Saturday, October 27, 2018

The 5 Scariest Episodes of The Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone is often described as a science fiction series, although in truth it would be more accurate to describe it as fantasy. In most episodes things happen with no rational explanation beyond some supernatural agency, and often there is no discernable cause for events that have happened. It should come as no surprise that many episodes of The Twilight Zone veered into the territory of horror, making them perfect viewing for Halloween. Submitted for your approval, here are the five episodes of The Twilight Zone that I find the scariest.

5. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" (Season 1, Episode 22): More often than not humanity itself can be the scariest thing around. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" takes us to the street of that name in an unnamed town. After Maple Street loses electricity and machines from cars to lawn mowers cease working, its inhabitants gradually descend into madness, convinced that aliens are going to be invading their neighbourhood. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" is frightening not because of any imminent alien invasion, but because of the monsters that Maple Street's residents become themselves. Sadly, it is an episode that is more timely now than when it first aired in 1960.

4. "The Dummy" (Season 3, Episode 33): Let's face it, for many people ventriloquist dummies are very creepy.  For every person that has delighted to the antics of Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, there is probably at least one person who thought Charlie was terrifying. Of course, what would make a dummy even more terrifying is if one realised that the dummy has his own mind and his own thoughts, some of which happen to be malevolent. That is the situation ventriloquist Jerry Etherson (Cliff Robertson) finds himself in, as he begins to realise that his dummy Willie has a life all his own. And, sadly for Jerry, Willie has his own plans as well...

3. "It's a Good Life" (Season 3, Episode 8): I am sure that everyone has encountered the sort of children who always have to have their way and will throw a tantrum if they don't get it. Now picture one of these young sociopaths with the ability to make things happen simply with the power of his or her mind. That is the situation the small town of Peaksville finds itself in. Six year old Anthony Fremont (played by Billy Mumy, later of Lost in Space fame) has seemingly unlimited power. He has isolated Peaksville from the rest of the world (or perhaps destroyed the rest of the world...). The town has to raise their own food and supplies of everyday household items, such as soap, are running low. And the inhabitants live in terror of Anthony, who might wish them into the cornfield (we are never explained what the cornfield is...) if they don't comply with his every demand. Not only is the mere concept of Anthony frightening, but the episode also features some of the most frightening imagery in any episode of The Twilight Zone.

2. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (Season 5, Episode 3):  Robert Wilson (played by William Shatner) has just been released from a mental asylum, having had a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately for Mr. Wilson, on his airplane flight home he sees a large gremlin on the aircraft's wing. To makes matters worse, every time he tries to alert someone else to the gremlin's presence, from his wife to the plane's crew members, it is nowhere to be seen. What makes "Nightmare on 20,000 Feet" so terrifying isn't the gremlin itself (which looks pretty goofy by today's standards), but the fact that Mr. Wilson knows something is wrong and no one will believe him.

1. "Living Doll" (Season 5, Episode 6): Chatty Cathy, a talking doll made by Mattel, was all the rage with little girls from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties. While little girls may have loved Chatty Cathy, I rather have to suspect many of their brothers and even fathers found the doll, well, creepy. Now consider if one of these dolls could not only talk, but think as well. And then consider if the thoughts of one of these dolls just happened to be malevolent? That is the central premise of "Living Doll". Erich Streator (played by Telly Savalas) does not particularly like his stepdaughter's new talking doll, Talky Tina. (voiced by the legendary June Foray). And, unfortunately for Mr. Streator, Talky Tina isn't too fond of him either. Not only do I think this is the single most frightening episode of The Twilight Zone, but one of the scariest half hours of American television ever made.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Halloween in the Late Sixties and the Seventies

a mid-Sixties Woolworth's ad
By the Sixties and Seventies Halloween was one of the major holidays in the American calendar. Indeed, for most young Gen Xers only Christmas may have been bigger in its importance in the year. After all, it was a chance for children to dress up in costume and go house to house getting candy. Except for Christmas morning, there was no time as special for the young members of Generation X.

Indeed, among the fondest memories from my childhood are the many Halloweens I celebrated. In those days there weren't a whole lot of Halloween decorations on store shelves, so decorating for the holiday wasn't terribly common. When people did decorate for Halloween, they often made their own decorations--old clothes and straw to make scarecrows, pumpkins carved into jack o' lanterns, and so on. The few Halloween decorations on the market were often made of paper by companies such as Beistle, and were usable only inside. At least in my school, classrooms would be decorated with these decorations shortly before Halloween.

Despite the Sixties and Seventies being the Golden Age of television specials, there weren't a lot of Halloween specials on the air at the time. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is the only one I can remember from my childhood. That is not to say that television did not acknowledge the holiday at all. Most TV series in the Sixties and Seventies had special Halloween episodes, from Bewitched to Happy Days. Local television stations, especially independent stations, were guaranteed to show old horror movies shortly before and on Halloween, particularly the old Universal monsters from the Thirties and Forties.The first time I ever saw Dracula (1931) was one Halloween.

To this day, Halloween is not a Federal holiday, so schools are open on Halloween. That having been said, it was hardly a typical school day. At most elementary schools, late in the day everyone would change into their costumes and a Halloween party would be held, complete with candy. For many students it was probably one of the few times that school was actually enjoyable.

Of course, costumes were as big a part of Halloween in the Sixties and Seventies as they are now. That having been said, they were different from what we see on stores shelves now. From the 1930s to the 1990s such companies as Ben Cooper, Collegeville, and Halco manufactured cheap Halloween costumes, many of them based on characters from popular culture. They consisted of a mask and a plastic smock (also called "jumpsuits" by many). The costumes very rarely looked like the characters they were supposed to portray. More often than not, the costumes (particularly those made by Ben Cooper) portrayed a scene with the character on the smock rather than what the character would actually wear. Even when a costume resembled something the character would wear, the name would be printed boldly on the costume (in the case of Batman, it was in the centre of the bat insignia). The masks were made of moulded plastic and held on by a thin, elastic band. They were often hard to see out of and hard to breath out of. The masks were also hot, so that even on a cold day sweat would eventually build up on one's face.

My parents never bought either my brother or I any of these costumes, and we always made our own. In retrospect, even though having a costume by Ben Cooper was something of a status symbol among kids back then, this was probably for the best. Looking back, our home-made costumes often looked better and certainly looked more realistic than those made by Ben Cooper, Collegeville, and Halco.

Of course, the big event on Halloween was trick or treating. Because we lived on a farm, our father always took us from house to house, but that was not the case for children living in town.  They went trick or treating on their own, without parental supervision. In those days parents did not worry about their kids being snatched by some stranger or harmed in some other way, and kids generally roamed where they wished all year round. While there were urban legends of poisoned candy and razor blades, needles, et. al. in trick or treat candy, there isn't any real evidence that this ever happened. Certainly it never happened around here.

As kids got older they generally stopped trick or treating. I think the last year I went trick or treating was when I was twelve. That having been said, I was hardly finished with Halloween. In my teens I would attend Halloween parties held by my slightly older friend Al. None of the cheap costumes made by Ben Cooper, Collegeviille, and Halco were in evidence at these parties. Since Al and most of his friends were science fiction, fantasy, and comic books fans, the costumes could be very inventive. I remember going as a Vulcan Starfleet officer from Star Trek one year, a Romulan officer from the same show another year, and a vampire yet another.

Celebrating Halloween remains some of my fondest memories from my childhood. Now one can buy an wide array of Halloween decorations in stores and the costumes one finds in stores are certainly more realistic (just compare Ben Cooper's Darth Vader costume to those made now), but I don't see how today's children could possibly have had as much fun as young Gen Xers did.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Halloween at the Movies: 1918-1978

To a large degree the rise in popularity of Halloween in the United States and  the birth of cinema coincided with each other. The celebration of Halloween was brought to North America in the mid-19th Century by Scottish immigrants. By the 1880s and 1890s the celebration of Halloween had entered mainstream American society to the point that Halloween parties were not uncommon. English inventor Wordsworth Donisthorpe patented the first motion picture camera in 1876. Others would follow suit in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1893 the Edison Manufacturing Company showed the first kinetoscope film in public exhibition. The year 1895 arguably saw the birth of modern day cinema. That year  Woodville Latham held the first commercial projection of a film in the United States and Auguste and Louis Lumière held the first commercial projection of a film in Europe. Given that the celebration of Halloween in the United States and motion pictures roughly grew up together, it should come as no surprise that Halloween would appear in movies from time to time in the early to mid-20th Century.

It is perhaps impossible to determine what the first film to reference Halloween was. That having been said, among the very earliest was the 1918 film The Way of a Man with a Maid. Directed by Donald Crisp and released by Paramount Pictures, the movie starred Bryant Washburn as a bookkeeper, Arthur McArney, trying to live on $21 a week. This is complicated when he falls in love with stenographer Elsa Owenson (played by Wanda Hawley), who has another suitor in the form of the wealthy Sankey (Jay Dwiggins). At one point in the film Arthur spends $200 in order to attend a swank Halloween party with Elsa. Unfortunately Arthur is called into work and Elsa attends the party with his rival Sankey.

Two films in 1934 would include Halloween in their plots. The first of these was As the Earth Turns, released by Warner Bros. and starring Jean Muir and Donald Woods. The film centres on a young couple struggling to make a living on a farm in Maine. Included in the film is a Halloween dance. The second film to mention Halloween released 1934 was, of all things, a Western starring Ken Maynard, Smoking Guns. The plot involves Ken Masters (played by Ken Maynard) trying to clear his father of a crime. Included in the plot is a Halloween dance at which the villain plots to ambush Ken. Depending on when the film was set, it would seem to be a bit anachronistic. Halloween would not be widely celebrated in the United States until the 1880s, and Halloween parties would not become particularly common until the 1890s.

Halloween would play a more significant role in the 1937 movie Boy of the Streets starring Jackie Cooper. The film begins at Halloween in a slum in New York City. Children are dressed in costumes and going down the street on scooters, bicycles, and box cars. Many of them are pulling pranks, such as turning over trash cans. The film seems to emphasise the Celtic roots of Halloween, as an Irish cop references having celebrated it in the Old Country.  Here it must be pointed out that trick-or-treating does not play a role in the children's celebration of Halloween. Although the custom was already observed through much of the United States, it had not quite yet been spread to much of the East Coast.

Halloween also played a role in Boy Friend (1939), starring Jane Withers. In Boy Friend a police officer Jimmy Murphy (played by Richard Bond) goes undercover as part of a gang. When one of the friends of his younger sister Sally (played by Miss Withers) is murdered, she and another one of her friends decide to solve the murder themselves. To this end she sneaks into the Golden Parrot Club, owned by mobsters, on Halloween and entertains the customers there, while her friend searches the basement.

Halloween would play a bigger role in the Ealing comedy The Ghost of St. Michael's (1941). The film starred Will Hay as a hapless teacher, William Lamb,  who finds himself teaching at a school on the Isle of Skye and living in the haunted Dunbain Castle. During the film William catches the students celebrating "the feast of Halloween", which they describe as an old Scottish custom. Among other things, the students are stealing food and drink (including whiskey) for their party in their dorm.  The Ghost of St. Michael's is notable as one of the earliest British films to reference Halloween.

The year 1944 would prove to be a significant one in the history of film with regards to Halloween, as two major releases (both now regarded as classics) dealt with the holiday. The first released of the two films was Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the hit Broadway play of the same name Arsenic and Old Lace was shot in 1941, but not released in 1944 after the play had ended its run. It stars Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, who visits his two spinster aunts (played by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) upon the occasion of his engagement. Unfortunately for Mortimer, he soon learns that his aunts have a rather disturbing secret. Fittingly enough for a horror comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace is set entirely at Halloween. In fact, it quite possibly might be the first film to feature trick-or-treating. At one point in the film trick-or-treaters show up at the aunts' door and the aunts give them jack o' lanterns as treats. Of the films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, perhaps no other movie has as strong a link to Halloween as Arsenic and Old Lace does, to the point that it would perhaps be accurate to say that it is to Halloween what It's a Wonderful Life (1946) or Miracle on 34th Street (1947) are to Christmas.

The second movie to be released in 1944 to deal with Halloween was Meet Me in St. Louis, which was based on Sally Benson's book of the same name, a novel that grew out of her short stories originally published as a series  in The New Yorker under the title "5135 Kensington". Meet Me in St. Louis followed the lives of the Smith family in St. Louis during the year leading up to the World's Fair (1903-1904).  A rather long segment of Meet Me in St. Louis is set at Halloween in 1903, and is particularly interesting for its portrayal of Halloween customs at the start of the 20th Century. The segment begins with youngest Smith daughters Tootie (played by Margaret O'Brien) and Agnes (Joan Carroll) getting dressed in their costumes for Halloween. Tootie goes to the door of a dread neighbour, Mr. Braukoff (played by Mayo Newhall) and throws flour on him (believe it or not, this was a common Halloween prank at the turn of the 19th Century). Later Tootie and Agnes are nearly killed when they try the rather dangerous prank of placing a dummy on the trolley tracks.

The following year, 1945, saw the release of another film that included Halloween, The Woman Who Came Back. It was one of the very few horror films of the era to acknowledge the holiday. The Woman Who Came Back centred on Lorna Webster (played by Nancy Kelly), who returns to her hometown in New England. Descended from the witch hunter Elijah Webster, she soon becomes convinced that she is possessed by a famous witch from the past. Fittingly enough, Lorna arrives in her hometown on Halloween. Halloween decorations adorn the houses in the town, and children are wearing their Halloween costumes.

While Halloween played fairly significant roles in Arsenic and Old Lace, Meet Me in St. Louis, and The Woman Who Came Back, it played only a minor role in My Blue Heaven (1950). My Blue Heaven centred on Kitty and Jack Moran (played by Betty Grable and Dan Dailey), a married song and dance team who want to adopt a child. As might be expected of a Betty Grable musical, it features several song and dance numbers. Among the numbers is one dedicated to Halloween, complete with a jab at Irving Berlin for having written songs for every single holiday except it.

Despite its title, Halloween would play a major role in the 1960 Hayley Mills movie Summer Magic. Indeed, the movie climaxes with a house warming party held on Halloween. Quite naturally, the party has many of the trappings of the holiday, including jack o' lanterns and corn shocks.

Halloween would also play a role in the film Conrack (1974).  Conrack starred Jon Voight as Pat Conroy, a young teacher assigned to Yamacraw Island off the coast of South Carolina. As it turns out Yamacraw Island is extremely isolated. In fact, most of the residents speak a dialect of Gulah. Conroy strives to teach his students about the outside world. To this end he takes his students to Beaufort on the mainland for Halloween, an excursion that would mark their first significant interaction with the outside world.  This does not sit well with the school's superintendent, Mr. Skeffington (played by Hume Cronyn), who takes Conroy to task for it.

The year 1976 would prove to be a fruitful one for films referencing Halloween, with no less than three movies released. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) begins at Halloween, which also happens to be the birthday of the main character Rynn Jacobs (played by Jodie Foster). The movie features children in costume trick-or-treating. Rynn, who is from England, knows very little about Halloween and has to have the holiday explained to her.

Prior to the Eighties it was a rare thing for horror movies to be set at Halloween. An exception to this rule was The Clown Murders (1976). In an effort to spoil a businessman's real estate deal, four friends dress up as clowns on Halloween and kidnap his wife. Unfortunately, the four friends find themselves hunted by a killer in a clown costume. While not a very good film, The Clown Murders is significant as one of the earliest films to deal with the now common "evil clown" trope.

Kenny  & Company (1976) was a much more innocent film than the thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane or The Clown Murders. It followed several the three days leading up to Halloween in the life of a boy named Kenny (played by Dan McCann). Kenny & Company captures Halloween as it was observed by boys in the Seventies very well. Halloween is a bit in the background in the early part of the film, although Kenny and his friends are making their plans for it. They are getting their costumes ready and determining the best houses to visit. The climax of Kenny & Company takes place on Halloween, with the boys trick-or-treating and Kenny being sent into a scary looking house.

It would be in 1978 that a film would be released that would change things forever. Aside from Arsenic and Old Lace and Meet Me in St. Louis, John Carpenter's Halloween may be the most famous movie to deal with the holiday. As its name suggests, the film takes place almost entirely on Halloween. The film centres on Laurie (played by Jamie Lee Curtis), a babysitter who finds herself facing the psychotic killer Michael Meyers. As might be expected Halloween featured some of the trappings of the holiday, including brief sightings of trick-or-treaters and jack o' lanterns.

Halloween would prove to be a smash hit at the box office. It would also have a lasting influence. While it was not the first slasher movie, the success of Halloween would spur a cycle towards slasher films that would last well into the Eighties. And while only only a few horror movies were set at Halloween prior to the release of Halloween, afterwards there would be a whole slough of horror movies set, at least in part, on the holiday. Among these films were The Amityville Horror (1979), The Changeling (1980), Creepshow (1982) Trick or Treat (1986), and Demonic Toys (1992).

In addition to feature films, Halloween would also prove to be a popular theme for theatrical animated shorts. Most series had at least one Halloween entry. "Felix the Cat Switches Witches" (1927) pitted Felix against witches at Halloween. The title of "Betty Boop's Hallowe'en Party" (1933) is pretty much self-descriptive. "Trick or Treat" (1952) is considered one of the all time classic Donald Duck shorts, featuring Huey, Duey, and Louie and Disney's version of Witch Hazel. "Broom-Stick Bunny" (1956) pitted Bugs Bunny against Warner Bros.' version of Witch Hazel on Halloween.

With regards to live-action short subject, the classic "Our Gang" short "Bouncing Babies" is set at Halloween and features the gang in costumes. It also featuring Halloween pranks, including one in which the gang changes Wheezer's little brother with a goat.

Halloween celebrations in the United States grew up alongside the cinema. Ultimately motion pictures would chronicle many of the changes to the holiday over the years. Early films centred primarily on Halloween parties. Halloween pranks made their appearance in sound films fairly early. Arsenic and Old Lace marked what might be the first instance of trick-or-treating on film, a custom that would be featured in many movies set at Halloween to come. And while horror movies of the Golden Age were rarely set at Halloween eventually it would become commonplace for horror films to be set on the holiday. The celebration of Halloween in the United States and motion pictures emerged at about the same time, and it seems likely that they will continue to evolve together.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

It's Friday, It's Crackerjack! by Alan Stafford

If you are a Brit of a certain age, chances are good that you are familiar with the long running children's show Crackerjack!. Crackerjack! debuted on the BBC in 1955 and ran until 1984, with the exception of a period from February 1970 to January 1972. The show was essentially a variety show for the whole family, with comedy sketches, games, music acts, and often much more. Alan Stafford has written a book looking back at the long run of Crackerjack! entitled It's Friday, It's Crackerjack!. He had previously written Too Naked for the Nazis (2016), a biography of the music hall act Wilson, Keppel and Betty. For anyone who has fond memories of Crackerjack! or who is simply interested in the history of British broadcasting, It's Friday, It's Crackerjack! is a must read.

It's Friday, It's Crackerjack! is a loving look back at the legendary children's show. It is also one that is very detailed. Mr. Stafford covers the entire run of the show, from its debut on September 14 1955 to its final edition on December 21 1984. And there is a good deal for even those familiar with the show to learn from this book. For instance, despite the famous catchphrase of Crackerjack!, "It's Friday, it's five o'clock. . . It's Crackerjack!" (the time sometimes varied), Crackerjack! originally aired on Wednesdays and on a fortnightly schedule at that. What is more, it would be some time before Crackerjack! would air each week on Friday. Similarly there would be some time before many of the show's famous catchphrases would develop. What might surprise many familiar with the original version of Crackerjack! is that there was also an Australian version of the show that ran from 1966 to 1968, to which the author devotes a chapter.

While It's Friday, It's Crackerjack! will certainly interest those grew up with the show, there is much in this book to interest anyone fascinated by the history of British broadcasting or even Anglophonic pop culture in general. Many of the people who worked on Crackerjack! over the years are familiar names even to Americans, Canadians, and Australians. Jack Douglas, later best known for his appearances in many of the Carry On... films, worked on the show in its early days. Ronnie Corbett, who would later gain fame as one half of The Two Ronnies along side Ronnie Baker, was also a regular on Crackerjack! in its early days. Jeremy Lloyd, later known as the co-creator of the classic sitcom Are You Being Served?, was a writer on the show for a time. Downtown Julie Brown, perhaps best known to Americans as a vee-jay on MTV when that channel still showed music videos, worked on the show in the Eighties. Unlike similar American children's shows, Crackerjack! featured many pop acts over the years that would be recognisable to Americans and Canadians, including The Searchers, Freddie and the Dreamers, Peter & Gordon, Herman's Hermits, and even The Who.

Alan Stafford clearly did his research and it shows. He interviewed many of the surviving principals from the show, including Michael Aspel, Jillian Comber, Pip Hinton, Syd Little, and many others. He also received help researching Crackerjack! from both the BBC and the British Film Institute. Mr. Stafford combed through many old newspapers and magazines for information on the show. The end result is a book with a good deal of background on a show that was beloved by multiple generations of British children.

Here I must point out that It's Friday, It's Crackerjack! is not a dry, but detailed history of the show by any stretch of the imagination. Alan Stafford writes in a light, easy-to-read style that is filled with humour. The many stories, often quite funny in and of themselves, from those who worked on Crackerjack! are more than worth the price of the book.

While It's Friday, It's Crackerjack! will primarily be of interest to those who grew up with the show in the United Kingdom, it is a delightful book that will be of interest to anyone fascinated by the history of British broadcasting, the history of children's shows around the world, or Anglophonic pop culture in general. No doubt it will bring back many fond memories for those who saw the show when it first aired.

It's Friday, It's Crackerjack! is published by Fantom Publishing and is available at fine booksellers across the United Kingdom