Friday, December 07, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 71: MAXX FX Freddy (Matchbox; 1989)

During the height of the Freddy Krueger craze of the late 1980s, Matchbox released a unique toy that added Robert Englund's popular Dream Demon to the pantheon of classic movie monsters (including Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the titular character of Alien [1979]). The toy was Matchbox's "MAXX FX Now Showing: Freddy Krueger."

The box legend implores the buyer to "assist MAXX in recreating the greatest horror heroes in the history of Hollywood." Well okay, if I have to...

"Recreate all your favorite movie monsters with these authentically detailed body parts," the box went on to describe. "Clothing and accessories help you quickly transform the mild-mannered MAXX into spine-chilling monsters. You can even mix'n'match characters on Maxx's fully articulated body to create your own unstoppable menace."

The other benefits of the toy? "Completely poseable," "authentically detailed," "easy on/off assembly." The box also promises that the toy "lets you in on the secret world of Special Effects" and implores the customer to "collect the whole world of MAXX FX."

So basically, you've got your average Ken doll here, garbed in a yellow short-sleeved short and plaid pants, and then a variety of clothing accessories that transform this smiling, mild-mannered gentlemen into the scourge of Elm Street. Among the accouterments: a gruesome Freddy head, a stylish (but ratty...) fedora, the famous Freddy glove with finger knives, and that gnarly green and red striped sweater. So dress up Ken (err, Maxx...), and "you...make...the..the change...happen!" Yes, Maxx is indeed the "Quick change artist and the master of special effects."

This is a fun toy, and for those Freddy fans out there who wanted to see kindly Ken transformed into a brutal serial killer and then go after Barbie...MAXX FX's Freddy is the toy for you. Intended for kids ages 6 and up (I barely qualify...), I still have this toy in the box (my grandparents found it for me at a flea market in the early nineties...). However, I have never - in any of my collecting travels - seen any of the other three figures in the set (Frankenstein Monster, Dracula - with bat wings - or, most interestingly, the alien). Somehow, I don't think that they were actually released; that perhaps Evil old Freddy here was the Maxx test balloon...that popped. I'd love to get my hands on the Alien one of these days (if only to spit molecular acid on Barbie...) but none are to be found even on E-Bay.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 41: Circle of Fear (1973): "Death's Head"

Today, I continue my recent survey of TV horror anthologies of decades past with a look at the less-than-inspiring Circle of Fear, which aired on NBC in the early 1970s. It's actually a continuation/modification of the short-lived series Ghost Story, which debuted in fall of 1972, but with a new title sequence and the removal of the Ghost Story narrator - Sebastion Cabot as Winston Essex. Whereas Ghost Story (produced by William Castle and developed for television by Richard Matheson) featured wraparound segments involving Winston Essex in his mansion, "Essex House," Circle of Fear cuts right to the chase, or in this case, the lack-of-chase. After an opening sequence featuring a hypnotic orange whirlygig spinning around (like Motel Hell's hypno wheel...), we find ourselves directly in a dull as dishwater hour-long horror tale, usually one about cosmic justice being meted out.

Last night I watched the first Circle of Fear episode "Death's Head" by Rick Blum and directed by James Neilson. It stars a way-too-thin Janet Leigh as Carol, an unhappily married suburbanite whose neglectful spouse, Steve (Gene Nelson) is a collector of insects. Steve says he "preserves" and "beautifies" bugs for his collection, but Carol hates insects. After she kills a spider she finds roaming her bedroom one night, Steve decides to stuff and mount the arachnid next to the pride of his collection: a death's head moth.

Steve's buddy and law partner, Larry (Rory Calhoun) drops by and when Carol practically drops trou for him amidst a sea of come-hither looks, talks to Steve about the fact that he's neglecting his wife, who - after all - is still a very attractive woman. "We've just developed different interests," says Steve, who then suggests that Larry take Carol out for the afternoon.

Larry agrees and takes Carol to a boardwalk where they look at voodoo dolls. Then, Carol finds her way to an herb shop that sells "potions and elixirs" as well as "all things real and imagined." There, Carol purchases poison from a gypsy woman. All she needs to be free is the poison and "an ounce of courage" to off Steve, so she can be with hunky Larry.

So that night, over cups of instant sanka, Carol politely poisons and killer poor Steve. Almost immediately, however, Carol begins to experience nightmares about Steve's death's head moth. A very fake-looking flapping moth silhouette menaces her by black of night, and she dreams of the gypsy: now old and menacing and taunting her. Oopsy.

Blogger's interjection: At this point in the episode I noticed that my wife, Kathryn, was miraculously still awake, even though it was quite late. I had to question her about this. "You can't stay awake for great episodes of The Twilight Zone, but for this - for this - you're hanging on?" To which she replied. "I've got to stay up for this..this is a train wreck."

Back to the train wreck: At this point in "Death's Head," Janet Leigh returns to the gypsy herb shop and asks the gypsy what she knows about death's head moths. Oddly, the gypsy is a repository for just this very question, and goes into a lengthy and detailed exposition about how the death's head moth is "said to be an eternal cage for disembodied spirits...for spirits who find no peace in death."

So - you guessed it - Carol's husband gets revenge from beyond the grave and the last ten minutes of the episode involve Janet Leigh running madly around a dark house swatting at invisible bugs, turning over furniture. In the end, Larry comes over for a visit and finds that Carol - gasp - has switched places with Steve. Her skull is now implanted on the body of the death's head moth.


First, before tearing this show apart, I'd like to establish that I am an advocate for releasing Ghost Story/Circle of Fear on DVD. I'm a completist, what can I say? And a historian of the genre too. Occasionally, like Kathryn, I'm in the mood for a train wreck, and if nothing else, the series deserves a fair hearing given the talent involved (Jimmy Sangster is on board as a writer for some installments; as is my hero, Dorothy Fontana).

But jeez. This should be called CIrcle of Sominex.

What "Death's Head" demonstrates most clearly is that the horror anthology format works best in short doses - not in hour-long installments. The Twilight Zone learned this lesson the hard way after a fourth season expansion to an hour. Darkroom and Night's Gallery both were an hour long, but featured multiple stories in that span. Other anthologies, from Tales from the Darkside to Monsters to Evil Touch are traditionally thirty minutes. This leaves no time for boredom: the stories get in, do their macabre jobs, and then finish up. No fuss, no muss. Indeed, this is my biggest beef with the usually very-entertaining but occasionally flaccid Masters of Horror. Some of the lesser tales feel padded out at an hour, and so suspense and tension just leak out. A notable exception to this trend: the 1960s Outer Limits (not the crappy 1990s one...), which even at an hour in duration was exquisite, dramatic and terrifying.

I also believe the changes from Ghost Story to Circle of Fear didn't do this anthology series much good. I prefer an anthology with a narrator or at least an understandable leitmotif or cosmic mechanism. Winston Essex might not have been perfect in Ghost Story, but he could provide exposition and comment on the tales. In The Twilight Zone we had a great narrator in Rod Serling, but also that wonderful umbrella of the unknown, "the fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man." Lesser - but interesting horror anthologies, such as Evil Touch at least attempted to craft this aura, even if it was as simple a catchphrase as "there is a touch of evil in all of us," or a simple mechanism like "the darkside" in Tales from the Darkside. Circle of Fear has what, precisely? Where's the Cryptkeeper when you need him?

"Death's Head" is also weakened by the fact that the special effects are atrocious, and that nothing scary ever really happens. Instead, there are just long passages of Janet Leigh roaming around a dark house, upset that (invisible...) bugs are fouling the swimming pool or impeding her bedtime. Snoozarama (except for Kathryn, apparently...).

I'd love to report that "Death's Head" is an anomaly and that other Circle of Fear episodes are superior. But categorically - they're not. This show is an object lesson in how not to do a horror anthology. Again, I think of that low-budget, high-achieving Australian import, Evil Touch. It failed as often as it succeeded, but it never bored me.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Today is my thirty-eighth birthday.

I was born on December 3rd, 1969, and so - in the mood for a little personal nostalgia - I decided this morning to present on the blog a little time capsule, a glimpse into the world of that day and era.

As usual, I have my parents to thank for being thoughtful and resourceful. Recently, I was at their home, and my Mom and Dad, without preamble, pulled out a yellowed edition of The New York Times from my birthday.

One they had kept for more than thirty-seven years. And one that I had never seen.

The newspaper on that day cost ten cents. And this edition is filled with advertisements for things like new cars (which cost a whopping $1,995 dollars), and tires (two tires for $25.00).

Headlines of the day involve an editorial by Al Gore (Senior), an arrest of "guru" Charles Manson, and the inaugural flight of the Boeing 747.

Also, being an admirer of film, I had to leaf to the movie listings and see what was playing. Among the fascinating titles: I am Curious (Yellow), The Arrangement (starring Kirk Douglas), Bob, Ted, Carol and Alice, and Midnight Cowboy.