Thursday, 28 February 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #9: Quaker Harvest Squirrels

For this installment in my round-up on weird and unsettling advertising varmints, I want to go way back, to one of the earliest chapters of my childhood, and to what might just have been my first ever experience in having my psyche dented by a television ad intent on selling me junk I didn't need (I think it even predates the frightening experiences with a Honey I Shrunk The Kids TV spot described here). Somewhere, buried within the dark depths of my subconscious, is the weakly-repressed memory of an advertising campaign that terrified the snot out of my pre-school self, with the explicit threat that if I munched on a particular brand of granola bar, a legion of squirrels would materialise out of nowhere and devour me. For years, I was never entirely sure if the campaign really existed, or if it was just an exceptionally twisted nightmare induced by a mild Calpol overdose. Then YouTube came along and confirmed it. The killer squirrels were a thing, circa late-1980s, and they resented you pawing at their Quaker Harvest Bars. This is the first campaign I've reviewed to revolve around the concept that the cuddly mascots harboured nefarious intentions for consumers of the product in question, and it's every bit as peculiar as you'd imagine.

The original ad, in which a mob of sciurines close in on an unsuspecting park-goer and chase him into the sunset, is an exercise in flagrant absurdity, and yet it hits enough of the right notes in the ominousness department as to play authentically like a miniature horror piece. Conceptually, it visibly takes its cues from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), with a slow-building score that's reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975). All the elements are there - the brooding atmosphere, the hauntingly solitary victim, the weirdly grotesque visuals (check out the peepers on those squirrel puppets, with their disproportionately huge pupils). I'm not sure how this is supposed to make me hungry for granola bars, but it does make me weak at the knees in the best possible way. Animal attack horrors have always thrived by tapping into that latent fear that our status as the planet's dominant species is not as set in stone as we'd perhaps like to think, or at the very least that we can be knocked a couple of tiers down the food chain under the right conditions, and that's something that this particular ad nails down beautifully. Jaws and its long cycle of imitators are essentially reactionary films in which man gets to reassert his supremacy over a particularly monstrous member of the animal kingdom intent on making humans its prey, but some Man vs. Nature films insist on going deeper under the skin still. We may feel comfortable in the knowledge that other species are probably too far behind us on the rationality scale to be capable of launching any kind of coordinated rebellion, so any insinuation that our animal neighbours are actively conspiring against us can scarcely fail to seem disturbing. The Birds plays this scenario at its purest, most nightmarish level, offering no explanation for why the birds have apparently decided to declare war on humankind (no explicit explanation, although it's blatantly Jessica Tandy's character. She's the one that's doing it!). Other films, such as Colin Eggleston's Long Weekend (1978) have a clear environmentalist rhetoric, in which nature is actively responding to mankind's abuse of his planetary mastery, while in others the hostile fauna may even be a manifestation of their target's guilty conscience for their broader failings as a human being - the Devil Rodent of Joseph Sargent's Nightmares (1983) had a personal reason for her enmity with Richard Masur's businessman, but seemed to be punishing him for the sins of his yuppie-worshiping wallet as much as his crimes against her own flesh and blood. Here it's a simple case of nut envy, in which the squirrels and humans vie for control of the world's hottest nut-based products, with the squirrels intent upon harvesting the organs of any human brazen enough to flaunt one of coveted items in their presence.

The squirrels continued to harass Quaker-hungry humans across the latter end of the decade, although the outright horror elements were definitely toned done for subsequent installments, as you can see from the above ad in which the sciurines outfox a particularly cocksure kid who thinks he's got their number. By now, the squirrels have learned to use chainsaws, which should in theory make them all the more terrifying, although in actuality, it pushes them further along into the territory of Looney Tunes cartoons. Here, the squirrels have less in common with the avian avengers of The Birds than they do the pestilent villains of the Gremlins and Critters franchises, in that they're more quirky and mischievous than they are outright scary - in part because they look a lot more plush toy-ready this time round. The manner in which a couple of the puppets flex their ears as they swing into view is certainly a nice touch, and makes the squirrels appear more lively, but the horrible gawking eyes seen on those earlier models are very much missed.

To my knowledge, no plush toys ever surfaced, but if you bought packs of Quaker Harvest Bars back in the late 80s then you might have gotten your hands on some of these neat freebies. I would love a fall set of the squirrel hologram cards, although probably not for the insane price I last saw them going for on eBay. On second thoughts, perhaps the "Crikey, it's them!" card is the only one that I need.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Psycho: The Sinister Stuff

So I've talked in fairly extensive detail about Norman's handedness and why it's such a wonderful and critical component of the Psycho franchise, yet one that people either miss altogether or do not care to comment upon (I for one was disappointed to find no reference to it in Alexandre O. Phillipe's otherwise excellent 78/52*). Yet there's an obvious question prompted in all of this that I have thus far been dodging entirely. Norman's internal struggle - the battle between his independent urges and the part of his psyche that Mother has staked her posthumous claim on -  is represented by his ambidexterity. Norman is apparently left-handed, but the right hand exhibits a frightening will and autonomy all of its own. Norman's left hand is the more benign of the two, and the hand that's aligned with his own personality, so as long as his left hand remains the dominant one then you have little to worry about. It's when the right hand, the hand that keeps him anchored to Mother's omnipresent grasp, takes over that you may be in trouble. It's a simple case of left hand, good, right hand, bad. The question this begs is, isn't it traditionally the other way around?

It's no secret that numerous cultures all throughout history have exhibited an extreme bias for those who err toward the right-hand side over the left. In the eternal struggle that is central to many world religions between mankind's quest for a moral wisdom and his need to consolidate this with his capacity for darker, less desirable urges, the opposing sides of the body were cast as symbols of this duality, of the basic choices facing every individual human being, and it's hardly surprising that the right-handed majority were able to claim the better half for themselves. The right hand is the embodiment of all that is sturdy, correct and righteous; the left, by contrast, represents everything odd, treacherous and depraved about the human condition; not for nothing did the term "sinister", the Latin word for left, ultimately acquire new meaning in denoting something that is off-kilter to the point of being threatening. For an example of this hegemony, we need only look to cinema's most iconic proponent of the idea that the battle between good and evil within a man's soul can be boiled down to a literal tussle between one's hands; a character so devoted to the notion that he goes so far as to have the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on the knuckles of his right and left hands, respectively. I speak, of course, of the Reverend Harry Powell, the murderous minister portrayed by Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton's 1955 thriller The Night of The Hunter. Says Powell: "Shall I tell you the little story of Right Hand, Left Hand - the tale of good and evil? It was with his left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low!" Whereas the right hand? "These fingers have veins that run straight to the soul of man! The right hand, friends! The hand of love!" According to Powell, the entirety of human existence ("The Story of Life" as he calls it) is defined by the battle for ownership of both body and spirit between the right and left hand - "The fingers of these hands, dear hearts, they're always a-tuggin' and a-warrin', one hand against the other!" - a battle which, Powell assures us, will ultimately result in the triumph of good over evil. Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing features a sequence in which Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) relays the exact same analogy. In both cases, the fight is rigged so that the left hand loses, its suppression justified by the rationale that nothing good could come of it anyway.

Above: Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Charles Laughton's Night of The Hunter (1955). Below: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989). Each weighs in upon the distribution of good and evil within the human anatomy. I don't know about you, but I'm sensing a slight prejudice here.

With this in mind, it might be tempting to conclude that Norman's left-handedness should be taken as an early hint that there is something very sinister (in both senses of the word) about him and that, being the classically deviant southpaw, he is not to be trusted. But you still have to account for the fact that it is invariably his right hand with which he exercises his intermittent bursts of homicidal fury. The left hand prefers to accomplish far more mundane tasks, such as popping candy and cleaning showers. For Norman, the struggle is reversed, and yet the outcome still echoes Powell's analogy in that the right hand is depicted as the inevitable victor. In the original film, it is the right hand, the hand aligned with Norman's Mother personality, that emerges as the stronger of the two, dragging Norman into the darkest depths of insanity while the left hand effectively retreats altogether. In Psycho II it is confirmed that the fight is indeed rigged; despite Norman's sincerest efforts to move away from the shadow of Mother and walk the straight and narrow, an assortment of external forces collude (wittingly and unwittingly) in the form of Lila, Mary and Spool, and successfully drive him back into his old habits. The right hand suppresses the left hand much as the right-handed have suppressed and stigmatized the left-handed throughout history. This is not the triumph of LOVE over HATE, but the domination of the merciless over the powerless.

In Norman's case the conflict is more Freudian in nature, less a straightforward battle based on traditional notions of good and evil as a struggle between the various contradictory aspects of the human psyche; the impulsive and unconscious drives of the id versus the learned social values and ideals imposed by the superego. The serpent in the garden, for Norman, is his sexual curiosity, which is awakened by Marion in Psycho and later by Mary in Psycho II, and invariably leads to disaster as it throws his loyalty toward Mother into question. The trigger for Norman's murderously psychotic behaviour is always the suggestion that he and Mother are at risk of being separated. Freud's model of the id, ego and superego posits that the human psyche is comprised of three components; in its rawest state, it is driven entirely by biological impulse, but this is complicated by the development of a sense that not all of our behaviours are acceptable and may entail undesirable consequences, which in most cases would come primarily from our parents or other caregivers. Hence, the dichotomy of the id and the superego, with the ego somewhere in between attempting to negotiate a middle path. We might expect the id to be the more treacherous of the two, and yet Psycho presents us with an unsettling example in which the superego is stifling and distorting the id. Any exercise of autonomy on behalf of the id creates the need to balance it out by eliminating the source of the disturbance (carried out with Marion and toyed with with Mary). By controlling his libido, Mother keeps Norman permanently infantilised and denies him the ability to function as a separate human being. It is a war between madness and sanity, or whatever semblances of sanity Norman still has remaining, in which the underdog is represented by the subjugated left hand.

Before we go any further as to why, in Psycho, Hitchcock might have chosen to reverse the roles assumed by the right and left hand in traditional assumptions about human duality, it's worth acknowledging that we could, if we so wanted, cut through such discussions with a particularly sharp Occam's razor, which is that Norman is left-handed because Anthony Perkins was himself left-handed. Although Perkins did adjust his handedness for some roles - Robert Mulligan's Fear Strikes Out (1957), in which he portrayed baseball player Jimmy Piersall and was required to learn to bat and throw with his right hand, presented particular problems for him - for Psycho it may be as simple as Hitchcock allowing him to use the hand that came naturally to him for most of the film, and determining from there that the wayward Mother hand would be played by his non-dominant right hand. In fact, I think that probably is what happened here. But such readings are obviously no fun from an analytical perspective.

If we insist on trawling for deeper significance, I think there are two possible schools of thought here, the first being that Norman's own identity being aligned with the left hand is an indication that he's the more feminine of the two. It's also no secret that, throughout history, the division of male and female has been yet another dualism of which humankind has been all-too consciously aware, with the female, like the left-hander, being widely dismissed as the inferior of the two, often within the same breath. In The Left Stuff: How the Left-Handed Have Survived and Thrived in a Right-Handed World, Melissa Roth notes that, "it is perhaps not surprising that both religious doctrine and mythology have tended to feminize the "lesser" side of the body." (p.30) Roth makes extensive reference to the early 20th century studies of French scholar Robert Hertz, which sought to investigate the widespread cultural favouritism for the right hand over the left. Writes Roth:

"In Hertz's study of nineteenth-century cultures, he also uncovered a gender relationship to handedness. Certain African tribes considered the right hand the strong "male" hand: good lively, and designated to offer food and make presents. The left hand was "feeble, feminine, wicked and deathful" and was used to take things away...The Waluwanga tribe of Australia used two sticks to mark the beat during ceremonies. "One is called the man and is held in right hand, while the other, the woman, is held in the left," wrote Hertz. "Naturally, it is always the 'man' which strikes the 'woman' which receives the blows; the right which acts, the left which submits."" (p.32)

It's not terribly hard to see how this line of thinking may apply to Norman, for Mother clearly wears the pants around the Bates household, and the distribution of power dynamics within their relationship is intended to be unsettling. A criticism that is frequently lobbied at Hitchcock's film in terms of its implicit gender politics (second only to some of the more troublesome implications of Marion's arc) is that the shy, sensitive and distinctly un-masculine figure of Norman was intended as a statement against the rearrangement of traditional gender roles; deprived of a patriarch at a very young age, Norman grew up with his screaming shrew of a mother as effectively his sole influence in life, and his psyche has been hijacked by the overpowering compulsion to emulate her. In The Ultimate Horror Movie Guide: 365 Films To Scare You To Death by James Marriott and Kim Newman, we are told that, "Norman's cross-dressing can be seen as parodic of [the] ideal of the sensitive man, in touch with his feminine side." (p.100) Meanwhile, the film's more conventionally masculine figure, John Gavin's Sam Loomis, is ostensibly depicted as the hero of the piece, in being the one who overpowers Norman during the final confrontation, superficially reaffirming the importance and supremacy of traditional models of masculinity (even before Sam gets to physically tussle with Norman, he maintains the upper hand during their nervy lobby exchange, where Norman tries to pack Sam and Lila off to Cabin 10 as quickly and as trace-free as possible, but Sam insists on all the formalities). Still, Marriott and Newman also make the astute observation that, "the unevenness of the film, which loses momentum after the death of Marion Crane, forces us to identify further with Norman rather than the drab Sam and Lila." (p.101) In the end, Sam doesn't qualify as the "hero" of the film because the audience isn't prompted terribly to get behind him. I've heard it said that Hitchcock didn't think too much of Gavin's performance as Sam and considered him the weak link of the film, although I think much of it comes down to the fact that Sam isn't amazingly compelling as a character; he's such a dull, clean-cut everyman as to be unidentifiable. One has to question if he was really worth the hassle that Marion put herself through to secure that stolen money for his benefit.  The fact is that the film does encourage us to sympathise with the gauche, sinister Norman over his more conventional counterparts, and that's because of his gaucheness, not in spite of it. Norman is so strange, off-kilter and visibly warped as to be entirely endearing; you feel for the screwed up loner whose left hand didn't know who his right hand was killing.**

The relationship between Norman and Mrs Bates is replicated, to a degree, in the parallel relationship between Mary and Lila in Psycho II. Once again, the patriarch has been displaced (here, that patriarch is none other than Sam himself, confirming that the conventional male is as mortal and destructible as anyone else), allowing the mother free reign in asserting her domineering control over her reluctant offspring. In Lila's case, she has a daughter, not a son, so the power dynamics may seem less offsetting from a traditional gender role perspective, but the tell-tale feature of Lila's debasement, even more so than her spiteful intentions for Norman, is the evident callousness with which she regards her own child, whom Lila is prepared to both endanger and corrupt for the sake of a particularly underhanded game of scab-picking. (I blame her marriage to Sam Loomis as much of the psychological fall-out from the events of the first film; that would be enough to crush anybody's spirits). For her part, Mary may have been spared the extreme psychological damage dished out to Norman, but she finds herself split between two compelling urges - her increasing affinity toward Norman's plight and her sense of familial obligation toward her mother. Going against her mother's wishes is clearly not something that comes naturally to Mary (at one point, she complains to Lila that "I've done everything you've asked for years"), but it is evident, both to the viewer and to Mary, that authority, for all its claims to moral righteousness, is steering her down a distinctively perverse path.

Which leads me onto the second school of thought, and the one that I personally find the more compelling of the two, which is that Norman's treacherous right hand is an implicit symbol of authority leading us astray, a demonstration that the forces in which we might ordinarily be inclined to place our trust may not actually have our best interests in mind. After all, Psycho is a film that revels in misdirection, and in luring its viewers repeatedly into a false sense of security, and nothing is more emblematic of our being wrong-footed than the right-hand side, which we are culturally accustomed to accept as safe, upstanding and reliable, offering us no refuge or stability. What's compelling about Psycho is the manner in which it leads us to a forked road and prompts us to identify with the overtly sinister, less conventional route. For Marriott and Newman, Hitchcock's foremost agenda is simply to deceive us, and our sympathies for Norman play directly into that purpose; they argue that the qualities that make him endearing amount to "less a sympathetic portrayal of madness  a la [Michael Powell's] Peeping Tom...than another way for Hitchcock to pull the rug from under our feet." I would argue, however, that the film's predilection for aligning the viewer with the strange over the ordinary goes a step further than mere beguilement. The journey that makes up the initial portion of the film, in which the viewer accompanies Marion from the crowded diurnal world of the city to the nocturnal, intensely isolated world of the Bates Motel, sends us hurtling head-first into the unfamiliar, and it's here that it insists on keeping us. There is no return journey back into the familiar, with the ensuing narrative leading us not into comfort and safety, but ever deeper into darkness and chaos (the dry, drawn-out denouement of Simon Oakland's character unfortunately comes as an upset to this trajectory, but it is nevertheless the psychotic Norman who gets the last word). It is an unsettling experience for sure, and yet a curious thing happens when we enter this dark and disconcerting world. The strange and uncanny becomes the new familiar, and we become attuned to the threats facing the odd from the ordinary, the vulnerability of the eccentric in a world governed by convention. So when the prying voice of reason comes calling in the form of Arbogast, and later in the brawny and imposing Sam, we as much as Norman feel the intrusion on our personal territory. The revelation that Norman is the killer only goes so far to offset this - rather than dramatically alter our perspective on Norman, it plays as the sadly inevitable conclusion to the sense we've had all along of Norman being subjugated by an offscreen authority that claims to have his interests at heart but has been ripping his every sense of reason and autonomy to shreds.

This journey into the strange has no return route, in part because the mere induction into this world changes us. Marion's ultimate mistake is to naively assume that she can just pick up, drive back and reverse the upset to the status quo she caused when she decided to grab the ill-gotten money and run; as she discovers, the weird and the eerie, having welcomed her in, does not intend to let her go. When, twenty-two years later, Marion's spectre returns to the motel grounds by way of Mary, her genetic and spiritual successor, with the intention of conquering the strangeness, she discovers that she is actually entirely at home here with Norman. Mary does better than Marion, at least in the short-term, although the situation ultimately proves to be more than she can control. This is the curious duality of the Bates Motel - it is a place where you go to find yourself but simultaneously lose yourself. In between, it offers something very precious, a meeting point for the waifs and the strays before they're veered toward their inevitable destruction (literally so in Marion and Mary's case, psychologically for Norman); it's in these fleeting moments of affinity that we feel that, though not exactly in safe hands, we are nevertheless right (ie: left) where we are meant to be.

* Actually, I do have some other nitpicks of 78/52 besides, but we can talk about those at a later date.

** It is interesting to note that the tagline of Peter Walker's 1976 film Schizo also casts the left hand as the innocent one in the equation.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

A Fish Called Selma (aka Get Ready For Tennis, It Comes On At 10:00!)

Warning: Contains spoilers for Body Double (1984).

Last year, I marked Valentine's Day with a lengthy piece examining, among other things, my love/hate relationship with the Simpsons episode "Black Widower", which sees my favourite intellectual clown-cum-career criminal wed perpetual lovelorn Selma Bouvier and then inexplicably try to bump her off on their honeymoon. I thought this year I would follow it up by taking a look at the episode focused on Selma's other failed marriage, this time to Hollywood has-been Troy McClure (voice of Phil Hartman), which occurs in "A Fish Called Selma" (3F15) of Season 7. Here, Selma encounters Troy when he's sent to the DMV for an eye test and agrees to take her out to dinner in exchange for giving him a pass. The two of them appear to hit it off and before long Troy, who has enjoyed a recent resurgence in publicity thanks to the relationship, is asking for Selma's hand in marriage. It all seems like something out of a fairy tale, but for the fact that Troy may be harbouring ulterior motives for wanting to be seen with her. They're nowhere near as sinister as Bob's ulterior motives from back in Season 3 (whatever the hell his motives actually were), but no more borne of affection for Selma, who is once again setting herself up to feel thoroughly used. This episode is best-remembered for its glorious envisioning of a stage musical based on perennial science fiction favourite Planet of The Apes, complete with an ode to orangutan kingpin Dr Zaius set to the tune of "Rock Me Armadeus" by Austrian new wave artist Falco. The pastiche is so hilarious, and so wonderfully on the nose, that it might seriously impair your ability to enjoy Planet of The Apes (or Falco) on its own terms (it's also only the second occasion that The Simpsons very brazenly spoiled the ending to Planet of The Apes, Homer previously having blurted out the big twist in "Deep Space Homer" of Season 5. Was there any other movie that they took so much perverted pleasure in ruining?*). I'll state upfront that this is the one aspect of the episode that we will not be talking about. I simply have nothing else to add about it that won't already have been said elsewhere.

Troy McClure enjoys a special status as one of the series' best-loved supporting characters (so much so that a high number of people consider Hartman's death in 1998 to be the single greatest factor in the show's decline), yet "A Fish Called Selma" is the only episode that follows him around for an extended amount of time and attempts to go particularly in-depth as to what makes him tick. Troy had been a recurring staple of the series since Season 2, but he was as tertiary as a character could be, appearing only in chintzy talk shows and third-rate educational videos, and seeming to exist in his own personal bubble; you never saw him hanging out in crowd scenes or interacting with other Springfieldians, unless they were also a part of the programs he presented. He was very much a one-joke character, that joke being that he was a C-list actor stuck in infomercial hell, who would always begin by reeling off some of his past "glories", the kind of low-rent titles you'd find lining VHS bargain bins or tucked away in the graveyard slots of cable TV. The impression you get, based on all his prior appearances, is that he's one of those nobodies who never had much of a career to begin with but is pretentious enough to act as if he's been in things that actually mattered. "You may remember me from..." feels like the punchline in itself; nobody would remember Troy from any of the credits he cites because odds are that nobody saw them in the first place. "A Fish Called Selma" paints a very different story, revealing that he was once a Hollywood heartthrob with a promising career ahead of him, but this was all harpooned when rumours surfaced about his depraved personal life (heavily hinted to have involved zoophilia). As it turns out, people DO remember Troy McClure, just for reasons that he'd sooner they forget. The whole deal with Troy and those fish was, of course, inspired by that urban legend you've probably heard about that celebrity who did naughty things with hamsters - usually Richard Gere, although the first time I heard that story it involved Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys. (Incidentally, I've long suspected that the writers chose fish, of all animals, just so that they could facilitate that misunderstanding between Fat Tony and Louie.)

In Troy's case, were the rumours true?  The episode certainly taunts us at multiple points, and Troy looks to be on the verge of confirming it when he confides that, "I have a romantic abnormality, one so unbelievable that it must be hidden from the public at all costs..." Still, the episode makes no bones about the sheer inanity that often fuels this kind of lurid tabloid gossip, as reflected in the ludicrous ease with which Lenny and Carl are persuaded to disregard everything they think they know about Troy the instant he gets a whiff of positive publicity. A sensationalist media that creates its own narratives and the mindlessness of a viewing public who willfully submit to this are favourite subjects of the series, as we've previously established, but "A Fish Called Selma" is specifically concerned with the hollowness of celebrity, and with the discrepancy between private life and public image, a subject it approaches in a typically double-edged Simpsons fashion. It's all-too aware of the fickle emotional tawdriness that underlies our fascination with the personal lives of the rich and famous - we love to see a celebrity tumble off their pedestal, sure, but we're also suckers for a good comeback story. The attachment felt by the public to a celebrity may be skin-deep to the point of being completely insincere, but the episode isn't any more romantic about the private affairs of the stars themselves, peppering itself with references to real-life celebrities behaving badly. At one point, Troy is offered a part in a buddy comedy with Hugh Grant and Rob Lowe and responds, indignantly, "Those sick freaks?!". This joke might mean less to modern viewers, but at the time the episode was first broadcast, on 24th March 1996, Grant and Lowe were both names steeped in scandal. On 27th June 1995, Grant was caught red-handed with a prostitute in his car just off of Sunset Boulevard; for Grant, who was then coasting off the surprise cross-Atlantic success of Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994) and in the process of transitioning into Hollywood stardom, this was a huge embarrassment, but didn't really harm his career in the long-term (probably less so than than all those tired romantic comedies he continued to be cast in). Lowe's scandal, which involved a videotape surfacing in 1988 showing him having sexual intercourse with a sixteen-year-old girl, was slightly less recent, but continued to have a toxic effect on his public image well into the 1990s, with his career eventually rebounding in 1999 when he was cast in the popular NBC series The West Wing. Elsewhere, Marge naively asserts that "Troy McClure is a perfect gentleman, like Bing Cosby or JFK." In an almost too-perfect display of prescience, the episode also contains a reference to English rock musician Gary Glitter - at one point, Homer is heard singing "Rock and Roll Part 2".

Above all, "A Fish Called Selma" is most obsessed with the mythos of celebrity, or rather, the alluring and often downright bizarre life that a celebrity takes on in our collective imaginations once they have attained sufficient cultural status. "Fish" implies that there's something intrinsically fake about the nature of celebrity, of which the manufactured images of the media are merely the starting point. It's in our own consciousness that our idols and pin-ups truly become mythological beasts, whether propped up as symbols of everything we aspire to be or, more frequently, warped into reflections of our darkest, innermost perversions. Hence the proliferation of the urban legend, that barely plausible yet strangely persuasive breed of modern folk tale that probably reveals more about the psyches of those who share and devour them than it does about the subject in question. We might play along with the media's representation of a celebrity, but there is some intuitive level on which we understand that it's all a game, or at the very least not the whole story, which explains the appeal of those whispered, underground rumours suggesting that a much-loved person is not all that they appear to be. We've already acknowledged the tremendous debt that "Fish" owes to that story about Richard Gere and his affinity for small furry creatures. The title "A Fish Called Selma" is simultaneously a nod to Charles Crichton's 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda and yet another sneaky reference to Troy's alleged infatuation with all things finned and scaly, but somebody over at The Simpsons Archive (that irksome but intermittently useful relic of the 1990s world wide web) reckons that it actually contains a triple meaning, alluding to another popular urban legend about a celebrity's private life - namely, that Jamie Lee Curtis (star of Wanda) was born a hermaphrodite. I think that's a bit of a stretch myself.

As for the whole sham marriage aspect of the episode, I have to admit that does strike something of a nerve with me, given that my own favourite actor is widely speculated to have been involved in one. Not everyone is as salaciously, obnoxiously, repugnantly obsessed with the subject as Charles Winecoff (in fact, no one is), but there are those who question the validity of Anthony Perkins' marriage to Berry Berenson in 1973, believing that they entered into the union because, much like Selma and Troy, they figured it would be mutually beneficial. This is largely based on the knowledge that Perkins was a closet gay and very insecure about it, so some speculate that his marriage to Berenson represented a kind of denial/rejection of his sexuality, or at the very least an attempt to reinvent his public image as a heterosexual family man, and that Berenson went along with it because she welcomed the publicity. Others contend that Perkins was merely bisexual (a concept that people are a lot more open to now than in Perkins' lifetime, or even when Winecoff penned his highly unpleasant excuse for a biography). Whatever the reality, they remained married until Perkins' death in 1992. It's a question that I personally could not be more indifferent toward - my stance is that it was entirely between Tony and Berry, and they're both dead now, so it strikes me as moot. Nevertheless, it does make some of backstage drama in "Fish" that extra bit more uncomfortable for me, since I am constantly relating it to the kind of scrutiny to which their relationship was subjected. The Simpsons always becomes more piquant whenever it scratches at something close to your heart.

Something else that occurs to me watching "A Fish Called Selma" is that it has to be one of the least Simpsons-orientated episodes of The Simpsons of out there, in that the family themselves barely feature in it. They appear in the opening scene, and Homer later has a significant part in the plot progression when Troy confides in him his real reason for wanting to marry Selma, but they're clearly peripheral characters in this particular slice of Springfieldian life. In fact, after the scene in which Marge and Patty confront Selma about the reality of her marriage, the family stop appearing altogether, and have no role in the episode's final resolution. Something that tends to hamper episodes focusing broadly on supporting characters is the unwritten obligation by which the writers usually abide to keep the Simpsons family themselves involved at all times, even where it's kind of a stretch that the issues in question would reasonably concern them ("The Two Mrs Nahasapeemapetilons" of Season 9 springs to mind), so it's refreshing to have an episode that's brave enough to give the titular characters only the bare minimum amount of screentime. "Fish" is quite content to be a story about Selma and Troy; it trusts these characters, and the strength of their marital drama, to carry it through to the finish. In that regard, it would undoubtedly have been seen as quite a risky episode at the time, particularly given that neither Selma or Troy might seem like obvious choices to front an episode so extensively by themselves. Selma's had her share of episodes focusing on her desire to start a family, sure, but these have always been firmly anchored within the context of the Simpsons' own daily lives (not to mention, her antagonistic relationship with Homer means that she and Patty are often portrayed quite negatively elsewhere in the series), and Troy was effectively a complete unknown; all we'd seen of him previously was the false persona he puts on for the cameras. What's effective about "A Fish Called Selma", in narrative terms, is that it does play authentically like a story happening on the sidelines of the Simpsons universe, a small but powerful behind-the-scenes drama concerning characters whose public stories have been misrepresented, whether willfully or not.

One of the episode's smartest gags is also one of its most subtle, and occurs during our momentary glimpses into Troy's eye-popping domestic life. Upon moving in, Selma is impressed with Troy's swanky bachelor pad, declaring it, "Ultra modern! Like living in the not-too-distant future!" But look again. Does Troy's pad seem at all familiar? Perhaps this visual gag will have most resonance among fans of Brian De Palma, for Troy's abode is actually the same building occupied by the protagonist in his 1984 film Body Double. Consider that Troy also drives a DMC DeLorean, a flop car model from the early 1980s that was nevertheless immortalised in popular culture thanks to its prominent usage in the Back To The Future franchise. Far from epitomizing the lifestyle of the not-too-distant future, Troy's material extravagances are symbols of his severe reclusiveness; in both cases, the gag seems to be that Troy is perpetually stuck in a zeitgeist that's long expired. The world has moved on and left him stranded in a kind of alternative vision of the future from the early to mid 1980s (which is probably around the time that his own career crashed and burned).

The plot of Body Double would no doubt resonate with Troy, for it concerns an out-of-work actor, Jake Scully (played by Craig Wasson), whose stint playing a vampire in a semi-pornographic horror is brought to a screeching halt when his crippling claustrophobia impedes his ability to act. Scully befriends a fellow actor, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), at a method acting class, and when Scully is rendered homeless following a break-up with his girlfriend (Barbara Crampton), Bouchard graciously offers to put him up in the hi-tech Hollywood pad he house-sits (or so he claims) for a friend working in Europe. The home (actually the Chemosphere, a building designed by architect John Lautner in 1960) is shaped like a flying saucer and hovers above the Hollywood Hills like an interloper from another world entirely, and appears to have it all - aquarium, rotating bed, sauna, Jacuzzi and, best of all, an attractive female neighbour, Gloria (Deborah Shelton), who performs an erotic dance beside her window every night. Scully gets into the habit of observing her nightly ritual through a telescope, and becomes aware of at least one other pair of eyes out in the nocturnal skyline that shares his fixation, for Gloria is being stalked by a mysterious "Indian", whose intentions, Scully suspects, are none too savoury. As both the title and the promotional tagline ("You can't believe everything you see") would suggest, the central theme of the film is duplicity, in both senses of the word. Much of what Scully takes at face value transpires to be a ruse - the Gloria he watches is not always the real Gloria, but sometimes Holly (Melanie Griffith), a porn star hired to impersonate her, and the "Indian" is none other than Bouchard (or, as he actually known, Alexander Revelle) buried beneath layers of prosthetics. The hi-tech home, with all of its space age comforts, is the perfectly-baited trap, for Scully has been an unwitting pawn in Revelle's scheme to murder Gloria (revealed to be his girlfriend) and evade suspicion; Scully, who witnesses Gloria's brutal murder and is unable to intervene, sees the "Indian" kill her, and this is the account that the police ultimately accept. Body Double was one of multiple films by De Palma to owe a very obvious and self-conscious debt to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Sisters (1972), Obsession (1976) and Dressed To Kill (1980) being earlier examples. Body Double borrows a number of key plot elements from Vertigo (the damsel in distress who is a double-dealing imposter, the protagonist hampered by an irrational fear), but its most obvious prototype is Rear Window; De Palma takes Hitchcock's basic scenario of a heroic peeping tom whose voyeuristic habits lead him to detect foul play in an adjacent apartment, reworking it so that the murderer here anticipates and manipulates the voyeur's involvement to his own ends (perhaps he anticipates it a little too perfectly - there was ample scope for Scully to think, "This doesn't concern me", and go back to his rotating bed...although maybe we can waive that given the implications of the film's climactic sequence?).

The punchline to the Body Double allusion in "Fish" occurs when we see an exterior shot of Troy's space age home and observe that this building, once the height of extravagance in the mid-1980s, now looks considerably worse for wear and is on the verge of falling apart. These serve as obvious cracks in Troy's life of ostensible luxury, but those familiar with the plot of Body Double might be inclined to read more deeply between the lines, recalling the unusual circumstances under which the similarly down-and-out actor of De Palma's thriller came to occupy the same building and questioning how much of that backstory also applies to Troy. We see a sign affixed to the now-derelict building, indicating that it is "For Sale By Owner", but who is the owner? Is it Troy himself, or has he, like Scully, simply been crashing in someone else's vacant pad ever since his own career hit the skids and his agent, MacArthur Parker (voice of Jeff Goldblum) ditched him as a hopeless case? For Scully, the induction into this building represented a new lease of life, for unbeknownst to him, the seemingly hapless actor has just landed the role of his career. Revelle functions as a sort of perverse casting agent, deliberately trailing Scully in order to size him up and ultimately cast him for the part of eyewitness in a thriller that seems almost too lurid and slickly-constructed to be true, and as it turns out there may be a good reason for that. The space-age properties of the setting give the film a purposely surreal air, one that provides hints as to the potentially illusory nature of the entire affair.

 Above: At home with Troy. Below: Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) gets the abode of his wildest fantasies (quite literally?) in Brian De Palma's Body Double (1984).

In what plays like a direct inversion on the ending to Vertigo, Body Double concludes on a traditionally redemptive note, with Scully overcoming his claustrophobia, saving Holly from being murdered by Revelle and receiving his ultimate reward in the form of reinstatement to his role as erotic vampire Lothario in the sleazy picture that Rubin (Dennis Franz, aka our friend Warren Toomey from Psycho II) is filming. But it is a baffling ending that deliberately confuses fantasy and reality, prompting the viewer to question the authenticity of what they have just witnessed. Was the entire film nothing more than a fantasy concocted in Scully's head in order to help him through the claustrophobia that was impeding his ability to play the part of the vampire Lothario? De Palma certainly teases the viewer with the implication that we have never, in actuality, left the set of Rubin's film, only to further confuse it by showing Holly standing among the onlookers, assuring the actress playing the vampire's victim that she will get many dates when the film comes out and viewers get to ogle at the close-up shot of her breasts (which actually belong to her body double). However we interpret the events of film, we are led to what is effectively the same punchline, in that Scully's endeavours, and his willingness to step up and assume the role of the hero, whether in reality or within his imagination, have (from a professional standpoint) been in aid of securing his right to play a sexy vampire in a softcore pornography film. It is a victory for Scully, yet one the film is eager to undermine by immediately placing it within its proper perspective. This ending doesn't work for everyone (John Kenneth Muir, in his book Horror Films of The 1980s, accuses the film of closing on "a kind of B-movie, jokey note, and so Body Double ends up feeling like a lark, instead of a mesmerizing thriller"), but the film remains doggedly** committed to the theme of deception, right down to attempting (audaciously?) to turn it back on the viewer at the finish.

In Troy's case there's been no such redemption, however minimal. Neither hero, witness or vampire, he has simply been walled off and forgotten, cut off from humanity in his UFO-like abode, which gives him the illusion of being elevated above the fickle earthlings who rejected him and drove him into a life of solitude, and which now stands upon the verge of tumbling down. If Troy was put up by an owner with intentions as nefarious as Revelle's, they clearly gave up on him a long time ago.

The allusions to De Palma's film in "Fish" likewise heighten our awareness of the episode's own preoccupations with duplicity, and what this might mean in terms of Troy's relationship with Selma. Blatantly, it's as hollow and plastic as every other facet of Troy's public persona, but the extreme hoopla generated over something as trivial as a washed-up actor being spotted in public with a female is enough to prompt the question as to how far the public themselves are willing participants in the deception? There's an underlying sense that "everybody knows", but to what extent do they know that they know? The media and their viewership regard Selma and Troy much as they would characters in a daytime soap, less interested in authenticity than in watching them go through the motions and perform according to their expectations as a celebrity couple. For her part, Selma seems eager to assume what she sees as her new role in life, dressing herself up in the kind of flashy outfits she figures the wife of a major movie star would wear, which make her look particularly ridiculous whenever we catch her away from the press and mingling with the rest of the Simpson family. But then Selma seems to understand all too well that this arrangement is all about surface appearances. When Marge and Patty come clean with Selma about her marriage to Troy being a sham, Selma gets defensive, but she really doesn't appear all that shocked by the suggestion. It's obvious that the thought has already occurred to her. For one thing, she's painfully aware of the fact that Troy seems determined not to sleep with her, or even have very much to do with her at all behind closed doors, prompting Selma to suspect (erroneously) that Troy might be gay. When she finally confronts Troy on the matter, he plays it entirely cool, admitting to the ruse and insisting that she shouldn't see it as an issue. Is this another facet of Troy's manipulation, or does he genuinely see nothing unusual or objectionable about the concept of a loveless marriage? I'm inclined to think the latter, given just how much Troy seems to struggle with human relationships in general (see below). Furthermore, Troy suggests that their sham marriage is essentially no different from what every other married couple is doing, but refuses to acknowledge: "The only difference between our marriage and everyone else's is, we know our's is a sham...sure, you'll be a sham wife, but you'll be the envy of every other sham wife in town." And it works - Selma is initially convinced that she can tolerate the situation, in exchange for the benefits of being attached to a Hollywood hotshot. Things get complicated, however, when Parker advises Troy that he's in the running for the much-coveted role of McBain's sidekick in the upcoming blockbuster, McBain IV: Fatal Discharge (hmm, nice title), and that he'll up his chances considerably if he and Selma can create some additional publicity by having a baby. For Troy, landing a role of this magnitude would surely cement his comeback, so of course he's game (although he later struggles with the entire reproductive ritual), but Selma realises that this is where she ultimately must draw the line. As much as she's always wanted to be a mother, she recognises that it would be unfair to bring an innocent child into their duplicitous lifestyle, and decides at this point that she and Troy must go their separate ways.

"A Fish Called Selma" ends on a surprisingly poignant note, one of the most authentically tear-jerking in the entire Simpsons canon. It has an emotional clout that quite sneaks up on you, making you realise just how invested you've actually been in this ill-fated non-relationship. Troy and Selma may have zero chemistry as a couple (their first date, where neither of them is putting on any kind of act, is hilarious in its unabashed tedium), but they've developed a clear co-dependency, being the closest that each of them figures they can have to an actual marital companion, and the episode treats its dissolution with the solemnity it deserves. We all know what Selma's vulnerabilities are, so she has our sympathies secured. As for Troy, he doesn't exactly come off well in this episode, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel for the washed-up deviant. He's so accustomed to the phoniness of showbiz, and to always having to smile and wave his way through everything, that he's lost his ability to form real emotional connections with other human beings, assuming that he ever had it in the first place. His penultimate line to Selma - "Like that time we built that snowman together in that Newport ad? Remember how alive with pleasure they said we were?" - is genuinely heartbreaking, because it's clear that this is the most sincere he can possibly be in attempting to forge such a connection. Selma's parting words to Troy - "I'll always remember you, but not from your films" - are equally devastating; on the surface, this is an obvious play on Troy's catchphrase, but more crucially Selma offers Troy a rare snapshot of authenticity, promising him that she'll remember him for who he actually is, as opposed to the false persona he is accustomed to putting on while being observed through an onlooker's camera lens. But who is the real Troy? Did Selma even have the chance to get acquainted with him, given how little he wanted to have to do with her when away from the cameras? It's a gesture that has Troy utterly floored, and he can only watch in silence as Selma makes her way back down to planet Earth, leaving him stranded up in his ridiculous spaceship abode. Troy casts such a sad and lonely figure in the final scene; the impression you come away with is that neither side of his public image, be it the glamorous movie star or the depraved fish fetishist, has managed to fully represent him as a human being - somewhere in between there's a pathetic, terminally indifferent guy whose only real joy in life seems to derive from his strange, potentially kinky feelings toward aquatic lifeforms. He's entirely convincing as the kind of person who was caught masturbating in a public aquarium and never recovered, either professionally or personally, from the horrors of being outed as a weirdo.

In an epilogue that plays during the end-credits, we learn that Troy was offered the role of McBain's sidekick anyway, but turned it down to direct and star in his own pet project, The Confabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. Despite 20th Century Fox's willingness to back the project, it's safe to say that this won't be seeing the same kind of bucks as Fatal Discharge. Most people see this as indicative of Troy cracking up after losing Selma and starting down a very self-destructive path that will undoubtedly lead him right back into oblivion (thus resetting the status quo), but I think there's a more optimistic way of interpreting this ending. Troy's experience with Selma may actually have taught him something about sincerity, prompting him to reject the phoniness of Hollywood and make the picture he's always wanted to make, even if its commercial viability is highly questionable. Finally, Troy is about to bare his real self before the world, in all its idiosyncratic, maladjusted glory. In a way, this is Troy's equivalent of an ending in which he gets to ride off into the sunset, or rather drift off into the clouds with a confabulous fabtraption strapped to his back. He truly belongs in another galaxy.

Anyway, I hate to close on such an upsetting note, particularly on Valentine's Day, but life doesn't always have happy endings - on 28th May 1998, Phil Hartman was shot and killed in a domestic dispute by his wife, Brynn Omdahl, who subsequently turned the gun on herself. It's a sad story all-round. Troy McClure's last appearance in The Simpsons was in the Season 10 episode "Bart The Mother". Apparently, before his death Hartman had expressed interest in doing a live action feature film about Troy McClure - I have to admit that I'm skeptical as to whether such a project would ever have gone ahead, given that there were other attempts at Simpsons spin-offs that never got out the door (on the DVD commentary, they talk about how great it would have been to make the picture, which is easy to say when there's no chance of it happening), although Hartman is one of the few Simpsons voice actors that I could see being able to convincingly portray his character in live action. You know what kind of Troy McClure picture I would dig? A mockumentary along the lines of Lost in La Mancha (2002) about his attempts to get The Confabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel off the ground. Or heck, maybe even The Confabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel itself. The more I think about it, the more I think the world needs a film so delightfully, weirdly inane. What's the closest thing we currently have? The Adventures of Baron Munchausen?

* I do seem to recall an episode in which a character (Mayor Quimby?) randomly blurts out, "The chick from The Crying Game is really a man!"

** Speaking of dogs, there's a psychopathic one in Body Double, which was trained by the master of wrangling psychopathic dogs, Karl Miller, whose work I previously looked at here. I guess we can also add Body Double to the list of possible films that Sadness from Inside Out might be referring to when she describes "the funny movie where the dog dies." The dog falls into reservoir along with Revelle at the end of the film; I don't think either of them survived.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Nightmares '83: Night of The Rat (aka Whatever Pyridoxine Hydrochloride is, I'm eating it)

Anthology films are a tough nut to crack. While having a collection of shorter-form stories as opposed to a single full-length narrative can make for a refreshing change of pace (for one thing, if you don't like the story you're seeing, then you can rest easy in the knowledge that there'll be another one starting shortly enough), a lot of anthology films don't succeed in overcoming the problem of culmination. The segments need to work individually, but at the same time it has to function as a cohesive piece. There needs to be a certain rhyme and rhythm in weaving the stories together; each individual segment should ideally be building on and enhancing our appreciation of the ones that came before it, and the ending should bring all of those reactions together and give clarity/thematic closure to the full catalogue in a satisfying way. Otherwise, you end up with the theatrical equivalent of showing a bunch of TV episodes back to back, and if that's what you want to be watching, you would presumably opt for that instead. Generally speaking, anthology films don't end up being the sum of their parts, and you're forced to take the rough along with the smooth. Twilight Zone: The Movie, released in 1983, is the textbook definition of an anthology film that's a total mixed bag. This big screen tribute to Rod Serling's seminal TV favourite from the movie brat generation practically begs the rollercoaster analogy, offering both dizzying highs and gut-churning lows. On the one hand, Joe Dante's take on "It's a Good Life" is a wickedly inspired slice of grotesquery, in that it plays like a live action Looney Tunes short set in the deepest bowels of Hell (you gotta love that it involves a young Nancy Cartwright being banished to the cartoon world, where she's stayed ever since*) so of course, being a self-respecting horror fan, you'll want to have it in your collection. On the other hand, I think there are far fewer horror fans out there who relish the idea of being saddled with John Landis's witlessly sadistic "Time Out" (the knowledge that three cast members were killed during the making of this segment only makes it all the more of a woeful experience). I'm such a huge fan of the Dante segment and so repelled by the Landis one that I find it hard to determine how I stand on the movie as a whole. But then, it doesn't work as a whole movie. Three of the four segments are direct remakes of episodes from the original Serling series, and as such the film is effectively a TV marathon in theatrical dress. The film attempts (somewhat) to redress this by bookending the segments with a couple of sequences involving Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd. I...don't know what those are all about. Having Aykroyd's character show up at the very end to give John Lithgow one final shock is basically just an unconvincing means of attempting to pass off the entire affair as a circular narrative - which fails, because of course it isn't. Really, I could curse the Dante segment for being so good, otherwise I would have a much easier time writing the whole thing off as a failure (with apologies to Lithgow, who is extremely fun to watch in the George Miller segment).

Within the same year that Twilight Zone: The Movie hit the screens, a far lower-key horror anthology, also comprised of a tetrad of grisly tales, saw the light of day and has nestled away in dark obscurity ever since. Joseph Sargent's Nightmares is yet another anthology film that plays more like a TV marathon than a cohesive feature, which, in this case, is precisely what we're looking at, given that the segments started life as a pilot for a proposed NBC anthology series that was ultimately shelved. Unlike Twilight Zone: The Movie, Nightmares makes zero attempt whatsoever to disguise its origins as a collection of self-contained television episodes, forgoing the popular tactic of having either a framing narrative, bookends, intersecting characters (like the cat from the 1985 film Cat's Eye) or even a common narrator to imply that the segments are somehow connected. It is simply a string of stories told back-to-back, with the vague interconnecting theme that they all involve characters having to confront something nightmarish. Is it any more even as a viewing experience than Twilight Zone: The Movie? Oh, who cares? It has a giant rat, so it's already passed the first test.

Note that the segment with the rat ("Night of The Rat") is the only one that I care to talk about here. The three remaining segments are perfectly watchable, but they do not have a giant rat. I went out and bought this film entirely on account of the rat. I've probably mentioned this elsewhere within these pages, but I am very fond of rats, and as such would consider myself something of an aficionado of rat cinema - an esoteric category which, barring a few scant exceptions like Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH (1982) and Pixar's Ratatouille (2007), tends to fall overwhelmingly into the horror genre (rats being an animal that are apt to evoke feelings of discomfort in numerous people). I stumbled across Nightmares last year, thanks to a recent Region B Blu-ray release by 101 Films, and when I learned that it contained a story about a giant rat I was immediately intrigued, but also very cautious. All I could glean about the plot was that it involved an oversized rat menacing a human family, culminating in a dramatic showdown within a child's bedroom. Sounds enthralling, only I saw this exact same scenario in a certain Disney movie and it didn't end well for the rat. I should stipulate that, given my affection for the animal in question, I can be quite picky about which rat movies I choose to watch. My preference is definitely for films that are willing to regard the rat with a degree of sympathy, even where they're also treated as objects of horror (eg: Daniel Mann's Willard (1971), which is one of my all-time favourite films). I wasn't totally convinced that I was going to get that from Nightmares, and yet when I did a Google Image search on the film and was treated to an array of imagery showing the final confrontation between family and rat (see below), I was immediately won over and had to give it my time. And I was happy that I did. I will say upfront that "Night of The Rat" is actually very favourable to the titular rodent.

"Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?!" Heroic mutt Tramp faces off against a rat with an appetite for ripping up the family unit in Disney's Lady and The Tramp (1955).

Actually, the above Disney allusion is entirely appropriate, as "Night of The Rat" is a film that plays as if it were conceived from a strange mix of nostalgia and psychological scarring induced by a half-remembered childhood viewing of Lady and The Tramp from the film's initial release in the mid-1950s. In the Disney animated classic, the creeping black rat that only Lady is aware of signifies a contaminant in the characters' apparently pristine neighbourhood (much like the bugs lurking beneath the grasses in David Lynch's 1986 film Blue Velvet). It is a disturbance that the human residents go about their daily lives happily oblivious to, and as such it falls upon the dogs, appointed defenders of the clean-cut American family unit, to keep this malign intruder at bay. Lady encounters the rat twice in the story; obviously, we have the aforementioned dramatic climax involving a brutal face-off between Tramp and the rat, but Lady's first meeting with the unsavoury rodent occurs long before then, prior to the arrival of the human baby who forces her to re-evaluate her role within the family household. When it first appears, the bedraggled, shadowy creature comes as a startling contrast to the bright and colourful images that have defined Lady's idyllic existence up until now; it is an early hint as to the trouble that lies ahead. The rat represents a threat to the conservative middle class values that the film is concerned with upholding; elsewhere in the story, the Siamese cats and the uncollared dogs pose their own kind of threats to the established order, but it is the rat that launches its attack directly where it hurts, by going for the soft centre of everything this order holds precious and sacred, and gravitating almost uncannily toward the crib of Jim Dear and Darling's baby. Unlike the other animals in the film (dogs, cats and beavers included), the rat does not possess the gift of the gab, for is more a symbol than it is a character, an embodiment of suburban America's darkest nightmares as it stealthily infiltrates the family home and threatens to rip all sense of safety and security to shreds. The rat is the ultimate outsider, the distasteful nonconformist whose very existence these white-bread bourgies would sooner shut out and ignore but who has found its way in anyway. That such horror could be conveyed through an animal of such tiny stature no doubt made it all the more potent to audiences back in 1955.

The rat in "Night of The Rat" serves a similar purpose, the major difference being that this particular rodent is not in the business of going where she is not invited. Here, the white-bread banality of suburban America, far from being emblematic of a pristine, perfectly-maintained social order, is depicted as symptomatic of its complacency and vapidness. Crucially, the couple of this particular cautionary tale are not the loving, idyllic Jim Dear and Darling; the family patriarch, Steven Houston (Richard Masur), is an avaricious businessman eager to get in on the yuppie reign that was sweeping 1980s America, to the point that he has distanced himself, both physically and emotionally, from wife Clair (Veronica Cartwright) and daughter Brooke (Bridgette Andersen). Steven prioritises the acquisition of material wealth over the welfare of his family, as is made clear when Clair shares her suspicions that the house may have a rodent problem, and he forbids her to hire an exterminator on the grounds that having a swimming pool installed would be a better use of their money. Recalling Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) in its condemnation of the materialistic values of 1980s America, "Night of The Rat" offers an almost immediate inversion on one of the key ideas presented in Lady and The Tramp - namely, that the family home is a place of purity, to be preserved and protected from foreign encroachment in the form of rats and Siamese cats. Here there is the sense that the family home, decked to the brim with fashionable luxuries, has become a danger in itself, a hotbed of contaminants that are slowly poisoning the very unit it purports to uphold. Banality has given way to apathy, and to a culture of unquestioning consumption in which no one cares to ponder what they are letting into their houses, or even their own bodies. This is best encapsulated in an early breakfast table exchange between Clair and Brooke, in which the latter, reading from a cereal box, asks her mother what pyridoxine hydrochloride is, and receives the response, "God knows." "Am I eating it?" asks an unsettled Brooke. There is actually nothing amazingly sinister about pyridoxine hydrochloride, which is a form of the vitamin B6, but the resigned indifference of Clair's response to her daughter's inquisitive concerns about the unknown substances that make it daily onto the family dining table is telling of the general nonchalance that defines the family's consumerist lives. It is hinted that this culture based on the accumulation of domestic debris is precisely what has attracted the rat into their house - to that end, the rat is right at home among the garbage of modern life. And yet the rat functions as the antithesis of of the family's materialism; when she brings her reign of destruction upon their abode, biting through cables and tearing down furniture, she exposes their fortress of material comforts for the facade that it is. The rat is effectively Mother Nature, come to feed these complacent suburbanites a bitter reality sandwich and remind them that they are still a part of the wider world.

 The (rat) race is on! Bart Hughes (Peter Weller) may have bitten off more than he can chew in Of Unknown Origin (1983).

You've no doubt heard that old adage about how the average human is never more than 6ft away from a rat. It is typically spoken with the intention of unsettling people (although I keep pet rats and am at my happiest when there is no distance between myself and my rats, so I am totally unfazed by the suggestion), but it also functions as a sobering rebuttal to our assumption that we have successfully divorced and removed ourselves from the rest of the natural world. No matter how far have we attempted to distance ourselves from nature, the rat has always insisted on following us and making itself right at home in our shadow. Rats, much like humans, are enormously adaptable animals, and the rat's ability to thrive in just about every environ that we are capable of erecting is a reminder that we do not have complete control of our urbanised kingdoms (the threat of infestation, be it from rats, snakes or insects, is one of the most common motifs of the human nightmare, as it signifies the loss of control of one's personal space). There are few other creatures with whom humankind shares such a close and uneasy relationship (the cockroach being one of those few), and the success of the rat in the human-modified world only accentuates the high number of species that haven't been nearly so fortunate, instilling us with a sense of guilt as to the wider impact that our resource-guzzling habits have had upon the planet. More troubling still is the rat's ability to profit from some of the more distasteful aspects of our culture (eg: our extreme wastefulness), which comes as an unwelcome reminder of the wealth of filth and disposal that underlies our ostensibly spotless existences. This notion of the rat and the human being kindred, if oppositional spirits was used as the basis for another film from from the class of '83 - George P. Cosmotos's Of Unknown Origin, in which Peter Weller plays a businessman who is effectively driven to madness by his personal vendetta with the rat that has taken up residence within his walls. The rat remains the enemy, but unlike Lady and The Tramp, where the rat is nothing more than a foreign interloper, Of Unknown Origin regards Weller and his rodent nemesis as worthy adversaries competing in the very same rat race, with the suggestion that a part of humankind's animosity toward our sewer-dwelling neighbours stems from the unease of seeing just a little too much of our own natures reflected back at us for comfort.

The Houston family live in an environment where the closest they would ordinarily get to nature is through their pet cat, Rosie. Veronica Cartwright is best known for playing Lambert in Ridley Scott's game-changing space horror Alien (1979), so it seems only fitting that Rosie should bear a (non-coincidental?) resemblance to Jones, the skulking ginger tabby who survives his encounters with the invasive Xenomorph in Scott's film. Cat lovers are cautioned that, here, Rosie doesn't fare nearly so well. Rosie's meets a (mostly) off-screen but clearly very brutal end when she walks into the basement where the giant rat has taken up residence; prior to her untimely demise, Rosie's role is evocative of that assumed by Lady in acting as a guardian to the youngest member of the household. (Actually, I would have preferred it if Rosie was a dog, ideally a cocker spaniel, as that would make the Lady and The Tramp allusions all the more salient, but I suppose a cat is fitting as the more traditional enemy of all things murine. Besides, I suspect there is an assumption among movie executives that audiences respond more negatively to dog deaths than to cat deaths - look up Danny DeVito's The War of The Roses (1989) for an example of this double standard.) Early on in the segment, we see the cat in Brooke's bedroom, lying beside the sleeping child in a state of alertness which suggests that she is keeping watch (in that sense, the film anticipates the aforementioned anthology Cat's Eye, which concludes with a story about a plucky feline defending a small girl from the gremlin lurking within her bedroom walls). Like Lady, the cat possesses an attunement to the rodent encroachment that the humans initially do not, but her compulsion to confront those dangers head-on, like Tramp, does not here go in her favour. The death of the family pet serves as a terrible disturbance, not least because of the great source of comfort and security that the cat has evidently brought to Brooke in her otherwise indifferent world; in fact, in the absence of a strong sense of family unity the most tender displays of affection within the household are those expressed by Brooke toward Rosie. The relationship between Brooke and Rosie, and the parents' inability to settle their daughter's malaise or to confront her with the reality of what has become of her beloved cat, recalls the similar scenario with Ellie and Church of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, which was published in the same year. The pervasiveness of death within the fabric of everyday life, one of the central themes of King's book, is perhaps the harshest reminder that we remain fundamentally connected to nature, for death is nature's way and there is no hiding from it, even behind the floral patterned walls of our suburban homes. Clair discovers Rosie's mangled body, but chooses to conceal the truth from Brooke, which only fuels her daughter's malaise further. Steven's off-hand suggestion that they get Brooke a new cat seems less like a means of renewal than it does a facet of his detached, consumerist mentality; the idea that everything can fixed with further acquisition, while the underlying concerns of both his wife and daughter go unaddressed.

Steven's response to the rodent invasion, in lieu of calling in a professional exterminator, is to set up his own trap. When this successfully kills a (regular-sized) rat, he considers the problem solved and disappears yet again, leaving his family to fend for themselves. Eventually, the havoc becomes so overwhelming that Clair is prompted to go against her husband's orders and consults an eccentric exterminator (Albert Hague), who advises that Steven may have unwittingly brought the curse of Das Teufel Nagetier (The Devil Rodent) upon his family. This legendary rodent is reputed to bring pestilence to wicked individuals, although the exterminator is vague as to what crimes Steven might have committed to warrant the wrath of a giant rat. Steven may be the one who has inadvertently willed the rat into their property and yet, much like the rat from Lady and The Tramp, this rodent of unusual size attacks the family in its most vulnerable spot, by directing its fury at Brooke. There is a scene in which Brooke goes to her bedroom to find that nearly all of her toys have been violently slashed and ripped apart (in a mordant bit of humour, we see that Brooke's toy rat has been spared in this plush massacre - significantly, the toy rat wears a bonnet and a dress and is clasping a stirring spoon, which gives us a clue as to the rat's maternal intentions). The destruction dealt to Brooke's property and to her beloved cat are attacks on the sense of security the already uneasy child feels within her home, but more importantly they serve to expose the failures of both of her parents to provide adequate protection, both physically and emotionally.

And yet, the final confrontation between the family and the rat reveals a twist that puts Steven to shame in a most unexpected way - that is, the rat transpires to be a more dedicated parent than he. It turns out that the rat's motivations have been rooted in maternal instinct, for the rat killed by Steven earlier the film, which now lies bagged and buried in the family's trash can, was the child of Das Teufel Nagetier and she has come to retrieve it. By contrast, Steven's initial response during the confrontation - to come at the rat with a shotgun - serves only to put his daughter in even graver danger, for the rat has positioned herself between Brooke and her parents, and Steven's erratic firing, as Clair is at pains to point out, comes at the risk of blasting Brooke to smithereens. Where traditional macho heroics threaten to make the situation all the more virulent, it is, surprisingly, a display of empathy that diffuses this hair-raising stand-off, for Brooke becomes attuned to the rat's intentions, and implores her father to return the dead one. Steven complies, although his impulsive inclination toward foolhardy self-destructiveness again rears its head as the rat moves away from Brooke and toward her dead offspring; Steven raises his gun at the preoccupied rat, thus coming dangerously close to destroying the possibility of a true between the two warring families, but Brooke convinces him to let her be. As Das Teufel Nagetier slinks out of the bedroom window and away into the night, it leaves the Houston family, Steven included, huddled together in an emotional heap. Far from destroying the family unit, as its Disney counterpart seeks to do, Das Teufel Nagetier has (her brutal slaying of Rosie notwithstanding) succeeded in reinforcing it by the end of the film. "Night of The Rat" goes a step further than Of Unknown Origin, which suggests that man and rat are basically the same beast in different skins, by bestowing the monstrous rodent with a kind of purity that underscores the materialistic Steven's negligent attitude toward his own offspring. The film ends on a hopeful note, with the possibility of a co-existence between the suburbanite and the lifeforms eking out an existence within his shadow - although Brooke's final line, "Where do you think she's going next?", coupled with one final shot of the street outside stretching off into a nocturnal abyss, implies that there are plenty of identical scenarios all across Reagan's America, and that Das Teufel Nagetier could be restless for a while yet.

The Mother Load: Brooke (Bridgette Andersen) comes face-to-face with a rodent of unusual size in the climax of "Night of The Rat".

Finally, I couldn't close off this commentary on "Night of The Rat" without tipping my hat to the film's special effects. They are...well, they're something else entirely. In some shots, the rat is clearly a close-up of a wonky taxidermy job, in other shots we see a real rat that has been green screened, unconvincingly, into the family's bedroom. It goes without saying that if you have trouble suspending your disbelief, or if you require your visual effects to have the vaguest semblance of realism, then "Night of The Rat" may not be the horror for you. If, on the other hand, you like your effects to be as strange and delightfully hokey-looking as possible, then I think you will eat this up. In the Blu-ray commentary by Nathaniel Thompson of Mondo Digital, he comments, with some validity, that "Night of The Rat" is a good story that is ultimately let down somewhat by its creaky, TV-budget visuals of the final sequence, and proposes that a more effective approach would have been to have used a Jim Henson-type puppet during the final confrontation. Overall, I would have to disagree. The fact that Das Teufel Nagetier is played by a real rat (however blatant it is that the rodent in question was never actually on the set), gives it a living, breathing presence that contributes enormously to the surprising emotional resonance of that final sequence. Besides, there's a tremendous charm in its silliness. That climax may look ropy as sin, but I'm not convinced I would have "Night of The Rat" any other way.

Next up in rat horror - how about we look to television, and to the Night Gallery episode, "The Nature of The Enemy"? It was penned by the master of shadow and substance himself, Rod Serling!

* Nancy later had her revenge in The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror II", where Bart had acquired Anthony's powers.