Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Phibes, Freddy, Jason and the Cryptkeeper (almost) get animated


 There were many funny things about the 70’s and 80’s, what with rock legends crapping themselves to death and peanut farmers and cowboy actors becoming president, but one of the funniest was the rise of the Outraged Moral Guardians™ and their campaigns against cartoons.
 TV watchdog groups have always existed, but these folks took it to a hilarious extreme, bemoaning the loss of the “good old cartoons” despite the fact that cartoons from the Golden Age were pretty astoundingly fucked up at times. Books ‘exposing’ the inherent evils of the likes of He-Man and Care Bears practically became a cottage industry, and man, they made me really disappointed when I actually watched the shows. The way they described it, I pictured He-Man as some sort of Frank Frazetta painting in animated form; instead it was just a typical watered down, PC half-hour toy commercial. Phil Phillips’s Turmoil in the Toybox is the most infamous of such books, but I personally prefer his follow up Saturday Morning Mind Control and Berit Kjos’s Your Child and the New Age. Checkem out from the Boob-haven sometime if you want a good laugh, they usually sell for only a penny used.
 But just as how a broken clock is right twice a day, there really were some cartoons made in the 80’s and 90’s that were of…questionable taste, at best. Mostly ones based off of R-rated movies. There was a Rambo cartoon, a Police Academy cartoon, two  different Conan cartoons, a Robocop cartoon, and lord help us, a Toxic Avenger cartoon.
"'Ay kids, can you spell Post-Traumatic Stress-Disorder?"

 Oddly enough though, few of these cartoons drew any notable complaints from the Outraged Moral Guardians™. This trend would be brilliantly parodied in 2009 with the now famous Saturday Morning Watchmen web animation by Harry Partridge. Enjoy.
 So since its October, I thought I’d look at some cartoons that were almost made (And one that was!) based off of horror franchises. These really would have given the moral guardians something to cry about if they had been made. Now to be fair, it’s questionable if most of these shows were ever considered at all and aren’t just urban legends/rumors/misinterpretations, but I still thought I’d look into their history, possible evidence, and hopefully end a few myths.
 1) The Sinister Dr. Phibes
 One of my all-time favorite films is the darkly comedic Theater of Blood (1973), which stars Vincent Price as a stage actor who survives a suicide attempt and then goes on a killing spree, using methods derived from Shakespeare’s plays to dispose of his critics. However, Price had starred in two earlier movies (Both of which are fun, but not particular favorites of mine) with a similar premise featuring a character called Dr. Phibes; a Phantom of the Opera-type who specializes in all-purpose mad science and comes up with ridiculously elaborate murder scenarios in order to avenge the “death” of his wife (whose body he keeps preserved in glass and sleeps with) at the hands of incompetent surgeons (it’s left ambiguous if they really were incompetent or not). Re-reading monster magazines from when the film came out shows that people were really pulling for Phibes to be the new horror icon.
 Apparently, so were Hollywood producers, who kept trying to get new Phibes sequels off the ground as late as 1984. None of these were greenlit. According to Wikipedia’s article on Dr. Phibes Rises Again, one of the proposed concepts would have been an NBC TV series featuring Phibes as a “benevolent crime fighter” who utilized disguises. However, even though the rest of the article is well sourced, the bit about a Phibes TV series was not. Considering that this is Wikipedia, which can be full of glaring factual errors even when it cites its sources, I wondered if it was true.
 I searched everywhere, but found nothing relevant until I decided to type in “dr. phibes + benevolent crimefighter” on Google. Turns out that horror fan and writer Earl Roesel (Who I already knew of for his legendary Batman-related shenanigans on various message boards) wrote an article about the Phibes films and mentioned the proposed Phibes-as-crimefighter show. I wouldn’t trust Roesel as far as I can throw him when it comes to comics related matters, but I do trust him when it comes to horror film trivia. I’ll accept what he says as true.
 Now here’s the big monkey wrench in this whole affair; in 2007, artwork depicting Phibes was discovered that had been drawn by no less a luminary than Jack Kirby!
 Was this for a proposed Phibes comic or something? Was it just fan-art? Notice that the text mentions the “sell format”, hinting that this artwork was part of some sort of pitch. Also note how the whole “disguise” and "avenger" gimmick is played up, just like the TV show proposal!
 Kirby did a lot of storyboard and promotional work in the 70’s, both for animation and live action (As the whole Argo incident, which has been in the news as of late, has shown), so it’s certainly possible that this artwork by him was for the Phibes show. Also, since it doesn’t look like a storyboard (Which would be understandable), but a general concept pitch, this suggests that the Phibes show would have been animated! If this was to be a live-action show, why would it need comic book-style promotional artwork? Note how Phibes’ unmasked face looks much less gruesome than it does in the film, suggesting it was toned down for a younger audience:

 I’m not the first one to have speculated about this, as this message board conversation shows (Roesel himself even pops up in the thread). However, vague comments from several Kirby fans appeared on a blog claiming that Kirby’s artwork pre-dated the first movie! Huh? Are they trying to say that Kirby may have been a designer for the film? Or is it just typical Kirby Kultist revisionism, this time implying that Kirby created Dr. Phibes? We’ll probably never know.
 In any case, can you imagine what the show would have been like if it really had been animated? Just picture it: A 70’s cartoon series based off of movies about an insane, horribly disfigured necrophiliac who speaks from a tube in his neck and lures people into elaborately gory death traps, aimed at kids.
 Well, at least the animators would have saved a fortune on lip-synching animation, since Phibes and his henchwoman’s mouths never moved in the films.
 2) The long-rumored Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th cartoons:
 By the end of the 1980’s, the character of Freddy Krueger had become such a beloved pop-culture icon that it was easy to forget what a disgusting fiend he had originally been before he started spouting bad puns and inflicting silly Spectre-style deaths. This was especially funny when you consider how many younger horror fans at the time talked about how “badass” Krueger was compared to the old Universal Monsters, and how he’d never be considered campy.
 I loved the NOES films, but it still satisfied me immensely to see Krueger’s more zealous fans eat their words when, just like the Universal Monsters before him, Krueger soon became the center of kid’s merchandise,

 crossovers with obese comedians,
 storybooks reminiscent of the old Crestwood monster series,
and novelty records.
 It was like the 60’s “Monster kid” craze all over again. Polls showed that kids knew more about NOES than they did about George Washington. A dying little girl even asked the Make-a-Wish foundation if she could meet Freddy as a last wish.
 So inevitably, rumors sprang up in the early nineties that have persisted to this day on the internet (and inspired various jokes, questions and even a supposed recollection) about how New Line had considered making a NOES cartoon, but it was never greenlit. Someone even did humorous artwork for a (unidentified) horror magazine based on the concept, as a poster on the Camp Blood forums discovered.
 Speaking of Camp Blood, similar rumors also sprang up to a lesser degree about Freddy’s biggest rival, Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th films, who had met Alice Cooper and Arsenio Hall.
 Unlike the Phibes incident above, there’s never been any evidence whatsoever of such cartoons being planned. Tellingly, the official NOES message boards have never discussed this topic either. But still, where did this whole rumor spring from? I believe I may have an answer.
 Christian website/online newspaper The Forerunner, which has apparently had an internet presence since as long as there has been an internet, ran an article written in 1991 by an author named Leilani Corpus called “Unholy Hollywood”. It’s a fairly typical (Compare) “Won’t someone please think of the children!?” scare piece written at the height of the late 80s/early 90s ‘satanic panic’, bashing Hollywood and calling it’s directors freaks that are poisoning society with violence and alternative lifestyles, yadda yadda.
 What makes it interesting is that Freddy Krueger is referred to twice by Corpus as a “cartoon hero”. Whaa? The first time the phrase turns up is when Corpus brings up how the once-controversial film Bonnie & Clyde seems tame today compared to “Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, a child-killer who has become a cartoon hero”. Again, whaa? What could he possibly be referring to?
 As I’ve mentioned, there was a lot of Krueger merchandise available that was clearly aimed at children, but there was never a cartoon series as a simple IMDb search indicates. Possibly Corpus could have been referring to cartoonish promotional art depicting Freddy on some of the toys. However, almost all of the toys featured photos from the films on the boxes. Even the infamous Max FX doll which got recalled from shelves featured a highly detailed and non-cartoony painting of Krueger.
 Other possible things that Corpus may have been referencing include the various comic books by Marvel and Innovation (Conservative folk tend to use the terms ‘cartoons’ and ‘comic books’ interchangeably, and get really pissed if you try to correct them), as well as the two video games, which featured animated images of Freddy.  Still, that’s a pretty big stretch to use those things as “proof” that Freddy had become a ‘cartoon hero”. I’ll just assume he was referring to how Krueger had become marketed to kids, and that he was a t a loss for words when hurriedly banging the article out. Happens to me, I can forgive it…once.
 Except that later in the article, he describes how a bunch of kids that had been asked to name their favorite movie scenes had brought up scenes from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Class of 1984, and Friday the 13th (And the scene described sounds nothing like any of the F13 films I’ve seen, maybe the kid was confusing it with something else, possibly Bloody Birthday or Creepshow). Corpus then makes an even more obscure claim:
 “Friday the 13th was slated to become a cartoon series. However, network executives got cold feet after they found out that they couldn’t get advertisers for the slots. The idea was aborted. 48. But the famed teen killer, Freddy Krueger, has become a cartoon hero.”
 So, not only do we again see a reference to Krueger as a ‘cartoon hero”, but now Corpus is unmistakably referring to him in the context of having an animated TV series, with no possibility of this being awkward or metaphorical phrasing on his part. We are also ‘informed’ that Friday the 13th was slated to have a cartoon as well. Where the hell was this ever announced? Research turns up nothing, but Corpus cites (That’s what the “48” in the sentence is for) an article called “Violence in the Media” by someone named Gilda Gerber. Naturally, I had to read this article, or at least, find out wherever it had originally been published, as Corpus neglects to include such pertinent information. I scoured the internet.
 Well, the internet isn’t perfect (I’m truly surprised by some of the stuff I can’t find any info about online), but I’ve found nothing. Searches for Gerber both alone and for her article have only produced the “Unholy Hollywood” page as a result. All other searches are completely inconclusive, or only mention people named “Gilda” or “Gerber” along with random words like “violence” or “the”. I found one person named Gilda Gerber, but that person, being born in the late 90s, was obviously unconnected. No results came up on Google Books either, or in any college article databases that I’ve tried. It seems that Miss Gerber and her article are just as fictitious as Freddy and Jason themselves.
 I guess it’s possible that Gerber was a writer for The Forerunner itself, and thus in the original print version, Corpus assumed she didn’t need to be cited since she was appearing in the same publication. It’s also possible that she was a writer for an underground, self-published magazine only sent to subscribers or sold at local churches. Even if that were so, how could a small-time writer like her have found out such information from New Line? Something tells me that even if her article is real, it’s probably not trustworthy in the least, although I’m willing to be proven wrong, and will gladly post the correct information.
 So based on all of this, one can only conclude that Corpus (Or some editor)  made the whole “aborted cartoon series” factoid up in order to make his targets look even more sleazy, and peppered the rest of the article with verifiable facts like the Founding Fathers thing I mentioned earlier, in order to sound more credible. Why would he do that? He’s an online writer for an alarmist newspaper for fundamentalist Christians in the early 1990s and…I think I just answered my own question.
  One can only conclude that some moron in the middle of nowhere read this article, believed it, spread it at his local church or PTA meeting, some kids overheard it and it grew into the Z-level urban legend it is today. As I’ve mentioned before, the fact that there were a lot of cartoons based on R-rated movies at the time adds a level of plausibility to the legend. The short-lived live action TV shows Freddy’s Nightmares and Friday the 13th: The series (Which was completely unrelated to the films except for the logo) may also have fueled the fire.
 So, playing day-dreamer here, what might these cartoons have been like if some numbnuts had actually greenlit them? Would a Nightmare cartoon have featured an annoying but benevolent Freddy as Nancy’s mischievous friend who takes her on wacky gross-out adventures in the dream world? Or would it have featured the Dream Warriors from the third film and their never-ending quest to defeat Freddy in the afterlife? 
WELCOME TO PRIME TIME....kids.

 And as far as a prospective Friday ‘toon goes, I’m just going to post a screenshot of this hilarious post from lardpirates.com:
 The dude who wrote that needs to team up with Harry Partridge, stat.
3) Tales from the Cryptkeeper:
 Unlike our last subjects, which were rumored to have been in development, this show actually got made!
 At the time, HBO’s live action Tales from The Crypt TV series was a hot commodity, and the Crypt-Keeper, who was re-imagined for the show as a decaying corpse, became a beloved part of early 90’s pop culture. CK’s cheesy puns and the wild, kids show-ish atmosphere of the framing sequences also made him a surprise hit with the kiddies. Thus, screwed up as it must have seemed in pitch sessions when you consider how many episodes of TV show revolved around sex, in 1993, a kid-friendly animated version called Tales from The Cryptkeeper debuted.
  In some ways, it was a bit of a recursive thing; the Cryptkeeper had gone from being hand-drawn in comic books, to being in a live action movie, to being a hand-manipulated puppet on a live-action show, to being hand-drawn again for an animated show. Also, just as how many EC stories had mockingly addressed the readers as “kiddies” and could be interpreted as gruesome morality plays, here, the stories really were for children and were always stuffed with a moral lesson of some sort in order to get by standards and practices.
 Truth be told, once the initial shock of seeing a comic book infamous for gore and a TV show infamous for its sleaziness turned into a kids show wears off, TFCK was a fairly typical kids “horror” show, not really any different from live action kid’s horror shows like Are You Afraid of The Dark? and Eerie Indiana. Episodes tended to revolve around typical kids problems like standing up to bullies, learning to share, appreciating reading, not giving into peer pressure, the usual after-school special crap. The best episodes were usually the ones featuring teenagers and adults, because the stories tended to be darker. The Christine variation “A Little Body of Work” and “All the Gory Details” (Which actually has a fairly effective ending) are my personal favorites. Cliché, but fun.
 One thing that does make the show worth looking into for EC fans (And by looking into, I mean checking out episodes on YouTube, not buying the DVDs or something) is that, although the show wasn’t usually any more faithful to the comics (and how could it have been?) than it’s live-action predecessor (which usually only utilized titles of the comic book stories along with very bare bones plot elements, and sometimes not even that), there were still some interesting shout-outs to the comic books.
 For example, throughout the first season, although the characters were all drawn in the same cartoony style, the way buildings in the background were drawn, with heavy shadows and thick lines, looks like nothing so much as it does 1950s comic book art.
 The first episode “While the Cat’s Away” is also a fairly faithful adaptation of the story of the same name from Vault of Horror #34. In the original, the protagonists are two phony travel agents who rob their customers while they’re on vacation, only to find that the house they’re robbing is the Cryptkeeper’s. They both go mad.
 In the animated version, the robbers are the sons of the travel agent, looking for money to buy a new bike, they also escape sane and sound. That said, Cryptkeeper does use the “T. Charles Kingman” alias in the cartoon that he does in the comic, and the dad resembles his counterpart from the story.
 Naturally, the ‘Grim Fairy Tales” that EC ran also got adapted. The “Sleeping Beauty” parody from Tales from The Crypt #39, where the beauty is a vampire, was adapted for the show, and actually an improvement on the comic book story, since the vampire twist is more than just an ending gag.
 It also expands the role of the character Melvin from the original story (the name “Melvin” was a running gag in EC comics, particularly early issues of Mad), making him the prince’s brother, and the real hero of the episode.
 Of most interest to EC fans however, should be that the Vault Keeper and Old Witch actually showed up! They were included in later seasons during the host segments, always trying to hog the Cryptkeeper’s spotlight, and their segments were often more entertaining than the main stories. I like the Vault Keeper’s refined voice, which certainly contrasts with what I’d always imagined the toothless, drooling character from the comics sounding like.
 All in all, it wasn’t great, but as far as kids shows that try to be scary go, I’ve seen worse.
 By the way, it’s worth noting that the final episode of the HBO show, “The Third Pig”; a gory parody of The Three Little Pigs, was animated.
 Fans debate whether it’s one of the best or worst episodes, but I’m just curious as to whether it was intended to be a satire of Tales from The Cryptkeeper. Either way, it needs to be seen to be believed.
 Well, hope you enjoyed this look at some cartoons that were made, were almost made, were rumored to have almost been made, and that we should thank God were never made.
 Now if you don’t mind, I have a meeting with the heads of Cartoon Network to pitch an animated version of recent movie Seven Psychopaths. I’m sure the kiddies will love it.

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