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Scrooge Revisited Day 1-Walter Matthau in The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

stingiest-man-in-townNote: 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: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writers: Romeo Muller & Janice Torre, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Walter Matthau, Tom Bosley, Theodore Bikel, Robert Morse, Dennis Day, Paul Frees, Sonny Melendrez, Debra Clinger, Bobby Rolofson, Steffi Calli, Eric Hines, Dee Stratton, Darlene Conley

Notes: Rankin and Bass, of course, were the kings of Christmas animation in the 60s and 70s. They’re the people who gave us the timeless versions of Rudolph and Frosty, several definitive Santa Claus specials, added the Heatmiser and Snowmiser to our holiday menagerie, and so on. It’s no surprise that they would eventually tackle the most famous Christmas story of them all. What is kind of interesting is that this animated special was not quite an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but rather a remake of a musical TV special of the same name from 1956 starring Basil Rathbone. The live action version apparently made it to DVD in 2011. Great, now I’ve got something else to look for.

Thoughts: From the beginning, this adaptation attempts to put a little coat of fresh paint on an old story, with the story narrated by Tom Bosley as “B.A.H. Humbug,” a character I’m sure children of 1978 took to like kids take to the Pokémons today. He’s largely a superfluous character, though, with some weird family history thing he has with the Scrooges that’s never really developed and you don’t really care. The film is almost operettic, with very little spoken dialogue. Nearly every line is sung, which isn’t a bad thing, except that the cast isn’t necessarily the most musical. Neither Bosley or Walter Matthau, as Scrooge, were Top 40 crooners in their day, and as a result, the songs don’t exactly land. Matthau’s singing in particular is stilted, over-enunciated, the sort of thing that sounds like somebody doing a parody of an over-the-top Broadway performer. That would be fine if this film was intended to be a parody. In a serious adaptation, though, it’s a problem when your Scrooge’s voice is the weakest part of your Christmas Carol. In truth, some of the best singing in the special comes from Robert Morse as young Scrooge in the scene where the miser is rejecting Belle (Shelby Flint).

It doesn’t help that none of them are particularly memorable in their own right. Even when it’s not Matthau singing, the songs just aren’t catchy. The best is probably “There is a Santa Claus,” sung at the Cratchit’s house, which is a nice enough piece if you can forget the fact that this is ostensibly Victorian England, where nobody called him “Santa Claus” and the practice was largely abandoned anyway. This odd version of the story not only throws in a superfluous Santa Claus song, but follows that up with the Humbug singing a song about the Nativity. I’m not about to complain about a Christmas special that actually has the guts to talk about Jesus, but it feels very out of the blue, out of place with the rest of the story. The song tries to make an equivocation between Jesus and Tiny Tim, which is the sort of allegory that probably sounded great on paper, but just doesn’t gel in practice.

When he’s not singing, Matthau is adequate as Scrooge. His voice has emotion laced through it, but it’s a little too obvious, a little too much like he’s “acting” instead of delivering the lines naturally. He’s better at the end of the cartoon, after Scrooge’s redemption, when he’s sounding joyful instead of terrified, although his “happy” singing voice is no less bombastic or forced than his stingy one. Matthau is a bit outshined, as well, by Paul Frees as the Ghosts of Past and Present. Frees was one of the usual players at Rankin and Bass, and responsible for a few of their legendary characters – Jack Frost, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, a few turns as Santa Claus, as well as performing Ludwig Von Drake and other voices for Disney. His Christmas Present in particular is good, a nice, loud, round-sounding voice that’s perfect for the mountainous spirit.

I’ve got to give Rankin and Bass credit, though, for not toning down the story. The story shows Scrooge in his bed being menaced by an apparition before the opening credits even roll, then cuts back to show the traditional visit with Fred (Dennis Day) in the counting house When Scrooge goes home to see Marley’s face in the door knocker, it’s a rather gruesome sight – mouth wide open and dripping, about as grotesque as you can imagine a cartoon from the 70s ever being. I was hoping for something similarly chilling from Christmas Yet to Come, but instead the character essentially made a cameo, appearing in the traditional robe and vanishing in less time than it took to sing the Jesus song.

It’s worth noting that Rankin and Bass’s animation style had evolved considerably from their classic specials. Unlike the earlier traditionally animated films, like Frosty the Snowman or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which were more or less on-model with the stop motion characters, the character designs in this film are much closer to their 1977 production of The Hobbit – less perfectly round and more bulbous, globular, and wrinkled. Scrooge himself looks like he would be perfectly as home in their version of Bilbo’s shire.

This, frankly, is not one of their best specials. It’s not terrible, but when you inevitably compare it to Rudolph and Frosty, it’s going to fall in the pack of lesser works. The same goes for when you compare it to other renditions of A Christmas Carol. It may not be as painful as An All Dogs Christmas Carol, but it’s nothing to write home about 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!

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The Showcase Gang’s Halloween Marathon

Another trip in the Wayback Machine today, friends. Here we’re spinning through the timeline to 2008, when I got together with my Showcase buds to take in not one, not two, but nine movies in the Halloween franchise. Let’s take a look, shall we?

MyersSince Mike’s parents are staying with him after their home was damaged in Hurricane Gustav, Kenny graciously offered to let us use his apartment to kick off this year. On Friday evening, he and I sat with Jason and Andrea, and Daniel and Lauren, patiently awaiting the arrival of Mike, who apparently forgot we were doing this in the vast expanse of time (the day before) since I called and reminded him we were doing this. While we’re waiting, how about a brief history lesson? John Carpenter’s 1978 flick Halloween is sometimes credited as being the first slasher film, with all others (the adventures of Freddy and Jason included) being derivatives of that first maniac in a whitewashed William Shatner mask. It should be interesting watching this, as I know that at least a couple of our intrepid geeks have never seen the first Halloween before, whereas Jason knows it about as well as I know the Richard Donner Superman. The differing opinions will be great, right up until Kenny grabs one of the many bladed weapons he keeps around the apartment and runs Jason through as he attempts to defend Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

For information’s sake, I’ll just point out that I have not seen all of the films in the franchise either. The ones I have seen include the original Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween III, Halloween H20 and the recent Rob Zombie remake. So four of these flicks will be all new to me as well.

Okay, Mike’s here! Let’s get this show on the road…

halloween1Halloween (1978)

The first slasher film comes on the DVD player, with the option to play either in widescreen or fullscreen. Kenny loses geek points for even asking which one he should play. As we go through the long opening shot, Jason and Mike begin arguing over whether Rob Zombie topped this film. (Jason argues it is impossible, while Mike claims the lack of “jump in fear” moments in the original makes it inferior. I merely nod and continue typing.) The argument comes to an abrupt halt when lil’ Michael Myers walks in on his sister naked, causing Mike to cheer in joy. The carnage has begun. As the film scrolls out of the Myers house, Mike comments on how cute he is, standing here holding a bloody blade. Daniel chimes in, “it’s like a little Kenny.”

As Dr. Loomis (the immortal Donald Pleasance) makes his appearance, noticing the breakout at the mental institute where lil’ Mike has been for 15 years, the classic John Carpenter theme music appears.  And friends, no matter what else we say about this franchise over the course of this marathon, I want to make one thing clear: Carpenter wrote the best slasher movie score of all time. I mean… the Nightmare theme is okay, and Jason has his “ki-ki-ki… ma-ma-ma…” thing going on, but… oh, sorry. I was distracted as Kenny wondered aloud how a 22-year-old man who’s been in a mental institution for 15 years knows how to drive a car.

The action shifts to Jamie Lee Curtis, the young babysitter Laurie Strode, walking home from school past – as Daniel observes – a street full of Volkswagens. She’s the virgin of the group, thus inspiring horror movie tropes that would last decades. A little later, as Jamie Lee’s slutty friend brings her young charge over so that Laurie can watch both the little girl AND the little boy, Jason chimes in, “in five years, those two will have sex and get killed in a Halloween movie!” Mike looks over, incredulous. “Really?” I shrug. “Well, they’ll be eligible.”

As we approach the climax of the film, Mike pshaws the “lame” slash Michael makes at the terrified Laurie. I kinda think it’s intentional, though. Based on the later reveals about their relationship, I don’t think he was actually trying to kill her. As Jason points out, “he could have gorked her easily.” This begins a five-minute dissertation on the etymology of the verb “gork.” Daniel, meanwhile, tries to rat out Jamie Lee’s hiding place in the closet to Michael.

In the end, of course, Dr. Loomis shows up, and blows Michael away… or does he? Honestly, it’s a very good movie, but I don’t think it’s quite the masterpiece that some people (namely Jason) make it out to be. I give it a lot of credit for codifying the slasher subgenre, but there are later films, in my opinion, that did it better. I like this movie quite a bit, but I don’t think it’ll ever make it into the ranks of my all-time favorite horror flicks.

Halloween2Halloween II (1981).

Picking up literally minutes before the end of the first movie, we re-watch the final scenes we’ve already seen, with Laurie facing off against the Shape after letting the little kids flee in terror. Dr. Loomis shows up, again, to save the day, and the second movie begins in earnest. The new stuff becomes obvious when Loomis rushes outside to find a hysterical body imprint in the grass. Laurie, having been wounded in her encounter with Michael, is whisked off to the hospital by Lance Guest, who will always be The Last Starfighter to me. As she gets an injection of a sedative, Jason squeals and covers his mouth, while Daniel leaps up and shouts, “Stick it in there!”

As Michael makes his way to the hospital, Laurie starts to have nasty dreams about being a child, visiting someone… somewhere. Really, at this point it should have been obvious where it was going, but hey, it was 1981. We then move down to the therapy ward of the hospital, where Nurse Naughty Parts is getting ready for a soak with the Last Starfighter’s partner. Mike gets excited, while Andrea just questions what kind of hospital they’re running here. Mike’s enjoyment of the film is curtailed only seconds later by the first appearance, in this franchise, of NMA (“Nasty Man Ass”) just before the paramedic is strangled on the other side of a frosted window while the nurse gets out of the tub, not even attempting to cover up despite the fact that a film crew is right there in the room. At this point, we ask Mike if he’s satisfied. “Eh, not really,” he says. Nothing satisfies that jackass. As Michael goes on to kill the nurse by making her bob for apples in a hot tub that’s gotten waaaaay too hot, I foolishly question why his hand isn’t burning. “He’s been shot 17 times!” Daniel shouts. I concede the point.

Finally, inevitably, Laurie is the last person still standing in the hospital and, after 70 ponderous minutes, the Shape begins to really go after her. Laurie and the Last Starfighter end up in his car, trying to flee, when he passes out and falls on the horn. “How in the hell is he gonna pilot a Gunstar?” I asked.

Fleeing from her comatose protector, Laurie tries to get BACK into the hospital, with Michael hot on her heels. Loomis gets her inside just under the wire, having just realized what everyone else figured out an hour ago: Laurie is his sister. Loomis shoots Michael – a lot – but then Haddonfield’s answer to Barney Fife tells him to stop. “He’s dead!” he shouts. Loomis shouts back, “no he’s not! He’s still breathing!” I nod. “That’s the smartest thing anyone has ever said in a horror movie,” I observe. “And it’s the last time it’ll ever happen,” Daniel adds.

Michael continues his rampage, stabbing Loomis, prompting someone to ask if he’s dead. “No,” I said, “he comes back.” Kenny adds, “he had the scalpel set on ‘stun’.” They flood the surgical room with gas, Laurie escapes, and Loomis lights a Bic, causing an explosion of epic (not really) proportions. Michael staggers out, burning like the Human Torch, before finally collapsing. How the hell Loomis survived that one, I’ll never know. At least, not until we get around to watching Halloween 4.

Halloween3Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Before Kenny can even get the disc with the black sheep of the Halloween franchise into the DVD player, Mike and Jason are humming the “Silver Shamrock” song. The third film, famously, is sans Michael Myers entirely. John Carpenter decided to try to escape the trap of using the same antagonist in every installment of his franchise, which in and of itself, is a decision I can get behind. But man, man, man did he fall short in the execution.

In this film, the Silver Shamrock corporation begins marketing the most popular Halloween masks of all time: a pumpkin, a skeleton, and a witch. Accompanying the mask is a television show with the most ubiquitous, obnoxious theme song in human history. “Eight more days ‘till Halloween, Halloween, Halloween! Eight more days ‘till Halloween! Silver Shamrock!” What exactly a Shamrock has to do with Halloween is never adequately explained. The film follows a drunken doctor summoned to treat a man who was almost killed fleeing in terror from Clay Aiken. Clutching a Silver Shamrock pumpkin mask, he pleads, “They’re going to kill us… all of us…” The token black guy in the scene immediately runs for his life, causing Daniel to proclaim him the smartest black guy in one of these movies ever.

A few days later, Drunk Doctor is throwing back a few in a bar when a trailer for the first Halloween movie comes on. Seems there’ll be a special screening, sponsored by Silver Shamrock. The film has officially committed the same cardinal sin as the Simon Welles version of The Time Machine – you never remind the audience that there is an earlier, better version of the movie you are watching. Drunk Doctor hunts down the daughter of the guy who died with the mask, hoping he can solve the murder. Together, they decide to investigate the Silver Shamrock factory, in the totally Irish town of Santa Mira, California, where everyone is a freaky-ass stalker-type. As they stop for directions at a local gas station, I see that unleaded is only $1.32 a gallon. Upon reflection, I decide it may be worth living on top of a portal to hell if gas was that cheap.

As Drunk Doctor and the Daughter continue their investigation, they start doing unspeakable things to each other in the Santa Mira hotel – things his wife at home would certainly never approve of. Meanwhile, in a nearby room, a woman who came to town to get masks for her novelty shop uncovers something terrible – a computer chip in the mask’s trademark that kills her violently via a really bad special effect. Ironically, the mutilated remains of her face are probably the best splatter effect we’ve yet seen in this series, and when insects begin crawling out of her mouth, Lauren gets all squeamish. As we begin to discuss this effect, Drunk Doctor leaps to attention, exposing us again to the horrors of NMA. We all scream and cover our eyes, except for Lauren and Andrea, who just laugh at us.

The dynamic duo take a tour of the Silver Shamrock factory, which Daniel and Lauren are convinced was filmed at some museum they visited in Nashville. They continue to debate it while the CEO, Bob Silver Shamrock (or whatever the hell) gives a “processed” mask to a kid on the tour. Drunk Doctor decides to sneak back in that night, only to get attacked by one of the goons that’s been gouging eyeballs out of people for the entire movie. He manages to beat him up, punching a hole into his gut and making a startling discovery: the bad guys are robots, and they apparently bleed honey mustard sauce. Captured, Bob Silver Shamrock decides to conveniently reveal his whole plan to Drunken Doctor: they bring the a kid who begged like a hobo for a mask earlier, have him put it on while he watches the godawful commercial, and we see a portal to hell open up inside the kid’s head, resulting in bugs and creepy crawlies flowing out all over his fetid corpse. Mom was right about what happens to you when you sit too close to the TV. Y’see, these old Celtic folk hate how we Americans have corrupted the ancient ritual of Samhain with our candy and kids in masks, so he decides to kill all the kids as a human sacrifice to bring back the devil or Gilligan’s Island or something. I wasn’t really paying attention any more at that point. The doc slips out of the trap by transforming from a drunken slob to MacGuyver, busts the girl out, and sabotages the operation by pressing exactly the right buttons on the evil giant UNIVAC computer. The whole town blows up behind them as they flee, but the broadcast is going to go on as planned. Oh, and the girl is a robot now. I dunno. He escapes and manages to run into one of the least satisfying endings in horror movie history.

This film is the “New Coke” of the franchise. It really just made people want Michael Myers even more. There’s a reason you can still buy his modified William Shatner mask at any Halloween store, but damned if you can find one of the Silver Shamrock specials.

At this point, as it was late and we were old, we retired for the night. We reconvened the next day at Mike’s house. At this point, it was me, Mike, Chase, and – improbably – Mike’s mom and grandmother for the next adventure…

Halloween4Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1987)

Having learned their lesson from the “Season of the Witch” fiasco, producer Moustapha Akkad decided to bring back Michael Myers for the fourth round. Taking place ten years after Michael’s original rampage (which, if you’ll recall, took up both of the first two movies), we pick up the story with Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), the daughter of the late Laurie Strode. Oh yes – they decided to kill off Jamie Lee Curtis in-between movies. (We’ll debate this more when we reach Halloween: H20). It’s been 11 months since the death of her mother, and now Uncle Mike has apparently come back to hunt her down. Evidently, he somehow survived getting burnt to a crisp at the end of part two and now he’s back as a giant super-strong psycho burn victim.

As lil’ Jamie gets upset because her foster sister doesn’t want to take her trick-or-treating, which (as Chase observes) is really rather shallow of her. She pouts and Loomis – now a burn victim himself – pops up to continue his Ahab-like quest for Michael. He finds a bloody ambulance upside-down in the river, which in these movies is the surest sign of a psycho killer. It’s at this point that I really start to appreciate Loomis as a character. Most of these movies always feature a string of protagonists who are totally in denial about the murderers in their midst. It’s nice to have at least one character who doesn’t have his head up his ass. He continues his search, only to find a dead guy dangling from the ceiling by chains. Mike’s mom then pops out with the best quip of the night thus far: “He’s not a very good mechanic.” Loomis finds Michael and begins to beg him to stay away from Haddonfield and leave lil’ Jamie in peace. When Michael doesn’t say anything (horrors!) he opens fire on him, missing him enough times at short enough range to qualify instantly for a job as an Imperial Storm Trooper.

Jamie’s foster sister takes her shopping for a Halloween costume, where she meets her pinstriped boyfriend, who drives me absolutely crazy because I know I saw him in some 80s movie and I can’t remember which one and it’s driving me batty! Jamie, meanwhile, picks up a clown costume that, coincidentally, looks just like the costume Michael wore when he killed Judith waaaaaay back in the first movie. She goes out trick-or-treating and Michael breaks in, coming across her photos of her mom. Jamie’s sister is heartbroken to see her butt-ugly boyfriend hanging out at another girl’s house (a girl who is wearing nothing but a T-shirt that says “Cops do it by the book,” which virtually guarantees she’ll be hamburger patties before the movie ends). A group of rednecks show up and start shooting and random things, and Butt-Ugly Boyfriend starts doing decadently non-PG-13 things with Whore Girl, which sends Mike into fits when he realizes that she actually keeps her boobs nominally covered. Pretty soon, everyone is dead except Jamie, her sister, Butt-Ugly Boyfriend and Loomis, and Michael has them all trapped in the house. BUB gets killed just after I hear his name is “Freddie” and vow to look him up on IMDB when I get home. Rachel, the worst sister in the world attempts to help Jamie escape, and Michael soon has them dangling over the edge of the house. Sis falls and Jamie rushes to her aid, screaming “you can’t be dead!” and thereby proving that she’s never seen one of these movies. As they finally escape by the skin of their teeth, they meet the rednecks, who show an out-of-character amount of good sense when they agree to get the hell out of town and let the National Guard take care of Michael. Michael manages to hitch a ride and pull one of the guys’ faces off, leaving the girls alone to deal with him. Michael is finally killed by getting run over by a car, sprayed with a hail of gunfire, and trapped in a mine explosion. The girls go home… just in time for what is admittedly one of the best horror movie endings ever. As Foster Mom draws up a bath for lil’ Jamie, she dons her clown mask and, in a tracking shot reminiscent of the first film, approaches mom… only to reappear seconds later, covered in blood. The evil, it seems, survived.

Halloween5Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

Two years later, it was time for round five, and I begin to weep as I realize that this film actually only marks the halfway point of our marathon. After a particularly brutal “pumpkin carving” scene, we open with a recap of Michael’s overkill death via car, gunfire, and explosive. However, this time, we see him narrowly escape the blast and get away, according to Chase, by riding a Schlitterbahn waterslide to safety. He gets away and almost kills a transient, then passes out. Flash forward to one year later, in a child’s mental clinic, where Lil’ Jamie is strapped into a machine that’s monitoring her nightmares. She flashes back to brutally murdering her foster mother and wakes up screaming, then gets cuddled by a nurse who asks to… call her mom? Huh?

We see Michael wake up in the transient’s shack, where he wakes up without his mask. Chase then tells us to rewind the DVD so we can see how cute he is, and we are all far more frightened than we have been for the entire marathon to date. Jamie mimics Michael putting on his mask, helping strengthen Mike’s theory that they’re sharing some sort of mental link, then starts going through convulsions as he kills the friendly neighborhood transient. Eh. It happens. Jamie is better later, except for the fact that she’s apparently lost the ability to talk, and it soon becomes clear that Rachel has taken on a mother role for her. Chase sums up my thoughts about this perfectly: “SHE KILLED YOUR MOM, LADY!” It does seem a little bizarre… until Rachel again says, “Mom and Dad send their love.” As we debate whether the murder was a dream sequence or if mom just survived the attack or what, someone throws a rock through the window with a note that says, “The evil child must die!”  I immediately think of a few former students of mine.

Over the course of the next several minutes, Rachel is interrupted from a shower by Jamie having a premonition of Michael killing the dog. We then meet the worst pair of cops in Haddonfield, evidenced by the goofy music that accompanies them. Seriously, it’s like listening to a Vaudeville routine. Loomis begins shouting at Jamie to tell him what she knows and she starts to weep. I shake my head. “not a child psychologist, are you Sam?” I ask. Chase pops up with, “I thought he was…” Oh. Yeah.

After Michael kills Rachel (Mike weeps because he never saw her boobies), her friend is picked up by a guy who I can only describe as looking like Fonzie, “if he was a douchebag.” Loomis terrifies Jamie some more, and then we see some dude with metal-tipped boots get off a bus and kick a dog. Mike’s mom chimes in with, “You no-good man! I’d kill you right now!” My only response is, “that’s going into the blog.” The next genuinely terrifying moment? When we see a convenience store that keeps its spinner rack of comic books outside. Those books weren’t made to handle the elements. Fonziedouche backs up behind the behind the store where Michael appears, doing something worse than killing him. He scratches his car. Then he stabs him in the face with a pitchfork, and we’re all happy.

Jamie breaks her streak of not talking just in time to save her friend Tina from Michael. As we begin a long, ponderous section featuring kittens and a jackass friend dressed as Michael pretending to kill people, we realize that Halloween 5 is, in fact, too dull to even effectively riff on. We’re all pretty relieved when the real Michael drives a pitchfork through the guy as he’s on his girlfriend. Then he comes back with a scythe to take her out. The worst cops in the world hear the bloody deaths, then they actually summon Michael to their car to chew him out. We’re pretty happy when he kills them too.

Michael comes after Tina with a car, but somehow, Jamie screams at him and makes him come after her instead. Mike and Chase are amazed at how his car can turn on a dime, while I am amazed that it’s apparently too slow to catch up with a 12-year-old girl in a fairy costume running over uneven terrain. They get away, Tina dying in the process, and Loomis issues his challenge to Michael: face him “back where it all began”! They’re going to the Myers house, and Loomis clearly has no qualms about using a 12-year-old girl as bait. Loomis is a jerk.

At this point, Kenny joins the fun, and we are temporarily distracted by the fact that he is now clean-shaven for his new job. It’s like Samson losing his hair. We barely notice the rest of the film, but that’s not really that big a loss. Jamie runs to the attic, where she finds the corpses of everyone she loves, and he hides in a coffin, which is the worst hiding place ever. Michael approaches her, but before he can turn her into kibble, she calls him “uncle” and asks him to stop and take off his mask. Which he does, prompting her to say, “You’re just like me.” I don’t quite get the connection. She’s not a nine-foot-tall psycho killer from hell. Loomis arrives (again), chains Michael up, and beats him with a two-by-four. Of course, he’s still not dead. He’s going to a “maximum security facility,” to stay there until he dies. People in this franchise are idiots. Finally, metal-toe-boot-man arrives (we’ve been watching him periodically pop up throughout the film), and begins trying to shoot Michael through the bars. Jamie wanders back into the jail, where the cell is burning… and it ends. “Thank god,” I say, before the significance of this event dawns on me. Yeah, the cell was on fire, but dammit, Michael was gone.

Halloween6Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

The film begins with Jamie, now a teenager and played by somebody else, being wheeled through a hospital and into a large satanic-looking chamber to, evidently, deliver a baby. The child is marked by the silver-toed dude from the last movie, but Jamie manages to grab the baby and flee… right to an abandoned farmhouse, where she abandons the screaming infant and is soon killed by Uncle Michael. This, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is the cardinal sin of a horror movie: bringing back the previous film’s survivor girl just to kill her off in the opening act. I hate that. Anyway, before she dies, she whispers to him that he can’t have the baby. Then she dies a lot.

Back in Haddonfield, we find a man who was actually stupid enough to buy the Strode house, and as a result is being plagued by kids putting standees of Michael in the yard. Living here is a lovely non-nuclear family: Abusive Grandpa and Grandma, their teenage son Tim, their slightly older daughter Kara, and her son Danny. It gets worse when it dawns on me that this is another branch of the Strode family, Laurie’s foster-relatives. After a fight at the breakfast table, Grandpa slaps Kara, only to have Danny grab a steak knife and point it at him. This is why you never buy a house that previously belonged to a serial killer’s foster sister. Living across the street, however, is the grown-up Tommy from the first movie, now played by Paul Rudd. He’s been watching Kara undress through the window, while meanwhile obsessing over the minutia of the Michael Myers legend… he’s clipping newspaper articles, listening to radio call-in shows full of Myers conspiracy theorists, and genuinely creeping the hell out of everyone. Somehow, he finds the missing baby in the restroom of a bus station, which is by no means the most sanitary possible place. Kara and Tim find a drawing by Danny featuring his entire family being stabbed to pieces, which Tim thinks is “cool.” Tim is freakin’ strange. Tommy hunts down Dr. Loomis to ask for help, which makes me realize that Loomis apparently hadn’t begun his child-terrorizing tactics in the first movie.

Tommy reveals that an ancient cult used to choose one child per town to be possessed by a demon and be driven to slay his family, thereby saving the rest of the town… which is evidently what happened to Michael. Which means it didn’t work, because how many non-Myers has he killed? Case in point: in the next scene Abusive Grandpa finds Grandma’s head in the washing machine, then gets stabbed and electrocuted. Really, I’m calling this spell an absolute failure.

Later, at a sort of outdoor Halloween festival (this town never learns) Tommy walks around being creepy, and finds a little Halloween fairy princess dancing in a “red rain.” It’s Tim’s buddy the shock jock, dangling from a tree and bleeding on things. Tommy calls Dr. Loomis and informs him that “it’s happening.” Well duh. Tim and his girlfriend get iced, and Danny (showing the sort of foresight that people always display in these movies) runs to the Myers house. Kara goes after them and manages to knock Michael down the stairs. She immediately becomes my favorite character in the franchise since Laurie.

Chase and I miss out on her battle with Michael as we debate who died first in each of the Scream movies for no apparent reason. Kara and Danny run across the street to meet up with Loomis and Tommy, and EEEEEEVIL VOICES call to Danny. It’s silver toed shoe man, played by the straight-laced dad from Dharma and Greg, who is Loomis’s boss. Evidently, everyone in this movie has been part of a conspiracy to get their hands on the baby. Kara leaps from a window, but gets captured, and Michael chases the whole gang to the asylum or something. Tommy busts Kara out just in time to get away from Michael, who takes a very large-caliber bullet right in the chest. Yeah, like this will work. Barely wounded, Michael goes to town in the operating room, though, resulting in a nifty little bloodbath and Mike screaming, “WHY IS THERE A STROBE LIGHT IN A HOSPITAL?”

Tommy tries to fake Michael out by giving him a fake baby, but the real one cries and screws the deal. Then Kara starts to beat the crap out of him with an iron pipe, further cementing her as my favorite. he still takes her down, but Danny shouts at Michael, drawing him away just in time to save her life. Loomis shows up AGAIN, does nothing AGAIN, and the others all leave him behind because he’s got “something to do.” We don’t know what, though, because that’s where the movie ends, along with a memorial to the late Donald Pleasance. Much as I goofed on Loomis, he really did add an air of class to these movies, and the next two feel his absence in a particularly painful fashion.

Halloween7Halloween: H20 (1998)

This was actually the first Halloween  movie I ever saw. Jason and I caught it when it first came out, and I hated it. I haven’t seen it since, and I’m hoping that my new familiarity with the franchise will make me enjoy it more. This film, you see, ignores every movie since the second one. It begins in Langdon, Illinois, at the home of the late Dr. Loomis. The house is open and his nurse is freaking out, so she asks the kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun to investigate. We all bemoan the fact that he’s going to play Cobra Commander in the upcoming G.I. Joe movie, and just hope he dies. [2013 Note: Despite G.I. Joe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has since proven himself to be a fine actor, and these earlier indiscretions have been forgiven.] Instead, he freaks out and beats up a pot rack, then takes a beer from the refrigerator. The fridge light is on, even though nothing else works. Apparently, the fridge is on a completely different circuit than everything else in the house. I’m not feeling particularly optimistic that this movie will be better than I remember. I do perk up a little when the teenage brat gets a pair of hockey skates shoved in his face a few minutes later.

On the plus side, Jamie Lee Curtis makes her triumphant return in this film. Evidently, Laurie Strode faked her death years ago and is now living under an assumed name with her fiancé, Alan Arkin, and her son, Josh Hartnett, and is the headmistress of a prestigious boarding school in Summer Glen, California. Of course, she’s still haunted by the memory of her big brother. As she meets her secretary, I am reminded that Janet Leigh is in this film, which is amusing on a few levels. First, she’s Jamie Lee’s real mother, and second, she was awesome in Psycho. She’s picking up some of the class slack left by Donald Pleasance’s absence.

There is a moment of vindication when we see Michelle Williams’ character washing dishes. You see, for years, Chase has referred to this movie as Halloween: Water, But There’s No Water in the Movie, as if it was the full title. When I point out the water in the sink, he apologizes. A few seconds later, as she walks down a hallway full of puddles, he announces, “There’s water all over this freakin’ movie!”  I also make everyone quiet when we get to the best moment in the movie: when Janet Leigh tells Jamie Lee that she’s not trying to be “maternal,” and that “we’ve all been through things in the past.” When Jason and I saw this movie in the theater, we were the only two people who laughed at this line.

Chase had to step out at this point, as he was catching a plane in the morning, and by now Mom and Granny were in bed, so we were down to Mike, Kenny and myself.

Pretty soon, Jamie Lee is getting stalked again, but she keeps imagining she sees Michael all over, so when the real deal begins showing up, she thinks she’s just hallucinating again. The four main kids skip out on a trip to Yosemite to stay at the school and do dirty deeds, which terrifies Laurie when she realizes it. Mike comments that this episode feels too much like the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer franchises, and I point out that it was made in that era of the Slasher. The killing finally starts when Michael takes a corkscrew to one of the kids and a carving knife to another. Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, she gets her leg caught in a falling dumbwaiter before finishing her off. I must admit, it’s one of the more creative murders in these films as of yet. The remaining kids, including Laurie’s son, flee, and brother and sister come face-to-face once again.

We then get a first in this franchise – Laurie’s fiancé accidentally shoots LL Cool J, thinking he’s Michael, before getting gutted himself. Laurie sends her son and his girlfriend away and she decides to face him, alone, once and for all. Kenny suggests she put on a William Shatner mask and go after him. I counter – “No, no… Leonard Nimoy.” Laurie manages to stab the hell out of Michael, and she’s about to finish him off before LL Cool J pops in and stops her because, “He’s dead!” LL is a moron. Laurie, knowing it isn’t over, wait until the cops load Michael into a coroner’s van, then steals it and drives off into the middle of nowhere for the final battle. This includes throwing him through the windshield of a moving van, running him over, plunging both him and the van off a cliff, pinning him between the van and a tree, and chopping his head off. Credit where credit is due. Laurie doesn’t do things in half-measures. “I’ll say this,” I conclude. “A bad movie, yes, but with a good ending.”

Halloween8Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

Mike says “Oh my god, this is gonna suck ass” from the beginning of the opening credits, which features Busta Rimes and Tyra Banks. I cannot disagree. The movie begins with Laurie, now in an insane asylum. She’s there for decapitating “a man.” Y’see, it seems in all the confusion after Michael was beaten in the last movie, he put his mask on some other dude and stuck him in the coroner’s van, so Laurie actually killed an innocent man while Michael roamed free. Frankly, all things considered, I think she’s remarkably well adjusted. Michael has been on the loose for three years now, and he’s somehow tracked Laurie down. After killing a couple of security guards (because that’s how he rolls), he bursts through the door to Laurie’s room and chases her to the roof, where Mike notices that the mask in this movie doesn’t look anything like the previous ones. Where the hell does Michael get these things? Anyway, Laurie manages to catch his foot in a trap and dangle him over the roof, but she reaches for his mask to be sure it’s him. He grabs her, stabbing her in the gut before he throws her off the building. This just plain pisses me off. Laurie is the ultimate Survivor Girl. Dying 15 minutes into the movie? First of all, it ain’t kosher. Second of all, with her dead, Michael has no more reason to exist. But somehow, we’ve still got at least an hour of movie to go through.

Flash to Haddonfield University (apparently there is one) and we meet three college students who have been picked to be on an internet reality TV show called Dangertainment. God help me.  They, and three others, are being sent to Michael Myers’ childhood home to “look for answers,” whatever the hell that means. A quick interview sequence makes me conclusively determine that five of them are pretentious idiots, leaving only our apparent new Survivor Girl, Sarah, who freaks out when a light is knocked over and whose scream apparently turns on Busta Rimes, who begins talking to himself in the third person. We all want him to die.

The killing starts even before the show does, though, as one of the technical producers is murdered with what must be the sharpest tripod ever made while Tyra Banks dances around and makes herself a cappuccino. The kids begin investigating the house, where they discover everything has been falling apart for years… except that a cursory investigation of the kitchen shows fresh fennel.  Apparently, when Michael came home he took the time to refill the spice rack. Meanwhile, Sarah’s dorky high school-aged internet buddy is dragged off to a party against his will, when all he really wants is to log on to a computer and watch her. He finds a kick-ass computer setup in the house where they’re staying and logs on. From there, he figures out Michael is in the house long before anyone actually in the house wises up, except for the ones he kills. We briefly have a moment of hope where we think that Busta is going to get killed as, dressed like Michael, he chews him out under the assumption that he’s the missing producer. But then Michael lets him live, disappointing us all, and goes on to kill the cute redhead, further disappointing us all.

The remaining kids figure out Busta’s plot and are about to leave, just before the real Michael shows up and starts cutting them up. Soon, only Sarah is left, and her only hope of survival is a primitive text message system with her geek buddy, giving her clues to keep her alive. In the end, this is a movie with stupid, shallow characters and a stupid flash-in-the-pan story. With the possible exception of three, I think this may well be the worst in the franchise. The house actually burns to the ground in this one, with Michael in it, which I guess makes it technically the end. After all, the next one is a remake…

Halloween9Halloween (2007)

Last year, Rob Zombie remade the beginnings of the franchise. Mike, Kenny and I saw the remake when it first came out, and we all liked it, so it’s nice to know we’re ending with a good movie. Zombie went back to Michael as a child, starting with him being bullied by his dad, torturing animals, and ultimately killing one of the bullies that tormented him. At this point, we’re all pretty exhausted, and the riffing has dwindled to a minimum. Still, we’re into the flick. It’s actually the Richard Donner Superman formula. The first half of the movie is all origin; he doesn’t put on the familiar costume or go to the familiar setting until the second half of the film, and from there, all hell breaks loose.  Just like that other masterpiece of cinema to use the same formula: Santa Claus: The Movie.

Young Michael’s first kill, like I said, is the school bully. That night, after his older sister refuses to take him trick-or-treating so she can stay home and do things to her boyfriend, he duct-tapes his stepfather to an armchair and butchers him before taking care of the happy couple. At this point, Mike scares us all by announcing that, at this point in the movie, he’s rooting for Michael. Sure, Stepdad is a drunken jerk, but man… Anyway, after the killings, we flash through his treatment by Dr. Loomis (now played well by Malcolm McDowell), into an obsession with making masks, through his murder of a nurse, and through his mother’s suicide, unable to deal with the fact that she seems to have given birth to the Antichrist. I don’t know if I can root for this Michael, but Zombie has succeeded in making me pity him.

Anyhoo, 15 years later it’s the same ol’ thing. Mike breaks out and stalks his way back to Haddonfield, and the new Laurie Strode. Maximum cool points go for the casting of Danielle Harris, lil’ Jamie from 4 and 5, as Laurie’s friend Annie. And may I say, she did a damn good job of growing up. Hotcha. On the other hand, out of the three main girls, only Scout Taylor-Compton (as Laurie) could possibly pass for a teenager.

Once the killing starts in earnest, Zombie starts recreating scenes, lines, deaths, even shots, from the first two movies, which is a lot more fun to pick out having watched the original just last night (although it seems like about ten years ago.) We begin picking out comparisons between the two: Annie lives in this one, but died in the original; the cops are competent in this one, but morons in most of the other films… the big question is as to what time period, exactly, the different segments of the film are supposed to be set in. The second half feels very contemporary, very 2007. The first segment felt very 1970s. But only 15 years had passed. That first section in no way felt like 1992. It’s kind of hard to reconcile the two halves of the film, we say. The debate continues until Danielle Harris takes her top off, at which point all conversation ceases.

Eventually, as must always be the case, it’s down to Michael, Laurie, and Loomis, who turns out to be a much better shot in the remake than in the old movies. Bullets still don’t really work for beans, but at least he’s a better shot. The final fight, the last 20 or so minutes of the movie, are totally brutal and unflinching. It’s harsh, it’s dirty, and it’s disturbing. Which, frankly, is what makes it work.

The final tally: Mike, Kenny and I all seem to agree that the Rob Zombie Halloween is the best of the bunch, although I contend that it wouldn’t be as good if you hadn’t seen the original. Season of the Witch is hands-down the worst, but if we’re only going to count Mike Myers movies, the consensus is that Resurrection sucks hardest. And thus ends the third annual Halloween Marathon, guys. Hope you enjoyed the recap as much as we enjoyed doing it!

Halloween 2Since we held this marathon a tenth Halloween film has been released, the sequel to Zombie’s remake. Here’s the podcast Mike, Kenny and I recorded about that one…

Two years ago, Rob Zombie reinvented one of the slasher classics with Halloween. This year, Halloween II picks up and extends his new vision of terror — but do the Showcase boys share his vision? Check our our mini-review!

Download the episode

 

Superman Week Day 3: Christopher Reeve in Superman (1978)

Superman 1978Director: Richard Donner

Writers: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert  Benton

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando,  Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Terrence Stamp, Jack O’Halloran, Sara Douglas, Jeff East, Valerie Perrine, Larry Hagman

Plot: On the distant planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) successfully prosecutes a trio of murderous criminals, exiling them from the planet, trapped in a “Phantom Zone.” His feeling of triumph is short-lived, however… Jor-El knows that Krypton is doomed.  The council refuses to believe him, and he sends his son away from the planet before its destruction. Kal-El is brought to Earth, where he is found by a farming couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter). Although Jonathan is initially skeptical, Martha convinces him to take the child in and raise him as their own.

As a teenager (played by Jeff East), Clark has begun to develop incredible power, and feels frustrated when he’s forbidden to play sports or excel in any way that would draw attention to himself. Jonathan tells him that he has a purpose on Earth far greater than scoring touchdowns, and Clark’s spirits are lifted, then immediately shattered when Jonathan is struck by a heart attack and dies. That night, Clark feels a summons to the barn, where he discovers a glowing green crystal from the ship that brought him to Earth. He tells his mother he has to leave and, carrying his father’s last words with him, makes his way north. On the arctic ice, the crystal constructs an enormous fortress, and a recorded hologram of Jor-El begins to instruct Clark towards his destiny.  After years of tutelage, the adult Clark (Christopher Reeve) dons a brilliant uniform and takes flight.

In the city of Metropolis, Clark gets at job at the Daily Planet, where reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is threatened by his encroachment onto her beat. She’s even more put-off by Clark’s oafish nature, his use of outdated vernacular, and the way he seems to crumble when the two of them are threatened by a mugger. He tries to talk the crook down, but is seemingly shot for his troubles. As the mugger escapes Lois checks on Clark only to find he’s “fainted.” With sly glance, Clark shows us the truth: he caught the bullet and saved Lois’s life for the first time.  The next time comes later, when a helicopter on the Planet building crashes with Lois inside. She falls out, only to be caught in the arms of a bold figure in red, blue and yellow. Carried back to the roof, Lois asks him who he is. “A friend,” he replies.

In his new identity, Clark begins thwarting criminals and rescuing people from disasters across Metropolis and all over the world, even saving Air Force One from a destructive storm. Planet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) demands that his paper become the official mouthpiece for the new hero, and Clark arranges a rooftop meeting with Lois, giving her the exclusive on the figure she dubs “Superman,” as well as taking her for a flight she’ll never forget.

Beneath the streets of Metropolis, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is planning the biggest land scam in history. Along with his assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) and girlfriend Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), he steals a piece of meteor from a museum and hijacks the guidance systems of a pair of missiles. Luthor uses a high-frequency message to lure Superman to his lair and reveals his plan: he’s going to use the missiles to trigger an earthquake, making all the seemingly-worthless land he’s bought in California instant beachfront property, at the expense of millions of innocent lives. Before Superman can act to stop him, Luthor uses the stolen meteor – a fragment of Kryptonite from Superman’s home planet – to incapacitate him. As added insurance, Luthor launches one of the missiles in the opposite direction, to Hackensack, New Jersey. As he leaves, Miss Teschmacher is struck with a moral crisis – her mother lives in Hackensack. She saves Superman from the Kryptonite, but only after making him promise to stop the missile going to New Jersey first.

The missile hits the fault, triggering Luthor’s earthquake. Superman dives into the Earth’s crust to hold the fault together and minimize the damage, but cataclysmic destruction is wreaked, destroying the Hoover Dam. Once he stops as much of the devastation as he can, Superman sees a final tragedy: Lois, who was sent to California to cover the strange land deal, has died in the earthquake. Heartbroken, he disobeys Jor-El’s decree not to interfere with history and flies into space, spinning time backwards and saving Lois. Superman captures Luthor and Otis and brings them into custody before taking flight once again.

Thoughts: You will forgive me, I hope, if I fail to maintain even a pretense of objectivity about this movie. I have been a Superman fan my entire life – unironically and unapologetically – and a huge portion of that is due to the 1978 Superman. It left a mark on me, shaping my feelings about the character, about superheroes, about orchestral music, about cinema in general. I regard it, to this day, as a near-perfect film, and I make no bones about it.

The movie opens with a double breaking of the fourth wall, starting with movie curtains opening, reminding us we’re watching a film, then going into a segment with a child reading an issue of Action Comics, reminding us of the hero’s pedigree. Both of these moments are short, though, and we quickly plunge headlong into outer space, into the magnificent John Williams score, and into what I still regard as one of the greatest opening sequences in cinematic history.

In retrospect, the opening could seem a bit bloated – Jor-El’s confrontation with General Zod (Terrence Stamp) has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it perfectly sets up Superman II, which was written alongside this film and filmed back-to-back. The producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, were doing what Peter Jackson did twenty years later with Lord of the Rings, and taking an enormous risk in doing so. The risk pays off, though. It’s almost 50 minutes into the movie before Christopher Reeve or Margot Kidder appear, before Superman puts on his costume for the first time, but it never feels like wasted time. We’re going through what we need to go through to tell the story, and it flows perfectly.

The film has a gravity to it. From the beginning, as Jor-El makes his plans to send Kal-El to Earth, we see  film with great production values that takes its character seriously. There’s genuine heartbreak as Jor-El and Lara place their baby in his spacecraft, there’s genuine terror as Krypton begins to crumble. Williams, again, blows us away with his magnificent musical score – aside from the main fanfare, the Krypton scenes have my favorite music in the entire film. You can close your eyes and listen, imagining all the while an ancient civilization full of beauty and grandeur, and you can hear it sicken and die. About 15 minutes later into the film, Jeff East as young Clark grieves for Jonathan’s death, and we grieve with him, for the fact that all of his power couldn’t save his father from a mundane heart attack.

This, friends, is what so many people don’t understand about Superman. They focus so much on his power and all of the things that he can do that they totally miss moments like this one, the moment where his power simply isn’t enough. This is where the true Clark Kent is shown, when he finds something he can’t just punch his way through, and bleeds for it. The compelling thing about Superman is that no matter how much he does, he always wants to do more. If you don’t see something uplifting about that, I don’t know how to talk to you.

Not to say that everything about the film is weighty or depressing. Once we reach Metropolis there are many good, lighthearted moments, and not just from Ned Beatty’s clownish performance as Otis. (It’s not a bad performance, mind you, but it’s almost too goofy at times.) Once in Metropolis, the film has to strike a balance between the silly and the serious, and this is where it’s time to talk about Christopher Reeve.

Reeve is perfect. Flawless. Without error or fault. In this film, he does no wrong. He’s pretty good, is the point I’m making. This is the movie where any argument about how silly Clark Kent’s disguise is falls apart, and it’s solely due to Reeve’s performance. As Clark, he adopts a bit of a silly, corn-fed attitude. It puts people off, it makes them underestimate him, it makes them think he’s less of a man than he really is. It’s a sacrifice he chooses to make, because the moment he drops the mask he becomes remarkably charismatic, emboldened, and powerful. Even when he’s pretending to be the oaf, there are plenty of moments when he allows his true personality to shine through, even if it’s just for the audience. Any doubts about the disguise crumble the moment he catches the bullet in the alley. As soon as Lois walks away we see his true glee at the success of his ruse shine through on his face. Superman’s disguise isn’t a pair of glasses, it’s the performance of a master actor who adopts a persona that would never even allow people to think of him in the same breath as Superman. Reeve plays two characters who are both the same man, and he nails it.

As Reeve is the perfect Clark Kent, Margot Kidder is almost as good as Lois Lane. She’s Noel Neill on a caffeine rush – a quick, clever wit and a biting sarcasm that befits the character. She also plays Lois as someone utterly without fear – she’ll rush in to any situation to get her story. The chemistry between Kidder and Reeve is almost tangible. They play off one another with verve and vigor, each of them playing a bit of a chess game over the question of identity, even if Lois isn’t fully aware of who her opponent is. The game, in fact, begins even before Superman appears. The first time Lois and Clark meet, he puts on his act and struggles to open a bottle of soda. She “helpfully” takes it and bangs it on the desk a few times, loosening the cap, but causing it to spray all over him when he opens it. At first blush, it seems like a simple comic moment, establishing who this incarnation of Clark Kent is, but in the next beat it tells us everything we know about both characters. Lois apologizes and says it was an accident, and Clark says he’s sure it was, because who would try to make a complete stranger look like a fool? It’s a brilliant moment of characterization: Lois pulls a little passive aggressive crap because she’s mildly threatened by the new reporter in the room, and Clark calls her on it without ever allowing his disguise to slip. The game has begun.

For the time, the special effects are pretty impressive. The outer space sequences are as good as anything in the first Star Wars film, the creation of the Fortress of Solitude is awesome, and the flying scenes… there’s a reason why the tagline for this movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Today, no doubt people would mock the clear use of greenscreen for the flying effects, but in 1978 it absorbed audiences completely, and if somebody can get over a modern hipster attitude and look at the film in context, it’s still pretty damn impressive.

As I say, the movie is merely “nearly” perfect. There are some small flaws that I can recognize. For example, in the sequence where Kal-El is sent to Earth, we listen to Marlon Brando’s voice tutoring him in the history of Krypton and the “28 known galaxies,” which sounds like a cool sci-fi premise, but doesn’t go anywhere. Kal-El is still a baby, and Clark Kent doesn’t remember any of this later. At most, you can point out the philosophy, where Brando entreats him not to interfere with human history… which, of course, he does at the end of the movie anyway. At any rate, most of the instruction is repeated later when Clark enters the Fortress of Solitude, making that voiceover portion of that otherwise-stunning sequence redundant.

Other problems are more due to the inherent limitations of the time. Today, we refuse to accept a supervillain plot that doesn’t include some sort of massive special effects spectacle, which is fine. Today we can do that. In 1978, as impressive as this movie was, it wasn’t at the point where we could see high-speed in-flight battles or massive explosions that weren’t obvious models. So the supervillain’s scheme is, in essence, a real estate scam with a massive loss of life. It works for the movie, but it isn’t quite as thrilling as it could be.

And finally, the one sequence where the film falls from the heights of Olympus to the pit of a pot of cheese whiz: the “Can You Read My Mind?” scene. The interview with Lois works very well, with Reeve now given the chance to be bold and aggressive while Kidder plays a little bumbling and awkward for a change. Then he takes her to fly, another beautiful piece of music begins… and it’s all derailed by one of the most unnecessary and irritating voiceovers in movie history. Lois ponders, in verse, who this strange man is and the audience rolls its eyes.

On the other hand, it’s hard to be too mad at this scene. As awful as the flight sequence dialogue is, the line “I like pink very much, Lois” is one of the greatest things ever written.

I love this movie and I don’t care who knows it. Even now, it stirs the soul, brings a tear to my eye at all the right moments, and makes me believe in things like courage, and heroes, and the basic decency of humanity. It does everything Superman is supposed to do, bringing out the best of the human spirit, and reminding us what “truth, justice, and the American way” is supposed to mean. Today, 35 years later, this movie has aged very well. Today, 35 years later, it is still a wonder.

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!

Dorothy Gale Week Day 4: Diana Ross in The Wiz (1978)

The Wiz (1978)Director: Sidney Lumet

Writer: Joel Schumacher, based on the play by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Theresa Merritt, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Stanley Greene

Plot: In modern-day Harlem, a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. Dorothy (Diana Ross) is a schoolteacher, living with her Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) and Uncle Henry (Stanley Greene), who wishes for her to break free and find a life of her own.  Her dog Toto rushes out into a snowstorm after dinner, and Dorothy races after him. A cyclone appears in the snow, grabbing them both and pulling them into the air, where we see the cyclone being manipulated by a woman in the stars (Lena Horne). She drops Dorothy into a pit of sand near a graphitti-covered wall, and the people painted onto the wall come to life. Although initially frightened, the people from the walls begin celebrating her for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, knocking down a sign on her during her descent. The people, the Munchkins, were trapped in the wall by the Witch’s magic, and now are free. Miss One (Thelma Carpenter), the Good Witch of the North, thanks Dorothy and gives her the Wicked Witch’s Silver Shoes. Miss One doesn’t have the power to send Dorothy home to New York herself, and she knows the Wicked Witch of the West will be uninclined to help. Even Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, will likely be unavailable. Instead, she suggests Dorothy follow the Yellow Brick Road to talk to the Wiz.

As Dorothy walks through the strange city, unable to find the Road, she finds a Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) being tormented by a group of crows. She shoos the birds away and frees the Scarecrow. When he realizes the crows had tricked him into captivity, he reveals to Dorothy his head is stuffed with garbage instead of a brain. She suggests he come with her to see the Wiz for help. The Scarecrow finds the rubble of yellow bricks and they finally trace them to the Road. As they walk through the remains of an amusement park they find a trapped mechanical man beneath some rubble (Nipsey Russell). The Tin Man says it’s okay – he lacks a heart, and cannot feel. They help him to his feet and he joins them. As they pass the library, the Tin Man notices a statue of a lion is watching them. Inside the statue they find a real Lion (Ted Ross), who boasts to them but is soon revealed as a coward. He joins them as well.

Following encounters with creatures in the subway and a group of “Poppies” that try to tempt the friends away from the path, they arrive at the Emerald City, where the Great and Power Oz summons “the one with the silver slippers” to his chambers.  Oz, appearing as a giant mechanical head, hears their requests and bargains with them: he’ll aid them if they can destroy Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King). They find Evillene in a sweatshop beneath the city, where her Winkie captives are toiling away, when she hears of Dorothy’s quest. She sends out her motorcycle gang, the Flying Monkeys, to capture the girl. Although they are captured easily, Evillene finds she cannot take the Silver Slippers from Dorothy against her will, and instead begins torturing her friends, cutting the Scarecrow in half, flattening the Tin Man, and dangling the Lion from his tail as he shouts to Dorothy not to give up the shoes. When the Witch is about to throw Toto into a flaming cauldron, the Scarecrow tells Dorothy to pull the fire alarm, setting off the sprinklers. Toto is saved, and the water melts Evillene to nothing. The Winkies, free from the Witch’s enchantment, release Dorothy and her friends and celebrate. When they return to the Emerald City, they find the Wiz (Richard Pryor) has closed up shop, and is a phony, powerless little man sleeping on a cot. He reveals he’s just an ordinary man from Atlantic City, and only sent Dorothy to destroy Evillene because he feared her. As her friends lament, Dorothy points out to each of them how they’ve already proven they have everything they need. It seems that Dorothy will be trapped, though, when the woman in the stars appears. She is Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, and reveals to Dorothy that her silver shoes have the power to send her home, now that she truly knows herself. The Wiz asks Dorothy if she can help him, and she tells him that he, like the rest of them, can only be helped by letting people see who he really is. She says goodbye to her friends and she and Toto finally return home.

Thoughts: I can’t believe my first official Reel to Reel encounter with the dreaded Joel Schumacher comes in the form of this Broadway adaptation. There’s just something terribly twisted about that. Anyway, Schumacher’s script takes some liberties not only with the Oz formula, but even with the original play, which skewed closer to L. Frank Baum’s book. The play kept Dorothy on a farm, it’s the movie that moved her to a school in Harlem and put in the metaphor of Oz as a fantastic version of New York City. Fortunately, the changes actually work to create something that feels very different than other versions of Oz, yet still undeniably taps into the soul of what Baum created.

What I like about this version of the story is that is really shows the diversity of the basic Oz concept. The writers of the play and creators of the film took the skeleton of Baum’s story and created something different and unique. The appearance of the Munchkins, for example, is initially terrifying, even for someone who knows the story and surmises that they don’t actually mean her any harm. Resetting Oz in a dark fairy tale version of New York is an effective change as well, giving it a feeling of urban magic that sets it apart from the very rural feel of most traditional interpretations of the story.

On the other hand, there are some aspects in which this version skews closer to Baum than most other film versions… Dorothy wears Silver Shoes instead of Ruby Slippers, and doesn’t (technically) encounter Glinda until the end of the story, keeping the Witch of the North in her proper role at the beginning, whereas the MGM film and most other versions just have Glinda fill both of those parts. On the other hand, the implication that Glinda manipulated events just to bring Dorothy to Oz is a new idea to this version. It would be easy to see it as somewhat cruel, but I think it feels more like the actions of a fairy godmother, putting the pieces in just the right place to do her charge some good. Baum didn’t really have a particular moral lesson for Dorothy, the MGM film added a considerable weight to the idea that “there’s no place like home.” With this film, the message seems to be exactly the opposite – there’s a big world out there and it takes courage to find it.

Diana Ross works very well in this incarnation of Dorothy.  At the beginning of the movie she comes across as very timid, even frightened of the smallest things. She slowly changes as the movie goes on, first needing to find a well of courage when she saves the Scarecrow, and expressing joy in the antics of the Tin Man. By the time they reach the Emerald City (which the Wiz then changes to Ruby, then to Gold on whim), she’s becoming more fully-formed. At first, he won’t allow her friends to see him, but Dorothy refuses to speak to him without the others. Ross still has some timidity in her voice here, but it’s paired with determination in a way that shows how far she’s grown as a character already.

The small tweaks to Dorothy’s friends all feel very natural and in keeping with the concept that they all really had what they wanted all along. Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow, for instance, is never particularly foolish, and we accentuate this point by having him periodically pull a scrap of “garbage” from his head with some sort of wise fortune cookie-style quotation on it. Nipsey Russell’s Tin Man, from the beginning, has a lively energy that simply doesn’t fit the conceit that he has no feelings. He seems thrilled from the beginning to have friends and a purpose again. The Lion is the only one who really displays his fault – cowardice – and in fact has a fine moment after the encounter with the Poppies where he laments his weakness. Dorothy, as usual, helps him back from the edge (literally), and from then on when they approach danger, he may tremble, but he pulls himself together in the end.

The music in this version takes a few different paths. “Ease on Down the Road,” probably the most famous number, is vibrant, energetic, and fun. Evillene’s “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” has a similar energy, but a much more sinister flavor. Other songs, like the Scarecrow’s “You Can’t Win,” are considerably darker, and still more project homely feelings, or soulful rhythms. A lot of them are particularly quiet and emotional – Dorothy’s “Believe in Yourself” in particular clearly is meant to reach right to the heartstrings. It makes for an eclectic mix that fits nicely with the wild, unique vision of Oz presented in this movie. Some of them do tend to go on a little too long, with endless refrains and dance numbers that probably work better on stage than in the filmed version, but there’s nothing that ever really gets tedious… just a few moments where I wanted them to get on with it.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this version of the story, and I’m rather sorry it took so long. While not really like the classic versions, it has a spirit and vibe of its own that’s very entertaining and very satisfying. As far as efforts to “reimagine” Oz have gone, this is one of the better ones.

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!

The Christmas Special Day 13: Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

christmas-eve-on-sesame-street-dvdDirector: Jon Stone

Writer: Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey

Cast: Caroll Spinney,Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Linda Bove, Northern Calloway, Debbie Chen, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Alaina Reed

Plot: On Christmas Eve the gang on Sesame Street takes a trip to the local ice skating rink. While everyone else is having a good time, Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney) decides to poke fun at the naive Big Bird (Spinney again), asking him how Santa Claus can possibly fit through the tiny chimneys the buildings on Sesame Street have. Dismayed at the thought that Santa may not be able to get in, Big Bird and his friend Patty (Debbie Chen) set out to solve the mystery. They turn to Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson, and if you didn’t know that stop reading my article right now, you heathen), who suggests turning to the Santa Claus experts – the children – to find the answer.

Meanwhile, Bert (Frank Oz) is stuck for a Christmas present for his best friend Ernie (Henson again, I mean it, stop reading if you didn’t know that already because I don’t want you here). When he comes across Ernie’s Rubber Duckie, he gets an idea. Ernie, facing a similar dilemma, stumbles across one of Bert’s prize paperclips and decides to get him a cigar box to keep his paperclip collection safe. Going to Mr. Hooper’s store, Ernie finds he doesn’t have enough money for the box, and offers Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) his Rubbier Duckie as a trade. As Ernie leaves, Bert enters with a similar offer: he wants to trade his paperclip collection for a soap dish where Ernie can keep Rubber Duckie. Mr. Hooper takes both deals, even though Bert and Ernie are both clearly distraught over surrendering their prized possessions.

When Kermit’s investigation proves fruitless, Big Bird and Patty recruit Mr. Snuffleupagus (Jerry Nelson) to try to test out a method for squeezing into a chimney. Snuffy, unfortunately, gets stuck. Outside, as Bob (Bob McGrath) and Mr. Hooper exchange holiday pleasantries, Oscar groans and launches into his own seasonal anthem: “I Hate Christmas.”

Bert and Ernie exchange gifts, and both are stunned to realize they’ve been given a gift intended specifically to compliment the very item they have sacrificed. Neither wants to confess to the other that his gift is now useless, and before either of them have to, there’s a knock at the door. Mr. Hooper is there with gifts for the boys – Ernie’s Rubber Duckie and Bert’s paperclips. Bert and Ernie are overjoyed at having their treasures back, but sadly say they haven’t a gift to give Mr. Hooper. The kind old man smiles and tells them they’ve already given him the best gift ever: the chance to see everyone get what they want for Christmas.

When the snow begins to fall that evening, Big Bird sends Patty home. As she leaves she tells him not to worry, she’s certain Santa will come, even if they don’t know how he’ll do it. Left alone, Big Bird decides to go to the roof and wait for him. Patty later turns up at Gordon and Susan’s apartment (Roscoe Orman and Loretta Long, respectively) to tell them she went back to Big Bird’s nest and he’s gone. Everyone on Sesame Street begins searching for him, while on the roof Big Bird watches them, wondering what all the fuss is about. With the temperature dropping and everyone worrying Maria (Sonia Manzano) confronts Oscar over upsetting Big Bird in the first place. Guilty, Oscar sets out to find him. On the roof, away from his safe, warm nest, Big Bird falls asleep, unaware of the figure that has joined him there. When he wakes up he sees nothing, not even footprints, and decides to go downstairs and warm up. He meets Gordon and Patty on the stairs, and Gordon refuses to let him go back outside. In Gordon and Susan’s apartment, he finds a beautiful Christmas tree and stockings loaded with presents for everyone – Santa must have passed while he slept. Gordon explains to Big Bird that it isn’t important to explain a miracle; the important thing is that they’re all together again. Oscar turns up and tells Big Bird he’s glad he’s back… but the Grouch can’t resist one last dig. “How do you think the Easter Bunny can hide all those eggs in one night?”

Thoughts: Jim Henson and company return, although this time he’s joined by some of the other great “J”s of his era – Jon Stone, the writer responsible for so many of the greatest Sesame Street moments of your youth; Jerry Nelson, who gave us the Count and Mr. Snuffleupagus (a word which, somehow, is not in my spellcheck); producer Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman who conceived of using entertaining television to educate children in what would become the Sesame Street style. Henson and his Muppets were integral to the success of this show, but he sure didn’t do it alone. Regardless, as fantastic as each of those creators are, the true magic of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street isn’t brought to you by the letter J, but rather by C and S: Carroll Spinney, the Muppeteer responsible for both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Unlike the regular daily episodes of the show, this prime time special didn’t have any of the cutaway educational segments, didn’t include lessons on counting or spelling… instead, the Children’s Television Workshop used the opportunity to teach a moral lesson or three. And like they did in all their finest moments, they did so without preaching, presenting the lesson in a way that would be easy for children to accept, understand, and internalize.

The A-plot of this special belongs to Oscar and Big Bird in a way that shows off their relationship for what it is: an older sibling (Oscar) who enjoys picking on the younger (Big Bird), but still feels guilty and tries to set things right when confronted with the consequences of his actions. Anyone who has a brother or sister can probably relate – it’s crafted in a very realistic, natural and believable way. Spinney plays their relationship with Oscar’s edge and Big Bird’s unrelenting sweetness clashing at every turn, allowing the kids to worry along with Big Bird until the obvious conclusion is reached at the end. Spinney is a master performer, and I only wish I could have been there to watch him rushing back and forth between the two characters as the camera cut away. Dude must have been exhausted.

The story reveals a depth of character I don’t think is obvious when you’re a child watching these specials. It’s telling to me that only Maria, out of all the adults on Sesame Street, is able to convince Oscar to go out and look for Big Bird and fix what he did wrong. That’s not an accident – Maria and Oscar have a surprisingly complex relationship, in which Maria plays both mother and big sister to the Muppets. It’s one of the few moments in Sesame Street history where I remember seeing one of the human characters get genuinely, justifiably angry, and Sonia Manzano pulls it off wonderfully. Oscar comes across as the problem child who reacts to a stern but loving hand when gentleness fails. (I also maintain that Oscar – at least in my formative years of watching Sesame Street – was written to harbor a forever-unspoken crush on Maria, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The B-plot, featuring Bert, Ernie, and Mr. Hooper, is surprisingly only the second story in our countdown to play with the “Gift of the Magi,” although this is a much more straightforward retelling than Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Bert and Ernie fill the roles nicely, with writer Jon Stone playing on their legendary friendship and slightly childlike outlook to create a story where you can naturally accept them sacrificing for one another. Seeing Mr. Hooper step in to save the day is a lovely moment, and one that still touches the heart all these years after actor Will Lee’s death. (A rare non-Christmas tangent: if you’ve never seen the Sesame Street episode where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper has died, watch it on YouTube. And if it doesn’t make you cry, stop reading my blog forever and go back to your day job strangling baby owls and selling their feathers to stuff pillows for Neo-Nazis.) Although this story was once copied almost as often as A Christmas Carol, it’s fallen a bit by the wayside in recent years. That may be a good thing. A child seeing this special now wouldn’t necessarily see the ending coming, and the message of the piece will more likely remain intact.

One thing I didn’t mention much in my synopsis of the episode are the musical numbers peppered throughout. In truth, most of these do little (or nothing) to advance the plot, so they didn’t really belong there, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t memorable in and of themselves. Bob McGrath and Linda Bove (playing Bob and Linda, respectively) lead the children of the cast in the haunting “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and the whole cast joins in for “True Blue Miracle,” another one of those songs that has transcended the special that birthed it and become something you may well hear on the radio or in a shopping mall. It’s nice to have some traditional music in there as well – Bert and Ernie’s duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is lovely. Hardcore Muppet fans can probably hear just a bit of Frank and Jim’s friendship in the performance as well. And Oscar’s “I Hate Christmas” is just a joy whether you’re a true believer or an eternal humbug.

There are other moments that don’t actually contribute to either of the two main plots. Grover has a few scenes where he interviews children about Santa’s efforts to enter the chimney, similar to scenes in the regular episodes of the TV show. There’s a running gag about Cookie Monster trying to write a letter to Santa and eating his assorted writing implements as well. It’s a good bit, but there may be no moment of sheer comedy in the special as great as when he realizes the traditional Santa Claus exchange: when he leaves you a present, Gordon tells him, you should leave him a plate of cookies.

But as far as those moments that don’t go with the plot are concerned, the champion is the very first scene in the ice skating rink. As wonderful as the rest of the episode is, this opening scene is still bizarre, with ice skaters wearing full-size costumes of the Muppets skating on the ice. Seeing a six-foot Bert and Ernie or an adult-sized Count is just bizarre. And yes, I know they’ve been doing essentially the same thing with the Sesame Street Live shows for decades. I think it’s weird there, too.

This special won two Emmy awards, ironically beating out A Special Sesame Street Christmas, which aired in prime time on CBS. Both of these shows are now available on DVD, and a quick comparison makes it clear why Christmas Eve walked home with the awards. Out of the two, this special is far more special than Special.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 4: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Director: John DeBello

Writer: Costa Dillon, John DeBello, Steve Peace, Rick Rockwell

Cast: David Miller, George Wilson, Sharon Taylor, Steve Peace, Ernie Meyers, Eric Christmas, Ron Shapiro, Al Sklar, Jerrold Anderson, Don Birch

Plot: A series of people begin dying in assorted tomato-related incidents: a man keels over drinking a glass of tomato juice, a woman is beaten to death by a tomato in the kitchen, a boy is gobbled up by a tomato… and the authorities scramble into action to solve the crisis. Presidential Press Secretary Jim Richardson (George Wilson) is sent to calm an increasingly worried public, but when he fails, the task of halting the tomato menace is given to top agent Mason Dixon (David Miller). Miller and his team of “experts” begin their investigation even as the attacks continue and the government feels more and more pressure to take action. Meanwhile, gossip columnist Lois Fairchild (Sharon Taylor) is given the task of reporting on the tomato menace, mostly because everybody else is busy.

Dixon and his team pick up their final member, Lt. Wilbur Finletter (Steve Peace), and the members are sent out on individual missions. Richardson is sent to meet Ted Swann(Al Sklar), head of the “Mind Makers” agency, about ways to convince people that tomatoes are safe. His sales pitch (including a spontaneous and incongruous musical number) fail to do the job. Things only get worse when Dixon encounters a scientist studying a tomato the size of a basketball. The real horror, however, comes in the revelation that this is merely a cherry tomato – the full-sized ones have grown enormous. Mere moments later, one of Dixon’s team is murdered by a tomato the size of a man. Dixon continues to seek a way to combat the menace, but it grows all the more intense, with attacks across the country and people panicking at the slightest reference to the deadly fruit.

Fairchild, stymied by her lack of progress in the case, begins to trail Dixon’s team, finally winding up in Finletter’s hotel room in an attempt to charm him with her feminine wiles. Instead, he mistakes her for an enemy spy and drives her out, screaming. Dixon, meanwhile, is fired upon by a hidden gunman – someone is trying to stop his investigation. The would-be assassin comes after Finletter next, but loses him across a railroad track. The army forces amass as the tomatoes make a brutal assault, destroying large portions of the country, somehow “burning, pillaging, and raping” along the way. (The movie doesn’t explain it and I don’t want to ask.) Dixon and Finletter get caught in a high-speed chase with the assassin, which turns into a slow-speed race as both cars malfunction. Dixon is captured, only to discover the killer is Richardson. He plans to use the tomatoes to overthrow the government and seize power in the chaos. Finletter saves Dixon and kills Richardson, but does so right before Richardson is going to confess the secret of controlling the tomatoes. Dixon realizes that the tomatoes have failed, twice, while the hit song “Puberty Love” has been playing on the radio. He has Finletter bring all the people left in the city to a football stadium, where the tomatoes predictably come to attack. They are rendered helpless, however, when “Puberty Love” blasts from the speakers. As the tomatoes shrink back to normal size, the humans press the attack, smashing and squashing them into pulp.

Thoughts: From the opening crawl, this movie takes its refuge in audacity. John DeBello decides to start the film by reminding people of how silly the concept of Hitchcock’s The Birds seemed in 1963, and that a real-life bird attack in 1975 made people stop laughing. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that at all, but you’ve got to admire the guts of the man who made this movie starting things off by comparing tomatoes to seagulls… or for that matter, himself to Hitchcock.

But that’s actually part of the movie’s bizarre charm. Starting with the crawl and going into an almost disturbingly-catchy opening theme song over credits that include several jokes (including a few “advertisements” and a blatant lie about the story’s origin), there is never any chance that this is a movie that takes itself too seriously. It can’t. And it knows it can’t. So it starts with the ridiculous. It’s another Type B horror/comedy, and a far broader one than Young Frankenstein, but it still stays close enough to the concept of legitimate storytelling to remain entertaining instead of just being a litany of joke after joke after joke.

The “killer tomato concept, in and of itself, comes across as a parody of 1950s sci-fi films, so many of which featured ordinary creatures – ants, lizards, and even the occasional plant – mutating into killing machines. As few of those films were self-aware enough to roll with the joke, though, Attack does it for them. The horror nods don’t stop there, though. The opening sequence feels like it was taken from a George Romero zombie movie, featuring random attacks striking random people. The scene where the girl swimmers are assaulted by tomatoes from beneath is a clear reference to Jaws (even down to a musical sting that mimics the John Williams theme without treading quite close enough to feel like legal action should be considered).

Now I’m not going to lie to you and say this is a good movie. The acting is miserable, the effects are weak, and at no point are you convinced that the tomatoes are actually “attacking” (a better term to use is “being lobbed gently at the actors from immediately off-camera”). Some of the humor does get a little too broad, as well. Taylor’s character seems to be named “Lois” purely for the sake of slipping in a Superman joke that doesn’t really go anywhere or add anything. But despite these relatively mild gripes, there’s still something oddly, inexplicably charming about this movie.

Part of it, I think, is that I never knew exactly how zany it is. I’ve heard of the movie for years, even watched the cartoon spin-off in the 90s (it didn’t last long, don’t be surprised if you never heard of it), but I guess I always had it in my head that it was a more tongue-in-cheek sort of film. Instead, it’s a straight-up spoof movie, and it hit me at a time when I wasn’t expecting one and, at the same time, was particularly turned off of them after seeing such a flurry of poor ones in recent years. In contrast, a lot of these jokes actually do hit. Sam Smith’s terrible (yet astonishingly effective) disguise skills never failed to elicit at least a chuck from me, and an early gag in which a Japanese scientist – all of his dialogue poorly dubbed for no real reason – accidentally knocks a very unfortunate picture into an aquarium pulled one of those simultaneous gasps and laughs. It was that moment where you start to laugh because it’s funny, then immediately try to stop yourself because you know it shouldn’t be. It’s not easy to do that really well, and if you fail to land a joke like that it’ll kill you. This doesn’t.

Some of the writing is also really clever. The bit where Dixon, Finletter, Fairchild and her editor all argue on the phone is cut perfectly, at one point making you question who was talking to who. The dialogue itself isn’t actually funny, but when cut together in such a way that you wonder if the speakers have somehow gotten their lines crossed, it makes you laugh.

This movie is, of course, a cult classic at best, but that’s fair. A lot of those movies that have a small but dedicated audience fall into that category, and even more of them blend together the horror and comedy tropes that mash up so very, very well. This is a movie you start to watch expecting it to be so bad it’s good. The fact that there are a few moments where it’s actually, genuinely good is a nice added bonus.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 22: Halloween (1978)

halloween1Director: John Carpenter

Writer: John Carpenter, Debra Hill

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis,  Nick Castle, Peter Griffith, John Michael Graham, Bryan Andrews

Plot: In Haddonfield, Illinois, 1963, a 6-year-old boy named Michael Myers inexplicably murders his older sister on Halloween Night. Michael is sent to a mental institution where, for 15 years, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) attempts to treat the boy for his psychosis. Eventually, Loomis surrenders, believing the boy to be beyond redemption, and turns his efforts towards containing the monster that has grown up to become a brute of a man. On October 30, 1978, Michael (Nick Castle) escapes from the institution and begins a trek back to Haddonfield.

The next morning, the day of Halloween, high school senior Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) drops off a package at the old, empty Myers house as a favor to her realtor father (Peter Griffith). She and the child she babysits, Tommy Doyle (Bryan Andrews) relate the legend the Myers story has become, unaware that a now-masked Michael is watching them. Laurie and her friend Annie (Nancy Loomis) encounter Annie’s father, Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), who informs them about a break-in and theft of a Halloween mask from a store in town. Loomis recruits Brackett to help him both in searching for Michael and in keeping his presence in town a secret.

That night, Annie and Laurie are both on babysitting jobs until Annie drops off her charge with Laurie and Tommy across the street so she can spend the evening with her boyfriend, only to return to what she thinks is an empty house. Naturally, it’s not. Soon afterwards, Lynda (P.J. Soles) and her boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) come over and find the house empty, seeing a free reign for some amorous activities of their own. Instead, they simply give Michael two more victims to add to his count. Still-nervous Laurie, across the street, decides to check out the unnaturally quiet house, only to find Michael’s victims, including Annie laid out in a gruesome tableau beneath the stolen headstone of Judith Myers. Laurie screams, tries to flee, and winds up taking a tumble down the stairs to escape Michael. Hurt, she staggers across the street to protect the children, but Michael follows her. In the final scenes, Laurie and Michael engage in an incredible cat-and-mouse game for her life, until finally she sends the kids out to seek help, drawing Loomis’s attention. He arrives just in time to save Laurie, shooting Michael and sending him falling from the window. A shattered Laurie asks Loomis if it really was the Boogeyman. Loomis confirms that it was… as he looks out the window and sees that Michael is gone.

Thoughts: Not the first “slasher” film, of course (we’ve already discussed at least two others that fit in that category), John Carpenter’s Halloween is truly the one that created the template future slashers would follow. In a simple 20-day shoot, on a shoestring budget, Carpenter gave us the synthesis of the mysterious figure, the slow build-up of one death after another to lead to a final confrontation, the use of the killer as some sort of karmic punishment for teenagers that get wrapped up in the evils of sex and drugs and alcohol, and of course the Survivor Girl in Jamie lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode.

Carpenter also uses visual tricks to great effect. The long opening scene is a single-take shot, all from the point of view of little Michael, as he watches his sister with her boyfriend, waits until she’s alone, and makes his first kill. The audience doesn’t even realize it’s a point of view shot for the first minute or two, until we see Michael’s little clown-clad arm reach out and grab the kitchen knife. Once he puts on his mask, our vision is impaired and reduced to a pair of small eye-holes, which covers up just enough of the brutality of his sister’s murder to make it all the more horrifying. He bookends this at the end of the movie, after Michael’s disappearance, with images of the empty rooms and exterior of the house where the rampage took place. Although we don’t see Michael again at this point, the idea that we are again looking through his eyes strikes you immediately.

For pure horror atmosphere, Halloween is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made. Some of the earlier slasher prototypes – here I’m specifically thinking of Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre – spent a good deal of time on mundane or even goofy nonsense before delving into anything horrifying. Halloween starts with a murder, and although it’s some time before Michael kills again, there’s a pervasive feeling of dread and terror that lasts throughout the film. Carpenter also composed the movie’s theme, which has really become an iconic piece of scary music, right up there with the themes to Psycho and Jaws.

In fact, Carpenter obviously draws on the history of Psycho in several places: his killer is obsessed with slaying women, particularly those of his own family; Dr. Sam Loomis is named after the John Gavin character from Psycho; Michael’s knife –his stance – echoes “Mother” and her weapon as she stalked Marion Crane; even his heroine is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, real-life daughter of Janet Leigh, who played Norman Bates’s most famous victim. I’m pretty sure the film’s original title was The Babysitter Murders (or) I Love Hitchcock. In a curious bit of pre-reflection, the babysitters and their charges spend Halloween night watching the 50s sci-fi chiller The Thing From Another World, which Carpenter himself would remake a few years later, and which we’ll actually discuss here in a few days.

Michael, in this film, is almost omnipresent. He’s an enormous, white-faced ninja, appearing at random times, able to pop up from virtually anywhere, and always, always watching. When you consider how relatively little violence there is in the film – the death scenes are few and brief – it’s amazing how effective Michael’s presence is at creating the overwhelming sense of fear. At the same time, there’s an odd sense of innocence to the character… or at the very least, confusion, like he doesn’t fully comprehend anything he’s doing. Bob’s death in particular demonstrates this: Michael pins the boy to the wall hard enough to leave him dangling there in his death-gurgles. As he’s dying, Michael tilts his head at him, almost quizzically, like a puppy looking at a stranger he can’t quite figure out.

Oddly enough, the family obsession isn’t actually that clear in this first film, except for the fact that Michael’s original victim is his older sister. There’s no reason at this point, though, to believe that his madness is anything other than a random killing spree. Halloween II, also written by Carpenter and Hill, is probably one of the all-time great horror sequels. It picks up immediately after the climax of this film and the entirety of the action takes place on the same night: Halloween 1978. If one views the two of them together, as if it was one long film, you get a richer story and uncover much more about the Myers family – namely the fact that Laurie was adopted by the Strodes and is, in fact, Michael’s younger sister. I have no idea if Carpenter and Hill were thinking along these lines when they wrote the original screenplay, but in the sequel they pull out a revelation that makes the earlier installment better by adding a totally different subtext. (Contrast that to the Star Wars revelations: no matter how much you love the original film or Empire Strikes Back, don’t you always feel a little squicky now when Leia plants a wet one on Luke Skywalker?)

As much as Michael Myers became emblematic of the horror movie boogieman, so did Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode come to embody the Survivor Girl trope – the one girl who remains (relatively) clean and innocent while all her friends are busy drinking, smoking (anything they can get their hands on), and engaging in lots and lots of teenage sex. We go back to the old Horror Movie As Morality Play idea, as these other teens are picked off one at a time, leaving only the clean, sober, virginal one to make the final stand against the killer. And truly, Curtis’s final stand is one of the best ever. She’s scared, but she’s also tough and determined, more so to protect the children than to protect herself. At every step of those final scenes, while Michael stalks her through the house, her first concern is to protect the kids, then herself. It’s a heroic stance that makes us sympathize even more than we would have originally (and the Babysitter Versus the Boogeyman idea is already one that wins her a great deal of sympathy from the audience). When she’s scared, you buy the terror on her face wholeheartedly. When she’s angry, you wouldn’t want to be the one to cross her.

And yes, like every horror movie in the history of ever, you’ve got those scenes where you want to just scream at her to turn around, dammit, he’s right behind you! But you usually say this while laughing, knowing the teenager is going to bite it and you’re really just there to see how it’s going to happen. This is one time where you really want her to turn around before it’s too late.

The series went off the rails with its third installment, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which didn’t feature Michael at all. The idea was to try to turn Halloween into an annual Tales From the Crypt-style anthology series, each installment telling a totally different scary story. It’s not a bad idea and it may have worked if it wasn’t that Halloween II had already cemented Michael as the star of the franchise and if Halloween III wasn’t such a hot mess. Future installments never quite matched the original two, drifting Michael further and further down the road of the supernatural, which undermined what made the original so great in the first place. In the first two films, Michael is a terrifying figure because he represents a hidden dark side that could exist even in the most seemingly innocent person, a darkness that could erupt at any time and become the shadow in the window or the boogeyman behind the closet door. Once you make Michael the victim of a curse or a demon, you lose that. So go out and watch the first two Halloween films as part of your seasonal festivities, and ignore the rest.

From the terror in the house next door, tomorrow we’re going to the depths of deep space for perhaps the greatest blend of science fiction and horror ever made: Ridley Scott’s Alien.