Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (2002)

17. Shadow Realm

As previously established, Tobe Hooper’s latter day career has mostly been filled with television work. In 2001, Hooper directed two episodes of short-lived anthology series “Night Visions.” “Night Visions” was clearly modeled after “The Twilight Zone.” The stories often straddled the line between science fiction and horror, more properly belonging to the fantastique genre. Like the eighties revival of “The Twilight Zone,” each episode of “Night Visions” featured two stories. The most prominent similarities was that the show often ended its tales with ironic twists and moral lessons. The series suffered from executive meddling. Fox insisted on a host. The creators wanted Gary Oldman but the producers picked rock star/occasional actor/asshole Henry Rollins. The network aired the show as summer filler, where it was met with a tepid response. The series didn’t air in its entirety until the Sci-Fi Channel picked it up some time later.

What does any of this have to do with “Shadow Realm?” For some reason, after airing most of “Night Visions,” the Sci-Fi Channel decided to edit two of the unaired episodes – four stories – into a TV movie. The Henry Rollins host segments were clipped out. This was no great loss as all Rollins did was blankly introduce the story and then lazily reiterate the theme at the end, his scenes comprising only a few seconds. Tobe Hooper directed one of the “Night Visions” portions in “Shadow Realm,” which is why I’m talking about this. As far as I know, the “Shadow Realm” presentation has never been released on home video or leaked to the internet. However, the individual “Night Visions” episode are available. I hope it doesn’t shake anybody's sense of my professionalism to know I just watched those instead.

“Shadow Realm” begins with “Patterns.” Martin Hudson is admitted to see Dr. Daniel Critchley. Critchley immediately recognizes Hudson as suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. He constantly makes odd gestures and repetitive actions. Hudson believes that his obsessive rituals keep the world from falling into chaos. If he, for example, forgets to cross himself multiple times, airplanes will start falling out of the sky. Critchley believes Hudson to be mentally ill and wants to help him control his compulsions. After doing so, though, horrible things begins to happen.

The Sci-Fi Channel producers were smart to start “Shadow Realm” with “Patterns,” as it’s probably the best segment in the film. Two recognizable cult actors are cast in the main roles. Malcolm McDowell plays Hudson. McDowell is adapt at harnessing nervous energy to create eccentric characters. This makes him an ideal choice for an OCD crippled man. Miguel Ferrer plays the skeptical doctor. Ferrer’s gravelly voice brings with it a certain level of authority, making him a good choice for a disbelieving shrink. Watching the two play off each other is entertaining, as Ferrer pushes for his version of the truth and McDowell holds steady to his conceptions.

The two solid performers make up for the script’s heavy-handed aspects. The flashbacks to Hudson’s childhood, when he first discovered his ability, feature some awful child acting. Once McDowell is medicated, the world goes mad. This is shown in several fairly silly ways. Suddenly, the security guard is naked. A car lays in a parking spot upside down. Even the inevitable violence, such as casual murder and suicide, lack impact. It all leads up to an incredibly obvious ending. The conclusion is easy to guess, the set-up coming nearly from the beginning. The twist is too on-the-nose, pinned with overly obvious dialogue. It’s a problem every segment, and one assumes every episode of “Night Visions,” has.

The second story in “Shadow Realm,” “The Maze,” is directed by Tobe Hooper. Thora Birch stars as Susan, a college student primarily focused on her study and track training. One day, while walking across campus, she takes a short cut through a hedge maze. After emerging from the other side, she’s seemingly been teleported a year into the future. Society has crumbled in the wake of a scientific announcement: A planet devastating meteor is headed on a collision course with Earth. Susan now has to find a way back home, before her world ends.

As I said, every segment in “Shadow Realm” approaches its moral in an incredibly obtuse manner. “The Maze” begins with a fellow student asking Susan out on a date. She ignores him and, afterwards, a friend tells her she needs to make room for romance in her life. After her time jump reveals that the world will end in a year, Susan changes her mind about the guy. In other words: You should take chances and enjoy your life because you never know when it’ll end. Maybe this would be less annoying if the world going mad was portrayed better. Instead, we get Amanda Plummer as crazed music professor, stabbing her students to death. It’s weak sauce, not helped by Birch’s sleepy performance or Plummer’s broad overacting.

Tobe Hooper’s television work is unusually fairly indistinct. “The Maze” is mediocre overall but it does feature some decent camera work. As Birch explores the abandoned college campus, Hooper often employs expressive shots. Scenes of the girl walking up a stair case or wandering through an empty cafeteria are accompanied by dutch angles or wide lens. While exploring the hedge maze, off-center, askew perspectives are employed. It doesn’t amount to a whole lot but it does show one of the director’s trademarks still surviving, even into the doldrums of his career.

The third segment in “Shadow Realm” is easily its worst. “Harmony” concerns Timothy Olyphant’s Eli, a traveler whose car breaks down outside the titular town. Upon getting the car in the shop and finding a hotel, he discovers Harmony is an incredible pleasant town. Except everyone freaks out at the slightest sound of music. Eli soon discovers that the inhabitants of Harmony believe that music will summon the Beast, a murderous monster who lives in the woods. It’s a belief the townsfolk are willing to kill to gurantee.

“Harmony” has a lack of interior logic. A monster being summoned by music strikes me as a random writing choice. The people in the town haven’t seen the Beast for hundreds of years. Yet this belief is so built-in, that anything that even resembles music drives them into a violent rage. Whistling or tapping on glasses apparently counts as examples of “music.” The climax of the episode is a stiff, passion lacking conversation between Eli and the townsfolk. The dialogue here is incredibly stilted, the script making its points as broadly as possible. The last minute twist is entirely senseless. Turns out, the Beast is real, making Harmony’s paranoia and violence wholly justified. Henry Rollins’ assures us that the moral here is “respect other people’s beliefs,” apparently even when people are dying senselessly because of them.

“Voices,” the final portion of “Shadow Realm,” concerns Sandra, a deaf woman whose profession is court room illustrator. She’s undergoing experimental treatment to possibly restore her hearing. It doesn’t seem to be working. That is, until she hears a man’s thoughts in court one day. While a cop testifies that a man was killed in a gang shooting, his deranged thoughts reveal he committed the murder. Soon, the murderous cop discovers Sandra’s knowledge of his crime and begins to pursue her.

The most interesting thing about “Voices” is how it illustrates a deaf person’s observations of the world. The soundtrack will go silent, the murderer’s voice being the only noise. Mostly though, “Voices” is as overdone as the rest of “Shadow Realm.” Terrylene’s overly earnest performance as Sandra often borders on camp. The thoughts of John Finn’s killer cop, singular statements always barked in a gruff voice, quickly become ridiculous. The episode devotes a lengthy sequence to explaining the killer’s backstory. The traumatic childhood event that turned him violent is extensively detailed. Instead of Sandra and the mad man having a thrilling confrontation, she talks him back from the edge of insanity. It’s seriously underwhelming and deeply silly. Those words also accurately describe the entire segment.

“Shadow Realm” is easily the most obscure entry in Tobe Hooper’s long career. Considering the forgettable and barely released films he’s been associated with, that’s no small statement. “Night Visions” is a show with a very small cult following. Which makes a TV movie cobbled together from a few stray episodes even more minor. The handful of recognizable names both in front of and behind the camera – Keith Gordon directed “Patterns,” by the way – made me curious enough about the anthology to give it a look. Ultimately, it’s a film I’d probably forget about if it wasn’t for the odd behind the scene circumstances. [Grade: C]

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