Sunday, October 4, 2020

Cropsy's Revenge: "The Burning" (1981)

Don't go to summer camp. Whatever you do, don't go to summer camp. This is one of the obvious lessons from 1981's The Burning. Co-written and directed by Tony Maylam (with an original story idea by Harvey Weinstein, himself a walking horror film), The Burning is a blistering chainsaw of a film based on the Cropsey urban legend. In case you don't know, the legend of Cropsey, which is detailed wonderfully by documentarians Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio in their film of the same name, claims that an escaped patient from Staten Island's Willowbrook Mental Institution roams around the forests and streets looking for children to kidnap. Sometimes Cropsey has a hook for a hand; sometimes he wields a sharp ax. Either way, old Cropsey is bad news. 

Zeman and Brancaccio put forth the idea that Cropsey was based on the real crimes of Andre Rand, a former custodian at Willowbrook who began abducting and murdering little girls in 1972. Rand's last known crime was the murder of Jennifer Schweiger, a young girl with Down syndrome, who was found murdered in 1987. Could Rand be Cropsey's source material? Seems far-fetched given that The Burning was released eight years after Rand's first known crime, which was itself neither a major news story nor something so infamous that it seared itself into the collective memories of hardened New Yorkers. 

Back to The Burning. The movie may seem familiar: it tells the tale of a revenge prank gone wrong. Five years prior, a sadistic caretaker named Cropsy (played by Lou David) is accidentally set alight after a few of the kids want to repay him for past abuses. The boys scare Cropsy with a gooey skull with worms crawling around in the empty eye sockets. This causes Cropsy to kick over a gasoline can that is way too close to his bed. A candle from the skull hits the deck, and whoosh go the flames. 

Five years later and Cropsy is out of the burn unit. The first thing he does is find a hooker (played by K.C. Townsend). When the working girl gets a load of his messed up mug, Cropsy stabs her in the stomach. Gore wizard Tom Savini does incredible work in  The Burning, and the twisting and turning murder of the prostitute is uncomfortably realistic. Cropsy now heads to Camp Stonewater, which is neighbors to the now abandoned Camp Blackfoot where Cropsy used to work. Cropsy begins killing off the campers with his gardening shears. The kills pile up, and Cropsy gets a whole crop of dumb teens when he ambushes their makeshift raft as it floats for the safety of the main camp. 

The campers in The Burning do not break any stereotypes whatsoever. There's the rough-and-tumble Brooklynites Glazer (Larry Joshua) and Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), both of whom are rather pushy with women to put it mildly. The requisite geeks abound, especially the nebbish and picked on Alfred (Brian Backer) and the stringbean Woodstock (Fisher Stevens). The glad-handing Dave (Jason Alexander with hair) is there to have fun and buy girlie mags for the boys, while Todd (Brian Matthews) is the rugged and good-looking leader of the male troop. As for the women, they are led by the forceful Michelle (Leah Ayres), supported by the vixen Sally (Carrick Glenn), and undergirded by the shy Karen (Carolyn Houlihan). Of these, Alfred spends most of the picture getting shafted by Glazer, who calls him everything from a creep to a geek. Todd is there to protect little Alfred, but he's hiding a secret of his own. You see, as is revealed at the climax, Todd has a direct connection to the burning of Cropsy back at Camp Blackfoot. 


After killing off most of the campers, Cropsy corners Alfred in what appears to be an abandoned house in the middle of the woods (the Cropsey urban legend usually involves an abandoned mental asylum deep in the forest). Todd races to save Alfred. Todd and Alfred square off against Cropsy, whose awful face is revealed for the first time. 

Not to fear, The Burning is still an '80s movie after all, so Todd and Alfred make it out ok. As for Cropsy, he takes his own shears to the back and Todd's ax to the forehead. Alfred then seals the entire deal by setting Cropsy on fire...again. 

The Burning is often compared to Friday the 13th (1980), the first major slasher film to feature an aggrieved killer rampaging their way through camp counselors. Horror film nerds know that Weinstein (may his anus rot in jail) wrote up the five-page treatment of the film in 1979, well before director Sean Cunningham began working on Friday the 13th. Still, it's hard not to see the similarities. The Burning has a much bigger cast meaning it had more money in production. Also, for some reason that has never been fully explained, The Burning was hit much harder than Friday the 13th by Britain's Video Recordings Act of 1984. Ergo, The Burning was an infamous "video nasty" while Friday the 13th was not. Go figure. 

The Burning is one of the best of the original slasher films that helped to inaugurate the sub-genre's boom in the 1980s. With great music and incredible special effects, plus tons of T & A and red paint, it's hard to hate something this groovy. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Death Masks: Dissecting the Three Wax Museum Movies



Originally published by Ravenous Monster on September 19, 2016. 

Certain themes have a way of repeating themselves. Call it lack of creativity or call it timelessness, but the horror movie world certainly has its fair share of commonalities. From the silent era into the early sound period, the “old dark house” genre dominated, with somewhat funny, somewhat spooky tales about wills read at midnight and lunatics (and sometimes gorillas) on the prowl. Of course, most mutants of the comic con circuit know all about how the late ‘70s and early ‘80s belonged to the slasher. Hell, even non-fans can name off at least a series of fright flicks that probably conform to one standard theme or another.


Unbeknownst to many, a bizarre little film appeared in 1933 that ushered in a new, soon to be reused trope—the murderous wax museum. Real wax museums are weird enough, but Michael Curtiz’s The Mystery of the Wax Museum took that weirdness and made it horrifying. While Paul Leni’s 1924 silent film Waxworks certainly contains many of the same elements, The Mystery of the Wax Museum would spawn two later adaptions, 1953’s House of Wax and 2005’s House of Wax, and would therefore create a loose trilogy. With varying degrees of quality and fidelity to the original concept, these three wax museum movies offer yet another subfield in horror’s endless catalog.


The Mystery of the Wax Museum


As the story goes, Warner Bros. sent out feelers in New York on July 19, 1932. They were particularly looking to see if any copyright existed for an unpublished short story entitled “The Wax Works.” According to author Richard Koszarski in Mystery of the Wax Museum, Washington, D.C. attorney Fulton Brylawski discovered the fact that producer Charles Rogers, an independent operator associated with Paramount, had purchased a play entitled The Wax Museum. Both “The Wax Works” and The Wax Museum were written by Charles Belden, a New Jersey journalist who in 1932 co-wrote the screenplay for A Fool’s Advice. Deciding to go full steam ahead, Warner Bros. paid Belden $1,000 for the rights to “The Wax Works” on July 22nd. The fact that Rogers had ultimately passed on The Wax Museum because of its strong similarity to a Broadway play entitled Black Tower (a horror-mystery that featured a mad sculptor using embalming fluid to turn the living into statues) didn’t seem to dampen Warner Bros.’s enthusiasm one bit. Indeed, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production for Warner Bros., probably saw a golden milk cow.


The Mystery of the Wax Museum tells a straightforward pulp thriller. The main villain is Ivan Igor (played by the brilliant Lionel Atwill), a crippled French sculptor whose London wax museum was purposely burnt to the ground by a greedy business partner named Joe Worth (played by Edwin Maxwell). Twelve years later, Igor relocates to New York City and opens up yet another wax museum with all new figures. Coincidentally, on the New Year’s Eve, the night before Igor’s museum is set to open, a pretty socialite named Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) is found dead, the victim of an apparent suicide. The police immediately nab Gale’s playboy boyfriend, George Winton (played by Gavin Gordon). Although everyone is convinced that Winton is the guilty party, a wisecracking reporter named Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) isn’t so sure. Desperate to keep her job as the top (and only) female reporter for the Express, Florence decides to investigate the case her way. It’s at this point that things take a ghoulish turn. During the night, a disfigured man in a black cloak and hat steals the body of Joan Gale from the mortuary. Thus the mystery is set in motion.


In between snappy, hardboiled dialogue, most of which is bounced back and forth between Florence and her bulldog editor Jim (played by Frank McHugh), Florence discovers that the Joan of Arc statue in Igor’s wax museum bears a striking resemblance to the missing body of Joan Gale. At the same time, she and others begin to notice that Igor is particularly fascinated by Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), Florence’s roommate and the fiancĂ© of wax museum employee Ralph (played by Allen Vincent). Igor wants Charlotte to pose for him so that Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), a hopeless dope addict, can give her likeness to Marie Antoinette. Darcy never gets his chance, for after Florence follows him one night and discovers the same awful man in the black hat and cloak fooling around with a suspicious crate that may or may not contain the body of Joan Gale, the police swoop in. Darcy is arrested and given the third degree. Eventually he cracks and tells the detectives that Igor is a killer who hides his victims in wax. The police arrive at the wax museum just in time, for Igor, who is revealed to be the hideous man in black after a terrified Charlotte breaks up his wax mask, has nearly encased Charlotte in wax. With one well-placed shot, Igor tumbles into his own bubbling vat of wax.


The Mystery of the Wax Museum is a standout film for several reasons. Chief among them is the fact that the movie was filmed in two-color Technicolor. After the film’s release, the two-color process, which was very expensive, fell out of favor, thereby making The Mystery of the Wax Museum something of a collector’s item. Another interesting fact about the film is that it forms a near-perfect analog with another film—1932’s Doctor X. Also directed by Curtiz, who would later go on to make Casablanca, Doctor X was likewise filmed in the two-color Technicolor process and features a disgusting monstrosity as its killer. The connections don’t just stop there, either. Like The Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Arthur Edmund Carewe, plus the main character, Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy), is a wisecracking reporter who has to follow up on the Moon Killer Murders or he’s out of a job. Both films are set in New York and both prominently feature Art Deco sets complete with test tubes, giant machinery, and an industrial gothic look that is quintessential 1930s. I’d suggest watching them both together. Of the two, Doctor X has the better story, for despite all of its visual beauty, The Mystery of the Wax Museum is a rush job that is lighter on the horror than it should be.


House of Wax


Rather than bright Technicolor, the gimmick in Andre de Toth’s House of Wax is 3-D. As with most 3-D pictures seen in non-3-D, House of Wax can look hokey and incredibly forced, especially during those scenes when objects are intentionally thrown towards the camera. That being said, House of Wax is probably the superior film, especially since its take on Belden’s story is more drawn out and logical.


While still set in New York, House of Wax takes place in the 1890s and the early 1900s. Instead of bootleggers and junkies, this New York gets its kicks from sensationalist waxworks and can can shows at the biergarten. Besides this change, the story is essentially the same. Professor Henry Jarrod (played by Vincent Price) just wants to create beauty with his skills as a sculptor. While his first museum could not draw flies, certain aesthetes could appreciate his gorgeous creations, from Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette to John Wilkes Booth and Jean-Paul Marat. Indeed, during one rainy night, two wealthy men come to the conclusion that they might financially back Jarrod’s work in a few months. This proves too long of a wait for Jarrod’s business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), who cashes in on an insurance plan by burning up the museum with Jarrod in it.


Years later, Burke gets his comeuppance from yet another figure dressed in a black hat and cloak. Again, this figure has a deeply scarred face that would scare even the most hardened soul. The mysterious figure attacks Burke one night, kills him, then ties a noose around his neck and drops his body down an elevator shaft. When Burke’s wax figure shows up in the city’s new wax museum, his death is called a suicide.


The new wax museum, which specializes in gruesome, Grand Guignol-like scenes from recent and ancient history, is run by none other than Professor Jarrod. Due to his burns, he can no longer create the figures. For this he relies on two henchmen—an alcoholic conman named Leon Averill (played by Nedrick Young) and a deaf-mute named Igor (played by a young Charles Bronson). The museum is an instant sensation. The one person not entirely enraptured by the place is Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), a struggling “New Woman” whose gold digger friend, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), was recently murdered by the man in black. Sue herself even came close to being the man’s next victim one night. According to Sue, the museum’s Joan of Arc is Cathy, whose body was stolen from the morgue. Professor Jarrod claims that he saw Cathy’s picture in the newspaper and it inspired him. Sue doesn’t believe it, nor does the audience. By the time Sue pummels the wax mask off of Jarrod’s face, thereby revealing that he is the mysterious killer in black, it has long been known that the wax figures are corpses.


If The Mystery of the Wax Museum is pure ‘30s entertainment, then House of Wax is pure 1950s. Filmed in glorious Technicolor, House of Wax is something to behold. The Library of Congress agrees, for the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Not bad for schlock.


House of Wax


From two great horror classics we now move on to a turdtacular. Released in 2005, House of Wax bears zero resemblance to Belden’s original concept. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, House of Wax came out during the horror doldrums of the mid 2000s. As such, House of Wax is without character, without a distinguishing identity. It is nothing more than a teen slasher flick full to the brim with atrocious acting. The cast includes a bunch of good looking people: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, Jared Padalecki, Robert Ri’chard, and, tragically, Paris Hilton. None of these people seem capable of emoting much, while the villains, who are a mix of two stereotypes—crazed, backcountry rednecks and long-suffering “freaks”—are ho-hum.


In short, House of Wax is the classic city-types-get-lost-in-the-woods tale. While on their way to a big college football game in Baton Rouge, six Floridians decide to stop and camp in a clearing that is off a beaten path. Here they do all the expected things, like drink, make sex jokes, and play a game of catch. The only misshapen piece is Nick Jones (Chad Michael Murray), a recently released car thief who is super pissed at his sister, Carly (Cuthbert), for not providing a cover story to the police. For her part, Carly has plenty of inner turmoil because an upcoming internship at In Style magazine means a move to New York. Her boyfriend, Wade (Padalecki), is more of the small town type. The group’s other female, Paige (Hilton), is in a much more serious predicament because she might be pregnant with Blake’s (Ri’chard) child. Such is the stuff slashers are made off.


During the night, while the carefree six are doing what they do, a pickup truck barrels in and stops with its lights blazing. Annoyed, Nick heaves a beer bottle at the vehicle, smashing a headlight. The truck eventually drives off, but in the morning, Wade finds that someone pinched his radiator belt. This forces Wade and Carly to break off from the group in search of a gas station. After stumbling onto a disgusting dump site full of rotting roadkill, Wade and Carly hitch a ride with the friendly, but freaky Lester (played by Damon Herriman). Lester takes the couple to the tiny town of Ambrose, which appears to be absolutely dead. In fact, the first live person they find is Bo (Van Holt), a gas station attendant attending a funeral. After agreeing to fix Wade’s car, Wade and Carly head for the town’s large wax museum.


Inside, Carly and Wade find an entire museum that is literally made out of wax. Furthermore, instead of celebrities or serial killers, the wax figures all appear to be normal, nondescript people. The chill factor increases when Carly sees a masked figure lurking around outside. This is Vincent (Van Holt), the insane sculptor responsible for not only the wax museum but the entire town of Ambrose. You see, everything in Ambrose is made of wax, and as the body count increases, Carly and Nick discover that Bo and Victor were once conjoined twins who were controversially separated at birth. After the death of their parents, Bo convinced Victor to start kidnapping people and turning them into wax figures while they were still alive. Of course, such insanity cannot be permitted to live, so Carly and Nick burn the wax museum to the ground. Carly gets in her mandatory mask shattering moment (thus revealing Vincent’s facial deformity), then she and Nick somehow manage to escape melting wax without suffering severe burns.


House of Wax is a true hack slasher. A Golden Raspberry favorite in 2005, House of Wax is probably only known because of Hilton, who dies a fittingly painful death in the film. I’m sure plenty of audiences cheered at that moment. Sadly, for the series begun by Belden in 1932, House of Wax is a disappointment. Normally I’d suggest that a new film be made to make up for this travesty, but frankly the wax museum theme, which has been used in other films that all essentially tell either the Waxworks story or use Belden’s conceit, has been done to death. Let’s close the doors once an for all. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Justifying the Stupid: My Weird Feelings for Howling II

Article originally appeared on March 24, 2015 at Ravenous Monster 

Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf. Or if you prefer, Howling II: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch. Either way you’re getting a sequel with a declarative sentence. The first is accurate. Ben White’s sister is a werewolf in Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, and in fact they’re plenty of other werewolves and many of them are female. The second subtitle is also correct. Stirba (played by Sybil Danning) is in fact quite the bitch. At one point she even uses her werewolf voodoo to pop the eyes right out of some dwarf’s skull. It’s a gory, gruesome act that will undoubtably make you shake your fist and cry “Stirba, you werewolf bitch!”

 Although it’s nominally a sequel to 1981’s The Howling and based on Gary Brandner’s Return of the Howling novel (Brandner did in fact provide some thoughts and creative direction during the making of the film), Howling II has no real ancestor and goes nowhere. As evidence, the subsequent Howling films completely abandon it and its elaborate universe. Despite this and the overwhelming fact that Howling II is a pile of dog gruel, I’ve seen the movie hundreds of times.

 When dad and I moved from Fairmont to Morgantown when I was in the seventh grade, we upgraded from couch surfing with some golfland chum to renting an actual townhouse. Inside, dad spruced the place up with random knick knacks from his far-flung travels all throughout Florida and Indiana. In the center of it all was a big screen TV that, by the summer of 2000, had digital cable, which of course meant a lot of late night viewing on my part.

 Of all the random channels, my undisputed favorite was 146. I don’t remember the name of the channel, but I remember it’s number. I also vividly remember the movies that it used to play every night after midnight. These films presented a real cavalcade of stink, from the direct to video Vampirella, which stars The Who’s Roger Daltrey as an evil and intergalactic vampire named Vlad, to the sleazy blaxploitation-meets-voodoo revenge farce Sugar Hill. Squeezed in between The Return of Count Yorga and the amazing The Return of the Living Dead, Howling II would play on repeat in our townhouse even on school nights. Anchored by Babel’s still catchy new wave song “The Howling,” Howling II is a red hot mess full of unnecessary gore and cinema’s most egregious use of bodice ripping. Just in case you’re wondering, the same scene of Stirba ripping her top off occurs 17 times during the end credits. I know because I counted and counted very closely.


In short, Howling II is story about how Ben White (played by the notoriously unskilled Red Brown), the brother of the recently deceased Karen White, and Jenny Templeton (played by Annie McEnroe), one of Karen’s co-workers, set out to avenge Karen’s death. After meeting Stefan Crosscoe (played by Christopher Lee, who obviously wants to be somewhere else), Ben and Jenny come to realize that Karen is not only still alive as a werewolf, but that a whole international cabal of werewolves lead by the ancient werewolf witch Stirba want her. Now, in the tenth millennium since Stirba’s birth, the world is quickly running towards a werewolf apocalypse wherein all the world will become werewolves. Time is of the essence, so after halting a werewolf raid on Karen’s casket, Ben, Jenny, and Stefan travel to Transylvania (actually Prague in the Czech Republic) in order to do battle with Stirba and her gathering forces. Once in the “dark country,” Howling II, which was partially filmed behind the Iron Curtain, amps up the weird sexuality and the strange mysticism. In one bizarre scene, a werewolf ritual in a dank castle decorated with Goya paintings transforms Stirba from an old crone into the svelte blonde sexpot Danning. Almost immediately, Stirba, whom the film compares to the Whore of Babylon even before the first full scene, gets her followers all hot and bothered and ready to orgy. After a few awkward sex scenes involving hairy semi-humans, the film cuts back to the heroic trio, who themselves embark upon a weird journey involving the mostly lycanthropic locals.

 At this point, you should have the hang of things. The usual stuff happens: Ben, Jenny, Stefan, and a few hardy locals charge Stirba’s castle armed with silver for the younger werewolves and titanium for the older ones. A lot of locals die, while Ben, Jenny, and Stefan manage to outlast almost all of the werewolves. Then, in the final confrontation, Stefan and Stirba go all telepathic and engage in a battle of floating colors that ultimately ends in fire. Both die. Ben and Jenny fly back to Los Angeles as a couple. Fin.

 By any stretch of the imagination, I can swallow a lot of pulp, but at times Howling II tastes like an entire forest. Still, the overall mood of the film is great, with its cheap-o gothic-eroticism that occasionally dips into Italian-style gore. Also, the film’s use of the punk rock aesthetic is a nice touch, and it’s safe to say that gutter punks constitute a large part of Howling II’s intended demographic. For a while I too wore Black Flag t-shirts almost every day, so I’ve always thought of Howling II and ‘80s horror generally as extensions of punk music. And if that’s the best you can say about a film, then it’s not all bad. Yes, Howling II is whacky, puerile, and illogical, but it isn’t all bad.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Paperbacks from Hell Review: "Nightblood" (1990)


Look, I know that this blog is subtitled, "Ben Welton's Guide to the Movies." I still love movies. I'd love to finally get off my lazy keister and write one some day. However, as much as I love movies, I love books even more. If horror movies are near-porno in terms of social respectability, then horror paperbacks are grade Z smut. 

Fortunately for folks like us, Valancourt Books are proud smut peddlers. In conjunction with horror author Grady Hendrix's genre study, Paperbacks From Hell, Valancourt have re-issued a slew of forgotten paperback classics from the 1970s and 1980s. Each comes equipped with a pulp-tastic cover. This is definitely true for Valancourt's 2019 re-issue of T. Chris Martindale's Nightblood. 

That's Chuck Norris, not Chris Stiles. Chris Stiles, the ultra-manly protagonist in Nightblood, is sort of like Chuck Norris, or at least the kick ass dudes that Norris played throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Stiles is a Vietnam vet and a professional monster killer. The guy travels the country in a Dodge van armed to the teeth with shotguns, an Uzi, a Smith & Wesson 9mm, and an H&K rifle. This is not Hammer's Van Helsing; Stiles shoots demons and vamps full of grade A American lead. He does not bother with crosses, garlic, or silver. The dude treats the undead like Charlie in the 'Nam. 

We learn in the book that Stiles got started while on patrol one night in the jungle. Out of the blue his brother Alex visits him and tells him about a Vietcong ambush up ahead. Alex directs his brother's fire, which destroys the ambush before it can take American lives. Alex is a helluva brother, but too bad he's dead. The Enemy killed him and scattered him to the wind in New York's Central Park. Since then, ghost Alex and Stiles have made it their mission to kill the Enemy so Alex can rest in peace. 

The mission takes Stiles to the sleepy burgh of Isherwood, Indiana. Isherwood is a one stoplight kind of place, with two deputies and a town marshal responsible for all law enforcement. The locals are starved for entertainment. Some, like diner waitress Billie Miller, make a hobby out of reading Harlequin romance novels (for the record, macho man Stiles loves him a good bodice-ripper too). Billie's boys, Del and Bart, are playful scamps who love comics, horror film magazines, and other typical boy stuff. Isherwood's teenagers kill time by necking near the tunnel--a spooky locale near the infamous Danner house. What makes the Danner place "infamous," you ask? Well, way back in the early 20th century, Sebastian Danner killed some relatives. Since then Isherwood folks consider the house haunted. 

Nightblood gets going quick when Del and Bart decide to stay the night at the Danner house as part of a dare. The boys don't last long because they inadvertently unleash something evil down in the basement. The creepy, crawly thing they let loose is pale and...hungry. His name is Sebastian Danner, and despite taking several wallops of lead courtesy of Stiles, he keeps on kicking. Before long, Danner puts the bite on a bunch of local punks. This helps him regenerate. As Danner gets stronger, Isherwood falls under his spell, and before long the village is Death Town, USA and the national hub of vampire wildlife. Stiles is forced to lead the living against the undead in an apocalyptic battle. 

At the cost of sounding like an asshole, reading Nightblood was akin to reading a long homage to other pulp vampire tales of the postwar era. One of the novel's characters has the unusual surname of Whitten, which has to be a shoutout to author and Washington, D.C. reporter/gadfly Les Whitten. Whitten's 1965 novel Progeny of the Adder is arguably one of the best and most influential vampire novels ever written. Unlike most of its predecessors, Progeny of the Adder was set in the modern world of Washington, D.C., and the vampire at the center of the story (also named Sebastian) is presented as a serial killer until the climax. Rhode Island-born Vegas reporter Jeff Rice would lift Whitten's formula in 1970 with The Kolchak Papers. Rice's unpublished novel would become the 1972 television movie The Night Stalker, which would in turn give us the pop culture phenomenon known as Carl Kolchak. 

In one scene, Stiles mentions hunting vampires in Maine. Maine was crawling with the bloodsuckers, he says. This is a not-so-subtle reference to Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot (1975), arguably the greatest vampire novel ever written. Set in a small Maine town, 'Salem's Lot shows what happens when an ancient evil moves into a haunted mansion and starts feeding on everyone. In the same meditation, Stiles also mentions vampire hunting in Los Angeles. This is likely a nod to Robert McCammon's They Thirst (1981), a vampire book set in decadent Hollywood and mean, crime-infested LA. 

Nightblood is derivative. That's for sure. It is also an action-packed potboiler which features the most hilarious/gruesome scene when Danner offers to turn Stiles into the undead by feeding him blood from his own decaying dong. That's harsh and definitely not a good deal. Nightblood also has great video game-esque scenes of shoot-em-up violence wherein the Isherwood living put holes in their vampire neighbors. One vampire in particular is killed three times--by cake knife, by bomb, and by katana, There is also a Lost Boys vibe too, with Del and Bart mimicking the Frog Brothers of Santa Carla. 

Overall, Nightblood is a good feast for horrorheads. It's a shame that Stiles's quest ended upon publication in 1990. Martindale had the misfortune of working at the end of the horror boom. He produced a few more paperbacks before calling it quits in the mid-1990s. We will never know if Stiles ever found the Enemy and shot the bastard to pieces. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Purchase Some Poetry

All: please purchase by latest work of spookiness by buying my chapbook at all fine online retailers. I love you all. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Sons of Zaroff: The Most Dangerous Game and Real Murder

Originally appeared in Ravenous Monster on Aug. 18, 2015. 

When something bad happens, and when the perpetrator or perpetrators show the obvious signs of influence from popular culture, the question usually comes up. In this case, it’s always THE QUESTION: does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? It’s rhetorical, of course. The relationship between art and life is akin to the bond between the chicken and the egg. Still, knowing that we know so little never stops people from pinning the blame on those things that entertain us. In 1999, Marilyn Manson, a shock rocker who wanted popular loathing as much as a high rate of ticket sales, was reviled in the press for supposedly being the Svengali behind Columbine. More recently, tragedies such as Newtown and Aurora have been blamed on video games and the bloody shoot ‘em up festivals coming out of Hollywood. Even my grandfather, a normally rational man, once turned to be during a dull wedding reception in order to ask: “Do you think that’s why kids shoot up high schools?” After following his finger, I realized he was talking about a preteen across the room who sported the oh-so familial slouch of someone too engrossed in their own cell phone.

Despite the fact that study after study have found no links between long-term violence and video games, too many people seem too willing to lay the blame of modern violence on modern, exclusively digital entertainment.

Because they’re the opposite of apps and other easily-consumed forms of blue-filtered data, books are rarely held up for scorn or are blamed for fueling the rage of malcontents. The worst you’ll hear anymore is about such-and-such school board’s attempt to ban a book from the curriculum, and even then the do-gooder forces of the “I Love Banned Books” crowd usually win in the end. No, reading novels or short stories is not going to get one pegged as a potential mass murderer anytime soon.

One particular short story though does have a rather interesting track record. Originally published in the January 19, 1924 edition of Collier’s, the aptly entitled “The Most Dangerous Game” (which has also been published under the title “The Hounds of Zaroff”) has left a lasting influence not only on the world of literature and film, but also on more than one serial killer. “The Most Dangerous Game” is and will always remain the best known story ever written by Richard Connell, a newspaperman from Poughkeepsie who came back from the fields of France in 1919 and decided to give freelance writing a go. Although Connell remains one of the few men to ever receive a prestigious O. Henry Award twice (his short story “A Friend of Napoleon” won the second prize in 1923), and after 1937 embarked on a successful career as a screenwriter (Connell’s script for 1941’s Meet John Doe, which he co-wrote with Robert Presnell, Sr., was nominated for an Academy Award), his name is synonymous with the ghoulish tale of the former White Russian nobleman General Zaroff and his drastic attempts to alleviate his boredom.

In brief, “The Most Dangerous Game” concerns a famous big game hunter from New York City named Sanger Rainsford whose ship crashes en route to Rio de Janeiro. After swimming to safety, Rainsford ends up on General Zaroff’s doorstep as an unwitting animal in the middle of Zaroff’s private island. After admitting to Rainsford that he is an avid reader of his books, and after reliving his own battles with both the wild game of the world and the Bolsheviks of his native land, General Zaroff confesses that hunting, even the hunting of tigers, no longer holds a thrill for him. But, luckily for the rick sicko, he’s found a new pastime:

“I’ve always thought,” said Rainsford, “that the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous of all big game.”
For a moment the general did not reply; he was smiling his curious red-lipped smile. Then he said slowly, “No. You are wrong, sir. The Cape buffalo is not the most dangerous big game.” He sipped his wine. “Here in my preserve on this island,” he said in the same slow tone, “I hunt more dangerous game.”

The most dangerous game is man, and in “The Most Dangerous Game,” Rainsford and General Zaroff engage in a vicious game of cat and mouse that ultimately ends in one man’s death, while the victor earns the right to sleep in a warm bed.

Since first seeing publication, “The Most Dangerous Game” has become one of the most anthologized short stories in the English language, plus it has served as the basis for at least 8 film adaptations. The first, 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game, remains the best of the bunch. Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack and produced by the same men responsible for King Kong (The Most Dangerous Game was filmed at night on the same jungle sets as King Kong during the time when the later monster movie was finishing up its groundbreaking special effects), The Most Dangerous Game stars Joel McCrea as Rainsford, Fay Wray as Eve Trowbridge, Rainsford’s love interest and a fellow shipwrecked survivor, and Leslie Banks as the suavely vile Zaroff (who is demoted to a Count in the film, probably in the hopes of somehow linking him to Count Dracula, cinema’s bestselling monster from the year before). Banks in particular shines in this classic pre-Code thriller, and his brilliant use of his own deformity (Banks was wounded while fighting in World War I, and as a result one half of his face was paralyzed) heightens the inner depravity of Zaroff.

In 1999, the Criterion Collection gave The Most Dangerous Game a lovely repackaging and restoration, calling it “One of the best and most literate movies from the great days of horror.” Now widely regarded as a classic, The Most Dangerous Game spent years as a cult film appreciated by those lucky few who knew where the nearest independent theatre specializing in silent and early sound films was. One of these initiates saw the film in Riverside, California sometime around May 1969.
Halloween card from the Zodiac Killer, Oct. 27, 1970. 

This moviegoer’s name remains unknown, despite decades of public and private sleuths trying to discern it by any means necessary. For us, the most infamous fan of Connell’s story and Schoedsack’s film is simply known as Zodiac. Between December 1968 and October 1969, a series of crimes held San Francisco and the Bay Area in the icy grip of terror. Initially seven victims in total (David Arthur Faraday, 17, Betty Lou Jensen, 16, Michael Renault Mageau, 19, Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22, Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, Cecilia Ann Shepard, 22, and Paul Lee Stine, 29), the reign of the Zodiac killer grew in proportion to his own ego. Soon all the unsolved murders in California became the suspected handiwork of the Zodiac, with the most convincing, but still unconfirmed case being the 1966 murder of Cheri Jo Bates in Riverside.

Making everything worse for the already uneasy residents of San Francisco were the derisive letters that the killer sent to the public, especially the newspapers. On Friday, August 1, 1969, the San Francisco Chronicle received on such letter from the Zodiac, who proceeded to provide insider-only details about the double murder of Faraday and Jensen at Lake Herman in 1968 and the attempted double homicide of Mageau and Ferrin on July 4, 1969. Attached with the missive was an elaborate cipher that the killer claimed housed the key to his identity. When it was cracked by a forty-one-year-old history and economics teacher at North Salinas High School and his wife, no name was given, but a clue was indeed provided:

I Like Killing People Because It Is So Much Fun It Is More Fun Than Killing Wild Game In The Forrest Because Man Is The Most Dangeroue [sic] Anamal [sic] Of All To Kill Something Gives Me The Most Thrilling Experence [sic] It Is Even Better Than Getting Your Rocks Off With A Girl The Best Part Of It Is Thae [sic] When I Die I Will Be Reborn In Paradice [sic] And Thei [sic] Have Killed Will Become My Slaves I Will Not Give You My Name Because You Will Try To Sloi [sic] Down Or Atop [sic] My Collectiog [sic] Of Slaves For Afterlife...(emphasis mine)

According to Robert Graysmith, an editorial cartoonist at the Chronicle during the late ‘60s and 1970s who eventually came to write what is considered the seminal account of the Zodiac murders, the Zodiac may very well have taken inspiration from the spirit of Connell’s short story and the stark images of the film. In particular, the Zodiac’s daylight attack at Lake Berryessa in Napa County, which resulted in one death and one serious injury, points towards the Zodiac killer being an obsessive fan of sorts with a deep desire to become Banks’s Zaroff, complete with black clothing and a hunting knife similar to the one that Count Zaroff sports in the film.

Ultimately, the murder of cab driver Paul Stine ended the official body count of Zodiac, but his legend and his legendary threats to the police, plus Scorpio, his stand-in used in the 1971 classic Dirty Harry, continue on with the rest of history’s uncaught serial killers. To this day his supposed reveal remains the stuff of best seller lists. Even in 2014 his true identity was the subject of a book - The Most Dangerous Animal of All - which posits that the writer’s own father was in fact the Zodiac.

During the height of the Zodiac’s infamy, another killer was busy fulfilling his own Zaroff fantasy. This killer, Robert Hansen, did more than just play dress-up; between 1971 and 1983, Hansen, a bespectacled and bipolar baker based in Anchorage, Alaska, abducted, tortured, and then gunned down several young women, many of whom were prostitutes, in some of the most remote parts of America’s last great wilderness. Hansen’s methods were not revealed until 1983, when the 17-year-old Cindy Paulson managed to escape from the mild-looking and middle-aged Hansen. After first enticing Paulson with an offer of $200 for a single sex act, Hansen grabbed her at gunpoint before taking her captive. While imprisoned in Hanson’s home in Muldoon, Paulson was subjected to torture, rape, and numerous incidents of sexual assault.

The next morning, Hansen drove Paulson out to the Merrill Field Airport in Anchorage with the intention of taking her to his “cabin” (a shack located in the remote Matanuska-Sustina Valley), but Paulson managed to break free of Hansen’s handcuffs while he had his back turned to her. After leading the police to her assailant, investigators began to look into the other allegations against Hansen, and, after searching Hansen’s home and finding not only items belonging to missing women, but also a map marked with approximately 20 gravesites, Hansen eventually confessed to multiple homicides.

Hansen’s method of killing was lifted straight from Connell’s story: after prolonged sessions of sexual torture, Hansen, a licensed pilot, would first fly, then drop his victims off in the harsh no man’s land of rural Alaska. From there, Hansen, an accomplished hunter who decorated his home with his stuffed conquests, would stalk and hunt the women like valued game. In 1984, Hansen plead guilty and was sentenced to 461 years in prison. He died in August 2014, a little over a year after the release of The Frozen Ground, a full-length film about Hansen’s crimes starring Nicholas cage and John Cusack as Hansen.

While the Zodiac Killer and Robert Hansen might be the most easily identifiable spawn of the fictional Zaroff, numerous others have taken either direct inspiration or suggestion from Connell’s very savage story. In all its forms, “The Most Dangerous Game” is at its heart a story about humanity’s deep-seated viciousness - our lurking, sometimes dormant, sometimes awake inner beast. Although inspired by the then fashionable pastime of big game hunting among well-to-do Americans, “The Most Dangerous Game” is as notable today as it ever was. Evil and the urge to kill will never go away, and as such “The Most Dangerous Game” can lay claim to being one of horror fiction’s most primal narratives. No wonder then that the most primitive animals among us find it so compelling.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

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