Friday, 29 November 2019

Beasts '76: During Barty's Party (aka Woodwork Squeaks and Out Come The Freaks)

There's something about the motif of a rat in the walls that lends itself compellingly to horror. Even as a rat fancier, I suppose I can comprehend it - the house stands for domesticity, cleanliness and safety, while the rat indicates wildness, contamination and volatility. Ostensibly, there's nothing out of the ordinary about a non-human visitor worming its way, uninvited, into your domain - it happens every day - and yet it suggests an unraveling of our control, both personally and as a species, a breakdown of the imagined barrier between civilisation and chaos. When I covered the "Night of The Rat" segment of the 1983 anthology film Nightmares earlier this year, I noted that the purest example I had seen of this motif occurs, strangely enough, in a Disney film, Lady and The Tramp (1955) - there, the rat is a foreign interloper, a frightening disturbance in Lady's pristine bourgeoisie paradise, one that intuitively understands that the Achilles heel of this clean-cut, perfectly ordered world is to be located within the baby's crib. Other examples from more conventional horror, such as the aforementioned Nightmares and Of Unknown Origin (1983), are more ambiguous in their treatment of the murine encroachers, using them as a foil or reflection for highlighting what's already squalid or debased about the lives of their human protagonists. Willard (1971), meanwhile, aligns its images of rat invasion with the uprising of the social misfit lashing back at a system that has rejected and subjugated him. In all cases, the rat might bring out the worst in the human (or vice versa, in the case of Willard), but the real hazard was lurking right there within the walls of the human psyche all along.

One of the most creative depictions of the ongoing battle between man and rodent for domestic dominance is the fifty-minute nail-biter "During Barty's Party", an installment of the British horror anthology series Beasts, which was first broadcast on ITV throughout the autumn of 1976. Written by Nigel Kneale of The Quatermass Experiment fame, Beasts consisted of six self-contained tales linked only by the common theme that they all involved animals - or, more accurately, the part of Man that's still very much in touch with his animalistic ancestry. "During Barty's Party" follows a terminally anxious housewife, Angie Truscott (Elizabeth Sellars), who every day is left to fend for herself in her remote Hampshire home while her hard-headed husband Roger (Anthony Bate) heads out to the office. So overwhelming is Angie's solitude that she routinely tunes into the titular "Barty's Party", a local radio show hosted by Barty Wills (voice of Colin Bell), a smarmy disc jockey of the Smashie and Nicey ilk, just to hear the sound of another human voice. On this particular day, Angie is having an especially stressful time of it, leaving her so distraught that she's committed the ultimate transgression and attempted to contact Roger at work. When Roger gets home, he's not amazingly sympathetic toward Angie, angered at the impression she may have given of their home life to his colleagues at his office, which gives us a neat little snapshot into their relationship dynamic. At first, Angie has trouble articulating quite what's gotten her so on edge, but gradually reveals that there are two key disturbances that have been gnawing away at her in Roger's absence. The first is the swanky sports car that's been stood vacant in the local vicinity for much of the day, its door hanging wide open; Angie suspects that it's been abandoned, but finds something inexplicably unsettling about the scenario. The second is the rat that's gotten into the house and is still periodically scratching away beneath the floorboards. Roger is quick to dismiss Angie's concerns as hysteria and produces a perfectly rational response for her every perturbation, a battle of sensibilities that only intensifies as the evening goes on and Angie discovers, with a little assistance from Barty, that there may be a horrifying connection between the two occurrences, one that potentially spells curtains for herself and Roger.

Being a rat fancier does put me in rather a paradoxical position when it comes to rat-related horror; as sub-genre it fascinates me but my sentiments for the animal in question obviously do impede my ability to feel afraid of them. Whenever a rat scarpers into view, it's inevitable that I'm going to see my own pets in them, not enmity. To that end, "During Barty's Party" achieved the impossible, in that it did leave me feeling somewhat alarmed at the Truscotts' mounting rat infestation. But then, "During Barty's Party" takes a unique approach, in that we never see a single rat throughout the full fifty minutes of running time. We hear the occasional scratching beneath the floorboards, which snowballs as it becomes apparent that the Truscotts' four-legged nemesis isn't working alone, ultimately swelling into a cacophony of shrieks as the rats really get down to business. But they manage to stay out of view for the entire duration. "During Barty's Party" is a minimalist horror that works by making clever use of what we don't see, and by keeping the rats entirely off-screen, the threat they pose becomes more abstract in nature, to be the point that, let's face it, this isn't really a story about rats, is it? Oh, they're out there alright, and they present a very real, immediate problem for the Truscotts, but Kneale's script appears to be tapping into a much deeper existential threat than simply the nightmarish prospect of a rodent infestation getting wildly out of hand. This is more about what becomes of you when the rest of the world turns its back on you and refuses to validate your existence, so that, for all intents and purposes, you cease to be. "During Barty's Party" is a study in isolation and its erosive effects upon the human psyche, with the rats becoming a manifestation of that void beyond the Truscotts' property - they are nothingness, abandonment, oblivion, the dead, nihilistic space that is persistently taunting Angie with its vacuity, and threatens to claim Roger and herself for its own. The deserted sports car parked outside has a more direct connection to the rodent rampage, which ultimately dawns on Angie, but for much of the piece it too is a symbol of that desolation - an empty, inert object where some form of life should be, perhaps even a terrifying preview of a world in which humans no longer exist.

For the bulk of "During Barty's Party" we never leave Angie and Roger's living room; the outside world remains almost entirely unseen, so that it too becomes part of the unknown. Among the scant exceptions are the opening shots of the episode, which show us the inside of the abandoned car, complete with close-up shots of the novelty items adorning the interior - a keychain shaped like a human skull and a gear stick cover shaped like a cat's head. Both are clues as the calamity that has already occurred, even before the sound of disembodied screaming kicks in - the skull is an obvious signifier of death and decay, while the cat, mortal enemy of the rat, becomes a totem for the absent occupants, a subtle hint that the food chain has been subverted and that the predator has become the prey. The Truscotts themselves own a dog, Buster, but by the time the story begins he has become yet another absent component, having absconded from the property the instant he caught wind of what trouble was headed their way. Roger does admit to feeling some concern about the dog, dismissing him as "stupid", although even this early on in the narrative it's hard to dispel the inkling that Buster may be the most sensible character in this entire equation. Roger's contempt for his dog's faculties, for the rats' status as scavengers and for his wife's anxieties establishes him as a man with an assured sense of dominion over his perceived underlings, both animal and human, an assumption that will inevitably shatter as the rats persist in throwing their combined weight around.

The subversion of predator-prey relations is a recurrent theme in eco-horror, for it plays on the fear that our position as dominant species may not be as carved in stone as we'd like to think, and that a simple change in environmental factors could tip the balance drastically in another creature's favour. There's a lot of talk throughout about about regular rats and how they are not to be underestimated (true, although the story Angie shares about their supposed co-operative egg-stealing techniques is one that I've heard many times before and do find rather suspect), so what would happen if the rats were to use that ingenuity in a highly organised way against us? In that regard, "During Barty's Party" plays like a darker take on Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 novel Mrs Frisby and The Rats of NIMH (adapted, albeit loosely, into the animated feature The Secret of NIMH in 1982), in that the rats are implied to be a strain of "super rats" who, as a knock-on effect of Man's relentless efforts to assert control over the animal kingdom, have developed not only an immunity to poison but an awareness of their immunity. Unlike the rats of NIMH, who only wanted to escape the shadow of Man, these sophisticated murines are highly vindictive and quite ready to declare war on the bipedal giants who trapped and poisoned them for eons. Roger persists in asserting the rational - that the rats' behaviour is instinct-driven and they do not possess the reasoning capacities for the ideating of something as complicated as war - for most of the narrative, as Angie's own gut instinct paints an increasingly persuasive picture of the possibility that the rats may be actively conspiring against them. But "During Barty's Party" is less about the formidableness of nature than it is the fragility of human wisdom and composure when faced with looming destruction. We know that Roger is setting himself up for a fall from the start, when he boasts about "throwing all of [his] professional expertise into gauging, assessing, evaluating the problem with that car." As it turns out, his cerebral outlook is his sole defence in the face of disaster, and an entirely flimsy one at that - all he can do is deny over and over that the apocalypse is happening, until the barriers have completely come down, at which point, he reverts to instinct and becomes almost animalistic in his response to the crisis, shrieking and staggering across the hallway on all fours. By contrast, the ostensibly irrational Angie proves more level-headed and resourceful, even if her powers too are ultimately futile.

In his review of the episode on The Spooky Isles, Chris Newton proposes that the rodent infestation is entirely imaginary, it being "a metaphor for the cracks in a loveless marriage where the lonely housewife drinks too much and the husband is more concerned with his career than his relationship." I would not disagree that Roger and Angie's unequal marriage is a key facet in this overall landscape of nihilism, or that the absent car owners, insinuated to be a pair of youthful lovers, offer an ominous echo to the barren state of our protagonists' interactions. In fact, they might even be Roger and Angie at a much earlier stage in their relationship, before things turned sour (the fate of the motorists is never made clear, but it's heavily inferred that they parked their car and slipped into the bushes to copulate, only to be viciously mauled by the legions of rats they unwittingly laid down among). From that perspective, the rats could represent the stagnation of a marriage that has lost momentum ever since the offspring fled the nest (the Truscotts have a daughter, Kate, who left them to get married), the poisoning and contamination of marital idealism. But I personally believe that Kneale is using the rats to convey a much broader indifference than that concerning the tepid relations between Roger and Angie, the implication being that humankind will ultimately doom itself against the rodent uprising through a fundamental lack of co-operation and communication - in that regard, the rats clearly have them beat.

This is where the titular Barty comes in, for he provides Angie of the illusion of an intimacy with an outside world that, in reality, would never notice if she lived or died. Angie clearly gets little alleviation from the overbearing void whether her husband is there with her or not, and it seems that there are a few other candidates willing to afford her the acknowledgement she requires - in addition to the absent Kate and Buster, Angie's mother would sooner talk about her own troubles than listen to her daughter's, and their neighbours the Gibsons are away. On a regular day, the voice of Barty becomes a substitute for human connection, a means of staving off despair by filling in the empty space, but at the climax of the story Angie uses him as a more literal lifeline, when she becomes desperate enough to call into Barty's show, after police have already dismissed the Truscotts' problem as one for the exterminators to handle in the morning. Barty assumes the role of spokesperson for the external world to whom Angie reaches out for help and validation in the midst of catastrophe. We sense straight off the bat that Barty is unlikely to provide such refuge (keep in mind that "art", which features twice in "Barty's Party", is an anagram of "rat"), and it is indeed Barty who finally damns Angie to oblivion. Although Barty initially treats the story as a joke, he does appear to grow genuinely concerned as Angie's situation grows more and more dire and her distress magnifies, and promises that he will send help - unfortunately, the rats bite through the telephone wires, severing the Truscotts' sole means of communication with the world beyond, just before Angie is able to give Barty her address. The radio remains intact, however, so the Truscotts can still hear Barty as he assures them that he did at least garner Angie's full name and that his production team will spearhead a search for anyone living in the Hampshire area with the name Angela Prescott. All the Truscotts can do is scream in vain at the blathering Barty as it becomes evident that the outside world will never find a trace of them. Crucially, Barty has doomed Angie in his failure to validate her existence - by failing to accurately memorise her name, he denies her the affirmation she seeks, the authentication of herself and her predicament, and her assimilation into a broader body of connected people. As far as the wider world is concerned, she does not exist, and her cries for acknowledgement have fallen on deaf ears.

The end of the story offers an unexpected development - the Truscotts are cornered in their bedroom, with seemingly no prospect of escape, when the rats fall abruptly silent. Angie and Roger hear the sounds of human voices outside and realise, to their relief, that their neighbours the Gibsons have returned. Confirmation, then, that the rats were nothing more than the products of a particularly oppressive bout of isolation, an illusion easily shattered by the emergence of other human figures from the void? That's what Kneale undoubtedly wants us to think, but unfortunately, the Gibsons' last-minute appearance amounts to nothing more than a passing flicker of false hope. As we soon discover, the rats have halted their attack on the Truscotts simply to go outside take out the Gibsons, after which their rampage on the Truscotts' property immediately resumes. That the rats make a point of destroying the Gibsons first may be their most sinister course of action throughout the entire story, since it implies that they want the Truscotts to feel completely cut off and alone in their final moments. The helplessness of both parties against this oblivion is a chilling reminder of just how flimsy are the ties that bind, even among those living in a close proximity. Fact is, they could not depend on their own neighbours to save them in a time of crisis.

As the story closes, it is Barty who gets the last word, for the sounds of the radio can just about be discerned above the onslaught of shrieking rats, and he has one final comment for Angie in an effort to prop up his own ego: "Now we're doing all we can, but still no positive results. One or two cynics here are even using the word "hoax". Well, that's happened before. Poor old Barty being conned and being set up ridiculous. But I don't want to believe it. I've got faith in human nature. So before our handover, I'll just say this: Angela, sweetie, I hope you really do exist." Not any more, she doesn't.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Casper (1995): All of Harvey's Friends Are Dead, But That's Okay

Since I broached the subject about a month ago, let's talk about the time that Casper, that unusually benevolent, pint-sized wraith who'd previously starred in a series of theatrical cartoons from Famous Studios in the 1940s and 1950s, and later a series of comics by Harvey Comics, received his own big screen feature adventure, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg's production company. Casper was directed by Brad Silberling and released on May 26th 1995, at a time when computer-generated effects were beginning to gain more of a commanding presence in cinema - we were only a few months away from the release of Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature film, and for now Casper represented a major breakthrough all of its own, in boasting the first leading character to be created entirely with CGI and integrated into live action settings with flesh and blood co-stars. The beginning of the end, you might even say? Much as Casper is a misunderstood ghoul, I think Casper is a misunderstood flick, one that's easily dismissed as being little more than a playground for its flashy visual effects but has quite a bit more going for it than that.

Our story opens with Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty), a gold-digging would-be socialite who is chagrined to discover that her late father has left all of his fortune to various wildlife charities and all she got from the deal is Whipstaff Manor, a condemned seafront property in the town of Friendship, Maine. She has a change of heart, however, when her long-suffering personal assistant Dibs (Eric Idle) discovers a hidden document in with the deeds, indicating that Whipstaff Manor actually harbours a secret wealth. Accessing the property proves to be another matter entirely, for while long devoid of human life, Carrigan hadn't banked on it being haunted by four ghosts. Casper (voice of Malachi Pearson), the ghost of a 12-year-old child, is the lonely misfit of the household, and is constantly bullied and subjugated by the other three, a malevolent poltergeist posse known as the Ghostly Trio (whom Casper identifies as his "uncles", although their living identities are not expounded on further). Heading the trio is the spindly snarker Stretch (Joe Nipote), who is the meanest and most intelligent of the three - there's also Fatso (Brad Garrett), an obtuse glutton, and Stinkie (Joe Alaskey), a vulgar prankster. Barely tolerated by his fellow specter, except as a dogsbody, Casper has an innate curiosity about reconnecting with the living, but finds little sympathy there either, for most people become shrieking wrecks at the mere sight of him. When Carrigan and Dibs show up at the manor, Casper tries to befriend them and gets the classic reaction; worse still, they attract the attentions of the three poltergeists, who really give them something to scream about. Carrigan enlists various forces to rid the manor of the ghosts, but to no avail - after burning through the best (cue clever cameos from Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci and Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stantz), she turns to the rest, and finds Dr James Harvey (Bill Pullman) a parapsychologist and self-proclaimed "ghost therapist", who purports to be able to convince ghosts to stop haunting by directing them through their "unfinished business". Harvey's commitment to his work has rendered him a pariah both professionally and socially, not least because his obsession with helping ghosts move on from whatever's pinning them to this mortal coil is very transparently rooted in his own inability to let go of his deceased wife, Amelia. This ostracisation has spread to his teenage daughter Kat (Christina Ricci), a girl without a friend in the world, in whom Casper may finally have found a kindred spirit.

I was ten years old when Casper first hit. I went to see it and was as blown away by it as any film I had ever seen back then. I dug the visual effects, I found many of the individual sequences to be tremendously exciting (particularly the sequence where Harvey faces off against the Ghostly Trio), I got a little tearful during all the third-act pathos, and I give extra special props to the lady in the seat behind me who gasped indignantly at the part where Carrigan looms over Dibs and yells, "THE BITCH IS BACK!" It's a very memorable experience from my early days of cinema-going. I held such fond, loving memories of this film that I was slightly taken back, some years later, to discover that Casper is not exactly what you'd call a universally beloved flick, with many being inclined to regulate it to the same junkyard of trash 1990s live action cartoon recreations as Richie Rich and The Flintstones (there was a time when The Addams Family and The Addams Family Values used to be cast on that pile, but people have decided that they like those movies after all). As with Benji The Hunted, it's a case of this film's fanbase consisting predominantly of myself and Roger Ebert. For as little respect as this film is afforded, every time I revisit it I am reminded of why I loved it so much as a child and have the living snot disarmed out of me all over again. Firstly, the visual effects have stood the test of time - some of the CGI might seem a tad rudimentary to modern eyes (naturally, the ghosts based on cartoon characters look a whole lot better than those based on real people), but Casper and the Trio are still all so fantastically fluid and expressive in their individual movements and mannerisms, and, as with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it's a film that benefits immeasurably from the sheer believability with which the ghosts and humans appear to interact. More importantly, the film has heart, although for me personally that heart lies less in whether Casper and Kat will overcome their social and physical differences than it does in Harvey's whole arc, his quest for reaffirmation and the unexpected solidarity he discovers in the Ghostly Trio. Bill Pullman, I think, is wonderful in this film - god knows, I wasn't a fan of that other special effects blitz he was in around the middle of the decade, but here he's truly adorable as Harvey, a socially paralysed dork whose earnest demeanor barely conceals the deep existential despair underpinning his day-to-day being. Some find Moriarty's performance as Carrigan to be overly theatrical (no doubt that she's trying to out-cartoon the cartoon ghosts), but I think she's a fun and underrated villain with some good dialogue.

Having said all that, I can understand why some people would struggle with this film. It is rather a peculiar mishmash of elements - a goofball special effects extravaganza with conspicuously morbid undertones, and a whole lot of touchy-feels. It's a silly live action cartoon that strives to be a little dark and dirty (but isn't a dark comedy, despite its occasionally flippant approach to to the issues it raises) and ultimately wants to say something meaningful about life and death, love and loss, grief and letting go. The end result is film dealing explicitly with grave subject matter that flitters through such a dizzying variety of tones - zany, sentimental, and at times a mite mean-spirited - that as a concoction it becomes somewhat grotesque, and I think that's what alienates some viewers. Personally, I suspect the film's offbeat style and its upfront grappling with the issue of mortality - not least, the mortality of its target audience - has an awful lot to do with what endeared it to me as a kid, but I appreciate why some might find its discordant treatment of the subject off-putting.

Among the film's detractors were our friends at Halliwell's Film Guide, who praised the "spectacular" visual effects but found the film "tasteless in its attitudes to life and death". I've pondered what, specifically, would stand out as so tasteless about it, and I will confess that as fervidly as I'll defend this movie, there is one aspect of it that I do not like, and which has never sat well with me, and that is the entire manner in which Carrigan's arc is resolved. See (SPOILERS!), Harvey's hypothesis that ghosts are bound to the living world by some kind of "unfinished business" turns out to be entirely astute. Most ghosts are held captive by an unfortunate paradox, whereby they are driven by a strong sense of purpose but fated to lose all conscious awareness of who they were, somewhat impeding their ability to fulfill that purpose; should a ghost actually complete their unfinished business, however, they will "cross over" into the afterlife, from which ordinarily they cannot return. With Kat's help, Casper remembers that in life he was the son of a renowned inventor named McFadden, and between them they uncover the "Lazarus", a project that McFadden had been working on following the death of his son, with the power to restore a ghost to a life, but was never able to utilise due to his being declared insane and presumably dying in an institution somewhere. Casper and Kat manage to activate the Lazarus, but discover that, due to the limited quantities of life-giving fluid, the machine only has the capacity to be used once. Meanwhile, the poltergeists have gone out for a wild night on the town, taking Harvey with them, and Carrigan and Dibs seize the opportunity to infiltrate the manor, but are unable to access the vault reputed to contain the treasure. However, they stumble across the Lazarus and, learning of its capabilities, Carrigan steals the fluid, musing that it would be so much easier to break into the vault if one of them were a ghost and had the ability to float through walls. She then attempts to murder Dibs, promising to later restore him to life using the Lazarus, only to get herself killed in the effort. So she becomes a ghost and uses her newly-acquired spectral powers to crack the vault and seize the chest of treasure within, much to the protests of Casper and Kat. Dibs shows up and attempts to betray Carrigan, intending to keep the treasure for himself and leave her permanently stranded as a ghost - she responds by punching him and sending him flying through the window of the manor, presumably to his death. Kat and Casper then quiz Carrigan on what her unfinished business is. Carrigan triumphantly declares that she has none, now that she finally has what she came here for...whereupon her spirit is hijacked by an overpowering light that proceeds to obliterate her. Realising her error, Carrigan desperately pleads that she has plenty of unfinished business, but it's too late - the powers that be clearly heard her, and there are no take backs.

With Carrigan gone, Casper and Kat reclaim both the fluid and the chest, and we get our payoff to the whole treasure saga, which is that - PSYCH! - there was no treasure. Turns out, that hidden message on the deeds all boiled down to a gigantic misunderstanding. It was simply a leftover prop from a role-playing game that McFadden used to play with Casper. And what was actually in that treasure chest? A worthless baseball. Well, not entirely worthless, in that it holds tremendous sentimental value to Casper: "It's autographed by Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers! My favourite player!" That, folks, is our punchline.

So yes, we were in textbook MacGuffin territory all along with this whole treasure business, in that the treasure itself (or lack of) has no actual bearing on any of the plot resolution, and is there purely to give Carrigan her motivation for doing all that she does. The revelation that she got her panties in such an ungodly twist over a meagre baseball is clearly intended to be humorous, but falls flat - not so much because it's a weak punchline to such a pivotal arc, but because it seems like awfully flippant payoff in light of the fact that two people just lost their lives in pursuit of this non-existent treasure. (Technically, Dibs' fate is unknown - it's possible that he survived, although I can't say I'm loving his odds.) On that note, Casper and Kat deliberately goaded Carriagn into professing that she has no unfinished business, knowing full well what would happen if she did, so...arguably, you could say that they murdered her. Perhaps "murder" is a concept that only applies to corporeal beings, but at any rate they destroyed her ghost, and seem quite remorseless about the entire affair. And over what? A baseball signed by Duke Snider. (Okay, the fluid as well, but I'm still not comfortable with the fact that this was still a major factor in what such a dramatic life and death struggle came down to.)

I get the intention, of course. Carrigan and Dibs were victims of their own avarice, obsessiveness and superficiality. The whole purpose of the alleged treasure turning out to be something as inconsequential as a baseball (even one autographed by Duke Snider) is to make a point about how ridiculous and misspent those aspirations were from the start. Casper pushes the argument, with all the cold-blooded ferocity of the Coen brothers' Fargo (1996), that the pursuit of personal and material gain will inevitably coax out the mindless, self-destructive monsters in us all, a struggle that in the end is absolutely not worth the bloodshed. For the treasure to be a beloved personal item of Casper's, and the map part of a bonding ritual he once shared with his father, likewise provides a clear contrast of values, with Carrigan's grasping rapacity playing off against Casper's guilelessness. It isn't too much of a stretch to infer that Whipstaff Manor does contain a treasure, but it's not one that Carrigan, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, can actually use. It's also certainly not that stupid baseball. It would be easy enough to argue that the actual treasure lay in love and friendship, but I would go a step further and suggest that the real treasure to be unearthed at Whipstaff Manor is life itself. After all, we have the Lazarus, and that is a pretty remarkable find. Another reason, I suppose, why Halliwell's might find the film's outlook on life and death "tasteless" is the entire plot point of the Lazarus. We have a machine that can subvert the natural order and bring the dead back to life, and while the film does take a dim view on those who would abuse such a device for nefarious purposes, no one questions the broader ethical ramifications of McFadden's god-playing aspirations. But then the purposes of the Lazarus are largely symbolic. This is a film about a ghost who's been dead and lost for some time and who, through his experiences at the manor, finds a renewed purpose and, with the restoration of his life, a better understanding of how to live it. All of that does indeed apply to Casper, but it applies doubly to Harvey who, as I've already indicated, has the most compelling arc out of the cast. What you need to bear in mind about Harvey is that he is already dead before the movie begins - he is not a ghost in the literal sense (although he does become one later on in the film), but he exists as a figurative ghost, one who has become disconnected from life because he is so heavily fixated with holding on to the past. Harvey is unprepared to confront the future until he feels he has been reconciled with what fate has forced him to leave behind; over the course of the film, however, he gains a new perspective, one that enables him to see a way through his grief and insecurity (ultimately it is Harvey, and not Casper, who is restored to life via the Lazarus), and rejoins the living, through the acceptance he finds among the dead. The treasure at the manor, then, is the possibility of a brand new dawn, of new hope and momentum following loss.

It's easy enough to draw parallels between Carrigan's fanatical pursuit of the phantom treasure and Harvey's relentless quest to be reunited with Amelia, whom he doggedly believes to still be out there in the form of a ghost. In both cases, we have characters who are clearly damaging themselves for the sake of something they suppose to be there on the basis of only conjecture and assumption. But the most compelling analogue for Carrigan's disturbing final demise lies with Casper himself. For he, like Carrigan, was cut down at the height of his exaltation, and by his own steadfast refusal to relinquish personal acquisition. His memories of his past life finally restored, Casper recounts to Kat how he became a ghost - he had begged his father to buy him a sled, and when his father relented, Casper was so delighted that he went out into the snowy landscape and played with it to a dangerous degree: "I couldn't stop, I was having so much fun. Then it got late, it got dark, it got cold. And I got sick. My dad got sad." The whole notion of a sled embodying the tipping point between a lost innocence and an altogether more tumultuous twist of fate is of course evocative of Orson Welles' much-admired classic Citizen Kane (1941), to an extent that I presume can only be deliberate. Whereas Kane's final gasp on his deathbed was a lament for the childhood sled he regretted leaving behind on the road to power and success (that is, a yearning for the simpler, gentler life he could otherwise have led), Casper's downfall came in his unwillingness to be parted from his own beloved sled. Casper wished to remain where he was, in that moment of carefree happiness for all eternity, oblivious to the fact that the world around him was already changing. Casper aspired to freeze time, and himself became frozen, literally and figuratively, forever stranded in spiritual limbo in the form of a living impaired twelve-year-old. Casper's grasping comes from a more innocent place than Carrigan's, but both were ultimately misdirected by the assumption that everything they would ever need was right there in their hands, and that all they had to do was to keep a hold of it. The message, in both cases, is that anyone who tries to grab hold of life and bend it to their will does so to their own detriment.

A common connection linking Casper's predicament to all of the main humans is the sensation that life is something that is out there and is passing them by. Carrigan believes that she could be living the high life if she could just get her hands on the treasure inside the manor. Kat, having been forced to relocate so many times owing to her father's nomadic lifestyle, has never had the opportunity to settle within any one community and form any real connections or a sense of belonging; she is a kindred spirit to Casper because she, like film, feels afloat, an empty shell without an identity or any firm relationship with the past, the present or the future. Kat, unlike her father, aspires to move on from their family's tragedy, but feels guilt in doing so; at one point, she discloses to Casper her fear that she is starting to forget her mother. And finally we have Harvey, who is the most living impaired of them all, having died a clear emotional death with the literal death of Amelia. Harvey has become a ghost, not unlike the ones he professes to be helping, driven to walk the Earth by an unfinished business that he has no means of ever fulfilling. When Kat challenges her father on his unrelenting conviction that Amelia is now a ghost, he insists that, "She is, she has unfinished business," without articulating what that business might be exactly, making it painfully evident that he projects his own lack of resolution and devastation at having had his marital bliss cut short onto his deceased wife. Harvey spends his present pining for the past and mourning the cancelled future, all while attempting to avoid facing up to the abyss of uncertainty that lies ahead. Harvey, like Kat, has lost his connection to the wider world; on the journey up to Friendship he makes it clear just how devoid his own life is of friends. His relationship with his daughter represents his only strong and stable association with another human being, and Harvey is all-too aware that Kat is already a teenager and beginning to move in her own direction. Kat will grow and change and Harvey, who feels unable to progress, understands that the time will come when he inevitably will be left behind. Harvey does not attempt to stop Kat from growing - as a character, he simply doesn't exude that level of authority. His reaction to Kat's incoming puberty is one more of disconcertment and deflated powerlessness. He permits Kat to hold a Halloween party in the manor for her new classmates and to make plans to bring a date, but the knowledge that Kat's attentions are shifting toward the outside world, coupled with his weariness at being unable to fix the manor's ghost problem, pushes him into a state of deep despondence, or what the Ghostly Trio refer to as a "fleshie breakdown."

Harvey forges a re-connection with life, ironically, through his connection with three dead guys. The Ghostly Trio begrudgingly allow Harvey to remain at the manor after he defeats them in a confrontation, but are largely unreceptive to his efforts to counsel the scaring tendencies out of them. However, when the poltergeists learn of Harvey's longing to be reunited with Amelia, Stretch makes him a proposition - they will help him find Amelia if he agrees to convince Carrigan to leave them alone. Harvey agrees, but at first it's not clear if either party intends to uphold their side of the bargain, particularly as the Trio immediately seize the opportunity to play a cruel prank on Harvey. Nevertheless, as time goes by the poltergeists grow to feel a genuine affinity for Harvey, who in turn begins to admire the camaraderie between the Trio, their zest for their afterlife, and their ability to exist unburdened by either the pains of the past or the fear of the future. They are not concerned that life is out there and is passing them by, for as they see it, life is something that is severely oversold. As Harvey observes, "You say, I'm a ghost. You look life in the face and say, I don't need you!" As a result, he revises his previously-held view that ghosts are inherently out of place in the land of the living. To be a ghost is to exist without resolution, and Harvey comes to see that as indicative not necessarily of a disordered despairing, but of a tremendous adaptability. It is the ability to keep enduring, long after the world has written you off as past your expiry date. The poltergeists become his salvation, but this in itself nearly takes a dark turn, when the Trio, having extended their esprit de corps to Harvey, conspire to kill him so that he can truly become one of them, reasoning that they would be doing him a favour by putting him out of his misery. They are unable to go through with this, however, when Harvey tells them how much their acceptance means to him and announces his intention to defend their right to continue haunting the manor, and it dawns on the Trio that murdering the only fleshie willing to accept them as they are would be a heinous thing to do. (This is another reason why you will never convince me that this isn't one of the greatest family movies of all-time - we reach a point in the narrative where we get a sequence dedicated to an explicit display of heartfelt love between a man and three malevolent spirits, which is exactly the kind of mind-blowing awesomeness that made my own ten-year-old spirit soar.)

The Trio considers subjecting Harvey to a brutal initiation ceremony.

Unfortunately, Harvey meets with an accident on his bender with the poltergeists, falls into an open trench and dies anyway. His moment of death is, somewhat gallingly, played entirely for laughs, although there is great pathos later on when Kat encounters him as a ghost and realises that he has already forgotten her, thus turning the tables in their relationship dynamic. Now, Kat is the one in danger of being left behind. Some might feel there is a slight discrepancy here, as Harvey seems to forget about his past life as soon as he becomes a ghost, whereas Carrigan clearly remembered what she was doing within the brief time she had. You could chalk that up, if you so chose, to the respective mindsets of the characters when they died (since Carrigan was very determined, and fixated on the prospect of becoming a ghost in order to infiltrate the vault, even if she intended for the experience to be Dibs', whereas Harvey was in an intoxicated state and fairly oblivious), but from a thematic perspective I would argue that Harvey's amnesia works primarily as a means of illustrating his personal dilemma. For Harvey, there is immense attraction in being a ghost, and in the ability to shed all conscious awareness of the life he leaves behind - upon surveying his new spectral form, he declares, "I'm free! I've never felt so good in my life." It offers Harvey a release from his grief, and the opportunity to discard all traces of his former identity and no longer be burdened (at least knowingly) by any of the personal attachments or obligations he held during life, dulling him to the hurt of anything that might have come before, or may have threatened to happen in the future - as Casper had earlier mused, "When you're a ghost, life doesn't matter that much any more." This freedom from his personal demons has, however, come at an obvious cost to Harvey, in that it also means having to sever himself from everything that once gave his life fulfillment and meaning. And yet, in the end his bond with Kat proves too powerful, and he discovers that he cannot follow his poltergeist friends all the way down to the hedonistic line. Kat gestures to him with her pinky, replicating the "pinky swear" that she and Harvey had made earlier in the film and reminding Harvey of their physical and emotional connection. At this point, Harvey gains an awareness of his situation, and is devastated on realising the barrier that has been driven between himself and Kat. Casper comes to the rescue, and allows Harvey to take his place within the Lazarus, even if it means forfeiting his only prospect of ever again becoming one of the living.

Harvey is literally restored to life via the Lazarus, but his resurrection also signifies his coming alive for the very first time in the film, in that he has finally figured out how to move forward while grappling with feelings of grief and uncertainty. If to be a ghost is to exist without resolution, then to be alive is to live with impermanence, and Harvey realises that both are vital qualities in order to navigate in a world where the past and the future alike are so ill-defined. He emerges with a fortified commitment toward Kat, understanding the importance of always being there for her, even as she continues to move in her own direction - this much is evident in his encouraging her to join the Halloween party as he stands back and lingers upon the sidelines. This reaffirmation of his parental responsibilities does not, however, negate the lessons he learned from his experiences with the poltergeists - thanks to the Trio, he has a renewed sense of belonging and a greater resilience to the capriciousness of life. He is truly a man who has learned how to live with the specter of mortality hanging over him. Unlike the ghosts, he is not able to look life in the eye and declare that he does not need it - his obligation to Kat keeps him grounded, and willing to weather life's heartbreaks for her sake - but he does end up rejecting the ideal of a pristine, perfectly tied-up life, which he assumed had been lost with Amelia but likely never existed in the first place. As we learned from Casper's sorry backstory, life is not for the grabbing, pinning down and safe containing, and anyone who strives for such an existence would be as misguided and bound for destruction as Carrigan over that fictitious treasure. Harvey understands that in order to carry on he must be prepared to live with the holes that can never be filled, the cracks that will always be visible and the questions that may never be answered. Crucially, he remains present for his daughter but retains his friendship with the Trio, indicating that he now has his own individual new path ahead of him, in addition to backing up his daughter as she sets off down her own.

Of course, Harvey does get resolution, of sorts, when Amelia (Amy Brenneman) shows up at the end of the film, having been summoned by the Ghostly Trio, who let her know that Harvey was searching for her (thus fulfilling their end of the bargain and demonstrating that they they are truly Harvey's friends), although she does so largely to call Harvey out for projecting his own feelings of deficiency onto her ("I have no unfinished business. Please don't let me be yours.") She appears not as a ghost, as Harvey had always anticipated, but as an angel (Stinkie had effectively told Harvey this much earlier on, when he said of Amelia, "she's always been an angel to me"). I'd note that, for the most part, the film tries to avoid explicitly aligning itself with any specific branch of religiosity, hence why it remains so vague on the issue of what afterlife the ghosts actually "cross over" into, but making Amelia into an angel is something of a necessary evil in order to clearly illustrate that she's transcended the worldly attachments and appetites that keep both the ghosts and humans tethered to the living world.* Amelia does not yearn for anything more from life, because she feels that she already experienced the best it had to offer within the time she had, however truncated. We also need to account for Amelia's Blue Fairy-esque ability to turn Casper into a living boy; in gratitude for his willingness to put her family's needs above his own, Amelia grants him his wish, albeit with a major limitation - she can restore Casper to life, but only for a single evening. Casper accepts this arrangement, and takes the opportunity to join the Halloween party downstairs and share a dance and ultimately a kiss with Kat (in his living form, Casper is played by a young Devon Sawa, who is very effective in the role, in that he does emit this distinctly spooky, otherworldly quality). Compared to his previous rapacity over the sled, Casper now appreciates that the defining quality of life is its impermanence - ultimately, all things must pass, and all he can do is go forth and take advantage of the time that he has. Meanwhile, Amelia reinforces to Harvey the necessity of living with uncertainty - when he admits that he doesn't know what he's doing, she responds, "What parent does?"

This being a 90s Hollywood blockbuster, Casper ends, inevitably, with the reaffirmation of the traditional family unit. Harvey may be a single father tasked with raising a teenage daughter by his lonesome, but Amelia assures him that she'll still have a part in this, as she'll be watching over them all the while; furthermore, she tells him that the time will come when they'll all be together again, indicating that their marital and familial bonds will ultimately endure, the restoration of the family guaranteed as the restoration of an intrinsic cosmic order. (Actually, in spite of Amelia's parting remarks, I like to think that when Harvey dies for the second time he'll stick around with his friends the Ghostly Trio and fulfill his obvious destiny to make them into the Ghostly Quartet - they're the ones we've spent the entire movie watching him get close to, after all.) The final scene, however, shows Kat and Harvey at the abandoned Halloween party, once again deserted by the outside world,  as they privately continue the celebration with Casper and the Ghostly Trio, the six of them now all functioning together as the world's most unconventional family. The closing image, then, is one of unity among pariahs, social outcasts who are all quite happy and comfortable with themselves because they have one another's affirmation. The issues are not entirely cut and dried - the Ghostly Trio may have come through for Harvey, but there is nothing, beyond that final image of unity, to indicate that their relationship with their nephew has improved (Casper and the Trio actually interact surprisingly infrequently throughout the film, for they are each so tied up in Kat and Harvey's respective narrative strands). Moreover, there is an unspoken sadness in the implication that the dance and the kiss that Casper was able to share with Kat constitute the full extent to which their puppy love is ever likely to go. For as long as he remains a ghost, Casper is doomed to stay twelve years old forever, while Kat, as Harvey and Amelia jointly acknowledge, is already a teenager, and the gap between them is only going to widen as time goes on and Kat progresses ever deeper into puberty. Eventually Casper, like Harvey, will have to deal with the inevitability of Kat moving on and leaving him behind. But then that's for the future to bear out. All we have now is the present.

Here are a few of my more random observations:

  • The Lazarus worked, I assume, by using that "primordial soup mix" to recreate Harvey's body from scratch. In which case, his old body is presumably still out there, lying at the bottom of that trench in a bloodied, mangled state? That's a grim thought.
  • On the subject of bodies, if we're to assume that Dibs did indeed bite the dust when Carrigan sent him hurtling through the window (and we have every reason to believe he did), then presumably his dead body is still lying right there outside the manor while all those kids are inside partying? Again, grim. The first teens to sneak out into the grounds for a quick spliff are in for the shock of their lives, never mind one of the dancers morphing into a ghost before their eyes.
  • Aside from the whole business with Carrigan and the baseball, there's only one other notable nitpick I have (well, actually two - Ben Stein irritates the hell out of me, and I'd sooner he wasn't in this movie at all, but he's only there for about a minute and we get his part out of the way nice and early, so I suppose I can deal with it). That's that Fatso somehow knows Harvey's name during the "Three Musketeers" portion of their confrontation, before he formally announces it to Stretch during their plunger/golf club clash. Now, the Trio had already had that moment where they possess Harvey by crawling inside his head and warping his self-perception (a light-hearted nod to that horrendous face-peeling sequence from the movie Poltergeist), so you could argue that they'd gleaned some personal information from within his mind. All the same, it does somewhat undermine the impact of Harvey's triumphant response when Stretch challenges him as to who he thinks he is: "Dr James Harvey, your therapist!"
  • Let's touch briefly on a pet peeve of mine about 1990s cinema in general - the theme songs. While it had long been commonplace for Hollywood movies to come with their own tie-in pop numbers (that way, you could have a hit single on the side and promote further awareness of your picture - synergy, people!), I think it was around the time of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves onward that we started to see a trend wherein all Hollywood theme songs became arbitrary power ballads that were only very tenuously linked to the content of the movie itself. Gone were the days when a theme song actually bore the name of the movie in the title and was very clearly, unambiguously about the movie in question (eg: "Ben" by Michael Jackson, and "Pet Sematary" by Ramones, which may have been one of the last of its kind). The problem with these 90s theme songs is that they were, in most cases, entirely interchangeable - you could swap the theme songs for Con Air, Up Close And Personal and Armageddon and they all would all make every bit as much sense. Casper was no exception, with "Remember Me This Way" by Jordan Hill filling in the honors. This one at least ties in with the film's key theme about learning to let go and accept impermanence; obviously, the lyrics apply to Harvey and Amelia, but I suppose they also encapsulate Casper's awareness that he can't actually accompany Kat on her journey through adolescence. Nowadays, movies seldom get original theme songs at all - why create something new, when you can play to the nostalgia crowd by pulling out something familiar and retro? - so against my better judgement I find myself becoming wistful for the days when we had all these music videos consisting of a singer standing around idly while a bunch of clips from the movie played.

Finally, Casper never got a proper sequel. One was apparently scripted, and the film was certainly enough of a box office success to have justified it, only instead they decided to go the DTV prequel route, and plans for a theatrical sequel ultimately fizzled. It did, however, get a spin-off animated series, The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper (as was also standard procedure in the 1990s), which served as a direct sequel to the movie. If I do say so it was pretty damned excellent; in fact, it might even get my vote for most underrated animated series of the 90s. If you don't believe me, then I'd advise you to check out "Three Ghosts and a Baby", which is the episode where Harvey accidentally hypnotises Casper into reverting to an infantile state and the Ghostly Trio end up having to care for him. Trust me when I say that you're in for the funniest eight minutes of your life.

* In a way it also acts as a nice segue into Silberling's following film, City of Angels (1998), a remake of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987), which reexamined the issue of mortality, this time from an angelic perspective.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #19: Whiskas Singles - The Wisdom of Robert Mitchum

There is a scene in the 1988 movie Scrooged where Robert Mitchum's character, a media boss, informs Bill Murray that a new study has revealed that cats and dogs might represent the next wave of devoted television viewers, and suggests that "we occasionally throw in a little pet appeal...what about a cop that dangles string? That's his gimmick." It all sounds ridiculous as hell, but barely more than a decade later, Whiskas cat food gave us a stirring glimpse into Mitchum's bold vision of what a TV broadcast specifically designed with pet appeal in mind might actually look like, with what was heavily touted as "The First Ever Commercial For Cats". First airing on ITV on 27th January 2019, the 40-second ad was specifically designed to get your cat's eyes glued to the screen and maybe even swiping an eager paw at the vast array of curiosities bombarded at them - fluffy birds on strings, laser pointers, things darting in and out from mouse-holes...basically, every wonderful item that traditionally causes cats to lose their marbles. This is a first for our Horrifying Advertising Animals retrospective - an ad in which the animals in question are never actually seen, merely heard. Rather, this ambitious ad attempts to put you in the perspective of the cat, so that you too can experience the wonder and insanity of a world full of enticing dangling things and scuttering prey, amid which only the cold, wet embrace of a pouch of Whiskas Singles brings any kind of momentary clarity.

The ad in question was created by Ketchum Life, who carefully researched the kinds of sounds and images that cats were liable to respond to and incorporated as many as possible into forty seconds. According to this Campaign article, it was also preceded by an extensive publicity campaign, with many news outlets running reports on the supposedly ground-breaking ad, and some lucky reports being sent exclusive cat bowls bearing the inscription, "The Most Exciting Night Of Your Nine Lives." As I recall, this ad actually had two parts - typically, it was shown toward the end of the ad break, and was preceded by a shorter spot earlier in the same break advising that the much-publicised ad was coming up, so you should ensure that your cat was watching (that part, I think, involved a shot of a cat leaping up onto a settee and basking in the warm glow of the chattering cyclops).

First things first, did it actually work the intended magic on its ostensible target audience? From personal experience, I can say yes - our cat Cleo did look at the screen while this ad was on, and she kept her eyes fixed for the full duration. In my opinion she looked more confused than she did curious. According to this contemporary BBC article, however, most cats remained their typically cool selves when presented with the ad - at most they had the same reaction as Cleo, and would give the screen their attention, however fleeting, but it seems that only a minority of cats were enticed to get up and start attacking the items onscreen. But then the whole "first ever commercial for cats" angle was never anything more than a novelty designed to generate discussion among pet owners and to bring the brand to the forefront of their attentions. Back in 1999, I remember feeling slightly bemused at the specific portion of the ad in which purring noises are played to a close-up shot of a pouch of Whiskas singles being ripped open. It seemed laughable in how on the nose it was. Surely, Whiskas didn't suppose that they could brainwash their alleged four-legged audience into associating pleasure with their specific brand? How is a cat expected to make such a connection? But then, as the BBC article wryly observes, "Getting your moggy to respond to the new ad may be one thing - getting it to do the shopping may be more difficult." We all know that cats were never really the intended audience for this ad, but rather cat people. It incorporates more pet appeal than Mitchum in Scrooged, in his naive innocence, could ever have dreamed of, but its primary purpose was always to endear the brand to the hearts of human viewers, who were probably just as likely to be amused by their cat's non-reaction as any genuine display of enthusiasm, and that purring sound attached to the image of an opening pouch was a message aimed squarely at them.

Editor Stefano Hatfield is quoted in the aforementioned Campaign article as deeming the ad to be "nice" but "nothing special, really", and was surprised that media outlets gave it as much oxygen as they did. Personally, though, I always found this ad to be borderline epic in terms of how discombobulating it was, which in part has to do with my own raw experience of it. I missed the initial media blitz back in January 1999, and during my first encounter with this ad was fortuitous enough to have tuned in about a fourth of the way in, meaning that I missed that vital, context-giving title card. As such, words cannot do justice to just how baffling an experience it was. Try to imagine being bombarded with this cacophony of squeaks, squawks and meows, and with this succession of randomness darting across the screen, and not having a clue what it was in aid of. When I saw the Whiskas pouches, I twigged that this likely had something to do with the mindset of a cat, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out why Whiskas had gone down such a confusingly artistic route. To watch this ad is indeed to experience the bizarre sensation of being spoken to in an alien language targeted at something distinctively non-human, but the punchline is such a blatant and discernible one - that is, the sound of purring next to that close-up shot of the Whiskas brand name - as to make it plain that this whole "for cats" angle was nothing more than an elaborate set-up all along. The gag lies chiefly in the illusion that we've been watching a commercial "for cats", conveyed in a secret cat code, which climaxes in a winking reminder that, actually, this ad is speaking in precisely our own tongue. If it happens to entertain our cats on the side, then that is a delightful bonus.

Perhaps the most unnerving thing about this ad is that, for as strange and alien as it might seem, it's a a striking reminder that what Whiskas were alleging to be doing to our feline friends in this novelty spot is exactly what advertisers are doing to us every ten minutes, or less. In the end, all any ad break really amounts to is a confounding succession of string being dangled above our heads, in the hopes that we'll look and might even be riveted enough to raise a paw.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Video Pirates: My Girl's Mad At Me

In recent months, I've discovered just how much I love ex-rental VHS tapes. More specifically, how much I love ex-rental VHS tapes distributed by Columbia TriStar. Not only do they come in lovely coloured boxes (and occasionally, the tapes themselves come in lovely colours too), but often you'll find some of the most arbitrary and unexpected goodies at the start of those things. It all started back in April when I acquired an ex-rental of the 1992 movie Accidental Hero, which came packaged with a surprisingly ominous advertisement for British Telecom, a cheaply-made preview reel assembled by the (now-defunct) Irish radio station Atlantic 252, and the dorkiest, most frugal-looking promo imaginable urging me to support my local rental store ("It could be a year before it's on satellite!"). The entire experience was like digging up a glorious little time capsule from a bygone age. It reminded me that my deep-seated love of VHS isn't just limited to the fascination in watching a collection of images fade and degrade with the passage of time, but for all the wonderful odds and ends you have navigate your way through before you get to the main feature - the uncanny dialing noises at the start of the tape (which were actually signals indicating where the video was to be cut during the manufacturing process), the emotionally scarring production/distribution logos, the thorough explanations as to what to expect from the certificate of my chosen title (sadly, Columbia TriStar didn't have the ones with Simon Bates doing the honors - I still titter like a school kid at his use of the term "sexual swear words"), the previews, the random ads (on some ex-rentals) and, of course, the portentous anti-piracy warnings. Going back to my childhood, I can recall the immense unease I always felt at having to sit through those cautionary spots at the start of Disney VHS tapes lecturing me about the evils of "Poor quality illegal video cassettes" and the importance of ensuring that I had purchased "A GENUINE COPY". They were relatively mild in tone, but the sternness of that voice-over coupled with the foreboding sight of a Disney VHS suspended above a sickening blue void was enough to make me very afraid as to what alien horrors masquerading as wholesome entertainment could potentially be making their way into my living room and damaging my video cassette recorder as we speak. The suggestion that not even something as reliable as a Disney video cassette could be automatically trusted to do what it said on the tin made the world seem just a little more precarious.

There came a point, around 1997, where the UK Columbia TriStar rentals all started featuring the "Daylight Robbery" anti-piracy film, in which a dissatisfied customer attempts to return a dodgy copy of Trainspotting to a particularly lippy market vendor, and which, compared to other anti-piracy warnings, went largely for the humour factor (some years later, this also popped up on the limited edition VHS release of the 2014 film Beyond Clueless, suggesting that it even holds a certain nostalgia for some). The vendor's sporadically witty rebuffs aside ("No trains in it either; I suppose that's my fault as well?"), I have gotten a little tired of seeing this one, although I am somewhat amused by the overall inconsequence of the scenario; for the extremely dour tones adopted by the announcer in cautioning me that "There's no comeback!", it's inferred that the customer only paid about £4.99 for his unwatchable copy of Trainspotting. It's annoying, sure, but somehow I think he'll live.

The anti-piracy warning lying in wait on the 1995 Billy Crystal comedy Forget Paris, by contrast, was a real find. Compared to the lightness of the "Daylight Robbery" film, this one feels borderline apocalyptic in nature, pulling out every stop to convince me that civilisation gets one step closer to teetering on the brink of collapse every time some thoughtless git buys a knock-off VHS cassette. It starts out wholesomely enough, with a husband setting off for work and kissing his wife goodbye, before announcing that he picked up that VHS tape their daughter Rebecca has been hankering for. We get our first sign of trouble when he admits that "It only cost a fiver from that bloke down the market", and his wife cheerfully responds, "Great, it's not even out yet!" Clearly, neither of them sees anything suspect or unkosher about this scenario. We then cut to the unwitting Rebecca watching the video while her mother tends to the garden outside. Turns out, the video Rebecca wanted comes with the most unpleasantly frenetic-sounding cartoon music, which is already enough to set the viewer on edge, but things take an even queasier turn as her innocent laughter is juxtaposed with onslaught of text flashing across the screen to warn us that there are unseen evils at work in the form of drug dealers, terrorists and organsied crime - all of which, we are told, benefit tremendously from your purchase of pirated video cassettes. At the climax of the film...honestly, I'm not sure what happens. Rebecca's ill-gotten video apparently conks out and she looks to her mother in distress, but that intense dolly shot makes it seem as if something far more dramatic is unfolding. Not to mention, the cartoon music fades and is replaced by the sounds of gunshots and people screaming. It's an awful lot of hoopla for what must, again, boil down to a minor annoyance as far as this family are concerned. A fiver blown on a faulty video tape and a little girl who is presumably confused and disappointed by the experience. But unlike "Daylight Robbery", this one really strives to hit the viewer where it hurts, in suggesting that their lack of vigilance may have catastrophic effect that extends way beyond a mundane living room blow-out, and that the day-to-day security with which our children live will certainly be the first thing to go.

The film is discomforting in the way it intersects the cozy domesticity of Rebecca's world with the sense of a potent destructiveness stirring just away from view, and the feeling that this force is in the process of infiltrating and corrupting the innocent souls who dwell within. At first I wondered if perhaps some inappropriate material had wormed its way onto Rebecca's video, and that this is what has rendered her so shocked and confused at the climax, but on closer inspection I don't think that's it. Rather, I think Rebecca has had some kind of premonition of the pending devastation, and of her parents' complicity in this, and when she looks to her mother, it's not a plea for assistance - no, it's a look of full-on accusation, as she realises just what kind of society the ostensibly respectable adults in her life are building for her. (Incidentally, it does seem a mite unfair that her mother should have to bear the brunt of Rebecca's fury when it was her sleazy father who actually purchased the insidious cassette, but I suppose her mother's nonchalant attitude makes her just as culpable in all of this.) Ultimately, the family only blew a fiver on this unwatchable VHS, but it's clear that Rebecca's world is never going to be the same again. She's seen too much amid that unsightly distortion, and there's no comeback. The world is burning outside and it's all your fault, you witless pirate-enabler. Having to face the accusatory gaze of the children you let down with your cheese-paring purchases is perhaps the cruelest punishment of all.

Of course, as we moved away from cassette-based media and into the age of digital downloads, piracy only became all the more prevalent in our daily lives - with the rise of the internet, it was no longer a matter of making your way to a lippy market vendor to blow £4.99 on a dubious copy of Trainspotting, but having instant access to whatever you wanted with just a couple of mouse-clicks, and all for free. Accordingly, the anti-piracy warnings became less entertaining and began to reek more and more of sheer frustration - for example, the Federation Against Copyright Theft's infamous "You Wouldn't Steal A Car" campaign, which always played as though it were competing in some kind of condescension Olympics (some might consider the "Rebecca" spot condescending, what with its flagrantly dramatic scare-mongering tactics, but at least it doesn't deploy an endless succession of "You"s throughout, subjecting the viewer to the unpleasant sensation of having a finger thumped against their chest with every beat). Honestly, the number of DVDs I encountered that on which wouldn't even let me skip the damned thing left me feeling very, very resentful of the campaign, not least because my reward for buying a DVD lawfully was now all-too typically to be treated like a prospective criminal. Which does ultimately call to mind the probable futility of all of these efforts - they were rather a matter of preaching to the converted, were they not? Who was going to see them other than those who already bought or rented their media the legitimate way? But then I suppose the purpose of those early ads was never to show dodgy media buyers the error of their ways, but to create distrust among the law-abiding as to what could happen if they strayed off the branded path. It's a scary world out there. So stay inside and stick to products with our genuine label hologram.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #18: Arthur The Kattomeat Cat (A Toothless Tale - Or Not)

Arthur the Kattomeat cat is a rare advertising critter who gets into the horrifying club not because of anything overtly disturbing about the content of the campaign itself, but for the grisly bit of folklore that accompanied it. At least two generations of UK television viewers will be familiar with the image of a white cat satiating his hankerings for marrowbone jelly by inserting his paw into a tin of cat food and shoveling the meaty debris into his jaws. If you're of the older generation, then perhaps you also recall the lurid scandal that made the rounds in the late 1960s, when a troubling rumour was circulated throughout the press as to how this particular dumb pet trick was procured. And if you're of the younger generation, then perhaps your parents shared their memories of that scandal, permanently harpooning the cuteness of the campaign in one fell swoop.

That was how it was for me. One day, I brought it up in a conversation how enamored I was by the cat's paw-dipping antics, only for my dad to give me a compelling reason why I shouldn't be. "Do you know why that cat ate food with its paw?" he asked. "It's because they had all of its teeth surgically removed. It couldn't pick up and chew food with its mouth like a normal cat so it had no choice but to lick it off its paw." Both of my parents seemed very convinced of this fact. If that story were true, then obviously it would be beyond revolting, and would certainly destroy any enjoyment to be had from the ads - once you contemplate the notion that this charismatic cat is sucking processed sheep intestines through toothless gums, all of the charm does rather evaporate. Is it true, though? I do think it's important to always be mindful wherever animals are exhibited for entertainment purposes, and certainly there are some appalling examples of film-makers treating animals in highly unpleasant ways to elicit certain behaviours before the camera, and yet there was a part of me that was unwilling to completely swallow this story. Something about it struck me as vaguely far-fetched, in that it somehow didn't seem beyond the realm of possibility to teach a cat to lick food off its paw using more orthodox methods.


The brand of cat food Arthur was accustomed to pawing, by one means or another, was Kattomeat, the feline counterpart to Kennomeat dog food, both of which were owned by Spillers. In 1992, Kattomeat was renamed Arthur's, owing to the enduring popularity of the paw-dipping mascot, although the brand has since been discontinued and Spillers has now merged with Purina. I later discovered that the Arthur campaign went as far back as 1966, so the original Arthur to whom my parents referred would presumably have been long gone by the time I arrived. The campaign ran on until at least the late 1990s (when somebody finally had the bright idea of teaming the cat up with popular culture's other iconic Arthur - although the connection is not made explicit in the above ad with Dudley Moore). Obviously, the role was filled by multiple cats. Did they all have their teeth extracted, then? Or just the original Arthur, at a time when animal welfare regulations were less stringent? If so, then what made the latter cats trainable and not Arthur? It merited further investigation.

Fortunately, the skin-crawling story does not appear to check out. This BBC article on celebrity cats contains only a very scant biography of Arthur, but within that finds time to assure its readers that the allegations of the cat being deliberately rendered toothless were a filthy lie. It also confirms that at least three cats played the role across the decade - Arthur's successors were Arthur II and Arthur III. This article on British cat food brands, meanwhile, assures me that paw-dipping is perfectly natural behaviour among cats. If so, then how did the story about Arthur's draconian dental work get started? As with some of the grislier rumours regarding Spuds MacKenzie and the Taco Bell Chihuahua, it's assuredly the case that humans have a real penchant for substituting our own punchlines in cases where either none exists or the story demands a more lurid punchline than that on offer by reality. And what could be more lurid than a pet trick as simple and innocuous as a cat dipping with its paw coming attached to such a disturbing behind-the-scenes anecdote? But in Arthur's case, we may even have been encouraged to adopt this narrative by a single individual with an agenda. Arthur, it seems, led a complex existence, enough for writer John Montgomery to pen a biography about him, Arthur The Television Cat, in 1975. Arthur was fifteen years old at the time and anticipating retirement following nine years occupied not merely with the filming of numerous television commercials, but also heated legal disputes among the various humans in his life. Arthur's celebrity came at a price - if not his teeth, then in everybody wanting a piece of him.

According to Montgomery, Arthur was originally introduced and hired out to advertising agency Geers, Gross by the actress June Clyne, but after Clyne passed away from an unspecified illness, confusion arose as to who then claimed legal ownership of Arthur. One such candidate was Clyne's partner, Irish actor Toneye Manning, who reported encountering the cat as a stray earmarked for destruction in 1964, and keeping him as a pet for a period of time prior to his TV debut. Manning was paid a fee by Spillers for ownership of Arthur in 1967, but in 1968 he contested this and attempted to reclaim the cat as his own. Arthur was temporarily returned to Manning's care, and although the ensuing court hearings concluded that Spillers were the rightful owners, Manning refused to relinquish Arthur. As per Montogmery's account, the allegations that Spillers had had Arthur's teeth removed for the sake of their commercials point toward originating with Manning, who claimed to be acting in the interests of the cat's welfare:

" was reported in the press that [Manning] had protested that [Spillers]...were not fit to look after animals because Arthur's teeth had been extracted "just for the sake of a commercial on television"...The accusation that Arthur's teeth had been removed to ensure that he ate with his paw was spread across newspapers all over the world. Spillers at one point issued a statement saying that it was untrue, and "completely without foundation", adding that "Arthur had the same number of teeth when last in Spillers' care as when Mr Manning handed him over to Spillers in September 1967."" (p.70)

This grisly legend, then, might have been nothing more than a malicious story spread by Manning in order to prop up his case, although Montogmery's book reveals that there may have been a smidgen of truth in the story, in that Arthur did indeed suffer in the dental department. It seems that Arthur had an ulcerated mouth, which resulted in some tooth loss, although Spillers maintained that this had occurred before the cat came into their full-time care in 1967, and when Arthur was presented in court, an inspection of his mouth revealed that he still possessed a sufficient set of teeth. Whether Manning was aware of Arthur's dental history and attempting to use this to his advantage, or he sincerely believed Spillers to be responsible for the cat's tooth loss is another matter. Either way, Manning later withdrew his allegation and the cat was returned to Spillers, although that wasn't the end of Arthur's turmoils. He later went missing from his home in 1974, presumed stolen, and eventually showed up on some farm in Dunstable.

Given that, one way or another, Arthur was cursed with a blemished mouth, is there still the chance that his celebrated dipping behaviours were in response to his oral abnormalities? Montgomery doesn't entertain the possibility. He assures us that paw-dipping is normal behaviour, particularly where a cat is reluctant to submerge its face into the food source. Montgomery's book also informs us that there was another, considerably less prevalent rumour that Arthur was really a female cat named Samantha, although this too may have rooted in another of Manning's eccentricities. According to Montgomery, Manning was in the habit of calling the cat "Samantha", although Arthur was indeed a castrated male. Arthur left no descendants, unless he managed to sire them during his time as a stray. Which was probably a good thing. There's a lot of talk in Montgomery's book about the number of unwanted kittens that get destroyed every year (at least back in the 1970s), and when Montgomery was writing, drowning was still considered an acceptable method of kitten disposal in some circles. Montgomery condemns such practices as extremely cruel, but even his suggestion that "Unwanted pets should be put to sleep at birth, but only by a qualified vet", might seem a bit gruesome to modern sensibilities. Just get your cat spayed or neutered, and this whole discussion will hopefully be moot.