Thursday, March 16, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Upon its release in 1982, Halloween III: Season of the Witch proved to be as welcome with Halloween fans as Tootsie Rolls are to trick or treaters. Few movies were given the bum’s rush so quickly and so few films brought together so many fans in near universal disdain. For years, if you asked horror fans how they felt about Halloween III, the stock response would be that they hated it.

So how is it that it’s become practically fashionable to like – even love – Halloween III? Plenty of films see their reputations improve over time but the turnaround in opinion on Halloween III to the point where some fans now call it the best of the Halloween sequels is nothing short of miraculous.

The unlikely road to redemption for this once-despised film comes down to three points… One, bringing back Michael Myers wasn’t such a hot idea. HIII was reviled for having the temerity to let Michael Myers stay dead but as each subsequent Myers-themed sequel, remake and so on did little but sully the legacy of Carpenter’s classic, the more taking a second look at HIII started to look like a good idea.

I mean, I really love Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers but when it comes down to it I could’ve lived without it. Similarly, I know that H2O has its fans but wouldn’t you say that the world have done without it? I think so. But now ask yourself if the world could go without Season of the Witch.

Think real hard. Think until the answer is “no, it freaking couldn’t!” then you’ll be right.

Why? Because there’s nothing else quite like it.

That’s the second reason that HIII has found an audience over time. It stands alone. Not just in the Halloween franchise but in the company of horror films in general. It’s just an odd, stubbornly goofy, little movie.

Horror fans have seen every plot told and retold from a hundred different angles so anything that throws even the slightest curveball is going to – sooner or later – earn some love. Every element in H3 isn’t 100% original in and of itself but the fact that so many quirky, divergent components – Stonehenge! Celtic magic! Catchy commercial jingles! Killer robots! An evil toy maker! – all exist in one film gives it the advantage of being something different.

How much of H3’s story came from the original scripter, the legendary Nigel Kneale, and how much came from director Tommy Lee Wallace’s rewrites is irrelevant. All that’s important is that none of the weirdness got scrubbed out along the way.

The third and final – and perhaps the most important – reason for H3’s ascension: Tom Atkins. When H3 was released, Atkins was already a familiar face in genre films but he hadn’t quite achieved the beloved status among fans that he enjoys today.

The fact that H3 gave Atkins one of his few leading man roles makes it hard for Atkins junkies to resist – even more so given how complicated and unique (at least among horror protagonists) his H3 character of Dr. Dan Challis is.

The horror genre is host to many classic heroes – everyone from Abraham Van Helsing to Laurie Strode to Clarice Starling. But Dan Challis is cut from a much different cloth. He’s a middle-aged dad (who doesn’t seem to be all that attentive to his kids), divorced, alcoholic, and something of a lecher.

Atkins’ innate likeability helps disguise Challis’ many unsavory qualities but yet he is undeniably skeevy – which is exactly what makes him such a memorable protagonist. Atkins had already played a borderline letch in The Fog where he exchanged fluids with Jamie Lee Curtis’ character before they even exchanged names but in H3, this (at the time) nearly fifty year old took it to the next level by getting Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the barely legal daughter of a slain shop owner, into the sack while they’re on the trail of her father’s murderer.

To be sure, Challis is not a guy with a shiny halo around his head. Aside from his appetite for bedding young women, Challis also has a insatiable thirst for booze. Before he and Ellie even hit to road to investigate the murder of Ellie’s father, Challis makes sure to make a packy run first. And when he and Ellie first arrive in the town of Santa Mira, home to the ominous Silver Shamrock Novelties factory, Ellie is eager to start digging around for clues about what happened to her dad but Challis’ immediate response to that is “Whoa! It’s getting late and I could use a drink!”

In what must’ve been a perversely deliberate move on the part of Wallace and Atkins, Challis is shown repeatedly to fail to act in a traditionally heroic fashion and when he does make the effort, he comes up (one channel) short. By coincidence, in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome – released just a few months after H3 – James Woods’ character of Max Renn was just as morally muddied as Challis, and like Challis, Renn is also thrust into the position of saving the world from deadly televised transmissions. The two films make an unlikely but interesting double feature.

Challis’ personal complexities take a back seat to action as the last third of H3 is little more than a series of chases, fights, and desperate escapes but on the other hand, you get to see Challis in a zany death duel with a decapitated killer robot so it’s all good. Thirty years on, this one-time franchise killer has earned its place as an October essential. The Captain Kirk mask may have been retired in this entry, much to the consternation of fans, but Season of the Witch still boldly went where no Halloween had gone before.

Originally published 10/30/12 at Shock Till You Drop 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Dr. Giggles (1992)

Much to the frustration of filmmakers and studios eager to find reliable cash cows, it’s no easy task to create a successful horror icon – one that can be endlessly exploited in sequels, reboots, and remakes.

It seems that the only way for it to happen is for it to happen by complete chance because whenever filmmakers deliberately set out to create the next Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, the attempt typically falls flat. That’s even true even when the successful creator of an icon tries to catch lightning again – witness the failure of Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), the movie that was supposed to make the mega-watt madman known as Horace Pinker into a household name.

Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files) played Pinker to the hilt in that film and the gimmick of a villain able to travel through any electrical device had potential but audiences didn’t show any appetite for Shocker, much less for a Shocker 2.

Likewise, Max Jenke of The Horror Show (1989) proved to be a one-and-done slasher villain as did The Trickster from Brainscan (1993) and, well, the list goes on. For some inexplicable reason, I’ve always indulged a high level of fondness towards failed fright franchises and so I’d like to celebrate the twentieth (!) anniversary of one of my favorite second rate fear figures: the maniacal master of medicine and mirth (and girth!) known as Dr. Giggles.

With a fear of doctors (or at least a palpable sense of anxiety concerning them) being so commonly found in so many people, you’d think that a horror franchise centered on an insane doctor would be a guaranteed hit but it didn’t go that way for Dr. Giggles when it was released by Universal in October of 1992, just in time for Halloween, and quickly succumbed to a fatal case of audience indifference.

It’s become standard practice among horror fans to regard the slasher films of the ’80s – no matter how sub-par they might be – as horror classics while their ’90s counterparts still aren’t granted the same amount of affectionate leeway (even Scream remains out of favor with many hardcore fans). But that won’t deter me from giving some critical care to the reputation of Dr. Giggles.

Directed by Manny Coto (who, in recent years, has worked as writer and executive producer on both 24 and Dexter), Dr. Giggles remains a grisly and good humored slasher effort, bolstered by its major studio production values.

The script (by Coto and Graeme Whifler) follows the standard slasher movie template – a long-institutionalized lunatic escapes from the asylum only to make a beeline back to his hometown to stalk unsuspecting teens – but compensates for its assortment of clichéd beats with grotesquely funny kills (ingeniously executed by KNB) that display a comic book sense of exaggeration (the film was in fact adapted as a four-issue miniseries from Dark Horse Comics tied to the movie’s release) as Dr. Giggles occasionally employs oversized props (like a giant band aid, for instance) to dispatch his victims and actor Larry Drake’s portrayal of Dr. Evan Randall Jr., aka Dr. Giggles, is purposely larger than life.

As Dr. Giggles uses every instrument in his medical bag on the soon-to-be-ailing population of Moorehigh as he tries to carry on the twisted legacy of his disgraced (and deceased) physician father, Coto shows an appropriately sick sense of invention in exploiting his medical motif. Nothing is left on the (operating) table as every possible pun and one-liner related to any well-worn medical cliché makes its way into the film.

The corniness of such an approach might be off-putting to some but I love that Drake delivers every groaner in the script (and there’s a lot) with equal enthusiasm, right up to the last gasp where he breaks the fourth wall to deliver his parting quip directly to the audience (“Is there a…doctor in the house?”).

Coto and co. are so thorough in squeezing out every last potential joke and creative kill from their concept that had a Dr. Giggles 2 ever happened, I don’t know if there would’ve been anything left to deliver as I think they pretty much exhausted the character in one shot.

Giggles’ gaggle of victims – including future Charmed star Holly Marie Combs, the late Glenn Quinn (best known for his role in TV’s Rosanne), and ’90s personality Doug E. Doug – represent the standard character types that find their way into every teen slasher. They all seemed pretty tiresome and unexceptional back in 1992 but twenty years can lend an endearing aura of nostalgia to even the most vacuous teens.

Looking at the movie now, it’s clear that Combs made for a more than adequate scream queen in her turn here but this film wasn’t about the kids, it was all about launching Dr. Giggles as the next horror superstar.

That didn’t pan out so well but with horror films you can’t always go by the snap judgment of audiences. Appropriately for the horror genre, just because a movie might look dead on arrival doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay dead. Some films just take awhile to be discovered or appreciated.

At the time of its release, Dr. Giggles appeared to serious horror fans as being nothing less than a dose of pure poison. Today, it looks considerably less toxic. It may not balance its mix of horror and humor with surgical skill, exactly (it’s no Abominable Dr. Phibes), but it plays like a welcome antidote to the overt grimness that has often pervaded the genre in recent years.

It’s an old cliché (that doesn’t go unmentioned in this film, naturally!) that laughter is the best medicine and, as it turns out, there may be more than a bit of truth to that as, twenty years on, Dr. Giggles is looking healthier than ever.

Originally published 10/24/12 at Shock Till You Drop.