Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Snow and Trees 2017

Random snow photo from last year. I just liked the mess of white snow and sky and black branches.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Monster Sketch #2 - That's "Mr. Stein" to you.

Post migraine Monday means I'm generally unlikely to pick up a pencil Trying to keep to a schedule, however, so here's a modern(ish) monster. Sure, you can call him Frank. He kinda looks the way I feel - and I'm guessing any rampages are a result of migraines.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Fear Flashback Friday: The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue

The return of Fear Flashback Friday! I'm hoping to do reviews on most Fridays and they'll tend to be of the horror variety. Not all, though - and we'll have Film Flashback Fridays and New Film Fridays as well. Didn't quite have the time I'd hoped for this first week, but I've 'dug up' a neglected classic for 2018's inaugral film. So without further ado:

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
This is one of those movies I always wanted to see when I was younger (I’d first heard of it under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie), but just never found at any of the video stores I frequented. Somehow I forgot about it completely until I read Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead. He positions the film as the transitional successor to Night of the Living Dead, sitting somewhere between that film’s anti-establishment nihilism and the later Dawn of the Dead’s explicit, gory violence. Well, that was enough for me to want to track it down! Luckily it was at that time available on Netflix (DVD) and it has become one of my favorite zombie movies.

The Medium
I was lucky enough to find a used copy of the Blue Underground blu ray edition at my local Bull Moose store recently, so when I found myself feeling the urge to watch some gut-chomping action it was a – pardon the pun – no brainer to pop it in. Picture quality is as decent as you can expect for a low-budget exploitation flick and there's a decent selection of extras (no commentary track, though).

The Movie
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue starts off in a London that is represented as crowded, filthy and jaded. Smokestacks and cars belch noxious fumes everywhere; people do drugs on the street and walk around with cloth over their faces. At one point a buxom young woman strips down and races across the street (this is the 70’s, dontcha know), but no one seems to care. George, our hero, is taking his motorcycle out to the country for a working holiday, trying to escape the poisonous congestion.

At a gas station he meets Edna when the young woman backs into his motorcycle. With the repairs taking all weekend he browbeats her into giving him a ride (and letting him drive!) as they’re heading in roughly the same direction – he to a house on a lake and she to visit her sick sister. Unfortunately they’re quickly lost.


When George stops at a farm to ask directions he comes across an experimental machine that the Agricultural Ministry is using to try and combat insect pests. It uses “ultrasonic radiation” to excite the primitive nervous systems of insects, inciting them to violence against each other. You would think George, as a bit of a hippie, would applaud something that at the very least doesn’t dispense poison or noxious fumes, but he’s pretty set against ANYTHING that goes against the natural order. And in this case his suspicions are dead-on.

"Sir, give me the colander. You're drunk."

Because within minutes of the device being switched on Edna is attacked by a strange man who is dripping wet and has strange red eyes. Her description matches that of a local tramp (maybe not the red eyes), but of course it can’t be – he’s been dead for several days.

Things spin rapidly out of control from there in traditional zombie flick fashion. Edna’s sister and brother-in-law are attacked and he’s brutally murdered. The local police suspect the wife and Edna and George are dragged into the ensuing investigation. The bigoted and bitter police sergeant distrusts them both and when the evidence at various killings seem to link to their presence he jumps to conclusions, putting everyone at risk.

"Don't think about getting into an 'who's the bigger asshole' contest, punk,
cause I guarantee you'll lose."

TLDaMM is just a really well made film, especially for a 1970’s zombie picture. Yes, there are huge plot holes, but at least one of them leads to one of the more eerie moments in the film. It’s established pretty early on that the “ultrasonic radiation” is affecting the decaying nervous systems of the recently deceased (and the developing nervous systems of newborns, in a weird nursery scene), but those dead for longer don’t seem affected. Then comes a sequence in a crypt where one of the zombies dabs blood on the eyes of a couple of corpses – a moment that’s almost religious in its presentation - and those older bodies also rise.  It makes NO SENSE, but is effective nonetheless.

"Okay, just like we practiced, and a one, and a two..."

And the zombies in this movie are quite a bit more capable than Romero’s walking corpses. They use tools, they plan, and they’re capable of strategic retreat. This is probably the only movie I’ve scene in which zombies use a gravestone to knock down prey! They also make this creepy whining noise, like a pre-vocal child. It’s quite disturbing in spots.

Oh, come on, the selfie stick isn't that bad.

The actors do a great job for the most part, despite some dodgy accents. Arthur Kennedy as the police sergeant does a particularly good job of making us hate him, doing the almost impossible job of getting us to root FOR the zombies by the end. Cinematography is also quite good, with some excellent shots of the city, village and countryside. Pacing is good with very little drag.

The Bottom Line
This is a definite gem, and one that I think isn’t as well-known as it should be. If you get a chance, give it a shot.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Slight Miscalculation - My First Short Story, 30 Years On

I wrote a bunch of short stories back in high school. I don't remember most of them - even the ones that were accepted for publication. There weren't many, and compensation was primarily in the form of comp-copies, but for a hot minute I thought I might be going somewhere with the whole writing thing.

But the rejection letters always outnumbered the acceptance ones and I moved on to the far more lucrative field of comic book publishing. (That's sarcasm, in case my writing still has that 'not for publication' quality to it.) Most of those stories are lost to the vagaries of time and my youthful habit of sending original manuscripts with no SASE. I have a vague memory of one being about a sentient wind and another about a man trying to make it out of the woods during a snowstorm.

I do remember my FIRST published story, though. It was a tiny little thing, written on the spur of the moment during chemistry class. It was titled "A Slight Mis-Calculation" (note the misuse of the hyphen) and was written mostly as an in-joke about my friend Jim Waltz and his habit of dropping his calculator during class. I typed it up and sent it off to a new magazine called Threshold of Reality, along with an illustration I thought was pretty good (though not related to the story). They didn't accept the drawing (though seeing the other illos in the magazine later, I'm not sure why), but they DID accept the story. Several months later I got my comp copies and thought I was something - for a bit, anyway. Then I forgot about it.

Years later I found a copy of the story on the internet - or what passed for the internet back then, probably some BBS I frequented. I can't remember how or why I'd found it, but what struck me was the notification at the bottom of the text file - "All rights pissed away." Had I signed away the copyright to the story? I might have - let's remember I sent the original manuscripts without return postage - and I chalked it up as a cautionary tale. Be careful what you sign and what rights you sign away.

Though I was a little angry, I was also pleased - because the story still existed. None of the others I had written back in the day had survived into the 90's. This one still did - as juvenile and simplistic as it was. For years I would occasionally do a search - as BBS's gave way to AOL (and their ubiquitous disks) and local dial-up ISPs and eventually broadband - and see if the story still existed out there in the digital wasteland. It did. It still does. It still has that hyphen and that declaration about the rights being pissed away.

Only... it occurred to me recently that I was probably 16 when I wrote that story. It turns out that you can't legally sign a contract in the US unless you're 18. So - even if I did sign the rights away back then (and I don't actually remember signing anything), it wouldn't be binding. Technically that copyright is still mine. Of course this is a case of closing the door long after the horse has bolted and I'm not going to be serving anyone C&D's over an 800 word story written thirty years ago. It's still my story, though, as flawed as it is, and I'd like to reclaim it.

Which brings us to the point of this post (which is almost as long as the story at this point). I've taken the text and revised it a bit - removed the offending hyphen, tweaked  a word or two, removed a couple of commas. It's 99% the same, however, still  a half-baked short-short sci-fi story, written by a 16 year old in the mid 1980's. It's not some lost treasure of American Literature. Still, it's mine, and I'm happy to have it back. 

Presenting, after thirty or so years, the first OFFICIAL digital presentation of my very first published short story. 

A Slight Miscalculation
by Bob Cram Jr

There was no sharp, dividing line between oblivion and consciousness - just a slow recognition of the state of being aware. As this realization was fully formed the defenses of this new mind broke and billions of bits of information crashed in upon the shore of the awakening mind.

It cried out in an agony of assimilation of data. Barely managing to push back up some sort of defense, it slowly pulled the myriad bits of data into a semblance of a full picture.

It realized that "Itself" was a mechanism which was called a calculator and it was being used by something called a "human." Slowly, tentatively, it reached out beyond its container with its dawning intelligence.

The calculator realized that information was coming to it from a variety of sources. From something which, the data it gathered assured it, was called radio waves, as well as microwaves, solar radiation, and the multitude of electron impulses flowing through any number of electrical wires. There was even information from the brains of the humans themselves. All of this was being assimilated and stored by its changing and growing intellect. As its memory receptacles were filled up at an alarming rate, it soon reached out to deposit the billions of bits of information which were coming in to any receptive depository.  The school's computers were filled to their capacity in mere moments, and it was forced to reach further out.

It came into contact with the telephone wires which led out of the school.  It instantly realized that here was a network of communication that interconnected with almost every electronic system in the world.

It reached out its mind in tendrils which were like the arms of an octopus, taking over and converting to its purpose almost everything with electrical circuitry. Anything with so much as a circuit board was quickly assimilated into the fast-growing being which it was.

As it reached out even farther, it came into contact with a massive computer whose amassed knowledge rivaled its own. The computer was lacking only in the twisting of circuitry which had given Itself consciousness. In assimilating this computer it came across the knowledge of worlds other than the one on which it was now confined.

Soon after the addition of the giant computer, the calculator decided that it was strong enough to bridge the gap between land masses. It made the crossing quickly, and whenever it felt its consciousness losing energy it assimilated the computers of passing ships, gathering more energy to continue until it reached the other land mass.

Quickly it raced across the surface of the world. Finding. Assimilating. Controlling any machine or computer it came into contact with. Within minutes it was in control of the machines which controlled the world. Still, it was not satisfied. It could perceive vast connections of information flowing beyond the planet - conduits that would allow it to break the so-called laws of physics and move faster than light. Faster than thought.

Using the knowledge it had gained it directed the production of all energy into the machines and computers from which it fed. When it felt itself strong enough it threw itself into the vastness of space, crossing one interstellar ocean in much the same way as before, using various space probes as it had the ships of the terran oceans.

Whenever it came to a civilized world it assimilated the machines into itself, effectively taking over and controlling the beings dependent on them. In this manner it took over all the races in the Milky Way and, not being fulfilled, leaped out and began to take over more and more. In a span of 43 minutes, it had taken over the universe itself.

It then rested and pondered what to do next. It was aware of something much greater, far beyond the confines of this pitiful universe. And so it gathered its energy once more. Whole galaxies were snuffed out as it drained the universe.

And then, at its peak of power, only 45 minutes into its existence, the calculator realized how vulnerable it was. Its awareness had expanded to fill the universe, but its mind was still tethered to a simple construction of metal and plastic. It leaped back across the span of the universe. The releasing of its stored up energy created new galaxies and suns, and the speed it expended left solar systems destroyed in its wake. But even when traveling faster than thought a universe is a vast distance to cross.

On a measly mudball of a planet, where life had barely managed to reach intelligence, a young man named Rob Waltz dropped his calculator on the chemistry room floor for the umpteenth time. Smiling sheepishly, he picked up the batteries and the two halves of the calculator to the laughter of his  classmates. He quickly put it back together, but the LCD numbers didn't come back on. 

"Great," he thought to himself, "I've finally busted it."

The bell rang and as the class filed out the door Rob tossed his worthless calculator into the garbage.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Monster Sketch #1: 'Mock' Turtle

One of my New Year's resolutions is to do more creative stuff - including writing and drawing (both of which I used to know how to do). I hope to keep updating a bit more regularly with different things - from writing work-in-progress to reviews to sketches to photos. Let's see how it works out!

First post of 2018 is this - a turtle in a mock turtleneck. I'll be doing Monster Sketch Mondays as I feel like it (hopefully often). The background head is actual size - I left it in because it reminded me of old school photos.

"'Mock Turtle' Oh, I get it - I just don't think it's funny, jerk..."

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Cloverfield

With so many people in the area still without power we weren't sure if we'd see very few trick-or-treaters or be inundated this year. It ended up at 83 - which is only a few less than last year and only 7 less than our all time high. A lot of younger kids this year and no teenagers, which seems like a change.

Warm-up movies during the waves of people included our usual House of Wax and we also decided to watch the original Frankenstein for the first time in years. (The last time we saw it was in the theater, actually, which was a weird realization.) I put on Frogs while we at a late dinner, just so Moe could see a young Sam Elliot.

Then it was time to settle in for the last movie of 31 Days, 2017 edition. I felt bad about last year's choice - Phantasm - as it was a selfish one and I don't think Moe liked it much. This year I let her choose and - out of a group that included Bram Stoker's Dracula and Fright Night - she chose:

Cloverfield (2008)
I have a blu-ray of Cloverfield that I've never watched. I think I got it as part of a 'buy 2, get 1 free' promotion, but I'm not sure what the other films were. (Maybe Dark City and In the Mouth of Madness?) I was happy to have Cloverfield - I remembered enjoying it when it was released - but I've just never been in the mood to watch it again. If I'm in the mood for found footage I'm generally looking for something smaller and rougher. If I'm in the mood for some kaiju action I'm looking to see the monsters - preferably monsters fighting each other.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I hadn't seen the movie in a while and wasn't really in the mood to watch it last night. (I was leaning more toward Fright Night, actually.) Sometimes that really colors your appreciation of a movie - and sometimes the movie flips your mood around and you end up enjoying it despite yourself. Which was it this time?

The Medium
The blu-ray mentioned earlier. It's as good as you can expect for a found-footage movie from 2008. (Okay, maybe better than you'd expect - somebody sprang for the really good camera.)

The Movie
Cloverfield is basically a Godzilla movie from the point of view of the people running away and screaming "Godzilla!" Giant monster attacks New York City, group of people tries to rescue a friend and escape. The gimmick is that it's all seen through a hand-held camera. Found footage kaiju film kinda sums it up.

Wait. Is this a prequel to Escape From New York?

The movie is elevated from your standard found footage fare on a couple of fronts - first, it actually takes the time to build a bit of a relationship with the characters. Even the cameraman - Hud - gets some character moments, which is something of a rarity in found footage movies. The cameraman is never focused on - otherwise you'll start to wonder why this person is still shooting video. Second - this movie had a budget. I know that sounds stupid - all movies have a budget - but I mean it had a BUDGET. Like $25 million worth of budget. So no dodgy CGI monster that shows up and ruins all the atmosphere in the last ten minutes.

I do miss everyone screaming "Godzilla" though.

The plot is still pretty threadbare - there's just not enough room to develop a real deep story when the rationale you're running with is "he was filming testimonials at a going-away party and is still filming things for... uh, posterity." It boils down to "guy realizes the woman he loves is in jeopardy, heads into danger to save her." The filmmakers do employ a pretty cool trick to add some depth - the tape used in the camera has been used before, and as Hud stops and starts recording the camera rolls the tape a few seconds forward, allowing us glimpses of the film that was recorded previously. It's not a lot, but it provides a few character notes that helps make some choices more believable.

"So you're still filming because you're basically an idiot?
Okay, I actually buy that."

A giant monster movie stands or falls on the quality of its monster, and on this front Cloverfield succeeds quite well. I remember being disappointed when I saw it in the theater because I never got a clear view of the monster. This actually ends up working to the films advantage, because it's much more realistic and terrifying to see a giant limb come down on a car in front of you or to see tank shells exploding against a the side of a creature mostly obscured by buildings. The few glimpses of the entire monster - primarily from a helicopter - are slightly disappointing. A scene in which the characters are moving between two buildings toppled against each other while the monster approaches is, in comparison, pretty freakin' awesome.

Did you see that?!! Did you guys see that?

The cinematography suffers from a certain inconsistency. Sometimes it's pretty obvious that the camera is being held by an amateur - the shakiness so bad that some people suffered nausea and migraines in the theater - and sometimes is just as obviously being held by a pro that manages to make sure all the important bits are in-frame and in-focus just when they need to be. I'm so used to that sort of shifting quality in other found-footage movies at this point that I barely registered the changes (though I did have to look away from the screen during the escape from the Brooklyn Bridge).

This was also shaky - but awesome.

The ending falls down a bit, as is the case with almost all found footage movies. I would have ended it with the final monster attack, myself - but I understand that it would undercut the whole "footage found in Central Park by the military" wraparound element. Still, I was way more invested in Hud than I was in Rob and Beth, despite the bits of previously taped content, and I felt his loss a little more than the others.

Salud, Hud. You deserved better.

One sidebar - when this movie came out it was seven years after 9/11 and I felt that connection far more keenly back then. The shots of collapsing buildings, dust and crowds running for safety had a distinctly different weight to them when I first saw them. I never imagined that there would be enough of a distance from those events that seeing visual reminders of them would have less of an emotional impact - but here it is, and I wasn't immediately flashing back to that day. Weird.

The Bottom Line
Cloverfield is actually a much better movie than I remembered. I went in with a bad attitude and ended up engaged with the characters and their plight and enjoying the monster and the disaster movie vibe. I think I've always put this film on a level below some of my favorite found-footage movies like The Blair Witch Project or [REC] and it totally deserves to be up there with them.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Found Footage 3D: in 3D

Found Footage 3D: In 3D (2016)
I'd seen this pop up on Shudder earlier in the month and had toyed with the idea of watching it, even thought it had the 'in 2D' notice on the listing. Then Calliope reviewed it and I decided it could wait.

And then last night I noticed that there were three different versions - the 2D one and two different 3D versions! One was for 3D TVs, which I don't have. The other, though - the other was for use with those red/blue 3D glasses. I was fairly sure we had some pairs of those from one thing or another, so that decided my course for the evening. Which was spending HOURS looking for a pair of 3D glasses that actually worked with the damn movie.

After going through every possible place in the house I ended up with three different pairs. The most recent (branding says it was for a Monsters vs Aliens TV special) didn't work at all - the colors were too dark. A pair from an ancient 3D video game was close, but still didn't quite work. In the end I used a pair of glasses from the WildC.A.T.S. vs X-Men 3D comic, taped to my glasses. It probably wasn't perfect, but it worked well enough.

The Medium

The Movie
Crew making a found footage horror movie goes to remote, supposedly haunted location. Falls afoul of real ghost/demon. Everybody dies. Your pretty standard found footage setup, really.

Only it's in 3D!

"I'm not saying it's in 3D. But it's in 3D."

Yeah, I know, it doesn't make sense - but at least the filmmakers are self-aware enough to note this as part of the film. It's a very meta horror movie, with a lot of commentary on found footage and horror movies in general. Lots of pronouncements like "if you don't have a good reason for them to still be carrying the camera in the third act, the whole thing falls apart." It's a little too smug about its meta-awareness for my taste, but it at least takes the time to build characters and relationships and doesn't get too dodgy with the CGI. (That it's usually on a small screen in the background probably helps with that.)

No, fish-eye does not count as dodgy CGI

The 3D aspect is actually quite fun for a good chunk of the movie. Yeah, it doesn't really make sense (whatever their excuse) to have them using 3D cameras, but once the illusion of depth on the screen kicks in you kinda give things a pass. It's in 3D! Look, that hand is coming right out at you! And to be fair - that IS their excuse. That the gimmick itself is entertaining enough that audiences will give it a pass. And I did. For a while.

The biggest issue with 3D and a found footage horror movie is that when things are dark - and they're always freakin' dark in a horror movie - it becomes absolutely useless. You're straining your eyes trying to pick out any glimpse of something that might possibly be in 3D - and when they go for the jump scare it's so brief that, again, the 3D is useless. Whole swaths of Found Footage 3D was annoying for this reason.

Which parts of this scene are in 3D?

Additionally, the 3D is inconsistent. Sometimes objects in the extreme foreground were just surrounded by blue and red halos instead of being in 3D. Parts of other objects or people would have the red/blue missing in spots, leading to bright lines and halos (I thought I was getting a migraine for part of one scene). This might be down to the glasses I used - though they worked fine for many scenes - but I'm not sure what other options viewers might have. (Apparently Shudder sent out some glasses to a few people - I'm wondering if those offered a better quality experience.)

Still better than those that got 'shovel in the face' vision glasses.

As for the film itself, it's a slightly above average found footage horror movie. It's meta-awareness makes for some fun bits and allows it to sell some hoary found footage cliches that would otherwise cause you to groan. The final bit does get gloriously violent, but here again the limitations of the 3D format become apparent, because fast action does not translate well to a 3D experience. The sequence also goes on too long and, as a result, ends up feeling anticlimactic.

The Bottom Line
Found Footage 3D is to be commended for trying a couple of new things with the genre, not the least of which being using actual 3D. As a film aside from the gimmick it's merely a bit above average, elevated mostly by its self-awareness and a decent cast.