Monday, September 29, 2008

Son of Silent Scream Series: Pre-Kong.

There are better silent horror and fantasy films out there, but perhaps no flick in the whole Silent Scream series is as reliably fun as Harry O. Hoyt's 1925 classic The Lost World. Often billed as the first feature film to utilize stop-motion animation, The Lost World is the primal "giant beast" movie. Often there's a desire on the part of silent film fans to claim direct influence wherever a pattern of prior art can be established. If, for example, there's a movie featuring a vampish test-tube grown woman (Alrune: Unholy Love, 1928), then silent film fans eager to prove the relevance of their interests then silent film fans will promote it as the "obvious" source of any artificial femme – from she-Terminators to Cherry 2000. I think, however, influence of The Lost World can be theorized without recourse to leaps of faith. Films like King Kong (both the original and the remake) and the first two pics from the Jurassic Park franchise overtly lift or allude to scenes from the 1925 film. The Lost World's technological creativity, strong story, and enduring ability to please viewers by appealing to a child-like sense of wonder all make the flick a creative well-spring which modern filmmaker continue to tap.

The Lost World is based on Arthur Conan Doyle's novel of the same name. Doyle's popular work has been adapted for the screen and television so often that it has become nearly archetypal and it is hard to imagine that anybody reading this needs a summary. Still, in keeping with well-established Interbloggy traditions, we at ANTSS shall provide one. The film opens with the public disgrace of one Professor Challenger of London (played by Wallace Berry: vet of more than 200 silent and talkie flicks, include his Oscar winning turn in heartbreaking The Champ). Challenger claims to have discovered a geographically isolated plateau that still supports prehistoric life. The idea is, of course, absurd. The Royal Society has mucho LOLs at Challenger's expense and the embittered scientist mounts an expedition to the plateau. Joining him is a cast of reporters, hunters, generic guides, and a few damsels-to-be-distressed. Challenger's reports not only prove true, but he manages to capture a brontosaurus and bring it back to London. As these beasts always do, the irate dino breaks free and rampages through the town.

Discussion of the effects – a wealth of excellent stop-motion animations – often dominates talk of the look of the film, but there's a lot here to like. Though the director, Hoyt, would remain an otherwise unremarkable journeyman sort, he manages a large cast and some truly excellent sets with real skill. He has an especially fine grasp of deep compositions, whether he's combining plate shots with live actors in the foreground or simply filming his leads in a quiet Victorian study. The George Eastman House restoration is remarkably clean, with excellent tint-coloring works beautifully with the story.

Admittedly, The Lost World is lighter fare than much of material in the Silent Scream Series. You won't find the rotting hothouse sensuality, the paranoid madness, or the grim atmosphere of more "artistic" horror flicks here. But if The Lost World's aims are simpler, they are no less noble. There's an innocence to the flick that isn't a product of technological primitiveness or ideological simple-mindedness. There's a magical joy – and it is the essential pleasure of all fantastic cinema – in making the impossible possible, of providing visual evidence for what could only exist in dreams.

Perhaps this is why, despite its lack of gravitas and its lack of high art stylishness (this may be one of the few films we'll be profiling here that owes nothing whatsoever to German Expressionism), The Lost World continues to inspire filmmakers. Long after the angular sets of Caligari have gone the way of the kinetoscope and Nosferatu has become a of source of in-references for horror buffs, there's something irresistible about the image of a dinosaur stomping through the streets of London: an impossible monster rendered in all its awkward and life-like glory can't help but bring a smile to your face.

I recommend The Lost World to anybody who still has the feeling that there's something inexpressibly great about the medium of film.

SCREAMIN' FUN FACT: The Lost World was the first in-flight movie ever. In April of 1925, passengers on Imperial Airways' London to Paris flight were screened the flick for their in-flight entertainment.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Son of Silent Scream Series: Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

What counts as a horror flick?

The extremity of the genre's typical content and the genre's assumed goal – to induce horror in the viewer – seem to make the question a bit silly, but the assumption of self-evidence is, I think, a bit deceptive. Content-wise, there's no distinct element you can point to that marks horror, and only horror, as a genre. Supernatural elements are a staple of fantasy films. The depiction of human suffering and death, or simply the threat thereof, is common in countless genres. The goal of inspiring horror, fear, or revulsion is hardly limited to the horror genre – it's a staple of crime flicks and the driving idea behind much of John Waters's early works. More importantly, even if we couldn't find this motivation in other genres, we'd be a loss to explain why so many movies identified as "horror" films don't seem all the concerned with producing actual scares. You could make a small library of schlock grindhouse fair that is more concerned with camp kicks and titillation than it is with inducing fear, but few horror fans would deny these flicks the label "horror." And this doesn't even get into the admittedly fun but ultimately pointless arguments about what particular brand of horror is the One True Horror.

I bring this up, my sweet lil' Screamers and Screamettes, not because I have any proposals that will untangle this particular Gordian knot. Instead, I mention it because the issue seems to haunt today's entry in the Son of Silent Scream Series: Paul Leni's 1928 Victor Hugo adaptation, The Man Who Laughs. Read the comments on Netflix and there's a repeated refrain running through the majority of them: This isn't really a horror film. There's the grudging acceptance approach: "This is a classic, but it isn't really a horror movie . . ." You've got the bait-and-switch accusation: "Though this movie occasionally looks and sounds like a horror film (and certainly influenced the way future horror films were shot at Universal), this movie is straight-up melodrama in German Expressionist clothing." There's the analytical take: "For starters, this really isn't a horror movie. Yes, the main character is grotesque, in a similar vein as Frankenstein. But he is not feared as a monster, nor does he have any malicious intent. I would categorize this as a romance/drama" and "A classic from Universal is often lumped in with their other horror classic but its really not. It's a period piece / melodrama with horror overtones." And this impulse to de-horror the film isn't restricted to self-appointed amateur critics. No less a critic than Roger Ebert sounded of on the real genre of the film: "The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film." I could go on, but you get the idea.

So, is The Man Who Laughs a silent horror film or not?

First, let's a take a look at the flick in question. The Man Who Laughs is a relatively faithful adaptation (right until, of course, the upbeat Hollywood ending) of the 1869 Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Set in England during the 17th century, the film tells the story of Gwynplaine. Gwyn's pops was the rebellious noble who revolted against James II. The irate king executed the rebel and sold the young Gwyn over to Comprachios, a breed of gypsies known mainly for using proto-surgical techniques to turn purchased children into freakish sideshow attractions. In Gwyn's case, the Comprachios alter his mouth so that he always wears a painfully full grin.

The young Gwynplaine is eventually abandoned by the Comprachios and, over the course of a brutal winter's night, ends up in league with Ursus, a traveling showman and philosopher waging a lopsided rivalry against his showbiz contemporary Shakespeare, and Dea, a blind woman who loves Gwyn and attempts to break through his truly epic self-loathing. (The traveling troop also includes a dog named, somewhat unfortunately, Homo – a name that leads to several unintentionally comedic title cards throughout the flick.) Mutilated as he is, an lacking any knowledge of his titled lineage, Gwyn becomes part of Ursus's show and, despite the pain he feels at being a freakish display, becomes something of a celebrity.

Performing in a carnival outside of London, Gwynplaine becomes the erotic fixation of the Duchess Josiana, and jaded libertine who finds court life dull and is turned on by the potential taboo the malformed Gwynplaine represents. However, unbeknownst to either Gwyn or Josiana, the Duchess's attraction becomes a tool for court intriguers who wish to destroy Josiana to curry the favor of the Queen. As various conspiracies close in around Gwynplaine, his titled background is revealed, his lower class show biz friends are endangered, and he becomes a pawn in political game he doesn't fully understand.

The plot is truly a go-for-broke, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink affair. There's plenty of violence and darkly fetishistic sensuality, but there's also some genuinely touching melodrama, an elaborate costume drama of court politics, several overtly comedic scenes, at least one major action sequence, and an old-fashioned love story that ties everything together. It is this mutt-like plot, a storyline that snags every successful element it can from any genre that will sit still long enough to be plundered, that leads to all the confusion as to whether or not The Man Who Laughs is properly a horror movie.

And is it?

Personally, I'm inclined to say that the film is usefully considered a "horror film." Though the elements may strike us as a little quaint now, Gwynplaine's mutilation, the Duchess's perverse sexuality, and the sinister intrigues of the of the court were specifically meant to fill viewers with a sense of dread.
[For the contrary opinion, check out the comments - user "my daroga" gives a thoughtful explanation of why it isn't useful to think of The Man Who Laughs as a horror film.]

More importantly, I'm not sure whether or not The Man Who Laughs is an according to Hoyle horror flick or not matters. It is an essential film for the history of the horror genre because it is part of the stylistic bedrock on which Universal built its legendary horror franchises. Leni's film is recognizably part of the same universe as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Freaks and all the other first gen talkie horror films. Leni's film alternates between a vaguely anachronistic storybook "old Europe" and night scenes filled with inky black proto-noir shadows he evolved for his Expressionistic work back in Germany (on the ball readers will remember that Leni helmed the flicker Waxworks, one of last year's Silent Scream Series selections).

Even the casting choices act like a sort of bridge from one era to the other. Gwynplaine is played by the legendary Conrad Veidt, who appeared as Cesare the murderous sleepwalker/zombie in silent horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt would go on to play a slew of villains in the talkie era, most notably Major Strasser in Casablanca. Olga Vladimirovna Baclanova, who plays the Duchess (and looks remarkably like an "Express Yourself" era Madonna), is another bridge between the silent and talkie eras of horror: she would later appear as Cleopatra, the murderously cruel beauty in Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks. Admittedly, the over-stuffed plot is atypical of the now iconic Universal horror flicks of the 1930s. But the rich, genre-bending storyline does foreshadow the mature, classy horror flicks produced by Lewton for RKO in the 1940s.
For fans of classic Universal horror films or silent filmmaking at its most lush and accomplished, The Man Who Laughs won't disappoint.

SCREAMIN' FUN FACT: It is widely held that the grimace of Conrad Veidt's Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs was the visual inspiration for Batman's arch-villian, the Joker. True? I don't know, but I can certainly see why people might believe it. See below.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Son of Silent Scream Series: "Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody."

I'm considering Fridays as part of the weekend. And you know what that means . . .

Greetings, Screamers and Screamettes. This year we start our tour of silent horror landmarks with Abel Gance's 1923 two-reel horror comedy Au secours! (known in English under both the literal translation Help! and the more thematic Haunted House).

Help! is a light, visually inventive piece that was shot by Gance partially for the purpose of proving to worried money men that his reputation for artistic innovation and personal unreliability did not necessarily mean that he was a financial risk. Despite Franc's enduring reputation for cultural superiority, the ups and downs of Gance's career are sad testament to the fact that the movie biz capitalists of France are as quick as any Hollywood buck hustler to screw over an underperforming genius.

Gance got his start in the dirty business of making dreams at the age of 19 when landed a couple of acting gigs. He quickly made the leap to the other side of the camera, though none of his earliest films survive. The earliest Gance film that still exists is the 1915 comedy The Joke of Doctor Tube, a goofy, technologically innovative, effects-driven piece about a mad scientist who zaps various people and things with a space-distorting ray. Gance's surprising follow up to what was essentially a madcap series of visual gags was The Torture of Silence (1917), a grim and tragic story of a love triangle that ends in suicide. Despite its unremittingly downbeat tone, critics and audiences flocked to The Torture of Silence and made it the blockbuster flick of the year. The film turned Gance in a hit-making machine. He cranked out two more big hits in 1917 and another blockbuster in 1918.

In 1918 Gance was drafted and sent to the frontlines of World War I. He was exposed to chemical weapons, nearly killed, and sent back home a physical wreck. The experience politicized Gance and his next flick was I Accuse, a savage anti-war film that reworked the love triangle premise of his first big hit into a Great War tragedy. The flick was an international hit. Flexing the power his unprecedented international popularity gave him, Gance launched into La Roue, an epic melodrama. Gance spent nearly three years shooting what amounted to literally millions of meters of film for the project. Then, before he could complete the flick, Gance's wife died of TB and the world-renowned director simply walked of the set. Financial backers were left with an eight-hour long rough cut and an absent auteur. After a four-month unscheduled vacation, Gance sauntered back to France and finally finished the film, but much of his capital with the French film industry had been squandered.

This brings us to Help!. Eager to show that he could still pack ticket-buyers into theaters, Gance returned to the short film format. Plot-wise, Help! is firmly in genre territory. Co-written with lead actor Max Linder, Help! centers around a classic premise: Max, a reputedly fearless man, is bet that he cannot spend one hour – from 11:00 to midnight – in a haunted house without calling out for help. What follows the necessary exposition is nothing short of a crazed, comical, and surreal showcase of silent era special effects. Set design, costume design, and various visual tricks all combine to make something that, in a later era, might be best described as "trippy." Humorously, Max remains by the unfazed by the cavalcade of passing phantoms (and what amounts to a small zoo's worth of various wild beasts). But before he can declare victory, he receives a chilling phone call that provides the film with a final surprise.

In a way, the film is a throwback to what scholars of early cinema describe as "cinema of the spectacle:" a mode of filmmaking that emphasizes the gee-whiz capabilities of the medium over its ability to render narratives. After establishing himself as the vanguard of modern cinema, Help! is Gance's opportunity to look back to his roots. It's a love letter to pioneer filmmakers like Georges Méliès. The plot is also a grab bag of pop influences. The "haunted house bet" idea was already a bit of chestnut when Linder and Gance picked it up. The literally phoned-in twist at the end is itself borrowed from a then popular short dramatic piece called "On the Telephone," produced by none other than Grand Guignol theater of Paris. Still, there's something pleasing in watching such over-qualified artists tackle the material without condescension or the sense that they are somehow slumming it. In fact, like Gance, Max Linder came to the film with something to prove. Once a major star in France, Linder was limping back to France after a disastrous bid to break into the American market. He needed this as a comeback. There's a sense that both the director and lead are determined to find the most entertaining material they can and put it over like world-class showmen. This sense of giddy fun communicates easily to the audience. Help! was a hit in 1923 and it is still a great little slice of genre fun now.

Sadly, it didn't save either Gance or Linder from their self-destructive tendencies. Linder never regained his status as a major star and, in 1925 on Halloween, he killed his wife and then himself in a suicide pact. Gance, thinking he'd once again proven his worth to the movie biz, launched on another epic: Napoleon, a nearly eight-hour long cinema event that consisted of three movies shown simultaneously on three large side-by-side screens. Though critically lauded, it was a financial disaster – it could only be shown in venues specifically designed for the film and, even then, there could be only one showing a day. Now considered Gance's masterpiece, the film was cut and recut until it existed mainly as scraps in stock-footage archives. Undeterred, Gance start shooting a second three-screen epic: The End of the World, a sci-fi flick about a comet that smashes into the Earth. Fed up, financiers pulled the plug on Gance before he could do any more damage. For the next 40 years, producers kept Gance on a short leash. Though he continued to make flicks into the 1960s, conventional wisdom is that he repeatedly checked his own talent to suit the mostly on-spec jobs he was given. At the end of his career, he turned in on himself, creating fragmentary recuts of his old masterpieces.

In 1971, Francis Ford Coppola and Kevin Brownlow released a major restoration of Gance's long-abused Napoleon. Brownlow had been collecting "lost" fragments of the film since 1954. The new print restored the 1927 in its entirety. Gance heard about the restoration and was pleased, but he never his classic whole again. He died in 1981 at the age of 92.

Gance's Help! and The Joke of Doctor Tube are available on the out-of-print Image Entertainment edition of Gance's 1935 Lucrezia Borgia. Though used copies of the disc will run you nearly $70, you can find the DVD on Netflix.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Meta: In the silent era, nobody could hear anybody scream.

Today marks the second birthday of And Now the Screaming Starts!

As this shambling blogtastrophe heads into its terrible twos, I'd like to thank the regular readers who were with me pretty much from the start – Sassy, Spacejack, Cattleworks, and the lovely and talented Mermaid Heather – and the host of new readers who have joined us along the way. And, of course, we shan't forget a shout out to the folks of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers, who just this year decided to make me their token "Yeah-I've-Seen-All-Those-Saw-Movies" Guy.

As we did last year, we're going to celebrate the blogiversary by returning to the roots of cinematic horror and spending a week reviewing silent thrillers and chillers. That's right; I'm gonna call it "Son of the Silent Scream Series."

Starting this weekend, we'll cover a whole new set of sinister silents. This year we've got rampaging brontosaurs, psycho killers, beheadings, madness, nightmares, kinky sex hang-ups, cannibal cultists, haunted houses, and so much more! Please do stop by and join in the fun.

For those who missed the first series, you can follow the links below to last year's films:

Waxworks, 1924, by Paul Leni and Leo Birinski

Frankenstein, 1910, by Edison Films

The Bells, 1926, by James Young

The Eyes of the Mummy, 1918, by Ernst Lubitsch

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920, by John Robertson

Häxan, 1922, by Benjamin Christensen

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Stuff: If Hell's got a VIP room, these are the names on the list.

Here's to the villains! Without them, heroes – so-called – would be nothing but a bunch of fussy busy-bodies.

The UK paper The Telegraph features a list of "50 Greatest Villains in Literature."

Some of the seem a bit esoteric, but that may be a cultural divide in what people consider classic lit. For example, Pap Finn of Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the iconic Southern brute who, to this day, serves as the specter of the great unwashed masses south of the Mason Dixon for American intellectuals, didn't make the list; but Surtur, the malevolent anti-God of David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus, makes it all the way to the 37th slot. Go fig.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Music: Who's your crawdaddy?

Regular readers of ANTSS know I've got a soft spot for 1960s garage rock and, today, I'm going to indulge. I can do that. 'Cause it is my blog. That's why you should get a blog, seriously. It's like being the supreme dictator of your own small English-speaking country in some out of the way corner of the world, like Europe or something. That's the beauty of the Internet Era: it's made us all a bunch of little Doctor Dooms. It's pretty awesome.

Today's fuzzed out clamor comes from the Syndicats. The Syndicats were one of the countless R&B influenced rock groups that populated the Mod-mad London scene of the early 1960s. Produced by the famed Joe Meek, the young staff of the Syndicats was so fluid that, to this day, there's debate as to who played what instrument on what songs. Though it is established that the Syndicats were the first group of Steve Howe, who would later gain fame as the guitarist in prog rock legends Yes, and featured Ray Fenwick, later of the Spencer Davis Group, it is unclear which Syndicats tunes feature Howe and which feature Fenwick.

The Syndicats only cut three singles during their three-year existence. The b-side of their last single, the charting "On the Horizon," became a cult item for garage rock revivalists for its raw and unhinged solos. Here's the Syndicats "Crawdaddy Simone":

As a bonus, here's the Horror's cover from a live show in Norway:

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Books: Out with the old and in with the New Horror.

Peter Straub's new horror short story anthology is so significant for the future of the genre that it comes with a title that features not one, but two colons: Poe's Children: The New Horror: An Anthology. The middle section, with its definite article and vaguely lit-crit feel, is both the most eye-catching and confusing part of the title. The stories in this antho are "new" only in a loosest sense of the term. The oldest, Ramsey Campbell's excellent "Voice of the Beach," is now approaching thirty. Several other tales are more than twenty years old. And some of those that are only a couple years old have already appeared in several anthologies, notably Dan Chaon's superlative ghost story "The Bees" and Neil Gaiman's well-traveled "October in the Chair." Even the term "horror" should give pause. There's no shortage of ghosts, monsters, death, and madness in these pages. However, there's also several comedies, one almost Carver-esque slice of life tale that includes neither supernatural elements or scares of any sort, and one genuinely touching love story.

What, then, is "The New Horror"?

In his introduction, Straub the this anthology is somewhat of a follow-up to his landmark volume for Conjunctions: The New Wave Fabulists. (TNWF is, by the way, a pretty awesome anthology and anybody interested in the more innovative fringes of pop genre lit will be well rewarded for searching it out.) The authors in this edition, he explains, have "far more in common with one another and perpetual wild cards like John Crowley and Jonathan Carroll than they did with those writers who were supposed to epitomize their fields. They were literary writers and genre writers at the same time." Straub goes on to state that, on the edge of the genre, in critically and popularly ignored journals, at small presses, and slightly off-market anthos (like this one, I suppose) a quiet borderland insurgency has been going on. The soldiers of this revolution mix the traditions and familiar concepts of horror with a sprightly, self-aware literary sensibility. By lending his cred to such anthologies, and including genre stalwarts like the inevitable Stephen King, it is Straub's unstated hope is that this unrest reaches the capital and pulls off a full-scale coup. (Though, to push the metaphor as far as I can possibly push it, this will be a palace coup, something that ushers in the new while leaving folks like King and Straub, two men who are as close to being "the Man" in horror terms as anybody could be, enjoying their new-found status as friends of the revolution.)

Given the diversity of stories in the collection, its is temping to use Justice Stewart's famed Casablanca Test and simply say that you'll know New Horror when you see it. But, generalizing somewhat, I think you can tease out at least two common elements.

1. Use of the supernatural:

A clear majority of the stories in Poe's Children involve supernatural elements. Ghosts are especially popular, but various mythological figures and indescribable Lovecraftian things-from-beyond make several appearances. New Horror isn't big on your more fleshy horrors; vampires and zombies, despite their perennial popularity in masscult horror flicks and books, make nary an appearance here. Instead, New Horror likes to tease out the possibilities of undefined, uncanny (in the original sense of the "un-home," the unfamiliar familiar), and weird. This includes the comedic, as well as the horrific, possibilities. "Lousia's Ghost," by the shamelessly talented Kelly Link (she writes, co-runs a small press, and makes the neatest swag for public events), is possibly one of the single best takes on the uncanny (from vertigo inducing doubles, mistaken identies, the mechanical/organic binary, and a ghost that is never stable enough to be described) in modern literature and it is genuinely sad and funny, rather than horrifying.

2. Overtly "meta" narrative

While nothing in the book quite approaches the Ouroboros-like self-awareness of such genre in-jokes as Scream, literary allusions and a constant self-awareness is typical of many of these stories. One of the stories lifts it's title from, of all places, The Wind and the Willows, another borrows the title of Erasmus's most famous work, another alludes to a Marianne Moore poem, and yet another features the poet Lord Byron as its chief protagonist. Allusions to Greek mythology pop up in several stories. Five feature writers (some horror, some not) in a central role. One is actually entitled "Notes on the Writing of a Horror Story" and another, which features a character who actually begins acting under the assumption that he is a character in a story, is titled "Plot Twist."

Despite any aspirations to artifice, it is interesting to note that few of the stories contained in PC engage in any modernist play with their plotting. Straub's own contribution, the wonderfully odd Little Red's Tango, uses multiple styles and radical breaks in continuity to great effect. Thomas Ligotti successfully employs a radical amount of ironic detachment from his story and the husband and wife team of Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem bring shifting and unreliable narrators into play in their "The Man on the Ceiling." Such experimentation, however, is relatively rare. The other stories are almost traditional in the linearity of their plots and the stability of their narrative points of view. Given that some of the most interesting and innovative horror novels of the nearly 30-year period cover by PC - House of Leaves, Raw Shark Texts, Demon Theory, Sharp Teeth - played fairly extreme games with the very form of the novel, it is somewhat surprising that so little of that experimental vibe has carried over to a project like this.

Other than those two threads (and even those loose rules have exceptions in the book), the work is too diverse to pin down. This does undermine the books role as a guide to the new vanguard. Like the indescribable horrors so many of these story feature, the concept of "New Horror" is more metaphor, potential, mood, and suggestion than an actual subgenre. But if the collection fails as call to a genre regime change, this failure is entirely to the benefit of the literary value of what's within. Ignore Straub's claim that he's charting some new shift in the literary world and what you've got is a handpicked selection of stories that appealed to the mind of a genre master. Of the twenty-four stories in anthology, only one of them seemed like a dud to me. That sort of signal to noise ratio is rare. All the stories here are interesting, almost every one of them is good, and a few are destined to become classics. What higher praise can one give an anthology?

Poe's Children is out in hardback next month. It's from Doubleday and it will set you back about $27.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

R.I.P.: O captain! My captain!

The New York Times reports that Frank Mundus, the famed shark hunter who claimed to be the inspiration for Jaws' Quint, passed away of heart attack in his tropical island home in Hawaii.

From the obit:

Frank Mundus, the hulking Long Island shark fisherman who was widely considered the inspiration for Captain Quint, the steely-eyed, grimly obsessed shark hunter in “Jaws,” died on Wednesday in Honolulu. He was 82 and lived on a small lemon-tree farm in Naalehu, on the southern tip of the Big Island of Hawaii, 2,000 feet above shark level.

Was he really the inspiration for Robert Shaw's unforgettable character?

The legend grew, and in the next few years, he repeatedly took Peter Benchley, who wrote the best seller “Jaws,” out to sea.

Mr. Mundus told a New York Times reporter that Mr. Benchley loved the way he harpooned huge sharks with lines attached to barrels to track them while they ran to exhaustion.

In 1975, “Jaws” was turned into Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie, which for years left millions of beachgoers toe-deep in the sand. Robert Shaw played Quint, who exits by sliding feet first into the belly of a monster great white.

Mr. Benchley, who died in 2006, denied that Mr. Mundus had been the inspiration for Quint, whom he described as a composite character.

Clearly irked, Mr. Mundus said: “If he just would have thanked me, my business would have increased. Everything he wrote was true, except I didn’t get eaten by the big shark. I dragged him in.”

Curiously, the Times fails to mention that Mundus was the subject of two book length profiles: Robert F. Boggs's Monster Man (Mundus's rep for catching monster fish and his well-known advert – which promised charters "Monster Fishing" – earned him the nickname "Monster Man") and the shamefully out-of-print In the Slick of the Cricket by Russell Drumm. The latter is, for my money, one of the finest bits of nature writing in American letters. Mundus's memoirs came out under the title Fifty Years a Hooker. If you go the Amazon page for his book, you can see the short note Frank left there:

Dear Amazon customers,

If you want to find out what kind of a pesty old goat I turned into, buy my book Fifty Years A Hooker

Jaws for Sport,
Frank Mundus

Mundus was less than impressed by Spielberg's blockbuster:

“It was the funniest and the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen, because too many stupid things happened in it . . . For instance, no shark can pull a boat backwards at a fast speed with a light line and stern cleats that are only held in there by two bolts.”

And, finally, the scene that secured Quint's place in the pantheon of Coolest Film Characters of All Freakin' Time:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stuff: We all know who to call, but where should walk-in clients go?

David Friedman, the pleasingly off-kilter genius behind the Ironic Sans blog, has created a Google Maps mash-up of Manhattan and real and imagined locations from the two Ghostbusters films. From the exterior of Ghostbusters HQ at downtown's Hook and Latter 8 (still a fully functioning firehouse) to the theoretical location of the fictional Spook Central apartment building of 550 Central Park West, the map is a hoot for those who hold, rightly, that Ghostbusters represents the pinnacle of human culture and is the sole work of man that can be said to rival God's own creation.

Thanks goes to my amigo Dave at the Digital Download for hipping me to this nugget of Internety goodness.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Movies: The Gallic tablesaw massacre.

Before we get to the movie review proper, I'd like to share with you one of the pleasures of the information age: humorously inappropriate adds triggered by God-only-knows-what phrases in a Web page's content. Specifically, I'm thinking of two adds running on the sidebar of the Fontier(s) page of imdb.

Squatting happily next to the data of a movie about Francophone paleo-Nazi backwater cannibals are adds for "Oprah's Superfood of the Year!" and "2008 Diet of the Year!"

I can't tell you any more about the products advertised. I didn't click through. I knew that if I did click on them, and this miracle food was something other than French people, I was going to be inconsolable. I prefer to maintain the delusional possibility that some Internet biz visionary is selling slabs of extra-lean Frenchman to overweight Oprah fans: "Are You a People Person? French women don't get fat, and neither will you. We've always known the French had great taste, and now you can bring that taste home! Surrender . . . to the exquisite taste of French people!"

Quel monde incroyable.

But we're talking movies here, not cuisine . . .

Frontier(s), the 2007 blood-soaked thriller by writer-director Xavier Gens (who, curiously, was a second unit director on the Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dennis Rodman action flick Double Team), is a Frenchified Texas Chainsaw massacre that attempts liven-up a tried and true group-of-young-people-meet-cannibal-clan plot with a contemporary style and a schmeer of political relevance. Gens handily achieves the first goal and fails abysmally at the second.

Plot-wise, there's little I need to tell you about. Given the info I've already dropped in this review, you, dear Screamers and Screamettes, could summarize this film even if you've never seen it. Five with-it urban youths – they listen to rap, have pierced eyebrows, sport tough guy haircuts, and even have a token ethnic friend - find themselves on the crap end of a robbery gone bad. The young thieves did get their hot little hands on a bag full of euros, but one of their number is full of lead and our protagonists had to pop a cop to get away. After some post-bungle dramatic bickering, the thieves split up. One pair makes for isolated hotel near the French/German boarder with au grisbi while the remaining pair will drop their perforated comrade off at the hospital. The wounded robber expires shortly after arriving at emergency care and our lag-wagon crooks hit the road.

What none of the robbers realize is that the rustic inn they've selected as a rendezvous point is run by the Von Geislers: a psychopathic clan of unreconstructed Nazis with a taste for long pig. Whether we're supposed to understand that these guys are weird holdover collaborators from the occupation or foreign transplants who, after the war, decided for some reason to settle in France (foolish war-criminal hunters, they will never look for anti-Semites in France!) is never clarified and not really important. What is important is that, like all people living in close-knit family groups in relative isolation from the urban middle class, they are crazy cannibals.

One almost feels sorry for these isolated cannibal clans. After all, from the Hewitts of Texas to the Von Geislers of wherever, these clans are always in a tough spot. If you keep pushing the bloodline forward without expanding the breeding pool, you get hulking giants that are awesome with power tools and butchery and the like, but not all that bright in an overall social-functional sense. You can bring in new breeders, of course, but then you need to keep them birth-capable. Keeping them birth-capable means you're cutting into your food supply, 'cause meat is meat, as we all know. This eat-it-or-mate-it dilemma isn't something your non-cannibal killer (or you luckily family-less cannibal) has to deal with. It's a maddeningly sticky wicket. In the case of Von Geislers, they decided to sick the women-folk on the men, quickly causing a post-coital status downgrade from "source of babies" to "victuals." The lone woman of the group, Yasmine, will be kept around for her long-term breeding capabilities. We call that resource management. It's what smart cannibal clans do.

For fans of the psycho-clan subgenre, you've got everything right here. There's a feast in which the whole family, plus the captive woman, gather around the body of one of the ex-protagonists. (Whether this is a cannibal tradition or the cannibals mistakenly think it will impress their guest is unclear – but they all do it and the reaction from the guest is always poor.) There's a TCM2/House of 1,000 Corpses underworld full of unspeakable horrors. There's a final girl. And one of the clan even appears to be giving us her very best Sherry Moon Zombie impersonation.

Visually, the film is on familiar ground too. We get the loving-detailed slick squalor that is the international signature of horror flicks since the look's development for the film Se7en. Like all good horror films shot after Blair Witch, there's an unnecessary collection of POV "hand-cam" shots. There's the slo-mo/fast-forward of Wolf Creek and various slasher remakes. It's all well done, just as it was before by countless predecessors. It's a slick, professional product. Gans handles his cameras and his editing suite with assured professionalism.

What we've got with Frontier(s) is a completely serviceable flick that is basically a Gallic mix-tape of countless American flicks of equal quality. In fact, just about the only original thing about Frontier(s) is that its in French. The lesson: If you're an American with a fairly generic horror idea that you're confident you can execute in a unobjectionably professional manner, then go abroad and film it in another language. If Rob Zombie shot this thing (and he kinda sorta already has), horror fans would declare it tediously derivative. Slap on some accent marks, subtitle it (reading is what real cinema lovers do, y'all), cast a perpetually wounded looking exotic femme in the lead, and certain segments of the blog-o-sphere will practically sprain their wrists in a mad attempt to be the first to cum all over your flick.

What the auteur Gans can't quite sell quite as well is his political ambitions. If he can breeze effortless through the aesthetic demands of film, his handling of politics is bizarrely amateur, almost laughably juvenile. The film begins with images of rioting in Paris, the reaction of the commoners to the election of a right-wing government that is, one can safely assume, a never-named stand-in for current President Nicolas Sarkozy. The victim/protagonists regular compare this new government to Bush and the film equates the devolved Nazis with the government that is taking power. None of this, however, makes any since. Unlike the visually and thematically more powerful Inside, which used the backdrop of France's racial unrest for a critique of French society, Frontier(s) tries to fob offer political unrest that never manifested (the riot footage is a mix of the race riots previously mentioned and the short-lived youth unrest about changes in labor laws that would make it easier to fire underperforming workers – a riot about wallets, not ideologies) to imply that there's some parallel between the Sarkozy government and the crude, primitive, violent, backwater Von Geisler clan. Really? The same "crude" Sarkozy whose wife is on the cover of Vanity Fair with the tagline "The next Jackie O?" The same "violent" Sarkozy who has avoided entering into Iraq and who was the only significant Western leader to tie his attendance at the China Olympics to the condition that China open diplomatic communications with the suppressed government of Tibet? Admittedly, Sarkozy is right-wing by French standards. But is a commitment to neo-liberal economic policies and a belief that NATO should help prevent Afghanistan from falling back into the hands of the Taliban really the moral equivalent of genocide, imperialist national socialism, or cannibalism?

The argument is further weakened by the fact that our "heroes" are a bunch of cop-killing thieves that whole-hearted embrace traditional Euro misogyny and regularly toss around the word "faggot" as an insult. Even the attempt at giving them a little ethnic flair fall flat: the Muslim character carefully avoids practicing in any way – he drinks, has premarital sex without qualms, engages in violent criminal behavior, doesn't pray – until it becomes convenient for the plot that he announce he does not eat pork.

Thematically, Frontier(s) is a step down from what passes for political discourse on even the Internets. Though, honestly, perhaps I'm expecting too much. I've seen people argue over the slightest nuances between horror subgenres, while at the same time espousing political predictions and conspiracy theories that would embarrass Oliver Stone. Perhaps a horror writer/director who is a precise and talented filmmaker, but who possesses an easy, over-simplified, and self-aggrandizing politics is a perfect mirror of his audience.

Despite intimations of an impending French horror invasion, Frontier(s) is proof that French filmmakers are just as capable of producing middle-tier movies as their American counterparts. A fine, but not particularly notable, addition to the crazy bumpkin subgenre, the flick is a solidly-built thriller that delivers the gory goods once the knives and guns come out. Past that, however, the filmmaker's ambitions rapidly outpace his talent and ideas.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Stuff: Hell for sale.

Last week, the operators of Astroland closed down the park several weeks prior to the regular October close of the season. The reason for this unexpected shutdown has something to do with their tangled relationship with Thor Realities, the development group that basically wants to convert Coney into an Atlantic City strip mall sans gambling.

For lovers of Coney Island, it’s a sad thing. As a type this, one-third of the park is now being dismembered and its parts sold off.

This would include Dante's Inferno, the third of the three rides I featured in my recent series on the fabulous haunted house rides of Coney.

Dante's Inferno is currently listed at Rides4U, an online site that specializes in selling new and used amusements to the carnival biz. The ticket price: $225,000.

If you do buy it, please give the old girl a good home. She's not the looker she used to be, but she is still very much loved.

Goodbye, DI. I'll miss you.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Comics: Gossip gore gore girls.

Dead High Yearbook is a charmingly odd fusion of teen drama and old school horror anthology storytelling. The high concept pitch for this YA graphic novel is Tales from the Crypt meets Mean Girls. Like all good horror anthos, this one comes with its own hosts: an pair known only as "Zombie Boy" and "Zombie Girl." The former is a vaguely jockish character who sports faintly green skin and a collection of Frankensteinian stitches. The latter has a sort of post-Riot Grrl haircut, is a fiend for coffee, is comfortable in belly revealing t-shirst, and has eyes that occasionally glow an unearthly red. Zombie Boy is a bit of a softy and Zombie Girl is kinda bitchy. They spend their un-life creating a sort of yearbook-of-the-damned, which contains photos of high-school students who were bumped off in particularly unpleasant and horror comic appropriate ways. The creation of this grim annual record provides the antho with its reoccurring framing device.

Framed within are eight tales of teenage terror from as many different writer/artist teams. The stories run the gamut from gore-splattered gag-fest to grim metaphoric meditations on the emotionally pitfalls of intergenerational family relationships. Despite the predictability of many of topics discussed (is there anything more depressingly monotonous than the concerns of high schoolers: fitting in, body image, sex, family, the accumulation of trendy material possessions – strangely, however, music is missing here), there's a refreshingly modern approach to what would otherwise dip into "After School Special" territory. For example, in the queer vamp revenge tale "Fang You So Very Much," the homosexuality of several characters is treated as a just another fact of characterization. There are no tedious lectures on the inherent beauty of the human diversity or special pleading for understanding. Dead High Yearbook takes place in a world were the normalcy of homosexuality is already established – the culture wars that still convulse everybody over, say, 24 don't really appear in the pages of DHY. Even the "gay bashers" that appear in the aforementioned story are driven more by criminal profit motive than hatred of the sexual other or homophobia. The book's treatment of race is similarly unburdened by the weight of history: the ethnic origins of characters and interracial relationships simply are, without the characters or the writers congratulating themselves on their with-it-ness. I leave it to other, wiser readers to determine whether this is a sign of the authors' naïve view of the world or an indication of how mired in 1960s to '80s identify politics the ever-graying world of horror fanciers is.

In keeping with the old school EC-esque horror anthology feel, every tale does have an O. Henry style finale, but even these occasionally shake off the musty trappings of horror's well-established, comfortably conservative "diseases for kisses" approach to handing out just desserts. In fact, my favorite story ends with the following bit of moral philosophy:

"Why did this have to happen to me? Why did I have to die in this . . . ugly way? I lived a good life. I was a good girl. I worked hard . . ."

"Nobody promised anything. Got that? Good or bad, it's the luck of the draw."

"That's so unfair."

"I know."

That sort of moral fatalism strikes me as another generational thing. I recently read a review in which a blogger took a film to task for not mocking its protagonists for being the relatively privileged products of the first world's middle class. Wouldn't it be a better film, the blogger opined, if the characters realized that their class concerns made them loathsome and they realized they somehow deserved their fate? Wouldn't it be better, the blogger was essentially saying, if this film was made with the tired and smug Marxism light of 1968 as its guiding light? Instead, the film simply suggested that sometimes horrible things happen to good people, and to bad people, and to indifferent people. What's scary is that you can't hold the world hostage by your good deeds. Monsters won't care that you're a registered Democrat. Though several of DHY's stories partake of the tired shopworn moral calculus that has dominated horror for nearly eight decades now, I applaud its often amoral tone. Let's hope parents buy the book with looking inside it.

Speaking of audience appropriateness, another nifty thing that DHY exploits is the fact that the sort of crap parents will poop kittens over in film, television shows, and video games, will totally slip under their radar if you present in book form. Perhaps it's the lingering cultural capital of the printed word, but you can slip in all sorts of shenanigans. DHY slips in several sexual references (though no graphic depictions) and some definitely R-rated gore. I'm thinking specifically of a story in which a mutant tape-worm thingy bursts out of a teenage girl and does battle with a Hulk-like boy whose muscles continue to bulk up until he himself pops like a meat balloon. Seriously.

Ultimately, Dead High Yearbook is meant for a YA audience and, for an oldster like me, it is sometimes hard to determine if the things I don't like about it are bugs or features for its target audience. The plots and characterization take a backseat to dialog, which tends to speed stories along. There's also a tendency to simply slam elements of story together on the basis of reader-acknowledged references and not internal story logic. For example, one of the characters in one of the stories is, without forewarning, revealed to be a vampire hunter. This isn't justified by showing the reader hints of the character's extracurricular activities. Instead, the character's name – "Hunter" – and costume – "hey, like that Blade dude" – are all that the story needs. It can feel a bit like your watching a movie while somebody's got their finger on the fast forward button. Is this slim writing or am I used to more wordy stuff? Who knows?

What I do know is that DHY is a nasty little treat and, if it had been around when I was a late elementary or junior high kid, I would have loved sneaking this thing past the parental censors. Does a YA horror comic need a higher recommendation than that?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Stuff: Become a Jersey Devil hunter.

Are you an amateur crypto-zoologist living in the New Jersey area with nothing to do on the weekends? I've got some people you should talk to.

NYTimes columnist Dan Berry files his latest "This Land" piece from Smithville, New Jersey, in which he profiles the Devil Hunters, a small confederation of folks who spend occasional nights and weekends tramping through the Pine Barrens in search of the legendary Jersey Devil.

From the article:

A few dedicated hunters gather instead at JD’s Pub, in a strip mall near the epicenter of the Jersey Devil phenomenon. On the surrounding walls hang old illustrations of that which they seek: cloven hooves, a horselike face, a wing span perhaps too wide for browsing the aisles at the Super Foodtown a few doors down.

These college-educated people, who call themselves the Devil Hunters, order a round of soft drinks that includes two Shirley Temples. They say they are the “official researchers” of the Jersey Devil, a shy specimen of cryptozoology that has haunted these parts long enough to have sent tricornered hats spinning from the mops of frightened colonists.

Here's Berry describing the legend of the Jersey Devil's origins:

The beautiful and mysterious Pine Barrens can encourage such thoughts. A largely undeveloped swath of pines and oaks, swamps and bogs, it covers more than a million acres at the bottom of the country’s most densely populated state and has produced scores of legends and stories, though none as famous as that of the Jersey Devil.

The most common version, dating to 1735, concerns a local woman named Mother Leeds. Married to a drunken ingrate and pregnant with her 13th child, she had what today might be called a “moment.” She expressed weariness with children and a wish that her unborn baby be a devil.

Have you ever wished you could take back something you’ve said?

Instead of greeting the world with coos, the story goes, the newborn mutated into a serpentine-tailed devil and introduced himself to family members by eating a few of them. He then flew up the chimney and out into the Jersey wilderness to begin centuries of shrieking, lurking and occasional mauling.

Maybe the birth of a deformed child led to the story’s creation; maybe parents concocted the tale to keep children from straying into the enveloping woods. Whatever the origin, the place of the devil in lore was secured in January 1909, when strange footprints, attacks on livestock and reported encounters with the devil over several days created panic in parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Posses conducted searches, police officers fired guns, and schoolchildren and mill workers found reason to stay home.

How do you join?

Prospective members fill out a questionnaire and are interviewed at JD’s Pub, where they are judged on their knowledge of devil lore, friendliness and likely dependability during nighttime tramps through brush and swamp. Those who express a desire to kill the Jersey Devil are rejected.


Speaking of joining an elite club of monster chasers, guess who just became an official member of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers?

You: "Holy shit! Anna Wintour, editor-and-chief of Vogue magazine, is now a member of the League?"

No! Better! Guess again!

You: "Better that Nuclear Wintour? Then you must be talking about the always awesome Ms. Kitty LeClaw of Killer Kittens From Beyond the Grave fame!"

You're gosh darn right I am! For those who regularly follow the sidebar, you know that ANTSS was an early adopter, so your humble horror host is glad to see she was tapped for the team.

Do stop by and see her. If you like CRwM, you'll love LeClaw. She's just like me except she's very funny, whip smart, and really good looking. You owe yourself the visit.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Music: 45 hard inches of groovy black love!

There's a curious subculture of YouTube posters that makes web films of their old record players spinning 45 singles. Sometimes they paste some montage of stills over the song. Sometimes they just show a static shot of the record info. The best, in you humble horror host's humble horror hopinion, actually show the record spinning. Regardless, they're awesome. While other folks are cutting anime flicks into rock videos, creating dance tunes from sound clips of Senators who think the Internet is a series of tubes, doing Internet karaoke, or pirating music videos off the ol' Philco, these retro-medium die-hards lovingly record the static-filled whirl of some (occasionally deservedly) forgotten gems. I find this mix of Internet distribution and purposefully low-fi music reproduction fascinating, especially given the fact that these vinyl loyalists post up some truly obscure and wonderful stuff. Such as Sutch . . .

The late, great Screaming Lord Sutch – proto-type of a million make-up besplattered shock/schlock rock acts and former MP candidate and founder of the UK's Official Monster Raving Loony Party – is not only the dude "all dressed up just like a Union Jack" in the Rolling Stone's classic "Get Off of My Cloud," he's also responsible for what a 1998 BBC poll listed as the single worst rock album of all time: 1970's Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends. Interestingly, Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Jeff Beck, Noel Redding, and Nicky Hopkins all appear on the album, meaning Sutch managed to drag some real rock royalty down with him.

Speaking of royalty, the "Lord" in Sutch's name wasn't just a stage gag. Exploiting a sort of loophole in English peerage laws, Sutch got himself named the 3rd Earl of Harrow even though he had no connection to the title.

The following song is not off the infamous Heavy Friends album. Released as a single in 1964 (backed by "Come Back Baby") by Oriole Records, here's Screaming Lord Sutch's cover of the vampire novelty tune "Dracula's Daughter."

Dipping even further back into Screaming Lord Sutch's back catalog, here's 1961's single "'Til the Following Night." The misspelling is Sutch's and not mine (for once). Before you listen, reflect on the fact that Sutch's wailing delivery and fuzzed out sax are recorded here a full two years before the Beatles got relatively sloppy on "Twist and Shout." Though it seems a bit quaint now, its pretty raw stuff for its time.

Now, from Sutch to the Moontrekkers . . .

The Moontrekkers are now mostly remembered by surf instrumental fanatics. This mid-1960s London group was produced by the legendary Joe Meeks (who also produced "Telestar" by the Tornadoes, the first instrumental rock song to go to #1 in both the UK and the US), who was working his effects-laden magic on this, the Moontrekkers' only substantial UK hit: "Night of the Vampire."

Saturday, September 06, 2008

LOTT D: Two wrongs do not make a right. But they can make for some fine bloggin'.

While the nation settles into its lazy post-school weekend schedule, the proud men and women of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers are tirelessly at work, diagnosing the modern horror film industry and safe-guarding the health of our collective nightmares!

The results of this painstaking diligence and ceaseless vigilance can be found in the second part of the LOTT D roundtable on "Modern horror, why must you suck?"

Let's salute these selfless bloggers who form the thin virtual line between the unsuspecting viewing public and cinematic disaster. Part the second features commentary Jeff Allard, of Dinner with Max Jenke, Unkle Lancifer, everybody's favorite creepy uncle from Kindertrauma, and, of course, ANTSS fave and America's Internet sweetheart: Absinthe from Gloomy Sunday. And let's not forget to pay solemn tribute to Iloz Zoc, Zombo's faithful man Friday and the cat responsible for this whole shindig.

Read up, Mr. and Mrs. Internet and all the ships at sea.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Stuff: Thinking inside the box.

Artist Alex CF creates amazing mixed media assemblages – part art piece, part play set – that appear to be recovered relics from the darkly fantastic worlds of Stoker, Lovecraft, and others. Above is an image of his brilliant "Werewolf Anatomical Research Case."

To get a better sense of how detailed and interactive these things are, check this video (scroll to the bottom of the page) of Alex CF walking you through the various components of a set he calls "The Henrich Emille Rectangle" – a collection of artifacts detailing researchers into a mysterious and dangerous structure that appears to defy the laws of physical universe.

Vampire hunting kits, a box from the so-called "Mountains of Madness" expedition, ghost traps, and even some props for an upcoming remake of the classic film "Nosferatu;" there's plenty of nifty stuff to check out. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

LOTT D: What's Wrong with Modern Horror Films?

I've got your Thursday efficiency black hole right here! The members of that fine and thoughtful body of fright fanciers, the League of Tana Tea Drinkers, have posted a new round table. This time the topic is "WTF is up with modern horror films, seriously?"

And there must be quite a bit wrong with them as this is just the first of two posts on the topic!

Contributors to Part the First include Theofantastique, Slasher Speak, and Horror's Not Dead.

I'm not in this two-act commentravaganza, but you should really spread your horror reading around more anyway. Neither man nor woman can live off CRwM alone; it doesn't have enough vowels for that. Besides, I didn't really have much to say for this one as I don't think anything is wrong with today's horror films. See? That wouldn't have been much of a post.

Speaking of League members, the overachieving mad-genius behind Sweet Skulls has a second blog running: Monster Memories. Read it. Because when Fred's mad plans to completely dominate the world come to fruition, do not think the master will forget who stood by him and who did not. You've been warned. Here's some shameless self-promotion from Fred:

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Music: "He's burned up like a weenie / and his name is Fred!"

Lately, I've been slowly reworking my way through the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Last evening's selection was The Dream Master, Part 4. I'm going to jump over the movie here – stopping just to note how bizarrely convoluted and contradictory the continuity of the Nightmare movies were the fourth film – and talk about the music over the closing credits. As the film fades to black, the first sing viewers hear is Sinead O'Connor's "I Want Your Hands on Me." The tune's typical of the soundtrack, which is full of tunes from genuinely noteworthy acts, such as Blondie's "In the Flesh" and Dramarama's "Anything Anything." However, the tune that truly stands out appears after the O'Connor song fades: the Fat Boy's "Are You Ready for Freddy?" featuring the titular knife-handed serial child-killer rapping.

Though it is now hard to believe, the Fat Boys were, briefly, a major act. The Boys' brand of inoffensive pop rap was popular enough to rack up a string of charting hits (several of which were basically cheese rap remakes of 60s rock classics), get them a few film roles, and justify the creation of long-form video for their tie-in tune. Here it is:

I can't think of a better indication that the subgenre of the slasher flick had entered into its decadent Abbott-and-Costello-meet phase than this video, which teams a murderous pedo with the rap crew that took a remake of the surf classic "Wipeout" to the charts.

Oddly, "Are You Ready for Freddy?" wouldn't be the only cheese rap tune to stick to Freddy. Before he became a one-man summer blockbuster factory, Will "The Fresh Prince" Smith recorded the non-soundtrack bound "Nightmare on My Street."

Curiously, Smith's movie mixes details from the first three movies with an emphasis an on the overtly "gay horror" second flick – even going so far as to crib the line "You've got the body and I've got the brains." Though Smith's reworking turns Freddy's thinly disguised homosexual seduction into business deal: Krueger wants the Fresh Prince to cut rap tracks with him. This loyalty to the source material is all the more notable when you consider that the Fat Boys, who were actually working on something to be included in the franchise, got several details incorrect (for example, claiming the character of Nancy appear three times in the series when, at that point, she'd only appeared twice).

Perhaps the musical highpoint of the Nightmare series came with the sixth flick, Freddy's Dead. For that flick, the filmmakers co-opted neo-funksters Fishbone's cover of Curtis Mayfield's completely non-Nightmare related tune "Freddie's Dead."

Monday, September 01, 2008

Stuff: The haunted houses of Coney Island: Part 3 – Dante's Inferno

The third and final stop on our tour of haunted house rides is Dante's Inferno.

As the middle child, stuck between its raucous and Rabelaisian younger brother (the Ghost Hole) and its legendary older sister (the Spook-A-Rama), Dante's Inferno has struggled to establish an identity of its own.

Located in Astroland Park, just a shout away from the famed Cyclone rollercoaster, Dants's Inferno opened in 1964 under the name Flight to Mars. The same year NASA failed to send Mariner 3 to Mars, riders at Coney Island could take the same trip for less than a buck. Flight to Mars rolled passengers past various "space age" scenes, including human contact with a vibrant Martian civilization. America's come-from-behind dominance in the space race and the sad realization that neither the moon nor Mars contained any societies more complex than anything you might find in vast stretches of the Midwest dealt a fatal blow to the crowd-drawing powers of Flight to Mars. After six years of economically-priced, family-friendly space exploration, Flight to Mars closed its doors.

In 1970s, along with most of the rest of the city, Flight to Mars went to Hell. The dark ride was replaced with a high-concept dark ride that actually took riders on a tour of Hell and the poet Dante imagined it. This proved a bit hoity-toity for the Coney crowd and, over time, the ride's theme was downgraded to a more generic, non-unified series of scares. The modern ride was the creation of famed attraction designer Anton Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf's responsible for several classic rollercoasters, including the King Cobra at King's Dominion in Virginia and the Shockwave at Six Flags Over Texas. Fans of 1970s disaster flicks may remember the Revolution from the schlocky 1977 thriller Rollercoaster. The Revolution, playing itself in the film, was designed by Anton Schwarzkopf. The Revolution was also the coaster the Griswolds ride in National Lampoon's Vacation.

Like all Coney Island dark rides, Dante's Inferno features an outsized mascot: A yellow, winged demon character holding a ghostly puppet in his left hand (Brutus, Cassius, or Judas about to be devoured? Your guess is as good as mine.).

The exterior of Dante's Inferno resembles some ren-fair castle and is studded with several bits of animatronic tomfoolery. Sadly, none of the pieces appear to work. This a real shame as the single most awesome bit monster in all of Coney can be found on the far left of the ride's façade, often hidden behind the ticket booth. Here's a photo I took on previous trip.

This bad boy is sometimes referred to as "the werewolf." In his more functional days, his carriage-support slid in and out of the castle façade, allowing the beast to lunge at passersby. I don't include a modern photo of this wonderful beastie as time and vandals have not been kind to him. Earlier this year, teens busted off his lower jaw.

Earlier I mentioned that overall balance of scare pieces on most rides falls somewhere in between Platonic poles: jump-out and tableaux scares. Well, Dante's makes a big freakin' liar out of me. Dante's is interesting in that it contains nothing but tableaux scare pieces. Some of them are quite modern; there's a dismemberment by circular saw scene that would fit right at home in Hostel film. Others, like a gorilla beating his chest in a cage, seem quaint.

Last but not least, here's the ride through video. If you've got your ears open, you'll hear the filmmaker (or his companion) ask if the other rider has ever been on a "pretzel" dark ride. That term refers to a specific sort of dark ride design in which riders move on flat surface over very twisty tracks. The car's orientation, and therefore the riders' point of view, twists back and forth as needed by the ride designer. Since the ride is mostly conducted in the dark, riders quickly loose their sense of orientation and get the feeling that they're covering enormous amounts of ground. The Spook-A-Rama is a classic pretzel ride. Dante's Inferno and the Ghost Hole are not pretzel rides because they follow a fairly linear track and contain multiple levels. Dante's Inferno even includes a slight "coaster dip," as you'll see.

Thanks for following me on this little tour. Enjoy the ride.