The Magic Christmas Tree

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  • Year: 1964
  • Director: Richard C. Parish
  • Starring: Chris Kroesen, Valerie Hobbs, Darlene Lohnes

Why do filmmakers who have no budget always go after genres that require a lot of money? Well, you’ve got $10,000 and no actors of note, what will you make? Big budget sci-fi! A fantasy epic! A monster movie!

One reason Carnival of Souls became a cult classic is that it avoided common pitfalls like this. It’s a horror movie, sure, but it relies on atmosphere, tension, and a good script rather than effects. You can do those for very little money. Today’s Christmas special, The Magic Christmas Tree, was also made on very little money, but it’s clear that director Richard C. Parish envisioned having more.

That said, the film starts off cheaply enough with three bad child actors trying to trade their lunches.

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One of their sandwiches is bologna, one is meatloaf, and one is… cheese. Just cheese. It’s not a grilled cheese, which would actually be a thing, but it’s just bread and cold cheese. Do his parents hate him?

Anyway, it’s Halloween and the kids discuss their plans. Mark (Chris Kroesen), the kid in the middle, makes fun of one of his friends for going to a party with girls, but then makes fun of the other one for having to babysit. What age are they at where they haven’t hit puberty, but their parents trust them to stay home with their siblings? I suppose there’s a small window, and it was the ’60s, but it’s a weird dichotomy. Anyway, Mark insists he’s going to spend Halloween by going to an allegedly haunted house where he believes a witch lives. Isn’t this special just putting you in the holiday spirit? Haunted houses, witches, autumn. I mean, Halloween, but hey it’s still a holiday.

Mark convinces the other two boys to go with him, but they quickly run away. When Mark gets to the house, he finds out that the old woman’s cat, Lucifer, is stuck in a tree. Wait a second. The old woman who lives in a dilapidated house who people already think is a witch named her cat Lucifer?

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Either she is a witch, is the single most oblivious woman alive, or she is trolling the entire patriarchal ’60s suburban community. I’m hoping it’s that third one. Mark falls out of the tree and wakes up…

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In the land of Oz? I mean, it’s color and there’s a witch. For his assistance, the witch (Yeah she’s just a witch in this world.) gives Mark an extremely convoluted gift. I’ll just show the quote where the witch describes it, because it would take just as long to summarize. “This is a magic ring… within that ring is a secret compartment, and within that compartment is a magic seed. If you plant this seed beneath the wishbone of a Thanksgiving turkey in the dark of the moon, a magic tree will grow, and when the tree is full grown, it will grant you three wishes.” ALL OF THAT FOR THREE WISHES? Why not a lamp to rub? If she’s a witch, why can’t she just give him three wishes? What does Thanksgiving have to do with it? How about Veterans Day? That’s in between Halloween and Christmas. Winter solstice? Hanukkah? The kid also has to say magic words, so I have no earthy clue how he’s supposed to remember all of this.

Mark asks the witch why things have changed, and she says nothing has changed but it’s all his perspective. This could be some kind of commentary on how the town views her, but unfortunately it’s not that kind of movie.

We get a quick cut to Thanksgiving where Mark gets the wishbone, because the movie felt the need to shoehorn that in. In the middle of the night, Mark gets up to plant the seed that will grow into a tree so he can make his three wishes by high school graduation, presumably.

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Also, I know it’s the ’60s and suburban parents might not be all that invested in their kids’ lives, but they’re going to notice a tree growing in the yard. Why is he going out in the middle of the night and doing it in secret? Just say “Hey, my teacher wants us to plant a tree for a science project.” Instead, Mark plants the tree, a crash of thunder hits, and the tree magically grows in one night.

The next morning, Mark’s parents are discussing the strange weather from the night before over breakfast. Mark walks in, take some donuts, and leaves, and we continue to watch the parents’ conversation.

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Now, this wouldn’t be too weird except for what’s revealed later, and it’s pretty obvious from the get-go—This is all a dream. Sure, I suppose a kid could dream scenes that they don’t play a part in, and of course it’s a movie, but what child dreams about the banal conversations of their parents?

Mark’s dad goes out to mow the lawn and doesn’t see the tree right away. There is a full-grown tree in the yard that wasn’t there the day before, and yet Dad doesn’t notice it upon walking outside.

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How dense is this family? He clearly has a newspaper for the day too, so he really should have spotted the brand new tree when he opened the door. We saw earlier that Mark planted it right on the front lawn!

We are then treated to FOUR MINUTE SCENE of Dad trying to work a broken lawnmower. This movie is an hour long, and more than 5% of it is this sequence. It constantly cuts between 1) Dad trying to fix the mower, 2) Mom on the phone inside, and 3) Stock footage of a turtle (The family’s pet turtle Ichabod). Again, this goes for four minutes! Was the director forced to shoot an hour of footage and just padded it with this? Was the film funded by a lawnmower repair company? Was the producer a turtle? What is the point of any of this? The screenwriter could have simply written “Mark’s father goes out and sees the tree,” but it takes four minutes to get there! The wife then comes out and asks the husband why he planted the tree, but he insists he didn’t and tells her to stay in the kitchen. He then tries to cut it down, but it won’t come down with a saw or an ax. I assume the production team’s goal was for it not to budge at all, but since the prop guy didn’t get a sturdy enough prop tree, it still moved.

We then cut to… Christmas Eve.

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Well alright then, four minutes with a problematic mower but nothing important between Black Friday and December 24. The family is going out to buy a Christmas tree, because wow they definitely don’t have their priorities in order and are on the verge of divorce. Mark’s mom is surprised to find out that his dad hasn’t bought a Christmas tree despite the fact that they are CURRENTLY IN THE LIVING ROOM. Where does she think it is? Does she think it’s in the garage or something? He’s clearly a terrible husband and father, but why is she so oblivious to this?

Mark’s mom and sister aren’t that much better though, because they haven’t done their shopping yet. It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s already dark! This is a horrible family. Is this some weird deconstruction of 1960s society? Again, I doubt it but it would make this movie a lot more interesting.

With his parents doing the most last-minute shopping imaginable, Mark is home alone on Christmas Eve (It’s not even the best Christmas movie where that happens), so he goes outside to put on the ring that will unlock the tree to unlock his wishes to unlock the bump on the branch on the log on the plot hole in The Magic Christmas Tree.

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However, when he goes to make his wish, we’re all treated to a lovely little scare—The tree talks. Despite all the intricate details the witch gave, she never told him the tree would talk! Not only does it talk, but it’s sassy, like it’s supposed to be some Old Hollywood coded gay stereotype.

The tree insists Mark says the magic words, and when he does the tree disappears and re-appears in his living room. When he does it again, the tree is decorated.

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The boy’s first wish is for “an hour of power,” which thankfully does not result in the tree granting the boy a 3rd-rate televangelist show. Instead, he gets the tree’s power for 60 minutes. What exactly does this mean? He tests out his new powers by pointing at a vase…

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…and turning it into…

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…a slightly different vase! This kind of power cannot be tamed. He also uses his power to make it light outside, so I don’t know if it’s now Christmas morning or still Christmas Eve.

All Mark really does is go outside and cause some minor chaos. He makes a delivery truck run away from its driver…

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And then makes the cops go after him. This is definitely a dream, because the police need cause to go after an unarmed black man. Mark goes full Benny Hill when he makes a few random people fight, and then brings the fire department in for good measure. It’s a very random sequence that makes me wonder if the director just had some of this on file and had to find a way to incorporate it into his movie.

Deadbeat dad gets home, disappointed he couldn’t find a Christmas tree (IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE), so he plans to go out in the yard and cut the tree down. Again, shouldn’t he have noticed it wasn’t out there when he came home? He wants to call the police, because this exists in a ’60s sitcom and not real life, but when he walks inside he sees the tree all decorated. He wonders how Mark could have cut it down and decorated it, but he just kind of accepts it.

Even though Mark has had two months to think about his wishes, he doesn’t even know what he wants for his second wish! When the tree tells him it’s almost time for Santa to arrive, Mark wishes for Santa all to himself.

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If this tree is powered by the magic of Christmas or whatever, how does it have power over Santa Claus? Is there a darker power at work here? Was Lucifer the cat actually Lucifer?

When Santa Claus appears and asks where he is, Mark says “You’re at my house, Santa” which I’m sure really narrows it down for the old guy. The tree and Mark explain that Santa is their prisoner for the night. After chatting with the tree for a moment, Santa says, “Where is the lad now?” and then we cut away to something completely random.

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With no real buildup (except that one line), Mark is suddenly by a mountain somewhere. This wasn’t part of his wish. Also, it’s daytime again, so how did he get there? He also has a gun, because of course. When he sits down by a stream to drink some water, a giant walks up… Wait hold on.

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Wow Ethan Suplee fell on some hard times.

WHERE IS THIS GOING? Mark wishes for Santa to be his prisoner, then he suddenly is by a mountain and a lake, then a giant appears? Did we lose some of the film? Were scenes cut out to make room for that crucial lawnmower sequence?

The giant creepily tells him, “You’re my little boy now,” and that he has to stay there forever but can have whatever he wants, and I think this is supposed to be a lesson from the tree not to be greedy. However, there is just no segue into it.

The boy is even shown a vision of a world where Santa Claus is missing. A news report shows that the entire NYPD is dedicated to finding Santa Claus (I don’t know, try Macy’s.). When Mark sees this and shows remorse, the giant just lets him go, saying “I lost him, but I’ll find another greedy child to be my slave.” Wow. I don’t know, maybe send one of the thousand police officers looking for Santa Claus to look into this guy. He even points into the camera and says “Maybe you!” like it’s the end of The Devil and Daniel Webster (but I have a feeling the director hadn’t seen that one).

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So wait, this kid is dreaming of a giant breaking the fourth wall to an audience?

Mark uses this third wish to wish it was Christmas Eve again and to undo his second wish. The tree disappears and Mark wakes up at the old woman’s house in black-and-white again. She goes inside to get some milk and cookies for him, and Mark looks up and sees a Christmas tree (in color) in the distance saying “There’s a bit of magic in every Christmas tree.”

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How does this world have both black-and-white and color? Anyway, that’s where this thing ends, because why should it make sense?

I have watched some weird things in my time reviewing bad Christmas specials, so I won’t act like this is the weirdest one of all. However, the transition to the scene in the forest with the giant and the 4-minute lawnmower scene are hands down two of the strangest moments in any of these specials. Was Ms. Velma the editor on this thing? It’s the worst one this year so far, no question.

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Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol

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  • Year: 1962
  • Director: Abe Levitow
  • Starring: Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy

Today’s special is considered by some people to be the very first Christmas special to ever air on television. Now, those people are wrong, but Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is still notable in that it is the first animated Christmas special ever created specifically for television.

Before watching today’s special, I knew very little about Mr. Magoo at all. Pretty much all I knew was 1) He’s old, 2) He’s nearsighted but refuses to wear glasses, and 3) He’s voiced by Jim Backus. Upon some research… apparently that’s all there is to this character. I suppose the creators thought that an elderly man refusing to get glasses and stumbling into things was funny enough to put on the air.

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Well hey, thanks for being honest at least.

The special starts with the very unpleasant song “It’s Great to be Back on Broadway.” I get that Magoo isn’t supposed to be a good singer, but it’s just an ugly-sounding song. It’s really not going to endear an audience to the special when the opening song is this flat and monotonous.

Magoo crashes his car on the way over when he drives the wrong way on a one-way street…

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GET IT??? It’s because he’s blind!

And walks the rest of the way to the theatre. The animation is so cheap that a line of taxis that drive down the street is just the exact same car with the exact same driver.

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When he gets to the theatre (by some miracle), he instead walks inside the restaurant next door, where the cooks carry him out and throw him backstage at the theatre. He sings some more of that annoying Broadway song (because it was so great the first time), accidentally enters a woman’s dressing room, and eventually makes it to the stage as a weighted bag falls on the director (Falling anvils and the like were already an outdated cliche by ’62. Come on.)

The rest of the special is simply a stage production of A Christmas Carol. (Keep that stage part in mind, I’ll get back to the issues with that.). From what I can tell, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol doesn’t feature any other recurring characters from the Magooniverse, simply featuring Mr. Magoo playing Ebenezer Scrooge, with a bunch of other characters we haven’t seen before (OK to be fair, I haven’t seen any of the Magoo characters before anyway, and neither has Magoo, but they aren’t credited as recurring characters.). Tiny Tim has the same design as Gerald McBoing-Boing (Like Magoo, a UPA character), but since he talks instead of just making noises, I don’t think it’s the same character.

So do the ghosts have to convince Magoo to start wearing glasses or he’ll ruin his life? Nope. He’s just playing Scrooge. There are one or two “You should wear glasses” lines that are awkwardly shoved in there, but for the most part, it’s not referenced. I’ll give credit where credit is due and admit that I laughed at one joke in this thing. When The Ghost of Christmas Present says his famous line, “You’ve never seen the like of me before,” Magoo says, “I’m not quite sure I see the like of you now.” Alright, that’s relatively clever.

The animation is pretty cheap. I get that it’s TV, but there are a lot of scenes that just look gray. I don’t think crayons are expensive!

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I cannot tell if the tall guy is supposed to have mutton chops or a handlebar mustache.

I suppose it least has a consistent style, unlike some of the worst animated specials I’ve seen.

Within a few minutes of being on stage, Scrooge sings “Ringle, Ringle,” a seemingly-never-ending song about how much he likes money. Subtle. Later, Scrooge tells some children singing Christmas carols to go away, even kicking a jar of coins out of one of their hands. When one of them doesn’t leave, Scrooge asks if they “understand the King’s English,” even though Magoo isn’t even speaking in a British accent! I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a joke or not.

Despite Scrooge being something of a caricature, Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy) is quite good in this version.

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If you look back at my Christmas Carol series, you’ll note that this is a character who is pretty easy to pull off well, but it’s still worth noting. He’s a good family man who tries to keep his spirits up despite his miserable working conditions.

As with any non-feature-length version of A Christmas Carol, something has to be cut, but Magoo’s might be the first one I’ve seen that cuts out Scrooge’s family. His nephew Fred doesn’t come to invite him to Christmas dinner, and we don’t see his sister in the Christmas Past segments. At one point, we do see a brief sketch on a chalkboard showing he does have a sister, but that’s it! You have a musical number about how much Scrooge likes money that you reprise later on, but you cut out Scrooge’s family? Who needs motivation or a sympathetic backstory? We’ve got songs about greed to sing!

When Scrooge arrives home and sits down for his gruel, he meets the ghost of Jacob Marley.

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Alright, back up a minute. In-universe, this is a stage production! How is this effect being accomplished? If you don’t want me to nitpick the things that are impossible on stage, don’t make this a stage production! It’s a cartoon anyway, so why do we need the framing device at all? If you insist on one, make it a movie instead. You’re really just asking for disaster here. Also, this version includes the wandering spirits outside the window, a sequence which is cut from nearly every version… but again, they’re on stage. How is this happening?

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Scrooge goes to bed and is woken up by the first spirit—The Ghost of Christmas Past.

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Um… that’s not The Ghost of Christmas Past. For no apparent reason, in this version, Scrooge meets The Ghost of Christmas Present before the The Ghost of Christmas Past. Why? This is the most arbitrary change imaginable. There is no narrative purpose to it at all, and it makes Scrooge’s evolution from optimistic young man in the past to greedy miser in the present to dead man in the future just more convoluted.

Christmas Present and Scrooge arrive at the Cratchit residence, where they walk through a closed door. Did this special forget its own framing device? I don’t mean the framing device that it’s a stage show, I mean a literal framing device—the door.

Regardless, they walk in and see Mrs. Cratchit and the children…

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THAT IS NOT A CHILD! That is a grown man… bad word choice. That is a child with an adult’s head.

Wait back up. What was Charles Dickens’ description of The Ghost of Christmas Past?

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Alas, this child-man is not The Ghost of Christmas Past. You had the design in the special and didn’t even go with it. No matter how creepy you make the Christmas Yet to ?Come segments, this is undeniably the most terrifying thing in the whole special.

The family sings “The Lord’s Bright Blessings,” about all the things they want for Christmas, but Tiny Tim keeps singing about his desire for razzleberry dressing, which I’m sure the songwriter thought was cute. Apparently due to the success of this special, razzleberry pie (made with raspberries and blackberries) actually became a thing. However, in the special, I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a fruit that exists in this universe or just Tiny Tim stumbling over his words.

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This is the only scene that Christmas Present shows Scrooge, because he doesn’t have a family in this version, and I guess the children Ignorance and Want were too dark for ’60s family television.

The actual Ghost of Christmas Past looks fine, but again, how are they achieving these effects on stage?

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Scrooge enters his old schoolhouse and watches himself as a child singing about how he’s all alone in the world.

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Wait… young Magoo squinted too? So his whole life he’s needed to get his vision corrected and he never did? That’s just awful.

Later, we see him dancing with Belle at Fezziwig’s ball, and what is with her hair?

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Did she drunkenly put a lampshade on her head and it just happened to be the right color?

As we see Scrooge and Belle break up, Belle sings the quite nice “Winter Was Warm” about how things have soured between them.

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Between the animation and the melancholy song, it’s really a poignant sequence that you wouldn’t expect in something called Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. After Christmas Past disappears, Scrooge meets up with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

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I really do like the very un-human way the ghost reveals itself, coming up out of the ground like a vapor. At this point, who cares if it’s not an effect that would likely be achieved on stage? They’ve clearly given up on realism here.

So now that the special is starting to win me over, how can it ruin its good mojo? Hmm, maybe an endless musical number from characters we’ve never seen before?

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Oh come on! We have seen NONE of these characters before, yet the charwoman, laundress, and undertaker selling Scrooge’s things get a 2-minute musical number about being evil. IT. ADDS. NOTHING. There’s even a line “We’re BLANKEY BLANK BLANK no good.” Did the writers just run out of words? I’m so confused. Did they want to make it vulgar but then someone told them it was on television? You know what you could have added in the time it takes to sing “We’re Despicable?” Scrooge’s family!

Of course, Scrooge changes his ways and wakes up giddy in the morning. He sends the prize turkey to the Cratchits’ home, but it seems that some of them quickly give up the whole “humble poor family attitude.” When Scrooge knocks on their door, the child who looks like a grown man says it’s “likely some poor beggar who smelled our turkey.” Wow. Did he and Scrooge just have a Freaky Friday-style body swap? Scrooge proceeds to sing a reprise of the incredibly annoying “Ringle, Ringle” and just starts chucking coins at the Cratchit family (which I assume is Bob’s raise). At the curtain call, Magoo’s myopia causes things to fall from all over, literally bringing down the house, because we’re gonna get one more pointless blind joke in there.

There are a lot of adaptations of A Christmas Carol out there, and trust me, I have seen a whole lot of them. This one is pretty average. There’s nothing particularly unique about it, despite the fact that it stars a famous cartoon character. When Disney did Mickey’s Christmas Carol, it felt like a Disney cartoon. When The Muppets did A Muppet Christmas Carol, it felt like a Muppet film. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol just feels like a version of A Christmas Carol with a few blind jokes thrown in. It’s not awful, but it doesn’t leave much of an impression.

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Jingle Bells

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  • Year: 1992
  • Director: Timothy Forder
  • Starring: ?

There are plenty of Christmas specials based on Christmas songs, so I won’t act like today’s special is anything new. Some of them are good…

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Some of them are bad…

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And some of them make you question the entire existence of the holiday season.

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That said, all three of these are based on story songs. The song has a specific plot that is at least loosely adhered to in the special. Today’s special is based on the song “Jingle Bells,” you know that song that has one verse and one chorus.

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Oh, well alright then. While some versions do include that fourth verse, the second and third are incredibly rare, but they do in fact tell something of a story. However, both verses start with “A day or two ago,” so I’m not sure if the events are taking place on the same day, or they’re the same event, or he’s telling stories at two different times, but whatever. There’s a story, so I suppose there’s a special that can be milked out of it. Interestingly enough, “Jingle Bells” by James Lord Pierpont (just his name, he wasn’t nobility) was actually written as a Thanksgiving song, but it quickly became associated with the Christmas season instead. Anyway, let’s see what they made of this…

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E. PIERPOINT? How do you manage to get two things wrong in just ten letters? I can understand the typo in the last name I suppose, but where did the E come from? What do you think it stands for? It’s not like it’s next to J on the keyboard. Research really isn’t that hard. I’m sure E. Pierpoint is so honored you’re adapting his song “Eingle Belles” into a Christmas Special.

In addition to completely butchering the songwriter’s name, the credits don’t list any voice cast for this special. Upon searching IMDB, I could only find one cast member: Geoffrey Matthews as the narrator. That’s great and all, except this special has no narrator! Did whoever wrote the entry just assume all Christmas specials need to have a narrator?

Over the credits, we get a version of “Jingle Bells” that sounds like it’s being played by a doorbell quartet, and eventually we get some robotic voices singing the song. Say what you will about Rankin-Bass specials, but at least they went out of their way to hire actual names to sing their songs, and the versions were usually at least spirited. I understand this thing probably had a budget of about 81 cents and a PayDay bar, but you could at least try.

Then there’s the animation. While the backgrounds aren’t terrible, the movement is literally just the same clips played over-and-over. This is The Christmas Tree bad. For ten seconds plus, everyone in the sleigh is frozen in the same pose. The horse alone moves in the exact same up-and-down position as the background is constantly looped. Oh that escapist magic of animation.

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When we do zoom in on the characters, they just bob up and down in awkwardly repeated motions. Like in The Christmas Tree, they also blink a lot. I suppose this is to make it look more natural, but it just makes it weirder.

As the characters sing the song (about crashing a sleigh, which they do after singing it. Whatever.), they sing “upset” instead of the archaic “upsought,” which would be fine and all except that little thing of it doesn’t rhyme! I don’t know, maybe that’s how E. Pierpoint wrote it. Also, while the noises that the Fannie Bright character makes are supposed to show that she is uncomfortable with the high speed of the sleigh, they just sound sexual. There’s no other way to put that.

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The sleigh crashes, and up rides the most cliched villain imaginable. So what does this villain do that is so predictably evil? Does he have a top hat? An evil laugh? How about monologuing to the audience? Maybe a huge handlebar mustache that he twirls? Yes… to all of that.

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This villain out of a silent film serial is George… just George apparently. We don’t learn his last name, or what he does, or anything about him, except that he 1) has a sleigh, 2) is the villain, and 3) is in competition with this sad sack named Tom…

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See what I mean about the blinking.

For the love of Fannie Bright. Apparently Fannie will only fall in love with whichever of them wins the sleigh race, because she totally has her priorities in order. Why would anyone want to be with someone who bases their romantic choices on sleigh-racing skill? It’s oddly specific.

The dialogue in this special is incredibly bizarre. Character slip in and out of vague accents, there are long pauses in the middles of sentences, and the voice work is clearly done by non-professionals with bad recording equipment. At one point, these two characters who were in the crashed sleigh just extend their fists back and forth (In anger, I suppose, but the animation is just repetitive), and one of them says, “How ever shall we get home without catching our death?” It’s a weird enough sentence anyway, but with the strange delivery and animation, it will definitely take you back a moment.

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Anyway, George takes Fannie back to the village, or rather sits still in the sleigh as the background moves. We don’t really get the name of the town either, because who needs details? I get that they’re going for an Anytown, USA kind of deal here, but there’s even a sign that just says “Village.”

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However, there is one thing strange about this village. Here it is when everyone returns…

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Here’s the town before the race begins…

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And here it is after the race.

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Notice anything strange? Look a little closer.

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It’s always 5:00! (There’s a shot at night where it’s also 5:00, but the nighttime effects are so blurry it wouldn’t pick up in a picture). Now, you could say that maybe this is just the work of lazy animators and no budget, but I would argue that this in fact does not take place in the late 19th century like it suggests. Instead, it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the bombings happened at 5:00, and the only remaining citizens of the world hold a sleigh race to honor the time they ran away from the bombs. It’s why the only town left in the world is called “Village.”

So as you can guess, the entire plot of the special is the sleigh race. Of course, since it’s a cartoon that needs to pad itself to 22 minutes, Tom has two mouse friends who help him.

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They ride on the front of the horse in a little carriage of their own, because that’s practical and totally wouldn’t weigh the horse down in a race.

Finally, it’s time for the great annual race in the Town of Perpetual 5’O Clock. People have surely come from miles around to watch all of the competitors race their sleighs around town to win the coveted prize. How many contestants do we have this year?

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Two. Two contestants. It’s the big annual sleigh race, and there are two competitors. Riveting. And what is the prize of this big annual sleigh race?

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A sleigh. The prize of the sleigh race, which you need a sleigh to enter, is a sleigh that looks just like George’s (Perhaps he won last year.). What’s the prize when they have a foot race?

So let’s see. Is it going to be a fair race, or will the Dick Dastardly-look-alike stop along the way and cheat?

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He changes the “Race Route” sign and takes a shortcut himself. It’s a pretty cliched Wacky Races move that you’d expect from this kind of villain, but really stop and think about the implications.

  1. This is a town that holds an annual sleigh race. Sure, the loop around the town is pretty big, but is every single person in town just waiting in the town square to see who will get back first?
  2. If this is a big town event with an actual prize, why would you not hire judges to make sure people are actually competing honestly? The master of ceremonies even says “No Cheating, George,” and yet puts no precautions in place to make sure he doesn’t cheat!
  3. If George is a well-known cheater, why is he allowed to enter the race in the first place?
  4. Wouldn’t the race competitors know the race route? They live in the town! Why does Snidely Whiplash here think that turning around a sign saying “Race Route” will make Tom change his course? Especially if Tom knows he’s a cheater.

Anyway, George crashes on a rock along the way, and Tom takes the correct way when his mice look at the route on a map (They make mouse-sized maps apparently.), so he is the first to cross the finish line. For some reason, when he gets there, it looks like there’s already a sleigh and a horse there.

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This isn’t the sleigh that’s the prize, because there’s no horse attached to that. It’s just a flub in animation. Tom wins the race, Fannie loves him for this (whatever), and George is embarrassed. Even though it’s a cartoon involving a race, there’s no high-speed chase or photo finish (They don’t have the budget.), so there’s really nothing worthwhile here.

It’s kind of crazy how padded Jingle Bells is, because it’s only 22 minutes long, and the opening and closing 90 seconds both feature the exact same rendition of the title song. I could see something like this maybe working as an 8-minute cartoon short, but there is definitely not 22 minutes-worth of plot in this thing. I think the strange pauses in the dialogue are just to pad the run time!

It is quite challenging to find information on this special at all. I’m not sure if it aired on TV, or it was just part of a home video release, but it rightfully never made much of an impression. Director Timothy Forder would go on to direct a TV adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a novel that Charles Dickens died before finishing, so I suppose unfinished works are kind of his specialty.

We’ll slide Jingle Bells into the “Best” slot for now, but I don’t think it will be staying there.

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Introduction: The Worst Christmas Special 4

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Every year, somehow, I manage to find yet another 10 terrible Christmas specials to review. As long as I can keep finding them, I promise to keep reviewing them.

This year, we’ve got everything from a weird live Nativity play from the early days of TV, to a cartoon that dares to call itself White Christmas, to a Charlie Brown Christmas special that’s pretty much universally loathed. I’m even reviewing Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, the one that started the animated Christmas special craze.

As usual, I’ll be ranking all of the specials on this board as I go along.

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Carnival of Souls (1998)

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  • Year: 1998
  • Director: Adam Grossman & Ian Kessner
  • Starring: Bobbie Phillips, Larry Miller, Shawneee Smith

I’m finishing up my series on horror remakes with a remake of one of the biggest cult classics of them all. In 1962, with just a budget of $33,000, Herk Harvey wrote, produced and directed Carnival of Souls, a psychological horror film about a traumatized woman who sees visions and feels oddly attracted to a local carnival.

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With unknown actors (many of them locals), no budget, and a first-time filmmaker, it has all the elements to be so-bad-it’s good in the vein of Troll 2 or Robot Monster. However, against all odds, it’s so good-it’s-good. It doesn’t rely on special effects like so many disastrous low budget films, and the lead performance by Candace Hilligloss is fantastic. The other performances are undeniably hit-or-miss, but even some of the bad ones just add to the overall weirdness factor.

The 1962 film starts with Mary Henry (Hilligloss) walking away from a car accident where two of her friends die, but the end shows her dead body in the car with them.

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Whether she was dead all along and the whole film was her dying dream, or she somehow slipped out of The Grim Reaper’s clutches for a while is left ambiguous. Regardless, it’s a fascinating film, and the ambiguity adds to it rather than hurts it. The remake is very loosely inspired by the original, but it really runs with the “dead all along from a car accident” thing.

I need to offer up a warning to anyone reading this and especially to anyone thinking of watching this film. In less than 90 minutes, the 1998 remake of Carnival of Souls contains two scenes of rape, one scene of attempted rape, and another of implied child molestation (It cuts away.). The original film features absolutely none of this save for a creepy neighbor. There are plenty of films that deal with themes like this in a nuanced and even poignant way without being exploitative. This is not one of those films.

The film starts with young Alex Grant witnessing the rape and murder of her mother at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend Louis Seagram (Larry Miller). Twenty years later, Louis is released from prison and holds Alex at gunpoint, forcing her to drive to an abandoned carnival so he can murder her, planning to attack her sister next. I will admit that Louis popping up in her car is an interesting twist on the original. In the original film, Mary kept seeing visions of a creepy man, often in her car. Fans of the original are probably expecting that again here, so knowing that this is actually Louis mixes it up a bit.

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However, Alex drives the car off the pier in an attempt to kill both herself and Louis. She then wakes up, leaving us to wonder if this was a dream or something one or both of them lived through. There are long dream sequences, other ambiguous situations that feel like dreams, and a whole lot of confusion as to what’s real and what’s not.

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Like in the original, the ending reveals that Alex’s body is in the wrecked car, thankfully along with Louis’s.

I know dream sequences are cliched, but there is a way to do this sort of thing and make it work. The original Carnival of Souls did this to a lesser extent, and it worked very effectively. However, there’s another film that this remake resembles as much if not more than the original Carnival of Souls, and that’s the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. Unlike the film I’m reviewing today, I highly recommend seeking out Jacob’s Ladder, a weird psychological thrill ride with incredibly memorable performances and imagery. At the end (spoiler), it’s revealed that Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) died in Vietnam after an experimental drug was tested on his unit, and the entire film (including the future he imagined for himself) has been his dying dream.

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It full-on embraces the weirdness factor, and it’s very effective. Carnival of Souls, despite being about a literal carnival, never gets weird enough.

Recapping the plot would be pointless, because it happens out of sequence and everything is ambiguous, but I’ll do a quick rundown. Twenty years after her mother’s death, and after she believes she has killed Louis, Alex Graham (Bobbie Phillips) and her sister Sandra (Shawnee Smith) run a bar across the water from the abandoned carnival where her mother met Louis.

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Sure, the original film was about running away and starting a new life, but whatever. Alex begins to suspect that Louis is trying to weasel his way back into her life, but everyone else thinks she’s just going crazy. Meanwhile, the mysterious carnival across the water is beginning to open up again. On these grounds, she meets Michael, a wooden board played to perfection by Paul Johansson.

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There’s a weird tension between them, but it’s not really sexual, as SEE IF YOU CAN GUESS WHAT THE CHARACTER CALLED MICHAEL WHO ROWS A BOAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE. ISN’T IT SUBTLE? They think they’re so clever with a good character named Michael and an evil character named Louis, but none of the other characters have biblical names, so it doesn’t really land. You know who else did this? Jacob’s Ladder! The only difference in that one was that every main character had a biblical name.

The Michael character also makes no sense, because the weird tension (again, not really sexual) leads to them having sex. He’s clearly made himself out to be an angel who doesn’t indulge in human vices (refusing alcohol at one point), so why do they have sex? As it goes on, it’s revealed that Alex is being raped by Louis. While I suppose you could argue that the opening scene adds something to the overall narrative, this adds absolutely nothing except a cheap scare. Hey, here’s an idea. Don’t use rape as a cheap jump scare.

Also, was Michael the same character as Louis the whole time? I’m not even sure what they’re trying to imply here? Is it all a dream here too? Who cares at this point? This movie is terrible.

I understand that Carnival of Souls is trying to be about facing your demons from a traumatic past. Fine. There are plenty of movies that do that well. The backstory here just doesn’t work. Alex and Sandra were raised by a single mother who apparently fell for a clown at a carnival, despite the fact that he is dressed like Raggedy Ann Richard Karn.

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Then, sometime later, she leaves her daughter alone with creepy clown man. The mother is barely on screen, but she is not a believable character.

Despite a private investigator showing Alex that Louis is dead (in photos later revealed to be from her car crash)…

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He doesn’t leave her alone, and she decides to go to the carnival. She enters an attraction that turns out to be her childhood bedroom, where Louis again tries to rape her, but this time she fires a gun and kills him. Then, she’s back in the car drowning, followed by a cut to her driving off the pier, killing them both.

I could say more about it, but why? This film is simultaneously repulsive and pointless. It doesn’t serve any purpose as a remake, and it’s cheap and exploitative. What is Wes Craven’s name doing above the title? Watch the original. Watch it twice if you want. Don’t watch this garbage.

CAST

No one really adds anything here. Larry Miller doesn’t play the role seriously enough for it to work, but to be fair, no one has anything to work with. Some of the acting in the original was weird, but it kind of worked there. This is just bland.

STORY

It takes a weird, psychological story and turns it into a rip-off of Jacob’s Ladder that isn’t very good.

EXPERIENCE

If they wanted the movie to be more about the carnival, they should have made it weirder and more disorienting. The carnival in the original isn’t even open, and it is way more effective.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The worst remake I’ve watched this year by far, and there have been some bad ones. There is nothing redeeming about this film.

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Nosferatu the Vampyre

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  • Year: 1979
  • Director: Werner Herzog
  • Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabella Adjani, Bruno Ganz

Sure, there are a million adaptations of Dracula out there, but in 1979, Werner Herzog went out of his way to remake the silent horror classic Nosferatu. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu is by far the most acclaimed the version of the Dracula story, so remaking that was a way gutsier decision than just another forgettable adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. Most surprisingly of all, against all odds, it worked.

Of all of the original films in this series, Nosferatu is my favorite (with Psycho a close second), and before seeing this, I would have called it the only truly great Dracula adaptation.

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I used to love Coppola’s 1992 version, but the more I see it, the more ridiculous I find it. Nosferatu felt like the only version that really capitalized on the horror of the original novel, making Count Dracula (called Orlok in the film) a monster instead of the debonair vampire he is in other adaptations. It also is a relatively loose adaptation, minimizing and cutting out some characters, and changing a single character being cursed with vampirism to a whole village dying of a plague.

Like the original Nosferatu, the setting is changed from London to a small German village. The cinematography is breathtaking, and in just a few shots, we get the close-knit feel of the community that will later be ravaged by the plague.

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One minor thing I wish Herzog hadn’t changed is the names of the characters. This will be a little confusing, so hold tight. In the original book, we have Jonathan Harker going to visit Count Dracula while Harker’s fiancee Mina stays behind with her friend Lucy. Nosferatu changed all of the character names (although, being a silent film, some reissues reinstate the Dracula names), with Jonathan Harker being Thomas Hutter, Count Dracula becoming Count Orlok, Mina becoming Thomas’s wife Ellen Hutter, and the Lucy character becoming a very minor player. In Herzog’s version, the characters of Jonathan Harker and Count Dracula go back to their book counterparts, but Jonathan’s wife is Lucy while Mina is a minor character. Got that? I just don’t get why he wouldn’t use the names from the original Nosferatu. The vampire makeup is directly inspired by the original film, so when I see this…

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I think Count Orlok, not Count Dracula. I get that it’s a non-issue at the end of the day, but it was just a choice I didn’t really understand.

The most interesting part of almost every Dracula adaptation is the Count himself, and it should be. However, the most boring part of pretty much every Dracula adaptation that I have seen is Jonathan Harker. Gustav von Wangenheim is OK in the original Nosferatu, but once he gets back from Transylvania, he’s pretty much just set dressing, as his wife takes over the role of hero. The 1931 Dracula is pretty boring overall, but it does even less with Harker (David Manners), as it’s Renfield who goes to Transylvania instead. Manners himself was very unhappy with the film, agreeing that his character was bland, never even watching the finished product. 1958’s Horror of Dracula kills off Harker in the first act, so he never really makes an impression, and the Coppola version gave us… Keanu Reeves.

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However, Herzog’s film is the first to give us a truly interesting Jonathan Harker, played here by Bruno Ganz. To be fair, he gets a lot more to do, as after his return from Transylvania, he gradually succumbs to vampirism himself.

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That aside, he’s still engaging in the early scenes as he travels from his small village to Transylvania, stopping off before he gets to the castle and talking with villagers.

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These scenes give a slow, tense buildup to the reveal of Dracula, and they’re incredibly atmospheric. I was reminded of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon which went into meticulous detail to make sure every frame looked like a gorgeous painting. In fact, it was such a beautiful film that I worried that the horror wouldn’t be horrifying enough, but Klaus Kinski is so effective as Dracula that my worries were quickly quashed.

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His portrayal of the character is so unseemly and creepy (Read about his life and you’ll find he may not have been acting), yet there’s a sadness to him that most other versions don’t bring out. It’s not an over-the-top tragic element like the Coppola film (OK, everything in that was over-the-top save Keanu), but a subtle, usually unspoken loneliness. The 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, where F.W. Murnau casts a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) in the role of Count Orlok plays this up even more, and it was definitely inspired by this version.

Like in the original Nosferatu, the Renfield character has gone from a patient in a mental institution to Jonathan’s employer. but he is eventually put in an institution in this one. Here, he’s played by author Roland Topor, who is exceedingly creepy in the role, although this one scene of him and Dracula looks like something out of a sitcom.

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I think it’s mainly the way in which they’re standing right in front of the camera, mixed with Dracula’s rather blase reactions. Like any criticism of this film, it’s incredibly minor, and it might even be intentional dark comedy (there’s plenty of that to go around here).

What really got me about this version of Nosferatu is how dreamlike it was. At first, I was a bit put-off by the somewhat offbeat line delivery, but I figured it was just the fact that these were native German speakers speaking English (It was shot in both languages, and Herzog claims the German is more authentic. It’s really my fault for watching the English version.). However, this ultimately just adds to the uneasiness, like we’re watching something out of a fever dream. There are long sequences of no dialogue and just music, sometimes the ethereal score by Popol Vuh, other times music from Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The buildup to meeting Dracula is particularly dreamlike, but after Dracula kills the entire crew of the ship and moves into the small town where the Harkers live, it goes full nightmare. Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) finds herself surrounded by caskets being carried through the streets as she tries in vain to explain to them that Dracula is behind the deaths.

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It’s not a dream, but it has that feeling of the dream where you keep trying to speak but no one can hear you.

As Jonathan continues to succumb to vampirism, Lucy discovers that the way to defeat Dracula is to let him attack her until daylight, at which point he will die. When she steps outside, she sees people dancing in the streets with some very creepy wordless vocals playing in the background.

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She then sees rats everywhere, surrounding a table where people are eating their “last supper,” knowing they’ve caught the plague and will die soon.

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Suddenly, the people are gone, and only the rats remain. It’s not a quick cut or a jump scare, but just a creepy emptiness that we feel on seeing everyone gone.

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These scenes that could either be dreams or reality, but are nevertheless dreamlike. It’s such an atmospheric film, and these scenes really give it a unique identity in comparison to the original.

As the film draws to a close, Lucy willingly gives herself to Dracula, sacrificing her life to save Jonathan and the whole town. When daylight comes, it kills Dracula, just like in the original.

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Surprisingly, the film does not recreate the iconic shot from Nosferatu of Orlok’s shadow climbing the stairs, but I think this is for the best. It would just feel like a copy or an inferior version.

After Dracula’s death, though, things take a turn. Van Helsing (a relatively minor character) stakes Dracula to vanquish his life force permanently. However, Jonathan Harker remains a vampire and has Van Helsing arrested for murdering a royal.

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Since there aren’t any police or prison guards left, he’s arrested by a citizen who doesn’t quite know what to do with him. It’s a darkly comedic scene, almost like something out of Monty Python, and yet somehow it works. It manages to successfully balance the comedy with the horror and tragedy of a town where barely anyone is left alive. I can absolutely understand someone not liking this ending, as most versions of Dracula have at least a bittersweet ending, but I love it. Let’s take a look at how it compares to the original.

CAST

I suppose it’s hard to say if silent performances are better than speaking performances, but I’ll try my best. Kinski does a great job as the vampire, adding a layer of tragedy not in the original, and he’s almost as great as Max Schreck. That said, there’s just something so creepy about the original that can never be duplicated. Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani bring a lot to the roles of Jonathan and Lucy, making sure there is never a dull moment on screen.

STORY

It takes points from the original Nosferatu and expands on them, having a very similar plot but doing things in different ways. The ending is also quite different, and I like it a lot.

EXPERIENCE

This is a stunningly gorgeous film, from the incredible wide shots to the heavenly music. It’s a full experience, and you really should experience it, especially if you’re a fan of the original film.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Nosferatu the Vampyre is a fantastic companion piece to the silent classic, and a great film in its own right. In fact, there’s sort of a thematic trilogy with the two Nosfeatu films and 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, and I can see myself watching all three over and over.

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Village of the Damned (1995)

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  • Year: 1995
  • Director: John Carpenter
  • Starring: Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Linda Kozlowski

For the second week in a row, I’m taking a look at a 1990s remake of a 1960 horror film. However, today’s movie is a lot more obscure than Psycho (albeit most films are), instead enjoying status as a cult classic. Directed by Wolf Rilla and based on The Midwich CuckoosVillage of the Damned is a charming little black-and-white horror that leaves a lot to the imagination.

One day, all of the residents of a small English village are knocked out cold, and anyone who tries to enter the town has the same happen. A few hours later, they all wake up, but not long after, it’s discovered that every woman of age has become pregnant. The embryos grow faster than normal, and when the children are born, they are clearly not normal. Not only do they learn faster than an average child, they also have a collective hive mind. The scariest part is that they can even read minds and control others’ minds. It could easily have been a cheesy b-movie premise, but it chooses instead to focus on Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) in both his relationship as a father to one of the children, and his meetings with the government about the children, who eventually are revealed to be aliens.

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Between the unfolding mystery of what exactly the children are, the performances of Sanders and Michael Gwynn (as his brother-in-law), and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, it’s a wonderful little movie.

Ever since the success of 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a fantastic remake), Hollywood was looking for a way to remake Village of the Damned. It didn’t happen until 1995, but the choice of John Carpenter makes a lot of sense. Who better than Carpenter, the guy who brought us Michael Myers invading Haddonfield in Halloween, to bring us a story about a small town being infested with evil?

The setting is shifted from England to a coastal California town, and like in the original, we get the close-knit feel of the town right away.

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I wish we could have gotten a little bit more, but it’s an everybody-knows-everyone kind of place with some gorgeous scenery shots. In addition, the fact that the remake was made in 1995 allows the surprise pregnancies to be dealt with in more detail. In the original, they’re basically just a plot point, but here we at least have the potential to see the effect this could have on a small community like Midwich.

Christopher Reeve plays Dr. Alan Chaffee (because no one’s buying Gordon Zellaby as an American name), the kindly town doctor.

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Reeve was obviously a great actor, and he works with what he’s given here, but sadly it’s very little. Besides a few actors, it just feels like no one’s heart was really in this. Comments from Carpenter at the time seem positive on the surface, but make it clear this was pretty much just a contractual obligation (which he confirmed later). Reeve does fine, but he never lives up to the performance of George Sanders in the original, because there’s nothing to work around.

The other actors are a real mixed bag. The best performance comes from Linda Kozlowski as Jill McGowan, a happily married woman who is widowed at the beginning of the film, raising her new son David alone.

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Each of the children is supposed to be born with a partner, but since David’s is stillborn, he understands grief, while the others do not. Jill believes (correctly) that he is more human than the others, and is insistent on raising him as a normal child. Neither film ever goes all-in on the nature vs. nurture debate as much as they could, but this one at least does some interesting things with Jill and David. Unfortunately, what is gained through Jill’s character is lost in the protagonist. In the original, Gordon Zellaby hoped his son could be a normal child, but there’s none of that with Reeve’s character here. Instead, his daughter is basically the villainous leader of the kids. I kind of wonder what could have happened if Reeve’s and Kozlowski’s characters were married instead.

Kirstie Alley plays Dr. Susan Verner, the stand-in for the various government employees in the original. Alley doesn’t bring much to the role, but again, she doesn’t have much to do except relay exposition. I don’t know, she seems miscast, but it’s not entirely her fault.

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There’s also Mark Hamill as the town reverend, and he feels like he’s out of a different movie entirely. He’s very dramatic and serious, and it’s not a bad performance, but it kind of clashes with the others. He may be out of a different movie, but frankly I’d rather watch that one.

Ultimately, one thing about the film that just doesn’t work is the children themselves. In the original, there was something clearly off about these very pale, blonde children that stood out against the black-and-white cinematography.

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Their hair was slightly off, and their voices were a bit robotic, sort of like aliens trying to imitate human life (which is exactly what they are). In color it just doesn’t work.

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The wigs (or hairstyles, but I doubt it) look ridiculously fake, and the eyes glow different colors which is silly.

Let’s compare a scene of the children “killing” someone in the original with the same scene in the remake. In the original film, a motorist almost hits one of the children who walks out into the road, but he hits the brakes in time.

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He gets out to apologize, and is unsettled when the children just stare, one with glowing eyes. Almost immediately, he crashes the car into a brick wall and dies.

It’s a chilling scene, but it’s a subtle one. It’s definitely a precursor to The Omen, where the deaths could have a natural explanation or could be caused by creepy children. As both movies go on, it’s clear the children are to blame, and we the audience are pretty sure by this point into Damned that they are, but the townspeople don’t know. Of course a motorist who almost kills a child with his car could be rattled enough to get in a wreck almost immediately.

In the remake, one of the girls goes out of her way to step in front of this Orson Welles lookalike.

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The children’s eyes all glow, and he is clearly in a trance when he gets back into his truck. He drives off the road and right into an oil tank which just happened to be sitting right there! How convenient.

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You know, just being more over-the-top and ridiculous doesn’t make it scarier. It just makes it edge even closer to the comedic, and in this film’s climax, it crosses the line so far into the comedic that it’s not even funny… or it is… I don’t know. We’ll get back to that.

Since the horror doesn’t work at all, how about the drama? This one does go out of its way to make Alan more tragic, as the children (including his own “daughter”) kill his wife (Karen Kahn). It should be a heart-wrenching moment, and yet the execution (no pun intended) is horrible. First, they get her to boil her hand in hot water, and she goes to the hospital. Fine, no problem. Then, they get her to go outside and commit suicide by… looking down at some rocks and stepping slightly out of frame.

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Her husband runs outside shouting her name, but after this, his grief is barely touched on again. There’s a scene between Alan and David at a cemetery where they bond over grief, but that’s it! Why was this included at all? Were the scenes of her jumping and her husband grieving cut for time? Why would you cut the protagonist’s character arc for time? Cut something else. Trust me, there’s plenty to work with. Did nobody want to make this movie?

The expanded supporting cast only leads to more ridiculous, over-the-top deaths. The town reverend tries to pick off the children from a distance, but they make him turn the gun on himself. The creepy school janitor (a cliche that felt old even in 1995) goes as far as jumping off a roof and impaling himself with own broom.

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Again, going more over-the-top doesn’t inherently make it more scary. The deaths just get more ridiculous as it goes on, as the reverend’s wife, who has taken to leading an angry mob, self-immolates. In another death that is grotesque merely for the sake of it, Dr. Verner is forced to stab herself open.

Like in the original, Dr. Chaffee agrees to educate the children himself. Ultimately, he decides to plant a bomb in his suitcase to destroy them, but he knows he can only do it with an empty, unreadable mind. However, as he is preparing for this, the police arrive in town.

Look, this remake of Village of the Damned has very little to offer, so let’s be thankful it does give us one of the most hilarious sequences ever in a horror movie. Two policemen show up, but the children walk out and cause the one to shoot the other. Then, a parade of police cars (and a helicopter!) roll in, and the remaining officer starts firing on them!

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The children start controlling different officers, and it turns into hilarious chaos. Cars start running over officers, the helicopter falls out the sky, the sheriff shows up, and then the army shows up. A bus of convicts rolls by, and everyone just starts shooting at it. It’s comedic gold, and I really wish Carpenter had just gone all out and put “Yakety Sax” over it. I mean, he had to know this was funny.

Dr. Chaffee’s plan succeeds, and the children are destroyed, save for David, who is clearly more human than the rest. Jill leaves town with him, driving away from the wreckage into a new life.

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He just blinks over and over, signifying that the signature death glare of the children is now gone. Despite everything else in the movie, I like this final moment. If the movie had been more focused on these two, it could at least have been an effective drama.

Let’s see how it compares to the original, beyond just saying “terribly.”

CAST

There are good actors in this. They don’t get a chance to really show it, except for Kozlowsky now and then, but they are there.

STORY

This is really the problem. No one is really committed to telling a good story. The deaths are absurd, the characters are poorly sketched, and even though the creators claimed they wanted to make it more about an alien invasion, all we see is an alien skeleton. Riveting.

EXPERIENCE

I do like the feel of the town, so there’s that, and it’s a John Carpenter movie, so the music does an alright job. It just doesn’t have that creepy vibe the original did

FINAL THOUGHTS

This is what happens when you suck all the life out a good story. It’s pretty clear that no one cared about making an interesting movie here. Just watch the original again.

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Psycho (1998)

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  • Year: 1998
  • Director: Gus van Sant
  • Starring: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore

Psycho is only of the single-most important events in the entire history of film, so of course someone decided to remake it. There had already been a stream of progressively worse sequels in the ’80s and ’90s, and now director Gus van Sant decided it was time for a remake. So what did he do? Follow closer to the book-version of Norman Bates who is more obviously a middle-aged, overweight creep? Try to see what a Norman Bates character would look like updated for the ’90s? Take a wildly different direction with the story?

NOPE. It’s a near-identical remake. It’s often misidentified as a shot-for-shot remake which isn’t true (There’s at least one small scene not even recreated), but it’s incredibly similar. It is probably the most similar remake of any film ever shot, and if it isn’t, please let me know what is. Only a few lines are updated for the present day, and the use of the 38-year-old script almost word-for-word is what usually catches the most flak, causing viewers to write it off as pointless.

For me, change of script isn’t the issue. I know at first it seems strange, but if you think of it as a different performance of a play, it might make a bit more sense. Think about how wildly different two adaptations of Hamlet can be, despite the fact that they’re using essentially the exact same script. Certain lines can have a different inflection, or even a whole different meaning if they’re written ambiguously enough. In fact, I could see how taking on dialogue so iconic and putting a new spin on it could be incredibly enticing for an actor. In fact, a lot of them do put different spins on their characters, and we’ll get to them. The big problem for me, besides one major performance flaw, is that the visuals are the same. Sure, it’s in color, and sure a few random changes are made, but why would you try to emulate Hitchcock’s exact shots?

There’s no point in recapping the plot, because it’s exactly the same. See the original Psycho if you haven’t. I don’t think I need to tell you that. However, right off the bat, the remake gets one thing right the original didn’t.

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Hitchcock wanted the opening shot to be a long take that spanned the Phoenix skyline, smoothly zooming on Sam Loomis and Marion Crane in their hotel room. However, he couldn’t get the shot to work, so it was done with a few cuts instead. Van Sant did have the technology to do the shot, and I’ll be honest, it looks great. I think Hitchcock would approve.

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We zoom-in Marion Crane (Anne Heche) and Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen) as they’re finishing up an afternoon tryst before Marion has to get back to work.

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Obviously a scene of two unmarried lovers talking candidly about sex isn’t risque like it was in 1960, so there’s a random shot of Viggo’s naked butt. Thanks, that was necessary.

That said, both Mortensen and Heche offer new takes on their characters. Mortensen plays Sam Loomis as the kind of guy I’d actually believe would own a hardware store, as opposed to John Gavin in the original, who was just kind of there. Psycho is an indisputable classic and is perfect in nearly every way, but the character of Sam Loomis as played by John Gavin is relatively flat and looks more like a matinee idol than a guy who runs a small hardware store and travels to Phoenix for afternoon trysts with his girlfriend.

hardware

Anne Heche’s performance was divisive when the remake came out, as will anyone’s who is reprising an iconic role, but I like what she does with the character. Her Marion Crane is more sarcastic and dismissive towards the creepy guy who flirts with her at her job, and she is clearly creeped out by Norman Bates, even laughing off the classic “A boy’s best friend is his mother” comment. I suppose this didn’t sit well with some viewers, but I guess they forgot that Norman is a murderer! She is right to be creeped out by him. Obviously both versions of Marion Crane are out of their element, and while Janet Leigh is great in the original, I don’t think you could believably play the character that naive in a modern film. Even if you could, you just know people would have complained it was too similar.

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For some reason, Marion’s co-worker who only appears in one scene seems to come out of a parody film. Rita Wilson, who is obviously a fine actress, reads her line so melodramatically that I’m convinced that she either A) Was mocking the project itself or B) Was told she was in a Zucker Brothers-style parody.

rita
I have… no idea.

The money that Marion steals is upped from $40,000 to $400,000 in this version, which is fine, because at least it’s not $10,000 to $1,000,000 like in House on Haunted Hill.

I don’t know why Gus van Sant felt the need to recreate all of Hitchcock’s famous shots, and it makes this scene with the cop particularly strange.

I mean, why didn’t he go all out and put a terrible green screen effect behind Marion’s driving scenes? Also, you can still see the eyes in the color shot! You can’t in black-and-white.

Once she gets to the Bates Motel, we get to the inevitable make-or-break point of the movie—Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates.

vaughn

I don’t know who thought casting Vince Vaughn as the iconic villain was a good idea, but even putting my own personal disdain for Vaughn aside, this is objectively a bad performance. He’s sorta-kinda going for an impression of Perkins, but he’s just so creepy that it doesn’t work. Perkins played the character as the awkward boy next door type, but Vaughn plays it as that creepy neighbor you try to never make contact with. In addition, while this may sound like a strange criticism, but he’s just too tall. Perkins appeared unimposing, and you can see why Marion pitied him in the original version, but Vaughn towers over Heche and we get why she makes fun of him instead. This film has a very talented cast, but Vaughn is undeniably the weak link, which really drags the film down. After this, he would of course go on to be typecast as “The guy in comedies who isn’t funny but also isn’t the straight man,” but if anyone wonders why his dramatic roles didn’t take off, just watch this.

One thing the film does change is the scene where Norman creeps on Marion through the peephole. Remember how in the original it was unsettling seeing him watch Marion undress, but also essentially like a little boy who never learned the first thing about sex?

peep

Well yeah in this one he masturbates. The only reference to masturbation that should ever be in a Psycho film is if Norman hires a butler who insists on calling him “Master Bates,” and even that would get old. This is just ridiculous. You make a handful of changes to a screenplay, but you make sure to include this. Also, the lighting in the office makes Vince Vaughn looks like he has a creepy John Waters mustache, which is just distracting.

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The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the most shocking, horrifying, and most influential scenes in cinematic history. Not only does it kill off its presumed protagonist early in the film, it suggests nudity and violence without really showing anything (the knife never even goes in), rather putting us right in Marion’s frantic position through a serious of cuts.

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Of course, Van Sant recreates the scene almost identically, save for some random shots of clouds.

clouds
There’s some irony here in that the stock footage is some of the only original stuff in the movie.

I was trying to think of a way for this scene to be shocking, perhaps even a fraction as shocking as the original 1960 film was in its time. Obviously upping the violence or the gore wouldn’t do it, because no amount of violence could produce the same shock this scene did in 1960 (save for perhaps Norman bombing the motel from a helicopter, but that would just be bad writing). I mean, in the book Norman beheads her, but I still don’t think that would be enough. There is a conclusion I’ve arrived that which would be as shocking as the original film—Marion fights back and kills him. Who knows where the film could have gone after that, but can you imagine the shock? Marion is smarter in this version as it is, so it would make sense that she’d be prepared. Sure, it would be a wildly different movie, and I have to judge the movie at hand, but if Gus van Sant really wanted to recreate the word-of-mouth shock value of the original, this would have done it.

Instead the movie plays out exactly like the original, as we watch Vince Vaughn clean up after the murder in what seems to take forever. It goes on for the same length as the scenes in the original, but in the original you’re both recovering from the shock, trying to figure out how much Norman knows, and genuinely engaged by Perkins’ performance. Here… yeah it’s none of that.

After this, we’re introduced to Julianne Moore as Marion’s sister Lila (originally played by Vera Miles) and William H. Macy as Detective Milton Arbogast (originally played by Martin Balsam), and they’re probably the two best things about the movie.

macy

Macy is very similar to Martin Balsam in the original, but not in a way that feels like he’s going for an impression or imitation. He just has the same kind of easygoing likability and intelligence that made the original character work so well. On the flip side of things, Julianne Moore takes her character in a slightly different direction. In both versions, Lila Crane wants to know what happened to her sister, but in the original she seems to let Loomis and Arbogast take the lead a bit. Here she is determined and will stop at nothing to make sure her sister is found, and once again, her determination makes sense because her sister is dead. She’s not overreacting. The performances of these two actors (along with Heche) really made me think that working with the same shooting script could potentially work if the other problems were fixed.

The buildup to Arbogast’s death in the original is brilliantly tense, but the falling effect itself looks silly, even for the time. We let it go, because it’s a classic and the rest of the film is great, but here there’s no excuse. Why wouldn’t you make this effect better today? You updated the one-take in the opening scene! Also, as he’s falling we get even more random imagery, like a woman in bondage and a cow on a wet road.

cow road
See the cow is Norman, the rain is Mother… I give up.

The rest of the film plays exactly like the original, again with the exception that Lila is a bit more assertive. In fact, I think they should have gone further with it and made her interrogate Norman instead of Sam, but Mortensen does a good job too. If there’s one good thing I can say about the ending of this movie, it’s that at least the psychiatrist scene doesn’t go as long. In the original, a psychiatrist takes five whole minutes to diagnose Norman Bates’ condition, and it drags. The actor is very over-the-top, and it just comes off as silly these days (and probably did then too). Here, a low-key Robert Forster takes only two minutes, and it’s a much more realistic and concise take on the scene. In a weird way, the beginning and the end improve on the original, but by that I only mean the opening scene and the last long scene.

It might seem silly to compare this to the original, but let’s do it anyway.

CAST

I like what a lot of the supporting actors do with their characters, but Vince Vaughn is just awful. Nothing can save it.

STORY

It is the same.

EXPERIENCE

The opening scene looks good, but that’s really it. I wish Gus van Sant had done something unique with it instead… but not like those random shots of cows and clouds.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I may be in the minority of people who actually think this could have worked, but it ultimately doesn’t. I mostly blame Vaughn and van Sant, because at least the other actors seem to be invested in this. With a different Norman Bates, I do think this would have been better received. Ultimately, it’s still a strange choice that has understandably been forgotten.

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House on Haunted Hill (1999)

haunted

  • Year: 1999
  • Director: William Malone
  • Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs

Sometimes a film is such a classic, so perfect in every way, that you wonder why anyone would even think to remake it. Other times, like today’s example, a film may be a cult classic, but since it doesn’t have mainstream appeal, remaking it makes a lot of sense. 1959’s House on Haunted Hill is essentially the cinematic version of a haunted house ride—campy, atmospheric, loads of fun, and with just the right number of actual scares to make it worthwhile. Vincent Price relishes the lead role of Frederick Loren, and producer William Castle mixes the horror and the comedy perfectly. Plus, like a haunted house ride, it’s short. It’s only 75 minutes long, and it’s in the public domain, so you can check it out for free at any time.

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In the 1959 film, eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) offer $10,000 to five guests if they can survive a whole night in a haunted house. As the night goes on it’s revealed that one of them is Annabelle’s lover who is conspiring with her to kill Frederick, but the other four are there for honest reasons. In the 1999 film, weird (eccentric is too kind) millionaire Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) offers five guests $1,000,000 if they can spend the night in an abandoned mental hospital where a doctor went on a killing spree years ago.

geoffrey
We’ll get back to… everything about this character.

Alright so I understand adjusting the prize for inflation, but according to the American Institute for Economic Research Cost of Inflation calculator, $10,000 in 1959 came to about $57,000 in 1999. Here’s a good rule to go by. If an eccentric millionaire is willing to put up $50,000 to spend a night in a haunted house, he’s clearly just having some fun. If he puts up ONE MILLION DOLLARS, it’s too good to be true and you should run the other way.

Also, I have to mention the title. It’s not even a house! It’s a mental hospital. I get changing things but it’s good to make sure that the House on Haunted Hill is actually a house!

Now, it’s not like 1959 film is perfect. The cast of the original is not amazing all around, and honestly, there’s only one memorable character besides Vincent Price, and that’s Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr.)

pritchard

Pritchard is the owner of the house, and a firm believer in ghosts. By the end of the film, we’re still not sure if the ghosts are real or not, but Pritchard remains the same. The other actors are fine, but no one stands out. It says it all that every time I watch the film, I forget which of the other two male characters Annabelle is cheating with.

In the remake, I’m convinced that the casting director just started throwing darts at a dartboard of mid-level ’90s character actors and took what stuck.

As Price’s wife Evelyn: Famke Jannsen.

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As Eddie: Taye Diggs

taye diggs

As Sara Wolfe (posing as Jennifer Jensen): Ali Larter.

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As Dr. Donald Blackburn: A set of eyebrows with Peter Gallagher attached.

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As Watson Pritchard: Ugh. Why? Chris Kattan.

kattan

The character is as fearful as in the original film, but what came across as a sympathetic character there just comes across as annoying here. Maybe it’s because he’s constantly making fun of the other guests, turning him into that party guest no one can stand.

There’s also a random cameo by Lisa Loeb as a reporter who interviews Price at his amusement park.

loeb

I know this a movie where ghosts form a spiritual ooze and go after guests staying in a haunted asylum, but I need to nitpick here. You shouldn’t wear glasses on a roller coaster! They usually ask you take them off as it starts. This is just common sense.

This film on the whole was not particularly well-received, but the one aspect that got a lot of praise was Geoffrey Rush’s performance. While his heart is clearly in it, I have to say that I just cannot stand this character.

price 2

The name is clearly a shout-out to Vincent Price, and the appearance is at least an attempt (with perhaps a dash of Walt Disney thrown in), but instead of looking like the debonair horror actor, Geoffrey Rush just looks like a creep with that mustache. That aside, I’m not quite sure what he’s going for with the voice. Maybe he’s trying and failing for a Vincent Price emulation, but it just comes off sounding like James Woods, which is not going to endear you to audiences.

In the original, we’re led to believe that Frederick Loren is evil, but we then learn that his wife has been trying to kill him. He still had three previous wives die (the current wife claims under mysterious circumstances), and he still doesn’t come off as squeaky clean, but there’s just the right amount of charm that we like the guy.

In the remake, Steven Price’s wife is still trying to kill him, and he’s trying to kill her, but frankly we don’t know who started it, and they both just come off as horrible. If the other characters were likable, I’d be fine with this, but they’re really not. In what could have been an interesting twist, both Prices assume the other one made the guest list. This could have led to an interesting reveal that in fact neither of them did and there are definite supernatural forces at work. Instead, the movie decides to reveal it in the opening scenes with, and I cannot make this up, a self-typing computer.

computer

I am going to be super generous and say maybe this could have worked if it was an old-fashioned typewriter and we saw the keys being hit slowly one at a time. Instead, we just see words appearing on a screen. How riveting. This is the ultimate in 1999 terror, folks—words appearing on a screen.

None of the guests invited to the house are all that interesting, except Peter Gallagher simply on the basis of being Peter Gallagher. His character is the one having an affair with Price’s wife, but at least he brings a certain gravitas to the role. I just guess that between this and American Beauty, 1999 was the year his characters had affairs with the wives of creeps.

In fact, the other characters are so bland that I’m not sure if these are two different characters or just a ghostly mirror image.

mirror 2

In the original, everyone willingly decides to stay in the house for the night. In this one, they come there willingly, but Pritchard wants to leave. As he’s about to leave, the doors close, meaning the rest of the movie is spent searching for an exit. Again… riveting stuff. That’s one thing I loved about the original and to a greater extent The Haunting—These people are entering a haunted house willingly! Explore that angle, please. There is fun to be had there.

Instead, the movie just kills the characters off when they’re tired of them I guess. Sara, the blonde on the left in the above picture, gets drowned by a ghost in blood. Again, if they had gone for a mix of campy and scary, this kind of thing could have worked, but it plays the material too straight. Evelyn seems to be killed by an old electroshock therapy machine, and everyone tries to stop it while Price just stands there yelling at them to stop it. Maybe do something yourself!

We of course learn that the second-billed star in this thing faked her own death, and she and Dr. Eyebrows reveal their plan to kill Price in an exposition-heavy scene. However, out of absolutely nowhere, she kills Dr. Eyebrows instead.

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We get no reason for this, and it’s not explained afterwards. I could see maybe trying to frame him for the deaths if you’re not really in love with him, but why just randomly add another dead body? It makes no sense.

Meanwhile, Eddie and Sarah discover a picture of the doctors who worked at the hospital at the time of the massacre. They realize that the five doctors who survived are all ancestors of the guests at the party, which they act surprised by but literally no one should have been surprised by. Hey, here’s an idea. When there are five people who survived a massacre, and five people are invited to a party at that location and supernatural things start happening, maybe just maybe something is up. Sure, they discover that Dr. Eyebrows has no relative on the picture (Evelyn invited him), but Price does a relative there, so that’s still five.

Price then takes a page from Evelyn’s playbook and fakes his death, and when she walks over to his seemingly-dead body, she begins to monologue. Why would you anyone monologue to a dead body? Maybe just get out of there. It’s clearly only for the audience’s benefit. He then comes to life and throws her into a room where the ghosts eventually reveal themselves and kill her.

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It’s never explained why the ghosts take this physical form, and I’m pretty sure the screenwriters just made this up to kill off people quickly. If ghosts are just being creepy and below the surface, you can’t kill people like a slasher. After Evelyn’s death, Price begins pounding on the door with Eddie, Sarah and Pritchard on the other side. Since they know the ghosts are behind him, Eddie and Sarah refuse, but Pritchard feels bad and opens the door, getting killed instead of Price. It’s out of nowhere and pretty hilarious.

Price, Eddie and Sarah run up to the exit in the attic while the ghost horde (What am I supposed to call it?) chases them, with Price sacrificing himself so Eddie and Sarah can get to the window for an exit. I think the movie is suggesting that Sarah survives because since she’s not Jennifer Jensen, she’s not related. Meanwhile, Eddie screams “I’m adopted,” which I’m sure is logic the ghosts will listen to. Anyway, they do get to safety, but it’s on a ledge hundreds of feet up overlooking the ocean. A ghost pushes out the five one-million-dollar checks made out to cash, but they do have to get out of there first. I suppose someone will come eventually, but this is where we leave them.

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Well let’s take a look at how this compares to the original.

CAST

The original has Vincent Price. The remake does not. Do I need to say more? There are plenty of cast members in the remake that I like in other things, but they have nothing to work with here. Peter Gallagher is at least trying, but his character unmercifully exits the film far too early.

STORY

By expanding the story, the film only serves to only make it more confusing. I love how the ghosts were ambiguously real in the original, but the remake takes all the plot points from the original and adds more for good measure, including an over-complicated backstory. It doesn’t work.

EXPERIENCE

I’ll give a few points here as some effects are solid. Price has an assistant (obvious cannon-fodder) who is revealed to have had his face torn off, and it’s a pretty good effect. That said, the house is just kind of gray and brown and not that creepy, while the original is a classic haunted house (although it’s not as traditional looking on the outside). There was so much potential for a remake, and so little is lived up to.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This is a pretty worthless remake. I’m sure it has its fans, but it just gets lazier as it goes on.

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