Doom Patrol

In the marvelous HBO miniseries, The Outsider, one of my favorite characters is Holly Gibney, a borderline autistic investigator, who clearly operates in a slightly different reality than most of us. In one of the last scenes, after defeating the Big Bad, it asks Holly how she recognized it. To paraphrase (because, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’m remembering it right) her answer, she replied, “An outsider can always recognize another outsider.” I’m not sure that one needs to be an outsider to enjoy Doom Patrol, but the feeling it gives me, of maybe there is somewhere I belong, is why this show brings me so much joy. It is ostensibly a superhero show, but the majority of obstacles that this misfit band of odd balls must overcome are internal. Sure there are superpowers, but there’s also family, mental illness, lost loves and plenty of self-loathing to go around. There are punches aplenty thrown at bad guys, but the hardest punch they pack is right in the feels.

The show involves the wheelchair bound scientist, Niles Caulder (Timothy Daulton of The Living Daylights and Flash Gordon), whose questionable experiments, not to mention ethics, created most of Doom Patrol to begin with. The earliest member is Rita Farr (April Bowlby of Slammin’ Salmon and Two and a Half Men), a former star of the silver screen changed, by a toxic gas, into a stretchy, elastic mutant. Next to join would be Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer of White Collar and Will & Grace), a former test pilot who, during an experimental flight absorbed an entity made of “negative energy” that now dwells within him. Oh, yeah, and he’s horribly disfigured and emits so much radiation that no one can ever physically get close to him again. Possibly the most powerful member of the team is Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero of Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin), a disturbed woman with multiple personality disorder (MPD), each different personality possessing their own superpower. This can range from her persona, Baby Doll, who believes “everything is lovely”, to Lucy Fugue, who has radioactive bones and see-through skin, to Sun Daddy, who is a huge figure with a sun for a head and can throw fireballs. With a current tally of 64 separate personalities, she’s like a slightly less together Legion. There’s the unimaginatively named Robot Man (Brendan Fraser of Encino Man and George of the Jungle. Yeah, that Brendan Fraser.), a former race car driver that suffered what would have ordinarily been a fatal accident, were it not for Niles Caulder placing his brain into a nearly indestructible robot body. Last to the party is Victor Stone, AKA Cyborg (Joivan Wade of Youngers and Doctor Who), the only member to not be created by Niles Caulder. Normally associated with the Teen Titans, or the Justice League for those Snider cut fans out there, he is a former football star who, after a horrible accident, is recreated with cybernetic parts. Boo-ya!

All of these people are very, very flawed, and that’s what makes them all so goddamn beautiful. Jane grew with an abusive father and was subjected to years of sexual abuse. Leading to the development of her MPD, she spent years institutionalized and indulging in excessive drug use, both psychiatric and illegal. Despite having incredible powers, she has absolutely no control over them, often arguing with herself to even get anything done. Robot Man, being super strong and close to invulnerable, is a bitter, angry man who mourns his former life, an empty life previously lived carelessly. Likewise, Cyborg misses being a popular football star, but an otherwise normal person. His bitterness is mostly aimed at his father, for turning him into something more machine than man and, in stark contrast to how Cyborg is usually portrayed, is less superhero and more soul searching, self-doubting kid. Rita, once used to fawning adoration, now cloisters herself, uncertain of when her body will betray her. She has the ability to stretch and bend like Plastic Man, but, much like Jane and her erratic powers, it takes all of Rita’s concentration to even just keep her body from oozing everywhere. Larry Trainor, AKA The Negative Man, may be my favorite of them all. He lost it all. Once a virile man in his prime, a decorated pilot, with a wife, a child and a gay lover on the side, his body is now covered in scars from head to toe, the amount of radiation coming off of him requires that he always cover himself in specially designed bandages, Invisible Man style. Oh, and his super power? The entity inside him may also be indestructible, can fly and made of pure energy, but it is not under his control and, once unleashed, leaves Larry helpless.

Niles Caulder may be the most tragic figure of all. A man of exceptional intelligence, it seems he leads the Doom Patrol more out of his feelings of guilt over the failed experiments that he views them as. In various flashbacks during the show we see him as he interviews Crazy Jane or fiddles with the inner workings of Robot Man. He isn’t the cause of their current condition, but, in his hubris, he saw fit to use their conditions to play God and tamper about with them as if they were nothing more than lab rats. Much like the rest of Doom Patrol, we are torn between looking up to him as their ingenuous leader and hating him for turning them into freaks for his own curiosity. His history gets more complicated and more tragic as the show goes on, but I don’t want to give away too much.

Equally as fun are the villains of the show. One of the first we meet is Mr. Nobody (played by the amazing Alan Tudyk of Firefly and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil), a reality bending entity that breaks the fourth wall like a less sane Deadpool. Yes, LESS sane. He can control the action on the screen just by his narration. There is a government agency, The Bureau of Normalicy, dedicated to eliminating aberrations just like the members of Doom Patrol. There are Nazis, a Ghostbusters-like team, known as the Sex-Men and Beard Hunter, a serial killer who hunts down men with beards. Lest we think that the entire world is out to get Doom Patrol, their allies are equally as weird. There’s Flex Mentallo, The Muscle Man of Mystery. Imagine Charles Atlas come to life, but his actions, instead of being feats of brawn, are more like magic spells cast by flexing his muscles. I loved him in the comic books, and was dubious when I heard he’d be in the live action Doom Patrol, but they got a fantastic actor to play him (Devan Chandler Long of Runaways and Bosch). And then there’s possibly the most surreal character of all, Danny the Street. What Danny is is a little hard to describe, so I’ll just plagiarize Wikipedia. They say, “Danny is a living and sentient piece of urban geography who can magically and seamlessly place himself in any urban landscape at will, without any disruption to his surroundings.” It is mentioned that he identifies as gender queer and he is usually lined with dance clubs, gun shops and drag cabarets.

Did I mention this was originally a comic book? Maybe I should have said that up front, which would explain my effusive praise of the show. But I’ve been reading Doom Patrol from so long ago, that it’s just common knowledge to me. I sometimes forget my audience, mainly because I’m not sure if I have an audience. The original Doom Patrol was published in My Greatest Adventure #80 in 1963, created by Arnold Drake and Bob Haney. It’s actually had several different incarnations, but I’m relatively sure that the heart of the television show is based off of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Writing the title from issues #19 to #63, he is the one who introduces Crazy Jane and Danny the Street. He injected a level of surrealism to the comic that overshadowed anything it had previously been. In fact, it was so…I don’t know …different, I guess, that I didn’t know how the show could even be pulled off, but under the creative command of Geoff Johns, it truly shines. As with most things I review, this show isn’t for everyone. If you want non-stop action or a clearly demarcated fight of good vs. evil, then this isn’t that show. Doom Patrol is that ugly, orphaned puppy who is just so scrappy and adorable in his own way that you can’t help but love him. It’s the show that makes you feel that no matter how strange or different or broken you are, you are still worth something and that you can still find a place you belong. And I absolutely love it for that.

Channel Zero

I don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to try and make this post short and sweet. I’ve just started a huge project that I’m going to be devoting a huge chunk of time to. So much so that it may spill over into my blog here and change the focus of the entire thing. But now is not the time for that, so, with the possibility of me no longer writing about TV or movies, I want to make sure that I talk about a few of the shows I consider “must see”. Particularly the ones I feel just don’t get enough love. Which brings me to Channel Zero.

Channel Zero was a horror anthology that ran for 4 seasons on Syfy. It was written by Nick Antosca, who has, in addition to writing Teen Wolf and Hannibal, has also written several novels, like Fires and The Quiet Boy, and even a few films, like The Forest and Antlers. It’s an impressive resume, which explains some of my praise. And while my praise is effusive, it’s a little hard to explain. It’s like those jokes that you sort of just have to be there for. I’m normally a “story guy”, all about the plot, the character development, but, admittedly, Channel Zero is a bit weak in that department. Not that the plots or the characters are bad, it’s just that they aren’t the strengths of the show. The characters are thin, the plots slightly confused, but the feel of the show itself is CREEPY! It’s one of the eeriest shows I’ve seen, giving the viewer that otherworldly feeling that is so elusive. I’ve talked about this rare quality before, in films like The Endless and A Cure for Wellness.

Each of the four seasons tells a story involving different bits of creepypasta. If you don’t know what creepypasta is, welcome to the club, even now I have only a cursory understanding of the term. The best description I can think of is urban legends for the internet. The Slender Man and The Russian Sleep Experiment are examples of creepypasta, spooky stories, once told round the campfire, now skulking around the information superhighway. Season 1 tells the story of Candle Cove, a mysterious children’s show from a studio that shouldn’t be transmitting. The theme of Season 2 is The No End House, which, as the name implies, consists of a series of impossible rooms. Season 3 is called Butcher’s Block, about a highly carnivorous family of exceptional longevity. Lastly, season 4 is a story that is equal parts disturbing and depressing, called The Dream Door. Each one is very different, except for the ability to make one’s hairs stand on end.

I consider Season 1 to be the best, but I’m not sure if that’s because it’s true or if I wasn’t prepared the impact it would make. The first few minutes of the first episode stay with me to this day. There’s so many things to creep one out in this season. The children’s show, Candle Cove, is a puppet show and puppets are almost as creepy as clowns and dolls. Murderous children are involved and children are kind of sinister even when they’re normal. And, then, then there’s the tooth monster. The main character is guilt ridden and possibly insane. Almost every scene exudes menace and danger lurks just out of sight.

Before I had seen season 2, I had never heard of the No End House. There are several iterations of this particular creepypasta, but it essentially is about a house that people are called to go into, sometimes because there’s prize money if they go through all the rooms in the house, sometimes because they are dared to. Each room is sequentially numbered, this number appearing on the door to the next room, usually starting with 1 and going up to 9. The first room is deceptively cheesy, but each of the others get progressively more horrifying, the last one nearly driving people to madness. Those who get through all of them to finally escape the house initially feel relief and return home, only to find the next number on their front door. This is basically the story in Season 2 of Channel Zero, except that a group of friends enter the house, each experiencing different things, based on their individual fears and, as you might guess, they don’t all get to leave. There’s a heck of a lot more to it, themes involving grief and loss and how much of one’s self is in their memories, but I don’t want to ruin any of this by saying too much. I also wanted to say that one of the cast members in this season is the phenomenal John Carroll Lynch of The Drew Carey Show and Fargo. He’s an amazing actor who absolutely nails his roles in everything I’ve seen him in and this is no different.

According to Wikipedia, season 3, Butcher’s Block, is based on Kerry Hammond’s “Search and Rescue Woods” , but if that’s true, it’s very loosely based. If you’re unfamiliar with “Search and Rescue Woods” (I was), it was originally a series of stories first featured on the subreddit, No Sleep, and later collected into novel form. The stories are told by one of the search and rescue rangers who work a particular set of woods where all sorts of mysterious and spooky happenings occur. Butcher’s Block involves a pair of sisters, one with severe, almost incapacitating, depression, who move to a new town and find a strange flight of stairs, in the middle of the woods, seemingly leading to nowhere. Eventually, they meet Joseph Peach (played by the incomparable Rutger Hauer, RIP, of Blade Runner and Hitcher), the elderly patriarch of the Peach family, the head of a butchering and meat packing empire. This season is a bit more meandering than most, but no less eerie, culminating in the sisters having to make a devastating choice.

The fourth and final season is Dream Door, based on Charlotte Bywater’s story, Hidden Door. I’m guessing Antosca is a Reddit fan, because Hidden Door also is a find from r/Nosleep. In Dream Door, a married couple find an odd door in their basement, that they hadn’t noticed before. They explore it and initially found nothing, but before long, the door, or the room behind it, manifests their dreams. And, true to the nature of the show, these things are perverted manifestations of these dreams.

My love of television is well known. I mean, I’m writing a frickin’ blog about it, for goodness sakes. Most of the shows I talk about here are shows that I feel are high quality entertainment, shows I want to tell people about, because I think that they’ll enjoy them as much as I do. That being said, I wouldn’t really call them art. Entertainment? Yes, but art? There are the few rare shows that attain that vaunted title that few television shows even consider. I feel that Legion did it, Antosca’s other show, Hannibal did it and Channel Zero does it. By this, I’m not saying that these are the best shows in the world, but that they “subvert the paradigm”. They don’t care what a show should be, they have an artistic vision, one that is different than what the very concept of a television show should be. Often, certain things, like plot, are sacrificed in pursuit of this vision, but what emerges is a thing of beauty. Well, maybe not beauty, per se, in the case of Channel Zero, but something pure nonetheless. It’s not so much entertainment as a work of art that evokes a feeling. It bypasses the brain and triggers fear and dread directly to the brain stem. If you, dear reader, ever decide to watch Channel Zero, remember this. Don’t dwell on plot points or if things make sense or any of the things that one normally focuses on a show, just feel it.

The Greatest American Hero

Superheroes are on an uptick right now. Maybe not as exalted as they were right before Avengers Endgame, but they still get the likes, still bring the dollars in. This was not always the case. Being into superheroes in high school, in the 80’s, made me a nerd and not very popular. Not that I’ve ever been that popular. The most popular action shows in the 80’s were things like the A-Team, The Dukes of Hazard and Miami Vice. Even if one focuses on action shows with a bit of sci-fi thrown in, the heroes weren’t exactly super, just people with exceptional skill, such as The Master or MacGyver. In stark contrast to today, the television viewing audience of the 80’s just weren’t appreciative of the superhero set. But during that decade, I would tune in religiously to one of my favorite shows, The Greatest American Hero (tGAH).

I will also admit that I was a fan of The Incredible Hulk, but, let’s face it, with one of his comic book titles still currently running (The Immortal Hulk), not to mention at least six movies (yes, I’m counting his appearances in The Avengers movies, but excluding the animated movies he’s been in) to his credit, he’s a pretty well known character. Not so much, Ralph Hinkley. In tGAH, Hinkley (William Katt of House and Carrie) is a mild mannered high school teacher who is visited by aliens and given a super suit. Yeah, I get it, it sounds pretty hokey when I say it out aloud, but I loved it all the same. If you are familiar with superhero lore, they all must have some weakness, an Achilles heel. Superman has his Kryptonite, Hinkley has a suit he doesn’t know how to use. The suit may endow a near limitless power upon him, giving him flight, super strength and speed, X-ray vision, invisibility, etc., but he lost the instruction manual and, therefore, only discovers these powers through trial and error. No man is an island, as they say, so Ralph is aided in his battle for justice by Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp of I Spy and Everybody Loves Raymond), a CIA agent. Rounding out the cast is Pam Davidson (Connie Selleca of Hotel and Second Chances) as the obligatory (well, it was the 80’s) love interest.

Created by Stephen Cannell, writer of such fine television shows as The A-Team and 21 Jump Street, he envisioned a different kind of superhero. Someone happy in his mundane humanity who has immense power unexpectedly thrust upon him. Rather than a Superman who flies in to save the day, he wanted the show to be about a man who just happens to wear the suit, and focus on human problems, like corruption and racism. He wrote Hinkley and Maxwell as the Odd Couple: Hinkley, the super-powered, bleeding heart liberal and Maxwell, the gun-toting, slightly misogynistic conservative. Oh, fun fact, on March 30, 1981, John Hinkley shot President Ronald Reagan. After that, the show subtly changed the name of Ralph Hinkley to Ralph Hanley. Unfortunately, after the first season, there was a change in the upper echelons at ABC, and the new executives forced the show to be a more conventional superhero show, complete with Hinkley fighting the Loch Ness Monster in one of the episodes. The show ran for 3 seasons, between ‘81 and ‘83, and can still be found on Amazon Prime. There’s even a fan-based website about it.

I got the inspiration for this post when I remembered the show and thought it would be great for a reboot. It’s a great concept, but, as I researched for this post, I discovered that such a reboot has been tried multiple times. In 1986, the original cast returned and tried to launch The Greatest American Heroine, The plot involves the aliens who originally provided the suit telling Hinkely to find a successor. As the name would imply, he decides upon Holly Hathaway (Mary Ellen Stuart of One Life to Live and As the World Turns), an ”elementary school teacher who spends her off-hours looking for lost kittens, raising environmental awareness and serving as a foster mother”. I shit you not. Alas, the show was never meant to be. The pilot was never broadcast, but, instead, was re-edited as an episode of the original series. In 2014, it was announced that Fox was looking at rebooting the show, in 2017 entertainment news sources said that actress Hannah Simone  (of H+ and New Girl)had been cast as the lead in a reboot, but in 2018, ABC declined to pick up the series. William Katt even started a comic book company in 2008, Catastrophic Comics, and put out a Greatest American Hero comic book. Given that I can barely find any evidence online that they exist, I’m guessing that didn’t work out. The show does still have an active fan base, however, which discusses the possibility of a reboot, so who knows? It could happen.

This post wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning the theme song. I’ve said before that theme songs should not have words. It’s too easy for them to become ear worms and this one is no different. Believe It or Not, composed by Mike Post (music) and Stephen Geyer (lyrics) and sung by Joey Scarbury can still be heard on easy listening stations to this day. During the show’s run, I couldn’t escape the poppy little tune as, in addition to being at the start of every episode, it reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Record World Chart. For a bit of added trivia, Mike Post not only created the Theme music to Law & Order, he is responsible for their unmistakable “Dun Dun” sound.

I still say I’d like to see someone take a run at this show again, but, looking back, it was very much a product of its time. There was an innocence about it and it was pretty goofy, possessing a strong comedic element, often at the expense of the hero. The reluctant hero who trips over his own feet has been done to death now, but it still felt fresh back in the 80’s. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I believe it contains a number of jokes and scenes that may not be acceptable today (The character of Bill Maxwell often refers to Pam, among other women, as “skirts”). Even with that, though, the show was so damn wholesome. Maybe the reason it’s having such a hard time coming back is because it imagines a world where most people are inherently good, where any evil can be overcome by good old hard work and cooperation and all the endings are happy. And maybe that’s just too much of a suspension of disbelief for audiences these days.

Pontypool

This is a film that doesn’t get nearly enough love. I get it; it might not be for everyone. It’s a zombie movie with no undead, flesh-eating zombies. It’s a horror movie with little blood and the secret weapon against the apocalypse is poetry. It’s weird. It’s unique. Dare I say, it’s a thinking man’s zombie movie. And the threat isn’t a monster or a virus or a demon; it’s language, it’s a meme. I would say that Pontypool is way ahead of its time in demonstrating how dangerous the wrong meme can be. I actually feel a little bad about calling this a zombie movie, in that the producer has explicitly said that this is not a zombie movie, referring to the infected, instead, as conversationalists. That being said, the infected were once normal humans who have been turned into mindless creatures bent on violence and everyone else calls them zombies, too.

I don’t think many people have seen this movie, so I’ll give a brief description. It’s a bottle movie, almost the entire movie takes place at a small radio station in the town of Pontypool, Ontario, reminiscent of 10 Cloverfield Lane. We soon meet shock jock DJ, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie of Watchmen and Come to Daddy), a grizzled renegade, abrasive and slightly arrogant due to being a big fish in a little pond. He comes into the station to do his show on a cold and snowy day, assisted by the station manager, Sydney (Lisa Houle of Cold Squad and Scene of the Crime). Given that it’s talk radio, his show involves taking calls from listeners, but the first call is from their “eye in the sky” traffic reporter. He describes an odd scene in which a group of people seem to be attacking another and then he gets cut off. That sets off a series of calls, each one more bizarre and frightening than the last, the story of a zombie apocalypse told in snippets. Finally, the infection and the infected arrive at the studio and death enters the bottle.

It feels like a radio show, almost more so than it does a movie. There’s a good reason for that, in that, not only was the production inspired by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, but it was also made into a radio play at the same time it was filmed. Based on a book, Pontypool Changes Everything, written by Tony Burgess, who also adapted it for the movie, it is part of a trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Hellmouths of Brewdley, followed by Pontypool Changes Everything and finally, Caesarea. I say trilogy, because that’s what’s on the Wikipedia page. Reading the descriptions of the three books , however, I have no idea how they are related. In addition to writing the screenplay for Pontypool, Burgess has written 7 other screen plays, including Septic Man and Hellmouth. He has even been in a number of his own movies, including Pontypool (he played Tony Lawrence).

In order to be complete in my research, I started tracking down these other movies. Septic Man involves a sewerage worker who gets trapped in a septic tank and becomes mutated by toxic sewage. It addition to sounding too much like The Toxic Avenger, it just sounded incredibly disgusting. Ejecta got horrible reviews, scoring a 4.6 on IMDB and sounded like it might be tortuous to watch. So, Hellmouth it was. Much like Pontypool, it seemed as if were made on a show string budget. Filmed in black and white and making liberal use of cheap editing tricks, it has the feel of the movie, Sin City. It’s the story of Sydney, an old and dying cemetery caretaker. He receives a box that contains a key and a mysterious map. Hellmouth was …okay. Watchable, but not too compelling. Somewhat disappointing, really. I’m writing this post because I LOVED Pontypool. I though it was amazing enough that I’ve seen it three times and I would see it again in an instant, and I rarely see movies more than once.

At the start of this post, I mentioned the word meme. While I have never heard anyone else associate Pontypool with memes, the connection seems obvious. A meme is defined as an idea, behavior or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person. Many of these are merely humorous, like Bad Luck Brian and Business Cat, but memes can be weaponized. In 2015, The journal, Defense Strategic Communications published an article by Jeff Giesea titled, It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare, urging that, as countries prepare for cyber warfare, they should also be preparing for memetic warfare. One passage reads:

Cyber warfare is about taking control of data. Memetic warfare is about taking control of the dialogue, narrative, and psychological space. It’s about denigrating, disrupting, and subverting the enemy’s effort to do the same. Like cyber warfare, memetic warfare is asymmetrical in impact. It can be highly effective relative to cost. The attack surface can be large or small. Memetic warfare can be used in conjunction with troops, ships, aircraft, and missiles, or it can be employed without any kinetic military force at all. It operates in the communications battlespace.

Anyone who has been online in the last few years knows how pervasive a good meme can be, influencing large segments of society. I believe that Pontypool mimics this effect, though pushed to nightmarish conclusions.

This movie isn’t for everyone. The monsters in it are less monsterish than in most horror movies, and the deadly infection is somewhat conceptual in nature. Still, I feel that the actors are excellent and that the director does a fantastic job of slowly dialing up the tension until the viewer feels just as trapped and threatened as the people inside the tiny, small town, radio studio. The nature of the infection itself is so esoteric that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. The best horror movies are the ones that won’t let go. That hold onto one’s psyche. And, for me, Pontypool is exactly that. I may just have to watch it again.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Superman

Superman statue

Image by Joseph Lee Novak

As a new reader, growing up, I was never that into Superman. He was the ultimate Mary Sue. Super strong, super fast, nearly invulnerable, Kryptonite his only weakness; what’s the fun in that? He truly earned his nickname of the big, blue boy scout. Good and altruistic to the core, there seemed to be no darkness in him, no conflict and few shades of gray. Besides, I was a Marvel guy. Spiderman and Iron Man, the X-Men and Conan the Barbarian, they were the one’s I followed month to month. Even when I started buying comics on my own, my first purchase was Ghost Rider. I always wondered what that said about me, that my first choice for a comic book was a vengeance demon from Hell. Even when I started branching out, it was years before I even looked twice at a DC comic. It was their Vertigo line that caught my attention with titles like Preacher and Hellblazer. Even then, I was attracted to the dark and edgy titles; Superman sure as hell wasn’t on my radar. But then a few titles caught my eye and I took the plunge. Now I’ve found a few stories that write Superman in such a complex and vulnerable way that I was sold. These are the stories that convinced me to love Superman.

All-Star Superman

Holy shit, this comic book miniseries is frickin’ awesome. It helps that it was created by the power duo of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly. I’ve waxed poetic about Quietly earlier, so you know my fan boy man crush on his art, but Morrison really outdoes himself with the story telling in this one. It begins with Superman dying. He has absorbed so much solar radiation, the yellow sun being the very source of his power, that it is breaking him apart. It also has supercharged him, so that during his last few days, he is stronger, faster, smarter, etc. than ever before. He’s always felt responsible for, well, the entire planet, so he knows he needs to get his affairs in order. What follows is a 12 issue tale that pens the Kryptonian with such warmth, such humanity, that I was completely won over.

Does he fly? Does he use his heat vision and bend steel with his bare hands? He does, but many of the challenges he overcomes take far more than brawn or powers. He shows compassion to his enemies and love for his friends. His father’s funeral will break your heart and his date with Lois Lane will make your heart swell. You will be introduced to novel aspects of his story, like black Kryptonite and Bizarro World and a super-powered Lex Luther. Yeah, I’ll be talking about other great Superman stories, but this is the one. This is the story that overcame my disinterest in Superman.

What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way

Written by Joe Kelly, this story appeared in Action Comics #775 in the March of 2001 and was called “the single best issue of a comic book written in the year 2001”. Wizard Magazine called it the “Greatest Superman story of all time”, which should prove that I am far from alone in my praise. It was also developed into an animated feature in 2012, called Superman vs. The Elite, which is worth seeing. As the name would imply, Superman encounters a new “superhero” team called the Elite. They clash in their methods in that, while Superman does not kill, the Elite have no qualms about it. This escalates into an all-out brawl where the Elite basically mop the floor with the Big Blue Boy Scout. Then things get interesting.

Seeing Superman turn bad-ass is always a treat. The juxtaposition between someone who is so morally good that it’s almost sickening and an alien being with nearly god-like power and no sense of restraint has been a winning recipe in a number of different stories. That’s what Bright Burn banked on, but What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way may be one of the earliest stories to lean into it. It was written at a time when superhero comics were getting grittier, more violent and central to the plot is the question, “Has Superman’s time passed?” Let’s just say that Superman convinces the Elite, and the world at large, to be happy with the way he is. Cause they won’t like the alternative.

Irredeemable

I’ve already talked about the storyline of Superman going bad , but I don’t believe anyone takes it as far as Irredeemable. Written by Mark Waid, for Boom Comics, and spanning an impressive 37 issue run, it featured a Superman copy called, the Plutonian. Superman, being one of the most powerful and idolized superheroes on Earth, has always had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he had the mental stability to handle it. The Plutonian does not. He cracks under the pressure and lashes out at both his superhero team mates and the entire world. As I said, there are other stories like this, but none have a 3 year time span to explore the concept as fully. The title is completely appropriate, as well; this character does reprehensible things. I should mention that Boom comics put out a related comic called Incorruptible, also by Mark Waid, but it doesn’t live up to Irredeemable. In it, one of the Plutonian’s enemies, Max Damage, is so shaken by the Plutonian’s turn to evil, that he becomes good. It’s a good concept, but it just doesn’t read as well.

So, why am I including this Superman knock-off in a piece specifically about Superman? A few reasons. In addition to the blatant similarities, it is revealed that the Plutonian’s powers are mentally related, or psionic, rather than physical. This is a reference to a research paper published back in 2009 that stated that, with the breadth of Superman’s powers, it would break the laws of physics if they were physically based and, therefore, they had to be supernatural in nature. Also, at the end of Irredeemable, the very last issue, Waid makes it perfectly clear that the entire thing is a gorgeous homage to Superman.

Kingdom Come

Conceived and illustrated by Alex Ross and written by Mark Waid, Kingdom Come presents Earth on the brink of disaster from the multitude of vigilante superheroes that have populated the planet. Much like What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way, a younger breed of superhero, one who doesn’t mind the use of lethal force, has come into favor and the public has turned away from Superman. As a result, he has sequestered himself in a holographic Kansas, away from the world. But with violence spiraling out of control, a militant Wonder Woman convinces him to return to the fight. There begins a battle of the wills, with Superman determined to stick to his ethical refusal to kill and nearly everyone else screaming for blood. As if this weren’t enough, mankind has generally grown sick of all these living weapons running around and generally, making the world a dangerous place to live in, so they’re planning to take drastic action on all the capes, both good and bad.

I’ve already written about how much I love Ross’ artwork and that is one of the best parts of this graphic novel. The story itself is told through the eyes of a minister who feels as if God is showing him all the events unfolding so that he can save the world. There is great comic book action here, but also complex ethical struggles that are rarely seen in the superhero world. My copy of this graphic novel is almost as well read and tattered as my copy of the Watchmen, which, by the way, is falling apart.

Grounded

In 2010, J. Michael Straczynski took over as writer for Superman and DC’s Dan Dido wanted him to re-invigorate the character. What emerged was a 14 issue run called, “Grounded”. The events of the previous run,” New Krypton“, finds Superman feeling disconnected from Earthlings and wondering if he can truly be the planet’s protector any longer. Disillusioned and lost, he decides that in order to get back in touch with the common man, he’s going to travel across America. And since he can’t connect with them from 20,000 feet in the air, looking down on them from above, he decides to walk the length of the country.

It’s a great look into Superman’s psyche, a god among men, trying to understand their experience as mortals. Once again, this is a story that in which his powers are useless. There’s no enemy to defeat nor disaster to overcome, while the run isn’t devoid of action, its main theme is Superman’s soul searching. My main complaint about the character Superman is that he can’t be beat, but this story shows that he isn’t immune to self-doubt. During his walk across America, he encounters very human problems. People with life-work issues, loneliness, domestic abuse, joblessness and poverty. Problems for which super strength and heat vision are useless. Grounded was a great run that showed a side of Superman that has rarely been explored and it’s written amazingly well.

Runner Up: The Incident

In 2011, DC published Action Comics #900, a title primarily featuring Superman, and ran a story called “The Incident” written by Paul Cornell. While not as deep or meaningful as the stories I have discussed above, nonetheless, I feel that it’s a story that deserves to be mentioned. It’s set in Iran, where a group of peaceful protesters are being attacked by Iranian soldiers and Superman swoops in to save the day. While, on the face of it, this is a straight up heroic act, it angers both the Iranian and American governments. Basically, this is because both governments consider Superman an exclusively American asset. As such, Superman’s actions could be considered an act of American aggression, maybe even a declaration of war. Realizing his duty is to protect the entire planet, not just the U.S., he publicly renounces his American citizenship.

While this was a nifty development for Superman’s story, what was really amazing was how much of a fervor this caused. The news story that Superman had renounced his citizenship was carried by everyone from Fox news to the New York Times and it caused such an uproar that DC comics back tracked on the story, labeling it a “What if” story. It goes to show what an icon Superman is, that a 70 year old comic book character is still so important to so many people.

Supernatural

Earlier, I had shared my concept of the Children of the Slayer, in a reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (BtVS), a show so influential it begat a myriad of imitators. Of all these children I could discuss, one would assume I might talk about her closest child, Angel, spawned from the same writers, the same creative minds and sharing quite a few of the same actors. I will discuss Angel later, but right now I want to talk about arguably the most successful of all the Slayers children, Supernatural. It’s ending this year, after an impressive 15 seasons, with thousands of adoring fans, it was originally only planned for a three season run, but the overwhelming popularity of it extended that.

The show follows a pair of brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki of Gilmore Girls and House of Wax) and Dean (Jensen Ackles of Smallville and Dawson’s Creek) Wincester, who are “Hunters”, a vocation which involves them tracking down and killing all manner of supernatural creatures. It’s a family calling, as their parents were hunters, but their mother was killed in a tragic, demon-related fire when they were young. Their father accompanies them in the end of the first season, he leaves early in season 2. And it’s just the brothers for the vast majority of the series, though he does return briefly (1 episode) in season 14 . Actually, that’s not entirely true. Throughout the show, there is a rotating cast of characters that interact with the Winchesters. I say interact, because these characters are wonderfully dynamic, villains becoming allies, friends becoming evil; there are so many twists and turns, double crosses and reversals of fortune, that the show traipses dangerously close to soap opera territory. It is this crowd of personalities that gives the show a richer, more complex tone that I am sure contributed to the show’s longevity.

Sam and Dean are consummate bad-asses, often going toe-to-toe with demons, vampires and even the gods themselves. They have demonstrated exceptional fighting skills, though more street fighter than martial artist. They are also weapons experts, usually carrying around enough firepower to equip a small army. Given the nature of their prey, they have demonstrated a comprehensive grasp of magic, routinely exercising demons and creating protective circles. To round out these many talents, they seem to be masters of disguise, or, at the very least, infiltration. On multiple occasions, we see them being accepted as doctors in a hospital using nothing more than a stethoscope and a lab coat or getting the run of a police departments by wearing a suit and tie and flashing a fake FBI badge accompanied by the hokiest sounding of fake names. By far, their greatest weapon, however, is The Colt, a mystical weapon that will kill anything, and I mean ANYTHING, that it hits. And lest I be incomplete, I must mention the Impala. That’s not a euphemism; their car is a 1967 Chevy Impala that Dean refers to as Baby. It’s magically protected and serves as both second home and rolling arsenal.

While the Winchesters, sometimes affectionately referred to as “The Boys” (Not to be confused with the Amazon show, which is based off of Garth Ennis’ comic, The Boys. Though, to be fair, the Amazon show is written by the writer of Supernatural, Eric Kripke), are very much the stars of the show, they share the screen with many others, who occasionally steal the spotlight. There’s Crowley (Mark Sheppard of 24 and Leverage), the once-King of Hell, a demon, who frequently teams up with Sam and Dean, for his own purposes. I have to mention Bobby (Jim Beaver of Justified and Deadwood), long-time family friend and hunter, who acts as the wise uncle. If there was anyone who could be considered a “third Winchester”, it’s Castiel (Misha Collins of 24 and ER), an angel who is a staunch ally to the Boys. Introduced to the show in 2008, in the fourth season premier, Collin’s character went from guest star to regular, won a People’s Choice Award in 2015 and has even directed for the show. There’s Rowena (Ruth Connell of Hari Kari and The Cursed Man), the mother of Crowley, before he became a demon, and 1000 year old witch who, while usually helpful, is as fickle a friend as her son. I shit you not, I could go on and on, there’s so many well fleshed out semi-regulars to mention, but I also wanted to mention the level of guests they have on the show. Nerd-favorite, Felicia Day; Battlestar Galactica’s, Tricia Helfer; Curtis Armstrong, known to most people as Booger from Revenge of the Nerds; The Walking Dead’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan, AKA the infamous Negan; Star Gate’s Amanda Tapping; BtVS alumni, Amy Acker and Julie Benz; even Linda-fucking-Blair was on the show. Talk about royalty

So, how is Supernatural doing as a Child of the Slayer? Let’s see, bad-ass main characters that fight vampires, werewolves and demons with both conventional weaponry and magic? Check. A team of Scoobies to back them up? Mega-check. Combining dark humor and witty banter with gothy angst? So much check. Supernatural may be more BtVS than BtVS. Just like Buffy, Supernatural was a monster of the week series that also had a larger story arc playing over the whole season, but the big bad at the end wasn’t always something that could be fought. Many seasons included an “inevitable” dark fate for one or the other of the Boys, or insanity-provoking torment for a beloved member of the team. There are some parts that are so over the top brooding and sad that, well, it’s almost too much. But, then, they balance it out with something so ludicrous completely turning the mood. Over the course of its 15 season run, both Sam and Dean have been killed and sent to Hell, Dean actually going on two different occasions. Sam has had a girlfriend killed and became addicted to demon’s blood (who knew that was a thing?). Dean was trapped in Purgatory for a year and bore the cursed Mark of Cain. Themes of abject loneliness and painful regret should be listed in the credits, they’re on the show so much.

Oh, I almost forgot, Supernatural‘s contribution to pop culture. Much like BtVS, Supernatural has spawned several artistic offspring. Fan conventions began in 2006 and have been going strong ever since. Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, TX proclaimed June 23rd, 2018 as Supernatural Day. There are comic books, a series of novels, webisodes, an anime series, and several attempted spin-offs. I say attempted, because none of them really ever caught on. Maybe once the show is over they’ll stand more of a chance, because, let’s face it, the Winchesters should never truly die.  

This may be the longest post I’ve ever written and I’ve still only just touched the surface. I’ve already mentioned the writer of the show, Eric Kripke, but in addition to writing The Boys, he’s also written NBC’s Revolution and The House with a Clock in Its Walls. He pitched the concept of Supernatural for nearly 10 years before the WB picked it up. While some seasons are better than others, the storytelling on this show is always solid. It’s been a favorite of mine for the entire 15 year run, but I’m not sad to see it end. It’s not only outlived its mother, but all its brothers and sisters. And they’re sure as hell going out with a bang; the big bad they’re up against for the finale is none other than God himself. I don’t know how it all will end, but I can’t wait to see.

Upload

As much as I love talking about my favorite movies and TV shows, I figured I could put my video addiction in service to the public by talking about newer shows. You know, shows that you’re on the fence about. Shows like Amazon’s new vehicle, Upload. The promo trailers for this show started playing around the time that The Good Place was ending, so I assumed that this was Amazon’s attempt to fill that void, particularly since it’s set in a sort of afterlife. Whether that was the intention or not, this is a very, very different show from The Good Place. Far from being a feel good comedy that addresses philosophical and ethical topics, Upload is actually a terrifying horror series, of Black Mirror proportions, masquerading as a comedy. I’m not sure if it knows that.

Right away, we are introduced to Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell of The Tomorrow People and Code 8), an uber-vain, but otherwise all-around good guy and his fiance, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards of Briarpatch and Orange is the New Black). The circumstances are not ideal; Nathan has been involved in a serious car accident and is, apparently, dying. Luckily, he exists in a fictional world where one can upload their consciousness to a virtual reality, effectively becoming immortal. Immortal, that is, as long as the servers that contain this digital afterlife keep running; can you imagine the pressure on their IT department? This is not a cheap procedure, but Ingrid comes from a super rich family, and she not only pays for Nathan to be uploaded, but also pushes him into it. Once in the system, Nathan meets Nora (Andy Allo of Pitch Perfect 3 and Chicago Fire), a woman working for the company hosting Nathan’s consciousness, who is essentially his handler. This company, Horizon, is the stereotypical, soulless tech company, and Nora, with as much power she has over Nathan and his entire reality, is just a lowly gig worker in the real world. On top of that, her father is dying and she’s desperate to save up enough for his upload.

The comedy aspect is kind of meh. The jokes never achieve laugh out loud status, nor are they overly insightful. While the world they have built is clearly a parody of modern day society, rather coming off as witty, as scathing commentary, they are blunt and heavy handed. It doesn’t help that none of the characters are very likable. That being said, there is one element of the show that keeps me watching. The mystery. A regrettably minor character is Fran (Elizabeth Bowen of Michelle’s and No Tomorrow), Nathan’s cousin who begins to investigate his death. In her amateurish, but dogged, investigation, she begins to uncover some very suspicious clues that he may have been murdered. Little breadcrumbs of clues are doled out, stringing the viewer along. Particularly me, since it’s the only aspect of this show that I find remotely satisfying. If I tune in for season 2, and that’s a big if, to follow Fran and her investigation will be the only reason.

One of the reasons I watched in the first place is to see Robbie Amell. Not because I’ve seen any of his other stuff, except for his brief time as Firestorm on the CW show The Flash, but because looks so much like Stephen Amell, of the CW show Arrow, I thought they were brother. The last name helped that thought as well. Turns out they’re cousins, but, damn, that resemblance. Andy Allo is decent as Nora, but one has to wonder if her talents are being squandered, as she is an accomplished musician. She sings, plays both piano and guitar, and has five albums to her credit. She’s good enough to be in Prince’s band and even collaborated on writing songs with him, which I consider pretty damn impressive. I gotta give a shout out to William Davis, who plays the super rich, David Choak, Nathan’s neighbor in the afterlife. If he doesn’t sound familiar, most people probably know him as The Smoking Man, from the X-Files. Arrogant and jaded, his brutal honesty with Nathan was a nice dash of spice in an otherwise bland show and I hope he gets more screen time in the next season.

Let me revisit my claim that this show is a horror. In the first episode, in his first few moments in the afterlife, we see Nathan looking at himself in the mirror. He is annoyed to find part of his hair out of place, sticking up like a cowlick. Viewers know that this Nora’s fault, as she gave it to him while creating his avatar as part of his upload. Try as he might, he can’t get his hair to lay down. At another time, we see Nathan reach for something he wants, only to be blocked and see a message come up that he has to pay more for it, like some in game purchase. Given that he doesn’t have any money, that he is on his fiancé’s dime, he seemed resigned to a very boring existence. Lastly, we are given a peek at the low rent region of the afterlife and it is Spartan to say the least. Stark, white, windowless walls, devoid of any art or decoration, enclose a cell-like room containing only a bed, chair and bureau, also all white. Far from being a virtual paradise, Nathan has absolutely no agency. Others control how he looks, what he has access to and the very world around him. This definitely feel more like Altered Carbon than The Good Place. Except that, unlike Altered Carbon, he can’t be resleeved, he can’t be put in another body, he will never again have a physical form.

Considering this reality to its inevitable conclusion, this a terrifying form of existence, because of the implications. If this technology exists, surely less scrupulous people/corporations/governments can use it for other purposes. This is an inescapable prison, a chamber of endless and novel torture. The show makes jokes around this concept, trying to be funny, but all I can think as I am watching this is OMG, this looks like hell. Even in the concept of hell, one is put there under a judgement from God, the Almighty. In Upload, it’s a human’s decision, with all the flaws and weaknesses of our species. This thought deadens every punchline for me. It paints a very dark reality and makes no concessions to soften the blow. There’s no mention of an ethics committee, no talk of regulation by an independent body, nothing about a legal framework moderating how this technology is used.

Look, I get it. It’s a TV show, it’s parody. Why am I thinking so much? First of all, that’s what I do and I’m not going to turn that off just to watch a TV show. Second, we’ve seen trope of a virtual reality before and it usually doesn’t end well. I’ve already mentioned Altered Carbon and Black Mirror (the episodes White Bear and White Christmas embody what I am talking about perfectly), but I’ve also seen it in Cube Zero, Source Code and Inception. In fact, even in the very first episode of Upload, the reality of Nathan’s new existence drives him to almost take his own “life”. I’m a little surprised that the show came from the mind of Greg Daniels, the creator behind such shows as The Office and Parks and Rec. With all my bitching, I gotta say that it’s not that bad of a show. It’s not that great of a show, but it’s not that bad. I did watch to the end. One could do worse for a sit-com. But with my background of watching sci-fi and horror, Upload just lands too close to some of the most horrific virtual reality scenarios I’ve seen. For every joke that brings a chuckle, it’s accompanied by a chill that runs down my spine.

A Cure for Wellness

While many works of fiction strive for the label of Lovecraftian, very few live up to the title. Trust me, I’ve seen more than my fair share. I love cosmic horror and the term Lovecraftian is irresistible to me and I am almost always disappointed. Then I saw the movie, A Cure for Wellness. It has that eerie, alien feel that proves so elusive to so many other contenders. It doesn’t quite embody cosmic horror, there’s no sense of a terror so large that it encompasses the planet or some god-like entity from outer space, but certainly a feeling that something is just…off. The sense that reality is not as solid as we thought and that there are corners of the world where man is not the only form of sentient life.

The movie follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan of The Amazing Spiderman 2 and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), an employee who is tasked with retrieving the absent CEO of a large company. The CEO went off to an exclusive spa in the Swiss Alps and has not been seen or heard from since, except for a cryptic letter, in which he sounds bat-shit insane. Just as Lockhart is arriving at the spa, he is involved in a major car accident and regains consciousness, in the spa, to find his leg in a cast. That’s when he meets Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs from Star Trek Discovery and the Harry Potter films), the enigmatic proprietor of the spa and, shortly after, Hannah (Mia Goth of Nymphomaniac and Suspiria), a patient at the spa. I would describe her as a manic pixie girl, if she weren’t so damn creepy, almost inhuman. And while Dr. Volmer is quite personable, he will still give viewers the willies, though they won’t quite know why. Or maybe that’s just Isaacs. Through out the film, Lockhart never quite seems to find the CEO, and then, when he tries to leave, he finds that impossible, as well. In his explorations, Lockhart sees plenty of weirdness, but nothing compared to when he starts to get treatments himself. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of worms involved. I can’t say much more without giving anything away, but, while the movie does start a little slow, it gets to edge of your seat territory soon enough.

I am not very familiar with the works of DeHaan or Goth, but I have loved Jason Isaac’s work for years. I loved him in Case Histories, was very happy to see him in Star Trek: Discovery and was so, so disappointed when Awake was canceled. Regardless of his role, I’ve always felt that he’s given his all to to the part. There’s a certain weightiness to his acting, a gravitas that makes me think he performed nothing but Shakespeare, before making the leap to film, but what the hell do I know. I would love to tell you to go see the series Awake, since some have described Isaac’s acting in it Emmy worthy, but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a one-season show to anyone. In it, Isaac’s plays a police detective, who is in a serious car crash with his family, in which, he loses his wife or his son. That “or” isn’t a typo. For the extent of the show, Isaac’s character lives in two realities; one in which his wife survived, but when he goes to sleep, his reality changes into one in which his son survived. These fluctuating realities, and the confusion behind which one is “real” is a central theme of the show. Writers for Awake had to keep track of two separate realities and timelines to avoid continuity errors. It was a phenomenal show and I have no idea why on Earth it was canceled. As to the other two actors, all I can say is that I’m glad I saw DeHaan in A Cure for Wellness first, because Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets totally sucked balls.

I wish I could talk about how this movie is genre bending, because the mystery behind the spa is key to the plot and there is a bit of romance between Lockhart and Hannah, but the oppressive unease that it fills one with places it squarely in the realm of horror. The way many of the characters act, one could be convinced that they aren’t really human at all and could take off their skins at any moment, revealing their true, horrifying nature. The conspiracy to manipulate and control Lockhart had me paranoid the entire time, like I was trapped, with the walls closing in. We never quite feel that his life at risk, there is no ax wielding manic hunting him down to dismember him or inhuman monster hungry for his flesh, but he is slowly tortured, in a variety of ways, and through watching this, we experience this torture as well. In fact, if I were to level one bit of criticism at this movie, it’s that it’s so damn long. While I was entertained by the non-stop anxiety the film induces, at almost two and a half hours, the run time may be more than most audiences can bear.

For all the negative emotions that I rattled off, this is a gorgeous film. Beautifully filmed, this may be one of the prettiest horror films I’ve seen. Filmed in the Swiss Alps, at a sanitarium that hosted Adolf Hitler and where political prisoners were lobotomized, the movies walks a line between horrific and ethereal. Like a fever dream that one wakes from, covered in sweat, plagued by vague fears that fade from the mind as consciousness takes hold, but remain in the pit of one’s gut, this film is psychological torture porn. I’ll be the first to admit that A Cure for Wellness may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it strikes a chord in me that few other movies do. Perhaps that’s why no one ever wants to go to the theater with me?

It Slices, It Dices

When I was growing up, late night television was a very different beast from what it is today. My family didn’t even have cable until I was in my late teens. No video on demand, no Tivo, no infinite channels, no online streaming and some television stations even went off the air at night. We got exactly 6 stations; ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and 2 independent stations on UHF. There’s no comparison to how much better both the quality and variety of programming is now, but, still, there are things that I miss from the earlier days of television. One of those things is the commercials I used to see on late night TV.

Both the products and the style of the ads were so striking that I remember many of them to this day. I can’t hear the phrase, “we’ll be back to pick you up later” without thinking of the Mr. Microphone commercial. Several of the favorite songs of my youth came off of a variety of K-Tel music collections. I often marveled at the inventiveness of products that rolled out, seemingly endless, to address innumerable needs, both real and imagined. And the delivery? These commercials featured reenactments of everyday problems, played out by low budget actors, overdramatized to catastrophic proportions. Or, alternatively, displaying the amazing life that could be yours if only you purchased these amazing inventions. The pitches were delivered with all the subtlety of a carnival huckster.

I’m guessing that air time was cheap for a Maine television station at 3AM, so you’d inevitably see local car dealers and furniture stores hawking their wares, but the two big players of the late night circuit were Ronco and K-Tel. Ronco was an American company founded by Ron Popeil, who learned his trade from his inventor/salesman father, Samuel. Starting in 1964 making $89,000 in sales, by 1969 that figure had risen to $14 million. Popeil sold the company for $55 million in 2005, only to go bankrupt and fold in 2018. Quite possibly the father of the infomercial, Ron Popeil and his company have been featured in numerous news segments and interview, been the recipient of several awards, both honorary and derogatory and insinuating themselves into pop culture by everyone from the Simpsons to Saturday Night Live. Among their more well known offerings are:

The Chop-O-Matic – One of their earliest and longest running products

The Popeil Pocket Fisherman – I’ve never met anyone who has owned one of these, so I have no idea if they work or not, but the alliteration in the name made it fun to say.

Mr. Microphone – This seems like it would be the most annoying product one could ever design, but what has stuck with me is the ultimate cringe of a car full of teens using it to try and pick up some girls just minding their own business.

Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler – I never saw the purpose for this. I’ve scrambled eggs for a good part of my life and I’ve never had an issue with the traditional, outside-the-shell way of doing things. Evidently, this invention was inspired by Ron Popeil’s utter disgust at egg whites and incompletely scrambled eggs. While I think this is nonsense, it did win 84th place in Mobile Magazine’s Top 100 Gadgets of All Time, so what the hell do I know?

I could go on, but, seriously, one could write an entire book and I want to get this posted today.

K-Tel is a Canadian company founded in 1962 and became one of Ronco’s biggest rivals. Started by Philip Kives, a door-to-door salesman and a pitchman on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, he was the perfect man to match Popeil at his own game. In fact, K-Tel started out by selling some of Popeil’s products, like the Veg-O-Matic, before selling their own products. This company is no joke, going from $23 million in sales in 1971 to $178 million 10 years later, expanding their holdings to include real estate and oil exploration. They’re still functioning today, mainly making money from their 200,000 song catalog of golden oldies, such as “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard and “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, carried on platforms such and iTunes and Spotify and featured in television, movies and commercials. Among their offering were:

The Miracle Brush – Basically a glorified lint brush. I was all set to talk shit about this product, but in doing some research, I’ve found several testimonials that rave about the Miracle Brush and state that they are still using theirs after 20-30 years.

The Fishin’ Magician – An all-in-one multitool, this gadget had a scale to weight your fish, a tape measure to measure it, a hook remover, a filet knife, a scaler, a bottle opener and more.

The Scrappy Scrubber – I only vaguely remember this one, but think an oversized electric toothbrush for your dishes.

Too many music compilations to count – Still a music powerhouse, K-Tel has released such timeless collections such as Disco Fever, Hooked on Rodgers & Hammerstein, Chipmunk Mania, Street Wave, Good Times in Country Music, Themes for Dreams – The Magic Sound of Panpipes and the list goes on and on.

While we have K-Tel and Ronco duking it out like Godzilla and Gamara, I would be remiss to not mention some of the other participants of the late night circuit. Notably, Ginsu Knives and their amazing feats will be forever burned into my brain. They sliced through a tin can and it still stays sharp enough to slice a tomato. What the hell kind of kitchen were they thinking of? Who could ever forget Suzanne Summers and her erotically charged ThighMaster? In addition to all the goods being sold, I must also mention the services. Classics like the Psychic Friends Network, Tony Robbins’ Self Help seminars and even sexy chat lines like 544-CHAT and 550-TEEN were all major players trying to capitalize on the desperation of someone watching television at 3 in the morning. These are all the classics I grew up with, now remnants of history, a dying breed after giving rise to Ebay and the Home Shopping Network. I often wonder if these things will all be forgotten in the passage of time, but I promise you that I will keep their memory alive until I take my last breath.

Contracted – The Most Disgusting Zombie Movie of All Time

If you know me, or if you’ve read enough of this blog, you know that it takes a bit to disturb me. As a former anatomy instructor, I’m no stranger to, not only dead bodies, but actively dismembering them. Sure, we call it dissection, but tomato/tomato. During my short term as a doctor, I’ve sewn up mangled hands and facial lacerations, driven a needle into a man’s stomach to draw fluid off (paracentesis), and, well, you get the idea. It should surprise no one that I am into the more extreme forms of horror. With that in mind, I want you to know that I am deadly serious when I say that Contracted, and its sequel, the inventively named, Contracted: Phase 2, are two of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. These films fall squarely into the subgenre of body horror. What makes them more horrifying than most is their focus on sex.

Before I say more, let me tell you what these films are about. The first movie, Contracted, follows a young woman named Samantha (Najarra Townsend of Breakfast Buddies and Medinah) who is basically date raped at a party. Over the following days, she begins to feel sicker and sicker and fears that she has an STD. The rest of the movie is a slow burn, as we watch Samantha deteriorate, her symptoms becoming more and more disgusting. How disgusting, you ask? Well, there’s an awful lot of vaginal bleeding, hair and teeth falling out, vomiting, maggots under the skin; I could go on, but I’ll spare you the details. Equally disturbing is the gradual mental decline as the infection takes over. Her impulse control goes out the window and she begins to have violent outbursts. By the end of the film, she has become a full fledged zombie. Knowing this in no way takes anything away from the film; there is never any glimmer of hope for poor Samantha, as we watch her life crumble.

I can’t stress this enough, but absolutely do NOT watch this with someone you are romantically/sexually interested in. This is the opposite of a date movie and will completely destroy any sort of interest in sex, or even human contact. At least, it did for me. The is also the opposite of a feel good movie. I mean, it’s no Come and See, but the grim, bleakness embodied by this film will have you looking at the world through filth-colored glasses for a few days.

The sequel, Contracted: Phase 2, is not as good as the first movie. I would recommend skipping this one altogether, as it doesn’t improve the story any, exploring ideas within the first movie that didn’t really need exploring. Here we follow Riley (Matt Mercer of Auteur and Beyond the Gates), a friend of Samantha’s from the first movie, the two of them getting hot and heavy in one of the most skin crawling scenes I’ve ever seen. Starting to feel sick himself, and hearing of Samantha’s fate, Riley is appropriately worried and sees a doctor, who is frickin’ worthless. Allow me to digress a little here, since I’m a doctor and it always bothers me to see medical inaccuracies, but both of these characters received the most inept treatment possible. Fever, bleeding out of places that should not be bleeding, vomiting; if these people came into my office, I would be like WTF? The doctor doesn’t do a pelvic exam on Samantha, no blood cultures taken, and, in the second movie, where we learn that the government has knowledge of this virus, there’s no CDC alerts. I’m not saying that medical science is the end all, be all, but I wish they had a medical consultant for these movies, because the care they received did not at all ring true.

Anyway, enough of my rant. The second movie basically follows the exact same arc as the first, as we watch Riley slowly decline, oozing pus and peeing enough blood to stock a blood bank. Seriously, this movie took the disgusting theme and ran with it. No lie, the scene where he nose bleeds into the dip at a party, which is subsequently eaten by one of the guests, made me gag a little. Into this mix is thrown the additional plot behind the man spreading this virus, as a terrorist device, being hunted down by a police detective and, ultimately, the U.S. Government. This had the potential for adding depth in the narrative, but instead comes off as half baked and haphazardly tacked on. Where as Samantha was a tragic figure, I just wanted Riley to die already. There have been rumors about another movie, Contracted: Phase 3, but I have yet to find any solid information on this.

I like body horror, both because of the medical nature of most such films and because there is little I can think of that matches the terror of feeling one’s self rot away from the inside. The Fly, Cabin Fever, Splinter; I love these kinds of movies. I would contend that Contracted is a worthy entry into this genre, and that Contracted: Phase 2 is a sorry imitator. The first movie is like a case study in misery, Samantha’s life, health and, finally, sanity all slowly decaying with a morbid inevitability. If the second movie had just been a repeat of the first, only following Riley instead of Samantha, it would have been better. The terrorist side plot feels clunky and poorly executed and takes away from the film. But maybe that’s just me. Watch them for yourself and make up your own mind. But remember, and this is very important, DON’T see them with someone you love.