Monday, October 31, 2022

LEGO Tribute to NOSFERATU (1922)

Happy Halloween! This year I decided to celebrate spooky season with a LEGO tribute to one of the greatest horror movies ever made, Nosferatu (1922). Max Schreck created an iconic character as the creepy, plague carrying Count Orlok, the film's replacement for Count Dracula (because they couldn't get permission to make an actual adaptation of Stoker's novel). While the setting here is not strictly faithful to the familiar shots of Orlok in the doorway, I felt that the rats and spiders helped to convey the mood of the picture (you can't have Nosferatu without rats!).

Just like a vampire, this great silent movie rose again from the dead after Stoker's estate demanded that the prints be destroyed, and we're lucky to be able to watch Nosferatu today. The original film was remade in 1979 (with Klaus Kinski), celebrated in song by Blue Oyster Cult in 1977, and parodied to great effect in the 2000 film, Shadow of the Vampire, with Willem Dafoe earning an Oscar nomination for his delightfully weird performance as Max/Orlok.


Thursday, October 6, 2022

From Phantom to Phenom: The Evolution of Uncle Deadly

Uncle Deadly made his first appearance in the Vincent Price episode of The Muppet Show in 1977, but the four decades since have seen him evolve considerably from a periodic secondary character to a core member of the ensemble with major roles in several of the more recent Muppet productions, including the feature film The Muppets (2011), the 2015 ABC series, The Muppets, and Disney’s 2020 shortform streaming series, Muppets Now. As his significance has grown, so has the development of his personality. He first appeared as a monster character who occasionally contributed to situations that called for the creepier members of the extended cast, but the Uncle Deadly of today is quite a different fellow from the menacing thespian fiend of the distant past. Indeed, Uncle Deadly might be one of the Muppets’ most dynamic characters, partly because his ascension to central player status arrived so long after his original introduction. More recent productions have taken advantage of his potential and room for development to create a very modern Uncle Deadly, one who still has his roots in his theatrical, macabre past but also embodies twenty-first century sensibilities regarding fashion, social media, and sexuality.

Uncle Deadly began his existence as a tribute to classic horror, and his early appearances on The Muppet Show highlighted his connection to that genre. Michael K. Frith designed the character, Dave Goelz built him, and Jerry Nelson created his voice and manner as an homage to classic horror icon John Carradine. The notoriously hammy Carradine inspired the character’s Shakespearean bent and theatricality and also underscored his identity as the embodiment of a certain kind of horror, not the bloody slashers so prominent in the mid-1970s, when The Muppet Show first aired, but B monster movies like House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and The Black Sleep (1956). Carradine, in other words, was a king of horror camp, especially after appearances in low-budget 1960s pictures like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Blood of Dracula’s Castle (1969), and Madame Death (1969). It’s entirely appropriate, then, that Uncle Deadly made his initial appearance on the series during the Vincent Price episode, where he played the horror star’s “beautiful assistant” during a New Year’s Eve sketch called “House of Horrors.” Price, another icon of the genre, was a natural choice to pair with Uncle Deadly; Price would even go on to star with John Carradine in The Monster Club in 1981 and House of the Long Shadows in 1983, and Price would be reunited with Uncle Deadly when the Muppets took over The Tonight Show in 1979 to promote The Muppet Movie, even though Uncle Deadly had no real part in that film. 

Uncle Deadly and Vincent Price

Uncle Deadly’s second appearance on the show, and his formal introduction by name, came in the first season Twiggy episode, where he haunted the cast as The Phantom of the Muppet Show, a Shakespearean actor who had died onstage thanks to bad reviews of his Othello. Many of the great horror stars had similar theatrical backgrounds, including Carradine, Price, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff. Price had even starred as a Shakespearean actor driven mad by critics in the 1973 film, Theatre of Blood. As a theater phantom, Deadly tapped into the rich legacy of The Phantom of the Opera, from the original novel by Gaston Leroux and the 1925 Lon Chaney film to the much more contemporary Phantom of the Paradise, the 1974 cult musical directed by Brian De Palma and starring Paul Williams, an important Henson collaborator who had also been a first season guest on The Muppet Show. In 2017, the Muppets hung a lampshade on this connection by casting Uncle Deadly as the actual Phantom in the Penguin paperback, Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera. Thus, even as a minor character, Uncle Deadly came heavily invested in a particularly rich mix of literary, theatrical, and cinematic influences, which possibly explains how he could capture viewers’ imaginations so thoroughly with so little screen time on the original television series and films. 

Despite his promising beginning, The Muppet Show never quite figured out what to do with the character, and he made only a few additional appearances on the original television series, including two installments of a melodrama parody that had him terrorizing an imperiled Miss Piggy. He never became a key figure for the show and ceased to be featured after the third season, making his appearance on the 1979 episode of The Tonight Show all the more noteworthy, and almost certainly solely due to Price’s presence as the episode’s first guest. While he turned up occasionally in other Muppet media, mainly print publications, he ceased to be a performed character, with Nelson’s last credit for him taking place in 1979. Just like a phantom, Uncle Deadly more or less disappeared, and his comeback would take decades to materialize.

Of course, the 2011 Disney movie, The Muppets, marked a comeback for all of the characters, who had not starred in a theatrical release since Muppets from Space in 1999, but none more so than Uncle Deadly, who burst into greater prominence than he had ever enjoyed before. According to Ryan Roe of the Muppets fansite, Tough Pigs, the picture’s director, James Bobin, was a fan of the sinister blue monster who wanted Uncle Deadly in the story, which cast him as a henchman to villainous oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Performed by Matt Vogel, this new iteration retained the core elements of his original personality but traded his phantom rags for a neat if somber suit that fitted his role as the lackey of a wealthy businessman. Deadly’s self-described “terrifying name and evil English accent” made him a more traditional villain sidekick than his co-henchman, Bobo the Bear, even though Bobo had already filled the same function in Muppets from Space a decade earlier. It was nothing like a major role compared to those of the core characters, but it proved to be a particularly dynamic one. At first depicted as an accessory to Richman’s evil schemes, Uncle Deadly dramatically rejected the villain and embraced his identity as a Muppet. Longtime Uncle Deadly fans, Ryan Roe and myself included, cheered this development and looked forward to Uncle Deadly’s continuing presence as a more important character, but the 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, didn’t seem to know how to use him if he wasn’t going to be a villain anymore, and he was once again reduced to a minor cameo role.

Uncle Deadly schemes with Bobo and Tex Richman.

Luckily, a return to television was just around the corner for the now Disney-owned characters, and Uncle Deadly’s evolution persisted in surprising but utterly appropriate ways. No longer a phantom or a fiend, Deadly took up the job of wardrobe manager for Up Late with Miss Piggy, the fictional talk show setting for the short-lived 2015 ABC series, The Muppets. The show had a troubled start, with The New York Times calling it “mundane” and “overwrought,” and The Guardian describing it as “cynical” and “heartbreaking.” Most of the complaints focused on the core characters, especially a depressed and joyless Kermit, but the retooling the show underwent after the first ten episodes brought major changes that extended to Uncle Deadly, as well. Initially a background character - yet again - with relatively few scenes and lines, Deadly blossomed into a fully realized member of the cast after the tenth episode. He was not only the wardrobe manager for the show but a talented fashion designer and, most importantly, the chief confidant and friend of Miss Piggy, who had long suffered from the boys’ club nature of the core Muppets cast and her own treatment of other female characters as professional and romantic rivals. Piggy had always needed a scene partner who could appreciate her perspective and also push back against her temper while still maintaining their relationship, and Uncle Deadly turned out to be a perfect choice. With new, dapper costume changes that suited his sartorial sensibility and large chunks of screen time with Piggy, Uncle Deadly was suddenly even more developed and integral than he had been in the 2011 film. He was witty, wry, and still an old theater ham at heart, but he also brought much needed emotional grounding to Piggy, allowing her to move beyond the one-note diva depiction that had plagued her since the original show. In late season episodes like “A Tale of Two Piggies” and “Got Silk?”the friendship took center stage, with Deadly actually returning to the stage in full Alicia Silverstone costume for a production of Clueless that he was directing. Unfortunately, the series makeover came too late to convince Disney and ABC to greenlight a second season, but the evolution of Uncle Deadly stuck as one of the best outcomes of the canceled show. 

Since the 2015 series, we’ve continued to see this new version of Uncle Deadly in a variety of media. He joined Twitter in January 2016, where his account bio reads “Get thee to Twitter where I, Uncle Deadly, deliciously dish about great acting, high fashion, and absolutely everything in between.” The account is still active in 2022, where the most recent post on September 3rd says, “All fans of fashion know that one of the best places for outfit shopping is the thrift store. You just might find absolutely anything there! Well... not ANYTHING. For instance: you'd never find Miss Piggy there.” He provided fashion advice and witticisms on the YouTube “Muppet Thought of the Week” series from 2017 to 2018. He appeared at the Disney media event, D23, in 2019, and made appearances along with other Muppets for a variety of special performances. He then returned as Piggy’s constant companion for the 2020 Disney+ series, Muppets Now, which also saw him getting back to his theatrical roots by teaching Walter about stage combat. His significant presence on Muppets Now was particularly noteworthy because the six episode show, a stripped down production that dropped to streaming in July 2020, in the midst of the first year of the Covid pandemic, featured a very small cast of core Muppet characters. Uncle Deadly had clearly arrived as a beloved major character, one whom fans expected to see in any Muppet project. 

It was surprising, then, to see Disney relegate Uncle Deadly to a cameo role once more for the 2021 Disney+ Halloween special, Muppets Haunted Mansion, which ought to have been the one place the character absolutely deserved a major presence. Disney certainly knew that Uncle Deadly belonged in such a setting; he had served as the host for the 2021 Disney Parks video, “A Self-Guided Tour of the Most Mystifying Attractions Around the World,” which covered the various incarnations of The Haunted Mansion in Disney theme parks. Uncle Deadly’s horror connections overlapped with those of the famous Disney dark rides, especially Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris, which Vincent Price had provided the original English language dialogue for and which to this day features Price’s iconic laughter. It seems painfully obvious to any fan of the Muppets and The Haunted Mansion that Uncle Deadly ought to have played the Ghost Host for the special. The elegant cast member costume, the Host’s sepulchral and darkly comedic voice, his identity as one of the resident specters, and the ride’s intentional evocation of classic horror atmosphere all pointed to Uncle Deadly as the perfect choice, but Disney chose instead to cast Will Arnett in the important role and have Uncle Deadly appear only as the Justice of the Peace during the wedding scene. In an otherwise delightful Halloween special, this slight stood out as an attempt to return Uncle Deadly to the background, and I hope it proves to be an aberration and not a sign of things to come with future Muppet productions. 

Having looked at the long, dynamic history of the character, we can see that Uncle Deadly has evolved much more markedly than many of his fellow Muppets. He has been particularly well-positioned to do so by his tremendous potential and his early role as a background character without as much baggage to dictate his development over the decades. The original core cast, like Kermit, Piggy, and Fozzie, have been more fixed over time because their personalities and roles were so clearly established in the 1970s. The negative reaction to a depressed Kermit on the ABC series shows how viewers expect those characters to remain true to their earlier selves even as studio owners, puppeteers, and decades change. Other minor characters with less compelling personalities have stayed in the background or mostly disappeared; think of Hilda, the original wardrobe manager on The Muppet Show, or Wayne and Wanda, or Bobby Benson’s Baby Band. The Muppets cast is full of weird characters who have never broken into the inner circle, even though we do see the occasional newcomer, like Rizzo, Pepe, and Bobo, rise to prominence, and sometimes fall out again, as Rizzo seems to have done with the contentious departure of creator and performer Steve Whitmire. Uncle Deadly has already survived the transition from original performer to second generation, even though his somewhat uneven prominence over the last decade suggests that his position as a top tier character is not yet secure, at least in the eyes of the Disney studio bosses. His rise, however, suggests how much the Muppets need a character like Uncle Deadly, who can change with the times by building on his original traits rather than erasing them. He fills gaps in the original core without negating what we already know about him. Like Gonzo, he’s a bizarre character associated with performance, counterculture, and the arts, but his horror roots give him a more grandiose, elegant personality and an ego that makes him an ideal equal and foil to Miss Piggy. Deadly’s evolution as a fashion icon fits with those traits, too, especially given the Gothic extravagance of many of his costumes, which would have looked just as appropriate on Vincent Price in his best horror roles. Vanity, after all, is a trait long associated with both preening stage actors, maniacal villains, and fashion designers. 

Uncle Deadly and Miss Piggy, BFFs.

There’s another aspect to this evolving Uncle Deadly that also fills a gap in the core cast and merges a variety of subtexts from his history, and that’s the way in which the character has increasingly leaned into an identity that we recognize as queer. Disney has carefully avoided making this aspect of Uncle Deadly explicit, but it surges through the undercurrent of his personality and function. His original persona, inspired by scenery chewing horror heavies, already contained the seeds of queerness because queer-coded villains in classic horror, film noir, and science fiction were often depicted in the same way, with their suspect sexuality expressed by their sinister yet refined demeanor, their fastidious fashion sense, and their penchant for theatricality. The representation, while certainly problematic in many respects, simultaneously made space for gay and bisexual actors who built their careers on such roles, including Clifton Webb, Laird Cregar, Charles Laughton, and Ernest Thesiger, while actors like Peter Lorre, George Sanders, Claude Rains, and, of course, Vincent Price, capitalized on their ability to channel the same energy into villainous characters. 

The more modern depiction of Uncle Deadly moves beyond the villain stereotype even as it steps into the territory of the queer-coded character as “gay best friend” to a female protagonist, a trope familiar from films like Clueless (1995), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), and The Devil Wears Prada (2006). There’s a reason, after all, that Deadly is directing a stage production of Clueless in the “Got Silk?” episode of the ABC series. He gets more screen time in the recent series largely because Piggy needs a scene partner and he can talk to her about the things that interest her, namely herself, her appearance, and her outfits. As Deadly dishes about fashion and acting on Twitter, TV series, and YouTube, he performs an identity familiar to modern viewers from Queer Eye, Legendary, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and other productions where fashion and queer sexuality connect as the central themes. On the plus side, Deadly’s frequent appearances in online media allow him to embody those traits without being an accessory to Miss Piggy, and he gets to command our attention as the true star of the scene. As a character who originally had his own independent function as a character, Deadly is proving that he can still stand alone and appeal to audiences without being tethered to Piggy, even though his relationship with the diva has driven much of his recent development. 

At this time, it’s difficult to say what comes next for Uncle Deadly. His Twitter account still posts new content frequently, and Matt Vogel is still very much involved with the Muppets as a performer, so we can hope that he won’t disappear again as he did in 1979. In spite of his reduced presence, we did see him feature in a key scene in Muppets Haunted Mansion in 2021, and the Disney Parks Haunted Mansion video shows that Disney sees him as a good fit for spooky or Halloween content. However, the Muppets present an embarrassment of riches similar to those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars when it comes to Disney project opportunities. We know that the next Muppet production coming to Disney+ will be Muppets Mayhem, a series focusing on The Electric Mayhem and a supporting group of human characters. Deadly may or may not appear in the series, depending on the extent to which it incorporates characters beyond the actual band members. The Muppets YouTube channel, while still up and full of older content, last saw a new post six months ago, and two years have passed since Uncle Deadly’s last appearance there. Because the Muppets are now just one property within the ever-expanding multimedia Disney juggernaut, projects featuring them have to compete with other brands for development, streaming opportunities on Disney+, and theatrical releases. We’ve already seen Disney cancel Muppet series after a single season or abort them mid-development, as happened with the planned 2019 series, Muppets Live Another Day. It’s possible that Disney might relegate Deadly to the background again as it focuses on different Muppet projects, which are themselves of less importance to the studio than the wildly lucrative Marvel and Star Wars properties.


That would be a shame, too, because I, for one, can imagine many projects where Uncle Deadly’s particular talents could be employed to great effect. His personality and history would make him ideal for productions highlighting theater, fashion, the arts in general, and light horror. Even though the Uncle Deadly’s House of Badness TV concept for a kid-friendly horror show never got off the ground back in 2000, the idea still has merit, especially since the enduring appeal of Hocus Pocus ought to prove to Disney that family appropriate horror can have tremendous appeal. Uncle Deadly would be a perfect horror host for tales of the weird and eerie, but he would also fit in perfectly in Muppet adaptations of Shakespeare, or as the host and star of a Muppet makeover show where various characters or human guest stars get their looks updated. A return to theatrical releases of literary adaptations would also provide rich possible roles for Uncle Deadly, from the obvious Phantom of the Opera to Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and even Robin Hood, with Deadly in any of the roles previously filled by kindred spirits like Carradine, Karloff, Price, Basil Rathbone, or Christopher Lee. With a character as rich and versatile as Uncle Deadly, only a failure of imagination on the studio’s part can limit his future with the Muppets cast. 

* This essay was originally written for and presented online at The Evolution of Jim Henson's Puppetry: From Analog Craft to Digital Franchise symposium.