...or at least there shouldn't be. 

Even today, 80,000 years later, the human animal gets a lot of things wrong, no question. We pollute our environment and we wage war. But Quest for Fire reminds the viewer that the human experience is always evolving; that a new technology will be invented or discovered, or that a new understanding of our universe will be reached.  These things make our perpetual struggle for immortality that much closer to reality and our burdens that much lighter. 

You can watch, in Quest for Fire, how Naoh integrates new weapons, new science and new beliefs into his primitive way of life...and is the better for it, for the pursuit of knowledge

In just the span of this film, the dark, mysterious world of the Ulam becomes significantly brighter because of interaction with the Ivaka and their technology and know-how. This is nothing less than the story of the entire human experience: the great and unending quest to make our lives less uncomfortable; less difficult. 

I don't use the word "comfortable" lightly, by the way. I don't mean that we're lazy. I mean that the trajectory of human history is to make survival (and our children's survival) less a risk and more a guarantee: with science, with technology, with knowledge, and hopefully with wisdom. And that's why, frankly, it hurts me so much to see the anti-intellectual, anti-science proponents gaining so much traction in this country's national discourse today.  These are the folks who think we can pray away a drought in Texas.  These are the people who think we should turn back the clock on science.   If man had let such foolish irrationality win out in the prehistoric past....we never would have survived. We never would have learned to make fire. We would have died out in that murky swamp, waiting for the Man in the Moon to deliver us from evil. 

The march of progress, however, isn't always sublime or easy for everyone, as this film reminds us rather cleverly.  The Fire Keeper in Quest for Fire, for instance, is out of a job in the Ulam Tribe once fire is understood, his skills no longer necessary

So his situation may be the first case of down-sizing in human history... 

I also find it immensely interesting that in Quest for Fire it is a woman who brings civilization to Naoh's people.  She teaches Naoh how to make love and make fire. And, watching the final scenes of the film, one must countenance the idea that she also teaches him the critical (and in my experience, female...) quality of patience. Where - I wonder - would mankind be without womankind? 

Visually arresting, and packed with gory, intense action sequences, Quest for Fire is a fascinating adventure that considers with great verisimilitude "what might have been" in our long ago past. The shots that book-end the film -- nearly identical pans across a desolate dark valley lit by a single fire -- serve to remind us how hard our long journey towards the light has been, and that mankind's survival over the ages is not a miracle, not some gift from non-existent deities. 

Rather, it is the result of our own resourcefulness and ingenuity in the face of an often harsh and difficult environment.  The message: don't praise some imaginary God, don't praise fire. Or magic.  

Instead, praise the human spirit. It got us here, and it will deliver us into a better future...if we don't let the Neanderthals win.

Movie Trailer: Quest for Fire (1982)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Unable are the Loved to die. For Love is Immortality..."

- Emily Dickinson

Lee Hansen (1968 - 2012)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Memory Bank: Zombies (a.k.a. Realm of Impossibility; BRAM Inc., 1983)

One of the greatest (and coolest) video games I ever played on my old Atari 800 in the 1980s was Mike Edwards' Zombies (BRAM Inc; 1983), later re-released by EA in 1984-1985 as Realm of Impossibility.

This game was available on both cassette (!) and floppy disk, but my memory is that I played the game on disk.  It was so long ago now, I'm not entirely certain about that detail, however.

Regardless, my father was vice principal at Mountain Lakes High School in New Jersey, and was close friends with a 1980s Atari guru, one who was outfitting the school with a number of computers as the PC era began in earnest.  One day, out of the blue, my Dad arrived home from school (on his motorcycle...) with a bundle of video games on disk and cassette.  I had never heard of any of these games, but it felt like Christmas morning.

They had titles like Blue Max, Trains, Murder on the Zinderneuf, Bruce Lee, Astro Chase, B.C.'s Quest for Tires, Caverns of Mars, and last -- and best -- Zombies!

In Zombies, the goal was to recover the "enchanted crowns of the middle kingdom" from an evil wizard named Wistrik.  The cleric had apparently stolen the crowns and stored them in a variety of hellish dungeons where they were protected by rampaging zombies, giant spiders and poisonous snakes.  The realms had ominous, mythological-based names such as "Cankaya Keep," "The Abyss," "The Stygian Crypts," "Tartarus" and "The Realm of Impossibility."

Designer Edwards was inspired in part by his love of TSR's Dungeons and Dragons, as he wrote in the marketing booklet for Zombies, available here.  But he also wanted to get away from simple shoot-em-up games of the era.  Thus he devised Zombies with a few diabolical and genius twists.  

Among these were the fact that as a player you were not awarded multiple lives.  When you died, and had to begin the game again.  

Secondly, there was no "elimination" of the supernatural enemies and vermin.  Instead, you had to drop crucifixes around yourself (while you ran...) as supernatural barriers to the surrounding threats.  Additionally, the player could acquire scrolls with spells such as "Freeze," "Protect" and "Confuse."  Believe me, these came in handy...

And thirdly, the game was two-player compatible, but the two players did not compete against one another.  Rather, they had to work together, in unison, to avoid the zombies and retrieve the crowns.  This made the game perfect for when my friends came over after school, or on Saturday afternoons, for surviving Zombies was an exercise in team work.

Zombies also featured, according to the promotional material: "3-D graphics, on-line instructions,"..."74 different screens, high-score save to disk, full sound and color, zombies, poisonous snakes, giant spiders, evil orbs, scrolls, talismans, magic spells, lost crowns and spectacular underground scenery."

On that last front, Zombies showcased unbelievable, M.C. Escher-inspired screens that, despite the young age of the form, were authentically mind-blowing in terms of viewer perspective.   I wish there were more screens available that  I could display in this post.

I've written here before how I'd like to see a consistent set of aesthetic criteria applied to video games because I do consider them an art form.  When I think about it, Zombies is likely the game that began me thinking along those terms, even as a teenager.  The game was beautiful to behold, and completely immersing.  For instance, I remember (I hope correctly...) that when the zombies touched you during the game, your life energy would bleed away quickly, but also that the game screen would pop and crackle, like you had been struck by electricity.  If you ask me, I can still "feel" that shock, though of course, no such physical shock was actually delivered.  

I can't even begin to estimate how many hours I spent during my teenage years navigating Tartarus, the Stygian Crypts, or the Realm of Impossibility.  But it was a lot, I'm certain.  I have wonderful memories of playing this game with Bob, Chris, and Scott, my best friends in high school.

I attempted to download a version of Zombies when I was preparing this post, but my Sony Vaio wouldn't accept the game format, dammit.


Below, I've included some YouTube videos of game play, but these videos are from the Realm of Impossibility version (which had 13 levels, six more than I recall on Zombies.)  But still, you'll get the idea.

The graphics may look primitive today, but the game play was absolutely incredible. And the sound effects are pretty much as I remember, though at least one of these videos showcases the game for Commodore 64, rather than the Atari 800.

Makes me miss my Atari 800...

Collectible of the Week: Star Trek Soft Poseable Figures (Knickerbocker; 1979)

I always suspected Mr. Spock was actually pretty cuddly, but really...

All kidding aside, 1979 was a great year to be a Star Trek fan, perhaps the best year ever for Trekdom, actually.  The first motion picture was slated for theatrical release, and with it came a slew of merchandising tie-ins.  You had great model kits from AMT, Klingon Happy Meals at McDonalds, trading cards from Topps, new action figures (large and small) from Mego...

...and soft, plush figures from Knickerbocker?

Well, yes.  

Some kids have Teddy Bears.  Other kids have Starship Captains and Vulcan science officers.  

In particular, Knickerbocker released 13 inch tall Captain Kirk (No. 0599) and Mr. Spock (No. 0598) "soft" figures in their Motion Picture-styled, Starfleet uniforms.  Manufactured under "exclusive license" from Paramount Pictures, these figures were made of "all new materials, colored shredded clippings, shredded polyurethane foam, synthetic fibers, and shredded cellulose fibers."  

Now, don't you want your kid cuddling that?

Still, as I hope you can detect from the close-ups, the character face molds here are very good, very accurate to the appearance of the actors in the film.

I must confess I have a penchant for weird Star Trek collectibles.  Until last year -- when they finally fell apart into crumbly ick -- I had a complete set of 1996 Star Trek: First Contact chocolate candy bars.  I could just never bring myself to eat them, because the wrappers were so cool.

Anyway, the Knickerbocker Star Trek "soft" figures fall into the camp of weird Trek collectibles.  Action figures of our UFP heroes are one thing, but soft plush figures?  To sleep with? 

Still, it's interesting to see Star Trek as part of Knickerbocker's storied toy history.  

This famous toy company produced Walt Disney, Little Lulu, Holly Hobby, Raggedy Ann and "Krazy Kats" dolls from the years 1925 to 1983, before the company was sold to Hasbro.  It's kind of neat that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock joined the pantheon.

Too bad they didn't make a Klingon, though...

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Skeksis/Farscape Edition

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #5: The Cassandra Complex

Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers  (1988)

This is one of those horror tropes that I always get an absolute kick-out of: The Cassandra Complex.  

In Greek Myth, beautiful Cassandra -- daughter of Troy's King Priam and Queen Hecuba -- is given the great gift of prophecy.  She can see and know the future.  

The only problem is that Cassandra is equally cursed.  No one will ever believe her accurate testimony, and so she is perpetually ignored and cast aside, only to watch fate take its brutal and -- for her -- expected course.

In the modern horror film, the Cassandra Complex is an important thematic factor.  Sometimes I call this trope "Just Ignore the Old Crazy Person," because the Cassandra figure is often a drunk or elderly person whose testimony can easily be dismissed or overlooked.  

Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) in Friday the 13th (1980).
Consider for a moment, Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) in Friday the 13th (1980) and Friday the 13th: Part II (1981).  

This (presumably alcoholic and homeless...) old man tries to warn those sex-crazed teens that they are in real trouble, and yet they pay him no heed.  How can they ignore him?  Well, he's not rich, gorgeous, young and upwardly mobile like they are...

Like Ralph, the Cassandra figure in horror movies is frequently someone who can provide important exposition about the danger ahead, or the precise nature of the villain, but for whatever reason, is not respected or listened to.  The most famous "Cassandra" in contemporary horror is likely Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)  He's a trained psychiatrist, an accomplished professional and Michael Myers' attending doctor, yet he is doomed, over and over, to see his serious concerns minimized.  And then, once law enforcement officials do believe Loomis, they blame him for Michael's killing spree.

Or consider Jezelle Gay Hartman (Patricia Belcher) of Victor Salva's Jeepers Creepers (2001), who possesses an unwanted insight into the nature of the monstrous Creeper, but is unable to make imperiled teens Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Phillips) listen to her about the very real danger they face.  She tries...and fails, then must live with the consequences of "knowing."

What's the point of including such characters, dramatically-speaking, in a horror narrative?  

In large part, Cassandra Figures serve as explicit reminders that man proposes, and God disposes, or that fate will have its way.  Even when people are directly warned about looming (Loomis?) dangers, they don't necessarily pay attention, or find themselves able to escape the fate the universe has set out for them.  The Cassandra Figure is the canary in the coal mine, the one who learns of danger ahead, but whose message just can't be heard in time to change fate.

Martin Landau in Without Warning (1980)
Oftentimes famous but under-employed actors, such as Donald Pleasance, or Martin Landau in Without Warning (1980), fulfill the Cassandra role.

The Cassandra Figure/Cassandra Complex appears in (but is not limited to) such films as: 

Halloween (1978), Blood Beach (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), Without Warning (1980), Friday the 13th Part II (1981), The Boogens (1982), Just Before Dawn (1982), Monster in the Closet (1987), Halloween IV:The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), Jeepers Creepers (2001) and, apparently, the upcoming Joss Whedon horror, The Cabin in the Woods (2012).

Jon Lormer in The Boogens (1982)

Cult-TV Made for TV Movie Flashback: Gargoyles (1972)

In Bill Norton's made-for-TV movie Gargoyles (1972), written by Steven and Elinor Karpf, the human race encounters a very old enemy: Gargoyles...the monstrous spawn of Satan himself.

As the film's opening narration and title cards reveal, Gargoyles are real, and arose from Hell, from the lake of Fire.  Every six hundred years (or thereabouts) the Gargoyles vie for supremacy on Earth with mankind.  In every battle thus far, we've defeated these insurgents, but the beasts always survive to threaten us once more.  In the modern age, most humans have forgotten the truth, and consider Gargoyles only myths...

Short and sweet at 74 minutes long, Gargoyles is one of those classic horror TV movies of a bygone age (like Satan's School for Girls, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, or Dark Night of the Scarecrow.)  The production values are minimal, and the Gargoyle costumes -- often shown in fully-revealing slow-motion photography -- perhaps don't hold up particularly well in 2012.

And yet, the movie casts a powerful and sinister spell despite such concerns.  It is also clearly of the age of "social critique" genre films such as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), wherein a group/cadre of non-human characters symbolize some element or component of real life in contemporary America.

In many crucial ways, the first half-hour of the film, in which the Gargoyles are not fully seen, sets the macabre, unsettling tone for the picture.

We follow an anthropologist, Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his halter-top wearing daughter, Diana (Jennifer Salt), into a barren desert as they visit a crazy old coot, "Uncle Willie" (Woody Chambliss).  Willie claims to have made a discovery of some scientific significance, but wants to show it to the Boleys, not merely tell them about it.

In these early moments, Gargoyles generates a mounting sense of dread and foreboding as Norton's camera adopts high angle shots of great distance. From a viewpoint high atop ancient rocks and outcroppings, we watch the Boley station wagon traverse, essentially, nothingness.

Roads seem carved out of the Earth, and all around, there is no sign of life. In this barren, isolated realm, something evil lurks...and watches.  After a few such shots, this effect becomes rather unnerving.  In one instance, a dark, inhuman shadow falls over a mountaintop...

Later, Willie reveals to the Boleys a Gargoyle skeleton he found in the desert and has meticulously re-assembled..and then the first Gargoyle attack arrives in a flash.  We see slashing claws break through a metal shed wall, and all Hell breaks loose.  The Boleys manage to escape (Willie is not so lucky...) and they flee in their car.

Again, a Gargoyle attacks, and nearly destroys their vehicle.  The Boleys make it to a lonely gas station by thick of night, and the sensations of emptiness and vulnerability are pretty powerfully rendered once more.

Our protagonists are surrounded by darkness on all sides of this lonely outpost, and you can just imagine that they are being closely observed by the monsters,who are conveniently obscured by blackness.

In its short running time, Gargoyles is filled with moments such as the one I describe above, at the gas station at night.  Later on, Diana walks along a desert road by herself, on the way to a police station, and she's the only soul in sight.

Out in the darkness, there be dragons...

I suppose the creepy success of Gargoyles is a testament, in part, to effective location work and choice in setting.  Director Jack Arnold often utilized the desert background to great effect in his genre films, and that's the same trick Gargoyles pulls off.  Almost immediately, the film disarms the viewer with a powerful sense of place, and the impression of a malevolent intelligence working behind the scenes.

When the monsters do finally take center stage, the film shifts into a different gear all-together. The slow-motion photography that frequently showcases the beasts is perhaps a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it gives the creatures a kind of "alien" or unfamiliar sense of movement and grace, and grants their monstrous footsteps a level of gravitas.  They seem to move according to their own laws of nature.

On the other hand, the slow-motion photography also reveals, fully, the costumes.  Gargoyles (deservedly) won an Emmy for its special effects, but fully-costumed, head-to-toe monsters are hard to vet well, especially if you show them (well lit) so frequently. The masks/make-ups by Stan Winston and Ellis Burman remain exquisite, but in some cases -- probably because of superior DVD clarity -- you can make out that the Gargoyles seem to be wearing tights/pants.  You shouldn't let this inhibit your enjoyment of the movie, however.

For the latter half of Gargoyles proves effective, and unsettling by developing the character of the  lead Gargoyle, a sinister but intriguing character played by Bernie Casey and given vocal, icy life by Vic Perrin, the Outer Limits "Control Voice."

There's a malevolent, clever intellect at work in this Gargoyle's voice and dialogue.  He is truly a monster to be reckoned with.  He's not merely a dumb brute or savage beast, but an intelligent, curious, and yes, often diabolical being.

Late in the film, for instance, the Gargoyle captures Diana and forces her to read human books to him, so he can gain an increased understanding of his enemy.  There's a definite Beauty and the Beast vibe happening here, and in one suggestive moment, Diana reads the diary of a woman from 1417 AD who was visited in her bedroom --and  seduced -- by a Gargoyle.

Nothing remotely physical or sexual actually occurs between the Gargoyle and Diana in the film, but this scene scintillates with danger, uncertainty, curiosity, and the undercurrent of forbidden sexuality.

In one provocative moment, the Gargoyle approaches Diana, probing aggressively into her physical space, and informs her that he is "curious" about her.


If this admission from the Gargoyle is coupled with the scene of his first approach -- wherein he caresses an unconscious Diana and seems to cover her prone body with his own --  the idea of forbidden "attraction" between Gargoyle and human seems inescapable.

And make no mistake, in some weird, twisted way, the Gargoyle is a beautiful, regal and even attractive creature. He has dignity, poise, stature...and icy intelligence.   And that description, of course, fits the very nature of evil as we sometimes understand it: it sometimes carries a wicked, seductive allure.

Here, the mystery of the Evil "Other," is quite powerful, and the scenes between Diana and the Gargoyle compensate for some of the less-than-overwhelming heroics that dominate the last few minutes of the film.  

Also noteworthy about Gargoyles is the film's sense of imagination regarding Earth's "secret history."  The film suggests that man and Gargoyle have been locked in a war over the generations, and that the Devil's children are real, and perhaps possess an equal and rightful claim to the Earth.  Even more than that, there are points in the film, including the climax, wherein Dr. Boley reveals compassion for the Gargoyles.  Early on, when a Gargoyle is struck dead in the street by a passing truck, Dr. Boley notes that it seemed afraid, just like a human being would.

I find this degree of sympathy for "the monster" an endlessly fascinating touch, because the voice-over narration at film's commencement establishes, without a doubt, that the Gargoyles are born of Evil, and therefore evil themselves.  Yet when we meet the Gargoyles, we immediately recognize such human characteristics as pride, lust, and even the survival instinct.   

Can we treat the enemies of mankind with compassion?   Is this actually sympathy for the devil?

Thus Gargoyles forges the subtle argument that just because one is born of evil does not mean that such evil must be one's destiny.  The Gargoyles can choose to be different, perhaps. I wonder, do they possess the same "free will" as man?

Regardless, in allowing the Gargoyle and his winged mate to escape, Dr. Boley saves his daughter's life. But has he also assured, through his behavior that -- at some juncture -- a truce is possible between these two races?

Read a little deeper however, and I suspect, on some level at least, that Gargoyles is actually a horror treatise concerning race and race relations in America.

For instance, there's the specter of forbidden love between a white woman and "monster" here (as well as the concurrent mythologizing of the ethnic "Other" as a kind of sexual Goliath).  The diary speaks of the seduced woman's frenzy, but does not make clear if that frenzy is terror, sexual, or some unique (and pleasurable?) combination thereof.

In Gargoyles, you also see the idea of a separate ethnic group existing within our national borders, seeking to redress past wrongs.  And as the lead Gargoyle states, this is the end of "our age" and the beginning of his.

In Gargoyles, there is also a well-recorded history of animosity between the two peoples, but also an acknowledgment that in terms of our desires and characteristics, humans and Gargoyles are very much the same creature.  We both fear death.  We both possess "desires." We both love our young.  

In America, alas, we have also witnessed a long and ignoble tradition of people referring to other ethnic groups as Satan's representatives on Earth, and this real life parallel casts the film in a new light.  If Gargoyles -- children of evil -- and humans can achieve a rapprochement, what's to stop us from healing racial divisions amongst our own kind?

When Boley lets the Gargoyles go free in the climax rather than burning them in their egg chamber, he is striking a blow, perhaps, for racial justice.  He's turning the page on an age old animosity, and re-setting the state of human/gargoyle relations for a more positive future.   Again, the closest parallel I can think of here is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which positioned the apes, essentially, as a derided, mistreated ethnic minority.

An in-depth discussion of Gargoyles reminds me that in the 1970s, our pop culture often examined things from a somewhat more nuanced and even-handed place than it does today.  Here, rather than render an entire race extinct, Boley reveals the human qualities of mercy and hope.  In today's genre films, he unlikely would be so forgiving.  Rather, he would probably wipe out the Gargoyles without a a second thought.  They are monsters.  Man kills monsters.  Period.

Anyway, there's much more to Gargoyles than meets the eye.  It's an ambitious and heady effort for a "movie of the week" made in 1972. That's one reason it still possesses an avid cult following, I suspect.  I saw it for the first time as a child in the late 1970s -- around the same time I saw Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, I suppose -- and it terrified, intrigued, and fascinated me.

Gargoyles still has that effect on me, thirty years later.

Theme Song of the Week: It's About Time (1966)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Babies

Well, this is an easy cult-tv meme to dissect.  

In cult television, the baby represents all our hopes for the future. Babies symbolize our cherished tomorrows and the opportunity to make the world a better, more peaceful place.  If something happens to a baby then, well, the future is itself in terrible jeopardy.  Perhaps there won't be any more tomorrows at all...

Babies can bring people together, even if they are from warring factions, as we see from Star Trek's "Friday's Child." The episode ends with a Capellan baby -- the son of a slain leader -- coming to power with his mother/regent (played by Julie Newmar).  The child's name?  James Leonard Akaar.

Sometimes, especially in horror programs, the arrival of a baby portends a terrible darkness.  The first baby born on Moonbase Alpha, Jackie Crawford, becomes possessed by an alien being in Space: 1999's "Alpha Child."   

Similarly, in  FX's American Horror Story, the baby of a human/ghost rape promises a dark turn in human history yet to be written.  

In stories like Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Disaster," the arrival of a baby (Molly O'Brien) during a crisis reminds us that life goes on, and doesn't stop for hiccups or cosmic string collisions.   In stories such as The Fantastic Journey's "The Innocent Prey," a baby is also seen as a symbol of total innocence, devoid of sin and vice.

Cult-television does seem  obsessed with showing us unusual, non-human babies, as we see from the birth of Visitors ("The Littlest Dragon") on V: The Series," a Newcomer baby on Alien Nation (1988) and even the son of  vampires in Angel (1999 - 2005).  

In some cases, the arrival of a baby feels like a Hail Mary ratings ploy aimed towards renewing a flagging program (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman: "The Family Hour"), and sometimes it is used to explain a real life pregnancy (The X-Files).  

In other cases, adding a baby is a way, simply, of showing the passage of time and a character's new found embrace of life (Dexter).

Although it doesn't feature a baby on screen, perhaps the best description of a baby's influence upon us is found in the Millennium second season episode, "Monster," wherein Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) emotionally describes the birth of his daughter, Jordan.

He says: 

"When my daughter was born, it was the most important day of my life.  I had a child late in life and when she came out, she looked like...her head was shaped like a football...And everybody in that room got zapped by God.  They were all jaded nurses and doctors, and we were all stoned from the joy of this experience.  You remember?  And I realize I'd forgotten that I was born. I thought I'd manufactured myself.  And the gift she gave me from that day on is that I could look at every man and see the child in them."

So babies on cult-television?  They symbolize innocence, renewal...and hope in tiny packages.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Babies

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Star Trek: "Friday's Child."

NOT IDENTIFIED: UFO: "Confetti Check A-OK."

Identified by Anonymous: Space:1999 "Alpha Child."
NOT IDENTIFIED: The Fantastic Journey: "The Innocent Prey."

Identified by Woodchuckgod: V: The Series: "The Littlest Dragon."

Identified by Woodchuckgod: Alen Nation.

Identified by Chris G: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Disaster."

Identified by Jay-Jay: Lois & Clark: "The Family Hour"

NOT IDENTIFIED: Baby William, The X-Files: "Existence."
Identified by Chris G: Angel: "Lullaby."


Identified by Chris G: Smallville: "Ageless."

NOT IDENTIFIED: The Vampire Diaries (2010).

Identified by Chadillac: American Horror Story.

Television and Cinema Verities # 10

“How do you create commercial product that attracts an audience but at the same time hold on to that which put you in the room in the first place?  When you forget how, you fail. When you remember, you win. That axiom defines those who are successful in this town and those who aren’t.”

- Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli, from my new book Purple Rain: Music on Film. (2012), page 118.