“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? THE SHADOW KNOWS!”

The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.  Crime does not pay.

Dabbling in old time radio inevitably brought me to “The Shadow” — a character I’d heard about periodically when I was growing up.  My Dad had been a fan of the radio program and film serials when he was a kid, and he was fond of rattling off that tagline you see in this blog post’s headline.  (The radio shows were broadcast in to the mid-1950’s, long after they started in 1937.)  I also remember the character from the truly unfortunate 1994 feature film with Alec Baldwin, which I actually saw in the theater with my college girlfriend.  (The less said, the better.  About the movie, I mean.)  The Shadow is also cited periodically as an influence in the creation of my own favorite iconic dark detective, Batman.

The Shadow has a loooooooong, varied and occasionally confusing history – spanning radio, pulp magazines, comic books, television and film.  He’s still being portrayed in comics.  DC Comics released a crossover with Batman last year that looks interesting, and the incomparable Matt Wagner produced a couple of books in 2015 and 2016 that I’d love to get my hands on.  (He fights Grendel!!!)

The radio shows are a lot if fun, just like the antique horror and mystery programs that I’ve linked to here at the blog.  And, just like those, they’re easily found on Internet.  (How my Dad might have marveled at that!)  They’re definitely more campy.  And I suppose that makes sense, as they seem aimed at children, whereas the horror shows seem intended for general audiences or just adults.  The period commercials for Blue Coal are a weird glimpse into the past, too.  If I had to name one thing that I found annoying about all of the old time radio shows I’ve found, it’s the omnipresence of that damned organ music.  (Was it just a cultural staple of the time?)

If “The Shadow’s” stories are a bit hokey, the show’s voice acting and production are just terrific.  I particularly like the actor performing The Shadow for the episode in the first link below — “Death is a Colored Dream” (1948).  I believe it is Bret Morrison.  (And I was surprised to learn that the famous Orson Welles only voiced the character for a year or so a decade earlier.)

But what’s most interesting is the character’s inception.  He didn’t start out as a character in a story at all … “The Shadow” was simply the name of the generic host for a series of unrelated mystery stories comprising “The Detective Story Hour” in 1930.  After a surprising fanbase developed around the creepy-sounding host (voiced at the time by Frank Readick, Jr.), people started asking for stories featuring “The Shadow” at the news stand.  Street & Smith commissioned writer Walter B. Gibson to write up some tales featuring a supernatural detective; the first came out in 1931.  The iconic character was just sort of made-to-order for confused customers who might have thought he already existed.  That “Shadow” later arrived at the airwaves in 1937, with Welles voicing him.

Seriously, though, I totally need to get my hands on “Grendel vs. The Shadow.”

 

 

 

 

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A review of “The X-Files” Season 10

I breaks my heart to say this, but 2016’s long-awaited return of “The X-Files” was not a triumphant one.  (Indeed, I am writing this review nearly two years after its conclusion because I only recently got around to watching the last of its six episodes.)  I’d rate the brief season a 4 out of 10 — the lowest rating I’ve ever given to a season of the show.

I hope this year’s Season 11 proves me wrong, but I’m finally starting to wonder of “The X-Files'” time has come and gone.  (This is coming from someone who was a lifetime fan.  I even thoroughly enjoyed seasons 7 through 9, which was when much of the show’s loyal fan-base began truly eroding between 1999 and 2002.)

So many of the show’s core elements seem outdated now.  The character arcs of its two heroes and their relationship were resolved seasons ago.  Its central overriding story arc — an elite cabal’s conspiracy about (and with) aliens — appears to have been milked for most or all all of its entertainment value.  And the show’s format of mixing a handful of “conspiracy episodes” with standalone “monster-of-the-week” episodes feels awkward compared with contemporary programs that better integrate multiple plot lines.  (Consider HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” for example, or even the various Netflix and television series that are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

The truly fatal blow to “The X Files'” staying power, though, runs a bit deeper — network television just isn’t as positioned as it used to be to tell the scariest stories to a wide audience.  There is too much competition from sources less beholden to censorship or to the milquetoast sensibilities of mainstream appeal.  The first is easily accessible cable channels like HBO and AMC, which can shock viewers with visceral violence.  The second is subscription services like Netflix.

And third is simply the Internet at large, with its endless cornucopia of morbid or bizarre content.  “The X-Files” was created before the Internet was a common household utility.  Part of the show’s appeal was that it offered people the creepiest stories they’d watch anywhere anywhere outside of a movie theater.  And those stories at least seemed well researched by the program’s writers, who did a tremendous job for most of the show’s run.

Today’s Internet-connected entertainment marketplace is different.  No matter how much weirdness “The X Files” can pack into a 43-minute episode, the average consumer can find material online that is darker or more frightening in less time than that.  Compare the average “X-Files” episode, for example, to the array of material devoted to real-life “paranormal” subjects, like “Slender Man,” alleged UFO footage, or tragedies like the mysterious death of Elisa Lam.  (That last one is truly shudder-inducing.  Google it at your own peril.)

The only way a show like “The X-Files” can hope to compete is with excellent attention to tone, tension and character — something I thought that seasons 7 through 9 did pretty well with, despite a gradual fan exodus after David Duchovny’s awkward departure from the series.  Season 10 just didn’t follow suit.  It really was as though a range of previous “X-Files” episodes has been thrown in a blender, so that their component parts could be served yet again.  The conspiracy stuff, in particular, was poorly executed, too hastily paced, and just a bit too campy for my taste.  Mulder and Scully’s return was also too self-conscious — as though Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were reunited for a tongue-in-cheek reunion special.

It wasn’t all bad.  These two leads are always fun to watch.  The fourth episode was superb — “Home Again” served up both a creepy, macabre story and a meaningful character arc for Dana Scully.

Episode 3, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” was also fun enough.  But while a lot of other fans absolutely loved this humorous entry, I personally didn’t feel its central joke merited a full episode.  Besides, this particular twist has been done before, in a 1989 book by a well known speculative fiction author.  (I won’t name the book or the author here, in order to avoid spoilers.)

The rest of the episodes were … fair, I suppose.  Oh, well.

I’m thrilled that we’re currently being given Season 11 of “The X-Files.”  As someone who was a longtime fan, I never envisioned the show lasting this long, even after a hiatus of many years.  I just hope the show matures and grows in quality after this disappointing rebirth.

 

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A review of Season 2 of “The Exorcist” (2017)

A show like “The Exorcist” must be difficult to write.  It stands in the shadow of some of horror’s greatest films (William Friedkin’s 1973 original and the third movie in 1990).  Its plot device is inevitably redundant.  (How many possessed innocents can we see strapped to beds while priests pray at them?)  It seems easy to stray into camp.  And it seems like a story concept that is tough to structure into a serialized format.

But the second season of “The Exorcist” was … fantastic.  It surpassed the first season, and I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

The ten-episode arc wisely changes things up a bit from Season 1, which was maybe a bit too reminiscent of the films.  Our priestly dynamic duo are on the road in America’s northwest, and on the run from a Vatican that has been infiltrated by followers of the demon Pazuzu.  (As stupid as all of that sounds, the show actually depicts it quite well.)  As the story proceeds, there are a couple of surprise plot developments that will contradict most viewers’ expectations.  (I won’t spoil them here.)

The characters are all likable and all well played.  Ben Daniels remains possibly the show’s strongest asset as the senior priest; he’s just a superb actor.  John Cho also gives a fine performance as the head of a foster home where a demon runs amok.  Alfonso Herrera is quite good as the apprentice priest — his character is better written this time around, and isn’t saccharine to the point of annoyance.  And Herrera himself seems more comfortable in the role.  The kids are damned cool — all of them, and their interaction with their foster father was surprisingly sweet and funny — which raises the stakes emotionally when the entire household is besieged by a sadistic force.

The weaknesses here were minor.  I think the ten episodes could have been shortened to seven or eight, to make them tighter.  (I realize I write that about a lot of shows, and I’m not sure why.)  The first five episodes were tightly plotted, while the second five were a little loose.  I think better editing would have entirely excised the flashback scenes depicting Daniels’ character and this season’s new female exorcist, played by Zuleikha Robinson.  (Yes, that is indeed Yves Adele Harlow from “The Lone Gunmen” and “The X-Files.”)

The flashbacks were cheesy, even if they gave Daniels a chance to show his range.  They depict his tutelage of Robinson’s character decades prior, complete with some cliche pulp novel stuff.  (Ugh.)  We’re shown that the priest is younger because of his blond, surfer-esque haircut.  (Really?)  The flashbacks were out of place, and a little too campy.  They reminded me of the comic book style of the “Highlander” films and TV series — this show could have done without them.

I also found myself slightly annoyed by a dearth of exposition about the process of exorcism itself.  After the films and now two seasons of the show, I wanted to know more about the key actions here that affect the story’s resolution.  Do some prayers or methods work better than others?  Then why not use them all the time?  Why are some interventions more lengthy or difficult?  We are told that the demon attacking this family is different than Pazuzu, who we’ve seen in the past (though Pazuzu still puts in an appearance this season).  Can the demons coordinate their efforts, or at least communicate with each other?  If not, why not?  These seem like logical questions to ask, both for the characters and the viewers.

But there is something more that bothered me.  If a demon is intelligent and wants to harm people, then why make its presence known — and why torment or kill only a few people?  Why not remain undetected until it can commit a mass murder?  Or even perpetrate an act of terrorism, and harm far greater numbers of people by causing riots or wars?  That would suit evil’s purposes far more than the garish individual spectacles we find them performing in horror tales like these.  (Maybe I’m just analyzing too much.)

Anyway, I cheerfully recommend “The Exorcist.”  It might be the most grownup horror show on television.

And one more thing — there’s some fun to be had here recognizing actors from other roles.  Daniels was a member of the Rebel Alliance in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016).  And there is actually another “The X-Files” alum here — even if it was only a small role.  I thought that Harper’s mother looked familiar — the actress playing her was Rochelle Greenwood.  She’s none other than the teenage waitress who witnessed Walter Skinner getting shot waaaaay back in 1996’s classic episode, “Piper Maru.”  (Can I remember faces or what?)

 

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A short review of the Season 2 premiere of “The Exorcist”

I watched the first episode of Season 2 of “The Exorcist” series (2016), and I’m happy to report it was a fun, scary start.  (The season began this past September; its ten-episode arc concluded at the end of the year.)  I’d rate the premiere a 9 out of 10, and I’m on board for another demonic outing.

Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels return as a kind of dynamic duo of protagonist priests — all the more so because they appear to be on the run from a Roman Catholic Church that no longer sanctions their heroics.  (The show is actually well written, and this isn’t as stupid as I just made it sound.)  Herrera and Daniels are both terrific, even if an opening action chase scene reintroducing them here was unintentionally funny.  (They’re absconding by pickup truck with a possessed woman — her gun-toting country family, who is unaware of their intentions, is in pursuit.  I kept thinking this was a like a sequel to 1990’s “Nuns on the Run.”)

Herrera’s character feels a bit more interesting this time out.  Six months on the lam as exorcist-knight-errant has made him grim and unexpectedly arrogant — his darker character is more fun to watch than the slightly cloying, pretty-boy apprentice we sometimes saw in Season 1.

There are more things that make Season 2 seem promising, too.  It looks as though the afflicted woman that we see (nicely played by Zibby Allen) drives only this season’s prologue.  The demon antagonist has its sights set on a foster home staffed by a likable altruistic Dad (John Cho) and his equally likable five charges.  (One of them is Brianna Hildebrand, who comic fans might recognize as Negasonic Teenage Warhead from 2016’s “Deadpool.”  Is she here after being thrown out of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters?)

This was fun.  I’m looking forward to the rest of the story.

 

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“Do you come from the land down under?”

When I reviewed the second season of the outstanding “Wolf Creek” television series (2016) not too long ago, I neglected to mention something — the trippy rendition of Men at Work’s “Land Down Under” in its opening credits.

It’s a beautiful cover by Australia’s Sabrina Schultz, and it’s perfect for the show — it should please both horror fans and anyone who remembers the original song from 1981.  It has a dreamy, melancholy quality that hints at the show’s weird juxtaposition of brutal violence with its gorgeous outback setting.

Check it out below.

 

 

 

 

A review of Season 1 of “The Exorcist” (2016)

I liked the Fox’s take on “The Exorcist;” I just didn’t love it the way that I thought I would.

It has a lot going for it.  It’s easily the most intelligent horror show on television — its characters and plotting are detailed, thoughtful and well developed.  It actually occupies the same universe as the classic 1973 and 1990 horror films.  (We won’t mention the 1977 abomination here.)  And, like those movies, this is a skilled, methodical screen adaptation of the universe imagined in William Peter Blatty’s source material.  (This show establishes its continuity with the movies in ways that are interesting and surprising, too.)

The script takes archaic theology and otherworldly events and makes them seem plausible in its real-world setting.  It also succeeds in giving a distinct and frightening voice and personality to its demon.  I was impressed — I’ve seen a lot of movies with this plot device, but I’ve never seen this kind of antagonist so fully realized into a distinct character.  This owes a lot to Robert Emmet Lunney’s outstanding portrayal as the demon personified.

The rest of the cast is also roundly excellent.  Geena Davis shines as the mother of the afflicted girl; I had no idea that she was this good of an actress.  So, too, does Alan Ruck, who stars as her kindly father who is affected by a traumatic brain injury.  Ben Daniels is also very good as the experienced half of the duo of priests who serve as the story’s heroes.  By the end of this first season’s ten-episode arc, both priests seemed like three-dimensional characters that I could like and root for.  I was impressed again — priests in stories like this usually tend towards stock characters, and I can only imagine that it would be challenging for a screenwriter to make them relatable to the average viewer.

Why didn’t I love “The Exorcist?”  First, the show’s story elements felt too familiar.  Once again, we have a possessed young girl, a desperate mother beseeching the church for help, and a pair of priests, one of whom is experienced and one of whom requires instruction.  Once again, we see that the personal lives and the metaphorical demons of both clergymen can be used against them.  Once again, we find the girl secured to a bed while the story’s protagonists pray and shout at her possessor.  I do realize that these tropes are to be expected.  (This is “The Exorcist,” after all.  Do we really expect the writers to not depict an exorcism?)  I can’t deny, however, that my attention wandered.

Second, it was sometimes too slow for me.  I do understand that the show’s creators are probably being faithful to the storytelling pace and style originally established by Blatty, as well as William Friedkin, the director of 1973’s “The Exorcist.”  (Blatty actually wrote the screenplay for that seminal film, two years after his novel was published.)  The tension sometimes builds slowly in its realistic milieu, and events gather momentum over the course of the story.  The show also goes to great lengths to offer us more than its boilerplate exorcism story.  (There are some major demon-related events happening elsewhere in its troubled setting of Chicago.)

Still … I again found my attention wandering.  I might have enjoyed this more if it were edited down to six episodes instead on ten.  And I can’t write a glowing review for a show for which my interest occasionally waned.  (Admittedly, I have a terrible attention span when it comes to TV shows.)

All things considered,  I would rate “The Exorcist” an 8 out of 10 for being a smart, grown-up horror series, even if its slower pace and familiar story elements detracted slightly from my enjoyment of it.  I would recommend this show — especially to those who enjoyed the better “Exorcist” movies.

 

 

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“You call her Doctor JONES, Doll!”

God damn, Netflix’ “Jessica Jones” (2015) looks like a great show.  I finally got around to watching the complete pilot episode, due to my interest in the upcoming “The Defenders,” which features the character.  And “Jessica Jones” was frikkin’ terrific.  I’d rate the first episode a 9 out of 10.

At first, there were aspects of the pilot that annoyed me.  We’re told virtually nothing about the origin of the title character’s superpowers, and not much about the powers themselves.  They’re also a fairly generic power set, as far as I can tell.  She has enhanced strength and agility and … that’s it?  So she’s a low-grade Superman or Spider-Man, more or less?  We also learn somewhat little about what looks to be the series, antagonist, Kilgrave, played by David Tennant.  We see Kilgrave only briefly, in flashbacks that seem reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder.  (These are sometimes weirdly delivered, for a show that is otherwise well directed.)  He has mind-control abilities that resemble the “push” ability seen in Stephen King’s “Firestarter,” as well as my favorite short story of all time, “Everything’s Eventual.”

But … hell, this was just an extremely good show.  For starters, Krysten Ritter is perfect as the wisecracking anti-heroine.  She’s funny; she’s got great, dry line delivery; and she’s a decent actress.  (I know that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s more powerful heroes rarely visit Hell’s Kitchen, but I’d love to see her trade quips one day with Tony Stark.  She couldn’t beat him, but she’d come closer than anyone else.)

The script is good enough to make her a likable character, and the story itself is scary and compelling.  Considering the plot-driving capability of the show’s villain this … looks like it could become a King-style horror thriller.  Between this show and “Daredevil’s” bloody second season (2016), I’m starting to understand that Hell’s Kitchen might be the MCU’s stage for more horror-type stories.  And I’m fine with that.

 

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