Saturday, June 29, 2013

Google+ Hangout on Millennium in One Hour!


Don't miss it: I'll be on Google+ Hangout with the masterminds of the Back to Frank Black campaign, Brian Dixon, Adam Chamberlain, Troy Foreman and James McLean in just one hour!  From 10:00 am EST to 11:00 am EST, we'll be having a great conversation!

Join us as we discuss Millennium (1996 - 1999), the Back to Frank Black book, and more.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" (October 27, 1973)



STARDATE: 1254.4 

The U.S.S. Enterprise travels to the center of the galaxy on a scientific mission to investigate the "creation of matter" in that mysterious region of space.  Unfortunately, the ship becomes trapped in a "matter-energy whirlwind" and tries to make for the eye of the storm.

Instead, the Enterprise leaves time and space as "we understand it" and emerges in a parallel dimension where the laws of physics don't operate as Mr. Spock expects.  The ship's chronometers stop. The engines die. Life support fails...

...but a strange, devil-like being called Lucien appears on the bridge and saves the Starfleet crew from certain death.  Lucien then takes Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy to the surface of his planet, Magus-Tu, and reveals that his people long-ago visited Earth, and are responsible in some way, for the legends involving devils and demons.  He also reports that his people are calm, contemplative, and lacking rivals or competitors.  

While Spock realizes that magic in this alternate universe is like "science" in the prime universe, and that "belief" is as potent as "energy" is in our reality, Lucien's people capture the Enterprise crew and hold all aboard accountable for the grievous savagery of humanity, as demonstrated by their burning of Lucien's people at the Salem witch trials in 1691.  Kirk defends his species during this trial, noting that humans have evolved in the hundreds of years since that tragedy.  He offers as evidence data-recordings of the Enterprise's missions.

Lucien's people decide to free the Enterprise crew, but punish Lucien, and Kirk speaks up for his friend, who has been sentenced to "limbo for all eternity."  

But Kirk must question his friendship with Lucien, however, when he discovers that the alien's real name is...Lucifer.



I've always considered Larry Brody's "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" to be one of the best and most provocative episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series.  

This is so, I believe, because the intelligent teleplay asks the viewership (largely children...) to reckon with the idea that not all stereotypes or stories are true, and that just because something looks different from the norm, or even monstrous, that appearance doesn't equate to evil intent.

In this case, Lucien is simply an alien who visited Earth.  Yet he is a recipient of "victor's justice" meaning that because he was expelled from Earth by his enemies, they wrote the myths about him...and literally "demonized" him in the process. 

They transformed him not into a "real" being with flaws and foibles, but an icon of evil, the Biblical Devil.  


Some would quibble with this episode's idea of, essentially, "sympathy for the devil," and yet it is not the Biblical Devil which Kirk and crew face here, plainly.  Instead, Lucien is an intelligent alien who has been "cast" in the Devil role unfairly, simply because he lost his particular war or struggle.  

Accordingly, Kirk and his crew must look past mythology and bigotry to judge Lucien not on what others say about him, but on his own actions.  And Lucien's first action was to save the Enterprise and her crew.

So Kirk dismissively tells Lucien's people "We're not interested in legends," a comment which establishes, among other things, the idea that religion -- any religion -- is no more than folklore or mythology.  Men and women of Kirk's time have outgrown the need to believe in such mythology.

I've always felt, as well, that "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" is in the inspiration for the Star Trek: The Next Generation premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint."  

There, Captain Picard and his crew are captured by a being of God-like powers -- the Q -- and transported to an historical period (the 21st century on Earth) to be tried for the various and sundry crimes of humanity.  

That's indeed what happens here, with Kirk defending humanity in a recreation of Salem, circa 1690.  And again, like Picard does later, he's battling creatures that possess God-like or so-called "magic" abilities.  

The similarities are impossible to ignore, especially since Captain Kirk and Captain Picard offer the same argument for humanity's continued existence: We once were savage, but we have evolved. Judge us on who we are now.


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) also owes something to this story from the Animated Series, it seems.  Like that film, this episode involves a dangerous trip to the center of the galaxy; a trip that ultimately uncovers a God/Devil who ultimately turns out to be no more than another alien.

"The Magicks of Megas-Tu"  represents the kind of adult storytelling that the original series excelled at, and it demonstrates remarkable maturity and humanity.  This is not a shoot-em-up or traditional adventure, but a story about basic matters of human existence, such as the nature of religion, and our responsibility -- as adults -- not to judge others based on their appearance, or on the "testimony" of folklore.

Like the equally-brilliant "The Survivor," which asked us not to be limited in our perceptions by an alien's "form," "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" is a daring and forward-looking episode of this early-1970s cartoon series.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Don't Forget: Back to Frank Black/Millennium Google+ Hangout 10:00 am Saturday



Just a reminder: I'll be moderating a Millennium-centric Google+ Hangout tomorrow (Saturday, June 29th) at 10:00 am with the Back to Frank Black gurus, Adam Chamberlain, Brian Dixon, Troy Foreman, and James McLean.  

We'll be discussing the series itself, the exciting new book that explores all aspects of the Chris Carter series, Back to Frank Black, and the state of the campaign to make a Millennium movie.  The hang-out will last about an hour, and I'm sure the time will fly.  

Please submit questions to me today, or tomorrow morning leading up to the event at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com, and we can pick them up and answer them during the event.

Hope to see you there!

Cult-Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1980)



Each time I write about Mike Hodge’s 1980 movie Flash Gordon, I fight the temptation to describe it as merely “a guilty pleasure.” God I hate that term.

This Dino De Laurentiis movie is occasionally flawed, I readily concede, and yet it is also a feast for the eyes, the mind, and for the funny bone too. The truth is that Flash Gordon is one of those genre movies that I absolutely adore, but for which it is difficult to enunciate a defense on purely intellectual grounds.  

So bear with me.

The core of the problem, I submit, is Flash Gordon’s pervasive tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, or rather, our society’s perception of how humor ought to be used as a dramatic tool.

 It’s a strange thing to write and acknowledge, but because a work of art is funny, it is often disqualified by general audiences from discussions regarding quality or thematic consistency.  It's much easier  to dismiss the work of art in question as a "lark" or as being "silly."  This truth, however, flies in the face of the fact that to craft a genuinely funny film is exceedingly challenging, and requires, among other qualities, a certain pace and meticulous attention to detail. 

A funny movie that goes too far risks seeing its entire reality fall apart.  And if that happens, you don’t end up with a movie. You end up with a mess. 

Although many will certainly quibble with my assessment, I find that Flash Gordon hits exactly the right notes in terms of its application of tongue-in-cheek humor. A largely European supporting cast underplays the humorous aspects of the adventure splendidly, with the exception of Brian Blessed...who goes big (BIG!) to rather dramatic effect. 

Yet for me, the movie works effectively because when it does wax serious, the sense of danger to our heroes is palpable.  If the camp humor were utilized in destructive, mood-shattering fashion, Flash Gordon's fate would not matter to us one whit.  And yet there's that classic scene here with the "Woodbeast" of Arboria.   You may recall it. As a rite-of-passage on Arboria, young Treemen must insert their naked arms into a hollow tree stump where a poisonous, horribly slimy creature dwells.  If it the creature bites "death is certain, but only after tortured madness."

This sequence is brilliantly-shot and edited so that we see Flash and his opponent, Barin, repeatedly reaching down inside a dark stump -- towards the camera -- as the unseen monster threatens to strike.  For a movie in which so much is so big, operatic, and campy, this scene remains remarkably intimate, and down-to-business.  The fear of sudden, horrible death is tangible even though -- as audience members -- we fully expect Flash will survive the day.

More trenchantly, the film's understanding of situational humor seems absolutely legitimate. Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) does not believe she is being funny when she dutifully reminds Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) that only fourteen hours remain to rescue the imperiled Earth.  But were she able to step back a little, Dale might notice she is standing inside a floating silver city in the clouds, surrounded by winged Hawkmen, and wearing an overly-ornate headdress and skimpy gown.  Or that her boyfriend must fight an opponent (with a whip!) on a gyrating platform managed by an over-sized "remote control."

As audience members, we see and register what Dale simply cannot from her perspective: the notion that her dilemma is gravely serious and yet, at the same time, utterly ludicrous. She’s an American travel agent trying to save the Earth with the help of a football quarterback, for goodness sake! 

Though widely derided (especially in terms of the TV series Batman), a campy-styled sense of humor actually permits a tremendous amount of self-reflexivity. The utility of this approach is that a campy narrative may operate simultaneously on two tracks of "reality."  Flash Gordon indulges in this approach, revealing characters locked in a life-and-death struggle while we, as experienced movie goers and consumers of stories, sense how silly it all is. 

 Because it indulges so fully in camp humor, however, we should not make the mistake of believing that Flash Gordon means nothing, or that it is an inconsequential lark. Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader seemed to have some inkling of this fact. He notes that although “the film lapses too often into easy facetiousness, much of it feels surprisingly substantial.” 

That sense of the substantial arises, I would estimate, from the film’s stellar production design and wardrobe, which both allude to a real world context: the rise of fascism in Europe leading up to World War II. 

Also – and this is virtually impossible to deny – the film is veritably energized by the pounding Queen score, which revs up excitement and engagement on a wholly unexpected and delightful level. 

Between the score, the costumes, the sets, the action, and the humor, Flash Gordon is a gory, sexy, spectacularly good time at the movies.


“I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth…" 

On distant Mongo, the warlord Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), visits death and destruction upon the Earth in order to test the planet's level of intelligence. 

Meanwhile, on Terra Firma, scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) sees through the so-called “natural” attacks and realizes that his world is under attack. With a real estate agent, Dale Arden and professional quarterback, Flash Gordon in tow, Zarkov launches his makeshift rocket through the “Imperial Vortex” to confront his planet's unseen assailant. 

Once they arrive, the Earth trio discovers that Ming rules the disparate kingdoms of Mongo with terror, plus the high-tech mechanisms of a totalitarian police state. With the help of Ming’s daughter, the sensual Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Flash hopes to unify the planet and take the fight to Ming himself. 

Although King Vultan (Brian Blessed) of the Hawkmen and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) of the Tree People of Arboria resist Flash at first, they soon see the wisdom of his campaign for unity.


“What is this? Humanity!” 

Flash Gordon, the comic-strip by Alex Raymond (1909 – 1956), premiered in 1934 as a competitor for the popular Buck Rogers. The world at the time was marching inexorably towards World War II and many artists in various disciplines were responding to the demands of austerity that dominated Europe following World War I. Out of this context arrived a new vision for the evolution of man and his world: Futurism, or more specifically, Italian Futurism. Art Deco -- with its ornamental and ornate architecture and interior design -- grew out of this movement, at least in part. 

Although aesthetically Futurism was supposed to involve the “modernization of the State” with technology, youth, and speed, it eventually became connected, alas, to the rise of fascism. Many of the futurists in relatively short order became fascists, or their work was adopted by fascist states and leaders. 

In terms of Flash Gordon, the comic strip involved an American polo player and Yale graduate, Flash Gordon, who, through the mad toiling of scientist Hans Zarkov, came to interface with a world of, essentially, Italian Futurism. That world was Mongo, a "foreign" realm ruled by the ultimate despot, Ming the Merciless. The overarching story, in some way could be described as “An American Abroad” set in a sci-fi setting and yet commenting upon the frightening, dark political tide threatening to consume Europe, and the world itself. 

A true American patriot, Alex Raymond enlisted to fight in World War II, even dropping the Flash Gordon comic to do so. But retrospectively, the comic certainly appeared to be prepping the world for American involvement in the battle against Hitler and fascism. For at its core, Flash Gordon is the tale of an American who goes overseas and allies himself with foreigners (like Prince Barin or King Vultan) to stop the aggression of a tyrant. It’s about people who are “unlike”or diverse learning to work together for a common good. 

Given this background, the true star of Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980) may very well be production designer Danilo Donati, who crafts the film’s costumes and sets with great fidelity not only to Raymond’s comic-strip details, but to the tenets of Italian Futurism.



In this context, Ming’s court makes a kind of sense, and even seems to possess a kind of implied history. It’s not just a realm of ornate but weird costumes and strange creatures.  Rather, it’s a world that has been lulled into submission by the visual “beauty” of this form of fascism.  

In short order, we see that Ming boasts a standing army, a secret police force (commanded by Klytus), and oversees a gigantic surveillance state. The roving camera that spies on each citizen’s every word and action, however, is not some utilitarian device with a zoom lens. Rather, it’s a floating golden orb with wings. The gorgeous, "Futurism"-fueled form of this insidious “tool” has overtaken the dark meaning behind it. The same is true of the execution chamber where Flash nearly loses his life. It’s a transparent dome atop a beautiful ledge…overlooking a sky of mauve and blue clouds.  What's apparent from both details is that form has overtaken function so much so that the function hardly matters.   

Life on Mongo -- in Ming's State -- is beautiful.



Only far below, out of sight, does the form of Ming's police state become more utilitarian. Kala’s men, for instance, wear utilitarian glasses – glued right to their eyes – to spy on the citizens of Mongo above. They sit at a bulky computer station, in a long, nondescript row. This is the “hidden” portion of Ming’s empire: the gears that keep his monstrous machine in motion. 

Ming himself seems relatively unconcerned with how things work in his world, leaving the day-to-day atrocities to Klytus and Kara.  Ming is a tyrant who is “bored” and who cannot formulate a reason for his terrible activities. When Flash asks him “why do you attack us?” Ming responds, “Why not?” He has become so accustomed to the beautiful trappings of power on Mongo that he doesn’t even possess an agenda, except to keep his citizens fighting one another so he can continue to live the good life. For Klytus, Hitler may have shown “great promise,” but for Ming, it’s simply good to be king. He is destructive almost arbitrarily, simply because he can be so.

Flash Gordon -- the quarterback/leader of a team -- offers a pointed contrast to Ming. His constant refrain is: “I want to rescue my friends and save the Earth…Why don’t we team up?” In actions and deeds, Flash shows the Hawkmen and Tree Men that he is “for real,” so that they can ultimately conclude that “there is something finer in the universe than Ming’s law.”   

In short, Flash brings American Exceptionalism to Mongo.  As a child of our nation's egalitarianism, Flash reveals to Barin, Vultan and the others that liberty is worth dying for.

Zarkov is an important and necessary part of this equation too. Where Flash talks generically about “teaming up” to fight Ming, Zarkov understands the idea of self-sacrifice as a “rational transaction,” a fair trade for eliminating the likes of a Ming…or a Hitler. What is worth fighting for, Zarkov, suggests is the diversity and glory of man’s intellectual history: the works of Shakespeare, The Beatles, Einstein’s philosophy, the Talmud. All of these texts or ideas arise from diverse sources and ethnic groups but simultaneously join under the umbrella of “humanity.” 

Just as the disparate kingdoms of Mongo can join under together under a common umbrella of purpose to stop the tyrant.   



Flash Gordon’s sense of humor may obscure the message of the film for some, but the production design and wardrobe suggest the nature of the threat ("beautiful" fascism unloosed).  Furthermore, the oft-criticized script by Semple is actually abundantly literate, showcasing visions of Zarkov’s “youth” in Nazi Germany as a reminder that Ming’s evil is not just a fantasy threat, but something that man must, from time to time, deal with right here on Earth.

The film’s dialogue, which explicitly mentions “police states” and the like does not shy away from comparing Flash’s efforts on Mongo to America’s efforts in World War II to bring unity to nations separated by language or ethnicity.

Putting aside such thematic leitmotifs, Flash Gordon never ceases to make me laugh. In the opening scene on a plane, Flash hopes to impress Dale, who is afraid of flying. But even the supportive Flash can’t find encouraging words when the sky suddenly fills with bright red light and a strange “cloud” obscures the sun. It’s humorous to see even the gung-ho Flash rendered speechless by the utterly unexpected. The film’s first action sequence in Ming’s court is choreographed like a football game, and also generates chuckles...and excitement. 

The best scene, in terms of humor, may be Ming and Dale’s wedding. The high priest recites a vow that Ming shall take Dale as his Empress “of the hour,” and that he must promise “not to blast her into space.” 

Not surprisingly, Ming has trouble committing himself even to that level of civility. 

Between these guffaws, the film unceasingly awes with spectacular set designs and vistas. We see the woods of Arboria, the court of Vultan, and the interior/exterior of the war rocket Ajax. We travel through the Imperial Vortex, even. Although today some of the matte-lines may prove bothersome, the film was actually awe-inspiring in terms of visual effects back in its day.  The final battle is an incredible spectacle.

If Flash Gordon boasts any dramatic flaw it is that, at times, Flash himself often seems like a tourist in his own adventure, led around by the likes of Zarkov and Aura from one amazing destination to another. He never seems truly in charge of his own destiny, or persuasive enough to unify this “cosmic” Europe, as it were. 

Still, Flash Gordon remains such a fun and impressive space adventure, even thirty-three years after it failed at the box office. Every time I watch it, Flash Gordon provides a “galaxy of pleasure.” 

All creatures watching this sexy, funny, epic space film will -- without exception -- want to “make merry."

Movie Trailer: Flash Gordon (1980)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Next Week is The Lone Ranger Week!


Next Wednesday, the new feature film version of The Lone Ranger premieres nationwide in theaters, and stars Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp.

To celebrate the return of this mythic hero, next week will be The Lone Ranger Week here on the blog.  I’ll be writing about the classic TV series (1949 -1957) starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, the 1981 movie, Legend of the Lone Ranger, toys, collectibles, Filmation’s 1980 animated series and much more.


So join me for The Lone Ranger Week bright and early next Monday morning, won’t you? 

Hi-yo Silver, away…

The X-Files Promo: "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What I'm Reading Now: Un-Dead TV: The Ultimate Guide to Vampire Television




"Once a two-dimensional monster with no voice of its own, the vampire has evolved into something much greater - and television has played a critical role in the creature's enduring hold on the human psyche. It's through their undead voice that storytellers explore the social mores of society, confronting taboos, fears and prejudices..."

Brad Middleton, Un-Dead TV (Light Unseen Media; 2012), pgs 11 - 12.  (Review to follow in August).


Collectible of the Week: Dune Spice Scout (LJN; 1984)



Although the bizarre, intriguing (but ultimately worthwhile) David Lynch adaptation of Dune (1984) doesn't exactly seem fodder for kids toys, the company LJN released a whole line of fun merchandise based on the colorful film.

In addition to six poseable action figures, LJN produced this extraordinary, large scale vehicle, the Spice Scout.  The box describes the Spice Scout as a "giant desert vehicle with swivel steering and action command cockpit."



The box also describes the Dune scenario (which might be necessary for younger kids, who couldn't follow all the details): 

"The spice scout roams the desert stand on the planet called "Dune."  It is used in mining the powerful spice, hunting giant sandworms, and fighting evil enemy forces."

The Spice Scout is scaled to the action figures (Paul, Feyd, Rabban, Sardaukar, The Baron and Stilgar) so you can "place any Dune figure (not included) inside and push the scout into action. When danger strikes, lower the battle shield."



You could also "raise the command cockpit and swing the hidden weapons into position," all while making use of the"giant sand gripping rear wheel."

Personally, I love the designs, costumes and worlds of David Lynch's Dune, and treasure the LJN spice scout, in addition to the well-made action figures, of which I still own two (Stilgar and Feyd). The figures are larger than the average 3 3/4 action figures of the Star Wars Kenner era, and so this vehicle is practically gigantic.  I wish I had collected all the Dune toys available back in the day, including the giant sandworm figure...

Model Kits of the Week: Dune (1984)







Board Game of the Week: Dune (Parker Bros; 1984)


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Remembering Richard Matheson: Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: "The New House" (1972)



Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972 – 1973) represents the TV collaboration of William Castle, the great 1950s exploitation showman responsible for “Emergo” and “Percepto,” and Richard Matheson, brilliant scribe of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Omega Man (1971), The Legend of Hell House (1971) and Somewhere in Time (1980), among others.

The TV series -- a one-hour horror anthology -- ran for just one season on NBC in the early 1970s, and starred (as host) actor Sebastian Cabot.  

He played “Winston Essex,” the “old world aristocrat" and owner of the upscale hotel/bed-and-breakfast called Mansfield House.  

In each episode of Ghost Story, Mr. Essex would reveal an unusual and macabre story about his various guests.  This aspect – the host and his world – were dropped from the series entirely when it transitioned into Circle of Fear after fourteen hour-long episodes.

The pilot episode for Ghost Story, titled “The New House” (or “Pilot”) was based on the English author Elizabeth Walter’s story She Cries, and it aired originally not as part of the series proper, but earlier – on March 17, 1972 -- as the first hour of a two-hour special entitled Double Play.  The second hour presented the pilot for the Trucker series Movin’ On.

In “The New House,” directed by John Llewelyn Moxey and adapted by Richard Matheson, the Travis family moves into its newly constructed modern home, which sits atop the peak of picturesque Pleasant Hill.  

When expectant Eileen Travis (Barbara Perkins) begins hearing ghostly noises at night, she grows convinced that the new home is haunted.  She soon visits a local historian, De Witt (Sam Jaffe), who tells her that her home is actually built over a two-hundred year old gallows, the very spot where a defiant, unrepentant thief, Thomasina Barrows (Allyn Ann McLerie) was hanged on March 2nd, 1779.  Upon her death, she swore to one day return…

Disturbed by her frequent night terrors, Eileen goes into labor and has a beautiful baby girl.  Things seem happy for a while, until a dark night when Mr. Travis (David Birney) can’t seem to get home from work, and Thomasina makes her ghostly presence known…

“The New House” is an effective horror tale that, in some ways, reflects the aesthetics of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).  Here we have another pregnant woman, spending her days alone, worrying about things.  And in that state of anxiety, she encounters the supernatural.  Of course, from the perspective of others, Eileen Travis seems unstable, and it’s easy to write  off that instability as a sign of her “condition.” 

In fairness, Mr. Travis is not evil, as Rosemary’s husband was in the classic Polanski film, but he’s not very useful to have about., either  He tries to patiently respond to his wife’s situation, but never cares enough to stay home from work, for instance.  Thus, Eileen’s feelings of isolation are powerfully-wrought in the episode.

Some of the visuals are nicely vetted too.  Eileen brings home a creepy statue at one point in the story, and when she hears ghostly singing inside the house at night, the visuals suggest the statue is, itself, vocalizing.  There are also some nice cockeyed pans across the exterior house, ones that suggest, in essence, that the house is off-balance, off-kilter.

The punctuation of all the horror comes when the ghost of Thomasina Barrows appears (in a thunderstorm, naturally), but we don’t see her face.  

Instead, we observe a shadowy, still figure in a long shot, at some distance from the camera.  The Travis’s maid actually speaks to her, believing she is speaking with Eileen, not a ghost.  

It’s a creepy, creepy moment as you come to realize that the malevolent ghost is arranging to be alone in the house with Mrs. Travis and her innocent baby.

“The New House” also doesn’t fail in terms of commitment to the genre.  Something diabolical and awful happens at episode’s end regarding Thomasina’s encounter with Eileen and her daughter, and Ghost Story doesn’t back down from it.   Although I didn’t see the episode when it originally aired (I would have been three…) I can certainly imagine watching this pilot at night -- in the dark -- and being creeped the hell out.

In terms of series continuity, this first Ghost Story installment, introduces audiences to Winston Essex, the “host” of Mansfield House. He’s quite different from other series hosts, namely the macabre Alfred Hitchcock and the ironic Rod Serling.  Instead of taking on a tone of detachment or even black humor amusement, Essex exhibits concern and sympathy for the characters in his plays.  “I wish they weren’t going there,” he worries for the Travis family, off to their new home on Pleasant Hill.

Also, Essex describes himself as a “devious dinosaur” and discusses the incompatibility between Gothic tales and “the nuclear age.”  In a real sense, that’s the terrain Ghost Story wishes to tread.  

The series hopes to bridge the gap between modern reason and science, and our ancient, campfire fears of ghosts and goblins.  This idea recurs several times throughout the short-lived series.

Importantly, “The New House” sets its horror inside a modern house, one that has never been lived in before.  This home boasts all the modern conveniences of the 1970s, from telephones to dish washers.  

And yet despite such comforts, something terrifying and ancient – from an age past – infiltrates the family’s life.   I think this is an idea that Matheson loved (think: Somewhere in Time): that the past lives on in each of us.  We may think we can escape it, but we can't.

Remembering Richard Matheson: The Twilight Zone: "Death Ship" (1963)


During The Twilight Zone's fourth season in 1963, Rod Serling's trademark anthology was expanded from half-an-hour to an hour in length. 

Most of the episodes produced during this span are not included in syndication packages or annual marathons (except for the Robert Duvall episode, "Miniature"), because they don't fit the half-hour time slot. For Twilight Zone's fifth and last season, the format was restored to the more famous 30-minute period, and many of these hour-long installments faded to undeserved obscurity.

And the general meme on the fourth season, on the hour-long shows, is that somehow the experiment failed. That the episodes are not as good, or as powerfully wrought as the shorter installments. The thinking goes that at a half-hour, Serling sets up the premise, expands it just enough, and then delivers the closing whammy or twist before you grow fatigued with the narrative. It's a perfect thirty-minute structure. 


By contrast, goes the conventional wisdom, at an hour length, you get mired in the story-line and sort of wander off the point.

I haven't watched all of the fourth season shows recently, but based on my viewing of "Death Ship," I'm not sure that the latter argument holds much water. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Don Medford, "Death Ship" is the sort of creepy sci-fi story I'm almost predisposed to love. Why? Well, as much as I love, adore, revere, and honor Star Trek and what it has accomplished over the long years, I prefer to view the realm of outer space not as a giant ocean separating countries, where starships stay in touch with Earth by subspace radio and serve a sort of cosmic United Nations, but as something more...enigmatic


Again, this is merely my personal preference, but I especially enjoy the concept of outer space as terrain of mystery, awe, and terror...a realm that we -- even as intelligent and technologically-advanced human beings -- are not quite able to understand at this point.

Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Space:1999 and yes, Richard Matheson's "Death Ship" all seem to view outer space in these fascinating terms. I think space adventuring is great in any form, but especially so when the mysteries unlocked at the end of the universe have some bearing on our understanding of ourselves and the very nature of existence. I'm not talking about morality (Star Trek was unmatched in focusing on the morality of our species), but the very core ideas of "what are we?" "what is existence?" and so forth.

And those are the sorts of interrogatives raised in "Death Ship."



As the story begins, it is the far-flung year of 1997, and three astronauts from the rocket bureau man the exploratory vessel E-89 as it seeks out habitable planets for colonization. 

Captain Ross (Jack Klugman), Lt. Mason (Ross Martin) and Lt. Carter (Frederick Beir) observe the surface of one distant planet, and spot something odd: something metallic glittering in the jungle far below them

Excited at the prospect of man's first alien contact, they land E-89 (the spaceship from Forbidden Planet [1956] redressed...) and discover that the "glittering" on their scope is actually something more frightening, the wreckage of an Earth spaceship.

The astronauts head out to the ruined ship and find that it is of the same class and construction as their own vessel, E-89. When they enter the wrecked craft, they discover the bodies of the three-person, human crew. Disturbingly the corpses are actually...their own. 


The crashed ship is actually E-89 and somehow it crashed on the surface of this alien world, and Ross, Mason and Carter were all killed during the event. Now, thanks to the auspices of the Twilight Zone, the astronauts have caught up with their grim fate.

At first, the thoughtful and determined Captain Ross thinks that they have "circumnavigated" time and somehow arrived on the planet in their own near future, perhaps as the result of a time warp. He makes an interesting decision. If their future involves a crash, he suggests, then he won't order the crew to launch. Ever. He decides to stay on the planet for an unlimited duration instead, because he knows he will eventually discover a "logical" explanation for what they've found on the surface. He just has to puzzle it through. "Eventually, we'll find an answer," he suggests.

But then another odd thing occurs. The longer the crew remains on the strange planet with their corpses aboard that duplicate ship, the more the crew begins to "fall apart," hallucinating a very different existence. Lt. Carter imagines he is home and visits his house on the very day of his funeral. He finds his wife's mourning attire laid out across his bed, next to a telegram from the rocket bureau announcing his demise.

Lt. Mason also experiences what might be a delusion. Outside, on the surface of the planet, he encounters his daughter and wife. They are happily sharing a picnic lunch lakeside, and Mason feels compelled to join them. In short order, however, he is torn out of this pleasant reality by the committed and stubborn Captain Ross, who reminds him that his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident long, long ago.

Captain Ross rallies the troops. He believes he has discovered the logical explanation (because everything has a logical explanation, he says). 



Everything that has happened on the mysterious planet is an alien trick, he tells his men; a ruse to keep humans from colonizing there. It's mind control...illusion.

Ross is so convincing in his "logical" explanation of the events on the planet that Mason and Carter believe him. The three men recommit to their mission, with great trepidation lift off, and head once more for the stars.

Miraculously, the spaceship does not crash on ascent, as the crew feared it would. E-89 makes orbit successfully. The three men have escaped their fate, or so it seems. The trap below cannot snare them.

But then the determined and intellectual Captain Ross orders they return to the planet surface to collect specimens and complete their assignment. After all, he says to his men, he understands the alien trick now, and won't be fooled again.

Ross sets the controls for re-entry, Carter objects and...

...Well, to tell you any more of "Death Ship" would be to ruin the denouement of one of the truly great (and perhaps not very well-known) Twilight Zone episodes. 


What occurs finally on that distant planet, and the explanation to the riddle -- the very thing that renders E-89 "a latter day flying dutchman" -- has nothing whatsoever to do with time warps or alien tricks. 

Instead, as you may have guessed at this point, the solution to the mystery grows out of the characters, and in some aspect, the so-called "cult of personality," the willingness of some men to follow leaders...because they want to believe something pleasant so badly. 

"Death Ship" is a great story because it arrives at the shocking ending sideways. The episode features all the trappings of futuristic science fiction drama, with discussions of time travel and alien life, but as is so often the case on The Twilight Zone (and in the work of Richard Matheson) the resolution of the enigma involves the very nature of man; the metaphysical not the technological.

In crafting a tale of a protagonist and captain who sees what he wants to see, and the men who follow him in that vision, Matheson's "Death Ship" takes the mysteries of outer space and links them right back to the essential nature of humanity, right here on Earth. For awhile it looks like the story is about "fear," the "death fear" as one character describes it, but the tale actually involves the acceptance of the unacceptable in our lives...and in our deaths.

As is typical for The Twilight Zone, "Death Ship" is presented in stark black-and-white and beautifully shot. There's one terrific, highly cinematic shot in which the camera prowls through a hole in the damaged vessel's wrecked exterior, and then scans the ruined command center, finally settling on the three corpses. 


There's some nice, unobtrusive use of split-screens and photographic doubles in another scene, and the performances are all intense and very good. Jack Klugman, in particular, does well in the role of the stubborn commander. One wouldn't automatically think of Klugman as astronaut timber, but he is intense and charismatic here. We pin our hopes on his character; just as his men do.

It's startling a bit startling to recognize the fact that this series (despite "futuristic" dates like 1997...) and the works of Richard Matheson don't seem to age at all.  They are -- truly -- as timeless as infinity.

Remembering Richard Matheson: The Night Stalker (1971)


Kolchak: The Night Stalker, written by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished story by Jeff Rice) originally aired in 1971. It was -- and for many years after, remained -- the highest rated TV movie of a generation.

Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970s, where down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor Tony Vincenzo.


It seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out too much hope.


In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their bodies drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit...

Kolchak considers this avenue, but runs into a brick wall erected by the stone-walling mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die. Finally, once the culprit is named -- Janos Skorzeny -- the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no effect on the oddly youthful assailant. 


Realizing it is up to him, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. But In order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good. Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.



In this project, writer Richard Matheson provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even an unforgettable sense of humor. McGavin does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat, staccato delivery that is unmatched to this day. He's not your typical protagonist, but rather a persistent little irritant with a nose for news, and a penchant for annoying those in power.  The story itself, about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas, remains more interesting for what it doesn't tell you. Rather than spoon feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.

For instance, late in the story, Kolchak breaks into Skorzeny's house and finds an open traveler's crate. Inside the trunk, we see Skorzeny's disguises, and even some make-up. There's face paint, wigs, etc, and instantly (but importantly, without comment...) we get a sense of the vampire's long history, and his travels from Berlin to London to Canada to the United States (as enumerated in a police press conference.) It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, be well-traveled to boot.

I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was shot (by director John Llewelyn Moxey). The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze


As a set-up for the first vampire attack (in a dark alley...), it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool (a shaky cam) and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot: the hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're among the street walkers ourselves.

Finally, I should note that it has been about six years since I last saw this tele-film, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it holds up today. For one thing, the climactic moments of the film are much scarier and much more suspenseful than I remembered. Watching it this time, I noticed how the soundtrack goes almost completely silent during Kolchak's long, tense exploration of Skorzeny's house. No mood music to speak of; very few sound effects, even. The result is that the only sound I could hear during this extended sequence was my own heart beating in anticipation and fear. The sequence must have lasted a good four or five minutes, and when the music and sound effects did finally arrive (as Skorzeny returns home...) the transition from silence made the denouement all that more exciting.

One of the things that I will always love about Darren McGavin's Kolchak is the fact that though we say he's a hero, he really isn't a traditional, physical hero. As displayed here, Kolchak's great gift is that he speaks truth and common sense to power. That's a wonderful trait. But it's not exactly something that comes in handy while monster hunting. So he's vulnerable in a very sympathy-provoking way.

There's a great moment in this tele-film when Kolchak walks to his car by pitch of black nighttime. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense -- just a sense -- that there's someone in the car with him. 




He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of his predicament. There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (and embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human, and realistic. Again, we see Richard Matheson's sense of the human, of the ordinary, and we recognize Kolchak in ourselves.  McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale. It wouldn't work half-as-well if McGavin were a more traditionally handsome, more physically "capable" kind of action-hero. 


As it is, we breathe a sigh of relief that he made it through the night! (Let alone a TV series...)

Remembering Richard Matheson: Trilogy of Terror (1975)


Perhaps the most famous TV-movie ever made, Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror (1975) boasts an impeccable pedigree.  The anthology, which aired on March 4, 1975 as ABC's "movie of the week," consists of three Richard Matheson stories, two teleplays by William Nolan, four memorable performances by Karen Black, and sterling direction from Dan Curtis, the man behind Dark Shadows and the TV adaptation of The Night Stalker. 

If you're a fan of the genre on television, it really doesn't get much better than this...

Julie
The first Matheson story in this TV anthology is called "Julie," with a teleplay by Nolan. 

Here, a callow university student named Chad (Robert Butler) eyes the apparently prim-and-proper English Lit. teacher, Ms. Eldrich (Karen Black).  He fantasizes about her without her clothes on and then sets about making his fantasy real.  

Chad works up the courage to ask Julie Eldrich out on a date -- to go see a drive-in movie.  She accepts, and they watch The Night Stalker (!) on the big screen together.

At the movies, however, Chad drugs Julie's soda pop and takes her back to a seedy motel, where he snaps incriminating photographs of the teacher.  He then uses these photographs as a form of sexual blackmail, and makes poor Ms. Eldridge, essentially, his sex slave.

There's only problem.  Chad has assumed from the very beginning that he is in control of the situation; that Ms. Eldrich is exactly who and what she appears to be, a repressed, librarian-esque school marm.  Turns out that was an incorrect assumption, and Ms. Eldrich teaches an important life lesson to the "singularly unimaginative" Chad.

Although not the most-remembered segment of this horror anthology, "Julie" is pretty intense, especially because of the story's kinkier aspects: a student-teacher sexual relationship, and an early appearance on television of date-rape (replete with rape drug). The lurid segment's final revelation, that Julie is a veritable man-eater who maintains a scrapbook of her sexual conquests and murder victims, is also scarily effective.  Although it becomes clear that Julie is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing, the story nonetheless works as a "cosmic scales of justice righted" tale.

Chad certainly had it coming, given his misdeeds...

Prime among the Trilogy of Terror stories, "Julie" makes fine use of Karen Black's talents, understanding the raw, unusual allure of this distinctive performer.  Sometimes Black can look absolutely gorgeous, but she can also be made-up to appear somewhat homely.  In other words, Black is a performer with layers, and all those layers are put to tricky and clever use in the TV-movie's first story.  In "Julie," Black exudes coiled-up, repressed sexuality even in the most innocuous school room scenes.  Even "hidden" under ugly glasses and dressed in unflattering clothes, Black manages to project this electric sense of the dangerous, of the erotic.  And that's what this story is all about.

In Trilogy of Terror's second story, titled "Millicent and Therese" another apparently prim-and-proper woman, a spinster named Millicent (Black) plans to destroy her younger sister, the sexually-promiscuous and possibly Satanic, Therese (also Black).  Millicent communicates with a psychologist  (George Gaynes) about Thesese, and then plans to use her sister's own fondness for voodoo against her.

Of the triumvirate, "Millicent and Therese" proves the weakest story in short order.  It's pretty obvious from the get-go where the story is headed, and what relationship these "sisters" actually share.  There's much talk of sex in "Millicent and Therese," but in many ways, this story feels like a retread of "Julie" in that Black again plays both reserved and overtly sexy.  Despite the familiarity of the material and obviousness of the story's final "twist," Dan Curtis does an effective job of directing the tale.

Millicent and Therese
For example, most of the story occurs inside one room, inside a library in Millicent and Therese's mansion.  Curtis films several scenes in this locale from a low-angle that accentuates the architecture and decorations of the old world library. 

The idea being, I suppose, that those things which ail Millicent and Therese emerge from this particular milieu.  From this house; from this room. Even from the books on the shelf.

For instance, Therese may have killed her own mother as a child.  And she also seduced her own father when she was sixteen. The books in the library -- all about the supernatural and paranormal -- reflect those "evils" after a fashion.  These volumes also prove the gateway to the destruction of both sisters. 

It may not sound like much, but the nice staging of these sequences in the library somehow suggests a place of evil looming in the sisters' twisted history together.  And given what we come to know about them, it makes perfect sense.

In the third, final and most memorable of the tales in Trilogy of Terror, titled "Amelia," the audience is introduced to a weak-willed, mild-mannered woman, Amelia (once more, Karen Black). Amelia is constantly being bullied by her (off-screen) mother.  In particular, Amelia's mother does not like that her daughter has moved out of the house (to a spacious apartment sub-let) and that she is dating an anthropology professor.

On one Friday night, Amelia decides not to visit her mother and instead spend the evening with her boyfriend, since it is his birthday.  As a gift, she has purchased the anthropologist an authentic "Zuni Fetish Doll," a miniature monstrosity with sharp teeth and armed with a spear.  According to legend, the Fetish Doll houses the spirit of a great hunter, but the murderous soul is trapped inside the doll so long as he wears a golden necklace around his neck.

In short order, the necklace is removed (it falls off, actually...) and Amelia is forced to wage war in the apartment against a violent, miniature predator.

Amelia
Based on Matheson's short story, "Prey," "Amelia" is pretty clearly the go-for-broke segment of Trilogy of Terror.  After the relative restraint of the first two tales, this one truly goes all-out to get the blood pumping. 

Curtis and director of photography Paul Lohmann, untether themselves from they expectations they have knowingly fostered in the first two tales (of a relatively staid presentation) and with tremendous gonzo indulge in expressive, action-packed film making. 

Accordingly, this story features rocketing cameras bearing down on the imperiled Amelia, and other dramatic tracking shots, all lensed from the killer Fetish Doll's unique perspective.

Curtis achieves something else here as well, and it bears mention.  In particular, he stages many deep-focus long shots of the apartment, with Amelia framed in the background -- surrounded by door-frames on some occasions -- and only emptiness in the foreground.  The result is that we're actually looking furtively under coffee tables and chair legs for any sign of the murderous Zuni Fetish Doll. 

In many such cases, the doll is not present in frame at all...but we know he's nearby, and the deep-focus, long shots expertly set up the terrain of the battle and more than that, a sense of expectation.  These moments of silence and emptiness linger, and increase and enhance the mood of suspense. 

We wonder where the bloody monster is hiding this time...

As the battle grows more violent and intense, and Amelia grows more and more imperiled, Curtis makes these deep focus long shots turn cockeyed, which admittedly sounds cliched (like something out of Batman), but instead proves an effective tool in fostering real terror.  As the balance of power shifts towards the supernatural threat, it's only right that the "real" world's sense of order begins to literally and metaphorically tip over.  This technique of off-kilter shots successfully transmits the full-breadth of the monster's threat to Amelia.

Trilogy of Terror's Zuni Fetish Doll lives even today as one of the most potent 1970s "kinder traumas," responsible for God-knows-how-many youthful nightmares.   The creature has lost none of his macabre effectiveness some thirty-years later.  The Zuni Fetish monster boasts the sharpest teeth you've ever seen, has a big grinning mouth, and utters terrible, strange yells at it repeatedly attacks the imperiled Amelia.  You'll never forget what this creature is like in action; and you'll never forget the sound of his "voice," either.

Thematically, the Zuni Doll is surely an avatar representing Amelia's personal dilemma: the fact that in her personal life she constantly and continuously surrenders to others; to her Mother and also to her boyfriend.  The Zuni Doll makes Amelia -- for once -- fight back.  It's too little too late, perhaps, and Amelia makes the ultimate surrender to the Zuni Doll in the film's final, chill-inducing close-up.  But she puts up a hell of a fight before then, using everything from suitcases to the bathtub to the oven to battle the monster lurking in her apartment.

Another reason "Amelia" works so well is that it lunges directly into the horror territory that the other stories studiously skirted.  We don't know exactly what Julie's power is in "Julie," and in "Millicent and Therese" the voodoo doll is almost an afterthought in a psychological tale about multiple personalities. 

But here, the audience finally sees a supernatural monster in action; one with snapping, hungry jaws, and inhuman powers.  Crimson blood flows pretty freely in this segment too -- a surprise for 1975 television production -- and so again, the effect of the story is amplified.  The first time you see Trilogy of Terror, you aren't really prepared for the third story to descend into bloody murder and wildly expressive camera-work, and so "Amelia" becomes all the more powerful and stunning. 

The thrill of Trilogy of Terror after all these years is three-fold.  On one hand, it's terrific to see Karen Black's versatility used to such dramatic and purposeful effect.  She is a gifted, idiosyncratic performer who isn't afraid to express seamy, powerful and unattractive emotions.  Secondly, the Zuni Fetish Doll is the high octane fuel of a million (or more) bad dreams, and can still provoke throat-tightening terror in audiences. And thirdly, the imaginative and terrifying stories by Richard Matheson plumb the depths of our worst nightmares.

For these reasons, Trilogy of Terror doesn't play like a funny old artifact from the disco decade, but as a damn fine horror movie.   The spirit of the film -- like the spirit of the malevolent Zuni Fetish Doll -- endures.  The film's final shot -- a zoom to close-up of Amelia in her new state as a "hunter" --  is not something you can easily forget or put down.

So make sure you check for Zuni Fetish Dolls under your bed before you go to sleep tonight...

Remembering Richard Matheson: Duel (1971)


In 1971, a promising young director named Steven Spielberg was locked into a seven year contract with Universal Studios and likely chafing at the limitations.   Then, his secretary handed Spielberg an issue of Playboy Magazine featuring the Richard Matheson short story of highway terror, "Duel."

The rest is film history. 

Spielberg shot the TV-movie adaptation of Matheson's classic tale in something like sixteen days (though some sources indicate twelve), on a budget of approximately 425,000 dollars.  The 73-minute version of the film aired on ABC for the first time November 13, 1971, and won the accolades of major national critics. 

Even more impressively, a 90-minute version of Duel played theatrically in Europe, and won the grand prize at the Festival de Cinema Fantastique in Avoriaz, France. 

Thanks to Duel, Spielberg's film career soon achieved escape velocity (at least after the relative hiccup of The Sugarland Express [1974]). 

In fact, Spielberg has always been the first to person to point out the many intriguing similarities between Duel and his first blockbuster hit, Jaws (1975). Both efforts  pit man against implacable, larger-than-life foes, either mechanical or natural, and both efforts also hint -- ever so subtly -- that the supernatural may even be involved in the clash. 

Less than a year from today, Spielberg's Duel will celebrate its fortieth anniversary.   Yet the mean, lean horror  film doesn't feel old or dated on a re-watch today.  On the contrary, it remains compelling and suspenseful; a veritable model of genre efficiency.

As New York Times critic Janet Maslin opined on the event of Duel's American theatrical release in 1983 (on the same day, actually, that Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead bowed...)  these early Spielberg effort "took advantage of the very narrowness of its premise, building excitement from the most minimal ingredients and the simplest of situations."

What this means in action is that Duel accelerates quickly from its first frame to its last, highlights only a few main characters, and showcases little dialogue.  The film is precisely what the title promises: a  "clash" between two dedicated combatants (a man driving a car and an unseen person manning the evil truck), with Spielberg's  splendid sense of visual metaphor carrying the day.

Much like Carpenter's brilliant Halloween (1978), the pure simplicity of Duel's structure and presentation permits the engaged viewer to layer on additional meanings and connections; to see more lurking beneath the hood, as it were, than the elegant screenplay literally expresses on the surface.  In this manner, Duel goes from being a basic tale of inexplicable road rage and survival to something infinitely more symbolic; a meditation on fate, and on Evil itself. 

European critics actually read Duel as a Marxist commentary on class warfare and capitalism in America, with the blue-class trucker pressing the gas hard as revenge against the entitled white-collar David Mann.  This is an interpretation which Spielberg famously and publicly resisted. 

Yet, as other critics have rightly pointed out there does seem to be a powerful subtext here about the state of masculinity in 1970s America, at the rise of the nascent women's liberation movement.

However, what makes Duel endlessly suspenseful and scary is not this admittedly-interesting social commentary, but rather Spielberg's canny visualizations of the sustained road battle.  In particular, he often frames the attacking truck as an invader in the frame itself; one that consumes and devours space and literally squeezes out [poor David Mann, "the little guy."  The impression given the audience is a world out-of-order, and of an over-sized, overpowered nemesis.

Late in the film, the beleaguered Valiant driver wonders how the malevolent, steam-belching truck can drive so fast, and in that one little moment the specter of the supernatural is appropriately raised.  Is the truck driven by the Devil?  Is it purely and simply Evil on 18-wheels?  This bit of dialogue is just a welcome implication -- the icing on the cake as it were -- but it contributes infinitely to the mythic and scary qualities of the 1971 film.

If you remember such films as The Car (1977), Christine (1983),  or the vignette in Nightmares (1983) starring Lance Henriksen, you can begin to understand the thematic and visual impact and influence of Spielberg's sterling adaptation of Duel. 

"Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way!"
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) calls for police help, while his 18-wheel nemesis barrels unexpectedly into frame.
Duel depicts a harrowing interlude in the life of a put-upon business man, David Mann (Dennis Weaver).  He departs for work in his red, 1970 Plymouth Valiant and -- on the open road -- ends up behind a filthy, smog-spewing Peterbilt truck.  Running late for a business appointment, David passes the truck on the road, crossing the lane into approaching traffic to do so.

Soon, the truck passes David, and he finds himself in the same predicament...choking down diesel fumes.  So David passes the big rig a second time, only, apparently, to spawn the enduring rage of the unseen driver.  Before long, the truck driver knowingly gestures David into the path of an oncoming car.  Then, the driver begins a relentless high-speed pursuit, attempting to run David off the road.

After slamming into a split rail fence, David stops at Chuck's Cafe.  There, he discovers -- to his horror -- that the offending truck has also arrived.  David attempts to ferret out the identity of the mysterious driver from the local diners, but only succeeds in making a scene with an innocent patron.

All day, the game of cat and mouse on the desert highway continues, escalating to pure terror.  The truck attempts to nudge David's Valiant onto railroad tracks as a locomotive crosses at full speed.  Finally, the implacable truck pursues David's out-matched Valiant up a treacherous mountainside.

When the Valiant's radiator hose breaks, and the car comes to a dead end at the mountain's apex, David must turn and face his oncoming enemy one last time...

"There you are, right back in the jungle again..."
David strikes a macho pose; but the specter of mechanical domesticity (a laundry dryer...) still looms over him.

On the surface, Duel is clearly a case of Man vs. Machine (or Mann vs. Machine), but roiling underneath the surface of this perfectly composed horror/action piece is an interesting  and unsettling commentary about masculinity in America circa 1970. 

A bit of history: Duel was crafted during the dawn of the "New Feminism" in this country.  The National Organization for Women, for instance, saw its ranks swell from 1,200 to 48,000 in the span from 1967 and 1970 alone.   

And in Spring of 1972, just a few months after Duel premiered, Time Magazine devoted an entire issue (March, 1972) to the subject of the Women's Liberation Movement.  The editors memorably termed the age a "time that tries men's souls." 

What that description indicates is that as much as women were fighting for an equal share of the pie at home in the work-place, some disco decade men felt, simultaneously...lost at sea.  

In the article "Women's Liberation Re-Visited," University of Michigan Psychologist Joseph Adelson was quoted as saying this:  "As any clinician knows, these days the problem in male sexuality lies in the opposite direction, not in phallic megalomania but rather in sexual diffidence and self-doubt,"  

It is in this cloud of "sexual diffidence and self-doubt" that Duel dwells.  This is where Dennis Weaver's protagonist -- and America too -- are living at the particular moment of the encounter with the evil rig.  "The concept of man as hunter and woman as keeper of the hearth, these feminists declare, is obsolete and destructive for both sexes," wrote Time Magazine.

But what ideal or order fills that void?  That's where the confusion rested for some men and some women, too, in determining what the new "role" for each sex was to be.

Early in Duel, this dissonance between "obsolete and destructive" tradition (patriarchy) and the new equality is evident.  When David Mann stops at a gas station, the attendant there tells him that "he is the boss."  David's response is simple, terse and telling: "Not in my house I'm not."  

This idea of a new sense of order is also reflected back at him by the attendant.  "Fill it with Ethel," says Mann.  "As long as Ethel doesn't mind," the attendant replies.  Encoded in that funny back-and-forth is the fear of offending an empowered woman; already the "the boss" in David's household.

A moment later, Mann enters the gas station to call his wife at home, and strikes "an exaggeratedly masculine posture" (pictured above), according to film scholar and biographer Nigel Morris in The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light (Wallflower Press, 2007, page 24). 

Mann strikes this pose, however, in an emasculating long shot, a directorial selection which actually distances us from the character, and makes him seem small and silly rather than large and powerful (as a low angle shot might have accomplished).

During that phone conversation, Spielberg cross-cuts to Mann's wife at home, where she is dusting and cleaning the living room (stereotypical "women's work") while two children play on the carpet around her, oblivious to their parents. 

But Mann's wife is very angry with David because at an office event the previous night, a co-worker "practically raped" her, and David did nothing about it.  Mrs. Mann pushes and prods her husband again and again, saying that he should at least "say something" (in other words, stand up for her honor; he thinks she means "punch the guy out.")

As this contentious conversation lingers, Mann's exaggeratedly masculine pose is  suddenly and totally eclipsed by a symbol of domesticity (and again, stereotypical "women's work)".  To wit: a woman's hand opens a laundry dryer door in the foreground of the shot; and David is essentially caged inside that transparent bubble. 

As Morris wrote on this topic:  "Mann literally is viewed through the female lens, this film repeatedly associating women, at the height of second wave feminism, with household labor." (Empire of Light; page 24)

At another point in the film, during David Mann's drive, the subject of endangered, confused (and diffident...) masculinity again arises. On the radio, Mann listens to a call-in program in which a confused man asks an important tax question (of a woman employee of the Federal government, importantly).  He is confused about filing his taxes because he is "the man of the family" but not "head of family."  He stays home and cooks and cleans; and his wife goes to work, so she is -- technically -- "head of household."  The caller seems abundantly confused about this upturning of the familiar social order, and even somewhat depressed by it.

Again, this particular radio show dialogue -- like the telephone conversation with Mann's wife, like the conversation with the gas station attendant -- harks back to the American crisis in masculinity during the rise of Second Wave Feminism.

Finally, Mann's masculinity is overtly threatened by the appearance on the road of a much larger vehicle (a phallic symbol?);  one ostensibly driven by a long-standing American representation of traditional masculinity: a cowboy, right down to his cowboy boots.  

This "real man" - a truck-driving cowboy 'merican -- plays for keeps, and is not at all henpecked, confused or diffident.  When this nemesis takes offense at another's actions, he doesn't apologize or choke down his emotions.  He doesn't "talk about it," as the effete Mann attempts to do with the wrong man in Chuck's diner.  No, he seeks revenge, pure and simple; he seeks to best his opponent, scorched Earth-style.  This is mankind at his most overtly,  confidently masculine, and paradoxically, at his most brutal and frightening.

So, finally, Duel becomes what author Andrew Gordon in Empire of Dreams called an "exercise in paranoia" in which "the hero is stripped of his secure, everyday identity and must prove his manhood [italics mine] by tapping hidden resources of endurance, resourcefulness, and courage." (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, page 15).

That assessment puts a fine point on it.  In the Age of Second Wave Feminism, a time that "tried men's souls," this guy needs to -- in the modern vernacular of Sharron Angle - "man-up" and slay the technological dragon.

During one of Mann's interior dialogues, he seems to recognize the fact that he must call upon the atavistic qualities of his sex (as hunter, and as warrior),  Specifically, he notes that he is"right back in the jungle now."   That may be a more dangerous place than mechanized, domesticated modern society, but at least Mann understands the rules of the jungle: kill or be killed.

And indeed, Mann only beats the evil trucker when he forgoes help from outside forces (like the police), and stops asking others for assistance.  In fact, he is denied assistance from another henpecked man, a senior citizen who comes across him on the road and -- at his wife's insistence -- refuses to call the police for Mann. 

Amazingly, the Trucker won't even let Mann surrender. "The highway's all yours Jack... I'm not budging for at least an hour," Mann says, deciding to hide in a cul-de-sac.  But the truck finds him.  Again and again. 

So it's  literally a case of Mann up or die. 

Finally, having exhausted his other options (including total capitulation of the road), that's precisely what Mann does.  And the film cuts to a sort of Western or action-hero styled "suit-up scene" in which Mann settles into his seat, affixes his seat belt, puts on his gold-tinted sun glasses, and takes the Valiant into battle.

"Looked like a big complication to me!"

The giant truck dominates the frame in Duel; again and again
In my estimation, there are some rare genre films that are literally perfectly composed; visualized with such skill, flair and talent that they simply can't be improved upon.  I count Carpenter's Halloween and Spielberg's Duel among these rare titles.  In the case of the latter, Spielberg brilliantly and elegantly makes the film's form imaginatively reflect its content.

Above, I noted how Mann is lost in the world of the 1970s: deflated and diffident about his place.  He's henpecked by his wife, and the film also suggests he's saddled with an overbearing mother.  Other men (on the job...) seem to take advantage of him, and his overall wimpiness, too. 

The bulk of the film involves Mann pitted against the ultimate enemy, a truck that literally wants to take his space in the world and squeeze him right out of creation.   The truck is thus literally a road hog of the existential variety. 

In the early scene wherein Mann parks his Valiant at a gas pump, Spielberg's camera is positioned in front of the approaching vehicle.  The Valiant stops close-by, but there is still some distance remaining in the frame between the camera and the  Plymouth's front end.  The shot feels appropriate to convention; not exaggerated or heightened.

But suddenly, the giant rig pulls into the parallel pump lane, and it immediately  traverses that remaining distance, virtually pulling right up to the lens.  This is an invasion, a usurpation of frame space, and it is a filmic metaphor for the truck's malevolent purpose in the screenplay.

Mann's space is again tread upon, here by the over-sized truck.
Later, there's another gorgeous shot in which Spielberg gives us a full view of the landscape, a long shot. 

In the foreground, bigger than everything (even mountains) is the giant truck, and small -- almost ant-like -- is Mann.  Our hero stands isolated in the middle of the road, outside his suit of armor (his car; the Valiant), metaphorically naked and unprotected.   

Even in this shot (pictured to the left), you can immediately see how the truck's position occludes spectatorship; how the giant truck overwhelms everything else, cutting into Mann's space in the center of the frame. 

In other words, the frame consists of a kind of symmetry: truck on the left; Mann in frame center; and the Valiant positioned on the far right.  But just look at how far into Mann's "middle" terrain the truck invades.  This is a deliberate usurpation of symmetry, of shot space, and again, it visually reinforces the narrative.

Another example of order overturned involves a phone booth in the desert (another shot pictured above).  Mann believes he is safe and secure in the phone booth as he calls the police for assistance, but in fact the booth is just another cage that traps him.  And, deliberately sowing disorder, the truck juts into frame and barrels through the booth at near warp-speed.  Mann escapes in the nick-of-time, but order and civilization are destroyed.

Again and again, Spielberg deploys gorgeous and contextually-appropriate mise-en-scene to express the movie's themes and central oppositional relationship; that of a man who feels small and diffident battling an unnaturally big and perhaps supernatural opponent.

Except for some great, paranoid interior monologues, Duel mostly eschews explanation and dialogue.  Instead, Spielberg makes the visuals dictate the shape of his narrative.  Sometimes these visuals are of road signs or other symbolic indicators.  A sign reading STOP appears at a pertinent moment, for example, and the legend on the back of the devil truck reads FLAMMABLE.  That's a nice way of saying the driver has a really bad temper: mess with him and he'll explode, literally.

At other instances in Duel, extreme close-ups of the odometer needle -- leaning right into the danger zone of "100 milers per hour" --  tell us what we need to know in any given moment.    These insert shots, like the "information overload" close-ups of shark books, police reports and  even doodles, etc, in Jaws, make us feel a sense of heightened immediacy.  It's as if we're driving the car in this case; or peering into the rear view with our own eyes.

To further heighten this sense of immediacy, the interlude in Chuck's Cafe is shot hand-held, almost jerky, as if we -- like Mann -- have become untethered from the natural order and are taking tentative steps into new, possibly dangerous territory.  We don't know where we stand in this place; and neither does Mann.

Finally, I love the metaphor of the finale: Mann literally "reaches the mountaintop" and destroys his enemy.  The battle royal is the summit of the extended duel; at a geographical apex of the landscape, and also the apotheosis of the character who -- appropriately suited-up -- finally beats his never-seen but intractable opponent. He has achieved his destiny as knight (a destiny suggested by the film's title; and the name of his car, Valiant.) 

In this instance, everyday, ordinary Mann has recovered and reclaimed his masculinity.

There's just no two ways about it.  Duel works on all kinds of levels: as straight, terrifying horror film, and as a loaded commentary on its time and the crisis in masculinity that accompanied the New Feminism of the early 1970s.   In later years, Spielberg has often lapsed into overt sentimentality  and schmaltz in some of his more popular cinematic works, but Duel remains-- wonderfully -- Spielberg at his nastiest and most efficient.  

Honk if you love Duel...