Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Banana Splits Movie Review

Well, it was bound to happen. A generation of kids who grew up with The Banana Splits program would be treated to a live-action big screen motion-picture. A fictional bubble-gum rock group consisting of four animal characters in red helmets: Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky. They danced about a kiddie carnival, rode bumper cars and sang the song you could never get out of your head. And, yes, I was among those children who grew up watching The Banana Splits on television.

But when watching the new 2019 big screen movie, I had only momentary flashbacks to my childhood. When a kid asks his parents, "Why does Drooper have blood on him?" and when hot mom takes one of her two shirts off and, armed with a large monkey wrench, starts beating up Drooper and screams, "Abracadabra this, bitch!" my money was immediately on Snorky. Yep, the new motion-picture is a horror film. People will be killed, blood will be splashing around and lots of screaming and running.

When the producer of the children's program learns The Banana Splits program is being cancelled by a vicious network executive, our four anthropomorphic characters take matters into their own hands. 

There are a number of in-jokes such as a reference to the Sour Grapes, and the true fact that the program (as indicated by the tour guide) was originally going to be called "The Banana Bunch" but permission could not be obtained by the author of a children's book of the same name. You will catch a glimpse of old favorites such as the Cuckoo Clock and the Banana Vac. I could not spot the Goofy Gopher, but that does not mean he is not there.

Regrettably, the movie was shot in South America (as indicated during the closing credits) no doubt to ensure a profit from day one. The movie was filmed low budget and (especially the first ten minutes) the low budget shows. As much as purists cried "foul" after seeing the movie trailer online earlier this year, the only flaw with this movie is the fact that it carries the old cliché of horror films. Twenty or thirty minutes into the movie you already can predict who will face a grizzly demise and who will no doubt survive the evening's ordeal. As a horror movie there is plenty going for it and having watched the movie trailer in advance to know what I was in for, this was not a disappointment by any means. As a horror movie, it works. Skeptic? Give this one a try.

By the way, the movie airs on the SyFy Channel this Saturday evening and the movie can be streamed on, not to mention the commercial DVD available for sale.

Perhaps the only real horror is wondering why Banana Splits Funko Pops, tee shirts, CD soundtracks and a 2019 horror film is available for purchase but the original 1970s series has yet to be released on DVD commercially in the United States.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Old Dark House: A Chilling Genre

Not to be confused with Haunted House movies, which tend to involve ghosts or some other supernatural entity in a horror setting, one subgenre of mystery films that have only recently become popular again in that cycle of pop culture interest is that of the Old Dark House mystery. These include such recurring denominators as a dark and stormy night, secret passageways, a group of strangers having to spend the night in a house, mansion or castle, and a killer, madman, or creature on the loose. 

During the silent era such films offered cutaways and trick shots involving nervous could-be culprits, a highly suspicious sleuth, and cast members who suddenly disappear one by one as the criminal lurks behind bedroom curtains. Inspired by the stage plays that predated them, the best of these classics were the inspiration for the early talkies that were to come: The BatThe Cat and the CanaryThe Monster and The Last Warning. The latter of which was recently restored and released on DVD and BluRay.

Each of these plays was decidedly tongue-in-cheek, with mad scientists and super criminals terrorizing hapless Jazz Age types. Women were frequently targeted, while egghead and masculine males engaged in feuds stemming from unrequited love. Money predominated as the driving factor, although not all of the criminals had such sane motivations. 

As sound merged with celluloid, so did the elaborate gimmicks as each movie applied a variation-on-a-theme motif that oftentimes lent towards comedy, farce and bumbling detectives who were no match for the amateur protagonist drawn into the caper. As an American art form, Old Dark House movies helped to establish not only a narrative that remained strong in the horror movie genre, but also helped audiences to accept a little slapstick comedy in otherwise tension-filled productions. 

The best of these – and frequently discussed – include The Bat Whispers (1930), Universal’s The Old Dark House (1932, with Boris Karloff), followed up with Universal’s Secret of the Blue Room (1933, with Lionel Atwill), and Mascot’s One Frightened Night (1935). In most cases the sets for the old dark houses were elaborate, then masked by candle-lit cinematography. The houses in early offerings were often Gothic Victorian mansions, but by 1941 they were noted as being denigrated (such as Universal’s The Black Cat), sometimes broken or destroyed at the conclusion of the mystery. In Paramount Pictures’ One Body Too Many (1944), the old dark house received a modernized spin by adding an observatory at the top.

The advantage to producing such films was oftentimes budgetary. Throughout the 1930s, movie studios with a reputation for producing movies on the cheap took advantage of the Old Dark House popularity with their own renditions. Oftentimes these pictures were a tad talky, but anyone who takes time to seek out these films would discover a number of hidden gems. In 1931, Supreme Pictures released The Phantom, a chilling tale of a group of people who are stalked by a masked killer in an old mansion, and the heroine is threatened not with supernatural terrors but with a brain transplant. In 1932, Mayfair Pictures released Tangled Destinies, concerning a plane making an emergency landing, forcing the passengers to take refuge in a deserted house… only to discover one of them is a demented killer. In 1934, Columbia Pictures gave us The 9th Guest, concerning eight strangers who are invited to spend the night in a penthouse apartment. After being wined and dined, a voice on the radio informs them that they will be murdered unless they manage to outwit the ninth guest: Death.

In 1943, Monogram Studios produced The House of Mystery, about an adventurer who kills a sacred monkey and as a result learns that someone put a curse on him. He returns to America where his shareholders want a return for their investment, but before he can make good on his promise, he finds himself spending a week in an old dark mansion where all sorts of strange things are going on. This film avoided the puppet or projection excuse that was fairly routine in films of this nature and instead featured both a real gorilla and a guy in a gorilla suit.

For those of you who enjoy watching old horror movies in October, consider the Old Dark House genre. If you can find a copy of Murder by the Clock from 1931, you will find this one very rewarding; a thriller that combines the atmosphere of the Universal horror films of the 1930’s with the feel of the sophisticated pre-codes of Paramount. From the mystery novel by Rufus King, this movie told the story of a man who was murdered twice by the jealous hand of a woman. This is a rare chance to see Lilyan Tashman in a leading role, and she is spot on as a woman who wants wealth and comfort by any means possible and sees her ability to manipulate men to do her bidding as key to her plan. Released by Paramount Pictures in 1931, this mystery contains the atmosphere of a horror film, in an era where the studio had announced months prior that it was making Old Dark House pictures to compete against the gangster movies being produced by Warner Brothers. 

There is a crypt with an installed horn that blares to warn people the occupant has been buried alive. There is a drug that revives the dead. There is a brute with the strength and the mind of a beast. And there is a sinister woman (played by Lilyan Tashman) who seduces men to commit murders for her own gain. It is Tashman, as the nefarious Laura Endicott, who dominates the film. Adorned in tight satin dresses that showcase her lithe figure, she vamps with sinuous style, as bewitching to the audience as she is to her pawns. She definitely had the potential for stardom but would sadly pass away a few years after this movie was completed. With an opening scene that takes place in a murky old Gothic-style graveyard, to a scene where a corpse is disinterred making certain she is really dead (no, we are not joking), Murder on the Clock is a great entry in the Old Dark House genre worth watching… if you dare.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Universal Studios Cliffhanger Classics

Fans of cliffhanger serials may have noticed new releases from VCI Entertainment, filmed chapter plays released to DVD in superior picture quality and sound. The company is going to the added expense of digital restoration in 2K from the studio's 35mm masters. For decades fans of cliffhanger serials could only enjoy these gems from the 1930s and 1940s from 16mm print transfers, which were usually floating about in collector hands and varied in quality. Those same 16mm prints circulated on eBay, while collectors did their own transfers to VHS (and later DVD). 

It has been a journey of over 40 years, but fans of the genre are now being rewarded for the long wait.  Back in the 1970s, VCI Entertainment acquired the "non-theatrical" distribution rights to 48 serials from Universal Studios through a third party. After an arduous struggle with "chain-of-title" documentation, Universal has finally turned over the original film elements to 38 of those serials and is currently working on tracking down archival materials for the remaining ten. VCI Entertainment plans to bring all 48 to the collector market as either 2K or 4K scans from either the original negatives or remaining fine grain elements. 

Yours truly purchased a case of each of the four serials released so far: The Red Rider (1934), The Roaring West (1934), The Vanishing Shadow (1934) and Lost City of the Jungle (1946). The intention is to give away these serials to friends and family who might otherwise not seek interest, and to resell a number of them to those not on the Internet and would not otherwise know they exist. The intent is to boost numbers because, if these newly-released serials sell well, VCI will continue beyond the initial intention of releasing one every month like clockwork. (The Mysterious Mr. M has a November release date.) 

More importantly, having reviewed these serials, I can verify that the picture and sound is better than it has ever been and will no doubt be the final word on picture clarity. The spine of each DVD release displays "Classic Cliffhanger #" prominently so you can keep track of each release by volume number. So if you are seeking upgrades to your cliffhanger serial collection, or want to see the entire Universal Studios cliffhanger serial library released to DVD and BluRay, do yourself a favor and buy one of each today. I provided cover scans of the first five releases to avoid confusion and ensure you purchase the correct ones.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Legend of Packy Smith

The name Packy Smith might not be ringing a bell with many reading this but you would certainly recognize his contributions to the preservation of motion-pictures and music. An early interest led to a lifelong career collecting, selling, and analyzing cowboy movies and western music. He authored numerous scholarly articles; wrote, co-wrote, produced, and edited books including Hopalong Cassidy and 30 Years on the Road with Gene Autry; and launched Riverwood Press, publishing the work of others in the field.
Packy co-founded the Western Film Festival (during an era when fan gatherings and conventions were almost unheard of for that genre) and more recently the Lone Pine Film Festival, where he was instrumental in obtaining guests and procuring rare movies shown at events over the last three decades. He served on the board of directors of the Museum of Western Film History, also in Lone Pine, and co-produced a season of the Roy Rogers “Happy Trails Theatre” television show for the Nashville Network.
So you can imagine how heart broken I was to learn earlier this year that Packy Smith passed away from cancer. Rather than grieve over the loss, I felt it fitting to acknowledge his accomplishments.
Packy Smith receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award
from Bill Sasser at the Williamsburg Film Festival in 2008,

Literally hundreds of commercial LP records, CDs, VHS and DVD releases were produced courtesy of Packy’s generosity, who sought out and preserved kinescopes and recording masters.
Packy’s enthusiasm for the Western—not only in films but in art, books, and music—was unlimited, and it informed just about everything he did professionally for many years. Packy not only loved Westerns; he loved people who love Westerns, and he happily shared his enthusiasm with family members young and old. His passing leaves behind a veritable legion of heartbroken friends and colleagues, who remember his dry sense of humor, boundless curiosity, and big heart. He will be missed more than we can possibly say.