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Thursday, December 30, 2010

It's 'New Year's Evil!'


Happy Days star Roz Kelly stars in this early 1980s slasher film directed by Emmett Alston. Like so many horror films of the 1980s, this one is an attempt to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise.

Kelly is a punk rock mother hosting a New Year’s Eve party at a hip New Wave music club in downtown Los Angeles. Her teenage son comes to see her at the club with flowers, but she completely ignores him. A maniac killer, played by Kip Niven, calls Kelly at the club hotline to inform her that he will commit a murder every hour until 12 midnight as part of his New Year’s resolution. A club worker named Yvonne is the first victim to be killed in a bathtub in a club dressing room.

The second victim is a pretty blonde nurse at the local hospital. The killer predictably poses as a new hospital orderly who lures the nurse into a hospital room with champagne and proceeds to stab her to death after making out with her. Another nurse at the hospital discovers her body in a closet.

The killer continues to call Kelly at the music club in a disguised voice to inform her that he is committing murders. He even plays a taped recording over the phone of him stabbing the nurse at the hospital. Kelly is now forced to take his threats seriously. She asks the local police department for police protection.

By now the viewer has been exposed to lots of really bad punk rock performances, zebra striped T-shirts, and 1980s mullet hairstyles. Where are The Ramones, The Misfits and The Sex Pistols when we need them?

Feeling rejected by his mother, Kelly’s son sees his mother performing on television at the club with a punk band. In a fit of anger, he tears apart the roses he brought for her, and stretches one of her red nylon stalkings over his face as if he is about to become a killer himself. This is a particularly confusing scene because by now we already know who the killer is and what he looks like, so any attempt to suggest that the killer could be Kelly’s son seems unnecessary. The killer now shows up at another dance club in L.A. dressed in an obviously fake moustache and three-piece suit. He tells another pretty blonde girl at the bar that he is a business agent for many Hollywood actors in town. He convinces her to leave the club to attend a business party. She refuses to go alone with him, so she takes one of her club friends with her.

This spoils the plans of the killer to get her alone. The three drive in the killer’s Mercedes to a gas station, where the killer strangles one of the girls with a bag full of marijuana. He hides in a Dumpster to attack the second girl as she comes out of the gas station with a bottle of champagne. The killer stabs her to death. As the killer flees the scene, he is harassed at a stop light by a motorcycle gang. The killer speeds away from the motorcycle gang and hides out at a local drive-in theatre.

The movie screen advertises a film entitled Blood Feast as a feature playing at the theatre, but it is not Herschel Gordon Lewis’ schlock masterpiece from 1963, unfortunately. After stealing another car from a young couple making out at the drive-in, the killer shows up at the New Wave club, manages to club a police officer in the head at a back entrance, and puts his police uniform on, which conveniently fits him perfectly. Under police protection outside her dressing room, Kelly sits in front of a mirror putting on make-up as the killer suddenly appears in her room in a jogging outfit and a Halloween mask.

She sees him in the mirror, but is not frightened. He removes the mask, and reveals himself to be Richard Sullivan, her husband. She is not frightened by his presence because she has no idea he is the killer. As the couple gets into an elevator, it becomes evident to Kelly that her husband is the killer.

He holds a knife up to her and saying:“I’m fed up . . . You’re just like all the other women in my life. Women are manipulative, deceitful, immoral and very, very selfish!”

His reasoning for killing here seems very petty and unnecessary. Wouldn’t his actions make him “manipulative, deceitful, immoral and selfish?” If he was so fed up with his wife, why didn’t he just request a divorce from her? Why go through the troubles of killing several innocent women to get to her? In the post O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson world we live in today, it seems highly unlikely that a man would go on a killing spree killing innocent victims just to prove a point with his wife.

However, I realize this film was made long before the O.J. Simpson ordeal of the1990s, and the Scott Peterson ordeal early in this decade. As the film comes to an end, Richard chains his wife to the bottom of the elevator and is chased by policemen who fire shots at him. He is chased to the top balcony of the building, where he puts the Halloween mask back on and jumps off the building, committing suicide. His son emotionally removes the mask from him.

The film ends with a shot of Kelly being wheeled into an ambulance. The driver of the ambulance is wearing Richard’s Halloween mask, and the paramedic on the passenger side lies dead on the floor of the ambulance. Could the killer now be Kelly’s son?

NEW YEAR’S EVIL follows in the long line-up of so many 1980s slasher/horror films. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, My Bloody Valentine, Christmas Evil, Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas, April Fool’s Day, Mother’s Day, and so many others, NEW YEAR’S EVIL is an attempt to use a holiday title to cash in on the slasher craze of the 1980s.

-- Steve D. Stones

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Other Wizard of Oz


By Doug Gibson

Ever heard of Larry Semon? That's all right. Few have. He was a silent movie comic. His physical comedy and sad sack face made him very popular in one-reelers, but his character had a tough time creating pathos with viewers. He needed to be seen in small doses.

Semon had ambition, though, and in the mid 1920s he worked with the son of the late L. Frank Baum, to bring Baum's Wizard of Oz series to the big screen. The 1925 film (versions range from 72 to 81 minutes) is a curio. A huge flop at the box office -- it more or less ruined Semon's career -- it is nevertheless fascinating. It's a so-bad-it's-interesting ego trip from a star who desperately needed a director other than himself. Still, there are moments -- particularly at the beginning of the film -- that feature talented slapstick comedy. Yet, in this film are Semon, of course, big fat slapstick veteran Frank Alexander, a very young Oliver Hardy and Semon's very pretty wife, Dorothy Dwan.

Here's the film in a few paragraphs: We start in Oz, where Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn) and the citizens are upset with corrupt leaders, including Prime Minister Kruel. The bad leaders consult the Wizard, a con man, who suggests they bring the lost Princess Dorothy back. We cut now to Kansas, where the womanly Dorothy (Dwan) lives with Aunt Em, (Mary Carr) a limp dishrag of a woman, and Uncle Henry (Alexander) a big, fat domestic abuser. He literally punches anyone he meets.

Competing for Dorothy's love are farmhands Semon and Hardy. There is a black farmhand named Snowball. Be advised the film is very racist and the character, played by actor Spencer Bell, is billed as "G. Howe Black." (Later in the film, Semon's character lets loose with a tasteless racist jab at Bell's character) Ths racism was unfortunately the norm for those times.

The film meanders on coherently while the characters are in Kansas. It's cliche-ridden, but there are talented, physical slapstick gags with Semon, Hardy and Alexander. There's a funny bit with bees, and another with a swing. But once the main characters are blown to Oz in a shack it loses all sense. The first nonsensical twist is having Aunt Em -- who is in the wind-guided shack -- disappear when they arrive. It gets worse: Semon turns into the Scarecrow, Hardy the Tin Man and Bell the cowardly lion, but they really aren't these characters. They are disguises. Alexander briefly turns into a good guy, then reverts to being a bad guy. Incomprehensibly, Hardy's Tin Man turns bad too.

Finally, Dwan's Dorothy more or less disappears from the film, becomes betrothed to Prince Kynd, and wants to see Semon's Scarecrow done away with, too! In fact, the film degenerates into a series of bad slapstick gags designed to showcase Semon trying to outwit the Oz folk who want to capture him. The Wizard (Charles Murray) is still hanging around. By then it's really no longer Baum's Wizard of Oz. It's just an overlong, badly paced Semon slapstick show.

As I mentioned, the film bombed. Semon's career was almost ruined. He puttered around in films for a few more years, then died young. Many believe stress over his bankruptcy contributed to his death. For a long time this film was considered obscure and very hard to find. Lately, though it has popped up on DVD, either as an extra to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, or as the feature attraction in a DVD of silent versions of Baum's Oz tales (there are several as far back as 1910). It has also been shown recently on Turner Classic Movies. In fact, it was last on Dec. 26.

I will say one good thing about the silent Wizard of Oz. Semon's Scarecrow very much resembles in looks and mannerisms of Ray Bolger's much-lauded Scarecrow in the later classic. It seems clear that Bolger did borrow from Semon's portrayal and also managed to bring the empathy to the character that Semon could not achieve. Cult movies fans should note that many of Semon's silent shorts can be purchased today via brick-and-mortar and online stores.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tales from the Crypt Christmas

By Steve Stones

Long before HBO created their Tales From The Crypt TV series in the late
1980s and early 1990s, Amicus Studios (an adjunct of Hammer Studios) in
England created a full-length feature film in 1972 based on the William
Gaines, Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig E.C. comic books of the 1950s. For
this article, I will focus on comparing one segment of the full-length
feature film with an HBO TV episode in 1989 entitled: “All Through The
House.”

Tales From The Crypt (1972)

A group of tourists is taken to a crypt in an old England cemetery. A
tour guide tells them that religious martyrs of Henry VIII are buried
there. Five members of the group get lost and wander into an empty
crypt. The crypt keeper intentionally traps them inside but informs them
that he has a purpose. He then asks actress Joan Collins what her plans
are after she leaves the crypt.

Next, we see a young and beautiful Collins murdering her husband on
Christmas Eve with a fire poker as he is reading the evening newspaper.
She wants to collect on his life insurance policy. As she says goodnight
to her daughter and quickly tries to clean up the blood on the floor
from the murder, she hears on the radio that a killer has escaped from a
local sanitarium and may be dressed in a Santa suit to disguise his
identity. He is to be considered very dangerous.

Collins hears a knock at the door and realizes it must be the escaped
killer. She attempts to close all the blinds in the house as he peaks
through the windows in a Santa suit. She thinks of calling the police,
but realizes she cannot call them because the corpse of her husband lies
on the living room floor. She pushes his body down the basement stairs
to try and make it look as if he died of a fall.

Returning upstairs, she sees the door to her daughter’s bedroom open.
She discovers her daughter is gone. Suddenly, from behind a curtain
downstairs she hears her daughter say “He’s here Mommy! Santa is here!”
Sure enough, it is the escaped killer in a Santa suit holding hands with
her daughter. Collins runs for the fire poker, but the killer gets to
her quickly and chokes her as she grabs for the poker in front of the
fireplace.

Tales From The Crypt: “And All Through The House” HBO TV episode (1989)

This episode opens with actress Mary Ellen Trainor reaching for a fire
poker in front of a fireplace on Christmas Eve. Her husband asks for the
poker so he can stir the fire. “Let me have it!” he says. Trainor whacks
him over the head with the poker and says “Merry Christmas you son of a
b*tch!”

She quickly sits her murdered husband back up in his chair and removes
the poker from his head as her daughter comes down the stairs to say
Santa will be there soon. Her daughter refers to the murdered man as
Joseph, even though she is not aware he is dead. It’s obvious he is her
stepfather.

Trainor escorts her daughter back to her bedroom and opens her window
slightly because of the heat in the room. Her daughter asks her “What do
you want for Christmas Mommy?” “I already got it sweetheart,” says
Trainor.

Trainor calls someone on the phone to say she has killed her husband and
that everything, including some money, is now theirs. She then drags her
dead husband outside into the cold snow to throw him down a well as a
news report on the radio informs listeners that a killer from a local
mental ward has escaped in a Santa suit. Just as she is about to throw
her husband down the water well, he grabs her. He is not dead yet.
Trainor hits him one more time over the head, this time killing him for
good.

The escaped killer in a Santa suit surprises her with an axe. She runs back into the house to call the police but realizes her murdered husband is still lying dead on the front lawn.


The phone rings as the killer throws a tire swing through the living
room window and once again attacks Trainor. She hits him in the head
with the axe then answers the phone. The voice on the phone warns her of
the escaped killer in a Santa suit, and tells her that police will be in
her area in twenty minutes. The Santa killer lies unconscious and spread
out in the snow on her front yard.

This gives Trainor the plan to make it look as if the Santa killer is
the person who killed her husband. She goes back outside to plunge the
axe into the chest of her husband’s corpse a few times as the wind blows
her front door shut, locking her out of the house.

To get back into the house, Trainor looks for some keys in her husband’s
pocket. She finds them and goes back into the house to call the police
to blame the murder of her husband on the Santa killer. The person on
the phone tells her to find something to protect herself with, such as a
gun.

While trying to find one of Joseph’s guns in an upstairs closet, Trainor
accidentally locks herself in the closet. She sees the Santa killer
climbing up a ladder to her daughter’s room through the closet window.
She kicks open the door and runs to find her daughter in her room. She
is not there.

Trainor runs down the stairs to see her daughter standing in the living
room holding hands with the Santa killer. “See, I told you Santa would
come Mommy, and he didn’t even need to come down the chimney!” Trainor
screams as the Santa says “Naughty or nice?” holding the bloody axe.

Both of these Tales From The Crypt episodes seem to work quite well and
have many similarities. However, the 1989 version is better produced.
The Santa killer in the 1989 episode is much more convincing as a killer
because he appears to be more rough and menacing. The Santa in the 1972 version looks like a regular Santa standing on a street corner ringing a
bell.

The 1989 episode also has a more sinister and foreboding feeling to it
because the interior scenes inside the house are very dark, unlike the
1972 version where the interiors are well lit. The Joan Collins
character in the 1972 version also never has to go outside or fight with
the Santa killer, unlike Trainor’s character in the 1989 version who
fights with the Santa out in the cold.

Collins pushes her husband’s corpse down the basement stairs, whereas
Trainor drags her husband out into the snow to throw him into a well.
This is the biggest difference of the two episodes.

The 1989 episode is also a real treat because it has the classic opening
of the Crypt Keeper introducing the episode in a Santa suit. The crypt
keeper in the 1972 version is a middle-aged British man dressed as
though he is part of the Jedi council in Star Wars.

Let the Crypt Keeper guide you through some of your holiday
entertainment this Christmas Season boys and ghouls! He’ll deck the
halls with murder and mayhem!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The creaky wonderful 1935 Scrooge




Scrooge, 1935, 78 minutes, B&W, British. Directed by Henry Edwards. Starring Sir. Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer Scrooge, Donald Calthrop as Bob Cratchit, Robert Cochran as Fred, Mary Glynne as Belle and Phillip Frost as Tiny Tim. Rating: Seven stars out of 10.

This very creaky British version of Dickens' A Christmas Tale can't hold a candle to the 1951, 1984 and 1999 versions, but it's better than the 1938 Hollywood adaptation. It stars Hicks as Scrooge. The British actor had the part down pat. He had played Scrooge for decades on the British stage.

Nevertheless, he plays Scrooge as a crochety old crank, which is one of your reviewer's pet peeves. I prefer Scrooge to be played as a smug, self satisfied superior sort, such as Sims, Scott and Stewart portrayed Dickens' miser in other adaptations. The result is that Scrooge's experience is a startling comeuppance for him. Like Saul of Tarsus, he's literally brought to his senses and scared straight through divine interference. But with an old crochety Scrooge, all he goes through seems like a scolding that a child would take from an elder.

But still, this is a must-see version for fans. The London sets are simply marvelous. You can feel Victorian England in this film better than any other version. Also, a pleasant surprise is Calthrop as Bob Cratchit. He is the only Bob Cratchit that's able to stand up to Scrooge. Indeed, early in the film, he mutters of Scrooge's miserliness when denied coal for the fire. The other actors are adequate for their roles. One chilling scene has Tiny Tim (Frost) laying dead on a bed for Scrooge to see during the third spirit visit.

There are some odd twists to the film. Not much is told about Scrooge's childhood, and a really strange scene is with Marley's ghost. To the audience he is invisible, though it's clear Scrooge can see him. There is a scene early in the film, inserted for some reason, of Queen Victoria receiving a Christmas toast from London's leading citizens. The final scene where a changed Scrooge fools Cratchit and gives him a raise has the pair taking the day off, rather than having some smoking Christmas bishop to drink.

Scrooge, quite an expressionist film, is a curio of early British filmmaking and certainly worth a rental for the holidays. For decades this film was literally out of circulation, but with the advent of video it enjoyed a comeback and can now usually be found on TV each holiday season and can be purchased. It can also be seen for free on the Web. Go to is www.imdb.com (Internet Movie Database) page to watch the film. Enjoy the film; watch it above!

-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Andy Griffith Show Christmas Episode

Here's recap/review of the great Andy Griffith Show episode. From Season 1, "The Christmas Story."
By Doug Gibson
The Andy Griffith Show, Season 1, Episode 11, "The Christmas Story." Starring Andy Griffith, Don Knotts Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Elinor Donahue. Guest starring Sam Edwards, Margaret Kerry and Joy Ellison as Sam, Bess and Effie Muggins, Will Wright as Ben Weaver.
Most successful TV situation comedies tend to have a Christmas episode and for some reason they are often produced in the first season: think "Mary Tyler Moore Show, "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days." TAGS was no exception producing its Christmas-themed show in the 11th episode. It's a well-paced, funny, heartwarming tale that features Ben Weaver, Mayberry's most prominent merchant, a crochety, stooped-shouldered somewhat Dickensian figure with a well-hidden heart of gold tucked behind his gruff exterior.
The plot involves Weaver (Will Wright) dragging in moonshiner Sam Edwards to the courthouse on Christmas Eve and demanding that Edwards be locked up. A big Christmas party is being planned and Andy asks Ben if he'll let Edwards have a furlough through Christmas. True to form Weaver refuses. It looks like the Christmas Party is off, until Andy invites Edwards wife, Bess, (Kerry), and daughter, Effie, (Ellison), to stay in the jail with dad. In a funny scene, Andy overrides Ben's objections by cross-examing Sam's smiling kin, who admit they knew about the moonshining!
The funny plot seamlessly turns serious as a lonely Weaver, his Grinch-like plans foiled, tries to get himself arrested. Writer Frank Tarloff -- who penned 9 TAGS episodes -- deserves a tip of the hat for his funny, ironic script. Ben's plans to get busted are foiled when party-goers, including Ellie, either pay his fines or donate "stolen property" to him. Finally, in a scene that can bring tears, we see a lonely Ben Weaver, standing in an alley, peeking through the jail window bars, softly singing along with a Christmas Carol sung in the courthouse.
I won't give way the end for the very few who might still have missed the show, but it should be noted that perhaps the reason TAGS never again attempted a Christmas episode is that it could never have topped this. Wright as Ben Weaver is simply magnificent. His page on IMDB.com says he looks as "if he was born old." The grizzled, stooped ex-Western actor actually died at the relatively young age of 68. He played Ben Weaver in three TAGS episodes, the last before his death of cancer. Several other actors played Weaver in later episodes, but only one, Tol Avery, captured even a smidgen of the cranky magic Wright gave the role. He was, and remains, Mayberry merchant Ben Weaver to TAGS fans. In his three episodes, Weaver created a happy Christmas, saved a family from homelessness and gave a tired traveling merchant a job.
Notes: "Family members" Edwards, Kerry and Ellison were the same family Wright's Weaver threatened with eviction in another TAGS episodes. They were the Scobees. Knotts' Fife played Santa Claus, in full costume and "ho ho hos." Donahue's Walker sang "Away in the Manger." Season 1 was a little uneven, with the cast developing their roles. Knotts was still being too often used only for manic comic relief. Taylor's Andy was still the impetus for most humor. In the second season Sheriff Taylor would began to react to the humorous situations of others, and the show would move to its current classic status as a result.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Santa and the Three Bears and other Xmas kitsch



(This essay originally ran in the Dec. 20, 2007 Standard-Examiner)

By Doug Gibson

Every December the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — I refer to the Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon — "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and, of course, that other Jimmy Stewart classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

We all have our favorite Christmas cinema moments. George Bailey's joyous run through Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge dancing for joy on Christmas morning, Macy's Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a World War II orphan girl, and my favorite, crusty but lovable Father Fitzgibbon's surprise reunion with his mother after decades apart.

There are great holiday films. Much has been written about them. But today let's spill some ink about the other Christmas films, the kitschy ones. They're all over the dial. Just turn on the Hallmark Channel!

Most aren't worth five minutes of our time, but some still spread holiday magic. We've all heard of "A Christmas Carol" or "Scrooge," but how many recall the Fonz — Henry Winkler — starring in "An American Christmas Carol"? There are two well-received versions of "Miracle on 34th Street," but do you recall the kitschy 1973 TV version in which the lawyer was played by actor-turned-newsman David Hartman?

Even the biggy, "It's a Wonderful Life," has a kitschy cousin. Remember "It Happened One Christmas," the gender-switching knockoff starring Marlo Thomas?

Indeed, the competition is fierce for those kitschiest Christmas movies that still entertain us. But here are three finalists, all made on the cheap, yet still being sold and garnering holiday TV showings.

So, without further adieu, here is the best kitschiest Christmas film:

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" — This 1964 film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, N.Y., using many minor cast members from a NYC stage production of "Oliver Twist." It has a catchy theme song, "Hurray for Santy (sic) Claus," that you'll hum afterward. The plot involves Martians coming to earth, kidnapping Santa and whisking him away to cheer up the Martian kiddies. Two earth children are kidnapped along with Santa. Santa and the earth kids fight off a Martian baddie, prep a goofy Martian to become that planet's Santa, and launch off to earth in the spaceship. We never know if they made it home — perhaps the budget didn't allow that. The acting has to be seen to be believed, but the film has a goofy charm. It was a big hit on the now-gone "weekend matinee" circuit and played theaters for years. Pia Zadora, who was briefly a sexy starlet in the 1980s, plays one of the Martian children. John Call, as Santa, does a mean "ho, ho, ho."

And now, the second-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician. Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it.

Finally, the third-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa and the Three Bears" — If you lived in Southern California long ago, this 1970 blend of live action and cartoon was a Thanksgiving afternoon staple on KTLA Channel 5. The animation is mediocre, but the story has a simple charm. A forest ranger teaches two excitable bear cubs about Christmas while their grouchy mother bear wants them to hibernate for the winter. The ranger agrees to play Santa for the cubs on Christmas Eve, but a storm keeps "Santa" away ... or does it? The best part of the film is the live-action beginning and ending, where the ranger sits by the Christmas tree with his grandaughter, a sleepy cat and many toys. The ranger is voiced and played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Grumpy Mama Bear was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma on "The Flintstones"). The uncredited director is Barry Mahon, who made soft-core sex films in the 1960s with such titles as "Nudes Inc." and "The Sex Killer."

A footnote: These films can occasionally be found on TV. Indeed, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and "Santa Claus" are usually broadcast a Friday in December on KULC Channel 9 in Utah at 9 p.m. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is on this year (2010) on Christmas Eve on Channel 9 at 9 as part of Sci-Fi Friday. I have seen Santa and the Three Bears for sale at Honks and Deseret Industries. The above Hulu version has the non-Cartoon version, which many DVDS of S&T3Bs cuts out.Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Fear? All about Santa Claws


By Steve D. Stones

I have to admit that when I purchased this film on videotape in the late 1990s at a local Media Play store, I bought it mostly because it had a busty picture of Debbie Rochon on the video box cover. The back of the video cover also had a sexy girl in a bikini being attacked by the villain of the film, The Hooded Claw. This is obviously a clever marketing tactic to sell the video. After all, sex does indeed sell, even if the film is a total bust (no pun intended).

My other interest in purchasing this film was that I had heard that many of the actors involved in the original 1968 Night of The Living Dead were involved in this film, such as Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Bill Hinzman and John Russo. Russo played a zombie in Night of The Living Dead and was also screenwriter. Russo wrote and directed Santa Claws.

A teenage boy named Wayne witnesses his widowed mother in bed with his uncle Joe on Christmas Eve. This angers him, so he finds a gun in the bedroom dresser and kills both his mother and uncle Joe. That’s the last Christmas they’ll ever have! Wayne is rushed to a psychiatric clinic for mental evaluation. Director John Russo has a cameo in this scene as a police detective.

Fast forward 10 years later. Wayne is now a grown man living next door to Raven Quinn, a model and actress working in soft-core adult films for Scream Productions. Although Raven has a Master’s Degree in Zoology, she chooses to be in the soft-core industry for the easy money. Wayne has become a fanatical fan of Raven, and has a shrine devoted to all her movie collectibles, including a doll in her likeness that he fantasizes making out with.

Raven’s marriage to her husband Eric is on the rocks. Her husband is unfaithful by seeing one of his employees in his spare time. While picking up her children from her mother in laws home, Raven has an argument with her mother and sister in law. Both do not approve of Raven’s occupation as an adult film actress and model, even though her husband makes his living as a porn photographer. It seems it’s OK for members of their family to be involved with porn, but it’s not OK for an in law to be involved in the business too. Families sometimes have double standards.

While visiting Raven in her home, Wayne discovers that her marriage is quickly going downhill, so he volunteers to baby-sit her two children. Raven reveals to Wayne that some of the girls at Scream Productions may eclipse her popularity as the most popular “Scream Queen.”

In an attempt to maintain Raven’s popularity, Wayne then decides to murder one of the girls at Scream Productions while dressed in dark overalls and a black ski hat. He calls himself The Hooded Claw from a character in a Scream Queen film, and kills his victims with a gardening claw. He even manages to attack and kill a Scream Queen producer, played by Night of The Living Dead star Karl Hardman.

Later, Raven asks Wayne to baby-sit her two children. He puts sleeping pills in their hot chocolate so he can leave the home to go out on another murdering rampage.

Eric decides to leave his mistress and go back to Raven. When arriving home, he discovers that Wayne has doped the children to make them sleep. He leaves the home to go look for Raven at Scream Productions.

Before Eric arrives, Wayne sneaks into Scream Productions and kills several employees. Dressed in a black Santa suit, he waits for Eric to arrive and attacks both him and Raven. The two men struggle in a fight, but Raven eventually kills Wayne with his own gardening claw.

Aside from the fact that the film takes place during Christmas time, it is really not much of a Christmas film at all. Several strip tease sequences in the film show girls dancing around a Christmas tree and Christmas decorations, but the film is obviously more of a horror and soft-core sex film than a Christmas film. I'm sure the producers of this film were fully aware of this. Sometimes it makes good marketing sense to mix holidays with horror and sex.

Like so many Christmas horror films, the killer of the film really has no specific motivation for killing his victims. Even if he does, it doesn’t seem to be much of a motivation at all. In Silent Night, Deadly Night, for example, a young boy grows up to become a killer dressed in a Santa suit as a result of witnessing his parents killed by a man dressed as Santa when he was a child. In Santa Claws, Wayne the killer has even less of a motivation to kill his victims. He simply is a fan of a popular screen actress who does not want her fame to fade, so he begins to kill anyone who stands in her way of continued success. Is being a fan of anything really worth the risk of killing people?

Santa Claws is certainly not a Christmas film intended for the entire family, so I wouldn’t recommend that you watch this with the kids. Only fans of Debbie Rochon and soft-core sex and horror films need apply.

Monday, December 20, 2010

An animated A Christmas Carol



Some of us recall seeing this 25-minute "A Christmas Carol" on TV in the 1970s. Alistair Sim plays Scrooge, and he's almost as good as he was in the classic 1952 feature "Scrooge." This is a real Yuletide treat of an animated short that you just can't find anywhere to buy at a decent price. There are used out-of-print VHS tapes for sale at more than $100 on amazon. That's just too much, enjoy it here, courtesy of Google video. Trust me -- this is a great film. It's a Richard Williams production from 1971, also starring the voice of Michael Redgrave.

-- Doug Gibson

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Christmas is low on holiday cheer



By Steve D. Stones

A film like this could never be made for today’s audiences because most phones have caller IDs. The plot evolves around a killer making obscene phone calls to a university sorority house. Wes Craven’s Scream and John Carpenter’s Halloween both owe a great deal of credit to this film.

The opening sequence is a point of view shot of someone wandering outside a sorority house and peaking in a window. This same technique was used in the opening sequence of the 1978 Halloween to establish the point of view of little Michael Meyers walking up to his sister’s room to stab her to death. Carpenter may have borrowed this idea from Black Christmas, made just four years earlier in 1974.

The film immediately sets up the premise that someone is lurking in the attic of the sorority house just before college students are leaving for their Christmas break. The opening point of view shot continues with a shot indicating that someone is crawling through the window from outside the attic. The shot then cuts to an interior shot inside the house showing the opening of the attic uncovered.

Sorority sister Jess, played by Olivia Hussey, answers the telephone to someone making loud obscene noises. She holds up the phone so that everyone in the room can hear the call. A girl in the room asks if the caller is only one person. “That’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doing their annual obscene phone call,” says Barbara, played by Margot Kidder.


One of the sorority sisters named Claire Harrison is in her room packing to leave for the Christmas break. Her father is to pick her up later that evening. As she walks into her closet to remove some of her clothes, a figure can be seen hiding behind plastic. The figure lunges at her and strangles her with the plastic. Next we see Claire dead in a rocking chair in the attic with the plastic wrapped around her head. The killer is rocking her back and fourth in the chair.

Claire’s father, Mr. Harrison, comes to pick her up at the bell tower on campus later that evening. She never shows up, so he decides to go directly to the sorority house to find out what happened to her. The drunken housemother Mrs. Mack meets him. She suggests that Claire could be at the fraternity house on campus visiting a boy.

Mr. Harrison cannot find Claire anywhere on campus so he goes to the local police station with some of Claire’s friends to file a missing persons report. Lieutenant Fuller, played by John Saxon, forms a search party later that night.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Mack is now housemother to an empty sorority house, and is desperately trying to find Claire’s cat named Claude. She climbs up to the attic to discover the corpse of Claire as the killer swings a meat hook on a rope, killing her.

Jess arrives back at the sorority house to another obscene phone call. Another point of view shot shows legs coming down the stairs towards Jess. It is Jess’s boyfriend Peter. This is where the audience is led to believe that the killer has to be Peter.

Peter proposes marriage to Jess, but she refuses. Peter is concerned over Jess’s decision to have an abortion, since he is the father. The two have a fight and Peter angrily leaves the house.

Lieutenant Fuller has a tracing device put on the sorority house phone. Jess sits by the fireplace in the house to wait for another obscene phone call so that the police can trace the call. She hears the loud sound of someone choking, and rushes into Barbara’s room as she is having an asthma attack in her sleep. Christmas carolers begin singing loudly outside the house. Jess opens the door to listen to the carolers as the killer comes out of the attic and kills Barbara in her room.

Jess comes back into the house as the carolers leave. The phone rings and Jess picks up the phone, only to hear more obscene noises. A close up shot of Jess’s face as she tries to talk to the obscene caller puts the viewer on the edge of their seat.

The police are able to trace the phone call to the house itself. Police clerk Nash calls Jess and tells her to get out of the house immediately. Jess grabs a fire poker from the fireplace and walks up the stairs to discover Barbara and another girl dead. She sees an eye staring out of the bedroom closet. This is the most haunting shot in the entire film.

Jess runs down the stars, but is unable to get the front door open. As she runs back towards the stairs, we see a hand reach out and grab her hair. She is able to get away and lock herself in the basement. A shadowy figure peeks into the windows of the basement and begins to call Jess by name. He breaks the window and we discover it is Peter her boyfriend.

The police arrive to find Jess lying on top of dead Peter. She has killed him with the fire poker. The police take her up to her bedroom to rest. The film ends with the camera traveling back up to the attic to reveal that the killer is still there with the corpses of Claire and Mrs. Mack. Peter was not the killer after all.

I think it would be safe to say that this film sets up many of the typical clich├ęs that we now recognize in the slasher genre that saturated 1980s horror films. However, that is not to say that they are not effective in this film. There are many false scares in this film where the viewer is lead to believe one thing, but later discovers something else. Much of the horror in this film is implied, not shown.

For example, in one clever sequence, the parents of Claire Harrison are helping with the search effort to find their daughter. They see a girl screaming in a park and run to her. The camera shows a look of horror on their faces as they look down at something on the ground. The camera never shows what they are looking at, but we later discover they are seeing a murdered child, and not their daughter. The audience is led to believe it is their daughter they are looking at.

It is also quite clever that we never get to see what the killer looks like. As Jess runs down the stairs towards the end of the film and a hand reaches out over the banister to grab her, we never see who the person is, just the hand grabbing her. We also never see the killer as the camera travels back up to the attic at the end of the film, but we do know the killer is there. This is a clever tactic in never revealing to the audience who the killer really is.

As an interesting side note, producer/director Bob Clark went on to create A Christmas Story and the first two Porky’s films. All three films were a huge hit in the 1980s. Have yourself a scary little Christmas with Black Christmas this Christmas Season! And watch the really cool complete original trailer for the film above! "Black Christmas" is also this Friday's TCM Underground offering.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The most bizarre Xmas film: Santa Claus


"Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film, another K. Gordon Murray (badly) dubbed import, with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician. Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it. ... This film is playing on TCM Underground on Dec. 11, 2010.

-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

TAGS' The Christmas Story

Here's another recap/review of a great Andy Griffith Show episode. From Season 1, "The Christmas Story."
By Doug Gibson
The Andy Griffith Show, Season 1, Episode 11, "The Christmas Story." Starring Andy Griffith, Don Knotts Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Elinor Donahue. Guest starring Sam Edwards, Margaret Kerry and Joy Ellison as Sam, Bess and Effie Muggins, Will Wright as Ben Weaver.
Most successful TV situation comedies tend to have a Christmas episode and for some reason they are often produced in the first season: think "Mary Tyler Moore Show, "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days." TAGS was no exception producing its Christmas-themed show in the 11th episode. It's a well-paced, funny, heartwarming tale that features Ben Weaver, Mayberry's most prominent merchant, a crochety, stooped-shouldered somewhat Dickensian figure with a well-hidden heart of gold tucked behind his gruff exterior.
The plot involves Weaver (Will Wright) dragging in moonshiner Sam Edwards to the courthouse on Christmas Eve and demanding that Edwards be locked up. A big Christmas party is being planned and Andy asks Ben if he'll let Edwards have a furlough through Christmas. True to form Weaver refuses. It looks like the Christmas Party is off, until Andy invites Edwards wife, Bess, (Kerry), and daughter, Effie, (Ellison), to stay in the jail with dad. In a funny scene, Andy overrides Ben's objections by cross-examing Sam's smiling kin, who admit they knew about the moonshining!
The funny plot seamlessly turns serious as a lonely Weaver, his Grinch-like plans foiled, tries to get himself arrested. Writer Frank Tarloff -- who penned 9 TAGS episodes -- deserves a tip of the hat for his funny, ironic script. Ben's plans to get busted are foiled when party-goers, including Ellie, either pay his fines or donate "stolen property" to him. Finally, in a scene that can bring tears, we see a lonely Ben Weaver, standing in an alley, peeking through the jail window bars, softly singing along with a Christmas Carol sung in the courthouse.
I won't give way the end for the very few who might still have missed the show, but it should be noted that perhaps the reason TAGS never again attempted a Christmas episode is that it could never have topped this. Wright as Ben Weaver is simply magnificent. His page on IMDB.com says he looks as "if he was born old." The grizzled, stooped ex-Western actor actually died at the relatively young age of 68. He played Ben Weaver in three TAGS episodes, the last before his death of cancer. Several other actors played Weaver in later episodes, but only one, Tol Avery, captured even a smidgen of the cranky magic Wright gave the role. He was, and remains, Mayberry merchant Ben Weaver to TAGS fans. In his three episodes, Weaver created a happy Christmas, saved a family from homelessness and gave a tired traveling merchant a job.
Notes: "Family members" Edwards, Kerry and Ellison were the same family Wright's Weaver threatened with eviction in another TAGS episodes. They were the Scobees. Knotts' Fife played Santa Claus, in full costume and "ho ho hos." Donahue's Walker sang "Away in the Manger." Season 1 was a little uneven, with the cast developing their roles. Knotts was still being too often used only for manic comic relief. Taylor's Andy was still the impetus for most humor. In the second season Sheriff Taylor would began to react to the humorous situations of others, and the show would move to its current classic status as a result.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dario Argento’s Opera – A Night At The Italian Opera

By Steve D. Stones

Dario Argento has often been referred to as “the Italian Alfred Hitchcock” by fans and film historians. Both Argento and Hitchcock are masters of suspense and horror. The difference in the two directors is that Argento often injects his films with gruesome violence that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. His direction credits include – Deep Red-The Hatchet Murders, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Tenebrae, Cat O’Nine Tails, Creepers, Suspiria, and the 1987 film Opera (AKA Terror At The Opera).

Opera is the story of a young opera singer who takes over the leading role in a stage production of Verdi’s Macbeth. The young singer is an immediate sensation with opera fans that bring her flowers and gifts to show their devotion. One obsessive fan lurks around the opera house in a disguise, much like Erik The Phantom in The Phantom of The Opera.

The obsessive fan in disguise is a killer who ties and bounds the singer, forcing her to watch as he murders some of her friends involved with the opera production. He tapes sharp pins below her eyelids, forcing her to witness the murders. Close up shots of her eyes show the pins puncturing her eyelids.

Argento uses some of his trademark camera techniques in Opera by showing viewers the point of view of the killer, as if the audience participates in the murders. One particularly effective sequence shows the point of view of a black crow flying over the opera patrons. The crow attacks the killer sitting in the audience, pokes out his left eye and then eats the eyeball. This is a gruesome scene that is not for those with a weak stomach.

Blue Underground Entertainment released a beautiful widescreen DVD print of Opera in 2007, with digitally mastered THX sound and picture quality. The DVD also includes a 36 minute documentary of the making of Opera with interviews with director Dario Argento, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor and star Daria Nicoldi. This release is a must have for any serious collector of Argento’s films. It’s unfortunate that so many poor quality prints of Argento’s films are floating out in the marketplace to be bought. With Blue Underground, you will always get a high quality print of any film they sell.

Watch Opera with Argento’s other great masterpiece – Suspiria. Argento would return to the opera genre in 1998 with The Phantom of The Opera, starring his daughter Asia in a leading role.