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academia book reviews pop culture Pop Culture Archaeology

Goodreads Review: Waking the Moon

Waking the Moon

Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

July was a misery. A global heatwave, strong earthquakes in California, fires in the American Southwest, and other signs of catastrophic climate change were all around. In DC, power outages and random violence were attributed to the miserable weather. Tourists listlessly thronged the museums while residents inched through endless construction between their mediocre-paying civil service jobs and their overpriced apartments. The Benandanti, a powerful cult of archaeologists who secretly control the world, really dropped the ball in the summer of 1994.

With the (possible) exception of that powerful cult of archaeologists, I found Elizabeth Hand’s 1995 Waking the Moon an uncannily accurate reflection of reality as I read the book in the summer of 2019. Despite the hyper-realism afforded my reading experience by climate change, gentrification, and sweaty tourists, Waking the Moon is fiction – a Tiptree Award winning novel by an author whose work I’ve long admired.

Spoilers are few and far between and most of the plot details I reveal are either in the book blurbs, on the back cover, or occur within the first 2 chapters of the book. Still, you’ve been warned.

The story opens in 1975 at The University of the Archangels and Saint John the Divine, aka the Divine, a vaguely fictionalized version of Catholic University in Washington, DC. Although the real-life, over-the-top Shrine is vital to the plot, the Vatican isn’t in charge in this world. The Catholic Church can only dream of wielding the power and influence of the ambiguously religious, multi-faith Benandanti, who run the place in Waking the Moon.

Look, if I controlled everything and I wanted to hide in plain sight, Academia the cover I’d choose. But members of the Benandanti aren’t hiding, exactly. I actually love that it’s unclear how well known they are. What little Hand reveals about their history and machinations is much more evocative than what we get in the combined works of Dan Brown.

At The Divine, the Benandanti seem to devote most of their resources to fostering a culture of favoritism and privilege on campus, teaching ethically hinky anthropology courses, and fretting about when someone will reawaken a bloodthirsty Moon Goddess. It’s all rather vague. What matters here is that this is a world in which Anthropologists and Archaeologists are wealthy and powerful and Feminist Archaeologists are celebrities.

I know, right?

So where was I?

1975. Right.

Summer is ending and visiting Divine professor/Benandanti member Dr. Magda Kurtz, a world-famous Feminist Archaeologist, is preparing to head back to California.

I assume Magda was inspired by UCLA Archaeologist Dr. Marija Gimbutas, a controversial figure who was largely responsible for the late 20th Century Goddess craze. Magda’s dissertation-turned runaway bestseller seems to be an homage to Gimbutas’s 1974 book, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.

At the Divine, Magda’s seminars are legendary opium-infused gatherings filled with magic and mystery. (I may be in the wrong DC Anthropology Department).

Magda, we soon learn, is a traitor to the Benandanti and possessed by Moon Goddess Othiym.

Magda’s backstory is the stuff of a thousand archaeologically-influenced horror tales. Dig financed by a rich industrialist with an unethical collection of Antiquities. Superstitious locals. Rumors of tainted or unholy ground. The discovery of a Powerful Sacred Object. Magda’s realization a Dark Power led her to the site. The dig-site accident to inject a bit of dramatic tension, followed by a scene of Archaeologists running for their lives. The meteoric career ascension of the Archaeologist who unethically kept the Sacred Object.

Honestly, I can overlook all the horror-archaeology clichés, because that’s not what tried my patience. Stumbling around the site at night, Magda accidentally exposes the burial of an ancient human sacrifice which proves that the Mood Goddess was more than a minor local Minoan deity.

Even if Magda was an expert in skeletal analysis, I’d call shenanigans. By the light of the moon and a weak flashlight, she casually determines sex, cause of death, and age at time of death of a partially exposed set of human remains down in a pit? Nope.

Fine. OK. Yes. I get it. I’m being pedantic and realistic while reading a splendid, atmosphere-oozing fantasy novel.

Let’s just accept that the Goddess chose Magda, led her to the site, gave her knowledge, and enabled her to earn early tenure. All she had to do was use the lunula she found with the remains to slit her colleagues throat, feed the Goddess some blood, steal the artifact, and keep it all a secret. I appreciate that Hand didn’t spend time detailing how the Goddess finessed it so Magda could turn that circumstantial evidence into a career. It just is and here we are.

Anthropology Department Chair Balthazar Warnick and his Benandanti pals invited Magda back to The Divine to do whatever it is she’s been doing there all summer. One thing we know she wasn’t doing: fooling the Benandati. They totally know she’s a traitor, probably because she runs around wearing the lunula, that large sacred crescent-shaped necklace/weapon.

The real action begins when the students arrive on campus for the Fall semester.

Impossibly beautiful freshmen Angelica di Rienzi and Oliver Wilde Crawford are Benandanti legacies. Oliver’s parents are “famous (and famously wealthy) anthropologists.” (79) Sure, why not?

The Benandanti see A Sign. Impossibly beautiful Angelica and Oliver are fated for something or another! And! There’s a second portent! A plot complication named Katherine Sweeney Cassidy!

Angelica and Oliver befriend Sweeney on the first day of class.

The story unfolds predominantly through Sweeney’s first-person narration. Strategic shifts to the third person provide glimpses of the growing Goddess cult out in the world, as well as assurance that Sweeney is pretty reliable, she’s just doesn’t seem terribly observant or inquisitive about how or why her life unfolds the way it does.

A pair of angels showed up in Sweeney’s dorm room her first night on campus and watched her sleep, but otherwise Sweeney seems to just be a smart kid who somehow chose a super-elite university brimming with Benandanti legacies without knowing about the Benandanti.

Hand deftly demonstrates that magic is imbricated in this world in the first few pages. Warnick is at a lodge in West Virginia when he’s called back to the Divine on short notice. He casually opens an ordinary wooden door and steps through a portal back to the campus in DC. In my opinion, the second half of the book is overstuffed with incantations and lyrics which felt like ponderous and twee intrusions amongst the otherwise elegant, atmospheric scenes. Fortunately, Hand doesn’t bog down the plot with elaborate metaphysical explanations for magic or wizarding bowel movements, so I guess plodding through some incantations is a small price to pay.

So. Yes. Magic. On the first night of school, at a bacchanal, Professor Warnick shoves Magda through a portal, presumably sending her to her death in a hellscape of giant insectile beings. Sweeney and Angelica witnessed this horror and the memory haunts Sweeney forever.

Magda gave the lunula to Angelica before she was hauled to her doom. The Benandati don’t take it away from Angelica because, let’s be honest, they don’t seem great at many parts of their job.

Sweeney and Oliver drink a lot and do a lot of drugs and spend a lot of time at gay clubs in Southeast DC and very little time going to class. Bloodshed ensues when the students visit the Orphic Lodge in West Virginia. Things end poorly for a bull (dead), Oliver (institutionalized), and Sweeney (threatened with expulsion on trumped-up drug charges, but ultimately exiled from the Divine to the inferior archaeology program at nearby George Washington University).

The book then jumps ahead to 1994. I have the 512 page UK edition. 120 pages were excised from that for the US edition and it’s my understanding that the first half of the book bore the brunt of this sacrifice. This probably for the best, because it’s in the second half (incantations aside) that the story truly gets its hooks in you.

Sweeney now works in the Anthropology Department at the Natural History museum and lives in the carriage house behind the Capitol Hill home of her boss, Dr. Dvorkin. She’s oblivious to Angelica’s rise to worldwide stardom as a super-famous and influential Feminist Archaeologist with a New Age cult until she catches her appearance on a daytime talk show. Angelica’s bestsellers are presumably homages to Dr. Marija Gimbutas’s later books, The Language of the Goddess (1989) and Civilization of the Goddess (1991). I could do some research on this, but I didn’t, because this started out as a quick Goodreads review and is already a bit out of control.

Where was I? Right. New Age. If your definition of “New Age” is “abducting and murdering pretty young vulnerable men who society considers expendable every month under the light of the Full Moon,” that is.

Sweeney doesn’t seem to use email and there’s no mention of the Internet. It’s 1994, after all. Angelica now uses her married name – Angelica Furiano (Italian for Avenging Angel) – but Sweeney is still in touch with all of their mutual besties from the Divine and, not to put too fine a point on it, she and Angelica are professionals in the same field.

Clearly, the Benandanti put a lot of energy into conspiring to keep anyone from spilling the beans to Sweeney that Angelica is now leader of a worldwide cult of Goddess-worshipping women. I’m joking about Sweeney’s cluelessness, but the subtle ways this is revealed add immeasurably to the sense of unease I felt as I read. This is some damn good storytelling, intertwined with damn good worldbuilding.

As the world catches fire and Angelica advances her blood-soaked mission to get the Goddess back up to full strength, the Benandanti finally quit wringing their hands about her true genocidal nature and…still don’t really do much.

Well, they do finally clue Sweeney in that they’ve been greasing the wheels for her for 19 years because they saw A Sign way back when that suggested that she’s going to save the day for them somehow maybe they hope.

Sweeney is rather upset to realize how much of her life has been guided by the Benandanti, which include not only the faculty at the Divine but her boss at the Smithsonian and who knows who else.

She’s never forgiven the Benandanti for exiling her from the Divine without explanation that weird night in West Virginia. Or for what she saw them do to Magda. She seems feisty enough to let the world burn and them with it. It’s a testament to Hand’s skill that Sweeney doesn’t come across as helpless or compliant or foolish for being led down this carefully crafted path for all these years.

I must confess that, from the start, Sweeney seemed to me a foremother to Cass Neary, the protagonist of several of Hand’s excellent crime novels, so from the moment she arrived in the story I felt like she was going to come into her own, possibly before there was any actual evidence to support this outcome

Ultimately, she does save the day, but not out of any sense of obligation to a patriarchal cult, and I’m not going to tell you how because spoilers.

To be fair, although she didn’t ask for their meddling, she got a lot of stuff out of the Benandanti, like free Anthropology degrees and Federal employment and an office with a window on the Mall side of Natural History and affordable rent on a cottage in an idyllic garden.

On the other hand, that adorable cottage she lives in through over a decade of DC heat and humidity doesn’t have air conditioning so maybe even with all of the assists, Sweeney and the Benandanti could just call it all square.

But, they got her that super-hot 19 year old intern who’s good in bed and slavishly devoted to her.

What super-hot 19 year old? You ask. I told you I skipped over quite a lot because I didn’t want to ruin your fun and I also wanted to get to a few serious points.

First, the novel is quite progressive and has aged pretty well. It’s lovely that the fluidity of gender and sexuality are neither questioned nor pathologized, and I imagine that epic conference papers have been written about this book, but I don’t want to ruin many of the interesting twists in the story for you by discussing these characters or their story arcs here.

Second, the heroes and the villains. If you want to know which is which, I can’t help you.

The Benandanti certainly aren’t heroes. They excel at infiltrating every element of society and gliding through bureaucracy, but their entire mission statement is to maintain the status quo and to be vigilant for the rise of this genocidal moon goddess. The status quo sucks. And when it’s obvious the Moon Goddess is on the way they just sit on their thumbs for decades. By 1994, apocalyptic shit is going down all over the planet and a lot of people are dying, both directly at their hands and indirectly due to their inaction. Not heroic, dudes.

Plus, they didn’t give Sweeney air conditioning.

In DC.

Seriously?

While they may not be heroes, they aren’t the sole villains of the piece.

Angelica isn’t any easier to pin down. As the Moon Goddess she’s going to crush the patriarchy, but then she’s probably going to eat everyone and sandblast the Earth.

Third, I think it’s vital to mention that pseudoarchaeology is a prominent tool in regressive ideologies that promote Nationalism and erase or obscure the histories of Indigenous and historically oppressed people, among other issues. A critical component of these false narratives is the idea that archaeologists suppress knowledge, destroy data, horde treasures, and generally work to mislead the public in order to secretly control the world. This is bad for society and it’s dangerous for archaeologists, who are reporting increasing threats from members of the public who accuse them of conspiring to hide “the truth.”

While I greatly enjoyed Waking the Moon and recommend it highly to fantasy readers, especially archaeologists who enjoy literary fantasy fiction, the endlessly reproduced image of the archaeologist as secretive keeper of divine wisdom and true knowledge will always make me a little uneasy. It’s because of this that I knocked 1 star from my rating. Okay, that and maybe also all those insufferable incantations.


View all my reviews

Categories
pop culture television

This Woman Punches Nazis: “The New Original Wonder Woman” (1.1)

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The posts in this series contain copious spoilers for a TV series that ran from 1976-1979. If that’s a problem, this is definitely not the blog for you.

“The New Original Wonder Woman” (1.1) aired on November 7, 1975. Written by Stanley Ralph Ross and directed by Leonard Horn, this was technically the 2nd pilot episode ABC produced before greenlighting the show in 1976. (The 1974 pilot starred Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman). Ross had written twenty-five percent of the episodes of Adam West’s Batman TV series (1966-1968). When the network rejected the first pilot, they chose camp-meister Ross to create and develop the series, starting with a newly adapted storyworld and cast.

The episode opens with a World War II stock footage montage. At the end of the sequence, an FDR impersonator gravely intones: “The only hope for freedom and democracy…” as we cut to the Wonder Woman theme song and a comicbook-style title sequence.

After Lynda Carter (Diana Prince/Wonder Woman) and Lyle Waggoner (Steve Trevor) pop out of their frames and smile their thousand watt smiles, we get straight to the campy action.

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By the way, Lyle Waggoner was Playgirl magazine’s first centerfold, tastefully concealing his junk from the camera in the pages of the April 1973 inaugural issue. (This link is going to return way more than I think you want to see on a Friday afternoon and is 100% NOT SAFE FOR WORK. I know you’re going to click it anyway but you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Go on. You know you want to. I’ll wait here).

You done? OK. Moving on…

After the title sequence, we see a Top Secret Nazi Base in Germany, wherein a Nazi Commander (Kenneth Mars) summons an ace Nazi Pilot (Eric Braeden) for a secret mission. The media Trope of the Sissy Villain is in full play here: the Nazi Commander is an effeminate diva.

Awkward exposition explaining the secret mission ensues.

“Blahblahblah. Nazi. Nazi. Nazi. Blow up the Brooklyn Navy Yard. If you don’t do it right I’ll do it myself.”

While the Nazi Commander gives the Nazi Pilot his orders, the Third Nazi in the room sneaks off, because he’s a spy!

Meanwhile in Washington D.C., devilishly handsome war hero Steve Trevor reads the Nazi spy’s intel. In keeping with the 1970s obsession with the Bermuda Triangle, Steve Trevor heads off to intercept the Nazi pilot in the Bermuda Triangle because planes disappear there all the time so the Nazis won’t suspect the Americans. Obviously.

Too bad Steve and General Blankenship (John Randolph) have this conversation in front of Steve’s sexy secretary, Marcia (Playboy Playmate Stella Stevens) because she’s not really running off to a doctor’s appointment before her date with Steve that night. She’s a Nazi spy! He’s a pig! But it’s the 1970s as the 1940s, so only one of those things is bad!

Soon, Steve is in a dog-fight over the Bermuda Triangle. He and the Nazi Pilot have to eject from their planes. They drift down in their parachutes, mere feet from each other, while having a hilariously inept shoot-out. The Nazi is eaten by sharks; Steve Trevor washes up on the beach.

Luckily…It’s Paradise Island!

Princess Diana and her gal-pal Rena (Inga Neilson) are cavorting down the beach in their chiffon shortie-nighties when they come upon…an unconscious man! This is the first time Steve Trevor is rendered unconscious, but it won’t be the last – not even the last time this episode.

Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, wonders why, after 1000 years, a man has found their island. As the Queen, Chloris Leachman chews: an apple, her knuckles, the scenery. It’s pretty amazing. I can’t even imagine what kind of direction she was getting from director Leonard Horn. The result was fantastic, whatever it was. Amazingly, Leachman doesn’t even play the kookiest iteration of Hippolyta in the series. That title goes to Carolyn Jones, perhaps best known as television’s Morticia Addams, who takes over the role later in the season.

Under the influence of truth serum, which was also big in the ’70s, Steve confesses he’s a spy and tells the Queen about the Nazis.

In Washington D.C., General Blankenship tells Stella that Steve is dead.

In Germany, the Nazi Commander minces off to complete the mission himself. (Oh yes, we’ll be talking about masculinity, gender, and stereotypes in a later post, as well as the changing portrayal of the Nazis over the course of the first season).

On Paradise Island, the Queen just wants the Amazons to be able to live in peace and sisterhood! She holds a tournament to decide who will accompany the unconscious man home.

The Queen forbids Diana from competing. Conveniently, the customs of Paradise Island include the custom of wearing awkward and not-really-identity-concealing masks while competing in a competition of speed and agility, so Diana gets a blonde wig and a mask and defies her mother.

A weird competition ensues. There’s running! Jumping! Horseback riding! Stone throwing! Arm wrestling! All edited in arty soft focus and slow motion, with lots of dissolves from one event to another to either keep the story moving or prevent the audience from dwelling on how silly the competition actually is. Seriously. Here’s a screenshot of stone throwing:

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Finally, it’s time for Bullets and Bracelets! In this episode, the competing Amazons shoot to kill – firing at each other’s faces. (In the second season, Bullets and Bracelets will involve each contestant standing to the side of the target and trying to keep her opponent from hitting her target).

Diana wins! The Queen presents her with a shiny new outfit, made of indestructible fabric. It has a removable skirt, the Queen says as Diana removes the skirt and discards it, never to be seen again.

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“The colors were chosen because they represent freedom and democracy.” Sure, Why not?

The Queen explains Wonder Woman’s accessories. Her belt enables her to use her Amazon powers even when she’s off the island.

Wonder Woman loads up once-again unconscious Steve Trevor and flies to Washington D.C. in her Invisible Jet, an object which inspires previously unimaginable levels of scorn from Husband, although I’m not entirely sure why.

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Wonder Woman delivers unconscious Steve Trevor to the Armed Forces Hospital, later returning disguised as a nurse to keep tabs on him.

Wonder Woman realizes she needs money to buy some clothes to cover up her star-spangled butt. She does the only logical thing, agreeing to be in a daredevil show. Promoter Ashley Norman (Red Buttons) hires her, running an ad inviting the audience to bring any weapon they want to shoot at the Wonder Woman, who will stand on stage deflecting bullets back at the audience. With a metal wall behind her.

The writers didn’t seem to understand guns or physics or logic, but that’s all part of the charm. Right? Right.

Also, Ashley Norman’s agency is called “Dogs, Dwarfs, Daredevils.” Also, Ashley Norman is actually Karl the Nazi Spy and he’s working with Marcia the Nazi Spy to try to kill this Wonder Woman.

Bet you’ll never guess that the little old lady who shows up at the daredevil show with a machine guy is a Nazi Spy. She is! But Wonder Woman is amazing and deflects every single bullet! Wonder Woman doesn’t know Ashley/Karl is a Nazi. Yet.

After the show, she puts on her nurse’s uniform and checks on Steve, but she finds that he’s checked himself out of the hospital so that he can go be rendered unconscious somewhere else.

WONDER WOMAN DOES HER FIRST SPINNING COSTUME CHANGE. The effects hadn’t quite been worked out yet, so the editor cuts back and forth between Lynda Carter spinning in her nurse’s uniform and in her Wonder Woman getup. Eventually she stops spinning around and her transformation into Wonder Woman is complete. In the first few episodes, she still has her clothing in her hand when she stops spinning and must hide the items while she is Wonder Woman, which means she also has to return to her original spin site to resume her identity as Diana again. It’s strange and results in some supremely silly and awkward situations before the writers wise up and just make her clothes vanish in later episodes.

Sexy Marcia, Nazi Spy, gives Spy of Questionable Competence Steve Trevor a dose of truth serum. He makes kissy faces at her and divulges the combination to his Top Secret Office Safe, because he is a terrible spy but a stellar manslut.

Marcia dashes off to steal things from Steve’s Top Secret Office Safe, but Wonder Woman catches her red-handed. Marcia was the Nuremberg Judo Champ, so she and Wonder Woman have a pratfall-filled fight, which I found on youtube, much to my delight:


Wonder Woman Fights Marcia

Then, Wonder Woman uses the Lasso of Truth on Marcia before telling her that the Nazis will fail because they don’t respect their women and the future is sisterhood.

Then, Wonder Woman uses an unexplained creepy Terminator ability to mimic voices, impersonating Marcia on the phone to lure the other Nazi spies into her trap.

Then, Wonder Woman captures the Nazi Commander and lectures him for not respecting womanhood.

Then, Wonder Woman punches him in his Nazi face.

Then, Wonder Woman delivers the Commander to the DCPD, rounds up the other Nazi spies, and rescues Steve Trevor.

Steve thinks Wonder Woman is super vavavavoom. Hey, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

A few days later, Steve recovers enough to return to his job as a terrible spy, vowing to only hire ugly ducklings from now on. Oh pretty girls, you’re such a problem to our national security! Luckily, General Blankenship has already hired Steve a new secretary, hideously ugly but highly competent Yeoman Diana Prince.

Holy cats! It’s Princess Diana! With her hair pulled back! And wearing glasses! Oh Diana, you’re so ugly now!

Steve and the General laugh and laugh at the ugly girl. Diana flashes her thousand watt smile at the camera and the credits roll.

This isn’t the best episode. It’s not the nuttiest episode. It’s not the most psychedelic episode. It doesn’t have the wackiest guest stars. It doesn’t have the most absurd examples of Los Angeles as Washington D.C. It doesn’t have some of the iconic imagery, such as the lightning flash spinning transformation or Wonder Woman jumping over a fountain it would be faster to walk around, but that’s okay. It’s a delightful and goofy examplar of the series so if you’re only ever planning to watch one episode, make it this one.

    This episode contains:

    Bullets and Bracelets
    Spinning
    Invisible Jet
    Lasso of Truth
    Voice Mimicry
    Womanly Badassery
    Nazi Spies
    Mansel in Distress Steve Trevor
    Unconscious Steve Trevor
    The Bermuda Triangle

Categories
pop culture

The Many Mudras of Michael Fassbender

If anyone is looking for me, I’m busy working on my newest performance art piece: a 6 hour PowerPoint presentation titled “The Many Mudras of Michael Fassbender.” (Alternate title: “Jazz Hands, With Michael Fassbender!”)

XMen: First Class

Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs

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1. No, I’m not really doing this, I’m just bored standing in line at the post office.

2. Yes, this dude has been in some delightfully awful movies.

3. Yes, I’m fully aware this post isn’t nearly as hilarious as Husband & I think it is.

4. Yes, we’ve really been calling our Michael Fassbender film festival the Fassbender Bender.

4a. Wouldn’t you?

4b. See footnote 2.

5. I may not be doing a performance art piece, but I do plan to blog about some of these under-appreciated gems – Just wait til I blog about the one with the bear!

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Categories
books + libraries halloween pop culture true life 2016

Colin Dickey’s Ghostland

If you’re looking for a fun read for the Halloween season, Sam & Dean & I Colin Dickey’s brand new book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

Husband and I were lucky enough to hear Dickey talk about this work in progress last year at Death Salon Mutter in Philadelphia. I’ve been waiting impatiently to finally get to read the book not just because it sounds cool, but because I’ve been working on revisions to an article on the socio-cultural and social justice implications of ghost tourism and historical ghost narratives. (One of the many reasons I’ve been neglecting you, my devoted readers).

Now I’m going to neglect you further so I can go finish reading this book!

Categories
horror & scifi humor pop culture

The Wicker Man, Teletubbies Edition

Sorry for the long absence, I didn’t mean to neglect you so.

My sanity wasn’t devoured by bad SyFy movies, but I was quite ill for most of the Spring and early Summer and it’s taken me much longer to get life back to something even close to resembling normality.

Wouldn’t want things to get too normal, though, so while I continue to sort things out, here’s a hypnotic re-edit of the ending of The Wicker Man.

The brilliant 1973 version, not the abominable 2006 remake starring Nicholas Cage. Not even the powerful ancient magic of the Teletubbies could make that thing watchable.