While channel surfing the other day, I stumbled upon the Jamie Lee Curtis slasher flick Terror Train. Made in 1980, the movie proved a retro delight, one that included the entirely unexpected presence of magician David Copperfield.
Virtually unheard of now, Copperfield was omnipresent throughout the ’80s. Looking more like a mannequin than a person, Copperfield had a floridly dramatic manner that rendered everything he touched, well, stupid. He was actually kind of creepy, like one of those black velvet paintings of a little girl with massive, pleading eyes.
Regardless, he seemed to be on TV all the time. One week, with the help of an actor like the guy who played Bosley on “Charlie’s Angels,” he’d levitate a car, and then you’d see him pop up in a Bonnie Tyler video floating across the Grand Canyon.
As this was virtually a pre-irony era, it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as it might now sound.
Regardless, it was Copperfield who brought magic to a mass television audience. Of course, TV is an entirely inappropriate medium in which to convey this sort of thing. With special effects and CGI, we can see a credible visual presentation of anything we can imagine, so are we really going to be astonished by watching a guy pretend to saw a woman in half? I mean, isn’t TV itself an illusion?
Twenty years later, David Blaine, who has branded himself something of an endurance/performance artist rather than old-school magician, revolutionized the way that magic is transmitted to a TV audience. Instead of having the camera focus on the trick, Blaine decided to concentrate our eye on the responses of the people who were witnessing the trick.
Criss Angel, the star and presiding force behind “Mindfreak,” also takes this path. Angel, with long hair dyed so black as to appear blue, looks like a healthy version of Marilyn Manson. With his head shop jewelry and Goth make-up, he hopes to suggest some sort of Vampiric majesty, but comes across looking ridiculous and pretentious.
As the show opens, we watch as a messiah-like Angel, clad in flowing robes, walks across a desert while a handful of circus freaks caper about him. Juxtaposed with this are video clips of astonished people freaking out, and then suddenly, the word MINDFREAK cracks into the arid desert floor as if some demonic portent of the coming apocalypse.
A recent episode of the show commenced with the promise of a death-defying stunt called White Death. In this trick, Angel was to be handcuffed, locked in a coffin, and then buried six feet under a covering of snow.
This point was hammered home though a series of brief interviews, in which various members of Team Angel expressed their fear for the illusionist’s life. This included segments with his brothers, who are apparently all on the payroll. Meaty, with the longish, virile hair of Greek studs, they each looked like they might have had a van with some sort of fantasy mural air brushed on it in back in the 1980s.
But before White Death, Angel is going to freak our minds with insane demonstrations on the streets of Las Vegas. These streets, it’s worth noting, are not populated by everyday folk, but by tourists looking for a show.
Angel, looking a little bit like a defiant skater girl with his baseball cap tilted at a saucy angle, has no trouble rounding up five people to participate in one of his tricks. More watch the spectacle from behind a barricade 20 yards further afield. Far from creating a spontaneous, anything-can-happen vibe, it looks like a rehearsed performance unfolding on a soundstage.
As he executes the trick, people stare, mouths agape. A huge black man looks into the camera and declares, “Criss Angel is one crazy motherfucker!” Angel then opens his mouth wide and lunges at the camera, as if to devour it.
Later, during another segment, he gets a nearly hot blonde to help out. She squeals and runs over to Angel in the tiny, mincing steps of somebody wearing high heels. She celebrates her arrival like she just scored a touchdown, but the truth is that nobody looks all that excited.
There’s a perfunctory quality to these acts, both in the performer and the audience he found by “chance” on the street.
This introductory portion of the show, designed to lead us to the big, concluding stunt, is little more than a series of product placements for retail goods and advertisements for Angel’s Vegas act, which he tells us, repeatedly, he performs 10 times a week, 46 weeks a year.
The fact that White Death took place at the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, and not in the unforgiving wilderness was no accident. Angel and the Mammoth Mountain Corporation were trying to move product, and in spite of the sound of a biting wind that the production team superimposed over portions of the video, the place looked really pleasant. Charming tufts of grass were bursting through the snow, and you never had the feeling that an excellent golf course was any less than a three-minute stroll away.
No matter, we are once again told, this time by his mother as well as his brothers, about the deadly perils of this stunt. We see Angel training for White Death. He sleeps in a coffin in order to get used to his space restrictions. He practices picking handcuffs in a walk-in freezer and shivers in a tub full of ice cubes so that he will be used to the cold. He’s like a mystical version of Rocky!
On the hill, there are maybe 50 people present to witness the event. As Angel is lowered into the ground and the snow is heaped on top of him, a concerned mother holds her child tight, while a young boy bites his fist and a little girl pulls her toque over her eyes. From the interior coffin-cam, we see Angel furiously struggle, as if something has gone horribly awry. The camera fuzzes out, and then we hear the sound of snow collapsing, as if crushing a coffin!
But nobody looks all that nervous. They pretend to, but they don’t. There are no ambulances or helicopters, no doctors, nobody trying to excavate our hero, just the production team wandering about, telling us that they PROMISED Criss that they would not try to rescue him.
Eventually, we hear some indistinct sounds, and then we see a close-up of a brave finger with black nail polish on it, break through the snow. Angel emerges, rolls over on his back, and collapses. Somebody puts one of those little oxygen masks that stewardesses use in their on-flight demonstrations on him, and the credits roll.
It’s all as absurd and manipulative as a haunted house at an exhibition, but like an Ex, it’s not really designed for adults. It’s a B-movie, the sort of thing that a kid’s supposed to see on a rainy Saturday afternoon, inspiring them to feel that yes, anything is possible. And in the end, it’s the belief in the miracle, rather than the miracle itself, that sustains us.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.