Saturday, December 24, 2011

Monsters In My Room (Tales From the Darkside, 1985)

One of my favorite Tales From the Darkside episodes just happens to be a Christmas episode. It's Monsters In My Room, which first aired in December, 1985.

Third-grader Timmy (Seth Green) is a sensitive child who is more interested in playing piano and looking at his bug collection than watching the big game with his new stepfather, macho jerk Biff.

It's Christmas Eve, and Timmy blesses everyone (even Biff) in his prayers, but what he's really hoping for is that Santa will bring him... a "Cuddle-stuff" panda bear.

Okay, in fairness to Biff, maybe this kid could use a little toughening up.

But Timmy has other issues beside his obnoxious stepdad throwing footballs at his head. His room is infested with monsters. There's a boogeyman in the closet...

...a glowing-eyed octopus under the bed that can reach out its horrible tentacles...

...and a giant spinning circular saw-blade.

These night terrors pop out of their hiding places to menace little Timmy just long enough to cause him to cry out for "Mommy!" (and reinforce Biff's feeling that he's inherited a sissy-boy.)

Christmas morning, Timmy gets his coveted Cuddle-stuff panda...

...but propped up in the bedside rocking chair that night, it seems more creepy than cuddly.

But the scariest moment of this episode doesn't involve the rocking panda, the bedroom monsters, or even this hideous cackling witch that pops up out of the bathroom later that evening.

The scariest moment is when Mom has to take presents to a neighbor, leaving a nervous Timmy home alone for a few minutes with a drunk and surly Biff. We listen with Timmy as we hear Mom get in her car, watch as her headlights beam through his bedroom window...

...and slowly pass along the wall as her car pulls away...

...only to reveal, wait for it...

... BIFF, standing over Timmy's bed, determined to teach Timmy a few lessons in manhood before Mom returns.

Monsters In My Room can be found on Tales From the Darkside: The Complete Second Season.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Wonder Book of Christmas (1951, Lou Myers)

Nothing spooky, here. Just a charming little Christmas book that, in what could only be described as a Christmas miracle, has somehow managed to travel from Frankfurt, Germany, 1955, to Phoenix, Arizona, 2011, in nearly mint condition. Warren F. Buxton, if you're out there somewhere, drop us a line and let us know how you're doing. Your Wonder Book is in good hands.

The complete title is The Wonder Book of Christmas Including The Night Before Christmas and Other Stories, with illustrations by Lou Myers (complete contents listed below). Enjoy these selected scans.

Santa Claus (poem)
Who Is Santa Claus?
The Night Before Christmas (Clement C. Moore)
The Animals' Christmas
The Christmas Story
The Friendly Beasts (Twelfth-Century Carol)
Santa Claus's Workshop
Jingle Bells (J. Pierpont)

Remember to wash your covers once a day, kiddies, to keep your library clean and healthy!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons (Walter R. Brooks, Don Bolognese, 1950)

A young boy celebrates Christmas with a ghost in Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons (1950, Walter Brooks, with illustrations by Don Bolognese.)

The "vanishing lessons" are among several supernatural tricks taught Jimmy by a friendly ghost found living in the long abandoned home of his grandfather. He is also taught how to make his eyes glare with fire (as pictured above), the perfect thing to brighten up Christmas morning.

They first meet when Jimmy Crandall decides to investigate the dark and gloomy neighborhood haunted house to prove it isn't really haunted at all.

To Jimmy's surprise, there really is a ghost, but the unnamed spectre is more frightened of Jimmy than he is of it!

Eventually a delicate friendship develops, and the ghost offers to teach him a few supernatural tricks, like floating through keyholes.

Later, Jimmy invites the lonely ghost back to his house to meet his Aunt.

I've always liked the illustrations of Don Bolognese, who has lent his talents to a few other prominent titles from my childhood, among them The Book That Jason Wrote, The Ghost of Windy Hill, and The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden (a.k.a. The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House).

Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons is still in print.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Terror In the Jungle (1967)


I happened upon a movie recently that was so awful, but in the most wonderful ways, that it instantly became my new favorite bad movie. It's a film that exists in the fever-dream funhouse where sheer incompetence collides with accidental genius. It's 1967's Terror in the Jungle.

It starts by introducing a series of characters, all traveling by budget airline to Rio, Brazil, for various reasons. Little Henry Clayton Jr., traveling unaccompanied except for his trusty stuffed toy lion, is flying down to live with his mother after his parents' recent divorce.

Next up is recent widow Mrs. Sherman, who is at the center of a high-profile scandal, accused of cheating on and murdering her rich husband. Is she hoping to escape the attention of the tabloid press by starting a new life in Rio? And whatever happened to her husband's money?

"Marian" (probably a stage name) is an exotic dancer traveling to Rio to appear in a Spanish-language musical film. A photographer snaps a few cheesecake photos on the tarmac.

A trio of nuns approach the plane (one of them in a coffin!)

Finally a mop-topped rock group, waving goodbye to a herd of groupies.

So at this point it looks like we're in for one of those Airport or Irwin Allen style disaster films, where a cross-section of society is brought together, then thrown into a survival situation, across which their individual dramas will play out, right?

We're barely five minutes into the air when the melodrama starts. Marian sidles up alongside business tycoon A.F. Keys, and we detect the early signs of an emerging love story.

Meanwhile, a couple, who may as well be named Mr. and Mrs. Exposition, is having a perfectly normal conversation on an everyday topic: the mysterious Peruvian tribe called the Jivaros, cannibalistic descendants of the Incas who continue to live in an ancient jungle temple.

And a fan of the wanna-Beatles urges them to play their hit. You know, the one that goes, "Soft lips, you've got everything I want. Soft lips."

Marian seizes the opportunity to strut her stuff in a provocative dance that is enjoyed by all...

...and I really do mean ALL. Yes, this is an actual reaction shot of the nun enjoying the spectacle.

You no longer have to settle for my narrative description... video embedded below!

Just as the last strains of "Soft Lips" fade out unnaturally, as if from a recording, instead of performed live by The Bewigged Three, the captain notifies the passengers of an in-flight emergency. The plane is dangerously low on fuel and they need to jettison excess weight.

Of course he's talking about luggage and such, but in all the frenzy that follows, not only does the widow Sherman's stash of money get loosed into the cabin...

...but one of the nuns gets too close to the open hatch, and the cast suffers its first casualty. Nun overboard! Considering the lightweight tone of the film up to this point, this is actually an abrupt and shocking turn, and the first sign that we may be in for more that we bargained for on this trip!

Lightening the load by a whole nun isn't enough to compensate for the severe fuel problem, and the passengers don life-jackets as the plane is forced to make a water landing in a Peruvian river.

Half the cast is taken out on impact, and the bloody aftermath of the crash is fairly gruesome, with close up shots of a split forehead and an unfortunate woman who got a facefull of birdcage.

Now the survivors need to escape the flaming and rapidly sinking wreck.

But the river is crawling with crocodiles, and every single person that enters the water is torn apart in a feeding frenzy!

The coffin holding the corpse of the third nun (propped upright, naturally) is salvaged for use as a flotation device for little Henry, who is launched safely into the water just before the plane erupts in flame.

The next morning, Henry is still drifting along on the river in his floating coffin, the sole survivor of the plane crash. In just 20 minutes, the film has set up, then abandoned, every single character and plotline. What now?

Henry gets captured by Peruvian natives (which we know, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Exposition, are the cannibalistic Jivaros.)

Some of the natives want to sacrifice him to their god...

...until the King thinks he sees a supernatural sign: Henry's hair appears to be glowing like a halo, a comical effect created with some optical trickery.

Henry is spared and welcomed into the tribe, but not for long. The knife-wielding native, oblivious to his glowing locks and still intent on killing the child, chases him into the jungle.

Now... do you want to hazard a guess as to how little Henry gets out of this dangerous predicament? If you guessed that his toy stuffed lion would suddenly, magically, without any context or explanation, transform into a real animal and tear the native to bloody shreds...'d be right!

So far I've made Terror in the Jungle sound like a non-stop rollercoaster of awesome. But the film does have its drawbacks. It's padded with dull footage of Peruvian scenery, endless sequences of our pint-sized protaganist crying his eyes out, and stock shots of wildlife obviously photographed in another time, place, and film stock.

But there's a lot of other little things that make me like the film even more. Like the fact that Marian, the dancer, is played by Fawn Silver, who also appeared as Criswell's witchy sidekick in the Ed Wood-penned adults-only topless-dancing graveyard romp, Orgy of the Dead (1965).

Or that the film is scored by early progenitor of bachelor-pad exotica music, Les Baxter!

...the shrunken head and tiki statue that pop-up in the set dressing...

...the happy coincidence that the wind sound-effect heard during the airplane crash is the same one that appears on a favorite Halloween sound effect record, Sounds to Make You Shiver!

...the baffling decision to display this message, acknowledging the cooperation of the Peruvian government, not at the beginning or end of the film, but 10 minutes into it, right in the middle of the action!

...and finally, the unbelievable fact that it took THREE directors to make this turkey (one for each location)!

Upon first viewing, I naturally assumed this must be one of those films with a rabid cult fanbase, and that I was a late arrival to the Terror in the Jungle party. So imagine my surprise to find the film had merited only a dozen or so comments at IMDB, and only one review at Amazon, with very little coverage in the blog-o-sphere. In fact the film was only recently released to DVD, unceremoniously stashed among 50 other titles on a budget multi-disc box set titled Pure Terror.