Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Fine Art of Twisting Young Minds

Just about every horror fan that I know can trace back their love of the genre to one particular book or story, movie or TV show. It usually happens when we’re kids. Not always, but more often than not. Mine can be traced to a single 1950’s monster movie I happened to catch when I was in the the third grade. At the time, I was a voracious comic book reader—Sgt. Rock, Batman, Spiderman—and as soon as I realized that horror was my thing the superheroes got kicked to the curb and replaced by the Warren magazines—Creepy, Eerie—and the great Skywald magazines like Scream and Nightmare, the Gladstone E.C. reprints of Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear that you could order out of the back of Creepy and Famous Monsters, and the occasional pre-code horror comic from the 1950’s that I could lay my greedy little hands upon (unlike today, in the early 1970’s pre-code books were not that uncommon, you could buy them cheap, and often find them in basements and attics, the cast-offs of a friend’s older brother in my case).

I left no stone unturned as I sought out my horror comic thrills. And although I read mags like Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein, DC’s Swamp Thing and Weird War Tales—and loved them, oh yes—I knew they were basically pretty weak in comparison to the Warren’s and Skywald’s and the various pre-code anthology-type books. They lacked a certain edge, courtesy of the much-dreaded, weak-kneed Comics Code that watered everything down after 1955 (the Warren’s and Skywald’s skirted the code because they were full-sized magazines, not comic books by definition). Even some of the Marvel’s I enjoyed like Dead of Night and Crypt of Shadows seemed to lack a certain bite I found in the pre-codes. Later, of course, I would learn that a lot of the stories in these two mags were actually swiped from pre-code books and sterilized: the blood was removed, zombies made less rotten, violence and gore toned down until it was practically nonexistent so it did not warp the mind of ‘70’s kids like it had with kids in the ‘50’s.

Then one day, when I thought I’d exhausted every possible avenue of grue, I spotted a magazine called
Horror Tales.

I was in love.

The stories were grotesque and bloody, the covers practically indescribable and splashed with vibrant, nauseating color—wolfmen tearing off the heads of ghouls, headless bloody mummies pounding stakes through the chests of well-endowed green-fleshed vampire women, demonic hunchbacks yanking rotting corpses from graves, mad doctors transplanting monster heads. I soon discovered more magazines of this ilk: Terror Tales, Tales of Voodoo, Tales from the Tomb, and Witches’ Tales. Put out by a company called Eerie Publications—of course!—these books lacked the artistic sophistication of the Warren’s and Skywald’s. There were no Frank Frazetta’s, Berni Wrightson’s, or Bruce Jones’s to be found in these pages. But what they lacked in style, they more than made up for in impact. The stories and artwork were crude, lurid, and dripping with blood. But given that horror, in its most basic state, is crude, lurid, and gory, this worked perfectly. Schoolmates and teachers who had seen me reading Creepy and Scream on the playground and thought, this kid is weird, now saw me reading Tales from the Tomb and Witches’ Tales and no doubt thought, no, this kid is more than weird, he’s twisted.

Not that I cared. For how could I not be in love with these magazines? How could I not love stories like “I Chopped Off Her Head” or “House of Monsters,” “Bloody Mary” or “The Slimy Mummy?” Quite a few of these stories were reprints from old pre-code books from Ajax-Farrell and Comic Media. Stories that were far too gruesome to be “sterilized” by Marvel, were instead pimped-up by Eerie Publications with more blood or sometimes re-drawn to accentuate the gore. This under the leadership of “Mad” Myron Fass, an old hand at crime and horror comics back in the 1950’s. Although much-maligned in the comic book industry, there was and is nothing quite like Eerie Publications.

As a kid I loved Halloween, of course. It was a special night of magic and mystery to me. I loved staring at those wonderful old Halloween decorations put out by the Beistle Company you would see taped in windows and tacked on school room walls—skeletons frolicking through cemeteries with screaming pumpkins under their arms, evil-grinning dead trees and ghosts swarming about ruined haunted houses and witches stirring cauldrons. To me and my fertile imagination, this represented the secret world of Halloween. A place humans would never see where the ghouls and ghosties paraded about in shadowy burial grounds and abandoned houses on Hallowneen night. The Eerie Pubs had the same effect on me. Those grisly covers, my imagination told me, illustrated the secret world of monsters and graveyards, torture chambers and ghastly laboratories. This was the sort of thing that went on in churchyards by night—Frankensteins and zombies, werewolves and vampires, ghouls and mad doctors, all cavorting about dismembering each other and violating graves and stitching things together that were never meant to walk or be seen by sane eyes. I was a highly imaginative kid. But these were the worlds that I thought existed through some eldritch mist after sundown.

If you haven’t read these, you should. For a cheap and garish thrill, nothing beats ‘em. These days, the issues go for a high price on Ebay. Ten years ago I picked up a near-complete set of Tales of Voodoo on Ebay for sixty bucks. These days you’d be lucky to get four of five issues for that price. But no need to despair or empty your wallet because of the Ebay scalpers, there is an alternative. Scanned comics that you read on your computer. Several sellers offer sets of Eerie Pubs out on
www.ioffer.com and the one I bought also has a huge selection of Skywalds and even oddities like Stanley’s Ghoul Tales on it. For under twenty bucks you can have a nearly complete collection of Eerie Pubs and this without going in hawk or damaging your very collectible paper issues.

The complete story of Eerie Pubs will soon be told by Mike Howlett in his upcoming book The Weird World of Eerie Publications. Join his Facebook group, become a fan:


In closing, I can only say that nothing so completely twisted-up my young mind as these magazines. And if I write horror stories these days, I tend to track it all to a single source. Because ever since finding that copy of Horror Tales, I have never, ever been the same again.

Monday, March 29, 2010

3-D Reality Check

With the release of Avatar, we are currently poised on a major outbreak of one of Hollywood’s oldest gimmicks: 3-D. Will it work? Will it fall flat on its face? Only time will tell. It made for a nice fad back in the 1950’s when you could catch genre favorites like House of Wax, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and It Came from Outer Space in three-dimensions, not to mention various Three Stooges shorts and “classics” like Bwana Devil. All you had to do then—as now—is wear a pair of those goony glasses and you were off into a theatrical land of enchantment where monsters jumped into your lap and knives flew in your face. The decline of 3-D in the ‘50’s was due mostly to the technology of the dual-strip format wherein two prints of the film had to be shown simultaneously to achieve the 3-D effect. If either print lost synchronization with the other, the result was unwatchable. Monetarily, the movies themselves were fairly successful, but the upkeep of the films, the repair and replacement costs, finally killed the first wave of 3-D.

Fast-forward to the present. With the success of Avatar and James Cameron’s unceasing efforts on the behalf of 3-D filmmaking, companies like Pixar and Dreamworks have announced that ALL their upcoming features will be shot in 3-D. A lot of Hollywood insiders are watching this announcement nervously and with good reason: only about 2500 of the country’s 38,000 screens have 3-D capability, something which is forcing makers of 3-D films into a war of competition as to whose films will get screen time and whose will be left writhing in the dirt like sun-struck worms…in other words, whose will make zero profit.

Back to James Cameron. Even before the release of Avatar, he was haunting trade shows and fan conventions, pushing theater owners and chains for 3-D conversion. Recently, at the National Broadcasters’ Digital Summit he addressed the harsh reality of steadily declining box office profits, saying the following: “We're in a fight for survival here…Digital 3-D is a revolutionary form of showmanship that is within our grasp. It can get people off their butts and away from their portable devices and get people back in the theaters where they belong.” Back where we belong. Oh boy. One gets the impression that Mr. Cameron does not have the greatest amount of respect for his audience. Maybe we should know our place. And our place is to fill the greedy coffers of a bloated, reeling Hollywood machine.

The reality. In tough economic times, theater owners are having a hard pull just like everyone else. Some people say declining box office receipts are simply due to the economic downturn and others are saying it's ample evidence that Hollywood’s output is scraping bottom, that creatively, tinsel town is in a major depression. Maybe it’s a little bit of everything. James Cameron seems to feel that 3-D is a giant Band-Aid that will heal all wounds and cover all unsightly abrasions and get us all back in the theaters where we belong so we can support the fat corporate monster of Hollywood which can barely contain the seams of its own pants. Well, that’s all and fine. Maybe he’s right. But here’s the reality. The majority of screens in the country—38,000 again—are 2-D, 35 mm. The cost to convert from 35mm projectors to a 3-D digital system is somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000 per screen—this doesn’t take in the cost of 3-D glasses which are not cheap—which is a pretty significant amount of money and especially when times are tough. Probably pocket change to Mr. Cameron, but serious green to struggling theater owners and managers. And particularly when they say that they make roughly zero profit from the movies themselves and rely almost totally on concession sales to grease their wheels. $100,000 is a lot of popcorn.

Let’s also keep in mind that 3-D has reared its head more than once since the 1950’s. Remember the 1980’s 3-D wave? Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D, Friday the Thirteenth Part 3, 3-D. Of course this particular “wave” was really just an attempt by Hollywood to breathe a bit of life into various tired franchises. Did it work? No. Not really. Will it this time around? Probably not.

Back to the 1950’s. The rise of TV, of course, hurt the theaters. It was much cheaper to stay home and watch your own screen than to drag the whole family out to the local movie house. Because even back then, it was not cheap. And today, to take a family of four to the movies means a major expenditure. Not something a lot of people can afford with any regularity. I recently read two very disturbing things. The first was that Mike Myers was paid something like $100,000 per minute for his voicing of the new Shrek movie and the second was that Will Farrell was paid $30 million per project. And we’re talking Mike Myers and Will Farrell here, not Johnny Depp or George Clooney. I shudder to think what the price tags of these guys might be. Let alone what it must cost to bring James Cameron on board for a project. And in my blue collar, working class thinking, paying anybody that much money for anything less than curing cancer is ridiculous. Nobody and I mean NOBODY is worth $30 million bucks or a $100,000 per minute to play pretend. With a bottomless money pit like this in operation it’s no wonder that profits are falling and the industry is having trouble recouping their original outlay. It’s insane. Absolutely insane. I have to wonder if Hollywood is ever going to pay any attention to movies like Paranormal Activity or Precious, both which were made on nominal budgets and scored huge box office profits…and neither required the debatable high-priced talents of Mike Myers or Will Farrell.

With that in mind, here’s my idea to end Hollywood’s financial woes: quit paying these people so much. Make films cheaper, give them realistic budgets. Pay your actors a million or two, but absolutely no more. And that goes for directors, too. They won’t work for less? Not at first they won’t, but if they find that the silver spoon has been yanked from their mouth and will not return, they’ll get hungry and they’ll come knocking on your door. Besides, a great many A-list actors regularly make indie films because it’s the only place they can get a decent script. So drive down the costs and that should drive down the ticket prices. Hence, more people will go to the movies. It’s simple common sense. And 3-D? It’s not the cure-all for anything. It’s fun…but you can’t do everything in 3-D. It’s a fun gimmick for sci-fi extravaganzas, fantasy films, action and horror. But it’s not going to do a thing for dramas. In the end, people are going to get tired of those glasses and this fad will fall as it has before.

That’s my take on it all, of course. According to a certain prominent director quoted in Entertainment Weekly, most people do not understand the Hollywood system at all, that the target audience for 80% of movies made these days is fifteen-year old boys. Apparently, they tend to be repeat viewers going to the same movie again and again, and they have more disposable income than us old people. Well, at least that explains trash like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and yet another tepid Saw sequel. If that’s Hollywood’s target audience, I’m completely out of the marketing loop and it explains perfectly why I only go to the movies three or four times a year…if that.

Now it’s true that I don’t understand the “business” of making movies, but, on the other hand, I do understand common sense and I firmly believe that Hollywood doesn’t have a clue what that even is anymore. If James Cameron really wants to get us back in the theaters, then how about some fiscal responsibility? With the whole country suffering economic woes and lay-offs, it’s high time to cut the fat. 3-D will not preserve the lumbering, bloated monster of Hollywood excess, it’ll only make it fall that much faster and that much harder. Time to start trimming. Really, it won’t hurt. The rest of us do it every day.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

All Right, I've Had it with TWILIGHT Fans!

Last week, out on Stewart Sternberg's blog, The House of Sternberg, Stewart reported the following chilling news:

"Most recently the absurdity of extremes in marking literature and film was succinctly rendered by a young woman who complained on a blog about the most recent version of "The Wolfman" (based on the screenplay by Curt Siodmak, penned in 1941). She was irate because the monster was hideous and not the sort of beautiful wolf that she associated with "Twilight". She was also offended because the monster was able to be killed with a single silver bullet. Who ever heard of such a thing??!! And for her, the entire film was nothing more than a rip-off of Stephanie Meyers."

May Lon Chaney, Jr. roll over in his f**cking grave!

What's with these Twilight monkeyskulls? No offense to Stephanie Meyers--wish I had her royalties--but the Twilight series is NOT horror, it's romantic fantasy. Any story, novel movie, comic book etc. that presents vampires or werewolves or what have you as romantic or erotic figures is romance, NOT HORROR. Period.

Horror, REAL, horror is not about how cute or sexy or fashionable supernatural creatures are, but how dangerous, scary, and simply awful they are. That's the catharsis of horror fiction/movies/scary stories told around the fire--damn, that's what it's like to have a zombie eat your guts or have your daughter possessed by a demon or have a vampire tear out your throat and bathe in your blood...death by proxy. No matter how shitty your life is going, you can watch or read horror and say, hey, maybe I lost my job and my girl dumped my sorry ass but at least there's not an alien parasite face-sucking me.

When Universal started putting out horror/monster movies in the early 1930's, it was at the height of the depression and people needed escapism. Frankenstein, Dracula, and the rest took people away from the despair and horror of their daily lives. And when Universal did The Wolfman in 1941, another European war was looming and the Japanese were eating up the Pacific. Again, escapism from REAL horrors lurking just around the corner.

I wish this blogger would set down her candyass Twilight novels long enough to see the forest through the trees.

Am I ranting? Goddamn, yes, I am.

I realize this blogger is just a kid and I shouldn't take what she says very seriously, but it's things like this that really irk horror fans like me. When Universal first made The Wolfman with Lon Chaney, Jr., and then remade it recently with Benicio Del Toro, I'm pretty sure the point wasn't to make a werewolf that was cute and sexy with impeccable fashion sense so all the little pubescent girls in the audience would swoon and say, Oh, Lawrence Talbot is simply dreamy, I wish he'd move to my town and be my crush. No, I'm pretty sure that as much as the wolfman/Talbot was to be pitied, he was also something to be feared because he would EAT you.
And, given the economic woes of this country, I think escapism definitely factors in once again.

Okay, we've straightened out that part.

Now...The Wolfman is a rip-off of Stephanie Myers??? Okay, this really makes my blood boil. I really hate uninformed people and this anonymous blogger--thank God I don't know her name or I'd be forced to produce something unpleasant and leave it burning on her doorstep--is really the tops. Yes, yes, I know, she's just a kid. But things like that are very insulting to guys like me who grew up watching Chaney do his bit and are very intrigued to see what Del Toro can do.

To this uninformed, ignorant, lovestruck little airhead of a blogger, I say: Shame on you, little girl! Shame on you!

To Del Toro I say: I hope your wolfman is perfectly scary and perfectly revolting in every way.

And to Stephanie Meyers: Please, Steph, now that you've taken away the self-respect werewolves and vampires once had--or at least what they had LEFT after Anne Rice and Laurell K. Hamilton--do us old horror fans a favor and please just leave The Frankenstein Monster, The Mummy, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon alone. I've no doubt that you're even now penning a zombie romance that will positively make horny/confused/silly teenage girls positively swoon with desire, but leave the other old monsters alone. All they have now is their respect. Don't take it away from them.

And to Stewart Sternberg: Sorry for stealing your thread, man.