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Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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From the Desk of the Unimonster...

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29 December, 2007

“Just an 8-bit Guy in a xBox World…”

This will be an unusual column for me, one focusing on video games instead of my more familiar venues. I’m not a gamer; I don’t have an xBox, or a Wii, or a PS3. I have a Playstation, period… with maybe six games. The only one I play frequently is Tiger Woods Golf ’99. I just don’t have the time, money, or inclination to spend hundreds of dollars on these high-tech consoles, accessories, or games.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy video games, or that I was never addicted to the electronic lure of dancing sprites. In fact, there was a time when I spent virtually every free minute hooked to a gray and black controller, moving two-dimensional characters through side-scrolling worlds. I was a Nintendo junkie, and Super Mario was my drug of choice.

That initial video-game craze hit at just the right time for me. In my twenties, in my own apartment for the first time, with limited entertainment options, the Nintendo Entertainment System seemed like a cheap way to fight off boredom. I’d get home from work, fix supper, and settle down to guide Mario on his quest to rescue Princess Toadstool from the evil clutches of Bowser. My only weapons in this quest: My jumping ability; my power to stomp Goombas; a few power-ups; and my mastery of kicking Koopa-Troopers and running along behind as they cleared a path for me.

Before too long, I had mastered Super Mario Bros., only to discover at the end that “…our Princess is in another Castle!” I progressed onto Super Mario Bros. 2, only to discover that it bore no relation to the first game. It was, in fact, a remake of a Japanese game, Doki-Doki Panic. The game’s creators had simply replaced the original characters with ones from the Super Mario Bros. game.

While generally disliked by fans, I loved the game, and thought it was every bit as enjoyable as the first. It gave you the option to play as any one of four characters: Mario; his brother Luigi; the Princess’ faithful retainer Toad; and the Princess herself. Each had their own strengths and weaknesses, and part of mastering the game was learning when to play each one. And while it proved more difficult to complete than the first, in due course I had beaten it, as well.

However, the adventures of the two Italian plumbers weren’t the only games I conquered back in the day. Tetris was a favorite of mine, as was 1942. Silent Service got nearly as much playing time as the Mario’s, and even Duck Hunt had its moments. And of course Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse soaked up much of my free time, as I battled monsters and demons in a campaign to destroy Dracula.

Still, I always returned to the Mushroom Kingdom, and finally faced the ultimate NES game, at least as far as I was concerned… Super Mario Bros. 3. This wasn’t just a revamped version of the first game; this was something completely new and different. This game had map screens, and sub-games, and it completely blew me away the first time I popped the cartridge in my player.

Sadly, I never completed SMB3. My player, like all the Nintendo front-loaders, had a fatal flaw that rendered them virtually unusable after a comparatively short time. I had completed maybe five levels when my player fell victim to this flaw, and I had to quit my gaming addiction cold turkey.

Like many facets of my childhood and youth, the pangs of withdrawal soon faded as adult life insisted on intervening. Eventually, the memories of my 8-bit escapades receded into the dark caverns of my mind, where they slumbered peacefully awaiting the light of day once again.

Recently, that day dawned. I was looking for a PS2 game for a Christmas gift, and found a video game store in my area that dealt in used and vintage games. I was unable to find the game I was looking for, but as I was browsing, I noticed a small, odd-looking console sitting on a shelf. The only marking on it was the word “Yobo” next to a cartridge slot in the top of the console. Curious, I asked the clerk what system it was, and what the games were like. He just glanced at it, and said that it was a NES-clone, and it played all the original NES games.

Instantly, a flood of nostalgia washed over me, carrying me back through the intervening years. I could hear the insidiously viral Super Mario theme fighting its way back to the forefront of my consciousness, and my thumbs began itching for the feel of the controller again. Unfortunately the cost of the system, though not unreasonable, was more than I could afford at the time; but I knew I had to have one once the holidays were through. I asked the twenty-something clerk if it was an item they kept in stock; would they still have one in a month or so? He just looked at me as though I asked in which aisle would I find spats and buggy whips. “Who wants to play old Nintendo games?” was his only response.

Well, quite frankly, I do. And I fully intended to head back after the holidays to buy the console, and the Super Mario game of days gone by, but something intervened to make that trip unnecessary.

A good friend of mine asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Giving it some thought, I said “a Nintendo.” After I explained that I wasn’t talking about the Wii that costs several hundred dollars, she said that sounded like a good present, and promptly changed the subject.

Now, in the time that I’ve known this woman, and we’ve been exchanging gifts, not once has she given me what I had told her I’d like when asked “What do you want for… [Insert Holiday of choice]?” Don’t misunderstand me… her gifts are always nice, usually nicer than what I had wanted. I’ve just learned that, no matter my response to her question, I will be surprised when I open my present. This year was no exception. In fact, this year was the biggest surprise of all. This year, I got exactly what I asked for.

So now I sit in front of the TV, the Super Mario Bros. start screen displayed in all its glory, awaiting the command to once more launch Mario on his quest. It feels as though I just returned to a game I had pressed the pause button on… over 15 years ago. For four years of my life, I played this game at least two or three hours a day—every day. The feel of the controller, like the movements needed to make the little plumber do battle at my command, are ingrained into my muscle memory by those thousands of hours of gameplay. Other games will follow, and ultimately I will be able to finish my struggle with the King Koopa and his children the Koopalings from SMB3. But right now, this is good… this is enough. There’s an expression I’ve heard that I feel describes me pretty well. I’m not sure where it originated, if it’s something from TV or something I picked up like lint on Velcro. “I’m just an 8-bit guy in an xBox world…” And I couldn’t be happier about it.


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DVD Review: GOJIRA / GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS 2-Disc Collector’s Set

Title: GOJIRA / GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS 2-Disc Collector’s Set

Year of Release—Film: 1954

Year of Release—DVD: 2006

DVD Label: Sony / Classic Media





THE MOVIE

GOJIRA—(1954)

For fifty years, American audiences have known only one version of the definitive Japanese Monster Movie, GOJIRA; the edited-for-American distribution version entitled GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. Though VHS tapes of the original Japanese edit, while hard to find, were available here, for most of us the version that had been pieced together with footage of Raymond Burr was the only GODZILLA to which we had access. That all changed earlier this month with the release of Classic Media’s gorgeous 2-disc GOJIRA Collector’s Set.

Those of you who think you know this movie really must see the original. Everything that serves to detract from the quality of the Hollywood version is gone, and we can see just how much was cut, both to tone down the serious message of the Japanese film, and to make room for the spliced-in scenes. This movie, which for all the excitement and affection it engenders has always seemed a weakly-plotted mish-mash driven only by action, now stands revealed in its unadulterated form as a thoughtful, literate film, nearly twenty minutes longer than the U.S. edit.

Moments that wound up on a cutting-room floor in Hollywood help to convey the original intent of the film’s creators: Gojira isn’t just some honked-off dinosaur out for a meal. He is the very incarnation of the hell Japan brought down upon itself during World War II, including the embodiment of Japan’s ultimate nightmare, the Atomic Bomb. In a telling line of dialogue that failed to make it into the Hollywood edit, a young couple is discussing finding a shelter if Gojira should attack Tokyo. Another man, hearing this, comments “Not the shelters again… that really stinks!” Memories of the war were still fresh in the collective Japanese conscious, and comment similar to this throughout the film, while having tremendous relevance for Japanese audiences of the mid-‘50’s, would have been problematic at best for audiences in the U.S.

I’ve waited a lifetime to see this version of one of my favorite films, only to discover that they are two different movies entirely. But I certainly wasn’t disappointed, and now have an even deeper appreciation for the Big G.

GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS—(1956)

I reviewed this movie once already during Kaijû Month here at CreatureScape, and there isn’t much I can say to alter my original opinions of this film. It remains one of my favorites, and has been for most of my life.

The one thing that I can add to that assessment is that, as much as I do love this version, to deny that it is vastly inferior to the original GOJIRA would be intellectually dishonest; having them together for direct comparison only serves to highlight those inferiorities. The thoughtful, deliberate pacing and intelligent scripting of the original is completely lost here, as a 98-minute film is condensed into less than 80 minutes, eliminating most of the plot and virtually all of the character development.

Still, this is the version I first saw decades ago as a young MonsterKid, and it was impressive enough, even in its heavily-altered form, to inspire a life-long love of Kaijû movies. It’s nowhere near as good as the original… but that still makes it better than any other giant monster movie of its era.



THE DISC

This 2-disc set is beautifully packaged in a stout Digipak case like the ones used for the Universal Legacy Collections. If anything, the graphic design is nicer than that for the Universal sets, and far superior to the standard artwork used for most of the Toho films released to DVD, much more subdued and somber, fitting the mood of the films inside.

In keeping with Japanese packaging standards, the whole is surrounded by a belly-band containing the DVD specifications, making a very attractive package indeed.

The two discs contained within all this beautiful packaging are certainly worthy of the advance press, though I can’t help thinking that they could be better. The print used for the GOJIRA transfer looked great to me, though I have seen complaints about it being an inferior print. Frankly, I think such complaints are typical videophile snobbery. The transfer is far superior to any print of GODZILLA that I’ve previously seen, and that’s good enough to satisfy me. I’m not sure how much you can expect from fifty-year old celluloid. And as for the GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS transfer, while it is much better than any I’ve seen before, doesn’t quite match the quality of the GOJIRA print. Perhaps this is due to the original masters not being equal in quality. Still, the transfer is superior to any I’ve seen before.

The one flaw that is present is the audio quality on GODZILLA. I understand that they are working with aging recordings, but still, some effort could’ve been made to clean the tracks up for this release. Barring that, at least provide subtitles for GODZILLA. (GOJIRA, with the original Japanese audio, is already subtitled…)

On the whole, this is a beautiful set, and is just one more in a list of terrific releases of classic Horror and Sci-Fi films that we’ve been blessed with over the past few years. It’s a trend I hope to see continue. Fortunately, Classic Media has two additional releases scheduled for November that will follow this format: GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN and GODZILLA vs. MOTHRA.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

In terms of special features on these discs, there’s not a lot present that really impresses. What’s there is good, but this isn’t a set that people will buy because of the extras.

The GOJIRA disc has the lion’s share of extras, with two featurettes; one on the story development, and one on the design of the first Goji-suits. Both of these are sparse and cheap-looking, composed primarily of still photographs and voice-over narration. Still, they are fascinating glimpses at the genesis of the king of kaijû, and are worth watching.

The commentaries on each film, well done by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godiziszewski, are interesting and informative, avoiding becoming pedantic and lecturing. They even manage to slip a rather obvious “Brokeback Mountain” reference in during one of Raymond Burr’s GODZILLA scenes.

The only real extra on the GODZILLA disc, other than the commentary, is the original trailer for the U.S. release.

Overall, while these extras do add to the set, they’re not why you want to buy this DVD. The opportunity to finally own the original GOJIRA, uncut and unedited, is all the “special feature” you need for that.



IN CONCLUSION

As I said earlier, I’ve waited a lifetime to see the original GOJIRA, and I was not disappointed. My affection for GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, the version I grew up with, hasn’t changed. I still love it despite all its flaws and faults. But it is badly flawed, and that can’t be ignored. Now you can see, in direct comparison, just how good the original was, and why, even adulterated the way it was, it still had the power to enthrall generations.











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22 December, 2007

GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN—The Monster’s Last Real Hurrah

Between 1931 and 1948, Universal released no less than eight films featuring their most iconic creation, Frankenstein’s Monster. Portrayed by more of Universal’s Horror stars than any other Classic Universal monster, he also underwent the greatest amount of change of any of the Big Four of Universal’s stable of monsters. Not in terms of his trademarked look, but in how he was treated and portrayed on-screen.

Boris Karloff’s 1931 Monster was the very image of pathos, a tortured soul seemingly cursed by an unkind God to a living death. Four years later, in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, he shambled closer to capturing his humanity, if only for a few brief moments, before being rejected by his erstwhile bride.

Karloff’s last turn as his signature character was 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and by then any trace of humanity was gone, replaced by a cold seething hatred of all save his friend Ygor, played wonderfully by Bela Lugosi. After this film, Karloff vowed never to play the Monster again; so dissatisfied was he with the direction the character was taking.

Though Karloff was without question Universal’s biggest Horror Star of the 1930’s, by the early ‘40’s that crown was planted firmly on Lon Chaney, Jr’s furrowed (and often furry…) brow. Perhaps it was natural that he should succeed Karloff in portraying Universal’s most significant Monster. In 1942’s GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, he does just that, on his way to becoming the only actor to play all of Universal’s four top monsters. He also gave us the Monster’s last starring role, and the last time that Frankenstein’s Monster is portrayed as anything more than a prop. After this, Chaney's Wolf-Man / Larry Talbot would become Universal’s biggest headliner, and the Monster was reduced to the role of second banana.

In the four subsequent films, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN; HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; HOUSE OF DRACULA; and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the Monster was relegated to little more than “background”, in the scene but having little to do with it. GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN was, in my opinion, the Monster’s last hurrah.

That doesn’t mean that those movies were bad; they weren’t. In fact, they were good, old-fashioned, B-grade, popcorn-selling programmers; fun to watch, and fun to remember. They are the movies that inspired my love of the Universal classics, and are still the movies I turn to when feeling nostalgic for the carefree days of my youth. But it’s not the Monster’s contributions that make them so.

However, in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, Chaney’s able to imbue the Monster with a final spark of humanity, a last glimpse of the brilliant characterization that Karloff created in 1931. His interaction with the young girl, played by Janet Ann Gallow, easily recalls to mind the Monster’s first such encounter, along with its drastically different outcome. We can see the learning process that the Monster has undergone since little Maria’s tragic demise, and it helps restore some humanity that the Monster lost with his cold-blooded threats to Wolf Frankenstein's son Peter in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).

Now, it is fair to say that GHOST… has its share of problems. The pace is slow for a Uni-Horror, with far too much screen time devoted to exposition and character development; the casting was misguided, with Cedric Hardwicke in over his head as Victor Frankenstein, Henry’s other son. Lionel Atwill, who was wasted in the role of Dr. Bohmer, would have carried the lead splendidly had it been given to him.

Also, the story was the weakest thus far in the series. With the plot concerning replacement of the Monster’s brain, which necessitated his being immobilized for long stretches of the film, we see that the Monster has begun his transformation from lead character to stage prop. He would spend the balance of his career stretched out on slabs of one form or another, waiting for the next experiment.

But at least in GHOST… we get to see him playing an active role one last time, and with one of the greatest Horror stars ever under Jack Pierce’s make-up. While Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t the equal of Karloff when it came to acting ability, he performed far better in the role than Bela Lugosi would in the next film, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN. Lugosi, who passed on the opportunity to portray the Monster for the original 1931 production, only proved that his initial decision was correct. And while Glenn Strange did better than Lugosi, it’s not as though he was asked to truly stretch his acting muscles.

I really didn’t intend for this to be a review of GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. I’ve written that review before, and don’t really care to revisit it now. I just wanted to convey to the Crypt’s readership the bittersweet appeal of this installment in the Universal Horror franchise. While not the equal of the movies that preceded it, GHOST… does offer us a unique portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster, a terrific performance from Lugosi as Ygor, the always gorgeous Evelyn Ankers as the daughter of Victor Frankenstein, and Lionel Atwill as the Doctor’s twistedly evil assistant, Bohmer. The plot is weak, but no more than the norm for Universal Horrors of the 1940’s, and the fine performances more than make up for any deficiencies in the story.

GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN isn’t a big favorite of mine, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the film for its place in the Universal canon. Its importance far outweighs the quality of the movie itself, which is admittedly not Universal’s best. And for me, the most important aspect of the movie is Chaney’s performance as the Monster, the one last glimpse we get of the Monster as the Monster, rather than the caricature he would become.
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DVD Review: MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES

Title: MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES

Year of Release—Film: Various—(Compilation)

Year of Release—DVD: 2005

DVD Label: The PPS Group





THE MOVIE

Anyone who grew up between 1955 and 1975 either had an 8mm movie camera, knew someone with one, or dreamt of having one of their own. The idea of making our own movies was an enticing one, and when your cinematic fantasies were fueled by H. G. Lewis, Roger Corman, and Forry Ackerman, then you dreamt of making your own monster movies… at least, I did. Unfortunately, I was in the last of the above categories. That’s too bad, as my baby brother would’ve made a great Ygor.

But there were plenty of kids who were luckier than I was when it came to exercising their creative muscles, and fortunately for all of us, a surprising number of these childhood productions have survived. Director Robert Tinnell has gathered thirty of them together on MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES.

You’ll recognize a few of the names associated with this project, most notably Bob Burns, Tom Weaver, and Kerry Gammill. Most of the contributors, however, are unrecognizable, having only two things in common with their more famous peers: A love of Monster movies; and the means to make their own.

Most of the films in this collection are, well, let’s be honest… even Spielberg had a learning curve, and there’s not a Spielberg in this bunch. This isn’t high-quality filmmaking. But if the quality level leaves something to be desired, the fun quotient sure does hit the mark. This was one of the most enjoyable DVD's I’ve viewed in a while, transporting me straight back to 1974, the Captain Company ads in the back of Famous Monsters, and my dreams of being a ten-year old Roger Corman… only good at it.


THE DISC

For what is basically a self-distributed DVD, MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES is an unexpectedly well-done release. Great care seems to have been taken in the design of the project, as well as in the selection of the films, and that care really shows.
Though most of these films were shot forty years ago or more, they are surprisingly well preserved. None are so degraded that they are unwatchable, and several look like they just came back from the developer.

There is one flaw with the disc, and unfortunately, it is a big one. With thirty short movies, divided into twelve sections, there is no provision to just hit a PLAY ALL button; you must select each film, even within the individual sections. This slows things down to an incredible degree. I understand the producers were trying to replicate the experience of watching these movies on the family projector, but…

However, though that does detract from the enjoyment of these movies, the flaw isn’t a fatal one; no one should let it prevent them from hunting this one down. This was plainly a labor of love on someone’s part; one instance of poor design shouldn’t outweigh that.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

Yes, somewhat astoundingly, there are some very nice special features on this disc, including one that absolutely captures the home movie experience to perfection.

Each of the twelve sections I previously mentioned are devoted to one Monster Kid moviemaker, with a biographical page on each. Some of these you’ll no doubt recognize; most however, are just average Joes who, like us, loved everything to do with Monster movies. Several of them have provided commentary tracks for their films, which help comprise the bulk of the special features, the audio options.

Now, I’ve said before that I don’t consider sound to be a special feature, and I mean that. However, when a film is silent in it’s original form, then any added sound must be taken into consideration. PPS went far above the call of duty with these movies, providing not only commentary tracks for many of the films, but giving the viewer the choice of an original score and sound effects, as well. But there is a third audio option that transforms this collection into such a special remembrance of times long gone.

Intrigued by an option on the audio menu labeled “8mm Projector,” I selected it when I first viewed the disc. Sure enough, as the first film began, from my speakers burst forth the almost-forgotten sounds of a movie projector: Motor turning; gears and sprockets click-clacking; fan whirring. I could almost smell the ozone rising from the machine, and expected to see shadow-puppet rabbits appear on the screen. (Yes, I was the A-V geek in 4th Grade…) While this feature might annoy those raised on VHS and DVD, it really did please this old Unimonster, and transported me back to, if not better, then more carefree, days.



IN CONCLUSION

I’ll be the first to admit that this DVD isn’t for everyone. If you’re too young to remember the days of home movies shot on film, then you may be too young to understand the joys of dressing up as your favorite monster, in costumes rummaged out of your parent’s closet, and making five-minute versions of the monster movies you love.

But if you grew up with Forry and Zacherley, Sammy Terry and William Castle, then you understand exactly what I’m trying to say. You’re the ones that this disc was aimed at, and it would be a shame if you missed it.







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15 December, 2007

Blood in Black Ink: The CCA & The ‘Other’ Monster Mags


While very few Monster fans of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s would list anything other than Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland as the most influential magazine devoted to our favorite genre, it was far from the only one. Following the success of FMoF, dozens of Horror and Sci-Fi themed magazines sprang up virtually overnight. Most faded away just as quickly, titles such as Screen Chills, Modern Monster, and World Famous Creatures merely a dim memory in the minds of a few dedicated MonsterKids.

One of the best of these short-lived magazines was Fantastic Monsters of the Films, published by Paul Blaisdell and Bob Burns, two veterans of the 1950’s B-Monster culture. As Burns recounts in his excellent book, “It Came From Bob’s Basement!”, the experience was not a happy one, and ultimately ended with the Blaisdell’s utter disillusionment with the whole industry, and the end of their friendship. Unfortunately, its brief run ended years before I was born, and surviving copies are very difficult to find.

But nothing was going to supplant FM as the magazine of choice for movie information, at least as far as the young Unimonster was concerned. I was already getting the best movie news from Forry himself… Why would I need another “News” mag? No, my taste in monster mags went in quite a different direction.

I wanted stories to fire, as well as terrify, the imagination. I wanted ghouls, and vampires, and zombies rising up from the muck. I wanted blood spurting across the page… I wanted the legendary EC Comics I had long heard about, but had never seen. I wanted Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear, Shock Suspenstories and The Vault of Terror. But someone named Fredric Wertham had decreed, a decade before my birth, that such comics were “harmful” to the fragile minds of children. I learned at an early age an intense dislike for Wertham, the Comics Code Authority, and all they stood for.

Oh yes, there were horror comics to replace what had been lost, and I bought most of them, or as many of them as a dollar-a-week allowance would permit. (Remember, we’re talking 1973 or ’74, so that was quite chunk of change… at least, it was for a ten-year old Unimonster) DC had House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Tales of the Unexpected, and Ghosts. Gold Key had Ripley’s Believe it or Not True Ghost Stories. Marvel had… well, I was a DC loyalist, so I have no idea what Marvel had. Not that it would have mattered if I had, because all of these had one fatal flaw… they all fell under the watchful eye of that damned Comics Code Authority.

But I also learned that some publishers, not content to kowtow to the machinations of Wertham and the CCA, had figured out a way around the Code, and Dr. Wertham’s censorship. The CCA, they reasoned, applied only to Comic Books; therefore, don’t publish Comics, but rather Illustrated Magazines; oversized, printed in black & white rather than color. The first of these, not surprisingly, were the father & son team of William and Bill Gaines, the heads of the very same EC Comics that had started the controversy. Their breakthrough publication, Mad Magazine, soon inspired imitators throughout the industry.

Among the best of these was Skywald Publications, publishers of such magazines as Nightmare, Scream, and Psycho. Sticking closely to the formula that Bill Gaines proved successful fifteen years previously, their “Horror-Mood” group of magazines, with gruesome covers adorned with lurid titles such as “The Day The Earth Will DIE!” and “Monsters Battle Over The Blood Of ‘The Old Vampire Lady’!” never failed to grab my attention, though they were a rare sight in my neighborhood.

Another notable defier of the CCA was Warren Magazines, the home of Forry’s Famous Monsters. They began their battle in January of 1965, with the first issue of Creepy Magazine.

Creepy skirted the CCA the same way that Skywald’s Nightmare did, by not being a comic book. Their stories were as frightening, their artwork as gruesome, as the EC Comics I dreamt of reading, but these were free of that accursed stamp-like logo on the cover. Like Tales from the Crypt, it soon gained a host; a cadaverous old gentleman named, fittingly, Uncle Creepy.

Creepy was followed before 1965 ended by Eerie, similar in style and content, but never its equal in quality; at least not in my opinion. Both were good, and Warren got more than its share of my loot on both mags, as well as FM. Of course, Eerie needed its own host, a pudgy, Peter Lorre look-alike by the name of (go figure…) Cousin Eerie. Great imaginations, those people at Warren.

But one thing they did excel at was, quite simply, picking talented artists skilled at depicting the female form. And nowhere was this skill better utilized than on the covers and in the pages of Vampirella.

I don’t remember when I started buying Vampirella; I do know that it wasn’t as early as when I began buying the other horror mags in my collection. At that age, the adventures of a ‘girl vampire’ in a skimpy costume didn’t hold nearly as much attraction for me as did the zombies, witches, and werewolves of other mags. I do remember that there came a time when those Vampi covers began to look much more interesting, and soon, I was a regular reader. Thoughts of how Vampirella would have been impossible under the auspices of the CCA occasionally came to mind, and I was extremely grateful that there were publishers who resisted that faceless, bureaucratic, monolithic, bunch of… commies, who dared to dictate what I could see in my comics.

Well, I eventually learned that the dreaded enemy of my youth, the entity that I imagined hung like some great black cloud over the heads of the poor, oppressed writers and artists of the comics industry, was in fact that self-same industry.

Little had I known that this Stalinist figure I had imagined looking at each page of art before it went to press, tearing it to shreds in front of a cowering artist, was simply the industry’s effort to police itself to avoid stricter controls. And all the salaciousness that I thought had filled the EC comics that were the objects of my four-color desire would scarcely be noticed today, in these days of the Graphic Novel.

I had lost touch with the monster mags by the time I turned 17 or so. We moved to a small town in Tennessee, and I no longer saw them on the racks at the local store. College, and life, soon intervened, and I was completely unaware when Warren ceased publication in the early ‘80’s. All of my monster mags, all my comic books, everything that had filled my world when I was young was soon gone, seemingly lost into the void with my childhood.

But the memories remain… covers tight and glossy, pages flat and sharply white. My memories remain, unlike the real thing, always in mint condition.












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DVD Review: Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Vol. 2

Title: Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Vol. 2

Year of Release—Film: Various

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment / Best Buy® Exclusive



THE MOVIE(s)

It’s no secret that I love the cheesy, B-Grade sci-fi horrors of the 1950’s. In fact, next to the classic Universal Monsters of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, there’s no type of genre film I enjoy more. This is the second collection of Sci-Fi gems Universal and Best Buy® have collaborated on, and I hope they keep them coming!
When I reviewed the first Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection last year, I said that the only faults I had with the set were the lack of special features, and the failure to include my favorite Giant Bug movie, THE DEADLY MANTIS. I am overjoyed to say that at least one of those faults has been corrected.

DR. CYCLOPS—(1940)

Though it seems an odd title for inclusion in this set, as it was originally produced by Paramount, and released in 1940, DR. CYCLOPS is certainly an entertaining film that has long deserved proper respect, and it definitely gets it here.
While the Special Effects are good, especially considering the age of the film, the story is a bit of a weak point. The characters are poorly drawn and badly acted, offering the viewer scant reason to care about their eventual fates. And though the plot would become overused in the following decade, here it was still sufficiently fresh that it helps, rather than hinders the film. It is an interesting concept, though it does tend to wander from point to point, but as I mentioned it does what it was intended to do.
One thing that cannot be faulted is the spectacular color photography, on a par with the best of the era. It is captured perfectly in the DVD transfer, and puts my ratty old VHS to shame.
While not my favorite film in this collection, this is an enjoyable one, and a nice addition to my DVD library.

CULT OF THE COBRA—(1955)

This is one that I had not seen before this collection, and I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the movie. Though the premise is somewhat thin, and the film has often been derided, I found it to be very entertaining.
The cast is excellent, and would go on to comprise a who’s who of ‘60’s TV stars. Richard Long, Marshall Thompson, and David Janssen lead the way as GI’s who had witnessed a sacred ceremony while in Southwest Asia, calling down a curse upon their heads. Faith Domergue is the embodiment of that curse, (please someone, curse me with something like that!) as a priestess of the cult, a woman who can transform herself into a cobra… or a cobra that can change into a woman, whichever the case may be.
As I stated, the premise is thin… but no more so than most b-pictures of the ‘50’s. And like most of it’s peers, it holds up well enough when supported by competent acting and Francis Lyon’s workmanlike direction. The photography is Universal’s usually high quality effort, and what few special effects there are about average for the period.
On the whole, this is one of my favorite films in this set, and one that I’m glad to be able to check off my “Need” list.

THE LAND UNKNOWN—(1956)

This is another of those Universals that had escaped my efforts to add to the collection, and while I’m glad that I finally have it, I must admit that it fails to please as much as did the previous entry in this list. Though it’s not a bad film, the unusually feeble production values simply don’t serve the purpose here.
The cast, led by Jock Mahoney and Shawn Smith, does an adequate job, but they receive little in the way of support from anyone, including the screenwriters, special effects crew, or even the director, Virgil Vogel. The story is weak, the dialogue unrealistic, even by 1950’s standards, and the creature effects are even more so. In a production from AIP or Republic, you might accept a man in a rubber T-Rex suit… but not from Universal, which was producing state-of-the-art genre films in this period, films such as CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THIS ISLAND EARTH, and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Especially in comparison to the pioneering suit-mation being done at that time by Toho Studios in Japan, the cheapness of the Clifford Stine effects really stand out.
The plot of the film is a simple one, and would be revisited with varied success throughout the 1960’s and ‘70’s. A helicopter carrying a team of researchers finds a hidden valley in Antarctica, with a tropical jungle environment and thriving prehistoric life. The team becomes stranded, and must survive their harsh surroundings. The same premise was followed much more satisfyingly in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH several years later, and quite frankly, I’d rather watch that again.
Still, it is a Universal that I had not seen prior to this, and I am happy to include it in my collection.

THE DEADLY MANTIS—(1957)

This is my all-time favorite Giant Bug movie, and one that I have waited for years to see released to DVD. Though it generally is held in lower regard than 1954’s THEM, and while even I would have to admit that, objectively speaking, THEM is a much better story, I’ve always loved this film.
Once again the plot is familiar to fans of the B-Pictures of the 1950’s. An earthquake in the South Atlantic causes a reaction on the other side of the world, and a giant prehistoric mantis is released from its icy tomb. Resurrected, it begins hunting for food, and heading south for warmer climes. Along the way it runs afoul of a paleontologist, his photographer, and an Air Force officer (played well by William Hopper, Alix Talton, and Craig Stevens…). The supporting cast is good, as is Nathan Juran’s direction, helped immeasurably by a superb job of special effects from Clifford Stine.
Ok, so it’s not a great movie, and it does go a little overboard on it’s use of stock footage, but it’s still one of my favorite movies, and it’s inclusion in this set is a no-brainer.

THE LEECH WOMAN—(1960)

This is, in my opinion of course, the weakest film in the set, and one that I would’ve been happy to see put off in favor of a more deserving film from the Universal vaults, such as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.
The story concerns an elderly woman who learns a method of restoring her youth and beauty. The drawback is that the process requires a steady supply of fresh blood, and the effects wear off quickly.
The plot is convoluted and obtuse, and the dialogue is stiff at best… but seldom delivers its best. The acting is almost uniformly bad, and in every way, this resembles much more the type and quality of film coming from AIP or Allied Artists, not the great Universal.
Still, it is well presented here, and if it does happen to be a film you enjoy, then you’ll be pleased with this release.


THE DISC

The three-disc set is well done, and beautifully packaged. As is standard with releases from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, the movies are subtitled, always a plus with me, and the transfers are absolutely perfect, especially the DR. CYCLOPS print.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

As usual with these Best Buy/Universal sets, this is the simplest section to write, as there are no special features, save for an occasional trailer.



IN CONCLUSION

Speaking as someone hopelessly addicted to the cheesy B-Movies of the 1950’s, I dream about sets such as this. The inclusion of my favorite of the Giant Bug movies certainly doesn’t hurt. While the exclusive nature of the Universal/Best Buy releases draws much criticism for making the discs hard to acquire and inflating the price, I fail to understand how that truly works a hardship on someone who really wants the sets. Best Buys are not scarce, and it’s always possible to purchase the discs on-line.
Still, it’s not a set that I would wait too long to pick up, unless you want to pay the exorbitant prices that the first set is commanding on eBay… upwards of $125.00 in some cases. There’s little doubt that, once supplies of this set dry up, it will begin to appreciate considerably. And if you love these movies as much as I, and have as little free cash as I, then you don’t want that to happen!










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08 December, 2007

Uni's Trips from the Crypt: Horrorbles Horror & Science-Fiction Memorabilia, Berwyn, Illinois

When the Chicago-area horror landmark The House of Monsters closed recently, it left a void in the cold black hearts of horror-fans throughout Chicagoland. That was a void that John Aranza, owner of Horrorbles Horror & Science-Fiction Memorabilia sought to fill. And since opening his doors just over a year ago, both he and Horrorbles have become major players on the local horror scene.

Located in the historic suburb of Berwyn, on Roosevelt Rd., Horrorbles has rapidly become the place to go for those Chicago-area Horror fans needing a fix for their fright-filled addictions. Carrying everything from t-shirts to models to movies, Horrorbles is squeezed into a small, older building in this fashionable district, famous for being the home of long-time Chicago Horror-Host Svengoolie.

Svengoolie is a fixture in Chicago’s pop culture landscape, and Horrorbles has a close relationship with the 34-year veteran host. They are not only a sponsor of his program, airing twice each Saturday night, but they are the official supplier of rubber chickens to the show (one of the program’s trademarks is Sven being pelted with flocks of these birds at the end of each episode…). They offer the official chickens for sale, in both regular and autographed versions.

But Svengoolie isn’t the only big name associated with the store. In the eighteen months since it opened, Horrorbles has sponsored several events, including bringing Oscar©-winning actress Patricia Neal to town for a recent Science-Fiction film festival. They are also the exclusive dealer for a new line of Basil Gogos authorized t-shirts, and last year hosted a book signing for the “Famous Monsters” cover artist. Recently, they agreed to be the sole retailer for a well-known Horror-host’s private collection of memorabilia, as well as entering into a similar arrangement for one of the most prolific screenwriters from the heyday of Sci-Fi B-Movies.

However, that’s not why people are heading to Horrorbles six days a week (the store is closed Mondays…). That has much more to do with the store’s two strengths: Selection, and Service.

Horror fans are a diverse lot, and no two fans are looking for exactly the same thing. Whether your interest is the most recent copy of Rue Morgue; an original Remco Mummy, still on the card; or a Sideshow Toys Silver-Screen edition Dracula, chances are you’ll find it here. Aranza carries a wide variety of magazines, including many original Famous Monsters, and an excellent variety of movies, from early Silent horrors to J-Horror gorefests. However, the primary focus of Horrorbles is toys and models.

Aranza describes his philosophy as providing “a window back to the monster toys and monster memories of our youth.”

But should you be searching for something not in stock, that’s where the store’s excellent service comes into play. Simply ask Aranza, or his capable assistant Elizabeth Haney, and they will do their best to track it down for you. Not only are they collectors themselves, with a genuine love of the subject matter, but they have a wide network of friends and colleagues to whom they can reach out.

And if you aren’t in the Chicago area, there’s no need to despair; you too can shop Horrorbles… virtually, at http://www.horrorbles.com/. But if you’re planning to be in Chicago, then you definitely owe it to yourself to schedule a trip to Berwyn, and experience it first-hand. You won’t be disappointed.

[Horrorbles is located at:
6731 W. Roosevelt Rd.
Berwyn, IL 60402

Telephone: (708) 484-7370
E-mail: store@horrorbles.com

Store Hours: Noon-7pm, Tu-Fri., Noon-5pm Sat-Sun., Closed Mon.]












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Lost but Found: Peter Jackson’s Recreation of the “Spider-Pit”

Between its initial release and the mid-1950’s, KING KONG underwent several cuts designed either to make the film conform to changing moral standards or to fit artificial time constraints. Most of the cuts came from the 1938 re-release of the film, and were mandated by the Hays Office. Most of these cuts were restored when an intact print was found in Great Britain in the early ‘70’s.

However, there was one sequence that was cut prior to the films general release, and this sequence does appear to be gone forever. This is the famous “Spider Pit” scene, which showed what happened to several of the crew of the Venture after Kong tossed the log into the chasm. There seems to be no doubt that this scene was shot; notes from Director Merian C. Cooper state that he removed it himself following poor audience reaction in test screenings. Fans and historians have searched for decades for this missing footage, to no avail. If, as it would seem, the sequence were cut from the negative prior to most of the prints being manufactured, then there simply may not be any footage to find.

However, thanks to the efforts of KING KONG remake Director Peter Jackson, we have the next best thing. He and his special effects crew at the WETA Workshop set out to reconstruct this lost scene, and they did it the old-fashioned way, with 1932 cameras identical to the ones Willis “Obie” O’Brien used to shoot the original sequence, and with painstakingly recreated animation models. They not only filmed it, they filmed how they did it, and included it on the original KING KONG Collector’s Edition DVD.

As I stated in my review of the KK33 Collector’s Edition, this was a labor of love on the part of Jackson, a life-long Kongophile. It had to have been: I’m sure that more money was spent on reproducing the few minutes of missing footage than was spent filming the original movie. Certainly, the time spent resurrecting long-forgotten techniques and obsolete equipment represented a significant allocation of resources, even for someone of Jackson’s means. Was it worth it?

As those involved in the project stated, their intention was never to “complete” the original KING KONG. They simply wanted to know what the missing sequence would have looked like, based on what information still survives about the scene. They began with a still that does survive, showing at least two crewmen standing alive in the pit, as a monstrous spider approaches. Using that as a jumping-off point, they used Obie’s sketches for the film, many from Jackson’s own collection, to recreate the various pit monsters.

As this was going on, Jackson and a small group of directors and screenwriters, including Frank Darabont, examined the original movie frame-by-frame, matching the filmed sequences to the shooting script for the film. In doing this, they made a significant discovery.

Many fans have wondered why, when the crew of the Venture began crossing the log-bridge, only to find Kong blocking the route, they didn’t just back up to the other side. Jackson and team found that, along with the pit sequence, footage was removed showing the crew being chased by a Styracosaurus onto the log, to be trapped there and flung to their deaths in the pit below. They decided to recreate this as well, and Jackson had an item in his collection that was particularly helpful in that: The original animation model of the Styracosaurus.

Originally built for use in O’Brien’s planned-but-never-filmed CREATION, it was resurrected for KING KONG, but its scenes were left on the cutting room floor. It did finally get its shot at stardom, however, when it was used in 1933’s SON OF KONG. With its foam rubber body rotting away, it was of course impossible to use for filming the recreation, but the animators were very curious to see how it had been constructed. Unable to see the armature (the model’s posable skeleton…) underneath the layers of rotting rubber, they did the next best thing: They took it to a local hospital for a full series of X-rays. (In an interesting side note, those of you who have the recent DVD tribute to Forry Ackerman, THE SCI-FI BOYS, look closely at one of the scenes of Forry giving a tour of the Ackermansion in the ‘70’s… there, in the background, sitting quietly on the shelf, is our friend the Styracosaurus, rotted rubber and all!)

This level of commitment and dedication was shown throughout the filming of the recreation, from using period photographic equipment to sampling Fay Wray’s unforgettable scream to use for constructing the various creature howls and roars. I may be in danger of redundancy, but you can feel the emotional attachment this group of filmmakers has for this classic movie.

So, after all this effort, was the finished product worth it? Yes, I think so. Is it what Cooper and Obie originally shot? No, but it’s probably close, damn close. And for me, as far as this is concerned, close is close enough.

DVD Review: KING KONG (1933)




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Title: KING KONG (Collector’s Edition Tin-Boxed Set)

Year of Release—Film: 1933

Year of Release—DVD: 2005

DVD Label: Warner Home Video




THE MOVIE

How much do I need to say about this, perhaps the greatest Monster movie of all time? This movie was the progenitor of every Giant Animal film that followed, from GOJIRA to EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS; it continues to thrill generations of monster fans; and it has inspired dozens of future filmmakers, from Ray Harryhausen to Peter Jackson.

The brainchild of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, (whose real lives are worthy of an adventure film or three…) KING KONG is the story of Carl Denham, a filmmaker who specializes in wildlife pictures, who’s been told by the executives that he needs some romance in his films, some beauty… in short, a woman. Desperate to find someone, anyone willing to undertake a long sea voyage for the chance at fame and fortune, he begins searching out the skid row flophouses and soup kitchens.

About to give up, he intercedes in an altercation between a fruit vendor and a young woman. Denham comes to the girl’s assistance, and realizes that he has found his star. Her name is Ann Darrow, and she is soon convinced that this is her ticket out of the poverty of Depression-era New York. She quickly finds herself aboard the Venture, bound for Indonesia, and for terror.

Kong was brought marvelously to life by the genius of Willis O’Brien. Obie, as he was known, began his career in the art of Stop-Motion Animation with the 1918 film THE GHOST OF SLUMBER MOUNTAIN, and became recognized as the leading animator in Hollywood with 1925’s THE LOST WORLD. With KING KONG, Obie hit his professional zenith, designing creatures and effects that still fascinate and amaze audiences, most notably Kong himself.

But the big ape wasn’t the only star of the movie, and this film elevated his leading lady to legendary status. Fay Wray was one of the rising stars in the Hollywood of the early ‘30’s, and had been since appearing in Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 film THE WEDDING MARCH. Beginning in 1932, she appeared in several Horror Films, most notably THE MYSTERY IN THE WAX MUSEUM, earning her the title of the Screen’s first “Scream Queen.” If those films had been her entire contribution to the genre, she would still be fondly remembered by Horror fans, but her starring role in KING KONG forever cemented her place in film history.

Taken as a whole, this film must rate as one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history. Everything about it is superlative, as demonstrated by the effect it still has on audiences today, 73 years after it premiered.

As soon as I got my set, I sat down to watch it. My mother, three years Kong’s elder, had never seen the film and, much to my surprise, decided to join me. To my continued surprise, she loved the movie. The fact that KING KONG can still connect with viewers so long after it was released simply proves its greatness.



THE DISC

In my year-end 2005 in review column over in CreatureScape’s The Unimonster’s Crypt, I called this the DVD release of the year, and two years worth of subsequent releases haven’t changed my opinion at all. In fact, if I’m still doing this in January 2011, it just might win Release of the Decade.

First, the film itself is the best looking print I’ve ever seen of KONG, with all the footage that was edited out in 1938 restored from an intact print found in Great Britain. Though this footage was found and restored in the ‘70’s, the movie has received a thorough cleaning and restoration for this release, and it really benefits from the process.

Add in the multiple subtitle and audio tracks and you have one of the best two-disc sets you likely to see.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

To say that this collection has some special features is like saying Bill Gates has a little cash. This baby is packed; it seems that WHV really wanted to please the fans of the film with this offering, and they succeeded. The list of extras contained in the KING KONG Collector's Edition Tin-Box set includes (courtesy of www.imdb.com):

2-Disc Special Edition DVD

Collectible tin packaging
20-page reproduction of original 1933 souvenir program
King Kong memorable scenes postcards
Vintage King Kong poster mail-in offer

Disc 1: The Movie

Original 1933 Film classic in Glorious Black and White, Newly Restored and Digitally Mastered
Commentary by Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray
Merian C. Cooper Movies Trailer Gallery

Disc 2: King-Sized Special Features

I'm King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper -- 2005 documentary
RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World - 7 Part Documentary including...
The Origins of "King Kong"
Willis O'Brien and "Creation"
Cameras Roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder
A Milestone in Visual Effects
Passion, Sound and Fury
The Mystery of the Lost "Spider Pit" Sequence
King Kong’s Legacy
Creation Test Footage with Commentary by Ray Harryhausen

I’m not sure where to begin with this… it’s simply overwhelming, in both quantity and quality. For example, the 1933 souvenir program is a reproduction of one that was given out at the premiere… and that had been bound with a sheet copper cover. While WHV didn’t go to quite that extent in reproducing it, the cover of the reproduction has been given a coppery metallic sheen, neatly replicating the look, if not the heft, of the original.

But the jewel of the special features, at least for me, is the 7-part documentary RKO 601: THE MAKING OF ‘KONG, THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD’. At over two-and-a-half hours in length, it’s one of the most informative and entertaining “making-of” documentaries I’ve had the pleasure to watch. And while the documentary as a whole is excellent, the highlight has to be the look at how Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop ‘recreated’ the lost Spider-Pit sequence, using hand-made duplicates of the original animation models and 1932 equipment in an attempt to faithfully reproduce the original look and feel of the film. Only someone with a true love of the original movie would go to such trouble and expense, and Jackson’s reverence for the film is clearly displayed.

I could go for another 10 pages on the bonus features included with this disc, but suffice it to say that if you’re a Kongophile, you’ll be happy.




IN CONCLUSION

I remember when I first looked my Universal Monster Legacy Set over, thinking that no one was going to top this Collection. I was actually surprised to be proven wrong, and in such a short time frame. I doubt it will happen again, at least so quickly. With a $40 list price this set’s not cheap, but how can I not recommend it? You can find it cheaper, Deep Discount DVD currently shows it for less than $30, but this isn’t the set to pinch pennies over. If you’re a Kong fan, and since you’ve come to the Crypt I’ll wager you are, then you have to have this set in your collection. Yes, you could buy a bare-bones stripped clean disc with just the movie… and you’ll save twenty bucks. I say splurge… you won’t regret it.


01 December, 2007

Silent Screams: Ten Silent Horrors Every Fan Should Own

Anyone who’s even a casual student of film knows that, from the earliest days of cinema until 1927, the movies were silent. There was usually a musical accompaniment, but the film itself did not carry a sound track. There was no dialogue, no sound effects. Thus, over thirty years worth of film history has been written off by fans who, for one reason or another, refuse to watch a silent film. That’s unfortunate, especially for fans of horror. Many of the most influential Horror and Science-Fiction films extant, films that continue to inspire filmmakers today, are silent, and should be seen by everyone who considers themselves Horror Fans.

Personally speaking, I’ve long had a love of silent film, ever since the day I watched a screening of F. W. Murnau’s 1922 classic NOSFERATU at a school Halloween carnival when I was a first-grader. There was absolutely no sound… no music, nothing save the click-clack of the projector and the quiet hum of it’s cooling fan—and the startled gasps of a tent full of children as Count Orlok climbed the staircase to the bedroom of Ellen Hutter.

That scene had a power to impress itself upon the consciousness that wasn’t dependent on dialogue or an evocative score; visual cues were all we had to go by, and our minds absorbed the play of every shadow on that staircase. That’s the beauty of silent film: It strips away the distractions, and leaves nothing but the visual medium on which to focus.

In little over thirty years of Silent Cinema, some of the greatest films in history were produced, many of these genre films. This is my list of ten of those films, ten that should be in every collection. Though subjective, I do believe that these are the “Essentials”, the ones that are too important to miss.

1.) NOSFERATU-EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS ~aka~ NOSFERATU-A SYMPHONY OF HORROR—F. W. Murnau—1922: Very nearly a “lost” film, as Bram Stoker’s widow sued successfully to have the film destroyed for infringing on the Dracula copyright, NOSFERATU stands as one of the most influential Horror Films ever made. Coming at the height of the German “Expressionistic” movement, Murnau’s skillful use of light and shadow, the stylized look of the sets, and the design of Max Schreck’s make-up, all serve to create an unforgettable visual narrative. Most of it works very well, even after 85 years. What doesn’t age as well are the stiff, wooden performances from most of the cast. Still, this is a true classic, one that never fails to reveal new facets of itself.

2.) DAS KABINETT DES DOKTOR CALIGARI ~aka~ THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI—Robert Wiene—1919: Perhaps the first true Horror Film, it single-handedly gave birth to the aforementioned “Expressionist” movement in German cinema, though how it came to pass was something of an ‘unintended consequence.’ Germany was plunged into economic devastation following its defeat in World War I; consequently, even the cost of lighting film productions was prohibitive. Robert Wiene, who was well known in art circles but had little experience in film, asked the leaders of a new school of art to design and create sets that would look good without the need for expensive lighting effects. The result was a visual style that would influence the next twenty years of Horror Films.

3.) THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA—Rupert Julian—1925: The most important American Horror Film of the silent era, this is the film that made Universal a great studio, and cemented Lon Chaney, Sr.’s status as a great star. The sheer scale of the production was enormous, and marked a major commitment for Universal Studios. The Paris Opera House set still survives, at least as recently as 2001, and still sees occasional use.

4.) METROPOLIS—Fritz Lang—1927: One of the first Science-Fiction films, Lang’s social commentary is one of the most powerful films of the ‘20’s. Composed of striking visuals and a frenetic pace of action, this film established Lang as a master of the genre film.

5.) THE CAT AND THE CANARY—Paul Leni—1927: One of the first, and certainly the best, of the “old dark house” style of mystery thrillers, THE CAT AND THE CANARY originated as a stage play in 1922. When noted German filmmaker Paul Leni brought it to the screen for Universal, little did he know that he was drafting the blueprint for the great Universal Horrors of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Leni, who would die of toxemia in 1929 at the age of forty-four, made skillful use of shadows, cobwebs, and secret passages, conventions that would become trademarks of movies such as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE BLACK CAT.

6.) THE UNKNOWN—Tod Browning—1927: Of the more than 100 films Lon Chaney made during his life, fewer than forty survive, and this is one of his best. Directed by Tod Browning, who had been raised in a circus and never lost his affinity for the bizarre and grotesque, this is Chaney’s crowning achievement in contortion. Playing Alonzo the Armless, Chaney learned to do everything, from throwing a knife to lighting a cigarette, with his feet. Alonzo is in love with Nanon, the circus-owner’s daughter. Nanon, played by Joan Crawford, has a deep psychological aversion to a man’s touch, thus making her the perfect object of Alonzo’s affections. What follows is a haunting psychological horror, laden with sexual overtones, as we see to just what depths a twisted man will sink for love.

7.) HÄXAN ~aka~ WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES—Benjamin Christensen—1920: Part documentary, part horror film, this Swedish import is one of the most visually unique of the first era of Horror. Rarely seen in it’s original form, due to the scenes of Satanic rituals and frequent nudity, it’s recently been released to DVD from The Criterion Collection, in its complete state.

8.) THE LOST WORLD—Harry Hoyt—1925: Though Willis O’Brien’s Dinosaur creations appear crude in comparison to the work he would do a short eight years later in KING KONG, they were head and shoulders above anything anyone else was doing at the time. The script, based on a story by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is rambling and incoherent, and Hoyt might as well have telegraphed his direction in from home. Not that it mattered; this was Obie’s movie, and his monsters carried the day perfectly well.

9.) THE LODGER—Alfred Hitchcock—1926: Not Hitchcock’s first film, but certainly the first that foretold the brilliance of the man who would become the genre’s greatest director. Based loosely on the Jack the Ripper murders, this movie displays many of the hallmarks of Hitchcock’s latter films, and should be a must-see for fans of the director.

10.) DER GOLEM ~aka~ THE GOLEM—Paul Wegener—1920: Not the first film version Wegener directed of the Gustav Meyrink novel, but the only one that survives, a valid argument can be made that this film is the direct ancestor of James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN; certainly more so than the 1910 Edison film. Visually impressive, it is one of the great masterpieces of the German cinema.

If you’re a fan of Silent Film, then these movies are probably familiar to you; at least, most will be. If not, then consider this list a jumping-off point for an exploration of early cinema. Silent movies have much that they can offer the viewer, and while it is a different experience, it is also one that is very rewarding. I think it would be unfortunate to miss out on that experience, just for the want of a soundtrack.








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DVD Review: SCREAMING DEAD

Title: SCREAMING DEAD

Year of Release—Film: 2004

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: Shock-O-Rama Cinema




THE MOVIE

Shock-O-Rama Cinema has a certain reputation in Horror circles, and not an altogether bad one. Though they are an admittedly low-grade producer and distributor of Horror Films, churning out, for the most part, no-budget, shot-on-video gorefests, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good Horrors. Monogram was able to produce some quality films in the 1940’s, just as Amicus was in the ‘70’s and New Line in the ‘80’s. Every era has it’s low-budget studio turning out reel after reel, or in this case disc after disc, of good, solid, horror entertainment. There may not be an Oscar winner in the bunch, but they deliver what’s promised. Though SCREAMING DEAD may not win any awards, it’s a good little Horror Film, one that delivers what it promises.

A famous photographer rents an old haunted building for a photo-shoot, and arrives with several gorgeous models, including the “star” of the film, Misty Mundae; a cute young assistant; (Heidi Kristoffer, in a very good performance…) and the representative of the property-owner in tow. The photographer proceeds to subject his models to various staged “torture” situations for his photographs. This activity awakens the hostile, sadistic spirit of a man named Rossiter, who enacts in fact what the photographer staged for fantasy. Rossiter, well-played by Kevin Shinnick, (who, in the interests of full disclosure, is an acquaintance of this reviewer…) proceeds to hack his way through most of the cast in varied and imaginative ways.

In effect a remake of the 1965 Italian film THE CRIMSON EXECUTIONER ~aka~ BLOODY PIT OF HORROR, SCREAMING DEAD benefits from having a coherent script and, for the most part, decent acting… two factors the original lacked. Let’s be honest… this movie’s not likely to win any awards. But it does what I require of any movie—it entertains me.



THE DISC

Shock-O-Rama is one of those companies that always seem to deliver value for the Horror-fan’s dollar. They turn out a reliable, quality product, and this disc is no different. The print is crisp and clean, and the audio is sharp. There are no subtitles, however, which would be a plus. Overall, though, a very well done project from Shock-O-Rama.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

For what is essentially a bargain-rate movie from a low-budget distributor, this is a surprisingly well-planned and executed disc. There are several special features, including a making-of featurette, as well as an interview segment with the director, Brett Piper, and several of the cast. There’s a Documentary on Misty Mundae, Shock-o-Rama’s Queen of Screams, and additional photo galleries and such. Not a bad package for such a low-budget effort.



IN CONCLUSION

As I said, this movie wasn’t in the Oscar hunt, and deservedly so. Still, for less than $20, you can have a good, thoroughly enjoyable Gorefest to add to your collection. May not be your first choice when video shopping… but don’t be too quick to pass it by.






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24 November, 2007

Thank you, Forry… for Everything.

Like many of my contemporaries, the treasures and pleasures of my formative years were a mix of horror movies, comic books, model airplanes, baseball cards, and monster magazines. Of the last, the most notable when I was a child was Famous Monsters of Filmland, published by James Warren, and edited by the Godfather of Horror fandom, Forry Ackerman.

Born Forrest James Ackerman on the 24th of November, 1916, Forry’s life-long love of Fantasy, Science-Fiction, and Horror films began at an early age with, according to his web-site biography, a viewing of the Fantasy film ONE GLORIOUS DAY when he was 5½ years old. That love affair has now lasted nearly eighty-six years, and along the way, he has inspired thousands, if not millions, of fans of genre films with his quick wit, vivid writing, and, most of all, his accessibility.

For decades, at his home dubbed the Acker-Mansion, in Horror-Wood, Karloff-ornia, visitors could just drop by, and with little more than a polite knock on the door and friendly hello, receive a tour of the Ackermonster’s incredible museum of Movie treasures, everything from the original Stegosaurus miniature from the 1933 classic KING KONG, to the golden idol from the beginning of RAIDERS FROM THE LOST ARK. Thousands of movie posters, photographs, props, costumes, scripts, books… all laid out for viewing, just for the asking.

Occasionally, Forry's openness and generosity have resulted in loss; the list of items that have been stolen from his collection would do many museums proud—the head from the Zuni fetish doll from the 1975 TV classic TRILOGY OF TERROR; the medallion worn by Bela Lugosi in 1931’s DRACULA; a pair of Mr. Spock’s ears from the original Star Trek series. These and many more items from his tremendous collection have disappeared through the years, primarily because the man who owned them wanted the world to share in and enjoy his love of the genre, rather than locking the pieces up where only he could enjoy them.

Still, visitors to the Ackermansion seldom left disappointed, and often were treated to what amounted to a history lesson on the world of Horror, Sci-Fi, (a word that Forry himself coined…) and Fantasy films, from one who was present almost from the beginning.

In 1958, Forry made what is perhaps his greatest contribution to Horror and Sci-Fi fandom, when he joined with publisher James Warren to create what would become the most influential Horror magazine ever: Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Famous Monsters was THE magazine when I was a kid. I’m not sure how old I was when I got my first issue of FM, but I can vividly remember the cover to this day, more than three-and-a-half decades later: The grinning visage of Barnabas Collins, fangs bared, glared out at the reader in bold vibrant color. I can’t remember the articles, and I have no idea when I got it or how much it cost. But that cover never left me. For most of the next eight to ten years, FM was a part of my life. From the fun, easy-to-read articles that seemed written with youngsters in mind, to the prolific photos, to the gorgeous artwork that adorned every cover, the magazine was designed to be kid-friendly, as open and accessible as Forry himself. Even the few ads that were allowed into the mag were aimed at us kids, ads for such diverse treasures as Don Post masks, (expensive even then…) life-sized Frankenstein’s Monsters, (little did we know that they were just posters…) 8mm prints of the great Universal Horror Films, (sure, they were edited down to about fifteen minutes of footage, and there was no sound, but in those pre-VCR days, I dreamed of having my own projector and a collection of my favorite movies…) and, of course, ads for all the other Warren magazines.

I think that the ads were always my favorite part of FM. Though I doubt I ever ordered anything from them, I loved looking at them and dreaming. Dreaming of having my room filled with the masks, toys, posters, and other memorabilia of the genre. Dreaming of the day when I would be old enough to have my own house, decorated top to bottom, front to back with monster movie posters and monster masks. Sadly, I haven’t quite achieved my childhood dreams… but I’m still working on it.

But it was the articles that fired my desire to see as many of these great films as I could. It was in these pages that I first learned of Hammer films, of George Pal and Ray Harryhausen, Julian’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Though it would be years, even decades, before I would see some of these films, my search for them began at the meta-forry-cal feet of the Ackermonster.

As the ‘70’s passed into the ‘80’s, I began to lose touch with FM, and the Horror genre in general. Though I still loved to go see Horror Films, my teen years began to draw me to other interests. The Monsters, though still there, slipped into the background of my life, much like extended family; I would occasionally think of them, and realize how much I missed them, but just didn’t have time to visit. By the time I started college, in 1982, FM had slid quietly into the same recess in my mind as my Comic books and baseball cards. Thus it failed to register entirely when, in 1983, Forry was removed as Editor, and the magazine ceased publication.

While Jim Warren and Forry had never been best of friends, their relationship in the final years of FM had grown increasingly strained, and reached the breaking point when Warren tried to take control of FM away from Forry, naming him Editor Emeritus, but stripping him of his day-to-day duties. Forry balked at this and, when the smoke had cleared, Famous Monsters of Filmland was no more.

But I was blissfully unaware of all this intrigue until years later. As I gradually re-entered the genre in the late ‘90’s, I slowly became aware of the story behind the demise of the magazine that played such a huge role in my love of horror. I also learned of a new Famous Monsters that was being published, and of the perfidy of the person trying to usurp the reputation and position held by my childhood hero. Though Forry eventually won the court battle over this issue, the effort left him, no longer a young man, physically exhausted and financially bereft. In 2002 Forry moved out of the 18-room Ackermansion, into a small, one-bedroom bungalow he’s christened the Son of Ackermansion. In the process, he was forced to sell off the preponderance of his vast collection.

How did he do this, you ask? At one of the great auction houses like Christie’s, or Sotheby’s? In a quiet sale to a museum or private collector? No. Forry had a yard sale.

Ask any horror film-maker of the ‘80’s and 90’s, and most of them will tell you that Forry Ackerman, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, was a pivotal influence in their lives and careers. Spielberg, Jackson, Landis, Dante… all credit, to varying degrees, those early issues of FM with growing and guiding their love of genre films. Add to that the sheer millions of ordinary kids whose natural love of fantasy and imagination found a friend in Forry, and it’s easy to see that Modern horror wouldn’t exist without his contributions, nor would we still have the respect and admiration for the classics of yesterday that he instilled in us.

In his long life, Forrest J. Ackerman has been many things: Author, actor, agent, editor, even, according to his own web-site biography, the first lesbian President of the United States. (There’s no way I can explain it, just go there and read it for yourself…) But most of all, Forry’s been two things: A fan, and a friend.

Thank you, Forry, for being both.

DVD Review: THE DESCENT

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Title: THE DESCENT

Year of Release—Film: 2005

Year of Release—DVD: 2006

DVD Label: Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment



THE MOVIE

Neil Marshall’s follow up to DOG SOLDIERS, one of the best Horror Films of this decade, is THE DESCENT, possibly the best-reviewed Horror Film of 2005, and one about which fans seemed to agree with the reviewers. It did well at the box office, as well as in DVD release, and led off a mini-wave of subterranean Horror.

Marshall, who definitely knows how to please Horror fans, doesn’t stray too far from the formula that worked so well in DOG SOLDIERS… a small, close-knit group, in an unfamiliar environment, confined, cut-off, and disoriented, doing battle against creatures who view them simply as their next meal.

The difference here is that where the British soldiers in his previous film grew even tighter as a unit through their struggle, the six women in THE DESCENT begin to fracture apart thanks to the arrogance and errors of their nominal leader. The six unknowns in the cast do a credible job with the material, though I think that the addition of an experienced hand would’ve improved the level of the performances greatly, much as Sean Pertwee elevated the performances in DOG SOLDIERS.

There’s very little I can say about the movie itself for fear of ruining it for those yet to see it. The first half, maybe the first two-thirds, is slow-moving and, quite frankly, boring… unless spelunking videos are your thing. But, as with DOG SOLDIERS, once the action starts there’s hardly a let up until the end. Not all of it makes sense, but there’s no time to consider the plot holes in detail.

Marshall, as he did with DS, demonstrates a skillful use of the darkness inherent in the location, never revealing too much of his creatures to the light. I will say that the creature design, while hardly original, is very effective, and the make-up and special effects are as well done as they were on his previous film.



THE DISC

Lion’s Gate makes a habit of pleasing genre fans, and it starts with a sharp, attractive package design. When you have dozens of new DVD’s hitting the shelves every Tuesday, the cover of your movie has to reach out and grab the uninformed consumers, make them want your product. For fans of Horror Films, you can’t go wrong with girls, and you can’t go wrong with gore. Combine the two in a properly dramatic scene, you’ve got a winner. The disc inside is as well-designed, with several choices for audio and subtitles, and excellent picture and sound quality.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

One thing that Lion’s Gate has realized is that serious movie fans like extras on their DVD’s. We want deleted scenes, and alternate endings, and behind-the-scenes documentaries. We want the movie, yes… but for us the movie is just the crust, sauce, and mozzarella cheese. The special features are the pepperoni and green peppers, and Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment serves their discs fully loaded.

There are several Deleted / Alternate scenes presented, none of which would have improved the final product and were worthy of being cut; a “gag” reel that is really quite entertaining; an interesting and informative Making-Of featurette; an interview with Marshall; and multiple commentaries.





IN CONCLUSION

While DESCENT isn’t the equal of his previous film, Neil Marshall does demonstrate with it that he’s no one-hit wonder. He’s a talented director, one that understands the genre and its fans, and that should translate into a great career. This may not be a great movie, and it certainly falls short of its hype, but it’s still a very entertaining, enjoyable Horror Film, especially for Gorehounds. With a $19.95 list price, it’s affordable enough to belong in any good Horror collection, though those unused to gore might want to work up to it. It can be found even cheaper, but it does belong on your buy list.


17 November, 2007

1957—Horror’s Greatest Year?

As with almost everything else under the sun, the cinema’s love affair with Horror movies runs in cycles, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Currently, I feel that we’ve been in a very “up” cycle for several years, with no real sign of a downturn yet.

There have been other “up” cycles, of course… The early thirties, Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of Horror; the early forties, the heyday of Universal’s franchise horror; the late sixties-early seventies, as two dying venues, the Drive-In and the Grindhouse converged to funnel grittingly realistic, spectacularly gory, deliciously exploitative fare directly to eager movie-goers. But in terms of a single year, one 12-month period when the Horror gods truly smiled, I don’t think there’s ever been one as good as 1957.

There are those who would argue that 1931 was the greatest year for Horror. They would have a valid argument that it was certainly the most significant, with the premiere of Browning’s DRACULA in February; the greatest Horror Film of all, James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, in November; and Rueben Mamoulian’s definitive version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1931.

Others might lean towards 1968, when one low-budget movie became the demarcation line to show when Modern Horror began. George Romero’s landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was, without a doubt, a seminal moment in the history of the Horror cinema, but it was far from the only one that year. From Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, to Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, there’s no doubt that 1968 was a tremendously important year for Horror.

But in terms of sheer volume and enjoyability, it’s difficult to deny 1957 its place in the Horror Hall of Fame. Here’s just a partial listing of the titles that premiered that year: 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH; THE BLACK SCORPION; THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; THE DEADLY MANTIS; I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF; and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Are these great movies? No, not for the most part. But they’re fun movies; the kind of movies that kids my age grew up watching on the various Hosted Horror shows that were hallmarks of our youth.

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH? A Ray Harryhausen triumph of Special Effects Animation, it stands perhaps as his third best work, eclipsed only by THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN must certainly be considered one of the most significant films of the 1950’s, as the one that began Hammer Films climb to the top, as well as serving to introduce American audiences to Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the greatest Horror Icons of their generation.

Though not as popular or as well received as some other Giant Bug movies, such as THEM! or TARANTULA, THE DEADLY MANTIS is in my opinion the best of them all. It has all the elements that make the Sci-Fi horrors of the 1950’s so much fun… The monster, one of the best looking creature designs of the period; decent acting; strong heroes; good plot; the “American people bonding together in times of adversity” attitude; and the generous use of stock footage. All of these factors combine to make one of the most enjoyable movies of the ‘50’s.

And of course, I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF (along with it’s less well-known companion piece I WAS A TEEN-AGE FRANKENSTEIN…) was the movie that established American Independent Productions, the brainchild of producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson, as a major player in genre films of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and early ‘70’s. It also launched the career of Michael “Little Joe Cartwright” Landon.

All of these movies have two things in common… they are some of the most fondly remembered classics of that era, and they all premiered in 1957. Why was this year such a remarkable one for Genre films?

We were a prosperous, happy nation in 1957. We had just re-elected a popular President; we were at peace; the Baby Boom was well underway; more people than ever before owned their own homes, sent their kids to college, started their own businesses.

However, there was an undercurrent of dread all the same… fear of Atomic War, which seemed a constant presence in the American psyche of the time. The same people who had finally purchased a home of their own soon were improving on it, with a bomb shelter in the basement or backyard. Along with readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic, schoolchildren were also learning to “Duck and Cover…” at the first sign of a thermonuclear flash. And Iodine tablets, to prevent uptake of radioactive isotopes in the event of fallout, soon found their way into American medicine cabinets, right next to the aspirins and Bromo-Seltzer. This level of, well… not paranoia, for after all there was a real, distinct possibility of such an event… perhaps awareness might be the best way to describe it, had to be reflected in the popular culture and art of the time. Moreover, nowhere was it better represented than in the Horror & Sci-Fi films so popular at this time.

Perhaps this convergence of prosperity, contentment, and the overhanging sense of impending peril combined to create a perfect climate for these movies. Perhaps the public was just in the right mood for some simple scares. Or perhaps the pendulum of cinematic trends was just swinging back in the direction of Genre movies, after reaching a low point in the years immediately following the end of World War II.

But, as we wind down the celebration of the fiftieth anniversaries of these wonderful films, we can be grateful that, for whatever the reason, 1957 remains one of the greatest years in Horror.







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