Saturday, October 31, 2015

Arsenic and Old Lace

Premiered September 23, 1944

"Look, I probably should have told you this before but you see ... well ... insanity runs in my family. ... It practically gallops." - Mortimer Brewster

It's Halloween in Brooklyn, and well-known author and theatre critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) weds his neighbor, minister's daughter Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane).  They're planning to run off to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon.

But before they depart, they stop to visit Mortimer's aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), who live with his brother Teddy (John Alexander).

Mortimer opens a window seat and is shocked when he finds -- a dead body!
He believes it's the work of Teddy, who thinks he's President Theodore Roosevelt.  (Teddy is a bit touched in the head.)

Mortimer tries to break this news to his aunts gently, but to his chagrin, is told they know all about it! In fact, they killed the man.  It turns out that Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha have been taking in lonely old man boarders who have no family for years and poisoning them with arsenic-laced wine.  The aunts consider their work to be merciful rather than murderous since all the old gentlemen were alone in life.

Mortimer is utterly beside himself -- how can his sweet old aunties,  beloved in the neighborhood for their charitable deeds and kindness be responsible for more than a dozen cold blooded murders?   And how have they been disposing of the bodies?

The Aunts explain that they get Teddy to help them by sending him to the basement to dig locks for the "Panama Canal" (he does think he's TR, remember)  Then they tell him their poisoning victims fell prey to "yellow fever" and need to be buried quickly  (in the "locks").   They make sure each gentleman receives a proper burial with hymn singing and everything.

Mortimer decides the only thing to be done is to  blame the murders on Teddy's mental state.    To do this, he must convince a judge to commit his brother to the Happy Dale Sanatorium.

Things become further complicated when Mortimer's OTHER brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up unexpectedly.   He has been leading a life of crime and is responsible for more than a few homicides himself.  Jonathan is accompanied by a man called Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) who plans to perform plastic surgery to disguise Jonathan's identity ... and ANOTHER dead body!

Meanwhile, new bride Elaine wonders why her recently minted husband Mortimer suddenly seems to be avoiding her!

Will Moritmer and Elaine make it to Niagara Falls?  How many people will wind up at Happy Dale? (or in prison?)  Will more bodies pile up in the Brewsters' basement?
Watch out for elderberry wine!

RigbyMel says:

I discovered this deliciously dark comedy when I was in high school.   The premise is insane and the insanity builds to ridiculous screwball levels as the movie progresses.

Cary Grant does an amazing job as poor, put upon Mortimer.   His gifts for physical comedy are fully evident in this film.

Josephine Hull and Jean Adair are charmingly homicidal as the Aunties.   (Yes, I realize that  calling murderers charming is odd,  just roll with it.) They are utterly and completely uncomprehending of whatever could be upsetting Mortimer so much.  In fact, they put it down to his being a newlywed!

There is also a rather brilliant running gag involving psychotic brother Jonathan -- Dr. Einstein apparently botched the last plastic surgery procedure and everyone keeps telling Jonathan he resembles Boris Karloff.    This sends Jonathan into paroxysms of rage, and is also an inside joke as Karloff actually played Jonathan in  Arsenic and Old Lace's original run on Broadway!

The ensemble as a whole is very funny from a long-suffering taxi driver (Garry Owen) waiting to take Moritmer & Elaine to Niagara, to the dim bulb beat cop (Jack Carson) who wants to share his unpublished play, since Mortimer is a famous drama critic.

"CHAAARRRGE!" (the staircase is always San Juan Hill!)
John Alexander's commitment to Teddy's obsession with Teddy Roosevelt is incredible. It's great that they kept the same actor from the original play in this role so the performance is preserved.

You can definitely tell that this is pretty much a filmed version of the play with just a few little "opening out" scenes like the line for the marriage license and some business in the graveyard between the Aunties' house and Elaine's.   But that doesn't take away from the gruesome glee of the story.

This film would be a wonderful addition to any Halloween festivities.   You'll die laughing.  *rim shot*

RigbyMel's rating:

4 jack o'lanterns

J.A. Morris says:

Unlike RigbyMel, I hadn't seen this until recently, but I saw the play years ago.  The film's dialogue feels fresher in some ways than other 1940s films, perhaps due to its origin as a stage play.

Halloween is not exactly central to the plot here.  But we do get a scene that features an early version of trick or treating.

 And the opening credits feature traditional Halloween symbols like witches, owls and black cats.

But the creepy, macabre atmosphere certainly adds to the Halloween sensibility.

I'm a big fan of Cary Grant's movies and Arsenic and Old Lace features some of his best acting.  He's constantly running around, shrieking and making crazy faces.

Priscilla Lane isn't remember very well today, but she was a star in the 1930s and 40s.  Lane was often cast in "girl next door" roles, in this film, she literally plays the girl next door and does a fine job playing off Grant.

And I agree with everything my co-blogger said about the supporting cast.

Arsenic and Old Lace was directed by Frank Capra.  Today, he is best known for directing another holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life.  His films tend to be sentimental.  On the surface, the Brewster sisters seem to fit a "sweet little old lady" stereotype that could have fit into any other Capra picture. However, this story turns that image on its head.  Capra deserves credit for honoring the source material and retaining its morbid humor.

Halloween is not exactly central to the plot here.  But we do get a scene that features an early version of trick or treating and the opening credits feature traditional Halloween symbols like witches, owls and black cats.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic adaptation that makes for great Halloween viewing.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 jack o'lanterns!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Black-ish: "The Prank King"

Premiered October 29, 2014.

"What I love most about Halloween is a Johnson family tradition I like to call 'pranking the living crap out of each other.'"
-Dre Johnson

It's Halloween and the Johnson family is preparing for Halloween.  Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is excited because everyone in his family engages in a glorious festival of outrageous pranks during the spooky season.  Dre prides himself on being the king of pranks his family and is delighted that his oldest child Zoey (Yara Shahidi) is an "evil genius" in this regard, particularly where her younger brother Andre Jr (Marcus Scribner) is concerned.

Dre admires his Halloween handiwork
Zoey surprises her father when she says she's outgrown pranking and won't participate in the Halloween shenanigans, calling it "kind of lame."  Her mother Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) understands that Zoey is a teenager, but Dre is heartbroken.  He hates the idea that his little girl is growing up.

But Dre is undaunted.  He remembers that one of Zoey's favorite activities is watching bad stuff happen her little brother.  Dre decides to enlist the twins, Jack and Diane's (Miles Brown and Marsai Martin) help in pranking Junior in order to remind Zoey of the joys of seasonal pranks.   His stunt fails as  Zoey finds the prank  to be "kind of mean" and tells Dre to "grow up."
Making matters worse, Junior also says he's done with pranks.

With the pranking tradition seemingly dead, the Dre and Bow dedicate their energies to the family Halloween costume.  They plan to dress up as the 70s-era Jackson Five!
Junior and Zoey flatly refuse to participate.  Bow and Dre are let down over this and feel like their family is falling apart.

Meanwhile, outrageous pranks at Dre's office cause his clueless boss, Mr. Stevens (Peter Mackenzie) to put a stop to the office hilarity after Charlie (Deon Cole) accidentally/on purpose punches dopey co-worker Josh (Jeff Meacham) in the face.

With pranking now out of the question at work,  the Johnsons attempt to regroup as best they can. Since they are down to only four family costume participants, they decide to dress as the Beatles.

Unfortunately,  Diane and Jack say they're not interested in candy, since they just learned about diabetes in school!

This is too much for Dre.  He decides that Halloween is now cancelled, and demonstrates this by attacking his elaborate yard display.  He pouts, saying he has no children, since they're all determined to be grown-ups now!  

Will the Johnson family manage to have a happy Halloween after all this?  Or is the holiday ruined?

RigbyMel says:

This is a very enjoyable holiday episode of a fun series.  It taps into various family dynamics like sibling rivalry and parents' mixed feelings at seeing their children grow up.

Dre vs. Halloween lawn decor.
Halloween is a holiday usually associated with children that has been appropriated by adults who want to hang on to their own childhoods in recent years.  This episode humorously illustrates this -- Dre (and Bow, to a lesser extent) seem to be way more invested in the holiday than their kids.   The "adults" at Dre's office engage in stupid pranks that involve the injury of co-workers.

BUT "The Prank King" also taps into the understandable fear that people with whom we are close might not appreciate or understand us.   As there should be in a Halloween episode, there is a bit of a plot twist that helps mitigate those fears.

The comedic timing of all the actors is impressive -- particularly when Anthony Anderson as Dre gets more of a scare than he bargained for and begins crawling around his living room army style!

Child actors on TV sitcoms are frequently obnoxious, but the Johnson kids all come off as both genuine AND funny in their quirkiness.  The young actors playing them do a great job in this (and pretty much every other episode) of  Black*ish.

This episode is well worth seeking out and is available on Amazon streaming and on DVD.

RigbyMel's rating:

4 jack o'lanterns

The polyester glory of the "Jackson 5 plus Janet"
J.A. Morris says:

Black-ish is one of my favorite current series and "The Prank King" is one of its strongest episodes. While watching, I thought of my own decision to stop Trick or Treating at age 12.  The first year without treats was a tough one, but it was part of growing up.  My parents accepted this decision with more grace than Dre shows here.

Dre disguised as a chair.
This episode also deals with the dynamics of the parents' relationship.  As prank king, Dre has driven Bow to her limits and she's looking for a way to usurp his title.  We get a scene where Bow tells the kids she really needs "a win" against Dre because sometimes he's hard to deal with.  However, it's obvious that Bow loves him very much.

The actors are all excellent in "The Prank King."

Anderson gives his all here, especially during the scene where Dre freaks out and attacks his Halloween display.  Tracee Ellis Ross shows she's more than a match for Anderson when it comes to comic timing.  

Dre cancels Halloween by "executing" a ghost with a nail gun!
I appreciated Marcus Scribner's performance as Junior.  Scribner plays straight man to the rest of the Johnson family and is often the victim of pranks.  But he's a good sport and still delivers some very funny lines.

Deon Cole and Trent Meacham, are also very funny as Dre's co-workers Charlie and Josh.  And all the actors do a good job making funny "scared" faces throughout this episode.

Dre as "mid-70s Tito."

"The Prank King" is a great Halloween episode.  I wouldn't go so far as to rate it a "classic," but it's one I plan to watch during many Octobers yet to come.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 jack o'lanterns!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Quantum Leap: "The Boogieman"

Premiered October 26, 1990

"When I was growing up, Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays. "Trick or treat", we used to say. Of course, back then we always expected a treat, and if we did play a trick, it was always funny and harmless. But tonight there were no treats. There were no tricks. There was only death."
-Dr. Sam Beckett

In this episode from Season 3 of the series,  it is October 31st, 1964 somewhere in New England.

"Unbelievable.  I've leaped into the Addams Family!"
Our time traveling hero, Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) leaps into the body of second rate gothic horror novelist, Joshua Ray.   He is getting his bearings in a creepy old house with all sorts of arcane trappings when he is surprised by some people in masks and falls down the stairs.

It turns out the two masked individuals are Ray's fiancee Mary Greely (Valerie Mahaffey) and a teenaged boy named Stevie (David Kriegel).  They're getting the house ready to be part of the Church Spook House for the local Halloween festivities.

Strange things begin to happen at Ray's house.

Sinister goat offs handyman!
Tully (Donald Hotton), the local handyman is on a ladder repairing windows when a goat arrives and knocks down the ladder.  Tully is killed instantly.  Ben Mathers (Paul Linke), the local sheriff, interviews Sam about the incident.  He tells them about the goat, but Mary points out that he doesn't own a goat and there is no farm for miles.  Masters, who also happens to be Mary's ex-boyfriend doesn't buy the goat story.

Usually, Sam leaps into people's lives to put right something that once went wrong with help from Al (in the form of a hologram) and Ziggy, the supercomputer that runs the Quantum Leap Project, but nobody can seem to figure out what is going on.  Sam presumes he leaped into Ray so he could save Tully.   Or maybe he is there to save Mary from being murdered and found in the Spook House on Halloween night?

Later that day, Dorothy Yeager (Fran Ryan), the town gossip brings over candle sticks for the spook house.  Dorothy is sad to hear about Tully's death, but not exactly surprised.

When Dorothy goes to the kitchen to get cider, she is suddenly killed by a black mamba snake!
Sam chases the snake away with a broom, but it slithers away.  Two people have died and Sam is furious.  He damands that Al get to the bottom of why he leaped into this tragic scenario.

The body count is mounting and strange things including, but not limited to, flying skulls and mysterious typewriter messages relating to recent events keep happening.  

Will Sam be able to save Mary so he can leap?  Or are more sinister forces at play here?   Is some primal evil trying to stop Sam from succeeding?

Note house number.  Oh dear!

RigbyMel says:

Full disclosure, I was/am a HUGE fan of Quantum Leap and remember watching this episode when it first aired and being thoroughly creeped out by it.  (At the time,  I was also rather smugly proud of figuring out a small "Kiss With History" surprise that occurs near the end of the episode before it was revealed.)   There is a great deal of spooky tension that is allowed to build and build and the solution to the mystery of the episode is genuinely unexpected.

Creepiest scarecrow ever?
The episode holds up pretty well generally, even if it comes off as perhaps a little overly dramatic in spots.  There are a lot of fun nods to horror movie/tv/book tropes as well that reward repeated viewing.

Joshua's young friend Stevie
There's also some rather creative staging as regards Al and the troubles with figuring out what exactly Sam's mission on this leap is.  I don't want to spoil too much of this episode for those that might not have seen it before, but watch closely in scenes featuring Al.  Speaking of Al,  Dean Stockwell gets to do some great unsettling work in this episode, hats off to him!

Interestingly, this episode of Quantum Leap has developed a bit of a reputation amongst fans.   Some believe the episode to be "cursed" and will not call the program by name, preferring instead to refer to it as "The Halloween Episode"  or "The Boogiem*n".    The episode is thought to have been responsible for weird mechanical failures of VCRs/cable boxes/TVs etc and apparently even uttering the name of the episode is thought to bring bad luck.   (Reminds me of theater people and superstitions about a certain Scottish Play by Shakespeare!)    

In any case, your intrepid bloggers have not had any episode name related misfortunes (so far -- *touch wood* -- after I typed this, we started having problems loading images to this post.  Spooooooky!).  That being said, this particular installment of Quantum Leap is well worth adding to your Halloween festivities.  

RigbyMel's rating:

4 jack o'lanterns!

J.A. Morris says:

Unlike my co-blogger, I was more of a casual fan of Quantum Leap than a regular viewer.  I hadn't seen this episode until recent years, but it's become part of my yearly Halloween viewing.

It has plenty of seasonal trappings such as black cats, pumpkins, skulls and paranormal activity.

Bakula is good as usual and Stockwell...well let's just say he stretches his acting a little more than usual in "The Boogieman."

Stevie and his dog...Cujo!
It's worth noting that Mary Greely is played by Valerie Mahaffey.  She has appeared in dozens of tv series and movies.  Most notably, Mahaffey made an impression as Eve on Northern Exposure.

Mary hisses at Sam/Josh.
On a personal note, the "Dracula" decoration seen in this episode caught my eye.

My parents bought this Halloween decoration in the early 1980s and it was displayed in our home every October for many years.

Sheriff Masters suspects Sam is responsible for the suspicious deaths; Sam believes Masters is hiding something.
This episode can be found on the season 3 dvd set of Quantum Leap.  It also currently streams on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.

"The Boogieman" is a fun Halloween episode and is recommended.  I lack the nostalgic attachment to this episode that RigbyMel brings, so I rate it slightly lower than she.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 and a half pumpkins.