Thursday, November 4, 2010

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things - 1972

Director:                   Benjamin Clark (Bob Clark)
Written by:                Benjamin Clark, Alan Ormsby
Music by:                  Carl Zittrer
Cinematography:      Jack McGowan

Alan               Alan Ormsby
Val                 Valerie Mamches
Terry             Jane Daly
Anya              Anya Ormsby
Paul               Paul Cronin
Jeff                Jeffrey Gillien
Orville            Seth Sklarey
Roy                Roy Engleman
Emerson        Robert Philip
Winns            Bruce Solomon
Caretaker      Alecs Baird

"Children shouldn't play with dead things!"   I’m sure we all heard that from our mothers.  Along with “no running in the house”, "don’t cross your eyes, they’ll stay that way”, “close the door, we’re not heating the outdoors you know”, and especially, “don’t you go performing Satanic rituals to raise the dead”.  As for the last one, Mom may have been right, after all.   

The plot involves a six person theater group from Miami who take a boat to a tiny, deserted cemetery island for a weekend of fun and games.  They are:  Terry the ingénue, Paul the hunky Brando-wannabe and Terry’s boyfriend, Anya who has some kind of psychic connection to what is going to happen, Jeff the chubby comic relief, Val the imperious leading lady, and Alan.

Alan is the manager/director/dictator of the group, and he is a nasty little piece of work.  He has brought his troupe to the island to participate in his attempt to conjure Satan and raise the dead to do his bidding.  Or something. 

He enjoys torturing his captive audience with put downs so vicious and yet juvenile you have to wonder:  Why on earth are these people in his troupe in the first place?  Is his the only theater in town?  No theater community could possibly be that small.  Why are they following him to the island?  You or I wouldn’t follow this guy across the street to get a hot dog.  And then why in god’s name are they staying there and taking his abuse?  Whenever someone makes a feeble attempt to stand up to Alan, he says something like, Ok go ahead and leave, but leave your script behind because you will never work in theater again.  Are you serious?  Who is this guy, Joe Papp?  Tyrone Guthrie?  Max Bialystock?  

After one elaborate practical joke on the others, Alan starts the bringing-the-dead-to-life thing in earnest.  A corpse is exhumed for use in the ritual – his name is Orville by the way.  Alan dons his wizard robe and reads from the grimoire and gives a fairly impressive performance.  Except, nothing happens.  Then Val takes over.  She performs her own version of summoning – a combination of vaudeville shtick and Yiddishe theater, comprised of taunts to Satan, and put-downs aimed at the deserving Alan.  This one does get a response – some glaring and pouting from Alan, and laughter and applause from the rest of the cast.  No Satan, however. 

So, Alan insists that they bundle up Orville and return to the cabin for more abuse.  He also goes through a marriage ceremony with the corpse – you really have to see this to believe it.  I just can’t quite figure Alan out.  We see him earlier eyeing Terry’s back porch and greasily coming on to her, and yet he couldn’t possibly be more fey.  And now he is going upstairs for a wedding night with Orville the corpse?  At this point all bets are off and it’s everyone for him or herself. 
Meanwhile back at the old cemetery things are swinging into high.  One or both of the spells must have worked since the dead are starting to pop out of their graves.  The two other cast members who had arrived earlier to carry out Alan’s bidding are the first to become undead chow, then the caretaker. 

The undead eventually make their way to the cabin and it becomes a stand-off with windows and doors barred, and a few conversations along the lines of “This can’t be happening!”  “But it IS happening!”  “What are we gonna DO??

You know what happens, the cast members are killed one by one until only Alan and Anya remain.  Alan then performs one last act of lowly cowardice and betrayal that will make even the most jaded catch their breath.  Even the zombies look dumbfounded.  Don’t worry, he gets his too. 

This was Bob Clark’s first movie.  Ok, it was really his third.  According to IMDB his first was never released, and his second, engagingly titled “She-Man” should be allowed to die a slow, natural death.  Then he gets to our movie, and a director is born.  He went on to direct “Black Christmas”, “Porky’s”, and ”A Christmas Story” (the last starring Darren “Kolchack” McGavin, of course).   All of those movies have become beloved classics in their respective genres.  The man was nothing if not versatile.  CSPWDT got so-so reviews at the time, but has gone on to become a minor cult hit.  Bob Clark was billed here as Benjamin Clark.  Why?  Embarrassed maybe, or afraid of the critical reception?  Who knows.  There are many things we will never have the chance to know, and there are untold  Bob Clark movies we will never have the chance to see.  Tragically, he and his son died in a 2007 car crash.

You could say the sets, costumes, effects and all are cheaply done and silly.  I say they were cheaply done and work damn well.  Whatever amount of money was spent (approximately $50,000) is up on the screen.  The crew did imaginative work with the sets.  The cemetery set is brilliant, it looks real and very creepy, the kind of place you would stay away from under any circumstances.  The cast are young and look like they are having a good time, and really trying to give honest performances.  The acting however, is a bit uneven to put it nicely.

The story is that the actress who plays Val had been dating Alan Ormsby at one time and she was furious with him after the break-up.  You can see that in her seething, venomous responses to Alan.  She really hates him.  Either that or she was one incredible actress.  Alan Ormsby collaborated on the script as well as creating the make-up, which is simple yet surprisingly icky and startling.

As for the costumes – well, this movie is more proof that it was impossible to look good in the 70’s.  Between the hairstyles, the polyester, the atrocious bell bottoms, the tie-dyed tee shirts and the hippie dresses - we were all doomed.  Alan sports a particularly hilarious pair of striped bell-bottoms and a kicky neck scarf. 

I really enjoy this movie.   I saw it the first time around 1978 or 79.  I happened across it late one night on the Public Television station, of all places.  I turned it on just after the credits, so I had no idea what it was.  I didn’t even find out until a few years later what the title was.  I admit I wasn’t quite a kid at the time, but the movie still rattled me.  I probably didn’t sleep that night.  I don’t think I had seen “Night of the Living Dead” yet, so this whole zombie thing was completely new to me.

This may have been only the second movie to have this type of theme.  Alan Ormsby says in the commentary that he and Bob Clark deliberately wanted to make something like NOTLD.

I had been unable to forget it since then and was very happy to find it on DVD.  Watching it again after all these years was a lot of fun.  I can still feel that little frisson of fear up my spine when the undead start to rise.  When we see the caretaker still tied up behind the tree, and the dead are walking past him, I cringe every time, “please don’t let them see him!”   They always do.  I think what I am trying to say is that I like this movie.  It does what a horror movie is supposed to do.  It scared me. 

I hope you give this one a chance.  Even if you have watched hundreds or thousands of horror/zombie/gore flicks over the years, I think you could be pleasantly surprised by this one.  If you do, also listen to the audio commentary by three of the cast.  They sound like very warm, engaging and funny people, telling stories about the shoot, telling stories about each other and laughing at themselves on the screen.  They, along with Clark, were all theater kids from the University of Miami who were very excited to be making a movie.  It would have been a blast to have been in the room during the commentary taping and then gone out to lunch with them after. 

Have a comment about this post?  Please, be my guest.  Indulge yourself.  I would love to hear from you.  Click on “Comments” below.  Thanks!

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