Friday, December 20, 2013

Childhood Memories: Christmas Specials

Well folks, it's almost Christmas already! Seems like just awhile back I was in the midst of my big Halloween celebration, and now it's almost Santa time. As part of my month-long Halloween theme, I wrote an article about great Halloween TV specials that I remember from my childhood. So to follow that up, I thought I'd do a bit of the same for Christmas TV specials, as lord knows there's a lot of great ones. Arguably the king of Christmas specials, and certainly the most prolific, was a company called Rankin/Bass Productions, who from the 60s through the 80s, churned out tv specials of all kinds, from Christmas to Easter to Halloween, as well as many non-holiday productions. Their two main mediums used, were traditional cell animation, and stop-motion animation, which they proliferated on television to the same degree that Ray Harryhausen did theatrical films. I'll surely give Rankin/Bass their own dedicated article at some point, and might even dedicate a few solo articles to their works, they were awesome. But simply put, you cannot talk about Christmas TV specials without talking about R/B.

Without further adieu, let's get rolling!

"You might even say it glows!"

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Really the first major animated Christmas special, and arguably in many ways still the best, this now perennial classic was also Rankin/Bass' first major production. Based on a 1939 song that has been a hugely popular American holiday staple ever since, this hour-long animated musical is about as good as it gets when it comes to "Christmas-y goodness". Narrated by singer Burl Ives (who also contributed his own version of the titular song, as well as couple of his other great holiday hits), Ives voices the character of the gentlemanly Sam the Snowman, who happens to sport Ives' trademark mustache and goatee. The movie has everything Christmas you could want to be represented, from Santa and Mrs. Claus, to a snowman, to all of the famous named Reindeer (including Donner, Rudolf''s father), to singing elves, cute woodland creatures, great Christmas carols, and more.

Literally Burl Ives in snowman form.

Part of the "and more" is what makes the special so, well.....SPECIAL, that being the many Rankin/Bass characters and elements  they threw in to spice up the story. They could've easily phoned it in, just had the story be simple and straight up, only telling of Rudolph's nose troubles, and then how he helps (SPOILERS) save Christmas. Throw in some songs, and it still would have been hugely popular. But as was the typical Rankin/Bass way, they went the extra mile, and stuffed an hour-long tv special full of characters and spectacles that were pure garnish, but GREAT garnish. For example, Rudolph's first real friend, a fellow North Pole outcast, an elf by the name of Hermie, who isn't satisfied with just making toys and practicing jolliness. Instead, he's fascinated by teeth and wants to be a dentist, which in and of itself is already entertaining and hilarious, but it plays to great effect throughout the show. Hermie runs away with Rudolph, and during their adventures they meet other great, colorful characters along the way, such as a personal favorite of mine, a gold prospector named Yukon Cornelius, a loud and boisterous but friendly fellow who winds up helping the kids out in their travels, even though his main ambition is to find silver and gold and strike it rich. A recurring gag throughout the special involves ol' Yukon randomly throwing his pickaxe into the air, pulling it out of the ice where it landed and licking it to check for riches, only to grumble "Nothin".

The magical king of Misfit Island, Moonracer the winged lion.

Another great and fantastical element added to the mix, comes in during their travels. After they pal up with Yukon, they find their way to a mysterious island called the "Island of Misfit Toys", where unwanted or "defective" toys go to live, ruled over by the magical flying lion named King Moonracer (pretty awesome name). It resonates on a recurring theme throughout the special, with Rudolph, Hermie, and even to some degree Yukon all being misfits themselves, and they feel for the poor toys, so in return for their help, they promise the toys that they'll have Santa deliver them to kids who would be happy to have them. Just an oddball addition, that might seem a throwaway kind of thing for other productions, but again, Rankin/Bass make it work, and it all just feels right.


Last but not least, of course, is the closest thing the story has to a "villain", that being the Abominable Snow Monster of the North, nicknamed "Old Bumble" by Yukon for short. He is the scary monster who spends much of the story chasing after Rudolf and company after they are on the run. A huge, fuzzy white yeti creature, he'd be terrifying if he wasn't so damn adorable. He seems like a horrible, merciless beast, but late in the story, after a final confrontation where the heroes manage to get the best of ol' "Bumble" and Hermie takes the poor thing's teeth, making it less dangerous, by the end he comes with them back to Santa's Village and as you can see, helps them decorate the tree. Which, while silly, is also admittedly in keeping with the spirit of of the holiday, so even the "bad guy" winds up enjoying Christmas with everyone else. Naturally, Rudolph, who becomes all grown up during the time he was away, comes back during the worst blizzard of the century, to help Santa and the other reindeer make their deliveries with the help of his glowing nose.

All in all, it's a great little movie, full of charm and wit and creativity, and even though it gets shown every year on TV, it's still an absolute classic, and it's hard not to get a smile on your face when seeing it again. Rankin/Bass made many other Christmas themed specials, even two more featuring Rudolph, but their first is arguably still their masterpiece. It also happens to be the first Christmas television special I remember, as I clearly remember having seen it even before my pre-school class, and I still love it to this day.

What a holly, jolly soul.

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

A great, if not the best example of Rankin/Bass' more traditionally animated cartoon style specials, 1969's "Frosty the Snowman" is in it's own way just as much a perennial classic as their Rudolph special. Only a half-hour special, it doesn't have quite the same amount of variety and epic feel as Rudolph, it's more of a small-scale, simple story, but it's effective, and it endures in some ways because of it's simple charm. Narrated by famous big-nosed singer/comedian Jimmy Durante, the story starts with a class of school-kids who are being entertained by what turns out to be a rather crack-pot magician who calls himself "Professor Hinkle". He has a shabby old top hat, which of course he attempts to pull the obligatory white rabbit out of, but his tricks go awry, and his rabbit Hocus Pocus escapes outside with his hat in tow. Meanwhile, the children have built themselves a fine new snowman, complete with a cob-pipe, button nose, and two eyes made out of coal. They even gave him a nice scarf, because obviously snowmen need to keep warm, but they feel he's missing something. And that something happens to be Hinkle's hat, which they put on top of their new creation Frosty's head. And blam, just like that, the hat turns out to actually possess magic after all, as it brings Frosty to life, with his trademark wake-up saying "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" (wishing to himself, one would imagine).

Santa means business!

Seeing this, of course, the Prof gets jealous, and wants his hat back now that it has some real worth. So poor old Frosty, after having a fun parade about town with the kids, discovers that he's beginning to melt, as snowmen often do, so he decides he needs to head north where he can stay solid. One of the kids, a little girl named Karen, accompanies him, and unbeknownst to them, Prof. Hinkle follows them as they hop the train north, waiting for the right moment to get his damn hat back. They get north, things seem dandy, except then Frosty discovers it's too cold for poor Karen, and she's getting sick. So he takes her into a greenhouse that he finds, and wouldn't you know it, Hinkle is right there to lock them inside, so poor Frosty winds up melting after all. The rabbit Hocus went out and found Santa Claus, who Frosty had been hoping could take Karen home, and he comes to find her crying over Frosty's puddle. Santa lets the cold air in the greenhouse, and Frosty comes back to life, and goes to live in the North Pole where he can be cold year round. Never fear, of course, because Frosty will come visit when it's cold right around every Christmas! YAY!

All in all, a good story, a classic special, and one worth watching or sharing with your kids (or household pets!).

The whole gang is here! Jon, and Ma, and Pa, and Granny, and Doc Boy........

A Garfield Christmas (1987)

During the 80s, the Garfield specials and the "Garfield and Friends" show were part of the culture (and a huge part of my childhood), with Lorenzo music as the iconic voice of Garfield (and still to this day THE voice of Garfield as far as I'm concerned). Having already had a successful Halloween special, and later on even having a Thanksgiving special, Garfield tried his hand at the quintessential Christmas special, and at least on a Garfield level (which counts for a lot), it really works. The story features Garfield and Odie being taken by their master, Jon Arbuckle, back to his family farm home where he grew up, to spend Christmas. Garfield, of course, would rather just stay home, but the one person he does resonate with on vacation is Jon's grandma, who seems a tad quiet and lonely for some strange reason, but she absolutely adores Garfield, and he loves her because she dotes on him and cooks him delicious food. While Jon and his brother Doc Boy spend their time getting into brotherly squabbles, Garfield catches Odie sneaking out into the barn, building something mysterious. While there, Garfield decides to explore, and discovers a stack of old letters hidden away. On Christmas morning, after all the presents have been opened, he hands the letters over to Grandma, who brightens up instantly, as they turn out to be love letters from her late husband from when they first met. Having done his good Christmas deed, and learned a little something about the true spirit of the season (not just being about the gifts he loves to get), the special ends with Odie presenting Garfield with his mysterious invention: an automatic back-scratcher. Garfield is, to put it mildly, elated, and even hugs Odie in a rare show of affection.

It's typical Garfield special fare, which means it's great of course. One of the best ones, I'd probably put it right behind the Halloween special and "Garfield and His Nine Lives". It's certainly another worthy classic, and one you need to see, whether it's Christmas-time or not.

"You're a mean one, Mister Grinch....."

How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

I was going to only cover three specials, but honestly, you can't do Christmas specials justice without mentioning this one. An alchemic combination of awesomeness, this cartoon combines the great story and sensibilities of the one and only Dr. Seuss, the animation talents and comedic timing of the one and only Chuck Jones, and narration and the voice of the Grinch himself provided by the one and only cinema legend, Boris Karloff, in one of his final acting appearances before his death. Of course you also have to mention the now timeless singing of voice-over artist Thurl Ravenscroft, who performs "You're a Mean One, Mister Grinch", one of the best songs to ever appear in a cartoon. Ever.

The story in this one is less integral than the total summation of the show's awesomeness, but in a nutshell, The Grinch is a furry green fellow who lives in the mountains outside of Whoville, and he hates how happy and jolly everyone gets on Christmas, because he himself is miserable. He just doesn't get it, and can't stand their incessant caroling and smiling and jollying about, so he decides to take it on himself to end Christmas, by sneaking into town, dressed as Santa Claus, and stealing all the trees, decorations, letters, and presents in the whole town. He even succeeds, a story where the bad guy initially wins, as he makes off unfettered with all their joyous materials, convinced that now they will all be miserable on Christmas just like him. But much to his dismay, even though saddened by their loss, on Christmas Day the Whos gather in the town square together and celebrate anyway, singing and proving the season is about more than just material things. So moved by this surprising turn of events, the Grinch's heart, which was once shrunken two sizes too small, swells three sizes all at once, and he and his dog Max speed back down the mountain and deliver the stolen goodies to the townsfolk. The Grinch learns the true meaning of Christmas, quits being such a jerk, and lives happily ever after. Of course they later made two other Grinch specials where he's back in full-on jerk mode, but let's just say that's not canon!

As a kid, I always loved this show, even though at a very young age I thought that the cartoon Grinch, and Golem from the cartoon version of The Hobbit (also by Rankin/Bass), were one in the same (both green and furry and mean). I still love it to this day, and I think it's amazing that Boris Karloff did such an iconic cartoon voice-over after so many years of scary horror acting. Everything about this cartoon is pretty much perfect, from Jones' iconic animation, to the memorable music, to the witty Seuss writing, to Karloff's signature voice. It's really great, and another of those that deserves it's annual playtime on television. It's a testament to how great a person and creator Seuss was, that a story of his like this could become as well thought of and well recognized as many other, far older stories and fairy tales. Again, as always, if you've somehow been living in a cave your whole life and have never seen "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", skip the 2000s Jim Carey film (even though it's okay), and watch this original adaptation, because you'll be glad you did.

Ol' St. Grinch, to the rescue!

And that's it for this year's Christmas Special tribute! I'll likely cover a few more another year, but that's enough for now. There are certainly many other specials, as well as classic holiday movies, that could easily be talked about. One I will mention, because I'm not gonna do an article on it, is the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story". I don't HATE the film, it's okay, it's well made, and I recognize it for it's classic status. But at the same time, it also kind of annoys the shit out of me, because they play it on TV every year, not once, but repeatedly, right around Christmas. To me, that's just too damn much, and the movie wore thin on me years and years ago. But, enough about that.

Happy Holidays to you all, and I'll be back in the New Year with even bigger and better things to come!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Don't Call Me Shirley: A Tribute to Leslie Nielsen

Growing up, one of my favorite actors and comedians was always Leslie Nielsen. He always had a funny line or silly expression, his delivery was always crisp and his timing perfect. He was the consummate funny man, the perfect buffoon. Funnily enough, many fans of his probably aren't even aware that he didn't start out as a comedian, in fact that he spent a good majority of his acting career as a more serious, dramatic actor. But aside from loving his work, the one thing that as irony would have it, will now connect the two of us for all of time, is the fact that he passed away on my birthday, November 28th.

Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, on February 11th, 1926, Leslie William Nielsen was nearly thirty years old when he first started his film acting career (starting in television in 1953). His first major film role, in fact his first leading role (and second on-screen movie credit) was in the 1956 science fiction masterpiece "The Forbidden Planet". It was more than likely that film that I first saw him in as a child, played at some point on late night television, scaring the crap out of me with it's invisible "Id" monster, and fascinating me with the ever-awesome "Robbie the Robot". His role in that film was central in inspiring the role of future space captains in sci-fi series such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, and quite frankly, if I do say so myself, his acting was top notch.


But of course, people who are only familiar with Mr. Nielsen from his comedy films that would come decades later, would most likely be shocked to not only see him without his trademark gray/white hair, but acting in a totally serious role as well. In fact, as stated before, much of his career was spent as a serious actor. From the mid-50s clear through the 1970s, he starred or co-starred in mostly serious fare. One notable exception, was playing a "straightman" astronaut to Don Knotts' buffoon character in 1967's "The Reluctant Astronaut" (a rather good movie I must say). But the difference here, compared to his later work in comedy, is that he is not the funny man in the picture, he is the serious, hansom, heroic type whom Don Knotts' clumsy, shy, goofball type aspires to be. He actually spent quite a lot of time, especially in the 60s, playing in crime dramas and thriller type films, as well as the odd western and other such fare. It wasn't until 1980, after working in film and television for 25 years, that you might say he "finally found his calling", in a small but eternally memorable side-role in a little movie called "Airplane".

"I just want to tell the both of you good luck, we're all counting on you."

Co-directed by Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, "Airplane" came out of nowhere as a spoof on late 1970s airplane disaster movies, and went on to become a smash hit. It's important to note Abrahams and the Zuckers, who also co-wrote the film, as well as the specific brand of comedy they fostered, a combination of sight gags and snappy dialogue that you really have to pay attention to or else you'll miss it, reminiscent in some ways of classic Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. Nielsen's somewhat minor role as airplane passenger "Dr. Rumack", was his first real turn at comedy on-screen. And he really hit it out of the park, becoming the most memorable character in a film filled with a great and funny ensemble cast. He was so memorable and successful in the part, in fact, that Abrahams and Zucker were inspired to create a television show concept specifically for him and his dead-pan style.

Materializing in 1982, "Police Squad" was a delightfully witty and goofy parody of series "procedural" police dramas like "Dragnet", that sadly only lasted six episodes before being prematurely cancelled. It seemed that it was just too far ahead of it's time, with no laugh track, and their usual brand of sight gags and funny wordplay. Again, it was the kind of thing you actually had to pay attention to to "get" and laugh at, and it seemed that the average home television audience didn't have the attention span to do that. But thankfully, it inspired the creators to bring the concept back six years later, this time back to the theater audience that had so appreciated "Airplane", in the form of 1988's "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad".

"Detective Frank Drebin......Police Squad"

In between, Nielsen started gradually building his comedy resume. Such as in a little known 1983 sci-fi comedy called "The Creature Wasn't Nice" (aka "Spaceship"), a hilarious space farce that I will absolutely be giving it's own article in due time. But it wasn't until '88 with the release of "The Naked Gun" that he really hit it big as a new Hollywood icon of comedy. And the irony in that, is the fact that by that time, when he finally became a big star in his own right, recognized the world over, he was 62 years old. But, as the saying goes, "better late than never". Naked Gun was such a hit that it spawned two more sequels, both equally hilarious, in 1991 and 1994. The 90s became, in a way, the decade of Leslie Nielsen, as he had a string of spoof comedies, such as the 1990 "The Exorcist" parody "Repossessed", the '96 James Bond/Mission Impossible spoof "Spy Hard", and the '98 send-up of the smash hit "The Fugitive", aptly titled "Wrongfully Accused". He also had a turn as the iconic cartoon character in a live action production of Mr. Magoo, as well as a hilarious villainous role as "Colonel Chi" in the 1993 action-comedy "Surf Ninjas".

"Good Evening!"

One of his favorite roles of mine, saw him having the honor of featuring in the last directorial effort of another of my film heroes, Mel Brooks, in 1995's "Dracula: Dead and Loving It". While not a huge success at the box office, nor loved by critics (what do they know anyway?), this film still went on to become a cult classic to many fans, and honestly, it's one of the funniest works of either man. Just to have these two icons of comedy work together on a project was a big deal, and they didn't disappoint as far as any of their true fans are concerned. The film itself was mostly a direct parody of the '92 Francis Ford Coppola directed "Dracula" adaptation, but Nielsen's performance is pure Bela Lugosi, and he channels it well. Mel Brooks himself also played the key role of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, vampire hunter, and so audiences get treated to not only Brooks' comedic writing and direction, but we get an on-screen rivalry between Brooks and Nielsen as well.

Mr. Nielsen stayed active with both television and film roles right up until the end, including hilarious side-roles in successful spoof comedies "Scary Movie 3" and "Scary Movie 4" (which saw him re-team with David Zucker and Jim Abrahams), as well as 2008's "Superhero Movie". Unfortunately, on November 28th, 2010, just as I had turned 29 years old, Leslie Nielsen passed away in his sleep from complications due to pneumonia, at the age of 84. As a final bit of humor, he chose to have the phrase "Let 'Er Rip" put on his headstone, but as odd as it may seem, I felt that somehow, at least to me personally, his final "joke" if you will, had been dying on my birthday. Not really funny, of course, but certainly strange, and while it really sucked to have someone I loved and respected as an artist die on the day I was born, since then, I always think of him around this time of year, and of course, when I think of him, I smile.

He was a great man who gave us a lot of laughs, and more importantly, he genuinely seemed to love what he did, right until the end of his days. And I guess, in the end, there isn't much more you can ask for than that.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Return to the Land of Misfit Mascots

Last year in late Nov., I decided to give my gift to the world, in the form of a retrospective on now-obscure video game mascot characters and their games. Now, I've decided to take you all back to that "Land of Misfit Mascots", for a look at some OTHER forgotten characters that I didn't get to (see: bother with) last time around. So in the words of 90s animated Sonic the Hedgehog, "Let's Do It To It!"

Whoever thought a possum could be so active?

Name:  Sparkster
Year: 1993
Developer: Konami
Number of Games: 4

 Sparkster, also known as the Rocket Knight, was a mascot character concocted by Konami, who were well known for their other less "mascot" based action titles like Contra and Castlevania. The original game was a Genesis (known in other parts of the world as the Sega Mega Drive) exclusive game, called "Rocket Knight Adventures", and featured a heroic possum who fought to save his world of Elhorn from an invasion of pig monsters attacking in their ship, the "Pig Star" (a parody of Star Wars' "Death Star"). He does so with a high-powered rocket armor suit and a sword. The Rocket Knight games were somewhat unique in that they combined short bursts of Sonic type speed with more conventional "hack and slash" sword based action gameplay. Though the games usually play out like typical side-scrolling platformer type games, a nice sprinkling of Gradius/R-Type style scrolling shooter levels are thrown in to mix things up.

Just hangin' around, in true possum fashion.

In total, Sparkster has starred in four games. The original Genesis game, a sequel called "Rocket Knight Adventures 2", a SNES exclusive game simply called "Sparkster" that is its own separate game that doesn't follow up the first, and many years later, a 2010 downloadable "2.5D" (3D polygon graphics but 2D gameplay) game for PSN and Xbox Live Arcade called simply "Rocket Knight". The latter was okay for what it was, but like many remake/reboot attempts, it failed to really live up to the manic fun of the original games. The original 90s games however, even the "somewhat unrelated" SNES side game, were all excellent, and it's a shame that the character didn't get a better introduction into the new millennium. Bottom line though, while Sparkster was certainly another of the many "Animals with Attitude" mascot characters of the early-to-mid-90s, he was arguably the coolest one, along with Sonic of course.

As the box indicates, in the 90s, Attitude was the key ingredient to pretty much everything.

Name: Cool Spot
Year: 1990
Developer: Virgin Games
Number of Games: 4

One of many video games that attempted to use corporate product mascots as game mascot characters, the Cool Spot was a mascot for 7-Up soda, introduced in 1987. He used to have cool little commercials where he would appear in a real-world setting as a little animated "dot" with shades. And honestly, who doesn't love a little dot with shades? Now the first game to feature the little guy was actually not the one pictured above, but rather an obscure NES/Amiga/PC puzzle game that came out in 1990 called "Spot: The Video Game".

Spot doesn't understand the game either, so he dances to entertain.

I clearly remember renting this as a kid, thinking to my child-self  "Oh cool, a Spot game! This oughta be awesome!". And of course, it wasn't. What it is, is a bit hard to describe, other than to say that it's basically supposed to be an odd version of Othello/Reversi or something. The basic goal is to get most of the pieces on the board to be your color, by moving pieces and flipping the colors over. In-game, the moves are depicted by humorous little Spot animations, that including dancing, roller skating, etc. I suppose it's not a bad game, probably a decent little puzzler if you're into Othello, but really to a little kid hoping for a COOL Spot game, it felt like, pardon the expression, the drizzling shits.

Moving on to the game actually featured in the beginning, in 1993 Virgin once again put out a Spot game, this time called "Cool Spot", and it was closer to what I probably hoped for with the 1990 game. It's a side-scrolling platformer, like most of these mascot games were, but unfortunately, it was a rather unspectacular one. The game consists of levels where you wander around avoiding crabs and things, shooting what I guess are supposed to be soda bubbles at enemies, and freeing your imprisoned Spot pals who are hidden around each level. That's pretty much it. And to make matters worse, the developers must have run out of either time, ideas, or both while making this, because at some point in the game, the level designs literally recycle, backwards. Meaning, that you eventually make your way back through the same exact level TYPES you had already gotten through. The game ends you on an easy beach level, more or less the same as the first. It's not a BAD game, but it certainly seems as if it were rushed, and while something like Bubsy the Bobcat certainly had its issues, at least it was a complete, polished game. (The same developer, Virgin, had similar polish issues with another Sega mascot title, Global Gladiators.)

He ain't just whistlin' "Dixie"!

Oft-mentioned friend Harold, the M.C. Kids guy, loved this game for some reason as well, and didn't seem to mind the lack of much really going on in the game, lack of diversity, and lack of much of an ending once you do free all the Spots. He also liked the more obscure Game Boy game "Spot: The Cool Adventure", which was essentially an M.C. Kids clone, in fact using the exact same "pick up blocks and throw them" gameplay, and to go one further, in Europe was actually an M.C. Kids game called "McDonaldland". Go figure. But for what it's worth, like M.C. Kids itself, the Game Boy Spot actually is a fairly solid game, fun to play, with functional mechanics and non-lazy level designs. The funny thing is, the Game Boy Spot came out in 1993 also, but then in 1994, Game Boy ALSO got a downgraded port of this game, which feels...kinda pointless. since it already got a BETTER Spot game in the first place.

90s Mascot Game trademark: Stationary character animations.

Apparently, ol' Spot was cool enough to warrant Virgin making one last adventure, this time a Genesis/Playstation/Saturn game in 1995 called "Spot Goes to Hollywood", which was a very odd isometric view game that was more or less still the same kind of game the '93 one was, walking, jumping, throwing bubbles, etc. But this time, at least, in levels inspired by or parodying Hollywood movie types, such as pirate ships and haunted castles, etc. The goal, once again, is to free your poor beleaguered Spot pals, as they've once again been kidnapped by nefarious forces. It was a more inventive and polished game overall, but I guess it didn't do well enough to merit any additional Spot games, as the series was put to bed afterwards. 

If you wear shades, you're automatically cool.

Name: Chester Cheetah
Year: 1992
Developer: System Vision/Kaneko
Number of Games: 2

Born one year before the Cool Spot, Chester Cheetah, the official Cheetos Cheese Puffs snack mascot, was born in 1986. Once again cashing in on the success of so many other mascot games, Cheetos licensed Chester out to Japanese company Kaneko, who plopped the character into yet another side scrolling platformer game. True to his original cartoon incarnation (before the puppet-like appearance in more recent Cheetos commercials), the game presents a wacky, surreal cartoon world, where "Too Cool To Fool" Chester travels around collecting paw-shaped Cheetos snacks and bopping on enemy heads Mario style.

You know you're cool when even your enemies wear shades.

As you can see above, the game was a bit out there. I mean where else are you going to find a roller skating, shades-wearing turtle as an enemy? Kaneko made one sequel in 1993, called "Chester Cheetah: Wild Wild Quest" (GET IT?), which featured better graphics, and actually saw Chester collecting and eating BAGS of Cheetos snacks. Talk about product placement! All in all, Chester is a cool character for a corporate mascot, but his games were, as many licensed property games wind up being, fairly average.

Just LOOK at this guy's vectors. Just LOOK at 'em.

Name: Vectorman
Year: 1995
Developer: BlueSky Software/Sega
Number of Games: 2

In 1994, the Rare developed, Nintendo published Super NES game "Donkey Kong Country" took the gaming world by storm, with its fun Mario-esque gameplay and (for the time) revolutionary "prerendered" graphics, which featured flat 2D sprites that were shaded and rendered in such a way as to give a faux 3D appearance. Sega, always one to "keep up with the Jonses" (or if you prefer, do what Nintendon't had already done beforehand), set out to cash in on this craze by making their own "prerendered" game as well. They hired developer BlueSky Software (now sadly defunct, like so many others) to create the game, and at least for the original title put their full marketing backbone behind it.

Not DKC cool, but still cool.

Unlike DKC, Vectorman took a more "Mega Man" style approach to it's gameplay and setting, as you play an "Orbot" (a robot composed entirely of orbs) named...well, Vectorman, who exists in the year 2049, as a clean-up robot in charge of clearing away pollution left behind by humans who have since flown away to colonize other planets. Yes, it does sound very much like Wall-E, though preceding it by many years. Ol' Vector, of course, isn't as cute and lovable as Wall-E, but he does pack some neat-o firepower and foot-jet skills, as well as the ability to transform into other neat-o things to help him fight the errant Orbots of Earth who are being controlled by the whacked out master computer Orbot "Warhead". After defeating Warhead and saving the planet, Vectorman has to "hero up" once again in Vectorman 2, where he now has to save an Earth overrun by mutant insects. In the second game, instead of transforming into objects like drills and bombs, he can now take on insectoid-style forms to battle this new enemy.

A wasted opportunity?

At the end of the day, Vectorman was a neat idea, and honestly, while the level variety leaves a bit to be desired (it's more or less all bleak, darkly colored polluted Earth scenery), the games themselves were decently fun to play. The graphics of course couldn't have held up to the SNES-powered Donkey Kong games, but they were still impressive on the Genesis. But if you ask me, Sega really kind of fucked up with Vectorman. Seeing as the first game came out in late 1995, when they already had their new Saturn console on the market, it would have made more sense to me, to put Vectorman, or at least 1996's Vectorman 2, on the Saturn, where it really could have shined graphically, had better CD quality music, and more content. Plus it might've helped that system to have more recognizable franchises.

I understand they wanted to prove Genesis could do DKC style graphics too, and they succeeded in that to an extent. But I just can't see how the Saturn wouldn't have benefited from having a little Vector-love itself, at least in the form of a port. There was supposed to be a third game, this time (naturally) fully 3D, on Playstation 2, in the early 2000's after Sega had (sadly) gone third party, but it thankfully got cancelled, because the early images of it looked like garbage. Hopefully Sega might still find it in their hearts to make a new, high def 2D Vectorman game, now that downloadable digital software is a popular and viable way for such games to go. Ol' Vector deserves a comeback!


And that's about all for this entry, folks! Hope you enjoyed the return trip to the Land of Misfit Mascots, and remember to try and get your hands on some of these games, because at the very least they're cool curiosities, and at best, some of them provide a genuinely fun time! Cheers!

"Cowabunga Dude!"

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Monster Mash: Icons of Horror Cinema Part 3

Well this is it! The final post for Halloween 2013! But never fear, I've saved the best for last....

As mentioned in Part 2 of last year's Icons of Horror, even though I've covered all of the "Big Ones" when it comes to classic horror film actors, from Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, etc., there are still many more notable actors who absolutely deserve to be mentioned and honored. So without further fanfare, away we go!

Hollywood Royalty

The Barrymore Family - It is slightly cheating, I'll admit, to lump them all in as one entry, but at the same time, it's appropriate and fair. The Barrymore Acting Family started with stage actors Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew, who were fairly well known in the 19th century. Their three children, Lionel, Ethel and John (grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore), would all become stage actors as well, before joining the burgeoning new field of "moving pictures", and all three would go on to become stars of the silent film era. So much so, in fact, that the Barrymore name on a title card often insured a film financial success.

While all three of them mostly acted in more serious (and often prestigious) dramatic roles, they all also featured in at least one horror/thriller type of film, which is why they all make this list. Ethel Barrymore starred in the genre the least, mostly being a dramatic actress, but she did star in the 1946 psychological thriller "The Spiral Staircase", as well appearing in the 1948 fantasy/mystery film "Portrait of Jennie". John Barrymore was slightly more connected to horror, as he starred in the title role in the 1920 silent adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". It should be noted that there were actually three different films based on Dr. Jekyll released in 1920, one of them a German expressionist film by F.W. Murnau, but Barrymore's version is the most famous and enduring of them. In the sound era, he starred in two different 1931 films, both with a similar premise of hypnotic control, called "Svengali" and "The Mad Genius". He would feature in the genre one final time, in Universal Pictures' 1940 film "The Invisible Woman", though this film was more tongue-in-cheek comedy than horror or science fiction.

Lionel, of course, was the most prolific of the three in this regard, beginning with the 1927 silent film "The Thirteenth Hour". While not a horror picture, he also starred in the 1929 adaptation of "The Mysterious Island", which was originally filmed as a silent picture, but was later adapted with sound and talking sequences right at the dawn of the sound era. He would go on to feature in two prominent and memorable horror films, the 1935 Bela Lugosi feature "Mark of the Vampire" (itself a remake of the lost silent classic "London After Midnight"), and 1936's "The Devil Doll". He would also feature in the many "Dr. Kildare" films, as well as their spinoffs starring his own character "Dr. Gillespie". Late in his career, he would also star in two fantasy films, 1939's "On Borrowed Time", and again as the villain Henry F. Potter in Frank Capra's classic "It's a Wonderful Life". On a final note, as evidenced by the picture above, all three siblings did feature together in one film, 1932's "Rasputin and the Empress".

Notable Roles:

Ethel - Czarina Alexandra in "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932), Mrs. Warren in "The Spiral Staircase" (1946), Miss Spennie in "Portrait of Jennie" (1948)

John - Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920),  Sherlock Holmes in "Sherlock Holmes" (1922), Captain Ahab Ceeley in "Moby Dick" (1930), Svengali in "Svengali" (1931), Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov in "The Mad Genius" (1931), Prince Paul Chegodieff in "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932), Professor Gibbs in "The Invisible Woman" (1940)

Lionel - Professor LeRoy in "The Thirteenth Hour" (1927), Director of "The Unholy Night" (1929), Count Dakkar in "The Mysterious Island" (1929), Grigori Rasputin in "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932), Billy Bones in "Treasure Island" (1934), Dan'l Peggoty in "David Copperfield" (1935), Professor Zelen in "Mark of the Vampire" (1935), Paul Lavond in "The Devil Doll" (1936), Dr. Leonard Barry Gillespie in the "Dr. Kildare" and later "Dr. Gillespie" films (1938-1947), Julian Northrup in "On Borrowed Time" (1939), Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) 

The eternal gentleman.

Basil Rathbone - Aside from having one of the coolest names of all time, Basil Rathbone also happens to be one of the most well known actors of all time. He is, of course, most famous for portraying the most enduring and popular version of Sherlock Holmes, in a series that lasted 14 films long. There have been many others to portray Mr. Holmes, many of them very good (my personal favorite being Peter Cushing). But Mr. Rathbone is undoubtedly the most popular Holmes, and arguably the best. While many of the Sherlock Holmes films were murder mysteries (in fact most of them were), which does dabble in the "horror/thriller" arena, he also starred in several actual horror films, a perhaps lesser-known fact about him. The first of which is actually one of his best roles, coming before his Holmes series began, starring in the titular role of the "Son of Frankenstein" in 1938, the last film to feature Boris Karloff as "The Monster". He would star as  the future Richard III in 1939's semi-horror film "Tower of London", which also featured Karloff, as well as a young Vincent Price. He also featured alongside Bela Lugosi in the 1941 film "The Black Cat". In fact, after his run as Holmes was up, his later career would begin to more and more feature him in sci-fi, thriller, fantasy and horror roles. He would re-team once more with now-star Vincent Price in two 60s gothic horror/comedy films, Roger Corman's "Tales of Terror" and Jacques Tourneur's "The Comedy of Terrors". In fact, his last notable film was the rather silly 1967 picture "Hillbillies in a Haunted House", which also featured John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr.

Notable Roles: Mr. Murdstone in "David Copperfield" (1935), Levasseuer in "Captain Blood" (1935), Sir Guy of Gisbourne in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), Baron Wolf von Frankenstein in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Sherlock Holmes in the "Sherlock Holmes" series (1939-1946), Richard - Duke of Gloucester in "Tower of London" (1939), Dr. George Sebastian in "The Mad Doctor" (1941), Montague Hartley in "The Black Cat" (1941), Narrator/Policeman in "The Wind in the Willows" segment of "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad" (1949), Sir Joel Cadman in "The Black Sleep" (1956), The Wizard Lodac in "The Magic Sword" (1962), Carmichael in "Tales of Terror" (1962), John F. Black Esq. in "The Comedy of Terrors" (1964), Professor Hartman in "Voyage to a Prehistoric Planet" (1965), Dr. Farraday in "Queen of Blood" (1966), Reginald Ripper in "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" (1966), Gregor in "Hillbillies in a Haunted House" (1967)

One of the most underrated actors of all time.

 Charles Laughton A huge star in his time, but sadly far lesser known now, Charles Laughton was a quintessential character actor. He starred in many well known, dramatic roles during his career, but he was also a bit better known for his turns at horror than those listed above. This began in the 1931 classic "The Old Dark House", where he portrayed the affable yet sad Sir William Porterhouse. Next was his role as Dr. Moreau in 1932's "The Island of Lost Souls", in which he featured alongside a heavily made-up Bela Lugosi, of course based on the H.G. Wells novel "The Island of Dr. Moreau". It was in this role that he really established his ability to play a truly imposing, sadistic and chilling villain. He would go on to star in a rather heroic and empathic effort as Quasimodo in 1939's adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". He later had a turn as Sir Simon de Canterville in 1944's "The Canterville Ghost", playing a benevolent but cowardly  spirit. In 1951 he starred alongside Boris Karloff in "The Strange Door", once again playing a sadistic villain. In fact he took a turn in the director's chair in 1955's "The Night of the Hunter", a thriller starring Robert Mitchum. He wasn't most well known for his horror roles, but he was one of those rare actors who was great at whatever role he played, and it just so happened that the horror genre gave him the chance to play some of his most adventurous and memorable characters.

Notable Roles: Sir William Porterhouse in "The Old Dark House" (1931), Dr. Moreau in "The Island of Lost Souls" (1932), King Henry the VIII in "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933), Inspector Javert in "Les Misarables" (1935), Captain William Bligh in "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939), Sir Simon de Canterville in "The Canterville Ghost" (1944), Captain William Kidd in "Captain Kidd" (1945), Sire Alain de Maletroit in "The Strange Door" (1951), Captain William Kidd in "Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd" (1952)

The second most famous Frankenstein's Monster.

Glenn Strange - While Boris Karloff "created' the role of Frakenstein's Monster on film, and his is the image most think of when they think of those movies or that character, Mr. Glenn Strange also deserves a bit of credit, for carrying the role to a lot of success in later years. While Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi had turns as The Monster in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" and "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man", after Karloff had given up the role for health reasons (it had ruined his back), it would be Glenn Strange who would carry the role from 1944 onward. While sitting in a make-up chair for an action film in 1944, infamous make-up artist (and creator of the classic Frankenstein's Monster look) Jack Pierce noticed that Strange had the right kind of face to play the monster, and thus he was cast in "House of Frankenstein", a monster-mash picture also featuring Boris Karloff himself, this time as a mad scientist who wants to carry on Dr. Frankenstein's work. Karloff actually coached Strange in the role off-camera, thus effectively "passing the torch" to him, and as fate would have it, he starred in the role for three films, the same number that Karloff had played the Monster in. He became so famous in the role himself, that for decades after it was actually his face that toys and other merchandise and art were modeled after. He became known for the role most especially in 1948's "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein", which became a massively popular hit. He played other monsters, and starred in a few other horror films, but ironically, like Karloff before him, he is most well known for his time as "Frankenstein".

Notable Roles: Petro in "The Mad Monster" (1942), Man riding buckboard in "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942), Andy in "The Black Raven" (1943), Giant/Steve in "The Monster Maker" (1944), Frankenstein's Monster in "The House of Frankenstein" (1944), The Monster in "House of Dracula" (1945), Chief Galley Overseer in "Sinbad, The Sailor" (1947), The Monster in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), Atlas the Monster in "Master Minds" (1949)

Stylin' and profilin'.

George Zucco - A man who is arguably going to be the least well-known figure on this list. He starred along-side titans of his era, yet also featured in many films that are today obscure. He was not a "big star" in his day, but what he was, was a great actor, who always brought presence and style to his roles, no matter how ridiculous the plot, or how cheap the budget. But what he also was, was one of the most deserving actors of the title "Icon of Horror Cinema". This son of Britain began his film career as a serious, dramatic actor (as so many horror/sci fi stars often do). His first real brush with a great, but decidedly less serious role, was in the 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Man Who Could Work Miracles", where he played a butler to a rather ridiculous and silly British army general. One of his first major, and enduring memorable roles, was opposite Basil Rathbone playing the role of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' malevolent arch-nemesis, in 1939's "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes". A role which, by the way, he knocked out of the park, and it remains arguably his finest work. That same year he featured alongside Bob Hope is a remake of the 1929 horror/comedy hit, "The Cat and The Canary", as well as having a minor role in the Charles Laughton vehicle "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".

It was in the 1940s when Zucco really became firmly established as a star of the horror genre, beginning with his role as the villain Professor Andoheb in 1940's "The Mummy's Hand". Highlights from his prime in the 40s include "Dr. Renault's Secret", "The Mummy's Tomb", "Dead Men Walk", "The Mad Ghoul", "The Mummy's Ghost", and "Fog Island". He also had a smaller role in "House of Frankenstein", sharing billing with the likes of Boris Karloff, Glenn Strange, Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine. Ultimately, his film career lasted a solid 20 years, from 1931-1951. His last real horror role was in the 1947 mystery/thriller "Scared to Death", which was ironically also one of Bela Lugosi's last major roles, and Lugosi's only color film. Zucco may not be as well remembered as some of his contemporaries, but that needs to change, because he took even shitty roles and made them stand out, the sign of a great actor.

Notable Roles: Moody the Butler in "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" (1936), Professor Moriarty in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1939), Mr. Crosby in "The Cat and The Canary" (1939), Procurator in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939), Professor Abdoheb in "The Mummy's Hand" (1940), Dr. Perry in "The Monster and The Girl" (1941), Dr. Lorenzo Cameron in "The Mad Monster" (1942), Dr. Robert Renault in "Dr. Renault's Secret" (1942), Abdoheb in "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942), Dr. Lloyd/Dr. Elwyn Clayton in "Dead Men Walk" (1943), Heinrich Hinkel in "Sherlock Holmes in Washington" (1943), Amos Bradfield in "The Black Raven" (1943), Dr. Alfred Morris in "The Mad Ghoul" (1943), Bruno Lampini in "House of Frankenstein" (1944), Nicholas in "Voodoo Man" (1944), Abdoheb in "The Mummy's Ghost" (1944), Leo Grainer in "Fog Island" (1945), Professor Andrew Forbes in "The Flying Serpent" (1946), Dr. Joseph Van Ee in "Scared to Death" (1947), Palanth the High Priest in "Tarzan and the Mermaids" (1948)

Charming, yet devilish. Mr. Milland rocked.

Ray Milland - Born in Wales, though you'd never know it from his many films with spot-on American accents, Mr. Ray Milland was one of a kind. In the same sense that certain actors, like a Boris Karloff, or a Bela Lugosi, or a Vincent Price, or a Christopher Lee, have that unmistakable voice and persona, so did Milland. His first brush with "horror" of any kind, was in the 1934 murder mystery "Charlie Chan in London". After working his way up to leading man status and leading roles, his first turn in a real horror film was as the lead man in Lewis Allen's 1944 classic "The Uninvited". He would again star in a Lewis Allen thriller in 1948's "So Evil My Love". Perhaps his defining role, however, came under Alfred Hitchcock, in his 1954 classic "Dial M for Murder". It was likely this role that got him future parts in the 60s and 70s in often far less classy horror fare. He worked with Roger Corman in the 60s, in two very decent pictures, "The Premature Burial" (The only one of Corman's official "Poe Series" films not to feature Vincent Price) and "The Man With X-Ray Eyes". In 1962 he also starred in a film that he himself directed, the science fiction film "Panic in the Year Zero!". In the early 70s he played roles in fairly schlocky horror films like "Frogs" and "The Thing With Two Heads" (which saw his white racist character's head attached to a black man's body). The role I remember him best for, and the role that I first saw him in as a child, was as the villain Aristotle Bolt (what a great name) in 1975's adaptation of "Escape to Witch Mountain". A great role, and a fantastic movie that I still love to this day.

Notable Role: Neil Howard in "Charlie Chan in London" (1934), Christopher Powell in "The Jungle Princess" (1936), Roderick Fitzgerald in "The Uninvited" (1944), Stephen Neal in "Ministry of Fear" (1944), Mark Bellis in "So Evil My Love" (1948), Tony Wendice in "Dial M for Murder" (1954), Guy Carrel in "The Premature Burial" (1962), Harry Baldin in "Panic in the Year Zero!" (1962), Dr. James Xavier in "X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes" (1963), Jason Crocket in "Frogs" (1972), Maxwell Kirshner in "The Thing With Two Heads" (1972), Stewart Henderson in "The House in Nightmare Park" (1973), Aristotle Bolt in "Escape to Witch Mountain" (1975), Sire Uri in "Battlestar Gallactica" (1979)

A face not everyone recognizes, a voice few can forget.

Roddy McDowall - Yet another great talent out of the UK, here we have an actor who is very well recognized behind a signature ape mask, with his singularly distinctive voice, yet I have often brought him up in conversation only to have people say "who?". Very disheartening indeed, considering he is one of my favorite actors of all time, not to mention one of the finest character actors of all time. Again, he is someone not as intimately known in the horror genre because of his lack of iconic roles (no Frankenstein's or Draculas), but nonetheless he did have many great horror roles. His first was a rather minor role in the 1941 Fritz Lang film "Man Hunt". He also featured in a 1948 Orson Wells adaptation of "Macbeth". Throughout much of his earlier career, in fact, he had roles in some pretty huge films, such as John Ford's "How Green Is My Valley", "Cleopatra", "The Greatest Story Ever Told", and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks".

Of course, his most well known role, even though under a mask, is that of Dr. Cornelius from the "Planet of the Apes" films. A role which is deservingly memorable and honored, him starring in all but the second film "Beneath the Planet of the Apes", where he was replaced by a similar (but not the same) sounding actor. Oddly enough, he starred in a straight up horror film the year before that, in 1967's "It", a film about a disgruntled young man who comes in control of an ancient Hebrew Golem, which he sends out to destroy his enemies. It's one of those movies few people know what the hell you're talking about if you mention it, but it is a really underrated classic, and a good, manic role for him as the villain. He provided the voice of V.I.N.CENT the robot in the 1979 classic "The Black Hole" (probably the darkest film Disney ever produced), and had other memorable voice acting roles later on, such as The Mad Hatter in the 90s Batman animated series. One horror film that more people might recognize him for, and one of his very best roles in my humble estimation, was in 1985's "Fright Night", where he is a horror actor modeled heavily after Peter Cushing in Hammer's "Dracula" films, and he is more or less pushed into trying to fight a real vampire by one of his biggest fans. It's an underrated 80s gem, and in a decade where horror films were progressively more and more all about gore and shock factor, it managed to retain a very classic feel to it (even though the less said about it's unnecessary sequel, the better).

Notable Roles: Ronnie Cavanaugh in "The Pied Piper" (1942), Prince Malcolm in "Macbeth" (1948), Gregory Benson in "That Darn Cat!" (1965), Arthur Pimm in "It" (1967), Cornelius in the "Planet of the Apes" series (1968-1973), Mr. Jelk in "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" (1971), Acres in "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), Benjamin Franklin Fischer in "The Legend of Hell House" (1973), Mr. Stallwood in "The Cat From Outer Space" (1978), Dr. Mellon in "Laserblast" (1978), White Robe in "Circle of Iron" (1978), Hassan in "The Thief of Baghdad" (1978), V.I.N.CENT in "The Black Hole" (1979), Samwise Gamgee in "The Return of the King" (1980), Father Stone in "The Martian Chronicles" (1980), The March Hare in "Alice in Wonderland" (1985), Peter Vincent in "Fright Night" (1985), Ratty in "The Wind in the Willows" (1987), The Mad Hatter in "Batman: The Animated Series" (1992) and "The New Batman Adventures" (1997)

Those eyes.

Donald Pleasence - I don't think it's any great secret by now that many of the Icons on this list (Parts 1 through 3), are British actors. I'd like to think that is because in the UK film scene, there is more emphasis on looking for people with good classically trained stage backgrounds, ie actually caring about acting skills, than in the US where over the decades it has become more and more about finding pretty looking young people and giving them acting lessons afterwards. Then again in all fairness, a good majority of actors in Hollywood also came from strong stage acting backgrounds as well, up until a certain point in the 70s or 80s, I guess. But I digress.

Donald Pleasence, I think it kind of goes without saying, even if you're unfamiliar with his work, is another of those great British actors. In a similar vein to Basil Rathbone, the name Donald Pleasence kind of just screams "I'm British", in a good way. After getting his start in the fairly new (in the 50s) television medium, he started getting parts in theatrical works. One of his first genre roles was in the now almost entirely unknown 1956 British production of "1984". While not a horror film, it's also notable that he had a significant role in the 1963 classic "The Great Escape". He even featured as Satan himself in "The Greatest Story Ever Told". He really started getting on a role in the late 60s, however, playing Dr. Michaels in "The Fantastic Voyage", and then becoming immortalized (and later parodied by Mike Meyers) as the arch-villain Blofeld in 1967's James Bond film "You Only Live Twice". Ironically, this was the only film in which he played that role, it being filled by other actors in other Bond films, yet he undeniably was the best and most iconic Blofeld there ever was.

He would continue building his resume, including starring in George Lucas' first film "THX 1138", the Amicus horror anthology "From Beyond the Grave", and as Bolt's assistant Mr. Deranian in "Escape to Witch Mountain". But of course, his most famous horror role, came in one of the biggest unexpected hits of all time, John Carpenter's 1977 independent film "Halloween". He would wind up playing the role of Dr. Loomis in 5 of the "Halloween" movies, pretty much cementing him in the mind's of modern horror fans. In fact, his reprisal of the role in 1995's "The Curse of Michal Meyers" was his last film role before he died, and the film is dedicated to his memory.

Notable Roles: R. Parsons in "1984" (1956), John Barsad in "A Tale of Two Cities" (1958), RAF Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe in "The Great Escape" (1963), Satan in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), Dr. Michaels in "The Fantastic Voyage" (1966), Ernst Stavro Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice" (1967), SEN 5241 in "THX 1138" (1971), Jim Underwood in "From Beyond the Grave" (1974), Lucas Deranian in "Escape to Witch Mountain" (1975), Baron Danglars in "The Count of Monte Cristo" (1975), Doctor Harmon in "Oh God!" (1977), Dr. Sam Loomis in the "Halloween" series (1978-1995), Dr. Jack Seward in "Draclua" (1979), Mr. President in "Escape From New York" (1981), Priest in "Prince of Darkness" (1987)

The man himself.
Akira Takarada - Not necessarily the same brand of "horror icon" that many of these other esteemed gentlemen are, but the fact of the matter is, Japanese actor Akira Takarada starred in more than enough science fiction and monster films to qualify in spades. Besides, he's one of my personal favorites, and I think if you've starred in not one but several Godzilla films, you basically win. One of the hot new young stars of Japanese studio Toho in the mid-50s and throughout the 60s, Mr. Takarada featured in more Godzilla films than just about any other actor, and he had roles in many of their other science fiction fare as well.

I am humbled to point out, that he also has the distinction of being one of only two people on this now three-part list who are still alive, and surprisingly, still acting. The other is Sir Christopher Lee, still kicking at age 91, and currently featuring in the new Hobbit films. Akira Takarada himself is now 79 years old, still acting in both Japanese television and film, and he is at least heavily rumored to have a cameo role in the upcoming 2014 American "Godzilla" film (which will hopefully be a hell of a lot better than the 1998 film America tried).

By virtue of the fact that pretty much his entire career has been spent in his native Japan, the only film fans who are really going to know who he is, are naturally fans of Japanese films, most especially the sci-fi and kaiju films he is known for. But I am here to help make him known to the world, because the guy rocks, and he had some great roles in some of my favorite Toho films of all time, most especially Astronaut Fuji from my all-time favorite Godzilla film, "Invasion of the Astro Monster" (also known as "Godzilla vs. Monster Zero"). On a somewhat humorous note, he is also strongly connected with Disney films in Japan, as he has done the voice dubbing work for characters like the villain Ratigan from "The Great Mouse Detective" and the evil Jafar in "Aladdin".

Notable Roles: Hideto Ogata in "Gojira/Godzilla" (1954), Takeshi Iijima in "Half Human" (1955), Prince Wakatarashi in "The Birth of Japan" (1959), Takano in "The Last War" (1960), Ichiro Sakai in "Mothra vs. Godzilla" (1964), Astronaut K. Fuji in "Invasion of the Astro Monster" (1965), Yoshimura in "Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster" (1966), Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura in "King Kong Escapes" (1967), Dr. Ken Teshiro in "Latitude Zero" (1969), Joji Minamino in "Godzilla vs. Mothra" (1992), Nataro Daigo in "Godzilla: Final War" (2004)

So there ya go, that is pretty much my list of "Icons of Horror Cinema". This entry wound up being longer than I'd planned on it being, but I "Hulk Smashed" my way through and just got it done. There are, of course, as many of you I'm sure might point out, many other actors who could be considered "Horror Icons", most especially when it comes to more modern horror films. Some of these would be names like Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, etc. And while I wouldn't dispute them being icons of horror cinema, please understand that this list sticks to the more classic actors and films. Besides, plenty of people have written articles and books and made videos and documentaries galore talking about many of the better known, more modern horror stars. I feel like my part in all of this, as usual, is to help let people know about some of the older, lesser known stars of yesteryear, because they are the ones that deserve to be remembered and recognized, whereas many new stars are already well remembered and very much recognized.

So with that, I will bid you all a very merry Samhain, and a very Happy Halloween! Stay safe out there, and do yourself a favor, make sure to celebrate the occasion by sitting down and watching at least one or two classic sci-fi/monster/horror films. You'll be glad you did, and I'll rest easy knowing I inspired some classic love. Cheers, and Happy Haunting!

Check out Part 1 and Part 2!

Make sure to have yourself a Mad Monster Party!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Childhood Memories: Halloween Specials

Back again with the next entry in the Retro Revelations buildup to Halloween!

When I was a kid, my favorite time of year was (and honestly still is) the last quarter: October, November, and December. With October, it finally started getting cold (not as much as I'd like where I live, but still), the leaves started turning colors, and it capped off with Halloween. November held even colder weather, along with Thanksgiving and my birthday, which, funny story, actually falls on Thanksgiving about every 4 years or so, so I get my own birthday feast in a way. And then of course, December came, and with it, the Christmas season, the tree went up, the lights went on, carols were in the air, specials were on tv, it was just a great time. In some ways, Christmas-time was my favorite time growing up, because it just seemed to happy so my child's perception. I was also equally bummed once Christmas had passed, because after New Year's Eve, everything just went back to normal.

But as much as I loved Christmas, I think it's fair to say I loved Halloween just as much. Not just the candy, which I of course loved to death. It was the magical feeling in the air, I suppose. I think even as a kid I still felt it. The ancient Celts believed that on what they called Samhain, the veil between the world of the living and the spirit world was at it's weakest. It was on the night of what is in the Roman calendar called October 31st, all the way through to the morning of November 1st, they believed that during that time spirits of passed loved ones, as well as entities from the spirit world that weren't so nice, were more or less free to roam our physical plain. And so, they'd paint their faces and dress in grand attire, so as to ward off evil and make themselves recognizable to clan ancestors, and they'd light huge bonfires and break out in song and dance and stories and feasting, all night long. The original "block party", in a way, I guess you could say. And some of that spirit still resonates in modern Halloween, even though it's been dumbed down and commercialized. I always personally loved the monsters and mystery and mysticism surrounding it, the imagery of werewolves and ghosts and ghouls and jack o lanterns and slimy creatures who go bump in the night. To be honest it still entices me as an adult now, it's just a fun atmosphere all around.

And with that in mind, one of the best parts about Halloween time growing up, were the great Halloween specials that used to air on television. I'll only be covering a few here today, some of the earliest ones I remember, but might well write a sequel piece at a later date, covering others. So without further adieu:


It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1966)

It's usually best to begin at the beginning, so with that in mind, it's probably best to start with what is the first real Halloween cartoon special ever made (to my knowledge). "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" was the third ever animated Charlie Brown cartoon, back when creator Charles M. Schultz was directly involved. It's also quite likely the first Halloween special I remember ever seeing as a small child, as they have played it annually on TV for decades. It originally came out in 1966, and while there were many great Charlie Brown specials, it remains one of the very best. The plot centers around Lucy's little brother Linus, who is under the belief that while most people recognize Santa Claus as the greatest spreader-of-joy, there is another such mystical figure who is criminally unknown: The Great Pumpkin. According to Linus, The Great Pumpkin rises out of a pumpkin patch once every Halloween night, only appearing to the most earnest children, and flies through the air spreading cheer and gifts to all good kids everywhere. Basically Santa, except he's a magic pumpkin. Linus, of course, seems to be the only one who believes in the Pumpkin, and while he gets Charlie Brown's little sister Sally to wait with him for it to arrive, only on account of her big crush on him, the Pumpkin never actually shows. Poor Linus.

I always liked this special as a kid, even though I always hated that the Pumpkin never showed up, and that no one believed Linus. It also used to bother me that poor Charlie, who is such a good and decent guy, always seems to get crapped on. I mean who the hell gives a kid ROCKS for Halloween Trick or Treating? But regardless, this is a timeless classic, and I feel it's something that should be seen by everyone when they're young, kind of like seeing "Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer" around Christmas time.

Ah....the memories.

Disney's Halloween Treat (1982)

Another of the earliest Halloween-themed specials I remember, this, or another very similar one called "A Disney Halloween" aired just about every year on The Disney Channel (back when it was cool) at least up until the 90s. It's basically a clip show, airing as part of their 80s era program "The Wonderful World of Disney", and it features segments from classic Disney animated movies and theatrical shorts, all of course having spooky or supernatural types of themes. It was hosted by a talking jack o lantern puppet, which of course is always a nice touch. The various clips they would use, were things like the "Night on Bald Mountain" piece from Fantasia (which is still amazing to this day), the "Heffalumps and Woozles" bit from "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day", and the Wizard's Duel between Merlin and Mad Madam Mim from "The Sword in the Stone". Depending on the version (this or "A Disney Halloween"), they would also feature a live-acted version of the Magic Mirror from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves", who would also introduce a few old Disney shorts like "Pluto's Judgement Day", "Lonesome Ghosts" and "Trick or Treat". They also had the always hilarious Donald short "Donald Duck and the Gorilla", which is one of the best Golden Age shorts Disney ever crafted. There was another Halloween special that used old footage of their cartoon archives in the late 80s, a special edition of their DTV program (an MTV type deal that set real music to footage from their old cartoons), called "Monster Hits", which had music videos of a sort for the old "Monster Mash" song, as well as Michael Jackson's "Thriller", etc.

I'd just like to say, that this is the perfect example of why The Disney Channel was awesome when I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s. Because they actually used to have good programming that wasn't all dumb teen sitcoms, they used to have awesome exclusive tv movies and specials, and actually used to frequently show their old theatrical shorts on television. I was lucky enough to be exposed to a great deal of Disney's classic library growing up thanks to that, and thanks to specials like this. These Disney Halloween shows, and other specials they had on The Disney Channel, were great memories from my childhood.

"I vant to suck your blood! Or.....maybe just disco dance, if that's okay."

The Halloween That Almost Wasn't (aka The Night Dracula Saved the World, 1979)

A made for TV movie that originally aired in 1979, and subsequently was a regular on Halloween on The Disney Channel throughout the 80s, this is an obscure but awesome little special. Live action, unlike most of the more memorable Halloween specials, it's a fairly goofy show that exudes awesome mainly on account of some great monster portrayals by great character actors. The show opens on Dracula (portrayed by Taxi's Alex Rieger, actor Judd Hirsch), who rises from his coffin, only to find Igor (played by character actor Henry Gibson) watching TV. A telecast comes on, claiming that Halloween may be at an end, and it's Dracula's fault. Incensed by such a suggestion, and by the threat to what he calls "His national holiday", Dracula calls a meeting of the world's most famous monsters, to try and save Halloween. This brings many guests to his castle, including Frankenstein's Monster, an Egyptian Mummy, a Hungarian werewolf, a Haitian Zombie named Zabaar the Zombie, and of course a broom-riding Witch (played by actress Mariette Hartley).

Dracula feels that Halloween is losing it's power because the monsters have all become too popular, people think they're "cool" now, and more funny than scary, and he feels they need to be scary again. The Witch, however, feels unappreciated, and tired of people making ugly witch jokes about her, so it turns out she is the one who started the rumor that Halloween was over, because apparently Halloween Night can't start until she rides her broom over the moon, which she says she now refuses to do. The special features a "normal" human family, with two kids who are all excited for Halloween, but sad to hear it might end. They're basically used as an in-between narrative device, as well as an educational one, as the parents tell their kids about the history of Halloween. In the end, while she also presents a list of demands that she expects Dracula to meet, making her more of an equal, it is the two kids who magically show up at the Witch's door, the girl dressed as a witch herself, that convince the Witch how important she is, so she agrees to ride over the moon.

Of course being the late 70s, one of her demands is that Dracula has to take her disco dancing, and so after she rides over the moon, the special ends with all the monsters partying at Dracula's castle, disco style. It sounds hokey, and it is, but it's also the kind of special that you really just don't see on television anymore. Judd Hirsch and James Gibson especially really play up their parts of Dracula and Igor well, with Hirsch producing an especially cheesy (but awesome) Bela Lugosi impression throughout. I loved this as a kid, and still honestly like it. It's just a rare piece of film that you don't see the like of today, and it's a great little 20 minute show to watch (if you can find it on Youtube, etc.), for a family or just by yourself, to get you in that Halloween mood.

How awesome does Garfield look as a pirate, honestly?

Garfield's Halloween Adventure (1985)

A strong candidate for my favorite Halloween special of all time, and just one of my favorite comic/cartoon characters of all time period. This was another of the earliest specials I remember seeing, and one of the best ever made. It needs to be said, first off, that between Garfield and The Real Ghostbusters, voice actor Lorenzo Music was an important part of my childhood. I always loved him as the voice of Garfield, and he was WAY better than Dave Coulier as the voice of Peter Venkman (but that's a story for another day). This, I feel, along with the Garfield Christmas special, are the two best out of the 12 they produced, and I really don't know why they don't still show them on TV. They used to show them every year, and I think they're certainly good enough to deserve that "perennial tv special" status.

Anyway, the crux of this story, naturally revolves around Garfield's love of food. And he loves Halloween for one reason in particular: candy. So he dresses himself and Odie up as pirates (with him fully intending to take Odie's share of candy as well), and off they wander into the spectral night. They do in fact get a hefty ransom of sweets, but Garfield, always wanting more, notices more houses across the river, so he and Odie set out in a rowboat on a quest for twice as much candy. They wind up adrift and float down the river, till they reach an abandoned dock on an old island. They wander into an old house, seeing light in the windows, and attempt to warm themselves by the fire, when they are startled by an old man sitting in a chair. He proceeds to tell them a wondrous tale about pirates and stolen treasure, how he was their cabin-boy 100 years ago, and how they had buried the treasure under the house and agreed to return for it 100 years hence, even if it meant returning from the grave. Which of course it did. As Garfield notices it's almost midnight, he and Odie go to leave, and Garfield stops to ask the old man if he wants to join them, but he's gone. He has stolen their boat, leaving them behind as the ghost pirates arrive to get their gold. Long story short, Garfield and Odie have to make a run for it, diving into the river, where Odie has to save Garfield from drowning. They finally reach safety on the other side, where they find the boat, with their candy untouched. Garfield, having learned his lesson, and thankful for Odie saving him, gives the dog his fair share of the candy.

It's a very entertaining piece, and the "darkest" of all the Garfield cartoons simply by virtue of it's subject matter. If you've never seen it, make an earnest attempt to do so, as I highly recommend this over pretty much any other Halloween special, if you see only one.

And that'll be about it for this entry, but fear not, for next week we count down to Halloween itself!