Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Flash: Rod Serling's "Night Gallery"

This is a quickie to remember Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" series on NBC in the 1970s and some of the great stuff that was on it.

Among the episodes that gave me childhood chills were "A Feast of Blood," with the bloodsucking brooch; "The Caterpillar," featuring an earwig crawling through Laurence Harvey's brain; "Pamela's Voice," starring Phyllis Diller as the shrewish late wife of John Astin who just won't shut up; and "Certain Shadows on the Wall," with the shadow of the dead aunt that can't be washed off or painted over. Creepy! And what stars this show had: Sally Field, Gale Sondergaard, Diane Keaton, Edward G. Robinson, Laurence Harvey...the list goes on and on. And one episode featuring Joan Crawford was Steven Spielberg's directorial debut!

Some of the stories were too sophisticated for my preteen mind, but thanks to KDOC-TV here in Los Angeles, I've been able to check them out again. I recently revisited "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," a wonderful mood piece about a troubled youth's withdrawal into a fantasy world with eloquent narration by Orson Welles.

And last night I watched "Sins of the Fathers," starring Geraldine Page, Barbara Steele and Richard Thomas. I remember seeing the episode when I was a kid, but I was too young to admire the astoundingly perverse and grim tone of this story. It goes like this: famine and plague are ravaging the 19th century Welsh countryside. Mrs. Craighill (Steele), whose husband has just died, sends her servant (diminutive character actor Michael Dunn) to find someone to perform the rite of sin-eating, which entails consuming vast amounts of food in the presence of the corpse, supposedly to "take in" the sins of the departed and allow him to arrive at Heaven's gates with a clean soul. Yecchh.

The servant arrives at the home of Dylan Evans, only to be told by his wife (Page) that he is too weak from famine and illness to perform the rite. Instead, she enlists her simple-minded son (Thomas) to go in his father's stead, instructing him, however, to bring the food back for them. Of course, this episode has the good old "Night Gallery" twist, which you can watch here (pardon the commercial interruptions). It's great to see Page and Steele in the same show, even though they have no scenes together, and Thomas is amazing in a role that is miles away from John Boy Walton, whom he'd just begun to play when this episode aired!

If you click on the video window, it will take you to the Hulu site where you can watch it full frame. It's the first story in the program and well worth checking out. Do it!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Those good old drive-in commercials

When I was a kid going to the drive-in, the standard fare consisted of three feature attractions. Between each film, however, they'd run about 10 minutes of advertisements to induce patrons to hit the concession stand—a bright, shining building in the middle of the lot where a world of flavor sensations awaited.

Actually flavor sensations may be candy-coating it. As an experienced concession stand employee, I can tell you the fare consisted of shriveled, re-bunned hot dogs, re-grilled burgers and frozen pizza. At least the popcorn, cooked in a bright orange grease-like substance, was made fresh daily.

I guess my interest in sales and marketing started really early, because as much as I enjoyed the whole experience of going to the "outdoor movies," these commercial breaks were my favorite part of the evening. Even those of you who didn't have the privilege of experiencing an evening of movies under the stars are familiar with the countdown clock and dancing hot dogs, but you could also see ads for local businesses, public service announcements, inspirational messages and more.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. A Freudian Dream. What exactly are they trying to sell here?

2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Check out this bizarre spot with the creepy, sullen kids at the bottom of the screen. Even with the offer of ice cream bars, they still glare at each other angrily. The mom's winking freaks me out. And how come the dad gets a professional announcer's voice?

3. Damn Daylight Savings. It prevents you from going to church.

4. Have a Pepsi and a Freak-Out. The "love generation" spread its tentacles into the advertising world in the '60s, as exemplified by this prime slice of acidhead commercialism. Just imagine the young people at the local drive-in enjoying their first encounter with controlled substances, only to be hit in the face with this:

5. Take Me to the Cleaners. Did you know that your Cousin Elizabeth, Aunt Hilda and Grandma all worked at the local dry cleaner? You're guaranteed to wince when you see the little kid in the opening segment energetically scraping all the enamel off his teeth.

6. White People with Little Red Wieners. Enjoy this cavalcade of Caucasians and artery-clogging food. Mmm-mmm!

7. Mosquitoes Committing Suicide. This "insect repellent" didn't really seem to work at all—just filled the car up with incense-scented smoke.

Thank you for patronizing Weird Movie Village this evening. If you should happen to accidentally tear your speaker off the post when leaving, don't be embarrassed. Simply turn it in at the concession stand.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Comedy in Horror

Comedy horror films are a hit-or-miss proposition. To succeed, the comedy has to 1) punctuate the horror for a laughing-gasping one-two punch; or 2) must be delicately woven into the storyline in the form of irony or bizarre characters. Self-conscious comedy in horror seldom works, in my opinion. For example, I despise the "Scream" films. To me, they're like horror-themed episodes of "Saved By the Bell" with their "See how much we're in on the joke?" dialogue.

When I first saw the advertising for "Drag Me To Hell," it looked like yet another of those typical PG-13 horror films for teens. But then I started reading the reviews and realized that Sam Raimi, taking a break between "Spiderman" films, wanted to take another crack at the outrageous genre he'd built his reputation on with the "Evil Dead" films. I finally saw it Friday—and I was delighted. The story, co-written by Raimi and his doctor brother, Ivan, is suitably skewed, and the shock scenes are...well, funny! I mean, what other PG-13 movie can you think of that has an old lady getting the crap beaten out of her, blood spurting all over the place, a woman with an arm shoved down her throat and a talking, swearing goat? The MPAA for once saw that this was all just cartoon violence and gave it the more lenient rating. But does a PG-13 help or hurt a film's boxoffice these days?

Anyhow, Raimi quickly sets up the situation: a young woman (Alison Lohman) who has self-esteem issues and is anxious to win a promotion at the bank where she works as a loan officer denies a creepy old lady's request for an extension on her mortgage...and all hell breaks loose. It's fast-moving, delightfully goofy and provides some genuine jolts along the way. Watching "Drag Me to Hell" reminded me of other comedy horror films I've enjoyed throughout the years. Here are some of my favorites:

1.The Fearless Vampire Killers aka Dance of the Vampires (1967). Roman Polanski's send-up of Hammer Films is too slapstick-cheesy for some, but I find this film to be an interesting mixture of humor and a wonderful atmosphere of dread. Professor Abronsuis (Jack MacGowran), the vampire killer of the title, along with his assistant, Alfred (Polanski himself) arrive in a small village that has been plagued by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), the local vampire. Alfred falls in love with the innkeeper's daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate), and when she is abducted by the Count, they travel to his castle to rescue her. For every cornball episode (Alfie Bass as the cliche Jewish innkeeper who becomes an extremely Orthodox vampire and the Count's gay son), there are really wonderful scenes. In one, Sarah is relaxing in a hot bath when snowflakes begin to fall. She looks up to see the Count, fangs bared, descending from the skylight. And the "dance" itself is beautifully realized as Professor Abronsius, Alfred and Sarah, trying to pass themselves off as the undead in a ballroom full of nasty-looking vampires, find themselves standing before a mirror that covers an entire wall, and only their reflections can be seen. The studio-bound winter landscapes are magical and the score, by Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda, who also wrote the music for "Rosemary's Baby," is exquisite. One of my childhood drive-in memories!

2. Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Brian De Palma's rock horror musical puts Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera" in a contemporary setting as a composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley), wreaks revenge on music impresario Swan (Paul Williams) after the aforementioned screws him over and steals his music. His face disfigured from a fall into a record press, Winslow haunts Swan's new Paradise Nightclub, disguising himself in a cape and a weird birdlike mask, and begins causing fatal "accidents" until Swan convinces him to finish his Faust cantata for the Paradise's grand opening in exchange for being allowed to continue creating his music. Among those auditioning for parts in the show is a young woman named Phoenix (Jessica Harper of "Suspiria" fame), whom Winslow is convinced is the only one who can sing the lead. Swan agrees, but he has quite a few more dirty tricks up his sleeve.

With music and lyrics by Williams, the film is a wonderful time capsule, lampooning the Sha Na Na '50s music revival, the '60s beach craze and '70s glitter rock. Gerrit Graham is hilarious as Beef, a glam rocker who minces about the stage while belting out "Life at Last." Harper herself as an agreeable, low-pitched singing voice (she became a composer and performer of music for children), but the real revelation is Williams' music. It's great! Though the film bombed on its original release, it has since earned a cult following and was passionately embraced right out of the gate by the people of Winnipeg, who still love it and even host regular "Phantompalooza" festivals! Here's Harper singing "Old Souls" at a recent event:

3. Re-Animator (1985). I first saw Stuart Gordon's manic classic at the drive-in when it was released unrated by Empire Pictures in 1985. A forerunner of today's "splatterpunk" genre, it's based on an H. P. Lovecraft story and is a hell of a lot of fun. Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a student at Miskatonic University, who has invented a drug that brings the dead back to life. The drug has an unfortunate side-effect, though: the newly-reanimated are angry, violent and really strong. Chock-full of extreme gore, violence and nudity, this film is a trash hound's delight. Gordon has ventured several times into Lovecraft territory with admirable results in films such as "From Beyond," "Dagon" and "Castle Freak," but "Re-Animator" remains his masterpiece.

4. Return of the Living Dead (1985). If you're reading this blog, you already know the plot to the greatest punk zombie film ever made. When two workers at a medical supply house accidentally break open a mysterious government canister containing the "tar man," a slimy-looking corpse, a noxious gas is released that causes all the bodies in the nearby graveyard to get up and go on a hunt for human brains. Highlights include the aforementioned tar man, scream queen Linnea Quigley's naked dance atop a mausoleum and the zombies using the police radio after they've devoured the emergency rescue crew to order more paramedics! Even the soundtrack to this film is exceptional, with great songs as "Partytime," "Surfin' Dead" and "Burn the Flames."

1985 was a busy year for horror, as it also included Tom Holland's excellent vampire spoof "Fright Night" as well as George Romero's "Dead" sequel, "Day of the Dead," but it also brought us Tobe Hooper's terrible space vampire epic "Lifeforce"; "Once Bitten," another dreadful vampire spoof with the dreadful Jim Carrey; and the bizarrely homoerotic sequel to "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Freddy's Revenge."

5. Braindead aka Dead Alive. In 1992, my friend David, who worked as a publicist for the now-defunct Trimark Pictures, invited me to a screening of a film the company had just picked up for distribution. He said it was a horror film by a New Zealand director he'd never heard of, Peter Jackson. I had, however—his first film, "Bad Taste," had been released on video a couple of years earlier, so I had already gotten a sample of his off-kilter, splattery humor. Nevertheless, I wasn't prepared for this nonstop assault on the senses, and neither was the audience at the screening! The plot is simple. When a shy young man's overbearing mother is bitten at the zoo by a rare but hideous Sumatran rat monkey, she becomes a monster herself and begins infecting others in the town. Soon the son finds himself battling hordes of vicious zombies, and the final half-hour or so is a wildly over-the-top gore tour de force. Before becoming Mr. "Lord of the Rings," Jackson also made a screamingly hilarious all-puppet Muppet spoof called "Meet the Feebles."

6. Shaun of the Dead (2004). If you're already desensitized by urban living, would you notice if your neighbors had become shuffling, flesh-eating zombies? That's the concept of this delightfully witty comedy by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who'd created the hit British television series "Spaced." Pegg plays Shaun, a manager at an electronics store whose life is so mundane that he doesn't even notice the beginnings of the zombie plague. Nick Frost is his vulgar friend, Ed, with whom he'd rather spend time than his high-maintenance girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield). Too clever for its own good, with wonderful references to Romero's films and a terrifically English sense of humor, "Shaun" works as a social satire, dark comedy, and—yes—even a thriller. When it's time to be scary, the filmmakers wisely settle down and let it happen. And the conclusion is hilarious, touching and immensely satisfying.

You may notice that my list starts in 1967—that's because I think the horror comedies made from the '30s to the '50s are cheesy. Sure, there's Corman's "Bucket of Blood" and "Little Shop of Horrors," but they're too broad for my tastes. I'm not a fan of Abbott and Costello either, and the poverty row "comedies" Bela Lugosi was forced to make toward the end of his life are pretty dire. One of the earliest horror comedies that still holds up is James Whale's "The Old Dark House" (1931), with its group of travelers stranded with the creepy Femm family at said old dark house. Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff are among the stars, and it is loaded with atmosphere, bizarre characters and dialogue.

For the most part, though, comedy in horror is tricky business. Too much and you can slip into cheesiness; too little and your audience will say, "Why are they trying to be funny?" Thanks to Mr. Raimi for reminding us this year that he's still got it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The malevolent kids sweepstakes

For the past couple of months, I've been tormented by posters for the upcoming movie "Orphan" everywhere. When I drive down Sunset Boulevard, it seems to be at every bus stop. On Olive in Burbank, ditto. And on the side of one of the Warner Bros. buildings, there's a nice big one with the sinister kid's mug glowering down at passersby.

What's with the outfit? Why is she dressed like a creepy 19th-century doll in a film that's set in contemporary times? And why would a nice young couple find themselves "drawn" to such an anachronistic child with such terrible fashion sense? What orphanage did they get her from? Miss Hannigan's?

Of course, the PC brigade has already been up in arms about the film due to a line in the trailer: "It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own." Hell, to that I'd add, "Especially one who dresses like that!" And did I mention the adoptive parents' names are John and Kate?

I don' t know about this movie. The previews look kind of stoopid, but at least the kid's consistent, wearing a variety of snappy Victorian outfits throughout.

Thanks to the wonders of the Web, I uncovered the spoiler for the film, which answers the question in the tagline, "Can you keep a secret?" I won't reveal it here, but if it turns out to be true, chins will be crashing to the floor in theaters all across the country on July 24th.

This movie brings to mind other sinister children of cinema. Some notable entries, in no particular ranking order:

1. Devil Times Five. In this obscurity from 1974, a band of disturbed kids escape from a psychiatric hospital and descend upon a cabin in the woods to make life hell for the adults inside. Soon-to-be teen idol Leif Garrett plays one of the psychos, a prepubescent cross-dresser. It's available on DVD.

2. It's Alive. Also from 1974, Larry Cohen's budget-conscious thriller features a murderous mutant baby whose mother seeks to protect it while daddy wants it dead. An unusual commentary on the abortion debate and reproductive rights, it had a great tagline: "There's only one thing wrong with the Davis's alive."

3. Who Can Kill A Child? 1976's Spanish killer kid entry, directed by Narcisco Ibañez Serrador, follows the tribulations of a vacationing couple who arrive on an island that seems to be inhabited only by children, only to discover that said kids have systematically bumped off all the adults. They are confronted with a moral dilemma: should they defend themselves by killing their attackers or allow themselves to be victimized by children? Subversive stuff, now restored on DVD.

4. The Omen and Damien: Omen II. The son of Satan arrives on earth, but his malevolence was eclipsed by Billie Whitelaw's truly terrifying portrayal of Mrs. Blaylock in the original, and the teenaged Damien didn't stand a chance against Lee Grant's unbelievably hammy performance in the sequel. The 2006 remake, of course, falls into the "What the hell were they thinking?" category.

5. The Shining. Though they're only in the movie for an instant, the Grady Twins provide one of the most memorable shocks in Kubrick's classic adaptation of the Steven King novel. And even though they don't kill anybody, they deserve recognition for freaking a lot of people out.

6. Village of the Damned (1960). When I watched this on television as a youngster, the scenes of those damned kids' eyes lighting up freaked me out. John Carpenter's largely ignored remake actually wasn't too bad, providing Christopher Reeve with his final role before the tragic accident. The 1964 sequel, Children of the Damned, was a cheesy cash-in on the first, more serious, film.

7. The Exorcist. In keeping with the directive of this blog, which is to mention the name Linda Blair as frequently as possible, we have to salute Regan Teresa McNeil. Not directly a malevolent child, since she is being controlled by Satan, she still gets up to all sorts of mayhem: murder, sacrilege, parental abuse. Wait a minute—is this an "E! True Hollywood Story"?

8. The Bad Seed. For sheer camp entertainment value, the winner of the malevolent kid sweepstakes has got to be Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark, the goody two-shoes who killed a classmate for his penmanship medal. Along with Nancy Kelly as her mother, McCormack was in the original 1954 Broadway production and reprised her role for the movie. Due to film censorship strictures of the time, the producers were forced to add a cheesy curtain call to the ending. After Rhoda is struck by lightning, there is a second ending in which the two actresses reappear and Kelly administers a spanking to the naughty girl!

Hopelessly dated now, the play was hilariously revived by Buzzworks Theatre Company in Los Angeles with director Danny Schmitz as a beer-swilling Rhoda and Mo Collins ("MadTV") as Mrs. Daigle, the grieving—and extremely intoxicated—mother of the boy Rhoda allegedly killed. McCormack herself was in the audience for a performance and has portrayed a character who could be Rhoda all grown up in the films "Mommy" and "Mommy's Day."

Of course, there are other malevolent moppets in the history of film, from the sublime ("The Innocents") to the ridiculous (any of the "Children of the Corn" movies). I can't help but think that "Orphan" will fall into the latter category. And I think Rhoda Penmark could easily bash her brains in and steal her penmanship medal.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Scary Scandinavia

Boy, is it cold up north. The last three Scandinavian horror films I've seen all utilize the unforgiving climes to dramatic effect. The first two were terrific vampire stories, but the latest, which I saw yesterday, was a Nazi zombie story as lousy as anything produced in America. Not that I'm a foreign film snob, but I just think that filmmakers from other countries tend more toward auterism as opposed to the cookie-cutter formulae of the Hollywood corporate film factory. Look at the "Transformers" sequel (God knows I won't). Hideous reviews and still on its way to being a record-breaker.

Back to the topic at hand. I thought "Dead Snow" was going to be another delight, but the Norwegian director/co-screenwriter, Tommy Wirkola, let me down. He worked so hard to follow the crappy American formula that it's exactly what he produced. What a shame.

"Dead Snow" has a lighter-than-air concept: medical students go to a remote cabin in the mountains for Easter vacation and are attacked by an undead unit of Nazi soldiers. Period. Still, if it had been done cleverly, with amusing dialogue and fun splatter, it could've worked, but a heavy air of "been there, done that" hangs over the proceedings.

Clearly inspired by Sam Raimi's superior "Evil Dead" series and Peter Jackson's (also superior) early splatters, Wirkola sets up his simple concept with dull, stereotypical characters (the fat guy, the bimbos, the nerd) and gut-wrangling action sequences that are more tedious than exciting. Even the splendid scenery is virtually ignored, as much of the film takes place in the same boring cabin set. And the set-up is so-o-o slow you have plenty of time to start hating the protagonists before the zombies arrive.

The Norwegian rap soundtrack, amusing at first, quickly becomes grating. The make-up for the zombies is no better than the low-budget Italian monsters of the 1980s, and why do the zombies have rich red blood gushing from their mouths when 1) they're really old; and 2) they've been buried in frozen earth for God knows how long? And I don't care how drunk the bimbo is. The idea of her following the fat guy into the outhouse and having sex with him right after he's—ahem—eliminated just doesn't make any sense. Wouldn't the smell in the air at least cool the fire in her loins? Blecchh, to paraphrase Mad Magazine.

Though you can't compare the two, last year's "Let the Right One In," from more or less the same neck of the woods, stands head-and-shoulders above yesterday's Nazi-zom-com. It's a splendid, affecting coming-of-age story whose protagonist happens to be a vampire. Its quietly chilling premise, set in a snowy industrial suburb of Stockholm, perfectly captures the isolation of a young boy, Oskar, who is picked on at school and lonely at home due to his parents' separation.

When Eli, a new neighbor, moves in next door, he is drawn to her for the company and the fact that she seems to be about his age. There's something strange about her, however: she's impervious to cold and she smells—well—bad. But even when he discovers her secret, he is more fascinated than terrified.

This story is richly layered. In addition to the innocent romance blossoming between Oskar and Eli, we also get a portrait of the townsfolk, who are shaken out of their miserable routine by the vicious murders of their friends. And Eli's "caretaker," a middle-aged man whose job is to go out and get blood for his mistress, is completely and unquestioningly devoted to her. When you realize the source of this devotion, it's mind-boggling, but I'm not going to give that away. I want you to see the film!

The special effects are subtle but powerful. Lina Leandersson, the talented young actress who plays Eli, wears contact lenses that give her eyes a subtly inhuman appearance. And the director, Tomas Alfredson, provides quick, jolting glimpses of a wizened Eli to reinforce the idea that her youthful visage is an illusion. There's some surprising mayhem, but none of it threatens to rip the delicate web that this spellbinding film weaves. Kåre Hedebrant, the boy who plays Oskar, is ideally cast. Blond, pale and soft-spoken, he encompasses the sadness of his character while also providing him with a feisty determination.

Another Swedish vampire film I saw at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood last year is a prime example of how to correctly make a horror comedy. "Frostbitten," from 2006, shares some of the same attributes of "Let the Right One In." The protagonist is Saga, a teenage girl who moves to another depressing Swedish town where her mother has found employment with a somewhat sinister scientist—whom she idolizes—at a mysterious clinic. Saga hates her new environs and quickly falls in with a group of local party animals. When two of them break into the clinic to steal what they think are hallucinogenics, they actually end up with a bag of the mad doctor's vampire-making pills and they quickly infect the kids in the town. To make matters worse, it's the time of year when the sun will not make an appearance for a month.

There's lots of offbeat humor in "Frostbitten." The kids can't understand what's happening to them. They find themselves lusting for the blood of their friends and relatives; they can communicate telepathically with animals; and their social skills, even for teenagers, are just awful. One hilarious episode features a boy who—meeting his girlfriend's parents for dinner—ends up eating their pets instead!

Although "Frostbitten" shares the concept of a month of darkness with "30 Days of Night," it is thoroughly more enjoyable. I got so sick of those stupid "30 Days" vampires with their blank eyes and their dumb-ass philosophizing: "You are not to be alive because you will soon be dead"-style crap.

Speaking of crap, evidently "Let the Right One In" is scheduled for an American remake. God help us.

By the way, the two vampire films are available on DVD. Check them out—you'll fang me for recommending them!


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