This past week’s Simpson’s Christmas episode featured a short bit with Comic Book Guy watching and enjoying every minute of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired on CBS November 17, 1978. I watched it back then and through the miracle of videotape preservationists and the inspiration from comic book guy I can watch it now. I dug out a pristine DVD-R of dubious origin, with provenance from a VHF terrestrial broadcast from the Baltimore, Maryland region, and popped it in. Low and behold it still sucks and managed to put me asleep not once, but on three separate occasions.
The story has Chewie (Peter Mayhew), in co-pilot with Han (Harrison Ford) attempting to get back to his home planet to spend time with his Wookie family during Life Day. His family consists of his wife Malla, dad Itchy (above) and son Lumpy (below) who worry that Chewie has not yet arrived for the holiday. They live in an astro-turfed tree house clad with interesting gaming tables, media playback devices (that suspiciously look like a cassette tape recorder), lots of stairs, and Archie Bunker chairs. They are befriended by fellow rebel Art Carney (yes, Ed Norton).
Art Carney plays a junk dealer/trader (years before Watto) who runs a shop a lot like a Spencers Gift or a Walgreens. Here Wookies can purchase tacky crap like minature fish tanks and Chia-Wookies. Later as the story progresses Carney even goes into his Ed Norton routine in front of an Imperial officer, snatching an imaginary fly from the air, with the officer responded in Ralph Kramden prose “Will you get on with it!”.
Mark Hamill appears tinkering in a garage, presumably on Tattooine, with R2, touching base with the Wookies by way of a video-phone (years before Face Time). What is up with Hamill’s makeup?
Along the way we also see Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C3PO who reassure the Wookies that Han will deliver Chewie safe and sound. Meanwhile Han and Chewie fly around in the Falcon, yelling in a cockpit which looks like a set from Plan 9 from Outer Space. Harvey Korman plays multiple roles, including a bizarre segment as a Shields and Yarnell like android that teaches young Itchy how to build an Illudium Q-36 explosvie space modulator. Diahann Carroll and the Jefferson Starship also perform two dreadful musical numbers; thankfully at separate intervals in the special.
Of interest to Star Wars fans are the later appearances and closeup views of Rick Baker’s original Cantina monsters, which appear in a bar run by Bea Arthur! I could not dream this stuff up in a nightmare.
The Star Wars Holiday Special is probably best know for a well-conceived animation segment which features the original appearance of bounty hunter Boba Fett (more closely resembling Jango Fett). There’s also an alien co-pilot that reminds me a bit of a Mon Calamari (Admiral Ackbar).
The animation closely resembles portions of Heavy Metal (1981), especially the Taarakian Warrior sequence, down to the bird-like beasts that Boba and Taarna ride. If I thought it worth my time I’d do some research and likely confirm some of the same animators worked on both segments. I might be wrong. The holiday special also gives us glimpses of Fett’s nefarious and double-crossing ways and effective gadgetry, including a projectile lasso.
The Star Wars Holiday Special is quite a curiosity and there are entire web pages dedicated to the feature. Upon one single viewing it is clear that the older executives at CBS had no clue what Star Wars was about and how it connected with the younger generation. Star Wars was exciting and heroic with a terrific sense of humor. In this TV mess we see Art Carney delivering awkward and dated shtick from the 50’s. Still, this surreal time capsule is an essential addition to any child of the 70’s video arsenal and worth a look for historians, morons and revisionist filmmakers. Ben Affleck allegedly studied the special as a template for the look of Argo (now I am just lying).
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FAITH… All the faith I had I lost it…
- Herschell, from Blood Freak
Blood Freak (1972) is without a doubt one of cinema’s true oddities and a Thanksgiving holiday treat. Well, not really a treat, but it certainly garners my vote, along with the marionette puppet The Giant Claw and the amphibious hotdog creature from Horror of Party Beach as having one of the most ridiculous monsters of all-time. I’m willing to guess that actor and co-writer-director-producer Steve Hawkes was inspired by earlier H.G. Lewis and David F. Friedman concoctions such as Blood Feast, 1963, which Blood Freak resembles in tone, pacing and ineptitude (the acting is atrociously bad), but Freak takes the gore genre to a whole new level due to a bizarre anti-drug narrative by chain-smoking soft-core porn nudist Brad Grinter and one humdinger of a papier mâché (that’s what it looks like to me) turkey monster head (Flickr aficionado Bonemask even has the vinyl figure).
The mastermind behind Freak was Croatian-born Canadian actor Stjepan “Steve” Šipek who went by the stage name of Steve Hawkes. He starred in at least two Tarzan-type films, beginning with the Spanish-made Tarzán en la gruta del oro / King of the Jungle / Tarzan in the Golden Grotto (1969). In a follow-up film, Sipek was severely burned in a fire during principle photography and was allegedly rescued by a trained lion (an Edgar Rice Boroughs fan site has a detailed writeup on Sipek).
After the incident, Sipek vowed to take care of big cats and established a somewhat dubious wildlife sanctuary in Loxahatchee, Florida. Back in 2010, ABC ran a story on Sipek’s love for big cats, and I wonder if Blood Freak was created to help fund his sanctuary. There’s a painting of a tiger hanging on a wall in one of the drug party scenes, and I can’t help but think the scene was shot in Sipek’s residence.
Blood Freak is the story of straight-laced drifter and Vietnam veteran Herschell (Steve Hawkes) who picks up a girl and get’s a job at her father’s poultry farm. Along the way he gets addicted to narcotics and agrees to sample experimental turkeys developed by the U.S. Government. He gradually undergoes a metamorphosis into a bipedal turkey monster or Blood Freak, with the body of a man and head of a turkey. The monster is something to behold. Think of Michael Myers wearing a plaster/mâché head that looks more akin to an alien in a Mos Eisley space-port than a turkey.
Herschell then goes on a bloody killing spree where he hoists victims upside down and drains blood from the bodies by slicing their necks. He then gobbles away drinking their blood. These scenes are unintentionally hilarious with gorgeous saturated red paint spurting from the victims.
Eventually Herschell gets his revenge and plops the main pusher on a radial table saw.
What really makes this film so bizarre is the overt political message that doesn’t jive with the visceral imagery of the film. One moment a character is talking about spiritual salvation and the next moment the Herschell Turkey is carving up a drug addict. Is it a gore film with a message? Something Weird Video (the lone distributor of the film) calls it “The world’s only turkey-monster-anti-drug-pro-Jesus-gore film”. It’s one of the strangest films ever made.
And this has been a story based partly on fact and partly on probability but the horrors that occurred in the minds of those who allow the indiscriminate use of the human body as a mixing bowl for drugs and chemicals are as real as the real horror…. So, when you eat or take into your body any chemical or drugs you take a chance on a reaction that are not tested…. unpredictable…. have a happy ending …Cough cough cough….
-Brad Grinter, the narrator/co-director/writer, etc. etc.etc.
If I were to choose one decade of horror and thriller films it would the 1930’s, and my favorites were produced during the initial horror wave from 1931-1936. During this period Universal, Paramount, MGM and other studios also produced “tweeners” that were basically talky melodramas with horror elements.
Treat All Supernatural Beings With Respect… But Keep Aloof From Them!
We Will Bring Forth The Dead From Their Graves.
… and He Gave His Twelve Disciples Power Against Unclean Spirits To Cast Them Out.
- Matthew 10:1
Paramount’s Supernatural (1933) and Universal’s Secret of the Blue Room (1933) fall under borderline horror films, with Supernatural having crime-drama elements. Both films are now available as DVD-Rs for home viewing pleasure through Universal’s Vault Series. (More on the Vault Series through the Forgotten Films link). Being the completest that I am, I snatched up both films, plus the superb Bob Hope comedy-horror The Cat and the Canary (1939).
Supernatural is best described as a ghost story. The film has touches of eastern mysticism, a phoney séance, and a nefarious medium who uses a ring laced with a poisonous barb to dispense with the commoners. The film has a strong cast, including Carol Lombard, in the lead, and Randolph Scott (Murders in the Zoo, 1933) as her fiancé. H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower from It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946) is good in a supporting role as “one of the world’s leading psychologists” who speaks a bunch of mumbo jumbo like: “I’ve been experimenting lately with microgenic rays… ultraviolet rays given off by the body…” and inadvertently transfers the soul of electric chair bound man-strangler Ruth Rogen(Vivienne Osborne) into Carol Lombard. Check out the effective scene where Ruth Rogen crushes a tin cup (42 years before Captain Quint).
Supernatural was directed by Victor Halperin (White Zombie, 1932). We see some of the same tricks, including tight focus on eyes (remember the striking closeup of Lugosi’s Murder Legendre?). Supernatural offers some decent acting —I particularly like Alan Dinehart as villain Paul Bavian and Beryl Mercer as a nosey landlord. To me only Randolph Scott comes up short. He was woefully miscast in these early thrillers and really didn’t come into his own until he helped define the western genre. I think his best performance is his last. He was wonderful opposite Joel McCrea in Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962).
Secret of the Blue Room (1933) was one of the original 52 thriller films from Universal Studios packaged as a Shock Theater deal to screen gems (Columbia’s TV subsidiary). I vaguely remember seeing it playing on Chicagoland TV in the early 1970’s. Frankly, I forgot about the movie until I noticed it reviewed in an appendix of Bryan Senn’s Golden Horrors, An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931-1939 (McFarland, 1996).
The film immediately grabbed me due to the familiar use of Act II from Tchaikovsky’s Op. 2o (Swan Lake Theme), during the title run, which also appeared during the opening credits of Dracula (1931)(don’t you dare listen to the Philip Glass score) and The Mummy (1932). According to Senn’s book, Blue Room was made on a budget of $69,000. That’s approximately 1.26M adjusted for today’s inflation. The film doesn’t look cheap to me at all, but costs were obviously kept down by filming most of the movie in the dreary confines of an estate guest room. I’m guessing the secret room was a left over set from Universal’s opulent Phantom of the Opera (1925).
The film was directed by Bavarian-born Kurt Neuman (1908-1958), who later went on to direct several genre notables including Rocketship X-M (1950), Kronos (1957), She Devil (1957) and The Fly (1958). IMDb notes that he was also considered for the director’s chair on The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but James Whale was chosen when The Invisible Man (1933) became a hit.
Blue Room has a terrific cast, including Lionel Atwill, Gloria Stuart, Hungarian-born Paul Lukas (Pál Lukács for my Hungarian friends) and proverbial tough guy Edward Arnold. Unfortunately, nothing quite happens in the film and I quickly got bored with the trappings of the Von Helldorf estate. The story is thin with three suitors chasing gorgeous Gloria Stuart (she was good in these films) in a creepy old house plagued with a 20-year old multiple murder mystery.
Secret of the Blue Room is a bit of an enigma —I think it’s a must-see for fans of Universal horror (try it on a double bill with the superior The Old Dark House), but it doesn’t deliver. I really wanted a monster to crawl out of the musty caverns or have Béla Lugosi or Karloff appear as cameo surprises. Still, I am recommending this for purests. Why gripe? These Universal Vault Series are winners and it is remarkable that we can finally see films previously archived away in the vault.