Escape to Witch Mountain

Kids with psychic powers have become a bit of a theme on Mewsings, one that often goes hand in hand with kids-as-aliens (The Midwich Cuckoos), kids-plus-aliens (Chocky), kids-from-the-future (Sky), and kids-as-the-next-stage-in-human-evolution (The Tomorrow People). If nothing else, kids with psychic powers are often treated as aliens (or less than human, anyway) because of their differences (The Institute, Stranger Things, The Morrow books), and as a result their stories are often about a quest for a new home where they truly belong (The Chrysalids, Morrow) or at least an escape from the dehumanising situation where they’re being held (The Institute, Stranger Things).

I realised recently that my first encounter with the idea of psychic kids was probably Disney’s 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain. It’s an adaptation of Alexander Key’s 1968 novel of the same name, and was a fairly successful film at a time when, I’ve read, Disney was in a bit of a creative and commercial slump. Certainly, it’s fondly remembered, and coming out as it did a short while before Star Wars would have meant it was a science-fictional kids’ film on hand to feed a generation of suddenly science-fictionally hungry kids, which must have helped.

I’ve long thought of the kids-with-psychic-powers “boom” of the 70s and 80s as being driven by the youth-centred social revolutions of the late 60s, as the theme packs in so many hippie ideas, ideals, and preoccupations, from the (literal) empowerment of the young and the villainisation of the establishment, to a belief in dormant psychic powers, beneficent aliens, and the desire to escape from a materialistic society. The theme was around before then (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was 1955, Zenna Henderson’s People stories were in magazines from 1952), but I think of it as being driven into the wider culture of films and TV thanks to creators inspired by, or at least touched by, those late-60s ideals.

I don’t really associate Disney with revolutionary ideas, though (the exceptions seem to be more about the fight against individual tyrants than criticising the socially-sanctioned tools tyrants use, such as King John’s exorbitant taxation in Robin Hood, or the Master Control Program’s restrictive security policies in Tron). And I don’t think either of the first two Witch Mountain films (Escape was followed by Return from Witch Mountain in 1978) have much in the way of social comment to make, and by the time of the 2009 reboot, Race to Witch Mountain, any elements that were once revolutionary (the fact that the government is the film’s main villain, for instance) had by then become so established as to be conventions rather than convictions. But they’re fun films, and still contain almost all of the elements of the other kids-with-psychic-powers stories I’ve mentioned.

This may make it look like Return from Witch Mountain is somewhat hauntological… It’s not.

Escape to Witch Mountain starts with siblings Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) arriving at an orphanage after the death of their adoptive parents. Tony can move things with his mind (though he generally has to be playing the harmonica to do it), while Tia can communicate telepathically with Tony, and with animals, and has precognitive flashes. Although they have a conversation about the need to hide their powers so as not to be ostracised, they don’t make much of an attempt to do so. Confronted by a bully and surrounded by the other kids in the orphanage, Tony thinks nothing of blatantly using his powers to win the fight. And none of the kids (except the defeated bully) seems to care much. But the film isn’t really about the alienation of being different, it’s about how fun it would be to have special powers. The main villain, greedy millionaire Aristotle Bolt, wants to use Tia’s precognitive powers to increase his already excessive wealth, but it’s only towards the end of the film, when the kids’ flight has led them to more rural areas, where a hick sheriff and hunting-mad locals think that because the kids are headed for Witch Mountain they must be witches and can be shot rather than captured, that there’s any real sense of danger.

In the book, Tony and Tia are more evidently different. Both have light-coloured hair, olive skin, and dark blue eyes. Their story in the book is a bit more grim (the orphanage is run by a cynical matron, and the fight with the bully involves a home-made knife), the main villain isn’t a rich capitalist but a communist agent, and Tia can’t speak except telepathically to her brother and animals. They are helped first by a nun, then by a Catholic priest, Father O’Day (who is turned into widower-with-a-camper-van Jason O’Day in the film).

Tony and Tia’s powers seem to have no limits in the films. There’s none of the sense, as with Stranger Things’ Eleven’s nosebleeds, that using their powers takes something out of them, and by the second film Tony is using his telekinesis to keep multiple people and heavy objects flying in different orbits all at once, as well as lifting trains and trucks and a massive weight of gold, and can even perform technically demanding tasks such as meddling with electronic circuitry, or making a car window reflect enough sunlight to blind his pursuers.

Although released in 1975, Escape to Witch Mountain feels like an early 60s film. The kids are trusting of all adults, are sweetly innocent (left to themselves, they use their powers to put on a telekinesis-powered puppet show), and the perils are mild. There’s a reassuringly trustworthy adult to parent them through most of their journey. Return from Witch Mountain feels a bit more 70s, though largely in the surface details (the music — funky wah-wah’d guitar and rock flute — and the fashions — Tia’s very sharp, very red, short trouser suit — for instance), and the few touches of 70s grit are highly Disneyfied. (Tia, for instance, is helped not by a reassuring adult but a denim-clad street gang of kids, though they’re a gang who only think of themselves as tough and streetwise, while clearly being anything but, and are quick to realise that really they want to go to school.) Both films were directed by John Hough, who also directed Twins of Evil for Hammer (and in the second film he’s joined by Hammer actors Christopher Lee and Bette Davis as his villains).

Things have certainly changed by the time of the 2009 remake of Return, Race to Witch Mountain. The idea of alien visitors with psychic powers has picked up too much cultural baggage, and this is very much a post-X-Files, post-Close Encounters film, with hazmat suits, media interest, plenty of references to conspiracy culture, and a Terminator-style alien robot assassin to make up for the lack of visual cool in the two alien kids looking just like humans. The main difference in feel to the previous two films is that the kids — called Seth and Sarah this time — feel very much like aliens. They speak in stilted English, know a lot more than the humans that help them, and are emotionally distant for most of the film. (They also have different powers from Tony and Tia. Sarah can read anyone’s mind, while Seth can alter his molecular density, to pass through solid objects or become solid enough to stop a car. He doesn’t have telekinesis, though.) The point of audience identification now isn’t the kids, but what the SF Encyclopaedia calls the “action hero as exasperated dad”, in the form of harassed cab driver Jack Bruno, played by Wayne “The Rock” Johnson. This film isn’t about being a kid who’s different and has cool super powers, it’s about being a single dad, having to juggle a low-paid job, a regrettable mob past, and a pair of demanding teenagers (alien teenagers, no less). It feels less like a kids’ movie, more a movie about having kids.

The Witch Mountain films (and there were a few other TV remakes, including one intended as a pilot for a series that never got made, as well as a jokey Blair Witch take-off directed by Ike Eisenmann (Tony from the original films)) don’t really say anything new or profound about the kids-with-psychic-powers theme, and in fact do a very good job of not including any of the deeper or more painful aspects of these stories (that it’s all a metaphor for being a sensitive, alienated child in a world that doesn’t really care, as exemplified by Carrie). But they were certainly part of the popularising of the idea, preparing a generation of kids to absorb the deeper themes of the likes of Chocky, ET, and perhaps from them to The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, and so on.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Weird Science, July 1951, containing “The Seeds of Jupiter”

After his last film, 78/52, a feature-length documentary about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera set-ups and cuts in the scene), Alexandre O Philippe’s latest is an examination of the imaginative, mythical, and artistic roots of the xenomorph in Alien. So, we get to learn something about writer Dan O’Bannon’s rural upbringing (plenty of bugs about), and his early fascination with sci-fi, including a number of films and comics that have startling similarities to Alien (an EC Comic from 1951, “Seeds of Jupiter”, for instance, where an alien gestates in a man’s stomach), as well as his various attempts at scripting the film that would eventually become Alien. (One of these, which O’Bannon called Memory, was almost identical to the first 30 minutes of Alien. The title came from the fact that, once the spaceship crew were down on the planet they visit, they start losing their memories.) In terms of artistic influence, there’s not just H R Giger’s evident input (fought for, and at times personally paid for, by O’Bannon), but also Ridley Scott’s directing him towards Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” as a guide to designing the chest-burster.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from Tate.org

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary, for me, were the parallels it drew between Alien and ancient myth. The film itself opens with the ruins at Delphi, and shows us the three Furies of Greek Myth being woken from sleep by a spaceship-computer-like announcement, then breaking a laser-through-smoke “membrane” as they rise — all very much in the style of Alien. “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” one says (quoting the Oresteia), displaying a very xenomorphish set of metallic teeth. One of the film’s contributors, Dr William Linn, explicitly draws a parallel between the xenomorph and the Furies. In Alien, he says, “You see a major curse, in the form of the alien, who is very much a Fury responding to an imbalance.” It’s a pity he’s never given the chance to explain this at length — perhaps there’ll be an extended interview with him as a DVD extra sometime — but this, to me, seems to miss a fundamental point that made Alien, and so many of the most characteristic examples of 20th century horror, so different to their forebears. Because, for me, the point about what happens in Alien is that the xenomorph’s killing of the crew is not in response to some cosmic or divine imbalance. It happens not because the crew have done anything wrong; it happens because this is the sort of thing that can happen in the universe, and it just so happens it’s this crew it happens to. It’s not because they did anything wrong, simply because they exist.

The ancient Greeks believed that if something good or bad happened to you, you could attribute it to the good- or ill-will of a supernatural entity, a god or goddess who was pleased with you or angry with you. Even if it seemed to make no obvious sense, you just had to assume you’d angered or pleased one of the many (and not always very reasonable) gods, so better make a sacrifice to appease/thank him or her. 20th century mythologies such as Lovecraft’s did away with divine agency. To them, the universe wasn’t full of intelligent forces that cared enough about mankind to punish it when it did wrong. The universe simply didn’t care. It was a machine, rolling on, doing its thing, and if you got caught up and crushed in the workings, well, that was what happened — the universe was full of danger. Not hostility, which implies feeling. Just danger. To the likes of Lovecraft, not having bad stuff happen to you was a matter of luck — such luck being, to Lovecraft, the “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” — and when the bad stuff did happen, it wasn’t because you’d done wrong, it was because it was just bound to happen eventually.

Lovecraft did have divine-seeming entities in his mythology, but they were only “divine” because they were so much more powerful than humans. They weren’t gods in the truly religious sense. They didn’t create the universe nor did they stand outside of it. Even when (as in At the Mountains of Madness) they took part in the creation of humankind, they didn’t do so out of divine benevolence, but because they were toying around with genetics, trying to create something useful to them, and mankind was a by-product. Their attitude to humanity was indifference, as was the universe’s. (And Lovecraft’s most god-like being, the “blind idiot god” Azathoth, is a cosmic force without intelligence, and certainly without any feelings toward, or awareness of, humanity.)

The closest thing Alien (till Ridley Scott came out with Prometheus, anyway) has to a divine force is the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who send the crew to find the xenomorph in the first place. But the corporation does this not out of any desire to punish the crew; it does it out of indifference. The crew just happens to be close, and is expendable. They’re a tool. Ash, the android who’s human in appearance but without human feeling, is the closest we get to an embodiment of the corporation on-screen. He’s detached, scientific, obedient, indifferent: 20th century corporate man.

The Furies are very much not indifferent. They’re roused by the need for vengeance, and their role is to hound someone — into madness if necessary — till they carry out that vengeance. In the Oresteia, they urge Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, for her murder of Agamemnon — her husband, and Orestes’s father — whom she murdered because Agamemnon killed their daughter. The point of the Oresteia, though, is that the Furies represent a primal, irrational, uncivil force, and obeying them only leads to more and more vengeance in a never-ending cycle. That primal force is replaced, at the end of the last play in the trilogy, by the civilising force of justice, where the need for vengeance can be answered, but also ended.

I’d say that the point about the xenomorph in Alien is that it embodies an even more primal force than the Furies: life reduced to its utter biological basics of reproduction and death. The Furies are roused by human emotion, and can be placated by human reason; the xenomorph belongs to the region of the “lizard brain” where reason does not apply, and must be fought entirely on its own terms.

You may think your cat loves you, but this is how he’ll look on while you’re attacked by a xenomorph — with mild, professional interest

Because Memory moves quickly, giving us snippets of its various arguments rather than anything extended, I don’t feel Dr Linn was given the full opportunity to present his xenomorph-as-Furies argument, so I feel bad arguing against it on such scanty evidence. At one point he does say that “Alien is the response to Prometheus trying to steal fire from the heavens”, which I take it isn’t a reference to Scott’s 2012 sequel, but the mythical figure. But is he saying the crew of the Nostromo are “stealing fire from the heavens”? If anyone is, it’s the Weyland-Yutani corporation, but it’s the crew who suffer the punishment.

(That line from the Oresteia, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” reminds me of the xenomorph-like demogorgon in the first season of Stranger Things, which is attracted by blood, and does, in many ways, act as a Fury — it’s the abused Eleven’s uncontrollable rage against a world that misused her, and which, at the end, threatens to consume her, too.)

Though I love the way Memory explores links between Alien’s xenomorph and ancient myth, I think Alien, and Lovecraftian horror-mythologies generally, represent something genuinely new that the 20th century brought to the cauldron of myth. Before that, whether the divine forces that governed our lives were vengeful, wrathful, hostile or benign, our mythologies depicted a universe alive with active, intelligent forces interested in human beings. The 20th century, and the strand of Lovecraftian cosmicism that leads up to Alien, introduced a wholly new element in which the universe was utterly indifferent to humankind, and anything good or bad that happened did so by chance. This is what I feel is the real power behind the xenomorph in Alien, and it was something that was only intensified (and further Lovecraftified) when Scott began working on his 21st-century sequels, starting with Prometheus. Although these later films address religious-level questions — who created us and why — they’re met with cosmic-horror answers, not the sort we’d get from the divinities of ancient myth.

Still, I liked Memory, which did a good job of exploring the thematic depths of Alien and the story of how it came to be made, and why it still feels so powerful. After the shower scene in Psycho and the chest-burster scene in Alien, what is the next iconic moment in cinema that Philippe is going to examine?

Tolkien

I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.