Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Gorilla, Through the Lens of The It's Alive Show

It's An Alive Gorilla Show!

Don't get your hopes up: The puppets aren't animated.

What's it about?

Tonight's Spooky Movie Tuesday is "The Gorilla" (20th Century Fox, 1939). Walter Stevens (Lionel Atwill) has a problem: He's just received a death threat from the notorious serial killer known to the public as "The Gorilla."

Presenting the "victim."

With a reputation for killing his victims within twenty-four hours of issuing threats, Mr. Stevens has to hurry to take care of his affairs… or does he?
"The Gorilla's Paw"

With his butler, Peters (Bela Lugosi) and his maid, Kitty (Patsy Kelly), he delays notifying the police and hatches a scheme of his own.
Peters seems to know a lot about the Gorilla, and might have supernatural powers...

Nearly every funny line and quip is delivered by the Patsy Kelly as Kitty

He invites his niece, Norma Denby (Anita Louise) and her fiancée Jack Marsden (Edward Norris) to the house to discuss her inheritance.
What is their part in this scheme.

He hires the questionable Acme Detective Agency to act as precaution against the Gorilla, and they send detectives Harrigan (Harry Ritz), Mulligan (Al Ritz), and Garrity (Jimmy Ritz) to the scene.
The film's top billing, The Ritz Brothers.

The three bumbling detectives quickly discover that there's more than meets the eye to the Stevens household: Mysterious callers, a mustachioed stranger who seems to know the ins and outs of the strange house, the butler's apparent supernatural powers, and an actual gorilla (not an actual gorilla)!
Secret passages hide a horrible secret!

Who is the mysterious mustache man?

A gorilla, but is it THE Gorilla?

Some details

This film follows the popular Hollywood tradition of the "dark house." For those not familiar, these are typically suspense/thriller/horror movies that take place in a single location, usually a (haunted) mansion.

Often an elaborate set.

They often use murder to set up a mystery plot with memorable characters, revealing the culprit at the end. This feature takes the rare (for the time) approach of using the genre for a comedy as a platform for the Ritz Brothers' act.

But is it any good?

Let's get this out of the way: This movie is absolutely terrible. It's not scary at all. The jokes don't land. The plot isn't complex. The cinematography is pretty bad. Among its few redeeming qualities are Bela Lugosi's weird sinister performance as Peters and Patsy Kelly's hilarious one-liner delivery as Kitty. With almost nothing going for it, why am I bothering to review it at all? Well…

The It's Alive Show makes it better

This movie, this specific version of the movie (follow the link at the end) has high nostalgic value for me. Living in Pittsburgh as a perpetually broke college student near the turn of the century, I was fascinated by living in a location that had actual broadcast television stations beyond the big three networks. It was during this time that I discovered a program called "The It's Alive Show," which was produced by Clownhouse Productions (AKA the band "Deathmobile") and broadcast digitally on WBGN (later WEPA). Hosted by band front-man Mark Mehold as the zombie "Professor Emcee Squared," the show garnered quite the following with fans of classic horror, of which Pittsburgh is known for (thanks to a little local film called "Night of the Living Dead").
The Professor and company.

As far as I can tell, this YouTube video is the last remnant of the show (other than a few clips elsewhere). While it used to stream online back in the day, since the show went off the air (around 2015) the official site no longer has clips, the commercial intellectual property and the licensed nature of most of the films presented means that they can't really create an archive.
Making this the only place where you can catch "Mother and Urnie."

Still, this version is intact with all of the local commercials (also produced by Clownhouse Productions) in place, making it a fair representation of the original show's experience.
If you get the references, some of the commercials are quite funny.

A brief word of warning

PLEASE NOTE: This isn't the best episode of "The It's Alive Show," as it gets pretty offensive at times. It's still less purposefully meanspirited than your average episode of "South Park," but there is copious use of a negative slang term for the developmentally disabled. Even though the film itself is a light PG affair, the hosted portions of this program raise it to a solid TV-14, so use your best judgement when watching.

I mean, they don't advertise alcohol during "Davey and Goliath."

Where can I watch it? (Right here)

"The Gorilla" is available to watch on various streaming services, but the "The It's Alive Show" version on YouTube is located here:

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad -- WATCH THIS MOVIE (again)

Revisit Sleepy Hollow by way of Great Britain

Tonight's Spooky Tuesday pic is "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad" (RKO/Disney, 1949). This is a compilation of two short features from the tail-end of a time when Walt Disney and his studio focused more on short standalone stories and musical animation rather than full feature-length narratives. This is usually attributed to manpower and resources being depleted by World War II.

The Wind in the Willows

What's it about?
Mr. Toad: heroic villain or villainous hero? Or just an idiot?

The first of these is an adaptation of the main plot of British author Kenneth Grahame's novel "The Wind in the Willows." In this short we are introduced through the narration of Basil Rathbone to a river community of anthropomorphic animals. This consists of Rat (Claud Allister), a steadfast British gentleman, Mole (Colin Campbell), Rat's kind but slow-witted compatriot, Angus MacBadger (Campbell Grant), the cranky Scottish manager of Toad Hall (the county seat of the locality), and Toad Hall's owner and heir Mr. Toad (Eric Blore), whose flights of fancy and rambunctious temperament have driven the once-regal hall to the brink of financial ruin, much to the chagrin of Mr. MacBadger.

A distinguished Water Rat.

A complacent Mole.

An angry MacBadger.

Since Mr. Toad had acquired a yellow "Gypsy caravan," he and his equine friend Cyril Proudbottom (J. Pat O'Malley) have been literally tearing up the countryside, causing their neighbors to flood the hall with requests for recompense.
The Destructive Duo.

Things take a turn for the worse when Mr. Toad sees an automobile for the first time, sparking a new mania.
The stolen vehicle.

Mr. Toad's friends are forced to sequester him in his room at Toad Hall until it has passed, but he escapes and is soon after jailed for car theft. At his trial, Mr. Toad (foolishly representing himself) explains that he traded the deed to Toad Hall for the automobile he was caught with, but his own witness turns on him and accuses Toad of trying to sell him a stolen car.
Nope. Just an idiot.

Sentenced to a prison sentence of twenty years, a repentant Mr. Toad soon escapes and attempts to clear his name of the false crime.
Mr. Winky, the real culprit?

Origins and legacy

This segment was originally meant to be a feature length production, but was cut due to a lot of the animation crew being drafted to the war. Some sharp-eyed viewers will also note that the gang of weasels that occupy Toad Hall near the end were later used as the direct inspiration for the "Toon Squad" in the 1980s movie, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

I mean, it's kind of obvious.

Although perfectly delightful, this story obviously isn't very spooky. Still, it has quite a lot of action and comedic chops. It definitely had autumnal vibes, even though the denouement takes place during Christmastime. No, this segment definitely doesn't belong on a "Spooky Tuesday" segment. However…

Ichabod Crane or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

What's it about?

The second adaptation is a Bing Crosby narration of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by American author Washington Irving. For those not familiar with the story, a few years after the American Revolutionary War, the quiet Dutch colonial settlement of Sleepy Hollow, New York, up the Hudson River from New York city and Terrytown is suddenly atwitter with the arrival of the new schoolmaster, the freakishly lanky Ichabod Crane.
Sounds suspiciously like Bing Crosby...

The studious and superstitious Mr. Crane quickly endears himself with the community thanks to his level-headed attitude and charm with the local ladies, but this is less from a sense of altruism and more from his unappeasable appetite and social ambition. His ungainly appearance and unflappable attitude quickly makes him the target of the mischievous "Brom Bones," a handsome and athletic local youth.
Remember when Disney wasn't afraid to put smoking and alcohol in their "kids" movies?

This antagonistic relationship is elevated to bitter rivalry when both men set their eyes on Katrina Van Tassel, the beautiful daughter of the richest man in Sleepy Hollow.
Von Tassel, sexpot.

Brom, for all his strength and looks is quickly outmatched by Ichabod's odd grace, intelligent charm, and greed for the elder Van Tassel's fortune. Nearly defeated at Sleepy Hollow's Halloween ball, Brom uses Ichabod's most prominent weakness against him: His superstition. Brom regales the gathered crowd with the story of Sleepy Hollow's most terrifying apparition, the Headless Horseman, a mounted ghost who rides over the countryside looking for a replacement for his lost head.
Kiss him, already!

The story quickly affects Ichabod who leaves the party to make his way back to the schoolhouse, past the church and graveyard the Horseman is alleged to rise from. Traveling along the quiet road, the terrified Crane imagines all sorts of ghosts and ghouls behind every tree and on the wind. Just as he begins to regain his composure, he is met with the otherworldly form of the Headless Horseman, and the chase begins!
Seriously, this is terrifying for all ages.

Great for a scare

Okay, so I just had to talk about this segment, which gave me no end of nightmares as a child. Even today, the minutes from when Ichabod Crane leaves the party to his arrival at the graveyard are some of the spookiest, most tense moments ever put to film. The imagery is so haunting and severe that it triggers some primal part of your brain.

My favorite shot of the whole film.

Anyone who has ever looked out the window of their parents' car on a wooded country road on a moonlit autumn night knows the exact sensation that this gives; shiver on your spine, the hairs standing up on the back of your neck, the dread when you see those mysterious lights in the forest (are they another car? A house? Or perhaps the candle of a supernatural Jack O'lantern?).
The thing you see before you die.

What's more, those anxious moments are followed up by the reveal of one of the scariest villains ever animated. It does not disappoint.
This is seriously scarier than any slasher film ever made.

Origins and legacy

Now, while perfectly serviceable and a fairly faithful adaptation of the short story that it's based on, there are a few notable differences: The book strongly implies at the end that the "Headless Horseman" was Abraham "Brom Bones" Von Brunt disguised to run off Ichabod Crane. This "child-friendly" adaptation however, is left more ambiguous, implying that Ichabod might have actually been taken by a very real Horseman. Interestingly, the character model of Brom Bones in the animation was later used as the inspiration for the character of "Gaston" in Disney's later "Beauty and the Beast" animation, so… Knowing THAT villain, one could even suppose that if the animated Brom was disguised as the Horseman, he could have "done in" Crane himself. It's little thoughts like this that keep the movie fresh in my mind, and something that I come back to every year to feel those shivers.

It's perfect in every way.

My recommendation:

If you've never seen it, I cannot recommend this movie enough. Even if you can't stand most of the rest of the production, the last ten or so minutes are well worth the runtime (which is a paltry one hour and eight minutes). It is genuinely scary, and may actually give your kids nightmares for years to come (so it's very rewarding).

Where can I find it?

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is available to stream on Disney+. Watch it with the lights off for maximum fright!

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Carnival of Souls: Spooky. Clean. Fun.

Carnival of Souls -- take a look

Tonight's Spooky Movie Tuesday pic is "Carnival of Souls" (Harcourt Productions, 1962). The film starts with reckless youths initiating a high speed drag race on Kansas country backroads.
Darn kids and their road racin'!

Things take a tragic turn when one of the cars is crowded off an old bridge and plunges into the river below. Rescue workers desperately rally to save the occupants of the automobile, but the murky river makes finding the car nearly impossible.
Always remember to tip your driver.

Miraculously, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) washes up alive on a sandbar where she's saved by the community, but her friends aren't so lucky.
An unlucky survivor.

A week later Mary decides to leave her hometown and put the tragedy behind her, taking a job as a church organist in Utah. On her long car ride to her new home, she passes an old amusement park on the shore of the Great Salt Lake that catches her attention.
To be fair, this place is kind of creepy anyway.

Soon after she begins to see a ghoulish face out of the corner of her eye, following her everywhere. As she settles into her boarding house and new job she gets the sense that the sinister character is stalking her, but her landlady, Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist), fellow housemate and full-time scumbag John Linden (Sidney Berger), and new associate Dr. Samuels (Stan Levitt) never see the menace that's terrifying her. As the days wear on, she begins to see more otherworldly horrors following her. Is it survivor's guilt, an undiagnosed psychosis, or something more?
Who is the sinister figure watching Mary? Probably "Meta" (he does kind of look like Mark Zuckerberg).

This guy is so slimy, you might mistake him for "The Blob"

Dr. Samuels seems to want to help Mary, but can he?

Less than perfect

Let's get the detritus out of the way right now. This is a quintessential low-budget "B" movie from the 60s. The film doesn't have a lot of technical gravitas in its favor: The film grade is sub-par, still grainy black-and-white in an age when color film was becoming common. The audio quality is even worse, in that the actors have to shout in most scenes in order for their lines to be heard above the always present hum of the recording equipment. This is even more apparent in scenes that are entirely scripted in post with ADR, as the sync is off and the disconnect is obvious. Believe it or not, I feel that these "faults" actually help the film.

Perfect for less

The technical limitations and thin budget (supposedly this entire film was shot for around $30,000 -- about $294,000 in today's dollars) forced the crew to be creative in other ways. The actors aren't exactly giving it their all (but they're quite good for amateurs). Candace Hilligoss's performance is a standout (although that's expected seeing that she is the only full-time professional actress in the cast), switching between aloof, regretful, and disconnected with little more than her overly expressive eyes.

"She's Got Candace Hilligoss Eyes" never made the top 10 on Billboard.

Even though the equipment that the film was shot on was sub-par, the cinematography is INCREDIBLE. The camera always seems to choose creative shots that highlight Mary's isolation, pulling beautiful separation between light and shadow.
You'll spend much of the movie waiting for something to happen, and that's a good thing.

An almost exclusively pipe organ soundtrack builds along with Mary's fear, but is completely silent at other times and makes scenes even edgier with its absence.
More than just a soundtrack: Pipe organs factor into the story.

This is helped even more by the locations. The movie's centerpiece is the Saltair amusement park during an off-season, taking a location typically full of people and making it eerily empty.
The park is extra creepy. Scoot!

The "ghouls," while incredibly cheap monsters to create (simple black costumes, white and black fright makeup, and really nothing else) are nonetheless among the creepiest creeps ever put to celluloid.
Simple, yet effective.

The simple story still manages to end on a twist that modern audiences may see coming, but is still effective imagery that will stick with them even today. The film somehow still manages to be terrifying without even a drop of blood put to screen.
But when it happens, it happens fast.

If you can't tell, I love this film; it's easily one of my top five horror films, and has stuck with me for years. I still get chills watching it.

Although there's no strong language, no blood, and no real on-screen death, I wouldn't recommend watching this with young children; the movie isn't really action-packed for the most part, and the ghouls are still likely to give them nightmares.

Seriously, you all knew someone like this in high school, I guarantee it.

I cannot stress enough how unsettling they can be.

Where can I find it?

While I watched it on DVD, "Carnival of Souls" is a public domain film and is available at many different sources -- for free! You can watch a restored version at archive.org, here.