Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Horror: Claws For Alarm

There are many television shows and movies that can traumatize a child. The episode of the Twilight Zone with the killer doll that torments Telly Savalas, the one Johnny Quest that featured the brain-sucking Robot Spy and the freak-out of the possessed Zuni doll in the original Trilogy of Terror.

All those shows messed me up. Yet none terrify like the two classic Warner Bros. cartoons where the Abbot and Costello team of Porky Pig and Sylvester the Cat are being hunted by homicidal mice.

The concept of the killer mice was initially featured in 1948's Scaredy Cat but was much improved upon in the sequel, 1954's Claws For Alarm. In the films an oblivious Porky and terrified Sylvester stay overnight in an abandoned hotel, only to be ruthlessly attacked by killer mice during the course of their visit. Sylvester is aware of the attacks and does his best to inform and protect Porky, only to be doubted and ridiculed. The idea that sadistic, homicidal and territorial mice would be organized was both fascinating and frightening, and makes you wish for the whole story about how these relatively modern towns came to be ubruptly and entirely abandoned by the residents.

Together, these two short films surely permanently scarred the psyches of children the world over for years.

The Warner cartoon crew often returned to, and in most cases improved upon, previous works. Some stories were just too good not to repeat and often they were better the second time around. Both films contain story elements that would play with improvement if swapped into the other film. For instance, the idea of a back story is shown in Sacredy Cat when a scene reveals that another unknown cat, previously captured, is being led away to execution by a gang of mice. Given the intricate set up of traps and tiny elevators the mice seem to have a long and bloody history of dealing with the strangers in their midst and dispatching them in nasty ways. This idea that the mice have a history of dealing with intruders is missing in the second film. The second film gives me the impression that the mice are just winging it for kicks.

The ending of Scaredy Cat is weaker than that of Claws For Alarm. Where Scaredy Cat has a goofy ending, Claws For Alarm is foreboding as Sylvester flees in a car, unwittingly bringing revenge-minded mice with him as stowaways in the dashboard. Ideally, a good edit of the separate cartoons into a single longer feature would create a superior film containing all the best scenes of both while supporting or eliminating the weaker moments.

The basic concept of Scaredy Cat and Claws For Alarm has been used several times in live action film. I imagine that if you look in literature or other media you might find that while Warner was probably not the first to use the idea, they did it to such great effect that it remains to this day as part of our cultural awareness. While in 1977's Mouse Hunt starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans the characterizations were more of the Abbott and Costello variety, the basic plot of the Porky and Sylvester cartoons was left pretty much intact and used for humor as the pair futilely battle a cute mouse who finds exception to a massive house renovation.

While Mouse Hunt was played for laughs, the plot of the 1973 television movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was pure horror. The horror film didn't stray far from the concept of the Warner Bros. cartoons and is recognizable as being descended from them in spirit, even if done unintentionally. In the film, Star Trek and True Grit alumnus Kim Darby inherits an old mansion and moves in with her husband. Shortly after moving in the family is plagued by tiny demons that cause mishaps and death among the residents. The film was effectively frightening and caused me to look at electrical wall sockets with suspicion for weeks.

If you get a chance go ahead and watch Scaredy Cat, Claws For Alarm and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, you won't be sorry. Keep the lights on, though.

And now for your enjoyment, a wily mouse wielding a knife while contemplating murder.


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