So, they don’t make ’em like they used to? Well, maybe they do — if “they” are Larry Blamire and company.
The maverick writer, director and actor of lovable low-budget lunacy is back with two new DVDs for Shout! Factory: The Lost Skeleton Returns Again and Dark and Stormy Night. Both are well worth seeing, especially if you’re already a Blamire fan via The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or Trail of the Screaming Forehead and are hip to his sendups of now-quaint exploitation-film genres. But if you’ve gotta pick one, make it Dark and Stormy Night.
A spoof of 1930s “old dark house” mysteries, the film taps such hoary elements as a disparate group of folks spending a night in an isolated mansion where inheritance is afoot (a will will be read) along with mysterious stabbings and strangulations. The film is dark and stormy, all right, as it oozes atmosphere even though its house’s exteriors are a model pelted with handheld sprinklers.
Yet Dark and Stormy Night seldom betrays that it was shot on the cheap, as other Blamire films do almost as a badge of honor. In fact, this film seems to have had a decent budget, given the facts that it has a large cast wearing handsome costumes and working on elaborate interior sets built inside a large soundstage. Having an 18-day shoot (a detail revealed in lively commentary) also is impressive. (Besides commentaries, splendid making-of materials and gag reels also appear on each disc.)
The cast is dominated by Blamire regulars such as wife Jennifer Blaire (Lost Skeleton’s beatnicky “Animala”) as tough-cookie newspaper reporter Billy Tuesday, Dan Conroy as a gabby cabbie who just wants his 35 (“toity-five) cents, Andrew Parks as an aristocratic, monocled twit and Fay Masterson as a delicate heiress with an on-and-off accent. (Blamire plays a thankless, small role as a nebbish).
But best of all is Brian Howe as Burling Famish Jr., a haughty, hammy upper-crust Brit who wears smoking jackets, has a pencil-thin mustache and speaks with comically exaggerated “proper” English. Howe could read the phone book as this character and I’d be there.
He and others understand that, where there’s a will, there’s a way — to kill inheritors. And as the body count mounts, so does the humor. Played fairly straight, the film isn’t nutty in the vein of Lost Skeleton flicks so much as witty and clever in a Young Frankenstein way. (Speaking of which, you’re advised to watch this in glorious black and white, though there’s a color version too. Save that for listening to the commentary track.)
Beautifully scored and photographed, Dark and Stormy Night ripples with rapid-fire ’30s-style dialogue (“Oh yeah? Wise guy!”) and too many characters — and corpses — to count. One of my favorite veterans in the ensemble is James Karen, from one of the best horror-comedies ever, Return of the Living Dead (as well as — ahem — Wall Street).
But I love this cast throughout, and the resourceful crew that enshrined them in a film that lives up to its source inspirations — and then some. Dark and Stormy Night may have the ultimate cliched title, but as an evening’s amusing entertainment, it stands out — big-time.
The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, like many of the monster-movie sequels it apes (along with Raiders of the Lost Ark), suffers from diminishing returns — but not too much. Again, Blamire plays Dr. Paul Armstrong, a vague “scientist” who’s lost in the Amazon (no, not .com — the jungle), where his wife and a fed track him down in pursuit of another strange, valuable rock.
The usual suspects pop up, even if it means that two deceased characters from the first film appear as their own twin brother, played by the same actor. Also, the opening B&W switches to color when the yarn reaches a hidden valley, a la The Wizard of Oz. (Again, I prefer the B&W.)
The skeleton is really just a skull now, but remains an arrogant, bombastic jerk, using its telepathic voice to snidely insult and imperiously boss everyone, when all it can do this time is swoop around (on a string). As Blamire points out in Stormy Night commentary, the new CG is a “pull-string” — and he has a point.
The cast is game, the story is eventful and So Cal ably stands in for So America, via wilderness settings and strategic uses of foreground miniatures for forced perspectives. Oh — and the monsters (men in rubber suits with odd-numbered eyeballs) are as bad as they come. As I said, this film wears its cheap thrill frills on its sleeve, and even deliberately (I hope) shows camera shadows in one scene.
Either way, you can hardly go wrong with Blamire’s odd little odes to the creaky horror, adventure, sci fi and mystery movies of yesteryear. It’s as if the guys from Mystery Science Theater 3000 quit riffing sarcastically on old films and instead mimicked them with arched eyebrows — or curling, pencil-thin mustaches.
But these are no put-down spoofs, a la Scary Movie and its ilk. Instead, these are labors of love — with a love that shows. Best of all, in Dark and Stormy Night’s case, is that beyond such affectionate spoofing lies genuine craftsmanship that’s good enough to inspire its own imitators.