Throwback Thursday: “The Gong Show” (1976-1980)!

Chuck Barris’ “The Gong Show” (1976-1980) was another show I remember vaguely (but quite fondly) from when I was in kindergarten or the first grade.  (It aired its original run between 1976 and 1978, and then was syndicated the latter two years.)  I still remember laughing uproariously at its weird acts, and it might have been one of those shows that ended just before my 8 PM bedtime.

The idea was this — a panel of three celebrity judges would view a handful of amateur talent acts, and would bang the titular gong if an act was so bad that they decided they couldn’t allow it to continue.  (Along with legitimate talent, the program deliberately fielded acts that were weird or just plain bad.)  What’s interesting is that this seems like a very tame precursor of contentious current reality shows like “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent,” which are still going strong since their advent in the early 21st Century.  “The Gong Show” was a lot more laid back.

 

 

Throwback Thursday: “Gre-Gory, Big Bad Vampire Bat” (circa 1980)!

This probably seems like it should be a Throwback Thursday post around Halloween, but “Gre-Gory the Bat” was actually a cherished Christmas present I received in the early 1980’s.  I’m not completely certain about when the toy was released; its current eBay sellers keep listing it as a 1979 toy, but nostalgia sites claim it was released by Mattel in 1980.  (Astonishingly, the eBay folks are hawking ol’ Gre-Gory for between $150 to $600.)

A few toy collectors recall this toy with derision, but … hot damn, did I love Gre-Gory when I was a young kid.  It was a good-sized toy, at eight inches tall and a foot wide, made of heavy, durable rubber, and it made me feel like I had my own pet monster in my closet.  Those circular claws were supposed to enable you to perch Gre-Gory from a pen or pencil, though it weighed too much for that.  Best of all was its built-in special effect, which, to my delight, inspired genuine revulsion in adults — by depressing a button in the back, you could manually pump its syrupy, visible “blood” through that transparent chest cavity that you see below.  (There are a few videos on Youtube that show how weird and gross this was; I found it quite entertaining as boy.)

Fun times.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)

Ghosts seldom scare me, because I’m never 100 percent clear on what sort of threat they present to the protagonists of a horror film or TV show.  They’re not like zombies, vampires, werewolves or serial killers, all of which will do predictably horrible things to their victims.

Can ghosts … kill you?  Injure you?  That usually doesn’t make sense, given their non-corporeal nature.  Can they … scare you to death?  How would that work?  Would they cause a heart attack?  Or drive you mad?  That’s fine, I suppose, but here they’ve taken a back seat to the demons of horror films since 1973’s “The Exorcist” spawned a sub-genre with far more frightening supernatural baddies.  Are ghosts supposed to inspire existential dread, by reminding the viewers of their own mortality?  For me, that backfires — their existence would strongly suggest the existence of an afterlife, which would be paradoxically reassuring.

It’s therefore a testament to the quality of Netflix’ “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) that it’s frequently so scary, even to me.  We find out in the first episode that its ghosts indeed do more than frighten the story’s protagonists, but it’s the show’s writing, directing and acting that make it so memorable.  It’s an a superb viewing experience, and I’d rate it a 10 out of 10.

The cast roundly shines — but especially Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton (even if his performance was a little understated).  Catherine Parker is deliciously evil in a supporting role as the house’s most outwardly vicious spirit.  The best performance, for me, however, was the young Victoria Pedretti as the traumatized Nell — she was goddam amazing, and deserves an Emmy nomination.

Mike Flanagan’s directing was perfect — his use of long angles and colors to make lavish interiors disorienting reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s similar sensory trickery in “The Shining” (1980).  Michael Fimognari’s cinematography was beautiful.  Even the makeup effects were damned good.  (Nothing beats Greg Nicotero’s work in “The Walking Dead” universe, but the work here is sometimes horrifying.)

I’m not the only one who loved this show either.  It is broadly praised in online horror fan circles (though I’d recommend avoiding most of those for spoilers).  I haven’t read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel that is its source material, but a bibliophile who I trust assured me that the show is even better.

Sure, there were some things that didn’t work for me.  “The Haunting of Hill House” actually does take a while to get where it’s going; it favors in-depth, flashback-heavy character development over advancing its plot, in much the same manner as “Lost” (2004 – 2010) once did.  And some viewers might feel the same frustration here as they would for that show.

Its story and supernatural adversaries are also distinctly Gothic.  (Your mileage may vary as to what’s a comfortably familiar trope and what’s an archaic cliche.  I myself was more interested the more modern and three-dimensional interpretation of ghost characters seen in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.”)  I’d even go so far as the say that the first ghost that we see in any detail is actually disappointing — the otherworldly figure connected with the bowler hat felt too cartoonish for me, like something we’d see on Walt Disney World’s “The Haunted Mansion” ride.  (Trust me, they get more intimidating after that.)

Give this show a chance — and stay with it if you think it’s too slow, or if you find its characters a little unlikable at first.  You’ll be glad you did.

Weird world: if the diffident, sometimes off-putting character of Steven looks familiar to you, it might be because that’s none other than Michiel Huisman, who plays the charismatic Daario on “Game of Thrones.”

 

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Throwback Thursday: Levi’s science fiction advertising posters

This ought to be an obscure Throwback Thursday — although I’d be thrilled if somebody else remembered these.  For a brief period in the early 1980’s, Levi’s produced some wicked cool in-store posters with science fiction themes.  I had several of them hanging in my room; the one below dates from 1981, and was advertised on eBay for a while for the modest sum of $20.

For decades, Levi’s had relied on endless cowboy imagery to sell its brand.  And that makes sense, given the rugged individualism they wished to associate with their product.  Portraying people wearing their jeans alongside strange aliens on fantastic worlds seems like an odd marketing choice.  (I don’t think it lasted very long.)  I can only guess that the success of “Star Wars” (1977) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) had something to do with the marketing strategy.  (You can also sometimes find Levi’s posters from the 1970’s featuring psychedelic imagery.)

The poster appears to feature the name “McClure” as the artist.  If any of you guys know the artist’s full name (or can point me in the direction of other posters like this), I’d be grateful.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Fleer’s “Pac-Man” stickers!

Fleer’s “Pac-Man” stickers were quite the hot commodity among young kids in 1980.  And that’s weird, considering how simplistic and cheaply produced they were.  As you can tell from the examples below, the jokes ranged from the lame to the nonsensical … they might have been scripted by someone for whom is English was a second language.

Anyway, the kids in my neighborhood never actually removed the stickers from their backing — we just traded them like baseball cards.  Kids in the 80’s collected and traded just about anything.

I only remember two other arcade games that got this kind of collectible sticker treatment: “Ms. Pac-Man” and “Q-Bert.”  That strikes me as odd … weren’t games like “Centipede” and “Asteroids” cooler and more popular?

 

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Dennis Villelmi interviews the Woman in Room 237!

If you are a horror fan, you’re in for a rare treat.  Stop over at The Bees Are Dead to read Dennis Villelmi’s interview with Lia Beldam, who portrayed the woman in Room 237 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining.”  (Fans of the 1977 novel and its 2013 sequel, “Doctor Sleep,” may recognize the character as the ghost of Lorraine Massey.)

Dennis chatted with Ms. Beldam about a few different aspects of filming — including her experiences with Kubrick and Jack Nicholson.  It’s great stuff.

 

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