Archive for Halloween

Scenes of the Houdini Museum (on the 90th Anniversary of His Death)

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on October 31, 2016 by travsd

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90 years ago this very night, Harry Houdini shuffled off this moral coil. I happened to find myself near the Houdini Museum today, so I popped in to remember him (it’s located in the Fantasma Magic Shop, across the street from Penn Station.) Here are some snaps I took:

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This bust, modelled from life, was removed from Houdini's grave monument in Queens

This bust, modeled from life, was removed from Houdini’s grave monument in Queens

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For more on Houdini, magic, and vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

The Horror (and Comedy) of William Castle

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , on October 5, 2016 by travsd

Continuing on with this month’s contributions to our horror exloration, a look at the films of William Castle. Castle had been a director at Columbia since 1943, but though he’d made dozens of movies in all genres during this early phase, it wasn’t until he hung out his shingle as producer/director, conceiving his productions from soup to nuts, that he would make his mark in the horror field. A campy mark, but a mark nonetheless.

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Macabre (1958)

Castle’s first outing as a horror impresario. An inkling of how he gets off on a characteristic foot: nothing depicted on that poster above actually happens in the movie. But rest assured there’s a gimmick – – Castle claimed to have insured the picture to pay out in case any audience members died of fright. And the plot too was a typical gimmick. A doctor’s little daughter has been kidnapped and buried alive. She’ll suffocate unless he finds her in five hours. And then he proceeds to waste a LOT of time looking up blind alleys. To give you some idea of the tone of the film: JIM BACKUS plays a menacing sheriff. In years to come Castle’s films would become more enjoyable as he truly went off the deep end of gimmickry. This one falls more in the “suspense” genre — but it’s still a good time.

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House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Vincent Price stars in this delectable Castle vehicle, with twists and turns that are more than a little incoherent but no less rewarding for all that. Price, his estranged wife, and a motley collection of characters are locked into Price’s mansion for the night — the guests all there under the pretext that they will each receive $10,000 if they can survive past midnight. Along the way we get ghosts, skeletons, shootings, hangings and some hilariously bad melodrama. The film was remade in 1999.

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The Tingler (1959)

An unspeakably good Castle feature. Vincent Price as a scientist and county coroner (how convenient) who has a theory so unscientific it may as well have been hatched by a primitive tribesman. He finds that people who died in frightening circumstances often have cracked spines. He deduces from this observation that there is a creature that lives in people’s vertebrae, and that it grows strong when a person is tense with fear. Such “fear tensions” can only be relieved by screams; when you can’t scream the creature kills you. Castle rigged the seats in the theaters to tingle (a technique he called “Percept-o”), causing random audience members to scream. Great LSD freak-out scene with Price — perhaps the first ever on film!

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13 Ghosts (1960)

A poor family movies into an inherited house, only to learn that it comes complete with hidden treasure, a scary maid (played by Margaret Hamilton) and a baker’s dozen of mischievous ghosts. When it was originally released, the ghosts were only visible to the audience with special glasses, a process Castle called “Illusion-O”. Each ghost had a different personality, e.g., a lion tamer, an Italian chef, etc. Threats of violence abound. Meanwhile, whole, all-American lawyer Martin Milner helps the family in whatever way he can. H’m, I wonder what the twist will be? The film was remade with much less charm in 2001.

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Homicidal (1961)

This is Castle’s none-too-subtle rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho, a hit of the previous year.  I don’t think I’ll be spoiling too much for you when I say the twist owes much to Psycho too, the evidence is that poster, and the very strange countenance and vocal qualities of the “woman” at the heart of this mystery. If it’s too much for you to stand, the film stops at a certain point to give you a “fright break”.

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Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

A period piece! This one is almost like a fairy tale. The titular gentleman (Guy Rolfe) is a deformed, mute baron who lives in a castle. His face was frozen in a death rictus when he exhumed his father’s coffin to retrieve a winning lottery ticket. He browbeats a doctor into curing his condition. But the baron is not a very nice man. The foremost evidence of this is his one-eyed servant Krull (Oskar Homolka) who likes to torture people with leeches. In the end, the audience is given a “punishment poll” by Castle — does Sardonicus deserve to get his cure or not? The alternate happy ending was never filmed.

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Zotz! (1962)

A harbinger of things to come — in the ’60s Castle developed a rather unfortunate penchant for comedy, usually ones that retained an element of horror or fantasy consonant with his larger body of work. Oddly, however, his non-comic films tend to be funnier than his comedies. In Zotz! a professor (Tom Poston) discovers a ring that has the power to hurt people or change their behavior. The title of the film is the magical word that allows the charm to happen. Soon governments are squabbling over access to the ring. I find the film too dull and gentle to be funny. The most notable thing about it is its cast, which includes Jim Backus as a rival professor, Fred Clark as an army general, and Margaret Dumont in one of her last roles as a dowager.

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13 Frightened Girls (1963)

Generally conceded to be the worst William Castle film, although there is some stiff competition. Essentially a children’s movie with jarring Cold War overtones. Castle hired 13 cute non-actors from all over the world to play the titular girls, and that is a lot of amateur energy to have to sit through. They are all the daughters of diplomats attending a fancy girls school. One of them finds a dead body and becomes a spy! Murray Hamilton plays a secret agent; Hugh Marlowe plays the dad of the heroine.

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The Old Dark House (1963)

It sounds promising: a remake of James Whale’s 1932 classic, co-produced by Hammer. But like many of Castle’s films of this period, it falls flat: weak on atmosphere or tension compared with the original until the climax, which is quite original (the hero must diffuse several time bombs all set to go off at the same time). Tom Poston and Robert Morley are notables in the cast.

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Strait-Jacket (1964)

Castle is back on his game in this one — even unprecedentedly so, with a bigger caliber of star (Joan Crawford) at the center and a script by Robert Bloch, who’d written Psycho. Here Crawford plays an ax murderer who is released from an insane asylum after 20 years and is reunited with her daughter (Diane Baker), a sculptor. Murders start happening again. Is it Crawford? Or someone else…? The film is also notable for having early performances by Lee Majors and George Kennedy. 

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The Night Walker (1964)

Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who is the virtual prisoner of her husband, a blind, insanely jealous scientist. She is attracted to his lawyer (played by her real-life ex-husband Robert Taylor) and has endless fantasies about a perfect man billed as “The Dream”. In some of the fantasies she marries him in front of an audience of mannequins! When her husband blows himself up in a lab accident, she begins to enjoy her first measure of freedom for the first time…but that’s not how it ends. This one was also written by Bloch, and is Stanwyck’s last movie (she only did television after this). The Night Walker has long been an unavailable holy grail, both for fans of Stanwyck and of William Castle. I just discovered to my delight that it become available on DVD a few months ago! Can’t wait to see it!

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I Saw What You Did (1965)

A classic of sorts, presaging a much bloodier subgenre to follow a decade and more later. Two girls are randomly making phone calls when they unknowingly utter the titular phrase to a man who has just murdered his wife. And he’s gonna come callin’. On the other end of the line, Joan Crawford plays a friend of the deceased who gets pulled into the mystery. The two parallel sides get tied neatly together in the end, if a little implausibly. Was remade in 1988.

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Let’s Kill Uncle (1966)

Like most of Castle’s kid-centered films, I found this one a bit tedious. It’s a sort of a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, mixed with James Bond. A 12 year old orphan inherits a fortune, and finds himself trapped on the family island with his uncle, an international spy who tries to kill him with a series of inventive, gimmicky spy-like methods (e.g., a shark in the swimming pool). The boy’s only recourse (aided by a playmate) is to try to kill his uncle right back.

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The Busy Body (1967)

Based on a Donald Westlake novel, this one deserves to be a much better movie. The fact that it’s not points right to the most interesting thing about Castle: he was a genius as a producer, but a journeyman at best as a director. He doesn’t have the chops to pull off the movie that this wants to be (he finally came to grips with this limitation a year later when he got Roman Polanski to direct Rosemary’s Baby). The Busy Body is a “Who’s Got the Corpse” farce. Sid Caesar is a nebbishy gangster who is ordered by his boss (Robert Ryan) to retrieve half a million dollars ensconced in a casket with a dead body. The killer cast also includes Anne Baxter, Kay Medford, Bill Dana, Godfrey Cambridge, Jan Murray, Ben Blue, and — in his first film role — Richard Pryor. That should add up to a whizbang comedy…but it doesn’t. He assembled the right team, all but the man behind the camera

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The Spirit is Willing (1967)

A proper spook comedy, with another all-star cast. I first saw this one on TV as a kid, probably the first William Castle movie I ever saw. A family moves into a New England house that proves to be haunted by ghosts. (Presaging The Ghost on Mrs. Muir which would premiere on tv the following year). Sid Caesar and Vera Miles are the long suffering parents of the teenaged Barry Gordon (best known as the kid in A Thousand Clowns and, as an adult, one of the stars of Fish). For those in the ghostly know, there is a wonderful poltergeist angle to this set-up. All this mischievous ghostly energy surrounds the adolescent, who gets blamed for all the pranks they pull (a popular theme at the time). The cast of locals is like a catalog of comedy character actors: Cass Daley, Mary Wickes, Jesse White, Mickey Deems, Doodles Weaver, Jay C. Flippen, and John Astin.

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Project X (1968)

One of the few I’ve not yet seen. A science fiction yarn set in 2118, it concerns the efforts of scientists to extract information from a spy’s brain relating to a plot by the Chinese to destroy the west, employing a bevy of futuristic inventions. This one marks the end of Castle’s continuous ten year run as both director and producer.

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Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Ironically Castle’s biggest success of all as producer, and it;s because he allowed a much more brilliant director (Roman Polanski) to shoot it. I’ll write about this film at much greater length elsewhere as it deserves. But it occurred to me the other day though, that despite the much different tone and style, the film does have some Castle touches. The greatest of these, it occurs to me, is the presence in the cast of Ralph Bellamy, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, Patsy Kelly and Sidney Blackmer, none of whom would have been out of place in any earlier Castle picture. And of course, the cameo by Castle himself.

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Riot (1969)

A real enigma and outlier in the Castlean oeuvre. Castle produced but did not direct this exploitation film in which Gene Hackman (in one of his first films) leads a prison riot, and Jim Brown plays a prisoner who tries to diffuse the situation. It’s available on youtube — I look forward to checking it out.

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Shanks (1974)

Castle was felled by kidney failure in the late 60s, which necessitated a five year lay off from movie making. He returned to produce and direct this characteristic weirdie which starred Marcel Marceau as a deaf, mute puppeteer who becomes the assistant of a mad scientist who is able to manipulate dead bodies like puppets. When the scientist dies, Marceau carries on his work for malign purposes of his own.

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Bug (1975)

This film is the hilarious proof that the leopard cannot change its spots. Having pulled it together to make Rosemary’s Baby, Castle managed to backslide all the way back to his old ways and then some in Bug. While he didn’t direct this one, he produced and co-wrote the screenplay, which layers gimmick upon gimmick. It is not just a bug movie, a genre which has been considered gross enough as a horror premise on its own, but it’s a bug movie starring COCKROACHES, but they’re not just cockroaches, but they have the mutant ability to start FIRES, and not only does that happen, but then scientist Bradford Dillman experiments on them so they become SENTIENT and can even WRITE WORDS! Further, Castle resurrected his old gimmicky nature and announced that he had INSURED the star cockroach of the film. One thing’s for certain. Castle could take full satisfaction in knowing that his last film was fully characteristic.

Tonight on TCM: Spooky Disney Classics

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2015 by travsd

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Tonight, in celebration of the Halloween season, TCM will show several Disney classics, most of which (kind of) have a spooky angle. Disney never allows itself to get TOO dark, but there are definitely treats on the menu tonight.

The highlight for me is the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” half of the bifurcated Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). As I wrote here, television screenings of this animated short was one of my earliest exposures to that tale, or really any sort of “horror” whatsoever. Granted, Ichabod Crane is a comical character, and so is his horse, but the film does have great suspense and atmosphere, and it is most effective on small children, which I was. Perhaps the Halloween bug bit me right then and there. The Mr. Toad half of the film is most enjoyable as well, although it’s not the slightest bit scary, but it IS narrated by Basil Rathbone. 

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Also high on my list of appropriate favorites here is the moody short The Old Mill (1937) one of the most perfect films the studio ever produced. The scary elements are merely a thunder storm and creatures of the night, but it is a glorious thing to look at and listen to. Lonesome Ghosts, released the same year is a spook comedy starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy.

Also on the menu are the live action Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978). These were huge hits when I was a kid; Kim Richards was a super-star with the 8-12 set. Although it is most hilarious that TCM classifies these films as “horror” in their description. It ain’t scary (unless you find flying Winnebagoes terrifying).

The evening kicks off with three tangential but appreciated classics: Three Little Wolves (1936), Three Little Pigs (1948), and The Big Bad Wolf (1934). Many have said that they found the wolf in the latter film very scary as young children, and he does sort of rate a place as perhaps the first great classic Disney villain.

And it all winds down in the wee hours with several spooky family comedies from the 1980s: Tim Burton’s original Frankenweenie short (1980), Mr. Boogedy (1986) and The Ghosts of Buxley Hall (1980). Details on show times can be found on TCM’s website. 

A Short History of Evil Ventriloquists in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Indie Theatre, ME, Movies, My Shows, Silent Film, Television, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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Ah! The emotionally troubled ventriloquist and his scary dummy!

There are enough movies, plays and tv shows about this ancient schizoid character that it constitutes a minor subgenre all its own. It’s not surprising that terror is an offshoot of this ancient discipline. Its roots, like the roots of all theatre, go back to caveman times, and no doubt the supernatural was part of the original dodge. Like clowns, ventriloquists and their dummies are uncanny — they seem to be acting out some dream. If you’ll check out the ventriloquism section of this blog, you will find biographies of all the major vents going back to the mid 19th century . Some of their photos, especially in the early days are quite disturbing indeed. Moreover, there is something about having a little “mini-me” that psychologically encourages the ventriloquist to pour his negative energy into it. The dummy has permission to say all the things that a person would usually censor himself from saying. Even relatively light comedy acts like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had that feature. Charlie says all the wicked, lecherous, rude things — and Edgar’s role is to scold him and apologize to the audience. Meanwhile, it’s been Bergen who’s really been saying those nasty things all along! It’s downright diabolical!

And we are far from the first to notice. So here are some notable evil vent stories of stage and screen from the past century. Just in time for Halloween.

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The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930): But of COURSE Tod Browning and Lon Chaney inaugurate the genre…except they almost don’t.  Based on a novel by Tod Robbins (the same guy who wrote the story which Freaks is based onThe Unholy Three does indeed cast Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist (whose best job is making pet-shop parrots seem to talk), but he also goes around in drag, and is in cahoots with a midget (Harry Earles) who pretends to be a baby, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a sexy vamp (Mae Busch). So the vent stuff gets tamped down a little, it’s not the main focus. Still, it counts! I give two dates above because there was both a silent version (1925) and a talkie remake (1930).

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The Great Gabbo (1929): I saw this one for the first time the other night — what sheer unadulterated delight. Based on a short story by Ben Hecht called “The Rival Dummy” and directed by James Cruze (best known for his silent epic The Covered Wagon) , the film stars Erich Von Stroheim as a cruel, fascistic ventriloquist who browbeats his lover and assistant (Betty Compson) and is only able to demonstrate tenderness through his dummy. After she leaves him, he is only able to relate to his dummy…and that’s a little weird. Towards the end, when they meet again, he mistakes the girl’s kindness for a rapprochement. When it proves illusory, he goes completely insane, and that my friends is worth watching. As are the very bizarre comedy routines with Stroheim’s German accent in falsetto telling the jokes, and the eerie silences that follow them (this being one of the earliest sound films). The movie is also a strange hybrid…at least 50% musical comedy, fairly unrelated to the plot.

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Dead of Night (1945): One of the terrifying classics of the horror anthology genre, Dead of Night tells six stories, one of which casts Michael Redgrave as an insane ventriloquist named Maxwell whose dummy Hugo gets him into some very bad trouble. In the end, Max does what must be done. Here’s the famous, chilling climax:

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The Twilight Zone: Episode: “The Dummy” (1962):   Cliff Roberston is a down and out ventriloquist. His fear of his dummy has caused him to develop a drinking problem. Determined to fight, he decides to replace the current dummy with a sillier one. But Willy (the current one) tricks him and torments him. In the end, they have traded places. Willy is now the ventriloquist and Robertson’s character is the dummy….

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The Twilight Zone : Episode: “Caesar and Me” (1964):  Jackie Cooper plays an Irish ventriloquist who is having a tough time making a go of it. His fully sentient dummy convinces him to commit robberies. When he does so and gets caught, and tries to demonstrate that the dummy put him up to it, the dummy falls silent. He is led away in handcuffs.

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Devil Doll (1964)

This may be my favorite in the genre now for many reasons. One is that it takes the ancient idea of the “Uncanny” all the way back to its primitive origins. The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), a magician, had gone off to the mystic East to study the secrets of the swamis. When he returns he succeeds in imprisoning the soul of one of his partners inside the ventriloquist dummy. His dummy can not only think and talk on its own, but it can walk by itself…and that is a mighty creepy sight indeed. Tod Browning also made a film by this name (originally called The Witch of Timbuktu), which while not a ventriloquist film, plays similarly with this ancient folk terror of the dollikin or manikin…the tiny evil imp who will sneak up on you in your sleep. In the end, Vorelli goes too far and his dummy Hugo (his name no doubt a nod to Dead of Night) turns the table on him. Look for more on star Bryant Haliday here in future. He grew up in a monastery in Rhode Island, did art theatre in the Boston area, and made several British horror films in the 60s. His is a most interesting profile.

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Soap (1977-1981) On this ABC sit-com soap opera parody Jay Johnson played a guy named Chuck who was never without his wooden friend Bob. This was probably the first major, mainstream ear-pulling of the evil ventriloquist genre. Though it was a comedy, Bob WAS evil. He said and did things far worse than your Charlie McCarthys and your Jerry Mahoneys. Bob drew blood, and Chuck couldn’t control him.

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The Ventriloquists Wife (1978) The great comic playwright and actor Charles Ludlam had an off-Broadway hit in 1978 with this play about a murderous ventriloquist dummy and the toll he takes on the life of his hapless partner. This script plays with the evil ventriloquist genre on its own terms (by being dark) but unlike all the classic movies and Twilight Zone episodes up until that time — the comedy routines are actually funny. This makes it unique within the entire genre. The gorgeous Black-Eyed Susan was the titular wife.

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Magic (1978) This may well be the best known evil ventriloquist movie of all, and it’s a strange one. Anthony Hopkins plays true to type as a very ill-at-ease young man who finally manages to break out of his shell by augmenting his magic act with ventriloquism. The dummy “Fats” is crude and makes a lot of dick jokes, which passes for humor in the film in a way I don’t find creditable. (Hopkins characterization is interesting to me — reminds me a bit of Jay Johnson’s in Soap. Young, longish hair, and that nerd look, sweaters, sneakers, shirt tails hanging out…did he base the character on Jay? Or Chuck, rather?). Anyway, Hopkins’ character proves to be about as stable as Norman Bates. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this film; he’s  just a natural psycho. Oddly he does very little actual killing in the film by horror movie standards, making the film a bit of a head scratcher. What is it? A character portrait of no one who ever existed? But it sticks in the craw.

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Tales from the Crypt: Episode : “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (1990): SPOILER ALERT!  yes, this one proves not so much to be an evil ventriloquist dummy movie as an evil parasitic twin movie, which is an even better act! Bobcat Goldthwait plays a young ventriloquist; Don Rickles, the older one with a…secret.

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Cradle Will Rock (1999) Bill Murray is a down and out ventriloquist now out of work because of the death of vaudeville. He has a secret which gives him a breakdown. This is a subplot in Tim Robbins’ larger movie about Orson Welles’ rocky attempt to mount the Marc Blitzstein musical of the same name. 

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Dead Silence (2007) I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this film, and how original it is. I was expecting a retread of a story we’ve seen many times. Directed by James Wan, and written by Leigh Whannel, Dead Silence takes place entirely in a fairy tale realm, the ghost story space…the only realistic beats are in the film’s first five minutes. A box containing a ventriloquist dummy shows up unexpectedly at a young couple’s house….leading to a journey to an entire town where the leading citizens are murdered by the ghost of a ventriloquist. It is (so far) the only movie in which there’s not just ONE, but over ONE HUNDRED evil ventriloquist dummies  on the loose! In a haunted old theatre! Boo!

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VentriloquistTwo plays by Rick Mitchell (2012): I wrote the introduction to this book! You can buy it here.  http://www.bookdepository.com/Ventriloquist-Two-Plays-Rick-Mitchell/9780983925590

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The Plight of Cecil Sinclair (2014):  My old pal “rock and roll ventriloquist” Carla Rhodes just launched her exciting and hilarious and creepy new web series. Watch it here.

Lucy’s Halloween Nightmare

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by travsd

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In this cartoonish fantasy sequence from Here’s Lucy, Lucille Ball and sidekick Vivian Vance are trapped in a haunted castle by her boss Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) who is actually quite believable as a scary vampire. Along the way they are accosted by a malevolent Morris chair, a gorilla, a lab assistant who is a mummy for some reason (probably because that’s what costume was available), a werewolf and a skeleton. A machine turns the ladies into witches for some reason. Lucy is excellent in the role, much funnier, and much less disturbing than she is in her ordinary persona (the woman was in her sixties at this point). In the end of this absurd little sequence, everyone is doing a square dance, being called by a decapitated head that is hanging on the wall. Much better to stay in this dream than go back to the reality of Here’s Lucy, I should think.

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Black Christmas

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , on December 25, 2011 by travsd

To help us get into a festive  spirit, the Countess and I watched this charming holiday movie the other night. In all earnestness, I was looking to switch it up a little (we’ve been living pretty strictly on a diet of old comedies lately) and I was intrigued by a reference to this film in Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value. While I’m generally scornful of slasher movies, a genre Black Christmas apparently helped spawn, there were reasons to think I might like this film, or at least find it interesting, and those instincts proved correct.

One is that the film was directed by Bob Clark, who helmed the nearly flawless A Christmas Story, as well as Porky’s (which I detested when I last saw it upon its release–I need to see it again) and several other highly diverse projects, including Arthur Miller’s American Clock, which I rather liked, to my surprise. He is a solid, inventive director.

The other reason I thought the film was worth giving a chance was that it was made in 1974 and released in 1975, which means that it pre-dates the slasher genre and might conceivably now possess some period charm and historical interest.

I was right on both scores. Granted, the plot may not sound  promising, but one must remember that it is the first of its kind. A psycho in an attic murders the inhabitants of a college sorority house during Christmas break — that’s pretty much the extent of it. Thanks to sloppy policework, the house continues to pile up with hidden bodies. (You have to will yourself to suspend disbelief to make it work). But the film is populated with actual characters (as opposed to straw-men to be sacrificed), and is cast with actors rather than non-entities, making it a much richer and affecting experience than later slasher films. The troubled lead couple are played by Olivia Hussey (then best known for playing Julet in Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet) and Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Andrea Martin (later of SCTV) plays a mousy, bespectacled girl with a Jewfro (whose boyfriend looks like Gene Shalit). Perhaps the most memorable turn is by Margot Kidder, who chews the scenery as a potty-mouthed pistol whose role is one of the key elements of the film.

Here is where the historical interest kicks in. Clark really pushes the envelope on language and behavior with Kidder’s character (he later indicated in interviews that he considered it one of the film’s main points.) She boozes it up, throws herself at men, and utters many a shocking word, many unprecedented in a mainstream movie at the time. (She even pranks a police officer who doesn’t know what the word “fellatio” means). This seems to establish one of the many later tropes of the slasher film, the relationship between sin and punishment. This theme in the movie seemed to me a cultural ripple from the huge phenomenon a year before: The Exorcist. (An even more overt nod to the latter film is the obscene phone calls made by the killer. Highly stylized,  multi-tracked, recorded by several actors, using multiple, hair-raising voices and noises — it sounds a great deal like the demonic utterances of the possessed girl Regan in the Friedkin film.) And naturally the “phone call from inside the house” motif would come to be much imitated as well.

Directorially, this movie strikes me as much superior to the now better-known, even revered Halloween, which was not only greatly influenced by Black Christmas but seems almost entirely lifted from it. Clark and Carpenter had been in the planning stages of a collaboration prior to Halloween. And Clark had planned a sequel to Black Christmas, to have been called…wait for it…Halloween. It’s kind of cheesy that Carpenter is praised for things like his Halloween’s voyeuristic opening sequence from the p.o.v. of the killer when the whole thing was essentially borrowed from the opening sequence of Clark’s movie, which incidentally looks much better. And another much-borrowed innovation of Clark’s: the tricky twist. The killer remains unidentified and uncaught at the end of the film.

The film’s final shot is as memorable as the opening one. The house now dark and empty, Christmas lights still blinking, a couple of undiscovered corpses still in the attic. No music on the soundtrack, just the sound of a distant dog barking. Merry Christmas!

(By the way Black Christmas was remade a few years ago. Look for a review here — in thirty years!)

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