Series summary: The ‘Laughing Gas’ movies

July 15, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 15, 2016

I recently rewatched all the entries in my favorite schlocky horror-movie series, and I wanted to recap them for your enjoyment!

• Laughing Gas (1959). Jim Laffmore (Lou Vernon) is the proprietor of Laughmore’s Comedy Club and Lounge, a venue that is wildly successful despite being located in the small West Virginia town of Plainville. What no one knows is that every night he floods the ventilation system with laughing gas in order to stimulate crowds.

Bobby Douglas (John Kerr) is a discouraged performer who has quit the standup comedy circuit and returned to his hometown after being unable to duplicate the tremendous audience response he got at Laughmore’s at any other club where he took the stage. He grows suspicious after noticing that minor comedians who routinely bombed when he performed alongside them in places like New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., seem to be a hit when they appear at Laughmore’s. His investigation connects him with Laffmore’s nephew, club employee Edmond Victor (Anthony Perkins, already a minor star and just months away from playing his signature role in 1960’s Psycho), a soon-to-be high-school graduate who is disconsolate because the classmate and next-door neighbor for whom he has long nurtured an unrequited crush has fallen head over heels for the high-school quarterback.

Laughmore’s is chosen to host a bevy of major comedians on the last Saturday night in June because the town has won the FAST (Funniest American Small Town) competition. Everyone who’s anyone in Plainville will be attending, including Edmond’s neighbor and her handsome beau. Edmond enlists Bobby in a plan to switch out the laughing gas with — well, Bobby isn’t entirely clear what substance Edmond intends to use. Is Edmond bent on pulling off a harmless stunt, or is Bobby inadvertently helping him to kill hundreds of people?

Snobbish horror aficionados love to call the original Laughing Gas a minor classic. It’s tempting to agree with them, but the film’s reputation is somewhat inflated. In reality, this is just a competently made and enjoyable psychological horror movie with a strange premise. Still, the cast is excellent, and Perkins is absolutely marvelous as the teenaged Edmond Victor Laffmore (EViL — get it?); you can see the recently and jealously boiling just beneath the surface.

• Laughing Gas 2: The Laughening (1967). Nine years after the disaster at Laughmore’s, Edmond Victor Laffmore (Will Hutchins) has assumed an alias and is working at Joker’s Wild comedy club in West Grove, outside of Philadelphia. Edmond, it turns out, was convicted of tampering with Laughmore’s ventilation systems and served three years in prison because prosecutors couldn’t prove he intended to kill the FAST audience. When West Grove is selected as the winner of the 1967 FAST contest, Edmond becomes obsessed with maintaining the ventilation system at Joker’s Wild. What’s more, he spots his old partner-cum-nemesis, Bobby Douglas (Robert Bannard), working as a FAST stagehand, also under an alias.

As the night of the big show approaches, Edmond becomes desperate to prevent Bobby from re-enacting the carnage at Laughmore’s. But is Edmond being truthful with himself about his own intentions? And does Bobby really exist, or is he just a manifestation of Edmond’s increasingly tenuous hold on reality?

Hutchins performs admirably as a replacement for Perkins, and a young Sam Waterston stands out as the libertine owner of Joker’s Wild. But Bannard’s acting is wildly inconsistent — in some scenes, he seems barely able to stay awake, while in others he demonstrates an over-the-top gusto for scenery-chewing that might be admirable if Laughing Gas 2 were trying for comedy. It’s easy to believe the on-set scuttlebutt that the actor was either suffering from an alcohol or drug problem or coping with a nervous breakdown, if not some combination of all three.

Devotees will argue with startling ferocity that Laughing Gas 2: The Laughening is the apex of the series. Indeed, the early stretch is tremendously promising, building as it does on the psychological ambiguity of the original and even leading us to question our understanding of just who was responsible for the carnage at Laughmore’s. I, however, am regularly jarred by Laughing Gas 2’s inconsistent tone. And while the movie is peppered with jump scares and bizarre dream sequences, they don’t make up for the fact that relatively little seems to be happening. (The action climax with characters clambering about the ventilation system in the rafters would be staged far better in the 2005 remake.)

• Laughing Gas 3 (1976). This is surely one of the worst sequels made by legitimate rights-holders in cinema history. Made for an incredibly cheap $19,000, Laughing Gas 3 mainly consists of a series of clips of standup comedians performing various routines in a number of clubs. The movie seems to have been slapped together from whatever footage was at hand with no regard to establishing any kind of theme or tone. Most of the clips were filmed on a static, unmoving camera stationed at the back of a club; the sound quality is uniformly awful, and the grain and lighting ranges from atrocious to barely passable. Rather infamously, the movie contains a 27-second-long excerpt of Lenny Bruce — who died a full decade before this film’s release — telling a single joke.

To make things worse, the movie contains a bizarre frame story in which a man whose face is never seen spends time in hotels, restaurants and shops. The menacing score and the framing of some shots suggest that he is plotting some kind of murder, and there are a few shots of bloodied knives, but otherwise it’s impossible to make out what’s going on. These sequences were reputedly directed in 1974 or 1975 by cinema legend Brian De Palma, whose breakout hit Carrie was released a few months after Laughing Gas 3; De Palma himself has strenuously denied any involvement with the film, but the testimony of his peers indicates otherwise.

Even the most passionate admirers of the Laughing Gas series universally acknowledge that this film was a dud in every regard.

• Life’s a Gas, a.k.a. Laughing Gas IV (1983). When the producer, director, screenwriter and surviving lead actors from the original Laughing Gas announced that they would be reuniting for this 1983 outing, there was a lot of excitement in the far fringes of horror fandom. However, what emerged was a major disappointment, at least in part because the filmmakers never secured rights to the franchise. Not a sequel, Life’s a Gas — marketed to generations of unwary videocassette and DVD consumers under the title Laughing Gas IV, a name that’s never shown on screen — attempts to recapture the magic of the 1959 movie by spinning a tale of psychological suspense with characters in small-town comedy clubs.

This time around, Kerr — at least 30 pounds heavier since his performance in Laughing Gas and looking notably the worse for wear — takes the lead as Buddy Dogwood, an aging comedian with a mysterious past shuffling from one obscure small-town comedy club tour stop to another. When Dogwood begins seeing a strange face observing him from the crowd, he begins to fear for his own sanity. This, of course, is a character listed in the credits as “Edward Lafflin” — an entirely silent Perkins, who looks startlingly young. Every time Dogwood tries to confront Lafflin, he finds only empty space. And as his desultory tour progresses, people start turning up dead. Is Lafflin doing the dirty deeds, or is Dogwood committing the crimes?

For two-thirds of the way, this plays out as if the frame story from Laughing Gas 3 had been adapted, only this time with a substantial connection to the actual Laughing Gas series. But things go off the rails when the movie begins following the real murderer, an unnamed traveling Bible salesman (Don Calfa), as he graphically slaughters a number of unwary victims in a variety of creative ways. The murders are well-staged, thanks in no small part to veteran makeup artist Allan Apone, but they have no relation to Dogwood, who never crosses paths with the killer.

Life’s a Gas terrified me as a kid when I caught glimpses of it on television as a child, and the bloody climactic frenzy is a classic of the slasher genre. When I watched the movie the whole way through for the first time, sometime in the mid-1990s, I thought it was passable enough. But the film abandons any pretense of psychological suspense when the killing begins, and it feels as though the movie consists of two parts that have been clumsily stitched together. It’s unfortunate that this movie has generated by far the most iconic image of the entire Laughing Gas series — the shot of the killer wearing a pig mask looming in the foreground as the immense plastic sculpture of a segmented blood-red worm dominates the rest of the frame.

• Laughing Gas (2009). The awkward reboot/sequel hybrid that nobody wanted and no one was waiting for turned out to be, in my eyes, the highlight of the series.

The villain this time around is Jim Laughmore (Thomas Jane), the sinister owner of Laffmore’s Comedy Stop, a long-dormant club in West Grove, W.V., that has been shuttered ever since it was the site of a disaster half a century earlier. Touring comedian Buddy Dogwood (Joe Anderson) is in town for a one-week stop to promote the club’s grand reopening in the final week of June. He becomes suspicious that Laughmore may be plotting something nefarious — burning down the club, possibly during the sold-out America’s FAST performance scheduled for Saturday night, either in order to collect the insurance money or to avenge a foiled romance (or both). Dogwood, unfortunately, is a recovering alcoholic who’s having trouble staying on the wagon. After he becomes the comedian who cried wolf, local authorities ignore his attempts to warn them that Laughmore is plotting an atrocity.

The film makes a number of switches: It uses the name of the town from the second movie but places it in the state where the first one was set, it swaps the name of the club with the surname of its owner, it consolidates the club owner and his shady nephew into a single character, and it gives the comedian character the name of the touring comic from the unofficial 1983 franchise entry. Worst of all, perhaps, the new Laughing Gas completely drops the laughing gas/poison gas element that anchored the first two movies — and which, admittedly, was absent from the 1976 and 1983 follow-ups. (The only link is that the 1959 disaster that closed the club in this movie appears to have been identical to what occurred in the original film, apparently making Jim Laughmore a descendant of either Jim or Edmond Victor Laffmore/Laughmore from the start of the series.) It’s also weird that West Grove has somehow won what is here called the America’s FAST contest — standing for, presumably, America’s Funniest American Small Town? — despite not having had an active comedy venue for 50 years.

Still, the cast and crew assemble a taut psychological suspense thriller, and the climax in the club’s attic is by far the best and most exciting extended action sequence of all five movies.

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