Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Real Wolfman

History Channel - Original Air Date: 10/28/09

When I started the review for this show, I did not realize that it was the show that Linda Godfrey and I had done some filming for last year -- on our Uncanny Radio show.  So, in full disclosure, we're in it, and you can hear Linda on the radio, and our guest Steve Kreuger is featured. (Though he was not a Bray Road witness, as the show claimed.)  Having said that, we're a minor piece of the program -- blink and you'll miss me -- and I'll try to review the show objectively.

This show looks at the 1740s "werewolf" attacks in southern France known as The Beast or "La Bete."  (Also the subject of the Brotherhood of the Wolf movie and the first Dark Angel novel.)  Over the course of a few years, about 100 people -- mostly women and children -- were brutally attacked and killed.  Was it a human killer, a mystery animal, a werewolf, or something else?  A profiler, George "Duke" Deuchar, and a cryptozoologist, Ken Gerhard, set out ot find out.  To bring viewers up to date, the show talks about werewolf history, the history of the attacks, and even manwolf in the US.  (I'm operating the radio control board during the interview with Steve Kreuger; blink and you'll miss me, though there's a good shot of Linda.)  As the team investigates in France, the profiler, Duke, becomes suspicious that the alleged "animal" bypassed easy prey in favor of humans.  The cryptozoologist, Ken, remains convinced that the beast could have been some unknown or prehistoric animal.  He shows the Duke some Texas chupacabra footage to make his point about strange animals existing even today.  (The coyote-wolf hybrid footage.)  The two examine caves in France where the beast may have hidden, and also a print alleged to be from the beast -- it's many times the size of a normal wolf.  Some reports from the time point at a wild, hairy human -- or near human -- as the culprit.  Talking to the local police, Duke concludes that the information of the time is filled with rumor and superstition, and the witnesses were unreliable.

Historically, the king sent soldiers to sort the situation out, but they didn't solve the problem -- the attacks continued, despite military presence.  Meanwhile, Ken is inputting data based on old drawings into a computer (not a brilliant forensic technique, since we have no reason to believe the artists ever saw the creature), and concludes that a hyena may be the suspect.  He notes that some reports even had the creature "laughing" -- which Duke points out seems to indicate a human even more.  Ken points out that some people believe that they become animals, and some people with genetic mutations even look like wolfmen.  A French historian believes that the attacks were not done by humans, but the team remains skeptical.  Duke suggests that the beast may have been a wolf trained to kill by a human serial killer, but wolf experts say wolves cannot be trained that way -- though a large dog could.  Science, however, suggests that dogs cannot decapitate people the way the beast did.  Three years after the attacks began, a farmer armed with a blessed silver bullet shot the beast through the heart, and the attacks stopped for good.  The team talks with the farmer's descendant, and finds the scene where the beast was slain.  The animal's body was taken to Versailles, to show the king, and then apparently disposed of.  As Ken looks for it, Duke asks about the farmer -- who may have been an outcast before he became a hero.  A historian suggests that everything about the beast legend may have been exaggerated by the church, for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the beast may have been on exhibit at a French museum -- and the animal was listed by the museum as a long-haired striped hyena.  (It's not clear where the specimine is now -- though its bones may have been used to repair other display specimens.)  A hyena's bite force and attack pattern seem to match the beast, and a zoologist says a hyena could be trained to attack.  The museum curator says that local royalty often kept exotic animals.  Could the farmer have owned it, only to kill it for the reward?  Back in the States, Duke tries to find out if a silver bullet could have killed a hyena in one shot.  The test shows that silver bullets, which are harder than lead, are less accurate; they do not deform because of barrel rifling.  (But were 1740s guns rifled?  The show doesn't say - but a quck check shows that rifling did not become common until the 19th century -- 50 to 100 years after the attacks.  An obvious flaw in the show's scientific technique.)  Silver bullets also cause less tissue damage than a standard lead bullet (because they don't deform).  Because of these challenges, Duke thinks the farmer set the whole thing up; he could kill the beast easily, because he owned it.  The show concludes that it was a man-beast team that caused the legend of the beast -- and bolstered the werewolf legend.  In some sense, the killer was a man-wolf.

This was a good show.  The history is well laid out and interesting, and the through-story compelling.  I'm not sure I agree with their conclusions, though their theory does (mostly) fit the facts, and their investigation techniques are passable.  People interested in The Beast (La Bete) or werewolf legends should find this show a good place to start.  (Don't look for Linda and me in the credits -- though WBSD made it.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Theater Undreground: Not What You Expected - Review

A new Theater Undreground production always seems like a good time for another post to my homepage.  (If you like more frequent info & updates, become a fan of my blog -  TU is a Richmond, IL, company dedicated to producing the work of local playwrights (using local actors).  I've enjoyed every one of their productions I've seen previously, and it's safe to say that I enjoyed this one the most of all.

It's hard to say much more about Not What You Expected, though, without building... expectations, and thereby ruining some of the show's... unexpected twists and turns.  If you check out TU's trailer for the show, you'll see that they don't reveal much about it, either.  All I feel I can safely say about this production is that it follows the exploits of a local rock band as they struggle against the music industry and fortunes that threaten to tear them apart.

What ensues is a carefully orchestrated blend of scripted work, music, improv, and chaos.  There's plenty of amusing theater business, too.  But, again, I can't say more without giving it away.  First-time playwrights Katelin Stack & Chris Warren (who have worked with TU before) have done a very good job melding drama, comedy, and unexpected elements.  They are helped by veteran TU directors David Baker & Tim Mosbach , who - in the company's first year - have learned to stage engaging and innovative productions in a small theater on a shoestring budget.  They like to do unexpected things, and this show is no exception.  The large ensemble cast turns in uniformly amusing performances, and Ian Hall again provides delightful musical point and counterpoint.

So, catch the show Halloween night for its last production (this season, at least).  But call ahead, as the shows are selling out, and one local paper declared it, "wildly popular.  My 15-year-old son agreed, saying, "Best play I've ever seen."  (For what it's worth, we've seen 6 plays this year alone.)  As for me, I'd say this is Theater Undreground's best production yet -- and I hope TU keeps them coming for a long time to come.
And, hey, guys: think about a revival of Not What You Expected next year.  Maybe even take it on the road.  There are a couple of venues in Burlington, Wisconsin, (for one) that might be available.

(Cross-posted to my home page, my blog, and Howls & Growls.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I Know What I Saw

History Channel - Original Air Date: September, 2009

This show brings together eyewitness reports of UFOs -- supposedly the most compelling accounts available.  James Fox starts his documentary with the Phoenix lights, which doesn't help with credibility in my book, as the major event of that night (the lights over the city) have been convincingly debunked. (See my partial review of UFOs Over Phoenix.)  He then states that 95% of this stuff is crazy, but it's the other stuff that interests him.  I agree, and like the Mayor of Phoenix, I agree that the craziness makes it difficult to take a serious look at what's going on.  Fox then shows the famous Phoenix footage, and notes that some experts have said it is flares -- but what was the earlier, "boomerang-shaped" craft?  There is some shaky footage, and some footage of something similar, but no one knows what it is.  (If I had to guess, I'd say secret military aircraft -- but, then, I don't believe in aliens from outer or inner space.)  Clips of a National Press Club briefing featuring experts -- many aviators or ex-military -- follow.  After that, we get some history of sightings from Foo Fighters, to Kenneth Arnold, to the Washington DC flap, the Life magazine article, Dr. Hynek, and so on.  The show also features numerous famous photos, at least a few of which look like natural phenomena or fakes to me.  The show also goes to a DC meeting of UFO witnesses to collect some more stories.

Next, an expert on symbols looks at some witness drawings of symbols seen on UFOs, but Fox admits his interpretation is merely speculation -- though the symbols do look something like the Voyager glyphs we sent to the edge of the solar system.  The show then looks at the US air base in England reports (Rendlesham Forest) from 1980.  And then Japanese flight 1628, which encountered a UFO in 1986.  From there, we go to Fox's appearance on CNN, during this DC conference -- in which a skeptic suggests that UFOs are modern mythology.  Fox asks where the myths come from, and then plays clips of the media ridiculing UFO witnesses (one of whom is Congressman Dennis Kucinich).  Fox follows this with clips of more witnesses, including a former Belgian Air Force commander, and more pilots.  Fox's point seems to be that the witnesses aren't as silly as portrayed in the media.  Indeed, the ones he trots out all seem very reasonable and credible (but that doesn't mean the UFOs are space aliens). Moving to the Stephenville sightings (type Stephenville into the search bar of for related stories), where Angela Joiner, reporter, notes that if something of the reported size moved at the reported speed, it would leave a sonic footprint on the ground like a tornado.  So, how could that be?  Fox says he has no idea, and then interviews more witnesses, one of whom claims to have studied the craft at close range through a rifle scope for 3 minutes, before it disappeared.  Fox then shows a radar image of something in the area accelerating to 532 MPH in 30 seconds (not an absurd speed).  The miliatary denies any knowledge (big surprise).

Astronaut Gordon Cooper (Mercury program) claims to have seen a UFO when station at Edwards AFB.  While filming (?!) a precision landing, they sighted a saucer which landed on 3 legs and was filmed before taking off.  Cooper claims the film was sent to Washington and never seen again.  Cooper claims to have had no contact with anyone involved in the intervening years, not even the cameramen.  (Why not?)  Astronaut Edgar Mitchell (Apollo program) claims to have talked to many people about flying craft, but doesn't know why investigators are being stonewalled.  Former President Carter is next on the hit list, but when asked about what he was told when President, he says "Nobody knows or has proof of things."  The show then (pointlessly) speculates why UFO info would be covered up.  Fox then meets with a French general and gets even more stories, and a UFO picture accidentally taken by a "mapping camera."  The French think the best explanation is that these objects are extraterrestrial in origin.  France has since posted all its UFO files online; the release doesn't seem to have caused any panic.  More speculation ensues, including the supposition that UFOs must be "real" because there are so many sightings.  But, while seeing may be believing, seeing is not scientific proof.

Sadly, in the end, these stories -- however compelling -- are just stories.  The fact that credible people say them doesn't make them true, and, even if they are true, it doesn't mean that their perceptions are not leading the witnesses astray.  Certainly, people see strange things -- from UFOs to ghosts to goblins to the Loch Ness Monster -- and maybe someday we'll understand what these things are, or at least why we see them.  Stories, though, are not proof.  You can take that from me, as someone who's made a living by telling stories for most of my adult life.  But, by all means, we should keep looking and keep investigating -- scientifically.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

DESTINATION TRUTH - Haunted Lost City & Thunderbird

SyFy - Original Air Date: 10/21/09

From a lost Incan city to Alaska, Josh and the DT crew are out looking for answers again.  The "lost" city in Peru is very remote, and the locals claim it's haunted.  The crew has the usual adventures with the locals, culminating with the team's burros getting spooked, a cameraman hurt, and the locals refusing to venture any closer to the city.  Despite this, the crew locates the ruins and sets up base camp and the usual camera surveillance setups.  That night, they hear strange noises and find a mysterious tunnel system, which Josh almost falls into.  After chasing noises, but not catching them, the crew returns to the US to analyze their data.  They hear a mysterious EVP, and call in the Ghost Hunters crew (again -- Notice a pattern here?).  But, the results remain inconclusive.

Next, the team goes to Alaska looking for the legendary thunderbird -- described as a mix of bird and reptile.  Recently, a pilot and his 6 passengers all claim to have seen the creature, which has a reported wingspan of up to 30 feet.  The pilot describes it as larger than an eagle, and others claim to have seen the thing, too.  Team DT charters a plane to go up and take a look, but see no thunderbirds -- though they do spot the native village (town) where most of the sightings have taken place.  The bird, apparently, is not averse to the chilly temperatures, which drop well below zero.  The team triangulates the local sightings and sets up a base camp and camera traps, hoping to catch the supposedly nocturnal creature.  (They build a fire to keep warm in the frigid night.)  Amid snapping branches -- which I think is probably explained by snow -- the crew comes to feel they were "buzzed" by something near the treetops.  (The winter landscape looks amazing in their night vision cameras.)  They spot a strange thermal hit on one of the cameras, flying through the sky, then chase something through the woods.  While they're doing that, something takes the bait from their traps.  They take the evidence back to LA for analysis and to show it to experts.  The IR camera image is too far off to identify, and the creature that took the bait was just a close-up blur.  The expert suggests a Stellar Sea Eagle, migrating over from Japan, is a likely suspect. Josh notes that size of objects in the air is notoriously difficult to determine (see recent Balloon Boy flap), so a rare eagle seems a good explanation.

In the end, it's sad that DT didn't get better evidence, but it was a fun ride anyway -- as usual.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

GHOST LAB: Tombstone

Discovery Channel - Original Air Date: 10/13/09

The Ghost Lab team brings their bag of tricks to the Old West town of Tombstone to look for ghosts.  They poke around the town, checking out Theater/Saloons, mines, ang even the cemetery at Boot Hill.  They talk to locals and get the usual witness stories.  Then they deploy their "scientific" equipment, which includes the usual EMF meters, recorders, etc. The equipment this time also includes a small "lightning generator," some kind of static producing gizmo, with which they hope to supercharge the air to bring out supernatural phenomena.  (That's science!  Or not.)

Having watched two episodes of this show now, I gotta say, it's hard to take these guys seriously.  As regular readers know, I enjoy colorful characters (like those on Destination Truth), but the brothers here just push it too far.  They're noisy, obnoxious, and have a weirdo theory for pretty much everything.  And all that makes it more obvious just how absurd -- and scientifically unsupportable -- much of this "investigation" is.  Where it jumped the shark for me was when they were yelling at a room that appeared to be haunted by ... feedback.  "I am the ghost of Peter Frampton!" I joked to my wife.

None of this stuff has any real scientific value (so far as I see) save for video tapes (uncontaminated by lighting problems -- of which there is little) or audio (and not "unheard voices" a.k.a EVP) which backs up what team members experience with their 5 rational senses (and not vague "feelings").  I'm tired of "We didn't notice anything at the time, but..." discoveries.  Science depends on rigor, observation, and repeatability.

All of which is to say, the more I watch these shows, the more I believe in TV producer greed, and the less I believe in ghosts.  And let's not even talk about "shadow people."  (This one appears to be to be the shadow of the tree in the center of the picture.)  And will someone _please_ teach someone on these shows how to properly operate a camera (digital or film) and analyze photos!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

DESTINATION TRUTH - Alien Mummies; Van Lake Monster

SyFy - Original Air Date: 10/7/09

Josh and crew go to Chile to check out reports of alien creatures that live in local mines.  They stop at Nazca on the way to check out the famous Lines.  They also stop at the "Stargate," a tourist attraction that supposedly is a gateway for alien beings.  Locals report not only aliens, but also strange lights, perhaps UFOs.  The DT crew descends into the mine shaft on ropes and sets up IR cameras to catch anything living in the tunnels.  Poking around, they find a strange, tiny body buried inside one of the tunnels; they collect it as evidence.  They also cross perilous bridges and poke into ill-supported tunnels.  They hear sounds and see something hot on their Fleer, something which possibly threw a stone at them, and then spot something that gives off light in the pitch-black tunnel.  They chase the light into a vertical shaft, but find no evidence of what it was.  Following a draft, they find an exit to the surface.  Then they spot a bright, star-like pulsing light atop the canyon ridge opposite, and start hearing strange things on their radios, and out of the parabolic dish -- which normally collects noises, rather than creating them.  Unfortunately, they can't focus their cameras on what's shedding the light.  The team leaves their oddball corpse for the local authorities and takes photos of it back to the US -- sadly, that leaves them with less to analyze.  Their experts are stumped.  Which leaves them with a strange corpse, a phantom light, and the ridge "UFO" all unexplained  Josh, usually skeptical, is puzzled -- but perhaps this story will be continued later.

For now, they go to Van Lake in Turkey to look for a local monster -- which has a strange (and fairly clear) video backing up its existence.  The lake is the size of Rhode Island (US) and located near Iraq.  After talking to the locals about the beast, they go to the lake to look for themselves.  And they quickly spot some undulating humps on the water; sadly the humps are gone by the time the DT helicopter gets there.  They set up base on a local island and start diving; supposedly, this is where the monster spawns, and a local church even has an ancient carving of what might be the monster trying to eat someone.  As night falls, they also set up surveillance cameras -- and head out in a zodiac boat to hunt beasties.  It starts to snow and the weather sucks.  They begin hearing big splashes -- in a lake where the largest fish is a foot long -- so they charge toward the sound with their underwater cameras.  They catch something on sonar, and perhaps on their cameras as well, but they lose it as it submerges.  By the time they get back, the weather has torn and flooded their tent; everything gets wet.  Undaunted, they go back out and get more camera and sonar hits.  Whatever this is, it doesn't seem as shy as the usual lake monster.  Sadly, their footage doesn't provide enough info to explain what's going on for sure.  And though the lake is biologically not diverse enough to support a big creature, their personal experiences seem contrary to that.  An expert looks at the original video, and, to him, it seems a hoax.  The other things have possible alternative explanations, but there are still the eyewitnesses -- and even Josh's crew.

Thus, we end up with more mystery than usual in a DT episode, and perhaps two locations to revisit later.

MYSTERY QUEST: Lost City of Atlantis

History Channel - Original Air Date: 10/6/09

Did Atlantis exist, and can MQ find it?  To answer the first question, the show looks from Bimini to Santorini.  Divers check out the Bimini "Road" in the Bahamas - despite a scientist's assurance that, indeed, sometimes nature does produce straight lines.  Can the team find evidence that the road was worked by human hands?  They find what looks like a stone anchor, but they can't test it because it's covered with protected coral.  The idea that this could be Atlantis (rather than a local civilization) is based on the predictions of Edgar Casey -- which are now so revered as to be taken as fact, rather than conjecture.  Later, the team finds a "leveling stone" which they believe indicates the "road" was once a harbor -- but is it old enough to be Atlantis?  (10,000 years, according to Plato.)  As they test the rock for date, they go diving on another site.  They find strange, regular-seeming formations on the sea floor, but the protected corals prevent further probing.  The rock dates to around 1500 BC -- 8000 years later than Atlantis' alleged date.  (Though similar in timespan to Minoan Crete -- though the show fails to mention this.)  The other formations seem to have perfect right angles, making them appear man made, but special permission will be needed to clear the coral and find out for sure.

Meanwhile, another team investigates Crete & Santorini, on the theory that Atlantis could have been based on the ancient Minoan civilization -- which had hot and cold running water when most of their neighbors were still living in crude huts.  Their theory is that the Minoans were destroyed in a single day, and therefore became the basis of legend.  Santorni (then Thera) was destroyed 1600 years ago in a volcanic explosion that the show describes as being as powerful as 3000 Hiroshima bombs.  The explosion would have caused a tsunami at least 4 times as large as the tsunami on Christmas 2005.  The wall of water is estimated (in simulation) at 40 meters - 130 feet high -- enough to swamp much of Crete.  Possibly enough to make even an advanced, sea-going civilization "vanish."

The show ends by suggesting that the Bimini Road may have been built by Atlantis' descendants, a lost civilization -- and the older formation (on the now-sunken shore of the once-much-lower sea) could be Atlantis itself.  Sadly, if the MQ team will gain the permission to find out, remains for a future episode.  Also sadly, aside from the blast/wave tests, the theory of Thera/Santorini-Crete being the origin of the Atlantis legend (a theory I, personally, favor) is not explored or tested any further.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

GHOST LAB: Disturbing the Peace

Discovery Channel - Original Air Date: 10/6/09

My first question is, how will this show differentiate itself from SyFy's Ghost Hunters?  The set-up, with the Klinge brothers & their Everyday Parnormal society, seems pretty similar.  The show is heavier on graphics and 3D in introducing the cases, but the MO is pretty similar -- with set-up and investigation while the narrator (a voice-over in this case) explains what they're doing, the equipment they're using, and the jargon of ghost hunting.  Fortunately, like GH, they seem to be going about this semi-scientifically (as opposed to chasing unproven ghosts with unproven psychics and mediums). They use similar equipment to GH, and take baseline EMF readings, then -- in the first part -- they poke around a Louisiana auditorium.  They leave EMF "data loggers" like breadcrumbs in the building to record abnormalities, and run the usual EVP sessions.  Interestingly, they contact a physicist and explore the idea that EVPs may be coming from a parallel dimension.  They then try to bring out the spirits by re-creating things the ghosts might have experienced (in this case, staging a rock concert) using a technique they call "Era Cues."  But the most they get is closing doors, "personal experiences," and EVPs -- not much in the way of hard evidence.

They then go to the Myrtles Plantation which boasts a famous blurry "ghost" photo -- with which I am unimpressed.  They've been here before and supposedly got a very clear EVP on a previous investigation.  (Their EVPs are so clear as to seem likely fakes to me.)  They "Era Cue" the Civil War, and get some EVPs they think apply.  But the scientific value of their evidence -- like all EVP evidence -- seems elusive, at best.  And, I gotta say, I'm not sure I trust these guys as much as I do Jason and Grant.  They seem a bit more hucksterish and less real.  Though they do get points for sometimes leaving the lights on during their investigations.  While an interesting spin on GH, at least at first viewing, it's not replacing TAPS in my viewing queue.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

MYSTERYQUEST: Slaughter in San Francisco

History Channel - Original Air Date: 9/30/09

The new MysteryQuest show looks into San Francisco's Zodiac killer.  For 40 years, the mass murderer held San Francisco in terror, until mysteriously vanishing.  Now MQ will try to see if new forensic techniques can shed new light on the case.  They also follow up new tips and leads.  One of the new suspects is Richard Gaikowski, a now-dead writer and "bon-vivant."  The show also looks at the unsolved cyphers, tries to trace DNA, and has a former operator listen to voice tapes.  Is "Gyke" in the cyper a reference to "Gaik" - a nickname Gaikowski often used.  The operator thinks Gaikowski's voice might be the same, and there are other hints (as well as evidence to the contrary).  But the authorities refuse the show access to DNA evidence -- though MQ has probable Gaikowski DNA for comparison.  (The show sends their evidence to 2 police authorities.)  In the end, the show's experts remain confidence that advances may help finally find the killer -- but for now, the mystery remains.