Monday, January 16, 2012

Escaping the trail to Oz

You're out of the woods, You're out of the dark, You're out of the night.
Step into the sun, Step into the light.
Keep straight ahead for the most glorious place
on the Face of the Earth or the Sky.
Hold onto your, breath, Hold onto your heart, Hold onto your Hope.

-The Wizard of Oz 

Tired of the everyday grind? Want to lead a life of romantic adventure? We offer you...Escape!

-40's radio show Escape introduction

It's 1939. After 10 years of the most harsh economic conditions in the country's history and with war clouds gathering overseas in Europe, Americans just want to escape it all. Escape to a heavenly paradise devoid of failing financial institutions, dust bowls, famine, war and the like. Escape to a place that is always colorful and gay. Escape to a place that, well, looks something like this:

In the late summer of 1939, The Wizard of Oz was released to a public whose voracious appetite for escape from reality had been the driving force in the production of nearly a hundred movie musicals over the course of the downtrodden decade. But the happy-go-lucky talkies were only a temporary respite from the world's miseries which seemed only to be multiplying. Was there a more permanent form of escape? Possibly a taboo one that no one talked about? With a path that only the most courageous (or foolhardy) would attempt?

It's now 2012. The world's financial institutions are crumbling, there are endless wars and the misery index soars ever higher. But there are also endless avenues of escape available. From the Soma holidays provided by pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs, to religious cults, to the internet rabbit hole, to personal hobbies, projects and causes, there seem limitless paths to escape. And our old friend, the movie musical, who's death was prematurely reported in the late 70's, is actually still very much alive and kicking, offering more paths to escape than ever. In the first decade of the new millennium, 742 musicals were produced world-wide, that's over seven times the number produced in the 30's. Escapism in the old days used to be limited to Friday nights at the picture show or maybe weekend walks through the countryside. Today, the amount of time committed to escape and the proliferation of escape routes is ever increasing with more and more time spent in an alternate reality. We really want to be elsewhere in the worst way. Can this be healthy, or will it ultimately lead to insanity or even death?

Synopsis - In 1940, over 500 people from the town of Friar, New Hampshire leave their homes and walk up an ancient trail. Some are found frozen, some are found dismembered but most simply disappear. A modern-day researcher gathers a team to follow the old trail nicknamed YellowBrickRoad.

Horror and mystery stories are like magic tricks, once you know the secret or McGuffin, they lose their allure. There are rare examples of stories that never reveal the source of the mystery, but they tend to be eschewed by the mainstream who would rather have a concrete monster, serial killer or other tangible thing as an explanation. In my case, I don't want to know the hidden mystery or terror. It makes for a much more interesting story and often sparks interesting debate. An example taken from real life would be the case of the Mary Celeste. The Mary Celeste was an American brigantine merchant ship found adrift and unmanned on December 4, 1872. The ship had no damage, ample supplies and none of the crew's personal effects seemed to be missing. There was nothing to indicate a problem in the captain's log and everything else seemed normal except for one missing lifeboat.

Reading through the theories and possible explanations of what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste is fascinating, but I'd never want a definitive explanation or proof of what actually happened. It would make the story much less intriguing. But that's just me.

In YellowBrickRoad, there's an unsettling scene at the outset involving the protagonist, Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino), the lead researcher who it is implied is more than just a little obsessed with the mysterious disappearance of the residents of Friar, NH in 1940. A strange clerk behind opaque glass gives him previously sealed documents concerning the disappearances, apologizes for the previous inconvenience and oddly tells him to "enjoy the picture show".  There's a weird "be careful what you wish for" aspect to this scene that drew me right into the movie. Such odd little details, moments and behaviors are carefully scattered throughout the film by the writing and directing team of Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton which make it a denser, more meaningful and disturbing story than it would appear on the surface. The era the disappearances take place in is also thematically relevant. They could have been written to occur at any time after the 40's but the filmmakers chose a very specific year for a reason. Just as they picked the original trail head of the Yellow Brick Road to be Friar's modern day movie theater, the Rialto, which still contains a worn to useless print of The Wizard of Oz and has marquee titles displayed that seem a little to relevant to the proceedings to be random movie titles. I love throwaway details like this that not only make repeat viewings enjoyable but almost mandatory.

After informing his wife and teaching colleague that he's been given the previously classified documents concerning the disappearances, Teddy gathers a professional crew to go on the woodland trek who aren't just a bunch of dumb college kids out for a lark, but a serious research group with specific jobs and expertise. There's a brother/sister team of cartographers, a forest ranger, a medical intern and even a psychologist in addition to Teddy and his wife.
Cartographers Erin and Daryl Luger
Ranger Cy Banbridge
Psychologist Walter Myrick and Melissa Barnes
Jill the intern
Team leader Teddy Barnes
In addition, they pick up another member of the team from Friar, a movie theater employee named Liv McCann who desperately wants to escape town but is frustratingly vague as to why. She agrees to show Teddy and his team the trail if they take her along. 

Liv McCann

Initially all goes well for the group and morale is high as they make their way through the woods. There is even some good natured teasing between the siblings over a found grubby hat and a running joke with 'Jill the intern' about her hopelessly useless GPS device which variously shows their locations as Italy, Australia, Guam or other exotic locations. But, of course, things go downhill as the group gets deeper into the woods and begins to hear music from the 30's being played in the distance which gets louder and more discordant the further along the trail they get.

The use of the far-off music was a unique and effective tool to show the group's ever spiraling decent into madness. Initially, it seems benign or even enjoyable despite being unexplainable, but as it continues on, it becomes ever more disturbing and seems to mock the characters as they push forward. This device could easily become something more annoying than scary to the viewer, but it is actually much more unsettling than the description would imply. The filmmakers seemed to understand just when to pour on the music and reality tearing sound effects and when to step away from this tool without becoming gimmicky. It is infinitely more effective than scary music stings imbedded in the soundtrack or even altered reality visual cues.
The slow mental disintegration is nicely executed with a combination of solid acting and clever direction.  The scene in which the brother and sister tousle is shot from a distance from another character's POV through shakily held binoculars so that it takes time for the viewer to figure out how bad the situation becomes. This allows for additional tension that would not have been generated in a more conventional and overly shot scene. Another scene involving the discovery of a posed dead body is similarly effective because it is shot from a distance and it again takes the viewer time to catch up with the horror.

Warning: Massive spoiler alert

While the team seems to be suffering the same fate as the original townspeople who walked the trail, Teddy presses on only to discover he has been Mobius stripped right back to the trails head - back at Friar's Rialto movie theater with an usher character who is the same incarnation of evil as the original clerk who gave Teddy the secret documents at the beginning of the story. Teddy then watches a vision of hell play out on the theater's screen with his deserted wife. In essence, he's chosen the escape of his personal project over his wife and friends and is forced to see the ultimate consequence of his decision.
It's not the most accessible message which may explain the wildly mixed reviews I've read from critics and posters. Also, I think another problem people have with the film is the lack of a clearly drawn or overt McGuffin. Most viewers just don't like ambiguity or the unexplained. I enjoyed both the theme, the vagueness and the execution of the film. Clearly, the writer/directors, Holland and Mitton, put some real thought into the script and concept. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for them to make another 'slasher in the woods' type tale or have some other easily accessible story device. I'm glad they didn't go down that trail.

Score 8/10

Sunday, January 1, 2012


 A movie about a bulldozer that gets possessed by an alien intelligence and goes on a rampage sounds awesome and rife with destructive possibilities. Just thinking about a killing machine that can't be bargained with, can't be reasoned with, doesn't feel pity, remorse or fear, and absolutely will not stop ever until you are dead makes me shiver with delight. But best of all, it can't later run for governor. The notion of a heartless, intelligent, unstoppable killing machine didn't start with James Cameron's The Terminator. It may have begun all the way back in 1944 with Theodore Sturgeon's novella Killdozer which would subsequently be adapted into an ABC movie of the week 30 years later. The difference between the movies is Cameron took an idea about a relentless killer machine, threw in a time travel element (courtesy of Harlan Ellison) and ran with it, while the makers of Killdozer basically just squandered a great premise by somehow making it boring. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

At the age of 13, I was heavily into science and speculative fiction in a big way. From legendary writers like Asimov and Heinlein to modern day scribes like Ellison, Silverberg, Bova, etc, I loved 'em all. Adaptations from of these type of writer's works for movies and television were pretty rare, so when I saw a TV guide ad for the Theodore Sturgeon penned Killdozer, I couldn't believe it.

I mean, how could this movie not be the greatest of all time? To an undiscerning adolescent with a budding love of fantastic literature, the movie delivered. There was indeed an alien possessed bulldozer that did scrunch some guys and squish their encampment and vehicles. To my 13-year old entertainment pallette, it was mission accomplished for Killdozer. Thirty seven years later however, I re-watched the film with a bit more of a critical eye and found it wanting in a big, bad, boredozerish way. 

Synopsis: A six man construction crew on a remote island is menaced by an alien-possessed bulldozer.

I can and will forgive a lot in 70's made-for-TV movies, but Killdozer was produced in such a lame hackneyed fashion, it's impossible to look the other way when it comes to its glaring flaws. First and foremost is the awful 70's-type sci-fi electronic music. I'm not talking about cool John Carpenter-like or Tangerine Dream-ish synth stuff, it sounds more like 'be-deep, boop, beep' rocket-to-Mars generic crap. It reminded me very much of the awful beep-filled music from another 70's TV-movie I'd just watched the week before called The Questor Tapes. Sure enough, it was from the same composer - Gil Melle. Melle has done a ton of music for movies and TV with The Night Stalker and The Six Million Dollar Man being among his best works, but he really phoned in the sparse and ridiculous composition for Killdozer. It's the rare soundtrack that is actively annoying but somehow still missed when absent. But for what's suppose to be a suspenseful, action packed thriller, the appropriate soundtrack just never shows up. Instead, Melle lays on the 'be-boop' whenever the supposedly menacing bulldozer shows up, thus rendering it a lot less menacing. If there were ever a sound that is stuck firmly in the 70's/early 80's, it's that science-fiction-y synth sound which as it turns out, Melle helped to pioneer. Thanks a lot Melle.

TV directors tend not to get a lot of the credit for the great shows they work on, but also tend to avoid blame for the clunkers as well. Jerry London was a recognizable director for me just for the sheer amount of television fluff his name has appeared on in the opening credits of mediocre shows over the years. Prior to Killdozer he mainly directed sit-coms like Hogan's Heroes, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. It's clear he was out of his element in directing suspenseful action as the above shot was about the only inspired set-up in the entire movie. There was a distinct lack of tension throughout the film as most of the danger was made predictable by long shots of the killdozer (along with the banal music cues). There needed to be much more inventiveness by the director to create suspense especially when dealing with a piece of heavy equipment which has a diesel engine that can be heard coming from miles away. Sadly, however, London also seemed to have phoned this one in without much thought creating dull and at times ridiculous set pieces.

The one thing I'm very curious about is the writing. Sturgeon's name appears on the teleplay along with someone named Ed MacKillop who's lone credit is Killdozer. Herbert F Solow came up with the adaptation which is one of only three writing credits for him. I have a tough time believing Sturgeon, who wrote classic stuff for television like the Amok Time, Star Trek TOS episode, is mostly responsible for this teleplay which features some very sparse characterizations along with some fantastically bad non-sequiter dialogue. At one point in the story, apropos of nothing, a character blurts out that he once played in the Cotton Bowl. OK, but what's that got to do with the story or character? Maybe, if there were more odd moments like this, the film may have at least been an unintentional campy delight. But the characters were underwritten to such a degree that such information only occasionally bubbles up, likely from a previous draft. For most of the story, the main players just argue a lot and go into denial about what is clearly a rogue bulldozer. The relationships between them are not fleshed out very well at all. Similarly, the action scenes are weak, underwritten or just not thought out. These guys are on an island, but no one suggests avoiding the dozer by going in the ocean. It seems an obvious respite, even if only a temporary escape. How about digging a trench with the other construction equipment? There seemed a lot of alternatives, but the characters always seemed to make the oddest, nonsensical choices.

Lastly, the look of the film was terrible. Indian Dunes is a great place to go off-roading, however, it is a butt-ugly place to shoot a film. With a lot of gray and beige colors, it makes the movie look even more washed out then three decades of film degradation. With a lemon yellow bulldozer and a lush desert island backdrop, the movie should have sported some real eye candy. As is though, it is a seriously drab  and dusty affair.

Warning - the following section contains spoilers.
The lone bright spot, outside of the concept, is the nice cast of the movie. Clint Walker, in the lead role, is a serviceable, tough leader-type accompanied by veteran character actors James Wainwright and Neville Brand as the two main construction crew members. Carl Betz is a kind of Dr McCoy sidekick/conscience type character and Robert Urich appears early as a young "red shirt" member of the crew. Speaking of which, black actor James A Watson also appears briefly to prove comedienne Franklyn Ajaye's point that the brothers tended not to last long in 70's horror movies. The ensemble as a whole do the best they can, but the script is so scattershot, it often makes them appear goofy, especially Wainwright whose character is all over the place.

I hate to rag on a film that I still have a lot of nostalgic love for, but Killdozer just doesn't deliver on its great premise. There are moments here and there, but for the most part, the film is just dull and predictable with character's making some very lame choices. The movie is not completely without merit, but it could have been so much better it those involved had cared a bit more about what they were making. It is available on YouTube in its entirety at the link below.

Score 5/10