Friday, August 20, 2010
Back in January I wrote a post called “The Old Dark Anachronism” – click on the title to read that piece if you missed it. In that entry, I bemoaned the fact that a traditional “Old Dark House” comedy could not be made today that would take place in a contemporary setting. I think there’s a belief among many (but certainly not all) modern filmmakers that violence, sex and salty language have to be as “in your face” as possible, and that comedies have to be top-loaded with “pop culture references” (“Scary Movie” series anyone?) as opposed to actually writing a story that works on its own merits with characters you can get behind.
I also noted that it would be hard to make a movie with people trapped in a haunted (or allegedly haunted) house and have it be “believable” while still having the scares be funny for modern audiences, who are used to being chilled to the bone by more modern ghostly fare ranging from “The Sixth Sense” to “Paranormal Activity.”
I did make a point that traditional horror comedies could still be made successfully… if they appeared to be from an earlier time period and adopted the tropes and trappings of such classic fare as “The Ghost Breakers” and “Hold That Ghost.” In particular I cited director Larry Blamire’s “Dark & Stormy Night,” which was then making the rounds of festivals and special indy/arthouse movie theater screenings.
I’m happy to report that Larry’s film is now available on DVD for all to see, and happier still that USA Today saw fit to interview Larry and promote that fact. I’m particularly happy to read how committed Larry is to making films the whole family can enjoy. You can read USA Today’s interview with Larry Blamire when you click here.
I haven’t seen the film yet but I hope to do so soon and will post a review when I can. I am friendly with a couple of the cast-members and would like to cite their commitments to classic horror-comedy as well.
First up is the great character actor Daniel Roebuck who is writing the foreword for the book version of “Scared Silly.” Roebuck is celebrating his 25th year in Hollywood and we are all the more blessed for enjoying this versatile, talented actor’s work. I went into major detail on Roebuck’s horror-comedy credentials in a post you can read when you click here. Also be sure to avail yourself of Daniel’s official website by clicking here.
Mark Redfield has made a few straight-up horrors but his heart lies with comedy. A talented writer (and columnist for “Famous Monsters of Filmland”) and artist as well as an actor, Mark is working on a book that examines the acting craft of Laurel & Hardy. One of the chapters Mark is planning promises to examine the “scare take” technique of Stan & Ollie. I’d say that’s a huge commitment to horror-comedy, wouldn’t you? Mark is also known to do beautiful caricatures of “the boys.” He has a host of websites – the most comprehensive may be his blog which you can check out by clicking here.
The film also brings a host of other great character actors with extensive resumes. Among the most notable: Marvin Kaplan who voiced Choo Choo on “Top Cat,” had featured roles in the classic all-star comedy film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and the TV series, "Alice” and appeared in many live-action and animated TV series including several with a horror-comedy slant; and James Karen who has been in everything from “Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster” to "Poltergeist" to the '80s horror-comedy movie series “Return of the Living Dead” and may be most well-known (by face if not name) for his long run as TV commercial pitchman for supermarket Pathmark.
To check out the rest of the formidable cast, be sure to visit the film’s imdb page by clicking here, or click here to visit the film’s official site. And watch the trailer right here:
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
RATING: *** out of ****
PLOT: Hugh Herbert’s construction business (“Houses moved and remodeled”) is in trouble: “We’re not making enough money to keep ourselves in red ink,” proclaims Hugh. But things are soon looking up when Hugh and his assistant Dudley Dickerson are asked by a client (Vernon Dent) to remodel an old mansion rumored to have a fortune buried inside. They set off to remodel the place, unaware that there are a couple of thugs (Philip van Zandt, Robert Williams) inside searching for the money. The thugs pass themselves off as electricians and then proceed to do all they can to scare Hugh and Dudley out of the house. Can Hugh and Dudley complete the reconstruction without being scared out of their wits?
REVIEW: Here is another Columbia Pictures short. Like my reviews of shorts from the Three Stooges and Schilling & Lane, I have to note that being a Columbia production the “story” exists mainly to bridge the gaps between gags and is barely a story at all. When presented with this Columbia shorts formula I feel I have no choice but to grade their efforts on a curve and concentrate on the strengths of the performances as well as the quality of the gags and horror-comedy trappings in each.
Let’s start with the performances. I’m happy to report that this short brings us the indomitably funny Dudley Dickerson and the delightful (to me) Hugh Herbert. For more on each of these funny men, I refer you to my reviews of “The Black Cat” and “Spooky Hooky.”
An interesting aspect of this short is the way it handles race. Unlike a lot of films of its time, “One Shivery Night” presents an African-American character that is front-and-center and not merely subservient. Although Dudley works for Hugh, Hugh treats him more like a friend and partner than a subordinate. This relationship runs through the four horror-comedy shorts Herbert and Dickerson made together. So much so that you not only can say they operate as a “comedy team” but even make the claim that in more enlightened times Dickerson probably would have received equal billing with Herbert.
I’ll say this for the Herbert-Dickerson pairing as well: I think Dickerson’s enthusiasm and natural ease at getting laughs may have inspired Herbert. I note that due to various reports stating Herbert wasn’t entirely happy making shorts for Columbia. Longtime Columbia shorts director Edward Bernds is quoted as saying that Herbert considered working in shorts “slumming.” Note that prior to his tenure at Columbia, Herbert was a featured player providing comedy relief in musicals, utilized as a top “second banana” delivering sure-fire laughs in support of comedians like Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson as well as headlining and co-headlining his own films (including the horror-comedies “Sh! The Octopus!” and “The Black Cat” as well as a string of features for Universal). It may also be that the horror-comedy situations provided a fresh diversion for Herbert, who otherwise was utilized by Columbia in marital farces akin to Leon Errol’s RKO shorts.
Herbert and Dickerson have an easy rapport and are dynamite together. The horror-comedy genre provides them a perfect set-up for a slow-and-steady build-up to more outrageous situations and gags, a la Laurel & Hardy. Like many of the Columbia horror-comedy shorts, the leads start somewhere else (in their detective offices, as bellboys, as exterminators, etc.) before they actually get to the haunted house… and whatever their profession may be is usually the impetus for them having to go to a haunted house in the first place. In this case it’s Hugh’s construction office. This oft-used scenario in the Columbia shorts doesn’t always work – sometimes the gags in the first location are not as strong as the haunted house gags to follow, and as I mentioned in my review of “Idle Roomers,” there is a desire (especially in shorts) to see the comedians get into the spooky setting as soon as possible. I’m happy to report that in “One Shivery Night,” the gags at the office are just as amusing and fun to watch as the haunted house gags to come.
Three of the more memorable bits in the construction office occur once Vernon Dent arrives to hire the boys. With their business dried up and their gas and phone shut off (Hugh only finds out about the phone when he tries to call the gas company to complain!), Hugh and Dudley are desperate for work. When Dent arrives, Hugh pulls out an old trick – he pretends to take calls from other clients with Dent sitting there (he sets off the ringer on an alarm clock that’s out of Dent’s sight to simulate the phone ringing). Hugh talks big like he is in demand with a lot of big jobs to do so he can get top dollar from Dent. In a Stooges-style moment, Hugh gets his hand stuck in a mousetrap then flings it – and it lands promptly on Dent’s nose! Then when Dent asks Hugh about the quality of his work, Hugh guarantees “when I build ‘em they stay built!” – and just then Dent pushes on a beam and it tips over!
In a typical feature, Hugh and Dudley wouldn’t get the job after the mousetrap and beam faux pas, but this is the fast-paced, often illogical world of Columbia shorts, so before you know it Hugh and Dudley are at the mansion and ready to work. When Hugh and Dudley arrive at the site, we’re treated to lots of Laurel & Hardy style slapstick as they try to get tools and ladders off their truck… culminating with Dudley’s head stuck between the rungs of a ladder and Hugh stuck in a barrel with his legs sticking straight up!
Once inside the mansion, the real creepy trappings kick in – lightning flashes, Dudley gets tangled in a drape as if it’s a ghost and then a boxing glove flies out from behind a painting on the wall and clonks him. It’s all fast and furious with marvelous “scared takes” from both Dudley and Hugh. And that’s just for starters. Once the crooks put a scare into our heroes with the power of suggestion by backing up the “ghost” legend, Hugh and Dudley are prime candidates for more scares.
And scared they are! The gags that follow are in many ways standard horror-comedy fare, but they are tried-and-true gags performed with such professionalism and enthusiasm that they are hard to resist even if you’ve seen the same gags before. The crooks pretend to go home for the night but they soon return wearing monster masks. Sleeping Dudley is the first to be frightened. He does a prime scare take, knocking his head back against the wall and running away screaming. Then Hugh thinks Dudley has bumped into him and turns around to find one of the mask-wearing crooks… and then Hugh runs away screaming. Other typical gags include Hugh hiding in a trunk to find a mask-wearing hood already in it, and Dudley sitting on a chair only to have the sheet cover rise up and chase him.
Dickerson in particular gets a lot of scream… er, screen time and utilizes it to the fullest. One completely hysterical scene has Dudley’s suspenders getting caught on a door handle. He’s convinced the ghosts have got him as he flails around trying to escape, but he never gets anywhere – he is always pulled back by the elastic! Eventually he snaps free and lands right in the furniture.
While Dickerson’s screen time and standing in the film are more elevated than most in the period, this short is not completely devoid of stereotypes. We get the requisite gag where Dudley gets covered in white paint, right before the crooks vow to “finish them off” – and then the crooks are scared away (this is an old bit that appeared in many films and cartoons, most notably in Laurel & Hardy’s “The Live Ghost” which doused caucasian actor Arthur Houseman in whitewash; the gag takes on a different pallor when it is an African-American actor turning all white). Hugh is also scared when he sees Dudley – which leads to the incongruous non-sequitor of a closing gag where Hugh slides across the floor and down a slide under a door, quickly followed by Dudley.
All tolled, there’s nothing terribly unique here, just Dickerson and Herbert getting into the spirit of things. For me, their inspired teaming and facility for putting over fright gags are enough reason to elevate this effort to a three star rating.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: This short features two stalwarts of Columbia’s stock cast, Vernon Dent and Philip Van Zandt.
Vernon Dent was a character actor in dramas and comedies from several studios (including some co-starring gigs with Clark & McCullough and W.C. Fields) and ultimately settled into a comfortable niche at Columbia playing both antagonists and put-upon victims of the Stooges and other Columbia comedians.
Philip Van Zandt was almost always playing “heavies” whether gangsters, mad scientists, henchman or the like. He appears in the classic Three Stooges 3D short “Spooks” as well as “Dopey Dicks” and “Outer Space Jitters.” He also appeared in comedy features like Laurel & Hardy’s "Air Raid Wardens" and “The Big Noise,” the Marx Brothers' "A Night in Casablanca," and "Ghost Chasers" with the Bowery Boys.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
HUGH (holding a blueprint upside down): I was wondering what those bathtubs were doing on the ceiling!
HUGH (assuring his client of the quality of his work): You leave it to me… I’ll fix it up so nobody will recognize it!
HUGH: We’re miles and miles away from anybody.
DUDLEY: That’s just what I’m afraid of!
DUDLEY: Can I draw part of my back salary?
HUGH: Whatsamatta, you crazy? What about the two dollars I gave you last week?
DUDLEY : I dunno boss, I expect I’m just extravagant!
CROOKS (telling Hugh & Dudley they’re leaving): You don’t think we’re going to spend the night in this creepy night, do you?”
DUDLEY: You mean you’re going to leave us here all alone?
CROOK: Oh you won’t be alone – you’ll have Ben’s ghost to keep you company!
BEST GAGS: I’ve already mentioned most of the highlights in the body of the review. Nothing beats Dudley’s antics, particularly with his suspenders, but here are some more great sight gags:
• The old chestnut of Hugh accidentally drinking from a bottle of ink instead of his beer.
• Hugh finds a wire in his way and starts to follow it into a wall opening… and the crooks promptly trap him inside. Dudley uses a pick to get through the wall, spears Hugh’s derby and pierces a water pipe. The water then starts splashing out of various holes.
• There’s one gag that’s more incredulous than funny where the crooks tie a noose around Hugh’s neck to drag him out of the wall.
BEST COMBO VISUAL-VERBAL GAG: Dudley has stepped into a can of black paint. Hugh walks into the room and sees a trail of black footprints… climbing UP the wall! When Hugh asks where Dudley is, he replies “up here” and we see his head peering from a hole in the ceiling! Dudley replies, “I don’t know how I did it, but here I am! Come on up, boss!”
FURTHER READING: Ted Okuda and Edward Watz wrote an indispensible book called “The Columbia Comedy Shorts” and Leonard Maltin wrote one called “The Great Movie Shorts” (also known as “Selected Short Subjects”). You can order them here:
Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to the Three Stooges (Da Capo Paperback)
I also encourage you to visit The Columbia Shorts Department – Greg Hilbrich’s excellent site dedicated to the fun and frolics of this studio that gave the world The Three Stooges and so much more.
WATCH THE FILM: Since this is a short there is no trailer, but thankfully I was able to find this short clip whose length falls within the parameters of “fair use” – a really nice clip highlighting Dudley and Hugh’s great “scare takes”:
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
My good friends Thomas Hall and Daniel Bradford are making their modern-day contribution to the horror-comedy genre with the pending release of their comic book, KING!
Here is the press release:
BLACKLIST STUDIOS' NEW COMIC BOOK HERO IS HUNKA' HUNKA' BURNIN' FUN
BUTLER, NJ (August, 2010) – Writer Thomas Hall and artist Daniel Bradford of Blacklist Studios, creators of one of the most acclaimed independent comics of recent years return this August with the release of “KING!”
Like their breakout hit “R-13,” the hero of the duo’s new series is adept at dispatching monsters. But unlike Robot-13, “KING!” knows all too well who he is… and he’s not afraid to have some fun as he bashes the baddies in this decidedly “comic” book.
“Daniel and I really enjoy the intricacies and depths of the R-13 mythology, and love conveying the universal emotions that story engenders,” says Hall. “But we’re also fans of comedy and monsters and KING! gives us the chance to go over-the-top in ways that reflect the comic books and movies we grew up with.”
“I get to draw bad-asses, brains, big guns and burritos… what could be better?” adds Bradford.
KING! #1 tells the story of a former pro wrestler-turned-bounty hunter who bears more than a striking resemblance to a certain “King of Rock ‘n Roll.” All he wants is a whole day of nuthin’. All he gets is a hunka’ hunka’ talkin’ heart in the mail… and the tale the heart tells is nothing short of epic. Can KING! simultaneously save the local Blubber Tubber Burger joint from an undead infestation and satisfy his hunger for a peanut butter banana burrito with bacon?
Now fans of Blacklist Studios, Robot 13 and Elvis Presley can have their burritos and eat them too when the first issue of KING! #1 is released on August 16, 2010 – just in time for the 33rd anniversary of the real King’s passing!
For fans who want their wardrobe to be as cool as the comic they’re reading, there’s also a KING! t-shirt available on the Blacklist Studios website. No one will mess with you when staring at the pistol-packin’, pompadour sportin’ monster killer on your chest!
The print edition of KING! #1 can be pre-ordered directly from Blacklist Studios (www.blackliststudios.com). The 32-page, full color comic retails for $3.99 US. For wholesale purchases, distributors and retailers are encouraged to email Blacklist Studios’ Thomas Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Tony Shenton at email@example.com for terms and information.
Monday, August 2, 2010
To the faithful “Scared Silly” watchers: I know, entirely too much time has elapsed without a new review from me. For that I offer my sincere apologies. There are a variety of reasons I haven’t posted a new review the past few months, none of which I’ll bore you with here. Suffice it to say that “Scared Silly” remains a hobby project that will hopefully eventually become a real book, but until it does, it has to play second fiddle to my paying gigs as well as other real-life commitments to family and friends.
With that said, I seem to be coming out of a period where my schedule has been absurdly busy to one that could be still-busy-but-manageable. Which means I should hopefully be able to get back into gear with more new reviews soon. I know I’ve been promising my review of Don Knotts’ “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken" for ages, for one. Cary Grant’s “Arsenic & Old Lace” is also on the near-horizon and I’m toying with the idea of an all-Laurel & Hardy week (maybe for Christmas) – we’ll see. Until then, I just wanted to thank you for your patience and ask you to hang in there... there is more happy haunting to come!