Friday, October 30, 2015

Media Mom After Dark: Arsenic and Old Lace

Looking for a good popcorn flick this Halloween? Then have I got the film for you! Consider if you will:

A newly married man is attempting to leave on his honeymoon, but first must return home and face his family. From the outside, they seem like sweet, decent people. But they harbor dark secrets.

An insane uncle.

A fugitive murderer brother.

Two spinster serial killer aunts.

And twelve bodies buried in the basement.

Oh and did I mention it's a comedy?

Ah, yes! Arsenic and Old Lace. It's not your typical Halloween film. But it holds a very special place in my heart for several reasons. For one, we performed the play version in school. I was Aunt Abby. Playing a serial killer was never so much fun! Also, I'm just going to come out and say it...

I'm a chicken. Grade A, USDA certified, 100% chicken. I really don't do scary movies. I once made the mistake of watching The Innocents at home by myself. I walked out of the first 5 minutes of The Grudge. There's even episodes of Doctor Who I can't watch again because of the heebie jeebies they give me.

So if I'm watching something on Halloween, you better believe I'm gonna get a laugh or two out of it. And this is by far my favorite film for the job. It's a real Frank Capra classic. A zany romp that will leave you virtually breathless by the end of it, either from the ludicrously fast pacing or just the uncontrollable giggles it induces.

The plot centers around Mortimer Brewster, played by the inimitable Cary Grant. In my opinion, Grant was BORN for this role. His facial expressions and comedic timing couldn't be more perfect. Mortimer is a theater critic by trade, but just a plain old critic all the time. And if there's one thing he doesn't believe in, it's marriage. Until he meets the right girl. Beautiful Elaine Harper, the (quite literal) girl next door has stolen Mortimer's heart. They tie the knot in a court ceremony and Mortimer races home to his two spinster aunts to tell them the good news and pack for his honeymoon. They're sweet old ladies who take in boarders and are pillars of the community.
Sure, they have a brother who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. But every family has one crazy, right? 

Quite by accident, Mortimer discovers something in the living room window seat: a dead body. That body, he soon learns, is one of an even dozen. There are eleven more in the basement, all done away with by his aunts, who see nothing whatever wrong with putting lonely old men out of their misery. Now Mortimer suddenly has much bigger problems than getting to Niagara Falls on time. He needs to deal with his obviously insane family, all while keeping his new wife from discovering their dark secrets.

To make matters worse, Mortimer's brother Jonathan has just blown back into town. He's been on a murder spree of his own, and has brought along his plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (no, not that Einstein) in case he needs to change faces...again. His current face is quite reminiscent of Boris Karloff.
Fun trivia tidbit: Karloff actually played Jonathan in the stage play, making this a serious meta joke. Karloff was unable to do the film due to previous commitments.

Aside from Grant, my second favorite performance in this film has got to be Peter Lorre's Dr. Einstein. I don't think the guy has a single minute of screen time where he isn't saying or doing something that's uproariously hilarious. But that's just my personal opinion.

Still, Grant is clearly the winner in this film. In the midst of dealing with his family's insanity, he's slowly joining them. He starts out as a rational (albeit cynical) sane human being, but that sanity is slowly chipped away piece by piece in his downward spiral into madness. The last scenes of the film will have you rolling, if you aren't already. It's a brilliant performance, and one I think is seriously undervalued in the annals of cinema history.

If you haven't seen it, check your local library for a copy or get the DVD on Amazon. Just be careful what you drink because it will probably be coming out of your nose before it's all over. It's lighthearted, it's funny, it's something even teenagers can watch without much caveat, and in an age where Halloween films almost always mean horror and gore, I'd rather have humor and giggles.