Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween !! THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN 1966

Monster kid classic as Don Knotts (along with able assistance from Playboy 
Playmate Joan Staley !!) solves gruesome goings-on at "the old Simmons's place"!

     This perennial Halloween season classic served as a "gateway" horror movie for many a monster kid back in the '60s as after successful theatrical run in 1966 it showed up constantly on T.V. throughout the coming decade or so (usually on rainy Sat. afternoons as I remember).  Anchored by a Barney Fife amped up to about "11" performance by Don Knotts and a supporting cast filled with an almost who's who of 60's TV character actors (several carried over from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) all set among the familiar surroundings of the Universal backlot THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN feels like an old familiar friend each time you revisit it.
      After 5 seasons on the highly successful TV show that bore his name Andy Griffith decided he was leaving the show and co-star Don Knotts seeing an end to the series signed a multi-picture deal with Universal on the strength of his 1965 hit THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET. Griffith was offered a salary increase by CBS whereupon he decided to continue with the series while Knotts went to his successful movie career.
     Putting Knotts in a haunted house would seem to the makings of comedy gold (and it surely is as this plot was explored a bit before with Barney Fife investigating a spooky house in the "Haunted House" episode). Featuring a "G" friendly plot with some surprisingly gruesome bits as throat stabbings are openly discussed along blood dripping portraits, it's filled with catchphrases ("Atta boy Luther !","And they used Bon Ami", "The horribleness and awfulness of it will never be actually forgotten") that become ingrained in popular culture.

    As mentioned Knotts plays here the same character that he perfected over 5 seasons - the bumbling lovable schmuck who's constantly huffing & puffing to inflate his own self-confidence. Here playing typesetter of a local paper ("The Rachel Courier Express") in small-town Kansas, he a little too eagerly dreams of being a reporter and secretly pines for local all-American hometown girl Alma "Above Average" Parker (Joan Staley Playboy Mrs. Nov. 1958). Beset by his co-worker and rival for Alma in the form reporter Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier THE TALL T) he jumps at the chance to prove his worth by spending the night in an infamous local haunted house (ominously referred to throughout as "the Simmons's House") at the urging of Ollie and his editor George Beckett (Dick Sargent - Darren # 2 on BEWITCHED).
     The house was the site of murder/suicide twenty years ago and also lurking about the proceedings is the heir and current owner of the house Nicolas Simmons (booming voiced character actor Phil Ober NORTH BY NORTHWEST). Spending the night in the house on the anniversary of the crime in order to write a story Luther uncovers much more going on than originally thought, but not before having to prove his narrative of the night in typical Knotts fashion.
     It's not surprising that the film bears a nodding resemblance to Knotts's recent series as director Alan Rafkin (SKI PARTY) along with writers James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum were all veterans of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Filmed in all that 1960's widescreen technicolor glory its a ravishing film to behold (especially on the new blu-ray just released by Universal) with some excellent a creepy set design work by Oliver Emert with the standout being the cobweb and bric-a-brac festoon interior of the old mansion. And who can ever forget that Vic Mizzy score ??

    Featuring a cornucopia of well known nosy maids, daffy neighbors, and officious business types it's literally packed to gills with folks who have popped up in hundreds of TV shows including Reta Shaw, Harry Hilcox, Hope Summers, Eddie Quillan, Philip Ober, Harry Hines, James Millhollin, Herbie "I'm almost up to my jello" Faye, stock busybody Lurene Tuttle and the wonderful Al Checco (whose president of the "International Conclave for UFOs").  There are so many faces hereabouts that you got both Charles Lane AND Bert Mustin who between the two of them played the grouchy old guy in every TV show in the 1960s.
     Knotts gets put down occasionally for being a one-trick pony, but what a trick it is and he was truly an American treasure. Watching him here you really realize just how great his timing is. Just check out the sequence during the speech at the park and its pure comic gold. Whether frantically pushing the buttons on his Edsel push-button transmission car ("So I whipped the Edsel on around") or engaging in karate ("Turned my whole body into a weapon") he's a larger than life comedic force here.

    Joan Staley appeared in Nov. 1958 Playboy and although a blonde she appears here in a short brunette wig in order to project a more wholesome image. She had a pretty impressive career appearing in CAPE FEAR and the "rat pack lite" sans Frank & Dino gangster film JOHNNY COOL. She's very beguiling here emoting both a small-town girl next door vibe with just a hint of flirty playfulness.
    Although often mistakenly identified as the Munster House from the popular TV show or the gaunt Victorian from Hitchcock's PSYCHO the house in question stood on the Universal backlot and was right next door to the Munster house. 

Friday, October 28, 2016


Classic 70's Stephen King TV Terror !!

      One of the true milestones of small-screen terror, this Stephen King adaption remains to this day one of the most frightening examples of TV horror and stands (both theatrical and TV) as one of the best King screen translations ever filmed. Premiering on Nov. 17, 1979, it's 181-minute running time was spread over two nights with the conclusion airing on Nov. 24. Directed by Tobe Hooper (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) and right in between his work on EATEN ALIVE and 1980's FUNHOUSE his choice as a director for a TV movie was unusual in that a horror director (arguably at the height of his powers) would be chosen to helm a TV project.
     King's sprawling novel mixing vampires & small town corruption from within into a Peyton Place like setting (in fact SALEM'S LOT screenwriter was Paul Monash who worked on PEYTON PLACE) and was the first of his novels to show the beginnings of the King universe with some characters and references that would pop up in later works. Warner Bros. has been wrestling for several years on a theatrical version of the novel before finally turning it over to its TV division which could better handle its needed lengthy running time.

     Dealing with a small Maine town and the creeping terror of a vampire colony integrating itself into everyday life, the movie features a mix of then familiar TV faces along with bit of classic Hollywood in the form of James Mason (THE DESERT FOX) and Lew Ayres (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT) along with a host of character faces including a reunited Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. from Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING. Filmed in the northern Calif. town of Ferndale (with its pine trees making a reasonable facsimile of Maine) it was budgeted at a pretty hefty $4,000,000 and later spawned a sequel with Larry Cohen's bizarre RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT and a remake of the original in 2004 which falls short of this version.
     David Soul (just finishing the last season of STARSKY AND HUTCH) plays novelist Ben Mears who returns to his childhood home of Salem's Lot (although called Salem's Lot in the film the actual name in the book was Jerusalem's Lot with the shortened Salem's Lot being used for the book title) in order to write a new book and hopefully exorcise some past demons related to a local haunted-type house (ominously referred to as "The "Marsten House" throughout the film). Once there he hooks up with pretty local girl Susan Norton (Bonnie Belinda DIE HARD) and becomes involved in a deepening mysteries about town involving missing children and an increasingly evil atmosphere.
    The events seemed to be tied into the arrival of another new person in town in the form of the mysterious Mr. Straker (Mason) and his unseen antique business partner "Mr. Barlow" with Straker taking up residence in the mysterious Marsten house. Also becoming involved is monster kid Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin JAMES AT 15) whose bedroom is a treasure trove of monster kid stuff that will have you consonantly reaching for the pause button on the remote.

     As mentioned King's book had his first small town with multiple intertwined characters plot lines and the screenplay by Monash takes multiple characters from the book and merges them into a single one, that while cutting down on the number of personalities (budget and time frame-wise) does give the town a rather under-populated feel to it. The Father Callaghan figure whose a strong secondary character in the book is regulated to a couple of short scenes here and with the exception of Susan's jealous ex-boyfriend and the adulteress wife of menacing George Dzundza (who at times seems creepier than the vampires lurking about) most of the secondary plotlines are jettisoned.
    For a TV movie, the film has some truly horrific sequences including the now-famous floating vampire kid sequences (although by the third time it gets a bit repetitive - which is one of a couple of reasons why this works best when its spread out over two viewing nights like the original broadcast). The makeup by Ben Lane and Jack Young is excellent as for one of the first times on TV (with maybe THE NIGHT STALKER  also) vampires were shown as a horrific and malevolent force of evil with a feral/animalistic like appearance. Reggie Nalder (MARK OF THE DEVIL) plays the gruesome head vampire Barlow appearing almost like a huge repellent insect and with a look that recalls both F.W. Murnau and Werner Herzog's versions of NOSFERATU. Entirely a creature of horror, there's no romantic overtones or suave evening clothes going on here.

     Hooper seems a bit shackled here as with most TV movies there's an almost endless procession of talking heads in order to advance the plot, but he does stage several excellent sequences including the above mentioned "window" scenes (with fingernails scrapping lightly on the glass) and the morgue resurrection of a female vampire being standouts (plus the sight of Fred Willard in red satin boxers is pretty unnerving). Sadly one of the book's standouts, the attack on the school bus, was not used - although it does show up in the highly flawed 2004 remake. David Soul is a bit flat in the lead (in his dialogue scene with James Mason he almost seems to fade into the background). Things are helped along quite a bit however by the cast of seasoned old pros with Elisha Cook Jr. playing the role that become a staple of his for the latter part of his career (grizzled old drunk) and Mari Windsor still looking incredibly sexy at 60 years old.
     As mentioned, when watching it now it does help immensely to spread it out over two viewing nights as with most of the horror elements back loaded into the second half it helps sustain some suspense by not wadding through the entire thing all at once. To be fair it would be extremely difficult to bring the books atmosphere of slowly encroaching horror to the screen as the plot here gets a bit bogged down with investigating and explaining.
     Warner's new blu-ray also gives us a much better appreciation of the films excellent set design in particular the interior of the Marsten with its moldy green tinged look to everything and the clouds of floating dust and cobwebs drifting about throughout.
    It was edited to 112 min for release to theaters in Europe where added scenes and longer/re-cut sequences were added. Although a harder version with added blood (and even a bit of supposed nudity) was rumored to exist except for the death of Bill Norton (which lingered on his antler impaling for a few seconds and is now restored on the current 184 min blu-ray) and the shotgun being placed directly in Fred Willard's mouth rather than just in front the current Warner blu is the complete version as originally aired. As with the book the film gives us a hankering for a prequel as the story of Hubie Marsten and his relationship to Barlow is something I'd really like to see King tackle one day.

All The Above Screen Caps Are From The Warner Blu-Ray