It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

How do you prep a kid in the modern age for this film? One of the radical differences in the way we consume entertainment today than how we did from the sixties through the eighties is that it’s perfectly understandable that a kid could reach the age of ten without knowing who anybody in this silly and hilarious epic is. I think I must have been about twelve when I first saw It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on HBO around 1983. My dad saw it in the monthly program book and cancelled all potential plans; we were watching that movie. And then, I remember being amazed because I knew who so many of the actors were. Him! Her and him! That guy! Milton Berle! The millionaire from Gilligan’s Island! Mearth from Mork & Mindy! The mechanic from The Love Bug!

Today? The only reason any kid would know any of these jokers is if their parents are showing them entertainment from the past. Choices were so limited then that when we wanted to watch TV, we often settled. We were often pleasantly surprised and amused, but kids today get to watch whatever they want whenever they want – which is how it should be – while we grew up watching whatever we thought was the best of the eight or nine options available. So occasionally we’d run into Jerry Lewis or Mickey Rooney or Peter Falk or Sid Caesar or Edie Adams or Ethel Merman or Terry-Thomas or Jonathan Winters or Phil Silver and be happily entertained, but what we really wanted was for somebody to make TV shows where Spider-Man and the Hulk fought actual supervillains and had them on demand to watch whenever we wanted. Kids today have that. The comic heroes of the past will be lost to time. Nothing lasts forever.

(A question went around on Twitter yesterday, one with which we were sometimes confronted: The Andy Griffith Show or The Beverly Hillbillies? The answer, of course, is “the sweet, merciful embrace of death.”)

So what prep work was there for our son? Well, I told him that he saw Terry-Thomas as Cousin Archie in a Persuaders! we saw recently, and he was sure to remember Milton Berle being heckled offstage by Statler and Waldorf in one of the finest moments in all of The Muppet Show, and…

…and he’d just have to trust me, because one of the most amazing things about Mad World is just about every speaking part in the movie is played by somebody that audiences in 1963, 1973, 1983, probably 1993 knew. In 1983, my dad had forgotten that the two service station attendants who briefly bedevil Jonathan Winters were actors even he knew. I remember him saying “That’s Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan!”

The other bit of prep work that I could do was remind him of the Three Stooges. You never know how this kid’s memory works. I picked up the complete DVD set some time back, but we’ve only seen a few, and it’s been a while, so we sat down to “Three Little Beers,” the one with the press, press, pull gag, yesterday afternoon. He about lost his mind, and I reminded him that there is absolutely no situation that the Stooges cannot make far, far worse. Had to make sure to set up their brief appearance here.

I’m confident anybody reading this is familiar with the movie, though it’s possible you may not be aware of how much antipathy there is in the movie snob world about it. A few months ago, when I got interested in the Criterion Collection again, I read the World thread at their forum and was surprised to see it get so much hate. I think it’s absolute slapstick joy myself, and the kid, dying of laughter, completely agreed, but you see Dorothy Provine in the center of the top picture, finding this whole thing unamusing if not disgusting and ready to call the police to round up these greedy jackasses? That’s my wife, that is. She didn’t come back from the intermission.

Never mind the haters. Watch this movie with a kid. Prep them as best you can beforehand so they’ll know what pay phones are, and let it rip. They’ll probably miss a few of the gags, like Spencer Tracy making his decisions, or Berle’s face when Merman asks where she should stick a cactus, but Silvers’ car and Winters at the garage will have them howling. It’s a little dated, and I suppose it will one day be forgotten, but until then, it’s sure to make me laugh so hard that my left eye will still be hurting an hour later. You probably don’t need the five-disc version, but as Mark Evanier, one of the contributors to the commentary track, will tell you, the two Blu-ray Criterion will do you just fine. See you at the Big W.

The War in Space (1977)

Every once in a while, the stars line up just right. It’s not like I despaired or anything, but I didn’t think that I’d get to feature the remarkably dumb Toho sci-fi borefest The War in Space for our blog. It was out of print when we did our season of Star Wars Cash-Ins almost – gosh – five years ago, but the indispensable DVD Beaver noted that a German outfit called White Pearl actually released it in late 2019. Well, I just couldn’t resist this. I’d be doing you good readers a terrible disservice not telling you about it.

See, among all those cash-ins in the late seventies and early 1980s, The War in Space holds a special distinction. It may not be the worst of them, but it was the very first. All the Starcrashs and Shapes of Things to Come are following in this stinker’s footprints.

The story is a much better one than the movie itself. The special effects technician grapevine had been buzzing all through 1976 that some guy named Lucas and a startup concern that would become Industrial Light and Magic were going to revolutionize the way these space movies were made. So when Star Wars premiered in California the following May, Toho Studios made sure that some of their people were in one of the first audiences. 20th Century Fox hadn’t arranged international distribution yet – they were even hesitant about a coast to coast rollout in those strange days of yesteryear when global blockbusters didn’t exist yet – and so the fellows who flew to America to see it were able to make some suggestions and swipe some ideas for a feature that was in pre-production, and actually beat Star Wars to Japanese movie theaters.

Jun Fukuda had been a go-to director for Toho’s sci-fi movies for a while. He’d been in charge of the Godzilla films for several years, navigating the movies through progressively smaller budgets. So with a story about a flying battleship saving Earth from enemy invasion already in the early stages, they added some things that look like X-Wings and TIEs having dogfights, and a Death Star trench, and light saber knives, and Chewbacca with a big hatchet – yep, it’s Karvanista from “Flux” – and a Vader Villain. Their world is far from here. They can go all over the immensity of the galactic system, but they use Venus as their base of operations and blow up American cities in repurposed footage from Toho’s 1959 movie Battle in Outer Space.

But the big problem with The War in Space is there’s not nearly enough pilfering going on. This is a long, long 88 minutes of nothing happening until miniature spaceships start shooting at each other. We meet some characters on Earth in the far-flung future of 1988, and it’s people in suits and ties having shootouts with imposters wearing rubber masks. Shōji Nakayama, who had played the commander character in Ultraseven, is here, briefly, as the UN debates what to do next, and whether to launch the Gohten. This is sort of the same ship previously featured in 1963’s Atragon, which is a much, much better movie.

What’s weird is that this film is full of characters and they get little hints of backstory here and there, and they get killed off left and right without comment. Even if we were watching this subtitled, it would be impossible to sympathize with the characters because the movie keeps the audience at a huge distance. Sadly, the only English language option is dubbed, and it’s a notoriously hilarious dub, from that school of “say anything – anything at all – as long as the original actor’s mouth is moving” that very low-rent localization companies used to employ. A couple of weeks ago, bizarrely, I was watching a naughty Jess Franco film, naughty even by Franco standards, made the same year as this, with exactly the same style of dubbing. Never wanted words on the bottom of the screen so badly in my life.

The target audience in our home was less than impressed, although he did enjoy the climax, in which Earth’s flying battleship and the enemy’s big “galleon” start blasting each other with increasingly unlikely hidden weapons. But as I say, the problem is that there is far too little of the Star Wars stuff and far too much of men parachuting onto island bases in the Pacific. The movie has a big axe-wielding Chewbacca dog with horns and absolutely no idea what to do with him. Maybe they should’ve stayed in California another week and watched Star Wars six or seven more times before making this dull, silly thing.

The Witches (1990)

Roald Dahl was right. This movie has a bullshit ending.

Anyway, welcome back, readers, for this blog’s final month before we wrap up. Today we resumed Sunday Morning Movies with Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Dahl’s novel The Witches, which, until its final sixty seconds, is a tremendously entertaining and incredibly fun film. It was the last movie that Jim Henson worked on before he passed away, and while nobody really wants to get caught in a debate between two cultural titans like Henson and Dahl, everybody who agreed that this story needed a “happy” ending was as wrong as wrong can be. I was reminded of that episode of Friends where Phoebe realizes that her mother had been switching off movies before they reached their sad endings. Stop this film when the mouse and his grandma go to bed and you’ve got a splendid movie.

A few months ago, I wrote about The Watcher in the Woods and noted that the DVD release includes the original ending. I since joined the Disney Movie Club to grab some otherwise unavailable Blu-rays, and that edition of Watcher even includes the original opening, which was also dumped before it received a wide release. The Witches is presently only available on Blu-ray from Warner’s Archive Collection, with no extras except a trailer. I hope one day somebody releases a version of this with the finale that Dahl wanted.

As though to prove how insular and weird our lives have become over the last two years, there’s actually a remake of this film I’d never heard of! Robert Zemeckis directed it and I never knew of it. It came out last year, and when I mentioned this to our son last night, he said that he’d once seen trailers for it on YouTube. Baffled, I asked whether it has people turned into mice. Yep, same story. Except the new version features Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch and the 1990 edition has Anjelica Huston. Wonderfully, the Grand High Witch has chosen a black and purple ensemble, just like Boss Witch in 1970’s Pufnstuf. I choose to believe they’re set in the same universe.

So the kid was completely charmed and thrilled and loved this movie to bits, as he should. I also enjoyed the heck out of it, and really liked the delightful realization that the hero kid and his grandmother have picked the wrong darn hotel to visit at the wrong time. It’s a beautiful one, mind, on a gorgeous Cornwall beach, but they could’ve chosen a different weekend and avoided much unpleasantness. Jim Henson and his team were on fire as always, and Rowan Atkinson, Anne Lambton, and Bill Paterson are terrific in supporting roles. We absolutely loved the great photography and the real sense of danger as the mice scurry around the hotel corridors, desperate not to be seen.

I think the most impressive thing about The Witches is that it doesn’t play it safe at all. The kid’s ten and is made from some pretty stern stuff, but if we’d shown him this movie maybe just four years ago, he’d probably have been a mess! I really like how movies from this period were willing to play hardball with children and were ready to give them nightmares. It’s not only that the Grand High Witch is revolting, it’s just a gleefully mean movie full of people who cannot stand children. Even for a Roald Dahl adaptation, this adult world is remarkably anti-kid. At one point, a witch shoves a baby in its pram toward the cliff, and if you listen carefully, you can hear an entire movie theater full of seven year-olds gasp in horror. It may not be as perfect an adaptation as Matilda would be a few years later, but I was pretty certain by the time this finished that its antagonist, Miss Trunchbull, has purple eyes and scalp rash.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

It’s another morning where I don’t feel like writing a great deal, so for posterity, I’ll mention that before we got started with 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I told him that Paul Newman and Robert Redford were among the biggest movie stars of their day, and that he should look out for Ted Cassidy in a small role as a really big guy. But mostly we talked with our son about postmodernism and the film’s writer, William Goldman. I made sure to point out that Goldman wrote the novel The Princess Bride a few years after this. I won’t swear that the film is necessarily among his favorites, but his mom and I think it’s fantastic.

But the late sixties was a time when really good writers, like Goldman, were experimenting with expectations in popular media, and one of the trillion reasons I think Butch and Sundance is among the all-time greatest American films is that this movie does not do anything at all the way audiences in its day expected it to. The protagonists are villains, but they’re so affable that they never appear villainous. For almost the entire film, they break laws, but they are never cruel or sadistic, and don’t wish to hurt anyone. The narrative wants to force the protagonists to engage with the rising action of the posse that is chasing them; instead they spend a full quarter of the movie running away from it. And then there’s the end.

Despite the thirty minutes of running away, our son says that he really enjoyed this. His favorite moment was certainly the “too much dynamite” explosion, but some of the dialogue had him giggling good as well. “If he’d just pay me what he’s paying them to stop me robbing him, I’d stop robbing him” is certainly one of my all-time favorite lines in any movie. I can see why many viewers in 1969-70 were unhappy with Butch and Sundance because it was so unlike typical westerns, but the unusual structural things that it did are a little more commonplace today, and so it didn’t seem quite as weird to our son. It’s just an amusing film, photographed beautifully, with occasional action and an unforgettable finale. If you haven’t seen it, you really, really should.

Rodan (1956)

For all the amazing movies and TV shows that have been reissued and spruced up, we are unfortunately between editions of Rodan, the first Japanese monster movie to be made in color. The DVD is out of print and going for silly money right now; a new Blu-ray is inevitable, some might say, but none of the usual suspects have announced one. Mothra seems to be getting all the non-Godzilla love right now.

I enjoyed prepping our son a little last night before this morning’s presentation. The big thing to remember when watching this movie is that it was not intended as part of Godzilla’s universe. It’s a stand-alone piece, and you might argue that Rodan’s been diminished as only a sidekick since he resurfaced in Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster eight years later. But the other fun thing about Rodan is that Toho’s giant monster formula was nowhere near set in stone yet. It’s not a unique experience – it owes quite a lot to standard American disaster movies, quite obviously War of the Worlds – but it doesn’t have that “yeah, yeah, get on with it” feel that a mid-period Godzilla has.

What it does have from just about the outset is one of our heroes, Kenji Sahara. He’s in so many of the Toho monster films – I count 19 of them through 1975 – because director Ishiro Honda loved working with him so much. Add in his frequent appearances in the Ultra-series, and is it any wonder that anybody who loves Japanese films from the period thinks the world of the guy? Even if he does look like a baby in 1956.

Anyway, Rodan begins with what turns out to be a delightful, disgusting swerve. The film is set in a village around a big mining operation on Kyushu, and it looks like it’s building up to a reveal that a giant monster is behind a cave-in. We paused early on to point out the very interesting difference between this film and the Ultra-series, which is clearly intended for children. That show may occasionally swerve into more adult territory, which is why I chose to publish a post about it earlier today, but at its core it is a kid show. But Rodan spends some fascinating time with the fallout of the cave-in. Two miners go missing; they’d been brawling earlier before the shift began. The body of one is recovered. He was murdered; the suspect cannot be found. The film lingers on his widow’s grief and fury, and the way the community shuns the sister of the suspected killer, in a way that children’s series just don’t do.

We’re expecting a giant monster to show up and clarify things, but what we get, while huge, is much smaller. The killer is a huge insect about twelve feet long, with ugly pincers and a bulletproof carapace. It’s horrifying in an effective and wild way, because giant monsters are something we can enjoy watching onscreen, but they’re honestly a little hard to conceptualize as a genuine threat. They would come, destroy, and instantly move on like tornadoes. This huge bug feels more solid and repulsive. Okay, so it looks like an Eiji Tsubaraya suit monster, but it’s remarkably easy to believe in if you let it.

Rodan shows up not long after, completely divorced – at first – from the business on Kyushu. We understand later where it’s tied in. Rodan hatched in the same hidden underground chamber where the huge insects had lived. It eats them all and then flies out looking for other food.

Oh, did I say “it”? There’s more than one. The kid popped his lid, I mean just jumped off the sofa. “There are TWO?! Since when are there two?!” There were always two; the Godzilla series retconned it.

What follows is a – mostly – completely splendid mix of great special effects with casts of hundreds of extras. You can see the money that Toho put on screens for this that they most emphatically did not a dozen years later. The miniature work is completely delightful, because they actually replicated the same cities and bridges where the live action crew filmed. It comes to something of an anticlimax, unfortunately, as military vs. monsters stories often do. These Rodans are far less hardy than Godzilla’s sidekick; they are eventually killed by a combination of volcanic gasses and lava. But getting to that point, we have to suffer through about four minutes of the military firing rockets into the ground. The movie’s very short, only about 80 minutes, but it starts feeling incredibly long when we’ve got nothing but grass and rocks exploding.

The kid was absolutely pleased. Sure, he enjoys the mayhem and far larger scale of the later Godzilla epics more, but this is still a rousing crowd-pleaser. I certainly hope we’ll see an upgraded edition very soon. I also want a Criterion Atragon while we’re at it. I don’t care how many amazing movies and TV shows have been reissued and spruced up; I’m still greedy.

Ghostbusters (1984)

It’s almost trendy to write little revisionist think pieces about Ghostbusters, wondering how in the world Sigourney Weaver’s character affords that penthouse, or noting that it’s so sadly wrapped up in the viewpoint of Reagan-era anti-government feeling that the EPA dude is depicted as the villain, when honestly, our private-enterprise heroes really should have been storing their specters with a little regulation. Our heroes are probably correct, however, in noting that this man has no dick.

So let me say this instead: I don’t know that our son has ever enjoyed a film more. He told us that it’s one of his top three movies of all time, although he demurred when pressed what the other two might be. Perhaps sadly, I couldn’t slide the experience in under his pop culture radar before the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was known to him. Longtime readers know that getting the movie in before he learns all its secrets is one of those silly things I love to do, but Mr. Stay-Puft remains culturally omnipresent almost forty years later. In the scene in Dana’s apartment where the eggs start frying on her counter, our son spotted the bag of marshmallows. “Stay-Puft!” he said with glee. “Chekhov’s Gun,” I replied.

I think this might have been the first time our son’s seen Bill Murray in a film. Definitely Harold Ramis as well, although I’ve seen few of his movies myself. He has seen Dan Aykroyd in It Came From Hollywood. Think I’ll give him a Saturday Night Live primer over lunch.

You often hear people get nostalgic for the eighties. I don’t buy it if you’re talking about music in this country, in part because in any given week in that decade, 39 songs of the American Top 40 should have been buried at sea, and in part because I don’t know where it came from, but freaking “Almost Paradise” from Footloose has been stuck in my head for a week and I’m about to start longing for the sweet embrace of death to dislodge the damn thing.

But quite a few of the popular movies of the eighties have absolutely stood the test of time. There’s an obvious reason why the biggest crowd-pleasers of the day still have such incredibly loyal fandoms: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, The Goonies, even many of the ones that found their afterlife in home video and HBO like Big Trouble in Little China remain just remarkably entertaining. You look at the five stinkfests nominated for Best Picture the year that Ghostbusters was released and it’s like a murderer’s row of the most boring movies ever. Maybe they should wait a couple of decades before deciding what a year’s best picture really was. I just scrolled down Wikipedia’s list of films released in 1984. Full of stinkers and things I don’t remember, but also nine or ten real winners. And none of them were better than Ghostbusters.

Because I’m too lazy to fight with my external drive, the image comes from Geek Soup, whose even lazier article contains at least three errors. James? 1960s? “I need a different kind of drug”? Don’t believe anything you read on the internet, kids!

100 Monsters (1968)

Shortly after Arrow announced their wonderful repackaging of the Daimajin films, they announced what sounded like a neat companion set called Yokai Monsters. I was unfamiliar with them, so I dusted off my copy of Stuart Galbraith IV’s 1994 book Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films and found very little information there. Only the first of the three films made in the sixties has an entry, and the author admitted his unfamiliarity with the movies.

Happily, Galbraith has learned a heck of a lot more about the series since 1994. He has a really good essay detailing their production in Arrow’s set, which also includes a 2005 film by Takashi Miike called The Great Yokai War that revisits these beasts and specters. There’s also an essay about the artist Shigeru Mizuki, whose wildly popular comic GeGeGe no Kitarō, and its long-running television adaptation (547 episodes!!), is credited with kickstarting the 1960s reinterest in the ghosts and goblins of Japanese folklore and keeping it going into the present day. It’s a terrific set, and about the only thing I’m not happy with is that Arrow’s packaging doesn’t precisely match its excellent Daimajin set and is instead a standard hard box for the Blu-ray cases. I’m also a little annoyed that my Leawo player crashes when I try to play the darn thing to get some screencaps. Such is life.

I thought 100 Monsters was completely delightful, but our son was only sporadically interested. It’s a short film at 78 minutes, but it’s also a very down-to-earth story about two scheming rich jerks in Japan’s Edo period (between 1603 and 1867) who plan to tear down a disused shrine to forgotten gods and a low-income apartment house, and the locals who have rallied against them. One of these is a masterless samurai who infiltrates the rich jerks’ celebratory party. There, a storyteller shares a cautionary fable about ignoring curses, but the rich jerks ignore his instructions to observe a specific ritual at the end of the tales, and soon, very strange creatures are making themselves known.

So the yokai are really only passively involved with this story, and it possibly could have played out without them. But it’s still a tremendously fun film, and the last twenty minutes are very entertaining. The jump-scares when things become supernatural are all extremely clever, and most of the simple special effects remain pretty impressive. I really liked the dual ending: understanding that the rich jerks have got what’s coming to them and the small town can put this behind them is one thing, but that ceremony was still never concluded, and the last we see of the yokai, after they opened the village’s gates and paraded out by the dozens, is them fading away in the morning light. They’re out there now, and I suppose later generations will have to get used to them…

Image credit: Forgotten Filmcast.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Earlier today, I wrote about how I’ve been upgrading my DVDs to Blu-rays, where I can, what with studios being pretty selfish in some cases. About a week ago, I learned that several Disney live-action films that I enjoy and own can only be purchased through the Mouse’s old-fashioned subscription service, like the old Columbia House Record Club. Among these treats: The Watcher in the Woods. Well, you can pay through the nose for them one at a time on eBay, or you can count that there’s six you want, and five you’re obliged to buy, and sign up. Unfortunately, Watcher has yet to arrive, and I wasn’t going to delay watching this on Halloween weekend, so the DVD’ll do.

Hmmm. Hope the Blu-ray’s got these two alternate endings on it. Wonder what that’s about? (*reads) Oh! Wow!

Anyway, I remember a little stir when Watcher was released, and the media started asking whether it was too scary for children, and why Disney had suddenly started making horror films. I didn’t remember the fuss about it being yanked from theaters for more than a year, with Vincent McEveety called in to give John Hough’s film a new finale. Maybe that’s why David McCallum unceremoniously vanishes from the movie halfway through.

Anyway, Watcher was based on a novel, and the great Brian Clemens was called in to adapt it. Feels a lot like what he did was basically pen an episode of Thriller, right down to the token American girls in jeopardy. As we frequently saw in that anthology series, a British man is married to an American woman, played here by Carroll Baker, who was actually the American lead in a 1976 Thriller. They have two girls, and they get involved in a freaky series of supernatural events that has something to do with the mysterious disappearance of Bette Davis’s character’s daughter thirty years ago. Clemens’ script was rewritten by three others, including Gerry Day and Rosemary Anne Sisson, and apparently they still cocked up the ending and it had to be reshot months and months later.

Despite the remarkably troubled production, the finished product is still a really solid ghost story for the Goosebumps-age crowd, helped by some fabulous photography and some great camera tricks. We all enjoyed the way that something unseen is constantly following characters from the woods, and how the massive winds that whip up around them feel so much like part of the forest. There are weak links, certainly. The three witnesses to the original incident are incredibly unbelievable when they insist on refusing to talk about it, and Lynn-Holly Johnson, who plays the older daughter, is Michael Caine-in-The Swarm-level intense. But it simply looks so impressive and so real that these are just quibbles. It’s a very nice looking scary movie for younger viewers.

Our son enjoyed it, but it didn’t leave him half as rattled as Sleepy Hollow did last week. Hmmmm. Maybe we should have gone with Watcher a year ago. The media forty years ago was wrong, unsurprisingly. This isn’t too scary for children at all.

Corpse Bride (2005)

About a year ago, when I wrote about Edward Scissorhands, I said that director Tim Burton had made only four films that I enjoy, and that my favorite of them is Ed Wood. However, when I wrote that, I hadn’t seen Corpse Bride in so long that I’d forgotten that it isn’t just an enjoyable film, it’s completely wonderful. I saw it early in 2006, and a recent bad memory was wrapped too tightly around it for me to separate the art from my dumb life decisions. I even bought a doll of the beautiful Emily, but I’ve spent the last fifteen-plus years just remembering the movie from a safe distance. Yes, it’s a good film, but, you know, dumb decisions.

It takes a long time for me to exorcise ghosts, because I allow the damn things to get in everywhere.

So a few months ago, I decided it was time to upgrade as much of my film collection to Blu-ray as the studios will allow me, and purge a lot of movies I bought, watched once, and forgot about. I was happy to upgrade The Nightmare Before Christmas – not, we must remember, actually directed by Burton – and asked myself whether it wasn’t high time I brought Emily and Victor, and Victoria, I suppose, back into my life. And wasn’t it true that Halloween was coming up? And that I have a ten year-old boy who was certain to enjoy the macabre mayhem of this goofy and delightful movie?

Indeed, the ten year-old enjoyed this a hundred times more than he did Sleepy Hollow, with the caveat that he tuned out during the songs, which rank among the best that Danny Elfman has composed. That may be one reason why I’m even more in love with this movie than I originally was: as quick as I am to grumble about him, when Elfman is on fire and letting his freak flag fly, he writes wonders. The kid giggled and chuckled throughout, and occasionally shrieked with laughter. The loudest point might have come when one of Victoria’s distant ancestors shows up in front of his family portrait.

Our son also enjoyed chewing over the visual difference between the “all black and white and grey and pale blue” Land of the Living and the colorful Land of the Dead. There’s so much fun world building here between the two lands, along with the sad realization that Emily only has as much skin as she does because she’s only been in the Land of the Dead for a few short years. However, I have to say, as much as our son impresses us with figuring out where a story’s going to go next, he totally missed that Emily had been murdered by a mysterious figure played by Richard E. Grant, which I thought was about the most obvious possible plot development. But it does mean that Victor gets to duel with Grant’s villain while armed only with a fork, which probably got the second biggest laugh. Corpse Bride is a masterpiece, silly, tight, lovable, romantic and gruesome, and yes, it’s even better than Ed Wood.

One final observation: there’s an incredibly neat, albeit slightly frustrating bonus feature on the Blu-ray I got. It’s called The Voices Behind the Voice, and it features tiny little black-and-white screens – almost like old webcams! – of many of the cast reading their parts in sync with the animation, so we can see Johnny Depp, Emily Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough and more doing their work, and it’s just delightful. As much as I like the visuals, I’d have happily sat down for seventy-seven minutes just watching the actors behind their microphones. There’s far too little of it, and the postage stamp screens aren’t big enough, but the little window is nevertheless completely charming. Pick up a copy and make sure it’s got this feature on it!

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I had decided long ago that the last Halloween before we wrap up here, I was going to introduce the kid to a couple of scary movies. I think Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is easily one of his best films and was glad to revisit it. It was, however, considerably bloodier than I remembered it. It even ends with Christopher Walken getting to do a reverse-Ronald Lacey from Raiders of the Lost Ark and have all the decayed muscle and eyeballs and blood restored to him. I don’t know why I didn’t remember how much blood was in this, but our wide-eyed ten year-old probably isn’t going to forget it any time soon. He’s walking around very slowly this evening, and is in no hurry to try to go to sleep.

This wasn’t our son’s first proper horror movie. That would be The House on Haunted Hill, which unnerved him so much he left the theater. He confessed that he was ready for this nightmare to end after “about an hour.” We asked why he didn’t get up and leave, and he protested “I couldn’t!”

I think Burton really pulled off a terrific and incredibly fun scary adventure movie. It’s got an amazing cast, led by Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci and including such heavyweights as Michael Gambon, Richard E. Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, and, in too small of parts, Christopher Lee and Martin Landau. About the only flaw I have with this movie is that Lee and Jeffrey Jones didn’t switch roles. Well, and the music, about which I have complained enough in previous posts. It might be Depp’s finest performance.

The poor kid’s moving like he has weights on his feet and does not want to go to sleep. He yammered some excuse about poor behavior on Friday means that the fifth grade will suffer silent lunch tomorrow, and that’s why he doesn’t want to go to bed. I told him that next Saturday night’s movie will also be scary, but it won’t have any blood. Seems like cold comfort right now. Pleasant dreams.

Captain Blood (1935)

Boy, the list of things I’d rather do than get into a sword fight with Errol Flynn.

Curiously, this is the second film from 1935 that we’ve watched this month, following Bride of Frankenstein. Good year for the movies. Our son has been watching a National Geographic documentary program called Draining the Oceans about shipwrecks, and loves the book in the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series about ironclads, so his imagination has been totally captured by pirates and privateers giving each other broadsides. So when his grandfather sent him a gift of his favorite film, 1935’s Captain Blood, I rearranged the schedule a little to make sure we could give this a spin.

Captain Blood was a big A-list picture for Warner Brothers, based on a classic novel, and given to the hugely talented Michael Curtiz to direct. It drops an Irish doctor into all of that court intrigue that plagued England in the 1680s, with one jerk after another taking the throne and deposing somebody else, and rounding up people who were loyal to the wrong party. Dr. Peter Blood had the misfortune of treating an injured rebel when the troops arrived, and soon he and many other rebels are sold into slavery in the West Indies.

To be honest, this is a long film and its first half really coasts along on Errol Flynn’s charisma, Michael Curtiz’s inventive direction, and Olivia de Havilland’s beauty. Right about the halfway mark, just when it looks like the slaves’ plans for escape are about to be thwarted, Spanish privateers storm Jamaica and the movie kicks it up about ten notches. I might have wished for eight or nine minutes from the first half to be trimmed, but every second in its second half is pure joy. The escaped slaves take the Spanish ship and set sail for freedom. Swashes get buckled, swords get unsheathed, rum gets drunk, and blood gets spilled. Basil Rathbone shows up as a French pirate captain, and if you don’t sit up straight when Flynn and Rathbone finally cross swords, you must be new to this sort of movie.

Our son conceded that the first half was a struggle for him as well, but he truly loved everything that came later, and was every bit as thrilled by the climactic naval battle as he was by any modern special effects movie. It really is a masterpiece of editing. Between miniatures, studio sets choked with extras in the ships’ rigging, and repurposed footage from 1924’s The Sea Hawk, they created a flawlessly effective battle. Of course I love watching something as old as this and finding it every bit as immersive and believable an experience as anything today’s effects could provide; it’s even better watching our son marvel at it all as well.

Warner’s DVD is out of print and it doesn’t appear that it has made it to Blu-ray yet, but the disc includes a tremendously neat little bonus feature. It’s presented by Leonard Maltin, who unfortunately gives away rather too much of what you’re about to see, but it’s meant to evoke what audiences might have experienced in their theaters when they went to see Captain Blood in December 1935, including a trailer for a wide release of the same year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also starred de Havilland, an end-of-the-year newsreel, an Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy one-reeler, a musical bit that we skipped, and an old Merrie Melody called “Billboard Frolics.” I honestly had no idea that the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes theme had lyrics! It’s not just the kid who learns a little something when we watch old movies!