“If it can happen to the gerenuk, it can happen to you.”
In case you were concerned that I was abandoning my core brand with all this recent talk about Dungeons & Dragons and board games, I lately learned that there was a 1962 episode of the show Route 66 in which Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney, Jr. guest star as themselves.
Better still, I learned that it’s currently on Prime. So, today I watched it. Please bear in mind that I have never seen even a single other episode of Route 66 – which a little sleuthing tells me was a show in the same “semi-anthology” format as series-creator Stirling Silliphant’s other famous series, The Naked City, with a couple of recurring characters but stand-alone stories driven by the guest stars – and, indeed, didn’t even know the basic plot of the show before I sat down to watch this episode.
The episode, which is set and shot outside Chicago, originally showed on October 26, 1962. Its dual plots involve our two ostensible protagonists (played by Martin Milner and George Maharis) taking jobs as “junior executives in charge of convention liaison” at a hotel where a secretary’s convention is being held along with a secret meeting between Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney (as well as Martita Hunt from Brides of Dracula playing their legal advisor) so that the trio can plan a new series of horror films they will be producing.
Peter Lorre is convinced that the old ways are the best ways and wants to create new movies in the classic gothic style, arguing in favor of monsters in which people can see themselves. Karloff, on the other hand, doesn’t think that anyone will be afraid of the creaky old monsters, and wants to create new, “adult” horror. (“My kind of horror is not horror anymore,” Karloff would lament just six years later in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. “No one is afraid of a painted monster.”)
In fact, this episode of Route 66 makes a good thematic double-feature with the much more serious Targets, which tackles a similar question with regards to the efficacy of classic horror and comes to very different conclusions. Dedicated readers no doubt remember me writing about Targets in the past, and recognize the above quote as the source of the title of my second collection.
This episode, titled “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing,” came out just six years before Bogdanovich’s film, but a world of difference has elapsed in those six years. If Targets is a film about how horror cinema – and the nation – changed from before the ’60s to after, then “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” is an episode that sees that change coming, but still takes refuge in the comforts of what was.
Not that this is a thematically-dense episode. It’s a confection, and mostly an excuse for Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney to have a blast – which they do, from Chaney’s weepy temper tantrums when people aren’t afraid of him to the recurring gag that people are afraid of Peter Lorre, even when he’s not trying.
“You’re the spitting image of Peter Lorre,” the desk clerk tells him, as he’s checking in incognito. “A bit insulting, isn’t it?” Lorre replies, as only Lorre can. Later, as Chaney in his wolf-man getup is frightening the secretaries and causing them to faint, three of them faint dead away upon catching sight of Lorre just standing there like normal.
“I think I resent that,” Lorre quips, aridly.
It’s also a piece of horror history – even while it’s really nothing more than a piece of horror ephemera. Karloff dons a cut-rate version of the Frankenstein’s monster makeup for the first time since 1939, and we get to see Chaney done up as the mummy, the wolf-man, and even a take on his late father’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.