Before resuming Season Two of “Batman”, we’ll cave into the crave of batmania with one of the biggest chunks of studio-backed cinematic cheese ever conceived: 1966’s Batman, the Movie. For years, this was the only Adam West Batman vehicle available on home video. Batmaniacs have reason to rejoice, because this gloriously dated, souped-up big screen treatment of the series is an “it has to be seen to believed” extravaganza. The hopelessly dippy plot and dialogue may throw off angsty fanboys, but it’s all about our merry villains: Lee Meriwether in her sole performance as Catwoman, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, … Continue reading KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF BATMAN (1966-1968), PART THREE
It’s very simple: if you love “Batman” (1966-1968), starring Adam West, you’re in the cool kids club. If you don’t, you’re clueless and need to go away. Only freaks are allowed here.
“Batman” is still the yardstick by which all other live-action superheroes are to be judged. There has never been another series like it. I’ll go even further: it’s not only a genre and cult yardstick, but it’s a yardstick for television, period.
Before we catapult into the Batcave, I’ll share a few childhood memories, of which I’m damned proud. Adam West’s Batman and‘ Superman were the epitome of cool (I’ll never forgive for turning them into caped white trash and making them go commando). I caught Superman in syndication and already knew that Superman had blown his brains out. For me, that was part of his appeal. (I was a tad off-kilter. In my defense, Superman was a more appealing martyr than the Pentecostal Jesus). Admittedly, however, Superman had bland villains, and his second Lois Lane was too June Cleaver-Protestant boring.
Then came Adam West’ Batman. I caught the last season in its first-run, then caught up in syndication. Of course, the show was mass-marketed. Among the most cherished mementos was Batman trading cards, which I would often lose. They meant so much to me that my poor Dad would have to drive all the way downtown to buy me replacement cards from the only store that carried them. I found my true rainbow pot of batgold, however, through a wedding. My cousin was getting married and wanted me for a ring bearer. The last thing I wanted to do was climb into a tuxedo in front of a church crowd, but when she promised to buy me a Batman suit AND a Batmobile to pedal around the back porch on, I begged Dad to call the tuxedo shop immediately so I could be fitted. For Christmas, my brother asked for a children’s Bible (he was such a suck-up). In sharp contrast, I asked for, and received, a Batman View-Master set. With all those bat-toys, I was indisputably the coolest kid who ever lived.
“Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!” “Roger. Ready to move out!”
Since I’m hard pressed to come up with a single non-enjoyable episode, a “Best of Batman” list is bit of an oxymoron, although of course there are standout episodes. This is really more an exercise in cherry picking highlights, because by the time I could finish covering the entire series, we might be heading into 366 Weird Movies, the Sequel. So, without further ado, I have to start with the pilot, which features Batman dancing in a disco.
On 12, January, 1966 “Batman” premiered with “Hi Diddle Riddle” (directed by Robert Butler, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr,) and, yes, that means… the Riddler () is our first dastardly criminal. He pranks the World’s Fair with an exploding cake and inspires Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) to dial the batphone. Alfred, the butler (Alan Napier) answers, and rescues Bruce Wayne (Adam West) from a fatally boring meeting. Bruce uses the excuse of “gone fishing” with his ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) who utters his first “Holy Barracuda!”
“It’ll be a pleasure” to tackle the Riddler, Bruce tells Gordon with such square-jawed seriousness that we damn well believe him. Cue the opening animation to Nelson Riddle’s iconic theme music.
With Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) Amicus Productions (spearheaded by Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who previously produced for Hammer and was a cousin to Doris Wishman) established itself as a vital competitor to Hammer Studios. Rather than imitating Hammer’s modernization of Gothic classics, Amicus developed its niche in the omnibus film. It was successful enough to be in full-fledged production for a decade, establishing a reputation as the go-to studio for horror anthologies. This, their introductory portmanteau film, clearly influenced by EC Comics, sets a pattern of to-be-expected unevenness. Still, Amicus installs themselves as a horror studio to be reckoned with, sparing no expense in procuring Hammer’s top actors: Peter Cushing (who would star in all but one of the Amicus anthologies) and Christopher Lee. For its wraparound segment, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors opens to the duo (among other passengers) on a train. Dr. Schreck (Cushing, saddled with a terrible German accent and glued on brows) pulls out a deck of tarot cards. “Pick a card, any card, and tape it three times,” Schreck tells his fellow passengers. Each participant will hear of a fate that may await them. Among the passengers is Christopher Lee who will, of course, factor into one of the five narratives.
In “Werewolf,” Neil McCallum is an architect renovating an old dark house, which turns out to be cursed. The title monster is featured in this pedestrian tale of ancestral revenge with a “twist.”
With Alan Freeman (better known as the U.K D.J. for “Pick of the Pops”) served up as a snack for a venus fly trap,”The Creeping Vine,” thankfully doesn’t take itself so seriously. It is refreshingly lightheaded hokum.
“Voodoo” is the worst of the lot; badly dated in its stereotypes, with Kenny Lynch belting out a stolen voodoo tune.
“Disembodied Hand,” has elitist art critic Franklin Marsh (Lee) driving artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough) to suicide. Landor’s severed hand returns to exact revenge on the mean critic. It’s in the spirit of The Beast with Five Fingers, among others, and chock-full of two-dimensional caricatures of both artists and critics. It holds no surprises, but with Lee and Gough engaged in a bit of whistling-while-they-work fun, it’s easily the best episode.
“Vampire” feature a young Donald Sutherland who discovers he is married to… a vampire! It barely raises a pulse.
Seen today, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is more camp than horror, and its appeal is one of genre nostalgia. Still, the phenomenal box office success of Dr. Terror green-lighted a second portmanteau film in 1967, entitled Torture Garden (directed by Freddie Francis and written by Robert Bloch). It contains no torture nor any garden. Burgess Meredith (in a preposterous disguise, reminding us of the Penguin) is Old Nick himself, going by the pseudonym of Dr. Diablo and moonlighting as a carnival barker who promises a tortuous exhibit that can reveal the future. “You’ll shake, you’ll shiver, but it’s all good fun,” Diablo hammily tells his patrons. Unfortunately, only one of the four tales lives up to that promise.
“Enoch,” is the opening narrative. Michael Bryant’s inheritance money (from an uncle who took his time dying) is going to be spoiled by a mean ol’ puddy tat with a lot of doubloons.
“Over Hollywood” has Beverly Adams discovering the fountain of youth in Hollywood with robotic consequences.
“Mr. Steinway” might be seen as a poor precursor to Stephen King’s “Christine,” replacing a killer car with a killer piano. It’s as absurd as it sounds.
The first three segments are sloppily written and executed with little enthusiasm; each progressively worse, but the final segment single-handedly salvages the anthology.
“The Man Who Collected Poe” finds Jack Palance (playing against type) as an Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed geek who may have found his soulmate in fellow fanatic Peter Cushing. However, somebody’s got something—or someone—hidden in the basement and … somebody’s got the fever, which leads to a fiery finale. Cushing and Palance clearly enjoyed playing opposite one another and their chemistry, along with clever writing, making one wish the previous segments had been as enjoyable.
1970’s The House That Dripped Blood (directed by Peter Duffell and written by Robert Bloch) is a considerable improvement over its predecessors. Duffell lacks the visual astuteness of Freddie Francis, but he has superior stories to work with and a top notch cast. The connecting theme is the titular house, which has a bit of baggage left over from all who have resided there.
In “Method For Murder,” Denholm Elliott is a horror author who writes a character that becomes a tad too three-dimensional, much to his wife’s peril.
“Waxworks” stars Cushing as an uptight retired stockbroker and lifelong bachelor who visits a wax museum, only to see a figure of a woman whom he once was in love with. Obsession and unrequited love naturally go hand-in-hand, or head-on-plate.
In “Sweets to the Sweet,” Nyree Dawn Porter is hired to tutor a young, motherless child (Chloe Franks) who is unloved by her cold-hearted father, Christopher Lee. Without giving too much away, let’s just say the underlying theme is one few filmmakers would dare tackle today.
“The Cloak” is the most famous of the four episodes, remembered fondly for its absurd humor. It stars John Pertwee (best known for his portrayal of Dr. Who) as an actor who mantles the cloak of a purported actual vampire. Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt bares her fangs and, of course, a bit more.
All four episodes feature strong acting, which is a rarity in contemporary horror and should be a model for genre filmmakers. Elliot’s restrained performance in “Method For Murder” is admirable enough to forgive the predictable “twist.” The stylish “Waxworks” features an equally stylish performance from Cushing, although narratively it is the thinnest episode. “Sweets to the Sweet” is psychologically intense with three powerhouse performances, making it the strongest entry. Although John Pertwee is a bit on-the-sleeve in “The Cloak,” his performance suits the tone; but, he’s no match for Pitt.