Welcome to the Crypt!

Welcome to the Crypt!

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.

From the Desk of the Unimonster...

From the Desk of the Unimonster...

What's this? TWO updates to the Crypt in one month? That's right, fright-fans, the Unimonster is sending even more Halloween goodness your way! If only someone would perfect downloadable candy.....

Happy Halloween, and ... STAY SCARY!

Popular Posts

Followers

Essays from the Crypt

Essays from the Crypt
Buy the best of the Unimonster's Crypt

Search This Blog

29 September, 2007

A Unimonster in Paradise: 36 hours at Wonderfest 2007

Regular readers of CreatureScape need no introduction to Wonderfest, one of the biggest, and best, figure modeling conventions to be found. Held every year at the Executive West hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, it brings together the best and brightest kit dealers and sculptors, genre movie and television personalities, and the fans who drive both industries.

This was my first trip to Wonderfest, and to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m a veteran of multiple Star Trek conventions, and have attended one or two Horror conventions, but Wonderfest didn’t really fit either category. I was frankly concerned that there simply wouldn’t be enough to do to fill a weekend… at least, not for someone who isn’t a dedicated figure modeler. Those concerns faded as soon as I walked into the Dealer’s Room the first time.

The trip began, for me, at 2:00am Saturday May 26th, when my traveling companions, John Aranza of Horrorbles in Chicago, and fellow CreatureScape contributor Elizabeth Haney arrived to pick me up. The trip on to Louisville was uneventful, save for a stop for breakfast at the Shelbyville Waffle House that’s best left to the reader’s imagination.

We arrived at the Executive West around 5:00am, none the worse for that experience, checked in, unloaded the vehicle, and settled in for a quick nap prior to hitting the convention floor.

My first priority was meeting CreatureScape’s editor, Sean, face-to-face for the first time. Though I’ve written for him for more than two years now, this was my first opportunity to say hello and shake his hand, and I had no intention of letting it pass by. I found him hard at work at the Geometric Models table, setting up their terrific line of busts. Particularly impressive among the displayed busts was a beautifully sculpted Frankenstein’s Monster, clearly based on the Chaney GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN version. Meeting Sean in person was a highlight of the trip, as was viewing the wonderful pieces on display at the Geometrics table.

But those certainly weren’t the only highlights of this trip. Just walking into the Dealer’s Room was an experience; never had I seen the sheer number and variety of high-quality figure kits and build-ups. As I’ve mentioned before in the Crypt, my figure-modeling experience is essentially limited to the Aurora Monsters and Super-Heroes of my youth; my modeling preferences lie with Military subjects, especially early jet aircraft.

But that doesn’t mean I’m unable to appreciate a beautifully sculpted and finished Harryhausen Cyclops in the Burroughs Model Works display, or lust after the displays of Horror, Sci-Fi, and Super-Heroes models and memorabilia stacked up everywhere.

Nor were models all to be found in the Dealer’s Room. One of the first items to catch my eye was an old friend, a large poster of KING KONG. I have no idea if it was original; the seller certainly had it priced as such.

Also in the Dealer’s Room were the celebrity guests, luminaries of the Genre such as Lori Nelson, star of REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED; Robert Picardo and Denise Crosby, of Star Trek fame; and the Father of Horror-Hosting, Zacherley the Cool Ghoul. But undoubtedly the biggest star to grace Wonderfest was the one and only Bob Burns.

Second only to the Ackermonster himself in my pantheon of horror heroes, Bob Burns is the collector most of us wish we could be. Not only has he had a life-long love of the Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy genres, but he has been fortunate enough to spend most of that life in close association with the movie-making industry, affording him the opportunity to amass a truly unique collection. One of the main attractions of the weekend was a discussion hosted by Burns, on the topic of him and his wife’s friendship with the great AIP creature-creator Paul Blaisedell and his wife. This friendship sprang up out of a chance encounter, and for the next several years, the two couples were virtually inseparable. Burns’ narrative came complete with dozens of photos the couples’ took on their weekend get-togethers.

Saturday was also the day to explore the exhibits that had been set up in virtually every corner of the hotel’s ground floor. Without question the best exhibit, truly museum-quality was that set up by the Universal Monster Army Yahoo group (member in good standing Pvt. Unimonster, reporting…). Walking through the UMA room was like revisiting my own childhood, as I saw toys I had owned, toys I wished I had owned, and toys I would’ve sold my baby brother to own. The display included many of the Castle 8mm Monster film boxes, and was beautifully showcased.

Next door to the UMA room was a fascinating exhibit featuring treasures from Bob Burns’ collection, as well as others. This display featured both original props and reproductions from films as varied as Disney’s THE ROCKETEER (1991), to the American-International classics such as NOT OF THIS EARTH and THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED. Seeing the original masks used in IT: THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, or the alien mind-controlling “bats” from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD up close and in person adds a dimension to these films that is akin to visiting a historic site or viewing a famous work of art. It gives the viewer a sense of depth and realism that simply cannot be gained otherwise.

By this point, it was late on Saturday afternoon, and I had been awake since early Friday morning. Toss in some beers and a terrific cheese-steak sandwich in the hotel bar, and I was one tired Unimonster. There were several events that night that I had hoped to attend; alas, such was not to be. I wound up crashing before I could check out the Shock Theater, where they were showing 1950’s B-Movie classics, or attend the Midnight Mystery Show special event. Missing this was especially distressing, as it was a discussion, featuring Zacherley, on the early days of Horror-hosting and Universal’s “Shock Theater” movie package, which gave birth to the hundreds of “Creature-Feature” type shows nationwide.

Sunday morning came bright and early, and with it a full agenda to accomplish before we bid farewell to Louisville. Saturday had been a reconnaissance; Sunday was to be the all-out assault on Wonderfest, a take-no-prisoners storming of the Dealer’s Room to gather as much booty as possible before withdrawing homeward. John and Elizabeth set off to gather autographs and merchandise (now available for purchase at Horrorbles), and I set off to spend what I had set aside for the purpose of loot-gathering. Given my limited Resin and figure kit experience, I knew that I wasn’t going to get an expensive, detailed figure for my first resin model; I wanted something simple, but something that would look nice when finished. It didn’t take long to find exactly what I wanted—a replica prop Heavy Assault Phaser from STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. My inner Trekker could hardly be contained as I counted out the $30 the kit cost, and it was easily my favorite acquisition of the weekend… but far from the only one.

After I had spent what cash I had on hand, I attended the one event that I had had on my list from the start of the convention: A lecture on my favorite of the Creature from the Black Lagoon films, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, hosted by Lori Nelson, Bob Burns, and Tom Weaver. These are the same three who did the commentary for the Creature Legacy DVD, and the chance to hear them discuss the movie in person, in a question-and-answer format, was too good to pass up.

One other goal I had for Sunday was to get those few autographs that I wanted. Now, I’m not big on autographed items, and I’m completely indifferent to most celebrities. But there are a few of which I consider myself a fan, and there were three at Wonderfest I particularly wished to add to my collection: Lori Nelson; Zacherley; and, of course, Bob Burns.

In the end, I managed to get two out of three, lacking only that of Burns. But there’ll be other conventions, and other opportunities to get that autograph. And as we loaded up to leave, I was already making plans to return next year.

My trip to Wonderfest lasted approximately 36 hours, just enough to get the flavor and feel of the event, connect with friends and fellow Monster-fans, and recharge my batteries. There’s something about communing with those whose interests and passions mirror your own that reawakens those feelings in you, refreshing your love of subject.

That’s the effect it had on me. Months of stress, work, and life in general had me beaten down. While I hadn’t lost interest in the genre, my writing was beginning to suffer, and it was getting harder and harder to complete my CreatureScape pieces. I returned from Wonderfest recharged and reenergized, ready to get back to work and eager to return to writing. While going to a horror convention didn’t cure all my problems and the underlying causes for the stress are still there, there’s no denying that it helped.

And sometimes that’s good enough.

DVD Review: THEM!

Year of Release—Film: 1954

Year of Release—DVD: 2002

DVD Label: Warner Home Video

THE MOVIE

THEM! is the grand-daddy of Giant Bug movies, and is easily the best of this sub-genre of 1950’s Sci-Fi/Horror. Directed by Gordon Douglas and starring James Arness, James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, and Joan Weldon, this was Warner’s biggest money-maker for 1954, as well as an Oscar-nominee for Best Special Effects.

Though the Atomic-Mutated-Monster theme seems hackneyed today, in the early fifties it was all brand new, frightening, and exciting. After all, the world had entered the Atomic age only nine years prior to the movie’s release, and it really was on the leading edge of the Mutated Beast trend.

Not only is THEM one of the first, it’s by far the best. The acting is far above-par for films of this type, with excellent performances from Arness, Whitmore, and Gwenn. James Whitmore is especially impressive as the laconic, determined State Trooper Ben Peterson, out to avenge the death of his partner due to the ants. The story is strong and well-written, with a plot that makes sense and is remarkably uncontrived. The hunt for the ants progresses in a logical, sensible manner, free of the mass of red herrings common in films of this sort. While the dialogue is typical 1950’s Hollywood, (“Golly-Gosh-Darn, Peggy, that’s a giant ant!”… [no, that’s not an actual quote!—JS]) it’s no worse than usual, and not nearly as bad as some.

This movie has few weaknesses, though Joan Weldon’s acting ability certainly qualifies. She’s the typical Universal Starlet of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s… paid $250 a week to look good, say her lines, and scream on cue. Also, the resolution of the movie seems anticlimactic to me. While the battle in the sewers is exciting, I wanted more of it… maybe a battle through the streets of Los Angeles. What there was was good. It just wasn’t enough.



THE DISC

One thing you can say about Warner Home Video… they know how to put out a quality DVD. Whether for a newly released blockbuster, or a classic from their vaults, WHV always turns out a top-quality offering and the DVD for THEM! is no exception.

They started with an absolutely beautiful print of the film, and added subtitles, a full scene selection menu, and packaged it up nicely.

The only complaint I have on the disc, and this is common to Warner Home Video releases, is their use of their proprietary “Snap Case.” This case, constructed largely of cardboard, is cheaper than the “Keep Case” that is the standard for most manufacturers, offers nowhere near the protection for the disc, and is just a general annoyance to me. Still, that’s a very minor negative in a disc full of positives.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

For a fifty-year old movie, Warner really got it right on the Special Features for this baby. While there are not a large number of them, the quality of the offerings really shines. There’s a “Behind-the-Scenes” look at how the Ants were operated, a photo gallery of on-the-set and publicity stills, a cast biography section, as well as a text history of the “Big Bug” films of the ‘50’s through the ‘90’s.

While the history is interesting, the ant footage is great, and a thrill for fans of the movie, such as yours truly. All the special features are tremendously well-done, and my only complaint is that there isn’t more of them.



IN CONCLUSION

If asked to pick one film to define the decade of the ‘50’s, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better choice than THEM. It succeeds on virtually every level, and gave birth to an entire genre of Horror & Sci-Fi films.

I can’t imagine anyone who’s a fan of the 1950’s B-Movie Drive-In type of movie to not want this one in their collection. While the $20 list price is higher than what I consider “Impulse Buy” range, you can always find it cheaper. Besides, this one is too important to pass up, even at full price. You have to have this one… take my word for it!

Yours, Truly…: Jack the Ripper and the Horror Genre

Between August 31st and November 9th, 1888, five prostitutes were viciously murdered in the East End of London, in the Whitechapel district. The women, homeless, destitute, in all probability enduring a myriad of endemic illnesses, lived a hard, brutal existence, and like many of their number before and since, died just as brutally. So why do we remember them even now, almost 120 years after their deaths? What sets them apart from the dozens of homicide victims in London for the year 1888, including many others in the crime-ridden East End? Only one thing unites them in notoriety: The unknown identity of their killer, known to history only as “Jack the Ripper.”

Few other Serial Killers have ever gained both the instant fame and long-lasting legendary status that accrued to the Whitechapel murderer, and none are more firmly rooted in the collective subconscious. There have been Serial Killers that are more prolific; indeed, ‘Red Jack’ compiled relatively few kills, compared to the likes of the Green River Killer, with more than 50 victims; or Henry Lee Lucas, who prior to his death claimed to have murdered more than 650 people.

Nor was Jack, with the exception of the final murder, that of Mary Kelly on the morning of the 9th of November, exceedingly savage or violent in the carrying-out of his crimes. In fact, the autopsy reports from the first three murders indicate a cold, methodical precision to his work[1]; brutally efficient, for lack of a better term. That is not intended to imply that these murders weren’t horrifically vicious; but they lacked the same degree of frenzied savagery found in the last murder. Only Catherine Eddowes, the second victim on the night of the “Double Event”, suffered ravages that came close to the mutilations inflicted upon Kelly. But many Serial Killers have equaled or even surpassed Jack for sheer ferocity. Why has this killer become so ingrained in our culture that, even today, movies and books are being created that explore this one 10-week period, 119 years ago?

The first fictionalizations of the crimes began appearing almost before the blood was washed away. Within weeks of the murder of Eddowes in Mitre Square, a pamphlet was published describing a supposed curse on the location, caused by the ghost of a monk who had murdered his sister in exactly the same fashion as the Ripper had done in his victim. A London music hall was presenting an “entertainment…” based on the murder of Mary Kelly by February of 1889, four months after her death. By 1892, a bare four years after the murders, a novelization of the crimes had been published in Sweden, though the Russian censors (Sweden at that time being a Russian province…) quickly banned it.[2]

One of the first motion pictures to examine the legend of the Ripper was Alfred Hitchcock’s debut feature, 1926’s THE LODGER. While avoiding any direct connection to the Whitechapel murders still fresh in the minds of many Londoners, Hitchcock leaves little doubt that his “Avenger”, who prowls through the London fog seeking victims, is Jack the Ripper.

Remade in 1944, and again in 1953 as THE MAN IN THE ATTIC, all three are based on the Marie Belloc-Lowndes tale first published in the McClure’s Magazine of January, 1911.[3]

A contemporary of Jack’s would figure prominently in the fictionalization of the murders, with multiple encounters over the years. Sherlock Holmes, the master consulting detective, has done battle with the Ripper on numerous occasions, with varying results. He was even, in Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, shown to be the Ripper![4] It should be noted, however, that not once did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even mention the Ripper in a Holmes story; that was left for others to do.

The best of the Holmes-Ripper confrontations was the movie MURDER BY DECREE (1979). Directed by Bob Clark, and written by John Hopkins, (from the book The Ripper Files, by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd…) this film examined the long-popular theory of a royal connection to the killings. The theory usually revolves around a grandson of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. While not considered a likely suspect himself, proponents of this line of investigation suggest that someone, most often Sir William Gull, the Queen’s Physician, committed the murders to cover up some indiscretion of Clarence’s, most likely an illegitimate offspring.

Though that would hardly be a first in the history of the Monarchy, such a scandal touching upon the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, would be unthinkable to the strait-laced, puritanical Victoria.

Another Holmes vs. Ripper film that’s worth mentioning is 1965’s A STUDY IN TERROR, directed by James Hill. Beautifully designed and shot, a weak script and implausible solution hamper this effort for Ripper purists, though as a generic murder mystery it would work acceptably well.

The Clarence-Gull premise was revisited in 2001, in the stylish, well-executed Hughes Bros. film FROM HELL. Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the movie bore little relation to historical reality, but what it lacked in accuracy it more than made up for with an excellent script, inspired acting, (especially on the part of Johnny Depp…) and copious amounts of gore. Depp, as Inspector Frederick George Abberline, has more than a touch of Holmes about him. Not only is he able to construct a string of deductions based on little more than the remains of a cluster of grapes, he shares both the great detective’s melancholia, and his addictive nature.

The films mentioned above are generally faithful to the known facts of the case. Oh, they’re fictionalized to a greater or lesser degree, but the events are easily recognizable as the Whitechapel Murders of the autumn of 1888. However, not every filmmaker has adhered to this philosophy. One of the worst offenders was Jesus Franco. His 1976 film JACK THE RIPPER was perhaps the most factually inaccurate ever to claim to represent the Ripper killings.

Starring Klaus Kinski, this plays more like a conventional slasher film than a look at the events that took place in London’s East End, and as such would work pretty well. True students of the crimes will turn up their noses at it, rightly dismissing it as the worst sort of sensationalistic imaginings. The film even ends on an upbeat note… with the Ripper’s arrest! Nevertheless, for fans of Euro-Horror in general, it’s worth the effort to locate.

Then there are the films that completely leave reality behind. Two in particular stand out: 1979’s TIME AFTER TIME, and 1988’s JACK’S BACK.

TIME AFTER TIME, directed by Nicholas Meyer and starring Malcolm McDowell and David Warner, posits an interesting question: Supposing H. G. Wells, instead of merely writing the novel The Time Machine, actually built one? Then suppose that Jack somehow managed to gain control of it and escape to the modern day. This sets in motion one of the better Ripper films, as Wells pursues the Ripper into the future. The attention to detail helps this film to succeed, despite the somewhat fanciful premise. Personally, I would have been happier had the screenwriter selected another identity for the Ripper character, but no matter… it’s still one of my favorite Ripper films.

Then there is Rowdy Herrington’s take on the Ripper mythos, JACK’S BACK. A copycat begins killing prostitutes in Los Angeles on the one-hundredth anniversaries of the actual Ripper murders. James Spader plays a dual role; that of a young doctor who winds up an incidental victim, and his twin brother, who becomes his prime suspect. While it’s overly complex, and does tend to drag out in places, it’s still an enjoyable, and under-appreciated, movie.

But Jack’s activities haven’t been memorialized on film alone. Television has long mined the public’s interest in the Whitechapel Murders, from the Star Trek second season episode “Wolf in the Fold”, to episodes of The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Documentaries on the murders abound, appearing frequently on various cable channels. Some have been very good, accurate, informative looks into the Ripper mythos. Many have been little more than puerile sensationalism and wild speculation. But good or bad, there’s no shortage of the Ripper on the small screen.

In fact, it’s difficult to name a medium of popular culture that hasn’t been invaded by Jack. There have been stage plays, musicals, even operas based on the events in Whitechapel over one hundred years ago. Comics and graphic novels have been produced featuring Red Jack; indeed, the aforementioned FROM HELL was based on the successful graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Jack’s influence pervades modern pop culture, to the point where many serial killers are quickly tagged with the “Ripper” sobriquet.

Will we ever know the truth of the Whitechapel murders? No… too many years have passed, and the evidence, what there was of it, has long since been lost to time. And to be honest, it long ago ceased to matter… the responsible party is far beyond any earthly capacity for punishment. Whether the Ripper’s true identity was M. J. Druitt, Sir William Gull, or even a butcher named Kosminsky is unimportant. What is important is that, 119 years ago, five women died brutal, horrifying deaths… and the impact of those murders is still resonating through the Horror genre.


[1] THE ULTIMATE JACK THE RIPPER COMPANION: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Stewart P. Evans & Keith Skinner, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., New York, NY, 2000

[2] JACK THE RIPPER: The Complete Casebook, Donald Rumbelow, Contemporary Books, Chicago, IL, 1988

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

24 September, 2007

Halloween at Youth Crossroads

A friend sent this to me, and since it's a worthy cause, I thought I'd share it here.

"October is right around the corner, which many of us here might say is our favorite month of the year. The decorations, costumes and candy -- and marathon movie festivals featuring some of our old favorites monster movies -- this is the season that makes many horror fans nostalgic for our childhood again.

Here in the Chicago area, we have a youth organization that is cooking up a rather special Halloween celebration. I wanted to share some of the details of this event with folks in the wider horror community because I think it's heartening to learn of events taking place that help spread an appreciation for a genre that we all enjoy so much. It may be you will simply enjoy hearing about this event; perhaps you live locally and would be able to attend; or perhaps you are in a position to do something to support the organization-- whatever the case, I hope this story will warm your monster-loving hearts!

Youth Crossroads (
www.youthcrossroads.org) is a not-for-profit organization that provides services for children and teens, such as counseling, tutoring, mentoring, after-school activities, and such. Headquartered in Berwyn, Illinois (a near-west suburb of Chicago), Youth Crossroads serves that town as well as neighboring communities.

The group has planned a special "Monster Trilogy" event for this Halloween. They are creating a 'haunted' party space in a vacant store at the Harlem-Cermak Plaza in Berwyn that will be used to host three events-- an adult 'Monster Ball' on October 27, a 'Little Monster Bash' for smaller children on October 28, and then a teen 'Monster House Party' on October 30.

However, in addition to planning three very fun events, this program creates a wonderful way for adults and kids to work together. The kids are learning planning and leadership skills in a really fun environment. There are particulars about the program and their goals at:
http://www.youthcrossroads.org/HAUNTED.html

If you live in the Chicago area, please consider you or your family attending one or more of these events. Additionally, if you live in the Chicago area and have materials you would like to donate to the project, please contact me off list, or contact Youth Crossroads through the numbers listed on the web site. We are looking for props and decorations that will turn our haunted party place into a real Monster Mash!

Also, if you are so inclined, please know that this organization would appreciate financial donations to help fund this work. (A recent state budget cut included the elimination of funds they had hoped to use for this and other programs.)

As a horror fan, one thing I love to see is the love of the genre being passed on to the next generation. This event is really doing that; it's been exciting participating and fun to watch the progress unfold. I know it would warm the hearts of monster-loving folks here to see what they are accomplishing. If all goes well, they hope to make this an annual event!

Wish us luck! And a very Happy Halloween Season one and all!

-Elizabeth Haney"

22 September, 2007

DVD Review: DEAD SILENCE

THE MOVIE

There are few things I personally, with the possible exception of clowns, find as creepy as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Perhaps that’s why they have long been staples in Horror Films, from the 1945 British anthology DEAD OF NIGHT, to Richard Attenborough’s 1978 thriller MAGIC. DEAD SILENCE, the latest effort from the creative team responsible for the hugely successful SAW franchise, does much to insure that they will continue to be objects to inspire fear for some time to come.

Starring Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, and Ryan Kwanten, and featuring long-time Broadway veteran Judith Roberts as Mary Shaw, DEAD SILENCE is a tremendously well-conceived and executed good old-fashioned ghost story, wrapped up in a fictional urban legend about the aforementioned Shaw. Shaw, an accomplished ventriloquist, was viciously murdered after she was implicated in the disappearance of a young boy who had heckled one of her performances. More than sixty years later, her ghost is still seeking vengeance, with the aid of Billy, one of her dummies, as the children of Raven’s Fair sing a warning…

“Beware the stare of Mary Shaw,
She had no children, only dolls.
And if you see her in your dreams,
Be sure you never, ever scream.”

Most of this information is conveyed to the viewer in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The remainder of the film is spent in watching the efforts of Wahlberg, as a homicide detective named Lipton, and Kwanten, as Jamie Ashen, the man whose wife was the latest victim of the curse, and who Det. Lipton now suspects of her murder, as they slowly unravel the secrets of Mary’s death, and curse.

Directed by James Wan, who shot to prominence with 2004’s SAW, and produced by the same creative team responsible for that franchise, DEAD SILENCE is a throwback to the best Horror Films of the ‘40’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s. It brings to mind William Castle, and is very evocative of what he might have done, had the technology existed then.

The overall effect is entertaining, a great little reminder that Horror Films don’t necessarily require barrels of fake blood and gore to be good.


THE DISC

Universal usually does a quality job on its DVD releases, and this example is no exception. Both the audio and video is superb, the disc is captioned, and it’s well-designed and packaged.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

There’s one thing that I like about DVD’s as compared to videotapes… the special features. While I realize I might not be in the majority, I love them… bloopers and deleted scenes, interviews and commentaries, making-of featurettes and alternate versions. I just can’t get enough of them, and this release has a nice little selection for the viewer’s enjoyment.

My disc is the Unrated version, and includes both an alternate opening and alternate ending, deleted scenes, and several making-of featurettes, the most interesting of which is The Evolution of a Visual FX. This is a fascinating look at just how complex even a brief scene may be, and how much work goes into getting it just right.



IN CONCLUSION

I really enjoy being surprised by a movie that outperforms my expectations, and DEAD SILENCE did that in spades. It really comes across as a throwback to the classic Horror Films of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, and it thoroughly entertained me. My copy came from the 4 for $20 bin at Blockbuster (something I recommend everyone check out…) but even at the list price of $12.98 it’s worth it. With October right around the corner, I can’t think of many movies better-suited to viewing with the lights turned down low on a chilly autumn evening.

DVD Review: FRANKENSTEIN 75th Anniversary Edition

THE MOVIE

It is by no means hyperbole to describe James Whale’s 1931 classic FRANKENSTEIN as the most important Horror Film in the genre’s history. While the release of Tod Browning’s DRACULA nine months previously had created the American Horror Film, as well as established Universal Studios as the Horror studio, it was FRANKENSTEIN’s release in November 1931 that gave the genre what it needed for lasting permanence… a cinematic masterpiece.

Though I love the Browning DRACULA, and recognize its importance, it doesn’t compare to FRANKENSTEIN in terms of script and direction. Whale’s direction has a style, a fluidity, and a power that is missing from Browning’s wooden, stagey direction on DRACULA.

A comparison of the scenes that serve to introduce us to the respective monster in each film illustrates the difference in directorial style. In DRACULA, we first see Lugosi as the Count as he greets Renfield at the top of the stairway. The scene is static and uninvolving; it is left to the power of Lugosi’s performance and presence, and one line—“Listen to them… children of the night. What music they make!” to impress upon the viewer a sense of the impending evil about to descend upon poor Renfield.

Whale, conversely, was able to project the power and significance of the moment well before his creature even entered the scene. As Henry Frankenstein and Dr. Waldeman converse quietly about Frankenstein’s “failure” with the monster, you hear, softly at first, in the background, but growing louder, the shuffling footsteps of the monster. Where Browning treated sound almost as an afterthought on DRACULA, Whale wove sound into the fabric of the film, making it part of the experience. Then the door opens, and a huge, misshapen figure lumbers into the chamber, and his face is revealed in a series of increasingly close jump cuts. When originally shown, this was considered so frightening that theaters warned those with weak constitutions to avoid the film. While that was largely marketing hype, 1930’s style, there’s no denying the power and impact of the scene, even 75 years later. Nor can you deny the effectiveness and quality of the film as a whole.



THE DISC

There’s nothing to say about this two-disc set that I haven’t already said about its fraternal twin, the DRACULA 75th Anniversary Edition [see below...]. The artwork on the case is gorgeous; the print is beautiful; it’s truly a great set.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

While not as loaded as the DRACULA 75th Anniversary Edition, fans have plenty to choose from in this two-disc set. The best of those choices is the documentary KARLOFF: THE GENTLE MONSTER. This biographical look at Boris Karloff is far too short to do justice to its subject, but you do get a good sense of Karloff, the actor. I wish they had spent some time exploring William Pratt, the cultured son of British aristocrats, and how he became Horror’s most recognizable and revered icon.

Also included is the Monster Tracks feature that I discussed in the DRACULA review, as well as UNIVERSAL HORRORS, the Kenneth Branagh-narrated documentary that explores every facet of the Universal Monster Movies of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Other features from the FRANKENSTEIN Legacy set are included, guaranteeing you get your money’s worth on this set.



IN CONCLUSION

This is without question the ultimate DVD treatment of Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN thus far released, and is a superb example of just what can be done with a 75-year old film. This is almost universally recognized as the greatest Horror film ever produced, and you cannot consider yourself even a casual fan of the genre if you don’t have this film in your collection. While the $26.95 list price is expensive, at least by my standards, its well worth the price to own this movie, and you can find it cheaper. Deep Discount has it for less than $20, a significant savings.

Whatever the price where you find it, buy it. No one should miss seeing, or owning, this movie.

DVD Review: DRACULA 75th Anniversary Edition

THE MOVIE
On February 14th, 1931, the Golden Age of Horror began, with the premiere of Tod Browning’s DRACULA. Starring a 49-year old Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, this groundbreaking film was the first legitimate American Horror Film, the first to offer a truly supernatural explanation for the villain's existence. Prior to this point, every vampire, ghost, or creature had been revealed as a man in disguise, or a freak of nature. There were no such red herrings here; Dracula was exactly what he was supposed to be—an undead drinker of blood.

Based on the John L. Balderston / Hamilton Deane stage play, and directed rather stiffly by Tod Browning, DRACULA put the finishing touches on the blueprint for the success of the Horror genre that had first been sketched twelve years before by Robert Wiene’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Many architects had left their impressions on those designs, but Browning was the latest, and Universal was the contractor. In November, James Whale would make a few changes, all for the better, but for all intents and purposes, Universal became the original “House that Horror Built…” on that Valentine’s Day.

Also included is the Spanish-language version of DRACULA, filmed simultaneously with the Browning version, on the same sets, with the same props, only at night after Browning and the A-Team had finished for the day. The Spanish version was directed by George Melford, with far more grace and style than Browning commanded for his production.



THE DISC

This two-disc set is one of the prettiest jobs of packaging I’ve seen from any distributor in quite some time. Universal does know how to market to the fans, and this is a prime example of that. The Digipak case is standard for Universal’s special releases, and this one is simply beautiful, with tremendously powerful photographs of Lugosi on both the front and back.

There is one point I do want to address here regarding the quality of the prints used for both films in this set. There is a tendency among Universal fans to bemoan and deride the quality of the prints used in producing the various DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN DVD’s that have been released recently. This has manifested itself across the internet, in complaints ranging from the justifiable, such as the fact that there are some scenes in both films that appear far too dark and muddy; to the ridiculous, such as how many blows you can hear being struck on the stake as Dracula meets his off-screen demise. To these somewhat obsessive videophiles, I just want to say… please get a life! Seriously, we are talking about a seventy-five year old film. A film that was released when Herbert Hoover was President, and most of your parents not yet born. Are there flaws in the existing print of the film? Yes, there are. Could Universal do more to restore the original source material? Of course they could… but they won’t.

Universal is seldom charitable when it comes to the Monsters, and thorough restoration of the Classic Horrors would be a monumental act of charity on Universal’s part. Be happy that we have these movies in as good a state as they are; I grew up watching the Shock Theater package of Uni-Horrors on late night monster movies… it could be much worse.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

If you thought, as I did, that the Legacy sets were weighted down with bonuses, then wait’ll you get a load of this. This set comes fully loaded—two feature films; one feature-length documentary (UNIVERSAL HORRORS…); one 36-minute documentary on Lugosi (LUGOSI: THE DARK PRINCE…); another short documentary on the making of the film (THE ROAD TO DRACULA, which was also included on the DRACULA Legacy set…); two commentary tracks; subtitles; an interview with Lupita Tovar Kohner, Eva from the Spanish DRACULA; even a Pop-Up Video style feature called Monster Tracks.

Other than the movies themselves, my favorite feature of this set (also found on the FRANKENSTEIN 75th Anniversary Edition…) is the documentary UNIVERSAL HORRORS. Basically a video love-letter to our beloved monsters, it features interviews with people connected with, or influenced by, the classic horror of Universal Studios, people as diverse as Carla Laemmle, niece of Studio founder Carl Laemmle, to James Karen, who fondly recalls watching FRANKENSTEIN on the big screen as a child.

LUGOSI: THE DARK PRINCE is also excellent, though I do take issue with a couple of minor points in the documentary. One, I feel that the commentators are unduly harsh on both Ed Wood and his movies. Yes, it is fair to say that Wood was not a good director. But he did give Bela work when no one else would, and he was there for Bela when no one else was. No, he wasn’t a great filmmaker… but let’s be honest: Bela wasn’t a great actor.

He was a great Dracula, perhaps the greatest; but he was only a good actor, one who was capable of the occasional great performance. But those days were long gone by the time of his association with Wood, which brings me to my second bone of contention.

I don’t believe I’m spilling any secrets by stating that Bela Lugosi was a morphine addict. Knowing that helps one to understand some of the choices that he made, in both his career and his life. To ignore that, or to gloss it over, is a disservice to Bela. This documentary does that disservice in failing to explore both the valleys of its subject, as well as his peaks.

The third documentary on the disc is THE ROAD TO DRACULA, detailing the film’s development and history. As it was included on the Legacy set, I won’t spend much time discussing it here, other than to say that it’s definitely worth a watch. Likewise, the David J. Skal commentary track is reused, as is the material on the Spanish DRACULA, featuring Lupita Tovar Kohner. The second commentary track, by Steve Haberman, the screenwriter for DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, is decent, though it is a mystery why he was chosen to deliver what is essentially a repetitive and unnecessary commentary.

One comment on the aforementioned Monster Tracks feature… generally speaking, I love things like this, the little bits of trivia that give the viewer insight on the film. The Zomb-o-Meter feature on the excellent SHAUN OF THE DEAD disc is a prime example. Unfortunately, the Monster Tracks feature is poorly designed. The gray color of the captioning doesn’t contrast well enough with the monochromatic background of the film, and the captions, some fairly long, don’t stay on-screen long enough. They seem well written and informative, they’re just too hard to make out.



IN CONCLUSION

Those who purchased the DRACULA Legacy set two years ago might be wondering why they should throw another handful of cash at Universal, and I can understand that attitude. In fact, if you already own the Legacy, and aren’t someone who typically watches all the Special Features, or aren’t a hardcore DRACULA or Universal fan, I’d say pass on it… You already have the movies, which is what you’re after.

But if you, like me, look to absorb every fact and historical tidbit about Universal and it’s Horror Films, then this set was made for you. The $26.95 list price isn’t cheap, but it’s well worth it, and you can find it cheaper. But this isn’t a set you should pinch pennies on. You won’t regret it.

The Heyday of TV Horror

Network Television has always had something of a love-hate relationship with Horror and Science-Fiction programming. While some of the best episodic TV ever done has been in the genre realms, too often it has gone unappreciated by the very executives profiting from it. Relegated to undesirable time-slots, starved of financing, subjected to unfair editorial oversight, and then quickly axed when they failed to deliver up to expectations, those were, for many years, a few of the problems faced by genre series and their fans looking for a small-screen fix. Case in point: The original run of STAR TREK. Premiering on September 8th, 1966, NBC executives worked against the series from the beginning, shifting it’s time-slot several times, finally consigning it to a virtual death sentence of a slot—Friday nights at 10pm. Saved from cancellation following its second season by a now legendary letter-writing campaign launched by the show’s fans, it simply couldn’t generate sufficient ratings to prolong its life past the end of the third. The last first-run episode was broadcast June 3rd, 1969. In past years, that would have been the end of the story; in this case it was not, as we all well know.

Still, for all the dislike evinced by television executives for genre programming, it’s hard to deny the fact that it works, and, given the proper respect, works well. At no point in time was this more in evidence than in the late ‘60’s to mid 1970’s.

Though Science-Fiction, and to a lesser degree Horror, had been part of the Television blueprint since the earliest days, it really reached its peak starting in 1969 with the debut of Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY. Similar to Serling’s acclaimed TWILIGHT ZONE, though with more emphasis on pure Horror than its predecessor, NIGHT GALLERY was consistently one of the most effective genre programs ever, with well-written, literate, imaginative scripts; great production values; and some of the best actors working in television at the time. Each week viewers were treated to three or four short vignettes, each introduced by Serling through the device of a painting, which served as a visual metaphor for the segment’s title.

The series ran through May of 1973, and while it wasn’t the groundbreaking series that TWILIGHT ZONE had been, it pleased its fans, myself included.

However, NIGHT GALLERY was far from the only genre program to hit the small screen during the first half of the decade. One of the better ones lasted only a season, (1972-73…) and went through a title change in mid-course, but GHOST STORY / CIRCLE OF FEAR left a lasting impression on this young Monsterkid. Superbly written, if not always as well-executed, it was, for it’s time, the most frightening program on television. It was certainly my favorite, until the premiere in September, 1974 of the greatest Horror series ever, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER.

The brainchild of Jeff Rice, the pilot for the series was created by prolific producer-director Dan Curtis, adapted from Rice’s novel “The Kolchak Papers” by Richard Matheson, with John Llewellyn Moxey directing. It aired as an ABC-TV movie on January 11th, 1972, and became the highest rated television movie to that point, a position it held for some time. A sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, followed a year later, and the series eighteen months after that.

Though it lasted an even shorter period of time than GHOST STORY / CIRCLE OF FEAR, the long-term impact of this series can’t be discounted. It not only transformed Darren McGavin from an average, though skillful, character actor, into a pop culture icon. It also inspired similar series that followed it, most notably THE X-FILES.

But the greatest contribution that Television made to the Horror genre during the first half of the ‘70’s was the large number of high-quality well-written Made-for-TV Movies that were produced in those years. Between 1969 and 1975, over eighty Sci-Fi and Horror Films were produced by the Big Three networks, including such gems as Curtis’ DRACULA (1973), HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS ~aka~ DEADLY DESIRES (1972), TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), Spielberg’s DUEL (1971), and of course, the aforementioned THE NIGHT STALKER (1972). Many of these were broadcast on ABC, the network for horror when I was a child.

One of the better ones however, GARGOYLES, aired on November 21st, 1972 on CBS. This was one of my favorite movies as a child, with great-looking creatures, a very scary (well, to an eight-year old, at least…) plot, and an open ending that, a mere decade later, would’ve resulted in at least three sequels.

Another under-appreciated TV movie from this period is DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, an ABC Made-for-TV Movie first broadcast on October 10th, 1973. The plot was somewhat original, concerning a family who finds their ancestral home infested by small creatures who may be demons summoned by the wife’s late father. Starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton, this better-than-average TV horror was recently remade (albeit somewhat loosely…) as INHABITED (2003), an altogether inferior effort. Though the original is not an easy movie to track down, the effort is worth it.

Tonight, when we are relaxing in our comfortable recliners, with a bowl of popcorn and a cold drink, and reach to pick up the remotes that can instantly bring us hundreds of channels of entertainment and information, it might do us some measure of good to ask ourselves if we’re really better off. If you’re anywhere near my age, or older, then you can remember a time when just three networks fought it out for our attention, and they did battle with high-quality, original programming, a phrase that’s become something of an oxymoron in the age of Survivor and American Idol. We can remember a time when some of the best, most entertaining horror and science-fiction work being done was for the small-screen.

I for one think we’re lucky to have those memories, and can’t help feeling just a little sorry for those who don’t.

Back to the Grind: Why Tarantino and Rodriguez’s GRINDHOUSE Succeeded—and Failed

One of the most highly touted films to premiere in the last few years was Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s paean to 42nd St., GRINDHOUSE. This cleverly constructed film, designed from the outset to resemble the D-grade exploitation, horror, and sex films that would play out in a nearly unceasing rotation in seedy, low-rent theaters in larger cities, delivered precisely what its creators promised. And in so doing, it failed spectacularly at the box-office, earning just over $11 million in its opening weekend.

Why did this film, from two such talented filmmakers, working in a genre with which they have had such success, so completely fail to capture an audience, even among the young males upon which it would seem to be targeted? A demographic that has driven both directors to blockbuster status time and again? Was it the quality of the film, or the quality of the images that composed it?

First, the film definitely has flaws. It is long, nearly three hours, and it does tend to drag in parts, especially Tarantino’s segment DEATH PROOF. It is too self-referential, with little mentions scattered about the script referencing nearly every film with which Tarantino or Rodriguez were ever connected. Some of that is excusable, even enjoyable. But too much of it, as we have here, seems self-centered and egotistical.

Also, the directors efforts to replicate the look and feel of true Grindhouse films may have been just a little too successful. I remember watching those old films… quality wasn’t great, and scratches, skips, and splices were common; entire missing reels were not. I understand the filmmaker’s intent in leaving segments of the story unseen… I just wish the technique used had been a little more subtle—and that the unseen segments hadn’t included Rose McGowan’s lap dance for Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike character.

But problems aside, you have two excellent, low-budget movies here. I realize that sounds ridiculous considering the $67 million budget the film had, but the stories themselves could’ve been told at a far cheaper price than they were. Rodriguez’s movie, PLANET TERROR, is dependent on Special Effects for most of its narrative, but could’ve eliminated some of the splashier elements; and DEATH-PROOF was composed primarily of good, old-fashioned, practical car crashes. Perhaps the best features of the film, however, are the four trailers that play before the first half, and in the intermission between the two halves of the film. The faux trailers, directed by Rodriguez, Rob (HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES…) Zombie, Eli (HOSTEL…) Roth, and Edgar (SHAUN OF THE DEAD…) Wright, are easily the most entertaining trailers I’ve seen in some time… I just wish the movies they promote were available to watch! Overall, I would say the premise was a good one, and for those with fond memories of the grindhouse era, an enjoyable trip back in time.

The true trouble with the film, though, lies in the fact that few people have those warm memories, or indeed any memories, of grindhouse films. To have truly experienced grindhouse at its peak, you would have to be in your fifties now; only the fact that I came of age in a locale where a grindhouse-style theater survived well into the ‘80’s allowed me to experience it in some small way… and I’m forty-three.

Anyone younger than forty is unlikely to have more than a passing knowledge of the genre, and those in the target audience, young males in their late teens and early ‘20’s, would be more than likely completely unfamiliar with it. Where scratched-up, spliced-together film reels were once accepted as part of the price of seeing provocative, no-holds-barred movies, now even the cheapest, low & no-budget films are expected to have a pristine, digitally-enhanced look. While the psychedelic light show and music that heralded the coming attractions reel brought back instant memories to us “geezers”, it struck no such chord among a generation that has never even seen a Drive-In, much less a true grindhouse theater.

Grindhouse, as a genre, gave us many shocking, terrific, wonderfully decadent movies… movies such as Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Russ Meyer’s FASTER PUSSYCAT… KILL, KILL, and Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES ~aka~ ONE THOUSAND CRIES HAS THE NIGHT. But in making the film GRINDHOUSE, I think that Tarantino and Rodriguez forgot what killed the genre in the first place.

What led to the growth of grindhouse cinema was the fact that they would show movies that touched upon subject matter that the “legitimate” studios and distributors wouldn’t come near… sex, drugs, gore, violence. Once these themes were no longer taboo for mainstream filmmakers, there was no longer a need to travel downtown, to sit in a dank, smelly, seedy, run-down shell of a theater for your exploitation fix… you could get the same thing, minus the poor quality, at your suburban multiplex. Even today, grindhouse isn’t gone, it’s just become mainstream, with directors such as Zombie, Roth, Wright, and others carrying on the traditions began in squalid, 42nd St. holes-in-the-wall.

Where Tarantino and Rodriguez succeeded was in perfectly capturing the look and feel of a grindhouse double-feature from the ‘70’s; where they failed was in making it a box-office winner. Ironically, the reason for the failure was the same as for the success—they did too good a job of it.

15 September, 2007

DVD Review: SNAKES ON A PLANES

THE MOVIE

I’ve learned to be suspicious of Hollywood hype. The more I’m told how great a movie will be, the less likely it will be that it is. A perfect case in point: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. After months of being told that it was the greatest Horror movie since Edison first threaded film onto a projector, I finally saw it… and realized that I could’ve shot a better film with a drunken chimpanzee as my D. P. Thus I had no burning desire to see the aptly-named SNAKES ON A PLANE when it hit theaters last August. Logic told me that any film subjected to the overwhelming flood of hype that it had received just had to be a Grade-A crapfest; the cinematic equivalent of Paris Hilton. Having just watched the DVD, I now believe that might be too kind a description, and offer my apologies to Ms. Hilton for the comparison.

I will say this for the film: You definitely get Truth-in-Advertising with the title. You’re promised SNAKES ON A PLANE, and by damn that’s what you get. I’d rather have a comprehensible plot, decent acting, and competent directing… but they didn’t promise that. At first glance, the idea is appealing… an airliner, thousands of miles from land, infested with venomous reptiles. Given a good, or even plausible, script, it could’ve been a decent movie. Even with this hodge-podge of jump cuts and shock scenes, a good cast might have made something watchable out of it. Instead, we’re just supposed to believe that, on short notice, a crate full of poisonous snakes, smuggled into Hawaii from California, is loaded onto an airliner… along with an explosive device to release them at the proper time. You can’t board an airplane with nail clippers anymore, and the last time I flew I nearly had to answer the question “boxers or briefs?” for the entire airport to see, but they were able to sneak what amounts to a snake-bomb onboard a plane at the last minute. If you’re capable of doing all that, then why bother with the snakes?

With a decent cast and strong direction, even this ludicrous concept might have worked… God knows I’ve seen worse. But not even Samuel L. Jackson and Juliana Margulies can save this stinkfest, and with direction this sure and competent, David R. Ellis must have been the skipper of the Titanic in a past life. Jackson, who can be a great actor when called upon, demonstrates that he’s also capable of sleepwalking through a film; a remarkable feat, considering he delivers every line at a full-volume shout. Margulies, whose descent into obscurity continues unchecked since her departure from ER, does nothing to halt that slide here, and there are no standouts among the rest of the easily-forgotten cast.

The only positives I can find in this movie are technical in nature. The use of live snakes for most of the shots is especially pleasing. Snakes are extremely hard to model convincingly in CGI, (remember ANACONDA?) and the live snakes impart a much-needed dose of reality to the film. They also provide the lion’s share of the acting talent present in the film. Another high point is the accuracy of the 747 flight deck and passenger cabin sets. Airliners are seldom as large as they are made to appear in the movies, and rarely do films accurately capture the look and feel of the flight deck (or cockpit…) on aircraft. The production design team did an excellent job on this one, capturing just how claustrophobic and small even the massive fuselage of a Boeing 747-400 can be.



THE DISC

New Line Home Entertainment may be the current equivalent of American International Pictures, but they do put out a nice DVD. The audio and video quality is good, though there was some minor pixilation on my disc. There are multiple sound and subtitle options, which is nice. Overall, it equates to a very nice frame… for a landscape of a garbage dump.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

I’ve got to admit, this disc does come loaded with extras, some more entertaining than the movie itself. You have Deleted and Alternate scenes, though considering the scenes that made the cut I sure don’t want to see what didn’t. There are several Documentary featurettes, including SNAKES ON A BLOG, an examination of the internet phenomena that the film inspired. The best of these are a look at the snakes themselves, and how the handlers controlled the interaction between the human and animal actors.

Once again, though, you don’t buy a DVD for the extras, and no matter how good the special features are, they can’t make up for a movie as bad as this one.



IN CONCLUSION

Regular readers of CreatureScape know that I have nothing against bad movies… hell, I’ve turned my love of cheesy, crappy films into a writing career. All I ask, of any movie, is simply that it entertain me, and doesn’t insult my intelligence. SNAKES ON A PLANE fails both tests. I can’t even recommend this as a bargain rental. Remember people, I bought this DVD so that you won’t have to!

DVD Review: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) Millennium Edition

THE MOVIE

What more needs to be said about this, arguably the most important Horror Film of the past fifty years? NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD marked the turning point, the dividing line between what had been and what was to be. The border between the Universal Monsters, Big Bugs, and Hammer Horrors of earlier, more innocent times, and the blood-drenched Grindhouse Gore-fests and Slasher films of the decade to follow was laid out by George Romero, a 28-year old industrial director working out of Pittsburgh, making his first feature film. He exceeded his wildest expectations, creating not only a movie that has terrified generations of horror fans, but a franchise that has lasted nearly forty years as well as inspiring scores of film-makers around the world.



THE DISC

Elite Entertainment’s Millennium Edition disc of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is easily the best presentation of the film that I have ever seen. Like most of us, I have multiple copies of this movie… VHS, dollar-store DVD, taped off cable dubs… all from 16mm prints of the film. Recently, a surviving 35mm print was found, and was the source for this transfer. In a word, it’s superb.

While it might be an exaggeration to say that it was like watching it for the first time, I can’t deny that it’s easily the best transfer I’ve ever seen of NOTLD. The sharpness and clarity of the Black & White photography comes through better than ever, allowing small details to stand out and the picture as a whole to have even greater impact.

The only flaw I found was that a few of the disc’s special features were inaccessible in one of my DVD players. Either the disc would stop completely, or go to a feature different from the one I had selected. This appears to be either a problem isolated to my DVD, or my player; however, it certainly doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the film itself.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

When fans of ‘50’s and ‘60’s B-Horror look for a film that’s nearly forty years old, we consider ourselves lucky if the DVD release contains a single commentary track, and the range of features that we’ve grown accustomed to with new releases is usually an unfulfilled wish.

Not so with this edition. Seldom have I seen brand-new Hollywood blockbusters receive such a spectacular treatment as this—multiple commentary tracks, one with Romero, and the other featuring the surviving cast; interviews with Duane Jones and Judy Ridley; a parody of the movie, NIGHT OF THE LIVING BREAD; and assorted clips from Romero’s early work, as well as stills from the production and other goodies. I can’t imagine much more that they could’ve packed into this disc, and the only thing I could wish for is a deleted scenes section; though it’s entirely possible that there is no such surviving footage.

But that one omission won’t hurt your enjoyment of this DVD, and it certainly doesn’t detract from the wealth of features that are included.



IN CONCLUSION

Most of our readership probably owns at least one dollar store copy of this film already… after all, it’s long been in the Public Domain, and you might be asking if you really need yet another copy of this in your DVD inventory. Take my word for it—YES. If you have any measure of regard for this film, you need this disc in your library. From the beautifully restored transfer, to the wealth of special features, to the extremely reasonable cost of the disc, (listing for $24.95…) there’s every reason to add this one to your collection, and none that I can see not to do so.

A Star for Mr. Pierce

One of the reasons that the great Universal classic Monsters are the great Universal classic Monsters is their iconic, trademarked, licensed-to-the-hilt look. From Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster, to Chaney’s Wolf-Man, the monsters had one common denominator, one extraordinarily-gifted individual responsible for bringing those creatures from sketch-pad to silver screen: Jack Pierce.

Born Janus Piccoulas in 1889, Pierce emigrated from his native Greece as a young boy. As a teen-ager, he dreamed of playing baseball, and had some success at the semi-pro level, but his small size prevented him from achieving his goal. Drifting to California, he found work in the fledgling film industry, first as an actor and stagehand, then moving into the make-up department at Universal. One of his first big projects was 1931’s DRACULA; though Lugosi did his own make-up, there’s no doubt that Pierce, as head of the department, would’ve had a say in the finished product. However, it would be Universal’s next big Horror feature that established Pierce’s reputation as a creative genius. That feature was James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN.

The studio’s original concept for the film version of Mary Shelley’s celebrated novel was to be directed by Robert Florey, starring Lugosi as the Monster. A test make-up was done for this version; however, no footage or stills have survived. Descriptions by those involved would seem to indicate a marked resemblance to Paul Weneger’s 1920 classic DER GOLEM, with a heavy, sculptured, clay-like appearance. Whale had Pierce start from scratch, and he and Boris Karloff, who had replaced Lugosi when the latter had refused the role, worked for hours each night for three weeks perfecting the design. Simply put, they succeeded, and Karloff’s Monster became perhaps the most recognizable film icon ever.

For the next sixteen years, Pierce was responsible for the monsters that we still know and love today. Im-ho-tep / Ardeth Bey, The Werewolf of London, Bateman, Ygor, Kharis, The Wolf-Man… all these and more were given life by his hand, working with little more than foam rubber, yak hair, and spirit gum. After World War II ended, Universal merged with International Pictures, and a new philosophy was in place. Long gone were the days when Carl Laemmle ran the studio as if it were just a large family shop. He had given Pierce the job of heading the make-up department with nothing more than a handshake to seal the deal, and, in early 1947 Universal-International took the job back with even less ceremony. Though Pierce remained active in film, he never recovered from this stunning betrayal, and died in obscurity in 1968.

Though few knew his name at the time of his death, Horror fans today recognize the man’s incredible talent, and the debt that Hollywood in general, and Universal Studios in particular, owe this diminutive master of make-up. One fan in particular has worked for several years to see that debt paid.

Scott Essman is perhaps the foremost expert on Jack Pierce, and has been the driving force behind an effort to get Universal to recognize it’s obligation to Pierce with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Though he’s brought them nearly to the point of following through before, always something has arisen that was a “higher priority” for the Publicity department, and the money earmarked for Pierce’s star was shifted to other purposes. Though the amount required isn’t small, (somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 or so…) neither is it a sum that should prove daunting to a studio still making a healthy profit from Pierce’s genius. But let’s assume for a moment that they are simply unable to carve a sum that’s probably less than the studio’s monthly janitorial budget from the studio coffers. I have a solution that can fund the Pierce star, and put some profit into Universal’s pockets.

Universal is well aware that the legions of Monster-fans will snap up anything that hints of the classic Monsters… hell, we’ve been doing it for years. I propose they issue a special collector’s set—The Jack Pierce Tribute Collection. Three or four movies, such as FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE WOLF-MAN… that best illustrate Pierce’s talents. Throw in some extras such as: commentary tracks; behind the scenes footage; and a decent Pierce biography. Package it nicely, and it would sell very well. Then they could take just a fraction of the proceeds, purchase the star, and still make a healthy profit.

Come on, Universal… what do you say? I’ll commit to buying my copy right now, and I know a horde of dedicated Monster-fans that would do the same. After all, we’re not asking you to do this out of the goodness of your heart. We’re willing to pay your debt to Mr. Pierce for you. All you have to do is take the money… and admit the obvious.

Without the artistry of Jack Pierce, Universal, as we know it, would not, in all probability, exist today. It’s time to say thank you to Jack. It’s time he had a star.
(For more information, please go to www.jackpierce.com, Scott Essman’s website.)

DVD Review: THE MONSTER SQUAD 20th Anniversary Edition

THE MOVIE

Some movies take time to find their audience. They start out slowly, then build as word of mouth spreads. Fred Dekker’s THE MONSTER SQUAD, released in 1987, took nearly two decades to find its audience, but now that it has, it’s easily one of the most popular cult films ever.

Derided by critics and largely ignored by moviegoers in 1987, it began to find a cult following in video stores and repeat cable showings throughout the ‘90’s. Generations of MonsterKids found it easy to connect to the characters in the film, having spent their own childhoods fantasizing about doing battle with the great monsters of the movies.

The story is simple and endearing. A group of young monster-movie fans comes into possession of the diary of Abraham Van Helsing, and discovers that their small town has been invaded by the great monsters, the monsters they’ve spent their lives watching… Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf-Man, the Mummy, and the Creature. With help from “Scary German Guy”, they translate the diary, and find that the monsters are there to bring about the end of the world… unless a group of pre-teen monster hunters can stop them in time.

Dekker’s direction is sharp and clear, perfectly balancing the comedic and dramatic elements of the script, especially the scenes involving the interaction of the monsters and the children. While most of the monsters are played mostly for laughs, he and actor Duncan Regehr wisely kept humor out of Dracula’s character. And Tom Noonan’s portrayal of the Monster is easily one of the most sympathetic ever, approaching even the pathos with which Karloff imbued the character.

The rest of the cast performs well, meshing together perfectly, bringing out the best of the ensemble. Particularly good are Ashley Bank, who plays Phoebe, the five-year old who forms a bond with Frankenstein’s Monster, and Stephen Macht, as the stressed-out cop who’s father to Phoebe and Sean, the leader of the Monster Squad. The creature designs are superb, evoking the Universal monsters without infringing upon them… always important when dealing with Universal. Designed by FX legend Stan Winston and Tom Woodruff, they tread a fine line between classic and camp, and do a spectacular job of it. The Creature is especially well-done, as is the Wolf-Man.

Overall, this is one of the best family-friendly horror films ever made, and it’s nice to see it receive the attention it deserves.


THE DISC

Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has developed a very good reputation for their DVD releases, and the 20th Anniversary Edition of THE MONSTER SQUAD is certainly no exception. This movie has been in my collection in one form or another for many years; never has it looked so good. Details lost on tired old VHS tapes and 3rd generation DVD-R’s explode into clarity on this fully remastered disc, and the anamorphic widescreen presentation is simply beautiful.
Likewise, the audio quality, a problem on my VHS copy, is crystal clear, at least on the English-language track. There is also a Spanish-language track, as well as subtitles.
In short, this is a beautiful set, one that was a long time coming.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

For a twenty-year-old film that was essentially a Box-Office flop, this set is loaded with special features.

The first, and the best, of these is the feature-length documentary MONSTER SQUAD FOREVER! Featuring interviews with most of the cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage, it provides a wealth of information about the making of this film and its growth as a cult phenomenon.

Also interesting is an interview, taped in 1986 during the filming of the movie, with Noonan in character as Frankenstein’s Monster. Quirky and unusual, it’s a refreshing take on the celebrity interview.

There are deleted scenes; not many, but a text page describes each, and explains that very little of the cut material survived. What does exists, all of it, is contained on the disc.

When you label a DVD as a “20th Anniversary Edition”, you’re fairly compelled to provide more content than just the movie itself. Lion’s Gate has done that… in Spades.



IN CONCLUSION

If you’re of a certain age, and a fan of the Monsters, then chances are good that you spent your childhood much as Sean, Patrick, Fat Kid, Eugene, and Phoebe spend theirs… at least, at the start of the movie. For this Unimonster, watching this movie never fails to unleash a flood of nostalgia that carries me back to 1974, when my Monster Club was in full swing. If it touches a similar chord with you, then this is one DVD you must have in your collection.

The list price of $19.95 is cheap enough for a definite Buy recommendation from me, but mine came from BestBuy, and was priced at a bargain rate of $14.99. No matter, as I would’ve gladly paid the list price. A cheap ticket for a trip back to my own childhood.


No Celebration for Im-Ho-Tep

As many of you are aware, 2007 marks the 75th anniversary of the release of one of the great classics of Horror, Karl Freund’s THE MUMMY. Starring Boris Karloff in his second iconic role for Universal Studios, THE MUMMY continued Universal’s climb to the top of the Horror list in the early ‘30’s, further cementing the studio’s claim to be the first “house that horror built.”

Essentially a redressed version of DRACULA, Karloff stars as Im-Ho-Tep, an Egyptian Prince condemned to a living death for his forbidden love for a priestess of Isis, and his sacrilege in attempting to restore her to life after death. Four thousand years afterward, an archaeologist translating the Scroll of Thoth reanimates the mummy of Im-Ho-Tep.

In one of the most effective scenes in horror, Freund’s camera remains focused on a close-up of the Mummy’s face as the voice of Bramwell Fletcher, as Ralph Norton, drones on in the background, reciting the words that will breathe life back into the Mummy’s corpse. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the eyes of the corpse open. The scene cuts to Fletcher reading his notes. A withered, dried hand reaches out to take the scroll off the table. Fletcher, seeing this, looks up into the off-screen face of the reanimated monster, and screams. The scream degrades into a low, maniacal laugh, as the shot shifts to the floor of the tomb, and a long strip of wrapping being dragged out of frame.

That sequence is one of the best-constructed scares in Horror cinema, and it is all the more memorable for the fact that you never see a full shot of the Mummy moving. The viewer gets glimpses… a hand reaching out, a moldy strip of cloth… and this conveys the sheer horror that reduces Ralph Norton to a gibbering imbecile. It was scenes such as this, as well as an impeccable performance from Karloff, that made Universal’s first trip to Ancient Egypt so enjoyable, and such an enduring classic.

So now we approach the 75th anniversary of the film’s release on December 22nd, 1932, and many Mummy-fans are waiting for the kind of fanfare that accompanied last year’s celebrations for DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. And thus far, the silence that has emanated from Universal has spoken volumes, telling the faithful that their waiting is most likely in vain.

There are those who would say that, with the Mummy Legacy collection less than three years old, there’s little need for another DVD release of this movie, and they would have a valid point. Much like the 75th Anniversary Editions of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, a 75th Anniversary Edition of THE MUMMY would be appreciated but unnecessary; a nice nod to the dedicated fans, but not something likely to attract the uninitiated. The devotees of the Universal Horrors, while not surprised at this lack of respect, doubtless feel slighted by it. I myself share that feeling. But might Universal’s decision be, in part, the fault of those self-same fans?

As with the Legacy collections, when the Anniversary Editions were announced last year, instead of shouts of approval and appreciation, Universal was greeted with demands for remastered prints and higher-quality audio. No one denies that the existing prints of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN are far from pristine; especially DRACULA. Those movies are, after all, three-quarters of a century old. They date from an era when studios regularly held bonfires to clear their vaults of old films, and film stock, regarded as a temporary commodity rather than an archival medium, was allowed to decay into dust within a few years. I understand the desire to see better prints; I too would love to see these films as they looked 75 years ago. However, I’m more thankful that we have any print to see at all… or should I mention LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT?

Released in 1927, a mere four years prior to DRACULA, and also directed by Tod Browning, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is one of hundreds of films that are now “Lost”… movies that no longer exist. LAM is simply the most well-known of that list. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize the same fate could’ve been shared by DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, or THE MUMMY. I can’t envision what the genre would be without those founding documents to inspire us, but it would certainly be much poorer.

Even if the proper source materials exist for a thorough Archival restoration, preservation and conservation effort for these movies, such efforts are not cheap. To thoroughly restore DRACULA to its original glory would cost hundreds of thousands, an investment that would generate little in the way of return. Should it be done? Yes, of course it should be. But I don’t think Universal sees it as a major priority.

Don’t misunderstand me… I’m not absolving Universal for their failures to respect either the Monsters or their fans. Far too often they’ve turned a deaf ear to our pleas for better treatment for our beloved monsters, whether it be better availability of the films, better looking prints, or more widespread merchandising. They’re all too eager to trot the Monsters out when they need a quick buck, but otherwise there’s little love lost on them on the part of Universal executives. They are virtually forgotten at the Universal Studios theme parks, and the only Universal employees who are devoted to them is the cadre of lawyers who hunt down Licensing violations with all the enthusiasm of a shark pursuing a hemorrhagic seal.

Still, it’s not as though we fans are blameless in this love-hate relationship with the studio. When VAN HELSING was released in 2004, fans of classic horror derided it in no uncertain terms, unhappy with Stephen Sommers’ direction, the look of the characters, the unconvincing CGI… you name it, the true fans found fault with it. And though we snapped up the Universal Legacy collection sets that were released in support of VAN HELSING, there was no shortage of grumbling. “The bitrate’s too low…, my laserdiscs look better…, the audio’s no good.” Instead of happiness at what fantastic collections these sets were, too many hardcore fans did nothing but bitch about what they weren’t. Universal heard this, and replied by releasing even more treasures from their vault, all to the same lukewarm response.

Well, my response was not lukewarm. I loved VAN HELSING, for all it’s problems. Anyone who expected a real Horror Film from Sommers was deluding themselves… I knew we would get pretty much what was delivered, and I was happy with that. I loved the Legacies… all of them. Frankly, I could not care less about bitrates and compression; nor do I have thirty-year old Laserdiscs lying around with which to compare them. And the recent flood of goodies from the studio’s vault has me nearly dancing in the streets… well, as close as this Unimonster’s going to get, at any rate.

So Universal, what do you say? For all the grateful fans out there who don’t complain about how many hammer blows are audible at the end of DRACULA, or how grainy MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE looks, how about just a little more love? How about one more gift for the faithful?

Let’s have a party for Im-Ho-Tep.

09 September, 2007

DVD Review: BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)

THE MOVIE

Bob Clark, the director who was recently killed by a drunk driver, will forever be known for what must be the best Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, 1983’s A CHRISTMAS STORY. The tale of young Ralphie Parker and his quest for an official Red Ryder, 200-shot, Range Model Air Rifle, (with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time…) the film is one of the most humorous and heart-warming I’ve ever seen, capturing perfectly experiences that are common to most children, regardless of era. Clark also helmed another of my favorite comedies, released in 1980—PORKY’S. This raunchy, risqué teen sex-comedy is one that I never seem to tire of watching.

However, before he became known for his comedies, Bob Clark was one of the new breed of independent Horror directors, a contemporary of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Curtis Harrington, and Larry Cohen, that burst on the scene in the early ‘70’s following the success of George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Without the constraints of a major studio production, these filmmakers were able to push the envelope in ways heretofore unexplored. Most of their efforts were, quite frankly, less than successful; Clark’s own first feature, 1972’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, was a thoroughly unmemorable, though mildly entertaining, rip-off of Romero’s NOTLD. His next film however, DEATHDREAM, was much improved; and in 1974 he laid the foundation for the Slasher genre with BLACK CHRISTMAS.

Set in a sorority house over the Christmas break, as a lunatic hiding in the attic hunts those young ladies who didn’t go home for the holidays, this film laid down several of the conventions that would be developed further four years later with the masterpiece of the Slasher film, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Now, Glen Morgan has remade what is arguably Clark’s best Horror Film, with both Clark’s blessing and his imprimatur as Executive Producer.

This new version is faithful to the original, without being a shot-by-shot restaging of it. It also answers many of the questions that were purposefully left unanswered in the 1974 version. This has a mixed result; part of what the fans remember about the original film is the vagueness of the ending, and I think that leaving some secrets buried would have been a better choice. But today’s horror fans seem to prefer their loose ends neatly tied together, and gathering the threads probably produced a more ‘commercial’ film.

The story of the killer, Billy, is told in a series of flashbacks to his childhood in the home that later became the Sorority House. His abusive mother kills his loving father, setting the pattern for the young boy’s psychopathia. As an adult, he eventually kills both her and her second husband, and is busy devouring her when the police arrive. Committed to a mental institution, he escapes, heading back home… to what is now the Delta Kappa Alpha house.

The cast is good, though not spectacular, and the young women of the sorority are certainly beautiful. Though most of the faces are familiar to viewers, there are no household names present, not that the material really requires much star power. Morgan’s direction is competent; nothing inspired, but smooth and capable.

While remakes are difficult to pull off successfully, Morgan and co. do a very good job here. Perhaps it has more to do with the lack of familiarity most fans have with the original, never a big commercial success, than with the changes inherent in this version. Still, for whatever the reason, BLACK CHRISTMAS works, and works very well.



THE DISC

My disc is the special BlockBuster Video© Unrated Edition. How this differentiates it from any other Unrated Edition escapes me, but no matter. Dimension usually does a good job packaging their films, and this example is no different. The audio and video quality was good, and the disc had a full selection of sound and subtitle options.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

This disc has several excellent features that should please viewers. There is a very good behind-the-scenes documentary that includes comments from Bob Clark. I would imagine these were among his last comments on his early horror films, as his death came not long after the DVD’s release. Concerning his early films, he remarks that, in order to break into the business, you had to either “…make pornos, or make horrors. And I didn’t want to make pornos.” The documentary stands as a far more interesting look at this talented director than as a look at the making of BLACK CHRISTMAS.

Perhaps the best of the special features are the three Alternate endings; at least one of which would have been an improvement over the ending of the U.S. released version. (The International release had one of these alternate conclusions…) These are presented in sufficient depth and detail to allow a true comparison to be made, and each viewer to make their own choice.



IN CONCLUSION

In my “2006 in Review” column over in the Crypt, I discussed this film in conjunction with my look at the Remake of the Year, and stated that I had heard good things about this film but would reserve judgment until I had seen it myself. Well, I’ve finally seen it, and must admit that I was very pleased. It’s rare that I see a remake that I enjoy, and one that exceeds and expands upon the original is rarer still. This one does just that, and does it with some flair and a dash of originality. Not much, but enough to make a difference.

I got my copy from the four for $20 bargain bin at BlockBuster Video, (a definite recommendation, I might add…) but even at the list price it’s worth consideration. I say give it a try… and have a scary Christmas.


A Monsterkid's Halloween Memories

When you grow up with the Universal Monsters as your best friends, and with a kindly old role model named Forry, it isn’t a surprise to anyone that Halloween is your favorite holiday. It always has been mine.

Halloween was always a major production for my brother, my cousin, and I. As the eldest of the trio, I was the de facto leader, though there may be, to this day, some argument on that point. Planning would usually begin with the return to school in early September, and would carry on with all the dedication and seriousness that attended the Normandy invasion. Routes would be discussed, which houses were generous with the loot and which were not would be determined, and, most importantly, costuming decisions would be made.

Every year I would pour over the Captain Company ads in the back of FM, drooling over the masks of Frankenstein, the Creature, and especially the Mummy. I wanted one of those masks so badly, but even a ten-year old has enough grasp of family finances to realize when certain things are simply out of the realm of possibility. The twenty to thirty dollars that those masks sold for… in 1974 dollars!!… represented a solid six months worth of my dollar a week allowance. No comic books for six months? No FM, or Creepy, or Eerie? No penny candy, or bottles of Coke, or 10¢ bags of Wise Onion & Garlic Potato Chips for 6 entire months? Could I do it? Could I save up 6 months worth of allowances?

Alas, no I couldn’t. My willpower then was no stronger than it is now, and money in my pocket, even then, seemed to have a will of it’s own. This always left me with the dilemma of what to be for Halloween. Though Mom would usually give us a few dollars for a costume, the thought that a Monster-loving, FM-reading, Halloween professional such as I would resort to wearing something that had to have the name of the monster emblazoned across the front to be recognizable was simply anathema. I had to make my own.

Now, though my monster dreams were big, my talents as a make-up artist, sadly, were not. I had read of kids who were able, with nothing more than the aid of a well-stocked kitchen, to transform themselves into creatures worthy of, if not Jack Pierce’s talent, then at least Ed Wood’s. I was not one of them. Oh, our kitchen was stocked as well as the next, but I lacked the vision to see rotted flesh and decaying skin in strawberry jam and wilted lettuce. So my first, indeed my only option, was something easy and cheap. Very cheap.

And nothing was easier, cheaper, and yet still scary, as a Vampire.

So the first purchase would be fangs… the cheap plastic kind molded in one piece. Uncomfortable, and they made talking difficult, but an absolute necessity. Then, tubes of fake blood—at least two. (My vampires were sloppy eaters…) Little more than a simple syrup with red food dye, I can still call to mind the faint medicinal taste it had… not unpleasant, really, just enough so that the truly stupid kids wouldn’t eat it.

The clothing was a little more problematic. I certainly didn’t have white tie and tails in my closet, not even a suit… at least, not one that my mother would’ve let me use. But I did have a dark long-sleeved shirt or two, and that was sufficient for the purpose. For a cape, I was lucky… my mother had a heavy, dark, hooded wool cape, one that didn’t look like I had gotten it from my mother. Sure, it was green instead of black, but I wasn’t going to quibble about my mother’s lack of foresight when it came to choosing the color. She had with that single purchase unknowingly, years before, helped guarantee the success of her son’s Halloween endeavors. And so, equally unknowingly, did my dad make his own contribution to that success.

Dad was a very handsome man, the spitting image of Clark Gable. And while no one would’ve described him as fashionable, he was always well groomed, and for men his age, that meant he wore his jet-black hair slicked back with hair crème. Top Brass was Dad’s brand of choice, and that provided the final piece in my vampire’s appearance, as I slicked back my hair, doing my best to emulate Bela’s sharp widow’s peak. Donning my cape, and grabbing the largest pillowcase I could find, we set out as soon as it was dark, determined not to return until we had conquered the neighborhood and pillaged it of its candy treasure.

The three of us were dedicated connoisseurs of candy, and Halloween was our Super Bowl. We knew which houses had the good stuff… the Reese’s Cups, the Hershey’s miniatures, the Mary Janes. We knew which houses dealt out the crap… bubble gum, pixie stix, and the worst treat you could get, raisins. Now, raisins are fine, healthy snacks, and, in the proper context, I can enjoy them as much as the next man. Halloween is not that context, unless said raisins are covered in chocolate. But surely enough, there were always a couple of tree-hugging, grape-nut chomping, ex-hippie Euell Gibbons wannabes on the block who insisted on passing out raisins for Halloween. I wonder if they ever figured out why they got toilet-papered every year.

When we were as loaded down as we were going to get, we’d head on home. Usually, one of the independent stations would be running monster movies, so we’d sit in front of the television, sorting out our candy, trading off for particular favorites. One of my personal loves was a certain brand of candy cigarettes that came in boxes stamped with a crude drawing of one of the Universal Monsters.

Too crude even to attract the attention of Universal’s cadre of lawyers, few things said “Halloween” as clearly to me as those slim little cardboard boxes. The candy was crap, with a chalky, minty taste… something like Tums. But I didn’t care. I wanted those boxes. Chick-o-Stix and Mr. Goodbar’s were for eating; those were for the art.

There were many reasons Halloween was so special to me, but I think that the main one is that, in 1974, it was still our holiday, still the province of the kids. The adult involvement usually ended with the purchase of the candy… we were on our own for the rest, and I loved it that way. We did our costumes, we made our plans, and in those innocent days, we went Trick-or-Treating—on our own. No adults telling us what to do… absolute freedom… or as close to it as we were going to get.
I loved Christmas then, and still do. I always looked forward to my birthday, and enjoyed Thanksgiving and Easter. But Halloween was special… Halloween was mine.