Spending the Fourth of July in . . . the Twilight Zone

William Shatner and the gremlin in

William Shatner and the gremlin in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

While most people in Duluth were finding their way to favorite spots on the hillside or waterfront to watch the night’s fireworks display, I got distracted by the SciFy channel’s Fourth of July Twilight Zone Marathon. I had socialized and visited the beach earlier in the day, and was watching a bit of television before leaving for the fireworks. Problem was, an episode was airing that scared the bee hooosis (Minnesotan for bejesus) out of me when I was young.

I hadn’t seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” since that fateful night my parents were out and I watched a scary television show despite their instructions to the contrary. Would the episode be as frightening to now? Would the face that appears in the airplane window when the passenger draws back the curtain make me hide behind the living room curtains like when I was little?

I had to watch it. Fireworks be dammed. Cue Rod Serling’s opening narration:

Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home – the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.

Robert Wilson is played by a young William Shatner. His wife sits beside him on his plane ride home from the sanitarium.

I marveled at the 1960s clunky airplane backdrop, made with cheap wood paneling, the airline seats with so much room on either side they looked like today’s first-class seats, and the quaint plaid curtains covering the plane windows.

Was I was scared watching the show now? Of course not. I’ve been too jaded by the likes of “Jaws,” and “The Exorcist,” and “Amityville Horror,” and dozens of other horror movies for a little Twilight Zone to scare me. But I understood why the story was so frightening when I was younger; it was the feelings that Mr. Wilson was alone in his belief that someone was out on the airplane wing. The plane is in peril from this person outside. Only he knows this, but he can’t make anyone else believe him because the humanoid (which we later learn is a gremlin) hides when anyone else tries to see him. That kind of emotional tension must have been unbearable to me as a child.

Plus there’s the tension and surprise when Mr. Wilson closes the curtain after seeing the gremlin the first time, but then wants to open it up later, just to check if anything is really out there. His hand hesitates above the curtain as he struggles with his feelings. When he draws back the curtain, the gremlin’s morose yet curious face fills the entire window. (I suspect this is the point where I fled behind the curtains.)

Nightmare_ar_20,000_Feet_GremlinThe gremlin’s appearance in the window is scarier than the appearance of the gremlin itself. He’s more like a wooly clown with a bad make-up job. But it’s all the peril and tension that made this episode so memorable.

This little trip down horror memory lane was worth missing the fireworks show. Even after all these years, it reminded me what makes a good horror story: tension, surprise, peril, and emotional isolation.

Now, if I could just remember that the next time I write a horror story. Who knows? Maybe I will scare the bee hooosis out of a seven-year-old.

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Watching Philomena

Actor Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee speak at the Golden Globe awards ceremony. Photo by the Los Angeles Times.

Actor Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee speak at the Golden Globe awards ceremony. Photo by the Los Angeles Times.

I gave into the temptation to hibernate from the cold this weekend by going into the cave of a movie theater and watching “Philomena.” The lure was too strong – the movie stars one of my favorite actresses, Dame Judith Dench (think “M” from the James Bond movies), the setting is Ireland, and the story involves journalism, Catholicism, and a mother’s search for her child.

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I will try to refrain from spoilers, but I feel it’s only fair to warn you that the movie is not about what the trailer would lead one to expect. The trailer conjures thoughts of the mother finding her child, and a happily-ever-after future for all. This is not exactly the case. But that makes the story stronger and more real. Since the movie is based on reality, this is a good thing!

I had tried to see the movie three times with other people, but each fell through for one reason or another, so I ended up going alone before it could disappear from the theater. I was especially intrigued to see it after watching the woman the story is about when she appeared on the Golden Globes.

The acting is wonderful, the story is true, and thus, I give the movie my highest rating of 5 Kleenexes. This is the number of tissues that would be required during the movie if I were brave enough to actually take them out of my purse and use them. As it was, I just let the tears run down my face and surreptitiously wiped them off in casual gestures.

You won’t be sorry if you see this movie, but, unless you are as heartless as the nuns in the story, you may cry. Remember to bring Kleenexes. And don’t be afraid to use them.

Movie Madness

Thanks to the Duluth Superior Film Fest, Duluth was awash in independent films last week. The event offered an interesting slice of culture and some trips down memory lane. I skipped the much-lauded reunion for the Disney movie “Iron Will,” which was shot in the region 20 years ago. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet (!) and I had other things going on during the screening. But I did attend screenings for two other movies.

Fifty Lakes, One Island,” by Chicago-based filmmaker, George Desort, is about one of my favorite places on Earth: Isle Royale National Park. In a quest to visit each lake on this wilderness island, which is itself in the middle of a big lake (Lake Superior), Desort spent 80 nights on Isle Royale. The movie is not so much a lake-bagging countdown as it is an exploration of external and internal wilderness terrain.

Of course, the external wilderness is the island itself. Desort bushwhacked to many of the lakes, a feat complicated by wetlands and the rugged landscape, which he often negotiated carrying his kayak, camera equipment and food. The trip was made further challenging by the island’s mercurial weather and penchant for stealing things (like water shoes) strapped to the outside of packs.

Exploration of the internal wilderness comes with the isolation and lack of distractions. As the film’s Vimeo website states: “Desort’s breathtaking footage is paired with his personal, unvarnished story-telling.” He introduces this in the very first scene, in which he’s kayaking and reminiscing about how the tent he is using ties him to his sister and father. The personal narrative continues through to the end of the film where, punctuated by loon calls, Desort talks about feeling as if the island is about to unveil a great secret. Does he learn the secret? You’ll have to watch the movie to see!

The other screening was for a work-in-progress called “In Winter.” In a freewheeling discussion, local director Alex Gutterman described the process of making the movie and showed trailers and clips. Set against the starkness of a northern winter, the movie deals with the themes of class, culture, and relationships.

One of my friends is an extra and supporter of the film and it was fun to hear his experiences being involved in the production. It’s certainly not glamorous. But I think that makes a person appreciate the finishing and polishing that goes into the final product all the more. This movie is expected to make its debut in November 2013.

My claim to fame is that I was in a movie with Bradley Cooper. “Older Than America” was shot in nearby Cloquet, Minn., about six years ago, back before Cooper became famous for his roles in “The Hangover” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” and as “People” magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. I never did see Mr. Cooper on set (sigh) but in my role as an extra I did get to work with the talented Tantoo Cardinal of “Dances with Wolves” fame. I had the privilege of touching her arm as I led her from a hospital room where we were “electroshocking” her niece.

English: Bradley Cooper at the 2009 Tribeca Fi...

Bradley Cooper. Credit – Wikipedia.

But enough name-dropping. The independent film deals with the fall-out from the common past practice of sending Native American children to boarding schools to acculturate them. I got to play a nurse who was assisting with the electroshocking of the aforementioned Native American lady. Although the role was not one I would have chosen, I jumped at the chance to be involved and learn more about the workings of movie production.

I suspect I got the part because I was the only one who could fit into the period nurse uniform they had. Even so, a button popped off when I put it on, and the staff seamstress had to sew it on before I could go on set. The button situation was holding up production, and the seamstress was so stressed, I thought she would stab me with her needle as she sewed while I stood there wearing the uniform. I escaped unscathed.

I learned that movie production is a lot of “hurry up and wait,” and repetition. We must have done that electroshocking scene 15 times. I felt so sorry for the actress who was writhing on the table. She expended a lot of energy! There were also some psychologists on hand who coached the actress about how a patient being electroshocked with 1950s equipment would behave.

I also learned that once you’ve served your purpose, filmmakers tend to forget you. My name does not appear in the credits and I got no notification about the local screening. I heard about it by accident and snuck in unticketed (shhhsh) in a move of stealth I’m still proud of even today. But I get to brag that I was in a movie with Bradley Cooper and I appear in the movie trailer (and the movie). Seems like payment enough.