Tag Archives: Burgess Meredith

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MANITOU (1978)

DIRECTED BY: William Girdler

FEATURING: Tony Curtis, , Michael Ansara,

PLOT: Karen has a problem: there’s a zit on her back which is growing into a tumor that is the manifestation of a 400-year old native American medicine man, which will require the help of psychics, computers, and another medicine man to deal with it.

Still from The Manitou (1978)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The late Blu-ray release caused a missed connection with the List, now closed. Otherwise, this movie combines the raving premise, bonkers execution, and deadpan seriousness that defines the finest of our so-bad-its-weird curations. The cacophony of an exploding typewriter, an indoor blizzard, a licorice spirit melting out of a table, and a frozen head crashing through a window ensures that everyone will have a favorite indelible scene.

COMMENTS: Today is a very special episode of Pete’s Punishing Picture Show, not the least of which because it touches on one of my favorite perversions side hobbies: collecting bad ripoffs of The Exorcist (1973). From Bollywood to Italian giallo, Exorcist rip-offs form their own genre; you can trace the demon shock wave of 1973 rippling through cinematic history around the world. The Manitou hides behind North American native hoodoo instead of Catholic demonology, but it can’t fool us; it follows the exact same structure act-for-act. Its chief innovation is that by late third act, it gets bored with retrodding Exorcist ground and opts to mix in some Star Wars instead, generously garnished with psychedelic space gloop from 2001: A Space Odyssey for good measure.

Wasting no time in trifling details like character development, The Manitou starts at a hospital as a doctor tries to explain the strange growth on the back of a patient’s neck. The patient is Karen (Susan Strasberg), whose estranged ex-boyfriend Harry (Tony Curtis) is a phony psychic making a living as a freelance Tarot card reader for wealthy widows. Just to nail a pin on how phony he is, he wears a Cookie-Crisp-blue wizard robe and a fake mustache that he peels off and pastes on a pillar en route to his tumbler of scotch at the end of a hard day’s work as a flim-flam artist. But when Karen consults him about her lump problem, he is confronted with real-life black magic, since all attempts to treat the lump with conventional medicine lead to everything going haywire. Harry makes the rounds of his not-fake psychic friends for a séance here and a consultation with a professor of native American studies (a well-cast Burgess Meredith) there, and eventually is led to the conclusion that the lump on Karen’s neck is a reincarnated 400-year old native American medicine man, who is possessing Karen as a parasitic host on his way to being reborn.

The evil influence of the Lump even drives a random client of Harry’s to levitate out of her chair and fly downstairs, killing her, a homicide never to be brought up again. Out of his league when confronted by reincarnated witch doctors, Harry has to drive out to a reservation to recruit John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), a gruff medicine man who is also the most offensive racial stereotype in film since Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed Chinaman in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The whole movie drowns in Disneyfied Injun-Joe buckskin clichés, as Singing Rock executes heap big pow-wow mojo (it involves rattling little leather drums a lot) to contain “Misquamacus,” the name of Karen’s manitou. Misquamacus devoted himself to the dark side of the medicine force, so his coming back is a bad thing. But come back he does, ripping a hole out of Karen’s back as he is birthed into a midget character resembling a slightly chewed cinnamon gummy bear. Misquamacus and Singing Rock spend the rest of the movie in a no-holds-barred Injun magic fight, turning the hospital into a frozen ice cavern straight off the planet Hoth and freezing cheerful nurses into meat popsicles, manifesting lizard spirits, and eventually transforming Karen’s hospital room into an outer space dimension with her bed flying in the middle of it. But Singing Rock marshals the forces of the hospital’s DEC-era computers (“White Man magic!,” he explains) to help in the battle.

As Singing Rock dispenses his medicine-man-wisdom-of-the-day about how the White Man pisses off nature spirits—shame on us!—we soberly realize the consequences of our faithless high-tech lifestyle. Actually, no, not a stinking minute of this movie makes sense, with none of it explained except via Tonto-logic. Nevertheless, it is done with strident deadpan seriousness all the way through; everybody involved seems smugly sure they’d have another Exorcist on their hands. While exteriors are gorgeously shot in San Francisco, the interior sets carries this studio-bound film into made-for-TV funk, feeling like the nuttiest episode of General Hospital ever made. The numerous special effects don’t date themselves to a minute past 1978, giving every “hadouken” laser blast in the medicine-magic battle a distinct early “Doctor Who” flavor. Insult to injury, Tony Curtis has never been so badly miscast. His streetwise Manhattan borough delivery demolishes every line he speaks. The Manitou is one of those movies where nothing works, and yet the entire 104-minute running time is hilarious entertainment that will never bore you for a second. It could be one of the greatest specimens of unintentional camp ever made. Just be sure if you get a zit on your neck, treat it with some Clearasil and take care of it the easy way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The plot can easily be summarized, but first this announcement: If you happen to be drinking hot coffee at the present moment, please set your cup aside, because elements of the scenario might cause you to begin shaking with helpless laughter and you could spill the coffee on your rug, dog, cat, mate or newspaper.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, contemporaneous

KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF BATMAN (1966-1968), PART THREE

Begin your Bat-journey with Part 1.

Before resuming Season Two of “Batman”, we’ll cave into the crave of batmania with one of the biggest chunks of studio-backed cinematic cheese ever conceived: 1966’s Batman, the Movie. For years, this was the only Batman vehicle available on home video. Batmaniacs have reason to rejoice, because this gloriously dated, souped-up big screen treatment of the series is an “it has to be seen to believed” extravaganza. The hopelessly dippy plot and dialogue may throw off angsty fanboys, but it’s all about our merry villains: Lee Meriwether in her sole performance as Catwoman, as the Riddler, as the Penguin, Cesar Romero as the Joker,  and the most color-saturated array of (inflatable) henchmen in cinema. After the sexiest psychedelic credits you’ll probably ever see comes Batman infamously fending off a rubber shark with his “Bat-repellent Shark Spray.” That gag’s almost topped later with the “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” routine. It only gets loopier from there.

Among the toys on display is the Batcopter, Batboat, and Penguin submarine (with flippers!). Even cooler are the fight scenes. Here’s where the multi-hued henchman get to show their mettle, withstanding the dynamic duo while an arsenal of “Kapow, Zlopp, and Touche!”s fills the screen. Each of the four primary villains is at their maniacal best, and all take turns stealing their scenes. Watching Romero’s Joker today, his influence on is blatantly obvious. Of course, Gorshin (a tad underused) twitches with caffeine; there’s a reason he was the sole actor from the series nominated for an Emmy. Meredith’s Penguin is delightfully obnoxious, and Meriwether’s Catwoman is a walking pheromone . Meriwether is criminally underrated, but they’re all so damned animated that you don’t care one bit that their goal is to turn the United Nations into colored sand.

Still from Batman: The Movie (1966)If we weren’t so close to completing the List, I’d plead with the admin here to at least include Batman as a List Candidate. It’s a rarity in being both weird and absurdly entertaining. Like the series, it’s bound to be considered as blasphemy to modern-day Bat toddlers, who erroneously believe the darker version of the Caped Crusader is truer to the comics. Yes, it is: to the later comics from the likes of Neal Adams, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore. But Batman didn’t start that way. The comics of the 40s and 50s were pure camp. Originally, “Batman” series producer William Dozier planned to create something more serious, akin to “The Adventures of Superman,” but after reading the comics he went high camp instead. That is what the series, and movie bring to life in a way that has never been replicated with such energy and dated Continue reading KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF BATMAN (1966-1968), PART THREE

KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART ONE

It’s very simple: if you love “Batman” (1966-1968), starring Adam West, you’re in the cool kids club. If you don’t, you’re clueless and need to go away. Only freaks are allowed here.

“Batman” is still the yardstick by which all other live-action superheroes are to be judged. There has never been another series like it. I’ll go even further: it’s not only a genre and cult yardstick, but it’s a yardstick for television, period.

Before we catapult into the Batcave, I’ll share a few childhood memories, of which I’m damned proud. Adam West’s Batman and ‘ Superman  were the epitome of cool (I’ll never forgive for turning them into caped white trash and making them go commando). I caught Superman in syndication and already knew that Superman had blown his brains out. For me, that was part of his appeal. (I was a tad off-kilter. In my defense, Superman was a more appealing martyr than the Pentecostal Jesus). Admittedly, however, Superman had bland villains, and his second Lois Lane was too June Cleaver-Protestant boring.

Then came Adam West’ Batman. I caught the last season in its first-run, then caught up in syndication. Of course, the show was mass-marketed. Among the most cherished mementos was Batman trading cards, which I would often lose. They meant so much to me that my poor Dad would have to drive all the way downtown to buy me replacement cards from the only store that carried them. I found my true rainbow pot of batgold, however, through a wedding. My cousin was getting married and wanted me for a ring bearer. The last thing I wanted to do was climb into a tuxedo in front of a church crowd, but when she promised to buy me a Batman suit AND a Batmobile to pedal around the back porch on, I begged Dad to call the tuxedo shop immediately so I could be fitted. For Christmas, my brother asked for a children’s Bible (he was such a suck-up). In sharp contrast, I asked for, and received, a Batman View-Master set. With all those bat-toys, I was indisputably the coolest kid who ever lived.

“Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!” “Roger. Ready to move out!”

Since I’m hard pressed to come up with a single non-enjoyable episode, a “Best of Batman” list is bit of an oxymoron, although of course there are standout episodes. This is really more an exercise in cherry picking highlights, because by the time I could finish covering the entire series, we might be heading into 366 Weird Movies, the Sequel. So, without further ado, I have to start with the pilot, which features Batman dancing in a disco.

Still from Batman "Hey Diddle Riddle" (1966)On 12, January, 1966  “Batman” premiered with “Hi Diddle Riddle” (directed by Robert Butler, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr,) and, yes, that means… the Riddler () is our first dastardly criminal. He pranks the World’s Fair with an exploding cake and inspires Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) to dial the batphone. Alfred, the butler (Alan Napier) answers, and rescues Bruce Wayne Continue reading KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART ONE

101. SKIDOO (1968)

“It is the gassiest, grooviest, swingingest, trippiest movie you’ve ever seen… Anybody that don’t like that, daddy, don’t like chicken on Sunday.”–Sammy Davis, Jr. recommending Skidoo to the younger generation in the film’s trailer

DIRECTED BY: Otto Preminger

FEATURING: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, , Alexandra Hay, , Austin Pendleton, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang, , , , Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, George Raft, , Harry Nilsson

PLOT: Tony is a retired mobster living in the suburbs with wife Flo and daughter Darlene, who has an unwelcome (to Tony) interest in dating hippies. A crime kingpin known as “God” pressures the ex-hit man into doing one last job—going undercover in Alcatraz to assassinate a stool pigeon.  When Tony accidentally ingests LSD in the pen, his entire worldview is flipped and he decides to ditch the hit and break out of the clink; meanwhile, Flo and Darlene have taken it upon themselves to track down God with the help of a band of flower children.

Still from Skidoo (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Otto Preminger had been nominated as Best Director for two Academy Awards (for Laura and The Cardinal).  Known for pushing the envelope on taboo topics, Preminger was instrumental in breaking the back of the Hollywood Production Code by releasing The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which dealt with the then-forbidden topic of heroin addiction, without MPAA approval.
  • Skidoo was a giant flop sandwiched between two other Preminger flops, Hurry Sundown (1967) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970).  Despite its notorious reputation, Skidoo was part of a series of failed films and was not solely responsible for Preminger’s fall from grace.
  • Two years after Skidoo, screenwriter Doran William Cannon penned the exceedingly weird Brewster McCloud (1970).
  • This was Groucho Marx’s final film.  He dropped LSD (with writer Paul Krassner) in preparation for the role.
  • Preminger also took LSD, supposedly under the guidance of none other than Timothy Leary (who promoted the film in the trailer).  Preminger had originally been slated to make an anti-acid movie, but had decided that he should experience the drug before condemning it.  After his trip he decided to make Skidoo instead.
  • Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, and Cesar Romero, who all have cameo bits in Skidoo, had also appeared together in the same movie just two years before: as the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Joker in Batman: The Movie (1966).  Director Otto Preminger had a rare acting role as Mr. Freeze in two episodes of the “Batman” TV show in 1966.
  • After flopping in 1968, Skidoo became virtually a lost film—not because it was suppressed or the prints were unavailable, but because no one seemed interested in exhibiting it.  A Turner Classic Movies screening in 2008 was the first opportunity most people had to view the movie since its release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jackie Gleason’s acid trip is one for the ages, particularly when he sees Groucho Marx’s cigar-puffing head affixed atop a rotating wood screw.  His response to the apparition, naturally, is to say “Oh no, I’m not playing your game… go ahead, drop,” at which point the screwball vision slips down the prison sink drain.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like an onion soaked in high-grade acid, Skidoo contains layers upon layers of weirdness. In 1968 it was not that far out for a movie to take us on a swirly psychedelic journey to check out that purple haze all in our brains. What was freaky was for establishment icons Otto Preminger, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and Groucho Marx to serve as our tour guides. Add to that the fact that the film is a notorious flop full of painfully strained attempts at comedy, jaw-dropping left-field musical numbers, scattershot satire, and Harry Nilsson singing the closing credits, and you have a singular pro-drug oddity that mines rare camp.


Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski discussing the trailer for Skidoo (1968)

COMMENTS: Watching Otto Preminger’s Skidoo is like listening to a cover version of the Doors’ Continue reading 101. SKIDOO (1968)