Friday, January 30, 2009

FANS OF CLASSIC HORROR CAN REJOICE because the famous "LIZARD'S LEG & OWLET'S WING" episode of ROUTE 66 IS FINALLY OUT ON DVD -- and you don't have to buy an entire box set to get it, either! Now, I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here but just in case . . . On October 26, 1962 the popular TV drama series "Route 66" aired a special Halloween episode which guest-starred Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre entitled "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing". Now back in the day, this was big news and it was trumpeted repeatedly in issues of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine. Of course, the reason why this episode was so special to horror fans is that not only does it feature Lon Chaney Jr. in 3 separate monster make-ups but it also features the very last time Boris Karloff wore the Frankenstein Monster make-up! A little while ago they started putting out entire seasons of ROUTE 66 on DVD and horror fans who had no real interest in the series were going to have to wrestle with themselves to decide whether they should buy an entire DVD box set of Season 3 just for this one episode. Well, happily, and quite contrary to their usual game plan, they have also released a single DVD called ROUTE 66 SUPER SERIES VOLUME 1 which contains three hand-picked episodes including the coveted "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" and it's cheap as chips! Now, ROUTE 66 starred Martin Milner (of THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and later the ADAM-12 TV series) and slightly saturnine George Maharis as two young guys who travel all across America in a 60's Corvette getting into all kinds of adventures. This format allowed the series to be an anthology-type show but still having two main recurring characters -- sorta the best of both 60's TV worlds.
Naturally, the "Lizard's Leg" episode is the operative one but before I get to that I'd like to briefly look at the other two episodes hand-picked (by whom, I wonder?) for this single DVD. The first episode is entitled "Eleven, the Hard Way" and guest stars Walter Matthau as a gambling pro and Edward Andrews as the milquetoast guy who has gathered together money donated by the entire town of Broken Knee. The money has been gathered in order to save the town from going bust -- Walter Matthau will be given the money to gamble at a casino in order to increase the money enough to save the town. Matthau is perfectly cast as the rumpled, disreputable gambler that the town has no use for -- UNTIL they have a USE for him. Edward Andrews is an actor that, if you have seen ANY television or movies from the late 1950s and 1960's you've seen him before; he was in such movies as ADVISE & CONSENT, ELMER GANTRY and THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR and was in scads of TV shows including the Twilight Zone episodes "You Drive" and "Third from the Sun", The Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode "Anyone For Murder" and the Boris Karloff's Thriller episodes "Cousin Tundifer", "A Third for Pinochle" and "A Good Imagination". This ROUTE 66 episode, however, is really quite enjoyable and worth watching even if you're not at all interested in anything except the Halloween episode.
The second episode isn't quite as good: "And the Cat Jumped Over the Moon" is a juvenile delinquent tale which is quite dated in that "West Side Story" kinda way. It basically concerns two rivals for the leadership position of a local gang of hoodlums challenging each other to a game of chicken high up on rooftop. I will admit that the hijinks on the roof will make those afraid of heights a little queasy. However, perhaps the queasiest thing is seeing a ridiculously young and almost unrecognizable Martin Sheen as teen hoodlum Packy! Yeah, that's him up there wielding the switchblade with the crazy look in his eye and the bowl haircut! His rival, a former hoodlum who is trying to get out of the JD game is played by another future star: James Caan -- who looks slightly embarrassed by the lines he's given to say. Sheen goes whole hog into juvenile delinquent territory and doesn't hold anything back. This episode is probably best appreciated for its camp value.
But now we come to the reason we bought this DVD in the first place: the Halloween 1962 episode "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing". The episode opens nicely with Lon Chaney Jr. (in full Hunchback of Notre Dame makeup) creeping upon a sleeping boy. As he is about to get the boy in his clutches, the boy turns over and asks "Did you scare 'em, Grandpa?". Lon, of course, is playing himself and he is about to take a conference call with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre (who are also playing themselves). The three titans of terror agree to meet in Chicago (along with their legal representative Martita Hunt) to debate the future of horror. Lorre believes that the old monsters are still effective while Karloff believes they're old hat and don't scare anybody anymore; this basic premise will be taken up later by Peter Bogdanovich in his film TARGETS also starring Boris Karloff, by the way! Lon seems to be on Lorre's side and continually makes himself up as classic monsters in order to help prove Lorre's theory. This gives us a chance to once again see Lon as The Mummy and the Wolf Man as well as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The three horror stars check into the Chicago hotel under assumed names (as if ANYBODY wouldn't recognize them); the ghoulmeisters are using the names Mr. Retep, Mr. Sirob & Mr. Nol (their first names backwards) and are registering as an organization called "The Society for the Preservation of Geronuks" (a Somali antelope-type creature facing supposed extinction). Naturally, as Peter Lorre is the first to arrive at the O'Hare Inn he stirs up many sideways glances of recognition. A funny bit occurs when the desk clerk haltingly suggests that Mr. Retep bears a striking resemblence to Peter Lorre. "That's really quite insulting, isn't it?!?" deadpans Lorre. Martin Milner and George Maharis have also just happened to drop into the same hotel as "expediters"; Maharis is assigned to a convention of female executive secretaries (who uphold every single sexist stereotype going in 1962) while Milner is assigned to Parlor #9 to cater to the Geronuk Society's every need. It does appear that Karloff's opinion that the old horrors are no longer effective will win out. However, when the trio don monster get-ups and run rampant throughout the hotel causing shrieking mayhem, they discover that the old monsters can still frighten. Chaney dons his classic Wolf Man gear, Peter Lorre dons a top hat and cloak and Boris Karloff, for the last time in his career, dons the Frankenstein Monster get-up. All this, to the lover of horror films, is absolutely priceless and we're all lucky that the producers of ROUTE 66 decided to give us all such a spectacular Halloween treat!
All three episodes look and sound wonderful; picture quality has been cleaned up as much as possible and they're mostly crisp and clean. Another excellent added attraction is the fact that the original sponsor's commercials are also retained -- giving us vintage ads for the 1962 Chevrolet, Bayer aspirin and Milk of Magnesia (just a swallow and it's bombs away!). We even get that rather scary CBS "eye" irising in and out at the end of each episode. For the "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" episode alone, every horror fan should be grateful at the release of the affordable single DVD; however, the other two episodes are also welcome additions and well worth checking out as well. So flap outta your bat's nest and pick up a copy!

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