Friday, October 23, 2009

Film Friday: Halloween (1978)

I enjoy Halloween. I like Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis, and I enjoy John Carpenter’s style. The story is good enough, if you switch your brain to “off” before starting the film. And it’s just creepy enough to enjoy. So why do I have so much ill will for this film? Because Halloween gave birth to the modern slasher flick, and it established every one of the genre’s stupidest conventions.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Halloween is the story of Michael Myers. He kills people. Why? Because they were there? The film doesn’t know why and doesn’t really care. As the film opens, Myers escapes from fifteen years of custody and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois, where he apparently intends to kill anyone who appears on film. His sister, Jamie Lee Curtis, appears on camera. So does Donald Pleasence, who is ostensibly hunting Michael Myers, though really he seems more interested in running around town proclaiming that he is "too late" to do whatever it was he was planning. For the next 91 minutes, Myers kills everyone except Curtis and Pleasence. Roll the credits.
So What’s The Problem?
My problem with Halloween stems from the total nonsense Carpenter uses to create his villain and the fact this nonsense became the template for slasher flicks. For example:
• We begin with Myers’ character. He has no personality or emotions and he does not speak. He is, for lack of a better word, functionally catatonic. Yet, he's also somehow a genius who can plot revenge, track people down, and do things he never learned to do (like drive) with little or no difficulty.

• Moreover, despite being effectively catatonic, Myers has the moves of a hyper-trained special forces operative. . . maybe even a Hollywood-style ninja. How?

• He's stronger than ten people, even though he’s never worked out in his life, and he cannot be brought down by mere physical injury. Indeed, no matter how much you wound him, he shows no signs of being wounded. Nor can he be killed because he’s crazy and crazy makes to invulnerable to bullets. Yeah, that makes sense.

• Strangely, Myers has the ability to know where characters will be in the next scene. Indeed, somehow he manages to place himself perfectly to surprise any character that separates from the others.

• He also has the ability to hide in plain sight, to hide behind objects that are too small to conceal his body, and to appear and disappear through closed doors and windows without making a sound. He's ultra swift and super silent.

• He also can move vast distances instantly, e.g. between houses on different blocks. Not to mention he can find the home of the person a character is talking to on the phone. . . as if he has callee id.
Does any of this make any sense? No. But for Carpenter it didn’t have to. Carpenter wasn’t making a movie with a complete story. He was making a series of murderous vignettes, which he then strung together to form a movie. We accept the lack of coherence between the vignettes because Carpenter has enough talent as a filmmaker to disguise those problems and because he gives us a strange enough villain that we spend more time pondering what he is doing rather than trying to determine how he's doing it.

The whole film is gibberish. But that wouldn't bother me if this has just been a one-off film. But it didn't stay a one-off. The formula escaped and became the template for every stupid slasher flick that followed over the next thirty years. Ug.
So What Does Halloween Mean?
Halloween has no meaning. Some have suggested Halloween is a social critique of the immorality of young people in the 1970s. They point out that Myers’ victims were all sexually active and abusing alcohol or pot when they were killed. By comparison, the lone survivor, Curtis, was chaste and innocent. . . except for that scene where she was smoking pot. So scratch that one.

More interestingly, the film may have been intended to include a feminist message. The producer, Debra Hill, was a feminist. And she and Carpenter often included “strong roles” for women in Carpenter’s horror movies. The role of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is cited as being one of these roles because Curtis survives and she does so with her own wits. But if that’s true, then the fact that Halloween became the template for the ensuing wave of slasher flicks should come as a special disappointment to feminists. Indeed, modern slasher flicks are often about as misogynistic as rap videos -- using heavy doses of T&A to put a lot male A's in the seats.

In the end, I think that it’s impossible to get any meaning out of Halloween because the movie makes no sense when you break it down. The truth is this film is nothing but exploitation. Carpenter set out to create a film based entirely on shock rather than horror, a film with no intellectual pretenses, a film that would scare you simply by shouting “boo” over and over again, and he succeeded beyond measure. Indeed, the $320,000 they spent on this film turned into $55,000,000 in gross revenue. But that's about all the depth you'll really find.
The Nature of Evil -- The Anti-Liberal Evil
So what does this film tell us about the nature of evil? Not a whole heck of a lot, with one exception. I would argue Myers’ character is a response to the prior two decades of liberalism. How’s that for unexpected!

In the 1960s and 1970s, liberals constantly whined about root causes "making" people into criminals. Everyone had to have a reason, something that pushed them to become evil. Liberals just would not admit that some people were simply rotten. Myers is one of the first human character in many years (probably since In Cold Blood (1967)) who was evil because that was his nature. He wasn’t rebelling. He wasn’t backed into a corner or exploited. He wasn’t abused as a child. He wasn’t drugged or programmed by the government. He was just evil. In fact, the biggest disappointment of the remake in 2007, directed by Rob Zombie, other than the dreadful quality of the film, was that Zombie explained Myers’ evil as being the result of his coming from a broken home and being bullied in school. Boo hoo.

So in the end, Halloween was an ok movie that should have slowly faded into movie history. Sadly, it didn’t. Instead, it became a template for slasher flicks. And slowly, but surely, this template has come to dominate the horror genre because it takes no talent to write or direct a knock-off of this film. And that’s Michael Myers’ greatest evil.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Film Friday: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a seminal movie in the horror genre. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. Not only was this one of the first horror movies to lift the genre from kiddie fare to more adult horror, but it is one of the few horror movies that achieved the intellectual potential normally associated with top notch science fiction. Plus, it's a really good movie.

** spoiler alert **

Filmed on a $114,000 budget by a Pittsburgh-based advertising man with no prior experience in the movie industry, Night of the Living Dead became one of the all time classic horror movies. It’s grossed more than $42 million ($690 million in 2008 dollars), spawned numerous sequels and given birth the horror sub-genre of zombie movies.
The Plot
Night of the Living Dead begins in a cemetery where two young people have come to visit the grave of their father. As they return to their car, a small number of individuals stumble and meander toward them. Barbara (Judith O’Dea), the sister, is spooked by this. Her brother Johnny is not, and he teases her with the now famous line: “they’re coming to get you Barbara.” And they do. Soon Johnny is dead and Barbara is running for her life. Barbara stumbles upon a seemingly deserted house. When she finds a corpse inside, she attempts to flee the house, but is stopped by Ben (Duane Jones), a black man. Ben warns her of more zombies outside the house and begins boarding up the entire house. Soon they are joined by others, including a couple that is hiding their sick daughter in the basement -- she’s been bitten. The rest of the movie involves this group of people trying to decide what to do now that the dead have risen and are walking the earth.
The Movie’s Place In History
Night of the Living Dead deserves its place in history. The movie is creepy, even by modern standards, and well acted -- even though the actors improvised most of the dialog. It was also ultra cutting edge. Indeed, at the time, horror movies were essentially aimed at children. The monsters were fake, there was no gore, the heroes acted like dime store John Waynes, and the government swooped in to the rescue in the nick of time. This one was different. The gore (though practically non-existent by modern standards) was harshly criticized at the time. The monsters were real. The danger was real. The theme was harsh, and the acting dramatic rather than melodramatic. This was the stuff of nightmares and the end result was a movie that was not suitable for children -- and many critics were outraged.

The movie also took a huge risk in making Duane Jones the hero. Indeed, Jones was one of the first blacks to play a lead role as a hero in a movie aimed at white audiences. It was not at all clear that white audience would accept a black hero, except in movies that specifically addressed race -- like In The Heat Of The Night. But they did. In fact, in many ways, this movie expressed Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” sentiment better than other movies of the era because the other characters did not make Ben’s race an issue, i.e. they simply accepted him as a person. Interestingly, Jones bears most of the credit for creating the role because he refused to play the character in the way it had originally been conceived, which had been of a much lower class.

This movie also deserves its place in history because it created the zombie movie genre, which continues to turn out a near-copy of Night of the Living Dead each year.
Why Zombies Are Terrifying?
So what makes zombies terrifying? For one thing, they present a high level of danger. They are difficult to spot in a crowd, because they appear basically human. They are relentless, they do not need sleep or rest like we do. Simply wounding them won’t stop them and they only need to bite (or scratch) you to defeat you. And they have math on their side because their numbers increase exponentially. This puts the entire human race in danger once you have one zombie. (Also, while we used to find comfort in their slow speeds, 28 Days Later took that away from us when it introduced fast-twitch zombies.)

But more fundamentally, zombies frighten us because they represent the destruction of the thing we cherish the most -- our individuality. Being self-aware, the one thing in the universe of which we are absolutely certain is our own existence. Along with this comes the sense that we are unique, something we prize highly -- even people who follow the herd in all aspects of their lives still think of themselves as unique individuals. Further, we believe that we are more than the sum of our parts and that this extra bit -- call it a soul or spirit or simply "I" -- will live on after our bodies fail. The prospect that this might not be true terrifies us. And this is where zombies strike. One bite from a zombie can take this all away, it can destroy the very thing that makes us what we are. That terrifies us because it represents a kind of total and permanent death that we fear more than anything else, i.e. zombies destroy the part of us we thought could not be destroyed, and make us face the prospect of non-existence.
Nature of Evil
Finally we come to the nature of evil question. Are zombies evil? Actually, no. The force that created them can be evil, but the zombies themselves are not evil by most moral definitions because they don’t have free will and they lack any intent to do evil. Instead, they are acting purely on instinct, like sharks or the alien in Alien. We may not like what they do, but we really can’t call them evil.

Interestingly, zombie movies are not actually about zombies, they are about the relationships of the people who are running from the zombies. That makes zombie movies rather unique in the horror movie world. That’s also what keeps zombie movies fresh (or should): the fact that any number of dramas or social commentaries can be played out within a zombie movie. For example, The Night of The Living Dead has been said to be about either racism or the Vietnam War (though I don't actually buy into either theory). Shaun of the Dead, apart from being parody, is also a social statement about the zombie-like state of modern culture. And if you want an example of something that is essentially a zombie story, but hardly qualifies as horror, look to the Borg episodes (pre-Borg Queen) in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies seem to have been created by a natural force, i.e. there is no evil mastermind behind their rampage. None of the characters really qualify as evil either. But collectively, they manage to achieve some evil things. Indeed, it is rather clear that the humans have a tremendous advantage over the zombies. They are smarter and faster and they are securely locked in. The zombies have no ability to break down doors or walls, to use tools or fire, or to trick the humans outside. Thus, if the humans worked together, they could make the house secure until help arrived or other arrangements could be made. But they don’t work together because a raft of human emotions get in the way. Some are afraid, others are angry. One guy doesn’t like taking orders even though he clearly lacks the sense needed to pull through this crisis with his own faculties. And when the characters get angry or scared, they start sacrificing or endangering each other to protect themselves. Thus, the evil here is what happens to normal people when they find themselves under extreme pressure, i.e. when society breaks down. In effect, we become the monsters.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Film Friday: Prince of Darkness (1987)

Continuing our discussion of the nature of evil, today we turn to John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. This relatively unknown movie is one of my favorite horror movies and is possibly Carpenter’s best. What separates this movie from the pack is the clever manipulation of our emotions to generate fear and the use of intellectual horror to create a terrifying movie. In essence, it inspires helplessness.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
As an old priest dies, the last member of a forgotten order -- the Brotherhood of Sleep, Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is sent to wrap up his affairs. Pleasence discovers something in the basement of the closed church where the old priest lived as a caretaker: a glass cylinder containing a swirling green fluid. Pleasence calls upon Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong), an expert in subatomic physics. Wong agrees to bring a group of students from several scientific disciplines to examine the cylinder. This group includes Jameson Parker (Simon and Simon) and his love-interest Catherine (Lisa Blount).

As they begin their investigation, they learn the object does not obey the normal laws of physics, and it's locked from the inside. They also begin to experience the same dream whenever anyone takes a nap. This dream purports to be a warning from the future of something evil that emerges from the church. Meanwhile, Pleasence and Wong study the diary of the old priest, which identifies the green fluid as the Antichrist. And it’s alive.
What Sets This Movie Apart
What sets Prince of Darkness apart from other horror movies is that Carpenter seeks to generate emotional and intellectual terror rather than shock to drive this film.
Emotional Terror
To create emotional terror, Carpenter uses our fear of helplessness against us. He does this by putting the characters into a creepy setting, exposing them to danger of which we are aware, and then making them oblivious until it is too late.

Carpenter starts with a truly creepy setting: an old church. But, interestingly, he doesn’t cheat to make it creepy, as so many other horror movies do -- think about how many horror movies take place in decaying castles with rooms that scream “fire damage” or spaceships, e.g. the Event Horizon, decorated with black walls and random spikes sticking from the walls. Indeed, the church is exactly what you would expect. Its room are the right size and shape. The walls are painted like you would expect for an old church. The floors are made of wood and the furniture fits the decor. You wouldn’t want to live there, but you wouldn’t run for your life either. This is the kind of building we’ve all been in and can relate to and that gives the movie an instant authenticity that so many horror movies sacrifice in trying to create their ambiance.

Carpenter then makes the church feel claustrophobic by making us feel trapped. When the scientists arrive at the church, we see homeless people gathering outside. As the movie runs, more and more gather, and soon we realize there will be no escaping the church. Yet, we recognize the danger long before the characters do. This not only triggers our fear of being trapped, but it also triggers our natural instinct to help others. But since we cannot help them, we feel helpless, which brings on a sense of fear.

Carpenter then plays on our fear of being alone, our fear of losing our identities, and our fear of betrayal. As the thing in the basement begins to take people over one at a time, we find ourselves terrified as we helplessly watch unsuspecting students and scientists milling around as the possessed people approach them. There is little more terrifying than watching a monster slowly walking toward an unsuspecting character. What’s worse, everything that happens is avoidable if only the characters could put all of their knowledge together, but they cannot -- only we can, and we cannot help them. This fills each scene with terror as we can see the danger standing there in plain sight, but the characters simply cannot see it for themselves. Thus, the film fills us with a sense of helplessness in the face of this terror.

Also, the entire time, Carpenter cleverly uses the soundtrack to manipulate us. The music sits entirely in the background and you barely notice it. Yet, Carpenter uses the bass to drive your heart rate -- just as sitcoms use laugh tracks to trigger laughter. In this way, he expertly controls the tension of each scene without the audience even realizing it.
Intellectual Horror
In addition to playing on our emotions, Carpenter offers genuine intellectual horror -- something increasingly rare in horror movies. Intellectual horror comes not from shock, but from finding something that terrifies the audience deeply and putting them into a state of mind where their deepest fears could be realized. In this regard, Carpenter aims right at the heart of our belief system: be it religion or science.

What Pleasence discovers in the diary of the dead priest is fascinating and terrifying. Pleasence discovers that Christ was real, though he was merely an advanced being, not the son of God. His purpose in coming to Earth was to warn mankind that an evil creature, a sort of Anti-God, was trying to break into the universe. To help this Anti-God achieve that goal, there was an Antichrist (the son of the Anti-God) who would open a doorway. But Jesus trapped the Antichrist in the cylinder and gave the cylinder to the human race to guard.

This discovery causes Pleasence to lose his faith. He realizes this Anti-God is real evil, and it horrifies him that the church decided mankind wasn't ready for this knowledge and decided instead to treat evil as a theoretical concept to be found within each of us. Consequently, not only is his theology premised on a lie, but mankind has failed to heed the warning of Jesus and now stands unprepared to combat this evil.

But, at the same time, the movie tells us that science is wrong as well. Not only are the rational scientists given undeniable proof of the supernatural, but they are confronted with the realization that everything they thought was true about the universe is false, and the laws of physics which they thought controlled the universe are in fact meaningless. Indeed, this creature obeys no laws of physics. Interestingly, this is essentially how science would define “evil” if it were asked -- a lack of order or structure to the universe.

Accordingly, we are confronted with a world in which the things we rely upon to explain the world -- religion and science -- are suddenly shown to be false. Intellectually, there can be little more terrifying than realizing that nothing we know is true. Not to mention that we now know there is something nightmarish waiting to break into our universe and there are fates worse than death.

In the middle of this, Carpenter raises questions of self-sacrifice. What would you do to save the world? And to what could you condemn another person to save the world? Moreover, Carpenter smartly lets the characters engage in discussions of theology and scientific theory throughout the film. Thus, he puts the audience into the right mindset to consider these issues as they arise -- unlike most horror movies which simply dump these questions on the audience unexpectedly at the end.
The Dream
Finally, we must mention the dream, which Carpenter uses expertly. First, by having everyone have the same dream, we grasp that the dream must be something other than everyone just having nightmares, i.e. it is a real warning. Secondly, by letting the dream unfold in pieces, Carpenter gives the audience time to speculate as to its meaning and how it will finish. When you let the audience fill in the blanks, as Carpenter does, they will always find something more terrifying than you can present because they will fill in with the things that scare them personally. But most importantly, Carpenter uses the dream to raise the odds the characters face. In a normal horror movie, good will defeat evil unless evil achieves some goal. But here, we know from the dream that a future exists where evil has prevailed. Thus, rather than fighting to prevent something that is in doubt, these characters are struggling to overturn something that appears inevitable. Intellectually, this raises the level of the challenge significantly. And since we’ve been told that neither science nor religion has the answer, we have no idea how we can fight this thing, i.e. we are left intellectually helpless. Thus, the audience spends the movie struggling to find the answer to avoid a nightmare that seems inevitable. That is intellectual terror.

Try finding that in a slasher flick!

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Monday, October 5, 2009

TV Review: Stargate Universe (2009 - 2011)

I’m a big fan of Stargate SG-1. I wasn’t always. There was something about the look of the show that kept me away for years; it felt cheaply made. But one day I gave it chance. The first season was weak, but soon I was hooked. With great characters, a fantastic sense of humor, and writers who dealt with the standard sci-fi themes and clich├ęs in ways that were truly innovative and much deeper than anything I’d seen on other shows, SG-1 became one of my favorite shows.

As a pleasant aside, SG-1 always displayed very conservative values, and it never preached the liberalism that poisons so much modern sci-fi, but that’s for another review.

Then came Stargate Atlantis. I liked Stargate Atlantis, though it always felt like a lazy rip-off of SG-1. The Wraith (a sort of vampire-like race) were much more menacing bad guys than the Goa’uld from SG-1, but the characters were copies of the SG-1 originals and the plot lines were by and large similar -- though, toward the end of the series, they produced some incredibly well done episodes.

So when I heard about Stargate Universe (a.k.a. SG-U) I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I certainly wouldn’t mind more Stargate on the old tube. But on the other hand, I figured it would be even more derivative.

Well, color me impressed!

** spoiler alert **

The first thing I noticed about SG-U was that it had a completely different look and feel to the originals. Gone were the obvious sound stages and in came a dynamic, realistic set. The lighting had changed, the camera angles changed, the editing changed and the pacing. It looked and felt a LOT like the new Battlestar Galactica, only not as dark (lighting-wise or theme-wise).

The next thing I noticed was the total absence of the knock-off characters. There was no Jack O’Neill, no Daniel Jackson, no Samantha Carter and no Teal’c. Instead, we were given Dr. Nicholas Rush, played by the very talented Robert Carlyle who I first noticed as Begbie in Trainspotting. What makes Rush so unique is that he’s an ass and a liar, and while he’s quite brilliant, he doesn’t know everything. Most interestingly, he’s not very likable and he doesn’t seem to care about the other people he’s stranded with him.

Now I know that most modern shows suffer from character drift, where the writers and actors consciously or subconsciously conspire to eventually turn every character into the sole-tortured, reluctant hero, but I get the feeling that Rush will be different. Carlyle does not strike me as an actor who needs to be loved. And if he keeps playing this character according to character, rather than trying to make him loved, this could be a fascinating show. He could become the most complex science fiction “hero” since the nihilistic Avon in Blake’s Seven.

The rest of the cast is acceptable, though some of the “drama” they’ve set up appears to be standard, requisite modern sci-fi drama: (1) the young, unprepared military guy suddenly thrown into a position of command -- who is conveniently the same age as “the hot chick,” (2) the angry chick who is going to buck the command structure, (3) the civilians v. the military control debate, and so on. But all in all, the show seems really fresh out of the gates.

The story line is fascinating too, though I wonder if you need a working knowledge of the first two series to get everything out of it? The person I watched the show with had not seen the first two series and, while they understood what was going on, they missed the really cool nuances and revelations that were being imparted.

For the uninitiated, the storyline went like this: a group of scientists and military-types are trying to use a device known as a stargate to go somewhere unknown. The stargate is a big ring with symbols on it that works like a phone -- you dial a number using the symbols and a wormhole appears, letting you travel instantly to the gate you’ve dialed. This group is aware of a gate address that uses nine symbols (chevrons), rather than the normal seven or eight, but does not know where it goes or quite how to dial that address. As they are experimenting, the base is attacked. Rush gets the gate to open to the nine chevron address and they have no choice but to evacuate the base to that address. The address turns out to be a many million year old spaceship (the Destiny) that is traveling across the universe. The ship is falling apart, and they can’t get back. Cue the series.

But what the uninitiated missed. . . First, you see every member of SG-1 except Teal’c. Jack O’Neill recruits Eli (the whiz kid). Daniel Jackson narrates the videotape that explains to Eli what is going on. Samantha Carter commands the spaceship defending the base when it is attacked. (A host of other appeared too.) The base is attacked by the Lucian Alliance, a ruthless dictatorship that appeared in the final two seasons of SG-1. The communication devices Rush claims to use were the subject of a several episode story arc that introduced the Ori (the last big bad guys -- a thinly-veiled reference to militant Islam) to the series. It also wasn’t explained what was so neat about finding a nine chevron address. Seven chevrons lets you move around the galaxy. After much trouble, SG-1 discovered that you could use an eighth chevron to move between galaxies -- though they only found an address for the Pegasus address. But all that is just flavor.

What was really interesting was that the show added a major piece to the show’s mythology: it explained how the Ancients built the stargate system. The Ancients are the first human-like race in the universe. The vanished long before we humans came along. The Ancients built the stargate system, but it was never explained how they got the gates around the universe. Now we know. They sent automated ships out across the universe to spot potentially habitable planets and plant stargates. Then they sent ships like the Destiny to go investigate those gates. The Destiny is automated, though it has a stargate on board (also a new idea -- a mobile gate) that would allow the Ancients to visit the ship. Though, with the ancients long gone, the ship has been abandoned for millions of years. Tre cool!

At this point, the show looks like it’s going to be quite good. Great effects, creative writing, fresh characters and new storylines. I’d recommend checking this one out. It’s on Friday nights on the Sci-Fi Channel.

You can also see the pilot here: Click Me.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Film Friday: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

“October is a rare month for boys.” It’s also one of my favorite months. And nothing says October more than leaves changing colors and horror movies. So let’s spend October looking at different horror movies and contemplating the nature of evil, beginning with an October classic that contains both horror and changing foliage: Something Wicked This Way Comes.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Based on a Ray Bradbury novel of the same name, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of Will Halloway, his friend Jim Nightshade and his father Charles Halloway (Jason Robards). Will is thirteen years old and it’s October. On a stormy night, Will and Jim see a spectral train roll into town. With it comes a mysterious carnival, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

The next day, strange and evil things begin to happen to the townsfolk. Their teacher, the elderly Ms. Foley is made young again. The one legged barkeeper is given a new leg and the vision of himself as a star football player. And so on. But none of these gifts come without a price, and the man holding the ticket is Mr. Dark (played by a then-unknown Jonathan Pryce). Dark is not human, though what he is we do not know. What we do know is that he is but one of the evil things behind the carnival (watch for Pam Grier as the Dust Witch), and they are here to feed. What do they feed upon? They feed upon our negative emotions. They feed upon greed and pride and vanity and regret. And the man in town with the biggest regret is Will’s father.

To overcome Dark, they must overcome their own negative emotions. This sets up a fascinating struggle, a battle of wills, between Dark and Will and Will’s father. Indeed, the scene in the library, where Dark tempts Will's father, is so incredibly well done that the scene alone makes it worth your time to see the movie. But there is much more to the movie as well.

In the end, the movie is not ingenious, it’s not terrifying (its effects are about equivalent to Tron, another Disney product of the era), and it did poorly at the box office ($19 million worldwide). Nevertheless, this is a wonderfully enjoyable movie. It is a movie oozing with childhood memories, both of friends, times and places long gone, and it speaks so well to the relationship between young boys and their fathers, and between fathers and their sons. It is the kind of movie that makes you wish you hadn’t wasted so much of your youth and makes you wonder if you aren’t wasting too much now. Roger Ebert, very accurately, called it “a horror movie with elegance.”
The Nature of Evil
Since we’re talking about the nature of evil this month, let’s see what Something Wicked has to say on the topic, shall we? Unlike modern horror movies where the evil character often is evil simply because that’s what the plot calls for and where the evil is merely sadism attendant to murder, Something Wicked offers something more.

Something Wicked presents the idea that evil is powerless against you unless you give it power over you. Dark has a physical body and he displays magical powers, and it would seem he could roam the city doing as much evil as he desired. Yet, he doesn’t. Indeed, as the movie progresses, it become clear he can’t. He only has power over those who have accepted his gifts.

And why would someone accept his gifts? Because they let their negative emotions control them. Ms. Foley longs desperately to be young and beautiful again. She accepts the gift of youth. The barkeeper longs to have both legs again and become a great football star. He accepts the gift of being made whole. The barber longs to have women desire him. He accepts the gift of virility. Each of these people surrender to their vanity, their lust, their regret and make themselves vulnerable. Each of them longs for something they knew they could never get, and each of them longs for it so much their own desires blind them to the evil of what is being offered. In other words, they want it so much they can't see it's too good to be true. And once they accept the gift, Dark has them in his power and they are lost.

But those who do not succumb, like Will and his father, remain protected from Dark. The are beyond his power. Indeed, as mentioned before, there is an incredible scene in the library where Dark comes to find the boys and to temp Will’s father. Will’s father deeply regrets he hasn’t been a stronger father figure for Will. When Will was young, Will fell into the river, but Will’s father was unable to save him because he couldn't swim. Another man saved Will. From that moment on, Will’s father has regretted his weakness and has lived in fear that Will views him as weak. That regret has caused him to waste many of the best years of Will’s life, hidden away in the safety of his library.

It is that regret, that allows Dark to temp Will’s father. But at the same time, in a scene played to perfection by an increasingly agitated Pryce, we see that Dark can tempt, but he cannot take. He has no power over Will’s father unless he accepts the gifts Dark offers. We see the same thing at other times in the film when Dark cannot temp lightening rod salesman Tom Fury and in the failure of Dark's efforts to force Fury to reveal critical information to Dark.

In this message, we find both hope and a warning. We find hope because we are told the power to protect ourselves from evil lies within ourselves. If we do not give in to our darker emotions, evil cannot touch us. But there is also a warning, in that many of the emotions we feel regularly can make us vulnerable (who hasn’t felt regret over something they did or did not do).

Further, there is another fascinating aspect about the evil presented in Something Wicked, which adds to this warning. Unlike so many evil characters today, Dark has an actual motivation -- in other words, he’s not evil merely to give the hero something to overcome or because the director wanted to present a sadistic character. As Pryce himself tells us, the carnival travels the world, only staying in any location until they are chased away by the coming storm that always follows them. During the short time they have in any location, they feed on the negative emotions of the locals. Indeed, it is those negative emotions that call them in the first place.

Thus, Something Wicked warns us that not only do we make ourselves vulnerable to evil if we surrender to our worst emotions, but we make ourselves a beacon for those who would exploit us. And in many ways, this is great advice for the real world. Would you fall for the snake oil salesmen you see on television -- everything from fake weight loss products, to phony impotence cures, to beer that promises to make you attractive to the opposite sex -- if you didn't let your regrets and desires weigh on your mind to the point where they could overwhelm your better judgment? Would you fall for a political demagogue if you didn't succumb to your own envy, your irrational fears or your hatreds? And isn't the fact that we do succumb what keeps these evil creatures coming after us.

That message is what makes Something Wicked a fascinating first shot for our October examination of the nature of evil. Not only does our own surrender to our own weaknesses make us vulnerable to evil, but it is that very vulnerability that gives evil fertile ground in which to grow. In effect, we create our own monsters.

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