By Will ("The Thrill") Viharo
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ike a lot of folks my age (39), I grew up watching old movies on TV. That's the genesis of Thrillville - my appreciation of classic flicks, particularly of the B variety, and my desire to share them in their original form on the big screen with fellow enthusiasts. Of course, "old" to me is probably ancient to younger generations, who watch "the new classics" on stations like TNT and glorify the "good old days" of the '70s and '80s the same way people of my vintage romanticized the black-and-white, Technicolor relics of yore, pre-Pee Wee Herman. I still maintain that black-and-white classics of the first four decades of sound film - once ubiquitous on local TV channels, and then cable - are less time-bound than movies from the past two decades. They just aged better, in my humble opinion. Sure, the fashions, language and morality evoke a certain nostalgia, and oftentimes old movies appear to be not just from another time, but another planet, but they are "classic" in the truly timeless sense. They transcend their own era in a way that movies like Top Gun, Rambo, Pretty in Pink and Footloose can't. This is not a minority opinion, I think, though I haven't taken an official poll. Something happened in the late 70s, after the collapse of the studio system and death of the drive-in, when Lucas and Spielberg revolutionized the cinema experience, that made most movies as memorable as a trip to the mall. There's a fleeting, cookie-cutter feel to most Hollywood product of the past twenty five or so years. Naturally there are many exceptions, particularly in independent cinema - before that too became a mere offshoot of mainstream Tinseltown - but by and large, movies today just do not seem as indelibly impressive as movies of the mid-20th century. This can be attributed to a lot of factors - the fact that media in general is much more splintered and pervasive than when movies were king, that most modern movie stars are not larger than life personalities, that our culture in general has become more jaded, that we know too much about the movie making process which in effect demystifies the whole image. As always, I could be wrong. This is my column and a column exists as a venue of personal expression for its author. I welcome dissenting views. But this is my two cents: we live in a throwaway culture with little concern, or even need for, posterity.
Every generation yearns for the alleged relative "innocence" and stylistic mythology of the generation that preceded it. I was born in 1963. To me, the popular culture has gone steadily downhill since then. I don't blame my birth for this. I blame the death of JFK, RFK and MLK - all symbols of idealism and hope for the future, all blown away by blind hatred. Optimism is a thing of the past, and our movies, and music, coldly reflect this anger, bitterness and pessimism. So much of the current culture revels in ugliness. Romance was always considered corny, but now it's merely a shallow exercise in commercialism; no one seems to really believe in it anymore. But romance - in all its facets, from actual lovey-dovey stuff to the hyperbole of promised adventure - was once an intrinsic part of the movie-going experience. We were still free to imagine and create alternate realities composed of our collective reveries. Now that all seems shot to shit. Few people dare to dream outside of our cynical society's scared little self-contained bubble.
With the systematic closing of the nation's repertory theaters (and The Parkway only goes rep when Thrillville takes over every other Thursday, plus a few special events here and there, but our bread and butter is the new stuff), the final bastion of old-fashioned celluloid romance and idealism could be found on cable TV channels like AMC and TCM. Sure, there are tons of classic old movies available on video and DVD, but to seek them out takes a certain incentive missing from the modern day mind-set. They are marketed as niche collector's items for the most part. But flipping channels and discovering a black-and-white gem from before one's birth remains the most effective way to accidentally stumble upon a cinematic time capsule. It's suddenly right in front of you, and it's free. Commercial free too, ideally.
As recently as two years ago, AMC - which at the time stood for American Movie Classics - was the single greatest cable station alive. I say this subjectively, of course, but I can back up my stance with objective observations: AMC had an edifying quality, fun personality, unique identity and programming integrity missing from almost every other channel, cable or otherwise. They showed movies from the vaults of Universal, Warner Brothers,MGM, Paramount, and even American International. Every Saturday night there was "American Pop", which featured the very best of cult drive-in cinema, from beach parties to teenage monsters, from gladiators to ghouls, from Abbott and Costello to The Thing with Two Heads, along with a treasure trove of classic trailers, vintage commercials, drive-in food ads, old school educational films, even clips from '60s music variety shows like Hullabaloo: basically, the cable TV equivalent of Thrillville. Throughout the week, 24/7, they showed Rat Pack movies, Elvis movies (the good ones, too, like Blue Hawaii and King Creole), film noir, Westerns, musicals, Tarzan, Jungle Jim, Blondie, rare soundies and shorts, you name it. For years. For my money, AMC peaked around Halloween of 1999, when Roger Corman hosted their annual MonsterFest - it was the single greatest TV monster movie marathon ever. It went on for three or four days non-stop, and in between the movies were chapters from Corman's new serialized movie, The Phantom Eye, a loving tribute to all the fright flicks we grew up watching on "Creature Features." They showed all the AIP masterpieces like The Amazing Colossal Man and The She Creature, plus all the Toho favorites like Rodan, Monster Zero, and War of the Gargantuas, plus essential Hammer hits like Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein, AND Universal's monster rally: The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, etc., and even 50s sci-fi jewels like It Came From Outer Space and This Island Earth, PLUS King Kong, giant insect thrillers like Tarantula and Them, and more! It was the highlight of cable television in the 20th Century.
Gradually, then suddenly, it all began to change. The last two MonsterFests began throwing in more recent crap like The Bride, Love at First Bite and Fright Night, but still mixing in rarely screened gems like 1956's The Werewolf. The hosts were disturbingly drab, too: some fake-boobed skinny-ass model named Elektra or something like that, and modern horror scribe Clive Barker, who would be better suited hosting a Freddy or Jason marathon. Where was Elvira? She is a contemporary bombshell and an old school ghoul at the same time, and a helluva lot sexier (and funnier) than that other chick. But AMC was already going after the fabled Gen X crowd by then. Rosey's brother Nick Clooney had already been given the boot as a regular movie host, replaced by younger guys who annoyed the hell out of me and obviously had no idea they were talking about, with all the enthusiasm and savvy of a substitute teacher. Next came the real shocker: commercials, first before the movie, then right in the middle of it. It was a totally unexpected nightmare. AMC was placed on official suicide watch by its former fans from that point on.
Last January the death knell sounded: they began rotating the dreaded "new classics," TNT and USA fodder, into their once sacred schedule - and they were the edited TNT versions, with commercials, so in effect, you were watching another TNT, not the original, one and only AMC. Stuff like Predator and Desperately Seeking Susan could and can be found on a number of other cable channels - uncut, and uninterrupted. So even if they were aiming at the MTV demographic with this stunning and depressing shift in emphasis, they would wind up alienating them too, because even little kids nowadays know an edited cuss word when they see (and hear) one. Chopped up movies cheapen the experience, I don't care what the movie is, or how old you are (one more reason why Blockbuster is evil.)
Worst of all, AMC, which once specialized in rare, obscure and famous flicks of all genres, now began showing forgettable toss-offs from the '80s and even the '90s, movies I never even heard of, from my own movie-going era, garbage not even TNT would show. Edited, with commercials! Rumors had it rival digital cable station Turner Classic Movies had bought all the good stuff out from under them, and maybe that was true, but the spin AMC put on the abrupt change was boldly negligent of their longtime loyal supporters (like me): you old fogies are not the average advertiser's target audience, and we don't want you anymore. Instead, they began aiming their programming at the notoriously fickle younger market, but as I said, they were missing the mark there too.
Now it's been announced that AMC will not only phase out "classic" movies altogether, they will change their name, while retaining the AMC logo. It just won't stand for American Movie Classics anymore - which, by their own admission, has become a misnomer. What it will stand for I do not know: just Another Movie Channel? Alotta Modern Crap? And More Commercials? Doesn't matter: the real AMC we film fans knew and cherished is already deader than Charlie Chaplin. The company that owns AMC, whatever it is, I'm too lazy to go look it up, claims that they will actually start another channel devoted to classic movies, available only on the digital lineup. I guess this means basic cable subscribers do not support old movies, but if you have to fork over that $80 a month for digital - which I do, just so we can get TV Land (www.tvland.com), now the greatest station in the world - more "niche" programming will be made available to you. It's just the reality old fogies like me gotta learn to accept - our interests are becoming outmoded by the popular taste-making machine. Our favorite films are no longer local TV afternoon and late-night staples, theyre friggin' fossils.
People who do not agree with me will argue that this is my problem, and I'm in the minority - a lot of kids like old movies as well as newer ones, which is true, and I am over-emphasizing the necessity of channels like AMC. But while many kids do actively seek out older movies, by and large they only know what is presented to them. I only know about movies made before I was born because they were on TV all the time - they became a part of my daily routine. The average kid flipping channels will only watch and know what is available via his or her remote control. That's only natural. Try flipping through your 500 channels right now, and count the number of images that are black and white (or garish Technicolor). Try it. You will notice all the channels are increasingly similar.
Some of you may say I am exaggerating the significance and entertainment value of "old movies," like the ones I feature in Thrillville. Why are they worth seeing anymore, much less preserving for future generations? The special effects suck by CGI standards (though personally I still prefer rubber suits and stop motion animation any day), the world of old movies no longer resembles our world so we can't identity with them as much (to me that offers welcome respite), and often the politics are questionable (yea, like we're so socially enlightened now - please). And, as I just pointed out myself, every age group romanticizes the culture that preceded it - for young people now, that means the '70s, '80s and even '90s, not the '40s, '50s and '60s, so this progression of obsession is only natural. I concede the veracity of this argument in advance. However, if anything, kids of today should have even more options than I had growing up, because along with discovering Madonna and Stallone, they could also discover Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra - but those are two icons that are no longer readily visible to the regular channel-surfer. My point is, what AMC had to offer was a viable, important option that will soon be wiped off the table. There should be channels devoted to every type of film, from every era, for the edification and enjoyment of young film fans discovering the first century of cinema via the very medium that once threatened to replace it.
Of course, on the upside, I did not grow up with videos and DVDs, which are how most kids can and will discover the old classics that helped me get through an unpleasant childhood- uncut, in beautiful prints, sans commercials, with educational extra features. There's always an upside, and it's always important to acknowledge it while bitching about the drawbacks. Otherwise, it's all just too depressing.
Growing up as a TV addict, one of my favorite movies was 1957's I Was A Teenage Werewolf, on Doc Shock's Mad Theater on Channel 17 out of Philly. Recently the producer of IWATW, Herman Cohen, sadly passed away, at the age of 120 or something. He also produced the other three films in American International's influential quartet of teen monster movies: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Blood of Dracula (female vampire), and How To Make a Monster (in which Teenage Werewolf "meets" Teenage Frankie.) Herman also produced and co-write the British-made equivalents, Horrors of the Black Museum (which featured a teen Mr. Hyde type), and Konga (originally titled I Was a Teenage Gorilla till they realized they had milked this teenage cash cow once too often.) Here's to Herman: thanks for the monster memories, and I promise I'll do what I can to help preserve them.
In fact, I am showing I Was a Teenage Werewolf this October 25 at Copia in Napa, for a special Creature Features road show co-hosted by John Stanley (who also returns to the Parkway this October, along with Bob Wilkins, see details on the Schedule link.) My wedding anniversary road show there on May 31 was a smash success, so they asked us back right away (see Scenes link, page 8 for some photos of this event). Copia's entertainment director, Richard Miami, AKA Dick Florida, is a big fan of this stuff, and is bringing B movie culture to the wine country via Thrillville, to popular acclaim - they just ate up our program of scopitones, trailers, and the 1958 AIP classic Earth vs. the Spider. Richard even arranged a private tour of Robert Mondavi's winery Opus One for my lovely bride Monica, Tiki Goddess and I as an anniversary gift. I don't really drink much wine, being more of a vodka man, but it was fascinating. All in all, it was a classy celebration of our first anniversary, and a surprisingly successful road show to boot.
I don't do a lot of road shows - I'm pretty selective, and by and large, they come to me. I do them to help spread the B movie lounge gospel, and also to make a little extra cash, but The Parkway - recently voted "Number One Most Appealing Spot in the Bay Area" by Zagat's new Nightlife Guide, by the way - remains our home base. On the road, Monica can't spin the Big Carnival Wheel, too unwieldy to transport. So, when on the road at places like The Werepad and The Fine Arts Cinema - which is about to go on a year and half hiatus, good luck Keith, Josephine and Emily, see ya in the remodeled new Fine Arts Center in 2004! - Monica usually does an exotic or go-go dance number - for instance, at Copia, during my lecture on Scopitones, she demonstrated a variety of 60s dance crazes they popularized.
For our upcoming road show on Wednesday, July 17, Monica will assume the role of "Teacher's Pet," as "Professor Thrill" presents Jack Arnold's 1958 drive-in classic MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS to the film scholars in the audience of the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley (see Schedule for details). I've been getting my own film education at PFA for years - most memorably I discovered the incredible '60s pop yakuza masterpieces of Seijun Sujuki during their tribute a decade ago - so I was extremely honored when programmer Steve Seid asked me to do a Thrillville show. The wonder of Steve is that, while he is an esteemed film scholar, he is definitely not a film snob - he loves to wallow in trash as well as honor the highbrow jazz. He did an amazing job of programming last summer's Born to Be Bad festival at PFA - featuring beautiful prints of such rarely screened, bargain basement beauties as the original Maniac, Horror of Party Beach, Confessions of an Opium Eater, Manos: The Hands of Fate (my first time seeing this notorious gem), Two Thousand Maniacs, and even my new friend Richard Cardella's The Crater Lake Monster. This past May he put on another trash film fest in conjunction with a Trash Film Conference at UCB. He had asked me to host HG Lewis's Color Me Blood Red for this occasion, but I politely passed - gore is not my bag, really, and I didn't want my maiden road show at PFA to feature a flick I wasn't wild about. He then said he was planning a "Nutty Professor" fest for the summer, and I said that would be perfect - Jerry Lewis's Buddy Love (from the original Nutty Professor of 1963) was the initial inspiration for my "Will the Thrill" lounge lizard persona, since he was the ultimate obnoxious hipster. We both wanted to find a print of Mamie Van Doren's Sex Kittens Go to College and College Confidential, but not even Steve, with all his mighty resources, could track down any prints of those Albert Zugmsith sleazeploitation classics. So I suggested another wild card and long shot: Monster of the Campus, another favorite I discovered on Doc Shock's show, all about a small town college science professor (Arthur Franz) who cuts his hand on an infected prehistoric fish and starts randomly turning into a homicidal caveman. The scene that stuck with me the most, so to speak, was when the caveman chucks his hatchet at a cop's skull - incredibly graphic and gruesome for its time. Reportedly, this was not director Jack Arnold's favorite of his own landmark sci-fi classics - but consider his resume: It Came From Outer Space, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula, The Space Childen, and his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man (soon to be remade by Eddie Murphy - who should've stopped with his remakes of The Nutty Professor, which was pretty good, and Doctor Dolittle, which sucked, but now he's in over his head.) As you can see, Arnold, now respected as one of the great sci-fi directors of all time, set unusually high standards for himself. But Steve managed to track down a print of Monster on the Campus - perfect for my PFA debut - and I am all too proud to host it. It's much more of a pulpy potboiler than Arnold's other films, probably why he didn't hold it in as high regard, but it is still a classic monster movie, with loads of period charm, plus a cameo by Troy Donahue! It also co-stars Joanna Moore, who tries to seduce Elvis in next month's Thrillville screening of Follow That Dream (see Schedule page for details or tune in here next month.) In any case, I can't recall this ever being shown on any local big screen in the past twenty years at least, so do not miss this extremely educational event.
Back at The Parkway this month, I host two films that have nothing in common but the desert. Plus they are hot and cool at the same time.
First is yet another offering from Uncle Bill, the Prince of Palm Springs. (I just made that up, but it rings true.) Recently I showed his print of Hercules in the Haunted World - or his alleged print, that is. He scored this 35mm treasure off a dead clown in Boston - some Ringling Brothers bozo whose family was in the movie exhibition biz, so he had dozens of rare prints scattered around his house that his estate was selling off. I had initially booked the original Steve Reeves Hercules but that print arrived trashed, so this was an emergency replacement. It seemed too be good to be true - not only was this my favorite Hercules flick, but it was in gorgeous shape, in pristine Technicolor and CinemaScope, with only a few scratches. It was five reels long, though, when it was only supposed to be four, and the title was missing from the credits, which made us suspicious and uneasy, though it was too late to do much about it unless we just cancelled the booking and the show altogether. So the day before the scheduled screening, I took a private peek set up by ace Parkway projectionist Max. Again, it just seemed too good to be true - the print was simply beautiful. I hadn't seen this movie in years, and only on video, so my memory was a bit hazy - but when Christopher Lee abruptly vanished from the proceedings, and Herc (Reg Park) suddenly went from Hades to Atlantis, with his son (?) and brand new midget sidekick, I became worried. Two reels later it hit me: the reason this print had five reels was that the middle three were from a totally different Herc flick starring Reg Park, Hercules and the Captive Women! The sudden appearance of Fay Spain as the evil queen confirmed this horrified realization. Still, the print was stunning, and since dubbed Italians gladiator movies make no sense anyway, I just kept watching. The first reel featured some talk about the god Pluto, but now everyone was waxing worshipful about the great god Uranus. "This ceremony is dedicated to Uranus I am the last high priest to worship Uranus .a new race will rise from the blood of Uranus " All said directly to Hercules. You get the inference. It was hysterical - they had taken two kinda gay movies and made perhaps the gayest movie in history! Not that there's anything wrong with that. I didn't want it to end - this middle movie was even funnier than the one it started out as. But sure enough, when it got to the final reel Herc was suddenly back in Hades - he literally ran from a scene in Atlantis and appeared in the very next scene walking out of a door in Hades. There went the whole concept of continuity. I theorized that when the Woolner Brothers - not known for their cinematic integrity - released these two 1961 imports on a double bill stateside, some pimply faced projectionist in some hick town bijou switched the middle reels by accident - and no one ever noticed. Still, the crowd - surprisingly small for a Thrillville show, I guess Hercules in longer a marquee magnet - was extremely appreciative, especially when a bunch of male ballet dancers came prancing out to entertain Herc, wearing a dress and shawl. All in all, one of the all time classic accidental Thrillville surprise shows - even funnier than when they shipped me a print of Mothra in Japanese but no subtitles, and certainly more entertaining than when I showed Elvis's Spinout (with our dear friend, the late Deborah Walley in attendance) with all the musical numbers cut out, so all that was left was The King's thespian efforts. I could've called this Hercules hybrid the long lost Director's Cut, but there were two totally different directors represented: the great Mario Bava directed Haunted World (coming out August 6 on DVD, by the way, in case you want to see the missing middle), and some guy named Vittorio Cottafavi directed Captive Women; the contrast in styles is quite obvious. At least the same actor played Hercules all the way through Hercules and the Captive Women in the Haunted World, a movie that had no right or reason to exist, and that could be seen only in Thrillville. Sorry if you missed it. Go ahead and kick yourself for staying home and watching a rerun of Friends instead.
Normally, however, I like to show one complete film as opposed to a double feature condensed into one, and I believe that's what will happen when I show Uncle Bill's recently acquired 35mm print of 1975's The DEVIL'S RAIN (Parkway, July 11), set in a small desert community of Satanists. You may remember this as the one with all the melting faces and a ram-horned demon (Ernest Borgnine). That's right, McHale plays the Devil, but dig it, the TV connections don't stop there: also in the cast are the immortal William Shatner (Kirk, TJ Hooker) and a quick appearance by John Travolta (Barbarino)! The amazing cast also includes screen legends Ida Lupino and Keenan Wynn and even the Bay Area's own black magic icon Anton Levy - how's that for authenticity?! Reportedly the print is a bit faded, but totally intact - no sudden surprise scenes from, say, Saturday Night Fever or The Exorcist. Also on our Uncle's bill is a Three Stooges short, "Men in Black," with Curly, not Will Smith, and the usual tantalizing trailers.
Two weeks later on July 25 we're back in another sort of hell, but this one has a heavenly history we are going to celebrate in style - it's CULT VEGAS NIGHT in Thrillville, co-hosted by my pal, Sin City scribe Mike Weatherford (cultvegas.com). Mike's book "Cult Vegas" is THE tome on Classic Vegas, dishing the scoop on everyone and everything from the Mob to the Rat Pack, from Steve and Eydie to Vampira and Liberace. In all, my kinda book. After some email correspondence, I finally met Mike last October, when we were both interviewed in person for a documentary on Vegas that was shown on French TV in conjunction with the release of the Ocean's 11 remake in France. Somehow the documentary makers (Valentine Gay and Ariel Wizman) got wind of my boycott, and Mrs. Thrill and I wound up being prominently featured in the special. Jerry Lewis, my old pal Mickey Rourke, and me. What do they know?
I finally just watched it, and I must say, I am even prouder of this than I am of the now infamous HBO Real Sex foot fetish episode featuring Mrs. Thrill and I. The documentary itself is an incredible piece of work, featuring loads of amazing archival footage, lots of Dino and Elvis on the soundtrack, interviews with many casino owners and local entertainers and then theres me, Monica and Stephen Soderbergh (!), all interviewed and juxtaposed with scenes from both versions of Oceans 11! Steve sounds a bit defensive, and admits there is no way to duplicate the camaraderie and mystique of the original, and he wasnt even trying. Kudos for his honesty. The most gratifying parts are when Monica and I are cut in with scenes of The Rat Pack on stage, though our comments are mostly drowned out by the French translator. The bias of the filmmakers is obvious, even without a translator in fact, its called Viva Las Vegas?. Monica and I are introduced in a sly segue from a goomba goodfella restaurant owner waxing poetic about the old school Vegas he misses, with lots of scenes from the past. At one point, after they introduce Monica and Will Cortes Viharo, they cut to a bunch of tourists on The Strip, and the words T shirts and sneakers are recognizable in the narration, then they cut back to Monica and me lamenting the loss of style in America. It was like watching one of the videos I make with Kyle cut into a major French documentary, except I was with Monica, who looks absolutely stunning. It made the whole boycott thing including the negative feedback totally worthwhile. And Im sure Soderbergh got a copy of it too, since he was also featured, so he knows just who I am and where I stand, which is a truly hilarious irony. It all feels like Fate now. My job is done.
Ill be showing most of Viva Las Vegas? on Cult Vegas night, even though you wont be able to understand a lot of it due to the language barrier, but so what, I showed Mothra in Japanese with no subtitles, so Thrillvillains are used to this. Mike Weatherford is in the doc, too, talking about the history of Sin City. But the main feature will be the highly acclaimed biographical doc LOUIS PRIMA: THE WILDEST (projected on The Parkway's new DVD system), featuring amazing archival footage and on-camera interviews with Keely Smith, Sam Butera and others who knew and worked with the legend himself. Louis was Vegas's first big regular attraction in the mid-50s, and, along with Keely and Sam, one of its signature lounge acts for the ages. Some may know Louis only from his voice as the ape king in Disney's The Jungle Book and Brian Setzer's cover of "Jump, Jive and Wail" for the Gap generation, but if so, you're in for a big surprise: he wrote the swing anthem "Sing, Sing Sing" and won a Grammy in 1959 for his duet with then-wife Keely, "That Ol' Black Magic," one of Monica's favorite records, mine too. His music - the true combination of rock 'n' roll, lounge and swing - was recently featured on the soundtrack of the film Big Night - and that's exactly what this will be. I'll also be showing The Rat Pack and Elvis in action plus other surprises, so join Mike and me for this trip down memory Strip, when Vegas was still Vegas, an adult playground, and not a family theme park.
Class is dismissed - that is, real class is sometimes dissed, but always missed.
WHITE TRASH AND DEAD KINGS!
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