Monday, November 30, 2009

Catch Some Cool Art at Forgotten Works this week!

My talented wife, Rita Bellanca, is one of fifty honored participants in the Forgotten Works Art Challenge, exhibiting at the Tashiro Kaplan Building in Pioneer Square, 315 Prefontaine Place South!

Thirty of her paintings will be on display, along with a lot of other great work from local artists, and the schedule is as follows:

Wednesday, December 2: Preview (no works for sale), 5 to 8pm
Thursday, December 3: The sale begins and runs from 5 to 9pm. This is a popular annual event, plus it's First Thursday in Pioneer Square, so make sure to arrive early: It will be busy!
Saturday, December 5, the gallery will also be open from noon to 5pm.

Rita's done a lot of great, great work (check out her Zazzle page and her Blog, Atomic War Bride, and prepare to be, well, Zazzled), so this is an outstanding opportunity for her work to be exhibited (and sold!).

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bizarro Movie Night at the Aster Coffee Lounge!

I've got mucho irons in the fire, friends, so the 'Dish may be a bit under-stocked in the coming couple of weeks.

HOWEVER! I will be hosting a Movie Night at the Aster Coffee Lounge in scenic Ballard, Washington and have created a Blog to summarily clarify/plug/pimp the blessed event. Feel free to stop by said Weblog at your leisure and say hello. And try to come out for the shindig!

I could be persuaded to pull my T-shirt halfway over my head, then bust out a baaad imitation of Vincent Price in The Pit and The Pendulum. Maybe. But one thing's for sure: I promise to deliver some seriously wiggy stuff...Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Have a Scary Story, and a Happy Halloween

As you read this, I'll be relaxing on the Oregon Coast with wife and dog. But Horrorpalooza must go on; hence, the inclusion of this for your Halloween.

Rather than break out another review, I thought I'd actually present a scary story. Five years ago, Rita and I vacationed in Romania, and one of the most eerily-inspiring places we visited was Snagov Monastery, an isolated house of worship reputedly housing the actual remains of Vlad the Impaler--the real Dracula.

The entire week we visited, the weather was in the mid-seventies and sunny (at the tail end of October, no less)...Except for the day we visited Snagov. Fog enshrouded everything, and a palpable chill cut through the air as we sat in a rowboat and traversed the lake route to the Monastery's location. It was sublimely, fabulously spooky.

I've been keeping the fiction writing muscles limber-ish via writing exercises in a Yahoo chat group. The conceit: A sentence is posted, and you have 15 minutes to write a story around it. Below is the result. Poe won't likely rise from his grave shouting hosanna's, but I thought this was sufficiently creepy to present as a Halloween gift to all twelve of you (and there ARE at least twelve of you, my Sitemeter told me so!) who've stuck it out with me lo these last couple of weeks. It's been fun.

Thanks, all, for reading. And Happy Halloween!

The Island was Surrounded by Fog

The whole rest of Sam's sojourn to Romania had been amidst mild, sunny skies and 70-some degree temperatures; except for Friday. The ghosts came out on Friday, and he went to Snagov Monastery to see them.

He'd been personally invited by Janos Czerny, one of the Monastery's acolytes, to explore the grounds on his last day. Czerny had been in correspondence with Sam extensively for the last four months, knew Sam's background in Eastern European Folklore. And Czerny knew that Sam wouldn't scare or sway easily. That was important.

They met at the bank of the lake, in front of an unspectacular row of newly-constructed houses that looked to Sam exactly like any bland suburban neighborhood in America, until he glanced down one cul-de-sac and observed two old women swathed in peasant dresses and dull blue scarves, carrying large bundles of sticks--kindling--on their stooped shoulders. He noticed one of them staring at him with brown eyes that were as cold as gravesite soil, but thought nothing of it.

"I've hired someone to take us there," Czerny said as he led Sam to a small rowboat moored at a small dock just off the main drag. An olive-skinned local--just a boy of fourteen, Sam figured--smiled and held his hand out. Czerny quickly handed the boy a handful of Romanian lei, and the metal-coated plastic coins clattered emptily. They could see no more than twenty feet beyond the boat. Snagov Island lay hidden evocatively beyond a dense layer of morning mist: The Island was surrounded by fog.

Sam's eyes shot alertly all 'round the boat as the boy rowed deliberately. Czerny sat at the front of the rowboat, holding a bible in his hand and sedately chanting in Romanian as his black eyes regarded Sam with respectful scrutiny. Sam stared back at him for a few seconds, then turned to look back at the dock as the off-white mouth of vapor lapped up at and swallowed the last vestige of the homogenized neighborhood they'd left.

It was like being snow-blind in a way, being in a boat on a fog-enshrouded body of water with nary a sound of bird, fish, vehicle, or human to stir the placid splashing of the oars against the lake's surface. After what seemed like one long, languid now, the turrets of Snagov pierced the white mist, and the boat crunched into the rocky shoreline of The Island.

Only one other American had been led by Czerny to this side of Snagov Island, a Princeton grad student named Theo Marstedt who shared Sam's fascination with (and major in) Eastern European Folklore. They'd had coffee just nine weeks ago, and Theo's shock of red hair was standing on end as he raved about an exclusive in to the only area of Snagov unsullied by tourist traffic. He told Sam about underground catacombs carved 'neath the Monastery by Vlad the Impaler himself to hide the Romanian ruler from the Turks who thirsted for his throne and life. "I'm gonna be the first American to see it," Theo told Sam in a conspiratory whisper as though the disinterested students glutting the coffee shop gave a damn.

Sam hadn't heard from Theo since the latter would've returned from this strange land where Porsches gave right-of-way to oxcarts likely passed from generation to generation for a century or more. And now Sam stood up shakily in the rowboat, setting foot on the softly-muddy earth of Snagov Island.

Czerny had strode ahead, gesturing for Sam to follow. The monk looked like a spectre as he pierced the mist that danced around him. Autumnal trees poked out of the pale green earth like gnarled, arthritic hands. Sam shuddered a little as he complied.

The Monastery loomed large and dark against the white fog, still undistinguished in its details because of the fog's thickness. Sam had never, in all his studies of the Monastery, ever seen a photograph or sketch of the building from this angle. The chill of the unknown insinuated itself against the back of his neck.

Just ahead of them was a small farmhouse, a simple structure of weathered and weary boards threaded up top by a branch-and-pitch roof. Outside, tethered to a fencepost by thick ropes, were three dogs--Two sulky hunting hounds, and what looked like some sort of Irish setter mix. The setter regarded Sam with interest, then began barking loudly.

Czerny, who'd moved silent and graceful ahead of Sam up until this point, stopped mid-stride awkwardly and turned towards the dog. The monk raised one bony hand and gestured at the dog with a few nuanced motions. Its loud caterwauling segued into a soft whimper. Something about the dog stuck with Sam, and he stared long at the canine. The dog looked back at him with a strange sense of familiarity, still whimpering what almost sounded like a warning.

It took just a few seconds for Sam to see what lay in the setter's eyes, peering worried and warning from beneath a shock of red hair. Surprise--and then dumb fear--rose in him.

"Theo..." Sam muttered as he felt Czerny's cold hand against the back of his neck.

The monk caressed the spot for several seconds, and Sam felt himself relax involuntarily. "Easy, boy...You'll be fine here," Czerny purred in broken English.

Sam barked softly in muted, futile protest.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Freakshow at the Cafe Racer, 10/29/09

It's fun being a fly on the wall at a freakshow.

Last night, I visited the Cafe Racer in Seattle's University District. On display were several great pieces of art--all inspired by old-school freakshow banners and posters--and a tassel of convivial and scary folks. 'Twas one hell of a great way to spend Halloween Eve Eve.

Cemetery Man: A Beautiful Nightmare Mess

I've always been a night owl.

It takes next to nothing for me to stay up longer and later than most normal mortals, and on weekends or days off I'll routinely stay awake until 2 or 3 in the a.m.

Writing during that time can be, in a strange way, fun. Sometimes, being up that late just turns you into a tired and punchy oaf the next day. But other times, drifting in that twilit state between consciousness and narcotic slumber stimulates great things. It's as if, when you're on that fine line, it opens up a door to untold wonders, beauties, nightmares, and imaginings.

That twilit time means so much to me that when I see a movie that truly, deeply captures it--that drowsily-heady point where dreams and wakefulness dance so closely that you can't tell them apart--I fall for it like a frilly-shirted poet gazing at some alabaster-skinned Edwardian muse. Cemetery Man is one of those movies.

Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) works as a caretaker at Buffalora Cemetery, a far-from-routine job made even less so by its interred's irksome tendency to return from the grave to devour the living. Aided by his mute sidekick Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), Dellamorte guns, stabs, shovels, and beats the undead back to death with deadpan workaday efficiency. Then one day, a voluptuous and sensual widow (Anna Falchi) strolls into Buffalora to bury her husband. Francesco's jaded exterior begins cracking; and he tumbles into an ill-fated romance, self-examination, nightmares, and madness--maybe--as a result.

I fell hard for this dark fairy tale, and for all of its rich and dense layers. Director Michele Soavi strikes the perfect tone between black humor, visceral horror, and strange romance. And his movie looks unlike any zombie movie you've ever seen, drawing from a palate that's equal parts Fellini, Romero, and Tim Burton.

Structurally, it works on myriad levels, brilliantly. It's funny as hell (the opening scene, with its deadpan humor offsetting the violence, is just drop-dead cool--and dig the cycle crash victim who's buried, fused to his hog), as strangely romantic as anything you'll see in a so-called chick flick, brimming with symbolism if you care to look for it (Francesco's musing on Gnaghi's love of dead leaves, Falchi's recurring reappearances as different women/different aspects of woman), possessive of a surprising vein of sweetness in places (as demented as it is, Gnaghi's guilelessly adorable romance with a disembodied head wouldn't be out of place in a warped John Hughes flick), and yet it still delivers on the chills, thrills, and gore front.

Soavi cut his teeth assistant-directing for the great Dario Argento, and it shows in the best way. His cinematographer Mauro Marchetti swoops, pans, and glides his camera across Buffalora with feline fluidity, and he captures some eerily-enchanting images, punctuating them with Argento-esque bursts of primary color and violence. Special effects wizard Sergio Stivaletti's zombies--plants, weeds, and trees sprouting from the ones that've resided in their graves for awhile--are unlike anything you've seen in a horror movie, too. All of this serves a literate script by Gianni Romoli that combines black humor, gothic romance, and sledgehammer horror shocks masterfully. This may be the first Italian horror movie I've ever seen where you actually savor the dialogue (it helps that much of it's delivered by Everett with low-key honesty). And Romoli sketches out some fascinating characters: The deadpan-philosophical Dellamorte and his sweet-natured mute of a sidekick Gnaghi make an odd but very funny pair, and the latter experiences Cemetery Man's happiest romance: Never mind that it's with a disembodied head (talk about shades of Tim Burton).

As Cemetery Man progresses, it gets more surreal, strange, and discomfiting, and the Grimm's gothic romance gives way to a bird's-eye view of Dellamorte's descent into insanity. In the last twenty minutes or so Soavi starts bending and manipulating the pocket universe he's created with the same disregard for linearity that David Cronenberg displayed in the closing reel of Videodrome. The utter insanity of the final reel initially bugged me, until I watched it again at twilight. At that hour, it all made sense: The visual and verbal cues, the final denouement, and Dellamorte's erratic and homicidal behavior all follow their own dream-logic. I haven't been led on a journey this strange, funny, and disturbing in a long time; and I want to go again...Just before I drift off to sleep.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dog Soldiers and The Descent: Neil Marshall, New Genre Hero

British filmmaker Neil Marshall's only directed three movies so far, but on the strength of the two I've seen, I'm willing to go out on a limb and proclaim him one of the most promising guys working in the horror genre today. His inaugural features, 2002's Dog Soldiers and 2005's The Descent, do their jobs so well that they transcend the genre.

Marshall's concise, lean style involves setting up a pretty basic fits-in-one-sentence synopsis, then turbo-charging it with clever, compact writing and solid characterizations. Seems simple enough, until you consider how few modern horror filmmakers actually get past the 'fits-in-one-sentence' part.

Dog Soldiers' conceit? A squad of British soldiers on a routine training mission in the Scottish wilds are besieged by a pack of lycanthropes, then they barricade themselves in a deserted cottage. So, yeah, it's basically a classic World War II action opus with werewolves and a dash of Night of the Living Dead stirred in.

The budget's punishingly low (admittedly, there are more convincing screen werewolves in the canon), but Dog Soldiers still nailed me to my seat, in part because of the script. The half-dozen soldiers at the movie's epicenter talk, act, and think like real hard-scrapple guys, and Marshall (who also wrote the screenplay) gives them all great, humorous tough-guy dialogue. The principals--Sean Pertwee as the commanding officer, Kevin McKidd of Rome fame as his no-bull second-in-charge, and Liam Cunningham as the resident not-so-nice special ops guy--all deliver, too.

Marshall also knows--big-time--how to jack up the tension. He sets up innumerable perils for his grunts, and engineers them with plausibility and merciless efficiency. By the time the movie's reached its fiery conflagration, the director's got his hooks in you but good.

He followed Dog Soldiers with The Descent in 2005. Again, the central concept could fit on the head of a pin. And again, Marshall makes it into something tense, taut, scary, and genre-transcending.

Fate levels an awful blow to young wife and mother Sarah (Shauna McDonald), and a year after her devastating loss she's on a camping trip with five of her best friends. The six women party and bond, then head into the Appalacian woods to go spelunking in an off-the-beaten-path cave, and the trouble--some of it rooted in their own foibles, some of it decidedly monstrous in nature--begins.

Even more than Dog Soldiers, The Descent transcends its pulpy concept. Marshall fleshes his characters out well in the movie's opening scenes, subtly laying out the individual personality traits that prefigure their fates later in the film. And he deserves commendation as much for what he doesn't do as for what he does: He never makes a big deal about his leads all being female; despite the Deliverance elements that surface, he never exploits them; and he avoids CGI, letting shadow, ambient sound, and good old-fashioned prosthetics (that's as close to a spoiler as you're gonna get, kids) aid and abet the story.

The claustrophobic cave setting's utilized brilliantly by Marshall: He turns the cavern labyrinth into a character in its own right. I love the way he uses only light from the women's own stash of flashlights, glowsticks, and lighters to illuminate the surroundings; and how the dark underlit corners of the frame seethe with potential peril. The Descent's principals, all unknown here in the states, do terrific ensemble work, and their relative anonymity as performers helps bolster that great unwritten commandment of a good horror movie: Anyone can die at any time.

Much has been made about The Descent's two endings--the more ostensibly optimistic US edit, and the darker original UK finale. Try to make sure you see the movie with the latter: It's as effective a coda as you'll see in a modern horror flick; elegant, sad, spooky, and ethereal, all at once.

Marshall's third feature, a post-apocalyptic thriller called Doomsday is high on my Netflix cue. If it's one-twentieth as good as Dog Soldiers or The Descent, it'll be another one to savor.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Scary Song o' the Day: Peter Gabriel, "Intruder"

Everyone associates Peter Gabriel with the jaunty pop of "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time." But right after he left prog-rockers Genesis, he put out three musically-innovative records that incorporated pop melodies with tribal percussion and atmospheric scariness.

"Intruder," from Gabriel's self-titled 1980 release, always chilled the living pants offa me. With it's pounding drums, tribal chants, atonal shards of guitar, and spastic xylophone break, the song always sounded like it belonged in a horror movie. This brief entry for today is a cop-out of sorts--sorry, all--but revisiting this horrific piece of music was almost as good as watching a horror movie. Almost.

Stay tuned for more scary in the next couple of days...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Exor-Sistah is Doin' it for Herself: Abby

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed The Exorcism of Emily Rose--a classy, tasteful treatment of possible demonic possession populated with A-list Oscar nominees and shot with polish and care. Respectful and respectable as it was, it kinda left me a little cold.

Tonight I viewed Abby, a cheap Exorcist rip-off from 1974. It's lustily potty-mouthed, silly as hell, moves like a chicken with its ass on fire, and doesn't give a hang as to how respectable it is.

Guess which one I liked better.

Abby's backstory reflects almost as much drama and silliness as the movie itself...Almost. When The Exorcist became a massive box office hit back in 1973, it unleashed a slew of filmic imitations both here and abroad. It seemed like damn near everywhere you turned, local theaters and drive-ins were overflowing with heretofore innocent women vomitting pea soup thanks to the influence of some pesky demon-of-the-week.

This proliferation of demonic-possession movies did not go unnoticed by The Exorcist's benefactor, Warner Brothers. The big studio soon brought the legal hammer down hard, threatening to sue the producers of every one of these Exorcist knock-offs for plagarism. Before the legal system called bull on Warners, Abby was yanked from theaters, the most significant victim of this litigious carpet-bombing.

Abby went nigh-unseen for decades, last playing theaters in the seventies and never receiving a legal release on VHS or laserdisc. Finally, in 2003 Cinefear Releasing put it out on DVD.  And thank God (or someone significantly less wholesome) that they did, because Abby is, to quote the eminent Snoop Dogg, the shizzle.

William Marshall plays Bishop Williams, a man of the cloth whose archaeological digging in Africa releases a Nigerian sex demon (yep, you read right). In addition to horniness, said demon nurses one big-assed mean streak, so it wreaks vengeance by demonically possessing Bishop Williams' daughter-in-law, Abby (Carol Speed). One minute, the young woman's singing in the choir and serving as a marriage counselor at her church; the next she's kicking her husband Emmet (original Battlestar Galactica star Terry Carter) in the hacky-sacks, spitting up white bile, slapping old ladies around, and cussing like a gangsta rapper in a Barry-White-gargles-Drano scary voice.

William Girdler's mind-broiling The Manitou received some Petri Dish adoration during Horrorpalooza 2007, and he also directs here. If anything, Abby actually tops that movie's over-the-top loopiness. I suppose you could read below the surface and see this little low-budget chiller as an extreme meditation on the release of a repressed young woman's libido by the Sexual Revolution. Then again, you can just take the movie's tassel of goofy dialogue ("Whatever possessed you to do a thing like that?!") and wild-assed moments (Abby causes one of Emmet's friends to literally go up in smoke when she jumps his bones in the back of a car) at delicious face value.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose reaches its climax in a musty old courtroom with earnest moral debates about theology's influence on the mentally-fragile; Abby ends with a hellzapoppin' encounter in a stone-soul nightclub packed to the rafters with badazz stylin' mofos in flares, floppy hats, and platforms. Emily Rose's exorcist is a gentle priest who may be completely nuts; Abby's savior Bishop Williams is a towering, decisive asskicker who disgorges multilingual exorcism chants with Shakespearean richness. The priest in Emily Rose fights off the devil by reading bible passages and accidentally killing the possessed woman in his charge; Bishop Williams defeats the Nigerian Sex Demon by dissing the hell out of its candied ass until it runs away whimpering, and Abby walks away from the whole experience alive and well. And you ponder why Abby made me happy to be alive while The Exorcism of Emily Rose merely made me nod respectfully?

If you do get your hands on the Cinefear DVD of Abby (and you're a blithering ninny if you don't at least try to), be prepared for your eyes to hurt. The print looks like it was marinating for the last three decades in a vat of cooking oil, and the audio's nearly as bad. But it's worth it to catch one of the most fun 'lost films' of the 1970's at long last. Don't believe me? Get a load of the enclosed clip courtesy of YouTube, and be ready to have the top of yer head blown off. To quote Abby herself, my soul is a witness.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Random Bits of Fright and F@$kery, 2009 Edition

I've got some real goodies in the offing if I may say so, kids, but none are close enough to completion to finish rapidly. Included are retrospectives on everything from a stately Universal classic to one of the best overlooked zombie flicks of the last twenty years. But they're gonna have to wait.

The relentlessness of this weekend (Relaxation...Wuzzat?) prohibits me from being able to pour much time into this here entry, so I will openly cop out and give you a visual tour of some horror highlights, courtesy of YouTube...

Not totally sold on the charms of The Incredible Melting Man after the rave in this here corner of the Blogosphere? Mayhaps this trailer will convince you...

...And if you're looking to replicate my Parkland Theater experience in microcosm, you should thrill to this trailer for the very entertaining Without Warning, Melting Man's partner in double-feature crime.

Enjoy this trailer for The Pit and the Pendulum, a Roger Corman Poe classic..."Nicholas...NICholas..."

One in-depth Petri Dish piece in the works involves the Knights Templar zombie movies from Amando De Ossorio. They made their way to US drive-ins in the seventies, and Blue Underground's lovingly assembled a beautiful box set in their homage. Here's a trailer from one of the best, Return of the Evil Dead...

Don't know who Paul Naschy is? Get thee to this Horrorpalooza archival link for some schoolin', and then enjoy this trailer for The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman (aka Werewolf Shadow)...

Gotta run. A live rock show waits to be reviewed. But tomorrow, the monsters will return!!

Four Flies on Grey Velvet: Dry Run for Horror's Most Gifted Savant

The arrival of Dario Argento's 1972 giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet on domestic DVD is kind of a horror-nerd big deal. Legal loopholes had kept it away from legit US issue for a lot of years, and it's one of the few films from his ouevre that I hadn't seen.

So how is it? Bottom Line, it's nothing to write home about, but it does offer an intriguing view into the evolution of one of horror's great visual stylists.

Rock drummer Roberto (Michael Brandon) is followed for days on end by a gaunt, suspicious-looking bald man. Freaked out and ultimately fed up with the man's presence, Roberto confronts him, and in a struggle the musician accidentally kills the stranger. For some reason, a weird voyeur happens to be on hand taking pictures of Roberto having just committed the crime, and soon incriminating photos and harrassing phone calls commence. Then, people around Roberto begin dying violently.

Four Flies opens with a beautifully-shot and creatively-framed scene set against one of Rob's recording sessions. It courses with so much energy and imagination that it builds up anticipation for something amazing. Sadly, that's not quite the case.

Argento's protagonists--male or female--are often innocent or passive souls to whom myriad strange shocks and adventures happen, but the very bland Brandon takes this to the extreme. His utter absence of charisma, and his frequently impassive presence make him truly dull, even by Argento's not-exactly-character-driven film standards. And the director was still getting his sea legs at this point: While Argento's gift for masterful gruesome setpieces was already in full-flower, his pacing wasn't, here: Four Flies just sorta drags in places.

As a devoted fan of the Italian director (see here and here if you don't believe me), though, I was fascinated throughout. Four Flies really does feel like a dry run for Argento's stone-classic 1975 giallo, Deep Red: Both films share frame compositions that draw from Edward Hopper paintings,  both borrow from Hitchcock's wrong-man setups with vigor, and both are peopled with all sorts of truly strange characters. And the big reveal of the culprit may not be much of a surprise, but how Roberto accidentally discovers said perp's ID at the end shows customary imagination. It's not executed to Argento's usual furiously-paced and terrifying standards, but there are worse ways to spend ninety-odd minutes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I Heart Uwe Boll. Frickin' Sue Me.

I'll say it loud and proud: Uwe Boll, contrary to what every mainstream critic in the country (no, the, the SOLAR SYSTEM) might say, is NOT the worst director in the world...At least not by my criteria.

Hollywood routinely excretes movies much worse than Boll's; generic, faceless, focus-grouped-to-death pieces of product slicker than the proverbial duck's ass but utterly bereft of personality. I'll assert that workmanlike hacks like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner deserve way more derision than the notorious German director ever will.

This supposition is based on a simple litmus test: Uwe Boll's movies entertain the hell out of me. Are they polished? Nope. Subtle? Uh-uh. Are they fun? Hells, yes.

Boll stands out amongst the Bays and Ratners of today not because he makes films for less money, but because he belongs in another era, alongside B-movie directors like Al Adamson and Ed Wood. Like those two filmmakers, the Teutonic titan makes lowbrow movies from his own gut, movies that--absurd and cheap as they sometimes are--possess a distinctive personality and a loopy energy all their own. I've fallen asleep during Bay and Ratner epics, but never during an Uwe Boll movie.

Boll's aesthetic never aspires to great art. He's a goofy, hyperactive kid intent on piling everything that'll satisfy the ids, bloodlusts, and libidos of other goofy hyperactive kids into his movies (hell, most of Boll's movies are adaptations of video games, themselves hotbeds of adolescent gratification). They're written with the florid literalism of really simple comic books. Judge 'em on any level beyond that, and of course they'll fall short. But my informal double-feature of two Uwe Boll epics--Alone in the Dark and Bloodrayne--gave me way more pleasure than higher-profile big-budger stuff like X-Men 3 or the fourth Indiana Jones movie.

In Alone in the Dark Christian Slater plays Edward Carnby, a paranormal investigator trying to figure out why there's a big blank spot in his memories as a child in an orphanage. So what's up? The central threat revolves around about how he and his fellow orphans were infected by monstrous parasites that turn everybody into testy super-strong zombies two decades later; and Native American magic; and computer-generated, quadrupedal faux-Alien monsters that've been unleashed by that Native American mojo, I guess.

Truth be told, the plot's immaterial: Boll pragmatically uses the convoluted storyline as a coat rack upon which he drapes a few of his favorite things. Inside of ten minutes, there's a random car crash and a big fight between Carnby and a chrome-domed parasite infectee (the latter ends up impaled on a stray piece of metal jutting from a fish cart). Soon, a CGI alien-rhino thing eats a security guard in a museum. Then a squadron of secret government soldiers burst into the meal site (a museum) and the monster makes short work of them, too.

Boll totally trims all of the fat, gouging pieces of plot and continuity meat away in the process: The soldiers are part of a covert paranormal agency that used to employ Carnby, a plot element summarized in one concise sentence. We never see Carnby actually investigate anything aside from his own past; and the fact that he lives in a spiffy gothic-tinged loft and wears a wardrobe adapted by a lot of the movie's target nerd demographic (Matrix leather coat and wife-beater) does nothing to illuminate his character: Again, it's all about the cool things. I, for one, got a kick out of Boll's refreshingly direct approach: After all, why putz around with characterization and plot advancement when there are skulls to be split, mass firearms to be discharged, and enough monsters to make your head explode?

Like a good lunkheaded hard-rock band, Boll steals from the best--a pinch of X-Files here, a dash of Aliens there, one cup of The Relic, four heaping tablespoons of The Matrix stirred in--with a childlike enthusiasm that's easy to get caught up in, if you just go with it.

Speaking of going with it, some major, major, MAJOR suspension of disbelief is required to swallow American Pie chippie Tara Reid as an archaeologist, and it's something to see how Boll works around Reid's mouth-breathing performance. Half of her dialogue is delivered while the camera's on another character (all the better for post-production during the starlet's fleeting moments of sobriety), and the two sentences of exposition about the ancient Native American tribe she's supposedly studying get delivered by the same security guard who ends up being CGI alien-food a few minutes later.

Fun as Alone in the Dark is, though, it's got nothin' on Bloodrayne, a period costumer/horror movie that takes Uwe Boll's more-is-more aesthetic to its zenith. Kristanna Loken of Terminator 3 fame plays the title character, a titian-haired half-human half-vampire (excuse me, Dhampir) who joins up with a band of vampire hunters known as the Brimstone gang, to avenge her mother's death by the hand of evil vampire lord Kagan (Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley).

More pilfering/synthesis goes on here, with Bloodrayne playing like a blood-soaked low-budget Lord of the Rings filtered through Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. It replicates key scenes/levels from its videogame source, but branches off in all manner of oddball directions, and Boll again uses the screenplay as the springboard to uber-gratification of his inner little boy. Characters in Bloodrayne don't just get stabbed or bitten; they're sliced open in a volcanic arterial spray if they're not energetically parted from their heads and limbs amidst Vesuvius-style gushers of plasma; and gratuitous boobage abounds. It all gallops at a rapid pace, literally: Whenever things threaten to slow down Boll throws one of his characters onto a rapidly-sprinting horse for a long tracking shot.

The cast adds to the loopiness, oscillating between hyper-enthusiastic intensity (Loken treats this like her star-making role, she's so intense), campy scenery-chewing (you have NOT lived a full life until you witness arena-rock god Meat Loaf emoting in a white poodle wig as a foppish vampire pimp), and obvious discomfort (Petri Dish fave tough guy Michael Madsen amusingly derided the movie and his role when Rita and I met him at a Hollywood Collectors' Show three years ago). And talk about strange bedfellows (again): In addition to Madsen, Loaf, and Loken, Michelle Rodriguez turns up as a vampire fighter alongside Madsen and company; Michael Pare (Eddie in Eddie and the Cruisers) sells weapons; Geraldine Chaplin tells fortunes; Udo Kier gnaws at scenery in a monk's robe; and Titanic's resident rat-bastard Billy Zane camps it up in a wig almost as ridiculous as Meat Loaf's. Oh, and did I mention that Mahatma Gandhi plays a vampire king?

No, neither of these movies is even close to being what conventional wags'd call good. But they entertained the hell outta me. And you could argue a stronger case for the auteur theory with Boll than with Michael Bay or Brett Ratner. Both Alone in the Dark and Bloodrayne incorporate buried childhood memories as key plot elements, and Boll's enthusiasm for bloodletting provides a colorful aesthetic thread through these two films. His coda at Bloodrayne's end is a highlights reel of all of the meatiest, bloodiest, spurtiest death scenes from the preceding ninety minutes. Thank God the man's got his priorities straight.    

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue: One Scary Trip to the Country

Any horror movie that turns placid natural surroundings into a garden of fetid, horrific menace earns major props from this corner. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue manages that rare hat trick, and much more.

It first surfaced in theaters in 1974 under about a dozen different alternate titles--Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Don't Open the Window, Breakfast at Manchester Morgue, and a few others. Such chronic retitling usually signals a stinker, but The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue couldn't be further from it.

In this Spanish-Italian co-production, antiques dealer George (Ray Lovelock) hops on his motorcycle and departs the tumult of bustling London for some relaxation in the country. En route, his bike's totalled by Edna (Christine Galbo), a young woman likewise heading to the remote countryside to visit her sister. George insinuates his way into her car and insists on her taking him to his new house in the tiny English hamlet of Windemere. They stop near a small cemetery, and when George leaves the car to ask for directions, a creepy old derelict attempts to attack Edna. Said vagrant turns out to be a presumed-dead suicide, and soon it's clear (to the heroes, at least) that corpses are rising from the grave and devouring the living.

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue's producers just wanted a horror movie patterned after George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, but like Romero, Spaniard Jorge Grau (Morgue's director) managed to sneak in a ton of subtext and nuance with the chills.

Morgue superficially follows the Romero template--the vagrant's out-of-nowhere attack on Edna echoes Barbara's victimization in Night, and both movies share decidedly un-cheery endings--but Grau forges his own sensibility early on. Morgue is largely shot in the relaxing verdant green of the English countryside, and the film moves at a languid, dreamlike stride that's distinctive from Romero's staccato EC comic of a chiller (Morgue's minimalist soundtrack, with its ambient synths and malevolently-whispering wind gusts, adds to the fever-dream feel). The topicality implied in NOTLD gets explicitly spelled out here: experimental radiation causes these flesheaters to rise from the English earth; and dividing lines are sharply etched between the young, liberal George and Edna and bitter local cop Arthur Kennedy, an Irish redneck who derides their dress and hairstyles and accuses them of being drug-addled hippies.

Don't let all this subtext scare you into thinking that The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is just a post-Flower-Power-era polemic, though. Grau doesn't skimp on the gutmunching. And the final reel, in which George winds up falsely accused of murder and on the run from the law amidst a zombie infestation, is every bit as nerve-rattling as anything in Romero's zombie classics.

Blue Underground's US DVD release of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue packs a ton of extras onto its second disc, including interviews with leading man Lovelock (who reveals that character actor Kennedy was likely channeling some real-life anger into his role), Grau, and special effects man Giannetto De Rossi. There's also a fascinating featurette called "Back to the Morgue", in which the director gives viewers a guided tour of the movie's rural English locations. Just more evidence that a great director can make anyplace--no matter how restful or peaceful--scary as hell.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jonny Quest: It'll Scare you Spitless

I loved Scooby-Doo as a kid, but it always gave a little horror-loving moppet like me (prepare for crudity, folks...) the prepubescent equivalent of blue-balls.

Yeah, the comic interplay between Scooby and Shaggy (the Cheech and Chong of Saturday Morning Kiddie Kartoons) still holds up, and I sorta had dual crushes on Velma and Daphne. But in the end, every monster in the Scooby Rogue's Gallery turned out to be some greedy hoaxster schmuck in a costume, faking monster-dom in an attempt to get at a pile of treasure or to close down some old motel. Even as a tyke, I felt a little gypped. But Jonny Quest never let me down.

Jonny Quest was a vigorously-syndicated 1964 cartoon show also produced by the brains behind Scooby-Doo, William Hanna and Joe Barbera. In decided contrast to Scooby's slapshticky shenanigans, Jonny Quest ran in a world of excitement, danger,...and scary stuff that frequently turned out to be chillingly real. It only lasted one season, but it grew legs in syndication and ended up inspiring a whole generation of animators, including Pixar's Brad Bird and Christopher McCulloch (AKA Jackson Publick, creator of the hilarious Quest spoof The Venture Brothers).

The title character was a precocious blond kid whose dad, geniuser-than-genius scientist Benton Quest, built everything from supersonic jets to massive laser cannons. The Quests investigated all manner of strange wonders and skullduggery with the help of Jonny's snake-charming Hindu prince buddy Hadji and the Quests' personal assistant/jet pilot/asskicker Roger 'Race' Bannon. Oh, and Jonny had a spunky, pugnacious little dog, Bandit.

The series took lumps from bluenoses because of its violence (killjoy parents...Grrr...) and some of the racial stereotypes (never mind that the show actually shows an Indian boy being treated with respect by his fellow adventurers). But it still stands as one of the coolest animated shows on TV, with a distinctive pulp-comic look courtesy of creator Doug Wildey, an indisputably great horn-punctuated Hoyt Curtin theme song, and a merciless edge decades ahead of its time: The good guys threw punches and kicked ass when necessity dictated, bad guys frequently displayed complex political motivations, and people actually died...Sometimes very violently.

Most of the time Jonny Quest traversed James Bond-style pathways, and many of Jonny's and Hadji's provided a lighter touch, but a few episodes veered squarely into nightmare territory. In "The Curse of Anubis," an Egyptian professor steals a sacred relic from one of the ancient Pyramids in an effort to unite his people against foreign interests (pretty heady stuff for a kid's cartoon). He ends up re-animating a massive, very frightening mummy who crushes the Egyptian prof to death in a cave-in. Elsewhere, a giant robotic spider, single red eye glowering, tears up a military base in "The Robot Spy".

There were spooky voodoo inferences ("The Dreadful Doll," which sports a scarily-wide-eyed mesmerised little zombified girl), carnivorous giant reptiles barely contained by a bald, bug-eyed villain ("Dragons of Ashida"), and a people-disintegrating energy beast straight out of Forbidden Planet ("The Invisible Monster").

But the most terrifying episode of Jonny Quest, and one of the creepiest animated half-hours you'll ever see, is "The Sea Haunt." Jonny and company land their super-plane on a deserted freighter, only to discover that the crew's either been picked off by (or fled from) a giant aquatic dinosaur-man. Dr. Quest reads passages from the captain's log, describing the monster's vicious path of mayhem in gruesome detail. Then the monster smashes the jet, marooning Jonny, Dr. Quest, Race, and Hadji (along with an admittedly un-PC Chinese cook) in the middle of the Java Sea. The giant monster's scary as hell, and Curtin's score really rattles the nerves in places. If Aliens director James Cameron denies having ever seen this as a kid, he's a bloody liar as well as an egotistical twinkie.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Still Not Out on DVD: The Incredible Melting Man

Every dyed-in-the-wool film buff has their personal cinematic Lost Ark: That indelible movie classic that's haunted them for years, yet somehow evaded release on DVD.

For some film obsessives, it's John Huston's The African Queen. Others may bemoan the absence of Nicholas Ray's noir western Johnny Guitar from the domestic digital front (Criterion, incidentally, is supposedly remedying this, soon).

Me, I would readily don the fedora and brave Indiana Jones-style perils for the love of...The Incredible Melting Man.

In an era when even the most obscure vintage horror schlock makes it to the Digital Age (and when something like, oh, Dracula 3000 can be purchased at any frickin' video store), the absence of this mean-spirited little curio from the DVD pantheon sorta surprises me. It's gruesome, gloriously silly, and features makeup effects by a young Rick Baker--all prime reason for digital immortality. I lamented this gem's absence of a domestic DVD incarnation three years ago, and its elusiveness still taunts me.

We share a strange friendship, the Melting Man and I. He first reared his drippy head in 1977 and I was there at the outset, a dorky ten-year-old dragging my ever-patient mom to the local military theater on a school night. Deep down, I knew we weren't gonna exactly be watching Annie Hall (go here for a detailed assessment of the military theater's place in the Drive-In Era Hierarchy of Crap). But The Incredible Melting Man stuck with me like gooey liquified flesh affixed to a doorknob.

Six years later, I saw it again on a double-bill at the late, great Parkland Theater with another yet-to-surface-on-DVD B-chiller, Greydon Clark's Without Warning. During this encore viewing I laughed so loud that the manager asked me to pipe down or face eviction (this, just before a giggling party boy in the back rolled an empty beer bottle down the aisle).

These fond memories induced me to unearth my beat-up VHS copy of The Incredible Melting Man for a peek. And Dear God in Silk Jammies, it still serves up the grotty low-budget goods.

The Incredible Melting Man belongs to that unheralded but beloved sub-genre of science-fiction; the Returning-Astronaut-Turns-Monstrous film, represented in fine fashion by the classic British sci-fi epic The Creeping Unknown, and the underrated 1958 US thriller First Man into Space. Here, space explorer Steve West (Alex Rebar) flies a mission to explore the rings of Saturn, and he brings back a radioactive virus that sets him to melting like an extra-grotesque candle.

Of course, had it just stopped there, IMM would just be another disease-of-the-week movie--An ickier version of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, maybe. But this being a horror flick, there are complications. Steve's extreme case of eczema rots his brain, infuses him with super-strength, and turns him into a ravenous cannibal who ravages the town even as he disintegrates like Margaret Hamilton under a bucket of water.

Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning), an old pal of West's from his pre-gory-puddle days, runs around waving a geiger counter and making astute remarks like, "Oh, God...It's his ear!" His only backup for much of the movie, General Perry (Myron Healy), mocks Nelson for putting up with a nagging wife and freeloads leftovers from the doctor's fridge.

Viewed with grown-up eyes, The Incredible Melting Man plays less like a straight horror flick and more like a crude spoof of one (thereby rendering the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment it received years ago thuddingly redundant). Director William Sachs dispenses with even the slightest backstory, and reels off each of the Grilled Cheese Astronaut's attacks with zero subtlety and nary a whit of suspense: Blood, guts, and glop fly freely, but rather than offend or nauseate, the movie's over-the-top nasty streak induces (maybe not entirely unintentional) giggles; like a grade Z sci-fi flick directed by South Park's Eric Cartman.

The movie's seventies vintage surfaces hysterically, in all sorts of odd corners. Sensitive Dr. Nelson simpers about the cramp a melting super-strong cannibal's gonna put on his wife's pregnancy; the General picks on the poor schmuck for putting up with his spouse's nagging, then Mother-Hens him into keeping the whole gloppy mess covered up Watergate-style; and the everybody-dies finale plays like the downbeat conclusion of every downbeat horror movie of the decade, only written on a Lite-Brite. The actors play it all uber-straight--DeBenning appears to have walked off of the set of an earnest family drama by mistake, and Healey made a mini-career out of impersonating stout-voiced, barrel-chested military men in movies like this and Varan the Unbelievable.

If you like some gore with your cheese, IMM also delivers. Mr. Melty chews an obese nurse's face off, rips a poor fisherman's head from his body and tosses the forceably-liberated noggin down a waterfall (it splits nicely on some rocks at the bottom), eats Nelson's mother-in-law, gets his arm hacked off with a meatcleaver, and fries the local sheriff on some extra-sparky electrical wiring (among other misdeeds of varying severity).

Since we've already talked about bad-horror-movie-strange-bedfellows this week, it bears mentioning that director Jonathan Demme spends a minute or two in front of the camera as a possible Melting Man Happy Meal. And if the thought of the director of Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia sporting a porn-star moustache and getting devoured by a melting cannibal doesn't fill you with unbridled and unrestrained joy, you've wandered into the wrong blog by mistake, Bucky.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dracula 3000: Top Your Crappy Horror with A Dollop of Coolio Whip

I've spent a good five minutes working on a zingy introduction to this exploration of yet another crappy direct-to-video horror schlocker; but then I realized that Dracula 3000 ain't even worth that much effort. This from a guy who's spent a lot of time contemplating really lousy horror movies.

What we've got here, friends and neighbors, is an incredibly cheap and impossibly incompetent weld of cheesy vampire flick and one of those Sci-Fi Channel thrillers in which several B-grade actors run around in a darkly-lit factory or airplane hanger that's shoddily standing in for the interior of a spaceship. I guess that makes it a cross-genre effort by crappy home-video standards.

Set in (you guessed it) the year 3000, Dracula 3000 follows the crew of an intergalactic salvage ship as it stumbles across the Demeter, a deserted transport ship packed lots of coffins. Greedy crew members, searching for possible drugs in the coffins, smash some of the caskets open. One reckless crewman cuts his hand, and his blood oozes onto one coffin's contents--a pile of sand. The sand then turns into a guy with fangs, a cape, and a silly white turtleneck, and the fun (relatively speaking, at least) begins.

The only demographic remotely served by Dracula 3000 would be a masochist like me, the kind of mook who'd endure nearly ninety minutes of  numbing, unfun incompetence for the rococco charms of a strange-bedfellows cast that includes strong-jawed home-video hero Casper Van Dien, ex-Baywatch babe Erika Eleniak, beloved Teutonic scenery-chewer Udo Kier, veteran big lug 'Tiny' Lister...and Coolio.

Yes, that Coolio--The one-hit wonder with the bitchin' medusa braids. And he's the undisputed highlight of Dracula 3000...Not that that's saying much.

The rapper normally gives the kind of woozy "Thanks for the Weed Money Paycheck" performance pioneered by Ice Cube. But here, the man behind 'Gangsta's Paradise' goes thoroughly gonzo, intermittently charging this dull throbbing toothache of a movie with a hearty dose of cartoonish glee.

Here he plays 187, the reckless crew member who accidentally unleashes the vampire threat, and once he's infected with the vampire virus, he becomes the movie's surrogate Renfield. 187 rolls his red-contact-lensed eyes and gnashes his fanged choppers with gusto as he throws the rest of the hapless crew through glass shelves and delivers a profane monologue about co-star Eleniak's pneumatically-enhanced figure. If Tex Avery's Big Bad Wolf took a salty cue from 2 Live Crew's Luke Skywalker, he'd act and sound like this.

Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you can spare yourself the unparalleled agony of sitting through all 86 minutes of Dracula 3000 and enjoy (or at least gaze in slack-jawed WTF wonder at) this bold thespian's effort by going here. Be warned that the dialogue ain't the remotest bit work-appropriate, and that it's crude, infantile and sexist as hell. But the sheer shamelessness of it elevated this little cooked-carrot fart to crazy rotten-egg status for a few brief moments. Just don't think too hard about the fact that Dracula 3000 was written and directed by Darrell Roodt, who helmed the moving and acclaimed Cry The Beloved Country eighteen years previous. Otherwise you might get depressed.

Adolescence Sucks, Literally: Let the Right One In

I've said it a million times, but only because it still holds true: Really good horror movies--the ones that live in your memory and dreams/nightmares long after you're finished watching them--are essentially dark fairy tales; veiled allegories for universal truths and subconscious fears that connect with viewers on a level deeper than just a jump and a spontaneous scream. That element makes Let the Right One In not just the best new horror film I've seen this year--It makes it one of the best I've ever seen, period.

Withdrawn kid Oskar leads a solitary and monochromatic life in a Swedish suburb. He occupies himself by collecting morbid newspaper clippings, and faces a coldly-manipulative bully every day at school. Then a girl his age, Eli, moves in next door. She's a weird kid who walks barefoot through the snowy Swedish countryside every night. Her father's blocked all of their apartment windows from the sun's rays, and she has this habit of appearing out of nowhere. It's quickly obvious that Eli's a vampire, but Oskar finds a kindred spirit in this square peg, and a close friendship blooms between the two of them.

Let the Right One In proceeds at a leisurely pace, taking its languid cue from the alabaster peacefulness of the snowy Swedish countyside, but it's far from dull. The dream-state it creates is punctuated by swatches of gallows humor, and by some incredibly imaginative and terrifying setpieces that'll haunt you long after the film's ended. It works on myriad levels--It tells an affecting coming-of-age story for young Oskar, packs a significant symbolic punch with the character of Eli (she's Oskar's pent-up violence let loose as well as a potent metaphor for budding female maturity), and captures a child's-eye view by deliberately de-emphasizing most of the adult characters physically as well as aesthetically.

If you know your vampires you'll also love how director Tomas Alfredson and his screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist point up genre cliches. Let the Right One In pays all due respect to the conventions of vampire lore, but isn't afraid to goose things up with doses of reality, common sense, and humor: I don't think I've ever seen a movie in which someone attempting to harvest blood for a vampire almost gets a poodle. Yet it still delivers shocks by the bucket (the less revealed about them, the better).

The relationship between Oskar and Elli, however, forms the movie's soul, and the two young actors portraying these characters are stunning. Kare Hedebrandt's Oskar looks, feels and acts like a real kid: He's awkward and insular, but begins to blossom under Elli's attentions. And Lina Leandersson makes an incredibly charismatic and otherworldly dark angel, trapped in the unassuming body of a very normal-looking girl. Her incredibly expressive eyes mirror (quite appropriately, of course) much more experience, wisdom, and destructive violence than her regular-girl features initially let on.

Hollywood's reputedly optioned an Americanized version of Let the Right One In. I'm sure it'll completely torpedo everything unique and wonderful about the original, so it's extra-important to catch Tomas Alfredson's masterful contribution to the genre before Hollywood turns his gorgeous Bach concerto of a horror movie into the cinematic equivalent of a Hannah Montana music video.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Blacula Dynamite: Hasty Scrawls from the Precipice of Too Busy

I'm jam-packed with work and a music show to review for the SunBreak tonight, then more work tomorrow, so today's missive will be brief, meandering, and nuts.

First, a plug for a non-horror flick hitting theaters this weekend.

I caught Black Dynamite at the Seattle International Film Festival a few months back, and I haven't laughed so gut-constrictingly hard since Borat. It's a blaxploitation parody so funny that you don't have to be a Black Action Cinema aficionado to appreciate it; yet it reproduces that era so spot-perfectly that it coulda fit right in on a double bill with Coffy or Dolemite back in the day. BD belongs in that great pantheon of movies-spoofing-movies inhabited by Airplane and Young Frankenstein. Go see it before you throw your bucks at the sure-to-be-good Where the Wild Things AreBD needs the money much more, and you won't regret it. Believe it , Bruthas and Sistas.

About the only afro-centric 70's flick that doesn't get Dynamited in BD is Blacula, the 1970's redux of the classic bloodsucker that's available on the Soul Cinema imprint (how's that for a segue?). Entertainment Weekly, in its (justified) praise of Wesley Snipes' badassed Blade, took a decidedly unjustified swipe at Blacula as 'minstrelsy'. Oh, well, it's not the first time EW's hit the crack pipe too hard.

William Marshall plays the title character, an African prince vampirized by the original Drac and sealed in a coffin for 100 years. He's set loose upon modern LA, and this being the Bell-Bottom Era it's one awesome ride. Booty-shaking songs by The Hues Corporation, some real shocks (the scene in the morgue with character great Elisha Cook Jr. getting attacked still sets me to a'shudderin'), primo fashions...and Marshall gives a world-shakingly great performance as Blacula. Proud, menacing yet elegant, his rich baritone giving even the pulpiest lines rock-of-Gibraltar gravitas (he was a world-class Shakespearean thespian earlier in his career), he's one of the cinema's greatest vampires; brainless EW revisionism be damned.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cuisine Review: Franken Berry, Count Chocula, Boo Berry

I actually take pride in eating pretty damned healthy most of the time--easy on the processed sugars, lots of veggies, and water as my usual beverage of choice. But a massive rush of childhood nostalgia hit me in Target the other day, and I could not resist its demon call.

There, snuggled cozily between Target's overstock of The Notebook DVD's and a shelf of Wheat Thins sat three icons of my childhood: The General Mills Monster Cereals, Franken Berry, Count Chocula, and Boo Berry. And at $1.99 a box, the missus and I just had to take some home.

I'd been oblivious to their current status--forsaking these cereals' Creature-ific existence in favor of the grown-up cereals like Total and Smart Start--but General Mills redoubled distribution of these three cereals especially for Halloween. I vowed I would eat Count Chocula, Franken Berry, and Boo Berry again for the first time since the age of ten--nutritive correctness be damned.

A bit of background may be in order. The early 1970's marked a turning point in pop-culture perceptions of the traditional movie monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Werewolf, and the Mummy saw their positions as scare generators gradually erode throughout the 1960's, but by the time the seventies rolled around, the Vietnam War and mass socio-cultural upheaval had effectively de-fanged the Classic Monsters and turned them into warm-and-fuzzy pals. And into breakfast cereals.

The General Mills Monster Cereals all followed the same pattern visually. A cute cartoon version of a classic monster adorned the mostly-white box. The cereal itself consisted of puffed corn flour pieces and those flavored marshmallows that possess the texture of squeaky styrofoam when dry. Of course the patently artificial colors varied from pink (Franken Berry) to Blue (Boo Berry) to Brown (Count Chocula), and the flavors (as I'd remembered them, at least) were as gloriously artificial as the colors that seduced undiscerning sugar-craving monster-happy kids.

In lieu of busting out this fine dining in front of a TV screen during Saturday morning cartoons (are there such things anymore?), I decided to stay up 'til an ungodly hour this Friday night/Saturday morning to give you, dear reader, the unvarnished scoop on what these damned things taste like today. So while I dug into a viewing of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, I also dug into a bowl or two (or three, to be exact) of breakfast cereal. The agonies I go through for my readership...

The purist in me misses the original white boxes (the new ones look too slick and glossy for me), but the actual cereal itself skewed reassuringly consistent with the old memories.

I came out of my informal taste test liking Count Chocula the least. Chocolate-flavored cereals always seemed a bit much for me, even when my garbage-gut sensibilities reigned supreme over my prepubescent appetite. But Count Chocula, ironically enough, didn't assault my tastebuds or my gag reflex enough. It possesses a blander flavor than I remembered; so indistinct that I'm tempted to brand it the Cooked Carrot Fart (the Whiteout?) of the General Mills Monster Cereal line.

Things looked up with my second bowl of cereal, Boo Berry. I'd always derided Boo Berry (the actual character on the box, not the cereal) as the lamest of the General Mills Cereal monsters--a wispy and wimpy, sleepy-eyed, bad-hat-wearing puff of ectoplasm. He did earn bonus points in the 1970's commercials for being voiced by veteran voice performer Paul Frees in an over-the-top Peter Lorre accent, though. And the cereal beats the Count's to the punch by having a bit more flavor--the blue marshmallows added a faint bit of tang, and the artificially-fruity bouquet of the milk-moistened cereal sat on my nose much more favorably than Count Chocula's chocolate-plastic-hose smell.

But the winner of the breakfast-at-midnight trifecta for me was Franken Berry, an observation that's held constant for me since I was five years old. It smells like one of those great cheap strawberry car fresheners,and cold milk releases this cereal's powerful chemical-strawberry taste. It's the most distinctively flavorful of any of the three cereals, and it comes closer to tasting like real fruit than Boo Berry (of course, this is like saying cow poop smells less than donkey poop, but still...). A ready thumbs-up, if you can cope with (or get a yen for) something synthetic-yet-curiously-yummy.

My one regret of this trip down Monster Memory Lane? General Mills has yet to reissue Fruit Brute, a cereal discontinued in 1983 and represented by a werewolf in striped overalls (think Larry Talbot dressed by a really bad mime). Fruit Brute was supposedly multi-fruit flavored, and don't think I ever got to try a bowl.

Fruity Yummy Mummy, conversely, existed between 1987 and 1993: It may have been a redux of Fruit Brute, but it rose from the Cereal Grave long after I'd stopped eating sugar-coated cereals. I for one would welcome the opportunity to sample these arcane breakfast delicacies. Get with the program, General Mills.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for my stomach to file a formal protest over the sugar, corn starch, and Red Dye 5 I've stuffed it with. The Petri Dish, it seems, isn't the only harsh mistress in my life.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Favorite Scream Queens: Yvette Vickers

Some B girls, like the wonderful Beverly Garland, you take home to mom.Yvette Vickers, conversely, is the girl you hop into the hot rod with--the sultry, thrill-seeking, wild-for-kicks vixen who's too much trouble to handle but too smoking-hot to resist.

Vickers appeared in several movies and TV shows in the 1950's and '60's, usually in bit roles (she's got a great cameo in Sunset Boulevard as a giggling blonde on a phone at a party); she posed for Playboy in the late fifties; and she worked the lounge circuit as a pop singer, too.  But she amassed a rabid cult following from her work in two low-budget sci-fi classics.

Even horror non-initiates know Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, the immortal 1958 schlock epic in which despondent and put-upon heiress Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) grows to giant-size after falling afoul of a UFO. Attack's tawdry melodramatic shell conceals heaps of (probably unintentional) subtext: Nancy's imprisoned in a loveless marriage to Harry (William Hudson), a mythically rotten parasite of a guy who looks like Bill Holden's skeevy brother. He's just one of a pack of males who conspire to hold her back--local law enforcement is either in Harry's grubby pocket or ignores her pleas for help; and after Nancy gains Amazonian size and strength the doctors studying her dismiss her mental duress as high-strung female-ness ("When women reach the age of maturity, Mother Nature sometimes overworks their frustrations to the point of irrationalism!" proclaims one). Small wonder Nancy's gigantism feels less like a freakish curse and more like liberation.

Hayes was a great scream queen in her own right, and if I'd had a chance to re-watch more of her movies recently she'd be getting some Petri Dish love in her own right (with her heavy-lidded eyes, bee-stung lips and air of world-weary vulnerability, she coulda been a great noir heroine). Vickers flat-out steals the movie, though, as gold-digging Honey Parker, Harry Archer's hussy on the side. Whether she's kittenishly planting one on Harry even as she goads him into attempting murder, or steaming the windows at Tony's Bar and Cafe in a sexy spitfire dance with the yokel deputy, Honey represents the flip-side of Nancy: She may be the reviled Other Woman, but she knows damn well what she wants.

Vickers' other moment in the B-movie sun came in 1959 with Attack of the Giant Leeches. In it, the aforementioned bloodsuckers rise from an underwater cave (Why? Who the hell cares? GO WITH IT) to liberate hapless locals from their plasma in the Florida Everglades. Vickers plays one of those locals--Liz, the bored and trampy bride of dyspeptic Dave (Bruno VeSota), the local general store owner. Again, Vickers is sex on a stick, traipsing scantily-clad around the swamp environs and enthusiastically jumping into the arms and affections of local stud Cal (Michael Emmet). Of course, the affair ends badly, with Liz and Cal forced to choose between the barrel of Dave's shotgun and a dip in the swamp with something just as lethal and a lot slimier.

It's another blast of a grade B monster-fest, replete with awesomely ridiculous monsters (the giant leeches look like Glad trash bags with octopus suckers plastered all over them), but the best part of Leeches is its richly-pulpy dialogue. Vickers lends slatternly sensuality to her lines, alternately caressing and spitting them out like she's making rough love to them. How apropos, then, that in its most sublime moments Attack of the Giant Leeches resembles nothing more than a sci-fi flick filtered through the senses and sensibilities of Tennessee Williams.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sands of Oblivion: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Some crappy made-for-cable horror movies are born with crappiness, some achieve their crappiness, and some have their crappiness thrust upon them.

Despite the fact that it premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel (or as it's now known, SyFy--please explain, someone) in 2007, I'd argue that Sands of Oblivion was not born crappy. It's got the kernel of an interesting idea, some likeable actors, and a monster--three fine starting points for a night of Horrorpalooza entertainment.

Sands of Oblivion's neural crappiness pathway runs twofold. On one hand the script works hard to achieve a pretty consistent level of crappy; on the other mitt, this little thriller's sphincter-cinchingly low budget thrusts the crappy onto it as well. As anyone who's visited these hallowed electronic halls knows, however, crappy in the convergent conventional sense often portends at least a few yocks with your schlock.

I'm a sucker for speculative fiction that uses real-life events as a springboard for wiggy stuff, and therein lies the interesting conceit here. It's 1923, and Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments is shooting in the California desert. Historic accounts indicate that DeMille had the movie's lavish sets abruptly demolished immediately after filming (an act of indulgence almost unheard of in 1920's Hollywood), but nothing exists to explain why.

Jeff Coatney and Kevin van Hook, screenwriters of Sands, theorize that a real, cursed Egyptian artifact somehow made its way onto the set amongst the Tinseltown fakes. That relic caused the deaths of a couple of crew members, and a freaked-out DeMille--unsure which prop was the cursed culprit--razed the whole kit and caboodle to save the world from evil.

The movie proper begins in modern times, with a team of archaeologists unearthing the Commandments set while an old man (George Kennedy), who was just a small boy when the 1923 epic was filming, looks on. Right on cue, curse-y things start happening. Members of the dig team die via mysterious (and on occasion, ridiculous) coincidences, and it gets really sandy and windy and spooky at night and stuff. The soon-to-be-divorced heads of the team (Firefly's Morena Baccarin and Adam Baldwin) bicker away as they attempt to solve the mystery.

At first, Sands of Oblivion moves like a single Nubian slave pushing a two-ton pyramid block uphill...solo. Once you slog through the exposition, though, some low-rent jollies emerge. Old coot Kennedy uncovers the cursed amulet, and all heck breaks loose. Anubis, demon god of the ancient pharaohs, starts picking off the hapless archaeologists with curses and frontal attacks, and Baldwin gets possessed by the evil Egyptian mojo. There's some jibber-jabber about a portal to Egyptian demon-y goodness too.

Is it scary? Um, no. Is it fun? Well, yeah, pretty much. Anubis, a really grouchy mummy with a dog head, represents one of the more creative monsters I've seen in a rinky-dink Sci-Fi Channel presentation. Baldwin actually has some fun with his irresponsible-genius role. The plagues of locusts and snakes visited on the set look patently ridiculous, and therefore very entertaining (ah, bad CGI: the zipper-backed monster of the new millenium...).

You gotta love the strange-bedfellows nature of the casting. DeMille is played in flashbacks by none other than the voice of Homer Simpson himself, Dan Castellaneta, with the overarching broadness of a cartoon (of course). John Aniston (Jennifer's dad) busts out an English accent and dodders. Baccarin and Baldwin are likeable (though the former gives a really stiff performance here), and I'd watch Oscar-winner Kennedy--one of Hollywood's great robust character actors--in pretty much anything.

The star of Cool Hand Luke and the Airport movies just about earns a second statuette for keeping a straight face while hanging upside down getting terrorized by a stuntman in a  cobwebbed dog mask. Oh, and I almost forgot the nifty icky supposedly-accidental decapitation straight outta The Omen or one of those Final Destination movies. Thank God (or Anubis) for the little things in life.