Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's TV Terrors pt. 2

After the small screen misfires reviewed in part 1, it seemed that the only place Tobe Hooper could go in the film world was up. Wrong! Following a few un-filmed announced projects, Hooper closed out the decade by making the theatrical feature SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (see review), which got an unceremonious release in 50 theaters in February 1990 and bombed hard. Hooper was already onto his next project, the feature length TV movie I’M DANGEROUS TONIGHT, which debuted in August 1990 on the USA Network. Perhaps because of the burst of SPONTANEOUS, Hooper continued to remain active with several TV projects over the next few years.

One great refuge for filmmakers working in television was HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT series. Debuting in 1989, the horror anthology dipped into the William Gaines EC Comics archives for stories of murder, mutilation and revenge. It succeeded thanks to enthusiasm from influential producers (Richard Donnar, Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, and Joel Silver to name a few), big stars looking to join in the fun, and a network not skimping on the budgets. Hooper stepped behind the camera during the show’s third season and delivered the voodoo-tinged tale “Dead Wait” in July 1991.

The story opens with carrot topped thief Red Buckley (James Remar) killing his partner on a war-torn tropical island. He is there to steal a black pearl from Duval (John Rhys-Davies), an embattled and sickly political head who keeps the desired treasure on his plantation. Conning his way into a job, Red is taken in and quickly starts up a relationship with Duval’s lady Katherine (Vanity) and the duo decide to work together to do the theft. Red is warned by Peligre (Whoopi Goldberg), the resident voodoo priestess, that Katherine is bad news. Red, naturally, doesn’t believe in this mumbo jumbo and dismisses Peligre’s warnings and her fascination with his red hair, which symbolizes life in her religion. If you read EC's horror comics, you know this won't end well.

Adapted from an issue of Vault of Horror, “Dead Wait” is a decent half hour with the prototypical EC storyline offering an immoral criminal who receives their twist comeuppance. Hooper obviously has budget to work with here and gets the best use out of him minimal settings. On the plus side, you get two cool gory bits. One is when Remar has to dig into some worm infested guts to retrieve the pearl and the other is pretty gruesome a decapitation. Another plus is you get nudity provided by former Prince protégé Vanity. On the downside, you have to watch her act. She actually isn’t that bad but you can see acting isn’t really her strong suit. The worst acting honors go to Whoopi Goldberg – fresh off her GHOST Oscar win - who can’t seem to figure out if she is going to do a Jamaican-style accent or not. Seriously, if you watch this, notice how quickly she slips back and forth between her regular voice and accent.

Hooper was back with another small screen project just a few months later with a 1-hour ghost special produced in part by TALES producers Al Katz and Gilbert Adler. HAUNTED LIVES: TRUE GHOST STORIES (later re-titled REAL GHOSTS II) premiered on CBS in early October 1991 and plays like an all-ghost version of UNSOLVED MYSTERIES. It is a slick production with Leonard Nimoy offering narration, but you have to stand back and marvel at the level which Hooper had dropped. Just a few years previous he was handling films with budgets up to $25 million and now he was reduced to doing one off TV efforts. Even worse, one segment actually shows the man imitating his most well-known work.

The show focuses on three real life semi-famous ghost stories with re-enactments and then interviews with the real folks who experienced them. “Ghosts R Us” details the haunting of a Toys R Us store in Sunnyvale, California in 1982. This history here is that store was built on some old farm land where a servant accidentally killed himself after the landowner’s daughter rejected him. So, naturally, he has decided to make life hell for Toys R Us employees. This entails whispering their names, running ghost fingers through their hair, playing with toys, and turning water faucets on and off. The store employees look up the history at the local library and then contact psychic Sylvia Browne (playing herself), who holds a séance there to contact this dead spirit. In the end, she claims the spirit has left…but has he???

“The Legend of Kate Morgan” tells of a lawyer who spends the night at the rumored to be haunted Hotel Del Coronado (known to movie fans as the setting for THE STUNT MAN) in San Diego, California. He stays in the room where Kate Morgan, a 19th century con woman, died under mysterious circumstances. Folks ruled it a suicide but, wouldn’t you know it, our intrepid lawyer digs deeper and finds out she was murdered. Of course, her ghostly formation in his TV set had nothing to do with this. In the story’s final twist, it is revealed that Morgan had a child before she died. She gave the baby away and it was raised by a Reverend who just happened to be this lawyer’s great-great grandfather. Creeeeeepy! And in case you question his credibility, the show tells us he is believable because, after all, he is a lawyer.

“School Spirit” relays the story of the Metz Elementary School in Texas and how a group of construction workers experience various phenomenon there while trying to tear it down in 1990. Of course, a psychic comes into play and she tells him the ghost children don’t want their home destroyed. Eventually a priest comes in to bless the place but that doesn’t help as one worker is killed. The school is eventually torn down, but the construction owner mentions he took a tree from there to plant in his daughter’s yard and now she reports hearing children playing when there are none.

As mentioned before, this is a pretty polished production. The most notable thing about the show is that Hooper feels the need to mimic his earlier POLTERGEIST in the first segment. There is a scene where two employees open a storeroom door, only to see a bunch of toys flying around on their own. Later, an employee notices some skateboards and roller skates stacked up oddly in an aisle, shades of the chair stacking in the Spielberg production. Hooper also receives credit alongside editor Jonathan Moser for developing the visual effects. I’m sure it looked state-of-the-art at the time but definitely looks dated today. One interesting thing is comparing a real photo from the Toys R Us séance versus how it is depicted on TV. The “real” ghost photo is far creepier (see pic to the right).

Hooper’s next television excursion is perhaps his most solid work in the medium since SALEM’S LOT. Hoping to develop a TALES-style show, Showtime courted Hooper contemporary John Carpenter with the end result being the movie BODY BAGS. The show also featured Carpenter – looking eerily similar to the Crypt Keeper – as the cadaver host who ushers out a series of tales from the crypt, er, morgue. Getting a bone from Carpenter, Hooper got the final segment “Eye” to bring to life.

This story centers on baseball player Brent Matthews (Mark Hamill), who loses his right eye to a piece of glass after he wrecks his car. Sensing his career is over, Matthews falls into depression before Dr. Bregman (Roger Corman) introduces him to Dr. Lang (John Agar). Dr. Lang is developing an experimental eye transplantation surgery and just happens to have a fresh eyeball on ice if Brent is willing to accept it. Brent talks it over with his wife Cathy (Twiggy) and is soon sporting a hazel eye right next to his blue one. Of course, it appears Brent didn’t see BODY PARTS because, as we all know, donor organs always come with a history. Before you can scream Orlac, Matthews finds himself having headaches, hallucinations and unexpected horniness (noooo!). Naturally, he finds out his right socket is now houses the orb of a recently executed mass murderer.

Looking at all of Hooper’s small screen work from this six year period, “Eye” might be his most focused (ah, boo yourself) work. It is definitely the best episode in this omnibus. Hooper seems to have regained his footing in terms of his style, offering some low, fish-eyed camera shots and some shocking edits. There is one shot where the camera drifts back from Matthews on the operating table that is pure Hooper. Given that it is only a half hour, the events unfold rather quickly but Hooper relays them nicely and gets a truly good performance out of Hamill. You also get to see 50s horror lead Agar in a choice role, Corman as his associate and even Charles Napier gets one scene as a gruff baseball coach. To cap it off, Hooper even gets in on the acting fun in the final segment as a coroner who gets to cut up Carpenter. Of course, with Tobe in this era you always have to expect a downside and that comes in the form of sharing the screen with talentless fattie boytoy Tom Arnold. You can’t win ‘em all, I guess. But I’ll take Hooper’s “Eye” over his NIGHT TERRORS, which I may or may not be foolish enough to revisit for review.

Next time: Tobe goes sci-fi!

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