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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

VAULTCAST! Conversations in the Dark: Pax Romano

He's one of horror's most political and outspoken filmmakers. Over the past 45 years, George Romero has given us a body of work unlike anyone else in the genre. Along the way, he's become a Hollywood outsider, doing things his way--or at least trying his best to.

To discuss Romero and his work, I brought on a blogger whom I've admired for some time now, the masked and mysterious Pax Romano of Billy Loves Stu. A fellow Romero fan and zombie lover, Pax was a whole lot of fun to have on Conversations along with me and my very own zombie companion, Captain Cruella. We get into everything from the Living Dead flicks to Martin, Creepshow and all points in between (not to mention a brief but entertaining non sequitur into the world of horror porn parodies...)

So listen in on the embedded player below, or proceed to the Vaultcast page and download for listening at your leisure!

Blog: http://billylovesstue.blogspot.com

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Retro Review: It Came from Outer Space (1953)

The Second World War had been won. America seemed to be driving off into the proverbial sunset, leaving its Depression worries far behind and emerging as a shiny, happy world power. And yet, underneath that perfect Brill Cream surface, there was just as much turmoil as ever--only now it was buried down deep where no one could see. Eisenhower-era America was a very paranoid, nervous place, but to really understand and perceive that, you had to look in the place where the nation's zeitgeist so very often resided--the movies.

In particular, as they did in so many other periods in our history, genre films best epitomized the mood of the times. In the wake of World War II and the dawn of the Atomic Age, the public was inundated with a plethora of sci-fi based horror cinema. No longer were we being terrorized by fantastical and mythological figures out of folklore--rather, this time around, the dangers came from science, whether that meant man-made or from beyond the stars. The devastating powers of science unleashed were made known to us that fateful day in August 1945, when the city of Hiroshima, Japan was reduced to rubble in a flash.

Add to this the all-encompassing fears engendered in us by the burgeoning Cold War, with the whole nation caught up in a panic of potential Red infiltration, and you have a perfect storm of sorts, which would result in a golden age of science-fiction horror. Technology could not be trusted; the strange, the unknown, the outsider, could not be trusted. It was a time of rabid paranoia, and filmmakers were more than happy to step up and take advantage.

Filmmakers like New Haven's own Jack Arnold, who took his first step into the genre arena in 1953 with the 3-D groundbreaker It Came from Outer Space. At the vanguard of Universal Studios' horror renaissance of the early 1950s, Arnold would go on to direct both Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequel, Revenge of the Creature, as well as the acclaimed 1957 adaptation of Richard Matheson's The Incredible Shrinking Man. But he set the tone with this, his initial foray into sci-fi horror, and one of the seminal pictures of its kind.

Arnold's screenwriter was Harry Essex, the same man who would deliver the script to Creature from the Black Lagoon to him the following year. Arnold also had as his star the earnest and intense Richard Carlson, who also starred in Creature, as well. And although that latter film gets all the press when it comes to Universal in the 1950s, it's entirely possible that this is the better film.

Playing on those inescapable Cold War fears, It Came from Outer Space tells the tale of an amateur stargazer (Carlson) who stumbles upon a crashed spacecraft in the Arizona desert and soon becomes the only one aware of the threat once the craft is totally covered in rubble. No one in his small town believes him, and it only gets worse when he begins to see his friends and neighbors being taken over by the inscrutable alien influence of which only he and his put-upon girlfriend (played by the doe-eyed Barbara Rush) are fully aware.

It's a classic formula, and one that delivers in spades. Part of the 3-D craze of the early 1950s that also gave us the likes of House of Wax (vying for audiences in the summer of 1953) and Creature the following summer, It Came from Outer Space is engagingly shot by Clifford Stine, who would go on to shoot such epics as Spartacus and Patton. Yes, the 3-D effects are often forced and contrived, as is so much of the 3-D of that era, but it's a testament to the forethought of both Arnold and Stine that the movie works just as well in 2-D.

Carlson and Rush give us performances typical of genre B-movies of this era, but it isn't for greating acting that audiences flocked to films such as this. We also get familiar character actors like Charles Warren as the incredulous sheriff, Joe Sawyer as a philosophical telephone technician and Russell Johnson, a.k.a. The Professor from Gilligan's Island, as his assistant and the first one to be co-opted by the aliens.

And speaking of aliens, my what a gruesome and glorious creature design we get here. The story goes that the original design for the aliens was rejected and would later be used for the Metaluna mutant of This Island Earth two years later. No matter, because the one-eyed, slime-caked, snail-like behemoths created by Milicent Patrick (designer of the the Gill-Man), are far more terrifying. These aliens would have to be among the most memorable of 1950s science fiction cinema, including the unique point-of-view photography that accompanied their scenes, executed by encasing the camera in a clear rubber bubble.

The plot, conceptualized by Ray Bradbury, is innovative for its time, portraying the aliens as misunderstood by a mistrusting and primitive human populace--it's the kind of progressive sci-fi thinking that would later give rise to the likes of Star Trek and other such thoughtful, hopeful, utopian sci-fi entertainment. The movie also has so much of what we've come to expect from genre pictures of the 1950s--an exasperated, dire protagonist; a constantly screaming leading lady; and of course, lots of lots of theremin, played by the legendary master of the instrument, Samuel Hoffman.

Captain Cruella and I recently had the pleasure of hosting this film as part of The Avon Theatre's Cult Classics series, and despite the poorly reproduced 3-D, it was an experience I very much enjoyed. It Came from Outer Space is something of a time capsule--a summation of a very paradoxical time in our history, mixing optimism and hysteria, delivering thrills and chills while also making us stop and think. Universal of the 1950s may have been a shadow of what it was in the 1930s, but this picture is still a whole lot of fun, and proves that the studio could still be counted on to deliver a rollicking good monster movie. Amongst the massive sci-fi horror movement that took the decade of Elvis and Lucy by storm, it is one of the best.

TRAILER TRASH! '50s Sci-Fi Edition!

Monday, July 18, 2011

EXCLUSIVE! The Abominable Dr. Phibes DVD Commentary, with B-Sol & Capt. Cruella!

Few films--or, truth be told, life experiences--bring my soul as much pure joy as The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Vincent Price's camp masterpiece of 1971. A gift of unadulterated bliss from the movie gods, Phibes holds a special place in my heart, and its viewing has become nothing short of a transcendent experience.

And so, it was with great glee that I approached the concept of recording a DVD commentary for the picture. Suggested by Captain Cruella as a followup to our recent Zombi 2 commentary, the idea was simply too good to pass up. After all, I'd certainly seen the film enough times to be able to pontificate about it with confidence, and we both relished the opportunity to convey our adoration for it.

I hope you get a kick out of watching the movie with our commentary if you choose to do so, and that it adds something for those of you who, like myself, have lost track of how many times you've seen it. As with previous VoH DVD commentaries, simply sync up the movie with the commentary by (more or less) simultaneously starting our audio track and the movie itself on your DVD, in order to watch the film while you listen to us blabbing about it. You can find the audio embedded below, or head over the brand-new Vault of Horror DVD commentary podcast page and download it!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fear in Four Colors: The Search for Swamp Thing #1

Writer: Jonathan Vankin
: Marco Castiello
Vincenzo Acunzo
Colors: Barb Ciardo
: Sal Cipriano
: Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes & Ulises Arreola
Variant Cover: J.G. Jones
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date
: June 22, 2011

Imagine occult detective John Constantine getting kicked out of the Batmobile by the world's greatest detective, Batman, for smoking. Or having an awkward moment with former flame Zatanna. These are the kinds of scenarios that will play out in DC's Brightest Day Aftermath: The Search for Swamp Thing. The first issue of the three-part miniseries hit comic book stores just a few weeks ago, marking Constantine's historic return to the mainstream DC Universe for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Since the early 1990s, Constantine--best known by casual fans for the movie in which he was played by Keanu Reeves--has been exclusively featured in DC's mature-readers Vertigo line. But thanks to acclaimed writer and journalist Jonathan Vankin, who spent the past seven years as editor of Vertigo, the chain-smoking British gumshoe now gets to mix and mingle with all the bigwigs of the DCU, just as his fellow Vertigo character, Swamp Thing, has gotten to do.

And speaking of Swampy, the events of this series are tied directly to that muck-encrusted denizen of the Star City woods. The hulking elemental was named protector of the Earth at the conclusion of the Brightest Day series, but all may not be as it seems. No one knows the creature as well as Constantine, who was the one who helped him realize that he was never scientist Alec Holland to begin with, but rather a being of nature who simply rose up after the scientist's death and believed himself to be his reincarnated form.

When Constantine begins to suspect that Swamp Thing may not exactly be the right Thing for the job of Earth's guardian--that he may, in fact, be far more sinister in his current form than anyone else realizes--he decides to turn to Gotham City's Dark Knight for a little help in tracking him down. As a plot device, it's a bit forced, but it's hard to pass up any excuse for those two characters to cross paths. And it certainly lives up to expectations, thanks not only to Vankin's scripting, but also the engaging artwork of former Witchblade penciler Marco Castiello.

Judging by the cover, it is likely that the Man of Steel is soon to get involved in the goings-on, so things are sure to be looking up. I've always been a fan of crossovers like these, and I think it's great that DC is incorporating characters like Constantine and Swamp Thing into their mainstream universe (now is a little better inclusion of the Marvel Family too much to ask? I don't think so.)

Forced plotting aside, this is a promising first issue for the Search for Swamp Thing three-parter, with some really nice character rendering by Castiello. I've got to hand it to DC--in the past decade, they have completely taken the lead away from Marvel in terms of these universe-spanning crossovers, which used to be what the House of Ideas did best during the 1980s and 1990s. I'm looking forward to checking out the next two issues, the next of which is set to hit on July 27...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

TRAILER TRASH! Horror Comedy Edition!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Are You Ready to Believe Us? Investigating the Haunted Sterling Opera House with Above the Realm Paranormal! (Part 2)

If you haven't yet been caught up on our adventures in the Sterling Opera House, please feel free to click here first for the tale of how Captain Cruella and myself came to explore one of Connecticut's most notoriously haunted locations!

After giving the main hall of the Opera House a thorough going-over, it was time for Above the Realm Paranormal investigators (from left to right, above) Troy Leong, Rich DeCarlo and Dan Rivera to take us underground into the bowels of the archaic structure, where a full police precinct and political offices once existed. Odd that such things would be housed below a theater, but we were informed that it was pretty normal during the turn of the 20th century for buildings to serve such completely dual purposes.

After continuing to snap photos like the one above, featuring bizarre energy configurations and inexplicable orbs/streaks of light, we figured we were ready for anything. We had even gotten to the point of directly goading the alleged spirits to show themselves, singing songs they might have recognized. Try to imagine the two of us on stage launching into renditions of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Cheek to Cheek", and you have an idea of how strange the situation was fast becoming.

Once we made our way downstairs, we found ourselves in almost total darkness, with just some streaks of light from the upper floors and the illumination of our cell phones and pocket flashlights to guide us. There was something far more sinister about these dingy offices filled with lead paint chips; the feeling that far worse things had gone on here. All of the warm feelings associated with the Opera House and its rich history were absent here. This was some scary stuff.

After scouting out the offices and precinct, it only got spookier. That's because the next stop on this twisted tour was the holding cells. Yes, this was something straight out of an episode of Ghost Hunters or Fear. A little mini prison that looked almost medieval, although it was probably only a mere 100-150 years old. Below is one of the shots we took of the interior of one of these cells, and it's important to note that the flash from my camera was the only light illuminating this space. Of course, we felt it necessary to take the obligatory pictures of ourselves behind the bars. Come on, you know you would've too. Although I will admit it took some serious coaxing from the Captain and ATR boys to get me inside one of those cells...

It was then that things got truly interesting. Up until this point, we had been dealing with weird flashes of light in photos and nearly inaudible sounds. What happened next is something I have a hard time really wrapping my head around, even now. You can judge me a looney by what I'm about to describe, or you can give me the benefit of the doubt. Either way, I'm telling it as I remember it.

The above photo shows me inside the police officer's locker room, just as I was about to make my way to the stairs that led back up to the theater. Keep in mind once again that the flash of the camera was the only light here. As I illuminated my keychain flashlight to help me see better, I turned the corner to step on to the stairs. At that moment, I was suddenly struck with a feeling of great unease, as if something was terribly wrong. It was hard to describe, kind of like a tightening in my midsection, accompanied by a wave of anxiety.

Just then, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye, on the right hand side of the stairs, at the top, facing down at me. A shadow, yet not a shadow. It was a dark, opaque shape, I suppose some might call it an apparition, moving slowly toward me down the stairs, edging around the corner and becoming more visible. Now, I would have been perfectly willing to believe this was just my shadow, except for the fact that it was moving, and I was not. There was also the issue of my flashlight shining right at it, which tends to make shadow, you know, disappear and stuff.

Yet there it was. The anxiety within me reached a fever pitch, and I'm not ashamed to admit I started quickly backing away from the stairs (OK, maybe a little ashamed.) "What's wrong?" asked Cruella. "Just keep moving...I'll tell you later!" I gasped as we made our way back into the hallway. I let the guys know what I'd seen, and they headed into the room I had just left.

"You don't run," they reprimanded, "You investigate!"

"No," I politely informed them. "You investigate. I run."

Yet when they mounted the stairs, whatever I had seen was predictable gone. Fortunately, they had already seen enough in the Opera House in the past to believe me. After a little more exploration topside, we chatted a bit more about the Opera House's history and what I had seen. We thanked ATR for providing us with a private tour, and left the building to ponder the nature of what had just happened.

I had been a major skeptic before, but I'd be a fool not to be thoroughly shaken in that stance after the Sterling Opera House. Maybe, just maybe, things that go bump in the night are not simply the stuff of horror flicks. Maybe sometimes...things really do go bump in the night...

For more information about Above the Realm Paranormal, check out their website, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter!

The Many Faces of Dracula

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Random Ramblings from the Vault...

  • So... True Blood. I've had a love-hate relationship with the show since day one. I thought last season was great, but wasn't really feeling season 2. And I have to say, last week's season premiere left me significantly less than thrilled. I hear that the second episode was a major improvement... I haven't seen it yet, and I will report back when I do. I'll be patient with it, since I've invested so much time in it. But it better win me back soon...
  • I'm anxiously anticipated the remake of my favorite horror TV movie ever, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. It's set to be released at the end of the summer, and I have to say, it looks like it will be pretty damn good. Sorry to see that Guillermo del Toro bowed out as director (as he did with The Hobbit, damn it...), but at least he's still very much involved with the project. Those little buggers in the fireplace freaked me out as a kid--I can only imagine what they will be like this time.
  • I'd like to recommend an especially amazing anthology I acquired a while back. It's Vintage Crime's The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published. Boy, does this tome ever live up to its name, with stories ranging from the pre-Dracula days all the way up to the present, by everyone from Bram Stoker, D.H. Lawrence and H.P. Lovecraft to Anne Rice, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Oh yeah, and there's a preface by Neil Gaiman and foreword by Kim Newman. It's pretty impressive, and is also inspiring me to pick up Vintage Crime's Big Book of Adventure Stories, featuring some damn fine pulp reprints.
  • Is it too early to start thinking about Halloween? I know for me it isn't. I'm already contemplating what I'm going to be this year (I may finally be dusting off that Rocky Balboa robe and trunks I've been sitting on for a few years now.) I can tell you that Zombelina and Skeleton Jack will be taking on traditional colonial garb this year. And of course, Captain Cruella will be Captain Cruella, just in time for the second annual Village Invasion. What costume plans do you have?
  • Let's jump from Halloween to Christmas, shall we? Wondering what might be on the Vault Keeper's list to Santa? Well, there are quite a few horror-related items I've had my eye on for some time now, including: John Carpenter's The Thing on DVD (no, I don't own it), Universal's Wolf Man Legacy DVD set, the recent deluxe release of Psycho, Season 1 of The Walking Dead of course, and the Karloff/Lugosi Legends of Horror collection, just to name a few movie selections. And for my bookshelf? The Stoker Award-winning Final Exits, The Zen of Zombie, my pal Paul Bibeau's acclaimed book Sundays with Vlad, and the most excellent recent book on the Return of the Living Dead series, just to name a few...
  • My recent encounters with restless spirits at the apparently haunted Sterling Opera House in Derby, CT has got me thinking... How many of you really and truly believe in ghosts? Do you think I'm wacked after reading the first part of my report from the scene? How do you explain such phenomena? The intersection between horror and the paranormal has long fascinated me, and I'd like to get your take on the subject.
  • If you could add another monster cereal to General Mills' classic collection, what would it be? Honey Hunchbacks? Zombie Bites? Kong Crunch, perhaps?
  • I'm very pleased to announce that last year's post on Catholic themes in Italian zombie cinema has been accepted for publication in an academic volume on the subject of theology and the undead. I'll have more information on this as it progresses, as I'll need to rework and expand the piece before it can be included. But I'm excited and honored that my work will be spotlighted in this way, as that particular post is one of which I am especially proud.
  • You can call it Kevin Geeks Out About Evil Children. This coming Thursday, starting at 8pm at 92YTribeca in NYC, Friend of the Vault Kevin Maher will be presenting a double-feature of Don't Go to Sleep and The Children, two classics of the "scary kid" subgenre. The Captain and I would love to be a part of that, as we support all that Mr. Maher does...but alas, we will be elsewhere that evening...
  • Where we'll be is the Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT--and if you're unable to make it to 92YTribeca, then by all means come down to that historic little theater for a screening of the awesome '70s nature-gone-amuck flick, Alligator! As always, we'll be doing trivia giveaways, and introducing the film. It should be a blast, and we're looking forward to hopefully seeing some of you Vault dwellers there.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"See Anything You Like?": P.J Soles as Slasher Victim Prototype

If Halloween is the prototypical slasher film (which it is), then P.J. Soles, in her portrayal of the ill-fated Lynda van der Klok, is the prototypical victim. I will admit that I was not terribly impressed with her acting the first time I saw the film. In general, as important a horror film as it may be, I found that with the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis and of course, Donald Pleasance, the acting was about at the level of a movie made around the same time--Debbie Does Dallas (or so I hear).

Nevertheless, in repeated viewings of the film, I've come to appreciate what P.J. Soles did with her role, and specifically, what screenwriters John Carpenter and Debra Hill gave her to do. The ground she broke in that movie opened the way for countless slasher films that followed, and countless doomed damsels who met their end at the hands of deranged knife-wielding maniacs. Over the past 30+ years, we've come to expect certain things from this type of horror movie. There are formulas to be observed, after all.

Well, they weren't always formulas. They had to start somewhere. And most of them come from the original Halloween. That includes what types of characters will become slasher fodder, and the reasons behind their demise. To put it bluntly, the slasher subgenre gave us the phenomenon of horror film characters that we actually want to die. In other words, they make us root for the monster. This phenomenon in large part has its origin in Halloween, and in the van der Klock character in particular.

Lynda van der Klock is an extremely irritating individual. This is not meant as a knock against Soles; rather, I'm sure she would take it as a compliment. After all, that is the entire point of her character, is it not? Laurie Strode is the sympathetic one, and her friends--Lynda in particular--represent everything she is not. Lynda is ditzy, she is loud-mouthed, and she is utterly self-centered. She hits on the cardinal sins of slasher cinema (outlined famously by Jamie Kennedy in Scream), engaging in drinking, smoking and fornication.

In short, Lynda is a bad girl. And in the soon-to-be classic tradition of the decidedly conservative slasher film, she is punished for it. Laurie survives the film because she is virtuous and hard-working. She is a woman of good character. Lynda does not, because she gives in to vice. And while Halloween may not have technically been the first horror film to play out this way, it certainly went a long to codifying it as a hard and fast rule.

So Lynda becomes the origin of the stereotypical slasher film bimbo. And for accomplishing that, P.J. Soles deserves recognition. She has certainly earned a place in the hearts of horror fans in general, and especially fans of Halloween. In fact, there is probably not a single enthusiast of Carpenter's magnum opus who will not fondly reminisce about Soles' irreplaceable part in the film, especially her iconic bedroom death scene at the hands of the sheet-covered Michael Myers, in which she speaks the line from which this post takes its title.

While it may be easy to dismiss the performances of Soles (and to a certain degree, Nancy Loomis as well), those who truly appreciate the evolution of the horror film understand what an essential part she played. For every time we see a nubile, topless, giggling airhead about to meet her maker in a slasher film, it is the legacy of P.J. Soles that we're witnessing. Carpenter and Hill created the role, but it was Soles who gave it life. Before Michael ended it, that is.
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