Monday, 24 October 2016

Boris Karloff’s Thriller 01x34: The Prisoner in the Mirror

I mentioned this episode in passing during the Mummy overview, and then I was like: “Hey me, you should recap that thing. Get back on the horse and so forth.”

Also, as I write this, my internet connection is once again down (I’m pretty sure that every single tree that could fall on a service line has fallen on a service line this year, and there was an actual blizzard last week, and I’m just furious about it), so I’m not double-checking anything because I’m already way behind on posting. If there are mistakes, I’m very sorry, I live in the woods and a bear stole my Google.

Thriller is a horror anthology series that’s seen something of a revival in recent years, and rightly so. It’s damn good television. Hosted by an elderly Boris Karloff, it was actually Karloff’s second attempt at getting a series like this off the ground. He did half a season of a “true paranormal” series called The Veil in 1958. Because of production troubles, The Veil was never picked up by a network. It’s not bad, but it’s not Thriller. Even the terrible episodes of Thriller are worth watching.

Today’s story is about notorious magician Cagliostro, played by Thriller regular Henry Daniell, a classic guy-who-was-in-everything of the 30’s and 40’s. He’ll be joined by a guy-who-was-in-everything of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Lloyd Bochner, along with Mrs. Cunningham herself, Marion Ross, and Patricia Michon.

We begin in Paris, 1910, where a lovely young couple in evening clothes are toasting one another with champagne. The girl is a glittering, smiling blonde who makes you think she’s used to getting diamond bracelets as presents, but there’s no use being angry at her for it. Her date is… off somehow. His face is open and young, and he’s got the look of the earnest sidekick in a teen beach comedy, but his manner is slick, hungry, and crackling at the edges with something sinister. He tries to impress her with magic tricks, first producing a silver coin to her great delight, and then wowing her with a small bouquet of live flowers he seemingly plucks from thin air.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Donald Duck: Trick or Treat and The Gorilla

Trick or Treat is a Halloween classic. Released in 1952 and featuring a very memorable title song by Paul J. Smith (who also composed the Leave it to Beaver theme song), it's the best example of Donald Duck being a complete toolbox for no reason.

Usually, there's some building up of tempers on both sides when Donald faces off with his nephews, and the humour comes from how much everything escalates. In this one, there's no build up. It's go from word one with this duck. No mercy on Halloween.

Whatever, Donald. Next year, just give the children candy.


Donald Duck and the Gorilla was released in 1944, and it's exactly what you'd expect from the title, but maybe a little scarier. Often featured in Halloween-themed Disney compilations, you could probably watch it any time of year. 

I always really enjoy that lollipop gag. Can't help it.

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Halloween Tree (1993)

How many kids, pumpkin-shaped buckets in hand, are going to dress up like a Lego Knight or Rey from Star Wars, knock on the doors of strangers, and expect a handful of candy this October 31st?  And how many kids are going to know why they actually get candy? Why do people carve faces into pumpkins and stick candles inside, why do firecrackers get set off, why is there that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis where the children have a bonfire and throw flour in people’s faces?

What exactly does all of this Halloween stuff mean?

Chances are good that the pint-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow man on your doorstep has no clue what makes these traditions tick. He just knows you’re trying to give him a mini-toothbrush and sugar-free gum, and that makes you a wash out. Dude down the street has full size Snickers, FYI.

Back in 1972, author Ray Bradbury noticed this trend of people not explaining Halloween to their kids, and thought it would be a good idea to write a juvenile novel about the holiday’s origins. His research for The Halloween Tree wasn’t necessarily comprehensive, and it isn’t his strongest prose by a long shot, but it gets the job done. It’s kind of like if Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe got fused in a transporter accident, and less what I would call “Classic Bradbury.”

Then, in 1993, an award-winning made-for-TV animated was adapted from Bradbury’s book.

Rod Serling once famously complained that Ray Bradbury stories lost their charm when adapted for television. Bradbury himself took great offense at this notion, but it’s true. Most of his stories sing because of his prose, narration that can’t make it onto the screen without seeming intrusive. Radio adaptations served him well in the 50’s, but there’s never been a film or TV version of one of his books or stories that was better than the original book or story.

Except for The Halloween Tree.

It probably helps that Bradbury wrote the adaptation himself.

He also provides the narration, which is… um… well… it’s always cool to hear an author read their own stuff, and always kind of puzzling when they’re not very good at it.

This narration handily sets the stage of a sleepy Anywhere, USA kind of town, where front doors are left unlocked, the preferred method of travel is hand-me-down bicycles, and people leave pies in windows to cool. Orange leaves fall to gather or breezes that swirl around ankles and rattle loose fence boards, and a mixture of nostalgia and dread fills the evening sky as it darkens in anticipation of Halloween.

A group of young friends prepare themselves and their costumes for a night of unexamined symbolism and free candy.

Tom Skelton, the perspective character of the original story, is the level-headed sort-of-leader of the group. He’s dressing as a skeleton, because puns. His friends are Jenny, dressed as a witch but with very sensible red Keds; Ralph, an Egyptian mummy that we won’t be discussing at length because I’m all mummied out; and Wally, dressed as some kind of monster. Good old Wally is an amalgamation of a bunch of boys from the original story, and for the most part it’s an improvement, but I kind of miss the kid who rolled around in mud for a cheap costume and declared himself a gargoyle.

And then there’s Joe Pipkin. Pip is the reason Tom only gets to be the sort-of-leader, because it’s Pipkin’s adventures that everyone always goes on. It’s Pipkin who has the best ideas of where to find fun or mischief, and it’s Pipkin who holds the group together like glue. He’s – as they used to say – all boy. Frogs in his pockets, grass stains on his knees, freckles on his cheeks, and who-knows-what tangled in his hair. Accordingly, it’s Pipkin who reaches out his hand on All Hallow’s Eve and grabs the biggest chunk of shadow.

When the gang shows up at his door, candy route planned, expecting him to burst onto the front porch in a costume so masterful, they never could’ve dreamed it until they saw it themselves, a bucket of cold water is thrown onto the festivities.

Pip is being loaded onto an ambulance, his house dimmed and undecorated. A note on the door tells his friends to go on and have their fun without him, and a life-or-death appendectomy is hinted at.

But how can there be a Halloween without Pipkin? That’s like a spring without flowers, a summer without lemonade, a Valentine’s Day without rampant speculation about other people’s love lives. It simply won’t do.

The gang decides to follow him to the hospital, and the quickest way to do that is by cutting through the ravine.

Ah, the ravine.

It’s a staple of Bradbury stories that bring natural and unnatural darkness into nameless Midwestern towns. Sometimes, older brothers go to get ice cream and cut through the ravine at night, then take an awful long time coming back; sometimes stubborn spinsters walk through it alone after country visits, knowing that a serial killer is about. The ravine is a deep, shadowy crack in the earth that a Bradbury character can slip through at any moment.

It’s down in the ravine that the children see a gossamer, eerie vision of Pipkin. Blue and white and airy. He urges them on, racing further into the trees and darkness.

Tom, at first, thinks it’s all one grand prank. Pipkin was never sick at all, and this is all part of some Halloween scheme. The others aren’t so sure.

They follow Pip’s ghost to an old, Victorian-style house decked out with a ruby-eyed weather vane that watches them climb a set of wooden steps that sound like organ keys. And there they meet an old man with skin so sunken and weathered, you can see the shape of his skull. He calls himself Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, and he’s voiced by Leonard Nimoy.

Mr. Moundshroud is the guardian of the titular Halloween Tree. A massive, leafless, blackened skeleton of a tree, decked out with thousands of jack-o-lanterns, each with a difference face and expression. The tree is what Pip’s ghost is after – more specifically, his pumpkin off of the tree.

The ghost steals the Pip pumpkin, the Pip soul, and disappears into “the undiscovered country” of Halloweens of yore.

Moundshroud turns out to be the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future all rolled into one. Except he has no interest in any times but the past. There’s no examination of modern Halloweens or glimpses of the future, just a trip down the ages chasing Pip and his pumpkin.

Why Moundshroud brings the children along, whether he wants his pumpkin returned, or to claim Pip’s soul, indeed whether he’s friend or foe, is all left up for grabs. Halloween is a mysterious holiday, and its ambassador equally so.

Ancient Egypt is visited, where Mummy Ralph learns all about what his costume represents. Then Witch Jenny gets a very tame, child appropriate view of the heyday of witches and witch hysteria, and constantly pronounces the word “broom” as “brum” to my great annoyance. Monster Wally has the best sequence of the movie and the book, when Pip leads them to the half-built cathedral of Notre Dame, and Wally brings the building to life with his daring jumps and bounds, every landing calling up stones beneath his feet, and summoning the gargoyles. Lastly, Tom’s costume leads us to Mexico and the Day of the Dead, where a sugar skull and a dark bargain hold the key to Pip’s fate.

Like most histories made for kids, The Halloween Tree leaves out some of the rough stuff and glosses over the details, but it’s also a great way to get little ones more interested in why holidays are holidays. But, unlike something like Voyage of the Mimi where it’s so educational it stops being entertaining, The Halloween Tree manages to be gripping and suspenseful in a way that’s not too overwhelming for the animal crackers set.

Because of its made-for-TV status and being released during the heart of the Disney Renaissance, it wasn’t a big hit, but it’s had a very loyal following despite sporadic availability.  The animation isn’t as smooth as a lot of its contemporaries, and the character models apart from Moundshroud are all fairly bland, but that has more to do with budget than anything else.

The Halloween Tree is a well-told, interesting holiday special, and I highly recommend it for kids who love history or trick-or-treating, and for grown-ups who like Halloween as much as I do.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Mummy Movie Mayhem!

To keep a long story short, due to several factors my television recap plans are currently being rejigged. I’ll be looking at some more spooky October-themed movies than originally planned, maybe a couple bonus episodes of OTR, or vintage Donald Duck. I’ll do my best to make it work and try to keep a good balance.

But enough about scheduling hiccups! Let’s talk about something fun, like mummies!

Perhaps you’ve heard the announcement that Tom Cruise will be joining the Universal Horror revival sparked by Dracula Untold? If not, here’s a press release.

Regardless of your feelings about Tom Cruise, how disappointed you were in Dracula Untold, or your general skepticism about anyone ever capturing the glory days of Universal Monsters or early Hammer Horror again, it’s probably going to be a solid showcase for Sofia Boutella as the Mummy Queen, and she was pretty delightful in Star Trek Beyond. Silver linings, I guess.

So, to get everyone warmed up and ready for the next ill-advised excavation…

The Mummy (1932)

In the 1930’s, Boris Karloff’s career was hotter than a Scotch bonnet pepper on the surface of the sun. Eager to cast him in follow-up to The Old Dark House, Universal hired magazine writer/flapper gal Nina Wilcox Putnam and paired her with screenwriting pro Richard Schayer to come up with a story. They produced a nine-page treatment about the infamous court magician Cagliostro, with absolutely no elements of Egypt or mummies. In order to live through the centuries, Putnam’s version of Cagliostro injected himself with nitrate, and from what I gather the whole story sounds awesome and weird and more appropriate for a 1980’s audience than a 1930’s one.

(As a quick aside, Orson Welles played a horror-movie version of Cagliostro in 1949’s Black Magic, with Raymond Burr in a weird framing story about Alexandre Dumas fighting with his son. A version of Cagliostro also appeared in an episode of Boris Karloff’s 60’s TV show Thriller, “The Prisoner in the Mirror.” The historical Cagliostro is much less exciting than either depiction.)

Universal didn’t like a lot of the monster angles in the Cagliostro treatment, so they brought in John L. Balderson – who at that time was best known for his adaptation of Frankenstein, but would later go on to earn Academy Award noms for Gaslight and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer – to change things up. Back when he’d been working as a journalist, Balderson had covered the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and the curse that seemed to befall those who opened it. The real-life story of ominous warnings on tablets and the possible reawakening of dormant, ancient evil was widely known. Balderson decided to use it as his jumping off point, scrapping the Italian magician angle altogether.

When everything was ironed out, the film became the tale of Imhotep, a man buried alive over 3000 years ago for daring to challenge the gods of death. When his mummy is discovered by gentleman archaeologists, he’s brought back to life by the reading aloud of the Scroll of Thoth by the youngest and least superstitious of the group. After regaining his strength, he reappears as a contemporary Egyptian using the name Ardath Bey, and begins leaving mysterious clues to new archaeologists about where certain tombs might be found.

Imhotep is easily my favourite of the Karloff creature roles. Back before Christopher Lee politely seized the crown, Karloff was the most versatile of the horror legends. Imhotep showcases that range as the Mummy gradually regains his strength and human form. You have everything from the mute shambling body language that Karloff invented and is still used as monster shorthand today, to his romantic side in the ancient Egypt sequence, and his remarkable gift for intensity in the stillest moments.

Zita Johann plays the object of Imhotep’s obsession, Helen Grovsner, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his tragically deceased ancient lover Ankh-es-en-Amon (spellings on that one vary, but the character was named after King Tut’s wife). Johann was a fascinating actress of the period, often referred to as “The White Flame of the American Theater,” which was apparently some kind of compliment? Jazz Age lingo is weird. Anyway, she greatly disliked the process of making movies, and Mummy director Karl Freund didn’t do anything to help things along. He was a gigantic jerk to all of his actors, Johann especially.

Despite the difficult work circumstances, her performance is one of the most nuanced and interesting of all Universal horror leading ladies. Interestingly, she was heavily involved in the spiritualism movement of the time, and believed in reincarnation and a person’s ability to “carry” different souls. In the scenes where her large, glittering dark eyes seem to look thousands of years into the past, it’s easy to believe that’s what she’s doing.

The success of The Mummy was slow to spawn sequels, something unusual for Universal at the time, but it was rebooted a decade later, bringing us to…

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

Spiderman films aren’t the only things to get started and restarted over and over again. The Mummy franchise has always been in a similar boat. Cast off all notions of the Mummy Imhotep being an elegant, tragic and obsessive figure. Those traits belong to Dracula. Mummies are prototypes for zombies now.

Imhotep is gone. The new Mummy is called Kharis and is played by Tom Tyler, who doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do since all the flashback scenes to Ancient Egypt are lifted directly from 1932’s The Mummy and have an uncredited Boris Karloff in them, and for some reason most of the story is about not trusting magicians.

(It’s weird, because the 1932 Mummy has no evil magicians in it, despite being rooted in the Cagliostro treatment, yet The Mummy’s Hand is loaded with modern day evil magicians. Not even corrupt ancient magicians. Evil 1940’s magicians. I don’t know why.)

But let’s back up a little and explain how we got here.

In the early 1930’s, Universal’s horror films were finely crafted works of art helmed by the likes of James Whale. Pioneers. Experimenters. Meticulous artists. And, jerkiness aside, Karl Freund’s direction in the original film is stunning. The use of atmosphere and the composition of shadow is hypnotic, particularly in the sequence when the mummy first awakes, and a later scene when Ardath Bey brings Helen to a fountain pond to hypnotize her.  

Then Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein managed to be a critical and cinematic hit, and the sequel train left the station. Everyone got a sequel. It didn’t matter if all your characters were dead at the end, it would just be about those character’s sons or something. No big deal.

Gradually, Universal’s interests and artistic levels slid into B-movie territory. Then everybody met Abbott and Costello, and while that is itself an awesomely fun movie, it also signals a change in the public perception of horror films. They weren’t art anymore, they were now schlock.

In 1940, The Mummy got a reboot. Not even a sequel, just a terrible rehashing of its plot, updated to be able to create a more profitable franchise. (What’s kind of funny about this is Nina Wilcox Putnam’s original Cagliostro idea was way better suited to having a series. In it, instead of having one reincarnated love, the monster would’ve been hunting the women of modern cities out of a spiteful need for revenge against the lover who had once spurned him.)

The Mummy’s Hand is bad.

It strips away all subtlety and ices the cake by foisting a “funny” sidekick upon us.

Crucially, though, it’s the actual starting point of Universal’s Mummy Movie Cycle. Also, fun fact: Tom Tyler only appeared as Kharis is this one film. Ever after, Lon Chaney Jr. was the mummy, except when Kharis met Abbott and Costello. That was Eddie Parker in a whole bunch of bandages.

So, after The Mummy’s Hand we got The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost (I like that title best because it’s so ridiculously unclear about what the monster is, like wouldn’t it just be the Ghost of Kharis?), and The Mummy’s Curse. None of them winners until Hammer got the rights to The Mummy’s Hand and…

The Mummy (1959)

You would think that the second best Mummy movie of all time would’ve been a remake of the 1932 version and not of the craptacular 1940 film, but no. Due to rights issues, when Hammer finally added the Mummy to its own stable of monsters, it was with the express understanding that they would be remaking The Mummy’s Hand, and any sequels thereafter would be unrelated to the Universal Mummy franchise. That last part suited Hammer just fine, they weren’t big on sequential franchises. Films were linked more by monster type and theme than anything else.

Despite the inelegant pedigree, not only is 1959’s The Mummy a serious contender for the best Mummy movie, it’s a serious contender for the best Hammer Horror. (If you ask me, the best Hammer Horror is The Gorgon, but that’s 90% because of the fake moustaches and the part where… something ridiculous happens. It’s a huge spoiler. My point is that “best” is a subjective label.)

Christopher Lee plays Kharis, revived when archaeologists read from the Scroll of Life, a made-up artifact that acts as the opposite of the Book of the Dead. The cleverest and most likeable of the archaeologists, and the one that happens to be married to Kharis’s dead princess, is played by Peter Cushing. He calls everyone idiots for being murdered, and unnecessarily leaps over a desk while wearing a smoking jacket, proving yet again why you should always open-hand slap people who leave him off their lists of horror icons. 

1959's Mummy a fantastically moody film, full of shimmering golden treasures and plush Victorian furnishings. Plot-wise, it’s thin, but the photography and performances elevate it enormously. The only downside is the swamp at the end. I like my mummies to age rapidly and turn into dust. It’s a personal preference.

If you haven’t seen this one, most reliable movie channels play it at this time of year, so make it your business to check it out. It works especially well on those rainy autumn afternoons where the sky is a muddled grey turning into early twilight, and you happen to have a cozy blanket and some pumpkin spice popcorn.

Hammer being Hammer, there were a few sequels. The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Shroud, and lastly Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, which is the most quintessentially Hammer-sounding of the titles. We never got to “Seven Golden Mummies” or “Kiss of the Mummy Swingers” which is sad. People give up on their mummy franchises too soon.

They do run away with the trophy for quality-of-sequels, all jokes aside. The Mummy’s Shroud is a winner, and none of the series are as bad as the Brendan Fraser one in China. Yeesh.

Speaking of the Brendan Fraser series…

The Mummy (1999)

You know what doesn’t suck as much as people say? The 1999 version of The Mummy. (It’s barely eligible for discussion, but 1999 does count as 20th Century, and that’s what’s in my tagline.)

Ostensibly, it stars Brendan “George of the Jungle” Fraser as an American adventurer in 1920’s Cairo, where he meets a very likeable librarian with cinema’s worst eyebrows. Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn Carnahan, whose name is a combination of the names of the people involved in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. She takes command of the storyline in a way so far unseen since the 1932 version of the story, and becomes the heart of the film and the driving force of the plotline.

There are plenty of fun nods to the Karloff Mummy, many of them more referential than practical, and the flashback sequences borrow heavily from the Hammer films. Ultimately, though, it feels more like adventure than horror. There are elements that echo Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as several Humphrey Bogart films, but that’s not necessarily to its detriment. It knows what it is, and it expands on the idea and embraces it.

Like its predecessors, it spawned a series of sequels. One of them has pygmy mummies, which is the kind of thing you wonder about when you’re drunk but don’t ever expect to actually see in a real film, and another one has a magic pond that turns people into dragons.

Maybe stick with the first one?

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Quiet, Please E60: The Thing on the Fourble Board

Horror and sci-fi were probably the two genres best served by the golden age of radio.

Other types of plays were successful, but TV and movies could do them better. A romance is more poignant when you see the kiss. But horror, sci-fi, fantasy, things that ask for a collaboration between your imagination and the story itself, those were the types of stories radio really excelled at. It helped that there wasn't much of a need to worry about the special effects budget.

One of my absolute favourite horror series (in any medium) is Wyllis Cooper's Quiet, Please. It's subtle and weird and very much in the tone of The Twilight Zone, which is another of my absolute faves.

The show has an unusual format in that the host, identified in the credits as "The Man Who Spoke to You" and voiced by Orson Welles collaborator Ernest Chappell, just tells you the story. It's a framing device with sound effects and other characters appearing as needed, but it's very bare-bones.

Stripping down the production helps to control the narrative perspective, and that control allowed for more effective twist endings and scares, as I hope you'll notice in this episode.

It's called "The Thing on the Fourble Board" and I'm not going to tell you anything else about it except that it frequently makes it onto Top Five Scariest Radio Episodes Ever lists, and those lists ain't for the faint of heart.

Hope you weren't planning to sleep any time soon!

Monday, 3 October 2016

Love At First Bite (1979)

October is here! This is the only time of year you can talk non-stop about werewolves and candy corn and Ray Bradbury and nobody looks at you sideways, and I intend to take full advantage of it!

We’re starting with an underrated gem in which George Hamilton plays Disco Dracula and Susan Saint James is his pot smoking lady love.

The 70’s were a culturally awesome time for horror, much in the way the 80’s would nail the fantasy genre. In 1972, American International Pictures made a movie about an African prince who visits Transylvania, gets turned into a vampire and sealed in a coffin until awakening in modern day Los Angeles. In 1974, the late, great, forever in our hearts Gene Wilder teamed up with Mel Brooks to astound one and all (including their investors) when they made a hit comedy out of a Christmastime release of a black and white spoof of Universal’s Son of Frankenstein. Sitting happily between Blacula and Young Frankenstein is 1979’s Love at First Bite.

I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s as good as either film, but it is good.

The story begins when the Romanian government commanders Dracula’s castle as a gymnastics training center for Nadia Comaneci. He has two days to pack up his coffin and his cobwebs and get out before they put in the balance beams.

It’s not the worst thing that could’ve happened to this version of Dracula. A sort of dusty gothic ennui has taken him over, and he’s been bored. Not to mention terribly lonely. One of his few enjoyments comes from American magazines that feature his latest obsession: fashion model Cindy Sondheim.

Dracula is convinced that Cindy is the reincarnation of his great love, and had been Mina Harker in a previous life. In order to turn her fully into a vampire so she can share his monstrous eternity with him, he has to bite her on the neck three separate times. Getting kicked out of the castle spurs him into action. He – along with his semi-immortal, bug eating sidekick Renfield (played delightfully to the hilt by Arte Johnson) – are going to hit up New York high society and find Cindy.

A lot of the comedy thereafter is about an out-of-touch European relic trying to blend into the nightlife. But even more of it is about how the expectations of movie audiences changed between 1931 and 1979, in the same way Young Frankenstein had explored genre shifts, but a little less elegantly. A running gag revolves around whether or not Dracula has seen Roots, and there are constant sly winks that hint the Hollywood version of 70’s New York is authentic as the Hollywood versions of 1930’s London or Transylvania in any time period.

There are terrific cameos from The Jeffersons; Sherman Hemsley turns up as a corrupt preacher whose funeral service is interrupted, and Isobel Sanford is an unsympathetic New York judge. Dick Shawn plays a haggard police detective who doesn’t particularly want to believe in vampires, but has to face facts, and Susan Tolsky gives a great, brief performance as Cindy’s agent. There’s more than a little Sue Mengers in it.

George Hamilton is a charming, clever Dracula, weighing the scales just right to evoke everyone’s memories of Bela Lugosi, but taking into account the necessary angles to make him seem both human enough to carry the story and inhuman enough to be funny.

If you’re of the camp that gets extremely annoyed by Susan Saint James, I’d still suggest giving this one a try. I know several people who can’t stand her, and a direct quote from one of them was: “I didn’t want to punch Susan Saint James in the face in that Dracula thing you lent me.” If you usually like her, you might enjoy seeing her with a very different look, as she sports fluffy blonde supermodel hair and ultra-glam nightwear throughout.

The absolute highlight of Love at First Bite, for me at least, is Richard Benjamin as Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg. Jeffrey comes from the Van Helsing family, but changed his name for professional purposes. He’s a psychiatrist to the rich and famous, and very happily strings Cindy along in a commitment-free affair – until Dracula appears and he almost instinctively transforms into an obsessive vampire hunter. Except he can't quite remember how it's supposed to work. Vampires are the silver bullet ones, right?

It’s worth adding, though, that a serious familiarity with Universal’s 1931 Dracula helps the humour a lot. So if you’ve never seen the movie that started the sexy vampire craze to begin with, start there. (Interesting tidbit: makeup artist William Tuttle worked on both the 1931 Dracula and Love At First Bite!) Otherwise, consider adding this one to your lighthearted Halloween roster.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Cry For the Strangers (1982)

Is it ghosts or madness?

It’s one of the core questions of paranormal plotlines. In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and in John Saul’s Cry For the Strangers. Is it ghosts or madness? And which one is scarier?

This post is for Realweegiemidget’s Darlin’ DallasersBlogathon, an event dedicated to checking out the non-Dallas work of Dallas regulars. I picked Patrick Duffy, who starred as Bobby Ewing – the initial main character of the lauded primetime soap, and originator of the “it was just a dream” shower reveal. Also, he sometimes hangs around with this crab:

In 1982, Duffy starred in a TV movie adaptation of Cry for the Strangers.

He played psychologist Brad Randall, a man tired of the Frasier Crane Seattle psych scene and in the mood to shake things up in his life. He and his wife, Elaine, decide to move down the Olympic peninsula to a creepy little town called Clark’s Harbor. Having lived my entire life in the PNW, I can tell you straight up that Clark’s Harbor is a weird place, and not just because of the looming threat of the supernatural.

It’s described in the original novel thusly:
“And it did look like a picture-postcard New England town. The buildings that clustered along the waterfront were all of a type: neat clapboards, brightly painted, with manicured gardens flowering gaily in the spring air.”
The film faithfully represents this, making Clark’s Harbor look and feel like Cabot Cove’s prettier, more bedevilled cousin. It’s bizarre. I have no idea why you’d go to all the trouble of setting something in Washington just so you could make it look like New England. Why wouldn’t you just set it in New England?

Anyway, the town is peopled with the usual New Englanders, including a reticent sheriff played by Brian Keith, fishwives and fishermen in northeast garb, gossipy café waitresses, and a whole bunch of multi-generational locals who give Brad and Elaine a frosty reception.

But that’s the town’s way. Newcomers aren’t welcome.

Newcomers aren’t safe.

Not when the storms are coming.

Clark’s Harbor, turns out, is beset by Gothic weather that would make the Brontë sisters go: “Hey, cool it with the atmospheric symbolism.” Lightning forks across moody purple skies, clouds roll in over swaying fishing boats, and storms break… and break… and break… against the strangely abandoned Victorian mansion that Brad has decided he has to live in. It’s on a hill called Devil’s Elbow. Across the bay from Devil’s Kneecap, I’m guessing. Just up the coastline from That Bruise the Devil Can’t Remember How He Got.

Everyone loves a massive coincidence, and in this story, the coincidence is the Palmer family. Their son, Robby, was diagnosed in Seattle as being severely autistic (this was in the early, early days of modern autism research, and it was kind of a hot topic in literature for a while. It was only three years after autism was officially separated from schizophrenia in medical literature, and horror writers in particular latched onto it).

You’ll never guess who Robby’s Seattle therapist was.

Dr. Brad Randall.

The Palmers, wanting a quiet and more easily structured life away from the city, moved down to Clark’s Harbor the year before. Since then, Robby’s made a miraculous transformation. He now behaves like any other boy his age, as though he’d never been anything different.

Brad right away finds this impossibly suspicious, but he can’t ignore that it seems to be happening.

Like any reasonable mental health expert, Brad begins to wonder if Robby’s recovery might be related to the high number of storms. It’s not totally out of left field, on the first night the Palmers rolled into town, they camped on the beach during a terrible storm – because if there’s one thing parents of autistic children know is a good idea it’s moving houses without a plan and sleeping in an unfamiliar setting during a thunderstorm. The Palmers are on the ball. Weirdly, though, that first night is when Robby started to change for the better.

In a casual session with Brad, Robby explains that he finds the storms soothing, but they put him in a kind of trance, and afterwards he doesn’t remember anything he did during the night before. (Storms only happen at night, you see.) At least once he’s snuck out with his younger sister Missy, and during a recent storm they lost track of the family dog…

The whole thing would just be a small peculiarity if it wasn’t for the murders. Every storm, a stranger dies. Someone from out of town, or not originally from Clark’s Harbor, turns up extremely dead in the morning. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, too. They’re usually found buried up to their necks in pits on the beach, then slowly drowned as the tide comes in. This is why the locals don’t like getting too close to newcomers, and also why Brad, Elaine, and the Palmers are all in more danger than they know.

There might be ghosts. Maybe. It's probably a serial killer, or the spirits that killed the last couple to live in Devil's Elbow, it's all very vague.

Which brings us to the biggest trouble with Cry for the Strangers. In its efforts to leave things eerily unexplained, keeping the madness door and the ghost door open at the same time for as long as possible, it doesn’t explain much. Or anything, really. Events just happen. Tension builds, but never suspense. The plotting is muddled and unsatisfying. The ending literally has Elaine asking about the many plot holes while Brad stares into the distance and tells us we’ll never know the answers.

It’s worth checking out only if you’re extremely bored, or if you find Patrick Duffy with a cheesy academic-type beard hilarious, which I do. (It looks very Amityville Horror, but like the low-fat yogurt version. Brad is the diet soda of horror protagonists. I love him.)

What’s totally worth checking out, regardless of your boredom levels, are the other posts in this blogathon! Yay! The master list posts on Sept. 22 on Realweegiemidget’s blog, so be sure to stop by. And if you’re in the mood for more Dallas tie-ins while you wait, you can check out Larry Hagman in these I Dream of Jeannie recaps.