Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Childhood Memories: MonsterVision Revisited

It all started five years ago with a little piece about this important part of my childhood. And now, it's time to revisit MonsterVision in earnest...

On Tuesday, October 16th, 2012, I first started this blog site. It was originally going to only be a place for me to talk about my passion for movies, animation, and film related topics. As such, I was going to originally name it something like "Movie Madness" or something along those lines. I'm sure I would have thought of something. But then when I was coming up with a name for the URL, it dawned on me, "Call it Retro Revelations!". And THEN it dawned on me, "Hey, that name's just vague enough, just broad enough, that I could honestly talk about whatever the hell I wanted, NOT just film!"

So there you go, and here we now are, Halloween 2017. The site is five years old, and its associated Youtube Channel is now almost two years old (hell, even the Vidme Channel is now one year old). The entire journey and experience has had its ups and downs, its good and bad. I love writing about these things that I am passionate about, or have great interest in, or fond memories of. It's a positive and constructive outlet for me, and even though these "article" format pieces I write, more often than not, take far more time than I'd like them to (and that's even considering that most of them I just sit down and write, cold, in one sitting). But I'm usually pretty satisfied with the end result, even though I often think "it could've been better". I've had high points, such as author R.L. Stine roundabout acknowledging the article I wrote on his early Goosebumps books on Twitter, and mentioning he liked it, intimating he had at least seen it and read part of it. That was a really good feeling. I've also had lows, articles that have gotten very low hits/views, where it feels like almost no one read it, which is of course what you want as an artist or writer: for people to see and share you work, your thoughts. Those haven't felt all that great.

But overall, through the peaks and valleys, I would classify Retro Revelations as a rewarding experience. I've ran into some quality people in the online community because of it, and I've gotten some good feedback and genuine appreciation for some of the thoughts and memories that I've shared. And that's what this has been, and continues to be, truly all about: both sharing my thoughts, feelings and memories of things that I care about (entertainment-wise anyway), and helping to remind people or even outright teach people and make them aware that these things exist. In that way, I consider myself, with some small degree of humility, something of a "Retro Entertainment Historian". And I'm content to fill that role, as I continue to go on this journey, and hopefully continue to build my audience, and the cool contacts and acquaintances I make along the way.

Good 'ol Joe Bob.

So getting on to the topic at hand, revisiting one of the most important things from my childhood: TNT's MonsterVision. Of the people that are even vaguely familiar with what that was, I have found that the vast majority of them associate it with the man above, Joe Bob Briggs. As I pointed out in my original MonsterVision article, I was far more into the show/phenomenon in the early 90s, before Joe Bob came aboard. But I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I do like Joe Bob! He was a funny and likeable character, and I have nothing at all against him. It's simply that when he became host in 1995, TNT started doing more modern (mainly 70s and 80s) horror films and "grindhouse" type schlock, which was more Joe Bob's gig, and didn't really do the more classic 40s-60s sci fi and monster movies that I had preferred.

Part of the reason people remember his era of MV more, is for two reasons. The first being, that before Joe Bob, it wasn't really a regular "show" per say, but rather a fairly sporadic series of monster movie marathons that TNT would do from time to time. Especially in 1994, the last year of the "original" format, where TNT would literally go many weeks, or at some point perhaps even months, before having another MonsterVision marathon (a fact that I hated). The second reason people remember Joe Bob's era more, aside from the fact that it actually became a regular, weekly show at that point, is that he was the first official and regular host. Prior to Joe Bob, MonsterVision would often not have any kind of host, or once in awhile they'd have some oddball special guest host, like Penn & Teller or Bob Denver from Gilligan's Island. For more information on the timeline, and the show in general, I highly recommend checking out James Rolfe's piece on MonsterVision over on his Cinemassacre website.

The "Classics"?

As for "MY" era of MonsterVision, as far as Rolfe and other fans can pin it down, the roots of the TNT marathons actually date back to at least 1991, if not even 1990. I remember this myself, because there are movies I know they showed, that are not listed in the timeline of "MonsterVision" marathons. So it's entirely probable that the TNT channel started doing monster movie marathons before they actually started calling them "MonsterVision". Though, then again, it's also fair to point out that monster movie marathons on television were a thing that had existed for likely decades, at least into the 60s, certainly 70s. Other channels during my childhood inevitably had marathons that were not "MonsterVision", for sure. I remember one in particular that ran for a bit, late at night as usual, where it was sponsored by some mattress company or something like that, and would have a host that would talk a bit about the movies. I also know for certain that I saw movies like the original King Kong (1933) in the 80s before "MonsterVision" existed.

The early 90s were, in their own way, a "magical" time for me as a kid, as I slowly grew into my pre-teen years. I didn't get my Nintendo Entertainment System console until the second half of 1990, thus I didn't get huge into video games until then. I had books and read in the 80s, but it wasn't really until the early 90s that my grandmother started getting the little "Scholastic" catalogues in the mail, and started ordering me my own books, and I started building up quite a collection. At first things like the "Boxcar Children" series and "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, and later on stuff like Bruce Coville's "My Teacher is an Alien" series, or R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps". I also gradually got more and more into music, listening to the radio on my own, and owning my first tape deck, and later "Walkman", and the first small handful of tapes/albums that were actually mine.

Even as far as movies and TV went, prior to moving into a bigger mobile home down the street (yes literally), we had always just had one television, period. When we moved around 1991 or so, I finally fully had my own room, and with it, my own little TV, where I could actually watch whatever the hell I wanted in private, the caveat being that I always had to be vigilant, because there were still things my grandmother "didn't want me watching", and thus if she ever caught me watching things she didn't approve of (for instance, MTV), under no uncertain terms, it was known that she would take my TV away. Naturally I watched things like MTV anyway, but I was, as stated, ever vigilant, and never did get caught. One of the unfortunate side effects of having such a domineering parental figure, is that it taught me to be very good at being sneaky. Not something I was proud of, but an unfortunate "necessary evil" of survival around my grandmother.

My early 90s, in a single picture.

But like I said, the early 90s are probably the time in my childhood that I am the most nostalgic about. Both because I was between the ages of 9 and 13 years old, so my memories during that era are stronger, but also because for me, in so many ways, it was a time of discovery. My childhood 80s love of dinosaurs, for example, evolved and gave way to an early 90s obsession with monsters and mythology. And in very large part, this as fueled by two things. The first, was the fact that around 1990, we finally got a VCR (yes, it took us that long, as I said, I grew up poor). So because of that, we started gradually buying VHS tapes, and among them, every once in awhile, my grandmother would let me get some monster movie, especially Godzilla, that we saw on the cheapo rack at Walmart. As covered in my original Godzilla article, I'm fairly certain that I may have seen a Godzilla movie of some sort before this as a child, but the first films of his I remember seeing, were Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966) and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965), which were the first I owned on tape. These were later followed by the likes of the original Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1954), Godzilla Raids Again (1955), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), etc.

The other, of course, was the fact that things like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and TNT's MonsterVision existed. Thanks to those shows, a whole new world of monster movies and classic fantasy and science fiction and horror was opened to me, and I was able to discover literally dozens of films for the first time because of television in general around this time, including many that would, to me, be perennial classics that I've love to this day. Thanks to seeing the works of effects-master Ray Harryhausen, I got into classical mythology more, and through that, an even deeper knowledge of monsters and related lore. I cannot impress enough just how "Monster Crazy" I was around this time. Between a combination of Godzilla movies and others that I was acquiring on tape, seeing monster movies on MonsterVision, MST3K and elsewhere, borrowing books on mythology and monsters from the library, becoming obsessed with Goosebumps books, and of course the release of my beloved Monster in My Pocket figure line, there was more than enough going around to fuel my obsession for years.

The stuff that blew my young mind.

Good vs. Evil

Captain Sinbad was one of my heroes as a kid.

When I was a kid in the 80s, around 5 or 6 years old, I had already seen one or two Sinbad films, probably the goofy but still awesome Captain Sindbad (1963), a movie Harryhausen was uninvolved with, and my personal favorite of his stop-motion masterpieces, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958). I loved the character of Sinbad and his adventures enough, even then, that when I got my first dog at around 6 years old, a fluffy Terrier mix of some sort, I named him Sinbad. Once we had a VCR, I finally owned a copy of Seventh Voyage, which I watched a ton. And then when MonsterVision came along, I finally got to see the OTHER two major Sinbad films, also Harryhausen epics, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). And that is to say nothing of the two films that people often consider his greatest works, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981).

The infamous Skeleton Fight scene.

Perseus facing the Kraken.

Not Harryhausen, but still cool.

This stuff above was what really drove home my pre-teen obsession (for a bit) with Greek Mythology. In hindsight, the real stories were often not all that good, and very messed up, and the gods themselves were usually complete assholes. But the movie versions of the stories were pretty cool, and let's be honest, even in the mythology itself, the real attraction for me was the various monsters. Jason and Perseus in Harryhausen's movies were not jerks, but rather, virtuous and honorable heroes, fighting the good fight and doing the right thing. And of course, Sinbad in those films, even in Captain Sindbad, was also a great and honorable man. I've been a sucker for this type of hero, the TRUE "good guy", since childhood, hence my love of such superhero characters as Cyclops and Superman.

The last film is a bit of an oddity that I still wanted to share, because I discovered it through MonsterVision, and because it bears mentioning. Directed by George Pal, who also directed or produced such classics as The War of the Worlds (1953), The Time Machine (1960) and The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), the story focused on a Greek, Demetrius, who rescues a shipwrecked girl who turns out to be from the hidden land of Atlantis. It's actually a fairly deep and dark film, not quite the "adventure" type fare of the Sinbad movies, but the one thing really holding it back, surprising for a Pal film, is that it has lackluster special effects. Otherwise, it's a fairly solid movie that I would recommend.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

Mysterious Island (1961)

The First Men in the Moon (1964)

That wasn't all, for my Ray Harryhausen education, though. MonsterVision, at various points, also played other gems, such as the alien invasion classic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. A film that took a slightly more sober approach to the subject, unlike some of its more hokey 50s contemporaries. Watching this as a kid, I fully believed that "oh shit, this could happen", and the scenes of UFOs trashing Washington DC were both fascinating and terrifying. Then of course there was the adaptation of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, something of a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which finds various characters stranded on an uncharted island. The secret of the island, is that it is home to a variety of grossly oversized species, from crabs to birds to bees, all presented here in glorious stop-motion of course. And as the castaways would discover, the man behind this bizarre supernatural phenomenon, is none other than Captain Nemo himself, hidden here, away from the world, after the defeat of his Nautilus.

Last but certainly not least, was the adaptation of H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon, which is a fantastic and imaginative exploration film. More elaborate, of course, than Georges Melies' great A Trip to the Moon (1902), it is every bit as fun. Veteran British actor Lionel Jeffries shines as kooky inventor Joseph Cavor, a brilliant but anti-social eccentric who invents what he calls "Cavorite", a substance that resists gravity. It's a truly wonderful film, because it doesn't try to "modernize" the technology described in Wells' story. It feels like a nice little slice of Victorian science fiction adventure, which is why I love it. Seeing it as a kid, I marveled at the spectacle of it all, and the strangeness of the insectoid "Moon People", the Selenites.

The Thing From Another World (1951)

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

Them! (1954)

Moving beyond Harryhausen, MonsterVision also brought me films that not only made me think, but at times, also scared the shit out of my child-self. Somewhere far too young, around 9 or so years old, I also saw John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic The Thing, which with it's paranoia and gore, practically traumatized me (though I love it as an adult, I shouldn't have been able to watch it that young an age). But the Howard Hawks 1951 adaptation of the same novella, "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell,  features a slightly altered story, where the alien found in the North Pole (not Antarctica), is a vegetation-based monster who need to essentially drink the blood of living beings, but was still every bit as scary (minus the gross-out gore) as Carpenter's film. In fact, Carpenter was a huge fan of Hawks' movie, and he made his own adaptation inspired by it.

Then there was It! The Terror From Beyond Space, which served as a prototype of sorts for the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien. A spaceship goes to Mars, to check on a previous ship that hadn't reported back to Earth, only to find the ship wrecked and the crew dead. As they leave Mars themselves, they don't realize they've taken an uninvited guest aboard, a life form that completely drains a body of all fluids, not just blood. Obviously directly inspired by Hawks' Thing film, it also helped to established many future tropes of space-based science fiction and horror films. As a kid, both monsters really scared me, but "It" certainly had a more desperate, sombre tone.

Last, but again certainly not least, is quite probably the single best "giant insect" movie ever made, 1954's Them. The 50s had its wealth of "radioactivity gone awry" movies, and probably a good dozen giant insect/animal movies as an off-shoot of that. Most of them probably wanted to take themselves seriously, such as a movie we actually bought on tape for some reason, The Beginning of the End (1957), a Bert I. Gordon movie about giant locusts who terrorize America. Problem was, the movie had a super low budget, and stiff-as-a-board acting, so it wasn't very good. But with Them, they had a big enough budget, and a good enough script, and credible acting, that the material is done way more justice. One of the film's opening scenes, is of a little girl being found alone in the desert, traumatized by the fact that her parents were killed by "Them", which turn out to be giant ants. That scene alone sets the tone for the film, and it has remained one of my favorite classic science fiction films since.

The Giant Claw (1957)

From Hell It Came (1957)

The Cyclops (1957)

It wasn't all gold and sunshine, of course. MonsterVision also had its share of crap, movies that, even as a kid who literally ate up any monster movie I could get my hands on, would not impress me much. And this is coming from a kid who, when I first saw Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), I ignored the shoestring budget and horrid acting, and took the plot of aliens trying to prevent man from blowing up the universe dead serious. Of the three films shown above, I will say that I actually do like, is The Giant Claw. It's cheeseball, and yes the giant space bird "from an antimatter universe" looks ridiculous. But somehow I loved it as a kid, and still have a soft spot for it today. I didn't even mind when they KEPT repeating the line "It's as big as a Battleship!" throughout the movie. Claw is one of those "bad" movies that is still fun and endearing.

I'm not sure I can say the same about the other two. With Bert I. Gordon's The Cyclops, at least, I remember having a bit of fun by giving it my own MST3K treatment (much to my grandmother's apparent annoyance). But the movie itself, in spite of having an appearance from an aging Lon Chaney Jr., is really not very good. It basically served as a prototype for Gordon's later films The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and War of the Colossal Beast (1958), both of which were better, but still very low brow. As for From Hell It Came, in spite of its foreboding title and somewhat interesting premise, that of cursed islander magic causing a tree to be inhabited by an evil vengeful spirit, even as a kid I was bored by it. It's one of those flicks where you don't actually get to see the monster much, and when you do, it basically does very little. The idea of spooky "tree people" is an interesting and rarely used one, something that carried fascination for me since seeing Babes in Toyland (1961) as a small child. But as is sadly so often the case with sci fi or horror films, the filmmakers fail to carry an interesting idea through to a good film.

The Monster That Challenged The World (1957)

Reptilicus (1961)

Gorgo (1961)

The Monster That Challenged The World is another clunker that even as a kid obsessed with monsters, I was fairly disinterested in. I even stayed up really late, like past 1am, to watch it, because I was THAT obsessed with seeing every old monster movie that I could. And I certainly wanted to like a movie about a giant killer sea-bug-thing. But it was, again, fairly dreary, and didn't have enough monster going on to really hold my interest. It's not a bad movie, just kind of a dull one. And SPEAKING of dull, yet another film that you'd think I would have loved, Reptilicus was a Danish film about a giant prehistoric lizard-thing, that spat acid and grew to bigger and bigger size. It was even self-regenerating and nearly impossible to kill. Being a Godzilla and giant monster nut, that sounds right up my alley. But again, it was a film that I found myself kinda bored by, even though I wanted to watch till the end. And that is something I will say, I rarely, as a kid, stopped watching one of these movies, even if it was bad. Similar to when I would rent a crappy game, I would still try to get the most out of it that I could. As an adult? I just don't have the time or patience for either.

On the other hand, the 1961 British Godzilla knock-off, Gorgo? Pretty solid. Still not quite on Godzilla's level, but it was actually pretty well done for its time. It also has a somewhat heart-warming subplot about an Irish boy who more or less falls in love (not romantically), with the creature they find, and feels sorry for it when adults try to turn it into a King Kong-esque public attraction. But then of course, they discover that what they've caught, huge as it was, is really just a BABY Gorgo, and London is up shit creek when Mama Gorgo comes calling. That's when it really turns into a Godzilla knockoff, as she even destroys Big Ben! Unfortunately, in my adult years, I would get around to watching another 60s British "Giant Monster" film, called "Konga", which I hoped would be a similarly solid King Kong knock off. But no, not only is a GIANT ape barely in it until the very end, but in general the movie is pretty awful. Watch Gorgo. Leave Konga alone.



While the meat of MonsterVision's output was naturally movies, they also mixed it up a couple times, by instead having marathons of the 1960s show The Outer Limits. Somewhere around this same time period, I also saw many episodes of the original The Twilight Zone, though I don't remember if they were also shown on TNT or not. But these Outer Limit episodes were specifically part of the MV set, and either way, just like with the movies, I totally ate them up. I clearly remember at least one of these marathons, I was excited because my grandmother let me stay up super late to watch most of the episodes. In both cases, for Limits and Zone, I had yet to see either in my life at that point, so again, it was a time of discovery.

I would say, compared head to head, that Rod Serling's masterpiece is the "better" show, and it was definitely more well known. But Outer Limits also has some high quality stories, and often tried to push the envelope a little more than TLZ did, perhaps to get noticed. The picture above, of the creepy ant creature, is from an episode called "The Zantis Misfits", where this small town is invaded by what are basically escaped alien convicts, who happen to be ant-things with humanoid faces. The kicker, is that these things attack people by making this god-awful, creepy as hell noise. I can't even rightly do it justice by trying to describe it, so I'd say try to maybe look it up on Youtube. There was actually another Outer Limits episode, where at one point a man on some colony on another world, runs into a cave, and runs into a giant ant-thing, with a normal ant-face, that still makes that damned sound.

The bottom picture is from one of the probably most well known Outer Limits stories, "The Galaxy Being". It's a fairly deep story, about a radio station owner who just so happens to have a "3D Television", with which he accidentally makes contact with an energy being who then transports to Earth. The alien is actually not malevolent, but that sadly doesn't stop stupid humans from attacking it. As a kid, I found stories like this, as well as the similar tale told in the film The Man From Planet X (1951), to be very sad. I really enjoyed the marathons I got to see of Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, but I was also glad that they didn't do it more often, because what I really hungered for, was more monster MOVIES.

One of the Very Best things from my childhood.

Godzilla vs. Gigan (1971)

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

When you're talking about monsters, there is naturally only one true King of the Monsters, and that's Godzilla himself. As I've related in previous Godzilla pieces, one of the very best times of my entire childhood, the most exciting to me, were late in the original MonterVision run, when TNT would do a "Godzilla Bash" weekend. This happened, I do believe, twice. I've seen conflicting evidence, but I clearly remember one of them specifically being a New Year's Eve deal, where both the night of New Year's Eve and then New Year's Day, they just played several Godzilla movies per day/night. And looking at the calendar, it would make sense if this were accurate, because New Year's Eve 1993 actually did fall on a Friday, with New Year's Day being a Saturday. So it would totally work out as a weekend deal. Especially considering that in 1994, TNT's MonsterVision broadcasts became MUCH more infrequent.

Regardless of when these happened, what matters is that they did happen, and how much they meant to an 11 or 12 year old me. By the time the first MV Godzilla Bash happened, I had already seen the movies I owned on tape, which were: King of the Monsters (54), Raids Again (55), King Kong vs. (62), Monster Zero (65), Sea Monster (66) Megalon (73),  "Cosmic Monster" (aka Mechagodzilla, 74), and the solo Rodan (56). Thanks to MonsterVision, I was then able to fill out my "Showa Era" viewing even more, with the additions of: Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Son of Godzilla (1967), Godzilla's Revenge (aka All Monsters Attack, 1969), Godzilla on Monster Island (aka Godzilla vs. Gigan, 1971), and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). As an added bonus, they also randomly threw in the non-Godzilla related War of the Gargantuas (1966), and at some other point they showed the solo Mothra (1960) film. After this, I would have to wait until my teens, or in at least one case adulthood, to finally see the other Showa Godzilla films I had not yet seen, which were: Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1970). In the case of Smog Monster specifically, I actually had the opportunity to own it on tape as a kid, seeing it in Walmart at some point, but that just so happened to be the rare case where I saw a Godzilla movie but my grandmother didn't let me get it that time. I regretted that for years.

But let me tell you something. Those Godzilla marathons? They were heaven for me. Even if they also showed movies I'd already seen, like King of the Monsters, Monster Zero, and Sea Monster. I didn't care. I was far more interested to see the ones I HADN'T seen yet, of course. But it was all gravy to this guy. The first marathon, the one I believe took place New Years' Weekend, especially, is also where I first ever heard the (awesome) Blue Oyster Cult song "Godzilla", as they would play it throughout the night in bad ass little vignettes. Here is this wicked rock song, talking about my favorite monster of all time, paired with video clips from the films, and text on the screen describing him as this unstoppable force of nature that nothing could beat (except for an "Oxygen Destroyer in the original movie, but who's counting?). I don't mind telling you, that at 12 years old, I straight up got up and danced around the room, rocking out to that song and those videos. I thought it was some of the coolest shit I'd ever seen in my life, because it was. And it's still cool to this day. 

One of those marathons, at least, my grandmother even stayed up late with me, to help me record some of the ones I didn't have on retail tape yet. Which was cool, because even though they were taped off of TV, I still had them to watch later on. And I actually still have some of those recorded tapes to this day. Unfortunately my VCR is on the fritz and seems to want to try and EAT my old tapes now, which is extra shitty. But those things can be fixed, or replaced, one of these days when I have some extra cash. Back on point, those Godzilla marathons were a godsend to me, and some of my favorite memories from my childhood. Which, I suppose, in a way is kind of sad. But it really was that exciting and meaningful to me back then. I remember when I first learned there was GOING to be a Godzilla Marathon, I was probably beside myself, begging my grandmother "Can I please watch it?", etc.

100% Weird

There was another little footnote, related to MonsterVision. In 1992/1993 or so, TNT also had a connected show that would be SUPER late at night, like midnight or 1am, called "100% Weird", that would air after the official MonsterVision marathon was over. These movies tended to be, I guess, "weirder" or more obscure fare. But honestly, while I don't really remember all the movies they had on it, it seems odd that they weren't just part of MonsterVision, since it basically was anyway. The only movie I vividly remember seeing from "100% Weird", was Plan 9 From Outer Space. It's entirely possible I don't really remember others because my grandmother wouldn't let me stay up late enough to watch it very often. But when I watched Plan 9, and those silly aliens were talking about human beings getting to a point where they could make "Sunlight Bombs", 9 year old me was almost certainly like "OH FUCK, WE'RE DOOMED!" (not literally, I wasn't allowed to say fuck back then, not even in my head). Plan 9 was also, I'd wager, the first movie I ever saw with "living dead" characters in it, people rising from the grave, which was also really scarey to little kid me. I mean the idea is still scary now, it's just that Plan 9 is cheeseball fun now.

There were marathons that I didn't get to watch, sadly. Such as whenever they would show anything to do with Dracula, or Frankenstein, or Mummies, and other shit like that. My grandmother, as I've impressed many times by now, was a very odd duck, and incredibly inconsistent in her values and what she would or wouldn't let me watch. I couldn't see something like Dracula or Frankenstein, but she's like me watch movies like The Thing or Night of the Creeps that would give me ungodly nightmares and made it hard for me to go to sleep. Even though what they would show were not the Universal Classics, but more Hammer Horror type fare, it still sucked not being able to watch MonsterVision sometimes.

But overall, I still got to see, I'd say, well over half of all the marathons they did during that 91-94 period. I would also tell you that, overall, I was all the better for it. These films, cheesy or not, fired up my imagination, and helped to enrich an otherwise often sad and lonely young existence. As I've said before in other articles, my early 90s years were filled with Nintendo, and monster movies, and books, and cartoons (especially X-Men). And in all blunt honesty, I needed those things, because they were my escape. My grandmother had her moments, and there were times and events not related to those things, that were good times. But without those entertainment things that I now look back on so fondly, and write to you all about, I'm sorry to say that there wouldn't be a whole lot to look back fondly on from my childhood. MonsterVision was one of those things, and I'd hate to have not had it in my life, any more than I'd hate to have not had Nintendo, the X-Men cartoon, or Goosebumps, etc.

What a goofy looking fucker.

So with those sober, yet earnest words, I'll bid you all a very Happy Halloween! May the spirit of Samhain overtake you all, and may your dance with the Other World tonight be a merry and safe one! Make sure to watch or play or experience something old and awesome, in honor of your old pal "Retro". Cheers!

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Singular Voice: A Roddy McDowall Tribute

And now to take a look at the life and career of one of my favorite actors of all time...

Few things bother me more, when speaking of film and entertainment, than when I bring up a classic actor, and the reaction of most people is to have no idea who that guy is. It's happened with many older actors that I love, including Leslie Nielsen, a legendary comedic actor that you'd think people would know. But perhaps the single most notorious case in my personal experience, is pretty much any time I bring up the actor Roddy McDowall. Most people that I ever mention him to, have either zero idea who he is, or when I try to explain and mention a few of his more famous roles, they go "Oh". And part of the problem, I guess, is that his single most famous role, is one in which his face was completely covered. And many of his best roles, at least in my opinion, were voice roles for animation, as well. Which is why I decided on the title for this article, because like many of the greats, Roddy McDowall had a singular persona, and a singular, very unmistakable voice.

Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall was born in London, England, on September 17th, 1928. He was primarily of Irish and Scottish decent, a "True Celt" as some might say. His parents were big into the theater, and thus encouraged him to act at a young age. By the the time he was ten years old, he was already receiving film roles. And that is the first thing to note about Mr. McDowall, something that most probably don't know about him (if they know of him at all): the fact that in his youth, he was a fairly big child actor. 

The Pied Piper (1942)

Kidnapped (1948)

His first major film role, after several small ones, was also arguably the biggest of his child career. In 1941, he starred in How Green Was My Valley, the John Ford classic, as the young Huw Morgan. He also starred in the 1942 film The Pied Piper (not actually based on the story, but rather a war-time drama). In 1943, he starred in a pair of animal-based classics,  Lassie Come Home and My Friend Flicka. By 1948, now a young man, he was featuring in the likes of Macbeth as Prince Malcolm, and a starring turn as David Balfour in an adaptation of Kidnapped (pictured above). 

That is perhaps the next notable thing to say about Mr. McDowall, is that he was one of the rare cases, especially back in that "Golden Era" of film, who not only made the successful transition from child actor to adult actor, but actually had a long and prolific career as an adult actor. Hell, he acted for six-plus decades in total, so I'd say he did pretty well for himself. His career in film, television and theater continued on into the 60s, when he featured in the role of Private Morris in the war epic The Longest Day (1962), where he ironically played an American soldier, even though there was a sizeable British cast as well (including Sean Connery).  In 1963 he starred alongside the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton in the historical epic Cleopatra, where he played Octavian, the man who would become Augustus Caesar. 

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

That Darn Cat! (1965)

Now my own personal first exposure to Roddy, was probably the 1971 Disney fantasy film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which just so happened to be one of my very favorite movies as a child. I mean, what's not to love about a film featuring a traveling magic bed and an enchanted army of empty armor come to life? His role was minor in the film, but notable, as Mr. Rowan Jelk, a local English clergyman, who while seemingly well-meaning, is subtly trying to get in good with Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a single heiress, because he wants to marry her (mainly for her property). He is, of course, unaware that she is a  witch, and later finds this out the hard way, coming calling once more, only to have enchanted boots almost literally run him off. I also probably saw him in That Darn Cat! (1965), a goofball mystery movie, wherein a feisty cat helps to solve a kidnapping. 

Another Childhood Favorite.

And another.


He also had a minor role in another 1970s Disney film that was a childhood favorite of mine, The Cat From Outer Space (1978), a movie about an alien who happens to be a cat, who uses a high-tech collar to telepathically speak to some humans who are trying to help him get back out into space, without getting captured by the military. I also remembered him for his small but memorable part as The March Hare in the 1985 two-part TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. He featured alongside Anthony Newley as The Mad Hatter and Arte Johnson as The Dormouse, and they did that scene a fair bit of justice. It's hard to top Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna in the original 1951 Disney cartoon, but they did "The Mad Tea Party" well nonetheless. 

And of course, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn't mention not only one of my favorite animated films of all time, but one of my personal favorite roles of Mr. Dowall, and that is his turn as the voice of hobbit Samwise Gamgee in Rankin/Bass' follow-up to their incredible The Hobbit (1977) TV movie, 1980s Return of the King.  Starring opposite Orson Bean, as Frodo Baggins, who also did the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the '77 Hobbit (and does Old Bilbo in this), Roddy really kind of steals the show as Sam. Return of the King, the novel, in many ways is Sam's time to shine anyway, as has been poisoned by Shelob, tortured by orcs, and is becoming overwhelmed by The One Ring. And McDowall does absolutely thrive in his lively performance of Sam, in what I would say is the best portrayal of the character (no offense meant to Sean Astin, who also did a great job in Peter Jackson's films). One of my favorite scenes from the movie, a slight embellishment from the novel, is a scene in which Sam is alone, and the Ring gives him a grand vision of himself defeating Sauron and becoming Lord of Mordor, which he transforms into a Eden-like paradise. A really powerful scene, one of many led by McDowall's powerful voice-work. 

The Bookworm

The Mad Hatter

Mr. McDowall also had appearances on many TV shows over the years. He appeared in two Rod Serling shows, both The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, one episode each, "People Are Alike All Over" (TZ) and "The Cemetery" (NG). He featured in episodes of Mission Impossible, Wonder Woman, and even Quantum Leap. Late in his career, mainly in the 90s, he also got more into voice acting roles for animation, which included voices for cartoons such as Pirates of Dark Water, Pinky and the Brain, The Tick and Gargoyles. Of course, my personal favorite of those, pictured above, was his turn as The Mad Hatter in Batman: The Animated Series (and later an episode of The New Batman Adventures). He had previous history on the OTHER iconic Batman show, the goofy 1960s Adam West show, where he played the villain The Bookworm. But as Dr. Jervis Tetch, a classic Batman villain dating back to 1948, Roddy lent the character both a sympathetic, yet eerie edge. In fact, he did the role so well, that much like many of the OTHER key roles on that cartoon, I can't really imagine the Hatter having any other voice.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Doctors Cornelius and Zira

Their son Caesar.

Of course, Roddy McDowall's most FAMOUS role, and one I myself would come to know him for as a child, thanks to a weekend long Apes marathon on TV, was his role under heavy make-up and prosthetics, in the science fiction classic (also co-written by Rod Serling), Planet of the Apes (1968). In the film, he played Dr. Cornelius, a humanoid chimpanzee archaeologist in a far future where apes had somehow evolved into bipedal, speaking civilization, and humans had regressed to non-speaking wildmen. His wife was Dr. Zira, a zoologist specializing in working with "man animals", played wonderfully by actress Kim Hunter. They assist some human astronauts (first Charlton Heston as Taylor and later James Franciscus as Brent) who find themselves time-warped into this future world. Later still, they manage to use one of their repaired spacecraft to escape the destruction of said-world, and time-warp THEMSELVES back to 1970s Earth, to a world ruled by intelligent humans. 

Their ultimate end, shall we say, is less than humane or glorious (which I always hated), but their son is secreted away by a human friend they've made in Armando, and is named Caesar, who is raised in an increasingly dystopian future where apes are made to be a slave-class to humans, which eventually leads to an uprising, etc. All told, McDowall starred in all five Apes films, in three as Cornelius and the final two as his own son Caesar. In fact he was so popular and connected to that series, that he even starred in the short lived (one season) Planet of the Apes TV show (1974), as a completely different ape named Galen. I would say that the Apes films might well have been a success without him, certainly the first. But I think it was McDowall's (again) iconic voice and his incredible presence and persona, that really brought his Ape characters to life, and really helped invest viewers in that world. Even though the original film was starring vehicle for Charlton Heston, and in all fairness he did a great job with it, I think that Roddy easily became the voice and face (prosthetic as it was) of the franchise. I could (and probably will in its own article) argue that the original Apes film never needed any sequels, but I am, on the other hand, happy for Roddy that they were such a success, and such a big part of his career. 

Roddy and the Golem.

Roddy the Psychic

Roddy the Vampire Hunter.

Naturally, it wouldn't be much of a Halloween article, if I didn't bring a bit of spookiness into the deal. And it just so happens that Mr. McDowall also had several roles in a lot of lesser-known horror films during his career, as well. One such role was that of Arthur Pimm in the 1967 British film IT, also known as Curse of the Golem, which borrows heavily for his character from the earlier 60s Hitchcock megahit Psycho (1960). The similarity is that his character, a museum employee, keeps his own mother's dead and rotting corpse in his home, and steals jewelry to put on her, because he's fucking nuts. But the twist is, he comes across a Jewish Golem in the museum, which he learns to control, and sends it out to do his bidding, with expectantly disastrous consequences. He also starred in the 1973 paranormal thriller The Legend of Hell House, where he plays Benjamin Franklin Fischer, one of a pair of psychics brought to Belasco House, the "Mount Everest of Haunted Houses", to conduct paranormal research. The group is tormented and even attacked by the forces of the house, and without spoiling too much, let's just say shit goes sideways. I would recommend the latter, as it is a fairly solid haunted house movie.

My personal favorite of these horror roles, of course, is 1985's Fright Night, in which he plays one of my favorite roles of his, the character of actor Peter Vincent (a send-up to both Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), an old vampire movie star who horror fanatic Charlie tries to gain help from in his quest to fight his next door neighbor. His neighbor, of course, happens to be a vampire, the fiendish Jerry Dandrige (played by Chris Sarandon). It's one of his best roles, and one of the most coolest characters in all of horror-dom, if you ask me, because he starts out as an obvious phony (or at least, just a washed up actor who doesn't have time for crazy fans), but eventually lives his character, being he Van Helsing-like hero that both Charlie believes in, and needs to save his life. 

Laserblast (1978)

The coolest robot this side of Robby.

McDowall also featured in other genre films, such as the highly questionable cult classic with great stop motion effects, 1978's Laserblast (as seen above featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000), as the character Dr. Mellon.  Or another of my personal favorites, and another voice role people are likely unaware of, he provide the voice of the robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T., opposite Slim Pickens as "Old Bob", in the 1979 sci-fi film The Black Hole. That is another film I saw in my childhood, and loved, probably mostly due to the fact that McDowall as the robot is both endearing and funny, in an otherwise very dark and somber (especially for Disney) science fiction story. "Vince" is easily one of the coolest robots in cinema history, which is sad, because again, he is a character from a film few really know about these days (and more should). 

All in all, at least in this man's estimation, Roddy McDowall had a long and very successful career. In fact, his last film role came the same year as his sad death to lung cancer, 1998, where he provided the voice for "Mr. Soil" in the Pixar hit A Bug's Life. Not an amazing role, but also not too shabby a way to "go out", so to speak. Mr. McDowall was an "actor's actor", as the saying goes, reported a consummate gentleman and kind man, and unlike many actors, he had a very long career that saw him in a wide variety of genres, from comedy and drama, to romance and historical epic, to horror and science fiction. He was a huge, iconic part of film history with the Apes series, played some of the best, and most interesting characters I know in film. 

It is my genuine hope, that after reading this article, that you will not only now be more familiar with Roddy McDowall and his work. But that you will also be inspired to go and seek out, and watch some of his work as well, to really enjoy and cherish one of the finer performers this medium of entertainment, in my humble estimation, has ever produced. If I had to give you some top suggestions of McDowall films to see, some of my picks would be:

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

It! (1967)

The Return of the King (1980)

Fright Night (1985)

And because it shouldn't be missed, the Batman Animated Series episodes "Mad As a Hatter", "Perchance to Dream", and "The Worry Men."

If you can only for some reason watch a couple, I would say to make sure you catch Fright Night and Return of the King, and the original Planet of the Apes.  It's the perfect time of year for them, and in my humble opinion, everyone could use a bit more Roddy in their life. Cheers!