Monday, 31 October 2016

Logo Case Study: Genesis Home Video "The Four Palm Trees of the Apocalypse"

Is there a media logo out there that's so unspeakably horrifying it could send even the Unholy Trinity (The V of Doom, The S From Hell and The Closet Killer) scurrying back to the portals of Hades from whence they came in an ungodly, squealing panic? Absolutely there is, and I've made a special point of saving up the case study for this most nefarious of logos for October 31st, when I figured it would be most within its element.  Meet the Genesis Home Video logo, otherwise known as "The Four Palm Trees of The Apocalypse", otherwise known as "Music To Make Flocks Stampede". This is my personal pick for Most Terrifying Logophobia-Inducer of All-Time.

Genesis Home Video was, as the moniker implies, a VHS distribution company, and was active throughout the late 1980s. Sadly, I've not been able to piece together a whole lot of background information on the company itself, but there are a couple of websites out there with comprehensive image galleries showcasing its catalogue of titles (check them out at VHSCollector and at critcononline). Schlocky, low budget B-movies very much appear to have been the name of their game, with obscurities such as Night of Horror (1981) and Cataclysm (1980) making up the bulk of their offerings, along with 1970s exploitation fare like Cain's Cutthroats (1971) and the occasional mainstream Hollywood production like Long John Silver (1954). It all sounds delectable as sin to me, and there's a lot in there I would happily devour if copies of their releases weren't so tricky to come across.

So what is it about this logo, precisely, that compels me to deem it the absolute worst of such an all-round horrifying list of contenders? Everything. It's a work of pure and utter ghastliness from top to bottom. Anyone who purchased a schlocky horror title from Genesis Home Video hoping for a vulgar thrill certainly got their money's worth just from this logo alone.

The GHV logo constitutes such an appalling mishmash of wierdly unearthly components that it's difficult to know where to begin in unpicking it, so let me start by trying to outline what I think was the intention here. We see the silhouettes of four palm trees against a blue backdrop with a pinkish glow toward the bottom, accompanied by some indistinct rumbling noises that I assume are meant to represent the sounds of distant thunder. A pink sphere appears in the sky and rises upwards, rendering the background paler and pinker as it goes. I think that the pink sphere is meant to be evocative of a rising sun, but the sheer shoddiness of the animation makes it difficult to say for certain. The background darkens and the words "Genesis Home Video LTD" gradually become visible. As the sphere rises, the rumbling noises are slowly drowned out by a heinous concoction of high-pitched ringing noises, which run on ad nauseam, before finally the whole thing dissolves into a lava lamp soup of green, purple and yellow splodges, and the words "The Next Wave In Entertainment" appear on screen. The intended symbolism is easy enough to decipher. Palm trees = chic, exoticism, glamour, thunder = powerful, awe-inspiring, and that cacophony of diabolical high-pitched, tinitus-inducing ringing noises = uh, well, you got me there. I don't know what that's in aid of.

Now let me tell you what I actually see when I watch this logo. I see the silhouettes of four palm trees against a blue backdrop with a pinkish glow toward the bottom (and something about ENTERTAINMENT written underneath it, although it's been very clumsily cropped), accompanied by some indistinct and highly ominous rumbling noises that sound, for all the world, like the beach is under an air raid attack. The shot pans upwards and I see a giant pink marble appear in the sky, accompanied by the most ear-piercingly diabolical ringing noises you're ever going to hear. It's these noises, I think, that enable the logo to transcend the would-be hilarity of its tacky aesthetics and enter into the realm of the apocalyptic nightmare, for they give off the eerie impression that something truly cataclysmic is being dropped from above (I have an A-Bomb in mind, myself). The ringing runs on for what seems like an eternity, as if purposely designed to make your blood run cold, and to transform any dogs you might happen to have there with you in your living room into savage, flesh-ripping monsters. The pitch then starts to lower and, just as you fear that the thing is gearing up to launch an all-out assault upon your bowels, judgement finally arrives from above and melts down everything in existence into a garish, radioactive ooze. The old world is gone, now The Next Wave In Entertainment slithers in to assume its place.

In the end, the Genesis Home Video logo is such a perfect blend of cheap graphics, garish colours and inexplicable background noises that the result is a glorious display of utter grotesqueness.  Objectively speaking, absolutely nothing about this logo works - it's poorly animated and laughably executed, and the accompanying sounds are so hideous and strange that one can barely comprehend what effect its producers were even going for. And yet, each of these failed elements adds immeasurably to the overall aura of dread and unease, as this hopelessly unrefined sequence, through only a few crude visuals and a chaotic barrage of sickening noises, somehow manages to convey the horrifying sensation of the world blowing up all around us. It's a terrible logo in every sense of the word; needless to say, I'm completed enamored with it.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Coca-Cola - Swimming Elephant (1994)

CocaCola (9) - Swimming Elephant - 1994 from The Britvic Education Trust on Vimeo.

Earlier this year, the world bid farewell to Rajan, the last of the ocean-swimming elephants of the Andaman Islands, India, who passed away sometime in the nocturnal hours between July 31st and August 1st 2016 aged 66.  One of several Asian elephants utilised by the timber industry and trained to paddle from island to island in the 1970s to assist with transporting logged trees, Rajan became the last left standing when logging was banned on the islands in 2002 and most of his brethren were sold and shipped off to the mainland.  Rajan ultimately landed upon the Havelock Island in 2004, where he spent his retirement years when his owner could no longer afford to manage him.  Instead, he was taken in by the Barefoot Resort, his ocean-loving antics swiftly making him into a popular tourist attraction and, once the video evidence had made its way to YouTube, a web sensation.  Clearly, he was one of the world's most celebrated and unconventional pachyderms, and he'll certainly be missed.

Long before YouTube elevated him to superstardom among the social media crowd, Rajan and his chums had already received worldwide exposure through their appearance in Jacques Cousteau's 1991 documentary film, Andaman, les îles invisibles.  A far more curious component of their legacy arrived in 1994, when a swimming elephant became the unlikely star of a commercial for Coca-Cola.  One which I recall having a distinctly ambivalent relationship with as a child - at the time, I got a definite skin-crawl sensation whenever this advert was played, although looking back now I'm not sure if I can quite put my finger on why.  On the one hand, the spectacle of an elephant gliding through the depths of the ocean could hardly fail to mesmerise, the hefty giant of the animal kingdom suddenly appearing to defy gravity and become impossibly light and aerial.  It's an irresistibly astounding sight, yet one which also carries shades of the surreal, and perhaps it was all just a tad too freaky for my ultra-sensitive tastes back then.  More likely, it was the jerky movements of the animatronic trunk, which surfaces toward the end of the ad and makes off with a sunbather's Coca-Cola (albeit not without offering consolation in the form of a handful of peanuts, the obvious elephant currency), which really got to me - it looked stilted and alien, and I think I was all too aware of the dissonance between the real-life elephant photography which made up most of the ad and something clearly being operated by a human hand.  For whatever reason, I enjoyed a bizarre love/hate relationship with this wholly innocuous, if exceedingly quirky commercial, meaning that I was as strangely fixated with the imagery and scenario as I was totally unnerved by them.  I never forgot this ad (no wordplay inten...oh, screw it), and I look back on it with endless affection now.

The swimming elephant commercial was the work of Minneapolis-based advertising agency Fallon McElligott and made its grand debut during the 1994 Wimbledom Finals on NBC.  Scenes involving the sunbather and the creepy elephant trunk puppet were filmed in Thailand and spliced with original footage of the swimming elephants in the Andaman Islands.  In a contemporary article published the Chicago Tribune, Coke spokesperson Bob Bertini revealed that the original plan had been for the elephant to deliver the beverage in question to the sunbather on the raft, but it was ultimately decided that the scenario would have more resonance if the elephant, with whom the viewer has spent the better part of the commercial's running time, should be the one to make off with the spoils.  He also explained the intended link between the product and the peculiar scenario, which apparently foxed a few critics - obviously, there was the entirely straightforward matter of catching the viewer's attention with a memorable image (Bertini cites, vaguely, "a TV nature show" as the inspiration, possibly referring to Cousteau's film), but the idea at heart was that this elephant so craved Coca-Cola that he was willing to go through highly unusual lengths to obtain it, even if that meant traveling stealthily underwater and swiping it from unsuspecting sunbathers.  Really, it's the additional detail that the elephant bothers to leave any form of compensation at all on the raft, when it would have made for a serviceable enough twist if he'd simply flat-out stolen the cola, that pushes this ad into that whole extra level of quirk.

Although the above Vimeo-hosted video shows the version of the ad with which I was personally most familiar, the original version was a minute long and, there, the beverage pilfered at the end was a bottle of Diet Coke.  Watch it below:

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Old Fangs (2009)

Old Fangs from adrien merigeau on Vimeo.

Old Fangs is a short film directed by Adrien Meirgeau and Alan Holly and produced by Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation company most famous for the feature films The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of The Sea (2015) and the children's TV series Skunk Fu!  It tells a story of estranged family relations and the challenges of confronting a past from which one has long since distanced oneself, using the anthropomorphic scenario of a young wolf venturing into the forest in order to reunite with the brutish father he fled from many years ago. 

The opening images of the film show a car traveling through a misty landscape; only after we see a nondescript finger fiddling with the radio controls is it revealed to us that the occupants are animals.  For the early stages of the film, Old Fangs plays as an increasingly perturbing mystery, the purpose of the characters' journey being divulged only very gradually as they press ever further onward.  We see this trio of animals - wolf, fox and Siamese cat individually - laughing together at a service station and might initially be inclined to assume that we are witnessing three friends embarking on a carefree road trip.  Our only hint, at this point, of any potential trouble waiting further down the road is in the uneasy stillness of the wolf character as his two companions are casually savouring the cool breeze blowing through an open car window.

As the surrounding scenery changes from open fields to houses and telephone wires to finally a dense wooded area, whereupon the characters leave their car and trek cautiously into the forest, there is a genuine sense of journeying into the dark unknown, the anxieties of the fox and cat aligning with those of the viewer.  Only when the wolf, upon reaching a pond concealed in the depths of the woodland, reflects that, "It hasn't changed at all...only it seems so much smaller," does it finally become apparent that he is returning to an old childhood haunt.  The characters continue their journey and, with night now having descended upon the forest, at long last happen upon what they have been searching for this whole time - a solitary house located within the forest clearing.  At this point, the fox and the cat retreat into the grasses and their lupine comrade is left to complete the last leg of his journey on his own.  The final piece of the puzzle (or the particular puzzle which opens the story, at any rate) clicks into place when the young wolf warily opens the door of the house, and greets the occupant with a tentative "Dad?"  There is now little remaining mystery as to the nature of the preceding journey; instead, it becomes a question of what past events have led to the estrangement between the old and young wolf and, more pressingly, what will happen next?

Right from his introduction, the older wolf has a foreboding presence that clearly distinguishes him from the trio of cautious travelers.  All four animals are anthropomorphised, yet he is given an obviously more bestial look, with his gargantuan form and lack of clothing.  In some respects, he resembles the archetypal "Big Bad Wolf" of fairy tale notoriety and yet in many shots he appears so monstrous and grotesque that he is scarcely recognisable as a wolf - our very first glimpse of the character shows a close-up of his snout exhaling cigarette smoke in a manner which gives him an almost draconic air.  Naturally, he completely dwarfs his son, to the extent that it is challenging to consider them as being of the same flesh and blood.  The older wolf embodies the wilder, more brutal lifestyle which his son has long-since deserted, a disconnect emphasised in the implication that the younger wolf has abandoned his carnivorous roots; upon the table are the remnants of a prey animal's entrails, which the older wolf picks up and angrily asks the younger wolf if it disgusts or frightens him.  He then imposes a test upon the younger wolf, commanding him to assume his image by sharing in his smoking habit.

Although some viewers deem the ending of the scenario to be incomplete or anti-climatic, to my mind it is perfectly done, as the fox and the cat, once again mirroring the anxieties of the viewer, express concern that the situation will turn ugly, only for the door of the house to open once again and for their friend to wander silently out, apparently without incident; as he rejoins them, he imparts simply that his father, "wasn't really pleased to see me", and they begin their journey back out of the forest.  It is an outcome that subverts viewer expectations, with the failed reunion between father and son ending not with heavy drama but with an understated disquietude, hinting at deeper and unspoken pains which simply cannot be brought to the surface.  It is only after the younger wolf has left the house that we see any hint of vulnerability from his father; his eyes are widened, as if he too is left shocked and hurt by the outcome.  It is in this wide-eyed expression that we finally see some resemblance between the father and son; it recalls the startled expression worn by the younger wolf as he first set eyes upon his father's house.

We also here get some inkling of the mother wolf's role in this equation, with a subtext about domestic abuse suggesting itself as smoke rises from the older wolf's cigarette and is seen to obscure her image in a family photograph.  She is scowling, as if staring accusingly back at him, perhaps betraying her dissatisfaction with the relationship.  As the younger wolf treks back through the forest and is haunted by a series of flashbacks recalling how, as a small cub, he would observe his father hunting, we see the mother wolf sitting silently upon the sidelines, her unhappiness muted and in the backdrop, but nevertheless evident.  Ultimately, we learn that it was the mother who led the younger wolf in the abandonment of his father (by which stage the gentle regard shown by the younger wolf toward a ladybird, in contrast to the ruthlessness with which his father hunts down and slaughters a deer, had illustrated how far apart they were already growing).  Overwhelmed by his memories, the younger wolf begins to run in the present too - for the second time in his life, he finds himself fleeing from the wilderness that he now knows for certain he can never be a part of.

One aspect of Old Fangs which stands out as particularly wonderful is its striking and extremely effective use of colour.  Throughout the film, the various stages of the younger wolf's journey is illustrated through dramatic changes in colouration which perfectly encapsulate the mood of each sequence.  As the trio of travelers head through the outskirts of the forest, the dominant colours are warm, glowing reds and browns, which gradually give way to darker hues as they get deeper into the forest and the last rays of evening sun begin to lesson.  As they approach the clearing and find themselves outside the house of the older wolf, this changes to a cold and ominous dark blue.  By stark contrast, the interior of the house is a glaring and unnaturally bright yellow, which further emphasises the imposing presence of the father wolf, and also the passionate, fiery tensions which lurk beneath the surface of their uneasy reunion.  Obviously, these changes in colour mark the temporal stages of the young wolf's journey, with day transforming into night, until finally he ends up in the artificially-lit milieu of his father's home.  But they also symbolise his emotional journey, and the increasingly harrowing turmoils of having to delve into his past and confront the source of those anxieties.  In the young wolf's initial childhood flashbacks, the dominant colour is green, with its obvious symbols of youth, freshness and springtime.  In later flashbacks, we see that autumn browns have crept into the picture and are becoming ever more prominent, indicating loss of innocence and the gradual decay of the young wolf's relationship with his father.

It's a tiny quirk of the film, but I do ponder the significance of the young wolf's companions being a fox and a cat, two fellow predatory animals, instead of two herbivorous species, as an obvious means of further signifying the young wolf's disconnect from his carnivorous origins.  Perhaps, alternatively, they indicate a disconnect from the dense wilderness in which the older wolf is most at home, with the cat suggesting domestication and the fox adaptability to more urbanised environs.  In that sense, they are signs of just how far the younger wolf has come in order to revisit his father, and how far away he initially fled to get away from him.  Moreover, they are indicators that, no matter how troubled or haunted the younger wolf might be by his past, he has friends and will never be alone in the world.  The same cannot be said for his father, who ends up condemned once again to his solitary lifestyle, having twice been deprived of the son whom he so desperately wanted to mold in his own image.

The final images of the film show the older wolf inside his house, huffing with anguish and shedding endless tears; a reminder of the pain that exists upon both sides of the broken relationship and a further hint of the terrible vulnerabilities lurking beneath his brutish exterior.  We sense that there is a far bigger story here to be explored, but Old Fangs wisely keeps things as understated as possible, giving us only bits and pieces and allowing the atmosphere of each individual scene to divulge as much or as little as we need.  It is a haunting conclusion to a beautiful and harrowing film, one which offers no easy answer to the issue of estrangement, taking us simply on a journey into a unsettling world where the traumas of past events continue to cast long and threatening shadows over the present, and the two wounded souls at the centre of the story are left to discover that they are beyond all reconciliation.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Logo Case Study: DiC "Kid In Bed"

Now seems as good a time as any to take an in-depth look at the television logo which, as I mentioned in my review of the Rodney Ascher film The S From Hell, most confounded me in my own childhood years.

For Xmas 1990, my parents gave me a VHS tape which was deceptively titled Sylvanian Families: The Movie.  In actuality it was not a "movie" at all, but seven back-to-back episodes of the US Sylvanian Families TV series (not to be confused with the British stop-motion series Stories of the Sylvanian Families which ran around the same time).  Even at that age, I was savvy enough to recognise that a back-to-back marathon of self-contained TV episodes is not the same thing as a feature film.  I was also savvy enough to know that the word that flashed up on screen if you played right through to the end of the tape was a bad one that I would certainly get into a lot of trouble for saying in adult company (unless it were followed by a Whittington or Turpin).

If you stuck it out to the very end of the tape, you were rewarded with an odd sequence involving a kid's bedroom, a sleeping beagle and a giant celestial sea urchin who spawns the letters "D-i-C" against the night sky, at which point a disembodied child's voice can be heard uttering "Dick!", with the cheery enthusiasm of a youngster who knows just what kind of power they're wielding on the edge of their tongue.  Terrifying it wasn't, but I recall nevertheless feeling strangely unsettled by that sequence.  The eerie motionlessness of the opening image, coupled with us subsequently assuming the perspective of an unseen presence crawling across this random kid's bedroom, was just the slightest bit unnerving, and that was before we even reached the climax, where they flashed that word up in big bright letters for my impressionable young eyes to see (the spelling was a little off, of course, but I'm not sure that I appreciated that at the time).  It was a freaky experience.
The notion that a bunch of innocent-looking VHS tapes from the late 80s/early 90s were looking to indoctrinate children into the joys of cursing by inserting title cards with random expletives at the end would no doubt be the ultimate wet dream of a few moral outrage lobby groups, but naturally there was no such conspiracy.  DiC was merely an acronym, and stood for "Diffusion Information Communication."  I've also since been informed that, technically, the correct pronunciation is "deek", but I can say in all honesty that I always read it it as "dick" and that's exactly what I heard back then.  Of course, DiC started life as a French animation production company, before a former Hanna-Barbera writer, Andy Heyward, founded its American arm in 1982 and found great success with a little cartoon called Inspector Gadget, so perhaps they weren't quite so receptive to the implications of the acronym in English.  Of course, any animation buff worth their salt already knows the story that, elsewhere in the industry, the acronym was said derogatorily to stand for "Do It Cheap", due to the aggressiveness of the company's cost-cutting production policies.

The "Kid In Bed" logo I saw at the end of Sylvanian Families: The Movie had first come into use in 1987 and, DiC cartoons being as ubiquitous as they were in my childhood, I would encounter it in a few more places and eventually grow somewhat accustomed to it.  Earlier versions of this logo used a variation in which the company name is chanted by a choir instead of a lone child, but this is the one that proved most prevalent.  Evidently someone somewhere did feel a whole lot of affection for that logo, because it stuck around for the entirety of the 1990s, and we were into the 2000s by the time DiC started phasing it out in favour of a sickeningly garish, oh-so-very-00s "Incredible World of DiC" logo (which retained the awkward disembodied kids' voice).  Kind of sobering to think that the beagle seen on the bed would have been long dead by the time they finally pulled it.

Ignoring the awkwardness and unintentional hilarity of the company name for just a moment, the entire sequence is cheesy as sin, the only genuine vulgarity afoot being in the sheer chintziness of it all.  I mean, I can see the relevance of a child's bedroom for a company that specialised in making cartoons for the very young - obviously, DiC were keen to equate their entertainment with the world of childhood dreams and fantasy, and showing a child surrounded by all manner of material comforts, not to mention man's best friend, was presumably intended to conjure up cosy feelings of warmth and security.  But let's face it, the basic set-up is incredibly twee (it looks, for all the world, like the mise-en-scène favoured by a 1980s Steven Spielberg wannabe), and it's mainly thanks to that unfortunate-sounding company name that the logo gains any kind of additional off-the-wall value.  That disembodied voice chanting "dick" or "deek" is really what pushed this thing over the edge into becoming a such classic childhood curiosity, but there are other elements that stick out as odd or off-kilter - the "star" which becomes the dot in the DiC logo's "i" looks absolutely hideous (more like an albino sea urchin, as I alluded earlier), and watching the sequence now, I find myself getting strangely hung up on whether or not the beagle's eyes are open as we fly past it.  I'm not sure I like the notion that the dog was watching us the entire time.

Now that I think about it, the opening sequence to the Sylvanian Families video also made me feel uneasy, albeit for entirely different reasons.  Was I the only one bothered by the fact that the Woodkeeper appears to kill a boy in the opening credits by dissolving him into that stream of sparkly energy - which subsequently dissipates when the main titles appear?  That kid has just been wiped out of all existence.  Did nobody else have the exact same concerns while watching this sequence?

Oh, and another side-note: for our questionable Wikipedia information of the day, their article for Sylvanian Families currently states that Dan Castellaneta provided the voice of the show's main villain, Packbat.  There are just two problems with that:

1) Dan Castellaneta's name does not appear in the end credits (see above).

2) Packbat was so blatantly voiced by Len Carlson.  I mean, come on.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Logo Case Study: The Ladd Company "Tree of Life"

Let's begin our roundup of case studies on individual production logos with a love letter to possibly the most genteel and non-threatening logo of them all, The Ladd Company's "Tree of Life".

Founded in 1979 by a trio of disgruntled ex-20th Century Fox executives - former Fox president Alan Ladd, Jr and his buddies Jay Kanter and Gareth Wigan, The Ladd Company is best-known for producing the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982), along with historical space drama The Right Stuff (1983) and the first two entries in the Police Academy series, and for handling the US distribution of the Best Picture-winning British flick Chariots of Fire (1981).  For its first five years of existence, The Ladd Company had an exclusive distribution deal with Warner Bros, but a string of financial failures (aside from Chariots of Fire and Police Academy, The Ladd Company couldn't claim many runaway box office success stories) led to a breakdown in their relationship in 1984, after which the company faced nearly a decade of stagnation while Alan Ladd, Jr had his hands tied up working with MGM/UA.  In 1993, Ladd signed a new production deal with Paramount which, while fairly short-lived, enabled The Ladd Company to get their fingers in yet another Best Picture-winning pie with Braveheart (1995).  Soon after, The Ladd Company went quiet yet again, but had another fleeting re-emergence in the mid-00s, its most recent production being the Ben Affleck-helmed Gone Baby Gone (2007), which was distributed by Miramax.

For their logo, the company chose the rather striking image of a magnificent green oak tree which, in the animated version accompanying their productions, materialises onscreen against a white (or, in some variations, black) background from the top down in the manner of an early computer graphic, while a stirring John Williams fanfare plays in the backdrop.  This simultaneous evocation of artificiality and nature makes it an uncannily apt tone-setter for the themes explored in Blade Runner, but what is it about this digitalised oak that makes it such a universally appealing symbol to front just about any picture?

When asked about the significance of the logo in an interview recorded in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 19th 1979, Ladd was fairly vague on the matter: " can say it has a tie to the tree of life. Trees grow. Trees live. Trees do all kinds of things."  Wigan's response was equally vague, but a lot more tongue-in-cheek: "They do everything movie companies do, except make movies.  They last a long time. They're living things. They're strong. They provide protection.  And fruit.  And growth."

As arbitrary as their reasoning might sound, Ladd and Wigan were definitely onto something in recognising the conciliatory power of the tree as a symbol.  There is something about the sight a majestic spreading oak tree that speaks directly to our most basic of emotions.  Trees are nurturing.  They provide oxygen, food, shelter and the building materials of civilisation.  They represent life, longevity, nature and durability.  The "tree of life" to which Ladd refers is a recurring feature of many world religions and mythologies.  Seeing this familiar form etched into being in The Ladd Company logo, it relaxes our senses and tells us that we're in good hands.  It's calming, reassuring, pleasing to the eyes and ears - in other words, it's everything that the Screen Gems logo isn't.  I feel quite confident, therefore, in declaring The Ladd Company's "Tree of Life" logo to be the Anti-S From Hell.

Oh, and incidentally, I do have a review of one of The Ladd Company's lesser-known films in the works right now.  Stay tuned.

Monday, 3 October 2016

The S From Hell (2010)

The S From Hell from Rodney Ascher on Vimeo.

Is there anything out there that taps quite so profoundly, and so inexplicably, into the dark recesses of childhood fear and uneasy nostalgia than an oddly-designed corporate logo? Far more terrifying than the monsters dwelling in your closet were the faceless monsters in your TV set that appeared at the end of certain shows and communicated their desire to tear your soul from your body through a tinny, screechy little burst of cheaply-produced audio. At the forefront of this phenomenon are the Unholy Trinity - Viacom's "V of Doom", Paramount's "Closet Killer" and, last but not least, Screen Gems' "S From Hell", but it's a terror that's spanned across multiple generations, and I suspect that most of us can recall a media logo that left us royally unsettled in our childhoods. In my case, I recall feeling, if not fear, then immense confusion at that DIC "Kid in Bed" logo that popped up at the end of my Sylvanian Families VHS tape. At age six I was apparently savvy enough to know that "dick" was one of those words that adults really didn't like you saying, so I was greatly perplexed that this innocuous cartoon about fuzzy woodland animals seemed to want to imprint it upon me by flashing up a spelling variation in large bright letters and having a disembodied young voice cry out "DICK!" (and yes, I know that technically it's pronounced "deek", but "dick" is what I invariably heard).

This irrational fear of corporate images is now popularly known as "logophobia" (if you can excuse the hijacking of the established term for an altogether separate phobia, the fear of words), and holds an odd captivation among hordes of online logo buffs, perhaps due to the simultaneous buttons it pushes both for simple childhood nostalgia and for the deeper, more inexplicable Pavlovian urges which have us welling up in terror when confronted by the demons of our TV-watching past. Rodney Ascher's short documentary The S From Hell is a lovingly-crafted tribute to the strange and alluring world of the logophobe, examining the phenomenon by focusing exclusively on one of those aforementioned demons; the Screen Gems logo that first appeared in 1964, combining primitive animation with the cheapest, nastiest and now most deliciously iconic synthesized melody one could imagine. Ascher's film was screened at multiple film festivals, including Sundance Film Festival in 2010, keeping the spirit of The Personification of All Things Evil well alive into the 21st century.

The synopsis on the film's official website sets out its mission statement thus:

"Not an exhaustive historical documentary, THE S FROM HELL is a subjective film whose aim is make the audience feel the same fear and confusion as the children who were first confronted by the vexing, unfolding sights and mournful, dissonant sounds that hid in the cracks between their favorite TV shows."

Indeed, the purpose of The S From Hell is not to provide any kind of in-depth look at the history of Screen Gems, or of the logo itself (beyond the very brief context presented at the beginning of the film), or to form any kind of convincing argument as to how something so mundane (if rather crudely-designed) could inspire such intense feelings of dread in such a high proportion of young viewers, but rather to recreate something of that irrational fear by incorporating it into the lexicon and iconography of horror cinema. What we essentially have are a tiny collection of anecdotes from people who can recall that, as young children, they were absolutely terrified of that television logo that used to pop up at the end of Bewitched, for reasons that they've never quite been able to rationalise (although some do here take a crack at it - one interviewee speculates that her childhood fear of The S was rooted in an unconscious recognition of the logo's resemblance to a radiation warning sign, while another observes that the dot in the middle looks as if it's being devoured by the two parallelograms). Ascher takes their experiences to altogether more disturbing heights by filtering them through a dislocating mishmash of archive footage, old cartoons and, in one particularly tongue-in-cheek case, a modified extract from Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The film then looks at how The S became interwoven into the wider landscape of childhood terror - you could flee and take cover behind your couch whenever the end-credits of The Flinstones were rolling, but were there other, more invasive ways in which The S could seek you out and threaten to have its wicked way with you?  These range from one interviewee recollecting how his sister used to torment him by pinning him down and chanting "Screen Gems" over and over to another who recalls a nightmare in which she was chased by The S (albeit incorrectly-coloured, which the interviewee attributes to her subconscious trying to shield her from the full extent of the evil). This is all accompanied by an electronic soundtrack which, while nowhere near as memorably nasty as something Eric Siday might have composed, keeps the tone of the film consistently eerie throughout.

Ascher's approach in combining the documentary format with more playful and subjective representations of the matter in question (for which he has cited the late 70s conspiracy theory/paranormal phenomenon TV series In Search Of... as a key inspiration) tends to be quite divisive, if the mixed reaction to this film, and to his feature documentary Room 237 (2012), a collection of assorted ramblings on the "hidden meanings" that various individuals claim to have unlocked in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, is any indication. His tone, tongue-in-cheek while being genuinely spooky, convoluted without being particularly in-depth and, above all, appearing to deliberately shy away from offering up any more obvious meaningful observation than, "Well, this sure is strange, is it not?", seems to thrill the pants off some viewers while getting messily stuck in the craws of others.  Figuring out what, if anything, Ascher intends to say beneath the winding trail of muffled monologues and archive footage can be a struggle in itself - I've seen numerous viewers dismiss Room 237 on the grounds that, "the director can't possibly expect us to take any of these oddballs seriously, can he?" while others defend it as a satire on the kind of obsessive tunnel vision that enables people to construct such bizarre and unlikely theories - the joke is on the theorists and those who might be inclined to take them seriously, in other words.  I'd say they're only half-right. Myself, I doubt that Room 237 intends for us to walk away wholly convinced that any of the readings therein accurately reflect Kubrick's intentions, no matter how enthusiastic or insistent the proponent might be, or necessarily even suspecting that any of them contain any essence of genuine merit, although it undoubtedly intends for us to be a little weirded out by the oddities and coincidences identified throughout.  For Ascher, one suspects, being weirded out is half the joy of being alive. And, certainly, I think that Room 237 wants us to marvel at the observational skills of these seeming fanatics, and to genuinely enjoy getting caught up in their idiosyncratic ways of thinking, even when our skepticism alarm bells are ringing at full volume.  If nothing else, it's an invitation to view The Shining a little differently for a hundred minutes or so, much as The S From Hell invites us to view an ostensibly harmless logo from the perspective of someone who lived in utter terror of it (or, alternatively, to relive those childhood phobias) for just short of nine minutes. In both cases, the allure lies in seeing the familiar through a pair of oddly-coloured novelty spectacles.

The S From Hell is only too eager to highlight the ridiculousness, from an entirely rational standpoint, that a simple television logo could have instilled such strong emotions in its viewers, and to have some fun at its expense - the clip from Halloween III and the closing imagery, illustrating how The S literally became the stuff of nightmares for at least one viewer, are dead giveaways in that regard. And yet it also recognises and respects that fear is a powerful emotion that works in mysterious ways, particularly for small children still in the process of figuring out their place in the world, and all-too-often rationality never enters into it. Above all, The S From Hell revels in highlighting this cultural curiosity, functioning best as an unabashed celebration of the fact that such paralysing horror could lurk in the most unexpected of places, and of the dark, overlooked crevices of popular culture that ultimately had a wider-reaching impact than anyone could possibly have envisioned.

As for The Personification of All Things Evil, it's actually re-emerged from the netherworld since Ascher's film debuted. Check out what it's been up to more recently:

Finally, here's the S From Hell fansite that inspired Ascher to make the film:

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Confessions of a Family Dog Viewer: "Dog Days of Summer"

Original air date: 21st July 1993

It would no doubt be extremely generous of me to describe "Dog Days of Summer" as "Enemy Dog done right" (even in its finest moments, Family Dog could never quite get high up enough to grasp perfection) but, nevertheless, this is easily the more likeable and sweet-tempered of the show's twosome of episodes structured around what is essentially a very similar theme: namely, the Binfords butting heads with unwanted company whose enmity is epitmised in the brutish manner in which their dog terrorises the living snot out of our dog.  Unlike in "Enemy Dog", the Binfords aren't here totally indifferent or insensitive to the suffering of their dog (a scene in which he's nearly drowned notwithstanding); in fact, Skip and Bev are probably the most tolerable that they've ever been at this point in the series, and Buffy thankfully isn't given a whole lot to do, leaving Billy as the sole Binford who poses any kind of a problem.  In terms of the family's behaviour, "Dog Days of Summer" is certainly a whole lot easier to swallow.

The one area where "Dog Days of Summer" falls short compared to "Enemy Dog" is the central conflict, which feels a heck of a lot hokier than the Binfords' rivalry with the Mahoneys.  Shallow as it was, the antagonism between the two neighbouring clans was at least believable and clearly motivated, with the Mahoneys always feeling the need to rub their superiority in the Binfords' faces and the Binfords naturally resenting them for it.  The two families were essentially stuck with one another, so it followed that familiarity would have bred contempt on both sides of the street.  Here, the Binfords go to the beach and come to blows with a trio of pimply teenagers who are harassing Billy for no particular reason, other than, grrr, those dang Generation-Xers running wild, I guess?  There's never any explanation for why this bunch of total strangers should go so out of their way to upset the Binfords, beyond the episode assuming that unsupervised teenagers have nothing better to do with their time than to spoil the fun of suburban families who've come to enjoy a traditional day out at the beach.

One thing which I do really like about this episode are the dogs' dream sequences, which rank as some of the weirdest and intermittently most unsettling in the series' run.  The episode opens with one such sequence, in which the dog gathers bones from the night sky and assembles two canine skeletons upon the ground; in doing so, he's able to summon the ghosts of his departed parents (it seems safe to assume that those dead dogs are his parents, at any rate) in a manner which carries an almost vaguely Tim Burton vibe (think of the scene in which Scraps is resurrected in Corpse Bride).  The dog then proceeds to lead the ghosts around the house and garden, showing them each of the sleeping Binfords individually, and taking great pride in showing off his personal territory and how well he has done for himself.  This is swiftly shattered when K-10, making his first appearance since "Enemy Dog", suddenly looms over the fence and barks at our dog, sending him scurrying off to his kennel in terror.  As he sits there trembling, he becomes visibly ashamed at having shown his parents just how low down in the local pecking order he really is.

I'd say that this sequence is well-done, and a testament to just how weird, charming and inventive this series could be in its better moments with its non-dialogue narration.  It's oddly hilarious seeing the ghost dogs gazing at their son's food bowl in total awe, as if having one ranks among the greatest accomplishments a dog can boast, and the sequence as a whole is an effective way of communicating the dog's fears and anxieties and establishing a clear insecurity for him to overcome throughout the course of the episode.  He's puny and easily intimidated by other dogs, but he yearns to be able to stand up for himself, in spite of his stature.

The transition from this sequence into the main story is also fairly neat, with the glow from the two ghost dogs transforming into the glare of the morning sun.  We've joined the Binfords on Fathers' Day morning, and it happens to be a particularly scorching one, so Skip is intent upon lazing around and doing nothing; that is, until a busted air conditioner throws a wrench into his plans.  Much to his chagrin, Skip winds up conceding to take the family to the beach instead, which delights the children but not Bev, who's feeling insecure at the prospect of appearing in public in a bathing suit.  At first, the family are quite set upon leaving the dog behind (particularly Billy, who complains that he always gets stuck with him), but Bev changes her mind when she sees just how much he's also feeling the heat and convinces Skip to bring him along.  Of course, once at the beach the Binfords quickly tire of the dog's antics and, much as he predicted, Billy finds the dog hoisted off onto him to keep occupied.

Somewhat predictably, Billy doesn't take his pet-sitting responsibilities terribly seriously (although he's happy to grumble about them), and while he's off teasing a crab with a stick the dog is left to lollop around the sands completely unsupervised.  It's at this point that the dog encounters his nemesis-of-the-day, a snarling bulldog named Scud who's at the beach with his three spotty teenage cohorts.  As Scud lunges at him, our dog finds himself so terrified that he panics and bolts directly into the waves for safety, where he quickly finds himself overwhelmed by the tide and sinks beneath the surface of the water (all this happens without Billy noticing, it seems).  It's here that we get our second dream sequence, as the dog's lights slowly go out and his life starts to flash before his eyes.  A life of pitiful misery it is too - as the runt of the litter, our dog was constantly struggling just to reach one of his mother's teats, and when the puppies are offered up for sale in a pet shop, our dog quickly finds himself stagnating in solitude upon the shelf.  There's a particularly depressing moment during the pet shop sequence in which the dog, completely alone, sees a passing woman stop and apparently take an interest in him, but in a tragic twist it's revealed that she's only checking out her own reflection in the window and as such never even noticed the dog.

Confused, disappointed and above all, unwanted, our dog's next stop is the local animal shelter, where he seems doomed to rot away his days - that is, until fate plays a sinister trick on him, and the Binfords (sans Buffy, who presumably wasn't born at this point) show up in search of a mutt for their ankle-biting son.  A visibly younger Skip and Bev invite an audibly more pip-squeaked Billy to pick out any dog that he wants, and he quickly settles upon our dog.  At first, our dog seems delighted, until Billy moves closer and it becomes plain what a grotesque little monster he's about to be saddled with.  The dog's final hopes of a happy existence are smothered horrifically in Billy's malevolent laugh, which makes it all too plain that he went for the puniest-looking dog he could find so that he would have no problems in bullying it.  The joy in our dog's expression evaporates into total dread, and the sequence ends there, rounding off with a re-appearance from the two ghost dogs from earlier, who gaze forlornly at their drowning son from inside a couple of rising bubbles.

There are number of legitimate criticisms one could make of this sequence, namely that it goes on for much too long, that it's complete and utter padding that adds nothing to the overall story (other than emphasising that our dog's been an underdog all his life, which anyone who'd seen at least one episode of the show would certainly have picked up on by now), and that it focuses extensively upon the misery and suffering of the dog in a manner that's not exactly funny or endearing.  All very valid, but I find that I can't be too hard upon it.  It's far from pleasant viewing but it's got that genuinely unsettling, nightmarish quality that I find strangely entrancing, and above all it's nice to have some kind of backstory explaining how our dog came to be stuck the Binfords, and one that feels appropriately unsentimental at that.

Having sunk all the way down to the ocean floor, our dog suddenly regains consciousness and summons the will to claw his way back up to the surface.  With renewed determination, he attempts to fight his way back to the shore, but gets engulfed by another wave along the way, leaving him washed up on the sand in a crumpled, gasping heap.  Billy finds the dog and, apparently failing to notice that he's any worse for wear, begins reprimanding him for lazing around.  Just then the three teenagers reappear with their ferocious bulldog, whose huge, slavering jaws are enough to send even Billy's confidence racing for the hills.  The teenagers tauntingly suggest that he come and play with their dog, but Billy wisely declines and runs squealing back to the rest of the family, unaware that the teenagers are set upon following him.  Before the Binfords know what's hit them, these snotty-nosed punks have set up base right beside them, and are blasting their boombox at full volume down their ear-holes.  As a parody of the kind of ear-splitting garbage the Family Dog writers assume that kids of the early-mid 90s were into, the lyrics of the song are fairly witless, essentially just "This song is loud, it's really, really loud, it's not kind of loud, it's mega, mega loud..." over and over.  Bev and Skip become painfully aware that everyone else on the beach is starting at them, although Billy is impressed by their flagrantly offensive brand of noise pollution and starts dancing with the teenagers.  I'm not fond of how Billy behaves in this scene - no real surprise there, of course, but it bothers me how readily he goes from being visibly terrified of these jerks to voluntarily leaping up and shaking his tush with them.  Actually, I can't help but contemplate just how much better fleshed-out this scenario might have been if, instead of straight-up harassing the Binfords for no apparent reason, the teenagers had taken Billy under their wing and had him behave in ways that the rest of the Binford clan didn't approve of.  I wouldn't have expected anything particularly ground-breaking to come of it, but the conflict here is just so meagre.

Skip decides to intervene and marches up to two of the teens to demand that they take their boombox and move further down the beach, unaware that the third teen is preparing to sic Scud on him from behind (side-note - Skip says "crap" in this scene, which might be Family Dog's only instance so far of using mildly "edgy" language).  Bev attempts to warn him, but Skip is too caught up in his lecture to hear.  Our dog is also surveying the scene in horror, but suddenly has a flash of inspiration, and just as Scud is all poised to chow upon Skip's bare leg, all attentions turn to the sound of the boombox malfunctioning, as our dog pushes it down the shore and into the waves.  As the offending item is consumed by the seawaters, the crowd on the beach erupts with cheers and even the Binfords are showering their dog with praise for a change.  Naturally, though, the teenagers aren't quite so appreciative - the girl teen (who addresses her two male companions as Shaggy and Quasi, but herself goes unnamed for the entirety of the episode) sees red and finally unleashes Scud.  Our dog may have had the audacity to do away with the teenagers' stereo, but he recognises that he's no match for Scud in direct combat and beats a hasty retreat across the beach, although Scud gets him in a pincer movement and very soon has the hapless mutt wedged nose-first between his jaws.

A key factor enabling "Dog Days of Summer" to avoid the pitfalls that made "Enemy Dog" such an unpleasant episode to watch is that the Binfords do here seem genuinely distressed at the thought of their dog being messily devoured by a bigger dog, and actually make the effort to help him this time around.  Skip seizes the beach umbrella and attempts to beat the bulldog into submission, but Scud doesn't so much as bat an eyelid.  Meanwhile, Bev has the good sense to race off to alert the authorities (taking Buffy with her, so I don't have cause to accuse her of shoddy parenting), with the result that a medic shows up on the scene and, reassuring Skip that the most their dog will suffer from the ordeal is a little brain damage, shoots Scud with a tranquilizer dart and knocks him unconscious.  Skip pries his chewed-up dog from the bulldog's jaws, before the sleeping Scud is banished from the beach along with his teenage masters (who vow to stick to the water slides on future outings).

For our final scene, we see Billy tormenting Buffy by demolishing her sandcastle, as the sun sets over the beach and Bev asks Skip (who's too far gone to answer) if he enjoyed his Father's Day.  The dog (now bearing bandages around his snout), looks up at the evening sky and sees the clouds momentarily morphing into the shapes of his own departed parents, who smile down upon him warmly before disappearing again.  Satisfied that he's proved his protective mettle and done his parents proud, the dog too smiles and rests his head down contentedly upon the beach towel.  It's one of show's most genuinely touching final images, closing off what is, on the whole, a pretty solid instalment of Family Dog.  Torturous near-death experience notwithstanding, it feels warmer in tone than the majority of its predecessors, and certainly that's half the battle.

The obvious weakness of "Dog Days of Summer" lies in just how altogether skinny it is.  There's not a lot going on story-wise, and the episode struggles to stretch itself out for a full twenty minutes (hence the drawn-out, incidental dream sequence we get midway through), while the antagonists are entirely one-dimensional and, one suspects, reflect some rather nasty prejudices on the part of the writers.  Really, for this episode's assumptions that unsupervised teens represent the natural enemy of everything good, pure and decent about the suburban nuclear family, Billy still comes across as being a thousand times more repugnant than any of those pimply punks (the episode ends with him kicking sand in his sister's eyes, for Pete's sake).  Still, I enjoy the fact that our dog manages to get the better of them in a more resourceful manner than simply (and implausibly) summoning the strength to confront Scud head-on (much like how he ultimately one-upped K-10 in "Enemy Dog") and it's refreshing to see the family go out of their way to help their much-neglected pet for a change.  Sure, there are numerous problems in here if you're intent on finding them, but I'm not left with such an uneasy aftertaste this time around, and for that reason I'm inclined to show this one a little clemency.