Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 30, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1970-1971)

15. Roy Colt and Winchester Jack
Oh, the spaghetti western. Any Italian filmmaker worth his salt made at least one. But the Spaghetti Western sub-genre, despite being fairly short-lived, was still so huge and present that eventually parodies of Spaghetti Western became a sub-sub-genre all of its own. It’s in the latter category that “Roy Colt and Winchester Jack” really falls into.

The movie has several intentionally absurd aspects. It opens with a gunslinger quitting a gang because they’re too nice to make any money. Later, Winchester Jack rescues an Indian woman, that looks about as Indian as Sydnay Portier, who pulls a gun on him and then charges him an hourly wage. The movie gets wackier from there. A search for gold and a demented Russian villain who calls himself the Reverend provides the main driving force for the stories. Love triangles, double crosses, whorehouse fight scenes, and wacky slapstick jokes follow.

The Italian style of humor can be pretty hokey at times. The movie is never quite hilarious. Both the big brothel battle and the wacky Russian come off as more abrasive then funny. The movie only has two really funny bits, a joke where some crutches get shot off and a bit involving a deaf guy. What makes the film work more then anything else is strictly the cast and characters. Roy and Jack are old pals who inevitably end up fighting over something. Brett Halsey, who looks like he could be Roy Lioletta’s dad, is a charming rascal, one of those always-a-step-ahead heroes the Italians love so much in these movies. Charles Southwood is the more stoic of the two who usually winds up the butt of all the schemes. Marilù Tolo gives a pretty good performance, as one of those rare female roles in these sort of movies who just refuses to play nice. The movie is pretty light on the gun play and seems to insert these scenes into the story, roughly, including the betrayal subplot that goes nowhere. Bava’s direction is pretty subdued, for the most part. There’s not a lot of color on display here. Mostly just rough zooms and one great shot of a reflection in a puddle of water.

Most of my problems with this one has to do with it just trying too hard to be wacky. If it played as more of the character-oriented humor, the movie would’ve been stronger over all. What problems I have with it resolves themselves very nicely in the last ten minutes. The ending of the film is by-far the most entertaining moments in it and sends us out on a high mark. “Roy Colt and Winchester Jack” is a weaker entry in the Bava ouerve, focusing less on his personal style and more on the conventions of the genres he’s working in. But even it it works for the majority of the run time. [Grade: B-]

16. Twitch of the Death Nerve
Here it is, folks, the very first slasher movie ever, “A Bay of Blood,” also known by the far cooler title “Twitch of the Death Nerve,” as well as “Carnage,” “Chain Reaction,” and literally a hundred other different titles. It’s been homaged and rip-offed more times then can be counted and, perhaps unknowingly, completely predicted where the genre would go over the next twenty years.

What I notice when re-watching it this time is just how mean this movie is. It’s by far Bava’s most mean-spirited film. A guy gets a face full of machete, the blade buried deep within his skull. A couple, locked in the throes of lovemaking, is brutally impaled. The camera lingers over shots of people as they cast their dying breaths. Moreover, the violence is cynical, almost sarcastic. Beautiful music plays over many of the death scenes and, following one brutal slaying, the camera cuts to the front of a yellow Volkswagen, its headlights and bumper resembling a smiling face. All of the above is stylish, captivating.

The film opens with a long pan across the bay itself, establishing it as both the setting and a character onto itself. We then go to a wonderfully stylish segment of an old rich-looking woman in a wheelchair, looking out the window of her home at the lake and forest outside. She is then brutally strangled to death by her husband. The husband is then stabbed to death from behind by an unseen assailant. This sets up a mood of distrust and suspicion that prevails the whole film. We are introduced to a cast of characters who all want their hands on the bay and forest for different reasons. None of the characters are generally likable. Paolo, the eccentric bug collector, is mildly amusing but his marriage with his tarot card reading wife is clearly a bitter one. Simon is clearly a psychopath, Frank and his girlfriend greedy and opportunistic. Claudine Auger, while beautiful, is a vicious Lady Macbeth, goading her husband into murder, all the while ignoring their children. The four teenage partiers are harmless but vapid and not developed enough for us to care. Where some directors might see some potentially interesting characters, Bava only see suspects and victims. In the hands of a different director that might expect us to like these characters, the film could come off as contemptible of the audience. However, Bava is along with us the whole ride. He holds contempt only for the characters, not the audience.

The movie was criticized as overly sadistic when it first arrived. Indeed it is. Bava said before he only wanted to create a sequence of stylish murder scenes. He wasn’t interested in characters and only interested in story as long as it could set up those kills. The movie does have a message though, one that brutally dismisses the assholes of the world and suggests that nature and its innocent children know how to take care of themselves. Bava hacks away all the fat here, leaving behind only his beloved trademarks of graphic murder scenes infused with dark humor, animated direction, gorgeous women, beautiful location, rich color, and a jazzy musical score. It’s Bava extracted, an 85 minute exercise in Grand Guignol, a perfect starting place for new fans and a total treat for old ones. [Grade: A]

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1970)

13. Five Dolls for an August Moon
“Five Dolls for an August Moon” plays like a test run for “Twitch of the Death Nerve.” It lacks the police procedural aspect of a proper giallo. Its premise is straight up slasher, in a way. A group of sexually promiscuous people gather in an isolated location where they are picked off one by one. The majority of the actual kills actually happen off-screen, leaving the cast to deal with the aftermath. However, the similarities are enough for me to classify it as a proto-slasher.

The story is a pretty standard Agatha Christy style yarn. There’s a scientific formula, everybody wants it, and somebody is willing to kill for it. The movie even seems to invite this comparison. In the opening scene, the lights go down and, when the room is brightened back up again, somebody is “dead.” The murder mystery isn’t exactly mind-blowing but it does suffice and pulls one twist out.

The direction is naturally stylish. A fantastic sequence at the end, involving a prison hallway, is by far the most beautiful frame. Another moment, where the last man standing stalks through the house, gun pulled, is also fantastic. Bava seems to have much more invested in the character’s death then the character’s themselves. Several of the characters are very similar looking and few of them aren't given any sort of proper introduction. So, we have scenes were people are going around looking for Jack and we, the audience, aren’t exactly sure who Jack is. It isn’t until about halfway through that we figure out who everyone is and, by then, the bodies have all ready started to pile up.

Or should I say hang up? One of the best aspects of the film, and by far it’s most Bava-like, is that every time another dead body turns up, it gets hung up in a meat locker, a clear plastic bag draped over it. These scenes of dead bodies swaying back and forth are almost always accompanied by a loopy, droning piece of music. A sense of sarcasm floats underneath these and many other scenes and seems to confirm that film is more of a dark comedy then a serious murder mystery.

The music over all is quite good, highly danceable, and clearly inspired by Italian pop music of the day. What’s best about the movie is, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, all the half-naked beautiful women that are paraded around throughout the movie. Women walk around in their underwear, in bathing suits, in see-through nighties, and sometimes even less. Bava’s camera isn’t ashamed to float around them, leering at their buxom curves. As with everything though, Bava even imbues this with a certain style. “Five Dolls for an August Moon” is a delicious exercise in style. It’s pretty empty on the inside, but it’s got such a fun, exotic tone to it. It’s a funky swinging party filled with sexy women, a beautiful location, and some murder too. [Grade: B]

14. Hatchet for the Honeymoon
One master’s tribute to another. More so then any of Bava’s other films, “Hatchet for the Honeymoon” is an extended riff on Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” While it plays into many of the conventions of the giallo genre, there is one important difference: The serial killer is the main character. Like Norman Bates, John Harrington is a handsome, charismatic, likable psychopath. Unlike Norman Bates, John’s murderous intentions are made clear right from the beginning. After a nice opening sequence, in which he hacks up a young bride and her lover aboard a train, John explains his murderous desire and his fixation on newly married women in an interior monologue. His obsessions steams from an event in childhood and his business, a wedding dress modeling agency, gives him plenty of opportunity to indulge his desires.

Another big difference is that John is married to a shrewish, séance obsessed woman who refuses to divorce him. A curious police detective and a beautiful young model/love interest pad out the film’s subplots. Anybody familiar with the genre probably won’t find a lot of surprises here. The secret of John’s Freudian childhood trauma isn’t hard to figure out, neither are the specifics of the detective’s plot to gaslight him.

As always though, Bava has a fantastic stylistic grasp on the material. The opening credits, a beautifully colorful montage of the actor’s faces appearing in sand then being wiped away, makes it known immediately that this is Bava in his prime. The movie is set in Paris (though it looks a lot like Italy to me.) and color and architecture are used fantastically. Bava includes a number of unusual little sequences seemingly just to add to the film’s style. A back room is filled with mannequins wearing wedding dresses, which John sometimes dances with. Later on, he lures a young victim back there, essentially seducing her before hatcheting her. A séance is shot in a small, black room, with Mildred’s face the only thing visible. John’s garden, where he also burns his victim’s bodies, is filled with bright orange and purple flowers.

In my favorite moment, our killer retrieves his favorite weapon, marches up the stairs back to the bed room, the camera focusing on the blade’s reflection the whole time. The film holds off on showing his face as long as possible before revealing the killer wearing a wedding veil and lipstick. It’s a hilarious, bizarre little addition that is never explained. Following this scene, a surprising supernatural element is introduced. While it’s unexpected, and feels like yet another addition simply to spice up the material, it does add another quirky touch to the film. Another beautiful scene shows an empty post-wedding banquet, draped in deep, soulful blues.

The film is also helped by its game cast. Stephen Forsyth makes for a charismatic serial killer. John certainly is a fun psycho to watch, a precursor to Patrick Bateman in his meticulous vanity. Laura Betti, in a role written specifically for her, is fantastically bitchy as the wife. Dagmar Lassander, who would later show up in Fulci’s “House by the Cemetery” looks gorgeous as the love interest, Helen, and has nice chemistry with Forsyth. As usual, the roles of the feminine victims are filled with some substantial eye candy, particularly Femi Benussi. “Hatchet for the Honeymoon” came out of a period where Bava was taking routine material and turning it into something special. It’s not exactly a classic, but it is classic Bava. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1966-1968)

11. Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs
A paring of Vincent Price and Mario Bava, two of the biggest names ever in horror? I know what you’re thinking. “This’ll be great!” Hold on. First off, if you couldn’t figure it out from the title, “Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs” isn’t a horror movie, at least not intentionally. What it is instead is a madcap slapstick comedy, a broad parody of James Bond. (Maybe. It might actually be a parody of Italian knock-offs of James Bond. I couldn’t tell.)

I haven’t seen the original “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine,” asteamed classic it surely is, but this movie helpfully recaps the first film in its opening minutes. What you do need to know: Dr. Goldfoot is a mad scientist with vaguely defined plans for world domination, which he wants to accomplish with his indestructible, exploding fem-bots. You’d think a more practical application of this technology would be to build a Doom-Mech or at least a very large bomb, Dr. Goldfoot clearly seems to think seducing world leaders is the way to go. Even though his plans are fairly evident from watching the movie, Dr. Goldfoot still takes the time to break the fourth way and directly drop a load of exposition on the audience. Always there to foil his easily foiled plots are the secrets agents of S.I.C. and a pair of slapstick Italian bellhops. Fabian (standing in for Frankie Avalon from the first movie. Obviously a drop in quality) plays the horniest chaste secret agent, who spends a lot of time trying to kiss his female sidekick. Dr. Goldfoot has two Asian sidekicks, a big Asian guy who likes to chloroform women graphically and is always being called “stupid” by his boss, even though there’s no evidence to support that; and a kind of hot, half-way dragon lady called “Hardjob,” which is about as sophisticated as the humor gets.

So what exactly passes for “humor” here? You get lots of furious mugging from the tenth-or-twelfth-rate Laurel and Hardy, Franco and Ciccio. There’s the most obvious and corny visual and dialogue puns you can imagine. Do you love scenes of characters twitching around spastically in fast-motion? (Correct answer: Only if it’s set to the “Benny Hill” music.) Because that makes up about 65% of the supposed “comedy” content here. And then there’s the wacky, wacky chase sequence, which takes us through an amusement park and into a hot air balloon. And just when you’ve had enough of that, you realize there’s still twenty minutes left. The movie throws in some awful special effects and a few more puns before mercifully ending.

Vincent Price camps it up to even higher levels then usual, playing two roles. He’s so campy that, despite being surrounded by half-naked women for the majority of the run time, Dr. Goldfoot still comes off as extremely gay. The girls that play the titular bombs are fairly attractive, though not as hot the previous models Bava has shown off. There’s none of Bava’s trademark style here, save one measly zoom at the end. There’s nearly nothing to recommend about “Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.” You will not laugh, chuckle, giggle, chortle, snicker, or snort, not once. For completest only. [Grade: D-]

12. Danger: Diabolik!
It says a lot about Italian culture that their more-or-less answer to James Bond, a jet-setting superspy, is a jet-setting super-thief. Or maybe it was just the timea. Diabolik robs, maims, and murders not for Queen and country, or even profit, but out of hedonism and a desire to stick it to the man. (And stick it to his girlfriend.) His comic was hugely popular in the sixties and is still published today. The character’s amoral streak would be toned down in time but he’s in full-on murderous asshole mode here. The only reason we’re ever really given to cheer for Diabolik is that he’s just a lot cooler then everyone else. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve enjoyed a repugnant protagonist free of ethics, but it would’ve help if the character had a more defined motivation then just stealing cool shit for his girlfriend and fucking with Detective Ginko’s head.

This was a big budget movie for Bava and a departure from the small horror flicks he was most well-known for at this point. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of it lacks his trademark style. There’s not much sweeping camera work and the swirling colors are saved for a few brief sequences. (Such as the psychedelic opening credits, which are played over a swirling tornado of colors. Or when a map illustration fills itself out.) Bava’s style and surrealness comes through more in the over-the-top set design. Diabolik’s base is set up like a modern art museum. The shower stalls have red circles hanging in front of the bather's naughty parts. His bed is shaped like a heart and rotates. His alarm system is a giant, multi-colored pipe organ. See through glass tunnels and geometric shaped supports seem to be the general phrases of the day.

The film is very groovy over all. Aside from the hero’s anti-authority style and the art deco sets, there are other elements that mark this as an artifact of the late sixties. Chief among these elements is Ennio Morricone’s swinging score. There are three main themes: A groovy guitar riff with some wacky jazz trumpets over it. (Otherwise known as “Driving Off to the Store,” to the MST3k fans in the audience.) A sappy, incoherent love themed called “Deep Deep Down,” that is repeated a few times too many. And a wah-wah-ing underwater theme vaguely reminiscent of Morricone’s famous Spaghetti western music. It’s a fun score if a little repetitive. Other swinging sixties moments include a groovy moment in a drug and music filled go-go club, the sole moment of Bava color, and a general campy attitude. The camp allows the movie to get away with a lot of things, such as an underwater car, a very covenant plot-device that allows Diabolik to appear dead for ten hours, an airplane with a retractable hole in the floor, and some shoddy rear-projection effects. The movie owes a lot to 007, what with its improbably gadgets and casual sex and violence. The movie acknowledges it’s cheesiness a few times, such as a scene when a fake body flying through the air is suppose to look like a fake body.

The dubbing makes it difficult to judge the performances, even if some of the English-speaking actors did their own voices. (There are at least two different dubs out there, by the way, one of which is much better then the other.) John Philip Law has a lot of swagger and manages to wear Diabolik’s skin-tight black outfit without looking completely ridiculous. He does come off as a little on the wooden side though, especially whenever he speaks. His sidekick and girlfriend Eva is mostly just a sex kitten. She exists mostly to show off some very chic fashion. (She’s also not as hot as the girls in Bava’s previous films. More supermodel skinny then spaghetti-fed curvy.) Michel Piccoli looks and acts a lot like an Italian Christopher Lee, mostly playing puzzled and frustrated as Diabolik’s arch-enemy, Inspector Ginko. Adolfo Celi, best known as the bad guy in “Thunderball” so that’s another Bond connection, plays scumbag crime boss Valmont. Celi is greasy and sleazy here, having a lot of fun.

The story pretty much goes from one set-piece to another, leading to a very episodic feel. This doesn’t make the movie very complicated, neither does its simple cartoony characters, but it does make it easy, breezy Saturday morning viewing. “Danger: Diabolik” is mostly Bava in workhorse mode and is a clear sign that his best filmmaking period is over. But it’s still a fun, campy little action flick. [Grade: B-]

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1965-1966)

8. Planet of the Vampires
He’s best known for his gothic horror and brightly colored thrillers, but Bava was willing to work in just about any genre that was handed to him. “Planet of the Vampires” was his stab at sci-fi horror and is widely recognized as a classic. Its influence on “Alien” is acknowledged and obvious. A group of astronauts wind up on a strange planet, where they discover the giant fossilized remains of an alien race before a deadly force picks them off one by one. The similarities end there but I’d say that’s enough.

Taken on its own, it’s a very spooky creep show that just happens to be set in space. The set design for the alien planet is incredible. Through brilliant color and a generous amount of fog, what was probably a few caves and rocks is transformed into a truly otherworldly environment. I’d say its closer to Bava’s portrayal of Hell in his Hercules movie then what most sci-fi worlds look like. Either way, it’s fantastically pulled off.

Several scenes are incredibly moody and creepy, two in particular stand out. When the vampires (who really don’t have much in common with classical concept of vampires) pull themselves out of their graves, tearing plastic wrapping from their bodies, all in slow motion, it sounds ridiculous, but Bava imbues the scene with his trademark gothic horror. Another noteworthy moment is when the captain and the hot chick in the tight space suit stumble into the old derelict ship. The giant skeletons aren’t exactly convincing but the overwhelming colors, combined with the elevating threat level, makes it the most intense moment in the movie.

The cast is large and none of the actors are really given a chance to stand out. The characters are really more archetypes then anything else, loosely defined. More over, the dubbing makes it even harder to grade their acting ability. It’s a testament to Bava’s skills for creating atmosphere that this isn’t detrimental to the film at all. The costume design comes off, at first, as a little campy, especially by today’s standards. However, I actually think this helps the film seem even more out of place. It’s not really the future, it could be any time. The downbeat ending is certainly unexpected and wraps things up on an unsettling note.

“Planet of the Vampires,” which I’m thinking probably had a better title in Italian, is another homerun for Bava, one more classics from his golden period. [Grade: B+]

9. Knives of the Avenger
Going into this movie, I knew it was about Vikings. But, considering the time and place it was made, I was expecting a typical sword and sandals experience which just trades Greece for Norway, togas for bearskins, and Zeus for Odin. I was surprised to find, the movie doesn’t fool around in that regard. It goes to a bit of effort to create the look and feel of a proper Viking epic.

The story is surprisingly complex. Flashbacks and voice-overs are both used nicely. Thematically speaking, the film deals with loyalty, guilt, redemption, motherhood, and other in-depth concepts. Things do drag a little at the end of the second act, when the father character is brought back into the act but it picks up once again for an exciting conclusion. I didn’t realize this until I read the DVD case, but this is basically a Viking version of “Shane,” right down to the ending.

As long as the action is kept up close, its quite captivating, with a nice savage edge to it. Later on, there are far too many scenes of our hero throwing knives and some random goon grasping his chest and falling down. (A note on the dub here. It’s amazing what sound design can do for a movie. Without the excellent sound editing of the original, the American version’s fight scenes are castrated and come off as quite weak.)

The cast is serviceable, with Cameron Mitchell doing well as the conflicted hero, Lisa Wagner as a beautiful damsel in distress, and a somewhat campy Fausto Tozzi as the villain. The music is exciting and heroic, despite the main theme being played a few times too many throughout. Bava’s direction is a bit muted here. The ending is the only time we get any of his trademark color. It was the third time before I got through “Knives of the Avenger” uninterrupted. I don’t know if it was worth that much effort but it’s still a quality piece of pulp cinema. [Grade: B]

10. Kill, Baby… Kill!
By all accounts, Bava was something of a superstitious person. Those beliefs obviously resurfaced throughout his career. Perhaps, no film summed up Bava’s concerns about the spiritual world around us more then “Kill, Baby… Kill!” For a fact, the movie features many of the director’s trademarks and interests. The brooding color gothic look of decaying old buildings, creeping fog, and darkened corners continues to evolve. The haunted Villa Graps is a foreboding piece of work, especially its winding spiral staircase which is the centerpiece of several impressive sequences. Those spooky old portraits show up again too.

The concept of forced suicide, one touched upon briefly in past films, is given a full showcase here. People dive onto pointy gates, impale themselves on candlesticks, and other gruesome surprises, all due to the influence of a little girl’s ghost. The sinister child, another concept that appeared one or twice throughout Bava’s career, is one of the creepiest aspects of this picture. Peering in through windows, gliding into view on a swing, and always staring blankly and silently, Melissa the little ghost girl is an enduring image of horror and its surprising that the character isn’t more iconic. The way she is often preceded by a bouncing ball obviously influenced Peter Medek’s “The Changeling” and is almost a cliché by now.

The story itself is interesting as well. It starts off by facing science and reason up against superstition and irrational fear. However, towards the end, the movie reveals a surprising, and sort of brilliant, plot twist that deals with how people handle grief and the guilt many feel over the death of a loved one.

There are a few too many characters but the conclusion brings them all together and wraps up the story in an extremely satisfying way. The cast is a great collection of solid actors. Erika Blanc, Fabienne Dali, and Micaela Esdra are all the sort of gorgeous heroines that the Italians love to put in there movies so much. Piero Lulli and Max Lawrence are both bring a certain physicality to their parts. Giovanna Galletti gives the best performance as the grieving clairvoyant Baroness Graps, who is driven either by a group of vengeful spirits or her own grief.

I might not have given much attention to how creepy this movie is but, believe me, the creep factor is high in this one and I recommend, from personal experience, not watching alone at night. “Kill, Baby… Kill!” might not be the director’s most well-know but, in many ways, it encapsulates many of Bava’s favorite obsessions and concepts into one tidy creepy package. [Grade: A-]

Friday, September 23, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1964)

7. Blood and Black Lace
Beautiful women filmed beautifully while being murdered in stylish way. What more could a horror fan ask for? “Blood and Black Lace,” despite being a financial failure at the time of its release, went on to become Bava’s most influence film. Bava took the krimi mini-genre, stripped it down to its bare essential elements, and married the material with a Hitchcockian eroticism and a distinctly Italian style. In the process, he created a new genre, the giallo. A mixture of violent murders, lurid sexuality, and police procedure, the giallo would go on to define Italian thriller cinema for the next decade. And if “Psycho” was the birth of the slasher movie, “Blood and Black Lace” was the first distant relative.

This is classic Bava and we know it right from the first shot of the film. A red sign swings back and forth in a storm, deep blacks and blue surrounding the building behind it. This is just first of many, many uses of fantastic color throughout the film. Red, in particular, seems to be something of the theme color throughout the film. The red diary full of secrets is what fuels the film’s plot. The first murder victim wears a red scarf. The heat of a blazingly hot furnace cast red light all over a room. Red cloth mannequins and curtains decorate the fashion house. The film ends with the image of a red telephone swinging back and forth, mirroring the opening shot. And, of course, the blood. Meanwhile, the deep blues and blacks signify the killer. Aside from the black-blue trench coat the faceless murderer wears, the killer’s escapes and entrances are often framed in that color. For example, in one scene, the killer flees a murder scene in a car, the vehicle’s exit lit with a white-blue spotlight. Rooms are often painted in yellows or brown, grounding the carnage in earthy colors. These are just some of the many fantastic uses of color in the film. I could go on forever about it.

Aside from the color, Bava’s camera is fantastically active. Using improvised dollies and cranes, the camera’s view peers around corner, over staircases, and peeks into shadows. Reflections in mirrors are used fantastically throughout. The film’s point-of-view is fantastically paranoid. In the early moments of the film, it casts suspicion upon just about everyone with simply a look or a glance. Later on, the killer’s presence is suggested with simply a cocked angle. Following the killer’s perspective would become a trademark of later gialli (And slashers.), but this movie simply suggests it.

The murders were unprecedented violent for the time. The opening strangulation drags on for what feels like minutes and minutes. Perhaps the film’s highlight involves Nicole, the second victim, being stalked through an antiques dealership. Bava’s colors go practically psychedelic in this scene, as pinks, greens, and blues overwhelm, for seemingly no other reason then to disorient the character and the audience. The amazingly suspenseful sequence climaxes with the groovy soft-jazz score dropping out and the defenseless girl getting a medieval clawed glove slammed into her face. Later, a girl is sadistically tortured with a bright orange hot furnace, predating “Hostel” and all the other torture horror by a good thirty years. My favorite kill in the movie, which is cut to in medias res, completely without build-up, involves an almost totally naked girl being violently, forcefully drowned in a bathtub, in a shocking, disturbing aversion of “Psycho.” Three of the five murder scenes involve the female victim in some state of undress, having her dress pulled off, wearing only a slinky nightgown, or being dressed only in her underwear. While later filmmakers in the giallo genre would knowingly eroticized violence against women, Bava seems to be criticizing the fashion industry here more then anything else. The dead girls, lying about half-undressed, seem to be morbid inversions of fashion shoots.

The early parts of the film spend a lot of time setting up potential suspects and red herrings, such as the impotent make-up artist, the unstable coke fiend, a forlorn epileptic lover, and even a relatively benign cleaning lady. These, along with the detective’s story, are promptly abandoned well before the end, to focus completely on the victims and their deaths. Bava dispenses with even more superficial story padding by revealing the murderer’s identity exactly at the hour mark, with the story’s conclusion still to come. The film resolves itself in a barrage of double crosses, greed, and twisted love, themes Bava would revisit again and again during his career.

Eva Bartok is very good as the default protagonists. She seems somewhat cold during the early segments of the film but it becomes apparent at the end that she is simply masking an insecure, desperate need to be loved. Cameron Mitchell is duplicitous, greasy, and sleazy as her lover and the fashion house’s co-owner. Lea Krugher is nicely hysterical as the most nervous of all the girls. Claude Danets is notable if, for nothing else, her incredible beauty, her voluptuous figure and cat-like eyes. I wish we saw more of her.

On the negative side, the dubbing on the English language track is very poor. The Italian jazz-pop score also seems somewhat out of place for such a macabre film. All in all, these are petty, minor negatives. “Blood and Black Lace” is essential horror, a must-see for fans of the genre and gialli, and a visual wonder for cult cinema watchers. It should be apparent to readers now that I adore Bava’s work and “Blood and Black Lace” might very well be my favorite of his films. [Grade: A]

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1963)

5. Black Sabbath (with Salvatore Billitteri)
Right from the opening minutes, Bava lets us know he isn’t messing around. As “Black Sabbath” opens, we are immediately presented with a mixture of brilliant, psychedelic colors. As Boris Karloff introduces us to the world of horror we’re about to enter, red bathes his face and purple, yellow, and blue dances around him. This use of color continues throughout the film as each of the three tales has a specific hue directly tied to it.

The opening tale, “The Telephone,” is characterized by the bright red title device. (The same red phone that would later appear in “Blood and Black Lace.”) It’s the weakest of the three but is still a lot of fun. The story has a voyeuristic edge to it and is packed with eroticism, mostly due to Michele Mercier. Maybe it’s just because she’s partially nude the whole time or perhaps her panicked state brings out a certain vulnerable. Either way, it’s a very sensual performance. Lidia Alfonsi is also great as her bitchy best friend with suspicious motives. The piece has a lot of fun playing with audience expectations. We’re never exactly sure of where it’s going until the end.

The second tale, “The Wurdulac” has light blue night skies. It’s a very dark story, as cold and harsh as the winter weather it takes place in. A decapitated head, the dead child, and downbeat ending are unusual for the time. There is a sense of dread as the undead consumes everyone. Boris Karloff’s lead is perhaps his most sinister role and completely devoid of the hints of whimsy that usually characterizes him. There are several chilling moments: A mother desperate to respond to her child’s cries of help, even if he is a vampire now. When the only living member of the family is surrounded and closed in on by her now predatory relatives. Or when a barking dog is forcefully silenced off-screen. It’s really an excellent, startling tale of foreboding horror.

The last segment, “A Drop of Water,” lacks the edge of the other two but also happens to be the scariest. Odd colors floating inside a room from the thunder storm outside, most noticeable purple, highlights this one. What’s really fun about this story is, for the majority of its runtime, most of the odd events can be explained by its lead character’s guilty conscious. It’s not until the end when things get really weird. The corpse at the center of the story is a little fake looking, especially towards the end, but is also sort of eerie, mostly due to its permanently staring eyes and fixed grimace. It exploits common spooky things: Flies, thunder storms, cats meowing, and dripping water, building to full-on nightmare imagery by the end. The movie then closes with an irrelevant outro from Mr. Karloff.

The American version is quite different. The order of the stories is rearranged. (“A Drop of Water,” then “The Telephone,” and then “The Wurdulac.”) Karloff introduces each tale. A bland new score is added. “The Telephone” is drained of all of its eroticism and turned, bizarrely, into a ghost story. “The Wurdulac” has some of its harsher elements lessened but is still powerful, especially with Karloff’s voice now present. The cheeky original coda is discarded for something less interesting. Even in a reedited form, “Black Sabbath” shines. Bava created another horror classic, something both startlingly progressive and visually beautiful.
[Grade: A]

6. The Whip and the Body
The opening shot of “The Whip and the Body” is of a horse running along a beach, a castle in the distance silhouetted against a purple setting sun. The use of colors and a castle by the sea reminded me of Roger Cormon’s adaptation of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The comparison to Poe is apt. A story of twisted sexuality, madness, obsession, ghosts, and sprawling castle manors, the tale is one that wouldn’t be out of place in a collection of the master’s stories.

“The Whip and the Body” is Bava at his prime, a supremely atmospheric master work of Gothic horror. Il Maestro’s use of color has never been moodier then it is in this film. Green dominates the palette. Characters walk the halls of the haunted castle, foggy, moody greens cast on the stone wall, impenetrable shadows dominating the rest of the frame. A ghastly green hand lunges towards the camera in a shot calling out for a 3D transition. At one point, Christopher Lee leans into the shot, his face illuminated by a deep red. Tony Mendell, playing the designated hero Christian, walks the hallways in one scene, approaching a crypt. Shades of amber pass over him, lending a deeply paranoid, creepy tone to the moment, as the audience expects something to jump out of the shadows at any minute. At another point, we cut from a full moon in the sky, to a woman’s curls in a bed, and then pan over to her eyes, singled out by blue lighting among the bedroom’s darkness.

The dreaded zoom does make an appearance but is highly effective in one moment. A character enters a room full of furniture covered by white sheets and, as her eyes scan the room for a glimpse of something strange, the camera reels in and out on the objects.

Besides Bava’s phenomenal direction and the rich atmosphere, what also elevates this to classic status is Christopher Lee’s performance. Despite, once again, having his naturally sinister baritone dubbed over, Lee still gives a great performance, as a charismatically cruel man. Despite his vicious actions, it’s quite obvious why he could inspire such uncontrollably passionate desire, even from beyond the grave. He’s undeniably powerful. Playing the object of Lee’s twisted lust is Daliah Lavi. Another glamorous and gorgeous woman that Bava has cast his camera on, Lavi is wholly believable as a woman torn apart by her own desire. As the film progresses, she becomes more and more manic. The film’s cast is rounded out by Alan Collins, the Italian Peter Lorre, as a put-upon manservant and Harriet Medin as a tortured mother. Tony Kendell is the designated hero of the piece but Bava’s interest clearly lies in Lavi and Lee. Likewise, Kendell’s character is generally uninteresting and his romance with Ida Galli never really goes anywhere.

One of the most revolutionary things about the film is its frank treatment of sadomasochism. I mean, its right there in the title. Lee brutally whips Lavi twice throughout the film and, both times, the film doesn’t shy away from portraying her obvious enjoyment of the act. The central theme of the film, if I’m reading this correctly, is about Lavi coming to accept this part of her personality. Only after she rejects her self-imposed mental oppression and embraces the fact that she both fears and loves Lee’s sadistic prince, can the story resolve itself.

The moody score combines the movie’s horrific and romantic side excellently. The movie does an odd thing at the end of the second act. It uses a title break to announce the “end of part one.” All minor problems aside, “The Whip and the Body” is over far too soon. It’s a spooky piece of daringly erotic horror atmosphere, a showcase for the director’s mastery of mood. (And continuing the tradition of Bava's films getting bizarre, unrelated alternate titles in America, this film was originally released over here as "What." What the hell, is more like it.) [Grade: A-]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1961-1963)

3. Erik the Conqueror
How many Italian Viking movies are there and how many of them starred Cameron Mitchell? Sword-and-sandals and spaghetti westerns are widely known and many of those films are on R1 DVD, while the Viking films seem comparatively obscure. I don’t have much exposure to the genre but “Erik the Conqueror” will be hard to best.

Though released in America under that title, “Erik the Conqueror” is a completely inappropriate title. Even the DVD print uses the title “The Invaders.” (Erik isn’t even a Viking!) This is a classic tale of brothers separated at a young age, one growing up to become a great Viking warrior, with the other being adopted by a British queen. Naturally, the two meet on the battle field, totally unaware of their relationship. Through other complications, both brothers wind up falling in love with a pair of twins, played by the beautiful Kessler Twins. The story is surprisingly forward-thinking. Neither the Vikings nor the English are shown as out-and-out bad guys. Cameron Mitchell plays the Viking brother, Eron, who strives to throw off the boundaries of harsh tradition and sees no need for blood sacrifices. Meanwhile, the English brother, Erik, is a faithful, thoughtful warrior, loyal to his queen and his heart. The villain of the film is the traitor Sir Rutford, played with villainous glee by Andrea Checchi, an opportunist willing to screw over everyone to further his own power. Later on, when the brothers become aware of their connection, the violence between the two groups immediately halts and both clans turn towards the real enemy. The way the brothers immediately make-up happens too quickly for my taste.

The strong, pulpy story with some surprising depth is good, but it’s Bava’s direction that really shines. The same strong reds, greens, violets and blues that appeared in “Hercules and the Haunted World” and later in “Knives of the Avengers” show up. (Indeed, some sets and props are shared among the three films.) The Vikings, in particular their cave strongholds, are all filmed in strong, intense colors while the English are contrasted against blue skies. (One fantastic scene is of warriors running off to battle, silhouetted against a bright blue sky.) On a visual level, this film is a huge success. The battle scenes are energetic and brutal, including characters violently shot up by bright red arrows.

You might expect those battles to be the most memorable scenes, but not so. In one scene, the Vikings decide a political decision via democratic vote… With an axe-throwing contest. (Something we could use more of in American politics, if you ask me.) This scene uses some obvious reverse footage, causing a surreal effect.

Early on, before a sacrifice, a group of temple virgins dance around the bound prisoners. A wedding sequence is beautifully punctuated by glitter floating around in the air. One of the brothers lay dying and request to see his lover, who is currently captured. Her twin steps in to take her sister’s place, in a touching, sweet scene.

Mitchell and George Ardisson are both great as the two brothers, using their matinee idol looks to good use. The beautiful Francoise Christophe has a fantastic supporting role as Queen Alice. The movie makes a misstep with a wacky comic relief character who is distracting and wisely cut out all together in some edits. Bava often used his fantastically colorful direction to elevate middling material. When the material is actually pretty strong on its own, like in “Erik the Conqueror,” it makes for an even better time. [Grade: B+]

4. The Girl Who Knew Too Much
“The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is generally regarded as the first giallo, something I don’t exactly see. The bare bones of the genre are laid down but it would still be a few years more before we got the first real example. Either way, this is a satisfying little mystery.

It feels like Bava’s most Italian project. The story takes place in Rome and the spirit of the city is everywhere. From the groovy opening theme to the prominence of both modern and ancient architecture to the presences of Catholicism, there isn’t a moment here that doesn’t scream Italy. His last black and white feature, by now Bava has mastered the use of shadows in creating mood. The direction is also more playful, with the caps of four nuns taking up the screen or a head popping up between the legs of a statue.

The story, with its conspiracies, constant suspicions, and suggestion of psychic powers, is a bit on the convoluted side and winds through quite a few different sub-plots. There are several extra characters, many of them blatant red herrings. Ultimately, anyone familiar with the workings of the mystery genre should be able to guess who the killer is. What is more interesting is how we come to that realization throughout the numerous winding plot lines. Despite being confusing sometimes, the writing is playful and lightweight and ultimately very easy to get caught up in.

The cast helps things along. Leticia Roman is a great lead with her impish facial features and unexpected sexuality. Once again, Bava focuses in on his leading lady’s wide eyes and expressive face to put the audience in her shoes. A very young John Saxon is good too, though it’s disappointing to hear his immediately recognizable voice dubbed over in Italian. The title is a Hitchcock allusion and I feel the Master’s spirit comes through more in the charming romantic subplot then in the murder mystery. Indeed, Roman and Saxon together can’t help but remind the viewer of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. (The movie has an alternate title, “The Evil Eyes,” which, despite being generic, still makes a great deal of sense and is brilliantly referenced during the finale, with the image of two gun shot holes in a door.) Valentina Cortese has a nice supporting role though she doesn’t shine until her manic side comes out. The resolution of the story is a cute scene and captures the overall mood quite well.

The movie does have an all-seeing narrator for some reason that is unneeded and distracting. There are about one too many zooms for my taste and the story is a bit slow to start. Still, this is classic Bava and the director at some of his most charming and playful.
[Grade: B]

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1960-1961)

Well, here it is, (mostly) as promised, the Mario Bava director report card which I first promised, oh, about a year ago. My work method makes Frank Miller look punctual.

Keeping in line with the rules I set out a long time ago, this card won't cover everything Bava touched. His uncredited works, including "Giant of Marathon" and "Caltiki the Immortal Monster" which he more or less directed single-handedly, are excluded. (And I've actually seen "Giant of Marathon," so I've really got no proper excuse for that one.) As are a number of films that are unavailable or otherwise hard to find, such as "The Wonders of Aladdin," "The Road to Fort Alamo," or "The Venus of Ille." My goal has always been to focus on a director's "main cannon," not the minutia of his career. While laziness and a lack of time can be blamed for some of this, some of the titles listed above are just about impossible to get a hold of. I might publish reviews of some of them should they ever get a wide release. My love of Bava actually trumps my laziness.

1. Black Sunday
Despite most of his famous work involving vivid use of color, Bava started out in black and white and, using that color palette, made one of the most atmospheric horror films of the sixties. Gothic horror, by its very nature, relies on stormy nights, brooding castles, creepy portraits, and foggy graveyards for its chill. While we’ve seen all of these things before, Bava’s camera instills a new urgency. The shadows are constantly creeping up on the light. There isn’t a frame here that isn’t at least partially infected by darkness. Among these shadows, Bava places striking, haunting, almost dream-like imagery. A carriage riding through a darkened woods in slow-motion, a large stone door closing in a dark room, the remaining light washing over the surface like water, two men appearing behind an empty fire place, shadows passing over the faces of victim and attacker as they run through the hall… There are countless moments that will stay with you forever.

It's not just the gothic atmospheric that is so startling, as, in its uncut form, the movie features some surprising violence for the time, like nails stabbing an eye, a man burning in a fireplace, or rotting corpse with the face of a young woman.

Some have commented about how the movie refers to its monsters as both vampires and witches. I, personally, like this touch. “Black Sunday” isn’t about vampires or witches. It’s about superstition and curses. How the rotting, old evils of ages long since passed can creep up on our current lives.

Barbara Steele would become a horror icon following this, the scream queen of her time. Her performance(s) are less about actual acting then screen presence. With her heaving bosoms, curling raven hair, and, especially, her penetrating expressive eyes, Steele is the perfect actress of the role. Her old fashion European beauty invites mystery and intrigue. Even more then the oppressive shadows and dreary sets, its Barbara Steele that truly invokes the gothic ghost stories of the past. The rest of the cast is fairly unremarkable and the dubbing makes it difficult to judge their performances. (“Black Sunday” was a multilingual production, with cast and crew members speaking English, German, and Italian.) Andrea Checchi and Arturo Dominici both cut intimidating figures, especially in the darkened lighting.

The movie does drag a bit in the middle, when Steele and Dominici are largely off-screen, and the romantic subplot was unnecessary. The musical score isn’t very good and there are a few too many of those damn zooms.

All the flaws are forgiven by the excellent conclusion, which wraps everything up perfectly. “Black Sunday” (Also known by its original, and far more appropriate title, “The Mask of Satan”) is one of the best gothic horror films of the modern age, if not the best. It announce the arrival of Mario Bava as one of the genre’s maestros and Barbara Steele as one of its most unforgettable presences. [Grade: A]

2. Hercules in the Haunted World
Silly, colorful, and fun, “Hercules in the Haunted World” is probably the best sword and sandals film I’ve seen. Bava takes what was probably just another studio assembly line film and makes it his own. The scenes in the underworld make a great use of color, as should be expected, and has a sense of visual playfulness and occasional moodiness to them. The task Hercules and his sidekicks must complete are directed nicely and fun to watch. The budget was obviously very low and the plot isn’t always coherent. That only matters so much because everything is kept very loose and carefree. Bava's creativity is on display in a number of scenes, most notably when Hercules and his pal must cross a rope over a river of fire.

Even those that are strictly fans of Bava’s horror work will find something to like here, such as the climatic sequence in which Hercules battles an army of flying zombies, which has plenty of atmosphere to it. Probably the most memorable sequence in the film involves Hercules having an all-to-brief scuffle with some sort of weird tree monster.

As far as Italian Herculeses go, Reg Park isn’t the best but he does have enough charisma and physical presence to carry the weight. (If you’ll excuse the pun.) Christopher Lee seems to be having fun despite being dubbed for some inexplicable reason. George Ardisson, despite playing the broad comic relief, manages to avoid being annoying and even gets few good moments to him self. There are also some Italian beauties on display, another trademark of the genre, most notably Leonora Ruffo and Rosalba Neri. While nothing too spectacular, “Hercules in the Haunted World” is fun, easy to digest, and, visually speaking, as strong as the rest of the director’s work. [Grade: B]

Monday, September 19, 2011

MONSTER-MANIA 20: Days 2 and 3

A nerd convention is kind of like the internet. You’re surrounded by like-minded people and all the cool shit related to you’d interests that you’d like to buy or at least look at is available right at your fingers. It was during the second day of Monster-Mania 20 that this really became apparent to me.

The second day was mostly devoted to panels and Q&As. The “Re-Animator” panel was the first of the day. Despite the name, Jonathan Fuller from “Castle Freak” joined Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton on stage. As you’d expect, the questions were centered around “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond,” leaving Fuller mostly out of the conversations. At one point, Barbara Crampton actually turned to him and said, “But maybe Jonathan has something to add.”

Jeffrey Combs has something of a reputation as a dick. While he was never rude or standoffish, during the panel he was working very hard to keep all of the attention on him. To his credit, when his phone rang in the middle of the panel, he shut it off. Despite that, there were still a number of good moments. Combs recalled the perils of eating fake brains and frightening children with his grotesque make-up during the making of “From Beyond,” while Barbara Crampton discussed freezing while covered in slime. One of the most amusing moments came when Combs was frank about how much the new “The Dunwich Horror” sucks, which he was apparently in. And there was a lot of general discussing about working with Stuart Gordon, who I really wish could have been there. Over all, a good panel.

Immediately after that panel ended, the ballroom was flooded by lots of young woman who apparently came to lust after Norman Reedus during the “Walking Dead” panel. I opted out of that one in order to grab a few more celeb signatures. But Tony Todd still wasn’t at his table, so I wound up in the dealer’s room.

The Prey” ended up being a lot harder movie to find then I thought it would be. Only one booth at the whole con carried it. (While there, I also grabbed the missing movies I need for my Godzilla Report Card. Which I’ll probably never write, considering the speed I go at these days.) But now I do indeed own an actual physical copy of my favorite bad movie and I looked forward to inflicting the banjo filled horrors on my friends as much as possible.

The “Monster Squad” reunion started at four and, with that time quickly approaching, I marched back up stairs. While passing the room where all the “Halloween” guests were located, my traveling partner informed me that John Carpenter was about to go on a coffee break and if I wanted his signature, I better go in there and grab it. So, completely unprepared, I was pushed towards Mr. Carpenter’s table. My nerd brain was completely blank and I could think of nothing interesting or provocative to ask. After stumbling through a short question about what his next project would be, that Carpenter sidewayed into a complaint about the basketball season, I quickly stumbled off with my signed glossy, completely embarrassed. During my ten minutes with maybe the most respected living horror director, all I could say was that “Christine” is really underrated. I’m a disgrace to my uniform. (Carpenter wasn’t rude, by the way, but I think he was really looking forward to that coffee break.)

The “Monster Squad” reunion was definitely the thinnest attended panel I saw, though everyone there was obviously a huge fan. Stephen Macht, otherwise known as Sean’s dad, made it apparent early that he wasn’t really a horror fan and didn’t have very much to say. Ashley Bank and Andre Gower were very talkative though. It’s obvious the two are friends and they have a great back-and-forth. They both had a lot to say about the film, the fandom, the rating’s system, what it’s like being a cult classic, working as a child actor, and the generational aspect of the film. The remake question came up, of course, which would be the first of many times the topic arose that night.

I decided to go back down to the signer’s room. Tony Todd was indeed, finally, at his table. As I waited in the short line, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Considering his often absent status, I thought Mr. Todd might not be very interested in being there and meeting his fan. My concerns were for naught. Tony was by far the nicest guy I meet at Monster-Mania. He was friendly, verbose, and sincere. He shared a great story of how he got the part in the “Night of the Living Dead” remake. Basically, he was in the area and, when he heard the remake was casting, he marched over and explained to Tom Savini how passionate he was about the project and how much he wanted the part. All of this was pantomimed, with me in the part of Savini, and Todd didn’t spare personal space. I explained the subtitles of “Candyman” as I saw it, after which Todd said, “You’re a pretty smart guy. You should be a filmmaker.” I sheepishly mentioned that I am, or am at least trying to be, and the tables completely turned. Suddenly Tony Todd was asking me about my movies and giving me a pep talk about following your passion and not getting discouraged. It was surreal. I come to Baltimore to talk to Tony Todd about his movies and he ends up talking to me about mine. What a genuinely nice guy. I’m definitely a much bigger fan now. He spent a lengthy amount of time with everyone at his table too. This is a guy who obviously enjoys meeting people.

After grabbing some dinner (I highly recommend the Nautilus Diner, by the way.), I made it back to the Mariot for the eight o’clock John Carpenter Q&A. I was always told you should always get to a panel a half an hour early, in order to get good seats. Which I did for the first two panels I was at, which ended up being an unnecessary move. So I figured, obviously, there was no need to get to this panel early. Clearly a lapse in judgment on my behalf, seeing as how Carpenter was the biggest guest there. The room was packed and we ended up with lousy seats way in the back.

Carpenter sure knows his fans. He had the audience eating out of his hands the entire time. Every time he swore or talked about receiving royalty checks for sequels or remakes, the entire crowd erupted in laughter. It was a candid hour with the director, in which he talked at lengths about the classics, the current film climate, his famous friends, and his general attitudes about filmmaking. There was a lot of remake talk, with Carpenter expressing general ambivalence over the subject, as long as he gets paid. (Though he did meet the inevitable Rob Zombie question with a flat “No comment,” which resulted in thunderous applause.) But it wouldn’t be a real dynamite Q&A without some idiots or assholes in the audience. One guy, who was holding a beer the whole time, apparently came all this way, just to ask, and I quote, “What the fuck was up with “Escape from LA?” Because that movie was just fucking shit.” He was immediately booed, since “Escape from LA” rocks of course, and Carpenter dismissed the guy with the middle finger and a nice “Fuck you.” Another guy delivered a rushed, confusing, poorly worded question about the Snake character from “Metal Gear Solid,” which was interpreted by Carpenter as meaning an “Escape from New York” game was in the works. (“I hope they pay me,” was his typical response.) Another guy asked, “What it’s like to work with Tom Savini?” The answer? “I don’t know, I’ve never worked with the guy.” Overall, this was definitely the most entertaining panel of the evening. I don’t know if I’d call J.C. down to Earth but he sure is a great speaker.

This was immediately followed by the “Halloween” reunion. The monitor was obviously getting tired at this point and, honestly, the kid (now adult) who played Tommy and a smattering of random Michael Myers didn’t prove for the best guests. All wasn’t lost though. PJ Soles had a good anecdote about the difference between working with Carpenter and Brian DePalma. Charles Cypher’s obvious dislike of Rick Rosenthal was great. Tommy Lee Wallace had a lot of good stories about the making of “Halloween III,” the initial reaction, and the cult following it’s built up over the years. And thank God for the guy who asked Dick Warlock about “Spaceballs.” He gets bonus points. But the most bizarre questions of the evening goes to the guy who decided it would be fun to ask the “Halloween” cast what their favorite kills from the “Friday the 13th” movies were. “You’ve got the wrong franchise,” the monitor said. Sadly, Tom Atkins was mostly left out of this one. Not a single “Night of the Creeps” question.

And now comes the oddest moment of the whole weekend. While having a private moment in the packed bathroom, I overheard a discussion from the line of guys at the urinals. Dick Warlock step up to do his business, when a sarcastic fan said, “Gee, Mr. Warlock, I know it’s not the best time, but can I get a picture?” He took it in good humor and even followed up with, “Now you can tell all your friends you’ve pissed with Michael Myers.”

The con was definitely winding down by Sunday morning. Much to my surprise, most of the guests and the majority of the vendors were still there. I grabbed “Silent Madness” and “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” a Godzilla and the “Wolfman’s Got Nards!” t-shirts. By that point though, most of my resources were worn down and there wasn’t much left to do. I walked around and took in one last good look at everything before getting back on the road.

Overall, Monster-Mania 20 was a blast. It was all I had hoped for and more. Meeting with PJ Soles and Tony Todd are memories I think I’ll treasure forever. It was probably the best first con experience I could have. You won’t hear any horror stories from me, no two-hour waits in line, no asshole signers, and no pushy vendors. I can’t wait to get back. How about HorrorFind in Gettysberg next year, readers? That is, unless Monster-Mania gets George Romero or Bruce Campbell. Get to work on that, you guys.

Friday, September 16, 2011


I step up to the entrance of the Baltimore Mariot. It’s my first con. I was unable to get tickets online because my traveling partner waited until the last minute to confirm. We got about ninety minutes before the posted start time. I fear there will be a long wait for the tickets or, worst yet, because the universe has a vendetta against me, all of the tickets will have magically disappeared. As we walk up through the parking lot, I spot cars with Jason, Michael Myers, and Evil Dead bumber stickers. One guy has a large zombie bobblehead perched on his dash. These are my people, I think. My anxiety is alleviated, replaced instead by excitement.

We step through the door. Not only isn’t there any sort of line, there’s not a single other person in the lobby. Nothing. There is no immediate sign of life anywhere else. My traveling partner asked, “Is this the right place?” Apparently there is such a thing as being too early.

After a little more searching, we found the ticket booth and a con schedule. A near-by escalator led to the Fright Rags t-shirt table. Okay, so we were in the right place. It was quickly decided to pop for the deluxe tickets so we could get into the con an hour early. I didn’t want to miss out on anything.

There wasn’t any threat of that. As we step through the hallways of Monster-Mania 20 proper, the majority of dealers tables and booths weren’t even set up yet. The room were celebs would be signing was barren and empty. The tables marked with simple pieces of papers and names was the only sign that we hadn’t accidentally slip three days into the future.

I scan the tables, spotting many of the expected names. Tony Todd, Jeffrey Combs, Zach Galligan, and others. But one important name is missing. Where’s the Atkins?

While the majority of con-goers, I suspect, came out for John Carpenter or one of the many other “Halloween” themed guests, Tom Atkins was the deciding factor for me. Yes, PJ Soles, Tony Todd, Carpenter, and maybe a few others were all guests I wanted to see. And, of course, just to scrounge the dealers floor and go out and meet people. But, mostly: Atkins. I was worried
his flight had been canceled or something. But, as I was walking back to the car to retrieve my camera, who but Tom Atkins himself walked by, playing with some sort of smart phone.

Times were good.

After paying too much for a German “Night of the Creeps” poster, which wasn’t the one I wanted, I found the room where all the Halloween related guests were gathered. I walk up to Tom’s table and, of course, he had replicas of the poster I want right there. But, whatever. Tom seemed pretty cool, just as sharp and humorous as you’d expect. He made repeated references to the Fright Rags shirts around him, seeming slightly perplexed by his fandom’s admiration.

Of course, because I’m a nerd and had just gotten swept up in everything, I hadn’t manage to think of any good questions or topics of conversation. I stumbled through a few statements about how “Night of the Creeps” is an all-time fave and how he was the main reason I came out to Baltimore. I didn’t even need to tell him to sign the poster with “Thrill Me!” He’s probably going to get ask to write that a hundred times this weekend.

He showed me a small stack of stickers the company makes, inscribed with the message “It’s Atkins Time!” He told me to go back down to the Fright Rags table and instruct someone named Krista that this image should be blown up and placed on beer coasters. I had a mission, a message straight from the mouth of Det. Cameron himself.

PJ Soles was the next guest I really had to meet but, oh curses, I had left my “Rock n’ Roll High School” DVD back at the hotel room. By the time I got back to the convention, things had gone from sleepy to swinging. There were crowds of people out, everything was fully set up, and I saw both a Jason and a Michael Myers.

PJ Soles has got to be one of the nicest celebs I’ve meet. She seemed extremely pleased to see a “Rock n’ Roll High School” fan and admitted it was her favorite role. She talked enthusiastically about the film and her character. She signed my DVD numerously times without me even asking and even posed for multiple photos, to make sure we got the perfect one. She was just extremely friendly and nice.

The dealer’s room was impressive. There was a huge cube set up in the middle of the room, full of figures. (Sadly, nothing I needed or didn’t all ready have.) What really impressed me was the number of home-made crafts. A lady crocheted various horror movie villains, which were both adorable and awesome. One man was selling Christmas bulbs, hand-painted with the Star Trek captains, Doctors one through ten, Godzilla creatures, and, the most tempting selection for me, the Universal Monsters. There were also home-made action figures, LEGO creations, fascinating mix-medium paintings, picture boxes, prints, and mountains of bootleg DVDs. (Also, a chick with huge tits, working for some independent distributor, tricked me into buying some crappy indie flick. These people know their audience.)

Anyway, this is getting long so I’ll cut to the point: I stumbled back to the signing room. Tony Todd’s flight got delayed, so he wasn’t there. So I settled for Zach Galligan. (Nice, very willing to answer questions, but a little distracted. Also, we got into a minor conversation about the proper way to spell Zack. To quote, “Zach should always have a hard –ch sound, like Loch Ness Monster." And he confirmed my suspicion that "Waxwork" was written by a hyper-active twelve year old.)

I walked by a table and realized the attractive young lady sitting there was actually Phobe the Feeb, all grown up. Ashley Bank was quite nice and we talked for about ten minutes. She discussed how she didn’t even meet Tom Noonan until she was an adult. On the set, he was never out of make-up, so she just assumed she was hanging out with Frankenstein. We also discussed the disappearing Fred Dekker and how, even as a little girl, she loved horror movies. (She shared a great story about going to the "Nightmare on Elm Street 2" premiere, despite only being about five years old.)

Finally, I decided to go ahead and give Jeffrey Combs a look, despite what I’ve heard about his reputation. However, as I walked over, I noticed a guy sitting at a table with prints of Georgio, the titular creature from “Castle Freak.” Indeed, Jonathan Fuller not only played the monster in that film, but also the hero of Stuart Gordon’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The actor’s connection with the director goes back to Gordon’s stage play days. Fuller was another friendly, chatty, intelligent guy and another completely unexpected great guest I met. After going up to both Ashley and Mr. Fuller strictly out of curiosity, I ended up buying a signed print from both, just because they were so nice.

So, I decided the night was up for me, especially after scoring a really cool “Aquaman” t-shirt from a guy who turned out to be a sincere fan of the character. (And also had a whole bunch of other cool stuff for sale.) I walked past the Fright Rags table and noticed a young lady sitting there. I walked up and asked if her name was Krista. “Yep.” “Tom Atkins sent me.” The message was delivered. "The Atkin's words are law," she said. I couldn't agree more. My mission was complete.