Monday, January 30, 2012

Stuff I Grew Up With: 2 Stupid Dogs (1993-1995)

When I was a kid, one cartoon I wanted to see from the moment I saw it advertized was 2 Stupid Dogs. I knew nothing about the plot, the characters, or anything but it just looked like something I would like. I first saw an advertizement for the show when I walked in on somebody watching TBS but I didn't actually see the show until it started airing on Cartoon Network (which wasn't until 1995 when the show had finished its production but that year was also the first time I'd ever heard about it. Cartoon Network was the only channel to me at that time and I hardly watched anything else.) When I finally watched it, I wasn't disappointed. I don't what it was about this cartoon that appealed to me. I just felt that it was generally funny and it cracked me up every time. It became one of my favorite cartoons as a kid and to this day, I still enjoy watching reruns on Boomerang or even on the internet.

There really is no overarching plot to the show. It's basically the hijinks that two not so bright dogs, simply called "Big Dog" and "Little Dog", tend to get into on a daily basis. The plots and conflicts of each episode tend to be rather mundane tasks that the dogs make overly complicated for themselves because of their extreme stupidity. It's situations like the dogs trying to recover a can that the Big Dog was chewing on but ended up losing, trying to find Little Dog's favorite bone, trying to get into the snack bar at a drive-in theater, and so on. It's not exactly high art but it's surprising how entertaining it is. It's hard to explain but it's just so enjoyable to see the two dogs fail constantly at mundane stuff just because they're too dumb to figure it out (kind of like the Three Stooges in a way).

In doing some research, it's interesting how 2 Stupid Dogs was actually quite an important show for Hanna-Barbera. By that point, the company had not had a hit show since the early 80's with The Smurfs and new head of production Fred Seibert, who before had worked at MTV and Nickelodeon, was determined to revitalize the studio. In fact, 2 Stupid Dogs was both his first pitch and the first cartoon he had put into production. The real creator of the show was Donovan Cook, who had been an animator at Disney for several years. After the show ended, he went back to Disney and since then, has done stuff like producing the short-lived series Nightmare Ned, co-directed Return to Neverland, and has also directed the enjoyable direct to DVD film Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers as well as some episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. A lot of beloved cartoon directors got their start with 2 Stupid Dogs, such as Genndy Tartakovsky (creator of Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack), Craig McCracken (creator of The Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends) and Butch Hartman (creator of Fairly Odd Parents and Danny Phantom), among others.

The polar opposite personalities of the two title characters of the show are part of what made it so funny. The Big Dog, voiced by Brad Garrett, is a big gray English sheepdog who isn't stupid per se but more on the lines of just lazy and indifferent. He became a bit more energetic in the later episodes but most of the time, he talked in a slow, deep, monotone voice, if he ever said anything at all (most of the time, he kept quiet). He's definitely the muscle part of the duo, having to do arduous tasks that the Little Dog can't. He also often has to scare off cats, which the Little Dog is terrified of. Even there are episodes where he does come across as dumb as his buddy, there are also moments where he would sporadically give out deep, almost philosophical advice. Who knows where that stuff comes from? Maybe he really has learned a lot during his life and it's all crammed into his brain and only comes out when absolutely necessary. Or maybe his idiocy is just an act for the most part. Who knows?

The Little Dog, voiced by Mark Schiff, is an orange-brown Dachshund who is as hyper as you can get. He's always yacking his head, chasing things, and running around like a maniac. And unlike the Big Dog, who doesn't speak much, there's no doubt whatsoever that the Little Dog is a total moron. There was one episode where he couldn't even figure out how to open a door in order to let a girl scout in and get some of her cookies and another episode where he was trying to wake the Big Dog up but then said, "Of course, I should be careful not to disturb him." He's so stupid that it's revealed in one episode that he doesn't even know his own name! He's also obsessed with two things: food and balls. Whenever he sees a ball, he yells, "Ball!", grabs it, and starts gnawing on it. Like I said earlier, he's terrified of cats and the Big Dog often has to get rid of any cat they run into by barking, which scares the cat and causes it to freeze in absolute fear (there was even an entire episode centered around the Little Dog trying to wake the Big Dog up so he could scare off a cat). And yet, despite how dumb both of the dogs are, you still generally like them. They don't become annoying, as overly stupid characters tend to. One part of it could be that they're not looking for trouble. They're not trying to get on people's nerves or anything. They just inadvertently cause trouble because of how dumb and naive they are.

The dogs were the only main characters that appear in every episode but there were also some recurring characters. The common one was this big, loud-mouth guy named Hollywood (though they never said his name in the actual show) voiced by Brian Cummings (who I thought was related to legendary voice actor Jim Cummings but I guess I was wrong). The most common trait of Hollywood is how he points out a person's mistake: "Well, ain't that cute? BUT IT'S WRONG!" His yelling is always accompanied by the sound of a foghorn. Every time he shows up, he always has a different occupation and a slightly different appearance as well. There was one time where he was dressed as a woman and in one episode, the dogs seem to be running into him in different guises in different sections of a big department store but at the end, they all show up as individual characters, suggesting that that's probably the case every time the dogs run into him, that he just has a bunch of relatives (similar to the Red Guy on Cow and Chicken). Whatever the case, I actually kind of liked Hollywood. I never found him to be unbearably abrasive or annoying. I thought he was funny.

Other recurring characters include Cubby (voiced by Rob Paulsen), a big fat, acne-covered teenager with glasses and blue lips. Like Hollywood, every time the dogs run into him, he always has a different occupation, such as a supermarket clerk, snack bar attendant, post-office worker, etc. Biggest recurring gag with him is that he usually lets off a big fart whenever he gets excited or startled. Didn't him that much, although his squeaky, lisping voice could get a bit grating. Kenny Fowler (Jarrett Lennon) is a nerdy, nervous elementary school student whom the dogs often have to help in some way, such as giving him the courage to talk to the girl he likes or be his show and tell items when he lost the one he originally brought. There was even one episode that focused entirely on him having to deal with Hollywood as his substitute teacher and the dogs only showed up at the very end. I swear, when I was a kid, I thought he was a girl despite his name being Kenny because his voice is so high and girlish. Didn't mind him though. Every time he was featured also meant you would see the girl he likes, Buffy Ziegenhagen (Tawni Tamietti). Not really much to say about as her as her biggest role was in the episode where the dogs try to help Kenny man up and try to talk to her but even then, she didn't really do much. In the other episodes, she seemed to be kind of repulsed by Kenny but possibly actually liked him in secret. Again, not much to say about her. Finally, there's Red (Candi Milo), a parody of Little Red Riding Hood that was the focus of a trilogy of episodes where the dogs would accompany her on her way to her grandmother's house. She's characterized as a meek, fairly sweet little girl who has a weird habit of inexplicably shouting in the middle of a sentence. She's also fairly near-sighted despite the big glasses she wears. I actually thought she was pretty funny and the first episode involving her is one of my favorites.

In many ways, 2 Stupid Dogs is a throwback to the Hanna-Barbera cartoons that were shown on TV in the 1950's and 60's. For one, the show's animation style is similar to that of the studio's old cartoons: flat backgrounds with simple character animation designs, which is a big contrast to most cartoons of the time that were striving for fairly realistic animation and backgrounds. Also similar to those cartoons, the show has no overarching storyline for the most part. What happens in one episode is never brought up in any of the episodes after it. The only exception is the trilogy of episodes featuring Red. Other than that, each episode is its own story. One other similarity is that each show would consist of three cartoons: a 2 Stupid Dogs episode at the beginning and ending and a completely different cartoon in the middle (I'll discuss that cartoon in its own section). I can't say I've ever really been a fan of that, though, whether it be in this show or any of the older Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I just don't see the advantage of advertizing a show as featuring one cartoon (such as the Yogi Bear or Huckleberry Hound show) and then throwing in completely different cartoons as filler. Maybe I'm just naive about this type of television animation but I just don't get it. But then again, when I was a kid, I was never that much of a fan of Hanna-Barbera save for a few exceptions. I would watch it if I had to but I was more for Looney Tunes. I'm rambling now and I don't mean to sound like a stick in the mud but Hanna-Barbera's show formats and the like were never really my cup of tea.

One thing's for sure: 2 Stupid Dogs may look like an early Hanna-Barbera cartoon but when you actually watching it, you know you're watching something more modern. A lot of this went over my head when I was a naive kid but there are so many sexual innuendos and instances of naughty humor in this show that it makes you wonder if the censor fell asleep while watching the episodes. The very first episode of the series has a blatantly obvious one. The dogs are trying to get into a department store but can't figure out how to open the automatic door. The Little Dog comes to think that you need shoes to open the door so the two of them go around, collecting all the different shoes they can find. Suddenly, there's a closeup of Little Dog saying, "The shoe, the shoe!" and the camera pulls back to reveal that they're in a freaking strip club! The stripper in question is in silhouette so you don't see anything graphic but you can see that she just took off her bra. Nowadays, that makes my jaw drop. How did that pass the censor? Another instance is an episode where the dogs are at a drive-in theater and Little Dog, not impressed with the movie being shown, asks, "Why do people come here?" The camera pulls back to show all the cars in the lot bouncing up and down! There's another episode that starts off with Little Dog telling Big Dog, "And he's got nerve calling me 'weenie dog.' So I bit him. What would you do? I mean, he stuck it in my face." Uh, he stuck what in your face? Maybe I just have a dirty mind but when I heard that for the first time in years, it gave me pause. There are others, I know (I'll talk about them when I discuss the episodes) but those are the ones that really stuck out to me and just make me scratch my head about how they made it to air.

2 Stupid Dogs has sometimes been called a knock-off of The Ren and Stimpy Show. While I was never a fan of that show, I do understand how some can make that connection. The very premise is similar because it's about two animals getting into all sorts of mischief and one is small and skinny and the other is big and fat. In fact, John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy, apparently contributed to a few episodes and so did a few other artists from Spumco, the production company that produced Ren and Stimpy. I also will freely admit that some of the later episodes of 2 Stupid Dogs are as surreal as and do kind of feel like Ren and Stimpy and there were also some references to it but to me, that's where the similarities end. To me, comparing 2 Stupid Dogs to Ren and Stimpy is like comparing someone who's a bit quirky to a full-blown psychotic. In other words, 2 Stupid Dogs may have had some weird episodes and its fair share of gross humor but it's nowhere near the level of pure insanity of Ren and Stimpy. Like I said, I never liked that show, mainly because it wasn't my taste, whereas 2 Stupid Dogs was. No disrespect to fans of Ren and Stimpy though.

Another aspect of 2 Stupid Dogs that adds to the comedy is the music by Chris Desmond and Tom Seufert. The opening theme perfectly suits the dim-witted, naive nature of the two main characters. There's also this really funny, dim-witted like theme that accompanies the Big Dog whenever he's doing something lazy or gluttonous like snoring loudly while sleeping, chewing on his favorite tin can, etc. The Little Dog also has a theme that signifies how stupid he is, usually playing whenever he can't figure out something that's really simple or when he's going about something the wrong way. I also like Hollywood's theme, which I think captures both what a big-shot he is as well as how much of a blowhard he is as well. Finally, there's music that accompanies whenever the dogs are doing something fun or they think they've triumphed over a problem (usually the Little Dog) and another whenever one of the dogs is sad about something. One bit of music that I don't think they used nearly enough was one that played whenever something silly was going on. That bit of music has such a ridiculous sound to it that it always, at the very least, puts a smile on my face. Bottom-line, the music, like everything else about the show, is simple but does its job well.

I also have to comment on the actual sounds in the show. This is something I noticed both when I was a kind and something I still notice now. The sound design in this show is actually kind of realistic. There are the usual cartoony sound effects you hear in most Hanna-Barbera cartoons but most of the sounds are realistic, from dripping sounds, spitting, rushing water, clanking, and so on. It probably sounds like a weird thing to mention and I'm sure many can't believe I did it but hey, I tend to notice odd things. 

Now, it's time to discuss my favorite episodes. Bare in mind, these are the episodes that I like overall. There are other episodes that have moments and gags that I like but I'm not going to mention them here. I'm pretty sure that the first episode, Door Jam, was also the first one I ever saw (but don't quote me on that). This is where the Big Dog loses his favorite can, it ends up in a department store (Y-Mart), and they have to figure out how to get inside. This also has that strip club scene that I mentioned earlier. The episode ends with the dogs stuck inside the store after the can has ended up outside and the Little Dog screams no with the camera pulling back and back, eventually showing a shot of the Earth from space.

Where's the Bone? shows just how freaking stupid Little Dog really is. He's lost his favorite bone and he and Big Dog go all over the world (even the moon) trying to find it when it's actually on his head! You have to wonder about Big Dog because he's constantly putting the bone back on Little Dog's head whenever it falls off. Is he messing with Little Dog and knows that that's his bone or is so he dumb that he thinks that the bone just naturally belongs on his head? Not much of a point to this episode but it is funny watching the dogs go everywhere from the tropics to the arctic, to Easter Island, to the moon, and so on. Also, the ending signifies that something like this is probably going to happen again.

Cornflakes has the dogs end up on a farm owned by Hollywood, who teaches them about farming and how to manage the land. As you can tell by the title, their goal is to grow some corn so they can make cornflakes (again, they're idiots). I've always liked this episode, with Hollywood going on about how much he loves living off the land, going to such extremes as plowing over hills and mountains and sucking a lake dry just so his sprinklers can just barely water the ground. I'm kind of immature but I always crack up at the beginning when Big Dog tries some pig slop and eventually, off-screen though, barfs it all up. The barfing sounds that Brad Garrett makes always makes me smirk at least. The dogs also don't know what a cow is and Little Dog ends up getting this duck angry at him and, as a result, gets eggs thrown at him. Pretty funny stuff this episode.

Home Is Where Your Head Is involves Big Dog stick his head in a hole in a fence and Little Dog panicking because he thinks he's stuck, even though he can just pull his head out (and does a couple of times right in front of Little Dog). Little Dog decides they have to go their separate ways and tries to adapt to life without his buddy but can't seem to do it. This one may not be the funniest episode but I just love the situation for some reason. This is another one of those cases where Big Dog isn't really stupid but just too lazy to do anything about the situation. Little Dog trying desperately to pull Big Dog's head out (accidentally tearing his tail off which continues to fall of repeatedly not matter how hard Little Dog tries to stick it back on) and his melodramatic speech about how they must part are pretty funny to watch.

Show and Tell is the first episode to involve Kenny Fowler. Kenny originally plans to bring his dad's bowling trophy to show and tell but it breaks before he gets to school. After that, he comes across the dogs and decides to take them to school instead. Needless to say, they cause a lot of havoc while they're there. This one's pretty funny. The funniest part is at lunch when Big Dog shoots milk out of his nose, prompting all the kids to copy him. Poor Kenny gets blamed for it though. There's a funny moment before that when Little Dog is too stupid to figure out how to get done from a coat hook that Kenny put him on. This is another episode with adult humor where Kenny, during show and tell, says, "You know how you can tell they're boy dogs?" and proceeds to pick up Little Dog and holds him upside down in front of the class. Needless to say, Kenny gets sent to the principal office for that and Little Dog is humiliated. Again, how did the censor let that by? Moreover, most of the kids gasp but Buffy goes, "Ooh!" and smirks. Little slut.

At the Drive-In is a really funny one involving the dogs sneaking into a drive-in theater and trying to find the snack bar. The opening is weird because it shows a popcorn bag, a hot dog, and a soda cup singing and dancing with the former and latter proceeding to actually eat the hot dog! It turns out that was just an intermission advertisement but it's still a weird way to open the cartoon. This is the one that has that shot of cars bouncing up and down, suggesting sex, and in fact, that shot got this one banned from syndication for quite a while (yeah, the silhouetted female stripper in Door Jam was fine). Some highlights include Big Dog learning not to chew the cigarette lighter found in most cars and Little Dog getting caught in the projector because he opens it up, thinking it's an oven.

Pie in the Sky is the episode that proves that Hollywood apparently has a lot of relatives and the dogs may be running into a different relative each episode instead of the same person over and over again. The dogs are trying to get to the Pie in the Sky restaurant at the top of this huge department store but keep running into Hollywood in various sections of the store (sometimes dressed as a woman) who sells them various stuff by telling to charge it. It's a fairly funny episode, with the dogs running afoul of all sorts of department store sections and items but, as with Home Is Where Your Head Is, I just love the situations the dogs find themselves in.

A Quarter is one I really enjoy. When the dogs pass by a payphone with the receiver off the hook, Little Dog hears the recorded message say, "Please deposit 25 cents." Thinking they have to, the dogs go through a lot just to get a quarter, from a cash machine to a psychiatrist to a money making scheme and ending up with Big Dog being accused of trying to rob a bank and Little Dog sending him to jail to collect the reward money in order to get the quarter. The crap they go through just to get a quarter is so funny. My favorite part is when they're in the psychiatrist's office and their answers to the word association and ink blot tests (Little Dog always says "Ball!" and Big Dog always says "Food") drives the doctor crazy. The ending scene is also pretty funny.

While the first is my favorite, let's just go ahead and talk about the entire Red trilogy. The first one, which is just called Red, is my favorite. The dogs first encounter Red when they want the cheesecake she's made for her grandmother (whom she mistakes Big Dog for) and while on the way to Grandma's house, they end up at the Three Bears' house instead. Each of these episodes begins with Little Dog commenting about how much he loves nature and when Big Dog asks, "Where's the food?" Little Dog suggests eating some unappetizing natural stuff, including a dead squirrel (which he brings up in each episode), which pushes Big Dog over the edge and makes him vomit off-screen. The funniest part about this episode is when the three of them try to eat the bears' porridge, Little Dog crying when he thinks they're going to get cheesecake but Red says it's time for bed, and the ending image of their beaten, mounted heads on plaques after they get attacked by the Three Bears. The second one, Red Strikes Back, has them running into Red again when they want to eat the can of cheese-whiz she's brought with her and this time, they end up at the house of the evil witch who's waiting for Hansel and Gretel. This is my least favorite of the trilogy. All it offers is the witch forcing the dogs to fatten Red up so she can eat her and she also eats them at the end. Even Big Dog's reactions when Little Dog lists off the nature stuff they could possibly eat at the beginning isn't as funny as it was before. The third and final one, Return of Red (noticing a theme here with the titles?), has the dogs at first reluctant to accompany Red but since she has dog food with her this time, they do come with her. This time, they do end up at Grandma's house but only because the Big Bad Wolf, who's already eaten Grandma, got sick of waiting and drags them there. It is funny watching near-sighted Red going around the house and mistaking various objects for parts of her grandma's body and also watching Grandma try to escape from the wolf's gut. Also, the ending this time is happy for all parties involved.

Substitute Teacher is that odd episode where the dogs only appear at the very end and the plot is actually about Hollywood acting as the substitute teacher for Kenny Fowler's classroom and the crap that happens to him. First time I saw it as a kid, I didn't really like it since the dogs aren't really in it but over time, I grew to actually like it. There's a lot of funny stuff in the episode, with Hollywood's attempt to teach Kenny his ABC's backfiring painfully for him as well as a rabbit biting him on the finger at one point. Kind of makes me wish that Hollywood was the main character in more episodes because he's really funny in this.

Seeing Eye Dogs is also one of my favorites. Hollywood has just back from the optometrist and is temporarily blind from the procedure so he decides to get him a couple of seeing eye dogs so he can get home safely. However, since he's unable to see, he goes to the wrong store and the manager, upon seeing the money he's willing to pay, gives him the two stupid dogs. Of course, the two of them get Hollywood into a lot of painful situations. The crap the dogs inadvertently put Hollywood through in this episode is really funny, especially when they end up on the high beams of a construction site or when they enter a shack with high voltage equipment in it because Little Dog misreads the warning sign.

Spooks-A-Poppin' has the dogs enter a pet cemetery on a creepy stormy night so Little Dog can dig up a bone he buried. However, Little Dog falls down a grave and ends up with a skull stuck on his head while Big Dog wanders around the entire cemetery, scared of everything that moves. Also thrown in the mix is Hollywood (dressed as a lady) who is visiting the grave of his deceased pet monkey and thinks its spirit is out for revenge against him. This has a scene that never fails to make me laugh and that's when Big Dog and Hollywood end up scaring each other to death at one point. This whole episode is just funny in general, with Little Dog trying to get the skull off his head and Big Dog wandering around, terrified of his own shadow. Besides, it has the look of a classic horror flick so, of course, I'm going to like it.

Trash Day is an interesting episode in that it's one of the few times we see the dogs actually get into a fight with each other. It starts when Little Dog has Big Dog tip over a trash can and they decide to divide up the various items amongst themselves. Everything's fine until they come across a broken toilet seat and start arguing over who gets it. Like I said, it's out of character for the dogs to actually start arguing with each other over something (even if it is over who gets a broken toilet seat). I like the part where they try to rationalize who gets it, which starts with Little Dog saying, "I found it" and Big Dog retorting, "I tipped over the trash can." The stuff they go on to argue about goes to ridiculous and superfluous extremes such as, "I saw an airplane" and "I can eat an airplane." You also got to love the crap that Little Dog says to make it feel like he deserves the toilet seat and Big Dog just replies, "Me too." It ends with the two of them getting into a hilarious, knockdown, drag out fight which leads them to be stuck at a garbage dump for the rest of the night. Really funny episode in my opinion.

Hollywood's Ark is a really funny parody of the story of Noah's Ark with Hollywood as Noah. When Hollywood sees that he's got a pair of each type of animal except dogs, he, of course, ends up picking the two stupid dogs, who proceed to cause problems upon problems for him on the ark. There's a lot of funny stuff like Little Dog constantly gnawing on a couple of unicorns' horns because he thinks they're bones, Big Dog sucking on a pig he put in his mouth, the dogs letting loose the lions which proceed to maul Hollywood, and Little Dog opening a door that fills the ark up with water. Sometimes, I like the episode just because of the situation the dogs find themselves in and this is one of those.

Stunt Dogs is another one that never fails to crack me up. The dogs are at a studio hoping to appear in a dog food commercial but they end up on the set of a Tarzan-like movie with Hollywood as the stuntman. Thinking the dogs are the stunt doubles for the jungle king's monkey sidekicks, Hollywood dresses them up in costumes and they proceed to try to film a scene where they swing over a pit on a vine. Rehearsal goes fine but once they try to actually film it, something always messes it up. Even before they try to film the stunt, this episode is hilarious. I crack up when the dogs can decide which monkey character they want to be and Hollywood gets so frustrated that he ends up accidentally switching costumes with them, which is really embarrassing for him. There's a running gag throughout the episode where Hollywood keeps taking union breaks, be it because it really is time for him to do so or because something went wrong. The funniest failed take is Take 2 where Hollywood tells the dogs to hold onto something but instead of holding onto the vine, they grab his loincloth. Needless to say, the end result is both hilarious and humiliating. Again, I know I'm immature but the sight of him swinging naked and then crashing into a tree just kills me. Love this episode.

Far Out Friday is one where the title gives away what this episode is a parody of. When each dog wishes that they could be like the other, their personalities end up being switched. What's great about this episode is that both the characters and the voice actors get to act and sound in ways we've never heard them before. Brad Garrett gets to act all hyper and loud and Mark Schiff gets to be much slower and lethargic. Got to say, I like seeing Big Dog with Little Dog's personality. It's funny watching the havoc they cause at a supermarket, with Big Dog riding around in a cart and running into people and Little Dog trying to eat a whole turkey. There's also a funny running gag with Cubby having to constantly fix a pile of canned corn that the dogs keep knocking over. Fun episode all around.

All those episodes I mentioned were from the first season. Before I go on to my favorite ones from the second season, I have to comment that you can definitely tell a difference between the seasons. The second season is where the show really started to feel like Ren and Stimpy in that it got much cruder, more hyper-kinetic, and sometimes, much more surreal. Some of these episodes are freaking weird. While I do like some episodes from season two, I prefer the more laid back approach to the first season, mainly because I feel like the show had its own identity there whereas in season two, it does feel more like a knockoff of Ren and Stimpy.

Las Pelotas involves the dogs winding up at a tennis club, which means Little Dog, with his obsession with balls, is in hog heaven. This one does make me laugh, like when Little Dog is running around crazily, grabbing and gnawing three different tennis balls or when Big Dog is chewing on a tennis racket and ends up getting his tongue stuck in the mesh. The funniest part is when Little Dog tries to put three balls in his mouth at once but one of them slips out and hits Big Dog in a certain spot. Big Dog's reaction is priceless and so is what he says to Little Dog afterward and how he says it as well. The climax where they end up in an automatic ball-shooter is also funny.

Inside Out is probably my favorite episode of season two. While it's still hyper-kinetic and surreal, it has that situation factor that I like. The dogs come across a gigantic bone on the sidewalk but it's taken inside a museum. The dogs decide to wait and see if it'll come back out but while they're standing absolutely still in their waiting, the movers think they're exhibits as well and take them inside the museum as well. The dogs, being as rock stupid as they are, decide to go "inside" themselves, not realizing that they ARE inside already. The stuff they get into inside the museum is just hilarious, particularly when Little Dog gets too friendly with an electric ball and when Big Dog swallows some eggs he finds. The lead up to the ending also breaks me up.

The Rise and Fall of the Big Dog is one of the oddest episodes by far. The dogs are in Washington D.C. but a mix up causes Big Dog to switch places with a foreign ambassador. Little Dog comes to think that the ambassador is Big Dog with amnesia and goes to extreme lengths to jog his memory while Big Dog attends a political party at the White House and actually gives a well-spoken, philosophical speech to the attendees. This episode is such a bizarre change of pace for the series that it actually works. The parodies of Bill and Hillary Clinton are really funny, the stuff that Little Dog puts the ambassador through in order to "jog his memory" are sadistically funny, and, like I said, Big Dog's speech is actually well done (which makes you wonder if he really is as dumb as his friend is). I enjoy this one for just how weird it is (unlike Cartoon Canines, which I feel is a little too weird for its own good). 

Cookies, Ookies, Blookies is one of those episodes that really feels like something you'd see on Ren and Stimpy because of how fast-paced the episode is and how surreal the humor gets. The dogs want some cookies from a girl scout and decide that they need a door to get the cookies. They proceed to take over an empty house but when the girl scout gets up to the door, they can't figure out how to open the thing! While I really don't like it when this show gets like Ren and Stimpy, this episode is pretty dang funny. The crap they go through just to open door is hilarious, from trying to suck it open with a vacuum cleaner to burning it down and so on.

For each show, in-between the 2 Stupid Dogs segments would an episode of a remake of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon Secret Squirrel called Super Secret Secret Squirrel. When I first watched the show as a kid, this completely different cartoon in-between the 2 Stupid Dogs really threw me off but over time, I grew to enjoy this cartoon, even though I never really thought much of the original Secret Squirrel cartoon. This remake takes in a world where all the characters are anthropomorphic animals, instead of just Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole being the sole exceptions while everybody else is human as in the original cartoon. The plot of each episode, with a few exceptions, is fairly basic: some villain brings about an evil scheme and the chief of the Super Secret Service sends Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole to foil them. It's a new villain egg episode and the episodes are usually titled after the villain (not very creative but whatever).

I must say that I really enjoyed the characters here. I thought Jess Harnell's portrayal of Secret Squirrel was more my thing: cool and uber-confident, unlike the lisping character that Mel Blanc played. I also like how, despite those qualities, sometimes Secret does find himself in over his head and his confidence is slightly shaken. Morocco Mole (voiced by Jim Cummings) is much more of a bumbling sidekick instead of a Peter Lorre-like assistant as he was originally. The big gimmick with him is that the swirls on his dark glasses change shape to signify whatever mood he's in at the moment. My favorite character of the cartoon, however, is the chief, a caped buffalo voiced by the awesome Tony Jay. As I've mentioned before, Jay had one of the coolest voices ever and I just love the stern sophistication he brings to the chief. Finally, there's a new addition to the cast, Penny (Kimmy Robertson), a female squirrel who is an assistant to the chief as well as a part-time agent and possible love interest for Secret (her name also suggests a tribute to Miss Moneypenny from the James Bond franchise). I actually really liked her too because she was never a damsel in distress except for one brief moment in one episode and she could kick some butt herself. And this cartoon also had its own music which kept with the cool, espionage feel of it.

There were only thirteen episodes of this cartoon and a good majority of them were good. Goldflipper involves an evil sea lion (voiced by Jim Cummings) who uses a magnet to steal gold teeth from all over the world, including a pair from Morocco and he and Secret journey to his island hideout to stop him. Greg has Secret and Morocco investigate a bunch of ants that are stealing candy from candy-stores and discover that the mastermind behind it all is an evil gingerbread man (voiced by Charlie Alder) who's using the candy to create a candy monster. Greg's fate where his army of ants turn on and devour him is pretty dang disturbing. The culprit in Quark is a sub-atomic particle who's going around the entire country and destroying various monuments in order to turn North America into a giant amphitheater and Secret has to shrink down to a sub-atomic size to stop him. It's good but the way Secret defeats the quark is odd: he reveals to him that he's hypothetical and, therefore, doesn't even exist. Doesn't make much sense, honestly. Queen Bea has Secret kidnapped by a horde of bees whose queen intends to force him to marry her but Penny comes to rescue. This is one of the episodes where Penny gets to show off her skills by actually fighting the title villain. Hot Rodney is probably my favorite episode of this cartoon. In this one, Secret enters into a race against a pompous rooster (voiced by Jeff Bennett) who tries to ensure victory by forcing Secret to save Morocco, whom he has kidnapped and put a belt made of dynamite around. The section that always gets me is when Secret stalls Hot Rodney by creating a fake red-light and every time Rodney tries to run it, he gets a ticket and when he tries to change the light to green, it turns back to red as soon as he gets back in his car. His frustrated yelling and growling is really funny.

Egg has Morocco given a mandatory assignment where he simply has to hold onto a rare egg for three seconds but he keeps dropping it, forcing Secret to have to constantly catch it. I like this one because of the trouble Secret has to go through to help his clumsy friend. Chameleon has Secret and Morocco investigating an art theft at a museum gala and it leads them to an art-loving chameleon (voiced by Roddy McDowall) who has stolen all the paintings. This is a great episode because McDowall was always an awesome voice actor and the climax where they trap the chameleon by exposing him to modern art is both funny and kind of disturbing. Agent Penny is another unusual episode. In order to cut down on expenses, the chief fires Secret, replaces him with Penny, and puts Morocco in her place as his assistant. I like this one because it shows Secret's inability to live without being a secret agent, Morocco being the chief's worst nightmare of an assistant, and Penny kicks a lot of ass as an agent. Scirocco Mole starts with Secret and Morocco on a game show where Secret reminds Morocco of how they first met when Secret battled Morocco's evil twin brother Scirocco (voiced by Jess Harnell). My favorite part of this one is when Morocco and Scirocco lose their hats and clothes and Secret can't tell which is which, leaving the two of them to try to convince him which is really his partner. The two stupid dogs make cameo appearances on the game show. Platypus is another episode that's a hoot. Secret, Morocco, and the chief (who knows why he joined them on this particular mission) attempt to stop a platypus from hijacking electricity but they get caught up in his "descrambling" ray which mixes up their body parts. Watching the characters in their scrambled states running around and trying desperately to catch the platypus is really funny. Doctor O involves an evil opossum who uses a satellite to block out the sun and Secret has to stop him despite the fact that his lair is pitch black and he can't see. The one part of this that I really like is when Secret and Doctor O are fighting over the satellite controls, causing a certain part of the world to go back and forth between night and day and this poor rooster can't decide whether to crow or not. One Ton, which was the first episode I ever saw, has Secret having to deal with this big panda bear who's going around causing a lot of destruction but because he's an endangered species, Secret can't harm him in any way. This one is pretty funny, with Secret having to find a way to stop One Ton without hurting him and the method eventually comes up with is pretty ingenious. Finally, Voodoo Goat has an evil shaman goat use a voodoo doll of the chief to gain control of the agency and Secret has to battle voodoo with voodoo. The battle between Secret and the goat is funny and there's also an interesting subplot with Morocco playing with the chief doll, unaware that he's causing the real chief a lot of pain and humiliation.

2 Stupid Dogs may not be the greatest, most earth-shattering cartoon ever created but it's not supposed to be. It's simply just a funny, time-less (for the most part) cartoon in the vein of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons except with 90's sensibilities. The characters are likable, the episodes have a lot of genuinely funny moments, and the backup cartoon is also very enjoyable as well. Heck, the cartoon was nominated for an Emmy! (I don't know if it won but the fact that it was even nominated astounds me.) Some may see it as a Ren and Stimpy knockoff but I see it as just a funny, simple, charming 90's cartoon that I loved while growing up and I still love today. If you've never seen it, I'd highly advise checking it out if you enjoy simple, silly cartoons.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Movies That Suck: Spontaneous Combustion (1990)

It's time to rag on Tobe Hooper again and this time, we have a movie that I first heard about in a companion book to horror films that was one in a series (in other words, there were also similar companions to sci-fi movies, comic book movies, comedies, etc.). The book went through the horror films that the author considered the most influential and for each film, had a section about the director's career. It was in the section on Tobe Hooper during the chapter about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that I first became aware of many movies by Hooper that I'd never heard of, including Spontaneous Combustion. It popped up again during a 2009 episode of a horror podcast where the main topic was Hooper's career and while they acknowledged that a good 95% of his films are bad, they particularly hated on this one. That same year, during James Rolfe's (the Angry Video Game Nerd) annual October horror movie review marathon, Cinemassacre's Monster Madness, he talked about Spontaneous Combustion and showed some clips from it and, while he said that the film itself was mediocre and that Brad Dourif's performance was the only real good thing about it, it looked cool judging from the footage shown, so I decided to see the movie for myself. By the time I finally did get around to seeing it in the late summer of 2011, I was actually kind of looking forward to it. I'd already seen Hooper's The Mangler by that point and, despite that same podcast ranting on it and saying it was also terrible, I thought it was an entertaining, if really silly, little horror flick, so I figured, "Well, then, Spontaneous Combustion can't be that bad." Little did I know, especially since I hadn't experienced Hooper's really awful films by that point. In fact, I got a taste of how bad he can really be when I watched another of his movies before Spontaneous Combustion and guess which one it was? Eaten Alive. (If you read my review of it, you know how much I "loved" that movie.) So at this point, I was already annoyed at Hooper, but it was Spontaneous Combustion that firmly put him on my crap list of directors. I don't know how this guy manages to continuously take ideas that could make for interesting and entertaining movies and turn them into complete crap but he did it again here. This is one of the most confusing, boring, and illogical horror movies I have ever seen. I don't know which is worse, this or Eaten Alive, but regardless, it's another testament to Hooper's lack of real talent.

In 1955, a young married couple take part in a government experiment in the Nevada desert where they are put in a bunker which is then exposed to a nuclear explosion. Beforehand, they're given a serum meant to shield them from the radiation and it seems to be successful. Nine months later, the two of them have a child but, soon after the baby is born, his parents inexplicably burst into flames and burn to ashes, with the government becoming determined to know what caused this case of spontaneous human combustion. Fast forward to present day where the child, Sam, is now a grown man living in Arizona and has had a fairly normal life, save for a constant fever and really bad migraines. However, on his thirty-fourth birthday (or thirty-fifth depending on whether, by "present day," they mean 1989, the year the movie was filmed, or 1990, when it was released), flames begin to inexplicably burst out of different parts of his body and anybody he becomes enraged at dies a fiery death. It isn't long before he discovers the truth about his parents and that the government has actually been monitoring and controlling his entire life, prompting him to use his "gift" for revenge.

By this point, Tobe Hooper's Hollywood career was very far down into the toilet. He'd already had his disastrous three-picture deal with Cannon Films that resulted in Lifeforce, the 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (all three of which are actually quite entertaining and, to me, are among the best films he ever made), which were huge bombs at the box-office. Since then, Hooper had mainly taken to television, directing episodes of shows like Amazing Stories, The Equalizer, and Freddy's Nightmares (he actually directed the pilot episode for the latter). In fact, Spontaneous Combustion was the first film he'd made since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986, so it was sort of a comeback film, but, like its predecessors, it failed miserably at the box-office in February of 1990 and damaged Hooper's career even more so, to the point where he's directed very few theatrical movies since then. And, when I look at this film, I can't help but feel that it's plain to see he doesn't deserve any more chances from Hollywood. Before you say that maybe the script was the problem, not Hooper's directing, he had a hand in writing the thing as well. He may have co-wrote the screenplay with Howard Goldberg but he also came up with the story, so I think it's fair to say that we can blame this movie's failure almost entirely on him.

What really sucks about this movie is that it's a horrible flick that also happens to give one of my favorite actors, Brad Dourif, a rare leading role, and his performance makes me sad that he couldn't be the lead in a better movie because he gives it his all. For once, he actually gets to play a character who isn't a complete psycho. He begins the character of Sam as a fairly normal guy who has strange health problems, has to put up with his ex-wife while he courts a new lover, and deal with several doctors who seem more interested in his health than most doctors would or should be. He's a pretty decent, likable guy despite all of this crap but, as the movie goes on and Sam discovers everything about his past, Dourif amps up the rage and intensity. I won't say he becomes an out-and-out villain, (although, he does wantonly kill an innocent police officer at one point, even screaming, "Burn, goddamn you!", which was really excessive and unncessary), but he does become intent on getting revenge on all those who have made him what he is, which is understandable. I usually enjoy watching Dourif go off the deep end and start screaming in his Chucky voice but, by the end of this movie, I so didn't care and was just wishing that it would end. You have know idea how much it pains me to say that but, even an actor as good as Dourif couldn't save this movie from becoming the colossal mess that it is.

Cynthia Bain plays Sam's girlfriend, Lisa, and she's also pretty good, truly caring about Sam and wanting to help him. Little does she know, however, that she's actually been a pawn in the conspiracy to observe and control him. It was arranged that she would get a job where she would meet Sam, she was told by a doctor that she trusted to give Sam some pills, not knowing what they were, and, near the end of the film, it's revealed that she's a product of the same experiment and also has spontaneous combustion abilities, with the whole goal having been for the two of them to get together and produce a baby with the same abilities. Only thing I don't get, though, is how come she never questioned why they wanted her to do all this stuff. She seems to know about Sam's abilities and the fact that she has them too, so why is she so shocked when the government apparently turns on him? Actually, what I just said comes across as muddled. At one point, she even says that the doctor told her to give Sam these pills and she doesn't seem to know what they were for at that point but later, she appears to know perfectly well about Sam's abilities. So how far in on it is she? Maybe I missed something or the screenplay is so poorly written that it didn't come across well but, either way, the character of Lisa, as well-played as she is, doesn't make sense in the long run.

I also don't get the motivation behind the two people behind the conspiracy, Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher) and Lew Orlander (William Prince). Orlander is the guy who has raised Sam all his life, to the point where he feels that he's his real father since you find out that he offered Sam's biological father a lot of money to allow him to be born (was he going to abort the kid?), and is quite proud of his creation, calling Sam America's nuclear man. So, did Orlander want to see Sam grow up so he could become a military weapon or did he just want to see the project come to fruition? I say that because Dr. Marsh, a guy who's known Sam ever since his college days, was his actual doctor for a while, and still pesters Sam about his health, starts trying to inject Sam (and later, Lisa) with a glowing serum that I guess could be deadly. Maybe I was just so befuddled and bored by the movie that I missed some important plot-points but the very fact that I missed them isn't a sign of good filmmaking to me.

One character who I did like was Melinda Dillon as Nina, a German (I think she was supposed to be German) scientific advisor who knew Sam's parents and was not happy at all about what the government did to them. She comes back into Sam's life when she hears a call of his on a psychic hotline and discovers who he is. Afterward, he visits her house and she lets him know everything about his parents. She's a sympathetic character overall but I have to bring up one little detail: the military was kind of right that, even though she didn't like the result the serum had on Sam's parents, she did let them go ahead with it. Plus,iIt was an experiment with radiation, so I don't think it should have been that much of a shock that it was going to have nasty side-effects. I also smirked at how, when Sam's parents burst into flames, she's standing there holding baby Sam (or David, as his name was originally) and has no reaction other than putting her hand over her mouth. Two people just exploded in front of you, lady! I think you should be a bit more shocked than that.

By the way, Sam's ex-wife Rachel (Dey Young), isn't in the movie that much but she does come across as a bit of a bitch. One thing that's weird, though, is she shows up at the end of the movie after Lisa has accidentally killed Dr. Marsh with her fire power and when she starts to shoot fire out of her arm, Rachel actually tries to kill her with a fire extinguisher. Since she's often with Orlander, I'm guessing she does know the truth about both Sam and Lisa but that just comes out of nowhere, with no explanation as to why she's doing that. Did Dr. Marsh and Orlander tell her to kill Lisa? I'll buy that explanation but you got to give it to me first (at least, I don't think they explained it). The last actor I have to mention is director John Landis' small role as a technician at the office of the psychic hotline that Sam calls. He dies a pretty insane fiery death when he refuses to connect Sam to the psychic and Sam's anger causes him to burst into flames. Apparently, James Rolfe brought this up to Landis when he met him at a convention and he didn't seem too happy about it (I wouldn't be too happy about being reminded of my part in such a bad movie, either).

I'm sorry if, during those character discussions, I didn't seem to remember a lot about their importance to the plot but this movie is so disjointed and confusing that you're lucky I'm giving you a review of it at all. This story did not need to be so complicated. Just make a movie about a guy who discovers that he has this ability due to a government experiment and he goes after them for turning him into this freak. Don't make it where there are all these conspiracies around it and it's hard to discern whether or not the government intends to use him as a weapon (again, I think that they were intending to do so, but I'm not sure). Plus, like a lot of Hooper's movies, the pace here just sucks. It's only a little over 90 minutes long but it feels like three hours because it's so confusing and jumbled.

In fact, the very science of this experiment doesn't make a lot of sense. I know, I'm talking about dicey science in a movie about a man who can make people explode, but let's think about this. This guy was created by an experiment whose effects were passed down to him by his parents, right? So, it should be biological, like something that David Cronenberg would deal with. But here's what I don't get: how can Sam make people burst into flames just because he gets angry at them? His parents seemed to explode because of a chain reaction caused when his mother came into contact with some mercury from a thermometer and some got on his dad as well. Fine, but that never happens or comes into play again. Also, I figured that maybe the combustion happens after he touches a person which, while still not explaining how his rage causes them to explode, would at least make for a biological sort of connection to it. But, that's not the case. He never comes into contact with the technician that John Landis plays, possibly meaning that it's psychic as well as biological. Suddenly, it's like Firestarter and Sam is pyrokinetic? Hell, he must be psychic because there's one point where he's staring at a lit fireplace and has visions of his parents leading up to their deaths... something he couldn't possibly conjure up on his own because he either wasn't born or was only like a day old when that happened! And just to add even more to this insanity, not only can he cause people to explode when he's on the phone with them, no matter how far apart they are, and becomes enraged, but near the end of the film, he appears to enter the power lines in order to screw up a nuclear reactor that's going online. Now, he's become like Horace Pinker in Shocker and can travel through electricity? This movie just cannot make up its mind when it comes to the extent and exact nature of Sam's abilities. In addition, Sam has a bizarre, burn-like birthmark of his right hand which is never explained and, therefore, completely pointless, and yhere's also constant ramblings throughout about a nuclear plant that's going to go online midnight that night, which I don't think ever comea into play at all in the actual plot other than being something for Sam to screw up. Maybe the government had an agenda behind it that I missed? I don't know and, quite frankly, I don't care.

It also doesn't help that the makeup and optical effects, which are obviously a key component to the movie, are laughably bad and dated. The opticals used whenever somebody bursts into flame in particular are full of painfully bad matting work and superimposition and the concepts behind them are often silly because some of the victims don't just burst into flames. John Landis' technician actually shoots fire out of his mouth before exploding and during a moment when Sam is talking to Lisa over the phone, his rage explodes and, not only does fire come out of the phone, but a flaming hand appears briefly in front of her. The heck was that?! That hand shows up again, this time in electrical form, at the end when Sam, right before dying in an anticlimactic electric explosion, takes away Lisa's "flames." Give me a break. That's what I meant when I said that the concept is confused and all over the place. The makeup effects by Steve Neill (who never worked in makeup effects again after this movie) are also really bad for the most part. They're horribly lit and you can tell that the various body parts that are catching on fire are made of foam rubber or that the burning bodies are more than likely dummies. There are some that look nice and the burn makeup on Sam at the end is pretty good but, other than that, the effects are just really horribly executed all-around.

There are also instances where the movie's art department kind of sucks too. One particularly cringe-inducing moment is in the opening 1955 segment that's supposed to take place out in the desert and it's clearly a badly constructed set in front of either a matte shot or a backdrop. That really made me go, "Ooh, man," when I first saw it. The only other bit of really bad production design is something that isn't the designer's fault but is just so dated that I have to mention it, which is this really tacky phone with neon purplish-pink light in it that Lisa has. Again, it's not the art department or Hooper's fault because I'm sure that those were probablu popular at the time but, man, that looks dated!

Finally, there's the music score by Graeme Revell, who, again, proves that, nine times out of ten, he can't make a music score that's anything more than okay. The music over the opening credit sequence (which is decent, I will admit) and the sort of main theme with vocalizing far in the background is okay but not exactly memorable, and I don't remember any of the other tunes except the bit over the ending credits, which I felt was overly bombastic. Other than that, I don't know how Revell keeps getting work because his music is just generic and unmemorable.

Spontaneous Combustion is a huge turd of a movie. It's confusing, horribly paced, can't decide what kind of movie it wants to be, is terribly dated in many respects, including the effects, and, despite some good performances, will leave you thinking, "What did I just watch?" Between this and my Eaten Alive review, I know it seems like I have it out for Tobe Hooper, and I also know I'm probably pissing off a lot of his fans, but the bottom-line is that he's made some really bad movies and, to me, this is by far one of the worst, if not the worst. (There's someone who feels that it's Hooper's last good movie, which I don't get at all, but to each his own) If you're a fan of Hooper and I've made you mad, I'm sorry. This is just my opinion, so take it for what you will, but to me, Spontaneous Combustion is another strike against him.

Monday, January 23, 2012

976-EVIL (1988)

This is another flick that I first heard about in the Horror Movie Survival Guide, this time being profiled in the occult section. It sounded like an interesting premise: a hotline that has satanic connections. I was also really surprised to see that this film was actually directed by Robert Englund. I figured, "This might be interesting." I saw it for the first time just last year and, I got to say, I wasn't that impressed. You may notice that I didn't put this as an entry of Movies That Suck. It's not horrible, don't get me wrong, but it's not great or very remarkable. It's just sort of... average.

Hoax is a geeky teenager who lives with his overzealous religious mother who is slightly abusive towards him and won't allow him to do anything that she feels is even slightly blasphemous. He's also picked on by the local bullies and is awkward with girls. His only real friend is his rebel cousin Spike and even he is sort of annoyed by Hoax. One night, Spike comes across an ad for a "horrorscope" hotline called 976-EVIL in a magazine and tries it out a couple of times. However, when he doesn't do exactly what the message tells him to, he is almost killed for his breaking of the deal. Hoax, meanwhile, comes across the ad too and also tries out the hotline. The more he uses it, the more it starts to influence him, eventually turning him to a clawed demon who takes revenge on all those who have hurt him and opens up a hole to hell in his own house. Now, it's up to Spike and a private detective investigating the hotline to stop Hoax.

By this point, Robert Englund was the new big horror star. He'd become a household name by playing Freddy Krueger in the first three Nightmare on Elm Street films and the year that 976-EVIL was released (at least in the UK) was also when A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the highest grossing film of the series, was released, putting Englund's popularity at an all time high. However, his directing career never took off after this. The only other things he's directed since this were a couple of episodes of Freddy's Nightmares and a little known horror comedy in 2008 called Killer Pad. In fact, 976-EVIL wasn't released in the U.S. until March of 1989 and it was forgotten rather quickly. I'm actually not surprised by either that or Englund's directing career being virtually non-existent because, while I like Englund as an actor, he's not very impressive as a director. He's competent enough and knows where to put the camera and whatnot but he failed to make 976-EVIL distinctive from the majority of horror films that came out in the 80's.

The cast of the movie didn't exactly thrill me either. Stephen Geoffreys who played Evil Ed in Fright Night plays the main character Hoax and does a fair job. His performance is much more understated than when he played Evil Ed. He's a typical nerd with his plaid shirt and pants, geeky hairdo, and an effeminate voice (which I thought was a put-on for Evil Ed but apparently that's just how Geoffreys really talks). He's kind of a male version of Carrie White since he has to put up with crazily religious mother as well as cruel bullies. He's also really awkward when it comes to women and just a tiny bit of perv, spying on Spike when he's having sex with his girlfriend and later sneaking into his house and taking the panties she left behind (even sniffing them). You get the sense that he doesn't mean any harm by it, though. And, of course, since he's constantly picked on by so many people, he easily succumbs to the power of the hotline and decides to use it to get even with everybody. Like I said, Geoffreys does a fair job but here's the thing: I've this type of revenge of the nerd story so many times in both horror movies and other genres and I've seen it done better than this. Also, when Hoax finally becomes completely possessed by the evil and turns into a demon, he's not really all that impressive. He just becomes a typical supernatural slasher and does have any good one-liners or jokes to say while he's stalking and killing people. I kind of expected him to become hyper-kinetic like he was as Evil Ed but he comes across as trying to be menacing with a tiny touch of exuberance, like a very toned down Freddy Krueger. Maybe it's just my own personal expectations but I was expecting this nerd to really let the beast out when he changed. Again, not a bad performance from Geoffreys but just nothing special.

Patrick O'Bryan is not that impressive as Hoax's cousin Spike. He's the stereotypical rebellious teen with his leather jacket, motorcycle, and tough attitude. He doesn't hate Hoax and he does look save him from the bullies at one point but he's also annoyed by him. He also doesn't get along with his aunt since she so's crazy with religion and sees him as a sinner. There really isn't that much to say about Spike. O'Bryan's performance is really bland without much emotion. When he starts seeing what's happening to Hoax, he has the same blank expression and monotone voice and doesn't appear to really care about him. When he confronts the completely possessed Hoax at the end of the movie, he tries to get through to him by reminding him of this motorcycle trip across America that they were supposed to take but I didn't buy that either because there's not much emotion in his voice. I didn't find him that tough either. He does beat up the aforementioned bullies and kind of push Hoax around when he finds out what Hoax did to his girl but during the finale, his voice and actions don't come across as bad-ass to me. The only noteworthy part of his performance is that he resists the hotline's temptations and puts back some leather bike gloves that he almost steals when it tells him to. Other than that, he didn't do it for me.

Sandy Dennis, best known for winning an Oscar for her role in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, plays Lucy, Hoax's overzealous mother. She does okay in her part as this stereotypical type of character who won't let her son do anything, hates Spike because she thinks he's a sinner and a bad influence on Hoax, and is always watching evangelists on TV (she also has a bunch of wigs and changes them constantly). Only problem with her role is that once you've seen Piper Laurie's over the top performance as the same type of character in Carrie, nothing else compares to it and Dennis' performance is no exception. It is a bit over the top and hateful and she does kind of abuse Hoax but not as much as Ms. White did to Carrie. She comes across as just more annoying than loathsome. Besides, her death at the hands of her son isn't that spectacular either. Not bad, just a rather run-of-the-mill character and performance.

The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable. Lezlie Deane (who would later go on to be in the absolute worst Nightmare on Elm Street movie, Freddy's Dead, as well as have one of the creepiest, most awkward interviews I've ever seen in the Never Sleep Again documentary on the series), is not too bad as Spike's girlfriend Suzie but she really doesn't have much to do in the short amount of screen-time she has. She's a tough biker girl who likes Spike (she has sex with him, even though Hoax proves to be a cockblocker and messes it up) but when he becomes more interested in winning back the money he lost at poker rather than take her to a movie, she dumps him and spends some time with Hoax. She does grow to like Hoax despite his geeky persona but that's ruined when the bullies spoil the date and reveal that Hoax had Suzie's panties in his pocket the whole time. After that, she dumps him and he proceeds to try to scare her with a satanic ritual but ends up accidentally killing her. Deane doesn't do a bad job with what she has to work with but she's not that memorable of a character in the movie.

The blandest characters are private detective Marty (Jim Metzler) and Angela (Maria Rubell) who I think was the school principal but inexplicably becomes a romantic interest for Marty (after she lets her hair down and proves that she is hot despite the hairdo she first shows up with). Like everyone else, the actors do their jobs fairly well but they don't have much to work with. Marty just comes out of nowhere and we never find out why he's investigating the hotline other than he's looking for a John Doe (I think). And, like I said, Angela inexplicably gets close to Marty starts helping him with the investigation. There is literally no lead up to that at all. Angela doesn't do much except become Hoax's hostage at the end of the film. Robert Picardo has a tiny role as Mark Dark, the creator of the hotline who claims to have shut it off but you find out was behind it the entire time. Nice to see the guy but, like everyone else, he has little to do. Finally, the bullies are just generic thugs who pick on Hoax for no reason other than he's a nerd. When you look at all these blank slates of characters, it really feels like the writers (Brian Helgeland and Rhet Topham) didn't have that much intention to flesh them out and went through the motions.

I know I criticized Englund's direction as being bland earlier but it's the truth. He doesn't do anything to make this movie look distinct from the crowd of all the low budget horror flicks that came out of the 80's. There are some interesting lighting choices here and there but for the most, it just looks as generic as you can get. There is one interesting bit of camerawork in a scene where Hoax kills one of the bullies in a restroom. It's a shot from above and as Hoax attacks the bully, the camera pans over the tops of the stalls until it comes to one toilet in particular and when Hoax flushes the toilet where he killed the bully, that particular toilet overflows with blood. That was the one interesting visual bit of the movie. As for the art direction, even though the movie is set in the year it was made, I think Englund may have been going for a slight 50's vibe with the leather jackets, the way certain parts of the school look, and especially the inside of the town's diner. But, in the end, it just comes across as dated. Even the way the set looks when hell comes up into Hoax's is house is that impressive. There's a lot of snow (so Hoax can say "hell just froze over") and rifts in the ground that open to reveal flames but it's just not that spectacular (you can tell that they had a low budget and it really works against them). I'm sorry if I sound overly critical but I just can't get over how bland the movie is in all respects.

The makeup effects by Kevin Yagher's group falls into place with everything else: it's not bad but it's just kind of there. Hoax's gradual change from teenager to demon isn't that impressive. The clawed hands and feet that he grows are clearly rubber and the final demonic face that he acquires just doesn't do anything for me. It's not that impressive. There also isn't a lot of gore in the movie and what little there is also isn't much to write home about. Hands getting cut off, throats and faces getting slashed, still pumping hearts that have been removed, electrocutions, sliced by glass, etc. It's standard is all it is.

One would hope that the film's music score would at least be distinctive, after all, as I've said before, music can sometimes make or break a movie for me. But nope, the music is as forgettable as everything else (the fact that two composers, Thomas Chase and Steve Rucker, did it is an even worse sign). I honestly don't remember a single tune from this entire movie. Like the movie, it's not distinctive from a lot of typical music scores to horror movies around that time.

At the end of the day, 976-EVIL is just nothing special. It's unimpressive, bland, dated, with ho-hum performances, makeup effects, visual style, and music. I think it's obvious why Robert Englund hasn't directed much because, while not horrible, he's just not that impressive. Interestingly, the film did get a sequel in 1992 that was directed by schlock-meister Jim Wynorski but that movie only got a theatrical release in the UK and went direct to video everywhere else. It doesn't matter because the original has been forgotten by all but the most die-hard horror fans. If you're one of its fans, power to you but to me, there are many, many better horror films made in the 1980's. This one just doesn't stand out amongst the crowd.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Movies That Suck: Eaten Alive (1977)

If you like Tobe Hooper, that's cool, but you'd better not read the majority of my reviews of his movies because you will not be happy about what I have to say. In my humble opinion, Hooper is one of the biggest hack directors ever. Amongst the classic horror directors that came out of the 70's and 80's, like John Carpenter, George Romero, Wes Craven, etc., he's at the bottom of the barrel. He may have made a real classic in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and, depending on who you talk to, Poltergeist) but ever since then, he's proven time and time again that he's really a talentless moron who got lucky once or twice. Sometimes you get enjoyably bad or silly movies like Lifeforce and The Mangler but, most of the time, it's stuff that's just so awful that it makes you wish someone would put you out of your misery. Case in point, our featured item here, which also shows that it wasn't a gradual downward spiral but an immediate revelation that Hooper is an idiot. Eaten Alive was his follow-up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released three years after that film, and it's an obvious attempt to recapture the intensity and raw terror of that film with a little more money. However, it falls flat on its face almost from the get go and proves to be one of the most abusively boring and uninteresting horror films ever made.

The plot (what little there is) concerns a crazy old kook named Judd who runs a decrepit motel in the middle of the Texas wilderness. Basically, anybody who stops by there runs the risk of getting butchered by the guy's scythe or fed to the crocodile he has living in the water hole next to his motel. And that's really all there is to it. You're pretty much just watching a bunch of random people stop by the motel and eventually get killed by this guy. Sounds like an entertaining movie, right? Like if Psycho was made as just an ordinary slasher movie, right? Yeah, well, it's not!

The reason this movie fails so badly is because, for most of the movie, there is virtually nothing interesting going on. Most of the time is spent watching the crazy hotel manager, Judd, mumbling a bunch of rambling nonsense to himself or chasing somebody with the scythe (the latter is not exciting, trust me), watching him or someone else do something mundane while something else that's probably more interesting is going on off-screen, or, worst of all, a constant cutting back and forth between him doing something crazy and someone he has prisoner screaming about it. It goes on and on and on and even though the movie is only 91 minutes long, it feels like three hours. There are even some moments that show nothing but the guy singing to himself or hooting at an owl that's outside the window. Why was it necessary to show that? I'm not kidding, the first time I watched this movie, I almost fell asleep. But, if I had fallen asleep, I would have then been jarred awake because there are scenes that are almost nothing but constant screaming, usually from both Judd and the people he's trying to hack up. The most unbearable one is near the finale, where Judd has a woman tied up in a room on the upper floor and, even though she's gagged, she's still managing to yell, while her child is trapped underneath the motel and is calling for help. At the same time, there are two people trying to have sex in one room and Judd, so they won't hear the screaming from his victims, turns up the volume on the radio he always has playing, and it keeps cutting back and forth between this craziness, going on for probably two full minutes. I was about to actually tell the movie to shut up because it's just unbearable.

Judd is played by Neville Brand, an actor who was apparently just as bonkers off-camera as he was on. Brand was a fairly well known character actor, appearing in lots of movies and TV shows since the early 50's, as well as serving a little over nine months in the army during World War II (he apparently won a lot of medals during his tenure), but from what I can gather, he had bad alcohol and drug habits that caused him to lose acting jobs and a lot of his co-stars throughout the years had mixed opinions about him, some saying he was okay and others saying he was insufferable (in fact, one of his co-stars from this very film accused him of date rape!) As for his performance in this movie, I'd say it's akin to Norman Bates since he's playing an insane motel manager but that would be a major insult to Anthony Perkins. At least Perkins played Norman as having periods of normalcy along with the insanity; Judd is virtually never normal. He's always either talking to himself, going on and on about nothing, or suddenly snapping, sometimes for no clear reason, and attacking his guests. Hooper focuses on his insanity for so long in some scenes that you're like, "I don't care what this nut is saying or doing!" I know the point is that he's supposed to be crazy but he's so insane that you can't connect with him (and that really sucks because he's the main character) and it also doesn't make sense that he has so many guests because anybody would take one look at how this guy looks and acts and would get out of that motel pretty quick (and you wish the film would go with them to something else). I know that the point is that most of these people just come across the hotel and don't know how crazy he is but still, you need only be around him for a couple of minutes to realize that you'd best look elsewhere for a room for the night.

Most of the people in this movie are either almost as crazy as Judd, assholes, or just plain stupid. Case in point: this couple and their little daughter arrive at the motel and, boy, you want to talk about a dysfunctional family! The husband, Roy (William Finley), is the one who's about as crazy as Judd. After their daughter's little dog, Snoopy, is eaten by Judd's crocodile, they go up to their room where the wife, Faye (Marilyn Burns from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), tries to calm their hysterical daughter down. Roy suddenly snaps when Faye admonishes him for stupidly asking whether their daughter is alright and does crazy stuff like making angry faces while making a crushing hand gesture at her, saying that she ought to put her cigarette out in his eye and then starts acting like his eye fell out, saying, "Where'd my eye go", and then, when Faye goes back to their daughter, Roy suddenly starts barking. That leads me to Faye. The two of them apparently hate each other and she clearly knows how insane he is because she doesn't find it at all out of the ordinary when she hears a gunshot (by the way, the guy keeps a shotgun in the back of his car?) and tells her daughter, "Daddy's killing the dragon." Why hasn't she divorced him yet? Also, we don't hear what was probably an important argument between the two of them because we have to see what crazy stuff Judd's doing. And as for Burns' performance, she does what she can, but the poor material leaves her unable to create an interesting character and she soon ends up tied to a bed until the end of the movie. Poor little Kyle Richards (who would go on to have a small role in John Carpenter's classic Halloween) plays the daughter Angie and she spends the entire movie either crying for her dog or stuck underneath the motel, trying to get away from Judd. She really has no dialogue other than a lot of screaming, so it's the most thankless role possible for a child actor.

Robert Englund has an early role as a sex-obsessed cowboy named Buck. Because of him, the very first line in the movie is, "Name's Buck. I'm rearin' to fuck," which, if you didn't know what kind of movie you were in for, you sure did now. I don't know, I usually like Englund, obviously from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, but here, he's not in the movie that much and besides, he's playing an unlikable, misogynistic asshole. After that opening line, he tries to have rough sex with this poor woman who's clearly not up to being a prostitute and for the rest of the film, he does stuff like pop in every now and then to be a nuisance to Judd (not that I care, mind you) or act like a total jerk to some guy at a bar just because he glanced at his girl. He ends getting fed to the crocodile near the end of the film, which is a shame because it looked like he was about to do something decent. He can hear Angie screaming for help beneath the motel and it gets his attention enough to where he tries to follow the sound to its source, only to be attacked by Judd right before he can find her. I do wonder how it would have played out if he had found her (given who he is, though, he may have tried to save his own hide when he realized what crazy stuff Judd was doing). All in all, I know it was one of Englund's first roles and, to be fair, he does do a fair job with the character he has to play, but I just thought he was wasted here.

There are two big names in the movie, the first of which is Mel Ferrer as Harvey Wood, a wealthy guy from Dallas who's searching for his daughter who disappeared some time ago (she's the prostitute who's almost raped by Buck and eventually killed by Judd at the beginning of the movie). Even though he doesn't have that much screen-time, he's actually the most sympathetic character in the film. He's a dying man who regrets kicking his daughter out of their house and wants to reconnect with her in the short time he has left. He's kind of uppity towards the townsfolk he has to go through to find his daughter but, once his other daughter who's accompanying him explains why they're there, you do feel bad for him. It makes me wish that Ferrer was given more to do with his character because I find that story to be much more interesting than the main one with Judd. As for Wood's other daughter, Libby (Crystin Sinclaire), there's not much to her, other than she does come across as sympathetic both towards her father's plight and the townspeople. The only thing that she does that I don't like is when she and Faye are attacked at the end of the movie by Judd and at one point, she runs off and leaves Faye behind. She does attempt to save Angie from the crocodile but that act of selfishness really turned me off of her. Other than that, though, there's not much to her aside from the fact that she does get naked and is pretty hot, so I guess that's one reason to actually watch this movie.

The other well known actor in the film is Carolyn Jones (Morticia from The Addams Family in what was, sadly, one of her last roles) as the madam of the town brothel, Miss Hattie. She's only at the beginning of the movie and in a brief scene near the middle but in that short amount of time, she proves to not be a very sympathetic character. She's insensitive to the prostitute Clara's unwillingness to have kinky sex with Buck at the beginning of the movie simply because she doesn't want to lose any business and, while she does have a good point when she says that she didn't make Clara work for her, she's just downright mean to her. Even worse, later on when Clara's father and sister come looking for her, she denies having ever seen her. What a selfish bitch. 

Finally, I have to mention the minor characters. Roberta Collins as Clara Woods at the beginning of the film doesn't have much to do before she's killed but I couldn't help but feel sorry for this poor young woman who isn't cut out to be a prostitute, is thrown out for not putting out, and meets a nasty end at the hands of Judd and his crocodile. And, of course, what you find out about her later on makes her all the more sympathetic. (Incidentally, Collins was also the one who claimed that Neville Brand raped her.) Stuart Whitman as Sheriff Martin comes off as a nice, sympathetic type of authority figure instead of the jerky type you often see in horror films but he doesn't have that much of a role. Even though she's only briefly at the very beginning, I liked Betty Cole as Ruby, the sympathetic maid at the brothel who gives Clara some money to get by. And finally, Janus Blythe as Lynette, Buck's intended sexual partner whom he takes to the motel, has a pretty demeaning role in that she has to get naked and pretty much stay that way for all of her scenes, as well as be felt up by Buck and chased around the woods by Judd, similar to the chase between Sally and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (though nowhere as intense), while wearing only a T-shirt and underwear. She's eventually picked up by a passerby and never heard from again, although I'm guessing she's the reason why Sheriff Martin suddenly shows up at the motel at the end because she would have had to have gone to the police first thing.

Despite all my trashing of this movie, it does have some interesting aspects to it. The best thing about it is its look, which is that grimy Grindhouse, midnight movie feel like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other movies like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. It has a very cool, blood-red sunlight effect that's used throughout and gives it a distinct, hyper-reality look, which I do like. The sets are very well designed, too. The motel looks effectively rundown and creepy and, besides the crocodile, Judd also has some cages with monkeys in them here and there. The bathroom especially looks really undesirable and not a place where you'd want to take a bath, as Faye almost does. The design of the inside of the brothel also looks suitably sleazy, with the wallpaper, carpeting, and lighting, and the bar also has a similarly seedy look. I also have to say that the crocodile is handled very well for the most part. Most of the time, Hooper keeps it off-camera or in the shadows, so we only get glimpses of it, with the way it's used during the scene where it eats the little dog being particularly well done. Unfortunately, that's all spoiled near the end of the movie when you do get a good look at it and you can painfully tell it's a model. But, for the most part, I will say that Eaten Alive is at least interesting visually.

Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell worked together on the bizarre soundtrack for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and managed to create a nightmarish and unnerving sound design for that movie. However, as with just about everything else here, lightning didn't strike twice and their attempts this time around yielded an unpleasant sound that's just a scrambled mess. I swear, the music sounds like they just went crazy on a bunch of loud, synthesizer-like instruments and I guess it does fit with the psychotic nature of the movie but it's just excruciating and loud. Also, all those songs playing on Judd's radio really got on my nerves after a while. I know I keep going back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but in that movie, the country songs on the radio added to the uncomfortable nature of most of the scenes; here, there are hardly any scenes that are tense or remotely interesting, so it comes off as just an annoying background noise that won't hush. To me, Eaten Alive is just as annoying and unpleasant to listen to as it is to watch.

Eaten Alive just sucks period. It may have some interesting visual elements but on the whole, it's just a bad attempt by Tobe Hooper to recapture the effective madness of his previous film. It's uninteresting and boring, drawn out, with really unlikable and annoying characters for the most part, an unpleasant soundtrack, and often feels just as insane and schizophrenic as its main character. I know this movie is considered by some to be a forgotten exploitation classic but it should have stayed forgotten in my opinion and I really don't understand why Dark Sky Films gave it a two-disc DVD with a cleaned up transfer. Is there really that much of a market for this movie? If you get some enjoyment out of this movie, that's fine (I don't understand it but whatever) but personally, I have never seen a director shoot himself in the foot right after his big, break-out movie as badly as Hooper did. I just hate this stupid, waste of time movie.