Thursday, October 27, 2016

Nevermore: The Roger Corman Poe Series

Time to wrap up this Halloween Countdown on a suitable creepy note...

I felt like I wanted to write something about the late, great Vincent Price with my last major Halloween entry this year. But then after giving it some thought, I felt like, instead of just focusing on one film, why not cover an entire series of films that helped make it's director, and Price himself, very famous. For a bit of background, I will state that Edgar Allen Poe, who lived from 1809-1849, is one of my favorite poets and writers. His most famous piece, "The Raven", is one of my all-time favorites, and was what originally made me a fan of him. In fact, on an interesting side-note, in 1996, roughly my freshmen year of high school, I decided somewhat arbitrarily, that I was going to become a fan of the brand new "Baltimore Ravens" NFL team. The reason for this was simple: fans had voted to name the team after Poe's poem "The Raven", because Poe had famously lived the last years of his life in the Baltimore area. That in and of itself, is often a fun, and to some, "odd" anecdote, as I chose "my team" because they were named after one of my favorite writers.

So, circling back around to Vincent Price, who had been acting in films since the late 1930s as a very young man, had started to establish himself as early as the 1940s, in such science fiction and "horror" drama films as The Invisible Man Returns, The House of Seven Gables, and Dragonwyck. It was in the 1950s when he started to become something of a minor icon in horror cinema, with films like  House of Wax, The Fly and House on Haunted Hill. However, it wasn't until the 1960s that you could really argue that he had finally become a major star. In fact if the decade of the 60s truly belonged to any one actor, you could make a very strong argument that it belonged to Vincent Price. And that was due in no small part, to his work from 1960-1965 with a fairly young, up and coming director named Roger Corman.

Specifically, it was starring in seven of what would become a series of eight films, known as the "Poe Cycle".

The first, and in some ways, the best.

Film: House of Usher
Year: 1960
Starring: Vincent Price, Myrna Fahey, and Mark Damon

Roger Corman had the idea to turn the Poe story "The Fall of the House of Usher" into a full-length feature film, both because it was a good, suspenseful story, but also because it was public domain. He had been limited both by time and small budges thus far, to make often neat but "schlocky" films, such as Attack of the Crab Monsters, A Bucket of Blood, and the The Wasp Woman. So it was that he managed to not only sell the film company, American International Pictures, on the idea of the film, but he also convinced them to give him a decent budget for lavish sets, and higher production values. He managed to get Vincent Price on board, and the rest of history.

Style, personified.

One thing that I think is important and significant to note, about House of Usher, is that it basically has a cast of four people. It stars Price as Roderick Usher, Myrna Fahey as his younger sister Madeline, Mark Damon as her fiance Phillip Winthrop, and Harry Ellerbe as the butler, Bristol. Corman really did put most of the budget towards lavish and atmospheric sets, worthy of Poe's storytelling, but with such a tiny cast, he still gets a lot from them. Price, naturally, is brilliant, as the haunted (and haunting) Usher, who seems to have an acute sensitivity to almost everything, from bright light, to flavorful foods, to even mildly loud noises. Price manages to make him a sinister yet sympathetic character, which is not easy for any actor to pull off.

The basic plot deviates a bit from the original story, in that in Poe's tale, it was Roderick's friend who came to visit the lonely "House of Usher", whereas in Corman's film, Phillip is Roderick's sister's fiance, come to find out why she has stayed away from his native Boston for so long. Otherwise, the film stays fairly true to the spirit of the story, and to Poe's works in general, setting a very visually evocative gothic scene, full of a foreboding sense of loneliness, isolation, and unseen sinister forces afoot, from basically the very beginning of the movie. It would seem the Usher family, whose history has not always been magnanimous, is "cursed". Or at least that is what Roderick fervently believes. Phillip naturally wants to take his "sick" beloved away from this cracked and dilapidated home, but Roderick believes she belongs here, for all Ushers are "doomed to die".

I don't want to spoil any more of the plot, including one other major difference from the story involving the ending, but I will say that for Corman's first crack a a bigger budget, "serious" film, he did a hell of a job, even though his time and money were still obviously limited. He did a lot with a little, and looking at the film on it's face, you would not know that it was probably still a fairly cheap production. Of course, while many other actors likely could have succeeded in the role of Roderick Usher, it was Vincent Price who really sold this film, and he really does have a tendency to steal every scene he's in. He's just one of those magnetic actors, his personality shines, and commands your attention. Truly one of kind.

Not AS classic, but still pretty solid.

Film: The Pit and The Pendulum
Year: 1961
Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Luana Anders, and Antony Carbone

With Usher having been a moderate hit for AIP, they green lit another Poe film for Corman and Price. This time, they would go with the somewhat more famous story of "The Pit and the Pendulum". Right from the beginning, if one had just watched Usher, you would think you were watching a direct sequel, or at least a very similar film. The opening of the film, the look of the castle sets, even some of the tone and themes of the story, make this a very similar film indeed to it's predecessor. John Kerr plays Englishman Francis Bernard, coming to Spain upon hearing of the death of his sister. He wishes to see her body, and to interrogate her husband Don Nicholas Medina (Price), as to the mysterious details surrounding her death.


From the very beginning, Kerr is a more aggressive and stoic character than Damon's Winthrop, though that's somewhat understandable, as he found out about his sister's death months late, with little details to go on. When he arrives, he gets a bit of the runaround treatment from Nicholas, which only angers him further, before finally gleaning the truth: that Don Medina believes his wife had been accidentally mispronounced dead, and buried in the crypt alive. He also believes that she is now haunting the castle, which is driving him gradually insane. Carbone plays Don Medina's friend, Doctor Leon, while Luana Anders plays his much younger sister Catherine.

While this film actually saw bigger financial success (the biggest box office of the entire Poe series, in fact), and greater critical acclaim than Usher, as a fan I would say that Usher is the better film. As stated, they both share a fairly somber, appropriately Poe-like tone and setting, but the general plot and execution of Pit, to me, comes off as a bit more bizarre and convoluted. That is partially owed to several odd and "trippy" flashback scenes. It's still a good movie and worth seeing. I just personally enjoy Usher more.

The Odd Duck.

Film: The Premature Burial
Year: 1962
Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Heather Angel, and Alan Napier.

Now, you might assume, that the one film out of the entire bunch to NOT star Vincent Price, would be the dud of the bunch, but in actuality, that's hardly true. While not the BEST (that is yet to come), The Premature Burial is, in some ways, a more "fun" film than certain others. I would say that I probably like it better than Pit, for example. Story has it that Corman originally wanted to use Price, but as he started out making this film independently for another studio, and Price was tied up with AIP, he chose to cast the great Ray Milland instead. It just so happened that AIP, through some perhaps less than friendly means, wound up producing the film in the end anyway, but that's ultimately neither here nor there.

Another one of a kind actor.

Like Price, Milland was a singular personality in the acting world. He had a unique look and presence, as well as an unmistakable voice. My first exposure to him as a kid, was one of my childhood favorites, the 1975 adaptation of Escape to Witch Mountain, where he played the great villain Aristotle Bolt. In Burial, he plays Victorian Era aristocrat, Guy Carrell, whose most singularly defining trait, certainly as far as the story is concerned, is a near-crippling fear of death. More specifically, he is terrified that he will be buried alive, and suffocate in the coffin, something that, in that era, sadly did happen from time to time. Not only is he afraid of death, but he is also increasingly suspicious that someone close to him is plotting his death, as well.

An entertaining film, more focused on one character than perhaps any of the other Poe films, it's tone is perhaps lighter than those that preceded it, but it still manages to bring that chilly, Gothic atmosphere, that permeated the entire series. On a a somewhat unrelated side-note, around this same time, Corman made another film starring Milland, called X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, a cooky science fiction film that is highly entertaining. I would suggest watching both, as WELL as Witch Mountain if you've never seen it, as Milland, while not QUITE on Price's level, is a great, classic actor in his own right, with some great roles.

Enter the great Peter Lorre.
Film: Tales of Terror
Year: 1962
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Debra Paget.

The only "anthology" format film of the series, Tales of Terror also began the trend of pairing Price with other classic horror actors, in this case Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre. For those who are unfamiliar, an anthology format film, is one which often has a overall tying narrative, but which features separate, shorter stories, usually two or three (sometimes more), instead of focusing on one story for the length of the movie. In Tales, you get, roughly speaking, four different Poe stories, adapted into three segments: "Morella", "The Black Cat", and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar".

Lorre, Challenging Price to a Wine Tasting Contest.

Price, of course, features in all three stories, suitably stealing the show, though in all fairness, the likes of Lorre and Rathbone are able to hold their own. Morella features a long-lost daughter, come home to reunite with her estranged father in what seems to be an empty, even haunted mansion. Haunted by the spirit of her seemingly evil, selfish mother, who blamed her baby daughter for her own death. Black Cat stars Peter Lorre as a complete douchbag of a character (by design), who drinks too much, mistreats his young wife, and worst of all, hates her black cat. He winds up meeting and challenging Prices Victorian Dandy character to a wine tasting contest, which eventually leads to Price having to take his drunk ass home, which in turn leads to all sorts of other madness.

Last but certainly not least, what I personally consider the best of the three stories, is Valdemar, which features Price as a dying old man, who works with Rathbone, who plays "Mr. Carmichael", a man who uses mesmerism (hypnotizing techniques) to help lessen the dying man's pain. Valdemar, having married a much younger woman, gives his wife Helene his blessing to remarry after he is gone, particularly their family physician whom she is close to. He also consents to allow Carmichael to conduct one last experiment upon his deathbed, using mesmerism to keep Valdimar's soul around after death, to see if he can learn of the afterlife and other such things. Unfortunately, that bastard Carmichael might very well be up to no good, and things might or might not get a bit real towards the end.

All told, I would say that it's a fairly solid anthology film, though just in the 60s alone, there were better, particularly from the British Amicus films, who somewhat specialized in them.

My personal favorite of the series.

Film: The Raven
Year: 1963
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, and Jack Nicholson.

Now first and foremost, I want to point out that this is what I personally consider to be the high point of the entire franchise, and the one that eventually wound up being my personal favorite of the bunch. Having said that, it is then ironic that this is actually perhaps the very first of the bunch that I ever saw, and believe it or not, originally I didn't like it. I rented it as a teenager, and similarly to renting Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein around the same timespan, I guess I just wanted something less silly. I didn't "get" this movie, and was expecting it to be dark and brooding like most of the films in the series actually are. But with Raven, Corman wisely decided to veer into a different direction, that of "black comedy", and at the time of my first viewing, I guess it just wasn't what I was wanting out of an adaptation of one of my favorite poems.

Such a legendary cast.

It wasn't until I eventually rented it again as an adult, and then later bought it, that I really came to appreciate both the film itself, and the direction that Corman took it in. Sure, he could have played it totally straight, and it could have just been a dark, brooding Gothic horror piece. But if it had, if he had not included some of the silly, dark humor, and more fanciful elements of the movie, it wouldn't have been nearly as fun, or nearly as memorable, a film. It's worth noting that this is one of Jack Nicholson's earliest films, and it was actually Corman who helped get him (like so many other actors and filmmakers) really going in the movie business. Nicholson originally had a bit part in Corman's original 60s (and superior) version of The Little Shop of Horrors, but here he has a more substantial role as the straight-man, romantic hero (kinda) to his bumbling, grumpy drunk of a father...who just happens to be Peter Lorre.

One of the best scenes of the film, a Wizard's Duel.

As you can see above, The Raven combines elements of not only horror and comedy, but also fantasy, as the primary players all happen to be sorcerers, and this is a world in which that is apparently totally normal. Price plays Dr. Erasmus Craven, a wizard who pines for his long lost love, Lenore (see what they did there?). He's actually quite a powerful magician, but holds himself back out of fear and sadness. Peter Lorre plays, initially, the titular Raven of the story, who comes rap-tap-tapping on his chamber door (or rather, window), himself a wizard named Dr. Adolphus Bidlo (apparently being a wizard is very prestigious). He ran afoul of another powerful sorcerer, Dr. Scarabus, played delightfully by the great Boris Karloff. He talked a bit of shit, got turned into a Raven, and now seeks Craven's help, because he has a reputation for being a powerful wizard.

Look how young Nicholson looks.

After Craven uses a potion to help Bedlo back to his normal, grumpy self, Bedlo notices a painting of the lost Lenore, and comments that he saw a woman who looked just like her at Scarabus' castle. Haunted by the possibility of his love still being alive, Craven decides to set out with Bedlo to go see Scarabus, Bedlo so he can get a measure of revenge, and Craven so he can discover the truth of his thought-dead wife. They wind up bringing their kids along for the ride, Craven's daughter Estelle, and Bedlo's son Rexford (who of course, develop a bit of thing). I must say, on a minor note, it's a real trip seeing a young Jack Nicholson playing totally straight, handsome characters, as opposed to...basically every role he played from the 70s onward.

The group make their way, amidst several suspicious and deadly obstacles, to the castle of Scarabus, only to find the old man at home, and seemingly friendly. It turns out old Scarabus and Craven's father, were adversaries, but Scarabus insists they were "on friendly terms", though the younger Craven does not recall this. Now the film would hardly be as entertaining if Karloff's character were as kind as he pretends, so naturally, something more sinister is afoot. I won't give it all way, but I will say the film features a highly entertaining "Wizard's Duel" (more than one, actually), and in general, it is a highly enjoyable, classic film.

Quite possibly the creepiest, and also least Poe-iest.

Film: The Haunted Palace
Year: 1963
Starring: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, and Lon Chaney Jr.

So the scoop on this one, is that Corman actually set out to adapt an HP Lovecraft story this time, instead of a Poe one, namely "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward". But AIP wanted to continue the Poe theme, so as a compromise, they allowed him to base the story (somewhat) off of the Lovecraft tale, while also loosely basing the movie itself off of a poem by Poe called, "The Haunted Palace". They also decided to throw in yet another great horror icon, Lon Chaney Jr., into the mix.

Mr. Charles Dexter Ward (or is it?)

The end result is, suitably, probably the outright darkest and brood-iest of the bunch. Which makes sense, as Lovecraft stories were always a bit more apocalyptic than Poe's. Price gets another turn playing somewhat duel roles, as the innocent and affable Ward, and his ancestor Joseph Curwen, whose spirit still seems to haunt his old palace, 100+ years after his burning at the hands of the people of Arkham (yes, that Arkham). It seems Mr. Curwen wasn't exactly a great guy, and caused a lot of sinister happenings in his time, including the disappearance of more than a couple of the town's young maidens. It seems he and his followers were preoccupied with bringing the "Old Ones" back into this world, and now, beyond the grave, he aims to perhaps continue his work, by influencing his descendant.

I think I may have actually seen this film the last out of all the Corman Poe films, though I would probably put it up there near the top. It most certainly has that HP Lovecraft feel to it, and while not purely a "Poe" story, it still counts as one of the series, especially since Poe's own work strongly influenced early 1900s writers like Lovecraft in the first place. Surprisingly, there are relatively few Lovecraft adaptations committed to film, and fewer still that are any good. So if you want to SEE one of the good ones, then make sure to see The Haunted Palace.

A good movie, but also a missed opportunity.

Film: The Masque of the Red Death
Year: 1964
Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, and David Weston.

Now this is the film that many seem to consider the best of the series, mainly because it is also considered to be the most "artsy" of the group, which is true. However, even if I were not already in love with The Raven, I would say that, in my own humble opinion, this movie is NOT one of the best, for the specific reason that it is bogged down by an incredibly unnecessary sub-plot that has nothing at all to do with Poe's original story. The movie itself IS very artsy, and for the most part incredibly well done. It might just be, in some ways, Corman's strongest work as a director. BUT, as stated, I feel it is held back from being all it could have been, by not just simply sticking the fantastic and chilling tale Poe already provided.

The sadistic Prince Prospero.

In the original story, the medieval countryside is being ravaged by a strange plague known as "The Red Death", in which victims succumb to fever, and pain, and eventually bleeding to death from their very pores. But the lord of the land, Prince Prospero, has invited all of the "important" nobles of the kingdom to hide within his fortified castle walls with him, sealed off from the outside world, safe from the menace of the plague. So while he allows his own people to suffer and die in the dead of winter by a horrible plague while he does nothing to help them, he and his aristocratic brethren revel and party in the safety of his walls.

The beautiful Francesca, and the mysterious Red Stranger.

The problem lies in the subplot that Corman's writers concocted, to I don't know, "spice up" the plot, which concerns Prospero and his mistress Julianna, being literal Satanists, and this entire dichotomy in the film between the rich, who are evil, and the villagers, who are simple, good Christians. None of which, by the way, was featured at all in Poe's original story. Poe didn't go much for allegory, he disliked it, and just tried to tell stories. And I can tell you, having first read Red Death as a teen, that by itself, without this useless God/Devil fluff, it is a very powerful, and very chilling film. Prospero and his ilk are already sinister, selfish, evil people for hiding away in a castle while the very people they count on to grow crops and run the kingdom, suffer and die outside. That is already evil enough, and reason enough to hate the guy.

But adding what I feel is an artificial plot-lineE about worshiping's just incredibly unnecessary, and adds absolutely nothing to the story itself. They could have done the entire film, exactly as it is, with Prospero being an utter piece of shit, taking an innocent girl from the village (Asher) as his amusement (because he's attracted to her innocence), trying to force her fiance and father to fight to the death, etc. etc. All of that could have made a very powerful film, with the Red Death showing up at the end to wreak havoc. Instead, with the silly Satanism shit thrown in, that part is just distracting, and I feel it dilutes the power of the rest of the story.

Don't get me wrong, it's still a good film, and I highly recommend it. But I also find myself very turned off by the Satanist aspect, and thus it gets knocked down from what otherwise might have been one of my favorite entries in this series.

The very last of the set.

Film: Tomb of Ligeia
Year: 1965
Starring: Vincent Price, Elizabeth Shepherd, and John Westbrook.

The film that wound up being the final of Corman's "Poe Cycle", is also notable for being one of the most "Gothic". Unlike his other films, it used a largely British cast, and many outdoor scenes and on-location sets, giving it more of a feel similar to AIP's semi-rival in 60s horror, the British company Hammer Films. The 60s was rife with Gothic-styled horror films, mainly from AIP, Hammer, and Amicus, mostly starring Price, as well as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

The eccentric and mournful Verden Fell.

Based on the Poe tale "Ligeia", Vincent Price plays a part meant to be much younger than he was at the time, that of Verden Fell, a man in mourning over the death of his first wife. He meets and marries another young woman, named Rowena (not Ravenclaw), though he also begins seeing visions of his former wife, and starts acting more and more odd. He ultimately has to face the spirit of Ligeia, which leads to a chilling climax. Not the greatest of the bunch, for sure, but it's still big on atmosphere, and it's unique because of it's more Hammer-esque feel.

Not quite Poe, not quite classic.

While not part of the Poe series, there were several other films around this time that easily fit right in with them, and might as well have been part of them. The first was actually directed by Corman (somewhat), and right after wrapping filming of The Raven, in fact. That was the very rushed and low-budget The Terror, which Corman made simply because he still had the sets and actors around for a few extra days and say "why not". Corman was nothing if not prolific (certainly in the 50s and 60s). The notable thing about Terror, other than starring Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, is that it was also a film where he let several up-and-coming names of note work on it, and even direct certain scenes. Some of these names include Nicholson, Jack Hill, and Francis Ford Coppola, all youngsters that Corman helped bring in to the business, as he would later do for other names such as Joe Dante, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese.

The other such films, starred Vincent Price, and were Twice Told Tales, another anthology film, Comedy of Terrors, a film that may as well have literally been a Corman production as it starred the same actors and featured the same sets as in The Raven and Tales of Terror (meaning Rathbone, Karloff and Lorre). And lastly, a neat little number called War Gods of the Deep, based somewhat on a Poe poem called "City Under the Sea", and while not a Corman film, was made specifically to cash in on the success of his Poe films. I would highly suggest all of these, well....except The Terror, that's more of a curiosity, perhaps to be given the MST3K treatment with friends.

Corman and Price: A great combo.

So all in all, I would highly recommend the Poe series in general. Though obviously, there are some that are better than others, and I have my personal favorites. I would honestly say the one I like the least, is Red Death, even though as I've mentioned, without the stupid Satanist plot, it might have been one of my most recommended. As I started out by saying, though, it is undeniable that Corman and Price were good together, and their work together in the 60s was a high point in both men's careers. Vincent Price in general is one of my favorite actors of all time, and it bears saying that were it not for his Corman Poe films, Corman might not make it on to my "favorite directors" list at all (no slight to him). So in a way, Price elevates Corman and these films all by himself, and that really says something about the man, and his legendary presence and ability.

I would say to eventually see all of these films, but I will leave you with my top recommendations, which also happen to be my favorites out of the bunch:

1. The Raven (1963)

2. House of Usher (1960)

3. The Haunted Palace (1963)

4. The Premature Burial (1962)

So that's it for this year's Halloween Countdown. I hope you all have a very safe and very fun Samhain Eve itself, and hope that you make sure to watch some classic movies (or even read some classic stories) to help celebrate the season! 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Forgotten Gems: Monster Bash

The Halloween Countdown marches on, and this week, it's time to try something new, and delve in the world of computer gaming! 

Once upon a time, there was a company called Apogee. They were founded in 1987, and developed computer games, mainly for the burgeoning DOS format of "IBM Compatible" home computers. They would later come to be more famously known as "3D Realms", when they shifted from making 2D to 3D games, and under this moniker, they made what was probably their biggest hit, Duke Nukem 3D. But BEFORE all that, and the mess that followed in the decade-plus after, those of us who were into PC gaming in the late 80s and early 90s, knew them best as Apogee.

As for myself, I originally got into PC "gaming" in the mid-80s, a bit, with the old Tandy 2000 computer my grandmother owned, as covered in this article. They were VERY simplistic, mostly educational software games, running on what was essentially a cassette tape drive, to a very Game Boy-esque "black and green" monitor. We only had that computer for a relatively short while, and then like the Atari 2600 we also had around that time, they both seemed to just disappear. Thinking about it now, it strikes me that considering we were fairly poor, in the midst of one of our big moves, my grandmother may very well have pawned both items for extra cash, and THAT'S why they disappeared. Either way, as covered before, I didn't get another game console until the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990, and we finally got another home computer, I'd like to say around 1993.

Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure, 1992

It was when we got that 386 IBM Compatible, that I'd really say I got introduced to the world of PC gaming. For one thing, I "inherited" some PC games that a cousin of mine used to own, mainly old RPGs like Times of Lore, Bard's Tale, and most importantly, Sorcerian, which I'll have to cover someday. There was also a period of time, when I was grounded from playing NES for like 2 months or so, because my grandmother got pissed that I played Super Mario Bros. 3 for around 3 hours. The irony of this period, is that practically RIGHT after I was grounded, we went to Wal-Mart and she decided to buy me Mario Teaches Typing, which to her was just an educational game, but to me it felt like I got to cheat because it was "Still Mario". We also got other PC games in '93 and '94, like a cool collection of old Atari arcade classics, and Mario is Missing.

But circling back around to the part where Apogee comes in, during this time, we used to frequent a store called the "98 Cent Store". And for whatever reason, at the front of the store, near the check out stands, there was a rack of floppy disks for PC, a buck a pop. It was this rack that became my introduction to Apogee, and the reason these games were so cheap was because they were what was known at the time as "Shareware". What "Shareware" was, was a business model some companies used at the time, kind of a prototype to the downloadable demos of today, where you could get the first part of their games, either for free through the mail, or in my case for a buck at some store. And the way it worked, was that they would set these games up in three parts, and you got that first part to try, so if you liked the game, you could order the REST of the game through the mail.

Very archaic by today's standards, of course, but back then, it was a pretty damn good deal, especially because the first "part" of the game that you got, was usually a good 8+ levels or so. So between 93 or 94, and later into 95 and early 96, my friend Harold and I discovered many great games through Shareware, in an era when most people still didn't have internet. Some of these games included an obscure platformer I found called Elf Quest, a little jump'n'shoot type game called Crystal Caves, some of the original Commander Keen games, and the first Duke Nukem game (spelled "Nukum" for some reason). And eventually, we even played our first ever 3D PC game, the shareware for Wolfenstein 3D. Probably doesn't sound like a big deal now, but back in 1996, the fact that we were playing a 3D game on my crappy old 386, to us, seemed huge. We played that first part of Wolfenstein WAY too much. But the two games that stood out most to me then, and still stand out to me the most now, were Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure (shown above), and the game we're here to explore today, Monster Bash.

Super scary.

Now unfortunately, I didn't get the game with this awesome 90s cover art. Nope, because I got them at the 98 Cent Store, they just came in little plastic slip cases, basically. I think it's safe to say that while my grandmother wouldn't have had any problem with the cute Cosmo, if she had been able to tell just what Monster Bash contained, she might not have gotten it for me. Released in 1992 and 1993, respectively, they were both side-scrolling platformers, attempts to cash in on that genre's popularity on home consoles.

They even both, technically, fell under the early 90s craze of every company trying to invent their own "mascot" game, in an attempt to grab some of that "Mario success". But while Cosmo was a "hop n bop" type game, where you jumped and bopped on enemies heads to defeat them (most of the time), Monster was a different beast. You could NOT jump on enemies heads, instead using the handy-dandy slingshot pictured above. But the part my grandmother wouldn't have approved of, was that when you shot enemies with your slingshot, they didn't just go "poof" like many cartoon games did. They went SPLAT, with gruesome effect.

No Ifs, Ands, or Buts, This Kid's Got Guts!

The "gimmick", I suppose, about Monster Bash, is that it's a cute looking platformer, yet it also features a healthy dose of blood, guts, gore, monsters literally falling to pieces, etc. For the early 90s, at 11 or 12 years old, I was really impressed. I've never been "into" gore, mind you, but it was just shocking, and new. I don't mind telling you that there was more than once that I played this game, when I would look back over my shoulder to make sure my grandmother wasn't watching me blow up a zombie, or seeing me crawl under gut-wrapped spikes. In all fairness, the blood and "gore" of the game is STILL very cartoony, but it was games like these that gave birth to the modern games "Ratings System", because parents were unhappy that games with gore or excessive violence were being sold as "kids games".

Even when being cute, the game was kinda messed up.

So, to give a quick lowdown of what Monster Bash is all about, you play a kid named Johnny Dash, who has a new pet dalmatian named Rex. One night, Johnny wakes up to find Rex is missing, and with the help of a friendly "Bed Monster", he discovered that Rex was dognapped by the vile Count Chuck, along with dozens of other helpless cats and dogs, to fulfill some nefarious plot. He travels to the "Under World", in his PJs and armed only with a slingshot, to go get his damn dog back, and teach that punk ass Chuck a thing or two.

Seriously, don't feed 'em.

So there I was, booting up this game all about a kid fighting monsters, in a time when I was my MOST obsessed with everything monsters and mythology. I've said before, and it bears repeating, I REALLY should have rented Castlevania during this time, and I have no idea why I never did. But when this game loads, it already sets the mood with a black silhouette of a witch flying across a full moon. On the title screen, you hit "Enter", and you get treated to an animation of Johnny shooting a zombie right in the face, who explodes in a gross SPLAT, as the screen is covered in blood. The first level, starts with thunder and lightning, and wind blows leaves by you on the screen, as you see creepy mountains and trees in the background. You make your way through a graveyard where hands reach up from graves to grab you, and Zombies and Skeletons pop up to kill you. The game really lays it on thick with the mood, in a good way, right from the very beginning.

As you can see above, this game was absolutely made with a Halloween theme in mind, as you literally collect what basically equates to Halloween candy, like Hershey's Kisses and Sweet Tart looking things, etc. You start with a single rock shot for your slingshot, but can upgrade to a three-way rock, and later even more ridiculous things, like homing rockets. The basic rocks themselves actually have a lot going on, as they fly in a semi-realistic arc that you can somewhat control, and they can even ricochet off of walls and hit enemies from behind. The basic point of every level, is to explore all around (with various hidden pathways and secrets to find), freeing the kidnapped pets from their cages. Once all pets are freed, you can go to the exit, and move on to the next stage.

The three parts, with the three main bosses of the game.

Of course, I only had the Shareware, so it was only the first part of the game, and at least as a kid, I never actually did manage to beat it (though I DID manage to beat the Shareware of Cosmo). The game is not an easy one, though it is (mostly) fair. Later in our teens, thanks to the internet, Harold and I were able to find the full versions of these games, and I'm pretty sure Harold has possibly beaten Monster Bash, though again perhaps not, because it gets rather hard. And the game even has different difficulty settings, so you can choose for it to be harder than normal.


And Werewolves...

And Chucks, OH MY!

So above you can see the title screens for all three parts of the game, the first being the one I owned. If you ask me, Johnny is pretty damn confident for a kid fighting blood-thirsty monsters in a dark nightmare world, in his pajamas (and cool 90s backwards hat), with a SLINGSHOT. Kid's got a pair, I'll tell ya. Not to get too Spoil-tastic on you, but from what I've seen, when you finally face Chuck himself at the end of the game, he really is kinda just hangin' around...just like in that picture. Though in fairness to his lazy ass, the boss fight itself does look pretty tricky.

Even though I never beat the game (or even the Shareware), Monster Bash always stuck with me for it's uniqueness, and the impression it made on me at a young age. I don't often think that classic 2D games can or should be remade in 3D, but this is one game I think would lend itself to 3D pretty well, because the mix of colorful and dark and spooky would make a wonderful contrast in HD, and the slingshot weapon mechanic could work very well in 3D. Especially considering what eventually happened to 3D Realms, I doubt it'll ever happen, but you never know. Apogee still exists in SOME form, or at least it's property rights do, and crazier things have happened.

One can always dream...

But for now, if you've never played Monster Bash, you're actually in luck, as it's at least partially available right now, for free, and legally to boot! You can download the Shareware version of the game from 3D Realms/Apogee themselves, or at least their old site, as well as many other games, by going HERE. And for the more computer savvy out there, there are sites for so-called "abandoneware" or "freeware", where if you're adventurous, you can in fact find the full games. There is also a very nice, fairly easy to learn and use "front end" program, called DOSBox, which allows you to play old DOS games on Windows. Once you learn how to set it up, you can basically use it like console emulators (not that I know about such things), and you can even use controllers for a lot of these old games!

Try the game for yourself, you'll have a real BASH!

So give it a whirl, or if you're not so inclined, at least go check out a playthrough video of it on Youtube. It's a great little slice of the early 90s, when platformers were king, and gaming was still obscure enough that you could have a cute PC game with gory effects. It's tailor made for Halloween time, and if memory serves me, though I could be wrong, I THINK that I actually may have gotten this game around Halloween time back in 1993! Let's pretend that I did, because that memory seems the most fun.

I'll be back with the last big article for the Halloween season, so stay tuned!!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Unnecessary Sequels: Poltergeist

Moving right along, there are so many great, classic horror films. And unfortunately, an awful lot of them also have very unnecessary, often very bad sequels.

It's become an accidental tradition, over the last couple years, to do entries of this "Unnecessary Sequels" series around Halloween. I've already covered classics (and their not-so-classic sequels), such as Fright Night, and Halloween. Going after Halloween was  tad "controversial", simply because it is such a famous, and to some fans even beloved series. But I stand by the fact that the original never needed a sequel, and in fact has a more powerful, chilling ending if taken as a stand-alone film. So now I'm back, this time to cover a film that is a truly great work, probably my top runner up for "Best Modern Horror Film", behind John Carpenter's The Thing And that film would be, Poltergeist...

They're Here...

Film: Poltergeist
Year: 1982
Director: Tobe Hooper (and arguably Steven Spielberg)
Unnecessary Sequels: Poltergeist II (1986), and Poltergeist III (1988)

Back in 1982, Steven Spielberg ruled the summer, as within one week of each other that June, you had the release of both Poltergeist and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. E.T., of course, is a celebrated classic, both as a science fiction film, and a great family film. Even as great slice of the 80s. But Poltergeist is also considered a classic, especially in horror film circles, and was a hit in it's own right. Directed by Tobe Hooper, known horror creator of such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem's Lot, and Lifeforce, he certainly sat in the chair, and got the official credit.

But to those who know and love Spielberg's works, this film just screams Spielberg, and does not, in all honesty and due apologies to Mr. Hooper, really bear much of his mark or style at all. Spielberg was not allowed to direct two films at once due to studio contracts, so even though he only "produced" Poltergeist, he was on set almost every day, and he had a very firm hand in crafting the film and it's entire creative and post-production process. Much the same as George Lucas did not take official director's credit for the second and third Star Wars films, but in much the same way, he was arguably still the director. Either way, most people consider this to be a "Spielberg Film", regardless of the details, because it just FEELS like one.

This Clean?

The film stars Craig T. Nelson of TV show Coach fame, and JoBeth Williams, as Steven and Diane Freeling, a typical white suburban American family, with three children, a nice new home, a dog, a pool being installed in the back yard, the works. Steven works for a real estate agency, and in fact is personally involved in the development and promotion of the new suburban neighborhood that his family now lives in, "Cuesta Verde". Problem is, something's not quite right in the neighborhood, more specifically, with the Freeling's house.

Little by little, the family starts experiencing strange, inexplicable, possibly paranormal phenomenon, like furniture moving on its own, or their youngest daughter, Carol Anne, staring at a TV set that comes on all by itself. The instances get worse, and more powerful, to the point that Carol Anne is seemingly sucked into a void that exists in the children's closet. So the family, against Steven's initial feelings, calls in paranormal experts to observe the house. The experts definitely track strong paranormal activity, to the point that it starts effecting them, and they themselves have to call in bigger fish to deal with it. In this case, a "spiritualist", by the name of Tangina Barrons, played by the excellent Zelda Rubenstein.

Why, Hello There!

The thing that is remarkable, at least to me, about Poltergeist, and probably it's greatest strength, is the fact that while it IS most definitely a scary film (especially if you're seeing it for the first time), it does something that few modern horror films attempt, certainly in the 80s. That being the fact that it does not, with the exception of a particular ectoplasmic goo scene, feature any real blood or gore, it doesn't rely on cheap "gotcha" jump scares. And while I don't want to spoil things for you, absolutely no one dies. It proves that you can make a scary movie, WITHOUT a huge kill count (or any, for that matter), and you can also do it while focusing on the human characters, and making the audience CARE about those characters, in this case a good, endearing, innocent family.

One of the most fucked up scenes an actor has ever been put through.

The film's strength is it's heart, and the fact that, like most Spielberg movies, it builds a foundation on the main characters, and gets you, the viewer, invested in not only the story, but them as people. Much like another Spielberg produced 80s horror film, Gremlins, it manages to be what I call "family horror", more old school, classic Hollywood styled scary films, that manage to be fun AND creepy, heartwarming AND terrifying. The film also, unfortunately, has a bizarre production history and rumored "curse" that follows it, that I'm not going to bother getting into here. If you're curious and unfamiliar, ask Google.

The movie is deserving of it's classic status, and it was also a well-earned blockbuster hit of 1982 (though, obviously, not nearly to the extent that E.T. was). Sadly, if it didn't also have shitty sequels to talk about, then this would be a very different kind of article.

Just talkin' on my Dream Phone...

Without getting too spoiler-y, the ending of the original film is very powerful, and very self-containing. Meaning it's a GOOD, solid ending that, while it certainly leaves you with questions, as all good horror movies should, it also feels "wrapped up", and does not need "the continuing adventures" to be created. But Hollywood is Hollywood, and money is money. So in 1986, Poltergeist II was born, not directed by Hooper, nor with much (if really any) involvement by Spielberg.

Now, in the interest of fairness, Poltergeist II is not a BAD film. It's okay, in it's own way, and has at least a couple elements of merit to it. Namely, the new characters of "Reverend Kane", and Taylor, a Native American shaman and friend of Tangina. The Freeling family has moved, and their old home location has become the site of a paranormal archeological excavation. Everything seems hunky dory at first, but naturally, there wouldn't be much of a movie if things didn't go awry.

And where things go awry, is this film, this unnecessary sequel's, biggest problem. As far as I'm concerned, this movie commits a cardinal sin, and does the one thing that, at the very least supernatural-based horror films, should never do. And that is tell you too much, reveal too much, flesh out the ghost, or the monster, or the bad guy, too much. Poltergeist II does that, and if you take it as canon to the first film (I don't), as far as I'm concerned, it really kinda de-mystifies the first film quite a bit.

Admittedly, very creepy.

According to this sequel's canon, Reverend Henry Kane is the source of the paranormal occurrences, that the Freeling family encountered in the first film. In the first film, again while trying to avoid giving TOO much away, you are never given any clear story or details at all, about just WHAT is haunting them, and just WHAT kind of ethereal monster is after Carol Anne. And it's better that way, the story plays better, and it makes the whole deal spookier, when you really don't know WHAT is going on. You are just as in the dark as the terrified family, and that's part of the fun: you, the audience, are along for the ride. But in P2, they try to say that "Well, it was actually just a crazy old preacher's soul that's after the girl". Much, MUCH less scary, and honestly kind of lame.

The actor himself, Julian Beck, to his credit, does a phenomenal job, and is appropriately sinister and creepy. But the fact remains that the original film never needed nor ASKED for greater explanation, any more than it did for an ill-advised sequel that tries to provide that. Zelda Rubenstein also makes a reappearance, once again helping the family fight the forces of Darkness, along with her friend Taylor. And all of that is nice, well done enough, but just incredibly un-needed. But for all of this film's flaws, it is nowhere NEAR as bad as what followed...


So in 1988, MGM decided to poop out yet another sequel. And this time, whether it was due to them "wanting to shake things up", or more likely, them wanting to make a cheaper film, they didn't bring most of the cast back. In fact, the only two returning actors, are Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne), and Zelda Rubenstein. They concocted some half-baked story about how Carol Anne's parents decided to, because reasons, send her away to Chicago to live with her aunt and uncle. Because the family, the parents, that fought so very hard in the FIRST two films, to protect this girl they loved so much, would totally just decide to send her away afterwards.

So here she is, living with strange people in a sky scraper in Chicago, and wouldn't you know it, the spirit of that dastardly old Rev. Kane, STILL won't shut the fuck up! He's back again, just like The Joker in an old episode of Batman, and the psychic Tangina, naturally sensing that he's back, rushes across country herself to conveniently be there to help out, once again. Because some Hollywood scripts, are written very, very well.

In full blunt honesty, while the second film at least deserved to be talked about a bit, this film really does not. It is on Jaws: The Revenge type levels of crap. And the worst part is? The poor little girl, Heather, at the tender age of 12 years old, died just months before the film was even done in post-production, due to really shitty and very sad medical malpractice. So the kid doesn't even get to finish growing up, let alone living her life, but the studio has it's bottom line to think about, so they put this garbage film out anyway. Though to their empty credit, they DO dedicate the film "in her memory".

In 2015, they (of course) even made a remake, simply titled Poltergeist once more. And I really couldn't say if it was well made or not. I've seen enough crappy, pointless remakes and reboots in my time, that I simply was not interested and don't really have any intention of seeing it. The original film is an absolute classic, that if you haven't seen, I would say it's one of those films, unless ghosts really scare you, or you just can't do spooky movies in general, that you really must see. It's worth it, and it really does tell a good, interesting story. The sequels, however? If you were asking for my advice, I'd say don't even bother. The original stands on it's own just fine, and I think that's how it should stay.

RIP to Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Childhood Memories: Count Duckula

Moving right along, it's long past time to finally take a look at one of the more bizarre cartoon favorites from my childhood...

As a kid in the mid-to-late-80s, I feel that among other things, I had the privilege of watching TV at a time when it had some of the best possible kid-centric entertainment on. I went from the early-to-mid-80s classics like the Smurfs, and Inspector Gadget, and Heathcliff, and He-Man, and Pac-Man, etc. to later 80s fare the likes of Thundercats, and  Dinosaucers, The Raccoons and The Real Ghostbusters, or even David the Gnome and The Super Bros. Super Show. And of course drifting into early 90s, I had excellent fare like Doug, Batman, Bots Master, and X-Men.

But in the 80s, as you can see above, there was another peculiar show, from Britain, known as "Danger Mouse". In the 80s, both Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, actually not only used to play cartoons and GOOD shows, but they both also used to have shows from all over the world (in part to avoid the costs of producing their own shows). In the early days of Nick, in particular, they had shows from America, Europe, Canada, and even Japan. Danger Mouse is, fundamentally, a spoof/send-up to James Bond style British spy fiction. The twist of course, being that it took place in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, as the spy hero was a mouse, his sidekick Penfold was a mole, the villain Baron Greenback was a toad, etc. On top of that, was the very uniquely British humor, which is one of the selling points of the show, and the main source of it's charm. While a "kids" show, the humor and themes in Danger Mouse were not written FOR children, and much of it certainly went over my head as a kid.

The First Ever Appearance of a certain Vampire Duck.

Now while I never did get to see (or at least don't remember seeing) the story arc where it takes place, the character we're here to talk about today, Count Duckula, originally appeared in Danger Mouse. In a story arc called "The Four Tasks of Danger Mouse", along his adventures he went to Transylvania, where he ran into a silly vampire duck, who was obsessed with the idea of fame and wanted to become a movie star. From that quirky beginning, the popular cameo eventually led to a spin-off series starring the duck himself, and while I do love Danger Mouse, as a kid I absolutely preferred Duckula, once I had seen it.

Not always "kid's" fare.

Now, one odd thing I will point out right away, before diving into the show proper, is that I was allowed to watch this cartoon at all. As I've mentioned many times in the past, growing up the way I did, the grandmother that raised me had often very inconsistent and even contradictory opinions or rules, as to what I could or couldn't watch, etc. Simply put, I never saw ANY version of Dracula growing up, not even the amazing Bela Lugosi original, because my grandmother personally didn't like vampires or vampire stories. For similar reasons, I also never saw any real kind of Frankenstein or Mummy movies, even when they were played on TV, like TNT's MonsterVision. And yet, she had no problem with me watching a VERY British cartoon about a vampire, with plenty of dry humor straight over my head, and many dark themes and images like the pentagram above. But, I'm glad she was inconsistent in this case, because I'm very glad I got to enjoy Duckula as a child, even IF I didn't get a lot of the jokes or references.


So, getting back to business, as the (awesome) intro to the show points out, every so often when the moon is full and the stars align just right, it is possible to resurrect the vampire Lord of Castle Duckula, essentially as a totally new self (kind of like Doctor Who). As the faithful man-servant Igor is reading out the ingredients necessary in the ritual, the last key component he needs is blood, and the bumbling maid, Nanny, yells "I'll get it!" in her classic fashion, and grabs a bottle of ketchup without really looking, off of a shelf. Now, this causes a bit of a mix-up, as one might imagine, in the resurrection of a dread vampire Lord. I'd like to point out, that while Nanny is certainly a few forks short of a silverware set, you would think that Igor would have bothered to notice he was handed a ketchup bottle before just pouring away, himself.

The result? Their resurrected Lord, wound up being a goofy, fame-obsessed vampire duck...who also happens to be a VEGETARIAN vampire. That's right, instead of blood (which he thinks, I agree, is disgusting), he sucks the juice out of vegetables (and one might imagine, fruits). And that is just one part of the quirk and charm of the character, and the show!

Quite the colorful cast.

So the core characters of the show, as seen above, are Count Duckula himself, who wishes to travel the world, and find ways to amass great fame and super-stardom. He is ever served by his two retainers, Igor, who constantly tries to encourage his master to be "more evil", and Nanny, who while having a good heart, is a bit of an idiot, and a major clutz. Nanny alone, is often the cause of the team's woes, though Duckula has a penchant for getting himself into trouble as well, both because he is arrogant, but also quite careless. One of the show's funniest recurring gags, is the fact that Nanny is enormous, and strong as an ox, and as such, she doesn't seem to really "get" how doors instead, she often just enters or exits a room by smashing straight through the wall.

Last but not least, is Doctor Von Goosewing (an obvious spoof on Dr. Van Helsing from the Dracula novel), who is a bit of a mad scientist, and an obsessed vampire hunter. He is absolutely fixated on trying to slay the "evil" Duckula (quite possibly having been responsible for killing the last incarnation, or at the very least, his ancestor was). The thing he doesn't know, or perhaps doesn't care about, is that while a bit of a greedy fool, Duckula is fairly harmless, both because he's a vegetarian, but also because he's not really particularly violent. Duckula is self-centered, but he has no real desire to harm anyone else on his way to fame. Nonetheless, Goosewing is determined, and while he doesn't show up in every episode, he is the show's main recurring villain, though he is often outwitted not by prowess, but by sheer dumb luck, or silly circumstances.

Castle Duckula

Count Duckula's home, Castle Duckula, is a suitably complex, creepy, and dusty old thing. But it also comes with one singularly unique feature: the fact that it can travel. As the basis for almost every episode of the show, Duckula's latest scheme or whim usually takes the group to some far-off location around the world, and the castle possesses magic that allows it to teleport wherever they wish. The catch being, that when dawn comes (Eastern Transylvanian Time, naturally), the castle instantly returns to it's original foundation. I remember thinking how cool it would be to have a traveling castle, as a kid. And honestly, it's still a neat idea now, though an entire, enormous CASTLE might not be so convenient.

Not your average Vampire.

The show only ran for four seasons, and for whatever reason I did not see all of them. But what I did see I always loved, even if I didn't always get the humor. More of my childhood obsession with monsters, I would imagine, as well as the fact that I just really loved Duckula himself. It was because of Nickelodeon directly, that I got to see such shows as "You Can't Do That On Television", as well as Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, David the Gnome, Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, etc.

When I was younger, I actually thought that Mel Blanc, of Bugs Bunny and Heathcliff fame, also voiced Count Duckula. But it was actually British actor David Jason, who also voiced Danger Mouse, among others.The funny thing about it though, especially knowing that, is that I've always felt that Duckula had a distinctively American sounding accent, at times.

An example of the show's unique humor.

One good example of the show's off-kilter wit, would be the first episode, "No Sax Please, We're Egyptian" (a riff on a British play, "No Sex Please, We're British"). In it, Duckula learns of a mystic saxophone, that he thinks could help make him a star, so off the go, teleporting Castle Duckula to Egypt, in search of the artifact. Searching the pyramids, the group gets separated, and Duckula winds up running into a couple of acolytes, Whomite and Yoube.  They are the servants of the great "Upshe", whom they are waiting to rise. You can probably see where the writers go with material like that, and it's some rather humorous wordplay, worthy of Abbott & Costello.

The castle, teleporting.

Overall, it's a really great show, with a total of about 65 episodes. If you can find this cartoon, I would highly recommend you get it, both for it's monster goodness, as well as it's one-of-a-kind sense of humor and style. I've really never seen or even heard of another show quite like it, and it's a shame that it isn't better remembered for younger generations. But then again, that's what I'm here for, isn't it?

See you next time, for more Halloween Countdown!