The Unintentionally Horrifying World of “Munchie”


There are certain things specifically created to entertain children that I usually find horrifying – clowns, mascots, satanic Chipmunk versions of Adele songs, etc. But then I’ll see how happy kids get when they see a giant anthropomorphic dog hobbling towards them, how they squeal with glee and run to it, delivering rapid-fire high-fives into its bloated, outstretched paws, and I’ll realize how challenging it must be to create entertainment that children truly love. Sometimes, what seems borderline grotesque to a jaded adult can make a kid deliriously happy. How a creator of children’s entertainment can tell the difference between what’s kid-friendly/adult-creepy and what’s just plain creepy across the board, I have no idea.

And neither did the creators of Munchie, a 1992 direct-to-video story of a lonely kid whose life is turned upside down when he stumbles across a motormouthed bat-dog-thing in an abandoned mine. Crafted like a family movie/coming-of-age comedy, Munchie devotes its major plot lines to the relevant, real-life problems of tween protagonist Gage Dobson (Jamie McEnnan). But it’s also a movie destined to horrify viewers of all ages, thanks to the menacing design, bargain-basement special effects and bizarre voice casting of Munchie himself.

We meet Gage during a low point of his adolescence – he’s getting bullied at school, his mom (Loni Anderson) is dating a cartoonishly oily jerk (Andrew Stevens), and his only friend is a demented old scientist who lives across the street (Arte Johnson). Gage is presented to us as an overly imaginative kid, through some fairly un-imaginative fantasy sequences (e.g. he pictures his principal with devil’s horns). It’s a smart move in theory, setting us up to believe that this kid could be fanciful enough to believe that something like Munchie could exist, instead of just puking and shitting himself simultaneously when seeing him for the first time. But this proves to be problematic later, when the movie’s “be careful what you wish for” moral becomes painfully clear.

For now, though, Munchie’s moving along like any competent afterschool special (save the pre-credits sequence, in which we learn that Munchie drives human beings to the brink of insanity). But then Gage gets fed up with life and goes for a walk, finds the conveniently accessible mineshaft, and the nightmare begins – a voice that sounds a whole lot like Dom Deluise beckons to Gage from a box with runes all over it; Gage opens it, and this happens:


Count yourself lucky that a) I haven’t paid the fee to allow video on this site; and b) Munchie clips on YouTube are scarce. Because as disturbing as the puppet looks, watching it move is what really makes the skin crawl. Director Jim Wynorski didn’t place a priority on the realism of Munchie’s movements, neglecting to sync up his eyes, mouth and hands in a way that resembles a regular living thing. It’s like Gizmo survived a horrible fire and we have to watch as he struggles to regain basic motor skills. And it doesn’t help that he really is voiced by Dom Deluise, whose jovial energy goes over like a hot pitcher of milk when you have the flu.

The movie goes to great lengths to tell us that Munchie is funny – he pulls pranks with banana peels; sings “Hello! Ma Baby;” talks repeatedly about having to “update his act;” throws a Risky Business-style kegger – but every corny gag just adds to the character’s cavernous uncanny valley. Adding to this queasy mix of creature-feature horror and Borscht Belt comedy is a shoehorned “Monkey’s Paw” moral – Munchie has the ability to grant Gage’s every wish, but he causes unintended havoc in the process. For example, when Gage wishes for the bullying to stop, Munchie’s solution is appallingly hypocritical – beat up a kid until he’s bloody and unconscious. The scene gives you a hollow feeling that no pizza skateboard can fill.


As a result, we have a movie that encourages kids to use their imaginations, but also warns them to be careful what they wish for. It so badly wants us to love Munchie, but also not to trust him. As we’re forced to watch those directionless eyes lolling around on a face forever plastered in a frozen corpse-smile, at least it’s easy to do the latter.

Netflix Recap: Meek’s Cutoff

If you looked at my instant watching activity for the last few days, you would see that I’ve watched several episodes of the BBC show Merlin. Why would I endure this Smallville-ization of the Arthurian legend? Is it possible to be a masochistic Anglophile? Thankfully, I’m not going to answer those questions here. Instead I’m going to talk about something else I watched recently that makes me seem cooler – the haunting Kelly Reichardt movie Meek’s Cutoff.

Although it features effective, restrained performances from stars Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, the unforgiving landscape should get top billing in this minimalist tale about 19th century settlers who make the regrettable decision to leave the Oregon Trail. Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond understand that frightened people clomping through the desert aren’t going to bust out many soliloquies, resulting in a relatively quiet, realistic study of people looking death in the face. And when the visuals are as arresting as they are here, Williams’ stern, heavily bonneted face and Dano’s bug-eyed expressions are all you need. Paranoia abounds from the first minute, where it becomes clear that the settlers don’t trust their guide, the eccentrically brusque Stephen Meek (played by Sweensryche favorite Bruce Greenwood, who plays against his A Dog Named Christmas type, with mixed results). When a Native American crosses the group’s path and eventually becomes Meek’s unwilling replacement, the gap between cultures is as vast as those stunningly arid landscapes.

Reichardt has a thing for the “getting lost” metaphor – Old Joy, her 2006 film about two men attempting to recapture their lost friendship on a camping trip, dealt with the pair losing their way with a mesmerizing sense of patience. Meek’s Cutoff is filmed in a similar style, lulling you with extended shots of the settlers fording rivers and chasing handkerchiefs in the wind. But whereas Old Joy ended with the clear sense that the characters had drifted apart, Meek’s closing shot is harrowingly open-ended. You get the idea that, with paranoia and mistrust worming their way into the settlers’ brains, something bad is on the horizon. Call it American History 101.

Netflix Recap: The She-Ra Origin Story

In the 1980s, the world of animated television wasn’t exactly diverse. So, even though I don’t remember exactly loving He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (my idea of bliss was a Fruit Roll-Up and an episode of Scooby-Doo), I definitely watched plenty of it. The story is Superman-meets-Conan, with a dash of Arthurian legend, concerning Adam, the prince of the planet Eternia. He’s got a magic sword that turns him into He-Man, a nattily clad hero with super-strength and a bottomless well of witty rejoinders for Skeletor, He-Man’s comparably nattily clad, seemingly undead nemesis, whose entire existence is defined by his desire to see what’s inside He-Man’s house. Only a handful of people know He-Man’s secret, despite the fact that he doesn’t even bother to alter his appearance – He-Man looks exactly like Adam, except his purple shirt and lavender breeches give way to some dinky chest armor and a brown Speedo.

I’ve been re-watching He-Man lately (thank you/I hate you Netflix), and that habit has become a gateway drug to episodes of She-Ra: Princess of Power, the creators’ savvy attempt at doubling the audience for their shitty cartoons by giving a shout out to the ladies. And after taking in the three-episode arc of She-Ra’s origin story, I can report that despite some unexpectedly dedicated writing, the series is as much a poorly disguised excuse to sell toys as the show that spawned it (of course, The Simpsons parodied it best).

Regardless of how half-baked these shows are, it is impressive that the producers devoted three episodes to tell the story of how She-Ra, He-Man’s twin sister, was kidnapped as a baby and taken to the planet Etheria by the dark lord Hordak, who’s like Skeletor except he makes pig sounds. The first episode finds The Sorceress, Eternia’s token bird-spirit-mystic-lady, having a dream about a sword that’s much like He-Man’s. It opens a magic portal to Etheria somehow, and Prince Adam and his obnoxious coward of a pet, Cringer, agree to go through it without much prodding, presumably because one doesn’t fuck with The Sorceress’s decrees. Etheria turns out to be the lame rip-off of Eternia that you’d expect it to be, with the rebel soldier Bow replacing Man-At-Arms as the Tom of Finland fantasy sidekick, Glimmer replacing Teela as the dipshit female warrior, and Madame Razz replacing Orko as the pathetically ineffective and annoying magician (the only difference – she’s Jewish!). At the end of the episode, He-Man discovers that the sword that got him into this mess belongs to Adora, the conveniently Barbie-like character who is an agent of Hordak’s vaguely suspicious sounding group that controls Etheria, The Evil Horde.

Episode Two, “Beast Island,” finds He-Man convincing Adora that The Evil Horde might be, you know, evil. And while we eventually learn that Adora is under the spell of Hordak’s left-hand necromancer, The Shadow Weaver, the depths of her stupidity here are hard to take as anything less than sexist. Eventually, in “She-Ra Unchained,” Adora breaks the spell and saves He-Man from Hordak’s energy-sucking machine, which he plans to somehow use to destroy the Whispering Woods, a place that sounds like a nursing home but is actually where the rebel holdfast is located.

Once she realizes that she “has the power,” Adora becomes She-Ra, and her horse becomes the rainbow-colored flying horse that every little girl would kill her parents for. Then, as He-Man and She-Ra are riding said horse away from danger, she casually drops the bomb on him – The Sorceress appeared to her in a vision, and told her that He-Man was her twin brother, and that she was stolen from their family by Hordak. As they flew away into the distance, He-Man seemed non-plussed. Perhaps it’s a realistic reaction to such soul-shattering news, and the characters express their sadness and rage about the situation in subsequent episodes. Which is as good a reason as any to keep watching, right?

Netflix Recap: Leigh Majors

In my orgasmically entertaining 2011 Oscar prediction post, I revealed that I was rooting for Mike Leigh to win Best Original Screenplay for Another Year, even though I hadn’t seen it. Based on the consistent excellence of his previous work, in which the writer/director developed characters in quiet, organic ways, I figured that Another Year would be yet another relatively profound study of everyday human beings.

Well, I have finally seen the thing. And wouldn’t you know it, I don’t just agree with my February 2011 self, I applaud me! Because Another Year is more than the latest reminder that Leigh is one of our finest storytellers – it’s his best movie in a while. A look at four seasons in the life of the happily married couple Tom and Gerri (no surnames are mentioned in the film, which could be a comment about the balance that’s essential to a great relationship, or more likely I’m overthinking things because I’ve had a few beers), Leigh’s creation is the rarest kind of movie in the 21st century – a commentary on the power of love that in no way resembles the plot of a Taylor Swift song. Tom and Gerri – portrayed with gentle confidence by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen – are seemingly the lone signpost of warmth and positivity in the lives of their friends Mary and Ken; their easygoing, loving natures bringing both characters to tears in heartbreakingly believable scenes.

Lesley Manville gets the Oscar-baitiest role here as Mary, Gerri’s hopelessly adrift co-worker who is painfully alone, yet prefers a fantasy relationship with Tom and Gerri’s son Joe to the very real (and very awkward) proposition from the comparably miserable, compulsive eating Ken. But where, say, Darren Aronofsky would wring every last drop of melodrama out of a character like Mary – full of crying jags in the shower and screamy nervous breakdowns during traffic jams – Leigh leaves it all up to his great actress. When Joe brings his new girlfriend home for the first time, the look on Manville’s face is all you need to learn just how far gone she really is.

Over the four quadrants of his movie, marked by scenes of Tom and Gerri lovingly tending their garden plot, Leigh shows us the unhappiness of regular folks, dealing with sadness, disappointment and death through the eyes of two of the lucky ones. It’s a movie about how beautiful it can be to grow old together, without ever forcing its graying characters to act young and spunky in the name of a cheap laugh. Which is light years more meaningful, and genuinely more entertaining, than the eventual winner for Best Original Screenplay, The King’s Speech.

With the afterglow of Another Year still washing over me, I re-watched Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan biopic that remains his closest attempt to a big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Of course, it isn’t one of those, despite the faithful recreations of several of the duo’s productions, full of inspired costumes and ornate set designs. But it is a different experience from all of the other Leigh films I’ve seen, its compelling studies of the two leads competing with charming behind-the-scenes glimpses of the inner workings of late-19th century theater. Its two-and-a-half-hour running time and extended chunks of Gilbert and Sullivan productions make it sound like an insufferably boring thing, but as in Another Year, Leigh’s ability to draw honest performances from his actors turns something bland into meaningful entertainment. Especially wonderful here are Broadbent and Manville, playing against their Another Year roles. Broadbent is the blustery one here; his Gilbert is the epitome of a bitchy artist – fuming over negative reviews, complaining about the trappings of high praise. Manville, as Gilbert’s wife Lucy, delivers a performance full of the pursed looks and defeated sighs of a neglected spouse. In Topsy-Turvy’s penultimate scene, Lucy shares her idea for a play with her husband, as he sits on the side of her separate bed. It’s a deft depiction of a withered relationship before one last song and dance, a snapshot of Leigh and his actors at the top of their game.

Netflix Recap

Stuff that I’ve “watched instantly” recently:

The Hot Chick (2002)

My wife and I were both feeling a bit under the weather, so we thought we’d opt for the dumbest comedy we could find. And when Rob Schneider’s face popped up on our TV screen, cucumbers covering his nipples, his face covered in a mud mask and a “What did I get myself into this time?” expression, we thought we’d found just the right level of idiocy. But after about 20 minutes of The Hot Chick, we were scrambling for the stop button. Here’s the premise: An ancient Abyssinian princess is betrothed to a horrible prince, and escapes her fate by using a pair of magical earrings to switch bodies with her servant. 2,000 years later, these same earrings end up in a New Age Creations-like store at the mall, where they’re shoplifted by a valley girl, who then ends up switching bodies with Clive Maxtone, a mentally disturbed petty thief who fills his bag with nacho cheese when there’s not enough money in the cash register. Adam Sandler shows up at the beginning, as a dreadlocked employee of the mall store, only to blatantly rehash the “you can put your weed in there” SNL sketch, which wasn’t all that funny in the first place. We didn’t last long enough to see what kind of wackiness ensued, but based on the movie poster, I assume it’s a bunch of lightly homophobic gags about how funny it to watch a guy doing girl stuff.

Tender Mercies (1981)

After feeling burned by the comedy route, we took a 180 and checked out this tranquil country drama. While I haven’t seen the much-ballyhooed Crazy Heart, it must be indebted to this powerful character study from director Bruce Beresford. The story of an alcoholic, washed-up country singer who tries to come to terms with his past, with the quietly intense love of a county road motel owner  lighting the way, Tender Mercies could easily have gotten out of hand dramatically (see Exhibit A). But thanks in part to a career-defining turn from Robert Duvall as the main character, Mac Sledge, this is a story of redemptive strength that plays things close to the vest. Awash in craggy, knowing looks, his weathered voice rarely rising above a mumbled twang, Duvall inhabits the space of a guy who’s seen it all, and isn’t all that interested in seeing any of it again. Horton Foote’s Academy Award-winning screenplay is full of simple, profound backs and forths, including the one of the sweetest and most matter-of-fact marriage proposals you’re bound to see. During one of Mac’s bouts of anger, he goes to a bar/restaurant, where he bristles at the waiter’s questions, snapping, “I don’t know what I want yet.” But by the end, as he tosses a football with his stepson, you get the sense that he’s changed his answer.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-pres.)

Few things in life are as formulaic as an episode of Law & Order, and the same can be said of its offspring. Criminal Intent, however, is the only version that landed Vincent D’Onofrio, whose performance as Detective Robert Goren crackles with a spastic vulnerability that’s deeper than any L&O character deserves (I will not suffer Chris Noth). Still, everything else is much the same – some unsuspecting folks stumble upon a body, the first suspect isn’t guilty, somebody who shows up for a short period of time early on ends up being the killer, and, of course, they always catch him/her. But there’s something soothing about all of this predictability – if I’m having trouble sleeping, an episode of CI works like a lullaby.

The Conners: A sitcom family in a class of its own.

About a month ago, the magical, free-time-sucking beast that is Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” feature entered my life. As a result, I am reading less, getting seriously disoriented every time I have to go outside, and watching shit like “Legends of the Fall” – now, those Anthony Hopkins stroke-induced facial paralysis scenes are only a click away.

The upside? “Watch Instantly” offers all nine seasons of Roseanne, an example of the rarest thing you’ll ever see on broadcast television – a sitcom that is both wickedly funny and disarmingly realistic. As I started to retrace my steps through the Conner family saga, I wondered if it would still hold up after 20 odd years. Fact is, at its best, the show’s probably even more relevant today, thanks to a markedly un-gimmicky comedic formula. This isn’t a show about middle class Americans with jokes thrown in – the stresses and struggles actually set up the zingers, positioning Rosie and her brood as the kind of people who find their strength through their sense of humor. Instead of wacky misunderstandings, the hilarity stems from the stress of tax day, having a snot-nosed teenager as your boss, and telling your daughter that she doesn’t have a college fund. And as well-crafted as it all is, none of it would’ve translated without such a talented cast – John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf both turn in nuanced, honest and hilarious performances, giving Roseanne a foundation that allows her to just be herself, delivering sarcastic put-downs with a skill that’s yet to be matched by any sitcom star.

After the first five seasons, the writers started to stray from the formula, but some of these diversions are fun, especially a pair of season 7 clip shows that includes Roseanne comparing notes with June Cleaver, Ruth Martin and Norma Arnold, much to their dismay. The drama starts to get laid on a little thick when Dan’s father issues get the best of him, and Darlene’s on-again off-again relationship with David becomes a bit of a bore. But what more could you expect from a show in its seventh, eighth and ninth seasons? The only thing that’s tough to forgive was the temporary replacement of Lecy Goranson, the actress who played Becky, with Sarah Chalke during seasons 6 and 7. It’s never good when shows do this, and especially bad when the new performer changes the way the character behaves – Goranson’s Becky was smart and argumentative; Chalke’s was quiet and passive.

Much has been made of the final season’s lottery storyline and meta-confessional finale, and for good reason. It went against everything that made the show unique, and more importantly, the jokes just weren’t as funny. But taking this journey with the Conners for a second time, rooting for them as they take one step forward and two steps back through season after season, it still feels good to see their dreams come true.