Friday, December 27, 2013

December to Dismember: TALES OF THE THIRD DIMENSION (1984)

Even though Christmas has now passed us by, we’re going to keep talking about some flicks centered on the holiday.  Why?  Because we break the rules like Bud Spencer breaks heads. And we’d feel like we cheated you if we didn’t cover one of the most deranged flicks about Christmas ever to be made.

Earl Owensby has always been on our short (long) list of subjects to cover.  A true renaissance man, Owensby is a seemingly larger-than-life North Carolina figure whose rise to fame seems like it could only have taken place in the 1970s.  A successful businessman, Owensby decided one day to chuck it all and pursue his childhood dream of making movies. The story goes that he saw the smash-hit WALKING TALL (1973), thought, “I could do that” and was soon on his way.  He purchased land in his native Shelby, North Carolina and built a huge studio completely self sufficient from Hollywood.  Naturally, he cast himself as the star of nearly every film that came out of there.

Sadly, most cinephiles will know Owensby for the film WOLFMAN (1979), a werewolf film seemingly only made due to capitalize on the hirsute Owensby.  But his filmography is filled with fun and exciting Southern Fried action flicks.  Tom initially turned me onto the man by sending me a copy of his stunt (and food fight) filled DEATH DRIVER (1977).  A quick succession of CHALLENGE (1974), MANHUNTER (1975), DARK SUNDAY (1976), and BUCKSTONE COUNTY PRISON (1978) followed and I was hooked.  By the time the ‘80s rolled around, Owensby had jumped on the resurgent 3-D fad with titles like DOGS OF HELL (1982) and HIT THE ROAD RUNNING (1983).  One of the last three dimensional features he produced was the horror anthology TALES OF THE THIRD DIMENSION (1984) and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t have a segment that is easily one of the most demented Christmas things I’ve ever seen.

TALES is hosted by a Rod Serling sounding skeleton who calls himself Igor (even though his tombstone says Clyde Jones on it).  Igor has three wisecracking vultures to his right who are supposed to be the Three Stooges and two other vultures to his left who are supposed to be Laurel and Hardy.  Don’t ask. The first two stories are rather mundane.  “Young Blood” is about a vampire couple living in a spooky mansion that adopts a boy with a secret of his own.  “The Guardians” is about two greedy grave robbers who end up getting their just desserts in some damp catacombs.  It isn’t until the final segment that the crazy comes to town.  Take a gander at that poster above.  What is that in the upper right hand corner?  Is that an old lady in a wheelchair pointing a shotgun at some kids by a Christmas tree?  It gets crazier, trust me.

“Visions of Sugar Plums” is the third and final segment in the film and it completely redeems any of the unexciting events beforehand.  The story centers on Dennis (Neal Powell) and Susy (Katy O’Toole), two youngsters who are dropped off at the home of their Grandma (Helene Tryon) for the holidays. Roughly a minute into the segment you’ll get an idea of how subversive this is going to be when Dennis tells his dad as they are driving to Grandma’s house that he was too cheap to take them on vacation with them to Hawaii.  Dad’s response is to pull off his own belt while driving and whoop his son while screaming, “You better get into the Christmas spirit or I’m going to burn your little butt!”  Eventually the parents drop the kids off with overly-kissy Grandma before peeling out. WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) this ain’t.

The trio settle down in the home and do normal Christmas things like setting up the tree and playing with toys.  However (insert dramatic music cue), things start to go south on December 21st when we see Grandma discovering she has no more pills in her bottles.  The next day, she starts exhibiting some odd behavior at the breakfast table. She overfills each child’s bowl with oatmeal and then starts giving some to Grandpa. Problem is Grandpa ain’t there and has been dead for years.  If that didn’t let the kids know she was off her rocker, the next scene does as they spy her in the bedroom just spinning around in circles in her electric wheelchair. December 23rd picks up with the kids back in normal holiday events as they are making cookies with Grandma.  But she starts going off when Susy asks if Santa is bringing toys.  “Toys? Ha!” Grandma shouts before spitting on the floor.  She then keeps rolling her dough, smashes a bug with her rolling pin and then eats it.  That night in their beds Susy asks, “You notice Grandma has been acting a little funny lately?”  Just wait, Susy.

Christmas Eve is when it all goes down. The day starts with Grandma making Susy some hot chocolate.  As she puts the powdered mix box back on the table, we see that it is actually rat poison! Grandma coaxes Susy into drinking some and asks the young child, “How ‘bout them Cowboys?”  Oh shit, this lady is really crazy.  Problem is, Grandma accidentally drank the wrong cup and is now hacking up a storm. Obviously concerned, the kids call the airline to see if their parents’ plane has landed as they are scheduled to come back Xmas eve. Grandma gets on the phone and, when the kids are put on hold, impersonates the airline rep and tells the kids the plane crashed in the mountains and everyone died.  I’m not kidding.  In reality, the plane has been delayed by 5 hours. This gives Grandma opportunity to offer Dennis a toaster while he is taking a bath (!) and to recite a screwed up version of “Twas the Night before Christmas” poem (modified lines include “the children were nestled snug in their beds, while horrible tumors grew in their heads”; is this the David Cronenberg version?).  Her poem ends lovingly though with Grandma describing how she bashes Santa’s head in with a brick.  Again, I am not kidding.

The finale finally kicks into gear as the kids are asleep and Dennis gets up to go to the bathroom.  He then sneaks into the kitchen to get something to eat and discovers their cat dead in the freezer and made into kind of a cat holiday ham. Grandma catches him in the kitchen and says it is bad to snack between meals and he must be punished. What is her preferred method of punishment?  A blast from a shotgun! Yes, Grandma whips out the ol’ 12 gauge and points it right at Dennis’ head.  He escapes by throwing flour in her face and goes to hide in the closet.  Grandma, meanwhile, decides to put a colander on her head (!!!) and goes upstairs and points the shotgun at sleeping Susy’s head.  Susy wakes up and high tails it out of there, while psycho Grandma discovered the gun wasn’t loaded.  See, the kids were never in any real harm, the filmmakers beam.  Oh wait, she just found the ammo.  Gun-toting grandma eventually finds both kids hiding in a bedroom and blasts the head off a teddy bear. This makes way for a montage set to “Jingle Bells” as Grandma blasts holes in everything.  Meanwhile, the parents have arrived back.  They make it all the way to the house, only to realize they forgot the presents for the kids at the airport and drive back. Somehow they miss the kids pounding on the window screaming for help.  These poor kids are eventually trapped by Grandma by the Christmas tree as comes at them with a hedge trimmer.  Just as she is about to slice them into bits, the machine turns off.  Grandma turns around at the sound of a “ho, ho, ho” to find…wait for it…Santa Claus standing there. Obviously not a fan of the mentally imbalanced, Santa magically sends Grandma’s wheelchair back to the chimney and shoots her up it into the night.  The parents, driving back to the airport, see the airborne corpse and go, “Aw, look, a shooting star!”  Santa then laughs and heads off into the night.  Fa la la la la la la la la!

It might seem odd to write up just one segment of an anthology, but this totally deserves the recognition.  Not only is “Visions of Sugar Plums” one of the most insane stories we’ve ever seen, but it might be the most demented 30 minutes ever to lay waste to the Christmas season.  This is not hyperbole.  Outside of Jorg Buttgeriet doing A VERY NEKROMANTIK CHRISTMAS, I can’t think of anything darker dealing with the holidays. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)? Eh, you just have a killer Santa.  Nothing tops a Grandma off her meds deciding to blow away her grandchildren on Christmas Eve when it comes to demented holiday horrors.  The director credited to this segment is one Tom Durham, who hasn’t done anything else. Maybe it is a pseudonym, or maybe he realized he made a masterpiece and did the cinematic equivalent of dropping the mic and walking off stage arms outstretched?  I just spent over 900 words describing this segment to you and even I know I am not accurately describing the insanity that unfolds onscreen.  I can still remember when I first watched this and how my jaw just kept dropping with each successive crazy moment.  By the time I got to Santa shooting Grandma out of the chimney, I had dentist in China working on my teeth because my jaw dropped so far.  I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through the filmmakers mind when they made this.  It was shot in 1983, so it was pre-SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT hullabaloo, so the idea that they were openly courting controversy is out the window (or chimney, if you prefer).  In my research, there is no evidence this ever got to theaters (although the Alamo Drafthouse did secure a non-3-D 35mm print of it to show). I’d hope that it did at least play some dates in California and that some poor, misguided families paid to see this in the theater.  I can only imagine the conversations afterward. Anyway, “Visions of Sugar Plums” is not only an anthology saver, but a certifiable Christmas classic ‘round these parts.  Watch it or we’ll send a shotgun wielding Granny your way.

2 Reactions:

  1. Somebody needs to interview Owensby. I nominate you.

  2. My father-in-law met him at his studio around the time DOGS OF HELL was being made and Mr. Owensby was looking for investors. When he told me about that last year, I promptly emailed Mr. Owensby and bought a set of 7 DVDs from him for $ 100:

    Living Legend
    Rutherford County Line
    Chain Gang
    Dark Sunday
    Death Driver
    Buckstone County Prison

    Great fun! I'd love to get my hands on WOLFMAN and TALES some day.

    An Earl Owensby biography book would be very cool !


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