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