"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 31, 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes

The 1980s was a fertile period for fantasy films and Disney tried to capitalize on this in the early part of the decade with an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was a turbulent time for the Mouse House as they struggled with making commercially successful live-action and animated movies. So, they decided to take a chance on a few projects that did not originate in-house and were not typical Disney fare, including Tex (1982), Tron (1982) and this Bradbury adaptation (1983). The author adapted his own work and legendary director Jack Clayton (The Innocents) came on board, but the project was plagued with several post-production problems that threatened its integrity. This is apparent in the amped up, special effects-laden finale, but it does little to diminish the power of the film.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is narrated by Will Halloway as an adult (Arthur Hill) reflecting on his misadventures as a 12-year-old (Vidal Peterson) with best friend Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) during October in the small town of Green Town, Illinois. We see them playing together after school and Clayton really captures the carefree life that kids enjoy at that age, how “you want to run forever through the fields, because up ahead, 10,000 pumpkins lie waiting to be cut,” as the voiceover narration says. In a few minutes, Clayton captures a bygone era so brilliantly that you can almost touch the leaves or smell the crisp, cold air. The film is drenched in autumnal atmosphere, thanks to legendary cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Rumble Fish), so that you want to run forever and can almost smell the smoke in the air as the voiceover narration informs us.

Traveling lightning rod salesman Tom Fury (Royal Dano) tells Jim that his house is in need of protection. While Tom is trying to make a sale, he is also foreshadowing the danger that will threaten Jim and his friend later on. Something Wicked offers a loving, romantic look at small-town life as we meet key townsfolk who all know each other. This sets up the fragility of the town’s infrastructure and how one dark storm can threaten it, giving Will (and us) his “first glimpses into the fearful needs of the human heart,” as his older self sagely observes. Clayton introduces all of these personable pillars of the community so that we become invested in them and this establishes just what is at stake. This pays off later on so that we are put on edge when we see them in peril as their very dreams and desires are preyed upon in order to take their souls.

One night, a train brings a carnival to town. Jim and Will sneak out of their respective homes to take a look at the train as it arrives. All the tents and attractions are erected simultaneously as if by magic. The boys soon meet Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), the proprietor of the Pandemonium Carnival and an enigmatic figure full of mystery and magic. We get a little teaser of this when Jim and Will first meet him and notice a constantly moving and swirling tattoo on his arm. They also witness other strange magic at work, like a striking carousel that goes in the opposite direction, causing those that ride it to get younger. Mr. Dark subsequently uses the Dust Witch (Pam Grier), “the most beautiful woman in the world,” to bewitch and seduce the men in the town.

Something Wicked is chock full of gorgeous cinematography, like the shot of the carnival at night in silhouette while dark storm clouds gather overhead. There is also disturbing imagery like when Jim and Will discover the latter’s head decapitated by a guillotine or a menacing green mist that pursues the boys as they run home or the onslaught of spiders that invade Jim’s bedroom, reaching a nightmarish pitch until they wake up.

Thankfully, Shawn Carson and Vidal Peterson aren’t the typical precocious child actors, but instead deliver thoughtful performances as our adventurous protagonists that become involved in a battle for the very soul of their town hanging in the balance as they must stop Mr. Dark with the help of Will’s father, Charles (Jason Robards), the town’s librarian.

He’s a wise, older man with a heart condition and Clayton offers a visual cue as to the man’s fragile health by placing a coffin in the background of a scene with the librarian looking rather apprehensive in the foreground. The always reliable Jason Robards anchors the film with his trademark gravitas as he plays a man full of regret over things in his life he didn’t do. There is a nice scene between Charles and Will where he confesses his regrets. It is a touching moment with a tinge of melancholy that sets up the librarian’s desire to redeem himself. Robards brings a world-weariness to a man that has never left his town and never took any real chances in life.

Jonathan Pryce is well-cast as the malevolent Mr. Dark, using black magic to take the souls of the townsfolk. The actor has loads of charisma with a commanding voice that has a cultured, Shakespearean air to it. He has nice scene with Robards where Mr. Dark exerts his influence to question Charles about Jim and Will’s whereabouts. It’s great to see two talented actors like them square off against each other. They manage to top this scene with another where they quote literature to each other as a way of verbal sparring with some exquisitely written dialogue being brought wonderfully to life.

The roots for Something Wicked This Way Comes originated from Ray Bradbury’s childhood: “When I was seven years old, one of my cousins died, way out in the farm country. At three a.m., I would wake up and hear a locomotive passing by in the distance. For me, that was like the sound of the dead going by in the night. I never forgot it.” He always loved circuses and magic and this resulted in a short story entitled, “The Black Ferris” which was first published in pulp magazine Weird Tales in May 1948. Ten years later, actor Gene Kelly wanted to work with the author. The two men met and after screening Invitation to Dance (1956), Bradbury wrote an 80-page treatment entitled, Dark Carnival. Kelly wanted to direct it, but was unable to secure financing and it was shelved.

Bradbury took his treatment and adapted it into a novel called Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962. Over the years it sold more than 18 million copies and Hollywood came calling with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler buying the rights and the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Mark Rydell and Steven Spielberg considered to direct at one point or another. Peter Douglas, son of actor Kirk Douglas, met Bradbury in a bookstore in 1975 and subsequently bought the film rights to the novel. Douglas made a deal with Paramount Pictures and then-president David Picker, but with the stipulation that Bradbury, who had a close affinity for his novel, would adapt it himself. However, Picker left, according to Clayton, after an “alleged feud” between him and studio chairman Barry Diller and his replacement wasn’t interested in the project. After a year of it being in turnaround, Douglas was in danger of losing his option on the book and his father stepped in, giving him the money to renew the option.

Douglas met with director Jack Clayton, who was interested, and then approached Walt Disney Productions in 1981. Studio executives were looking for “something unusual,” according to Bradbury, and agreed to bankroll the film. The author had always wanted to work at Disney. In 1962, Bradbury had sent Walt Disney a copy of his novel and got a letter back saying that he liked it, but felt it wasn’t right for the studio. While working on the screenplay with Clayton, Bradbury realized that he had to be ruthless and this resulted in omissions, the diminishing of screen-time for characters he loved, like the Dust Witch, and images from the book that they felt could not be translated onto film.

Almost $3.5 million (from a $16 million budget) worth of sets were constructed by production designer Richard MacDonald (Cannery Row). It was a challenge casting child actors for the roles of the two main children because Clayton preferred to work with kids that had very little experience. Principal photography began in September 1981 on the back lot of Disney Studios. Originally, Clayton had planned to shoot in a town in Texas, but it was too close to rainy season and shooting on a back lot allowed them to stay on schedule. During filming, Bradbury kept his distance, but snuck onto the set “at sunset, just to stand in the band cupola … It was just great to be surrounded by this small town, I felt I was home.” Shooting lasted 63 days, which Clayton felt was too fast, especially dealing with special effects.

Almost a year after principal photography ended, several scenes were reshot and Disney spent $3 million on post-production special effects, utilizing the same computers that created the effects for Tron. It took so long because during filming, Disney’s most experienced visual effects artists were busy with Tron and during that time the effects tests were always wrong. It was only when they were done with Tron that Clayton was able to get proper effects done for his film. A few years after the film’s release, actor Jonathan Pryce was rather candid about the problems the production ran into. He said that Something Wicked “wasn’t conceived as a special effects film because the budget originally wasn’t there.” He claimed that Clayton originally envisioned a film about atmosphere “implied by people’s fears, and through the actors and acting,” and this resulted in Disney executives panicking because they assumed audiences wanted to see a special effects-heavy film like Star Wars (1977). Pryce also claimed that the studio spent millions of dollars on computer graphics that weren’t used in the final cut.

Something Wicked This Way Comes enjoyed mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Without Jason Robards as the father who has disappointed Will, and is given a chance to redeem himself through the evil that the carnival creates, the movie might be nothing but eerie.” However, in his review for Starlog, author Alan Dean Foster wrote, “Something Wicked gives us a charming remembrance of Midwestern boyhood, but it doesn’t terrify us. The evil in Something Wicked does not go bump in the night without first saying, ‘Excuse me.’”

Some films only affect you as a child, benefitting from being seen at an early, impressionable age, and lose their power as you get older. This is not the case with Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is an enthralling dark fantasy – a horror film for children yet will appeal to adults as well. Careful what you wish for because you just might get it is the film’s central theme. There is no easy way to realizing one’s dreams. They should be achieved in their own natural way, but that should be left up to the individual, not dangled in front of them like some kind of carrot, dazzling them so that they don’t think of the consequences. Something Wicked is a fantasy horror film not afraid to expose children to the darkness of the world and doesn’t do it some sanitized way, but one that put its youthful protagonists in real danger while imparting important life lessons.


Lofficier, Randy and Jean-Marc. “Jack Clayton: Directing Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Starlog. June 1983.

Lofficier, Randy and Jean-Marc. “Ray Bradbury: Weaving New Dreams and Old Nightmares at Disney.” Starlog. July 1983.

Pirani, Adam. “Jonathan Pryce: The Boy from Brazil.” Starlog. April 1986.

Szalay, Jeff. “Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Starlog. May 1983.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Strange is the best television show you’ve probably never heard of let alone seen. It’s one and only season aired originally on BBC One in the United Kingdom during 2003 and was rebroadcast in the United States on Showtime and later Chiller. Created by Andrew Marshall, the show was an intelligently written supernatural mystery in the vein of The X-Files only if Fox Mulder was a defrocked priest instead of an FBI agent. Each episode featured our protagonist John Strange (Richard Coyle) investigating a demon living among us in human form with the help of a nurse named Jude (Samantha Janus). They are aided in their endeavors by Kevin (Timmy Lang), a young man with Down’s syndrome and psychic abilities, and a resourceful hacker named Toby (Andrew-Lee Potts). A recurring antagonist, of sorts, is Canon Black (Ian Richardson), an imposing figure who disapproves of Strange’s methods and who sometimes impedes his investigations and sometimes helps with them depending on how they benefit his own agenda, which remains tantalizingly elusive with morsels doled out over the episodes.

When a priest is brought into Jude’s ward suffering from a stroke, Strange contacts her. It seems he was doing research for Strange about a demon known as Azal who can manipulate electricity. Naturally, Jude is skeptical of Strange’s admission that the Devil really exists until the demon’s presence strikes a little too close to home. “Kaa-Jin,” featuring a demon that summons its master by assembling body for it host from body parts from different bodies, is the weakest episode of the series in that it isn’t all that compelling with a rather conventional resolution. Fortunately, Strange rebounds with one of its strongest episodes, “Costa Burra” about a spectral horse and carriage that takes a person so that a banshee can stay in our realm. This episode offers an interesting twist in that the demon is remorseful of what it has done.

Known for his comedic turn in the popular British sitcom Coupling, Richard Coyle gets to show off his dramatic chops as the damaged and driven Strange. The actor manages to tread a fine line between vulnerability and obsession with occasional comic asides. He also has the same knack that David Duchovny had in The X-Files of conveying a lot of expositional dialogue about the show’s mythology in a compelling way. He also plays well off of Janus and the show wisely avoids romantically pairing them up while still showing that their characters care for each other deeply.

Samantha Janus is Coyle’s ideal foil as the skeptical woman of science and a single mother raising her sometimes delinquent young boy while holding down her nursing job and helping Strange on his investigations. She’s beautiful and smart, but unlike Scully in The X-Files, is more open to the supernatural, especially when experiencing it first hand. She’s also no damsel in distress, even saving the lives of Strange and her son by vanquishing the demon in the pilot episode.

Ian Richardson’s Canon Black is a wonderfully entertaining red herring. Initially, it seems like he’s the primary recurring antagonist, but, as the show progresses there’s more to his character than it seems. What appears to be ambivalence is actually ambiguity as he has his own agenda. The actor also brings a wicked sense of humor, mostly in the form of withering glares and sarcastic put-downs he directs at his young assistant. Richardson can change tone on a dime and his character is one of the most interesting in the show as Black’s priorities seem to be maintaining plausible deniability about the presence of demons in public, but privately he does everything in his power to keep their existence a secret.

A pre-Primeval Andrew-Lee Potts plays the small but significant role of Toby, the horny hacker that finds information online for Strange. He provides much welcome comic relief in the form of banter with Strange and Potts plays well off of Coyle in their scenes together.

Marshall does a brilliant job in the pilot episode of not only establishing the world of the show, but also introducing the key characters that inhabit it. He also sets the tone – a mix of supernatural horror with well-timed moments of levity that act as a safety valve from the tense mood that is pervasive throughout. He also does a good job of establishing the show’s mythology: the Devil exists and has many demons that run around doing his bidding each with their own specific abilities. It is up to Strange and his allies to uncover these demons and stop them.

Where The X-Files adhered to a monster-of-the-week format interwoven with a recurring alien conspiracy thread, Strange is much more focused with a specific demon every episode building up to the reveal of why Strange was defrocked and the circumstances behind his wife’s death. In this respect, it more closely resembles Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer T.V. show. I like that Strange and Jude discover the various demons through legwork in the form of research and deductive reasoning, much like the characters in Whedon’s show. For a show based in the supernatural, it uses visual effects sparingly, usually for the climactic showdown with the demon, instead placing an emphasis on character and story.

In 1999, writer Andrew Marshall, known mostly as a comedy writer, came up with the idea for a T.V. show about the Devil residing somewhere in England and someone trying to find him, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work until he developed it into a concept where demons live in the city in human form: “It rather conveniently fitted in with the Agatha Christie-type plots, where you had to guess who was the demon this week.” He was inspired by ancient myths and legends featuring demons.

Marshall wrote every episode with Joe Ahearne (Ultraviolet) and Simon Massey (Ballykissangel) directing with filming taking place in Ealing Studios and on location in parts of North London during a particularly cold winter. The pilot episode aired in 2002 and drew a solid 5.83 million viewers, which convinced BBC executives to greenlight a full series of six episodes. Marshall had only written six scripts, one of which was used for the pilot, and wrote a new episode that acted as a second pilot episode for viewers who hadn’t seen the first one while still continuing the story for those that had. Unfortunately, the airdate was pushed back several times for various reasons before finally being broadcast in May 2003.

The second episode alienated viewers that didn’t understand what was going on, but still got decent ratings. The ratings dropped over subsequent episodes before leveling out at just over three million viewers. BBC took Strange from its prime time Saturday night slot to after the movie that aired that night. They also stopped advertising it and the show was eventually cancelled.

Unfortunately, Strange only lasted one season, ending because of poor ratings. The last episode concluded with a cliffhanger that left Strange’s life hanging in the balance and the small fanbase clamoring for a resolution that Marshall penned in a short story on a fansite. It’s a shame that the BBC didn’t handle this show better because it was smartly written and well-acted. It deserved more of a chance to find an audience and time for Marshall to delve into the fascinating backstories of its main characters.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The First Power

The late 1980s to the early 1990s was a good time for Lou Diamond Phillips. La Bamba (1987) was his breakout movie with an inspired performance as legendary rock ‘n’ roller Richie Vallens. He capitalized on this newfound fame by delivering a gritty performance in Stand and Deliver (1988), but his most commercially successfully period was Young Guns (1988) and its sequel (1990). He parlayed the clout garnered from these movies to star in The First Power (1990), a B-movie fusion of supernatural horror and neo-noir that was critically mauled, but a hit at the box office, more than doubling its budget. Written and directed by Robert Resnikoff, the movie looks like an average ‘80s cop picture with a typically intense performance by Phillips and a charismatically creepy turn by Jeff Kober playing the antagonist.

A nun (Elizabeth Arlen) warns her superiors about the rise of cult killings in the United States as a sign that Satan is getting more powerful. They dismiss her claims and send her back to the convent from whence she came. As it so happens, there is a serial killer known as the Pentagram Killer (Jeff Kober) on the loose in Los Angeles who carves a, you guessed it, pentagram into the bodies of his victims.

Russell Logan (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the police detective determined to catch this nutbag, but has been unable to figure out the killer’s next target until he gets a phone call from a mysterious woman claiming that she knows. Resnikoff films the caller in noirish shadows so that her identity is obscured. One night, Logan and his partner Oliver Franklin (Mykelti Williamson) are patrolling streets three nights into their stakeout and their brief exchange not only conveys the camaraderie between the two men, but that Logan is skeptical of the supernatural angle to these killings while his partner is a believer.

Of course, his superiors don’t buy Logan’s theory or his anonymous source, but they’re soon eating their words when one of the undercover cops (Sue Giosa) is nabbed by the killer. Fortunately, Logan and Franklin arrive just in time with the former pursuing the killer through backstreets and ending with a showdown in a warehouse. Logan manages to prevail but is stabbed multiple times in the process.

The sicko is identified as Patrick Channing who is described by friends and co-workers as, big surprise, a quiet, mild-mannered guy that was good at his job. At Channing’s trial, he is all smiles as if he knows something everyone else doesn’t. He confronts Logan on the steps of the courthouse and after joking around cryptically tells the cop that he “owes him one.” Channing looks Logan creepily in the eyes and says, “See ya around, buddy boy.”

Sure enough, Channing gets the death penalty, which prompts Logan’s anonymous source to call again and warn him to stop the execution. He’s killed, but Logan has a nightmare that the killer escapes from the gas chamber as well as seeing things that aren’t there when he’s awake. To make matters worse, the undercover cop that Logan saved is killed in Channing’s preferred style of choice. This provokes Logan’s anonymous tipster to finally surface – Tess Seaton (Tracy Griffith), a beautiful professional psychic that claims Channing’s spirit has been set free and this has enabled him to start killing again.

Naturally, Logan doesn’t believe her, but when some random junkie is brought in and identified as the killer of the undercover cop, something doesn’t seem right and he hears Channing’s voice when he confronts the catatonic derelict. All of these coincidences, plus even more weird occurrences, spook Logan enough so that he decides to team up with Tess to track down and stop Channing once and for all.

Lou Diamond Phillips dresses like a typical maverick cop complete with cowboy boots, jeans and a trenchcoat while spouting lines like, “I can do anything I want!” but the actor wisely tones down these clichés when Logan is taken out of his comfort zone as he transforms from cynic to cautious believer. As the movie progresses, Phillips does a nice job of showing how his character’s confidence is shaken after witnessing several bizarre things he can’t explain. The actor adopts a haunted look as Logan begins to doubt his sanity. To prepare for the role, Phillips rode around with Detective Bob Grogan, the primary investigator in the Hillside Strangling cases, in an unmarked police car and observed him at work.

Tracy Griffith is good as a professional psychic driven to stop Channing when she starts seeing him after his death. She’s a proactive character and a good foil for Logan. Tess doesn’t come across as some kind of New Age flake, but a grounded person who speaks matter-of-factly about the spirit world. At times, Tess brings down Logan’s defenses and the two actors play well off each other in these scenes and in others as he is the jaded cop and she is the true believer.

Known mostly for playing dastardly villains throughout his career, Jeff Kober gets to sink his teeth into a juicy role he clearly relishes playing judging from the shit-eating grin he gives throughout the movie. It’s a larger than life role that all allows the actor to play broadly and have fun with it.

The First Power received mostly negative reviews from critics. USA Today gave the film one out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “This is the kind of film that feels compelled to explain its title long after you care; that has its hero carry bigger and bigger guns, even when they’ll do no good against a supernatural villain.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “Power is so shopworn and imitative, you don’t need Lou’s psychic buddy to tell what is about to happen.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The action is fairly consistent and some of the special effects are good, but the whole thing is seriously stupid.”

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “For all its purposed concern for spirituality, The First Power is a hollow, bone-crunching, blood-splattered business.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The movie is really just a squalid cop thriller with occult clichés.” However, the Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Robert Resnikoff’s lively first film is basically a shock-studded chase sequence, enlivened by dialogue that is occasionally quite funny.”

The first third of The First Power follows typical cop thriller conventions, but as Resnikoff gradually introduces supernatural elements and they begin to dominate the movie becomes more interesting. This results in some impressively staged action sequences, like when halfway through Logan corners Channing on a rooftop only for the killer to jump off, plummeting ten stories and land on his feet. It’s an audaciously staged stunt and also helps Logan believe that the supernatural is playing a part in Channing’s actions. There’s another nice bit where Logan and Tess confront Channing in a run-down hotel only for the killer to tear down ceiling fan and use it as a weapon. It isn’t very realistic, but does look cool.

The First Power does suffer a bit from The Terminator (1984) syndrome in that once Channing is resurrected and starts hopping from body to body he becomes a seemingly unstoppable killing machine much like The Hidden (1987) a few years before only it dabbled in science fiction instead of horror. There’s also very little character development and this leaves it up to Phillips and Griffith to use their charisma to get us to care about what happens to Logan and Tess, which they just manage to do. Resnikoff has created an efficient thriller trimmed of any narrative fat with a deliberately ambiguous ending that feels a bit like a cheat. While it won’t win any awards for originality, The First Power is an entertaining thriller and a supernatural noir that anticipates the likes of Lord of Illusions (1997) and The Ninth Gate (1999).


Smith, Harry. “Lou Diamond Phillips, Actor on The First Power.” CBS This Morning. April 4, 1990.