Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's Witchcraft with Elizabeth Montgomery!

Bewitched (1964-1972)
Created by Sol Saks
Starring Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York, Agnes Moorehead, and David White

Bewitched was ranked 50 in TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time's list in 2002.  When I was a kid, it was certainly one of my favorite shows. I especially enjoyed the comedy of Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne), Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde) and Dr. Bombay (Bernard Fox).  But even as a kid, I felt the premise was a bit flawed.  A man marries a witch and doesn't want her to practice her craft?  She could conjure up a brand new convertible.  Her spells could fly them around the world.  A cold beverage is just a nose twitch away.  Who would want a "normal" spouse?  Darren Stevens does, and Samantha being a nice little 60s wife, obliges.  At least she tries to.

Most of the show's conflict revolves around either Samantha's inability to give up her gift, or the sudden appearance of one of her witch relatives, especially Samantha's mother Endora who likes to make mischief on Darren.  There is a also lot of fun with their goofy neighbor; nothing escapes the notice of Mrs. Kravitz (played by Alice Pearce and Sandra Gould), not a room full of fishing rods, not pictures moving by themselves on the wall, not a garage door opening on its own.  Her undue concern with the Stevenses makes one wonder if Mrs. Kravitz isn't descended from Salem Puritans.  Incidentally, in 2003 TV Land gave Bewitched "The Nosiest Neighbor" award, and in 2005 a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens was erected in Salem, Massachusetts.

Had the show taken its premise a bit further, so that there was some consequence to Samantha's use of witchcraft, it would have improved the show.  As it is, Darren comes across as either really sexist or really racist.  Or both.  Samantha can do something he can't, and he doesn't like it.  There needs to be more reason for Samantha to not practice witchcraft, like a real effect on the outside world.  Darren's selfishness notwithstanding, Bewitched is a fun program, especially the first two seasons.  Like The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched suffers some deterioration of quality once color is introduced.

A host of 60s personalities appeared on Bewitched including Adam West, June Lockhart, Reta Shaw, Madge Blake, Maureen McCormick, Peggy Lipton, Bill Mumy, Raquel Welch, and Willie Mays.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thirteen Halloween Movies

I'm leaving the obvious one off this list, as this is a list of non-slasher Halloween movies.  With the exceptions of An American Werewolf in London and Sleepy Hollow, none are too gruesome or rated R; despite their bit of gore, both are definitely worth watching.
  1. Arsenic & Old Lace (1944).  A drama critic (Cary Grant) marries his lady love (Priscilla Lane), but can't leave for his honeymoon just yet due to some trouble at home.  He's learned that his aunts have been murdering old bachelors who lodge in their home and that insanity gallops through his family.
  2. Bell, Book and Candle (1958).  Kim Novack is a witch with an interest in her neighbor (James Stewart).  She casts a love spell on him, only to fall in love herself.
  3. The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me but Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967).  A kooky old professor and his assistant travel to Transylvania to find real vampires.  Sharon Tate in one of her final roles appears as the innkeeper's daughter.
  4. An American Werewolf in London (Full Moon Edition) (1981).  Two students backpacking through Wales are attacked by what appears to be a werewolf.  One highlight is the best transformation of man to wolf.  On film.
  5. Ghostbusters (1984).  Three unemployed paranormal professors (Dan Ackyroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis) open a ghost-removal business.  Before long every ghost in New York City is on the loose.  Who you gonna call?
  6. The Worst Witch (1986).  Before Harry Potter, there was Mildred Hubble, a young student at an exclusive witch academy, who is bullied by her peers and appears to be the worst witch ever.
  7. Hocus Pocus (1993).  Three hundred years after their deaths, three witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy) are accidentally resurrected in Salem on Halloween night.  Three kids and an immortal cat must stop them before they cast a spell on the whole town.
  8. Practical Magic (1998).  Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman star as two sisters who practice witchcraft to help people overcome obstacles on the path to true love.  Based on the Alice Hoffman novel.
  9. The Sixth Sense (1999).  A child psychologist (Bruce Willis) tries to help a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people.
  10. Sleepy Hollow (1999).  Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane is a police constable from New York City sent to Sleepy Hollow to solve a series of murders.  Though he believes firmly in scientific evidence, Depp's Crane retains the original's superstitious, imaginative, cowardly personality.
  11. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001).  Based on the J. K. Rowling's book that launched a million young readers. 
  12. Signs (2002)Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are farmers who discover crop circles that portend terrifying events.
  13. The Ring (2002).  Naomi Watts plays a reporter investigating a video tape that seems to cause the death of anyone who watches it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Galloping Hessian of the Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
by Washington Irving
Tribeca Books
September 27, 2011 (first published 1820)
54 pages
ISBN:  1612930980

In 1820 Washington Irving, America's first short story writer, published "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" a scary little Halloween story in his collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.   "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," along with another story from the collection, "Rip Van Winkle," is one of the oldest examples of American literature that is still read today.  Set in post-Revolutionary America in the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, near the Dutch-settled village of Tarry Town, New York, the story concerns Ichabod Crane, a tall, gawky, superstitious schoolmaster who is smitten with Katrina Van Tassel, the prettiest girl from the wealthiest family.  Vying for her hand in marriage is the brawny Brom Bones.

Ichabod spends his long winter evenings listening to the old wives spin yarns of ghosts and goblins and haunted fields and houses.  The whole area is said to be haunted; its dominant ghost is an apparition that rides around "on horseback without a head.  It is said to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war."  Ichabod's walks home afterwards are filled with terror, as he imagines ghosts in the shadowy shrubs and trees everywhere along his path.  One autumn evening the Van Tassels host a party, attended by both Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones.  It is after the party on his way home that Ichabod has his most terrifying journey ever when he encounters the headless Hessian.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a wonderful read for a late autumn afternoon.  After reading the story, find it on film.  Ichabod Crane has been played by a diverse range of actors including Jeff Goldblum, Ed Begley, Jr. and Johnny Depp.  Johnny Depp's Ichabod in Tim Burton's 1999 Sleepy Hollow is not a superstitious schoolteacher, but rather a no-nonsense police constable investigating a series of brutal murders in the area.  Depp's portrayal of a man having seen the headless horseman is nothing short of brilliant.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Aliens Among Us

3rd Rock From the Sun (1996-2001)
Creators:  Bonnie and Terry Turner
Starring:  John Lithgow, Jane Curtin, Kristen Johnston, French Stewart, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Co-starring:  Elmarie Wendell, Simbi Khali, and Wayne Knight

The nineties was the decade of extraterrestrial entertainment.  On The X-Files (1993-2002) FBI agents Scully and Mulder worked to uncover evidence of extraterrestrial life.  Will Smith fought aliens in both Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).  Martin O'Hara landed on earth in a movie remake of My Favorite Martian (1999).  Most irreverent of all were the Solomons of 3rd Rock from the Sun.

3rd Rock, unlike other alien entertainment, is told from the perspective of the alien:  The Solomons are four extraterrestrials disguised as humans in Rutherford, Ohio, whose mission is to discover everything they can about the human experience.  Dick their High Commander takes on the role of a physics professor; Sally the military expert poses as his sister "the woman"; Tommy the intelligence expert and the oldest member of the group is to be Dick's teenage son, and the transmitter is the slow-witted, deadbeat brother Harry.  Actual humans include Mary, Dick's neurotic colleague and paramour; Nina, his sarcastic secretary; Ms. Dubcek, their lascivious landlady; and Officer Don, an incompetent policeman and Sally's love interest.

With its broad comedic strokes 3rd Rock satirizes the nineties in a most delightful way, touching on everything from politics to daytime talk shows to art movies to John Grisham novels to Lord of the Dance to the Beanie Baby craze to alien obsession.  All the characters, be they the main cast or those with but a bit part, are cast with wonderfully talented actors.  Those in the roles of the Solomons brilliantly portray what it would be like to experience something for the first time.  And everything they do is being done for the first time.  Most entertaining is their dealings with feelings, all without any actual human inhibitions.

Some of the many things I like about 3rd Rock include the preponderance of green in the actors' clothes and the set decorations, Harry's wardrobe, Sally's swagger, Dick's hamminess, Tommy's one-liners, John Cleese as a visiting alien, Kathy Bates as an alien hunter, and William Shatner as The Big Giant Head.  I never see this show on lists of best comedies or best television programs, but 3rd Rock from the Sun deserves to be in the top ten of both such lists.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ghost Story

The Woman in Black:  A Ghost Story
by Susan Hill
David R. Godine
2002 (first published 1982)
144 pages
ISBN:  1567921892

In this video age, when it takes more and more gore and special effects to frighten audiences, it doesn't seem possible that a book relying on words to create a terrifying tone would be equal to the task.  Yet Susan Hill's The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story is more than equal to the task--truly a delightfully frightening read.  It's no wonder the adapted play is the second longest running play in London's history, having played in the West End since 1989.

Arthur Kipps, our hero, is challenged by his stepson to tell a ghost story one Christmas, but Arthur, who has a true ghost story to tell, does not feel that Christmas is the appropriate setting for his horrifying tale.  He does decide it's time to write down his story, which begins, appropriately, in a London pea-souper on a Monday afternoon in November.  Arthur, when still a young but arrogant solicitor, is sent by his boss on a journey north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of a Mrs. Alice Drablow.  Mrs. Drablow's home, Eel Marsh House, sits on an English moor on the isolated Nine Lives Causeway.  Arthur intends to stay at her house until he can wade through all of her many papers; Mrs. Drablow's local solicitor tries--without success--to dissuade Arthur from this plan.

Since Arthur's arrival, many strange and frightening things begin happening:  the odd reaction of the local people when they learn he is attending Mrs. Drablow's funeral; the 20 or so quiet, unsmiling,  and motionless children lined up along the fence by the church after the funeral; the creepy, realistic screams from the foggy marsh; the creaking of the rocking chair in the nursery; and--most tragically for Arthur--the appearance of the woman in black.  The Woman in Black, eerie and creepy throughout, has a sublimely terrifying ending.

Halloween's still a few weeks off, but it's not too soon to read a good ghost story, and, although The Woman in Black is a book marketed to adults, high-school and mature middle-school readers will also enjoy this one.  Incidentally, Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, will star as Arthur Kipps in the movie version in theaters next February.