Science fiction is generally regarded as being about fantasy and the fantastic; the future and the futuristic. If it ever could be summarized as a literary genre, it would perhaps be fiction spoken through a discourse on science. Our social and historical beliefs in science (its methods of definition, its spread of conjecture) colour and inform our experience of watching and reading those fictions inspired by scientific knowledge. Whilst as a subject science engages rational comprehension, its fiction both feeds off and fuels the imagination, appealing to what Ray Bradbury described as "a sense of wonder" — a notion well-respected in science fiction circles. Cinefantastique — the most deliberately prestigious of fantasy film journals — describes itself as "the magazine with a 'sense of wonder' " while Forrest J. Ackerman — editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland from 1958 to 1983 and resurgent editor of the new Monster Land — describes the films of his obsession as "imagimovies". The 'future' in science fiction, then, is essentially a terrain of the probable, the plausible, the possible — a space where the imagination is massaged and exercised for pleasure.
A major view of science fiction has been of its inability to transpose its fiction onto celluloid. Any sci-fi addict worth his or her Asimov collection will confer this, citing how fantastic literature will inevitably 'loose something' as it is eaten away by the mimetic codes of photographic realism. Such a view is so strong that sci-fi movies themselves — in acknowledgment of their act of seeing contrary to imagining — tend to often be centred on special effects, whereby the pleasure of imagining is consciously replaced by a perceptual engagement with the mechanics of filmic construction. It is almost as if such films attempt to seduce its audience into a state of their own imagining — not simply to suspend disbelief but to recreate the act of imagining so peculiar to science fiction literature.
However, such a reading of science fiction is historically grounded in certain views and discourses which are not particularly applicable to the direction that sci-fi movies have been taking since the start of this decade. Prior to detailing some of these movies, I should first briefly outline a critical dichotomy upon which many general assumptions about sci-fi movies rest, namely that: the films are inferior to the books; the development of special effects is solely a technical area; and the imagination is the primary responsive area for interpreting science fiction.
It is highly argueable that technological improvements and filmic innovation do not simply extend the cinema's 'recreative' or illusionistic abilities, but that they are more complexly connected with what I would call a 'perceptual interaction': a continuing sociological and psychological sophistication in how one's processes of imagination relate to one's perceptions of film. Sci-fi movies throughout the seventies have definitely followed a phenomenological increase in the 'mediarization' of society's collective imagination, in that what was once the "colonization of the mind" would now be more aptly described as the encoding of the mind. The so-called "mind-boggling special effects" of these modern times are therefore perfectly in synch with boggled minds. By the sixties, sci-fi films were clearly being defeated by their own fiction. Their production design and art direction throughout the fifties had reached saturation point, leaving any films which still drew upon the strained resources of studio props departments to instantly appear dated and outmoded. Sci-fi movie plots — being anywhere up to thirty years behind the incredible twists and fantastic tangents of science fiction literature — had always relied on gaudy set direction to carry the momentum of their narration. (For example, the formula of Universal studios throughout the fifties could easily be caricatured as 1/3 romantic drama; 1/3 foreboding moralism; and 1/3 crazy set design.) Just as the literature centred on an imagining of the future, the films centred on their look: on how they visualized the future through manufacture rather than description.
As the sixties heralded the dawn of a new scientific era (something strangely synonymous with the start of any decade!) sci-fi films unfortunately continued to insist on the old method of finding 'new' ways to look instead of new ways of telling their fictions. The moon landing of 1969 not only invented the ironic concept of 'science fact' but also made many realize that space design (now a functional reality — no more the concocting of visual fantasies) was and would be far from futuristic in image. The ever-growing mandate of realism in film dictated that sci-fi films incorporate the visual style of 'real' space design into their texture of the future, and so the banal modernity of the sixties sealed the coffin on the funky designs of the fifties. Space technology brought 'reality' closer to the 'future' in terms of the conceptualization of science fiction, dulling its futuristic edge and dissolving the mythical, mystical and magical qualities which science fiction (or what in films was closer to science fantasy) has previously endeared its audience with.
Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey the sci-fi movie genre has been involved in a formalist progressivism: new visual styles born from an exacting design research, and new controversial ways of viewing 'mankind' outside of simplistic moral polarities. In terms of modern priorities, fantasy was replaced with realism and morality with metaphysics. The long-awaited sequel 2010 recapitulates this formalist progressivism, as its contemporaneity and modernity have never been seriously questioned — despite the fact that its cinematic codes replicate those of its prequel from 1968. The point is that sci-fi films since 2001 (and perhaps because of 2001) have been most dated through being too literal with the futuristic nature of the genre, eg. The Andromeda Strain (1971), Marooned (1969), Logan's Run (1976), Futureworld (1976), Moon Zero Two (1969), The Final Programme (1974), etc. The more interesting films which deal with futuristic imagery have mutated with other genres, eg. the western in Outland (1981), the horror film in Alien (1979), the romantic-action film in Star Wars (1977). etc.
However, uniquely cinematic treatments of the themes, images, styles, icons and rhythms of the science fiction genre are considerably under-developed. The history of sci-fi films is scarce enough, let alone its significant breakthroughs in cinematic treatment. (One only has to compare its history to those of the western or horror genres to quantify this.) Suffice to say that the narrow paradigm of film-versus-book (which plagues popularist film criticism) is concentrated in sci-fi films due to the priority given to the flows of the imagination in its literary genre. Even though the awesome feat of constructing whole worlds such as the L.A. of Bladerunner (1983) or the vast sands of Dune (1985) appear to be cinematic breakthroughs by virtue of their ability to 'recreate the fantastic', to render it photographic (surely the Holy Grail for realist sci-fi cinema), they testify more to a method of triggering awe through theatrical and filmic craft than to an inspiring of awe through literary evocation.
All in all, literary concepts of the place and performance of the imagination have floated an almost tyrannical discourse throughout dominant and populist trends in sci-fi films, affecting both their production and their criticism. That, at least, is how I would theoretically qualify the predictable rhythmic flux of science fiction's development in the cinema from 1950 to 1980. (And let's face it: what could be a more obvious reaction against the over-researched future of Clarke and Kubrick than short-term journalistic trajectories of primitivism ruralization and anti-technology captured in the likes of Soylent Green (1973), The Planet Of The Apes (1968) and The Omega Man (1971) ?) For sure, history appears to compose itself through thematic opposition and reinforcement, but still, one is continually either seduced, cajoled or simply tricked into feeling that surely we must be going somewhere new from here . . .
Theoretical plan for the new sci-fi film: (i) it should not address the future; (ii) it should not titillate imagination; (iii) it should attempt to disavow literature as a narrative mainspring for the cinema; (iv) it should consciously centre on contemporary developments in the 'perceptual interaction' between film and audience. (Well, if Asimov can lay down the Three Laws Of Robotics . . .)
Many sci-fi films since around 1980 have been breeding a strange and specific textuality (partially due to their interaction and cross-talking with the contemporary horror film), one which quirkily fulfills the off-hand stipulations above. What follows in this article is an attempt to list certain films from the past six or seven years which — when grouped in such a way — give rise to critical plausibility in viewing recent sci-fi films' cinematic developments as being fundamentally opposed to many previous (post 1960) modern trends. At the most modest, they definitely constitute sub-genres in science fiction which have not yet been historicized into anthologies on sci-fi movies — which for the past six or seven years have insisted on looking to the future of sci-fi movies via the high-romance of Star Wars (1977), the low-camp of Star Trek (1979) and the straight-down-the-middle-kitsch of E.T. (1982).
Critical histories of the cinema have always favoured the 'sub text' method in their assessment of sci-fi films. But the sub-textuality of sci-fi films (so heavily relied upon that they invert themselves into primary-order readings) are too often monoistic in their historical outline of cinematic and social intersections. Subjects like the Cold War, McCarthyism and the morality of nuclear technology are too damned broad to cover the multiplicity inherent in the sci-fi movie genre — to say nothing about the problematic of ascertaining how such issues and themes produce a cinematic effect outside of imbedded literal statements (especially in the final reel).
Contemporary fantasy films (an umbrella for sci-fi, horror, etc.) often fall into this historical rut. I really don't buy Wes Craven's 'Nam' qualifications for his Last House on the Left (1972); George Romero's vision of the silent majority in Night Of The Living Dead (1968); or David Cronenberg's quip about The Brood (1976) being his version of Kramer Vs. Kramer. Such explanations and descriptions generally appear to come out of interview situations, where the dialogue rarely facilitates precise critical discussion about the films, and where such answers are more often than not prompted by subtext-seeking questions. Like most fantastic genres, sci-fi films' meanings lie within their surfaces, within the scope of their very impossibility and unreality. Surely if the task at hand for sci-fi films is to (as mentioned before) 'recreate the fantastic', to render it photographic, one would be working against the grain of their fiction if one insisted on reconstituting the films within a social condition of production — thereby giving their metaphoric function an alarmingly self-reflexiveness and perfunctory slant. Granted that many sci-fi films may not be as rich as their literary origins, but they often are considerably richer than their quasi-political readings.
Almost as if in a conscious development beyond these readings, sci-fi films tend to be less about the future and more about the present (or the extremely immediate future). The fantastic is thus 'rationalized' before it is rendered photographic. In fact, sci-fi films which are set in such a present probably have more to do with television shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-63) and Night Gallery (1969-73) (both Rod Serling's productions); One Step Beyond (1958) (a precursor to The Twilight Zone); and The Outer Limits (1963-65, which introduced more obviously sci-fi elements into the fantasy/mystery/suspense and speculative fiction established by the other shows).
One of Stephen Spielberg's first directorial assignments was for the episode titled Eyes in the 1969 Night Gallery telemovie pilot. It featured Joan Crawford careering around her plush Manhattan penthouse in a mechanized wheelchair. The photography, camera work and editing embodied the wheelchair with an eerie presence, fixing it as one of the major features in an otherwise bland morality tale. In 1971, Spielberg's Duel held clear relationships to his vision of machinery in Eyes. Duel simply replaced Hitchcock's birds with a charging oil tanker: the myth of the Machine Age (taking over all human life) was thrusted into a mundane, domesticated present. No cues for the fantastic; no presence of the futuristic. The unreal simply became odd, and "life as we now know it" simply remained "life as we now know it".
Hindsight has now allowed us to perceive Spielberg's auteurism as primarily dealing with domestic themes (something that even John Carpenter has tapped into with his 1985 film Starman). Still, Duel figures as a seminal film in terms of current themes and tendencies in sci-fi films. Of course the obvious imitations shortly arrived (from Killdozer (1974) to The Car (1977) right up to Stephen King's concept of horror-in-a-car Christine, filmed by Carpenter in 1983) but more importantly Duel (like The Birds) allowed for the fantastic construction of a present without explanation rather than a future with an explanation. Almost recalling the screwball-type comedy of films like The Big Bus, Playground, The Disorderly Orderly, Who's Minding The Store and The Glass-Bottom Boat, machinery in the sci-fi present is nothing to really be feared, just something to cope with. Tension is thus created by one not being able to cope.
Carpenter's The Fog (1978) details the start of the one hundred year fog by orchestrating a marvelous array of urban/domestic objects going haywire — a scene which recalls the rumbling madness that the small country house and its contents endure prior to aliens kidnapping the cute kid in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977). Similar chaos is also to be found in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1981) when the forces of the film's title have fun in the kitchen and the kids' bedroom. Both Larry Cohen's Q (1982) and Demon (1976) use an intricately detailed mosaic of 'normal everyday life' to explore the narrative subtleties which become exaggerated when, respectively, a giant winged serpent and an android-hermaphrodite invade a bustling metropolis. If all this sounds Hitchcockian (and let's not confuse it with surrealism) it is because one of Hitchcock's many textual traits was to impregnate banality with unease, to actually make an object appear suspect. The Bells (1981) caricatures this position a bit too far by overstating every shot of a telephone with murderous intent. It works for a while during the film (despite the aggravating similarities it shares with Cronenberg's use of telephones in Scanners (1981) ) but its absurdity fractures the realism that the film embraces, complete with the 'high production value' acting of Richard Chamberlain. (Joke.) Joe Dante's Gremlins (1985) pulls out all the gag-stops to create total absurdity in the domestic chaos which virtually destroys the peaceful township of Kingston Falls. Gremlins recalls Cohen's method of terror, going one step further by employing a camp sensibility to invert anthropomorphism so as to represent the debauched, undomesticated nature of humans. No wonder kids loved it.
Political developments in nuclear technology since the Hiroshima bombing (the image of which has been so aptly described as "the image that launched a million posters") have had the effect of putting the present in sci-fi films out of phase with itself, as the depictions of 'near futures' run the risk of actually happening — even during the films' production. The problem of where and how of the nuclear holocaust seems to have been replaced by the simple question: when? Ironically. Japan herself gave us the most grotesque sub-text-turned monster: Godzilla, the result of atomic testing in the middle of an unnamed ocean (those oceans have since been named as various Pacific regions!). One wonders if the farcical interpretation Godzilla received in the West was not a cultural way of not fully acknowledging the horror of Hiroshima? Ever since The Bomb, America's public display of a troubled conscience — which nonetheless carries its own box office potential — has rationalized countless sci-fi monsters as the result of "freak atomic accidents'' and "lethal toxic waste". This whole corny line has been adopted by many recent gory sci-fi films from America and Italy, putting forward the pseudo-realist concept of life after the bomb, giving us those modern monsters known as 'mutants'. Primarily concerned with being effect-laden, such films have come a full circle with their comprehension of a nuclear holocaust, treating it as so inevitable that it then becomes a common situation which can be exploited for its fictional, fantastic and dramatic potential.
In the fifties, radio-active mutant monsters took two basic forms: (i) scaly and slimy (The Day The World Ended; The Monster That Challenged The World; Monster From The Ocean Floor; It Came From Beneath The Sea; etc. and (ii) enlarged and enormous (Them!; The Beginning Of The End; Rodan; The Giant Behemoth; etc.). And needless to say films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula, Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Monolith Monsters all in some ways take their cue from the scientific knowledge of nuclear physics. Slithis (1978) tried to emulate the above fifties style but ended up as a scaled-down — nuclear-waste-rubber-suit from Venice Beach, California (it must have been a joke). Prophecy (1979) had similar historical roots, but added the ambiguous twist of explaining its monster both through an Indian curse and toxic waste. Incidentally, toxic waste in contemporary sci-fi films can be either nuclear/radioactive byproducts or just good ol' fashioned pollution. Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster (1972) combined both in a farcical battle. It was to be Godzilla's last film (not counting the 1985 remake) so I guess the Smog Monster won.
Toxic waste is responsible for the urban-mutant-cannibals in Chud (1985) and the transformation of the school nerd into a monstrous maniac in Toxic Avenger (1984), whilst atomic radiation explains the revival of frozen zombies in Dan O'Bannon's Return Of The Living Dead (1985), picking up on the suggested or implied explanation of the original zombies of Night Of The Living Dead. Romero's 1973 telemovie The Crazies features zombies created by a toxic bacteria a germ-warfare theme partially borrowed from The Omega Man (1971) and also picked up in Toho's hallowed return to the international film market (a failed one, unfortunately) with their 1980 production of Virus. Dreamscape (1983) is a strange thematic conglomeration, but it includes imaginary scenes (dreamt up as the president and his enemies fight a 'dream war') of a post-holocaust New York subway complete with leather-jacketed mutants catching the E-train uptown. Finally, the Armageddon of atomic detonation and the decayed urban civilization which led to such wastelands (celebrated most forcefully in the Mad Max movies of 1979, 1982 and 1985) spawned a prolific sub-genre which could only be described as 'post-Mad Max'. Some of these films (most of them Italian!) are so over the top that they make the originals pale in comparison, succeeding, where they failed. (See: Bronx Warriors (1981); 1990 Bronx Warriors (1982); Bronx Warriors 11 (1983); The New Barbarians (1983); She (1983); Endgame (1983); 2010 Texas Gladiators (1984); The New York Escapees (1984); etc.)
But of all the films just listed, though, it is perhaps Virus that will get the biggest historical footnote. The contaminating virus in question breaks down all of the body's immunity systems so that the whole world starts dying from common colds and types of cancer. Did I hear you say AIDS? No doubt there will be quite a few contamination-conspiracy movies about AIDS coming out soon enough, because one of the most exploitable fears in the sci-fi present would have to be hospitals, medicine, disease and the body: plots which just slightly twist the common cold into a horrific nightmare. Cronenberg is certainly the expert in this field of sci-fi-horror, in particular with Shivers (1976) and Rabid (1977) which deal heavily with themes derived from parasites and rabies. The experimental doctor in Shivers operates from an extremely clinical apartment-block-utopia in Toronto In the style of Christie, he disembowels his prostitute girlfriend and then slits his throat in order to destroy the sexual parasites he created — using government money, of course. The "morphologically neutral"' skin used in a skin-graft operation performed at an idyllic country plastic surgery farm in Rabid takes on a parasitic life of its own. much to Marilyn Chamber's chagrin (that's a pun, in case you've seen the movie). But Larry Cohen's It's Alive (1974) and the sequel It Lives Again (1978) unfortunately often get left in Cronenberg's shadow. What a concept: defective pharmaceuticals which produce a mutant baby monster! Half science fact; half medicine-fiction. Both films displace the mutant-on-the-loose-in-the-city theme (as in Them) into an ultra-domestic setting, thematically centring on the birth of life as a horrific event.
Beyond the realist premise of the It films (new drugs for the new baby) lies the domain of the artificial creation of life, Moralistically championed and condemned in fantasy cinema since the thirties. But contemporary sci-fi films take their cues from the wondrous technological developments that has set fear into a million Christian hearts: cloning. In 1966 Rock Hudson was recreated in Seconds a subject which he himself recreated in Embryo (1976) but this time he did the creative work: hatching a full-grown woman from an embryo. Unfortunately it would have worked better as a sex fantasy than a serious sci-fi movie. Other cloning movies were more about clowning around: Clones (1973) and The Clone Master (1978), but two very interesting movies picked up what otherwise were trashy, pseudo-realistic ideas. The first was The Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) which involves (wait for it) girls who, through a really weird ritual are transformed into android-bees (!?) who go around killing men in the act of sexual intercourse. The second film was The Stepford Wives (1975) which doesn't have the wild and unbelievable tone of the other film, but which in its place paints a very frightening picture of domestic Utopia set in the Eden like suburb of Stepford: huge white mansions, lush green trees, and wood-panelled station-wagon sedans. Domesticity is exaggerated into perfection, an approach quite the opposite from creating chaos and terror within the domestic, but one which works with a reverse-terror: working on our fears of the perfect.
Artificial life has certainly resurged in the Eighties, but this time aided by dauntingly complex and unarguably believable technology. The Dead Kids (1980), Dead and Buried (1981) and Death Warmed Up (1984) all deal with the reviving of dead bodies and the controlling of live ones. Death Warmed Up centres around a nice little outfit known as Trans Cranial Applications, who through the wonders of medicine specialize in creating programmable mutant killing machines. (Strangely enough, all three films feature hypodermic needles, which for ages were near the top of official censorship lists — no doubt due to the pressure applied by medical associations whinging about their 'public image'!). Dead and Buried shares strong similarities with The Dead Kids, but both retain their own rhythms of originality in the way that their stories unfold. Both involve morgues; morticians, erotic nurses (!) and hypodermics-in-the-eye. But what is interesting beyond the films as individual fictions is the way in which the concept of artificial life is treated in an uncontroversial way, leaving room for the films to concentrate on moods, rhythms and effects. None of them are particularly concerned with explanations, and their endings are presented as just another semantic block in their fictional flow. No message, no statement, no metaphor. The 'present without explanation' is thus incorporated into the actual textuality of the narration. Such films play with the hollowness of the science fiction themes, because the present reality we live in has become so saturated with scientific awareness that the discoveries which are continually changing our concept of reality (and the universe, etc. etc. etc) become more and more commonplace. Science fact is encoded by our minds no differently from science fiction — and whereas science fiction was about viewing realities as fantastic, contemporary sci-fi films now not only view all as fantasy, but also the fantasies as 'non-fantastic'. in other words: so what if someone did create life artificially?
Much of contemporary and recent science fiction cinema could then be termed 'reverse-speculative fiction' in that issues of belief do not cause the metaphysical tension they once were capable of. Advanced technology — for so long the most rationally enticing element of science fiction — now sits within an ongoing parade of technological inventions. The Philadelphia Experiment (1983) appears to have realized this only too well, and has engineered a very knowing textual ploy — namely to set itself in the immediate past (late 1940s) and take on the tone of investigative reporting. The experiments in anti-radar dimensional transgressions (it's as good a description as any!) seem strangely probable because of the juxtaposition of something as technologically commonplace as radar with a familiar concept of matter transference (remember The Fly?) which the film tells us the government (cue: boo! hiss!) botched up on. Now that's what I call a seductive contemporaneity! In Brainstorm (1983) the incredulous yet extremely desirable technology of a machine capable of recording and playing back physiological and even psychological sensations is used as a textual device to carry the flows of an unbelievably romantic love story centred around Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken. Like The Philadelphia Story, Brain Storm has very cleverly situated itself within current 'perceptual interactions'. Fancy, desire and dreaming have always figured strongly in sci-fi films (The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963); The 4-D Man (1959); The Illustrated Man (1969), etc.) and Brainstorm is a truly modern slant on the ability to expand human consciousness (unlike the atrocious 'I-am-not-a-druggie' film Altered States (81) ). It works as both a very interesting commentary on the precise nature of our perception, the substance of our encoding and decoding facilities, and as a recontextualization of the formulaic methods of working romance into sci-fi movies. Brainstorm is unique in its ability to reflect on cinematic history and refract our current modes of perception.
And now we reach the most contemporary theme in current sci-fi films; one which has been hedging itself into all the areas we have discussed so far; one which is primarily responsible for the very ways in which we view science fiction today . . . The Media. For reasons unknown, film has rarely addressed the television medium, perhaps because of the revenue television provides film distribution companies through purchases, and perhaps because as an entertainment the cinema is always competing with 'the box'. The few films that have tackled the subject (e.g. The Twonky (1953), A Face in the Crowd (1957), The Love Machine (1971), Network (1977), etc.) have always in one way or another alluded to the monstrous and diabolical nature of the electronic media. But when production reports and stills from a certain film started to appear in fantasy film journals in 1982, the general consensus was "why hadn't someone thought of it before?"
The film was Videodrome. Scanners (1981) was Cronen-burg's preceding film, and the one which established his reputation more widely than his previous films — especially with its opening scene of an exploding head, not to mention the film's finale. The images from Videodrome of a television set vomiting forth entrails and of James Wood pressing his face into an organic television screen to tongue-kiss an image of Debbie Harry instantaneously evoked the 'shock of the new'. But in some respects, the film did not live up to the shocking power which its images promised. Videodrome as an individual movie is either totally confused or incredibly strung out on its own themes, but either way it takes several viewings and perhaps even several years before any sense can be made out of some of the film's meanings and implications. However, as a development within contemporary science fiction cinema, Videodrome is a wealth of information, abundant in new directions. To recall our notion of formalist progressivism, Videodrome exploited to the hilt what has been the most recent iconography of sci-fi films: organicism, both thematically (i.e. matter purely adapting itself to circumstances) and visually (i.e. things started to look messy). H.R. Gier's initial production design work on Alien (1979) marked it as the first film to consciously employ the visual fusion of machine and organ in a way that allowed one to visually perceive metal and flesh. The alien of Alien —not unlike the thing of The Thing (1982) — employed pure motions of science (human protein; body-matter, etc.) within a visual texture which was effectively alienating and repulsive. Cronenberg's Videodrome channeled such an iconography back into the subject of video/television/cable/etc. (And while you're at it. throw in lots of sex, religion and violence, too.) Videodrome has a strangely didactic air about it, but its fiction is both so fantastic and so metaphorically apt that the film (as a text) is so dense it dumbfounds its viewer. Metaphor and metonym clash in this film like in no other, as mutating organs, melting bodies, squirming hardware and growing metal stun one with their photographic presence and their sheer conceptual audacity. The scene where James
Woods inserts a gun into a gaping membranous opening in his abdominal region — and then pulls his hand out without the gun — is a truly potent sci-fi image. Perhaps as much as Videodrome is misunderstood (considering how many reviews of the film failed to acknowledge how the film complexly works on the cinematic conflict between metaphor and metonym), Halloween III: The Season of the Witch (1982) is underrated. The biggest downfall of the movie was to use the connecting title of Halloween. Granted that it was a financial consideration of the part of the producer, Debra ill, but it was no wonder that many complained about its absence of Jamie Lee Curtis and 'The Shape'. The forte of Season of the Witch is its fictional concept, even if there are a few ragged edges in the plot. Through fusing the 'energy' harnessed from a stolen Stonehenge slab with computer technology, the diabolical Professor Cochran manufactures 'Silver Shamrock' Halloween masks, inside of which are inserted experimental silicon chips which — when triggered by special waves transmitted through television sets across America during the silver Shamrock TV ad — affect the kids watching the ad (and they're all wearing their masks whilst watching the ad because a huge media campaign has made the masks the most beloved toys of all American kids) with absolutely horrific results (phew!). This time, the 'monstrous, diabolical nature' of the electronic media is visualized as a powerful force (a view that floats through both Poltergeist (1981) and Joe Dante's It's a Good Life episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie (83). Admittedly, this plays on naive liberal fears of television controlling our minds (and It's a Good Life provides a much more exciting satirical attack on such fears) but Season of the Witch — in a style indicative of contemporary sci-fi films — simply turns social myths into sci-fi monsters.
As an individual film, it holds together better than Videodrome, although it attempts nowhere near the scope that the latter takes on. But together, both films set up a network of methodology and iconography which will play an increasingly important role in the sci-fi cinema to come. Both films leave their endings open: in Season of the Witch, we don't know whether the final transmission of the deadly ad went through; in Videodrome, we are left totally doubting our ability to tell the difference not between 'dream and reality' (yawn) but between the perception of image and the experience of image. Before the image of a television image of James Wood blows his brains out to the camera, he says ". . . and the word became flesh". He thereby acknowledges his status as image whilst the film explodes itself into blackness without any textual resolution whatsoever. It's all about 1mm the other side of corn — but for contemporary science fiction, that 1mm goes a long way.