Archive for February, 2012


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Last night’s ferociously visceral horror movie from Netflix: THE WOMAN, directed by Lucky Mckee, from the novel by McKee and Jack Ketchum. It became notorious when a viewer at a film festival stood up in rage and started excoriating the rest of the audience for watching what she termed violent pornography against women — at which point much of the rest of the audience, including a number of women… who liked the film, told her to either walk out and leave the rest of them in peace, or shut the fuck up.

Well, I’ve seen the film now, and must report that it is by no means the most violent horror film I’ve ever seen; it is, in fact, likely less violent than many episodes of THE WALKING DEAD. But it is, as one would expect from Ketchum, deeply confrontational. The premise has to do with what initially looks like an ordinary family, whose Dad discovers a snarling, filthy, dangerously feral woman on a hunting trip. He drags her home, chains her in the cellar, and tells the family that they’re going to “civilize” her. It soon becomes clear that this is NOT an ordinary family; their normalcy is a mask for neighbors, and there are reasons for the wife’s submissiveness, the older daughter’s unnoticed misery, and the older son’s streak of vindictive cruelty.

The movie is more than a series of over-the-top shocks; there’s no shortage of those, but it uses a character-based approach, inviting us to infer the actual backstory from the timid way the wife acts around the husband, and the way the two older children interact with others at school. The horror arises from the next terrible thing happening, but happening naturally — and making retroactive sense even when it enters WTF territory, in its final minutes. The result is merciless, but I would defend it as a work of art. And I reject the accusations from some that it’s just an exercise in empty misogyny. The shallow viewers who thought this movie “glorifies” violence against women buy into the fundamental misunderstanding of fiction, that I cited a number of days ago: that stories are necessarily in favor of everything their characters do, or endorse their behavior as a recipe for a living.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Y’ever see an old movie that’s clearly well-made, clearly well-meaning, clearly a work of the human conscience…that suddenly strikes a note so discordant with your modern sensibility that you cannot help wince?

I see a lot of old movies, and am sometimes forced to overlook or forgive such moments as the product of their time. For instance, Ingrid Bergman calls Dooley Wilson a “boy” in CASABLANCA, and you can wince at that, but the character of Sam is largely well-treated (though subservient), and not central to the story. The brilliant comedies of Harold Lloyd and some of Buster Keaton are marred by painful cameos by stereotyped Black people and in some cases by stereotyped Jews, but such fleeting appearances are not central to the stories they tell and can be forgiven; your mileage may vary.

Then there’s a case like the movie I saw today, PRESSURE POINT.

It’s not a bad film, at all, though it’s not the shocking and searing drama it was intended to be at the time. One of producer Stanley Kramer’s many “message” pictures — a number of which weather the years untouched — it involves the conflict between a Black prison psychiatrist (Sidney Poitier) and a disturbed Nazi-sympathizing inmate (Bobby Darin) during World War II.

Poitier is as powerful as he always is. He was too versatile an actor to be relegated to the function he usually served, that of the Black platonic ideal; but it needs to be said that because this WAS his usual function, he was exquisite at communicating dignity, righteousness, and simmering moral strength. (It’s hard to name many actors, white or black, who so clearly communicate intelligence.) In this film, he’s a man who puts himself on a tight leash, because of his revulsion for the inmate he is duty-bound to help, and he’s riveting in it. So is Darin, who — I apologize to his fans, but it happens to be true — has a face that makes him very, very persuasive as a nonentity who will never amount to much.

The film takes the form of an extended flashback, told by a much older version of his character (with gray added to his temples), to a new prison psychiatrist (a very young Peter Falk) having his own professional crisis of faith. For some reason that escapes me, Poitier’s character decides that the best way to keep Falk’s character from quitting on his own revolting inmate patient is to tell him this story of an inmate he never quite reached — one who, we eventually learn, ended up being paroled because Poitier’s superiors believed his claims of rehabilitation over his black doctor’s, and who was ultimately executed after committing another murder on the outside. Gee, that’s motivation! If I was Peter Falk’s character, I’d run right back to my office!

The now squirm-worthy moment comes after the extended flashback, after the faith of Peter Falk’s character is somehow restored by this long and dispiriting anecdote of psychiatry’s ultimate failure, and after he rescinds his resignation and resolves to return to his problem inmate.

He says he even has a plan for how he’s going to handle the job.

What follows are the closing lines of the film.

“I’m going to get some burnt cork,” he says, “and cover my face with it.”

Poitier’s character nods. “Just don’t fail me because you’re white.”

Ow. Ow. Ow.

No. No. No. What an awful clunk THAT dialogue was!

Don’t Mess With The Queen

Posted: February 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

The following was written many years ago, in response to the Harrison Ford vehicle Air Force One. The imminent release of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter abruptly makes it timely again. Ladies and gentlemen, a coming attraction. – ATC

Shot 1: An elegant castle somewhere in England. Lots of International Political types debarking from helicopters and stretch limousines. Grim, pulsating music.

NARRATOR: “It is the turn of the millennium. And here, in this top secret location, the heads of the world’s most powerful countries are gathered for a conference that will change the course of history. Only something goes VERY WRONG…”

Shot 2: Massive fireball. Explosion throws down a brick wall, in bursts many paramilitary types with machine guns, firing. More grim music.

Shot 3: The panicked reaction among the diplomatic types. Bodies somersaulting through the air propelled by more explosions.

Shot 4: DAVID BOWIE (sneering international terrorist) “The rulers of the world are mine!”

Shot 5: MORGAN FREEMAN: (as NATO commander-in chief) “It’s World War Three if we don’t get them out in time!”

Shot 6: COLM MEANY (director of the CIA) “He’s got the entire castle wired with explosives! THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO!”

Shot 7: NARRATOR: “But the terrorists have forgotten one little thing…” One of the terrorists is suddenly yanked off his feet by a garrote. We see him falling over the high parapet, the camera zooms in on the person standing there…

EMMA THOMPSON: (sneering) “Not in my Country, you don’t!”

NARRATOR: “…the Queen of England!”

Shot 8: TERRORIST: “She’s taken out half the strike force! We can’t seem to stop her!”

BOWIE: (Proving his insane nature by shooting his own man): “Pity she looked so… helpless…on the paper money.”

Shot 9: Another explosion

Shot 10: NATO Command Center. Clom Meany arguing with Morgan Freeman.

MEANY: “We don’t even know if she’s still alive! We have to send in the troops!”

FREEMAN: “Dammit no! I know this woman! She’s the best there is! WE HAVE TO GIVE HER MORE TIME!”

Shot 11: Thompson battling Bowie in a flaming conference room: both are bloody and bruised, clothing in tatters:

NARRATOR: “Because whoever called her ‘just a powerless figurehead’…

(Thompson karate kicks Bowie over the table)

“…never met this lady!”

Shot 12: Closeup of Bowie, face twisted in hatred.

BOWIE: “Prepare to be…DEPOSED!”

Shot 13: Closeup of Thompson, bleeding from the lips but smiling. She takes a wicked, serrated knife from her royal gown:

THOMPSON: “We don’t THINK so…”

Shot 14: TITLE CARD: “THE CROWN”

Directed by Richard Donner.

Original score by John Barry, available on EMI records.

NARRATOR: “Because the Sun never sets on the British Empire.”


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

And while we’re at it, attention, moviemakers: can we please have at least a five-year moritorium on scenes where the character who has just been through a horrifying experience, or has been forced into a moment of intense moral compromise, or whatever, drops to his or her knees and vomits? This *used* to be shocking; it *used* to be an expressive storytelling device, but now it just makes the audience mutter, “Okay. It’s the vomiting moment.”

I mean, I know we need common-sense exceptions where the character is actually sick, or undergoing chemotherapy, or drunk out of his gourd, or whatever. I will grandfather those in. There is a place for those.

But vomiting as an expression of sheer horror is so way overdone that it’s no longer shocking.

(Scenes of people actually ailing aside, the last time I thought a vomiting scene in a movie added anything at all on a character level — and yes, I’m as appalled as you are that I’ve been able to keep track of this — was Marge Gunderson’s morning sickness in FARGO.)


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland.  Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute).  * 1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

PeterVincent

You are a rather unremarkable and not very interesting suburban teen with a loving girlfriend, an outcast friend and a single Mom. Your life is unexamined, though it’s safe to say that there’s not really all that much worth examining. You’re not exactly Holden Caulfield. But then one day the vacant house next door sells to a new owner: a fellow who, it turns out, is a vampire intent on making your neighborhood his new feeding grounds. You can’t get anybody to believe you. Your only hope is a local celebrity named Peter Vincent, who incorporates vampire mythology as part of his act and who might be induced to see you as something more than a fanboy who needs to get out more.

This is the premise of two teen horror comedies made 26 years apart, and the first thing we need to say here is that we’re not about to overstate the quality of either one of them. The first one featured a fine late-career performance by Roddy McDowall as the vampire hunter and a smoldering performance by Chris Sarandon as the vampire, but is otherwise not tremendously overflowing with wit, interesting variations on vampire tropes or genuine scares. It’s just a dopey, time-killing, amusing and frequently very fun but ultimately wholly forgettable piece of multiplex fodder. It would only be remade in a remake-mad cinematic climate where vague title recognition is considered more important than, you know, a fresh story. Similarly, the second plays many of the same notes – albeit to lesser effect – and is not wholly devoid of entertainment value, but otherwise doesn’t provide much for audiences who want to remember their movies longer than it takes to drive home afterward.

Both movies have a regrettable void at their center: the character of Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale in the original, Anton Yelchin in the remake), a kid who is just a generically good-looking teen played by somebody not in his teens, whose character is never at any point any deeper than what’s happening to him at any given moment. In the first film, his major issue is trying to get his girlfriend to put out for him; in the second, it’s a desire for popularity so overwhelming that he’s re-invented himself to be one of the cool kids and completely forsaken his nerdy old friend, “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz=Plasse). It’s a minor point, even so, sped past for the benefit of an audience that would rather get to the so-called “good stuff;” it certainly doesn’t make him at all interesting. He doesn’t grow in any particular way, he doesn’t discover himself in any particular way, and though he must act as a hero by the time the action is over, there’s no real sense of him rising to the occasion, as the most satisfying heroes must.

Both Charleys are also intensely stupid, in their way. Here’s an intelligence test: if you find out that your next-door neighbor is a vampire, who has murdered at least one local hooker, do you blurt out “he’s a vampire!” to anybody who can help you, thus making them see you as a delusional crank? Or do you employ more subtlety, showing instead of telling? In the first film, Charley first becomes suspicious of his neighbor when the beautiful young woman who arrives in a cab to visit his next-door neighbor is recognizably the murdered hooker the TV newscast references the next morning. Okay, so this is not the kind of thing you want taking place next door, and Charley does (after waffling about it) call the police. However, blurting out in the presence of a skeptical detective that he search the basement for the vampire’s coffin is clearly not nearly as promising a tactic as what Charley doesn’t do, namely advise the detective that the hooker arrived in a cab and suggest that the cab driver might be able to corroborate her arrival at this particular address on this particular day, mere hours before her body was found. Also, both Charleys, seeking help from their respective versions of Peter Vincent, are adorably certain that the two show-biz figures actually do believe in vampires and actually have experience in fighting them. These are boys who have reached their late teens and still haven’t absorbed the elemental lesson that the people they see on television, playing parts, may not be exactly like the people they play. Their naivete might have made more sense had the two Charleys been about five or six years younger, media-saturated kids who actually believed the shit they watched, but the Charleys we get seem too too old to be  so inept at distinguishing fact from fiction, artifice from reality, in the case of Peter Vincent,  that they seem almost mentally ill.

The 26 year interval between the two films does present us with some interesting contrasts. For instance, watching the old film after an exposure to the new, one realizes that we’ve completely lost what used to be a vital device in cinematic shorthand, to wit: am abandoned  television set showing nothing but static in the wee hours of the morning, thus establishing that nobody was paying attention when the station ended its broadcasting day. Yes, once upon a time, you could really turn on TV at 3 AM and find nothing but snow, rendering literal the standard complaint that nothing was on. This is no longer the state of affairs in a world of 500 channels of 24/7 programming, so this oft-used cinematic shorthand has gone the way of the dodo.

More to the point, the character type McDowall played in the 1985 film no longer existed by 2011. In 1985 Peter Vincent was an old-time horror movie actor, of the Peter Cushing / Vincent Price / Christopher Lee type, who has fallen on hard times and is now employed as a local-TV “horror host” – a personality of the sort who was once used to introduce a station’s horror movies, with some kind of witty in-character banter. There used to be a dozen of these guys (and some girls), up and down the dial – when there were dials – and some of them had followings so loyal that fans tuned in to see the shtick more than the show it introduced. No less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock did a version of the horror host, a cartoonishly macabre version of himself, for every episode of his anthology program, though most of the people we’re talking about were introducing mostly-bad old movies and not original productions like Hitchcock’s. In 1985, Peter Vincent reduced to horror host was an effective, if only barely-explored, exercise in presenting us with the plight of a once-famous man now reduced to cannibalizing what was left of his notoriety. He was such an instantly sympathetic secondary protagonist that many of this viewer’s complaints about the movie would be negated if viewpoint character Charley were removed or given less time, and Vincent rendered the main figure.

But a quarter of a century later, there were no horror hosts, really; some of the older members of the remake’s target audience might have remembered Elvira, but that was about it. So Vincent’s character had to be re-invented completely, and here became a big-time Las Vegas magician, who uses vampire lore as part of his shtick. This was a clever bit of story surgery, and was probably necessary given that the earlier model of the character no longer worked, but…really. In terms of sheer likeability, the difference between a broken-down old actor holding on to the memorabilia of past accomplishments, who has been fired from his TV-host job and is about to be evicted from his home, and a wealthy Vegas entertainer living in a luxurious penthouse along with a super-model girlfriend he treats like crap, is night and day. One is a poor fellow who becomes what he once pretended to be;  the other is a rich asshole who doesn’t even have enough heart to grieve for thirty seconds when the girlfriend he had just been screaming at is gorily murdered.

One would almost forgive that last touch if the second Peter Vincent was supposed to be, not just a rich prick, but an outright sociopath. But no. It’s just unforgivably bad story construction. The movie simply fails to notice that Peter Vincent should feel more over the death of a woman he lived with, even if he didn’t like her much. (Perhaps especially if he hadn’t liked her much.)

The screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, who as a major contributor to TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer should have done better; we can only guess if what was on-screen reflects her work or if it was mangled afterward. But it’s not the screenplay’s only violation of basic human nature. What follows is a pet peeve of mine. Any thriller where a character’s loved one – or even somebody they just sorta kinda like — dies in horrific circumstances, where those circumstances are later overcome at great personal risk, and where the person who should now finally have time to mourn his loss makes light-hearted jokes with his fellow survivors, just to provide an undiscerning audience with the fake comfort of a supposedly happy ending, is absolute bullshit. Give the ending of the remake more than five seconds of thought and it’s not just bad; it’s downright revolting. (For an example of a movie that gets it right, see the somber mood of the survivors even as they wait to be rescued at the end of the original The Poseidon Adventure.  Ernest Borgnine looks back at the disaster that claimed his wife, and weeps.)

Another bad innovation of the 2011 version: the revelation that its Peter Vincent actually has a vampire-related tragedy in his past (a bloodsucker killed his parents), and has thus spent his life collecting artifacts that include the very same artifacts vital to killing this movie’s bloodsucking fiend.

The major problem with this is that it’s profoundly shitty storytelling.

Why is it profoundly shitty storytelling?

Let us summarize.

What’s more satisfying?

1) A naïve kid who, upon discovering that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire, goes to a vampire-shtick celebrity who happens to live within commuting distance, but who doesn’t have the answers he needs, and who therefore has to overcome his very real limitations to become the hero anyway.

OR,

2) That very same naïve kid making the same unsettling discovery and going to another vampire-shtick celebrity who also happens to live within commuting distance… and who  by sheer convenient coincidence actually does own the artifacts necessary for killing this particular vampire, because he secretly knows vampires exist and is in fact motivated by the childhood loss of his parents and who ultimately finds out that his parents were killed by that very same vampire? Man! That is known as wrapping too much up in a bow. It is known as being fortunate that you have the screenwriter on your side!

David Tennant, who played the 2011 Peter Vincent, has shown in another venue I won’t insult you by naming that he excels at playing flamboyant characters who fight monsters. But this film gives him precious little to do except scream insults at his girlfriend before joining Charley’s fight. He certainly gets nothing to do as satisfying as the seesaw of mingled horror and pity that McDowall so splendidly emotes while watching one recently-turned vampire writhe in its lengthy death throes.  (It’s one of the best performances of McDowall’s late career, though for absolute best you need to check out  a suspenseful little film called Dead Of Winter.)

For some reason, I wrote off Christopher Sarandon as male-model bland in 1985, but seeing the movie for the first time in a quarter-century  appreciate the nuances in his performance now; I especially like a lengthy nightclub scene, detailing the seduction of Charley’s girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), which really is nicely put together. And he shows a significant sense of humor, throughout. I find it oddly interesting that, when first revealed as a vampire, he gives Charley  a chance to just mind his own business before declaring war; I can only wonder why (maybe as a courtesy to a neighbor?), but it is an interesting bit of character nuance. (And I wonder where the story would have gone if Charley had said yes; would we have had scenes of him earning extra money by mowing the vampire’s lawn, while nodding at the latest prostitute to be dropped off by cab?)  Sarandon is certainly a highlight of the first film, almost as important as McDowall is. Colin Farrell’s vampire is by contrast just a smirking asshole, even if he does get at least one somewhat-suspenseful early scene, in which Charley tries to escape the house with a girl who’s stayed to be dinner. The two movies have different bumpy routes to the finale, and each boast effective set-pieces not duplicated by the other – the pathetic apparent death of the vampirized Evil Ed in 1985, a fine attempt to get away from the vampire by car in 2011, a superior nightclub scene in 1985, the sad fate of a victim Charley manages to free in 2011– but, to this viewer, neither really congeal as movies worth falling in permanent love with. It’s simply not worth a scene-by-scene comparison. The stories are not strong enough, not memorable enough, to render the exercise worth the effort.

One thing’s for sure. Remakes can be most confidently dismissed as gratuitous when the first movie isn’t all that great and the remake isn’t either – indeed, when the remake has so few notes of its own to play that it makes a point of ticking off the bad guy’s fondness for apples. Talk about sad.

I do, however, love the name of the 2011 leading lady, Imogen Poots.

*

David Tennant

And now, the wife creeps in through an unguarded door, carrying a stake and a crossbow…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrel, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute). *1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

 

I was so darn excited to get into these films.

I remembered the first film with great fondness.  Not for its greatness in and of itself mind you, but for the sheer fun I had watching it all those years ago.  I remember seeing Chris Sarandon at a Horror convention and thinking not about his truly fun Humperdinck, but only his sexy vampire.  This was how I felt a modern vampire story should play out, and I held that memory as a cherished possession all this time.

Then that memory was soiled by the horrid, poorly understood remake made by folks who DEFINITELY should know better!

Yes, I know, vampires are evil, nasty ratlike creatures, who go for the easy pickings and low hanging fruit, but come on guys!  Where the Sarandon vamp is suave and smooth, the Colin Farrel  one is sleaze personified. Sure they are both great looking, but Farrel doesn’t even bother with seduction, just calling hookers and having his meals delivered.  His threats are clear and unveiled, no trying to just scare the kid off, just let him know that he and his are on the list.  Sarandon’s vampire tries everything to avoid killing the kid, well until the virgin girlfriend comes into his sights.  Even then he still seems to prefer seduction to killing in the overall scheme of things.

And, maybe today’s audiences don’t have the wherewithal to sit through a bit of storytelling, since the new film eschews most of the creepy atmosphere and build up to get right to the attacks and effects. 

Now, let’s compare our Peter Vincents.

Roddy McDowall, aging child/adult star, playing aging former horror movie dude, now relegated to late night horror host.  Got it!  When I was a kid, these hosts were pretty common, not so much now.  I asked a twenty something that I work with about Elvira and she only “kinda thought” she had heard of the character, couldn’t describe her or place her in any way.  I get the need for an update, but unfortunately, as much as I ADORE David Tennant (yes, I am a Whovian), the character given to him is too damn successful to care about the story these kids bring to him.  Come on again writers!  The vampire is the same one that killed his family and so he gets to play vengeance chicken.  Nuuh  Uhh!  No how!  No way!  Too stupid even for the youngest teens.  Did that idea come from the 7-11 school of screenwriting, because my teachers would have blown cannon holes through it all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the new film has no redeeming values.  David Tennant is still great (blinders are removed from my eyes here, I loved his Hamlet too!), despite the limitations of the character.  Colin Farrel seems to enjoy phoning in his vampire thug.  I always enjoy watching Toni Collette play American.  And the kids honestly try real hard to get across the fears.  But again, the original, for all the flawed deliveries and dated material (G-d I hate the look of early eighties hair/clothing), still produces more punch per minute, than the 2011 film can muster in any thirty.

The Problem With THE RIVER

Posted: February 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

The new TV series THE RIVER is an attempt to capture some of the addictive zing of LOST, in which various people travel up the Amazon and encounter various horrific manifestations of the supernatural while looking for a missing Steve Irwin-type character. The good news is that it is indeed every bit as scary as it intends to be, if you can get past the “captured footage” format. The first two episodes are fine little self-contained horror movies, each involving a different uncanny menace. You should check it out, if only once.

Alas, the series as a whole already suffers from Why-The-Hell-Don’t-They-Just-Get-Out-Of-The-House syndrome.

Whatever you think of LOST, you have to admit that its characters *had* to deal with the mysteries of the island: first they were stuck there, and then they had persuasive motivation to go back.

By contrast, these characters have, in the course of just a couple of days, dealt with one screeching invisible presence that dragged screaming people off the deck of the ship, and another shrieking invisible presence that sucked screaming people down into the swamp. They have been promised that it gets worse up-river. One woman in the cast of characters is the missing explorer’s wife and is determined to find her husband; I can get why she’s ready to press on. One of the guys is the missing explorer’s estranged son; I can even buy his motivation, though I think he’ll give up earlier. There’s another woman, looking for her own father. Fine. But the rest? The documentary producer? The cameraman? The ship’s engineer? How many times in rapid succession must these people find themselves in the dark, fighting for their lives against supernatural manifestations, each worse than the last, before they all start saying, “Screw This SIDEWAYS, your missing explorer can wait for the marines, I’m not too proud to say that I’m a coward, I’m turning this dinghy around and heading straight for the nearest bar that serves drinks with little umbrellas in them?”

I say it should have happened by episode 3…


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

(Previously published in An Alien Darkness.)

 

This is the official story, first told almost fifty years ago, and gullibly believed by the whole world ever since:

Bruce Wayne was just a ten-year-old boy going to the movies with his wealthy parents. A mugger arrived and shot his parents dead. Even as the murderer fled, young Bruce swore to spend his life warring on criminals. He grew up to become Batman.

Dick Grayson was raised in the circus. His parents, John and Mary, were aerialists, training their son in the family business. Then tragedy struck. A hit man under the employ of “Boss” Zucco, the most powerful gangleader in Gotham City, sabotaged the ropes anchoring their trapeze. The ropes broke immediately after their successful triple somersault, and Dick Grayson saw his parents plunge to their deaths before his very eyes.

Shortly thereafter, Dick was confronted by a big guy in a bat suit. Instead of telling this rather strange person to go away and leave him alone in his misery, Dick begged him to help avenge his parents’ deaths.

The Dark Knight, moved the memory of his own tragedy, assented.

And so billionaire Bruce Wayne adopted a youthful ward named Dick Grayson, and at the same time Batman took on a young partner named Robin.

Or so the story goes.

It’s accurate enough, on the face of it. Certainly, Dick Grayson, who despite his natural enthusiasm for the work never became as brilliant a crime fighter as his elder partner, never once seemed to think that there was anything wrong with it. But if we examine the story closely, using only the evidence Batman creator Bob Kane provided us, then we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that there was something awfully rotten going on in Stately Wayne Manor.

Don’t jump to suggestions. I am not about to suggest, as child psychologist Fredric Wertham did during the 1950s, or as movie director Joel Schumacher implied during the 1990s, that Batman and Robin were homosexuals, either latent or practicing. That would have been their business, of course (at least, once the Boy Wonder reached the age of consent), but still, there’s always been plenty of evidence to the contrary. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson both had girlfriends. Batman enjoyed a nice smoldering romance with a leather-clad beauty known as the Catwoman, and a quick dip into my comic book collection finds Dick Grayson enjoying healthy relationships with women as varied as Donna (Wonder Girl) Troy, Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon, and Princess Koriand’r (Starfire). If the caped crusaders sometimes went a little overboard with the “good work, old chum” routine, it’s because they were unusual people to begin with, not because they were ready to move to Gotham’s equivalent of Greenwich Village.

No. To Dick Grayson, at least, the relationship between Batman and Robin was exactly what it seemed. No more, no less.

More’s the pity.

Because Dick never paused to question why an experienced crime-fighter like Batman would take on a 10-year-old kid, even an accomplished gymnast like the youngest member of the Flying Graysons, as his partner.

Because the kid had just seen his parents killed, the same way Bruce Wayne had seen his own parents killed? Well, yeah…but by the time Batman met Dick he had already been fighting crime for several years, and he must have seen similar tragedies several times before. Why didn’t Batman have an entire troupe of recently orphaned urchins fighting alongside him by that time? Is there any reason why he picked this kid in particular?

Yes, there is. And it changes everything you think you know about Batman.

Think about it. When Bruce Wayne was 10 years old, he swore to spend the rest of his life warring on crime. When he was twenty-something he put on his bat suit and went at it in earnest.

What he did during those missing years has been only sketchily explored. That particular phase of Bruce Wayne’s life is as much an enigma as the lost years of Jesus. What was he up to?

Hmmm. He studied criminology.

He learned the martial arts.

He exercised a lot.

We know all that.

What else did he do?

Well, he became a world-class trapeze artist, capable of swinging from building to building with the greatest of ease.

Now, that’s interesting. Where does somebody go to learn an unusual skill like that? A correspondence school? The local community college? High school gym class?

Naaah.

You have to go to the pros. The ones who do it for a living.

Professional trapeze artists…at a circus.

Clearly, the young Bruce Wayne must have lived with a circus for a while. And since trapeze artistry isn’t a skill you learn overnight, he must have had time to form a pretty close attachment with whoever taught him.

Pretty close? Maybe even extremely close. After all, obsessed avenger or not, Bruce Wayne was also going through puberty at the time.

And this was…when? About a decade before Batman first met the 10-year-old Robin?

Hmmm. A pattern is forming.

Take any picture of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. The resemblance is there. They have the same chins and the same color hair. The resemblance existed even when Dick was a 10-year-old kid; it became downright spooky after the character aged and went from teen to young adult.

Looks like young Bruce did more than train.

Reconstruct the chronology. Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered. He vows to become the world’s greatest crime fighter. He starts picking up the skills he needs. He joins the circus. Meets Dick Grayson’s mother, who was probably also a young teenager at the time. And she teaches him how to swing, in more ways than one.

Then, driven by his obsessions, he goes off to complete his apprenticeship as a crime-fighter…and three trimesters later, Dick Grayson is born.

Father and son never meet until Dick Grayson’s parents — that is, his mother, and the man Dick only believes to be his father — are murdered by Boss Zucco. Then Bruce Wayne re-enters the picture, dressed like a giant bat, and takes his son home.

Only he never lets the kid know that he’s his real father. He never adopts Dick Grayson; he just takes him on as a ward.

Didn’t that ever bother you? The relationship looked rather permanent. Why wouldn’t a smart guy like Bruce Wayne make it legal with an actual adoption?

Well, what’s the difference between a ward and an adopted son? A ward can be incontestably cut out of a will. That would be more difficult in the case of a son, whether blood relation or adopted child. Dick Grayson never once worried about this — he must have been either incredibly trusting or incredibly apathetic about money. But the longer he remained a ward (while helping Bruce dodge bullets at night), the more suspicious this circumstance became. Why did Bruce Wayne want to hold such a powerful trump card against a partner he nightly entrusted with his life?

Because he was afraid that Dick would find out something.

Something that would shatter Dick Grayson’s respect for Bruce Wayne, that would make him a dangerous enemy of Bruce Wayne.

What could it be?

Consider: When Dick Grayson’s parents died, Batman showed up within minutes. Isn’t that too big a coincidence to be believed?

I don’t think so. Bruce Wayne twisted his entire life around because somebody had stolen his parents. How upset must he have been when he found out that somebody else had stolen his son?

Upset enough to kill two people and frame a known criminal for the deed?

Enough to sabotage the trapeze of the Flying Graysons, which was up near the top of the tent where most normal murderers could not be expected to go?

Enough to become the very kind of criminal he despised?

Dick Grayson was never the brilliant detective his mentor was. He never put the clues together. He just thought Bruce Wayne was his good chum, his crimefighting partner, Batman. And so he spent his youth never once realizing that he was helping one of Gotham City’s most twisted criminals quite literally get away with murder.