Sunday, October 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Hallowe'en Edition!

With Hallowe'en less than a week away, I thought it would be appropriate for this instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon review to include some really scarifying shows!

Well, okay, maybe silly rather than scary, but they do feature ghosts and monsters.

We'll start with The Drak Pack, a series about the adventures of three teens who can turn into monsters (Frankie, who becomes Frankenstein's monster; Howler, a werewolf; and Drac Junior, who's pretty obvious) to battle the forces of evil in an attempt to redeem the good names of their night-crawling ancestors. I don't remember this one lasting more than a season or two, but my friends and I used to love it, pretending to be the characters and making up our own stories — except, without the weird, transformable coffin-hotrod. (intro)

Next up, we've got yet another incarnation of everybody's favourite mystery-solving mutt, Scooby Doo: The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo. This addition to the franchise sees a pared-down version of the Scooby Doo Gang, consisting of Scoob, Shaggy, and Daphne — joined by some kid (basically a human stand-in for Scrappy Doo) — travelling the world trying to snag 13 ghosts they accidentally released from a pandora-esque box.

There's a couple of reasons I like this version more than some of the other franchise instalments (including the original): first, the story is a lot more focussed — the gang isn't just wandering around (presumably in a daze from hot-boxing the Mystery Machine) randomly blundering into mysteries involving alleged monsters, where they end up foiling the same old type of under-the-table land deal. Instead, they've got a clear directive and a different bad guy to bag in each episode. Second, Daphne's smarter and more actively involved in decision-making in this version than in the others, where she's essentially limited to being a pretty sidekick to Fred's bossiness and Thelma's analytical intelligence and occasional pushiness. Third, it's pretty clear that Daphne and Shaggy have hooked-up (at least for the time being — later spinoffs would remove her and focus entirely on Scoob, Shag, and Scrappy), thereby redeeming Shag from loser status (although I always thought he and Scoob were the smartest ones in the gang, with their desire to avoid dangerous situations and their good sense of knowing when to run). And fourth, this show was cool because it had schlock horror meister Vincent Price as a character, acting in a Charlie/Bosley role dispatching the gang on their missions and providing a little advice. The writers/producers are saying to the audience: "See how ghostly this show is? We've got Vincent Price! Vincent Price, people! That must mean it's scary in a fun way! Ha ha!" That was enough for me, back then. (intro)

Lastly, I give you the awesomeness that is The Hilarious House of Frightenstein! Yes, I know, this is a live action show, not a cartoon, but coming up on Hallowe'en as we are, it would be a crime not to include this monster-themed production. Beyond that, THHOF is perhaps the greatest kids' show ever made, and therefore deserves its due.

Not only was this 1971 Canadian production (made at CHCH in Hamilton, just down the road from where I grew up, in Cambridge) immensely entertaining with its weird sketches — the witch who hosted a cooking show, the vampire constantly screwing-up attempts to animate his version of Frankenstein's monster, the castle mail room, or the old librarian who would read nursery rhymes as if they were gripping tales of horror — full of cheesy jokes, and the wonderfully detailed haunted castle sets, it was also educational, featuring segments with Doctor Petvet (about different kinds of animals and how to care for them) and The Professor (physicist Julius Sumner Miller). Most importantly, the educational components of the show weren't patronizing: the teacher characters never talked down to the kids out there in the TVland audience, which made it more likely that kids would pay attention, and much easier to absorb the lessons.

There was another massively important educational component to the show: the Wolfman and his call-in style radio program (on the castle's in-house station EECH). Somehow, CHCH and THHOF were able to use dozens of then-current major rock'n'roll songs — such as the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" — to play in the Wolfman's segments. The songs were played in their full length while the Wolfman and Igor (a huge, lumbering, good-natured green guy who acted as both character in many of the skits, as well as a kind of onscreen metaphorical stand-in for the kids in the audience) would rock-out (occasionally with a mannequin dressed as a mummy) in front of the camera, with an early type of blue screen behind them flashing psychedelic visuals created by camera-monitor feedback. What was important about all this was that for me (and probably some other kids watching at the time), this was my first exposure to real rock'n'roll — to good popular music. As a little kid in the mid-late 70s, I was, strangely, not exposed to a lot of good rock music, despite the fact that there was so much great stuff being created and played at the time. My dad kept the car radio generally tuned to unquestionably forgettable easy listening, and only actively sought out the Beach Boys when he wanted something specific to play. Around the house, my mom would either play records by The Carpenters in the afternoon (to this day, I find myself reluctantly sympathizing with Nicholas Cage's version of Ghost Rider, and his weakness for Karen Carpenter, because of that early programming), or classical music (and no, I'm not complaining about early exposure to Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Brahms — that was all good, but not at the expense of missing out on the cool things going on in rock at the time). The teenagers I knew — those who would bother to talk to a little squirt like me — were all focussed on disco, so they weren't any help either. Instead, it fell to the reruns of THHOF and its segments with the Wolfman to teach me what real rock'n'roll was really about. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is still one of my favourites because of that show.

And then there was Vincent Price, blasting the show open with all the camp he could muster, doing the odd sketch, and closing every episode with the same rhyme that was delivered with such quiet deliberation as to leave kids really rather unsettled after the previous hour's silliness. Forget all of the films, the world should remember Vincent for his work on THHOF.

And so, let us take a tentative step back into The Hilarious House of Frightenstein! (full episode)

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