Friday, January 27, 2006

Closed On Account of Molasses

Some days I'm here to tell you what
Was cut from this or cut from that,
And some days I'm here bright and brisk
To recommend a DV disc,

An Argento remaster, a case of the punks,
The best of the grand and the not-so-grand funks,
A TV show that's worth a look,
A Dobie Gillis comic book.

Some blogs are long and some are small
And some blogs are not here at all.
As the little voice inside you knows,
To-day's blog is one of those.

Some days they roll right off my cuff
But other days they can be tough;
And some days when this blog is good
I'm too tired to write what else I should.

I'll be back in a little while.
First, I must go and find my smile.
(You know: Billy Crystal-style.)
I won't be long. I'll be back soon.
Maybe later on this afternoon.

Pictured: The Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Strange Case of Dr. Jerry and Mr. Gillis (expanded)

As luck would have it, yesterday I happened to get my mitts on a copy of an old DC comic book from the early 1960s, THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS #18. I've been a fan of DC's BOB HOPE and JERRY LEWIS comics for as long as I can remember, but I only recently discovered that their DOBIE GILLIS title (an adaptation of the TV series starring Dwayne Hickman, Bob Denver, Tuesday Weld and Warren Beatty) was written and drawn by the same people. The chief writer of all these comics was Arnold Drake (whom you may remember as the screenwriter of THE FLESH EATERS) and the artist was Bob Oksner, whose style reminds me a lot of MAD's master caricaturist, Mort Drucker. The BOB HOPE and JERRY LEWIS comics were always dependably hilarious, so I thought I'd give DOBIE GILLIS a spin.

I was amazed by what I discovered.

The untitled story in DOBIE's 18th issue begins with Dobie and Maynard in their chemistry class at college, where Dobie is trying very hard to get his gorgeous classmate Lucinda to go out with him on a date. Lucinda feels no chemistry; she says she wouldn't go out with Dobie if he was the last man on earth -- and vines herself around the arm of handsome college letterman Steven. Maynard jokes that maybe Dobie can cook up something in class that will take the starch out of Steven's collar, and Dobie declares his beatnik friend a genius. His eureka: Perhaps he can concoct something like the potion in Robert Louis Stevenson's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE... Since he's already repulsive to Lucinda, maybe he can invent a potion that will make him irresistable to her instead! (You see where this is going?)

The next day in class, Dobie's fevered ingredient mixing causes an explosion in the classroom. When the dust clears, he has indeed become more attractive. He dubs himself "Mr. Handsome" and everyone in class is awestricken by him. Lucinda is ready to fall all over him, but Dobie hasn't just become Mr. Handsome; he's also become something of a... conceited, abrasive jerk! (It's also suddenly the 25th century, because Dobie's explosion actually knocked him out cold and he's only dreaming, but that's beside the point.)

Dobie... er, Mr. Handsome struts away from Lucinda and sets his romantic sites on Delora Delora, who has won the title of Miss Beautiful everywhere in the galaxy. He drops in on her without bothering to call first, reasoning that the two of them just "go together." Delora agrees to receive him because he's "so breathtakingly fabulous" and Mr. Handsome shoots back, in a very Jerry way, "That's a wise decision... it's not every day you receive a visitor like me. I mean, so good-looking and gentlemanly and all!" Press photographers descend on their meeting but are so preoccupied with snapping shots of Mr. Handsome that Delora mopes about being ignored. "I'm too much of a good thing," Mr. Handsome reasons, and he reassures her by promising to send a special 8x10 that she can admire when no one else is around.

In addition to all this, Dobie and Maynard call each other "Buddy" throughout this wacky MANY LOVES story, which ends with a visit to Venus where all the Venusian women are attracted to Maynard instead -- the shock of which causes Dobie to regain consciousness in the wreckage of his 20th century chemistry class.

Reading this comic, I quickly took note of its many parallels to Jerry Lewis' classic movie THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, which the IMDb tells me was first released on June 4, 1963. I assumed that the hit movie had inspired the plotline but was surprised upon checking Page 1 of the comic that it was dated March-April 1963 -- which means that it actually streeted a few months earlier than the film and was scripted and drawn a good deal earlier than that!

Adding further confusion (and interest) to the timeline is a news item that tops the "Inside Hollywood" text feature appearing on Page 19 of the comic. Get this: "Stella Stevens to Star with Jerry Lewis in 'The Nutty Professor.'" The third paragraph of the item reads, "'The Nutty Professor,' a Jerry Lewis production in which Lewis will play a Jekyll and Hyde type of character, is scheduled to go before cameras late in September with Ernest D. Glucksman producing and Lewis directing."

Given its phrasing, this item suggests that Lewis was still casting principal roles at the time the GILLIS comic was in production, so THE NUTTY PROFESSOR was either still in pre-production as the comic was being assembled, or on the earliest stages of shooting. The screenplay that Lewis co-authored with Bill Richmond already existed, of course. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not suggesting that either party ripped the other off, nor am I theorizing that Jerry Lewis got the idea of Buddy Love from a DC comic. What's interesting about this discovery is that Lewis's most notorious plot twist (which was greeted as something of a shocker at the time) -- and other little touches like his film's college milieu and the use of the endearment "Buddy" -- were somehow anticipated in the pages of DC's THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS months before THE NUTTY PROFESSOR reached theater screens... and by whom? By the same people who worked on Lewis's own comic! Did DC have access to an advance script of the film? Was it just a matter of kindred comic spirits pulling the same concept out of the ether at roughly the same time? You just have to wonder if the similarities between the two projects were coincidental... or accidental... or osmosis... or what?

Of course, Jerry Lewis wasn't the first filmmaker to get the idea to reverse the traditional roles of Jekyll and Hyde. In the underrated Hammer Films production THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1961), which was released in American theaters as JEKYLL'S INFERNO and HOUSE OF FRIGHT, Canadian actor Paul Massie played a bearded, bookish, bespectacled Jekyll who became a clean-shaven, handsome, pleasure-loving and ultimately sadistic Hyde. The film was scripted by Wolf Mankowitz and directed by the great Terence Fisher, and I personally forgive its few rough edges and place it with Fisher's most important work. That said, if the world's last print of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL was in a burning building with the last print of Lewis's THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and there was time to save only one of them, the Paul Massie Fan Club would probably cast a stern eye on the choice I'd be forced to make.

A strange footnote to all this is that DC never issued a NUTTY PROFESSOR tie-in issue of their popular ADVENTURES OF JERRY LEWIS comic. It's a peculiar omission considering that DC had used the title to present earlier tie-in editions of DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP, THE BELLBOY and THE LADIES' MAN (see below), also illustrated by Oksner.

I don't know what to make of this strange coincidence, but it just goes to show you: If you read comics, you might learn something. Or wonder something. Or something.

Speaking of JERRY LEWIS comics, I was pleased to be reminded, while examining some back issues of that beloved title, that he was among the very first "Monster Kids." Or maybe it was his nephew. I'm wary of probing too deeply into such questions, for fear I might end up writing THE BOOK OF RENFREW...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Horrible THING -- Revealed!!!

Courtesy of Mr. David J. Schow, here's the original production art for "The Horrible THING!," the mysterious billboard that adds an intriguingly eerie layer to his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Pick Me Up," airing this week on Showtime. The art -- which I received uncredited, but which probably fell within the creative province of production designer David Fischer or art directors Don McCauley and Teresa Weston -- is segmented because the billboard is rickety and a bit broken down. It may add to the effect to imagine Michael Moriarty peeking through one of those openings at you.

In the night. In the dark.

Aware of my ungainly infatuation with "The Horrible THING," David kindly indulged me by rounding up this image (and another, seen below) for me to share with others who might feel similarly affected. He also sends along this doggy-bag of additional insight: "The Horrible Thing was originally my homage to that venerable roadside attraction encountered by virtually anybody driving cross-country through the Southwest..."

"... It wasn't The THING itself," DJS explains as everything starts to go all squiggy, "but the fact that at one time (perhaps not now) these billboards were EVERYWHERE, more prolific than Stuckey's encampments. They had an odd cumulative effect on the imagination as you were pounding those long hard stretches of desolate road, particularly in the high desert, or anywhere in Texas (once you begin driving through Texas it just ... never ... seems ... to end). You could literally mark your progress by waiting to spot the next billboard for The THING in inevitable succession.

"It got even weirder at night. These bright yellow billboards would loom up out of total desert darkness, some of them quite dilapidated, and one could imagine all sorts of unlikely, er, things.

"But the mystery promised by the THING (and indeed by The Horrible Thing) are rooted deep in that mystic primordial brain-jelly that really, truly beckons the imagination," he summarizes. "We should never actually see such THINGS and have the rug pulled by some rude physical artifact."

To which I can add only, "Bingo."

P.S. Be sure to check out David's reunion "Raving and Drooling" column in the current 250th issue of FANGORIA.

Now get out of here with that bump-bump-bump.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dig It -- Six Digits!

Last night, around 11:19 pm, someone from San Antonio, Texas visited Video WatchBlog and rang up its 100,000th hit, or page visit. I promise to give the bragging about attendance a rest for awhile, but Donna and I are astounded by the blog's popularity and this is the kind of milestone that needs to be acknowledged. If you weren't coming here to visit every day, or nearly every day, this blog couldn't be what it is (or what it's becoming), so it's natural to want to share this news with you. We launched VWb less than four months ago, and our daily averages have been steadily on the rise -- especially lately, thanks to friendly mentions and links on other sites and blogs. I'm enjoying my participation here and your friendly attention, response, and correspondence makes me want to continue being here for you. It may be a little difficult this week because Bava book work is piled high and I'm back to a tight schedule, but I'll do the best I'm able.

In the meantime... Thanks, everybody!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I Saw The Horrible THING... and Survived!

Just a short time before settling down to watch "Pick Me Up" -- the latest installment of MASTERS OF HORROR (this one directed by Larry Cohen and written by my buddy and Rondo Award-nominated VW contributor David J. Schow, based on his own story) -- I received a foreboding e-mail. My friendly correspondent didn't enjoy the episode, it seems, and was asking me how it could have possibly been written by the same discerning DJS who writes those great articles for VW.

This e-mail put me on pins and needles because I've written about all the MOH episodes in detail on this blog; if I didn't like "Pick Me Up," I'd have to find some way of expressing that without being hurtful to David. Mind you, I knew, going in, that it probably wasn't going to be one of my favorite episodes, simply because of its orientation. DJS is Mr. Splatterpunk -- he likes the smell of bacon in the morning, mixed with a little burning hair, and as much gunpowder as you can pack into the skillet. Whereas I tend to gravitate to the genre for its qualities of poetry and stylization, irony and subtlety, its propensities toward surprise and the bizarre.

To my great and unexpected pleasure, the two very different roads we walk find a meeting place in "Pick Me Up," which I found to be one of the most devilish and delicious MOH episodes to date. It's cut from the same general cloth as Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" -- i.e., "There's a killer on the road / his brain is squirmin' like a toad" -- but what it makes out of that cloth is closer to an Armani suit than a deer-skin coat. It had me laughing the way a Tarantino movie makes me laugh: because a) I get the references, b) the smoothness of the ride makes me giddy, and c) I know I'm in the hands of a maniac who has shocked me before, with great glee, and will most assuredly do it again. Here, the maniacs are two... in more ways than one.

When a bus driver spots a rattlesnake in the road ahead, he maliciously swerves to run it over and damages his vehicle in the process, stranding it out in the middle of nowhere. One lone passenger, a bitchy young divorcée (Fairuza Balk), decides to walk to the nearest sign of civilization while the few other passengers, equally bitchy, decide to stay with the bus. A helpful but eccentric trucker (Cohen regular Michael Moriarty) happens along and offers a lift to two passengers, the most he can accomodate. Not long after the truck rumbles away, a lone drifter (Warren Kole) appears from the woods carrying a dead rattlesnake. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the driver, his dark side emerges and two of the three people still with the bus are left dead, the third fleeing the scene screaming. When the story cuts back to the trucker and the passengers he's taken to the nearest restaurant, we learn that he too is a psychopath -- he's hung one of his pick-ups on one of the many meathooks in the refrigerated compartment of his truck. In the first of many deft cat-and-mouse maneuvers on his part, the wily Mr. Schow returns to his bitchy divorcée heroine (if she can be called that) as she reaches a remote motel, where she unwittingly takes a room that sandwiches her between Mr. Trucker and Mr. Rattlesnake. The muffled, carnal sounds she hears emanating from the room next door are not sexual, but the taped-up squeals of a young woman whom Mr. Rattlesnake is skinning alive.

I don't want to spoil the experience by going into too much detail about what follows. Suffice to say, "Pick Me Up" ultimately succeeds in introducing to the splatter genre its most interesting ironic dimension since Mario Bava's TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE [ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO, 1971] -- a film so steeped in misanthropy that, basically, everybody killed everybody else. Here, again, there's not a single likeable character -- they're all pissy and bridge every other word with the f-one; the two monsters are the most civil, philosophic, and polite of the bunch, at least until you're alone with them. But what is most ingenious about it is that the story becomes a cat-and-mouse game not between killer and prey, but a mutually amused, tongue-in-cheek contest between two "civilized" killers over their "right" to claim the last survivor of a roadside smorgasbord. The penultimate scene of the episode finds the Balk character handcuffed and strapped into the trucker's rig, and Mr. Trucker stopping to pick up a hitchhiker who happens to be Mr. Rattlesnake. After driving back to the motel they've all escaped from for a final showdown, they stop the truck to allow a rattlesnake to pass... and, not long after they are moving again, both killers are pointing their guns at Balk's screaming head. But it's the payoff of the final scene that puts everything that comes before into perspective -- it belongs to the same family of completely unexpected, riotous twist as Bava's TWITCH, which Joe Dante (as a young reviewer for CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN) called "the greatest ending since CITIZEN KANE!" The fates that Mr. Schow has reserved for his characters bring his story to an equally ironic and misanthropic full stop, but one possibly more clever and unexpected.

Nasty and unpleasant, you're damned tootin'. Especially in the skinning scene, the episode crosses a line where even ironic laughter isn't possible. But the performances of the three principals are outstanding, with a strangely bloated, slurry and limping Moriarty giving the sort of performance that will have you thinking of Kinski or Palance or Walken or any other tall glass of I'm-playing-this-however-I-please. He was probably a handful to work with, but I can't imagine any other actor playing the role with his quality and unpredictability quotient. (I love the way he runs his lighter along the length of his cigarettes, warming his tobacco before he smokes it -- Mr. Trucker is a true connoisseur of his vices.) Fairuza Balk, whose work I've enjoyed since RETURN TO OZ, is often hilarious as the eternally put-out damsel-in-effing-distress. ("I think every one of Fairuza's 'asides' is priceless," DJS tells me.) Newcomer Warren Kole is a talent to watch; he plays his wicked "Western gentleman" with such a poker face that took me offguard more than twice. One of the joys of watching this episode is not only not knowing what's going to happen next, but how these two guys are going to play whatever happens. I'm assured that everyone's ad libs were brilliant, but I can't tell where the writing ends and the ad libs begin. The end result is beautifully layered, and that's what counts.

The auteuristes among you are doubtless grumbling that I haven't mentioned director Larry Cohen's contribution to this episode, and rightly so. I've been a fan of Cohen's work since his early days as a teleplaywright (CORONET BLUE, THE INVADERS, THE FUGITIVE) and I've always found his specific talents as a writer intrinsic to his appeal as a director. DJS tells me that he approached the job of directing this episode with the writing and its most accurate representation as his greatest concerns. That he kept everybody reined in and focused is to his credit, and the episode has a number of brilliantly timed and executed moments -- like the hypnotic POV shot of the curving sameness of the road, as one hitcher notes that the scenery around every next bend is so unchanging that it feels like you're not going anywhere. "Maybe you're not," Moriarty offers with a smile. The overhead camera shot that reveals the rooming arrangements of Kole, Balk and Moriarty is also pretty sweet. I actually liked Cohen's direction of this piece -- like I said, "the smoothness of the ride" -- better than much of what he's directed of his own work.

The title of this blog refers to a compelling side-ingredient that floats into view a couple of times in the episode: a broken-down billboard for something called "The Horrible THING," which Moriarty explains is some kind of exhibit in a travelling carnival, the skeleton of a two-headed baby or something like that. The sight of this billboard struck a chord with me, reminding me of all the non-existant horror movies that have invaded my dreams, usually in the form of similar advertising. In an exceedingly clever bit of writing, or directing, or set dressing, we are shown included among the many souvenirs of Mr. Trucker's kills a giveaway button that boasts, "I Saw The Horrible THING... and Survived!" Unfortunately for that person, there was something even more horrible they hadn't seen yet: the next guy to offer them a ride.

I'm not a button collector, but I'd love to have that one.