The Black Hole (1979) Written by Gerry Day & Jeb Rosebrook Directed by Gary Nelson
Who is Disney’s The Black Hole for? It’s too dark and metaphysical for kids to understand, yet it’s presented as a 1950s B-science fiction film unironically, which makes it less elevated than the material could be. The Black Hole is a film for no one, yet it has fascinated me years after first seeing it on a library VHS tape borrowed when I was eight years old. It is essential to understand the landscape The Black Hole was released in, and how out of touch with contemporary cinema is feels at moments. It’s also an exploitation flick in that it cribs from Star Wars, Alien, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but never in a good way.
Servant Season 1 (Apple TV+) Written by Tony Basgallop Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Daniel Sackheim, Nimrod Antal, Alexis Ostrander, Lisa Bruhlmann, and John Dahl
A few months ago, I posted reviews of the first episodes of a handful of Apple TV+ shows, and overall I wasn’t very impressed. The entire slew seemed very derivative of already popular shows from the past (The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, etc.). I was intrigued by Servant, a horror series produced by M. Night Shyamalan. Despite my intense disappointment with that director’s recent output, I figured he was producing so he couldn’t screw the show up too badly. The first couple episodes were a little rough going, it took some time to get a feel for the tone the series was going for. By the end of the season, they had me hooked, and I am ready for season two to get here.
Greener Grass (2019) Written and Directed by Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Luebbe
In the 21st century, there has been an influx of a new kind of anti-comedy with the work of comedians like Tim & Eric being one of many beginning touchpoints. This is humor that blends social satire and grotesque imagery, not intending to demean some other figure but often as a way for the artist to examine their own anxieties and insecurities. Much like how David Lynch explores his fears of parenthood in Eraserhead, so too do these films and television programs feature creators wanting to jump headfirst into neuroses. Greener Grass is two women’s look at a particular type of femininity and way of life that they have intense fears about.
Day of the Locust (1975) Written by Waldo Salt Directed by John Schlesinger
There’s an exhausting sunbaked feeling surrounding Day of the Locust. The music and the soft lighting make conflicting claims, but if you pay close attention, you notice the rotten smell wafting up from underneath. You see it in the cracks in Tod Hackett’s apartment, hidden by a framed quote claiming the presence of God is protecting the people within. This is shown as the landlady tells Tod about the earthquake of 1932, where she and her tenants were spared while others died across the city. Tod ends up covering the crack with his artwork, slowly building a fresco of Hollywood in flames, hollow, empty faces screaming out.
Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, both by George Saunders, I have been searching for that sort of literary voice, and I think I’ve found it in Adjei-Brenyah. The most obvious connection is the short “Zimmer Land,” a theme park where people come to act out their aggressive fantasies while mostly ethnic minority employees (wearing high tech protective gear) become human punching bags. “The Finkelstein Five” continues that exploration of contemporary race conflict as the narrator becomes caught up in the reaction to the acquittal of a child murderer who took the lives of four black children with a chainsaw. There’s a duo of stories about the Thunderdome like conditions of a future shopping mall, where customers kill each other over insulated parkas. My favorite was the closing story, “Through the Flash” and it brought me to tears while reading it. That tale features a teenage girl caught in a dystopian time loop where she and her neighbors have lived the same days for thousands of years. It was an oddly hopeful and heartbreaking story. Of all the fiction I’ve read this year Friday Black gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.
Over the Garden Wall (2014) Born out of the inspiration that Adventure Time brought to Cartoon Network, Over the Garden Wall is a mini-series following two brothers wandering through a mysterious forest and encountering strange people. The series was created by Patrick McCale, who had previously worked on Adventure Time and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. Over the Garden Wall is a deep dive into the Americana aesthetic of the 19th & early 20th centuries. Many musical numbers consist of pre-1950s phonograph recordings. You’ll be reminded of early animation from the 1920s & 30s in many of these episodes. There’s such a remarkable charm to this show that few animated series possess. It’s funny while being genuinely terrifying at moments, enigmatic and wistful. It’s a program that understands what nostalgia actually is and how that feeling is different from reality. Our protagonists drift through abstract forest landscapes emerging into the dreams and fantasies of others, interacting for a while before being pulled into another story.
One of the best ways to bring people into a fantastical story, such as in the science fiction or horror genre, is to ground that narrative in human conflict and emotions. We can’t relate to being in the middle of a world-ending cosmic event or being chased by otherworldly monsters. However, the audience can connect to feelings like loss, guilt, the list goes on. Starfish, despite being a sometimes surreal movie, keeps its feet firmly planted in the realm of the human psyche. Now, if it succeeds in conveying a compelling narrative to the audience is another question entirely.