Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's TV Terrors pt. 3

The importance of THE X-FILES in terms of modern television should never be understated. Check any fall schedule after the show’s breakout seasons and you will find channels littered with paranormal investigation infused knockoffs like POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY, THE VISITOR, FREAKYLINKS, HAUNTED and THE BERNIE MAC SHOW (just making sure you are paying attention). ABC was so desperate for a sci-fi themed cop show that they turned the Van Damme vehicle TIMECOP into a show for one ill-fated season in 1997. Hell, X-FILES creator Chris Carter even delivered not one but two riffs (MILLENIUM and HARSH REALM) on his own show. Investigating the paranormal was big business, which was made even bigger thanks to the surprise box office hits THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE SIXTH SENSE in 1999. So before you could whisper “I see dead people,” you knew a show centering on clairvoyant paranormal investigators was coming. THE OTHERS was that show, popping up as a mid-season replacement on NBC in Feb. 2000.

Produced by Spielberg’s DreamWorks Television, THE OTHERS was created by screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (we reviewed their early sci-fi effort MINDWARP here) and co-written by X-FILES writers Glen Morgan and James Wong (around the same time they found out killing kids in intricate accidents in the FINAL DESTINATION was also big business). So THE X-FILES had Agents Mulder and Scully? Well, if we triple that number our show should be three times as great, right? So thinks Hollywood and THE OTHERS features six psychics investigating cases. We have Ellen (Missy Crider), the girl into black arts; Albert, the cranky old blind guy who can “see”; Warren (Kevin J. O’Connor), the nervous wreck; Mark (Gabriel Macht), the hunky doctor who can feel other’s pain; Elmer (Bill Cobbs), the requisite old black man/sage; and Marian (Julianne Nicholson), the young college student just experiencing her powers and unsure if she wants to join the group. Keeping them all in check is Prof. Miles Ballard (John Billingsley), who sets up their various jaunts across the country.

Tobe Hooper stepped onto the show to direct “Souls on Board,” the fourth episode of the season. The entire group is heading to a conference in Arizona, but Prof. Ballard has ulterior motives. He booked this specific flight because of the reports of paranormal activity that has been occurring on it, thanks to the recycling of salvageable parts from a crashed plane. Naturally, the group feels betrayed having to deal with this extra credit, but it doesn’t take long before everyone is feeling the vibes. Marian immediately starts getting that feeling as she sees a ghostly hand on the plane’s window. She soon finds herself in contact with Capt. Garcia, the dead pilot of the plane that crashed, and scrawls out a note reading “Number two engine hot. Data fictitious” and gets it to the pilot. Before you can seize up like John Lithgow, the plane is in trouble and seemingly recreating the doomed path of the earlier flight.

Officially Hooper’s first work of the 2000s, this episode finds him delivering the goods in the required format and again offering technical precision. With 90% of the action taking place inside an airplane, there is limited space to present the scares but Hooper makes it work. The camera is always ghostly gliding down the aisles and there is a very effective scare in the bathroom where faces emerge from the walls (why ghosts seem intent on scaring the shit out of the girl they are trying to contact is beyond me). Hooper also opens the episode with an amazing single take shot that follows the pilot’s hands on the controls of the plane and then slowly changes to crash investigators looking the wrecked equipment while listening to the flight recorder. On the downside, the end is pretty cheesy and there is a virtual repeat of the “crossing over” dialog bit from POLTERGEIST. No doubt this should be accredited to episode writer Daniel Arkin, but Hooper creates a sense of déjà vu by playing it out in the same hushed tones. I haven’t seen the rest of the series, but fans of the show consistently rank this as one of the top episodes.

The impact of THE X-FILES on modern television, however, pales in comparison to the granddaddy of all fantastical TV, Rod Serling’s original THE TWILIGHT ZONE. This science fiction anthology series has seen imitations virtually every year since in debuted just over 50 years ago. One of the plethora of TZ wannabes was Fox’s 2001 show NIGHT VISIONS, which sought to mimic the original’s success right down to the narrator introducing each episode. And who better to act as the new millennium’s faux Serling than former Black Flag front man Henry Rollins. Wait…what??? Yup, looking to get down with the sci-fi geeks, the tattooed singer stiffly introduces each segment. Rollins is known for his lively spoken word performances, but that enthusiasm fails crossover here. It is funny though hearing him say poorly written crap like, “Nothing lasts forever, kids. Try not to forget that.” The only thing more awkward would be some exec thinking Forest Whitaker would make a good host for a second revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Oh, shit, they did that too? F’n Hollywood!

Anyway, Tobe Hooper signed up for two segments on this anthology series, although the IMDb would lead you to believe he only did one as he isn’t credited on “The Maze” page. He is credited for it though with the NIGHT VISIONS TV edit SHADOW REALM. Confused? Good. “The Maze” centers on college student Susan Thornhill (Thora Birch). Painfully shy, Susan steps into a college hedge maze to avoid a guy who likes her. The problem is she steps in there in 2001 and steps out in 2003. Faced with a deserted campus, Susan wanders around with no one in sight. She does encounter other people when she finds a dead cook in the cafeteria and a college professor (Amanda Plummer, looking more like dad Chris every day) teaching a class to dead students. Still confused, she makes her way to the library and runs into the guy who likes her. He informs her that a big asteroid is heading toward earth and DOOMSDAY IS AT HAND! Susan figures that if they run back through the maze, they will end up in 2001, but the boy is stabbed by the psycho professor. They make it to the maze, but only Susan makes it back to the normal 2001. Do you think she has learned her lesson? Hell yeah, she takes the guy up on his offer of a date and love is born. Thank you for my life lesson, super magical maze!

Hooper’s second segment was “Cargo” and aired in the episode a week after his first one. This one is even more straightforward and simple. Seaman Mark Stevens (Jamie Kennedy, reteaming with Hooper after PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE) discovers a cargo container full of Russian immigrants. The leader of the group (Joanna Pacula) pleads for his help to get them out because there is something inside there that is killing and eating them. Mark consults with Capt. Branscom (Philip Baker Hall) without actually telling him of his discovery. The captain’s words inspire Mark to attempt to free the trapped stowaways, but it turns out to have dire consequences. See, the folks inside the container are actually Russian monsters called Vlokoslat (trust me, I’m spelling that wrong) that “Czars terrorized serfs with and the Russian mob use as assassins.” And our benevolent captain has – surprise, surprise – been paid to transport them to New York. With the secret out, Mark ends up becoming their latest meal.

This is pretty uninspiring stuff, but you really can’t expect too much from a 22-minute episode of a 21rst century TWILIGHT ZONE rip off hosted by Henry Rollins. Chances are you will guess the twists of both episodes long before they are revealed, thanks to a lifetime of anthology programming priming audiences to stay ahead of the game. Both parts are fine from a technical standpoint, echoing Hooper’s earlier work on TALES FROM THE CRYPT. “The Maze” is the better of the two as Hooper is able to establish a very foreboding tone as Susan walks across the empty campus. The well established mood is, however, let down by the flimsy reasoning and the sappy “love is what really matters” ending. In the case of “Cargo,” the story’s twist is pretty obvious as you only have 3 main characters in the entire thing. Again, Hooper does create a nice atmosphere for the piece and even includes a couple of gory bits (for network TV anyway). The finale also sees Hooper giving a visual nod to his own SALEM’S LOT as the monsters have the creepy, glowing yellow eyes.

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