After more than 25 years, Twin Peaks is still capable of being enigmatic and terrifying and ultimately, incredibly watchable.Read More
Filtering by Tag: television
Much of the Twin Peaks universe deals in liminal spaces, despite the stark contrast of that black and white tiled flooring.Read More
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me shows us portals between dreams and reality, but does not provide us with conclusive answers.Read More
Between vampires on Penny Dreadful and venereal disease on The Knick, it's a tough call to decide which is worse.Read More
This past week's installment of Hannibal, "Primavera," featured one of the more revolting scenes of the show (which is saying something). During one of Will Graham's empathing episodes, a skinned, dismembered, reconfigured corpse comes to life, sprouts hooves and antlers, and moves menacingly towards him.
Show creator Bryan Fuller dubbed the creation "Stagenstein," while production sketches for the show called it "Stumpman." (I'm partial to my own term, "Cronenstag.") This concoction is more grotesque than Mason Verger eating parts of his own face in Season Two's "Tome-wan." I remained fascinated and could not look away, even rewatching animated GIFs of the Cronenstag on Tumblr.
I've talked before about "the uncanny," in which things are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Somehow Cronenstag seemed worse to me. On the one hand it was a wet, fleshy creature that moved realistically. On the other hand, I know in my gut that it isn't real. So why the disgust and fear?
In many ways, this scene reminded me of the film Splice. (Vincenzo Natali, who wrote and directed Splice, also directed "Primavera.") The movie is one of the best examples of that Mystery Science Theater 3000 cliché, "he tampered in God's domain."
Two scientists (Elsa and Clive) develop animal hybrids for a genetic research company. Explicitly prevented by the company from adding human DNA into the mix, they conduct their human/animal hybrid genetic research in secret, eventually giving birth to a creature they refer to as "Dren." Dren is decidedly creepy and looks not totally unlike Hannibal's Cronenstag, with her spidery limbs and hoof-like feet.
Again, watching Splice I know that Dren is a cinematic creation and thus unreal. Still, Splice is one of the most disturbing and unpleasant films I've seen in recent memory precisely because it's so obviously unreal but could very well exist. As Natali noted in an interview on the film: "The centerpiece of the movie is a creature which goes through a dramatic evolutionary process. The goal is to create something shocking but also very subtle and completely believable."
Natali has explained in several interviews that the idea of Splice came from his encounter with the Vacanti mouse. In this experiment, scientists seeded "cow cartilage cells into a biodegradable ear-shaped mold" and then implanted it "under the skin of the mouse." (As an odd side note, the "nude mouse" on which the structure was grown is not a genetic experiment, but a spontaneous genetic mutation.) Are we repulsed by these images because we don't want to accept that such genetic experiments could actually be real? After all, the advent of cinematic technology has developed hand in hand with scientific technology; what filmmakers can create visually may not be so far removed from what scientists have created in labs.
Dren isn't the only creepy thing in Splice. Elsa and Clive also develop a pair of seemingly amorphous blobs named Fred and Ginger. These critters have been copyrighted and will be used to create livestock feed (an ethical quagmire in its own right). Fred and Ginger, like Dren, resemble what an article on sculptor Patricia Piccinini refers to as "parahuman." "Piccinini's parahuman beings are both uncannily real and somewhat disturbing. Certain people have a hard time with these works or find them so disturbing they can't stay near them."
Parahuman creatures like Cronenstag, Dren, or Fred and Ginger all recall what bioconservative scientist Leon Kass has called the "wisdom of repugnance." From Wikipedia: "In all cases, it expresses the view that one's 'gut reaction' might justify objecting to some practice even in the absence of a persuasive rational case against that practice." Since the "wisdom of repugnance" can also be used to justify prejudice against others on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability, and a host of other factors, it's a problematic concept that has been the subject of much criticism. It can be argued that such prejudices reveal more about the repugnant qualities of the person who is objecting to another entity, i.e., that he is himself racist, sexist, or ableist.
In the case of Splice and the Cronenstag at least, repugnance is still a real reaction to something seemingly unreal. It begs the question: at what point does fascination veer into disgust or disgust into fascination? That's the precise kind of liminal space that both Splice and the Cronenstag occupy. It's a question whose answer can't be predicted, and that's scary.
NBC's limited series Aquarius premiered on May 28, with the remaining 12 episodes going up on NBC.com the subsequent Thursday. Aquarius attempts to add a new spin on the events leading up to the Tate-LaBianca murders that took place on August 9 and 10, 1969.
Opening in 1967, the show follows multiple intersecting narratives: police sergeant Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) investigates an "off the books" missing persons/kidnapping case for his ex-girlfriend Grace Karn (Michaela McManus). Grace's 16-year-old daughter Emma hasn't been seen or heard from in four days. Her father, Grace's husband Ken (Brían F. O'Byrne) is a well-connected, high-powered lawyer who wants to keep the potentially politically damaging scandal out of the press. As it turns out it's Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) who has lured Emma away from home. Hodiak investigates the case with his younger partner Brian (Grey Damon), who thinks of Hodiak as a square.
David Duchovny is pretty terrific as Hodiak. As for Aquarius, it's no Mad Men, but I'm five episodes in and so far it's has done a decent job of creating a sense of the social and political unrest of the time period, with ongoing threads about drug use, hippies, and racial unrest, including a character that is a member of the Black Panther party. For those who have read extensively about or lived through the Summer of Fear: 1969 Edition, however, Aquarius doesn't do the best job of toeing the line between fiction and reality as far as Charles Manson is concerned.
Charlie and Cults
Admittedly, it's a difficult balancing act. How does one present a compelling portrayal of the horrific events of the late 1960s to a world in which Manson is seen as a pop culture icon, especially when there have been so many fictionalized versions of the story already? Aquarius is a little more edgy and believable than say, the 2004 version of Helter Skelter with Jeremy Davies, but this is network TV, after all, and the show frequently stumbles, especially with its portrayal of Emma and the burgeoning development of The Family.
Although the Tate-LaBianca murders themselves were savage and unprecedented, even at a time when people were being slaughtered en masse overseas, what makes the Manson murders so unique are their origins. After all, The Family was a cult that Manson concocted after flirting with a variety of New Age religions like Scientology and The Process Church, among others. The intervening years have seen no shortage of cults who've killed in the name of someone or something: Peoples Temple, Heaven's Gate, Branch Davidians. Yet the Manson case stands out because the murder victims weren't actual members of the cult.
There have also been a lot of fictionalized portrayals of these cult tragedies, such as Ti West's The Sacrament, a found footage pseudo-documentary that recasts the events of 1977 Jonestown through the modern lens of Vice journalism. Despite this ambitious premise, the movie isn't shocking or scary at all, especially if one is familiar with contemporaneous news articles and photos.
A much better movie about cult activity and its impact is 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene, about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who has recently escaped from a cult. The film alternates between the current narrative world of the film and Martha's flashbacks, often blurring the divide between dreams, memories, and even reality. It's one of the most frightening movies I've ever seen that isn't a straight-up horror film. John Hawkes plays cult leader Patrick as a wild-eyed, magnetic sleazebag who is legitimately, skin-crawlingly awful, far more disturbing than Gethin Anthony's clichéd, bisexual redneck on Aquarius.
Manson and the Male Gaze
In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," feminist scholar Laura Mulvey's seminal 1975 essay on the Male Gaze, she argues that because straight men make the majority of movies, women become objects to be looked at and thus, lose their agency. This is part of why Aquarius fails at this task and why Martha Marcy May Marlene, a movie that isn't even about Charles Manson, succeeds.
Even though it was written and directed by a man, Sean Durkin, the key to what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene so successful at being scary is its focus on Elizabeth Olsen's character: someone who's been completely shattered. We see things through her eyes and it makes everything that much more believable. This is the problem with Aquarius: by taking us on this journey with Sam Hodiak as our guide instead of Emma, we don't get the same perspective. We see things happen to Emma; we aren't privy to how she feels about what happens to her.
In Aquarius, Emma feels like a character in everyone else's story but her own: her parents, Charles Manson, Sam Hodiak himself. It's not about her situation; it's about the problems it causes everyone else. The show lavishes more care on a ridiculous subplot in which it's revealed that Ken Karn is not only gay, but was once Manson's lover, in addition to being his former attorney. It's a little too predictable, when a story about one of the most famous serial killers of all time should be far more wanton in its approach.
Even though it's a recent song, Lana Del Rey's "Ultraviolence" manages to create more of a mysterious, malevolent vibe than much of Aquarius (at least so far). In an interview with Grazie magazine, Del Rey states,
"I used to be a member of an underground sect which was reigned by a guru. He surrounded himself with young girls. He thought that he had to break people first to build them up again. At the end I quit the sect."
Fans have speculated that she's referring to the Atlantic Group, an unofficial offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous long condemned for its cult-like activities.
With lyrics like "he hurt me but it felt like true love" and "you're my cult leader" set to a brooding orchestral background and the repeated alliteration of the words sirens, violins, and violence, "Ultraviolence" conjures up a more personal and therefore affecting picture of the ways that a cult can destroy, especially young and vulnerable women. Considering that the Atlantic Group is a current entity, it makes it seem like the idea of another Charles Manson isn't something that happened 40 years ago, but something contemporary and genuinely scary.
I'll keep watching Aquarius because it is ambitious despite its flaws, but I'll also keep hoping that perhaps one day a filmmaker or TV network will capture the creepy crawly feeling Ed Sanders did in his 1971 book on Manson, The Family.
For five straight years of my pre-teen life, I spent each Saturday night at my paternal grandparents' home, glued to their pre-cable tube TV, absorbing the joys of Aaron Spelling's weekly double feature of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
The Love Boat, like much of late 1970s/early 1980s television, was frequently goofy but sometimes dramatic. Fantasy Island on the other hand, dealt with more primal, and often straight-up terrifying, matters. Even the theme music had a profound sense of melancholy and foreboding.
Episodes of Fantasy Island had two or three (usually unrelated) narrative threads in which guests of Mr. Rourke (Ricardo Montalban) and Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize) would visit the island to embark upon some kind of wish fulfillment journey, either remaining in a present-day alternate dimension or traveling to the future or the past.
One episode scared me so terribly that I repressed its existence until I ran across a description of it on the Internet. Season Two, Episode 7 contained three different fantasies, one of which was called "The Nightmare."
In this storyline, newlywed Janine Sanford (Pamela Franklin) is plagued by a nightmare from her childhood, one that has returned with a vengeance after her recent nuptials. She never makes it to the end of the nightmare, always waking up before discovering what it is she thinks she's supposed to learn.
Janine's husband not only believes that her fears related to the nightmares are well founded, he also supports her trip to the Island to deal with them. However, her father, business tycoon Colonel James Weston (Ray Milland), is skeptical, and worried that Janine's somnambulant searching might result in her death.
Mr. Rourke and his invisible coterie of insightful architects and interior decorators have recreated Janine's childhood home and her bedroom, right down to the toys in it. Janine lies on her twin bed and with the memory of Rourke's voice serving as an ersatz hypnotist, she falls asleep and immediately her nightmare begins.
You'd think a show that predated the TV Parental Guidelines by a couple of decades would be pretty tame, but you'd be wrong. All I could recall about this episode were the dolls, screaming and on fire, but it's so much more awful than that.
Perhaps the fish-eye lens is a bit hokey, but the creepy voice-over of a child talking to her dollies, in particular a marionette clown named "Toodles," is decidedly disturbing. When the dolls--including a cymbal-banging monkey toy--start moving around of their own accord and cackling, things take a turn for the worse.
"Toodles" becomes a life-sized, tongue-waggling clown, who lurches towards Janine so menacingly it freaked me out watching it on a computer screen during the daytime in the comfort of my own home. Eventually his head explodes. The wooden soldiers in the corner of Janine's bedroom are also suddenly enormous, and they advance upon her with bayonets raised. All the toys start exploding and catching on fire, and there's a tremendously weird close up of a doll's face melting. Janine tries to escape but is trapped by the fire and the terrifying toys. A giant skull floats into her field of vision, and in a distorted voice, shouts, "Help me! Jenny!" Janine wakes up screaming, like any sane person would.
"The Nightmare" displays elements of what Freud called "The Uncanny," in which things are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. This conflict instills a feeling of uneasiness, if not outright fear. It explains my lifelong fear of dolls and other inanimate, humanoid objects coming to life. You want to control them when you play with them; you don't want them to assert control of themselves.
Later, awake and back at the bungalow, Janine observes that something about the skull face was familiar. Colonel Weston doesn't want her to explore the nightmare any further, but Mr. Sanford accuses him of being "afraid about something she might find out."
It's all remarkably macabre, but unfortunately, the ending of the episode, in which Janine finally arrives at the end of the nightmare and determines its meaning, is a huge letdown after such a dramatic buildup.
Still, it's impressive how much the show was able to do with such primitive special effects. "The Nightmare" provides further confirmation that I will never have a clown marionette in my home.