Try as we might, we just couldn't peel the ear-to-ear grin off Judge Dennis Prince's face after he screened this one. Gotta love those bitchin' seventies.
Get ready to have a happy day…Kenny & Co. are coming your way!
Shortly before indulging himself in tall men, silver spheres, and overturned ice cream trucks, 21-year-old Don Coscarelli, a budding screenwriter and director who elected to drop out of USC film school in deference for the "road scholarship" path to the performing arts, served up this little gem of a Saturday afternoon distraction. Kenny & Co. might just be the unintentional time capsule of the now-iconic filmmaker, who deftly, if not accidentally, captured one of the most honest and untainted views of an 11-year-old's life and times during the early 1970s. Certainly the film is no secret to Coscarelli's worldwide legion of fans, those who likely learned about it while poring over the Phantasm spread in issue #2 of Fangoria magazine. The big news here, though, is that this almost lost jewel of a film is finally available in the home video market on an excellent DVD from Anchor Bay and brimming with some truly wonderful extras.
Get ready to have a happy day.
Facts of the Case
Kenny (Dan McCann) is the good-natured, level-headed kid next door who enjoys riding his bike, street surfing on his skateboard, and sometimes just lying on the front lawn to watch the clouds roll by. He has the most fun, though, when his more adventurous pal, Doug (A. Michael Baldwin, Phantasm), drops by and engages Kenny in a neverending stream of exciting endeavors that are part inventive, part mischievous, and all fun. When the two aren't unleashing their clever pranks on the pesky tagalong, Sherman (Jeff Roth), they're pranking drivers with a dummy in the middle of the street, crank-calling unsuspecting victims from the phone book, or trying to avoid that hulking bully, Johnny Hoffman (Willy Masterson), from down the street. Most of all, Kenny, Doug, and Sherman are building up a nearly uncontainable anticipation for Halloween—it's just three days away! Nobody knows what might happen on Trick-or-Treat Eve, who might get their just desserts, and what might await those brave enough to actually sneak inside the house at the end of the road where that crazy lady lives. Whatever happens, it's certain that Kenny and his company of pals will remember and fondly reminisce over it for years to come.
It's here, at last! This film is a real treat, especially for those of us who've waited years for it to surface—officially—within the home video market. Filmed over the 1975 summer vacation in and around Coscarelli's childhood home in Long Beach, CA, Kenny & Co. captures the realism of the interesting, exciting, and usually disconnected events in the lives of suburban sixth-graders. Its refreshing realism comes from three simple elements: it utilized an actual kid's neighborhood (Coscarelli's own), it drew upon actual kids' exploits (Coscarelli and crew), and it featured actors who truly were 11- and 12-year-olds (McCann and Baldwin and others). Even though it bears many of the markings of its 1970s provenance, the picture largely steers clear of too many blatantly commercial signposts of the era and therefore retains a sort of "any time" appeal that will genuinely entertain latter-year baby boomers as well as the current generation of young moviegoers (I screened this disc with an 8- and 14-year-old in tow, and both were captivated by the loose and lighthearted exploits on the screen).
Don't look for too much plot here because the film is constructed much like the minds of its prepubescent entourage: spontaneous and unpredictable. In an arguably promiscuous fashion, young Coscarelli managed to present a well-crafted, well-intentioned, and downright insightful film that affords the opportunity to be the sort of fourth and unseen tagalong during a few days in the lives of these kids. When the kids amble down the street to marvel at the muscular weight-jockey who doesn't mind a few onlookers during his workouts, we're there. When it appears the family pet is ill and Kenny is crestfallen at the potential heartbreak ahead, we're seated right alongside him at the vet's office. And when he's struggling to muster up the courage to profess his crush on the doe-eyed Marcy, we're there to egg him along. It's all presented very much the way things happen in a kid's life—you never know what you might get into when you walk out the front door for a day of spur-of-the-moment adventures, and you never know what sort of familial event might greet you upon your return. It would seem stingy not to give Coscarelli the due credit that he had this figured out at the outset because the film flows so well in its decidedly jaunty course as if that were the plan all along. Even though most folks consider the picture to be all about the build-up to Halloween night (even the animated opening credits pitch this), there's so much more going on here that's of equal interest and entertainment that the trick-or-treat hijinks become yet another of the kids' compelling adventures; and that's just fine.
Turning attention to the actors, its clear Dan McCann, discovered by associate producer Paul Pepperman at a school carnival, was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle finds. Despite the fact that McCann had never acted before, he was a natural who projected the perfect persona of the nice-guy, laid-back everykid who, bearing thick blond hair and striking blue eyes, made for a perfect "Kenny." It seems as though the first-timer never stressed over the fact that he'd be carrying the picture on his as-yet-underdeveloped shoulders; he maintains an air of ease throughout the entire affair. Inexplicably, this would be McCann's only work in front of a camera and, as of this writing, Coscarelli has been unable to locate him. Hopefully, the release of this disc will bring him forward so he can take a much-deserved bow for his excellent work.
Michael Baldwin is likewise tailor made for his role as Doug. Seeming as if he's just slammed a glass of vinegar, Baldwin's Doug is always full of vim and vigor, operating on a potentially endless supply of energy with a dash of insolence thrown in for extra flavor. Rarely does Doug simply enter a scene; rather, he usually bounds, tumbles, or otherwise bursts into frame with yet another slick idea or sly pronouncement. Baldwin was clearly just being himself (as Coscarelli playfully attests), a 12-year-old with a candid nature and no sense of intimidation by his elders (recall that he could barely contain his laughter when acting opposite Angus Scrimm during some of the more frightening scenes in Phantasm).
Die-hard fans will enjoy picking out the various other actors who would go on to work in Phantasm, starting with Reggie Bannister, who plays sixth-grade teacher Mr. Donovan prior to donning the curt ponytail and ice cream duds. You'll see the Morningside caretaker here in an actual speaking role that is free of all chromium assailants. Doug's dad, Big Doug, is played by Ralph Richmond, he who tended bar in Dune's Cantina amid the jukebox jams of the Silver Sphere Disco. Kenny's love interest, Marcy, would grow prettier and become one of the Tall Man's spacegate victims. There are a few others, too, and it becomes fun to connect the dots between Kenny & Co. and Phantasm.
"Without Kenny & Co. there would be no Phantasm." Coscarelli makes no bones about when it comes to acknowledging the near-prescient nature of this innocent day-in-a-kid's-life odyssey, such that it is. During a full audience screening of the picture, a particular sequence in the Halloween night escapades caused viewers to visibly jump in their seats. Coscarelli admits he was intrigued by the power to affect an audience thus and commented, "Hmm. I gotta try making a film which has a lot of these jumps." And so he did.
Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight to recognize the importance of Kenny & Co., such that it seems almost unimaginable that the film could have been a veritable "lost work." In 1975 B.P. (Before Phantasm) and leading up to its release in November 1976, it was clear that 20th Century Fox, who agreed to purchase distribution rights from Coscarelli, didn't understand the film and didn't know how to market it. While it did well in California test screenings, Fox pitched it as a sort of thrilling skateboarding picture (what with street surfers turning in their clay wheels and stiff trucks for the superior polyurethane stoker wheels and fast bushings that would herald the skateboard craze of the decade). While there is some decent boarding going on (with a young and talented boarder stunting for Michael Baldwin), that's just a small portion of the proceedings, and, having missed the target audience (Coscarelli claims he pictured it as a nostalgic nod the twenty-somethings of the day would appreciate), Fox summarily shelved the picture. A year later the film was picked up by Toho-Towa, Japan's premier international distributorship, and it skyrocketed to fame with the Japanese audiences, who clamored for a peek into Western lifestyle and who marveled at the amazingly and amusingly disrespectful Doug (the picture would propel Michael Baldwin to reach the Number 7 spot on the country's list of most popular male actors, above Dustin Hoffman and Sylvester Stallone).
Stateside, Kenny & Co. was not to be seen again except for infrequent showings on HBO and then on pirated and inferior VHS and DVD dupes exchanged at comic conventions and in the virtual back rooms of the online auction houses. That's all changed now thanks to the folks at Anchor Bay, who picked up the film from 20th Century Fox and set about to present it in a many it so clearly deserves. And so this new single-sided DVD begins with an anamorphic widescreen transfer framed at a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio (and apparently betraying the fact it was originally matted from a 16mm open frame format). The image is not pristine; not by a long shot. There's a persistent amount of graininess and soft edges, which remind us we're looking at film made on a tight budget (although Coscarelli should be acknowledged as a king among frugal filmmakers) and expose the limitations of the source material. Much of the softness, however, was self-imposed, as Coscarelli was experimenting with soft-focus lenses, sometimes gaining more effect than he'd wanted. Nevertheless, the picture looks probably as good as it can and reflects the texture and setting of its time. The audio is presented in a very full Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix that performs quite well and balances the dialogue with the score and sound effects very capably. That score, by the way, was conjured by another Phantasm craftsman, Fred Myrow. As Coscarelli's budget wouldn't allow for licensing actual hit songs of the day, Myrow whipped up a light and lithe score that incites the feel of watching the 1970s drive-in snack bar bumpers. You'll hear some recognizable keyboard strains that you'd swear could be outtakes from the Phantasm score.
When it comes to extras, Coscarelli & Co. don't let us down. They begin with a feature commentary track where the director is joined by producer Pepperman and actor Baldwin (unfortunately, McCann wasn't located to participate). Ever the orchestrator, Coscarelli jumps into the commentary energetically and prods the other two to offer up their views and insight. Next up is a new 12-minute featurette, "The Story of Kenny & Co.," which includes a nice home-movie approach to reliving the making of the picture. Told in interview segments with Coscarelli, Pepperman, D.A. Coscarelli (Don's dad), Bannister, and Baldwin and including plenty of behind-the-scenes segments of the lean production crew at work, it's a fun and sometimes intimate look into the lives of those who brought the picture into being. Then you'll find a couple of original TV spots that exemplify the fact that Fox just didn't know how to market this picture. Last is a text biography of Coscarelli, his work, and his prime goal when making movies. Oh, and the interior insert features a reproduction of the film's original one-sheet layout; a nice bonus to my mind.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's to rebut? Kenny & Co., taken on its own merits and with acknowledgment of the inventive manner in which it was made, is a significant achievement. Sure, you'll see the signs of low-budget filmmaking and you find a handful of spots of underperformance by some of the young actors, but, by and large, to look at the picture is to get a rare glimpse into the germination of a genre phenomenon that would become Phantasm. Look closely and you'll see that Coscarelli had already developed some of his most interesting and evocative cinematography. Whether a front shot of Kenny riding his bike up the street (similar to that of Jody with Michael in pursuit on foot) or an over-the-back shot through a claustrophobic hallway or a low-angle perspective of an asphalt road, Coscarelli already had defined his style and, if for no other reason, Kenny & Co. serves as an excellent tool in a film study of one man's method. But, of course, as a film judged by its own merits, Kenny & Co. is genuinely entertaining and safe for most ages (there is some light sexual content and a sparse bit of light profanity).
Come and enjoy Kenny & Co., whether you're a longtime Phantasm phan or you're just looking for an unassuming jaunt off the over-trodden path of cynical and sexually charged teen comedies. There so much that goes on here, on the screen and between the lines, that you're likely to find it was a side trip well worth taking. It should come as no surprise that I highly recommend this one for immediate purchase.
"Meet Kenny, the kid next door. He'll be eleven tomorrow. He'll be your pal forever."
Don Coscarelli, his cast, and his crew are fully exonerated from any suspicion of malfeasance. Anchor Bay is likewise free to go with similar doses of praise for their resurrecting this diamond in the rough. Twentieth Century Fox, however, is admonished for sitting on this title for far too long. This court now levels its gaze at Universal Home Video as they sit on Coscarelli's first feature film, Jim, the World's Greatest, also overdue for DVD release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary
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