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Dorothy Gale Week Day 3: Liza Minnelli in Journey Back to Oz (1974)

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????Director: Hal Sutherland

Writer: Fred Land & Norman Prescott

Cast: Liza Minnelli, Milton Berle, Margaret Hamilton, Paul Ford, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Mel Blanc, Dal McKennon, Larry Storch, Risë Stevens, Jack E. Leonard, Herschel Bernardi

Plot: In this animated kind-of sequel to the 1939 MGM film, a storm is brewing in Kansas again, and Henry (Paul Ford) is getting worried. His niece Dorothy (Liza Minnelli) feels a-tingle, remembering  how a similar storm once swept her away to the land of Oz, but her Aunt Em (Margaret Hamilton) swears to her that Oz is simply a figment of her imagination. As she sings to Toto about wishing to return, a cyclone snaps the two of them up and pulls them into the air. When Dorothy comes to her senses, she realizes she’s landed by the Yellow Brick Road in Oz, and rushes off to find her old friends in the Emerald City. Setting off, Dorothy encounters a creature with a pumpkin for a head (Paul Lynde). Pumpkinhead is fleeing from an evil witch named Mombi (Ethel Merman), who created him to help her conjure some powerful, terrible work of magic. Dorothy tells Pumpkinhead to come with her to the Emerald City, where her friend the Scarecrow will help him.

Dorothy finds Mombi’s hut, where a crow (Mel Blanc) invites her to peek at the cauldron simmering on the fire. Mombi traps her and reveals her brew will create an army of green elephants to conquer Oz and destroy the Scarecrow. When Mombi leaves to get firewood, Pumpkinhead sneaks in and rescues Dorothy. As they escape, they encounter a carousel horse called Woodenhead (Herschel Bernardi), stuck upside-down in the ground. They free him and he joins their party.

Arriving at the Emerald City, they warn the Scarecrow (Mickey Rooney about Mombi’s attack just as the Witch and her Green Elephants arrive. Dorothy and her friends climb on Woodenhead’s back, but Toto and the Scarecrow are captured in the escape. Dorothy, Pumpkinhead and Woodenhead set out for Tinland, to enlist the aid of her old friend the Tin Man (Danny Thomas).  At first he’s eager to help, but loses heart when told of the army of elephants. The Cowardly Lion (Milton Berle) initially puts on a show of bravado, but quickly reverts back to quaking when told of the elephants. Glinda, the Good Witch (Risë Stevens) who has been watching the proceedings with her… “Glinda-Bird”… arrives to offer her aid, and gives Dorothy a package which she warns her not to open until she arrives at the Emerald City.

Mombi sends a group of enchanted trees after the friends, but Glinda – watching through the Glinda-Bird – gives Pumpkinhead a magic axe that turns them into… well… hippies. Saved, they return to an Emerald City that has rapidly fallen into decay. They are attacked by an elephant, but Dorothy opens Glinda’s box and a swarm of magic mice pop out and chase it away, freeing them to assault the palace. The mice make it to Mombi’s chambers and chase her the gardens, where she disguises herself as a rose bush. The mice have sent the elephants on a stampede, though, and she is trampled flat. Toto, recognizing Mombi’s true form, leads Dorothy to the flattened rose, who blames Dorothy for her fate just as she dies. As she withers, the elephants fade and the Emerald City is restored to its former glory. The celebration is short-lived, though, as Pumpkinhead has fallen along with the rest of Mombi’s creations. Glinda tells Dorothy her magic cannot restore him, and Dorothy weeps for her fallen friend. As she cries, her tears touch Pumpkinhead’s face, and the magic of her love restores him to life. The Scarecrow awards his friends, making Woodenhead his own royal steed and knighting Pumpkinhead, then offers Dorothy anything she desires. She asks, as always, simply to return home.  The Scarecrow find a loophole in the Oz Constitution that will only allow Dorothy to return home the way she came, and Glinda creates a cyclone to carry her back.

Thoughts: In the 1970s theatrical animation could be divided pretty squarely into two categories: Disney, and everything else. This Filmation effort falls into the latter category: limited animation, competent but unimpressive voice acting and weak music. The idea of doing an Oz sequel was all well and good, but Filmation went with stunt casting (Judy Garland’s daughter voicing Dorothy, original Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton doing a cameo as Aunt Em, plus several celebrities of the time) and an uncredited rewrite of Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. This movie plucks some of the characters from that book – Mombi and Pumpkinhead – turns the Sawhorse into a Merry-Go-Round horse, then turns the plot into something that’s trying hard to be The Wizard of Oz all over again. Instead of that other story, in which a young boy named Tip and his friends wind up stumbling on a plot to conquer Oz by an army of angry women, this movie has Dorothy once again marching to the Emerald City, once again picking up unusual friends along the way, once again being plagued by a Wicked Witch out for revenge. It’s incomprehensible to me why, with 14 Oz books to choose from by Baum alone, filmmakers never seem to look past the first three for inspiration, and often try to shoehorn elements from the latter two into the mold of the first one all over again. It’s equally baffling why they would create new elements when the originals (such as General Jinjur’s all-girl army, which the elephants are standing in for) work so much better. And for Heaven’s sake, why elephants? Okay, they’re big, they’re powerful, but the way the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion react to them you’d think elephants are their natural predators or something. Even mammoths might make sense, but the Tin Man going into a panic over green elephants simply doesn’t make any sense.

The performances, as I said, are merely adequate. Liza Minnelli is clearly cast simply for the gimmick of having her take up her mother’s role, as she brings nothing to the part. She’s not terrible, but there are most certainly more talented voice performers who could have done more, granted the character the sweetness and innocence she demands. As it is, the only thing that really can be said about Dorothy in this film is that she “kinda sounds a little like Judy Garland.” The animation is weak as well – Filmation does a far better job with the non-human characters than Dorothy. She’s surrounded by characters like the Tin Man and Pumpkinhead, which at least look amusing, but Dorothy herself is a stiff, unemotive creature that only really has one expression. This isn’t one of those times where I’m willing to chalk it up to the limited resources of the time, either. If Disney could make magical, powerful characters in the 1930s, the only excuse for the poor animation of the 70s is pencil-pushers cutting corners, and that I refuse to forgive.

Some of the other characters are better, at least. Milton Berle as the Cowardly Lion and Mickey Rooney as the Scarecrow fit the parts nicely. Danny Thomas’s Tin Man is less impressive, and Paul Lynde… well, he’s pretty much Paul Lynde talking out of a Jack O’Lantern. Ethel Merman’s Mombi isn’t bad at all, but she’s playing a typical, stereotypical witch, not particularly doing anything innovative. But my biggest problem with them is more along the lines of characterization than animation. The notion that the Tin Man or Lion would ever refuse to help Dorothy is preposterous. Hell, the entire point of the Lion’s story arc in the first book (or movie) is that he will always overcome his fear to help his friends! You mean to tell me you wave a little thing like an army of magic green elephants in his face and the king of beasts will lose his ability to fight? Absolutely not, my friends. I cannot accept this. The scenes with the Tin Man and Lion ultimately have no impact on the plot anyway, they’re included simply so that the recognizable characters could put in an appearance. It would have been just as effective and far less insulting, from a story standpoint, if the movie skipped from the escape from the Emerald City to the point where Glinda pops up. (It would actually be better, in fact, because if Glinda was watching the whole time, why the hell did she wait so long before taking action?)

Speaking of Glinda, here we see one of those oft-used fantasy tropes that usually irritates me: the “don’t open it until the proper time” gimmick. Writers often use this to create some false suspense, but at least they usually make some effort to explain why the giver of the gift won’t say what it is: magic, arbitrary rules of the game, “you wouldn’t have believed me,” something. None of those are brought into play here, though, there was no reason for Glinda to make a secret out of the box’s contents. It’s just there so we can have a brief moment in the forest where Woodenhead suggests opening the box to escape the trees and Dorothy can tell him no, reminding us that she’s a good little girl who does as Glinda tells her.

The songs, like the voice acting, are merely adequate. Each character gets at least one, Dorothy gets several, none of them are particularly memorable. This was par for the course for films of this nature, sadly, and that’s even sadder when you compare it to the incomparable music from the 1939 film.

When I learned of the existence of this movie, I was initially very excited – as I always am when I find out about a version of Oz I haven’t encountered before. Sadly, the whole thing fell very flat for me. It was at least more recognizable than the 1925 Wizard of Oz, but in truth, that’s mostly because it was built on the back of the Judy Garland film. That’s not to say you can’t tell a good Oz story that way – many people have – but this didn’t hold up for me. Still, I can see a lot of similarities to the cartoons I grew up watching, the ones that hold a special place in my heart even today. On the other hand, I can also recognize that a large number of those cartoons I loved as a kid are terribly weak when looked back upon with a discerning eye. I suspect that if I had watched this movie as a child, I’d probably upon it with rose-colored glasses. As it is, I’m just left sliding the disc back into its NetFlix sleeve and feeling a little disappointed for the second time in this week’s experiment.

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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The Christmas Special Day 8: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

twas-the-night-before-christmasDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the poem by Clement Clarke Moore

Cast: George Gobel, Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, Bob McFadden, John McGiver, Alan Swift

Plot: Two months before Christmas, in the little town of Junctionville, NY, both the human and mouse populations found themselves getting their letters from Santa Claus returned unopened.  Father Mouse (George Gobel) discovers an anonymous letter in the newspaper calling Santa a myth and a lie, signed “All of us.” Father Mouse’s son, Albert (Tammy Grimes), is revealed as the author of the letter. Albert, a brainy sort, refuses to believe in things he can’t see or touch. Meanwhile, Father Mouse’s human clockmaking partner, Joshua Trundle (Joel Grey) convinces the town to construct a huge clock to play a song in praise of Santa in the hopes of getting back in his good graces. Father shows Albert around town, pointing out children heartbroken by Santa’s rejection, but Albert remarks that grown-ups don’t care about such things. Father tries to show him how wrong he is by taking him to Trundle’s clock.

On the day Trundle’s clock is unveiled, it mysteriously malfunctions, and the town gives in to despair. By Christmas Eve, the Trundle children don’t even want to hang their stockings or decorate the tree. The mice are in similar desperation, and Father stumbles upon a sobbing Albert, who confesses he broke the clock when trying to study the machinery. Albert vows to repair the clock before midnight, finally understanding that he has a lot left to learn. As the town sits up on what they’re certain will be a sad Christmas Eve, the clock strikes midnight and begins chiming Trundle’s Santa song. In the sky, a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer swoop down, and the Trundle and Mouse families watch as St. Nicholas makes his annual visit, right on schedule.

Thoughts: Like the many Rankin and Bass specials based on songs, Jerome Coopersmith had the task of expanding upon a rather thin plot. The original poem, of course, is simply about Santa popping in, getting caught by Dad, and popping back out again. No drama, no antagonist, and the mice that aren’t stirring also aren’t talking. Thank goodness the Rankin and Bass folks were here to fix that. Oddly, the result is an almost completely original story – the poem really only factors into the very beginning and very end narration, with everything in-between existing in a little world of its own.

Albert is an interesting character – someone who refuses to believe in anything abstract or esoteric. At the time, marking such a character as the misguided one in need of a lesson was standard operating procedure. Watching this cartoon today, however, I have to marvel at how different things are. In today’s culture, Albert would far too often be the one dealing out the lesson, ridiculing characters who draw upon faith. I rather prefer this version of the paradigm. The song “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” is perhaps one of my favorites in all of the Rankin and Bass universe – something sweet and hopeful, but at the same time recognizing the need for good people to step up and work towards their dreams. As messages go, it’s a timeless one that more and more I feel like the modern world is forgetting.

It’s also interesting that this is one of the few Rankin and Bass cartoons – either stop-motion or traditionally-animated – that is presented as a period piece. Most of the Santa-centric cartoons that touch upon the real world – Frosty, for instance, or The Year Without a Santa Claus – all took place in the present day, with only Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town going into the past for the origin. This cartoon, though, seems to take place in a turn of the century sort of community. The story probably would have worked just well if set in 1974, but something about the more old-fashioned setting sets it apart a bit, giving it a slightly different flavor from the rest of the Rankin and Bass catalogue.

If the story has a weakness, it comes in Albert’s redemption. Like so many Rankin and Bass antagonists, we see someone who is more misguided than evil, and in his case, works frantically to fix his mistake. This is all well and good, but Albert’s actual transformation falls short. This half-hour short (25 minutes without commercials) simply doesn’t give us enough time to really watch Albert evolve as a character. Father Mouse’s song and the visit to the clock don’t seem nearly powerful enough to cause the sort of change of heart we see in Albert just in the nick of time. The ending is still very good, but it feels unearned.

twas-santaWhat’s really odd, though, is how off-model Santa and his reindeer are in this film. The Rankin and Bass cartoons have a certain style whether they’re stop motion or cell animation, and even Frosty the Snowman sticks fairly close to style. While the human and mice characters easily look like they could pop into any other R&B production and be perfectly welcome, Santa… Santa. The “right jolly old elf” himself looks more like Alfred E. Neuman wearing a Santa suit than anything else. (Either that or he was a test model for the Hobbits in the Rankin and Bass adaptation of that novel, which came out in 1977.) Then, Santa speaks in a booming, deep (and uncredited) voice. It’s a good Santa voice, again one which would feel at home in any of these films, but feels completely alien to the Santa design in this cartoon.

These things take me out of the cartoon briefly, but only briefly. Despite being based on one of the most famous Christmas verses ever written, it’s actually one of the most original cartoon Rankin and Bass ever produced, and in and of itself, that’s enough to make it one of the better ones from any studio, ever.

The Christmas Special Day 7: The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

year-without-a-santa-claus-br-copyDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.

Writer: William J. Keenan, based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley

Cast: Mickey Rooney,Shirley Booth, Dick Shawn, George S. Irving, Bob McFadden, Rhoda Mann, Bradley Bolke, Colin Duffy

Plot: One year Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney) comes down with a terrible cold. His elfin doctor tells him people don’t care about Christmas anymore anyway, and the sad Santa cancels Christmas this year. With everyone distraught, Mrs. Santa Claus (Shirley Booth) sends elves Jingle and Jangle (Bob McFadden and Bradley Bolke, respectively) — with the reindeer Vixen — south to try to find some leftover Christmas spirit from the year before to convince Santa to get back on his feet. When Santa finds out they’ve left, he gets out of bed to try to fetch them, fearing they’ll run afoul of “the Miser Brothers.”

The elves, as it turn out, are heading right between the kingdoms of the warring Snow Miser (Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (George S. Irving). Vixen barely escapes the Misers, and the trio land in nearby Southtown, U.S.A. They begin their search for Christmas spirit, but run into one person after another who doesn’t care… even children ambivalent about Santa Claus skipping his annual visit. They leave the children when Vixen – disguised as a dog – is taken away by the dogcatcher. One of the children, Ignatius Thistlewhite  (Colin Duffy) is later approached by Santa Claus. Ignatius directs Santa to the dog pound and he leaps upon Donner to fly to the rescue. Ignatius and his parents see the flying reindeer, and he realizes his mistake. The elves and Ignatius arrive at town hall at the same time, trying to plead to the mayor for Vixen’s freedom. The mayor doesn’t believe them, and jokingly offers to free Vixen if they can make it snow in Southtown. Meeting up with Mrs. Claus, the elves visit Snow Miser who – after one of the most rousing and memorable musical numbers Rankin and Bass ever produced – they ask to bring snow to Southtown. As it turns out he’d love to do that very thing, but his brother the Heat Miser won’t allow it. When they turn to Heat Miser, he agrees to allow snow in the south, but only if Snow Miser will cede to him the North Pole for a day. Realizing the brothers will never come to terms, Mrs. Claus goes over their heads to their mother… the notoriously reclusive Mother Nature herself (Rhoda Mann). Mother forces them to cooperate.

Unbeknownst to them, Santa has taken Vixen – sick from the heat – back home to the North Pole. Santa, still feeling ill himself, sits down for a nap, unaware snow is falling in Southtown. Mrs. Claus returns with newspapers proclaiming an official holiday in celebration of Santa Claus. All over the world, children come together to visit the North Pole and give gifts to Santa for a change. On Christmas Eve however, Santa receives a letter from a child who proclaims she’ll have a blue Christmas without him. Santa, touched despite the blatant plagiarism from an Elvis Presley hit, demands his sleigh be prepared for his traditional Christmas rounds. He makes a special journey to Southtown, appearing in public (I told you guys he constantly breaks that rule in the Rankin-Bass universe) to thank the children who taught him his lesson. He leaves to perform his duty, taking off from the newly-renamed Santa Claus Lane.

Thoughts: I was almost reluctant to include this one, based on my “one-per-franchise” rule. This film is considered by some to be a sequel to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, mostly due to the fact that Mickey Rooney returns as Santa Claus. But then I decided screw it – it would be easy to link together most of the Rankin-Bass specials and just as easy to declare that each one exists in a totally separate reality from all the others, so I’m just going to do the ones I want to. It’s my project, after all.

If I did want to think of it as a sequel (which I don’t), this is the Superman II of the franchise. The origin stuff is out of the way, so we can tell a solid, self-contained story without worrying about wasting time placing the pieces on the board. The cast is expanded and the threat is considerably greater than in the first film. Also like Superman II, this film features the hero deciding to eschew his responsibilities and struggle with questions of his own relevance, only to learn a harsh lesson about just how needed he truly is. In both films, our hero is rendered ill, wounded, and is eventually prodded forward by the urging of an outside party (Santa’s letter to the little girl, Superman given a plea by the President of the United States). Even the villains in each film take the opportunity to screw each other, setting up circumstances that directly lead to the solution to the threat. This movie, it should be noted, has 100 percent fewer Super Roofie Kisses than Superman II, so the metaphor isn’t a perfect one.

I honestly like this much more than Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, mostly because – although it suffers from an unforgivable lack of Topper the Penguin (something else it has in common with Superman II) — it more than makes up for it with the introduction of the Miser Brothers. These are characters that have really become cultural hallmarks, at least for my generation. Their respective Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs have been covered by pop groups and rock bands, and even the most ardent Scrooge will find themselves singing along if that particular tune starts piping in through the mall sound system. Of all the characters created by the Rankin-Bass people from whole cloth (as opposed to being based on a preexisting tune or legend), these are the two that have most fully acclimated into American pop culture. They are the perfect example of a Rankin and Bass creep-to-be-redeemed. They aren’t evil, they’re just childish, and the ire they’ve directed at one another for such a long time has contributed directly to the lack of Christmas spirit in the world around them. It’s not a question of turning them away from being bad, it’s just a case of making them realize it will be better for everyone if they would simply cooperate with one another, a lesson similar to that learned by General Zod and Lex Luthor, and I swear to Krampus himself that’s the last Superman II reference. Today.

On a more personal note, the notion of snow in the south being the hallmark of real magic is something else that helps this special resonate with me. I’m from Louisiana, friends. White Christmases aren’t exactly common here. Neither are white New Years, white Valentine’s Days, or white Martin Luther King Days. It doesn’t snow down here much, is the point I’m making. So the idea of a little snow hitting specifically on Christmas really does carry magic in the south that those of you in colder climes may not realize. I offer the following evidence: a few years ago, against all odds, it actually got cold enough to snow in New Orleans on Christmas Day. It wasn’t much snow, just a dusting really, and my Yankee now-fiancé Erin just laughed when she saw how excited we were… but on that day, people flooded the streets. Everybody in the neighborhood was outside, kids who hadn’t taken their eyes off their X-Boxes in years were playing in the sun, throwing snowballs at each other and embracing the sudden burst of joy that was falling down as surely as the ice. My sister, who was 23 at the time, actually pulled the doorknob out of the door in her rush to get outside. It doesn’t happen here, friends. So I know how the folks of Southtown feel.

Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, this special proves that the fear of waning Christmas spirit isn’t a new problem at all. It’s actually kind of encouraging to realize people were afraid of these same problems forty and fifty years ago – if we’ve made it this far, maybe it’s just one of those things that never really goes away. But that’s okay, because there are people like Mrs. Claus, people of goodwill like you and me (admit it, you love Christmas, you wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t), and through our own small efforts and acts of kindness and acts of will, we’ll help the holiday persevere.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 3: Young Frankenstein (1974)

young-frankensteinDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks

Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Khan, Richard Haydn, Gene Hackman, Anne Beesley

Plot: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen,” Gene Wilder), grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, leaves his inconsistently affectionate fiancé Elizabeth (Madeline Khan), for Transylvania. He is met by Igor (“I-gor,” Marty Feldman), grandson of his grandfather’s assistant, and Inga (Teri Garr), his temporary lab assistant, who quickly displays more affection than the fiancé he left behind. Frankenstein’s castle is kept by Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), who Frederick questions about his grandfather’s “private” library. That night, Frederick is awakened from a nightmare by Inga, and, after a classic spinning bookcase gag, the two of them locate a secret passageway. At the bottom of a cobweb-covered staircase, they find Igor and the elder Frankenstein’s lab. Frederick reads his grandfather’s notes and finds the secret of animating lifeless matter, something he always believed impossible.

Igor and Frederick steal the corpse of an enormous, freshly-executed man to repeat Victor’s experiment. Igor goes on his own to steal a suitable brain for the beast, but as happened to his grandfather, fumbles with it and is forced to take an abnormal brain instead. In town, the people fear Frankenstein’s grandson, certain he is repeating his grandfather’s crimes (which, of course, he is). They recruit Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) to discover what Frederick is doing.

That night the Monster (Peter Boyle) comes to life. Although he seems gentle at first, when Igor strikes a match, he goes berserk and nearly kills Frederick. Igor confesses that he took a brain from “Abby Normal” just as Kemp arrives.  Frederick sends him off, but while he’s preoccupied Frau Blucher finds the monster and releases it. The creature breaks free from the castle, and Frederick vows to find it before it can hurt anyone. They set a trap for it the next evening, luring it with a violin and sedating it. Frederick insists upon trying to convince the creature it is loved. As he speaks to the beast, he not only takes it under his wing, but accepts his own destiny, declaring, “MY NAME IS FRANKENSTEIN!”

He presents the creature to the town, charming them with a song and dance routine before a light blows and it turns on the crowd and the police haul it away. As Frederick and Inga find comfort in each other’s arms, they receive a telegram that Elizabeth will be coming to the castle that night. After Elizabeth again rebuffs Frederick’s advances for the night, the creature – having escaped — returns to the castle. She passes out and he takes her with him to a hiding place in the woods, where she soon succumbs to its own animal desires. After a mere six times, though, the violin from the castle summons him back. Frederick decides the only way to protect the creature is to use his own brain to stabilize it. Kemp leads an angry mob, complete with torches and pitchforks, into the castle, and are about to make off with Frederick’s body, when the stable creature commands them to put him down. He gives a stirring speech and Kemp realizes the error of his ways. In the end, Frederick and Inga are married, whilst Elizabeth and the creature go off to enjoy domestic bliss of their own.

Thoughts: Coming off the magnificent western/comedy Blazing Saddles, it’s not surprising that Mel Brooks would turn his attention to the horror/comedy genre. (He’d later tackle the epic in History of the World Part I, science fiction in Spaceballs and high adventure with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He’d return to horror with Dracula: Dead and Loving it, but the less said about that one, the better.) Working off an idea by Gene Wilder, these two took one of the most enduring classics of horror and turned it into one of the best horror/comedies ever.

Young Frankenstein works as a kinda-sequel to the original Frankenstein, building on the mythology of the original Universal films even though there was no official connection. (Young Frankenstein was produced by 20th Century Fox.) It doesn’t really contradict any of the older films, at least no more than some of the official sequels did, but it takes the franchise into an entirely different direction. This is the first film in my little experiment that I’d classify as a “Type B” horror/comedy – more comedy, but using the tropes of horror and spoofing them. The difference is in the plot, really – what puts this in the second category is that the story couldn’t exist without the comedy tropes. Even Abbott and Costello’s antics with the monsters followed a fairly straightforward scary movie plot for the 1940s, whereas certain elements of this film could not be removed or altered without drastic changes being made to the story structure. You could maybe replace the musical number towards the end with something more King Kong-eque, but that would simply feel derivative. And it’d be a lot harder to play up the creature’s abduction and romancing of Elizabeth without the comedy elements in any way that doesn’t make it tread uncomfortably close to plain rape.

The other thing, and the more all-encompassing thing, that makes this a Type B is the characterization. In a Type A universe, we’ve got a frightening situation populated by some funny characters. Bela Lugosi wasn’t a quippy Dracula, and Bob Hope’s cracks about the ghosts were only funny in the context of a world where nobody would take such a thing seriously. Not so for Type B, where all characters – and everything else – can become fodder for humor.  In Young Frankenstein, as in most Mel Brooks comedies, anybody can play straight man to anybody else at any moment. Everyone can crack a joke or make a comment that’s hysterical – to the audience. In-universe, however, nobody recognizes the humor.

The only exception would be Marty Feldman’s Igor, who leans heavily on the fourth wall, winking at the audience, and throwing out some meta-puns that make him seem both wackier than and more savvy than the rest of the characters. His comedy is easily the broadest of the troupe Brooks and Wilder assembled, and he’s probably the funniest as well. His timing is flawless, his sense of propriety non-existent, and his ability to key into other comedy from other eras makes his performance as funny now as 40 years ago.

What elevates this above most other Type B horror/comedies (coughScaryMoviecough) is the way Brooks and Wilder are still capable of crafting real characters instead of caricatures, telling a real story instead of just creating their own Frankenstein-patchwork of other movies. Even this film, which literally could not exist without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its inspiration, feels fresh and original.

Just as important, Brooks and Wilder don’t simply repeat moments, but build upon them. The crummy spoofs of the 21st century are frequently completely devoid of actual jokes, instead just referencing a better movie under the assumption that the audience will understand the reference and laugh at the recognition. This is a stupid, asinine way to make a movie that far too many of my 11th grade students mistake for humor. In a Brooks comedy, though, we touch on the familiar moments and make them new. Igor stealing the brain, for example, begins with a glance at the camera, because he knows that we know what’s coming. Then, when the brain of a “scientist and saint” is accidentally destroyed, he goes for the abnormal brain immediately, despite the fact that the next brain over is clearly labeled “visionary.” The camera just pans past the other label, though, and a viewer may watch the movie two or three times before they even notice it. Modern films are incapable of this sort of subtle, Easter Egg humor – a film by Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer (perpetrators of such crimes against comedy as Meet the Spartans and Vampires Suck) would be sure to hover over that label, make sure everybody sees it, and drain every iota of comedic potential from it before moving on to what everybody knows they’re going to do anyway.

Modern spoof movies suck, is the point I’m trying to make.

Anyway, the film is built on small moments. Kenneth Mars’s assorted shtick with his artificial arm, the disastrous game of darts, and the bit where a choking Frederick has to play charades to make his incompetent accomplices understand he wants them to sedate the monster that is actively murdering him are the sorts of thing that make for a great spoof. None of these are repeat jokes, they’re built on the characters and story as presented instead of spending all their time making allusions to everything else. In fact, except for the full-film allusion to the original, the only references to anything else are when the town elders imply they’ve dealt with monsters five times in the past (referring, of course, to the line of Frankenstein pictures made by Universal) and Madeline Kahn’s hairstyle after she becomes the creature’s “bride.” And as those are both clearly references to the Frankenstein lore as a whole, if not the first movie specifically, we accept them.

When the movie references the original directly, it often does so in order to subvert it. When the creature encounters a little girl playing with flowers, we’re prepared for the worst, based on what happened to the little girl in the Boris Karloff original. Instead, we get a hysterical seesaw gag which completely takes us by surprise and is more than funny enough for us to forgive the fact that it really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story. Gene Hackman’s cameo as the blind man serves a similar purpose – not actually progressing the plot, but showing us the character of the beast as it attempts to make friends and is thwarted, not because he’s a monster, but because his potential companions aren’t entirely capable.

When I asked for help assembling the movies for Lunatics and Laughter, one of the first suggestions I got was Scary Movie. And while I considered it, I decided not to do it, at least for the first phase. It may make the expanded edition, but only because of its influence on movie as a whole, not because of the quality. As you’ll see as we continue our march to Halloween, the vast majority of the movies I’ve chosen for this project are A-Type horror comedies, because most of the B-Types, frankly, are terrible. This is hands-down the best, the finest, the funniest horror spoof I’ve ever seen, and it’s frankly ruined me for most of the other ones. And for that, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder most assuredly have earned my thanks.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 18: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

texas-chainsaw-massacreDirector: Tobe Hooper

Writer: Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel

Cast: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Allen Danziger, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan

Plot: The film opens with grisly images and a radio news report of some horrific “sculpture” found by police, made out of bodies stolen from their graves. As the radio continues to talk about the case, we meet a group of young people on their way to visit the grave of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns)’s grandfather. On the way home, they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who proceeds to cut himself and slashes Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) before they throw him out. At a run-down gas station, Franklin asks for directions to his father’s old property, but the manager (Jim Siedow) tries to warn them away. Instead, they decide to check out the old place and return later after the transport refills the station’s gas tanks.

Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) decide to set out to seek a nearby swimming hole, but instead find a house full of animal skulls, hide, and heads. Kirk enters, only to be confronted by a giant man (Gunnar Hansen) wearing a horrible mask of human skin. When Pam enters to search for him, she finds the house full of skeletons – both animal and human – arranged in bizarre, horrible tableaus. The man with the mask snatches her too, impaling her on a hook and making her watch as he dismembers Kirk with a chainsaw.

Back at the van Jerry (Allen Danizger) sets out to search for Kirk and Pam (breaking the cardinal rule of horror movies – don’t go anywhere alone). With the sun going down arrives at Leatherface’s house and enters, finding Pam barely alive and locked in a freezer chest. Leatherface kills him, because that’s what you do when you’re wearing human skin. It’s after dark now, and Franklin begins to panic over his missing friends and the fact that they have the keys. Sally and Franklin go through the high grass and shrubs, calling for their friends… until Leatherface appears with his chainsaw and hacks up Franklin. Sally runs for her life but, unfortunately, runs right to his house. Instead of help, she finds decaying, partially mummified bodies set up in a terrible sort of diorama. She escapes by leaping from a second-story window, running back into the darkness, screaming. (Hey Sally, pro tip for you: when you’re running from the chainsaw-wielding maniac into the darkness of the night, stop making noises that let him know where you are.)

Sally makes it to the gas station, where the owner knocks her out and ties her up. Driving her back to Leatherface’s house, they encounter the hitchhiker – Leatherface’s little brother. Inside, Leatherface is now wearing a dress and wig, preparing the “family” for supper. The brothers bring down “grandpa” from the attic – the desiccated old man Sally found before. But he’s not a corpse – he’s still alive. The family decides to let grandpa (John Dugan) kill Sally, but he’s too weak to hold the hammer, and she manages to escape, jumping through (another) window to find it’s now morning. She flees into the road, the brother behind her. An 18-wheeler comes around the corner, killing him. Sally leaps into the bed of a passing pickup truck, leaving Leatherface flailing about in the road.

Thoughts: It’s another entry in the “no, really, this actually happened” category of horror films. In truth, the story and characters were a complete fabrication, although Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel were reportedly inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein (also the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s original novel of Psycho – there’s a little trivia for you).

Unlike some of the later horror icons (Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers), Leatherface never really grabbed me. Part of it may be his choice of victims – Pam is an airheaded hippie, Franklin is a self-pitying lout, and Kirk and Jerry come across as rather cold and heartless. Even Sally has moments of cruelty towards her brother, although considering the stress she’s under at that point, it’s a little more forgivable. Still you want to have somebody to root for when the killer is busy hacking people to shreds.

The thing that makes this movie effective, if not to my personal tastes, is how abrupt much of the horror is. The hitchhiker is weird, sure, but you’re still shocked when he grabs Franklin’s knife and cuts into the meat of his own palm. The house Kirk and Pam find is bizarre, but you’re simply not expecting it when Leatherface leaps out and pounds him in the head. When the horror begins, Tobe Hooper avoided the telltales that Something Bad Is Happening – no ominous music, no creepy sound effects, no shadows moving in the background. It just goes from one minute looking at a weird little house to, the next, finding yourself getting attacked by a monster. Again, as Franklin and Sally push through the weeds in the dark, Leatherface appears without warning. Movies aren’t made this way anymore.

This movie does, however, give birth to many of the other slasher film clichés: the “Last Girl,” the girl who can’t outrun the killer despite his enormous size, the victim who runs up the stairs instead of running the hell away and so forth. In truth, most of those clichés are embodied in Sally who – although terrified – really isn’t the smartest horror movie character you’ve ever seen. Think about it, Sal – the killer was right outside the door, then vanishes when the creepy old man opens the door again to get his truck? To her credit, she does figure out that something is wrong, but way too slowly.

As for Leatherface himself – maybe it’s decades of exposure to horror movies, but the horror mask doesn’t really unnerve me all that much. What’s creepy is the face beneath the mask. Gunnar Hansen is wearing enormous, jagged teeth, and his eyes dart about whenever you see him in close-up, as if his brain is flitting about in his head, ready to pop out at any moment.

It’s a fast-paced movie, which is to the good. The running time is short – only 84 minutes – but even taking that into account, things move along at quite a clip. We’re deep into the movie before Leatherface appears, but you don’t actually feel how long it has been. Amazingly, by the time Leatherface disposes of the first four victims and only Sally is left, there’s still a half-hour left in the film.

Hooper also works in a little macabre comedy towards the film’s end. The father’s reaction to how Leatherface chopped up the door could have come from an exasperated TV father. He may as well have said, “We just can’t have nice things!” Leatherface prancing around in the dress, cringing from his angry father, feels like Hooper took Norman Bates and twisted him into an even weirder configuration. The thing is, once Leatherface puts the wig on and allows his father to browbeat him, he ceases to be menacing and becomes an object of ridicule. Well, for me, at least. Sally probably felt different. The horror comes back when “grandpa” makes an appearance, and actually recovers pretty well considering how the rhythm of the piece had been disrupted seconds before.

The film is inconsistent with its characters, too. The father alternately claims he takes no pleasure in killing and there’s no sense in torturing Sally before she has to die, then switches to giggling and mocking her along with his warped sons. He even jumps up and down with glee as grandpa tries to hammer Sally in the head. There’s no real reason for these inexplicable shifts, save perhaps to pad out the film a bit, as it is accompanied by long scenes of Sally screaming, with close-ups of her eyes cut with shots of the laughing family (including dad).

Even the film’s conclusion is terribly abrupt, with Sally’s savior coming out of nowhere and whisking her away as the credits roll. There’s no follow-up here, and this is a film that kind of needs it. Sally must have alerted the police – was the family still there when they arrived? Were they attacked? These are the sort of things I suppose may have been addressed in the sequels, but I’ve never seen any of them and, honestly, I’m not really compelled to.

From terror of the human variety, we’re going to face off with the nastiest predator of the animal kingdom. Tomorrow, you’re going to want to stay out of the water, because we’re watching Jaws.