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This light, sweet and fun Christmas comedy may be one of the most underrated Christmas flicks around. Flick has the late Jim Varney starring as his popular Ernest P. Worrell character, this time a cab driver who has a very special fare in his cab…Santa Claus (Douglas Seale)! A man claiming to be Santa Claus is in town looking for recently fired children’s TV show host Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark). It seems Santa is ready to hang up his red boots and hat and Joe is the perfect replacement. Things go askew and Santa winds up in jail, his magic sack stolen by precocious runaway, Pamela (Noelle Parker), who wants to be called Harmony Starr, and Joe balancing both the offer to be St. Nick and a horror film role!…leaving only one person to right it all and save Christmas, the bumbling Ernest!
While the film’s story is nothing new or special, the script by Ed Turner and B. Kline is imbued with loads of heart and Christmas spirit by director John R. Cherry III. It’s the little touches that really make this work, like children recognizing Santa right away, despite being surrounded by doubting adults and two bumbling airport storage clerks (Gailard Sartain and Bill Byrge) dealing with crates containing Santa’s reindeer and sleigh. There are also a pair of Santa’s little helpers (Buddy Douglas and Patty Maloney) who come to get Santa out of trouble and Santa getting a cell full of inmates to join along in Christmas carols. Cherry also seems to restrain Varney’s over-the-top, motor-mouthed handyman just enough to keep him from getting tiresome and Ernest’s sincere love for Christmas, also comes across nicely. The flick has a lot of fun scenes…you know Ernest is getting behind the reins of that sleigh…and the characters all are appealing save for Robert Lesser as Joe’s slimy agent, Marty, who is supposed to be a jerk. It all works well and is filled with holiday spirit and charm, with a tone that is not too childish as to alienate adults and not too adult to bore the kids.
Another reason this works so well is the cast. Varney has his Ernest character balanced well between his babbling monologues, legend in his own mind ego and child-like love of Christmas. The bumbling Ernest also gets to don a few disguises to spring Santa from prison and help Mr. Claus convince Joe to saddle up as jolly old St. Nick. It’s fun to watch Varney have a good time with it, which the comedian obviously is. Douglas Seale makes the perfect Santa. A somewhat naive and innocent view of the world, yet with a passionate love for Christmas and a ‘never give up’ spirit when it comes to people. He is not overbearing, which is all the more fun when he gets the most unlikely folks in the Christmas spirit. A charming actor. Noelle Parker is pretty and feisty as rebellious teen “Harmony”. She and Varney work well together and she even gets in on the disguise fun with her co-star. The character works well as the troubled teen who has a grudge against Christmas, but is slowly won over by the spirit of the holiday. Oliver Clark is also solid as a man trying decide between a possible movie career, or believing the fantastic notion that this old man is really who he says he is and that Joe is destined to be the next Santa Claus. The rest of the cast are fine and fun as an assortment of eccentric and cartoon-ish characters in support. The whole cast seem to be having a good time and it translates to the audience.
This is a fun holiday flick that may have gotten overlooked by some of the more popular classics, but really deserves to be recognized for it’s spirit and charm. It’s an entertaining movie that makes good use of Jim Varney’s classic Ernest character in just the right doses and has plenty of Christmas feel despite it’s Florida location. It’s story of Santa in trouble and Christmas in peril is nothing new, but pulled off nicely here with a lot of heart and zero pretensions. It’s cast gets the tone and has a good time and along with John Cherry’s directorial touch, deliver a fun and spirited Christmas comedy that is perfectly balanced for kid and adult alike.
MONSTERZERO NJ FUN FACT: Actress Noelle Parker who plays precocious teen Pamela/Harmony was actually born on Christmas day, thus her name!
The 70s was a great time for made for TV horror. So, for this week’s Saturday Night Double Feature I have decided to showcase two 70s TV movie horrors that scared the heck out of me when I was a little kid and watched them when they first aired. Gargoyles and the original Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark gave me nightmares back in the day, when I was a lad of less then ten years old and will always remain horror favorites despite what effect time might have had on them…and speaking of which, what effect did they still have on me?…
Gargoyles is still one of my favorites and brings back such memories of a seven year old MonsterZero NJ being scared out of his wits by this fun and sometimes still spooky TV movie. The film opens with narration telling us that when The Devil was cast from Heaven he vowed to get revenge by ruling earth and every 600 years his minions, The Gargoyles would rise up to attempt to do so. We then focus on Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde), a scientist and author who specializes in the study of man’s belief in demons, traveling in the desert with his hot photographer daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) to see a man who claims to have found something of interest. Uncle Willie (Woody Chamblis) is an old man running a middle of nowhere roadside attraction and shows the pair a bizarre skeleton that looks like some kind of man-sized flying, horned lizard. Boley thinks it a fraud, but agrees to hear the old man’s tale of the local Native American legends telling of the tribes battling such creatures. During his tale the shack is attacked and Mercer and Diana barely escape with their lives and the mysterious creature’s skull, but not before being attacked by one of the very monsters Boley thought didn’t exist moments before. The creatures follow the two to a remote motel and after continual attacks The Gargoyles retrieve the skull, the corpse of one of their own killed in a previous attack and Diana, whom the leader (Bernie Casey in Stan Winston make-up) takes a liking to. Now with only two cops and a dirt bike gang, initially blamed for Willie’s death, as allies, Mercer must find the Gargoyles lair, rescue his daughter and stop the monsters from taking over the planet.
Directed by Bill L. Norton from a script by Steven and Elinor Karpf, Gargoyles is a fun horror flick that may not be as scary now as it was to me as a child, but is still a spooky, nostalgic good time nonetheless. Norton takes his film seriously and provides some very creepy moments early on, such as the attack on Willie’s and the subsequent attacks on Mercer and Diane in the motel. The film then switches gears somewhat and becomes a more traditional monster movie with our small band of heroes making a desperate attack on the Gargoyle nest. The film makes things a bit interesting by having the Gargoyle leader not only speak, but intelligently as well. He actually has charm as he obviously lies to Diana about his intent with not only her, but their purpose here, revealing his true nature and goal to Mercer once he feels he has the upper hand. This cleverly makes him less of a generic monster and gives him character and personality under the creepy make-up by FX legend Stan Winston (who would work on Bernie Casey again in Dr. Black And Mr. Hyde). This adds to a film already given some unsettling atmosphere by director Norton who really succeeds on making the creatures threatening and keeping them mysterious even once fully revealed. The film has some added suspense as the Gargoyles are few, but their long gestating eggs are steadily hatching and there will be thousands of them if Mercer and Co. cannot destroy them soon. Adding to Norton’s atmosphere is a very effective score by Robert Prince and equally effective cinematography from Earl Rath. Sure the film is not perfect, the narration tells us the creatures appear every 600 years, but the Gargoyle leader says 500, as does Mercer, and the Gargoyles revealing themselves long before they have enough numbers to be a real threat makes no sense since their existence is disbelieved. Why risk everything for a skeleton no one believes is real? But the flaws are minimal when compared to the entertainment.
As for the stars, the cast all take this very seriously and thus it goes a long way in giving weight to a, let’s face it, silly story. Wilde makes a strong hero, a man with both intelligence and fortitude and the fact that he is a skeptic at first makes his character more interesting in light of what is happening. Salt is more than just a pretty face and hot body as she gives Diana a lot of courage and she is a professional, smart and a tough girl, who works well in her scenes with Casey’s Gargoyle. As the leader, Casey is both charismatic and threatening. His scenes with Salt are very effective because, despite telling her he means her and mankind no harm, you can see it on her face that she isn’t convinced and he seems almost amused by his own lies. There is an uncomfortable sexual tension as the creature seems very enamored with Diana and she very afraid, despite his attempts to assure her that is not his intent. The whole ‘charm of the devil’ is well conveyed by Casey as is his malice when his true nature is brought to bare. The added element of the leader’s mate being jealous of his attention to Diana adds an effective angle that displays that the creatures are not very different than us under the scales and horns. The rest of the supporting characters are fine though we do get a little overacting by Grayson Hall’s Mrs. Parks, but the character appears to be an alcoholic, so it’s not that obtrusive. We also get a glimpse of an actor that would become a star in later years, with a young Scott Glenn playing a heroic biker who has taken a liking to Diana and joins Mercer to rescue her. A solid cast that worked well with the material.
So, overall, this is a fun and very well made TV movie horror that treats it’s B-movie monster story with a lot of respect and a talented cast and crew that makes it work. Even now it still has some creepy moments and effective bits, not to mention some decent bloodletting and with the added 70s nostalgia, it makes an entertaining treat. I will personally always have a place in my heart for this flick as a prime example of an era when TV horror was prolific and could hold it’s own against theatrical releases. The scene with the Gargoyle creeping up from under Mercer’s bed still gives me the willies!
Couldn’t find a trailer so a short clip will have to do…
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
I saw this 70s TV movie horror classic as a kid when it first aired and it scared the heck out of me. I had trouble sleeping thinking the tiny demons from the film were under my bed and waiting to get me. Now, upon revisiting it, I do still feel it still has some creepy sequences, but some problems too.
The story has a young couple, Alex and Sally (Jim Hutton and Kim Darby) inheriting an old house that has been in Sally’s family for years. Sally notices the fireplace in the cellar is bricked up and the door used to remove the ash is bolted shut. Her inquiries to family handyman Mr. Harris (William Demarest) are met with vague warnings to leave well enough alone. Of course Sally fails to heed and opens the door and unknowingly unleashes 3 goblin-like creatures into her home who intend to do her great harm. Worse still, no one believes her when she starts to see the creepy little beings who want the pretty young woman to become one of their own. Can Sally save herself before the creatures get her, or her husband has her committed?
From a script by Nigel McKeand, Don’t Be afraid Of The Dark is very well directed by John Newland, who got his experience with all things spooky directing and hosting the classic One Step Beyond TV show. He gives the film some really creepy atmosphere and along with cinematographer Andrew Jackson gets really effective use out of the big old house that serves as it’s primary location. The little demons and their eerie whispering are very effective even now and after all these years they still give you the creeps despite being fairly simple in their design…like little prune headed apes. Basically they are three little people in suits (Tamara De Treaux, Patty Maloney and Felix Silla, to be exact) filmed on large sets to make them look small and it’s simple and effective. Also effective is keeping the creatures origins a mystery. They seem to have been there since the house was built claiming anyone who releases them from their imprisonment. In this case, the air of mystery works. The film has some nice suspense, especially in it’s last act and a very unsettling ending that still stays with you. Add Billy Goldenberg’s chilling score and you have a very effective little horror…though not perfect…
Where the film fails somewhat is in it’s the human characters. Kim Darby is just bland as the object of the demon’s attention. Sure we have sympathy for her, as no one believes she’s being haunted and terrorized, but the actress seems very monotone most of the time. It’s hard to really become endeared or concerned for her. Jim Hutton is livelier as her husband, but he’s written like such a jerk that you can’t stand him, so he elicits very little sympathy when he finally realizes his wife may really be in danger. And my biggest problem is with William Demarest’s handyman. His performance is fine, he’s a little hammy, but it suits the material. The character claims to only know something isn’t right with the house, but not too many details. Yet, when in the basement and he encounters the creatures, they talk to him like they know him and he responds as if he knows them, too. It’s never clarified. Is he hiding something? Even when the husband comes to him later for answers, he never mentions his encounter, or that he knows exactly was going on. He again gives vague details that there is something in the house that he thinks claimed Sally’s grandfather and he now might be one of them. But he is never clear, though his ‘talk’ with the little monsters indicates he knows a lot more than he ever tells. If he’s going to warn them and save Sally’s life, why not tell them everything? Also there is a sequence in the last act where a friend of Sally’s is locked outside the house by the fiends and there are a few shots that are in daylight when the sequence clearly takes place after dark. Whoops!
Flaws aside, there is still a nostalgic charm attached to this and it is still very effective in the creepy department. I count this as a favorite despite seeing it a little differently now, through the eyes of an adult and not an eight year-old boy. This film scared that eight year-old boy quite a bit when first viewed in 1973. Remade recently under the guidance of producer Guillermo Del Toro, but with none of the effectiveness of this 1973 TV gem.