Archive for The Outer Limits

Under the Microscope

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on July 23, 2019 by dcairns

Since Felix E. Feist started his career, kind of, with the spectacular DELUGE, and later made DONOVAN’S BRAIN, which I must say doesn’t capture the brilliance of Curt Siodmak’s source novel (I always thought of Curt as a classic “idiot brother” figure until I read this one), I became curious as to whether he had a third science fiction movie under his belt. “One should always talk about doing trilogies,” as Terry Gilliam once said.

Well, he doesn’t, but if you turn to his TV work, you get several episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which I immediately discounted as unworthy of my, or indeed his, attention, but you also get a single episode of The Outer Limits.

I’m not a huge OL fan — I’ve never seen an episode that wouldn’t be better with a half-hour runtime. But the combination of Feist and Stefano’s anthology show seemed worth exploring.

In The Probe, a plane crashes in a hurricane, and we immediately get stock shots of model huts being blown away — maybe from Ford’s THE HURRICANE? At any rate, this harkens back cheerily to the miniature apocalypse of DELUGE, making this definite trilogy material.

It’s also crap material. The various human figures presented are just as stock as the disaster movie footage, indeed no attempt whatever to distinguish them is made. I kept expecting more of them to die, so at least they’d be individualised by manner of demise, but the show is oddly tender-hearted towards its worthless populace. Even Peggy Ann Garner, an Oscar-winner for A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, evinces a difficulty in saying basic English words.

The dialogue is the worst and best thing about the episode. Worst, in that it ruins suspense by having the characters figure stuff out with impossible ease. Trapped in an alien craft, they hear a whine. “Powerful engines?” suggests one. “Atomic?” suggests another.

On the other hand, the dialogue is terrible in a much more entertaining way. The show’s best moment is when the characters, at sea in a life raft, suddenly find they’re indoors. But while the notice that their tiny craft is resting on a metallic floor, they never react to the walls, and don’t seem to notice or consider the implications of being inside an artificial structure until long minutes later. It’s as if visual decisions were made without regard to the script, and nobody considered tweaking the lines to ensure that the characters didn’t come off as mad or blind or simply acting in a different show.

There’s a shit monster. Almost literally.

“Take a step towards that thing,” the square-jawed commander says to his square-jawed subordinate at one point, which somehow fails to elicit the normal response, “Fuck off, YOU take a step towards it.”

Foreground miniature!

Feist blocks the action well, but there’s little of the appeal of his noirs. A really creative adaptation of DONOVAN’S BRAIN, which is a kind of noir or at least crime book, could have exploited his shadowy talents to fine effect. But since Feist is credited as a screenwriter on the resulting brainfest, we have to hold him responsible and admit that he didn’t have a lot of feeling for sci-fi.

The 13th Monkey

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by dcairns

A day of time travel stories —

To the cinema! To see Rian Johnson’s LOOPER. Big fan of his BRICK and I think THE BROTHERS BLOOM deserves more credit than it got even if it didn’t quite make it. After this hit, maybe more people will see it at least. But LOOPER is tough to talk about without spoilers, and it’s new so lots of you haven’t seen it. I’ll just say that Jeff Daniels berating Joseph Gordon-Levitt for copying his style from movies that themselves copied their style from older movies seems a very witty self-critique on Johnson’s part. We’ve already seen JG-L stand before the mirror and adjust his tiny duck-ass quiff in homage to Delon in LE SAMURAI… a movie which, like most Melville, transfigured moments and shots and set designs from old Hollywood noirs.

So it’s not the time to get into LOOPER, even though the film is current. We both really liked it, but I’d always rather talk about old stuff anyway.

The Outer Limits — watched the Harlan Ellison scripted Demon with a Glass Hand the same day as LOOPER, to get our heads nicely a-buzz with time travel ideas. Ellison sued the makers of THE TERMINATOR over its similarities to two of his stories, this and Soldier. Odd, since LOOPER owes much more to THE TERMINATOR, but one can’t imagine anyone suing over that resemblance. In Demon, Robert Culp (who can play both supermasculine and intellectual) comes from the future and has a cybernetic hand that tells him stuff, but can’t reveal the whole plot until it gets all its fingers back. This is a crazy, charming plot device, much more effective to deliver exposition than the scenes where Culp forces his enemies (who all look like Uncle Fester, as Fiona pointed out — except for the one who looks like a pitifully young Iggy Pop) to reveal what they know. They’re all remarkably loquacious, despite the fact that Culp is going to kill them anyway.

Byron Haskin, an old genre hand, directs, and rather delightfully the whole thing (apart from the above studio shot) plays inside the Bradbury Building, famous from BLADE RUNNER and a million other things, a building supposedly envisioned by its architect in a dream. Somebody should shoot some kind of cock-eyed compendium film of DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE there, since all of those came from dreams too. The ultimate oneiric movie.

The deserted office building at night is a vivid way to encapsulate the hero’s existential aloneness, which Ellison, lays on thick as you’d expect. He’s like a purple Kafka. Time travel per se plays little active role until the stinger at the end — the bad guys are aliens and removing their medallions could just as easily zap them back to their home world as forward in time. It’s interesting to me how baggy most of the Outer Limits scripts are — the one hour running time demands more complicated premises than Twilight Zone, but often the complications are stray stuff, padding or the narrative equivalent of patio extensions.

A case in point is The Man Who Was Never Born, which begins with a wholly superfluous astronaut character going through a time warp before the story actually begins. The true protagonist is Martin Landau as a futureworld mutant, traveling back in time to kill the scientist who’s going to invent a plague that sterilizes mankind and causes Landau’s disfigurement. So this story, by Anthony Lawrence, actually has more in common with THE TERMINATOR (and T2) than the Ellison story. Yet it’s prefigured too, by John Wyndham’s Consider Her Ways, which became a memorable episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Lawrence claimed his biggest influence was Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Shirley Knight makes a radiant Beauty), and Conrad Hall’s fairytale cinematography actually conjures a comparable glamour using a very different palette.

The same day we watched LOOPER and the Ellison, the BBC screened the season finale of Dr Who, so we had a serious dose of time travel. Stephen Moffat’s run as script editor has been up and down — he allowed the Doctor to step hideously out of character in one episode, vindictively murdering a bad guy. It seems like there’s a quality control issue in the selection of writers, probably because Moffat doesn’t have time to read script samples and write his own episodes and rewrite everybody else’s.

In principle, I think the Weeping Angels who first appeared in the stand-out episode Blink are a one-trick pony and probably shouldn’t have been re-used. The basic gag of statues which only move when you aren’t looking, is terrific, but somehow stopped being scary after the first show (where it was terrifying). Which means that the pleasures of this episode came from the actors  — Mike McShane rather wasted, but Alex Winter Kingston (d’oh!) zesty as ever. Farewell to the best assistants the doc has ever had, but we still have Matt Smith as the Time Lord himself, a completely wonderful embodiment of the character. It pains me to say, but I think Smith really will struggle to find suitable roles when his stint finishes. As with Tom Baker, when you’re that good at playing an alien/funny uncle/Christ figure, it can be hard for casting directors to see you any other way. But I hope I’m wrong — in terms of emotional range, Smith can play anything, and generally comes at the emotion from a surprising angle, which made the climactic farewell scene here really affecting. Moffat wrote it very nicely, Smith and Karen Gillan (who assuredly will have a great post-Who career) played the hell out of it, and the awful music did its best to smother the whole affair in treacle but couldn’t quite succeed.

Pool Sharks

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2012 by dcairns

Photographic consultant Haskell Wexler — and so we get some striking and not-yet fashionable long lens shots…

STUDS LONIGAN carries its literary origins somewhat heavily, as if producer/screenwriter Philip Yordan really felt the weight of responsibility of adaptation. But it’s a fascinating artifact — Irving Lerner, a talented pulp B-movie specialist with a flair for two-fisted minimalism akin to Jack Webb’s, does his best to create prohibition Chicago out of a few doorways.

As an indie no-budget studio-bound art film, the movie is nicely suis generis, and has genuine merits. “Jerrald” Goldsmith’s rambunctious score tries hard to tie the fragments together (Yordan has gutted James T Farrell’s trilogy and served up his favourite bits with little regard to flow or structure), and the cast sparks moments of excitement. Christopher Knight tries hard in the lead, and when he’s taking his lead from his co-stars, he’s quite good. When he tries to emote along to his voice-over, trumping up facial contortions to accompany each line, he’s awful. But his gang includes Frank Gorshin (ever-morphing between his Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark impressions), Robert Casper (great nasal voice, clapped-in mouth, a real character) and Jack Nicholson, who isn’t uncomfortable and outclassed as he appears in Corman’s THE RAVEN, but utterly in command of every scene and moment. The role of young rake seems to suit him.

A lengthy burlesque show scene has Nicholson baring his teeth and bouncing on his seat as a woman walks about the stage in a shiny dress and opera gloves for minutes on end. Never gets dull. Midway through, Lerner cuts to Studs visiting his sexy, lonely former schoolteacher (Helen Westcott), and keeps the bump and grind music going, then tracks in on the drunk Studs and shows the schoolteacher doing the burlesque act, and doing it well, as the real teacher prattles on about Mozart, sound faded way down, and the squiffled Studs psychs himself up to rape her. With flash-cutting between the real and fantasy, the scene reaches quite a frenzy, before mercifully and unexpectedly defusing itself with tenderness. If the movie had more sustained scenes and less voice-over… well, it still wouldn’t have a cinematic structure.

Lerner holds close-ups for minutes on end, turning the lack of production values into a benefit, and slashes together dutch tilts to trump up tension when the actors can’t quite muster it. His Chicago consists of one little Old New York street set and a few bare interiors. Little wonder Wexler’s ideas must have been helpful: throw everything out of focus except one item/actor. (I recently watched the Outer Limits episode The Man Who Was Never Born, shot by Wexler — he was a genius right from the off.)

Lerner’s collaborator on the acclaimed doc MUSCLE BEACH, Joseph Strick, spent his whole career tackling unfilmable literary classics, with debatable success. This was Lerner’s one real attempt at doing the same, but his tiny, unpretentious and edgy thrillers are probably of greater value. Still, as curate’s eggs go, STUDS LONIGAN is endearing, both for its modest merits and for the way it points to a putative sub-genre of cheap classic adaptations (like Welles’ MACBETH, in a way) that never quite managed to come into existence.