Saturday, January 21, 2012

Man From the South (1960, Alfred Hitchcock Presents)

The scene is Las Vegas, circa 1960.

While lounging in a casino coffee shop one morning, a down-on-his luck gambler (Steve McQueen) politely lights the cigarette of an older stranger, Carlos (Peter Lorre). Admiring the gambler's lighter, Carlos proposes a bizarre but intriguing bet. If McQueen can light his lighter ten times in succession without it misfiring once, Carlos will hand him the keys to his brand new Cadillac parked out front.

If he loses, McQueen will give up something he can afford to lose... the pinky finger of his left hand. At first McQueen dismisses the proposition as the ramblings of a crazy old man. But after further goading by Carlos, and an explanation of exactly how he plans to claim the finger should McQueen lose the bet (with a meat cleaver!), McQueen agrees.

McQueen and two bystanders follow Carlos to his luxurious hotel room, where his left hand is tied down with some twine between two nails, Carlos readies the cleaver, and the bet begins.

A tense count of seven successful lighter strikes later, a woman suddenly bursts into the room and wrestles the cleaver from Carlos' hand. It is his wife, who scolds Carlos for betting again while she was away.

Carlos has nothing to bet with, she explains. The Cadillac belongs to her, along with everything else he once owned. You see, it took her awhile, but she won all of it. As she reaches for the car keys, we notice she has only two fingers on her left hand.

From the fifth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Man From the South" is an adaptation of a 1948 short story by Roald Dahl (which can be read in various Dahl compendiums, including The Umbrella Man and Other Stories.)

The story has such an instantly captivating hook, suspenseful final act and satisfying surprise payoff, it remains one of the more talked about Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, and has found its way to the screen more than once.

The premier episode of Tales of the Unexpected (1979), an anthology show based exclusively on the short works of Dahl and hosted by the author himself, presented a version more faithful to Dahl's original text, which sets the story at a Jamaican beach resort instead of Sin City.

But probably the most intense version is the 1985 remake done for The (New) Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which stars John Huston as Carlos and Kim Novak as his wife, and manages to dial up the tension even further by having Novak's surprise entrance cause a draft that blows out the lighter flame, bringing down Carlos' eager cleaver for a near miss before she stops the bet.

Director Quentin Tarantino even paid homage to the story for his segment of the 1995 anthology film "Four Rooms", in which a group of drunken New Years Eve celebrants, among them Tarantino and Bruce Willis, are discussing the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode and decide to carry out the bet themselves, enlisting the aid of the bellboy, played by Tim Roth. As derivative as this premise is, Tarantino manages to make it his own with additional character nuances and a surprise ending.

I was familiar with director Alfred Hitchcock at a young age (see my previous post on his spooky story collection for children, Ghostly Gallery). As it happens, my introduction to the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents show, which I first caught in reruns on PBS sometime in the early 80s, was with the fifth season.

And what a great season to get started with, for it contains not only "Man From the South", but several other notable and memorable episodes. My favorite is the Robert Bloch penned "The Cuckoo Clock", in which a woman staying alone in a remote cabin gets an unexpected visit from an unstable stranger who may or may not be an escaped, mentally disturbed murderer.

A cuckoo clock in the cabin becomes the focus of attention for several characters, serving as a motif of madness.

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a competent adaptation of the dark Ambrose Bierce Civil-War chiller we all remember from English class.

In "Special Delivery", based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, a boy starts a mushroom farm in his basement after ordering seeds through a comic book ad. But is there more to these mushrooms than meets the eye? A scene where Dad approaches his increasingly distant son in the dark basement and is ordered by his son to eat a mushroom sandwich had me squirming in my seat.

Finally, there is the exclusive, members-only restaurant depicted in "Specialty of the House", which serves a seasonal dish that seems to coincide with the loss of one of its members.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Complete Fifth Season, featuring all of the episodes described above, is available now on DVD.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Muppets Holiday Haunt (1980, Muppet Madness)

Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang find their vacation road trip detoured to a haunted castle in The Muppets Holiday Haunt, from the 1980 activity book Muppet Madness (Random House).

Muppet Madness is a softcover book of Muppet-themed comics, articles, games and papercraft projects that I purchased originally in grade school through the Scholastic Book Club. (It's actually a U.S. version of the third volume of yearly U.K. book series, The Muppet Show Annual.)

The scares continue in a haunted theater themed board game that spreads across two pages (below, with selected board details.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A sad story for Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark

If you're a reader of this blog, you probably don't need me to tell you that the Scary Stories trilogy (Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones), a compilation of ghost stories, spooky folk tales, and urban legends collected and retold by author Alvin Schwartz, is a must-have for any respectable haunted library.

The surreal and unsettling black-and-white illustrations by Stephen Gammell (which have graced the cover and interior pages of each volume since first published) play no small part in the books' appeal, and I'm guessing Gammell's visualizations left their mark on many a young reader's subconscious (Kindertrauma has the proof!)

Sadly, I've learned that after over 30 years of being in print (the original volume was released in 1981, the sequels following in 1984 and 1991), the publisher has decided to quietly replace Gammell's original illustrations with brand new renderings by Lemony Snicket artist Brett Helquist.

Don't get me wrong, I like Helquist's style, which has a charm all its own (this article at Adventures In Poor Taste offers some sharp observations and page-by-page comparisons). The problem is, the new illustrations look like the labor of a competent and perfectly sane artist. Gammell's, in contrast, appear to have seeped out of a fevered nightmare and manifested itself onto paper.

You just don't see this kind of stuff in children's books today (in fact, to find anything comparable I have to reach back to Franz Altschuler's shadowy and ambiguously disturbing drawings for Ida Chittum's Tales of Terror (1975).

In memoriam, I present a selection of scans from the Scary Stories Treasury (a 2002 hardcover compendium of all three volumes, complete and unabridged.) Meanwhile, if you've been putting off picking up an original copy of your own, better act fast. Prices on the used market are already starting to climb! (Hat tip to artist Daniel Danger... and if you aren't familiar with his work, click this link and prepare to be captivated.)