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.


Comic Book Editorial: Peter Puptent as geopolitical commentary?

Was this Peter Puptent filler cartoon in a DC comic book actually a geopolitical “stealth editorial” by Henry Boltinoff?

Featured in The Brave and the Bold #40 (Feb-Mar 1962)

What was happening in the world in 1962?

United States involvement with the internal affairs of Laos, Cuba, Thailand, China, Nigeria and Vietnam. Strife in Brazil that led to U. S. businesses being nationalized. The War Against Communism, Russian/American spy exchanges and Jon Bon Jovi was born.

So…Did Henry Boltinoff use the comic book character of world-explorer Peter Puptent to sneak in an editorial about current world events? Would a Mom or Dad get the underlying message of the cartoon when reading a comic with their children?

Maybe. Peter Puptent could be a symbol of American foreign policy in 1962, accidentally stirring stuff up in an attempt to ensure domestic tranquility*. In the cartoon, the explorer erred in becoming involved (in spite of the pre-cautionary statement from his unnamed companion that the jungle, like geopolitics, was “dense” and in questioning if any natives were around) in foreign political events. Puptent acted rashly and with ignorance (though with innocent intentions) by interfering in local affairs and sparking a conflict. I’m also thinking that the sound fx in panel four are more representative of explosions in a war-torn jungle and less of some native communication system. Let us not forget that the names that comprise “Peter Puptent” has multiple definitions. The simplest if which would be “Penis Erection” or rather, that of tumescent male genitalia. An image that surely evokes the idea that the United States is a country full of rootin‘-tootin‘ cowboys that has taken on the self-appointed role of the world’s moral compass and police force.

DC creative teams were known for being stealthy in them days and everyone has some sort of personal opinion or leaning that is usually reflected in their creative output. Not everyone is as extreme as Steve Ditko or as obvious as Judd Winnick in their work.


* Hah-ha! Now you have that School House Rock song stuck in your head, too!

Halloween Horror: House of Mystery #201

The month of October would not be complete without at least one post somewhere about the classic DC horror story The Demon Within.

Originally featured in House of Mystery #201 (April 1972) it is a tale that shows up every now and then on lists of best comic book horror stories and it is included on my short-list. The Mike Kaulta cover is eye-catching and does not disconnect much from the story, although Kaluta rendered the cover with a definite Gothic theme and the story takes place in a suburbanite setting. In the 1970’s, it was often that the covers by Kaluta, Wrightson and Adams were the best feature of a comic book and wildly diverged from the sometimes disappointing story it represented. The Jim Aparo art is his usual competent style, though some of the panels appear to be crowded and rushed. Joe Orlando (plot) and Joe Albano (script) wrote the story. The only part of the script I did not care for when I first read it in 1972 was the totally unnecessary addition of a science fiction element at the end* that caused a bump in the pacing.

The Demon Within is an effectively creepy story, about a little boy named Gary who can will himself to transform into a monster through magic (today, he would be a sales-boosting mutant, but don’t get me started on that). Like any bored youngster he uses his gift to terrorize his little sister, frighten strangers and cause mischievous pranks.
Gary isn’t yet dangerous, just annoying.

So where is the horror? The answer to that lies in defining just what the “demon” really is and who is “possessed” by it. Like any DC morality tale there are a few plot twists. Mom and Dad are mortified that their son can change into a demonic form and are worried that the neighbors will think less of them because of it. The horror aspects of the tale come not from Gary and his ability to change shape, but in the reactions of his family. Gary is ultimately rejected by his mother and father, a truly frightening thing for any child to endure. That some of the scariest scenes occur off-panel is even more chilling.
The theme that selfish parents were more concerned about appearances than the health and well-being of their children showed up quite often in the “relevant era” of comics. It was a product of the times the creators lived in. Much like the stories of the 1980’s often had greedy corporations crushing the lone employee, the comics of the 1970’s explored the upset of the former staus quo. Being a short story, The Demon Within did not have the space to lay the blame for Gary’s abilities on the parents, unlike when it was revealed Speedy’s heroin addiction was the fault of a wealth-obsessed legal guardian and the expectations of society at large.

For fans relatively new to comics it is unfortunate that the realities of the current market do not allow for the the high number of anthology comics today that it did in the past. While the books were primarily full of filler and throw-away stories you could find the occasional classic gem.

For those of you who want to know how the story of Gary ends, here is a spoiler-link to his fate.


* Why use a laser when a knife will do? Seemed superfluous.