Saturday, August 26, 2017

Elvira Mistress of the Dark...a glorious classic

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

Years ago, many more than I'd care to admit, one way to add a little spending money to the portfolio of the average 6 to 10 year old was to return soda bottles to the store to get the deposit.  This was in the dark ages, when soda came in glass bottles and the deposit was a method the bottlers used to ensure people returned the bottles for reuse.  This was the method I generally used to purchase copies of Forrest J Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (Ackerman was truly a national treasure and I hope he is never is forgotten - I know I'll do my best to ensure that doesn't happen).

My dad would throw in any money I was missing because, although I recall stories on the film Bug and an entire issue dedicated to the upcoming (then) remake of King Kong, it also paid homage to the classic films of the 30s through the 50s, and so there was always an article or two Pops was interested in.

Humor me for a moment while I use that to digress into an odd story of my childhood and Famous Monsters of Filmland.

My Dad and I enjoyed the magazine so much that on one occasion, perhaps for my birthday, I don't recall (symptom of being 50 I guess), he said I could buy some back issues.  The last couple of pages of each magazine was generally dedicated to a two or three page ad for ordering back issues.  So, I picked a couple I had missed (we seemed to move around town a lot - never to another city, just different houses in the same town, but, that would throw me off my routine for a bit).  I'm sure once he dropped the order into the mailbox I thought I'd never live long enough to see them arrive.  Strange how I perceived time as a youth.  Nevertheless, at some point they arrived and I'm sure I almost pissed myself opening up the package.

If memory serves, I ran outside, found a corner of the backyard  (one of the houses I lived in had a cool back its a parking lot for a hospital...) and read them all cover to cover.  On the back of one was a picture of a very dead  Christopher Lee's Dracula with the following words over it - "Dracula died for your sins".  Of course, even at 9 years old and being a pretty dim bulb, I knew it didn't mean anything. I had developed my own religious beliefs (pretty mundane and conventional by today's standards and generally it was just common Midwest Protestant Christianity. Haven't changed much other than I'm not a Protestant anymore).  I had embraced my own set of beliefs based in large part on my attendance of the local Episcopal church and the Billy Graham specials a station out of Kentucky would broadcast.  I did this because my Mother, God rest her soul, was into all kinds of stuff.  Astrology, pyramid power (yeah....that was a thing), meditation, EST, Tarot me - all kinds of crazy shit was going on in my house.

So you can imagine my surprise when my mother comes screaming through the house holding up that picture.  Keep in my mind, this was a liberal, religiously fluid individual and she is screaming about "What the hell is this.  What kind of people publish this crap?!  Don't they know kids read this?"  You know...all the stuff you heard a decade later from Tipper Gore.  My Dad and I tried to intervene.  I even testified like I was at my Grandparents small church in Southern Illinois...and I was sincere.  I wasn't just saying it because I didn't want her to destroy a magazine that had an amazing article on The Day of the Triffids.  A bargain was struck, she could rip out the picture, tear it up and throw it away but the magazine would stay mostly in tact.  I recall, as my mother was doing that, looking at my Dad and I know we were both thinking something akin to "Holy shit this lady needs meds."  The irony there is she was no doubt medicated at the time.

In fact, what she should have been worried about was that my hormones kicked in when I was, oh, maybe kindergarten.  Seriously.  And Famous Monster of Filmland would always find a way to have pictures of Vampira, who had been a "Horror Hostess" on a station in the LA area in the 50s (KABC I think but I could be wrong).  To my brain in the early 70s I thought that whole package was HOT.  Admittedly, the tiny waist now just makes my think someone had an eating disorder. But, when I was a kid the only eating disorder I was aware of  was always wanting more to eat.  Nevertheless, this cemented something in my brain which made me keen to that "type" or image I suppose. I've broaden my horizons a bit since then.

So, a decade later when I became familiar with Elvira I went batshit crazy.  I'd never actually seen footage of Vampira (damn those pre-YouTube days) other than her appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space but, I'd seen Elvira on television and rented videos of films she "hosted" and they were brilliant.  Elvira was gorgeous and had a wicked sense of humor.  And once I found out her name was Cassandra Peterson and after some reading I realized she was writing much of the material and so clearly  this was not just some gorgeous lady a company had found and decided to feed lines. No, this was a creation of her own.  In fact, she became so popular that even my small home town had an Elvira knock off who went by the name Misty Brew who had a show on KBSI 23; I can't recall if it was Friday or Saturday nights though.  Misty Brew seems to still be a thing, but, mostly in the Cape Girardeau area I think; appearing at the Cape ComicCon and such - I don't get out that way much anymore (you know the saying "once they've seen the lights of Paris...")

The magazines I read changed in the 80s.  I was a Starlog and Fangoria kind of guy and I also subscribed to a couple of mimeographed fanzines (you know - blogs on paper).  That was how I first heard about the full length movie Elvira Mistress of the Dark. To my shame, I did not see it at the theater - its possible it didn't make it to Cape Girardeau, but, the moment I saw the video tape for rent I cleared my calendar for what turned out to be one of the funniest films, not only of the 80s, but in general.  I watched it again just recently before writing this and its STILL hilarious.

The film, written by Peterson herself along with John Paragon and Sam Egan gets some grief on the interwebs for simply being a retread of Footloose.  I'd like to purchase dictionaries for those whiners and mark the page where "Parody" is defined.  It is a word they should learn...its important.  John Paragon, one of the co-writers who has a small part in the film, might be better known to some as Jambi from Pee-Wee's Playhouse (and some of the other Pee-Wee Herman iterations).  Not since Airplane had I heard such zingers - Example when a letter falls off a theater marquee and lands squarely on Elvira's noggin, Bob the theater manager asks "How's your head" and Elvira responds with "I haven't had any complaints yet."  That line is a serious beer flying out of your nose moment guaranteed.

As the film opens we see Elvira doing one of the things she does best - hosting a horror film on television, much to the chagrin of the news team and others at the station. In disgust over sexual advances from the new station owner, Elvira quits to begin her singing career in Las Vegas - but The Flamingo wants 50K as a deposit in good faith.

Where will Elvira come up with 50K - well, luckily an Aunt she didn't know she had  recently passed away.  All Elvira has to do is go to Falwell, Massachusetts (a brilliant joke in and of itself) and collect her inheritance.  However, when she arrives she is beyond a fish out of water in the small, conservative New England town.  To make matters worse, her great Uncle wants something that was bequeathed to her and for evil purposes.  If I were to simply lists some of the hilarious scenes in this film the list would be longer than this blog post.

The cast is stellar - the late Jeff Conaway, Edie McClurg (who always plays frumpy but I secretly thought was hot), Susan Kellermann and William Morgan Sheppard are amazing in this film (but so is the entire cast).

The film is a co-production of Roger Corman's New World Pictures and NBC, so, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that pitch meeting.  Somehow I have to think there is a movie in that alone...but I could be wrong.

And, I apologize up front, but I have to spray a bit of vitriol at both the Razzies and the most vile website on Earth Rotten Tomatoes.  Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) was nominated for a Razzie as worst actress for this film and I have to wonder - what fucking movie did they watch?  Because she is brilliant in this film.  And of course, it has an unfathomably low score on RT, but, that's a site populated by chronic masturbaters living in their parents basement so they can all screw off.

The film is available to rent on iTunes and Amazon and also on DVD and Blu-ray.  Trust me, you're safe to make the Blu-ray investment - you can't go wrong. Check it out and tell Cassandra Jake sent you!

Miss you pops!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Giant Spider Invasion of 1975

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

Trailers still play on television.  I recall earlier in the Summer seeing a trailer for the reboot of The Mummy...and feeling entirely justified in realizing this big budget, digital abortion was entirely worth missing.  However, the trailers you'll generally see on TV these days are exclusively for the big budget "blockbusters" that Hollywood is convinced the United States wants despite tepid domestic box office.

But, two generations ago you might catch a trailer for some smaller budget fare.  This is evidenced by a number of the special edition DVDs and Blu-rays out there which often include television and radio spots for films. What changed you ask? (OK...I'm assuming you asked).  Well, film distribution, at least of smaller, mostly genre based films was much different decades ago.  Films were distributed by region - sometimes by the same distributor or sometimes by a company that was responsible for a single region (like St. Louis to Memphis for instance).  The upside of this was a film could save money for advertising by not having a 1000 copies of the print made.  For a regional release a film might only need 50 prints. Of course, that changed pretty quickly, only five years after the release of The Giant Spider Invasion, Paramount Pictures picked up the distribution rights for Friday the 13th and at one point it was on 1,100 screens (in the years before the multiplex was a regular fixture).

In October of 1975 I was staying up way too late with my Dad (which was pretty much what I did - I don't recall sleeping a great deal as a child...I've been making up for that for the last couple of years). I don't remember what we were watching, but, I do recall when the trailer for The Giant Spider Invasion appeared on the television.  He and I were both pretty stoked...I mean it had our two favorite things - 1. Giant Spiders and 2. Invasions.  At the end of the commercial the announcer said "starting Friday at a Drive-in or theater near you!"  I assumed it would open at the good old Star-Vue drive-in but was surprised when my Dad checked the paper and found it was playing at the Rialto - the same place I would see Friday the 13th five years later.

Because I watched way too much television with my Dad, I noticed the film had both of my favorite Hales starring in it.  Alan Hale (who was Alan Hale Jr. until his Dad passed) best known for playing The Skipper on Gilligan's Island (my Dad wrote a script for Gilligan's Island that the studio was interested in but, the show got canceled...) and Barbara Hale, better known as Della Street on Perry Mason.  So, with a pedigree like that the film couldn't fail.

Directed by Bill Rebane, this is actually the 2nd Rebane picture I've written about.  The first was a short essay on a film that was a bit hard to defend called Monster A-go-go.  The screenplay for The Giant Spider Invasion was written by Richard L. Huff and Robert Easton.  Easton also stars in the film as Kester and he wrote some of the best lines for himself.  For instance, there is a revival in town during the film and Kester uses this as an excuse to sneak out on the wife and enjoy the womanly ways of a local waitress.  When he returns home, just before we are treated to the arrival of the spiders indicated in the title, Kester and his wife Ev have the following classic exchange.

Ev: "I'm sorry I missed the sermon. What was it about?"
Kester: "Sin."
Ev: "What did the minister say about it?"
Kester: "He was against it." 

Giant spiders aside, the film hit a nerve for me because of the characters in the film.  My grandparents had a farm in Southern Illinois and I'd spend a great deal of time there when I was a kid and I realized the people in the film were spot on representations of the people I'd met in a small town called Elkville (which had no elk to the best of my knowledge) and may explain my general disdain for Southern Illinois to this day.

In addition to the local residents is the Revival Preacher featured in this picture - his fire and brimstone sermons punctuate some of the events of the film.  It is a trope that has been used in other films as well but, its done nicely in this picture too.  Watching this show even now reminds me of the times I got dragged to church with my grandparents and had to suffer through the endless "Altar Calls" because, you know, salvation of your soul should be based entirely on the psychological warfare which is the mid-west Altar call. 

Over the years I've probably seen this film 20 times, and some of the most shocking moments have nothing to do with the spiders.  For instance, Dr. Vance (Steve Brodie) can't wrap his head around the fact that Dr. Langer (Barbara Hale) is a woman (when he meets her for the first time he asks for her father, husband and brother before she finally explains to him that she is the Dr. Langer he is looking for).  I grew up with hippies (for some better and some worse - growing up with small town hippies was good for stories but not stability) but certainly one thing I picked up from all the hippie vibes is that a woman could be whatever she wanted; hard to grasp there was a time when that actually had to be explained...and so this exchange is always a bit off putting (of course, I'm happy I find it disconcerting and not funny - as I suspect it must have been meant to be).  There are a couple of other instances in the film of the same kind of behavior.  I don't fault the film however.  Film is a reflection of a time...good and bad. If we write off motion pictures, music, television.....history because we don't like something that is represented then we might as well just become a hive mind.

Although as a kid I thought the special effects were amazing, the budget of the picture shows now obviously.  Nevertheless, there are some truly effective moments in this film despite the small budget.  The first death caused by the huge spider is still creepy, I always respect the hell out of a picture that can overcome constraints and deliver the goods.  Of course, the exceptional cast is also responsible.

And I'll address the elephant in the room - I understand there have been legal issues regarding this film and some bad blood between various people and Bill Rebane.  Let me just say, I own, and have rewatched a number of times, the Retromedia Entertainment version of this picture - the company founded by Fred Olen Ray.  And, you'll never find a negative word written by me about Fred Olen Ray...ever.  So, I believe that should clear that up.

As I mentioned, I watched the RME DVD with Son of Ghoul's intro, but, I believe this film is available on Amazon's Shudder streaming service as well.  Do yourself a favor, grab a Schlitz and enjoy 1975 all over again.

Miss you Pops

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WNUF Halloween Special - It's 1987 all over again!

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!
In a previous post I indicated I ordinarily don't write about more recent films.  Generally this is because I feel the heavy reliance on digital technology has drained many motion pictures of their creativity and/or humanity. Although I'm not a lone voice in this regard, it is not an opinion commonly held by lovers of genre films. Of course I have written about a handful of newer releases like The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, Plan 9 and Gila! However, the reason I wanted to write about them and enjoyed those films is they hearken to the pre-digital age and offer an homage to the films of a more creative era.  I'm sure that is a suggestion that will engender dissonance from the younger generation - I'm reminded by people varying in age from 20 to 35 I'm usually wrong about everything (I remember being young and assuming older people were idiots...I'm mean what could they possibly know right?)

In any event, the subject of today's article is one of those amazing pictures that remind us (or people my age I guess) of a different time - a film called WNUF Halloween Special.  Purporting to be a tape of a live 1987 Halloween broadcast from WNUF television (somewhere in the Baltimore area based on the cast including the always amazing George Stover!) this is one of the most entertaining "found footage" films I've ever seen.  I use quotes around the term found footage because the film is supposed to be a video tape of the live broadcast and since the events were broadcast live I don't think "found" footage applies entirely.

This 2013 film with a host of writers and directors (because of the multiple segments and as well as the fake but brilliant commercials) is one of the best examples of a horror comedy I have seen in some time. The commercial breaks are both brilliantly hilarious and telling at the same time.  Commercials for video stores and arcades remind us of the sea change that took place in a single generation.  The news anchors and the commercials are vivid reminders of the days of the independent television station.

I recall watching KPLR 11 out of St. Louis and KBSI 23 in my hometown.  These stations were treasure troves. Where else could you watch the Lone Ranger before heading off to school and come home to My Favorite Martian and Dobie Gillis in the afternoon?  I think it was the variety of older shows from Gilligan's Island to The Dick Van Dyke show (not to mention the old movies) that allowed me a glimpse into the way my parents generation (and even my grandparents) saw the world.  My kids have never seen an old television show - they live entirely unaware of The A-Team, Cheers or Magnum PI...maybe that explains the gulf in being able to relate to one another (just a thought...I'm sure a 24 year old would tell me I'm full of shit).

Also in the late 80s was the USA Channel which felt like a nationwide independent TV station with great shows like Commander USA's Groovie Movies!  I do so miss the days when Disney didn't own every broadcast network.  Odd to think that "Ma" Bell had to be broken up in the 80s and yet we've let a small handful of conglomerates take over virtually every network of the 500 available on your average satellite - easier to spoon feed us our opinions that way I suppose.

The film opens with a news broadcast hosted by anchors Gavin Gordon (Richard Cutting) and Deborah Merritt (Leanna Chamish) in their full Halloween regalia and reminding us to stay tuned for the live broadcast from the ostensibly haunted Webber house, where 20 years prior a young man decapitated his parents.  This opening sequence is absolutely brilliant - the different reporter segments on how to stay safe during Halloween and the interview with the leader of H.A.R.V.E.S.T named Angela Harries (Kendra North) - a Christian anti-Halloween group that has as one of its believes that Goblins pray over the candy given to children to steal their souls.
Clearly meant to invoke the Westboro Baptist church, the group reminds me of some "true believers" I knew back home who tried to "save me" by explaining that Satan put the dinosaur bones on Earth to trick us into believing in evolution because the Earth is only 5000 + years old (I kid you not - they're out there!)

Eventually we get to the live broadcast where reporter Frank Stewart (Paul Fahrenkopf) is outside preparing to enter the house with the assistance of Dr. Louis Berger (Brian St. August) and his wife Claire Berger (Helenmary Ball) as well as their cat, doing a hilarious parody of Ed and Loraine Warren.  Also with them is Father Joseph Matheson (Robert Long II) in the event an Exorcism is required.

Once in the house, the film begins to take a much darker tone as a series of frightening events begin to play out on live television.  The end of the film is creepy and somber but well done and spot on!  My posts are spoiler free so I won't give any details.

I spend huge chunks of my free time tracking down obscure films - only this film is not really that obscure.  It has a large fan base and there are a number of reviews online in both blogs and YouTube videos.  Somehow I simply let this film fly under my radar.  I watched it on Shudder (via Amazon) but I have to imagine it is available on other streaming sites as well - although I really need to track this down on video tape I think to get the full experience.

In closing I do have one single complaint about the film - and you'll understand why I mean when you watch it.  A cameraman named Connor really needed to see a good Ear, Nose and Throat doctor...his nose issue was distracting from the film!  But track down WNUF Halloween Special and enjoy 1987 (all over again if you're my age!)

Miss you Pops

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Remembering Martin Landau and....Alone in the Dark

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

I'm not ecstatic to be growing old.  Intellectually I understood it was likely, but, I generally discounted it as something far off and remote.

And then I got old.

I've certainly been terribly fortunate to see a great many changes in my 50 years.  I have vague recollections of moon landings and presidential resignations (and watching my parents cheer and my grandparents cry..and wondering how people could feel completely different about the same event).  I lived under the threats of the Cold War...and then watched it all dissolve (although, as a species we've grown attached to adding numbers to the ends of wars and so I imagine Cold War II is just around the corner).

Not only have I had the chance to observe history, I've been alive long enough to watch George Lucas create a brilliant space opera, then generally piss on it with the prequels (three films I will not defend).  I'm old enough to have seen Tron, Blade Runner, and The Thing during their original theatrical runs - and I'm very thankful for that.  I even paid cash money to see films like Invaders From Mars, Blue City and Howard the Duck...and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Sadly, however, it means I've also watched much of my youth die away lately.  Certainly the last year and a half has been an seemingly ceaseless reminder of my mortality.  When I was quite young I recall the deaths of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and was partly affected by their passing because members of my family were affected; although my mother appeared pleased about it.  I recall saying to my mother about John Wayne "But Mom, he helped makes America what it is" and she shot me a nasty glance and said "Exactly".

But, then the writers, actors and directors who had affected me grew old and died and I began to understand how my parents and grandparents felt when they watched their youth fade away.

Last month, Martin Landau passed away.  And I was reminded once again how fast everyone's time is ticking away.  Although Landau began working some years before I was even born, between Mission: Impossible and Space: 1999 he was a fixture in my pre-teen and teen years of fandom with films I would watch on cable or later rent like Metor, Without Warning, The Return, The Being (also starring Ruth Buzzi, Murray Langston, Jose Ferrer AND Kinky Friedman!) and one of my favorites Alone in the Dark.

If you look at Landau's IMDB page, Landau worked steadily.  A solid working actor, with two Oscar noms to his credit but no wins - until Tim Burton.

I think every lover of under appreciated films was over joyed when it was announced Tim Burton would be making a film about Ed Wood.  I had recently finished reading Nightmare of Ecstasy- The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. by Rudolph Grey (a brilliant book - track down a copy and enjoy.  My copy is a prize possession) and couldn't wait to see how Burton would translate the ultimately tragic life of Edward D. Wood, Jr. to film. 

And, in the end, I was so excited about the film I generally didn't care who Burton cast...and then I found Martin Landau was going to portray Bela Lugosi himself.  There was a smile on my face that required a sand blaster and surgery to remove.  I don't recall where I heard the quote, but it goes like this "Martin Landau did a better job of playing Bela Lugosi than Bela Lugosi played Bela Lugosi". Now, of course, the quote isn't meant to malign Bela or his talent, but, to praise Landau's performance in Burton's Ed Wood.

I doubt it will surprise many reading this, but, I don't watch the Oscars any longer (or award shows in general).  Many great writers, actors and directors are shown the respected they deserve at the Academy Awards....and yet, many many more do not.  So, I'll leave the back slapping self aggrandizing to the Academy and local theater groups.  But, I certainly did watch the night Landau won.  It pleased me greatly to see him finally take home the prize.

But, I want to write a few words about one of my favorite Landau pictures, Jack Sholder's 1982 Freshman effort called Alone in the Dark.  This film is what happens when you take what might be little more than your average slasher film and add not only Martin Landau, but Jack Palance and Donald Pleasence.  Now - I'm going to summarize the plot of the film in a single sentence, and you may roll your eyes and think "Oh brother".  Four murderous mental patients escape their facility during a blackout and proceed to terrorize their psychiatrist and his family.  Sounds a bit pedestrian - like a tale told around a camp fire.  Maybe even mundane.

Pedestrian and mundane it is not.

From the very opening sequence of this film, the tension, on a scale from 1 to 10, is 11. Pleasence portrays Dr. Leo Bain who says things like "he's really into his own space right now."  A doctor who believes his patients are the lucky ones because they are no longer living in a "mad world" and that their behavior is, in fact, simply a reaction to the madness of the world.  Landau portrays a former Minister named Bryon; Palance a former POW named Frank Hawkes; the late Erland van Lidth portrays "Fatty" (and a movie should be made about Erland van Lidth - what an amazing man he was in his short life).  Finally, Phillip Clark who plays "Bleeder" Skaggs.

These four are kept on the third floor with special security.  The underappreciated Brent Jennings portrays hospital employee Ray Curtis whose primary and nerve wracking duty is to keep an eye on the band of four killers.  He tells Dwight Schultz' character Dr.  Dan Potter, "Electricity, that is all that keeps me separated from them....electricity."  Curtis tries to warn Potter that Hawkes has convinced his mental friends that Potter had their previous doctor killed...and he's here to kill them.

Then comes the blackout...and what Curtis should have said is "Electricity....all that separates us from them is electricity."

This film went unnoticed for some time. As I was wont to do, I saw this film in 1982 at the local drive-in, but, I'm sure it appeared in some cinemas and then faded away.  But, over time it has received a certain respect as well as a cult following.  The special edition DVD is certainly worth tracking down.  I'll admit, it is not the best work of anyone in the cast - but, the performances are solid all around.  Actors like Palance, Landau and Pleasence never "phoned it in".  True actors and professionals from an era where there were no small roles or small movies.  Every show deserved all their hard work.  Perhaps there are actors like that still today - Reggie Bannister comes to mind.  But, I'm certain they are not as common as they once were.

By the way, this film premiered in 1982, and I'm certain the Hockey mask wearing "Bleeder" predates Hockey mask wearing Jason.  Just an aside.

And Godspeed Mr. Landau...

Miss you pops