Saturday, 30 June 2018

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #4: Spuds MacKenzie

So far in this round-up of horrifying advertising animals, the four-legged shills we've looked at have all been artificial beasties, be they mechanical monstrosities, taxidermy rejects or Cockney geezers in funny party costumes. If you really want to take a tumble down the rabbit's hole of strange and unnerving advertising, however, then all you have to do is take a real live animal and have a bunch of humans act like they want to get freaky with it. Hence, we move onto Spuds MacKenzie, one of the defining campaigns of its era, as well as one of the more controversial. The campaign, which first launched during the Super Bowl XXI in 1987, might be viewed as a precursor to the recurring Animaniacs segment "Chicken Boo", in that it revolved around an English bull terrier whose playboy lifestyle and love of Bud Light had made him into a world-renowned sex symbol...despite the glaring impediment of him being a dog, a fact that none of Spuds' adoring admirers and groupies (odiously known as the "Spudettes") ever saw fit to comment on. The closest that anyone comes to acknowledging Spuds' caninity is in his title, The Original Party Animal. That's a cute enough pun, although I'm not sure that it's strictly accurate (my understanding is that the Spuds campaign was actually Budweiser's answer to Stroh's "Alex" campaign about a flesh-and-blood hound with a drinking addiction). The entire concept was weird as sin, but absurd enough that if you got terribly hung up on the implications, you were essentially bringing it on yourself with your own demented mindset. When Bill Stolberg, Spuds' own personal "manager", was questioned in this Mental Floss article about the campaign's implicit pro-bestiality slant, he responded, "You'd have to be pretty bizarre to think anything like that." He's got my number there, I guess.

Spuds certainly liked to play at being a playboy, although the truth is that he was a hardly-boy, and a dog (wordplay I must attribute to William Wegman, another purveyor of freaky canine anthropomorphism). In reality, Spuds was a female terrier who, when not in the spotlight, went by the funkier name of Honey Tree Evil Eye. Says Wikipedia: "The dog, a Bull Terrier, was not without its share of controversy. Shortly after Spuds' rise to fame it was learned that the dog, who was portrayed as male in the commercials, was actually female." Alright, seriously? Wikipedia has that down as a controversy? Firstly, that's really not unusual at all. We all know that for most of "his" career, Benji the dog was played by a female mutt named Benjean. The Taco Bell Chihuahua was depicted as a male but was actually a female named Gidget. Did anybody out there really feel compelled to raise hell all on account of Spuds' gender-bending antics? I mean, if you're already perfectly cool with the idea of a dog being trailed everywhere by hordes of infatuated groupies while swigging Bud Light, then surely the revelation that the dog's really a lady isn't suddenly going to make the scenario seem problematic to you? The aforementioned Mental Floss article makes reference to a tongue-in-cheek television interview Spuds once gave to Dick Clark, in which Clark explicitly raised the issue of Spuds' rumoured femininity (along with that other major sticking point about Spuds MacKenzie that no one seemed to want to talk about) and a trio of adoring Spudettes bent over backwards to defend the dog's "full-on macho" image. "He's got three women around him, and I don't think we would be following him..." remarked one Spudette, hoping that you wouldn't entertain the possibility of a lesbian posse, or even a platonic friendship between a dog and the humans who would choose to hang around with her. Like George the Hofmeister Bear, the mythos surrounding Spuds was designed to perpetuate the idea that allegiance to the brand meant participating in a culture of cool, as exemplified by its unlikely choice of mascot. Spuds' status as a media megastar was reinforced by his animal magnetism and the number of women he always had at his side (unlike George, who was no stranger to the ladies but was typically backed up by a trio of young men eager to emulate the Cockney ursine's example). Men played a more limited role in Spuds' public image, for they were presumably off observing the playboy pup from afar and regarding him with envious eyes. The ladies loved Spuds while the men wanted to be him. And yet he was, when all is said and done, a dog. The suggestion that Spuds' secret womanhood could shatter "his" image as a manly role model felt in itself like part of the underlying gag. As if being female would make Spuds any less of a party animal.

There were, however, plenty of legitimate controversies surrounding the hedonistic Spuds - chiefly, the usual charge that he was making alcohol consumption look appealing to children, particularly in light of the large amount of Spuds merchandise that was available at the peak of the campaign. I've even heard rumours that the Spuds controversy helped to kill off an entirely unrelated property, the short-lived children's cartoon Rude Dog and The Dweebs (which was based on a line of sportswear), all because the titular Rude Dog was also a bull terrier and as such bore an unavoidable resemblance to the beer-endorsing Spuds, although I've never been able to verify this information. (Side-note: I did used to watch Rude Dog, and talk about a misleading moniker. Rude Dog wasn't rude at all, beyond telling me to slam my eyeballs against something every week.) Despite its massive popularity, the Spuds campaign proved to be relatively short-lived, and Honey Tree Evil Eye made her last appearance as Spuds in 1989.

Like Gidget the Chihuahua, Spuds MacKenzie was also subject to the kind of elusive phenomenon that can only occur when your mascot is a real flesh-and-blood entity - namely, the urban legend that said mascot met some kind of grisly end while promoting their assigned product and that their company were desperately trying to keep it under wraps. People Magazine even ran an article in 1987 designed to debunk the plethora rumours Spuds had drowned in a hot tub or in a freak surfing accident, in which they spilled all manner of beans about the dog's private life and even went so far as to publish the full home address of Spuds' real owners, the Oles of North Riverside, Illinois, leaving them open to ambushes from avid Spuds-lovers and nosy reporters. Of course, it's now 2018 and time waits for no man or dog, so you won't be surprised to learn that Honey Tree Evil Eye is no longer with us; she died of renal failure in 1993.

HTEE's boundless charisma not withstanding, I must admit that I find the Spuds MacKenzie campaign to be fairly insipid overall. Once you get past the whole, "My god, it's a why are those human females acting like they want to bang him?" angle, it lacks the skin-crawling visuals of the respective Duracell/Energizer rabbit campaigns, the self-aware nuttiness of Budweiser's Swamp Gang campaign, or even the dank sleaziness of George the Hofmeister Bear. There's a dash of kitsch in the individual commercials which call for Spuds to do something particularly outlandish, like strum a guitar or do an Olympic pole vault, but in general the appeal of the campaign rests on how charmed you are by the sight of a dog wearing people clothes. There's not really a whole lot going on besides, so it doesn't surprise me that the campaign had such a limited shelf-life. Animaniacs took this same basic gag (people-don't-realise-this-is-really-an-animal-or-do-they?) and built the perfect routine around it with Chicken Boo; by contrast, Spuds really didn't know how to keep the party going.

And yet, Spuds left an indisputable paw print on popular culture, to the extent that people were still parodying the dog long after the campaign's relevance had all but dried up. The Futurama episode "Fry and The Slurm Factory", which first aired on 14th November 1999, had a character called Slurms McKenzie, the "Original Party Worm". The Simpsons episode "Old Yeller-Belly", which first aired 4th May 2003, has family greyhound Santa's Little Helper ditching the Simpsons for a new life as Duff Beer mascot Suds McDuff. Bud Light even revived the character, briefly, for a one-off ad in 2017, in which a Honey Tree Evil Eye lookalike appeared in spectral form in order to play Jacob Marley to a young Scrooge about to commit the heinous crime of spending an evening at home by himself instead of attending a party and swigging Bud with friends. There are some in-jokes alluding to the ludicrous nature of the campaign of Bud Light past, notably Spuds' insistence that "I'm a man, you're a man." The only problem is that this new ad called for Spuds to suddenly acquire the gift of the gab, somewhat detracting from the entire conceit that Spuds is fundamentally a dog (albeit one who would occasionally get to showcase some remarkable talents) whom everyone has inexplicably accepted as one of their own. Indeed, I suspect that a large part of the appeal of the Spuds campaign is that he wasn't overly anthropomorphised as a character, and that minimal effort was made to create the illusion that a dog actually would give a damn about Bud Light. Rather, "he" was a nonplussed and indifferent creature who got to sit around being cute and unassuming while the human world insisted on acting out a barrage of silly fantasies around "him". There's not a whole lot of bite to Spuds, but I guess it reveals much about how intrinsically weird we are as a species.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #3: Follow The Bear (Hofmeister)

That was directed by Orson Welles. No, really. Or so the world keeps on insisting, anyway.

Last time, I touched on how the original "Swamp Gang" Budweiser commercial could be read as a metaphor for man's ruination of the natural kingdom and for the subliminal seductions of advertising, whereby a trio of frogs are obliged to stare for so long at a garish neon Budweiser sign erected atop their swamp that they are ultimately compelled to adopt the brand as their deity. Hofmeister's "Follow The Bear" campaign of the early 1980s was built around a very similar scenario, wherein an animal is seduced into abandoning their wild roots after a chance encounter with a man-made concoction and goes in search of a more exhilarating lifestyle revolving around the veneration of a brand. George puts his trust in Hofmeister, having used the brand to affirm his own identity (George identifies the bear in the logo as a direct ancestor of his), and apparently ends up living the high life as a result - even if in this case "the high life" involves being trailed by three adoring Cockney fanboys around a rather undistinguished-looking bar.

George's story is effectively an inversion on that of Gautama, in which our hero trades in his life of quiet meditation underneath a tree for one of indulgence and worldly luxury (to what extent a low-strength lager like Hofmeister could be considered a luxury). George's awakening comes when he experiences the "cool cut on the back of throat" of a pilfered Hofmeister, prompting him to ditch the woods forever and to "discover himself" amid the pool tables and grimy carpets of a tavern. George finds that this is actually the perfect environment for honing his animalistic instincts, as illustrated in his distinctly predatory seduction of a human woman (no one said that this campaign had aged well).

The introductory ad closes by indirectly prompting the viewer to choose which path they would sooner follow - that of the passive, poetry-seeking Ronnie Rabbit, who's quite content to remain in the deep, dark forest watching leaves fall from the trees for eternity, or George, who chose to dedicate his life to the pursuit of an inferior British larger and to the celebration of loutish bar culture - with the slogan "Follow The Bear" making it crystal clear which path we're intended to interpret as the desirable one. The thing is, though, the ad does inadvertently end up validating Ronnie; I assume we're supposed to see his life of passive tree-grazing as one of perpetual boredom but that's completely negated by the sheer elation with which he cries, "A leaf! I saw a leaf!" I don't think I've ever heard anything more purely happy-sounding than that animatronic coney's reaction to seeing the forces of gravity work their magic on a single leaf. The ad starts out with a display of euphoria from Ronnie that George frankly never matches on his journey into larger-swilling hedonism. Clearly, Ronnie is a rabbit who lives in the moment and can appreciate the joy and beauty in something as ordinary as a falling leaf. As such, it's hard not to come away with the impression that Ronnie was the enlightened one all along and that George has simply lost himself in a wilderness of a whole different nature. (The alternate take is that Ronnie's supposed elation actually constitutes the cries of desperation of a creature driven insane by boredom, but I choose not to see it that way).

George may be the anti-Gautama, although his model was clearly the Fonz, and despite being a bloke in a rather frugal-looking bear suit, he had a certain slickness about him. The character inevitably caused some controversy when he was accused of making the loutish lifestyle look hip and appealing, particularly to children (a common charge leveled at alcoholic products that use anthropomorphic animals as their mascots), which ultimately led to the campaign's retirement. The Hofmeister brand itself folded in 2003, but was relaunched in 2016, with the slogan "Follow The Bear" still intact. My sources tell me that as lagers go, Hofmeister never had the strongest of reputations, although to be honest, I couldn't tell you much about the product itself, for I am a teetotaler. I have no tongue for beer or lagers of any kind, I just get weirded out by their freaky advertising.

Orson Welles, though? I'd probably be a lot more skeptical if I wasn't aware of just how dogged the latter stages of his career were with degrading advertising gigs. A far cry from The Trial, maybe, but you've got to bring home the Paul Masson somehow.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #2: The Budweiser Ferret

I realise that in calling this guy "horrifying" I risk catching the ire of ferret lovers the world over, as I am aware that he was at one time or another hailed as something of a folk hero among the mustelid-inclined. He was voted "Ferret of The Century" by Modern Ferret magazine in November 1999, with editor Mary R. Shefferman describing him as a "positive, accurate image of ferrets as happy, fun-loving, and social creatures - an image that is lacking in many portrayals of ferrets in the media." It's no secret that weasels have something of a public image problem - last time, when I covered the long-standing rivalry between the Duracell and Energizer bunnies, I cited a commercial with the latter in which a fictitious battery company unsuccessfully attempted to enter the fray with their own mascot, the Supervolt Weasel, which was presented as an obvious dud. So when the modern ferret owner gets something as rare and wonderful as a ferret mascot who's allowed to spread his ferret-ness left, right and centre and it's played up as a grand thing, then of course they're going to grab hold of it with both hands and savour it for all it's worth (I'm a rat owner, so I completely understand).

Real ferrets are, of course, adorable. This guy, though? Eh, sorry to say it, but he looks like a taxidermy job gone weirdly haywire. I've always found the Budweiser Ferret to be unsettling, with his jerky puppetry, strangely distorted facial features and incomprehensible babbling. His creepiness finally reached its peak with an ad where his dirty little secret came back to haunt him - it transpired that in the summer of 1979 he'd posed nude for a dubious publication and risked bringing shame upon the Budweiser brand now that the evidence had been unearthed (of course, if the Ferret really had posed nude in 79 it would have made him more than two decades old, which would be remarkably long-lived for his species). Lately, family cinema seems to have developed a hard-on for scenes in which in which anthropomorphic animals appall everyone around them by stripping down and strutting around au naturel; there was a drawn-out sequence in Disney's Zootopia that took place within a nude health spa and the recent Peter Rabbit movie mined an entire running gag out Mr Tod's apparent penchant for bearing his all at parties. I'd say that the joke had already been taken to its freakiest possible heights with this ad two decades prior, however. Here, it's all the more absurd because the Ferret never wears clothing in his regular stint; in fact, he's more heavily-clad than usual in the one shot which shows him decked out in a bathrobe. Nevertheless, there is something profoundly disturbing about being bombarded with so static images of this undead-looking Ferret in provocative poses and getting up to interspecies fondling with a Persian cat. I do not judge Ferret for anything he might have done when he was young and desperate for work. But I do wish that I could replace some of those images within my mind.

I've singled the Ferret out as the disturbing apple of this particular bunch, yet when I reflect back on it I have to concede that the entire concept of this campaign was frankly a bit warped. We do have to go back quite a bit before we get to the Ferret, who was a relatively late addition to the "Swamp Gang" line-up. The campaign first launched during the Super Bowl XXIX in 1995, beginning with a strange but simple ad in which a trio of frogs croaked out the brand name "Budweiser" syllable by syllable, with the final reveal that the frogs are gazing up at a neon bar sign promoting said beer, and thus their ostensibly random croaking transforms into something resembling religious awe. I can see why this ad struck such a nerve at the time - the nocturnal swamp setting is wonderfully atmospheric - but really, just what were we to assume was going on in this particular scenario? That Bud is such a magical brand that all of nature feels an inherent reverence toward it, to the extent that swamp-dwelling amphibians are compelled to form religious cults around it? Or is it some kind of commentary on man's ruination of the natural world and/or the insidious nature of advertising, in which the local wildlife are forced to stare at our ugly brands and slogans for so long that they start incorporating them into their physiological functions?

There were subsequent Budweiser commercials featuring the frogs, but the campaign really took off in 1998, when the Swamp Gang was revisited and expanded to give the frogs a couple of rivals in the form of Louie and Frankie the CHAMELEONS (capitalised for emphasis because I've seen so many folks refer to them as iguanas...and why? The two lizard families aren't remotely similar, people). Louie and Frankie were far wordier characters than the frogs, which changed the tone of the campaign significantly. The lizards apparently auditioned to be the official Budweiser mascots for the original 95 spot but were bested by the frogs; by 98, Frankie was clearly long over it but Louie had been nursing a grudge for three solid years and his petty bitterness toward the frogs grew increasingly malevolent with each new ad, until it became inevitable that he would resort to foul play. Which is where the Ferret comes in. Truthfully, he did not start out as an altogether positive representation of his species, for he was originally an amateur assassin hired by Louie to rub out the frog trio by knocking the neon sign they revered so much into the swamp and zapping them into oblivion. Unfortunately for Louie, Ferret makes for a pretty incompetent hitman, and the frogs survived the attempt on their lives. Nevertheless, I'll never forget the deep shock I felt the first time I saw the assassination ad and couldn't be totally sure as to whether they'd really killed the frogs or not. It was a grim final image, as we panned past those smoking lily pads while Louie makes some macabre quip about how sooner or later every frog has to croak. I don't recall quite how long a gap there was between that ad and the "happy" ending where we found out that the frogs survived, but there was a time when I half-expected that to be the end of the entire Swamp Gang arc, and it unsettled me so.

The Louie, Frankie and Ferret series also rejigged the dynamic of the campaign in that the swamp critters were now very aware that they were on the set of a series of commercials and that their primary purpose was to shill beer. So once the frog arc had concluded and the Ferret was brought on as the brand's new spokesperson(!), it continued to get wackier and wackier, until we found ourselves at the point where we were staring at the Ferret's nudies. What a time to be alive.

The Swamp Gang represented a last gasp of glorious insanity as we neared the end of the 20th century, slightly apprehensive about what lay ahead and whether or not the world would go to pieces the second we hit the Y2K. Enter the 2000s, and it didn't take the world too long to go to shit, although not in the way we'd envisioned. It was a blander and less enlivening time all-round, and nothing was more telling of this than when the Swamp Gang were dislodged from zeitgeist to be replaced by that whole "Whassup?" thing. Which I still don't get to this day. There was enough of an overlap between the two campaigns for Frankie to denounce the Whassup phenomenon as "a disease", and I'm with him on that one, sorry.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #1: Dueling Battery Bunnies

It's a scientific fact that mechanical pink rabbits who bang away relentlessly on drums are horrifying. I can't quite put my finger on why, exactly; I just have nightmare visions of whatever circle of Hell I'm banished to being populated with sheaves of the evil bastards, all pounding away non-stop while the music from Roysters' "A is for Antelope" ad plays on a loop in the background. One of the sickest twists in the whole of advertisingdom is that, thanks to a couple of dueling campaigns, the world ended up with not just one, but two mascots of this ilk. The "battery bunny" is a familiar concept the world over, but a lot of folks are blissfully unaware that there are multiple rabbits matching that description, so you may have to look at a person's geographical location to decipher which battery bunny they have in mind. If they're from Europe or Australia, then odds are they mean the Duracell Bunny, the original of the two. If they're from the US, it's a safe bet they're alluding to his wilder and wackier counterpart, the Energizer Bunny, who usurped his Duracell nemesis and then some on American soil but doesn't appear to have made much of an impact elsewhere. Thank fuck.

The conceit for the original Duracell Bunny campaign, which launched in 1973, has to be one of the ghastliest ever devised by man. The image of an entire army of little drummer rabbits chugging away mindlessly, gradually slowing down and giving way to the cold thrust of inertia until only one is left standing, is a flagrantly unpleasant one. Check out this version from the early 1980s and tell me that your skin isn't crawling. It doesn't help that it's topped off by a pretty heinous-sounding leitmotif.

1988, and enter the Energizer Bunny, whose debut commercial was conceived (by D.D.B. Chicago Advertising) as a direct send-up of Duracell's campaign. Here, a rabbit powered by a rival battery (not specified, but blatantly Duracell) is upstaged by a surprise entrance from the Energizer Bunny, whom we are told was purposely excluded from the competition in order to give the unsaid rival an unfair advantage. Whereas the Duracell Bunny was intended to look cute, innocuous and child-like (I'm sure that was the idea, anyway), the Energizer was specifically designed to emphasise 'tude. He's a bigger, brasher and louder rabbit than his Duracell counterpart, as we can tell from his protrusive choice of bass drum and those all-important sunshades. As such, it doesn't really matter that we technically don't see him outlast his unnamed nemesis (all we see is the rival rabbit's ear lopping over in frustration) - it's clear from his unashamedly extravagant display that he's the leporine who really means business.

The Energizer Bunny proved such a smashing success that he went onto completely eclipse the Duracell Bunny in US territories, until he proved iconic enough to work as a standalone character in subsequent ads. Emphasis shifted to the amazing longevity of the Energizer battery in general, with the Energizer-powered rabbit being depicted as an unstoppable force that nothing on Earth could possibly pin down, and the tagline "It just keeps going and going..." acting as a solemn reminder that, long after civilisation has crumbled and humanity reduced to a smattering of fossilised remains, this mechanical whiz kid will still be roaming atop our wasteland burial ground with much the same unlimited zeal as ever. As we got deeper into the 1990s, it transpired that the Energizer Bunny had attracted a wide array of foes beyond his Duracell counterpart, with numerous villains from all facets of pop culture all vying to take a crack at being the one to finally stop the infernal rabbit in his tracks. We saw the Bunny successfully fend off attacks from the likes of Wile E Coyote, the Wicked Witch of The West and Boris & Natasha (although surely nobody was terribly surprised - those guys didn't exactly have the most stellar track records). Most eager for the Bunny's metaphorical blood were fictitious rival brand "Supervolt", who had attempted to manufacture their own knock-off mascot (somewhat ironically, given that the Energizer Bunny was himself a knock-off creation) the Supervolt Weasel, with little success.

As for the Duracell Bunny, he is still running (pun intended) in several non-US territories, although he has since ditched his drumsticks, with newer ads tending to focus on his prowess in various sporting activities. The modern Duracell Bunny is also now rendered in CGI, as opposed to being represented by some of the most heinous-looking toys imaginable. I'll happily take a smiling computer-generated rabbit over a vacant-looking stuffed one.

Somehow or other, the world has proven big enough to sustain two battery-guzzling pink rabbits for more than a quarter-century, although their co-existence hasn't been without its share of contention. In 1992, Duracell and Energizer reached an agreement to split their rabbit rights over different global territories, but in 2016 Energizer filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Duracell, arguing that they had violated their long-standing agreement in enabling Duracell products featuring their own pink rabbit to be imported from Europe and sold in US outlets. The case ultimately went in Duracell's favour.

The question remains, then, as to which of the two pink drummer rabbits I consider to be the more diabolical creation. I will admit that, although I deem those early Duracell ads to be downright shuddersome, as a mascot there's something about the Energizer Bunny that seriously rubs me the wrong way. The original intention behind his character was to lampoon the Duracell campaign, and as such he was purposely designed to be a caricature, with highly exaggerated features geared toward playing up his bombastic and in-your-face qualities, and that gives him a definite air of grotesqueness. Not to mention that the whole, "It just keeps going and going..." mantra does have a sinister flip-side - the rabbit's shtick is that he's relentless and never gives up, and I somehow doubt that I'm the only one who's ever entertained nightmarish fantasies about how I would manage if he was ever on my trail, a pitiless assassin determined to hunt me down wherever I go. I mean, we're encouraged to see the rabbit as a force for good because we've seen him take on Darth Vader et al, but how much do we really know about what's rattling on inside that battery-powered head of his? He is a force who keeps going and going literally for going's sake, which some find laudable. The Energizer Bunny has become something of a cultural icon to those who perceive his ever-lasting battery power as an analogue for inexhaustible pep and enthusiasm, with the character's Wikipedia article noting that, "In North America the term "Energizer Bunny" has entered the vernacular as a term for anything that continues endlessly, or someone that has immense stamina...Several U.S. presidential candidates have compared themselves to the bunny, including President George H. W. Bush in 1992 and Howard Dean in 2004."

And yet this extensive admiration is rooted in a lie, which is neatly summarised by a character from the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank, who says of the rabbit (all while sounding as if he's about to break out into a song from Hair), "It's got no brain, it's got no blood, it's got no anima! It just keeps on banging on those meaningless cymbals, and going and going!" Sure, he got the rabbit's signature instrument wrong, but his basic point still stands. From this perspective, the Energizer Bunny's existence is not one of boundless vitality, but one of empty monotony, his unending drive dictated solely by the battery that clings to his hind leg like a blood-sucking parasite, dooming him to keep on grinding away, Red Shoes-style, for all eternity. Picture again that image I alluded to earlier of the solitary bunny, millennia from now, wandering the decaying wastelands where once stood fields and houses, with no one left to try and bring a halt to his perpetual frenzy, and you have to wonder where this sprightly rabbit ever suspected he was going all this time.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Don't Say His Name!: Madman Marz vs Candle Jack

Before we start, I have a couple of things I'd like to get off my chest. Firstly, no, I won't be honoring that stupid meme in this piece. No no no no no. End of.

Secondly, I should be upfront with all you Candle Jack fans right from the start that my opinions on the character aren't exactly the most charitable out there. I don't dislike him, but I do consider him to be one of the most egregiously overplayed cartoon baddies of all time. Case in point: out of a total of twenty-four episodes of Freakazoid! ever made, how many times did Candle Jack appear? I'm talking about times when he was actually a part of the story itself, not when he was briefly glimpsed in title sequences, crowd scenes or whatnot. Only three. And, of those three, on how many occasions did Jack feature as the main villain? Just once. Jack faced off against Freakazoid in the second episode of Season 1 (for its first season, Freakazoid! was mimicking the variety show format which had worked so well for its predecessor Animaniacs, so the Candle Jack story was only a ten-minute segment, not a full-lengthed episode in itself) and later appeared as a side character in a couple of Season 2 episodes, "The Island of Dr Mystico" and "Normadeus" (and his role in both of those episodes was extremely minimal - "The Island of Dr Mystico" even slips in a gag about how his presence there is essentially redundant). Truth is, this guy was barely in the show at all and yet people talk about him as if he was its single biggest draw. I'd also add that Candle Jack's sole starring episode was the only one in which his most infamous character trait - that is, his penchant for abducting those who say his name out loud - was actually raised. The other two times we see Jack, it never comes up. So there's a part of me that can't help but bear a slight grudge against Jack, which might seem more understandable when I explain that my own favourite Freakazoid! character is Lobe, who actually WAS the main villain and appeared in the majority of episodes, yet only gets a fraction of the attention. So the resentment is largely on his behalf. What makes Lobe so awesome? Well, he's voiced by David Warner for one, and that's near impossible to top. No disrespect to Jack's voice actor Jeff Bennett (who, lest we forget, also voiced our good friend Charlton Woodchucks), but when it comes to voices which knock you flat on your back with their ineffable coolness, Warner's has got to be somewhere within the top 5. The man is a bloody legend. And I'll never forget my intense joy when I put it together that Lobe and Dillinger from Tron were the same person.

So why is Candle Jack the one thing that seemingly everyone remembers about Freakazoid!, despite his having such a minuscule role in the series overall? Well, there is that silly meme he inspired, but I wonder if it has more to do with the fact that his starring segment did leave quite a few people feeling genuinely creeped out. The whole premise of Jack as a villain is just a little unsettling, in that hoary old campfire legend kind of way. If Jack gets under your skin, then odds are that it's because he reminds you of some dubious piece of folklore which was recited to you as a kid and wound up costing you an inordinate amount of sleep. And maybe some viewers appreciated the fact that Freakazoid! was able to be freaky in the more sinister sense for once and not just the madcap, unashamedly anarchic sense which characterised the rest of the series ("One of us!" freaky as opposed to "C'est chic!" freaky).

To call Freakazoid! a divisive cartoon would be a terrible understatement. There's that gag in an old episode of South Park about there being fundamentally two types of people in the world, those who like Animaniacs and those who don't, but if you ask me you can discern a heck of a lot more about a person's character on the basis of how great a shining they took to Freakazoid! Although originally conceived as a somewhat darker, more serious cartoon about a superhero who was screwy, hyperactive and enjoyed playing with the villains' heads, Freakazoid! wound up seeing the light of day as one of the most aggressively meta subversions of the superhero genre out there. So committed was it to defying absolutely every last expectation the viewer might have about about action cartoons that the narratives were often themselves just elaborate teases. For the first season in particular, it wasn't so much a superhero series as a collection of bizarre non-sequiturs and extended character digressions with some vaguely superhero-related exploits going on in the backdrop. In effect, Freakazoid! was a celebration of the random, inconsequential stuff it posits would be happening in between the drama and the heroics for your everyday hero - the casual visits to the honey harvest festival with your cop buddies, the time-killing ventriloquist acts with your own hands, the slow off-days in which there was little crime for you to fight, etc (in that regard, I might even be so bold as to call it the Jim Jarmusch of post-modern 90s cartoons). The gag was further accentuated with a series of supporting segments featuring the likes of The Huntsman and Lord Bravery (loving pastiches of Charlton Heston and John Cleese, respectively), other would-be heroes whom we never actually got to see doing anything in the least bit heroic. Some viewers loved this approach, but others found it glib and off-putting (back in 1995 I recall having a conversation with a friend who enjoyed the show's humour but complained that the disjointed format made it feel more akin to watching a clip show than a series proper). To call Freakazoid! an intensely chaotic show would also be putting it mildly. Clearly, it wasn't just Foamy (Freakazoid's one-time canine sidekick) who needed a rabies shot - if any series could be described as the animated embodiment of frothing at the mouth, it's Freakazoid! But hey, that's what made it so grand, right? (Myself, I'm very much in the pro-Freakazoid! camp, although I do prefer the second season, when the series dropped the variety show format and became a bit more story-orientated, so I guess I'm at the more sedate end of the fandom.)

Jack sticks out because he was a rare venture into slightly darker territory for a show which otherwise refused to take itself in the slightest bit seriously. His segment is still fundamentally played for laughs but when all is said and done it's a cartoon about a creep in a burlap sack who snatches children from their beds just for innocently muttering his name out loud and well, that's not exactly a comforting image, is it? Face it, that set-up is only a couple of tweaks away from reading like the premise of a bona fide midnight movie. So what if I were to tell you that there really is a horror film out there about a supernatural being who goes from being placid to horrifyingly destructive at the mere mention of his name? I speak of Madman, a 1982 low-budgeter written and directed by Joe Giannone about an axe-wielding boogeyman who stalks and butchers those who say his name out loud (obviously, he's not quite as genteel as Jack). There were tons of low budget slashers made in the late 70s/early 80s, of course, and Madman isn't one of the better-known examples, so I only recently happened to stumble across this one. Upon reading the synopsis, my immediate thoughts were, "Hey, that sounds vaguely reminiscent of the Candle Jack segment from Freakazoid!" I began to wonder if this forgotten 1980s slasher might indeed have been the direct inspiration for Candle Jack. It's not so far-fetched when you consider that another Freakazoid! segment, "The Cloud", was an elaborate pastiche of cult British horror flick The Crawling Eye (1958), a homage which I somehow doubt was appreciated by a sizeable portion of its target audience. Both Madman and "Candle Jack" take place within the twilight hours at a children's camp, although that's obviously a very well-worn slasher movie cliche, given that everyone was doing it in the age of the Friday the 13th rip-off (inb4 anyone tells me that Friday the 13th was itself a rip-off of Halloween). If you're a horror connoisseur then you'll know what kids were really into back then - teen-orientated slashers offering lurid glimpses of decapitations and chopped up viscera while extolling almost incongruously puritan morals about the dangers of pre-marital sex (whores get tore, and all that). Madman follows the standard slasher plot, in which a bunch of teenagers of questionable intelligence quotients are left to their own devices and threatened by a mysterious menace, whereupon they decide to split up and look for clues and the body pile begins to mount.

Actually, Madman does have an interesting backstory, in that the original script more closely resembled the legend of "Cropsey", a lurid bit of New York folklore about a disfigured human-turned homicidal boogeyman reputed to stalk the wilderness at night, which had been a fixture of many a reluctant young camper's nightmares for decades. The stuff about Madman Marz being a local axe-grinder whose murderous urges are activated at the mere mention of his name came about as the result of some last-minute rewrites in order to downplay similarities with another production, Tony Maylam's The Burning (1981), which also drew heavily from the Cropsey legend (ever seen that gif where a guy gets his fingers severed with gardening shears and blood spurts out of a hilariously fake-looking hand? That's The Burning). Not that I believe it made a great deal of difference to how the bulk of the story plays out.

Madman opens with head counselor Max (Carl Fredericks) regaling his charges with the tale of Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers), an ostensibly ordinary (if highly unpleasant) farmer who, one night, got hold of an axe and inexplicably hacked his family to death before escaping the wrath of a lynch mob. Now he lives on in local lore as a boogeyman who becomes murderously enraged if he hears anyone refer to him by his given moniker (which he perceives as an insult); thus, it is not safe to utter the name "Madman Marz" above anything other than a faint whisper. Inevitably, one of the older and bolder campers, Richie (Jimmy Steele, who's meant to be one of the kids but frankly looks old enough that he could pass for a counselor) spies a chance to show off his bravado, so he stands up straight and bellows the name "Madman Marz!" out into the night. Max attempts to counteract Richie's fate-tempting by assuring Marz that Richie is young and stupid and doesn't know what he's doing, but he gets laughed off as an old coot trying to cover up his preposterous story. But of course, Max is entirely on the money (although perhaps he himself doesn't realise it), for Madman Marz is indeed lurking out there in the shadows and Richie really has brought death and destruction raining down upon them all. Awfully nice going there, Richie.

In the Freakazoid! segment, Candle Jack is an equally ridiculous urban legend told by children at a summer camp that likewise turns out to be terrifyingly real. Legend has it that Jack's powers are limited strictly to those who say his name out loud; doing so will summon him and result in the abduction of the loose-lipped individual. Trouble is that in merely reciting the legend people have a tendency to get themselves inadvertently nabbed by Jack - unlike the Marz legend, there don't seem to be any conditions in which you can safely say his name and get off scott-free. The segment opens much as Madman does, with kids gathered around a campfire looking to have the beejeezers scared out of them, and it isn't long before Jack's name comes up. Freakazoid is present because he's with Steff, who's landed a job as a camp counselor. Steff was Freakazoid's love interest, although the basis for their relationship was a bit iffy in the first season. Originally, Steff was all over Freakazoid but wouldn't give him the time of day in his "true" identity (shy computer nerd Dexter Douglas, who appeared surprisingly rarely throughout the series). It wasn't a case of Freakazoid simply having more confidence around Steff than his alter ego; she flat-out scorned him for who he really was. As a result, there was something very...disingenuous about their chemistry in the earlier episodes. But then, Steff's entire raison d'etre all throughout Season 1 was to get kidnapped and have Freakazoid save her time and time again (this is one reason why I'll always go to bat for Season 2 over its predecessor - I appreciate that they finally took the time to flesh Steff out and make her overall less of a useless character).

The most obvious difference between our two sharp-eared boogeymans is that Madman Marz doesn't limit his bloodlust to those careless or audacious enough to speak his name aloud; that's what's needed to get him going, but once Marz has begun his murderous spree absolutely anyone who crosses paths with him is considered fair game for winding up on the sharp end of his axe. By contrast, so long as you don't say Candle Jack's name, he won't touch you, and the segment gleans a whole lot of mileage out of just how ridiculously easy it is to slip up and end up on his list of viable victims. Also, whereas Marz butchers his victims violently on the spot, Jack whisks his captives away to an unknown fate, and his motive and intentions are kept deliberately fuzzy. "Cos he's a nut" is the only explanation we get when one of the kids inquires why Jack is a serial abductor, and later on when Steff challenges Jack as to what he what he plans to do with them, we get this delightful exchange:

Steff: What are you going to do with us?

Jack: I don't know, I've never gotten so many at once before. Not a very bright group, are you?

Steff: What do you mean by that?

Jack: Oh, nothing.

You know, when I watch the episode and try to forget how appallingly overhyped the character is, I have to admit that I find Jack to be pretty enjoyable on his own terms. I like the menacing, yet somehow incongruously nasally way in which Bennett voices him, I like how few bones are made about his scheme's complete lack of direction, and I like the two-faced sardonicism with which he taunts his captives. It's not enough to excel him to voiced-by-David-Warner levels of coolness, but it does make for an entertaining antagonist in that most brilliantly convention-defying of Freakazoid! traditions. I think it's fair to say that Jack becomes slowly less threatening as the segment goes on (once it's established that he's basically a kook with no real agenda) and there comes a point where the segment loses interest in his machinations altogether. It peters out in typical Freakazoid! fashion - Freakazoid realises (eventually) that Steff and her charges are in trouble and willfully gets himself captured by Jack just so that he can slip in a reference to 1960s Wild West sitcom F-Troop. There follows an extended moment in which Freakazoid breaks the fourth wall and wanders around set in order to reflect on how wonderful it is to be working with each of his co-stars. A Paul Harvey duplicate then hurriedly explains how Freakazoid was ultimately able to vanquish Jack by exploiting a totally out of left field weakness (apparently, Jack has insatiable cravings for pumpkin pie; who knew?)

The "Candle Jack" segment gets an additional boost in zaniness through its presentation in Scream-O-Vision, a gimmick purporting to enhance the audience's viewing pleasure by pre-determining what they are to find scary (in practice, this amounts to an onscreen caption lazily prompting the viewer to scream whenever something vaguely threatening appears). It's a gag that peaks almost immediately when the effects are demonstrated by cutting to a shot of Carol Ohmart shrieking her lungs out in the Vincent Prince classic House on Haunted Hill (1959) - after which, the Scream-O-Vision gimmick is deployed largely during scenes with Freakazoid and Steff kissing (mind you, I get the joke; I think they make a pretty revolting couple too).

Naturally, Madman doesn't boast anything half as glorious as Scream-O-Vision, although if any sequence therein merits it it would be the protracted hot tub scene between counselors TP (Tony Fish) and Betsy (Gaylen Ross), which is by far the most hideous set-piece the film has to offer. It's a sequence that's downright hypnotic in its appalling chintziness. Madman is fairly conventional in terms of its morality; like most slashers of its era, the youths who end up dead tend to be those obsessed with matters of the flesh, although this isn't strictly the case - there is at least one counselor, Dave (Seth Jones), who seems more interested in brandishing a knife and unnerving his fellow counselors with vaguely philosophical musings than he does in getting laid, and ends up no better for it - leaving me unclear as to whether Giannone was purposely honoring the conventions of the day or if he just didn't know how to write teenagers as anything other than rampant sex freaks with the odd raving misfit among them. The real irony of the film (-spoilers-) is that Richie, the loud-mouthed little snot who brought the wrath of Madman Marz upon them all, is ultimately spared his axe; he spends most of the film vacantly wandering the deep dark woods, so by all rights he should be an easy target for the undead farmer, yet he's the one who makes it out safely to carry news of Marz's rampage. In the end (and quite unlike Jack) it seems that Marz was never interested in avenging the impudent utterance of his name so much as perpetuating his own mythology and purging the local land of contamination in the form of those leering teens and their lustful ways. Richie lives because, in his slack-jawed witlessness, he exhibits a kind of purity which allows him to ride out the night unscathed (physically, anyway).

Madman's strongest component (other than the end-credits ditty, which is a stonker) would be our aforementioned head counselor, Max. Fredericks plays him with a strange affability which manages to shine through even when he's spewing the most hilariously wooden dialogue (had it seriously never occurred to this guy that the Madman Marz story could be upsetting to some of the younger campers?). After the opening campfire scene, Max is removed from the story and stays absent for the entirety of Marz's rampage. This is certainly enough to arouse suspicion, although nothing ever comes of it (not that we expect Max and Marz to be one and the same exactly, but there is a scene early on where Max hints to TP of a darker side that never goes anywhere). There are no real twists or surprises regarding Marz himself; he is exactly what Max describes him to be, and it's here that we run into the greatest obstacle to the film's enjoyability - namely, how aggressively straightforward it is. Once Marz's reign of terror has begun, the film quickly erodes into a monotonous chain of events in which character after character opts to venture into the woods alone in search of the increasing collection of persons who've mysteriously disappeared, only to add themselves to that list in the process. Madman dices them one by one, until he runs out of dumb counselors to slaughter and the credits start rolling. As a result, there's not really a whole lot of interest happening once we get past our opening campfire sequence. Marz himself is not an amazingly distinguished antagonist (despite Giannone's last-minute rewrites, he could easily be swapped out with any number of boogeyman from 1980s slashers), although he does maintain a sufficiently spooky air for as long as he remains an indistinct figure lurking in the darkness (there is a particularly effective shot where Dave is alone in woods and we see Marz looming toward him as a murky, hulking silhouette of monstrous proportions - with its intensive focus on Marz's ill-defined girth, it succeeds in making Marz appear genuinely other than human). Whenever Marz does reveal himself (and he does so with irritating frequency), he looks like an albino Bigfoot who's gotten hold of an axe somewhere; sufficiently "other", but altogether less frightening.

Whether or not I'd recommend Madman depends on how much of a completist you are for old-school slashers. If you're a hardcore connoisseur then you'll presumably want to see it no matter what. If you have only casual curiosity then there are certainly better examples of the genre out there. The original Friday the 13th hasn't exactly aged well, but if you're after something schlocky, fun and mindless then you can't go far wrong with it. Despite a promising set-up, Madman is ultimately quite uninventive and lacks a real pay-off (other than the closing credits tune, which serves as a decent enough punchline in its own right). Madman Marz may be the meaner of our two boogeys, but the Freakazoid! segment beats the slasher hands down in terms of demented creativity. For the Madman, the entire "Don't say his name" gimmick is really just a means to an end, a way of getting the ball rolling for its true preoccupations with good old-fashioned carnage. His Freakazoid! counterpart is practically the opposite - Jack is all about pedantically seeking out those who say his name out loud but has no idea just what to do once he's bagged himself a wad of victims. He is in effect a screwball drifting without direction, which isn't an altogether unfitting description of the segment itself. "Candle Jack" lacks a proper ending, opting instead to fizzle out in a whirl of fourth wall-breaking, F-Troop referencing glory. But that was par the course for Freakazoid!

Next time, maybe I'll track down The Crawling Eye and see how it compares to "The Cloud". Which is a really neat Freakazoid! segment and has Lobe in it.