Thursday, December 24, 2015

A GHWP Christmas Memory - The Monster's Christmas

     That magical period between the age of three and four. One's first real memories start to take hold, and one begins to look back at experiences for the first time and cement some of those moments in vivid detail... or allow some of them to skew until you almost convince yourself that some of them were just in your imagination. For me, that year was 1981, and I have a little of both in the memory department. Since the original Star Wars was before my time, it wasn't until 1981 that I saw it for the first time in theatrical re-release, and my first memory of it-- perhaps the earliest memory I have of anything-- is a towering C-3PO and R2-D2 cardboard standee in front of the theater. I stared at it while my mother complained to the ticket seller that the traffic had made us late to the start of the movie. I think she was afraid that the theater wouldn't let us in or that it might have sold out. I remember the packed house. It took a minute or two to find seats, but I wasn't paying attention to that. As my mother led me by the hand, my eyes were locked on the vast expanse of Tatooine as Threepio and Artoo wandered through the desert. Mom claims she took me to see The Empire Strikes Back a year earlier, but I have no recollection of that. She often told me that she never would have given the movies a chance at all if not for having a child, and she remained a fan for the rest of her life, glad that she hadn't passed it off forever on looks alone (she found the prequel trilogy "terrible," by the way... her word).

     And so this is Christmas, and my memory goes back once again to 1981. My mother had remarried someone who seemed like a successful and loving man (AT FIRST), and I was having what would be the last few moments with my biological father that I would have for the rest of his life. But this is a happy time, so I'll forego the sad stories of what went on in my family most of the time and focus on the point: that sponge phase when a child wants to soak in the entire world. I didn't watch television as much as one might think I did as a child despite my vast memories of movies and shows, but when I did, I had the benefit of early 1980s premium cable in my home. It was, indeed, a time of great privilege (i.e.: starry-eyed parents of poverty living beyond their means and unable to see it would come back to bite them in a couple of years after the honeymoon was over). Cable was dying for programming in those days, and they still didn't run on a 24-hour schedule yet. Premium cable used to go off the air, folks. Believe it. Even in 1981, a lot of theatrical movies hadn't made the jump to television, so many stations turned to low-budget films and foreign programming to pick up the slack. Channels like HBO had been around for a decade already, but premium cable was just starting to find its place by 1981. When it came to children's programming on cable in the early '80s, I can't think of a single program that came from the United States. I had Romper Room and Friends and Sesame Street, but those were on public broadcasting. I got most of my enjoyment in children's programming from cable, and perhaps it was that multicultural and international diversity that lured me into it. HBO had Babar (Canada/France), Nickelodeon's Pinwheel came out of Canada and featured cartoons and shorts from no less than a dozen foreign countries (Denmark, Italy, Sweden, France, Norway, Germany, Finland, just to name a few), and The Movie Channel and other premium outlets were filling their prime youth hours with animated shorts like Hungary's Állatságok (AKA Animalia, not to be confused with the 1986 children's book or the 2007 Australian CG-animated series) Animalia has an IMDB entry and aired as filler on HBO, but I have yet to find any video or other information about it. I used to have one episode on VHS, but it is long since lost. Finding a complete set of the series is one of my holy grails. Many of these cartoons were open to the domestic market because they had no dialogue, but the foreign market also drew in English language programming from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, which brings us to our live tweet feature.

     Memories of annual Christmas specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas are a dime a dozen, but my memory of The Monster's Christmas was so vivid and yet so hard to substantiate that I almost had myself convinced that it never really existed. I saw it a total of one and a half times on a premium cable channel in December 1981, possibly 1982, and then it was gone. All I had was the memory of it for thirty years until I found it again, and it was exactly as I remembered it. The Monster's Christmas was filmed in New Zealand, and it gave audiences an early view of the magnificent landscape that would become a standard filming location for Power Rangers, Hercules - The Legendary Journeys, Xena - Warrior Princess, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, among many others. In a sort of Wizard of Oz/Alice in Wonderland style, The Monster's Christmas tells the tale of a little girl who must become a champion and save the denizens of the land of monsters. A wicked witch has cast a spell and taken away all of the monsters' voices, reducing them to creatures capable only of grunts and groans. Only the power of a magic scepter and the actions of a human with the power of speech can break the spell. Journeying across the land, the girl meets a number of different monsters that aid her in her quest while the witch's rat-like servant attempts to steal the scepter and foil the monsters' chances of being free to sing again.

     I'm glad places like YouTube and the Internet exist so that obscure little gems like this don't disappear forever, and I hope you'll join me as we send the 2015 holidays off into their own corner of well-deserved obscurity on Twitter with The Monster's Christmas at 10PM EST on #GHWP, following a special 8PM EST presentation of the 1974 classic Black Christmas hosted by one of the great folks of #TrashTue, @SullaBlack.

REMINDER: #GHWP kicks off its Star Wars celebration Sunday, December 27, at 4:45PM EST with the Toei classic Message from Space.

Monday, December 7, 2015

GHWP Tuesday Movie Dec. 8, 2015 - Monster in the Closet

     I've steered away from the blog promos for a little while since Spectreman ended, and the holidays, frankly, just aren't my favorite time to be social these days. I felt like dusting off the blog this week in an attempt to shed a little light on how I feel about Troma movies, and I think I might have left with more confusing questions than answers. I'm not a big fan of Troma movies. I don't say this to be controversial or to start a fight with Troma fans, and I have to say that I'm not a fan of Troma movies because I AM a fan of Troma movies. I like the movies, but I almost never watch any of them for some reason. I never thought I would find an opportunity to unpack that, but I'll try. Troma films look like they are more fun to produce than to watch. I feel like I'm looking through the window of a great party, and my invitation was lost in the mail (or I just didn't have the nerve to go through the door because there was some embarrassing social hang up holding me back). I certainly don't like to watch them alone because fans of Troma movies are my kind of wacky people, but I also never found myself riffing on them very much even when I did. The only way I found myself able to watch some of them in their entirety was with the help of Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear on USA Up All Night. Horror/movie hosts made me feel like I had a friend sitting with me, and I've made it no secret that I had a lonely childhood surrounded by kids who just didn't get my movie tastes. People like Elvira, Grampa Munster, and Commander USA were the only real friends I had.

     This Tuesday night at 8PM EST, #TrashTue will be live tweeting The Toxic Avenger, which is, for all intents and purposes, the Troma standard. At 10PM EST following Toxie, #GHWP features my favorite of the Troma bunch: Monster in the Closet. I first saw this one on late night television, most likely Up All Night or perhaps Saturday Nightmares. I count this one as my favorite above all because it stands as a spoof of 1950s-era science fiction and horror movies. It is entirely tongue-in-cheek and features a load of celebrity guest stars from the best corners of film and television like Claude Akins and Henry Gibson, and I hold it in high regard with the likes of Airplane!, Matinee and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. I wouldn't say it's as "good" as those by any stretch, but it delivers an impressive monster while taking some good-natured jabs at the social sensibilities of Cold War-era irradiated creature movies by the likes of Roger Corman and others (as well as poking fun at a superhero trope or two such as how a mild-mannered man can become an irresistible Adonis just by taking off his glasses). If you grew up on movies like It Conquered the World, The Monster That Challenged the World, Beginning of the End, From Hell It Came, or Attack of the Crab Monsters, then Monster in the Closet should be an amusing treat. It likely is one of the tamest movies Troma ever put out in terms of subject matter, and even the trailer boasts it as a horror movie for the whole family. Still, a few spots in this movie spooked me, particularly the death scenes early in the movie that leave everything to the imagination. It's just a bit jarring to hear a lot of screaming and monster roaring just off camera and not knowing what's going on. Your mind starts wandering to some dark places, and that's how real horror movies are supposed to get you in the first place. Then again, my sensibilities are a bit off when it comes to movies. I can watch an Italian horror movie where a person gets his/her throat slashed, but I have to turn my head and cringe if someone gets their knuckles smashed in a door. Go figure.

     Interesting note: Monster in the Closet marks the film debut of the late Paul Walker, star of the Fast and the Furious franchise, and his child genius character reminds me more than a little of the Japanese kids with top level security clearance in any given giant monster movie.

     The following biographical passage is stream-of-consciousness nonsense rant as my eight-year-old inner child proceeds to bitch at his peer group and the ridiculousness of his elders in the 80s. It has no real bearing on the point of this blog other than for me to discover I was more a Troma fan than I thought before I sat down to write. I already plugged the movies, so I'd skip the rest if I were you... unless you're that twisted.

      In defense of my childhood peers, I was too quiet and shy to find out if any of them did share my movie tastes, but I found out firsthand in elementary school that I spent too much time at opposing ends of the spectrum and not enough time in the boring middle of the mainstream popularity contest road like they did. When the seasonal vote came for a holiday party movie in my 3rd and 4th grade classes, anything I would have picked would have been either too wildly inappropriate for an elementary classroom or so childish that it would paint a bullseye on my chest. Of course, I was optimistic and hopeful (i.e.: dumb) enough to pick at least the latter of the two for being responsible and kid-friendly to my classmates and think that a room full of children that largely teased and ignored me would believe that it was worth more than dumbfounded glares and raucous laughter to suggest the direct-to-video My Pet Monster movie over the hugely popular mainstream classic Labyrinth.
     I know what you're thinking. I enjoyed Labyrinth, but I loved that painful obscurity of dark corners of the direct-to-video world. Don't try to tell me it wasn't perfectly normal for an eight-year-old to watch My Pet Monster, and don't try to tell me you don't know exactly why a classroom full of little eight-year-old sheep voted for Labyrinth. Labyrinth was everywhere, and our teacher was none too happy to show it in the first place because it had "cuss words" in it. She actually had to find out exactly where those words were in the movie so that she could fast forward past them. I think Jennifer Connelly said "damn" twice in the movie, and that was it. That apparently would have been enough to warrant a PTA fiasco if any of our innocent ears heard it in our most holy temple of learning.
     I was a shy and bullied little kid, but I'm just now realizing that I was an elitist little punk when it came to movies. It gives my inner child a relieving sense of superiority to drown out some of the childhood trauma of those popularity-driven little posers. I may not have your movie tastes, but I could still sit down and discuss, at unimaginable length, the nuances and brilliance of Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird like George Plympton hosting friggin' Masterpiece Theater. I will, however, admit that Alyson Court was one of my first childhood celebrity crushes while most of the boys around me were trying to propel themselves into early puberty with Jennifer Connelly. Court was in both Follow That Bird and My Pet Monster, and it was hard not to love her voice in the Beetlejuice animated series among her many, many credits.
     Did any of my childhood peers care to understand the real reasons I watched such a diverse blend of movies and television? Of course they didn't because the bandwagon hate of film demographic splits starts early with that "only little babies watch Sesame Street" playground logic. Children are dumb little lemmings that want attention and pretend to have taste in anything, saying they like or dislike anything that makes them part of the crowd. They're too dumb to realize that there are mere months between the little cutoff periods they invent in their minds when they become "too old" for something and decide with great irony that "too old" means "expert on cool," and a lot of them grow up into adult "experts on cool" that think it's fine to ridicule a subjective concept just because a lot of other people expressed some displeasure with it. I followed that logic against my own integrity for survival because I didn't want to get beaten up on the playground, but I'd be damned if I stopped watching what I wanted to watch on television because someone else told me it wasn't cool. That's why everyone likes to shit on the Twilight saga today, and family movies end up with some of the worst IMDB scores for the same reason: people commenting are not part of the intended demographic. I'll defend Twilight for that reason alone because that sort of criticism is dismissive and borders on mob mentality. This may sound hypocritical to anyone reading this from a movie-riffing standpoint, especially when I won't extend that same defense to any cartoon adaptation Michael Bay gets his hands on, but I assure you there is a difference. You know the difference between good-natured ribbing and bullying, or at least you should by now. I don't like that sort of ganging up on even a bad movie any more than I liked being the only one who tried to defend one emotionally disturbed kid from the entire population of third grade boys every day at recess while the teacher aide chaperones turned their heads because they didn't like the kid either. But I digress. Somehow, I took this conversation completely off the rails and became unusually bitter. I don't dislike children, but 1986 was a difficult year for me as one.
      Even my best friends didn't really get it, but I won't make any claims I could wrap my head around it either. Well, one of them sort of got it, but that was an awkward sleepover watching Gator Bait II with his mom. She didn't have a problem with her eleven-year-old son and three of his friends watching a blatant I Spit on Your Grave ripoff, yet she almost turned it off when one of the actors said the word "fuck" more than three times in the span of ten seconds. This was still the 80s, and moral parental inconsistency was mind-numbing. For most kids I knew, the closest thing to daring adventures into naughtiness was a poster of a nude model covered in soap bubbles (she might as well have been wearing a floor-length wool coat because you couldn't see anything). That poster was hanging on a closet wall hidden behind a mass of clothes, and it required a flashlight to see because his mother didn't know it was there. For me, I guess there was a parental effort to distinguish that nothing I saw on television was a big deal compared to the real world, but for the most part it felt like my elders didn't supervise anything I watched at all. I almost went off the rails again biographically with a few more real world stories that proved them right, but I'd rather not publish those little tidbits for the sake of good taste. Irony, I'm sure, in a blog about movies with deliberately bad taste, but decorum is important and blah blah. My apologies to any Troma fans reading this for denying you the benefit of tales of my disturbing neighbors and extended family. Some other time.

     As much as I love a sitcom like The Goldbergs for how accurately it relates to some of those parts of my childhood, it's a show on a network that loves to leave out gory details. The family television demographic is a world of talking unicorns and happy endings, and how dare you make incest jokes about the Brady Bunch. Troma, on the other hand, takes no prisoners, and its movies don't take themselves seriously. They delve freely into those weird and outrageous corners without any hang-ups, and I guess one small part of me couldn't let go of all my inhibitions. I suppose a part of me wanted to hold on to a little bit of what I called sanity, and now I'm having a therapy session instead of talking about movies.

     I don't know if I successfully made a point anywhere in all that gibberish, and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't believe me when I say that I am completely sober when I write this stuff down. If this were a cop action movie, my commanding officer would have told me I was out of control and demanded my badge somewhere in the middle of the second paragraph.

     If you're still reading this far and haven't backed slowly away, tune in for the Troma double feature Tuesday night starting with The Toxic Avenger at 8PM EST on #TrashTue. Then stick around for #GHWP at 10PM EST with Monster in the Closet.