Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Back in the 1990s, I was asked to join the board of The Manitoba Association of Playwrights (MAP). I was a playwright, and a member of MAP, and I suppose I thought it was some kind of honour to asked, so I said yes. In retrospect, I now realize that an unemployed playwright might not be the best choice for your volunteer board. My (somewhat limited) understanding of the art of putting together a board for the arts and culture sector is that you want to include people who can raise money. And one suggestion of where to start looking for likely candidates is among your largest donors. That’s right. People who already give you money, and might have friends and colleagues who can also give you money. It’s worth noting that people like that can likely afford to volunteer their time, because earning money to pay their rent is not an ongoing problem for them.

The Map Board was full of playwrights. And somehow I was chosen to be the head of The Fundraising Committee. It sounded like an impressive title until I realized that I was the entire committee. So, basically, I would come up with ideas and pitch them to the board. The board would generally say yes and I would put together an event that would raise a couple of hundred dollars (if we were lucky). Not exactly keeping the organization afloat, but I guess it was something.

In 1998, I put together a fundraiser that would ultimately change everything. It was a double bill of new plays called Mountain Climbing (by my friend and fellow playwright Gary Jarvis) and The Inner City Dead (by me). We cast the shows with volunteer actors, most of whom were university or high school students. They were keen and hard working, and when the plays were performed, they drew many friends and family members out to see them – making the fundraiser a huge success.

“This is the best idea we’ve ever had!” one of my MAP colleagues said, as he watched hundreds of people file into the threatre.

This got me to thinking… What if we produced a high school playwriting competition? We could pick five high school playwrights, then hire five young, keen recent university graduates to direct them, and then cast a bunch of high school and university students to act in them – and to top it off, we’ll have the winners determined by audience vote (so everyone will try to bring out as many supporters as possible)! It seemed like a surefire way to draw big crowds to the show and raise some money to help support MAP!

Surprisingly enough, when I pitched the idea to the MAP Board in 1999 they didn’t seem to understand it, and opted instead to authorize a different fundraising project. I had to admit temporary defeat, but I knew that the idea was a good one, so in 2001 I tried again. This time the MAP Board said yes, and The Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition was born.

I edited an anthology called I Was a Teenage Playwright: The First Ten Years of the Scirocco/MAP Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition in 2011, in which I wrote an introduction explaining the entire history of the project. Those who want to know more about it (if there are such mythological creatures) can seek it out there. The important detail for this rambling blog post, is that the winners of the competition were chosen by AUDIENCE VOTE.

That’s right. After each performance, audience members would fill out ballots that would be collected by ushers and counted very carefully – twice. At the end of the second night, we would announce the winners and award prizes in front of the audience.

When I saw the ad campaign for Mr. Sardonicus (1961), I couldn’t help but imagine what this was going to like. William Castle, the genius behind such gimmickry as “Emergo”, the giant skeleton who would fly out over the audience during House on Haunted Hill (1959) and rigging buzzers under audience seats during The Tingler (1959) had surely come up with another winner. Before the final reel of the film, Castle would give the audience a chance to vote and then, depending on the results, the theatres would play one of two final reels. This would surely bring people into the theatres. It might even make people want to come back to see the film again and vote for the other ending (the one they didn’t see the first time). Brilliant, if I do say so myself.

The reality is a little less brilliant. It appears as if Castle only shot one ending to the movie. He comes out on screen right before the final scene and asks the audience to vote. He pretends to count their votes from on screen! Cute and funny, but clearly not possible. Maybe audiences would have been fooled by this in 1961, but I’m not so sure. One person I spoke to, who saw the movie back then, said that the ushers would come out and pretend to be counting votes as well. But there was no spot during the flow of the movie when those votes could have been taken into account and the correct final reel of film been cued up and started. I had expected Castle to say something like:

“Now we will have a brief intermission while votes are counted. When we come back, one of two possible endings will be screened…”

Alas, this was not the case.

Still, it was kind of a fun, silly gimmick. And nice to see Castle doing his thing on the screen.

Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is a great piece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I truly enjoy. It’s beautifully shot, with great performances from a stellar cast, and simply oozes gothic horror atmosphere. It gives me a similar feeling to the great Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films – which are some of my favourites. I would recommend Mr. Sardonicus to anyone looking for a good time on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. Just don’t expect more than one ending…

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Galaxy of Terror (1981)

I remember when Alien hit the theatres back in 1979. Ever since I first saw Star Wars (1977) I would check the movie listing in the newspaper every day. I think I mainly wanted to reassure myself that Star Wars was still playing, because I wanted to see it again (and again). But I also loved movies in general, so maybe I was legitimately interested in knowing what was new. The iconic ad for Alien, featuring the egg with green light coming out of it and the often imitated (and sometimes parodied) tag line “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” really sparked my imagination. I wanted to see this movie but, unlike Star Wars, it was not rated as appropriate for kids. Home video was still only a futuristic dream, so, I had to wait for Alien to be shown on television. Needless to say, I enjoyed it very much.

Fast forward a couple of years, and home video exploded onto the scene. Suddenly, I could rent movies like Alien and see them uncut (as opposed to edited for television). What was even better, I could rent and watch a whole bunch of other movies, that I’d never heard of, that were like Alien. Titles like Xtro (1982), The Intruder Within (1981) Creature (1985), Alien Prey (1977), The Alien Dead (1980) and Alien Contamination (1980) were jumping off the shelves at me. But one of the most intriguing movie boxes I remember was Galaxy of Terror (1981).

I’m honestly not sure if I ever rented it back in the day. Sometimes my friends would see a movie without me, and then I would somehow never get the chance to see it. In those early days, renting movies was like going to a movie. You almost never did it alone. It was a social activity. Eventually that changed, and by the time I got to university I was renting movies by myself every day. But I digress.

All of those Alien inspired movies started to look alike after a while, and they all kind of blurred together in my memory. So, after all these years, I wasn’t sure which one Galaxy of Terror was, or if I’d ever even seen it. Last Friday I decided that it was time to find out.

I had heard a few people say that they felt that Galaxy of Terror was the best of the Alien ripoffs, and after watching it last week I’d be inclined to agree. of course, I’d have to re-watch many of the other films before I could ever truly make such a definitive statement. But I can say that I enjoyed Galaxy of Terror very much. It’s more than just an Alien ripoff. It’s more like Alien meets Forbidden Planet (1956). And considering the low, low budget, the production design is really quite amazing. 

One of the production designers, and the 2nd Unit Director, of Galaxy of Terror was James Cameron. Yes, the guy who made The Terminator (1984), Titanic (1997) and, of course, Aliens (1986) the much loved official sequel to Alien. It seems quite likely that when making (or deciding to make) Aliens, Cameron would have been influenced, and inspired, by his experience of having worked on Galaxy of Terror.

Every review that I have read of Galaxy of Terror has made reference, in a positive way, to one scene in particular; a scene that involved what could be described as a giant space worm (or maggot) molesting (or raping) one of the female crew members (played by Taaffe O’Connell, who was also in New Year’s Evil (1980), another film that I quite like). This “space worm rape scene” is quite something, and fairly unique in the annals of #NotQuiteClassicCinema. Not since John Waters gave us a scene in Multiple Maniacs (1970) in which Divine is sexually assaulted by a giant lobster has there been anything quite like it. I won’t try to describe either of these scenes in detail. Let’s just say that if they sound like something that would entertain you, then they probably will.  

Genre stars Sid Haig and Robert Englund also appear in Galaxy of Terror and they are both very good. It’s surprising how big Robert Englund’s part is, considering that he had yet to become famous as Freddy Krueger. Fans of either of these two actors should definitely check this movie out.

Galaxy of Terror (1981) made for a wonderfully nostalgic #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, although truth be told, I’m still not sure if I’ve seen this movie before or not. Some moments were very familiar, but that could be because I saw the trailer, or very similar moments in other movies that ripped off – I mean paid homage to – Alien. Either way, I’ve seen enough movies of this type to feel great nostalgia even when watching one that I’ve never seen before. And that’t what #NotQuiteClassicCinema is all about.