Earl Owensby has always been on our short (long) list of subjects to cover. A true renaissance man, Owensby is a seemingly larger-than-life North Carolina figure whose rise to fame seems like it could only have taken place in the 1970s. A successful businessman, Owensby decided one day to chuck it all and pursue his childhood dream of making movies. The story goes that he saw the smash-hit WALKING TALL (1973), thought, “I could do that” and was soon on his way. He purchased land in his native Shelby, North Carolina and built a huge studio completely self sufficient from Hollywood. Naturally, he cast himself as the star of nearly every film that came out of there.
Sadly, most cinephiles will know Owensby for the film WOLFMAN (1979), a werewolf film seemingly only made due to capitalize on the hirsute Owensby. But his filmography is filled with fun and exciting Southern Fried action flicks. Tom initially turned me onto the man by sending me a copy of his stunt (and food fight) filled DEATH DRIVER (1977). A quick succession of CHALLENGE (1974), MANHUNTER (1975), DARK SUNDAY (1976), and BUCKSTONE COUNTY PRISON (1978) followed and I was hooked. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, Owensby had jumped on the resurgent 3-D fad with titles like DOGS OF HELL (1982) and HIT THE ROAD RUNNING (1983). One of the last three dimensional features he produced was the horror anthology TALES OF THE THIRD DIMENSION (1984) and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t have a segment that is easily one of the most demented Christmas things I’ve ever seen.
they are driving to Grandma’s house that he was too cheap to take them on vacation with them to Hawaii. Dad’s response is to pull off his own belt while driving and whoop his son while screaming, “You better get into the Christmas spirit or I’m going to burn your little butt!” Eventually the parents drop the kids off with overly-kissy Grandma before peeling out. WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) this ain’t.
The trio settle down in the home and do normal Christmas things like setting up the tree and playing with toys. However (insert dramatic music cue), things start to go south on December 21st when we see Grandma discovering she has no more pills her bottles. The next day, she starts exhibiting some odd behavior at the breakfast table. She overfills each child’s bowl with oatmeal and then starts giving some to Grandpa. Problem is Grandpa ain’t there and has been dead for years. If that didn’t let the kids know she was off her rocker, the next scene does as they spy her in the bedroom just spinning around in circles in her electric wheelchair. December 23rd picks up with the kids back in normal holiday events as they are making cookies with Grandma. But she starts going off when Susy asks if Santa is bringing toys. “Toys? Ha!” Grandma shouts before spitting on the floor. She then keeps rolling her dough, smashes a bug with her rolling pin and then eats it. That night in their beds Susy asks, “You notice Grandma has been acting a little funny lately?” Just wait, Susy.
Eh, you just have a killer Santa. Nothing tops a Grandma off her meds deciding to blow away her grandchildren on Christmas Eve when it comes to demented holiday horrors. The director credited to this segment is one Tom Durham, who hasn’t done anything else. Maybe it is a pseudonym, or maybe he realized he made a masterpiece and did the cinematic equivalent of dropping the mic and walking off stage arms outstretched? I just spent over 900 words describing this segment to you and even I know I am not accurately describing the insanity that unfolds onscreen. I can still remember when I first watched this and how my jaw just kept dropping with each successive crazy moment. By the time I got to Santa shooting Grandma out of the chimney, I had dentist in China working on my teeth because my jaw dropped so far. I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through the filmmakers mind when they made this. It was shot in 1983, so it was pre-SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT hullabaloo, so the idea that they were openly courting controversy is out the window (or chimney, if you prefer). In my research, there is no evidence this ever got to theaters (although the Alamo Drafthouse did secure a non-3-D 35mm print of it to show). I’d hope that it did at least play some dates in California and that some poor, misguided families paid to see this in the theater. I can only imagine the conversations afterward. Anyway, “Visions of Sugar Plums” is not only an anthology saver, but a certifiable Christmas classic ‘round these parts. Watch it or we’ll send a shotgun wielding Granny your way.