Saturday, December 28, 2019

Bela Lugosi -- The Monogramthology, a book review

Book review by Doug Gibson

There's been a literary boom regarding the nine Monogram films of Bela Lugosi. A short while back academics Gary D. Rhodes and Robert Guffey co-authored Bela Lugosi and The Monogram 9 (BearManor Media), which analyzed and deconstructed the films, from Invisible Ghost to Return of the Ape Man. (Our review of that book is here). And ....

Late in the year 2019 arrived Bela Lugosi: The Monogramthology, (Arcane Shadows Press), an anthology of "homage fiction," nine short stories, ranging from a few pages to mini-novellas, each based on the nine Lugosi films: Invisible Ghost, Spooks Run Wild, Black Dragons, The Corpse Vanishes, Bowery After Midnight, The Ape Man, Ghosts on the Loose, Voodoo Man, and The Return of the Ape Man. Bookending the collection are a forward by Drac, Classic Horror Host, and and afterward from his companion, Carita Drac. Both touch on aspects of Bela Lugosi's career and challenges. They are entertaining reads.

When a fellow fan reviews homage fiction, and I am a big fan of the Monogram series, it's important to focus on the author's story. Is it entertaining, well constructed, or does it flow well? My personal beliefs on how the films should be massaged into prequels, sequels, production dramas ... that's really not important.

Reader, if you need to learn the plots, consult Wikipedia or some of the reviews on our blog. This review assumes readers know the plots. There are prequels, sequels and more. I find much to praise in the stories. The authors have created art that manages to capture the spirit of the iconic 9 films. In some stories, characters from distinct films manage to encounter each other. That seems appropriate to this reviewer, given the mystical world of the Monogram, with Bela Lugosi as "God" of each film.

I have minor quibbles with some stories. I have two or three favorites. To apply equal space to the nine story-tellers, each will have a capsule review that includes the name of the story, the name of the author, and a few observations. A main goal of mine is not to cheat the reader of discovering chief plot elements.

-- The Invisible Cell, by Robert J. Kokai Jr. (from Invisible Ghost) -- This sequel involves what happens soon after Charles Kessler, played by Lugosi, is taken into custody for several murders he committed in a trance after he sees his estranged, thought-dead wife. Kessler narrates an interesting tale heavy on psychology and madness, with a clever twist at the end.

--Spooks Run Wild ... Again, by Dwight Kemper (from Spooks Run Wild) -- This is a pithy, fast-moving story of a production crisis when producer Sam Katzman accuses this mischievous East Side Kids actors of stealing the film. Bela Lugosi, star of the film, uses his talents to discover the truth of the theft.

-- Black Dragons II: Count Dracula vs. a Phantom of the Opera, by Todd Shiba, (from Black Dragons) -- The author takes Black Dragons, a World War II semi-propaganda film that is easily the most convoluted of the Monogram 9 and ... creates a very long short story that manages to be even more convoluted than the movie. I'm not criticizing the author. The wild, ever-changing plot is an intentional spoof on the film. It's done well, and with humor. My only criticism is a few pages could be trimmed from the 43-page story.

-- Happy Birthday Countess, by Gregory William Mank, (from The Corpse Vanishes) -- This is my favorite story. Film scholar Mank, who knows the genre as well as anyone, crafts a short but deeply affecting prequel of how Lugosi's Dr. George Lorenz, the mad scientist of The Corpse Vanishes, met his vain, cruel, mostly unfeeling wife/countess. It's a strong tale of unrequited love turning a relationship into co-dependency, madness and depravity.

-- Bowery After Midnight, by Brian Carney, (from Bowery At Midnight) -- This sequel takes survivors from Bowery at Midnight back to the soup kitchen where Lugosi's character also ran a criminal enterprise, with many murders. It appears that restless spirits are haunting the location. There's a fake spiritualist, a taunting magician, a confused young couple (particularly the man), and a supernatural god who can open, and close horrific passages. Characters from other Monogram 9 films make appearances.

-- The Gorilla Strikes! by Kurt McCoy, (from The Ape Man) -- This 45-page sequel is jarring with its passages of violence and sadism in a carnival atmosphere where Dr. James Brewster, Bela Lugosi's Ape Man, is now living, having survived the previous film; but still needing spinal fluid to appear normal for short periods. I was initially put off by the tale, contrasting its extreme violence with the G-rated implied or mild violence in the film. A second reading, however, made me a big fan. McCoy has crafted very strong pulp fiction. It's as good, even better, than Ed Wood's' pulp fiction produced in the last decade of his life. That is a compliment, by the way.

-- The Bride of Andy Hardy Meets Dracula, by Frank J. Dello Stritto, (from Ghosts on the Loose) -- This is a favorite tale of mine as well. It stays away from the plot and instead imagines how Ava Gardner, on loan from MGM and not a star yet, may have felt while acting in this poverty-row film, her first movie where she's among the stars' names. As a still-young woman better known as Mrs. Mickey Rooney than Ava Gardner, she and Lugosi share a day on the set, and Dello Stritto also imagines how one of Lugosi's most controversial lines came to be.

-- Voodoo Man Returns, by Brad A. Braddock, (from Voodoo Man) -- Braddock, who has written a prequel novel to Lugosi's film, White Zombie, crafts an entertaining revenge tale taking place after the finish of Voodoo Man. Lugosi is resurrected via voodoo, helped by confederates played in the film by George Zucco and John Carradine. Lugosi's mad scientist Dr. Marlowe, is outraged at how his dead wife has been treated by a local judge. The 25-page story generates suspense and reads quickly.

-- The Road to Madness: A Prequel to Return of the Ape Man, by Stefanie Kokai, (from Return of the Ape Man) -- This is a love story, narrated by the woman who once had requited love with Prof. James Dexter, the obsessed scientist who tries to swap brains with a neanderthal in the film. But that's in the future. In this romantic tragedy, the narrator relates how Dexter's life was almost led astray from his obsession by a greater power, love. The story has an interesting twist, involving the narrator, that I'll let readers discover.

This anthology will attract notice from fans of the films interested in sampling the literary additions. However, those unfamiliar with the movies could also be motivated to see the films after reading these tales for a dark night in a warm easy chair or bed.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Our favorite kitschy Christmas films at Plan9Crunch

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

By Doug Gibson

Every December (or after Thanksgiving!)  the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "The Shop Around the Corner," "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." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)

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 grand-daughter, 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. and on TCM. Antenna TV sometimes plays "... Martians" during the Christmas season. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Silent Night, Deadly Night, Utah-made sleazy terror for the holidays

By Steve D. Stones

Just how sleazy is the holiday horror film SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT? Paige Hurley, a concerned parent from Minnesota said: "My 3-year old son saw the television commercial for SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT last week and now refuses to sit on Santa’s lap for our annual Christmas picture this year. What next? A marauding turkey at Thanksgiving?" Roxanne T. Mueller of the Cleveland Plain Dealer said: "SILENT NIGHT, DEALY NIGHT is a sleazy, miserable, insulting piece of garbage!" Actor Mickey Rooney said: "How dare they! I’m all for the First Amendment, but … don’t give me Santa Claus with a gun going to kill someone. The scum who made that movie should be run out of town." As you can see, critics were not very kind to this movie.

Like DON’T GO IN THE WOODS . . . ALONE, this film has a special appeal to me because it was filmed locally in Heber City, Utah. In fact, directors James Bryan and Charles Sellier Jr. both worked on the Grizzly Adams TV show of the 1970s.The story begins with a young family traveling to a Utah mental facility to visit their grandfather on Christmas Eve. For years, the grandfather has pretended to be unconscious and mute. After greeting the grandfather, the parents leave the room to attend to some formalities with the superintendent while Billy stays to watch his grandfather. The grandfather begins to warn little Billy that only good children can receive gifts from Santa, and Santa severely punishes all naughty children.

On their way back home, Billy expresses a lack of interest in Santa visiting their home on Christmas because he is afraid of being punished. Soon they encounter a man dressed in a Santa suit pulled off the side of the road with car trouble. The Santa has just robbed a local convenient store. The father pulls over to offer help, but the man points a gun at him. He quickly puts the car in reverse, crashing into a nearby ditch. The father is knocked out unconscious. Santa pulls the mother out of the car, raping and murdering her. Billy witnesses her murder after fleeing from the car and hiding in the brush near the ditch.

Four years later in December 1974, Billy is now living at Saint Mary’s Home For Orphaned Children. Mother Superior disciplines Billy for showing a violent crayon drawing of Santa to his classmates. While walking in the hallway to his room, Billy witnesses a young couple having sex in their room. This triggers a flashback in his mind of the rape and murder of his mother. Even sitting on Santa’s lap at the orphanage seems to trigger the violent flashbacks of his mother.

It is now Christmas time 1984, and Billy is a grown up teenager working at a toy store. One of his co-workers constantly teases and bullies him at work. He develops a crush on a pretty brunette girl who also works at the toy store. He even has sexual fantasies about her in his dreams. His boss insists that he dress up as Santa to greet costumers. He is very hesitant to take on this assignment because of what he witnessed of his mother many years ago, but soon agrees to dress up as Jolly O’ Saint Nick.

One night while leaving the store, he witnesses his bully co-worker raping the pretty brunette girl in the back storage room. Once again, this triggers another flashback of his mother being raped. This time he becomes violent and kills the man by hanging him with Christmas lights. For the rest of the film, Billy goes on a murdering rampage with an axe and dressed in his Santa suit.

One particularly sleazy and gratuitous scene in the film shows Linnea Quigley, the most famous star of the film, having sex on a pool table with her boyfriend. She hears a cat outside the house and decides to open the front door topless to let it inside. How many women would really open the front door topless to let a cat in the house? This is not very believable. Soon Billy enters the home and picks Quigley up, impaling her on the antlers of an antelope head hanging above the fireplace. The real Santa will have quite a surprise when he comes down this particular chimney tonight!

Although I’m a fan of this film, I do have my criticisms of it. This film is an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween some six years earlier. The 1980s ushered in the "slasher genre" as a result of Halloween, and this is one of many 1980s films that fits this category.

What makes Michael Meyers such a believable killer is that we really do not know why he kills, and we never see his face. Plus, we feel Meyers is evil and has no remorse for his actions because he is not aware they are wrong. The Billy character in this film is not quite believable because we are given a long history into his life, and he appears to be the typical all American boy up until he witnesses the girl at the toy store being raped by his co-worker. He does not come across as being evil and seems to be killing for only the sake of witnessing a rape. Perhaps this is one of many reasons why parents all across America were protesting and banning movie theatres for screening this film.

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is a film I would only recommend to fans of the "slasher genre" of the 1980s. If you’re looking for a well-made, classic holiday horror film, I would highly recommend BLACK CHRISTMASfrom 1974. BLACK CHRISTMAS pre-dates the "slasher genre" by nearly a decade, and is said to be John Carpenter’s inspiration for Halloween.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

A Christmas Carol and its many adaptations

Review by Doug Gibson

(I first released this several months ago but am re-posting it for Holidays Season's reading) If you are A Christmas Carol fanatic, like me, who reads Dickens' novella every year and watches seven or eight film versions of Ebenezer Scrooge's ghostly visitations every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas ... you have found Nirvana. It's "A Christmas Carol and its Adaptations: Dickens's Story on Screen and Television," by Fred Guida, McFarland, 2000 (800-253-2187). You can also get it via Amazon here.

You don't have to be a fanatic like me to love the book too. If you enjoy Dickens, A Christmas Carol, or just Christmas you'll love what's to learn from author Guida. I have spent more than a generation looking for a really good book that highlights film adaptations of A Christmas Carol. For 25 years I've relied on the OK but slightly kitschy A Christmas Carol Trivia Book ... I've read it 20 times but it's second string to McFarland's offering.

Besides, extensively detailed, and sagely opinionated critiques of the various film adaptations, Guida presents readers with a history of fiction, in America and Britain, that preceded Dickens' and paved the way for the spiritual, moral and familial themes Dickens' utilized in A Christmas Carol. The author also provides short recaps and analysis of Dickens' Christmas-related works including "Cricket on the Hearth," and discusses Christmas in other novels, such as A Pickwick Papers. This deepens readers' understanding of Dickens' motivations and his state of mind when penning these tales.

I learned a lot about the history of 19th century adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Many were cheap pirated editions that kept Dickens in court trying to stop them and prevent losing royalties that he deserved. The first adaptations were stage readings, usually a shorter version written by the author. The journey toward "flickers" versions of A Christmas Carol" in the 19th century included the delightfully named "Magic Lantern" adaptations. They are the early ancestors of slideshows in which a lantern, projected against a painting or drawing, provided a screen that audiences could enjoy the tale. It would be fascinating to see a restored magic lantern version of the tale today. Early stage versions are covered. It was interesting to learn that Cricket on the Hearth was a more popular stage play for Christmas than "Carol" in the 19th century.

Although it's a scholarly work, the author has a relaxed, conversational tone. He breaks in often with firm but gentle opinions and I enjoyed his "on to the next"-type of transitions from adaptation to adaptation.

As for the theatrical versions, silent and talking, just about everything from 1900 to 1990 or so, when the book was published, is covered well. Many of the silents are lost but the author has retained still photos and film reviews when available. To understand Guida's assessments, it must be noted that he places great relevance of the moral changes of Scrooge from selfish, superior misanthrope to repentant, spiritual man. Guida also includes the familial warmth of the The Cratchit family as an essential part of any adaptation. There is one particular scene that he feels strongly should be included in adaptations (and I agree). It is Scrooge being shown the pitiable children "Ignorance" and "Want." There are versions that he likes that don't include it, but he's correct that versions should include it. The final scene with The Spirit of Christmas Present provides stark evidence of what Scrooge has callously neglected to assist. It shows him that smug self righteousness masquerading as "self reliance" is harming "millions like this child."

Guida's favorite theatrical versions are the 1951 "A Christmas Carol" with Alistair Sim and the 1984 version with George C. Scott. They portray Scrooge as a cold superior bereft of empathy, rather than as a pitiful crabby man (portrayals of which hamper the 1938 and 1935 talkies versions). His favorite cartoons are the early 1970s A Christmas Carol, again with Sim, and the 1960s Mr. McGoo's A Christmas Carol." Both are regretfully seldom seen today on TV.

I was surprised Guida likes the 1970 big-budget musical "Scrooge," with Albert Finney. It seems brassy to me but Guida argues that it's a successful version that captures well a big-budget musical of Dickens' tale. I'm willing to give it another shot. The author does sort of dismiss "A Muppet Christmas Carol," arguing that it will have less influence than other versions. I think time has proven that wrong, as probably 80 percent of young children are now introduced to A Christmas Carol through Kermit and Miss Piggy as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit. And the songs in the Muppet version are better than the 1970 musical offerings.

However, despite versions that Guida considers second tier, he generally still enjoys the films and finds positive points in the films. He has a scholar's love for his topic and gets deep into the details of the planning and production of the films. And he finds gems that I had never heard of. I will be searching for a 1947 Spanish (Spain) version of "... Carol" called "Leyenda de la Navidad."

While I appreciate Guida's efforts to track down every TV version inspired by A Christmas Carol, it's an impossible task. We didn't need reviews of versions from "Beavis and Butthead" or kitschy sitcoms. The small-typed scores of pages devoted to this would have been better filled with maybe 20 select, superior TV adaptations, such as The Andy Griffith's Show's "The Christmas Story," with the Scrooge-like merchant Ben Weaver, covered in two-to-three pages of more detailed analysis.

It's a shame that the book stops at about 30 years ago. I'd love to see summaries of, say, A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge, and the big-budget Disney's A Christmas Carol, with Jim Carrey. But still, if you love Dickens' tale, or just like it, buy this book -- either to learn more abolut what's arguably our most famous fictional work or to just joyfully revel in the wonderful, inspired Christmas tale.

And just so you know, fans, a 2019 version of A Christmas Carol, with Tom Hardy, is set for release this year. We are only about eight months from the start of the Christmas season!