Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Visitors are Coming: V: The Series: "The Return" (March 22, 1985)

In “The Return,” the final episode of V: The Series (1984 -1985), the Leader declares a truce on Earth, demanding that all Visitor warriors and sky-fighters withdraw.  

The Leader also communicates telepathically with Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke), and wishes to rendezvous with her on the L.A. Mothership, over Kyle’s objections.

With peace at hand, Mike (Marc Singer), Julie (Faye Grant), Willie (Robert Englund), Kyle (Jeff Yagher) and Elizabeth board the Mothership, where they are greeted on friendly terms by Lydia (June Chadwick) and Philip (Frank Ashmore). 

In fact, Philip challenges Mike to a friendly duel with (de-activated) nuclear swords.  Diana sabotages the contest, however, and Mike is nearly killed.

Diana (Jane Badler), who fears that she will lose command if peace is at hand, also conspires to destroy the Leader’s shuttle and makes the assassination attempt look like a plot by the Resistance.  The plan fails, and Diana is exposed.  Desperate, she attempts to vaporize the Earth using the mothership’s fusion reactors.

Then Elizabeth, with psychic help from the Leader, manages to save the day, harnessing the ship's technology with the power of her mind. Diana is captured and held for trial with her cohort, Lt. James (Judson Scott) while Elizabeth prepares to go off with the Leader.  

Kyle stows away on her shuttle, unwilling to give up Elizabeth.

Diana, meanwhile, reports that a bomb has been planted on the Leader’s shuttle…

Even at its very worst, V: The Series always had brass balls.  

The program killed off regular cast members willy-nilly, featured kinky sexual innuendo at virtually every turn, and then gave us this episode -- “The Return" -- a gonzo cliff-hanger conclusion, as its final installment. Almost thirty years later, the cliffhanger still hasn't been resolved, alas.

I still recall seeing “The Return” in prime-time in 1985 and finding the tension unbearable, especially during the climactic pull-back up, up, up and away from the mothership deck, and from the Resistance fighters.  

Nothing was resolved, and disaster loomed.  Elizabeth was gone. Kyle had disappeared.  And Diana was still scheming to break the peace....violently.  When the end credits rolled, I think my heart was in my throat.

I must say, I’m especially sad a second season never materialized because June Chadwick informed me in an interview some time back that the first several episodes of Season Two would have seen Lydia pursuing Diana on an alien world for her crimes against the Visitors.  I would have loved to see those episodes. 

So “The Return” has momentum, and guts, too. It goes for broke, and there's an energy in the air that was missing from some of the last few episodes.  Everyone gets it together for one last hurrah. 

Looking back, I half suspect that the plan was to kill Elizabeth and Kyle (along with the Leader) and start fresh with some new characters the following season, if the series got renewed. I know that Julie’s death was in the offing.  If so, that would only have left Jane Badler, June Chadwick and Marc Singer returning.

Despite the pacey, go-for-broke nature of “The Return,” the episode does raise a few intriguing questions, especially in regards to the depiction of the Leader.  Although we never see the Leader during this installment, we hear his booming voice frequently, and see that his shuttle is awash in unearthly light.  It’s as though he’s more God than man, or rather lizard.  He can communicate telepathically (which other Visitors can’t), can control his technology remotely (which, again other Visitors can’t,) and seems very concerned with peace (which his people don't).

So he's an anomaly.

Of course, none of this information about the Leader in "The Return" jibes with the information Martin (Frank Ashmore) told Mike in the first mini-series back in 1983.  There, Martin described the Leader as a kind of charismatic madman who seized power in a time of turmoil and upheaval. He was a war-mongering fascist dictator (think Hitler), and not some benevolent “Father” of the Visitor race. 

And indeed, it makes no sense for The Leader to wage war against the Earth in the first place if he is such a peace-loving person (or force, as the case might be).  

Also, we know from series history that the Leader was Diana’s lover for a time. It’s hard to picture the serene-voiced, light-encrusted “Leader” imagery of “The Return” in those circumstances.  Diana would eat him for breakfast.

The episode’s other weak point, perhaps, is another lame subplot involving Willie. Here he meets an old flame Irma who wants to pick up where they left off. This subplot hardly seems worthy of a season finale or series finale, and the time would have been better spent with either Diana --who is told by Philip that her “voice will no longer be heard” -- or with Kyle and Elizabeth, whose relationship hits a crossroads as Elizabeth “evolves.”

I grew up with V: The Series, and I loved it as a fifteen year old kid. Today, I appreciate it primarily for the performances, especially those of Jane Badler, June Chadwick, and Faye Grant.  I believe it is undeniable that all three of these actors would have been even better served with the original “It Can’t Happen Here” idea of the series.  The show could have been a drama about the Visitors inserting themselves into our lives here on Earth, finding collaborators and allies, as well as making enemies.  I don't believe the hard "action" approach of the series suits V very well.  The premise is too smart to get reduced cleanly to car chases and fisticuffs.

Actually, even the Open City format that opened the series and lasted for a dozen episodes or so would have worked just fine, if some of the writing was just a little stronger.  But the re-vamp at V’s midpoint just kills the series, at least in terms of its heroes.  The Resistance loses all semblance of reality, and so the action heavily tilts towards the Mothership, where Badler and Chadwick reign, stealing scene after scene. I find these scenes immensely enjoyable and a saving grace, but again, there's a sense of imbalance overall.  

A summer break would have well-served the series. Everyone could have rested, stories could have been honed, and better ideas (and perhaps) characters explored.  Brandon Tartikoff once reported that canceling V was a tremendous mistake, and I agree with him in the sense that the series had a charismatic cast, a great premise, and, a vast array of expensive sets and costumes.  If the writers had learned to play better to those strengths, a second season might have been a vast improvement over the first. 

It is too bad we never got to find out.  

Cult-Movie Review: Dark Water (2005)

It’s not the supernatural world we should fear, it’s this one.

That’s the underlying conceit of the 2005 horror remake Dark Water, a work based on both a novel and a 2002 Japanese film from Hideo Nakato.

In keeping with this disturbing leitmotif, Dark Water’s visual palette is veritably overwhelmed by sickly green coloring, and protagonist Jennifer Connelly is beset from real-life strife on all sides. 

She plays a woman, Dahlia, under-going a nasty divorce and taking care of her young child at the same time.  Meanwhile, Dahlia’s new landlord, played by John C. Reilly, is a serial procrastinator and liar, and her lawyer is not exactly on the up-and-up, either.

In fact, the whole “game of life” is rigged, from the word of the law, which prevents people from helping to Dahlia, to matters of family connection.  On the latter front, Dahlia was abandoned by her mother when she was but a small child.

Clearly, Dark Water is not a light film, but insofar as Dahlia definitely breaks the cycle of parental neglect for her cute-as-a-button daughter, Cecilia (Ariel Gade) during the denouement, the movie does offer, at the end, some glimmer of hope, if not sunshine.

Unlike other Japanese horror remakes, Dark Water doesn’t concern, at least directly, the spread of a personal horror through the auspices of modern technology.

Instead, it suggest that the wrongs of this world can live on in the next, begging us for redress.  Still, Dark Water does feature a number of narrative commonalities with The Ring (2002) that are worthy of mention.

Again, we meet a single mother and her child as focal points of audience identification. And again, a female child with long hair serves as the specter of the supernatural. In both cases, this avenger wishes -- needs -- to be heard.  Death by drowning is also a significant plot-point in both Dark Water and The Ring. Perhaps these similarities exist because both films originated as stories by Koji Suzuki.

But Dark Water’s lugubrious, haunting value as a work of art emerges not from its all-too-familiar view of the supernatural, but rather from the film’s absolutely caustic, cynical view of our world as a sick place of exploitation and lies. 

The film’s production design performs much of the heavy lifting in terms of transmitting that thematic point.  

The pervasive visuals of 21st century infrastructure decay and the close-up look at the spoiling of a building that was once a “utopia” forge a suffocating, oppressive vibe that haunts Dahlia as much as does the film’s child ghost.

Possessing a kind of unearthly, ethereal brand of beauty, Connelly thrives in this squalor-soaked environment, easily capturing audience affection and forging a deep emotional connection with us through her character’s unceasing, Joan of Arc-like travails and suffering. Dahlia represents a point of delicate beauty, grace and sympathy in a world of seedy wretchedness, and her journey ultimately makes the film worthwhile.

“Her Mom forgot about her and now she’s lost.”

In the midst of an acrimonious divorce, soon-to-be single mother Dahlia (Connelly) moves with her young daughter, Cecilia (Gade) from Jersey City to Roosevelt Island.  Her husband, who is having an affair, threatens to sue if she doesn’t return to New Jersey, but Dahlia stands her ground.

Dahlia and Cecilia move into a rundown old apartment building managed by an unresponsive landlord, Mr. Murray (Reilly), and in unit 9F begins to experience unpleasant living conditions.

Dahlia hears noises from the (vacant) apartment above at all hours of the night, and is faced with a disgusting stain on her bedroom ceiling that seems to expand continuously. The building’s handyman, Mr. Veek (Pete Postelthwaite) is also slow to repair the stain and surrounding leak, and the problem grows from worse to unmanageable.

After visiting the roof and a water tower there, Cecilia makes the acquaintance of an imaginary friend named Natasha, who also lives in the building.

But as Dahlia soon learns, Natasha is not so imaginary at all. Rather, she is in the insistent spirit of a child who was abandoned by her parents, and left to a cruel fate in the very building that Cecie and Dahlia now inhabit.

“Just be honest with yourself, you can’t raise her alone.”

Not inappropriately given its title, Dark Water visualizes a universe of perpetual rainfall, as though the Heavens themselves are weeping for Natasha, Dahlia and all the other children of the world who have been neglected by parents and by society.  

At one point, Dahlia's estranged husband asks her to be honest with herself, and says that she can't raise Cecilia alone. 

And that's sort of the point: no one should have to.  We have a society and a support system for parents, don't we?

Yet in terms of society and the aforementioned it-takes-a-village support system, the film introduces us to lying landlords, deceitful lawyers and useless social workers or counselors.  The world itself is a sick, corrupt realm in the film and one stain in particular -- the stain of parental neglect -- keeps growing wider and deeper, forever untended in a society in which the act of helping another person is an alien thing.

We see the absence of love, help and connection in this world through Dahlia’s frequent interfaces with Murray and the building staff. To state that these interactions are frustrating is an understatement.

Murray often makes promises to Dahlia to solve her problems, but rarely delivers unless forced by authorities, like her lawyer, to deliver on them. 

Similarly, an employee working the front desk won’t leave his position to help Dahlia with looters/hooligans in the apartment above hers, 10F, because it is against the rules to vacate his position, and he could lose his job. He is looking out for himself, not for the tenants of the building, and certainly not for Dahlia.

Likewise, Veek, the building super, won’t fix a catastrophic plumbing issue because he isn’t, technically, a plumber, and the union will be on the landlord’s back if he does the work. Therefore, the work doesn't get done, and Dahlia sees no resolution of the problem.

Finally, even a marriage counselor can’t recommend Dahlia a good divorce lawyer for fear of litigation if she “chooses sides” in the divorce dispute.

Again and again, the issue in Dark Water is the same: everyone is afraid to help out, and will only do so if instructed by some higher authority (union, law enforcement, or judicial system) to do so.  Dahlia faces catastrophic problems in her life and no one will reach out with a helping hand. The social safety net is non-existent, or so flummoxed by byzantine rules as to be non-existent. The crumbling bureaucracy surrounding her -- represented by the spoiled apartment building -- has robbed the community of its human desire, its human spirit, to be helpful.

And of course, none of this represents an uncommon state of affairs for Dahlia. Her mother abandoned her as a child, leaving her to weather life’s storms alone. She knows the rules, and so Dahlia’s heroic journey in the film explicitly involves her ability and willingness to do what others have always refused to do for her.


Despite all those who have wronged her, from her husband to her lawyer (who lies about his family), to her landlord, Dahlia reaches out to a dead girl, Natasha, and attempts to heal her.  

At the same time, this act saves Cecilia’s life. 

The film’s final scene, set in an elevator, suggests that even absent from the mortal coil in physical form, Dahlia will be with Cecilia, will be “her mother…forever.” She breaks the societal cycle of neglect and, in sacrificing her very life, saves two children and their respective (and quite different...) futures. The order Dahlia brings to Cecilia’s disordered life is immediately evident, and nicely visualized. She (invisibly) braids Cecilia’s hair, an act of attention and devotion that promises the child her continued presence, going forward.

For all intents and purposes, Dark Water is really a story of “you and me against the world,” to quote Anne Murray (or was it Helen Reddy?). 

Although she has had no respite from life’s savagery and setbacks, Dahlia nonetheless shelters two girls from it, the best she can.  And the world she fights, in this case, is visualized as a wet, stained, sickly, dehumanized place. 

Built in 1976, Dahlia’s building was designed as a “utopia” but more closely resembles a public housing block in communist Russia. You look out the window and you see…more building, more people trapped inside, with you. The sickly green of the walls, corridors, basement and laundry room suggest a 1940s insane asylum, and architectural inhumanity on an industrial scale. Like the stain on Dahlia’s ceiling, the green “infection” of inhumanity colors everything in the film.

In diagramming an unhappy world, Dark Water offers a unique dynamic. Here, in “real life,” Dahlia must reckon with an adulterous husband and a bitter divorce, an apartment -- a home -- that is falling apart in every corner and a legal system that seems remote and stacked against her.  

By contrast, the supernatural world, through frightening at first, is all about connection. Dahlia must reach out for a child’s hand, even if it isn’t her own child’s hand. She must pay attention to a child where the world had forsaken its responsibility to do so.

Dahlia chooses to die, in essence, but she also chooses to bridge the gap, to heal the wound, separating worlds. She closes the breach. She takes the step that society won’t…and makes the situation better. In some sense, Dahlia could be seen as a saintly or pro-social representation of Motherhood.  But in another sense her sacrifice is also Christ-like. Dahlia takes responsibility for the world's neglected children, essentially, and doesn't hew only to the love of her own child, Cecie.  She sees another child (representing the whole of society) as her responsibility as well.

The Ring is a terrifying commentary on the ways that modern technology and media spread personal suffering to the masses.  

The Grudge is a winding, snake-eating-its-tail story about the ways emotional rage can devour even innocent bystanders. 

And Pulse is a critique of the way that we believe (amusingly...) that human connection is forged, not face-to-face, but through the Internet and a computer keyboard.  

In pointed contrast, Dark Water is a sedentary, buttoned-down bleak study of the world we have made for ourselves. 

The supernatural is not the real terror here, but it might be a respite from the rain.

Movie Trailer: Dark Water (2005)

Monday, September 01, 2014

Memory Bank: The Strange Change Machine (Mattel; 1967)

When I was about six or seven, back in the mid-1970s, I would often visit my granny and grandpa’s house in Verona, New Jersey on Sunday afternoons. My uncle Larry lived there as well, and he was always very gracious about sharing his toys with me when I came over.

And there was one toy Larry owned that I always wanted to play with on those weekend visits: Mattel's A Strange Change Toy Featuring The Lost World.

This "electrical toy,” manufactured in 1967 is actually but a small hot plate or heating chamber of sorts.  

But the box art colorfully describes the mechanism as a "mysterious strange change machine" that "changes time capsules" and offers you -- a mad scientist -- "the opportunity to create 16 hidden wonders of the lost world" as they "appear and disappear into capsules over and over again."

What this comes down to, essentially, is this: with a pair of blue plastic tongs (included), you would insert small red, yellow and green "capsules" into the heating chamber (and on top of the hot plate).  As they heated up, the cubes would unfold in glorious slow-motion into the shapes of plastic monsters, dinosaurs, bugs, and other creatures.

The box also reads: "Discovered to date: Membrane Men, Fragments of Space Creatures... Crawlers... fliers... Skeletons of Human Types.... Mummies... Robots."  So you had a lot of neat monsters to choose from, though I was always partial to the dinosaurs.

So as you can likely imagine, A Strange Change Toy was a genre-style product of tremendous fun, even if it was very easy to burn yourself on the strange change machine. I always considered getting burned finger-tips a badge of honor, actually.  By the same token, this toy could never be sold to children today without parents complaining about it, I suspect.  It probably wasn't overly safe -- especially if left plugged in -- but it made for hours of fun.

This Mattel invention also came complete with a "compressor" on the red heating unit so you could crush the 16 hidden wonders back into their original cube forms and start all over again.


Mattel's "A Strange Change" Toy also came equipped with a green 3-D Base for your plastic lost world creatures to inhabit, and a landscape map of the lost world that you could hang as background to the base. As a little one, I was as enamored of the 3-D base as I was with the toy, because it gave my dinosaurs a prehistoric-looking home.

The instructions read: "The Green 3-D base is the lost world home for all the creatures. For more lost world strange change fun, play with your creatures on the colorful map of the lost world on the other side of this sheet!"

Today, there could be a Strange Change app for our iPhones, I suppose, but Joel and I still occasionally get the old Strange Change Machine down off the shelf in my home office and then burn our finger-tips together for a while.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Rockers

Rock and roll is here to stay. It will never die.  

And proof of that grand statement may just be that rock-and-rollers have appeared for decades on cult-television programming.  

Often, famous rock musicians play themselves on hit (or non-hit...) series, and even stick around to perform a hit or too.

Famous rock musicians have appeared on sci-fi and horror programming include Paul Williams, on The Hardy Boys (1977), in the episode "The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula," Boy George in the A-Team (1983-1987) story "Cowboy George", and the late Laura Branigan in an episode of Automan (1983) called "Murder MTV." 

And the great KISS guest-starred on an episode of Chris Carter's Millennium (1996 - 1999) titled "Thirteen Years Later."

Other cult-tv series have featured stories focusing on the rock and roll milieu.

In "Space Rockers," an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981), for instance, Buck (Gil Gerard) investigates music promoter Lars Mangros (Jerry Orbach) and the popular rock band, Andromeda because of a connection between the rock music and youthful rioting.

And "Rock and Roll Suicide," an episode of the short-lived Otherworld (1985) sees two teenagers from Earth -- Gina (Jonna Lee) and Trace (Tony O'Dell) -- bring rock and roll to an alternate dimension where it hasn't been invented yet.  

Very soon, the two teens become celebrities to the teenagers of the other world, and enemies of the state to concerned, establishment "moralists."  In short, "Rock and Roll Suicide" is a perfect encapsulation of rock's history on our world.

Another short-lived series, Dark Skies (1996), also features a tale of rock and roll.  In particular, "Dark Day's Night" involves the Alien Hive attempting to send a signal during the Beatles' famous performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Occasionally, rock stars have also been villains on superhero programming.  

On Sid and Marty Krofft's Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl (1977), a villain called "Glitter Rock" threatens the world, and on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993 - 1996), an aging rocker, Lenny Stoke (Michael Des Barres) develops a sound weapon in the episode "Wall of Sound."

The Cult-TV Faces of: Rockers
















Television and Cinema Verities: Dark Water Edition

"I feel it's less a kind of just visceral, more kind of unsettling, more emotionally provocative. That's my feeling about it. I think it's subtler, but still scary. It ha a kind of moral, get under your skin scary. More thought-provoking. That's really because of the script and Walter and his - I think he felt like with supernatural scenes he wanted to anchor the film in reality."

- Jennifer Connelly reflects on the differences and similarities between The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004) and Dark Water (2005). From an interview with Devin Faraci in Chud.com.(June 9, 2005).

Sunday, August 31, 2014

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Outré Intro: The Twilight Zone (Seasons Four and Five)

Rod Serling's classic anthology, The Twilight Zone (1959 - 1961) featured several introductory montages during its life-span on CBS.  But my favorite, by far, is the one utilized during the program's fourth and fifth season.  

This introduction, in particular, adds a number of specific visuals that fans -- over the decades -- have come to associate with the anthology, and thus with the realm Serling describes as "the fifth dimension," the Zone itself.  This is the intro that features the weird, long-haired doll, the clock, and the eyeball, for instance.

The montage opens with the trademark (and bizarrely insistent) theme of The Twilight Zone, and then reveals a straight line forming in outer space. The two-dimensional line seems to become three-dimensional before our very eyes, and we see a doorway spinning in the void.  

Serling's staccato voice-over narration notes here that "you unlock this door with the key of imagination," and that turn-of-phrase may just be my favorite description of science fiction and horror in general. We unlock the doorways to those genres with imagination, indeed. Once we walk through, into worlds unknown, there's simply no turning back.  We are changed by the destination we seek.

But in the following images, I especially like how the door stops spinning after Serling makes his pronouncement, and then we push through the open doorway, our imaginations "activated" by his words.

In the following images, we explore the dimension beyond the door.  Serling explains that it is a dimension of sound, and as if in explanation, we see a glass window shattering, and hear the breaking glass as the window crumbles.

In the following images, we see an eyeball floating in the void to accompany Serling's description of The Twilight Zone, similarly, as a dimension of "sight."  I love how the disembodied orb's eyelid opens, and the eyeball moves across the screen, left to right, staring back at us. The visual not only explains "sight," it is a bit creepy to boot.

Next, Serling's narration explains that The Twilight Zone is a dimension of "mind," and so we get the equation you see below, Einstein's theory of special relativity, scrawled in outer space.  This formulation has been termed the most famous equation in the history of the world, so it is appropriate that The Twilight Zone would use it to represent the human mind and the brain's capacity for thought.

Next, we see a strange doll-like figure moving across the frame, as Serling explains that we have crossed the threshold into a land of shadows and substance.  The doll is apparently an example of the latter, but in some sense it may also represent us, the human form traveling into the void.

As the doll passes off-screen, a clock appears, and accompanies Serling's description of the zone as being a place of "things" and "ideas."  The clock represents man's idea of time, in particular.  The ticking of the clock seems to make the moment even more suspenseful or tense.

Finally, particles form into our title, The Twilight Zone as Serling informs us we have arrived at our destination. 

Then, before this classic introduction ends, the title surges towards us, as we become one with this fifth-dimension.  It's like we are watching the Big Bang, the formation of a universe.

Below, you can watch this pitch-perfect, classic TV introduction in live-action.