Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Space Circus" (October 12, 1966)


In “Space Circus,” the Robinsons encounter Dr. Marvello (James Westerfield) “a bringer of joy” and showman/ringmaster of a traveling space circus.  

Among Marvello’s attractions are “mistress of the occult” Madame Fenestra (Melinda Fee), strong-man Nubu (Michael Greene), “juggler of cosmic forces” Vicho (Harry Varteresian) and a monster from Supernova 12.

Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) wishes for Marvello to take him back to Earth, and auditions for a role in the circus, singing Tiptoe through The Tulips.  The Robot attempts to accompany him, but his singing is awful.

Marvello isn’t impressed by Smith's audition, but realizes that when aided by a psychic “conductress” like Fenestra, Will (Bill Mumy) can materialize objects out of thin air.

Smith, hoping to be Will’s manager, attempts to convince the boy that he should sign up with the circus.  

Will believes this is a noble sacrifice, since food is running short at the Robinson encampment, and the food purifier can’t work without a new supply of cobalt magnesium.

Will agrees to join Marvello’s show, but his parents rush to stop him from leaving the planet.



Although it would absolutely be rated a sub-par episode in Lost in Space’s (1965-1968) first season, “Space Circus” is actually not the worst episode so far of the immensely disappointing second season.  Make no mistake, the story is a straight-up re-telling of “The Keeper,” but at least it gets the “heart” aspect of the story right.

In the two-part “The Keeper,” as you may recall, an alien zoo-keeper came to Priplanus and wanted to collect every animal there, including humans.  His goal was to take the Robinson children, in fact.  

Ultimately, after being rescued from danger by Maureen, The Keeper opted to leave the planet and the Robinsons in peace.



In “Space Circus,” a ringmaster, Marvello, comes to the Robinsons’ planet too, and realizes that one of the Robinson children, Will, would make a great attraction. 

But in the end, he sees that Will’s heart would not be in showmanship, and allows him to stay with his family, before blasting off to space with the rest of his circus.



In both stories, Smith attempts to book a ride to Earth, but ends up causing strife. In “The Keeper,” he tricks Penny (Angela Cartwright) and Will (Bill Mumy) into going aboard the alien spaceship. In “Space Circus,” he tricks Will into a self-sacrifice, joining the circus. 

“Space Circus” also pipes in the ending from “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension.” 

As you may recall, that story ends with aliens realizing they cannot abduct Will Robinson because his love of his family makes him too emotional, and therefore too dangerous to operate their spaceship’s navigational computer.  

In “Space Circus,” Marvello realizes that Will’s heart is with his family, and therefore he would not make a good attraction.

So at this point, Lost in Space is basically just reshuffling the same, old, hand-ful of story ingredients.  

One of the “key” narrative templates of the series, indeed, involves the alien individual -- who boasts a notable Earth occupation -- encountering the Robinsons and trying to “own” one of the humans.  

This kind of visit happens not just in “The Keeper” and “Space Circus” but in “The Space Trader” and other episodes too.  

The big drawback of this type of episode, in my opinion, is that the visitor -- save for the original, Michael Rennie’s Keeper -- is not generally depicted in particularly alien or otherworldly terms.  

Here, Marvello wears the familiar top hat and outfit we associate with terrestrial ringmasters, and his circus stage is decorated with images that look straight from 1930s carnivals: human magicians in tuxedos, and so on.

A “space circus” is not a terrible idea (see: Doctor Who: "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy"), but it could be handled in a way that suggests it is part of an alien tradition too, not just an Earth tradition. 

Why are space-going human beings of other worlds constantly acting like Earth people of the 20th century, even though they possess the ability to travel the galaxy?  Even though they have advanced technology?

That aspect of the series is never explained and never makes sense.


There’s nothing new or fresh about “Space Circus” and yet it holds together marginally better than any of the first four episodes of the second season.  Why shouldn't it? It is pure recycling.

Also, there’s a  good scene late in the drama wherein Will -- having made the decision to join the circus -- says farewell to his family.  The Robinsons are all working outside the Jupiter 2, and Will talks to each one of them in turn.  He doesn’t actually say goodbye, but we understand that doing so is his (secret) purpose.  It’s a lovely scene, well-performed and well-written, and it remembers the best angel of Lost in Space’s nature.

The show is about -- or supposed to be about -- family, and what members of a family will do for one another on the frontier, when life is hard, and survival is not guaranteed.  

Too often this season, Lost in Space has been about Smith, Will and the Robot getting into some sort of silly trouble (like Smith’s bout with explosive beer in “Forbidden World.”)  “Space Circus” is completely familiar and derivative of earlier, better episodes, but it also re-grounds the series in the basics. It's not new, in other words, but it's on point.

That doesn’t mean it is perfect.  

For instance, Marvello undergoes a last-minute change of heart so fast that you may get whiplash. One minute he's scheming and evil, the next his heart is touched by the love of a child for his family.

And Madame Fenestra’s part seems weirdly abbreviated and half-explored.  She seems to have a story to tell about being in the circus, but the episode never gets to it  Instead she kind of skulks around for much of the story and we never learn for what purpose, or what secret she is hiding.

We also learn in this episode that Will is a special boy indeed. With the right psychic medium helping him, he can manifest objects out of thin air!

I’ll be curious to see if the series ever develops this character quality, or it is just a gimmick to endanger him for the duration “Space Circus.”

Next week, I remember one of the best episodes of the second season: “The Prisoners of Space.”

The Shyamalan Series: Unbreakable (2000)


In my review of The Sixth Sense (1999) last Friday, I considered the notion that the films of M. Night Shyamalan tend to concern one overriding theme: a person (or persons) cut off from destiny. 

In films such as Signs (2002) the director also pursues that theme; that people lose hope when they aren’t working actively towards their purpose or fate.

In Unbreakable, much as was the case in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan crafts two main characters who are ensconced on that difficult journey. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) function as mirrors of one another, yet they are joined by their individual searches for purpose. 

Who are they? How do they define themselves?

The latter question involves the idea that we can pinpoint and comprehend our own self-image only in relation to others and society as a whole. David cannot learn who he is, until helped to do so by Price.  In fact, he feels "sadness" everyday when he wakes up because he isn't who he is supposed to be.

Maybe you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” Elijah observes, before setting David on a path towards crime-fighting.

Similarly, Price cannot achieve his somewhat grimmer destiny (as a villain or arch-nemesis) until Dunn realizes and fulfills his role as a superhero or protector. Thus there’s a powerful symbiosis between characters, no doubt. They can’t truly “be” what they are meant to "be" without the presence of the other one; without the influence of one another.

At the same time that Unbreakable explores this theme of characters finding and achieving purpose in life, it follows up on Shyamalan’s other obsessive focus: the nature and importance of storytelling


In the case of The Sixth Sense, we were asked to consider story structure, and the manner in which stories must feature “twists and stuff” to keep them interesting for the audience.  

In Unbreakable, we are similarly asked, from the opening title card, to examine the significance -- both socially and culturally -- of comic-books. According to Unbreakable, comic books are not mere entertainment; they are modern hieroglyphs, in a sense, which inform us of crucial information about world.  

This idea is visualized by a scene in the Limited Edition shop wherein Elijah is positioned in front of literal hieroglyphs, ancient comic-books, as it were.


It's not just that superheroes need to be themselves, according to the film, it's that the rest of us need heroes to look up to, or we lose hope.  This is the role that superhero stories fulfill in our culture. Children like Joseph Dunn (Spenceter Treat Clark) need the optimism that only heroes offer; they need the stories that newspapers report on (as in the image above, accompanied by the headline "SAVED").  

What kind of story is that? One in which people are rescued, not lost.  One in which crime doesn't pay, and criminals don't win.

In everyday life, some of us are great heroes; other are great villains, Unbreakable tells us. The comics may exaggerate aspects of human nature, but they are essentially correct in their meditations about these qualities, and canny in understanding our need for them. Thus Unbreakabledeconstructs the cultural reflections the comics make of society, something many other films have tried and failed to do,” according to Douglas Pratt, at the Denver Business Journal (August 17, 2001 page 32A.)

That idea of comic-book storytelling ties in with the Elijah/Dunn relationship. The shattering ending of the film is telegraphed when Elijah’s mother notes early on, of a comic book, that “They say this one has a surprise ending."

In this case, that surprise is a reflection of something we absolutely accept as inevitable in comics (yet somehow don't see as inevitable in the film): Every great hero has a great nemesis. Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. Spider-Man as Green Goblin, and so on.

 I made you. You made me. We are opposite sides of the same coin. Or as Elijah puts it, "We are on the same curve; just opposite ends."


In my book, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, I ranked Unbreakable among the top ten titles of the genre (at number 6, actually), and I stand firmly by that assessment. 

Unbreakable is a magnificent -- and rare -- superhero film because it isn’t really overly concerned with crime, or evil plans to control the world.  Nor is concerned with gadgets or huge action scenes and special visual effects.

On the contrary, Unbreakable concerns the heart of a superhero whose destiny has been blocked. Shymalan’s film examines the idea that David Dunn has lost hope because he can’t do what he was meant to do; protect us all.  

Similarly, it suggests that somebody on the same journey can become an evil monster, not merely lost or isolated, if he can’t understand his place. And yet for Elijah we still have sympathy. Unlike so many villains in the genre (who are evil for the sake of villainy and nothing else), we see why he is in pain; why he is driven to discover his purpose.  He is so terribly wounded.

Without a purpose, Elijah has been made, simply, to suffer. So he must know his purpose. There is no option for him.

Too many superhero films (from Marvel and D.C. among others) focus entirely on vengeance as a motivator for so-called “heroism.” Batman, Daredevil, the Crow, and other super heroes are often motivated by their need to “get back” at someone for the pain in their lives.  These films and these individuals routinely mistake revenge for justice.  Unbreakable eschews this terrible idea -- that hate can create heroes -- and suggests instead that heroism, and in particular, super-heroism, is really about the drive to protect and care for others.  

David becomes great not by hurting others, or by returning hurt for hurt. He becomes great by acknowledging his ability and his deep-seated need to save the innocent.  Oppositely, Elijah, hurts others so that he can understand his pain, and as a comic-book aficionado he understands exactly what that makes him: a super-villain.

Unbreakable thus restores a real sense of morality to the often wayward superhero genre, which consistently portrays angst, anger and violence as the skill set of great heroes. 

Superheroes? I don’t like them when they’re angry. 

And neither apparently does Unbreakable and M. Night Shyamalan.  Good for them.  By examining why some of us are driven to protect others and some of us are driven to hurt others, Unbreakable, according to Christopher Kelly, “reminds us of the essential magic of the cinema: to take us to a bold and dizzying journey into the great pop unknown.”



“I studied the form of comics.”

A campus security guard living and working in Philadelphia, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), is estranged from his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn). 

After David miraculously survives intact a terrible train wreck that kills 131 other people, he stops to re-examine his life, and indeed, his relationship with his family.

Spurred on by a stranger who owns an art gallery and is a comic book aficionado, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), David begins to examine his past, and the decisions he has made about it.  Were those choices taking him closer to his destiny, or further from it?  Has he been hiding for years from the truth about his nature?



Elijah believes that David has been hiding. He also believes that comic books are a form of history, and that people like David may be protectors, guardians or even superheroes. 

Having suffered from a rare bone disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta his whole life, Elijah believes that his life too must have a purpose too.  He helps David find his place in the world, so that he may be sure, finally, of his place as well.


“These are mediocre times. People are beginning to lose hope.”

David Dunn is a lonely man. That is the visual message that is conveyed almost immediately in Unbreakable.  

He is isolated from others, including his wife, not only because he is so different from them (having never been sick), but because he is hiding from his real purpose; from his real identity.

In film’s first scene, Shyamalan finds an intriguing technique to reveal Dunn’s isolation. We view David sitting on a train in motion, from the vantage point of the seats in front of him. Or more accurately, from the “crack” or gap between two seats ahead of him.  As David attempts to hit on an attractive young woman, the camera moves left and right as each person talks; showing us David and then the target of his affections, and then David again.  


But here’s the thing: the two characters are not on screen together for any duration. David is always seen alone, even while he is attempting to connect to another person.  He can’t connect, the visuals imply, because he is denying his real self.  He can’t begin to reach out to others until he “sees” who he really is.

This composition probably sounds like a little thing -- the position of the camera in a simple dialogue scene -- but without a lot of showiness, Shyamalan has pinpointed the perfect composition to express David’s isolation.  Even when he is trying to reach out, he is alone.  And he will continue be, until he faces the truth about himself.

Elijah is more obviously differentiated from others. His terrible physical condition trapped him indoors when he is young.  His condition also gives him a limp in adulthood, and other physical differentiation from other people.  But in a very real way, David is just as isolated, even though he is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Even though David never gets sick or hurt, and Elijah always gets hurt, they are the same, in a sense. Joined by their distance from normality.

Shyamalan explores the superhero milieu in some intriguing visual fashion in the film. He gives David Dunn a name of notable alliteration, for example, like Clark Kent, Peter Parker, or Bruce Banner. Similarly the director associates his characters with individual color schemes.  David’s world is all olive-green.  His uniform is an olive-green poncho (a cape and cowl?) and by contrast, Elijah’s world is all purple and flamboyant in coloring, a reflection of the first occasion upon which he saw a comic-book.  His mother wrapped up the issue in a purple package, and it changed his life. 


In almost all superhero stories, heroes and villains are similarly color-coded. We associate red, yellow and blue with Superman, for example.  Although Shymalan tones down the brightness a bit in Unbreakable, he accomplishes the same goal.  He gives his superhero and super-villain a consistent color scheme, even if it isn’t noticeable immediately.  This idea adds immeasurably to the concept of the film as a superhero origin story.

Also, Shymalan provides one or two variations of what I call "the Gargoyle Pose."  Superhero films are rife with this pose. A superhero stands alone on a building, or silhouetted in front of a tall building or other notable landscape.  The shot tells us that he is watching the world for us; but also that he is physically separated from the rest of us.  


The film goes further into superhero tropes, charting water as David’s equivalent of Kryptonite, and tagging his particular power, which I would call Psychometry. Specifically, David can discern knowledge of people and events simply by touching them.  

Importantly, Elijah and David don’t touch until Elijah wants him too; when he has determined his “place” in relation to David. That final touch represents the “surprise ending” of the film but also, ironically, the start of the real story.   David and Elijah's first "touch" -- shaking hands, essentially -- is also their last.  Their friendship will never be the same after that touch.

In essence, Unbreakable is an origin story, revealing how two men have come to know each other as friends before a lifetime of (presumed) animosity).  The next story in sequence s about how the two men -- on opposite sides of the law -- will clash for supremacy and dominance.  I’d love to see Shyamalan, Willis and Jackson return for an Unbreakable 2 that charts that particular story, the traditional superhero story.  

Unbreakable is veritably brimming with visual and narrative ingenuity, and there are few cheats in the film that take away from the new perspective that the denouement provides. Instead, Unbreakable packs an emotional wallop because at the same type we feel such happiness for David that he is finally pursuing his rightful destiny, we feel utter sadness for Elijah.  

We have seen that Elijah is loved dearly by his mother and that she has done everything in her power to make him strong and powerful.  But we also see that Elijah has been twisted by his sickness; twisted by his obsession to understand who he is; by his demand for "answers." The film’s ending works so powerfully because we love Elijah at this point, and even though he is “evil” in a very real sense, we love him no less.  Very few superhero movie villains are handled with such depth and indeed, sympathy, in the modern canon.

So does Unbreakable actually feature a twist ending at all?  As I’ve written before, Shyamalan is universally judged on the basis of his twist endings.  Either they work or don’t.  He can't seem to win on that front. Few critics stop to consider, however, whether these finales were intended to be viewed as a “twist.”  We certainly know from the telegraphing about a comic-book with "a surprise ending" that Shyamalan intended to shock the audience in this case. 

Yet, much like The Sixth Sense, there are clues all along in Unbreakable -- those bread crumbs I like to write about -- that prepare us for the final revelation. In this case, David and Elijah, our two main leads, are both associated with comic books, and both differentiated in terms of their fashion/color. Those are significant bread crumbs to consider.  Furthermore, Elijah’s Mom discusses with David the difference between a soldier villain (a brute, essentially) and an arch-enemy type nemesis (like Elijah), again preparing us for the dropping of the other shoe.

For me, the ending of Unbreakable isn’t about a “twist” so much as it is -- as is the case in all Shyamalan’s films -- about seeing and synthesizing, admittedly with new information, all the data we have previously made (incorrect) assumptions about.  I will say this, the end of Unbreakable doesn’t feel cheap, manipulative or gimmick to me.  It feels, instead, like destiny attained, and I believe that, in a nut-shell, is what the film is all about.  David has reached his apotheosis, and in doing so, has given Elijah his.  A real “twist” would come out of left field, and I would argue that there could be no other ending to Unbreakable, even if we can’t always see this one coming.

At the time of its release, some critics (like Maclean’s Shanda Deziel) suggested that the film was unable to “escape its shadow(The Sixth Sense), but again, I disagree.  It's true: Unbreakable brings back Bruce Willis, and repeats Shyamalan’s signature obsessions. Specifically, the film functions with two characters acting as inverted reflections seeking their destinies. At the same time, it can be considered a deconstruction of the essential qualities of story-telling.  But this film chooses a different genre (superheroes rather than horror) to explore these fascinations.  

Assessing Unbreakable as a mere shadow of The Sixth Sense is, to me, like saying that Casino (1995) is a repeat of Good Fellas (1990).  

I mean, they’re both gangster movies, right? 

On the contrary, they are variations on a theme, and examples of a director creating a consistent canon; one in which the same ideas are investigated but from different angles, or in a different way.  

Unbreakable is a great film, and it suggests, perhaps, that in the the first decade of the twenty-first century M. Night Shyamalan was something akin to a franchise unto himself. His movies represent a series of meditations on similar themes, but with different specifics and outcomes. Each movie offers new characters and new genre ideas, but we keep going back to the concept of destiny interrupted, and a study of the ways that movies reflect storytelling tropes.

On Thursday: Signs (2002).

Movie Trailer: Unbreakable (2000)

Monday, August 31, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Just One Star Trek Episode for the Ages?


A reader, David, writes:

“Here’s an Ask JKM a Question for you. 

All the entertainment in the world is being systematically destroyed and you get to save only one episode of Star Trek for future generations. 

Which episode do you save?”


Yikes! Now that’s a tough question, David. 

I’m going to narrow it down a little.  Since you didn’t specify any sub-title, I’m going to assume I can only choose an episode of the original series, not the follow-ups. (If I could pick a Next Gen episode, it would be “The Inner Light.”)

But let me walk you through my thought-process in terms of my selection.  If only one episode of Star Trek is to survive for future viewings, I must consider which episode in the canon highlights best the core elements of the series; which best represents everything Star Trek stands (or stood…) for.

Some of my favorite episodes, like “Space Seed,” or “The Trouble with Tribbles”wouldn’t necessarily make the cut.  They are great shows, but I wouldn’t want either to be my representative Trek.

I’d have to drill-down here a little and answer a key question, I suppose: what does Star Trek mean to me?

Well, it’s about friendship. (Kirk, Spock and Bones).

It’s about the idea of man going out into the unknown and taking his humanity with him.

It’s about confronting alien life.

It’s about learning to see others (aliens, etc.) in a new and different light.

It’s about resourcefulness on the frontier, on the edge of civilization, when no one is around to back you up. You have great technology, but that technology is no guarantee of survival, or victory in battle.

I’ve been poring over the episode list and I believe have one episode that hits all those hot spots. 

It’s not my favorite show, though it’s a good one. It’s not even in my top twenty favorite Treks. (Among my favorites: “This Side of Paradise,” “Amok Time,” “Metamorphosis,” “Journey to Babel,” “Charlie X,” “The Doomsday Machine,” and “The Enterprise Incident.”)

But I would choose “The Corbomite Maneuver.” 


This episode from early in the first season finds the Enterprise encountering a giant cube in space (no, not the Borg). 

Captain Kirk reluctantly orders it destroyed when it emits dangerous radiation.  Before long, a much larger alien ship -- the Fesarius -- arrives and threatens the Enterprise.  Its captain is the fearsome and very alien Balok.

Now Kirk must figure out a way to escape from the technologically-superior ship, and the merciless Balok.


I would choose this episode, first, because there’s a clear surrogate for the audience in the narrative.  We meet young Lt. Bailey (Anthony Call), who is anxious and scared, having never encountered anything alien.  He’s nervous and burdened by responsibility.



Dr. McCoy thinks Bailey was promoted (by Kirk) too soon, but Kirk sees something of himself in the green officer. He sees a man who can learn and grow.  This character -- who voices audience fears and concerns -- helps us to understand the nature of the Star Trek universe, and the nature of the choices Kirk must make. 

The episode also features some good back-and-forth in the heroic triumvirate, with McCoy needling Kirk about his weight, and Spock and Kirk discussing poker and chess.



Furthermore, “The Cormobite Maneuver” involves humanity encountering alien life, and not knowing what to expect from it.  In that vacuum, tension rises.

Man brings with him to the encounter both his inexperience (Bailey) and his experience (Kirk), which makes for a nice balance, and a nice complete picture of man as a species.

And the episode’s finale involves a reveal about the true nature of Balok, and the way that “fear” is a universal constant. Kirk, Bailey and McCoy board Balok’s ship only to find that the “alien” is a puppet, and that the real Balok is a child-like alien.  He only presented that other face because he was as fearful as Bailey was about the unknown.


But, optimistically, this means that man and alien are alike.  They feel the same things; they fear the same things. This is a basis for friendship.

Kirk is up against the wall in this episode, matched against a superior ship and superior powers.  But he uses a bluff -- from the game of poker -- to find a path to survival.  He could easily fail, but he doesn’t.  

And when he “wins,” Kirk shows mercy to his enemy, and curiosity about his enemy too.  This act shows that mankind has truly grown-up.  That given the chance, he can choose not to kill, or hurt another life form.

It was tough to make this call, but “The Corbomite Maneuver” is representative of Star Trek’s best ethos, and I think the presence of the rookie, Bailey, makes the episode easier for newbies to identify with.  

I'd love to read choices by readers of the blog...

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Dome Headed Aliens


One of the greatest tropes of sci-fi television involves the physical appearance of aliens.  

I'm not talking necessarily about little green men (that's a different cliche). Instead, I'm discussing the belief of many series' writers and make-up artists that aliens will have huge dome-heads to house their (superior) intelligence.

The dome-headed alien has thus appeared several times in TV history.


On The Twilight Zone (1959 - 1961), for instance, alien Kanamits who feed on human beings are seen to have giant dome-heads.


On Lost in Space (1965 - 1968), one of the earliest episodes of the series, "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension," featured aliens who are only dome-heads.  They have no mouths, and no bodies...just floating, over-sized skulls.


Dome-headed aliens were a staple of the original Star Trek (1966 - 1969) as well.  In the first pilot, "The Cage," the telepathic Talosians are seen to have dome-shaped heads with coruscating veins over their lobes.  In the third season episode, "The Empath," the cool, intellectual Vians are similarly dome-headed.



The aliens of "War Games" on Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) -- who launch a war of illusions against the Alphans -- also feature Kanamit-sized skulls.


The Vorvon or Soul Sucker of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981), though not necessarily a superior intellect, also has a dome head in "Space Vampire."

On and on the list goes, with examples from Alien Nation (1988), Babylon 5 (1993 - 1999) and even Futurama (1993 - 2013).

The Outer Limits (1963-1965) episode "The Sixth Finger" featured an interesting variation on this topic.  There, the dome-headed being (played by David McCallum) was not an alien at all...but one of us; an evolved human from the distant future.


Tribute: Wes Craven (1939 - 2015)



I woke up this morning to learn the terrible news that horror movie director and legend Wes Craven has passed away.

Way back in 1996, I wrote my first horror-themed book -- The Art of Horror -- about the films of Wes Craven.  Broadly speaking, my thesis was that Wes Craven's imagination and ingenuity turned -- or pivoted -- American horror on at least three crucial occasions.. 

First, Craven helped (along with Hooper, Peckinpah and Boorman) to move the genre away from Hammer-style supernatural horror (vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein Monster) towards real life horror -- the Savage Cinema -- in works such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977)


Then a decade later, Wes Craven invented the incomparable Freddy Krueger for A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the genre pivoted away from its infinite repetition of the naturalistic slasher film towards monsters and narratives of a rubber reality nature.


Finally, Craven directed Scream (1996) -- a worldwide smash written by Kevin Williamson -- that revived 1980s-type horror slashers, but this time with a self-reflexive bent.  That brand of sardonic, literate, post-modern horror film dominated the latter part of the 1990s.  Craven had been on this track of Pirandello-esque self-reflexivity earlier, with his brilliant New Nightmare (1994), but Scream caught fire with the pop culture and became a franchise that extends to this very day.


Yet I love and admire Craven's work not merely because he was always a pinch-hitter for a genre that found itself in trouble, or stagnating. No, I love him because his cinematic works often feature a humanistic or moral bent, despite what people may consider instances of extreme violence.  

The Last House on the Left -- perpetually perceived as immoral -- is actually one of the most moral, anti-violence horror efforts ever made. It reminds audiences that revenge accomplishes nothing, and that, contrarily, it debauches even those who feel justified using it. As a composition in the film notes, trenchantly: "The road leads to nowhere. And the castle stays the same."

Meanwhile, The People Under the Stairs (1991) was one of the first horror films to explicitly take on the unquestioned ethos of "greed is good" in the eighties (after They Live [1988]). It noted that trickle down economics doesn't actually work, and worse, bleeds a community dry.

Even A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its lead character, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) -- the Hamlet of horror films -- concerns something important about American culture of the time; the way in which the older generation burdens the young with its mistakes and neuroses (not to mention national debt).  For taking this tack, and championing Generation X when others were decrying its "immoral" love of "dead teenager movies" and death metal, Craven was referred to as a "generational turncoat."  For believing in Generation X -- my generation -- at a time when few other directors did, Craven earned my trust and respect. 


Naturally, not all of Craven's films turned out great. 

Deadly Friend (1986) was an uneasy combination of horror and teen sci-fi, in keeping with its historical context, and A Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an Eddie Murphy vehicle, couldn't seem to find and maintain a good balance between horror and comedy.  

But for every misfire like those, one could gaze at Craven's catalog and find a Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), or an underrated jewel like Deadly Blessing (1981), which concerned religious fanaticism.

Mr. Craven's work extended far beyond film. He directed a number of TV-movies for the genre, including A Stranger in Our House (1978), starring Linda Blair, Invitation to Hell (1984), Chiller (1985) and Night Visions (1990).  He also directed segments of the 1985 remake of The Twilight Zone (1985), and created the short-lived TV series Nightmare Cafe (1992).


The father of Freddy Krueger and Horace Pinker (Shocker), as well as the "presenter" of the djinn in Wishmaster (1997), Wes Craven's contributions to the horror genre from the 1970s through the 1990s are truly unforgettable.  He leaves behind for us, his fans and students, a lasting presence and influence on horror.

Wes Craven will be missed, and yet his influence on scary movies will be studied for years and decades yet to come.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Dome Headed Aliens

Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone: "To Serve Man." (Kanamit)

Identified by David Colohan: The Outer Limits: "The Sixth Finger."

Identified by David Colohan: Lost in Space: "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "The Menagerie" (Talosians)

Identified by SGB: Star Trek: "The Empath" (Vians)

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "The Time Warrior" (Sontarans).

Identified by David Colohan: Space:1999: "War Games"

Identified by David Colohan: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Space Vampire" (Vorvon)

Not Identified: Bigfoot and Wildboy: "Prisoner from Space"

Identified by Hugh: Alien Nation.

Identified by Hugh: Babylon 5 (Minbari)

Identified by Hugh: Futurama