Finally! Friday: Criminal Minds Seasons 1–4

Why Finally? Because this is the reason I’ve had trouble coming up with Friday posts lately. You’d think an ’80s kid like me would’ve seen enough After-School Specials to avoid these traps, but no: I am addicted to Criminal Minds.

The Premise: In no particular order: murder, kidnapping and murder, murder, murder, rape, rape + murder, child murder, murder, profiling. (More specifically:  a team of FBI profilers, led by expert Jason Gideon and later by David Rossi, travel the US to catch the perpetrators of all that violence aforementioned.)

Did you see how the word “murder” began to not even look like a real word up there? That’s sort of what it’s like to watch this show sometimes.

Given my fondness for mystery and cop series and this show’s decade on the air, it’s odd that I hadn’t given Criminal Minds a try before this year. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that when I tell people what I’m watching, they make this…throat-noise, as if I’d announced some personal tragedy.  I don’t blame them, either, at least for the first two seasons: the problem with Mandy Patinkin as Jason Gideon is that he’s way too good in the role.  You feel every iota of Gideon’s pain, frustration, and building mental collapse—so much so that I began to think people who make it through seasons 1 and 2 should get achievement certificates.

That's pretty much his happy reason I took to calling Gideon "America's Most Haunted."
That’s pretty much his happy face…one reason I took to calling Gideon “America’s Most Haunted.”

Edged in black, of course.

Criminal Minds can be super depressing. It’ll make you afraid to own a home, have a routine, play a sport, or make contact with other humans in any way. Most episodes aren’t even really mysteries in the usual sense of the term: the first suspect is often the right one, and the mystery is how to get one step ahead and maybe save one of the (many, many…and sometimes even many-er than that) victims.

But something happened around the middle of season 3: the characters started to work better as a team, and the show began to let us see more of them personally. Instead of relying solely on a few minutes with hacker Penelope Garcia to lighten the mood from SadCon 1, Criminal Minds started to level out a bit. Perhaps the people responsible for the show realized that creeping dread wasn’t what an audience should feel when approaching their TVs; I don’t know, but I am grateful.

The Verdict: It’s kind of the same verdict as my old Beauty and the Beast review: I like it—to the point I am ignoring my blogly duties—but don’t necessarily enjoy liking it. Fainthearted viewers might want to skip the Gideon years; fainthearted viewers might also look through some of the other reviews I’ve written to get an idea about what “too murdery” could possibly mean in the context of the things I watch.

Might go well with: You’ll probably want something significantly lighter as a palate cleanser—I’ve been alternating this with Kolchak: The Night Stalker because I have a weird idea of “light.” And honestly, food is going to be hit or miss with this one.


Next time: A “Quest”ion of identity.

Finally(?)! Friday: Prince of Darkness

Why Finally? It’s been over a year since I reviewed anything from John Carpenter, who is right up there with Cronenberg for testing my commitment to watching a movie. (I’m not so squeamish that I faint at the sight of blood; in fact, that would probably be less irritating for anyone watching horror movies with me, given that unconscious people tend not to whimper and cover their eyes so much.)

The Premise: The Vatican has been keeping a secret for ages: there’s a big vat of glowing yuck in the basement of a California church, and it just may be the embodiment of Satan. A priest (Donald Pleasance) invites a physicist and his team of students to examine the vat and decipher the ancient book that goes along with it. He does this, as far as I can tell, either because he is a cockeyed optimist or because he really, really hates students, since the body count begins to mount almost at once and the evil liquid begins to possess its victims—literally, by squirting into their mouths like a malign Red Bull. Meanwhile, the entire group begins to have dreams of future evil.

I’ll skip straight to The Verdict this time and say right out that I liked Prince of Darkness (though I’m unsure how deeply), especially for a movie in which swarming bugs briefly animate a corpse.

After rewatching that scene, I find myself wondering if this is one of those movies that would collapse without its tense musical score.

I do enjoy stories that straddle the line between science and the supernatural (H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, the novels of Robert Holdstock), and this seems to be somewhat in that vein, with a passing resemblance to the technologically inclined ghosts of this century’s J-horror. That said, some of the mechanics of the…haunting?…aren’t quite clear: I loved Alice Cooper in his role as a homeless person, but were he and his cohorts zombified or “just” possessed or what? There also aren’t many moments that make us care about the characters, so that for all the (god)matter/anti(god)matter theorizing, Prince of Darkness is at its root a highfalutin slasher.

The real moral of the story: If Donald Pleasance can’t sort something out, for god’s heaven’s pete’s sake don’t go anywhere near it.

Might go well with: End of Days; as for food and drink, that all depends on how much you like bugs, I guess.


Next time: A (Benton) Quest for medicinal plants.

Finally! Friday: She Walks In Shadows Anthology


Why Finally? This one’s a finally! on two levels: one, of course, is that I said I was going to finish reading the book weeks ago—I think I even mentioned it here on the Omelet. The other is “Finally! Check out this anthology of Lovecraftian fiction, poetry and art all created by women.”

The Premise: See above.

H.P. Lovecraft is a hard author to like, given the man’s egregious racist and classist opinions and the way he spread adjectives around his stories like a thick layer of peanut butter. (It can be hard when reading Lovecraft not to reach a point in the prose where you think,”You know what? If it’s so darned indescribable, maybe stop trying to describe it.”)

My own liking for Lovecraft is partly personal: I can’t consider the author, a funny-looking bookish person with unstable parents and a sense that he arrived in this world when the good part was already over, without feeling that there but for the grace of Cthulhu go I. When your family dynamics start trending toward the Gothic, it’s easy to wonder if the monster is already lurking inside you, and that idea forms the basis of so much of Lovecraft’s work. (More prosaically, Lovecraft was at the center of my most memorable high-school slacking: I’m pretty sure everyone in my English class thought I was reading The Master Builder for our group project, but I stumbled onto “The Rats in the Walls” instead and faked my way through the Ibsen report. The story’s still kind of about architecture, I guess.)

She Walks in Shadows collects several current authors’ spins on stories and ideas in the Lovecraft mythos, punctuated by black-and-white artwork. Check out the page at Innsmouth Free Press for more information and a peek at the content.

The Verdict(s): The trouble with evaluating stories written “in the spirit of ____” is that you find yourself basing your opinion on both the quality of the stories and on how much they draw from the original material you like best. A riff on a story I love is going to seem better than a riff on a story I think is okay, so let me say first that I enjoyed the entire book. My special favorites, though:

  • “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad,” Molly Tanzer’s take on “The Thing on the Doorstep” in which, as is so often the case, horror lives in high school;
  • “Lavinia’s Wood” by Angela Slatter, a sort of prequel to “The Dunwich Horror” with more Whately family dynamics;
  • Jilly Dreadful’s “De Deabus Minoribus Exterioris Theomagicae,” in which one of those ancient tomes that drive folks mad receives a proper cataloguing. (Stories about books are nearly always my favorites.)

For my taste, it could have used more Innsmouth, but I am obsessed with sea-people of all sorts.

The little jerk actually swatted my hand when I tried to take it away.
The little jerk actually swatted my hand when I tried to take it away.

Might go well with: An awful lot of things I’ve already written about. Also, Amazon Prime video has an updated adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep that’s worth checking out. Not as good as the story mentioned above, I thought, but interesting.


Next time: Robot season!


Finally!(?) Friday: Scanners

Why Finally? Because I am squeamish as all get-out, and it’s a David Cronenberg film. I’ve been familiar with his reputation since 1986 and later (surprise!) from my ill-fated attempt to watch The Fly so I could see Jeff Goldblum with no shirt on.

When The Fly finally showed up on cable, I was 13 and very excited. My mother, who was more of a Commander USA’s Groovie Movies kind of person, sat down to watch it with me, but I folded right around the time Seth Brundle starts getting those giant back-hairs at the start of his flyification. Defeated by the yuck factor, I wandered off to my bedroom to read; occasionally Mom would yell out updates like “He just vomited acid!” or “His penis fell off and he put it in the medicine cabinet!” and I would yell back “THANKS FOR LETTING ME KNOW!” because that is how my family rolls.

Even though it would make one heck of a Found-Again Friday, I’ll probably never watch the entire Fly. But I made it through (and liked) Videodrome a few years ago, so when someone suggested 1981’s Scanners, I decided to go for it. After all, its classic head-exploding scene is pretty famous—so much so that the movie might be considered required viewing under my Deliverance Rule.”

And there was always a chance that would be the grossest part of the movie. Right?


The Premise: A generic government defense/intelligence agency hunts and captures Cameron Vale. Vale is a “scanner,” one of a small group of people who can telepathically mess with other people’s heads—at some pain to the scanner, and a whole lot of pain to us squishy-headed normals. After tutelage by mad scientist Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan—if nothing else, the name proves at least Cronenberg can’t predict the future himself), Vale is sent out to track down a rogue scanner named Darryl Revok. It’s a name that is clearly up to no good, and the character is played by Michael Ironside, so Revok is basically doomed to be very, very evil.

What follows is a psionic version of spy vs. spy, with contacts and allies on both sides becoming casualties of Vale and Revok’s date with destiny.

The Verdict: What kept bugging me as I watched this unfold is something simple: why on earth can’t scanners seem to pick up when someone is after them with a gun? I’d almost bet there’s an explanation that I missed because I know very little about Cronenberg movies (see above re: squeamish as hell).

As a thriller and the story of a man’s search for his identity, Scanners is often excellent, with that bleak aesthetic shared by all 1.3 of the previous Cronenberg films I’ve seen. And while some of its scenes of scanners in action—the head-exploding scene, a sort of mind-melding ritual, Cameron almost killing a tweed-clad yogi—are outstanding, other times the telepathy feels underused or oddly used, and the movie has a bad case of that creeping cinema disease where things explode that really shouldn’t. Despite that (and some eyeball violence), it’s an absolutely worthwhile watch.

Might go well with: Videodrome; Firestarter.

Geez, even the trailer agrees this is a one-scene movie. It’s not!

Finally! Friday: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“Dear Diary, why does no one understand me? P.S., I am not mad.”–Victor Frankenstein’s school friend Clerval, mocking him.

Why Finally? …and by “Mary Shelley’s,” we mean “now with Kenneth Branagh!” It’s time to sit down with a movie I’ve been putting off since the year it came out (and putting off even harder after I started watching all those Frankenfilms last year).

It would appear my timing is unusually good this week.

The Premise: I feel sure I’ve already mentioned somewhere on this site about Dr. Frankenstein and his habit of playing god with charnel leftovers; like Frankenstein: The True Story, this version hews close to the book, Arctic voyages and all. Victor F., spurred by the deaths of his mother and his mentor and possessed of an intellectual method best described as “better science through shouting,” creates his monster (Robert De Niro) using a steampunk contraption full of electric eels. He then promptly rejects it for being an icky sewn-together corpse—parents, am I right?— and the usual mayhem of a spurned monster ensues.

Monster time!
Time to meddle in that which man was never meant to know!
This was by far the most frightening Frankenstein's monster I've seen yet, and I'm getting to be a bit of a connoisseur.
This was by far the most frightening Frankenstein’s monster I’ve seen yet, and by now I’m a bit of a connoisseur.

Of all the versions of Dr. Frankenstein I’ve seen, this is the only one I can imagine someone actually wanting to marry, even for a minute—probably because this movie has a much greater emphasis on the domestic side of the plot, and we become invested in his relationship with Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).  Considering how badly that goes—Victor even attempts a grotesque resurrection after the monster murders Elizabeth—it feels odd to say it’s refreshing, but over the last year I’ve watched far too many movies in which Frankenstein’s fiancée is dragged around the plot like an awkward piece of luggage.

The Verdict: I hope no one would be shallow enough to rate a movie adaptation solely on hairstyle design, but if anyone did, this would be considered the greatest movie ever made.

Branagh and Aidan Quinn. Look at those curls!

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is over the top, but in a way clearly drawn from its source material and which allows Branagh to chew all the scenery his handsome heart desires (I mean this as a compliment: big is what the man does best).  The action sequences are excellent, as is the cast, and I lost track of the number of artists whose work seems to have influenced the sets, from Bosch hellscapes to Turneresque skies and far, far beyond. Really good.

Might go well with: Absinthe. Avoid meat during this movie at all costs; after all, it might come back for revenge.


Next time: Spydaddy longlegs.

Finally!(?) Friday: Frankenstein: The True Story

Why Finally? This 1973 version was recommended while I was in mid-rant about the odd Franken-kick I went on with last year’s Friday posts, during which I watched Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein (I didn’t write that one up), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I still haven’t seen the Branagh version…and just realized that it’s been *mumble* number of years since I took time from my college studies to watch Haunted Summer. At least we know what to look for in 2016…

The Premise: After his brother dies, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting, who was Romeo in the Zeffirelli Romeo & Juliet—many Americans will therefore recognize him as “the guy whose butt we saw in 9th-grade English”) is despondent. He decides to conquer the secrets of life, first being as snotty about it as possible to his fiancée Elizabeth. Even before he spends part of the movie reminding everyone he’s a doctor, you quickly realize this is the sort of man who reminds everyone he’s a doctor.

Victor hooks up with another mad scientist, Henry (David “Ducky on NCIS” McCallum), and together they plan to build their monster out of workmen killed in a building disaster.  Henry has a weak heart, however, so when a setback in their process manifests, he dies before he can tell Victor—and his brain is popped into the monster. Waste not, want not.

The overarching goal of the production, explained in a spoiler-filled intro by a gentleman standing at Mary Shelley’s grave, is to tell the story more as it appeared in the original novel and less like the 1930s movies. This it certainly does, and with a number of visual touches that would have fit perfectly into Ken Russell’s Gothic, even as it hits many stops familiar to fans of the old films. The cast is magnificent: Whiting and McCallum are joined by John Gielgud, James Mason, Agnes Moorehead, and Jane Seymour (I wasn’t familiar with Michael Sarazzin, who played the monster, but he gives a heartbreaking performance as the creation who falls from grace through no fault of his own).

The Verdict: To put it bluntly, this may be the only 3-hour film I’ve ever enjoyed that didn’t have a dragon in it somewhere. Yes, some parts are the purest fromage; it’s an old TV movie/miniseries. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in the Frankenstein lore—which I am largely not!—it’s very good and cheaply available on DVD.

Random Note: Judging by this film, being the Fourth Doctor was just something Tom Baker did in between playing rough-spoken, bearded sea captains. And I’m okay with that.

Might go well with: Tea, opera, any of the other five zillion Frankenstein movies.

Next time: Who needs a special-forces guard when you have a kid with a basket?

Finally! Friday: Scream Blacula Scream

(Proofreader-brained side note: Do you know how hard it is not to put commas in that title every time I write it? Very hard.)

Why Finally?: Once I saw the first movie, there was no way I’d stay away from this one—especially once I found out Pam Grier was the heroine. And I’m a sucker for movie voodoo, even though I know it is to the real religion what exorcism movies and End of Days are to Catholicism.

The Premise: When the head of a voodoo-inclined family dies, two people are candidates for succession: the dying woman chooses her apprentice, Lisa (Grier), instead of her own flesh and blood, and the spurned Willis retaliates by acquiring Blacula’s (weirdly huge) bones and raising him from the dead. Willis is clearly pretty good at spells, but not good at calculating his own life expectancy after he raises a vampire.

Blacula, as Mamuwalde, uses Willis’s big old house as his HQ and infiltrates the surrounding community, meeting Lisa and her (partner? Romantic relationships never seem clearly defined in these movies) Justin. Justin collects African art, including artifacts from Mamuwalde’s past, and the vampire soon begins to see Lisa and her powers as a way to cure his bloodsucking habit and end his torment.

Remember when I complained about ‘Salem’s Lot and how you couldn’t have vampires multiplying at such a rate plausibly? Scream Blacula Scream is actually a bit of a field experiment in this regard: by the end of the movie, most of the secondary characters have been vamped, and there’s a shot of plywood coffin after plywood coffin in Willis’s basement by the end of the film. Just look at this!

The Verdict: Even playing on my pet vampiric peeve, though, the movie is great: the beginning harks back wonderfully to all the times the original Dracula has been raised again from movie to movie, and William Marshall brings his awesome performance to a film with a better budget—Blacula’s even had a cape upgrade! As in the first movie, there’s a genuine struggle to redeem himself that most movie vampires only experience if there’s a love interest in the, er, wings. Absolutely worth watching.

Might go well with: Love At First Bite, Taste the Blood of Dracula, étouffée.





Finally! Friday: Blacula

Why Finally? Like a surprising number of Hammer films* and (until last year) Universal horror pictures, 1972’s Blacula was one of those glaring gaps in my education—and this despite years of being told how good it is. A viewing was overdue, probably by decades.

The Premise: In the late 18th century, African prince Mamuwalde (the splendid William Marshall) goes on a diplomatic mission to Castle Dracula in an attempt to curb the slave trade. This goes badly, as trips to Castle Dracula tend to do, and Mamuwalde is cursed with vampirism, christened Blacula by Vlad himself, and locked in a coffin for 190 years. When the castle’s furnishings are bought by some decorators and shipped to Los Angeles, the vampire rises—and quickly finds a woman who looks just like his late wife.

Failure of diplomacy.
Negotiations aren’t going so well.

There follows a game of cat and mouse—once the police finally realize a series of exsanguination deaths deserves fuller investigation—led by a romantically partnered pair of scientists. Are they too late to defeat the forces of the undead, or will Blacula reclaim his bride?

Let’s get this out of the way: the vamp makeup in Blacula is often distracting. Some of his victims are completely green, and there’s a wide range of fangs at varying angles on display. Our titular villain gets bizarre facial hair when he vamps out: I enjoyed this, since it seems closer to the hairy-palmed Dracula that Stoker originally dreamed up, but it can be startling.

It shouldn’t detract from the story, though, which gives us an excellent antihero in Blacula. He’s been genuinely mistreated, had everything he valued taken away, and despises his own nature; it’s just not enough to stop the body count from rising, or to stop him from fighting back. And did I mention William Marshall is magnificent?

Readers, if any, know how much I enjoy tracing influences among movies/TV/books, and Blacula is a gold mine. It may be the first movie in which a vampire is haunted by the reincarnation of his lost love (though TV’s Dark Shadows seems to have done it first), an idea by now endemic to vampires generally and Dracula stories in particular. There are tiny details that were lifted almost verbatim by Love At First Bite. And there’s even an appearance by Elisha Cook (credited without his Jr.) as a hook-handed pathologist who suffers the eventual fate of most characters played by Elisha Cook.

My only problems with Blacula, apart from the terrible makeup effects, are ones I have with a number of old horror films—especially the syndrome I like to call vampnesia. (Vampnesia is, of course, a disease common to characters in horror movies in which “everybody’s heard of Count Dracula!”—at least enough to make fun of the people claiming they just saw him— but the good guys still must find an occult expert or make a trip to the local library’s folklore section in order to beat the baddie. I will never understand this.) The movie also has a case of “things spontaneously burning” reminiscent of the flammable stone mansion in The Haunted Palace, but hey, movie fire is fun.

The Verdict: All those people I mentioned above were right: Blacula is an excellent horror movie as well as an interesting cultural artifact. Even while rooting for the mortals, I was sad to see him go (is that a spoiler in a vampire movie, really?) and glad that there’s Scream Blacula Scream to bring him back.

Might go well with: rare steak, good music, anything crocheted.


*At least the ones not called [Something Something Something] Dracula.


Next time: The Quest(s) for the temple.

Finally! Friday: Brief Explanation + The Streets of San Francisco, Season 1

Welcome to Finally! Friday, an occasional feature to break up the (loooooong) list of things I need to revisit for Found-Again Fridays. Inspired last year when I watched Flashdance only 30 years after I first meant to, I’ll be writing about stuff you… and sometimes I… can’t believe I never watched/read before—and for this week, it’s 1970s crime drama The Streets of San Francisco.

Why Finally?  It’s a police drama with a young Michael Douglas in it. If you had any idea how much Law & Order I’ve seen, or how many times I’ve watched Romancing the Stone, you too would be flabbergasted.

…by my not having seen Streets, that is.

The Premise: San Francisco homicide detectives Mike Stone (Karl Malden, who to a demographic including me will forever be “the guy from the American Express ads”) and Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) solve a variety of crimes, from armed robberies gone wrong to apparent political assassinations.

It’s the classic buddy-cop formula: Keller is a bit more the charge-ahead man of action, while the older Stone is craftier (and has an uncanny ability to talk crazed killers into giving themselves up). Still, neither is a slouch in any department, and most of the fun lies in watching them work together to find the killer. And like some of the shows that followed it—Simon & Simon and Magnum, P.I. come to mind—the city itself becomes a kind of supporting character in Streets of San Francisco.

As does Douglas's hair. Look at that—it's a force of nature! Or a force against nature. It's definitely a force, at any rate.
As does Douglas’s hair. Look at that—it’s a force of nature! Or a force against nature. It’s definitely a force, at any rate.

The Verdict: If you are the sort of person who watches Dragnet ’67 for the funky clothes and slang, you’ll love this show. If you like cop shows, you’ll like this show. If your hobby is spotting character actors, you’re going to yell “Vic Tayback!!” a lot. (You’ll also see David Soul as a man hiding his ethnic background and David “Ellery Queen’s dad” Wayne as a newspaper seller.) And if you’ve ever seen Police Squad!, you’re about to find out why they did that title-card gag. Tremendous fun, just dated enough to be interesting rather than absurd.

Might go well with:  Seafood, Dragnet, and to the surprise of no one, Romancing the Stone.  You have to admit that hair is incredible.

Next time: Benton Quest vs. Blofeld Zin.