Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tales From The Crypt

A long, long time ago, back when I was growing up in Brooklyn, one of the secret pleasures of being home alone on a weekend night was the chance to watch Chiller Theater (merrily hosted by Zacherley, who was also known as the "cool ghoul").  With his wife Isobel resting serenely in her coffin, Zacherley would take turns feeding bananas and dead insects to a large blob of doughy material while interrupting each week's Grade Z thriller with snarky comments. 

To watch Zacherley in action was to love him, especially when he interrupted a chase scene to inform members of the safari that the mummy or dinosaur they were so ardently chasing went "that-a-way!" This month, the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival is offering the world premiere of Larry Blamire's The Lost Skeleton Returns Again (an epic spoof of all those Grade Z thrillers from The Lost World to Valley of the Gwangi).  

Zacherley would love it.

No cliche is left behind in this hilarious black-and-white piece of frivolity whose cheesy script focuses on a bitter, depressed scientist's search for Geranium-90 in the deepest heart of the Amazon jungle.  

Blamire's film includes every bit of tacky noir pretense and primitive inanity associated with this genre: actors running around in rubber monster suits, a man-eating plant, Martians who come to rescue their Earthling friends from danger, a long-lost Amazon tribe, a floating skull with a bad attitude that bullies inferior souls -- it's all up there on the silver screen, lovingly recreated in grand and glorious style.  

What makes this film so delightful, however, is that instead of trying to camp things up and overtly mock the genre, the cast and crew have devotedly recreated the atmosphere of all those tacky thrillers and are essentially playing it straight.  My favorite scene occurs when the heavily bespectacled and extremely butch female scientist (Trish Geiger) tries to teach the Queen of the Cantaloupe People the hidden powers inherent in the proper use of the double negative in English grammar.

I especially enjoyed the work of Fay Masterson (who, as Betty Armstrong, blithely traipses through the Amazon wearing a tasteful strand of pearls) and Alison Martin as Chinfa, Queen of the Cantaloupe People (her dance to the Cantaloupe Goddess is a terpsichorean treasure that must be seen to be believed). 

Larry Blamire (Dr. Paul Armstrong), Dan Conroy (Jungle Brad), Brian Howe (Peter Fleming), and Jennifer Blaine (Animala) all add to the merriment. Kudos go to Jason Garner (art design), Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein (cinematography), Darrin Cummings (set decoration) and Anthony Tremblay (production design).  

However, one of the most critical contributions -- which enhances the entire film far beyond what one would ever expect -- is the superbly cheeky original musical score (by John W. Morgan and William T. Stromberg) which symphonically captures every bit of the suspenseful silliness so dear to the cheaply-produced films of this genre.  Although you'll want to see this film as soon as it becomes available to the general public, trust me when I tell you that you don't need to be stoned to laugh your ass off and have a grand old time watching The Lost Skeleton Returns

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This weekend SF Playhouse opened its season with a new production of Conor McPherson's wordy, angst-ridden ghost story. Set in modern-day Dublin, the structure of Shining City is a bit deceptive.  One might think it is about the relationship between a distressed patient whose wife was killed in a horrible motor vehicle accident and the therapist who helps him come to terms with his sense of horror and grief.  But John's abject terror at seeing his wife's ghost appear in their house is a mere catalyst to move the plot along.

Shining City is much more about loneliness --  the achingly painful isolation of souls who don't know how to say what little they have left to say and who, when forced to go through the motions of day-to-day living, act like confused zombies.  As John (Paul Whitworth) proceeds to tell his story in two beautifully written monologues, his therapist, Ian (Alex Moggridge) listens attentively, hoping to make his patient comfortable enough to achieve some kind of breakthrough.

Paul Whitworth and Alex Moggridge (Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

Ian, however, has his own problems to deal with.  Having already fled a potential career as an Irish Catholic priest, he is now flaking out on his fiancee, Neasa (Beth Wilmurt) and their child. Alone in a small walk-up studio near a hospital, his total inability to level with his fiancee is ironic considering his newly-chosen profession.  Ian may not be able to confess the reason he is separating from his girlfriend, but when he nervously drags a male hustler (Alex Conde) back to the apartment, one can assume that he's not interested in playing tiddlywinks.

The play's four characters (John, Ian, Neasa, and Laurence) all desperately suffer from a loneliness which is eating away at their hearts.  However, in the final scene, as John regains his emotional well being and bids a fond farewell to Ian (who is moving back in with Neasa), the ghost of John's dead wife pays a last minute visit to the proceedings.  

Apparently, ghosts get lonely, too.

Sensitively staged by Amy Glazer, the evening primarily belongs to Paul Whitworth, who as John, delivers his monologues with a tentativeness true to his character's fear and insecurity. Alex Moggridge's Ian reinforces the long-held suspicion that too many therapists are in more desperate need of help than some of their patients.

Curiously, a program note from Bill English (SF Playhouse's artistic director) states that:
"The characters in Shining City are all homeless in the secular world looking for something to hold onto.  The Old Catholic ways no longer serve, nor does the new world of EU money. Lost in this purgatory, two men come together, both yearning for understanding, both feeling there must be something beyond the temporal to hold onto, and as their lives intersect, they help each other grope their way to a new path."
The dramatic irony of this statement is that it applies more to the brief encounter between the therapist and the hustler than the heavy emotional work in the therapy sessions shared by Ian and John.

Alex Moggridge and Alex Conde (Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

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