Monday, September 27, 2010

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

2010 has been a good year for DVD releases. So far we've seen the long sought after Boris Karloff anthology horror show Thriller, 80's cyberpunk series Max Headroom, the light-weight haunted house flic Two On A Guillotine (1965), cheesy Italian Star Wars rip-off Starcrash (1978), George Pal's psychic who-dunnit drama The Power (1968), and the 1980 Saturday morning post-apocalyptic animated actioner Thundarr the Barbarian.

But perhaps most rewarding is the final arrival of the on again, off again, announced, delayed, and announced again, made-for-TV chiller Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

Originally aired in 1981 as a CBS Saturday Night Movie (a teaser ad shows up on the DVD among the extras--a thoughtful addition), Dark Night of the Scarecrow centers around 11-year old Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe) and her mentally challenged playmate, Bubba (Larry Drake), a 37-year old man with the mind of a child.

The pair spend their days playing games and picking flowers in the fields of their rural town. But the local postman, Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) doesn't trust Bubba, and monitors them from afar with a pair of binoculars (it's later suggested Otis's interest in young Marylee is of the unhealthy variety).

When Marylee and Bubba happen upon a lovely garden in the backyard of a neighbor's house, Marylee can't resist slipping through the fence to get a closer look, despite Bubba's warning that she shouldn't.

Bubba was right. A guard dog appears and viciously attacks the girl under the watchful eyes of garden gnome statuary.

Bubba carries the injured girl to her mother's house, pleading through tears that he didn't do it. But rumors spread quickly in a small town, and soon a makeshift posse led by Otis heads to Bubba's house to extract vigilante justice.

Meanwhile Bubba arrives home to the welcoming arms of his mother (Jocelyn Brando, who played the witch on the Darkroom episode Catnip). She tells him to play "the hiding game", and Bubba hides himself inside the scarecrow standing guard in their field.

But Otis and his posse (Lane Smith, Claude Earl Jones, and Robert F. Lyons) aren't put off for long, and open fire on the helpless Bubba.

The four stand trial, but the judge let's them off when they claim Bubba attacked them with a pitchfork and their gunfire was in self defense. Life returns to normal for the four, but not for long. A scarecrow mysteriously appears in the field of Harless Hocker (Lane Smith).

At first he thinks its his partners in crime trying to play some prank. They later decide it must be either the prosecuting attorney, or Bubba's mother, trying to stir up trouble. That night, Harliss hears a disturbance in his barn, and after climbing up to the loft to investigate, ends up falling in a thresher.

A few days later, another scarecrow appears outside the farm of Philby (Claude Earl Jones).

That night, his investigation of noises results in him getting locked in a silo and drowning in a fountain of grain.

Halloween arrives, and Otis approaches Marylee at a party to find out what she knows. Marylee claims to still be in communication with Bubba, who has told her all about how he really died.

We also get a brief glimpse of a Beistle Company Halloween decoration.

Now wondering if Bubba may still be alive, Otis and the last living member of his posse, Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons) head out to the graveyard to confirm his coffin is occupied.

Bubba's corpse is right where it should be, but Otis, suspecting the increasingly irrational Skeeter is going to do something stupid to jeopardize their "not guilty" verdict, nails him with the shovel. (A memorable detail: Skeeter's hat sticks to the shovel blade!)

Otis, having spotted Marylee on the road, chases her into a pumpkin patch, only to end up running for his life in front of a ghost-driven tractor. Can you say BEST HALLOWEEN EVER?

For a nearly 30-year old made-for-TV movie, Dark Night of the Scarecrow looks sharper on DVD than it has any right to, and besides the previously mentioned CBS Saturday Night Movie bumper, you also get a commentary track by writer J.D. Feigelson and director Frank De Felitta (among the interesting tidbits they provide is that they had to obscure the name of the graveyard, "Green Acres", at the request of CBS executives.)

I should also mention that the score by Glenn Paxton, which at times sounds like synthesizers singing playground songs, will send a shiver up your spine. Buy Dark Night of the Scarecrow here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bugs Bunny's Howl-oWeen Special (1978)

I've blogged previously about how holiday specials were kind of a big deal back in the days before recordable media was cheap and available. With Halloween sneaking up on us, we have a new Halloween special to enjoy this year... and by new, I mean old.

It's 1978's Bugs Bunny's Howl-oWeen Special, in which some of my favorite spooky-themed Looney Tunes and Merrie Melody shorts (among them Bugs Bunny's encounters with a vampire and a cauldron-stirring witch, Porky Pig and Sylvester's spooky stay in a mice-infested hotel, and Tweety Bird's transformation into a monster via a mad scientist's potion), are chopped up, strung together, and wrapped around with some new animation to make it all appear to be happening across one Halloween night.

The original shorts repurposed for this special include Transylvania 6-5000 (1963), Broom-Stick Bunny (1956), Scaredy Cat (1948), Claws For Alarm (1954), and A-Haunting We Will Go (1966) (all of which have been previously released in their entirety, with opening titles and closing credits, on various Looney Tunes DVD collections.)

For some reason this release is kind of scarce to find on store shelves (I did find a copy at Toys-R-Us, and maybe it will become more readily available as we get closer to Halloween.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Failure to Adapt: The Haunted Mansion

Question: What do the films From Hell, Silent Hill, and Disney's The Haunted Mansion have in common?

Answer: All three are based on existing properties that I am a big fan of, I eagerly ate up every press release and rumor about their development as they trickled out to entertainment magazines and websites, I watched them all in theaters on opening weekend...

...and they were all mediocre and disappointing.

Of the three, probably From Hell (2001), directed by the Hughes Brothers, fares the best. In fact, if I hadn't gone in knowing this fictionalization of the notorious crimes of Jack the Ripper was based on the brilliant 10-part graphic novel, in which cult genre writer Alan Moore manages to weave almost every known fact and theory surrounding the case into a wholly original narrative that is part detective procedural, part supernatural thriller, I probably would have rated the film much higher.

Unfortunately, I went in expecting to see Alan Moore's From Hell, and instead got a serviceable drama that left most of his smart plotting and ambitious themes behind, while still incorporating just enough elements from the comics to remind me how much better they were than what I was watching. (And I'll give you a hint, if you decide to watch From Hell at home: turn the color on your TV all the way down so that the image is black and white. It looks incredible, and completely enhances the tone of the film).

My expectations weren't so high with Silent Hill (2006). After all, this is a film based on a videogame, and those rarely succeed. But I was crossing my fingers that this might be one that got it right. I'd first entered the decaying town of Silent Hill in 2001, courtesy of Silent Hill 2 on the Playstation 2.

I was instantly captivated by the amazingly detailed world of the game, a ruined town choking in mist, constantly teetering between a dreary and decaying real world, and an even more frightening alternate reality that was like some nightmarish psychological purgatory. Silent Hill is populated with disturbing creatures that limp and stagger out of dark corners of the room (and of the mind), looking like tortured souls rendered as bio-industrial waste, evoking both terror and pity.

I've probably played Silent Hill 2 from beginning to end almost a dozen times, and would continue to explore its haunted world in sequels Silent Hill 3, Silent Hill 4: The Room, and Silent Hill: Origins.

The film Silent Hill managed to perfectly captured the atmosphere of the game, from the fog-soaked streets to the repulsive monsters (rendered with practical effects combined with CGI), and director Christophe Gans(Brotherhood of the Wolf) was even savvy enough to use composer Akira Yamaoka's haunting original music from the games.

In fact, Silent Hill gets so much right, it makes what it gets wrong stand out all the more. It sabotages itself with endless, cumbersome exposition (admittedly some of the games suffer from this as well), a cartoonish supporting cast of superstitious townsfolk that will have you flashbacking to the witch-burning mob from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and a third-act twist in which everything we've seen up to that point is framed as being the machinations of some game, with the main character, a mother (Radha Mitchell) looking for her lost daughter, being congratulated for making it to the next level. This brings the show to a screeching halt faster than an "Intermission" slide, and the film just never recovers.

But my biggest disappointment had to be Disney's The Haunted Mansion (2003), because the Disneyland attraction on which it is based has always held a special place for me for as long as I can remember. Media leaks during its production were promising. It was to be directed by Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little, The Lion King), a self-confessed Mansion fan, and the original attraction design work by Imagineers Marc Davis, Claude Coats, and others, was being referenced for the art direction and set design for the film. There was another reason to be optimistic--just a few months prior to The Haunted Mansion's premier, Disney had exceeded everyone's expectations with a film based on another popular Disneyland attraction, the wildly successful blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

So what happened?

With the surprising and exciting announcement at Comic-Con that respected fantasy director Guillermo Del Toro was going to helm a second attempt at a Haunted Mansion film, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the underwhelming 2003 original to see what it got wrong... as well as acknowledge what it got right.


Let's cut right to it--casting Eddie Murphy as the lead was a bad decision, period. And it wasn't anything specific about Murphy's performance that brought down the Mansion... it was the decision to go for an Eddie-Murphy-type leading man in the first place (the fact that it ended up actually being Eddie Murphy is almost inconsequential.)

It snuffed any hope that The Haunted Mansion was going to be a true horror film and resigned it to being just another lightweight Disney comedy/fantasy, the kind that, in the 1960s and 70s, would have starred Don Knotts, Ken Berry or Dean Jones.


The Haunted Mansion attraction never had an official "origin story" explaining why it was haunted, other than the one offered by Walt Disney himself, which is that ghosts and spirits from around the world arrived by invitation, to enjoy their retirement at this house built at Disneyland just for them.

Teaser sign from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland inviting ghosts and spirits to move in (photo borrowed from the Daveland library...)

Of course, that wouldn't really work for the film, so instead a new back-story was invented for the Mansion: a curse, revolving around dashing society man Edward Gracey's grief for his lost love, Elizabeth. The Mansion, you see, was "once filled with so many things... so much life, grand parties, dancing, laughter, and above all, hope."

Wah? I'm sorry, but this Beauty-and-the-Beast-meets-Phantom-of-the-Opera lovers-lament nonsense just doesn't belong anywhere near my Haunted Mansion. And having the "ghost host", if you will, reimagined as a romance-novel pretty-boy isn't scary. It's just lame.


I'm not sure that the comic relief served up by ghostly butler and maid duo Ezra and Emma (Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters) was even necessary, but the fact that their clunky bickering isn't actually, you know, funny, doesn't help anything. And don't get me wrong--I love Wallace Shawn, and as far as I'm concerned, he can do no wrong. Except here, where he does wrong. An example of one of their knee-slapping exchanges:
EMMA: (trying to take control of the reins of a carriage) "Let me drive, you're going to kill us all."
EZRA: "That's where you're wrong, because some of us are already dead! Ha ha ha!"


Casting Jennifer Tilly as Madame Leota could have worked, but the character is pretty much confined to spouting wisecracks (e.g. "I don't make the rules, okay, I just work here.") before the final indignity... reduced to being just another bickering kid in the minivan.


There has always been a level of humor present in all versions of the Haunted Mansion attraction. Still, elements like the singing graveyard busts aren't meant for laughs. They're singing, moving, graveyard statuary--it's creepy. But in the film, they are treated strictly as a novelty act that even had Murphy's on-screen daughter rolling her eyes.

That reminds me... you know what else is annoying in movies? Sarcastic kids who roll their eyes.


It's ironic that one of the few genuinely scary scenes in the film involves monsters that seem totally out of place at the Mansion. Achieved mostly with traditional make-up and prosthetics by special effects artist Rick Baker, these coffin-bursting animated corpses look like they wandered in from another movie, (perhaps one of Brendan Fraser's Mummy films). While there are some animated skeletons emerging from coffins in the Phantom Manor version of the attraction at Disneyland Paris, it doesn't change the fact that they just don't seem to belong in this Haunted Mansion.

A Phantom Manor graveyard corpse.


I'm not against happy endings in horror films, but The Haunted Mansion climax is so sugary sweet they should have added a warning for diabetics to leave the theater. In a conclusion more suited to a fairy tale, the "curse" that causes the Mansion to be haunted is lifted once pretty-boy Gracey reunites with the ghost of Elizabeth, who descends like a fairy godmother on a sparkling ray of light. All the Mansion's spectral denizens, free from their bondage to the house, literally ascend to Heaven in a pretty CGI light show. Finally, Murphy's character is handed the deed to the house, and invited to do with it whatever makes him and his family happy.

Were the filmmakers really so clueless as to think that fans were interested in witnessing the unhaunting of the Haunted Mansion?


The final slap in the face is the shoehorning of hip-hop song "IZ-U" by Nelly over the end credits. Built around a hook sampled from the theme song to the TV show The People's Court, and boasting incoherent lyrics like "Gonna pick you up and take you to lunch or sum'hin, Ill leave it up to you if imma touch or sum'hin", not only is it completely inappropriate for the film, its not even a good song.

So is The Haunted Mansion a complete waste of time, devoid of anything praiseworthy? Not at all. Here's some of the things I liked about the film. Actually, it looks like I've only come up with two... here's both of them:


For someone who's used to seeing it only as a theme park attraction, with a line of tourists waiting to get in and a churro cart nearby, it's pretty neat to finally see the Mansion rendered as an actual house in a real Louisiana bayou, adjoining a life-size graveyard. Even though it's obvious a lot of this is achieved with CGI, it's done in a style that evokes the classic matte paintings of Peter Ellenshaw, or of the old Roger Corman Poe pictures (Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, etc.)


It's fun to see the portrait hall with staring busts, the bulging hallway door, the dangling suicide, and other signature set peices from the attraction recreated in the film.

Hmmm... I seem to have run out of positive things to say about 2003's The Haunted Mansion. I do own it on DVD and drag it out every few years to reflect on what could have been. Let's cross our fingers for Guillermo's reboot.