Saturday, October 31, 2009

A lame-ass Halloween memory

While other bloggers are regaling Interwebbers today with thrilling tales of Halloweens of yore, I must admit with great sadness that I don't really have any of those. You would think that, given my horror fandom, and with a theatrical background to boot, I would slap on the ghoulish glamor and glitz once a year with total abandon, but no. I am woefully conservative in that respect (hell, probably only in that respect), but when Halloween is a state of mind that you live in for the other 364 days of the year, I take a pass on the costumes, make-up and masks.

Except for one year.

Twenty-one years ago this week, there was a college house party for the staffers of WWSP-90FM, the modern rock station where I was then serving as music director and film critic. I wasn't a student at the time; I was pulled from the community to handle the post when the previous MD was deemed to have overstayed his welcome and was outsted in a coup. I was still seen as a bit of an outsider, a few years older than most of the other staffers, so when I was invited to a station costume party...well, I had to represent - and this was well before anyone knew what the hell "represent" meant. But what to go as? My wardrobe at the time ran to muted blues, grays, browns and black, and I didn't really have world enough or time to attempt anything extravagant.

Then I looked at the bookshelf next to the closet. Then I looked at the closet again. Thunder clapped, angels sang, Jesus wept, and I had my idea.

I copied this. Perfectly.

From what I had in my wardrobe, you would have suspected that Roger and I shopped at the same store. I dyed my dishwater hair black (it was comparatively so full and luxurious then...sigh), then added gray highlights, and applied the Ben Nye to age me a couple of decades. Add the gray herringbone tweed, a dark blue sweater vest with a light blue dress shirt, a thin red tie (as a New Waver, I had those up the ying yang), and, to complete the effect, I tucked the book under my arm. So I walked around the party with Roger's new volume (it's a BIG book) in one hand, and an upraised thumb on the other...which probably explains why I didn't get a lot to drink that night. But I did get quite a few compliments, and the fact that I was also 90FM's film critic at the time added a sly, puckish note to the ensemble, if I do say so myself. (I don't have a picture from the night, but I know some were taken. Maybe if a friend who reads this has one and can send one to me....? I'll add it to the post.)

There you have it. Underwhelming, huh? Far more dramatic was the moment at the party when our Station Manager, in a drunken frenzy, crucified a plastic figure of Grimace upon a kitchen cabinet door with some Chicago Cutlery. Many were appalled, but if you ask me, the purple bastard had it coming.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Story of Phreaky Philm Phridays

OK, everybody, please indulge me here...On this Halloween Eve Eve, I want to tell you the tale of one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done in my years upon this planet. Since it ended a little over a year ago, there's not a Friday night since that I don't, at least for a moment, think back and long for a weekly practice that took place in a church basement in River Forest, Illinois. It came to be known as Phreaky Philm Phridays, and this is its story...including an origin that I'm guessing not many people connected with PPP are aware of. Until now.

By way of introduction, I must tell you that I am, by profession, a musician with a profound love for theater. I've acted in, directed and music directed dozens of shows, both amateur and professional. Like many folks I know in similar positions, I have wound up putting food on the table as a church musician. Now, that having been said, I confess that my friends have found me to be a pretty irreverent person, and given the wide variety of my interests and enthusiasms, one of the last adjectives they might choose to describe me would be holy. Not evil, not depraved, just...Senski. In short, I keep religion a very private thing and get along swimmingly with atheists and agnostics. OK? We cool? Great. That's the last that I will ever bring it up on The Jar.

I take you back to New Year's Eve, 2005. The church where I worked had recently hired a youth minister, and during the waning hours of the old year, we decided, along with a friend of his, to go to a local cinema to catch Peter Jackson's version of King Kong. The Friend sprang for a convivial dinner, I paid for the movie tickets, and as our YM headed off to the concession stand to treat us to the prerequisite refreshments (three hour movie, dontcha know), I was left with The Friend.

We wandered around the lobby and came upon a standee for the soon-to-be-released Hostel. Now, I doubt I have to describe the content of Eli Roth's Hostel to anyone reading this, but I do want to make the point that, at this moment in its campaign, it was being sold with an image that, while rough-hewn and gritty, did not give much of a hint at the magnitude of the horrors and atrocities contained within the film. (By the time the sequel rolled around, there was no such sense of delicacy in selling that, lemme tell ya.) I don't want this post to become a review of Hostel - I happen to think quite highly of it - but suffice it to say that, for a moment, we both found ourselves standing in front of this standee, silently regarding it.

To break a silence that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, I said, in the most innocuous tone of voice I could muster, "I'm really kind of interested in seeing that." (Notice, gentle reader, how I immediately followed the intensifier really with the neutralizing qualifier kind of. The effect I was going for: nonchalance.

Another uncomfortable silence. Then, from The Friend...

"I can't imagine what kind of person would want to see something like that. Or have those kind of images in their head."


Phriends, I am seldom at a loss for words, but at that moment, you could have completely colored me nonplussed. The YM returned with the snacks, we made our way to the auditorium...and The Friend never said another word to me for the rest of the evening.

Now, if you feel about Horror the way I do (and I'd like to think you do), I'm sure you can relate, and you probably have similar tales of your own to tell. After all, many people react to an admission of loving Horror and Dark Fantasy tantamount to skinning small animals alive or enjoying the lancing of boils. My friends have all come to know and, if not love me for it, at least tolerate it. Besides, anyone who knows me also knows of my passions for politics, Marvel Comics, alternative rock of the 80s, The Great American Songbook, literary fiction, game shows and Little Caesar's Pizza. I take pride in being one complex dude, as I believe most Horror fans are.

Now, here's the kicker...Following this night, the YM also soon began to treat me differently, distantly, often harshly. Someone who was once jovial and joshing had now become remote. I do not attribute the entirety of the change to that New Year's Eve conversation, but he suddenly began tossing lines into conversations like "We must always be on guard against Evil under the mask of Holiness." Drop that little bon mot at a party sometime and watch the reaction, ok? It was over a year later, but he finally admitted over dinner at an Irish pub that he had long viewed my predilection for Horror as indicative of a "moral failing" on my part, but he was making strides in coming to grips with those feelings.

How nice of him.

Now...let's leave that for a moment. The most active and involved individuals in the music program at the church where I worked at that time were its youth. There was a handful of incredibly smart and talented high school students who formed an ensemble with me and provided music for the liturgies, and, in 2006, worked very long hours to help pull off the Bataan Death March that is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (Ask any church musician why their yuletide spirit is usually in short supply, and they'll tell you there is often very little emotional reward in making everyone else's Christmas merry when you are too dead to enjoy any quality time afterwards with loved ones...which is another reason why I've grown to love Halloween.) As a way of thanking them, I thought it might be fun to get them together for a Bad Movie Night. They asked if it was alright to invite a few more friends, I said sure, and, almost one year to the date of the infamous King Kong / Hostel night, we gathered on a Friday night in the basement of the cold, cold church, various and sundry pizzas for our consumption, and projected upon the wall...Reptilicus!

Those of you who have yet to experience the awe and mystery of the splendor that is Reptilicus are lucky, for its first viewing still awaits you. It tells the tale of an oversized prehistoric creature that regenerates itself from a tail that is discovered underneath the frozen tundra. It grows and grows and grows...until it becomes a monstrous marionette that terrorizes a table-top model of Coopenhagen. It has visible strings. It has a permanent gobbet of drool hanging from one lip. It pukes up green bile that is "scratched" onto the print of the film. And in the Danish print of the film, the fershlugginer thing flew. And there was also - I swear - a musical number.

Reptilicus is gloriously terrible. And terribly glorious.

And we all had a ball. When I suggested that we do this again in a month, the reaction was immediate and enthusiastic. Four weeks later, an even bigger group assembled to watch that 1975 classic filmed just a few miles from my hometown...The Giant Spider Invasion! they were threatening to bring an even larger group the next time, and Yours Truly got to thinking; did I only want to expose this gang to films that were bad? Campy and riotously fun, yes...but always bad? That's when I decided to switch things up a bit, and share with them a film from my childhood that is near and dear to my heart; The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

That was it. Vincent Price clinched it. We had a ritual going, and monthly Fridays soon became bi-weekly and, with a celebration of Price's birthday in May - and with Phibes-ian spelling - there was born a weekly Phreaky Philm Phriday! The average number of teens crammed into that room was 15-20, but there were weeks that pulled easily 30 or more. The evenings began the same way: we'd start off with some bizarre little educational short from the 50s through the 70s...

...then we'd take in an episode of Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or Night Gallery...

And then the Main Feature. Before we fired up the DVD, I shared background and trivia about the movie to come, movies I pulled from my voluminous library of classic horror and science fiction - making sure that we kept things PG rated, of course. Soon I equipped the room with full surround sound and a huge projection screen. I even bought a changeable marquee to hang above the door. After each movie was over, we'd play Charades or Win, Lose or Draw until Phriday turned into Saturday. In short, here were some of the best and brightest young people it was ever my privilege to know, giving up their Phriday nights to come and watch old movies in the basement of a church. The soda flowed freely, there were cookies and chips in abundance...and if I haven't made this sound like the deliriously good time that it was, well...I apologize.

Now here's what amazed and large, the movies still worked. It was so gratifying to see them respond to The Tingler in ways that must have made William Castle smile in the afterlife, or to watch the entire room hit the ceiling during that moment in Wait Until Dark. And even though these teens had been weaned on a diet of much harder, more graphically horrific stuff, they were developing an appreciation for Horror and Science Fiction's past. We even did theme nights where they had to answer super-tough trivia after seeing a movie, or, in the case of I Bury the Living, I stopped the film and had them write down their own creative endings (the winner - nice going, Sara! - received a copy of Roger Ebert's Your Movie Sucks). Phreaky Philm Phridays were anything but a passive experience.

Eventually we went to double features, and even added a Monday Movie Madness edition that was just as popular. When PPP came to a conclusion in September of 2008, we had seen a total of 113 movies....and here's the list (all shown under their US release titles) -





THE BLOB (1958)













BUG (1975)





































WILLARD (1971)






























THE FLY (1958)










ASYLUM (1972)

IT'S ALIVE (1974)




I confess I look at this list and rue all the wonderful movies I never got to show. The teens often asked me how long I could have kept it going, and, at the time, I caculated I owned at least six years worth of movies before I would have had to repeat - that is, not counting the new DVDs that I was buying all the time.

I had to move on when I relocated to a new job outside of Milwaukee, and the Phreakers have mostly graduated and gone on to incredible things in colleges and universities across the nation, with many of them pursuing the arts for a vocation. I find out about them through Facebook updates and phone calls, and I'm damn proud. A number of them even took our shared experience and used it as a springboard to perform a production of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight, which I was honored to direct.

So....Austin, Jack, Armaan, Joe, James, Marp, Mikey, Luis, Louis, Pat, Marco, Dan, Sara, Alicia, Patty, Sreeja, Ally, Chloe, Brittany, Jen, Margaret, Elis, Veronica and all the rest...I miss you guys. You gave me two of the best birthdays I ever enjoyed - and a Vincent Price cake that eclipsed all others! My best wishes to you all, wherever life may take you.

And I'm glad you all got to put my moral failing to good use.

Happy Halloween from The Jar, phriends.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rod Serling made it look so easy...

Since I've featured posts about ABC's Fridays and NBC's Saturday Night Live during this first month of The Jar, I would be remiss if I did not offer up something from our neighbors to the North, SCTV. One of the strangest, at times surreal, recurring bits was the fictional network's misguided attempt at a horror anthology show, Doorway to Hell. Under the well-intentioned, honorable, yet woefully incompetent Lin Ye Tang, this was to have been a weekly sojourn into the satanically theory, anyway. Dave Thomas has said that Tang was one of his favorite characters to play, since he was so altruistic, so vulnerable, so noble, so...hapless. Here he is introducing that classic tale of terror, "The Man Who Lived in a Box." And if you say you don't remember "The Man Who Lived in a Box," watch and learn why...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

You'll never leave this island...

It's a new, bloodier trailer for Shutter Island. It's Scorsese. 'Nuff said.

Shutter Island - Exclusive Trailer

I see you...

Kealan Patrick Burke is a Stoker Award-winning author of horror from the Emerald Isle, who, among his accomplishments, edited Taverns of the Dead, a collection of dark fantasy set in pubs and bars. Among many of my friends, that would render him kith 'n' kin. His short story "Peekers" was turned into a film by noted author Rick Hautala and directed by Mark Steensland, and has scarfed up a number of awards at fantasy film festivals. For those of you who miss the "quiet horror" made popular by the late Charles L. Grant and his Shadows anthologies, this will be very much to your it was to mine. Beware those games of childhood that overstay their welcome...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Phantom melody, playing soft and low...

Midweek Music - The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde, "Quentin's Theme (Shadows of the Night)"

In 1969, Top 40 Radio was a hodgepodge of a format, still transitioning from the "Hit Parade" sound of the 1950s, increasingly finding room for rock acts identified with 67's Summer of Love, occasionally charting the random crossover country single, and spinning funk, bubblegum pop, and a variety of tunes from the movies and TV. Aural whiplash could occur, as the top of the Billboard chart would feature The Beatles one week, Dean Martin the next. And all fit together. Audiences were not as sonically segregated as they are today. Thanks to an assist from television (think Ed Sullivan here), everyone got to know everything. They may not necessarily have liked every style of tuneage they heard, but no one could claim their musical tastes went unchallenged.

Forty years ago, an amazing 12 instrumental songs landed in the Top 40 within a calendar year, and
one of 1969's most successful singles came from a television show that, four decades later, remains sui generis in TV history. After three years on ABC afternoons, Dark Shadows, the Little Horror Soap Opera That Could, was at the peak of it cultural phenomenon popularity. Viewers had become obsessed with the supernatural shenanigans surrounding the Collins family of Collinsport, and Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid as the vampiric Barnabas made for an unlikely sex symbol. That's when creator/producer Dan Curtis decided to up the sexual ante with the inclusion of smouldering young actor David Selby as the cursed Quentin Collins; if the show had vampires, ghosts and witches, why not a werewolf? The gamble paid off, the ratings rose ever higher, and thus was launched a thousand "Barnabas vs. Quentin: Who Is Cuter?" competitions in the teen mags.

Curtis decided that his new character should have his own theme, a haunting waltz that Quentin would frequently listen to on an antique gramophone. He turned to series composer Bob Cobert and recommended the recycling of a tune that was written for a pub scene in Curtis' TV adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1968. Cobert asked frequent collaborator Charles Randolph Grean - who had arranged a number of songs for the Glen Miller Orchestra - to come up with lyrics, and so was born "Quentin's Theme (Shadows of the Night)."

That same year the Phillips label released an LP of music from the series, including the show's version of "Quentin's Theme" with Selby speaking the lyrics over the track. However, Lawrence Welk's record label Ranwood purchased the rights to release the song as a single to radio, and had Grean produce an orchestral arrangement. (Because it shared his label and signature sound, many mistook the song for a Welk production.) Clocking in at just a shade under two minutes, the waltz waltzed right up to the #13 position on the Billboard Singles Chart, and topped the Easy Listening chart that year as well. There followed dozens of cover versions by artists as varied as Henry Mancini, Andy Williams and - ulp - The Magic Harmonica. Grean later featured the song on a 1970 album that included his versions of other songs from the show. The tune remains a staple of "Beautiful Music" radio, and recently marked its one millionth airplay. The TV soundtrack album was a smash success, and as of 2008, remains in the Top Five best-selling television soundtracks of all time. (One of those albums was purchased by my parents, who gave it to me as a gift on my 7th birthday - and yes, I still have it.) I purchased my copy of the 45rpm from Bob's Musical Isle in Wausau, WI; two years prior, his establishment had been one of the first music stores in the nation to install vending machines for singles, an event that was covered in Billboard. Those machines were cool. They looked liked computers with big round knobs that you spun to dislodge the record inside...but they were too tall for me to reach, and Dad had to do the honors.

The original television instrumental remains under tight lock and key to Interweb listeners, but you can hear the LP version with Selby's narration here, and the Grean arrangement - complete with harpsichord, female "oooohs" and an electronic organ with rotating Leslie speaker - can be heard below...

Terror Trivia Tuesday for 10/27!

This 1972 single spent time on at least two Billboard charts, heading straight to the top on one of them, due to it being prominently featured on television. What was the name of the fictional establishment where a tragically-scratched recording of this song could be heard?

(I'll stop shouting now.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Miss Emily Grierson died...

Great Tales of Horror - A ROSE FOR EMILY by William Faulkner
Originally published in Forum Magazine, April 30, 1930

For those of you who prefer your Gothic of the Southern variety, this one's for you. This is Faulkner's first published story (although he may have written it years earlier; once he began to sell short fiction to the magazines, he confessed that he had a decade's worth of manuscripts collected in a trunk), and along with his novels The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, all published within a two-year span, created the genre for antebellum depravity and grotesqueries, to be further explored by writers like Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams. What truly lives and lurks behind the facades of those decaying, vine-entangled manses? If the climax of "A Rose for Emily" is any indication, it is better left to the imagination.

Faulkner viewed his short stories as a means of bringing readers to his novels, mostly set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. The intensely private author was asked by Forum to provide some autobiographical information to accompany the story's publication...

Born male and single at early age in Mississippi. Quit school after five years in seventh grade. Got job in Grandfather's bank and learned medicinal value of his liquor. Grandfather thought janitor did it. Hard on janitor. War came. Liked British uniform. Got commission R.F.C., pilot. Crashed. Cost British gov't £2000. Was still pilot. Crashed. Cost British gov't £2000. Quit. Cost British gov't $84.30. King said, "Well done." Returned to Mississippi. Family got job: postmaster. Resigned by mutual agreement on part of two inspectors; accused of throwing all incoming mail into garbage can. How disposed of outgoing mail never proved. Inspectors foiled. Had $700. Went to Europe. Met man named Sherwood Anderson. Said, "Why not write novels? Maybe won't have to work." Did. Soldiers' Pay. Did. Mosquitoes. Did. Sound and Fury. Did. Sanctuary, out next year. Now flying again. Age 32. Own and operate own typewriter.

I have to confess that, when I read Faulkner's self-deprecating humor, and hear of his alcohol-soaked days writing for Hollywood in later years, I cannot help but picture John Mahoney in Barton Fink.

The first time I read "A Rose for Emily" was in a superlative collection of horror by indefatigable anthologist Peter Haining, The Lucifer Society. It could best be described as a compilation of horror fiction by authors who do not generally write horror fiction, including John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald and even Winston Churchill. Should you ever be called upon to write a report on a piece of fiction from a "respected" author, here's the place to turn. Faulkner's story is also a much-assigned work for 20th Century Literature classes, but I wonder - are the teachers truly prepared to discuss what Miss Emily was really doing in that house all those years?

You can read "A Rose for Emily" here, and discover why many have called this the American version of "The Fall of the House of Usher." And as a bonus, The Zombies wrote a song of the same name that was inspired by the put you in the proper mood. And may you never be as lonely as Miss Emily...

Horrorbles Is on the Air!

A super-scary salute to Horrorbles, the Berwyn IL store dedicated to be your one-stop shopping destination for all that is fearsome and freaky. Proprietor John Aranza recently moved his ware to new, more spacious digs, and it seems that I'm always getting updates about new fright features and events. I have bittersweet feelings about John's store; I'm saddened that I discovered it mere days before I moved out of the Chicago area, but grateful that I avoided the personal bankruptcy that would have surely followed! They were featured on this morning's WGN News in the "Around Town" segment (local news is always looking for stories like this - back in 2003 I got to show off some of my collection and opine on the state of Horror, but all I cared about was not looking fat), and in case you missed it, here it be...

Stop in anytime you're in the vicinity of the Windy City, or go to their website. And John, take my advice - an old-fashioned soda fountain where us old horror warriors can compare scars and show off our terror trivia-filled brains. Congrats!

Introducing Skinner Sweet - American Vampire

Vertigo Comics has announced that it will launch American Vampire, a uniquely Yankee take on the vampire mythos, in March 2010, with contribution from pop culture fanatic Stephen King. The series is the brainchild of author Scott Snyder, whose 2006 critically-acclaimed short story collection Voodoo Heart caught King's attention - he contributed a blurb for the jacket, and selected two of its pieces for the shortlist of the 2007 Best American Short Stories anthology - and the two struck up a correspondence. When Snyder asked King for another blurb for the planned comic series, King was excited enough by the premise to offer up his writing skills - an offer Synder couldn't refuse.

King will contribute to the first five issues by telling the story of Skinner Sweet, the first American vampire, a murderous sociopath bearing rattlesnake fangs and able to walk about in the sun - indeed, gaining strength from it. In a comic book throwback to the Ace Doubles of yore, Snyder will also write the tale of Pearl, a 1920s era flapper who was one of Skinner's first victims. The first five 32 page issues will be divided between the two authors and storylines; Snyder will take full reins on the title after that, detailing Skinner's descendants. Artwork will be provided by Rafael Albuquerque. You can see sketches for the project here.

In his statements so far, Snyder sounds grateful for King's contributions - adding a variety of story levels and amping up the gore - but takes pains to establish the book and concept as his baby. It was over thirty years ago that King revolutionized the vampire tale with Salem's Lot, and with his creations The Dark Tower, The Stand and The Talisman (with Peter Straub) finding new life on the comic book page, American Vampire has to be one of the more intriguing projects announced for the new year, and one more reason to get this horror fan back into the comic store.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

And Now the Ice Creaming Starts

Classic Creepy Comic Covers - House of Secrets #123 (September 1973)
Art by Frank Robbins

Betcha didn't know that one of Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors was Flesh, didja? Or that there are ice cream cones out there that could bite you back?

This appetizing little shocker came to us courtesy of veteran artist Frank Robbins. His greatest claim to fame was as creator of the Johnny Hazard comic strip, which he launched in 1944 and drew for a remarkable run of 33 years. During the 1970s he also produced art for both DC and Marvel, making his mark with the House of Ideas on such books as Captain America, Ghost Rider, Power Man, The Invaders, The Human Fly and Morbius: The Living Vampire.

When DC contracted him at the start of the decade, it was for an auspicious run on Batman, as well as for the last few issues of the company's all-too-brief take on The Shadow. (They would re-visit the character in the late 80s but with a different creative team.) But the earliest exposure DC followers received to Robbins was his work on the Joe Orlando-edited horror titles House of Mystery, House of Secrets and Weird War Tales. The reception in the letters pages was chilly; his comparatively cartoonish style was jarring to those used to the more gothic stylings of Neal Adams and Mike Kaluta, or the shadow-steeped art of Alfredo Alcala and Tony DeZuniga. Orlando, a product of EC's horror line, felt an affinity for artists and writers who had come through the 1950s with him and would occasionally throw work their way, maintaining ties to the era which DC's books clearly emulated, albeit in a more subdued, Code-approved fashion.

Those Code restrictions were loosening at the start of the 70s, leading Marvel to launch an entire line of horror titles, and DC was also testing the boundaries as well. A number of stories by writers Michael Fleischer and David Michelinie were becoming very popular with readers; the bad guys were being dispatched in EC-inspired, increasingly ghoulish ways (like trapped in an exercise machine for days on end, or hiding out in an oversized cake that is then sliced into a hundred pieces at once by a mechanized marvel). Robbins routinely received these assignments, his style doing much to mitigate the gruesomeness of the denouements.

This cover illustrated the Fleisher / Alex Toth story "A Connecticut Ice Cream Man in King Arthur's Court," a tale that remains whimsical until its title character winds up turned into ice cream and soft-served through a machine. Toth's art on the story is not nearly as graphic as Robbins' cover; his ice cream cone is neither screaming nor bleeding profusely from the cranium. This is one of a handful of covers that Robbins did for DC, and I've long thought it was a "Take That!" to his critics. (And props must be paid to the unattributed colorist; this would be a whole different situation if the ice cream had been left white and the topping was chocolate, not unlike a Cookie Puss that stayed out too long in the sun.)

One odd addendum...Remember when comics used to be sold in plastic-bagged packs of three on spinner racks in drugstores and discount chains? Usually the titles bagged were recent back issues. Well, during the summer of 1973 I picked up this issue when I looked through a bag at a local K-Mart and could see this book stuck between the middle of two other DC titles...and it was not due to hit stands for another three weeks. I shelled out the additional shekels just to get the HOS that was inside, and am ever so glad I did. The book never came to the half-dozen or so stores I frequented for comics - a lapse all but unheard of for a DC title. I have no evidence to explain why, but I've often wondered if there was something about the cover that made distributors uneasy...or queasy.

Now - how many scoops would you like?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Circus Minimus

Film Review - Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)

Directed by Paul Weitz
Screenplay by Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland
Based on the book series The Saga of Darren Shan by Darren (O'Shaughnessy) Shan

There are twelve volumes in the Saga of Darren Shan series of novels for young adults by author Darren Shan (he used the lead character as the "author" so as to give them an autobiographical feel). Press materials for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant tell me that the first three were combined to create this screenplay, but after seeing the jam-packed yet thinly-written results brought to life, you would be forgiven for thinking that they tried to cram the whole dozen into 108 minutes. By the time the closing credits roll, we've been introduced to a small army of characters without getting to know any of them at all. This is one of those reviews where having the cast list and their character names in front of you is essential...which means I probably could have used it while watching the film, too.

Darren and his best friend Steve are high schoolers who happen upon an inner-city
performance of the Cirque du Freak, a traveling carnival of horrors complete with such oddities as a lizard boy, a bearded lady (a barely-registering Salma Hayek), a woman who can regenerate chopped-off hands (Jane Krakowski, horribly wasted), and Madama Octa, a ruby and blue venomous spider who dances under the direction of Larten Crepsely (John C. Reilly). Crepsely serves as ringmaster for his macabre minions, and when Steve's fascination for all things vampiric leads him to confront Crepsely as one of the blood-sucking undead, the boys find themselves drawn into a war between vampires - who only take what blood they require to live - and the human-killing Vampaneze. (An aside: Must all vampires today be involved in internecine conflict? They need a Rodney King moment so they can all...just...get along.)

Darren becomes the titular assistant to Crepsely, but only after he is turned into a half-vampire (he can still walk about in the sunlight). There's one catch: He still has to die to do so, and say goodbye to his former life. This is a moment in the script when you would expect some emotional development, played out through Darren's sense of loss for his old life. The movie not only does not do this; it strains to avoid any relationship development between any characters. That's because, in addition to the characters I've already mentioned, there also a love interest for Darren (a monkey girl with a tail), the operatically villainous Des Tiny, played with an oral fixation by Michael Cerveris, henchmen, skulkers, teachers, family members, and a whole lotta freaks. Oh, and Willem Dafoe, who makes two blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearances as...well, I'm not quite sure who he was. He may have been a vampiric compatriot of Crepsely, or he may have kept his mustache and character from Wild at Heart. What we have here is a textbook case of what I've referred to in the past as TMM - Too Much Movie.

In an overloaded undertaking like this, actors can either fight for the spotlight or just stay out of the way; most of them here choose the latter. Chris Massoglia is an underwhelming screen presence, and as his best friend, Josh Hutcherson can't fill the demands of the role when the character takes a darker turn. (If ever a part was tailor-made for a young Stephen Geoffreys - Fright Night's Evil Ed - this is it.) Reilly is to be commended for tackling a part far removed from his gallery of lovable schlubs, but it's a doughy, shapeless role, not sharp enough to be funny, not menacing enough to be fearsome. Only Patrick Fugit as the Snake Boy finds the way as a slacker rocker, and seems to have stumbled in from a much better movie. His is the only performance that finds some humanity under his scaly green skin.

That lack of humanity is surprising given that the film is directed by About a Boy's Paul Weitz, helming for the first time without his brother Chris. His direction is lost in preoccupation with effects, with a jumpy style that has characters getting from one side of a room to another without actually moving there - and I'm not talking about the magical ones. It's as if he went back and edited out half of the master shots, and we jump from spot to spot until we're ready to cry Uncle. (The less said about the action sequences the better. I'm ready to suggest that directors insecure with fight scenes should turn over the camera to the stunt coordinator or fight instructor; they'll know best how to shoot the activity to make it look good - or at least comprehensible.)

Is the movie set up for a sequel? Of course. (Hey, I just remembered - that's one of the reasons Dafoe was there!) If the opening weekend box office warrants, I just might check out a few of the books in the series. I'm guessing that there is more real emotion on the page than wound up on the screen. If there is a follow-up to Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, I hope that its creators remember the humanity underneath t
he freakiness. And please...think smaller.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Siskel & Ebert & Slashers & Horror

It was eight days before Halloween 1980, a date which should not resonate with contemporary horror film fans, but almost thirty years ago it was a watershed moment. It was a Thursday evening, and viewers who tuned in to the wildly popular PBS series Sneak Previews expecting to hear Chicago-based film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert opine on a handful of new releases, heard something very different instead. They heard the two critics declare War on Horror.

Sneak Previews had started life in 1975 as Coming Soon to a Theater Near You, a bi-weekly examination of new films as debated by Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times and Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. Originally telecast only to the Chicago market, within two years it was made available bi-weekly to PBS affiliates nationwide and under the new title Sneak Previews. By 1979 it became a weekly series airing on Thursday nights (and often repeated during the weekend), and was the most-watched show on the network. Siskel and Ebert were not quite the household names they were later to become, but they were well on their way to assuming their roles as the most influential film critics in Ameri
ca. Their contentious on-air chemistry captivated viewers, and by 1982 they were popular enough to break away from WTTW and PBS, and enter syndication with shows that put their names in - and above - the title.
Over the years, the pair had developed a complicated relationship with the Horror genre. Ebert had scarcely been on the job at the Sun Times for two years when his January 1969 account of a screening of Night of the Living Dead was abridged and published in the June 1969 issue of Readers' Digest. In it, he tells of watching a Saturday matinee of the unrated horror film with a group of children, describing their traumatized reaction to what they were witnessing onscreen. The movie received more notoriety from Ebert's article than it had during its theatrical release to that point, as readers who had no intention of ever seeing the film were now aware of its elements of zombies, cannibalism and matricide. I was one of those; my mother frequently visited with a neighbor who subscribed to the magazine, and on a day she took me along to visit, I read that review and was stunned by his recounting of a little girl slaying her mother with a trowel. Thanks to the archival efforts of Frederick over at My Monster Memories, you can read the entire article here.

However, Ebert had also been a champion of one of the most graphic and controversial horror films of the 70s - The Last House on the Left. He had gone so far as to include it among his "Guilty Pleasures" in a 1978 issue of Film Comment, and he reprised his pick when the pair of critics did a similarly-themed show on Sneak Previews. Among Ebert's other choices were Inframan, Invasion of the Bee Girls and the soft core porn of Emmanuelle. That he was such a champion of such an unremittingly bleak and nihilistic film as TLHOTL is worth remembering as we follow the events that later unfolded.

Whereas Ebert could be more unpredictable in his tastes, Siskel almost never met a low-budget horror film that he liked (Halloween being a notable exception,) and when Sneak Previews closed
each show with an appearance from Spot the Wonder Dog, there to introduce the Dogs of the Week, each critic's selection of the worst movie in theatrical release, horror films were Siskel's obligatory choice. Included in his condemnations were films like David Cronenberg's acknowledged classic The Brood, which Siskel cited as objectionable for its use of children as instruments of terror. Horror films with higher budgets got a fairer, though seldom favorable, treatment, but independent fright features were non-starters for the critic.

Siskel had also generated considerable outrage among horror fans during the summer of 1980 when, while reviewing Friday the 13th and unable to conceal his outrage at the
film's violence, he went so far as to give away the film's ending so as to discourage moviegoers from seeing it. He affirmed that his ability to do that was a power that he did not take lightly, and requested his followers to trust him to never do so with a cavalier nature. He even went so far as to encourage his readers to write letters of outrage to star Betsy Palmer for her decision to appear in the film. Palmer later said that his attempt to provoke a letter campaign came to no avail, as the only missives she received were from fans telling her how much they enjoyed the movie. Palmer was furious with Siskel for taking such umbrage over what was her bread and butter as an aging actress with increasingly-limited opportunities for a paycheck.

When Sneak Previews went from a bi-weekly to a weekly show in 1979, the pair of critics soon discovered that there were weeks when not enough films were released to justify a full half-hour of reviews. This necessitated the creation of "Take Two" shows, in which they examined trends and issues in the movies. Among the more popular shows of this nature were the aforementioned "Guilty Pleasure" installments, as well as their yearly "Memo to the Academy," trumpeting films and performances they felt were worthy of Oscar consideration.
On October 23rd 1980, Siskel and Ebert decided to turn their attention to the recent spate of slasher movies in an effort to expose them as the misogynistic fare they felt them to be. Among the films singled out for derision were, of course, Friday the 13th, as well as Don't Answer the Phone, He Knows You're Alone, Silent Scream, When a Stranger Calls, and what the pair deemed as the most objectionable of the lot, I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman); Ebert was later to designate ISOYG as the Worst Movie of 1980, making the second time in three years that a horror film had received that dubious honor (1978's The Medusa Touch, in which Richard Burton used telekinesis to commit a series of ever-escalating disasters, was the other). They included clips and trailers from these movies to illustrate their disgust with filmmakers who shot their films from the killer's viewpoint, all the while placing young women - often scantily-clad - in situations of danger and imminent death. They believed these films were a reaction to the Woman's Movement of the 1970s, and that the killer's point of view approach appealed to the baser instincts of a largely-male moviegoing audience.

Now, my posting here is not an attempt to debunk that viewpoint, as that has
been done by so many others very effectively in the subsequent three decades. What I want to call to attention are those moments in the telecast in which the pair tipped their hand as to their true feelings about the genre. For example, while Siskel was presenting a montage of film posters to illustrate his point about these films treating women as merely objects for slaughter, included in the examples was a poster for the yet-to-be-released Joe Dante werewolf movie The Howling. Setting aside the fact that its subject matter could not possibly be more removed from that of the slasher films, consider the image. It's one of the most memorable and effective posters of the era, and I cannot conceive of a mind that would view this image to be excessive, extreme or inciting of violence against a woman. Indeed, it is a model of restraint even by 1980 standards. Its inclusion in the show was not merely premature; it was supremely wrongheaded.

Also held up for scorn was the 1980 feature The Bogey Man, which, while certainly containing elements similar to slasher films, was deeply rooted in supernatural horror. The show presented a goodly chunk of the movie's trailer, with the loudest tsk-tsking reserved for the sequence in which strips of a young actress' clothes were being ripped away. Scantily-clad women in horror films...why, whoever had heard of such a thing? At no point in the show was mention made of the fact that nudity had become de riguer in all films during the 1970s, with the actresses in the Roger Ebert-scripted Beneath the Valley of the Dolls displaying far more of their pulchritude than in, say, When a Stranger Calls.

As if to anticipate the backlash that they were going to receive from their protests, they cited their admiration for 1978's Halloween as evidence that, no, theirs was not a knee-jerk anti-horror reaction. Here, taken from the Criterion release of John Carpenter's classic, is footage from that show praising its virtues...

It almost goes without saying; the elements in Halloween that the pair found so admirable were also evident in a majority of the films - admittedly, many of them knock-offs and rip-offs - that followed in its wake.

There was one more objection from the pair, and this smacks of Ebert, a critic fond of reviewing the audience on those occasions when he did not see a movie in a press screening. They expressed their displeasure with young men who shouted encouragement to the killers, evidence that the films were striking an unpleasant chord within their viewers. Allow me to offer some anecdotal evidence to counter this; in all my years of attending slasher films during this first wave of popularity, I can not recall a single incident of an audience member cheering on the killer, and certainly in not such a misogynistic way. I do not claim that such reactions never occurred, but I merely say that they were neither automatic nor guaranteed. And it is also worth remembering that Chicago is notorious for having some of the most vocal - and ill-mannered - audiences in the nation, something that I certainly experienced during my five years of living in the city.
That October 23rd telecast was repeated by PBS a number of times during the next few years, as the slasher sub-genre continued to grow in popularity, and horror fans expressed their indignation at these ad hominem attacks against the genre that they loved. In 1981 Fangoria #15 conducted an interview with the pair, who were unapologetic about their criticism - and always quick to raise Halloween as a solitary line of defense. However, despite their continued proselytizing on the subject, slasher films continued to be released until, as must happen to all film boomlets, audience interest waned and the Horror genre entered a period of mid 80s doldrums. However, the pair was able to claim some responsibility in the nailing of one cinematic scalp upon the wall, as their clarion call against the 1984 killer Santa movie Silent Night, Deadly Night fanned the flames that got ads for the film pulled and the movie extracted from the nation's theaters.

In subsequent years the pair no longer overplayed their hand in criticism of Horror, and their preoccupation with the slasher genre is now largely seen as a reflection of American conservatism during the Reagan era. (Note how both of their broadsides occurred within days either before or after a GOP landslide.) Film philosophers now embrace the empowering concept of the "Final Girl" - that is, the tendency for slasher films to feature a plucky female survivor left to her own devices to dispatch the killer. That's quite the contrary to the fears that Siskel and Ebert raised in 1980, and while the tape of that October telecast has apparently disappeared, and the brouhaha of the time has been long forgotten, the films that the pair railed against are now accepted as a legitimate chapter in the history of Cinematic Horror.

Poetry Corner - I Shall Not See SAW VI Today

I shall not see Saw VI today

I shall not see it, come what may

And if you're asking why I won't
Or why I shan't or why I don't

Then I am here to say to you

My patience waned with #2

And when they put out #3

I thought someone was yankin' me

And one year later, #4

Dear God, how can there still be more?

Next, 5 arrived, and who could dare

To blame me if I didn't care?

So here we are, another Fall

And I won't see Saw VI at all

See, Lionsgate is funded by
This turnip they are bleeding dry

Each year, each sequel is a lock

To further elevate their stock

Well, fool me once, the shame is mine

But six is where I draw the line

I'm sure he's nice, but
Tobin Bell
Can take his film and go to Hell

I'll sit and hope it comes to pass
That Paranormal kicks its ass

I know there are so many dudes
Who, on the day that Saw concludes
say, Bind them all as one, and let

Them go for purchase as a set

That way, when at the video store

There's only ONE thing to ignore

Which I intend to do this day

No matter what the ads may say

I don't care if it's Halloween
I shall not see it on the screen
I shall not see it with a crowd
Who thinks too small and talks too loud

I shall not stream it on the net
That is unlawful, don't forget

I shall not see it with a friend
Unless I want our bond to end

I shall not see it from my car

I shall not blog it for The Jar
Not in 3D or on IMAX
My presence will be what it lacks
Nor in a screening for the press
(Like that is gonna happen, yes?)

On DVD or Ray so Blu

It shall not join my Netflix queue
Not Showtime, HBO or Starz

If it's on Venus, I'm on Mars
And if it plays on my TV


Though to an hour edited

I'd sooner watch the ads instead

Go on, adapt it as a play

Although intrigued, I'll stay away

Not if the cast should start to sing
Not if the script's from
Stephen King
E'en if Scorsese you should get

Take back his Oscar statuette

I shall not budge, I'm resolute
To give each future Saw the boot

And that is why I'm here to say
I shall not see Saw VI today

So hear me now, and hear me when...

...I re-post this in 2010.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Spider, Lizard, Bat?

Director Sam Raimi has long professed to be a big fan of the storyline in Amazing Spider-Man #s 100-102, in which Spidey takes on Michael Morbius, a scientist who attempts to cure his leukemia with a serum derived from bats. Since this is the Marvel Universe we're in, he naturally becomes Morbius, The Living Vampire, who must feast on human blood to survive. Your Friendly Neighborhood Wall Crawler takes him out with an assist from Dr. Curt Connors, who's better known as the classic Spidey villain The Lizard. And were that not complication enough, Peter must deal with the unpleasant result of continuing mutation from that radioactive spider bite - the unwanted addition of four more arms! (Oh, that last panel of #100 was quite the stunner, writer Stan Lee's little parting gift to incoming scribe Roy Thomas, and one of the greatest cliffhangers in Marvel's history.)

Word comes today that Dylan Baker has been inked to appear in Spider-Man 4, so that would be the first piece of the puzzle. Vampires are bigger than huge these days, so Morby makes a whole lotta sense. Scenes with four additional arms would be acting catnip for Tobey Maguire. Since the last movie tripped itself up in trying to mesh two incompatible villains, this storyline flows like the Hudson (and would be a refreshingly modest undertaking, light on skyscraper-demolishing CGI). Fans have been waiting for that Lizard shoe to drop for almost eight years now, and heaven knows Baker is an accomplished actor who is due a huge break like this. And this brings Horror into the franchise in a big way; that might be something of a challenge for Raimi, but I suspect he'll be up to it.

Could this be more perfect? What's not to love? May the powers-that-be make it so!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The past is a wilderness of horrors...

The new trailer for 2010's The Wolfman. You may consider me officially excited now.

My name is Norman Bates. I'm just a normal guy.

Mid-week Music - Landscape, "Norman Bates"

Landscape was a British act and one of the dozens of synth pop bands that roamed the literal landscape during the Jurassic era that was the New Wave. They produced three albums, but saw their greatest success from their deliciously-titled 1981 release From the Tea-rooms of the Hell Holes of Uranus (Try that one out the next time you're playing charades.) The first single - "Einstein a Go-Go" - made it to the Top Five of the UK singles charts, but the follow-up was not quite as successful. While "Norman Bates" only managed #40 in Britain, its video found a home on America's spankin-new MTV, where, after a period of light rotation, it became a staple of subsequent Halloweens. Leader Richard James Burgess - a session drummer who had played on The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," would go on to produce such acts as Kim Wilde, Adam Ant and Shriekback. He's presently employed by the Smithsonian, handling sales and promotions for their Folkways recordings.

As you can see, Norman and Mother have traded up to considerably more impressive digs. Must be a bitch for, uh, two people to keep clean.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in German

When I was a child, I recall having a very peculiar reaction; whenever I would hear someone speaking through hoarseness, laryngitis or chest congestion, I would instinctively, involuntarily clear my own throat. Somehow I felt that if I was able to open up my vocal passage, it would naturally help them as well, and thereby make them easier to listen to. (Go ahead, call me weird. You're far from the first, and you certainly won't be the last.) Although eventually I grew out of this tic, the sound of someone talking with obvious vocal strain still produces a degree of empathetic pain within me.

I was undergoing one of the deepest forms of what psychologists call einfühlung, or literally "a feeling," a kinesthetic reaction to an intense emotional bond with another person or character. The word is also used to describe simple empathy, but what we're talking about today is something more reflexive, and requires a physical response, almost always involuntary. For the purpose of our consideration of Horror, this goes beyond an audience shouting at the protagonist to not go into the haunted house, or jumping out of their seats at a sudden jolt; we're talking tactile reaction.

One of the most famous example
s of einfühlung in all of drama occurs during Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. She imagines her hands covered in red from the murder of Duncan ("Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?"), and tries in vain to wash them clean ("...all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand"). When the production and performance are engaging, you can look around and see members of the audience rubbing, scratching, extending their own hands and fingers, suddenly acutely aware of any sense of stickiness. They are not merely displaying empathy for Lady Macbeth; for a few seconds, they have become her. Actors know that it's possible to play hunger, thirst, cold, warmth, and produce an empathic vibe in observers.

Horror movies are filled with opportunities for such reactions, and here are a fe
w noteworthy ones I've observed over the years...

THE BIRDS (1963) - There are numerous moments that produce genuine einfühlung - viewers swatting away imaginary wings and claws - but the strongest reaction I ever witnessed occurred as Tippi Hedren attempted to leave that bird-filled attic, the creatures biting at her hands as she tried to turn the doorknob. Folks would twitch, slap, beat at the air to shoo them away. I suspect the power in this scene lies in its abject believability. In lieu of the promised mechanical or dummy birds that Hedren was expecting for the shoot, she had to endure take after take of real birds thrown at her face and hands. When the scene was in the can, she went to her dressing room and collapsed, weeping. Hitchcock never said a word.

BUG (1975) - You would think that oversized roaches that could start fires out of their butts would have their work cut out for them in creating suspension of disbelief, but these little varmints know how to get under your skin - and hairline. A few years ago I had the fun of sitting in a midst of teens who were seeing this for the first time, and during the celebrated kitchen scene (and yes, that is the Brady's kitchen, given a mild facelift), everyone's hands went up to the back of the scalp - even the men who had military issue haircuts! A number of them asked why this wasn't a bigger hit back in 1975. It's something I've always wondered myself.

DEADLY BLESSING (1981) - Lest you think that all such reactions involve gestures...The scene in which Sharon Stone takes an arachnid right down the old gullet produced a number of involuntary spit-takes the second the spider entered her mouth. Sure, creepy crawlies are good for the occasional finch and brushaway, but into the mouth? Motorcyclists, you know what I'm talking about. Come to think of it, I see a spider on my ceiling right now...

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1987) - Wes Craven again, but this time with an evil little assist from Yours Truly. I saw this on the Friday night that it opened, and during the sequence in which Bill Pullman is buried alive, there were a number of claustrophobic reactions as the screen goes black for what feels like a very long time, and all we hear are Pullman's panicked reactions. Knowing the cinema's manager well, I told him about the scene and, referring to Wait Until Dark two decades earlier and the climax that requested theaters to darken all house lights to the legal limit, suggested it might be fun to do the same. So for the late show, he did...and then some. He also killed the exit and aisle lights. I stuck around to watch, and phriends, there were people there who just freaked. I'll never forget the guy who just started calling out "I can't take this!" over and over, and others who claimed they couldn't breathe. Fortunately the scene ended and the manager restored the lights before things got messy. He didn't do that again. But I'm glad he did it once.

MONKEY SHINES (1988) - A capuchin monkey with a straight razor landing on Jason Beghe's neck was all it took for the woman in front of me to reach behind her and fling an imaginary simian off her back. Her male companion teased her mercilessly. When I saw them leave, she was still furious with him, and let me tell you; there was no way in hell that guy was gettin' any that night.

Those are merely a handful of examples of
einfühlung, and there are countless more. Post some of your favorites in the comments - I'd love to hear about them!