I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.
Why? Because miracles do happen.
After two miserable sequels, the world had no reason to expect anything good from another Jurassic Park movie; in fact, we had every reason to expect we would be better off without one – and it’s not as if the trailers did much to assuage our feelings of apprehension that Jurassic World would be a heaping pile of dino-dung. Why the hell would anybody build a park on the site of the previous disaster, and who would be stupid enough to put up the insurance? What kind of morons would buy tickets to visit a place with that kind of horrible and undoubtedly very high-profile history? Are we really supposed to get excited over the sight of Chris Pratt using Raptors like a pack of hunting dogs to track some new mutant dinosaur? Doesn’t the whole thing feel desperate and ridiculous?
And yet, in spite of every ill omen, Jurassic World turns out to be the most enjoyable blockbuster in recent memory, easily eclipsing the moribund Marvel superhero franchise. How this miracle was achieved, I am not quite sure – perhaps through some bureaucratic oversight, Universal Pictures hired some people who actually wanted to make a good movie? Maybe someone realized that, in a marketplace saturated with special effects, just doing another formulaic dino-munch-athon was not going to cut it?
I suspect that both may be the case: some talented people realized the challenges they faced and devised clever ways to meet those challenges. In particular, Jurassic World works because it is almost as much about Jurassic World the film as it is about Jurassic World the tourist attraction. The premise is that audiences grow jaded with familiar wonders; this attention-deficit-disorder requires an ever increasing escalation of scale in order to continue selling tickets; unfortunately, escalation can lead to disastrous results for audiences, who end up being assaulted instead of entertained.
In essence, this is the situation in which the makers of Jurassic World found themselves: back in 1993, showing regular dinosaurs – with the added novelty of computer-generated imagery – was enough to wow viewers; twenty-two years later, the familiar beasts are old-hat, so upping the ante is necessary. Thus, is born the new Indominus Rex; fortunately, the ensuing disaster is visited upon the on-screen audience in the park, not the real live audience in the theatre, because the filmmakers seem completely aware of how far wrong this strategy could go.
After all, they had only to look at Jurassic Park III, which gave us the Spinosaurus. Remember him? No? I’m not surprised. Spinosaurus is the equivalent of a “new and improved” product that provides exactly what you got before but in new packaging. It’s just a T-Rex with a sail on its back, and though having it kill a T-Rex early in the film is supposed to strike terror in our hearts, we all realize that – regardless of whether it looks a little different and kills the monster from the previous films – a Spinosaurus can’t kill you any deader than a T-Rex, so in practical terms there is absolutely no difference.
At first, Indominous Rex seems to be Jurassic World’s Spinosaurus – just another bigger, badder T-Rex, no doubt intended to sell new tie-in merchandise. Fortunately, it turns out to be something much better than that. Indominous becomes a self-referential plot point, in which the filmmakers acknowledge what circumstances are forcing them to do (create a new dinosaur as a marketing gimmick) and then ruthlessly satirize the result while ultimately inviting us to root for the old-school dinosaurs we lovingly remember from the first film.
And if my prose makes this sound like a dry, intellectual exercise, I apologize, because the result is a kick-ass, high-octane adventure that perfectly manipulates its pop entertainment elements – which is to say that, whether or not Jurassic World features sophisticated drama and in-depth characters, it makes you feel involved with the on-screen events,so that, even if the scenario plays out in a way that might seem predictable of even trite when viewed with cynical, retroactive disdain, you will fall under the spell while the film unspools before your eyes – fearing the threat and rooting for the heroes to defeat it. Or to put it another way: the film can get away with roasting a lot of chestnuts, because it cooks them to perfection and makes the audience hungry for more.
Indominous Rex (the dialogue acknowledges the absurdity of the name, manufactured – like the creature itself – to sell tickets) is a freak of science, a gene-spliced hybrid that emerges as the modern equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster – an abomination that has no right to exist in our world of naturally evolved organisms. Intelligent and ruthless, the creature kills for sport – a hint that pays off late in the film, revealing that Indominous is something more sinister than just a redesigned Tyrannosaur.
In short, Indominous is almost a dictionary definition of a monster, which beyond any doubt needs to be exterminated, and much of the triumph of Jurassic World is that the battle that ensues is not a Transformers-like exercise in empty visual flash; it’s a textbook example of the value of rooting interest: I cannot remember the last time I anxiously cheering for a character to be put down for good (unless it was the moment in Evil Dead II when Ash jabs his finger at the severed head of his undead girl friend and angrily intones, “You’re doing down!”).
Of course, this is no easy task; it requires some satisfying inter-species cooperation. Not only does Owen (Pratt) ride out with his Raptor-pack; Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) unleashes a useful ally at the climax. The sly joke is that these two dinosaurs were mortal enemies at the conclusion of the first Jurassic Park, but now they set aside their differences to help humanity defeat the monster.
In a weird kind of way, Jurassic World is the franchise’s equivalent of Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, in which Godzilla teams with former foes Mothra and Rodan to fend off the new threat. The difference is that, avoiding camp, Jurassic World sells the idea with a straight face conviction that precludes us from even questioning the convenience that a worthy opponent for Indominus just happened to be conveniently waiting in a pen to be unleashed for the climax. I certainly wasn’t going to question it, because it was sure as hell what I wanted to see happen.
To spread some credit around to the humans, Pratt and Howard and effortlessly appealing in their roles; yeah, they’re fairly typical movie characters, but they’re watchable and even believable. The two brothers at the center of the story are likable instead of annoying (and neither one defeats a Raptor with a kick from the parallel bars). It’s also nice that even some nominal bad guys – execs and scientists responsible for Indominous Rex – seem sort of like people, and sometimes even make a halfway decent attempt to do the right thing, as when new park owner Masrani (Irrfan Khan) pilots a helicopter attempting to shoot down Indominous – even though he is not fully qualified for the task. It’s always nice to see B.D. Wong (here as the dino-designer), and Vincent D’Onofrio does good work as the film’s one officially unredeemed asshole, who wants to use the Raptors as dog soldiers. Guess what happens to him?
But while you’re guessing, remember this: the joys of Jurassic World do not being and end with seeing an unlikable character get what he deserves (a la the lawyer in Jurassic Park). This movie wants to bring you back to a state of mind where a rampaging dinosaur would have you scared shirtless. (Did I just write that? Must have been a typo!) When Indominous escapes his pen, you are not chanting, “Go, go – Godzilla!” You are moaning, “Oh no! Oh hell! Everybody – run!” It’s a sign of truly impressive film-making when even the disposable “red shirt” character inspires more sympathy than blood-lust in an audience that has paid to see a creature with an appetite for destruction go on a wild rampage.
That rampage is rendered with excellent CGI that is not merely pretty; it also suggests a believable physicality – a sense of inertia and momentum seen in real object but lacking in most digital work, which tends to betray its virtual origins. The 3D aspect is reasonably well-used: true to form for recent 3D films, the effects tend to be less in-your-face than the old school “comin’ at ya” shots of the 1950s and 1970s, but the extra dimension helps convey the sense of gargantuan size, and there is one great shot of a pterodactyl trying to fly out of the screen to escape a predator.
Despite its wonders, not everything is perfect in Jurassic World. Some early scenes do not strike the intended note (an early aerial shot, backed by swelling music, implies a sense of grandeur that simply is not visually evident in what looks to us like a standard theme park layout). The over-reliance on digital dinosaurs robs the film of the satisfying blend of computer and mechanical effects that worked so well in Jurassic Park, providing a live-action texture and immediacy that yielded a greater sense of human-saurian interaction. And finally, near the end, Jurassic World goes a little bit “Ray Harryhausen” on us, in a bad way.
To my surprise, I had bought into the Raptor scenario up till then, which had Owen interacting with the predators like a tamer dealing with lions: yes, he could get them to obey commands, but that didn’t mean he would turn his back on them. Still, there was some sense of a bond, insofar as Owen was the “alpha” member of the group, the pack leader upon whom the others had imprinted when they were born. This bond is tested, strained, broken, and possibly repaired in the film’s third act, which sees shifting alliances that lead to some shuddery plot twists. At the end of the day, certain characters make a decision to stand not with their biological kin but with their adoptive relative – even at risk to their own lives. And for too long during this sequence, Owen stands there like one of those slack-jawed heroes in an old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsterfest, watching while a friendly creature does his fighting for him. As much as I was rooting for Indominous Rex to take his well deserved fall, I was practically yelling at the screen for Owen to get off the sidelines and get some skin in the game – you don’t just stand and watch while your brothers-in-arms become dino-chow.
It’s ironic that, in a film which tries to add a glint of humanity to the usual blockbuster formula, the heroes turn out to be not so much the humans as the cold-blooded reptiles. In a weird kind of way, despite my misgivings, I’m okay with that. Because it’s nice to see old enemies united against a common foe; T-Rex is still the Lizard King, and like the end of Jurassic Park, the climax of Jurassic World takes you back – mentally, at least – to a time When Dinosaurs Rules the Earth.
Jurassic World (June 12, 2015). Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly, from a story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Jimmy Fallon. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.
I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.
One certainly cannot deny that San Andreas delivers on the promise inherent in its title: it really is a feature-length road trip up the San Andreas fault, which just happens to be periodically shaking California to pieces along the way. That may not sound like much of a plot, but the film vastly improves upon the approach of its obvious disaster-era progenitor, Earthquake (1974), which never adequately answered the question: after two minutes of tremors, what can we do for the rest of the movie except dig people out of the rubble? Propelled by a continuing series of quakes spread out over the entire state, San Andreas is all forward momentum and non-stop action, but with enough narrative focus to avoid letting the calamity totally engulf the picture.
Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a rescue-copter pilot going through a divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), whose new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) does not look like an ex-wrestler, meaning he cannot possibly be man enough to replace Ray. Fortunately for Ray, two science guys, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) and Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) have figured out that a humongous quake is about to destroy California, which will give Ray a chance to prove that Emma should stay with him. This is actually achieved rather quickly, when he whisks her off a collapsing rooftop in downtown Los Angeles; the plot complication, such as it is, arises from the fact that Ray and Emma’s daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, introduced to us in a flattering poolside bikini shot, because obviously we can’t care what happens to her unless she’s hot) is in San Francisco with Daniel. So away go Ray and Emma on their rescue mission, first in Ray’s copter, then a stolen vehicle, then a stolen boat.
The notion that Ray, a professional rescue worker, is abandoning his post in an emergency is never acknowledged let alone questioned, because movies are all about family these days – at least, that’s an easy way to generate a little rooting interest. It also goes without saying that using the company copter for your personal needs and stealing someone else’s car is okay as long as you’re the protagonist, because – hey, it’s only a movie!
Strangely, despite these questionable narrative leaps, San Andreas never completely matriculates into the “Dumb Movie” school of filmmaking; the scenario manages to maintain at least a small illusion of credibility, asking us to engage with the characters as if they are people in genuine peril, not merely pawns in an empty spectacle. It’s a sign of what’s right in the film that when one of the scientists dies on a collapsing bridge, the sequence is played as a tragedy, not an aint-it-cool moment of awesome special effects.
Likewise, San Andreas mimics the reserved (a relative term, I know) approach to vast destruction seen in Godzilla (2014): much of the action is shown from the point of view of the distraught characters instead of lovingly photographed like epic disaster porn. Although San Andreas is filled with collapsing buildings, tidal waves, fires, and explosions, not all of these scenes are show-stopping set-pieces; often they are glimpsed on the fly as Ray and Emma race by – relegated to sideshow status while the film maintains focus on the their quest to save Blake. It’s almost as if the filmmakers thought they were making a real movie in which we cared more about the characters than the quake.
In fact, San Andreas lingers on the verge of being something a little bit better than a by-the-numbers blockbuster. In old school disaster movies, characters tended to be clearly divided into heroes, victims, and villains. Ray is clearly the archetypal disaster movie hero; however, it’s a nice touch that Blake, though serving the function of victim in need of rescue, does not sit around waiting for her brave daddy to arrive; she takes action, seeking higher ground, instead of blindly following the panicked crowds. Sadly, this element gets a bit jumbled; with all the chaos of plans gone awry, it’s not entirely clear whether Blake’s actions will improve or diminish Ray’s chances of getting to her in time.
This is not the film’s only squandered opportunity to better itself. San Andreas initially avoids offering a typical disaster-movie villain. These take one of two forms: either they are responsible for the disaster, or they irresponsible in the way they save themselves at the expense of everyone else. The obvious candidate here is Daniel, who is – somewhat surprisingly – presented as a halfway decent guy. Yes, he abandons Blake in a crisis, but not out of self-interest; he really seems to be in a complete state of shock. Unfortunately, as the shock wears off, so does the film’s sympathy for him, morphing the character into a traditional prick who pushes others out of the way to save himself, until his own efforts ironically put him in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Which I guess means that the film is happy to revert to clichés. Ray, Emma, Blake, and a couple of British immigrant Blake found along the way are okay, which means it’s a happy ending all around on the big screen, in spite of presumably millions of corpses buried beneath debris from one end of the coast to the next. Presumably, Ray and Emma will live happily ever after, now that she sees how useful Ray is during a crisis – though how that’s going to sustain a relationship during those long periods of time when California isn’t quaking itself into a pile of rubble, remains unclear. Hopefully, Giamatti’s science guy can spot another earthquake on the near horizon.
San Andreas ( May 29, 2015). Directed by Brad Peyton. Written by Carlton Cuse, from a story by Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore. Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.
Looks good only in comparison to its disappinting predecessors
Inside Out is stunning. Unfortunately, what is stunning is not the film itself but the perceptual phenomenon surrounding it: Pixar Animation’s previous troika of Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University was so abysmally disappointing that, by comparison, the simple mediocrity of Inside Out has fooled critics and audiences into believing that they were seeing a brilliant return to form. I think James Walcott dubbed this the “Bob Dylan Phenomenon”: after years of disappointing work, any halfway decent album is hailed as “his best since Blood on the Tracks.” In the case of Inside Out, we might call the film Pixar’s best since Toy Story 3, but even that comparison would be praise too high; this is definitely second-tier Pixar, more on par with A Bug’s Life – another film that had an amusing premise but an unimaginative execution, gilded with gorgeous computer graphics.
In case, you haven’t heard, most of Inside Out takes place inside the head of Riley, a young girl undergoing a traumatic move to a new home. Well, not really traumatic – more like stressful – but that’s not going to stop the emotions living inside her head – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear – from turning Riley’s relatively prosaic predicament into the premise for a blockbuster movie, including an epic journey replete with insane action sequences.
In order to do this, the scenario contrives a set of rules for the way things work inside Riley’s head; then of course something goes wrong, and in order to set it right, Joy and Sadness set off to fix the problem. Along the way, lots of stuff happens because the script says so and because we need to fill 90 minutes somehow or other, and eventually we – or at least, Joy – learns a big lesson, which is that Sadness is also important to Riley’s mental well-being.
Strangely, Joy learns this less through a series of flashbacks to events that should have taught her the lesson years ago; the only reason any of this is a “surprise” to us is that, being flashbacks, the material was previously unseen by the audience. Why what the audience knows should matter to Joy’s understanding of Riley’s psyche is a mystery the film does not explore.
Nor does Inside Out explore why the emotions inside Riley’s head have emotions of their own (perhaps in some sort of infinite regression they themselves have emotions living inside their heads?). In any case, their personalities are not as vivid as one would expect from characters so clearly defined by a single trait. The lone exception here is Anger, thanks in large part to the vocal performance of Lewis Black (whose outrage in response to an oddball San Francisco variant on pizza provides the film’s biggest laugh).
All of this would be neither here nor there if the film had used its conceit to string together some amusing set pieces and comedy, but there is little actual joy in the film. The arbitrary nature of the difficulties faced ruins any genuine suspense (we’re in a mental landscape, yet for some reason physical constraints such as Gravity and Momentum must be observed). No doubt the filmmakers were afraid of turning Inside Out into a surreal head trip that might alienate parents taking their children to see it.
There are a few moments when the film briefly comes to life, including a very poignant one when Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend shuffles off into the existential void for good. Other than that, Inside Out is a sadly tedious effort, buoyed only by the craftsmanship employed by the computer-animators, working in 3D to create some beautiful imaginary landscapes that really deserve to have something more interesting happening in them.
How Inside Out managed to overcome its rather obvious shortcoming to become both a box office blockbuster and a critical darling is certainly a mystery. My guess is that we’re seeing a combination of willful wish fulfillment and cognitive dissonance. In the wake of its disappointing predecessors, to acknowledge the actual quality of Inside Out would be to acknowledge a recent track record indicating that Pixar’s Golden Era may be a thing of the past. Well, at least we have The Incredibles 2 looming on the horizon, so there’s still hope.
In theatres, Inside Out is preceded by the Pixar short subject Lava, which is about a lonely boy volcano hoping to meet a girl volcano. Essentially a music video, Lava‘s idea of wit is to substitute the word “lava” for “love” in the lyrics. The result is hokey and cornball, but the attempt to make the girl volcano attractive – even though she has no nose and only slits for eyes and mouth – is bizarre enough to be memorable if not truly pleasant.
Inside Out and Lava are currently in release nationwide.
Inside Out (June 19, 2015). Directed by Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen. Written by Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley and Peter Docter, with additional dialogue by Amy Poehler & Bill Hader. Voices: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn DIas, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Frank Oz. Rated PG.
A Mystery for the Ages: Why is DARK WAS THE NIGHT not getting the amount of praise heaped on indie horror darlings such as THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS?
Into the Woods we go…though not on some revisionist, musical journey. These woods are far from the fairy tale forests of Stephen Sondheim; they are even farther from the simplistic monster movie territory promised by the posters (“Evil’s roots run deep”). Presented in images crisp and clear, these woods are not exactly dark when we first see them, but rather faded. This look initially seems like a simple visual conceit for a “revenge of nature” horror flick – we see a logging company knocking down trees and think, “Aha, they’re destroying the greenery, and there’s no green in the photography” – however, it turns out to be an indicator of something more subtle and profound.
After the loggers get what they deserve (at the hands or claws of an unseen something), we meet Paul Shields (Kevin Durand), and the pain in his eyes instantly tells us – before we know anything else about him – that there is some damage deep inside. The sheriff in a small logging town, Paul simply wants to go about his routine and do his job, but in an amusing turn-about on Columbo’s “just one more thing, sir,” the officer of the law is the one repeatedly forced to continue conversations he would rather terminate, as the locals (his soon-to-be ex-wife, his pastor, his deputy) strive to get him to open up about the tragedy haunting him. The exact nature of that tragedy is revealed incrementally, but long before the details come out, the impact on Shields is clear, etched in every expression, which strives but never achieves an affectless quality meant to insulate him from the pain that his friends want him to confront. Which soon brings us to the realization that the cold, colorless photography does not symbolize the destruction of nature; instead, it represents that state of Paul’s soul, alive but drained of vitality, unable to see or even seek the vibrant hues that should be all around him. Yes, this is a horror movie – and a good one – but its tension does not derive primarily from the mechanics of suspense; far more than the more highly lauded The Babadook, Dark Was The Night wants to make you feel its character’s pain.
With its attention on the drama, Dark Was The Night is in no hurry to throw monster stuff at the audience; the pacing is deliberate but never slow, carefully working the old-fashioned approach of an extended build-up so that the crescendo, when it comes, is not just empty noise but a genuinely involving climax. In a way, the film is a mini-miracle, holding attention with a protagonist who is trying to remain passive and avoid confrontation: in a scene that could serve as a synecdoche for the whole film, a potential barroom fight (the local yokel berates the sheriff not only for not doing his job but also for failing to protect his family – cutting a little too close to Shield’s personal tragedy) is nipped in the bud before it can serve as an excuse for a gratuitous brawl. Although one can easily imagine Michael Bay lamenting, “They missed a real opportunity there,” the scene is not anti-climactic; instead, its unresolved nature adds more powder to the keg we all know is eventually going to explode.
Along the way, Dark Was The Night is peppered with gradually escalating incidents that ratchet the tension on an almost subliminal level: you are so focused on the characters, that you almost do not realize the way the film is sucking you in. After the logging incident, with its brief flashes of severed limbs, the film mostly eschews graphic horror in favor suggestions: shadows in the night, silhouettes in the woods, missing pets, mysterious tracks through town, unseasonal animal migrations, savaged carcasses left on a road, bodies of murdered hunters hung in trees, and eventually a pair of hideous feet that leave us guessing as to the creature’s whole appearance, which – in a welcome bit of restraint – will not be revealed until the end.
The effect is very similar to what M.Night Shyamalan achieved back when he knew what he was doing, circa Signs (2002). In fact, Dark Was The Night is a virtual remake. Again we have the isolated setting; the protagonist emotionally devastated by family tragedy; the younger male co-lead (in this case a deputy instead of a brother) trying to keep up the faith; and the confrontation with uncanny horror that forces our hero to snap out of his depression to protect kith and kin.
The difference is that, though set in a small town where church attendance – or, in this case, non-attendance – is clearly a big deal, Dark Was The Night is not particularly interested in showcasing a a “road to Damascus” moment for Paul; his character arc is instead based on his surname: having failed to protect a family member in the back story, he will (with a little help) become the shield that saves the town, or dies trying.
Yet one cannot help feeling that a kind of redemption is taking place. When Paul’s new deputy (Lukas Hass), a recent transplant from New York, speculates that his presence is perhaps part of a grand plan (“maybe I was sent here to protect you… or you’r here to protect me”), we see the derisive disbelief in Paul’s eyes, but (unlike Mel Gibson’s character in Signs), he is too reserved to express open contempt. The film then goes on to vindicate the deputy’s sentiment, if not his belief in divine intervention, when the two face the threat side-by-side at the climax, which takes place inside the town church, ostensibly because Paul considers it the safest place to defend, but which adds a symbolic overlay whether Paul likes it or not.
The exact nature of the threat is unclear, which makes it more believable. There is no Johnny Expaliner character to tell us exactly what the monster is and how to kill it, with the sort of firm conviction based on unconfirmed legends that exists only in the horror genre. Yes, the local bartender (Nick Damici) tells Shawnee tales of a mythical creature that’s haunted the forest for generations, but in a nice touch, even he does not fully believe the stories, though he does lock his door at night, just to be safe. In a similar way, Deputy Saunders is poised on the cusp of belief – not convinced yet not dismissive – making the gradual transition easier for the audience to believe, especially when mounting evidence eventually provokes Paul to theorize that the logging project has displaced the creatures, forcing them closer to town and hence leading to numerous close encounters with something that previously kept its distance. This adds a touch of credibility, almost of sympathy, to the creature, who human victims tend to be invading its territory (first loggers, then hunters).
After teasing the audience for 90 minutes, eventually the filmmakers have to deliver. Only here does the film fall short of its aspirations – or, rather, resets its aspirations considerably lower. The final revelation of the creature is a major disappointment, not only because of the cartoony CGI but also because of the ill-conceived design: the reptilian appearance might be appropriate in a Florida swamp but not in a snow-bound forest. Worse yet, instead of ending when it should, Dark Was The Night adds a cornball twist, which may have intended to set up a sequel but instead merely screams, “This is just a dumb monster movie after all!”
Fortunately, these final faltering moments cannot destroy the film’s overall effectiveness, which is guaranteed to hold you spellbound with a level of sincerity too seldom seen in the genre. The entire cast, from the leads all the way down to the bit parts, are as committed – and probably more convincing – than any Oscar-bait ensemble. It’s a sign of what’s right with the film that Bianca Kajlich, as Paul’s wife, is appealing and attractive but not too glamorous to be believable in this setting; and even though the story relegates her to the sidelines (like a typical female in a monster movie), her pain and her concern for Paul still register. Durand sells his character to us with complete conviction from start to finish – ironically revealing the soul of a character who is trying desperately to remain hidden in his protective cocoon.. Even the presence of Lukas Haas – which seems like a desperate low-budget attempt to get some kind of name into the cast – turns out to be a master stroke: instead of thinking, “Oh look, the kid from Witness, all grown up:’ the audience realizes, “He’s really good.”
It certainly helps that characters are not the usual gang of stereotypes, or if they come close, at least they don’t have signs plastered on their foreheads reading, “Kill me – I’m The Film’s Official Asshole.” Instead, the script works satisfying twists on expectations, with personal animosity dissolving in the face of common danger, creating a sense of humanity that yields near-unbearable suspense despite a relatively low body-count. This is not a film you watch to enjoy seeing the dumb-asses dispatched in gruesome ways; you watch it desperately hoping that everyone will survive.
dark_was_the_nightDark Was The Night delivers on genre expectations with craftsmanship and artistry worthy of a wide theatrical release and an embrace by horror fans; it enhances those virtues with an eye for character and and careful storytelling, which should appeal to a broader audience. The only thing the film “lacks” (outside of a worthy ending) is the sort of artistic pretension or overt thematic conceit that critics can identify as elevating a horror effort above its genre. If viewers are left with one enduring mystery, it is not the exact phylum, genus, and species of its monster; it is this: Why is Dark Was The Night not as highly lauded as indie horror darlings The Babadook and It Follows?
Dark Was The Night is currently playing an exclusive engagement at the Universal Citywalk AMC 19. The film is also available through iTunes, Amazon Instant View, and Vudu.
Dark Was the Night (copyright 2015; released July 21, 2015 – simultaneous theatrical and streaming). Directed by Jack Heller. Written by Tyler Hisel. Cast: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich, Steve Agee, Nick Damici.
The ninth issue of Cinefantastique featured a career article devoted to Christopher Lee, way back in the fall of 1973. Peter Cushing wrote this heartfelt introduction for his good friend, although they were only to make three more films together. Luckily Ted Newsome brought them together one last time for his documentary on Hammer films, Flesh and Blood, shortly before Mr. Cushing died in 1994.
In May 1972 Christopher Lee and I made a psychological thriller entitled Nothing But the Night. It was our 18th film together, a partnership spanning some fifteen years. It was fitting that this “Coming of Age Anniversary” should be celebrated by the first film under his own banner—Charlemagne Productions, Ltd.
One of the greatest compliments any actor can be paid is to hear people say, “It all looks so easy.” It is not.
To reach this stage in his career and maintain his position and enormous popularity has cost him much in hard work, dogged determination, resolution and sheer drive, sometimes in the face of ruthless competition and misunderstandings, apart from facing and learning all the technical difficulties presented in the art of film acting—yet still making it look “all too easy.” The art which conceals art.
Of commanding stature (some 6 foot, 4 inches tall), he uses his physical presence to great advantage, moving with grace and authority. Some are awed when first meeting him in person, but they would do well to know that beneath this outward aloofness and dignity lies a very human being: sensitive, warm, and oft times suffering from nerves which he goes to great lengths to conceal.
Among his accomplishment—perhaps unknown to his public—he is a Greek scholar, he possesses a magnificent bass singing voice, a wonderful knack for impersonation, has command of at least six languages, is an expert swordsman and a superb amateur golfer. Couple all this with a delicious sense of humor and wit—plus a deep personal kindness—then you will be getting somewhat closer to the real personality of this truly remarkable man.
He holds strong views about the business in general and, in particular about the misuse of the word “horror” as applied to some of his films, rightly preferring the more subtle and correct term “fantasy,” for that, indeed, is what they are.
Unstintingly, Christopher gives his public one hundred percent of himself and his talent, but full use has not yet been made of his range. Knowing him as I do, it will not remain hidden under a bushel forever.
I am privileged to count him as a dear friend as well as a valued and respected professional colleague.
Insurgent, the second chapter in Summit Entertainment’s Divergent series, arrives over a year after the first film, but takes place only three days after the climatic battle that ended Divergent, where the heroine, Tris seemed to be heading with her boyfriend Tobias Eaton or “Four” towards the walled “outlands” of a futuristic Chicago, that has been divided into five factions. However, as Insurgent opens, we find that Tris and Tobias are now living in hiding among the Amity faction, led by the kindly Octavia Spencer.
Since I had forgotten much of what took place in Divergent, here is some background on the basic premise of the series, which no doubt will also be helpful for first time viewers:
In a Chicago of the future, survivors have been divided into five factions based on their abilities, temperaments and personal preferences. As the books author Veronica Roth explains, members of “Abnegation believe in selflessness, Candor believe in honesty, Dauntless are into bravery, Erudite value intelligence, and Amity value kindness, peacefulness and friendship. A person in the faction system believes that to be Faction less means to be without community, to be disenfranchised and on your own, and a failure in the most essential way. But, to someone who is Faction less, it means freedom.”
Insurgent gets off to a bang when Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the power crazed head of the Erudite faction has her soldiers ruthlessly search for Tris, and quickly discovers her in the commune like Amity faction. Jeanine also discovers a pentagonal shaped box that Tris’s parents had hidden away, with each side bearing the seal of one of the five factions. Apparently it contains an important message that may well determine the future direction of this dystopian society, but it can only be unlocked by a divergent person, who possesses qualities of each of the factions.
The good news, is that, unlike the second film in The Hunger Games series, Insurgent is not merely a thinly veiled remake of the first movie, but branches off in quite a different direction, as we explore the distinct world of the other factions in depth, as well as those who are “Faction less,” who turn out to be led by Tobias’ own mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts). But can Evelyn be trusted, or is she just as power crazed as Jeanine is?
We also delve into a surrealistic dream world, more on the order of Inception, as Tris has to endure five separate dream-style tests in order to successfully unlock the secret of the box. Indeed, with her close cropped hair, and also facing a series of seemingly desperate battles, Tris becomes a sort of Joan of Arc figure, who like Joan, willingly surrenders herself to Jeanine, where she will have to undergo a trial by dream ordeal. Shailene Woodley also tends to recall the young Jean Seberg, who of course, was first brought to stardom in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Interestingly enough, with it’s future society ruled mostly by very strong women characters, Insurgent also recalls the future utopia portrayed in John Boorman’s Zardoz, where the society is also made up of very separate and distinct factions, in a world sealed off from the outside. In fact, in one of Tris’s dream ordeals, she must overcome a surrealistic building on fire, where her mother is entrapped, that is flying through the skies over Chicago, much like Sean Connery had to endure, to enter the sealed off vortex in Zardoz.
Robert Schwentke takes over the directorial reigns from Neil Burger on Insurgent and gives the film a suitable fast pacing, with two brisk opening action sequences, which unfortunately are just a bit too overloaded to be believable, but then he settles things down, allowing the story to focus a bit more on the characters, as well as the action, which makes for a more pleasing blend, as Mr. Schwentke did so nicely with The Time Traveler’s Wife. The film also benefit’s greatly from it’s top-notch cast, with most of it’s young actors having gone on to important starring roles in other films after appearing in Divergent, and now being more familiar, bring a certain gravitas to their roles, as well as a few twists, especially in the characters played by Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort.
THE LAZARUS EFFECT is quite an effective little horror chiller, that benefits greatly by treating it’s subject–a group of scientists exploring the possibility of bringing the dead back to life–with deadly seriousness. The movie follows two romantically involved researchers, Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), who are operating with a grant from a Berkeley University, where they experiment with bringing recently deceased animals back to life. Just as they succeed in bringing a dog back to life–like the hapless Dr. Frankenstein–their project is halted in it’s tracks. Not by angry villagers, but by a biotech company, who seize all their research materials for there own corporate use.
What makes the film especially fascinating, is that it delves into metaphysical discussions about what actually may happen after death, with Frank taking a more scientific and atheistic point of view, vs. Zoe who brings a more traditional theological bent to their conjectures.
It’s also what attracted director David Gelb to the project, who said, “I loved the idea of really exploring the concept of being brought back to life. What would you experience while you were gone? How would you be different when you came back? And what might you potentially bring back with you? The young scientists in our film set out to give patients and loved ones hope, but they discover that there can be horrible consequences to playing with the power of life. As events begin to unfold, the story takes a sharp turn into becoming an absolutely terrifying thrill ride where you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know who the next character to disappear is going to be, and the scares are pretty intense.”
Indeed, it takes nearly half way into the film before we get any inkling about who might suddenly die, so they can conveniently be brought back to life. Of course, it won’t be a shock if you’ve seen the poster or the trailer (and I had not), so for me, it did add a bit more suspense to the first 30 minutes of the picture, while the basic premise is being developed.
Like any good FRANKENSTEIN movie, the subject of life after death is one of endless fascination, which is also the basis for movies like BRAINSTORM and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. In fact, rather strangely, the same weekend THE LAZARUS EFFECT opens, director John Boorman also talked about the subject when he was in San Francisco for the opening of his own delightful new picture, QUEEN AND COUNTRY.
When asked if QUEEN AND CONTRY might be his last film Mr. Boorman replied, “Yes, you saw the little signal in the last shot of the film. The camera stops. That was my little signal. I’m 82, so it’s high time I stopped. It’s high time I died, actually. I don’t want to be still working at 104!”
However, when pressed, Mr. Boorman admitted he does have a script he still would like to make, also about life after death. “It’s called HALFWAY HOUSE,” explained Boorman, “and there are some people who are encouraging me to do it. It’s about a man whose wife commits suicide and he has a recurring dream in which he visits a kind of clearing house where people go after they die. They are given a video of their entire life, and before they can move on, they must edit it down to three hours of highlights! If I live long enough and I’m strong enough, maybe I will make it.”
The premiere episode of CONSTANTINE stumbles across the television screen rather like a loud and boisterous drunk stumbling out of a bar: it catches your attention, and you sense its charm, but half the time its incoherent ramblings make no sense. “Non Est Asylum” (“there is no asylum”) also betrays evidence of being a busted pilot that was rejiggered at the last minute when series producers Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer decided to move the series in a different direction. As unsatisfying as the episode is, it is not likely to hook audiences, but it does show enough promise to interest sympathetic viewers in checking out another episode or two.
The story begins in media res, with John Constantine (Matt Ryan) cooling his heels in a mental asylum, recuperating from the fallout of a failed exorcism, which resulted in not only the death but also apparently the eternal damnation of an innocent girl. Fortunately, some paranormal activity inspires Constantine to leave the asylum (apparently, he just checks himself out – which has the benefit of keeping the narrative going but somewhat undermines the grimy semblance of “reality” that the series affects). An angel named Manny (Harold Perrinuea) shows up to inform Constantine that there is a “Rising Darkness” on the horizon – some kind of apocalyptic threat requires Constantine to get off the sidelines and back into the game. Though unconvinced of his role in the larger war, Constantine tracks down Liv Aberdine, the daughter of an old friend, out of a sense of personal obligation – because she is being tormented by a demon. After Constantine introduces Liv to his compatriot Chas Chandler (Charles Halford), Liv demonstrates an aptitude for “scrying” – that is, marking a map with drops of blood that reveal where supernatural activity will take place. Constantine eventually identifies the demon haunting Liv: Furcifer, who has an affinity for electricity. Constantine lures Furcifer into a trap while another old associate hacks the city’s grid, turning off all electricity, thus draining the demon’s power. Opting out of demon-hunting as a career move, Liv bids adieu to Constantine and Chas, but leaves behind her scrying map.
“Non Est Asylum” establishes the tone and style of the CONSTANTINE series. Angels and demons are real, battling for the souls of individuals and for the fate of all mankind. But this archetypal fairy-tale is presented in recognizably human terms, seen through the cynical eyes of its titular character, someone who has been there and done that, many times, and would probably rather be enjoying an evening at the pub instead of hunting evil entities.
Matt Ryan makes the show work. His John Constantine is a wonderful fantasy variation on hard-boiled characters like Philip Marlowe – the cynical, boozy exterior hiding a tired and slightly tarnished knight on the inside, one who knows the score and ins’t happy about it – but, despite his griping, will do what is necessary to set things right.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast does not fare so well, giving performances that are functional in roles that are defined mostly in terms of skills rather than personality. Liv has the ability to scry; Chas can survive apparent death. In both cases, the abilities are more interesting than the characters possessing them, and neither actor is up to the task of fleshing out the thin writing. The jury is still out on Perrineau’s angelic Manny: his strangely pointed stare and affectless body language could be an evocation of his character’s otherworldly nature, or simply a symptom of underacting.
Also, there are several absurdities in “Non Es Asylum,” which are apparent even to viewers who are not cantankerous critics. To begin with, the opening narrative gambit is a bit odd: instead of being introduced to television audiences unfamiliar with the comic, Constantine is presented as a known identity, so we never question his sanity and wonder why he even bothers talking to a psychiatrist trying to convince him that demons are unreal. In fact, the first sequence feels as if it belongs at the beginning of a second-season opener, following upon the heels of a devastating season one cliffhanger.
Liv is introduced in a spectacular special effects scene involving a city street splitting open to reveal belching flames, after which Constantine appears to offer help. Shortly thereafter, Liv is seen returning home, telling a friend how creeped out she was by the appearance of this stranger – who apparently made such an impression that she forgot the fires of hell erupting through the pavement. (The notion that this hell hole remains open is simply glossed over; later we learn the Liv has psychic visions, so we just have to assume that the conflagration took place only in her mind.)
Best of all, Constantine’s method of dispatching Furcifer requires the complete blackout of an entire city’s electrical supply. We’re supposed to cheer the clever plan, and the special effects showing Atlanta plunging into darkness are mean to be of the “ain’t it cool!” variety, but the script seems rather blissfully indifferent to the thought of hospital life support systems and airport control towers suddenly off-line and the inevitable loss of life that would result.
This silliness might be acceptable in a tongue-in-cheek romp, but CONSTANTINE affects a serious tone, in which the threat of eternal damnation weighs heavily on its title character, who suffers pangs of regret over the fatality that resulted from his previous failure. Here’s a hint, John: if you feel bad because your demon-hunting got one innocent killed, avoid plans that are likely to kill hundreds, even thousands.
Liv’s presence is awkwardly interpolated. As a newcomer to Constantine’s world of magic and the dark arts, she should act as the audience identification figure – our eyes and ears. But since we see Constantine first, this function for Liv is short-circuited; instead, the episode seems to be about bringing her into the fold. Then, having gone to all the trouble of introducing her, the episode summarily dismisses Liv at the end. Apparently, Liv was intended to be a regular character, but scenes were reshot to dispatch her so that a different character could take her place in subsequent episodes: “Non Es Asylum” ends with a woman, face unseen, cranking out drawings of John Constantine, apparently inspired by psychic visions; we meet her in the next episode, “The Darkness Beneath.”
Liv leaves behind her scrying map, which is pockmarked with a multitude of blood-spots, indicating that enormity of the Rising Darkness that is to come. Though the Rising Darkness becomes the show’s continuing story arc, Liv’s map will actually have little impact on future episodes.
CONSTANTINE: “Non Est Asylum.” Air date: 10/24/2014. Written by Daniel Cerone. Directed by Neil Marshal. Cast: Matt Ryan, Charles Halford, Harold Perrineau, Lucy Griffiths, Jeremy Davies.
If you’re not getting enough televised horror from your cable and streaming outlets (THE WALKING DEAD, PENNY DREADFUL, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, SALEM, etc), broadcast network NBC has something for you: following GRIMM on Friday nights, CONSTANTINE is an adaptation of DC’s Hellblazer comic series, starring Matt Ryan as John Constantine – a scruffy Irish scrapper who dabbles in the dark arts, rescuing victims from malicious supernatural entities and perhaps rescuing mankind as a whole (though this remains to be seen).
Midway through the show’s initial slate of thirteen episodes (no more have been ordered, though the show may yet be renewed for a second season), CONSTANTINE has established itself as engaging and reasonably entertaining, if uneven and frequently confused about its direction. Its strength lies primarily in the basic premise and the conception of its titular character, a world and somewhat cynical man, possibly damned, whose skills have made him a somewhat reluctant warrior in a battle against Evil – a battle that may save his soul not only from eternal damnation but also from the personal guilt he feels over a past failure.
From episode to episode, regardless of the strength of the stories, Ryan inhabits the role as if he were born to play it. His John Constantine walks a fine line – just enough cynicism to give the character a believable edge, just enough hint of empathy to humanize him without dulling that edge. His performance has been more than enough to hold attention while the show finds its legs, which have been a bit wobbly so far – partly because of producer uncertainty, partly because of network interference.
To date, we have seen a major supporting character introduced, dispatched, and replaced, leaving behind a plot device (a map indicating future confrontations) that figures into the stories so infinitesimally that it could easily be discarded. We have also seen some fiddling around with episode air dates, resulting in minor but regrettable continuity problems.
The only continuing story arc is the “Rising Darkness” – a suggestion that weekly phenomenon are part of build-up toward some kind of apocalyptic confrontation. So far, this idea has seen little development, coming across more like a lip-service attempt to suggest a connection between otherwise disparate story lines. It does not help that, since this is the first season, we have no baseline comparison to make between Constantine’s past opponents and his current foes – who, we have to accept on faith, are suddenly much stronger than expected.
There are a few hints that the arc is heading somewhere, including a bombshell prediction at the end of Episode 5. Unfortunately, because NBC aired at least one episode out of order (Episode 6, the Halloween-themed “Rage of Caliban,” was clearly supposed to air the month before its November 28 debut), the development seems erratic; the show seems to be treading water when Constantine causally mentions the Rising Darkness at the end of the episode, without any of the concern one would expect in light of previous events.
We have to give the producers credit for trying to craft a show that stands or falls on the strength of its individual episodes. Unlike shows (such as THE WALKING DEAD) that adopt the soap opera format to hook audiences into tuning in each week to see what happens next, regardless of whether what happened before actually warrants a further look, CONSTANTINE’s stories are largely self-contained. Though not all have been compelling, “A Feast of Friends” (Episode 4, November 14) and “Danse Vaudou” (Episode 5, November 21) have proven that CONSTANTINE has can at least occasionally reach its full potential.
CONSTANTINE is not squeamish about about delivering its weekly quotient of horror. The computer-generated special effects are nicely done, and the impact is surprisingly powerful, even visceral, for a network show. (Ironically, the character’s chain-smoking is far more circumspect, and his bi-sexuality is so far completely submerged.) We also rather enjoy the way the show’s archetypal battle of Good vs. Evil plays out in relatively human terms, lending a sort of streetwise credibility to the otherwise incredible events.
The supporting cast and guest stars have yet to make a memorable impression, except for Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnight (a voudoun priest who is alternately an antagonist and an ally to Constantine) and Emmett J. Scanlan as police detective Jim Corrigan (who all DC fans know is destined to become The Spectre, should the show last long enough).
Overall, we get the impression that CONSTANTINE is attempting something along the lines of what has been seen in PENNY DREADFUL, pitting highly flawed and tormented human characters against demons both literal and personal. It has to be said that the writing seldom if ever reaches the heights achieved by John August in the Showtime series. We should also note that, although fans may be pleased by the television show’s more faithful depiction of the comic character, the movie version of CONSTANTINE (2005) with Keanu Reeves was actually more effective screen version of the material. Still, once one wipes these comparisons from the slate, CONSTANTINE is good enough to survive on its own terms, and we hope to see it return next season.
As most readers will know, The Batman did come to television in the 1960’s and became a smash success, a pop-art phenomenon that would long outlast it’s short-lived network life in syndication. But the road to the show was a circuitous one.
The first attempt to bring Batman to the small screen was by Ed Graham Jr. (LINUS! THE LION HEARTED), who had optioned the TV rights to Batman from National Periodical Publications. He was planning a straight kid’s adventure show for Saturday mornings. It’s said CBS was interested in airing the proposed program, but no pilot was ever made. Perhaps this is because Graham’s previous outings as director or producer were all in animated cartoons and TV commercials, with no live-action credits that I’ve be able to identify. Without a track record, the network may have been unwilling to finance the show’s development. But Ed Graham would not be the only person to see potential in the caped crusader.
Starting around 1963-64, enterprising theater owners (notably in Chicago) began renting the Batman serials from Columbia for weekend showings, and to everyone’s surprise it began to catch on with college students, who found the old kiddie fodder ‘campy’ — humorous because it’s ridiculous, overdone, or just plain bad in an amusing way. These bookings were so successful that Columbia officially re-released the serials in 1965, with marathon viewings offered as AN EVENING WITH BATMAN AND ROBIN.
Reportedly, ABC network executive Yale Udoff saw the serial at the Playboy Mansion, and thought the idea of a Batman TV series for prime time might be a workable proposition. National’s (DC Comics) option with Ed Graham Productions must have been up, because ABC in partnership with 20th Century Fox were able to obtain the TV and film rights. (Said to be only $7,000.)
ABC originally wanted an action-adventure show, perhaps with a certain amount of coy self-awareness, as in NBC’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE. 20th Century Fox production executive William Self originally approached screenwriter (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER) and spy novelist (The Mask of Dimitrios) Eric Ambler to write a film that would launch a Batman TV series. Ambler passed, and ABC wanted the series to go to pilot quickly, so Self’s choice for producer William Dozier (ROD BROWN OF THE ROCKET RANGERS, THE LOSER) picked Lorenzo Semple Jr. (PRETTY POISON) to write the pilot script. Semple had previously written a modern update of Charlie Chan for Dozier called NUMBER ONE SON, which would have featured Dozier’s discovery — martial artist Bruce Lee. The network wasn’t ready for that idea. They weren’t quite ready for what Dozier and Semple had in mind, either.
William Dozier had obtained several issues of Batman and Detective Comics to read while flying from New York to Los Angeles. He was not happy with what he read, and worried. He felt that if he tried to make a serious adaptation of the comics it would flop, and he would become the laughingstock of Hollywood. The only way to save face would be to spoof the character, play up the straight-faced juvenile aspects as intentional high camp. The kiddies would love it, and the adults could laugh if they wanted. Lorenzo Semple agreed with the approach and signed on.
Batman in the comic books had become almost a mockery of his former self in the late 1950’s to early 60’s. The noir-ish crime stories had given way to more whimsical adventures, visits from space aliens and other pseudo-scientific plot devices, along with juvenile attempts at awkward soap opera with Batwoman and the first Batgirl attempting to interest the dynamic duo in romance.
By 1963, DC was considering canceling at least one of the Batman titles. Editor Julius Schwartz was given control of the books, with carte blanche to make changes. He brought in Carmine Infantino, who had redesigned the Flash into a modern superhero to update Batman’s look. The hero’s increasingly broad ( in more ways than one) cartoon appearance was abandoned, slimming him down and adding a yellow circle around the bat insignia on his chest as a symbol of his “New Look”. Stung by public sniggering about a homosexual context to the Bruce-Dick-Alfred living arrangements, they even took the odd choice of killing off Alfred Pennysworth, and had Dick Grayson’s quickly invented Aunt Harriet Cooper take his place as housekeeper. Sales began to pick up somewhat.
At some point in this process, former NFL football player Mike Henry was apparently up for the part of Batman, and it’s claimed that photos were taken of him in a Batman costume. Whether these were for the CBS or ABC proposals is unclear, nor is the there any certainty this actually happened. (In the late 70’s I was shown a picture purported to be of Henry as the character, but it looked to me like the work of an airbrush rather than a tailor.) Mike Henry would in any case be busy starring as another icon, Tarzan in three films — and did a creditable job.
Many actors were considered for the role by Fox and ABC, including western TV star Ty Hardin (BRONCO), but Dozier had set his sights on Adam West (William Anderson), a handsome actor with a flair for light comedy that he had seen spoofing James Bond (as Captain Q) in a series of Nestle’s Quick commercials. At ABC’s request, he also tested future WONDER WOMAN star Lionel Wagner and former child actor Peter Dyell (MR. NOVAK) as Robin. With West he tested gymnast-turned-fledging actor Burton Gervis as Robin. ABC went with the second pair, and Gervis soon changed his name to Burt Ward. It’s interesting to note that the acting and lighting of the screen tests is noticeably more subdued than what the series would feature.
Going into production on the pilot was a gamble for ABC and 20th Century Fox. Wanting to have a good looking show (and one that could be exploited as a movie), the decision was made to build a big Bat Cave set. Production designers Serge Krizman, Ed Graves and the rest of Jack Martin Smith’s staff proposed a massive, two-story structure, that essentially took up an entire soundstage. (Part of the atomic pile came from the recently wrapped OUR MAN FLINT. ) This and other space concerns at the busy Fox Studios led the company and Dozier’s Greenway Productions to make the series not on their own stages and facilities, but at Desilu’s Culver City Studio. This was the old RKO-Pathe/Selsnick International Studios, not their main facility on North Gower Street, next to Paramount.
KING KONG, GONE WITH THE WIND, and the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN had been filmed there. The backlot (called Forty Acres) was where THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW filmed the Mayberry scenes — and both Desilu 1960’s adventure shows STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE would often visit. The BATMAN crew would often use the same backlot, though certain episodes would use the Fox lot — and the regular location of Gotham City Hall, where Commissioner Gordon’s office was located was actually (a still-standing structure) on the Warner Brothers backlot. The choice of filming at a rental facility, while solving Fox’s immediate concerns, would later have repercussions.
Lorenzo Semple’s pilot episode was loosely based on “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler” which appeared in Batman #171 (May 1965),written by long-time DC writer Gardner Fox. Semple revised and fleshed out the story considerably, turning the short comic book tale into an hour-long TV series. Actor/impressionist Frank Gorshin (INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN) played the role of the manic and obsessive villain The Riddler, investing the part with great energy and a high pitched laugh inspired by Richard Widmark’s mad psycho killer’s giggle in KISS OF DEATH (1947). Jill St. John guest starred as Molly, a buxom red-head who with the aid of a rubber mask somehow becomes the spitting image of Robin the Boy Wonder.
The show comes off with great style, directed by Robert Butler who also directed the first pilot of STAR TREK. It was full of production value, including comic book-inspired superimposed ‘visual sound effects’ such as POW! BIFF!, etc. superimposed over the fight scenes. The cost of all this flashy, vividly colored action adventure was around a half a million dollars.
The first regular that had been cast was British character actor Alan Napier, to play the role of Alfred. Dozier thought killing the character off had been a mistake on DC’s part, and insisted on including him in the series. Subsequently, the comic books would contrive a science-fictional way of reviving the trusty butler. (Originally as a mutated monster out to destroy the dynamic duo.) The producer agreed with the idea of Aunt Harriet as a blance to the all-male home, and cast Madge Blake (THE REAL McCOYS). Neal Hamilton, with a career as both leads and character roles since the silent days, played the part of Commissioner Gordon. Stafford Repp, once a sound effects man, created the role of Police Chief O’Hara. His faux Irish accent reportedly irritated his irascible co-star Hamilton throughout the series.
Busy jazz and film composer Neal Hefti composed the soon to be famous BATMAN theme, a blues-influenced surf rock number for bass guitar, brass, percussion and vocals that helped set the tone and would win a Grammy.
George Barris proved a sleek black Batmobile, forced by the short time-frame allotted to convert the already existing Ford concept car the 1955 Lincoln Futura. The car, originally pearl white with a double-domed clear canopy, had been painted red for the 1959 comedy IT STARTED WITH A KISS. It was given a through make-over for the pilot, painted glossy black with added details and came off quite impressively on film, though it had be filmed under-cranked to safely exit the narrow Bronson Canyon mine tunnel that was used to depict the exterior of the Bat Cave — and to look as swift as the flame-thrower ‘atomic turbine’ that had been mounted on the back suggested.
The costumes for the caped crimefighters were a good attempt to translate the then-current look of the comic book characters. Costume designer Jan Kemp went to the trouble of matching the color of Batman’s leotards as printed; rather than just gray, they’re actually a subtle mauve, an artifact of how grays were generally achieved in the 4-color process. Unfortunately, the indigo blue material that covered the fiberglass shell of Batman’s cowl had a tendency to quickly turn purple under the stage lights. The cape would face similar problems, and would also be made shorter as the series progressed, so that it wouldn’t get stepped on or snagged in action scenes. The ‘face’ of the cowl was hand painted black, with accents for the nose and eyebrows in lighter blue. The Bat-insignia was a sticker that would be applied and removed daily. Though a printed item, the bat is actually not quite symmetrical. Unfortunately, Batman’s utility belt — made to appear functional — tended to make the in-shape Adam West look a bit thick-set. (Adding to the problem West’s stuntman Hubie Kerns, despite being quite athletic had a slight pot belly, which the belt accentuated noticeably.)
Robin’s costume was right out of the comics, though the cloth gloves in the pilot would be replaced with green leather ones in the series. The palm sides of Batman’s finned gauntlets would be refurbished with suede to avoid tearing.
ABC liked what they saw, and committed to 16 episodes. Of course, the show would have to be audience tested. The reaction nearly scuttled the series. The results supposedly were the worst of any program test in television history. William Dozier thought he knew why; the audience was confused — not getting the concept that the show was essentially a farce. He quickly did some narration with a preface explaining that the idea was to have fun, to ‘hiss the villains and cheer the heroes’ — along with an archly-announced middle cliff-hanger break. It’s rumored that a version with a laugh track was made and tested. Early footage (a network and affiliate promo reel) still exists, scored with stock music from Peter Gunn episodes, which was in the ballpark of what they had in mind. Eventually, well-known big band composer Nelson Riddle would score the show quoting the Nefti theme often, and coming up with distinct personal motifs for the major guest villains as the show progressed.
The show needed work, and initially there was time, as it wasn’t due to premiere until the Fall of 1966. However, ABC had a problem, several of its 1965 season shows were bombing and would be canceled. What was the solution? Launch a ‘second season’ in January of 1966. Batman would be one of the new programs, though the time slots available weren’t the most favorable. ABC figured that kids would be the primary audience, so the show couldn’t be on too late. In the 60’s most children were in bed by 9:00 PM. The answer? Well, the show was inspired by the cliff-hanger serials — instead of coming back after a mid-point break, turn the hour-long show into two half-hour shows at 7:30 on successive nights. Twice the bang for the buck. (There’s some evidence that ABC briefly considered cutting the episodes into 15 minute segments, but if so this never went past initial discussions.)
After a huge promotional campaign, Batman premiered on Wednesday January 12th, 1966. with the episode “Hi Diddle Riddle”. The second segment “Smack in the Middle” aired the next day. The show was an instant hit, with kids excited by the larger-than-life characters and action, and adults generally amused by the then relatively straight-faced spoofing.
Keeping with William Dozier’s plans, well-known actors were sought out to play the guest villain roles. Burgess Meredith would take the part of the top-hatted Penguin, developing his eccentric quacking from trying to suppress coughing from the cigarette smoke of the long holder the character sported. Caesar Romero, once typed as a latin lover, was so amused by the costume designed for the Joker that he cackled helplessly with glee. This became a signature for the role — and to add to the absurdity, rather than shave his trademark mustache, the make-up artists simply spread the clown white make-up over it.
Taking a comic book character originally named Mr. Zero, George Sanders would be the first of theer actors to take on the part of the villain re-named Mr. Freeze (with the supposed identity of a Dr. Shivel in his introductory episode).
TV actor Malachi Throne (IT TAKES A THIEF) would play the role of the always-masked False Face, but the use of name actors coupled with his question mark billing led to insistent speculation that it was really some big star unwilling to show his face — certainly an intended result.
After originally planning for the petite Suzanne Pleshette to take on the part of Catwoman, when she proved unavailable the producers went with the statuesque Julie Newmar, who relished the chance to do more comedy, and she became iconic in the role. New villains would be invented for the show, including King Tut (Victor Buono). Unlike most of the guest foes, who never have their comic book real names mentioned, Tut is given an in-joke secret identity; William Omaha McElroy. William Dozier’s middle name was McElroy, and he was born in Ohmaha, Nebraska.
The show was a huge hit, and a wave of Bat-Mania flooded the airwaves, record shops, toy stores, and even adult nightclubs. Celebrities happily did window cameos on the show as West and Ward walked along a set built sideways, capes held up by wires. Shot with a camera on its side, it gave the illusion of the pair scaling a wall. Adam West in later years would remark that the 1960’s entertainment era might well be thought of as “The Three B’s: The Beatles, James Bond, and Batman.”
Buoyed by the success of the show, 20th Century Fox greenlit a feature film, BATMAN (1966) to be filmed during the series’ hiatus. Rather than Dozier’s Greenway Productions, the film was made by a new production company he created, Greenlawn Productions. This and (presumably other) legal reasons permitted the film to be released on video decades before the TV series would be. Adam West and Burt Ward negotiated nice salaries for the film, but their duties would extend to a great deal of traveling and promotion when it was released. (Up to this point, Ward was only making $350 an episode.)
Caesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin would reprise their TV roles, but Julie Newmar was unexpectedly unavailable for the film. She’d committed to another feature and the production had to scramble to find a replacement. (This is usually said to be McKENNA’S GOLD (1969), but that film didn’t shoot until 1967. I believe the film project Newmar did was the UK-shot Zero Mostel comedy MONSIEUR LECOQ (1967).
It wasn’t until after production had commenced on BATMAN that the producers were able to bring in former Miss America Lee Meriwether (THE TIME TUNNEL) as the Catwoman. The replacement casting makes the idea that Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t recognize Catwoman as the romantic interest Russian reporter ‘Miss Kitka’ in the storyline somewhat easier to swallow. The only fanboy explanation for this — as in the series Batman had seen the feline villainess without her mask more or less regularly — is that the film must take place before the Catwoman episodes of the show. There also doesn’t seem to be any hint of the personal attraction the characters shared on the show, despite Wayne’s infatuation with her false assumed identity in the film. The original plan was for a feature to precede the series, perhaps this was a plot ‘hangover’.
The far-fetched sci-fi storyline by Lorenzo Semple Jr. involved the four villains kidnapping the security council of the United World Organization (read U.N.) by dehydrating them into colored powders, with the plan of reconstituting them only after spectacular ransom was paid.
Soon to be The Green Hornet, actor Van Williams did a voice cameo, using his rather good Lyndon Baines Johnson impression as the President. Direction by Leslie H. Martison is serviceable, as is Howard Schwartz’s photography. A number of scenes actually appear a bit less effective or atmospherically shot than comparable ones from the TV show. Running around in broad daylight on real locations seemed to emphasize the ridiculous nature of the material, as did the stronger embrace of outright comedy. The budget (in the area of $1.3 million) allowed for the building of the Batboat and Batcopter, stock footage of which soon would find itself nicely adding production value in the next season of the program.
The film was at best a moderate success in the United States, taking in approximately 3 million dollars, playing mostly kiddie matinees. Adults largely stayed away — why pay for something you could watch free on television? However, foreign box office and re-releases put the film well into profit. (About $7.5 million world-wide over the years.)
The second season saw a number of changes. William Dozier left most decisions up to producers Howie Horowitz and William D’Angelo, while Semple — who’d been serving closely as a story/script consultant — contributed far less frequently. Stories by writers such as Stanley Ralph Ross and Charles Hoffman would venture even more deeply into comedy and farce. Per episode budgets went down, seen with slightly less elaborate sets, somewhat scaled down fight scenes, and more obviously with the money saving expedient of replacing the costly animated overlays with quick cut-aways to solid art cards with rapid lens zooms and color shifts.
Julie Newmar reprised her role as Catwoman, Meredith and Romero returned, but Frank Gorshin’s Riddler did not appear in the second season, apparently due to a salary dispute. John Astin (THE ADDAMS FAMILY) donned the green tights for one two-parter and Maurice Evans (PLANET OF THE APES) received a re-written Riddler script as The Puzzler — a minor Superman villain. Batman co-creator Bill Finger (and writing partner Charles Sinclair [THE GREEN SLIME]) brought in Green Arrow nemesis The Clock King (Walter Slezak) — though mixed with Finger’s earlier creation The Clock, and not quite like either iteration in the BATMAN episodes. Many more villains invented for the show appeared in the second season, allowing guest roles for actors as diverse as Vincent Price, Van Johnson, Cliff Robertson, Michael Rennie, and even Liberace.
To try to save THE GREEN HORNET series, the titular crimefighter and Bruce Lee’s Kato appeared, to no avail. The Hornet would fly no more, and The Batman was soon to get his wings clipped, though not as drastically.
Though ratings were still good, they were not as spectacular as they had been. Batman was an expensive show, and the Wednesday show was consistently weaker in its audience draw. Women and girls were less interested than males. It was time to shake things up a bit.
Dozier had been conferring with the DC editors regarding female interest, and Julius Schwartz, Carmine Infantino and Gardner Fox came up with a new Batgirl (Betty Kane had been Bat-Girl, niece and partner of the Kathy Kane Bat-Woman of the `50’s.) This updated version would be Barbara Gordon, the previously unknown librarian daughter of Commissioner Gordon.
Former Miss America (1959) Mary Ann Mobely was the first actress considered for the role. (She was the first April Dancer on THE MAN FROM UNCLE in a backdoor pilot episode, when THE GIRL FROM UNCLE went to series Stephanie Powers got the part, instead.) Yvonne Craig, a dancer and film actress (two Elvis Presely musicals IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR  and KISSIN’ COUSINS ) was chosen to portray Batgirl in a presentation film for ABC.
The network approved the actress and the concept, so much so that they briefly considered giving her a solo lead-in series. Craig was given a vivid purple and yellow version of the comic book character’s somewhat more subdued costume, featuring a mask with sharply angled points on the cheekbones in the non-broadcast short. These left red marks on her face, so they would be eliminated when the character was added to the show.
The try-out film had suggested a teasing romantic relationship between Batman and Batgirl, this would be largely ignored in the third season. There wouldn’t really be time in the once-a-week 30 minute format. There was also about half the money, since the costs weren’t being spread over two episodes.
As the third season progressed, new weekly settings for hide-outs and other script locations gradually disappeared, with black ‘limbo’ sets filled with simple props, often two-dimensional brightly painted cut-outs similar to pop-art stage dressings taking the place of more realistic designs. 20th Century Fox was known for such cost-saving shortcuts on Irwin Allen’s science fiction adventure shows (LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL, et al), though those shows benefited from having accrued a good supply of technical-looking set pieces that were available to fill up space. BATMAN would beg and borrow some of these assets.
Nelson Riddle left most of the third season scoring to his associate Billy May, a jazz trumpeter turned composer/arranger who had also scored THE GREEN HORNET series. He wrote a brassy Batgirl theme to give the character a sense of edgy action, although the producers limited the motor-cycle-riding heroine to relatively lady-like kicks rather than trading punches with evil-doers.
Frank Gorshin would return for a single appearance as the Riddler, but Julie Newmar was unavailable (actually filming MCKENNA’S GOLD this time), so the producers brought in singer/dancer Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. Choosing a black actress was a bit of a daring move in 1967, but the show defused the characters’ former sexual tension. With a great purr, Kitt was a fiercer feline adversary, more interested killing Batman than kissing him. The over-all attraction to the Caped Crusader was winding down.
However, BATMAN very nearly went to a fourth season. ABC was willing to renew the series, with several caveats. To 20th Century Fox’s complaints of insufficient budget to cover production costs, the network had some ideas to further streamline the show. Madge Blake, already ailing and only appearing in two third season episodes would not be in the new season. To save time and money, Chief O’Hara was considered unneccesary. Most surprisingly, the network felt that they could dispense with Burt Ward’s Robin, and that Batman and Batgirl would become the new dynamic duo. William Dozier and Adam West both protested the elimination of Stafford Repp’s and Ward’s roles. 20th Century Fox wasn’t happy with the idea of essentially financing a portion of the show out of their own pocket. The studio felt they probably had enough episodes to go into syndication. Not getting the response they wanted, ABC cancelled the show.
What to do about the huge Batcave set filling up that rental stage at Desilu Culver? Hold it for a couple of weeks while Fox offered the series to the other networks, just in case. NBC had evidenced some interest. Weeks passed without firm results, and the Batcave set was bulldozed.
The next week, NBC contacted Fox Television to say that they’d pick up the series, and even restore it to it’s twice-weekly format. But the main set was gone. How much to rebuild it? At least a half million bucks, maybe more because some of the re-purposed set-pieces such as the atomic pile had been destroyed. NBC didn’t care to pick up that tab.
However, this seemingly effective death-trap did not kill off the show’s career on TV.
20th Century Fox was right, the series 120 episodes were perfect for local syndication, and even ‘stripped’ daily, kids would not tire of the series for decades.
True, comic-book devotees would revile the show, even if those who had been kids when the show debuted might harbor some nostalgia for the series. This nostalgia would grow after BATMAN was no longer found daily on local stations. It would have seemed perfect for release on video, but there were major problems involved.
National Periodical Publications/DC had been sold to Kinney National (originally a parking garage concern) in 1967. By 1969 they would buy up Warner Brothers/Seven Arts studio and holdings. (Bob Kane profited by this, as the new Warner Communications wanted to own all the characters free and clear. He walked away with millions, ultimately. ) By the time the video revolution came about, Warner Bros. (Time-Warner) who owned Batman, and Fox Television who co-owned the series with Greenway Productions were at loggerheads. Neither corporate entities wanted the other to be able to release and profit by the show. William Dozier, and then more complicatedly his heirs wanted whatever profit they felt they were due, and all guarded their interests fiercely.
Ultimately, an accord was reached, and now in November of 2014 the show is finally coming to video with DVDs and Blu-rays, complete with special features with Adam West, Burt Ward, and others. A decades-long cliffhanger has been at long last resolved.
But what of Batman’s fate in film and television? The 60’s TV series had cast a light on the Dark Knight, bringing him into widespread public notice, far more so than comic books, newspaper strips and serials ever had. However, his three years in the limelight would also throw a long shadow, keeping the character squarely pegged as kiddie fodder by Hollywood for nearly twenty years. Yet he would return, and once again a kind of Bat-Mania would sweep the entertainment world.