Thursday, December 31, 2009

A New Year's Gift

Well, not technically from me, but while trolling through YouTube, I did happen to notice that some kind soul has very recently uploaded the 1987 flick Bloody New Year in its entirety. While it's not New Year's Evil (which, let's face it, has its own limited attributes, but is not without its charm), BNY is...pretty damn bad. But in a fun way, and with the reanimated dead. And since I'm assuming that many of my loyal readers may be partaking in potent potables on this night of festivities, I'm guessing that can only add to the effect. So, to paraphrase the late Tom Snyder, fire up the colortinis and watch the pictures as they fly through the Interweb.

Happy New Year, friends. To hell with 2009. Bring on The Year We Make Contact!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Chas. Balun, 1948-2009

As I'm typing this, I have my copies of three books in my lap - Horror Holocaust, The Deep Red Horror Handbook, and Beyond Horror Holocaust - each one looking at the history of Horror cinema with an approach that can only be called Guerrilla Analysis; cheap, fevered, riddled with typos (except for the last one, a very polished production), crammed with b&w photos that spill over into margins, and so filled with unbridled enthusiasm for the subject that the passion all but drips from the pages. Like blood. And their author / editor, Chas. Balun, liked blood. Lots and lots and lots of blood.

When Balun started the magazine Deep Red in the early 80s, he made all other horror publications seem quaint in comparison. For Balun, Splatter mattered; he was covering the subgenre, especially the giallos and other Italian releases, before virtually anyone else, and the major players in publishing had to sit up and pay attention. Before the decade was out, he was producing articles and columns for Fangoria and, more fittingly, its short-lived sister publication GoreZone. His regular stint for the latter was entitled "Piece o' Mind," and you'd be forgiven for carrying the image of Balun digging into his own skull to fling grey matter at you. No one would ever make the mistake of calling Chas Balun subtle.

But here's what some others have called him, taken from the logrolling quotes on the cover of his 2003 release, Beyond Horror Holocaust (a sequel to the 1986 edition)...

A leading cult hero, film critic and author - Los Angeles Times

Chas. Balun is the King of Splatter Films! - Lucio Fulci, director

Chas. Balun is the Howard Stern of Splatter. - Anthony Timpone, Fangoria editor

I'm not sure the horror film has ever been graced with a pair of eyes, a voice or a sensitivity like his. - Jack Ketchum, author

It was announced today that Balun passed away on December 18 after a lengthy battle with cancer. You just know that had to piss him off, if for no other reason than he would have preferred a death that would have been, in his beloved term, a chunkblower. I'd say Rest in Peace, Chas., but I'm guessing that you'd find that pretty boring. So instead, may you go somewhere that only the most horrible of atrocities are happening...but only if they let you watch. And offer suggestions.

Now, may we please get out of this year without any more deaths?

Tease Me, Thrill Me, Sell Me, Kill Me!

The complaint is a common one - movie trailers of all genres simply give away too damn much of the movie, with the worst culprits being those that edit a series of events in the same order of the movie. How many times have you sat through a coming attraction only to feel as if you've experienced the entire film? Because promotional departments love to treat audiences like idiots (I'm not saying that they shouldn't, mind you - having worked in movie exhibition for a time, I'm surprised that many moviegoers don't require instructions on the seats to face the screen), this is why ad campaigns seldom take chances, why one-sheets are often just a succession of big movie star heads, why so many titles are focus-tested to a banal cookie-cutter sameness. (Yesterday I saw the trailer for Extraordinary Measures, which should not be confused with either Desperate Measures, Extreme Measures, or even Lorenzo's Oil sans Lorenzo, even though they all deal at some point with saving the life of someone very ill, usually a child.)

Teaser trailers are different. Teasers show very little, and in so doing, challenge the folks in Marketing to come up with clever ways of promoting the flick, in some cases while the picture is still being shot and has precious little footage in the can to trumpet.
In a world ruled by The Jar, it would be decreed that all Horror films must be promoted with at least one teaser trailer, and tax incentives would also go to filmmakers and studios who make the teaser their only trailer. They're a natural fit for Horror, which is all about selling the Monster Behind the Door. When the door is opened...well, it's a Monster, yes, but never the equivalent of what your imagination was able to conjure. Teasers do the best job of this, all but hawking the line, "If you don't see this might die! And if you see this just might kill you!" Someone once asked me what I liked best about Horror movies, and I answered, in all seriousness, "The weeks before they open."

In many ways, teasers are the close second cousins to print ads and book jackets. Few movie campaigns equaled the impact of 1976 full-page newspaper ads for The Omen that said nothing more than, "Good morning. You are now one day closer to the end of the world." Brilliant - I get gooseflesh just typing that.

However, teasers are treated like the bastard second cousins to full-length trailers, and even with the advent of DVD and added features, they often get left off the disc. The brilliant teaser for 1983's Christine, which played a full year before the movie was in theaters, didn't find its way onto DVD until the most recent release, and I've been searching for the marvelous teaser for 1985's Lifeforce for 25 years now, after fortunate enough to see it only once (it set up the "Eyeball Looking at Earth" image that was the centerpiece of the campaign, which only made sense if you saw the teaser). And video emptor - cuts promoted as "teasers" on YouTube are frequently just the TV commercial. (But many kudos to you, Aussie Roadshow, for preserving everything that you have.)

I see there as being two kinds of teasers: 1) the trailer constructed around brand new footage shot exclusively for the preview, or 2) the trailer that consists of one scene from the film, taken out of context, yet still having a dramatic effect (the equivalent of a book excerpt). They need not be short, but they must play in theaters and not simply on TV. (This is why, as magnificently creepy as the 30 second spot for 1978's Magic is, it is a TV commercial and never played in cinemas, therefore...Hey, my blog, my rules.)

So here are a handful of teasers that fulfill the criteria, and then I'll open it up to you folks. Give me some of your favorites in Horror and Science Fiction, and we'll post them along with these. I've intentionally left a few biggies off of this list for now so you'll have some low-hanging fruit to pick. So what are you waiting for? Don't tease me...Tease me!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Zelda Rubinstein near death

Very sad news coming out of Los Angeles, as Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist's Tagina) has been hospitalized for over the last month, and that recently she has been slipping in and out of consciousness as both lungs and kidneys are failing. At last report, she had been taken off life support and was given mere hours to live. The 76 year old actress was very much the heart of the Poltergeist franchise, as well as one of Hollywood's first performers to offer their services for anti-AIDS advertising promoting the use of condoms. Here at the Jar we're keeping her in our thoughts, and hoping that, when it is her time to go into the light, she be allowed to do so with grace, gentleness and dignity.

If you feel anything, just start screaming.

Every year the Sundance Film Festival offers a unique selection of the bizarre and brilliant - genre and slipstream movies that echo throughout the year (or, in some cases, years) as they make their way into cinemas and onto disc. I'll be posting a few trailers in the days to come of some of the more intriguing offerings, and first up is this macabre tale of body shame and psychosis from writer/director Habib Azar - and I wish that the title didn't come up on the YouTube link's banner, because the kicker lies in the very last line of dialogue...

Tuesday Terror Trivia for 12/29!

(Cakers, you may not answer this question. Sorry. I loves ya, but sorry.)

What player's name is on the baseball bat that Wendy Torrance uses to defend herself from husband Jack in 1980's The Shining?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

That List-less Feeling...

No matter where you click on the Interweb, they are everywhere - lists, lists, lists. The Best, the Worst, the Most Memorable, the Most Influential, the Biggest Successes, the Biggest Failures, and of both the year and the decade. And there's nary a horror blogger out there who has not contributed their own, and certainly more will follow in the next few days. The Jar will not be among them...well, at least not from me, anyway.

That's certainly not because of any judgment on my part. Indeed, I've been reading many of these bloggers' contributions, and enjoying (and agreeing) with a fair share of them. For my money, you can't really do any better than Jeff Allard's picks over at Shock Til You Drop, who has also demonstrated a remarkable 97.3% track record in his years of compiling his choices (that other 2.7% is Cloverfield, Jeff, but I'm guessing I'm not the first friend to tell you that; you also deal with the know-nothing hoi polloi with far more patience than I could ever muster - please tell me what your doctor prescribes). But Jeff also admits to that nagging feeling that should keep any serious horror film aficionado from posting a Master List with full confidence.

You just can't see everything. You can't. There was a time that you could have, before the direct-to-video revolution flooded the market with product that was provocatively packaged, movies that demanded your attention with intriguing cover art and a flair for the well-turned adline. But then, we've all long known that if there's anything that the movie industry does better than anything else (including the independents), it's selling the sizzle over the steak, and it sure feels like Sturgeon's Law - Ninety percent of everything is crap - errs on the conservative side.

And here's my other dirty little secret...I don't rent. Ever. I buy. A lot. And I don't buy used. I wait until I can get factory-sealed copies of DVDs in all genres at cheaper prices by purchasing directly from dealers through their Amazon affiliation. I am cursed by words that I heard my father say to me more times than I can count - "You want it? Get it. Better to have than rent." (My father is by no measure a wealthy man.) Whereas other sons may have pestered their parents for sports paraphernalia or stuff designed to satisfy the need for speed, the Senskis raised a kid who wanted nothing more than books, comics, music and movies. They saw that as a good thing, and I'm eternally grateful they did - but it led to a lifetime of collecting that becomes a ball and chain whenever I have to move. And it means that I often get to the Direct to DVD stuff much later than other fans do...and there's still a lot that remains to be seen by Yours Truly from this last decade.

Now, theatrical releases are another matter. From 1988 to 2003, I did film criticism for a variety of media outlets, mostly radio stations. That meant seeing over 150 films in cinemas every year...and I saw damn near everything, from kiddie offerings to teen sex romps to classy Oscar fodder to, yes, Horror. Also, since 1987 I have come up with a Ten Best list of all theatrical releases, and seeing that until 2003 I have had to publicly present and defend that list, I took great care that each year's assessment only be derived after as complete an overview as possible while still living in the Midwest (I thought nothing of traveling two and a half hours or more just to see a movie in a theater). For a number of years I had to hold myself accountable to an old friend and co-host of a weekly hour-long movie review show - who continues to review on his blog with great insight, intelligence and wit. Click on that link and be better for the experience, ok? He's presently counting down the Fifty Best Films of the Decade - a truly monumental achievement.

Now, in the belief that the unexamined blog is not worth, uh, blogging, I've made a New Year's resolution to include more retro reviews on a regular basis (including a suggestion made by my colleague at Jelly-Town! that has made me laugh for the past week or so, and shall be done), as well as some other regular features to keep things as exciting and new as a romance on the Pacific Princess. You've probably figured out by now that I love extended postings on subjects that can't really be found anywhere else on the Interweb, and I love the research as much as I love the execution. It was also my intention, in true Serling / Matheson / Bloch fashion, to straddle the genres of Horror and Speculative Fiction a little more than I've done so far. The Jar is still very much in the larval stage, Gentle Readers.

So, tomorrow we'll be back with the stuff you've come to know and tolerate from this here wayside off the Information Superhighway (strangely, I miss that nomenclature). And as for that list of the Decade's Best in Horror...well, like I said at the top, you may not see it from me. No more shall I say....

Friday, December 25, 2009

The merriest of Christmases...

...and be you a follower of the Jar or the Star, may this be a time of miracles, discovery, and above all, peace.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Santa isn't coming to town...or "The Year Without a Killer Santa Claus"

Oh, if only Tri-Star hadn't purchased commercial time during a Packer game...

On a fall Sunday afternoon in 1984, thirty-two year old Milwaukee housewife Kathleen Eberhardt was watching the game from Green Bay's Lambeau Field with her family, including her two children aged 5 and 2, when the following commercial appeared during a break in the game...

And so began the grass roots campaign against Silent Night, Deadly Night - historic for one very important reason: it worked. In the last quarter-century, other movies have met with tremendous controversy, either through their advertising or content. SNDN gave offense on both levels, resulting in the commercials being pulled after only one week of airing and, more shockingly, Tri-Star canceling its plans for a gradual nationwide rollout that would have the movie in theaters until Christmastime. Mere days after Election '84, when Ronald Reagan was re-elected over Walter Mondale in a 49 state landslide, the conservative winds sweeping the nation swept SNDN out of cinemas, onto VHS, and into the martyrdom of Christmas cult status.

After seeing the ad on Sunday, November 4, Eberhardt moved quickly. Claiming she was scandalized and her children were traumatized by the sight of an axe-wielding Santa, she contacted her 23 year old friend Karen Knowles and, around Eberhardt's kitchen table, the pair concocted Citizens Against Movie Madness (CAMM - and no, that acronym doesn't mean anything to me, either). They contacted friends and asked them to protest the airing of the commercial, lodging their complaints both with local affiliates and Tri-Star Pictures.

As it turns out, they weren't alone in this regard. The commercial aired in the Midwest and the Northeast, and was ostensibly only to play in late-night slots. However, due to some error, it wound up in Sunday afternoon rotation and early evening play on many affiliates. Switchboards glowed redder than Rudolph's nose, and within days, Tri-Star announced its decision to pull the ads after the first week - although, given the limited budget for the film, it may well be that the studio didn't intend to run the spots much longer in the limited release area.

But Eberhardt and Knowles didn't stop there. Their true intent was to get the movie pulled from cinemas entirely, and, after learning that SNDN would open November 9 on three Milwaukee screens owned by the Marcus Corporation, they
contacted the company's then-Executive Vice President Bruce Olson and asked him to voluntarily pull the movie prior to its scheduled release, or they would mount a picketing campaign. Olson advised the pair to suspend their protest, noting that the history of these acts only serves to increase interest and attendance for such material. Undaunted, the pair continued with their plans (even getting Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney to lend his name to the cause), and, in that pre-Internet era when information had to travel through relatively primitive channels, had aroused enough interest through local affiliates that they caught the attention of Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News, who closed the broadcast on Friday, November 9 - the movie's opening day - with a story about the Milwaukee-based protest. Similar demonstrations were occurring in other cities opening the movie, but it was clear that Wisconsin's biggest city was Ground Zero, attracting a colorful collection of the outraged and indignant (including two nuns who dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Claus and claimed they came all the way from the North Pole to voice their displeasure).

Soon America's most influential film critics - Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert - noted the protests in the "X-Ray" segment of their weekly review show, but their high dudgeon was a day late and a dollar short, as events were already several steps ahead of the pair...

By Monday morning, part of Olson's warning proved prophetic. After opening on a mere 398 screens, the movie grossed a surprisingly robust $1.4 million, a remarkable sum for a regional release, and a substantial return on Tri-Star's meager initial investment. Clearly, if the movie continued to platform across the South and West - and continued to inspire protests - the studio would be ruing the controversy all the way to the bank.

But that's when the surprise occurred. Tri-Star stunned just about everyone by announcing that the movie would be pulled from theaters after only one week - permanently. Even though the protests were mild (when they existed at all - many theater managers reported that the movie played without incident - and in some cases, without audiences), the studio got cold feet, and their Christmas movie never even made it to Thanksgiving. The movie's producer, Ira Barmak, apologized for the upset feelings, saying that the animosity toward the picture was generated by a mistaken ad campaign that should never have aired during family viewing time (many newspapers also refused to run the iconic "Santa Down the Chimney with an Axe" ad slicks, only listing the title of the movie). However, Barmak did not apologize for the film's content - 

People have taken offense at Santa being used in a scary context...Santa Claus is not a religious figure, he's a mythic character. I didn't deliberately ride roughshod over that sensitivity and I didn't anticipate the objection to it...The premise, God forgive me, struck me as funny. I thought it could really work with the right balance of humor and fright. Our target audience is teenagers over 17 and young adults who go to these pictures like they go on roller coasters. They aren't looking for a believable story; they go to be startled, to yell back at the screen.

The members of CAMM were inadvertently aided and abetted by statements made by the man who played the homicidal St. Nick, actor Robert Brian Wilson, who said he saw the role as "a job," and that the filmmakers "pushed the story out the door and replaced it with gore...I told friends and family with kids not to go see it."

Somehow the controversy continued long after the movie was absent from cinemas. A jubilant Eberhardt and Knowles continued to milk their 15 minutes with a mid-December appearance on Phil Donohue's syndicated talk show, even though the target of their wrath was a month-old memory. They threatened they reserved the right to keep CAMM in existence, so as to be vigilant for the next time Hollywood transgressed past their self-imposed boundaries of taste. Twenty-five years later, the organization has never re-surfaced.

In Spring of 1986, an independent releasing company attempted to capitalize on the notoriety of the movie by altering the ad campaign, hyping the hullabaloo, and giving the picture a limited release in the South, but few were interested in seeing Santa Claus in April. SNDN found a true second wind through the home VHS market, generating enough rentals to warrant four additional sequels (the last one featuring - guess who? - Mickey Rooney) and a perennial mention when tastes turn to holiday horror. (The movie was never submitted for required certification in the UK, and never saw a British theatrical or home video release - until just this last month.) On a personal note, I've always viewed it as a matter of shame that Milwaukee was so instrumental in achieving an act of naked censorship. It was one thing to protest an ad campaign that was meant to air before mature, discerning audiences, but to go ahead and demand that Silent Night, Deadly Night be pulled from theaters where the audiences could be controlled and no one would be required to see something they did not wish to see...chilling. We should all take comfort in the fact that such an event has not happened since. Yet.

Merry Christmas from the Jar, Gentle Readers...and thanks for all your kindness and support.

And here's next year's Christmas card...

There's more where this came from here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tuesday Terror Trivia for 12/22!

It comes to my attention that we have yet to ask a singing question, so therefore...

This hideous creature lives in the hull of an abandoned shipwreck, not very far from Santa's North Pole workshop. He is a cantankerous sort, accustomed to his life of isolation. Best to not even say his name, for when you do, he grows larger and larger - all the better to snap your neck in his basketball-sized hands. To pass the time, he sings a peculiar ditty to himself, one with a very familiar melody. According to the televised rendition of his story, what is the first line - in English - of the more familiar tune that provides this monster with his song?

It's like "Open Water," but in Winter... Idaho. Up in the air. With three people. And no sharks.

I always loves me some Snow Horror. (Snorror?)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brittany Murphy 1977-2009

These days and weeks that are coming are not going to be pleasant ones to watch. It goes without saying that 32 year old women do not die of cardiac arrest - that is, not without the most aberrant of extraneous circumstances. Recent tabloid stories of dismissal from a movie, as well as an eerily similar trip to the hospital by her husband, will only provide grist for the rumor mill. So before it all becomes predictably ugly, I'd prefer to remember Brittany Murphy for a fine performance in one of the wittiest, most stylishly scary films from the early part of the decade - one that deserves re-issuing on DVD, and, sadly, will probably now receive it.

It's all so head-shakingly, heart-breakingly sad.

Everybody put on your jammies now!

SNL so seldom elicits laughs with black humor these days that it's difficult to believe it was once the show's stock in trade. It's been a largely cringe-worthy season, generating reams of copy about how to rescue its wit in a non-election year. More pieces as macabre as this would be a wonderful start.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Some are good only at Christmas, others are good all year...

...and my Christmas wish is that all the evil people in cinema will join hands and sing a song of harmony and peace....

Friday, December 18, 2009

Honey, here's that Christmas present you AXED for...

This is not an official Classic Creepy Comic Cover posting here, but rather a tidbit for you to nosh upon, Gentle Reader, as I prepare the magnum opus for this here Christmas season. But I would be remiss if I didn't pass along a delightful little morsel (I must be hungry) that I happened upon through the referral of a friend's blog. I'm guessing most of you are quite familiar with the EC tale "And All Through the House...," a yuletide tradition since its appearance in the March 1954 issue of The Vault of Horror, especially after its adaptation as part of the 1972 Amicus anthology Tales of the Crypt, as well as being one of the charter installments of the HBO series of the same name, first telecast in the heat of Summer 1989. Now, here's the inimitable cover provided by soon-to-be Editor of VoH, Johnny Craig...

(I've always found it interesting that the actual story, written and illustrated by Craig, flips the image that you see here. It's the wife who commits the murder, and then must grapple with the psychotic Santa. So, is it more misogynistic to have the woman as victim, or as homicidal harridan? Discuss.) Anyhoo, it turn out that this is one of the covers recently homaged by the irreverent and essential Fred Hembeck in a series of re-workings of iconic comics...

Fred tells the story of how this artwork went unsold, but his website does not list this as one of the pieces he is offering to the market anymore, so I'm guessing he found a taker. Wouldn't this make for a charming Christmas card, especially for your friendly local cleric or law enforcement official? They'll be sure to keep an eye on you...and the missus...

Dan O'Bannon, 1946-2009

Everyone has a movie like this, especially genre fans. It's a movie that you press to your heart with a love that defies logic or common sense, a love that, among those of more refined tastes, dares not speak its name. Maybe it's a movie that you encountered in a deserted cinema, a movie that found you, sitting all by yourself, and whispered in your ear. It sidled up next to you, enveloped you in one overpowering arm, drew you into itself...and then proceeded to have its cheap and tawdry way with you. Oh sure, by the time the final credits rolled, you knew that you had been used and degraded - but there was just something about the way that this movie, oh, I was different. It knew that you were different. And like Everett Sloane's girl with the parasol and the white dress, it would remain with you for the rest of your life.

My movie was - and is - Lifeforce. Yep. Lifeforce. While the rest of America was watching Marty McFly travel Back...In...Time, I was thrilling to the UK's ravishment by space vampires in a big budget epic that wedded themes from the vaunted Quatermass series to bombastic special effects and laser light shows. Let the rest of the world add money to the coffers of Universal Pictures - I had thrown my lot in with director Tobe Hooper and a man who spent a career unnamed but seldom unrecognized. He would go through life hyped as "the creator of Alien," and indeed, he gave life to Ripley and Ash and Dallas and Kane and the Nostromo and those biomechanical marvels from Monsieur Giger with the cranial carapaces and the acidy spit. He also gave us screenplays for Dead and Buried, Blue Thunder, Invaders from Mars (1986), Screamers, Total Recall and The Return of the Living Dead (which he also directed). I am confident that others will give those films the attention they are due. But he also adapted Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires into the screenplay for the hot mess that is Lifeforce. He may not be very happy with the film that is heading up this tribute from the Jar - he all but disowned the finished product - but it has gone on to cult status, testimony to the other genre junkies who felt similarly defiled and delighted, and for that, this little fanboy owes Dan O'Bannon so very, very much.

Dan O'Bannon died on December 16 after
what is described in obits as a brief illness. He is survived by his wife and son.

My first encounter with O'Bannon was not only as a screenwriter, but also as an actor, as the put-upon Pinback in John Carpenter's entry into the world of moviemaking, Dark Star, which I saw in 1975 as the second half of a double feature with The Land That Time Forgot at Wausau WI's legendary Grand Theater. This sequence is often cited by film historians as a low-cost first whack at what was later to become Alien -- that is, if Ripley and company were forced to do battle with an inflated beach ball with Gill Man claws.

Thanks again, Dan. I hope you're home in time for cornflakes.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes...

Classic Creepy Comic Covers - Creepy #77 (February 1976)
Art by Manuel Sanjulian

...but maybe it would be good if he let out a wail or two. Or demonstrated that he knows how to duck!

Having treated Jolly Old Saint Nick with bloody irreverence for the last two Christmases, Creepy turns its attention to the Reason for the Season, if somewhat obliquely. Once again, Sanjulian graces the Christmas cover with a somber tableau, and a cherubic infant that really pops as a focal point, said baby to be seen as a hoi polloi hatchling...were it not for the cover copy, which clearly intimates that this is "a holy infant on the most holy of nights."

Whoa. Jesus. I mean, really...Jesus.

This was new territory for the Warren magazines, and during the calendar year of 1975, they were exploring it between the pages of the titles. Six issues prior, in Creepy #71, readers were startled by the story "His Name Was John," from writer Budd Lewis and artist Luis Bermejo (in an experimental all-Bermejo issue, and a striking one, at that). In it, a Catholic priest is contacted by an alien intelligence that reveals that it is indeed God, and is looking for a new prophet to bring tidings to the world. At the climax, the priest is startled to find tentacles growing out of his back, as he is being changed for his new role, and is humbly resigned to his destiny. This was a far cry from the tales of vampires and werewolves that populated the mag a decade earlier. This was genuine Adult Fantasy, its mature themes going head to head with the material found in its newsstand competition, Heavy Metal. Most critics consider this period to be the zenith of Warren's achievements, with at least one story in every issue to rank among the decade's finest from any publisher (in this issue, that honor has to go to the Bruce Jones / Berni Wrightson collaboration "Clarice," which is, of all things, a poem, climaxing in a horrifically heartbreaking final panel).

However, the Christmas issues increasingly had an unpleasant knack for the maudlin and saccharine, as #77 exemplified. Stories that were low on the horror content would opt for a generic "God bless us, everyone" ending, and rank among the worst the company would ever produce. Perhaps it was hard to maintain a consistently dark tone for an entire magazine, or perhaps it was a misguided effort at variety. At any rate, the lighter fare is quite forgettable, and pales in comparison to the hard-edged tales that were vastly superior.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Terror Trivia Tuesday for 12/15!

Promotional materials for this early 70s horror film encouraged theater managers to mail out newspaper ads and invitations for the movie enclosed in Christmas cards. This would have been an attention-grabber, since the movie opened in the United States several months before December. What was the title given to this motion picture upon its US release?

You bring strange creatures to life...You send them back!

Ten days away from the big day, and here at the Jar we're waxing wistfully nostalgic about Christmases Past. I knew that I wanted to do at least one posting this year about favorite toys as gifts, and realized that I have a pretty limited list of offerings from which to choose. It didn't take me very long before my standard Christmas wish list for Santa consisted of little more than books, records and board games (if you were a game show, and you had a Home Version, you were in the Senski household) - all of which meant that my presents were very easy to wrap, and stacked up quite nicely under the tree. However, there were a few notable exceptions, some of which may be of greater interest than others to the regular readers of this blog. And so, I give you one of the nicest things that Saint Nick ever left me in his benevolent wisdom...

Imagine if David Cronenberg had designed the Easy Bake Oven, and you would have something along the lines of Mattel's Strange Change machine (also known as The Time Machine, or even the Strange Change Time Machine, but we always just referred to it as "Strange Change"). It was introduced into the market in 1967, and that may have been the year I got one for Christmas, but I have this nagging sense it was actually a year later. With the purchase of the device, you also received a set of square plasticene "capsules," each one "containing" some kind of creature or creepy-crawler. Now, I use the quotes because the little beasties aren't actually inside of anything - they are the capsules themselves. Perhaps it's best to just roll the tape, and let the commercial do what it is that commercials do best...

Now, I put it to you - is not the sight of that octopus unfurling from that square shape just not one of the coolest things you have ever seen, even in 2009? Can you imagine the effect that this had on my little five-year-old brain? Here was my chance to be Victor von Frankenstein, Andre Delambre, and every other mad scientist I had
seen or read about. Delusions of godhood? The intoxication of sheer, unadulterated power? Groovy! For all the time that I played with my Strange Change machine, it never, never grew old. Sure, the little monsters never quite compressed back into the pure square shapes in which you received them; there was always a stray claw, wing or tentacle that was protruding, as if the thing was trying to escape its four-sided confines, like a plastic, prehistoric Elisha Cuthbert. You could also buy additional capsules in sets of "Creaturelings" and "Astropods," and I had a mutable menagerie that would have made Laura Wingfield chartreuse with envy - that is, were she into plastic rather than glass.

Now, you could never produce a toy like this today, and for one reason only - this bastard got HOT. Yes, essentially we're looking at a hot plate covered by a see-through plastic dome, and a unit that did not possess an on/off switch. You plugged this baby in, and it got warm, then hot, then very hot. It never actually glowed, but that was cold comfort to my often-toasted digits (the toy came with a set of tongs for creature extraction, which I used...most of the time). And that base? Metal. The vice? Metal. It all got freakin' hot, and I often wonder how many homes with shag carpeting suffered singeing from units that went unplugged. And speaking of that vice...let's face it, gentle readers, Torquemada would have had a field day with a Strange Change machine.

And my friends and I loved it. There was another downside, however. You had to be careful not to leave the creature over the heating element for too long, as they tended to scorch, and once that happened, they didn't metamorph very well. Come to think of it, there was a very limited window of opportunity if you were heating the monsters up for re-compression. Leave them in for too short a time, and you couldn't squish them together properly; too long, and the little buggers burned. Why I never wound up a master chef who specialized in perfectly-timed souffles is beyond me.

I recall there was a point when the unit just failed to heat up, and that meant trash time for Strange Change. But until that happened, this was a treasured toy from my childhood, and even now, I've got a hankering to stick a pink plastic spider under that dome...and just see what happens...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nackles - The TV Christmas Horror Classic That Wasn't

On December 20, 1985, viewers who tuned in to CBS' re-boot of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone were treated to a special Christmas installment of the series - or two-thirds of the hour, anyway. Three stories were slotted that night. The first was a re-working of Serling's 1960's teleplay for the orginal series' second season holiday episode "Night of the Meek," in which Art Carney played a down-on-his-luck schlub who comes upon a magical bag that's the source of every human wish (in the new version, Richard Mulligan played the ersatz Santa). The last was a simple yet profound staging of Arthur C. Clarke's immortal short story "The Star," in which Fritz Weaver (under the moody direction of The Outer Limits' Gerd Oswald) portrays a Catholic priest in space, his faith rocked when he discovers that the Bethlehem star was in actuality a supernova that claimed untold billions of extraterrestrial lives. The story in the middle did not have a Christmas theme, however. It was "But Can She Type?," in which Pam Dawber was a harried secretary transported to an alternate reality in which secretaries are exalted and bosses are the peons. It was a light-hearted bagatelle of a comedic piece, nothing more. It was also a substitution for what producers had originally intended to go in that slot...and what was supposed to have aired in those minutes was anything but light-hearted. It was meant to be another Christmas-themed tale entitled "Nackles," and the story of how that teleplay (which assuredly would have become an unforgettable installment of the show) got axed at the last minute made for major media coverage at the time, and the loss of a valuable creative asset to the series.

When CBS announced that The Twilight Zone would be returning to its prime time schedule after an absence of almost two decades - and ten years after the death of creator Serling - there were two components to that announcement that filled fans with great hope that the series would be handled right. First was the decision to canvass the history of horror, fantasy and science fiction
literature to find worthwhile tales - if not classics - to adapt for the small screen. Spearheading this effort would be a master fantasist and a fanboy of the first order - Harlan Ellison. The award-winning author surely possessed the ability to rattle off a list of several seasons' worth of exemplary tales - with more than a few of them coming from his own bibliography. And while the show produced a number of noteworthy original tales, it also provided a home for masterworks by Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert MacCammon, Henry Slesar, Stephen King and yes, Ellison himself. From all observations, the series appeared to be in the very best of hands.

Ellison has said that the year he spent with the series was one of the most enjoyable of his professional career, and, working with producer Philip DeGuere and story editor Rockne O'Bannon, the team had to feel like the proverbial sweet-toothed kids in a candy store; the hour-long format enabled stories to take the airtime that they required, rather than having one tale either stretched or cut to fit a half- or full-hour format. Yet Ellison was a frequent complainer about one element of the show - the directors. Good-naturedly tired of listening to the author kvetch about the camerawork that was being turned in, DeGuere decided to make Ellison put his money where his considerable mouth was, and direct a story for the series.

Ellison was already at work adapting
Donald (The Stepfather) Westlake's short story "Nackles" (which you can read here.) The tale, originally published under Westlake's sci-fi pseudonym Curt Clark in the January 1964 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, told of a mean-spirited and abusive husband and father who crafts the tale of an Anti-Santa as a means of keeping his unloved children in line. Dubbing the evil character Nackles, he creates a horrific figure who prowls under the crust of the Earth, powered by a team of eight dead-white goats, looking for children to abduct and eat. (I'll let you read the story for yourself to see how it turns out, gentle reader.) Ellison took the kernel of that idea and wrote a new story around it. In it, a bigoted slumlord conjures up the Nackles myth as a means of striking fear into the hearts of the African-American children who live in his tenements. But Ellison took it a few steps further. He had his slumlord tell the kids that Nackles only came for "ni***r" childen, and that the real Santa would pass them by. (Ellison also added the nasty embellishment of making the goats blind, their eyes sealed shut. After all, who needs to see underneath the ground?) And the final, finishing touch? Nackles was black, as well. It was all very powerful, in-your-face stuff for an eleven minute teleplay...and it was very Ellison.

CBS Standards and Practices got ahold of Ellison's script, and to say they balked would be putting it mildly. They were put off buy many things, but none more so than the notion of a black Anti-Santa. The network wasn't ameliorated by the notion that Nackles was the instrument of a bigot's comeuppance; they only heard the expected angry phone calls and envisioned the mountain of
letters and telegrams. To pacify his objectors, Ellison reworked the reveal of Nackles to make him appear as a variety of minorities in a number of quick cuts, for the more important element was that a prejudiced bad guy receive his just desserts. The author thought the conflict resolved and went into pre-production, perfectly casting Ed Asner as the slumlord.

They were only days, even hours from shooting, when the network struck again, and this time, there was no middle ground - they were pulling the plug on the production. A stunned Ellison threatened to walk away from the show, CBS called his bluff, and, in Variety parlance, he ankled. It was a lead story in the news section of TV Guide, and even made a number of national papers, but the angle on it was not flattering to Ellison. He had crafted a story that featured an evil black Santa, and the fact that the character was there to deliver a reckoning got lost in some of the coverage. Those who rejoiced at Ellison's role with the series were crestfallen but unsurprised, as the prickly writer had a legendary
reputation for contrary behavior, and I know that I was wondering how long he would be able to keep his temper in check. (I was glad at the time to learn that it was a contretemps concerning the network and not his co-workers, and in the DVD commentary for the first season, Ellison certainly sounds like a man who was enjoying coming to work every day.) His side of the incident - as well as his teleplay, revisions, and Westlake's story - can be found in his 1998 collection Slippage. This marked the second time in the space of a year that a major media outlet grew skittish at the concept of a Santa Claus who was not all mercy and sweetness and goodness and light, but, unlike the movie Silent Night, Deadly Night, "Nackles" was unable to be preserved in any format other than typing paper.