Blog Archives

Scrooge Revisited Day 2-Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol (1979)

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

Director: Eric Till

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Winkler, Dorian Harewood, David Wayne, Chris Wiggins, R.H. Thomson, Ken Pogue, Gerard Parkes, Susan Hogan, Chris Cragg

Notes: This TV movie from 1979 cast the then-34 Henry Winker, riding high on the success of Happy Days, as Scrooge substitute “Benedict Slade.” The film transplants the events of Dickens’s novel from Victorian London to Depression-Era New England, but keeps the most important beats of the timeless tale of a miser faced by ghosts to drive him towards redemption.

As usual, I don’t want to waste time rehashing a well-trod plot, but it’s worth pointing out how the film branches out at the beginning. The first real act of Scroogery comes on Christmas Eve when Slade and his Cratchit stand-in, Thatcher (R.H. Thompson) repossess the property of an African-American farming couple, the Reeves (Dorian Harewood and Arlene Duncan). They then pull the same stunt on the headmaster (Fraggle Rock’s Gerard Parkes) of the very school he once attended, and a university shop that makes the terrible mistake of selling books instead of something profitable. By the time Slade and Thatcher arrive home with a truck full of goods taken back from people who couldn’t pay, you start to feel that Slade may actually have Scrooge beat when it comes to being a jackass. When Thatcher tries to convince him to put money into reopening the town quarry, since Roosevelt has all these plans that will require slate, he thanks him by firing him. Just as Slade destroys a first edition of A Christmas Carol he took from the university shop (this bit, incidentally, made me hate the man as much as any movie villain I’ve ever seen), the visitations from the spirits begin…

Thoughts: From the beginning, Benedict Slade is a different kind of take on Ebenezer Scrooge. For one thing, the makeup job is awful. Winkler, who again was only 34 at the time, is layered under slabs of makeup that don’t serve to make him look old so much as they make him look like he’s late for a Halloween party. (There’s an unintentionally funny bit when he encounters the first ghost and accuses him of being under heavy makeup like “that man who played Frankenstein,” while Ken Pogue is playing a ghost and yet still looks more natural and lifelike than Winkler.) The film spends an inordinate amount of time with Christmas Past, I think, largely so that we can see Winkler’s face without the ridiculous makeup. He does make up for it, I should note, by sporting a bitching mustache.

Bad makeup aside, though, Winkler’s performance is actually pretty good. He’s got a nasty, bitter tone in his voice that fits in with all the Scrooges we’ve loved before, and you definitely get the impression right off that this is a man who keeps rage close to his heart. As we get his backstory, he comes across as a much more rounded Scrooge than many other incarnations – as a young man he seems earnest and sincere. His first steps down a bad path come not out of greed or spite, but because he is trying to look forward for the sake of his business while his mentor (Chris Wiggins) insists on miring himself in the past. Wiggins’s character owns a woodshop, making furniture by hand, and Slade leaves him for the sake of a company that is progressing in the direction of automation and mass production. By the time he does anything that could legitimately been seen as corrupt, he’s already gone quite far down the path of trying to do what he thinks is best for his business – and what’s more, history proved him right.

That goes a long way to selling his redemption – when he approaches Thatcher during the “Christmas Present” segment, asking forgiveness for not knowing that Thatcher’s son was sick when he fired him, you believe his contrite nature. The final scene with the Thatcher family, when Slade hands young Jonathan (Chris Cragg) one ticket after another to get him to the clinic in Australia that can cure whatever it is he’s suffering from, Winkler is nailing it. Even when Mrs. Thatcher hugs him, he pulls off a wonderful little beat where he gets anxious, not used to physical contact after all these years, that fits the character marvelously.

Writer Jerome Coopersmith picked a good time period to set the story – placing in during the Depression makes it easy to show the rich/poor gulf between his version of Scrooge and… well, everybody else. What’s more, it allows him to play a little on racial tensions in a way that Dickens never does. Although the film doesn’t make it explicit, it can’t be a coincidence that the first nasty thing Slade does is to a black family struggling to survive the Great Depression.

The film makes some interesting choices in regards to the ghosts. Rather than trying to make the ghosts creepy or ethereal, Slade is visited by spirits who take the form of the people he screwed earlier in the day. Christmas Past is the bookstore owner (David Wayne) whose copy of A Christmas Carol bit the dust, Christmas Present is Parkes, and Christmas Future is Harewood. I’m honestly not sure what the thought process is here – to give it a bit of Wizard of Oz flair? To make the interaction between Slade and the ghosts more personal, since he personally wounded each of them? Harewood in particular is odd, dressing him up in 70s-era clothes complete with a shirt open to his bellybutton and gold chains. While using “future” radio broadcasts to herald his arrival is an interesting touch, the clothes he wears would be enough to make any reasonable person fight against such a horrific future.

In the end, this is a pretty good iteration of the story. It recontextualizes Dickens in a different time and place in a way that fits the new setting, while still maintaining the spirit of the original. Although it keeps most of the skeleton of the story the same, there’s just enough of a change to the set dressing to make it feel like a different experience. It’s not my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, but it’s not a bad one at all.

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

Advertisements

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 32: Scream (1996)

screamDirector: Wes Craven

Writer: Kevin Williamson

Cast: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schreiber, Henry Winkler, Roger L. Jackson, W. Earl Brown

Plot: At home alone, a girl named Casey (Drew Barrymore) gets phone calls from a mysterious stranger (voiced by Roger L. Jackson). Although friendly and flirtatious at first, the caller starts to get angry and violent, finally revealing that he’s outside her house and he’s got her boyfriend taped to a chair. He forces her to play a sadistic horror movie trivia game for her boyfriend’s life, but she gets a question wrong (it’s a question that you, dear reader, should be able to answer correctly if you’ve been paying attention to this little experiment) and Steve is slashed. Casey tries to run, but is caught by a cloaked figure in a Ghost-faced mask who stabs her and leaves her dangling in the trees for her parents to find.

The next day we encounter Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), one of Casey’s classmates, who is having trouble dealing with the upcoming one-year anniversary of her mother’s death at the hands of a man named Cotton Weary (Live Schrieber). At school the next day, Sidney’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) tells her about the murders, and the media descends upon the campus. Sidney and Tatum’s boyfriends, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) are overly enthused about the killings, while their film buff buddy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) mocks their cavalier attitude. That night, the killer calls Sidney, claiming to be outside her house. She is saved when Billy arrives, but when he drops a cell phone, she thinks he’s the killer (remember, kids, this was before every person on the planet had four phones in their pants). Tatum’s brother Dewey (David Arquette), a police deputy, arrives and arrests Billy. As Sidney leaves the police station, she is accosted by Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), a TV reporter who built her career with a hurtful expose about the murder of Sidney’s mother. Sidney punches Gail and goes to Tatum’s house for the night, since her father is out of town. (What is it with horror movie parents who leave town when their kids are being stalked by murderers? Craven pulled this in Nightmare on Elm Street as well.) The next day, Gail and Sidney are confronted again, Gail espousing her theory that Cotton is innocent of Maureen Prescott’s murder, and further suggesting the new killer is related to her case. Billy, meanwhile, is released from jail when an examination of his phone records proves he didn’t call Sidney that night. As she broods, the killer attacks her at school. She escapes, but Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) cancels all classes until further notice. Unfortunately, Ghostface doesn’t obey school hours – Himbry is his next victim.

Gleeful over the school cancellations, Stu throws a horror movie party at his house. Just about everybody is there, including Gail and Dewey, watching the place in the news van through a camera they hid in the living room. Tatum goes to the garage for more beer, and winds up encountering – and being killed by – Ghostface. Billy and Sid retreat to Stu’s parents room (again, where are the parents?) and she confesses she’s terrified of turning into a “bad seed” like her mother, who was having an affair with Cotton. As they “make up,” downstairs Randy schools the crowd (and the audience) on the rules of surviving a horror movie:

  1. Never have sex.
  2. Never drink or do drugs.
  3. Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back.”

Naturally, all the rules are being broken all over the place.

The party empties out as the kids discover Himbry’s death, and Randy is left alone. Upstairs, the killer strikes, stabbing Billy and coming after Sid. She tries to run, but he seems to be everywhere, and she winds up climbing onto the roof and falling to the ground. She flees to the news van, where she and Gail’s cameraman (W. Earl Brown) watch the killer creep up on Randy… then run when he hears Sid screaming 30 seconds earlier. The camera is on a delay – one that turns out deadly for the Kenny the Cameraman. Sidney returns to the house, where Dewey staggers out, a knife in his back. Randy and Stu appear, both accusing the other of being the killer, and Sid locks them out of the house, where Billy is staggering around, bloody but alive. He opens the door, lets Randy in, tosses out a Psycho quote and shoots the film geek. Stu comes in through the side entrance with a voice-changer, and Sid finally realizes the game: Billy and Stu have both been killing, taking turns slaughtering their friends. Billy admits it’s all been a revenge game – Sid’s mother had an affair with Billy’s father, which is why Billy murdered Maureen and framed Cotton, and why he’s targeting Sid now. Stu produces Sidney’s father, tied up, who they’re planning to frame for their crimes, leaving the two of them as the heroic survivors, but they’ve got to injure each other first to make it convincing. Billy stabs Stu too deep, though, and he begins dying of blood loss. Gail arrives with a gun, but she’s forgotten to turn the safety off, allowing Billy to disarm her and knock her out. While the killers are distracted, Sid vanishes. She leaps out wearing the mask, stabs Billy with an umbrella, and then battles Stu, finally smashing his head with a TV showing the finale of Halloween. Gail, Randy and Dewey turn out to be alive, but Billy pops up and attacks again. Gail takes him down, though. This time, she remembers to turn the safety off.

Thoughts: Believe it or not, this is the first film on this entire list that I saw when it was actually a new movie. Like I said waaaaaaaay back in the introduction, I never really watched scary movies when I was a kid. In college, my buddy Jason got me to give them a try, and this was one of the earliest. As such, I didn’t quite know all of the tropes and jokes this film is crammed with. But it shows you just how powerful these elements of storytelling have become that I still got enough of them to not only understand this movie, but really enjoy it.

Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven really did usher in a new era of movies here. After Scream, cinemas were deluged with a new wave of  teen horror films and slasher flicks that tried to imitate the rapid fire dialogue and self-referential nature of the movie while completely missing the heart. What they didn’t seem to get is that the filmmakers were doing the greatest kind of parody: the kind made by people who genuinely love that which they lampoon and, at the same time, create a masterful example. The film is full of references to other horror movies (including Wes Craven’s own back catalogue), and contains a now-legendary discussion about the “rules of horror movies” that we’ve been discussing in this project all along. Whether it was Craven or Williamson who’s responsible, the movie is packed with comments about Nightmare on Elm Street, including a Wes Craven cameo wearing a Freddy Krueger mask. Then of course, there’s the greatest Nightmare reference of all: Skeet Ulrich really looks like a young Johnny Depp in this flick.

Craven doesn’t flinch from acknowledging the works of other horror masters, though – the key question in the first scene is a Friday the 13th reference, and The Exorcist’s Linda Blair makes an uncredited cameo as a reporter. We also see numerous Halloween references, including the kids watching that movie on the night of the party, Ghostface giving Sidney a “head tilt” oddly reminiscent of that Michael Myers gives one of his victims in the original film, naming Billy Loomis after Dr. Sam Loomis (who, in turn, was named after a character in Psycho – it’s the circle of life, people) and the highly metatextual exchange when Randy (played, remember, by Jamie Kennedy) yells at Jamie Lee Curtis that the killer is behind her… while the killer is behind him.

Randy, by the way, is a fantastic character. He’s smart, terribly funny, and full of self-referential humor before lesser filmmakers overused it to the point where it’s gotten tedious. Jamie Kennedy was great in this part – what the hell happened to him?

Anyway, back to other horror movies. The problem was, too many of the imitators took Randy’s “rules” as some sort of iron clad set of commandments, and any creativity they may have displayed evaporated. Scream, instead, used those rules as a framework, then layered a particularly clever and rich mystery on top of them. It was a really long time since a horror film succeeded by causing the audience to question whothe killer was or which characters they could trust. This film works as a horror movie that brings in a nice element of comedy as well, but I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves for bringing real mystery back to horror. The fear at the end of the film, during the four-way standoff with Sidney, Randy, Billy and Stu, comes from the fact that Sidney has no idea which of these three boys she can trust (and the totally innocent Randy almost pays for it with his life).

While the body count isn’t enormous in this movie, especially compared to other slashers and gorefests like the Saw films, the kills are really very memorable. Casey’s death was shocking, as the movie was heavily promoted as a Drew Barrymore film and nobody expected her to die in the opening scene, and Tatum’s murder via garage door opener is pretty darn clever. It really makes you want to be careful never to get Kevin Williamson or Wes Craven mad at you.

Ghostface, as a character, is a great addition to the pantheon of horror movie killers. Even though seven different characters have worn the mask in four different movies (as of this writing), it’s almost as if they’re wearing a single character’s entire persona. No matter who Ghostface is, his style of attack is the same, the way he can pop out of anywhere like a damn ninja, the way he takes legitimate damage when his victims fight back but he keeps coming anyway. And the way he never talks in person makes it all the creepier, because unlike Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, you know he can talk. Get him on a phone with a voice changer and he chatters away like a talk show host. But in person, he’s the strong, silent, stabby type.

This film really has one of the great horror movie finales. Lots of movies have a sort of battle of wits in the end between the murderer and the Survivor Girl, but Halloween and Friday the 13th eliminated the pool of potential victims far too early. The great thing about this finale is that once the killer shows up at the party, there are still plenty of people around, and any one of them could be a victim or a murderer. In fact, the only thing that exonerates some of them from being a suspect is getting killed themselves. This, of course, wasn’t the case for Billy Loomis. It’s also notable that the film has a lot more survivors than we’re used to in horror movies. Not only are there two killers, but Survivor Girl Sidney is joined by survivors Gail, Dewey, and Randy. In fact, except for Randy (killed off in memorable fashion in Scream 2, not in a cheap “get ‘em in the first reel” way like I’ve said so many times I hate so much) all of the survivors of this movie have made it four movies into the franchise. That’s got to be some kind of record.

As great a movie as it is, the fact that it was so cutting edge at the time leaves it looking a little dated now. The fact that Billy even had a cell phone was enough to make him a suspect at this point. And of course, the stacks of videotapes (and the fact that Randy works in a video store) both seem kind of quaint already. Plus, y’know… landlines. Phones with cords. Wow. How did we ever live?

Tomorrow we’re going to head overseas for one more trip this month. It was a Japanese film that not only launched an American remake, but a host of imitators and a host of American remakes of imitators. Let’s take a look at Ringu.