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Freaky Firsts Day 6: Screamtime (1983)

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

Directors: Michael Armstrong, Stanley A. Long

Writer: Michael Armstrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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!


Scrooge Month Day 6: Scrooge McDuck in MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1983)

Mickey's Christmas Carol 1983Director: Burny Mattinson

Writers: Burny Mattinson, Tony Marino, Ed Gombert, Don Griffith, Alan Young, Alan Dinehart, based on the novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Alan Young, Wayne Allwine, Hal Smith, Will Ryan, Eddie Carroll, Patricia Parris, Dick Billingsley, Clarence Nash

Notes: Paired with a re-release of the 1977 film The Rescuers, Mickey’s Christmas Carol is significant in the annals of Disney animation for several reasons. It was the first theatrical short starring Mickey Mouse in 30 years; it was the final time Donald Duck’s original voice actor, Clarence Nash, would voice the character; and it was the first time Alan Young would voice Donald’s Uncle Scrooge, a role he has continued with through the classic DuckTales TV show and every other depiction of the character right through the present day. Despite its short length, the film is remarkably faithful to the Dickens novel, keeping most of the important scenes and characters, although racing through them in the 26-minute running time. The Disney characters who take part in this adaptation include Scrooge McDuck (Young) as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mickey Mouse (Wayne Allwine) as Bob Cratchit, Donald Duck (Nash) as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, Goofy (Hal Smith) as Jacob Marley, Jiminy Cricket (Eddie Carroll) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Willie the Giant (Will Ryan) as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Black Pete (Ryan again) as one of the few versions of Christmas Yet to Come to actually have lines. Other minor characters and background extras come from various Disney shorts and films starring animals, particularly The Wind in the Willows and Robin Hood, which you may remember I talked about here once before.

Thoughts: This is the shortest version of A Christmas Carol I’ve talked about yet, and is probably the shortest I’ll discuss all month, but it’s also one of my favorites. Part of that can no doubt be chalked up to nostalgia – I was six years old when this cartoon was released, and I think I saw it in the theater, but I honestly can’t say for sure. Regardless, I am sure this was the first version of the story I remember in any detail, and as such it holds a special place in my heart. That said, it’s worth talking about even without the nostalgia factor because – again, despite its short running time – it’s really good.

First of all: Alan Young. I’m not sure how many people are aware that Uncle Scrooge has the voice of Wilbur from TV’s Mr. Ed, and I’m not sure how many would care if they did, because his work with this character is by far a more enduring legacy. Scrooge McDuck is a character who has to be firm and grumpy, but with a good heart at the core. In truth, from the outset he was a (slightly) milder version of the Dickens character Carl Barks named him after. Young’s voice performance is flawless.

The “casting” all around is good. Mickey Mouse – so long portrayed as a sweet, well-meaning everyman — is the natural choice for Bob Cratchit. Jiminy Cricket is Pinocchio’s conscience, and as such is the logical choice for Christmas Past. Willie and Pete, both nominal “villains” in their usual Disney performances, fit their roles well, with the man-child Willie making an even larger version of Christmas Present than we usually see and Pete taking real delight in his nasty work. The only one that doesn’t really seem to fit is Goofy as Jacob Marley – a character full of regret. Even if Goofy had anything to regret (he doesn’t – the character is far too innocent for that), he’s not self-aware enough to realize it. I imagine he was given the part simply because they felt the need to get all of Disney’s top three characters into the cartoon somewhere and they just couldn’t think of any other way to include him.

The only major character omitted from this version of the story is Scrooge’s sister, Fan. Considering it was billed as a Mickey Mouse cartoon, that’s understandable – kids may be able to accept ghosts and hellfire and redemption, but I doubt any parent wanted to have a discussion with their children about the potential of a mother dying in childbirth. Besides, there’s a long precedent in Disney cartoons of obvious orphans whose parents are never referenced (Donald and Mickey’s nephews and Donald himself being the prime examples).

Scrooge’s reformation is a bit more subtle in this film, although we do see the stages. After Christmas Past shows Scrooge the scene where he breaks the heart of Isabelle (Donald’s girlfriend Daisy, which must have been kind of awkward on the set), Scrooge berates himself for being foolish. A few seconds later, though, as Christmas Present preaches generosity, Scrooge stubbornly argues that he has no reason to be generous to others, as no one has ever shown such kindness to him. In response, we go to the Cratchit house, where Tiny Tim himself encourages his family to thank Mr. Scrooge. That’s all Scrooge gets from Christmas Present, though, as he’s left standing between a pair of giant footprints before a cloud of cigar smoke whisks him to the cemetery. He’s scared now, and you can feel it, but instead of asking about himself, he inquires as to Tim’s welfare. It’s a good moment, and it’s heartbreaking a moment later when we see Mickey Mouse, in tears, laying a crutch on a tombstone. If that isn’t enough to give kids watching permanent scarring, Christmas Future whips off his hood, lights a match on Scrooge’s tombstone, and kicks him into the open grave, where fire being blazing from the coffin and reaches for Scrooge just before he’s whisked home for the joyful finale.

It is still a Disney cartoon, and as such has to work in some comedy amidst the dark subject matter. The balance is good, and never at the expense of character, whether we’re looking at a verbal gag, a bit of ironic wording, or a quick sight gag. The moment where Scrooge tells Fred he’s coming to Christmas dinner after all, Fred and the horse look each other in the eye and Nash gives the line reading of his career: a simple “Well I’ll be doggone” that never fails to get a laugh out of me.

I do so love this cartoon, and not just because I got to watch it and write the whole article in less than a half-hour. It’s a wonderful rendition of Dickens’s story, even in its condensed form, and it just came out on a 30th anniversary edition Blu-Ray and DVD, along with several other classic Disney Christmas shorts, and one brand new one. If you don’t already own it, get it now.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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!