Random Musings: Dickens and the Doctor

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Annotated Christmas Carol

On Dec. 19, 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. The story has seen many adaptations, but a recent one of note is the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol.”

The story, written by series producer Steven Moffat, finds the Doctor (Matt Smith) trying to save hundreds of people, including his newly-wed companions Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill), who are on board a space liner in distress. The liner is caught in the cloud layer of a particular planet and unable to safely land because of those clouds.

An embittered old man named Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) controls the cloud layer, but refuses to save the ship. His attitude is that “everyone has to die sometime.”

The Doctor is inspired to take a page from Dickens when he’s talking with Amy over a communicator and a carol is playing over a loudspeaker near where he’s standing. Amy asks what the noise is and he shouts, “a Christmas carol!”

Christmas Carol Doctor Who

The Doctor returns to Sardick, who’d been watching a recording he’d made as a boy, and tells the old man he’s the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Doctor then heads off into the past in the TARDIS. Even as Sardick watches the recording, the recorded events change. He sees his younger self greeted by the Doctor; and the Doctor, speaking into the recording device from decades ago, tells the older Sardick that his memories are going to change, but not to worry.

On this world, fish fly through the air (the nature of the cloud cover permits this) and the Doctor and the young Kazran (Laurence Belcher) encounter wonders and dangers. They also meet Abigail (opera singer Katherine Jenkins), whose singing doth soothe the savage shark; and as part of his plan to make Kazran Sardick a better man, the Doctor takes Kazran (played by Danny Horn as a young adult) and Abigail to various points in time and space every Christmas for several consecutive years.

In the present, we see subtle examples that the Doctor has changed the past. A painting of Sardick’s domineering father (also Gambon) is gone, replaced by one of Abigail. And where there once was no Christmas tree, now there is one.

Yet, Kazran Sardick hasn’t changed enough to disperse the cloud cover and save all those innocent people. You see, there’s something about Abigail the Doctor doesn’t know. Something that could still lead Sardick to becoming a bitter old man.

Amy appears to Sardick in holographic form (and later reverses the settings, so he’s the holographic projection on board the ship). She tells him she’s the Ghost of Christmas Present. He remains unmoved, even when he hears passengers singing hymns. Literally for their lives.

The Doctor’s last chance for success lies in the Ghost Yet to Come. Who is that? I’m not going to spoil the surprise. Watch the DVD and find out. I will say it’s not who Kazran Sardick would have imagined.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A look at World’s Finest’s Wackiest

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World's Finest Archives Vol 1

In recent decades a lot of comics— be they in the superhero genre or otherwise— have offered tales as sophisticated and thought-provoking as those of any good novel or short story.

But that hasn’t always been the case. Presenting some of what I call World’s Finest’s Wackiest.

World’s Finest, which primarily starred Batman and Superman, ran from 1941 to 1986. The following stories appeared between 1954 and 1957, just on the cusp of the “Silver Age” of comics. These stories are collected in World’s Finest Archives volumes one and two. And like many stories from the Silver Age, they’re pretty wacky by today’s standards.

Brief aside: a few years ago Craig Shutt— “Mr. Silver Age” of Comics Buyer’s Guide’s “Ask Mr. Silver Age” column— published a now out-of-print book about that era called Baby Boomer Comics. Good stuff. Worth seeking out.

In World’s Finest #77, a criminal scientist invents a ray that’ll give an ordinary person super powers for 24 hours. Batman inadvertently steps into the beam. Meanwhile another device has left Superman powerless. Everything gets back to normal at the end; but Lois Lane, ace reporter, who has become convinced that the “Superman” who never does anything super is an imposter, dismisses the story of the ray-machine outright.

“I know that this story of a weird ray-machine is moonshine— and that, really, you two simply exchanged costumes! I’m going to publish it, whether you admit it or not!”

“All the news that’s fit to invent”, is that it, Lois? She associates with an alien who can fly under his own power, yet can’t accept the ray-machine. Ooookay.

You’d recognize your best friend if he donned a turban and a fake (short) white beard, right? Then you’re doing better than Clark Kent in World’s Finest #73. Though maybe there’s some cosmic irony in the guy who fools people with a pair of glasses being taken in by Bruce Wayne, who posed as a carnival fortune teller by donning the above disguise.

The man who fools people with glasses gets fooled by a fake beard.

The man who fools people with glasses gets fooled by a fake beard.

(By the way, yes, glasses as a disguise can work, if you follow a few simple rules.

1. Don’t wear a mask. If you do, everyone knows you have another identity.

2. Don’t even hint that you have another identity.

3. DON’T hang out with the same people in both identities. That’s just asking for trouble.)

Speaking of beards, the king of France sported one in World’s Finest #82, in which Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson and Clark Kent travel back in time via Professor Nichols’ Time-Ray to uncover the mystery behind the Man in the Iron Mask. Batman and Robin seek out King Louis XIV on behalf of an innocent man. But the king attacks them and knocks himself out. So Batman uses his skills at disguise to impersonate Lou, putting His Majesty in the Batman costume.

And apparently shaving off his beard as well. Hardly necessary, since no one saw Batman and Robin enter the palace and thus don’t know whether Bats sported a beard; but Lou didn’t even mention it later on. Once shown the proof of one man’s innocence and another’s guilt, he simply said, “…now that you have proved your charges, let us re-exchange clothes, good Batman.” You’d think there would be rules of etiquette about shaving a king after he’s knocked himself out.

O.K. the king’s shaved beard, in and of itself, isn’t too wacky, but seeing Superman, Batman and Robin in period clothes on top of their regular costumes is. Uh, guys? You don’t need the masks and/or capes. No one knows you in 1696. Plus, you need to change back to your regular clothes before you’re pulled back to the present. Save yourself the hassle and don’t bother with the costumes at all.

But wait! Things get even wackier. In #84, a criminal threatens to expose Superman’s secret identity if he doesn’t leave Metropolis for two weeks. Supes tells Bats that he first encountered the criminal in Smallville and that the man had a teenage accomplice. This boy obtained a piece of wood from a building that had Superboy’s charred fingerprints on it (Superboy had moved the building out of the path of a fire). Obviously, the boy had given the piece of wood with the fingerprints to the criminal, Supes concluded.

Not so, Bats assured him, because, “I, Bruce Wayne, was the boy who tried to learn your identity.”

Bats added that Superboy hadn’t heard Bruce’s adamant refusal to help the crook.

Supes also didn’t take into account that someone having his fingerprints means nothing unless Clark Kent’s were also on file somewhere and someone ran a match.

Oh, why was a teenage Bruce Wayne in Smallville? He was on vacation with his parents.

That’d be the parents who were killed when Bruce was younger, yes?

Bruce Wayne sees dead people. They don’t know they’re dead. And sometimes... they go on vacation with him.

Bruce Wayne sees dead people. They don’t know they’re dead. And sometimes… they go on vacation with him.

Okay, then.

In #89, “Lightning Man” turns out to be Superman in a fugue state. He made his costume, in his confused condition, from Clark Kent’s draperies (Maybe he took a quick trip a few years into the future to see Carol Burnett’s bit as drapery-clad Scarlet O’Hara and decided she had the right idea).

And yet no one seemed to notice the material of his costume. Makes you wonder what other heroes’ costumes were made of.

Thing get wackier still in #90, featuring “The Super Batwoman.” Batwoman gains superpowers thanks to special capsules created by Jor-El, as a temporary fail safe should a Kryptonian lose his or her powers. These first appeared in issue #87, and a label on the box— written in English— explained what they did. Either that or the criminal who obtained it studied Kryptonese in school.

The now-super-powerless criminal escapes jail and goes to retrieve some more capsules. To stop him from taking one, Batwoman swallows it instead.

Batman informs her— with wagging finger, to boot— that “super powers can be dangerous! You must go home and stay safely quiet until your powers have faded away.” Batwoman tells him off and he replies, “it’s only for your own good.” And Batwoman tells him off again.

Good for her.

Batjerk lectures Batwoman.

Batjerk lectures Batwoman.

Once she departs, vowing to find out the true identities of Batman, Robin and Superman (just to prove that she can find out, as Batman learned hers), Batman tells Superman that “crooks might trick the secret of our identities out of her.” Supes agrees.

Say what? Since this was a private conversation between the four of them, what crooks would even suspect Batwoman was seeking— much less knew— her associates’ identities?

Batman’s earlier reminder that since he figured out her identity, crooks could do the same is way up there on the wackiness meter. He’s the world’s greatest detective. Of course he’s going to figure out her identity if he sets his mind to it. Criminals? They’re just a superstitious, cowardly lot.

Sadly, Batwoman ends up being just as much of an embarrassment to her gender as Batman is to his. First, despite having super powers, she freaks out about small mammals:

Batwoman fears mice

Didn’t someone ever tell her that bats resemble mice?

And in the end she loses all self respect:

Batwoman loses her self respect

Other general wackiness of that era involved a great deal of expositional dialogue. Take the cover of World’s Finest #91, which showed a woman and an old man examining Robin, Batman and Superman encased in blocks of ice. The woman tells us— and her companion— “this is the year 2957- they’ve been in suspended animation for 1,000 years!”

Right, like the guy doesn’t know what year it is.

The Silver Age had wackiness aplenty (yes, Jimmy Olsen, I’m talking to you). These were just a few examples.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating

Random Musings: Go behind the Veil with Boris Karloff

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Veil

In 1958, horror icon Boris Karloff hosted and starred in the 11-episode anthology series, The Veil, which was created by Frank P. Bibas.

Unlike the case with his later 1960-1962 anthology series, Thriller (where he played characters in five episodes), Karloff acted in all but one episode of The Veil.

Here’s a look at some of them.

“Crystal Ball”, purportedly based on a true incident, concerns lovesick writer Edmond Valier (Booth Colman). He’s been rejected by Marie (Roxane Berard), who announces her intention to marry his publisher (Leo Penn). She gives Edmund a crystal ball as a gift. He discovers that in it he can see Marie’s assignation with an artist named Philippe (Albert Carrier).

Karloff plays his uncle.

“Food on the Table”, Karloff tells us, is based on a report in the files of the Gloucester (Mass.) Historical Society. Karloff plays John Elwood, a sea captain who murders his wife, Ruth (Kay Stewart). Her ghost makes her displeasure known.

In “Doctors”, Karloff plays Carlo Marcabienti, a country doctor in a tiny Italian village. A young girl is very sick, but Dr. Marcabienti is unavailable, having gone out to see another patient. The girl’s family won’t accept Marcabienti’s son, Angelo (Tony Travis), a city-educated physician, despite his insistence that he needs to operate immediately. Angelo sends someone to fetch his father and the old man arrives in time for Angelo to perform a tracheotomy.

Or did he? We later learn the car sent to fetch Dr. Marcabienti broke down en route. And that the doctor himself, having returned home with an injured hand, was asleep in his study. The implication is that the image of the doctor was either a result of the family’s fervent prayers or his own concern about the family caused his “astral body” to visit their home while he slept.

In his introduction, Karloff alleges the events depicted were real.

“Girl on the Road” is a variation of the “vanishing hitchhiker” ghost story. John Prescott (Tod Andrews), encounters a young woman named Lila Kirby (Eve Brent) who’s having car trouble. He drives her into town. That evening, she vanishes from a place called Lookout Point.

Karloff plays Morgan Debs, a powerful man in the community and one whom Lila seemed to fear. At first glance the implication is that he’s a local crime or political boss. It turns out he’s more sympathetic.

Debs reveals that Lila died three years earlier when her car plunged off Lookout Point. However, unlike the situation in the more familiar version of the “vanishing hitchhiker” story, other people in “Girl on the Road” see Lila.

Debs (Lila’s uncle, it turns out) told Prescott that this was the second time she reappeared.

In “Summer Heat”, a man named Edward Paige (Harry Bartell) sees a murder in the apartment across the street from his own. The police investigate, but find the apartment empty. Later, when a woman rents the place and is subsequently killed, they accuse Paige of committing the crime and having invented an alibi for himself.

Karloff plays a psychiatrist who is convinced Paige saw something real.

Other supernatural or otherwise unexplained phenomena explored in The Veil include reincarnation (“Return of Madam”); visions of distant events (“Vision of Crime” and “Jack the Ripper”) and helpful ghosts (“Destination Nightmare” and “Genesis”).

Thriller

With respect to Thriller, many episodes are thrilling, per se, but the series sometimes suffered from a lack of focus. Many of the “thrilling” early episodes are thrilling in the suspenseful sense, not the scary/supernatural sense. Which is fine, in and of itself, but they hardly seem the sort of stories to be hosted by Boris Karloff.

For example, “The Fatal Impulse” involves a desperate search to find a bomb being inadvertently carried by an innocent woman. It has a few clichés (from our 2014 POV, most shows from the early 60s do), but it’s still suspenseful.

More in the supernatural vein are such episodes as “The Cheaters”, which I first read about in the early 1980s; “The Grim Reaper” and “The Incredible Dr. Markesan.” That last features Karloff in a central role.

“The Cheaters” stars Harry Townes as the last of a series of individuals who come into possession of a unique pair of spectacles (“cheaters” is a slang term for glasses), made from a special grade of glass. These glasses are supposed to reveal the truth. However, it seems some truths are best left unknown.

In “The Grim Reaper”, William Shatner stars as Paul Graves, a man concerned about his elderly, somewhat eccentric aunt Beatrice (Natalie Schafer). She’s purchased a painting of the Grim Reaper, which, legend has it, caused its creator to commit suicide and which begins to bleed when someone is due to die. Paul urges his aunt to get rid of the painting.

In “The Incredible Dr. Markesan”, Dick York and Carolyn Kearney star as a young, penniless couple, Fred and Molly Bancroft, who arrive unannounced at the home of Fred’s uncle, Dr. Konrad Markesan (Karloff). They hope he’ll put them up until they can secure jobs at the nearby university.

All things being equal, they should have stopped at the Bates Motel instead. Or at least obeyed Dr. Markesan’s instructions to remain locked in their room at night.

Between the two series, I think The Veil is a better fit for Karloff’s talents. The fact that he acted in all but one episode would seem to reinforce that. Many episodes of Thriller could have been hosted by Alfred Hitchcock and would have had the same impact.

Episodes of The Veil usually had a “tag” scene; Thriller episodes didn’t. In many instances, Thriller episodes could have used a “tag.” More so the earlier crime/suspense stories than the supernatural ones. What happens next in many of the latter episodes is best left to the viewers’ imaginations, but the lack of resolution in most of the former episodes is annoying.

Both The Veil and Thriller are available on DVD, the latter in a complete series box set and a “best of” sampler of 10 episodes. Not all episodes of those series are gems, but both shows are worth a look. The Veil is especially so if you’re a Karloff fan.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A look at Thanksgiving traditions

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Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

Today, millions of Americans will take the day off from school or work, gather with relatives and eat a large turkey in celebration of the holiday of Thanksgiving.

For some, the celebration will also involve watching football on T.V. and/or watching or participating in parades. For my family, Thanksgiving involves gathering with relatives, sometimes (as is the case this year) with ones from out of state. Some years, we have large gatherings; in others, when various cousins spend the day with other relatives, it’s a smaller group. This year, we’ll have a mid-sized gathering, with most of the local relatives being joined by my aunt from Pittsburgh.

And those who don’t make it to a Thanksgiving gathering are there in spirit. Or more accurately, via wires or satellites, thanks to Alexander Graham Bell.

When we were children, Thanksgiving also involved going to the parade in downtown Detroit. We’d sit on a makeshift platform stretched between two ladders, sip hot chocolate, watch the floats and wait for Santa Claus to arrive.

Later, we’d either go home or to whichever relative was hosting Thanksgiving that year for dinner. Us youngsters would play together; and if it were snowing and we were at our house with the front yard on a hill, we’d go sledding.

When we had Thanksgiving (or Christmas, for that matter) at my house, my uncle would tell my cousins that we had heated streets and driveways. By the time they’d arrive in late afternoon, snowplows would have cleared the streets and people in our subdivision would have shoveled their drives.

Those cousins have since had children of their own and when those younger cousins— now in their late teens and early to mid 20s— were little, they would run giggling through whichever house we were at and/or play in the yard. Sometimes the girls would act out elaborate “plays” in the basement.

A few years ago on Thanksgiving, I asked the girls multiple choice questions about their hopes and dreams, plans and schemes. Then I used the information they gave me to write each of them a personalized short story. Which were their Christmas presents.

Another one of my aunts once said Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday, because it’s so much about family.

My own Thanksgiving tradition is to exchange letters with my closest friend. For the past several years, she and I write why we’re thankful to have each other in our lives.

But what is Thanksgiving and where did it all begin? Most people would argue that it began in 1621, with Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony, Mass., declaring a celebration of the colonists’ survival (with more than a little help from Squanto and his fellow Patuxet) during their first year in North America. But celebrations of Thanksgiving go back even further.

Robert Haven Schauffler’s 1907 book Thanksgiving: Its Origin, Celebration and Significance states that Thanksgiving can be traced back to the Canaanites. Later, the Hebrews celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles; while the Greeks held a similar harvest festival known as the Thesmophoria, which was the feast of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and harvests.

Romans celebrated the Cerelia, which honored the goddess Ceres; and in England, the autumnal festival, which could be traced back to Saxon King Egbert, was called “The Harvest Home.”

In the U.S., Thanksgiving evolved into a national holiday with gradually changing meanings. In 1789, President Washington declared Nov. 26 a national day of Thanksgiving, a time of religious reflection.

In 1863, President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, persuaded— so the story goes— by letters from Sarah J. Hale, founder and editor of The Ladies Magazine in Boston.

In 1939, President Roosevelt moved the date to the fourth Thursday in November. That day was adopted two years later by a joint resolution of Congress.

In 2009, President Obama issued a proclamation stating, among other things, that “this is a time for us to renew our bonds with one another.”

The president specifically spoke of reaching out to neighbors and fellow citizens in need of a helping hand, a laudable goal. But it can also be an opportunity to strengthen family bonds.

While the turkey dinner and/or football games are what distinguishes Thanksgiving from other holidays, those things don’t make it significant in the final analysis. What makes it significant is the act of bringing families together; and family is more important than any football team or dead bird.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating

Random Musings: The Fugitive runs on

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Fugitive DVD

“The name: Dr. Richard Kimble. The destination: Death row, state prison. The irony? Richard Kimble is innocent.”

Those words, delivered by narrator William Conrad, began the opening narration of The Fugitive (1963-1967), one of the best TV series made. Stephen King, in his introduction to Ed Robertson’s 30th anniversary book, The Fugitive Recaptured, said “it was at the time (and still is, when you see the reruns) absolutely the best series done on American television.” I don’t know if I’d call it the absolute best, but I’d say The Fugitive belongs in the top 10, if not the top five.

The series concerned the efforts of pediatrician Dr. Kimble (David Janssen), convicted of the murder of his wife, Helen, to find the real killer, a one-armed man (Bill Raisch) he saw running from the vicinity of his home shortly before discovering Helen’s body. My first exposure to the series came in the 70s via a passing reference in a Dynamite Magazine article about the Logan’s Run TV show. To wit: that the people behind that show hoped Logan’s… um… run would be as long and as successful (ratings-wise) as Dr. Kimble’s had been (it wasn’t). But I didn’t see any episodes until 1989, when the local CBS channel began airing re-runs. I had, however, read more about it in the interim.

Ironically, this great show almost didn’t get made. In The Fugitive Recaptured (pages 17-18) series creator Roy Huggins revealed that he’d wanted to create a contemporary analog to the wandering western hero, but realized a modern-day character who drifted about would come across as a bum. So Huggins thought of a wrongly accused and convicted fugitive from justice, seeking to clear his name. Such a man can’t remain in one place. However, everyone he initially brought the concept to was repulsed at the idea. Apparently, they couldn’t grasp the key fact that Dr. Kimble was innocent. Eventually, then ABC president Leonard Goldenson bought it. And the rest was history.

The Fugitive was also the first American TV series to have a definite conclusion, in which Dr. Kimble was finally exonerated. It was a decision producer Quinn Martin wouldn’t have made if he’d had to do it over again, co-producer George Eckstein told Ed Robertson in The Fugitive Recaptured (page 173); but as Robertson relates, Martin’s fears that the show wouldn’t enjoy syndication value later proved unfounded. Robertson reports that when A & E renewed its right to the series in 1992, it was one of the channel’s most highly rated programs in its daytime lineup.

That final episode held the record as the most watched episode on American TV until it was superseded by the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas and then the final episode of M*A*S*H (or just M*A*S*H, if you’re considering finales alone).

The Fugitive enjoyed both great acting and great writing, but one thing I especially liked was that Dr. Kimble’s implacable pursuer, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), looked like an ordinary person, not the typical Hollywood image of a determined cop. He was middle-aged, balding and wore glasses. In reading about Gerard— who had the sort of tenacity that would’ve had the Terminator saying “relax, will you?”— I had conjured a certain mental image (I hadn’t seen any photos of Morse at the time). When I finally saw the series, the reality was refreshingly different.

David Janssen and Barry Morse in a publicity photo.

David Janssen and Barry Morse in a publicity photo.

One thing that fascinates me about Lt. Gerard is a certain dichotomy about the character. I’d hoped to meet Barry Morse at the 2006 Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention to ask him his thoughts about the character. However, he had to cancel his appearance and there wasn’t another opportunity to see him at another such event before he died.

Anyway, some brief examples of this dichotomy (not necessarily in broadcast order): In “Corner of Hell”, despite being accused of attacking a young woman after pursuing Kimble into the woods and offering as his only defense that he saw a man with baseball cap flee the scene (pretty much all the men in that community wore baseball caps), Gerard still insisted the one-armed man was a fantasy.

Yet, in “Somebody to Remember”, when a woman named Sophie suggested “Johnny” (Kimble) killed a man named Gus because Gus discovered the truth, Gerard told her, “He’s been spotted before. He hasn’t killed.”

“He killed his wife, didn’t he?”

“The law says he did.”

Gerard’s tone suggests he personally has doubts about Kimble’s guilt.

In “Nightmare at Northoak”, Gerard’s response to the sheriff’s wife’s question of whether Kimble really killed his wife was “the law says he did. I enforce the law.” He’s made similar statements in other episodes. Just contrasting those episodes with “Somebody to Remember” suggests that Gerard puts aside his doubts to carry out the dictates of the law.

So, did Gerard’s insistence in “Corner of Hell” that the one-armed man is a fantasy stem from his attempts to convince himself of that? Are these different “sides” of Gerard (and I could cite other episodes as well) the result of different writers giving the character contradictory attitudes about Kimble; or did The Fugitive writing staff (and Barry Morse) deliberately set out to make Gerard somewhat self-contradictory? I suspect it’s the latter (in part based on some comments Morse made in The Fugitive Recaptured), but I’d have loved to have talked to him about it.

Gerard’s name, by the way, was a deliberate echo of Javert, the man who hounded Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (something Morse himself picked up on). There were key differences, however. By the final episode, Gerard accepted that Kimble was innocent. Javert couldn’t reconcile himself to the fact that Jean Valjean didn’t deserve to be hounded all those years and killed himself.

Gerard was only in about 1/3 of the 120 episodes, but as Morse said in one of his introductions to a set of Fugitive videotapes released by Nu Ventures in 1991, there was always the sense that he was “just around the corner.” In fact, Morse related how in the years following the show, people insisted Gerard had been in every episode. To my way of thinking, this “certainty” is a testimony to the impact Barry Morse made.

The Fugitive is now out on DVD and is probably being shown in reruns somewhere. It’s an excellent series, well worth watching.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating

Random Musings: That was no Martian; it’s Halloween.

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Innocents
Halloween will soon be with us and on Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch and—

Oh, sorry. I was channeling Linus for a moment there. This time around, a few really good ghost story/suspense movies to enjoy on or around Halloween:

The Innocents. 1961. Based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, the newly-hired governess to two children— Miles and Flora— whom she comes to believe are under the influence of the spirits of two deceased household employees. Given carte blanche by the children’s uncle, who lives in the city and wants nothing to do with raising them, Miss Giddens decides that drastic measures are required to save the children from the ghosts’ baleful influence.

But what’s real and what’s the product of her imagination? The film lets you decide.

Changeling

The Changeling. 1980. George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a music teacher who buys an old house shortly after the deaths of his wife and daughter. Turns out he’s not the only resident. The ghost of a child is also in residence, a ghost who leads Russell to discover the truth about a powerful senator (Melvin Douglas).

One of the things that makes The Changeling such an effective film is that we don’t see the ghost except in two brief scenes, one of which is a flashback to the murder. But we’re very much aware of its presence. In one scene, Russell comes home after failing to turn up a particular lead and all the doors in the house start slamming. In another, he returns one night after having thrown his daughter’s ball into the river. From the top of the darkened stairs comes a THUMP.

And another. And another. And another. THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.

Until a wet ball stops at his feet.

Near the end of the film, an (apparently) empty wheelchair chases a woman down a passage in the house. You don’t see the ghost in any of those scenes and you don’t need to.

Haunting

The Haunting. 1963. Based on book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn star as four people who visit a “haunted” house to determine if it really is. They get more than they bargained for.

As with The Innocents, we’re left to wonder how much of the supernatural activities— especially those experienced by Nell (Harris)— actually happened.

The Haunting was remade in 1999 and underwent a number of changes. Those changes, frankly, only reinforce that the 1963 version was better.

Case in point: In one scene in the remake, Nell sees her sheet or bedspread form next to her into the image of a child who speaks to her. In the original, nobody ever saw anything. And since Nell was the narrator, the audience was left to wonder whether she imagined everything.

One key scene in the original has Nell in the dark, telling Theo (Bloom) not to let go of her hand as a loud pounding echoes through the room. When the lights come on, Nell finds— to her horror— that Theo is still asleep in the other bed. “Whose hand was I holding?” she asks.

Was Nell holding a ghost’s hand, or did she imagine it all? It’s open to interpretation.

Uninvited

The Uninvited. 1944. Based on the novel by Dorothy McCardle. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey star as a brother and sister, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, who buy a seacoast home where Roderick, a composer, can work. The house is, of course, haunted. At the center of the supernatural activity is Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), granddaughter of the home’s previous owner, who was very reluctant to sell. Roderick is determined to find out just what happened all those years ago.

The ghost is seen, briefly— and effectively, given the limitations of special effects at the time— but, again, much is left to the viewers’ imagination.

Others

The Others. 2000. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace Stewart, a woman living on the island of Jersey with her two photosensitive children while her husband (Christopher Eccleston) is off fighting in World War II. One day she wakes up to find the servants have all gone, three new servants have turned up at her door unannounced and someone or something seems to be in the house. And it/they start treating the house as its/their own, something Grace will not abide.

Bubba Ho-Tep

Bubba Ho-Tep. 2002. Based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale. Nursing home residents Elvis (yes, that Elvis) (Bruce Campbell) and John F. Kennedy (yes, that John F. Kennedy) (Ossie Davis) team up to fight an ancient Egyptian mummy who’s feeding on the souls of the home’s residents.

Okay, it’s not a ghost story, but it’s still Halloween-appropriate. And it’s fun.

Switching gears, over the past seven decades, Halloween has also become associated with one particular radio broadcast. In fact, stations, either broadcast or satellite, that play old-time radio tend to air this program either on Oct. 30 or Oct. 31.

Orson Welles directing the Mercury Theatre on the Air.

Orson Welles directing the Mercury Theatre on the Air.

The program was The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells on October 30, 1938 on CBS Radio. The program— about a Martian invasion of Earth— caused a panic— though not as big a panic as later reports would claim. In a sense, War of the Worlds is radio’s “fish story.” The “fish” got bigger with each retelling.

Even so, the Mercury Theatre, led by Orson Welles, made excellent use of the medium to tell the story. First, it was transposed from the 19th century England of Wells’ novel to the then-future of Oct. 30, 1939. I wonder how many people listening that 1938 evening caught the comment “in the 39th year of the 20th century”?

Second, forgoing straight narration, Welles and company initially used “news broadcasts”— which interrupted periods of dance music— about “explosions of incandescent gas” on Mars; a shock of almost earthquake like intensity within a 20 mile radius of Princeton University and field reports from Grover’s Mill.

These “news broadcasts” were effective because people— still in the midst of the Depression— were already hearing disturbing reports from and about Europe as World War II loomed on the horizon. Also, there were no televisions, satellite communications or Internet in those days. And most phone calls went through an operator.

True, the “news broadcasts” weren’t taking place in real time, but I doubt anybody noticed. I think it’s reasonable to assume the minority who were panicking were too busy with their panic to pay attention to that detail; while those who were enjoying the drama were too caught up in the story to care that (for example) “Carl Phillips” (Frank Readick) and “Professor Richard Pierson” (Welles) got to Grover’s Mill from Princeton with amazing speed.

Other things that made War of the Worlds so effective:

During his performance as “Carl Phillips”, reporting on the first attack by the Martian heat ray, Readick echoed Herb Morrison’s on-scene broadcast of the 1937 Hindenburg crash.

Several seconds of silence followed when he was cut off in mid sentence. Very effective, that. It’s a good example of how what you don’t hear on a radio drama can be just as significant as what you do.

Kenny Delmar’s “Secretary of the Interior” sounded suspiciously like President Roosevelt.

The “news broadcasts” were timed so that people who switched over from NBC’s The Charlie McCarthy Show when Edgar Bergen brought on the musical guest would tune in to The Mercury Theatre on the Air  just in time to hear what sounded like a major news bulletin.

In addition to being broadcast this time of year by various stations playing “old-time radio”, The War of the Worlds is also in wide circulation on record, cassette, CD and download. If you’re at all curious about old-time radio and how it was very much a “theater of the mind”, you should put yourself in the mindset of someone living in the late 1930s and give War of the Worlds a listen.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating

Random Musings: Thoughts on what lies ahead for Supernatural’s 10th season.

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Supernatural season 10 poster

Supernatural begins its 10th season tonight. Season nine ended with the angel Metatron (Curtis Armstrong), the “scribe of God”, stripped of his expanded abilities and imprisoned in Heaven’s dungeon; the angel Castiel (Misha Collins) refusing to step into the leadership void; the treacherous angel Gadreel (Tahmoh Penikett) having redeemed himself; and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) having become a demon.

So, you know, same old, same old.

Given the recurring theme of the Winchester brothers fighting for each other, it’s clear that Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) will do whatever he must to restore Dean’s humanity. I doubt, however, that this will be a season-long effort (Sam didn’t remain soulless for the whole run of season six, for example). But whatever Sam does will lead to bigger complications.

Some questions arise from Dean’s new status. Since Dean awakened as a demon after Crowley (Mark Sheppard), the (self-appointed) King of Hell, put the First Blade in his hand, does that mean that Cain (Timothy Omundson)— established as a powerful demon— is still in his original body and not a meat suit?

As I mentioned before, when Dean accepted the Mark of Cain (and with it the ability to use the First Blade), he probably should have listened when Cain tried to warn him about the consequences. But as Yoda might have said, “impatient is Dean Winchester, yes.”

Is Dean now a Knight of Hell like Cain? And if so, how much of a hold will Crowley have over him? Crowley was terrified of Cain. Granted, Cain has had millennia to learn the extent of his abilities, but what if demonized Dean is just as powerful? Dean’s never been known to kowtow to anyone. Even if Dean believes he’s now just an ordinary black-eyed demon, Crowley would be wise to not push his luck in ordering him about. If there were a demon from whom Dean would be willing to take orders, it wouldn’t be Crowley. Not by a long shot.

Cain confronts Crowley.

Cain confronts Crowley.

At the Supernatural panel at this summer’s San Diego Comic Con (AKA Comic Con International: San Diego), Mark Sheppard and Jensen Ackles addressed the issue.

“No one’s ever going to believe that Crowley didn’t know what was going to happen,” Sheppard said. “So I think we’re going to have to see whether Crowley has any control at all or whether Crowley’s in charge or what that is.”

“The interesting thing with Demon Dean and Crowley is that at some point Crowley is going to be like, ‘this was a bad, bad idea,’” Ackles added.

At the convention, Executive Producer Jeremy Carver said Sam digs into how to rescue Dean from being a demon, while Dean, who is a demon, struggles with what that means.

“I think, myself and the other writers, are excited, most of all, with the idea of these brothers questioning who the real monster is,” Carver said.

At the end of season eight, Metatron had used trickery to expel all the other angels from Heaven and set himself up as the new god (the actual God having long since left Heaven). Metatron’s ability to take control of Heaven was an unintended consequence of Sam and Dean having stopped the apocalypse and the subsequent civil war in Heaven.

Sam and Dean confront Lucifer.

Sam and Dean confront Lucifer.

In brief: The brothers unwittingly freed Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) from Hell. Sam subsequently put him back in his cage, along with the archangel Michael (Jake Abel). With the archangel Gabriel (Richard Speight, Jr.) having (apparently) been killed by Lucifer, that left Raphael (Demore Barnes; Lanette Ware), who wanted to release Lucifer and Michael and re-start the apocalypse. To prevent this, Castiel partnered with Crowley to defeat Raphael. Castiel absorbed souls from purgatory, declaring himself the new God (he was later restored to his old self) and decimating Heaven’s ranks. He also unwittingly released the Leviathan.

Crowley and Castiel discuss a business arrangement.

Crowley and Castiel discuss a business arrangement.

So, when Metatron returned from his self-imposed exile, Heaven was in shambles, making his take-over that much easier. And none of this might have happened if Dean had accepted Sam’s death in season two and not sold his soul to get his brother back. He spent 30 (subjective) years in Hell before being rescued by Castiel. But while there, unknowingly broke the first of 66 seals needed to free Lucifer (Sam was later tricked into breaking the final seal).

Like I said, the Winchesters’ actions lead to bigger complications.

In part due to his actions in his war with Raphael, Castiel doesn’t want to lead the angels, but I think Cass will become leader, either willingly or because circumstances give him no choice. After all, no other still-living angel character has as significant a role in the Supernatural universe as Castiel.

Yes, Gabriel— who was part of a false scenario created by Metatron last season— might have really faked his death, but given that he fled Heaven eons ago and assumed the persona of a Trickster god, there’s no reason to believe he’d want the job.

The only other option is for some significant angel from biblical lore who has yet to be mentioned on the show to show up and play a key role in season 10, with Castiel offering him or her support.

But if this hypothetical angel is so significant, why hasn’t he or she been mentioned before now? After all, Naomi (Amanda Tapping), a powerful angel from season eight, is not listed in The Dictionary of Angels. Wouldn’t the Supernatural writers have used a “real” angel instead of Naomi, if a significantly powerful one— and one whose name is familiar to the general public— remained available?

Castiel also has to deal with the fact that his stolen grace is fading, leaving open the question of how he’ll replenish it. Presumably his own grace, extracted by Metatron, is lost forever. If it had been out there somewhere, Castiel would have been searching for it in season nine. Or there would have been some indication that it could be recovered.

It would seem, however, that Castiel has other things on his mind. At the Supernatural panel, Collins told the audience that Castiel was more concerned about helping Dean than recovering his own powers.

In a separate interview, Collins said Castiel was hell bent on trying to fix Dean, because he believes there’s nothing he can do for himself.

In Supernatural- A Very Supernatural Special, which aired yesterday, creator Eric Kripe said the more Supernatural is about the brothers, the better it is.

He’s right. At its heart, Supernatural is a show about family— biological or otherwise. While there have been some great storylines over the years, the relationships between the characters are what have made Supernatural one of the best shows on TV.

Copyright 2014, Patrick Keating.