It’s dead, Jim

michaelbThe Michael Burnham Show aka Star Trek: Discovery completed its third season this past week and I’m still rather speechless. I don’t know what kind of deranged minds are behind this show but frack me it must surely be the worst sci fi show I have ever seen (at least until season four arrives next year). I suppose I should commend them for having the audacity to make a show about a psychopath with a God Complex infecting the galaxy with her psychosis.  Its pure Philip K Dick really, and quite fitting for our times: an Insanity Pandemic infecting the universe, 3188: A Messianic Odyssey in fact. 

How else to explain anything that happens in this show? I have no idea how many or how few are actually watching it, but I’m sure it has its fans: I’m sure its endless fascination with Wish Fulfilment is just wonderful for them: its all something of a Dream. We all like to think we are special, and the fantasy of The Chosen One is quite seductive; part of the appeal of the Matrix movies is the idea of being Neo, of being The One. Of being the subject of prophecy. The Michael Burnham Show is that fantasy writ large, in the guise of what we fans used to call Star Trek.

But Star Trek is dead. Its been dead for awhile, but if that wasn’t confirmed by the reboot movies from JJ Abrams or by last year’s Star Trek: Picard, then it surely is now. In fact, The Michael Burnham Show has surely kicked its corpse into the gutter. Maybe Star Wars got away lightly after all.

Michael Burnham is never wrong, and even when she is, it turns out she’s right in the end. When she ignores protocol or even direct orders, when she abandons her post to go off on one of her own far more important errands, and when she is subsequently demoted for such, its only a purely token gesture. Her voice and opinion will always still be desired, and when the push comes to shove, the Command Chair will always be vacated for her to take over and save the day. Its obvious everybody, even the head of Star Fleet, and certainly her fellow crew of the Discovery, are vastly inferior to her and will always defer to her. 

Just to underline the fact, none of the Discovery crew have any opportunity to compete with her on any level. Most of them don’t even have names, or at least names that matter or are memorable, and they surely don’t have any lines to speak, or any personality to inject into the proceedings. Arguably the co-star of the show, Ensign Tully -sorry, Tilly (the characters are so bland that even the nominal co-star has a name I find hard to remember)- is a prime example of a non-achiever, more suited perhaps to operating the sick-bay radio channel or the canteen, she is inexplicably promoted to be Number One in Burnham’s stead, if only to prove how most excellent Burnham was in comparison: I think its within thirty minutes of taking the Comm that Tilly manages to lose the Discovery to an alien aggressor (the Green Woman and her Motorbike Helmet goons) who board and take control of the ship and imprison the crew. Tilly can bluff and bluster like a ginger Boris Johnson- but typical of the show, there’s no substance to her, and after she escapes from confinement her attempt to retake the ship ends with her and her team asphyxiating in a corridor. Never mind Tilly, Michael’s here to save the day/save the galaxy/save the universe.

Its all fairly obnoxious and really insulting. I’ve never witnessed such stupidity in writing. The writers inject some 3188 tech – personal transporters in the uniform lapel badges- which, when they are tapped by the wearer’s fingers instantly teleports them anywhere they want to be. No coordinates, no voice commands, just tap the badge and this magic shit reads your mind or something. Now, you give all the crew this magic badge and hey presto, you’ll have empty corridors from then on because everyone just teleports everywhere, right? Canteen? The loo? Who even needs doors anymore? Tap the button and in a flash you’re there. And yet, and yet, in each subsequent episode we still see crew walking around pretending to look busy. I mean, they even have a gag in the episode in which they have the new tech in which an alien crewmember keeps on teleporting into scenes by mistake, and yet next episode nobody’s using them. These writers can’t even manage their own internal logic, even in the very same episode- in the finale the crew set off a bomb to wreck one of the nacelles and pull the ship out of warp, and then scarcely fifteen minutes later its magically all fixed and the ship is whole again and fully operational. I mean, wtf? 

I could go on. I think when I realised that Burnham’s God Complex psychosis is infecting everyone around her was when the show started to make sense to me, as regards how stupid it was and how crazy every character was behaving. It certainly explains how the show can shit all over established canon by suggesting Spock had a half-sister never mentioned in all the decades of the various incarnations of the franchise. Its obvious now that Spock never had a sister until she appeared, like one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods from some deep sleep, her psychosis infecting Spock into accepting her, her sudden existence affecting the fabric of reality and the mythology of the show. I half-expect the psychosis to infect our own reality, so that people will start re-reading their Star Trek paperbacks from the 1980s and 1990s and suddenly be reading, indeed, of Spock having a half-sister called Michael. Its fiction infecting reality like in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. God help us all. 

Never mind. Michael will save us.

Apostle (2018)

apostle2Welsh director Gareth Evans, famous for his action double-whammy The Raid and The Raid 2, returns with an absolutely batshit-crazy horror/torture-porn oddity that is likely destined for some kind of cult status someday. It is totally off the rails, nonsensical and baffling and frustrating and brilliant in perhaps equal measure. At over two hours its about thirty minutes too long and its script needs a few rewrites and perhaps a few sub-plots taking out, but its a fascinating film to watch simply because it just defies convention, as if Evans was trying to test how much free-reign and control Netflix was willing to give him. Turns out he was given pretty much complete freedom, which likely works against the film in the long run but does make it something of a curio and hypnotic experience. You just don’t know where its going next.

Disorientation is the heart of the film: Dan Stevens, having left Downton Abbey well behind him now, plays main protagonist Thomas Richardson, a twisted and troubled man who in some abrupt and deliberately (?) vague flashbacks is set on some vague mission to save his kidnapped sister from a vaguely-defined religious cult based on a vague remote island off the undefined mainland. Yes, it is all very vague: Thomas is the kind of unreliable fulcrum that H P Lovecraft sometimes used,  whose narrators were possibly as crazy and untrustworthy as the cultists they bumped into. Thomas is twitchy and haunted and reliant on drugs and stares balefully from under his tightly-knitted brow and grimaces bearing rotting uneven teeth. Something about Steven’s performance kept bugging me until I realised that he was channeling actor Sam Neil, as if deliberately mimicking Neil’s mannerisms in films like In the Mouth of Madness and Jurassic Park etc.  Its a role that perhaps might have actually suited Nic Cage although that might have proved to be unwatchable for me. Eventually we learn why Thomas seems so fucked-up but its perhaps one revelation too many at that point.

The island of Erisden holds a religious community run by cult-leader/prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and it all seems very Wicker Man with a medieval twist, but there are visual hints dropped in that suggest something genuinely supernatural is going on in the background, a deeper threat/horror than the cult itself. Again, perhaps in a further nod to Lovecraft fiction, layers and layers of mystery are revealed as the film progresses, so much so that it reminded me of the Call of Cthulhu RPG that I used to play many years ago. Ultimately there are perhaps just too many layers, too many revelations and twists and turns for the film to really manage successfully. I had the feeling that it could have been two completely seperate films but that Evans just threw it all into the crazy mix to see what came out.

apostle3I understand the film is set in 1905, but I don’t believe it states this implicitly onscreen (although I may have simply missed it) and while it is obviously a period film it does seem to have a dreamlike quality, particularly on the island which is genuinely like some medieval setting with torture devices straight out of some dungeon of horror/Roger Corman Poe flick starring Vincent Price. Strange camera angles occasionally add to the weirdness as do sudden outbreaks of violence- as might be suggested by the director’s previous films, Apostle is very graphic and violent in places and there is plenty of gore to satisfy horror-fans. Thomas has to swim in a subterranean river of blood at one point so that will give some indication of its crazy excesses.

The weird thing is, how I’m writing this possibly suggests its a much better film than it really is. This film is in no way wholly successful. As I’ve noted, its too long and really quite disjointed with perhaps too many characters and sub-plots. That being said, I do think it may be destined for cult status as such odd/flawed films often can be and it might actually reward with successive viewings.

So anyway, a very interesting experience and another indication that Netflix Originals can be very worthwhile. I’m not sure how this film might have fared as a cinema release, but dropping onto a streaming service to watch at home during a wet and windy Autumn night its pretty much perfect. I’m just a little frustrated that a disc release might have benefited from a commentary track which explained some of the film-making decisions. I don’t know if Netflix could manage seperate audio streams or provide seperate versions of content with audio-commentary tracks; likely there is insufficient demand for that kind of content but it something that I will certainly miss with the future veering away from physical releases.

Hold the Dark (2018)

hold1This is a particularly frustrating movie. Elegantly crafted with taut direction, excellent cinematography and a superb cast, its efforts are completely undermined by the lack of a cohesive screenplay- it is literally (sic) all over the place. It begins with a slow, steady pace that is quite hypnotic and purports something quite dramatic and important is coming, but then fails to deliver.

Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who once write a book about living among wolves in the wild, is contacted by a young Alaskan woman, Medora (a rather hauntingly sad Riley Keough),  whose son has been taken by wild wolves. She doesn’t expect Core to find her son alive, but hopes he can track down and kill the wolf that took him. Curiosity piqued by her letter (and the location of her remote village being not far from his own estranged daughter, an awkward subplot) Core arrives at the woman’s house and finds the young attractive woman living alone, life-worn and jaded, evidently suffering from a post-trauma illness related to her son’s disappearance.

So far so good, but the film immediately betrays its tendency to farce when Core wakes up during the night to find a naked Medora walking towards him wearing a wooden wolf-mask. She wordlessly slides alongside him and places his hand around her own throat, as if inviting punishment or some masochistic sex game that Core declines. Now, an ordinary man might go straight to his car the next morning and return to the relative sanity of civilization, but instead he goes on a dangerous trek in search of the wolfpack that has allegedly stolen three children from the village.

Following a tense standoff with the wolves when he finally tracks them down, Core struggles through the barren icy wilderness back to the village to find Medora’s home deserted. Exploring the house he enters the cellar and discovers the body of her missing son, wrapped in a sheet. So Medora’s story of wolves is a lie, she killed her son herself and has gone on the run. Following a segue to a violent scene of desert warfare involving Madora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) who seems as proficient killing his own colleagues as he is terrorist insurgents, the villagers seem to be at odds with the local police when Vernon arrives back home intent on killing anyone (villager, police, coroner) who gets in the way of him hunting down his wife. A bewildered Core  is trapped in these proceedings like a rabbit in headlights and seemingly cannot escape them.

hold2As the events become wilder, less and less of what happens is explained and I suspect, looking back on it, that I may have missed the point. There is certainly a horror-genre subtext with hints at paganism and unexplained phenomena, indeed perhaps even Lovecraftian undertones. Perhaps there is something of Innsmouth transposed to this arctic, icy landscape. Or perhaps that is just my imagination filling in the blanks left by the increasingly vague, reason-less story.

At any rate, its is a beautiful-looking film and it features some shocking twists and some violent action scenes that are dwelt upon in slow graphic detail. Unfortunately its very ambiguity proves to be, for me, its downfall, as credibility seems to rapidly slide in its last half-hour. Perhaps it is about the darkness of the long Alaskan night staring back at the humans frozen in its landscape, an Apocalypse Now-like tale of staring too long into the abyss. Or maybe there is something genuinely Lovecraftian seducing some of them (or maybe I’m filling in the gaps too much). Perhaps, ultimately, the film tries to overreach itself. I am sure many will watch this film and be enchanted by it, but for me it became a frustrating experience following just one too many twists and turns. Certainly well worth a watch though and one of the better Netflix Originals that I have so far seen.

 

 

From Beyond (1986)

I have only seen From Beyond once before- back in the ‘eighties on VHS rental. At that time, I didn’t care for it at all- back then I was in the midst of devouring pretty much of all of Lovecraft’s tales, having brought them in paperback omnibus form, and the 1920 tale From Beyond was instantly one of my favourites. It’s a very short tale, hardly eight pages, but I’ll never forget putting it down after finishing it and looking around me with fresh, cautious eyes. I remember back then I used to sit down after midnight when everyone else in the house and gone to bed, I have an hour reading whatever book I was reading at the time, which, at that time, would likely be a Robert E Howard story or H P Lovecraft story.  The lonely silence in which I turned the pages of those magnificent stories is something I recall fondly, and the very nature and subject of From Beyond lent its finale a haunting quality as I sat alone in the silence, looking at the room around me differently. I’ll never forget that.

There is something quite unique and rather disturbing about much of Lovecraft’s best work, but there was something about transferring the period tales to the  modern-day to serve the demands of cinema audiences (for both Re-Animator and From Beyond and pretty much every other film adaptation since) that really struck me as just plain wrong. I think this was mostly because, at that time,  I was still reading them all, was still stuck in that 1920s/1930s world of horror  (and indeed to this day I think that the only ‘proper’ way to make a definitive and honest Lovecraft film is to keep it in the period of the original stories), but I have mellowed regards the budget and marketing difficulties inherent in such an approach. I quite enjoyed Dagon, for example, and would cite that as one of the best film adaptations of Lovecraft, even though like so many others it takes some particular liberties transferring the tales to the modern world. But anyway, what I’m saying is that, if I had watched Dagon back when I first saw Re-Animator and The Beyond, I’d have hated that too.

The fact is, Lovecraft’s work, the whole  science-fiction/gothic horror hybrid only really works when its set in the time and world in which the stories were created. It’s a black and white, film-noir world, one without mobile phones or the  internet. Its a nightmare world quite alien to what we live in now. Characters behave in a different way to how contemporary characters would; they believe in different things, society is different, and the world in which they inhabit is a world is still unknown and strange. They have not seen the Earth from space, its furthest corners and nooks mapped and photographed. Lost alien mountain cities could still be buried under Antarctic ice or hidden beneath the waves.

So a film set in modern times has to be rather loosely based on a Lovecraft tale as opposed to being utterly faithful. In that respect it has to be considered a largely pointless endeavour.  Anyway, that said, I guess there is no way a modern-day big-budget A’list director will ever be able to make a period-set faithful horror film based on a HPL story. So we are where we are.

FrombeyondFrom Beyond has just been re-released in uncut form on Blu-ray, and watching it again I have to say I rather enjoyed it. I must be mellowing in my middle age, or setting my expectations lower than I used to. But it was actually quite fun.  There isn’t much of the original story here (it generally tells the Lovecraft story in a pre-credit sequence) as in order to stretch the 8-page tale into an eighty-minute movie demands liberties regards going off on its own journey. But there is plenty going for it, mostly in how much the film reflects its own period of ‘manufacture’; you know, the whole ‘eighties horror thing with physical effects and gore and everything. Its as much a child of its time as the HPL tale was of the early 20th Century. It harks back to the gruesome charms of Carpenter’s The Thing, and of b-movie actors and video-nasties. It isn’t at all scary, but it is strangely fun, and every frame screams ‘Cult’ at you- Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton are magnificent b-movie actors in b-movie sets, with Richard Band’s synth score evoking the age just as much as the hokey matt shots. How many adolescent males got their minds fevered by the shots of Barbara Crampton suffering sexual degradation at the gooey fingers of it’s twisted deviant monster?

From Beyond is nasty. It’s messy. It’s The Thing mixed up with Videodrome, but not as intense as either. Deformed body parts twisting and contorting into horrible parodies of nature, buried in gore and slime. The main monster is bad enough, but when another starts eating victims brains -usually by sucking them out through the victims eye socket- well the film reaches for levels of grossness that is fairly hardcore. The price of all this OTT visual depravity is a lack of genuine horror or scares, something that is a betrayal, frankly, of the source material. But nonetheless it is a fascinating combination of horror and science fiction unique to Lovecraft and has to be commended for that. Certainly a better film than I had remembered it.

HPLHS’ The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

dart-cdw-CoverFresh from the wonderful H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society comes their latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre offering, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. These Dark Adventure Radio Theatre works are made in the style of period radio shows,  mock radio dramatisations of Lovecraft stories that are more faithful and authentic than any film likely could be. Being an audio drama the huge scale afforded by the listener’s imagination presents something only a hugely budgeted film could manage- and obviously no big- budget movie would ever be so faithful to the source. So in many ways these are the nearest thing to the ‘real deal’. I only wish someone in REH fandom could work on such radio dramas of some of Howard’s classics, because these HPL dramas are really something special.

The HPLHS have created six radio dramas so far, this latest one being their most ambitious yet. The earlier stories adapted were At The Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Out of Time and The Call of Cthulhu. I believe Herbert West -Reanimator will be next, and I sincerely hope that others will follow beyond that. They are available as mp3 downloads or on CD for us older folks from the HPLHS website (although mp3 may be the smarter option, as my CD package got the attention of Customs which landed me with an extra bill to pay this time around). The advantage of going the CD route is that they have great artwork and superbly-crafted ‘props’ to accompany each story, usually letters or newspaper clippings.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is possibly my personal favourite Lovecraft tale so this offering is wonderful stuff- spread across two CDs it runs for nearly two and a half hours in order to properly tell what was, if I recall correctly, Lovecraft’s longest story. Strangely, Lovecraft didn’t rate the story at all and I don’t believe it was even ever published during his lifetime, but to me it is the definitive Lovecraft tale and would surely make a fantastic film if only someone could do it justice as a serious movie. Its a thrilling mystery with truly chilling moments of horror, in which Charles Dexter Ward, a character closely modelled on Lovecraft himself, becomes consumed by the dark horror hidden in his family history.  You can see a trailer for the drama here-