29 September 2009

Shivers (1975)

Shivers Gave me Shivers- And Not the Good Kind!
Guest Review By Leigh Wood

I’d seen the 1975 creepy crawly Shivers chopped up on television some time ago and came away mostly indifferent. However, after a recent uncut cable viewing, I had a change of heart. Director David Cronenberg’s stylized mix of sex and horror really gave me the creeps!

When a kinky doctor conducts experiments on parasites for medical transplants at Starliner Island Apartments outside Montreal, things quickly go awry. Nicholas Tudor (Allan Kolman) and his wife Janine (Susan Petrie) have marital troubles-until the aphrodisiac-like parasites take over and spread as a venereal disease. Neighbor Betts (Barbara Steele) also succumbs to the worm-like parasites, as do numerous residents in the complex. Young and old, English or French-only facility Doctor Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) and Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) resist the sexual and bodily takeover. Will these parasites consume all on the island and beyond?

Shivers begins with a wonderfully sardonic commercial for the Starliner Apartments and rushes into chaotic, sexual deaths and impromptu surgery. Helmsman and writer Cronenberg (The Fly, Eastern Promises) plays upon our need for safe luxuries while already setting forth the slow, deliberate horror to come. His parasites might be purely instinctual-needing to sexually spread to survive. But the careful onscreen progression also lends to a frightful consciousness at work. The outcome of Shivers is never really in question. It’s simply a matter of time before these squishy creatures succeed.

Though Barbara Steele (The Pit and the Pendulum, Dark Shadows: The Revival) seems to be the most major player here, her role is rather small. Nevertheless, her bathroom moment is one of the highlights of the picture! Everyone looks and behaves a little seventies, naturally, but they also have that great everybody’s low budget horror feeling. Allan Kolman (JAG) and Susan Petrie (Toby) are great as the disjointed couple who add a little more spice to their marriage then they bargained for. A dated portrayal perhaps, but still relatable. Likewise, Paul Hampton (Babylon 5) looks and acts the good doctor, our hero. We want him to succeed-even though the odds are strongly against him. Joe Silver (Ryan’s Hope) as fellow doctor Rollo Linksy serves as the informative, but short-lived elder statesmen, and we know pretty and sexy nurse Lynn Lowry (The Crazies, Score) will succumb to our penis shaped parasites soon enough.

Instead of a gothic old house or serious visual monsters, Shivers presents a wonderfully mod, bright, seventies amenities apartment complex for its sexual gore. Yes, it’s dated in its looks and styles, yet Shivers also looks damn good. Maybe it’s because the seventies came back in décor and fashion, or maybe Shivers isn’t as low budget and bad orange shag as Three’s Company. The apartments look good- if a little European or Ikea- and most of the ladies’ fashions are hot and wearable today. Of course, Cronenberg also serves up a few horror staples, too-including classic cars, basement laundry and boiler rooms, and a very sexy, scary swimming pool.

You might have noticed I’ve referred to sexy and scares several times in relation to Shivers. Well, it’s certainly a sexy film if you want to see some seventies boobies and panties and old school, bumping and grinding make-outs. There’s an audience for all that of course, but the sexual nature of Shivers is also frightening in many ways. Most of our modern slasher pictures deal with nudity, sex, and horror; but Cronenberg preys upon the sexual acts itself. In the opening murder, we have an old man doctor and a teenager in a school uniform. It’s violent, rapacious, and pedophile predatory action. The parasites enter and exit its hosts and victims in bizarre, sexual ways. We’re terrified by the real life prospects of rape and assault, but we delight in the horror screams and squirms. I’m not squeamish one bit, yet Shivers had me shying away more than once. It’s not an easy thing to do, but Shivers gets the balance of sex and scares right. Take note modern dumb soft-core slasher remakes!

ShiversAt only and hour and half, modern desensitized audiences can certainly make room for Shivers-and maybe viewers might find themselves truly shocked and unnerved. Rated R of course, for all the sex, bloody parasite trails, and naked girls-this one isn’t for kids, prudes, or non-horror and kinky fans. Unfortunately, it looks like the uncut DVD version of Shivers is out of print. It seems to air on television enough, but netlfix currently offers the ‘saved’ option only. It figures! For once there’s a scary, sexy horror film that makes me squirm, and some pathetic direct to video cheapie has to come first! Keep your legs crossed and your eyes open for a Shivers airing this Halloween.

27 September 2009

More Horror Tricks and Treats

More Horror Tricks and Treats

By Kristin Battestella

I watch a lot of good horror movies-and I also see my share of drivel. I can’t help myself! Although I try to write in-depth analysis of every film I see, during spooky movie marathon season it’s impossible to keep up! Honestly, some pictures aren’t worth more than a few sentences anyway-so here’s another quick list of what to see and what to axe this Halloween season.

Scary Treats

The Omen- Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, satanic chants, and the freakiest nanny and kid pair you’ll ever see. Maybe not slash and gore horror as we know it today, but plenty of creeps and demonic shuddering still to be had here.

In A Dark Place- I’m not sure what the title has to do with this 2006 updated on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, but Leelee Sobieski is just freaky as the familiar nanny trying to protect her charges from two malignant ghosts. It’s ambiguous and ends a little iffy, but that’s kind of the point. Fans of Sobieski or viewers not interested in older, period piece film versions should enjoy this.

Joyride- Another Leelee Sobieski yarn, yes, but a creepy truck driver pursuing teens after a practical joke gone awry makes up for the young cast. Kinky CB radio innuendo and scary chases ala Duel keep this dark ode to the open road in the plus column. Do however avoid the video sequel Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead.

White Noise 2- I’m not normally a fan of the unrelated direct to video sequel, but this tale of near death experiences, EVP, and the White Light versus Lucifer was surprisingly well done. The original White Noise wasn’t too bad, though it was played more for the scares than this one. Not super scary; but solid emotion and ghostly, freaky montages add enough for some food for thought.

Red Eye- Wes Craven and Rachel McAdams fans will enjoy this in-flight psychological thriller. It’s not horror as we know it from Craven; but the talent, emotion, and realistic scares keep you on the edge of your seat. I think the She-Ra kick ass ending amid the under-construction house does fall back on a few slasher clichés, but overall, a fine departure for Craven.

Bad Tricks

The Omen: 666- Who releases their film at 6 a.m. on June 6, 2006 and expects it to be successful? Despite its fine cast, this update is almost too much like its predecessor. Why should we care if a few of the deaths are different when nearly everything else is exactly the same? Known for playing louses and baddies, it’s tough to root for Liev Schreiber and David Thewlis as the good guys. And, no offense, but neither is Gregory Peck!

The Abandoned- A very intriguing premise about deathly doppelgangers chasing twins in the Russian wilds is lost in double story talk and a completely stupid connection to the title. The pacing here was also so slow- I think I fell asleep.

The Covenant- A woeful, unremarkable cast and silly reliance on special effects fights ruin what could have been a superior story about modern boys struggling with their ancient Salem witchy ways. I couldn’t tell which boy was which, and the hip metal music didn’t make me care much, either.

Pulse- Kristen Bell is a-okay, but this scare about ghosts killing college kids via computers and cell phones is like every other film with static, strobing ghosts, and an unending, never escaping cycle. It’s The Ring without the videotape. Another intriguing premise wasted on plot holes, redundant effects, and teen angst. Wah!

26 September 2009

Classic Movies Widgets!

Hello old school fans!

Before we get into Halloween in full swing, here's a collection of widgets dedicated to classic film. Feel free to use the tags and search for more of our fun widgets, banners, badges, and quizzes. I like to have fun bits on the main page, but sometimes it's nice to keep it clean and smooth loading!


24 September 2009

A Stephen King Viewing List

A Spooky Stephen King Marathon
By Kristin Battestella

For being such a horror buff, I’m not a fan of Stephen King and his books. Stranger still is that I really like films based on his torrid tales. As the macabre season nears, here’s a list of scary King shows to snuggle in with this Halloween.

Carrie- Yes we can all relate to the sheltered, special Sissy Spacek and her demented mother Piper Laurie-both ladies received Oscar nominations for their chilling performances. But its director Brian Depalma’s creepy look at the trauma of high school that stays with us. The gym shower, the prom, the pig’s blood, and an all star supporting cast keep this 1976 flick worthy. Forget any sequels or remakes here.

Christine- The dream of a hot rod gone horribly awry! There are a few past names here-and the film is sometimes billed under director John Carpenter’s clout-but the 1958 Plymouth is the star here. You can still enjoy these creepy car deaths today, and the early eighties motifs and fifties sentimentalities add to the scary nostalgia.

Salem’s Lot (s) - Both the 1979 release from Tobe Hooper and the quickie 2004 version starring Rob Lowe suffice for a night of vampires run amok in a supposedly safe New England inlet. If you’re looking for goth, glamorous vampires-they’re not here; but freaky, old fashioned suspense always works. Comparing both versions back to back might also be fun. Do however skip the useless sequel Return to Salem’s Lot.

The Shining- The recent miniseries adaptation isn’t bad, but you know I’m talking about Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson’s crazy writer stranded at the isolated, snowbound Overlook Hotel. I get tired of all King’s writer protagonists and their hang-ups, but Nicholson owns the alcoholic Jack Torrance and all his drama. Say it with me now, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’

Silver Bullet- Ah, a wheelchair bound Corey Haim insists there’s a werewolf in town but no one believes him! A well-rounded cast and scary wolf mysteries make you jump in your seat the first time you see this one. Several memorable, frightening scenes here still stick with me 25 years later. Younger audiences might be too frightened-but it’s only a movie, isn’t it?

Pet Semetary- Who hasn’t lost a pet or a loved one and wouldn’t do anything to bring them back? Another simple life truth askewed delightfully into freaky charm and horror. The cast here is small but memorable-Dale Midkiff as the desperate father and Fred Gwynne as the wise old neighbor who meets a very bizarre end. And the baby, well, he’s just so dang cute and disturbing at the same time! This is another one that might be too disturbing and confusing for super young ones.

Misery- James Caan and Oscar winner Kathy Bates are exceptional as a wounded writer and the obsessive fan who’ll do anything to keep him writing what she likes best. Another one memorable and disturbing in its simplicity; the gut wrenching thought of an entire manuscript on the barbeque, the masterfully painful two by four scenes, ouch! Known more for his charming comedies and dramas, Rob Reiner spins the creepy human elements here wonderfully.

Sleepwalkers- Often frowned upon as one of the weaker King pictures; I like Brian Krause and Alice Krige as the freaky mother and son cat people lusting after young meat. It’s bizarre, sexy, gory, and all those cats are really creepy! Maybe the effects aren’t exceptional now, but the cat morphing and slick score add some extra scary spice.

Children of the Corn- This original isn’t the best, and the entire series is fairly lowbrow in plot and effects. Nevertheless, all those rustling cornfields, creepy kids, and plant worship go a long way for a Halloween Harvest marathon. Name players come and go despite the low-budget status; and even if you’ve never actually seen all-count ‘em-seven films, you’ve probably heard of ‘He who walks behind the rows.’ I prefer Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest myself. And to think, I grew up on a farm.

Thinner- After killing a gypsy woman with his car, Robert John Burke is cursed to waste away just by the gypsy king’s touch upon his face. The gypsy plots are a bit stereotypical, yes; but this plays into our fears about what creepy curses they might be capable of. The social analysis of weight, dieting, and such stereotypes are all here, along with the freaky deterioration of body, soul, and self. I guess guilt and food do go together.

Rose Red / Diary of Ellen Rimbauer- If Rose Red were a King novel instead of a miniseries original, I might actually read it. This lengthy analysis of the haunted house, ghosts, greed, parapsychology, and telekinesis develops all its effects, scares, and talent fully. Nancy Travis, Julian Sands, and Emily Deschanel are delightfully creepy here. The prequel telefilm Diary of Ellen Rimbauer fills in King’s back-story, but it’s not as scary or in depth as its preceding sequel. Despite its period piece explanations and charming cast, I’d spend the day with Rose Red first.

Secret Window- A little obvious toward the end, yes, but Johnny Depp fans can enjoy this creepy thriller about an unreliable narrator writer shacked up in the woods with a freaky John Turturro pursuing him over a plagiarized story. There’s nothing super new here, but this one’s creepy and violent enough for a scare or two.

18 September 2009

MI-5: Season 6

Shake Ups Unfetter MI-5 Season 6
By Kristin Battestella

While I thoroughly enjoyed the fifth season of the British spy series MI-5, changes were in order for season six. Creator David Wolstencroft blends a season long storyline amid international and personal drama near and far, keeping the intensity at Thames House, well, intense.

After MI-5 secretly bombs a train in Tehran, junior agent Zafar Younis (Raza Jaffrey) is abducted by a vigilante organization called the Redbacks. While searching for Zaf, Ros Meyers (Hermione Norris) is recruited by a secret intelligence organization called Yalta. Despite having an awkward one-night stand with Section D Leader Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones), Ros exchanges information with Yalta. Meanwhile Adam has an affair with Iranian mole Ana (Agni Scott, House of Saddam), wife of Dariush Bakhshi, Iranian Special Consul (Simon Abkarian). Agent Jo Portman (Miranda Raison) struggles with Zaf’s disappearance, despite support from tech operative Malcolm Wynn-Jones (Hugh Simon) and newly returned to MI-5 Intelligence Officer Connie James (Gemma Jones). Chief Harry Pearce’s (Peter Firth) team looks like it’s on its last thread, and global war is merely one incident away.

Relationships and recurring motifs have passed through MI-5 before, but this season’s Iranian plots factor into all 10 episodes. Sometimes, the Middle Eastern issues are at the forefront, other shows it’s more latent and behind the scenes politics. This season starts off strong, but some of these Iranian stretches hinder earlier episodes. Of course, just when you might count MI-5 out, Episodes 5 and 6 return the series to form. If you have any doubts about this series, always stay tuned in for the final episode. This season’s cliffhanger ending reassures the viewer. Maybe MI-5 does make mistakes from time to time-but it’s still dang fine television that shouldn’t be so obscure here across the pond.

Taking over most of the angst this season is Hermione Norris as Ros. Everything starts out so well with her potential relationship with Adam. Unfortunately, nothing is ever just peachy on MI-5. Those who might not have liked Ros’ harsh style previously will like her now. Norris keeps the ice queen edge for the missions, but we know what she’s keeping bottled up inside-conflict over Yalta, guilt about betraying her friends. It is a little strange that Ros would care so much about Zaf’s disappearance-especially after she was so unfettered by Ruth’s departure at her hands last season. However, this new dedicated- and dare I say latently affectionate- side of Ros is a fine addition to her depth and the series. Of course, Norris’ maternity leave puts a dramatic wrench into things, too.

Adam, oh Adam-sometimes we love him and sometimes you just want to scream at the television because of him. Last season’s psychological issues were a bit much, so this year cool, sexy, lovey dovey Adam returns. Penry-Jones is great with Norris’ Ros. They work well together whatever may be brewing under the surface, and their devotion to each other is lovely amid all the crazy international hysteria. Likewise, however, Adam has all the charm with Anna. You could believe this affair might lead to something-but relationships at Thames House are never what they seem. Some may think Penry-Jones has run the course with Adam Carter, but the cliffhanger finale reminds us why we put up with his drama. Die-hard lady fans will also be pleased with the amount of sex and nudity this season. It’s just a bit heavy for American audiences!

Online, I’ve discovered many fans have quite the love hate relationship with junior agent Joanna Portman and her hair. I liked Miranda Raison’s hair long, I liked it shaggy last year, and her harsh pixie cut is pretty now. It is strange however, that a haircut can highlight a woman’s eyes and cheekbones so much-and yet there were times where Jo and Adam looked a little too much alike! Thankfully, the action-oriented hair represents the kick up in Jo’s character. She’s not the hesitant girl in the office anymore. Raison has taken Jo to the streets. Sure, she still makes professional and personnel mistakes, but that’s what life is all about. Jo sees now that being a spook isn’t as high life as she thought it would be. Gadget man Malcolm (Hugh Simon) is again charming as always. He serves as a comforting father figure to Jo while being humor and wit fodder for Ros. Yet Malcolm himself is put on by Connie’s motherly fun. The light-hearted camaraderie keeps the balance amid all the global angst and betrayal.

Harry Pearce-make that Sir Harry- has a lot on his plate this season. We get several delightful personal snips from Peter Firth again this year, but his conflicts add a new dimension to the Chief at Thames House. So, even Harry isn’t always the leader with the right thing to do? He won’t turn a blind eye to everything his officers do, will he? Despite some of the blows, Harry also has some humor with returning agent Connie James. I like their repertoire, but I’m not sure about Connie just yet. She’s like Juliet Shaw last year; Connie’s too good at the old game. Gemma Jones (Harry Potter, The Duchess of Duke Street), however, is wonderful at making the sassy old lady shine amid all the pretty action people.

Wasted for the past two seasons, Raza Jaffrey’s Zaf does even less as an off- screen plot device in Season six. Ros supposedly cares enough about Zaf after he’s abducted by terrorists to go vigilante looking for him. Everyone comforts Jo every time she’s upset at the mention of the missing Zaf. Unfortunately, we never saw the camaraderie before, and I could care less about this turn of events. Episodes 2 and 3 drag because of this storyline, and then it’s dropped until the final episode anyway, creating a very rare writing mistake and poor cast departure on MI-5’s part. Of course, official character exits make room for new agents! I have to confess, I wasn’t expecting journalist Ben Kaplan to become a regular member on the grid. Each season presents several recurring allies, family, or enemies. I thought Kaplan was as semi-permanent as ambiguous CIA contact Bob Hogan (Matthew Marsh, An American Haunting) or Iranian diplomat Dariush Bakhshi (Simon Abkarian, Casino Royale). Although he has some fine journalistic instincts-and we did already recruit an investigate journalist in Jo- I don’t know enough about Kaplan yet to like him. Will he merely be the obligatory minority next season? Or can Ben have the depth and dimension never afforded to Zafar Younis?

MI-5’s season long storylines, heavier emphasis on action, and bigger shootouts and explosions were no doubt directly influenced by our hyperactive American tendencies. Sometimes, the international complexities become too confusing-who’s selling out whom this episode? Yalta, the Russians, Iran is nuclear one episode, not the next. Nevertheless, MI-5 still makes you hold your breath. Each plot and intense chase comes to fruition in the end. Yes, some of it seems a little too close to real life politics; but this type of intelligent intensity is tough to find on television. I do prefer more character analysis and complex personal episodes; but by Episode 9, all the personal angst and international hijinks come together in several dynamic ways. Whether action or personal, you have to see what happens next.

MI-5, Vol. 6Outside of a few episode commentaries, there aren’t many features on MI-5’s set this year. Brief, five minute behind the scenes shorts and video diaries aren’t enough in this day and age. Where are the extensive writer conversations, chase storyboards, and action sequence analysis? We’ve been spoiled by excessive special editions sets, haven’t we? Unfortunately, this is also the last of MI-5 I’ll see for awhile. While the Brits tune in for Season 8, I have to wait for Region 1 DVDS of series 7! Never fear, you can catch the first 6 seasons via Netflix, and several PBS stations are currently airing MI-5 stateside. I don’t know what I’m going to do without MI-5. Once a spook, always a spook!

12 September 2009

Fall Hits and Misses

Fall Hits and Misses

By Kristin Battestella

It’s that time of year again! Leaves are falling, days are getting shorter-what better time to curl up with a good scary movie? Here are a few must-see masterful horror shows, some passable fun for a Halloween marathon, and several dreadful flicks to avoid. Take this list of semi-recent fearful films for some macabre viewing this autumn. So what if it’s only mid September!


Gabriel- Not horror per se, but this low budget Australian satanic supernatural thriller is surprisingly entertaining. A familiar premise, yes, but the effects are good. The hopeful outcome keeps you interested, and in some ways, Gabriel reminds me a lot of The Crow.

Scream- Spoofed, played, oft-parodied, and perhaps dated-this twist on the slasher genre from master Wes Craven still has it’s share of intelligence, scares, and creative deaths from a fine ensemble cast.

A Haunting In ConnecticutI don’t know why this film is so poorly received. Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen leads a fine cast presenting real life angst and family drama mixed with creepy funeral home baddies. The serious, spiritual nature of this supposedly true story forgives the lack of scares and same old ghost clichés.

The Addams Family (1991)- Based on the witty television series of old; this ooky blockbuster has charm; creeps; and an all-star cast including Angelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, and the late Raul Julia. Even if you’ve seen this one several times on network TV, pop in the DVD again and catch all the jokes, double entrées, and comedy horror. Continue the fun with the lesser, but still decadent Addams Family Values.

Only Half Bad

Dead Silence- Yes, the biggest name here is Marky Mark’s big brother Donnie Wahlberg, but there’s just something creepy and freaky about all those little dolls and puppets in their little suits with their bugging eyes. My mom has all kinds of dolls and bunnies sitting up in little chairs, and this picture has me looking over my shoulder at them!

The Unborn- The Nazi back-story and Jewish mysticism seem like a plug for Madonna and all things Kabbalah, but the premise is unique enough to see to the end. Along the way, you might find a few pieces of The Eye, Mirrors, and every other horror movie with a young girl and a creepy kid; but total originality is tough to come by in recent years.

Mirrors- Another film taken from an Asian horror flick, but director Alexandre Aja adds more investigative mystery and suspense then outright horror. It’s a bit much that it all stems from a creepy hospital like every other horror flick, and that it’s not just mirrors, but even water that causes problems. Though not my favorite, Kiefer Sutherland’s clout keeps this watchable through all the mirror images and reflective surfaces.

Return to House on Haunted Hill – Taking it for what it is-a video direct sequel to a crappy remake- this hunt for an evil statue in said house on haunted hill isn’t that bad. Though not super scary, this quick film has some neat deaths and cool performances from Jeffrey Combs and Steven Pacey.

Urban Legends- Despite the names in the cast, there’s plenty of bad acting in this slasher mystery ode. Thankfully, It’s fun guessing who the killer is and what legend is next. Very entertaining-the first time you see it. Do, however, skip the crappy sequels.


Friday The 13th (2009) - The deaths are numerous, creative, and scary; and there’s plenty of college drugs, booze, and boobs. Unfortunately, there are twenty people in this movie and none of them is a name. Well, the guy from The Sentinel is here, but why should we care? I’m a little tired of all these identical remakes from the same folks. Do something original already! Please, please don’t make a sequel. Let’s just leave one franchise be, okay?

Dark Water- This well acted family drama offers a fine adult cast, but the ghost story and titular water are barely there-and especially not scary. The ending is obvious, too. Another remake of an Asian film about a woman and creepy kids-Connelly’s maturity and John C. Reilly’s wit can’t save this one from itself.

Asylum- Troubled teens being picked off by a mad doctor in a former mental hospital. Too redundant and unoriginal to care.

08 September 2009

Merlin Season 1

Potential Brewing in Merlin Season 1
By Kristin Battestella

Merlin: The Complete First SeasonWhen the BBC fantasy adventure series Merlin first came across the pond this summer, I wasn’t too interested. After taking in all of Season 1, however, I had a change of heart. Though young and not quite at its stride, Merlin has plenty of potential to entertain this season and beyond.

Young unruly wizard Merlin (Colin Morgan) comes to Camelot; and after saving his life serves the young, arrogant Prince Arthur (Bradley James). Merlin also befriends fellow servant Guinevere (Angel Coulby), maid to the King’s ward Morgana (Katie McGrath). King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) has banished all use of magic in his kingdom since the evil Lady of the Lake Nimueh (Michelle Ryan) plagues Camelot with deadly tricks and dark magic. Court Physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) secretly tutors Merlin to control his gifts and helps Morgana with her prophetic nightmares. When confronted with a particularly difficult and deadly magical conundrum, Merlin seeks advice from The Great Dragon (voiced by John Hurt). The dragon is kept hidden and chained in Uther’s dungeon-the last remnant of the old ways in Camelot.

Though we are *seriously* in need of a feature film Arthurian adaptation on the scale of Lord of The Rings; Merlin takes an interesting youthful focus. Camelot before Camelot was Camelot as seen from a boy Merlin’s perspective. A nice idea, but it’s not without its flaws. Sure, Arthur was way before Harry Potter, but the idea of a boy wizard having to hide his magical skills from uncompromising elders is a little too Potteresque nowadays-and so are Merlin’s incantations. With so many fantasy series flooding the airwaves-such as the similar Legends of the Seeker and the forthcoming, more mature Game of Thrones- Merlin needs to stand out more. In this thirteen-episode start, there are too many villains of the week. Every episode seems to rehash a guest using evil magic that Merlin must somehow stop by secretly doing good sorcery. Episode 10 ‘The Moment of Truth’ is exactly like a sub par episode of Enterprise called ‘Marauders’. How many times can we see a show where our heroes teach a village how to defend itself? There are so many better angles to take on Arthurian canon before resorting to these stock scripts.

Another unique but not running on full cylinders aspect of Merlin is John Hurt’s voicing of the Dragon. For as good as the dragon looks and as wonderful as John Hurt (The Elephant Man, Alien, The Field) is, they should be used a heck of a lot more. Then again, the dragon storyline could also be used as a special opening or closing two-parter. Unfortunately, it’s stuck somewhere in between. Every couple of episodes, Merlin has to get wordy and ambiguous advice from the captured dragon. Big deal! Hurt and the creature’s potential are resorted to a cool effect to charm young viewers. Why couldn’t the mystery of the dragon below the castle been delayed for a more spectacular reveal? You can add the depth and seriousness for all audiences and still appeal to the kids with fantastical elements. Team creators and main writers Johnny Capps (Sugar Rush), Julian Jones (The Bill), Jake Michie (Hex), and Julian Murphy (Sinchronicity) don’t use what they have to its full potential.

Merlin’s production also has yet to find its legs. The music by Robert Lane (Elizabeth 1, John Adams) is sweeping and epic, but not enough so. The opening hooks and credits also aren’t as rousing as they could be. The real life French Castle locations are, however, delightful. Yes, it’s a fifth century English King in a fourteenth century French castle-but it looks sweet! Still, some of Merlin looks very Saturday morning quick and low budget. Certain graphics and creature effects are state of the art, and others look as if they are done on someone’s home computer. Thankfully, the fine makeup and costuming win out, and any visual errors don’t deter from intelligent dialogue and performances. I’m of the old school before CGI-where you had to have people who could act and writers who could give a cast intelligent things to say. When you have two of Merlin’s cast in a dressed medieval room talking about their predicament, the chemistry and delivery work.
I’ve been critical thus far, but Merlin gets better as this debut season progresses. Deeper personal stories, fine guest stars, and more pieces of Arthurian puzzles strengthen the latter half of Season 1. Episodes simply titled ‘Lancelot’ and ‘Excalibur’ set a higher bar by placing the focus on conflict and injustice at Uther’s court. After thinking Merlin was kind of kiddie, the episode eight ‘The Beginning of the End’ and number 12 ‘To Kill A King’ had me thinking this show could really go on to bigger and better.

Merlin wouldn’t be any fun, however, if we didn’t like the players. The titular Colin Morgan (Doctor Who) is charming as our teen manservant with a magical secret. He handles the serious conversations with physician Gaius, yet makes room for wit and smiles. Merlin is a pretty laid back and levelheaded kid for such a big destiny. Morgan’s humility and chemistry with his counterparts in some ways make the series. Of course, Merlin wouldn’t be much without Prince Arthur, would he? Bradley James (Portobello 196) also strikes the perfect blend between the jerky, arrogant noble and heartfelt youth learning to be a king. Though both boys have the looks for our modern, pretty standards, James also looks capable as a medieval knight. He fits the armor, fights the good fight, and has plenty of banter for Merlin and the ladies.

I didn’t really think of it in my initial viewing, but online, most of the talk about Merlin is on homosexual subtext between Merlin and Arthur. Although gay aspects in Arthurian tales aren’t unheard of- see or read Mists of Avalon- I think it’s a little strange that people are looking for this in a program touted as wholesome and family oriented. In a few years, if Merlin strengthens and survives into a mature drama like Buffy The Vampire Slayer; then sure, let’s have one of the characters be gay. As for right now, however, the creators don’t seem to be playing into any subtext ala Xena. Yes, there is some dialogue about how much one boy loves the other or has secrets and latent lifestyles, but it seems more like Shaggy and Scooby having the munchies or He-Man’s subtext. Adults will see what they want to see, there’s nothing heavy that might offend youth and family audiences.

Of course, there are online shippers who see magic between Gwen and Merlin; but Angel Colby’s (As If) Guinevere also has moments with Lancelot and Arthur, naturally. Right now, Gwen is young, shy, and awkward around all the boys. I applaud the notion of a black Guinevere, but she should not be a servant. It will be an uphill battle to turn this shy maid into the future Queen of Camelot, but it can be done. In the future, I’d like to see the seer Morgana misunderstood and cast out of the castle-then Gwen can become Uther’s noble ward. I also think it was a mistake for the producers to name Gwen’s loyal but unjustly treated blacksmith father Tom (David Durham). It’s just a little racially ignorant on their part. Shallow internet viewers have also criticized Gwen’s look and style in comparison to the enchanting Morgana as played by Katie McGrath (The Tudors).

The girls are very close friends, but it’s the depth and multi-dimensional treatment of Morgana that makes the ladies seem so uneven. McGrath shines as the outspoken and eventually rebellious ward, trading taunts with Arthur and debates with Uther. For a somewhat snotty noblewoman, she is also very kind-hearted, largely due to her budding prophetic nightmares and abilities. More time should have been spent on developing all the ladies’ dynamics and their relationships at court. Where are the personal, bottle episodes? I would trade any villain of the week for one of those talkative, getting to know folks shows. Maybe nothing exciting happens for the kids, but we know and love our characters more for it.

Merlin may be oriented toward youthful audiences, but Anthony Head (Buffy) and Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave) serve their purpose as the guiding adults and strengthen the show with much needed maturity. Again, there’s not as much attention as I might of liked-and Head’s Uther always wears gloves for some reason; but he’s stern, sometimes even a ruthless king. We’ve no doubt of his affection towards his son and his ward, but Uther’s also a leader that must do what’s best for his kingdom. Head has the look and presence for the kingship and the wise voice to educate the onscreen youths. It’s not Uther’s show, but dreams of flashbacks of his wife Igrayne might have developed his sympathy and antagonism with Nimueh (Michelle Ryan, Bionic Woman) more.

Wilson’s Gaius is also wonderful as the surrogate father to Merlin. He’s a fine physician, using modern technique and medicine-but he also has a colored past with the magical old ways. The delivery of both men is on form, and they raise the younger cast in several fine scenes. Michael Cronin’s (Grange Hill) Geoffrey of Monmouth also makes the most of his three appearances. He’s friendly, wise, and sometimes the brunt of the young stars’ plans, but Cronin adds another refined element to Merlin. I hope he remains a recurring character. I’m sure there are financial restrictions, but Uther’s court is too dang small! A corrupt Valiant, vengeful Tristan, and a charming Lancelot should not have been mere guest stars. I dare say all the villainous visits could have been extended stays in Merlin. Right now, Camelot is too vanilla; there should be at least one questionable or unlikeable character at court to keep things interesting. As the Lady of the Lake, Nimueh certainly has more to tell. I hope she returns for next season, too.

Yes, it’s meant to be a family oriented program, but Merlin has the potential for more angst and superior stuff. Where many youthful programs would ignore analysis of romance and friendship, paternal troubles, and death; Merlin presents its more mature material with depth and quality. Unfortunately, some of the possible drama is directly hindered by the series premise. Merlin needs a noble class Gwen and more court personnel for Merlin, Arthur, and Morgana to positively and negatively react with. Maybe they wouldn’t all get along. We know that further down the line, Camelot’s gold tarnishes- use that. I’m not asking for some tawdry soap opera, but internal conflict similar to shows like Buffy can go a long way. Man versus Man, man versus nature, and man versus himself are prime notions for fantasy. We need not get lost in juvenile special effects.

In America, network nights used to be relatively tame for family viewing-today, not so much. I’m glad NBC decided to show Merlin in the US, but its Sunday night time might make audiences expect more maturity then what the series has at this point. In the nineties, such fare was often syndicated to Saturday afternoons or overnight hours. Youth oriented second tier networks like the WB and UPN championed similar shows like Smallville and the slightly older Charmed. Merlin is a nice little fantasy show still working out its kinks, but it doesn’t really belong on American network primetime. The series would be better off in a block on Sci-Fi or the Family Channel or BBC America with like-minded shows where any youthful mistakes can be more easily forgiven. Of course, it helps if the show can be found by audiences, too. Merlin started with a respectable 5 million viewers in the US. Unfortunately, a few preemptions dwindled ratings and Merlin’s fate in America is undecided.

In this Season 1, Merlin has had some flaws and mistakes, yes. These growing pains, however, are nothing that can’t be built upon for the forthcoming Season 2. With fine storytelling, a budding cast, and behind the scenes strength, Merlin can build on its potential. Hopefully, the series’ solid aspects can put a new spin on Arthurian legend for many seasons to come. Four or five years should be enough-anything shorter would be premature. Episodes and clips are available online officially via NBC and Hulu, and the Region 1 DVD set of Merlin Season 1 is expected soon. Of course, the British public has DVDS and Season 2 on the horizon. Lucky you!