23 August 2016

More Short Lived Shows

More Short Lived Shows :-(
by Kristin Battestella

By design or cancellation, here's another helping of short lived television scares, creepers, documentaries, and fantasy to binge or avoid. 


100 Years of Horror – Christopher Lee hosts these twenty-six half hour episodes from producer Ted Newsom (Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror) – so don't let the very, very dated 1996 bad opening animations and made on the cheap poor video style deter you. Every scary topic one can expect is here from “Dracula and His Disciples” and “Blood Drinking Beings” to “Frankenstein's Friends,” “Mad Doctors,” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Common topics such as “Werewolves,” “Ghosts,” “Witches,” “Mummies,” and “Zombies,” get their due alongside more unusual ground such as “Aliens,” “Mutants,” “Freaks,” and “Dinosaurs.” Interviewees such as Bela Lugosi Jr., Sarah Karloff, Hugh Hefner, Roger Corman, Hazel Court, John Carpenter, Caroline Munro, and Richard Matheson discuss “Bela Lugosi,” “Boris Karloff,” and “Scream Queens,” too. The overlapping topics are at times broad and there's nothing new for die hard horror fans – the series should have been a tight ten hour presentation as some of the VHS editions appear to have done. However, this does pack in a lot of rare photographs and archive footage of John Carradine, Vincent Price, and Peter Cushing. Brief nudity in the film clips earn MA warnings, and the subject matter isn't always family friendly, but overall this remains a nostalgic, informative set recalling the chronological growth of horror cinema from silent films and scary television parallels to the new millennium. Of course, it's great to hear Lee's booming yet casual narrative, dry wit, and conversational hosting style. The series is worth it just for his recollections – with more than enough pick and choose bonuses to get into a Halloween mood. 


The Enfield Haunting – Matthew Macfadyen (MI-5) and Timothy Spall (Harry Potter) star in this 2015 three part British miniseries recounting one family's 1977 paranormal encounter. Hide and seek in a cemetery and telling urban legends forebode the scares to come, however seventies touches such as knee high socks, the old ring ring on the horseshoe phone, viewfinders, a big television, and Starsky & Hutch posters add a sense of innocence, endearing the viewer with nostalgia before the creaking noises, phantom tappings at the door, and furniture that moves by itself. Psychic researchers and paranormal writers come with their giant cameras, capturing only ghostly video glitches and spooky static, but the interviews with the children are natural and well-done. Family conflict, past trauma, medical issues, and heart pills add to the freaky old man imagery, skepticism, and scary toppers while Episode Two brings debates about how to proceed. The entity follows the children to a relative's house but asking what it wants leads to frightful possessions and apparitions in the mirror. Are these mediums or charlatans? Is this a poltergeist or youth acting out? The investigators must face their own personal demons amid escalating one knock yes, two knocks no questionings. Quick library research moments and scenes with surviving residents detract slightly from the congested house, as eerie telephone calls and arguments over writing a book exploitations work better. The division among the experts skirts most of the real world doubting or then-hoax possibilities, and liberties are taken with a seemingly forgotten son and prior child deaths in the house or innuendo of past abuses only briefly mentioned. Fortunately, there are lighthearted quips alleviating the scares, after all, foul mouthed possessed kids can make a social visit pretty awkward and poltergeists sure are messy! By the Third Hour levitating urns, vocal trickery, orbs, and the seemingly vanquished moves fast with newspapers ready to jump on the story. Phantom doorbells, doppelgangers, and hospital cruelty create neurology versus mysticism questions alongside implications of self-harm, misplaced resentment, and unresolved grief. Is this a ghost with unfinished business or something more tangible? There are a few good shocks, but this tale is told in the time allotted without an urgency for over the top theatrics. The family drama remains at the forefront here thanks to choice paranormal frights and fine performances. 


Split Call

Robin Hood – Although technically not short lived at three thirteen episode seasons, this 2006 take on the legend moves fast, remaining messy throughout its tenure with too many zooms, chop edits, and tracking cameras. Despite the medieval setting, loud music, intrusive modern dialogue, anachronistic weapons, and desperately inaccurate ladies costumes interfere with viewer immersion. You can have a humorous episode or character, but the tone flip flops from scene to scene – is this a camp fantasy or serious moral play? The origins of Robin becoming the Hood and the introductions of the outlaws over the first season are lovely, however, the 45 minute round and round padding gets old fast. Audiences can only believe Robin's hollow threats to kill the Sheriff so many times when they chat weekly and have several opportunities to harm each other – it's Cobra shaking his fist on G.I. Joe. This superficial structure isn't the actors fault, but I don't care for Much, Marian, Allan A Dale, or Keith Allen who must have been directed to play the Sheriff of Nottingham as a poor man's Tim Curry. Worse still, gung ho, never shrewd, and not always likable Robin is only into stealing from the rich for the glory, and any character developments feel too tame or are forgotten by the next episode. Why not have Robin be anonymous, disappeared, or absent altogether ala Blake's 7? Of course, fans will eat up the Guy Gisborne guyliner and shirtless Richard Armitage scene chewing, but there should have been more of the mature family drama with Gordon Kennedy as Little John and the criminally (ha, pun) underused Harry Lloyd as Will Scarlett. A family friendly show doesn't have to be juvenile, and the serious character moments are better than the preposterous Old West saloons, babies, PTSD (complete with camouflage pants!), and National Treasure gimmicks intruding on the quality middle of Season Two. The deaths, betrayal, consequences, regal surprises, and great adventure drama comes too late, leaving unrealized potential or what should have been glasses clouding the viewing. I remember why I didn't like watching this show the first time around, and my gosh do not bother with Season Three!

Skip It

Cult – I had a lot of notes regarding this thirteen episode 2013 show within a show thriller. However, the always deliciously demented Robert Knepper (Prison Break) is the only real reason to tune in – and he isn't given much to do despite having a dual role amid this intriguing premise blurring the lines between television fiction and fandom reality. Are there really subliminal workings in media or just warped fans with a runaway theory? I almost wish the crime investigation and the titular internal series were separate shows, for the inside actors trying to not cross characters lines or crazed fans seem more interesting. Unfortunately, the disc encryptions, chat rooms, internet cafes, supposedly secret roleplaying, and newspaper reporter lead are terribly dated. Episodes run as short as forty minutes, and hokey, clue revealing 3D glasses play like an evil National Treasure. The CW goes overboard with inside promos and name drops, but pointless VHS skipping transitions and faux static can't hide on set unrealistics, sloppy detective contrivances, pretentious viewer interactivity, and lame torturing. Traditional intercut structuring breaks established point of view rules by presenting the inside show as the B plot instead of someone onscreen watching it. Throwaway events, uneven suspicions, and nonsensical catchphrases also make for poorly paced storylines. Rather than piecemeal with flat costume party wannabes and hypocritical statements, the show within should have been revealed in order or watched early each episode for parallel hints. Weekly killer teen obnoxiousness clutters the overlooked resources and obvious information that would solve everything, and only one protagonist is really needed – either reporter Matthew Davis (The Vampire Diaries) seeking his brother or show assistant Jessica Lucas (Gotham) discovering secrets. The cast seems diverse yet remains stereotypical, with a light skinned, more European looking black woman having the white hero romance while the more African featured villain is the scary black woman put in her place by an evil white man superior. The mystical negro boss is sacrificed over a white man's mistake, and there's a hip, wild haired tech chick, too. They want evidence but never take pictures with their phones? A reporter doesn't write about it all until after the fact? Bitch, anonymously blog that shit! Ominous “They know that we know that they know that we know” glares reiterate what just happened – even though each scene only lasts a few minutes – and ham-fisted cult begat show attempts at shock and sensationalized meta unravel instead of reveal. Abandonment and abuses are very anticlimactic, and one person's long lost secret is a Google search away to another. Motivations change with each derailed pursuit, and derivative storytelling compromises would be possibilities in favor of a household boob tube brainwashing theory. What is this, Batman Forever?

19 August 2016

Just Vampires, Siete!

Just Vamps, ¡Siete!
By Kristin Battestella

For our seventh vampire viewing list, here's a quartet mixing Old World and new, past and present, feminine frights and demure galore. ¡Ay caramba! 


A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – The black and white patina of this 2014 Persian language spooky invokes a specific fifties or spaghetti western mood. Retro cars, big old TVs, and greaser styles are transposed to a modern, mid-century rundown and post-industrial bleak with kids begging on the street, unusual hookers, an old man injecting “medicine” between his toes, and icky drug dealers. Arash is already paying for his father's mistakes and taking guff from the rich – but a deadly vamp with a demonic voice and a belying angelic appearance rolls into town, cleaning up Dodge and making things better for the downtrodden. Fine scoring with carnival music touches and rhythmic, edgy throwbacks contrast the stillness and topsy turvy gender roles, for the fallen pimp, collapsing father figure, and absent mothers have created a vacuum for our eponymous mystery and the dark power hidden under her chador. We know the fangs and deservedly gruesome will happen amid the slow build drama or drug and sex frenzy but not when, leaving brief squishing effects, mild blood splatter, and attacking crescendos to speak for the minimal dialogue. A well-behaved stray cat parallels the titular feline predatory, yet sardonic skateboarding adds humor. Arash dresses up as Dracula, gets some bad ecstasy, and meets the real thing but retains his innocence and kindness among the cruelty – the simplicity of homemade ear piercings is much more charming compared to today's wham bam sex or moon eyes romance. It's an unconventional mix of straight drama and simmering horror, however at times writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour seems unsure which storyline is priority. The quirky vignettes and dialogue are nice while other scenes are pointless and the silence or music does more. This should have been a short feature or a limited series – viewers want to know The Girl better but this picture can't rely on earlier unseen shorts or companion comic books. With 100 minutes to fill here, the structure should have been tighter, perhaps with labeled character chapters and our vamp in both senses of the word connecting them. A sagging middle dampens the impact of critical scenes, and this feels more indie cool than truly foreign film – it's almost faux foreign with no real cultural references. Audiences accustomed to frights a minute will also be disappointed in the handful of horror moments amid the isolated interplay and justifiable girl power. Fortunately, this unusual world gets better as the protagonists go forth. Her bad frees his bad, is that a good or bad thing? There really should be a vampire drama category, and despite its flaws, this unique tale using horror to address social contradictions is worth a look. And there's a Bee Gees poster, people. ¡The Bee Gees!

Kiss of the Damned – This 2013 vampire tale feels much older thanks to a seventies style opening, video stores, Old World names, European accents, retro clothes, and bonus Montgomery Clift movies on the television. Ominous music, moody candlelight, and a bleak seaside house foreshadow the blood spilling to come, and the property comes complete with an un-tempting, blood disorder maid taking phone messages for her mistress – a lonely translator who's never available during the day and indisposed until evening thanks to a “medical condition” where she can't be exposed to sunlight. Wink. Intercut, handicam vamp violence and edgy, intrusive music or over-emphasizing flashes, however, are unnecessary, and melancholy pain with choice pop moments or ironic classical cues do better. Blue lighting, headlights, and golden interiors accent nighttime filming, creating a stylish mature alongside the frank conversations addressing how to chain a girl to the bed. Sexy turned killer teeth, wild eyes, askew angles, and violent thrashing elevate the alluring but dangerous as the heavy petting escalates in spite of the consequences. Reluctant Djuna knows this romance could be doomed, but Paolo wants to get sucked dry at both ends. (¿¡?!) Such erotic yet creepy may be too weird for some, but this realistic vampire relationship is refreshing and fast moving – the vampire turning happens early and the entire picture isn't a dying for love question. More time is taken for the lifestyle details on living forever, heightened senses, and the charming couple that preys together stays together. Problematic sisters and centuries old sibling rivalry parallel the role reversals and too good to be true good vampire behaviors. Biting on the club scene versus love and living posh, sisters forgetting their mother's face, cocktail parties and a close knit vampire community discussing why inferior humans reign and synthetic blood isn't FDA approved – there's just enough gore and blood to recognize the messy brimming beneath the gilded surface. The tense debate on whether they are monsters or not and why they shouldn't self-loath gets better as it goes on with bloody slip ups, saucy conflicts, sunlight perils, and deliberate virgin blood trickery. Although some scoring and editing are rough around the edges and debut writer and director Xan Cassavetes packs a lot of flash early on in the film to lure audiences, the likable cast and fine drama don't need anything else. This would have made a fine long form series, and I'm glad the vampire genre is growing up again with films like this.

The Vampire – With such a confusingly plain title, I had to look up this 1957 Mexican horror El Vampiro starring Abel Salazar and German Rubles to make sure I hadn't already seen it. Fortunately, there's no mistaking the foggy villa courtyards, Gothic Victorian interiors, hypnotic eyes, and fangs afoot here. This original tale gets right to the screams and neck nibbles, and the black and white patina perfectly matches the don't go out after sunset warnings. Even the fake bat doesn't feel hokey amid the fifties train and ingenue in white visiting her sick spinster aunt. The boxes of soil from Hungary, suspicious cape-wearing count, and carriage at the crossroads may seem Stoker-esque to start, however there are some undead surprises – and an older aunt who remains young and reflection-less but thinks all this vampire talk is ridiculous. Torches and tolling bells invoke some medieval funerary alongside crypts, superstitions, and fearful folk crossing themselves. The recently late are buried with crucifix in hand while creepy crescendos accent the phantom ladies in black about the cemetery. Ghostly effects, well-framed shadows, and spooky lighting schemes heighten the ruinous haciendas as well as the suspenseful count and his then-shocking vampire bites – sudden falling books or slamming doors also help build the dangerous mood unlike today's fake out jump scares. Rather than detract from the horror, just the right amount of humor and a whiff of romance accent the fine dialogue – although despite DVD commentaries and a variety of caption or audio options, the English subtitles don't exactly match the español. Secret passages, dusty books, and otherworldly singing provide more flavor for a wild finale combining stakes, sunlight, and fire. To be sure, this toothy little number wins with heaps of atmosphere.

The Vampire's Coffin – Salazar and company returned for this 1958 sequel aka El Ataud del Vampiro, and the two pictures can be found together on the generically named The Vampire Collection set for more howling cemeteries, grave robbers, and disturbed vampire tombs. Of course, it's amazingly easy for two men to remove such heavy headstones and take a giant coffin to the local hospital for a scientific study, but hey, me want that sweet fifties Hearst! Skeletal reflections, giant wooden stakes – the Gothic creepy moves into unexplained science territory but the old fashioned hospital retains a gray, mod feeling with scared kids and a cross above the bed. What can modern medicine do compared to a determined monster? Sharp shadows and dark angles add Expressionism accents while staircases and noir pursuits akin a Val Lewton aesthetic. Although a missing vampire about the ward could be laughable, spooky effects, a dark cape, and hypnotized victims add macabre. There is, however, a lacking finesse here thanks to a busy narrative crowded with swanky theater glamour and gruesome wax museum hideouts. Disbelieving medical directors, ritzy routines, and torture devices are all well and good on their own, but one moody, fully embraced locale would have been better. Convenience and poorly choreographed fights aside, the fun finale packs in plenty of rituals, chases, and guillotines, as you do. Ironically, it feels like pieces of this film are borrowed in more recent cliché horror, and despite a general bloodlessness and try hard approach, bared fangs and la sangre talk keep up the theme.

05 August 2016

The Bob Newhart Show: Season 2

The Bob Newhart Show Continues to Impress in Season 2
by Kristin Battestella

Some of my favorite episodes of The Bob Newhart Show can be found in this 1973-74 sophomore year – which avoids any second season jinx with a continually sound, upscale, and impressive wit.

Bob Newhart's Doctor Robert Hartley is immediately thrust into the limelight for the Season Two premiere “The Last TV Show” when Bob and his therapy group neuroses and all are invited to appear on a talk show called 'Psychology in Action.' While the group is willing to take their insecurities to the airwaves, reluctant Bob doesn't want the publicity or stage fright to jeopardize the group's privacy and trust. Naturally, no one is watching because Gunsmoke is on, all their names are mistaken, their jokes fall flat, and the group decides they don't want to talk much after all. We know the situation will be awkward, but The Bob Newhart Show makes everything deliciously so and delivers some hilarious discomfort when Bob's wife Emily buys a four hundred year old antique bible – plus the solid oak stand – for $350 at a church auction in “Somebody Down Here Likes Me.” You can't take that kind of sale back, and Bob tiptoes all around the sophisticated banter when his advice causes a reverend to leave their church. Although this quitting minister plot also appears two years later on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and with the recently late John McMartin again on The Golden Girls, the guilt versus financial generosity leads to shrewd winks on religion and humorous self versus soul puns and sight gags. Divorce, women going back to school or joining the workforce, and modern liberation are tackled in “Have You Met Miss Dietz?” alongside competing singles, rival affections, and casual dating. The Bob Newhart Show ensemble tugs and pulls with lighthearted jealousy over the swinging lifestyle – not to mention the tension comes to a head at a painting party with Chinese food and Bob left covered in wet paint. In perhaps my favorite episode of The Bob Newhart Show, Bob's IQ results aren't what he hopes when Emily's number is higher than his in “Mister Emily Hartley.” Astute observations, deadpan zingers, marital resentment, and humbling role reversals accent excellent debates on whether such tests means anything, who's inferior, or who is talking down to whom. After all, a perfect marriage is supposed to be when the man has the higher IQ or when the couple's numbers are equal – but never when the wife's is higher!

The Hartleys try to have a paired down holiday for “I'm Dreaming of a Slight Christmas,” however Bob ends up stuck at the office with a rowdy party, fearful patients, and power outages. Rather than being an obligatory seasonal episode, fun retro holiday style tops off the witty traumas and exhausting results. On The Bob Newhart Show, there's time for individual spotlights giving the ensemble their moments among the group storylines and crisscrosses thrusting everyone together. Though perhaps tame today, subtle commentary on a man and woman alone in the same room, unmarried couples living together, and more progressive topics remain well balanced each half hour. Where recent sitcoms or dramedies shortchange stories with squeezed A, B, C plotting, “The Jobless Corps” combines breakfast fads, talking to plants, recession fears, and the energy crisis in one scene packed with deadpans and humorous dilemmas. What should Bob charge for his 'Out of Work Workshop' anyway? These are tight times pinching pennies sans paychecks with women having to dress fancy for job interviews, 65-year-old men pushed out of business, door to door salesmen jokes, and self-aware television writer cracks. Next door neighbor and navigator Howard Borden finds himself in Bob's workshop after an airline strike, leading to rare moments between just Howard and orthodontist Jerry Robinson. While there are common prison jokes in “Clink Shrink,” The Bob Newhart Show addresses crime and re-entering the workforce when a parolee has Bob questioning his distrusting expectations. Bob does his best to get over his standoffish judgments but wonders if progress can truly be made once he suspects an expensive VCR gift may be lifted. Late in the season Bob has to re-assess his own budget and finances in “Mind Your Own Business.” Compared to today's medical conglomerates, it's interesting to look back at a lone entity doctor not rolling in the dough but caught between a mid-century savings mentality and the subsequent yuppie spending. Instead of stock sitcom tropes with very special episodes ripped from the headlines, the characters on The Bob Newhart Show have relate-able issues still felt today – and the pride among men over budgeting down to the quarter remains timeless comedy.

He's a Korean War veteran with hidden dancing talents, and the 'almost gifted' Dr. Hartley uses his telephone punchlines in nearly every episode of The Bob Newhart Show. This is a man of science, a doctor of the mind, yet Bob's conflicted when his advice trumps a patient's spirituality and grateful his wife Emily really understands him and his predictable routine. For his annual physical and upcoming birthday in “Fit, Fat and Forty-One,” Bob's counting calories, avoiding temptations, and fearing a surprise party as great psychical gags reflect his hunger stress and guru fads. Of course, it's all overboard for a whopping eight pounds, and wow, put on a record on for that wild aerobics class! Our eponymous straight man is likewise unenthusiastic over a planned trip to Mexico and Emily's peak conception timing in “Backlash.” Fun physical shtick and psychosomatic possibilities add to the marital banter as Bob's back goes out – not to mention some melodramatic soap operas and one aggravated Emily. A snowbound Emily's funk also interferes with Bob's very specific habits in “I'm Okay, You're Okay, So What's Wrong?” He wants her to face her flying fears, but scheduling conflicts lead to a great dialogue based zest and a wonderful argumentative interplay. Bob objects to seeing a marriage counselor and his reluctance over some role reversal therapy leads to delightful turnabout zingers. Unfortunately, Bob can't call his laid back, popular in-laws by their first names when Emily parents Junior and Aggie Harrison (John Randolph, Ann Rutherford) visit from Seattle in “My Wife Belongs To Daddy.” He likes their sense of humor, yet even after over four years of marriage, Bob can't be outgoing and doesn't change who he is to impress his father-in-law. It's okay for Bob to be the quiet leading man, Emily works because she wants to so, and kids will come when they are ready – and this refreshingly honest give and take anchors The Bob Newhart Show.

Naturally, home and work colliding isn't as fun as The Hartleys thought it would be when Emily fills in for the vacationing Carol in the aptly named “Emily In For Carol.” Suzanne Pleshette's third grade schoolteacher certainly likes her long dresses, in particular a repeated long gray skirt, but that seventies style goes well with her lightweight one glass of wine and crying over Casablanca personality. “The Modernization of Emily,” however, has Emily feeling old when a former student is all grown up and Bob gets her a 32-speed blenderizer for their fifth anniversary. Despite fine winter get ups, scarves, and berets still fashionable today, Emily drastically updates her look with a groovy, funky image in a delightfully progressive episode about being true to oneself. The always disastrous matchmaker asks Bob if he wants her to be a good wife and lie or to just tell the truth, but Emily usually gets her way in their otherwise perfect marriage – save for Monday Night Football, that is. She rides horses and loves the daddy's girl outdoors, yet Emily enjoys being at home with Bob more than anything. Most of their conversations take place in the bedroom or around that shocking double bed, adding intimacy and honesty to the relationship without resorting to today's in your face steamy. When Emily battles influential parents and her principal by refusing to skip a student in the “A Matter of Principal” finale, Bob supports her even if it means losing her job. The little woman is supposed to bow down to her husband's authority and her principal's decision, but Emily stands up for her ethics and educational responsibilities against patriarchal pressure that doesn't consider her informed opinion – right on!

Not only does Peter Bonerz direct two episodes this season and later go on to helm more episodes of The Bob Newhart Show than any other director, but his selfish orthodontist Jerry Robinson is always ready with a boys night scheme or a bulky portable television to watch the football game. He likes his bow ties and hates his problematic giant display tooth, however its the unwilling Bob who ends up in hot water when Jerry drives the two to Peoria to see a blacked out Bears versus Packers game in “Motel.” Jerry lies his way into picking up some hookers at the bar and gets upset when Emily won't help him cover dating two girls at once, yet Bob often ends up in his chair when he needs things put in perspective. Jerry brings Bob up to the times, but his adoption history and lingering resentment come to a fist through the door head in “Oh, Brother” when his suave brother and competitive dental protege Raul Julia (The Addams Family) moves into the building and steals Jerry's patients. Some sitcoms tend to leave characters pigeon-holed in their place rather than breach a real world change, however “Confessions of an Orthodontist” addresses the awkwardness of professionalism versus friendship, romantic interference, infatuation, and the evolving nature of inner circle relationships – after all, Jerry thinks he is in love with Emily and goes to another psychologist instead of Bob. Yowzah! Of course, its Bill Daily as navigator neighbor Howard Borden who cooks and helps Emily around the house – or ends up substituting vodka and beef bullion for chicken and left with 'chicken shot.' Although he only appears in one or two scenes per episode to start the season, Howard brings The Hartleys leftovers from the plane and keeps a whiff of religion to save him from an air pocket at 30,000 feet. He's a golf klutz, loses a girl to Jerry, and turns 40 just as his ex-wife remarries a pilot in “Blues For Mr. Borden.” Howard is made more pathetic and bumbling – he's laid off briefly and replaced by a 1974 navigation computer, too – but its a humorous pity with water bed jokes for good measure. Pat Finley (The Rockford Files) as Bob's engaged sister Ellen and their mom Martha Scott visit in “A Love Story,” and Ellen abandons her five year romance when she meets the awkwardly smooth Howard. While Howard being protective of his sister last season seems forgotten and Ellen feels brought in just for some overprotective conflict for the childless Harlteys, more of Bob caught in the middle amid the charming relationship moves are to come in Season Three.

This season, Marcia Wallace's colorful receptionist Carol Kester dresses slightly more mature in some repeat but nonetheless swinging fashions. We know such goofy little moments are coming, but Carol always has a quip or some secretary humor and knows how to get a complicated coffee order correct. She moves fast where gentleman are concerned, vacations in Rome, and has a hidden tattoo removed. “Old Man Rivers” has her dating an older man, but surprisingly modern ageism discussions and peer pressures interfere with the relationship. Another romance hinders Carol's work and leads to a rift with Jerry in “By the Way... You're Fired,” but Larry Gelman as urologist Bernie Tupperman and the rest of the doctors in the building find they can't handle her duties and miss her basic office skills. Although retreading slightly from when Carol went out with Howard in Season One of The Bob Newhart Show, “T.S. Elliot” sees her trying to keep things casual with Jack Riley's clingy, lift wearing, dry cleaning his toupee Mr. Carlin. Fellow therapy patients John Fielder as timid Mr. Peterson, Renee Lippon as neurotic Michelle, Florida Friebus as aloof Mrs. Bakerman, and Noam Pitlik's grumpy Mr. Gianelli appear early and often while Lucien Scott later joins as cranky Mr. Vickers alongside WKRP in Cincinnati's Howard Hesseman as out of work television writer Craig Plager. In a wonderfully contemporary clash during “Mutiny On the Hartley,” the group even strikes out its own after a hesitant Bob raises his rates. Other guest stars include a young Teri Garr (Young Frankenstein) in two episodes, Shirley O'Hara as the absent minded temp secretary Debbie, Seinfeld's Uncle Leo Len Lesser, and Fonzie himself Henry Winkler. Future Who's the Boss alumni Katherine Helmond and Rhoda Gemignani go through a lot of tissues, too, and although often referred to, we only see Mariette Hartley (The Incredible Hulk) as divorced downstairs neighbor Marilyn once.

The always catchy and classy “Home to Emily” theme from Year One continues here, although several episodes have a shorter opening sequence or are missing the telephone greeting and full route home. I do also love the jazzed up end music but both miss the giant old television cameras, big headsets, wires, and phone cords everywhere yet am glad such hefty hassles have passed. The remote control clicker is huge, too, but say hey, record players, short hand, and telegrams! That reception area sure is blue, but at least The Hartleys have updated from carpet to hardwood floors. Some of the ladies' make up is dated, too, and those patterns – plaid pants, velvet jackets, print shirts, diagonal ties, orange polka dots. Enough! When not blinded by the inevitable seventies flair, little things are noticeably different on The Bob Newhart Show as well. Items are rearranged from episode to episode, there's no key for the office bathroom and then no wait the bathroom's locked, even Office Number 715 becomes 751. Of course, such fun to spot quibbles are probably thanks to these twenty-four half hour episodes airing out of production order. The volume on The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series is again uneven with loud music and low voices varying from scene to scene. Fortunately, there are several commentaries amid the Season Two discs and a short making of feature with Bob Newhart and show co-creator David Davis discussing the series' The Mary Tyler Moore Show roots and hitting its sophomore stride with a unique brand of understated, straight humor. But really, I still can't get over that giant coffee machine, however, I'd like to schedule a half hour plumber for $63! $3.99 lb for filet mignon? Take me to that grocery store. And Chinese takeout for $8.95? Yes please! Yet somehow, our eggs still hover around 89 cents, go figure.

Marathoning The Bob Newhart Show moves fast once you settle in for a weekend of progressive smarts and period pastiche. Fine writing and ensemble conversations remain interesting sitcom commentary or timely humor material without being in your face on the topical issues. For family friendly comedy and classic wit, The Bob Newhart Show Season Two provides comforting, nostalgic laughter and then some.

24 July 2016

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax

Fun Performances Make Lizzie Borden Took an Ax
by Kristin Battestella

We all know the song, and though campy, the 2014 Lifetime Original Movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax utilizes juicy performances to flesh out the murderous ambiguity and did she or didn't she 1892 courtroom drama. 

Christina Ricci (The Addams Family) stars as Lizzie Borden, sister to Emma (Clea DuVall) and daughter of the soon to be bludgeoned Andrew Borden (Stephen McHattie). A messy barn, biting of luscious fruits, and Victorian white undies imply an underlying saucy to the spinster somber and silent dinners – tea time and full skirts make this largely a women's world with the occasional, overbearing, intrusive man. Fortunately, hatchets are afoot in surreal visions, violent inserts, and murderous dreams, toying with our unreliable narrator and the muddled timeline in a self-aware, campy tone. Talk of previous crimes, grudges, and disgruntled encounters lay more motive drama to Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, rendering the modern, intrusive edge with obvious fake outs or teases unnecessary. Though not super gory, the splatter bash and killer crunch a half hour in do better than any trying to be hip approach. This case is both well documented and a logistical mess, which allows artistic liberties and sensational embellishments on the crowded crime scene, town gossip, erroneous reports, and faulty investigation. Press hysteria and exhumed bodies may seem like standard detective plotting, but period accents and Victorian protocol add to the evidence variables and questionable bloody dresses. Despite staying mostly with Lizzie's questionable point of view, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax admits its stance via legal briefings and police discussions intercutting possible whack scenarios for a somewhat coherent frame on the what did or did not happen crimes. Debates on the unbelievable possibility of a woman committing such violence counters the scary white male jury versus little miss demure defense, and witness testimonies cast doubt on interrogations suggesting sociopath Lizzie did the the deed. However, Lizzie Borden Took An Ax does have some faulty framework – ye olde timestamps onscreen would have helped tremendously and historical conjecture is used as an excuse to waver between cool criminal warped and serious horror drama. Thankfully, this case's moving fast topsy turvy doesn't give us time to inspect the details, and not seeing the killings outright allows for hearsay, jury tours of the crime scene, and a slow horror reveal for the finale


Christina Ricci's Lizzie Borden is “a loner, Dottie. A rebel.” She gets up from the table without being excused, ditches the ironing if she can't hum while she works, and otherwise spies, lies, steals, or worse. After all, she's only a Sunday School teacher on Sundays! Lizzie looks at herself naked in the mirror and wants to go to a party at night without an escort – such not a little girl anymore behaviors imply more than just the bucking of Victorian attitudes when Lizzie gets more up close to her father than her cordial but prudish, dead woman walking stepmother. She clings to her dad, saying he wants her to stay with him forever and loves when she calls him handsome, but questions his suspicious sweat when she hugs him. Lizzie vows that she will neither be a wife nor a spinster, adding lesbian innuendo on top of the implied abuses or incest. How long has she been planning to kill? Lizzie Borden Took an Ax suggests a long gestating preparation with Lizzie's calculated crime scene reaction, careful glances, and a practiced playing to the tears. Lizzie holds up a little too well for the horror that has happened and is more concerned with how polite the police are or how happy she will be to live alone with her sister – almost blissfully unaware of the attributed crimes. These deaths feel premeditated and well orchestrated, yet crazy cracks show once Lizzie faces some tough interrogations. She changes her tune and professes her innocence while dreaming about the killings and resorting to fainting and sensational courtroom antics. We feel she is faking and she says her mind is clear, yet the jury can't tell either way. Despite the misplaced attempt Lizzie Borden Took an Ax takes with original girl power, button up cool facade, and hip badass style, Ricci creates a wild-eyed, slick transparency, and likable, scene chewing performance. Lizzie is a narcissist liar in action stifled by the courtroom and confused when she doesn't get her own way, and Ricci clearly has fun with the party-throwing, attention seeking, and ultimately infamous heiress.

In contrast to bad girl Lizzie, Clea DuVall (Carnivale) as the elder Borden sister Emma is quiet and unassuming. Lizzie Borden Took an Ax briefly suspects her and throws shade her way, but Emma is said to be out of the house helping others when the titular slice and dice happens. Unfortunately, she soon doubts Lizzie's account and comes to live in fear of what her sister may be capable of doing. Lizzie thinks they will be content forevermore in a new home at the top of high society, but Emma realizes her sister is utterly demented and locks her bedroom door at night to avoid Lizzie's violent threats. She doesn't like lawyers visiting the house or so many seemingly unneeded males entering their little world – again, whether it is possible abuses or implied feminine preference, Emma seems somewhat small or shy when it comes to men. Though not the fault of the cast, those men in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax are generally styled as inferior to the ladies parade or backhanded to the little women. We don't have enough time with Stephen McHattie (Emily of New Moon) as the gruff and subsequently late Andrew Borden, yet his hands on innuendo as a potential reason for the crime is felt in those uncomfortable scenes with Lizzie. Billy Campbell (The 4400) as lawyer Andrew Jennings, however, provides Lizzie Borden Took an Ax with the cold facts – a realistic if circumstantial perspective of the situation for the audience compared to Lizzie's loon and swoon. Gregg Henry (Hell on Wheels) as prosecutor Hosea Knowlton also provides fine legalese, not admissible battles, and harsh interrogations. At times, the media judgments and sensational her word against theirs back and forth feels like a contemporary courtroom drama. However, this famous case was modern, the OJ or MJ trials of its day, and the support here keeps the case grounded, balancing the over the top fun of Lizzie herself.

The carriages, period interiors, wallpapers, fine woodwork, and Victorian attention to detail also bring the stifling, rugged ye olde of Lizzie Borden Took an Ax to life. Bustles, gloves, feathers, fancy linens, and vintage lamps add upscale alongside mourning fashions and a visual air of sophistication. Despite congested house crimes, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax is well lit with bonus onscreen photography and old camera fun. Arrests and an overnight asylum whiff suggest the deplorable conditions for women against the system of the era, but swift cuts and artistic side shots keep the nudity ironically demure. Although some of the bright clothing, colorful accents, and modern fashion cuts feel slightly too contemporary as if the Lifetime millennial audience wouldn't watch anything too steeped in total historic design, the neckties, cute hats, and shopping scenes are pleasant, subtle ways to update the period without being super intrusive. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the modern musical score used in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax. Perhaps some instrumental rock edgy rhythms from Tree Adams (Californication) could have embellished choice scenes, but Southern Rock lyrics are as out of place as the slow motion musical interlude transition scenes are unnecessary. Are such tunes fitting for a gritty western? Sure – but a winking Victorian crime drama about a lady killer? No. This kind of extra try hard is what ultimately leaves Lizzie Borden Took An Ax feeling rough around the edges with no thorough thinking. We're never going to have a satisfactory definitive on the case so having fun with the yay or nay is forgivable, even expected. However, it's odd that this ninety minute telling of the story in its entirety retroactively becomes the backdoor pilot for the follow up The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Had there been a better plotted progression, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax could have been all about the backstory potboiler leading up to the wielding with the 2015 series left to pull out all the courtroom stops. Instead, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax merely ends with a hammy tie to the jump rope rhyme – because, come on, we all knew it was coming.

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax takes liberties with the eponymous case and can be confusing or inaccurate at times thanks to modern music, contemporary shoehorns, and a faulty need to be cool. The undecided nature of the story plays at both horror serious and Victorian sensationalism, and the presentation could have been a much tighter thriller. Fortunately, the entertaining performances and campy hatchet-work make for enough water cooler did she or didn't she and yell at the screen debates.

18 July 2016

Solo Lady Horrors!

Solo Lady Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

Old and recent, foreign or domestic – this viewing quartet is a healthy dose of solitary moms, virgins, co-eds, and tough ladies single-handedly facing the scares.

Goodnight Mommy – Lullabies and divine outdoor locations quickly turn ominous with dark caves, deep lakes, nearby cemeteries, and underground tombs accenting this 2014 Austrian psychological scare featuring twin boys and a mother under wraps. Despite the bunk beds, wise viewers will of course immediately wonder if there are really two sons – one always hides or jumps out while the other calls, and their mother only acknowledges one boy amid talk of an accident and a separation. Mirrors, windows, blurred portraits, and odd artwork embellish their cool mod home, and eerie visuals heighten the freaky surgery bandages, prying peering, twisted dreams, and creepy bugs. Close the blinds, no visitors, total quiet – the twins become increasingly suspicious when such strict recovery rules and more unusual behaviors don't compare to sing-a-longs and loving tapes made pre-surgery. Naturally, English audiences have to pay attention due to the German dialogue and subtitles, however viewers must also watch for silent moments and visual clues as this TV host mom's obsession with her surgery results increases and the boys' talking back turns into some rough encounters. The sons research videos online and find strange photos while hidden baby monitors and timer tick tocks up the suspense. Who's right? Who's overreacting? What if we could see things from the opposite point of view? They want proof she is their mother and contact the local priest, but these seemingly innocent boys play some gruesome games, too. The situation becomes more and more claustrophobic, becoming trapped indoors and locked in one room with homemade defenses and cringe-worthy torture done with something as simple as the magnify glass with sunlight trick. The audience is swayed with evidence one way before being presented with new unreliability, familial violence, and pyromaniac tendencies in a fiery topper. At times, this feels more like a sad drama than a horror movie and some elements might have needed a bit more clarification. However, the horrible stuff herein and debating on the what ifs lasts long after the viewing, and this is a fine isolated tale using slight of hand power of suggestion for its slow burn unraveling.

The House of the Devil – Creepy menus, cult statistics, and retro credits start this 2009 blu-ray featuring Jocelin Donahue (The Burrowers), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000). Payphones, eighties rhythms, and old fashioned style add period flair alongside onscreen smoking, maps, feathered hair, and a big old cabinet television showing Night of the Living Dead. Even the giant Walkman and slightly corny music montage and dance about the house has a purpose in the narrative. Church bells, cemeteries, and an imminent eclipse lay the scary foundation, and rather than an opening scare fake-out, writer/director/editor Ti West (The Innkeepers) uses zooms and movement within the camera frame to create viewer intimacy, closing in from the chilly exterior and ominous windows as the suspicious phone calls lead to desperate babysitting jobs, desolate night drives, and a maze-like Victorian manor. Yes, our Samantha is at times very dumb and unaware she is in a horror movies thanks to plot holes a collaborator not wearing so many behind the scenes hats could have clarified. Mistakes and convenient contrivances in the somewhat tacked on final act also break the solitary point of view for the audience's benefit. However, that finale free for all with ritual candles, hooded robes, and a sudden twist ending is in the seventies splatter spirit, and the simmering, silent build happens naturally over the film. Instead of hollow thrills a minute, the viewer is allowed time to suspect the scary attic, theorize on suspicious photos, and listen for every noise – we know something is supposed to happen but not when. Though this kind of approach may seem boring to some, this innate alone trickle let's us appreciate the dark basement and the inopportune power outage for when the titular frights do happen. It's nice to have something different from the mainstream horror trite, too – not to mention an $8 pizza! 

Hush – Writer and director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Absentia) and his wife, co-writer, and star Kate Siegel place our deaf-mute author in a pleasant forest cabin for some writing, relaxation, and terror in this 2016 eighty minute Netflix original. Comfort cooking noise fades and unheard laptop tones switch to wild kitchen alarms – immediately establishing the common sounds taken for granted alongside subtitled Sign Language, feeling vibrations for sound, and hearing an author voice in your head brainstorms. Friends speak while they sign, breaking up the quiet for the viewer, and we must pay attention to writing onscreen such as book jackets and manuscript text. Understandably, phone technology and Facetime calls are important, but an over-reliance on gadgets in horror can be tiring and soon dated with wi-fi switches, lost connections, and cut power. Fortunately, the intimate home makes the audience accustomed to the hearing challenges before adding the muffled silence, unseen scares, unheard screams, and instant cyberstalking. Through windows or foreground focus and background action, we have the full perspective when the protagonist doesn't. It is however a mistake to reveal the crossbow and Bowie knife wielding stalker so completely. We don't need to know the sociopath motivation nor should the viewer feel for the killer or care if he has any personality, and removing his mask just creates limp assholery. The frightening unknown with footstep vibrations, hands at the window, and approaching shadows creates a better siege, and the mystery of who and why is lost in the contrived lulls and stupid mistakes while Maddie waits around for his taunts instead of fighting back. Why not set something on fire, smoke signal authorities? Having her inner monologue address the situation and the pros or cons in each course of action is also better than breaking Maddie's point of view and using fake out possibilities. Although it's a pity millennial viewers wouldn't watch something that was all silent, the long periods with no dialogue, sound effects, and score crescendos do just fine in accenting these unique dynamics. While not perfect, this tale has enough thriller tense and innate woman alone in peril – and thus proves exactly why I must know where all the windows, entrances, and exits are in a given location and never sit with my back to any of them!

A Virgin Among the Living Dead – Various versions of this 1971 French/Spanish co-production exist thanks to re-releases of Jesus Franco's (The Awful Doctor Orloff) edition and added zombie footage from director Jean Rollin (Fascination). The trying to be poetic narration is unnecessary, the subtitles are off, and the dubbing is out of sync with the serious close ups. A dockside tense and snotty hotel warnings don't bode well for the boobies and little white panties revealing an obvious brown carpet not matching the blonde drapes, either. Askew angles, empty rooms, and creepy statues make this secluded villa Old World eerie – kind of like the mid-century Gothic look my parents' house had when I was a kid with big, foreboding lamps, tall, arched mirrors, and The Man with the Golden Helmet above an orange settee. Yes, I now realize this probably explains a lot about my interest in horror. (That and being forced to wear pink and bows but that is another story.) A happy nature stroll can't compete with demented music and deathbed vigils, and townsfolk suggestions to run, abandoned chapels, and prayer recitations are ignored in favor of this freaky family's casual views on death. Distorted camerawork accentuates weird eyes, facial oddities, and ritual pursuits as flies and buzzing sounds increase. From voyeuristic geezers and bats on the bed to a giant dildo on the floor and a blind chick getting her seventies bush trimmed by another girl sucking on her bloody boob – it's time to get out of Dodge. Unfortunately, the inconsistent characters and forgetful, stalling plot are very thin with potential psychic connections unclear and a running in circles, going nowhere fast pace. Intercut zooms while everyone squints over the reading of the will feels Charlie Brown wah-wah, and nothing comes of possible sexual awakenings, suicides, and daughters paying for sins of the father themes. There were no zombies in the version I saw – I'm not even sure which version it was. However, the muddled onscreen reflects the messy behind the scenes intrusions, and the overall result is not as good as it could have been. Fortunately, this isn't super bad, and Franco enthusiasts will find many bemusing aspects alongside the saucy violence and undead foretellings.