Kindle Surprise: The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan

“The question, as always, is how good is the evidence? The burden of proof surely rests on the shoulders of those who advance such claims. Revealingly, some proponents hold that scepticism is a liability, that true science is inquiry without scepticism. They are perhaps halfway there. But halfway doesn’t do it. “

"Carl Sagan Planetary Society" by NASA/JPL

It’s no secret I enjoy conspiracies, and conspiracy theories. This is mostly for the entertainment value: the world would be a much more interesting place if those in power were, as David Icke has suggested, actually shape-shifting lizards. But a good general rule is, the bigger a conspiracy has to be, the less likely it is to be true. Another useful one is Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. So was the government behind 9/11? I doubt it. Should the government have known about it? Quite probably: the dots were there, they just weren’t connected by anyone in possession of all the data. Did America shamelessly exploit it afterward for an entirely unconnected foreign policy agenda, specifically, the invasion of Iraq? Oh, hell, yes. This doesn’t require a conspiracy, just standard political opportunism.

On Reddit, I’ve been amused and irritated in about equal amounts by the /r/conspiracy forum there, whose contents run the gamut from entirely reasonable speculation through to batshit crazy, with a copious helping of anti-Semitism (thinly disguised as anti-“Zionism”) and a relentless belief that every thing is a “false flag” – including, in an Inception-style piece of circular thinking, some who believe the anti-Semitic posts are false flags, designed to discredit /r/conspiracy. My particular bete noire are those who believe the Sandy Hook massacre was not just a false flag, but never happened at all. Literally, nobody died: it was a grand piece of theater designed to… Well, no-one has come up with an adequate motive: the most commonly mentioned one, to promote gun-control, conveniently forget that not one piece of federal legislation subsequently became law.

The evidence for this conclusion is wafer-thin, depending entirely on a conspiratorial interpretation of events with other possible explanations. For instance, a property database containing $0 transactions for homes in the area, has been cited as proof of a payoff to participants. But the alternative, is that these numbers are simply a place-holder – and the same database shows similar $0 for houses in other towns as well. Or one of the parents, Robbie Parker, who doesn’t behave at a press-conference the way the hoax proponents think he should. Me, I’ve never sent a child off to school and had them gunned down before lunch: I’m absolutely not going to tell anyone how they “should” behave under such a circumstance. Anything from catatonia to pure, undiluted rage would seem quite plausible to me.

What does all this have to do with Carl Sagan, best known for the original Cosmos series? Before I get to that, I did have the option to read his most well-known work, but I opted to pass, since the TV series had a tendency to send me off to sleep. Not that it was boring: just that it takes me back to being a 13-year-old, allowed to stay up late to watch the show. I rarely made it to the end, since his voice, pleasantly intoning “bill-yuns and bill-yuns”, had about the same soporific effect on me as mainlining a bottle of cough syrup. So, I opted for this one instead – though just to be safe, read it on my phone while doing laps of the courtyard at work on my breaks. Unconsciousness was successfully staved off. I can do no better than the Wikipedia summary: the book “aims to explain the scientific method to laypeople, and to encourage people to learn critical or skeptical thinking. It explains methods to help distinguish between ideas that are considered valid science, and ideas that can be considered pseudoscience. Sagan states that when new ideas are offered for consideration, they should be tested by means of skeptical thinking, and should stand up to rigorous questioning.”

These are skills which are, in general, sadly lacking in /r/conspiracy. While there is skepticism, it’s a one-way street, that’s applied only to mainstream news sources where the reported information doesn’t fit the agenda. Now, it’s certainly wise to think about the agenda behind the reporting of FOX News or CNN. But it’s completely idiotic to think that alternative news sources have any less of an agenda, or don’t spin things every bit as much. There’s always the “want to hear both sides, because the truth is in the middle” argument – but that doesn’t apply to facts. If one source tells you Arsenal won the FA Cup and another says it was Manchester United, that doesn’t mean the final score was a draw. The other main problem is letting the theory drive your investigation and interpretation of the data. For instance, Sandy Hook hoax proponents wonder why we didn’t see any surveillance footage of Adam Lanza, in the way we saw the Columbine killers, hinting darkly that it’s because the story is made up. But the truth is, there were no surveillance cameras in Sandy Hook elementary. They’re demanding to see something that doesn’t exist.

sandy hook

The scientific method involves examining all the data, and coming up with something which then explains them, as completely as possible – with the caveat here that no event, subsequently described and interpreted by humans, will ever be perfectly without inconsistencies of detail. At Sandy Hook, the simplest, most elegant theory is that a mentally disturbed individual with access to lethal weaponry, used them to commit an almost unthinkable atrocity. Which may be from where the conspiracy theories spring, an attempt to find a less threatening alternative, i.e. “nobody died”, effectively wishing away the idea of 20 first- and second-graders being gunned down in their school. Sadly, that doesn’t make it true, and if you’re going to claim it, you will need to provide an alternative that explains all – not some – of the available evidence, equally as well as the “official” story. That just hasn’t happen. I’ve yet to hear any hypothesis which provides detail on how, why and by who the hoax, of necessity involving thousands of people, was carried out.

Sagan particularly speaks to this in a chapter entitled The dragon in my garage, in which he discusses a hypothetical claim about a fire-breathing creature, that’s impossible to disprove. You can’t see it? It’s invisible. You can’t feel the heat? The fire produced is heatless. It sounds like more than a few conspiracy theories, which are equally hard to nail down. We see this at Sandy Hook, with the allegation that there were no death certificates. When one of the parents released the certificate, it was then claimed, on dubious grounds, to be a forgery. [Again, one way scepticism: anything countering the mindset is scrutinized in painstaking detail; anything supporting it is typically accepted without question] It’s a continual shifting of the goalposts: you dispose of one claim, and another will simply get wheeled out to replace it. As Sagan says, “If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.”

I don’t agree with Sagan in some of his more socially-oriented opinions here – when you no longer have a fully-informed electorate, democracy becomes much more part of the problem, rather than a solution. And that’s why I do agree with him about the vita importance of education, and in particular, teaching critical thinking skills. Telling children 2+2=4 is all very well, but what happens when they then encounter 2+3? Giving them the ability to analyze data and solve problems is much better than the rote learning of facts. We should expect citizens to question authority, where the evidence is there to do so, and it’s part of science’s duty to do exactly that. Nicolaus Copernicus, for example, challenged the widely-accepted and Church supported notion that the sun revolved around the Earth in the 16th century, after he realized the data didn’t support it. But dogmatic scepticism is just as bad as dogmatic belief. Yes, the gumment will lie to you. But they don’t do so all the time – or even most of it, because they know it’s the truth that makes the lies plausible. Using the tools in what Sagan politely calls his “baloney detection kit” will help you separate the two.

It would certainly help many people, who mindlessly repost the most blatantly false shit on their Facebook wall, without a semblance of critical thought, or even basic Googling. As Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Oh, hang on: that wasn’t Twain at all. I think for most people, an increase in scepticism would likely help, and that’s why, in the end, Sagan’s approach perhaps has more common with /r/conspiracy than it would initially appear, even if the latter’s approach to scepticism is a half-baked one.

“The business of scepticism is to be dangerous. Scepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of sceptical thought, they will probably not restrict their scepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials and 35,000-year-old channellees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?”

TC’s Ten Best Films of 2014

The final tally of films seen in 2014 was 317, which is a handful up on last year. Felt like a better selection, with submissions to the Phoenix FearCon representing a very significant chunk of the top tier. Mind you, they would probably also feature heavily if I did a list of the bottom ten films: there were a number of cases where I seriously had to wonder, in what universe this was a movie you’d show to anyone outside your immediate family. But those are already all but forgotten, and finding the gems listed below, which we’d never have seen otherwise, made up for it. Cinema going continues to decline, with traditional theater visits contributing a whopping total of… Two: Godzilla and Lucy.

In vaguely chronological order of viewing, honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the top 10, either because they weren’t quite good enough, or I couldn’t quite squeeze them in to even my famously loose definition of what constitutes “2014”: Wolf of Wall Street, Cat Run, Daddy’s Little Girl, Final Cut, Die Wand, Nurse 3D, Big Bad Wolves, Sharknado 2 [so sue me, it was fun], The Man in the Orange Jacket, Roseville, Mirage Men, Snowpiercer, Dead Snow 2, 009-1: The End of the Beginning and Gun Woman. Said definition is “got some kind of US screening or release in 2014, in one format or another,” and links go to wherever I wrote the longest review, which may be this site, or, in one case, over on


10. Godzilla. There were a lot of complaints about this one, and justifiably so, in the case of a hero who was blander than vanilla pudding. However, it’s worth remembering how little Godzilla there was in the original fifties version too, and what we did get here, was simply majestic. The first glimpse of the big G was one of those moments that made even my jaded, cynical heart beat like a hummingbird’s, and reminded me of why I love film. What we said: “Complaining about the acting in a Godzilla film, is like complaining about cinematography in gonzo porn: it’s missing the entire point of the endeavour.”

9. The Battered Bastards of Baseball. Similarly, this documentary shows a pure love of the sport that’s thoroughly invigorating, It details the efforts of Kurt Russell’s father [yep, that Kurt Russell] to buy and run a minor-league baseball team, independent of any major-league affiliation, recruiting a mix of has-beens and never-weres (the latter including Kurt), and using savvy marketing to survive in Portland. A true gritty underdog story. What we said: “With the game seeming to be increasingly corporate, this film shows there is another way: it may not be more profitable, but it sure looks a lot more fun.”

8. 300: Rise of an Empire. While this may not have made quite the same startling impression as the original, we say in the Sin City sequel that merely repeating the same thing isn’t enough. Wisely, the makers here took the same tech but opted for a broader story and avoiding the uber-macho posturing [rightly skewered in Meet the Spartans]. Instead, it gave us a genuine, kick-ass historical heroine in Artemisia (Eva Green), and a ceaseless palette of visual inventiveness which made for a sequel which was straight-up more entertaining. What we said: “If what you have here occasionally topples over into video-game style, it rarely looks less than lovely.”

7. Circus of the Dead. The first, but not the last, feature on the list which was screened at this year’s Phoenix FilmCon, this would also win Best Performance by an Actor, thanks to Bill Oberst Jr’s chilling portrayal of the most amoral clown ever. He can snap from lovable to psychotic in a second, then back to charming before you’ve caught your breath: without that at its core, this would have been not much more than an empty parade of atrocitities [Hello, A Serbian Film]. Instead, it packs a genuine wallop, taking the viewer over the edge and beyond. What we said: “Hypnotic to watch, and feels like being trapped in a box with a rattlesnake: you cannot let your guard drop for even a minute”

6. Blood Runs Black. Another FearCon flick, this one was the opposite of Circus in some ways: where that was expansive and explicit, this was claustrophobic and understated. But either approach is valid, since it’s the execution which matters. Shot with a crew which consisted almost entirely of the director, this depicts the gradual collapse into insanity of a woman, after her boyfriend leaves on a business trip. But is it paranoia, or is someone genuinely out to get her? The audience is pulled along with the heroine, and you’re never sure of whether what you’re seeing is real or not. What we said: “A textbook example of how a limited budget can be made to work for a film, rather than against it.”

5. Maleficent. This, meanwhile, was a Hollywood blockbuster in all ways, but succeeded simply on the basis of an inspired casting choice. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else but Angelina Jolie as the evil sorceress, yet the film provides an effective back-story, providing a plausible explanation for why she became that way. While I’d love to see some other stories told from the supposed villain’s perspective, they would be extremely hard-pushed to come up with as impeccable a match of character and actress as we say here. What we said: “Jolie as Maleficent? Suddenly, the idea doesn’t just make sense, it became more a case of, why did nobody think of this before?”

4. Mar Negro. This is the first Brazillian horror movie I’ve ever seen – I’ve heard of, but have never watched, any of the Coffin Joe series. On the basis of this, I’ve been missing out terribly, for this is a joyously excessive exercise, perhaps the goriest movie since Brain Dead. It does take some time to get to that point, but even the journey there is still a fun one, filled with quirky characters, an unusual setting and an escalating sense of something being very wrong. Then, when it all explodes – it’s totally glorious. And I haven’t even got as far as the beached whale yet. What we said: “The insanity on view is not just epic, it’s also highly entertaining.”

3. Raze. We’ve been waiting for someone to give Zöe Bell another starring role since Death Proof: we’ve seen her in a few things, but nothing has been quite worthy of her talents. Then this shows up, filling our request with, basically, 95 minutes of righteous Bell ass-kickings. It’s a nasty, brutal and vicious fight flick – so, just the way we like them. The fact that it’s women delivering the brutality, however, renders the entire operation radically original, and with Bell at the core, it delivers a mean grindhouse wallop, surpassed only by Hobo With a Shotgun in the last few years. What we said: “Much like Bell herself, it punches well above its weight.”

2. Berkshire County. After watching this, someone at the Fearcon screening said, “So, why isn’t this in the cinema?” And they were right: this isn’t just the equal of anything cinematically released this year in the horror genre, it thoroughly destroys them.  In terms of storyline, it’s a straightforward “babysitter in peril” plot, that goes all the way back to Halloween. However, it takes this well-known concept and delivers impeccably, adding its own variety of twists, and giving us a “final girl” that’s truly worthy to stand alongside Curtis and Weaver. What we said: “You’ll find yourself frequently holding your breath, for close to an hour after things kick off.”


1. Gravity. For the second consecutive year, hard SF leads the way. Much the same breath-holding is true here, which opens with one of the most bravura and jaw-dropping shots in cinema history, and doesn’t let up thereafter. This is truly what cinema is supposed to do: show us places we’ve never been to, and takes us along with the characters for the ride. No film has ever done such a good job of showcasing the perils of space. But while this pushes the boundaries of technology, it also still keeps a firm grip on the core essential of good movie-making: telling a story that captures your interest, concerning a character you care about. What we said: “Everyone involved here deserves enormous praise for their work in crafting a memorable piece of cinema.”

Top 10s: 1998-2014

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Manos, Hands of Fate

Dir: Harold P. Warren
Star: Harold P. Warren, Tom Neyman, John Reynolds, Diane Mahree

It’s perhaps surprising, given my fondness for badfilm, that I had never quite got round to watching this, often regarded as the worst movie of all time. At one point, it was thus ranked on the IMDb: though it has now been replaced there (the current incumbent is this year’s Saving Christmas, though I suspect it won’t last, and will eventually return the crown to Birdemic), Manos remains in the bottom dozen. A lot of the responsibility for this has to belong to Mystery Science Theater 3000, who plucked the film from near-total obscurity when they picked it as a target in 1993 – to the shock of the cast, who hadn’t seen it in a quarter of a century. I watched their take on the film the morning after watching the “raw” version, and certainly can’t argue with it being perfect material for their satire. But, on the other hand, nor would I necessarily say I enjoyed it more.

Can I find anything to say about the film, that hasn’t been said a million times before? Well, I’ll try. However, I’ll start by dutifully recounting the plot, such as it is. On the way to their vacation, husband and wife Michael (Warren) and Margaret (Mahree), along with their young daughter and family dog, find themselves lost, and forced to spend the night at a remote residence. The caretaker, Torgo (Reynolds), keeps referring to the “Master” (Neyman), as if he is both dead and alive. Turns out, he’s a bit of both, and is the head of a polygamist occult cult with a fondness for human sacrifice (as well as, it appears, an unlimited expense account at Frederick’s of Hollywood), and has designs on both female guests as wives #7 and #8.

Separated at birth
The lead singer of Laibach vs. The Master

However, to me, it doesn’t deserve to be considered the worst film of all time. Writer-director-producer Warren was a salesman by trade, and made this on a bar bet with Stirling Silliphant, a Hollywood screenwriter best known for In the Heat of the Night. But he seems largely aware of his limitations and doesn’t try to do anything particularly excessive. Compare, say, The Creeping Terror, which is equally as bad in most technical departments. but also mocks up an alien creature using what appears to be cast-off remnants of carpet. Such miserable failure is a worse cinematic crime than not trying at all. [There’s a reason monster movies occupy a special place in the temple of badmovie, something which continues to the present day with Birdemic and, arguably, the more self-aware Sharknado and its ilk]


The other element which saves this is John Reynolds’ fabulous performance as Torgo. I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as to call Reynolds a good actor. I’d need to see him in something else to decide that, and this won’t happen as, sadly, he committed suicide between the end of production and the film’s release. It’s also reported that he was frequently high on set, which would explain a great deal about his portrayal of Torgo, which feels completely disconnected, not just from the other performers, but reality in general. However, it seems not just appropriate, but spot-on for an acolyte in a cult, devoted to the Master with an almost brainwashed mentality. Right from the first time you see him, Torgo exudes a creepy air: eyes half-closed, as if is he is frantically masturbating out of the camera’s view.

The film’s status has also helped to generate its fair share of myths. For instance, some legends say Torgo was supposed to have cloven feet and be some kind of satyr creature. While it is generally agreed he did wear leg braces for the film, I’m not certain what the point is, since when you see his feet in the film, there’s no apparent indication of any hooves. It just makes Torgo look gimpy – and this in turn makes Michael seem a dick, as he barks at a disabled guy to carry his bags about. In some retellings, the lore goes further, saying Reynolds wore the braces backwards, with the discomfort caused leading to him becoming addicted to painkillers and factoring in to his demise. This has been flatly denied by Jackey Neyman, who played the daughter, and has documented the experiences of her and her father, both in making the movie, and since its cult renaissance, courtesy of MST3K.

It seems silly and largely unnecessary to make stuff up, since there are many completely woeful aspects worthy of spotlighting.The script, in particular, is badly underwritten, and even at 68 minutes, there isn’t enough going on to cover that length. It doesn’t so much hit the ground running as crawling, with a length opening sequence of little or no interest, which sets the tone for a lot of what’s to come, and then segues – not for the last time – into a lengthy necking scene featuring a pair of middle-aged “teenagers”, who are then hassled by the local cops. Neither group play any significant part in the main story, with the closest approach being the cops almost investigating at one point. Another bit of film lore says the woman was originally scheduled to play Margaret, but broke her leg; Warren added this sub-plot so she could still be in the film. Given the end result, this kindness seems somewhat of a double-edged sword.


I could go through and pick apart every aspect of the film in a similar fashion, but really, what’s the point, beyond burning through every available thesaurus entry for “bad”. But I feel I should mention some of the particular lowlights, starting with the Master’s amazing robe (right). It’s printed with a pair of giant hands on each side; the problem is, you can only see these when he has his arms stretched out at his sides. So, he does it a lot. An awful lot. You could make a drinking game out of that alone. British readers of a certain age may, like me, be reminded of Kenny Everett’s character, Brother Lee Love, another religious figure with similarly over-sized mitts.

However, perhaps my favorite section of the entire movie is the middle, where the master’s wives get into a six-way catfight and Torgo is “massaged to death” for insubordination and having lustful thoughts about the Master’s harem. That phrase was apparently taken from an El Paso Herald-Post review at the time the movie was released, though it isn’t entirely accurate. The last we see of Torgo, he has had a hand removed and turned into a novelty candle by the Master, then runs off into the desert, waving the burning stump around, apparently to light his path. That’s what passes for closure in this film. But given his previously-demonstrated ability suddenly to come out of nowhere and whack the hero across the back into unconsciousness, you spend the remainder of the running-time wondering if there will be an equally abrupt return.

It’s quite a surreal experience all told, and the ending feels to me like Carnival of Souls, which was released four years previously. Indeed, this is one of those rare movies which might have been improved if Warren had used the cop-out, “…and it was all a dream.” While that would not have helped with the shoddy camerawork, bad dubbing (poor Jackey Neyman supposedly burst into tears at the premiere, on hearing someone else’s voice come out of her mouth) and production values that can only aspire to scraping the bottom of the barrel, it would at least have been in keeping with the overall delirious tone of proceedings. If MST3K are remembered for nothing else, they have to be commended for saving this piece of work from the oblivion it richly deserves.