THE GIGGLESNORT HOTEL: Vol. 1 (1975/USA)
We accept the children’s entertainment we think we deserve, and in Canada in the early 1990s that usually meant the truly bizarre kids shows aired on our all-youth station YTV. Sure, one could have stuck with the relative safety of Mr. Dressup or Under The Umbrella Tree over on the CBC, but the good (read: weird) stuff was on our Nickelodeon analogue, which seemed to desperately pull programming from all over the world to fill up its daytime programming hours. Many a child will remember being semi-traumatized by episodes of THE HILARIOUS HOUSE OF FRIGHTENSTEIN (featuring Vincent Price!), but the nightmare fuel I best remember from that era was the mid-1970s classic THE GIGGLESNORT HOTEL.
For those deprived/lucky individuals not in the know, THE GIGGLESNORT HOTEL was a Chicago-made kids show that ran from 1975-1978 about the crazy puppet characters that inhabited the titular hotel, as well as the one human character — B.J. (Bill Jackson) — who was our host along with being our sole tangible connection to reality. It was pretty much what you might expect; a ton of silliness, a teensy bit of education, and everyone learned a lesson at the end of each episode. Jackson was there to guide us through the madness, and was meant to be the butt of a lot of jokes. He was excellent in the role.
Many of the puppet characters innocuous. There was Dirty Dragon (a dragon puppet that breathed smoke through its nostrils), Old Man Gigglesnort (who dressed like a ship’s captain and was the owner of the hotel), and the Old Professor (which was about what you would expect). There was also my favorite character, Blob, who was made entirely of clay and could be molded and shaped into different characters and expressions (and was in love with a statute of Florence Nightingale).
But then there was Weird. Weird was the hotel’s bellhop, and was the show’s token INSANE character who was always getting into trouble and acting zany. But there was something a bit.. off about Weird. Maybe it’s that he seemed unattached from the fairly mundane elements of the rest of the show, or maybe it was his unnerving voice… Or maybe it was because his face looked like THIS:
Jesus Christ! Yeah, in the era of Sid and Marty Krofft that sort of design may have been acceptable, but for a kid used to Pro-Stars and Captain N: The Game Master, it was the sort of thing that haunted my dreams.
This VHS collection features two 30-minute long (minus commercials) episodes of the show, which was actually a lot more diverse and interesting than I remembered. The first episode, “Puppy Parenthood”, involves one of the characters finding a stray puppy and deciding to take care of it in the hotel. This leads to a brief outbreak of fleas, as well as Weird adopting his own pet: a MASSIVE FOOT that he keeps on a leash and is, well, awfully weird. Eventually, the puppy gets a bath and everything turns out ok. There’s also a great bit where B.J. quizzes the audience on famous cartoon dogs, using drawn clues. Hell, I had fun with it, and I’m a grown-ass man.
The second episode, “Tender Is The Man”, is much stranger, and finds the male residents of the Gigglesnort Hotel becoming obsessed with tough-talking TV character Harry Bigshoulders. The easily influenced men then decide to follow the hard-boiled example of Harry by becoming complete assholes to everyone around them. Their female counterparts are flummoxed by this rude behavior (which involves tossing their dinner on the floor, eating chips and watching wrestling) and conscript Weird’s bizarre Shadow-esque counterpart The Shusher to teach the men about tenderness. This episode leans less on general education and more on life-lessons, and its main crux of suggesting men embrace their sensitive side is refreshingly complex for this sort of show.
Overall, despite my earlier trauma I quite enjoyed revisiting THE GIGGLESNORT HOTEL. It was, and remains, a step above the usual children’s show of my youth, and while some of the character designs still feel a bit unpleasant to look at, its willingness to go.. well.. weird has made it age much better than some of its contemporaries. Still.. check out this group puppet photo.
CAMP BLOOD (1999/USA)
It’s safe to say that CAMP BLOOD was the film that put Brad Sykes on the radar of fans of microbudget horror. While hardly revolutionary in concept, its mix of lo-fi SOV aesthetic, decent production value and buckets of gore appealed directly to those burned out by the higher concept fright films plaguing the multiplexes in the late 1990s. CAMP BLOOD was a return to basics: four young people camping in the woods being stalked and slaughtered by a masked killer, and undemanding audiences ate it — and its sequels — up.
Which isn’t meant to devalue what Sykes was doing here. Even in the earliest days of direct-to-video and shot-on-video cinema, the slasher genre got a lot of attention, since it only required a remote location and a collection of actors who were willing to (sometimes) get undressed and be (usually) murdered. While I’m not a fan of most of the hundreds of cookie-cutter films that arrived in the wake of CAMP BLOOD — with most predictably pulling from the HALLOWEEN, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and (especially) FRIDAY THE 13th — this was filling a niche at a time when mainstream slasher movies had become too polished.
So, repeat after me: four young people take a camping trip to the woods where they are slowly stalked and murdered by a crazed killer, in this case wearing a boiler suit and clown mask for some vaguely defined reason. Our four main characters are Tricia (the virginal “good” girl), Steven (Tricia’s boyfriend and jock lunkhead), Nicole (the promiscuous one) and Jay (the complete asshole who you hope is murdered as early as humanly possible), along with their superfluous guide Harris. There’s also the requisite old coot who tries to warn them away from the campgrounds, but who will play a bigger part in the film’s climax. Yeah, you get it.
It’s all very, very standard, though I did like that the killer clown is less “unstoppable killer” and more “please don’t hit me”. The people you expect to die end up dying in various bloody ways, though it certainly leans heavy on throwing corn syrup and food coloring at the victims and hoping for the best. Eventually we get down to a single survivor, an (obvious) reveal, and then the final eye-rolling twist that makes not a lick of sense.
I’m not blaming CAMP BLOOD for that, mind you. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and purposely avoids straying very far from the defined formula. Aside from the obvious limitations in video quality and acting, it’s pretty much indistinguishable from the lower-tier films it’s trying to emulate. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like this sort of thing. It’s pretty much a FRIDAY THE 13TH fan-film, just without the hockey mask.
It’s a hard time for us fans of Canadian cinema. Our feature film industry is in shambles, and even our token larger releases only get short theatrical runs outside of major city centers. Worst of all, many older (pre-1990) films have no official post-VHS release or, if they do, they remain nearly impossible to track down. It’s a shame, because there really are plenty of hidden gems out there just waiting to be embraced by an audience with a high tolerance for characters who say “sorry” in a funny way.
Speaking of talking funny, THE ROWDYMAN was the first major feature film to come out of my home province of Newfoundland, and it features the finest actor to come out of that province — and one of this country’s finest actors periods — Gordon Pinsent. Pinsent is probably most well known to American audiences for his incredible performance in Sarah Polley’s 2006 Alzheimer’s drama AWAY FROM HER, but he’s had a hugely impressive, lengthy career in this country — and even a short Hollywood run in films like (the original) THE THOMAS CROWN CROWN AFFAIR, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (where he played the President of the United States!) and BLACULA.
But Pinsent returned to his home province (and natural accent) to write and star in this lovely slice-of-life tale about Will Cole, a carousing mid-’30s rogue whose carefree ways threaten to tragically affect those around him. Steeped in the unique culture of the province, the film remains resonant to those — like myself — teetering on the verge of arrested development, with a pleasing mix of goofy comedy and sometimes surprising drama.
Of course, with a film set in Newfoundland the first thing you have to mention is the accents. The Newfoundland accent is a tricky animal; a sometimes impenetrable mix of Irish and English, with plenty of slang mixed in for good measure. It might take some time for an unfamiliar listener to adjust to its rhythms, and the film starts with a motor-mouthed exchange that is specifically designed to confuse and astound. All I can say is stick with it. I grew up with it, and I still miss a few phrases here and there.
The supporting cast are fine, with the great Will Geer (THE WALTONS) appearing briefly as Cole’s wheelchair-bound role model, and American actor Frank Converse (admirably attempting the accent) as his best friend. Also very good is Linda Goranson as Will’s Ontario-bound love interest, who represents the grounded consistency he’s always resisted. The film was shot be the late Peter Carter, who also went on to make the terrific DELIVERANCE-esque Canadian horror film RITUALS, with Hal Holbrook.
But this is Pinsent’s film, and his charisma carries us through the occasionally unfocused plotting. He can be a true bastard, whether brazenly insulting the local law enforcement or interrupting his best friend’s wedding night, but he’s just so lovable. When tragedy strikes and he’s meant to question his way of life, it’s hard not to secretly hope he returns to his ROWDYMAN ways. The world needs characters like him, even if he might be damning himself to a life of perpetual dissatisfaction.
THE ROWDYMAN is a wonderful film featuring one of Canada’s most respected actors, but if you want to see it, you’re pretty much stuck with this shaky VHS rip on YouTube. The film, and its beautiful Corner Brook locations, deserve much better.