Friday, August 18, 2017

Ghosts and Laughs: Comedians as Ghostbreakers [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The idea of a 'funny ghostbreaker' begins not in a movie, but on the stage. Paul Dickey and Charles Goddard's The Ghost Breaker: A Melodramatic Farce in Four Acts (1909) (listen to the novel version) came at a time when the occult detective was no longer cutting edge horror. Names such as Martin Hesselius, Dr. Abraham van Helsing, Flaxman Low, and Dr John Silence had become familiar articles in the weird mystery genre. Not until World War I was over would interest in all things beyond the veil revive and the ghostbreakers would catch their second wind. But in 1909, people wanted to laugh at the shadows, not fight them.

It wasn't long before Cecile B DeMille made the first silent version of the play in 1914. It was first remade in 1922 with Wallace Reid and Lila Lee, then again in 1940 and 1953 (but more of that later). What is important to grasp here is that the Dickey and Goddard play set in motion a common plot that would be recycled over and over. A young woman would inherit a haunted house and invite her new boyfriend to go along with her to see the property. While in the house, mysterious things would occur, probably some running, screaming, and carrying on. (In fact the 12th film in the Carry On series was called Carry On Screaming! (1966). This scenario is overly familiar to all of us from dozens of TV episodes and endless Scooby-Doo cartoons. In the worst Ann Radcliffe style, the monsters will be explained away, the young lovers will triumph, and the true ghostbreaker fan will be disappointed.

Walt Disney would play three ghostbreakers (Mickey, Donald, and Goofy) for laughs in “Lonesome Ghosts” (December 24, 1937). Other cartoons featured ghosts and haunted houses: Popeye’s “Shiver Me Timbers (1934) and a proto-Bugs Bunny in “Prest-O-Chango” (1939), for example. But only “Lonesome Ghosts” has dedicated ghostbusters who hire out to rid buildings of ghosts. These cartoons are all done for laughs, not serious ghostbreaking.

Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard made the next version of Dickey and Goddard with The Ghost Breakers (1940) and scored a hit. Hope is snide and Goddard fun and beautiful. And the island with the zombies is creepy enough. Like all other versions, no real monsters show up. All the films mentioned on this page are in black and white, adding to their horror feel; Hope's film most of all. It would be much harder to send funny chills down spines in vivid Wizard of Oz color.

Abbott and Costello worked pretty hard to get us to giggle in Hold That Ghost (1941), a film that tried to capitalize on Bob Hope's success, but fails for the most part because of the lack of any real ghosts. The boys did a better job of saving Universal and its 1930s monsters in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

The first and best of the franchise, it has our witless duo as baggage clerks who get the job of unloading real monsters at a wax museum. Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi, hypnotizes Bud and together they resurrection the Frankenstein's monster, all the while Lon Chaney Jr.'s Larry Talbot goes about changing into the Wolf Man. Boris Karloff turned down the chance to be Frankenstein's monster, but made up for it a year later in a film that bore his name.

This film spawned five sequels: Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), a short for the Colgate Comedy Hour had "Abbott and Costello Meet the Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1953) and finally, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). Each of these recycled the same basic idea and got less and less funny, though they all made money.

The last official remake of The Ghost Breaker came in 1953 when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis filmed Scared Stiff. There are more night clubs and singing in it, but in all important ways it is not all that different than Hope's venture back in 1940.

Television and Saturday morning cartoons claimed the province of the funny spooks in shows like Bewitched (1964-1972), The Addams Family (1964-1966), The Munsters (1964-1966), and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970). It would take Richard O'Brien's burlesque sex comedy The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973) to make fans sit up and take notice again. First in a stage play (how appropriate) and then a cult film in 1975 starring Tim Curry, we see the same story again: Brad and Janet, boyfriend and girlfriend, end up in a haunted house full of weirdos, dancing and singing, and exploring their sexuality, all while an intergalactic power struggle plays out.

What all of these films lack is a true investigator of the supernatural. They are simply ordinary folk who fall into unusual circumstances (and are supposed to make us chuckle). Films such as Young Frankenstein (1974) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) have proven you can make a successful horror parody (much as Dickey and Goddard were trying to do with the ghostbreaker genre), but this requires that the audience have a collection of shared tropes to play off of. It took Dan Ackroyd (an actual believer in the paranormal) and Harold Ramis (not so much) to write and perform in Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989) to see if real occult detectives could be funny. The results fortunately were -- yes, they can.

Before we leave our funny ghostchasers, there is one other that needs mention. In comics, ghostbreaker spoofs were less common, though the Kolchak the Night Stalker television show did receive one lambasting from the Marvel Comics group in July 1975.

Marvel experimented with monster spoof comics with a title called Arrgh!. It ran five issues from December 1974 to September 1975. The series was edited by Roy Thomas. The majority of the strips used were based on the classic Universal monsters. In the fourth issue a parody of The Night Stalker TV show lead off with a 10-pager written by Jack Younger (aka Russ Jones). The artwork was penciled by Gerry Grandenetti (better known in the Warren magazines and undergrounds) and inked by Marvel staffer Frank Springer.

The level of humor is typical of a MAD Magazine parody with Kolchak becoming Karl Coalshaft. His boss Tony Vincenzo is Tony Vinagretto. The plot follows a pretty typical episode with Coalshaft's trying to get the big supernatural scoop and failing each time: first with a vampire, then a werewolf. In both cases, the police show up, riddle the monster with bullets, and it is up to Coalshaft to use his special weapon (that he always carries) to put them down. His camera captures pictures, but is always destroyed. The strip ends with him returning to his office and not noticing his boss is actually a vampire. Tony tries to kill him, but falls out the window. Coalshaft walks away, giving up on monsters forever.

What makes this parody so apt is that the writer had only to repeat what he had seen on the show to make it ridiculous. The juvenile name jokes and sight gags are typical, but what is actually funny is that the Kolchak show was this predictable and silly. That sounds like I'm not a fan, which isn't true. Like Chris Carter, who created The X-Files, I watched these shows as a kid and loved them. They inspired much of what followed in the occult detective line. Still... the show's faults are laid bare in this 10-pager. I suppose it's no surprise that it was cancelled after 20 episodes. "Monster-of-the-week" is a criticism that has been given the series, but you can apply that just as easily to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Charmed series, both of which ran for many years and have huge followings. I suspect what ultimately ruined Kolchak's success was the lack of a larger cast of characters and becoming formulaic almost instantly. (You have to remember the two successful TV movies that spawned it.) It was prominent enough to warrant this single parody... "The Night Gawker”.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hellbent for Letterbox | Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)

On this episode, Pax and I go through some Pony Express mail, share The Plainsman (1936) and Diablo (2015) with each other, and then dig into the Western comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff! starring James Garner, Jack Elam, Bruce Dern, and Harry Morgan. We also cover some of the "sequel," Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) with a similar tone and starring most of the same cast as different characters.

Monday, August 14, 2017

7 Days in May | Atomic Blonde and Robert Mitchum

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Great spy story with a super cool agent. I like that it's set in the Cold War and I love the heavy use of '80s New Wave music. I even like how the song choices fit with what's going on onscreen ('Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," for instance, when two characters are trying not to be overheard), but I understand how that might be annoying for some.

The plot is complicated, with a lot of double- and triple-crossing to keep track of, but while I was often kept guessing, I was never confused. And it all tracked for me in the end. Looking back after all the reveals have been made, I have some questions about why certain characters did what they did, but I'm not calling that a flaw until I've been able to see it again with the knowledge of what everyone's up to.

The selling point is the action sequences. There are a few big fights and they're all staged differently and even have different tones from each other. One is a brutal, very prolonged fight in a stairwell, for example, while another in a posh hotel is slow motion and operatic.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Continuing to rewatch some of my favorite movies from 2016. This was my third or fourth time watching The Magnificent Seven and I like it more each time. I already thought it was a fun movie the first time, but some things that bugged me then don't bother me anymore. It's not that there aren't flaws, it's just that the things that I like - certain characters, set pieces, and the way the villain gets his comeuppance, as examples - smother out the nitpicks that I originally had. It's still not as good as the original, but it doesn't have to be.

Doctor Strange (2016)

One of these days I'm going to need to comprehensively rank the Marvel movies, but I suspect that this will be in the upper part of the middle tier. I enjoy it a lot, appreciate its inventiveness about what spells look like, and like that it opens up a corner of the MCU that hasn't been explored before. I also like how Strange defeats the villain and what that says about him as a character. It's all cool stuff done in a new way.

But even though it's done in a new way, the story that it's telling doesn't feel new enough for me to totally fall in love with the movie. It's essentially Tony Stark's character arc again. And as much as I love Cumberbatch and love him in this role, that sameness keeps me from putting Doctor Strange with very favorite Marvel films.

Moana (2016)

Not just my favorite movie of last year; it's headed towards being one of my favorite movies of all time. There's more to unpack than I want to put in this post, but the short version is that it doesn't just push the nautical/island adventure and awesome female character buttons for me. There's serious, spiritual depth to this movie and a great discussion to be had about mission and identity and how those things are connected. Need to come back to this at some point.

The Ice Pirates (1984)

I've wanted to see The Ice Pirates since 1984. I missed it in the theater and somehow never got around to watching it later, but I've always been a big fan of Robert Urich and of course space opera and pirates, so how could I not enjoy it?

Little did I know.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood, but as much fun as the cast is (had no idea Angelica Huston and Ron Perlman were in it), it's much sillier than I expected and I didn't actually like any of the characters. Urich is playing the scum bucket that everyone thinks Han Solo is, but without the heart of gold. At least, no heart of gold had been hinted at by the time I gave up and turned this off.

Lady Jane (1986)

So next week, Diane and David and I are taking off for a couple of weeks to go see Britain. It's been a lifelong wish of mine to go see the home of so many of my childhood heroes: Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Ebenezer Scrooge, Tarzan, James Bond, the Loch Ness Monster... it's a long list.

That means that I won't be updating this blog during that time and there might not be any podcasts with me on them either. If you're with me on Facebook though, I'll be posting there as much as possible, but otherwise, I'll pick up here when we get back.

It also means that we're watching some movies to prep for the trip. Lady Jane has been a favorite of mine since I fell in love with Helena Bonham Carter in the mid-'80s, but it's a downer and I knew David wouldn't love it, so I haven't shared it with him before. We're going to go see the Tower of London, though, and Lady Jane is largely set there and covers an important event that took place there. I figured it would be a good touchstone to have for our visit.

True enough, David wasn't thrilled, though I think he appreciated what he was supposed to about the story. I don't agree with every decision that Jane Grey and her husband make, but I'm not supposed to. They're kids and they make a lot of immature decisions. But I love their passion and I love the questions that the movie raises about how far we're willing to go for things that we believe are important. It kind of goes back to the themes of mission and identity from Moana and I love thinking about that stuff.

When Strangers Marry (1944)

I love me some Robert Mitchum and this has a bunch of other cool people, too. I see Dean Jagger get weepy every year in White Christmas, Kim Hunter went on to play Zira in the Planet of the Apes movies, and Neil Hamilton of course is Commissioner Gordon in the Adam West Batman series. And it's directed by William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts).

When Strangers Marry is a good thriller in which Hunter marries a guy (Jagger) she's only known a short time. The cops (led by Hamilton) want to bring Jagger in for questioning about a murder in the last town Jagger was in, but he's doing his best to stay off the grid. Hunter starts to wonder what she's gotten herself into and whether she shouldn't have married her childhood sweetheart (Mitchum) who's recently re-entered her life, instead.

Like I said, it's a good thriller, but it's not great. I was able to predict the outcome, but the bigger problem is that I never for a second believed that anyone would choose to marry Jagger over Mitchum.

Crossfire (1947)

Another early Robert Mitchum movie. I liked this one better though. It's a psychological thriller disguised as a murder mystery. From the start, there are really only a couple of options for who the killer might be, so the real mystery is about the potential motives of the primary suspects. Both are recently discharged soldiers, but one's a hateful bigot and the other is a sweet, but stressed out kid who may not be responsible for all of his actions. Robert Young is the main cop on the case, with Mitchum playing an officer who knows both suspects and wants to prove the kid's innocence.

There's no surprise as to who the killer really is, but that's okay. As the poster's tagline suggests, the movie's more concerned about hate and bigotry. It's heavy handed about delivering that message, but it's also great at humanizing the murder victim and driving home the tragedy of the crime. And sometimes - especially recently - heavy handedness in preaching against hate is exactly what we need.

The Paradine Case (1947)

I'm a big fan of Gregory Peck and Alfred Hitchcock, but I couldn't finish The Paradine Case. Peck plays a married lawyer who falls in love with the woman (Alida Valli) he's defending for murder. The movie hinges on selling the Peck-Valli romance, but that's exactly where it falls apart. Valli is supposed to glamorously mysterious, but she's dull as a mop and there's no reason for Peck to be tempted by her. Especially when his wife (Ann Todd) is utterly charming and far more interesting as a person. The script and performances do no work to transition Peck from happily married to grumpily considering adultery, so when he suddenly and inexplicably started exhibiting feelings for Valli, I was out.

Rio Grande (1950)

The third in John Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy." I accidentally skipped the second, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, because I forgot that Rio Grande was part of it. There are way too many Westerns named after rivers, ya'll.

This is a bona fide sequel to Fort Apache. It doesn't reference any of those events - and I'm not even 100% sure that the timeline works out - but John Wayne is playing the same character in both movies. I like how different the two films are, though.

Fort Apache is about authority and the military structure and what happens when good people are given bad orders. Rio Grande is a more personal movie. Some of Fort Apache's themes show up here, too, because Wayne's character once had to carry out a difficult order that directly affected his relationship with his wife (Maureen O'Hara). But Rio Grande is mostly about that relationship, with both characters trying to decide if they want to repair it. Complicating the situation is that their son has enlisted in the army and been assigned to Wayne's command. O'Hara of course wants the boy out, but Wayne's feelings on it aren't so simple.

It's a lovely story of guilt and repentance and the possibility of forgiveness, which doesn't just play out in the family of main characters. There's also a soldier who's wanted for manslaughter, so when the US Marshal shows up to bring him in, the film adds justice to the mix of themes. What role, if any, should the government play in forgiving crimes? Pretty great stuff.

Winchester '73 (1950)

I'm not typically into movies that follow props around. Most of the time they're thinly disguised anthologies and I'm just not crazy about anthologies. But that's not Winchester '73. The characters who come into contact with the rifle are already connected in other ways and none of them leave the story completely unless they die. It's really about Jimmy Stewart's trying to get the rifle, but more importantly - and for reasons unrelated to the rifle itself - get his hands on the guy who stole it. The other characters are clever diversions who weave in and out of that main plot, but all of them are worth the time the movie spends on them.

Song of the Week: "Electric Love" by BØRNS

No one reads this far down, do they?


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