Monday, December 22, 2014

New sketches/cover for Christmas story

My brother's Micah and Scott wrote a Christmas story several years back. (Berni Beaver and the Jet-Black 4000
Dual-Action Turbo-Lifted Rocket-Propelled Semi-Sonic Super-Sled.) Very much in the vein of older Christmas specials like Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas, long a favorite in our household. Anyway, both Micah and I did a few sketches for it, Scott printed it out and we handed a few copies to family and friends.

Turns out that was 10 years ago - so for the 10th anniversary we decided to haul the story out of retirement and put it up on Amazon for everyone to enjoy. I did a couple of new sketches and a new cover. You can check it out on Amazon here:

That's the Kindle version, though I'm told a print version is coming soon.

Anyway, it was fun sketching again - something I haven't done in a while. Figured I'd share! Here are the new sketches and the cover. Check out the full story if you're interested - hell, it's only 99 cents!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Shameless Family Books Plug for Gifts

Shameless Plug time! With Christmas fast approaching are you still looking for gifts? May I suggest something from the Cram Family bookstore? All the books below are available in print and Kindle format from Amazon. There's horror, fantasy, some ill-advised sci-fi/adventure/comedy, and some great outdoors humor/cartoons!


The Well of Trees

One Million Dead: The Well of Trees Part II

Where They Take You

Regret's Shadow

The Monster War

The Adventures of Me & Joe

Monday, December 8, 2014

New Book Cover: The Moth at the Window

Still getting caught up after NaNoWriMo and 31 Days - hope to be posting again regularly soon. In the meantime, here's a cover I did for my brother Scott's upcoming book, The Moth at the Window. This is his fourth book, and my third cover for him. (Fifth, if you count the short stories on Amazon.)

Friday, November 14, 2014

No Fear Friday post this week

I'm deep into writing a novel for NaNoWriMo and, while I DID watch a horror movie this week, I just haven't been able to work in time to do a writeup.

Hopefully I'll be a little more caught up next week and we'll be back on schedule.

Sorry folks!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Puppet Master (1989)

Puppet Master (1989)
There was a time when films by Charles Band provided a notable portion of my movie consumption. Between Empire Pictures and Full Moon we got films like Ghoulies, Trancers, Subspecies, Robot Jox, and Puppet Master. (And, of course, Sorority Babes at the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama.) With some exceptions (Re-Animator being one), they were all fairly low budget genre affairs with wooden acting, low production values, cheap special effects and a little nudity/gore sprinkled on top for spice.

And yet... there was always something enjoyable about those films. It's hard to pin down now, but at the time (mid-80's to mid 90's) I looked forward to any Empire/Full Moon tape that graced the shelves of my local video stores. In some ways they reminded me of older B movies, like the William Castle pictures. They were fun to watch and always had a little something extra that set them above their contemporaries, whether that was decent music, a good performance/character, some humor or - as with Puppet Master - interesting monsters.

Look at those faces... aren't they precious?

It's been a while since I watched almost  any of the old Empire/Full Moon films (except for Re-Animator, which I usually watch every couple of years). I DID watch The Lurking Fear last year and was unimpressed, so I started to wonder if my fond feelings for those old Band productions were misplaced. When I saw that Puppet Master was now available on Hulu I decided to bite the bullet and check it out - would it hold up to my memory?

The Medium
Puppet Master is now available on Hulu, and that's how I watched it. There have been several releases over the years - and I understand many of the films are now available via Blu-ray. I'm not sure if this first film in the series is worth the upgrade - the cinematography is okay, but rarely above workmanlike. I guess it would depend on any extras. I'd love to hear about the creation of the puppets.

The Movie
In 1930's California a puppet maker named Andre Toulon hides his living puppets and an Egyptian scroll in the wall of his hotel room, then takes his own life before Nazi spies break in.

Couldn't he just unleash the puppets on the Nazis?

There's no beating around the bush with the puppets - they're obviously self-animated. Toulon creates a new one - Jester - as part of this opening sequence and some of the others are seen moving around. Blade, a trench-coat-and-fedora wearing puppet with a hook hand and blades for eyes, spends a lot of time spying on the spies and running around the hotel's oblivious clientele. There's no real follow up about the Nazis or Toulon in this film, though later entries in the series flesh things out considerably.

After the opening sequence we're brought to present day, where a group of psychics are assembled at the very same hotel. They're brought together by an old associate, Neil Gallagher. None of them seem to have liked him much - when they meet his wife, Megan, the general sense is that of disbelief that he would ever get married. That's quickly forgotten when they discover that he has committed suicide.

"There's just something about funerals that make me want to roll up my sleeves."

The characters are all given quick introductions - including a fun cameo with Barbara Crampton - that serve as character sketches and examples of their abilities. Frank seems to get psychic  impressions or has telepathy. Clarissa is a psychometrist, she reads impressions from objects (though she seems to focus mostly on sexual impressions). Dana is a fortune-teller and general mystic (and carries her stuffed dog around with her). Alex has dreams of the future - including one in which Neil threatens Megan.

A strained dinner is disrupted when Dana's crude remarks about Neil upset Megan and she storms away from the table. Alex follows her and explains that they had all been involved with Neil's search for immortality and that most of them believe he found it in Toulon's work - and that Neil then screwed them over.

That night, the puppets from Toulon's trunk start killing the psychics in various ways, including drilling into their faces, vomiting up leeches, and trying to strangle them.

That's not a good look for you, my dear.

Up to this point, I'll have to admit I was barely paying attention. It's an okay setup - and moments like Dana sticking a huge hatpin into Neil's corpse to prove he's dead are fun - but the pacing is a little slow and the actors are a little bland. When the puppets finally start showing up, however, things immediately get a lot better. A LOT. They're just fantastic creations and animated extremely well. They're fun to watch and their attacks are handled with skill and creativity. I've always been partial to Pinhead, a muscular puppet with human-sized hands and a tiny porcelain head, and the stop motion sequences with him are great.

It's punch-o-clock!

Things move quickly after that, with Neil being revealed as the villain. He has indeed discovered Toulon's secret - but it only works on inanimate things. Neil's gotten around that by having himself re-animated AFTER he's killed himself. And he intends to do the same with the psychics and Megan, as he's tired of experimenting on the puppets.

Unfortunately for him, the puppets don't take kindly to this betrayal.

"Are you seeing this bullshit?"

The Bottom Line
Puppet Master is still not a great movie - and not even my favorite of the line (which has always been Puppet Master III - which I'll now have to track down). It's still a FUN movie, though, and anytime the puppets are on screen is a blast. I was pleasantly surprised and the experience has encouraged me to track down a few of the other Empire/Full Moon films I loved when I was younger.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Moves: The Exorcist

Last night we had 58 trick-or-treaters - not bad, but it felt slower than even last year, when it rained on Halloween. We've had as many as 87, and we prepared for more, given that it was (relatively) warm, dry, and on a Friday. Looks like I'll be eating Kit-Kats and Peanut Butter Cups for a few months.

We watched Dracula and House of Wax as the boys and ghouls came and went - House of Wax is our Halloween tradition and Dracula was just for fun - it's a good horror movie to have in the background as little kids arrive. When Halloween falls on a weekend we just run horror movies all day, but it was a workday and a busy one, so those were the only films we got to watch before settling down at 8:45 to watch the final horror flick for 31 Days.

The Exorcist

The Exorcist, not unlike Halloween, was one of those movies I didn't really appreciate the first time I saw it. My video diet at the time was mostly slasher films, monster movies, and anything with gore/nudity. Into that steady stream of stabbings, decapitations, boobs, and dismemberment The Exorcist dropped like a lead weight. I was bored out of my mind and spent a significant amount of time trying to freeze-frame the 'face' that appears during Father Karras' dream.

Part of the problem was that the primary shock pieces in the film - backwards walking down stairs, the head turning around, the pea-soup vomit - had already become entrenched in popular culture. I'd seen those things copied and parodied a dozen times before I got to see the actual film. To me they were elements to be made fun of, rather than be shocked by.

Plus, I'd seen Evil Dead. Pea soup vomiting? Please.

I'd also rejected religion and embraced science in my teens. The ultimate message of the film seemed (and seems) to be that science fails in the face of true evil, and religion holds the only succor. To quote my teen self, "fuck that shit." Of course science had become my religion, but I wasn't going to figure that out for a while yet.

The 1990's were, for me, a time where I re-assessed a lot of things - choices, interests, life-goals, family. I went back to school, got married, and generally moved out of the mental adolescence that seemed to mark my late teens/early twenties. I got a little (only a little) more self-aware about my own biases and ignorance. (Yes, this self-referential rambling is going somewhere.) The 90's were also a decade that offered little in the way of new films for a horror fan, so in the wake of my self-assessment I also started looking at films I'd discarded or dismissed earlier in my life. Halloween was one of those, The Exorcist was another.

Halloween was honestly more of a revelation to me than The Exorcist. I thought I knew Halloween and watching it again in the 90's was like watching a completely different film. The Exorcist remained the film that I remembered - but I had changed, and my enjoyment of the movie changed accordingly. I could now appreciate the anti-science/pro-religion message without feeling like I was being attacked, I enjoyed the pace and slow buildup of fear and tension now that I had developed (some) patience, and I could shake off the cultural baggage attached to the set pieces and enjoy them in the context of the film, rather than that of society in general. And I could see how different the film was than any other horror film being made at the time. How terrifying it must have been to see for people like my mother, who had been raised Catholic (and knew the rap of a nun's ruler on her knuckles). How good it was.

Damn good.

The Medium
We watched the film on streaming from Amazon. I'd planned on picking up the recent anniversary Blu-ray, but it's still too expensive for me. I picked the Extended Director's Cut version, which has several additional scenes not found in the original release. To be honest, I didn't really like the additions and think they significantly impact the pacing, as well as confusing the narrative in some spots. The ONLY addition I like is the bit with Merrin and Karras talking on the stairs after the first exorcism session. All the new 'creepy face flash' bits are particularly annoying.

The Movie
The Exorcist opens on a dig in northern Iraq - Father Mirren (the ever-awesome Max von Sydow) unearths a small statue of a demon (and an amulet). Troubled, he returns to the dig later and climbs to a high point where he faces a large statue of the same demon as the wind howls in off the desert. Though subsequent films in the series indicate that this statue is that of the demon Pazuzu and is the very same demon he defeated in an earlier exorcism, very little in this film directly references that. (Though this opening scene and a scene where Merrin's name is mentioned by the demon possessing Regan are indicators in that direction.)

Though the demon statue always looks to me like it's saying "Hey. What's up?"

Then we're whisked off to Georgetown, where actress Chris McNeil is filming a new movie. She's staying in Georgetown with her young daughter Regan. Chris starts hearing noises in the attic, which she assumes are rats, though her butler insists there are no rats in the building. After an incident with a ouia board in which Regan refers to a spirit she sometimes talks to that she calls 'Captain Howdy' Regan begins to develop strange behavioral issues. She confronts an astronaut at her mother's party telling him "you're going to die up there" before urinating on the carpet. She has violent outbursts and swears like a sailor. After an incident in which Regan's bed begins to bounce around like a carnival ride Chris takes her to a doctor. This begins a long set of medical tests as the specialists try and figure out what's wrong with her.

The medical tests are some of the most horrifying parts of the film. Watching the doctors basically flail around in the dark while looking for a rational explanation really set me off in the 80's, but I've since had more experience with doctors. Things are no longer quite as bad as they are in this film - the incredibly painful and intrusive tests shown in the film have been replaced by much less problematic ones nowadays - but the insistence on more tests in pursuit of theories and hunches is something I've seen a few times. I'm sympathetic - I know medical science requires a fair amount of testing and exploration - but it's just incredibly difficult to watch a loved one get poked and prodded over and over again as your faith in the professionals' ability to figure it out drains away.

"This will be painful and intrusive and has only a 5% of revealing anything useful."

Watching it this time around I was struck by the thought - what if this happened to a middle-class family? A poor family? Chris is wealthy - I mean she's got a maid, a butler and a live-in assistant. She can afford all these expensive tests and treatments. For a poor family this would be impossible - Regan would be committed faster than you can say 'ward of the state.' On top of that, calling in a Catholic priest would carry completely different baggage nowadays. In the 70's it was all about the loss of faith - Chris has no religious background and even Father Karras is having a crisis following the death of his beloved mother. Now it's less about faith and more about trust - a different kind of faith, I guess. Would you let two male Catholic priests be alone in a room with your pre-teen daughter? Though the new Pope seems to be making some progress in restoring, er, faith, in the institution, there's been significant damage done to the Catholic 'brand' over the last few decades. Trust is a lot harder to come by.

And when's the last time you saw a priest this young?

Medical science fails Chris, as does psychiatry. She eventually turns to religion, and Father Karras, who is both a psychiatrist AND a priest. Though suffering from his own crisis of faith he eventually becomes convinced that Regan really IS possessed (I'm always astonished by how much crazy crap this actually takes - I'd be on the phone with the Vatican after the first "your mother sucks cocks in hell!") The Church approves an exorcism and sends Father Merrin, the elderly priest from the opening sequence. Together, he and Karras try and rid Regan of the horrific presence that has possessed her.

"I'll need a cassock, a bible, some holy water and a breath mint. That's for you."

Things really get cranking once Karras is on the case. Friedken has invested a lot of time and effort into presenting a detached, clinical look at how things are building up. There's almost a documentary feel to some of the scenes - particularly the medical tests - that gives a feeling of realism to the events. So once he steps on the gas and shoves us into that freezing room we're unprepared for how crazy it gets. He's established a sense of trust - yes, this is bad, but it's a distant thing - and then Regan is projectile vomiting pea soup, and cranking her head 180 degrees, and floating three feet over her bed. We've been slowly ascending a rollercoaster and now we plummet over the other side.

Every time I see this I think "Invisible Crowd Surf!"

The exorcism scenes are top notch horror filmmaking. They're tense and awful and frenetic and terrifying. The only criticism I really have of the film during this time is the death of Father Merrin. That he dies off-screen feels like a bit of a cheat, though there parallels for Father Karras with the death of his mother, that he also was not present for. Those are not really followed up on, however, so it really just feels anticlimactic - a missed moment for me. It deflates Karras' ultimate sacrifice a bit, though that's still an effective scene.

Is it just me, or does he look like Bruce Banner about to go all 'Hulk' on us?

Friedkin is an effective filmmaker in cinematography, pacing, and direction. One new thing I noticed this time around is in the scene where the detective, Kinderman, questions Chris about the death of the movie director, Dennings. As he questions her more about Regan the camera moves in slowly, getting closer and closer. Once he abandons that line of questioning and moves on the camera starts pulling away - a neat little 'warmer, warmer... colder, colder' moment I hadn't noticed before.

"Sure, officer, I'll be happy to answer your questions."

The acting is generally very good, with Jason Miller as Karras, Linda Blair as Regan and, of course, Max von Sydow as Merrin being standouts. Ellen Burstein is fine and sometimes quite good, but she reaches hysteria too easily at times and leaves herself with nowhere to go. Supporting characters are fine, with Lee J. Cobb as Lt. Kinderman being notable, though his character is perhaps a little too Columbo-cute for the circumstances.

The Bottom Line
Still a horror classic and the defining horror movie of the 1970's. Its success revealed and whetted an un-tapped appetite for horror among the general public and paved the way for a horror renaissance. It's a damn good film - but I'll stick with the original release from now on.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead (1985)

I have a confession to make: for the longest time this was my favorite Romero zombie movie. It was the first of his films I saw, which probably has something to do with it -though I'd definitely seen bits of Night and Dawn, probably through Fangoria. It came out when I was still in high school and video rentals were just getting going. The one movie theater in town had closed - not that they would have shown an unrated movie to begin with. While Evil Dead was the very first movie I rented, I think Day was in the very next batch of tapes.

I don't think it being the first was the only reason, though, as it remained my favorite of the bunch for a decade or more - long after I'd see the others. There was the gore, of course. The effects remain some of the most well-done of any horror movie - from 'Dr. Tongue' through the exposed brain to Rhode's disembowlment. Tom Savini is at his peak in Day and you can see his influence in every zombie productions since. (Particularly in The Walking Dead - special effects supervisor/co-executive producer Gerg Nicotero's first film was Day of the Dead, where he worked on both special effects and in front of the camera as Private Johnson.)   There was also the dark, introspective, almost nihilistic tone - particularly attractive to me as a depressive, introspective, and nihilistic teenager.

...down the halls of my local high school. Oh, wait, that's me.

But if I'm honest there's really only one reason why Day held the top spot in my affections for so long - and that reason is Bub.

The 80's had a lot of what I call 'character monsters.' In the 30's you had Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman, Mummy, and others - protagonists as well as antagonists. In the 80's there was Jason and Michael and Freddy. Monsters that had their own agency - and fan followings. And there was Bub - a zombie, yes, but also a fully realized character who is also arguably one of the heroes of the movie. Out of all the 80's movie monsters, he was my favorite.

As I got older my tastes widened somewhat (though they remain relatively shallow), and Day has fallen out of favor. Night is now my favorite of the Romero films, followed by Dawn. I still love Bub, though. Even as I type this I've got the Amok Time Bub figure staring at me, his reward bucket at his side.

The Medium
I've got the two disk DVD (DiviMax) Anchor Bay release from 2003. It was an excellent release for the time - with a ton of extras, including two commentary tracks, hundreds of stills, a documentary and even a PDF of the 'first draft' script. It still looks very good for a DVD, but if you're thinking about picking the film up in HD, the new Scream Factory release seems to be the way to go, if only for the new feature length documentary. (It also includes the commentary tracks from the Anchor Bay release.)

The Movie
A woman wakes in a white, cinderblock room. On the far wall is a calendar with the month of October showing. All the days have been crossed off. It's October 31, Halloween. She approaches and holds her hand out to touch the picture, an idyllic presentation of a family in a sunny pumpkin patch. Suddenly numerous rotting hands burst through the wall to grasp at her. And she wakes again, this time she's in a helicopter flying low over what appears to be an abandoned coastal city. But appearances can be deceiving...

I want to make a 'watch the hands' joke here.

In some ways this is my favorite section of the movie. The opening bit with the white room/zombie hands is cool and startling, but it's the all-too brief exploration of the abandoned city that really sticks in my head. All those empty streets, the abandoned vehicles, the debris, the alligator. I think this was really the first time the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse was presented - so many films before and since are occupied  more with the apocalypse itself, rather than the results (though I'm sure there are exceptions). The Walking Dead has been great at following up on this, though - and the early episode scenes with Rick in the remains of Atlanta remind me of this sequence in Day.

Zombie apocalypse or San Francisco after the Giants won?

Of course the city isn't really abandoned - it just doesn't belong to the living any more. The new occupants respond to the sounds of people shouting over a megaphone and the dead spill out into the streets, looking for fresh meat. (Amongst these zombies is one of the greatest zombie effects on film - the so-called 'Dr. Tongue' zombie, who has apparently had his face blown away by a shotgun blast - his lower jaw almost gone, his tongue flicking about in the breeze. (I ran an All Flesh Must be Eaten game that included a jawless zombie - one character was gummed and the others almost shot him, thinking he'd been bit.)

Faced with the obvious - that there are no survivors in the city, or at least none that can respond - the helicopter leaves and returns to the military instillation that is their base of operations. It's an underground complex set in a old mine, a place where a ton of things, including boats and old government documents, are stored. This is where the movie settles down into its real story - about a military that wants control, scientists who want to understand, and two guys who want to just enjoy the last dying embers of a world that's already burnt to a crisp.

On the military side we have Captain Rhodes, a high strung commander with only the most tenuous hold on his men and his sanity. His second in command is Steel, a blowhard and a bully. A number of other soldiers round out the unit, including the barely-holding-it-together Miguel.

This is the least shouty picture of Rhodes I could find.

 For the scientists we have the extremely tough and capable Sarah (the woman we met earlier) and Fisher (played by John Amplas, who was also the title character in Romero's Martin). I'm... not exactly sure what it is they do, exactly - supposedly they're looking for whatever caused the outbreak of undead. The lead scientist is a man named Logan, though all the soldiers call him Frankenstein. I know what Logan does - he experiments on zombies. Sometimes he carves them up - there's a memorable scene in his lab that includes a brainstem still attached to a body and a zombie that literally spills its guts - and sometimes he trains them.

"And the good news is... well, there is no good news."

The third group is in some ways the most interesting, but is also the least active in the plot. John, the pilot, and Bill McDermott, the radio operator. They're outsiders both figuratively and literally - they even live outside the underground complex, instead setting up a homey trailer deep within the mine itself. While the other groups struggle to find meaning and reason in a world gone mad both John and Bill are just trying to get by - doing their jobs, but nothing more.

"Why is there no food on this plate, mon."

Most of the film is about the conflict between the soldiers and the scientists. Rhodes wants answers - really, what he wants is a solution to the problem they have, which is that the dead are coming back to life and civilization has gone down the toilet. The scientists are struggling with more basic questions - like HOW the dead are coming back to life and WHY. That is, except for Logan - who really is trying to figure out a solution, unfortunately his research requires a steady stream of 'subjects' from a corral of zombies the military keeps in the mine, and that leads to the inevitable collapse of structure and the deaths of (almost) everyone involved.

I actually skipped a group, and it's an egregious error on my part. The zombies themselves form a distinct fourth group, represented by the one zombie that Logan has managed to train - Bub. The other zombies do what zombies do, mill about aimlessly until a living brain ambles by and then they get real focused. Bub has regained some contact with what he used to be before he died. He tries to shave with a razor, read a book - he even listens to Beethoven with an expression of surprise and, maybe, joy on his face. Bub, in some ways, represents a hope for the future- the possibility of human experience living on beyond death.

Though you can tell he's not quite there because he's skipping to the end of the book.

All the other characters don't seem to represent anything but hopelessness, really. The military just want to shoot their way out of everything, a physical and military solution that has no chance of succeeding. But the scientists are just as deluded - they're looking for an answer where there may be none, assuming that answering a hypothetical WHY is more noble and useful than just trying to get on with HOW. And John and Bill are really the worst - though their point of view seems to be the one Romero favors. And that point of view seems to be "we fucked everything up and even if we didn't God hates us so let's just give up." The sum total of human civilization, achievement and history should be dumped and forgotten. Yeah, there's a lot of absolute crap saved away in deep places as if it should mean something, but there's a lot of good as well. Baby. Bathwater. Whatever man, let's just get high and have babies that we never teach about anything. (And how offensive is John as a character, looking back at it - a lazy, weed-smoking black man from Jamaica? )

As long as I'm aimlessly ranting, WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THAT CLOWN?

Man, there's just something about this movie that provokes me to ramble about nothing - I guess because that's what most of the movie seems to be about, rambling about nothing. Luckily we get a lot of gory zombie-related goodness in between the shouty bits and an extended zombie assault on the base that provides some of the only comedy available in the film. Bub is awesome and Sherman Howard just kills with his performance - bringing more life and humanity to a zombie than most of the other human characters provide.

The Bottom Line
On one level Day of the Dead is a depressing shitstorm of violence, nihilism, pseudo-philosophical bullshit and indictments of both the military and science. On another it's a thoughtful, introspective look at what humanity means and what, if anything, is worth saving about it. And on yet another level it's a gory zombie romp with a fantastic zombie character and fantastic effects sequences.

I feel like I've been overly hard on Day while writing this - and the truth is it's only in the dissection of the film that I get annoyed with it. As a whole, I still very much enjoy the film - and Bub forever, man. Bub forever.

No, we salute YOU, Bub. We salute YOU.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Frightmare (1974, aka Cover Up)

Frightmare (1974 - AKA Cover Up)

I had this recommended to me by someone on one of the previous 31 Days threads. I have a movie also called Frightmare that my brother Scott gave to me as a gag gift. It looks terrible and I've never even opened the shrink-wrap on it. (It's also known as Paranoid.) There's yet another film called Frightmare from 1983 (aka Horror Star) that also looks to be pretty terrible. I haven't seen it, though I remember thinking the poster looked like that of a kickass heavy metal band (it has everything you want - skulls, snakes, knives and zombies).

Luckily, I also have a copy of the ORIGINAL Frightmare from 1974. This one is written and directed by Peter Walker, who also did House of Whipcord and House of the Long Shadows. I'm happy to report that this is a significantly better film than either of subsequent versions appear to be. (Though, to be fair, I'm only going on reviews and trailers for those films.)

The Medium
I recently found a copy of the 2000 Euroshock Collection DVD for $2.97 at Bull Moose. It's a bare-bones affair with nothing on the disk but the film itself. The picture quality is so-so, with many scenes appearing either washed out or too dark to make out details. Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray version in March of this year and it looks significantly better (at least from the stills) and also includes a commentary track, featurette and interview. If you can find the Blu-ray, that looks like the way to go.

This also looks to be available via streaming on Amazon (free with Prime).

The Movie
In 1957 a court commits Edmund and Dorothy Yates to a mental hospital for a series of horrific crimes. Eighteen years later they're released, and Edmund's daughter from a previous marriage - Jackie - checks in on them from time to time. Unfortunately, she begins to suspect that her mom may be having a relapse...

FYI - she's having a relapse.

Meanwhile, Jackie's half-sister Debbie is behaving badly. She's out at all hours of the night, egging her boyfriend into fights over imagined or invented slights and screaming epithets at her sister. Though Jackie's new boyfriend, Graham, tries to intervene and help Debbie deal with her abandonment and parental issues - but Debbie knows a lot more than she lets on, and she may be very much her mother's girl.

One of the few moments she's not yelling at someone.

Wow. So, low budget to the extreme. Very 1970's. Pacing is a bit weird and plot twists are telegraphed a mile away. And yet... there's a lot more depth than I expected here. There's commentary on family dynamics, particularly in blended families, and poor Jackie finds out just what it's like to be the stepdaughter sometimes. There's an indictment of modern psychiatry and the very idea that anyone with a mental illness can be 'cured.' It's a crap stance, but an interesting one to explore in a horror context. There's the idea that love can be an enabling force, a weakness that allows evil to grow.

And then there's Dorothy. Sheila Keith is just amazing as the mother with an 'appetite' issue. She's at turns violent, kind, wheedling, sneaky, open, fearful, manipulative and maternal. Sometimes all of these in one scene. She brings a depth and gravitas to the role without making Dorothy the least bit sympathetic. In one particular scene she uses a feigned weakness to turn Jackie's father against her, and the look of sly, cunning glee on her face is genuinely disturbing.

This sequence is also pretty disturbing.

Because Dorothy has indeed relapsed. And as she's a psychotic cannibal, that's very problematic. She's placing ads in newspapers advertising tarot readings for the lonely and depressed. She's got tarot cards, a unique ability to read the very lonely, and a power drill. And she's going to use them all (plus a red hot fireplace poker).

Debbie, meanwhile, has started to show signs of the very same tendency. Soon the police are involved and Jackie and Graham race to try and help her. Unfortunately for them, Debbie already HAS help.

"Guess who mom likes better!"

Cinematography is hard to judge, given the quality of the DVD, but it seems some thought has been given to lighting, anyway. Jackie's apartment (and that of her friends) is bright, white and clear. Dorothy and Edmund's farmhouse is dark and lit with firelight most of the time, and it seems to get darker as the film progresses. Acting is above average - with Sheila Keith being a standout, of course, and Rupert Davies bringing his traditional low-key gravitas. Deborah Fairfax and Kim Butcher, as Jackie and Debbie respectively, are not quite at their level - and Butcher in particular has a tendency to yell instead of emote, but they're both charismatic and attractive. Paul Greenwood as Graham is a little too understated, but works well enough as the 'good guy.'

"That's when I knew I was not favorite."

The general presentation is that of an early 70's exploitation film, but the skill of the filmmakers and the performances elevate things slightly.

The Bottom Line
I genuinely enjoyed this film. It's a bit threadbare in spots, but the performances - particularly of Sheila Keith, who I just cannot praise enough - are quite good, the writing is above average for a horror film, and the ratio of plot/action/gore is good enough to keep things moving at a decent clip. It's not quite a masterpiece, but it's a surprisingly good exploitation film.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Creepshow 1 & 2

It's catchup time! Monday and Tuesday nights movies were of a theme - Stephen King and George Romero collaborations. No Dark Half, though.


George Romero. Stephen King. EC Comics... well, in spirit, anyway. Creepshow was a staple of Halloween in my teens - one of those films that always got rented (if it was available, that is) around the 31st. It has a certain kind of ghoulish glee that I associate with a childhood love of monsters and horror movies. When horror was fun AND creepy. (One of the reasons I love Trick r Treat is that it seems to embrace that same level of love for Halloween.)

Back in 1982, when Creepshow was released, I hadn't actually seen any EC comics. I think they were out of print at the time, or only available via expensive hardcover reprints. Instead I associated the movie with the more palid horror comics that DC put out in the 70's - The Witching Hour, House of Secrets and House of Mystery. I loved those comics - the illustrated equivalent of a fire-side ghost story - and never realized that they were watered down by the Comics Code Authority until much later, when I finally got to see copies of Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror.

At one point I had the comic adaptation, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, and I just about wore it out reading it. I wish I still had a copy, but it's disappeared in the intervening years - perhaps finally falling apart or maybe just lurking in a comic box in the basement, biding its time until it can lurch forth and... I dunno, give me a paper cut or something.

The Medium
I've got the Warner Brothers DVD release which has the widescreen on one side and a full screen version on the other (both written on a tiny black band around the center hole and impossible to read in dim light). The 'special features' are pretty much the trailer - I'm not calling 'interactive menus' and 'scene access' special. From what I understand the US Blu-ray release also only includes the trailer. I'd love to have some commentary, some featurettes on the creature/makeup design, info on the Berni Wrightson comic adaptation... ah well.

The Movie
I'm breaking this out by segment.

Both the prologue and epilogue feature a boy named Billy and his parents. In the prologue Billy's getting a dressing down by his father for reading horror comics. After a fatherly slap across Billy's face the comics are thrown out. While a self-satisfied dad sits in his easy chair Billy sits upstairs, cursing his father. At the window appears The Creep from his horror comic, beckoning Billy to come closer...

The boy, if I remember correctly, is played by one of Stephen King's sons. Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween 3) is the dad.

"Father's Day"
This starts things of in typical EC comics style, with a wealthy family of degenerates and a family secret. Every Father's day the Granthams get together to remember their patriarch, a domineering and abusive man named Nathan Grhantham. The youngest of the group has a new husband, which conveniently allows for the rest of the family to tell him the tale of Nathan's murder - by his own daughter - many years before.

This is Aunt Bedelia, who arrives late and goes to the old man's grave to drink and curse at him for having her lover killed (the event that precipitated Grantham's murder). She spills her drink on the grave and, seemingly in response, Nathan rises from the ground and sets about killing people and asking - in a literally gravel-filled voice - for his Father's Day cake.

"120 years old and still go all my own teeth!"

This is actually my least favorite segment, but it's still loads of fun. Watching Ed Harris be the hick is a hoot, and the maggoty remains of Nathan Grantham are a memorable effect (as is the Father's Day cake he eventually makes for himself). The segment also establishes the visual theme for the entire movie - bright reds and blues with graphic backgrounds reminiscent of EC comics. Transitions and end sequences are often in actual comic book format and some scenes are even shown with a traditional comic book 'gutter' - the white area around each frame.

"The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril"
A down-on-his-luck farmer sees a meteor crash on his property and goes to investigate. Dreams of selling it to the local college are dashed when he pours cold water on the steaming meteorite, cracking it. He puts the pieces in a bucket - after pouring the glowing contents of the hollow meteorite into the crater - and goes to have a beer and watch wrestling.

Soon he realizes that the fingers he used to touch the meteorite are turning green - growing fuzzy with something plant like. Over the course of the evening the growth gets worse - everywhere he's touched and been. "Not down there!" Oh yes, down there too. Outside, the cabin is becoming overgrown and plant life spreads in a circle out from the crater.

"Did I scratch my ass? Oh God...."

In a desperate attempt to alleviate the itching Jordy jumps into a tub full of water - but that's just what the green growth wants. In the end Jordy finds a way out, but given the weather report the rest of the world may not be so lucky.

Let's just say up front that acting is not one of Stephen King's strong suits. I've always had a soft spot for this segment, though. Watching it again this time I realized a chapter in my Monster War novel - where a lawn comes to life and tries to kill the heroes - is completely inspired by this segment. I didn't realize it at the time, but it's obvious looking at it now.

"Something to Tide You Over"
This segment could also be called "Leslie Nielsen, Super Asshole" - just like Day of the Animals.  A wealthy man finds out he's been cuckolded and takes revenge on his wife and her lover by burying them in the sand up to their necks and waiting for the tide to come in. He even watches the whole thing on remote video. Unfortunately for him, they come back. And it doesn't matter how long he can hold his breath.

"Do you have a few moments to talk about Dagon?"

This one is always fun. Nielsen is a ham sandwich of crazy, but it's fun to watch. Ted Dansen is more interesting as a water-logged corpse than he is as the lover. The makeup effects are great - particularly the spurt of dark water when the zombies are shot.

"The Crate"
A college custodian finds a crate under the stairs and calls a professor, Dexter Stanley, as it appears to be very old. When the two open the crate a monster inside attacks and kills the custodian. Stanly flees, running into a grad student who also ends up being killed by the monster. Even more distraught, Stanley flees to the house of his friend, fellow professor Henry Northrup.

Northrup, a mild-mannered man who is severely hen-pecked by his wife Billie, sees the crate and the monster as an opportunity to rid himself of his wife for good. He sets about cleaning the mess before luring his wife to the college, where the crate - and the monster - wait.

C'mon, that monster is awesome!

This has always been my favorite. I just love monster stories, and the thing in the crate is a great monster. Yeah, upon close look it's just a monkey with sharp teeth - but damn, it's effective. Hal Holbrook as Henry and Adrienne Barbeau as Wilma "Call me Billie" Northrup are pretty good, but Fritz Weaver is fantastic - one of the few times in a horror movie I've seen an adult male actor appear believably traumatized by the goings on.

Also, is it just me, or is this the basic plot for Relic? Just me? Okay then.

"They're Creeping Up on You"
A ruthless businessman, Upson Pratt, who's afraid of germs and bugs spends the night fighting cockroaches in his pristine, hermetically sealed apartment. When the power goes out because of a storm the insects invade in a flood and Pratt locks himself in his bedroom - which is no escape.

This one is always fun as well - unless you're afraid of cockroaches, in which case you might want to skip it. E. G. Marshall plays Pratt so over the top villainous that you're pretty happy when he finally gets his comeuppance. The effect of all those bugs bursting out of his body is a pretty gross.

He is SO not getting his deposit back.

A pair of garbage men - one played by Tom Savini - find the comic from the prologue still in the trash. They look it over and discover that an ad for a 'real' voodoo doll has already had the order form sent. Back in the house Billy jabs away at the voodoo doll as his father screams in pain.

The Bottom Line
Creepshow is always a good time. It's not the best work of either King or Romero, but it's got a sense of wicked fun to it that really captures the comics it's inspired by. As with those old EC comics there's a definite sense of old-testament revenge running through the segments, with bad people getting exactly what they deserve. (Except for poor Jordy, that is.) It doesn't bear a lot of scrutiny, but it's a fun movie to watch while the ghouls and goblins queue up for some candy.

Creepshow 2

Five years after the first Creepshow was a surprise hit at the box office we got Creepshow 2, with a screenplay by George Romero based on short stories by Stephen King.

I haven't actually watched Creepshow 2 since it was released. I didn't like it much, though I do remember croaking "thanks for the ride" to friends whenever they dropped me off. Though the segments were based on existing King stories and something I wanted to see, the general quality and tone of the film was significantly different from the original and had lost most of the 'wink wink, nudge nudge, aren't we having fun with this horrible stuff' aspect as well. It no longer felt like a labor of love - more like a budgetary decision.

The Medium
Creepshow 2 is available via Netflix streaming. The image is fine, but it's not really a movie that demands a high-def picture. In general the cinematography is just above TV movie quality - a disappointment, seeing as the director is the cinematographer from the first film.

The Movie
I'm breaking this out by segments again.

Framing Sequence
The animated sequence this time runs more of a story throughout the film. It follows a young boy named Billy (no relation to the kid from the first film) as he excitedly receives a new copy of the Creepshow comic from The Creep himself (played by Tom Savini). Over the course of the film he receives a venus flytrap in the mail (ordered through the Creepshow comic, natch), runs afoul of some bullies who crush his precious flytrap, kicks one of the bullies in the crotch and flees to a deserted clearing where the bullies are devoured by enormous flytraps. The animation is serviceable, if jerky, and has no real mood or atmosphere to it.

"Old Chief Woodenhead"
This is a terrible segment. It follows an elderly couple who own a general store in a dying town. They've got a wooden, cigar store type indian out front that they call Chief Woodenhead. The local Native American elder gives them a number of tribal valuables as collateral for debt the tribe owes the kindly store keepers. Later the nephew of the elder kills the couple in a botched robbery. Old Chief Woodenhead comes to life and wreaks vengeance on the killers.

Does no one else find this problematic?

This is really annoying on a number of levels, but it's also just not very good. The effects are okay, but there's more time spent waxing poetic about the bad guys' hair then in the stalking and killing. And I have no idea what to make of the whole Native American/White paternal figure/Spirt of Vengeance crap.

"The Raft"
Just FYI, in Maine such a device - a free-floating wooden platform for swimmers - is called a float.

Two young couples head fifty miles into the middle of nowhere to go swimming at a lake in October. Some kind of malevolent oil slick stalks them and kills them one by one.

"Guys I think I'm okay."

This is actually one of my favorite King short stories (though it suffers from Inappropriate Sexy Times in both the print and film versions). This adaptation is... okay. Actually, it's not bad. It's definitely the best of the bunch. It's pretty suspenseful at times and the effects are fairly well done when the creature is attacking. At all other times it looks like a dirty floating tarp. The only likeable character is killed first, which leaves us with jackasses for most of the segment - but they all go in bad ways, so I guess that's okay.

"The Hitch-Hiker"
Wealthy adultress creams a hitch-hiker. Said hitch-hiker then keeps appearing as she goes to greater and greater lengths to rid herself of him. Each time he appears (more and more damaged from her attempts to dislodge/kill him) he mutters "Thanks. Thanks for the ride, lady."

"I'm just going to Brewer - you can let me off at the exit."

This one is okay too. Not great, not good, but okay. The gore effects are well done and the only humor in three segments is found in this one, particularly with the repetition of "Thanks for the ride, lady."

The Bottom Line
There's no heart in this film. While the first one had fun with the concept - lighting and framing and even the general tone of the segments - this one is simply a straightforward horror anthology dressed up with some animation. And it's not even a particularly good anthology. I'd suggest watching "The Raft" and skipping the rest.