It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
Television networks don't really do Halloween specials anymore. I'm not talking about Halloween-related TV episodes, which are more common than ever. I'm talking about one-off programs, specifically designed to ring in the spookiest season on Earth. It seems this habit peaked during the eighties, with “Garfield” and other pop culture icons anchoring half-hours of late October goofiness. The only reason I think ABC still chops out a small block of programming for “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is because people would riot if it didn't air, at least once during October. While other Halloween specials have been forgotten, watching Linus wait in the pumpkin patch remains a national tradition to this day.
In fact, “It's the Great Pumpkin” is such an institution, that I think people forget how genuinely funny it can be. The opening sequence is a long gag, Lucy and Linus rolling a huge pumpkin up to their house, all building up to Linus' hysterical dismay at the gourd being gutted. Once at Violet's Halloween party, the other girls using the back of Charlie Brown's head to design their jack-o'-lantern is pretty amusing. More so because of how visibly annoyed he is by it. “It's the Great Pumpkin” is also less episodic than many of the other “Peanuts” specials, too many of which just compiled a bunch of the comic strips together. The events of Halloween night tie everything together, save for Snoopy's adventures as a fighting ace. These, perhaps not coincidentally, are also the scenes that drag the most.
the surprisingly deep themes of “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” may hint towards its everlasting appeal. Many people have assumed a religious subtext to Linus' devotion to the Great Pumpkin, even in the face of everyone laughing at him. Charles Schultz denied this. He merely meant it as a joke, a child being devoted to a Santa Claus-like figure for Halloween. Yet you can't help but see something deeper in Linus' futile quest. More than religious clarity, he's searching for sincerity. The Great Pumpkin will visit the most sincere pumpkin patch, he believes. Linus rejects modern cynicism and commercialism, in order to believe in the beautiful idea of a magic pumpkin flying the sky on Halloween night. (Though his end credits rant and defense of his beliefs definitely read like a religious zealot offended by a non-believer.)
Linus needs to believe in something bigger than himself because Charles Schultz' world is so relentlessly downbeat. People are so used to the “Peanuts” world, to the endless merchandising of Snoopy and friends, that they forget the main joke of Schultz' work: That a bunch of kids are acting so beaten down by the world. Then again, the world is pretty awful to them. Charlie Brown gets it the worst. He always gets a rock in his trick-or-treat bag. Lucy always pulls the football away when he goes to kick it. Meanwhile, the Great Pumpkin never appears to Linus. Schroder will never acknowledge Lucy's desire for him. The world of “Peanuts” is one characterized by defeat and denial. And these kids are still in primary school! Beyond the pure marketability of Snoopy, I think this dark subtext is the true reason “Peanuts” remain popular. It's one of the few kids' programs that acknowledge how bad the world can suck.
Vince Guaraldi's light-jazz sounds gave the “Peanuts”-verse an audio design unlike any other kid's cartoon. In fact, there still aren't very many other programs with a distinctive and catchy soundtrack quite like this one.
It definitely says something about “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown's” status that nobody has ever attempted another “Peanuts”-themed Halloween special. The Christmas special is one of the most famous Christmas specials ever made but they still made three sequels. Apparently, the Great Pumpkin's legacy is too great to smear it with inferior follow-ups. On one hand, this is something of a shame. I'd welcome more high-profile Halloween specials. At the same time, “The Great Pumpkin” certainly stands alone as a surprisingly idiosyncratic, funny, and meaningful half-hour of animation. [8/10]
The Walking Dead (1936)
In today’s age, if an actor stars in a series of successful horror movies, they’ll probably win a cult following. If he or she are lucky, they’ll earn a decent career as a character actor. Most likely, they’ll appear in small roles in countless low budget and indie productions. During the age of the studio contract, things were different. Following the success of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi would appear in countless horror and mystery pictures. In 1936, Karloff would star in “The Walking Dead” for Warner Brothers. The film seemed designed to bring Karloff’s most famous role to mind. It features a scene where Karloff is brought back from the dead, causing a scientist to say “He’s alive!”
Judge Roberts sends a mobster to prison for ten years. Enraged, racketeer Blackstone decides the judge must die. Recent parolee John Ellman, who was also sentenced by Roberts, is chosen as the patsy. Roberts is murdered and Ellman is framed. The killing was witnessed by Nancy and Jimmy, the assistant of Doctor Beaumont. Before they can prove his innocence, Ellman is executed. Beaumont, who is experimenting with reviving dead hearts, successfully brings Ellman back to life. The revived Ellman is suddenly aware of the identity of the criminals and rotten lawyers that framed him. The somewhat zombified man seeks the truth.
Doctor X” and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” but before “Casablanca,” creates an incredibly moody looking film. As Ellman awaits execution, the bars of his prison cell casts shadows on his face. A musician, he requests the cello be played as he marches to his death, another atmospheric sequence. His resurrection is set in a laboratory, full of sparking equipment, providing some classic horror feeling. After being revived, the guilty party attend a piano concert by Ellman. He eerily stares at everyone responsible for his first death, making each of them sweat, an eerie sequence that is even a little suspenseful. The criminal offices, with their ominous ceiling fans over head, combine nicely with the thunderstorms and cemeteries you associate with the horror genre.
Apparently the part was more like the Frankenstein Monster until Karloff requested some rewrites. It was a good decision. After being brought back from the dead, Ellman's left eye droops some and he acquires a slopping posture. Karloff still creates a soulful, deeply sympathetic character. Following his return, he is stunned and cold, seemingly getting used to being alive again. In fact, the character is so sympathetic that the film doesn't even make him a villain. Ellman does not seek out revenge on his enemies, only answers. Each one just happens to accidentally die in his presence. The first time it happens, a man tripping over a chair while handling a loaded gun, it's fine. As it keeps happening, things become a little ridiculous – a sudden heart attack? Someone carelessly running into the path of a train? – but Karloff's emotional performance still manages to redeem the somewhat contrived script.
The film also throws in the expected message at the end, about how scientists shouldn't tamper in God's domain. Admittedly, this theme is incorporated a little more organically, since divine retribution plays a theme all throughout the film. While “The Walking Dead” is not the most enduring or fascinating film Karloff would star in that decade, it's a pretty good one. Beautifully shot, well acted, and with some interesting writing decisions, it stands out among the many other, somewhat forgettable one-offs talent like Boris and Lugosi would lend their names too. If nothing else, I'd certainly watch it over that other “Walking Dead” any day of the week. [7/10]
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Earlier in the month, I watched “Bride of the Monster.” At the time, I not-so-boldly declared that Edward D. Wood Jr. was far from the worst director of all time. If this is true, and I think it is, the common belief that “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is the worst movie of all time is also a falsehood. This decision was decided by Harry and Michael Medved, who also hated a few other movies I like or at least find interesting. Though the Medveds are practically forgotten, and many other far worst directors and films have emerged in the years since, the stigma around Ed Wood and “Plan 9” have remained. No more. Let's talk about why “Plan 9” is, in fact, a worthwhile film.
The plot begins with an old man, so despondent after the death of his younger wife that he walks into traffic. At the same time, flying saucers are being spotted in the skies above Hollywood. Pilot Jeff Trent spots a saucer. He soon learns that the U.S. military is well aware of these crafts, having occasionally fired missiles at it. The alien invaders – led by Commander Eros – realize they must conquer Earth before they uncover a weapon so powerful it can destroy the universe. Their latest plan to take over the world, their ninth, involves resurrecting the dead. The old man, his wife, and a police inspector are among the first dead brought to life.
stupid minds – is quotable. The decision to let sham psychic Criswell narrate the film allows the orator to deliver some truly staggering monologues, which are baffling, circular, and hilarious.
As beholden to the past as Wood's ideas are, in some ways, he was somewhat ahead of his time. There is an element of conspiracy to “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” The government knows about the aliens and have been covering their existence up. Apparently an entire town was destroyed by forces from outer space in the past, the entire incident expunged from the record. Conspiracy theories and government cover-ups like these wouldn't really come into vogue until the next decade. The film's ending is also surprisingly bleak. The aliens want to destroy humans because we are too violent, fated to destroy ourselves and everyone else. The “heroes” prove this by destroying the invaders, somewhat cruelly and senselessly. You wouldn't expect a movie from 1959 to accuse the U.S. government of underhanded deeds, of two-fisted heroes of being self-destructive jerks.
a deeply unconvincing body double, the limited acting abilities of Tor Johnson. The film's minuscule production values are likely the biggest target. People make fun of the pie-pan flying saucers and the cardboard tombstones. Yet I find these elements extremely charming. Despite a tiny budget, the movie's cinematography is actually quite good. The graveyard scenes have a lot of fog, feeling like a small town theater's attempt to replicate classically spooky imagery. As much as people mock the film, some of its images have even become iconic. Since so few of her shows actually survive, this film is where most people saw Vampira for the first time. Her signature look – tiny waist, deep cleavage, pale skin, raven hair – certainly made a lasting impact on pop culture.
Ed Wood's epic obviously has flaws. The leaps within the film's time line can induce whiplash. People are entombed seemingly within minutes, while the military's actions involving the UFOs shifts from scene to scene. Obviously the story is strange and borderline incoherent. Once again, neither of these issues prevent the movie from being entertaining. Many of the film's flaws only enhance its entertainment value. While “Plan 9” still resides in the bottom 100 over at IMDb, I'd like to think people who appreciate the movie outnumber those that don't. After all, it did spawn a computer and a remake of sorts. I imagine lots of people start watching it, expecting the worst movie of all time, and actually find an utterly amusing slice of cheese that never drags and always fascinates. [7/10]
Peeping Tom (1960)
I don't know if anyone reading this pays attention to the meticulously organized tags I apply to each blog post. If you do, you probably notice that I throw the term “classic horror” around quite a bit. But “classic” is a mutable term. How does one define when the era of classic horror ends and the modern era begins? That's an easy question for me to answer. 1960 is the year two horror masterpieces were released, completely shattering the conceptions of what the genre was capable of and moving it once and for all into the modern day. Those films were Alfred Hitchcock's “Psycho” and what is often thought of as its British counterpart: Michael Powell's “Peeping Tom.”
Mark Lewis did not have a happy childhood. His father was a renowned behavioral psychologist. What the public doesn't know is that Dr. Lewis used his own son as a guinea pig, gauging his reaction to fearful stimuli and recording all of it. This gave Mark an obsession with film, photographs, and the nature of fear. He works as a cameraman on a film set, with a side gig taking pictures of naked women. Late at night, he stalks the streets, picking up female victims, killing them and recording their deaths. Quite against his will, Mark begins to fall in love with Helen, the pretty redhead girl down stairs. Soon, his growing feelings for Helen and his desire to kill are warring against each other.
mostly floats under the surface, Powell's film is all about the act of watching and being watched. The film's opening scene is shown from Mark's perspective, as he picks up a prostitute and prepares to kill her. This directly aligns the audience's point-of-view with that of a serial killer. From the very beginning, “Peeping Tom” implements the audience in Mark's crime. Audiences have watched death, destruction, and all sorts of unspeakable acts get carried on-screen since the camera's invention. Few films before “Peeping Tom” so directly interrogated this act. Mark's obsession with watching is directly linked with his need to kill, tied up in a vicious childhood. What's the audience's excuse? For asking this question, “Peeping Tom” turned the entire horror genre on its head.
It's also an extremely pathological film. The film's sexual content is tame by modern standards but pushed mainstream decency in 1960. In his adventures, Mark encounters prostitutes and nude models, one of which has a deformed face. He works part-time in a porn shop. Yet bare flesh is not truly exciting for him. Instead, he has an erotic fixation with fear, specifically capturing it on camera. Powell is not subtle about this. Mark's weapon of choice is the sharpened tip of a tripod leg, which he extends upward when he's ready to kill. He caresses the leg as he lifts and extends it, making the erection metaphor more obvious. Murder is how he has sex. Mark's sex/death drive reaches its peak with the film's climax, where he films himself committing suicide, stabbed with own penis-knife. It's fairly perverse by modern standards, so no wonder it was like a bombshell fifty-eight years ago.
Powell's direction is more-or-less the star of “Peeping Tom.” However, the film also features an excellent cast. Carl Boehm plays Mark as a deeply clinical man. He's a ball of nerves, so scared of loosing control of his impulses. It becomes clear that he doesn't even really want to kill but is driven to do so. This complete commitment to verisimilitude makes Boehm both terrifying and deeply empathic. Anna Massey is also the perfect girl next door as Helen, a sweet and innocent visage. You really understand why she would pull Mark away from his homicidal needs. As sweet as Helen is, her mother is equally jaded. The blind woman is rightfully suspicious of Mark and Maxine Audley is well utilized in the part. Lastly, I love Moira Shearer as Vivian, the beautiful and vivacious dancer. Her screen time is limited but Shearer makes the impact of her life, and death, felt.
Powell's career never recovered. Of course, now people realize the film is genius. You already know that. What you might not know is “Peeping Tom” is still a visceral and highly disturbing experience. [9/10]
The Mutilator (1984)
Since so many slasher films are nearly identical, incredibly superficial things tend to make or break these movies. I'm talking about poster/box art and taglines. In the video stores, where these movies really thrived, that stuff was especially important. Take “The Mutilator,” for example. Neither that title, nor it's original title of “Fall Break,” are especially catchy or memorable. But that poster art, of four corpses hooked to a wall while a gaffing hook rears in the foreground? An instant classic. And the delightfully dumb but catchy tag line – “By sword, by pick, by axe, bye bye!” – guaranteed that a certain breed of horror fan would never forget about this movie, even if everything else about it was forgettable. Which begs the question: Is there anything more to “The Mutilator” besides that bitchin' poster and hilarious tagline?
As a kid, Ed Jr. wanted to surprise his father on his birthday. He decided to clean the rifles in dad's gun cabinet. Instead, the rifle went off and shot Ed's mom. Big Ed never got over this trauma. Years later, Junior and his friends are trying to think of something to do over fall break. That's when Ed gets a call from his dad. Big Ed wants his son to watch over his vacation home, on the North Carolina coast. Ed doesn't want to go but his friends talk him into it. As they arrive, they think the building is abandoned. Instead, Big Ed is passed out drunk in the basement. He finally snaps, picks up his battle axe, and decides to murder everyone present. Including his son.
Cooper does little to distinguish the film from many similar slashers. Though the cool blue tinted coloration is interesting, “The Mutilator” doesn't utilize the dreary beach setting for much. About the only thing Cooper's film really has going for it is the gore. But, holy shit, the gore, you guys. The violence in “The Mutilator” is seriously elaborate. The opening gunshot, that begins this carnage, is very wet and splattery. Big Ed utilizes a number of tools in his shed to kill his victims. He uses that bad-ass axe to decapitate a few people or cleave off a leg. There's even some ridiculous humor here, some of it unintentional. A headless body kicks comically. An off-board boat motor cuts up a guy, in an extended and silly scene. Most infamously, Big Ed puts the gaffing hook on the poster inside a young lady in a very uncomfortable way. That's a sickening moment and, hey, why else do we watch these movies?
Perhaps adding to its infamy was the fact that “The Mutilator,” for a long time, was hard to get a hold of. The film floated around on VHS in two forms: The uncut and unrated form and an R-rated version that removed all the awesome gore. These prints were also overly dark, another frequent flaw of watching eighties horror on video tape. For many years, we heard rumbles that a restored and cleaned-up DVD release of the film would arrive. That didn't actually hit until Arrow put out their Blu-Ray not too long ago. I'm still not sure whether or not “The Mutilator” is actually a good movie. It's certainly not a sturdy motion picture. However, I do kind of enjoy its hyper-violent, deeply dumb but also almost smart mixture. [6/10]
Into the Dark: The Body (2018)
The term “television series” probably needs to be redefined. With the rise of digital streaming, and show's increasingly utilizing serialized storytellig, the line between TV, movies, and mini-series is blurred more than ever. Hulu and Blumhouse decided to mix things up even more this October. The production company and streaming service debuted a new horror anthology series this month called “Into the Dark.” Except, get this, each episode is feature length, a new one coming out every month. So is “Into the Dark” a show or a collection of movies? It's ahrd to say. Mostly, I wanted to check out “The Body” for two reasons. First off, it's set on Halloween and I like to cap the Blog-a-thon off with a film actually set on the day. Secondly, it was directed by Paul Davis, a guy I would occasionally chat with back on the MovieManiacs.net forum.
It's Halloween night and hitman Wilkes has just assassinated his latest target. His mysterious employer, whom he only knows as a voice over the phone, tells the killer to leave the body in a specific location at a specific time. But there's a problem. Pranksters have slashed the tires of all the cars outside. Wilkes, dragging the saran wrapped dead body behind him, is quickly met by a group of partying twenty-somethings. They assume Wilkes is just dressed as a hitman for Halloween, that the corpse is part of his costume. Needing a ride, he gets dragged to a Halloween party. Soon, the situation grows way more complicated and Wilkes is chasing the trio all across L.A.
However, I think “The Body” is definitely trying way too hard. Writer/director Davis shows his horror nerd roots with a few too many obvious shouts. 1934's “The Black Cat” is directly quoted. ”Breaking Bad” is talked about. A chase scene through a mortuary obviously pays homage to “Phantasm.” There are long conversations about history and gender, all of which go on too long. “The Body” works far too hard to appear modern, piping references to the #MeToo movement and a number of modern political and social problems. Similarly, the parts of the film revolving around computers and hacking strain credibility. Over all, the central trio Wilkes is pursuing are a little annoying. There are far too many scenes of Alan, Jack, and Dorothy bickering among themselves, trying to figure out what to do. The film sometimes expends too much energy trying to inform the audience of how hype and in-the-know it is.
I like the idea behind “Into the Dark.” A new horror movie coming out every month, often themed to the appropriate holidays, could be a lot of fun. “The Body” definitely shows some promise. (Though I wish it utilized its Halloween setting a little more, outside of the party the story begins at.) The film, or episode or whatever you wanna call it, definitely stumbles under the strain of trying to prove itself. When focusing on creative bloodshed or an irresistibly perverse villain, it proves to be fairly likable. We'll see how the rest of the experiment fares. “The Body” is uneven but not without its moments. [6/10]
The journey is complete, fellow travelers. We have now arrived at the other end of the Autumn Country, our six week long trip coming to a close. I'm going to say this one was a win. Halloween itself was awesome. I hit a haunted attraction, handed out candy, dressed up, went to a horror convention, and eat too much chocolate.
So, good night, Halloween 2018. You were a fun guy to hang out with! November looms. November has already begun. The creeps and ghouls, spirits and ghosts, slink back to their tombs. The cemetery is quiet now until next September. I sigh satisfactorily as I pull my casket lid shut. Another Halloween down, another one to come. Farewell, old friend. We'll see each other again real soon.