CKF Double Feature: THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN and DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
Two reviews for the price of one by Daniel G. Keohane
THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN (2010) is the long-awaited sequel to the brilliantly funny THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA (2001), which I reviewed earlier this month. In that review I compared the film to AIRPLANE (1980), another brilliant, offbeat comedy. Like the sequel to that film, I was excited to at last sit and watch the return of the Skeleton. And, like AIRPLANE 2: THE SEQUEL (1982), two things struck me: 1) My expectations were way too high going into it, which everyone knows dooms a film even before the mandatory French copyright warning is over, and 2) Any sequel to something as original as its predecessor needs to be different enough not to feel like, well, a sequel.
I’m glad THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN was made, even if it does not reach the level of gut-busting hilarity as the original. There were some very funny scenes in the film, and it was great fun seeing the characters from the original once more (or their twin brothers, since two characters who had died in the original, Dr. Roger Fleming and Ranger Brad, are back as twin brother Paul Fleming, and Jungle Brad, twin to Ranger Brad – a running joke throughout that really shouldn’t have been funny each time, but always was).
In many scenes, this movie felt more like a family reunion than a stand-alone film. Each character’s appearance was like a favorite uncle or aunt making their dramatic entrance. Like the original, everyone is on the prowl, sometimes literally, for a rare mineral to be used for their own devices: this time the recently-discovered Geranium 90. Three distinct groups set off to the Amazonian region of Menalusia to be the first to find this rare rock because, for one group at least, rocks play an important part in national security. The opening scenes are quite funny, and I wish there was more screen time for the daffy general (H.M. Wynant) who sends his agent (Reet Pappin, played by Frank Dietz) to locate the mineral before the evil entrepreneur Handscomb Draile gets his greedy mitts on it. The one scene featuring Draile (Robert Deveau) had me roaring. Even now, if I say the word “slowly” around my daughters they immediately repeat “slooowly” and start laughing.
I’ve become a major fan of Brian Howe (2007′s EVAN ALMIGHTY and JOURNEYMAN) both for his hilarious role as good twin Peter Fleming in this film and for his part in DARK AND STORMY NIGHT (2010) which will be reviewed in a moment. Fleming becomes the Lost Skeleton’s new stooge. The skeleton has been reduced to a lowly, but no less funny and diabolical, skull for this film. The back and forth between Fleming and the Lost Skull of Cadavra (as before, I have no idea who does its voice but he’s perfect at it) was priceless throughout.
Eventually, every character, and some new ones, make it to the Amazon, including the goofy alien couple Lattis and Kro-Bar, and the woman-created-from-woodland-creatures: Animala. Now, many of the jokes will zip right past anyone who has not seen the original film, and having already seen that one is key to watching THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN. Although it could be watched without knowing its predecessor, much of the humor and enjoyment is in seeing the characters again, and the inside jokes bandied about between them. It shines most as a solo endeavor whenever a new character is introduced, including the high priest of the Cantaloupe people, Bentivegitantus (John Stuart West), who spouts half-completed prophesies like a professional. It’s in the new characters that director Larry Blamire’s writing shines again. They are blank slates on which he can do what he does best. For the returning characters, he treats them with affection, but isn’t able to expand much on them, save his own character Paul Armstrong. Now morose and jaded from years in the jungle, Armstrong spouts non-stop diatribes out of the era’s best (or worst) jungle films. His character’s negativism is constantly played against both his hilariously naïve wife Betty Armstrong (Fay Masterson) and Jungle Brad (Dan Conroy), whose optimism verbally spars with Armstrong’s pessimism throughout the movie.
When I began, I mentioned how this film had my high expectations working against it at the outset, however, when I watched it a second time for this review, I found myself laughing more than I had during the first viewing. That said, I need to wrap this up because I want to jump into the review for Blamire’s only-slightly newer film, DARK AND STORMY NIGHT (2010), which had me busting a gut almost as must as the original SKELETON. In short, if you loved THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, then…RETURNS AGAIN is a fun, goofy way of seeing these characters one more time, with quite a few laughs thrown in. Just don’t expect there to be as many as the original. If you want that, rent:
I’m very happy to say that with Blamire’s film DARK AND STORMY NIGHT, both his writing and his offbeat, quirky troupe of actors are in peak form once again.
Like any genre parody, I suppose you should be at least vaguely acquainted with the old-style “drawing room mystery” flick to fully appreciate what’s being done here, but it’s not required. The writing is quick and funny, and the actors play their characters with as much love and melodrama as they did in the SKELETON films (yes, every actor from those movies are back, new and shiny in glorious black and white). Their timing is pitch-perfect. Each is, of course, a caricature of so many Clue-ish characters from a history filled with Agatha Christie and her Hercule Poirot novels (and films). Throw in an homage or two to Abbot and Costello by regulars Daniel Roebuck (THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN and of course the “Guy Who Got Blown Up” on LOST), and Dan Conroy (Ranger/Jungle Brad of the SKELETON films), as reporter 8 O’Clock Farady and his beleaguered cab driver Happy Codburn, and the old Tracy/Hepburn films, as played out between Roebuck’s reporter and rival newswoman Billy Tuesday (Jennifer Blare, Amimala from the SKELETON films). Early on, I sometimes found the constant pseudo-1920’s bantering a bit grating, but it grew on me, especially as more colorful characters were introduced and the film gained hilarious steam.
Family members and business acquaintances arrive for the reading of the late Sinas Cavindar’s will, on a requisite dark and stormy night. Joining them, a few bizarre characters who just happened to have become lost in the storm and wandered onto the Cavinder estate, at least… that’s what they say (cue lightening). Each is greeted by the semi- and not-so-semi-psychotic staff members of the Cavindar household.
My favorite, and another reason why I singled him out in the above review of …RETURNS AGAIN, was the thinly-mustached and insufferably-pompous nephew of the deceased, Burling Famish, Jr, played by Brian Howe, barely recognizable as the Fleming twins of the two SKELETON films. I’m sorry, but every time he delivered a line I just cracked up. And the award for best one-liners in any film goes to writer/director Larry Blamire’s character Ray Vestinhaus (in a pivotal scene, for example, someone suggests two characters are “in cahoots” to which Vestinhaus announces, “Gee, I sure hope so, considering how bad the weather is outside”… come on, that’s funny!).
I’m highlighting a couple of examples, but every character in this movie is played to perfection, albeit as over-the-top as possible. From the schizophrenic psychic Mrs. Cupcupboard (Alison Martin) and Jack Tugdon, the deceased’s morose hunting companion (Jim Beaver), to the hapless young heiress (Fay Masterson). Now, as you would expect, every time the lights go out someone dies, to the point that whenever it gets dark everybody screams because they’re certain they’ll be dead when the lights return.
In Blamire’s previous two SKELETON films, there were times when the action dragged a little, slowing the momentum. Not here. Perhaps because there was so much material to play with, and so many actors having loads of fun in their roles, nothing felt like filler or a scene that might have been better left on the cutting room floor. It moves quickly, to the point you’re sad to see it end.
So much happens in this movie that giving any kind of synopsis more than I already have would not do it justice, so I won’t bother. If you’ve seen any old black and white murder mysteries, then you’ve got the idea. Hell, if you’ve seen any satire of these kinds of films, like the brilliant (but not quite as funny as Blamire’s film) MURDER BY DEATH (1976), you’ll get it, because DARK AND STORMY NIGHT parodies the parodies as much as the films that tried to be serious with their subject. Don’t expect a lot of logic in the plot’s progression. There’s some, enough to be annoying, but mostly chaos and quick one-liners which carry you through to the dramatic conclusion. (No, it’s not dramatic, it’s silly and funny, like the rest of the movie).
Suffice to say, if you enjoyed the original THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, or even if you didn’t, rent DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. Then, just sit back and enjoy it for what it is. A funny, loving homage to everything Mystery, a film where, like the others Blamire has made, the actors are obviously having such a wonderful time you wish you could have been there with them – but renting the movie is as close as most of us will come, so queue it up soon. You won’t regret it unless, when the lights come back on and the credits roll, they find you with a knife sticking out of your back. That wouldn’t be funny— except in this film.
In DARK AND STORMY NIGHT—it’s a riot.
© Copyright 2010 by Daniel G. Keohane