Thursday, December 31, 2009
NEW YEAR’S EVE IN A HAUNTED HOUSE
Hmmmm…. Father Time is kinda’ scary, isn’t he?
Speaking of time, I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for making the past few months so much fun for me. Thank you to all those who have twittered about my blog, chosen to “follow” the blog, have left comments on posts and told others about the project. I am especially grateful to all the blogs and websites who have publicized this wacky endeavor. Those include Zombo’s Closet of Horror, Frankensteinia, Giant Monsters on the Loose, The Third Banana, Enlightened Words, The Roads of Autumn Dusk, Monsterama and more.
In short, thank you to ALL SCARED SILLY FANS! (And if I’ve left anyone out please know it wasn’t intentional)!
Of course I also have to thank my wife for letting the TV be commandeered by all these movies (some of which were just downright painful for her to sit through), my friend Brent for being a terrific fact-checker and of course everyone’s favorite current-day character actor, carrying the torch for all who’ve gone before, the ubiquitous Daniel Roebuck, who graciously agreed to write the foreword for the book that will (hopefully) ultimately result from this blog!
Thank you also for bearing with my erratic schedule – due to other commitments I can’t always post on a regular basis. As of now I still don’t have my 2010 posting schedule worked out so please hang in there and keep checking back… you’re bound to see a new review every now and then.
Until the next review, here is Vagabond Opera performing “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House,” composed by avant garde jazz legend Raymond Scott, the man behind many of the melodies heard in Looney Tunes cartoons:
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963)
RATING: 1 & 3/4 out of ****
PLOT: Tom (Tom Poston), an American car salesman in London, has an odd living arrangement with his friend Casper (Peter Bull). The pair share a flat, which Casper uses by day and Tom uses by night. When Tom sells Casper a car, Casper requests that Tom bring it to his family’s mansion, where Casper spends his evenings. Tom arrives at the estate to find Casper dead and sharing the home with his very eccentric family. The array of oddballs includes Casper’s twin brother Jasper (also Peter Bull), who loves his orchids; ever-knitting Aunt Agatha (Joyce Grenfell), Petiphar (Mervyn Johns), who has a preoccupation of (literally) biblical proportions; man-crazy vamp Morgana (Fenella Fielding); and Uncle Roderick (Robert Morley), who’s obsessed with guns. Also on hand are Cecily (Janette Scott), a rather normal girl in the midst of the chaos; and Morgan (Danny Green), the mute father of Morgana who disapproves of all her boyfriends. It is soon revealed that the great, great ancestor of the family was Morgan the Pirate, and he left a very peculiar will: If any member of the family refuses to live in the house, they lose their inheritance. If any member of the family gets home after midnight (on any night), they lose their inheritance. Last but not least, the inheritance goes to the house – if the house dies, then the survivors can divide the inheritance. Tom asks why they don’t just burn the house down, but is told “you can’t burn stone.” Tom has one odd encounter after another with the bizarre family, and when they start dying off one-by-one, some try to put the blame on Tom. But Tom is determined to survive at any cost… and he may just find the real culprit in the process!
REVIEW: This is a co-production between American William Castle and England’s Hammer Films. While the focus of this Scared Silly project is to cover American films only, I’ve decided to include this film due to the Castle connection (Castle being the writer-producer-director of several highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek horror films legendary for the ballyhoo gimmicks he devised to promote them), the inclusion of American comic actor Tom Poston who plays the lead role and of course, the fact that it is based on James Whales’ 1932 Hollywood classic of the same name, one of the “template” films that influenced so many horror-comedies to come.
Having said that, despite the fact that this 1963 film shares the title, some character surnames and of course an old dark house with the original, this isn’t a proper remake, but rather a reimagining filtered through a satirical lens. The original film had its share of humor of course, but the tone was clearly one of eerie suspense and dread, with the laughs coming in the form of black comedy, irony and comic relief at best. With Poston leading the way, the tone of the revamp is decidedly comedic, the same way Hugh Herbert’s presence in “The Black Cat” tipped the scales of that film from the horror film with comedy relief that it could have been to the outright horror comedy it ended up being. Poston is aided in the task by several legendary British performers who excelled at comedy, including Robert Morley, Peter Bull and Fenella Fielding.
Before Poston and the others are even on screen, the viewer is clued in to the firmly comic nature of this film, as the opening credits unfold with spooky music that takes many goofy and silly turns, and a portrait of the Addams Family mansion… drawn by cartoonist/Addams Family creator Chas Addams himself! This bit of whimsy is made more so by the fact that the hand scrawling Addams’ signature is a hairy, monsterly thing indeed. A decade and change later Addams would once again provide cartoons for the opening of another spooky comedy-mystery, Neil Simon’s “Murder By Death.”
Further cementing this film’s comedy credentials are these tidbits from the “Trivia” section of the film’s Internet Movie Database listing: allegedly, Boris Karloff was offered a chance to reprise his role from the original but declined as he felt the remake’s script was too comedic in tone; and Charles Addams’ whole horror-comedy cartooning career was reportedly inspired by the orjginal film, hence his involvement here.
Given all that, I can only wonder whether the only person who didn’t get the memo that this was supposed to be a comedy was screenwriter Robert Dillon, because even though the tone is more merry than macabre, the actual laughs are few and far between. And that’s quite a shame, because the cast is really in there pitching. Poston is likeably comic while his English co-stars alternate between broad and droll, but it is all for naught due to the script. In fact, not only isn’t there much comedy in the screenplay; there aren’t many real scares, either. That the performances remain engaging despite the weak script is nothing short of a miracle, and testament to both the actors and director Castle.
The film gets off to a promising start but a few minutes in practically screeches to a halt. When Tom arrives at the mansion, he lifts the door knocker, which sends him down a trap door into the basement, where he sees a row of upright coffins wrapped in packing paper. He is then greeted by his friend Casper’s shotgun-wielding uncle…. who promptly takes him into a room here Casper’s lifeless body lies in a coffin! Then the odd characters are paraded in one by one and the perfunctory plot devices such as the will and its conditions are introduced… followed by the odd characters getting bumped off one by one. It all reads much better on paper than it plays out on screen, alas.
While I think the major problem lies with the script, part of the issue is the fact that the film IS a Hammer co-production, with their elaborate sets and locations, stately pace and vibrant colors. I think this movie would actually have benefitted more from being a typical low-budget, creepy black and white production along the lines of “House on Haunted Hill,” the William Castle film it most echoes. Sure it has its share of thunderstorms, mysterious voices out of nowhere (which turn out to be a reel-to-reel tape planted by the culprit), acid baths, mounted animal heads and rusty suits of armor, but I can’t help but imagine how much creepier these elements would have been without the perfect Technicolor sheen. Give me that dilapidated, shadow-filled black and white grit any day!
Getting back to the script, it seems Robert Dillon really wanted to see how “odd” he could make the script within the parameters of the producers’ expectations for the film. There are so many weird (but not particularly funny) touches in the screenplay that I wonder if he would have been more at home making a truly adult and disturbing black comedy such as Jack Hill’s “Spider Baby.” But this was never supposed to be “Spider Baby” – it was supposed to be a comedic take-off on a horror classic.
Three completely odd sequences stand out. Actually, they can almost be considered a whole, but I’ll break them down into three scenes for the full effect.
First is a scene where a giant hyena ends up in bed with Poston. The only thing scary about it are the bad special effects. The rear of the creature is clearly a sheepdog’s behind, while the close-ups of its face look alternately like a fox and a Jack Russell terrier. And then there are those times where it just looks like a stuffed taxidermist dummy that the best boy is shaking off-camera.
This wacko sequence leads directly into the film’s single most unique character reveal (actually a non-sequiter): Old Petiphar is convinced the world is ending and is building an ark. As Petiphar, Mervyn John’s may be the best performance in the film, one of pure conviction, as he calmly explains his plan to Tom and encourages him to read the bible’s account of the great flood… and then reveals his giant ark in the backyard, loaded to the gills with animals. And while it is wacko, this may also be the most interesting part of the film… but since it involves neither comedy nor horror in the midst of a horror-comedy, that’s a rather dubious endorsement. Actually, there is a tiny bit of comedy in the sequence when Petiphar reveals he’s included a special room for Tom and Morgana on the ark… so they can repopulate the earth!
This in turn leads to a bizarre scene where Poston imagines a seal with the head of Morgana! Finally, something truly (though unintentionally) scary in this film!
One nice touch in the film is that the family members all have eccentric hobbies. Casper is a big gambler, Jasper loves tending to his orchids, Agatha is a master knitter, Petiphar is devoted to building his ark, Morgana is dedicated to chasing men, and Roderick loves his guns. Most (but not all) end up getting killed in a way that somehow relates to their hobbies, a foreshadow of the black comedy elements in Vincent Price’s 1973 “Theater of Blood,” where the critics were bumped off by disgruntled Shakespearean actor Richard Lionheart in recreations of scenes from the plays they panned.
Unfortunately, the thought given to the characters’ hobbies and the interesting development of Petiphar’s character are the fleeting good elements in the film. Too much screen time is wasted with misfired jokes and gags, not to mention boring exposition. Case in point is a scene where Morgan chases Poston through the basement. It is meant to be comical in a slapsticky way but despite Poston making his funniest faces and getting into the physicality of the scene (such as unsuccessfully running over the scattered coals) the scene comes off forced due to the overdone musical accompaniment, a rousing piece falling somewhere between John Philip Sousa and Benny Hill. The script also forces Poston to get awkwardly tangled in ropes as if he’s going to hang, which also scuttles the scene. Alas, this scene is representative of the wrong turns the film too often takes.
The movie’s denouement will surprise some and be obvious for others. I won’t give away the murderer’s identity, although the previous sentence may be enough to do so. Once the killer and their plot is revealed Poston races through the house in an effort to save the day. Just as he succeeds in vanquishing the villain, the rain stops, leading Petiphar to exclaim that “It wasn’t the end of the world after all!” Unfortunately, it’s still not quite the end of the movie, either, as it insists on offering an awkward coda… and then abruptly ends!
Simply put, Tom Poston was one of the most engaging and creative comedic talents ever. Early in his career he became part of the stock company of players on the influential comedy variety show, “The Steve Allen Show,” appearing in many memorable sketches. Throughout his career Poston acted as the perfect second and third banana, adding just the right accent to many a comic scene. He did many guest-shots on episodic TV, with his role as villainous “Dr. Zharko” on “Get Smart” being a standout. His most memorable recurring roles in TV series would have to be playing Franklin Delano Bickley in “Mork & Mindy” and of course his most famous role as George Utley on “Newhart.”
Poston was supported in this film by a cast of British performers who have many memorable credits between them. Like the best of English actors, their resumes include many period pieces (including the requisite adaptations of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen), children’s fantasies, comedies and horror films. Many of them even appeared in the same films. We don’t have space to mention all their great credits, so we will concentrate just on those that would be of most interest to horror-comedy fans.
Robert Morley could always be counted on to spice up any project with his larger-than-life (and very British) presence. He was often used in comedies and thrillers, playing rogues masquerading as men of regal bearing, pompous authority figures, tongue-in-cheek villains and the like. Notable credits include the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn classic "The African Queen," a bit in the Hope & Crosby “Road to Hong Kong,” a part in Jerry Lewis’ “Way Way Out,” the aforementioned “Theater of Blood” and the mystery-comedy, “Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” Perhaps his most celebrated film is the cult black comedy “The Loved One.”
Peter Bull has the distinction of having appeared in several fondly remembered movies, including Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,” the Ealing Studios Alec Guiness starrer “The Lavender Hill Mob,” the Alastair Sim version of “Scrooge,” the aforementioned “The African Queen,” Benny Hill’s “Who Done It?,” plus a pair of Tom’s (“Tom Thumb” and “Tom Jones”) and a pair of doctors (“Dr. Strangelove” and “Doctor Doolittle”).
Fenella Fielding had an unusual face and a smoky voice and when combined with her curves the result was one of England’s most sought-after comediennes. She played vamps and vixens in several movies and TV shows including a couple of entries in the famed “Carry On" movie series (including the horror comedy “Carry On Screaming”) as well as appearing as the villain in multiple seasons of the comedic British children’s series “Uncle Jack” (each season had its own title, such as “Uncle Jack and the Loch Ness Monster” and “Uncle Jack and Cleopatra’s Mummy”). She also was the voice coming out of the loudspeaker in several episodes of the cult classic TV show, “The Prisoner.”
Mervyn Johns often played reverends and priests. He appeared in “Scrooge” as Bob Cratchit as well as in the classic, “Moby Dick.” He also appeared in “The Magic Box,” a bio-pic of inventor/filmmaking pioneer William Friese-Greene, as well as the fantasy “The Oracle” and the revolutionary war comedy “The Devil’s Disciple,” the latter alongside Burt Lancaster, Laurence Olivier and Kirk Douglas. His biggest horror credit would have to be “The Day of the Triffids.”
Like Johns, Janette Scott also appeared in “The Magic Box,” “The Devil’s Disciple” and “The Day of the Triffids.” She played Cassandra in Robert Wise’s retelling of the Trojan war story from Homer’s Illiad, “Helen of Troy;” and her credits also include another go-round with a murderous family in the horrific suspense film “Paranoiac,” a tussle with Terry Thomas in the comedy "School for Scoundrels" and the role of a doctor in the apocalyptic sci-fi thriller “Crack in the World.”
Another alumni of “The Magic Box” was Joyce Grenfell. She appeared in Hitchcock’s crime drama “Stage Fright,” had a recurring role as policewoman Sergeant Ruby Gates in the “St. Trinian’s” comedy film series about a girls' boarding school and played the Storyteller in “Jackanory,” a TV series which presented Beatrix Potter tales.
All told, this really is a one star film; I'm being generous awarding an extra 3/4 star due to the talent involved. It’s a real shame this film falls flat as it presented a rare opportunity for the enormously talented and funny Poston to carry a project as the main protagonist, something he did previously in Castle’s “Zotz!” but not much if at all after “Old Dark House” (at least he got a nice trip to England for his troubles). In fact, this film is really a detour in the careers of all involved.
Perhaps the most accurate critical appraisal of this film came from director Castle himself. Not only didn’t he use any gimmicks in the film (perhaps that was the gimmick at that point of his career?), but he didn’t even mention it in his autobiography. And anyone familiar with Castle knows he was nothing if not a shameless carnival barker, especially when it came to blowing his own horn about his films.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
AUNT AGATHA (at dinner, describing the meal): It was Casper’s favorite! He’s not like the other one – the other one only eats raw things.
POSTON (when Cecily tells him to try to get some sleep): I’ll count corpses!
BEST GAGS: I’m afraid it doesn’t get much better than the trap door Poston falls through early in the film. And the film knows it because at the midway point he falls through it again. And then the very last sight gag of the film is… you guessed it, Tom Poston falling through the trap door AGAIN! The only variation is the second instance, when Poston falls through the trap door then tries to get to his feet, grabbing the handle on the furnace and releasing coals upon his head.
Another okay gag sequence has Poston carrying on a conversation with Jasper, not realizing he is dead… until the tape recording answers him.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: John Harvey plays what amounts to a cameo as the receptionist at the casino in “Old Dark House,” but has quite the resume of comedy, horror, sci-fi and suspense credits, having also appeared in Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” and Ralph Thomas' remake of “The 39 Steps,” six episodes of the “Doctor Who” TV show, the Peter Sellers crime comedy “The Wrong Arm of the Law,” plus many more including “X: the Unknown,” “Horrors of the Black Museum,” “RollerBall” and the legendary “Night of the Demon.”
BUY THE FILM: This film is part of a recently released box set called “William Castle Film Collection” DVD box set. It features eight movies directed by William Castle, including the famous films “13 Ghosts” and “Mr. Sardonicus,” the classic Vincent Price “Tingler,” the infamous “Homicidal” and the Joan Crawford starrer “Straight-jacket.” The must-see’s of the set are “The Tingler” and the documentary, “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story,” which offers an affectionate overview of Castle’s career and a detailed analysis of the gimmicks he employed to promote those films. Unfortunately, the “must-miss” films are the two Poston starrers, “Zotz!” and “Old Dark House.” You can buy this box set here:
FURTHER READING: You can read noteworthy reviews at Dave Sindelar’s Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings as well as The Spinning Image site and Apocalypse Later. The Turner Classic Movies site also features an in-depth article on the film.
I was only able to find a black and white copy of this film’s trailer, which only proves my point that the color really detracted from this film. It features Castle’s penchant to cast himself in his trailers a la his idol, Alfred Hitchcock. Watch the trailer here:
BE SURE TO RETURN TOMORROW FOR A SPECIAL NEW YEAR’S EVE MESSAGE TO ALL SCARED SILLY FANS!
Monday, December 21, 2009
THE CREEPS OF CHRISTMAS!
Christmas is almost here, and I wanted to share some of the foremost holiday monsters with you. Only I didn’t want to do so on Christmas itself, as I take the holiday seriously from a spiritual standpoint (which is one of the reasons I’m taking a break from posting until December 30th).
Anyway, in the fictional legends that have sprung up over the years around the holiday, ghosts and monsters have played a major role. Just think of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for starters. A pure ghost story… with one seriously scary Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come!
So in the world of holiday fantasies, a few monsters stand out, and we’ll take a look at them now (with one caveat that should be noted: I know the following are not technically "horror-comedies" but since all contain some humor and give folks warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia, I'm being a bit generous in this post).
We have to begin of course with the Bogeymen from Laurel & Hardy’s 1934 classic “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”). These creatures from Bogeyland live in the bowels of the earth, in a horrible, frightening place that is the polar opposite of bright, happy Toyland, where Santa and his workers make the toys for the world’s children. And while their leader, the evil Silas Barnaby would like nothing more than to use his monster army to take over Toyland, he’s no match for toymakers Stannie Dumm and Ollie Dee… and 100 wooden soldiers each 6 feet high! As Ollie describes the Bogeymen, “they’re terrible looking things – they’re half man and half animal… with great big ears, and great big mouths, and long claws that they catch you with!” You can catch a glimpse of the Bogeymen toward the end of this trailer:
Next up is The Bumble (pictured at top) from the classic 1964 TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” This was produced by Rankin-Bass, the studio behind the classic horror-comedy “Mad Monster Party.” Utilizing their signature stop-motion animated puppet style (which they dubbed “Ani-Magic”), the special built upon the elements from the original 1939 story by Robert L. May, the famous song written by May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks (which became a huge hit for Gene Autry) and the 1944 animated theatrical short from Max Fleischer. Rudolph was given much more backstory in the Rankin-Bass special, and a larger supporting cast, including the Abominable Snow Creature known as “The Bumble.” The fearsome creature menaces Rudolph and his friends but as anyone who has seen this classic knows (and who hasn’t seen it?) there’s a very good reason for the Bumble’s agitation… and a happy ending for all!
The most recent spooky holiday star is "The Nightmare Before Christmas"'s Jack Skellington and all his friends from Halloweentown. Jack is simply enchanted by the magic in neighboring Christmastown and wants to bring some home for himself. And that’s where the trouble starts! This clash of the holidays originated as a poem from the limitlessly creative imagination of animator-director-producer Tim Burton. Director Henry Selick brought Burton’s concepts and designs to life in dynamic fashion in a mixed-media production that is equal parts stop-motion puppetry (a la one of Burton’s favorite films, “Mad Monster Party”) combined with cut-out designs and other special animated effects. Check out the trailer here.
While Jack Skellington wanted to abscond Christmas to share with his friends (a tinsel-clad Robin Hood) there is one nasty holiday horror who hated Christmas and didn’t want anyone to enjoy it: Dr. Seuss’s immortal Grinch! The famous book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by writer-cartoonist Seuss (real name Ted Geisel, who once contributed to some classic Warner Brothers theatrical cartoons including adaptations of his children's books as well as the classic Snafu shorts made for the war department) detailed how this foul fiend with a heart two sizes too small tried to hijack the holiday. Of course, the operative word is “try,” as we all know the Christmas spirit will triumph in the end! Interestingly enough, the Grinch shares more in common with Jack Skellington than merely pilfering Christmas - the Grinch got himself all tangled up in Halloween, too in the 1977 special "Halloween is Grinch Night." As for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," most are familiar with the classic 1966 animated TV special directed by animation legend Chuck Jones... and I’ll leave it at that, as I prefer to think the live-action fiasco of a few years back never happened!
So here’s wishing all Scared Silly fans the happiest and safest of holidays, and every blessing for the New Year!
BE SURE TO JOIN US ON WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 30th WHEN WE REVIEW WILLIAM CASTLE’S 1963 REMAKE OF “THE OLD DARK HOUSE” STARRING BOB NEWHART’S PAL TOM POSTON!
Friday, December 18, 2009
THE BLACK CAT (1941)
RATING: ** & 3/4 out of ****
DISCLAIMER: Let’s just get this out of the way immediately: there is ANOTHER film called “The Black Cat” from 1934 that also co-stars Bela Lugosi. Not only is this 1941 release a different film entirely, but there’s nothing even remotely funny in the 1934 film (which is a horrifically intense classic in its own right). So if you’re looking for laughs, be sure you pick up the right “Cat” from your local video store or Netflix!
PLOT: Henrietta Winslow (Cecelia Loftus) is an elderly cat fancier near death. Her stately home is filled with felines and antique furniture. The matriarch has gathered her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews together to read them her will. But she leaves one key piece of information unspoken: no one inherits a penny until housekeeper Abigail (Gale Sondergard) and the cats are dead. She reveals this to real estate agent Gil Smith (Broderick Crawford), who is anxious for Henrietta to sell the home to his client. Also on hand are antiques dealer Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert), looking to make a mint on the “musterpieces” within; and the mysterious groundskeeper Eduardo (Bela Lugosi). As expected in a film like this, it isn’t long before murder rears its head. Henrietta is first to be killed, which provides Abigail an opportunity to reveal the conditions of the will to the family. Of course, this doesn’t go over too well. Henrietta’s niece’s husband Montague (Basil Rathbone) vows to have his attorney null the will based on the notion that Henrietta was insane. From there, no one in the family is safe and everyone treads lightly, wondering if they will be next (some of them may be). Meanwhile, Mr. Penny investigates every piece of furniture, art and knick-knack in the place, breaking many of them as well as discovering some secrets (like hidden passageways) inside the estate. Will he uncover the murderer in the process?
REVIEW: This is one of the “borderline” entries in this project. Many legitimate horror films of the 1930s and ‘40s featured comic relief, but were ostensibly still horror films. A good example is “King of the Zombies,” which features a wonderfully comic performance by Mantan Moreland. But despite his many funny scenes, the overall tone of the film is still serious, and it is not inconceivable that a character like Moreland could be part of such a story, sharing the adventure alongside the straight characters. In “The Black Cat,” Hugh Herbert as Mr. Penny decidedly tips the scales on the side of comedy. The bumbling Herbert is such an improbable presence that the whole proceedings can’t help but take on an air of amiable charm and lighthearted comedy amidst the macabre setting of murder and mayhem. And Broderick Crawford’s bright and breezy manner helps to maintain that tone. Indeed, even some discourses between the serious characters are delivered in a jokey vein here.
The film starts out suitably creepy with a shot of a black cat walking down a tree branch with a spooky old moss-covered house in the background, framed by gnarly looking trees. This is just a couple years into the second cycle of Universal talkie horror films, ushered in by “Son of Frankenstein” in 1938 and it’s obvious the set designers and cinematographers have more than settled back into a spooky groove. This film reeks of Universal Horror atmosphere, and is all the better for it.
In fact, it reeks of Universal’s classic “The Old Dark House,” one of the major templates for the horror-comedy genre, released nine years before “The Black Cat.” Which is to say it has all the requisite trappings: the reading of a will, hidden passages, a musty old house filled with scary relics and dark shadows, a creepy crypt, and supremely spooky servants. And Broderick Crawford delivering this admonition to Hugh Herbert: “You talk as if the house was haunted!”
Oh yeah – it has a black cat, too! That black cat is uninvited – the matriarch of the mansion thinks they are harbingers of death and forbids them on the property, although one has somehow managed to sneak in and insinuate itself among the other cats. And the final creepy touch: a crematorium for the cats… that’s big enough to fit humans!
As the prospective heirs gather for the reading of the will, one of them plays discordant music on a piano (described as sounding like a funeral dirge). Par for the course in this type of film, the heirs are mostly selfish, disreputable types who the dying woman takes great pleasure in deriding as she rattles off the details of their inheritance. Of course, this also serves the plot, making everyone a suspect except Gil and Penny, who may be out for big paydays, too but never show any signs of hoping to do so through illegal means.
The mystery here gets slightly long-winded and confusing in the telling, but the ultimate denouement is reasonable enough. Given the abundance of suspects the final culprit who is revealed is as logical a choice as any other the authors could have pinned the crime on. At least it’s fun and exciting getting to the conclusion, as Gil and Penny start discovering both secret passageways and secret motives.
Unlike its 1934 predecessor, this “Black Cat” is often discredited as fluff, and while it admittedly has no pretensions beyond being a crowd-pleasing time passer, it is better than its detractors would have you believe. There is some care in the script (at least in the story’s set-up) as well as in the previously-mentioned eerie cinematography. The film moves fast, almost as fast as Broderick Crawford delivers his lines, but unlike “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” this film’s fleetness can be attributed to a full yet well-paced script, not a lack thereof. It also benefits tremendously from the variety of performers involved.
Broderick Crawford is just four years into his film career here and hasn’t yet become the tough guy character actor he would later be known as in such films as “Larceny Inc.” and “All the King’s Men;” and in dozens of TV guest-spots and starring roles in TV series, including Chief Dan Matthews in “Highway Patrol.” Instead, he plays an amiable role akin to the good-natured lead of a romantic comedy. He does it well, imbuing his character with a light and breezy charm and a basic decency. He proves adept at delivering a funny line, and when on screen with Hugh Herbert, the pair come off as a defacto comedy team.
Speaking of Herbert, your own ability to enjoy “The Black Cat” will depend greatly upon your tolerance for him. Herbert had a long career in both features and short subjects, and as both the comedy lead and second banana (his best roles probably being those where he supported Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson in some of their starring vehicles). To some (this author included) Herbert is “the delightful bumbler,” but to others, he is quite “undelightful” indeed. His mumbled asides (and there are many) range from corny one-liners and bad puns to acerbic sarcasm and witty rejoinders. And his method of breaking perfectly good furniture to “create” antiques is an amusing notion that leads to several sight-gags. His antics pervade so much of the film that if you don’t like him, you can deduct one or two stars from my rating. One thing is certain: between this, the feature “Sh! The Octopus” and several short subjects teamed with Dudley Dickerson, horror-comedy certainly became one of Herbert’s métiers.
Basil Rathbone is here, and his acting muscle in particular helps ground the film’s plot. At this point Rathbone had done several period pieces, at least one horror film (“Tower of London”) and had two outings in his most famous role as legendary Baker Street detective Sherlock Holmes. His sleuthing alter-ego figures in the film’s most surprising quip, and his experience with mysteries makes for an interesting juxtaposition now that he is playing a suspect as opposed to the investigator trying to crack the case. Basil would later give one of the most acclaimed performances ever in a horror-comedy, as the landlord who just can’t be killed in “The Comedy of Terrors.”
British actress Gladys Cooper plays Rathbone’s wife. She had an interesting career – she began in silent movies and was a World War I pin-up girl. She went from glamour gal to often cold character parts as she grew older, and ultimately was awarded three Oscar nominations and the title of Dame by the British Empire. Her more notable movies include “Rebecca,” “Now, Voyager” and “The Song of Bernadette.” The Movie Morlocks column on the Turner Classic Movies recently featured an excellent article on Dame Cooper that you can read here.
The film scores major horror cred in its choice of actors for the housekeeper (Gale Sondergaard) and groundskeeper (Bela Lugosi) roles. These are the type of roles that would be spoofed for years to come, in both movies and in cartoons, most notably in Tex Avery’s “Who Killed Who,” Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” and Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death.”
Gale Sondergaard had an icy gaze that could bore a hole through the hardest steel. As a result, she appeared in an array of femme fatale and sinister villainess parts. Among her most famous films are the Bob Hope horror-comedy “The Cat & the Canary,” the Sherlock Holmes entry “The Spider Woman,” the horror sequel “The Invisible Man’s Revenge,” and the Abbott & Costello ghost-fantasy, “The Time of Their Lives.”
…and then there’s Bela, who needs no introduction. One of the criticisms leveled at Lugosi’s horror-comedies over the years is that his parts could have been played by anyone. I consider that patently untrue. While it is true that he was hired to appear in these films because of his boogeyman status, I believe Bela always brought an extra level to his roles, no matter how underwritten. But when it comes to this film, I’m afraid Lugosi’s critics are right. He is essentially wasted with little to do but trade on the sinister implications his name brings (based on his past roles, especially Dracula). The screenwriters wear their reliance on Bela’s past on their sleeves. He is asked to recite non-threatening dialogue in a threatening way, and we even get a close-up of “that Dracula man’s” hypnotic eyes, which dissolves nicely into the headlights of our heroes’ car. Beyond that, nothing, nada, zilch for Bela to do but simmer in (red herring) sauce.
Whether you’re a fan of mysteries, horror films (particularly the spooky house variety) or screwball comedies, “The Black Cat” offers a little something for everyone. For the horror-comedy fan, all the trappings are here, and the Crawford-Herbert teaming compares favorably to the Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard teamings in “The Cat & the Canary” and “Ghost Breakers,” Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane in “Arsenic & Old Lace” and the great comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello. But I must emphasize once more that that the majority of comedy in “The Black Cat” is handled by Hugh Herbert. Hugh is the main show here, so if you don’t like Hugh, you’d best be a no-show.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Well, this film is a little different than others we’ve covered – there are no cab drivers or bartenders making 2 minute cameos here. But there is an actor who was about 9 years into his career and finally getting some bigger roles. Namely Alan Ladd. Originally billed 11th, he’d be bumped up to 4th upon the film’s re-release to capitalize on his post-“This Gun For Hire” popularity. Ladd’s career would prove to have a similar trajectory to Dick Powell’s. Both would start out with small roles playing soldiers, sailors, college students, etc., then appear in service comedies alongside famous comedy teams (Ladd with Laurel & Hardy in “Great Guns” and Powell with Abbott & Costello in “In the Navy”), and finally find their breakout roles in classic film noir flicks (Ladd in “This Gun For Hire” and Powell in “Murder My Sweet”).
I have to note the screenwriters here. This is the first full-fledged horror-comedy from the team of Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo (their prior film, “The Invisible Woman” was a dry run, being a romantic comedy with sci-fi and fantasy overtones). Their experience here was put to use the same year when they wrote Abbott & Costello’s first horror-comedy, “Hold That Ghost,” and their reputation as horror-comedy writers was cemented when they wrote the all-time classic of the genre, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Penny explains how he’ll fix an antique by first having to use several tools to fix other tools.
When Mr. Penny pushes a suit of armor from behind, Gil thinks it’s the killer and tackles it.
Mr. Penny flies out the door when Abigail offers him spiked tea.
Mr. Penny berates a moving man for handling a chair too delicately, then smashes it into pieces, telling the moving man you can get a fine antique by putting it back together.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
This movie feels very much like a play and is very dialogue-driven, so there’s a wealth of great lines. Let’s start with a random sampling of one-liners from Hugh Herbert:
“Looks like it’s been raining cats and cats around here!”
“ I hope they scratched up all the furniture – I’ll make a fortune if they did!”
(About Abigail): “What a puss! Like a lemon rinse!”
There’s also a tongue-twisting scene where Mr. Penny explains how he’ll fix an antique by first having to use several tools to fix other tools.
CRAWFORD: (while driving down a seriously bumpy road): As an antiques dealer Mr. Penny what do you think of this road?
HERBERT: I’d hate to meet the worms who made these holes!
Then there is this exchange between Broderick Crawford and Hugh Herbert. When Crawford goes to show Hugh Herbert the crematorium for the cats, Hugh is in much disbelief, to which Crawford replies, “Sure, everything around here is for the cats – that’s why the place has gone to the dogs!” It’s a line that seems like it should be coming from comedian Herbert, and as if to downplay it, Herbert retorts “I’m glad I didn’t say that” in what very well could have been an ad-lib.
But there’s no question as to the two funniest lines:
First, when Basil Rathbone makes a pronouncement that the evidence points to Abigail, Broderick Crawford mutters under his breath, “He thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes!”
Then there’s perhaps the funniest line of all, which actually appears in the credits: “Suggested by the story by EDGAR ALLAN POE”
BUY THE FILM: This film is available on DVD as part of a 5-movie collection called the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive paired with straight-laced horror films including “Man Made Monster,” “Horror Island,” “Night Monster” and “Captive Wild Women,” which you can buy here:
WATCH THE FILM ON YOUR COMPUTER: If you have a Netflix account, "The Black Cat" is currently available as an "instant view" selection.
FURTHER READING: There are several reviews on the internet worth reading, including this one at Eccentric Cinema, this review on the Universal Horror Archive blog and Movie Magg’s review.
Watch this trailer here:
COME BACK ON MONDAY, DECEMBER 21st FOR SEASON’S SCREAMINGS AS WE TAKE A LOOK AT SOME CHRISTMAS CREEPS!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
ON THE TRAIL OF A BLACK CAT...
In anticipation of Friday's review of the Hugh Herbert/Broderick Crawford horror-comedy "The Black Cat" (co-starring Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi), here's a public domain cartoon from the silent era starring that world-famous black (and partially white) feline, Felix the Cat. It's sure to make your whiskers quiver!
Monday, December 14, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952)
RATING: *** out of ****
PLOT: (What plot?!) Two entertainers (Duke Mitchell and Jerry Lewis… er, I mean Sammy Petrillo) en route to perform at an overseas army base accidentally go out the wrong door of the plane (with parachutes already on, they explain), and we join them as they are discovered by a quite Caucasian-looking tribe on the island below. The chief’s daughter Nona (Charlita) is American-schooled and absolutely gorgeous. She goes gaga for Duke. Her sister Saloma (Muriel Landers) is obese and impulsive… and absolutely determined, as the trailer states, to “put the whammy on Sammy!” Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Zabor, another in a long line of mad scientist roles. He also wants the gorgeous Nona… and he wants to put a human’s brain in an ape’s head (don’t all mad scientists?). Can Sammy save Duke from Bela’s monkey business, or will the Brooklyn chumps become island chimps? And will this “horror film stiffen you with laughter” as the poster promises?
REVIEW: Of all the films covered in this “Scared Silly” project, even among horror-comedy aficionados this is one of dubious merits. So much so that I must offer this disclaimer: proceed at your own risk!
In fact, I need to fortify the above: this movie is considered by the majority of movie critics to not only be among the worst movies ever made, but in a select group of the four or five worst ever.
So why have I rated it so highly?
The answer: Sammy Petrillo. For the uninitiated, in this film Sammy Petrillo isn’t just inspired by Jerry Lewis; he practically IS Jerry Lewis! His performance is so audacious that I can’t tear my eyes away – it’s that compelling.
And fascinating, as in any given scene you can see Petrillo’s mind at work, pondering “What would Jerry do or say in this situation?” You literally see Sammy come up with the punch lines (such as they are) on the spot.
If I were to forget the above and just grade it on its merits as a movie, then I'd subtract half a star. But Sammy really puts this over for me.
Another reason I’m so fond of the film is that I really have to be in the mood to watch a Jerry Lewis movie; but Sammy’s outrageous pilfering amuses me anytime.
So is he funny? Is the film funny? Not in and of itself. The humor isn’t in the jokes or situations. For me, the humor is in the fact that this kid is shamelessly and fearlessly throwing himself into someone else’s shoes (although strangely, I think Sammy's random, snarky insults – like calling Saloma Salami – might actually appeal to today's young audiences).
I think the key word here is shameless. Petrillo began his act at 16 and made this film at 17. It is likely that in his youthful exuberance he never thought his Lewis shtick was a colossal rip-off worthy of lawsuits from Jerry. For me, it is this assumed naiveté that makes Sammy’s performance that much more engaging.
Of course, it resonates even more because Sammy is paired here with Duke Mitchell. An okay crooner with Italian features, Mitchell was told to cut his hair like Dean Martin. By himself he wouldn’t be mistaken for Martin, but standing next to Petrillo’s ersatz Jerry, the effect is complete.
Duke is likable enough, although the script doesn't require much from his character so there’s not much happening in his performance – when not reprimanding Sammy or feeding him straight lines he’s just sort of “there” waiting for his next cue to sing and/or look befuddled.
He’s also the victim of this low, low budget film’s worst aesthetic choice: he wears a shirt tied off at the waist for most of the movie. I grew up in the 1970s when only girls wore their shirts that way. I can’t vouch for the 1950s, but I’m guessing Duke never lived down this unfortunate wardrobe selection, even then. Which would more than explain his macho-with-a-vengeance “Massacre Mafia Style” movie 26 years later.
Duke did manage to have a successful post-Brooklyn Gorilla nightclub career as a singer, honing his craft to the point that he was reportedly (according to members of his family as well as cartoon voice-over legend Janet Waldo) one of the singers (along with Leo DeLyon and Henry Corden) called in a time or two to provide singing voices for Fred and/or Barney on "The Flintstones."
For Sammy, It all started with a cheap haircut. When the barber told Sammy he looked like Jerry Lewis, Petrillo started acting like Jerry to see if he could get the same laughs. Before you know it, Milton Berle arranged for Sammy to meet with Lewis, and Lewis hired Sammy to play “baby Jerry” in a sketch for the Colgate Comedy Hour. He also signed Petrillo to a contract that kept him from taking on other roles! Since Petrillo was a minor, his father was able to get him released from Jerry’s contract. Petrillo went on to do a nightclub comedy act as both a solo performer and teamed with George DeWitt (emcee of radio’s “Name That Tune”), mostly doing impersonations of all sorts of celebrities and cartoon characters, including Jerry. He teamed with Duke Mitchell in 1951.
Sammy made no bones about his infamy, which was kind of refreshing – he knew it was a million-in-one lark and the timing of a lifetime and said, “what the heck – what will happen if I exploit it?” In his later years, Sammy had a lot of fun with his image as a felonious thespian – just check out this “message to Jerry” where Sammy feigns indignity over Jerry’s “theft” of his act!
The supporting cast is made up of folks who would forever be “typecast” in similar roles, often uncredited and playing characters with no names. Witness:
Charlita, the beautiful actress who played the chief’s daughter Nona, spent her career doing guest shots in TV shows and movies (most of which were Westerns) primarily playing Latina characters, native girls, singers, waitresses, Native Americans and even an Asian. Along the way she engaged in some horseplay with the Bowery Boys in “Let’s Go Navy” and also had a part in the unintentionally funny horror-western (and train… er… stage coach wreck) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.”
Nona’s sister Saloma, is played by Muriel Landers. Landers was actually quite a talented comedienne and singer, and not unattractive, but because of her full figure, she was forever typed as the “homely girl chasing the hapless male” (aka the “abhorrent admirer”). However, she did get to make a short at the Stooges’ home studio Columbia, had a credited/named role in “Dr. Doolittle” and her second-to-last credit was playing Mommy Hoodoo on an episode of Sid & Marty Krofft’s “Lidsville.”
Al Kihume played Chief Rakos... and a plethora of similar Native roles in westerns and serials. He was also often cast as policemen and due to his heritage, Hawaiians. Most notably, he played several different roles in various Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto mysteries, and appeared in the comic-based serials “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” and “Mandrake the Magician,” which provided him the marquee role of Mandrake’s assistant Lothar.
Mickey Simpson made a career out of playing bouncers, guards and thugs. One could say his role as the chief’s right-hand man Chula combined all of the above. While often stuck in low-budget productions, Simpson had an alternate, classier outlet: he was a favorite of legendary director John Ford, who gave him meaty roles in “My Darling Clementine,” and “Giant,” plus seven other films.
(There are a couple of other co-stars here that found themselves typecast, but I’m saving them for the “SPOTTED IN THE CAST” section, so keep reading)…
Of course, Bela is here as well, and to the producers, he’s the most exploitable element in the movie, the insurance that brings people in no matter how confused they are over the Jerry-alike on the movie poster. Alas, this is Bela five years after “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” but looking twenty years older. Still, Lugosi proves that he still has some life left, rattling off an absurd speech about apes, evolution and embryonic metamorphosis with pure conviction, making us believe every word - a foreshadow of his later, famous Atomic Supermen speech from 1955's “Bride of the Monster.”
As expected Bela supplies the main menace here – the gorillas are just too absurd to actually be scary (except maybe to little kids). But the scariest factor here has to be the use of that old standby of the creepy old man infatuated with a girl 50 years his junior!
While this film clearly marks a turning point from which Lugosi’s career would never recover (the Ed Wood films were just ahead) he does his best with the woefully-written role, and his standing as the leading horror-comedy fiend remains intact. One could argue it would have to since Bela made more horror-comedies than any other boogeyman (ten in all). But it is Bela’s ability to remain a rock-steady sinister presence amidst the comic mayhem surrounding him that truly makes him king of the creeps.
I should also note Tim Ryan. The actor-writer co-wrote this screenplay, and had a hand in several other horror-comedies including “Crazy Knights” with Shemp Howard, Billy Gilbert and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenblum;” and “Spook Busters” with the Bowery Boys.
Though it’s unlikely the filmmakers intended it, the film comes off as a bit of a send-up of the low-budget horrors that Lugosi made for Monogram Studios. After all, mad scientists and simians figured heavily in Lugosi’s “poverty row” potboilers. It also manages to lampoon the whole horror-comedy genre in general – let’s face it, the basic situation that sets up the plot could have easily kicked off an Abbott & Costello monster-fest, let alone a Martin & Lewis pic. If you approach it as a cracked mirror reflection of the great horror-comedies that preceded it, you may find much to interest you in this film. But if you just can’t get past Sammy Petrillo, my three stars are going to dwindle down to one fast for you. Maybe even disappear completely!
POSTSCRIPT: I had the pleasure of meeting Sammy Petrillo a couple of years ago and he graciously filled me in on his show business exploits. My encounter with Sammy was detailed in a guest-post I did for Aaron Neathery’s wonderful “Third Banana” blog when Sammy passed away this summer. You can read it by clicking here.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
NONA: “Dr. Zabor’s a very brilliant man.”
SAMMY: “Brilliant man, huh? Anybody who would live in a creep joint like this must be a moronic idiot.”
DR. ZABOR (entering the room): “I’m Dr. Zabor. Welcome to my creep joint.”
SAMMY: Oh gosh, I’m sorry Mr. Idiot – I didn’t mean to call your creep joint a creep joint!”
BEST GAGS: Nothing can top the fact that the whole film is one big gag - namely being a shameless Martin & Lewis ripoff. Otherwise the sight gags here are mild at best. When Duke & Sammy are found by the natives they have long, shaggy beards like the Smith Brothers (of cough drop fame) signifying that they've been passed out for quite some time. When being chased by Saloma, Sammy implores the animals of the jungle to "run for your lives" - and herds of all sorts of jungle creatures do just that, courtesy of stock footage. Sammy pretends to be the top head on the totem pole making a garish face as he attempts to avoid Saloma. Beyond that, Sammy gets into some monkeyshines with Ramona the chimp and later the gorilla version of Duke.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Two actors to make you go ape.
First, Steve Calvert cavorting in a gorilla suit he purchased from another famous simian thespian, Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Calvert also played gorillas in a few other horror-comedies including the Stooges short' "Spooks," the Joe Besser short "Fraidy Cat" and the feature, "The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters." He also appeared along in stock footage as an ape in Besser's "Hook a Crook" (which also utilized stock footage of Corrigan as an ape along with new footage of Dan "Hoss from Bonanza" Blocker for triple the simian fun)!
Then there’s Ramona the Chimp. There’s some conflicting information about the chimp who played Ramona, but popular legend has it that the chimp was one of the Cheeta the chimp portrayers of Tarzan fame, and that this same chimp was reunited with Muriel Landers in “Doctor Doolittle.”
BUY THE FILM (OR WATCH IT FOR FREE): This film is in the public domain, so you can find all sorts of dealers offering it at bargain prices. Both Digiview (SRP $0.99) and Alpha (SRP $3.95) have produced DVDs of the film from decent transfers, while Image’s special edition at $9.99 is notable for its clean print and the fact that it includes a filmed interview with Sammy Petrillo, which you can order here:
You can also watch it for FREE online at Blip TV by clicking here.
FURTHER READING: David H. Smith wrote a fabulous essay on “Brooklyn Gorilla” for the book MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES: BELA LUGOSI that not only reviews the film but touches on Lugosi’s entire horror-comedy career as well. You can order it here.
You’ll also want to read a great interview that radio DJ Dave the Spaz did with Sammy over here and film historian Tom Weaver’s interview with producer Herman Cohen here.
Watch the trailer here:
JOIN US AGAIN NEXT WEEK WHEN BELA LUGOSI MEETS HUGH HERBERT IN "THE BLACK CAT!"
Monday, December 7, 2009
MONDAYS WITH MILTON
One of the greatest things about growing up in the 1970s was that the local TV stations were still truly “independent.” Before the rise of Fox, the WB and UPN these stations each had its own flavor. In the New York tri-state area, there was WNEW Channel 5, WOR Channel 9 and WPIX Channel 11. Through the years, these three stations would run some of the same shows and movies, but despite the similar programming, they still maintained their distinct identities. It came down to the local talent employed at each – the news folks, the kid show hosts, the sports teams they hosted, the talk show hosts (for those who grew up in the area, think about it – both Joe Franklin’s nostalgia show and Ralph Kiner’s pre, during and post-Mets game shows were decidedly “Channel 9” in tone and atmosphere; likewise, over on “Channel 5” Bob McCallister’s kid show “Wonderama” and the Bill Boggs’ midday talk show’s set seemed quite similar – but you couldn’t imagine Joe Franklin and Ralph Kiner’s shows on Channel 5 or Bob McCallister and Bill Boggs’ show being broadcast on Channel 9 – at least not in the forms in which you’d become accustomed).
One of the coolest things was that this individuality extended to the way the stations presented their syndicated programming. Particularly cartoons. In those days, a station could have bought the rights to show Looney Tunes cartoons from one syndicator, Popeye cartoons from another syndicator and Woody Woodpecker cartoons from yet another syndicator. They could run the half-hour shows exactly as received with the opening and closing credits and bumpers provided by the syndicator, or they could chuck those elements entirely and actually mix and match those cartoons into the same half-hour with a custom-made opening created by the station.
This led to some excellent and unexpected “original” programming. I’m pretty sure the example I used above happened (or at least there were “Bugs & Popeye” and “Bugs & Woody” shows). I’m also pretty sure either Channel 5 or Channel 9 used to run the short Laurel & Hardy animated cartoons from the mid 1960s before the live-action Laurel & Hardy theatrical shorts. I know for a fact that Channel 5 created a cool half-hour called “The Superheroes” that was composed of cartoon shorts from several late-60s Filmation Saturday morning cartoon series based on DC Comics characters AND the mid-60s Lone Ranger cartoon shorts from Format Films (this I know is true not only because my fellow comic book professionals have the same memory, but because Vinnie Bartilucci immortalized the memory in a guest post on Robert J. Kelly's great “Hey Kids, Comics” blog).
Perhaps coolest of all was an all-out superhero marathon on Saturday mornings that combined the cartoons mentioned above with some of the superhero spoof cartoons then in syndication – Mighty Mouse, the Mighty Heroes and a character called Batfink. I loved all these cartoons, but I took a particular like to Batfink. I loved the character designs and the voice work, plus the tone and atmosphere of these cartoons. While they reminded me in some ways of the Jay Ward, Total Television and ‘60s-era Terrytoons , they still had their own unique look and feeling, and I hoped I would see more like Batfink at some point.
You have to fast-forward to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s before I got that chance. That’s when the family got cable, and in those days, that meant that you were able to get “independent” stations from other states! Our cable system carried WPHL Channel 17 from Philadelphia, WSBK Channel 38 from Boston and also the local Atlanta station that would later transform into Ted Turner’s Superstation. I can’t recall for sure which of these stations ran the following (my guess is that it was the Philly station - hopefully a reader with a good memory can confirm) but the best thing about getting these stations was that if afforded me the opportunity to see some old cartoons I had never seen before, particularly George of the Jungle (with Super Chicken and Tom Slick), Marine Boy and the Milton the Monster Show!
The last one reminded me of Batfink, and with good reason: Milton the Monster and Batfink were both produced by Hal Seeger Studios. And the Milton the Monster show featured another superhero parody, Fearless Fly as its bonus segment. But Milton was the star, and I was transfixed by this wacky world of benevolent monsters in goofy situations, led by title monster Milton, he of the soft-spoken, Huckleberry Hound-like southern drawl. The cartoon was simply charming, but at the same time, cool. It didn’t have the same zip and zing as the later “Mad Monster Party” feature film from Rankin-Bass, the Filmation animated TV series The Groovie Goolies or the live-action “Hilarious House of Frightenstein” out of Canada, but it keeps good company with them as a fun and creative depiction of monsters for younger audiences. Fans of 1960s TV animation will especially appreciate the character designs – a hallmark of the Hal Seeger Studios (in fact in the mid ‘60s the studio was tapped to create an animated series based on my favorite superhero Plastic Man, but the show never came to be).
The complete series is available on DVD and you can order it here:
You can also read more about it here and here and here.
There are some fun clips available to view online, and we’ll take a look at some every now and then on Mondays.
So... what better place to start than at the beginning? Here's the opening to the show… enjoy!
BE SURE TO JOIN US ON THURSDAY, DECEMBER 10th FOR A REVIEW OF “BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA” FEATURING NOTORIOUS JERRY LEWIS IMPERSONATOR SAMMY PETRILLO!
Posted by Paul Castiglia at 12:00 AM 5 comments:
Friday, December 4, 2009
FRIDAYS WITH FRIGHTENSTEIN
My love of Vincent Price’s tongue-in-cheek horror films (and horror-comedies) really blossomed in the 1990s, but the seeds were planted much earlier, all the way back to my days as a child watching TV in the 1970s.
Vincent could be seen everywhere those days… he was a frequent guest on talk shows, variety shows (an appearance on “The Muppet Show” a standout), specials (he sent Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to my Nightmare” into horror-kitsch orbit), game shows (Hollywood Squares in particular) and sitcoms (who could ever forget the life he brought to the very special Hawaii episode of “The Brady Bunch” – by then a very tired and played out program).
When Vincent wasn’t cavorting in first-run broadcasts, he could be seen in reruns of some of the best TV guest-shots ever, such as multiple appearances as Batman villain Egghead and a tripped-out lark as Maxwell Smart’s nemesis Dr. Pym on “Get Smart.”
There is one show from my childhood that Vincent was the “incidental” star of. And I didn’t realize it then, but this show is just as much a reason for my love of horror-comedies today as any of the classic comedians or animated cartoons that tread down dark and spooky corridors during Hollywood's golden age.
I’m speaking of a wonderful syndicated show out of Canada called “The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.” This show took the best elements of the Milton the Monster and Groovie Goolies cartoons and transported them to a live-action kids show format that shared its outrageous style of humor with the likes of “Laugh-In” and Soupy Sales and was a foreshadow of a couple of kid-show spoofs yet to come, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and the inimitable powerhouse of New Jersey local programming, Uncle Floyd.
Billy Van played Count Frightenstein and a host of other characters, with support from Fishka Rais as Igor, Joe Torbay as Gronk and Guy Big as Count Munchkinstein. And some awfully cool, clever, kooky monster puppets.
(The Frightenstein cast's fellow Canadian Joe Flaherty may have seen the show a time or two).
Aparently the producers or distributors weren’t confident in their ability to sell the show to American audiences, so they commissioned new “bookend” scenes be shot starring Vincent Price. Honestly, as awesome as Vincent always was, they didn’t need to do that. The show was perfect as is. But if that’s what it took to bring the show to America, then I have no complaints.
The show has had a resurgence in recent years as people in my age-group fondly look back on it. With new outlets for "Frightenstein," it now can be shared with the children of these now-grown fans, perhaps creating a new generation of Frightenstein aficianados in the process.
It was released on DVD a few years ago but is now out-of-print and fetching prices of over $100.00. If money is no object to you then you can buy it here:
Otherwise, if you have a Netflix account you can rent the DVD or watch it on your computer or TV as a "instant play" selection. It is also being shown on the digital TV networks Drive-In Classics and Space.
There are some great articles about this show which you can read here and here. But nothing beats actually checking out a clip from the show, and we’ll do that here every now and then on Friday’s… so enjoy!
Posted by Paul Castiglia at 4:00 AM 2 comments:
Thursday, December 3, 2009
“B” IS FOR…
• BOOGEYMEN – who often try to (and succeed at) scaring our favorite funnymen…
• BORIS KARLOFF – the most famous of the Frankenstein monsters, whose horror-comedies we took a look at last month during the Boris Karloff Blogathon…
• BELA LUGOSI – the most famous Dracula, who made several horror-comedies, some of which we’ll explore at Scared Silly before the month is out!
Until then, enjoy THIS!:
Posted by Paul Castiglia at 8:34 PM No comments:
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
BORIS KARLOFF BLOGATHON 2009: THE AFTERMATH!
In the words of Morrissey, “November Spawned a Monster” – and its name was the Boris Karloff Blogathon!
I was absolutely thrilled to be part of over 110 blogs worldwide who participated in the event. If you haven’t checked out my posts made during the blogathon, I encourage you to do so (just go to the sidebar and click on November 2009 - all my entries between November 14th through the 30th relate to the blogathon - or you can simply click here).
I also encourage you to check out the posts of the other participating bloggers. You can find them by perusing Pierre Fournier’s posts of the past week at his Frankensteinia blog or by directly accessing his archive here.
While you're at it, check out MonsterKid.com - where today's wonderful photo of Boris originated.
So after 17 straight days of posting and 21 posts altogether in November, and the big Christmas holiday fast approaching, your old horror-comedy-meister has decided to take it a little easier in December. I will try to get at least two reviews posted this month, and supplement with some fun clips… like this one (the live-action sequence from "Daffy Duck & Porky Pig Meet the Groovie Goolies"):
STAY TUNED FOR MORE HORROR-COMEDY FUN HERE AT SCARED SILLY!
Monday, November 30, 2009
MAD MONSTER PARTY? (1967)
Hey, what gives? The banner indicates that yesterday was the 7th and final day of the 2009 Boris Karloff Blogathon!
So it does. But here at SCARED SILLY: CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD HORROR-COMEDIES, we've decided to extend the blogathon by a day to bring you this special post.
Today we take a look at a movie that falls outside the parameters of SCARED SILLY’S criteria for inclusion in the upcoming book of the same name, as it was released the year after our cutoff date AND it is animated, not live-action.
Still, this film is such a huge part of the “monster kid” era and such a big influence on my love of horror-comedies in general that today I’ve decided to highlight…
*** & ½ out of ****
I’m not going to write a full-fledged review here nor follow the ususal SCARED SILLY blog format, but rather I’ll give you a brief overview of this film and point you to some sources where you can learn more about this wonderful film.
To the uninitiated, think of “The Mad Monster Party” like this: the all-out mayhem of Universal monster rally films like “House of Frankenstein,” "House of Dracula" and “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” meets the engaging stop-motion animation (dubbed "Animagic") of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” meets the spooky trappings of the mixed-media animated “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Throw in wild Mad Magazine style humor and satirical jabs at then-current 1960s crazes like James Bond, Batman and the Beatles (I defy you not to hum along when the all-skeleton group Little Tibia & the Phibias sing "It's the Mummy") and you've got a horror-comedy classic!
The story: Dr. Frankenstein is ready to retire, and invites all the monsters to his castle to break this news (and possibly reveal his successor as ruler of all monsters), as well as his discovery of a new anti-matter potion.
The voice-over by Karloff as Dr. Frankenstein is the kindly old “Uncle Boris” persona that monster kids had come to know and love in the 1960s – at least through the majority of the movie (until circumstances force him to get his ire up that is).
Included on the guest-list are the most famous monsters from classic horror-movies: Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the monster’s Bride (here a caricature of comedienne Phyllis Diller), the Werewolf, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (who seems to have inspired Disney's later version), the Invisible Man, a sea creature (like the Gill Man from the “Creature from the Black Lagoon”), the Mummy, an Igor-like character called Yetch (whose appearance and voice are patterned after Peter Lorre), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and an army of zombie soldiers (the “White Zombie” kind of zombies, not the brain-eating George Romero zombies).
Also invited: Frankenstein’s nebbishy, nervous, allergy-prone nephew Felix Flanken.
Not invited, but sure to cause trouble is “It,” a giant gorilla of Kong-sized proportions.
There is a lot of scheming, back-biting and double-crossing going on here as Dracula thinks he deserves to be the next ruler of the monsters, while the Bride thinks the Monster should be next in line.
Of course, the doctor is considering keeping things in the family with Flanken, so that puts Felix’s life in jeopardy.
An interesting added-attraction of this movie is the character Francesca. The knockout redhead must surely be an inspiration for the Jessica Rabbit character from 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Voiced by popular singer Gale Garnett, she even gets to sing a sultry number, a rousing anthem and the film’s love song.
She also plays a part in the ending, which is yet another one (like "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini") inspired by the ending of "Some Like it Hot."
In the New York City area, WOR Channel 9 used to run this film a lot (you can read a great blog posting about the movie and its NY airings here). In fact, for years it used to run it in a beat-up old print and whenever I came across it, I was sure to tune in. In later years the film was restored and ran on AMC (when that station’s initials still meant they showed American Movie Classics, not Any Moving Crap as appears to be its current state).
The best thing about the film is that it comes from a time when many animated films and TV shows were designed to appeal to both children and adults at the same time, with smart humor that didn't "talk down" to kids. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since two Mad Magazine alum were involved – writer Harvey Kurtzman helped pen the script and artist Jack Davis did character designs as well as the art for the movie poster. (NOTE ADDED MAY 12: In the wake of the passing of legendary artist Frank Frazetta, it appears I erred in giving Davis credit for this poster - it has been cited by numerous sources as actually being the work of Frazetta).
The film really captured my imagination and I’m sure it will capture yours, too.
I’d venture to guess this film captured Tim Burton’s imagination, too.
You can buy the original “Mad Monster Party“ on DVD here:
The film even spawned a sequel – actually a prequel called “Mad Mad Monsters” which ran on ABC’s Saturday Superstar Movie. Unlike its predecessor, it utilized hand-drawn cel animation instead of the stop-motion “Animagic” style, but it did retain some of Jack Davis’ wonderful character designs. The plot was almost identical, except this time all the monsters were invited to the castle to attend the wedding of the Monster and his Bride.
The Retro Junk site has an excellent article detailing both the original movie and the prequel which you can read here.
The excellent KiddieMatinee.com site has a nice review that also gives some background on the film's fine soundtrack.
My father's godson Jerry Only from horror-punk legends The Misfits is also a big fan, and their website has a nice write-up on the film here.
You can also learn more by visiting both the film’s official site and its unofficial site.
And you can enjoy the trailer right here:
BE SURE TO CHECK BACK IN TO SCARED SILLY FOR SOME MORE CLASSIC HORROR-COMEDY FUN IN DECEMBER!
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