Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!: A Deadly Domicile

Haunted house movies are probably one of the leading staples of horror stories and films outside of the masked killer.  How many times has someone written about the dark and dreary old house that everyone avoids?  Hundreds of times?  Thousands?  Heck, if we count all the variations (the deserted mansion, the abandoned hospital, the creaky old school, the ghost ship, the ghost train, the dark spaceship (yes Alien and Event Horizon are haunted house movies)) there might even be millions.  Haunted buildings are versatile because there are several accepted and established rules for what a possessed or haunted place can do to the people who are hapless enough to wander inside.  Perhaps too, that is why haunted houses are almost a constant in horror stories and films for children.  It is very easy to write a scary (but not life-threatening) situation that features kids who are menaced by the ghosts of a building.  Ghosts, beyond being able to knock things over and possess objects and people, are usually understood to to be dangerous.  Indeed, stories where ghosts have the ability to rip people to shreds tend to be harder to believe and require greater explanation behind their power.  There is one horror film for children, however, which finds a way to make a haunted house dangerous and life-threatening by giving the ghost possession of the house rather than simply the ability to appear inside.  It mixes horror movie thrills with light and witty humor to create a tale that is sure to thrill and entertain older children who are looking for a meatier film than the usual Halloween fare for children.  Now let's cross to the other side of the street and take a look inside the house that everyone tries to avoid...the Monster House.

DJ Walters has developed an unhealthy obsession with his elderly neighbor Mr. Nebbercracker.  It seems that Nebbercracker is a mean old man who terrorizes the child population of DJ's street by taking any and all toys and belongings that happen to end up on his lawn.  The day before Halloween, when DJ's parents take a trip out of town, his friend Chowder accidentally knocks his new basketball into Nebbercracker's lawn.  When DJ tries to get it back for him, Nebbercracker comes rushing out of the house and shakes DJ screaming "Do you want to die?".  Suddenly, Nebbercracker keels over from a heart attack and is taken away by an ambulance.  After being put to bed by his babysitter, Zee, DJ begins recieving calls from Nebbercracker's house.  He asks Chowder to help him investigate the house and, following a ding-dong-ditch, attempt by Chowder, the house springs to life and tries to eat them.  Following that, Chowder and DJ stay up all night trying to catch the house in action and manage to save Jenny Bennett, a girl going door to door to sell candy.  Together, the three kids decide that they must stop the house before Trick or Treat that evening or otherwise "It's going to be a bloodbath".

Monster House might very well be one of the best horror stories ever filmed for children.  It has excellent suspense, a good cast of characters, and just enough action and humor to keep it from being too scary for anyone who isn't under 8.  It might frighten younger viewers (who would probably be more comfortable with Ichabod and Mr. Toad or Casper) but it should have just enough of the macabre to keep those who are 'too old for that' interested.  Make no mistake...this is a horror film.  The comedy within is fairly light with the emphasis on the build of suspense and the attacks on the people who dare to approach the house.  The film also has a decent mystery at it's core, as the children try to discover why the house is coming to life and terrorizing people now...and who it is that is making the house do what it does.  This isn't going to scare anyone over the age of 12, but it will provide thrills and a good time for those post 'trick or treat' moments.  Check it out, I think you'll enjoy it.  And thus, we come to the end of Halloween week and my focus on "family friendly" Halloween films.  Over the next few weeks you're likely to see more Fall-themed programing films here, focusing on those that take place around Thanksgiving.  It's almost the holiday season folks?  Are you ready?  I know I'm not.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Spooky Sunday: A Friendly Ghost

Film versions of television shows and cartoons are hit and miss.  For ever The Fugitive there is a Starsky and Hutch and so on and so forth.  These adaptations are not easy to praise or slam either, for one person's trash is another person's treasure (I for one adore Bewitched though I realize it is much maligned...probably because people were paying attention to Will Farrell and not actually watching the movie).  However, there are some adaptations that manage to be largely well-liked in the overreaching community if not considered classics, and one of those is a spooky yarn that takes place during Halloween.  It also features one of the cartoon and comic book world's most beloved characters (with one of the most hummable theme songs) and some terrific genre vets doing what they do best.  Now lets head over to Whipstaff Manor and have a Halloween party with Casper.

Carrigan Crittenden, a neurotic and spoiled heiress, has just inherited an old mansion from her dead father.  The house appears to be condemned and worthless, but when Carrigan attempts to burn the deed her lawyer Paul "Dibs" Plutzker snatches a page from the fire that mentions buried treasure.  Interest in the house renewed, Carrigan and Dibs head to Friendship, Maine where they discover that the house is haunted by a lonely ghost named Casper, who only wants to be friends, and his three loud and obnoxious ghost uncles: Stretch, Stinkie, and Fatso.  The uncles chase Carrigan and Dibs out of the house, which infuriates Carrigan and sets her on a quest to find a way to rid the house of the spooky squatters.  Unknowingly aided by Casper, Carrigan finds Dr. James Harvey who claims to be a psychiatrist for the dead.  Together, James and his daughter Kat are invited to come and stay at Whipstaff until he has gotten the ghosts out of the house.  Casper then begins to form a friendship with Kat and the two of them begin to uncover the mysteries of Whipstaff.  Meanwhile, Carrigan plots to destroy the house until she finds the treasure within.

Casper was one of those great 90s movies for kids that had great visuals, fine effects, and a fair amount of wit.  The story is a little been-there-done-that, but it fits the character of Casper well.  Christina Ricci is touching and sincere as Kat and you can see how the two of them would quickly become friends...both characters are lonely and misunderstood and are isolated by the interests of their adult counterparts.  Bill Pullman is a delight as well as Dr. Harvey, Kat's father and wounded soul trying to find a reason for living now that his wife has passed away.  The ghost effects are realistic and lifelike, making them look real while also playing at a cartoony aesthetic so as to mesh well with the image of Casper as it is so well known from comic books and cartoons. Some elements of the story are a little underdeveloped, such as the bully and boy Kat meets at her new school and the backstory on Casper's father, but the core of the film (Kat and Casper, and the Uncles and Dr. Harvey) is very strong.  If anything, Carrigan is the most disposable character in the film (played by the fabulous Cathy Moriarty).  She is clearly the villain of the film, though she is really only needed to have a reason for Harvey and Kat to come to Whipstaff.  The film might have done better to have the Uncles as the main villains and to have had the Harveys simply inherit the house themselves.  These are small gripes however and should not prevent anyone from trying this one on for size, especially for a Halloween viewing.  You'll laugh, and you may even shed a tear.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shrieking Saturday: Another Collection of Shorts

As you've already seen this week, television specials make up a great deal of the Halloween programming for children and families out there...many of them from yesteryear.  The 1970s and 1980s were some of the most prolific decades for making these specials and also where some of the most memorable shorts and specials come from (not discounting anything from earlier decades of course).  Some of my absolute favorites were the specials that were shown on The Disney Channel in the 1980s, because these were the ones I grew up on watching every year...and two of these I want to discuss today.  The first is a live-action special that focuses on classic monsters and Halloween traditions to imagine a world where Halloween might not exist and the second is a clip-show by Disney that showcases some of their scariest moments in their animation while also offering up some new items as a treat.  So lets all become kids again and watch The Halloween That Almost Wasn't and A Disney Halloween.

The Halloween That Almost Wasn't (aka The Night Dracula Saved the World) begins on the night before Halloween as Igor is preparing for the return of his master, Dracula.  Dracula awakens and surprised Igor, who is watching television coverage on rumors that Halloween might be canceled.  Dracula, enraged by this, calls an emergency meeting of all the other famous monsters including: Warren the Werewolf, The Mummy, Frankenstein Monster, Zabaar the Zombie, and The Witch.  He demands to know who began the rumors and berates them on becoming more comic than frightening.  He also says that every single one of them can be replaced if need be.  The Witch then defiantly steps forward and admits to having started the rumors and to wanting to retire.  Apparently she hates being a witch because no one likes her the same way they like the other monsters...and she holds all the cards because without her annual flight across the moon, Halloween does not occur. Dracula has no choice but to give in to her demands (which include her face on t-shirts and advertising material as well as a nightly disco dance among others) or to give up Halloween.  He and the other monsters then endeavor to force the Witch to do her job.

This special has a lot of comedy in it and much of that is a credit to its stars, Judd Hirsch as Dracula, Mariette Hartley as the Witch, and Henry Gibson as Igor.  These three leads drive the film and its core and keep us engaged, because they all seem to enjoy the fact that they are hamming it up as famous monsters.  The sass of The Witch and the arrogance of Dracula juxtaposed against each other are wonderful components that keep the film moving, with gentle Henry Gibson trying his best to act as peacemaker but also as a loyal servant to Dracula.  This movie always made me giggle as a child due to these three and their interaction.  The effects and scenery are a little low rent, but the actors and the story told help to elevate them above their technical limitations.  This is a wonderful film for children and might be a little pandering for adults, but you might forgive it for the three leads and their performances.


In A Disney Halloween we don't see a story being told for a half-hour but rather we get a compilation of clips and other material from two other Halloween programs made by Disney, Disney's Greatest Villains and Disney's Halloween Treat along with newly animated material to create a 90 minute feature that celebrates the holiday, showcases Disney's best and scariest villans, and even shows us a few lesser known shorts featuring familiar Disney characters.  I always loved watching this special because it was 90 minutes and therefore more than just a taste of something, and also I loved getting to see all my favorite evil characters and spooky scenes.  "A Night on Bald Mountain" is packaged next to a scene of Madame Mimm, "The Old Mill" thrills along side "Donald and the Gorilla", and many others.  My personal favorite is the finale which features the 1952 short "Trick or Treat" where Donald Duck faces off against his nephews and a Witch he has offended on Halloween night.  Of course, other famous moments are shown here too...such as "Lonesome Ghosts" and "Pluto's Judgment Day"...and that makes this such a treat to watch.  It is wonderful for children to watch because it alternates between spooky and whimsical and it also will entertain adults who remember these classic shorts from their youth.  This is another full length film that makes a perfect repast for post 'trick-or-treat' family time.  Either way, you can't go wrong with these programs.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Frightening Friday: A Legend and a Buffoon

Family films geared toward Halloween are often whimsical and heartfelt, featuring tales of coming to appreciate one's differences and also to accept the wonder and magic of Halloween.  However, they can also be a gateway drug.  Yes friends! (spoken like a minister) I am speakin' NAWT of cocane, NAWT of mary JAwana, NAWT even of the sweet sweet wine the Lawd asked us to remember him with....I am speakin' of FEAR!  Yes, an addiction to suspense and fear ladies and gentlemen!  Ok ok, enough of the playacting (though I did enjoy it)...but yes, many of these films geared toward children are simply Horror films diluted down and made more palatable for younger and more impressionable minds.  The writers and directors who make these films use the same suspense set ups and chase scenes that are popular in R rated scary movies, but they use no gore or death (usually) and typically surround said scenes with jokes and gags to lighten the mood.  It was something I never really thought of before, but G and PG rated films were training me to enjoy Horror movies as I got older.  This was certainly the case with today's movie, which no one in their right mind would ever call scary, but which gave me a bit of a suspense thrill a few times when I first saw it...even though it was labeled a comedy for all intents and purposes.  It had gags, jokes, puns, and a dimwitted protagonist that we all know and love to help dilute the terror, but at its core it was a ghost story come to life.  So let's take a walk into the woods while we visit Ernest Scared Stupid.

The film opens in the town of Briarville, Missouri in the 19th century and a little girl is being chased by an unseen beast through the woods.  Before the monster can claim the girl as prey he is trapped by the townsfolk and wrapped in many chains and ropes.  It turns out that the monster is a troll named Trantor, who has been turning the children of the town into little wooden dolls in order to use their souls to make more trolls.  However, elder Phineas Worrel has the troll sealed into a freshly planted tree so that he cannot wreak any more havoc on the town.  Trantor promises, in a curse, that not only will one of Phineas's descendants release him from his prison.  He also promises that all of Phineas's descendants will get dumber with every generation.  Fast-forwarding to the present day, we see that half of Trantor's prediction has come true in the form of Ernest P. Worrell...America's favorite fool.  Ernest is well-meaning and childlike in his innocence, which makes his stupidity bearable for many of the adult members of the town.  Ernest works as the local garbageman and has been somewhat negligent in his duties lately in that he has not emptied the trash from Old Lady Hackmore's front lawn...he is frightened of her and thinks she is a wicked witch.  Lady Hackmore is also afraid of Ernest because she recognizes him as a descendant of Phineas and knows he will be the one to release the troll upon the town.  Ernest scoffs at her warnings and proceeds to take his young into the woods to make a treehouse.  As fate would have it, the tree they pick is Trantor's tree and Ernest does in fact unwittingly set free Trantor from his resting place.  Trantor then begins to prey upon the children of the town, slowly gathering the five souls he needs to create an entire army of trolls.  It is then up to Ernest and the surviving children to find a way to stop Trantor before he can complete his objective and save Halloween in Briarville.

Since this is an Ernest movie and relies of a lot of base-level humor, this was destined to get mixed to negative reviews upon its initial release.  That didn't stop me from dragging my mother to see it however, because it combined two of my favorite things...Ernest and monsters.  I didn't care that the humor was juvenile or that the film was largely predictable, I just wanted to see the stars of the show.  On that level, the film is a success.  It features plenty of fine moments with Ernest and even a bit of dramatic acting from the old dog by the time the film reaches its conclusion, and the monster is rather well designed and frightening.  In fact, there were a few times in the film when I jumped as a child with the suspense getting paid off in a well-timed scare.  By the end of the film, my cravings for the macabre were satisfied and my funnybone had been tickled, and that qualifies it as a success in my eyes (at least as far as young viewers are concerned).  I think this is still a fine film for children, but keep an eye out that they don't try to repeat any off the cartoonish violence...getting one's hand shut in a dumpster for real would hurt.  This would be a perfect treat for an 'after trick-or-treat' repast, which is how we often used it.  Try this one on for size and roll your eyes when all those bad jokes hit you and make your kids giggle...it won't be too painful ;)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thrilling Thursday: A Handful of Specials to Chill Your Blood

So I've already lamented on the fact that they simply don't put enough original Halloween programming on television anymore, particularly on series'.  But did you know that at one time studios used to commission short works to be shown only on Halloween?  Sure, everyone has heard of the "Charlie Brown" cartoons and the Rankin/Bass stop motion and animated shows for Christmas (cause Christmas is the only holiday that really gets any original programming produced anymore)...but they used to make cartoons for Halloween too.  Really, I'm not lying.  Today I want to talk about two of my favorite Halloween themed specials that aired back in the 70s and were still in rotation when I started watching television in the 1980s.  In fact, Halloween wasn't complete until I watched them (on the tape we recorded them on when they were aired...yes friends, we had a Halloween tape and two Christmas tapes full of TV specials we snagged from The Disney Channel).  The first deals with a witch who loves to party and the second deals with a favorite Seuss character that we all love to hate...so without further ado let's pop in the old video tape and look at Witch's Night Out and Halloween is Grinch Night.

Witch's Night Out starts with a fairly dated, but catchy, disco theme song (seriously, I watched this days ago and I can't get the damn thing out of my head) that signals the era of animation fairly quickly.  Then we are introduced to several monochrome colored characters in a picturesque and contemporary small town.  The two lead children, Small and Tender, are excitedly preparing for Halloween while the adults, Rotten, Malicious, Nicely, and Goodly, are wishing that it wasn't so juvenile and decide to throw a party for the grown-ups in the scary old house across town.  Meanwhile, in the scary old house across town, a Witch is pacing back and forth waiting for someone to call on her for some Halloween magic.  It seems that she is feeling washed up and useless now that no one seems to need Halloween magic anymore (she's a bit like Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.).  However, when she overhears Goodly and Rotten planning their party downstairs, she gets excited and starts making her own plans.  Later that evening Small and Tender are disappointed that everyone recognizes them behind their masks and are sad that they weren't able to scare anyone.  After being read a bedtime story by their babysitter Bazooey, both children wish they had a fairy godmother to turn them into the monsters of their choice.  This apparently is 'the call' the Witch has been waiting for and she flies to their aid.  This sets in motion a breezy adventure for the four of them (The Witch, Bazooey, Small, and Tender) that promises to be a night of "magical mischief".

Witch's Night Out is the kind of story that would never be produced today because execs would probably call it boring, simplistic, and pandering.  What they would miss is the level of wit present in the writing and the fact that this story is probably more timely now than it was in 1978.  We have shuffled Halloween off into a corner where its either only for kids, or only for people who like Horror, and have forgotten that it is about having fun and being someone else for a few hours.  However, it doesn't beat the idea over your head...rather it allows the viewer to figure it out through character actions and what happens to them.  It also have some tremendous one-liners that are perhaps too precious for today, but cracked me up back then.  For example, any of the jokes related to Small calling the Witch a fairy godmother are priceless.  The voice work is solid as well, with Gilda Radner providing the voice of quite possibly the most friendly Witch in the world.  It is an excellent toon for kids and fun for adults too.



Watch Witch's Night Out in Family | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Our next short was built as a sequel of sorts to one of the most famous holiday shorts, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and yet it has an identity of its own.  It begins on a typical Fall day in Whoville and the people are out enjoying the day happily...that is, until one of them gets a whiff of the dreaded 'sour-sweet wind'.  The veteran adults of Whoville know that this means the start of another Grinch Night, a night when the noise from the creatures awakened by the sour-sweet wind gets the Grinch of Mount Crumpet riled.  When that happens, everyone must lock themselves indoors and not venture out, because the Grinch intends to break into Town Hall and hold the Annual Grinch Night Ball...with himself as the sole guest.  So the Grinch hops into his Paraphernalia Wagon and begins his journey down to Whoville.  Meanwhile young Ukaraiah Who, who was on his way to use the Euphemism (bathroom), gets blown away by the sour-sweet wind to Mount Crumpet where he runs right into the Grinch.  Ukaraiah then decides that it is up to him to stall the Grinch as long as he can, and thus try to prevent the destruction the Grinch will undoubtedly cause.

Believe it or not, Grinch Night was my first introduction to the Grinch and the Whos of Whoville.  When I found out that there was a Christmas movie featuring the Grinch I was so excited to see it...I had no idea that Grinch Night was a sequel or that it was even considered an inferior one.  However, I think this cartoon has plenty of lovely merits of its own.  First, that same Seuss wit is present that is there in all of his books and films making this highly amusing.  Also, the animation is fairly good (if a little less detailed) for its time and has a polish to it that is missing from the earlier film.  There is a fairly good message embedded in the film as well, a message about looking fear in the eye and realizing how little power it really has over us when we shed some light on it.  It is great for young ones, if not the best for older children.  If you can find them together on Youtube, these make a delightful double feature for the holiday.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Weird Wednesday: The Scary Half

In the 1940s, when World War II called on everyone to ration and sacrifice, everyone including Hollywood felt the pinch.  Walt Disney, who had not seen financial success with a film since Snow White in 1937, was not exempt and found himself scaling back his filmmaking to accomidate rising costs and lack of resources (and also because the Army had commissioned the making of many propaganda films and Disney was already stretched thin with many of its animators fighting in the war).  The first film he released during this time of cutting costs was Saludos Amigos, a package film featuring a central theme and several short subjects that addressed it.  It was centered on Latin America and the life and culture there.  This was followed by several package films in quick succession (because they were easier and cheaper to make), those included: The Three Caballeros (another Latin American themed film), Make Mine Music (a musical anthology focusing on familiar songs, similar to Fantasia), Fun and Fancy Free (which featured adaptations of "Bongo" and "Jack and the Beanstalk"), and Melody Time (another musical anthology).  Then in 1949, Disney released its sixth, final, and probably best remembered package film due to the constant showing of "the scary half" every Halloween on The Disney Channel from the early 1980s onward.  It is this portion of the package film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, that I wish to examine as today's family friendly Halloween tale.  The segment is based on one of Washington Irving's most famous stories and features one of the most frightening Disney Villains to ever see film.  So let's take a drive to Tarrytown, New York and take in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The segement begins as the first segment, The Wind in the Willows, ends and narrator Basil Rathborne relinquishes his duties to the next narrator, Bing Crosby.  Crosby congratulates Rathborne for choosing a fantastic character from English literature to examine, but then rebuttals by saying that America has it's share of great characters too.  From this simple statement, he segways to his personal favorite...Ichabod Crane, who features heavily in the story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The book for the story opens and we are transported to the lovely world of New England, circa 1820.  The threes are black barked with orange, red, and brown leaves signifying that Autumn is at its peak, animals are lethargic, and the river slowly leads us upward toward the small village of Sleepy Hollow where we are introduced to Ichabod Crane, the new schoolmaster of the village.  He is tall, thin, and funny looking with his huge feet and large nose (indeed, he is described as a scarecrow).  However, there seems to be something facinating and different about him which makes the townfolk take notice and immediately begin wondering who this new man is.  Ichabod takes to his newfound popularity with ease and becomes a prominant figure in the town, working with many womens groups.  Several of the women want to wed Mr. Crane, but he only has eyes for one girl...Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the wealthy landowner Baltus Van Tassel.  It is unknown whether Katrina returns Ichabod's affections, but she certainly enjoys egging him on whenever Brom Bones, the town hunk, is around.  Brom seems to be the only one who dislikes the schoolmaster, since they both share the same ideal woman, and after Katrina has worked them both to a frenzy of desire (and Ichabod has managed to keep coming out on top despite Brom's efforts to the contrary) Brom takes matters into his own hands.  It turns out that Ichabod is very superstitious of spooks and spirits, so on Halloween night at the Van Tassel's annual party Brom tells the local legend of The Headless Horseman...a spirit who rides every night from the woods to the old bridge at the edge of town looking for his lost head.  The story goes, that unless riders cross the bridge before the Horseman reaches them, he will take their head for his own.  Ichabod then has to make the long ride home in the dark alone.  Will he find that there is really a ghost or will it turn out to be just a story?

This is an awesome animated short.  It is simple, effective, suspenseful and sincerely frightening once the third act kicks in and Ichabod finds himself facing down a murderous spirit.  Bing Crosby is equally effective as a narrator and as the sole voice of the speaking characters in the piece, most of which speak only when necessary...allowing the film to become close to 'pure cinema' (all visuals, no words).  I feel that even without Crosby's narration and the few lines of dialouge and song, you'd still understand what was happening in the film which speaks to its strength.  The animation is top notch as well, with the Fall colors popping in the daylight scenes while the shadows devour the world in the film's nighttime climax.  The songs too are catchy and memorable, with standouts being "Ichabod Crane" and "The Headless Horseman Song".  To this day, when I watch the film, I have the latter song stuck in my brain for days to come and I always chuckle at its final message "You can't reason with a headless man"...kills me.  For any of you with small children, I will say that this film scared me green when I was a kid and I always found it difficult to watch the end without covering my eyes...however there is nothing on display but some healthy suspense and a few good jump scares so you need not worry about tucking the kids in early.  In fact, I'm certain that my healthy love of all things macabre comes from early exposure to this (don't take that as fact however...my sis had the same exposure and she hates scary things, but still loves this).  So if you have young ones who are ready for a little dose of fright, toss this one in the DVD player (or turn it on on cable) and watch them start to squirm when Ichabod enters those dark woods alone.  They'll thank you for it later.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

TooooOOOOhhhhs Day: A Tree of Souls

When I think of Ray Bradbury, I usually think of his more adult-centered work like Fahrenheit 451 and "A Sound of Thunder"But you'd be surprised how much young-adult work that Bradbury has done in the past, like his haunting but older-kid friendly Something Wicked This Way Comes and "The Magic White Suit" which is something of a fairy tale.  It just goes to show how versatile an author can be.  In 1972, Bradbury wrote a fantasy novel geared toward children and young adults that celebrated the best kid-holiday of the year and also endeavored to educate those young minds that would eventually devour the tale.  It was dark like most of Bradbury's work, but it was also touching and informative in a way that only the best young adult work can be.  In 1992 he would write and adapt a feature-length television movie of the novel for which he won an Emmy Award, and it is this film that I want to talk about today.  It isn't as well known as other cartoons based around Halloween (like It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown) but it holds a revered place in the hearts of many who were raised at the time.  So lets hop on an "October kite" and fly through the centuries of Halloween history as we climb The Halloween Tree.

The film opens to the voice of a narrator describing one small town's preparations for Halloween night. Four friends busy themselves preparing for Trick or Treat, each one giving his or her costume a unique flavor: Jenny is a witch and attached a broomstick to her bike, Ralph wraps himself in his father's bandages to become a mummy, Wally dons fur and a horned mask to appear as a monster, and Tom Skelton wears a classic skeleton costume.  Each of them travels to a predetermined meeting place and are disappointed when their friend Pip (described as their leader and the greatest boy who ever lived) doesn't show up to meet them.  They hurry to his house to find it looking sad and undecorated and in time to see an ambulance leaving the driveway.  The children are distraught until they see what looks like Pip, only transparent, running off into the woods.  They follow him to a creepy old mansion and there they meet the old and decrepit Mr. Moundshroud.  It turns out, Pip has a debt to be paid to Moundshroud (which is unspecified but it is implied that it is Pip's soul) and Pip is avoiding paying by evading the clutches of Moundshroud.  When Pip escapes again, the kids find him climbing a massive tree full of jack o' lanterns to try and reach a pumpkin which looks like him.  Pip escapes into a whirlwind and Moundshroud, against his better judgement, agrees to let the kids join him on an adventure through the centuries so that they can uncover the four mysteries of Halloween.  What then begins is an adventure through time and space which transports them to Ancient Egypt, England, France, and Mexico as they discover secrets they never knew existed.

Wow, if anyone can write an educational fantasy it is Bradbury.  The tidbits and historical facts he crams into this teleplay's scant 73 minutes is astonishing, considering that he also needs to tell an engaging story.  And what a story it is.  Here we have an intelligent and non-pandering tale about the history of many of our Halloween traditions, but also one which dabbles into how we choose to cope with loss/tragedy, how we stand up for our friends, and how short our time on this planet is.  The Halloween Tree covers all of these topics and more, and it never feels like it is trying to educate.  This is the sort of kid-friendly Halloween programing that has been lost over the years because themes like these would seem too dark or serious for young ones now.  Indeed, the fact that one of the main children is essentially 'dead' for the running time is enough to steer some parents away from this tale, let alone the walking dead, the gargoyles, and the frank way it depicts certain aspects of the way cultures deal with the dead.  It is not a 'cheery' tale at all, but it is a 'sincere' one and I think it deserves respect on that alone.  Now that I've seen the film, I am very interested in reading the book on which it is based.  I can guarantee that this film is going to make my yearly rotation, particularly if and when I ever have children of my own, and I highly recommend that you make it one of yours.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Moaning Monday: It's Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus

I can remember a time when film studios and television networks really got into Halloween.  I mean, sure, we always get the obligatory horror film (or films) that are released in October but I can remember when studios used to make Halloween programing for all ages, not just teens and adults who can get into an R rated movie.  When I was little, 20-22 years ago, I remember how much there was that was Halloween related for kids.  The Disney Channel would play all of their more macabe offerings, like "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Child of Glass" while Nickelodeon would have Halloween themed episodes of their regular shows and "Nick or Treat" where you could win prizes by answering the phone at the right time.  It was a great time to be a kid and really amped me up for the excitement of Halloween night when I'd dress in a costume I'd spent all month getting together and trick or treat in our neighborhood (which was one of the best for trick or treat).  Nowadays, Halloween has changed.  Costumes have gotten more masculine or feminine centric (scary/butch costumes for boys...sexy/cute costumes for girls, no exceptions), fewer and fewer networks promote Halloween (and Halloween episodes of shows aren't nearly as good...including the king of Halloween themed episodes, The Simpsons), and trick or treat isn't even on Halloween night anymore (and usually, people carpool their kids around "nicer" developments rather than let them walk in their own neighborhoods "cause the candy isn't as good there").  Hell, it even ends before the sun goes down.  I know much of this is a reflection of the times (it isn't as safe out there...poverty is more widespread)...but I still get ticked off that when I buy a big bowl of candy for trick or treaters and none show up because I'm not a choice trick or treat neighborhood (and then I'm stuck with that fun sized candy till March).  Gimme the old days...in fact, if I had a time machine, I'd gladly skip Halloween now and travel back to Halloween then, when it meant something.  But enough of my soapboxing...I'm here to discuss my own personal brand of Halloween programming. This week I will be writing about a film a day that is both perfect for Halloween (since it is coming up a week from today) and is appropriate for ALL AGES (so as to not leave out those little ghosts and goblins).  Now settle in while we focus on my first choice for this week (and one of my favorite witch movies), Hocus Pocus.

The film opens in 17th Century Salem, Massachusets where teenaged Thackery Binx is awakened from his sleep by a whoosh as something passes by his window.  He hears a strange female voice singing in the yard and looks across the room to see that his little sister, Emily, is gone.  He follows the voice outside to see Emily running across the field to the woods beyond.  Thackery sees a plume of purple smoke in the distance and realizes that his sister is in danger.  He, like everyone in the village, knows that deep in the woods reside The Sanderson Sisters...a trio of ugly, old witches.  They mean nothing but harm to children that pass their threshold, and so Thackery sets off to rescue his sister.  He is too late, though, and is only able to watch as the witches suck the lifeforce out of the young girl.  The lifeforce rejuvenates the witches and they grow younger before his eyes.  Yet Thackery still calls the lead witch, Winifred, a hag.  So as punishment, the trio turns him into a black cat.  Shortly afterward, the villagers break into the house and capture the witches and hang them.  Three hundred years go by and Max Dennison, a new student at Salem High School, finds himself wanting to impress Allison, a girl from his English class.  After hearing the tale of the witches and learning that her parents have access to the sisters' old house, he convinces her to go with him and his kid sister Dani to investigate the old house.  To further show off, Max lights the Black Flame Candle, a magical artifact said to revive the dead on Halloween night.  Suddenly, the three kids and Binx the cat find themselves facing down the revived Winnie, Mary, and Sarah Sanderson and must keep their spellbook away from them until morning.  Otherwise the witches will be free to live forever and to kill all of the children in Salem.

That description might not sound kid friendly, but let me assure you that this is one of the funniest Halloween movies ever churned out by Disney.  It didn't do well in the theater given the fact that it had some dark subject matter and that it was released in the summer rather than in October where it belonged...and yet the comedy in this never fails to amuse.  Certainly the central witches, played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker, provide the majority of the belly laughs but the kid actors are also game.  Omri Katz and Vanessa Shaw play very likable teen heroes while a young Thora Birch steals almost all of her scenes as the precocious Dani.  Sean Murray is also effective as the sarcastic cat, Binx, who provides a lot of the exposition and humor on for the good guys since he has been alive for 317 years (he has a lot to say about the world we live in).  Few elements in Hocus Pocus don't work, from the random but perfectly placed musical number in the middle, to the more suspenseful and horrific elements that certainly cement this film among the pantheon of horror flicks for kids (I mean, they kill a kid at the beginning...that's pretty dark for Disney).  Yet the horror is done with such goofiness that it is impossible for any but the really young to be scared by any of this (indeed, I think they'll laugh more at Midler's over the top, bravura performance than they will quiver in fear at the sight of her) so there is no reason why this movie can't fit in at an elementary age Halloween party or on your 'suitable for trick or treaters' loop that you might play on your TV while handing out candy.  Hopefully, "I put a spell on you" with my words and you'll head right out and snag this delightful little gem to enjoy this Halloween season (I love when I can work in a terrible pun).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A New Dimension of Fear (oh the puns)

By 1982 the horror/sequel boom was in full swing with Friday the 13th and Halloween already having had successful returns to the box office and several more original films were cementing themselves on the public consciousness.  Paramount knew that Jason had been a success once, so naturally he could be again if he were somehow resurrected.  The un-killable monster angle had worked for Halloween so why couldn't Jason be similarly impervious to wounds that would kill a normal person?  But wait!  We don't want to simply do another rehash...that won't work at all, they must have thought.  So this film, rather than changing the formula (because why fix what isn't broken?) adds a gimmick.  When Part 3 opened, it opened in "bone-chilling 3D"...hence it's title Friday the 13th Part 3 3D. Would the gamble pay off?  Let's see shall we?

When we last joined our heroes, Ginny Field had taken  Jason out with his mother's machete at the end of Part 2 and had gone off with her boyfriend Paul to safety.  The opening credits then retcon (or rewrite) the ending of the previous film to show Jason rising up from the floor and wandering off into the woods to heal.  Later that evening, he happens upon the owners of a grocery store and dispatches of them while stealing some of the husband's clothing (this would then become Jason's standard outfit for the remainder of his life...fun fact).  The next day, despite the police cars and sirens about the place, Chris Higgins and her friends head up into the woods around Crystal Lake to spend the weekend in her parents' cabin.  But before you can say mass-murder, the kids (and some rather out-of-place bikers) begin ending up at the business end of several sharp objects.  What Jason doesn't count on is Chris, who is resourceful and has a history with the large brute that she plans to reconcile.

More of the same, is probably what I would write about Part 3...and that's exactly what it is.  The teens here, while still played by likable actors, are even more generic and non-descript than the ones who went through the meat grinder before them.  They are interchangeable and forgettable with a few exceptions including Chris, Shelley (her prank obsessed friend), and Vera (Shelly's fiery tempered blind-date).  It's a shame too, because once again we have actors employed who seem like they are dying (no pun intended) to be more than just machete fodder.  Nonetheless, the film does have a few things going for it.  One, this is the legendary film where Jason receives both his plain workman's outfit and where he receives his trademark hockey mask.  The mask was simply a design decision, something unusual that they could put on Jason and set him apart from other masked killers.  They couldn't have guessed that this mask would forever become the 'face' of the series and that it would be immediately associated with Jason forever after.  Second, this film does feature one of the most unexpectedly tough Final Girls of the series.  Chris spends much of the movie simpering and whining about her troubled past and then, when push comes to shove, she manages to be more than a match for Jason and throws just about everything she's got at him.  Three, and this is a minor thing, but the idea to use 3D in a slasher film was a great one.  It's a shame, however, that the technology was such that the majority of the effects are stupid gags like yo-yos flying toward camera and fake scares skittering at eye level.  Few of the 'real horror' effects are turned into 3D gags (though the scene where Jason reaches toward camera and walks toward it is pretty chilling).  At this point, you know whether Friday the 13th is a series that is worth watching or not for you so I'm not going to make any pleas about watching them.  However, if you happen to catch this one on TV...try to watch the chase scene at the end.  It's worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One Good Slice Deserves Another

If there's anything that is a constant now in the film world, it is this...if a film is financially successful and obviously a genre picture (action/horror/scifi/comedy) you can usually expect a sequel within a few years.  It's kinda like death and taxes...but it wasn't always that way.  Before the 1980s most successful films were stand-alone successes and sequels were usually only made for low-budget drive-in fare (such as the myriad of films in the Universal Monsters category).  Sequels just weren't considered viable.  However, all of that changed with the advent of the slasher film.  Suddenly, studios realized that they could repeat their financial success with a horror film by simply copying the basic formula of the first picture (Robert Shaye, producer of the Elm Street films and owner of New Line Cinema often equated it to the recipe for a good fast food cheeseburger...low substance and cost, but high customer satisfaction and turnaround).  This was particularly true with the Friday the 13th series, where each film was a pale variation of the last featuring a checklist of formula points: Isolated location? Check.  Eight to ten hormonal teens?  Check.  Plenty of sharp and blunt objects?  Check.  Final girl?  Check.  Villain?  Check.  However, the first sequel proved to be a bit of a challange for the filmmakers because they didn't yet realize what they had...so they essentially did a remake of the first film.  What they didn't count on was their soap opera caliber writing would yield a franchise villian that would become as famous and beloved as the Universal Monsters before him.  So check out the birth of Jason Voorhees as we venture into Friday the 13th Part 2.

One year has gone by since Alice survived the attacks of the deranged Mrs. Voorhees at Camp Crystal Lake.  She is trying to paint and move on with her life...however an unseen stalker cuts her healing short one night when she finds Mrs. Voorhees' head in her icebox and (shortly afterward) an ice pick in her skull.  Five years go by and a Counselor Training Camp has been set up on the other side of Camp Crystal Lake, regardless of the warnings from the locals who are still shaken by the tragedy of "Camp Blood".  The new counselor's-to-be at the camp soon share their tales of Jason Voorhees, the grown up son of Mrs. Voorhees who witnessed his mother's beheading and now stalks the woods waiting to kill any teenager who happens to wander into his stomping grounds.  Legend soon turns to fact as one-by-one the teens disappear and soon only Ginny Field, a plucky psychology students, is left to face off against a masked assailant.

Friday the 13th Part 2 is an excellent repeat of everything that worked well about the first film, minus an entire cast of likable kids.  In the original, the characters and the actors who played them did a fine job of setting themselves apart from one another and being individuals (well, as much of an individual that one can be in a 90 minute horror film).  In Part 2, however, the majority of the characters are simply rehashes of characters from the first film.  The only characters who really stand out are Ginny amd Mark (a wheelchair bound adonis).  All the rest are copies.  The performers are game, however, and seem willing and up to the task of being the newest victims.  That brings us to Jason, who is the only popular franchise villain (aside from Mary Lou in the Prom Night movies and Tiffany from Bride of Chucky) who was not introduced in the first film of his series.  He was an afterthought and a motive for Part 1 to even exist (Mrs. Voorhees killed everyone for letting her son, Jason, drown in the lake) and was rewriten as a "boo!" moment in the finale of Part 1 (much to original writer Victor Miller's chargin).  Suddenly, he is not only rewritten again as a hulking drowning survivor...but now he is also as murderous as his mother.  It is a hard logic leap to make, considering that they would have dragged the lake and recovered the body almost immediately...AND if no body was found, they would have done a forest wide search and found poor Jason alive and well, traumatized and offering Momma no reason to get back at anyone.  But hey, this is horror writing, not Shakespeare...and so here Jason is, all grown up and pissed off having survived living off the forest for something like 27 years.  He is wild, silent, and fast as he chases the hapless Ginny through the forest.  I don't think the filmmakers believed that there would be a Part 3 at this point so his mystique isn't fully established beyond "mongaloid mountain man".  He doesn't even have his trademark hockey mask here, using a simple burlap sack instead.  It still works as a scary image, and makes him more like the Universal Monsters of old, generic and nondescript.  In this way, Jason may be the most effective horror villain ever accidentally created.  If you liked the first, you'll enjoy this one as well.  If you didn't, I'd say keep away.  It's more of the same from here on in.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kill 'er mommy! Kill 'er!

There are certain mediocre films that, due to public consciousness and popularity, can actually achieve classic status after their time.  Many of these are sci-fi or horror films that had one eye-catching original film and then a vast set of diminishing sequels, like the film I wish to discuss today.  In the late 1970s, Sean S. Cunningham, who had not achieved much success with his more family-oriented features, saw John Carpenter's Halloween and was amazed at how effective this low-budget chiller was (and also how financially successful it was).  He took this 'slasher' concept and decided to make his own version.  This was going to be a real scary movie, but also be shocking and graphic in a way that Halloween wasn't.  The script by Victor Miller then began as "The Long Night at Camp Blood" but Cunningham insisted in a title change that reflected Halloween...and horror history was born.  So let's pack our bags and head to camp as we go through Friday the 13th

In the summer of 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake, two teenagers are savagely murdered by an unseen killer while making love...causing the camp to be shut down.  Over the years, numerous fires, accidents, and various other instances of bad luck at the property have caused the locals to believe that the camp has a curse on it.  Despite this, the Christie family is insistent on opening the camp back up and putting it to work.  Finally, in the summer of 1980, Steve Christie looks to be the first person to have the camp open in over 20 years and he has brought in seven teenaged camp counselors to help him bring the place up to code and then interact with the campers when they finally arrive.  However, a sinister atmosphere seems to hang over their efforts.  A snake is found in one of the cabins, a crazy old man preaches that they're all "doomed", and an unseen presence is watching and waiting in the shadows...waiting to strike out at anyone who goes off alone.  One-by-one the counselors begin to disappear until only one is left to fight for her life in  the "long night at camp blood".

You know, for a horror film that received nothing but negative reviews (and a letter writing campaign championed by Siskel and Ebert for indecency in films) and has one of the worst reputations...this is one solid little thriller.  By no means does it achieve the heights of Halloween, but it certainly creates quite a bit of suspense in many of the stalking scenes that has not been matched in its myriad of sequels.  What
Friday the 13th does so well, even though it is a body-count film that is a blatent rip off of the earlier film, is to rise above it's filmmakers' expectations.  They were making a cash-in that they hoped would be successful...but what they managed was a marvelous whodunnit with gross-out effects and a killer who actually has a legitimate motive.  The fact that Friday the 13th recieved some of the worst press of all the slasher films from the 80s (including the much more nausiating The Burning) has given the film and it's series a stigma that has been very hard to shake (and has been so embraced by its fan base that nothing "classy" could ever really be made and be called Friday the 13th).  It is that stigma that has kept historians and fans from really examining it as a valid suspense film...and indeed, it is suspenseful and scary.  There are 3 gore effects in the entire film and those are even more tame than most people think.  Yet, the way the film taps into the idea of summer camps as being sinister (indeed, who didn't hear a story at their camp about how a tragedy had cursed the place for years to come?) and plays that for all that it's worth.  9 times out of 10, even though I know Halloween is a better film, I'll find myself more anxious to turn on Friday the 13th because of its rollercoaster pace and likeable characters.  It isn't for everyone, but it is certainly a film that gets less than it deserves due to it's more well-reviewed cousins.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's Good to be the King

Hah!  Fooled you!  You thought I was gonna talk about Mel Brooks didn't you?  Ok, I'm not going to go on and on over my own cleverness (or lack thereof if you prefer) but I did feel the need to be a little silly today on account that I got terrible news yesterday.  A treasured colleague and friend from Theater West Virginia was taken from us before her time Sunday night and all of us who knew and loved her are still reeling.  I was pretty depressed when I found out, especially since I hadn't spoken to her in a long while and know I never will again, and so I tried to think of a way that I could honor her memory while also trying to keep myself from dropping into that unpleasent dark place known as despair.  I remembred that she was always smiling and always joyful, so I tried to find some films to watch that would make me feel the same way and it actually worked.  One of those is the one I intend to write about today.  I'd like to say first that I don't want to 'dedicate' this to her...only because this film is considered something of a bomb and I don't think she'd like being associated with a dud that I enjoy.  But, it still seemed appropriate because she was someone who always made me smile, like this film does.  So lets get a little silly with the highly improbable King Ralph.

Tragedy has struck in England!  Apparently, after a freak accident during a huge family photo, the whole royal family has been wiped out.  Naturally England is finding itself if deep despair and panic because they are without a monarch.  The committee at Buckingham Palace finds themselves working day and night to locate any heir to the throne, no matter how small or obscure he or she may be, and they eventually find one in Ralph Jones, an American lounge singer.  As you can imagine, the palace officials are not pleased and many would-be userpers to the throne are already sharpening their knives for the new king.  Ralph himself is rather shocked and dismayed by the news, as he finds royal life to be confining and restricting.  However, he is trying to make the best of it and to be the king that England expects him to be.  However, when he falls in love with a former stripper and offends a rival country, he begins to feel the pressure closing in on him.

King Ralph is saved from being completely abysmal (in my eyes) by two things...the actors involved and the respect that the film eventually gives to the office of the monarchy...I can already see your eyes rolling so bear with me.  If there was ever a contemporary film and television actor who always gave 110% it is John Goodman.  Whenever I see him, he is giving the roll his all whether he is being dramatic in The Babe or comic in Arachnophobia.  Even in King Ralph, whose material is about as far from high drama as one can get, Goodman shows wonderful range.  His reaction to losing his job before finding out he is King of England is one of the most sincere moments in the film where he shows frustration and desparation at the same time.  He actually sounds like a man who knows what it feels like to be at a loss.  Likewise, Peter O'Toole and Richard Griffiths as Ralph's advisors are equal parts funny and sincere as they manage to rise above the script's shortcomings and portray their characters as three-dimensional people rather than stuffy British characters.  Now as to the respect it gives the monarchy...Ralph makes a quite impassioned speech at the end of the film that both talks up England and the commonwealth, but which also gives great creedance and respect for all the crown represents to England (despite the fact that the royal family has little power anymore).  To me, that elevates the film a bit more in terms of message and quality.  If you haven't seen it, I can't promise you'll like it but it is cute.  And it makes me smile, just like she did.  For what its worth.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Don't Get Mad, Get Everything

Sometimes, you need a certain kind of movie to perk up an otherwise dull evening.  Of course, its hard to tell what that movie will be until you choose it.  You might be in the mood for a scary film, or maybe you want something silly and stupid.  Perhaps you are interested in indulging in nostalga and watching something mediocre from your childhood, or perhaps you want something that will make you think.  Friday night, for some reason, I needed to see a chick flick...and not just any chick flick.  I needed one that was about getting even.  Before you ask, no I had not been spurrned by someone and no I wasn't acting out any aggression at anyone specific...it was just what I was in the mood for.  That's kind of the beauty of having a lot of fiction in the house, because I have a film for every mood.  But I digress...Friday night I needed a time waster that I'd seen a lot (because I was gonna be running back and forth from the kitchen and wouldn't mind if I missed something in it) but also something that I'd chuckle at and would keep me energized.  So I decided on a classic chick power film from the mid-90s that starred the fabulous Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton and showcased them getting back at the men who had done them wrong.  Ladies and gentlemen...I present The First Wives Club.

Annie, Brenda, and Elise are three old college friends from the 60s who are suddenly reunited by the tragic loss of their friend Cynthia, who had committed suicide following a messy divorce from a husband she gave her best years to.  Coincidentally, the three friends are each going through similar breakups.  Annie's husband is leaving her for their marriage counselor after years of her continued support for his buisniss, Brenda's husband has divorced her for a chippie from his department store despite the fact that Brenda has been instrumental in the lifestyle he has become accustomed to, and Elise's producer/husband has left her for a younger actress and is now demanding allimony, despite the fact that Elise was the one who produced her films and allowed the husband to take the credit.  Alone they feel defeated and unappreciated, but once they come together and see that this isn't a problem confined only to their personal lives, they become energized and empowered as they plan to carry out justice on their wandering and unappreciative men.

The First Wives Club is a fairly predictable affair.  You already know from the cover that these women will be mistreated by men, come together to gain strength, and eventually get back at the men who so richly deserve their retribution.  However, to dismiss The First Wives Club on that criteria alone is to miss the point.  The film knows that it is a predictable chick flick and that it's men exist to be characters we love to hate...however, it is the journey that is important.  Finding out HOW these women will get revenge on their husbands is what drives the suspense and the jokes in the movie.  Also, the powerhouse performances of all three leading ladies is certainly a joy to behold as they laugh, cry, and yes...sing all before the closing credits roll.  Also of note are Maggie Smith and Sarah Jessica Parker in smaller the but plot important rolls of a New York sociallite and Brenda's husband's chippie respecitvely.  There are wonderful lines (given to us from the original novel by Olivia Goldsmith and the sharp screenplay by Robert Harling (who wrote the play and screenplay of Steel Magnolias) that are constantly quoted ("Don't get mad....get everything"..."I say this to you out of love, friendship and the spirit of true sisterhood...you are FULL OF SHIT!") and then there is the inspired musical number that closes the picture, a rousing cover of Leslie Gore's "You Don't Own Me" that almost convinces me that Club could have been a musical comedy.  But I digress again, if you haven't seen it or if you haven't seen it in a while, get off the fence and pick it up.  It would be the perfect film for an evening of wine and girl power.