Tonight and Tomorrow on TCM: Funny Horror
Continuing their month long tribute to the classic horror genre for the Halloween season, tonight Turner Classic Movies presents several horror and mystery comedies:
8:00pm (EST): The Cat and the Canary (1939)
Originally a 1922 hit play, The Cat and the Canary went on to become a Universal silent film in 1927, becoming one of that studio’s earliest horror films and helping to establish many conventions of the genre. The original is regarded as much more of a classic than the Paramount 1939 remake, which is sillier. (A 1930 talkie version by Universal called The Cat Creeps is now lost). The 1939 version is one of Bob Hope’s first movies (he’d started at Paramount a year earlier) and the first of three that would pair him with Paulette Goddard. It’s an interesting film because both performers are just about to break out as stars but haven’t yet done so. Like most of Hope’s early films, this is an ensemble piece. Others in the cast include Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco. The format is by now a well-worn one: a bunch of relatives and associates are invited to an Old Dark House for the reading of a will…and must stay there overnight, enduring an endless number of artificial and clearly orchestrated frights.
9:30pm (EST): The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
Horror and darkness inform nearly every film director Roman Polanski has made; he has specifically delved into the horror genre in films like Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Ninth Gate (1999). And naturally real horror came into his life when he lived through the Holocaust, and when his wife and friends were killed by the Manson Family. Humor is also often a part of work, but it’s usually a bleak, fatalistic kind of Absurdism in the vein of Kafka, Beckett and Pinter. The Fearless Vampire Killers is his most conventionally comic film, essentially a parody of Hammer Studios horror. Jack MacGowran plays an aged, Van Helsing-like vampire hunter (in heavy make up, MacGowran wasn’t yet 50 when the film was made). Polanski himself plays his bumbling young assistant. Sharon Tate plays a sexy publican’s daughter — this is the film on which the two came together. And the plot concerns MacGowran and Polanski roaming around a Transylvanian castle trying to foil a nefarious vampire and his minions. One of the funniest visual moments has the pair of them fleeing a vampire around a balcony — all the way ’round until they wind up back in his arms again. A moment of pure slapstick. But the movie is also gorgeous to look at, the element for which it generally receives its highest praise. One moment that’s always stood out for me is a shot of a coffin sliding down a snow covered mountain, getting smaller and smaller as it recedes in the distance. The film was shot in Austria and Italy. Apparently, Polanski’s original cut is more profound than the one we’ve gotten to see in America; it’s always been packages as a zany 60s comedy here in the States. In any case, this is easily the best vampire comedy ever made; most others I can think being no competition whatsoever: Love At First Bite (1979), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), and Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992) is an excellent movie, but still not at the level of The Fearless Vampire Killers.
11:30pm (EST): Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
When I was around 19 years old I was calling this my favorite movie, and it will never be very far from the top of the list. It’s difficult to talk about nowadays because it has been eclipsed a thousand times over in the public’s mind by the musical version. I hate everything about the better-known musical, and love everything about the original film, which was written by the brilliant satirist Charles B. Griffith and directed by Roger Corman on a tiny budget in a legendary two days. Like Griffith’s earlier A Bucket of Blood, it is a story of success and greed. Young Seymour Krelboyne (Jonathan Haze) cultivates a carnivorous plant that’s so spectacular it brings him fame and attention. Unfortunately, in order for it to thrive, he has to feed it larger and larger meals, a diet which will come to include human beings. The players are essentially the Corman stock company. Haze’s nebbishy Seymour character is definitely of a type that was extremely popular in the fifties, largely through the influence of Jerry Lewis, and others like Arnold Stang. Mel Welles (Mr. Mushnik), Jackie Joseph (Audrey), and Dick Miller (guy who eats flowers) were some of the few Corman actors who achieved some moderate success outside the AIP universe. And of course Jack Nicholson (as the masochist dental patient) is one of the VERY few who became a superstar. Griffith himself plays several parts in the film (including the voice of the monster) and his grandmother, radio star Myrtle Vail plays Seymour’s hypochondriac mother. Above all, I cherish the grittiness of this movie, with its gloomy be bop soundtrack, and its night-time exteriors in deserted alleys. It’s the perfect late night viewing. Plus its so funny!
1:00am (EST): Young Frankenstein (1974)
Easily Mel Brooks’s second best movie after The Producers (although I have a special fondness for The Twelve Chairs). It’s a work of formal perfection, and probably the most effective cinematic parody ever made. I’ve often thought it would make a great double feature with The Fearless Vampire Killers — it’s fitting to have them on the same bill as they are tonight. The film was conceived and co-written by Gene Wilder, who plays the titular Frankenstein descendant. The plot is closely modeled by Son of Frankenstein — a homecoming and a being-drawn into the family curse. Many scenes and bits are lifted wholesale from the movie. Every element: the sets, the score, the cinematography contribute to the illusion that this is the real thing. Only the performances are wocka-wocka: including Wilder himself, Marty Feldman as the hunchbacked Igor, Cloris Leachman, Terri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman, and for some reason I’ve never quite understood or properly appreciated I guess, Peter Boyle as the Monster. (To me it’s the film’s weakest link. It doesn’t strike me as funny. Something to do with his baldness, I guess? Against type, as Wilder was in Blazing Saddles? I intellectually understand it, but it doesn’t make me laugh. I’d much rather see someone like Ted Cassidy, Richard Kiel or Andre the Giant play the role.
3:00am (EST): Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)
It’s rarely a good sign when the title of a film contains misspellings. Directed by Jean Yarbrough, this movie is actually a sequel! The Las Vegas Hillbillys had been released the previous year. Both films star country artist Ferlin Husky, a fine singer but a terrible actor. The bombshell part originally played by Mamie Van Doren is here essayed by Joi Lansing. And Don Bowman, who’d only sung a number in the previous film (both films are country musicals with slots for recording artists to lip sync their latest record) is here elevated to “comic relief” as Husky’s agent — and he’s even a worse actor than Husky is. So these “hillbillys” are riding along on their way to a music festival and their car breaks down. They take overnight refuge in a haunted house. Relegated to the basement as “spies” are Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr and John Carradine, who try to sweep the crackers out of the house with lame gambits like a gorilla suit. And country singers like Merle Haggard and Sonny James. It’s quite a hodgepodge, but it doesn’t make much difference when you’re making out with your girl at the drive-in.
4:30am (EST): Spooks Run Wild (1941)
An East Side Kids comedy. The kids get stuck in the country on the way to summer camp, where they encounter the mysterious “Nardo” (Bela Lugosi) and his dwarf assistant (Angelo Rossitto, from Freaks).
5:45am (EST): Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
A better than average spook comedy featuring the East Side Kids, directed by William Beaudine, and featuring Lugosi as a Nazi spy….but best of all, as the beautiful love interest — Ava Gardner, whom we are supposed to believe is Huntz Hall’s sister! That’s enough for three movies and it’s only an hour long! Them’s what I call moovies!
7:00am (EST): Master Minds (1949)
As we wrote here, the East Side Kids switched producers at a certain point and became the Bowery Boys, with mostly the same cast. In this one, Sach (Huntz Hall) implausibly develops a toothache which allows him to tell the future. Slip (Leo Gorcey) decides to monetize the superpower by showing him at a carnival. A mad scientist gets wind of it and temporarily transplants Sach’s brain into the mind of Atlas, a monster. Until Sach swallows the tooth, along with his soothsaying ability.
8:15am (EST): Spook Busters (1946)
In this one, the Bowery Boys hang out their shingle as exterminators and are promptly hired to rid a haunted house of ghosts. They quickly uncover the real culprit — a mad scientist in the basement. Things get truly hairy when the scientist tries to put Sach’s brain in the skull of a gorilla.
9:30am (EST): Spook Chasers (1957)
The Spook Chasers (1957) is quite late in the life of the long-running Bowery Boys franchise. Stars Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey are by now “boys” old enough to be grandfathers in certain Ozark states. In this creaky programmer (in more ways than one) the boys are off to a haunted house for a little R & R, but it turns out to be the home of a former gangster, who just happened to stash his loot there. Never seen THAT plot before! Script is by Edward Ullman.
10:45am (EST): The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954)
“Bowery Boys” is generous here….by this stage in its evolution the long running franchise is down to just a middle-aged Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. The pair go to an old mansion to get permission for city kids to play baseball on a lot they own. They meet a funny-scary family (similar to the Addams Family), one of whom is the actor John Dehner(a familiar character actor you’ve seen in movies a million times without knowing his name), another of whom is Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton), plus a couple of others including a totally hot “Black Widow” type chick (Laura Mason). The women in the family are murderers. Dehner and his brother (Lloyd Carrigan) are scientists, responsible for a bunch of monsters running loose in the house. There’s a robot. There’s a potion that turns people into Mr. Hyde. There’s a gorilla. The main plot line is an attempt to put Huntz Hall’s brain in the gorilla. The bulk of the movie is the usual spook comedy shenanigans—Gorcey and Hall bumping into monsters as they poke around the house, and running away screaming. It rapidly becomes predictable, repetitive and tedious. It was directed by Edward Bernds, from a script by Bernds and Elwood Ullman.