On the Trail of Blamire’s Screaming Forehead

One of the things that gives me hope about the viability of Dr. Film is the cult following afforded Larry Blamire.  If you don’t know who he is, I’d recommend having a look at his Bantam Street site, www.bantamstreet.com.  So far, Larry’s films have been witty spoofs of older genre films.  His cult favorite, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (released theatrically in 2003), is part Roger Corman and part Ed Wood, while being delightfully silly for its entire length.  Dark and Stormy Night (2009) was also a funny spoof of a type of film that was rampant in the 1920s-1940s, in which a bunch of people are locked in an old spooky house while someone starts bumping them off one at a time.  What I love about Blamire’s work is that it demands something of its audience: you have to know something about what he’s spoofing in order to get all the jokes.

I’d heard for some time about the great, missing Blamire epic, Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  It was slated for a 2007/8 release when its cutting was, well, circumvented by an executive producer.  We might compare this to what almost happened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), albeit on a much smaller scale.  The abortive cut has surfaced on Independent Film Channel a few times, but bears little resemblance to the original concept.  Happily, Larry has been able to wrest the footage away from the miscreant, and we are now able to see the director’s cut of Trail. Like Gilliam before him, Larry has been trying to drum up support for the film by doing late-night showings at conventions.  Blearily, I am happy to report that I was in attendance at the first of these screenings, and that it went wonderfully.  (I say blearily since I had to drive for about 3 hours to attend the screening, which required the same return trip.)

I am loath to give up much of Trail’s plot, which is one of those things that unravels itself like a mystery.  It’s intended to be that way, in much the same way that most of the 50s invasion movies were.  Trail of the Screaming Forehead is a tribute to Don Siegel and Douglas Sirk in the same way that Lost Skeleton had been a tribute to Corman and Wood.  Shot with deliberately garish colors (like so many films of the era), and full of stereotype characters, Trail also boasts cameos from great 50s stars, including HM Wynant, the late Betty Garrett, Dick Miller, and the late Kevin McCarthy.

Larry Blamire can write campy dialogue with the best that ever did it.  His lead actors are now familiar repertory players in his company.  They are all able to read deliberately clumsy lines in a convincing yet slightly bewildered way.  It’s hard to do, and I respect them all for it.  They don’t make it wooden, and they don’t do it winking at the camera in the way Adam Sandler would do.  I laughed heartily all the way through the film, as did most of the preview audience.  I’m glad to see that most of Blamire’s cast is now getting work in other productions.  They deserve to.  In Trail, I’d like to single out the performance of Andy Parks, who is a real master of the reaction shot.  There’s a scene in which HM Wynant mistakenly thinks Andy has been taken over by the alien foreheads (no, I’m not kidding), and Parks does a take over his shoulder as if to ask, “Are you talking to me?”  It’s an age-old gag, but Andy brings such conviction to it that I had to laugh.  Parks hasn’t worked in a mainstream film for years, and Hollywood is a poorer place for it.

Am I completely glowing with praise?  Well, mostly, yes.  Those of you who know me also know how picky I am.  As a hyphenate (a guy who does more than one job in a film), Larry Blamire sometimes has a problem.  The Editor Larry sometimes is too in love with dialogue that the Writer Larry wrote. That sometimes lets the pace of the film drag a little.  I thought that The Lost Skeleton Returns Again had some slow moments in the middle, as did Dark and Stormy Night.  This does not seem to be the case with Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  There are a few carpy things I could say, such as the fact that I was confused about Jennifer Blaire’s motivation when she fried the foreheads in one scene.  I thought her rendition of the title song was a bit out of place in the middle of the film (I’m not complaining about her singing, which is great, but rather the placement of the song).  Incidentally, Trail of the Screaming Forehead has a loopy title sequence, done by Manhattan Transfer in great 1950s style.  My complaints are but small issues.

OK, I give up… I know that someone is going to want a plot synopsis, but I warn you that it’s not something you want to read about… you should see it.  A scientist (Fay Masterson) discovers that the forehead, and not the brain, is the seat of all human knowledge.  In order to further her theories, she isolates the formula for foreheadazine and injects it into a colleague (Andy Parks).  His forehead and intellect grow to enormous proportions.  Meanwhile, evil alien invaders, which are disembodied foreheads, invade the Earth and begin plastering themselves on local townsfolk.  Can the world survive?  Who will stop them? Can I stop laughing long enough to hear the plot unfold?

I’d love to see Larry Blamire get to do more films.  He’s got a lot of talent and great ideas.  He’s starting to get shoehorned into doing Lost Skeleton movies, and that’s fine, but it would be great to see him get backing to do things like his interesting-looking Steam Wars project.  Regardless, I’ll keep watching what he does.  It’s great to see someone else out there who loves old movies as much as I do.

 

 

A Certain Madness…

No one cares about old movies.  I was horrified recently to read the introduction to Leonard Maltin’s book 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen.  He focuses on movies from the last 15 years!  Leonard Maltin!  The mind reels.  That kind of limitation is like hiring Bill Clinton to write a book called 100 Sexiest People and then telling him he’s only allowed to write about men.

I understand why Leonard did it, though.  I don’t want to trash him: he’s a great guy, and he’s a great friend of old films and preservation.  Leonard is really one of the top film people in the world. Importantly, though, Leonard is not crazy, and he knows that people won’t buy a book about films made in the 1920s.

But, you see, I am crazy.

I am not crazy because I love old movies.

I am not crazy because I collect and preserve film prints of movies that no one cares about, just so I can see them.

I am not even crazy because I share my collection with audiences.

I am crazy because I think you should at least give old films a chance.

It seems to me that no one cares about old movies anymore because no one ever sees them.  A friend of mine said that when cable TV came, they took all the old movies and put them on one channel.  Then they filled the rest with junk.

Let me tell you, folks, about the days BC (before cable).  Infomercials were illegal by rule of the FCC.  At 11:30pm, after the news, only one station had a talk show.  That was Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.  He murdered the competition, so the local stations left him alone.  If Carson had bad guests on a particular night, the you could just flip channels and see a great movie on any of the 5 or 6 other channels you might get.

In the summer, when my parents used to annoy me (which was most of the time), I would stay up until 3am most nights watching movies on TV.  One station had a show called Summer Film Festival with a host who introduced a different film five nights a week!  Another station had a festival called When Movies Were Movies with another host.  There was even a great monster movie host every Friday night, and a Science Fiction movie every Saturday night.

The era of hosted movies died with cable.  It used to be that nearly every station had one, then one or two stations held out, and finally, all movies were hosted on Turner Classic Movies by Robert Osborne.  And again, I’m not here to trash Mr. Osborne, because he does a great job.  Osborne is unlike the movie hosts of old.. he’s all classy and slick.  Most local hosts were shot on a shoestring, and some of them were deliberately silly and over the top.

The single holdout movie host, who does it like it was done in the old days, is Elvira, also known as Cassandra Peterson.  God bless her for sticking in there. But Elvira is one of the hosts who always runs bad movies and snickers at them.  That’s fine, and an outgrowth of her stuff is the guys of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This is where I come in.

Or rather, where I don’t come in.

Not only do I miss the old days of movie hosts, but I also think that we don’t do them anymore because no one watches old movies.  And I think that no one watches old movies because they don’t see them on every station anymore.  And, because no one sees old movies, no one understands them.

I’m just crazy enough to invent my own show, patterned after the shows of the old days.  It’s called Dr. Film, which is the subject of this web site.  It’s intended to be just the same as the hosted shows used to be: a little educational, but silly enough to appeal to a broad audience.

The trailer for Dr. Film (see the home page of the site) says that the title character is an eccentric genius with a plan to change the world–by showing old movies.  I do hope to change the world by showing old movies.

I hope to get a few more people interested in films that were made in black and white.  I hope to show people that editing styles have changed, not that older movies are slow.  I hope to show people that the majority of a film doesn’t have to come from a computer in order for it to be worth seeing.

I encourage you to check out the Dr. Film site.  We’re still hoping to sell the show to some network.  But first, we have to get enough people to care about the project so that a network is convinced it’s worthwhile.

I know the project is worthwhile, but then I’m crazy.  Come be crazy with me.  Let’s change the world by showing old movies.