- One gasmask from World War I, crumbling
- One child-sized modern gasmask
- Five American Civil Defense manuals from before 1970 relating to surviving nukes and/or fallout
- One Soviet equivalent
- Signed copy of The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel addressed “To Suzy”
- Copy of The Federal Siege at Ruby Ridge by Randy and Sara Weaver, signed “Mark Laursen, Freedom at any Cost! Randy Weaver”
- Black and white photograph of people in a market with their backs to the camera, captioned “Empty shelves, Moscow”
- Three World War I soldier postcards, one of which has a cartoon of a Tommy in oversized uniform and the words “Wanted: five minutes with the guy who said it’s clothes make the man.”
- Two ’78s: “When They Found The Atomic Power” and “When the Atom Bomb Fell”
- A painfully racist postcard from 1907, with a cartoon of a black man being stung by bees
- A fascinatingly racist bumper sticker with the confederate flag over the White House, and the words “I have a dream.”
- A confederate flag bumper sticker with the words “Dead Yankees don’t lie!” written on it.
- A Chairman Mao magnet from China
- Four or five Soviet pins from the 1980s
- A button that says “Nixon: now more than ever”
- A black and white picture of Jesus from about the ’50s, and Jesus waves his arm if you shake it
- An entire photo album of a family of strangers from the teens into the ’20s
- Numerous SWAT Playmobils
- Two WWII ration books from my Grandmother
- A 10,000 Reichsmark bill from 1923
- An Outline of Abnormal Psychology, 1929
- A blue and an orange wind-up, plastic chattery teeth with feet
- Sixty-year-old face powder in a pink box
Frequently, the most terrifying part of an apocalypse movie or show is any snatches of news that leak through the haze of confusion and fear that comes after, say, a nuclear attack. The key is to tell the audience and the main characters a little (Jericho) but not too little (How I Live Now) about what’s going on in the outside world. Sometimes a flash of something is more terrifying than seeing the whole thing. Or at least more disturbing. The Day After makes you queasy, Testament makes you cry. Pick your poison (sorry, they’re both fallout).
Knowing this, and knowing about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast — regardless of the myth of the mass panic, it’s a damned good broadcast! Especially the straight ersatz news parts! — it is no surprise that a nuclear war plot makes a fine radio play. I found The Last Broadcast thanks to Youtube algorithms which know me all too well.
“We interrupt this broadcast” and sudden, dead air has been used in all sorts of scary things since 1938, and it still works. None of us have ever heard or seen a program interrupted by news of nuclear war or alien invasion, and let’s hope we never will. But we’ve seen enough bad, big news that the aesthetic still chills. There seem to be quite a few TV movies, most from the ’80s and 90s, which use this framing as well. I may dive into them next.
It’s the ’80s, and the Soviet Union has invaded West Germany and has invaded our regularly scheduled ’50s throwback hour on an Ontario radio station. The news gets worse from there, and if the static seems slightly fake, the accents suspiciously Canadian except the one news person who clearly fell out of the ’40s, and nobody can say “nuclear” correctly, it’s still an eerie and disturbing hour and a quarter. It helped that I listened while drowsy, with eyes closed, thereby enhancing the surreal feeling (especially when I got up and was still in my boyfriend’s parents’ killingly normal apartment).
The play is amateur, but impressive for all that. The only information I could find about its origins was that it was made and voiced by Canadian students. Not sure if it’s highschool, or college, but I definitely didn’t do anything this much scary fun in either. (I know I didn’t go to highschool, shut up).
Oh, right, fallout. That thing we forgot about in the first episode. The thing that makes nukes more than just aesthetically terrifying clouds in the distance.
This is a tight, fearful episode. A storm is coming from Denver, and not knowing what kind of bomb went off, the people of Jericho are terrified of what those clouds may bring down upon them. Emily is still outside of town, clueless as to what has happened. She meets the two escaped criminals (oh yeah, that happened) who are impersonating deputies, and who have killed the sheriff and kidnapped Deputy Jimmy and Deputy Occasionally-Mean Guy.
I hate when apocalyptic fiction goes straight to “oooh, rogues are on the loose because society has broken down!” if only because a nuke is a lot more interesting than a dude with a teardrop tattoo. However, Emily versus the fake cops works better than it might. It’s drawn out tension, which is enhanced when she brings the men to the Richman ranch (girl, cops do not have mustaches like that — but it’s a neck tattoo peeking out that gives it away) and has to communicate with Bonnie in subtle signing that this is a problem. Plus, we have two relatively competent ladies here, which is nice.
This episode does signal two obligatory difficulties for our characters in a nuke setting. Cons on the loose, and the invisible peril of fallout. But though we don’t know everything about the show yet, we do already know that this isn’t Testament. This is a CBS show. It’s going to be about network TV-level of grim survival, not about slowly wasting away. And, you know, a tv show needs characters.
In short, though the episode is well done, and though people might die, this episode doesn’t give you an apocalyptic stomach ache. Just a little anxiety, and a touch of claustrophobia as the townspeople race to get their shelters ready, and Bonnie and Emily try to casually outwit the cons.
Back in Jericho, there’s a great scene where the cops have grabbed every single book about nuclear anything from the library, and one is Our Friend the Atom (“some friend” notes Gray Anderson bitterly). Hawkins again knows a little too much about what do in case of nuclear fallout — or he’s read this manual I keep almost buying because of its perfect balance of creepy and cheesy graphic design — but his explanation is only “I was a cop in St. Louis, and after 9/11 we got up to speed.”
The town’s shelter doesn’t have a working air filter, and Gray Anderson will definitely be using that in his weird macho war with Mayor Green. For once, he may have a point. Actually he has one a lot, but he’s still annoying.
Towns people are taking stuff from Gracie’s store, but she stops Skyler from grabbing a diet soda (asserting her property rights, while still accepting that emergency food is being taken! Gracie is also kind of the town gossip and sort of unpleasant, but she’s not a villain, and Dale has a serious loyalty to her. All of this is interesting to me.) This leads to Dale and Skyler bonding in her sealed up house. Dale slept on Gracie’ store floor the night before, because he clearly has nowhere else to go now that he hasn’t got a mom. Skyler may not have a mom anymore either, and a sad conversation about that as the fallout-drenched rain falls brings the nerd and the mean girl closer together.
This is the first episode where Jake being in charge is assumed. Basically, this town cannot function without male Green leadership. No wonder Gray Anderson is tired of it. Hawkins is told to fix the HAM radio, and finds secret messages, then says he can’t get the thing working. Much mystery. All the mystery. We see Hawkins’ family for the first time, as they huddle together in the basement. They are not entirely likable, but they are intriguing. There is clearly tension between the son, the daughter, the wife, and Hawkins. Hawkins’ wife Darcy tells him “you always know something” and he says not to ask questions. What does he know? Is he a terrorist? Law enforcement? CIA? NSA?
Most of the scenes of people packing up bags with 90 minutes to spare are good. And the scenes of other townsfolk sealing up their houses is deliberately very early War on Terror. It’s definitely less excessive than the 9/11isms in the 2005 War of the Worlds, but it brings back mentions of how to be safe from a dirty bomb or chemical attack, if you’re the right age.
Eric — the insufferable junior version of his father — has to lecture a bar full of douchebags to go to shelter so they don’t die of radiation sickness. Good thing he has a flaw, which is his affair with the uninteresting Mary, who owns the bar. Eric’s wife isn’t interesting either.
(Somehow I hate a lot of these characters when I stop to think about, but I keep on watching. Actually, Jake may be an asshole who disappeared for five years, but I don’t blame him.
Basically, everyone is annoying except for Jake and Bonnie, and usually Heather and Stanley, but I feel like I need to apologize for finding Skeet Ulrich slightly attractive.)
Finally, realizing there just isn’t enough shelter for everyone in town, Jake decides to put people into the salt mines just in time. He, however, has heard Emily using the police radio to call for help. Which annoys me, because girl, you know nukes have happened. You’re not helpless, and are in fact quite savvy in your standoff with the cons. So you do have the capacity to realize that if Denver has been nuked, police don’t give a shit about your personal peril. Really, this is all just so Jake can come and save the day. One of the cons grabs Bonnie, Jake shoots the other con. Emily shoots the one who has Bonnie, and then she stands catatonic, so that Jake must hustle her into the Richman’s storm cellar. Unfortunately for this plot and later ones, Jake has much better chemistry with the painfully peppy brunette Heather than he ever will with sad Emily. I mean, they flirt while in peril and it almost works.
Instead, we get Jake saying he wanted to keep Emily safe, but she says she’s “never safe when you’re around.” So, to reiterate, both Jake and Hawkins are mysterious people. And Emily is a school teacher, so that means she can shoot people, but then feel awful about it. This is — and Heather’s random technical skills — is the extent of female competence on the show. We’ll get to that, once it becomes truly tedious. So far, things are just fast-paced and stressful on the show. And that’s working very well.
The final scene — pop song propelled yet again — shows townspeople in the shelters, and then Hawkins putting pins into various cities. It sure looks like the nukes hit more than just Denver and Atlanta. (Oops, Pittsburgh was one. Pittsburgh AND Philly? Musicians can’t handle visiting both, how can nukes?)
- New musical about the Manhattan Project is terrible, and I kind of want to see it.
- Organic preppers are now a thing — which makes perfect sense.
- The more fascinated I become with atomic culture in the US, the more interesting the state of Nevada — and even Las Vegas — suddenly becomes. Who wants to do a warning sign near Area 51/Nevada Test Site road trip?
- Doomed mannequins from Operation Doorstep
- The thankfully imaginary “36 Hour War” from Life, November, ’45
- A look at some 1960s studies of how humans react to living in fallout shelters for up to a fortnight. Briefly considered: “the use of hypnosis to convince people that an attack was imminent or had taken place was discussed in a 1963 study. But the OCD decided that, while informative, such extreme measures could not be morally justified – not in peacetime, anyway.”
- Soviet submarine bases from io9’s Vincze Miklos, who always posts amazing images.
- This Cracked list kind of made me feel bad about enjoying conspiracy theories as much as I do.
- But I still pledge to start believing that Alex Jones really is Bill Hicks from now on.
- I really do miss when there was always a historical documentary on the History channel, though. Now it’s a time for celebration when there is one. And even then, I watch and wait for the weasel words, which will then lead to the ancient aliens.
- Some solid ideas for the Independence Day sequel
- He was a dick, so probably
- Bowman, South Carolina has a UFO welcome center. You can go inside for a dollar. Or you can head to St. Paul, Alberta to see a UFO landing pad. Since it’s Canadian, it has a bit more quiet dignity than the down home Carolina one.
- So, bombs have their uses!
- Darin Morgan, a name I didn’t know until I read this piece, apparently wrote three of my favorite X-Files episodes. He also wore the Flukeman suit in the episode I am too afraid to watch to this day. [Hat tip to Franklin Harris]
- An epic website of Cold War songs
- Many of which are available on this Youtube account
- Coal mines are taking over West Virginia graveyards, which is awful.
- How to decorate your bomb shelter
By Al Rex
Not to mention, “When You see Those Flying Saucers”
By the Buchanan Brothers
- Nathan Salsburg, the fellow now in charge of the Alan Lomax archive has brought back his Root Hog or Die radio show, which can be listened to this a-way on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. EST to 4 p.m. Do it.
- That very same fellow has also written up for The Oxford American a good look at the massive, Jack White-produced 400 dollar (so that’s not happening) box set Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917–1927).
- My previous experience with Root Hog or Die is this amazing playlist (forever a grateful hat tip to Jim Epstein) which contains my first experience with weird-ass shapenote singing and other important thing like that.
- My friend Rodge has weeks and years of killer radio shows. I’ll never get through them all, but he’s a great, weird, diverse, but country and old time-loving DJ.
- Oh hey, there will finally be a Hank Williams Sr. biopic and a…British guy will play the lead. He looks right, but will he sound right? (On a side note, British people doing bad American accents remains one of the funnier damn things in the world. We all sound like John Wayne Valley Girls, it seems.)
- In my dreams, there’s a site like Jezebel except it only reports on documentaries about conjoined Vaudeville twins. I very much watch to watch this.
- How to dress like Gary Cooper
- Overwrought VICE Motherboard piece on the fax machine brings up interesting points — maybe analog right before the internet is the only way to truly, securely communicate. Also, I do — mostly while wandering in antique or vintage stores, sometimes starring at eight tracks — wonder about all the stuff not old enough to be interesting, yet useless in the digital age. (On another note, I don’t get the hipster love for cassettes, I really do not. But then, I don’t understand 1990s nostalgia either.)
- I haven’t yet clicked all the way through Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time, but I did laugh for a solid 30 seconds upon discovering the song title “She’s Actin’ Single, I’m Drinkin’ Doubles.” Perfect.
- In honor of Tuesday Apocalypse: io9’s Vincze Miklos collected some of the most amazing, eerie Soviet Civil Defense posters possible. I desperately want them all. If I were rich, I would have the creepiest house in the entire world, I really would. I would have a room of gas masks, terrifying nuke pamphlets, and old weapons and everyone would think I was a serial killer. I know this. I accept this about myself.
- Further Tuesday Apocalypse: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog’s Alex Wellerstein on the nuanced and myriad meanings of Robert Oppenheimer’s “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” thoughts post-Trinity Test. (He may not have thought that all in the moment, but realized it sounded all epic and full of gravity more than a decade later. He was right.)
- This is not related, but a plea for your strong female character to actually do something for the plot. I approve. And on a side note that is more related, if you don’t understand why this matters to anyone, read Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, then watch the 1990s movie. Compare and contrast the portrayal of “Mary” between the two mediums after 50 years of what we all thought was progress. Sob into your pillow. Thank you.)
- Also unrelated — unless 2003 is old timey — but I was pleased to see some fight in The Independents re necon bullshit. Former Ambassador John Bolton starts off the scuffle by accusing libertarians of being pro-Saddam Hussein and it goes down from there. (I also love that even when the show is at its most cable news-ish talking over each other, the yelling is about George Orwell and Iraq war casualties. Classy.)
Today’s video: Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua singing an unrecorded Fuqua number, to get us all jazzed for the new Old Crow album next month:
(and not to cry too much over it being sans Willie Watson — whimper). I did not see this show, nor have I seen them play this song, but I did catch their reunion tour, and it was amazing.
Oh, okay. Here. My hat is basically the first thing you see.
Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times in movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we will also branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.
Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries about alien invasion.
Today I wrote four mini reviews of two books and two movies — they cover nuclear war, alien invasion, a vampire plague, and a comet. All four of them are worth three out of five stars, worth reading or watching, but ultimately sort of unsatisfying. Post your howls of outrage in the comments.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954):
Though I am a good Twilight Zone fan and Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, I learned about the ending in the original novel through a Cracked.com list some years ago. This, contrary to the half-assed 2007 Will Smith movie (which started quite good), is that (spoilers) Robert Neville, the vampire slayer hero of our story has turned into an ironic villain once he is the new minority in vampire society. One of the novel’s high points is that Neville is well aware of how darkly amusing that is, and even dwells on it before he dies.
Though the novel has good details of the zombie-vampire plague, and describes the monotony of Neville’s life so well that it is almost a fault, something about it remains unsatisfying. Its scope is so limited, and every chapter and section seems to end with Neville getting smashed, then restraining himself from running outside to feed himself to the vampires. The whole thing is clearly influential in terms of both vampire, zombie, and post-apocalyptic fiction, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done better in later works.
Also, apparently the various loose movie adaptions all changed Neville to a scientist. That would make his autodidactic solving of the plague’s mystery a lot more believable. I can’t quite buy how in the book Neville seems to have begun his task with no scientific knowledge at all.
Oddly enough — if only because this feels very Hollywood — the most emotionally powerful bit is when Neville finds the stray dog, and when he loses it again. His desperate hope, and his careful patience in building up the dog’s trust, only for it all to go to hell at the end, is one of those perfect apocalypse fiction moments. Neville’s tiny interactions with the dog are more moving than the destruction of the whole damn world.
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (2013):
This is a YA (that is to say, for teens more or less) novel that starts off feeling new and terrifying, but gradually goes downhill once the plot starts moving. This is the story of Cassie Sullivan, a 16-year-old who is alone and surviving on an earth that is nearly extinct of real humans. An alien invasion has brought “waves” of attack that began with an EMP attack that disabled all electronics, and has culminated in extraterrestrials who look a lot like humans roaming the countryside. The final twist — the title reference — is that aliens have managed to trick the survivors into picking each other off through paramilitary training.
The opening scenes are phenomenal in their bleakness; Cassie and her father walking home from school after the EMP, the plague that kills her mother, the mysterious army of apparent survivors who move in to eliminate a refugee camp, the simple fact that the alien ships spends a week in utter silence, lurking above the earth, when they first arrive — there is some great stuff here. I read it all with an unpleasant feeling in my spine, which is all I ever want in such works.
And that it goes all YA-ish. As a character, Cassie has to walk a careful line between credible teenager that was, pre-invasion, and current grim survivor in a new world. And she does more or less. But the mandatory trimmings of a love triangle and an attractive young man who isn’t who he seems don’t pack the same weight as the opening chapters of horror did. The plot really gets going when Cassie begins her quest to free her little brother from alien captivity, and though there is no reason to believe that the aliens would be flawlessly competent, it seems like they should be able to counter Cassie and friends’ revolutionary actions a bit better. The book also drags when it leaves her head and enters that of the other two members of her unfortunate triangle.
Things pick up in the final after a draggy second third, but I was almost disappointed to learn this was just part one of a planned trilogy. I rather liked things ending with a moment of quiet relief for our survivors, but with the overriding knowledge that humans are completely fucked.
Ladybug, Ladybug directed by Frank Perry (1963):
This small Cold War panic film waffles between righteous antiwar flick and precious propaganda. The plot is simple: an alarm is tripped at a country school (filmed in Pennsylvania) and a few phone calls by teachers and the principal (played by Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, FYI fellow-millennials) suggest this may not be a drill. The teachers are told to walk the students home in groups, and that’s the whole thing. Some of the kids are unafraid. Some are deadly seriously and slightly too well-spoken. A female teacher stuck in heels for the long walk is not comforting; the fear in her eyes shows. The groups get smaller and smaller as kids go home to tell their doubting parents what has happened.
The cinematography is lovely and menacing. The acting is occasionally a bit theatrical and 60s-earnest, but everyone (the kids are mostly amateurs) carries it as well as could be expected. The dialogue is hard to trust as really realistic, except when I remember how everyone claims kids during the Cold War used to say “if I grow up” not “when.” (Remind me to check on the realness of that.)
A highlight is the completely heart-breaking moment when a little girl runs home to tell her mother about the alarm, and she is dismissed. Mom is a completely believable, harried, old-school mother; her daughter is a believably desperate little kid who just wants the older people to understand what is happening. It’s a basic, banal conflict, except that the stakes are apocalyptically high.
Things peter out a bit when the alarm is revealed to be a mistake (probably). The moody conversations during the students’ long walk don’t have the same terror then. The confusing and ambiguous ending is also unsatisfying. I like question mark endings in terms of Lost in Translation or Jim Jarmusch pictures of humanity that leave people after spending a while with them. But I prefer to know whether a nuke was dropped on some children or not.
Deep Impact directed by Mimi Leder (1998):
Oh, the warring comet movies of 1998. In some ways I should just embrace Armageddon for its unsubtle, Aerosmith-sountracked picture of Bruce Willis saving the earth. But Deep Impact is better and worse of a film, in that it manages to provoke some human feelings, but it still wallows in disaster movie absurdities.
Ever since I was little, I was disturbed by scenes of panicked masses in movies. Even in movies I knew were cheesy, I was troubled by the unhinged hysteria and the general trampling each other bits of humanity. Deep Impact has those action-packed scenes, but it has something worse — it has waiting. In fact, most of the movie is about waiting for the end. And that is the most disturbing part about the anticipated apocalypse, trying to figure pit how to live while it inches closer (this is why On the Beach is so good).
The movie follows three main stories: Elijah Wood as the youth who first spots the comet; Tea Leoni as the reporter who breaks the story (this is the only film in which I have ever liked her, maybe because with a bob and a character profession as a cable news reporter, her stiffness magically changes into hey, she’s my old journalism adviser who used to work for CNN!); and finally, the least interesting, the team of astronauts who are going to save us all from doom. The movie also includes the gravitas-tastic Morgan Freeman as the president, with various side characters.
I don’t know that I could defend the whole movie — certainly not Elijah Woods’ last minute, highly bullshit efforts to rescue his ladylove Leelee Sobieski. Except that the moment where Sobieski’s parents put her on Woods’ motorcycle, pass her her little sibling, and basically pry her fingers away as she hysterically says “I’ll see you soon” is lovely and gets me in the gut every single time. As is the moment when the parents, instead of fleeing in vain from the comet-made tidal wave, just turn and smile into each other’s faces at the end.
Less effective, but still powerful is Leoni’s characters’ end. And there are the visuals — the last-minute helicopters in the sky over New York City; the crowds of hysterical people trying to enter the sanctuary of the caves (though in real life I think there would be a lot more soldiers machine gunning people)… and they all work too well for something so popcornish. They have no business working at all in a cheesy, impossible action movie. But they are like the extras and the secondary characters in Titanic who act circles round the main characters and the tedious love story plot. They give heart and stomach-churning anxiety to what may be a crap movie in the end.
Half-good movies are more frustrating than entirely awful ones. But halfway good movies can still raise a chill and make me think about how people spend their last moments before the end of either their world or the world entire. Deep Impact does this, and that’s not bad for a summer thriller.
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