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Friday, January 31, 2020

The Addams Family - The Best Film of 2019

As a longtime Addams Family fan – both the original cartoons and the TV show – I was surprized to discover that a new animated feature film about them had been released last Fall. A quick scan of the interweb revealed the reason; it was universally panned and slipped into and out of theaters like a ghost through a locked door.

Steeling myself for disappointment, I watched it the day after I had sat through the turgid Frozen 2 (so many artificial plot twists! so many terrible songs!), only to be completely won over by the 10 minute mark with the introduction of the beloved butler, Lurch.

The CGI animation is the most faithful reproduction on the screen, to date, of Charles Addams’ original drawings: mother Morticia (voiced by Charlize Theron) is the thin and dark version of Luna from Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935); father Gomez (voiced by Oscar Issac) is squat and slightly greasy; son Pugsley (voiced by Finn Wolfhard) has his blonde hair finally restored from the cartoon; and daughter Wednesday (voiced by ChloĆ« Grace Moretz, possibly the only weak spot in the film) is the suitably pallid, deadpan, deadshot-with-a-crossbow that Christina Ricci defined in the 1990’s live action films.

The reviews I read criticized the films for not having the ghoulish underpinning of the cartoon or the TV show. Not so! The Addams haunted home and environment is true to the original cartoon – dark, gloomy, and completely captivating. A child of any age would LOVE to live there. I would! I suspect that reviewers are referring to the glaring harsh, artificial town of ‘Assimilation’ that the Addams’ are pitted against in all its pink and lavender artificial ‘beauty’. It’s the too-bright Ying that makes the Addams Family the just-right dark Yang. In truth, since their inception, the Addams Family has always existed to be a counterpoint to the modern world, pointing out its foibles and hypocrisies while producing a morbid chuckle.

I suspect, too, that despite their spooky trappings, the Addams Family are just too darn nice for a cynical 21st century audience. They all genuinely like AND love one another. No one is uncouth, no one swears, no one belittles or hurts anyone else. Sure Wednesday buries her brother alive and fires arrows through Uncle Fester’s head, but in their world they would expect nothing less. And, more importantly, they would never do that to anyone outside their family (or at least never succeed at doing it).

The creators of the film know their Addams Family cartoon and TV lore and fill each scene to the brim with little touches that will delight the knowledgeable fan and simply enrich the viewing experience for the average viewers. Watch out for many of Addams’ original cartoon characters appearing as the Addams’ extended family. And, the addition of a hangman’s noose to the ends of Wednesday’s braids is a touch that I am sure Charles Addams would have approved of!

Other nice touches: name checking Monty Python’s Holy hand grenades; making the lyrics of Harry Nilsson’s Coconut song the basis for Gomez and Morticia’s wedding vows; recreating the ‘It’s Alive!’ scene from Frankenstein (1931) when Wednesday reanimates the frogs in her science class and then sick’s them on the school bully with a Donald Sutherland shriek from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978); the spiders streaming out from under Morticia’s dress; the appearance of Lurch’s original cartoon incarnation (inspired by Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House (1932)) as the drummer in the band; Morticia’s crystal ball that looks like Jack Kirby’s burning planet of Apokolips as she channels the spirits of her parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) , amongst many other delightful touches.

Behold! Apokolips!
One scene features an animated cartoon reference so obscure that it actually made my jaw drop. As the Addams family try to introduce themselves to their newly discovered neighbouring town (previously obscured by swamp gas), Uncle Fester sings a short snippet of the song, “I Haven’t Got a Hat”. The only place that I’ve ever heard this song is in the 1935 Warner Bros Merrie Melodie’s cartoon of the same name that introduced a bunch of new characters, all destined for obscurity, except for Porky Pig (read more about it at Trailers From Hell). The song was written by Bob Bernier (lyrics) and Bob Emmerich (music). Emmerich was a pianist and composer for the Tommy Dorsey band and, together with Bernier, he wrote a number of popular jazz songs (now mostly forgotten) in the late 30’s.

The Addams Family (2019) was directed by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, and written by Matt Leiberman and Pamela O’Brien, from a story by Vernon, Leiberman and Erica Rivinoja. It’s a delightful film, well worth your time whether or not you’re a fan of animated films. It certainly should make Frozen 2 shrink with embarrassment in comparison!

Is The Addams Family Worth My Time? Yes, it’s a wonderful film that holds up over multiple viewings.

Availability: Out now on DVD, BluRay and streaming from your usual sources.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

John Agar Vs.The Mole People (1956)

The Mole People is a 1956 SF film best known from the classic monster photos of the Mole Men that appeared in almost every issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland back in the 60’s. Starring John Agar and Hugh Beaumont, nothing else about the movie can be considered ‘classic’ as it tries to stretch 20 minutes of plot into an 80 minute movie. 

Hugh Beaumont, John Agar and Nestor Paiva

Archaeologists Agar and Beaumont discovery an ancient tablet in what looks a lot like the Gobi desert of Mongolia (a place that I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in digging up dinosaurs) that leads them to climb a nearby mountain(!) in search of an ancient Sumerian civilization. And find it they do, in all of its terrible matte painting glory after most of their team (including seemingly dozens of their climbing support team) is killed on the trek. 

Agar, Beaumont, and the only other survivor of their ill-fated expedition, Nestor Paiva, discover a lost city of sun-phobic, albino Sumerians ruled over by a weak king and his crafty chancellor, Alan Napier (TV Batman’s Alfred) who want the interlopers dead so as to not disrupt their cozy lifestyle lording over their subjects. Although I’m not sure how cozy it is. They subsist off of mushrooms grown by their slave race of Mole People, with the occasional cave rat and lost goat thrown in to, I guess, provide some much needed vitamins and prevent scurvy.

 Alan Napier (right)

Our heroes keep the Sumerians and their mole people slaves at bay with the help of Agar’s flashlight (sun-phobic, remember?). But, eventually it all goes south and the city collapses on itself (of course). The heroes escape with the help of a plucky slave girl (Cynthia Patrick) and the mole people who rally at the last moment to turn the tables on their oppressors, inspired by Agar’s act of kindness that saved them from a Sumerian whipping.

Other than the Mole People’s imaginative design – attributed to Bud Westmore, but more likely the work of an unnamed studio tech – there is little to recommend this film. The only interesting point for me is speculating on how the underground ecosystem could actually function. I’d like to think that the Sumerians exploited a naturally occuring symbiotic relationship between the Mole People and fungus they cultivated to establish a city-sustaining food source. 

 Dr. Frank Baxter, cashing a paycheck

A few other things of note. The overlong opening by Dr. Frank Baxter explaining the multiple ‘worlds inside the Earth theories’ is painful watch. It’s hard to believe the Baxter was an award-winning TV presenter who appeared as “Dr. Research” (I want that as my new title!) in the Bell System Science Series of television specials that ran from 1956 to 1962, and whose TV show Shakespeare on TV won seven Emmy Awards, according to Wikipedia.

It’s also great to see hard working actor, Nestor Paiva, playing a respected scientist in a substantial role. Paiva is best known to most film buffs as the slightly dodgy Captain Lucas in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and its first sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955), but he also had small parts in Mighty Joe Young (1949) and as the Sherriff in Tarantula (1955). He also had a nice role in one of my favourite Tom Conway RKO ‘Falcon’ movies, The Falcon in Mexico (1944).

I’d like to think that the Mole People race survived the cave-in that seemingly destroyed the Sumerian city. Being a subterranean race that can tunnel anywhere, I can imagine that they eventually popped up in Arizona where they developed a productive relationship with a race of giant ants. Hopefully they are peacefully living in the vast underground colonies, tending to the ants fungus gardens in exchange for protection from the cruel human surface world.

Is The Mole People Worth Time? Only if you must see all of the 1950’s SF films associated with Universal (they only distributed this one). Otherwise, skip it.

Availability: I watched the recently released (2019) BluRay version from Shout Factory available from the usual sources. If you must watch the film, this is the version to see – the print is beautiful.
Does anyone else think that the Mole People may have influenced the design of Futurama's, Dr. Zoidberg?