Category Archives: Projects

Santa Week Day 3: David Huddleston in Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Santa Claus the Movie PosterNote: 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: Jeannot Szwarc

Writers: David Newman & Leslie Newman

Cast: David Huddleston, Judy Cornwell, Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, Burgess Meredith, Jeffrey Kramer, Christian Fitzpatrick, Carrie Kei Heim, John Barrard,

Plot: On a Christmas Eve many years ago, a kindly, childless old couple named Claus and Anya (David Hudleston and Judy Cornwell) are lost in a snowstorm. Their reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, collapse from exhaustion, and it seems as though they are lost, frozen to death, until a star shines through the blizzard and reveals a secret community of elves. The elves have been waiting for them, for a very long time – a good-hearted toymaker with no children of his own to take on their eternal mission of delivering toys to all the children of the world.

One of the elves, Patch (Dudley Moore) prepares Claus’s reindeer to join their own, with a magical feed that enables them to fly. The next Christmas Eve, after a blessing from special guest star Burgess “Ancient Elf” Meredith, Claus begins his work. Over centuries, which we pass through by way of convenient montage – we see the legend of Santa Claus spread throughout the world, before we finally arrive in the slick, modern utopia of the 1980s. After centuries at work, Anya convinces Santa to appoint an assistant, a task which quickly turns into a competition. Patch suggests converting the toy workshop to a modern, state-of-the-art, fully automated assembly line, while Dooley (John Barrard) wants to keep making toys the old-fashioned way. Patch easily wins, but nobody realizes the machine has malfunctioned, resulting in a large number of defective toys.

In modern New York we meet Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick), a homeless boy who is given food on Christmas Eve by a wealthy girl named Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim). Santa notices Joe while he makes his rounds, and decides to take the boy for a ride – even taking him through a failed attempt at an old trick, “the Super Dooper Looper,” that Donner has never quite been able to pull off. Joe rides with Santa until they come to Cornelia’s house, where she offers to give Joe more food, and Santa encourages him to stay and eat, promising to see him again next Christmas. The next morning, Patch’s toys begin falling apart, and children all over the world turn on Santa. Patch, dejected, resigns as Santa’s assistant and flees the North Pole, hoping to find a way to redeem himself.

Traveling to New York, Patch sees a line of B.Z. Toys flying off the shelf, unaware that they’re being recalled for being cheap and dangerous. He tracks down the head of the company, B.Z. (John Lithgow) and offers to team up on a free giveaway for next Christmas, something that will show Santa his self-worth and that B.Z. sees as an opportunity for much-needed positive publicity. On Christmas Eve, Patch stars in a global commercial to announce his present – a lollipop mixed with the reindeer’s flying powder. B.Z., triumphant, returns home, where his step-niece Cornelia is watching the commercial along with the rest of the world. That year, as Santa delivers his toys, Patch drops off the magic candy in his own high-tech sleigh. Although many children have lost faith in Santa, he meets up with Joe again and gives the boy his first ever Christmas present – a wooden carving of an elf, made by Santa himself, who unconsciously carved the likeness of his missing pal Patch.

The lollipops allow children to float in the air, and Patch becomes an instant celebrity. When he announces his intention to return to the North Pole, B.Z. convinces him to stick around long enough to make a sequel to their hit – a candy cane more potent than the lollipop. Joe gets up sick and hides in Cornelia’s basement, but is found by a boasting B.Z. Things get worse when B.Z.’s flunky, Towzer (Jeffrey Kramer) tells him he discovered – the hard way – when the concentrated candy canes are exposed to heat, they explode.

Cornelia writes Santa and tells him Joe is in trouble. Santa sets out for a rescue mission down two reindeer – Comet and Cupid have the flu. Patch, meanwhile, finds Joe tied up in B.Z.’s basement. He doesn’t believe that Joe is truly a friend of Santa’s until he sees the carving Santa gave him, then the two of them set out for the North Pole together, not knowing the candy canes in the back of Patch’s super sleigh will explode when they heat up. Santa and Cornelia catch up to them at the last minute, as the candy blows up, and the reindeer pull off the heretofore impossible Super Dooper Looper to save them. B.Z., meanwhile, is tracked down by the police and gobbles candy canes to escape – but overdoses, rocketing to space. Santa offers to let Joe stay at the North Pole with him, and Joe asks if Cornelia can stay too… at least until next Christmas.

Thoughts: I was nine when this movie came out, old enough to start feeling cynical about things like Christmas and Santa Claus. And yet this movie never gave me that reaction. From the very beginning, there was something about David Huddleston’s performance as Claus that rang so wonderfully, beautifully true. I don’t know, maybe this is one of those cases where I’m watching the movie through rose-colored nostalgia goggles, but as I sit here almost 30 years later, watching it on the couch with my wife, I find it as sweet and charming as I did when I was a kid, eagerly awaiting the McDonald’s tie-in merchandize. (The product placement is actually pretty obvious now.)

As I got older, I started to realize that one of the reasons I loved this movie so much is because it’s not really the story of Santa Claus. It is in fact – and bear with me now, I can back this up – a remake of Superman: The Movie, which was also produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind and which follows a very similar formula. The movie begins with the introduction of the hero, a seemingly unsurmountable cataclysm, and the revelation that the protagonist is in fact being gifted with great power. We watch as he grows and develops his abilities, and the real villain and main plot isn’t even introduced until nearly the halfway point. Even the movie’s tagline, “Seeing is believing,” echoes Superman’s “You will believe a man can fly.” The Salkinds simply tried to make lightning strike twice, and damn if it didn’t work – at least on me.

Amazingly, Huddleston got third billing in this movie, after the more marketable Dudley Moore and John Lithgow. And don’t get me wrong, both of them are very good – Moore is a silly, loveable scamp with a pure heart, and Lithgow is chewing scenery like there’s no tomorrow, but appears to be having the time of his life while he’s doing it. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for Huddleston’s performance. The energy and charm he brings to the role is one of the benchmarks I’ve judged other Cinematic Santas against ever since. From the start, he and Judy Cornwell are completely believable. I helps, I think, that they kick things off with a scene of them as mortals, already delivering toys to children, before they “die” in the snowstorm (and let me tell you, that part freaked out my wife, who hasn’t seen this movie in a very long time and didn’t remember much of it). That moment tells us who these people are, even before they meet their destiny, and like any true superhero origin story, that’s a vital part of believing the mythology.

Although this isn’t a musical, music plays a big part of the film. Henry Mancini steps in here to deliver a truly lovely piece of music, themes for Santa and the North Pole workshop that feel almost traditional, almost ancient, but still snappy and modern. The movie uses several montage sequences, and Mancini’s music pulls you straight through them one at a time. The set design at the North Pole workshop is also perhaps my favorite version of any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s bright and insanely colorful, to be certain, but everything is made of wood and has a handcrafted quality that other Santa films (such as The Santa Clause) don’t come close to matching.

Okay, admittedly, in retrospect certain things are a little hard to swallow. The notion that Santa suddenly chooses one homeless kid to take an interest in after centuries of ignoring them seems a bit convenient, for example. And if any child as trusting as Cornelia existed in the real world, she’d be the subject of an Amber Alert before you can say “Ten Lords A-Leaping.” Also, I suppose Santa is technically a kidnapper at the end, and they never entirely explain why the cops bust in on B.Z., necessitating he escape. But John Lithgow as the sleazy toymaker is 100 percent believable, except for the part where he suddenly becomes hellbent on Santa’s destruction for no apparent reason.

This is a case, though, where I can honestly get past that. Although the plot is a little shaky in the second half, the depiction of Santa himself and his workshop is absolutely flawless, and the whole movie has stayed with me for years.

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!

Advertisements

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!

Festive Firsts: I Am Santa Claus (2014)

I am Santa ClausNote: 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: Tommy Avallone

Featuring: Mick Foley, Russell Spice, Jim Stevenson, Bob Gerardi, Santa Claus

Synopsis: This documentary follows five very different men with the same important job – when Christmas rolls around, they put on the red suit and hat of Santa Claus. The movie shows approximately a year in the life of these Santas, all of whom come from wildly different circumstances, but take the viewer on a sweet, beautiful journey together.

Thoughts: I’ve never written about a documentary here at Reel to Reel before, because on the surface they don’t exactly fall under the aegis of what I started this blog to write about. I like to follow film trends and story structure and how one influences the other, and in a true, well-made documentary, most of those standards don’t apply. A documentary should, in essence, point a camera at reality and show the viewer what the world is like with as little structure or manipulation from the filmmaker as possible, regardless of trend or trope. I do like documentaries, however, very much, and when this one turned up in my annual Christmas movie binge-a-thon, it hit a chord with me that left me extremely anxious to talk about it.

As I said in the synopsis, I Am Santa Claus is about the journey of some department store Santa Clauses over the course of a year, leading up to the Christmas season. It’s one of those documentaries that takes a long look at something that is out there, in the real world, under our noses all the time, but that few of us ever really stop to think about. The movie lets you in on a lot of what it means to be an itinerant Santa, the realities of job hunting, of learning to be a Santa Claus, and of what kind of spirit it takes to essentially give up your own Christmas season in order to bring a little magic to other people. It also gives you a sense for what Santas all over the world must feel – at one point Santa Jim (who, it should be pointed out, has no real family of his own) starts to break down a little as he tells the story of how he once took a picture with a four-day-old child, and thinks about the fact that he’s going to be a part of this other family’s Christmas memories long after he has gone. It’s just one of many strongly emotional moments in the movie, and the waves of emotion coming from Jim pull the viewer I like few other movies, scripted or otherwise, that I’ve seen this year.

At the same time that director Tommy Allevone tells you about the mutual experiences of all Santas, he gives you five nicely individual stories as well. One Santa lives in his daughter’s basement, unable to afford any other accommodations. Another spends his time mostly alone, missing his boyfriend, who lives 700 miles away. A third is so dedicated to the role that he’s had his name legally changed and dream of the day he’ll own his own restaurant – where he’ll be Santa year-round.

The thing that may pull a lot of people to this film who wouldn’t otherwise spend their time on a documentary about 21st century Santas, though, is the story of Santa Mick, aka Mick Foley, the former WWE superstar also known as Mankind. I’m honestly not a wrestling fan – I never have been – but even I’ve heard of Mick Foley, so it was a bit of a surprise when I discovered this gargantuan man known for a pretty brutal form of entertainment has transformed himself into the gentle symbol of the Christmas season. In fact, the movie focuses on Mick’s first time out as Santa, and shows him in a light so inexplicably sweet that you genuinely start to tear up as you watch him interact with the children. They don’t know squat about Mick Foley, they don’t care about any wrestling championships, all they know is that they’re staring up into the eyes of Santa Claus, and that hits you right in the gut. Mick himself (who, it should be mentioned, is one of the movie’s producers as well as one of the subjects) comes across as someone with an endearing, lovely heart, and his desire to spread that love as Santa Claus never for a second feels contrived or put-upon for the cameras. It would be easy to dismiss him, to say that being a producer it’s easy for him to act the role or demand the cut that shows him the best in front of the cameras. I’m telling you though, friends, if he is acting in this movie, then he’s the best actor to come from the ranks of professional wrestling since Andre the Giant, because I bought it entirely.

I should mention that this is not a family film. Although the core of it is sweet and kind, there is some harsh language, a good bit of sexual conversation (most – but not all – about the rather unconventional lifestyle one of the Santas leads), and most importantly, it’s a movie that shows you exactly how Santas are made. Watching men bleaching their beards or limping along with a full-size candy cane as they try to make ends meet may well kill the magic for a small child. For older folk, though, I think it actually does an awful lot to bring the magic back.

The movie is currently available on Netflix streaming, as well as for rental on other VOD services, and for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray, so check it out if at all possible. It’s one of the most unexpected – yet most charming – Christmas movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

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 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 7-Leprechaun (1993)

Leprechaun 1993Note: 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: Mark Jones

Writer: Mark Jones

Cast: Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston, Ken Olandt, Mark Holton, Robert Gorman, Shay Duffin, John Sanderford, Pamela Mant, John Volstad

Plot: In a delightful drunken stupor, Dan O’Grady (Shay Duffin) comes home to North Dakota from a trip to Ireland, and informs his wife (Pamela Mant) he took a Leprechaun’s pot of gold. That night, the Leprechaun itself (Warwick Davis) springs from Dan’s suitcase and shoves Mrs. O’Grady down the basement stairs. When Dan returns from hiding the gold, he holds up a four-leaf clover – which evidently has the same effect on Leprechauns as crosses to vampires or Kryptonite to Superman – and shoots it. He crates the Leprechaun and is about to torch it, but collapses, seemingly dead.

Ten years later – conveniently explained to us by a title card on the screen – Tory Reding (Jennifer Aniston and her original nose) and her father J.D. (John Sanderford) move into the old O’Grady house, Tory complaining as much as a spoiled debutante who ran away from her dentist fiancé at the altar and just can’t get the hang of life in the big city on her own. She runs into handyman Nathan (Ken Olandt), whose rampant sexism pretty much guarantees they’ll hook up before the end of the movie. In an effort to prove how tough she is, she elects to stay. She also attempts to ply Nathan with Kool-Aid in the basement and finds the crate, waking up the Leprechaun, which means the fact that there are at least seven movies in this franchise is entirely her fault.

The Leprechaun uses a child’s voice to trick Nathan’s evidently mentally-handicapped assistant, Ozzie (Mark Holton) into freeing him from the crate. Ozzie escapes to warn everyone, none of whom believe a word, because even the 12-year-old (Alex, played by Robert Gorman) thinks he’s an idiot. Still, when an unbelievably clear rainbow appears in the sky, Ozzie and Alex follow it to a rusted pickup truck with a gold piece on the front seat. At the house, the Leprechaun scratches Tory’s leg while hiding under the car, then hides in a tree so he can bite J.D., who will apparently stick his hand in any hole that he thinks has a cat in it.

The Leprechaun follows them to town, where J.D. is seeking medical help and Ozzie and Alex look to get their gold appraised. The Leprechaun kills the coin dealer (John Volstad), then rushes off in a toy car – really – until he gets pulled over and kills a cop, too. While he’s doing this, Tory proclaims her vegetarianism, setting up the image of them as being obnoxious and pushy that would last for at least 20 years. The house painting trio take her home and Nathan announces his intention to stay in the house overnight, as all paid house painters do. The Leprechaun finally attacks, catching Nathan in a bear trap and fighting with the whole group.

This happens a little more than halfway through the movie and is followed by a series of set pieces in which he attacks them, sets traps, and tries to get his gold back, because apparently this will make him more powerful. He reclaims the treasure, but has to return and attack again because there’s a single piece missing (which Ozzie swallowed earlier). This is followed by another series of set piece battles, each more humiliating than the last for the good name of the House of Davis.

Ozzie then remembers O’Grady, in a rest home since the stroke he had the night he brought the Leprechaun home, and they decide to seek him out and ask him how to kill it. This, of course, begs the question: If O’Grady knew there was a Leprechaun in the basement of the damned house, why was he selling it in the first place? And furthermore, isn’t that the sort of thing a realtor is required by law to disclose to the new owners? “Spider infestation, leprechaun in basement, total number of murders: 12?” Something like that.

Tory finds O’Grady mangled in the nursing home elevator. Bleeding and dying, he tells her the only way to kill a leprechaun is to put a freshly-plucked four-leaf clover on its body, rendering it vulnerable to more conventional means of killing things. She rushes back to the house, where there’s a clover patch (glowing green, as it turns out), and begins searching for a bit o’ luck. Nathan shows up to save her from the Leprechaun’s latest attack, and the adults continue looking for clover, leaving the child, Alex, to play with a bear trap in an empty barn while there’s a murderous pixie on the loose. He nearly kills the kid, but Ozzie lures him away by revealing the location of the last coin. Tory produces a clover – literally by saying “I believe” – and Alex shoots it down the Leprechaun’s throat with a slingshot. He disintegrates into slime and falls into a well, because at this point Mark Jones said, “what, you mean we need an ending?” But the Leprechaun climbs up once more, so Nathan knocks him back down, fills the well with gasoline, and blows it up in a fashion that would make the Mythbusters cringe.

Thoughts: Isn’t it amazing to think that there was once a time when Warwick Davis could get top billing in a movie over Jennifer Aniston? Even this one? My, what a world we live in.

Despite the fact that this is considered, in some circles, the gold standard of horror movie cheese, I’ve actually never seen it before. And boy, was the cheese factor evident. Warwick Davis wears a costume that’s basically Irish blackface for the entire movie, prancing around like a clown and engaging in antics that would make a circus clown blush. At about the time he rushes off behind Nathan’s pickup truck on a tricycle, Erin turned to me and said, “Do you think he ever regrets doing this?” I replied, “Well, he made five more of them, so if he did, the regret was outweighed by the paycheck.”

This is, in essence, a slasher movie, a kind of last gasp of the great 80s onslaught of brutal killers, and as such, it makes use of the tropes of the genre, including nasty traps and over-the-top set pieces. Unlike the Michaels or Freddies of the world, though, the Leprechaun has a bizarre predilection towards tiny automobiles, which of course makes perfect sense given his origin as a creature of Irish folklore and the fact that he’s 600 years old.

Due to his size, the closest real equivalent to the character in Who’s Who Among Movie Killing Machines would be Chucky, but that’s a comparison that only makes the Leprechaun pale. The first Child’s Play movie, back before they gave up on trying to be frightening and went straight for black comedy, at least had some genuinely creepy moments of a doll coming to life. It’s an image that freaks out a lot of people anyway, and the movie rolled with that, and as a result the battles between Chucky and his larger co-stars never looked nearly as silly as those between the Leprechaun and his. The first “fight scene,” such as it is, shows him clawing at Nathan’s ankle while Jennifer Aniston beats him over the head with a sick. And while this movie is, of course, pre-Friends, Aniston put for them same sort of performance she did every time that series wanted to show her being out of her element – flailing wildly and ineffectually, and frankly, comically.

This movie is trying to be darkly comedic, but fails on every level, primarily on the level that it’s just not funny. The gags are stale, the performances are weak, the characters are awful, and as much as I despise the cult of political correctness, even I start to feel uncomfortable every time Warwick Davis starts singing anything that includes the phrase “fiddle-dee-dee.” By the time he crashes through a fence and leaves a leprechaun-shaped hole behind, you’ve simply got to surrender the entire movie on the grounds that this bit can be wildly funny, but exclusively in old Looney Tunes shorts and that one scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Considering his Academy-award winning performance in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, it’s almost sad to see Mark Holton slumming it in this movie. To think that the man who played the chilling master villain Francis Buxton rolled into this film a mere eight years later, doing his worst impression of Lennie from Of Mice and Men and swallowing a gold doubloon because he utterly misunderstood the idea of “biting” when he thinks that will tell him if the gold is real… well, it’s just kind of pathetic.

I know this may draw fire from certain circles of horror fans, but this movie was simply awful. It’s easy to mock, at least, and could potentially be some fun as part of a bad movie marathon while your friends sit around and try to pull out their best Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffs on it, but that’s pretty much where the appeal begins and ends.

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 6: Screamtime (1983)

Screamtime (1986)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.

Directors: Michael Armstrong, Stanley A. Long

Writer: Michael Armstrong

Cast: Vincent Russo, Michael Gordon, Marie Scinto, Robin Bailey, Ann Lynn, Jonathon Morris, Dione Inman, John Styles, Bosco Hogan, Ian Saynor, Yvonne Nicholson, Veronica Doran, David Van Day, Dora Bryan, Jean Anderson, Gary Linley, Matthew Peters

Plot: Ed and Bruce (Vincent Russo and Michael Gordon) are in for a fun night of shoplifting VHS tapes and invading his “friend” Marie (Marie Scinto)’s apartment to watch them. This loose framing sequence brings us into a trilogy of horror shorts.

In the first film, “That’s The Way We Do It,” a penniless puppeteer named Jack (Robin Bailey) is told by his wife Lena (Ann Lynn) she’s taking her son Damien (Jonathon Morris) and moving to Canada. Damien, Jack’s stepson, begins to torment the old man, asking to set fire to his Punch and Judy dolls before they leave and saying Jack isn’t the man his father was. Damien attacks Jack during a show and sets fire to his puppet stage. His Punch puppet survives the blaze, seemingly comes to life, and delivers a savage beating to Damien. When her son doesn’t come home that night, a frustrated Lena finally gives Jack an ultimatum: her or the puppets. Naturally, that night, Punch takes care of her, too. Jack calls a doctor to tend to her, and confesses that he’s afraid of the puppet, who is now acting out his brutal puppet shows for real, and soon, the Doctor dies. The next day, Damien’s girlfriend (Dione Inman) comes to investigate, only to find Jack gone mad, acting out the Punch role. He chases her, falling into a garbage truck, and is crushed.

“Dreamhouse” is next. Newlyweds Tony and Susan (Ian Saynor and Yvonne Nicholson) move into a new house, where Susan begins seeing a boy circling their yard on a bicycle. The house, meanwhile, is a mess – electrical problems and a strange red substance that comes out in the water. Whenever she tries to confront the boy, he vanishes, and blood appears on a kitchen knife she was using to cut vegetables. Instead of running away like a sane person, Susan just keeps waking up Tony in the middle of the night to investigate the strange noises she’s hearing on top of everything else. As he’s gone, she sees a man with a knife prancing through the halls (literally prancing – he dashes past her bedroom door like a ballerina). She sees blood everywhere, a corpse in her bed, a bloody child on the bannister and – most horrific of all – a house painter. She finally calls a medium, Miss Burns (Veronica Doran) to investigate the house, but even she thinks Susan is nuts. Left alone in the house, Susan’s visions converse, and she’s forced to watch one of her ghosts as it slays some of the others. Tony is forced to commit his wife and sell the house. As he comes by to get something he left, he sees the new family, including a boy on a bicycle, a teenager painting a room… and he’s slain by a the killer in the back of his car.

Finally, there’s “Do You Believe in Fairies?” Gavin (David Van Day) is a motorcycle rider desperate for money. He winds up taking a handyman job for a pair of old women named Emma and Mildred (Dora Bryan and Jean Anderson), whose yard is awash in ceramic gnomes. As they interview him for the job, they ask an interesting question – if he believes in fairies. When he notices the large wad of cash Emma pulls his pay from, Gavin plans to rob the women. With his friend Frank (Gary Lindey) and his brother Tim (Matthew Peters), he sneaks into the house. Then the gnomes appear – dozens of the ceramic figures, all inside and giggling at them. When one of them, now full-sized, jumps on Tim’s back… well…, the tension isn’t exactly broken. In the yard, figures wrapped in white crawl from the ground to attack Frank (I don’t know what the hell those are supposed to be, Mummies maybe), while Gavin is faced with the horror of a beautiful girl in period costume who apparently can throw knickknacks with her mind. She winds up stripping his shirt off and making out with him, because why not?, before using her powers to stab him with lots of pointy things. Later, we see the old women hiring a new gardener, where they add the interesting tidbit that the girl who kissed Gavin is their ancestor, and she made a contract with the fairies that they could have the souls of her lovers as slaves.

As the framing sequence ends, a hand pops out of the TV and kills Ed, while Bruce is beaten to death by the Punch puppet. What the hell.

Thoughts: It’s sad that there isn’t really that much to say about what is, essentially, four movies. Michael Armstrong took three of his own unrelated short films and created a fourth to act as a way to piece them together. Unfortunately, none of them is particularly interesting, memorable, or well-made.

The first short, with the puppeteer, feels really by-the-book – you’ve got your poor, put-upon protagonist who is saddled with a miserable family and has to deal with their cruelty and indifference towards his own life. And what’s more, considering that Damian is an older teenager, one has to wonder at what stage of life Jack and Lena even got married. If the whole Punch and Judy thing was so reprehensible for her, why did she marry this guy in the first place? It doesn’t make sense from any sort of character standpoint.

Perhaps the best selling point of this short is the reveal that it’s Jack himself who is murdering people, and not the puppet. Although Anderson is anything but a competent director (more on that later), he does a fairly effective job of angling the camera so as to make it appear that Punch is supposed to be moving on his own. When the girlfriend sees that Jack has been manipulating the puppet all along, you remember suddenly that all of the shots concealed where Jack’s puppeteer would be, in the best Muppet fashion. You’re simply so ready for the movie to be a crappy supernatural horror film that it’s actually sort of refreshing that it turns out to be a crappy slasher film instead.

Then there’s “Dreamtime,” a short with a reveal that really forces you to scratch your head. Again, it’s a twist – instead of visions of the house’s horrific past, Susan was having visions of its horrific future. It’s an interesting idea that helps keep this from being just a standard haunted house story. That said, many of Anderson’s directing choices are so poor that it totally negates any chance for the short to build real momentum. The pacing is intolerably sluggish, and there are plenty of slow, interstitial shots that really add nothing to the story, the mood, the characters… anything. Plus, I know it was the early 80s, but Susan’s glasses… man. Lenses that would overwhelm the most doe-eyed Anime girl set in chintzy plastic frames that belong not in a classy British suburb, but in any of America’s finest trailer parks.

“Do You Believe in Fairies?” is set up like a morality tale – Gavin and his crew are pretty reprehensible, and you’re ready for just about any nasty thing to happen to them. But any hope you have of some sort of satisfying karmic retribution evaporates when Tim is attacked by the gnome. A diminutive actor in the stupidest, most stereotypical costume you could possibly imagine is not the way to jolt your audience into compliance with the acceptable social norms of your civilization. Frankly, the whole thing could have boiled down to our three crooks versus the Lollipop Guild from The Wizard of Oz and it would have been just as – if not more – frightening.

As if Anderson hadn’t worked hard enough to convince us he didn’t belong in a director’s chair, the short ends with Emma asking the new gardener, “Do you believe in fairies?” and then looking directly at the camera. All it was missing to achieve maximum cheesiness was a literal wink at the screen. It didn’t help that, cutting back to the framing sequence, Ed answers her before he’s strangled by a disembodied hand that has nothing to do with anything.

The framing sequence, the piss-poor attempt to tie all of this together into something cohesive, is perhaps the biggest mess of all. Starting with a shower scene that pretty much defines the word “gratuitous,” we then see Maria seduce Bruce for no apparent reason, then everyone dies for even less of a reason.

Is this film hopeless? I honestly don’t know. I watched this one alone, while Erin was at work, so it’s possible that I lost out on part of the experience of communally enjoying a crappy movie. The film does have some of the elements that make a really good bad movie too, including bad acting and terrible costumes. The problem is, I don’t know if it has enough of any of those things to make it worth watching. And frankly, having seen it once already, I don’t really feel compelled to test the theory. I won’t be revisiting this one, but if you choose to do so, I recommend getting some friends together before you start, and let me know if it’s more fun to watch it with them than I had watching this stinker by myself.

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 5: Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Beautiful CreaturesNote: 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: Richard LaGravenese

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone

Plot: Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenager in a small South Carolina town, is plagued by dreams of a beautiful girl he’s never met. His town is crushing him – oppressive and overbearing, driving him to read banned books like To Kill a Mockingbird (this is how you know he’s edgy, kids). When he gets to the first day of school, he meets a new girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) who looks mysteriously like the girl in his dreams. People in town gossip about Lena, even accusing her and her uncle Macon Ravenwood (seriously, that’s his name, and he’s played by a Jeremy Irons who chews so much scenery he probably got lockjaw) of being devil worshippers. When the crowing of her catty classmates becomes too calamitous, Lena accidentally causes the large windows in the room to shatter, convincing everyone she’s freakier than they thought.

Ethan gives Lena a lift home from school, and they grow closer, which Macon doesn’t approve of at all. Eventually, Lena confesses to Ethan the truth: she and her family are “casters” (because “witch” isn’t a politically correct term anymore), and on her 16th birthday she will be driven to embrace either the light or dark nature of her power. Because this is a movie and the plot requires it, she fears that she’ll fall to the darkness. To make matters worse, her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) shows up, aiding Lena’s long-lost mother Sarafine, who has possessed the Bible-thumping Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson, who along with Irons clearly made this movie as a lark). Sarafine wants to drive Lena to the dark and use her power to exterminate all the humans in the world.

Ethan and Lena discover their ancestors during the Civil War were in love, and when Lena’s great-great-ish grandmother used a forbidden spell to save Ethan’s great-as-sour-candy grandfather’s life, she cursed the Duchannes women in some way that isn’t entirely clear but, I believe, has something to do with their stupid southern accents. In order to undo the curse, someone Lena loves must die. To protect Ethan, she gives him a snowfall for Christmas and wipes out his memory.

During the town’s annual Christmas Civil War reenactment (who the crap knows?) Ridley arranges to Ethan to be shot by a real bullet. When he lies, dying, Ridley and Sarafine try to turn Lena to the dark, but fails when Ethan reveals himself to be a magically-disguised Macon, whose death satisfies the terms of the curse and lifts it. He dies telling Lena to “claim yourself.” She rips her mother from Mrs. Lincoln’s body and traps her, but still isn’t really sure if she’s good or bad. Six months later, Lena runs into Ethan – still with no memory of their time together, and she gives him a book to take on a college tour. As he rides away, he reads a passage that triggers his memory of her and calls her name. She hears him, and wrenches herself free of the darkness.

Thoughts: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m usually aware of what books are popular with teenagers at any given time. For a few years there, that Beautiful Creatures series was on a pace to perhaps outstrip Twilight as the pseudo-horror romance of choice. As such, I pretty much stayed away from it. When the movie came out last year, I was somewhat amused to see how violently the book’s fans seemed to react to it, saying it “ruined” their beloved novel. It just goes to show you, doesn’t matter if it’s comics, books, TV, video games… hardcore fans are all the same.

It would be easy to write off Beautiful Creatures as just one of the dozens of Twilight knock-offs out there, but based purely on the movie, there aren’t as many similarities as one would think. There’s no creepy stalker vibe, first of all – Lena is actually 16 years old and not a century past her sell-by date. There’s legitimate tension within her family. There’s no attempt to paint either Ethan or Lena as perfect, and in fact, they both take strong, decisive action at various points in the movie in an attempt to protect the other, something that Bella Swan couldn’t even imagine doing.

None of this is to say that Beautiful Creatures is a good movie, mind you, just better than Twilight. There’s still a lot about this movie that’s just plain goofy, and not really in a fun way. The nonsense about calling witches “casters,” first of all. In The Walking Dead, we’re asked to accept the conceit that this is a world where there were never any popular zombie movies, books, TV shows, etc., and that the word “zombie” does not exist, so it’s okay to call them “Walkers.” Silly as that is, at least it’s an effort. This movie has several people straight-up accusing the Ravenwood family (whose name we need not even begin to discuss in terms of pure goofiness) of being witches, but they somehow can’t quite embrace the term.

Ehrenreich and Englert, our star-crossed lovers, both put in passable performances, but never really heat up the screen together. There’s as much chemistry here as any high school production of Grease (and here I am specifically referring to the chemistry between Kenickie and the high school principal), and while you can kind of see why they’re drawn together, the script works way too hard to convince us they’re right for each other than the end result puts on display. Their mutual love for “banned books,” for example, is pretty heavy-handed… almost as heavy-handed as the scene in English class where one of their classmates says she can’t read To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s been banned by the church and that she doesn’t think she should have to be in a class with non-Christians like Lena anyway. As if that weren’t enough, she immediately starts a prayer circle, which the teacher impotently warns her she can’t do in school. Between the Christian-bashing and the mocking of the politically correct crowd, I’m not entirely sure who the movie was trying to slander, but it succeeded mostly in making the viewer wish they’d rented Hocus Pocus rather than convincing anybody of anything of substance.

The accents in this movie are so over-the-top that you want to climb into the screen, look behind the camera at the director and shout, “Okay. They’re southern. WE GET IT.” The only ones who even come close to selling it are Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, who are in fact both treasured actors and way the hell too good to be in this movie. One can only assume that each of them either has a teenage daughter that really wanted them to take the part or that they’ve reached that blessed pinnacle of their careers where they’ve made all of the award bait they can handle and they feel like just screwing around for a few years making fluff.

While not a horrible movie, there’s not an awful lot to recommend Beautiful Creatures either. You won’t need to set your TV on fire if it happens to show up when you flip to HBO, but there’s no real reason not to switch to HBO2 and watch a rerun of Game of Thrones either.

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 4: Devil’s Pass (2013)

Devils Pass 2013Note: 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: Renny Harlin

Writer: Vikram Weet

Cast: Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson, Richard Reid, Jane Perry, Boris Stepanov, Nikolay Butenin, Nelly Nielsen, Valeriy Fedorovich

Plot: Based on the real-life Dytalov Pass incident, this movie features a film crew venturing into Russia to solve the 50-year-old mystery of a group of lost backpackers. Holly King (Holly Goss) believes the victims fell prey to real and documented symptoms of hypothermia, whereas her film partner Jensen Day (Matt Stokoe) refuses to believe such expert hikers would have died so easily. With their sound operator Denise (Gemma Atkinson) and a pair of climbers (Luke Albright as JP Hauser and Ryan Hawley as Andy Thatcher), the crew trains and heads to Russia…

Then vanish.

Their disappearance becomes international news, and theories as to their disappearance grow as wild as that of the original Dyatlov hikers: magic, aliens, or a thin membrane in the fabric of time and space that leads to another world. Their footage is found (making this one of the few “found footage” movies to take the name of its subgenre quite so literally), and although the Russian government attempts to suppress it, a hacker group steals it and releases it.

Arriving in Russia, Holly’s crew interviews Alya, one of the searchers who found the bodies in 1959, who describes the scene with such lovely terms as “a trail of organs.” The most disturbing part of her description, though, is that the rescuers found 11 bodies, not the nine that have always been reported.

As they march into the mountains, they begin finding unusual phenomenon, such as a trail of enormous footprints made by what look like human feet in far colder temperatures than anyone could stand being barefoot for more than a few minutes. They start to hear things, then find an old weather station with a human tongue. Jensen breaks down, and as Holly tries to comfort him, a pair of creatures run past in the distance, unseen by the crew, but captured on camera.

Arriving at Dyatlov Pass, the crew marks the spots where the bodies were found and Holly describes their deaths for the camera – all dead of hypothermia, but all suffering assorted injuries as well. Exploring the area, Holly and Jensen find a metal door buried in the snow. In the night an avalanche destroys the camp, killing Denise and breaking Andy’s leg. Jensen is convinced that someone set the avalanche on purpose to dispose of them. They think they’re saved when a pair of hikers arrive, but they shoot JP. Forced to leave Andy behind, the others make it into the door.

They follow a long tunnel underground, ending in a lab (Of course it ends in a lab) which has been utterly trashed, although the light bulbs still seem to work. They find photos of the old Philadelphia Experiment, an American teleportation project that went terribly wrong. JP is attacked and consumed by a pair of the creatures – ugly, emaciated, twisted people who contort in weird shapes and seem to blink in and out of existence. They find a tunnel that looks like some sort of hole in time (it actually looks really cool, I can’t think of a better way to describe it), and Jensen speculates it’s where the creatures originated from, that similar portals could be responsible for unexplained phenomenon around the world. Trapped, he convinces Holly to try to use the portal to teleport to safety. They wind up on the side of the mountain, but in 1959, where their bodies are collected by the Russian military and brought down into the lab (along with Holly’s camera). They hang Holly and Jensen’s bodies on hooks below ground, and we see them mutating, becoming two of the creatures that stalk Dyatlov Pass.

Thoughts: A lot of people have an irate, visceral hatred of “found footage” movies, as if there’s nothing good that can be done with the genre. This is pretty short-sighted to me. Sure, there have been tons of crappy found footage movies, films that try to use shaky cameras to cover up bad special effects and cheap budgets, but then you get something like the magnificent Chronicle, and the form pretty much justifies itself.

For the most part, Devil’s Pass is much more entertaining than the average found footage fare. Unlike the bulk of such movies (set in the woods or caves or similarly dark places), this movie is set in a snow-covered mountain range. It gives it a very distinct visual appeal, much clearer and cleaner than most found footage films, and the stark white vista is far less forgiving of cheesy camera stunts. When there are camera tricks – at several moments the picture bounces and glitches – it’s almost always done to signify that the crew is near the otherworldly creatures, even though they’re unaware of it.

The big night scenes, such as the avalanche, are actually really effective, as the slow crumble of the snow down the mountain turns into a wave. Denise’s death is even cool – she slides directly into the camera, which in this movie is literal, her head cracks the lens when she crashes into it. The movie even addresses the usual “why the hell are you still filming this?” question that found footage falls prey to – Holly explicitly says that she wants a record of what happened, no matter what, so that they don’t wind up as another Dyatlov mystery.

It’s by no means perfect, though. The movie definitely falls prey to what TV Tropes refers to as “Awesome McCoolname.” When you hear about characters with monikers like “Jensen Day” and “JP Hauser,” you get pulled out of the movie any time they call each other by name. But Devil’s Pass’s biggest weakness probably comes in with the reveal of the creatures. Although the design is good, they’re heavily CGI, and it looks like Holly and Jensen are trying to fight creatures from a video game. I know that’s a standard complaint to make about an effects movie, but damn it, sometimes there’s simply no other way to explain what you’re looking at on screen. My wife, who had been enjoying the film up to this point, simply said, “And that’s where it lost me.”

It didn’t lose me, not as badly at least. Bad computer graphics aside, I think Devil’s Pass has a lot going for it. It avoids a lot of the tropes that damn bad found footage movies, and at the same time has a fairly clever storyline that pokes a hole into actual history and mixes it with a very healthy formula of science fiction and horror. While it isn’t going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats, and it’s not a movie I picture myself watching over and over again, it’s an enjoyable way to spend 100 minutes and worth taking a little time on.

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!