Now that Thanksgiving is past and we have had a couple of days to recover from our triptophan induced stupor, it is time to think about Christmas, as with the past two months I am going to put forth alternative film titles from the standard holiday fare. While these films are set at Christmas, Santa will not be winning over Martians and Ralphie isn’t goiing to be told he’ll shoot his eye out.
My first suggestion is a true classic, The Thin Man. Retired PI Nick Charles and his younger wife Nora are spending the holidays in New York, throwing parties, getting continually tipsy and trading the kind of witty banter with each other that all of us wish we could think of, much less deliver with the panache of stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. Into this gaiety comes the daughter of an old family friend who’s father is missing.
Nick isn’t sure he wants to get involved until the man’s secretary turns up dead and then a thug shows up in the detective’s bedroom demanding Nick tell the police he didn’t have anything to do with the killing. After beating the crap out of the goon, Nick reluctantly puts aside his martinis and scotch (as well as his current hobby of shooting out the Christmas decorations on their tree with an air gun), and starts to look into the case, unraveling enough family secrets to make up a year of subplots for Days of Our Lives and discovering a second murder victim, all the while continuing to trade quips with the ever sarcastic and loving Nora.
The whole thing climaxes with the Charles’ throwing a dinner party where in between appetizers and entree (”Serve the nuts, I mean serve the guest the nuts.”) Nick details the actual crime, revealing the identity of the second victim and cold cocking the murderer before he can pull a gun.
One of the best mystery films ever made, it effortlessly combines the conventions of the who done it with a screwball comedy and throws in a few moments of genuine suspense, all peppered with Powell and Loy affectionately traded wisecracks. A comedic highlight is the Christmas party Nick throws for Nora’s society friends and his old detective and hoodlum cronies, while the happy couple kid around and swipe each other’s drinks. A standout moment involves Nora asking Nick to hand her her drink, when he asks which one it is, she answers rye. Nick then empties the glass and then hands it to her saying that one was the rye.
For my third suggestion I am putting forth one of my all time favorites that I discovered a few years back, Bubba Ho-Tep. Unlike my previous two suggestions, which were out and out spoofs, this film is a little different.
Now the plot sounds like an all out comedy spoof. Sebastian Haff, a retired Elvis impersonator who claims he is the real man (having grown tired of the fame he switched places with the real Haff) teams up with his best friend, a black man who claims he is JFK( apparently LBJ faked the assassination, kidnapped the president and chemically changed him black) to investigate some strange goings on at their retirement home, like a large scarab that attacks Elvis and residents mysteriously dying bent over with their pants pulled down. Evidence leads them to a resurrected Egyptian mummy that was lost in a truck accident nearby, who sustains his life by sucking out his victim’s souls through their anus. When no one at the home believes them Elvis puts on his rhinestone jumpsuit and JFK puts on his inaugural suit and they head out via walker and wheelchair to do battle and save their retirement home from an ancient evil that dresses his dessicated body in a cowboy hat and boots to try and look inconspicuous.
I know, it sounds totally ridiculous, and a lot of it is laugh out loud funny, but not for the plot. Much of the humor is character based and comes from the banter between the leads, played by Bruce Campbell (best screen Elvis ever) and Ossie Davis (in his last role), like Elvis comparing the size of the bugs to peanut butter and banana sandwiches or JFK referring to people that visit him as “the girl who claims to be my granddaughter”.
There are also some serious scenes in the film, mostly Elvis’ reflections on his past, his regret about leaving his wife and child behind and wondering whether or not they would come to see him if they knew he was still alive, plus a dawniing acceptance that he is dying from a cancerous growth on his penis. Phantasm helmer Don Coscarelli has fashioned an interesting mix of horror, comedy and social commentary that takes a look at what we treat out eldery while simultaneously poking fun at and giving some dignity to two cultural icons, and throwing in some scary thrills with the scarab attacks and the final confrontation with the mummy.
For my second suggestion for a funny film to watch this holiday, I have gone with John Landis’ directorial feature film debut, Schlock!, a title that says it all and like the film itself is Landis’ sly bit of foreshadowing to let you know exactly what kind of film he has made, a schlocky horror film. The plot is pretty simple, like Joan Crawford’s final film, Trog, Schlock! is about a prehistoric creature found in a cave who ventures into the modern world and creates havoc before being dispatched by the Army.
The difference between the two films is that while Trog tried to be a serious film with something to say about modern man (and comes off as a campy comedy with bad makeup and over the top acting by Joan Crawford and Michael Gough), Schlock! is a true comedy with some actual horror content (sort of the reverse of Landis’ An American Werewolf in London). As Schlock leaves his cave and ventures into the modern small town world of California, Landis does comedic takes on 2001, James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the original King Kong (and I mean this literally as Landis himself plays the title character in a suit made by Rick Baker). In between this and a great deal of slapstick that has to do with the inept cops chasing after Schlock. There are also some scary moments as when he breaks into a house and chases a girl who has caught his fancy and rejected him, and the several murders he commits throughout the film, culminating in his attacking the school dance to get the girl and cutting a pretty big swath through the guards (but as usual Landis manages to make this part scary and amusing as the people inside the dance keep talking about how safe they are and then the film cuts to a guard being thrown against a wall or a limp body being dragged off.
The best momments include his meeting a blind girl he falls in love with who thinks he is a big dog and plays fetch with him while his frustration mounts with her for continually throwing away the stick he just gave her. Landis’ looks into the camera during this are up there with Oliver Hardy. Then there is his visit to a movie theater where he sits next to a nonplussed Forest J. Ackerman and watches The Blob and Dinosaurus while dealing with a string of patrons all wanting to sit in the seat in front of him and block his view and a little boy who needs someone to take him to the bathroom.
Around all this there are sight gags, verbal puns delivered rat a tat tat, and he even includes the classic Prince Albert phone gag; all the while making some pointed comments about the modern world and people in general, as exhibited by the news man who cheerfully details the gruesome events of several murders and then plugs the afternoon movie with the same gregariousness, the one up-manship debates between the police and military who automatically write off the girl grabbed by Schlock in their plans to deal with the situation, or the scientific expert who admits he has no idea what his specialized equipment does.
Plus you get not one, not two, but four references to Landis’ running gag fake film title See You Next Wednesday. All in all a great low budget comedy and one of Landis’ best films.