Tuesday, November 21, 2017

October 2017 Highlights Part 5 - Incognito Cinema Warriors XP and Mel Welles

Part 5 - Incognito Cinema Warriors XP and Mel Welles

          This easily could have been two entries, but there is a method to my madness here. First, I want to talk a little about the best group of riffers out there that you've never heard of: the fine folks of Agonywolf Media, best known to their unfairly small group of viewers from their Mystery Science Theater 3000 homage-turned-individual-entity, Incognito Cinema Warriors XP.

Incognito Cinema Warriors XP

Back when RiffTrax opened up their website to every Tom, Dick, and Harry to create riff commentary for anything under the sun, a few talented individuals used the RiffTrax iRiffs catalog as a springboard to get their humor out there. Heck, even I have a couple of iRiffs, one of which held a decent sale rank for a little while, but they are no longer in the iRiff catalog nor have I ever seen a dime for my contribution to them, not that the money is important. I give my talent away for free in every livetweet I attend on Twitter anyway. It may be the only real talent I have, and I probably would starve to death if I ever decided to pursue it as a means of financial support. But this is not about me. Practiced as I am at the riffing art form, this is about those riffers with real talent who went on to create something special, and Agonywolf Media sits at the top spot with no dispute from me or virtually anyone else.

          This is the part I hate doing. RiffTrax began to die off a little for me somewhere in the neighborhood of their one-hundredth movie riff. I stayed with them for quite some time and still attend a few of their live shows, but, as one of the crew mentioned in one of their interviews (if I recall correctly, it was Mike Nelson speaking with Dennis Miller), this new venture was a business and had to follow a slightly different kind of formula to succeed. They needed younger writers to speak to younger generations, and they also needed recent big budget blockbusters to help sell riffs. Maybe it is just that I am getting older, not unlike the MST3K cast themselves, but many of these riff outings felt less and less like they were for me. They felt less timeless and more rooted in a limited demographic. RiffTrax continues to put out some very funny stuff, but I do not keep track of it as much as I used to. Additionally, there is a limited number of movies in their past catalog that I go back and watch again. Their riffs of Birdemic, The Room, the Twilight saga, Paranormal Activity (which I watched again this October), the Star Wars Holiday Special, Glitter, Casino Royale, The Incredible Hulk TV series, Planet of Dinosaurs (which I also watched this October), and even Transformers are some of the funniest material they have ever produced and are the only way I would dare watch at least half of the cases a second or third time (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon especially... ugh).

          On the other hand, there are outings like Psycho II that stick in my craw a little bit. I consider Psycho II a solid sequel, but the RiffTrax commentary is among my least favorite experiences. It is too easy for some criticism of a "bad movie" to become repetitive and bitter after a while, and I felt a bit of that here. Perhaps I have a little bias, but I did not feel the same way about some of the riffing for the other movies I mentioned. They felt broader in comedic scope. As I mentioned in my previous entry, my first impression of MST3K was not particularly good. I was only twelve years old at the time, but I soon discovered that it was all in good fun. Older and hopefully wiser that I am now, I do not think that I have grown more sensitive in my years to say that a few RiffTrax outings feel a little... mean. I still support what they do, and I am not a comedy critic of any sort. I just feel most of the balance of comedy that MST3K had does not exist outside of the original MST3K itself, and some of that self-reprimand and air of "we're only kidding" has gone away a bit in favor of repeating how awful a movie is in every possible permutation of a repetitive running joke. A Nick Nolte joke in every single movie ceases being a joke and becomes easy filler, and a supercut of all the RiffTrax Nolte references runs over fifteen minutes long. Not fifteen minutes of diverse references to a show like Star Trek or The Mary Tyler Moore Show that were foundations for referential humor in MST3K, but fifteen minutes of what is essentially the same Down and Out in Beverly Hills-come-to-life Nick Nolte joke over and over and over again. It has become a drinking game reference, and I don't drink. I would make the same complaint about how much of a crutch Joe Don Baker became as a target of humor in Final Justice as opposed to Mitchell. Both are good episodes, but the fat jokes especially begin to run themselves into the ground and push other potential observations aside. I don't mind fat jokes, but MST3K prided itself on a varied assortment of highbrow and lowbrow material. They were a collection of smart and witty comedians, and it was beneath their talent to focus for as long as they did on the number of things that contributed to Joe Don Baker's waistline.

          I suppose that when I say that some outings feel a bit "mean" from an emotional standpoint, what I truly intend to say is that they are below the "mean" from a data analysis standpoint. The average joke tends to shoot for something a little higher. Has anyone broken down a general episode of MST3K or a RiffTrax comedy by the type of jokes used in a particular episode or movie? It creates an interesting diagram of movie references, TV references, music references, historical references, puns, distaste of puns, callbacks, self-riffs, name drops, observational humor, non sequitur, and situational comedy. Those are just a handful of the different types of jokes that come to mind with regard to almost any single episode of MST3K, and I know that the list is not complete. RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic had strong beginnings, but that feeling of slight unbalance still goes for the both of them as well as the newly revived eleventh season of MST3K. They all have their moments and solid gems, but MST3K, for me, at least, kept almost flawless consistency from beginning to end.

         When the iRiffs catalog began, I should just come out and say it: there were a lot of amateurs in the mix and very few gems. The general feedback I tend to see elsewhere is far less kind. I gave several of them a chance and purchased an assortment of iRiffs from a few different people to go with some movies I knew I would enjoy regardless of commentary, but each one was sort of a niche within itself when riffing commentary was a niche already. Most groups seemed to be more interested in making themselves laugh, my own limited contributions included to some extent, and did not have a wide range of humor for a diverse crowd. Every single one of them had their moments. Not a single one was a waste of time, and I found myself laughing along with each of them.  They were worth the money I put in on them for their effort, but I did not sample everything. Word of mouth and sales rankings very quickly weeded a lot of material out. Still holding one of the all-time top rank spots for iRiffs of all time is Incognito Cinema Warriors XP, or ICWXP, and deservedly so.

Left to right: Johnny Cylon, Commander Rick Wolf, and Topsy Bot 5000.

          Today, when I look at the material being produced post-MST3K and seeing anything remotely close to the consistency that MST3K kept through most of its run, I have been able to find it from only one project: ICWXP. Over the years, I have watched a few carbon-copy MST3K fan homage productions. Ryan K. Johnson, Media Center Theatre 3000, and Mystery Fandom Theater 3000 come to mind quickly, and I wish that MFT3K had produced more episodes because they captured the spirit of the original series. ICWXP, however, was a special kind of animal. I was hesitant to delve into the higher-priced iRiffs, but I stumbled upon them accidentally through a little site called FreeUndergroundTV.com, which showcases a livestream of a number of public domain horror movies as well as contemporary horror host shows featuring some live chats with members of the horror host cast. Among their selection, at the time, were the first two or three episodes of ICWXP's second season. Not only did I get to preview their talent firsthand, but I also got to do so while chatting with a couple of people who made the show. I fell in love with the show immediately and had to go back and see their first season. This was not only a love letter to MST3K but also to Resident Evil, Mega Man, and the gaming classics I grew up with.

Rob Atwell as the original Dr. Harry Blackwood. He's Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank rolled into one.

          Originally created by Rikk Wolf (Commander Rick Wolf and currently Dr. Blackwood), Rob Atwell (formerly Topsy Bot 5000 and Dr. Blackwood), and Kyle Chestnut and featuring the additional writing and performing talent of Bethany Woods, Zach Legler (Johnny Cylon) and Nick Evans (several season 1 characters and currently Topsy Bot 5000), to name just a few, ICWXP houses a crew of natural comedians and writers including the hilarious creator of Fun With Shorts, Josh Way, who began working his magic on YouTube before RiffTrax began doing shorts and still has some of the funniest commentary I have ever heard. RiffTrax eventually released their own riffs for many of the movies and shorts that ICWXP and Fun With Shorts did first, but even RiffTrax does not make me laugh as much as these guys do.

In one of the funniest segments of the series, the theater is infested with awkward pop-up ads.

          Whereas I spent much of my middle to late twenties tracking down every episode of MST3K and enjoying them on a daily basis, studying their art of comedy, I have done the same in the last ten years with the small-but-plentiful catalog of Fun With Shorts and, especially, ICWXP with both their DVD episode releases and their YouTube channel's Incognito Gaming Warriors "Let's Riff" entries for video games such as Resident Evil HD Remastered, Resident Evil 7, Fallout 4Mega Man, and Hitman. The imagination and production values in any given episode of the series make it difficult to believe that the series is fan-funded. They have the formula down pat in both their theater commentary and their host segments, and the series quickly becomes something unique and not simply a fan copy of MST3K. Despite several delays in production, ICWXP has delivered a series that is just as timeless for me as almost any given classic episode of MST3K. They are always funny, and at this point I am just repeating myself as I gush over how great I think they are. I wish that I could bankroll them, they deserve much more appreciation than they get, and nothing I say about them can do them proper justice.

If you've never heard of or experienced ICWXP, then JUST GOOGLE IT!!!

          I find myself going back to the first season of ICXWP quite frequently, but the two that I love the most (and their top iRiff sellers) are Lady Frankenstein and Bloody Pit of Horror. With October in mind, these two films alone have the perfect classic, low-budget, 1960s/1970s-era drive-in flavor. I love watching both movies on their own, but I love watching ICWXP tackle them just as much. ICWXP season 1, episode 3, Bloody Pit of Horror, which also features the short The Talking Car, is perhaps the best entry in the ICWXP catalog. This horror vehicle from Italy is a fine example of the birth of grindhouse. A gothic castle, a group of young models, and Mickey Hargitay as a psychotic castle owner who thinks he is the second coming of the Marquis de Sade. Mickey Hargitay became a natural poster child for ICWXP, appearing in two of the four movies they featured in their first season. In one of his finest performances, Nick Evans dons the role of Hargitay's Crimson Executioner to torture Rick and the Bots.

"Behold Stripper Claus! Santa's stuffing your stockings with something else this year, ladies."

Mel Welles

          Lady Frankenstein remains a favorite of mine for several reasons, most of them sentimental. At the top of that list (I told you I was going somewhere with this) is Mel Welles. If you have gone back in the entries of this blog at any point, then you will notice the work of Mel Welles sprinkled throughout it, most notably his work on a defining television show of my childhood, the Japanese superhero Spectreman. Welles was largely responsible for the English dubbing and the voice cast of Spectreman, but he might not have had that opportunity if not for his extensive work in importing and dubbing European films, even directing a few of them in the late '60s and early '70s including Maneater of Hydra and, you guessed it, Lady Frankenstein. I have enjoyed Welles' work in virtually everything he has ever done, and he is a face (and voice) that pops up in many of the movies that made me a movie fan in the first place. Mushnik in the original Little Shop of Horrors, Digger Smolkin in the underrated and MST3K-dissected The Undead, Caedmon in Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (which was featured on the revival season of MST3K without so much as a callback to The Undead), Jules Deveroux in Attack of the Crab Monsters, Iben in Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy, Tank McCall in his final directorial outing Joyride to Nowhere, and the genius Dr. Vince Hinkle in another favorite I watched again this October, Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype.

          For Lady Frankenstein, Mel Welles got to direct the fine talents of Joseph Cotten and Rosalba Neri, and this would be Rick and the Bots' first encounter with Mickey Hargitay in ICWXP season 1, episode 2.

Mickey Hargitay, admirer of big men.

If you pay close enough attention to the dubbed voices, you can hear Welles himself providing a few key character performances. Even with his gruff voice, Welles is adept at a number of characters and personalities, which is no surprise with the enormous volume of TV and movie character roles he performed. His direction adds something to Lady Frankenstein that I think is overlooked: Mel Welles spent a lot of time on both sides of the camera, and his work with Roger Corman is only a small fraction of his career. No doubt Corman helped him to study and hone his potential to some degree, but Welles spent much of his life both on the screen and behind the scenes.

Frankenstein's daughter takes her father's work to the next level in Lady Frankenstein.

Welles' sense of humor played a large part in the American syndication of Spectreman, particularly in his role as the voice of the evil Dr. Gori's right hand space ape Karas, and I wish that he had been able to share more about his work on the series than the short interview he provided for G-Fan magazine #58 shortly before his death in 2005. I wish that scripting and production material for Spectreman's localization was floating around out there, and I wish that there was even a glimmer of hope that the series could see a remastered DVD release. In general, I wish more of Welles' work, even as a B-movie actor, was appreciated for his talent, but everyone goes on and on about that other Welles guy all the time. What was his name? Orson, I think? (snicker)

Just a few of my favorite Mel Welles performances.

          Some might say that I still look at Mel Welles' work with the same starry eyes I had when I was four years old and watching a random episode of The Lone Ranger, some Roger Corman monster movie on a Saturday afternoon, a late night network broadcast of a movie like Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype, or Spectreman every day after Kindergarten. I am perfectly okay with that opinion. I love a lot of the things I love for sentimental value, but Mel Welles was there more often than I realized as a child, and his work came to mean a great deal to me as he became more and more recognizable for his background character and voice roles. He was in a little bit of everything from Captain Midnight to Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Peter Gunn and even animated series from my later childhood like Lazer Tag Academy and Phantom 2040. Seeing some of his work featured on both MST3K and ICWXP only helps to put those riffing episodes higher on my favorites list.

Up next, I begin to wind down toward the final October highlights post with more on Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype and a few more broadcast television memories.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

October 2017 Highlights Part 4 - Horror Hosts (And a Good Dose of Mystery Science Theater 3000)

Part 4 - The Horror Host

          November is half-over, but I am going to finish this if it takes me until January. My post-memorial/pre-Winter depression sends me into a cleaning and landscaping frenzy, and it can be difficult for me to sit down and collect my thoughts. While I am on my feet in my spare time, pruning branches or raking leaves, I spend much of the month listening to episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, episodes that amass a hearty selection of laugh-out-loud comfort movies. I have seen most of these episodes dozens of times, so I can listen to the audio while I work and enjoy the movie playing in my head. My MST3K mood turns most of November and December into a marathon re-watch of most of the series.

          MST3K became a special part of my life when it debuted, but my fortune was not such that I could keep track of it all the time. My first experience was early in season 3 with Gamera, and I almost hate to say that it was not a good experience. I came very close to casting off the series entirely in that moment. I had grown up watching the movies featured on the show and loved them all for what they were, and I was a bullied child with a little bit of confusion about what was going on exactly. My gut instinct was that this guy and his robot puppets were making fun of what I loved. They were bullying my favorite movies. I was not happy, but a Gamera movie was on. I was not going to change the channel. If I had to tune these jokers out, I would, but I stayed tuned. I did it often enough with kids in school who picked on me. I could endure the "trauma" and enjoy the movie if that was what it took. Then, suddenly, this guy and his robots left the theater and walked out into the "lobby" where one of the robots sang a song about Tibby, the pet turtle in the movie. It was a fun little tune, and it made me think of just how easily I almost hated MST3K and dismissed it entirely. This heartfelt little departure from talking during a movie was a way to show me that these jokers were not just jokers. They had personality and sensitivity, and they were paying attention to the movie they were watching even though they were making jokes. That is an important distinction that I am thankful I caught early on, but it did not happen right away. I had to think about it for a few days and, eventually, watch a couple more episodes to see what was happening. I began to see that my poor first impression of the show was a reflection of myself and not a reflection of the performance. This was not a low form of mocking nor was it poor comedy or bad film criticism. At least one renowned and published film critic, who will go unnamed, never came around to that conclusion and instead developed a hatred for it after some personal experiences very similar to my own: people who did not get the concept and thought that they were suddenly allowed to talk and wisecrack in a movie theater because MST3K "told" them they could. We always had to remember that someone out there would not grasp that it was not excusing an erasure of etiquette regarding film critique or enjoyment of the theater experience, and we would inevitably encounter them at some point with the worry that our enjoyment would be tainted somehow. Like the guy who sat a few rows in front of me at RiffTrax Live!: Manos: The Hands of Fate and kept reciting quotes from the MST3K episode during the show. Not cool, man. Not cool.

          As Joel often said, "The right people will get the joke." I was happy to be one of the right people, but I still remind myself that I almost was not. This may sound like I am taking the fandom too seriously and putting myself on a pedestal, but this is simply whether or not someone gets a joke or takes the words to heart too much to find it funny. MST3K became a profound learning experience for me of the difference between bullying and good-natured ribbing, and the latter was what they did. And they did it well. Their humorous references to other movies, literature, music, and popular culture proved to me that they could call a movie "bad" and still show it some love and respect. Despite their pain on the screen, it was obvious that they studied every inch of these movies as professionals and film fans. Just like me, they could quote the works of Orson Welles and Roger Corman in the same breath, and I needed comedy like that in my life.

          Riffing. The concept goes back a long way. I first heard it as a musical term, and I think most credit its definition in comedy to Groucho Marx. The definition varies, but as I came to understand it, riffing means to provide an insightful commentary to a subject, usually but not exclusively a humorous observation or retort. Riffing could make you the straight man or the second banana, ad-libbed or scripted, depending on the context, but the best part of the definition is that it finds a way, if timed properly, to flow with the conversation or even start a new one. That is the essence of comedy. A laugh is a great way to start a conversation, and laughter is important. Groucho riffed life itself, and his observations shined a light on a lot of things that most of the audience probably missed or dismissed. With regards to MST3K, no matter how many dozens of times I have seen any given episode, I continue to get new jokes every time and develop a greater understanding of the context of references. Riffing is a way to show you pay intimate attention to the world around you. It makes a show like MST3K timeless for me, and it inspires me to focus my observational lens on any given thing from a hundred different angles to improve and expand my lexicon. I never tire of it, and I always laugh.

          MST3K provides perhaps the most appropriate introduction because the show may not have existed at all if not for the point of this entry. When I got to travel to Dallas to see one of the first public screenings of Cinematic Titanic, MST3K creator Joel Hodgson's short-lived attempt at reviving the form, a 20th anniversary MST3K reunion clip show and Q&A panel preceded it. While The Omega Man and Silent Running were blueprints for the theme of the show, Joel himself said that movies like Gamera were MST3K's chief inspiration. Joel told a brief story that sounded so familiar that my heart dropped: he had grown up with that same love of broadcast TV movies that I had as a child. He watched the same kinds of late night and weekend afternoon monster movie matinees that I did, and, just like me, they helped to shape him as a movie fan. More importantly, Joel knew of another aspect of television I held dear to my heart: the horror host.

(If you have not read it yet, then I would recommend pausing here to read my review of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark for more detail on my childhood history with broadcast television horror movies. I have a bad habit of being repetitive, and I am going to try not to copy most of that entire thing from memory here. It is not an easy task, but the bulk of that review takes up a large chunk of what I planned to talk about here. In hindsight, the entire first half of that review would have been better off here in the first place because it is just a long-winded lead-in. The review itself came out of current events and a new appreciation for the movie, but I think it lost some of its impact when I got sidetracked in anticipation of this writing. While we are at it, go and watch the documentary American Scary. You are likely to get a lot more out of that than reading any of this. Not that I intend to stop here.)

          As I mentioned in my review for Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, I, like Joel and Gilbert Gottfried, was fortunate to be born in a generation before paid programming and the broadcast restrictions of the DMCA. The golden age of television needed a lot of filler, and theatrical movies on the small screen at home provided a large chunk of that filler. Original programming and sitcoms? Yeah, sure, that was television, but even the growing concept of the rerun could not keep a television station running twenty four hours a day.

And I still could look forward to seeing this late at night well into the 1990s on some stations.

And some local stations took advantage of their filler in the best way possible: creating community involvement and fostering new and renewed appreciation for old movies through their television broadcasts. I still remember the first time I saw a movie in 3-D. It was Gorilla at Large, and the local 7-Eleven sold 3-D glasses to promote the broadcast. I lost those glasses, but I never forgot the experience. It was an extension of the appreciation I had developed already from It Came From Hollywood and the multitude of television B-movie broadcasts I had seen up to that time, and it was airing in prime time! A local television station was going to this much effort to promote a movie made thirty years earlier, one I had not seen yet but the sort of movie I loved watching on television all the time, and I could not have been happier. Well... I could have been happier, but I did not know how at the time. I would learn a few years later that some local stations had the likes of Elvira and Svengoolie and Zacherley to promote and present these movies. I even found a VHS recording of Zacherley hosting Gorilla at Large in 3-D in collector circulation from what looks to be the same year I saw it. These movies broadcast nationally in most cases, but several local markets added their own extra flavor with a horror host. When I was little, the best I could get was a short local news report on the upcoming movie and perhaps a few commercials. Elsewhere, the horror host stood on a platform to hype these movies with gusto. The horror host was a combination of a carnival barker, a commercial pitch figure, and a film-loving friend to a lonely kid watching the tube, and I did not realize how much I needed a friend like that until my family moved to a new home in a new town where such a friend existed. For me, that friend was Dr. Paul Bearer in Tampa, FL.

"I'll be lurking for you."

         Dr. Paul Bearer (the late Dick Bennick, Sr.) is an annual October staple in my home, but the surviving collection of his shows is sorely limited and seldom has video quality as well-preserved as the screen grab pictured above. A circa-1987 or -1988 broadcast of Dr. Paul Bearer hosting Legend of the Dinosaurs remains my holy grail as a collector of horror host shows because that was the show that made me a fan forever. The movie itself is a personal favorite, and I would come to learn that Dr. Paul Bearer shared much of the same movie distribution package in the late 1980s that MST3K had for its first local season. I was not able to watch the movies with Joel and the Bots on KTMA in Minneapolis, but Dr. Paul Bearer had me covered in Tampa. Unbeknownst to me, around the same time I was first exposed to Legend of the Dinosaurs with Dr. Bearer, MST3K featured it on their local network season finale. When I finally tracked down the KTMA season of MST3K many years later, they became some of my favorite episodes of the series, especially Legend of the Dinosaurs, because they captured the essence of the local television horror host. They are less-polished and somewhat removed from what MST3K became in cable syndication, but I am firmly in the camp of people who would buy a commercial release of MST3K "Season Zero" in a heartbeat.

          Competition became fierce in the late 1980s with cable television with my introduction to horror hosts. I still checked the TV guides on a weekly basis, with highlighter in hand, to mark down which movies I wanted to see. On Saturday afternoons, I had the added dilemma of choosing which of three horror hosts I wanted to see talking about a particular movie. I could watch Commander USA on the USA Network, Grampa Munster on TBS, or Dr. Paul Bearer on WTOG, but I had to pick one. On occasion, I would skip the afternoon movie and take advantage of the fair Florida weather to fish or root around for tadpoles and other wildlife, but, more often than not, I was planted on the living room floor watching Dr. Paul Bearer every Saturday at noon. Any channel or host showing a Japanese monster movie specifically won the contest, and I was not leaving the house that day.

          Losing horror hosts entirely with the move back to Texas from Florida was painful, and I wish that I had had a recording VCR at the time to preserve some of that material. Some others did, fortunately, but the fruits of those efforts still remain obscure and sometimes difficult to track down. My discovery of the Internet opened up a new world to me as I tried to rekindle my love for the horror host. "Keep circulating the tapes" was the MST3K motto, but the concept of preserving television expands out into every corner of broadcast history. YouTube does not even scratch its surface, and, sadly, often is no different than watching a third-generation VHS copy with the quality loss that can occur when uploading some old footage to a video website. Still, this is where one can find much of this material easily. Other sites like FuzzyMemories.TV go to great effort to preserve broadcast material as historical artifacts, and I wish that there was a greater effort to do the same outside of Chicago and beyond YouTube. The sad fact is that most of the master tapes from a lot of these areas no longer exist. They were erased or destroyed to make room for other material, the same thing that happened a number of Doctor Who episodes and other BBC television shows of the 1960s. Even into the 1970s and 1980s, local station heads did not think this material was important. It could not be sold to the home market, and many horror host shows aired only once before disappearing forever. If you were not at home in time for broadcast, then you missed it. It only had value for a brief moment in its time slot.

          YouTube has made it possible to see some of those old horror host shows like Commander USA, and it also has allowed some contemporary horror hosts to thrive with the benefit of movies in the public domain. There remain, however, hundreds and hundreds of recorded broadcasts of past horror host shows from around the country, and I managed to get my hands on a few that I have enjoyed a great deal. The best recording preservations are the ones with the commercials still intact. The nostalgia factor is a big part of the experience, but there is added fun in seeing local commercials from other markets and the subtle differences in how broadcasting functioned in different cities across the country.

          Every year, I have to dig out a few of those horror host shows to watch for the October season. This year, I did not get to as many of them as I wanted, but I covered a few of the essentials. First, however, I need to talk about my kickoff show, The Uncle Floyd Show's Halloween Trick or Treat.

Zacherley, among many special guests, drops by for a visit.

Although not a horror host, Uncle Floyd Vivino was deep in the local TV host trenches. The few shows of his that I had the chance to see were sort of like The Bozo Show for much older kids. I first discovered Uncle Floyd courtesy of Nickelodeon's sketch show Turkey Television, and I had all but forgotten him until several years ago when an online acquaintance from New Jersey pointed me in the direction of a few surviving shows. I kept racking my brain trying to remember why this man in the checkered shirt and hat looked familiar. I had not seen Turkey Television in almost thirty years. As soon as Uncle Floyd sat down at his piano, it clicked. It all came flooding back to me. I remembered his songs and his "Julia Stepchild" parodies that were a staple of Turkey Television sketches. I remembered looking forward to them almost more than I looked forward to seeing sketches by Christine McGlade, Les Lye, and other veteran cast members of You Can't Do That On Television.

          Uncle Floyd is a hell of a showman and a piano player, and there are times when his sketches seem to be an anti-variety show, deconstructing notions of how magical television looks from the family couch side of the screen. Things went wrong, lines were missed, equipment failed, sets collapsed, and at least one show derailed completely when a visiting pet unexpectedly took a squat right in the middle of the stage on live television. These things did not happen all the time, but they were not edited out. There was no outtake reel. Any bloopers became part of the show, so you had to expect something to snap you out of the fantasy world of television every now and then. Uncle Floyd's Halloween special was not a prime example of some of the chaos that could take place on Uncle Floyd's show, but it is no less a classic and laden with guest stars. Zacherley, Peter Tork, David Johansen, Jon Mikl Thor with his exploding hot water bottle trick, and even a live performance by Blue Oyster Cult. And no, they did not perform "Don't Fear the Reaper." That would have been perfect for the season, though, right? They performed "Burning for You." The anti-variety aspect of Uncle Floyd came in with the assortment of guests from the punk and metal side of music. Their rebellious nature became the chaos that would pick the show apart at the seams the most. A comedian like David Johansen or Peter Tork could crash a sketch and keep it going for several minutes, but a punk rocker had no patience for nonsense. Stiv Bator showed up with a bag of stolen candy, interrupting a PSA on trick or treat safety. A bit earlier, Joey Ramone found himself in the most (deliberately) boring and lackluster comedy sketch ever performed on television, and he walked off the set in a huff. It looked awkward, uncomfortable, and authentic, as if it was not part of the script. Was it? That was part of the beauty of the show. Ramone remarked that he had been on Uncle Floyd's show numerous times, so this must have been a set up. Still, you could look at that or almost any other sketch and wonder if they ever went in the direction they intended. I am not sure where one would go now to find some of these rare shows as it appears that the Captain Fork website no longer exists, but I would recommend looking up some Uncle Floyd if you can find it.

          Of course, horror was not a strict guideline for a TV movie host. Throughout most of the 1990s, one of the staples of my late night weekend movie viewing was USA Up All Night, hosted by Gilbert Gottfried, Rhonda Shear, and "late-night movie gal-pal" Caroline Schlitt. I did not catch Gilbert hosting on Friday nights that often, but I was tuned to the USA Network almost every Saturday night. I would not say that puberty had everything to do with it, but the selection of movies on Up All Night typically came from the sexploitation and T&A sex comedy genre.

          I am still seeking out a movie that appeared on Up All Night and have not been able to identify to this day because I only remember two scenes. In the first scene, the owner of a van talks with a girl about the concept of having sex in automobiles. I may not have the quote entirely correct, but I remember the guy saying, "It can only be done in a van." He put extra emphasis on the word "done." A few minutes later, we see the van rocking, and the parking brake gives out. The van rolls down a hill and comes to rest in a large puddle, but it made me laugh because it did not seem like they were going to do more than get their feet wet when they came out. It was not a deep puddle. I have no idea what this movie was, but my memory feels like it must have been from the 1970s. In a later scene, the same girl is almost raped (or is raped but the scene was cut short by censors) by some ne'er-do-wells but is rescued when her friends fight them off. That traumatic moment is etched in my mind, making it difficult to bring up in conversation to try to identify it when a near-rape is one of the only scenes I remember from it.

          Horror still had a place on Up All Night, and those were some of the nights I enjoyed the most. Puberty or not, T&A was censored, and I needed a fun plot to keep me entertained. When it came to horror, a large assortment of movies featured on Up All Night came from Troma. I have a few things to say this year about Troma and am saving that for the end of my highlights entries, so stay tuned for that. Troma and sexploitation abound with movies like Class of Nuke 'Em High or I Was a Teenage Sex Project (AKA Dr. Alien), it was not uncommon, however, to see some higher-budget theatrical horror on the show, and I could count on seeing all-time favorites like Creepshow, Shocker, or A Nightmare on Elm Street as well as gems like Basket Case and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. For this October, I went with Rhonda Shear's Up All Night presentation of Fright Night. Rhonda decides to get married, and she hosts the entire night in a wedding gown despite not having picked a husband yet. Through the course of the night, she begins to wonder if she needs a husband at all. This show took place closer to the end of USA Up All Night's broadcast run, but it remained entertaining until it went off the air. It was the end of an era, and all of the late night movie hosts were on their way out.

          Fright Night was one of those special '80s horror movies like The Lost Boys that held a deep love for the classics but succeeded mostly because they did not take themselves too seriously. They were a blend of horror and comedy that poked fun at the horror genre, but there was that distinction I mentioned between mocking and respect. These movies could not be funny without exhibiting love, respect, and knowledge of the subject matter. All of the tropes were there with a focus on the rules, and the kicker was that this was supposed to be the real world. This was a world where vampires and ghouls were works of fiction, but guess what? It turns out all of it was real after all, and its connection to the real world is downright eerie in its subtext with regard to film and television. Fright Night is the ultimate love letter to horror movies and even horror hosts, a horror parody of Rear Window, and it is sadly prophetic of the direction that television would take to phase the horror host out almost completely. In the movie, the blame is placed upon the slasher movie. The '80s generation wants to see Michael and Jason, Freddy and Pinhead, blood and guts. They do not have the taste for Lugosi's Dracula, Karloff's Frankenstein, or Cushing's Van Helsing anymore, according to the depressed horror host and former horror star Peter Vincent, played by Roddy McDowall. The argument unfairly dismisses filmmakers like Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci and even Dario Argento, but it does present a valid debate over changes in the tone of horror in the '80s. This would become, sadly, predictive of what would happen to amazing channels like American Movie Classics, which took a radical turn in 2001 toward a new format and is nothing like it once was. Prior to 2002, AMC was a haven for classic film and classic horror in October, making it worthy competition for and even better than Turner Classic Movies in most respects. Their annual MonsterFest showcased the best of the best and the most well known of the B-movie creatures, even putting Roger Corman in the host chair in 1999.

          The unedited and commercial-free MonsterFest eventually would become the heavily-edited-for-television and commercial-laden FearFest, and gone were the likes of Karloff's Frankenstein in place of Michael Myers and the contemporary monsters like Predator and the Xenomorphs. Peter Vincent was right all along, but even worse, he predicted the death of the traditional horror host in place of ad revenue and paid programming. The state of cable was shifting. TCM became the home for those classic monsters while AMC became the home for movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I still get confused sometimes when someone abbreviates "TCM" because I have to decipher whether they are talking about the channel or the movie. But even Turner Classic Movies does not pay some of the classics the respect and recognition that AMC used to offer. On a few occasions, it felt like the TCM hosts were reluctant to talk about some of these movies at all, but they smiled through it, taking a few subtly worded shots at the lack of production value and commenting all-too-often that a film like Night of the Lepus or The Blob did not deserve to be on the same channel as Harvey or Vertigo. Therein exists the debate about taking films either too seriously or not seriously enough, and the happy medium can be hard to find. At least we can count on Svengoolie every week to give some of these films the love they deserve with some appropriate riffing.

          Among my favorite horror hosts of all time and one I have to revisit annually is the late Bob Carter, Sr., better known to his audience in Indianapolis as Sammy Terry. Of all the horror hosts I have seen, Sammy Terry was the true poet. Even when he was promoting the Indy 500, you had to listen carefully to make sure that you were not hearing the works of Edgar Allen Poe. His scripted monologues were macabre perfection, but Sammy Terry could put a smile on your face with an unexpected punchline.

          I watch Sammy Terry's presentation of Phantasm every October, but it seemed only fitting to follow up my USA Up All Night feature with Sammy Terry's broadcast of Fright Night: Part II. These two broadcasts aired nearly fifteen years apart, Phantasm around 1987 and Fright Night: Part II just before election night in 2000, and you can feel the divide between them and the inevitable waning of the horror host genre that Peter Vincent prophesied. Svengoolie remains an example of that fight between the programmers and the film-lovers, the constant struggle to make a unique and entertaining show around a movie while taking care to pay attention to how much time was devoted to the sponsors. The movie itself, of course, was the point, but the hosts progressively had to fight for their own space in their own show. Svengoolie managed to keep a basic weekly formula, but some hosts began to see their role diminish more and more from host segments to seconds-long bumpers between commercials. Of course, hosts like Sammy Terry and Svengoolie have been on the air long enough to see this battle shift back and forth several times, but most, sadly, lost out to changes in the broadcast market and hung up their capes and fangs. Still, Sammy Terry was able to use his time to provide fright and delight to his audience. I have not seen Bob Carter, Jr., in the mantle, but I would like to think that he does his father proud in keeping the tradition alive.

          Speaking of those classic black and white horror movies, my viewing this year was far below the norm. I usually watch the classic Dracula and Frankenstein this time of year, but I went in several alternate directions. I came back to the black and white with Fritz The Nite Owl hosting The Ape Man on Nite Owl Theatre. Fritz is a different breed of horror host. He is not a creature of the night nor did he do a standard straight host routine like Bob Wilkins. Fritz' character is the overnight radio DJ, the smooth and debonair voice you expected to hear burning the night away with the hits. His show felt more like a radio show than television. Often, he was reading trivia or narrating details of the movie without being on screen at all. Many times, his suave voice and musical accompaniment played over a still frame or some 1980s style video graphic, and every once in a while he would do a green screen gimmick with his head superimposed on a piece of Frank Frazetta artwork.

And sometimes Fritz just walked on screen to talk at length about the movie or its cast.
          In the case of The Ape Man and some other films, Fritz was defensive of their art form, something the hosts of TCM today could do just a bit more. He acknowledged that they had a low budget and were not box office hits, but he made it a point to focus on the innovations and talents of the time that could create a movie like The Ape Man and tell a good story without breaking the bank. Fritz pays particular attention to the above-average make-up on Bela Lugosi here as well as Lugosi's keen ape-like movement without any real choreography. Fritz urges the audience to look past any of the flaws that might be present and to find the realism that exists in the visuals and performances. For me, that is the best kind of host: always looking for the silver lining even when pointing out the flaws.

          I have a couple more hosts to cover on this subject, but I am going to devote Part 5 to them. Stay tuned for the next installment in which I show some love for Incognito Cinema Warriors XP and the work of the great Mel Welles.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

October 2017 Highlights Part 3 - How Ellie Was Always a Robot (with James Karen, Craig Wasson, and Tom Atkins)

Part 3 – How Ellie Was Always a Robot (with James Karen, Craig Wasson, and Tom Atkins)

           I can't do October without a small, handpicked set of movies, and one fun aspect of this particular set is that it splits off into marathons that showcase the work of some of the actors that helped make me the horror fan I am today. This year was no different, and I kicked things off right away with James Karen. 

James Karen

Getting the flying Superman font he deserves in Invaders from Mars.
           James Karen became one of my favorite faces of horror in, of course, Poltergeist, playing the small but significant role of Teague. Even at the age of four, I didn't need him to appear in more than the few small scenes he did to understand how important he was to the story. With a smile on his face and profits in his heart, he was the villain of the movie. It was a small and simple part to play, but I never forgot his nonchalant attitude about paving over the final resting place of hundreds of departed souls. I particularly never forgot the feeling I had when he conveniently appeared to bear witness to what he and his kind had done. He barely takes up any screen time, but when he does, you are locked on his expression: his shock, his disbelief, and his complete breakdown of remorse. He never believed that something like this could have happened. Who would? But, in this world, there are consequences for tampering with the laws of heaven.

           Invaders From Mars, as I said in my Tobe Hooper entry, was a movie I hadn't seen in quite a few years, but it is very likely to be an annual October watch for James Karen. Invaders doesn't take itself too seriously, and James Karen has excellent range for comedy. Here, he gives us perfect deadpan as General Climet Wilson, a real hard-ass but still open to giving a kid top level military clearance as if we were in a Gamera film. That childlike playfulness with the plot gives James Karen plenty of room to shine. General Wilson is an anomaly like many of the characters in the movie. You typically expect the military leader of a horror movie to be over-the-top with discipline and an understanding of the risks of combat, but James Karen plays his part with more compassion. In some ways, he is like a surrogate father to our young hero while Karen Black takes the part of a surrogate mother.

"Say, Dick, did you know that Invaders from Mars features both James Karen and Karen Black?"
"Is that right? You know, if Karen Black married James Karen, she'd be Karen Karen?"
"Say goodnight, Dick."
"Goodnight, Dick."
           In the horror category and perhaps his entire career, James Karen gave his finest performance in Return of the Living Dead. His complete nervous breakdown here feels like a gift as it gives us one window into Teague's future after the credits rolled on Poltergeist. His experiences break him, and he spends a great deal of the movie screaming and suffering. With style. Not only does the plot not take itself seriously like Invaders from Mars, but Return of the Living Dead is pure horror comedy. This is the extreme end of the spectrum on the other side of serious roles like Mulholland Drive and even Poltergeist, and Karen shows that he can do it all. His character is silly and more fragile than he initially makes himself out to be, and he is the standout role of the cast for me (even more than the graveyard dance, which is saying something) with a tragic turn that brings a tear to my eye and makes me cringe at the same time. I'm more familiar with Return of the Living Dead Part II since I saw it a few times more in television reruns and on MonsterVision, but the first installment is the best. Both movies have basically the same plot, but Karen brings it every time. 

Craig Wasson

           One of my earliest horror movie memories is the amazing tale of the supernatural that is Ghost Story. There are so many people to talk about in this movie: Fred Astaire, John Houseman, and the hauntingly perfect talent of Alice Krige, to name only a few. But we wouldn't have the story without Craig Wasson to tie it all together. He has the odd pleasure of playing a dual role as estranged twin brothers; one is the sensitive and struggling professor we see for most of the movie while the other is a rough businessman who suffers a terrible fate in the opening scene. The surviving brother seems to waffle at everything in life except for one thing: he means to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding a woman who seems to exist outside of time. His horrified expressions are priceless as he inches toward the truth.

Granted, he seems a little more concerned than the scene seems to ask for here.
Wasson's character here continues to discover at almost every turn that he isn't really necessary. Clouded by doubt, he can't hold on to what matters in his life, and he always seems to be a stepping stone for everyone he encounters. Inheriting a wrathful family curse doesn't help matters.

           I didn't get around to watching it in October, but I did watch A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors earlier this year and have to include it in my appreciation of Craig Wasson. Once again, Wasson is a professional investigating something supernatural, this time a psychiatrist discovering that the curse of Freddy Krueger is very real. Despite the great Patricia Arquette and the returning talent of Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp, Wasson is a standout for me here. Maybe it's a little sentimental, but he becomes a heroic figure here and just as much the essential thread tying everything together as he was in Ghost Story. He is a face of authority and disbelief, but he becomes a true believer.

           Last, but not least there is Brian De Palma's Body Double. There might be a bit of an argument about this as a horror movie, but I never felt like this one fit any particular genre. It is a blend of horror, thriller, and outright parody at times as it takes a number of potshots at the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, particularly the acting community. Wasson does something he does best here as a character actor, playing another downtrodden soul forced to face fear and mystery, but this is, by far, my favorite Wasson performance on the list because he is unmistakably the star of the picture. And he has to be good because his character is not all that likable. We have some sympathy for him in the beginning, but he is not meant to be liked because, in the caricature-drawn world of Body Double, it seems that everyone is already tainted. Wasson's character can't seem to help but undermine his own altruism as he keeps giving in to his voyeuristic urges. He walks through one door of a moral dilemma after another and keeps getting himself into trouble, at times falling too deeply into character along the way, and somehow he uses his acting talents to fail upward and tie the pieces of the puzzle together. Wasson is always good at tying things together, even when his characters in some of these movies seem too flawed to manage it. 

Tom Atkins

           I don't think I need to say much about Tom Atkins. He's Tom friggin' Atkins, and he is a horror staple. Tom Atkins is the man in horror who is washed-out, often boozed-up, and thinks he has seen too much of the world. He has experience with some ugly things, but he is wrong to think he has seen it all. When the supernatural evils and the monsters of the world are revealed, he is one of the movie badasses willing to put up a real fight.

           My first experience with Tom Atkins was in the bookend segment of Creepshow. I don't need it to be October to put on Creepshow. I have watched it at least twice this year (once in memory of the passing of George Romero) and typically watch it a couple of times a year besides. This was where I discovered Tom Atkins as a horror necessity. He introduces the Creepshow audience to a character of horror reality: an abusive parent. This puts things in the right mood for some tension and fear, but it also makes the comedic nature of the interior segments stand out a bit more because it takes the edge off of reality just a bit. That is my take on it at least, coming from a dysfunctional family myself. It makes the tagline ring true to me as Creepshow most certainly is the most fun I have ever had being scared. Then, in the end, if we have managed to forget where we started, Tom Atkins is there one more time for the final payoff. And it is worth it.

           As much as I adore the work of Larry Cohen, I didn't get around to seeing Maniac Cop for the first time until this October. Better late than never, but the presence of Tom Atkins here makes the shame of overlooking it that much stronger. I could tell myself that Cohen only wrote it and did not direct to make myself feel about 1% better, but even that does not make me fee any better because I went to the effort of tracking down almost every movie Cohen wrote and still managed to miss this one. I have yet to see a story Cohen wrote that I did not like, but I always have that nagging little wish in back of my head that he had directed all of them. But I'm not here to talk about Larry Cohen. I could do that all day. This is about Tom Atkins, and he is at his best when he is playing the grizzled detective on the trail of a killer. Cohen's writing is timeless and relevant in a world terrorized by a murderer with a badge, and it is a palpable display of Atkins' talent to see him standing with seniority over a young Bruce Campbell. I will have to give this movie another look in the very near future.

           Atkins delivers a similar performance as a washed-up cop in Night of the Creeps, a favorite that I had not seen in quite a few years before approaching it again this October. I watched it as a follow-up to The Blob 1988, and they make a perfect pair as well-scripted spoofs of 1950s drive-in horror (even better as a three-way with Slither). Night of the Creeps is peak Tom Atkins. He has seen everything, carries some dark secrets, and is ready to drown the rest of his life in liquor until a new mystery breathes some life into him again. It doesn't get much better than this... but it does because I would not dare to omit the cult opus that made Tom Atkins a legendary face of horror.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (or How Ellie Was Always a Robot)

           It took years for a lot of people to come around to the opinion I have had since I was five years old: Halloween III: Season of the Witch is an all-time horror classic. Most people are unwilling to accept change. This seems to be the greatest hurdle that Halloween III had to jump, and it stumbled in the public eye for the most part. Where was Michael Myers? Where was Jamie Lee Curtis? Where was Donald Pleasance? This was no sequel to the previous films, and that probably was the nail in its critical coffin. If it had been released simply as Season of the Witch, however, I wonder how much notice it would have received. It might have been forgotten quickly or, as I would like to hope, been provided a little more of the appreciation it receives today. It is on my short list of comfort horror movies with Creepshow, Poltergeist, Halloween, and Halloween II, and I can and often do watch them all a couple of times a year or more. I have Halloween III droning in the background right now.

           The plot of Season of the Witch is absolutely, one hundred percent bonkers. A synopsis does it absolutely no justice. The exposition news network tells us that an entire slab of Stonehenge has gone missing. Just like that. After ranting about death and destruction like a lunatic, an old man is murdered in his hospital bed in one of the most memorable kill scenes I have seen in a horror movie, and the story continues to deliver unique death scenes as it progresses. Enter Tom Atkins, Dr. Dan Challis. He is not yet the washed-up cop of Maniac Cop or Night of the Creeps, but he is well on his way toward it as a hard-drinking divorced doctor. He can't let go of the mystery, and he takes leave from the hospital to help the old man's daughter investigate her father's death at the source of it all: the Silver Shamrock mask factory in the small Irish town of Santa Mira, California. Santa Mira is a place that seems frozen in time, and one cannot be too sure if anything or anyone there is real. The pieces to the puzzle begin to paint a picture of a prank that goes back to the very origins of Halloween itself. And there are robots. Lots of high-functioning, wind-up toy robots that look like people but are capable of superhuman acts of murder and mayhem.

           Pure bonkers, and I love it. I have seen it so many times, however, that I began to play around with some elements of the story. One little theory I developed very early was about Ellie, and it opened my eyes to what I consider the secret plot of Halloween III. Around the age of three or four, when I began to develop my interest in movies, familiar faces were a strong draw for me from one movie to another, and it is part of the reason for the theme of this entry. One of my favorite early childhood movies (which, sadly, did not hold up so well into adulthood) was Going Ape. It was a simple little comedy with apes, and I loved it as a little kid. It was also the first time I saw Stacey Nelkin. I recognized her immediately in Halloween III, and this caused me to pay particular attention to her as Ellie Grimbridge. From the beginning, something about her seems slightly off. She is the grieving next of kin, but she is drawn to Dr. Challis at the same time, dare I say deliberately. She seems to know where exactly to find Dr. Challis when she wants to pique his curiosity in every possible way as both a romantic interest and someone looking for the same answers, and she lures him to Santa Mira to discover what happened to her "father." I put the word "father" in quotes because I don't think Ellie ever was a human being. I think she was always a robot from beginning to end, a plant to throw off suspicion, and there are plenty of clues to suggest it.

           There is a bit of a Westworld vibe to the town of Santa Mira. You see what appear to be normal small-town folk, but the lines blur if you try to figure out who is real and who is not. We get the sense that some of these are real people. Many of them have to be, but mortality is the only way we know for sure. There is plenty of that to go around, but further confusing the issue is our villain Conal Cochran, played to perfection by Dan O'Herlihy. When he reveals his secrets, we also are not entirely sure if many of the people in his employ are robots or cultists that have achieved the same sort of semi-immortality that he seems to have. The small assortment of clues could take the viewer in any direction. Most would dismiss the background characters outright as insignificant. They are all a part of this evil scheme, human or otherwise, so why do they matter? Cochran himself tells us why they all matter. He tells his story about perfecting his robots. They can blend in with society, but how authentically and how deviously? One of them sneezes to provide an example, leading us to wonder if a few of the underlings that speak to Cochran in the secret laboratory and at the scene of the "misfire" are human cultists or robots capable of speech. It is revealed that all of the factory workers are from outside Santa Mira, so how can we be sure about their true identities as human or robot? Cochran loves a good joke, but how many jokes was he playing at the same time? I think there was one joke no one ever got, and that was Ellie, so perfect in every detail that no one would suspect that she was not what she seemed: a seductive robot designed specifically to bring Challis to Santa Mira.

"Aren't you the least bit tired?"
"Wait. How old are you?"
"Relax. I'm older than I look."
As old as an antique grandfather clock, maybe? Hey, does anyone else hear ticking?

           Records can be manipulated, and Cochran demonstrates behind the scenes that he has reach well beyond Santa Mira. His cult likely is spread across the globe and has spies placed everywhere, but Cochran sends his clockwork men out to handle a few delicate situations. They perform their tasks and then dispose of themselves, if necessary, without leaving a trace of human evidence. It seems unlikely that any of them could get from one place to another without being able to avoid some suspicion. Despite their strength, they are proven to be as fragile as human beings in many ways. Simply piercing their skin would reveal the truth about them, so Cochran wasn't joking when he said that he had perfected his techniques. He had to. I don't think Harry Grimbridge ever had a daughter. It was a convenient means to check for any other loose ends. She could have been a well-placed next of kin to identify Harry's body and to make sure that the police had no sufficient evidence to find the truth about his killer, or perhaps Harry's real daughter was replaced earlier. Perhaps Harry went to Santa Mira because his daughter no longer seemed like his daughter. Perhaps his Kevin McCarthy-esque Body Snatchers breakdown in the first scene was another clue. The first wave of cleaners could do their job, but perhaps Cochran wanted a little extra insurance (and perhaps a bit of added fun) with a second wave of robotic spies sent to replace some of the people closest to the store owners purchasing and distributing his masks. Perhaps Ellie was a member of that second wave, not simply a young woman with some clear-cut daddy issues but a fully functioning machine designed to fool even a family member.

           Ellie seeks Challis out, questioning him about her "father" and looking for any information Challis might have gotten before Harry was eliminated. When he answers her with a lie, you might dismiss it right away as the sign of stress in the relationship between Ellie and Harry, but what if this was all her primary programming needed? If Harry never had a daughter and Ellie was a robot from the start, then the lie Challis told made it even more obvious that he knew nothing. But Challis does know something, and he stops her from walking away. The movie could have ended right here and the torch passed to someone else or no one at all, but Challis tells Ellie the truth. He tells her Harry's last words. "They're going to kill us all."

Secondary Programming: Sherlock initiated.

           Cochran is a confident man. He is a step ahead of everything. He is winning. For all intents and purposes, he already has won. Men like Cochran, however, suffer from one fatal flaw: the Bond villain flaw. Cochran cannot enjoy the fruits of his labor unless he can share it with someone he deems at least very close to his own intellect. He needs a Sherlock to his Moriarty, a Batman to his Joker. Challis is a doctor, a man of intelligence and talent in his community, but he has to be tested. How far does he want to go with his investigation? Is he prone to impulse and rushing things, or is he a patient man? Ellie is the robotic femme fatale designed to see how intelligent men like Challis tick, so to speak, and to draw them into Cochran's web. At one point, it looks like she is drinking a Coca-Cola, but does the liquid truly pass her lips? We only see Ellie alone and exhibiting human behavior once: her shower scene. Perhaps she is a normal human taking a shower, or maybe she is taking a hot shower to give her robotic body the appearance of giving off body heat for what happens next. Hey, even Austin Powers was fooled by a female robot, so who is to say that Challis didn't fall for the same trick?

           The major question about Ellie's true identity is her disappearance and supposed replacement. Cochran explains that the processing and construction takes time, but there supposedly is an Ellie robot ready to go almost immediately? This seems unlikely, and you could chalk it up either to a plot hole of convenience or proof that Ellie disappears to be debriefed when Cochran is ready to share his story with Challis. After the "demonstration" of flashing lights, crickets, snakes, and brutal death, there is a shared and unspoken look between them, as if Challis is saying that Cochran won't get away with this. Cochran, without a word, gestures with a smile that he already has gotten away with it. Just like a Bond villain, Cochran has Challis bound and confined in a room with no adequate security, and there is one point at which it seems as though Cochran is waiting to be informed that Challis has escaped. The first wave pursues Challis, but the first wave already has been proven to be ineffective in this case or, possibly, deliberately using nonlethal force because Cochran wants Challis alive. Does Cochran expect Challis to escape with "Ellie," or are that final smile and slow clap the confirmation that Challis was the worthy adversary Cochran had wanted? Either way, Cochran never loses that smile, even when it seems like his plans have failed. The seizure-death-inducing commercial is set to air across the country and perhaps the world, and Cochran also knows that Challis is about to discover the other, deadly joke that Cochran has been playing all along. Cochran really is the king of the practical joke. 

Well done, my Sherlock. Well done, indeed, but the joke isn't over yet.

It's fun to play around with movies. Next time, I dive into one of my favorite parts of Halloween: horror hosts and the late-night local television horror broadcasts that provided much of the horror and movie influence that this little insomniac '80s child needed to grow.

Friday, November 3, 2017

October 2017 Highlights Part 2 - Thoughts on a Few Classics

            Consider this a “Twelve Days of Christmas” deal. I don’t care if it’s November already. Halloween isn’t over until I say it is. On with the highlights from October 2017 and some essentials. I’m trying not to lose my motivation here, so bear with me.

Part 2 – Thoughts on a Few Classics

John Carpenter’s The Thing

            Since I’ll be covering John Carpenter a little bit more later, I’d better get to this one first. Last Halloween, I hosted a livetweet double feature of both the 1951 and 1982 versions of The Thing with the #Filmistines. Since then, one of my other fabulous co-hosts has featured it two more times, one of those during this October. John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing is nearly a perfect movie. I didn’t see this one in the theater, but I saw it perhaps a dozen times shortly thereafter when it ran on one of the cable channels from around 1983 and upward. Like many movies I saw on cable at that age, however, no matter how much I worshiped some of them, The Thing was among those that I didn’t see again for many years afterward. I never forgot its magnificence, but I never came back to it. I never rented it at the video store or bought it for my collection, and I didn’t see it again for nearly fifteen years until it finally turned up again on the Encore channel. I was an active kid, and I got distracted by a lot of shiny things. From a visual standpoint, it had some of the best horror effects I have ever seen, and it’s a movie I should have seen more often than I have. Even fifteen times isn’t high enough, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Halloween or not. Easily one of my top fifteen movies of all time and maybe even higher on the list.

I Walked with a Zombie

            Before George Romero changed the face of popular culture’s definition of the zombie, I already had some film experience with the traditional concept of a zombie. When I wasn’t able to see a lot of horror movies on television or in theater, I turned to the local library for books on movies. I can’t recall the titles of a few of them, but I loved finding books filled with poster and lobby card images from the classics as well as the history behind the casting and production. Two images that stand out in my memory are the eerie appearance of the zombie himself in I Walked with a Zombie and the famous still of him casting his shadow on the wall of a woman’s bedroom. I had seen White Zombie on local television as a kid (I wanted to watch this one again this year as well but didn’t get around to it), but I didn’t get to see I Walked with a Zombie until a few years after I learned about it in the book. To me, Romero’s flesh-eating ghouls never were true “zombies” (Romero, of course, never used the term to describe them, either, but popular culture decided otherwise). To me, a zombie was something even more frightening. A ghoul was just a shell, but a zombie still had your silent consciousness. You were dead, but you were not. Your soul was trapped somewhere in between life and death, and your body walked under some force beyond your control. Being eaten by a walking corpse is no more frightening than being eaten by a bear, but walking the earth and committing perhaps terrible deeds with a complete absence of will? Slavery of the soul and the body through ancient magic. That is real horror.

Fallen and Diary of a Madman

            Slavery of the soul and body provide the perfect segue into this pair of classics. From a plot standpoint, Fallen and Diary of a Madman are very close to the same movie. An evil entity, as old as time itself, exists in the world without its own face or form, and it passes from living soul to living soul to sustain itself, forcing each of its hosts to do its absolute bidding. In the classic Diary of a Madman, it is the Horla, a sentient force of evil that feeds on the sanity of its victims and drives them to commit acts of murder.

The green-eyed monster is real, and he's gonna getcha.
In Fallen, it is the obvious hint of the title, one of many fallen angels cursed to live without form, passing from one human host to the next and typically disposing of their previous hosts in terrible ways to keep their existence a secret. The cast makes the movie in both cases. We have the essential Vincent Price and Nancy Kovack suffering under the power of the Horla while Denzel Washington and John Goodman investigate the victims of the fallen angel. Vincent Price and John Goodman generally are the only names I need to hear to get me to watch a movie. Masters.

I hadn’t seen Fallen for quite a few years, but Diary of a Madman is perhaps my second favorite Vincent Price movie and one of my annual traditions. When I watch it, of course, I go with a horror host presentation from the great Dr. Paul Bearer, and I'll talk more about him later.


            I can get into it pretty hard with this one. It’s one of the best contemporary horror movies and social commentary I have ever seen. It sets itself up as a parody of B-movie horror, teenage sex comedy, and small town sexual repression, and the latter is a subject that I take so seriously at times from personal experience that it can make my enjoyment of this wonderful horror movie rather difficult. When I watched it this October, those angry feelings crept up in me again and pretty much took over my entire commentary as I watched it.

            I might as well get this little story over with. I lived in Florida during my middle school years, and it was there that I endured my first round of sex education in science class. It was all rather clinical, and, despite puberty, I had no real interest in sex. I don’t know if I would call myself asexual, but I still don’t find any urge to engage with anyone else intimately beyond a hug. People found me easy to like, and I was a good listener and friend who could be trusted to be just that: a friend, not looking for anything more. This led to me becoming the confidant for several of my friends who were beginning to engage in sex as early as the age of 12. I couldn’t begin to tell any of those stories here, not because I was sworn to secrecy but because I couldn’t wrap my head around many of these stories. It wasn’t the sort of hormonal tension I suffered from, and perhaps that was in part because I suffered from a hormonal imbalance in the first place due to antidepressant medication. I was mistaken for a girl a lot, and my experiences with bullies left me feeling less inclined than ever to think about any human contact on an intimate level. So I listened and tried to be a good friend to the people who treated me with kindness in my life. I heard tales of some of my friends suffering from complete upheaval of their lives, and I learned very quickly just how sleazy young men could be from the moment they reached puberty. I had many close friends who were girls and trusted me with their stories, and I went on to hear bragging from their boyfriends in the locker room to confirm those stories. It took all I had not to beat the living shit out of a few of those guys. This was WITH the benefit of sex education in school, and it was a difficult time for many young people I knew.

            When I hit the ninth grade, my family moved back to Texas, all of this went away. It was difficult to adjust to returning to my childhood home, and I became more withdrawn. It wasn’t until I was a senior that I began to establish a few similar relationships with people, but my grade school life was nearly over by then. The important point, however, is what happened in the ninth grade in Texas. When sex education rolled around again, it seemed just as normal and matter-of-fact as it did in Florida, but there were some new details. Condoms and STDs had become part of the discussion, and I didn’t know that something was going off the rails behind the scenes. The only concern I had about the whole situation was that my biology class was my most difficult class upon my return to Texas and the source of the most stress for me. Despite having known a lot of classmates since elementary school, I still felt like the new kid, and the biggest stress for me in sex education was that we had a group assignment. I hated group assignments. I usually ended up doing all the work. Additionally, this assignment was to take place mostly as homework outside of class. We were intended to get together as our groups and talk about these subjects amongst ourselves and to talk to other people about it, and this was to be a decent chunk of our grade.

            One day in biology class, we watched the video Time Out featuring Magic Johnson and Arsenio Hall. It was big news at the time when Johnson discovered he had HIV, and this was the early 1990s. AIDS was the biggest scare going, and it had become more accepted that this was not just a homosexually transmitted disease and never truly was at all. The NEXT DAY, my teacher came into class with a sour look on her face. Sex education was over. Done. Out of the curriculum completely, and she wouldn’t (couldn’t) discuss it further. All of the material and assignments she had given us in the few days prior to that were canceled. We were to throw them away and forget about them, and that was the last thing she said about it. That was it, like the last few days never happened. At the time, I was relieved because of how much displeasure I had in the amount of human interaction I was supposed to have in these assignments, but I still remember the look on my teacher’s face. I didn’t realize the truth of the situation. The school had gone abstinence-only, and “don’t do it” became the new topic of auditorium presentations. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me because I didn’t really care about sex. I only cared about myself and getting out of those assignments, but I started to remember some of those past friends who trusted me with their stories. I tried to imagine how much more difficult it would have been for some of them in a more conservative environment, and, as an adult seeking certification for teaching, I began to see some of those effects from the other side of the desk. I won’t tell those stories, either.

Teeth is a perfect example of the negative impact of repression with a horror twist. Don’t think about it. Don’t do it. Make promises to each other and to God that you won’t do it until you’re married. Suppress everything. Suppress everything so deeply that a young girl has no idea how her own vagina is supposed to look or behave. This sort of education has never worked, and it never will. As shown in the movie, some imaginary monster like The Black Scorpion is the fearful response to masturbation curiosity. You’re taught to fear reprisal from unseen forces for even the attempt to understand self-pleasure. You’re supposed to feel guilty about it. Abstinence-only is simply teaching deliberate ignorance, and the confusion of that hormonal repression leads to increases in rape and teen pregnancy because kids are unable to approach it normally. There needs to be a dialogue, or we’re just animals. Teeth is an evolutionary response to these negative effects of abstinence-only environments. If someone can’t depend upon that environment for safety from predators, then that someone has to adapt to survive, and we see the gender separation of sex on full display as men are supposed to hunt and conquer while women are supposed to be pure and chaste. The contradiction is mind-boggling. Rape and abuse shouldn’t have to be things to bring about these adaptations, but they are reality. If you can’t respect someone else’s body with regard to your own hormonal urges, then you should be prepared to lose a finger… or more. Of course, this is science fiction, and we see the nuclear power plant towers from almost every outdoor shot. The audience knows that a radioactive mutation has taken place, but it’s never given the focus of the story. The focus is on social views of sex, and it’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of it yet.


            Teeth is a difficult subject for me even though I love the movie so much, so let’s dial it back to a simpler pleasure. Troll is one of my all-time favorite movies. Michael Moriarty was my Harry Potter, and he gave one of my favorite horror performances of all time in Q The Winged Serpent.

Now THIS is a sorting hat.
            I don’t think I’ve ever loved June Lockhart more than I did in this movie, and, of course, we have a slightly older Atreyu from The Neverending Story, Noah Hathaway, as our young hero trying to save his sister and his family from supernatural forces. Those three people were the reason I first saw Troll. As much as I loved puppets and horror effects, Moriarty, Lockhart, and Hathaway were the lure, and they hooked me on this movie forever. Practical effects remain an important detail for me in movies, and I still have a hard time with CGI. Troll became one of the prototypes for Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures, and these were the sorts of effects his studio would continue to use as much as possible. The budgets didn’t have to be big nor the plots Oscar-worthy, but the make-up, stop-motion and puppetry always had to be top-notch. This visual representation of the imagination is what I love most about movies. These effects can be taken for granted as unrealistic by many today, but, for me, nothing looks more realistic than some of the effects you see in movies like Troll. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park don’t look like real dinosaurs to me. I love Jurassic Park, but the dinosaurs look even less realistic now than they did twenty years ago. That’s just my take on effects. Godzilla doesn’t look like a man in a suit to me. I can accept a CGI version of him, but it’s not the same. CGI effects look to me like a video game graphics version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? You can see the seams that separate reality, and it stands out a lot more to me than a visible suspension wire or zipper on the back of a costume.

Stay tuned for part three, which I'll be dedicating mostly to the horror greatness of James Karen and Tom Atkins, and I'll talk, perhaps at great length, about Halloween III: Season of the Witch.