Medleyana: Year Three

Well, another year of blogging has passed, and that means it’s time to write a “state of the blog” post again. I can tell this has been a busy year for me, at least based on the gap between posts earlier this spring. As I said then, I’ve given myself permission to not write unless I have something to say, but I still find the discipline and structure of blogging helpful for making myself finish things. Speaking of finishing, I’m finally nearing the end of a project that has taken a lot of my writing time and is probably the number one reason I haven’t posted as frequently in 2016 (more on that as it develops).

I suppose I don’t really have much to say in comparison to previous yearly summaries, but as always I want to say “thank you” to those of you who subscribed, commented, and shared links to Medleyana. I appreciate the feedback and fellowship. And in that spirit, I’d like to turn outward and recommend a few other online sources that I rely on and enjoy.

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First off, I still follow Philip J. Reed at Noiseless Chatter; like Medleyana, Noiseless Chatter covers a wide range of topics–whatever Philip and his guests feel like discussing–so it’s hard to point to a representative sample. Philip recently wrapped up a long, intensive dive into ALF, the television series about an alien puppet who lives with a suburban family and eats cats (seriously, I was never really a fan of the show, but Philip goes into much greater detail). Other articles have provided thoughtful looks at popular culture, the creative process, and heavy topics like mental health and suicide prevention (Philip’s response to the death of Robin Williams, and the dialogue that followed, is one of his finest moments, as far as I’m concerned). If you’ve followed Medleyana for long, you’ve probably seen me mention Noiseless Chatter before, but if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?

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I’ve also recently been taken with New Orleans-based Swampflix, a movie review and discussion site run by fellow Dissolver Brandon Ledet, among others. Swampflix casts a wide net in its reviews and articles, including up-to-date releases and older films going all the way back to the silent era, “from the heights of art cinema to the depths of basic cable schlock.” That’s a mandate I can get behind, and it’s just as much fun to read about films I’ve seen to get the writers’ insights and perspectives as it is to browse their reviews to get recommendations for new things to watch.

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Like many sites these days, Swampflix has also spun off into a podcast. I’m not a very regular listener to podcasts–I enjoy them, but it’s not quite a habit for me–but I’ve enjoyed the episodes I’ve listened to. Another podcast I’ve found entertaining and informative is We Love to Watch (formerly Listen To Our Podcast), by Aaron Armstrong and Peter Moran (in addition to their website, they’re on Stitcher and iTunes). They cover a variety of genre and exploitation movies, as well as a few higher-profile selections that dip into those areas (like Deliverance). They’ve also sometimes covered the same movies as Swampflix, giving an interesting range of opinions and perspectives (like when they both covered 1981’s Possession, a bizarre and unsettling film I also caught up with earlier this summer).

I would be remiss if I failed to include the blog of Rick Kelley, aka Luddite Robot, whose coverage of film is deep and always well-researched, and who doesn’t shy away from the political implications of works, even while acknowledging their power (he’s right on about the flimsy allegory of Metropolis, but it’s still one of my favorite films).

Finally, I also want to recommend fellow Dissolver Zack Clopton’s Film Thoughts. Zack is a true “monster kid,” a fan of all kinds of horror and genre fare, as well as a collector of monster toys and action figures. He both writes knowledgeably about a wide range of movies (his “Director Report Card” series is a highlight) and reflects on what those movies have meant to him in his life; Zack’s affection for the genre shines through in every post.

Thanks again for a great year!

Forgotbusters at The Solute

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This summer, the writers at The Solute have been exploring once-successful but now-neglected films in a series, “Forgotbusters: The Early Years.” The original Forgotbusters series was written by Nathan Rabin for The Dissolve, so this series, focused on films released before 1980, is a collective tribute to Rabin and the old place. For my entry, I wrote about two blockbuster comedies from 1965, The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. You can read about them at The Solute.

Medleyana: Year Two

A year or two before I began Medleyana, I idly mentioned my interest in starting a blog to a friend. “No one reads blogs anymore,” he said. That gave me pause, but eventually, I went ahead and started anyway, and the result is this blog, now two years old, give or take a day.

Within the first six months of blogging, I realized that a lot of my articles started with a reminiscence such as the one above, with the rest of the article enumerating the reasons the other person was wrong. I quickly found that as tempting as that rhetorical device can be, I needed to use it sparingly, lest the entire blog become a giant exercise in “staircase wit,” a compendium of the things I should have said, if I’d only had the presence of mind. (Of course, if I argued as vociferously in person as most people do on the internet, I’d have no friends left, online or off-.)

So, as I celebrate Medleyana’s second birthday, I don’t bring up that friend’s offhand comment to prove that he was wrong. In fact, in many ways, he was right: the time in which a blog could amass a large readership just by being out there is long passed. This summer has proven to be something of a reckoning, not just for bloggers but for all kinds of “long form” writers on the internet.

In addition to the abrupt closure of The Dissolve, “free-form” radio station WFMU’s Beware of the Blog ceased posting; as of July, both exist online now only as archives of past content. I’ll admit I wasn’t a regular visitor to WFMU’s blog lately, so maybe I’m part of the problem, but when I first discovered it I spent quite a bit of time browsing its posts and downloading files from its collections.

Looking at it now, its mixture of original articles and reposts of unusual tapes and records, comics, and other found oddities are a good example of what the web used to be like as recently as ten years ago. Industrious writers with scanners and mp3-editing software could clean out their closets and share whatever weird stuff they found with the world instantly. It’s not just that the early internet was less commercial in nature (although that’s certainly part of it–Beware of the Blog was a volunteer-driven affair): it was countercultural, picking up the habits of reclamation and subversion that had driven the alternative press in the ’80s and ’90s. And it went both ways: like many of the blogs and websites that emerged around the turn of the century, it developed a culture of users (both writers and commenters) that gave it an identity. In the past, I’ve compared online forums to bars or coffee shops that are always open, and that was especially true of the websites that attracted regulars, “where everybody knows your name.”

The passing of this ethos is part of what Vox editor Todd VanDer Werff laments when he calls 2015 “the year the old internet finally died:” now there’s so much emphasis on social media and going viral, it’s harder to create a website with an identity that is a destination, rather than a source of memes and videos to share. The content is often no less quirky than before, but the context is quite different: instead of being part of an ongoing discussion with a community of writers and commenters (something The Dissolve excelled at), each picture or link is encountered as part of the reader’s Facebook or Twitter feed; to the extent that it has any attribution, it’s more like a brand than a source to return to (one reason a lot of these meme-mills are radio stations). According to VanDer Werff, writers of longer articles (what used to be the expectation for writers and journalists) are in trouble unless they can also provide the quick hits that generate clicks.

Of course, Medleyana isn’t really playing on the same turf as The Dissolve (or the A.V. Club, or Grantland): it’s just me, not a staff of writers, and it’s a labor of love, not a job. But the landscape has changed for bloggers, as well: the same month that The Dissolve and Beware of the Blog shuttered, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan wrote about the world he remembered before he was sentenced to six years in an Iranian prison for his writing:

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

Again, I’m not sure I have much in common with Derakhshan; it’s hard to read his comments and not feel that he mourns the influence he once wielded as much as the changing structure of the internet. And while he isn’t wrong about the changes in the way we exchange ideas online, there are simply more people writing then there were before, making it harder for individual voices to stand out. The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post didn’t say anything about people not writing blogs anymore, after all.

More seriously, Derakhshan goes on to point out how commercialized and homogenized the dialogue is when it’s in the hands of corporate social networks like Facebook: “The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex–and secretive–algorithms.” Those algorithms tend to emphasize what users have already shown that they like with their clicks and upvotes, contributing to the echo-chamber quality of such networks. That’s a fair concern, and one shared by many observers: that the internet will become more like television, with a fragmented but largely passive audience, faced with an infinitude of choices, but less likely to be challenged by different perspectives.

Ultimately, while my readership is not large, at least not in comparison to the heyday of the form, it has been growing: this summer’s Fates Worse Than Death has been a success, at least measured in comments and discussion (some of which have taken place, yes, on Facebook and Twitter). This year I stretched myself more to post on a weekly basis, and I experienced and learned about some fascinating films that I might not have been motivated to explore otherwise. And just personally, I’m pleased that I was able to stay on my self-imposed schedule with some late nights (and a few very late nights!). I’d probably try to keep this series going all year round but for two factors: first, it’s too time-consuming, and I would burn out if I tried to keep it up for much longer; second, I have other things I’d like to pursue as well. To those of you who may have found your way here for coverage of serials, I hope you’ll check out some of the other topics. And rest assured that I’ll still be covering them in one way or the other.

Finally, thanks for visiting, and for reading. If you’ve taken the time to comment, or contacted me personally, or if you’ve shared one of my articles, know that I appreciate the feedback. If there’s anything I can to do to improve your experience in the coming year, or you have a suggestion for a topic you’d like to see covered, or you just want to say hi, please don’t hesitate to comment, send me an e-mail through the contact page, or find me on Twitter!

P. S. And keep writing!

It saddens me to say that The Dissolve, my favorite site on the Internet for the last two years, is closing up shop. The whole thing happened rather suddenly, but has been confirmed by an announcement from Editor Keith Phipps. I’m saddened to lose the insights of Phipps and the other writers for the site, but I’ll also miss the lively discourse among the commenters and the general culture of sincerity and encouragement. Despite The Dissolve’s official focus on movies, subjects under discussion often ranged widely both in the regular articles and in the comment sections. There are at least four articles on this blog that got their start as comment-section projects (my Lovefests on Addicted to Love and Cowboys & Aliens, my Scarefest on The Visitor, and my tribute to former Dissolve writer Nathan Rabin, Guardian of the Gods). That’s not even mentioning The Solute, the site launched as both a tribute to and an extension of its parent site. I’ll continue to post over there, and if the current influx of commenters over there is anything to go by, it may well end up being a continuation of the lively forum we had at the Dissolve; I invite you to read wallflower’s memorial, which eloquently sums up the feelings of so many of us.

R.I.P. The Dissolve, and good luck to its staff as they move forward.

Guardian of the Gods: A Tribute to Nathan Rabin

This article was written as a tribute to Nathan Rabin, whose many columns on such diverse subjects as cinematic flops, Insane Clown Posse, and the ranking of the International Movie Database’s user-generated Top 250 have inspired me and other readers of The A.V. Club and The Dissolve over the last ten years. My look at Guardian of the Gods is inspired by Rabin’s long-running “Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club.” I wish “Nabin” good luck, wherever he lands next.

Andre Augustine with Kiss' Gene Simmons (Simmons is on the right)

Andre Augustine with Kiss’ Gene Simmons (Simmons is on the right)

How silly is Guardian of the Gods, Mark Rodgers’ 1999 profile of rock-star security director/road manager Andre Augustine? Most of it isn’t that silly at all, actually. The silliest thing about it is its bombastic title (which actually appears in the text as the breathless answer to a bystander’s question, “who’s he?”), and a cover blurb that promises a book-length description of Augustine wrecking fools who dare to breach the security perimeter around the stars he’s sworn to protect. There are also a few passages that walk the fine line between PR puffery and ardent fanfic, like this description of Kiss in concert:

Gene prowled the stage as though looking for victims. Paul danced like a gazelle. Ace, his human form merely a vehicle for some cosmic musical force, played flawlessly. And Peter looked like he was driving the world’s most powerful Mack truck. The moment was truly surreal.

Most of the book, however, which outlines Augustine’s career from his early athletic experience (he had a stint as a linebacker for the New York Jets) to handling security for rap acts like Run-DMC and N.W.A. before transitioning to working with rockers Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and Kiss (among others), is a sober-minded account from a music-industry insider. Rodgers promises up-front that the book is not a tell-all: although there are numerous anecdotes about Augustine’s famous clients, the emphasis is on the competence and professionalism of Augustine and his fellow “road warriors.”

In many ways, Guardian of the Gods is a business card in the form of a book: as Augustine was (and continues to be) active in the industry, it tells potential clients, “I take your safety and success seriously; I am discreet; you can trust me not to do or say anything that will make you look bad in public (unless your name is Ace Frehley, or you are a member of Nelson).” Augustine emphasizes his hatred of drugs and they are, for the most part, mentioned only as something in the artists’ past or a bad influence brought to the venue by crowds. Although the phrases “rock ‘n’ roll circus” and “rock ‘n’ roll zoo” are used more than once, the unspoken message is, “I am one of the grown-ups.”

The feeling that the intended audience for this book is fellow professionals rather than starry-eyed fans or gossip hounds extends to the clinical distance with which Rodgers treats the rap phenomenon: Augustine got in on the ground floor of rap’s conquest of the American musical scene, accompanying Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys on their first US and international tours. However, while Augustine is African-American, his middle-class upbringing didn’t include the street experiences that shaped his first clients, and in addition to explaining African-American culture in the nerdiest way possible (“Artists on the Dope Jam tour participated in the daily game of ‘dozens,’ the verbal art of put-downs and a common practice with many of today’s urban youth,” reads a typical passage), Rodgers takes pains to let his (presumably white) readers know that rappers are really just regular guys and the reports of violence that trailed Run-DMC’s early concerts were completely exaggerated and misinterpreted. (It is interesting to see the lengths Rush Productions went to reassure skittish promoters that security would be tight, including press releases and news reports from the time: Rodgers’ use of multiple sources to provide context to Augustine’s story is a strong point of the book.)

Nevertheless, it’s with an almost audible sigh of relief that Augustine moved from protecting rappers to accompanying the relatively staid arena rock giants of the ’90s. Tensions ran high as Augustine tried to provide security for N.W.A., whose hit song “Fuck Tha Police” made it difficult, if not downright impossible, for him to coordinate his efforts with local law enforcement. The last straw was a threatening message left on manager Jerry Heller’s answering machine around the time Ice Cube left the group. Augustine doesn’t relay the message or name the person who left it, but it’s strongly implied that it was Death Row Records’ notorious founder, Suge Knight (darn it, that’s your problem, Andre: you’re just too dedicated to guarding your employers’ secrets!).

The not-very-sensational facts of Augustine’s experiences are mostly short on the kind of sex-and-drugs stories one might expect from a Silly Show-Biz Book, but Guardian of the Gods does provide copious detail about the procedures and challenges of keeping a touring band safe and on track, as well as portraits of many of the stars Augustine worked with. Augustine stresses that it’s hard for rock stars to have close friends: “It’s almost impossible to have a rock star you work for be your friend. . . . You are never really his peer,” he says, and adds that ego and isolation make it difficult for successful artists to befriend each other. Some of his work included making introductions between stars who were publicly feuding (or were perceived to be), a back-channel process as delicate as establishing diplomatic relations between rival governments. “Their egos won’t allow [friendships]. . . . But they would ask me, ‘What are the Aerosmith guys like?’ or ‘Are the Kiss guys fun to hang out with? What do they like to do?’ Privately, I think they are very curious about each other.”

Still, the long weeks and months of close contact with the artists on their tours and accompanying them as a personal bodyguard meant seeing them in private moments and just hanging out, and Augustine was close enough with many of them that he named his son after Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay and mourned N.W.A.’s Eric “Eazy-E” Wright when he succumbed to AIDS. Friends or not, it’s clear that Augustine’s people skills are as important to his work as his organizing abilities and imposing physique.

In many ways, the stars’ personalities are about what you’d expect from their public personas: George Thorogood liked to spend his free time watching baseball and having a quiet drink in the bar; Jon Bon Jovi and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry spent a lot of time exercising; Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley took five suitcases of computer equipment with him on the Alive tour, possibly to distract himself from the drug and alcohol addictions that still haunted him.

Scouring concert venues for groupies is alluded to but mostly glossed over; although Augustine mentions that he always carried condoms when accompanying Gene Simmons, he says the practice of moving pretty girls to the front row has been overstated, and that finding high-energy fans was the first priority when offering ticket swaps. By the mid-’90s, many of the artists Augustine accompanied were family men, traveling with their wives. (Amusingly, the audiences for the single young rap artists he started off with were often dominated by teenage boys. “Where are the women at?” he says the rappers would ask.) What’s left are quirky but tame tidbits like Run-DMC’s penchant for wearing brand-new underwear and socks, fresh from the package every day, or an anecdote about Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres’ insistence on shopping for antiques in Bogotá, Colombia, even in the face of kidnapping threats (nothing dangerous occurred).

Some of the funnier parts of the book involve Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, who, if Guardians of the Gods is to be believed, may actually be the Joker when not performing: one time backstage, Tyler stormed into his dressing room. Concerned, Augustine followed and asked him if something was wrong.

Steven looked up and his eyes flashed wildly at Andre. “Yeah. As a matter of fact, there is something.” He stood up, turned his back to Andre and started rifling through his gig bag. Andre, rethinking his decision to enter Steven’s dressing room, suddenly felt like disappearing. Steven continued, “There’s something about you that has really been pissing me off lately, that I don’t like. I don’t like it at all.” Andre felt the blood drain from his face. “You don’t smile enough, man!” Steven turned his hand to reveal a gag set of chattering teeth. “Smile, man!”

Although the members of the band like each other, “Steven always has a private dressing room because the rest of Aerosmith prefers not to be in the same room with him prior to curtain.” He’s just too hyperactive: “Steven is supercharged and outgoing. He is constantly trying to make you laugh, messing with your ears and tickling you. Steven is a fun person, but he’s just out there.”

Imagining the soft-spoken “gentle giant” security guard and the flighty, flamboyant lead singer together suggests that any Hollywood producer interested in developing an odd-couple buddy comedy set in the world of rock ‘n’ roll should consider optioning Guardian of the Gods. They wouldn’t even have to cut anything to get a PG-13 rating.

Scarefest: The Visitor

“Maybe this just isn’t the right time to bring children into this bad, mixed-up world. Some of them are confused: they think that the forces of evil are stronger than the forces of good.” –Jane Phillips (Shelley Winters), in The Visitor

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This article was written as a contribution to Scarefest, a series of pieces by commenters on film website The Dissolve, organized by commenter Miller. The week before it ran, I alerted Miller that I was changing my Scarefest entry to The Visitor, and another commenter asked, “Are you writing about how scary it is that it’s so bugnuts insane?” I assume he was kidding, but my short answer is yes. Yes, I am.

The 1979 film The Visitor, directed by Giulio Paradisi (as “Michael J. Paradise”), has long had a reputation as a hard-to-find cult oddity; after a restoration and rerelease by Drafthouse Films in 2013, it became more widely available on disc and VOD. TCM ran the restored version as part of its “TCM Underground” series last summer, and that’s where I saw it. I didn’t know a lot about it, other than having seen the bizarre trailer Drafthouse put together for it, and knowing that the film was considered extremely weird even among cult horror aficionados. I was prepared to have my mind blown, but I wasn’t prepared for The Visitor to actually be, you know, scary.

The plot isn’t easy to summarize except in broad outlines: businessman Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen) has made a deal with a shadowy organization dedicated to perpetuating the bloodline of an evil alien being referred to as Sateen. His girlfriend Barbara (Joanne Nail) has one child, Katy (Paige Conner), now eight, but Barbara is afraid of Katy and reluctant to have another child. Because of this, the organization pressures Raymond behind the scenes—their plans for world domination require that Katy have a brother—and Katy, in whom Sateen’s influence is already strong, alternately wheedles and punishes her mother for her obstinance. In the mean time, Jerzy (John Huston), the “visitor” of the English title, stalks Katy on behalf of Franco Nero’s character, a Christ-like figure who lives somewhere (in outer space? or is it Heaven?) with a congregation of bald children and who is opposed to Sateen. Is the visitor’s mission to kill Katy or save her? A lot of other stuff happens in the margins, but that’s basically it: a blend of New Age contactee mysticism and 1970s devil-child horror. So far, so good.

I: The Sleep of Reason

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So why did this movie, much of which is absurd on its surface, freak me out? For one thing, the film’s late-‘70s style took me back to my childhood, and not in a good way. I’m just over 40, so my memory of the 1970s is filtered through the subjective haze of being a young child then. The ‘70s were pretty strange to begin with, and even more so when you have no reference for much of the adult world. Much of what was considered “grown-up” moviemaking (and a lot that was aimed at kids) back then was characterized by, to use President Carter’s infamous term, the “malaise” of the time, and for me that resulted in a lot of free-floating unease, even when watching things that were ostensibly light. You just never knew when things were going to take a dark turn. The gauzy, soft-focus cinematography, cheesy cop show music, and swinging suburban styles of The Visitor were all intimately familiar to me, to the point that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t seen this movie as a kid (I’m still not sure).

My reaction is a subjective one, but is there anything more subjective than fear? Like laughter or arousal, the fear reaction is fundamentally irrational; it can be controlled on the viewer’s part, and there are techniques filmmakers can use to evoke it, but at a base level it touches something that cannot be reasoned with. In my case, that reaction has always been close to the surface: I could hardly watch scary movies or TV shows as a kid, even tame fare like The Twilight Zone, because being afraid or tense wasn’t a pleasant sensation for me like it is for many kids. I was drawn to fantasy, but even something that wasn’t scary at first could come to haunt me, taking on a life of its own as I lay in bed, waiting for sleep, which in many phases of my childhood had its own terrors in the form of realistic nightmares. The Visitor falls flat as a vehicle for ideas or even as a story: too many things happen without explanation, there are abrupt tonal shifts and weird distortions of sound and image, and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. But is that not an accurate description of a dream?

In dreams, anything can happen, and ordinary events and objects can be invested with emotional power greater than they have while awake. The very first scene, a (possibly allegorical) confrontation between Katy and Jerzy in a gold-lit field, is overtly surreal, and typical of the over-the-top visual flourishes in the movie’s more fantastic sections. As Katy approaches, thick snowflakes swirl around and stick to her face; eventually, only her eyes are visible. It’s spooky, like something from Altered States or Ridley Scott’s Legend (Scott also came to mind later in the film when the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta are seen through a smoky haze, like the future Los Angeles of Blade Runner).

But the first scene that really threw me is relatively mundane: at her birthday party, Katy eagerly opens a box which was supposed to contain a mechanical bird purchased by her aunt in an earlier scene. Through Sateen’s power (or something), the box contains a gun, which Katy excitedly waves around and then tosses onto the couch, where it goes off and hits Barbara in the back. Katy shrugs, like, “oops?” Barbara spends the rest of the movie in a wheelchair, paralyzed by a bullet to the spine. It’s a crazy scene, but part of its nightmare power is how casually it occurs, and the mismatch of typical “suspense” build-up with gleefully committed violence that literally comes out of nowhere.

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Later, after Barbara has recovered and started getting back to a normal life, she is stranded with Katy while driving at night. A semi truck, of which we can only see the lights, pulls up on the side of the road in front of their car. Barbara is worried, and Katy openly mocks her fear. Barbara is right to be afraid: the truck is a mobile operating room, and after she is rendered unconscious agents of the conspiracy artificially inseminate her to speed up their plan. The imagery is straight out of an alien abduction report: stranded motorists, lost time, the dim memory of an operation (I suspect that it is this sequence, and a few scenes of glowing lights in the sky, that led to criticism of The Visitor as a knock-off of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and a surprise pregnancy.

Upon discovering her condition, Barbara goes to her ex-husband (played by Sam Peckinpah!) and pleads with him to help her get an abortion. When she returns home from that operation (still in her wheelchair), Katy savagely attacks her. No pretenses now! And again, the sudden eruption of violence, while motivated by character and plot, is surprising in its intensity. Even Damien usually cloaked his actions in the plausible deniability of a “freak accident.”

II. The Sound of Nightmare

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The Visitor’s Italian title, Stridulum, is appropriate: Latin for “whizzing or hissing,” and surviving in English in the word “stridulation,” for the buzzing sound insects make by scraping their legs together, it’s a clue to how important sound is in The Visitor. Both Sateen and his enemy (a spaceship-flying “Commander Yahweh”—shades of Chariots of the Gods!), have birds as an important part of their back story; Katy keeps a hawk called Squeaky who obviously represents her diabolical heritage and with whom she communicates, and the visitor summons a flock of birds during the climax of the film to scourge Katy of Sateen’s influence (I think). I suspect that birds are so important to The Visitor because they’re a convenient artsy symbol for the soul, and also because, post-Hitchcock, birds are creepy. Either way, the soundtrack is full of echoing, distorted screeches and bird calls (in addition to analog synthesizer sounds—another skin-crawling part of my childhood—and the aforementioned funky cop show music). Whenever Katy is about to use her psychic powers (as at the birthday party), we hear the eagle cry, or see a glimpse of Squeaky, or both.

Then there’s the mechanical bird that was supposed to be in the box: it’s a gold and blue knick-knack that says “I’m a pretty bird” in a synthesized drone, followed by a whine of feedback, on a constant loop. Even in the first scene, when Katy’s aunt buys it, I’m not sure how anyone could hear that and think of the bird as anything other than a prop in a horror movie. Later, when a detective (Glenn Ford!) is trying to figure out where the gun at the party came from, he finds the bird and takes it with him in his car. It’s still talking as he drives his car down the freeway with it on the passenger seat. “I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo,” et cetera, until Squeaky attacks the detective and he drives the car off the road, where it bursts into flame before he can escape. Squeaky strikes again!

Sound also plays a role in the scariest scene in the film, the scene that I actually had to turn off for a few minutes to get myself together before I could finish watching it: early in the film, Katy is shown playing Pong on a big-screen TV, hidden by the chair in which she is sitting. The electronic blip of the game is the counterpoint to the conversation she has with her mother. Much later in the film, after Katy has been institutionalized for her violent behavior, Barbara returns home to her empty house and hears: blip . . . blip . . . blip. The game is turned on, Katy is in her chair. After Katy’s brutal attacks, just her presence in the house again is scary, but the whole sequence following is . . . well, it scared the hell out of me, but it is also much stranger than anything I’ve described yet, so I won’t spoil it.

III. All in the Family

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Paige Conner doesn’t look like she’s eight years old in this movie: maybe ten. It could be that she’s big for her age or I could just chalk it up to the precocity of child actors. In any case, her Katy Collins is a miniature tyrant, controlling and profane. Her poor mother is constantly put-upon, and her would-be stepfather mostly stays out of her way. Even when Katy’s words are pleading, her tone is commanding or threatening. Only Jerzy and a suspicious housekeeper (Shelley Winters) really see her for what she is, but take opposite approaches to dealing with her.

By coincidence, I had an older sister who would have been about Katy’s age in 1979, and while she wasn’t the holy terror that Katy is in the movie, I’m sure it affected my reception of this movie. The trappings of a late ‘70s girlhood cheek-by-jowl with the freaky events of the movie was unsettlingly close to my childhood nightmares and brought to the surface more anxiety than I realized I still carried with me.

Domestic abuse was an issue that got a lot of attention in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as if the lid had finally come off a closely-held secret and now everyone was free to sort it out in public. I’m fortunate that I didn’t grow up with firsthand experience of family violence, but it was something I became aware of thanks to the new openness about it. Nowadays, when I hear about Mommie Dearest at all, it’s as a camp classic: “No more wire hangers, ever!” et cetera. It wasn’t funny to me as a kid, however: Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford terrified me. I might have chosen that movie for Scarefest, except I haven’t gone back to watch it since then.

The Visitor pushes some of the same buttons for me. I’m not kept up at night by its cosmic battle of good and evil, or the slow-motion mayhem, or even the bird attacks: those are par for the course with science fiction and horror movies. I enjoy that stuff. What really shocked and disturbed me was the sudden eruption of violence in otherwise very mundane settings, worst of all between family members. For such an unreal movie, it feels an awful lot like someone’s issues being laid bare.

Now that I’m an adult, I see my childhood anxieties from the other side: my daughter is eight years old. I love her. She’s a good kid. But even in the best of relationships there are moments: children can be shockingly amoral and single-minded about getting what they want. As a parent, it’s natural to wonder about and be frustrated by those moments, and fearful not of our children but for them. I’m also not proud to admit that there are moments I feel like Shelley Winters’ Jane, just wanting to slap some respect into the “bad” kids. Is that what this genre of horror boils down to? Is that the root of The Bad Seed and The Good Son and “It’s a Good Life” and The Omen and all the rest? Is it simply the recognition that children can be brats, taken to the nth degree?

Possibly. But I think it’s more general than that: even the people closest to us have sides to them that are unknown to us. They share our lives and homes, but their thoughts are no more visible to us than those of strangers halfway around the world. The Visitor taps into the fear that we don’t really know the people around us: the “Visitor” could be a stranger, or someone we’ve known our whole lives.

I’m excited to announce that I am contributing to a brand-new website for discussion of film and related topics, The Solute. The Solute is, in the words of founder Julius Kassendorf, “a brainchild collective emerging from the commentariat of The Dissolve,” the same website on which I posted my reassessment of Addicted to Love last spring. Right now, I’m only represented on the site as part of a roundtable discussion on the state of theatergoing in 2014, but I’ll be posting reviews and longer articles as it moves forward. I’ll have a longer post soon that addresses how that will affect Medleyana, and I’ll post links here whenever I publish an article at The Solute. In the mean time, I invite you to check it out and explore the diverse range of writers who will be sharing their thoughts; if it’s anything like the conversations at The Dissolve, I expect it to be fresh, varied, and entertaining.