Friday, November 23, 2012

Journey to the Land of Misfit Mascots

Well, I'm back in time for Thanksgiving Break, and rarin' to go with another entry into this fantastic adventure into Retro Magic. Now, inspired by my last article about Mick and Mac, I mentioned then that I should do an article about other forgotten gaming mascots at some point. And, well, what better time than the present? 

In the world of video game mascots, very few actually survive to become recognized over time, and even fewer become "Video Game Royalty". Some that have stood the test of the ages include Donkey Kong, Mega Man, Bomberman, Pac Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and probably the single most iconic video game character of all time, Mario. We're here today to talk specifically about a batch of characters who arose in the early-to-mid-1990s, right in the thick of the "Hey, Mario and Sonic make millions of dollars, let's get in on that shit while we can!" craze. Every major developer (and many minor ones), wanted a piece of that mascot gaming pie, and many of them took a crack at creating their very own "franchise ready" mascot, typically embodied in the form of the "Mascot Based Platformer". And much like the NFL Draft, a great majority of these attempts at successful franchises either failed outright, or had initial success but fizzled out later.

Now before we embark in earnest, I want to establish a few ground rules, so as to forgo any "Hey how come you didn't mention THIS character/game?" later on. The name of today's game, is to go over some of the now more obscure platformer mascot characters, specifically of the home console variety. There were indeed a great many of these similar characters/games on home computers, but to save time, I'm just not even going to go there. Another stipulation, is that I'm not going to bother with "2nd String" gaming mascots who may be lesser known now, but did at one point have a string of successful hits. Some of these would include the likes of Wonder Boy, Adventure Island, Bonk (who at one point was THE mascot for the Turbo Graphx 16 console), Dizzy (the Egg hero, super popular in Europe), Rayman, etc. Finally, I'm also only keeping it to characters/games that started in 2D, primarily on the 16-bit consoles, which was the era where this mascot game craze really existed in force. That means that characters who would come only a bit later, like Bug, Clockwork Knight, and Croc, just to name a few, also won't be mentioned, because they were part of the burgeoning 3D era.

So, without further adieu, away we go:

MAN, that's one bad ass looking........huh?

Name: Zool
Year: 1992
Developer: Gremlin Graphics
Number of Games: 2

Created by noted British PC developer and publisher Gremlin Graphics (later Gremlin Interactive), who were mostly known for the Monty Mole series on home computers, as well as the Top Gear racing games on Super Nintendo, Zool was one of many attempts to cash in on the success of the Mario and Sonic franchises. Zool stars the titular hero, an odd ant-looking "gremlin" alien ninja guy, or as the subtitle of the game states, "Ninja from the Nth Dimension". He has apparently been forced to land on Earth, and to prove his "Ninjahood", has to traverse through a bunch of crazy (very NON-Earth seeming) levels, to prove himself. Originally made as an Amiga computer game, even launching as a pack-in with the Amiga 1200, Gremlin obviously must have thought they were really on to something huge, because the game went on to be ported to practically everything under the sun. No joke, it was ported to: Acorn Archimedes computer, Atari ST computer, Amiga CD32, PC DOS, Game Boy, Game Gear, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.

Take THAT, Vile Jello Mold Monster!!!

 In other words, this bad boy was whored out. Problem was, I'm not sure how huge of a success it really was, as most people I knew back in the early 90s didn't even really know about this game. It may well have been a bigger hit in its native Europe, but it certainly didn't crack much ground here in North America. The game was enough of a success to create one sequel, 1993's "Zool 2", which introduced a female second character, however the second game was only released for Amiga, DOS and Atari Jaguar (of all systems). The series received no further sequels, and likely won't, as Gremlin got bought by Infogrames and disappeared into the ether.

Animal with Attitude, Here to Smash Pollution!!

Name: Awesome Possum
Year: 1993
Developer: Tengen
Number of Games: 1

Now while practically every side-scrolling action/platformer game owed/owes its existence to the foundations set by Super Mario Bros. in 1985, there was a particular mascot-based gaming craze that came about in the early '90s. After the runaway success of Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog (itself Sega's second attempt to cash in on the Mario formula, more on that later), it seemed that every developer and their second cousin on their mother's side wanted a piece of the action. And that action's name was "Anthropomorphic Animal with Attitude", because obviously, that's what the kiddies loved, right?

Well, one of the more obscure and less successful attempts, but also arguably the single most blatant attempt to directly rip off Sonic, was a game by Tengen called "Awesome Possum". Now Tengen was an Atari-spawned company mostly known for their home ports of arcade games (and legal scuffles with Nintendo over licensing issues.). On the other hand they were not so well known for creating original franchises. But create they did, and the end product was a game in which you play a sassy "Animal with Attitude", ala Sonic, and you fought an evil mad scientist called Dr. Machino and his robot minions, ala Dr. Robotnic (the American name for Dr. Eggman).


The "original gimmick", to differentiate it from Sonic, as you can see by the icon in the upper left of the screen above, is that this game was about Recycling and saving the planet. NOT just running and smashing robots like Sonic does. Of course. Awesome also had his own arsenal of muffled 16-bit-voice-synth snappy one liners he would spit out at a near constant rate, which also gave him a "one up" over the blue "Needlemouse". Or so Tengen probably thought. In all honesty, it's not a horrible game, but it wasn't a terribly great one either, and even though kids my age in '93 knew about it and played it, it ultimately wasn't a huge success, and never saw any sequels. Not so surprisingly, Tengen itself wound up going defunct in 1994.

Name: Bubsy the Bobcat
Year: 1993
Developer: Accolade
Number of Games: 4

Speaking of "Animal with Attitude" Sonic ripoffs, another, more infamous offender was Bubsy. Created by Accolade, a prolific developer believe it or not, outside of their long-running Test Drive series, otherwise most known for the Bubsy franchise. The game's designer, Michael Berlyn, literally drew inspiration directly from Sonic the Hedgehog, claiming to play the game for 14-hour days for an entire week, trying to find inspiration to make a similar game of his own. The end result became "Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind" (GET IT?), which released concurrently for both SNES and Genesis.

And that's.....pretty much it.

The basis of the game is that the world is being invaded by an alien race called "Woolies", who are intent on stealing the world's entire supply of...wait for it...yarn balls. Yes. Yarn balls. And Bubsy, being a cat, is naturally disinclined to let that happen, as we all know cats go batshit for yarn balls. Never mind that Bubsy is, as indicated by his very name, a Bobcat, a wild cat, who is not known for playing with anything outside of, I dunno, dead prey? HOUSE cats, on the other hand? Sure, yarn balls "FTW". But let it never be said that practical common sense or logic entered the equation when it came to the Bubsy series. No, in fact, the very basis of the gameplay defies explanation, as your hero's main method of attack is...jumping and floating around. Because bobcats are well known for flying. It wouldn't make sense to have Bubsy use his claws to attack enemies, oh no. So floating it is!

Well, logic or not, the first game somehow managed to be popular enough to spawn not one, but three sequels: "Bubsy 2", "Bubsy in Fractured Furry Tales" (an Atari Jaguar exclusive), and the semi-infamous (for being terrible) "Bubsy 3D: Furbitten Planet". As you might have noticed, from the titles of these games, the game developers obviously thought they were rather clever. Unfortunately, their cleverness seemed limited to Bubsy's in-game "sassy" one-liners and pun-based game titles, because the gameplay in this series was rather "meh". Ever wonder what happened to Bubsy? Don't. He's actually happier now, as he left the series in embarrassment after Bubsy 3D. I hear he became a car salesman.

2017 Note: As it turns out, Bubsy decided the sales life wasn't for him, as he expectantly got a shot at resurrection! Developed by Black Forest Games, a German development team previously responsible for resurrecting the obscure Giana Sisters, and published by UFO Entertainment, Halloween Day 2017 actually saw the release of a brand NEW Bubsy game, entitled "Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back". Perhaps learning a lesson from Bubsy 3D, this game is a side-scroller once more, though it features 3D graphics, and it seems to be a throwback to the original (and most successful) Bubsy game, as he is once again fighting those nasty yarn-stealing aliens, the Woolies. Who knew that there was redemption for a forgotten mascot? You can try the new Bubsy for yourself, out now on PC and Playstation 4!

Crappy box-art, decent game.

Name: Aero the Acro-Bat
Year: 1993
Developer: Iguana Entertainment
Number of Games: 2 (Technically 3)

Developed by none other than Iguana Entertainment, who would go on to fame as the creators of the original (see: good) Turok the Dinosaur Hunter games on Nintendo 64, and later still whose key figures would go on to form Retro Studios, now known for Nintendo's own Metroid Prime series. Aero the Acro-Bat was once again an "Animal with Attitude" type of affair, but unlike Awesome and Bubsy, this series actually wasn't half bad. Turns out, being good developers seems to have a direct correlation with making good games. I'll get back to you on that, as scientific study is ongoing.

Hey there.

So the story, in a nutshell, involves Aero, a red bat who lives and performs with a traveling circus. This circus is under attack by an evil clown named Edgar Ektor, who used to work for the circus, probably injured himself on the job, didn't get workman's comp, and now wants to put them out of business as revenge. We've all been there, right? Assisting Ektor in his egomaniacal schemes, is Zero, a squirrel (with an attitude no less), who happens to be a ninja or something, and is also intended to be Aero's arch-rival. Now in this game, much like Bubsy, your main method of attacking (And getting around), is jumping and floating. However, unlike Bubsy, this makes sense because Aero is a Bat, know...have wings. Also, the game mechanics just work a hell of a lot better, where the floating feels far less "floaty".

Squirrel + Headband + Throwing Stars = Sold.

The game was successful enough to spawn not one, but two sequels: Aero the Acro-Bat 2, and as seen above, a spin-off game starring his nemesis Zero, aptly titled "Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel". This game seems to actually be a sort-of concurrent companion (story-wise) to Aero 2, as the game's plot seems to happen somewhat alongside that game. Zero's home island is being attacked by an evil lumber-jack named Le Sheets (yes I'm serious), and he leaves the evil Ektor's service to go back and save the island and his girlfriend. He does this by throwing an enormous amount of ninja throwing stars that you collect throughout the game (they're just hanging in the air all over the place, that's some island). Bottom line, all three games are pretty solid, and while they may not be well-remembered now, they stand the test of time pretty well.

He's so cool, he wears shades at night.

Name: Gex the Gecko
Year: 1994
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Number of Games: 3

Originally created by developer Crystal Dynamics, known for the Legacy of Kain series and later starting the Tomb Raider franchise, Gex was intended to be the "mascot game" for the launch of the Panasonic 3DO console. The problem there, was that the 3DO was the first dedicated CD-based home console, and while it was a decent system, it was grossly overpriced and thus didn't sell well. But Gex got lucky, and found second life, being ported over to the Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn, and even Microsoft Windows on PC. In these ports, he found popularity, and became a success.

Yes, that is a Gecko-Frankenstein's Monster.

Now the thing about Gex is, even on its native 3DO, it was and is actually a really awesome game. The premise of the series, is that you are Gex, a Hawiaan Gecko lizard, who lives with his family while his father works for NASA (no, I'm not making this up). His father died in a shuttle accident, which causes Gex to shut down, and become a TV addict. His mother moves then to California and takes his TV away in an attempt to snap him out of it, but instead he runs away and lives on the streets, until he somehow magically inherits (from who knows where) a huge sum of cash, which he promptly uses to move back to Hawaii, buy a huge mansion, and the world's largest TV to veg out in front of. While watching TV, he swallows some sort of techno-fly without thinking, and is then grabbed by a giant hand and pulled straight into the tube.

And so there you go. He has to fight Rez, the evil Media Overlord who brought him into TVland, to try and get home. The game's worlds are based on TV and movies, at least in general, though there are some specific send-ups, such as a boss of the Japan-type level, which is pretty much the monster Gamera from that series of movies. As Gex, you run, jump, and climb surfaces (ala Spider-Man), stomping bad guys and collecting enough remote controls to move on to the next area. All in all, a pretty fun game, and it was successful enough to spawn two sequels: "Gex: Enter the Gecko" and "Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko". Both of these games, however, featured 3D graphics and gameplay, unlike the first, which had 2D prerendered sprites (similar to Donkey Kong Country). The series hasn't seen an entry since 1999, but is still by and large fondly remembered by gamers.

Worm in a spacesuit with a laser-blaster. What more is there to say?

Name: Earthworm Jim
Year: 1994
Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Number of Games: 4

Created by artist Doug TenNapel and designed by David Perry (of Virgin Games fame and founder of Shiny), Earthworm Jim was a different sort of mascot. He wasn't quite the "Animal with Attitude" that so many others were. Instead, he was was a rather goofy mutant earthworm, who gets around by controlling a humanoid space-suit. Another big difference with this character, is that while I'm sure the other developers who tried to cash in with mascot games hoped for the same, Jim actually spawned a line of toys and an animated series. Although to be fair, Bubsy did have an animated pilot just never got picked up.

Catapulting cows is a key point in the gameplay.

The setting is rather bizarre, as fits the character himself. Jim is an average, everyday earthworm, until a special spacesuit randomly falls out of the sky. Crawling inside, he is able to use the suit to walk around and act like a human, which I would imagine vastly expands an earthworm's typical daily activities. Well, some aliens, whom the suit belongs to, come looking for it to get it back. So Jim has to use his suit, his natural worminess, and a cool laser-gun, to both escape baddies, and defend the aptly titled "Princess Whats-Her-Name". And that, in a nutshell, along with an assload of cow catapulting, is Earthworm Jim.

Fondly regarded, and initially successful, the game was ported to everything under the sun, originally Super NES and Genesis, but also Sega Master System, Game Gear, Sega CD, Game Boy, and even DOS. It also spawned 3 sequels: "Earthworm Jim 2", "Earthwork Jim 3D" (which only released on N64 and PC), and the Game Boy Color exclusive "Earthworm Jim: Menace 2 the Galaxy". The last two were not as well received, as with the last entry being released in 1999, the series has not seen a sequel since. In 2010 we did receive an HD remake of the original, downloadable on various platforms, and allegedly, an Earthworm Jim 4 was at some point in development. But otherwise, Jim's day in the sun has long since passed. On one final note, however, he did receive a cameo appearance as a playable fighter in Interplay's "Clayfighter 63 1/3" on N64.

Falcon POUNNNNCH!!!!!
Name: Alex Kidd
Year: 1986
Developer: Sega
Number of Games: 5 (+1 Japan-only spinoff)

So, as many people might not be aware, Sonic the Hedgehog was not Sega's first crack at trying to duplicate the platforming success of Super Mario Bros. That distinction goes to a character that is by now probably rather obscure, except to hardcore Sega fans, and long-time video game enthusiasts. His name was Alex Kidd (because two d's makes it cooler). And just by looking at that artwork above, you can tell that if nothing else, Mr. Kidd was certainly "80s cool". Alex himself, was a big-eared kid with martial arts skills, who seemed to be inspired by both Bruce Lee and Chinese mythological figure Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Now the reason I'm listing this series, despite it at one point being a long-running and successful series, is that unlike its Sega counterpart Wonder Boy, for example, Alex Kidd holds the distinction of being a rare case where a company mascot is totally replaced and then forgotten, in favor of another. In this case, the "90s cool" Sonic.

Punching things in the face is a full-time job.

The first game to feature him, was 1986's "Alex Kidd in Miracle World". As that original game's booklet would describe it, Alex is a 14 year old boy from the planet Aries, aka "Miracle World", who happens to be an orphan. He lives alone on Mount Eternal, mastering the art of "Shellcore", which makes one's fists so powerful that they can break rocks with a punch. Well, after sufficiently mastering the art of increasing the size and power of one's fists through sheer force of will, Kidd wanders down the mountain, discovering from a dying old man that the land of Radaxian has been overrun by an evil alien named Janken the Great, who has defeated King Thunder, and kidnapped Prince Egle and his fiance Princess Lora. As it would later turn out (SPOILERS), Prince Egle is actually Alex's long-lost brother, meaning that King Thunder is in fact his father. After whupping some ass with Gigantor-fists, Alex saves the day, Egle becomes king, and Alex sets out on a quest to find his missing father.

In 16-bits, Alex decides to add kicks to his repertoire.

The first game was popular enough, that it spawned several sequels. The first game being a Sega Master System exclusive, the next game, "Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars", appeared in both arcades and Master System. The series would return to Master System exclusivity with further entries, such as the Japan-only "Alex Kidd BMX Trial", which is essentially a rip-off of Nintendo's "Excitebike", as well as "Alex Kidd in High-Tech World", which not unlike Nintendo's "Super Mario Bros. 2", began life in Japan as a game based on an anime series, in this case "Anmitsu Hime", and was refitted for the West into an Alex Kidd game. Then the Sega Genesis came out in 1989, and as one of the first titles for the series, their mascot took center stage (next to Michael Jackson), in "Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle", where he finally gets around to following up on that whole "find my missing dad" thing. He hears that King Thunder (now for some reason called King Thor), is residing on Planet Paperock, so named because its denizens are masters of the game "Paper, Rock, Scissors". He goes looking for him and adventure, as usual, ensues.

Not content to smash rocks with fists, Kidd took up Ninja-ing.

 Though a moderate success, Alex had never rivaled Mario in any meaningful way, except perhaps in Europe where the Master System was apparently rather popular, and Sega finally decided they needed a newer, "cooler" mascot. With that, they set about creating "Project Needlemouse", which would later become Sonic the Hedgehog, and the rest is history. Alex would get one last send-off game, being relegated back to the Master System, in 1990's "Alex Kidd in Shinobi World". In many respects, this was the best game since the original, and many regard it as the best in the series. The game is, not surprisingly, largely inspired by the namesake "Shinobi" series, also made by Sega, and as such, Kidd gains many ninja-like abilities, including a cool katana sword, and throwing weapons. He could also wall-jump, and even gained the ability to turn into a flying fireball after swinging from hanging bars. The game was somewhat of a parody of Shinobi (mostly the Master System version), and as such has many enemies and bosses that are caricatures of their normal, more intimidating selves.

A moderate success itself, it still wasn't enough to convince Sega to keep him around, and they pretty much abandoned the poor guy, with Sonic debuting in 1991 to huge acclaim, more or less being single-handedly responsible for Sega finally competing head-to-head with Nintendo in the American marketplace.  Alex Kidd would receive a couple of very minor cameos in later Sega games like Altered Beast, but he would remain on hiatus for a couple of decades, until Sega finally brought him back as a playable character in games like "Sega All-Star Tennis" and "Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing". It's unknown if Sega will ever see fit to dust the poor guy off and give him his own proper, and much deserved, long overdue game again. But while he is certainly the saddest case of "forgotten mascots", he does still have a cult following, and his games have lived on through download services like the Nintendo Wii's "Virtual Console".


And that about wraps it up folks. There were others that I didn't get into, such as Rocket Knight Adventures, Vectorman, etc., but I think I touched on all the major "2nd Stringer" examples. Some of these characters went into obscurity for good reason, because their games simply weren't that good. Others had great games, but just didn't remain popular or successful enough to remain relevant or continue getting new games. But much like the "Island of Misfit Toys" for which this article was named, in the end many of these games have received a second life and new younger audiences, through the advent of things like Youtube playthrough videos, Virtual Console and other download services, and even things like *ahem*...emulation. ;-)

And that's what is important when it comes to anything "Retro" worth mentioning, is that it is remembered, and that memory is carried on to new generations, keeping it, in essence, Alive. Thanks for reading, till next time!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What Ever Happened to Mick and Mack?

In the world of video games, there has, since the very first "generation" of consoles back in the 1970s, been games based on licensed properties: movies, comics, cartoons, toys, etc. And in the world of licensed properties, there has, not prolifically, but at least noticeably, existed a sub-genre known to some as "Advergames", a word obviously conjoining Advertisement and Games. The point of these "Advergames", most obviously, is to help sell product to kids, or more appropriately, kids' parents, through the help of a "cool" video game, which kids naturally love to play. The most successful or popular forms of these games, are the ones that can cash in on an existing promotional brand mascot, for two reasons.

The first and most readily apparent, and the very reason companies create marketing mascots in the first place, is to help with "brand recognition", and so slapping that character (usually a cartoon character) on the game already makes perfect sense. But beyond even that, ever since the rise in the 1980s of games like Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., everyone and their uncle, most especially by the early '90s, wanted to have their very OWN mascot based gaming franchise, because "that's where the money was". And to a point, they have been right. After all, look at Mario, look at Sonic the Hedgehog, or Bomberman, or Crash Bandicoot. All successful, long-running franchises that have each made millions of dollars. Naturally, everyone wants a piece of that pie, and many tried.

Ahhhhh, 80s advertising....

So obviously then, the second point of having a brand mascot be a game character, is to try and cash in on that same success. It's a "win/win" situation, from a marketing perspective. However, not all of them have been all that successful. There have been several prominent cases of real world product mascots being used as video game subject matter. You've got  "The Noid", an '80s Domino's Pizza mascot, though much like the Trix cereal rabbit, he was featured in commercials in which people had to keep the pizza away from him, hence the "Avoid the Noid" catchphrase. Now granted, the fact that this was done using Claymation (a form of stop-motion animation), was a damn cool thing for me as a kid, let alone that it was PIZZA we're talking about. He got not one but two of his own games. The first of which was a more obscure PC game called, appropriately enough, "Avoid the Noid". But the more infamous example, was an NES game published by Japanese company Capcom, called "Yo! Noid". It in itself was actually a decent platformer (run 'n jump) game, though it was actually a graphic re-design, for the most part, of a Japanese game called "Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru", or "Masked Ninja Hanamaru", which as far as I can gather wasn't a licensed property.

There were other famous examples, such as 7-Up's "Cool Spot" character (something else that was cool to me as a kid), who received his own set of games: "Spot: The Video Game", which was an odd checkers style puzzle game, "Cool Spot", the best known entry which was a side-scrolling platformer, and lastly "Spot Goes to Hollywood", an overhead isometric platformer. Then there were a couple of games featuring the famous Cheetos "Chester Cheetah" mascot, namely "Too Cool to Fool" and "Wild Wild Quest", both of which were also side-scrollers. Even Kool-Aid's "Kool-Aid Man" mascot had a game in the early 80s on Atari 2600 and Intellivision. And of course, there were the horribly cheesy (and cheaply made) Burger King games for XBox in more recent years, most especially the hilariously-named "Sneak King".

High Five, Motherfucker!!

But with all that aside, we're here today to talk about one company specifically: McDonald's. McDonald's had various games at one point, mostly in the early 90s, the first of which actually coming out in Japan only for the Nintendo Famicom in 1988, called "Donaldland". I do believe that's supposed to be "McDonaldland", but whatever. It was a rather average platformer in which you play a rather squat Ronald McDonald  (called "Donald McDonald...don't ask), and have to save Ronald's brainwashed pals from some made up evil Ronald clown named "Gumon". So...yeah. There were a couple of other games that starred Ronald McDonald, namely "McDonald's Treasureland Adventure" on Genesis and "McDonald in Magicland" on Game Gear. But as the title of this article implies, McDonald's cooked up two brand new, "real world" mascots just for use in video games, a couple of young (theoretically McDonald's consuming) kids named Mick and Mac. Mick is the black kid with the "Fresh Prince" hairdo, and Mack is the white kid with the baseball cap.

Hey kid, want some BURGERS???

The first and arguably better known of the two games these kids starred in, was called "M.C. Kids", which is supposed to stand for "McDonald's Club Kids". The McDonald's Club was a real thing that kids could sign up for while eating their deliciously HEALTHY kid's meals on a regular basis, so I assume half of the appeal that McDonald's imagined kids might have for these games, is that they could ostensibly imagine that they were in fact the kids running around magical McDonaldland. Which I admit, as a little kid, I probably thought the idea was pretty cool too. But this isn't about me.

Ohhhhh no. This article is about one of my best friends, in fact my oldest friend (of 20+ years), Harold. Harold loved the ever-living shit out of video games as a kid, just as much as I did. In fact the first time I ever really heard of a Nintendo or saw Super Mario Bros., was at his house when his family first got an NES. Harold's favorite genre of game was and has remained all these years, the mascot-based platformer. So when M.C. Kids came out in 1992, Harold was all over that shit like a fat kid at...well, McDonald's. He was the first one to rent it, I having never even heard of it, and naturally he told me all about it. In fact, I clearly remember what I think was his 12th birthday, because his mom had rented him M.C. Kids, and lo and behold, one of his other friends managed to snag him a shiny brand new copy of his very own as a gift (a fact that nearly caused him to have childhood, calorie-induced heart failure I'm sure).

Ohhh What a Feelin', When We're Dancin' on the Ceilin......

So the nuts and bolts of M.C. Kids, is that, as you can clearly see, it's a side-scrolling platformer game, which unabashedly borrows many elements right out of Super Mario Bros. It has a Super Mario Bros. 3/World style map for each game world. It has a Super Mario Bros. 2 style "grab and throw" mechanic, which like Mario 2 is the only real means of defeating enemies. You have to reach an end-level goal, much like SMB1, 3 and 4 (World). You even collect golden McDonald's arches (in place of coins), which if you collect enough of, will bring you extra lives. But it did bring a couple of unique elements to the table as well.

One of them, as seen in the picture above, was specific platforms that had little flippers at the end, and if you ran full speed off the end, you would ZIP around and suddenly find yourself wandering the level upside-down. Of course, one of the hazards this created, was that now the open sky was treated like a "pit", so if you "fell" upwards off of a platform, you'd die just the same.  The other somewhat original concept, was that in each level there was a hidden "card" with the letter M on it, and each time you found one of these cards, you opened up a picture in the upper-right corner of the map screen, which featured one of the famous McDonald's mascot characters, such as Ronald, Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, etc. Collecting enough of these cards would allow you to advance to the next world. But (SPOILERS!!!), if you collect them ALL throughout the entire game, it opens up a secret (and rather fucked up) world you can play after beating the game. The secret "Puzzle World" is really just a bonus, just meant to mess around in, but it was still a cool idea.

The game's final boss, Ronald's renegade...magic BAG?

 The plot to the game is rather simple. Mick and Mack are best friends, hanging out in the backyard in a tent at night, reading about "McDonaldland", the magical place where Ronald and all his friends live. Well, while they're reading, BOOM, they're magically transported there in person, because it seems ol' Ronald needs their help. He has this magic bag, see, and that dastardly (and constantly hungry) Hamburgler, has taken off with it, no doubt because he thought it could give him an endless supply of high-fat goodness. So Ronald gets the kids (because he can't handle it himself), to go off traversing this wild, magical kingdom, finding magic card pieces to open the way to the "Mt. Doom" type volcano where that fiend took off to. Later on, however, they discover that poor, misunderstood Hamburglar (anyone remember when he was temporarily renamed the "Cheeseburglar"?),  didn't get his precious burgers like he thought he would. He couldn't control the magic bag, which has gone evil and is now going to DESTROY THE WORLD...or something. So after traveling all over Ronald's Green Earth, and even the MOON, collecting all these damn cards, the final battle, after surviving a harrowing volcanic hell, comes down to two kids (taking 2-player turns, ala Mario), doing battle against said evil bag. How does one destroy an evil magic bag, you ask? Why, by throwing giant balls of VOLCANIC ASH, of course!!! Duh.

Now all kidding aside, if I can give you some "Real Talk" for a moment, M.C. Kids, at it's core, isn't a bad game, as I'm sure many of you who've heard of it might be led to assume. In spite of the nefarious purpose of its very existence, to get kids to become obese eating tons and tons of McDonald's "high quality" fare, it is, fundamentally speaking, a very solid platformer game. In fact I'd even go so far as to call it fun. The graphics are bright and well drawn, the music is upbeat and actually one of the better NES soundtracks out there (and that's saying something as there are many good ones). All in all, it's a fun, albeit odd as hell little game. And to this day, it's one of my friend Harold's absolute favorites. I'm sure it's in his "Fav. Five".

One last little bit about M.C. Kids before moving on. When you beat a level, the two kids would be seen on a screen running past each other, leaping up and high-fiving just like on the cover box-art. I have to admit to you here and now, that when we would beat a level, Harold, myself and whoever else, would in fact high-five each other just as they did. But in my defense, it was all that guy Harold's fault.

We're gonna BUST UP SOME POLLUTION......or something.

Now earlier, I mentioned that Mick and Mack did in fact star in two games (three if you count a Game Boy game called "McDonaldland" which was basically the exact same as M.C. Kids), so I suppose I have to talk about it. The other game, which as I was apparently not aware, came out later in the exact same year (1992), was called "Mick and Mack as the Global Gladiators". It's funny, looking at the American box-art for both games, if you consider that they came out in the same year, how these kids went from pudgy little kids wearing matching outfits because, you know, they're SUPER BEST FRIENDS, to growing up into hip, 90s-cool teenagers just, what, half a year later?

Regardless, the "story" of Global Gladiators, is that Ronald once again needs Mick and Mac's help (can this guy do ANYTHING?), and this time, it's to help him fight pollution and clean up the planet. Now I'm not entirely sure, nor does it even remotely matter, whether or not the game is supposed to be taking place in McDonaldland, or the "Real World", but for posterity's sake, I'm going to guess it's the real world. The game was really going for that "save the planet" deal, which is awesome, and great morals to teach kids (And something I very strongly personally support). The game even had bonus levels where you have to knock falling trash into recycle bins.

Eat Slime! You...SLIME, you!

The only real problem here, is that for a game that is supposed to be getting kids to care about pollution and recycling, it sure doesn't really DO much of that. The point of the game, is to run around (using the same engine as Cool Spot, also a Virgin developed game), using "very 90s" super-soker type guns, shooting what I can only describe as bright orange slime (or perhaps an old favorite of mine, Orange Slice soda?), at a not-so-varied variety of enemies. You still run, jump, and collect arches for points and lives, but other than starring Mick and Mack, the game really bears no resemblance at all to M.C. Kids, and thus I'd hesitate to even call it a true sequel. You don't do any real "cleaning up the planet" through the game's four (yes four) worlds, in fact most of what you do is exactly what you see above, shooting slime to kill green slime monsters, and finding machines through the levels that produce said slime, and totally trashing them.

What the...............

Other than that? Not much. The final boss is a giant ice-face monster thing in the wall, that you have to fight while avoiding ice bats the whole while. No I'm not making that up, you can see it yourself in the picture above! What that ice-face monster thing has to do with the slime and pollution killing the planet? You got me there. Now, I clearly remember ol' Harold calling me up one day, and telling me ALL about this AMAZING game he had just played in Kaybee Toys in the mall. He told me all about how the graphics were just jaw-dropping, the gameplay was fast and fluid, and the game even featured (in his own words) "REAL MUSIC". I mean egads!!! The way he made it sound, it was the best thing since Cool Spot, a game he also loved the shit out of for unknown reasons.

Now I'll grant you, he was onto something with M.C. Kids. Like I said, it's a good game, and silly as it may well be, I do still think fondly on it looking back. But Global Gladiators? Let me put it to you lightly: it's a half-baked mess. Seeing that it came out in the same year as M.C. Kids, it obviously had less than a year's development time, perhaps even just a few months, and it's very obvious that the game just doesn't have much to it. It's what we in the business refer to as a "Quick Cash-In". Now in his defense, while he fawned over it's godliness back then, Harold now realizes that, well, ol' "Double G" just ain't that good of a game after all. Though he DOES also to this day still maintain that the Super Nintendo version of the game, which you can find a beta of online if you look hard enough, would have actually added a lot more to the game, and it would have been amazing. We'll never know though, because it was cancelled, most likely due to the fact that the Genesis version sucked ass. The only thing of any real note when it comes to Global Gladiators, is that it was designed by David Perry, a guy who would go on to found Shiny Entertainment, and who would become the creator of the 90s semi-icon, Earthworm Jim. True Fact: Earthworm Jim = MUCH better game than Global Gladiators. Though still suspiciously similar in certain ways.

Whatever became of Mick and Mac? Only this man knows for sure.....

Now, whatever became of old Mick and Mack, after their failed ecological exploit? Who knows! Went to college? Got married (perhaps even to wives)? Got extraordinarily fat off of their solid McDonald's diet and now have extremely poor health? Or are they keeping in good shape, waiting in the shadows for that one chance to return to McDonaldland and kick some seriously epic ass once more? We'll probably never know, because the chances of McDonald's ever dusting these two off and hiring a new developer to make another game starring them is probably about as good as the chances of seeing a McDonald's/Burger King collaboration. But whatever happened to these two, wherever they are out there today, at least they can rest secure in the knowledge that they did feature in at least one good, albeit obscure, "Advergame".

And that's honestly good enough for anybody, isn't it?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Monster Mash: Icons of Horror Cinema, Part 2

Titans of Cinema

Here we are again, back with Part 2 of our "Icons of Horror" event! Halloween is officially over, but as mentioned before, the traditional ancestor known as "Samhain" lasted until November 1st. So in honor of that, I decided to split up this grand event...but let's be honest, it needed to be split up to focus on such greats. Mind you, I will no doubt give many of these men, and even still many of the movies mentioned in both parts their own, more in-depth individual entries in due time. But for now, let's delve into the second half of this honor of the biggest names of classic horror cinema. And away we go!

The Original King of Creepy

Peter Lorre - Few actors of the "golden age" of cinema had a more recognizable face and accent than Peter Lorre. In that regard, he shared much in common with fellow Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, as both were often typecast because of their iconic accents. However, where Lugosi was almost exclusively a king of the horror genre (sometimes to his own chagrin), Peter Lorre did have some major success outside of it's confines. In fact at one time he was featured in several of Hollywood's biggest films, alongside it's biggest stars, such as Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "Cassablanca" (1942), as well as two of Alfred Hitchcock's earlier works, "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934) and "Secret Agent" (1936). He also appeared alongside Cary Grant in "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944), as well as Kirk Douglas and James Mason in Disney's 1954 adaptation of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". He often was typecast as a "strange foreign villain", but he also had many turns as more heroic characters, most especially in his own series of films as the fictional Japanese secret agent "Mr. Moto", in the late 1930s. But we're here today to talk about horror, and Mr. Lorre was certainly no stranger to that genre.

Lorre caricatured in the Merrie Melodies classic "Hair-Raising Hare" (1946).

His first true turn at horror came infamously enough, in one of German impressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang's most famous films, "M" (1931), in which he gave a chilling performance as a disturbed child murderer. His official American film debut was also a horror film, 1935's "Mad Love", an adaptation of the short story "The Hands of Orlac", in which he plays the love-obsessed and deranged Dr. Gogol. He started acting horror films more regularly beginning in the 1940s, the first of which being alongside Boris Karloff in the horror-comedy "The Boogie Man Will Get You" (1942). He also appeared in the more science fiction entry into Universal's "Invisible Man" franchise, in 1942's "Invisible Agent". He fought against a disembodied and demonic hand in "The Beast with Five Fingers" (1946). But perhaps his best remembered horror roles came right near the end of his life, when he appeared alongside the likes of Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in several entries of Roger Corman's "Poe Series" in the early 1960s.

Notable Roles: Hans Beckert in "M" (1931), Abbott in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), Dr. Gogol in "Mad Love" (1935), Mr. Moto in the "Mr. Moto" series (1937-1939, 7 films in total), Baron Ikito in "Invisible Agent" (1942), Dr. Lorentz in "The Boogie Man Will Get You" (1942), Hilary Cummins in "The Beast With Five Fingers" (1946), Conseil in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954), Montresore Harringbone in "Tales of Terror" (1962), Dr. Adolphus Bedlo in "The Raven" (1963), Felix Gillie in "The Comedy of Terrors" (1964)

Do I know Kung Fu? Nope. But my son will!

John Carradine - An actor of some note, who would go on to be the patriarch of the "Carradine Acting Family". Many of his sons would go into acting, the most famous of which was David Carradine, who gained great fame in the television series "Kung Fu" in the 1970s. John was a Shakespearean theater actor, classically trained, though he became known for the many western and horror films he did, among other genres. He actually played several uncredited cameo roles in Universal horror films in the 1930s, such as "The Invisible Man" (1933), "The Black Cat" (1934), and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935). He did not, however, have a starring role in a horror film until 1943, when he starred as Dr. Sigmund Walters, your average everyday mad scientist, in "Captive Wild Woman", where he uses "science gone wrong" to transform a female gorilla into a human woman. After this, he acted fairly regularly in the genre, being well known for it by the late 40s, where he finally took a turn in the role of Count Dracula in Universal's "House of Frankenstein" (1944) and "House of Dracula" (1945). Certainly not the best Dracula, nor the most well known, but he still played the role with flair and style, and was iconic enough in the role to reprise it once more in 1966's "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula". He continued acting in horror films, as well as many others (including even a role in the blockbuster '50s production of "The Ten Commandments"), all the way until his death in 1988. In fact his last film was a horror film, which speaks to his legacy in the genre.

Notable Roles: Dr. Sigmund Walters in "Captive Wild Woman" (1943),  Dr. Max Heinrich von Altermann in "Revolt of the Zombies" (1943), Dr. Peter Drury in "The Invisible Man's Revenge" (1944), Yousef Bey in "The Mummy's Ghost" (1944), Count Dracula in "House of Frankenstein" (1944) and "House of Dracula" (1945), Bohemund in "The Black Sleep" (1956), Dr. Charles Conway in "The Unearthly" (1957), Count Dracula in "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" (1966), Cruikshank in "Munster, Go Home!" (1966), R. Chetwynd-Hayes in "The Monster Club" (1980), Earl Kenton in "The Howling" (1981), The Great Owl in "The Secret of NIMH" (1982), Lord Elijah Grisbane in "House of the Long Shadows" (1983)

Father's colossal acting shoes filled? Check!

Lon Chaney Jr. - Talk about some huge shoes to fill. I already covered his infamous father in Part 1, and what a career did that guy have. Lon Chaney Sr. was seriously about as integral to the silent era of film history as an actor could get. His son didn't start his film career, ironically, until his father had passed away. So the true irony there, is that Sr. was a man exclusively of the silent era, while Jr. was exclusively of the sound era. Pretty cool in a way, though it would have been great to be able to hear Lon Sr.'s voice in just one film. So it goes without saying that Lon Jr. came into the world of film standing in an enormous shadow, and no doubt with major expectations heaped on his shoulders. But by all accounts, he succeeded rather well. His career didn't really explode until his most iconic role in the 1940s. But he actually acted in a horror/thriller very early on, as he appeared in 1932's "The Most Dangerous Game", a story about a psychotic hunter on a remote island who prefers human prey. One of his first major starring roles came in the 1937 adaptation of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men", in which he portrayed the character of Lennie.

Lon Jr. had to go through the arduous make-up process for many hours every day.

Lon's first major horror role, however, came in a little film called "Man Made Monster" (1941), in which he plays a bus crash survivor who is immune to electricity, which causes a mad scientist to experiment on him, trying to create an army of electric super-men. He acted alongside veteran horror actor Lionel Atwill, the self-same scientist. But where his horror career really took off, and where he really shined, was when he finally got the chance to take on his father's mantle, "The Man of a Thousand Faces". Perhaps not quite, but really, he would go on to portray several iconic Hollywood Monsters, just as his father had. The first of these, was of course 1941's "The Wolf Man", which made him a huge star overnight. He was the only actor to portray this specific werewolf character role in it's original run, thus he absolutely made the role his own, and to this day it is what he is best known for. However, beyond just Larry Talbot, who he played in a total of five films, he also went on to play Frankenstein's Monster in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), Kharis the mummy in "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942), and even Dracula's son Alucard (get it?) in "Son of Dracula" (1943). Lon Jr. would also go on to have his own series of "insanity" centered thrillers, under the "Inner Sanctum" banner, which he would be almost as well known for as his "Wolf Man" persona. All told, he was one of the biggest stars of the 1940s, and would to act until close to his death at the age of 67 in the early 1970s.

Notable Roles: Akhoba in "One Million B.C." (1940), Dan McCormick in "Man Made Monster" (1941), Larry Talbot in "The Wolf Man" (1941), Frankenstein's Monster in "The Ghost of Frankenstein", Kharis the Mummy in "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942),  Larry Talbot in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), Alucard in "Son of Dracula" (1943), Dr. Mark Steel in "Calling Dr. Death" (1943), Kharis the Mummy in "The Mummy's Ghost" (1944), Larry Talbot in "House of Frankenstein" (1944), Kharis the Mummy in "The Mummy's Curse" (1944), Larry Talbot in "House of Dracula" (1945), Gregor the Great in "The Frozen Ghost" (1945), Larry Talbot in "Abbott and Cotsello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), Dr. Munroe in "The Black Sleep" (1956), Martin Melville in "The Cyclops" (1957), Simon Orne in "The Haunted Palace" (1963), Morgan Whitlock in "Witchcraft" (1964)

One of those rare actors who made anything he was in, better than it already was.

Vincent Price - Someone who needs really no introduction, Mr. Vincent Price is one of the single most iconic actors, both for his image and his voice, in film history. So much so in fact, that most people who have never even seen one of his films, are still aware of who he is, and would be able to recognize him upon seeing or hearing him. He just had that kind of character, that kind of presence. He was one of film's true greats. Not that any of the other fine men talked about in these entries aren't also under that distinction, but Mr. Price perhaps more than any other, has had the most lasting impression, not for a single role he played, but more for just the man himself. It's safe to say, like many of the actors listed in this two-part volume, that he acted in some of the greatest movies ever made, and also some of the not so greatest. But where Vincent Price was concerned, even the "shittiest" film he was ever in (whatever that might be), was probably still watchable, and perhaps even enjoyable, because of his presence and performance alone. That's just how he was as an actor. Every role he played, he made his own, and he just stole the screen when he would walk into frame. An actor who actually started out playing serious, dramatic roles, he would not star in his first true horror movie until 1953, when he would become married to the genre in one of the first "3D" films, "The House of Wax", itself a remake of Lionel Atwill's earlier portrayal, "The Mystery at the Wax Museum" (1933). By the late 50s, he had fully exploded on the scene as the new "King of Horror", in such classic films as "The Fly" (1958) as well as William Castle's "The House on Haunted Hill" (1959) and "The Tingler" (1959). 

Mr. Price would go on to star in almost the entirety of Roger Corman's classic "Edgar Allen Poe series" of films in the 1960s. He also starred in the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend", titled "The Last Man on Earth" (1964). He continued to act until 1990, four years before his death in 1994, at the age of 82. And in that time, he was so iconic, that by the 80s, Michael Jackson chose him to narrate his song and video "Thriller", one of the biggest music hits of all time. That alone speaks for how big he was. His final film role was even memorable, as Tim Burton cast him as the kindly old "mad scientist" in his cult classic "Edward Scissorhands" (1990).

Notable Roles: Duke of Clarence in "Tower of London" (1939), Geoffrey Radcliffe in "The Invisible Man Returns" (1940), Nicholas van Ryn in "Dragonwyck" (1946), Professor Henry Jarrod in "The House of Wax (1953), Gallico the Great in "The Mad Magician" (1954), Francois Delambre in "The Fly" (1958), Frederick Loren in "The House on Haunted Hill" (1958), Dr. Warren Chapin in "The Tingler" (1959), Francois Delambre in "Return of the Fly" (1959), Roderick Usher in "The House of Usher" (1960), Robur the Conqueror in "The Master of the World" (1961), Nicholas/Sebastian Medina in "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), Various Characters in "Tales of Terror" (1962), Richard of Gloucester in "Tower of London" (1962), Dr. Erasmus Craven in "The Raven" (1963), Simon Cordier in "Diary of a Madman" (1963), Joseph Curwen/Charles Dexter Ward in "The Haunted Palace" (1963), Various characters in "Twice Told Tales" (1963), Waldo Trumbull in "The Comedy of Terrors" (1964), Dr. Robert Morgan in "The Last Man on Earth" (1964), Prince Prospero in "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964), Verden Fell in "The Tomb of Ligea" (1964), Sir Hugh, the Captain in "War-Gods of the Deep" (1965), Matthew Hopkins in "Witchfinder General" (1968), Dr. Anton Phibes in "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" (1971) and "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" (1972), Eramus in "The Monster Club" (1980), Lionel Grisbane in "House of the Long Shadows" (1983), Professor Ratigan in "The Great Mouse Detective" (1986), The Inventor in "Edward Scissorhands" (1990)  

Peter Cushing in his iconic role as "Dr. Van Helsing"

Peter Cushing -  One other era and one other studio perhaps comes close to Universal from the 30's and 40s, and that would be England's Hammer Films, who had been around even back in that "golden era", but became well known for their science fiction and especially horror films in the 50s and 60s. There were two principle actors who can be rightly credited as being the driving forces behind Hammer's popularity and success, and one of them is Peter Cushing. Throughout his career, this man played many famous roles, from that of Sherlock Holmes, to a somewhat "alternate reality" portrayal of the famous "Doctor Who", and even the now-infamous character of Gran Moff Tarkin from the first "Star Wars" film in 1977. But undoubtedly, his most famous roles were those he played for Hammer, being that of the vampire hunter Van Helsing, and the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein. In fact, he and the other major Hammer star, Christopher Lee, starred together in all three of Hammer's original adaptations of Universal's classic monster films, "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957), "Horror of Dracula" (1958), and "The Mummy" (1959). They would, in fact, go on to act in over a dozen films together, most of them Hammer films. Mr. Cushing himself would go on to star alone in a long series of Frankenstein films for Hammer, that lasted into the mid-70s. He also reprised his role of "Van Helsing" for 4 additional Hammer films. Tragically, in 1971, Peter's wife of nearly 30 years Violet, passed away. He was quoted later as saying that after she died, for him the passion of life pretty much went away, and he suffered from extreme loneliness. And yet, despite this, he still continued to act throughout the 70s, up until the mid-1980s. He passed away in 1994 at the age of 81. By all accounts a gentleman's gentleman, and a consummate professional as an actor, no matter what his role was, he still poured himself into it, and for that he will always be remembered as one of the greats.

Notable Roles: Winston Smith in "1984" (1954), Victor Frankenstein in "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957), Dr. John Rollason in "The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas" (1957), Doctor Van Helsing in "Horror of Dracula" (1958), Victor Frankenstein in five more films (1958-1974), Doctor Van Helsing in four more films (1960-1974), John Banning in "The Mummy" (1959), Sherlock Holmes in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1959), Sheriff of Nottingham in "Sword of Sherwood Forest" (1960), Dr. Namoroff in "The Goron" (1964), Doctor Schreck in "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" (1965), Dr. Who in "Dr. Who and the Daleks" (1965) and "Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D." (1966), Phillip Grayson in "The House That Dripped Blood" (1970), Captain in "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" (1972), Antique Shoppe Proprietor in "From Beyond the Grave" (1974), Dr. Abner Perry in "At The Earth's Core" (1976), Grand Moff Tarkin in "Star Wars" (1977), Wazir al Wuzzara in "Arabian Adventure (1979), Sebastian Grisbane in "House of the Long Shadows"

Sir Christopher in his most famous role.

Sir Christopher Lee - And finally, that brings us to, sadly, the one out of all these great actors talked about, who is still alive at the tender age of 90, and unsurprisingly still acting. Like many of these actors, he was classically trained in stage acting, and like Peter Cushing, appeared in many Shakespearean productions. Like his contemporary and close friend Mr. Cushing, Lee first starred in a horror film in 1957's "The Curse of Frankenstein", in his case playing the role of Frankenstein's monstrous creation, a role that took a decidedly different direction from Boris Karloff's original portrayal. He would next star opposite Cushing in 1958's "Horror of Dracula", where he played the titular role, something he would continue to do over the course of a long series of Dracula films (much like Cushing did with his Frankenstein series). He also starred opposite Cushing in the 1959 Hammer remake of "The Mummy" in the titular role, and as mentioned before, in over a dozen movies total. They were very close friends in real life, and their careers complimented and even paralleled each other in many ways. One notable example, is George Lucas' "Star Wars" franchise, where Lucas, a huge fan of Hammer horror films growing up, jumped at the chance to cast Peter Cushing in his first film. And nearly 30 years later, he would cast Sir Christopher himself in the role of "Count Dooku", a former Jedi turned to the Dark Side, in his prequel trilogy of the 2000s. Mr. Lee has also played other recent famous roles, such as Saruman in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (2001-2003), a role he is going to reprise at the age of 90 in the upcoming adaptation of "The Hobbit". He is even in the record books for being the oldest individual in music history to record a heavy metal album, which he did in his 80s. He has acted steadily now through over six decades, and is continuing to act even now, in old age and diminishing health, which is a testament to his character and passion for acting. However, while Bela Lugosi is THE iconic image of Dracula, the only person who has ever come close, is the person who has also played the part more than anyone, Mr. Lee himself, who has portrayed the character in nearly a dozen films. Though (thankfully) still with us, he too, shall always be remembered as one of the greats.

Notable Roles: The Creature in "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957), Count Dracula in "Horror of Dracula" (1958), Sir Henry in "House of the Baskervilles" (1959), Dr. Pierre Gerrand in "The Man Who Could Cheat Death" (1959), Kharis, the Mummy in "The Mummy" (1959), Paul Allen in "The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll" (1960), Sherlock Holmes in "Sherlock Holmes and The Deadly Necklace" (1962), Professor Karl Meister in "The Gorgon" (1964), Franklyn Marsh in "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" (1965), Sir Matthew Phillips in "The Skull" (1965), Count Dracula in a further eight films (1966-1976), Grigori Rasputin in "Rasputin: the Mad Monk" (1966), Godfrey Hanson in "Night of the Big Heat" (1967), Duc le Richleau in "The Devil Rides Out" (1968), John Reid in "The House That Dripped Blood" (1971), Lord Summersisle in "The Wicker Man" (1973), Francisco Scaramanga in "The Man With The Golden Gun" (1974), Dr. Victor Gannon in "Return From Witch Mountain" (1978), Alquazar in "Arabian Adventure" (1979), King Haggard in "The Last Unicorn" (1982),  Corrigan in "House of the Long Shadows" (1983), Doctor Catheter in "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990), Burgomaster in "Sleepy Hollow" (1999), Saruman in "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy" (2001-2003), Count Dooku in Star Wars Epidode II and Episode III (2002-2005)

I would be remiss if I didn't say that there are some honorable mentions that I didn't put on this list. Some of those would be: Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, George Zucco, Glenn Strange, Ray Miland, Donald Pleasance, and Roddy McDowell. They were all also great actors, most of whom starred in several horror films each, but none of them were QUITE as synonymous with the genre as the ones talked about. I might go into the careers of some of them at a later date.

On a final, awesome note, the picture at the start of this post, and the poster below, are from the one movie that features all four legendary actors, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and John Carradine, in one film. Many of them had played together in various groupings in other films, but this was notable for the only film they all starred in together, and while the movie itself is a decent "Old Dark House" mystery type of fair, those four make it absolutely worth seeing, because they're great together. 

Hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane, and cheers to you all!!

Check out Part 1 and Part 3

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monster Mash: Icons of Horror Cinema, Part 1

Happy Halloween folks! Or as I like to say, Happy Samhain! Either way, it's the "Night of the Dead", and strange things are afoot. This time of year, but most especially this night, the end of the harvest, and the beginning of the "Dark Half" of the year, has always been deeply connected to magick and mystery, demons and spirits, ghouls and monsters. From ancient times, when today was a deeply sacred holiday, and actually the equivalent of the "Celtic New Year", to modern times, when the day has been saturated in sugar and commandeered by commercialism. But despite all of that, or perhaps IN spite of it, the day still retains it's same aura of "specialness". And in honor of that feeling, I am here today to share with you my thoughts and to impart a little knowledge, surrounding what I call the "True Icons of Horror".

Now, when I say "Icons", I don't merely mean the monsters themselves. No, those are just ideas, images that have existed in the human mind for centuries. What I mean, is the people, the actors, who gave those characters life and burned them into our minds via the magick art of the cinema. Today, for "Part 1", I'm going to be focusing on the "Golden Age" of classic horror films, and more specifically, the primary horror actors of the time. Now, it's always best to start at the beginning, but when it comes to film history, that is sometimes a very tricky proposition. I've already discussed in the last article how early filmmakers and studios didn't often have the foresight to take measures to preserve the physical prints of their work, and thus many of the earliest films wound up now "lost" to us. Indeed, the very earliest horror films actually appeared with the beginning of cinema itself, all the way back in the 1890s. 1896, to be precise, with prominent French film innovator Georges Melies, much of whom's filmwork is in fact now sadly lost. But to my mind, the first true notable horror actor, is someone whom most have probably never heard of.

The earliest adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein".

Charles Stanton Ogle - What you see above is the very first "Frankenstein" film, in it's entirety. Indeed the entire cast was uncredited, as was likely common practice this far back in film history, but Charles Ogle was the man who first was made-up to embody Mary Shelley's iconic "Frankenstein Monster". Looking at this film now, to most it certainly wouldn't be very impressive, and indeed might even come off as a bit silly, but I assure you that back in 1910, this probably blew people's minds, not to mention scared them out of their wits. Motion picture was still quite new and fantastical, and most people by 1910 likely still hadn't even seen a "movie", so take that and add in a representation of chilling horror, and you can imagine how some might have reacted. Charles Ogle himself is not a well known actor today, and certainly doesn't stand out on likely anyone's list of "Top Horror Actors", but I felt he deserved a mention, simply for the fact that he was one of the first MAJOR "Movie Monsters" of all time. That in itself is a very prestigious and important distinction. He was a fairly prominent character actor of his time, appearing in over 300 films by the end of his career, including a turn as Captain "Long John" Silver in a 1920 adaptation of "Treasure Island", but I'm not certain that any of his other roles were in horror films, which did not become prolific until the sound era.

Notable Roles: Frankestein's Creation, in "Frankenstein" (1910)

Tell me that isn't still creepy as hell.

 Max Schreck Now there were major horror films in the 1910s and early '20s, such as adaptations of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", productions of "The Golem", etc. But the next one that immediately stands out, and another silent era actor who deserves mention purely based on one outstanding role. Just as Charles Ogle was the first actor to play Frankenstein's Monster, Max Schreck, a German character actor, was the first to (TECHNICALLY) play Count Dracula. Now, I say technically, because that was precisely the case. The German filmmakers (including famed impressionist director F.W. Murnau), wanted to make an adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel, but could not obtain the rights, and so legally, they couldn't use the name "Dracula". Thus, they went ahead and adapted the novel anyway, but instead called the movie "Nosferatu" (1922), and re-named the central character to "Count Orlok". But regardless of semantics, Mr. Schreck took that role and made it his own, leaving such an indelible image imprinted on the social consciousness, that even people today who've never seen this silent era classic, are probably still subconsciously familiar with the image of Schreck as Orlok. Why? Because the costume and make-up, not to mention his acting, were so damn good, not just by 1920s standards, but by any standards, that it still stands as one of the creepiest images and performances in cinema history.  But again, similar to Charles Ogle, while Max Schreck was himself a successful actor of his time, and unlike so many other silent film stars, actually survived into the sound era before his death in 1936, I don't know that he ever had any other prominent horror roles.

 Notable Roles: Count Orlok (Dracula), in "Nosferatu" (1922)

The Man of a Thousand Faces

Lon Chaney Sr. Now the first person to TRULY be known and considered as an "Icon of Horror", was none other than one Lon Chaney, or as he would later be known (because of his equally famous son), Lon Chaney Sr. Mr. Chaney spent a vast majority of his acting career doing serious films, dramas, even comedies, he was a jack of all trades, and despite his future reputation for embodying famous monsters, he was quite the handsome leading man. It wasn't until 1923's adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", where he first took his first steps into Horror Immortality.

He's got his EYE on you. Okay...bad joke.

It's worth mentioning that unlike pretty much all later horror stars, Lon Chaney Sr. did his own make-up effects, which makes it all the more amazing, because, I mean just LOOK at those pictures! Also of note, is the fact that he grew up under the extraordinary circumstance of having not one, but TWO deaf parents, so he had to become very good not only sign language, but pantomime, at a young age. This lent itself perfectly to a silent film career, and made him better and more expressive than many of his contemporaries. In "Hunchback", he played the pitiful victim and anti-hero, Quasimodo, and while others have come and gone who have portrayed the character very well (especially Charles Laughton), none are more iconic or better remembered than Chaney's. He would go on to play other horror icons, such as "The Phantom of the Opera", the other role his is primarily remembered for. Sadly, Lon Chaney Sr. died right before the sound era really came into full effect, and as such, never got to act in a film where people could hear his voice. He truly died with his era.

Notable Roles: Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), Gustav Ziska in "The Monster" (1925), Erik, The Phantom in "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), Mr Wu in "Mr Wu" (1927), Alonzo the Armless in "The Unknown" (1927), Inspector Edward C. Burke in "London After Midnight" (1927)


Mr. Atwill in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939)

 Lionel Atwill - Another actor who is perhaps lesser known today, but was very well known during the "Golden Age" of sound horror films, is one Lionel Atwill. Not the same brand of character actor as those I've mentioned so far, he was not known to dress up or play many iconic monsters. And yet, he did in fact star or appear in well over a dozen horror films. His first such turn came in 1932's "Doctor X", a horror/mystery film in which he plays the title character, Dr. Xavier, who is implicated in cannibalistic murders. He also played the primary villain and central character of the original "Mystery at the Wax Museum" (1933), where he played sculptor Ivan Igor. This is one role where he did get the full "monster make-up" treatment, as Igor is a sculptor whose wax museum is not making enough money, and one of his investment partners decides he wants to burn it down and collect the insurance, which Igor fights, leaving him knocked out and left for dead, winding up horribly burned. He resurfaces years later, re-opening his wax museum through sinister means, and setting about a plot of revenge. He even had a turn as the infamous Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" (1943). But probably his most iconic and enduring role, at least in horror films, was that of Inspector Krogh, the only sensible man in town, in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). He would go on to play various other characters in several following Frankenstein films, but this was his most iconic, even being parodied/homaged in Mel' Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

Notable Roles: Dr. Jerry Xavier in "Doctor X" (1932), Ivan Igor in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), Inspector Neumann in "Mark of the Vampire (1935), Inspector Krogh in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Dr. James Mortimer in "Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939), Dr. Paul Rigas in "Man Made Monster" (1941), Dr. Theodore Bohmer in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" (1943), The Mayor in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), Inspector Arnz in "House of Frankenstein" (1944), Police Inspector Holtz in "House of Dracula" (1945)

Mr. Lugosi, in the role he is still synonymous with to this day.

 Bela Lugosi Now on to the meat and potatoes of this entry. Mr. Bela Lugosi, born October 20th, 1882 in his native country of Hungary, came to America in the in the early 20th century, around 1920, after fleeing his country due to the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. He moved around Europe a bit before coming to New Orleans as a seaman aboard a merchant ship. An experienced stage actor, also having appeared in many Hungarian and later German films, he eventually took up stage acting once more in America. He played the central role of a 1927 Broadway production of Bram Stoker's "Dracula", which is what ultimately landed him the same part in what would be THE first ever horror film of the sound era, 1931's "Dracula", directed by Tod Browning. Lugosi's role as Count Dracula, though technically he only ever played it in two films (also the 1948 comedy "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein"), wound up being so iconic, so memorable, that when people think of the character of Dracula now, most people likely don't automatically think of Max Schreck, or John Carradine, or Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman. No, they think of Bela Lugosi. He's so synonymous with that role, that most media depictions of the character even imitate his thick Hungarian accent, his look in the film, and his mannerisms. He would, of course, go on to play many other roles, in fact in the 1930s and '40s, he was one of the top billed stars of Hollywood. He even received top billing over starring actors in several films where he only had smaller or even cameo roles, because name sold tickets. Some would contend that Boris Karloff wound up the bigger star, but honestly, I would put them both as dead even, because both of them gave portrayals of classic characters which are to this day remembered and imitated.

Notable Roles: Count Dracula in "Dracula" (1931), 'Murder' Legendre in "White Zombie" (1932), Sayer of the Law in "Island of Lost Souls" (1932, first adaptation of  H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau), Dr. Vitus Werdegast in "The Black Cat" (1934), Chandu the Magician in "The Return of Chandu" serial (1934), Mr. Fu Wong in "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" (1935), Count Mora in "Mark of the Vampire" (1935), Richard Vollin in "The Raven" (1935), Dr. Felix Benet in "The Invisible Ray" (1936), Dr. Alex Zorka in "The Phantom Creeps" serial (1939), Ygor in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Bela the Gypsy in "The Wolf Man" (1941), Ygor in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), Frankenstein's Monster in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), Armand Tesla in "The Return of the Vampire" (1944), Count Dracula in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948). 

He's called "The Monster", NOT Frankenstein!!!

Boris Karloff - Mr. Karloff was born on November 23, 1887, in London, England. Like his contemporary Lugosi, he traveled across the Atlantic to continue his acting career, although in his case he started in Canada. He acted in many films in his career before he got famous in America, but sufficed to say, like Lugosi, he was a veteran actor before his own iconic role came around. That came after Lugosi's turn at "Dracula", in 1931. Universal Pictures wanted to adapt another famous horror novel, after the success they had with "Dracula", and actually originally wanted Lugosi to play the "Monster". There are conflicting rumors, that either Bela Lugosi didn't want to take the role because he felt like the make-up would hinder his acting, or that director James Whale preferred Karloff, but whatever went down, Fate saw to it that Boris Karloff got the role that made his career. As "Frankenstein's Monster", with the help of Jack Pierce's famous make-up, Karloff set the world ablaze to the same extent that Lugosi did as Count Dracula. Even in a role that had zero lines of dialogue beyond grunts and growls, he still owned the role, and used body language and facial expression to give the performance of a lifetime. In later sequel "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), the Monster learned to speak, which allowed him to give the role more depth. Again, like Lugosi, he went on to act in many other horror roles, being one of the biggest stars of the 1930s and '40s, and even staying active throughout the 1960s. But, like Lugosi, his biggest and most remembered role, would remain The Monster from "Frankenstein.

Notable Roles: The Monster in "Frankenstein" (1931), Morgan the Butler in "The Old Dark House" (1932), Dr. Fu Manchu in "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932), Imhotep in "The Mummy" (1932), Professor Morlant in "The Ghoul" (1933), Hjalmar Poelzig in "The Black Cat" (1934), The Monster in "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), Edmond Bateman in "The Raven" (1935), Dr. Janos Rukh in "The Invisible Ray" (1936), Dave Mallory in "Night Key" (1937), The Monster in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Mr. Wong in "The Mystery of Mr. Wong" (1939), Dr. John Garth in "Before I Hang" (1940), Dr. Gustav Neimann in "The House of Frankenstein" (1944), Dr. Henry Jekyll in "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953), Baron Victor von Frankenstein in "Frankenstein 1970" (1958), Dr. Sacrabus in "The Raven" (1963), Nahum Whitley in "Die, Monster Die!" (1965), The Grinch/Narrator in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966)

On a final note, it's worth pointing out that Lugosi and Karloff, while many perceived them as rivals, actually acted in many films together. By my count, at least half a dozen, if not a little more. They were great alone, and great together. Alright kiddies! That's it for Part 1 of the "Icons of Horror Cinema". Stayed tuned tomorrow for Part 2! I'll give you a's going to feature another set of horror actors who appeared in many films together, and were themselves iconic in their roles. Till careful out there.

Check out Part 2 and Part 3!