Tag Archives: mystery

ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN Get the Found Footage Treatment: DEVIL’S DUE

DEVIL’S DUE


(2/5)

Pros: Sense of ambiguity and mystery; first half of the film isn’t bad


Cons: Ending is a disappointment; too many cheap thrills, not enough genuine tension

With the ghost story formula of Poltergeist and numerous other films tackled using first-person perspective in 2007’s Paranormal Activity and even The Exorcist getting the discovered footage/mockumentary treatment in 2015’s The Atticus Institute, why wouldn’t horror film fans expect a found footage variation of Rosemary’s Baby and/or The Omen to pop up at some point? Abandoning any attempt to justify that formatting, 2014’s Devil’s Due presents the story of newlywed couple Zach and Samantha McCall who, after a honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, start to suspect that something is very fishy about their subsequent unplanned pregnancy. With shadowy figures and pseudoreligious symbolism appearing all around them, it would appear that Samantha is about to give birth to the antichrist, but husband Zach doesn’t seem willing to write off his unborn child just yet.

Devil’s-Due-(2014)-HollywoodInsert John Williams’s Jaws Theme here…

Told by way of any number of handheld and closed-circuit security cameras which seem to capture any and every aspect of the McCall’s everyday life, there’s not so much as a hint of authenticity to this film. I suppose in a way it’s advantageous that filmmakers have decided that the found footage gimmick can be used just because (some) audiences enjoy it: there doesn’t really have to be any effort made to make these films seem believable anymore since no one would in the first place. As such, Devil’s Due writer Lindsay Devlin and co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett can concentrate on telling their story in the best way possible, without any concern for upholding the illusion of the film portraying real events. Unfortunately, the film they’ve delivered becomes ever more goofy as it goes along – in the lousy way these “scary” moments are crafted onscreen, I half expected comic-book style balloon descriptors to intrude, accentuating the film’s action (BOOM! BANG! POW!) but more importantly pointing out exactly how the writer and directors wanted the audience to react (GASP! SHIVER!).

devils-due-mainNot quite normal behavior from a pregnant woman…


In dealing with a story like this, it’s almost inevitable that the fear of pregnancy itself is the most frightening notion being dealt with. Devlin’s script might not be the most logical thing in the world, but it does a satisfactory job of capturing the anxiety of the prospective parents. Cast members Allison Miller and Zach Gilford handle this material fairly capably, and there are some genuinely uncomfortable moments in a first half or so that’s much more reliant on subtle, eerie elements and a palpable sense of dread rather than obvious cheap thrills. I could even buy into the obligatory dark ritual which resulted in Sam being impregnated: related to the camera in a protracted, very mysterious manner, I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing, but it was appropriately spooky and bizarre – even more so when placed alongside joyous images taken during the couple’s honeymoon.

The film has some downright uncomfortable moments early on relating to the fear of pregnancy.

Down the stretch though, Devlin throws any notion of subtlety out the window and revels in the same sort of basic ingredients found in virtually every supernatural-related horror flick – people and objects being tossed around by unknown forces, a group of zombie-like fiends seemingly pulled straight out of John Carpenter’s under-appreciated Prince of Darkness, a priest making desperate exclamations about the end times. It was at this point that Devil’s Due started to lose me…and eventually made the transition into being more funny than scary. It’s been quite a while since I chuckled at a straight horror movie as much as I did at the final third of Devil’s Due. At a certain point, Devlin goes completely overboard in an attempt to give what had been a slow-burner of a creepy movie a wopbop-a-loobop-a-lopbamboom conclusion. Making up for lost time in an appeal to the ADHD generation, this loud finale went against everything that had occurred earlier and wound up turning this fairly typical but nonetheless watchable flick into a mostly ludicrous hunk of cheese.

devils-due-zack-wallNicely executed?  Sure, but slick visuals can’t make up for a script that runs out of ideas.


As was the case in The Atticus Institute, Devil’s Due suffers from a lack of legitimate tension – the film actually lets the viewer off the hook precisely when one would expect the suspense level to be nearly unbearable. Honestly, the only moment in which I was truly unnerved was during a child’s “hide and go seek” game – this scene had been featured in the advertisements for the film and I was a bit apprehensive awaiting the inevitable jump scare that I was sure would occur very shortly. Imagine my massive disappointment when even this scene didn’t offer up that much of a jolt in the end – the suspense was mostly in my mind. Perhaps that notion suggests the most damning thing about this film: it shows too much to viewer. Movies like The Blair Witch Project, the original Paranormal Activity, and even Jaws for that matter worked as well as they did because they more often than not forced a viewer to imagine the monstrous entity at their center: as has been proven time and again, the human mind is capable of visualizing much more disturbing and unsettling imagery and ideas than what any crack team of special effects artists can create. By simply allowing its more fantastic scenes to play out on screen, Devil’s Due actually becomes less effective as a horror film even though the effects themselves aren’t bad.

maxresdefaultEnjoy it – the only really creeped-out moment in the film.

Eventually, all the smoke and mirrors in the world can’t save Devil’s Due from seeming like anything other than a run-of-the-mill found footage flick that picks up ideas from various classics of the horror genre and mashes them together into tiresome hodgepodge. The film is capably made, and has some clever (if rather familiar) moments, especially early on. I also rather liked the sense of ambiguity that seeps into the film during certain stretches, although many viewers take a more negative view of events not being explained thoroughly. By the time the story heads into the home stretch however, the fresh ideas have clearly been exhausted and a viewer is left to trudge through a gory but mostly ineffectual and unsatisfying final act. To be honest, Devil’s Due isn’t as truly abysmal as I thought it would be, but it’s hardly something that I’d urge people (even those who enjoy b-grade or found footage horror) to see – if you do enjoy this sort of movie and have an hour and a half to kill, knock yourself out…but don’t expect greatness.

Rest assured – this publicity stunt is much more clever than anything in the film:

 


6/10: Though relatively bloodless early on, it unleashes a torrent of gore by its conclusion.

7/10: Fairly regular use of profanity, including numerous f-bombs.

1/10: Extremely brief nudity shot from a distance and some mild sexual references.

6/10: A rather ambiguous found footage Omen that has its moments but is ultimately disappointing.

“Children, it is the last hour / and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming / so now many antichrists will come / Therefore we know that it is the last hour…”

Here We Go Again…TRUE SUPERNATURAL

TRUE SUPERNATURAL on Destination America Channel


(2/5)

Pros: Interesting subject matter


Cons: …oh, it’s another one of shows…

Midway through a third season of Mountain Monsters that’s proven to be the most absurd yet, the Destination America channel has unleashed a mostly straight-faced program dealing with mysteries and monsters that provides an alternate to watching supposed investigator “Wild Bill” Neff grill corn on the engine block in his Ford or explain his tendency to name his push mowers after American presidents. Though its name might indicate that it falls more in line with the many “Ghost Hunter” shows out there, True Supernatural has more in common with Science Channel’s The Unexplained Files since it seems to be more wide-reaching in its approach, tackling most any subject that exists outside the realms of normal explanation.

gee...
Gee…d’ya suppose they’re going to drag out that dead “Chupacabra” again at some point?

Featuring the usual assortment of reenactments, talking head interviews and a spattering of actual “evidence,” the series premiered on April 8, 2015 with an episode that covered a pair of stories, at least one of which should be very familiar to paranormal enthusiasts – the alien abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill. Occurring in 1961, this incident is regarded as the first of its kind, and the program does its part to provide a (relatively toned-down) crash course in the particulars of the case. The other point of focus for the debut episode is the so-called “Rocky Mountain Demon Wolf.” After years of anecdotal reports, many of which came from AmerIndians, a bizarre, hyena-like creature actually was shot and killed in the late 1800s. After being lost for decades, the preserved carcass of the creature was recently rediscovered, leading to renewed interest in trying to identify the beast.

you'd look like that too
You’d have that morose too if you’d been kidnapped by aliens….

Like many other modern Unsolved Mystery-type programs, a main idea of True Supernatural is to apply science to these enigmatic stories. In the case of the Hill abduction, this mainly involves DNA analysis of the dress that Betty was wearing when the alleged abduction occurred. Past examinations of the article have revealed strange, pink-colored stains in certain areas which were reportedly handled by the extraterrestrial beings, yet new scientific techniques may be able to provide new information and maybe even an explanation as to what actually occurred more than five decades ago. The carcass of the “demon wolf” is also subjected to expert analysis during the course of this episode, although a squabble over ownership of the specimen has hampered efforts to test the remains.

beast of gevaudan
The Beast of Gevaudan which terrorized France in the 1700s – could the “demon wolf” killed in the late 1800s be a similar, unknown creature?

While all this actual science sounds great – and believe you me, the narration throughout the program does its best to “sell” the potential bombshells that analysis could reveal, I don’t think I’m really giving anything away by revealing that nothing much comes out of any of the hoopla put forth in the show. As is standard with regard to this type of speculative documentary, a viewer is left with more questions than definitive answers once everything is said and done – which isn’t necessarily a bad call considering how willing some people are to declare that a conspiracy is going on if science doesn’t provide the answers that they are looking for. If True Supernatural finishes things off by not explaining everything, all possibilities still exist…which means that the believers out there can keep on believing.

caution

Another area in which True Supernatural is quite similar to other programs of this sort is in its choice of subject matter. Browsing a brief list of future episodes, it seems like the producers have chosen to cover a nice variety of topics, alternating between stories about genuine mysteries and ones dealing with unknown creatures such as Bigfoot. Considering how popular monster/cryptozoology shows have been in recent years, this seems like a good call, but I’m forced to again go back to a point I’ve made before: how many times can these programs cover the same sorts of material? Is there honestly anything new to be added to these arguments…or perhaps I should ask whether additional scientific testing will reveal anything earth-shattering. In covering the same topics that have been explored elsewhere, True Supernatural, like many shows before it, seems mostly to be recycling material, which doesn’t much make for ground-breaking television as far as I’m concerned.

this

What is somewhat new is this program’s format: instead of using the usual investigative report format in which the show is broken down into separate segments, True Supernatural presents both stories covered in its episodes concurrently. This does mix up the (very tiresome) formula one might expect in a show of this nature, but I don’t think it’s an especially effective way to relate information. The debut episode seemed a bit awkward as it randomly switched back and forth between its topics, and I also found that the omnipresent narration was extremely repetitive, apparently designed specifically for viewers made brain-dead through exposure to too much awful reality television. To be completely honest, this program drags significantly and seems almost entirely to be composed of material that’s little more than glorified filler. Once the background information into the Hill case and demon wolf was presented, the episode proceeded to repeat information ad nauseum in an attempt to build anticipation for a “big reveal” moment that simply didn’t materialize nor actually provide any new information. The question then becomes why anyone would waste an hour watching a show that could easily cram its information and arguments into about a fifteen minute block.


Cue the Bigfoot episode now for maximum tie-in value!

If anything has been proven over the years since In Search Of…, it’s that so-called “paranormal television” provides a reliable – and increasingly easy – way to get butts in the seat. Hell, even if most of these shows are complete bunk and aren’t at all what I would label as being good television, I can’t help but be fascinated by the subjects they cover. In the end then, I suppose that True Supernatural provides a viewer with exactly what he would want from a show of this nature. It’s not a great series by a long shot and almost certainly won’t solve any longstanding mysteries as it goes along, but there’s no doubt it would appeal to curious viewers.

waiting....

“…you don’t have to believe in CRYPTID: THE SWAMP BEAST for it to get you…”

CRYPTID: THE SWAMP BEAST on History Channel

See it at or on the

(3/5)

Pros: Enjoyable as a horror miniseries

Cons: This just in: it ain’t real

“Throughout the United States, there are legends of strange and unidentified creatures stretching back hundreds of years. This program is a legend brought to life. It is told through dramatization, eyewitness accounts, and expert interviews.”

…so begins History Channel’s Cryptid: The Swamp Beast, a six-episode series run in the spring of 2014 that’s somewhat different from any of the other monster-related programming that’s been clogging up cable television for the past few years. Instead of following a “crack team” of investigators as they inevitably are hunted down by a mysterious (and imaginary) off-camera creature, Cryptid plays sort of like a version of True Detective or even True Blood in which the main villain of the piece is a mythical being known as the . Sometimes associated with the legend of the Bigfoot-like “,” the legend of the Rougarou originated in the Cajun bayou, with the creature usually being identified as a blood-thirsty, shape-shifting creature similar to a werewolf that can assume either human or animal form.

YIKES
Yikes!

Working from the basic folktale surrounding the Rougarou, the writing team of Cryptid (James Asmus and Collin Armstrong) weave a tale of several interconnected characters on the hunt for an unknown creature or person responsible for a series of deaths in southern Louisiana. The first episode of the program introduces these characters, namely an animal control specialist named Luc Baptiste, his two assistants Jules and Tammany D’Entremont (who are cousins), and a local sheriff’s deputy named Patrice “Trio” Lambert. After the discovery of a mutilated cow, Baptiste and his crew are sent in to investigate, eventually placing trail cameras and traps in an effort to either identify or hopefully capture the animal responsible. Things get more bizarre after a tourist’s phone is recovered deep in the swamp. When video footage is pulled from the phone, it seems to capture the moment when its unfortunate owner was attacked and presumably killed by an unknown entity. As the show progresses, more and more suspicion in relation to the killings is placed on the Jagneaux family (often hilariously presented as the virtual incarnation of evil and “a damn nasty bunch”), a local clan of stereotypical, shotgun-toting bayou folks who may or may not know more about the situation than they are letting on, and the hunt for the rampaging beast becomes more and more intense as it becomes apparent that not only the animal control team, but also the local citizenry are in ever-increasing danger.

so what exactly are we looking at here...
…so what exactly are we looking at here…

Admittedly, when I first caught the debut episode of this show back in February of 2014, I was somewhat less than impressed. Marketed and presented in a way that made it seem like a representation of actual events, it quickly became clear that Cryptid was nothing but a (possibly too) slickly-produced fabrication that owes more than a bit to The Blair Witch Project and any number of other so-called “found footage” horror films. That said, the fact that there’s a thread on the imdb.com message boards in which a user excitedly explains that he has “proof” the show is phony is indicative of the fact that many viewers are all to willing to buy anything they see on TV. I’d offer that the viewer who at all believed this program was a representation of real events after about a half hour of the first episode really needs to start evaluating his level of gullibility.

blurry photos
Blurry Photos? Must be a monster!

In all honesty, the program does a decent enough job of creating the illusion of authenticity. The main body of the show is presented from a first-person’s point of view, presumably photographed by a film crew who just happens to be tagging along with the animal control or police personnel whenever something important happens. As is the case with many programs of this nature (Finding Bigfoot being perhaps the most obvious example), the various characters often speak directly to the camera in an effort to explain or narrate their own story. In between the notable story developments, brief montages are inserted in which sensational newspaper headlines flash on screen while “locals” tell various folktales about strange occurrences in the swamp. More amusing than anything else due to their outlandish nature, these segments do add to the flavor of the program since they frequently feature images of how life works in the bayou. Though this show appears to have been produced with the cooperation of the state of Louisiana, it doesn’t do much to show the best side of the state. As seen here, the Louisiana bayou looks like an absolute dump, full of nearly impenetrable wetlands and lots and lots of rubbish and trash. Director Ty Clancey also presents occasional asides in which various scientists and experts explain various aspects of the story. These segments are obviously included to add some semblance of “credibility” to an otherwise ridiculous program.


Meldrum Check: 43 minutes into the first episode, noted Bigfoot believer Dr. Jeff Meldrum makes his first (of several) appearances in the series.

Ultimately, one’s appreciation of this program will come down to whether he’s willing to view it as entertainment: as a fictional television miniseries with horror movie overtones, Cryptid actually isn’t too bad. The main actors in the program do a fairly credible job: Britt George as main character Luc has a commanding presence throughout the show, while the marble-mouthed Jimmy Lee Jr. is believable as his spooked Cajun assistant Jules. Meanwhile, Rachel G. Whittle tags along as Tammany, the obligatory plucky female, and James Ricker II plays the increasingly worried local deputy. As tolerable as these performances are however, the supporting cast is laughable. Many of the show’s more outlandish claims are literally hammered home through sheer repetition from an apparent authentic local “folklorist” named Jami “Captain One-Eye” Burns who indeed has only one good eye. Apparently, this disability is supposed to make him more credible as an “expert” in bayou myth and legend – and it’s also supposed to make his doom-laden monologues more ominous, thus adding additional intensity to the show’s script.

Main cast
The main cast (here, we have Jimmy Lee, Jr. facing us on the left and Britt George on the right) isn’t bad – it’s the supporting players who are iffy.

The miniseries format makes this program more compelling than the typical episode of Alaska/Swamp/Mountain Monsters in which the (undeniably goofy) set up takes all of three minutes. The use of some rather wild, way-out-there locations certainly helps sell the situation in Cryptid, especially when combined with the “expert” testimony reinforcement, and several segments in the show are genuinely creepy (scenes in a grimy abandoned sugar mill and the surrounding cane field are highlights). The show’s first-person format additionally allows some of the more questionable special effects to be masked by shaky camerawork, and the use of eerie sound design and jarring musical accents only adds to the suspense, particularly in later episodes. Even if the program is pretty innocuous when compared to the mean-spirited modern horror films, there are some isolated moments of gore and nastiness here and the frequently disorienting atmosphere is a plus.

what is lurking out there?
What is lurking out there?

On the downside, nothing can entirely make up for the level of goofiness that exists throughout the series. Numerous segments of this show simply push the envelope of absurdity too far – when a nerdy “cryptozoologist” named Quinton Schuster (who’s main purpose seems to be to exclaim that he “has tons of equipment”) shows up for no good reason other than to provide a throwaway character for the titular creature to aggressively pursue or when Tammany visits the most unrealistic scientific lab in the world, many viewers will be cracking up rather than gasping in terror. It’s also increasingly hard to look past the fact that this program is quite literally a collection of scenes pulled from other, better movies and programs: viewers will likely recognize various elements transposed from The Blair Witch Project (stick figures hanging from trees), Jaws (the scene where Hooper pulls the tooth from the Ben Gardner’s boat), and any number of films dealing with violent/bizarre backwater folk among others. Ultimately, though the script is pretty solid and certainly watchable from start to finish, it seems very convenient and obvious, lacking much originality or genuine punch. This is particularly true of the series’ ambiguous ending, which is just plain dumb.

it's still out there...

All in all, Cryptid is a mixed bag, but one that I think is at least somewhat worthwhile. In my opinion, its main problem was that it was a fictional miniseries marketed as a real deal documentary and played on a channel that is associated with educational programming. People simply weren’t expecting and didn’t quite know how to take something like this, and I think once they figured out they’d been had by a phony show, some viewers were (perhaps rightfully) turned off. Conversely, as the entertainment piece it quite obviously is, Cryptid: The Swamp Beast satisfies, even if it doesn’t so much as attempt to reinvent the wheel. Hell, I’ve got to give the show credit for admitting to including dramatization at the beginning of each and every episode. That’s something none of the other modern monster shows will do, and although Cryptid is far from being perfect or even very good, I’d give it a moderate recommendation as an agreeable time-waster.


“Captain One Eye” says “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Where in the World is Josh Gates? EXPEDITION UNKNOWN

EXPEDITION UNKNOWN on Travel Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: Entertaining and enjoyable, with some educational value tossed in for good measure

Cons: SURPRISE! The show doesn’t conclusively prove anything

Premiering in 2007 and running for a full five seasons, Syfy Channel’s Destination Truth can now be regarded as one of the best paranormal (and more specifically monster hunt) series ever produced. Centering on archaeologist/explorer/adventurer Josh Gates and his quest to identify mythical cryptids (i.e. unknown creatures) and uncover strange phenomena in various locations around the world, the show was part travelogue, part speculative documentary with its best trait being that it didn’t bullshit its audience. If Gates and his revolving crew of companions didn’t find anything, they didn’t try and convince the viewer they did. Regardless of whether anything unusual was encountered on the average Destination Truth episode however, the program was consistently entertaining…and not nearly as moronic as the current wave of monster-related cable programming. Hell, you’d think DT was made for intellectuals when comparing it to the likes of Alaska Monsters, which serve up the lowest common denominator of entertainment.

Gates in Peru
Gates in Machu Picchu – there certainly plenty of subject matter for this new series.

In 2014, Gates confirmed that Destination Truth had in fact run its course after a couple year hiatus, but this wasn’t the end of the line for Gates in the genre of the speculative documentary. I have to admit I was pretty stoked when I heard that Travel Channel had ordered a new series in which Gates would investigate various “iconic mysteries” (whatever that means) – the new show was entitled Expedition Unknown and debuted in early January 2015, with its first two-hour episode dealing with the search for clues in the disappearance of famed aviator (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic). Arguably one of the most widely-known and enigmatic missing persons cases in the world, the Earhart disappearance has captivated the public for more than seventy years: while attempting to fly around the world on an equatorial route in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished while flying from Papua New Guinea to small Howland Island in the Pacific. Despite a massive Naval search, no trace of Earhart, Noonan, or the plane has ever been conclusively found, leading to not only to endless speculation about her ultimate fate but also to numerous, conspiracy theories.

Earhart
New evidence may solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Or not…

Inspired by some “new” evidence, the debut episode of Expedition Unknown follows Gates on a journey to various Pacific locales in search of what may have been Earhart’s final resting place. As mentioned, many theories exist about where Earhart’s plane may have gone down – all of which assume that the official story that the plane was ditched and sank in the ocean near Howland Island was somehow false. In any case, Gates begins by investigating a theory stating that Earhart somehow circled back to Papua New Guinea and follows up on reports of plane wreckage in the remote jungles of the island nation. Despite the fact that stumbling on these crash sites would be akin to locating a needle in a haystack, Gates actually does find a downed plane – though it turns out to be a Japanese craft likely lost during the second World War. Continuing on, Gates scans the ocean bottom off the coast of the island of New Britain in search of other crash sites, locating additional WWII wrecks including one that appears to still have the bodies of its pilots strapped in the cockpit. The second major theory investigated in the episode examines the notion that Earhart and Noonan actually made it to uninhabited Nikumaroro island, where unknown human remains were discovered in the ‘40s and subsequently taken to Fiji for analysis. Attempting to locate these skeletal remains in Fiji, Gates is eventually led to the crawlspace under a house where he discovers human bone fragments…

random bone fragments
Random bone fragments under random house in Fiji…wait a minute…THEY MUST BE AMELIA EARHART’S!

Like Gates’ previous program, Expedition Unknown stands as a cross between a travel video that’s filmed in exotic and and a speculative documentary centered around increasingly eyebrow-raising theories. Clearly, Gates and his production team have the basic formula for this show down pat: though the production seems somewhat more modest than what was featured in the typical episode of Destination Truth, Expedition Unknown is more polished and focused, at least in this initial episode. I rather liked the moments in which glimpses of the local cultures of Papua New Guinea and Fiji were seen as Gates continues his investigation; these sequences arguably provide the most memorable moments from the episode including one where a small but powerful earthquake strikes while Gates is conducting an interview with a native chief. Even if the moments in which Gates has to conduct some sort of “welcoming ritual” to be accepted by various local peoples seem quite cliché and, honestly, ridiculous, it’s neat to be able to see how life operates in these remote corners of the globe nonetheless. Photography throughout the program is pretty outstanding and looks professional – especially compared to the shakycam overload that the majority of the reality/monster hunt shows on cable nowadays rely on. The producers and editors do a fine job of capturing the look and feel of the places Gates travels to, and I was particularly awed by images of the (smoldering) volcanoes which exist in the area around New Britain (an island in Papua New Guinea).

places I'd rather be
Places I’d rather be: this show features many of them.

As was the case in Destination Truth, Expedition Unknown goes out of its way to not only hold a viewer’s interest, but also to keep him entertained. There’s plenty of humor present in the program – most of which comes from the quick-witted commentary of Gates himself. Perpetually good-natured with a never-ending enthusiasm, Gates is the ideal host for a program like this, ensuring a viewer remains captivated throughout since he puts forth a nice balance of more light-hearted, comical material and cold, hard facts. One could easily point out that nothing overly dramatic or mind-blowing happens during the course of this initial episode, and I don’t think I’m spoiling the show by saying that Gates doesn’t conclusively prove anything relating to Earhart’s disappearance. Nevertheless, the editing of the program generates a nice sense of forward momentum while emphasizing a few minor cliffhangers (which conveniently appear right before commercial breaks).

culture
What would a globe-trotting documentary be without the obligatory “I must become one of the tribe” sequence?



On the downside, those looking for a more straight-forward, “lets stick to the facts” program will likely be less-than enthused about the format of this show. Clearly, this show is more entertainment than education, though it’s excellent as a combination of these two things – a viewer does get a crash course history of Earhart’s life and flying career for instance. I could also point out that the episode’s final segment – in which human remains are uncovered in the foundation of a Fijian residence – in all likelihood has absolutely nothing to do with the Earhart disappearance. To some extent, I can see how more outrageous, sensational material like this is almost necessary in modern speculative documentary programming (how else could the comparatively sober and documentary-like Expedition Unknown compete with the likes of the ridiculously absurd Mountain Monsters and the like?), but throwing in this climax that seems to have little to do with the subject of (or frankly, the rest of ) the episode nonetheless remains somewhat sketchy. Finally, I should point out that this show (like Destination Truth before it) sometimes feels like one big ego trip for Gates, showing how “cool” and “hip” he is. Over time, I think one warms up to the host, his humor and style, but I could see some people being turned off by his approach (as I was when I first saw Destination Truth years ago).

Future episodes
Who knows what future episodes of the series will bring, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Ultimately, the problem with this show (and many others of its kind) is that no major revelation comes out of it – but that’s strictly par for the course these days. Expedition Unknown is perfectly agreeable for what it is: an entertaining and enjoyable program that attempts to shed light on mysterious places and events while following its host around the world. It may be too jokey for some, but I think this show has just the right amount of fun and fact, making its subject matter tolerable for those who wouldn’t otherwise watch an “educational” program. I’ll be interested to see what direction this first season heads in since there are so many potential topics out there for the show to explore, but at this early juncture, I’m calling the series worthwhile and recommended.

A Somehow Level-Headed SEARCH FOR THE LOST GIANTS

SEARCH FOR THE LOST GIANTS on History Channel

(3/5)

Pros: Nice sense of pacing; intriguing premise

Cons: Quite similar in its set-up to Curse of Oak Island; can we really believe everything here?

It’s been somewhat disheartening in recent months to see television producers begin to produce clones of shows that aren’t that all that great in the first place. After the monster hunt show Finding Bigfoot became one of Animal Planet’s most widely-viewed and most talked-about programs, it wasn’t long before a gaggle of similar, increasingly phony time-wasters would pop up and stretch the genre of cryptozoological reality shows to the breaking point (can the genre ever pull itself back from the ludicrous extremes of Alaska Monsters?). I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised by this chain of events considering the entertainment business’ continual and ongoing habit of attempting to remake or redo various successes irregardless of whether doing so seems like a good idea, but when the History Channel recently decided to clone a program in Curse of Oak Island that deals with a fascinating subject but is undeniably dull and fairly pointless, I was initially very skeptical. Fortunately, the resulting program, Search for the Lost Giants which premiered in late 2014, is perhaps better and more intriguing than the show that inspired it and just may be the one that finally uncovers something truly astounding.

the vieras
The expressions say everything you need to know: The Vieras take their giant hunting seriously.

Like The Curse of Oak Island, Lost Giants chronicles the efforts of a pair of brothers who, after successful business careers, decide to pour some of their fortunes into a rather outrageous pet project. Jim and Bill Viera made careers as New England stonemasons, but in their free time set about researching legends and folklore that dealt with giants – humanoids of extraordinary proportions often reputed to have double rows of teeth. After uncovering a seemingly endless trail of archival reports of these beings, the Vieras set about trying to track down actual remains – though there have been a number of giant skeletons supposedly recovered over the years, no one seems to know the whereabouts of any of them. This, as might be expected, seems to point to a conspiracy in which the scientific establishment has covered up truths that don’t quite fit in with their version of human evolution.

Entrance to the Goshen Tunnel
Entrance to the Goshen Mystery Tunnel. Could it hold the remains of a giant?

In any case, through its initial three episodes, Search for the Lost Giants has alternated a pair of ongoing storylines. The apparent main one in the show deals with a so-called “mystery tunnel” located in Goshen, Massachusetts. Appearing to have been constructed in the pre-colonial era, this underground tunnel measures some seventy feet long, has been constructed out of stone, and is reputed to contain a secret chamber – one which may or may not house the remains of a giant. The Vieras set about investigating the shaft and stumble upon a possible location for the undiscovered chamber. Their goal now is to convince a local archaeologist that a full-blown excavation of the site is not only warranted, but necessary. All the while this storyline progresses, the brothers also are seen traveling across the country investigating reports of giants and attempting to track down other possible remains. Thus far, some of these leads have proven fruitful: in the Missouri Ozarks, the brothers not only come across an archival photograph of purported remains, but also uncovered a large incisor that may or may not come from a human of huge proportions.

pouring smoke
Pouring smoke into the tunnel in an attempt to prove the existence of a secret chamber.

Produced by Left/Right Productions, perhaps best known for producing episodes of PBS’ outstanding Frontline, Lost Giants is photographed and edited extremely well, having an approach that makes it seem a bit more credible than many similar programs. Set up as a pseudo-reality show that follows the Vieras on their quest to prove that giants actually existed, I maybe most appreciated the fact that this program cuts to the chase. It really does seem to focus its efforts almost exclusively on the actual search for giants, which is commendable considering that many of these programs seem more interested in making minor TV stars out of the people involved than in solving any sort of mystery. I think this show also does a fine job of providing a background by which a viewer at the very least can start to appreciate why the Vieras are going on a quest to examine something that seems ridiculous from a logical standpoint. An intermittent narration expounds on the ways in which giants have manifested themselves in popular culture (the stories of Paul Bunyan, Jack and the Beanstalk, David and Goliath, and the Cyclops are just a few well-known myths which feature these beings), and with the wealth of archival newspaper articles seen during the show, the idea that giants may have actually existed starts to seem more plausible.

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The death of Goliath. Is it possible that historical accounts of giants are in fact accurate?

Personally, I think the Vieras are a more likable, approachable pair than the Lagina brothers, who feature at the center of the Oak Island show. One gets a sense that Jim and Bill Viera are nice guys who just happen to have a somewhat outlandish hobby, while I frequently get tired of hearing the more whiny Laginas complain about all the money they’re spending to get limited results while treasure hunting in Canada. Part of this may come down to the fact that the Vieras seem to be blue collar guys: a viewer is able to relate to them more than the almost arrogant, obviously white collar Laginas and while the Vieras realize that hard work will be the thing that makes their investigation a success, the Laginas seem convinced that they can solve the Oak Island mystery simply by spending more and more cash. Finally, although the premise of the show may seem outrageous, I actually think that the theories proposed in Lost Giants are more reasonable and maybe even credible than the load of malarkey that Oak Island often proposes as theoretical or actual fact: I’ve heard about enough speculation about how relics from King Solomon’s temple magically wound up buried in the muck off the coast of Nova Scotia.

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I’m glad to see the Vieras believe that hard work will be the way to solve this mystery, but will their dedication pay off in the end?

Ultimately, the thing about Lost Giants that separates it from the Oak Island program is its sense of pacing. While Oak Island bogs down in episodes in which nothing major seems to happen, the timeline of events in Lost Giants moves ahead steadily. It’s appears that the producers of this show learned a few things from the things that came before it – and well they should have. The result is a tighter, more compelling program that might not be slam-bang entertaining in the same way that fictional programs are, but is certainly enigmatic and intriguing. I’m rather looking forward to seeing what happens down the line on this show – episode three ended with an archaeologist agreeing that the Goshen Mystery Tunnel merited a more scientific investigation. Search for the Lost Giants might not be to everyone’s taste or be the best thing that’s ever appeared on television, but I think it’s worth checking out.

“No Theory, No Matter How Outrageous, Can Be Ignored:” THE CURSE OF OAK ISLAND

THE CURSE OF OAK ISLAND on History Channel

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(2.5/5)

Pros: The Oak Island Mystery!
Cons: Reality TV moments; simply isn’t all that compelling

In 1795, eighteen year old Daniel McGinnis stumbled upon something off the coast of Nova Scotia on . Seeing evidence of a recent dig, McGinnis and some companions began excavation of the site and eventually came upon a shaft which has become known over the years as “The Money Pit,” both because it’s rumored to have treasure at the bottom of it and because of the amount of money that various persons have invested in an attempt to discover said treasure. In 1803 and after having reaching a depth of 90 feet, a stone bearing a mysterious inscription (believed by some to have read “forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried”) was found in the pit but shortly thereafter, the entire shaft began to fill with sea water, as if the excavation had tripped a booby trap set by the original diggers. For the past two hundred years, Oak Island has been the site of numerous treasure hunting operations which have littered the island with holes, destabilized the ground, and destroyed most of the potential clues relating to the site, but this hasn’t stopped people from dreaming about what may potentially lie buried on the island.


One of the many holes dug into the island over the years.

In early 2014, History Channel premiered a new program entitled The Curse of Oak Island in which a multi-person team led by brothers Marty and Rick Lagina, who effectively own half the island, attempt to discover just what lies hidden there. Set up as a reality show that chronicles efforts not only to uncover the truth behind various legends relating to the Oak Island mystery but also detail the excavations and digs taking place there, The Curse of Oak Island revolves around the notion that the island is cursed. Six people have died while excavating in and around The Money Pit, and legend has it that one more must perish before the treasure can be uncovered. Can we expect high drama at some point in the show’s run? Only time will tell…

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Marty and Rick Lagina. The show’s all about them – and they let a viewer know it.

During the show’s first season, Marty and Rick mainly went about draining a mysterious, triangle-shaped swamp and exploring a man-made cove on the island. While there wasn’t much progress in actually discovering any treasure, the team did make a few tantalizing finds – notably, a large amount of coconut fiber which apparently was used as fill material in the creation of the cove and additionally, a 17th century copper coin. Since there are no coconut trees on Oak Island, the fiber is an indication that perhaps the legends of Caribbean pirates traveling to the location may in fact be true, and the appearance of the coin seems to corroborate the story. Season two of the show picks off right where the first season ended, showing Marty and Rick preparing for another digging season on Oak Island. As expected in any reality show, there’s plenty of turmoil and potential problems relating to their operations, one of which is a piece of government legislation that would put an end to any and all treasure hunting on site. Furthermore, the team runs into problems when attempting to use a incredibly heavy drilling rig to find the location of either the original Money Pit or one of the many subsequent so-called “seeker shafts” that were constructed in an attempt to locate a supposed treasure vault that’s rumored to be situated at a depth of around 140 feet underground.

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Memorial to those who perished while seeking the Oak Island Treasure, but will a seventh name be added?

Obviously designed to be entertainment on some sort of level and having a premise that is undeniably seductive and fascinating, The Curse of Oak Island is a well-produced and tightly constructed show, yet it suffers from being yet another program on a presumably educational channel that I can’t in good conscience entirely trust. The reality show format means that there seems to be an awful lot of manipulation going on with how the circumstances happening on the island are related to the camera and presented for the viewer, and the fact that no significant news stories have been put forth about this excavation only solidifies for me that much of what is going on here may in fact be fabricated or at least not entirely authentic. The lack of news coverage also makes it tough for me to believe that much of anything significant will ever be found on Oak Island, and therefore this show doesn’t so much seem to be working towards a monumental discovery as just serving as a semi-agreeable time waste.


What treasure lies at the bottom of these semi-collapsed shafts?

Keeping with the traditions of the many borderline ludicrous “documentaries” on the History Channel (I’m talking about you American Unearthed and Ancient Aliens), The Curse of Oak Island focuses a large amount of attention on some rather cockamamie ideas about what actually is buried on the island and who put it there. These theories involve everyone from the Templars, to famous Caribbean pirates, to the English government, to the ancient Phoenicians, and early in season two, Marty and Rick entertain an idea proposed by treasure hunter J. Hutton Pulitzer that treasures from King Solomon’s temple (such as the Ark of the Covenant) may have been hidden on Oak Island. Theories like these are a staple of programs like Ancient Aliens, and at times, it almost seems like the purpose in including ideas like this in History Channel shows is simply to name-drop and thereby give some sort of credibility to programs that in no way shape or form deserve it (not helping matters is the fact that Curse is produced by the same company as Ancient Aliens and narrated by Robert Clotworthy, who also provides the frequently goofy and obnoxious commentary for that show).

sludging away in the Oak Island swamp
Sludging away in the Oak Island Swamp.

I should at this point say that the most enjoyable thing I get out of this show is watching Marty and Rick Lagina (who aren’t especially compelling or even likable as main characters) fail in their efforts to find anything on the island. Millions upon millions of dollars have been blown at Oak Island over the past few centuries, and I’m not entirely sure that the Lagina’s money will be enough to uncover anything. That the Lagina’s whole problem-solving approach seems to be to throw boatloads of money at the issue until it works out only makes it even more gleefully satisfying to see when they don’t get the results they want. To be completely honest, while it’d be interesting to see what exactly the ultimate secret of Oak Island really is, I don’t at all wish to see a historical discovery be made by this group of whining and almost cocky treasure hunters who (despite their claims to be “respecting history and Nova Scotia”), have made no effort of adhering to archaeological standards. Hell, the group of people featured in this show (which also features several life-long Oak Island excavators such as Dan Blankenship and his son Dave) would probably be as likely to destroy something they found through sheer incompetence than to actually recover it.

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Can seemingly endless cash reserves finally solve the mystery of Oak Island?

Having been rather familiar with the Oak Island mystery before watching this show, I find the most intriguing thing about it to be the brief historical segments relating to the discovery of the pit and the various excavations that have occurred on site. The Curse of Oak Island makes use of some wonderful archival materials and occasionally reveals some captivating stories from the island’s history, but nothing can quite make up for the fact that, when taken individually, none of the episodes of this program are all that exciting to watch. Painfully dull at times since there’s very little honest humor on display, the program also suffers from the fact that the situation featured here simply doesn’t have much tension despite the many, phony cliffhanger moments set up through a slick editing scheme. Though I’ll sit through most any of the current wave of documentary-like reality shows dealing with mysterious circumstances or phenomena since I enjoy these sorts of subjects, Curse of Oak Island has to be one of the most boring of the lot. I’d say it’s something that most people would be better off skipping – at least until something legitimately valuable is discovered.

It’s Just an Illusion…F/X

F/X

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See it at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: Consistently enjoyable, with a nice sense of pace, brisk editing, and plenty of surprises

Cons: Nothing major

In the middle of a pouring rainstorm, a man wearing a trench coat forces his way into a crowded, extremely posh restaurant. He spots a well-dressed woman sitting in the back of the hall, enjoying a meal with a male companion who seems to be enjoying her company more than the food itself. Without warning, the guy in the trench coat opens fire with a machine gun, blasting away diners and shattering huge aquariums along the walls, thus spilling all sorts of exotic fish and lobster across the marble floor. He turns towards the woman, his wife, and she begs for her life. His finger tenses on the trigger and she’s pushed back through a service corridor by the force of lead hitting her body. Suddenly the director yells cut.


Rutrow – What’s real and what’s the effect?

This opening scene of the 1986 action flick F/X (also known under the perhaps more accurate title Murder by Illusion) serves to point out to the viewer that not much of anything can be taken at face value in a film that deals with a special effects artist (or illusionist if you like) who’s recruited by the Justice Department to fake the death of a prominent mob informant named Nicholas DeFranco. Agreeing to take the job, FX man Rollie Tyler devises various gimmicks to make it look like DeFranco is gunned down in a crowded restaurant, but immediately after the “fake” hit takes place, he finds out something is not at all right. Not only are the police convinced DeFranco died for real, but the feds are now trying to eliminate Tyler as well. While Tyler attempts to get to the bottom of the conspiracy he’s become involved with in an attempt to clear his name after his girlfriend is killed by government assassins, a hard-nosed police officer named Leo McCarthy (who hauled in DeFranco the first time around) is performing his own investigation into the matter, convinced there’s something suspicious about the feds who were overseeing DeFranco’s safety. As might be expected, all of these subplots collide in the end, but not before some serious twists and turns pop up along the way.

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There’s just something about NYC in the ’80s that makes any movie filmed there more special…

Even if its unlikely anyone would convince F/X with brilliant film making, there’s no denying that this film is, quite simply, highly entertaining and enjoyable. Capturing New York City in the all its 1980s glory and directed by Robert Mandel, who at the time was known for his theatrical direction, the film as a whole seems very workmanlike, but in a modern era where far too many directors go overboard with flashy visuals in an attempt to prove and showcase their “vision” (or to appeal to the ADHD generation), this almost seems like a revelation. Mandel’s straight-forward direction harkens back to the slick execution of action films like The French Connection that were noted for their sense of realism and matter-of-fact presentation. There aren’t all sorts of loud and obnoxious camera moves here; cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek just seems to have photographed the action in as competent a manner as possible. In the end, this allowed the director and editor Terry Rawlings to construct tight action sequences that really energize the film. No, F/X doesn’t come close to rivaling any of the Rambo, Chuck Norris, or Schwarzenegger films as being quintessential (literally overblown) mid-‘80s action cinema, but that doesn’t at all mean that it’s not extremely pleasing in its own way.

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The film offers a peak behind the scenes at how movie special effects are made, which would have been interesting stuff in 1986.

Though I could say that the script by Gregory Fleeman and Robert T. Megginson (which plays like a mash-up of the whodunnit, police procedural, and slam-bang-boom genres) stretches credibility or believability at times, for the most part it come across as being not only compellingly quirky, but also fairly realistic and at least plausible. If nothing else, Fleeman and Megginson pepper the picture with a little bit of everything an action movie fan could want: we get a pedestrian chase in Central Park, an exciting and well-executed vehicular pursuit through crowded neighborhood streets, fistfights, gun battles, and even some stealthy spy movie action. Since the script largely deals with the efforts of a movie effects artist to trick his pursuers, we not only get a peak behind the curtain of how cinematic special effects are done, but also get some rather clever sequences making use of various props and gimmicks, particularly towards the end of the film. All the while the action is playing out, the script also unfolds its mystery in an intriguing manner. Despite the fact that I was able to predict some elements of the story, it does unleash a couple legitimate surprises once it gets going and I think most viewers would be sucked into the ongoing plot.

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Bryan Brown as Tyler, taking matters into his own hands.

Bryan Brown appears in the film as Tyler, a smart-Alec with a mischievous streak that I’d expect a movie special effects man to have. I wasn’t completely convinced by Brown’s acting during the more dramatic scenes here, but his generally effective portrayal ensures that this guy is an improvement from the typically cardboard ‘80s action movie hero. Diane Verona is appealing in a smaller role playing Tyler’s ambitious actress girlfriend, while Cliff DeYoung (as the hotshot younger agent) and Mason Adams (playing the stuffy and shady chief) play the villainous government agents who recruit Tyler into the plot in the first place. I could almost say these two obvious bad guys weren’t quite interesting enough to carry the film on their own, but Jerry Orbach (playing the mob informant) is genuinely fun to watch playing the stereotype of a sleazy Mafia boss. By far the best acting in the film from my standpoint was provided by Brian Dennehy as the grizzled detective McCarthy. Dennehy only shows up around the halfway point of the film, but makes up for lost time by stomping like a madman through all of his scenes through the rest of the picture. His character really isn’t all that different from hundreds of other movie cops that have turned up in cinema over the years, but Dennehy attacks the role with intensity.

Brian Dennehy
Look at that ‘stash! You just get the sense that Brian Dennehy as McCarthy ain’t gonna take no b.s. from anybody.

Building to a satisfying finale that’s not what I might have expected, it’s rather unfortunate that F/X isn’t remembered in the same way of other louder (and more stupid) ‘80s action flicks. This film probably won’t blow anyone away, and perhaps the comparatively low-key way in which it was constructed has made it seem “boring” when compared to its contemporaries. It’s also quite possible that a movie dealing with this subject matter doesn’t hold up today when you consider that most of the effects work Tyler was doing would be rendered by computers nowadays. Still, this imaginative film is downright entertaining for what it is and is probably among the best of the modestly-budgeted B-movies of its era – a definite step up from the sorts of things Canon Pictures was releasing at the time. F/X might not be something I’d specifically hunt down, but it’s well worth checking out if you get a chance.

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Available in a standalone, widescreen DVD from MGM or as a . Neither package offers any special features to speak of.


4/10 : Occasional bloody gun violence and a few fight scenes. Nothing especially gory.


6/10 : A couple handfuls of f-bombs and a few other profanities.


2/10 : Mostly implied sexual encounters and Diane Venora prancing about in a neglige


7/10 : A fun movie through and through, even if it’s not something I’d typically identify as being a cult film.


“Nobody cares about making movies about people anymore. All they care about is special effects…..”

Quintessential 1980s trailer:

History Channel’s Wide World of Conspiracy! HANGAR 1: THE UFO FILES

HANGER 1: THE UFO FILES on The History Channel

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Well-made; more credible than some similar shows; fascinating, thought-provoking information

Cons: Lack of hard evidence; conspiracy theories galore!

Considering the almost absurd number of UFO and alien-related shows on television in general and The History Channel in particular, the channel’s 2014 series Hangar 1: The UFO Files would need some element to not only give it some credibility but also distinction from the crowd. This show’s producers found just that when they set up the entire series as an expose type of program that revolved around an investigation of certain files from the archives of the , or MUFON. MUFON was founded in 1969 (precisely the time when the Air Force’s official inquiry into the UFO phenomenon, the much-maligned , was ending), and has over the years compiled some 70,000 case files relating to encounters with unknown craft and/or extraterrestrials. Each hour-long episode of Hangar 1 focuses on a specific facet of the UFO argument, with files pulled from the MUFON archives used to further illustrate and examine the topics. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to make the program stand out all that much from the dozens of vaguely similar shows, though I’d have to say that Hangar 1 would be about the perfect show for UFO and alien conspiracists.

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The actual, shadowy MUFON archives, or just a creepy-looking set – you decide.

Season one of Hangar 1 (eight episodes in length) would be an ideal “introductory course” in modern ufology and also could be taken as a excellent “refresher course” for those already interested in the subject and related theories. Episodes during this initial season dealt with such subjects as space weaponry being designed by government-sponsored deep black programs, the notion that the examination and “reverse engineering” of crashed flying saucers could yield new human technology, and the existence of deep underground military bases which could be used both to hide that sort of technology or even disguise extraterrestrial settlements on earth. The entirety of the first season of episodes ties back to the premiere which dealt with presidential encounters with UFOs and government policy relating to the subject. Ever since the late 1940s, there have been rumors about government involvement in hiding the existence of extraterrestrial life from the general public, and numerous presidents appear to not only have some knowledge about the existence of these beings but a few even have had their own first-hand encounters with aliens. I suppose you could say that the government UFO conspiracy is the “glue” that holds this show together – although this is hardly a revelation in the world of UFO-related television shows.

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Where everything started…

Hangar 1 is generally set-up like dozens of vaguely or explicitly similar shows. This program basically provides specific examples of human contact with unknown craft and/or beings which are based on actual reports provided for and investigated by MUFON. Various experts including scientists, MUFON researchers, and journalists discuss these incidents and the larger picture issues involved in the examination of UFOs and aliens. During the course of this examination, various scenarios are reenacted for the camera, and statements from the individuals involved are recited. Technically speaking, the program is well made, with a constantly interesting visual scheme that mixes up dramatizations with interview footage and a typically cryptic collage of declassified government documents, archival photographs, and eyewitness sketches.


What would any conspiracy program be without a segment devoted to the ?

Given the number of similar shows out there (many of which air on the very channel this program is broadcast on), the main thing I was looking for here would be the presentation of incidents and evidence that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. In this regard, Hangar 1 is a mixed bag: this show’s presentation of material is well-organized and obviously well-researched, but I have heard most of these stories before, either in other television programs or during the course of research I’ve done on my own. The program then might seem to many viewers like (another) rehash of information that’s been revealed other places; despite the fact that we’re told MUFON is “opening up its file archive for the first time,” I highly doubt that this is actually the case. All that said, the show certainly does cover some of the more fascinating UFO cases I’ve ever heard about, including quite a few which aren’t exactly common knowledge. For instance, segments that deal with a in which Iranian military aircraft encountered an apparently hostile UFO or one which focuses on former government contractor who claimed to be attacked by aliens when he accidentally entered into their underground base – and had horrific scars as proof of his encounter – aren’t featured in too many UFO shows.


Phil Schneider – the man who supposedly confronted aliens in an underground bunker…then died under mysterious circumstances after he went public with his claim. Notice extensive hand injuries reportedly sustained in the firefight.



On the downside, this show gives plenty of credence to various conspiracy theories and almost assumes a viewer would be willing to do the same. Additionally, I detected a bit of “fear-mongering” going on in the show during a few segments: to me, this seemed cheap and completely out of place in a program of this nature. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, even if many of the incidents discussed in the program are at the very least intriguing, I was genuinely shocked by the lack first-hand evidence. There are relatively few images of alien craft (at least ones directly related to the subject of the episodes) and virtually no eyewitness interviews; most all the information here is presented either by the narration or the third-party commentators. Thus, Hangar 1 seems mostly to be made up of hearsay: a programmed designed to be viewed by those who already believe in the existence of UFOs and alien life. The program does make a pretty good case for its claims (at least if one is inclined or able to follow the string of sometimes vague “evidence” referenced in the narration and believe the endless “accounts” related to the camera), but I don’t think a skeptic would be at all convinced by the arguments put forth in this program simply due to the fact that there’s very little hard proof provided.

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Yeah…I’m not sure this kind of “proof” is really going to cut it…

This, of course, is the problem with almost every UFO-related program, crypto-reality and/or “monster hunt” show, and generally, most things on TV: without seeing the evidence for oneself, it’s difficult for anyone to believe extraordinary claims. Granted, many people anymore subscribe to the whole X-Files “” thing – and many of today’s more speculative documentaries certainly play into that sort of mindset. I’d probably compare Hangar 1 favorably to a more level-headed program of the Unexplained Files variety rather than to the increasingly goofy monster hunt shows out there; if nothing else, Hangar 1 would provide an open-minded viewer with plenty of food for thought. In my mind, this is the best thing about shows like Ancient Aliens – though I can’t buy every argument put forth in these programs since they very obviously have their own agendas, they definitely get a viewer thinking, which is commendable even if the programs overall are not. UFO enthusiasts would probably enjoy Hangar 1: The UFO Files quite a bit: it’s a well-produced and perhaps more credible companion piece to some of History Channel’s other speculative programming. It’s not the best UFO program I’ve ever seen, but it’s not the worst either; in the end, I’d give the series a moderate recommendation.


Strange but True! Science Channel’s THE UNEXPLAINED FILES

THE UNEXPLAINED FILES on Science Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: Based on fact; fascinating subject matter; level-headed presentation

Cons: Not as flashy or exciting as other similar shows

Following a six-episode first season that premiered in 2013, Science Channel’s The Unexplained Files returned on July 29, 2014 for a second season. This program probably has more in common with the classic Unsolved Mysteries series than with most of the more recent shows dealing with mysterious happenings, although it somewhat reminds me in its basic set-up of the outstanding Dark Matters: Twisted but True that also airs on Science Channel. One of the best things about The Unexplained Files is that the subjects discussed in this program, like those covered in Dark Matters, are both factual and compelling – it’s possible to do follow-up research on anything featured in this show if desired. Episodes in the first season dealt with a wide range of fascinating subjects including examination of the enigmatic , the under bizarre circumstances (i.e. aliens are involved), the in the American Southwest, and even the . Like many programs dealing with such subjects as the Loch Ness Monster, UFO’s or even Bigfoot, The Unexplained Files would be one of those shows that a viewer would be likely to keep watching if he stumbled upon it while channel surfing – there’s something inherently captivating about TV programing of this nature.

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“Chupacabras” stalking rural Texas? One of many intriguing UNEXPLAINED FILES segments.

Episode one of the second season actually stood in my mind as being a little “blah” compared with some of the previous episodes – not necessarily a bad episode, but not quite as interesting to me as some of the others. This episode featured two stories, the first of which is a fairly lengthy investigation into the real-life story that inspired the novel and hence, classic horror film The Exorcist. In this segment, researcher and author Troy Taylor heads to St. Louis, MO to uncover the truth behind a that involved demonic possession. Amazingly, Taylor was able to track down one of the Catholic monks who actually was present during the exorcism ritual as performed on a young man and the elderly man was able to recount the unbelievable events that took place during the possession and exorcism. This entire segment is fairly well executed, providing a well-rounded investigation into the case which, aside from detailing the nature of demonic possession cases, also examines the possibility of mental illness or religious fervor having been the root cause of the incident.


The 1949 exorcism case discussed in this episode served as the basis for this award-winning 1973 film.

The second story here seems quite a bit more frankly inconsequential – it’s a tale about a New Mexico Fish and Game officer named Kerry Mower who in August 2013 discovered a herd of 113 wild elk who had suddenly and mysteriously died. First suspecting a sort of poisoning, Mower’s examination of the bodies eventually revealed that no known toxic agent had killed the animals, though the game commission is quick to declare that a toxic algae bloom had infected the creatures’ drinking water which led to the mass die-off. Officials jumping to this conclusion without any substantial evidence leads to – you guessed it! – notions of some sort of conspiracy, and an ex-sheriff starts his own investigation into the case, one which mainly revolves around the possibility of a connection to UFOs and cattle mutilations. Much as I could roll with the story about the deaths of this group of elk, this segment started to lose me a bit when it really pushed the alien angle. Even to my rather open mind, an outdoorsman’s story about elk being more or less abducted by an alien craft seems positively ludicrous. To each his own I guess…

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Dead elk everywhere, but what is the cause?

Narrated by Bruce Greenwood, this episode mainly kept on the straight and narrow, simply offering up the known facts in each case using interviews with experts and eyewitnesses to describe and analyze the scenarios and brief dramatized sequences to reinforce the stories. While I might have hoped for more actual evidence, the program does makes a pretty strong case based mostly on the testimony of those involved. It’s pretty hard for instance to argue with the 90-year-old former monk who’s about to die of cancer – what possible motivation would this guy have to lie about his recollections of the exorcism event? Though The Unexplained Files does seem to push certain agendas (the conspiracy angle relating to the deaths of the elk for example), it’s commendable that this show at least attempts to exhaust possible scientific explanations. To this end, not only were weather experts consulted to determine whether or not a lightning strike may have been responsible for the deaths, but the elk carcasses were also tested for anthrax, the deadly EHD contagion, and for contamination by toxic algae. It’s only after these potential causes were ruled out that the show pursues the more outrageous explanation dealing with flying saucers, crop circles, and alien experimentation, but ultimately, it’s left in the hands of the viewer to make sense of the information provided and come to his own conclusion.

On the downside, it’s apparent to me that this program is produced quickly and inexpensively. It isn’t nearly as flashy and attention-grabbing as other, vaguely similar shows, though in some ways, I think this is to the program’s credit. The Unexplained Files mostly allows the information it contains to speak for itself instead of impressing a viewer with graphics, flashy camerawork, or overblown and phony suspense sequences. It’s rather refreshing that this program neither rams its opinions and conclusions down a viewer’s throat nor assumes that its viewers are complete morons. In my mind then, The Unexplained Files is easily one of the more recommendable of the current wave of speculative documentaries airing on television, and for the viewer interested in these sorts of subjects, this would be one to check out.

Preview:

Giorgio Tsoukalos Explains Everything (Hint – It’s Aliens!): IN SEARCH OF ALIENS

IN SEARCH OF ALIENS on History Channel

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(3/5)

Pros: Interesting subjects; more focused approach; Giorgio Tsoukalos!

Cons: Aliens – explanation for everything…

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If nothing else, History Channel’s In Search of Aliens confirms the status of the internet meme relating to charismatic and wild-haired “ancient astronaut theorist” Giorgio A. Tsoukalos: no matter what, no matter how, aliens are the ultimate explanation for EVERYTHING. Debuting in July 2014, In Search of Aliens combines the basic premise behind History’s long-running Ancient Aliens show (which explores the possibility that extraterrestrials visited Earth in the distant path and provided knowledge and guidance for our human ancestors) with that of America Unearthed, a show that follows forensic geologist Scott Wolter on a quest to prove that American history “isn’t what we’ve been told in schools.” Basically, America Unearthed attempts to dispel the notion that Columbus first discovered America, and In Search of Aliens’ opening declaration that “…what we’ve been taught by mainstream scholars is not the whole picture…” is an almost word-for-word recreation of the thesis of Wolter’s program.

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Any way one looks at it, it’s pretty clear that what we’re dealing with here is yet one more speculative documentary being passed off as hard fact. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that: I’m a big fan of Ancient Aliens not because I necessarily believe every damn thing the show says, but because the program promotes thought about the topics it examines. It’s automatically then several (giant) steps above the mindless entertainment that plays on History Channel nearly around the clock in the form of various positively asinine reality shows (Cajun Pawn Starsreally??!?). Unlike that reality show bunk, Ancient Aliens certainly challenges a viewer to examine his own perspective on different, usually fascinating subjects (the underlying themes of the show often focus on ancient civilizations, religious notions, ideas of genetic engineering, and technological discoveries) and think outside the box.

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Tsoukalos in Portugal, discussing the possibility that Atlantis actually was located here “beyond the pillars of Hercules.”


In Search of Aliens
, hosted by Tsoukalos (long-time contributor to and producer of Ancient Aliens) seems to be doing much the same thing, although each individual episode of this program is much more specific in its focus. Episode one followed Tsoukalos around the Mediterranean in search of the lost city of Atlantis. Described in detail by the Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato in a pair of early works, the Atlantis civilization supposedly was enormously wealthy and extremely technologically advanced, but it disappeared virtually overnight and its exact location has never convincingly been pinpointed. Tsoukalos’ quest for the truth behind the Atlantis legend takes him from Greece (where the story originated) to a potential location in and back to the Greek island of . During this journey, Tsoukalos interviews several experts who offer up their explanations of where Atlantis actually was located and what happened to it, and he also examines some interesting relics – including a so-called “” in Portugal. This huge stone was carved thousands of years ago, and may feature the design of a double-helix DNA strand on it – but if so, how did ancient people know about genetics at all? Questions like this lead Tsoukalos to an obvious explanation of Atlantis: the civilization was actually an alien craft that was misinterpreted as a city by ancient humans unaware of alien technology.

 

yep
Aliensthey explain everything.

Probably the biggest difference between In Search of Aliens and its obvious inspiration Ancient Aliens is that In Search of… plays more like a travelogue at times than a more wide-reaching documentary. This opening episode literally followed Tsoukalos on a zigzag course across the Mediterranean, and the somewhat flashier production afforded to this show ensures that the program had some breathtaking landscape photography including a few awe-inspiring aerial shots. I rather liked the history and explanation of various legends relating to Atlantis that were provided in the show, and to some extent was surprised that this program almost used the whole alien connection as a sort of afterthought. As might be expected, Tsoukalos made a few fleeting, ominous references to the (mysterious Sumerian deities) and the , but In Search of Aliens surprisingly seemed a bit more rooted in reality or at least plausibility rather than wild conjecture. Will this tendency last as the series goes along? Only time will tell, but given the track record established by Ancient Aliens, I’d expect this new program to eventually descend into a fantasy land itself. Hopefully, when it does do this we won’t have to witness the spastic movements of author David Hatcher Childress getting himself all hot and bothered while discussing these type of subjects…

childress
Childress; per usual, maniacally gesticulating.

Speaking of fantasy land, possibly the most dumb moment in this opening episode was where the “student” (i.e. Tsoukalos) went to Switzerland to meet the “teacher” (i.e. Chariot of the Gods author Erich von Däniken, who’s largely responsible for the popularity of the ancient astronaut theory) at the positively goofy amusement park built by von Däniken in order to promote his theories. To me, this sequence of the show seemed very cheesy, as if Tsoukalos had to receive “the master’s blessing” as it were to make his statements throughout the program seem more credible. von Däniken’s brief appearance adds nothing of value to the program – essentially, he just spouts out his thoughts on the mystery of Atlantis, yet Tsoukalos is quick to point out that the discussion he had with the Swiss author was “mind blowing.” Could have fooled me – it seemed very inconsequential and mostly irrelevant when compared to what the more established, mainstream scientists featured in the program had to say. But again…ALIENS


Yes, von Däniken’s “Mystery Park,” does actually exist.

Considering that episode two of In Search of Aliens deals with the (rather fascinating) story of the perplexing Nazi experiment known as , I guess an audience can assume there’s going to be some overlap between subjects discussed in Tsoukalos’ new show and those featured at one point or other on Ancient Aliens. Honestly, if you’ve seen one of these shows, you know what to expect from the other, and I can almost see this new show as an attempt to give the undeniably enthusiastic and popular Tsoukalos his own gig. In Search of Aliens seems entertaining and interesting enough though, and I’d probably recommend it to those who enjoy this type of program in the first place. As with all speculative documentaries, it’s best to take this one with a grain of salt, but its ability to get a viewer thinking is, in my opinion, most commendable.

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