Archive for the Horror (Mostly Gothic) Category

On the Great Ghost Shows of Dr. Silkini

Posted in CAMP, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by travsd

June 28 is the birth date of one John Edward Kessler, a.k.a. Jack Baker, a.k.a., Dr. Silkini (1914-1980). If you are easily frightened I urge you to turn back now!!!

He was born Kessler but adopted by the parents of one Wyman Baker, who was to become his producing partner, and whose surname he would adopt. In 1933, the Baker brothers created  “Dr. Silkini’s Spiritualistic Séance and Ghost Show”, later known as the “Asylum of Horrors” and by many other names. Yes, the Baker brothers are essentially the innovators who brought us the midnight spook show. What they did was to mash-up two previously separate vaudeville disciplines: supernaturally charged magic acts like those of Blackstone and El-Wyn…and fast-paced blackout sketch comedy like that of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin. It’s like chocolate and peanut butter makin’ a Reese’s, right? This historic moment may very well represent the birth of horror camp!

Silkini’s shows were spooky and creepy and featured genuine illusions, but were also full of jokes and skits and hokum like phony hypnotist acts and people in monster costumes and skeletons and ghosts on fishing line. As the second wave of Universal Horror waxed big in the early 1940s, film screenings became the climax to the show.  The Asylum of Horror toured from city to city with hoopla and advance publicity and gimmicks like temporary graveyards with markers announcing the show. Dozens of competitors sprang up, freely stealing Baker’s ideas and material.  Things that would probably not exist without Silkini include the showmanship of William Castle, The Rocky Horror Show, AIP horror comedies, and funny tv horror hosts like Vampira, Svengoolie and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

By the mid 60s, Baker and his show, which had once been incredibly lucrative, had run out of steam. He died in 1980. At that point his apprentice Steven J. Conners purchased the rights and all the sets and illusions to the show, and revived it, presenting it throughout the 1980s, mostly in the L.A. area. He is currently working on a biography of Dr. Silkini, which will be published
by 1878 Press and is scheduled to be released in time for Halloween!

Joan Crawford: From Sexpot to Psycho-Biddy

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2017 by travsd

To be born in the modern age is to discover many of the great figures of past ages backwards. We encounter them by reputation or in classrooms and we usually are introduced to them at their peak or in their maturity. As opposed to our ancestors who grew up with these figures and watched their lives and careers unfold in real, forward moving, chronological time.

Joan Crawford (ca. 1904-1977) was in the midst of retiring from picture-making just as I was becoming fully engrossed in Captain Kangaroo. Furthermore, she is best known for what used to be called “Women’s Pictures” — delaying any real interest on my part for decades. Some males go to their graves successfully avoiding submitting themselves to such melodramas their entire lives, and quite happily. It’s no accident that the first Joan Crawford movie I ever saw was a western, the all-butch-lady showdown picture with Mercedes McCambridge known as Johnny Guitar (1954). I had to have been in my late twenties by then. I’d seen scores of movies starring other classic Hollywood stars by then. But not Crawford.

But I did know about her. You could say that my first “encounter” with Crawford, as it was for many people my age, was at second and third and fourth hand in the form of the world’s first psycho-biddy bio-pic Mommie Dearest (1981). This naturally led to awareness of “middle period” Crawford, the iconic Mildred Pierce era persona. When you think “Joan Crawford”, I imagine that’s the incarnation most people think of.

But the monstrous campy child-beating monster Crawford we meet in Mommie Dearest leads inexorably to an exploration of LATE career Crawford, her horror phase, starting with the best known of these Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and including The Caretakers, in which she played a sadistic madhouse nurse (1963), Straight-Jacket (1964), the Hitchcock-esque Della (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk (1967), Eyes (her 1969 Night Gallery episode directed by Steven Spielberg) and the hallucination inducing caveman-exhumation flick Trog (1970). Thus the Joan Crawford I came to know best first was a kind of grotesque freak show version, a warped parody of whatever star she had originally been. We wrote about several of these pictures here. 

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Over the years I also managed to fill in the middle period, the ’40s and ’50s, the battle ax years, when we often catch remnants and intimations of the great beauty she had been, but there is also a sort of steam-roller quality and a mannishness not unlike that of some of her contemporaries, like Rosalind Russell  all furry eye brows, handshakes, and padded shoulders. This period starts with a couple of (uncharacteristic) comedies, The Women (1939) and Susan and God (1940). I’ve also seen Strange Cargo (1940), Mildred Pierce, Possessed, which paves the way for the craziness of the late period (1946), Flamingo Road (1949), Harriet Craig (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), Johnny Guitar, Autumn Leaves (1956), and The Story of Esther Costello (1957). These movies, too, are all a sort of confirmation of what we gather about her movie career from Mommie Dearest; an aging beauty, usually pretty intense and crazy, sometimes dishing out the terror and antagonism, sometimes being on the receiving end. You don’t tend to see her playing Madame Curie. 

Still, something major was missing: a good third of her career. You hear it alluded to in Mommie Dearest and in other whisperings of the Crawford legend. And what you hear, based on what you know from the latter two-thirds, you don’t quite believe. And that’s this hard-to-credit, EARLY phase when she was one of the very top stars in Hollywood and a legendary beauty and vamp. Somehow one never SAW those movies, so talk about them was just so many words. But in the last few years I’ve managed to catch many of them on TCM. I’m not sure I ever would have got around to them, but the Mad Marchioness made a special point and I am grateful, for they were most illuminating. They are mostly films from the silent and pre-code eras at MGM.

I had seen one her earliest films Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) with Harry Langdon many years ago, but this isn’t too educational. She is the leading lady (barely into her twenties) but she scarcely seems herself at all. She hasn’t yet acquired much personality or sex appeal. And she also stars in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) with Lon Chaney, and that too I had seen.

But that’s not what everyone is talking about. Young Lucille Leseuer (her real name) had been a dancer and chorus girl, and it’s roles that showed her off in THAT context that made her a star as one of the key Jazz Age movie flappers in pictures like Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), Paris (1926), The Taxi Dancer (1927), Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929).

Then come talkies. In Untamed (1929) she plays a wild girl from South America. In Montana Moon (1930) a party girl socialite who must be “broken in” by her cowboy husband. Our Blushing Brides (1930), and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) revisit themes of her most popular silents.

Quite naturally she’s in the ensemble picture Grand Hotel (1932), that was one of the first of these I’d seen, as was her unfairly maligned performance in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932).

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There’s a bunch more like this. I’ve seen about a half dozen others, usually with Clark Gable or Robert Montgomery as her co-stars and she’s usually either a dancer or a secretary and the stories are racy and involve infidelity, or money schemes, because it’s before the implementation of the Production Code.

These early movies fill in a vital piece of the puzzle. Crawford started out her career as a straight-up cinematic object of desire. Familiarity with the Siren she once was sheds light on the numerous husbands, the countless romances with co-stars and others, and her legendary negotiating prowess on the casting couch. (Some of have suggested an arrest record for prostitution, as well). Later, when year by year that part of her appeal drains away, she seems to be compensating, like you do when you limp. Her intensity becomes such that she seems almost to be trying to draw people to her with her STRENGTH, with her MENTAL POWER, with her WILL, with something. It’s kind of Norma Desmond-y, and any way you slice it the resemblance is not an irrelevant coincidence.

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We are watching Jessica Lange’s portrayal of her on the new FX show Feud: Bette and Joan now with great interest. An unusual beauty herself (she still is!) Lange seems to grasp this aspect of Crawford’s motive power, and many other subtle things, including the very careful self-taught diction. Young Lucille had grown up in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, you see, and originally had a regional accent, which she lost through application and hard work…like everything she did.

And so you see we have worked our way backwards to her origins. Today is her birthday. Wherever she is, I bet she’s limiting herself to two bites of cake.

(P.S. Another midwife for my appreciation of Crawford has been friend Lance Werth, who actually MAJORED in Crawford at college, and writes the terrific blog Lance’s Werthwhile Classic Movie Diary. He wrote this appreciation of the star there yesterday as well).

 

Irene Ware: The Best of Both Worlds

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Women with tags , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Irene Ware (Irene Catherine Ahlberg, 1910-1993). And what are the “both worlds” of which we speak in our headline? Why, classic horror and chorus girl musicals, of course. What other worlds are there?

In this dichotomy, Ware’s career is not unlike Mae Clarke’s, although in different proportions. The stenographer daughter of a New York saloon keeper, she became a beauty queen at age 18, winning Miss Greater New York, Miss United States and Miss Universe in rapid order. She was featured in the 1928 edition of Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook, working her way up to the Vanities by 1930, where she remained through the 1932 edition. Then she moved to Hollywood, where she was immediately tried in starring parts. She is mostly remember for starring opposite Bela Lugosi in the horror classics Chandu the Magician (1932) and The Raven (1935, also with Boris Karloff), and in murder mysteries like Rendezvous at Midnight (1935), The Dark Hour (1936) and Murder at Glen Athol (1936). Gold Diggers of 1937 brought her back to her roots.

The Raven was the crest of her career — while much admired today, it didn’t do well at the time. She lost leading lady status, and became relegated to support roles and B pictures. She retired in 1940 to start a family.

For more on show biz  historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Edward Van Sloan: The Original Van Helsing

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of useful character actor Edward Van Sloan (1882-1964).

If only he’d been born a few hours earlier! He’d fit so neatly into all our October Halloween-Month horror movie blogging. And yet…Halloween is actually All Hallows Eve…and today All Hallows Day...and so we make room for one more spirit.

Van Sloan was of Dutch American stock and came from Minnesota. He trouped in the theatre for years before landing the part that would seal his fate and make him forever associated with the Universal stock company: he was cast as vampire hunter Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in the 1927 Broadway production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi were the only members of the stage production to be cast in the 1931 film version. In the early days, it was almost as if Universal didn’t dare make a horror movie without Van Sloan or a Van Sloan-esque character. In Frankenstein (1931) he played Victor Frankenstein’s mentor Dr. Waldman. In The Mummy (1932) he is Dr. Muller. He returns as Van Helsing in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). And he plays the Spy Chief in the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps (1939). Other relevant films included Murder on the Campus (1933), The Infernal Machine (1933), The Black Room (1935), A Shot in the Dark (1935), and The Last Days of Pompeii (1935).

Van Sloan has credits through 1950, although in later years he is playing mostly bit parts, mostly uncredited. This is interesting to me, for Universal’s horror division got a new shot in the arm with 1941’s The Wolf Man , giving older franchises like The Mummy new life. But Van Sloan was not part of this resurgence. Perhaps his very old school staginess was considered too artificial for these later movies. But nowadays that is just what we love about his performances!

In Which I Get My Witch On from “The Witch”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2016 by travsd

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Last year, when I read the terrific nonfiction book The Witches: Salem 1692, my over-riding takeaway was that I’d love to write a horror screenplay that worked off the mindset and belief system of the people who testified at the witch trials, the people who actually believed in witches. Almost all witch movies tend to be silly toothless comedies (Hocus Pocus, The Witches of Eastwick) or tedious stories of Satanism from the 60s and 70s (usually made by AIP, Hammer or the Italians) where the payoff at the end of 90s minutes of boredom is that the nice people one has suspected all along are in the basement dressed in cowls and chanting in Latin. To date my favorite witch movies have been The Wizard of Oz (the villainess in which is so archetypal and comes to us so young it triggers nightmares in the lizard brain), I Married a Witch (which though it is technically a screwball comedy manages to evoke a dark, dream-like and Halloweeny atmosphere) and above all Haxan, which is the only movie heretofore that features the terrifying imagery that I want, but has the drawback of being a silent Scandinavian documentary nearly a century old.

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The imagery in Haxan, like the testimony in Stacy Schiff’s book, is drawn from primary sources…and what people back then said they saw, or thought they saw is terrifying: baby killings, bathing in blood, levitation, hags in the forest, visitations from demons disguised as animals. I very much thought I’d like to see a period movie where people believed these things could happen because they were true. But it turns out I don’t have to write this movie. Robert Eggers made it last year. A few days ago we watched his debut feature, The Witch, and I am extraordinarily impressed — I can’t imagine that it’s not a movie I’ll watch annually for the rest of my life. Not just because it accomplishes what I’ve just described, but for a long list of reasons beyond that. On a personal level it hits my sweet spot. It’s set in the Massachusetts of 1630; characters refer to “the plantation” which we may assume to be Plymouth, though it is never thus specified. Just as one of our scariest ghost stories also happens to be a Yuletide yarn (A Christmas Carol), this scary witch tale has thematic connections to Thanksgiving. As someone with deep ancestral connections to the Pilgrims, it speaks to me.

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But so much more than this, because if the director had done a lousy, cursory job I wouldn’t give two hoots about the movie. Eggers’ film is awe-inspiring. Everything about it. His background is as a production designer for theatre and film, and he has brought to the table here a level of careful research and attention to detail that is rare and glorious to behold, from the rich, Jacobean language of the screenplay; to the thick Yorkshire accents of the principal characters, to the religious, social and moral attitudes of those characters; to the design and architecture of every building, household object, and costume. Shot in the wilds of Ontario, it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that truly makes you feel like you are in the isolated frontier of 17th century America, a time when ten miles from the Atlantic ocean may as well have been the Amazon rain-forest.

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While the experience is never less than gripping, the plot is simple: the head of a Puritan family (Ralph Ineson) runs afoul of the authorities over a matter of doctrine. Rather than change his beliefs, he moves his small family (wife and five young children) outside the plantation stockade and starts a farm in the distant wilderness. Almost immediately, horrible bad luck starts to strike in wave after wave, most of it apparently centered around the family’s oldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy). According to their belief system, Satan and witchery are afoot, and while the daughter appears the most obvious suspect, the father bears a certain amount of blame for the family’s misfortunes himself. I won’t reveal who the titular witch is, or what forms the horned one takes, but just know that, as in powerful classics such as The Exorcist and The Omen, the devil and his minions do prove to be quite real. And several audacious, unthinkable things happen all in a row. Most directors would be afraid to “go there” — Eggers goes there again and again, and with total effectiveness, because we believe it.

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At any rate, Eggers knows how to do horror as well as he knows how to do history and we await his next movie with keen anticipation. I am delighted to read this morning that it is a remake of Nosferatu. 

The Horror and Sci Fi of Steven Spielberg

Posted in Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by travsd

As TCM is screening Jaws and its sequels tonight I thought it would be interesting to look at Steven Spielberg’s work in horror, fantasy and science fiction in isolation. As I opined in my earlier post, though Spielberg makes films in other genres, such as war films, historical dramas and the like, with a couple of notable exceptions, his strongest suit remains the one he started out in. This survey will look at both his television and film work, and works he produced as well as ones he directed. This is my second in a series of posts about horror films by mainstream New Hollywood directors not normally regarded as “horror directors”. The first was about John Landis. I am also planning similar ones about Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma. (If I don’t get to them this year, look for them next October!)

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Night Gallery episodes (1969-1971)

Two of Spielberg’s earliest directorial credits were on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery series, less horror per se than stories in the writer’s patented “weird tales with an O. Henry twist” tradition. Amazingly, the 21 year old Spielberg’s first professional directorial assignment was “Eyes”, a segment in the 1969 Night Gallery feature length pilot starring none other than Joan Crawford as an evil, rich blind woman who pays a desperate gambler (Tom Bosley) for his ocular organs (she’s blackmailed a doctor into performing the unsavory operation). The rub is that she will only enjoy sight temporarily (she’s that evil) and the twist is that when she opens her new eyes after the operation it is evening — in the middle of a power black-out.

Two years later, Spielberg was asked back to direct a second episode, entitled “Make Me Laugh”. This one is a riff on the Midas myth. Godfrey Cambridge is a comedian who wishes for the unfailing gift of making people laugh. A swami (Jackie Vernon) gives him more than he bargained for. Now no one will stop laughing at whatever he says, even when he’s serious! Tom Bosley plays his agent, and Al Lewis a club owner. Both these episodes were penned by Serling himself. Spielberg’s gratitude for his career having been launched in such a fortuitous manner would be evident in his tributes Twilight Zone: The Movie and Amazing Stories a decade later.

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L.A. 2017 (1971)

Spielberg’s first feature length script was presented as an episode of the series The Name of the Game. It is set in a then-future Los Angeles where everyone lives underground due to air pollution, and America is now a fascist-corporate state where the police are all psychiatrists. The cast includes numerous old-guard Hollywood vets, including Gene Barry, Barry Sullivan, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart and Joan Crawford. We’ll be returning to the subject of this telefilm in a couple of months for reasons that should be obvious from the film’s title.

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Duel (1971)

Widely regarded as Spielberg’s first “masterpiece”, one of the best tv-movies of all time, and the film that put Spielberg on the map. Duel was an ABC Movie of the Week written by the legendary Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Shrinking Man, The Night Stalker, numerous Roger Corman collaborations, as well as a Twilight Zone vet).  It concerns a motorist (Dennis Weaver) who is being run down by a malevolent trailer truck driver on an isolated stretch of desert highway. The driver is never shown, so the truck itself begins to take on an identity like some sort of Moby Dick like predatory creature animated by the devil himself, an impression magnified by the psychological toll the ordeal begins to take on Weaver. The streamlined shape of this telefilm is especially impressive. It is all harrowing action, just a ride from beginning to end, paving the way for much of Spielberg’s later work.

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Something Evil (1972)

I have informally retitled this early telefilm Something’s Missing. At this stage of his career Spielberg was still just a journeyman tv director. While Duel happens to be pretty great, Something Evil is more in line with a lot of his early work — straightforward storytelling with a few artistic touches here and there. He is struggling with a not-very-compelling story, and one that was done to death in the early 70s: a family moves into a house that is inhabited by the devil. This one is helped by an interesting angle: it is set in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania and the events revolve around what happens when you tamper with those painted witch pentacles that the Pennsylvania Dutch put on barns to ward off evil. And it is likewise made more watchable by a cast that includes Darren McGavin (who’d done The Night Stalker pilot the year before, though the series wouldn’t be launched until 1974, Sandy Dennis, Johnny Whitaker (fresh off of Family Affair), Ralph Bellamy, and Jeff Corey as the obligatory creepy old codger and caretaker. Much that happens is “unseen”, possibly in Sandy Dennis’s mind, and that gets to be tiresome after a while, but there are also scenes where those unseen forces move stuff around, anticipating the terrific scene before the toddler is abducted in Close Encounters. And there’s lots of early mother-child stuff that register as the beginnings of Spielberg’s career-long thematic preoccupation with that theme.

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Jaws (1975)

As we wrote in our earlier post, we consider this Spielberg’s best movie bar none. Though it doesn’t seem to often be characterized as such nowadays (probably because Spielberg rapidly became known as an all-around Hollywood auteur), Jaws is a straight-up horror film and was certainly marketed and received as such when it came out. Unlike most graphic horror movies of its day (or any day, really), it is extraordinarily strong on character. The movie would have already been extremely effective as an amusement park ride strictly on how it is shot, edited and scored. That’s basically what people were lining up to buy tickets for in 1975 — the bloody spectacle of seeing people get gobbled up by a great white shark. But what gives Jaws its real staying power as a classic are the performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, Robert Shaw and (the sometimes neglected but very important) Murray Hamilton (the mayor). People quote lines from the film. Shaw’s performance will intrigue me to the end of my days — he put a LOT into this role. Not just the film’s most harrowing scene where he is unable to stop himself from slowly sliding into the shark’s open mouth and then shrieks in a way that we imagine is almost TOO realistic…but also subtler stuff, like his drunken monologue about his ordeal after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. And above all, Spielberg’s genius in making the shark a “character” (I believe the robot’s nickname was “Bruce”). Most “animals gone wild” films fail on multiple levels. This one succeeds superlatively, both as horror and as a story about people.

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Transmuting fear to wonder

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 

As a UFO buff in my childhood, I was obsessed with this movie when it came out. Its brilliance is in the turning on its head the old 50s “alien invaders from outer space” genre, and plugging it into 70s concerns. While the flying saucers thrill us with fear for most of the movie, that feeling gets transmuted to innocence and wonder by the end, and in essence paranoia and secrecy (by the government authorities) becomes the enemy. So many chilling moments in the film. Richard Dreyfus alone on a country road being “measured” or “read” by the aliens. That terrifying scene in Melinda Dillon’s house when the toys and appliances come to life and despite her best efforts her baby is kidnapped. The scene where the dude who is running with them to Devil’s Tower gets gassed. And the then-revolutionary realization of the aliens, obviously informed by modern eyewitness accounts by people who claim to have encountered aliens, making it seem, in an odd way “realistic”.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels (1981, etc) 

Raiders is obviously a tribute to the old mystery and adventure serials of the 1930s and ’40s, a form which was closely related to horror. In fact, almost all of the classic horror actors also starred in these kind of mystery and suspense pictures, usually as the villains. Raiders gives us scares both natural (spiders, snakes, headhunters, Nazis) and supernatural (mummies, ghosts and an Angel of Death with the power to melt the faces of villains and turn his henchmen to dust). Temple of Doom has black magic and crocodiles. The Last Crusade, like Raiders has Nazis and booby traps, but also the magical Holy Grail. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has the titular telepathic item, from the head of an alien, a nuclear bomb, and a hill of fire ants.

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E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

The outlines of this film certainly make it a science fiction story, but in reality it’s too warm and fuzzy to be much but a kid’s movie, though widely regarded as a classic one. I was much disappointed to discover that though when I saw it upon its first release. Though it has some thrills in the early beats, ultimately it’s a “family film”, which of course is perfectly valid if you like that sort of thing.

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Poltergeist (1982)

This one was produced by Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, though by all accounts (and it seems evident from the final product) Spielberg maintained an iron grip on the production, essentially directing the thing himself by making Hooper do everything he wanted.  With its fetishization of suburban living it looks like a Spielberg film. As with E.T., the promising title produced inevitable disappointment in me. I was a ghost buff. A film with the ballsy name Poltergeist damn well better be the archetypical poltergeist tale, which this one is anything but.  Your basic poltergeist yarn centers on an unhappy, awkward adolescent, whose violent energy attracts and fuels mischievous spirits who perform what are basically acts of vandalism. The one scene in the film that reminded me of that is the memorable scene where the kitchen furniture moves around of its own accord. But the rest of the movie is cockamamie — an exercise in ineffective excess and dumb ideas. It’s TOO Much. Ghosts in the tv. Some sort of dimensional door in the closet. An evil tree. An evil clown doll. A mysterious psychic little person. The physical theft of children by whatever-this-is. I find none of it scary because its just a bunch of claptrap and nonsense not rooted in anything. However, I do find the movie interesting and effective in a completely different way — as satire. It’s very rewarding to watch nowadays from that perspective. There is much about Reagan’s America here. Selfishness and privilege, and ultimately greed. The characters are all suffering because the subdivision was built on graves. The spectacle of JoBeth Williams dumped into a flooded basement full of muddy corpses is indeed one of the most powerful images in the film, both as satire and as horror.

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Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Co-produced with John Landis, and co-directed with Landis and Joe Dante. Spielberg’s contribution to this tribute to Rod Serling’s landmark tv series is a predictably warm and fuzzy tale of senior citizens longing for youth called “Kick the Can”. It was based on an episode from the original series.

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Gremlins (1983)

Spielberg was executive producer of this silliness, written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante. I’ve never been a fan, it’s too dumb to be scary and yet I wouldn’t describe it as funny either. Like Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist though it shares an obsession with suburban tract housing.

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Amazing Stories (1985-1987)

I LOVED this tv series, created and executive produced by Spielberg. Every Sunday, I would annoy my family by switching the tv audio settings to “stereo” so it would play through the speakers for maximum aesthetic impact. Spielberg came up with most of the story ideas himself, and the episodes were directed by him and other major directors like Martin Scorsese, Bob Clark, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, DannyDeVito, Tobe Hooper and Paul Bartel. It was thrilling to have something so high quality on network television. Like all such “weird tales” anthology shows, some episodes are horror, some fantasy or science fiction, some merely have an ironic twist.

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Arachnophobia (1990)

Spielberg was executive producer of this enjoyable bug movie, starring hundreds of large, deadly spiders and Jeff Daniels as a small town doctor who suffers from the titular condition. Much smarter and more rollicking than this kind of movie usually is.

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Jurassic Park and sequels (1993, etc) 

The original Jurassic Park is near the top of my favorite Spielberg films, and is easily the king (the T Rex, if you will) of all “Lost World Dinosaur” movies, a minor horror subgenre that goes back to the days of the silents. This is thanks to the relentless research and impeccable realism of the special effects, and (as with Jaws) the three dimensional characters. Nearly every moment in this film is riveting and memorable, and many are terrifying. Each succeeding sequel gives diminishing returns of course, which is not so very unusual.

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The Haunting (1999)

Spielberg executive produced this widely panned remake of the 1963 Robert Wise film based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. Starring Liam Neeson as a scientist who invites several people (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson) to a haunted castle under the pretense of a “sleep study” — which turns out to be a fear study. But soon Neeson’s contrived spookery gets overwhelmed by ACTUAL spookery since the house is really haunted. As an added bonus — the caretakers are Marian Seldes and Bruce Dern. 

Like "The Wizard of Oz", but grim and cheerless!

Like “The Wizard of Oz”, but grim and cheerless!

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

An interesting experiment, half Stanley Kubrick and half Steven Spielberg, and all cold and lifeless. I only saw it the once, when it came out, but I found it so bleak and black, visually impressive but with nothing really to latch on to, not just for comfort, but at all.

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Minority Report (2002)

Based on Philip K. Dick material, and like much of hiss writing, is less science fiction and more like a futuristic mystery/crime story. Here Tom Cruise is a detective who has been accused by two out of a committee of three psychics of committing a murder in the future. He escapes in order to find the third psychic (who provided the titular report) and clear his name. While it’s full of interesting technology, neither the story nor the star are my cup of tea at all.

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War of the Worlds (2005)

I thought this movie was incredible and that Spielberg nearly achieved the impossible — out-doing the original 1953 screen adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, which is one of my favorite movies. Spielberg’s vision of the alien craft, the sound they make, their rays, their effect on humans, the behavior of crowds, are all riveting. I especially loved the first half of this movie; I’ll undoubtedly watch it many more times. What ultimately spoils it for me is the casting of the soulless cipher Tom Cruise as the star, and a screenplay with so much toxic energy in it. It’s enough that people have to battle aliens. I detest the current Hollywood Orthodoxy that every movie needs to carry the additional baggage of patching up families at the same time they save the planet or whatever.

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Super 8 (2011)

Spielberg co-produced (co-wrote the story for) this J.J. Abrams film, which is funny, because it is such a tribute to both Close Encounters and E.T. I especially loved it because in the same year the film is set (1979) my friends and I (the same age as the kids in the film and the same age as Abrams) made a Super 8 feature movie of our own. (Ours was a James Bond style spy story). The alien aspect was less interesting to me, but still gave me nostalgic feelings due to the obvious relationship to the aforementioned films.

Jurassic World (2015) was executive produced by Spielberg, and his most recent relevant credit. He also has announced films out through the end of the decade, although most of them look like bullshitty sequels. It has been over 20 years since his last horror masterpiece (Jurassic Park) and a decade since his last horror near-masterpiece (War of the Worlds). And while I very much enjoyed his recent historical dramas like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, I’d equally love to see if he can pull out at least one more mind-blowing thrill ride.

The Comedies of Bela Lugosi

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2016 by travsd

What madness that I didn’t think of this post sooner! (And I confess someone else inadvertently gave me the idea). We’ve done many posts about the great Hungarian-American thespian Bela Lugosi, including this biographical piece, and this one covering most of his horror and mystery films, which is what he is best known for. But Lugosi also was very useful in comedies — mostly spook comedies I’ll grant you, but some of them were more conventional ones in which he usually played the villain. The guy was a good sport, and he is always a welcome presence in classic comedy.

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50 Million Frenchmen (1931)

In this adaptation of the 1929 Broadway musical, the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson play detectives hired to foil William Gaxton in his wager than he can make time with the hard-to-get Claudia Dell, strictly on charm. At a certain point Olsen steals the clothes and identity of Orizon the Magician (Lugosi) in order to keep tabs on their elusive quarry.

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Broadminded (1931)

Insane! A terrific, zany Joe E. Brown comedy, directed by Mervyn Leroy and written by the team of Kalmar and Ruby. Brown plays a wild party hound whose uncle assigns him to take care of his cousin (played by William Collier Jr. ) and keep him out of trouble. Their instructions are to get out of New York and no gambling, carousing or women. They head to California, driving cross country and become embroiled in a feud with a nasty man (Lugosi) at a diner. He steals their car and becomes their bitter enemy, during their cross country drive.

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International House (1933)

Directed by Eddie Sutherland, International House is essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.

Lugosi plays an evil Russian spy out to steal the invention. The rest of the cast includes Franklin Pangborn as the flustered hotel manager; George Burns and Gracie Allen as a doctor and nurse; and guests W.C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), and Stuart Erwin; and entertainers Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.

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Gift of Gab (1934)

This would be a better remembered comedy if someone funnier than Edmund Lowe were its star. Karl Freund (better known for his horror) directed. Lowe plays a radio announcer who pride himself on his ability to sell anything to anyone. The all-star cast also includes Victor Moore, Gloria Stuart, Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, Phil Baker, Chester Morris, Alice White, Boris Karloff — and Lugosi as “the French Apache dancer”.

The Gorilla (1939)

Largely a parody of The BatThe Bat concerns a cast of characters in an Old Dark House concerned about a threat from a mysterious murderer who signs his letters “The Gorilla”. To confuse matters, an actual gorilla (i.e., guy in a cheap gorilla suit) keeps wandering in and out of the mansion’s secret passageways. Directed by Allan Dwan, the all-star cast features the Ritz Brothers (as detectives), Lugosi (as the butler), Anita Louise, Patsy Kelly (as a perpetually fretting maid), and the omnipresent Lionel Atwill. And a guy in a gorilla suit. For this reason, if not other, this movie should be seen at least once, if never again thereafter.

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Ninotchka (1939)

Lugosi plays the harsh, unbending Commissar Razinin in Lubitch’s magical screwball comedy starring the great Greta Garbo as a Soviet spy who gets converted by the pleasures of Paris and and the charms of Melvyn Douglas. 

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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” (Lugosi) and his dwarf assistant (Angelo Rossitto, from Freaks).

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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!

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Zombies on Broadway (1945) 

Sheldon Leonard is a gangster who is opening a voodoo themed nightclub in Times Square. But he needs to have a REAL zombie on hand for the launch event or a Walter Winchell-esque radio columnist will trash the place. Alan Carney and Wally Brown are the publicists who caused this whole mishigas by promising an actual zombie in their press release. The gangster is not amused. He send them on a tramp steamer to Haiti, to bring back a real zombie — or else. After many spooky encounters, they actually manage to bring one back — It’s Carney, who has been zombified by a witch doctor back on the island. (Lugosi plays the mad scientist who makes zombies). Anyway, ironically Carney reverts to himself just before the gangster sees him, causing yet another crisis.  But the boys manage to fake it and it all turns out alright.

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Genius at Work (1946)

Well, now. I thought’s seen every RKO comedy starring the team of  Carney and Brown, but to my sorrow I learn I am mistaken. Clearly a follow up to the previous year’s Zombies on Broadway, this one also features Lionel Atwill as a villain named The Cobra, in addition to Lugosi.

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Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

This is the first of Abbott and Costello’s films to match them up with Universal Horror monsters, and as such is a stroke of producing genius, although the word “genius” can’t exactly be applied to the screenplay, direction or performances. The title of the film is a bit of a misnomer. While A & C do indeed meet Frankenstein’s monster (here played by Glenn Strange), they spend just as much time with Dracula (Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The premise is that the bodies of the former two have been accidentally sent to a wax museum where delivery boys Abbott and Costello encounter them…and encounter them…and encounter them. With some foresight they might have some of this monster power in reserve for future pictures. Nevertheless, the studio and the team had several more monster pictures in them.

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“It will stiffen you with laughter”

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)

Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo and his partner Duke Mitchell (Dominic Miceli) play themselves, en route to perform for the troops in Guam (it’s the height of the Korean War). They parachute from their plane and land on the fictional isle of Kola Kola. There they meet many natives and Duke falls for the chief’s daughter Nona (played by the fetching Charlita, whose list of IMDB credits is actually quite respectable.) Still, the boys want to escape, so they travel to the other side of the island, where a mad scientist (Lugosi) performs research in his castle. One of his test subjects is played by Ramona the Chimp, whose best known credits were as Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. Unfortunately, Lugosi also loves Nona, and when he senses the chemistry between her and Duke, he does what any mad scientist would do in his position — injects Duke with a serum that turns him into a guy in a gorilla suit. This adds a nice symmetry to the plot, for Sammy’s love interest seems to be Ramona the Chimp. At any rate, Petrillo is able to recognize Mitchell when the latter manages to sing his signature song “Indeed I Do” from inside his gorilla suit.  Anyway, it all turns out to have all been a dream. (Good ending! Who saw that twist coming?)  When last we leave the boys they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub.

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Red Skelton Hour (1954)

Lugosi, Vampira and Lon Chaney Jr joined Red Skelton for horror themed comedy sketches on his tv variety show. Check out a clip from a sketch called “Dial B for Brush” on youtube here. 

Two years after this appearance, Lugosi was dead. Still ahead of course was the unintentional posthumous comedy Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959)– but let us let the dead rest in peace.

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