Sunday, January 31, 2010
Greetings Scared Silly fans. I know many of you were expecting to see my review of Don Knotts in “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken” by today.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned when this month began, my schedule has been a bit unpredictable as of late, and I simply have not had the chance to turn all my notes on Knotts’ 1966 classic into a cohesive review.
Furthermore, since February is a “short month,” I have designated it as the month wherein I review nothing but short subjects - those classic little films of one reel (approx 10 minutes), two reels (16-20 minutes) or three reels (30 minutes) in length that movie theaters used to show before the features.
Therefore, “Mr. Chicken” is just going to have to wait until at least March. But don’t fret because it will be worth the wait – trust me. I have a lot to say about Mr. Knotts’ opus.
Meanwhile, while I don’t want to make any 100% guarantees, my goal is review shorts from the likes of at least some of the following in February: Our Gang (the Little Rascals), Joe McDoakes (George O’Hanlon), Hugh Herbert, (Gus) Schilling & (Richard) Lane, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and yes, finally… The Three Stooges!
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Stephen Whitty writes about movies and entertainment for the Newark Star-Ledger, one of New Jersey’s largest newspapers, if not the largest. This weekend, he wrote a piece that you can read here lamenting the fact that there are fewer and fewer choices for New Jersey movie fans when it comes to seeing old movies. Whitty laments that while the advent of DVD and the Turner Classic Movies cable network are keeping classic films within reach of viewers, it used to be so much easier to see an oldie-but-goodie.
Whitty cites the decline of two venues for the change: the revival house movie theaters and the programming of local TV stations, both of which featured classic movies among its offerings.
The revival houses were an important part of keeping the legacy of classic movies alive. In fact, throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s it was these theaters that helped revive and create new interest in many actors, directors and film genres, especially comedy… and especially among college students. The silent movie comedians (particularly Buster Keaton) as well as 1930s iconoclasts like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and others all gained new life (and fans) from these showings.
One of the coolest things about revival houses was that many of them were literally housed within classic movie palaces of yesteryear. The classic movie palaces were wonderful places with huge lobbies, thick velvet curtains and ornate decor. They often had both a balcony and a raised platform where an organist played live music before show time. TCM recently ran this short documentary about classic movie palaces that have been restored and put into use as revival houses:
The stage was put to use for announcements, contests, giveaways and most spectacular of all, live entertainment from bona fide movie stars! In the 1940s you could actually go to one of these movie palaces and see the likes of Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges, Bela Lugosi, Abbott & Costello and many other legendary stars giving special performances for their fans. Imagine being able to go back in time and see some of those shows – surely one of the better uses for a time machine! Here’s some rare color home movie footage that a fan shot when Laurel & Hardy performed on stage at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee in the early 1940s:
The idea of a live show preceding an often unrelated movie (see the photo up top – Laurel & Hardy performing a live comedy show before a Dr. Kildare medical melodrama is certainly a disconnect) gave way to shows that actually worked interactively with the movie. The best examples of this were the “spook shows.” A group of performers including a magician and actors in monster costumes would perform spooky tricks, often ending with the lights going out and the monsters going out into the darkened audience in the glow-in-the-dark masks, causing all sorts of havoc. The trailers for these shows always over-sold the thrills, but once you were in the theater and the lights went out, it didn’t matter – those glow-in-the-dark masks were thrill enough!
The “spook shows” ultimately left the mainstream theaters but there were revivals, such as the amusement park version that Kirk Demarais wrote about here on his blog (Kirk does a great job at explaining what a traditional spook show was) and more recently, ubiquitous character actor (and the man who has graciously agreed to write the foreword to my “Scared Silly” book) Daniel Roebuck has performed on-stage as his alter-ego, Dr. Shocker – a cross between a traditional “spook show” magician and the costumed, make-up wearing horror movie hosts of yesteryear. You can see Dan do his thing here:
While the comedians that appealed more to adults benefitted from the revival houses, the kid-friendly comics catapulted back into the limelight via television. The ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s turned out to be a goldmine for acts like Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The Little Rascals, The Three Stooges and the Bowery Boys – at least in terms of their popularity (after all, several of the featured players passed on during those years, if not earlier). TV also gave a boost to the “movie series,” including such popular comedies as the Blondie, Ma & Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule series.
Television really was so much different before the WB, Fox and UPN took over local stations’ programming. As I detailed in an earlier post, the local stations had local flavor, and all were dedicated to running classic movies. In the New York tri-state area, you could get more than enough classic comedies, mysteries, sci-fi and horror films. In fact, the three New York-based independent stations had competing horror movie shows, often hosted by personalities like Zacherle. The phenomenon of horror movie hosts was recently highlighted in the documentary “American Scary”:
You can read about the horror movie shows from the New York area as well as the annual Thanksgiving King Kong and Godzilla monsterfests at DVD Drive-in by clicking here – a great site that has archived various pieces on these fondly-remembered movie shows. They even include complete episode guides and scans of original TV Guide listings and ads! And you can witness big ‘ol Godzilla getting his holiday brouhaha on right here:
Stephen Whitty wrote a follow-up to his article which you can read here. It seems he received a lot of feedback on it, including a note from me. Stephen noted all the feedback he got and even graciously included a plug for my blog, which I greatly appreciate. He also offered an additional piece that you can read here which highlighs the revival houses that still serve the New Jersey area, including the Jersey City Loews, a wonderful movie palace where I’ve seen Abbott & Costello’s “Hold That Ghost” and a host of classic films starring the likes of Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges; as well as the Lafayette Theatre in nearby Suffern, NY where I saw a stunning remastered print of “Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd.”
All of this is a just a long (winded) way for me to encourage Scared Silly fans to take advantage of seeing classic movies on the big screen whenever you get a chance. Support your local movie palaces. And if one of your local TV stations decides to run an old movie, watch it – and tell all your friends to do the same. The movies are an artistic legacy, and as more and more modern films become “created by committee” and driven by marketing and focus groups, we get farther and farther away from pure artistic visions reaching the screen. We can’t turn our backs on this legacy. For example, I take every opportunity I can to impart a little film history to younger movie fans that may be unaware that many of their favorite films are inspired by films that came before, whether well-known or not. Films like the world renown “North By Northwest,” which served as the basic template for every action movie blockbuster that’s followed; or films with cult followings at best like “Kansas City Confidential” that provided directors like Quentin Tarantino and his peers with limitless inspiration. You should do the same!
THIS WEEKEND: DON KNOTTS (FINALLY) SPENDS THE NIGHT IN THAT HAUNTED HOUSE IN “THE “GHOST & MR. CHICKEN!” UNTIL THEN, ENJOY THIS BRIEF INTERMISSION:
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Just a quick note to let you know you can now easily access any of my past movie reviews via the alphabetical list on the sidebar to the right of your monitor screen. Special thanks to Andre Dumas for tipping me off to Blogger's "list" gadget! :)
Andre is wonderfully witty and you can read her reviews of more contemporary horror fare (the intentionally funny, the unintentionally funny and the not funny at all) at her happening blog, The Horror Digest.
Later this week on the Scared Silly blog: Don Knotts proves he is brave (or crazy) by spending the night in a haunted house in "The Ghost & Mr. Chicken."
Until then... it's always a good time to enjoy some wonderfully bizarre and creepy 1930s animation, this time courtesy of the Van Beuren Studio and their star characters, Tom & Jerry (no, NOT the cat & mouse duo but an earlier pair of animated humans... or something!)
Friday, January 22, 2010
RATING: ** & 1/2 out of ****
PLOT: Under-privileged kids (The East Side Kids) from the city are sent to a camp in the country to experience nature and get some fresh air. The bus makes a quick pit-stop in a town that looks mysteriously like the leftover set of a low budget western. While in town, three of the kids – Muggs (Leo Gorcey), Glimpy (Huntz Hall) and Danny (Bobby Jordan) stop at the soda shop and flirt with the waitress (Rosemary Portia). While there, they hear a report on the radio that a “monster killer” is on the loose and headed to the very vicinity that the boys are off to. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Nardo (Bela Lugosi) and his dwarf assistant Luigi (Angelo Rossitto) ask a gas station attendant (P.J. Kelly) for directions to the abandoned Billings estate, and are soon visiting the gravesite of the estate’s namesake until chased off by the shotgun wielding groundskeeper. The kids, now camped near the same gravesite hear the gunfire and set off to the graveyard to investigate, leading to their pal Pee Wee (David Gorcey) getting shot. They go to the nearest building for help – the Billings estate – where they meet Nardo and Luigi. Nardo offers to put the kids up until Pee Wee is healed, but they are soon convinced that Nardo is the “monster killer,” leading to a series of exciting and comical misadventures in the old, dark spooky house. Also after the “monster killer” is Dr. Von Grosch (Dennis Moore), a self-professed monster hunter. The disappearance of the kids leads their guardians (Dave O’Brien and Dorothy Short) and the local authorities to investigate the Billings Mansion as well. Will the Kids expose the real “monster killer” or are they on the wrong trail?
REVIEW: From 1935 to 1958 the “gang of kids” comedy troupe known variably as the Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys entertained audiences with their mix of wise guy antics, witty malapropisms, seasoned slapstick and brassy New York personalities. Like Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello, the troupe often appeared in stories using tried-and-true comedy motifs – the old west, life in the military, deflating society and especially getting mixed up with monsters, ghosts and other “old dark house” trappings. In fact, “Spooks Run Wild” is the second of the Kids' haunted house endeavors (the first being “Boys of the City” the year before), but it’s the first horror-comedy the gang made with Huntz Hall among its members. Huntz would make an indelible impression as the years went on playing off of Leo Gorcey. The two would form a team within the larger team – a definite duo amidst the group dynamic. “Spooks” was also the first of two films the troupe would make with boogeyman Bela Lugosi, the follow-up being “Ghosts on the Loose” (1943). When the East Side Kids series gave way to the Bowery Boys series, the new incarnation of the gang went on to make five additional bona fide horror-comedies… and it can be argued that at least another four Bowery Boys entries count as horror-onable mention due to their “fantastic” content including hypnotists, magic genies and even an encounter with ‘Ol Scratch himself!
During their “East Side Kids” phase at Monogram Studios, the biggest horrors the troupe faced were extremely low budgets, hack screenwriters, less-than-diligent directors and weak supporting casts. These issues would be somewhat rectified when Monogram became Allied Artists and the troupe became The Bowery Boys. “Spooks Run Wild” is definitely lacking in the script department, and the majority of the supporting cast is lackluster, but the low budget actually helps makes the spooky environs even spookier (downright creepy at times in fact) and the (often ad-libbed) performances from the leads (the main Kids, Lugosi and Rossitto) are full-blooded enough to sell the material.
As slapdash as the script is, it is at least self-aware enough to attempt to stay true to the hallmarks of horror-comedies. Two instances in particular come to mind. First is the scenario of having the funny characters getting scared just hearing or reading of the legend of a monster. In this case, it's a bit of a foreshadow of the famous scene in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" where Costello reads the legend of Dracula aloud just as the Count emerges from his coffin. Here both the gas station attendant and later the East Side Kids read from what is essentially a thinly veiled version of the novel Dracula with the character names changed (to protect Monogram from lawsuits, no doubt).
The next scenario involves a character inquiring about an ominous pace or name (often a village or mansion or even just a family surname) and getting a horrified response, as when Nardo asks the gas station attendant where the Billings estate is:
"The Billings estate? Why it ain't been lived in for 10 years - not since old man Billings was murdered... in his sleep!" This bit is found even in “straight” horror films, going back at least as far as the first film adaptation of Dracula, 1922’s “Nosferatu.”
Speaking of Dracula, the makers of this film are not shy about exploiting Bela’s connection to that film for all it is worth. In addition to the novel the characters read from, consider the following:
After the gas station attendant meets Lugosi, another man pulls up to the station who the attendant thinks is the book's equivalent of Dracula’s nemesis, Van Helsing - and the man confirms it.
An even more on-target allusion is this line from Bela at the gates of the cemetery: "City of the dead - do they too hear the howling of the frightened dogs?" which of course recalls the famous line spoken by Lugosi as “Dracula” in the 1931 classic: “Listen to them. Children of the night… what music they make!”
For the first two thirds of the movie, the plot is very episodic, counting on one simple incident after another to act as bridges between scenes. For example: Nardo and Luigi prowl the graveyard and the groundskeeper shoots at them. The kids decide to investigate the noise in the graveyard. Meanwhile Nardo and Luigi commence to the Billings estate by way of the underground dungeons leading into the old house. As the kids wander into the cemetery, Pee Wee is shot by the groundskeeper. The kids then stumble upon the old house and go inside to get Pee Wee help. Bela invites the kids to stay the night, escorting them to their rooms while carrying a candle and ominously reminding them how old and strange the house is.
As things progress, Scruno is convinced Pee Wee has succumbed to his gunshot wound and alerts the other kids. They set off to find Bela (a convenient excuse for them to ramble through various rooms in the house and get scared). As the kids search, Pee Wee gets up and walks out of the room as if in a trance. When Scruno catches up to the other kids, he tells them he's convinced that Pee Wee has been turned into a zombie, which makes everyone even more determined to find Bela.
But it is Bela who finds them, and it leads to a rather disconcerting moment as Muggs actually pushes Bela down (calling him "horror man" in the process - one of Lugosi's real-life nicknames that he shared with Boris Karloff), and Danny wraps Rossitto up in a carpet like a cocoon. It's pretty startling to modern viewers because of the age differences between Muggs and Bela's characters, not to mention the roughhousing of a dwarf.
From there, the film just becomes a series of blackout gags and vignettes as the kids continue their search for Pee Wee, pulling out as many horror-comedy chestnuts as the budget will allow (and this film is loaded with them: coffins, scary masks on walls, walking suits of armor, knives and weapons hanging on walls, cobwebs, graveyards, howling animals, candlesticks, self-moving objects, skulls).
Oh yeah, there's also a group of "guardians" and one is engaged to or going steady with a nurse. These characters are perfunctory to the plot but the film knows they're bland and barely necessary and so their screen time is mercifully short. This applies to the law enforcement characters as well - they're all used to move the plot along, but they are the most uninteresting characters in the film and the worst-performed, with stilted dialogue readings. These kind of movies (referred to as “poverty row” due to their ultra low budgets) didn't have many takes - in many cases scenes were shot in one take and printed as is, mistakes and all, so you often find the actors flubbing lines then correcting themselves – particularly these supporting characters.
The climax comes when the kids decide they'll scare Bela and Rossitto. With Scruno getting on Hall's shoulders, a black sheet thrown over their heads, and a skull placed on top, they do just that. Bela runs off in overwrought histrionics, perhaps the single most embarrassing scene he ever committed to film. The scene ends with Bela getting knocked out by the skull and tied up by the Kids. The kids then find Pee Wee alive and well... and then Bela reemerges (it's not explained how he got untied, perhaps Rossitto untied him?).
This is another of those films with a "surprise" ending that normally would cause a reviewer to use a SPOILER WARNING. I won't however because so much has already been written about this film's ending, and rightfully so. Because it really is a "cheat" ending. When the authorities come to arrest the monster, they find Bela and the Kids chumming it up - it turns out Bela is merely a friendly magician. And his "pursuer," Dr. Von Grosch is really the monster killer (not a good thing, as the plot has contrived to place the nurse in his clutches - but don't worry, as we witnessed earlier when Bela was knocked down, Muggs never met an older, taller man he couldn't tackle).
Yes, this is one of the many films in which Bela was a red herring, but the script is so poorly conceived that it doesn't play fair with the audience. Usually there are instances in such films where a character's actions could be misunderstood as having sinister motives but later when the actual nature of the character is revealed the very same actions are easily explained away as being benign. Not so in this film. It's never clearly explained why Bela would act so sinister or get as agitated as he does. But never you mind – no matter how many times Muggs and the gang tackle Bela and bean him in the head, he’s the forgiving sort. So much so that he performs a magic show for everyone in a “happy ending” that became typical for this sort of film. Bela makes the waitress disappear, Muggs volunteers to go into the box to find her, and when Bela pulls open the curtain, Muggs is inside kissing Scruno, who he thinks is the waitress!
Two scenes stand out as being completely inexplicable given the true identity of Nardo. First and most egregious, it's never explained how a cheap party magician could actually dematerialize with his assistant to avoid getting shot in the graveyard! Likewise, how to explain the scene where Muggs looks into a canister and sees a skull and crossbones emblem at the bottom, but when he tells the others, they look and the skull is gone? Nardo wasn’t even in the scene to pull off the illusion, so it is inferred that it is actually happening.
A sign of the times in which it was made, there is also some unfortunate racial humor in the film at the expense of the Scruno character, as witnessed in these two separate dialogue exchanges:
GLIMPY: Scruno, next time you come out of the dark, put a quart of whitewash on, will ya'?
SCRUNO: I'm so scared, I'm turning white now!
GLIMPY: You're yellow!
SCRUNO: If I'm yellow you're color blind.
To his credit Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison plays his role with vigor and creativity. He's a perfect comedic match for Gorcey and Hall in that he stays completely in character the whole movie (something that can’t be said for all the "kids"). And he's "one of the gang" – an accepted member of the group and not some subservient character to be walked all over.
Of course once you learn Morrison’s background, the above is no surprise – he was actually the most experienced of the East Side Kids. A child actor, he appeared in silent comedies with Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard and was one of the original “Our Gang” kids.
Morrison actually has one of the comic highlights of “Spooks” in a scene that's become a staple of horror-comedies, where a character doesn't realize the villain or monster is standing beside them as they lament their worries. In this case, Scruno is standing in the hallway waiting for Glimpy to reemerge from a magician's box when Bela walks beside him. After he accidentally taps Bela on the chest while looking the other way, he slowly turns to face him then runs off in fright, much to Bela's amusement.
Other than Morrison, it is of course Gorcey and Hall who dominate within the group. Gorcey is clearly the tough guy leader, a role he would perfect as Slip Mahoney in the Bowery Boys series, while the wise-cracking Glimpy shows signs of the multi-faceted Sach character to come – the simultaneously odd and dopey yet in some ways quite smart character that became a standard in such beloved characters as Ed Norton from “The Honeymooners” and Kramer from “Seinfeld.” While Bobby Jordan is much loved by die-hard fans of the troupe his Danny character here isn’t too memorable – better work lie ahead for Mr. Jordan.
Angelo Rossitto was a fixture in Hollywood – literally, as he ran a newsstand there. Legend has it that when Hollywood producers had a gig for him, they didn’t need to call his agent – they merely retrieved (and relieved) Angelo from his newsstand. He appeared in over 70 feature films between 1927 and 1987. “Spooks Run Wild” was the first of three films that would pair the dwarf actor with Lugosi. Other highlights in his 60 year film career include “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”) with Laurel & Hardy, “Hellzapoppin’” with Olsen & Johnson, the “Spider Woman” entry in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, a recurring role in the TV show “H.R. Pufnstuff,” the Al Adamson monster mash-up "Dracula vs. Frankenstein" and late in his career, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”
As for Bela, his presence adds considerably to this film. Unlike some of his other horror-comedy appearances where he plays it completely straight, here he shifts from being sinister to letting on that he's "in on the joke," getting into the spirit of the comedy. While his aforementioned “scared” bit is a decided misstep, Bela otherwise delivers an engaging and at times amiable performance.
Scruno is mistaken about one thing - it's not Pee Wee who's been zombiefied, but Dennis Moore as Dr. Von Grosch, the "monster hunter who is really the monster killer." It is Moore who seems in a catatonic state as he (unsuccessfully) tries to summon a performance along the lines of the chilling villainy of Charles Middleton (who filled such roles in various shorts and features with the likes of Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges, El Brendel, Olsen & Johnson and Bert Gordon, among others). In Moore’s defense, he spent over 90% of his career in westerns, not comedies, horror films or horror-comedies (unlike Middleton who moved from genre to genre with ease).
The only other actor in the film who makes an impression is P.J. Kelly as the gas station attendant. A solid character actor, his roles ranged from bit parts to minor supporting roles, but he was always on top of his game, often playing butlers and doormen.
All in all, “Spooks Run Wild” is not a great film when compared to all films – in the “real world” it averages a 1 and ½ star rating at best, but as an entertaining and enjoyable horror-comedy I think it rates higher, hence my 2 and ½ star rating. Sure the script is no great shakes and the production values are nil, but the main kids really do a great job (Hall, Gorcey and Morrison in particular) and Bela is his usual reliable self, practically making this film the very definition of "rising above the material." There are also plenty of “old dark house” tropes and allusions to Dracula to satisfy fans of both horror-comedies and horror films in general. For classic comedy fans there is the bonus of watching Gorcey and Hall at work – their Muggs and Glimpy characters are a lot like their later Bowery Boys counterparts Slip and Sach, so from the standpoint of charting the development of those characters it's also interesting to watch. In fact, it’s one of the first of the East Side Kids films where the comedy of the lead "kids" characters isn't incidental but comes to the forefront - they are constantly wisecracking, whacking each other around and otherwise getting involved in slapstick antics. Much of the shtick is ad-libbed, which gives this otherwise ramshackle entry just the kick it needs to make it not only watchable but highly fun as well.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
(Bela shows Glimpy and Skinny (Daniel Haines) to their room in the mansion)
GLIMPY: A very charming room in a repulsive sort of way!
SKINNY: This looks like one of those beds George Washington slept in.
GLIMPY (pounding it with a mountain of dust rising into the air): Well it's about time they changed the sheets!
BELA: I understand this room was occupied by the late owner of this house at the time of his death. I hope this knowledge will not disturb your sleep.
MUGGS: Have you ever seen a live skeleton?
SCRUNO: No sir, and if I never do, it'll be too soon!
DANNY: How can you read in the dark?
GLIMPY: I went to Night School!
SCRUNO: If something happens to me, you'll notify my mammy right?
GLIMPY: Sure, sure.
SCRUNO: And if something happens to you, who should I notify?
HALL: If you notify me first, nothing will happen!
MUGGS: Hey, this looks like the place where the plot begins to thicken
The early East Side Kids films liked to tweak the noses of the censors - in this one, Hall, pretending to be the murdered owner of the old house accuses Bela of "scaring the health out of him!" Two years later it is Bela who will get the opportunity to razz the censors in his next horror-comedy with the Kids, "Ghosts on the Loose."
The best sight gags are the aforementioned bit where Bela sneaks up on Scruno, Muggs and the gang look through the canister to see the skull, and Glimpy and Scruno don a skull-headed disguise to scare Bela.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Two Abbott & Costello alumni have bit parts. Lou’s brother (and frequent co-star in Abbott & Costello movies) Pat Costello is seen briefly as the bus driver, while Joe Kirk (who also appeared in several Abbott & Costello movies and had the recurring role of Mr. Bacciagalupe in the “Abbott & Costello Show” TV series) has just as brief a role as a camp counselor.
BUY THE FILM: “Spooks Run Wild” is in the public domain, and as such can be found as a free streaming video on several websites, a video download and as a DVD from several manufacturers. You can order a DVD that presents the film as a double-feature with the other East Side Kids/Bela Lugosi team-up "Ghosts on the Loose" here:
FURTHER READING: There are several books out relating to the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys troupe. The one that focuses specifically on the movies is “The Films of the Bowery Boys” by David Hayes and Brent Walker. It is out-of-print but you can find it from second-hand booksellers. The authors also have a site that acts as an addendum to the original publication, which you can access by clicking here.
Two more recent books that I haven't read yet but that come highly recommended are "From Broadway to the Bowery: A History and Filmography of the Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys Films" by Leonard Getz and "Hollywood’s Made-to-Order Punks: The Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys" by Richard Roat.
Another great book is “Poverty Row Horrors” by film historian Tom Weaver. Also out-of-print, it is an in-depth evaluation of the major horror-themed releases from Monogram, PRC and Republic from 1940 through 1946. As such, it features reviews of several horror-comedies, including three from the East Side Kids. Weaver is no fan of horror-comedies, but the book is essential for the great background information he offers as well as first-hand interviews. Not to mention the fact that it features reviews of ten Bela Lugosi films!
There are several reviews of “Spooks Run Wild” on the internet as well, and you can read the review from DVD Drive-in here.
Watch the trailer here:
BE SURE TO JOIN US NEXT TIME WHEN WE TAKE A LOOK AT DON KNOTTS IN “THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN!”
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
It all started when I was a little kid, with a book called “The Great Movie Cartoon Parade” by John Halas and David Rider. That was the first time I saw this strange frog character named Flip. I soon learned that he was created by an artist named Ub Iwerks whose previous claim to fame was designing Mickey Mouse. That’s right, Walt may have conceived the little bugger but his iconic image came from the pen (and creativity) of Iwerks.
I collected Super 8 films when I was a kid. One of the highlights of my hobby was waiting for the Flip cartoons to go on sale in the Blackhawk Films catalog, and then waiting in anticipation of the UPS man to deliver the packages. Flip never disappointed. His was that bizarre, sometimes surreal world that only black and white cartoon characters of the 1930s inhabited.
A big part of that world involved Flip getting menaced by ghosts, monsters and rampaging robots. He wasn’t alone. The theatrical animated cartoons of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s often featured the same “horror-comedy” trappings as the comedy shorts and features of the day.
Of course, today you can get a DVD with dozens of cartoons for the same price I used to pay for a one reel, eight minute Super 8 film. In fact, you can order this nifty Flip the Frog collection right here:
While I won’t be covering these cartoons in my book due to space limitations, I do have the opportunity to share some of them here on this blog, and one of my favorites is Flip the Frog in “Spooks” – so while you patiently await my East Side Kids’ “Spooks Run Wild” review, please enjoy this classic cartoon!
BE SURE TO RETURN ON FRIDAY FOR MY REVIEW OF “SPOOKS RUN WILD” FEATURING THE EAST SIDE KIDS AND BELA LUGOSI!
Friday, January 15, 2010
NOTE: THIS IS AN UNPLANNED ARTICLE, A BURST OF INSPIRATION, AND THEREFORE I DIDN’T HAVE A CHANCE TO ADD HYPERLINKS. I WILL INSERT LINKS AT A FUTURE DATE.
I’ve been thinking about this genre we love, the horror-comedy, and while always pondering the places it’s been (the whole reason for this project) the notion of where it is going or even where it is now intrigues me as well.
The classic horror-comedies being examined in the Scared Silly project fall into two categories: 1.) Famous (and not-so-famous) funny men (and sometimes women) get mixed up with real ghosts, monsters or other supernatural terrors (and sometimes gorillas and robots and mad scientists) and 2). Famous (and not-so-famous) funny men (and sometimes women) get mixed up with fake ghosts, monsters or other supernatural terrors (and sometimes gorillas and robots and mad scientists).
Within that framework there are several scenarios.
In the case of the “real” terrors, sometimes the comedy heroes are on an expedition in search of ancient artifacts (which usually ends up with them meeting a mummy or some similar indigenous folklore creatures), and sometimes the monsters or mad scientists kidnap our heroes and spirit them away to their castles or labs (usually to transplant their brains into monsters, gorillas or robots). Sometimes our heroes are in an old spooky house for one reason or another (usually due to the reading of a will and impending inheritance of the heirs involved) and they meet up with a real ghost.
When it comes to the fake terrors, most of the time our heroes are in an old, dark spooky house where real murders are being committed (usually impending heirs being bumped off one by one) but the perpetrators are blaming those murders on (trumped-up) ghosts or other supernatural forces. And sometimes the will requires the heroes to spend the night in the spooky house just to get the inheritance, and those holding the purse-strings are merely trying to scare said heirs away before they can claim that inheritance (a story device that had been repeated to death in 1950s through mid-1970s sitcoms as well as cartoons like Scooby Doo and its imitators).
So I’ve been thinking about this last scenario, the idea of the antagonists trying to “scare away” the protagonists, and I’ve been wondering if it could even reasonably be the premise for a modern-day movie - I mean in a pure, classic horror-comedy way where the most gruesome images on display and most risqué innuendos spoken are no more startling than the brief shock images and double-entendres found in 1963’s “The Raven” and 1966’s “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken.” But even more so, I’m wondering if the premise itself could even still be valid with a cast of characters who are supposed to exist in the “here and now” with present-day sensibilities. And I think the answer is “no.”
Think about it. First of all, who is even still gathering in old creaky mansions to hear wills read anymore? These transactions are usually done in lawyer’s offices. Sometimes the heir doesn’t even have to be there. So there’s the first convention that gets tossed out the window. But secondly, can a movie audience buy that the characters on the screen would actually believe in the “cheap scares” that the villains are foisting upon them? No. I believe the answer to that lies in the times – the times in which such stories initially flourished compared to the times in which they didn’t.
The classic “Old Dark House” horror-comedy-mysteries all tend to derive from the following sources: the 1913 novel “Seven Keys to Baldpate” (which formed the basis of several movies including the 1986 Gene Wilder/Gilda Radner horror-comedy “Haunted Honeymoon”) by Earl Derr Biggers (creator of Charlie Chan), the 1927 novel “Benighted” by J.B. Priestley (which yielded the 1932 classic movie “The Old Dark House” and the 1963 not-so-classic movie “The Old Dark House”), and the plays “The Bat” from 1920 by Mary Roberts Rinehart (filmed with Chester Morris as “The Bat Whispers” in 1926 and again in 1959 with its original title as a Vincent Price chiller), "The Cat & the Canary" from 1926 by John Willard (also made into several films including the classic 1939 Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard horror-comedy), and “The Gorilla” by Ralph Spence (filmed as a horror-comedy vehicle for The Ritz Brothers and inspiring the Hugh Herbert/Allen Jenkins horror-comedy, “Sh! The Octopus!”). All feature some combination of the familiar hallmarks of the genre – hidden passageways, suspicious servants, old creaky houses, etc. And all contain a lot of humor. Coming a little late to the party but adding the final template was the 1939 Joseph Kesserling play “Arsenic & Old Lace” with Boris Karloff (and its 1944 spin-off film with Raymond Massey).
I think the gradual erosion of being easily able to tell this kind of story with contemporary characters can be traced back to how the world changed after the atomic bomb. Before the bomb, the horrors of characters like Dracula, Mr. Hyde and the Wolf Man were considered unimaginable and startling (this was especially true of the early movie audiences who saw such silent movie terrors as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera and the original Frankenstein – superstitions about such creatures were much more prevalent in those times, often passed on from generation to generation among various people groups). And while such superstitions may have dissipated as the industrial age progressed (it’s unlikely much of the audience for the second wave of Universal Horrors took the films as seriously as those viewing the 1930s Dracula and Frankenstein sagas for the first time), audiences were still willing to spend time in the company of such film fiends.
But after the bomb the classic monsters must have seemed quaint and almost absurd. And I would think that would go double for plots about people going to tremendous efforts to pretend a house is haunted to scare someone out of their inheritance. Not that the atomic bomb didn’t inspire creature features that seem patently absurd to us today. There are scores of giant radiated insect and dinosaur features from the 1950s that we laugh at now. But I think you would have to transport yourself back to those post-Hiroshima days to find that those films weren’t all taken as silly nonsense, but played upon the very real fears of people over the “unknown” – the full effects of the bomb emerging little-by-little. In fact, if you watch the original Japanese version of “Godzilla” (sans Raymond Burr), you realize how sobering and scary “real life” was for folks at the time.
Ultimately, the erosion of the “old dark house comedy” as a viable set-up for a contemporary Hollywood film was furthered by the continual change of the nation’s mood, a loss of innocence if you will facilitated by fears brought on by conflicts with other countries (the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War, Vietnam, etc.), the tensions brought on by social and racial injustices as well as the generation gap fostered by the rise of the counter culture movement, the disillusionment of many in the wake of Watergate, ad infinitum.
In that time, the horror films also became more horrific. It’s interesting to note that there’s an overlap between the “classic horror-comedy” coming to its end (represented by 1966’s “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken”) and the new breed of horror tinged with black comedy (a la Jack Hill’s “Spider Baby” which was filmed in 1964 but not released until 1968). As previously mentioned, "Mr. Chicken" is firmly in the classic tradition even though it includes a couple of edgier shock scenes. But “Spider Baby” is not a “ha ha” kind of funny. “Spider Baby” is psychologically disturbing. It elicits nervous laughter.
After George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” and the bloody rash of early 1970’s fright flicks like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Last House on the Left” made visceral and often cinema verite-styled scares the norm, it was hard to accept less realistic depictions of terror featuring contemporary characters as plausible. That doesn’t mean such films weren’t made – indeed, there were still some attempts at recapturing the old days from high-profile films like Neil Simon’s “Murder By Death” to quickie programmers like the Don Knotts/Tim Conway “Private Eyes.” They still had more modern touches than the classic horror comedies, but they were indeed throwbacks to those good old dark house days.
The effect of the ‘70s horror films is still being felt to this day. Compare the original William Castle “House on Haunted Hill” to the 1999 remake. The original is a horror movie but has all the old dark house touches, and even some touches of humor here and there, albeit acerbic. The remake eschews the kind of machinations found in classic old dark house films to add vicious demonic creatures and a murder-by-numbers slasher movie approach.
Another result of modern horror sensibilities are the films of Rob Zombie. His “House of 1000 Corpse” and “The Devil’s Rejects” carry on the old dark house tradition of creepy families, but filtered through the influence of “Spider Baby’s” disturbing psychological elements colliding head-on with the relentless hopelessness of ‘70s shockers like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” What humor there is in these films is splattered in blood, and a long, long way away from Abbott & Costello, the 3 Stooges and the Bowery Boys.
It’s an unfortunate truth, but the pure old dark house horror-comedy is an anachronism. Maybe that’s not too unfortunate – since I consider it a finite entity with a beginning and an end it allows me to write a comprehensive book encompassing its history. BUT…
…that doesn’t mean there are no more pure old dark house horror-comedies. There is one conceit that allows filmmakers to return to the form: parody. One of the premier practitioners of parody, Larry Blamire has graced the world with what looks to be a splendid horror-comedy in the old dark house tradition: “Dark & Stormy Night”. How did he manage to pull it off? By making it look like an authentic horror-comedy from Hollywood’s golden age. The film is shot in black and white and takes place in the 1930s with period costumes and props. And in Larry Blamire’s own words, he’s not afraid to be “absurd” and make films that are not grounded in reality. The film has been playing festivals and is set to tour various cities this March, followed by a July DVD release. I have not seen it yet, but I imagine it will be much-enjoyed by me and many of you who read this blog.
Of course, the vintage setting of “Dark & Stormy Night” only serves to prove my point. Perhaps the only director who could film a spooky old dark house mystery-comedy where the villains try to scare away the heroes, set it in modern times and actually pull it off is Wes Anderson (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”). It might all be in the characters’ minds – Anderson’s characters are nothing if not idiosyncratic – but are you going to tell them that their reality isn’t really happening? If a Wes Anderson character tells you he saw what he saw when he saw it, you’d best believe it. Don’t be a doubting Abbott!
Here’s the teaser trailer for “Dark & Stormy Night”:
BE SURE TO RETURN NEXT WEEK WHEN “SPOOKS RUN WILD” ALONGSIDE BELA LUGOSI AND THE EAST SIDE KIDS!
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Hello, faithful fans! While you wait for me to get my next review up, I thought you'd enjoy checking out something way-cool: an artist named Scott Ryerrson creates what he calls "Arcanifacts." Click here to see an arcanifact" he created based on "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" - the idea is that it's supposed to be a crate containing one of the monsters that were delivered to McDougal's House of Horrors, complete with little details that such a shipment might have contained... a must-see for fans of that classic horror-comedy and horror-comedies in general!
As for my next review, it will most likely be of ONE of the following...
Monday, January 11, 2010
Hello Scared Silly fans! Just wanted to check in and let you know I haven't forgotten about you. I apologize for getting the year off to a slow start but things have been rather "batty" for me - I'm still trying to figure out how to prioritize various projects.
As of this writing, I am considering highlighting shorts in February since February is a short month (yes, puns are good for some things... like scheduling!); but I am not sure yet what films I will review for this month, or even if I will - again, it is all a matter of scheduling.
Until I work it out, please enjoy this brief intermission with my fangs... er, with my thanks!