Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It's New Year's Eve in 'Murica...

As 2014 drops to the ground, a lifeless, smoking hulk of pain and misery, let's pause for just a second to kick its corpse before moving on to a presumably brighter and more lustrous 2015. Well, you don't have to kick it if you don't want to, but I'm going to throw a few, for all of my friends who are no longer with us, and for their loved ones who are no longer with us, and even for the quantity of celebrity deaths that affected us all. Tough year, man. Tough year.

It wasn't all bad. I co-edited and
contributed two introductions to
this four-book collection of REH's
boxing stories.
I'm here to personally report that I failed miserably in my stated goal of writing 500,000 words this year. I managed to get a lot of writing done, though not nearly as much as I would have liked. And I got MOST of my back list out. Most of it. There's two books yet to come: Bowen's Bluff, the second book of Sam Bowen stories that originally ran on Clockwork Storybook, and The Chance of a Lifetime, the third and final Con-Dorks novel that has never been collected in book form before. These are coming, and sooner, rather than later.

But how much DID I manage to write this year?  I was on pace and looking good, until May. May was when my business came crashing into my writing and more or less took over the year. You may know that my wife and I live over a movie theater that we own and operate. For the past two years (and longer) we've needed to convert from showing 35mm film to digital cinema. This is not an easy nor a cheap project. It took a year of research and planning to put together, and then it took five months to get the financing in place (that would be the end of May). After that, it was all project, all the time.

What should have taken six weeks ended up taking five months to fully implement. Everything from construction hassles, electrical work, you name it. It was all going on at the same time--or it wasn't going on at all--and it drove me fairly crazy.

I liked how this came out. Really,
I think this series is going to
be a stand out, when I finish it.
The work was completed in October, and since then, it's been chaos keeping a weekly schedule and keeping up with everything else. I'm STILL not out of that learning curve yet. But it all conspired to keep me busy and benumbed and my writing output slowed to a trickle. Final tally for the year: 279,368 words. That's not taking the five books that I published, either. Those were already written.

I can do better. I know it. So, starting January 1st, we're going to reset the spreadsheet and start this goal all over again. I can do half a million words in 2015. I'll keep you posted.

And Speaking of Posted...

Starting in 2015, I'm going to be posting WEEKLY on this very blog. Weekly. Yep, you heard me. They may be short pieces of commentary, or longer, essay-style things. Not sure. Depends on the week. But I will be making a conscious effort to engage a little more freely about what's going on, as well as talking about books I'm reading, life, other words, you know, a blog.

If there's something you'd like me to talk about, or if you have questions, you know the drill: email my happy ass, and we'll see what can be done to accommodate you.

I've also been commenting more on Twitter. Mostly just snarky asides. I mean, what else is Twitter for? You can follow me if you want to: @FinnsWake is my handle.

That's it. Oh, one final thing about Sony and The Interview. There is no conspiracy. It's a combination of stupidity and coincidence that makes it seem as though there are connections. There aren't. I'm looking at this from the back end and trust me, none of the players involved are smart enough to have orchestrated such a brilliant scheme that mimics failure so well.

Have a safe New Year's celebration. I'll see you on the other side. Here's to a much, much better 2015.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Comic Book World Building for Dummies (and Studio Executives)

The Flash on the CW. So good. So Very Good.

I have an axiom that I use whenever people want to discuss rumors about upcoming super hero movies, and stuff that “they” have said “they” are working on: Until I see a picture of the alleged actor, in costume, on the set, with a cup of Starbucks coffee in his hands, talking to the Director about the next shot they are lining up, my official policy is, It’s Not Happening.

That axiom has saved me a ton of grief over the years. I’ve used the hours I didn’t spend freaking out about things that ultimately did not come to pass to write books, cherish loved ones, and learning to ballroom dance. It’s added much to my quality of life, and I suggest you all implement it immediately.

I bring this up because right now, there’s a lot of talk going on about Warner Brothers’ plans with the DC Universe. You’ve seen the announcement by now, I imagine, but just in case you haven’t, here’s Entertainment Weekly’s coverage of the press release. Forgive me if I don’t get excited, just yet. This sounds like a fanboy’s wish list, and looks like it closely mimics the Marvel Universe movie line up, like their recently-announced Phase Three Plans.

When you compare the two lists, a couple of problems bubble immediately to the surface. Number one, Marvel is into Phase Three of what is clearly a complicated, overlapping, interlocking network of movies—and in fact, every single one of the movies in Phase 1 and Phase 2 has been made or is about to wrap up. DC, on the other hand, has made, remade, and in some cases, re-remade Batman and Superman origin stories until we are sick to death of them. Their one foray into the wider DC Universe was Green Lantern, and it was a hot emerald mess from top to bottom.

And if you remember the not-too-recent history, Warner Brothers has a habit of starting and then scrapping plans when it comes to their super hero franchises. The Doomed-From-the-Start Nick Cage/Tim Burton/Kevin Smith Superman movie is proof of that. How far down the line did they get? And it never got made, right? So, what does this announcement about two Justice League movies mean to me? Bupkiss, is what.

When we do get a Batman and Superman movie—again, because I’ve totally forgotten their iconic-to-the-point-of-being-imprinted-on-our-collective-DNA origin stories, they are either happy accidents (Nolan’s Batman trilogy) or controversial wedges that divide the Geek Nation (Zach Snyder’s Superman). Warner hasn’t hit one out of the park since Nolan’s second Batman movie, The Dark Knight (2008), and even then, there was a small sub-segment complaining that the movie was too dark. But it was that success that took us directly to neck-snapping Superman, because Warner Brothers executives don’t understand their intellectual properties and haven’t in decades.  For the reasons why this is so, I’ll point you to this excellent article on how the accountants are running Hollywood these days, as well as why this is so.

In short, I have no faith, nor any confidence that Warner Brothers Studios will be able to fulfill or deliver on any of the promises made in their grand announcement. It would be great if they could, but if you’ll look closely at me, you’ll notice I’m not holding my breath. I feel like Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football, only instead of trusting Lucy one last time, I’m walking off. I’ve got better things to do.

I told you all of that to tell you this: I am in love with what Warner Television is doing right now.

Arrow. It's gotten much better.
I wasn’t, for a long, long time. Arrow did not grab me, initially, and that’s mostly because I suffered through an excruciatingly long marathon of Smallville—nine seasons, in fact—to get to the “good stuff,” only to find that I really didn’t like where Smallville ended up. I hated the soap opera elements of the show, and I really hated the casual name drops that showed someone in the writer’s room googled “Superboy” but that didn’t always connect with an actual in-show concept. It was too intense, too apologetic about the source material, and way too back lit for my tastes. But for a decade, it was the only live-action super hero show in town.

Yes, I know, there was Birds of Prey. I stand by my original statement.

The first season of Arrow looks and feels exactly like 2001 Smallville, only 30% more Grim and Dark. The Geekster Eggs are dropping like drone strikes, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. “See? We named his SISTER Speedy! Eh? That’s what you guys like, right? Lots of in-jokes?” Then there’s the back story... However, despite all of that, Arrow covered a lot of ground for a show that had nothing more powerful in it than guns, arrows, and martial arts.

The second season felt like a response to the Internet, and so here come the super powers. Nothing major, just yet. Super soldier stuff, mostly. I suspect this toning down of the Four-Color Hero stuff was a way to pitch it to executives that didn’t quite get what the show was about. “Green Arrow? Why is it green? You know, studies have shown that Orange is trending with the kids right now. Let’s call him Orange Arrow!” Hey, I get it; you had to get the show on the air. That’s why the soap opera elements are cranked up through the roof and there’s not a lot of trick arrows flying around. But it got better. And it continues to move closer to what we wanted to see in the first place: super heroes doing super hero shit.

But in the middle of the series, we get to watch the Flash’s origin play out, and then suddenly, the kid gloves are off, and they never come back on. It’s still Grim Dark, and major characters are dropping like flies, because that’s how you keep people’s (and hero’s) interest; by slaughtering everyone around them.  Somewhere in there, it was announced that they were spinning off a Flash TV show. Helmed by the same guy that did Arrow. Very cool, but...will it be Grim and Dark? I was initially worried, because in the new, retconned, and thoroughly unnecessary origin written by Geoff Johns, young Barry Allen witnesses his mother’s death at the hands of a super speedster dressed in yellow. Because we can’t have nice things, apparently. Everyone has to die, or there’s no reason to be a super hero.

Aside from that, the show has been a real breath of fresh air, throwing villains out into the show, nilly-willy, and with alacrity in its heart. Actual super powered villains. Captain Cold, for example. Granted, he’s not dressed in the blue and white parka, but you didn’t really expect him to be, now, did you? And instead of reworking his name, they kept Leonard Snart. No stupid fake Easter Eggs here that go nowhere and do nothing. When one of the characters says Ralph Dibny (and he does), he’s talking about the guy who will become The Elongated Man. Really? How cool is that?

And you can really appreciate the difference in tone from the two part, two show crossover (one of which was named The Brave and the Bold) and see these two characters working side-by-side. It’s striking at just how different the shows are. But the more important thing going on here isn’t the transformation that has taken place in just two and a half seasons of Arrow and a half season of The Flash. No, the thing you need to be checking out is the world building going on.

Those two shows are building the DCU right under Warner Brothers Studios’ noses.

So far, in the two series, Arrow and The Flash, we have been introduced to, among other minor and lesser and non-powered characters the following DC staples:

The Huntress
Count Vertigo
Black Canary
Amanda Waller
The Suicide Squad
Deathstroke, The Terminator
The League of Assassins
Ra’s Al Ghul
Brother Blood
Bronze Tiger
China White
Captain Boomerang
The Atom
S.T.A.R. Labs
The Flash
The Crisis on Infinite Earths event
Captain Cold
Reverse Flash
Weather Wizard
Simon Stagg (and Java)
Gorilla Grodd
Firestorm, the Nuclear Man

Grodd! Grodd! I swallowed my gum when I saw this.
This is not every single reference in both shows: I specifically omitted characters whose names were appropriated in a stupid way and never used (Arrow, seasons 1 and 2) and that list of characters we all heard, but haven’t seen yet (The Flash, season 1) I ended with Gorilla Grodd and Firestorm on purpose. Show of hands, here: who among you ever thought in your wildest dreams that we’d ever see Gorilla Grodd and Firestorm on live-action TV? If you actually raised your hands, then take a well-deserved victory lap, because the rest of us just snort-laughed and said, “Sh-yeah, that’ll be the day. We can’t even get a Wonder Woman movie.”

That list above encompasses some very large concepts and real estate in the DC Universe. First of all, I want to point out that the League of Assassins and Ra’s al Ghul are Batman Family concepts, and pretty big ones, at that. So Star(ling) City and Central City are in the same world as Gotham and Metropolis. That means, Bludhaven, Hub City, Coast City, and in fact, they’ve already mentioned Keystone City. Pick your favorites, place your bets, ladies and gents! The Question? Nightwing? Who’s up next in this collection of shows? Another spin-off? Sign me up, man.

Greg Berlanti, the creator of both Arrow and The Flash, is in a unique position at the moment. He’ll have two full seasons of Flash and four seasons of Arrow under his belt before the next turgid, overblown Zach Snyder movie trundles in and splits the comic con hall in twain again. Considering how fast (forgive me) The Flash is developing, how much extra world building do you think he can get done between now and then? Firestorm? Metamorpho? The Atom? 

Granted, it’s not Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, but at this point, who would you rather have helming those projects? The movie studio that gave us that last Superman fiasco, or the guys who just pulled off a Two-Part Green Arrow/Flash Cross Over that introduced Prism (formerly known in the Silver Age as the Rainbow Raider, I swear to God) and Captain Boomerang? You heard me, Captain Boomerang, and he was a bad ass from start to finish. I’ll take door number two, every single time.

I should be the target audience for this. Instead, I'm
dreading it worse than a trip to my German Dentist.
So stop worrying about the DC movies. There’s nothing you can do to save them, except, you know, stop thinking they are going to be great. The odds are not in your favor, here. And they won’t be, either. Let them go. If you want to see them, fine. But if you don’t like them—and you probably won’t—the worst thing you can do is contribute to their bottom line. The only way to get what you want in today’s culture is to loudly explain why you’re not giving the company any money, and then, you know, don’t give them any money.

Better instead to loudly talk about what you DO want. For example, Grant Gustin is currently owning The Flash. Likewise Stephen Amell as Green Arrow. If you think they deserve to be in The Justice League Part 1 and Part 2, then boost that thought to the rafters. Dangle money in front of that idea. That’s what the studios will reply to. Kvetching about what’s maybe going to happen online is akin to building a moat around your house in case the Visigoths ever decide to attack you. It’s a big waste of time, and there’s no guarantees about anything anyway.

The really sad thing is, Warner Brothers Studios could use the television shows to its advantage. After all, Arrow and The Flash are doing all of the heavy lifting, right now. They could swoop in after two more seasons, scoop everyone up, and announce a JLA movie with all of the current cast members and get not only the movie-going crowd, but every single person watching any of the TV shows. And they would spend exponentially less money on marketing, salaries, and so forth. But they won’t do that. They are incapable of playing nice with others.  So we’re going to see this weird TV versus the Movies thing play out, and fans are going to try to convince themselves that it’s Earth 1 and Earth 2 and this was the plan all along, and yadda yadda yadda. And it’s not any of that. It’s willful ignorance and petty jealousy propping up tent pole movies and counting the bottom line and calling that movie-making. 

I’ll stick with Berlanti, thanks all the same.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Don't Tell ME What to Think About the New Star Wars Trailer...

J.J. Abrams dropped a 90 second bombshell on everyone today when he released a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in select theaters and also online, where the world suddenly ground to a screeching halt. Without even checking, I am confident that the Internet responded as it always does: DeviantArt users are even now painting Milennium Falcons with My Little Pony art stenciled on the side and slapping them on T-shirts; 4Chan users have drawn penises on the droid; Buzzfeed is currently compiling a list of 27 reasons why the Ewoks are still better than Wookies (and over one-third of the reasons will involve the word 'cute'); Reddit users have made gifs out of the images and leavened them into the other pop culture memes making the rounds this week, which means Dr. Who is flying the Falcon, now, as is Bill Cosby; and of course, the Geek-Universe-Blog Sites all have dutifully posted links to the trailer, along with some commentary.

They look like the cool aunt and uncle
now, don't they? I dig the beard.
I haven't read any of the other commentary, and I don't have to. I'm 45 years old. I was 7 when I saw Star Wars for the first time in the theater. I'm a card-carrying member of Generation X, you dig? I make the commentary about Star Wars movies. Not the twenty something who grew up watching Episode I. Not the thirty-something whose first Star Wars movie was Return of the Jedi. This franchise belongs to me as much as it belongs to George Lucas. I made him what he was. I propped him up, swallowed his Kool-Aid, and made him a billionaire. And I promise you this: me and my people have spent more time thinking about Star Wars than any of the blog sites currently operating, with the notable exception of The Nerdist and RevolutionSF, which are both run by fellow forty-something GenXers.

All of that was simply to tell you that I have a very different perspective on this. I've been a vocal and outspoken critic of the franchise over the years, especially with regards to the prequels. Despite all that, I took the news that Lucas sold his creation to Disney very hard. I knew it meant that we would get three more movies, because Disney doesn't leave any money on the table, ever. But I wondered and worried that what we got would be a watered down feel-good family friendly mess.

J.J. Abrams as director restored some of my confidence, as well as the recruitment of the old stars, now in the role of sending the youngsters out to do battle and have adventures. Smart. Very smart. And it's in keeping with what I thought the next trilogy should be.  And sure, we've gotten some teases along the way (no offense, but if you were worried that the Millennium Falcon wasn't going to make an appearance in the movie, you know nothing about Disney, merchandising, or modern movie promotion).

At first glance the teaser trailer appears to be just that; images, seemingly at random, with the only constant being a sense of movement. No pictures of the old-timers. Only these new guys. At the end, a familiar sight, but otherwise, what a bummer, right?

"Rogue Group? I've found them. Repeat. I've--oh, wait.
Wrong movie. Yeah, I need my line, please. Line?"
Not at all. What I found interesting was the number of shots in the trailer that seemed to evoke (and by that I mean, 'are lifted directly') from the original series. Whether it's the Speeder Bike chase sequence, or the Snowspeeder patrol looking for Luke and Han on Hoth, there's a real familiar feel to all of the shots. I suspect this is intentional and purposeful, to make us feel more comfortable.

Why do we need to feel comforted? Because for the first time since 1977, none of us have the faintest idea of how this will play out. This is something that didn't happen with the prequels. In fact, the problem with the prequels was that there was no way Lucas could make a Clone Wars saga that matched what the first generation Star Wars fans had cooked up in their imaginations over the course of 25 years. Unfair? Probably. But Lucas made exactly the movie he wanted to make, with zero apologies and quite a bit of derision. This pushed me and others like me away. And speaking of Lucas...

This droid literally encapsulates the fusion of the first
trilogy (Astromech head) and the second trilogy (rolling
droid bottom). Designed to appeal to everyone.
This is his creation (some would say "collection of other people's intellectual properties he cunningly appropriated") after all. And he shepherded six films through. This being the first Star Wars that won't have his name and fingerprints all over it, there's a real need to soothe some savage beasts right now. How better to do that than to show a collection of scenes that look like they are straight out of the George Lucas playbook?

It's a smart trailer, and make no mistake about it. Finished shots, the obligatory lightsaber gag, a flash of something familiar (but not necessarily integral to the story) and pictures of the newcomers. No hint of story, aside from some things we can guess. This is more than just a teaser. This is the teaser that brings two generations of Star Wars fans together for the first time since Episode I opened. We, together, will get to experience Episode VII with no pre-conceived notions, no expectations, and no baggage. Just pure fun and excitement.  This is as it should be.

Hi. My name is Mark. And I'm a Star Wars Fan.

Friday, October 31, 2014

My Top 5 Creatures From the Deep Movies

Ever since we first took our steps out of the water, we looked back over our shoulder and wondered what that splashing sound was. I was a member of the Jaws generation, one of the more influential horror films in modern cinema. Not just in terms of resetting and expanding what actually scares us by making use of the water as the metaphor for The Great Unknown, but also in managing to keep me out of swimming in a lake until I was a teenager. Even then, I stayed in motion constantly, kicking my feet as if my life depended on it—which it undoubtedly did.

What about the water is so terrifying to us? Is it the idea that it can instantly kill us? The fact that it slows us down and provides a hazard for us that the predators can cheerfully ignore? Personally, I think there’s something primal, if not primeval, about what lives in the crushing depths. We know we don’t belong in the water any more, and they do. It’s their domain, and we’re just trying to survive—badly.

Fair warning about this category. There is a sharp, steep drop off in quality. Most of the movies in this category are gawd-awful, and I can prove it with math. Most of the time, making an aquatic monster movie is an excuse to put girls in bikinis and run them around, screaming in terror. Look at the poster above for a better example of what these flicks are usually selling. There are exceptions, though. When these movies are good, they are very good. When they are bad, they generate gravity and collapse in upon themselves, like dying suns.

My list is culled out according to how effective the horror is, coupled with the original nature of the story, and overall quality. This is one of the few times when your mileage definitely won’t vary from mine very much.

5. Grabbers (2012)
On a remote corner of a remote part of Ireland, a fisherman catches something in his net and brings it ashore. Ten minutes into the film, the tentacles come out, along with some nasty teeth, and after that, the movie is off-road and heading for trouble as these cthuloid-tumbleweed monsters set about the business of egg-laying and eating the villagers.

This Johnny-Come-Lately film from Ireland gets points for nerve, if nothing else. Keep the monsters in the dark? Nope, let’s get ‘em right out in the open. Thankfully, they are cool monsters to look at, and pretty frightening, on top of it all. Many of the usual clichés are bounced on their head as the locals try to fend off the grabbers and one another. Throw an alcoholic cop and his green partner into the mix, and this movie ends up being a surprising turn on the same-old, same-old. Fair warning: if you (forgive me) grab this off of Netflix, DO NOT read the description, as it gives away a very cool and interesting plot point.

4. Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
Scientists looking for another offshoot of the missing link track fossil evidence back to a remote inland cove, or a lagoon, if you will. There they squabble over the brunette, while she goes swimming and draws the attention of...something below.

This movie is a strange hybrid. More popular than a cult classic, but always playing second fiddle to the rest of the Universal Monsters, the Creature is the last of the famous trademarked band of monsters and as a result, sometimes gets second fiddle status. Too bad, too, because it’s an inarguable classic, influential on a number of filmmakers, including one of the guys listed below, and actually holds up as a cracking good monster movie.

The suit is, well, a suit, but it’s a good suit, and the mask is one of the best monster designs ever. Throw in some killer underwater photography and swimming stunts, the fetching Julia Adams in a swimsuit and it’s easy to see how The Creature From the Black Lagoon has lasted as long as it has.

3. Piranha (1978)
The first major movie from Joe Dante trades heavily on the foundation laid by Jaws three years earlier, namely the thing under the water you can’t see. Only, the difference is, instead of one big-ass shark, it’s a lot of little bitey fish, and instead of salt water, it’s fresh water, and instead of being serious and scary, there’s a lot of things that make you chuckle.

That’s all well and good. I mean, weaponized piranha are bad enough, but the additional freak out of these things being in fresh water meant that I didn’t go swimming in a pool, with crystal clear water, never mind murky lake water, for months afterward. The whole idea that you don’t see it coming until something has chewed off your leg is just too horrible to think about.

Dante’s turn on the subject matter is fresh, as is John Sayle’s script, and fledgling effects guy Rob Bottin’s gore is nice and red. Watch it for the laughs, and pretend it doesn’t bother you when the fish swarm in the lake.

2. Deep Rising (1998)
Speaking of camp value, you can’t get much better than this genre-bender. A luxury ocean liner with a full crew is suddenly hijacked by pirates on the high seas. It’s a fool-proof plan, except for where the disabling of the boat took place...over the deepest, darkest part of the follow me?

This slick water-borne caper suddenly becomes Jurassic Park on a boat as massive tentacles with super intelligence swish through the ankle-deep water and pull pirates and guests to their doom. The CGI wasn’t quite up to snuff, but the movie is nice and tense and takes itself seriously, even if you won’t. Treat Williams and Famke Janssen chew scenery nicely, along with Wes Studi and the rest of the pirate crew.

The monster at the end isn’t anything found in nature, but it’s a lot of spinning, thrashing fun trying to figure out how this is all going to shake out. A solid B-grade monster movie with a great twist ending.

1. Jaws (1975)
Of course, this would be number one. Steven Spielberg’s second greatest movie remains an major influence on the entire cinematic world, from invention of the “Summer Blockbuster” to crafting a film that set Greenpeace back 25 years. Jaws is now a part of the pop culture lexicon, having way outshined its fictional counterpart, the excellent novel by Peter Benchley.

The story is simplicity itself. A big ass shark has made its way down the coastline and winds up hanging out in one of the most populated beaches in the area, during its single busiest time of the year. Public safety is trumped by corporate greed, and people start dying. It’s up to the sheriff, a marine biologist, and a lunatic on a fishing trawler to save them all.

Tons of great quotes, and some surprising suspenseful moments, especially if you ever read any of the behind-the-scenes stories about the mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce” because he was the Boss of the production from start to finish) and its refusal to work, to cooperate, to behave when asked. Don’t watch this movie during the Summer, or when you’re on vacation, as you’ll second-guess ever swimming in the ocean again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies

One of the reasons why the clown scene in Poltergeist scares the hell out of us is that we’ve all had that experience at least once in our lives, usually with a favored toy or an artfully-thrown jacket and baseball cap, or something similar. In this case, the clown doll does double duty for being both (A) a doll, and (B) a clown that is disturbing even in the light of day. Our fascination with totems and effigies that move when we’re not looking, whether it’s Pixar’s Toy Story movies or the venerable and not-very-good Dollman franchise from Full Moon Entertainment, is actually a place holder for a lot of things: the Pinocchio story, the Frankenstein/Prometheus tale (gone wrong, of course), the betrayal from something innocent from our childhood, or just a plain ol’ stand-in for a loss of control from things beyond our ken. Pick one, or pick several. It doesn’t matter. It all adds up to one thing:

sheer terror.

This is one of the few things that really scares me. There’s nothing worse than a creepy-looking doll suddenly turn its head to look Right. At. You. Just thinking about some of the movies on this list gives me the heebie-jeebies. As a life-long collector of action figures, there’s a niggling thought at the back of my head that they talk about me all judgey and stuff when I’m not in the room. Not that I don’t think I could defend myself from a pack of 3 ¾” action figures, but still...

One side note: possessed or demonic dolls are most frequently found in shorter segments of anthology movies and television shows. Some famous short stories on that very subject have been turned into creepy episodes of Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, just to name two prominent examples. For this Top 5 list, we’re looking at feature-length films only. It’s a narrow list.

5. Dolls (1987)
An early and forgotten effort from horror director Stuart Gordon (when he wasn’t making Lovecraft movies) combines the old chestnut of the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere and the creepy old house on the hill to create a night of bizarre situations and toy-based murders.

Once the dolls start doing things (and we find out why this is so), it’s a race to the end with decent special effects and some creepy and chilling moments. Gordon made good horror films with very little money, and he uses all of his tricks to make the dolls scary. An overlooked diamond in the rough.

4. Child’s Play (1988)
Forget the rest of the “franchise,” because this should never have gotten a sequel. Also, forget some of the logic leaps that take place in the set-up to this venerable story. Instead, just marvel at the way Chucky switches back and forth from surrogate big brother to the latch key kid and serial killing effigy.

The movie could have used a tighter edit, and some script doctoring, but it is a solid contender in this rarified genre, playing off of several other stories that came before it. The movie was a huge hit when it came out, and the sequels it spawned were regrettable. Good jump scares, if nothing else.

3. Magic (1978)
Directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Anthony Hopkins, this film is firmly in that staple of 70’s “realism” trend where everything was about feelings and psychology, and shot and framed in the most dull and uninteresting of ways. All of that aside, this movie features one of the creepiest-looking ventriloquism dummies ever made, and the film inself was helped by one of the creepiest trailers ever made. If you don’t believe me, watch this: Magic (1978) trailer.

Okay, maybe it doesn’t hold up now, but at the time, if you were a kid that, say, was fascinated by ventriloquists (ahem), that was bone-chilling in the extreme. The name comes from the fact that Hopkins is a failed magician who resurfaces in the hotel circuit with a ventriloquist dummy that steals the show.

As his popularity grows, we find out that Hopkins ain’t quite right in the head, of course. The dummy talks to him, and, of course, is more or less driving the crazy bus. The ambiguity helps the movie, because it’s a slow burn to the finish.

2. Annabelle (2014)
Number two with a bullet finds its way onto the list because of the new trend in making horror movies scary again for the rest of us. Creepy cultists go on a killing spree, but not before bleeding into a doll’s eye and turning it into an object of demonic rage.

This sequel to The Conjuring (2013) is actually a prequel, and also actually unnecessary, but that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that as soon as the couple’s baby shows up, all hell breaks loose and it’s awfully terrifying. A good combination of jump-scares and creep outs that put this movie on the map.

1. Dead Silence (2007)
Another ventriloquist story; this time, an old woman from the turn of the century, looking rather a lot like the old hag from William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, which invites the question of why anyone would go to see such a freakshow act in the first place?

But before we get to that, we’re treated to a grisly murder and a couple of leaps in logic to get us to the place where it all goes down: the main character’s hometown and family mansion. I have to confess, I didn’t initially see it coming, and the twist and reveal is nice and novel, something I've never seen before. This is also one of those new-style horror stories where the monster wins. Best of all, there’s no sequel. You can just watch this, creep yourself out, and go on about your business. Would that they all were so simple.

Some of the set pieces stretch the outer limits of credulity, but I figure, you already bought into the premise of a living ventriloquism dummy, so how weird does the movie have to be before you scoff at it? All quibbles aside, this is a great example of a Killer Doll movie with some original twists and turns.

Monday, October 27, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology Movies

I’ve always loved reading horror anthologies, and for one simple reason: more bang for your buck. There’s something wonderful about a short story, well-written, that scares the beejeezus out of you. It’s a particularly good literary magic trick to pull off. Sure, you’re going to run into the occasional story that doesn’t do it for you for one reason or another, but that’s okay; there’s another story right after it, and chances are, it’ll be better.

Horror anthology movies are fairly uncommon, and I guess it’s because of the expense. I mean, you’ve got to set up three different production crews, and much like a literary excursion, not all of the segments are going to inspire thrills and chills. Usually. There are some exceptions, and many of them have made the list below. In thinking about this category, I ranked each segment by how scary/creepy/effective it was, and then averaged the scores together to get a single ranking.

5. From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)
This is one of those movies that is hard to pin down, mostly because of a name change from a title that made no sense (in this case, The Offspring) to another title that made no sense. The initial directorial effort from schlock sequel-meister Jeff Burr is an ambitious project, for a number of reasons. As I mentioned earlier, anthology movies are hard on the budget. He also had the stones to just walk up to Vincent Price and ask him to be in the movie. Burr was already directing seasoned veterans, and Price was the marquee name, of course (he later claimed he didn’t like the movie). Fair enough; he’s not that great in it, either. I’m glad it wasn’t his final role.

As the stories go, well, it’s a mixed bag, but they all have one thing in common: their 80’s-ness is amazing and wonderful, in turn. The gore factor is high, and everyone does a good job with the material they are given. Terrifying? Not so much, but again, it’s a solid effort that plays homage to what we’ve seen before. And when you compare it to some of Burr’s later movies for Full Moon, well, it’s a real diamond in the rough.

4. Trilogy of Terror (1975)
This television offering from Dark Shadows producer Dan Curtis makes the top 5 by force of will alone. Three segments, all based on Richard Matheson short stories, adapted by William F. Nolan and Matheson himself, and all starring Karen Black in the lead to help maintain a thread of continuity. Curtis and Matheson were a force to be reckoned with in the 1970s, each coming off of successful television series and both producing their best work at the time. Even with the abundance of mid-70’s kitsch beating you up one side and down the other (oh! The Hair! The Fashions!), it’s still a pretty potent package.

Karen Black knocks it out of the part, playing four very distinct and different roles in each segment. These stories basically rest on her ability to deliver the goods, and boy, does she ever. Mind you, you’re probably going to guess the outcome of at least one, or maybe even two of the stories, mostly because the innovative little ideas (circa 1975) have now been done to death, forty years later.

3. Black Sabbath (1963)
Boris Karloff was on a career high in the 1960s, putting his name on TV shows, comics, and starring in movies alongside his friends, Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi. They all had a chance during this heyday to make hay while the sun was shining, and Karloff made the absolute most of it. Black Sabbath is one of the many American International Pictures’ low-budget thrillers that came out cheaply and quickly, but this quirky little anthology of tales had a few things going for it. In addition to Karloff himself as the horror host and star of the final segment, the whole shebang was directed by legendary thrillmeister Mario Bava.

These three stories are all very strong contenders and while they vary wildly in subject matter, there is an overall consistency to them that really delivers. Bava, of course, knows how to direct horror, and he can get more use out of a green light shining on Boris Karloff than just about anyone. Of course, the American version of the film had some scenes removed; violence and implied lesbianism and prostitution. Oh, those wacky Italians, eh? You can find both versions easily enough and make up your own mind. Either way, you’re probably going to remember “A Drop of Water,” about a medium who dies during a séance, for a long, long time.

2. The Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983)
“You wanna see something really scary?”
One of the best openings to a horror film of any kind. Who can forget Dan Ackryod and Albert Brooks discussing their favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone TV show (and even confusing one of the episodes with an Outer Limits plot)? This anthology paid due homage to the show by updating a couple of the most famous stories and adding a few new twists, as well. There’s a framing sequence that ties everything up, and wonderful, evocative narration by Burgess Meredith. It should be perfect, right? Well, it’s not.

Four amazing directors, each with a pedigree, were hired to produce their favorite “take” on what the Twilight Zone meant to them. John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. Of the four, George Miller should have been the weak link. After all, Landis was coming off of American Werewolf in London, with several other movies on his list. Then there was Spielberg, who cut his directing teeth on Night Gallery. And this was post-Jaws, post-Raiders of the Lost Ark, and around the same time as Poltergeist. Joe Dante? He did a little movie called Gremlins. And George Miller was the dark horse candidate, with only two movies to his name. However, those two movies were Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Awesome flicks, but hardly horror. So, he’s the weak link, right?

Nope. Spielberg tanked it. It’s not that his segment is bad. It’s not. It’s vintage Spielberg, fresh off of E.T.  rather than anything relevant to the Twilight Zone project. It’s about the magic of childhood and it’s got cute little kids in it, and Scatman Crothers literally playing the Magical Negro part...ugh. Sure, there were some Twilight Zone eps that had that fantastical, idyllic message of hope in them, and Spielberg’s story just manages to capture that vibe, but it’s really out of place amid the other three director’s very creepy and downbeat segments.

Of course, everyone knows about Landis’ segment involving the death of Vic Morrow and the two children he was working with at the time. Because of the decision to keep the segment in (albeit with a different ending) and because there was no mention of Morrow’s death or the children in the credits, many consider the segment to be in poor taste. Your mileage will vary. But the ending in the film is more grim, and very likely adds to the idea of the ethical quandary around the segment. Joe Dante updated Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” and thankfully, it’s the “creepy kid with super powers” story we need to see after Spielberg’s sugar-coated fairy tale. But the best one of all is Miller’s update of Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 10,000 Feet,” starring John Lithgow.

From the second the segment opens, Lithgow is the best thing in the movie. Totally out of control and also believable at the same time. Better still is the updated gremlin, ably handled by Craig Rearden. If you’ve ever seen the original, trust me on this, ANYTHING would be better. But this take is a home run. And after the frame story collapses, we get one last reminder of why the music and the intro to the Twilight Zone were so important to setting the tone of the series, in form of classic narration by Rod Serling. If you’ve never seen the movie, you are in for a real treat.

1. Creepshow (1982)
The encapsulation of Form meeting Function, Creepshow was a major minor hit from the get-go for a few reasons: George Romero and Stephen King, two of the biggest names in horror in the 1980s, got together and decided to do an unlicensed homage to the E.C. Comics of their youth. So they took some of King’s short stories—a couple of them had been published elsewhere, in small markets (“The Crate,” and “Weeds,” which became “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”) and they adapted them into short, sharp, punchy vignettes with histrionic acting, garish blue, red, and green lighting, and wrapped the whole thing up into a comic book format from start to finish. It was exactly what it was supposed to be, and no more. Bonus points for anyone who has the Creepshow “novelization,” a graphic novel illustrated by Berni Wrightson.

The all-star cast is awesome to see, probably most of all Ed Harris, who worked with Romero a few times before his star power took over. His disco dance in the middle of “Father’s Day” is priceless in its absurdity. Also on hand is Leslie Nielson delivering a chilling, not-funny-in-the-least portrayal of a husband scorned in “Something to Tide You Over.” Even E.G. Marshall, playing an eccentric millionaire in “They’re Creeping Up on You,” is on target. Everyone just goes for it.

Despite the obvious comic book panel transitions and whack-a-doo acting during the end of some of the stories, at least two (or three, depending on your sensibilities) of the short stories really deliver the goods. “The Crate” is not played for laughs, and is easily the best of the bunch, thanks to stand-up performances by Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver, and Adrienne Barbeau. That is, unless cockroaches bother you. If that’s the case, “They’re Creeping Up on You” will have you squirming in your chair at the end. Actually, the end of the framing sequence is the real kicker to the movie—easily the scariest and most effective of the bunch, second only to The Twilight Zone Movie’s “Do You Want to See Something Really Scary?” gag.

Bonus! The Monster Club (1981)
The Monster Club was first introduced to American audiences through Elvira’s VHS series wherein she introduced the films in her inimitable fashion—and that alone should prep you for what kind of movie this is. I have great affection for this very uneven effort, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. It’s not funny enough to be a horror comedy, but it’s nowhere near a straight-on anthology movie. Not with a stripper who gets down to her bare bones in a musical number as part of the framing sequence. There’s 80’s new wave rock, an urban fantasy premise that has since been used to death, and then there’s Vincent Price and John Carradine! Doing their usual thing! It makes me crazy, I tell you.

The segments themselves run the gamut, but two out of the three manage to be effectively creepy with some great atmosphere and good use of the setting. Of course, when you’re filming in England, everything is creepy over there, even their 7-11 stores. Look for bonus artwork by John Bolton in a flashback sequence; he also drew the movie as a comic series (along with David Lloyd) for the Hammer Halls of Horror magazine. I won’t say it’s the best thing about the movie, but Bolton’s art is what makes that particular segment so creepy. The rest is ghoulish fun in a decidedly British vein.

If you're just joining us: This is part of a much larger series of articles. You can find all of them here.

My Top 5 Favorite TV Horror Shows

My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Thursday, October 23, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite TV Horror Shows

For horror and sci-fi fans growing up in the 1980s, TV was the best place for a quick fix if you were looking for something ghoulish and ghastly to watch. In addition to Twilight Zone reruns (always on somewhere) and later, The Outer Limits, there were several syndicated shows that promised at least an entertaining story, if not a scary one. Now in the age of dvds and streaming content, you can get what you want when you want...well, mostly. There are a number of shows, smaller, more obscure, that have yet to find their way to a blu-ray near you.

When it comes to television shows like this, memory and perception are fickle and pernicious. What was terrifying to you may get a solid “eh” from me. When I was thinking about these shows, I approached it from the angle of consistency. How frequently did these shows deliver the goods? Granted, they all had great openings, but after that, then what?

Another factor for me was seeing a wide array of good to great horror stories adapted to the show’s format. They all did it, to one extent or another. Who was the best at it? See if you agree with my rankings.

5. Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996)
HBO’s long-running series featured the animatronic Crypt Keeper as the old style horror host of yore, dressing in appropriate costumes and dropping awful pun after awful pun was a mainstay for the 1990s horror scene. This show is remarkable for a number of reasons: they were adapting comic book stories from the legendary EC comics line and validating those comics in a way that we hadn’t seen before or since; and this was backed up by the sheer number of top directors and actors and writers who hot-footed over to work on the series in some way; not just genre guys, but also a lot of people not normally associated with the horror genre.

Sure, the series as a whole was uneven, but they didn’t shy away from the gory and gruesome, and the spirit of the comics was preserved nicely in some really outlandish scripts. A few stories gave us genuine chills, to be sure, but there was nothing subtle about Tales from the Crypt. As a collection of filmed horror stories goes, however, there are few that can match it for overall quality.

4. Boris Karloff’s Thriller (1960-1962)
Already a legendary figure in pop culture, Karloff was one of the three most recognizable faces of horror in the 20th century, along with Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price. Karloff’s voice was as distinctive as his looks, and was frequently parodied and imitated for decades. Price had the longest career of the three, and the most varied, but Karloff stayed true to his roots and lent his name to books, comics, and a short-lived but influential television show, Boris Karloff’s Thriller.

Hosted by and frequently starring Karloff himself, he’d introduce each story and then we would be whisked away to some soundstage or location shot to establish the mood and we were off like a shot. No wasted space in the Thriller scripts. It was all Hit your Mark, Say your Line and move on. And the budget for things like special effects was probably $46 dollars an episode. So, the writers and producers and directors elected to write good scripts. Several episodes are based on short stories by noted authors. The most famous of the bunch is “Pigeons From Hell” by Robert E. Howard, and it remains one of the most faithful translations of Howard’s work to another medium. The episodes in Boris Karloff’s Thriller are consistently creepy and worth seeking out.

3. Night Gallery (1969-1973)
The premise: you’re in a museum, filled with fantastic and phantasmagoric paintings and statuary. As you walk through, admiring the art, with its strange and horrific subject matter, the curator appears and begins to tell you about the painting you’re looking at. It’s a curious story, if you’d like to hear it...

Rod Serling’s other great TV show is forever in the shadow of the mighty Twilight Zone, and that’s a shame, because some of the episodes of Night Gallery were way more scary by comparison. From the great, evocative opening sequence that would forever terrify my five year old self to some of the more interesting adaptations of famous authors from Robert Bloch to H.P. Lovecraft, Serling’s sensibilities were firmly in place, with less moralizing and life lessons and more freak outs and fear.  Probably the most famous episode is “Pickman’s Model,” and if you know anything about the story, you’d know it well could have been the inspiration for the series.

2. Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988)
“Man the sunlit world of what he believes to be...reality. But...there is...unseen by most, an underworld. A place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit. A daaark siiiide...”

If reading that didn’t give you chills, then you never watched Tales From the Darkside. This long-running syndicated series was around for the heyday of the horror renaissance in the 1980s and it was a needed, necessary thing, at that. What the hell else was there to watch in between Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels?

Again borrowing from short fiction written by amazing authors, Tales From the Darkside dispensed with a horror host and went straight into the story after the creepy credits. No frills, all business. And when you had teleplays based on the works of Stephen King, Joseph Payne Brennan, Harlan Ellison, and Charles L. Grant, just to name a few, there wasn’t any need for a build-up. A lot of top names worked on the various episodes, from George A. Romero to Tom Savini and all points in between. In fact, the whole thing had Romero’s fingerprints on it as an executive producer, and many of the episodes filmed had his particular sensibility about them. The show took itself seriously, and very rarely ventured into comedy. If there was humor, it was dark, gallows humor. As a teenager in the 1980s, I’m certain this show is responsible for much of my cynicism and angst.

1. Masters of Horror (2005-2007)
Can there be any doubt as to this show’s place on the list? Granted it only lasted two seasons on Showtime, but each one was a polished gem, unlike so many of the other, earlier shows producing only diamonds in the rough.

On a cable network, there’s no need to censor the gore, violence or the occasional sex. You have a much larger budget to work with. Using top names in talent, like Don Coscarelli, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and many others, you ensured good actors, great direction, and tons of experience. And to top it all off, every episode is one hour long. Tons of time to develop characters and plot without having to truncate the storytelling. It was genius and it worked like a charm.

Some of the best episodes were adaptations from famous short stories or comics. Joe Lansdale’s  "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road", "H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House" and  "Jenifer" by Bruce Jones (based on the comic story he wrote, illustrated by Berni Wrightson), are three stand-outs that spring instantly to mind. There are only a couple of duds in this otherwise stellar series, and even they weren’t that bad; they just suffered by comparison.

Bonus! Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
It’s hard to talk about horror anthologies on television without mentioning The Twilight Zone (and I couldn’t; see above). As a fledgling effort, The Twilight Zone is lionized, and perhaps a little too slavishly, for its innovative approach and subject matter. Keep in mind, however, that for every instance of, say, Richard Matheson writing “Nightmare at 10,000 Feet” there was an episode that was a gentle or whimsical fantasy with no horror or terror or freakouts by William Shatner in it. A lot of the stories were informed by the politics of the Cold War, and some were outright science fiction think pieces. None of this is a criticism, mind you. It’s just to say that not every episode of The Twilight Zone was a home run, or even completely based on a horrific premise.

Still, it was a place where you could catch Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and Rod Serling writing and adapting stories that could, and would, put a chill on you in surprising and novel ways. John Collier, Jerome Bixby, Manly Wade Wellman, and others were handled with respect and their stories are some of the best, most famous in the history of the show. When The Twilight Zone was good, it was brilliant. And it inarguably set the template for shows of this type for the remainder of the 20th century.

Serling was so instrumental to the series’ success that every single iteration of the show that followed it has attempted to invoke his ghost by inserting him into their credits in some way. It was cute, at first, to acknowledge the man upon whose bones these newcomers were treading for their traction. Then it became disturbing to me. I may well have been the only one, but there was something maybe a little too spectral about Serling’s presence. I don’t know if he approved of what went on afterward in the name of his most famous creation. I always felt like maybe he was trapped in the show, unable to pass through and go into the light; a ghost in his own machine. No idea where I got that notion. Probably from watching too damn many episodes of The Twilight Zone...