Thursday, October 28, 2010

Culture Shock 10.28.10: Want a good scare? Send in the clowns

If you're still trying to come up with the perfect Halloween costume — something that will strike fear into even the hardest hearts — here is a suggestion.

Be a clown.

Sure, clowns claim they only want to make you laugh and cheer you up. But that's a ruse to lull you into a false sense of security.

Clowns are creepy, and I'm not the only person who thinks so. Just ask Batman.

While in a costume shop Saturday, I saw a young woman nearly have a panic attack at the mere thought of stumbling upon an empty clown costume. Imagine how she might have freaked out had she encountered a clown costume with someone inside it.

Look closely. You can sense the evil lurking behind those beady little clown eyes. They try to distract you with those big, red, bulbous noses. But I know better. Look into their eyes, and you'll see. Pure evil, I tell you.

Like the fear of spiders, heights and enclosed spaces, the fear of clowns has a technical name. It's called coulrophobia. If you want some real nightmares, think long and hard about being trapped in a free-falling elevator with a clown and his pet tarantula.

None of this has been lost on writers and filmmakers who have long exploited the creepiness of clowns. There's the Joker, obviously. And in Stephen King's "It," the title character appears in many sinister guises, but It most often takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. King has dreamed up a lot of scary things, but few compare to the image of a clown-faced Tim Curry grinning from a storm drain.

Scary clowns dot the Hollywood landscape, from "Clownhouse" and the extraterrestrial clowns of "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" to "Shakes the Clown" and "Patch Adams."

I know what you're going to say. "Shakes the Clown" was a comedy vehicle for Bobcat Goldthwait, while "Patch Adams" was a shameless, if unsuccessful, attempt to snare Robin Williams an Oscar. But watch them again. These movies reek of unmitigated evil. And "Patch Adams" is by far the more insidious of the two. It's pure propaganda for the Clown Industrial Complex.

How pervasive is this clown propaganda? It's everywhere. No matter where you live, you're probably no more than a few blocks from the clowns' most successful attempt at gaining your trust.

Yes, McDonald's seems like such a happy place, with its Happy Meals and such. But what is Ronald McDonald really up to? Why is his best friend named Grimace, which means a facial expression usually of disgust, disapproval or pain? And why do his Fry Goblin pals now call themselves Fry Guys? Was "goblin" giving too much away?

Burger King knows what's really going on. That's why after many years and millions spent on research and development, the No. 2 hamburger chain finally came up with a mascot who is even more sinister than Ronald — The Burger King.

Why are the two top fast-food restaurants in an arms race to determine which one has the scariest mascot, anyway?

And while I don't want to say all clowns are serial killers, there is the example of John Wayne Gacy, aka Pogo the Clown.

Think of that when you go to bed tonight. As for me, I can't sleep.

Clowns will eat me.

This column was originally published Oct. 15, 2009.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Culture Shock 10.21.10: Is the world ready for ‘Legends of the Super Heroes’?

It’s no “Star Wars Holiday Special,” but another bizarre, seemingly forgotten 1970s television oddity has emerged, improbably, from Hollywood’s vaults.

As campy, cheap, absurd and embarrassing for all involved as it was 30 years ago, “Legends of the Super Heroes” must be even more so now.

I was there, and it wasn’t pretty.

Imagine a time before Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. It’s 1979, and despite the worldwide success of “Superman: The Movie” starring Christopher Reeve, when most people think of superheroes, they see in their mind’s eye the “bams” and “pows” of the 1960s “Batman” TV show.

Now imagine something even worse.

That something is “Legends of the Super Heroes,” now available as a made-on-demand DVD, with never-before-seen outtakes, from the Warner Archive online store,

Produced by animation studio Hanna-Barbera as a live-action companion to its “Superfriends” cartoons, “Legends” is comprised of two prime-time TV specials, “The Challenge” and “The Roast,” each featuring a cast of DC Comics superheroes and villains, along with characters created just for the show — characters we’d mercifully never see again.

Along with well-known heroes like Green Lantern and the Flash were B-listers like the Huntress, the Black Canary, the Atom and Hawkman, all portrayed by actors you’ve never heard of. Superman and Wonder Woman are suspiciously absent — in reality because other studios held the rights to use them in live-action productions.

Batman and Robin, however, are not so fortunate. They’re at the center of the proceedings, played once again by the dynamic duo of Adam West and Burt Ward.

A confession: I love the ’60s “Batman” TV show. Is it campy? Sure. But it never insults the audience; it lets you in on the joke. And both West and Ward are perfect in their earnest, deadpan performances.

But watching West and Ward struggle with what they’re given in “Legends” causes me physical discomfort. They deserve better.

In “The Challenge,” the heroes must do battle with the Legion of Doom, a club of villains who include the Riddler (Frank Gorshin reprising his “Batman” role) and Sinestro (comedian Charlie Callas). The plot — we’ll call it that — conveniently involves the heroes losing their super powers, allowing Hanna-Barbera to save money on not-so-special effects.

The second episode, “The Roast,” is a celebrity roast modeled after the old Dean Martin roasts or the recent Comedy Central roasts, only it doesn’t include off-color jokes about sex or race. Actually, I’m not sure it includes any jokes at all. On the plus side, it also doesn’t include Lisa Lampanelli. The villains from “The Challenge,” however, do return to menace our heroes, while other, more obscure heroes, like Retired Man (William Schallert), show up to roast Batman and company under the direction of roastmaster Ed McMahon. Seriously.

I’m amazed Warner Archive has dusted off this show. Obviously, someone demanded it, and bootleg tapes have circulated for years. But “Legends of the Super Heroes” isn’t so bad it’s good. It’s more like a train wreck, in a Third World country, where half of the passengers were riding on top of the train cars.

Is it worth $19.95 to own a pair of TV specials second only to the “Star Wars Holiday Special” in their infamy?

That depends on your tolerance for pain. (Yeah, I’m thinking about it.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Culture Shock 10.14.10: Corman's Poe films continue to haunt audiences

With films like "It Conquered the World," "Gunslinger" and "Teenage Caveman" to his credit, Roger Corman established himself in the 1950s as a reliable director of low-budget movies aimed at drive-in audiences.

But by 1960, he was ready for something more ambitious.

In his memoir "How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime," Corman writes that he was ready to make "bigger, better movies on longer schedules and to direct more experienced actors from better scripts. The chance to do all of those things came in the visually and thematically rich gothic horror genre."

Gothic horror ruled the cinema in the 1930s and '40s, when Universal Studios and its imitators released films like "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" and made unlikely stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But gothic horror fell from favor in the '50s, when horror movies shifted toward atom-age monsters and extraterrestrial invaders.

But in 1958, Britain's Hammer Films found success with "Horror of Dracula," starring Christopher Lee as Bram Stoker's bloodthirsty count. "Horror of Dracula" revived the gothic horror film and drenched it in vibrant, Technicolor blood.

After 10 years of bug-eyed monsters, audiences seemed ready for the movies Corman wanted to make.

So, Corman convinced his producers at American International Pictures, James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, to give him larger budgets that would allow him to shoot on color film and construct more elaborate sets.

The resulting films became classics of the horror genre and, along with Hammer's films, defined cinematic horror for the next decade.

From 1960 to 1964, Corman directed eight movies based, more or less, on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Corman had read Poe as a youth, and Poe's poems and stories had the virtue of being in the public domain, meaning Corman didn't have to pay for them.

With Vincent Price as his leading man and a team of skilled writers and technicians behind the camera, Corman made what would become known as his "Poe cycle." The series started with "House of Usher" in 1960 and continued with "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), "The Premature Burial" (1962), "Tales of Terror" (1962), "The Raven" (1963), "The Haunted Palace" (1963), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964) and "The Tomb of Ligeia" (1964).

Technically, however, "The Haunted Palace" is a Poe film in name only. It's based on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft, making it, as far as I can tell, the first film based on Lovecraft's stories.

Three of Corman's Poe films will screen this month at Decatur's Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts as part of this year's Big Read program focusing on Poe's works. First up is "The Raven" on Friday night at 7. It will be followed by "House of Usher" on Monday and "The Pit and the Pendulum" on Oct. 22. Tickets are $5.

Price starred in all but one of Corman's Poe movies; the exception is "The Premature Burial" with Ray Miland. By 1960, Price already had established himself as a bankable horror-movie star in "House of Wax" and William Castle's "The House on Haunted Hill." Before that, he was a charismatic villain in the 1949 film noir "The Bribe." But the Poe films are what cemented Price's reputation as a horror icon — the Lugosi or Karloff of his generation.

Working alongside Price in the Poe movies were veterans like Karloff and Peter Lorre and newcomers like Jack Nicholson.

Meanwhile, the screenwriters who adapted Poe's tales were top notch. Richard Matheson ("I Am Legend") and Charles Beaumont, both "Twilight Zone" veterans, wrote seven of the films, while future Oscar winner Robert Towne ("Chinatown") scripted "The Tomb of Ligeia."

Corman's Poe films are undeniably B movies, but they're also classics. And as fast and loose as they play with Poe's words, they're still worthy and lasting tributes to America's master of the macabre.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Culture Shock 10.07.10: 'Thundarr the Barbarian' survives apocalypse

If you grew up watching Saturday-morning cartoons during the 1980s, chances are you're familiar with Ruby-Spears Productions, even if you don't recall the name.

Ruby-Spears produced some of that decade's most memorable cartoons, and one of them has finally made its long-overdue debut on home video.

Warner Bros., which owns most of the Ruby-Spears library, has just released "Thundarr the Barbarian" on DVD-R through its Warner Archive label, online at The Warner Archive is a burn-on-demand service, so the DVDs aren't manufactured until you order them, and they're not available in stores.

But don't let the hassle of ordering direct from Warner Bros. deter you. "Thundarr" holds up surprisingly well for a 30-year-old cartoon constrained by the draconian standards-and-practices rules of early-'80s Saturday-morning broadcast television. If you now have children of your own, "Thundarr" is something you can enjoy together. It goes best with a bowl of Sugar Pops, or Corn Pops, or whatever Kellogg's is calling them now.

"Thundarr" is Conan the Barbarian meets He-Man, even though the show actually pre-dates "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" by a couple of years.

Two thousand years in the future, the Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, littered with the ruins of the 20th century civilization. (The apocalypse in question is said to have occurred in 1994, when a "runaway planet" passed between the Earth and the moon with catastrophic results. So we really dodged a bullet.) But a new civilization has emerged, populated with human survivors, mutants, aliens and the occasional power-mad wizard who mixes science with sorcery.

The wizards are the ones who menace Thundarr and his friends during most of their weekly adventures.

"Thundarr" clearly owes a debt to the original "Star Wars" saga, which was in full swing when the show debuted in 1980. Thundarr's weapon of choice is his "sun sword," which works a lot like a lightsaber, except, this being a children's show, he never cuts anyone's arm off. Thundarr's best friend is Ookla the Mok, who is a bit like a Wookie, except with a lion's head. Like Chewbacca, Ookla speaks only in grunts and snarls.

Joining Thundarr and Ookla in their adventures is Princess Ariel, the one magic-user who uses her powers for good rather than evil.

The main reason "Thundarr the Barbarian" still entertains while most other cartoons of its era don't is the team of writers and animators behind it.

"Thundarr" was created by Steve Gerber, creator of Marvel Comics' Howard the Duck, which is not to be confused with the turkey of a movie that came later. One of the staff writers was Mark Evanier, writer of the comic "Groo the Wanderer" and a veteran of well-regarded cartoons like "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Garfield and Friends." The production design was the work of comics legend Jack Kirby, who co-created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and other Marvel characters. And the character design came from Alex Toth, who also designed the characters for "Space Ghost" and "Superfriends."

Although it ran for only 21 episodes over two seasons, "Thundarr" has cemented its place among Saturday morning's most enduring TV shows and developed an enthusiastic cult following.

Most other Ruby-Spears shows, however, are products of their time.

The studio almost cornered the market for cartoons based on arcade games ("Dragon's Lair," "Space Ace" and "Donkey Kong"), produced animated versions of "Punky Brewster" and "Mork and Mindy," and even made cartoons based on the "Rambo" and "Police Academy" movies, as well as an animated Chuck Norris miniseries.

None of these shows hold up as well as "Thundarr." OK, most of them just don't hold up. But they're a window to the '80s.

Maybe, like "Thundarr," they'll resurface, too.