Monday, October 31, 2011

Big Night and Not so Big Night

And so finally it arrived.  Now we had planned for a big Halloween bonfire, as is our tradition, for Saturday the 29th...but it rained on Friday night and Saturday morning and everything was wet and muddy.  So we had to postpone it.
Halloween night we decided to do something a little different.  Rather than sit at home, watching horror movies and getting maybe 6 trick or treaters the entire evening, we headed over the Frau Punkinstein's parents' house to hand out candy and scare children witless.

Here is Frau Punkinstein prior to leaving Punkinhaus.  She is a punk kitty.

Here I am, haunting her parents' house in my modified bedsheet ghost costume.  I've wanted to do a ghost for some time, but I am afraid that I am allergic to make-up and a good ghost is hard to do, I think.  I wanted a basic bedsheet ghost but it needed some more punch, so I procured this "Skull the Unexpected" mask from a Halloween store and these nifty super long boney gloves.  Apparently I scared some kids.  This is good, they need that in their young lives (see Hauntings Scarred Me for Life, previously posted on this blog for details why).

The pair of us ham it up.

The front lawn, wet with rain.  The Jack O'Lanterns glow as the rain falls past Frau's camera.  You can tell it was Frau Punkinstein that took the picture, as it is in focus, looks clear and is lit properly.  We've all seen my efforts in this arena.  The night was not yet over, as after returning home we put in Trick r Treat and spent an evening with my hero (and yours, I'm sure) Sam.

Enjoy this small, well-shot video clip of Frau Punkinstein approaching the front porch, POV.
It's still before midnight and officially this goes on until dawn, so please, for your own sake...keep your pumpkins lit.

Happy Halloween

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sympathetic Monsters Need Not Apply

There is something about a slasher film that makes it special.  I name that something as the lack of a sympathetic villain.

Older horror movies, or Monster Movies, if you prefer, seemed to favor a sympathetic monster as the villain.  The thing that eventually tied all the Universal Frankenstein pictures together was the Monster, not the creator.  It did not matter if the actor in the makeup was not the same, it was the Frankenstein Monster that people came to see.  The Gillman from The Creature From the Black Lagoon made a total of 3 films, all tied together by the Creature (Gillman) because audiences could identify with the monster.  Film monsters are often either sympathetic, in the case of Chaney's Wolf Man or Karloff's Frankenstein Monster or fulfill some fantastic desire, such as vampires seem to have become since the Victorians made them sexy.  In fact this very point is put forth in the film Nightbreed by the character Rachel, explaining to Lori that humans seek to destroy the Breed, but we really envy them as when we dream we dream of flying, shapeshifting, or living forever.  Sympathetic monsters, Mr. Barker you did not invent them, but you certainly did a great job of making them simultaneously sympathetic and badass.

Nightbreed is, in fact, a good example of my first point concerning slasher films.  As part of his grand point, Mr. Barker's villain in Nightbreed, aside from the prejudice of humanity, which is in no way subtly used, is the psychotic psychiatrist Decker.
Seriously, how does he see?  See how scary that shit is?  It's like the mask sees 'for him'...
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, zilch, zip, nada, 0.00%, S.F.A. sympathetic about Dr. Phillip Decker.  He kills, he blames others, he is driven by sick needs we are not supposed to admire, understand or accept.
That's great.  Truly.
The slasher genre features psycho killers, which are by their very natures not sympathetic.  By employing such monsters we are faced with truly terrifying beings.  Once, perhaps, that would have been the role of demons or things from beyond space that man was not meant to know, but since the late 1970s it has been the slasher-killer who fulfills that role.  What makes them so scary?

They have no conscience, no feelings of concern or remorse and a moral compass that, if not missing, is not capable of pointing north.  We may be able to fathom, to some degree or another, the motivations of 'normal' or 'classic' monsters, but the motivations of the sociopathic madman are (or should be) a mystery to us.  Dracula seeks blood to prolong his life, the Wolf Man is driven to kill by his bestial nature, the Mummy and the Gillman seek love, but what does the slasher seek?  To kill, pure and simple.  Some screenwriters and directors have tried to provide plausible motivations for this lust for killing, such as revenge, unrequited love, or mental handicap (not the most popular of reasons due to its decidedly non-p.c. nature).  Sometimes the explanation is just a simple, "He's crazy" and that's that.  Whatever the reason, a good slasher villain is not a sympathetic monster who can win our hearts and make us feel for them.  A good slasher villain inspires in us fear, or awe, or occasionally admiration for their talents (that is just sick), but never sympathy.  I have seen portrayals of slashers that seem sympathetic, such as a film where the killer was wronged in the past and has come to reestablish order in the universe by punishing those who tormented him in the past, but those are not so much sympathetic monsters as they are justified escapist monsters.  What differentiates the avenging slasher from the sympathetic monster is that the slasher does not apologize for what he is.
Ah, the key to the lock.  Look at these two and note the difference: The one on the left does not apologize for his evil or monstrosity, the one on the right is tortured by it.
I keep this picture in my wallet
This is not a confession of admiration, mind you.  When I watch the Carpenter classic Halloween I am not rooting for Mikey Myers in his shocking white Shatner mask.  I am rooting for Dr. Sam Loomis, with his rumpled brown suit and raincoat, sporting a hand cannon and nearly raving to the authorities about "the blackest eyes...the Devil's eyes".  I don't watch Friday the 13th films and root for Jason...wait, I tell a lie, depending on the film I don't root for Jason.  Sometimes those annoying kids NEED to die.
I defy you to watch this film and not want to kill every one of these annoying gits
Since the villain is the franchise in a slasher series it is clear that the fans are tuning in to see the killer at work.  Fans compete over which villain is better and many a single-shot, throwaway villain has come and gone, leaving a very few stars for lack of a better word.  Eventually the fans hunger for information on these villain-heroes of the horror world and back stories are developed, which always threatens to ruin the best part of the villain: his total lack of sympathy.  If films are meant to be cathartic escapist fantasy, the slasher film allows us to either feel the thrill of the final girl as she runs for her life, avoiding death time and again to finally defeat the slasher killer or watch him fall to his own evil until such time as a sequel can bring him back to kill again, or it allows us to take perverse delight in vicariously experiencing the work of the killer.  Lest this seem unhealthy, I should also point out that many of the victims are thoroughly unlikable people with bad habits who probably deserve their grisly fates.
I mean, umm...look, a singing crustacean!
Unda da sea, unda da sea, I'm a distraction, so you don't notice, de Punk is kra-zee.
For anyone who enjoys the gruesome fun of old pre-code horror comics or The Cryptkeeper, the slasher film is a natural fit.  People do stupid things, often unsavory people at that, and meet a (un)timely death at the hands of a visceral killing machine.  It's karmic and it requires little to no explanation.  It's better when the killer doesn't explain his actions, letting them do the talking.  I must stress, however, that the killer is not some righteous tool of parental disapproval seeking to destroy the unrighteous.  As has been stated time and again, the stoned, drunk, INATTENTIVE youth are killed in flagrante delicto precisely because they are inattentive and thus easily caught and dispatched.  The attentive, skilled, or aware character has an improved chance of survival.  At least that is the way it used to be when a final girl really was a final girl and had the scars to prove it.
Just a few of the tortured women who made it all possible for the modern survivors to keep their hair and lipstick perfect while being chased by a psycho killer.  Sisters, we will never forget you.
Because the slasher does not question his motives, actions or even reveal his reasons, he is a true monster, unapologetic, unforgiving, unforgiven and unimpressed by your psychology or your need for an explanation for his actions.  Begging a slasher for mercy is like begging the shark from Jaws for mercy; he just doesn't understand the concept.  This is not so say that the sympathetic or classic monsters are not good too, because they are, but there is something refreshing about not having to question a character's motivations.  Slashers kill, that's what they do.  It is the raison d'etre of the slasher and the slasher film and that is what makes it different from the supernatural and classic monsters.
Monsters sans sympathy...until next time, keep your pumpkins lit.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I have had enough of the crazy zombie bastards

Are zombies the new vampires?
Is so, then f%*# 'em.  With a chainsaw.  Up a tree. Backwards.

I used to like zombie movies, zombie comics, and zombie games quite a bit.  Zombies were the ultimate monster to me because you could destroy them with absolutely NO remorse.  At all.  Hell, it might even be better because they are so disgusting.
Now with your free-willed, intelligent monsters you always run the risk of them talking you to death.  Vampires always want to justify their existence and shite.
Sod 'em all.  I got a stake that needs justifying, mate.

But zombies were different.  They hobbled around and moaned a bit and you could enjoy shooting them and chopping them up and just, you know, destroying them with absolute moral conviction in the rightness of your cause.  All was right with the world.

But then the bastards became POPULAR.  I mean, prom queen popular.  Suddenly everybody with a half-assed zombie book is getting a publishing deal and just as suddenly everybody is a bloody zombie expert.

Oh, my weapon of choice?  I'd use a basket hilt backsword, it has wonderful chopping action and protects your hand.

Oh that's just foolish, you'd need a smoother blade to prevent it getting stuck in bone.


Piss off.
Zombies are now getting the "vampire treatment" which means that "scholars" are trying to make them some ancient concept.  So when you watch the zombie documentaries you see the ancient monsters that the "scholars" were calling vampires five years ago, but now they are proto-zombies.  Well, they are not.  A draugr is a draugr.  Like how a camel is not a ship, no matter how many metaphors you apply to it.

What I really hate.  I mean HATE with the very marrow that runs through my non-zombie bones and produces the non-zombie blood cells that power my non-zombie body is this whole zombie virus fad.  Are we that scientifically inept?  Are we that unwilling to admit our desire for a magical world that we would talk about zombies as a virus?  The whole bit with the eating people and the viruses and the shambling and is so done.

Now Return of the Living moving, indestructible zombies fighting punks.  What a film.  A perfect film for the 80s.  Even better is that the only way to become a living dead is to be exposed to the 245 Trioxin.  None of this, "Oh, I've been bitten don't let me become one...of...those..........THINGS!".  Slap her.  Yes, I know she's a he, but slap it anyway.  Histrionic loony.
See, I've watched Night of the Living Dead about 16.4 million times and nothing, and I mean, NOTHING in the movie says or even suggests that a zombie bite creates another zombie.  All the recently deceased, UNBURIED (very important point that) dead came back to life.  That little girl in the basement was going to come back because all the dead were coming back, the bite was just part of the wounds that killed her.  Johnny came back to attack at the end and his death was due to head trauma.  HEAD TRAUMA.
So it was really Dawn of the Dead and other films that started this mess.
But now everyone thinks they know everything about zombies, and that's bollocks.  Go watch Return of the Living Dead and tell me again how much you know about zombies.

Here is a picture of a skeletal undead pirate because that is not a zombie but that is BADASS personified.

Keep your pumpkins lit.

Friday, October 28, 2011


I've sort of done this one before.  A few years back, in another blog, I spoke of my love for this astoundingly wonderful game.
I'm gonna do it again.
THIS image, the box cover of the Genesis edition is WHY I BOUGHT THE GAME.  Is that not the sweetest cover?  It says everything you need to know.  This game comes with everything but tongue-in-cheek, you supply that, mate.
First the official stuff- Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a 3rd person, top-down, run-and-gun style video game released in 1993 by Konami.  It was developed by LucasArts.  The game was pre-ESRB and as a result was censored in Europe and in the SNES version because Nintendo has no problem whatsoever with human bondage by reptiles, abuse of fungi, or allowing elves to smash up people's crockery and shrubs to steal their jewels, but for the love of Gort don't have any of that filthy BLOOD, it sends a bad message.

Now the personal stuff- I love this game.  This game is one of those things that manages to hit on several subjects I like, including campy, Z-Grade, drive-in double feature style monster movies.  There is a definite vibe going on that is inspired by sci-fi, horror and monster movies and comics from the 50s through the 80s.
These Chainsaw Guys are pretty tough.  I usually just freeze them and run because I have seen enough movies to know you don't get into a melee with the crazy
There is an example of an 80's moment.  Hockey masked chainsaw killer.  They first appear in a level titled "Chainsaw Hedgemaze Mayhem".  Retro level titling is one of the many great things about the game.  Let's list a few:
1. The Titles.  The levels are titled and themed like classic horror movies with such classics as "Evening of the Undead" (that's the first level), "Chainsaw Hedgemaze Mayhem", "Invasion of the Snakeoids" and the ever popular "Mars Needs Cheerleaders".  When the game is called "Zombies Ate My Neighbors" you should expect no less from the levels.
2. The Monsters.  Despite the name of the game there are so many more monsters than simple zombies with which to deal, although there are plenty of those as well.  The monsters are clearly inspired by sci-fi and monster movies and include zombies, werewolves, blobs, plants/pods, pod people (clones of the players), chainsaw killers, killer dolls, giant ants, fishmen, mummies, heck, even martians and football players.  Some monsters are easily dispatched by specific weapons while being resistant to others, which adds to the fun/difficulty of the game.
3. The weapons.  Any game that is called 'run and gun' by a reviewer must, by necessity, have some sort of weapons, right?  Of course, and ZAMN has plenty.  The default weapon your character has is a water gun, in keeping with the general zany theme of the game, but alternate weapons are found readily and include fire extinguishers (good for killing blobs or freezing other foes to temporarily stop them in their tracks), silverware (good for werewolves), tomatoes (Martians hate these for some reason), soda cans (shake and chuck like a grenade), a bazooka, a weed whacker and a few more.  Each weapon has its own damage, special features and such (bazookas open doors and breakable walls) and come in limited supplies.
4. The Music.  From the creepy tones playing at the opening screen

to the sing-song taunting melody playing while running from killer dolls, the music is a simple but enjoyable aspect of the game.
5. The Story.  A simple story, a little ditty, if you will, about Zeke and Julie.
3-D glasses?  Yep, that's all part of Zeke's charm.  Julie, on the other hand, doesn't quite look like a youth, does she?  Kinda looks like a 40 year old woman who is trying DESPERATELY to look like a high school girl.   Kinda looks like Peg Bundy now that I look at it closer.  
Yes, that's them, right up there, in all their 16-bit glory.  These guys are on a quest to save their neighbors, find the villain, Dr. Tongue, and put an end to all this monster business.  Actually, I get the distinct impression that Zeke wouldn't care one way or another if they stopped all this monster business.  He looks like the kind of guy that not only has a plan for the zombie apocalypse, but is LOOKING FORWARD TO IT.  Or maybe I'm projecting.  Okay, I'm talking about me now, I admit it.
6. The Fun/Challenge.  ZAMN was released in 1993, back when video games were actually challenging.  Modern games are often difficult, which is not to say they are challenging.  Back in the 8-bit era the NES games were often hard because they were hard to play.  I don't mean that they were challenging or anything, I mean that they were just bloody hard.  A good example of this was Zanac, a 1986 game where the player pilots a spaceship against a never ending wave of enemy fighters.  The game touted an artificial intelligence that adjusted the game's enemy patterns and output based upon the players tactics and skill.  Or, if you prefer, the better you played the harder the game became.  This was a common tactic in the old days, along with pixel abuse (what, I have to stand just a R.C.H. off the edge of the platform in order to make the jump?) and puzzle solutions no living person would ever think to try (equip what and kneel where again?).  By comparison modern games often have so many control options and buttons that not only do they have a 'tutorial' level, but often provide a perpetual tutorial to remind the player how to play whenever a "special" move is needed.  This is difficulty without challenge.  Difficulty with challenge is trying to complete a game with only 2-4 damn buttons or by typing in sentences of no more than 4 sodding words.  ZAMN has a simple control scheme, a simple mechanic, and a manic pace.  All of this equates to a challenging, fun, bloody, good time.
Peg Bundy, a strange meteorite, deadly plants and a hapless soldier...just some of the fun you can have in ZAMN
Summing Up: You have many choices for your gaming pleasure during Halloween if you are trying to play a theme-game.  You could play any of the Resident Evil games, or maybe fire up an emulator and play Atari's Haunted House (now updated for the Wii), or you could play one of the many Castlevania games on the market.  That doesn't even begin to the scratch the surface of the horror and monster games that make a good Halloween season gaming choice.  I recommend ZAMN if you have a Sega Genesis lying about and the means to acquire it.  If you have a Wii you could download it on your virtual console, but I am afraid that the Wii edition is the compromised (read censored) SNES version of the game.  Still a good game, but it disappoints me so to think that something as innocent and fun as a Genesis B-Movie game would be censored and disappoints me even more that the Wii edition couldn't be given an "uncut" upgrade in this more enlightened day and age.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors a classic game that appeals to me on many, many levels.  An action adventure game that manages to be action packed and the MST3K of video games at the same time.  Ed Wood would be proud.
I give it:
That's right baby, 4 Eds and a DIO!

Out of a possible 4 Ed Woods.

Until next time, keep your water guns full and your pumpkins lit.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shamelessly cross-promoting

Halloween Iconography: the Vampire

DISCLAIMER: Unfortunately this post may be marred by a few puns.  This is unavoidable given elements of both my speech and writing patterns.  In order to avoid having to stop and say "Pardon the pun" or "pun intended" all the time, let's just take it as red, yeah?  For my part I promise not to say anything really tacky like "Fangs for reading" or "Fang-tastic!"  That would most likely make me, and you, vomit in our own mouths.
I suppose I had to do this eventually, as much as it pains me to do so.
I hate vampires.  I really do.  I want to not hate vampires, but the more I try not to do the more I do.  I think the problem isn't the concept of vampires so much as it is the annoying vampire fans that make me hate the vampires.  No matter how much I hate vampires, however, they are a part of the Halloween Monster Set, so I have to give them their due.
If I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it right, by golly.
Vampires are undead monsters that drink the blood of the living.  Probably.  See, it is really hard to say just what a vampire is anymore.  It is hard to say what one is historically, since so much scholarship is bogged down by pet theories and attempts to make something far older and more developed than it ever was.
We can say that blood drinking demonic entities of some form or another have existed since before written history.  We can also say that such are not vampires.  Much like the Chinese Hopping Ghost is not a vampire or a zombie, but gets described as such, it is far too easy to equate a cultural bogeyman from one culture with the cultural bogeyman of some other culture on the flimsiest of evidence.  I mean, mosquitoes drink blood, we don't call them vampires.
I've digressed.
Okay, let's start again...
The vampire is a popular horror monster running the gamut from extremely ugly monster to inhumanly sexy and attractive seductress of death, and has a veritable lunchbox of powers ranging from simple enhanced strength and immortality to the full Superman set with shapeshifting, mesmerism, flight, and maybe laser eye-beams.  The most commonly accepted set of vampire characteristics are as follows:
1. Immortal
2. Mind-control
3. Super fast
4. Super strong
5. Drinks blood
6. Burns up in sunlight
7. Aversion to holy icons
Any given work of fiction will, invariably, find a way to make its vampires "unique".  This is quite alright really as vampire fiction has been making the monster "unique" since it first became a viable commercial possibility.  Varney the Vampire had different powers than Dracula.  Both V and D were fully capable of walking in the sunlight, I should point out.  Vampires are clearly Halloween icons because they are spooky.  They are part of the undead crowd and as Halloween is about the time when the worlds conjoin and the dead walk among the living, it seems natural to associate vampires with the event.  When we think of a classic Halloween vampire, especially as a marketing ploy, we are probably thinking of Dracula as portrayed by Bela Lugosi.
Awww, so cute, where's my special little stake?
Opera cloak, widow's peak, maybe some is an iconic bit of visual shorthand, easily recognized when slapped on a package or worn as a costume.
Sure as hell looks like a Draclia to me!

Prior to John Polidori's "The Vampyre" in 1819, vampires were peasants.  There, I've said it, so all you Queen of Diggity Damned guys can fume a bit, but you will have to accept it.  This aristocratic vampire bullshit is just that, bullshit.  Vampirism was a condition restricted to the poor classes.  This was because vampirism arose from conditions of disease, poor health and improper burial practices.  The wealthy (nobles, for example) did not suffer from these problems.  Now the Wikipedia will tell you that notions of creatures that existed by feeding off of life energies, such as blood, are beyond ancient, but dammit we have to draw a line somewhere in making these definitions.  Here is my line: if a culture has yet to conceive of an afterlife then it cannot have undead and just using demonic spirits in general is too broad.  Got it?  Good.
So as I have noted, vampires come from the poor, rural classes.  This is important to note.  Cities were known for poor sanitation and packed living conditions.  A disease or plague would spread easily through the poorly ventilated streets.  People did not immediately cry "Upir!" when someone died.  In the rural areas where an entire village was serviced by a single churchyard and death (and subsequent burial) was far more personal, we find reports of vampires.  It seems only logical if we consider that living in an urban area you are not likely to be allowed to dig up the graves of the deceased to check for signs of undeath.  In a small community not only were such practices suffered to occur, they were positively indulged.  A typical comparison case would work as follows:
An individual, say a father, dies.  His body is turned over to a mortician if the family is moderately middle class, or kept at the home if they are poor.  For burial it must be taken to a churchyard or a graveyard if the city is large enough.  If very poor the corpse will be put in a pauper's grave or communal grave, left uncovered and dusted with quicklime (to speed up decomposition of the soft tissues) until the grave is filled.  It was common practice to unearth graves after several years (7 is a good number), remove the bones, clean them and place them in ossuaries.  Ground space recycling, man were our ancestors green or what?  If a close family member then fell ill suspicion fell not upon the deceased father, but rather on crap living conditions.  Things are tough all over, Osrick.  Since going to the public cemetery to exhume the corpse was not a realistic possibility, vampires just weren't on the menu of explanations for the "sudden" sickness of the family members.
An individual, say a father, dies.  His family cleans the body, sews a burial shroud, the church sexton (if it has one) digs a grave.  After the wake and visitations the body is interred.  Shortly thereafter the family members become sick.  Clearly the spirit of the dead father has come to haunt the living, as no one else in the village is sick.  Despite the fresher air and cleaner living conditions the family is getting sick and wasting away.  Could it be a lack of knowledge about communicable diseases?  Well, to be sure we should dig up the father's corpse and check to see if it is decomposing properly.  Of course we aren't experts on decomposition, so when the village priest agrees to the exhumation and we publicly dig up the corpse of the father and find him uncorrupted (not likely, but again we are not experts) and swollen with blood, his nails and hair having grown!  A strigoi!  An upir!  A vampire!  Now that we have seen this "evidence" we need look no further for our explanations and can begin the process of ridding our village of the threat.

If we lived in an urban area we'd not have vampire problems.  We'd have sanitation, employment, scurvy and rickets problems, but not vampire problems.  We'd also more easily accept the passing of someone as we would be moving farther and farther away from the intimate rural lifestyle.  Despite these ignoble origins, vampires captured the imaginations of the inhabitants of the English speaking world, as evidenced by the publication of Polidori's story, the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, and Stoker's Dracula.  Although vampire stories are rarely set at Halloween, or exclusively so, they are monsters and therefore  part of the whole Halloween package.  When we look at Halloween costumes we see a wide array of choices, including the cheap (in quality, price or both), the classic and the popular.  The popular costumes each year will reflect a certain amount of media influence.  That is to say that top grossing movies that can produce costumes (like Pirates of the Caribbean or Twilight) will and those will be popular in the Halloween following their debut (Iron Men and Spider-Men and Hulks abound, and a Harry Potter or Voldemort is never far behind).  The classics include ghosts, Frankenstein's monsters, werewolves and "Dracula's".  Vampires are a perennial favorite and come in many varieties and the influences of pop culture will always be present.  As such they can look like any of the examples below:
Number 3 turn to the right please and read the card.  "Bitch better have my money, yo."  Thank you number 3, back in  line.
See how they are so varied but all still vampires?  What is really required for a vampire?
Fangs?  Optional actually.
Undead?  Pretty much, but the idea of "living vampires" exists in Slavic peoples.
Sleep in a coffin?  See "Undead" above.
Turn into bats? Optional.
Drink blood?  Basically, yeah, but it doesn't have to be drinking blood.
Burn up in the sunlight?  Not originally, not in Dracula even, but post-Dracula yes, usually.
I could keep going, but the gist of it is that there are many accepted vampire traits and you can use any of them or discard them as you like.  With so much variation it is no wonder that modern "scholars" feel justified in "tracing" the "origin" of the vampire back to Ancient Egypt and before, even though such evidence either does not exist or has been "found" by liberal research practices.  The name is very young, probably of Slavic origin, maybe through Greek, and the concept is not much older.  Certainly demons, some that drink blood, others that destroy life, have existed for as long as man has conceived of death, but this does not make them vampires.
The popularity of vampires is such that they have made the transition from monster to hero, in a manner of speaking.  There are superhero vampires, sexy vampires and morally ambiguous vampire protagonists who are iconoclastic individualists who nevertheless manage to win over the hearts of otherwise normal but poetically justified social outcasts.  We could write a book, nay volumes about bloody vampires, but I've only so much space or interest personally, so let's wrap up by saying that vampires are as much a part of the modern Halloween setting as Jack O Lanterns, witches, bedsheet ghosts and trick 'r treating.  Whether they are silly fun:

Teenage fantasy whiner:

Or classic Lugosi

They remain a popular image in art, decorations and costumes for the Halloween season.  Sometimes it's cheapass (a 'costume' from the drug store consisting of a plastic Dracula medallion and some fake blood) and other times it is elaborate and expensive made of crushed velvet and leather, but no matter what, the vampire has been a popular choice since at least the mid 20th century and will likely remain so for a long time to come.

There, that wasn't so hard, now was it.  Bloody vampires.

Until next time, keep those pumpkins lit...and some garlic handy as well.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October 1987

I was staying with Aldo that weekend, my parents gone on some trip that did not require my presence.  The Creels were close friends of my family.  I had spent two years of my life, every afternoon on school days, with them.  Mrs. Creel was like a second mother to me, and Aldo was that older brother figure.  Only six months separated our birthdays, but Aldo was a year ahead of me in school.  At turns he was my protector and my tormenter. 
On this occasion there was a fair being held in an open field a few miles from Aldo’s house.  As fairs go it was small; a few rides, some games of chance and a snack cart selling sausages, cotton candy and corn dogs made up the meager offerings.  It was our habit to take walks in the afternoon.  We’d often walk to a local convenience store for a soda and candy; a walk of some 8 miles round trip.  It was exercise of a sort, but more importantly it was a time to be away from the house.  Regardless what snacks were at hand in the house, the walk was made under the pretext that we needed Raisenettes. 

With nothing worth watching on television and the restlessness of very early teens Aldo decided we should walk to the fair.  As usual, I agreed.  We donned light jackets, as the October air was crisp.  Alabama weather is strange to those from more temperate states.  The summers are sweltering and humid.  Sweating does little to cool the body in the muggy Alabama summer.  Winters are cold and wet with snow coming in late February if it comes at all.  Mostly it rains in the winter.  It rains in the summer as well.  In Alabama, spring is often missed by the inhabitants; the climate seeming to blend from the cold, wet weather of winter into the hot, humid haze of summer.  Autumn is the best season.  The temperature is hot in the early months during the day and gradually turns into a pleasant coolness just before winter.  Autumn nights are the most magical time in the state.  An abundance of trees changing colors before giving up their last for the winter season gives the day a motley hue, but the nights have a power all their own.  The scent is the key.  Early autumn nights have a special scent that tells the people that the heat wave will break soon.  Soon air conditioners will be turned off for the rest of the year and windows will be thrown open to take full advantage of the cooling breezes.  There is a peculiar silence in the air on autumn nights.  The chirping of crickets, the buzzing of mosquitoes, all the myriad sounds of insect life die away to be replaced by the rustle of squirrels in the trees and across the leaf strewn ground.  As the season moves on into its height one can smell the chill in the air.  A person can sit quietly upon the back porch and enjoy the sunset, and with it comes that old familiar scent.  It is death.  It is decay.  The scent of a million leaves slowly dying mixed with the wood smoke from campfires and outdoor grills.  It is the most wonderful scent in the world and it belongs to the autumn nights of Alabama.

Out into that crisp October night we strode.  Halloween was only two weeks away and the feeling of it saturated the air.  There must be some primitive, instinctive knowledge that comes to the fore of our brains around that time.  Perhaps our instincts, those primal urges and truths we have civilized out of the species, still live deep within us.  At that time of year our human minds open to the oldest thoughts and feelings, triggered by those smells of the cold and decay, reminded by the sounds of the lesser creatures preparing themselves for the coming winter by hording food and stocking dens.  Whatever the cause, I found myself a little more introspective at that time of the season and perhaps a touch more superstitious.  So we walked and talked and laughed as young men do.  Telling one another lies meant to amuse and impress and speaking lightly of deeply held hopes and desires we walked the two miles to the temporary fair grounds.  Aldo was the more practical of us two, always instructing me when he thought I had missed the point or purpose of some esoteric concept.  I was the dreamer, always talking of what could be and what should be, never about what was.  In that way we were a good team, I suppose.  Aldo was decent at drawing, but lacked the soul of the artist.  I was the artist who never had time to practice the skills.  Aldo wanted to be a soldier.  He fancied a life in the Army or Air Force with the grand goal of sergeant.  Not for me.  I wanted a life of adventure and excitement, always hoping against all rationality that monsters and ghosts were real.  Not that I would know what to do if I actually saw one.  Like all young boys I was brave amongst my peers and a coward when alone.  Aldo talked and I listened.  He was always so serious, or so it seemed to me then.  He thought that I was not serious enough, citing my lack of common sense as inferior to his own superb command of conventional wisdom.  I don’t know if it was true, my lack of common sense, I assumed it was true as most people told me that I lacked that most important quality.  Yet I think it served me well, that lack.  It is not good to find yourself so early in life.  It leads to frustration at midlife, when our ancestors would be dying of old age.  In this age of longevity we need to be younger longer to guard against a midlife burnout at the too young age of 40. 

So we walked and talked and smelled the night air with its promises of Jack O Lanterns and ghouls, candy and toilet papered trees, leaf-strewn yards and mysticism.  Past houses lit with families at dinner and houses dark and alone we trudged.  Much of our path was lit by the comforting street lamps of a small town still a decade away from a McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, and only two decades removed from segregation and violence darker than any ghost or monster my child’s mind could conjure.  Shortly we found ourselves within hearing distance to the fair.  The music promised fun and excitement.  The smell of popcorn, sugar, pepper and onions caused my mouth to water and I quickened my pace.  Within minutes the lights of the miniature carnival could be seen against the treetops urging us onward until the fair itself was in sight.  Upon arrival we found a microcosm of a fair, but it was still a thrill for an October Saturday night when you were too young to drive.

I remember the rides being smaller than the usual, but we rode them anyway.  The food was as good as could be, though.  Popcorn and cotton candy eaten out of doors while walking around the small attraction somehow tasted better than it would have at home.  Standing at that fair ground I was reminded of my earliest memories of the Alabama State Fair.  In those bygone days the carnival sideshow existed and was a major attraction.  The horrible PC age would come to destroy that particular piece of Americana while I was still a youth and too young to realize what was being taken from me.  I had seen the sideshows when I visited my first State Fair at the tender age of 6.  My stepfather and mother took me to the fair and as was typical of my stepfather, no experience was to be missed.  A lesson I would not come to appreciate until I was a grown man was instilled into my subconscious at that young age: life is the sum of one’s experiences, one should never pass up an opportunity to experience new and wonderful things.  Only a child, I knew nothing about the nature of carnival.  I knew nothing of the deep-seated need that normal humanity has to see the bizarre and unnatural only to justify its own mediocre existence.  I was a babe in the woods on that night, seeing for the first time the giant Mexican rodent, the world’s smallest woman, the lizard boy, and countless other sights that have gone from the sanitized, prozac riddled landscape of an America I never made.  I would visit fairs many times as I grew, sometimes with Aldo in tow.  We had a hobby of visiting spookhouses on Halloween that we extended to the fairground spookhouses when possible.  Always Aldo’s idea, I should add.  No state or local fair I would visit after my first would ever again have the sideshows full of grotesque and wonderful freaks.  Naturally this small fair visiting my town for a week had no such sideshows, but it evoked the memories all the same.  I felt happy there, and that was a feeling I rarely felt in my life. 

We were barely adolescents and still some years from our requisite teen angst, but I can say that I was already in the throws of that hormonal malady even then.  Perhaps all people feel at some time that they need to find their niche.  I had moved to this town at the end of my third grade year and immediately found a world alien to me.  I was the outsider and it did not suit me.  Yet I had no desire to be like my fellows, only accepted by them.  I found neither.  It was strange at the time, but it looks different to me now.  Memory is a dynamic thing; it changes over time.  Our adult understanding, colored by our life’s experiences, realizes our memories in ways that we could not understand when the events occurred.  Looking back I remember that at that fair, on a chilly October night full of the scent of a world dying for the winter, the sounds of the fair and the wind in the trees, I felt as though I had a place in the world.  People I knew from school, people I knew to hold an intense dislike for me, walked past me and had no harsh words.  It seemed as though the fair allowed us all to forget our roles, to lose our sense of pecking orders and pack mentalities and just be individuals interacting.  The carnival, the spirit of abandon and sin, the traveling show that has no home and no place inside society, the tiny city of freaks and tramps that sets up on the outskirts of civilization felt like my place.  I know it is not real.  I know that the carnival is a show from the moment you pay your admission and enter the grounds.  Every person in the carnival is there to cater to your whims and petty desires, taking your money and leaving you feeling as though you wanted them to do so.  The multicolored spun sugar that is overpriced and yet seems a bargain to the reveler, the popped corn and hot dogs that could be purchased from the grocer for a fraction of the cost, all of the elements of the fair seem magical and worth the expense; and we paid the price time and again until we were exhausted and penniless.  Then we took a last walk around the grounds, soaking up the sights, the smells, the noise, and the garish glow of the lights decorating rides, games, and snack carts.  When we had nothing left to do or spend we headed for home. 

The walk home was so different from the journey to the fair.  It was sad.  There were no more expectations and nothing to look forward to at home.  We walked slower on the return trip, reminiscing all the while about events that had only just taken place.  Back at Aldo’s house there was little to do of interest.  Aldo was always calm and somewhat stoic.  I was hyperactive.  How many times I had tried to drag him into some amusement I couldn’t say.  He was never one for games and although he had always had plenty of toys, most of his interests were solitary, being model cars and solo video games.  There was a little known Vincent Price horror spoof on the television and I convinced him to watch that.  Although I cannot remember the name of the film or even the basic plot, I remember that it was another thing that my world has lost: the seasonal programming.  In those days you could always find a scary movie on the television on Friday and Saturday nights, more so during the Halloween season.  The Creels didn’t decorate much for Halloween until Aldo became inspired during his high school years.  This year marked the last time we would Trick or Treat, and we were probably too old for it even then.  But I didn’t know that at that time.  What I knew was that it was autumn and I had been to a place where I felt I belonged.  What I knew was that the movie on television made me happy and that I liked this season very much.  Christmas had been lost to me when I’d learned there was no Santa Claus (and obviously the Easter Bunny didn’t stand a chance after that), but Halloween was still mine.  Now more than ever Halloween was mine.  I think the seeds were sown that night that created a life long Vincent Price fan.  I think that was the night my rose tinted glasses cracked and I saw the world beyond my petty, childish world of games and simplistic desires.  Without knowing it, I had opened myself up to the world and the world had come in to fill me.  I understood on some unconscious level that the world was one of masks and the carnival was the only true face it had.  Hiding behind the greasepaint of clowns and the misshapen limbs of the “freaks” was the real world, an ugly world continually going about the business of living and dieing.  One day I too would die, but for now I would live.  The smell of death surrounded me that night and in it was the smell of life.  Beside the oak tree whose leaves were changing through a calliope of colors stood a pine tree, giving up some of its needles to the ground so that others could live through the winter.  The cycle of death and rebirth played out before me every year and I had never noticed it.  I was a child lost in the world and I accepted it, but I never knew it then.  Eventually we would sleep.  In the morning sun the world looked wrong to me.  My happiness of the night before was but a fading memory and a feeling of loss and pain. 

I would visit fairs and carnivals again many times in my life, but something changed.  Perhaps it was the realization of the lost carnival spirit of old, or perhaps it was my changing interests as I grew to manhood, or perhaps it was something else, but I would never again walk through the fairgrounds and feel my sense of place in the world.  I would feel that sense of belonging again though.  In tourist towns across the country, in amusement parks and atop mountains I would feel that thrill of that first moment when I had a sense of self.  I would find it standing on storm swept beaches and while watching sharks swim in the aquarium.  The false face of the tourist industry, always serving the interests of the customer would be my comfort.  A world made just for me was to be found in every amusement park and every tourist trap I would visit.  That false-faced world felt more honest than the mundane world of my existence.  It’s the kinetic nature of it all.  I think that is why the fair was never the same for me again.  Life is transitory; one day it will pass away.  My happiness seemed to lie in motion.  The traveling show, the tides coming and going, the constant swimming of the sharks, it all pointed to a sense of impermanence.  Or maybe I felt as though I was the freak, forever outside of society.  We all strive to find our place and I think all those years gone I found mine…and it was no place. 
I’ve felt it again and again since that night so many years gone by.  Something will trigger the memory, especially as autumn comes to take the life of summer.  A simple smell or the feeling of the breeze upon my face as the sun’s light fades into night will cause my chest to tighten slightly.  I might feel my eyes water and a wistful smile rush toward my lips and then the memory returns and with it the full force of my feelings on that night.  At that time I feel sad and alone in this great, Atlean world and I want to go back, to return to that time and again be that boy who wasn’t quite as jaded or angry as the man he has become.  I want to find my place again, but I know I cannot.  I will not find my place again until I am put into the ground, completing my portion of the cycle of life and death.  The autumn comes and I know that some day I too will be only a short sunrise from winter and like the leaf that was once green and full of life I will turn dark of hue and fall, never again to rise and my living time on this Earth will pass.  Then, when that time comes and there are no more answers for the questions I will not ask, I will find my place in the earth.  Until then I’ll just keep moving.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why I like Halloween

Yes, I know it sounds like the title of a 3rd grade essay, but I realize it is something I have not put down yet.
As so much of the imagery, articles and general mood of my blog is Halloween oriented, it would seem to follow that I like Halloween very much.  Why is that this should be so?  What is it about Halloween that makes me love it so much?
I could say that the Fall colors appeal to me more than the simple greens of Spring or Summer.

I could say that I prefer the cool evenings to the hot, sticky nights or freezing days of Winter.

I could say that I enjoy the community spirit that trick or treating, Harvest Festivals, and parties engender.
Ahhh community....that's the spirit.
I could say that the smells of Autumn are better than any of the other seasonal smells, with the slightest hint of decay in the damp leaves, the first hints of wood smoke fires and the inevitable pumpkin pie spices.

I could say that Halloween marks the beginning of a series of holiday events that will lead us, ultimately, into and through the New Year, when the world is cold and dead and we await the new life of Spring.

I could say that on some primal level my Celtic ancestry calls me to celebrate this ending of Summer and beginning of Winter with a fire festival.

I could say that I truly enjoy the spirit of masquerade where I can dress as something else and leave my own self behind for awhile.

Ultimately it is all there.  Each of these things is a reason why I love the Autumn season in general and Halloween in particular, but the ultimate reason, the reason that trumps all others, is that during the Halloween season, what with all the masks, costumes, spooky decorations, haunted houses, corn mazes, hayrides and the Grand Guignol of monsters walking the city streets in the open, side-by-side with fairy princesses, pirates and space men, for just a little while, the world outside looks like it does inside my head all the time.

Keep those pumpkins lit.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Vampire Essays pt. 1

Steph Meyer represents the latest in a long line of culturally devalued allegorical representations.  The vampire was, originally, a symbol of death, decay, and fear.  Vampires were, almost universally, peasants.  This was due to a link between the origin of the monster and burial practices as well as a link between how epidemics are created and spread.  In both cases the wealthy, usually given elaborate funeral rites and buried in grand tombs are not as susceptible to plague, disease and, let's face it, death.  It was peasant fear of death, coupled with the superstitious lack of 'scientific' knowledge that brought about such beliefs.  Throughout history we can assume that learned men have long denied the 'monsters' and 'chimera' of the common man.
We can trace, through literary evidence, the change in vampire characterizations to Lord Byron, who himself wrote an unfinished poem about a vampire, but who inspired his personal physician, John Polidori, to write his own work, The Vampyre featuring a decadent nobleman who preyed upon the blood and life force of the nubile.  It seems clear to all scholars that Lord Ruthven, the monster about whom the piece was written is so closely based upon Lord Byron himself as to be a caricature of sorts.  Starting with Polidori's tale and moving through the whole Victorian Era's gothic literary scene the vampire ceased to be a peasant nightmare and became a suave, upper class sexual predator.  Given the mores of Victorian life (sexual repression in public, depravity in private, a more-Puritan-than-Puritan attitude toward morals, the birth of British stoicism) and the reality of the class chasm in Victorian England (vast colonialism had led to Empire, the growth of an extremely wealthy middle class that created a wider gulf between it and the poor classes, who were crushed under the combined bootheels of irresponsible capitalism and nobility employing ever greater pomp to justify circumstances) it seems only proper that the monster that preys upon the peasants in the night should be seen in the urban environment as coming from the 'monster' that preyed upon them in the daylight hours.  While Polidori's work and the later Penny Dreadful Varney the Vampire (in every way the equivalent of modern paperback serials were the Penny Dreadfuls, this, really is the birth of both Anne Rice's series and Meyer's series) both predate the Ripper murders in Whitechapel, it is unavoidable that we should see links between the concepts of the shift from an allegorical symbol of death that haunted peasant villages becoming a sexually charged predator and the eventual sensationalism of the prostitute slayings of Jack.  Given again the Victorian mentality, we understand that to the Victorian Era English person, properly reared, prostitution was not a crime resulting from economic hardship, but was a sign of the sin, licentiousness and lust of women (the same charges were not, publically, leveled at the clients of said ladies of easy virtue).  Lusty women, the doctors of the day stated, turned to prostitution to sate their unnatural lust and depravity.  In such an environment of twisted sexual morality we find what may be the birth of unhealthy interest in sexual deviance (still with us today) conflated with human predation.  Lord Ruthven was a not-so-thinly veiled reference to Byron, known for his licentious and libertine behaviors (reputed, at least) and the following work, Varney the Vampire, introduced the 'sympathetic' vampire.  The sexually charged portions still existed.  By the time Stoker wrote Dracula at the end of the century, the public perception, especially in the urban environments, toward this monster had changed.  Part of this was due to the published works mentioned above and part of this was due to the field in which the seeds of the notion were planted.  The notion of 'undead' in the form of vampires was a relatively recent addition to England.  The vampire was we know it, and as the English speaking world came to know it, has its origins in Slavic and Baltic cultures.  The word had only been in use in print in English for maybe 1 or 1.5 centuries by the time Dracula was published.  It was not a traditional English monster.  Therefore anything the authors wished to do with it was fair use.
This brings us to the 1960s and 1970s.  Well, the 1930s really.  Universal touted Dracula (the 1931 film) as a love story and by hiring Lugosi, previously a leading man in Hungary, they created an undeniably attractive monster (re-watch the original 1931 Dracula and see a still young Lugosi at his best, rather than the tired junkie with which everyone is familiar and my point becomes clear).  This tradition continued trough the Hammer films, which starred the commanding and aristocratic Christopher Lee and so on.  Adaptations of Le Fanu's Carmilla (which predates Dracula by over 20 years) focused on the lesbian subtext of the novel to create sexually charged films to attract audiences looking to be titillated.  Sexual predation was now firmly a part of vampire lore, as was the sense of otherworldly 'attractiveness' the monsters possessed.  This continued throughout the 70s and 80s as vampires became a symbol of licentious sexual desire (predation had been sublimated totally) and more and more sexually charged work was created to fulfill the fantasies of women and men alike.
Until two works changed it.
The Lost Boys managed to play straight and subvert the current vampire tropes at the same time, by making the vampires both 'sexy' in a cool counterculture sort of way and at the same time disgusting monsters. 
Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles began with 1976's Interview with the Vampire and would not see a sequel for almost 10 years (publishing dates, not writing dates).  In this series, which started rather straightforward but inevitably became 'superheroic' in tone, Rice created sexually ambiguous, but again otherworldly attractive monsters who can be sympathetic, but eventually elicit not our sympathy, but our desire to be 'superheroic' ourselves. 

The inherent dangers of combining conditional reality with an 8th grade education...

I had a real conversation with a guy at work sometime ago where he questioned the ability of a vampire to sire a child with a human woman, noting that being dead the vampire would not have the bloodflow or, presumably sperm count, to complete the deed.  This is an unfortunate example of a little knowledge (8th grade level biology) coupled with the conditional reality problem that makes all fantasy writing exist in the first place.  People are perfectly willing to accept a person coming back from the dead and walking around, sparkling, and having superpowers, but have a hard time accepting procreation of same.  This is illogical.  It does illustrate, however, that the current level of 'scientific' knowledge of the human population has an effect on how they see their monsters (for a more in-depth discussion of that I am prepared, believe me).  People are 'smarter' than they used to be (rather, people have a set of unproven beliefs different from what they once had, which were just as good and more intuitive besides) and so their monsters must be as well.  The monsters change, the allegories change and eventually they are no longer even monsters.  Meyer has created the next level in her evolution of the monster-form.  From allegory for death, to sexual predator, to sexual libertine to finally allegorical "safe sex".  The safest sex.  Until the book where her own deviance asserted itself with the birth of the vampire baby jesus, or whatever, she hooked her readers by providing a 'perfect, pure love'.  Queen Victoria would have approved most heartily.  The Safest of all Sex, the nonSEX.  Vampire=Promise Ring!

This is where we are culturally.  We are neutered.  We are castrated.  We are gelded tigers in gilded cages.  We are a species of ADHD kids distracted by only our own brilliance like a parakeet looking in a mirror, blissfully unaware that the reflection is our own.

That got quite a bit more nihilistic than I intended.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Halloween Music: Halloween Hootenanny

Halloween Hootenanny is a compilation CD produced by Zombie A Go Go records, which is owned by Rob Zombie.  Released in 1998, Halloween Hootenanny features 19 tracks by various artists spanning multiple genres including surf, psychobilly and hard rock.
Fans of Zombie's work might be a little disappointed as Rob is only present on the 2nd track "Halloween (She Get So Mean)" singing vocals with the Ghastly Ones playing the instruments.  This should in no way discourage anyone from checking it out.  Despite being 13 years old at the time of this writing, this is still a great CD.
The show opens and closes with a poem from legendary creature feature horror host Zacherle (still alive and kicking as of this writing).  The remainder of the tracks are originals and covers performed by a variety of well-known and not-so-well-known acts, including the Reverend Horton Heat, the Ghastly Ones and Southern Culture On the Skids.
Let's take a look at the track listing, shall we?  Of course, my little gourds...
1. Halloween Hootenanny-Zacherle (It's a poem)
2. Halloween (She Get So Mean)- Rob Zombie with The Ghastly Ones
3. The Halloween Dance- Reverend Horton Heat
4. A Fistful of Terror- The Bomboras
5. Werewolf- Southern Culture On the Skids (This is a cover, but a damn fine one.  Thus far the album has a surf rock/rockabilly feel)
6. Gravewalk-Satan's Pilgrims
7. Ribcage Mambo- Frenchy
8. I Drink Blood- Rocket From the Crypt (A definite rocker, here the tempo picks up)
9. Little Demon- The Amazing Crowns (This is a very upbeat track, a cover of a Screamin Jay Hawkins tune, they do it justice, I assure you)
10. No Costume, No Candy- Swingin' Neckbreakers (I swear they wrote this after watching Bungholio: Lord of the Harvest, the Beavis and Butthead Halloween special.  Anyone familiar with the BnB special in question will recognize the lyrics as being 'ahem' inspired by the lines from the show)
11. "The Munsters" Theme- Los Straitjackets (A Halloween CD standard)
12. Sinister Purpose- Zacherle with Southern Culture On the Skids (This is a VERY entertaining cover of an old Creedence Clearwater Revival tune with the lyrics modified to suit Zacherle's particular milieu)
13. Werewolves On Wheels- The Born Losers (Another nice surf rock tune, but named after perhaps the SHITTIEST WEREWOLF MOVIE IN EXISTENCE)
14. Psychic Voodoo Doll- Deadbolt (The self-styled Scariest Band In the World, Deadbolt has some great CDs that are, essentially, psychobilly, although more truly psycho than most.  This is an alternate take from the version that appears on their album Shrunken Head)
15. Banshee Beach- The Ghastly Ones
16. The Creature Stole My Surfboard- Dead Elvi (Chiller Theater's own House Band, this track is a nice little surf rock tune and also appears on the Elvi's first CD, Graveland) 
17.Extrasensory Deception- Davie Allen and the Phantom Surfers
18. Spooks Night Out- The Legendary Invisible Men (As the last of the musical selections on the CD, this one is short and sort of, weird.  It always gives me the depressing feeling one gets as the sky begins to get lighter on the morning of November 1st and you realize that the fun is just about to be over...)
19. Happy Halloween- Zacherle (Another Zacherle poem closes out the disc)

The CD can be played on shuffle for a nice party soundtrack or just for enjoyment, but I think it is best played in order, start to finish.  Thematically it 'feels' better that way.  The whole experience is like a trip through a good Halloween night, starting with an invocation from the Cool Ghoul and then progressing into preparation with Rob and the Ghastly Ones, moving along until "No Costume, No Candy" which is the whole trick or treating experience.  Then it's time to TP houses, egg cars and soap windows...and the real monsters come out.  Finally as the night pushes on you find yourself chilly, coming down from a candy fueled sugar rush and frankly confused about what to do next.  Are you still out on the streets?  At this time of the night?  Prepare to see things no human should and "Spooks Night Out" is the song that brings you that feeling as, exhausted from running for your life you make it back home in time to see the television station shut off programming for the night (yes, I am old enough to remember when television stations "signed off" at the end of the "programming day").  As the sun comes up the Cool Ghoul tucks you into your crypt with the final track and you can sleep the sleep of the unjust and nasty little monster you are.

An oldie but a goodie, 5 stars and a magical 13 years old.  Check it out.
And, for badness sake...keep those pumpkins lit.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How do you take your werewolves? Two legs or four?

Greetings all.
I enjoy werewolf cinema quite a bit.  I also enjoy werewolf comics, games, art, just werewolf stuff in general.  Over the years of watching, reading and absorbing werewolf media I can say that I have managed to learn a thing or two (and honestly more than that) about werewolves, shapeshifters, therianthropes and/or zoothropes.  While you can enjoy werewolves any time of year, they are horror monsters and so tend to be one of the featured players during Halloween festivities.  Thus I felt it appropriate to do a post on werewolves for the Halloween season.
Real, live, honest-to-Tyr Werewolf in his native habitat.  Picture snapped just after the beast had put the kettle on.
When it comes to werewolves there are just so many different traditions to choose from.  I've studied as many as I can find over the years, so I consider myself an authority on the subject.  I am not here to run down all the different werewolf myths and legends; I am here to talk about the two choices in morphology, broadly speaking: werewolves on two legs and werewolves on four legs.  That's the subject here.

Two legs vs four; what's up with that?  A fair question.  When any piece of media chooses to portray a werewolf the creator has the choice of a more human looking hybrid wolf-man type (the most popular cinema werewolf over time, exemplified by 1941's The Wolf Man) or a wolf (either a normal wolf or a large monster wolf, as seen most recently in the Twilight films).  What do myth, legend and history have to say on the subject?  Arguably myth, legend and history support both types.  If we are to believe that Norse Ulfhednar inspired werewolf myths, then a man in a wolf skin would certainly be of the wolf-man type.  Sending out one's spirit into animal form, possessing a living animal, or the descriptions of men into wolves (especially during the Middle Ages in Europe or amongst native tribes in North America) all support the man-into-four-legged-wolf premise.  In actual werewolf trials, including some woodcuttings of the trials, people were as likely to be described as taking on the savagery of the wolf as its actual shape.  Clearly there are choices.  Once thing we can say is that except for rare cases of divine cursing, werewolfery was a choice an individual made, not a disease passed on by biting.
But that's not our concern today.
The first werewolf film about which I can find any information whatsoever is from 1913, is a silent film, and is about a Navajo who transforms into a wolf (a skin-walker, presumably).  The first example of the hybrid that I can find is much later in 1935 in the Universal film The Werewolf of London.

Universal make-up wizard Jack Pierce designed the simple, but effective, werewolf played by Henry Hull.  The look is accomplished mainly through a lupine nose piece, protruding underbite fangs, strongly arched eyebrows, pointy ears and clawed hands.  Apparently this is all one needs to be a werewolf in an urban location like London.  The film is, according to accounts, where the full moon myth is first mentioned and has a strange plant, not wolfsbane, that can cure lycanthropy.  Years before it would be fashionable, this film featured competing werewolves fighting for a cure and added that "the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing he loves best" or some such tosh.

So amazing was Werewolf of London that Universal waited until 1941 to produce another werewolf film.   The Wolf Man starred Lon Chaney Jr., the son of the silent film great Lon Chaney.  Much like in the preceding Universal werewolf film Chaney plays a man cursed to become a beast.  However, the plot of The Wolf Man, and indeed the execution of the film, is more in line with creating a sympathetic monster than the previous film.  The Wolf Man established the bit about werewolves being particularly vulnerable to silver, but does not create the 'full moon' requirement (that came later in sequels) although Autumn and wolfsbane seem to play a part in it all.  This film really establishes more than anything the viability of the werewolf as a movie monster.  The success of the film inspired the next few decades to create werewolves of all types.  Interestingly, this film features both the two-legged and four-legged varieties of werewolf.  Chaney's Larry Talbot is cursed to become a werewolf (or as he usually says in the films, "a wolf") when he is bitten by Bela the Gypsy (played by Bela Lugosi) who is a werewolf.  Bela is not a wolf-man hybrid type, however, but a regular quadrupedal canis lupis.  So we have the twist of the "classic" werewolf giving birth to the modern "wolfman".  Chaney was a big man and his werewolf is imposing as a result.  Jack Pierce again designed the make-up and went for a hirsute look...a real wolf-man.  Again we have an animal nose and a bit of an underbite with fangs, but not as pronounced.  Chaney's Wolf Man loved to use the 'choke attack'.  He loved to jump on things too.  Tables, chairs, a windowsill, it didn't matter to Talbot, he wanted to get some air as he attacked.  A luchador werewolf?
Yo soy El LuchaLobo!  Next time, El Santo, I will destroy you!
Hey, it was 1941, they weren't going to show decapitation and evisceration all over the screen, you know.  What is important to note is that the hybrid wolf-man type of werewolf became the default werewolf, more or less, throughout the following decades.  I have deduced that this is because it is easier to slap hair and fangs onto a human than it is to work with a wolf, wolf-dog hybrid, or large dog.  Animals are hard to work with at the best of times and, while expressive, they do not convey the full range of human emotions very well.  Some false fur and plastic teeth are cheap by comparison.
Thus it was in 1957 when Michael Landon became a Teenage Werewolf it was fur faced, underbite fangs and claws all the way.  That's the way things remained, with the smallest exceptions, until the 1980s when a werewolf returned to London and everyone heard the Howling of beasts.
In 1981 An American Werewolf In London brought us a fully formed, quadrupedal monster black wolf.  The transformation sequence is now legendary and won Rick Baker an Oscar.  Let's be honest, it set an all-time standard for werewolf, or any human-to-animal, transformation effects.

This marked a change from the previous few decades of bipedal wolf-man hybrids and was quite the engineering feat in itself.  The werewolf of American Werewolf was much closer to the "traditional" medieval man-becomes-animal lore.  Also in that year we had The Howling, a film which featured the more common bipedal hybrid werewolves, but with the added bonus of those werewolves having very lupine facial features.  The previous decades had brought us furry faces and doggie noses, which are easy enough to render cheaply.  The Howling went for a more wolfish werewolf, at least as far as faces were concerned.

Plot-wise American Werewolf and The Howling could not be less similar.  The former is a "traditional" Hollywood werewolf story where a young man is bitten by a werewolf, becomes a werewolf, does some killing and then is saved from his "curse" by death.  This is the very pattern set by 1941's The Wolf Man and David Kessler could just as easily be Larry Talbot, as the character concepts are very much the same.
The Howling plays with new age concepts, satirizing them wonderfully, pays homage to older films, actors and directors with clever character names and events, and provides a view of werewolves as a different species, apart from humans and closer to the animal passions of wolves.  This is shown in the extremely wolfish makeup (long muzzles, large, pointed ears, differently shaped bodies) and by the characterizations.

Prior to these two films we had werewolves as cursed unfortunates, happy-go-lucky funsters (in cartoons like the Groovy Ghoulies), or pet "dogs" to vampire characters.  In the Munsters the child of Lilly Munster (vampiress) and Herman Munster (Frankenstein creation) is Eddie, a young werewolf.  It was the 80's that brought the werewolf back to a more serious and wolfy form, and allowed us to see werewolves as more than the "dog" of the Monster Mash-Ups or the whinging cursed gimp.  Werewolves in film throughout the 80s and 90s would continue with long muzzles and wolfish characteristics, while sometimes defaulting to the cheaper Wolf Man look of flat muzzle with underbite fangs.  The FOX television show Werewolf featured a more lupine werewolf with a long muzzle, pointed ears and a tendency to lope about on all fours.  Comic pages feature werewolves on two legs and four at the whims of the artist and writers, but the more wolfish muzzles and body forms gained popularity after The Howling and even Marvel's Werewolf By Night Jack Russell gained a more feral, wolfish form when his curse cycle entered full moon phase.
The 21st century has seen a return to the ancient tradition with werewolves that take the forms of actual wolves, albeit sometimes very large wolves.  The Twilight films, HBO's True Blood, and the big bad wolf from 2011's Red Riding Hood all take the form of wolves, albeit very large wolves in the case of Twilight and Red Riding Hood.  As a trend there is nothing wrong with this; it certainly hearkens to the cyclical nature of people, cultures and mythologies.  Arguably with the increases in technology for special effects, including the widespread and affordable use of CGI, it is easier now more then ever to show the transformation of man into beast and have the beast that we want to see and are convinced to see in film.  Thus the original question of the piece stands: How do you take your werewolves?  Ultimately it is about choice and for me as long as it is a well-done piece of cinema or special effects it does not matter how many legs the wolf chooses to use.  In the past decade I've enjoyed 2 legged, long muzzled hybrids (the Wolf Man in 2004's Van Helsing), full quadrupedal wolves (Red Riding Hood in 2011) and even a throwback, Rick Baker designed Benicio Del Toro with a dog nose and underbite fangs (The Wolfman released nationally in 2011).  As long as the werewolf looks good, feral and wild, I'm giving it my support.
Benicio as Wolfman on the left, werewolf effects fromVan Helsing in center and a Twilight Werewolf on the right: comparison study
Until next time, keep your pumpkins lit...and your moon full.
Not that such is required...