Saturday, October 22, 2011

This is Halloween

Hey! Geek Dog!

Remember a few weeks back when I was posting about movies I remember from Halloweens when I was a kid? Well, it's time to get back to it....

Oh, come on! This one isn't even scary! In fact, it's a comedy. It's called The Ghost Breakers......

....and it stars Bob Hope.

Everyone's a critic.

I don't care we're watching it anyway...

The Plot: Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope) is a radio personality in New York. When he makes a broadcast that offends a mobster he heads to the mobster's hotel for a confrontation. He accidentally steps into a conflict between two other men and believes himself to have accidentally shot one of the men in his fright. He ends up stowing away in the steamer trunk of a woman named Mary Carter who has just inherited an island and a castle just off the coast of Cuba. By the time Larry is cleared of killing he's already fallen for Mary and is determined to help her solve the mystery of the haunted castle. If he's not careful, though, the castle will end up with a new ghost... namely his own.

My Halloween: I remember this movie being shown on the independent TV station around where I grew up. It was a staple in the run-up to Halloween along with the later remake of it Scared Stiff featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. 1940's The Ghost Breakers though was always the version I preferred.

While I have seen this one again since those long-ago days of my childhood it's been several years since I sat down to watch it and really.... it's a bit of a shame. It's a fun little movie but sounds a sour note with the recognizably horrible portrayal of African-American actor Willie Best's character of Alex.

In the film Alex acts as Larry Lawrence's valet and right-hand man but the terrible, stereotypical, Hollywood patois Best is stuck with just induces cringing. Which is quite sad because, underneath it all or perhaps through it all it is quite apparent that Best is a fine comedic actor. He keeps up with Hope on every level and if Hollywood and society of the time had not been so hidebound and prejudiced Best almost certainly would have been a star.

As for the rest of the film, Paulette Goddard as Mary Carter is charming if a bit useless around the edges. Like African-Americans women in Golden Age Hollywood films were often limited by their roles. Still, the beauty and charm that made Goddard a star and a household name back in the day shine through here.

The movie was and obviously remains, though, a starring vehicle for Bob Hope. Hope plays just another variation on his own stand-up persona -- that of a self-deprecating fellow with a cowardly streak that he manages to overcome. It was a character that Hope would play again, and again over the years with little variation. There's nothing really new here... not even the jokes many of which are old Vaudeville standards or leftovers from Hope's old comedy routines. Still, Hope's own natural charm is in full display here and it is that charm that carried his career until his passing in 2003.

Where the film really excels is in the set design and atmosphere. Entirely studio bound it lacks the 'staged' feel that a lot of later studio pictures would have. The black and white does the film favors by helping to disguise the sets and lending the whole thing a creepy atmosphere but there is still no denying that the matte painters and set designers of the era did a bang-up job here.

Normally I would say that this is a great film to show little kids. They'll likely love Hope's broad performance and they'll find the ghosts and zombie of the film spooky but not overly scary but Willie Best's role is a bit of a stumbling block. On the other hand, Best was a consummate professional and it seems a bit unfair to deprive his memory over a role that he had little choice in the matter over. For actors like Best the Hollywood system and society was stacked against them and it was either take roles such as this and try to do the best they could with them and fight to try to change the system from within or give up acting altogether. I would say sit down with your kids before and after watching the film -- explain about the abuses in Hollywood at the time, point out where Best's role was entirely stereotypical but then also point out the areas where Best's performance really shines. In short, use this as a teaching moment and a time when the whole family can gather together around a movie to put you in the Halloween spirit.

Until next time this is me and Geek Dog signing off.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cinematic Titanic: Let's Go on With the Show....

With this being an October show the Cinematic Titanic troupe gave this performance the appropriate atmosphere by choosing two films featuring those old horror standbys -- Dr. Frankenstein and vampires. Or, to be more specific, Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks and Blood of the Vampires. The first film is a 1974 Italian production while the second one dates from the 1960's and was shot in the Philippines with a Filipino cast.... despite supposedly being set in 1800's Mexico. Oh, yeah, and some members of the cast play servants... in blackface. Soooo not even kidding on that. So yeah, you know these films are bad and well deserving of whatever hilarious heck the Cinematic Titans choose to put them through.

The gang doesn't jump into the movies right away; oh no. First comes the "talent show" portion of the evening. Each member of the group is given five minutes or so on stage to do whatever they want to with whatever particular talents they have. In addition, they are joined in this portion of the show by Dave "Gruber" Allen -- an old friend of many of the members, a fellow stand-up comedian, and kind of quasi-MC/roadie for Cinematic Titanic.

Each of the performers played to their strengths or else displayed hidden or new talents. J. Elvis Weinstein helped out considerably by providing background vocals and/or bass guitar for a couple of his cohorts and his solo in the spotlight featured a live rendition of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 theme song (which the audience enthusiastically joined in on the "La-la-la's"), Frank Conniff did a more traditional stand-up routine but with his own skewed spin on things, Mary jo Pehl provided an introduction for Gruber with her own dry, witty style, Trace Beaulieu read two poems from his own book of children's poetry -- Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children, and Joel Hodgson went back to his roots with a magic trick and a little comedic audience banter.

With the opening out of the way it was time to start carving up the movie. The gang took their places on stage and things got off to a roaring start. Both the movies were, of course, horrible. Really, really, horrible -- which the audience had expected -- but the riffing was truly awesome. The Cinematic Titans were focused on the job at hand but it was also obvious that there were aware of the audience and they fed the energy from the room into the delivery of their jokes.

In addition to the energy the live format also made the performance unique. In the first movie Frank Conniff got tongue tied and missed a riff -- stuttering over the words until he finally just gave up. In response J. Elvis Weinstein casually looked over and said "Nice recovery though -- really." In the second movie Joel Hodgson missed two riffs -- which caused him to turn to the audience and remark on their somewhat lousy track record that night with a sum total of three missed riffs. At another point one of J. Elvis's riffs fell flat with the audience just not getting the joke. At the "dead air" he turned and said "No one gets it? Really?!" It really brought home the fact that every live performance would be a little different and that the gang could, at any time, choose to go a little off-script. Also, it brought the audience into the performance as well. We, sitting in the seats, may have been the audience but with our laughter and good-natured boos (usually researved for bad puns or deliberately lame jokes) we were also a part of the performance itself. Our reactions helped shape the experience both for the other audience members around us and for the riffers onstage.

If I had one complaint it was that the theatre's sound system didn't seem to be quite up to the task. While I could hear the riffers just fine there were a great many points where I couldn't hear the movie very well at all.

Still, did I have a good time? You bet your sweet bippy.

Did I laugh? Till tears came to my eyes.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

You might think that the idea of live movie riffing seems strange -- or that it wouldn't work but I can attest that it does work and it works in a way that few might expect. The performance becomes a collaboration and there is nothing quite like getting to be a part of that collaboration.... But the idea of live movie riffing is a little bit strange.

Monday, October 17, 2011

All Hands on Deck.... for Cinematic Titanic!!

So things have been a bit quiet again at the house of Compound Geekery but there was a good reason for that. I, your humble hostess, was preparing for an epic quest. As my journey was to take me many miles I supplied myself with clothing

and rations;

and I loaded and prepared my trusty steed St. Andrew's Cross.

I handed care of Geek Dog to a kindly, older couple in the village until such time as I could return....

Uhhh, yeah... I would put a picture of Geek Dog in here except she's.... kinda still mad at me for leaving and not taking her with me....

And thus I set off into the wilds of the Midwest. I traversed the plains where miles passed without any signs of civilization; corn and wheat fields the only indication that people lived here and eked out an existence on the land. I crossed rivers wide and rivers narrow until at last, tired and worn I reached my destination... the city where five people of exceptional talent in humor and sarcasm were rumored to be plying their craft.... I came to see CINEMATIC TITANIC!

Okay, okay, I promise not to try to be funny anymore.

So some of you might be asking what the heck Cinematic Titanic is. I'll try to be brief...

In 1993 Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 left the show. About a year and a half later at the end of the 6th season Frank Conniff left the show and in 1996 Trace Beaulieu bowed out. While the show would continue on these three spent the next several years kicking around Hollywood -- mostly behind the cameras as writers, producers and consultants for various movies, radio, and TV shows. The group all kept in touch,worked together fairly often and Hodgson and Beaulieu even renewed their friendship with Josh "J. Elvis" Weinstein thus bringing back together the three who had launched the show in the first place.

In 2007, with the Hollywood writers strike going on Joel Hodgson reached out to the gang with a chance to do it all again. Weinstein, Conniff, and Beaulieu signed on along with Mary Jo Pehl who had stayed with MST3K until the final end. Thus was Cinematic Titanic born.

Hodgson wanted to return to the roots of the original idea -- finding bad old movies that few people had heard of and exposing them to audiences with their own, unique, riffing style. This time around, though, there would be no TV station, no network and no executives; they were going to run everything themselves.

They arranged for filming space and started out with a handful of studio produced DVD's but Hodgson was already aiming at the next stage of development.... live shows. It wasn't as big of a step as it might seem -- back in the heady early days of MST3K the gang had done a couple of live shows where they riffed in character. Additionally, all five of them had begun their careers as stand-up comedians so they had experience with live performances.

Starting almost immediately, the troupe began performing live. Gradually, over the last couple of years they have phased out the studio DVD's in favor of producing DVD's of their live performances. They have a standing schedule in which they do a live performance once a month in a different city and each time they only stay a day or two at most.

So THIS... this was my chance... and I took it.....


Thursday, October 6, 2011

"The Blob" Trivia

Here are a few interesting extras.

In the movie Creepshow the film segment titled "The Lonely Death of Jody Verrill, has a certain kinship to The Blob. Although the Stephen King short story the film segment is based on was supposedly inspired by another short story by H.P. Lovecraft there are certain similarities in that the somewhat dim-witted and poor Jody Verrill is infected with the alien plant when he touches a meteorite that lands on his property. Just as the presumably poor old man is consumed by the Blob after he pokes open the meteorite that lands on his property.

More recently, Spider-Man 3 also seemed to have a little tribute to The Blob. Peter and Mary Jane are out in the park together when they see a meteorite fall to Earth nearby. The meteorite proves to contain the Venom Symbiote which initally appears to be a black, blobby substance. The scene echoes the beginning of The Blob where Steven Andrews and his girlfriend Jane are out in the woods when they see the meteorite containg the Blob fall to Earth.


As we move into October I thought I might use the month to take a look back at some of the "spooky" movies which left a lasting impression on me as a kid.

First up......

1958's The Blob.

Joining me on this journey will be my trusty new sidekick Geek Dog!

Are you ready sidekick?

Awww, come on; it's a 53 year-old movie! It won't be THAT bad.


So this one left a lasting impression on me when I saw it at the tender age of about five or six years-old. In fact, it left an "impression" in the form of nightmares for several nights running. My sister had convinced me to join her in watching several monster movies which the local independent TV station was running during the month of October. And yeah, this one scared the bejeebers out of me.

The Plot (for those who have been hiding under a rock for the last 50 years and don't know it) A meteorite crashes to Earth carrying an alien substance. The substance quickly begins to grow as it moves through a small town, consuming people. A small group of teenagers led by Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut)are the only ones aware of the threat...

To this day I still remember the thing that terrified me most about the Blob... it was the fact that there didn't seem to be anywhere "safe" from it. Other monsters -- Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman -- they were more corporeal; you could run into a room and lock a door to keep them out (or at least slow them down) but the Blob? No way. It would ooze under doors and through the cracks in windows and through the grating on heating and air conditioning vents. Nowhere was safe from the Blob. THAT freaked me out.

Also, unlike a lot of other monster movies of that era and afterwards the Blob had no motivation. It wasn't a thinking, sentient thing. It didn't hunt it's victims down it just kind of meandered around and ate what it ran into. It was a predator of opportunity. That made it seem much more random and much harder to defend against. You weren't going to "outthink" it and you weren't going to "reason" with it. It was much more like a force of nature.

So, believe it or not, what with one thing and another.... I never saw this movie again. It scared the crap out of me as a child and while I was young I never wanted to see it again. When I got older I was able to laugh at how silly it was to be scared of the film but it never really crossed my mind to try to watch it again... until now.

So I sat down with a DVD of the film and..... Was genuinely surprised. Did it scare me again? Well, no. But it was a far better film than I had anticipated it to be.

In the intervening years I've seen a lot of 'B' movies from the 1950's and 1960's. And I mean a LOT. The vast majority of them are unintentionally hilarious now and I fully expected The Blob to be like that -- unintentionally hilarious schlock. It's not.

Oh sure, the film has it's problems but it also has it's triumphs. Then 27 year-old McQueen couldn't pass for an 18 year-old if he tried but, hey, this isn't the old film that had that problem. And unlike those other films McQueen actually puts some effort into the film and turns in a surprisingly natural performance with some great nuances. For example, when Steve Andrews sees the town doctor killed by the Blob he reacts with horror and is sickened by it. He is speechless and obviously at a loss for a moment. It is the most human reaction I've ever seen out of a lead character in a horror movie of this era. And this carries through the rest of the film. When Andrews is going back over things -- trying to reassure himself that he really saw what he saw -- McQueen puts a slightly shell-shocked tone into his voice. You really believe this person is struggling to deal with all of this... and that's what you might expect if a young person really were dropped into such a situation. The unfortunate thing is that the 'soaring strings' romantic music kind of ruins the tone of the scene. There is another moment when Andrews tries to convince the police of the danger where he admits that he's scared stiff. Now there's something you just didn't see out of your average heroic lead in monster movies of the day.

There are some other reversals as well that are a lot of fun. For example, the teenagers go around trying to warn people. One couple knocks on the door of a house to warn the inhabitants only to find they are having a loud, raucus, party and all the adults there are drunk off their heads. In other words, the teenagers are being the sober, responsible ones and the adults are behaving like teenagers. In a similar scene, the kids try to warn a bar owner but he belives they're just trying to convince him to serve them. Again, the teens are being responsible and the adults think they're after alcohol. And at the end of the film the high school principal, Jane's father, who has been accusing Andrews of being a bad influence, smashes a window to break into his own school in order to help save his daughter. In essence, he becomes a school vandal -- what he had accused of others.

There are other nice touches as well... one of the cops, instead of being the typical close-minded, "all kids are hooligans" type proves to be fair minded and compassionate. Another cop is found to be playing a chess game over the radio with a dispatcher from the police department in a neighboring town. His fellow officers actually look at him highly for taking up chess instead of ribbing him about trying to get high minded. The scene also speaks quietly to the lonliness and isolation of the small town cops and the quiet nature of the town with so little crime that the cop has time to play chess.

The other thing that surprised me is how few on-screen deaths there actually are. I thought I remembered a number of Blob attacks but really we only see a few on-screen (and not much shown of those), a few off-screen and the rest are just situations where we're allowed to assume the Blob has eaten someone. For example, Andrews finds his father's grocery store unlocked. When he goes inside he trips over the broom of the guy who is supposed to clean-up and lock-up the store. Implication? The Blob ate him. Likewise, one of the cops comes into the station and remarks that he passed by the local bar and found it unlocked with all the lights on, the TV going, the cash register unlocked but no patrons and the bar owner not in sight either. Again, we're led to believe the Blob ate them all.

Also, for a film of this era, the usual trite Cold War metaphors are nearly nowhere to be found. The movie focuses much more on the pull and push of adults vs. teens. A little Cold War creeps in a bit at the end but it doesn't last long enough to ruin the mood of the movie and it's pretty light and easy to gloss over.

So, after all these years, was it worth getting scared over? Kids today probably won't be and adults certainly won't be but that doesn't mean that it isn't a worthwhile film to watch. It retains enough intensity to keep you glued, some truly good performances (but not by the annoying little kid playing Danny. Ugh.), some special effects that still hold up pretty well (and some that don't), and just enough scary stuff that it actually might make a pretty good movie to introduce kids to the concept of "horror" without leaving them in nightmares for nights to come.

Oh, and one more thing.... The movie has the chippiest, boppiest theme song I think I've ever heard to a sci-fi horror movie. I'm not sure if this was an act of genious on the producer's part or if it was simply insane.

Seriously, I feel like dancing to this.

Until next time it's me and Geek Dog signing off.