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Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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From the Desk of the Unimonster...

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07 November, 2010

Ten Turkeys for Turkey-Day Viewing… [w/ Senior Correspondent Bobbie Culbertson]

[Ed. Note:  For only the second time here in the Crypt, we’ll be presenting a co-authored piece, a cooperative effort between our Senior Correspondent Bobbie and me.  Though her reviews are a regular part of the Unimonster’s Crypt, and her research talents and vast knowledge of bad movies are frequently called upon as I write these articles, this will be the first time we actually share a by-line.  I can say, however, that it certainly won’t be the last.]

Thanksgiving may be the one holiday thus far immune from the predations of the Horror genre.  Halloween, of course, is a given.  Christmas has been thoroughly exploited by genre filmmakers, as has St. Patrick’s Day, April Fool’s Day, and every month fortunate enough to have the 13th fall upon a Friday.  Valentine’s Day has been explored, as has birthdays, graduation days, prom nights, and Independence Day.  One could stretch a point and say Easter has had its Horror film, in the form of thousands of giant carnivorous bunnies on the rampage in NIGHT OF THE LEPUS.  Even First Communion isn’t safe, as Brooke Shields discovered in 1976’s ALICE, SWEET ALICE.

So why should the quintessential American holiday, a day wherein we commemorate the first year’s survival of the pilgrims in the New World with non-stop bouts of football and eating, be sacrosanct?  Why shouldn’t we have killer pilgrims hacking their way through nubile young cheerleaders, or a 200-ft. tall turkey attacking the Detroit Lions?  Why should Thanksgiving Day be different from every other holiday on the calendar?
Sadly, except for Eli Roth’s fake trailer, THANKSGIVING DAY, produced for the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino film GRINDHOUSE, it is different.  And until the Unimonster’s Crypt branches out into independent film production, it’s likely to stay that way.  However, there is a solution for those horror fans that’d prefer to have some turkey on their television screens, as well as their plates.

It should come as no surprise that those of us at the Unimonster’s Crypt have a soft spot (right between our eyes…) for bad movies.  I don’t mean Uwe Boll-got-a-new-xBox-bad movies, or Hugh Grant-Reese Witherspoon so-sickly-sweet-you’ll-need-insulin-bad movies.  I mean the kind of bad movies that were shot on a four-figure budget, and look it.  The type of bad movie that made Ed Wood, Ray Dennis Steckler, Brad Grinter, and Larry Crane legends among those who love bad movies.  In short, those movies that define the phrase, “so bad they’re good.”

 So, while we may not be able to bring you the spectacle of Turkzilla stomping his way through the Motor City, there are some turkeys that we can recommend for your Thanksgiving viewing, ten movies that are truly so bad that they’re good.  They have a charm, a quality that overcomes their shoddy production values, poor acting, and inept direction.  In fact, their entertainment value is due to these factors, rather than in spite of them.

So here are ten turkeys for Turkey Day, all trussed up and ready for roasting.  They are badly done, there’s no denying that.  But they are also, for the most part, entertaining—and that’s as equally hard to deny.

THE GIANT CLAW (1957)—Any discussion of bad movies must include this film, featuring what might be the most ridiculous creature since Donnie Dunagan in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Looking like a cross between a vulture and a turkey, as envisioned by Sid and Marty Kroft, the movie’s namesake monster inspired gales of laughter whenever visible on-screen and when it wasn’t the inept screenplay, lifeless direction, and wooden acting (from a usually dependable cast of veterans) changes the laughs into groans.

What rescues this movie from the same obscurity that buried so many similar films of the era is the fact that it’s so unintentionally funny.  The poster’s depiction of the creature doesn’t match the actors’ descriptions of the creature, which doesn’t match the creature’s on-camera image.  That image itself is so ludicrous that it is impossible to take it seriously—the first moment it’s seen transforms the film into the rankest form of camp comedy.  Not to everyone’s taste, to be sure—but hilarious nonetheless.

ROBOT MONSTER (1953)—Undoubtedly one of the worst films of all time, once again made comically entertaining by the absurd look of the eponymous creature, the lead agent of an alien race who has exterminated the entire human race—save for a group of eight individuals who were somehow immune to the fatal beams of the ‘Calcinator’.  Ro-Man, the invader charged with the conquest of Earth, tries to eradicate these survivors, but is hampered by the fact that he has fallen in love with Alice, the young and pretty female survivor.

The “Great Guidance,” the leader of the Ro-Man race, comes to Earth to oversee the final stage of the extinction of the human race, chiding the first Ro-Man for his failure to complete his mission.  The Great Guidance completes the assignment, wiping out humanity, only to have the entire movie revealed to be a young boy’s dream, a’la INVADERS FROM MARS.  Though even by 1950’s B-movie standards this cannot be considered a “good” film, it was still a very profitable one, earning more than $1 million at the box-office.

It’s hard to peg just what makes this movie enjoyable, despite the innumerable flaws it displays.  The acting is incredibly bad, on virtually the entire cast’s part.  Especially worthy of note are the leads, George Nader and Claudia Barrett, who play Roy and Alice.  Though the performances on the whole are at the level of a suburban dinner theater troupe, these two would aspire to be that good.  Combined with a totally preposterous script and Phil Tucker’s nonexistent direction, you have all the ingredients of a truly horrible movie, one devoid of any redeeming qualities.  However, if that were the case, then it wouldn’t be on this list.  Every movie that can be described as “so-bad-it’s-good” has some innate quality, some indefinable …something, that makes fans love it, and that holds true for ROBOT MONSTER as well.

Perhaps it’s the sheer cheapness of the production, reportedly filmed on a budget of only $16,000.  The paucity of money comes through in every frame of the movie, apparent in the lack of sets and the slapdash look of the few props used.  The most obvious sign of the lack of funds is the absurd look of Ro-Man himself.  Unable to afford the robot costume originally envisioned, the producers simply gave up, slapping a cheap plastic space helmet on top of a man (George Barrows) in an ape suit.  Even that was an exercise in economy—the suit belonged to Barrows.

It might also have something to do with the unintentionally comedic dialogue, delivered with enough inappropriately dramatic emphasis to reduce the viewer to peals of laughter.  It could be the liberal use of stock footage, along with scenes lifted from other films (including some rather anachronistic dinosaurs).  It might even be the strange mention in the opening credits of the “N. A. Fischer Chemical Products” company, manufacturer of the “Billion-Bubble” machine, which formed the basis of the Ro-Man communications device.  Most likely it was a combination of these factors that have cemented this movie’s cult status in the hearts of it’s fans, and it’s place in movie history.

BEGINNING OF THE END (1957)—Other than the name “Bert I. Gordon,” how much needs to be said about this, arguably the worst of the 1950’s Giant Bug films?  The story isn’t terrible; certainly no more so than that for TARANTULA or THE BLACK SCORPION, and the acting is on a similar level with those films.

Peter Graves and Peggie Castle aren’t great, or even good, in the roles of generic rescuing scientist Ed Wainwright and generic damsel in distress Audrey Aimes—but I’ve seen worse, and they do well enough with the material provided.

Bert Gordon’s direction is no better than it has to be, and is often not even that, but fans of his films are familiar with his level of incompetence, and accept it readily.  He did have a unique style that came through in his films, a quality that kept his work from being unwatchable.

What sets BEGINNING… apart from other Giant Bug films of that era however, are the special effects, effects that are laughably bad even by 1950’s B-movie standards.  From the poorly composited battle between the locusts and the Illinois National Guard, to the ridiculous rear-projection ‘grasshopper-in-a-cage’ effect used in the laboratory scenes, to shots of grasshoppers crawling on a photo of the Tribune Building, this film is a monument to bad special effects.  And ultimately, to bad filmmaking itself.

A*P*E (1976)—I must admit that I find most movies on this list, even though they’re incredibly bad, are also very enjoyable.  I’ve seen them all multiple times, and with each viewing managed to pan out one more fleck of gold from all the muck.  All, that is, except for A*P*E.

I first acquired this movie approximately ten years ago, about the same time I added ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN to my collection.  In that time I would estimate I’ve watched the latter movie between 20 and 25 times, but A*P*E no more than twice—and the second viewing was for the purpose of an article.  To say this is a bad movie is an understatement—it is nothing less than horrible, a thoroughly unwatchable piece of cinematic flotsam that must be experienced at least once by every fan of bad movies.

One might wonder how you make a movie so bad that not even the Unimonster, a man devoted to the appreciation and collection of craptacular film, can find one redeeming feature in it.  It’s not easy, but it’s also not impossible, as Paul Leder demonstrates here.

You start with a direct ripoff of KING KONG—as done by your average Korean junior high school drama class.  For your creature, use the worst looking ape suit you can find, making sure that the actor’s (and I use that term loosely) street clothes are visible underneath it.  Establish that the “ape” is 36 feet tall, yet keep varying the scale of the props and miniatures so that his size appears to be constantly changing.  Populate your cast with performers that would bring shame to an amateur production of Our Town.  Give them a script for which a 12-year-old would refuse credit.  Do that, and you’d have a start on matching the incredible, unbelievable crap factor of A*P*E.

TROLL 2 (1990)—Perhaps the worst-rated film on this list, this hodge-podge of celluloid cheese defies description.  It’s a mix of poor screenwriting, shoddy direction, and incredibly bad acting that for some reason has managed to develop a small group of very loyal fans.

The brainchild of Rossella Drudi and Claudio Fragasso (who also directed the movie under the name Drake Floyd), this crapfest was produced with the title GOBLIN, but retitled in the US to capitalize on the success (minor as it was) of the 1986 film TROLL.  This film, which bears no relation to that movie, is the story of a family who’s vacationing in the small town of Nilbog—Goblin spelled backward… get it?  Good, because that as original as the writing gets.  The family, Mom and Dad Waits, with Holly and Joshua, are due to become goblin chow, as soon as they’re properly prepared.  It seems that these are vegetarian goblins, and must first transform their prey, through the use of a magical meal, into a plant.  Why they can’t just eat a carrot is a mystery, but it’s far from the only one.  Another question that begs an answer is how in God’s name the filmmakers ever convinced someone to put up money for the production of this turd.

The acting is, unfortunately, a good match for the idiotic script.  No one stands out positively, and all are competing hard for the title of Worst Actor Ever.  Personally, my vote is for the ‘star’ of the movie, Michael Stephenson.  His performance as Joshua, who with the aid of his dead grandfather (Robert Ormsby, another contender for the Worst Ever crown…) saves his family from the goblins—or does he?

I may be in danger of overusing this phrase, but there is no way to avoid it.  This is a movie that must be seen to be believed.  I cannot make it sound as wretched as it truly is—I’m just not that good a writer.

LEPRECHAUN IN THE HOOD (2000)—The fifth entry in this undeservedly long-running franchise, LEPRECHAUN IN THE HOOD is a prime example of the late 1990’s-early 2000’s trend of Urban Horror.  A few examples of this sub-genre were excellent Horror films—TALES FROM THE HOOD and BONES among them.  Many were not.  This movie falls squarely into the latter category.

Starring Ice-T, Anthony Montgomery, Rashaan Nail, and with Warwick Davis reprising his character of a malevolent Irish elemental, this outing for the diminutive demon is a step up from the previous LEPRECHAUN 4: IN SPACE—though that’s hardly a difficult feat.  Three rappers accidentally free a leprechaun imprisoned twenty years before by a gangster named Mack Daddy (Ice-T, who must not be concerned about typecasting).  They soon find themselves targeted by both the Leprechaun and Mack Daddy, and running for their lives.

Despite the ludicrous concept and weak script, this is a much more entertaining movie than one would think possible.  Davis attacks the part of the Leprechaun with gusto, playing the role as though he were a miniature Freddy Krueger, wisecracking his way from kill to kill.  Though this is a bad entry in a not very good franchise, there’s still plenty here for fans of bad movies to enjoy.

THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972)—In the ‘70’s and 80’s, Charles B. Pierce, an advertising executive from Texarkana, Arkansas, made a series of low-budget movies about a local “bigfoot”-type creature named the Fouke Monster.  Shot in a pseudo-documentary style and presented as fact, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK helped fuel an interest in strange and unknown creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.

Produced for $160,000 borrowed from a local trucking company, and with the citizens of Texarkana as cast and crew, …BOGGY CREEK is definitely low-budget, no-talent filmmaking at its best.  The photography is amateurish, the monster is hokey, and the script, what there is of it, is high school level at best.

However, there’s still that indefinable something that captivates the viewer, engaging them in the movie despite it’s flaws.  It may be the authenticity of the people and the locations.  It may be the way the narrator sells the story, as though he were reporting the 6 o’clock news.  It may simply be that, for lovers of bad movies, there are few more enjoyable than this one.

THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED UP ZOMBIES (1964)—Ray Dennis Steckler is a legend among those who love bad movies, and of all his films—RAT PHINK A BOO-BOO, WILD GUITAR, THE LEMONGROVE KIDS MEET THE MONSTERS—none have achieved the infamous stature that this movie, affectionately known to it’s fans as “TISCWSLABMUZ,” has.  Lost in obscurity since the 1970’s, the movie was featured in episode 812 in the eighth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, broadcast in 1997, and a new generation of bad movie lovers were exposed to Steckler’s masterpiece.

How can one count the ways this movie is bad?  First of all, with few exceptions, if the director is also the star, the movie sucks.  Doubt me?  Two words—THE POSTMAN.  Also, any time the director casts his wife and/or girlfriend in the movie is a red flag.  Carolyn Brandt, who was Steckler’s wife at the time, starred in the film as Marge.  And let’s be honest—that title screams crappy movie in neon letters ten feet tall.
But these are just the first indicators, the ones that one can see just from looking at the poster.  Any hopes the casual filmgoer might hold that these indicators might prove false are quickly dashed with the realization that every facet of this movie is bad.  Bad acting, bad direction, a bad screenplay—nowhere is there relief from the overwhelming stink of this movie.

PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1958)—This movie, director Edward D. Wood’s magnum opus, is synonymous with the term “bad movie.”  Long regarded as the worst movie ever made, it’s really not that terrible.  In comparison with a truly horrendous movie such as LEGEND OF BLOOD MOUNTAIN (1965), it rates as inspired filmmaking—relatively speaking.

That’s not to say that this is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘good’ movie.  Those familiar with Wood’s work understand what they are getting when they sit down to one of his films, and with PLAN 9… that’s doubled.  The writing is atrocious, the design of the production, the sets, the props, all would embarrass a grade school Christmas pageant.  The actors should be ashamed to refer to themselves as such, and what more can be said about Ed Wood as a director?

All of Wood’s idiosyncrasies are on display here.  No one can deny that he had a style, and a vision as a director.  The style might have been crap, and the vision hallucinogenic, but he made his movies the way he wanted them made—and that’s more than many aspiring filmmakers can say.

BLOOD FREAK (1972)—The ultimate cinematic ‘turkey’, this tale of a biker named Herschell who transforms into a blood-drinking “were-turkey” after exposure to a bad batch of drugs.  The product of the twisted imagination of Brad Grinter (whose short subject BRAD GRINTER, NUDIST might be the single most disturbing film in the Unimonster’s collection—thanks Bobbie!) this movie is a bizarre exercise in cinematic crapology.

From the papier-mâché turkey head on Herschell (Steve Hawkes), to the actress who opens her eyes to watch the action after she’s supposedly been ‘killed’, to the clearly audible instructions from the director, this movie proudly proclaims its status as “Crap.”  I can’t think of a better way to cap off the Turkey Day Film Fest than with this flaming bag of poultry excrement.

So as you lean back on your couch, pants unbuttoned, tryptophan coursing through your bloodstream, lulling you into a turkey-induced slumber, pop in some of the movies on this list… and let bad movies do the same for your brain.

Bobbie's Essays: “Somewhere in Time and Space”: The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Experiment Continues on

Mention MST3K in a room full of people and at least half of them will begin long, convoluted and sometimes heated discussions, as the other half either listens with rapt attention or flees the room.  Why?  Because anyone who is a MST-ie—as fans of the show call themselves—is obsessively seeking to enlighten those uninitiated to this comedy/fantasy world.

It all began in 1988 at a tiny Minneapolis UHF Station KTMA-TV when Jim Mallon approached the station manager with the idea of a new live-hosted show he'd dreamed up with comedian friend, Joel Hodgson and jack-of-all-trades, Kevin Murphy.  Because the station had a two-hour opening on Saturday mornings (but was short on funds), the station manager was intrigued.

Cobbling together a makeshift spacecraft set (dubbed the Satellite of Love or SOL for short) and roping in actor/ puppeteer Trace Beaulieu and a young music composer, Josh Weinstein, they came up with a concept.  Beaulieu and Weinstein would play two evil scientists called the Mads who shot a man into space and forced him to watch bad movies while they, living in Deep 13, would monitor the results.  In order to assuage his loneliness, Joel built two robots, Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu) and Beeper (later the name changed to Tom Servo and voiced by Weinstein).  They, along with Joel, would watch the movies and make quips (called riffing by fans) about them.  Clips from THE GREEN SLIME and a comedy skit by Joel were shot and shown to the station's owner, who approved it.  Mystery Science Theater 3000 was born!

Thanksgiving Day, 1988, saw the first show, INVADERS FROM THE DEEP, air.  Unsure of the audience's response, a phone number was flashed across the bottom of the screen and viewers were encouraged to call.  The next day, the entire phone answering machine tape was filled with calls!  Some callers castigated Joel for talking over the movie but most callers were excited, with one demanding "More!  More!  More!”  Happy to have a hit, the station's owner decided to make it a weekly show and for the next 13 Saturdays, Joel and the Bots (as fans call the robots) entertained fans with such titles as GAMERA vs. BARUGON, TIME OF THE APES and SST DEATH FLIGHT.  Because the running time of these and other movies was so short, the experiments were padded using ’shorts’, which, in these early days, were usually old serials like Commander Cody.  Fans ate it up!  The demand was so great, the show's run was expanded from the original 13 episodes to 21.

As the KTMA days came to a close, MST3K's creators approached Comedy Central, a fledgling cable channel, with a 'best-of' tape of the show and it was picked up.  The concept, along with the sets, changed.  No longer ad-libbed, head-writer Mike Nelson was added and Weinstein was replaced by Frank Conniff (as TV's Frank).  Murphy took over as Tom Servo's voice and puppeteer.  The show's popularity grew along with it's fan base and 11 more episodes were added to the original 13 ordered.  MST3K became Comedy Central’s signature show for the next seven seasons.  In 1993, MST3K won the prestigious Peabody Award for "producing an ingenious eclectic series.”  Between seasons 6 and 7, MST3K also filmed a theater-released movie titled THIS ISLAND EARTH, which was not well received by the show's fans.

However, storm clouds were forming on the show's horizon.  Trace Beaulieu, who's played the Mad Dr. Forrester and voiced Crow, left at the end season 6.  He was replaced by writer Mary Jo Pehl, who played Dr. Forrester's mother, Pearl Forrester.  Then, in the middle of season 5, Joel left the show.  Various reasons were given from his dislike of being on-camera to disagreements with producer Jim Mallon.  His exit was written into the show and, after watching a Joe Don Baker movie titled MITCHELL, Joel escapes the SOL, headed for Earth.  The Mads then send a dim-witted janitor named Mike (played by head-writer Mike Nelson) as a replacement subject.  Thus began what has become known as the Joel vs. Mike wars that flamed on for years on the Internet fan-based groups.  When Comedy Central announced the cancellation of the show, the Internet fan-based groups started a successful write-in campaign and in 1996, the show was picked up by the Sci-Fi channel.

Again, changes to the format were made.  Pearl became the head-Mad and, along with her idiotic sidekicks BoBo (a talking ape played by Murphy) and Observer (Bill Corbett as an alien who carries his brain in a dish), she torments Mike and the Bots by chasing after the SOL in a rocket-powered VW bus!  In addition, Corbett took over as Crow's voice and puppeteer.  Sci-Fi, true to it's name, demanded that MST3K focused on science fiction movies.  This also marked the beginning of the end for the 'shorts, the last being ROBOT RUMPUS with Gumby.

Thus began a four-year ride through outer space with Pearl, BoBo and Brain-Guy chasing along after the SOL and forcing them to watch terrible movies and under-go strange experiments.  However, as all good things must come to an end, the show was finally cancelled in 1999.  But, this wasn't the end for our MST crew!  Joel went on to produce and star in a HBO special titled TV WHEEL and continued to perform stand-up comedy.  Mike joined with Kevin and Bill to release four more bad films under the cover of THE FILM CREW, wrote several well-received humor books and released commentary tracks to horror cult classics such as PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Mary Jo went back to doing stand-up and was featured on The Women of Comedy DVD.  July 2008 saw Mike Nelson create Rifftrax, an on-line movie voice-over of riffs.  Joel, along with Mary Jo, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Josh Weinstein started a countrywide theater act called Cinematic Titanic, in which they riff bad movies to enthusiastic live audience members.

But—I told you that to tell you this!  A decade after the show's cancellation, MST3K fans still abound.  Their Internet-based groups still hum with spirited discussions about the show and in-person meet-ups are well attended.  Show traders still keep 'circulating the tapes' and, now, the DVDs. Best Brains and now SHOUT keep releasing the shows on DVD.  How did this cow-town puppet show with zero budget grow to become such a phenomenon!?!  It certainly had nothing to do with the movies they showed!  Take for example a little gem titled MANOS: HANDS OF FATE.  Badly acted with an implausible plot and script, why in the hands of one actor with two puppets does it become a hit still discussed to this day!?!  MITCHELL, which was bad enough to drive Joel to abandon ship, would be recognized by any fan hearing the words "Any movie with 'wok-a-chicka wok-a-chicka' in it is okay by me.”  From bad creature flicks like GAMERA and GIANT GILA MONSTER to bad sci-fi movies such as TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE and SPACE MUTINY to gritty little crime dramas TORMENTED and KITTEN WITH A WHIP to Shakespeare's HAMLET, all were fair fodder to this wise-cracking threesome.  Their secret?  Treating these horrible movies with respect and humor.  And, treating their loyal audiences as one of themselves.  We were included in their little game.  Comfortable in the knowledge that 'the right ones will get it'.  And that we were them!  Fans felt as though they were part of a larger cause.  Some even went so far as to emulate the show with fan-created on-line shows of their own.

I will not get into a 'best of' and 'worst of' lists because what's one man's meat is another man's poison.  While TEENAGE STRANGLER may cause one fan to beat his head against a wall, another fan will argue it as comic genius.  Mention MST3K's last experiment DIABOLIC and some will defend its choice while other's will argue that the logical choice would have been THE CRAWLING EYE, Comedy Central’s debut MST3K, thereby creating a closed circle.  Ask any fan which was the first show they saw and they will tell you.  Often, it had such an impact on them that they can, and will, recite riffs from it.  Do I have my favorites?  Of course!  We all do!  So, to the crew of the Satellite Of Love and Deep 13, thank you for ten years of laughs, of Turkey Day marathons and MST Hour shows.  Thank you for continuing on with your live performance and your commentaries, your tours and your gentle good humor.  And, to borrow from that enthusiastic fan of decades ago, we fans say "More!  More!  More!"




Year of Release—Film:  2007

Year of Release—DVD:  2008

DVD Label:  Warner Home Video

           When I first heard that Tim Burton was in production on SWEENEY TODD, I thought that he was remaking the 1936 British production that starred Tod Slaughter.  An odd choice, perhaps, but then Burton’s made a career out of odd choices.  The casting of Johnny Depp as the demon barber only heightened my interest, as I’ve become much more appreciative of his abilities as an actor in the last few years.  Still, I must admit that it wasn’t very high on my radar for the year or so that it in production.
Then I caught the first trailer released for the film, the one featuring Depp performing Epiphany, and thought, “What the Hell?  Is this a musical?”  SWEENEY TODD, a musical?  I thought that whatever weird circuitry lay in Burton’s mind, something had finally overloaded a breaker.  Who produces a singing, dancing musical about a throat-slashing barber, and his mistress who bakes his victims into pies? 
As you may have guessed by now, it would be a gross understatement to say that I’m not a big fan of musical theater.  In fact, prior to viewing this DVD, I had no idea that it was based on a long-established Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, a man that I’m familiar with solely by virtue of his mention in the film SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.
Thus it was that Burton’s project, and my interest in it, promptly retreated to a back corner of my mind.  Other movies came and went, and frankly, I wasn’t going to waste time keeping track of a musical I’d probably never see.  I had more important things to follow.
Not too long ago, however, I received the DVD from a friend as a gift.  I had heard enough positive reports of this movie from others to pique my interests, and decided to give it a try.
I must say that, whatever I was expecting… this wasn’t it.  From the first scene, as Todd sings No Place like London, one gets the distinct impression that, while this is indeed a musical, it’s a Tim Burton musical, which means it will be unlike anything you’ve seen before.  By the time Todd has his run in with rival barber Pirelli, (a splendid performance from Sacha Baron Cohen…) I was hooked. 
The story is told in a way that transforms this from a music hall entertainment, which were the originations of the Sweeney Todd legends, into an operatic tragedy akin to Wagner or Verdi.  The music, by Sondheim, is terrific, and the darkness of Burton’s imagination suits it perfectly.  I can’t say how well Burton captured the original stage production, but he flawlessly compliments the music.  While it’s not my usual type of musical fare, I must admit several of the songs stayed with me for some time, most notably the duet Depp sings with Alan Rickman, portraying Todd’s nemesis Judge Turpin.  Their Pretty Women is a beautiful song, performed competently by two non-singers.  Depp also shines on My Friends, and co-star Helena Bonham Carter is pushed to the limit with By the Sea, by all accounts a difficult piece even for trained vocalists.
The cast is superb, particularly the leads.  Depp continues to impress me as he continues to demonstrate that his “pretty-boy”, 21 JUMP STREET days are well behind him.  His ability to totally become his character, to dedicate himself fully to a role is nothing short of obsessive, and he portrays Todd’s obsession, his thirst for revenge, perfectly.  Bonham Carter is also excellent as Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s paramour and partner in crime; she disposes of his victims by baking them into meat pies to feed her hungry clientele.  Rickman, as Judge Turpin, is especially well-cast; he has an ability to project an evil presence that is unmatched in today’s cinema, and is very reminiscent of Vincent Price at his best.
The supporting cast is good, especially the aforementioned Cohen and Timothy Spall as the Beadle.  Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew from the HARRY POTTER films, is superbly slimy as the henchman of Turpin, whether fulfilling his role as a flattering sycophant or in his official capacity as the Judge’s enforcer.  Jayne Wisener, as Todd’s daughter Johanna, and Jamie Campbell Bower, as Anthony, the young acquaintance of Todd who falls in love with her, are good… not spectacular, but they turn in a competent job.
Visually, the film is pure Burton at his best.  More than any current director, Burton brings a definite style and look to his films, a presentation that’s as unique and identifiable as a Salvador Dali painting… and just as surreal.  It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but to those who are fans of Burton’s work, it’s familiar and welcome.
My DVD is the two-disc Collector’s Edition, and it comes loaded with special features.  There are interviews with Sondheim, Burton, Depp, Bonham Carter… virtually all the important members of the production are included.  There are features on the music, and on the history of the legend of Sweeney Todd, which I found especially fascinating.  If you want the movie on DVD, then this is the DVD to own.
Ordinarily for something this unusual I would suggest renting before you buy, but I feel safe in giving this one a full Buy recommendation.  This film will one day be considered a classic, and I think that anyone who gives it half a chance, as I did, will love it.

Junkyardfilm.com's Moldy Oldie Movie of the Month: I SAW WHAT YOU DID


Year of Release—Film:  1965

Teens Libby (Andy Garrett) and Kit (Sara Lane) are alone in a remote house, babysitting Libby's younger sister, when they decide to play phone pranks.  After several calls, they reach a Steve Marek (John Ireland); little knowing that he's just murdered his trampy wife in the shower ala PSYCHO.  When he hears the girls whisper, "I saw what you did and I know who you are,” he panics, quickly burying his dead wife's body in the woods.  Desperate to find out who'd seen his uxoricide (look it up!), little does he realize his amorous neighbor, Amy Nelson (Joan Crawford) did witness the murder.  And Amy is not above using that information to force Steve into marriage.

Libby decides to phone Steve again and he desperately begs to see her.  Amy, over-hearing the conversation, angrily confronts Steve, warning him against playing games with her.  Libby, deciding that Steve has a sexy voice, persuades Kit and her sister into going along for a quick peek at Steve.  Once there, Libby is attacked by Amy who angrily tears the car's registration off the steering column and warns Libby to stay away from her man.  Amy, entering the house, is confronted by Steve who knifes her to death before discovering the car's registration in her hand.  Steve now knows who saw what he did and, wanting to silence Libby forever, goes to the house where the frightened teens are hiding.  Will multiple-murderer Steve claim more victims?  Will the girls pay a heavy penalty for a silly prank?

I SAW WHAT YOU DID is a moody little low-budget gem with some effective scenes and appropriate spooky lighting and effects.  Joan, fresh from STRAIT-JACKET, another Castle film, has more a cameo role in this but plays her small part to the hilt.  A savvy William Castle allegedly paid Joan $50,000 for four days work so he could prominently display her name on the posters.  John Ireland is his typical wooden self.  The two teen girls are awful actresses which probably explains why this is their only credit.  The opening and closing beach-movie theme music didn't fit the mood of this at all but must have been a hit among teens.
William Castle made a name for himself featuring films that had over-the-top gimmicks and promotions.  He began working with Orson Wells in radio and directed his first stage play at age 18.  In the early 40's, he went to Hollywood where directed mostly low-budget pot-boilers and Westerns for Columbia Studios but it wasn't until 1959 that he directed his first gimmick-laden film, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.  Filmed in "Emergo,” an inflated glow-in-the-dark skeleton would fly over the audience's heads.  While this didn't have the audience reaction Castle hoped it would (causing members to throw candy boxes and soft-drink cups at the skeleton rather than being frightened), it became a hit and, later that year Castle followed it up with TINGLER starring Vincent Price.  TINGLER was filmed in "Percepto" and during the final scene, the audience members were instructed to "Scream!  Scream for your lives!" as certain seats equipped with large joy-buzzers that would startle selected audience members.  (John Goodman used a similar gimmick in the movie MATINEE, a movie loosely based on Castle's life.)

13 GHOSTS, released in 1960, was filmed in "Illusion-O.”  Audience members were handed strips of red and blue cellophane and could look through the strips to see frightening images...or, if too cowardly, could refrain.  1961 saw HOMICIDAL in which Castle used a "Fright break" with a 45 second timer that enabled frightened audience members time to leave the theater with a full money-back guarantee.  In order to make sure no one would see the finish, then come back and demand their refund, Castle had different colored tickets printed for each show.  MR. SARDONICUS was Castle's next offering.  Near the end if this film, a short insert would be shown in which Castle would ask the audience to vote on whether or not the villain would die.  Each member was given a thumb card to hold up for life or down for death.  Then the ending was shown.  However, as no participant ever voted for mercy, he filmed only one ending.

ZOTZ was Castle's next film and audience members were given a gold "coin" which did absolutely nothing.  To publicize 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS, he held a world-wide search for the 13 girls who appeared in the film.  Advised by his financial advisors to lose the gimmicks, he instead chose star Joan Crawford for STRAIT-JACKET (1964).  However, a showman to the bitter end, shortly before the film's release, Castle had cardboard axes made and handed out with each ticket sold.  I SAW WHAT YOU DID featured giant plastic telephones but the gimmick was quickly quashed when the telephone company complained about a rash of prank calls.  Instead, seat belts were attached to the theater seats to keep patrons from bolting in fear.  In his final gimmick movie, BUG, he had a million dollar life insurance policy written up for the movie's star, "Hercules" the cockroach.

But, showman William Castle shouldn't just be remembered for his gimmick movies.  PROJECT X made in 1968, is a sci-fi movie that predicts events such as China becoming a super-power on par with the USA and electronic cigarettes, which have become a reality.  SHANKS (1974), a fantasy film and Castle's final film, stars famous mime Marcel Marceau in a duel-role, one of which is a speaking part.  But, the film for which Castle will be best remembered is ROSEMARY'S BABY.  Filmed in 1968, it won a Best Supporting Oscar for Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet, a member of a Devil-worshipping cult whose members terrorize and victimize pregnant neighbor Rosemary.  William Castle owned the rights to Ira Levin's popular book of the same title and wanted to direct it.  However, Roman Polanski was ultimately handed the reins and Castle had to settle for Producer credits.  Castle also coveted the Dr. Sapirstein role but lost out to veteran actor Ralph Bellamy.  Castle was offered a small, non-speaking role as "man outside phone booth.”  Tony Curtis, who died Sept. 29, 2010, has an off-screen role as the voice of blinded actor Donald Baumgart.  If Mia Farrow seems confused during the scene where she phones Donald, that's not good acting!  She was trying to figure out why she recognized the voice.  She had not been let in on the gag!

William Castle died at age 63 in Los Angeles, CA, on May 31, 1977 after a long career spanning four decades.  We should all be thankful for and give thanks to America's "King of Gimmicks.”  Without his sense of gentle humor, horror movies just wouldn't be the same.