Tag Archives: the unknown

“The Question is, What’s Going On…” MISSING IN ALASKA

MISSING IN ALASKA

on History Channel


showposter

(2/5)

Pros: Interesting basis for the episodes…


Cons: …but the conclusions drawn seem like a stretch

“This dramatized program is inspired by eyewitness reports and legends and may contain certain sensationalized and/or controversial content. The personal opinions and theories expressed are not endorsed by the network.

Viewer discretion is advised.


There are currently 738,000 people living in Alaska. In the past 20 years…more than 60,000 have been reported missing. Some believe a number of these cases…stem from mysterious phenomena.”

alaskan-bermuda-triangle-1a

So reads the intro of History Channel’s latest supposed documentary Missing in Alaska, which premiered in July 2015 and follows the exploits of a three man team – former police officer and apparent skeptic Jeremy “Jax” Atwell, folklorist Tommy Joseph, and “specialist in strange phenomena” Ken Gerhard, who’s been featured in many vaguely similar programs and doesn’t go anywhere without his trusty curved cowboy hat – whose goal it is to explain some of those many disappearances. Appropriately enough, this show airs just after the now-almost-parodical Ancient Aliens and on the one hand, I’ve got to give the producers credit for at least acknowledging that what’s covered in their “dramatized” show might be “sensationalized and/or controversial” – right there, they’ve already been more honest with their viewers than any number of the typical “monster hunt” programs, of which Destination America’s Alaska Monsters may be the most flat-out absurd. Of course the disclaimer does leave the door open for everything discussed in Missing in Alaska to be utter hogwash, so the question then becomes why anyone would want to watch such malarkey…

BRAND_H2_MSGA_162202_TVE_000_2398_60_20150722_000_HD_still_624x352The MiA team on the hunt…

Initially, Missing in Alaska seems fairly straight-faced. Each episode tackles one possible cause that would explain people vanishing in the so-called “Alaska Triangle.” The program’s first episode deals with the sudden disappearance of a C-54 military transport carrying some 44 persons in January 1950. Numerous planes go missing in Alaska but the majority of these cases can probably be blamed on unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns. The particular incident covered in the show is noteworthy not only for the amount of people who were lost, but also because a massive military search operation didn’t yield a single clue as to what actually happened. Gerhard, being of sound mind, believes that the so-called “vile vortices” may be to blame, thus making a connection to the blatantly phony Devil’s Graveyards mockumentary. Episode two likewise travels through familiar territory, covering the team’s search for the so-called “Hairy Man,” a Sasquatch-like creature prowling the Alaskan wilderness that is rumored to be both larger and more aggressive than the typical “Bigfoot.”

Missing_In_Alaska_Tommy_Joseph_Bio-E“Expert on Alaskan legends” Tommy Joseph posing with supposed Hairy Man nest.  Yeah, I’m not buying it either.


After a narration provides some backstory for each episode (and to be fair, there’s legitimate historical basis for at least some of the subjects tackled here), the MiA team sets out on a quest not only to find experts and witnesses who may shine some light on the case they’re investigating, but also to have some first-hand experiences for themselves. Invariably (and in some cases most inexplicably), the team’s research leads them to conduct some sort of nighttime investigation, which may be about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard – is it really a good idea to go lurking around after dark in remote areas where five out of every thousand people disappears, knowing full well that bears may be lurking just out of camera range? Even if I can accept that the investigation of the “Hairy Man” might turn up something in the nocturnal hours, what could possibly be learned by prowling around at night in search of vile vortices? Regardless, these segments do wind up providing the almost mandatory infrared and night vision sequences along with a multitude of declarations like “did you hear that?” or “there’s definitely something out there!”

29EA0EB600000578-0-image-a-11_1435136401617Landscape photograph in the show is, as might be expected, outstanding.

Like many other modern “speculative documentaries,” Missing in Alaska does a reasonable job of appearing to represent authentic events and situations. Similar to a program like America Unearthed, Missing in Alaska incorporates some subtle reality TV moments: to an extent, the show is more about what happens during the team’s investigation rather than the underlying topic being examined. The documentary-like approach is also pretty solid, boasting some stunning photography of the breathtaking Alaskan landscape, but the illusion of verisimilitude collapses or is at least severely strained at times. Episode one features a moment where the team utilizes an aerial drone to try and get a wide-range view of a snow-covered valley. The drone is quickly lost during a sudden change in weather, but “miraculously” appears – with its tracking beacon and scientific gear still functioning – later on during the episode’s climax. Much as I like to keep an open mind, I don’t at all believe the nudge-nudge-wink-wink assertions that this drone actually went through one of the vortices the team was searching for and then apparently jumped ahead in time and space – that notion just pushes my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. Similarly, episode two’s conclusion of a shadowy figure knocking a trail cam around seems highly suspect – it’s simply too convenient and frankly unbelievable that this team would randomly stumble upon an unknown hominid during the course of a few day film shoot.

ken_gerhard.1322040_stdKen Gerhard – specialist in strange phenomena.  And owl wrangler.

Given the sketchiness of the show, I was somewhat shocked that Gerhard, a somewhat respected (?) figure in the world of cryptozoology and the paranormal, would appear in something like this. Maybe the guy’s looking for acting gigs nowadays, for that surely is more what Missing in Alaska seems: I would hope that most viewers would take any of the “factual” information here – at least that which the research team stumbles across – with a grain of salt. There are strange things occurring in the Alaskan wilderness and the number of missing persons in the state is undeniably alarming, making the real life aspects and historical incidents depicted in Missing in Alaska quite fascinating. To instantly jump to the “mysteries and monsters” conclusion with regard to explaining these disappearances however seems not only illogical but irresponsible. As a “documentary” then, though Missing in Alaska is not quite as utterly reprehensible as what I’ve come to expect from the genre of ghost/monster/unknown-related programming, it’s still highly questionable. As entertainment however, it does exactly what it’s supposed to, raising numerous questions and getting a viewer thinking about the infinite possibilities that are/may be out there. This isn’t must-see TV by any stretch, but those who enjoy shows dealing with the paranormal will probably get a kick out of it.


 

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....

Decoding Satellite Imagery on Science Channel’s WHAT ON EARTH?

WHAT ON EARTH? on Science Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: More science and evidence than is common for this type of speculative documentary; fine presentation

Cons: Recycling of topics from other shows; no real answers provided

Filling the void left when shows such as America Declassified (which hasn’t returned following its first season in 2013-14) and The Unexplained Files aren’t delivering new episodes, Science Channel’s new series What on Earth? (which premiered on February 10, 2015) continues to explore the realms of the unknown. Though it traverses much the same realm of conjecture as History Channel’s trendsetting Ancient Aliens, What on Earth? would seem to have significantly more credibility than the typical program of this nature. In recent times, a large number of surveillance and observation satellites have been launched into orbit, many of which have the goal of surveying and mapping areas of the globe which previously had been largely undocumented. During the course of this survey process, various anomalies of one sort or another have been uncovered and photographed and What on Earth? focuses its attention on these frequently strange but indisputably authentic images in an attempt to promote thought about what they actually are depicting.

ruins of El Dorado?
Could these ruins, revealed from space, be the remnants of the legendary ?

Set up like the typical television documentary, this program features a familiar mixture of archival footage, an inquisitive, omnipresent narration (provided by Steven Kearney), expert analysis from a veritable “who’s who” of persons who regularly appear in these sorts of programs, and actual evidence and documentation; in this case, the satellite images themselves. The straight-forward presentation of this “hard evidence” is easily the show’s main draw, and there’s no denying that the topics discussed during this program (which are examined on both a macroscopic and microscopic level) would be fascinating for those interested in science and the world around them. The show’s debut episode featured a variety of stories, covering topics ranging from the so-called “band of Holes” which snakes through the Peruvian Andes to an image which seems to show a humongous tsunami heading towards Hong Kong. Also discussed is an extremely shadowy submarine base in China, a huge Florida sinkhole which contains several-thousand-year-old human and animal remains, and a lake in Iraq that appeared blood red when photographed from space. As is about the norm in programming like this, What on Earth? doesn’t so much try and explain everything, or indeed, anything. Instead, the goal seems to be to make a viewer aware of some interesting phenomena and various hypotheses surrounding them so that he can do some additional research on his own if desired.


, off the coast of Australia, as seen from Google Earth’s satellite. Strange thing is, shortly after this photo appeared, the island, originally documented by Captain Cook, vanished completely.

While this show’s level-headed presentation may be its best characteristic, I also really like the fact that What on Earth? doesn’t draw things out to a ridiculous level. A significant problem in shows like UFO Conspiracies, The Unexplained Files, and even Dark Matters: Twisted but True is that individual segments are stretched out to the point that each episode only features the examination of two or three separate topics. What on Earth? only devotes about ten minutes of screen time to each subject it discusses, so the program is able to cover significantly more topics per episode. I’m a fan of this approach since, at a certain point, there’s really nothing more to be said about any single thing. I’d rather a show of this nature move on and cover something else than beat a dead horse for a half hour just to satisfy time requirements or an established format.

USS THRESHER
One of the strange, obscure stories that popped up in the series’ first episode was the tale of the , which sank under mysterious circumstances in 1963.

On the downside, it seems like this is another program on an educational channel that’s recycling topics that have been discussed previously elsewhere. In relation to this debut episode, the “Band of Holes” had been covered previously (several times) on Ancient Aliens and the topic of so-called “red rain” had been the subject of an episode of The Unexplained Files. This repetition of material is somewhat frustrating: considering that I believe that the same audience would be interested in most if not all programs dealing with these sorts of unknown phenomena, since nothing significant is added to the discussion here, it seems mostly pointless that What on Earth? would cover the same topics as have been dealt with in other shows. You’d think (especially given that a new “unsolved mystery” type program seems to pop up every other week anymore) that these programs would want to stick out from the crowd and have some element of distinction to them, but I guess the producers are more content to stick to tried and true subject matter. If it works for Hollywood….


What would a speculative documentary be without some good conspiracy theory to mix things up?

All in all, What on Earth? does exactly what it sets out to do I suppose, a well-executed television documentary that remains compelling even if it does seem to talk about the same sorts of things as any number of vaguely similar shows. My favorite aspect of shows like this are the esoteric anecdotes that one inevitably gets while watching, and this new Science Channel series certainly provides a few of them per episode. In my opinion, What on Earth? doesn’t think far enough outside the box to be truly outstanding, but there’s more than enough food for thought here to please viewers who would watch a show like this in the first place. The fact that the program is based on actual evidence is a definite plus, and I’d urge interested parties to check it out if they get a chance.

many evidence

“As Much a Process of Rationalization as Imagination:” BOOGEYMEN

BOOGEYMEN on Destination America

(2.5/5)

Pros: Interesting approach; it’s hard to deny the allure of the unexplained…

Cons: Very talky and rather dull – particularly when compared to other similar programs

First appearing in 2013 on Canadian television, the Boogeymen series presents a monster-related show of a different variety than is typically seen on American cable. Whereas the majority of today’s cryptozoology programs (i.e. those dealing with unknown creatures) focus on a group of (often stereotypically moronic) characters who set off into the wilds in search of this or that mythical – and most likely, imaginary – creature, the goal of Boogeymen seems more to examine monsters as a cultural phenomenon in an effort to determine why the public is so fascinated with them. Each hour-long episode of the show (reruns of which now air on the Destination America channel) focuses on a strange creature or situation and how this oddity has been embraced by the local community: in many ways then, Boogeymen is more a travel and tourism program than an outright monster hunt. Along the way, various eyewitnesses present their stories, experts weigh in on the possibility of the monster being real or completely bogus, and a handful of photographic and/or video evidence is shown to the viewer, who’s more or less left to make up his own mind as to whether or not he believes any of it.

sea monster or log
Sea monster or log?

Probably the best thing about the program is that during the course of its (so far) two seasons and 26 episodes, Boogeymen has dealt with a wide variety of topics and covered some really interesting myths and legends. The first episode of the program dealt with “,” the aquatic creature said to lurk in America’s Lake Champlain, but other episodes have covered (duh!) California’s Bigfoot and lesser-known mysteries like Tennessee’s , Canada’s , and even Iceland’s . In terms of the subjects discussed, I’d almost be inclined to say that this show is up there with History Channel’s Monster Quest as being the most comprehensive and ponderous cryptozoology show that’s been on television in the last decade or so.

chupacabra
Chupacabra or mangy dog?

The fact that Boogeymen is so consistent and decidedly non-sensational in its tone is another of its strongest attributes. In recent years, it’s become increasingly frustrating to see monster-related shows which push the viewer’s suspension of disbelief to ridiculous levels; quite simply, it’s incredibly difficult if not downright impossible to believe much of anything a viewer is seeing in the likes of Mountain Monsters and its numerous (and apparently, endless) clones. Boogeymen, on the other hand, operates in a refreshingly sober manner. Even if some of the material presented in it is borderline ludicrous (during the episode about Canadian lake monster Ogopogo, one man spends a great deal of time trying to convince a viewer that a series of murky underwater shots of logs actually show the snake-like creature in the stages of “hiding” – which is positively absurd), the producers do a nice job of keeping things level and under control. This is incredibly beneficial when establishing credibility in a show like this, and indeed commendable when covering this sort of material.

monster worm
Monster worm or snagged trash?

The even tone of the show has some unfortunate consequences however, namely the fact that viewers used to more exciting or outrageous programming would likely find Boogeymen to be extremely dry. Though the program is technically well-made in terms of its photography and editing, there’s no way a viewer can ignore the fact that the show is incredibly lackadaisical. Additionally, the program does quite frequently seem kind of corny in the same way that another Canadian import called Hauntings and Horrors (originally titled , reruns of this program also air on Destination America) does, with a narrator delivering borderline goofy monologues over a typical montage of ambiguous, often ominous images and cheesy landscape shots. Compared to the much more loud and obnoxious typical American television program, Boogeymen simply seems dull, which (when combined with the rather minimal amount of actual hard evidence provided in any individual episode) could be a deal-sealer that would kill this show in the minds of many viewers.

giant snake
Giant snake or…oh……

Ultimately, I think one’s appreciation of this show (or lack thereof) would come down to what he’s trying to get out of it. Despite the fact that it deals with mysterious creatures on some level, Boogeymen is very much not a speculative documentary trying to prove or disprove the existence of these creatures. Frankly, there are more than enough over-the-top monster hunt programs on TV in the year 2015, so a show dealing more with our culture and its fascination with mysterious creatures and situations rather than the myths themselves is interesting in my book. That said, I don’t think anyone is going to confuse Boogeymen with great television: it’s a way to pass some time and nothing more. Moderately recommended, but hardly essential.

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 Pseudoscientific Apocalypse! THE DEVIL’S GRAVEYARDS: VILE VORTICES REVEALED

THE DEVIL’S GRAVEYARDS on History Channel

(1/5)

Pros: Some thought-provoking moments

Cons: Poor acting, bad script, predictable conclusion, and precisely no scientific credibility

Produced by the same company responsible for such glorious bunk as Discovery Channel’s Megalodon specials, The Devil’s Graveyards: Vile Vortices Revealed is easily the worst of the recent slate of phony cable television documentaries which have been passed off as the real deal. Premiering in late 2014 on The History Channel, this program revolves around “investigate journalist” and apparent moron Don Murphy, who sets out to document the rather esoteric experiments being conducted in the Algerian desert by one Dr. Joseph Spencer. A biologist by trade, Spencer is investigating the reasons why his young son was murdered by the family dog two years prior, and has come to the conclusion that disruptions in the earth’s magnetic field have not only led to various instances of unusual animal behavior (including the unprovoked attack that took his son’s life) but also are threatening the whole of human existence. If a series of twelve magnetic anomalies located around the world known as , the “devil’s graveyards” of the film’s title, are not neutralized, Spencer believes that intense solar radiation will be allowed to seep into Earth’s atmosphere, thus transforming the planet into a lifeless wasteland like Venus or Mars. In an attempt to find a way to neutralize these areas, Spencer and his hapless crew attempt to bombard the Algerian vortex with a powerful electromagnetic pulse. Will this have any significant effect…and more importantly, will any single viewer care?

camera coverage
Good thing there just happens to be twelve cameras situated around the research area so a viewer gets to see everything as it happens…

Based largely on the rather sketchy theories of zoologist Dr. Ivan Sanderson who, while investigating disappearances in the , initially came up with the idea of the so-called “vile vortices,” The Devil’s Graveyard starts off with a disclaimer which states that “this dramatization is based on an actual 1972 document entitled ‘The Twelve Devil’s Graveyards Around the World.” This notice goes on to reveal that the network airing the program does not in any way endorse the claims made in it, thus one can at least say the program makes some attempt to inform an attentive viewer that not everything here can be taken entirely (or at all) seriously. That a similar warning appearing during the end titles flashes on screen for a split second speaks to the fact that the producers are more probably trying to pull a fast one on the viewer. On some level, this is (yet another) obvious extension of History Channel programming of the Ancient Aliens variety; Devil’s Graveyards goes so far as to suggest with a straight face that extraterrestrials were in fact responsible for creating the vile vortices in the first place, a suggestion that’s more idiotic than half of the alien theories presented by the likes of Giorgio Tsoukalos. It also heaps on the conspiracy theories, referencing bizarre Nazi experiments and even the controversial while blaming everything from massive bird die-offs to Hurricane Katrina on the vortex phenomenon. Needless to say, when it comes to actual hard proof and scientific evidence, Graveyard comes up short.

and here he is...
And here he is ladies and gentleman…a random actor…I mean Dr. Joseph Spencer.

Even if director Douglas Glover goes to great lengths to make Devil’s Graveyards look and play like a legit documentary however, it more seemed to me like the people responsible for this program had watched a few too many classic sci-fi movies – the show has many aspects reminiscent of the outstanding 1985 film and even has a “don’t flip that switch” moment ripped right from the playbook of the classic Ghostbusters. Furthermore, the general premise of the program isn’t entirely dissimilar from the plot of the 1953 low-budget genre flick since a radioactive isotope, not a flesh and blood monster, is the “villain” of the piece. This, of course, makes Graveyards noticeably uninteresting and plain dull when compared to the likes of Wrath of Submarine or Russian Yeti since the main “threat” presented herein is theoretical rather than something one can see.

periodic table
Sure, aliens might be readying for an invasion, but THIS IS THE REAL ENEMY!

To be honest, the vile vortex theory is simply too scientifically complex (and maybe, too ridiculous) for the average viewer to comprehend: the program does its best to explain things, but this only makes for a very talky and awkward program since the characters literally have to spell everything out for viewers who wouldn’t otherwise understand anything being discussed. I suppose the door for this kind of programming has been left open by the numerous recent television series dealing with unexplained phenomena, but I still have to question the decision to produce a feature length mockumentary about vile vortices in the first place. Could it be that the these fake documentaries have already exhausted the pool of topics to draw from?

bye

Acting throughout the program is frankly awful: we’re supposed to believe that we’re watching real people dealing with real situations, but this notion is simply impossible to swallow. Witness the laughable scene where the actor portraying Joseph Spencer recalls the death of his son, then has an “emotional” breakdown moment. This actor doesn’t do much better of a job portraying the excitement of the scientist when a breakthrough in his experiment seems evident, and it’s similarly amusing to watch the actress portraying the research team’s electrical engineer try to keep a straight face when conducting high school chem lab level experiments and demonstrations. Special attention must be paid to the actor portraying the team’s “conspiracy expert:” why this guy would be needed as part of a scientific team is unclear, but he always seems to provide definitive “A-HA” moments when the scientific gobbledygook gets a little thick. Clearly the worst actor of the bunch is the one portraying reporter Don Murphy: this guy’s “investigative reporting” is atrocious and he gives the most forced performance on display in the program – especially when he’s seen on-camera narrating his own story.

ominous music playing...
…ominous music playing…

Combine the bad acting with the lousy scripting and absurd, utterly outlandish theories the show puts forward and you’ve got the most abominable of the recent, made-for-cable faux-documentaries. The Devil’s Graveyard not only looks cheap and hastily-made, but is extremely clunky in terms of its construction. The prime example of how this production is simply incompetent is the use of “actual cell phone footage” of Dr. Spencer’s son being attacked by his dog: I would assume this sequence was supposed to be dramatic, but it’s downright humorous after being repeated for about the fifteenth time. Compounding the problem is a sense of story development that is overall too tidy and convenient to be a convincing portrayal of reality. Finally, the film leans heavily on explanations that most viewers wouldn’t even remotely be able to decipher: there’s simply too much scientific nonsense presented as absolute fact here, and I suspect the bullshit detecters of most viewers would be sounding throughout the film. Does this program propose some intriguing ideas and offer up some food for thought? Sure: it’s compelling in the same way that most programs dealing with mysterious phenomena are. At the end of the day however, why would one waste his time with a completely illogical and mind-numbingly phony program like this – especially one that’s undeniably this poorly made? (Interesting note: the studio responsible for this program doesn’t even list it among its credits; perhaps they too realized what hogwash they had brought onto the world.) Predictable and ultimately, a complete waste of time, The Devil’s Graveyards is best avoided.

wtf science

This Youtube Video is about as quality as the “documentary:”

“There are Lots of Lights…” But Are They All UFO CONSPIRACIES?

UFO CONSPIRACIES on Science Channel

(1.5/5)

Pros: This topic always fascinates

Cons: Recycled stories; lazy formatting; lack of any evidence; over-reliance on narration

The latest entry in a genre that’s become a staple of cable educational channels, Science Channel’s UFO Conspiracies is yet another program dedicated to exposing various incidents involving unidentified flying objects. Since there have been so many undeniably similar shows of this nature over the years, the main thing that I’m looking for in a new UFO-related program is new, previously unheard information. While History Channel’s Hanger 1, arguably the best UFO/alien-related show currently airing, does provide information that I hadn’t come across before however, UFO Conspiracies seems like a complete retread, one that’s quite content to regurgitate various stories that have been covered elsewhere. As such, it would by and large be worthless for UFO enthusiasts: most viewers would have heard these stories before.

now THIS is a UFO conspiracy
…now THIS is a UFO conspiracy…

The initial episode of the program (aired on November 19, 2014) presented a trio of UFO reports, and it appears this is how most/all episodes of the show play out. First off, we have an incident from 2008 in which a large, fast-moving unknown craft was pursued across the Texas sky by a pair of F-16 fighters. Though investigators from MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network, probably the most comprehensive and well-structured UFO investigatory board) acquired radar footage that seemed to corroborate the stories of various eyewitnesses who saw this event, the Air Force has repeatedly denied that such an incident took place, relying on the tried and true methods of explaining what people saw. Next up, we’ve got a story from Peru, in which a group of journalism students investigating the sightings of strange lights in the Amazon actually wound up filming them. This segment is the only one presented that actually presents video evidence to document its story, but I simply didn’t find the story all that compelling. Finally, we’ve got the somewhat more interesting story of the disappearance of pilot Frederick Valentich off the Australian coast in 1978. Valentich had reported an unknown craft in the area surrounding his small one-engined plane while flying over the ocean, but shortly thereafter, disappeared without a trace, leaving behind only a mysterious final radio communication in which grating metallic sounds were heard.

newspaper
Newspaper reporting Valentich’s disappearance.

As is normally the case in these types of shows, the stories in UFO Conspiracies are related to the viewer with the help of reenactments along with actual eyewitness accounts. The format of the show is entirely unexceptional, and I think the worst element of it is the over-reliance on the frequently cryptic narration of John Schwab. Schwab’s third-party descriptions of the events detailed in the program are featured much more than any of the actual first-person accounts, which makes it seem like the show is force-feeding the viewer information instead of allowing him to make up his own mind. It also seems pretty obvious that the producers of this show are skeptical about UFOs since a significant amount of time is devoted to providing alternate explanations which debunk the possibility that unknown craft were involved (I could almost argue that this is amount the few alien conspiracy shows that more tries to debunk the extraterrestrial hypotheses rather than confirm them or at least leave the door of possibility open). This approach seems definitively odd even if it does ensure that UFO Conspiracies is more objective than normal for a program of this nature. I would suspect that the vast majority of viewers would want this show to be more ambiguous in its conclusions rather than providing an “easy out” of sorts. Sure, these incidents may be explained away by helicopters, flares, and military aircraft, but let’s face the facts: people watching a show called “UFO Conspiracies” want to hear about aliens living on military bases, men in black threatening witnesses with corporal injuries, and secret government files buried in a vault in central Wyoming.

weather balloon

More damning than the condescending tone of the program though is the simple fact that I’ve heard every story presented in this first episode before in other UFO-related television shows. It really seems as though UFO Conspiracies was thrown together hastily using very accessible, well-documented, and well-known UFO cases – the Valentich disappearance, for instance, was covered more comprehensively in the past year or two on Science Channel’s significantly more worthwhile The Unexplained Files. Combine this fact that nothing presented would be new information for what I would assume would be the show’s target audience with the fact that the program actually downplays the element of the unknown that exists in these stories, and UFO Conspiracies winds up as a show that alien conspiracists would not only be bored by, but actually scoff at.

i'll just leave this here
I’ll just leave this here…

I admit it: I certainly believe in the existence of extraterrestrials (it would be pure ignorance to assume that humans are the only intelligent life in the infinity of the cosmos) and even think there’s something strange going on in the skies here on Earth (as Finding Bigfoot’s Bobo says: “I’ve seen ‘em. They’re here,” though I don’t claim to have any idea what “they” are). It’s likely there will always be a place for shows like UFO Conspiracies since these sorts of topics do capture the imagination of myself and incalculable other people out there. No attempt has been made on the part of the show’s producers to bring any amount of freshness to a now-tired formula; In Search of… debuted in 1977 after all and the format of the “speculative documentary” hasn’t significantly changed since then. UFO Conspiracies really has nothing to offer the viewer other than an semi-tolerable time-waste. Due to the absence of actual evidence, there’s a noticeable lack of credibility and the entire show seems lazy. Skip it.

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.

death of goliath
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.

hard work
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.

The Weird Side of the Soviet Union: MONSTERS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

MONSTERS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN on Animal Planet

(4/5)

Pros: Well-organized; interesting variety of subjects; more level-headed and objective than is usual for this type of program

Cons: It’s a speculative documentary: some folks just won’t appreciate it; sensationalist title doesn’t represent the material very well

Refreshingly straight-forward in both its presentation and in the various hypotheses it proposes, the two-hour special Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain, which premiered October 26, 2014 on the Animal Planet Channel, stands in stark contrast to increasingly manipulative (and goofy) programs like the previous year’s Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives which handles some of the same subject matter. Directed by Gareth Sacala, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain operates in much the same manner as an episode of Monsters and Mysteries in America in that it features discussion of a half dozen or so stories of the unknown which originated in and around the former Soviet Union. A few of these stories specifically involve the existence of unknown creatures which seems to be a very popular subject on television these days, but the majority deal more generally with unexplained phenomena.

The real monster
Subliminal messaging: is this the REAL monster behind the Iron Curtain?

The program starts with what in my opinion is its most interesting segment, one which seems to have been pulled straight out of the pages of Dark Matters: Twisted but True: a brief examination of the history of rather unorthodox experiments that took place in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. While researching how organs were controlled by the brain and functioned, scientists and developed the basic techniques by which organ transplants are conducted today, yet hearing about how this duo not only kept the hearts and whole heads of dogs alive after they had been separated from their corresponding bodies, but also created two-headed animals and very nearly reanimated a dead human suggests these scientists may have been willing to push the boundaries of science a bit too far in the name of progress. What’s more shocking perhaps is that even though the former Soviet Union has released some files relating to these experiments, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever really know how far these experiments went. After viewing some of the actual film footage seen here (which includes images of a heart beating independently of its body, one dog’s head being kept alive in a metal bowl and another animal having to fight off the snapping jaws of a second head that’s been grafted onto its neck), I’m not sure anyone would really want to uncover the true extent of these experiments even if the knowledge gained has proven to be invaluable.

WARNING: GRAPHIC! Footage of dog head grafting experiments.

From here, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain goes through an intriguing, if fairly typical collection of segments and stories, some of which seem more outrageous then others. A viewer hears about the legend of the , a subterranean creature who’s said to spit venom and be able to conduct electricity and delves into the legend of the so-called “” which exists in the remote Siberian forest. This plot of barren land apparently causes death and misery to anyone who ventures near it, leading scientists to debate its true nature as the site of a possible underground fire or maybe even the location where meteoric debris has settled. A from the Caucasus Mountains in which a group of mountaineers was severely burned by an unknown ball of light is investigated, as well as a in which a young medical student attacked fourteen women, killing four. In the wake of the attacks, it was speculated that the man was possessed by a demonic spirit called a , a being which appears to have been at least partially responsible for the modern idea of the vampire. It’s almost expected that a program of this nature at least briefly focus on some sort of Bigfoot story, and this is provided in the form of an examination of the Russian Wildman. The documentary concludes with a substantial inquiry into the fascinating and enigmatic in which nine mountaineers were killed under mysterious circumstances while skiing in the remote Russian wilderness in 1959.


Remains of one of the Dyatlov expedition members. Half the mountaineers died from incredibly traumatic injuries which, according to official government reports, were caused by “a compelling natural force.”

Along with a steady narration provided by Eric Myers, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain is told largely through interviews with various researchers and investigators and occasionally, the actual people involved first-hand in the stories. Throughout the program, we have a number of well-handled recreations of the situations discussed which hammer home the subjects the talking heads are discussing. I think one of the best things about the program (as mentioned) was its use of sometimes gruesome and disturbing archival film footage and photographs. Some of the segments here are largely recounted through dialogue, but there has been an obvious effort made to add credibility to the eyewitness accounts and people making them whenever possible. Keeping in mind the undeniably sketchy evidence usually presented in these types of shows, I’d have to say that Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain does a fine job of honestly presenting its information. I also appreciated that the program doesn’t automatically go for the jugular and force the viewer to buy into some very outlandish explanation for what’s occurring in these stories. The program for instance proposes that the mysterious ball of light was actually the incredibly rare meteorological phenomenon known as ball lightning, which actually seems plausible in this circumstance, and the Dyatlov incident segment focuses on the notion that a top-secret parachute mine test caused the deaths of the mountaineers. Generally speaking and as might be expected, this documentary doesn’t come up with any real answers, leaving it up to the viewer to make up his own mind with regard to these cases. I thought this sense of ambiguity was welcome when the vast majority of crypto-reality TV shows jump to wild conclusions in five minutes or less.

artists' rendering
Artist’s rendering of the Mongolian Death Worm.

Even if it takes this program less that twenty minutes to conveniently introduce Idaho State University professor Dr. Jeff Meldrum (who shows up in virtually every Bigfoot-related documentary to explain that yes, there is a possibility that previously unknown creatures do exist in the world – just in case anyone needed that point reinforced) as the obligatory “voice of reason” to add some sort of scientific seal of approval for what’s being proposed here, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain is easily a more level-headed and ultimately better program than dozens of vaguely similar shows that have turned up in the last couple years. Compared to outright fabrications like the Russian Yeti, Megalodon, or Wrath of Submarine which choked viewers with phoniness, this one at least attempts to remain neutral and objective, simply presenting information in much the same manner as a program like Unsolved Mysteries. For that alone, it deserves commendation in an era where sensationalism goes a long way in making a program stand out from the crowd. Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain obviously wouldn’t be counted among the greatest documentaries of our time, but it’s well-done for what it is and should please viewers interested in the paranormal. Recommended.

dog

The True Story of The Amityville Horror Revealed! HIGH HOPES: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR MURDERS

HIGH HOPES: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR MURDERS on Reelz Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: A Comprehensive examination of a fascinating murder case; doesn’t get caught up in the ghost story

Cons: Awkward in the way the film is constructed; seems a bit like a self-serving project; clumsy reenactments

Just in time for Halloween comes a 90-minute (two hour with commercials) documentary on the Reelz Channel that’s all about America’s most infamous haunted house at . Contrary to what one might expect from a program of this nature showing up towards the end of October however, the 2014 doc High Hopes: The Amityville Horror Murders focuses not on the case relating to reported supernatural activity occurring on the property, but rather on the brutal crime that took place in the house in 1974. During that period, the iconic home with upper windows that resemble eyes was owned by the DeFeo family, which was made up of father Ron Sr., mother Louise and their five children: Dawn, Allison, Marc, and John Matthew. On November 12, 1974 and following years of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of his father (a man who reportedly had ties to the Mafia), 23-year old Butch entered the home and proceeded to kill every other member of his family with a .35 caliber rifle.

iconic house
The now-iconic 112 Ocean Avenue property.

The crimes earned Butch six consecutive life sentences upon conviction, but the typical stories told about the “” usually only start at that juncture. Writer/director Ryan Katzenbach’s High Hopes documentary, to its credit, operates for its entire run time as a sort of investigative report about the DeFeo murders, examining in detail various aspects of the case. Butch DeFeo over the years has offered up numerous conflicting explanations of what happened on the night his entire family was murdered, making it almost impossible to find the real truth at the bottom of the fabrications. It’s also increasingly difficult to make sense of the case due to the sensationalism caused by the fact that in the years following the murders, George and Kathy Lutz who had purchased the property, claimed that the house was haunted, leading to a best-selling book and a still-ongoing successful horror film . Katzenbach manages to cut through the hype and examine the crime itself, using the whole “haunted house” angle as merely a sidenote to a more serious and unfortunate story.

alleged ghost
Alleged ghost spotted during one investigation of the former DeFeo house.

The documentary begins with a sort of crash course history of all things Amityville Horror related, going over the basics of the criminal case, examining the history of the so-called haunting, and introducing the idea that the Amityville case has become more a marketing device than anything else. Following this introduction, Katzenbach begins a study of all the details in the murder case, starting with the rather startling history of the DeFeo family. Examining alleged Mafia ties and money laundering as well as the tales about how abusive Ron Sr. was to the rest of his family, Katzenbach paints a vivid picture of the situation leading up to the murders. While it’s difficult to feel any sort of sympathy towards Butch DeFeo (who admits in an in-camera interview during which he lacks any semblance of remorse, that he’s basically a manipulator and a liar), it is pretty easy to see a potential set of circumstances that led him down the path to murder his family. Aside from the abuse committed by a father who claimed to have pseudo-religious experiences in between bouts of extreme violence towards his own wife and kids, Butch was also by the time he was in his early twenties abusing drugs and alcohol quite heavily, leading him to increasingly unpredictable behavior.

crime scene photo
Ron Sr. and Louise DeFeo dead in bed.

By the time the murders are recounted in extraordinary detail based on one possible scenario of how they were committed, High Hopes heads into its money section, presenting a case of how prosecutors looking to land a quick conviction bungled up several aspects of the original case. In this manner, the documentary doesn’t play all that differently from a film like West of Memphis, which presented the frankly sickening story of how three outcast teens were (in my opinion, wrongly) . Writer/director Katzenbach obviously relishes the chance to present his own perspective on the criminal case relating to the prosecution of “Butch” DeFeo, and it’s probably during this section in which his film presents its best material and arguments. It seems like most crime films anymore have to have some sort of “miscarriage of justice” section just to seem legit, but examining the information provided here from a logical standpoint does seem to at least suggest that the police, prosecutors and judges had it out for Butch DeFeo from the start.

butch defeo
Butch DeFeo has invented numerous stories relating to the murders in the decades since his arrest. The documentary comes to its own conclusion, but is it actually the answer?

At this juncture, I should point out that from what I can tell, High Hopes was produced essentially by combining three short documentaries about the Amityville case that Katzenbach can been working on into one, longer and more comprehensive work. I say this because at a certain point, High Hopes really feels like its more or less abandons everything that it had been working towards and heads in an entirely different direction. Around the three-quarter mark, Katzenbach jettisons his previous arguments about how Butch DeFeo committed the murders with the aid of several accomplices and presents a “this is how it really happened” finale that makes a case for him doing the deed by himself. I can almost believe that this material was culled from the third and last short film since the way in which the feature documentary transitions into this material is very awkward and almost baffling: it’s not the best way to make a coherent, well-developed film, but I suppose it gets the job done. That said, it took me a second to realize that Katzenbach had essentially doubled back on himself and just assumed his viewer would be able to follow his zig-zagging train of thought, though the average TV viewer might not even notice the change in perspective and just “roll with the flow.”

amityville horror movie
Admittedly, the original Amityville Horror movie is pretty creepy…but still “Jody, the demon pig??”

It was also around this point when I made a pretty telling observation about the documentary. Though the film is narrated by well-known actor Ed Asner, the primary interview subject throughout the production is none other than director Katzenbach himself, who basically sits there and explains to the viewer how everything in the Amityville murder case went down. On one hand, it’s not totally unprecedented for a director to include himself in his own documentary film: many documentary filmmakers almost exclusively focus on their own journey to the truth as it were (Michael Moore comes to mind). In the case of High Hopes however, I really got the idea that this documentary as a whole was more or less a self-serving project (looking at reveals that virtually all his credits are programs relating to the Amityville murders – the guy seems more than a bit obsessed). This becomes especially apparent when, in the documentary’s final segment, Katzenbach himself conducts an investigation of the canal system that exists immediately behind the DeFeo home on Ocean Avenue in an attempt to find the long-missing second murder weapon. It really seems like the writer/director is pushing himself as a sort of criminal investigator and researcher and one almost gets the idea that Katzenbach fashions himself as a sort of neo Truman Capote in terms of how he’s represented in the film. When the discovery of a firearm at the bottom of the canal leads to an apparent, almost obligatory cover-up on the part of the Amityville police department, the positioning of Katzenbach as a sort of avenger for justice is complete, though I wasn’t completely sure I was willing to buy that assertion.

ultimate sad fact
The ultimate sad fact here is that the DeFeo children died horribly.  We shouldn’t forget that, no matter what Hollywood chooses to focus on.

As much as I could be overly critical of this documentary for its apparent ulterior motives, I have to say that High Hopes: The Amityville Horror Murders is pretty interesting for the material that it does present. This is a very comprehensive (though maybe not entirely objective) examination of the DeFeo murders, and the selection of archival video footage, sometimes graphic photos and testimony, as well as the contemporary analysis showcased here does a fine job of telling the story of this case and pleading the writer’s arguments. The film is well-organized for the most part and is generally quite compelling for a viewer. I rather appreciated the fact that this film not only doesn’t focus much attention on the whole “haunted house” angle, but that it actually goes a long way in proving that the whole “Amityville Horror” phenomenon (which began with Jay Anson’s best-selling 1977 novel) was a publicity stunt fabricated in order to make a profit for the folks involved. One would think that calling the haunting out as b.s. wouldn’t have been the best way to go for someone examining this case, but Katzenbach sticks to his guns. On the downside, the reenactments featured throughout the program are undeniably lousy: yes, they compliment the narration quite well, but the acting is awful and they just seem to have been completed very quickly in the most lazy, unimaginative manner possible. In the end, despite a few significant problems, High Hopes is perfect for what it is: an consistently interesting and compelling made-for-television documentary. This wouldn’t hold up against the best documentary films out there, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. For that fact alone, I’d call it worthwhile.

News Bulletin!