Category Archives: Comedy

Scrooge Revisited Day 3-Cosmo Spacely in A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)

jetson-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Ray Patterson

Writer: Barbara Levy & Marc Paykuss, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Frank Welker

Notes: This cartoon was originally made as an episode of the 80s-era revival of The Jetsons. It would later be released on its own on VHS, and has been shown as its own special on occasion since then (although to date the only place to get it on DVD is part of the Jetsons Season 2 set). It logically casts George Jetson’s boss, Cosmo Spacely (Mel Blanc) in the Scrooge role, with George (George O’Hanlon) taking the Bob Cratchit part. Their dog Astro (Don Messick) fills in for Tiny Tim after he swallows a gear from his Christmas present, which somehow results in him turning green and running a temperature. What can I say, medicine works differently in the future. Hanna-Barbera, of course, also tackled Dickens in A Flintstones Christmas Carol, and at least one other time, in the Scooby-Doo cartoon A Nutcracker Scoob, which so far I’ve been unable to locate on DVD, because clearly somebody at Warner Bros hates joy.

Thoughts: This special is a nice balance between traditional Christmas Carol tropes and the puns and goofs that Hanna-Barbera cartoons do so well. After things kick off with Mr. Spacely forcing George Jetson to work overtime, we lapse into all the main beats – Spacely is visited the ghost of his old partner “Jacob Marsley” (Blanc again) followed by a trio of mechanical ghosts who show him the past, present, and future. The Past and Future are old computers, while Present is a talking gift box. It’s actually my favorite joke in the show, and my wife’s least favorite joke of 2016. Christmas Future takes a nice twist as well – Spacely isn’t dead in the future, just out on the streets after the Jetsons sued him over Astro’s death. As far as changes go, this is the most amusing one – it would be too much for the children’s cartoon to show Spacely’s death, so instead they kill off the dog.

The special adds a little interesting backstory to the characters. In the “Christmas Past” segment, we see that George and Spacely are actually contemporaries, rather than Spacely being George’s senior. What’s more, Spacely has been bullying George and jerking him around financially since they were children. I’m pretty sure this is literally the only time in the history of the cartoon that such a thing is mentioned.

Ultimately, nothing else that happens in the cartoon is terribly surprising. It’s a standard version of A Christmas Carol, mixed in with a standard episode of The Jetsons. If you enjoy either of those things, you’ll like this as well. Fortunately, I do.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Santa Week Day 5: James McAvoy in Arthur Christmas (2011)

Arthur ChristmasNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Writers: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez, Michael Palin, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Rhys Darby, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis

Plot: St. Nicholas of Myra, as we all know, is Santa Claus… or at least, the first Santa Claus. Over the centuries, his descendants have taken on the job, one after another. And now, after 70 years, Santa the 20th (Jim Broadbent) is ready to pass the torch down to his son, Steve (Hugh Laurie). While Steve runs a whip-smart, high-tech operation with military precision, Santa’s other son Arthur (James McAvoy) delights in the more joyful elements of the season. Santa is getting old, though, and in fact, Steve is largely running the show already, while his little brother – although enthusiastic as anyone could be – is mostly getting in the way.

Returning home, Santa is expected to announce his retirement and Steve’s first year on the job, but instead says he’s looking forward to his 71st mission next year. The tension gets worse when the elves discover Santa failed to deliver a single present – a bicycle for little girl named Gwen (Ramona Marquez). Steve convinces his father it’s too risky to try to deliver the last present before sunrise. Arthur, however, refuses to accept this. He and his grandfather, Santa 19 or “GrandSanta” (Bill Nighy) hop into an old-fashioned sleigh with old-fashioned flying reindeer to bring Gwen her present before she wakes up. They soon find a stowaway – a wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) – who joins them.

GrandSanta soon runs into trouble navigating a world that has grown and changed since his last flight 70 years ago. Their route from the North Pole to England has them cause havoc in Toronto and cause an alien sighting in Idaho before setting down in Africa, where Arthur just barely saves them from being eaten by lions. He’s discouraged when he realizes GrandSanta is more concerned with reclaiming his own past glory than giving Gwen her present. Landing in England, he and Bryony set out to find Gwen’s house. When they arrive, they find they’ve screwed up again – they aren’t in England, they’re in Mexico.

At the pole, Steve sees news reports about the chaos being caused by his brother and grandfather and the elves confront Santa and Steve about skipping a child. Santa and Mrs. Claus (Imedla Staunton) set out to find Arthur and deliver the present, but Steve again has to take the controls. After a detour to Cuba, Arthur manages to recover the sleigh, and the Clauses all race to England. The governments of the world scramble to face the “flying saucers” they’ve been spotting all night, and GrandSanta provides a distraction so Arthur and Bryony can get away with Gwen’s gift.

With three minutes to sunrise, Arthur races to deliver the present. Arthur, Steve, Santa and GrandSanta all arrive at Gwen’s house, where the latter three begin to argue over who gets to leave the present. When Arthur breaks up the fight insisting it doesn’t matter who does it, they realize that it’s Arthur who should do it. They hide and watch Gwen open her present, Arthur wide-eyed with joy, and Santa and Steve realize the mistake they’ve been making all along. One year later, Steve has been made executive coordinator of North Pole operations, Santa – Malcolm – joins his father in retirement, and Arthur has taken up his natural place as the new Santa Claus.

Thoughts: Like The Santa Clause, this movie takes the Santa Legacy trope and runs with it. Produced by Aardman Animation (the company known for the marvelous Wallace and Grommit films and the sublime Chicken Run), Arthur Christmas reimagines the Santa legend with a weird blend of fantasy and high-tech science. The modern Santa and his elves, for instance, travel not so much in a classic sleigh, but in a cloaked vessel that resembles an enormous flying saucer, and although Santa the 20th is on the ground, the Elves themselves are responsible for much of the gift delivery, milk and cookie removal, and so forth. An early sequence shows us this gift run over a city, as the elves take on pretty much the whole job for the aging Santa. The sequence is actually very similar to the Disney TV special Prep and Landing, which predates this film by two years, and I’ve got to wonder if that’s strictly speaking a coincidence.

As I’ve said before, the Santa Legacy thing isn’t exactly my favorite trope. I can’t wrap my mind around eliminating that part of the magic of the mythology while keeping so much of the rest of it. That said, Arthur Christmas is probably the film I‘ve seen that uses that idea to its fullest potential. By making Santa’s task a largely sci-fi operation, they minimize the fantasy element, making the loss of immortality slightly easier to accept. (This goes out the window, of course, when GrandSanta unveils his old sleigh and the magic reindeer that pull it, but what are you gonna do?) I also appreciate the fact that, for once, we don’t have a stale old story about the chosen one rejecting the call. Steve, the intended Santa, is fully prepared and capable of taking on the job. Arthur, our hero, doesn’t expect the job, and never for an instant shows any sort of anger or resentment over the fact that Steve is next in line to become Santa Claus instead of him, but from the very beginning shows the love and enthusiasm you want from your Santa. There’s no problem believing he would have leapt at the chance, had it really been presented to him earlier in his life.

The casting in this film is pretty effective. As an animated feature, of course, the focus is on the voice acting abilities of the cast rather than their look, and the four Santas we deal with fit pretty well. Broadbent as the current Santa has a sort of soft-spoken attitude, but comes across as just a little daft and ineffectual. Bill Nighy brings in the sort of wild, manic energy he usually produces to perfect effect as GrandSanta. Hugh Laurie isn’t soft and fluffy at all, but he still manages to create a stoic, cynical character without simply echoing his character from House. And then there’s James McAvoy as our hero – the youthful charm and exuberance in his voice is perfect, to the point where you’ve got to wonder if they modulated his voice up a half-octave or so.

Aardman Animation made its mark with stop-motion animation, and I admit to being a bit disappointed when they started doing CGI work, but I have to admit the animation in this film is gorgeous. The EVE – GrandSanta’s old sleigh – is a thing of beauty, something that the viewer falls in love with as purely as Arthur does. The character design is pretty good too – the human characters each have a distinct look, even as the members of the Santa family bear enough similar elements to accept them as being relatives. There are action scenes here – like Arthur’s oceanic recovery of the runaway sled – that I just can’t imagine being as thrilling in stop motion, even the best stop motion. And the design work is simply charming. One of my favorite touches is Steve’s beard, shaved into the shape of a little Christmas tree. Nice touch, Aardman. Could this have been done in traditional stop motion? Absolutely. But I’ve got to admit, it may not have worked as well.

This movie was pretty well received, but I feel like it’s been largely forgotten since it came out in 2011. If you haven’t seen it before, seek it out with your kids. Except for the original Miracle on 34th Street, I honestly think it’s the best Santa movie we’ve covered here this week.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Santa Week Day 4: Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (1994)

Santa ClauseNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: John Pasquin

Writers: Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick

Cast: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Larry Brandenberg, Mary Gross, Paige Tamada, Peter Boyle, Judith Scott, Frank Welker

Plot: Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is your typical Christmas movie businessman, an executive who just doesn’t seem to have time for his son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), putting the burden of the parenting task on his ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson) and her new psychiatrist husband, Neil (Judge Reinhold). After a disastrous Christmas dinner, Scott and Charlie hear noises outside. When Scott goes to investigate, he sees a man in a Santa suit on his roof. Startling him, the Santa slips, falls from the roof, and dies. I would like to remind everyone reading this that we are discussing a PG-rated Disney family film.

Scott finds a card in Santa’s pocket that instructs him to put on the Santa suit, and that “the reindeer will know what to do.” He looks up to see a sleigh and reindeer on the roof, then back down to find the Santa suit, empty of its late owner. The reindeer whisk Scott and Charlie from house to house, and Charlie convinces his father to put on the suit and take over Santa’s job. When the night ends, the reindeer bring the Calvins to the North Pole. The head elf, Bernard (David Krumholtz), gives Charlie a snow globe and explains to Scott what he’s gotten himself into: the card in Santa’s pocket was a legally-binding document with a clause – a Santa clause, get it? — stating that when Scott put on the Santa suit, he took on the job of Santa Claus. Bernard tells him he has 11 months to get his affairs in order before returning to the North Pole to prepare for next Christmas.

As school starts again, Charlie begins telling everyone his dad is the new Santa Claus. Laura and Neil try to logically convince him that Santa doesn’t exist, and when Scott tries to tell him the same thing, he blanches at the idea of ruining his son’s Christmas spirit and, instead, asks him to keep it a secret. Scott starts gaining weight, growing a beard, and watching his hair turn white. He has an insatiable desire for sweet, sugary food. Laura and Neil, worried that Scott is forcing a physical transformation to keep Charlie’s affections, petition with the court to revoke Scott’s visitation rights. Scott visits him anyway on Thanksgiving, as Bernard arrives to take him to the North Pole. They take Charlie with them, and the police find themselves on a search for the boy abducted by Santa Claus.

Charlie introduces several new innovations that Scott employs on Christmas Eve, and together they go out to make their rounds, but he’s nabbed by the police when he visits Neil’s house. The elves break him out and they return Charlie to his mother. Laura realizes Charlie has been telling the truth, and she burns the custody papers, inviting Scott to visit any time he wants. The police – and everyone else on the block – arrive just in time to see Scott take off from the roof in his sleigh. Later, after everyone has left, Charlie summons Scott back with Bernard’s snow globe, and Laura gives her blessing for him to join his dad for a quick ride in the sleigh.

Thoughts: The English teacher in me has great reason to despise this film. For the past 20 years, we have been subjected to outbreak after outbreak of people spelling Santa Claus’s name with an “E” at the end, and I place the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of Tim Allen and the Walt Disney Corporation and Shadow Government. However, in the interest of cinematic integrity, I promise to try to put that righteous anger aside for the remainder of this article, that I may discuss The Santa Clause in an unbiased fashion.

This was Tim Allen’s first big movie role, breaking from his hit sitcom Home Improvement, although the differences between Tim Taylor and Scott Calvin aren’t as pronounced as you might hope. Early on the film relies on a lot of Allen’s TV shtick – for example, a scene where he destroys Christmas dinner turns into an impromptu demonstration on why to keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Santa’s trademark “Ho Ho Ho” sounds suspiciously like the Tool Time grunts Allen used on his show-within-a-show. Even the director of the movie, John Pasquin, is a veteran of Allen’s sitcom (and would team up with him on many other movie and TV projects over the years).

That’s not to say his performance was bad. But it’s very different from pretty much any other version of Santa Claus. That’s understandable. This is one of the movies that plays off the “Santa Legacy” trope (more on that soon), so Allen isn’t exactly playing the same character as Edmund Gwenn, John Call, or David Huddleston. Rather than playing the Santa Claus, he’s playing a man who is attempting to accept his new role as a Santa Claus. It’s a fine distinction, but it’s one worth making, and it allows Allen a little more leeway in creating his own character instead of living up to the idea of Santa Claus. What’s impressive, then, is how he slowly transforms over the course of the film. He begins as a grumpy cynic who wants to maintain the magic of Christmas for his son, but eventually converts to a joyful, jolly manifestation of holiday spirit. Wearing a fat suit.

Although Allen was still, at this point in his career, relying on his same gags, the writing on this movie is really kind of clever, once you get past the unintentional Santacide. Charlie misunderstanding “The Night Before Christmas” leads to a cute gag about the “Rose Suchak Ladder Company,” for instance. Eric Lloyd is actually the heart of the movie – he’s the one who propels Tim Allen along when he wants to give up, whose faith never waves, who steadfastly believes in Santa Claus despite all evidence to the contrary. Far too many adults forget his simple lesson that “just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

It also brings in a theme I don’t think ever appeared in a Santa movie before this one – making the core of the story a father/son relationship. This isn’t exactly a movie about “saving Christmas” like so many of them are, but it’s about Scott and Charlie finding one another again and crafting the relationship they almost missed out on. Sure, there are a lot of stories out there about fathers and sons, but not too many of them deal with Santa Claus, which makes for a nice thematic departure in your holiday viewing.

One odd thing in this movie – and not just this one, but it seems to be an idea that’s been permeating for a few decades now – is the idea of Santa Claus not being any one particular man, but rather a legacy passed on from one individual to another. Sometimes the new Santa must be chosen by the old (such as in 1988’s Ernest Saves Christmas), sometimes it’s hereditary (as in the film we’re going to watch tomorrow), and sometimes, like in this movie, it seems entirely at random. But we’ve been seeing it over and over again, and I’m not entirely sure why. If I had to hazard a guess, it may be a sort of unconscious effort on the part of Hollywood to make Santa Claus a bit more “realistic.” After all, the notion that a Turkish priest from the 3rd century has been hanging around handing out presents for the past 1800 years is far less preposterous if you accept the fact that somebody else takes over the job every so often, right?

No, of course that isn’t right. For Heaven’s sake, we’re talking about a mythology full of flying reindeer, time-space dilation, naughty and nice surveillance techniques that would make the NSA drool with envy, and the most efficient postal system in the world… but immortality is the concept that people can’t deal with anymore? Nonsense. The weird thing is, when you apply this same logic (as many fans do) to the James Bond franchise, I absolutely love it – I think it makes perfect sense. But aside from having impeccable fashion sense, Bond and Santa Claus really don’t have that much in common.

Wow, that was a wild tangent, even for me.

Anyway, although the writing of the movie holds up, the special effects don’t, and it’s kind of inexcusable. Just a year earlier, we were treated to CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that were entirely believable. Comparing that to the weak greenscreen effects for the flying reindeer or the jet-powered Elf rescue squad makes it look even more ridiculous. Even Santa Claus: The Movie, released nine years earlier, had more impressive flying scenes. And c’mon – the scene with Scott and Charlie being followed by reindeer at the zoo would have been pathetic by 1970s standards.

Santa’s workshop, at least, is impressive – cleverly designed and brightly colored, although it has an oddly shiny, modern feeling to it. In a unique choice, most of the elves are played by children, and the kids are actually pretty darn good. The elves are immortal (but Santa can’t be? – sorry, not going there again) but appear eternally youthful, and the kids in the cast do a surprisingly good job of acting like old souls in young bodies. Paige Tamada as Judy, in particular, is impressive. She was 11 when this movie was released, but she gives off an air of someone much older and more mature. She winds up lapping Allen, becoming a sort of mentor, even motherly figure to him, which is funny on the face of it, but a darn impressive feat when you consider the demands on the young actress.

Although the sequels to this movie – particularly the third one – dilute the story terribly, this first installment is really quite sweet, quite charming, and worth watching as Christmas rolls around. And from what I’ve seen of the TV schedule, if you turn on your set right now there’s a 97 percent chance that at least one of the movies in this franchise is currently playing on ABC Family.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Santa Week Day 2: John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers the MartiansNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Nicholas Webster

Writer: Glenville Mareth, based on a story by Paul L. Jacobson

Cast: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Chris Month, Pia Zadora, Leila Martin, Charles Renn, James Cahill, Ned Wertimer, Doris Rich, Carl Don

Plot: On the planet Mars, a pair of Martian children watch a TV broadcast from Earth featuring Santa Claus (John Call) as he prepares for his yearly rounds. Their father, Kimar (Leonard Hicks) realizes that the children of Mars are restless and unhappy, and turns to the ancient Chochem (Carl Don) for advice. Chochem explains that the Martian children are upset because they don’t have Christmas, so Kimar takes the logical step of invading Earth to kidnap Santa. The incompetent Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) stows away, having never seen Earth before, and the Martians are soon discovered in orbit by the United States government, which scrambles to shoot the spaceship down.

Landing on Earth, the Martians encounter a pair of children, Billy and Betty (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti), whom they abduct after interrogating them about where to find Santa. One of the Martians, Voldar (Vincent Beck) continues to express his displeasure with the plan, and the human children make his disposition even worse. When they arrive at the North Pole, the children escape the ship, and Kimar sends a robot to catch them, because for some reason Nicholas Webster thought it would be a better use of his funding to spray-paint some cardboard boxes silver than to pay a writer to take a second pass at the script. The robot also fights a guy in a really bad polar bear costume that the child actors fail to convince us is real. Once the robot recaptures the children, he and the Martians get Santa as well, using their previously unmentioned weapon that allows them to freeze time.

On the journey back to Mars, Santa comforts Billy and Betty and begins to win over all the Martians except Voldar, who we know by now is the villain because he has a black mustache. As a rocket from Earth follows the Martians, Voldar discovers that Billy sabotaged the radar screen, and decides to take care of things by shoving Santa and the kids in an airlock. No really, that’s what tries to do. And if it weren’t for Santa using his magic to save them – off-screen – they’d be dead and the audience would be happier. On Mars, Santa is given a large, elaborate machine consisting of a few chutes, buttons, and lights, intended to make his toys for him. As Santa and the kids try to make their peace with their new life of slavery, Dropo puts on one of Santa’s suits and begins dancing around like a lunatic, before being mistaken for the real Santa and kidnapped by Voldar, who sabotages the machine.

Voldar’s “forces” (such as they are) attack Santa and the kids in the toy room, where he is summarily humiliated by being beaten back by children and their playthings. Somehow, this convinces Kimar to take Santa home to Earth and make Dropo the Santa Claus on Mars. Don’t think about it too much, it’ll give you a holiday nosebleed.

Thoughts: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is, by any reasonable standard, an absolutely terrible movie. The story is absurd. The acting is incompetent. The special effects, make-up and set design look like they were all done by the same seven-year-old child who is desperately attempting to convey his vision of both the North Pole and Mars, all on a budget of approximately four dollars and eleven cents after remembering about it at 2:30 a.m. the night before it was due. And yet, despite that, it’s such a deliciously stupid movie that it has been riffed not only by Mystery Science Theater 3000, but by both of its successor franchises, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. (Yes. I own all three versions.) Anything so bad has to be good.

But goodness, where to begin with the badness? Well… with Dropo, I guess. He’s a stupid character, to be sure, one that flashes around bland slapstick and over-the-top antics that nevertheless manage to be completely underwhelming. But it’s rather hypocritical of the Martians to attack Dropo – at least he’s open in his incompetence. The rest of the crew is just as stupid as he is, but less obvious about it. When Dropo is wearing Santa’s clothing, our main antagonist Volar is too idiotic to tell the difference, even though his skin is still green and the Santa hat is literally dangling from the antenna on Dropo’s permanently affixed Martian helmet. Their kidnapping plan is idiotic on the face of it, and from the moment they enter Earth orbit they make one mistake after another. They have a “radar screen,” but fail to use it early enough to prevent becoming targets. They show themselves to a pair of children in order to find out where Santa Claus lives, even though the answer to that question (it’s the North Pole, guys) was included in the very news broadcast that alerted them to Santa’s existence in the first place. They kidnap those same children so that they can’t tell the authorities what the Martians are planning, even though they do absolutely everything out in the open and in full view of the world, then put the kids in the care of the imminently stupid Dropo, who immediately starts breaking the rules by showing them around the ship and hiding them in a surprisingly spacious radar box. As alien menaces go, these guys rank somewhere below ALF.

Speaking of the radar, that’s the next thing that drives me crazy about this movie, and it’s a flaw in a lot of bad science fiction (which this most certainly is). At assorted points in the movie, the Martians use technology that would make the predicaments in other scenes way easier to resolve if they would only remember that such technology exists. Besides the aforementioned radar screen, which nobody remembers exists until it’s too late to keep the humans from discovering them, we also have a hilariously stupid robot that is never used except to fight a polar bear that makes the one that hangs out at the Coca-Cola store look convincing. Here’s a basic rule, people: if you control a battle robot, you use that robot all the time. And as for the time-freeze gun… why don’t they use that constantly? The situation with the children, the confrontation with Voldar at the end… hell, if I could make somebody freeze I would be waving that gun around on my way to the checkout counter at Walmart.

John Call, our Santa Claus, is probably the best thing about this movie. He’s not bad in the part, but the role is poorly written and he desperately tries to make the most out of the awful material. He sounds like a Santa, he has a dance in his step that feels like a good match for his jokes, which are so bad that even your father would be embarrassed to repeat them to anybody. But he doesn’t save the movie from the depths of mediocrity, and in truth, that’s probably a good thing. If it were even slightly better than it is, it probably wouldn’t have become the classic of cheesy cinema that it now is.

Also, in case you didn’t know, Pia Zadora is in it as one of the Martian kids. It doesn’t get goofier than that.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Santa Week Day 1: Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle_on_34th_StreetIcons is back, guys, for a week-long look at one of the greatest characters ever to grace the screen… Santa Claus!

Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: George Seaton

Writers: George Seaton & Valentine Davies

Cast: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Alvin Greenman, Harry Antrim, Porter Hall

Plot: Shortly before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a charming man calling himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) discovers the Santa Claus Macy hired has arrived stone cold drunk. Horrified, he reports the problem to parade organizer Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), who in desperation hires Kris to take his place. Kris turns out to be a huge hit, and he is offered the job as Macy’s store Santa for the Christmas season. Single mom Doris returns home to find her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) watching the parade with their neighbor, lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne). Fred tries to bond with Susan over fairy tales, but Doris has raised the girl to be strictly pragmatic, not believing in such foolishness as giants or Santa Claus.

Kris turns the store upside-down when a child requests a toy Macy’s is sold out of, and he tells the boy’s mother which competitor still has some in stock. When word reaches toy manager Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), he’s briefly outraged until he realizes the goodwill Kris is generating is turning the parents into loyal customers. In fact, everyone starts to fall for Kris’s charms – even the stoic Susan is stunned when she overhears him speaking Dutch to a lonely child who is new to America. Doris asks him to explain to Susan that he’s merely an employee, but he surprises her by insisting that he is, in fact, the real Santa Claus. Shocked, she’s about to fire him, until R.H. Macy (Harry Antrim) congratulates her on the “new policy” of redirecting customers to other stores. Still nervous about his stability, she arranges for him to be examined by the store therapist, Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall). Sawyer is the only person not taken in by Kris’s charm, immediately deciding the kind old man is potentially dangerous.

Macy’s policy of directing customers to other stores becomes so popular that competitors begin following suit, and Kris takes advantage of his proximity to the Walker girls to continue bonding with Susan, hoping to convince both of them of the reality of Santa Claus. He gets enraged, though, when he finds out that Sawyer has been analyzing his friend Alfred (Alvin Greenman), loading him with nonsense about hating his father and guilt complexes. He angrily confronts Sawyer, striking the therapist with an umbrella. He’s played straight into Sawyer’s hands, giving him the opportunity to paint him as dangerous and forcing him into a competency hearing.

Fred Gailey quits his law firm in order to represent Kris, and the trial becomes front page news. The Judge (Gene Lockhart) finds himself walking a thin line, not wanting to be the man to rule there is no Santa Claus in an election year, and Fred cleverly makes the District Attorney admit that Santa exists. The trial now rests on his ability to prove that Kris, himself, is the legitimate Santa Claus. He brings in one character witness after another, even Mr. Macy, to testify on Kris’s behalf. Things dangle precipitously in the air, though, until a pair of mail clerks see a letter addressed to Santa Claus at the courthouse (from one Susan Walker, who is writing to tell him she believes in him now). The clerks see an opportunity to dump the mountains of Santa Claus mail in their dead letter office, and send them all to Kris Kringle. In a magnificent finale, Fred argues that if the United States Post Office – a department of the Federal Government – recognizes that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus, the courts must do so as well. The judge agrees and Kris is set free.

On Christmas morning, at a party at the home where Kris lives, Susan is disappointed that she doesn’t see a sign of the present she asked for, and her faith in Kris is shattered. Kris gives Fred directions on a “shortcut” home, and on the way, Susan spots her present: a house she saw in a magazine. And, as Fred notes to Doris, it’s for sale. As they look at the house, they find Kris’s cane leaning in the corner, and Fred has to question if he really was such a fantastic lawyer after all.

Thoughts: I couldn’t possibly spend a week talking about Santa Claus in the movies without starting here, the quintessential performance of the character. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it, though, is that the movie is couched in such a fashion that you’re not supposed to be entirely certain if Kris really is Santa Claus or if he’s just a sweet-hearted lunatic. Obviously, with nearly 70 years of loving the film behind us, I think most people have taken it to heart that Kris was legitimate, that the magic he brings to the role is all real, but that doesn’t mean it was intended that way, that’s part of the baggage we’ve assigned to the film over the years. It’s earned baggage, though, earned by Edmund Gwenn and his flawless performance.

Gwenn has a timeless quality about him. He’d be perfectly suitable in a Santa story set in Victorian England or modern America, but he made Christmas in New York circa 1947 an extraordinary place. He relishes every moment in the role, whether suited up in red or walking down the street in a topcoat. (Speaking of red, do the world a favor and don’t watch the colorized version of this. It’s an abomination on to Rudolph. Stick with the glorious black and white.) He won an Oscar for this part, as best supporting actor, although I find it hard to imagine he wasn’t up for lead. The film, incidentally, also won “best writing, original story” and “best writing, screenplay,” and was nominated for best picture, losing to Gentleman’s Agreement. You guys have all seen Gentleman’s Agreement, right? Show of hands? That’s what I thought.

A word, if I may, about the history of this movie. When it was released in 1947, it actually came out in May, and the marketing did its best to hide the fact that it was a movie about Santa Claus, instead trying to make it appear like a simple romantic comedy about O’Hara and Payne’s characters. Word has it the studio head was convinced that more people see movies during the summer, and didn’t want to wait until the holidays to release it. It just goes to show you that short-sighted movie executives are nothing new. The film would have been moderately successful as a romcom, I suppose, but can you possibly imagine it having the longevity or cultural impact it did if it wasn’t a Christmas movie? Hell, can you even imagine what the plot would be without Kris Kringle? A May release? It’s practically insane.

The rest of the cast is very good, though. Maureen O’Hara and John Payne are a classic screen couple, with the kind of old fashioned glamour that you just don’t see in movies these days. Modern audiences may want to assign some sort of creepy attitude towards Gailey – he does, by his own admittance, start to befriend Susan in an effort to win over Doris – but he never comes across as inappropriate or sleazy. What’s more, the chemistry between Payne and young Natalie Wood is one of the high points of the film. There’s a sort of frustration that comes along with his attempts to convince the child that Santa Claus is real, and that’s something a lot of adults struggle with as the world their kids grow up in gets more and more cynical. It rings very true, very honest.

The bit players are fantastic too. Porter Hall as the nasty Mr. Sawyer is the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, and he sells the part solidly. Jerome Cowan as the District Attorney gets some really plum scenes, such as the one where his own son is called to testify to establish that even he has admitted Santa Claus exists. Gene Lockhart as the judge helps carry the film to its conclusion, and I Love Lucy’s William Frawley as the Judge’s campaign manager brings a touch of modern politics that keeps the film from becoming too saccharine.

This movie has been remade from time to time, including a particularly famous remake in 1994 starring the great Richard Attenborough, but nothing comes close to the sweetness and joy of the original. (And, to be honest, I simply can’t forgive them for the way they changed the absolutely perfect ending.) Accept no substitutes this Christmas, friends – stick with the original.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Showcase Presents the Universal Dracula Legacy

It’s Halloween once again, and the Showcase crew assembles for their (mostly) annual monster movie marathon. This year the gang tackles the six films that make up the legacy of the king of the vampires: Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

Freaky Firsts Day 8: The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962)

Wacky World of Dr Morgus 1963Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Roul Haig

Writers: Roul Haig, Noel Haig

Cast: Sid Noel, Dan Baron, Jeanne Teslof, David Kleinberger, Thomas George, John Ferdon

Plot: Momus Alexander Morgus (Sid Noel), a mad scientist living above the Old City Ice House in New Orleans, is working on his latest project: curing an ailing artist (John Ferdon) of his sniffles with a little old-fashioned brain surgery. As Morgus and his assistant, a mute hangman named Chopsley (Thomas George) attempt to work wonders on his newest patient, reporter Pencils McCane (Dan Barton) is drowning his sorrows in a dance club. Pencils recently turned in a story about Morgus and his “girlfriend,” Zelda, but nobody at the newspaper believed him. Morgus’s latest invention is a machine that can turn a person into dust, then restore them to life, and Pencils is determined to get the story.

Pencils persuades Morgus to take him back to see Zelda again – a beautiful young woman who has been kept in a hypnotic trance for years, preserving her youth eternally. (Because hypnosis does that, you see – stops the aging process. What, you didn’t know that? And you call yourself a scientist.) Morgus informs Pencils that he and Zelda will be married soon, and offers as proof the large diamond fused directly to her finger. Roaming the Ice House, Pencils uncovers Morgus’s new machine, and gets him to demonstrate its use on a cat. It seems to work, but the white cat Clyde comes out black and smaller on the other side.

Pencils submits Morgus’s machine to a United Nations Science Symposium, where a Microvanian national, Bruno (David Kleinberger) learns of it and sees the potential to use it to smuggle spies into the United States. They send a beautiful blond spy, Mona Speckla (Jeanne Teslof) to New Orleans to try to pry the secret from Morgus. Meanwhile, the Doctor is knee-deep in “wedding plans.” Mona convinces first Pencils, then Morgus to join her on the way to the “science symposium” – really a ploy by the Micorvanians. Really, you know they’re going to be evil from the outset based entirely on the ridiculous accent they speak in. Morgus cheerfully begins condensing a squad of Microvanians for them, dumping their powdered remains into a box. Mona, meanwhile, has fallen for Pencils, and wants to defect from Microvania.

Back in the Ice House, Zelda has escaped. What’s more, the crate of dust left from the transformed Microvanians is damaged in transit and the remains are given over to a concrete company. Morgus and Chopsley race to the docks (in a scene that’s particularly entertaining for me – a sort of low-speed “high speed chase” down New Orleans’s Canal Street in the 1960s), but they’re too late to stop them from being dumped into a concrete mixer and poured as part of the last yard of a roadway project: the aptly-named “People’s Avenue.”

Thoughts: Every city in America (or at least every city worth visiting) at one time or another had a late-night creepshow movie host: Vampira, Svengoolie, and Elvira are immortal names, and wherever you are, you can probably recall your own local celebrity of the night. In the New Orleans area, where I grew up, our late night host was Morgus the Magnificent, a mad scientist whose experiments served as the framing sequence for that week’s movie. Morgus ran from the 50s through the 80s, with reruns on the air as recently as 2011, and all horror-loving children of Nola have a deep affection for Morgus, and still consider ourselves members of the Higher Order. When a local company got the rights a few years ago to produce a DVD of Dr. Morgus’s feature film debut (also his final feature film), I had to snap it up. Finally, “Freaky Firsts” gave me the perfect excuse to finally watch it.

As one of those kids, this movie won me over almost immediately. Although it was interesting to see Morgus outside of his comfortable home in the Old City Ice House, seeing him traipsing about the city of New Orleans, taking him outside of the set where we’d watched him for such a long time, made the film a bit more special. Granted, much of the film (at least the parts where Morgus actually appears) feels like an extended episode of his TV show. The opening sequence, where he hopes to cure a painter’s stuffy nose by cutting into his brain, is straight out of the late night antics he got up to throughout my childhood. I’m really rather sorry that Erin was at work when I watched this, because it’s hard for me to tell if this movie would be genuinely entertaining to anybody who didn’t grow up watching Morgus, or if it’s mostly my affection for the character that made watching it so much fun.

As far as that invention goes, it’s an absolutely ludicrous idea, but the way it works and the fact that it’s actually used in conjunction with a United Nations science symposium can’t help but make me think of The 1966 Batman: The Movie, in which Batman’s foes use a nearly identical device for a similar purpose to that planned by the Microvanians in this movie. It’s almost too close to accept as mere coincidence, and one has to wonder if screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. ever spent any time in New Orleans.

The overall story, on the other hand, is truly scattershot. The subplot with Zelda, for example, is utterly extraneous, adding nothing to the film but time. (It is, to be fair, a pretty quick film – just 83 minutes.) The prologue sequence with the ailing artist and his stuffy nose is an interesting introduction to Morgus, but has nothing to do with the rest of the events of the film. Even the parts that are directly related to the plot, the Microvanian invasion and the powder machine, are loosely knit together at best. There’s no real logic behind Pencils having anything to do with the United Nation Science Symposium, for example, but there you are. Even though the film is branded as a horror/comedy, there’s really nothing horrific about it once you get past Morgus’s makeup and the particularly creepy relationship with Zelda. This is far more Munsters than The Frighteners.

Sid Noel as Dr. Morgus is frankly the only standout in a particularly bland cast. Oh, Bruno has a little bombast in him, but nothing that will stay with you for any period of time. Noel, however, has his usual bizarre allure as Morgus. He’s weird, even a little hideous, but for all his buck teeth and bug eyes, something about him remains absolutely delightful.

I don’t often spend a lot of time talking about the quality of a particular film print here, because I’m mostly about digging out the story and the characters, and frankly, the quality might vary from one print or one transfer to another. But in the case of The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, I’m going to make an exception. The film was restored as much as possible, but there are still plenty of lines and artifacts on the screen, and somehow, that just makes it all the more charming. It helps with the time capsule quality of the whole experience. It really does bring back the feeling of sitting back late at night and watching an old Universal Monster picture, or some 50s Roger Corman cheesefest.

I had a lot of fun watching this film, but like I said, I can’t be sure if that’s because it’s actually good, or merely because I love the good Doctor. But in truth, does it really matter? Granted, I can’t transfer my experience over to you, but one of the things I set out to examine when I began my first Reel to Reel project was the way our experiences influence the way we take in story. For the brief 83 minutes of this project’s run time, my experiences helped make me very happy, and that’s never a bad thing.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 3: The Frighteners (1996)

Frighteners 1996Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Peter Jackson

Writer: Peter Jackson & Frank Walsh

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Danny Elfman

Plot: Paranormal investigator Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has a good racket going. His ghostly assistants Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride) and the Judge (John Astin) “haunt” a house, and he goes in to “exterminate” them for a healthy fee. After the mysterious death of a recent client, Ray, (Peter Dobson), Frank learns of a rash of sudden deaths that appear to be heart attacks, but whose victims were in perfect health. Ray’s wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado) turns to Frank for comfort, made a bit awkward by the fact that Ray’s ghost is right there. Frank witnesses a shrouded figure (a “Grim Reaper,” according to the Judge) murdering a man, whose spirit takes the light-filled corridor to the afterlife – a choice Ray and Frank’s ghosts failed to make when given the opportunity.

FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is brought in to investigate Frank, now a suspect in the strange deaths. Dammers has suspected Frank for some time, ever since the mysterious death of Frank’s wife. She was found with the number 13 carved into her forehead – something that resonates with Frank, who saw 37 and 38 on the two most recent victims. When 39 is killed in the museum, Frank rushes in to investigate, and the Reaper cuts the Judge’s spirit in two. Frank tries to protect #40 – newspaper editor Magda (Elizabeth Hawthorne), but the Reaper gets her as well, and Frank is arrested.

Lucy’s investigation of the situation leads her to Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace), who as a teenager was accused of being an accomplice of executed serial killer Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey). When she visits Frank in jail, “41” appears on Lucy’s forehead. Frank and the ghosts narrowly save her from the Reaper, but Stuart and Cyrus are “killed” as they escape. Frank believes he can stop the Reaper by killing himself, but Lucy instead places him in a hypothermic coma, freeing his spirit to roam. Dammers, meanwhile, abducts Lucy and takes her to a cemetery. Frank saves her from the Reaper, who turns out to be the ghost of Johnny Bartlett. He’s been collaborating with Patricia, trying to top the high scores of history’s worst serial killers.

Frank awakens and, with Lucy, finds Barlett’s ashes, hoping to use them in the hospital where he committed his murders to condemn his soul to Hell. Dammers is in the hospital too, still obsessed with Frank, and Patricia is running through the halls with a shotgun. She kills Dammers and chokes Frank to death. As the corridor to the afterlife appears, Frank rips Patricia’s soul from her body, and Bartlett chases the two of them. He and Patricia are taken to Hell as Cyrus and Stuart reappear to reunite Frank with his wife. It’s a brief reunion, though, as his friends tell him it’s not his time yet, and send him back to Earth and Lucy… who now can see the ghosts too.

Thoughts: Early in his career, Peter Jackson made gooey gorefests like Dead Alive. Today he’s known for the visual effects and epic scale of Lord of the Rings. This film, made in-between those two eras, actually serves very nicely as a bridge between them. The sensibility of the movie feels similar to his early work: funny, while still carrying a sense of the macabre, like Ghostbusters with a more cynical edge. However, here he’s beginning to step aside from the practical effects of his earlier films towards the more high-tech visuals of today. This was 1996, of course, before it was virtually a requirement that every element of a film be soaked in CGI, back when actors had to literally appear on a set together, and Jackson at this early stage actually strikes a very nice balance between the two.

The plot isn’t particularly original – the serial killer coming back as an agent of death has been done before, and since, and better, and worse. And in fact, I think the stuff with the numbers is even a bit of a cheat. If Bartlett cared numbers into victims’ foreheads when he was alive, it seems to me that people would remember that little tidbit. Frank clearly knows who Barlett is the moment he sees his face, but he didn’t know enough about his killings to know about the numbers? I call foul on that one.

That said, the execution of the story is good. Michael J. Fox isn’t quite the slick wisecracker he is in a lot of his performances. He’s wounded and somewhat cold, still struggling with his wife’s death and trying to keep Lucy at a distance despite his attraction to her. His snark is mostly kept to a minimum, and even though he’s technically a con man, he doesn’t put forth the air of a snake oil salesman one would usually associate with that kind of a role. It’s always fun to see John Astin, but it’s kind of a shame that – of the three main ghosts – he was almost completely hidden under makeup. Without his distinctive voice, it’s unlikely that anyone would have recognized him.

The final confrontation, more than any other part of the movie, really shows the filmmaker Peter Jackson was going to become. The fight in the Bradley house, with Barlett leaping through walls and paintings, has a lot of real style to it. It’s CGI, yes, and you know it’s CGI, but it’s not such blatant CGI that it rips you out of the movie, like a lot of movies come across today. Once the action moves to the hospital, the tension is ratcheted up less by the ghosts and more by the two still-living antagonists, who seem in some ways to be even more dangerous. Maybe it’s because he’s a ghost or maybe it’s because he’s Jake Busey, but somehow Barlett’s deranged behavior isn’t nearly as disturbing as that of Dammers or Patricia.

On the sliding scale of horror and comedy, this film definitely leans more heavily on the horror side than Ghostbusters, and even more than Jackson’s own Dead Alive (although it is considerably less grotesque than the earlier movie). The ghosts feel like they came from a less wacky version of Beetlejuice. Combs, meanwhile, is impossible to separate from his character in the Re-Animator series, hamming it up similarly while playing a very different role in this film than those others.

This is a movie that’s been on my “to-watch” list for a very long time, a product of my appreciation for Peter Jackson and my love for Michael J. Fox. This month, I suspect, is going to be great for scratching movies like that off my list. It didn’t disappoint me at all.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 2: Detention (2012)

Detention 2011Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Joseph Kahn

Writers: Joseph Kahn & Mark Palermo

Cast: Alison Woods, Julie Dolan, Shanley Caswell, Josh Hutcherson, Joe Keane, Parker Bagley, Marque Richardson, Aaron David Johnson, Spencer Locke, Travis Fleetwood, Carrie Wiita, Tiffany Boone, Erica Shaffer, Walter Perez, Dane Cook

Plot: Head cheerleader Taylor (Alison Woods) doesn’t show up for school, as she’s been inconveniently murdered by a movie slasher named Cinderhella. Since she’s unavailable, the film instead focuses on Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a depressed young vegetarian whose suicidal tendencies start to flare up. She’s actually saved from an attempted hanging when Cinderhella attacks her, prompting her to fight her way loose. Unfortunately, nobody believes her, even though a fellow student was butchered just that morning.

Cinderhella turns up again at Riley’s house that night, but she again manages to escape as he (she? I think it might actually supposed to be a she) gets caught up in the neighbor’s swing set, then leaves her in a pool. She tries to convince hipster heartthrob Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) that she’s not crazy, but instead somehow winds up on a double-date with him and her ex-best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), while she’s stuck with nerd-with-a-crush Sander (Aaron David Johnson).

There are several irrelevant scenes after this, including a football game in which the star player has flashbacks to his own conception (his father was a fly monster), and a fight at a party that wasn’t a costume party after all. That party ends with lunatic jock Billy (Parker Bagley) getting killed by Cinderhella, making us all hope she’s just getting started. Finally, three hours and 27 minutes into this 93-minute film, Riley and several of her friends are given Saturday detention. At night. During the Prom. For the crime of being at a party off-campus when one of their fellow students was killed. Then again, the principal is Dane Cook, so maybe that makes sense in his brain.

Oh yes, there’s also some time-travel, body-swapping, and a kid who has been in detention for 19 years. It’s… it doesn’t even make sense in context. But eventually, it leads us to our cast barricading the school library while Cinderhella tries to break in and kill them and a weird kid (Walter Perez) warns them that the world is going to end in 9 minutes 19 years ago and I think I just got a nosebleed writing that sentence. Riley uses a stuffed bear to go back in time and stop the apocalypse, which is evidently being caused by Clapton, or maybe Sander, or maybe Poppa Freaking Smurf for all I can tell at this point. (As they’re in 1992, my wife commented that the high school must be how “old people feel when they watch a movie about when they grew up and it’s all wrong.” “Baby,” I replied, “I think we’re the old people now.”) And they fix the timestream and… the principal is cool now… and… and… oh, and Cinderhella turns out to be Sander, who fights Clapton in a Mortal Kombat-esque sequence that leads into a Breakfast Club ending, and now I want to go somewhere and cry.

Thoughts: Detention’s inclusion in this list is the result of what I like to call “NetFlix Roulette.” My wife scrolled through the available horror movies with the intention of watching whatever it landed on, then did it again when the first winner was in black and white. I think she regretted this almost immediately.

Detention takes an interesting approach by starting with a character – Alison Woods’s Taylor – who is so thoroughly repulsive as a human being that you’re actually quite happy when the killer “Cinderhella” pops in and slaughters her after only a few minutes of her railing to the camera about how to be as pathetically shallow as possible. It’s actually a nice little bit with a decoy protagonist, although director Joseph Kahn takes it a little farther than is wise – two more minutes of Taylor and I may have turned it off and looked for another film to review.

After the admittedly satisfying death scene at the beginning, the movie then goes through a seemingly interminable sequence introducing our cast – a series of teenagers who are all miserable in different ways that are allegedly entertaining to watch, but in fact, just make them all seem pretentious as hell. Josh Hutcherson, for example, seems poised to be our hero, and therefore distinguishes himself by promising to start a blog where he dismisses any music popular enough for anybody else to have heard of and then argues the relative merits of Patrick Swayze as an action hero versus Steven Segal. Shortly thereafter, my wife started to announce, “Isn’t this supposed to be dying people? I want these people to die and nobody is dying.”

The film cuts around to assorted Family Guy-style aside scenes, frequently punctuated by title cards and weird on-screen commentary, such as assuring us that the movie Detention takes a firm stance against drunk driving, which is probably a relief to all the parents who were waiting for this particular movie to teach their children that valuable lesson. I’m all for metafiction – movies and TV shows that are, in fact, about movies and TV shows can be highly entertaining. But whereas something like Scream was both an interesting commentary on horror movies and an entertaining slasher film in its own right, Detention seems to have been generated by scrawling a bunch of pop culture references onto blank Cards Against Humanity cards, playing a few rounds, and then calling that a script. (I include casting Dane Cook as the principal in this category.)

This movie has many, many faults, but I think most of them can be summed up by comparing it to a shotgun. Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo clearly intended to parody a dozen different things, but rather than figuring out what point they wanted to make and focusing in on it, they stuffed as many different things down the barrel as they could and shot at the wall, hoping something – anything – would hit the intended target. What they got instead of a hodgepodge of unfocused, uncoordinated scenes that don’t actually seem to mean anything. They aren’t funny enough to work as sketch comedy, and they’re certainly not cohesive enough to make for an effective scary movie.

In the end, Detention is probably one of the scarier movies I’ve seen recently, although not for any of the reasons the filmmakers probably intended. (If you want a movie that has a similar sensibility but is actually… y’know… good… I recommend John Dies at the End.)

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 1: House (1986)

House 1986Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Steve Miner

Writers: Fred Dekker & Ethan Wiley

Cast: William Katt, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Kay Lenz, Mary Stavin, Michael Ensign, Erik Silver, Mark Silver, Susan French, Curt Wilmot

Plot: Things have been better for writer Roger Cobb (William Katt). His marriage has fallen apart, he’s stuck working on a book about the Vietnam War nobody seems interested in reading, and the elderly aunt who raised him was found dangling from the ceiling in her big, lofty home, victim of an apparent suicide. Cobb returns to the house, where he has flashes to his son’s disappearance in the mansion’s pool some time earlier, the incident that led to his estrangement from his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz) and which Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French) chalked up to her house being haunted. Now alone, Cobb decides to stay in the house that has already destroyed his family to work on his book. As he wanders the house alone, he sees a vision of Elizabeth stringing herself up, warning him to leave before she leaps to her death.

The next day he meets his new neighbor, Harold Gorton (George Wendt, who surprisingly doesn’t offer to buy him a beer). The visions in the house persist until he’s assaulted by a bizarre creature in the closet – an ugly mass that looks like a melted wax figure with claws. Instead of running in terror like a sane person, he sets up video cameras and tries to make the creature reappear, embarrassing himself in front of the neighbor. Harold, thinking Roger is having war flashbacks, contacts Sandy to warn her. Things in the house begin coming to life – a huge mounted marlin, assorted garden implements, and so forth – and Roger arms himself. Sandy arrives just then to check on him, but he sees her as a monster and shoots her. When he realizes what he’s done, he hides her body, unaware that Harold heard the shots and called the police. He nervously dismisses them, feeding them a line about his gun going off while he was cleaning it. Once they’re gone, though, he finds Sandy’s body missing.

The Sandy-monster attacks again, taunting Roger about his missing son, but he manages to use the levitating garden tools to behead it, and… yeah, I know that sounds utterly ridiculous, but that’s what he does, and then disposes of the monster’s body in the backyard in a montage set to Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” The body parts keep coming back, though, even clinging to the child of his neighbor when he’s somehow tricked into babysitting. (The boy is nearly taken away by a pair of demonic creatures, but that’s really incidental to the plot.)

Telling him there’s a raccoon in his attic, Roger recruits Harold to help him confront the Thing in the Closet. Harold loses his grip, though, and the monster drags Roger through a portal into his own nightmares, the day in Vietnam when his buddy Big Ben (Richard Moll) was mortally wounded. He finds Ben, who begs Roger to kill him, but Roger can’t do it and flees back through the portal, where several hours have passed and Roger has gotten drunk, which never seemed to happen to him in 11 seasons of sitting in a bar every night. Finding a clue in one of his aunt’s paintings, Roger explores the house and finds his missing son, only to face a horrifying, skeletal vision of Big Ben. Ben’s ghost, it seems, has been behind Roger’s troubles, seeking revenge on his friend for leaving him alive and subject to the tortures of the Viet Cong before dying a brutal death weeks later. The two engage in a chase throughout the house, Roger finally triumphing and blowing up Ben with a ghost-grenade… just as the real Sandy arrives for a happy reunion.

Thoughts: Considering my love of 80s television, I’m really quite astonished that I’ve lasted this long on the planet without ever having seen a movie that starts the nigh-holy trinity of William Katt, George Wendt, and Richard Moll. That said, I’ve known of the existence of House (another Sean S. Cunningham joint) for as long as I remember watching movies. It was one of those horror movie staples on the shelves of the video store, the shelves I would browse even though I knew there was no way my parents would allow me to rent one of these movies and, instead, I’d walk out with Mac and Me or something else that I would be forced to shamefully admit on a blog almost 30 years later. On the first night of my “Freaky Firsts” experiment, when I told my wife I’d never seen it, she dove right in.

William Katt is one of those actors that’s almost impossible to divorce from his more famous roles – in this case, that of a teacher with an alien super-suit on the TV show The Greatest American Hero. Even keeping that in mind, he seems an odd choice to be playing a Vietnam vet in 1986. Admittedly, he was 35 years old at the time, old enough to have taken part in the war, but he has such a youthful appearance that I had to look up his birthday to convince myself he wasn’t pulling a Reverse Dawson.

This film is on the horror/comedy line, something I obviously enjoy. While balancing the creepy story, we get moments of pure slapstick, like Katt’s bumbling lawyer (Michael Ensign) almost shooting him with a harpoon gun and returning a sheepish “oops, did I do that?” look that would make Bugs Bunny proud. George Wendt, a man I will idolize until my dying day for his role on Cheers, brings his good-natured bumbling to the table the minute he appears on the screen, first badmouthing the previous owner of Katt’s house, then backtracking and trying to babble his way out when he learns she was Katt’s aunt. He spends most of the movie this way – trying earnestly to be a good neighbor, but at the same time fouling things up for Katt’s character in pretty much every way imaginable. Richard Moll, best known as the gentle giant Bull from Night Court, hams it up considerably as Big Ben, pulling a performance that’s equal parts manic and goofy.

The sillier aspects of the movie, in fact, go on much longer than I really expected. When Roger first walks away from the Thing in the Closet and the screen cuts to (presumably) the next day, when a truck full of camera equipment arrives, I looked at Erin and said, “Because you wouldn’t just get the hell out?” Before she could blame it on the 1980s, though, we’d already reached the point where Katt was bouncing through the house, into the yard, and shamefully trying to convince George Wendt he wasn’t crazy. And really, living as we do in a post-Big Mouth Billy Bass world, the mounted marlin flailing on the wall doesn’t really send shivers up my spine.

In some ways, the movie tries to do too much. The missing son subplot is sandwiched with the Vietnam flashbacks subplot, and together they sort of weigh down on Katt to the point where he comes across as a sad sack. One or the other tragedy probably would have been enough, and compounding them slightly disrupts that balance between horror and comedy. It’s not enough of an imbalance to ruin the film, but especially towards the end, you can start to feel the pressure of everything coming together, and not in an altogether satisfying way. The reveal of Ben as the big bad is a little disheartening as well, although part of that may simply be because… c’mon, it’s Richard Moll, and no matter how many tough guys he’s played, what child of the 80s doesn’t love that big lummox? More so, though, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why target Roger instead of the people who actually killed him? And Aunt Elizabeth clearly thought her house was haunted for a long time – when exactly did he start targeting her? And why her instead of Roger? Sure, this was pure 80s diversion horror at its finest, but to see it fall apart so quickly under just a little scrutiny is somewhat disappointing.

On the other hand, it’s nice to see a movie old enough that a lot of the things we take for granted aren’t yet tropes. There’s a moment, for example, where Roger is fumbling with a bottle of medicine at the bathroom sink, and I was 100 percent convinced there’d be a ghost or a skeleton or some sort of creature in the mirror when he stood up. Not only wasn’t there one, but with my expectations averted, I was totally unprepared seconds later when Sandy arrived and turned into a monster.

This is really indicative of the kind of horror movies we had in the 80s – at least, the ones that hadn’t tuned into the slasher subgenre. Movies like this, like Gremlins, like Critters… even, to a degree, like Poltergeist, all drew on on-school horror elements, but mixed in comedic moments much more freely than filmmakers are usually willing to do today. Modern films, at least mainstream ones, are terrified to legitimately blend comedy elements with terror – we’ve got torture porn and PG-13 demons on the one hand, and on the other pure parody like the Scary Movie franchise. I not only liked this movie, I admire it for recognizing that horror and comedy can co-exist in a way that post-millennium movies refuse to do.

House is neither a horror legend nor a comedy classic, but it has enough traces of each that I sincerely enjoyed watching it. The Halloween season is off to a great start.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!