Thursday, April 29, 2010

The X-Files, Millennium, and Mario Bava?

It might not be much of a secret to people who have followed the work I do with The X-Files Lexicon, of my obsessional passion for Italian genre director Mario Bava. I regard Bava with rather high esteem, and his work reflects an example, a philosophy in action, of another favorite film director, who happens to have an exceptional intellect and fascinating mind, Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II and VI, as well as the terrific genre film, Time After Time. Meyer has often argued that "art thrives on limitations," and I feel that this philosophy is equally demonstrated throughout The X-Files, Millennium, as well as the overall body of work of the Maestro himself, Bava.

Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)

Since the time that I posted a thread on the Lexicon Forum recommending Bava websites, interest in that thread has remained high which just validates that others must share a curiosity about Bava’s work. While Italian genre directors Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci tend to be more celebrated, and were more commercially successful than the great director, Bava laid the groundwork that allowed for their later success. While I can’t argue that Bava’s visual sensibilities influenced the cinematographers that worked on The X-Files and Millennium, I can speculate that there was a second or third generation of influence.

The X-Files – Gender Bender

Having just made that point, I realize that comparisons could be made with any filmmaker. Chris Carter has cited Silence of the Lambs as an inspiration for the series, and of course, Tak Fujimoto’s visual sensibility in Demme’s classic cannot be ignored, but it becomes difficult to just gloss over or ignore, the visual sensibility and style of Bava’s work in subsequent film artists. No one creatively lives in a vacuum, and unconscious influences come into play.

About Mario Bava

Throughout his career, Bava embodied the philosophy of art thriving on limitations. He is now seen by many as the Italian Hitchcock of his generation. Mario Bava was born on July 30, 1914 in San Remo, Italy. He was the son of cinematographer and visual effects technician Eugenio Bava. The boy was so entrenched within the Italian film industry, and the influence of his father was so profound, that Mario gave up his initial desire to become a painter to pursue a career as a cinematographer. Bava started as an assistant, working alongside such cinematographers as Massimo Terzano and Jacquez Tourneur. Bava became a cinematographer in his own right by 1939. In 1956, after director Riccardo Freda left the project he was working on, I, Vampiri (The Devil’s Commandment), due to a dispute with the producers, Bava was forced to finish the film. Delivering the project on time and finished, Bava gained enough of a good reputation for saving pictures, that by the time Freda abandoned another project, 1959’s Caltiki, The Immortal Monster, Bava finished that film as well. It was during this period that Bava was the cinematographer of the Hercules films that starred Steve Reeves. Due to his impressive work, Galatea Films offered him to direct a film of his choice. That film, The Mask of Satan (Black Sunday) (1960), became of one the most groundbreaking debuts in the history of genre cinema, and made a star out of Barbara Steele. The film itself which was loosely inspired by Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol’s 19th Century short story, "Viy", was one of the most unique tales about vampirism and witchcraft ever produced. It demonstrated his mastery of filming in black and white, as well as crafting the template for the kind of period gothic horror films he was known for.

Clip from Black Sunday

Yet Bava was never a one-note filmmaker. He followed Black Sunday with a pair of sword and sandal adventures, Hercules in the Haunted World with Christopher Lee, and Erik The Conqueror with Cameron Mitchell (1961). He then produced one of the first Giallo thrillers, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962), starring a young John Saxon. In 1963, Bava directed his horror anthology The Three Faces of Fear (Black Sabbath) with Boris Karloff in one segment. This film is often considered his next masterpiece, and considered one of the best anthologies produced. The lesser known The Whip and The Body is regarded as one of the most darkly romantic horror tales produced, a ghostly psychological tale that starred Christopher Lee as a sadistic aristocrat, tormenting the stunning Daliah Lavi. Lee’s character, Kurt, had been engaged to Nevenka (Lavi) but was cast out by the family, when his affairs and sadistic desires drove another girl to suicide. Kurt returns, along with his sadistic ways, until he is murdered by unseen forces. Nevenka is driven to madness by sightings of Kurt’s ghost which builds to its darkly ironic ending.

In 1964, Bava tackled his first Western, Road to Fort Alamo, and his next Giallo thriller Blood and Black Lace (Six Women for the Murderer), which set the template for future slasher films, yet the fundamental difference between this film, aside from a wonderful visual flare, is the fact that there’s a dark, ironic, fatalism that separates it from later fare. In 1965, Bava directed his first Science Fiction horror film, Planet of the Vampires (The Demon Planet), a film whose influence could be very much seen in the first half of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). 1966 was a very prolific year, seeing another Western produced, Savage Gringo, a comedy sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, another sword and sandal adventure, Knives of the Avenger, which manages to be more reflective than his previous sword and sandal epics, as well as another gothic horror film that is regarded highly by Bava enthusiasts, Kill, Baby... Kill (Operation Fear), a film that even Martin Scorsese has cited as an influence. In 1967, Producer Dino De Laurentis brought in Bava to direct Diabolik (Danger: Diabolik), which was based on an Italian comic book, co-starring John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell, Adolfo Celi, and Terry Thomas, as well as the only time that Bava worked with composer Ennio Morricone. The film was released at the start of 1968. Many comic book enthusiasts regard the film as one of the best adaptations ever, in part due to Bava’s understanding as to why the comic book format works. Diabolik is an anti-hero, and technically a terrorist, and yet outwits the authorities throughout most of the film, and considered by many to be one of the most enjoyable films he directed.

Clip from Diabolik

The general consensus is that Bava’s work started to go into a gradual decline from this period onward, in part due to struggles with securing financial backers, as well as having to pander to the type of exploitation fare that was marketable. In 1969, Bava directed another Giallo thriller with a clever psychological twist, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, as well as a sex comedy with a Rashomon theme, Four Times That Night. In 1970, he tackled a comedy western Roy Colt & Winchester Jack, as well as another thriller, Five Dolls for an August Moon. 1971 saw a film that would have a great influence, Bay of Blood (Twist of the Death Nerve). Filmmakers Sean Cunningham and Steve Miner admitted borrowing heavily from Bava’s film for Friday the 13th and its sequel. Yet, in spite of the fact that the film featured some brutal murders, there was a dark irony and fatalism to the film that distinguished it from the usual slasher film, therefore the various characters committing the mayhem are driven to do so out of greed.

Bava went back to a gothic horror film in 1972 with Baron Blood, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek film that co-starred Joseph Cotton and Elke Sommer. That next year, due to the commercial success of Baron Blood, he produced one of his best films, Lisa and the Devil in 1973, a Euro art house film that starred Telly Salvalas, and again Elke Sommer in a film that played like an extended dream or nightmare. In what should have been a triumph for Bava turned into a humiliation when the film was re-cut and new footage added to pander to the Exorcism craze, with the inferior House of Exorcism. 1974 saw the production of Rabid Dogs (Kidnapped), a taut crime thriller whose sensibilities predate the work of Quentin Tarantino. The film is more grounded in reality than his previous work, with one of the most bitterly ironic statements about human nature he was to make throughout the body of his work, but the film ran into trouble when its financial backer died, and the film was put on hold, not to be fully realized until it finally saw the light of day in 1996. His last film, co-directed with his son Lamberto Bava, Shock in 1977, was another contemporary horror film touching on the same themes of The Whip and the Body. That involved an uneasy relationship between a mother and her very young son, and the death of the father who was a criminal. Mario Bava died on April 25, 1980 due to a heart attack, just after providing visual effects to his contemporary, Dario Argento, for the film Inferno.

Bava once commented about his work and what drives his interests:

"My fantasies are always horrible. For example, I love my young daughter more than anything else in the world, but when I dream of her it’s always frightening. Do you want to know what character is haunting my subconscious? A violinist who serenades the woman he loves by playing on the tendons of his arms. Everyday life works on my imagination. Just this morning I found a letter--still sealed--from a friend who has since died, written to me ten years ago. It was like receiving a letter from a dead person. What would you do in my place? I burned it..."

Bava’s films were often criticized for the artificial aspects of their visuals, and yet the ends did justify the means. Many critics missed the point; there was a dream-like, heightened reality to his best work. Due to his background as second generation filmmaker, he had such a profound understanding of the medium of his craft, and this could be no better illustrated than in the black and white photographic work of The Mask of Satan. Nearly all old school cinematographers understood that color registers differently in the emulsion of black and white photography. The old masters understood this and used it to their advantage. For example, the work of photographer Authur Edeson, and make-up artist Jack Pierce in Frankenstein (1931). For the ending sequence where Princess Asa tries to take the life-force of Katia, the effect of her rapid emaciation was done with special make-up and a light dimming switcher with different color gels, one of countless examples of his mastery, as well with using glass-mattes, cutouts, and miniatures to create photo realistic visuals.

For a long time Bava’s work was dismissed as exploitation fare, and it was due to the acknowledged influences on Bava from directors like Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and Quentin Tarantino, as well as the life long and tireless advocacy of critics like Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth, that his films have been reexamined. We will continue with examples of the Bava influence on The X-Files and Millennium.

To be continued...

Special thanks to Xscribe for her assistance. X-Files and Millennium still images courtesy of Chrisnu, Most stills from Bava films were primarily taken from this site, as well various sources, You Tube clips courtesy of Giantfish2, and Monster4josh.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The 'M' Word

Script review of unpublished Darin Morgan script for The Night Stalker – "The ‘M’ Word"

The seminal early 70s series, The Night Stalker, which had a profound impact on Chris Carter during his development of The X-Files, was a show that involved Carl Kolchak’s pursuits into the unknown, usually this involved a Monster of the week, To anyone who is unaware, Frank Spotnitz developed a new retooling of the series for ABC in 2005, that lasted only a half season unfortunately. The obligatory Monster was a major component of both versions of this series, and so it was inevitable that someone would tackle this conceit head on. That person would be none other than Darin Morgan.

One of the greatest misfortunes within the cancellation of Frank Spotnitz's take on the classic series that originally starred Darin McGavin, The Night Stalker, was the missed opportunity of seeing another Morgan script get produced. That script, "The 'M' Word", examines elements behind the mythology of the Monster. One of the more insightful comments that Robert Shearman offered in his interview was the following:

"I think that Darin Morgan is a brilliant iconoclast. I think that what Darin Morgan liked doing was sort of destroying stuff. He does it very, very well in Millennium actually. There's that great episode, Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense, but that's wonderful because actually, what it really does, it looks at Millennium: The series, and it holds up to the light and Darin Morgan points out everything that he thinks is wrong with it."

With this script, Darin took the same approach with The Night Stalker, held it up to the light and pointed out it's absurdities, as well as the absurdities in life. Yet, Morgan was not just riffing, out of disrespect, on the genres he satires, he has pointed out in past interviews that he is not intending to write satire, but like Mark Twain, he points out the ironies and tragedies found in many people’s lives.

The script begins with a full moon, a pair of stoned kids, on a mountain trail, are talking about Werewolves, when upon hearing a scream, they find a Park Ranger being attacked by something that can’t be described. After the creature escapes, the kids and the ranger discover a body that’s half devoured. Reed inquires to the ranger about what happened, who explains he was warning the victim about wandering the trails at night, before they are both attacked. Reed assumes it was a mountain Lion, but the pair of stoner kids insists that wasn’t the case. Enter in Carl Kolchak, who takes them at face value that something other than a mountain lion was responsible.

This begins one of the brilliant themes in the first couple of acts in the script, differing points of view about what was perceived, everyone describes the creature differently, again this Rashomon theme has played out before with The X-Files, “Bad Blood”, for example. Reed and Kolchak have an incredulous exchange before the stoners arrive at a description that what they saw was reptilian. While Reed is questioning the grieving mother, an older man observes Reed and Kolchak, while, muttering "Why?"

Already the script seems to be making a reference towards a phrase from Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ – "This is not happening!" Even the Sherriff is annoyed with Kolchak until they stumble on a lair in a secluded area that is piled with half eaten human remains. At the Beacon, Kolchak asks illustrator Whitley to sketch a description of the creature. Reed manages the assistance of a Beacon staffer with a contact for an animal expert, while Kolchak uses the same staffer to identify the creature sketch as something resembling a horny toad. The staffer further explains that these reptiles shoot blood out of their eye sockets as a form of defense. Then, Kolchak is dismissed by his editor, Vincenzo, about the monster story.

After the Monster has terrorized a hooker named Babycat, whom has escaped, Kolchak interviews her, Babycat adds that the Monster was wearing underwear. After another encounter with Vincenzo, Reed reveals evidence that personal effects were found with another victim, and that the monster is quite human after-all. Kolchak follows McManus to the result of another attack, here is where there is another example of Darin’s brilliant abilities as a writer in destroying the very structure of a show he is writing. During Kolchak’s monologue, there’s a montage of Kolchak and McManus walking through alley way’s, they stop at a hot dog stand, and the monologue stops as they eat, then continues when they walk, thus poking fun at the monologue technique of the series. McManus and Kolchak debate over if they can call this creature a monster, or if that work was already taken in Frankenstein, another post modern reexamining of pop culture. McManus suggests "Lizardo", which again harkens back to the circus freak / Barnum theme of "Humbug", or could be a nod to Chris Carter’s own “Mutato” from "The Post-Modern Prometheus" episode.

McManus and Kolchak find another body, and while taking pictures, give chase to the "Lizardo" suspect, they lose the creature, but it reaches McManus and sprays him with blood, after McManus collects himself they continue the chase to find a man in a port-a-potty, the same man who was mumbling "Why?", and he reveals himself to be Guy Mann. Back at the Beacon, they can’t identify anything in the roll of pictures they have taken, but the sequence deftly illustrates an aspect of what happens with people who read into anything concerning with photo evidence of the paranormal, seeing something that isn't there. Kolchak suggests to McManus to not wash the blood off of his soiled shirt, so that it can be analised for evidence. After an exchange of catch-up with Reed, they re-visit the Ranger with further questions, as well as to identify the character known as Guy Mann, at this point, normally this should be the red-herring to the reader of something amiss regarding the Ranger. Kolchak manages to "borrow" the Ranger's bloody shirt from the first attack.

After another police report, they visit the manager of a seedy hotel, with facial cuts and a destroyed room from the suspect they have been pursuing. The man is clearly upset about something, and there’s an exchange that has Darin’s typical ironic humor.

There was mention of a “Monster”?

He had the nerve to call me that, right before he
conks me on the head with a chair. I only asked
him to pay his bill. That makes me a monster?

Of course not.

Obviously. Now, please – go away, or I’ll kill you.

Kolchak heads to his car, but after finding a hotel room open, investigates, finds a pill bottle on a night table prescribed to “Guy Mann” from a Dr. Rumanovich. It’s hard to say if this is a word play on Rumination, but this character does just that, as he explains to Kolchak, one of countless Dragon slaying mythologies, and points out to Kolchak that it is easier to believe in monsters, then to believe monsters are within us, in a later scene. Kolchak finds a crawlspace in the hotel that leads him back to the manager’s office, Kolchak manipulates the manager into telling his story, of finding this lizard like creature residing in one of his rooms, who sees the thing transform into Guy Mann.

Reed finds “Lizardo”, Guy at a Monster Donut, which Kolchak races to, only to find Guy has escaped again, after trashing the shop. She also reveals that the police have just arrested the murderer. Kolchak finds Guy Mann at a cemetery, studying a sculpture of Saint George slaying the Dragon. Guy asks Kolchak “Why?” in a touching scene.


Because I don’t understand, We go through all
of the drudgery and heartbreak in life…just to
end up here?

It doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it?

It doesn’t make any sense, nothing will ever make
sense to me again.

Guy reveals he learned a few days earlier that everyone dies. This is where the story takes a brilliant 90 degree turn, and twists the monster mythology, as well as a reverse of the Werewolf origin. After a failed attempt by Guy to try and have Kolchak kill him, in the fabled manner of Saint George, Guy explains that his natural state is as a giant horned lizard, but he was attacked by a human, and bitten several days earlier, he was attacked by the Park Ranger, who has been responsible for the, what could only be described as psychotic cannibal attacks, terrible murders. That these transformations are not only physical but mental as well, Guy becomes self-aware and Guy has been appalled at the state of being human.

The character is baffled by clothing, or having a job, which he manages to secure a job through B.S., or feelings of lust, or infatuation, in this case the hooker, Babycat, who in actuality is a Transvestite, as well as Guy explaining his version on the assault of the hotel manager.

Daily, mundane things we take for granted, Guy looks at with horror.

Guy even wants to take revenge on the person who did this to him, which he realizes isn’t healthy, and which is why he went to Dr. Rumanovich, but the doctor offered no solutions. When Guy does find the Park ranger, it is to his horror that he sees another attack. Noting that the attack by a human was far more savage than anything he’s witnessed by his fellow animal companions.

The Script offers several clever twists, and while I won’t elaborate on the final, it manages to have us reexamine our assumptions. While I can’t say “The ‘M’ Word” is completely on par with Darin’s other X-Files and Millennium opus’s, it does have countless moments of brilliance. You can download a PDF file of the script from the interactive material on The Night Stalker: Complete Series DVD.

To close, from the reoccurring gag line: "Did it have one eye, or three?"