Friday, July 16, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's TV Terrors pt. 1

Here’s a peek behind the curtain: when I put up my review of Tobe Hooper’s misfire SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, VJ founder Tom emailed me and said, “You are either very brave, or very, very foolish.” I couldn’t decide at the time which I was, but now that I have opted to examine Hooper’s 80s and 90s television work, I’m definitely going with the latter. Hooper’s work on the small screen actually preceded his theatrical efforts as he did documentaries – including one on folk artists Peter, Paul & Mary – for PBS in the late 1960s. After his second theatrical feature EATEN ALIVE, Hooper floundered a bit in developmental hell before producer Richard Kobritz selected him to helm the 1979 SALEM’S LOT miniseries. The project, as Hooper told Cinefantastique, “saved me from obscurity” and proved to be one of the most accomplished horror efforts for TV ever. The miniseries re-established Hooper and led to some major film work.

Following a period of 8 years that saw lots of professional highs and lows, Hooper returned to the small screen in 1987 during the second season of AMAZING STORIES. The anthology show was heavily hyped before its debut as creator Steven Spielberg bringing his “magic” to the small screen. By the time Hooper’s episode debuted, however, the public has tuned out as they figured out early on that the stories were anything but remarkable. In fact, NBC was just playing out their (record setting at the time) pre-order of 44 episodes and Hooper’s “Miss Stardust” was the FINAL episode of the substandard show. It seems only fitting that this would close out the series as it encapsulates everything that was wrong with the show as it isn’t amazing in the slightest.

PR man Joe Willoughby (Dick Shawn) wanders into a bar on a stormy night with quite the tale to tell. Tired of failed campaigns, he tells the bartender how a few weeks ago he was contacted by a group of men hoping to run a beauty pageant under the “Miss Stardust” moniker. Things go swimmingly on the night of the show until an alien (Weird Al Yankovic) shows up out of nowhere, demanding that some intergalactic representatives be allowed to participate. Dubbed The Cabbage Man because of his vegetable looking head, he kidnaps Joe’s secretary (Laraine Newman, fresh off Hooper’s on INVADERS FROM MARS) to ensure things go as he wants them. In the end, the contest features “ladies” from Mars, Venus and Jupiter and Joe finds a quick loophole to make The Cabbage Man lose his demands that his entrants win.

I can practically hear your laughter from here. Based on a Richard Matheson short story, this is one of those entries that make you sit back and wonder why they even bothered. The “telling a story to the bartender” routine is clich├ęd but offers a bit of intrigue. That is until you see Weird Al pop up. Decked out in a glittering green suit and one horrific looking prosthetic effect, his look is off putting enough. But just wait until he speaks. It is the kind of shrill voice that would make kids turn from the screen and yell, “This guy is annoying!” Even worse is the running gag of him having a lisp and stumbling on the word hideous (“this is hid-e-ufffffsssss”) over and over. It is about as painful a performance you can expect. To compound this horrible alien, Hooper resorts to including some Looney Tunes style sound effects. Was this ghost directed by Joe Dante? And, as was endemic in the series, they felt they could just throw money on the screen to fool viewers they are watching good stuff. The production values are all top notch and there are three elaborate aliens that look awful but you know cost a bundle. On the plus side, Hooper did load the cast for this half hour episode with some genre vets including Jim Siedow (the cook from TCM), James Karen, Anthony James and Angel Thompkins. Maybe he knew it was a “take the money and run” kind of deal so he hooked friends up?

The production values would be sorely missed in Hooper’s next TV fantasy endeavor. In 1988, New Line Cinema was sitting on a mountain of money thanks to Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. Seeking to exploit their cash cow in every available avenue (Freddy pajamas!?!), New Line decided to bring their child-killer-cum-cult-hero Freddy Kruger to the boob tube in the anthology series FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES. Hired to helm the pilot “No More Mr. Nice Guy” was horror vet Hooper. This elicited positive response among fans because a) Hooper hadn’t crash and burned yet and b) this is the guy who made THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE! If anyone could put the scary back in Freddy, it would be Hooper. The news that it would be a prequel dealing with Freddy’s death by a vigilante mob was even more tantalizing. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Showing they had as much contempt for the filmmakers as the audience, the brain trust at New Line decided to do the series on the cheap and to continue on the self effacing, wise cracking Freddy. “Welcome to primetime, bitch” indeed!

The pilot gets off on shaky footing right off the bat with a newscaster addressing viewers before he disappears in a fuzz of static, complete with him going, “What the…?” He re-materializes on the steps of the Springwood courthouse, wonders where the hell he is and then launches into standard reporting about the trial of Fred Krueger. Inside the courtroom, Krueger (Robert Englund, of course) is covered in chains inside what looks like sensory deprivation tank while the prosecutor shows slides of his victims. Not so fast, says his slimy 80s coiffed defense lawyer, who introduces a motion to have the charges dismissed. Seems Lt. Tim Blocker (Ian Patrick Williams) forgot to read this child killer his Miranda Rights and ol’ Fred is freed by the judge on this technicality. And when I say freed, I mean freed. Freddy – unsubtly wearing his iconic fedora and red-and-green sweater – is literally un-cuffed and shown the door. No exit process or anything. An angry group of white folks rush outside to confront him but he is gone. “Where did he go?” wonders one man. “After more children!” shrieks a woman. But they vow to bring true justice to that kid killer.

Freddy returns to his boiler room (complete with creepy dolls), while Lt. Blocker tries to maintain order among angry parents. The fact that Krueger was in the process of molesting Blocker’s twin daughters when he caught him takes a backseat to upholding the law. Well, until Blocker confronts the lynch mob in Freddy’s boiler room. At first the cop tries to make them see the error of their ways, but when Freddy makes one quip too many about Blocker’s daughters, it is on! Grabbing a can of gasoline, he pours it over Herr Krueger and sets him on fire. Freddy is pretty nonchalant the whole time, screaming, “I’ll be back! I’m free! Free!” Everyone involved swears to keep what they did a secret, but Blocker’s dirty deed might be uncovered when the F.B.I. says they are coming to town to investigate Krueger’s disappearance. Even worse, our hero police officer begins having nightmares about a certain burnt maniac sporting a razor glove.

Scripted by New Line exec Michael De Luca, David Ehrman (who had previously done DENNIS THE MENACE cartoons) and Rhet (976-EVIL) Topham, this pilot episode is a total mess. First off, it takes some real geniuses to muck up the back story that series creator Craven had pretty much laid out for them. They get a plot point wrong as the original ELM STREET says it was an improperly signed search warrant that freed the Springwood Slasher. Nitpicking, I know. Second, you’re telling me you’re doing a history on Freddy’s death AND including a cop character but that character isn’t Donald Thompson (John Saxon)? I mean, c’mon, seriously? I’m not saying hire Saxon – who was probably out of their budget range – but at least offer some narrative consistency. Of course, what do you expect from a trio of writers who don’t even have the brains to mention Elm Street ONCE in their teleplay? The insipid script is also hampered by having to deal with televisions Standards & Practices so the bloodshed is minimal. They also desperately try to pack in some T&A in the film’s final moment and there is a hilarious implied blowjob that causes Blocker to hallucinate.

The terrible teleplay is serviced by equally uninspired direction by Hooper. I understand he was working on tight budget, but Hooper only offers the tiniest of glimpses of what made his earlier film work special. The incineration of Krueger is probably the highlight, worthy of something to be featured in the film. Hooper does try to concoct some Freddy Vision, an example of how the serial killer might see the world. Unfortunately, Freddy sees the world through some horrible 80s video effects that would be more at home in a Cinderella rock video. The final scene has Blocker tied to a dentist’s chair as Freddy performs some surgery with his special dental equipped glove. Given how Hooper drove audiences insane with Marilyn Burns tied to a chair in CHAINSAW, this dull scene serves as a comparison for how tame Hooper had become. It is almost as if you could see his mortgage payment due date on the screen. Just awful and might actually be the moment that one examining Hooper’s career could label “ground zero” for his downfall. Believe it or not, things would actually get cheaper after this!

The scariest thing about this episode? It might be one of the best of the entire FREDDY'S NIGHTMARES series. No joke, beginning with the very next episode they set the bar so low with some of the worst plots imaginable that made this look like a classic. Very hard to do. Next installment: Tobe tackles some ghosts on the cheap and gives us a tale from the crypt.

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