Thursday, October 31, 2013

One of my favorite Halloween scenes: American Splendor

Welcome to what we hope will be a recurring feature here at Holiday Film Reviews.  We plan to feature Holiday-related scenes from movies that aren't primarily built around a holiday.

I'm a big fan of the 2003 film American Splendor, and the comic that inspired it.  For those who don't know American Splendor was a self-published comic book memoir that focused on the day-to-day struggles of  Cleveland file clerk (and all-around everyman) Harvey Pekar.  Pekar sadly passed away in 2010, but he appears as himself and narrates the American Splendor movie.

Paul Giamatti & Harvey Pekar
In the film, Pekar is played by Paul Giamatti (in a "starmaking" performance).  But it opens with an 11-year old Harvey, out trick-or-treating with some other boys.  "Young Harvey" is played by Daniel Tay  Later that same year, Tay would appear as Michael Hobbs, Buddy the elf's stepbrother in the film Elf.  

I don't know if this Halloween segment ever appeared in the comic, but it feels true to Pekar's recounting of his life, here it is, enjoy:

Happy Halloween!


The Worst Witch

Premiered on HBO and Central Independent Television in the Fall of 1986

Miss Cackle's International Academy Of Witches is a boarding school where girls hone their witching skills. But one student is going through a rough patch, Mildred Hubble (Fairuza Balk) is having trouble casting spells and flying her broomstick.   She manages to turn herself and her lab partner invisible when they were supposed to be creating a laughing potion.

Hazards of imprecise potion making
She is constantly bullied by mean girl, Ethel Hallow (Anna Kipling).

One of Mildred's teachers, Miss Hardbroom (Diana Rigg) seems to have it in for Mildred.

Pleasant nightmares!
Even the school's headmistress, Miss Cackle (Charlotte Rae) calls Mildred "the worst witch" in the school.

Her only friend, Maud Warlock (Danielle Batchelor), offers encouragement to Mildred, telling her to ignore her detractors.

Halloween is approaching.  All the girls, including Mildred are anticipating the Halloween Festival.  The guest of honor will be the Grand Wizard (Tim Curry).  The girls fawn over him like a rock star.

Sooo dreamy!?
Meanwhile, Miss Cackle's evil twin sister Agatha is plotting to take over the school.  Agatha ("Aggie" to her "friends") will stage a coup during the Halloween celebrations, when the school is distracted.

Agatha and hench witch Delilah
After much practice,  Mildred shows major improvement in her flying skills and is happy when she is added to the broomstick display team which is scheduled to perform for the Grand Wizard on Halloween night. Ethel isn't happy about Mildred's inclusion on the team and gets a nasty idea.  Mildred's broom is broken, so Ethel lends one of her spare brooms.

Ethel is up to no good
Unbeknownst to our heroine,  Ethel has placed a curse on the broom!

Halloween arrives, as does the Grand Wizard, in grand style.

 He entertains everyone with a Halloween song.

Anything can happen on Halloween
 Next, it's time for the broomstick team's performance.  Everything is going well, the girls are flying in formation, but suddenly Mildred's broom goes haywire.  She crashes, ruining Halloween.  The Grand Wizard departs for another gig and Mildred is sent to her room without supper, fully expecting to be expelled the next morning.

Mildred is despondent, feeling like the whole world is against her and decides to run away.   She stumbles upon Agatha and her cronies (pun intended) getting ready to make their move on the school.   Will she be able to stop their depredations?  Will she be expelled from school?

RigbyMel says:

I have very fond memories of watching this little film when it first showed on HBO.   It quickly became a family favorite - my brothers and I watched the VHS tape quite a bit.   I think most kids can relate to the feeling of not quite being in step with those around them and the misfit theme certainly crops up in various holiday programs aimed at children.

Watching it as an adult has caused some of the shortcomings of The Worst Witch to stand out a bit more than they did when I was 10.    This is a very low-budget production,  the special effects are not of great quality and proportions of characters to backgrounds vary wildly within the same scenes. The plots is a bit on the paper thin side, but is enjoyable.  Much of the budget probably went to paying talent like Diana Rigg, Charlotte Rae and Tim Curry to appear in the film.   Each of the cast members give their all.

One of my favorite bits of The Worst Witch has not changed from when I saw it as a child.  Tim Curry's song as the (unfortunately named) Grand Wizard is a cheese-tacular wonder that should not be missed.  The lyrics are silly and fun and it seems to be trying to incorporate just about every music video sin from the 1980s that it can cram into less than four minutes,  but somehow it is endearing and is definitely proof that "anything can happen on Halloween".

Behold, I am in an '80s music video!

 (It's also an amusing callback to Curry's more famous turn as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show aimed at a much younger audience.)

In fact, this song is so amazing, I feel we must share it on the blog,  so without further ado, here's Tim Curry as the Grand Wizard singing "Anything Can Happen On Halloween":

Awe-inspiring, isn't it?  ;-)

The Worst Witch also has some interesting resonances with the Harry Potter universe - both include schools dedicated to the training of young witches and wizards as well as  protagonists who must deal with bullies and with dark external forces that wish to harm the school and its students.  Both feature important events that take place on Halloween.  And both universes also feature testy potions instructors.

There may also be a lesson to be learned about what happens to bullied children from Fairuza Balk's later career, she stars as a teen witch gone bad in the 1996 film The Craft!

This is a fun, goofy  Halloween movie whether one is young, young at heart or just obsessed with Harry Potter and/or the 1980s.  

RigbyMel's rating:

3 and a half jack o'lanterns

The school is lit up like a giant jack o'lantern on Halloween.
J.A. Morris says:

Unlike RigbyMel, I had never heard of The Worst Witch until a few years ago.  But I've always enjoyed the work of Diana Rigg, Charlotte Rae and Tim Curry.  The dulcet tones of Rae's "singing" voice is something you must hear.  She has made an art form of (intentionally) singing badly.  Plus, Rae has a dual role in this story, as portraying both Cackle and her sister Agatha.

Agatha lets out an evil screech and casts a spell at Mildred.
Curry's song has become a favorite, I've put it on a few playlists for Halloween parties.

Ethel & the other witches in-training get black kittens...

...while Mildred, being the Worst Witch, is given a tabby.
Fairuza Balk may not have become a superstar, but she's had a respectable acting career as an adult since this film.  Balk's very believable here as a kid going through an awkward stage.  I especially liked the scene where all the witches in training are given black kittens.  Mildred is given a tabby cat (she names it Tabby, after thinking about naming her Blackie "because she isn't"!) and doesn't feel the least bit left out.  Tabby is a misfit just like Mildred and she bonds with the cat over this common trait.

Ethel taunts Mildred...

...until Mildred turns her into a pig!
Most of the other kid actors don't make much of an impression, but Anna Kipling is good as mean girl Ethel Hallow.  Every good story needs a good villain, if you were ever bullied at school, you will recognize Ethel.  Kipling seems to have stopped acting in 1990, but she will live forever in the minds of every kid who watches The Worst Witch.

Mildred can't bear to look as she crashes her broom.
 The plot isn't that great.  We never learn why Agatha is no longer in charge of the school.  And her plan to overthrow Miss Cackle is sketchy at best, but the story never gets boring.  

Mildred enjoys a flight on the Grand Wizard's cape.
But some of my co-blogger's nostalgic feelings have rubbed off on me, it's become part of our yearly Halloween viewing.  While the special effects are sometimes laugh-inducing, the film has its heart in the right place.  The Worst Witch is good, seasonal fun, with some nice performances by the veteran actors, and it's anti-bullying message is still important today.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 jack o'lanterns.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween II (1981)

Premiered October 30, 1981.

Doyle's Neighbor:Is this some kind of joke?  I've been trick-or-treated to death tonight!
Dr. Sam Loomis:You don't know what death is!

We pick up where we left off at the end of Halloween.

Michael Myers (Dick Warlock) is trying to kill Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).  But he is shot six times by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), he falls out the window to his apparent death...but his body shows signs of life!  Myers gets up  and escapes through the alleys of Haddonfield.  He overhears police talking about him and the murders he committed.

Michael sees Mrs. Elrod (Lucille Benson) using a knife & decides to steal it.
Myers sneaks into a house and steals a kitchen knife and resumes his killing spree.  He follows a young woman named Alice (Anne Bruner) into her home and stabs her to death.

Laurie has been taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital.  Her mind is somewhat eased by the presence of Jimmy (Lance Guest), one of the ambulance drivers, who recognizes her.  Most of the hospital staff is lackadaisical.  The ER doctor is drunk, one of the nurses is late and takes time during her shift to mess around with her ambulance driver boyfriend.  One nurse, Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford), is on task and assures Laurie that she will be okay.

While she sleeps, Laurie dreams of a young girl asking her mother why she never tells her anything.  The mother replies "I'm not your mother".  We see the same girl visiting a boy who seems to be catatonic.  Is this a dream?  Or a flashback to a repressed memory?

Michael Myers pursues Laurie at the hospital.
Myers learns that Laurie has been taken to the hospital and decides it's time to finish what he started.  But before he can find Laurie, he makes his way through the staff.  Michael offs the security guard with a hammer, a nurse with an IV (draining her blood), drowns (and scalds) another nurse in a steaming hot hydrotherapy tub, and kills the attending physician with a syringe.  Others get the business end of a surgical scalpel.

An unfortunate security guard gets "hammered" by Myers.
While searching for Myers, Loomis and the police are called to investigate a break-in at an elementary school.  They find a crayon drawing of a family, the sister in the family has been stabbed with a real knife.

Then Loomis notices the word "Samhain" written on the blackboard.  Loomis explains that it means "Lord Of The Dead" and is related to the Celtic origins of Halloween.

Their investigation at the school is interrupted when Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), a nurse from Smith Grove Sanitarium, says that Loomis has been ordered back to Smith Grove.  Loomis protests until he is told that there is a police marshal outside who will arrest him if necessary.

Laurie wakes up, somewhat disoriented and still in pain.  She watches Myers kill a nurse.  Michael chases her throughout the hospital, nearly stabbing her in an elevator.  Laurie takes refuge by hiding in a car.

A nurse gets a scalpel in the back, as Laurie watches.
While riding back to Smith Grove, Marion tells Loomis that she didn't want this to happen and that she has recently learned a shocking secret about Myers.  This revelation prompts Loomis to hijack the car and force the marshal (at gunpoint) to drive to the hospital.  Loomis (correctly) believes  Myers will be there and will stop at nothing to kill Laurie.  This will lead to a final showdown between Loomis and his former patient.

Laurie looks back at Michael as he moves in for the kill.

J.A. Morris says:

I realize my review last year didn't paint a wonderful opinion of the first Halloween film.  But Halloween II makes it look much better by comparison.  I was disappointed the first time I saw this 30+ years ago (when I was at the height of my slasher movie mania) and it hasn't improved with age.  So some of this review represents decades of pent-up rage (sorry, it's not like I had a blog when I saw this in 1982!).

Mrs. Alves assures Laurie she'll be okay (dig the Halloween decorations in the background!)
The film cold-opens with a newly-shot re-enactment of the previous film's finale.  But for some reason, they changed it.  Myers falls out of the window, into the back yard in the original.  This time it's the front yard.

A Michael Myers lookalike causes a collision

Strike one.

When the opening credits roll, we get a new recording of John Carpenter's fantastic Halloween theme music.  But it's an inferior version, to my ears it sounds like it was played on one of those 1980s Casio keyboards.  This robs a great piece of music of its power.

Strike two.

Halloween took place in a "typical 1970s suburban neighborhood".  This time most of the action takes place in a hospital.  Not nearly as interesting.  Michael Myers is a lot more menacing while stalking Laurie & friends in their own back yard.  This setting seems to have been changed so that Myers can use medical instruments to kill people.  This means that Halloween II has more in common with other 80s slasher movies, than with its predecessor.

Loomis takes a shot at Michael Myers.
Strike three.

When they see the word "Samhain" written on the blackboard, Loomis pronounces it "Sam Hayne".  Really?  Would it have been too much for Carpenter to call some friends at USC and consult with the Classical Studies department?  Or he could've just looked it up in an encyclopedia (they had those in the early 80s).  I'm not sure why Samhain was brought up in the movie.  Are we supposed to believe that Myers is Samhain, or think he's some sort of Celtic god?  The subject is not elaborated upon.

Worst of all, in the last act, we learn of a heretofore unknown connection between Michael and Laurie.  I won't spoil it for you, but I've always felt it was silly and it feels like they just pulled it out of thin air to make the film more "dramatic."  It doesn't work.

Laurie hides out in a car.
Plus, we get at least (by my count) two more scenes of Sheriff Bracket (Charles Cyphers) yelling at Loomis for releasing Michael Myers.  It was already established in the previous film that Loomis wanted him locked up for life.  I still don't know what the point of these scenes are, but they feel like padding, or lazy writing.

Michael walks through a locked glass door.
Most of the actors in Halloween II were unknowns then and now.  And none of them make much of an impression.  Lance Guest and Gloria Gifford are okay as Jimmy and Nurse Alves (respectively), believable as nice (if bland) people who are good at their jobs.  Most of the other characters who staff the hospital are loathsome beyond redemption, so when Myers kills them, we hardly care.  This is a big contrast to the teenage victims of the first film, who were "guilty" of merely being in the wrong place.

Myers gets shot in the eyes, keeps coming after Loomis & Laurie.
And Jamie Lee Curtis is mostly wasted here.  In the first film, she brought a certain natural, likeable spunk to the role.  We believed that Laurie was a smart, somewhat awkward high school student.  This time, Curtis/Laurie spends most of the movie sedated in bed, moaning hopelessly, displaying very little personality.  In the last 20 minutes, she gets to show off some of her "Scream Queen" skills, but by that point I'd lost interest.

Donald Pleasence is the only actor here who seems to know what he's doing.  We feel Loomis' desperation every time Plesence utters a line.  He deserved a better movie.

Michael emerges from a fiery explosion.
Halloween II is recommended only for Michael Myers completists.  When Myers breaks into a home early in the film, the residents are watching George Romero's classic horror movie Night Of The Living Dead.  If you need a Halloween scare, watch Romero's zombie classic instead of Halloween II.

J.A. Morris' rating:

Our first ever Rotten Pumpkin.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Simpsons: "Treehouse Of Horror XXIV"

Premiered October 6, 2013.

We're treated to three new Halloween vignettes!

"Oh The Places You'll D'oh!":

On Halloween night, Bart, Lisa and Maggie have contracted the mumps and aren't allowed to trick or treat.  When their mother goes out to a Halloween party, they're visited by an anthropomorphic cat named the Fat In The Hat.  He takes them out trick or treating.

But it turns into a night of murder and mayhem.

"Dead And Shoulders":

Bart is decapitated in an accident involving a box kite (and a helicopter!).  When he wakes up, his head has been grafted onto Lisa's shoulder.  Dr. Hibbert says it was "the only way to add a year to his life" and take 30 years off Lisa's.  Bart is disgusted by this and is determined to kill Lisa and take over their body.

"Freaks No Geeks":

Homer, a circus strongman has designs on marrying Marguerite, the trapeze artist.  But he changes his mind when he sees that Moe, a member of the circus' "Freak Show" has a valuable ring.

Homer talks Marguerite into marrying Moe out of Homer can kill Moe, marry Marguerite and gain possession of the ring!

J.A. Morris says:

Another solid Halloween effort from "Bat Groening" and company.  Not every "Treehouse Of Horror" specifically relates to Halloween, but this year's certainly does.  It's fun to watch The Fat in the Hat commit various crimes with trick or treaters and Halloween decorations in the background.  And it's a great Dr. Seuss parody, referencing the Grinch and The Lorax, in addition to The Cat In The Hat.

"Dead And Shoulders" is the weakest portion of the episode.  But it's still fun, highlighted by another humiliation of Seymour Skinner at the hands of his mother.  

The first thing that comes to mind regarding "Freaks No Geeks" is that it references Todd Browning's horror classic Freaks.  When I was growing up, that film was practically banned from television and home video.  Now it's "mainstream" enough to get referenced in a prime time series.  Homer's scheme involving Moe and the ring are among Homer's dumbest ideas (and that's saying something).

We also get a to hear Homer perform "Entrance Of The Gladiators" with lyrics ("This is the song that year at the circus, sung by a guy that you see at the circus!").

"Treehouse Of Horror XXIV" is a fun Halloween episode that I recommended, even if it's not exactly a classic episode I plan to revisit every year.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 jack o'lanterns.

RigbyMel says:

This is a fun installment of "Treehouse of Horror".  As one would expect of The Simpsons,  it's very funny and cleverly written.  My favorite sequence was "The Fat In The Hat" -  the Dr. Seuss parody was spot on and wickedly amusing.

I also really enjoyed the extended couch gag opening sequence masterminded by Guillermo del Toro, which was a tribute to all manner of sci-fi and horror awesomeness over the years.

I will leave the exhaustive breakdown of each reference to other websites and just point out a couple of personal favorite references, like seeing H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury (we even see Bradbury working on The Illustrated Man - so to speak) hanging around the streets of Springfield and various old school Universal movie monsters turning the tables and chasing the townfolks with pitchforks and torches.

 Moreover,  there are several incarnations of the Phantom of the Opera that show up, which made me very happy.

The Simpsons manages to remain smart and funny after more than twenty years, which is quite an achievement in and of itself.   This edition of "Treehouse of Horror" is well worth your time.

RigbyMel's rating:

3 and 1/2 jack o'lanterns.