Film

Monster Mash-Up

Bill Gibron
The cast of Ghoul a Go-Go

With the connection between tots and terror as tenuous as ever, it's time to celebrate a pair of shows that meld the minor to the macabre with equal amounts of horror... and hilarity.

From where, exactly, did the connection between the juvenile and the horror genre first derive? Was it when the Brothers Grimm determined that folklore didn't have enough infanticide in it already? Maybe it comes from turn of the century parents, who allowed superstition and cultural myths to guide the way they disciplined their offspring ("Eat your beets, Havel, or the Soul Sucking Potato Man will get you...").

With the real life frighteners of things like war taking up most people's valuable terror time during the '10s and the '40s, the first links between the modern (of the time) minor and the world of the macabre are fuzzy, at best. The first couple decades of the new century saw the steady rise of the local carnival and its specious side show scares, while the conflict between the Axis and the Allies provided impressionable youth with a whole new set of villains, and their readily available serialized radio exploits. Yet somewhere within the foul firmament of fear, a friendship was forged. Kids bonded with the baneful, and considered it 'cool' to be creeped out. The result was a new kind of underage entertainment, and some of the most memorable, misguided examples of same ever to screw with a moppet's mind.

One possible answer lies in the unsuspecting realm of the exploitation film. Back in the '50s, when producers were pilfering the pockets of drive-in denizens, they noticed that young people really 'dug' the genre jive of horror/sci-fi. Naturally, they failed to take all that necking into consideration. Hoping to create a built-in audience for future fear endeavors, these cinematic carnival barkers convinced local magicians and out of work actors to star in a surreal stage extravaganza, known simply as 'the spook show'. Combining gory live action monster mayhem, complete with decapitations and rising corpses, and a typical dark ride approach to scares, vendors would turn their local theaters into mad scientist laboratories, their efforts aimed at making kids crap their corduroys. In between the bedlam, a grade Z-schlock fest was tossed up on the screen, something typically involving oversized insects or desperate demons of Hate -- all the better to keep the kiddies nice and desensitized to the forthcoming carnage.

How parents approved of such Grand Guignol babysitting is still an Eisenhower era mystery. Those early exposures to low-rent horror just might explain the baby boomers present pseudo-psychosis and constant desire for self-help guidance. But the traveling terror spectacle — along with its bastard step-brother in panic, the EC Comics collection — did finally prove that children enjoyed being shocked out of their skivvies.

While film failed to fully capitalize on the craze, TV took the ghoul and ghost dynamic and ran with it. All throughout the '60s and '70s, Saturday morning cartoons piled on the paranormal while, in the evening, the 'syncopated clock' was replaced by hilariously hapless horror hosts, forced to deliver dumb undead jokes while pimping an equally lame lower-end monster movie. From Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Machine gang to the Groovy Goolies and their "Chick-a-Boom" buffoonery, the boob tube seemed to inherently understand that scares were the salve of choice for the growing grade school set. Instead of the peace and love mantra of the era, the glass teat was selling the short pants set vampires and werewolves.

Perhaps one of the reasons kids cottoned to the craven is that it represents a freaked out fantasy world with otherworldy characters that kids could easily relate to. Since almost all the movies they were exposed to featured monsters, such classic icons became their idols. Kind of like the Big Bad Wolf or the story of the Three Billy Goats -- Gruff gone gonzo. A series that understood this idea perfectly was the Hilarious House of Frightenstein. A comedic production from North America's brethren, Canada, this low budget delight was an hour-long grab bag of gags, sketches, and horror character spoofs. Helmed by the incredibly talented Billy Van (well known for his work in numerous '70s variety shows), each installment revolved around the creepy title castle and its various inhabitants -- almost all of them played by Van. There was The Count, Grizelda the Ghastly Gourmet (imagine a weird Wiccan Julie Child), Dr. Pet Vet (a non-horror healer who loved animals) and a decrepit character called The Librarian. Perhaps the most memorable of them all was the lycanthropic DJ known as the Wolfman. As a recent pop hit played in the background, Van (in full fur get up) would boogie to the beat as a psychedelic light show morphed away in the background.

With Vincent Price present as the show's narrator and resident "poet" (though many of his scenes where filmed far in advance and recycled over the series' lengthy run) and a definite madcap mentality, Frightenstein was like an abattoir version of Pee Wee's Playhouse. There was a genuinely bizarre atmosphere to the antics and the anthropomorphic aspects of the show (flowers that talked, puppet monsters) added to the insanity. The show could be silly, or downright surreal, like when the Grammar Slammer Bammer (a man in an oversized creature suit) arrived to correct the misuse of words by The Count's sizeable sidekick, Igor, but it still provided a fright forum that kids could comprehend and accept. It was part Sesame Street, part slapstick supernatural sideshow. A huge hit in the Great White North, the US got a truncated take on the show (sliced in half to 30 minutes) when it was syndicated worldwide.

Though it is well remembered by a considered cult of kid vid aficionados, most people wouldn't know The Hilarious House of Frightenstein from an installment of Screaming Yellow Theatre (featuring Chicago's own horror host, "Svengoolie!"). Indeed, it seems once the '70s ended, the concept of terror tapping traipsed over to the world of teens. The standard small fry was losing interest. After all, you can only hold a 10-year-old's attention span for so long with some guy dressed up in a radioactive frog suit. Scares went psychological, then slasher, two realms relegated to a more mature mindset.

With Jason Voorhees dealing out death to disenfranchised adolescents doped up on drugs and dirty thoughts, horror was handed over to big brothers and sisters, and the tenets of tots/terror had to find another apropos avenue. So it went literary. R. L. Stine's Goosebumps used campfire tales as the basis for their scary scribblings, and the by-now fear starved kiddies were buying the books in droves. Still, there was a decided void in televised trauma for the tween and under set; and no, Hey Vern, It's Ernest! doesn't count. Like a decomposing corpse waiting to rise from the grave, the genre needed a well meaning witch doctor or two to revamp the format.

Enter the blasé bloodsucker Vlad Tspeis and his hunchbacked sidekick, Creighton. Along with the occasional input from a space age bachelor pad version of the Invisible Man, this crew makes up the merry macabre pranksters that host the New York public access extravaganza Ghoul a Go-Go. Debuting in 2001, this undeniable monochrome masterpiece cements the bond between brat and boo in a way that leaves all other living dead dance parties in the dust. Nothing more than a combination of goofy ghoul characters, a bunch of obscure garage rock songs from the '60s, the occasional glimpse at a short educational film, and a collection of twisting tykes (all decked out in early '60s era-appropriate garb), this go-go is a half hour of fiendish fun. Like Limbo's version of American Bandstand, the kids in attendance spin the wheel of death (sorry, dance) and then show off their ability to Frug and Freddie while proto-punk chestnuts churn in the background.

Each episode revolves around a certain terror theme (spiders, mummies, the boogeyman) and begins with the clever catchphrase "It's time to put a head on a stick and have a party!" There is no attempt at camp, no obvious desire for kitsch. The creators of the show (who never give their real names, and only offer someone — or something — called 'Spiney Norman' as their spokesman) play it perfectly. They want the experience to recall the shabby Shock Theaters of generations past while arguing for the simple entertainment value in the bygone and nostalgic. It's subversive, undeniably addictive, and just the slightest bit unnerving. Because the recreation is so precise and detailed, we tend to experience a kind of entertainment astral projection. Our brains realize we are seeing a show clearly created in first few years of the 21st century. But that gnawing need for nostalgia eats at us, constantly thrusting us back — at least, metaphysically — to a time when terror and tots first got together.

Some may suggest that Ghoul a Go-Go is nothing more than a series of songs (including live performances from local popsters like Johnny Chan and the New Dynasty 6) in conjunction with guys in half-assed Halloween costumes, but there is much more to this show than a desire to dip into the past's dread pool. As with any series aimed at the adolescent and below, Ghoul a Go-Go's images attempt instant recognition. It wants us to see Creighton as Ed Wood staple Tor Johnson, or better yet, the vision of every stunted sidekick in the mad scientist menagerie. Vlad's balding pate and bad vampire fangs suggests a sloppy, second rate entity (he loves to quote the famous "pull the strings" line from Wood's Glen or Glenda), but the underlying performance is so spot on, complete with cobbled together Slavic accent, that we completely buy the ruse. As a result, Vlad and Creighton become instantly identifiable and ethereally engaging. Adults see the shtick, but the kids celebrate it, anyway. Forget the whole notion of macabre as morality play — all Ghoul a Go-Go wants to teach is that horror iconography can be cool — and clever.

With a production schedule that resembles a snail on Somenex (they try to create at least four episodes… a year) and a true underground sense of celebrity, Ghoul a Go-Go is not so much lost as undiscovered. Companies like Something Weird Video have celebrated the show, placing episodes as DVD extras on kiddie matinee classics like K. Gordon Murray's mex-ploitation epics Doctor Doom/Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy. They've even released a DVD-R containing three complete installments. If you log on to their official Ghoul a Go-Go website you can purchase additional VHS versions of the series, as well as join the official fan club (membership card and 8x10 glossy included for your $5). Popping a disc into the home theater system — or for those lucky enough to catch it live, turning the channel on the cable converter box — is like flipping a switch on a time machine. Everything we see is reminiscent of a society which thought their children capable of handling the supernatural and the strange.

In truth, the reasons for the interlocking of kids and creatures is simple. Back before our new world order and its diversity-oriented aims, the planet was a precarious place. The US had fought a couple of world wars, and a cold one was forming a mushroom cloud on the horizon. As the years passed and the threat deepened (before eventually dying) monsters made sense of the looming, lumbering threat. Nowadays, our youth are gathered like veal and corralled in a parentally mandated bubble of false security which stems from school to soccer practice, and well beyond. Along with an absence of eerie, kid vid today must be educational, and in some instances, "socially relevant",

Thank goodness we have Ghoul a Go-Go shuffling around on the outskirts of the televisual signal. Not only does it highlight the ongoing ties between tots and terror, but it argues for a childhood outside the cone of complacency. Like hearing those terrifically tasteless "Mommy Mommy" jokes that make the schoolyard rounds (e.g., "Mommy, Mommy! I hate daddy's guts." "Well, just leave them on the side of the plate."), there's really no protecting a child from their fascination with fright. After all, the true hell — high school — is just around the corner.

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(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

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​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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