It will scare the yell out of you.
What frightens you? What makes you squirm? Is it the dark? The woods? The thought of another sequel to The Blair Witch Project? Horror and humor are closely related, both relying on personal preference and susceptibility to fulfill their devious promise. During the middle years of the last century, when film walked the high wire between tame and tawdry, a group of entrepreneurs saw that both mirth and the macabre, if presented in the properly prescribed doses, could be a profitable combination. So they created stage shows filled with magic tricks and mayhem, tied them to films about werewolves and zombies and took them out on tour, playing local theaters and auditoriums, promising the rubes a thousand and one frights. Nowadays, the old-fashioned spook show is as forgotten as vaudeville, or the career of Shields and Yarnell. Something Weird Video, that purveyor of the perverse and keeper of the creepy flame, offers a DVD that attempts to recreate (as it informs the viewer) just what a live fright show was all about. While not completely successful, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular is an otherwise priceless presentation of mixed media and men in masks, all in celebration of the terrifying and the tacky.
Facts of the Case
Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular is not really a film, so to speak. It is an interactive DVD collection of trailers, shorts, blackouts, clips, and sound effects used to create an immersive Halloween horror party experience. There are two films offered, as part of the overall presentation, and the title and facts are as follows:
Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, David L. Hewitt (1965)—A group of sorority girls spend the night in a spooky old house as part of their pledge initiation. Camped out in the basement is a mad scientist with evil on his mind. The sweet young soon-to-be sisters will be the perfect fodder for his "glamour girl into hideous gorilla" presto chango experiments. So he sends his horrific helpers out to round up the beauties.
Tormented!, Bert I. Gordon (1960)—Tom Stewart is a jazz pianist who is set to marry Meg Hubbard. That is, until old flame and obsessed stalker, Vi Mason, turns up. Seems the brash barroom vocalist won't give up the accompanist without a fight. So Tom and her tussle and she falls to her death from a lighthouse tower. Then Tom and Susan go about their plans. Only Vi has other ideas. Her only-visible-to-Tom visage keeps turning up to…you know…torment him!
When we were nine, my best friend Blair and I desperately wanted to attend the annual high school spook show. Every year the older kids in the neighborhood would taunt and tease us, recounting how "scary" and "wicked" it was (yes, we used that word back in 1970). They scoffed that two "babies" like Blair and I would never survive something as awful and frightening as the spook show. It was not for "spazzes." We would wet our pants and Mommy would have to change our soiled diapers. Like every great act of schoolground reverse psychology, the more they belittled us, the more determined we were to go. We were young boys—nay, young men—and we could tolerate any assault on our humble Midwestern fear factors. We had stayed up late and watched creature features. We had wandered the lame haunted houses of the local charity groups, adults dressed up like demons and Dracula leaping out of darkened doorways to offer a crappy candy apple or a melting chocolate bar. These older "idiots" were just chicken. After all, what could be so horrible about a spook show?
I still remember that night, and the show, like it was frozen for all time. Memories and feelings about it are tossed about like riders in a car during a traffic accident. We sat in the back row, per our usual filmgoing routine, the mezzanine aisle directly behind us. Blair taunted me and we laughed at each other. We even shared a troubled "this will be a cakewalk" glance. But once the music started, and the lights dimmed, our imaginary terrors slowly came to hideous life. On the stage, lit by a single spot, a mad doctor laughed maniacally and stated matter-of-factly that he would be bringing us on stage, one at a time, to behead us. Monsters appeared from the wings and ran up and down the aisle, clawed hands grabbing at startled members of the audience. Dimwits that we were, our heads made the perfect landing strip for many of the maulings. I screamed and screamed. Blair sat motionless, glued to his seat in petrified paralysis. Then the theater went dark, and a crescendo of shrieks built until the entire auditorium was filled to bursting with adrenaline and dread. The lights came back on and the evil scientist was beginning a gruesome dissection of a creature, in full gory Grand Guignol fashion. Blood ran over and around the stage setting. Several people ran, terrified, from the theater. When the monster's head was placed on the end of the operating table, it sat frozen in all its decapitated glory. Then it opened its eyes and moved its mouth.
Good to his word, the doctor sent one of the monsters out into the audience to retrieve a victim. The unwilling teenager struggled as his neck was placed into a guillotine, his cries muffled as the mad doctor casually covered the pleading head with a towel. After what seemed like eons of suspense, the blade came crashing earthward with a sickening slick. Landing with a dead thud, the victim's draped dome hit the stage floor. The audience was now in hysterics. I wanted to leave, piss my pants, and pray to God for soul salvation all at the same time. Yet all I could do was stare at the stage while the bloody rag was snatched up by a slobbering beast that proceeded to run around with it. I swear I could smell the wound and taste the fear. Then the lights went out again, and the Doctor intoned that we would be pelted with snakes and eyeballs and rats and spiders. Objects fell on and around us. We yelled ourselves hoarse. And a projector started. And it didn't show some silly cartoon or subtle Universal monster movie. It was Night of the Living Dead. Uncut and Uncensored. After Johnny tripped and crushed his skull on a gravestone, I fell into a semi-comatose state of unreality. The horrifying images played out on the screen and all I could do was sit, stunned into silent screams.
When it was all over, Blair's mom retrieved us. She smiled as we walked to the car, deathly quiet. Night had fallen, and the full moon was rising over the trees. Blair's mom opened the car door and we both sheepishly crawled in. A sleepover was planned, and as she chatted on merrily about dinner and the evening's planned entertainment (a Hand's Down championship), we just sat there, gob smacked. Finally, at a stoplight, she looked back and asked: "How did you like the show?" Blair started to cry, sick painful tears and I whispered for her to please drive me home. She tried to speak, but seeing her son in such a state, she slowly made a left turn and headed in the direction of the Gibrons. To this day I can't remember the number of night's sleep I lost (it was less than the three weeks I sacrificed to sneak into The Exorcist when it hit theaters), but it was a few. I would lie quietly in my bed, revisiting selected images, like a spook show's greatest traumatic hits, until my young body could no longer tolerate the lack of rest and I would simply pass out into unhealthy disturbed slumber. The Barker Senior High School Annual Halloween Spectacle is a memory that haunts me like the ghosts that floated above the crowd that terrifying October night.
It's too bad the Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular is not more like my experience that cold pre-Halloween in 1970 (perhaps many of you are glad it is not). Something Weird Video rightfully acknowledges in the enclosed materials that there was no way a DVD could accurately recreate the experience of sitting in the theater during the '20s or the '70s having the wits scared out of you. They recognize that parental concern regarding over-the-top grue and shocks was part of the reason why these stage show spectaculars have now drifted off into the foggy realm of yesteryear. SWV opts for the less violent, more nostalgic trip down fright night memory lane, and it succeeds surprisingly well. It offers the best chance one will ever get of understanding the tricks, the trade secrets, and the success of the traveling movie theater horror and ghost show. Conceived as a DVD one could put on for a gathering of children (or adults attempting to recapture their youth), it's a remote control based trip through a digital domain of ghouls, goblins, and old-fashioned showmanship. There is even a ten-page booklet and step-by-step video guide included, so that if inspired, you too can go all out and recreate the spook show experience for friends and family.
The DVD begins with an incredibly campy hypnosis spiral, with music and voiceover like something out of a low budget '50s science fiction film. Perfect for getting your wee ones, or your caramel apple, ready for a few hours of viewing pleasure. The screen then goes blank, and through an animated fog we arrive at the gates of the SWV Graveyard, a place where evil dwells. Using the remote, one guides their way through three distinctly different areas: the graveyard, the underground crypt, and the old haunted house. Each section has several cartoon images one can highlight, and upon pressing "enter," experience old fashion horror hijinks at their best. Some of the more delightful surprises (out of over 20 offered) are:
Graveyard Section—Highlight "small cluster of graves": You will be treated to almost an hour of classic preview trailers for traveling horror and spook shows. As with most SWV titles, the trailers can absolutely make the presentation, and such is the case here. Even if you found nothing else of interest, seeing and hearing the old pitchmen selling their scare spectaculars is intriguing, informative, and entertaining viewing.
Crypt Section—Highlight the "supine corpse": You will experience a "dark ride" in all its cheesy, classic chaos. For those outside the loop, a "dark ride" is an amusement park or county fair ride. The patrons, seated in a small mobile cart, move along a track while various horrifying images (executioner with axe, leaping werewolf) would pop out of the blackness and into the minimal light. Usually lasting no more than a few minutes, they were the precursor to such high tech stalwarts as Disney's Haunted Mansion, Snow White, and Mr. Toad attractions.
Haunted House Section—Highlight the "skull": Just in case you feel fear crawling along your spine and immobilizing you like my buddy and I back in that high school auditorium, the Encyclopædia Britannica short film Don't Be Afraid attempts to addresses your phobias. Not that it offers much of a cure.
The two main features on this disc (as they were the main components of any spook show) are the stage presentation and the scary movie. SWV managed to find one of the few filmed examples of a standard fright production in Monsters Crash the Pajama Party. As the Facts of the Case explain, this is just a simple story of teenagers locked in a haunted house filled with dopey monsters and tired sight gags. But the best part comes at the end, when the mad scientist threatens to send his henchmen out into the audience to procure more victims. As the monsters head toward the screen, they disappear out of front frame and the screen goes blank. Then a stock footage thunderstorm rages. More blankness, and then we cut back to the lab. The monsters return with "audience members" in tow and the doctor proceeds to tie them down for experimentation. How this worked in a real life setting is described in fascinating detail in the two audio commentaries offered by spook show veterans Jim Ridenour and Harry Wise. Basically, as the screen went black, the theater cut off all the lights. Then during the storm, extras hired by the promoter would run around the audience in their exact replicas of the onscreen monster costumes, causing general mayhem. They would pick up one or two "planted" victims, drag them into the wings behind the stage, and magically, all would reappear on the screen in the film's lab setting.
This prearranged staged artifice, when done correctly, sold an unaware audience that monsters actually leapt from the screen and ransacked the customers (people were easier to fool back then). While the notion seems novel, it was really just standard mass manipulation at the hands of these horror hucksters. Listening to Wise and Ridenour wax nostalgic over the lost art of the spook show is one of the many invaluable extras provided here. These commentaries offer a wonderful narrative history lesson on the creation, the craft, and the decline of the spook show as part of the American moviegoing experience. Harry Wise is more anecdotal, presenting an oral account of life on the road and the players involved. Jim Ridenour is like the masked magician on Fox. He is willing to explain all the intricacies and professional secrets he can, if for no other reason than to impress upon the listener the simplicity and ingenuity that went into an average stage production. Along with other material provided, one gets a complete overview of this lost genre. And even though the packaging compels you to try your hand at your own spook party spectacular, it would seem next to impossible to recreate today. Audiences are too cynical.
As for a feature film, SWV dredges up the MST3K/Bert I. Gordon favorite, Tormented! This gangly ghost story about a jazz pianist haunted by the lounge singer girlfriend he accidentally killed is dumb, creepy fun with some semi-decent effects and atmosphere. While the acting is fairly good, some of Gordon's plot devices and set-ups are a little pat. But the film does end in a rather unsuspecting manner, with a nice little shock left for the final few frames. Again, in keeping with the adolescent orientation of the entire presentation, it's a perfect pre-teen fright flick: not too scary, but just ghastly enough to creep out the kiddies. The version presented here by Something Weird is pretty substandard, with image and transfer issues aplenty. Heck, the version they used for mockery on MST3K is a dozen times more refined. Still, it fits in with the overall theme of an antiqued trip back in time to another place, recalling a more carefree bygone era when double exposure, rubber face masks, red and blue split image 3-D, and weird camera angles were all that was needed to terrify the masses.
Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular is a true time capsule treasure chest and a smart, interactive horror DVD. It is not too complex to be trying, or simpleton to be sappy. It provides countless hours of invention, interaction and laughs. Sure, most of the material is cornball and hopelessly campy, but that's part of the point. No attempt at recreating the long forgotten stage shows and screen screams of the past could avoid it. But as a lesson and a lasting memorial to its artisans, it is unbelievably cool. Something Weird Video has long championed the obscure and forgotten facets of film and exploitation entertainment, and it's great to have this package. And just like the Mom and Dad movies of the 1930s, the Drive-Ins of the '50s and '60s, or even the showmanship as hysterical hype of William Castle (King of the Movie Gimmick Tie-in), it's now only a memory. Something as innocent as Monsters or deranged as the Barker Senior High School Spook Spectacle evoke a time when audiences freely gave up their disbelief, where a man in a monkey suit with a basket of painted ping pong balls was the most hideous creature imaginable carrying their carved-out eyes for all to enjoy. This disc is destined to become a Halloween mainstay.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Frankly, the only thing that rubs me the wrong way about this disc is the lack of more splatter-oriented material. Most spook shows made violence their bread and organ butter. Heck, even Herschell Gordon Lewis opened up a gore nightclub in Chicago during the late '60s as a swinging hotspot where swells could hang out and see an amputation or two. And yet none of this is evident here. It is hinted at (in the numerous trailers and pamphlet offering), but the whole gore aspect of the spook show is ignored here for the most part. Now, SWV's head honcho Mike Vraney has said that he made this disc for his children and the pre-natal nature is obvious. Perhaps another, more gross out minded collection could be created, focusing on the murder and mutilation stage spectaculars (and providing information from the people involved). While the content here is fine, it is also tame. Something a little meatier and terrifying is in order to really "flesh" out the fright and explain the fear of seeing a true old school spook show.
Oddly enough, over the last several years, the spook show has made a kind of comeback, albeit in a high tech, mass marketed fashion. Theme parks like Busch Gardens and Universal Studios transform their parks and employees into Halloween and horror themed play lands, their goal to creep out and frighten as many patrons as possible. Local organizations (and even some religious groups) create sophisticated haunted house presentations to scare the common sense out of willing (and paying) customers. And even video games have gotten into the act. The most popular titles are ones where you are pitted against hordes of the undead or bloodthirsty demons, ready to rip you to shreds in crimson torrents. Still, none of it can quite match that October night in 1970 for me. Even if I have over-romanticized and exaggerated it out of all horror proportion, it was still a moment in movie and theater going when I was completely lost in a terrifying world of beasts, blood, and brutality. SWV's Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular is a fine attempt at reconstructing this long lost medium for the discerning digital driven public. What it lacks in terror, it more than makes up for in wistfulness and cinematic significance.
Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectacular is acquitted on all charges, and Something Weird Video is again commended for its work in the DVD market. The Court also adds that is wishes SWV would revisit and re-release a similar title focusing on the more violent versions of the spook show.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
• Two Full Length Features
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