Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo

Above: the house from the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1972).

In a recent interview promoting his remake of the 1972 made-for-TV film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Guillermo Del Toro revealed the true depth of his love for the original by sharing that he hoped to someday purchase the actual house where the Farnham family encountered those mischievous little gremlins.

Well, if Del Toro ever DOES finally realize that dream, he'd better make sure to have the house thoroughly inspected by an exterminator, because that property has had a little trouble with spiders as well.

This occurred a few years after the Farnham family presumably vacated the place due to problems with a defective fireplace. By 1977, the private residence had been repurposed as a school for autistic children.

Here's an alternate angle of the Finley Ranch School for Autistic Children.

When a cargo plane loaded with Colombian coffee beans (and a few dozen deadly South American tarantulas) crash lands in a field just outside doesn't-really-exist Finleyville, California, the furry little stowaways migrate into town, lured no doubt by the promise of sinking their fangs into some of those delicious oranges advertised on billboards.

Finley Ranch lies right in the critters path, and ends up getting some unwelcome visitors who didn't bother to sign in at the front office. Here's a friendly student generously sharing her tennis racket with one of them, oblivious to the danger.

Eventually the spiders find their way to the orange groves, where the townspeople have set up a booby-trapped welcome buffet.

The whole incident was captured in the 1977 made-for-TV turkey Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo. Think of it as a less entertaining, less scary Arachnophobia, which aspires to nothing grander than to exploit the inherent discomfort of seeing live tarantulas crawling on naked hands and feet for a few cheap scares.

Like its arachnid namesake, Tarantula... kind of plods along slowly until its predictable finale. In fact, the biggest surprise in this film is the high-caliber cast that shows up (among them Claude Akins, Howard Hesseman, Tom Atkins, Pat Hingle, and pre-Whiz Kids kid Matthew Labyorteaux), only to have their collective talent left to waste like so many spoiled orange slices.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) is in theaters now.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) has been remastered and reissued on a Warners Archive burn-on-demand DVD with commentary track and a sharp new transfer that is a big improvement over the previous release.
Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo is out of print on DVD as of this writing, but available cheap on the used market.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Final Jeopardy (1985)

A long lost made-for-TV movie that I've been searching out for years has finally (and unofficially) made its way onto the Internets. It's Final Jeopardy (1985), which, after years of futile Googling, I was finally able to watch (via YouTube), for the first time since it originally aired over 25 years ago.

Final Jeopardy is the suspenseful story of small-town couple Martin (Richard Thomas, You'll Like My Mother, It) and Susan Campbell (Mary Crosby, The Ice Pirates) whose overnight trip to the big city turns into a Kafkaesque (I've always wanted to use that term!) nightmare.

The Campbells are in Detroit for one evening so Martin can pitch his start-up business idea (something to do with databases) to a prospective partner. Martin drops his wife off to do some shopping in the city's upscale boutiques, while he meets his client at a nearby watering hole, the Carlyle Bar. She'll meet him there later for a (hopefully celebratory) dinner before heading back to the hotel.

Martin gets slightly overwhelmed trying to navigate the bustling streets, and a culture shock is evident when he gets directions from a gruff and annoyed street cop, but he finally arrives (late) for his meeting at the Carlyle Bar.

A few martinis later, with no sign of his client, he phones his office to find he misheard the meeting place. They were supposed to meet at the Carlwyn Bar, not the Carlyle, and his client has already given up on him and gone home for the evening. The whole purpose of the trip is shot.

Making matters worse, the bar no longer serves dinner, and is closing at 7:00 PM, a good hour before his wife was scheduled to meet him there. Exiting the bar, he finds the lot where he parked has closed for the night, leaving him with no transportation until morning.

Susan rolls up in a cab, but the cab leaves before he has a chance to stop it, leaving the couple stranded in what is looking to be the Bad Side of Town.

The businesses are closed, streets are dark and barren. Many of the pay phones are damaged. When they finally do find a working phone, the cab company they call won't send a car to that part of town after dark.

The police won't send anyone either, since no crime has been committed.

They try approaching residents of a rat-infested apartment building, but they are too afraid to provide help.

Finally they cross paths with a violent street gang (they may have comical names like Slash, D.O.A. and Ice, but they were plenty scary to this pre-teen viewer). This results in several tense scenes with our hapless couple creeping behind dumpsters and in back alleys trying to evade the thugs, only to have them pop-up like a Jack-in-the-Box from around the corner, or suddenly dangling down from an overhead fire escape.

It looks like they may finally have found a safe haven for the night when they happen upon an abandoned theater, but while rummaging through the mess of old props and scenery, they uncover.... A CORPSE!

In another encounter, they find a hobo (Jeff Corey, he also played a bum 20 years earlier in Lady in a Cage) who sells them a flashlight and directions to get to the nearest police station... get this... through the underground sewers, so as to avoid detection by the murderous gang.

The Campbells take him up on his offer, and attempt the spooky passage through the dark tunnels, only to emerge back in front of the Carlyle Bar once again!

Final Jeopardy reminded me somewhat of Duel (1971), in that we have a modern, emasculated man (after first encountering the gang, Martin admits to his wife he's never hit a man before, having always talked his way out of tough predicaments) who suddenly finds himself in a survival situation, and must learn to accept that some conflicts can only be resolved through brute force, not rational arbitration.

Also, as in Duel, there comes a point where our protagonist is so consumed with panic over the situation that he ends up frightening people that might otherwise have been convinced to help him, if he weren't acting like a raving madman.

But that's where all similarities to Duel end, as Final Jeopardy is really just a mediocre thriller, not approaching the greatness of that earlier masterpiece.

Final Jeopardy has not been released to DVD as of this writing.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ideal for Discos

Check out this awesome old ad for Don Post masks, from the back of the first sci-fi movie magazine I ever purchased, the July 1980 issue of Fantastic Films. I probably spent more time leering over these amazing mask images than reading the magazine itself, even though it was loaded with interesting articles on The Empire Strikes Back and John Carpenter.

After all, 1980 was The Year Of The Masquerade. (That's what the ad copy says, anyway. Who am I to argue?) Ideal for parties, discos, masquerading and collecting. Be a somebody!

A couple things about this ad stood out for me. First, these masks were of much higher quality than the usual Halloween stuff I was used to browsing through at the TG&Y Store.

Second, based on the prices (some as high as $64.95, in 1980 dollars!), these masks weren't aimed at the kiddies, but at grown adults. I imagined what kind of world I was missing out on, where adults donned expensive, high-quality monster masks for a night at the disco?

I hadn't yet heard of Plan 9 From Outer Space, so I had no idea who this Tor Johnson guy was... but the unusual name stuck with me, and almost exactly two years later I would name a monster after him in my crappy home-made comic.

It also never occurred to me prior to seeing this ad that a mask might be considered a work of art worthy of being displayed. And these mounts and cases were clearly aimed at the adult collector. I mean, what kid is going to buy and install a thirty dollar wall mount to display his mask (or a $125 case to protect it)?

Which led me to ponder... what kind of adult was awesome enough to hang masks on the wall of his home for all to see? Relatives from back East coming by for a visit? There's Mr. Kool staring them down through dinner. Neighbor drops in to borrow some flour? Dracula's giving him the evil eye from within his glass cube.

Here's a pair of premium-priced repros, Nosferatu and the Face-Hugger from Alien.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Spooky Rhymes and Riddles (Lilian Moore, 1972)

Hi, Julie B. I seem to have acquired your copy of Spooky Rhymes and Riddles. It's mine now. All mine.
From Scholastic Book Services, Spooky Rhymes and Riddles (1972, Lilian Moore, illustrated by Ib Ohlsson) is a collection of poems on witches, ghosts and monsters. Unlike the childhood-scarring Poems to Trouble Your Sleep, these all favor fun over fright.

The complete contents are:
The Ghost in Our Apartment House
The Monster's Pet
When a Monster Scolds Her Children
Ghost Baby
What to Say to an Alligator
The Friendly Guy
Spooky Riddles
The Ghost Goes to the Supermarket
Mrs. O'Gray
Greedy Goblin
The Monster's Birthday
Johnny Drew a Monster
There Was an Egg
Something Is There
Spooky Limericks
Poem About THEM
When a Ghost Gets Smudgy
The Witch's Song
Bedtime Story
Teeny Tiny Ghost