Friday, March 27, 2015

Where the Monsters Live: The Nightbreed Director's Cut

When Nightbreed: The Director's Cut slithered its way onto Netflix Instant in December of 2014 the vast majority of Netflix subscribers presumably paid it little attention. However, for fans of Clive Barker's work and/or horror fans of (*ahem*) a certain age the film's emergence on the Netflix platform was a very big deal. The footage restored to the film had been a holy grail of sorts to fans and filmmaker alike, and the hunt for that footage spanned across years and various possible resting places before Mark Miller, Vice President of Barker's production company, Seraphim Films, tracked it to a closet in the Seraphim offices. It had been literal feet away the entire time. 

Nightbreed, an adaptation of Barker's own novella, Cabal, tells the story of Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a young man with unspecified mental problems (the best sort of mental problems!) who becomes convinced thanks to the machinations of his psychiatrist, Decker (David muthafunkin Cronenberg), that he's a serial killer. Fleeing from the law he seeks out a place that he's glimpsed in his dreams: the city of Midian, a Promised Land for monsters. Boone is followed by his loyal girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby), and by Decker, a man just as monstrous as those who dwell in Midian. 

"The politics got so Byzantine that I didn't know who was stabbing me in the back, who was stabbing me in the eye - but they all had knives." 
- Clive Barker, speaking with Mark Salisbury for Fear, No 22, October 1990
"It's more of a rollercoaster ride than originally intended. I was surprised at how little time the US audience wanted to spend with dialogue when I tested the movie. The longer cut frankly didn't work for them. They wanted sensation after sensation after sensation."   
- Clive Barker, speaking with Mark Salisbury for Fear, No 22, October 1990

Coming off the success of his first directorial effort, Hellraiser, Barker leapt at the chance to bring the world of Cabal to life on the screen, and in 1990 Nightbreed was born. It was not an easy birth. The theatrical cut of Nightbreed was compromised in more than one way - audiences seemed to want less character work, less dialogue, less build up; they wanted the monsters and they wanted them now. On the other side both Morgan Creek and Fox seemed genuinely distressed by the film and the "inverted moralities" that it displayed. Per Barker the studios did little in the way of marketing and promotion for the film.  Barker trimmed his creation  and then watched it die on the vine. Budgeted at over $11 million, Nightbreed took in around $8 million in its theatrical run. Now it's back in a form that's closer to Barker's originally intended vision, and the question is whether that vision makes for a better movie. It certainly makes for a different experience.

"Listen! 'So Moses spoke to the people, saying 'Arm yourselves for war and let them go and take vengeance for the Lord on Midian...' and so they burned with fire all the cities where they dwelt and killed the kings of Midian, both man and beast!'" 
- Clive Barker's Nightbreed: The Director's Cut

Barker's story is at root a dark and fascinating riff on the Book of Exodus. That interpretation isn't a stretch, it's etched into the fabric of his tale as is evident from the quote above. Boone is a clear Moses figure, called forth by prophetic dreams to lead the children of Midian - a "lost tribe" - out of the darkness. Decker is a twisted Pharaoh analogue, determined to stop him, intent on executing the "children" of Midian. Midian is sustained by Baphomet, the "god" of monsters, who has guided events and silently oversees his/her/its subjects. This strange repurposing of The Bible has a primal, visceral power in and of itself, especially welded to a tale that attempts sympathy for the devils.

Behold Baphomet, God of Standing Very Still

Barker's best written work resonates, in part, because his monsters are fleshed out characters, not just fanged/gooey obstacles to be overcome. That desire to give his creatures dimensions comes through, to varying degrees of success, in both the Cabal novella and in the original theatrical cut of Nightbreed. That impulse, along with the power of the quasi-Biblical allegory underlying the film's story, is primarily what makes the original 1990 cut of Nightbreed genuinely interesting. There's something headily intoxicating about the sheer strangeness of the film, and about the ways in which it straddles the lines between monster movie, slasher picture, fantasy saga, and Biblical epic. 

Unfortunately the 1990 cut of Nightbreed is also kind of a mess, on multiple levels. Some of the blame for this can be laid firmly at the feet of the studio that made the film. Some of that blame firmly belongs with Barker, who cast his two leading human roles with actors that are, frankly, not all that interesting in their parts, and who never quite manages to fully integrate his out-sized ambition with the art of crafting a well-paced, compelling film narrative. 

That said, Barker's ambition in the film is also breathtaking. I've seen that ambition described as a desire to make the "Star Wars of horror," and that's more or less on point. On a budget that's fairly described as slight Barker stuffed Nightbreed full of practical creatures and striking visuals, all wonderfully bizarre. On that level the film teems with invention and lovingly ladled, idiosyncratic detail. But Barker's ambition doesn't just manifest itself in the design of the film. It's also part of the film's thematic fabric. 

Someone on the production team was a Grateful Dead fan...


"What we're asking the audience to do is cheer the monsters." - Clive Barker, speaking with Stefan Jaworzyn for Horrorfan, Vol 1 No 3, Fall 1989 
"Someone at Morgan Creek said to me, 'You know, Clive, if you're not careful some people are going to like the monsters.'" - Clive Barker, speaking with Alan Jones for Cinefantastique, Vol 21, number 1, July 1990 

I've seen the monsters of Midian described as the "heroes" of Nightbreed, by Barker and by others, but with copious respect toward Barker that's really not an accurate description. It's far more accurate to say that Boone and his fellow monsters are the protagonists of their story, and that's an important distinction. The monsters of Midian drive the story, and ask for our emotional investment. They're protagonists because Barker's sympathies as writer/creator so clearly lie with them, but they are in no conventional way heroic. They are flesh-eating, blood-drinking creatures of the night made sympathetic because the human beings in Barker's stacked-deck world are just as, if not more, vicious and predatory. If the denizens of Midian weren't being hunted, if they were free to roam, they might be the ones slithering into suburban homes and murdering families as Decker does toward the beginning of the film.

That ambiguity is both boon and curse to Nightbreed. The film palpably wants audiences to identify with its outsiders, but these outsiders aren't X-Men, born with strange abilities and hated simply for their differences. They aren't the children of Israel, unfairly enslaved and brutalized. These outsiders are, in large part, killers and madmen. At one point in the film Decker exclaims that "EVERYBODY has a secret face," and it's clear to this viewer that Barker wants us to draw connections between the monsters of Midian and oppressed groups in general. We're meant to see the link between the literal secret faces of the Midianites and the "secret faces" that society's outsider groups must wear to pass among the "Normals." The issue, for some or perhaps for many, is that the vast majority of Nightbreed's secret faces are horrific. Weirdly, in watching the film this time around, what came to mind most readily was HBO's True Blood - whose vampires were, at least as stated, intended to function as a metaphor for oppressed minorities, but who were also, in large part, a group of reprehensible predators. 

Barker's abandonment of conventional morality seems far more intentional than True Blood's ham-handed metaphors ever did, and that abandonment is, to me, really interesting - but it also creates real issues when it comes to investing in the plight of Midian's monsters. The Director's Cut addresses this somewhat, as the 'Breed are given more time to develop as a larger populace containing, yes, horrible flesh-eating monsters, but also those who are simply too outrageous in appearance to live among humanity. Barker delves juuuuust deeply enough to show us that #NotAllMidianites are murderers by introducing us to seemingly innocent children and deformed creatures who are pitiable, but neither version of the film arguably invests in those characters sufficiently; it invests far more fully in characters like Peloquin, the Rastafarian predator who eagerly breaks Midian's laws just to get a taste of human flesh. And by setting the monsters of Midian up against a truly reprehensible crew of idiot human cartoons we're not so much asked to consider "who the real monsters are" as we are railroaded into attempts at sympathy toward the sort of serial killers that the film's male lead actively fears he might be. 

Whether the upending of morality Barker embraces here will bother you or distance you from the movie is, I think, very much an individual thing. Speaking for myself that inversion creates emotional distance even as it engages me intellectually. Basically, Nightbreed's morality is seriously muddled and I kind of like that even as it frustrates me. Will it bother you? I have no idea. 

But oh, that makeup! 

Does the Director's Cut improve the experience of the film? In some ways, yes, undeniably. Watching the Director's Cut is a richer experience, as the rushed and delirious feeling of the theatrical cut is ameliorated somewhat by additional scenes that build character. The film also feels even bigger in scope than before. Much of the effects and makeup work in the film is undeniably crude by today's standards, but (depending on your tolerance for films made in earlier eras) that handmade quality ends up mostly enhancing the experience of watching it. You are never not aware of the effort that went into bringing Midian to life, and that effort (on that budget) is extraordinary. Yes, many of the film's creatures adhere to the Star Trek-ian template of putting some face makeup on someone and leaving the rest of the performer looking human/humanoid, but that's an issue of budgetary restraint and not creative vision.  

Some of the restored footage is genuinely cool and weird - like a lovemaking scene where Boone's image splits in two, presaging his transformation a little later in the film. Some of it is just weird - like Barker's decision, in the middle of his epic horror-fantasy tale, to reinsert footage of Lori belting out an entire country and western song at a club. But both advance the story and deepen the human characters to some degree. They're also prime examples of Barker's quirky authorial voice. Less effective are the reinserted scenes featuring the rednecks and police officers who are the film's "real monsters." Those scenes amp up their cartoonish intolerance and villainy to a level that's harder to take seriously. There's certainly an argument to be made that Barker intends these characters to be caricatures, but his tonal control isn't assured enough to really pull off those shifts into arched-eyebrow satire. 

Finally, there's the issue of the film's new ending. While I like and admire much of what was done in the Director's Cut I'm of the opinion that the ending of the theatrical cut is far more effective, and much more chilling. Sheffer and Bobby can't pull off the insane gothic romantic vibe that Barker is clearly shooting for in their newly restored scenes, and the feel is goofier than it should be. The theatrical version's more open-ended conclusion to Boone and Anne's story is quieter and more effective. What's more the change in the character of Ashberry's from concerned protector of the Nightbreed to their future persecutor made zero narrative sense in the theatrical cut and makes zero narrative sense in the Director's Cut as presented.  In both versions Ashberry has sworn allegiance to Baphomet, god of the monsters, is transformed into a monster, and then...decides he wants revenge against Baphomet and the monsters? 


Like Guillermo del Toro Barker is an unarguable visionary, and as with much of del Toro's Hollywood studio work Barker has issues when it comes to tone, pacing, and the discipline to anchor his fantastical imagery in grounded, believable, compelling performances. Despite the restored/reworked footage, Nightbreed: The Director's Cut still feels somehow undercooked. In both versions the film can't quite take all of the magnificent magic of its makeup and monsters and weld it to a tale that manages to do more than alternately fascinate and creep the viewer out with its visuals; there's still an unrelenting feel to the film that's less exhilarating than it is exhausting, and the tinkering done to create the Director's Cut, however lovingly and carefully accomplished, arguably hasn't fixed that. 

"Whatever else you can say about Nightbreed, it's not like anybody else's movie, it's not a tintype. It delivers what I always promised it would - a monster movie that would spill over with weird images and creatures." - Clive Barker, speaking with Anthony Timpone for the Fangoria Horror Spectacular, No 1, 1990

Barker's not wrong. Nightbreed is not like anybody else's movies. It does in fact spill over with weird images and creatures. In so doing it summons up a very peculiar, singular mood and energy. Despite the criticisms I've leveled at the film there is a dark power to the film that's kept me coming back to it over the years. I'd recommend watching it if you're a fan of horror, of epic fantasy, of films that come up short despite a surfeit of ambition. It does a lot of things very well, including the creation of a unique atmosphere, the establishment of an underworld that's both repellent and magnetic, the realization of dozens upon dozens of different creatures, and the coaxing of some interesting performances from the most monstrous of the film's inhabitants. Cronenberg's turn as Decker is particularly good, with Barker using his fellow director's icily urbane persona to great effect. What Nightbreed doesn't do, in either the 1990 theatrical cut or in the Director's Cut, is compel you to truly give a damn about its two lead characters, nor find a way to make its Grand Guignol visuals cohere around a satisfying dramatic spine. 

The real disappointment on viewing the Director's Cut is an even stronger sense that this film is essentially a prologue to a much more interesting story that will never be told. What happens when the monsters leave their refuge? Are they immediately going to go around eating people again? Where will they go now, and what will they do? How do you hide from mankind when you are a literal porcupine woman? What factions will develop? Will the moon-faced man link up with McDonald's as a corporate mascot? All of this sounds way more interesting to me than the film we got, and I'd have enjoyed seeing Barker's menagerie expand out from their abandoned cemetery and into the world at large. 

But that didn't happen. What we have instead in Nightbreed: The Director's Cut is the equivalent of the bizarre creature that Boone rescues from the sun in the film. Boone takes her out of the light and into the dark and in the process she transforms and recovers, but remains trapped by the shadows, a hybrid creature that will never be accepted by the world at large. With Nightbreed: The Director's Cut, Barker, Miller and a team of admirably dedicated people perform a similar act of kindness toward a film that's destined to remain at least partly in shadow. 

Have you seen the Director's Cut? What's your view on it, and on the world Barker created for the film? Does the "inversion of moralities" that Barker established bother you? Intrigue you? Confuse you? Did the religious elements register with you? And how would you like to have seen this story continued? 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Up Next on Verbosity!

Are you a fan of monsters, horror, and/or quasi-Biblical allegories? Keep an eye on this space, and guess the topic of my next rambling, digressive article via this "helpful" hint:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Object of Curiosity: The Cult Greatness of The Lost Room

"Some people think that God...died...and that all these Objects? They're little pieces of his corpse. Some people say that's crap. They think that some part of the universe broke down and it's just physics gone haywire. And OTHER people think that God is alive, and this is some kind of test - and they're all out trying to collect all the Objects; like pilgrims looking for relics during the Middle Ages." –Wally Jabrowski, The Lost Room

In 2006 the Sci-Fi Channel released a shockingly good, expensive, and surprisingly intelligent original miniseries that you've likely never heard of: The Lost Room. [1]  

The Lost Room tells the story of Detective Joe Miller (Peter Krause; Six Feet Under), the very unusual motel room key he stumbles upon, and the various people and groups who are willing to do absolutely anything in order to take the key from him. That key is one of perhaps a hundred such “Objects” originating from “Room 10,” a motel room off Route 66 that was somehow removed from existence [2] on May 4, 1961.

Each of the Objects does something downright unusual. The key, for instance, grants instant access to Room 10 via any door with a lock. Once inside, the user can then exit the motel room and reappear anywhere in the world so long as there is another door in that location. Other Objects are similarly powerful (a comb that stops time! a nail file that induces sleep!) while others still are seemingly useless (a radio that makes you grow three inches taller! a watch that hard-boils eggs!). In back alleys and on back roads, in pawnshops, dry cleaners, and diners, a battle is being waged to possess the Objects. Some are motivated by religious fervor, some by intellectual obsession, some by greed and gain, some by trauma and loss. No one can agree on what the Objects “mean,” but all are forever changed by coming into contact with them. Joe Miller and his daughter are caught up in this quiet war, and when his daughter vanishes inside of Room 10 Miller sets out to rescue her – no matter the cost to himself. 

“I think what initially attracted me to the project is that it does work on many different levels. If you just want to watch the show and enjoy a very suspenseful page turner-type story, that's available to you. If you want to again look at the piece and look deeply, that was certainly one element that I think Chris and Laura were trying to explore. Our human interaction with the objects around us is really a fascinating Rorschach test whether it's in the story or in our own lives.” – Peter Krause [3]

The Lost Room began as a series of admirably geeky thought experiments. Co-creators Christopher Leone and Paul Workman were friends in college, and Workman would come to Leone with ideas like “what would be the most powerful superpower that I could have, with the least effect”? Years after those conversations, Leone and co-creator/co-writer Laura Harkom combined Workman’s ideas with a storyline they'd kicked around about a child caught up in a secret magical war in order to create The Lost Room[4] In doing so Leone and Harkom managed to summon up a television miniseries that’s simultaneously (1) an exciting and oddball magical realist adventure tale grounded by impressive character work from a murderer's row of recognizable actors and (2) a surprisingly substantive and subversive religious and philosophical allegory. That it also studiously avoids casting its characters in a reductive "good vs. evil" context only heightens the power of that allegory. There is no real "evil" of the classical, reductive variety in The Lost Room. There are simply people - usually broken people of one stripe or another - trying to make sense of their own lives. The Objects of Room 10 function essentially as religious icons, offering to bring some sort of purpose and meaning to those lives despite their enigmatic origins. 

"I am a prophet of the Objects."  
- Martin Ruber, The Lost Room

The Lost Room effectively cultivates a mood of weird religiosity around the Objects as they are warred over by self-proclaimed prophets and apostles. By story's end there's even a Christ-figure. A large part of its power emerges from this unusual quality. The Lost Room presents a group of men and women who have been, in one way or another, damaged by life. To these people the Objects seem to take the place of organized religion in giving them a sense of purpose/power and the possibility, however remote, of being healed. It's wonderfully bizarre to watch a room full of grown men and women gazing in hushed awe at a pair of seemingly ordinary reading glasses, and there's a great deal of inherent absurdity to the idea of/sight of everyday objects worshipped as holy relics. 

That's part of what's so interesting about The Lost Room: what's being worshipped is, on the surface, some of the most insanely mundane shit possible; a radio, a bus ticket, a pack of cigarettes. These are not what we think of when we think of holy relics. They're "Objects," but they're also just objects; meaningless ephemera from a motel room that's designed to hold people over between one place and another. The show doesn't run from that absurdity, instead embracing it wholeheartedly. Yet at the same time the miniseries also treats the Objects as serious business. To those who worship the Objects they are slivers of Divinity - no less worthy of worship than two pieces of wood in the shape of a "t," or a big black block of stone, or scrolls, or whathaveyou. [5] In the eyes of some of these characters, the Objects are evidence of God’s existence. And perhaps they are. After all, at the least, there's evidence to suggest some intelligence behind and/or in the Objects.Then again, there's also some strikingly strong evidence that points in the exact opposite direction. 

"Objects should not touch because they are not alive. You use them, put them back in place, you live among them: they are useful, nothing more. But they touch me, it is unbearable. I am afraid of being in contact with them as though they were living beasts." - Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea
“I think that's what's wonderful about this piece. It shows us how we look at objects, and we frequently become miserable because of the objects around us.“ – Peter Krause [6]  

The Lost Room has really nifty philosophical undercurrents which, at the time this essay was first published, seemed to me to be at least partially intentional. In conversation with co-creator Christopher Leone after initial publication Leone stated to me that these undercurrents were not, in fact, intentional - that "there wasn't any explicit existentialism from [Leone's] POV but I think we arrived there anyway by avoiding the classic good vs evil paradigm. And it probably is closer to my own worldview anyway, although I can't claim to know all that much about it." [7] This is one of the beautiful and maddening things about art, and about authorial intent. You or I can see, clearly, intent where none exists. Despite Leone's lack of intent to highlight the sorts of philosophical concepts I talk about below those philosophical concepts are still there in the fabric of the show. More accurately, the construction of the show allows the viewer to see the application of philosophical concepts to The Lost Room. You don't need to see or think about any of these concepts in order to enjoy the miniseries, but consideration of the following may heighten your enjoyment of The Lost Room and will expose you to a sliver of philosophy - which is great, because philosophy is awesome! 

At one point in The Lost Room, a copy of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's book Being and Nothingness is prominently displayed and we're told that “the Weasel” (the Object-coveter played by Roger Bart) used to "teach that stuff." Whether he means Philosophy generally or Sartre's most lauded work isn't clear. What is clear: “HEY! LOOK AT THIS BOOK, GUYS!”

In a lot of interesting ways The Lost Room is a kind of dramatization of many of the ideas that originated with the 20th century philosophical movement known as “Existentialism.” That may sound horribly dry and uninteresting when baldly stated on the page, but those questions are, intentionally or not, rattling around inside of an exciting supernatural quest narrative.

It would take a much larger article than this one to (try to) explain Existentialism and to (try to) fully outline Sartre’s thoughts on the subject. If the topic interests you enough you would be well-served to explore it further. [8] Instead, let’s briefly, brazenly, and cavalierly examine just a few of the ways in which The Lost Room might be said to internalize/embody Existential concepts through its narrative and its characters. Your experience of The Lost Room – whether it’s a first watch or a rewatch – may be enriched just by having considered them. If you've never seen the miniseries and want to preserve a few of its surprises you may want to consider stopping here, watching it, and then returning to read the thoughts below. If you don't particularly care about being spoiled then please, proceed. 

In The Lost Room, any meaning behind the Objects, the motel room, and the “event” as they’re presented is ultimately arbitrary. There are theories and fanatical beliefs but no objective meaning, and it's suggested there may not be one. Objects like the pen, the clock, and the eye all have power but no purpose – other than the purpose ascribed to them by people who see through a glass darkly, if at all. In this way The Lost Room reflects “the Existentialist maxim that there are no theories that can make a claim to universality.” [9] That notion is reflected in the multitude of theories throughout the miniseries, none of them affirmed, about what the Objects are and "mean." Rather than possessing inherent meaning, the Objects, the motel room, and the event are given meaning by the people who observe them. That meaning is derived from those individuals’ experiences. The purposeless receive purpose, the wounded see weapons, the grieving see resurrection, the power-hungry see power: I think in a lot of ways it's about who has access to the room. I think it's about the person in charge. I think, in general, the room and all the objects in the show are kind of a Rorschach test.” [10]

This highlighting of the conflict between the characters’ attempts to give meaning to the Objects and the apparent lack of meaning inherent in the Objects echoes the philosophical school of thought known as Absurdism – a school of thought closely linked to Existentialism. Absurdism is an amusingly apt name in this context, given that the notion of assigning religious meaning to a bunch of mundane objects is literally absurd.

Beyond that, the vast majority of the characters in The Lost Room objectify one another, viewing each other as tools and/or obstacles in the pursuit of the Objects. In a real way, the characters view each other as objects. Per Sartre’s ideas: “in being perceived by another conscious being we are being objectified or essentialized by that being, who may appear to be regarding us only as type, appearance, or imagined essence. In turn, we may seek to regard others as definable, simple objects..." [11] Recall Wally Jabrowski’s comment to Joe Miller when he learns about the disappearance of Miller’s daughter: "Sorry. I mean...I'm sorry. You forget to be human sometimes."  With this in mind it becomes significant that Joe Miller's success in his quest is arguably made possible in large part because he treats other people as people, not just as objects. In a reversal from nearly every other character in the show Miller only cares about the Objects insofar as they help him rescue his daughter. While Miller is shown to have no issue using others in order to accomplish his goal, he’s more often shown extending small kindnesses to the people he meets, and those kindnesses inspire others to want to assist him.

Consider also the journey of Martin Ruber, who decides that the Objects don’t just allow people to “know the mind of God,” but to “be God.” Then reflect on this: "at the summation of Sartre’s polemic, an incredible sense of hopelessness dominates the discussion: I am a nothingness, a lack, dehumanized by the other and deceived even by myself. Yet, as Sartre continually emphasizes, I am free, I am transcendent, I am consciousness, and I make the world.” [12]

"I make the world." Arguably, that statement places humanity at the center of creation. Arguably, it makes Ruber’s assertion correct. Through the exercise of consciousness we make the world around us in our conscious image. Is that not, in a sense, a thoroughly god-like act? [13]

 Finally, note this observation on existence from an Existential perspective: "The human can never know being as it truly is, for to do that, one would have to be the thing itself. To know a rock, we have to be the rock."[14] Interestingly, this is precisely what happens to Joe Miller over the course of The Lost Room. To know the Objects - for the express purpose of saving his daughter - he becomes an Object. And it is through becoming an Object that Joe is able to effectuate the return of his daughter.

…Pretty neat, right? These brief paragraphs barely scratch the surface and all of this is, philosophically speaking, far more complicated than presented, but it’s clear that there are a host of connections to discover and discuss within what’s ostensibly a funky little sci-fi/fantasy miniseries.

Dude, if you want to theorize, I'm going to charge you another grand.” 
– Suzie Kang, The Lost Room

The Lost Room consists of just the first few chapters in a much larger intended story, and one can see the tantalizing outlines of the ongoing series that could have been within it; a show that could have used its supernatural trappings to explore philosophy, morality, the religious impulse, and much more. Each week could have focused on a new Object with Joe, now an Object himself, becoming a part of those stories more often than not. Martin Ruber would enter into those stories to build his followers and seek out Objects in order to “be God.” The series could jump back and forward in time, setting stories in the past and quite possibly in the future. Characters like Wally, the Weasel, and the Sood would pop up as needed to assist and/or menace people. And of course, the character of Kreutzfeld isn't dead, just...elsewhere/elsewhen. Surely he’d show up again as well.

None of that happened, obviously. [15] The Lost Room effectively ended in 2006 – and maybe that’s for the best.

"From the beginning of Being and Nothingness, Sartre displays his debt to Nietzsche through his rejection of the notion of any transcendent reality or being that humans can know which might lie behind or beneath the appearances that make up reality. That is, the experience of appearances is reality. Although this does imply an emptiness, Sartre does not see it as a negative truth. Freed of the search for some essential form being, we, as conscious beings are empowered in knowing that our personal, subjective experience of the world is all the truth there is." [16]

A large part of what's lingeringly compelling about The Lost Room is the stubborn inscrutability of its own mythology. Had the show gone to series it no doubt would have had to explain itself, even if only partially. Ending where it does allows viewers the pleasure of speculation and unbridled imaginative play. The viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions about the event, the motel room, and its inexplicable Objects; left to create meaning for them. This, understandably, irks some people. Those people want to know what this story “means,” and the lack of any real cause for what we’ve seen over the course of the miniseries denies them an explanation.

But given its heavy Existentialist underpinnings, the fact that The Lost Room leaves its largest mysteries completely unsolved might be one of the best things about it. Certainly it’s thematically appropriate. For the vast majority of its running time The Lost Room dramatizes a conflict between competing ideologies and ends exactly as it should in order to stand as an Existential contribution to pop culture. After all, as we’ve now seen, the story that's really being told here involves the ways in which people assign meaning to meaninglessness. No concrete resolution will satisfy following on the heels of such a conflict because, Existentially speaking, no such concrete resolution can exist.

       With a price tag of approximately $20 million [17] and a cast that included Krause, Kevin Pollack (The Usual Suspects), Juliana Margolis (ER), Roger Bart (The Producers), Ewen Bremmer (Trainspotting), Denis Christopher (Django Unchained), Peter Jacobson (House), and Elle Fanning (Super 8), The Lost Room was part of a larger move by the Sci-Fi Channel toward prestige-style genre television.

         ...It was also one of the channel's "lowest rated miniseries ever" [18].

        That's how a storyline conceived as the opening chapters of an ongoing series became a self-contained entity; an object of curiosity remembered by a cultish group of fans who constructed websites to venerate the show and its eerie/quirky mythology. That, in and of itself, is not unusual. You can throw a stone on the Internet and hit a website devoted to pretty much any sci-fi/fantasy show that's ever existed. What helps The Lost Room stand out from this maddening crowd is its considerable quality and intelligence. Years after its initial release The Lost Room remains as compelling, as clever, and as intriguingly obtuse as ever. It’s an under-the-radar gem, an ultra-rare example of magical realism on television done right, and a burgeoning cult classic, and you owe it to yourself to track it downIf you've ever loved a show like Twin PeaksLostFringeX-Files, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer [19]then you owe it to yourself to check out The Lost Room.

This essay was initially published in Two Clones Magazine and has been tweaked for its presentation here. I'm very grateful to Two Clones founder Josh Flynn for providing an opportunity to write about such a terrific and underrated television miniseries. Thanks, Josh. 

[1] Don't take my word for it. The first installment is freely available to watch via Youtube, and the entire miniseries is available to own via Amazon for $6.78

[2] Or maybe never existed in the first place? Or exists in every place? Kind of? It's complicated. 

[5] And really, what differentiates the Objects from any of object of worship, except institutional legitimacy?

[7] From a Twitter Direct Message interaction between Christopher Leone and myself, which is the sort of lovely artist-to-fan communication that social media makes possible. I'm grateful to Leone for sharing his thoughts and his time. 

[8] Some possible starting places for you. You just might find it fascinating - though it's more likely you'll feel compelled to find me and beat me with a bag of hammers

[12] See fn 7

[13] Sartre’s Nausea also comes to mind during the course of The Lost Room, as one important character tells Joe Miller that the presence of the Objects is torture for a conscious mind, which recalls Sartre’s assertion that the conscious mind’s realization that objects lack any inherent “essence” provokes a sickening, nauseous sensation.

[14] See fn 7

[15] In 2010 co-creators Christopher Leone and Laura Harkom announced the continuation of the story as a “Season Two” comic book. Fans waited eagerly for almost three years before the chosen publisher, Red 5, announced that the project had been put on hold indefinitely. There has been no indication that “Season 2” of The Lost Room will ever see the light of day.

[16] See fn 7

[19] If you’re reading this then you likely do, and always will, love at least one of those

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


This blog hasn't been updated since 2010. That's about to change.