Wednesday, June 27, 2007

News: You think that's scary? Wait until you see the caterer's bill.

Alright Screamers and Screamettes. I'm going to be signing off for just a week and some change. Your host with the vowel-deficient Internet handle is getting married. That's right, married! Can you wrap your noodle around that? Somebody want's CRwM to hang around for like forever! I find it hard to believe myself, but it is the double truth, Ruth.

After my wife-to-be become my wife-who-is and we do a little honeymoon action, I'll be back. Until then, dear readers, be cool to one another and stay classy.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Comics: The more the merrier.

Wanted to hip any Screamers or Screamettes who dig their scares in sequential panel format that there are two recent horror comic anthologies worth checking out: Completely Doomed from IDW and Viper Comics' Sasquatch.

Completely Doomed gathers original comic stories from the first four issues of IDW's regular horror anthology Doomed. If you haven't picked it up yet, Doomed is classic horror-antho comics done right. The stories are all adaptations of classic pulp short stories from Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, David J. Schow, and F. Paul Wilson. Thirteen different artists, including the legendary Ted McKeever, contribute a wealth of styles to Doomed's lovely black and white pages. In its original format, you also get interviews with the original authors, reviews of movies and books, prose fiction, and a wonderful EC style host: Ms. Doomed, an eye-patch wearing hottie who divides her time between vamping it up for goth-cake pin-ups and insulting the readers. The original issues of the series are published in a luxurious 8½ by 11 trim size that gives them the feel of an up-market magazine. Painted covers by Jeremy Geddes and Ashley Wood also contribute to the sense that you're getting quality product. And the insides don't disappoint. The stories, including one Eisner nominated short piece, almost always hit. They do tend towards the "twist" ending, though this seems more like a nod to pulp classicism than a tired cliché. The fact that they always revisit the same four authors could have undermined the series; instead, it helps give the series a unified feel that, given the variety of art styles used, could have felt too dispersed. The art, like the stories, is almost always top notch. It runs the gambit from hyper-stylized cartooning to naturalistic illustration. The more extreme styles can sometimes get too abstract for their own good, but the stories are tight and short enough that no style is given the time to overstay its welcome.

The collection, Completely Doomed, gathers together only the comic stories. Gone are the reviews, the prose, and Ms. Doomed is relegated to a tiny handful of semi-random appearances. Though it is a shame that we lose the charmingly abrasive Ms. Doomed, you can't argue with the decision to cut the rest of the stuff. The reviews and interviews are welcome breaks in the original magazines, but none of them are worth collecting for what might be a second read. The collection understands that it is the comic horror stories that we've paid our money to read. The reproductions are crisp and faithful to the originals. My only objection is that the collection shrinks the pages down to a less magazine-like 6 and some change by 10 inch format. The art doesn't seem to suffer any for the change in trim size, by the over-large pages were something that made the series fun. The collection also includes a cover gallery all the alternate covers for all four issues.

I've you've been following the series, there's nothing new in Completely Doomed. The more book-like format will hold up to repeated readings better than the original magazines, but it is debatable whether or not that's worth the 20 buck asking price. For those who will be approaching the series new, this is the perfect intro to an excellent collection of horror comics.

Viper Comics' Sasquatch is an original anthology "presented" (I'm not sure what that entails for a comic book) by Josh Howard, the man behind Viper's most popular horror title: Dead @ 17. I must admit that I've always steered clear of Viper Comics' titles. They seem to have a sort of pseudo-manga house style of art that I, unfairly, equate with a sort of vapid kids' play sort of work. This anthology, along with the non-horror themed sci-fi Western mash-up Daisy Kutter: The Last Train, forced me to re-evaluate my dismissive attitude. Sasquatch contains nearly 300 pages of comic fun. Dozens of artists tackle Bigfoot, the Yeti, Sasquatch, or whatever else you want to call him. The stories cover the spectrum, from straight-up horror to surreal humor to kid-friendly adventure. The art is as wildly varied as the writing. Some stories do fall flat, like presenter Howard's short of a Bigfoot soldier dispatched to kill Osama bin Laden, which is neither cathartic or satiric and verges on the embarrassing. These duds, however, are the exception. For every miss, there are four solid hits and, with that ratio, the over all collection is a quick, fun read.

I have only one complaint about Viper's book: the $25 buck asking price is a bit steep for a comic that I don't think has much re-read value. I had a good time working through Sasquatch, but nothing in it rises to the level of classic and I can't see many folks shelling out 25 Washingtons for such ephemeral pleasures. Then again, maybe I'm just a cheap bastard.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Movies: Right on Q.

Now supposing, just hypothetically, New York City came under attack by a giant, dragon-like monster that was, possibly, the incarnation of an ancient South American god. And suppose that this thing had a jones for human flesh and liked plucking the heads off window-washers and rooftop sunbathers and the like. Finally, suppose it was laying eggs around the city and had to be stopped before its brood grew up and moved on to, I guess, Boston and Buffalo.

Who would you call in to stop this beast?

If you answered, "Well, CRwM, I'd call in Caine, lanky master of the martial arts, and Shaft, detective and bad motherf . . . shut your mouth!" then cult auteur Larry Cohen likes the way you think.

New York is a city of immigrants. Since the Dutch sailed into the East River, wave after wave of newcomers have come to Manhattan searching for a better life for themselves and their kids. In Cohen's 1982 creature feature, Q: the Winged Serpent, the city's most recent newcomer is a giant man-eating dragon-thingy that feels Manhattan's copious food supply – or "residents" – and the wealth of primo nesting places makes the city the perfect place for a struggling single mother to start over. Unfortunately, even under the fairly lax immigration policies then in place, Ms. Q falls afoul of the NYPD, who dispatch Detectives Caine and Shaft to bring her down.

Running parallel to this main story are two separate subplots. The first involves a shadow cult of Q-worshipers who may have attracted the beast to the city with their blood sacrifices. The second, and more involved plot, follows a small-time thief who accidentally discovers Q's new penthouse crib and becomes the city's only chance of finding the creature in time to stop it. The first of these plots is pretty much disposable. The movie can never fully resolves whether or not Q's origins are supernatural or whether it is some ancient hold over. Tracking and confronting the cult, while good for a few action scenes and some of the films bits of middle-level gore, never feels crucial to the broader story. The story of the thief, played as a wonderfully annoying schlub by Law and Order's Michael Moriarty, is more integrated and is Cohen's only nod to the sort of moralizing he emphasizes in some of his other horror flicks: the environmentalism of It's Alive and the anti-consumerism corporate bashing of The Stuff (my personal favorite from the Cohen canon). While fleeing some thieves who think he's double-crossed them, Moriarty's character uncovers Q's nest. He informs the police that he'll lead them there, but then starts demanding money and pardons from the city. It has the potential to shape up into a Godzilla-meets-High and Low sort of thing, but it resolves too quickly in an effort to tighten up the pace and get back to the monster versus police action.

Visually, Q ties to marry the sort of gritty on-location feel of such NYC classics as The Taking of Pehlam One, Two, Three with the stop-motion SFX of a classic Harryhausen flick. The former it does pretty well, the latter it does with decidedly mixed results. The characterization is better than it needs to be. Carradine phones his role in and Roundtree is underused, but Moriarty is wonderfully grating in his role. The pacing is uneven. It feels like sections of the flick – especially scenes that would have more closely linked the whole cult subplot to the story – are missing. The final battle between cops and lizard-bird-god is fun and is a neat reverse of the climax of King Kong, with the airborne monster swooping down on the human combatants.

Q: the Winged Serpent is not a great flick. Even by Cohen's own standards, it is thin fare. It is clear that Cohen intended to make an entertaining monster movie and he did produce something that can fill a couple hours relatively painlessly. Still, if you're curious about the films of this notable indie filmmaker, I recommend you start with something else and come to this only if you feel the impulse to explore further. Using the rigorously scientific Performances of American Runner Meredith Rainey-Valmon Movie Rating Score, I'm giving Q a 1991 World Indoor Championships in Seville, Spain. This is a middling performance by a director that's done better.

SCREAMIN' EXTRA: Literary-mind viewers will want to keep an eye out of Malachy McCourt, New York icon, author, radio personality, and bother of famed author Frank McCourt (of Angela's Ashes fame), in the role of Police Commissioner McConnell. An Irishman? On the NYPD? What can't special effects do?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

News: President denies rumors that Russia is developing giant robots to defend itself from eldritch horrors.

There are many burning issues that President Vladimir Putin must deal with: tensions over the United States proposed missile defense system; continuing political strife with various breakaway republics; the fallout from the murder of Alexander Litvinenko; and, according to the St. Petersburg Times, the military deployment of giant robots and the awakening of Cthulhu.

In a recent press conference, President Putin agreed to answer questions submitted to him via the Internet. Here's an excerpt from the short article about the conference:

“Yes, we will use the latest technical devices. Already now they are being stationed, for example, in the southern parts of our country,” Putin said when reporters asked him after the conference whether Russia planned to use “gigantic, humanoid war robots” to defend itself.

Asked to elaborate about what he meant, Putin said: “These are unmanned aerial vehicles. And maybe the time will come for gigantic robots. However, so far we have put our main hope on people — namely border guards,” Putin said, Kommersant reported.

Asked about the possible awakening of the giant mythical octopus Cthulhu, the fourth-most popular question among the more than 150,000 sent to Putin, he said that he believed something more serious was behind the question. Cthulhu was invented by novelist H.P. Lovecraft and was said to be sleeping beneath the Pacific Ocean.

Putin said he viewed mysterious forces with suspicion and advised those who took them seriously to read the Bible, Koran or other religious books.

Thanks to Dave over at Digital Download for the heads up on this story.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Movies: Wax philosophical.

To consider the 2005 remake of House of Wax, the second remake of the 1933 Michael Curtiz thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum, is to give it too much credit. The film is a standard issue youth-slaughter picture that is only redeemed by its climactic finale which takes place in what might be the most elaborately designed and surreal set to grace a contemporary horror flick. The plot, which has only a loose connection to the two previous incarnations of the flick, involves a group young folks who, on their way to a college football game, end up lost in a town where a pair of crazed brothers have trapped passersby and turned them into wax statues. The kids, including the dramatically inert Paris Hilton, are picked off one by one, until only a brother/sister duo remain to fight off the mad wax sculptors. This final showdown occurs in the titular House of Wax, an art deco influenced wax museum that is (in the film's least likely conceit – which is saying something for a flick about dudes who get their kicks making wax statues out of folks) made out of wax. As psychos and victims face off, a raging fire slowly melts the museum around them. The effect is notably original and remarkably pleasing, but I doubt many viewers will find it redeems the otherwise by-the-numbers lead up.

What I found most interesting about this flick is its membership in an odd little subgenre of flick that posits the existence of time-capsule towns, isolated from the rest of the world and preserved, throughout the South. Think of them as "Hee-Haw" versions of Doyle's Lost World.

I'm just thinking out loud here, so forgive me if I ramble.

The origins of this idea – the town trapped in amber – aren't, it seems to me, distinctly Southern. The archetype for it is, I suspect, the fictional town of Germelshausen, the creation of German novelist Friedrich Gerstäcker. His cursed village was later re-imagined as a Scottish village 1947 stage musical by Alan Jay Lerner (lingering anti-German sentiment from WWII necessitated the cultural reworking).

In the multiverse of horror flicks, these retrograde hamlets can be found dotting the globe – from the pagan worshipping island community of Summersisle of The Wicker Man to the perpetually-dawn-of-the-Cold-War era mining community of mutants in The Hills Have Eyes. Still, it seems like the South gets more than their fare share. The most famous horror example is, perhaps, Pleasant Valley, the cannibalistic Brigadoon of Herschell Gordon Lewis's Two Thousand Maniacs (revisited in the 2005 remake). In that flick, a South Carolina town decimated by Union soldiers in the War of Northern Aggression returns semi-regularly to trap lost tourists and turn them into barbeque. Despite several glaring anachronisms, we're supposed to understand that Pleasant Valley is stuck somewhere in is pre-destruction antebellum days.

Ambrose, the Louisiana (played gamely by Gold Coast, Australia) town in the most recent House of Wax, is also a fatal tourist trap, though the aim of our villains is primarily artistic rather than gustatory. Unlike Pleasant Valley, Ambrose seems to have frozen sometime in the 1960s: the movie theater perpetually shows 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. There are anachronistic cars parked all over town, but I think we're supposed to understand that the vehicles belong to the crazed brothers' many victims.

In a more artsy and pretentious, if no less weird and disturbing, vein, Lars von Trier's 2005 Manderlay involves a Southern plantation that, somehow, has managed to keep the institution of slavery running for another 70 years.

Interestingly, the fictional time capsule towns of the South are not always presented as horrific death traps or politically incorrect backwaters. Tim Burton's 2003 Big Fish features Specter, a fictional Alabama town that is stuck eternally in an idealized and perfect 30's/40's To Kill a Mockingbird era of the South.

I'm not quite sure why the South seems like such rich soil for time capsule towns. I would say that it has to do with the South's constant mythologizing of its own past, but the fact that, of the four movies mentioned, none of the directors is a Southerner (a Pennsylvanian, a Californian, and two Europeans) suggests it is not a regionally specific quirk. Perhaps it is a reflection of the economic status of the South – after more than a century of New South boosterism, the landscape of rural Dixie is still dotted with Depression era structures, Eisenhower era vehicles, and, unfortunately, the occasional Jefferson Davis era mentality. Again, though, the fact that at least on of these films was shot in Australia, on a set more influenced by urban art deco design, suggests it's got little to do with actual conditions in the South.

I don't have any real conclusions here. Just an observation on something I find curious.

Monday, June 11, 2007

News: How many remakes of Blood Sucking Freaks does a man need?

Rough times for Hollywood's splat pack. Not long after Grindhouse's poor box office showing handed out notices to numerous folks on the young auteur A-list, Eli Roth (partial director and dubious actor in said flick) get's a stinker to call his own: apparently Hostel II is an underwhelming box office performer. Today, The New York Times asks if the horror boom, fueled by young directors like Roth, is finally running out of petrol. The Times doesn't waver on the issue:

Moviegoers put a nail in the coffin of a dying horror boom this weekend, as 'Hostel: Part II' opened to just $8.8 million in ticket sales, far behind the crime caper 'Oceans' Thirteen' in a three-day period of relatively soft box office performance.

Is horror tired? Are we headed into another lull? I open to the floor to the Screamers and Screamettes. Sound off.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Music: Zombies, demons, and, then, something really scary.

Are all you Screamers and Screamettes having a swinging and screamin' good weekend? As a little Sunday treat, here's two tunes to dig on followed by one that will either induce laughter or tears, depending on your tolerance for bad 80s retro crap. We'll start with the good stuff (that way you can cut out early if you want to avoid the neon-colored punchline).

This Sunday, we're giving you the ol' psychobilly one-two. Starting with Creepshow, a horror-tinged quartet from Ontario. Formed in 2005, Creepshow consists of Hellcat on guitar and lead vocals, Sickboy on the upright, the Reverend McGinty working the keyboard, and Matt Pomade in the engine room. The band spent their first year working on a live show that, by all reports, is a wild and rocking good time. After building a loyal fan-base, the dropped their first long-player: 2006's Sell Your Soul. Currently the quartet is touring with an alternate line-up. Frontwoman Hellcat is on maternity leave and her sister, Sarah Blackwood, is filling in. Here's the original line-up performing their short, but sweet, "Zombies Ate Her Brain."

Eagled-eyed viewers may have noted the appearance of a Creature from the Black Lagoon lobby card in the background of the breakfast scene. Now that's a band with excellent taste (no pun intended).

Keeping it all in the family, Hellcat's hubby, a cat who goes by the name Hooch, also fronts a psychobilly band. He's the face of The Matadors. Here's the man who knocked up Hellcat and his crew rockin' their "Creeping Demon."

Finally, last night, after grilling up a mess of ribs and drinking many a beer, a friend and I got to talking about the career of Kurt Russell. These things happen when you've had enough to drink. This led, as such conversations should, to a the topic of Big Trouble in Little China. And that led, of course, to us popping said flick into the old DVD player. Until last night, I had not noticed that director John Carpenter is not only the man behind the camera on this picture, he's the dude responsible for the very, very 80s soundtrack and he can be heard singing the closing credit theme song. Screamettes and Screamers, I present to you John Carpenter's overlooked masterwork: the music video for "Big Trouble in Little China."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Comics: Billy don't you lose that number.

Screamin' regulars know by know that I'm a fan of monster mash, genre mixing goofiness. Godzilla versus Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD? You've got my interest. You've got masked Mexican wrestlers pile-driving Dracula? Sign me up! Your latest project pits Frankenstein and the Wolf Man against a gang of 1950s G-men determined to deliver a magic pair of women's undergarments to J. Edgar Hoover. I'm there! One of my favorite sub-categories of sub-genre (you don't get any more sub than that) is the cowboy versus monster mash up. I'm not sure why blending these two genres works so well. Perhaps it is because they are both such stylized and mythic genres. The trappings of both the traditional horror flick and the traditional Western have been so perfected and polished through reuse that they can be meshed and reworked without losing much resolution. Like Dracula, the outlaw gunslinger is such an iconic figure that he retains his meaning no matter the context. Perhaps it is simply a product of the various elements of each genre being so damn cool. Six-shooters are nifty. The labs of mad scientists are always nice to see. Combine these things and you're doubling the cool factor. Whatever the reason, when a cowboys and monsters mash up works, I'll tell you what: you've got yourself a grade-A slice of prime entertainment.

And Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities, by Eric Powell and Kyle Hotz, works.

The plot is straight-up pulp and played strictly for thrills. Billy the Kid, presumed dead and now in hiding, is recognized by the ring-leader of an eccentric band of sideshow performers. The various freaks – including, among others, a woman with tattoos that predict the future, a Creature from the Black Lagoon inspired alligator man, and a tequila swilling dog-faced boy – agree to keep Billy's survival a secret if he'll help them recover a mystical artifact known as the Golem's Heart. Before you can sing a line of "Don't Take Your Guns to Town, Bill," the Kid and his freak posse are off to Europe to recover the artifact from Dr. Frankenstein, who has gone from standard mad scientist to full on Lovecraftian black magician. It is flying lead 'gainst eldritch dread from then on out.

The story is fun and well-told, if not particularly deep. The characters are somewhat stock, by they are lovingly written and perform all their functions perfectly. Frankenstein is really the only clunker here. The character so little resembles the Shelly/Universal archetype that one almost wonders why he needs to be Frankenstein. That said, it doesn't distract from the fun and can be overlooked. The art fits the story beautifully. It is a sort of cartoony, but wonderfully expressive sort of caricature that is equally suited to comedic effects and grisly horror.

Things have been a bit dry on the horror comic front lately, and Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities was a cool drink of water.

SCREAMIN' TEAM-UPS: If you're curious to check out one of the stranger ideas to ever come out of Marvel, you can hunt down the Godzilla versus Nick Fury issues of Marvel's short lived Godzilla: King of Monsters series. They are re-printed – along with Godzilla going toe-to-toe with the Fantastic Four and the Avengers – in the Marvel Essentials anthology of Godzilla. Eagle-eyed readers may have also noticed Godzilla's appearance in a recent issue of The Mighty Avengers

Friday, June 01, 2007

Movies: Fear travels on six teensy-tiny little legs.

Ants had two strikes against it going in. First, it had run afoul of the Screamin' Law of Multiple Movie Titles. The flick, originally a made for television jobber called It Happened at Lakewood Manor a.k.a. Panic at Lakewood Manor, now slinks around under it's Pilipino release title, like some beneficiary of a government relocation program meant to protect B-grade horror flicks from the complete financial murder they would suffer if they showed up on store racks under their real names.

Second, it is one of the eco-horror flicks in which mankind, or some stand-in subset of second tier celebrity, receives its violent comeuppance for our environmentally unbalanced ways at the hands of some insect or angry whale or pissed-off wallaby or whatever. Though there's many a fan of this once (back in the 1970s) mighty subgenre, even the most exemplary specimens of this sort of flick have left me a bit confused. Presumably the lesson we're supposed to take home from these flicks is "Mother Nature deserves respect and treating her like poop means that horrible animal armies will descend upon our homes and vacation areas, making us big-time miserable." In practice, though, the films always play out as a humans-versus-nature battle royal, with Mother Nature playing the villain. You can spout all the canned speeches you want about the dangers of mechanized farms and the importance of a sound nation-wide policy towards global warming – but when it comes down to a fight between Joe Character and savage swarm of killer insects, you can't expect Joe to be selected against without a fight. As Montgomery Burns once said: "Oh, so Mother Nature needs a favor? Well, maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys. Nature started the fight for survival and now she wants to quit because she's losing? Well, I say 'Hard cheese'!"

Naming and ideological concerns aside, Ants is a moderately enjoyable popcorn flick that manages to score some genuine squirms from the directors decision to, on several occasions, dump live ants on his actors. All the CGI in the world cannot make you cringe like the image of actual ants crawling across some dude's mug.

Like all good disaster/horror flicks, Ants starts with the obligatory gathering of the minor celebrity herd. In this case, the flock gathers at Lakewood Manor, a seaside California resort run by late-career Myrna Loy. In the interest of full disclosure, Ants made it into the DVD player because I once, in the heat of a schoolboy-like crush, added everything the incomparable Myrna was in to my Netflix queue. Seeing Nora Charles in what must rank as one of the worst wigs in cinema history certainly counts as one of the scariest things in this flick. Other cast members include the Thigh Master herself, Suzanne Somers; Falcon Crest soaper Robert Foxworth; Day of the Animals alumni and go-to animal attack victim Lynda Day; and Bernie Casey, who I most fondly remember as the cat who allows the geek protagonists of Revenge of the Nerds to join the Tri-Lamdb frat.

Things go fairly well at first, until a couple of construction workers disturb an outsized nest of ants. As luck would have it, these ants are not only ticked off – they've been made dangerously poisonous as a reaction to the stew of pesticides and whatnot that humans – foolish humans – have exposed them to. After dispatching the construction workers, the ants make some minor forays into the hotel, offing a cook and a young vacationer. Foxworth, who plays the foreman of the infested construction site, is certain the ants are causing the fatal and near fatal incidents that are suddenly plaguing the hotel. The health inspectors, however, are not convinced. To prove his point, Foxworth decides to drive his bulldozer into the ant colony, getting the ants so angry they march out in force. Sure, this dooms nearly everybody still in the hotel and leads to the unnecessary deaths of several characters – but it'll be the last damn time some egghead from the Board of Health tells this construction worker that he doesn't know a colony of poisonous killer ants when he sees one! Once the ants go to war, the movie kicks into full disaster mode. To sweeten the pot, Brian Dennehy shows up as the fire chief who comes to the embattled heroes' aid.

Ants isn't without its charms. There is an unintentional camp factor that is hard to resist and the story, while hardly original, moves along at a nice pace. This is the sort of thing that was made to kill some time on a lazy afternoon, though expecting much more than that will leave you disappointed. Using the ever-popular Infamous Forest Fires Film Rating System, I'm going to give Ants a slim, but not completely regrettable, 1871 Peshtigo Fire. Sure it was overshadowed by the Chicago Fire, which happened on the same day, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a blaze worth noting in its own way.