Saturday, November 12, 2016
The year 2016 has been a terrible one, for a lot of reasons. And to cap off a week that already caused many Americans unexpected anxiety and grief, 2016 decided to take one more icon away from us: Robert Vaughn.
Mr. Vaughn died at the age of 83 yesterday. He will always be remembered and loved for his portrayal of secret agent Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), a pop culture touchstone of the mid-1960s.
Vaughn's debonair and smooth performances on that series, however, only tell a partial story of the man's Hollywood history. Vaughn's career on television stretches all the way back to 1955. He was a regular on many programs, including The Lieutenant (1963-1964), The Protectors (1972-1974), and even the last season of The A-Team (1986-1987).
Mr. Vaughn was also a frequent guest star on cult-tv programs. He appeared in an episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller (1961) called "The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in1959 -- called "Dry Run" -- and even an episode of Men into Space (1960) called "Moon Cloud."
His film career was illustrious too. Vaughn was unforgettable in The Magnificent Seven (1964), and in The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970). He also appeared in such genre films as Starship Invasions (1977), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Hangar 18 (1980), and Superman III (1983).
Robert Vaughn was TV's handsome, witty version of James Bond to a whole generation of fans, and yet a lot more than that too. His fine work in film and television shall be remembered, and he shall be missed.
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Vikings" (September 18, 1976)
The second episode of Filmation’s Tarzan (1976) is called “Tarzan and the Vikings” and in it, Tarzan and N’Kima unexpectedly see a Viking dragon ship sailing down a jungle river.
Tarzan saves the Viking crew, once it disembarks, from a black panther, but the Vikings are not impressed. They decide to take him back to their village as a slave.
In the village, Tarzan soon becomes involved in a local family issue. The leader Erik’s adult daughter, Karina, is betrothed to an insurrectionist named Torvalt, but is in love with a man named Bjorn.
Bjorn wishes to be a law man, and so Karina’s father doesn’t respect him. He wants her to marry a warrior. Tarzan reminds everyone that “courage comes in different shapes” and that “being able to fight does not mean you are a man.”
Threatened by Tarzan, Torvalt arranges at trap for him. Karina becomes trapped on a waterfall, and Tarzan goes to her rescue. Torvalt leaves Tarzan there, trapped, and tells everyone he is dead.
But Bjorn comes to Tarzab;s rescue, and Tarzan is able to confront Torvalt and his lies. Erik comes to realize that heroes indeed can come in many forms.
This second episode of the animated Tarzan is not quite as engaging as the first, though the idea of a Viking culture taking root in an African jungle is a wonderful fantasy touch.
During the course of the episode, Karina explains to Tarzan how a Viking ship was driven off course during a storm, because of Odin’s anger at the captain. The ship came ashore in the jungle, and a colony was formed.
Other than that observation, it’s clear that this Tarzan series is mostly about Tarzan helping other people, and lecturing them, using his distinctive brand of wisdom to do so. There is not, at least so far, much going on in terms of Tarzan, his family, or background.
Instead, each week he encounters fantastic kingdoms, and people in those kingdoms who need his help. That’s the formula.
Tarzan is portrayed in the series as a calm, fair individual. He never rises to take the bait when verbally abused by enemies. He seems without ego. This i quite far from the image of a “wild man” that many hold of the character.
In “The Gang’s All Here,” Billy (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) have decided to stay in a small town, to deal with the dangerous gang member, Vinnie (Jack McCulloch), who has been released from jail.
Vinnie continues to attempt to frame his sister’s boyfriend, Jackie (Greg Mabrey), a one-time convict who has gone straight and now works at a local gas station.
Billy attempts to reason with Vinnie, but there is no reasoning with the thug, and he takes Billy hostage.
Billy must escape restraint in the gang’s HQ, and call upon Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) before his secret identity is revealed.
This follow-up to “The Past is not Forever” is another unusually hard-edged episode of Filmation’s Shazam (1974-1977).
Here, Billy is held against his will by gang members, and for a while it seems that the leader of the gang, Vinnie, may actually do him harm.
Furthermore, there is actual tension/suspense in the episode, arising from Billy’s predicament while he is captured and locked up in the gang’s headquarters.
All is made right by the end of the half-hour, of course, and yet this two-parter is quite memorable (in terms of the series catalog), in part because matters are actually taken seriously, and something bad could happen.
Now, that’s not to say that bad things don’t happen in other Shazam episodes. But those “things” are usually not the result of people acting in an anti-social way. We get mine cave-ins, avalanches, a runaway truck, snake-bites and so forth.
But here, all the drama arises from Vinnie’s behavior, not the threat of some natural or accidental disaster. Almost automatically, that makes “The Gang’s All Here” more compelling than the average show.
Next week, it’s back to placid, un-threatening business as usual: “On Winning.”
Friday, November 11, 2016
Some "gems" (both cinematic and earthen...) are better left un-excavated. Or to put it another way: not everything you remember from your youth is a treasure.
The 1974 TV-movie Killdozer -- another touchstone from the disco decade and my mis-spent youth -- proves a prime example of this axiom.
I'm sad and disappointed to report that under the microscope of critical viewing, this old made-for-television movie doesn’t hold up well.
Yes, I'm as disappointed as you are.
And no, I was not expecting great art upon my recent viewing. On the contrary, I was simply expecting to have a good time; to be entertained on the level of a production such as Duel, Trilogy of Terror, Gargoyles, Snowbeast, Someone's Watching Me, or Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.
Those are all 1970s TV-movies that hold up in 2016 given budgetary and censorious limitations. Unfortunately, Killdozer doesn't make the grade. By a long shot.
That's a bit of surprise, because the source material is strong stuff. Killdozer is based on a great and highly-suspenseful Theodore Sturgeon novella first published in Astounding Magazine back in 1944. Sturgeon's tale concerned a malevolent alien intelligence waging war against humanity (particularly a small work crew) by possessing a bulldozer.
The TV-movie pretty closely hews to that simple outline, but lacks the most basic sense of craft to bring to life the bizarre premise. Instead, Killdozer features a dearth of action, impossible-to-distinguish characters, and is poorly filmed.
Think of The Thing by way of comparing the ingredients: isolated location (here an island two hundred miles off the coast of Africa), few characters (all male...), an alien menace (not a shape shifter but "pure energy"), and a fierce battle for survival.
In fact, Killdozer's opening shot is one quite similar to John Carpenter's vastly superior The Thing (1982) remake. It's set in Earth's near-orbital space. Instead of a flying saucer crashing into the Antarctic snow 200,000 years ago, we see a meteor crash to Earth on that isolated island shore...time indeterminate.
We then cut to a small construction team working for Warburton Oil Resources. There are six men on the team, led by a recovering alcoholic named Kelly (Clint Walker). Before long, one of the workers, Mac (Robert Urich) spies an eerie blue glow transfer from the meteor to a bulldozer...and then he promptly dies of something like radiation poisoning.
An alien hum (like one emanating from the meteor), is soon detected in the bulldozer's bucket blade, but gritty mechanic Chub (Neville "Eaten Alive" Brand) can't pinpoint the source. Before long, the alien-controlled bulldozer goes out of control. Its first act is to crush the team's one and only radio.
The next thing the bull dozer does is go after the film's only African-American, Al (James Watson). Al's death is an especially absurd scene. I mean, how hard is it to outrun a slow-moving bulldozer, when there are trees not far distant?
And answer me this: if you were being chased by a malevolent construction vehicle, would you stop in the vehicle's path to hide in a hollow pipe?
The remainder of the film's seemingly eternal running time (74 minutes) is devoted to a lackadaisically-paced and poorly-orchestrated man vs. machine war. Unfortunately, the machine seems to possess the upper hand here in terms of intelligence, and the construction team members are killed one-at-a-time in mostly idiotic fashion. For instance, the bulldozer pushes an avalanche of rocks down a mountainside onto one unlucky man who doesn't have the wherewithal to look up.
Then another character spontaneously decides to go joy-riding in a jeep on the beach...only to be surprised that the bulldozer is waiting on the shore for him, having sprung a trap.
I have to admit, this latter moment is unintentionally funny. Staged as a shocking surprise, the film cuts suddenly to the bulldozer on the beach... just waiting to strike as the joy-rider appears on the scene. You have to ask yourself: how did the malevolent bulldozer know exactly where the jeep would show up on the vast shore line, and then park there undetected?
How, precisely, can a loud bulldozer "sneak up" on someone?
I often joke that in horror movies, human beings do not possess peripheral vision. In Killdozer, human beings also do not have the capacity to hear, apparently. For example, there's a moment in which the parked bulldozer raises its mechanical blade (to smash a worker), while an imperiled character stands in front of the machine, just inches away.
Does he hear anything and turn around? Nope.
The dialogue in Killdozer is mostly atrocious too, a stream of endless lines like "machines don't just run by themselves!"
Well, if you are trapped on an island and your comrades are being murdered at an alarming rate, are you going to cling to that particular theory or believe your own lying eyes?
Obviously the damn bulldozer is running itself. How many people do you have to see crushed by a self-operating bulldozer before realization starts to dawn?
But Killdozer's biggest deficit remains that, from a visual standpoint, it is a remarkably ugly film. The island setting is chalky and dusty -- not exotic at all -- and there is no variation (therefore no relief) whatsoever in location. From start to finish, the movie looks as though it were filmed in a quarry somewhere.
The scared work men drive back and forth from one chalk pit to another, trying to come up with a plan to kill their nemesis. After dynamite doesn't do the trick, electrocution proves efficacious (a nod to Hawks' The Thing?) But even the iconic battle between crane and bulldozer is visually underwhelming. A clever filmmaker might have tried to play up the beauty of the location; making a distinction between the natural beauty of the island and the mechanical ugliness of the bulldozer.
Total honesty requires that I admit one thing. I did feel a pleasant flush of nostalgia while watching Killdozer, especially during the yellow-lettered, Universal Studios, 70s-style opening credits. In particular, I remember how I first encountered it as a little kid: as a Saturday Afternoon Super Spectacular or some such thing.
But the happy glow of nostalgia fades quickly during this monotonous TV-movie and the audience is left with the realization that these interchangeable characters are so dumb, so slow-witted, that they deserve to die at the hands (or gears) of the killdozer.
The best part of Killdozer is the clever title. However, the operative syllable there just might be "doze."
Thursday, November 10, 2016
Rob Zombie’s 31 (2016) opens with a quote from Franz Kafka: “A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.”
Horror fans who didn’t appreciate Zombie’s non-traditional reboots of the Halloween saga might, at this juncture, believe that they have come to that very point of understanding; wishing to die rather than watch another one of the auteur’s art works.
But open-minded horror fans will definitely want to check out 31, an original Rob Zombie film set on October 31, 1976, so yes…Halloween.
Michael Myers isn’t in the film, but Zombie’s grungy, morally-nuanced, gore-heavy vision is on full display here. 31 is perverse, sick, grotesque, and -- like Zombie’s previous film work -- utterly absorbing.
The film’s narrative starts out with great promise, and then descends into a kind of white trash version of The Purge (2012), but the plot isn’t the reason to see the film.
Instead, 31 offers up one of the most menacing performances recently put to celluloid, Richard Brake’s “Doom Head.” It’s no shock that Doom Head opens and closes the film. Let’s just say that the actor fully commits to the colorful character: a smiling, grease-painted sociopath with a dead-cold stare.
Secondly, 31 is a breath of fresh air in terms of its approach to its protagonists. Here, we meet a bunch of hard-drinking, weed-smoking, sex-obsessed carnies who, come to think of it, aren’t bad people at all.
In fact, when push comes to shove, these twilight people all stick together, just as we would expect of people in the most closely knit of "traditional" families. Their heroism -- and sacrifices -- are a potent reminder that people shouldn’t be in the business of judging other people’s families.
The fact of the carnies’ connection to one another makes their (brutal) deaths all the more impactful. It is to Rob Zombie’s credit that he is one of the few horror film directors this year to set his sights beyond the confines of 2016 suburban affluence. Zombie gazes at people, instead, on the periphery of the culture.
There is value in those people too, and 31 sees that value, even while dispatching the carnies “straight to the pearly gates with a first class ticket.”
“In Hell, everybody loves popcorn.”
On Halloween day in 1976, a group of carnies on a bus -- Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Levon (Kevin Jackson), and Venus (Meg Foster) -- stop for gas in the middle of nowhere.
Not long after, as night falls, however, they come upon scarecrows blocking the highway. When they attempt to remove them from their path, they are set upon by costumed assailants.
When the carnies wake up, they have been captured and put into some kind of industrial basement or factory.
Their captor, Father Napoleon (Malcolm McDowell) informs them that they are about to play the game, 31. Specifically, they have to survive the night, as they are hunted by an assortment of sadistic killers. Napoleon also tells them their odds of surviving their upcoming 12 hour ordeal.
Some of the killers they face include: Sick Head (Pancho Moler), a Nazi dwarf/clown, chainsaw brothers Schizo Head (David Ury) and Psycho Head (Lew Temple), and the perverse couple Sex Head (E.C. Daily) and Death Head (Torsten Voges).
In turn, these killers try to pick off members of the group. The carnies, despite taking losses, stick together and fight back. In fact, they survive longer than any other previous group playing 31, a fact which freaks out Father Napoleon.
Accordingly, he sends Doom Head (Richard Brake) to kill them all before the dawn.
It is a job -- and a challenge -- that Doom Head relishes.
“Murder school is now in session.”
31 is filthy, foul and twisted blood-bath of a movie. Screen taboos such as cannibalism, Nazi-ism, and anal sex (!) get significant play on-screen, and they grant the film the edgy, subversive atmosphere one expects from Rob Zombie.
I will say this…it’s all disgusting, but a relief too. I am very fatigued with horror films wherein rich people confront ethnic terrors, only to defeat them by banding together. These films play it predictable and safe, and so offer no psychic terror. No slumber is terrorized.
31 is a bit predictable at points, I’ll admit, but it isn’t safe at all. Richard Brake’s Doom Head, a figure of deliberate, devoted malevolence takes away any sense of safety the audience might cultivate. He is vicious and terrifying, and sometimes a little funny too. He is not a character to be trifled with, or taken lately. And he ain't no "f@cking clown," either.
Instead, Doomhead is a remarkable “bogeyman” in the film, and every time he is on screen, 31 comes to life with a gleefully sinister air.
Why do I say that the film is predictable at points?
Well, once the carnies have been captured, the film settles down into a Running Man (1987) or The Purge (2012) type scenario.
As is the case in The Running Man, we meet a series of colorful murderers.
And as is the case in The Purge, the survivors must survive a long night, and a “horn” announces when the night is over, and all weapons must be put down. Also, the film recreates the central dynamic of that franchise: rich elites preying on the poor and socially disposable. Here, McDowell wears the wig and powder-make up of the historical French Aristocracy, a costume which marks him as one of today's effete and unchallenged elite.
Given Zombie’s ingenuity and originality in terms of style, it’s disappointing that the film’s story isn’t a little more original, or at least fresh in terms of these social dynamics.
There isn’t a heck of a lot of visual distinction, either, once the film settles down into the industrial basement. There are a lot of ceiling pipes and vent grates, and after a while it is all interchangeable.
One scene, set in the most disgusting public bathroom since Trainspotting (1996), provides the only relief…er…variety from this factory chic.
The early moments in the film are more effective, I submit. They showcase the carnies on their bus, basically running on empty in their lives. They tease one another, they talk trash, they screw and smoke, but -- as we see -- they have great affection for one another. Accordingly, the last moments in the film -- a kind of home movie of the group in better days -- is more affecting than you might expect it to be.
I appreciate that these characters don't have to be stereotypically "good" or law-abiding for us to invest in them, or empathize with him.
These moments feature a sleazy 1970s vibe, and there is some real atmosphere-building in the early sections too. The scene with the scarecrows dotting the road is authentically unnerving. You'll know the film is working, because you’ll find yourself screaming at the characters to get back in the bus, and turn around.
If you didn’t care about them, you wouldn’t feel compelled to do this.
Finally, Sheri Moon Zombie has taken a lot of guff from horror fans (again, see Zombie’s Halloween films). I think it’s fair to state that she’s terrific in this film, channeling Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), while also adding the level of “bad-assery” we have come to expect from our final girls in 2016.
I don’t know that 31 is a great horror film, or even a particularly good one.
But it is a singular one, and that distinction feels like a virtue worth lauding in the age of cookie-cutter, formulaic, empty-headed horror like The Darkness (2016). Even if some scenes fizzle out, this is a film of constant possibilities. Every moment is spine-tingling in terms of its danger.
If I had to describe Rob Zombie’s aesthetic and success in the horror film, I’d certainly quote a line from 31: “The dirtier you work, the luckier you get.”
I’ll count myself lucky that Rob Zombie added a little dirty personality to the horror film genre this year.
Wednesday, November 09, 2016
Tuesday, November 08, 2016
Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) transport Federation high commissioner Nancy Hedford (Elinor Donohue) aboard a shuttle craft when a strange space cloud intercepts them.
The shuttle is diverted to a distant planetoid, Gamma Canaris N, and its systems are rendered inoperative.
This is particularly disturbing because Hedford is dying of Sakuro’s Disease. And on top of that, she is needed to stop a war at Epsilon Canaris III.
Very soon, Kirk and the others learn the reason behind their abduction and marooning. The space cloud that captured them -- “The Companion” -- has been caring for a castaway, Zefram Cochrane (Glenn Corbett) for 150 years.
Fearing he would die of loneliness, she brought the shuttle and its occupants to him.
In an attempt to save Hedford before it is too late, Kirk and the others attempt to communicate with the Companion using the universal translator. They soon learn that the cloud loves Cochrane.
Not as a pet, but romantically.
At first, Cochrane is horrified that something so “alien” could have “human” feelings for him, but soon he begins to understand how much the Companion means to him.
“Metamorphosis,” by Gene Coon is one of my favorite second season Star Trek (1966-1969) stories, because it concerns nothing less than the universal nature of love.
That doesn’t mean the episode is perfect, or has aged well, however.
Many viewers today “read” the story as extremely sexist for its two-dimensional treatment of the Nancy Hedford character. She is a cold “professional” woman who has never been loved, and -- let’s face it -- she is not very pleasant.
In short, Hedford is a stereotypical 1960s professional woman, as imagined by a man of the time.
I understand and sympathize with this point-of-view (that the show is sexist).
Furthermore, Kirk’s final line of the episode -- “I’m sure the Federation can find another woman, somewhere, who will stop that war” -- seems unnecessarily glib, if not downright condescending.
However, there are some opposing points to consider in defense of “Metamorphosis.”
First, one should note that even though she is characterized as a cold, love-less, grating person, Hedford is simultaneously depicted as an accomplished, high-ranking individual. She is sought by the Federation as the best in her field, to stop a war. This is unequivocally a positive statement about the role of women in the 23rd century.
Of course, Kirk’s final line undercuts this accomplishment a bit. It suggests that the Federation can just find some other woman to do it, like it has a farm of female diplomats on standby for just such an occasion.
However, as I have pointed out before, in other episode reviews, Star Trek also has a (bad) habit of making any higher-up in the Federation a total jerk, creating a kind of Enterprise-against-the-universe dynamic. This dynamic recurs throughout the series. Obnoxious, cold, uptight male diplomats have been featured in episodes such as “The Galileo 7” and also “A Taste of Armageddon.”
Thus, in a weird way, Hedford is treated quite “equally” by the writers of the series, at least in a sense. She is every bit the arrogant diplomat as are her male counterparts.
So the series doesn’t hate or demean women. It hates or demeans diplomats.
On a more important basis, however, “Metamorphosis” offers a very beautiful statement about love. Specifically, the episode suggests that love is something that can exist independent of social norms.
It says that love is not limited to that which is accepted, or familiar. Love can take any form, and can transcend limited, parochial definitions. The heart wants what it wants, and matters of gender, race or biology do not necessarily change it.
The Companion -- an energy being, essentially -- loves Cochrane. She does so in a completely self-less, caring fashion.
The Companion loves him to such a degree, in fact, that she is willing to see her existence end, so that he might live. The Companion thus understands sacrifice. Immortality is something that humanity has sought since it was first born, and yet the Companion gives it up without a second look so that Cochrane may continue to exist.
The most beautiful image (in an already beautiful) episode finds the Companion, in Nancy’s body, gazing at Zefram through a scarf that, with its transparent fabric pattern, visually mimics the former color shadings of the being.
In other words, The Companion looks -- one last time -- through the eyes of her immortality, at the man she has given up everything for. There’s a wistful acceptance in this moment, not to mention genuine visual poetry. The Companion is aware of what she has given up, but stands by her decision.
Kirk, Spock, and Bones almost immediately understand the situation on the planet, involving Zefram and the Companion, but Cochrane does not. Instead, he expresses horror and revulsion hat some form that he doesn’t find attractive might be in love with him.
What we see then, is some 23rd century equivalent of racism or homophobia. As Spock observes, it is a completely “parochial” attitude that Cochrane reflects. His viewpoint is narrow, limited by his experiences. He can’t conceive that love might not happen as he imagined it, or with whom he chooses.
It takes him some time to realize that the Companion is not a monster for loving him, but a living creature with emotions, just like him. I love that the episode allows Cochrane to start from this viewpoint of fear and intolerance, and then overcome it, or at least begin to overcome it. We are imperfect creatures, and sometimes it takes us time to understand the world, and the beings around us.
The message, then, is that we all experience love, and deserve love, and that sometimes love sometimes does not take the form we expect, or that society recognizes as valid That’s a hugely powerful message for 1967, and yet there can be little doubt that “Metamorphosis” expresses these concepts beautifully.
It is a romantic and beautiful story, even if Zefram only comes to fully accept the Companion in human form. He grows too, even if he does not have to grow and “change” as deeply as does the Companion.
Indeed, one might ask, what is the metamorphosis of the title, here?
Is it the Companion, who already loved, inhabiting the body of a human woman for the first time?
Or does the metamorphosis of the title involves Zefram’s heart? He goes from fear, paranoia and revulsion to loving and accepting. And he too sacrifices for the Companion. He has learned from her. Specifically, he chooses to remain on the asteroid with the Companion, rather than return to a galaxy waiting to celebrate his return.
I also love the episode’s final recognition that “growing old together” is one of the more pleasant things that can happen to human couples.
I feel, absolutely, that statement is true.
“Metamorphosis” is imperfect, I suppose. It depicts Hedford in a way that many see as sexist, and though it knows enough to imagine how love can exist between different forms, it still assigns those forms heterosexual identities. It still thinks very much in terms of man/woman, even if it is human man/alien woman.
Still, I stand by my belief that for 1967, “Metamorphosis” is extremely forward thinking, and tolerant. It sets the groundwork for the franchise’s deeper forays into this kind of material (see: “The Outcast.”) You have to crawl before you can walk, right?
In terms of the franchise, “Metamorphosis” introduces a character who has become very important, historically speaking: Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive.
He is described in “Metamorphosis” as being Zefram Cochrane of “Alpha Centauri.” I suppose that means he could have moved to “Alpha Centauri,” because Star Trek: First Contact (1996) identifies him as an Earthman, but still the inventor of the warp drive, as he is here.
However, in First Contact, Zefram looks quite different, and acts quit differently, than he does in this story. And I guess that creates a minor discontinuity of sorts.
Next week; “Journey to Babel.”
I have written here before -- and recently -- about my ennui with the modern studio horror film formula.
Basically that equation involves an affluent white family (with 2.5 children, a dog, and a patently un-affordable home) defeating some ethnic horror, and pulling itself out of a pit of dysfunction (eating disorders, alcoholism, infidelity) in the process.
I wouldn’t mind that formula for one or two genre films, but it is the defining paradigm of a variety of most studio efforts in recent years for example The Possession (2012), Sinister (2012), and The Darkness (2016).
Indeed, I was overjoyed to watch Rob Zombie’s 31 (2016) recently, since, at the very least, the film asks us to define family in a different way. There, the heroes are ethnically-diverse “carnies” facing an aristocratic “elite” threat. They are not simply, rich white people, with rich, white people problems.
I have nothing against rich white people, by the way.
I complain about this trend in horror in the same fashion I ultimately complained about the “teen” trend in horror films of the 1980s.
After a while, the repetition and familiarity of such protagonists is simply mind-numbing, and harmful to the genre. (To pick another example: in the found footage format we could do with a few less “documentary filmmaker” protagonists.)
When the protagonists are always the same, dealing with the same stakes, and winning the same victories, horror films lose their unpredictability. And horror is a genre that requires unpredictability if it is to remain scary.
Lights Out (2016) is yet another rich white people in jeopardy movie. We have dysfunction in the form of a psychologically-ill mother, played by Maria Bello. But we also have the two children, and the patently affordable house.
No dog, alas.
And yet, I’ll confess, I prefer this film to recent examples of the formula (see: The Darkness) because the director, David F. Sandberg, has done a commendable job defining the film’s menace in terms of images, or visuals.
Make no mistake, the narrative behind the film’s menace (a ghoul called “Diana”) is right out of The Ring (2002). Instead of a terrifying girl named Samara, we get Diana. Both characters spent time in mental institutions, and both characters reach out from beyond the grave to haunt the living
So no, Lights Out’s story is no great shakes.
But the imagery here is truly effective. There are moments in the film that are chillingly scary, since Lights Out plays on the universal human fear of the dark. Director Sandberg finds inventive, and visually appealing ways to exploit this fear. The result is a film with many shocks and scares.
Is such visual distinction enough to recommend the film?
Perhaps not, on most days, but the Lights Out is punctuated with enough terror to keep things lively and also makes a noble attempt to connect the horror to one character’s mental illness in a way that is intriguing.
“There’s no you without me.”
Following the unusual death of his father, Paul (Billy Burke), young Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is too disturbed to sleep. His mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) seems to be in contact with a malevolent spirit, Diana that can appear in darkness and physically harm him.
When Martin is tagged by social services at school, Martin’s older sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) gets involved. She is all-too familiar with her mother’s psychosis, and she remembers Diana’s previous appearances, during her own young childhood.
Sophie resists an intervention by her children, even as Diana launches an attack to kill Sophie’s children, rivals for her affection in her twisted, evil eyes.
“If Mom’s crazy, does it mean we’re crazy too.”
Lights Out is a movie based on a purely visual concept, and I admit…I like that. A lot. The gimmick here is that when the lights are on, Diana can’t touch you or hurt you. But when the lights are out, she is right there, moving closer to you, preparing to strike.
The film’s opening scene, set in warehouse, is sensationally effective establishing the parameters of Diana’s abilities.
There are mannequins on the floor of the large facility, and it is closing time. An employee sees something in the dark...a creepy figure looming close by, and warns Paul. Sadly, Paul doesn’t heed the warning and comes face-to-face with Diana in a scene involving a dark office, and twitchy overhead lights. The scene is plumbed for maximum terror, and gives the movie a tremendous boost early on.
Later scare scenes are also dynamically appealing in terms of their visuals. Theresa’s first encounter with Diana (in the present) takes place in the shadow of a lurid red neon light outside her bedroom window.
That light turns on and off at regular intervals. The red light, the regularity of the lights turning on and off, and our fear of the dark all work together to make the scene quite frightening.
Finally, there’s a scene near the climax involving black light, or ultra-violet light. In this sequence, Theresa and Martin probe into Diana’s world, and find out she has been far more active (and angry) than could be detected under normal light. The black light exposes her world fully to them, and terrifyingly, it is, right there, in plain sight: in the basement.
The teaser, the scene with the neon red light, and the sequence with the creepy, cold, black-light all succeed in making Lights Out memorable, and quite terrifying.
For one thing, good horror scenes often involving playing with audience expectations. And these particular scenes -- with lights turning on and off at regular intervals, or exposing secrets in the dark -- level the playing field between protagonists and antagonists. The jumps arise when predictability gets unexpectedly shattered, and our anticipation of the routine is violated.
In its own way, Lights Out concerns an intriguing theme too: a parent overcome by mental illness.
Theresa fled the family because of Sophie’s last bout with psychosis, years earlier. Now, it is happening again with Martin. The children attempt to save her with the aforementioned intervention, and clearly Sophie struggles to balance two realities, the mad reality (with Diana) and the daylight one in which she loves her children. On the TV, in one scene, Mommie Dearest (1980) plays. In case your memory needs refreshing, that's a film about an abusive mother, and her impact on her child.
Given the fact that this particular movie gets excerpted in Lights Out, and that much of the story involves Theresa’s inability to partner with a nice and helpful boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), one might conclude that the film is really about how mental illness made it impossible for Sophie to create a secure attachment to her children. Now, her children can't attach securely to others.
Instead, that attachment is fearful in nature.
Sometimes -- when the lights are on -- the children find a loving, supporting mother.
When the lights are off, however, they are in physical danger from her, or her alter-ego. And indeed, Diana is very much an alter-ego, I would suggest. We learn that Sophie is Diana's only connection to the world, and she tells Sophie (both in writing, and verbally) that “There’s no you without me.”
Diana exists, at least in the movie’s “present,” as a manifestation of Sophie’s mental illness.
Lights Out is not as deep, psychologically-speaking, as a film such as The Babadook (2014), yet I commend the filmmakers for attempting to connect the light/dark of Diana’s nature to the light/dark nature of mental illness, and Sophie’s psyche.
It’s developed and explored just enough to permit Lights Out to stand up as more than a mere roller-coaster ride. I find it highly intriguing that the film's writer never explains what “Diana” is now, in any concrete way. She is tangible, so she’s not a ghost. She’s not a demon, either. Instead, as noted above, I believe she is a physical manifestation of Sophie’s illness. She is an avatar for Sophie's disturbed psyche.
When the film ends, Diana is defeated, but also -- spoilers -- Sophie loses her battle with mental illness. She does so in a way that frees her children, one can conclude, and one that is heroic. But the idea of the movie is that for those who suffer with it, mental illness is always there.
When you walk out into the sun -- or turn on the lights -- it may appear to be gone. But return to the solitary darkness, and it’s there again, just like Diana.
Lights Out’s primary deficit involves the details of Diana’s back story, which are largely unnecessary if the character needs to be seen simply as a manifestation of Sophie’s mental illness.
Instead, we get all this (ultimately unimportant...) material about Diana having a sensitivity to light, and the doctors’ (botched) attempt to cure it. Then we get hints that she can “get inside” the heads of her friends and family, haunting them forever. So, she’s basically a knock-off of Samara, and other supernatural “girl” monsters.
Fortunately, this film boasts one other virtue worth noting in a review. It runs just 81 minutes, and so the scary scenes are packed close together, and there is not too much time available to suss out all the narrative improbabilities.
So here’s a prescription for an effective horror film of the 21st century. Create a powerful sense of visual menace. Explore it for 80 minutes and then…Lights Out.