Godzilla is one of the best examples of how science fiction and horror can relate certain fears within society and that they (the movies) are not just kids movies or nonsensical. I mean, sure, there are plenty of nonsensical movies out there, especially within the genre of horror and science fiction, but if I could be so brash as to say that a majority actually do serve a purpose. Storytelling has always been our way of relating concern or passing on wisdom, teaching the new generation our fears and our struggles and what threats, missteps, whatever, to look out for. Watching the original televised trailer for Godzilla (1954), it definitely begs the question of what Godzilla really symbolizes. The very first screenshot shows audiences a “once peaceful city of Tokyo, now laid in ruins…,” but given the historical context, I had to ask myself just what city was I really looking at, a fictional Tokyo, or a literal Hiroshima or maybe a literal Nagasaki? What is it that Japan seems to be afraid of? Thankfully, our guest author is here to help explain some of these things in his review. Please welcome, Kurt Thingvold.
Two notable things stand out in World War II: the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Why should they stand out? Easy, they were the beginning and the end point in our conflict with the Japanese. Both conflicts ended in multiple deaths, a beginning, and an end to the horrors of war. Millions dead—countries in shambles. America recovered, Japan recovered, but not before having to surrender their military forces in order to prevent Japan from re-arming and starting another war. This marked the end of World War II, the world remained in peace.
When Japan surrendered their forces it made the country feel weak and they feared invasion, while the invasion would never come—the fear remained—only in the last twenty years, or so have the Japanese fought to regain a glimmer of military presence. A second horror remained in the eyes of the Japanese people. Two Atomic bombs had obliterated their fellow countrymen and woman. The horrors of the war had never escaped the small country. Even through the decade following the war—the fear of nuclear weapons haunted their dreams—who was to defend their country, now, that a small defense force was in charge of keeping the invaders out, what if, they had to deal with a situation that had never become the small country?
In the1950’s, a Japanese film company wanted to make a film about the horrors of war— the original idea never came to fruition (based on the invasion of Indonesia, the Japanese refused visas). When producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was flying back to Japan after failed negotiations with the Indonesian government to shoot the film, he looked out at the ocean, and thought about a monster that comes from the sea and attacks the mainland! While the idea seemed to be a ludicrous idea, it would serve the film company well. The film company was known as Toho Studios. The Film would come to be known as Gojira (Godzilla).
The movie starts out in the ocean, we see a boat, the crew seems to be having a grand old time, singing, dancing and joking around, suddenly, a flash of lights, the boat begins to sink in a fiery mess, slowly, sinking below the ocean floor. Shortly after the sinking, a second boat is sent to investigate, the same flashes are seen, and the second boat has a meeting with the ocean floor, with few survivors. A fishing boat from the nearby island is also destroyed, causing the residents of the nearby island to venture into Tokyo to seek aid and relief as the fishing near the island have plummeted down to near threatening levels. Once the locals arrive they describe a large creature destroying their villages, the Japanese concerned they decide to send renowned paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane to investigate the islander’s claims. Once he and his team arrive on the island– they discover the village in almost ruins—Dr.Yahmane discovers a giant footprint of the massive creature, with a trilobite embedded within the footprint, which turns out to be radioactive. The village bell rings out and the creature finally reveals itself—the villagers dub it Gojira (Godzilla). After this horrifying discovery Yamane returns back to Japan and presents his findings that “Gojira” is a remnant of dinosaurs slumbering beneath the waves and the testing of atomic bombs have disturbed his sleep. The Japanese government responds by sending a fleet of ships to deploy bombs and try to destroy Godzilla. Which, causes the creature to rise and head towards the mainland.
Dr. Yamane’s daughter Emiko, who is engaged to a colleague. Dr. Serizawa, she does not love the man as she loves a young trawler operator Hideto Ogata, a young reporter arrives to interview Serizawa and he refuses. He does show Emiko, a secret project he is working on. In which, the air is removed from the water, causing fish and sea life to disintegrate. This Horrifies Emiko. “Gojira” begins to attacks the mainland, after a few short minutes the attack is over and he returns to the ocean. After the attack, the government consults with the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JDSF) to build a 100 ft. electrical tower to kill the creature. Dr. Yamane is distraught that they plan to kill the creature rather than studying it. Emiko and Ogata are waiting for her father, so they may have permission to wed. Ogata and Dr. Yamane, engage in a fierce vocal battle about the fate of the creature and Yamane orders Ogata to leave. “Gojira” Emerges again in Tokyo bay and attacks the city a second time. Ripping through the trap the JDSF had set, breathing his radioactive, melting the steel like wax. Godzilla continues his rampage destroying and killing thousands of citizens. After, the attack, we are introduced to the horrors of the previous night. The dead and wounded overcrowd the hospitals. Emiko runs to Ogata and tells him of Serizawa’s weapon the “Oxygen Destroyer” Both go to Serizawa and plead with him to use the Oxygen Destroyer on Godzilla and stop him once and for all. Serizawa hesitant to use the weapon, he decides to use the weapon, but not before destroying the documents. Ogata and Serizawa travel to where Godzilla was last spotted, both of them dive to the bottom of the ocean. Once they spot Godzilla, Serizawa plants the bomb, he motions for Ogata to surface. Serizawa cutting his own oxygen supply detonates the bomb. Destroying Godzilla and the secrets to the weapon with him.
We catch a glimpse of Godzilla rising from the ocean as he melts away. We are left with a quote from Yamane, as they mourn for their friend, Serizawa.
“I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.”
While the plot may seem silly, it portrays its dark tones rather well—Godzilla being an allegory for nuclear threat/invasion, the characters interact with the creature with either horror or admiration. And a key scene that plays into this is where Yamane is describing the creature and its possible origins, and why it is so intent on destroying Tokyo. While, other players in that scene want it destroyed with no question. We see people struggling in awe on how to deal with a threat that seems new, but now have to deal with it at half their normal strength. Another scene that shows a real struggle and emulates of the idea that something of this magnitude (using nuclear technology) is where Emiko tells her father she plans to marry Ogata, and he agrees that Godzilla should be destroyed. These two scenes show a man struggling to convince others that what he wants is for the best. Knowing the power of what has occurred and what could occur. A nuclear attack was still a possibility in the 1950’s—not by intention, of course. Americans were still close enough to the country to accidentally cause more damage, an incident did occur, The Lucky Dragon No.7 was close enough to Bikini Atoll during a test to receive fallout from the explosion, causing major concern for the Japanese. (The first boat attacked in the movie was based on Lucky Dragon No.7). Another scene, which, we should play close attention to is when Godzilla first starts attacking Tokyo, setting the buildings on fire, destroying everything in his path. The JDSF is useless in stopping him. This plays homage to the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima; there is even a brief mention of the attacks. A mother holder her children and trying to comfort them tells them in sobbing words. “We will be with father soon.” Indicating he was one of the victims of the bomb. Godzilla is a powerful force that relentlessly attacks the people of Japan, and themselves feel useless in stopping him.
Two years after the first film was made—an Americanized version of the starring Raymond Burr was released. While this version of the film feels is not as dark as the Japanese version. It still shows the horror of the Atomic bombs through the view of an American reporter, while the plot is the same, this version is still rated highly. The American version is a great companion, for a different view of the film. Just two years ago, we released another American Godzilla film, dealing with a different nuclear threat, plants going into meltdowns—this version also plays into the social effect of how we as people are ignorant to the dilemmas and threats that happen across our globe on a single day.
The music also emulated the themes of the film. Heroic and dingy sounds to expand the scenes, and draw you into the moment. While most of the music is accompanied by the monster’s roar, and footsteps it has the rare ability to summon the emotions and fears of the viewer. (Akira Ifukube went on composing for the series up until the mid-90’s). The scores themselves are memorable and are a joy to listen to on their own.
Godzilla is a movie everyone should see, regardless if you’re a historian or film buff. The movie portrays a lot of themes dealing with the atomic age and war, in general. While Godzilla has spawned off from the original message and horror of the first film, it still portrays a message of anti-nuclear weapons. During the sixties and seventies, the Godzilla films took over as a protector of people. All Godzilla films portray a message whether it’s from one of the sillier movies, or the dark depressing atmosphere of the first: We need to find a way to protect ourselves, we need to take a look at what we do on a daily basis and think about how it is going to affect ourselves, or the land and people around us. Overall, Godzilla may have changed over the last sixty years, but the message itself still remains the same.
Kurt Thingvold, no stranger to Machine Mean, was born and raised in IL. He finds passion in writing, that helps calm his demons. He grew up in a tough household that encouraged reading and studying. He spends his time writing in multiple of genres. His published short story, Roulette, can be found on Amazon. When not writing he can be found playing games, reading, or attempting to slay the beast known as “Customer Service”, which, he fails at almost every day. As mentioned, Kurt is a frequent flyer here on Machine Mean, you can also check out his previous review on Ridley Scott’s legacy movie Alien here.
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Okay, maybe the title of this post is a little what kids call”clickbaity,” but hey…I make no excuses. The world is what it is. Filled with click baits…and fake news sites…and paranoia…and silent conversations over Thanksgiving dinner… (sighs) Well, now that I have you here, assuming you fell for my ingenious trap, I’m more than ecstatic to announce the release of my new book, Conceiving. Now available on Amazon, B&N, and iTunes. This book really does feel like a long time coming, especially when considering that Dwelling and Emerging released back in December 2015, almost a full year ago. Anyhow, if you’re new to the series and don’t want to spend time catching up by reading the first two books, no worries. Information regarding the first two books is included in this new one without being drab, but only generally. So you know what happens and are not lost in this new book. If you’ve read both Dwelling and Emerging and have been waiting for this new book to release, I bid you welcome home. The real benefit of reading the entire series is the intimacy of getting to know the characters and experiencing why and/or what they are in Conceiving.
Conceiving is a supernatural thriller of which I would humbly compare to the likes of a mashup between Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Old and new readers will follow the somber adventures of Bobby Weeks, one of the major carry overs from the series, and Luna and Ronna Blanche, minor characters in the series that now have larger roles. New characters include Boris and Neville Petry, and yes Neville is a girl.
The Petry’s are my new favorite. A young couple wanting what most young couples want, a family, a dream home, and dream jobs. I imagined Boris like this “cool” history professor if such a thing can exist. He loves his area of expertise and wants to move up the ranks of his profession and among his peers. Like most academics, he wants to be respected and revered for his work. Neville, on the other hand, I saw as this young college educated woman who doesn’t really believe women need to be “stay at home” moms or wives, but choices to take on that role. She often compares herself to her mother, but not always positively.
In the fashion of how I typically tell stories, these individuals and groups begin separated, facing their own troubles alone, but there are forces at work pulling them together, inching them toward some cataclysmic event that will shatter their perception of reality and perhaps take more than just their sanity.
Conceiving is available on Amazon kindle or kindle app. You can get your copy here for the low price of $3.99……..https://goo.gl/4EWzSU
Or if you’re a traditionalist and prefer paperback, you can get your copy here for $15.99…….https://goo.gl/5pTAQ4
It has just occurred to me that I have never written a biographical piece on English-India born character actor William Henry Pratt, aka Boris Karloff. Never. Not once. Sure, I’ve had other writers on here talking about some of the movies he has been in, namely Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and even The Mummy, but never, not once have I stepped up to plate. That ends here. For those who are betrothed to the dark and unusual of filmage, that this, horror movies, the name Boris Karloff is not unfamiliar, it is, in fact, legendary. And for good reason. Even tempered natured folks who do not ordinarily dabble in nightmare landscapes know, rudimentary, who Boris is, that is, the Monster, that Frankenstein monster that is. And they wouldn’t be wrong. That’s his role, after all, no skirting the issue or sipping from your craft beer or wine, dressed in some flannel button up with a shaggy beard, pretending as if he never endured the makeup. Just because you saw him in The Black Cat (1934) or Targets (1968) doesn’t negate his crowning achievement. He was the Monster. Don’t walk through the past with blinders on. He will always be the Monster. And here and now, I’d like to correct my above-mentioned misstep and celebrate his career (his work), as it is, highlighting briefly my top 5 favorite Boris Karloff movies.
5. House of Frankenstein (1944). I’m not entirely sold on House of Frank, particularly concerning the Dracula character and how easily he was dispatched; however, I cannot negate Boris’s role as Dr. Niemann, a mad scientist who has supposedly discovered Frankenstein’s secret to immortality and the creation of a new human race of perfectly made people. His role here, obviously, is not the Creature. And as a tip of the hat, I would say he was very dark in this movie, uncaring of dispatching anyone who got in his way.
4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). Say what you will, but I would feel horrible if I did not mention this classic film. Especially now that we’re shuffling towards the holiday season and Turkey Day tomorrow, I would be amiss to ignore one of my favorite Christmas movies. Even at the tender age of 79, Boris’s voice, his deep growls, and slight lisp is uncanny. His performance as the narrator is actually what draws me to the cartoon. If it had been anyone else, I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much.
3. Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Seems like a total cop-out, but no, back to my above argument, we cannot ignore his masterpiece of horror cinematography. The Frankenstein monster was a role that was limited in dialogue, and so he had to manipulate audience reactions and emotions through gesture and skewed hardened facial expressions. Bride of Frankenstein showcases the evolution of the creature, from mute stumbler to an array of humanistic-like qualia. He was driven, not by fear, but by necessity, the most basic human desire, companionship, a mate.
2. The Black Cat (1934). One of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in a string of Poe-inspired films, among such as The Raven (both 1935 and 1963), House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, etc etc, The Black Cat wins the prize, for me at least. The story is adapted for the 1930s era and is based just after The Great War, which ended in 1918. Dr. Vitus Werdegast is on a quest for revenge against the man who took his beloved wife and daughter, an old friend and comrade in arms, Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig is harboring a few dark secrets, most of which he shares openly, all but for his insidious religion. Caught in the middle is a young American couple on their honeymoon. The Black Cat is not action oriented, but rather, filled with an overwhelming sense of dread and some of the best dialogue I’ve heard in a long time. If you’ve been holding out, you need to see this movie. This 82-year-old movie may shock you.
1. The Mummy (1932). Without a shadow of a doubt, unashamedly, The Mummy is my all time favorite movie starring Boris Karloff. Why? Sure, we know and love and celebrate him for his role as Frankenstein’s monster, however, for me, his total sum of charisma and stage performance is defined in his role as Ardath Bey, aka Imhotep, priest of Pharaoh Amenophis, mummified for attempting to resurrect his forbidden lover, the princess Ankh-es-en-amon. regarding the other Mummy movies, though Lon Chaney Jr. did his best with what he had to work with, they did not, however, capture the tragedy that is Imhotep. Is he the villain? Perhaps. He certainly has his own agenda in mind. But there’s more. He’s a romantic. Deeply so. All he wants is his beloved princess. Not power or gold or influence, nothing political. He manipulates those he must. And strikes down those who get in his way. Love is not all puppy dogs and rainbows, it’s brutal at its core. Violent even. A man desperate enough to do whatever he must so he can attain that which he desires the most. True love. And Karloff, he plays the role wonderfully.
And there you have it folks, my top 5 Boris Karloff movies. I’m sure you’ve got a few in mind. What are some of your favorite Boris Karloff movies? Comment below in the comment box to enter for your chance to win a signed copy of my latest book, Conceiving (Subdue Book 3), scheduled to release next week on November 29, 2016. Now available for preorder on Amazon (wink wink), you can get your copy here. And if you are curious about my other books, you can find them on the altar of Amazon by following this link here. As always, you can stay connected with me on Facebook, where I post reviews, new book info, and other horror related topics. Thanks for reading everyone!
If the title of this post doesn’t give away what we’ll be talking about, well…shit. We’ve got some work ahead of us. As any fan of horror, the one thing that we deranged nerds tend to appreciate, even more than the actors themselves, are the special effects guys (and gals). To be frank, why do we watch horror? To be entertained, fundamentally, correct? We’re not here to find enlightenment, though if it happens then all the better. No, much like the poor bloodthirsty souls crammed into Rome’s gladiatorial colosseum, we cry out for escape from the realities of our plight. And what brings the greatest escape, the tastiest of entertainment? Gore. And all the horrible ways characters get done in by the monster, the serial killer, the freak in the castle, the alien invaders, the thing hiding the ice, whatever, we expect gore and lots of it and not just quantity but quality as well. For horror fans, special effects take front row. We critique effects just as harshly as we look at the screenwriters and even more so maybe than the directors. Who hasn’t sat through a terribly written and directed horror movie walking away loving it simply because it had awesome effects? It’s often the first thing we look at.
And with every decade, every generation, there are particular styles of special effects. In the 1940s and leading through the early 60s, it was what wasn’t seen that was supposed to scare you, and blood came from a bottle of Hersheys Chocolate. But starting in the late 1960s, following the advancement of technicolor, under the direction of guys like Alfred Hitchcock and Herschell Gordon Lewis, filmmakers began pushing those on-screen limitations and inventing new ways to entertain with effects. Dick Smith is rightfully the real pioneer of realism in special effects. His crowning achievement, realistic gore in movies such as The Exorcist, The Godfather, Scanners, and more. And Dick did more than pioneer the industry, he set the table for the rise of a new generation who would bring us even better work to the history cinematography.
Tom Savini was inspired, not by Dick Smith or Herschell or even Frankenstein’s maker Jack Pierce, though no doubt they each impacted him in some way. No. Tom credits his inspiration to legendary early silent film star, Lon Chaney Sr, aka, the Man of a Thousand Faces. Chaney had a reputation in Hollywood for coming up and developing his own props and makeup, most of it often extremely uncomfortable, for the characters he played on screen, some of the most notable ones being The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Norte Dame, and London After Midnight. In 1957, Universal released the biopic of Lon Chaney Sr., and young Tom fell in love and began experimenting with special effects makeup, first on himself and later his friends. Eventually, Tom attended Point Park University and later Carnegie-Mellon University (following his tour of duty in Vietnam). After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Tom served as a combat photographer in the Vietnam War. It is during this service Tom most credits his development of special effects, taking the harsh realities of war and applying it to his later work.
The true birth of practical effects, or the surge of gore, really started in the 1970s, in such movies as Dawn of the Dead, I Drink Your Blood, and The Incredible Melting Man, among others. And it was during this era Tom Savini started his career which would eventually award him such titles as The Sultan of Splatter and The Godfather of Gore (though to be fair, I think this title ought to go to Dick Smith, don’t you think?). In 1974, Savini worked on Bob Clark’s masterpiece (but oddly forgotten) Deathdream, the story of a Vietnam soldier who comes home after being killed in action. I’ve often wondered what Tom thought about this flick, having served in Vietnam himself. Deathdream doesn’t present itself as being either pro or anti war, though we can certainly guess. What it does present is an overwhelming sense of questioning of our individual involvement in the affairs of the nation, beautifully told from the simplicity of a small town family unit. I’ll stop myself there. I can go on for a tangent with Deathdream, in fact, I’ve got a review of the movie…if you’re interested, you can read it here.
Next, Tom worked again with Bob Clark in the movie Deranged. Later, he worked with fellow Pitsburg allium, George A. Romero, in the underappreciated fright flick, Martin. Let’s slow down here before moving on with Tom’s other work. Whenever I think of George A. Romero I first think of…zombies, yes, it’s true, shocker, right? But I also tend to think of Tom Savini after thinking about zombies. While Tom was in Vietnam, Romero was making Night of the Living Dead, but thanks to their relationship developed in Martin, they were able to collaborate in Romero’s second of his Dead Trilogy, Dawn of the Dead in 1978. If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan. Dawn of the Dead is without a doubt one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Not only was the screenwriting, the direction, the acting totally above par, but the practical effects also shined. Even today, though the blood is certainly not realistic, it is still effective. When the zombie-fro dude takes a chunk out of that lady’s shoulder, it still gives me the creeps. That’s a 38-year shelf-life, and it’s still aging, still perfecting like a fine wine.
Dawn of the Dead also opened new doors for Savini. In a slew of films, he would eventually be invited by Sean S. Cunningham to work on a new project titled Friday the 13th. Clearly, I’m picking all of my favorite movies Tom was involved in, and why sudden I? I’m the one writing this dang article! That being said, I’m sure there are other horror nerds who tend to lean in other directions regarding the Sultan’s work. Some may prefer Maniac or Eyes of the Stranger or The Burning or The Prowler, all are fine films worth considering. But for me, one of his crowning achievements was Friday the 13th. It’s because of this movie I question why Savini hasn’t been given the nickname The Father of Jason Voorhees. It was Tom’s creation that would spawn into a long lasting and fruitful franchise. Loved by many; despised by some. And as any tragic greek tale, Tom would eventually be asked to destroy his creation in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
And his career continues. In 1985, Tom was given the Saturn Award for Best Make-Up Effects in Geroge A. Romero’s third “dead” installment, Day of the Dead (1985). And he moved on to contribute to too many movies and television shows to mention here, working as not only a special effects guru but also as a director and an actor/stuntman. Without a doubt, his love for horror movies is very evident. He even started his own school for special effects by opening Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Pennsylvania and authored several books, including but not limited to Grande Illusions I and II and Horror F/X. For fans of the late 70s and 80s horror, it’s difficult not knowing his work and the work of other legendary special effects artists. It’s what we wanted most, the gore. Today, though, I have to wonder, are the makeup artist and gore masters even thought of. If I asked your typical The Walking Dead fan who did the practical effects for the show, would they know? I seriously doubt it. The answer is Greg Nicotero, BTW, who also worked on The Evil Dead 2 and Day of the Dead, and who is also from Pitsburg, which makes me seriously question what exactly does Pitsburg put in their drinking water. Maybe this is something we should start doing. No, not the drinking water, the “other” people who make movies possible. Even I do not know all the names of the effects or prop masters and all the other behind the scenes people working tirelessly to bring us our horrific entertainment. This is especially worse for TV as the credits flash by to make time for more commercials. So, if you’re a fan of horror, if you indulge to be entertained by the grotesque, after the show, after the movie, look up the effects team, the writers, the props, the composers, and read their names. you may be surprised to find a lot of these people have been involved in a lot of work you happen to be a fan of.
Born November 3rd, 1946, today marks Tom Savini’s 70th birthday. And I wish him many more birthdays to come. Thank you, Tom, for your work and bringing not just me but countless others hours and hours of wonderfully sadistic entertainment. Cheers!
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For the past nine months, my weekends have had the added benefit of screening a new Universal Monster movie on Saturday or sometimes Sunday nights, from Frankenstein to The Wolf Man and all the lesser known sequels and House specials. The majority of which I had not previously seen. They were new and largely unknown to me. And of those unknowns, yes a few were just god-awful, but for the most part, the majority were intriguing, a few breathtakingly mesmerizing, and fewer still, though odd and unusual, they held a certain charm about them. When watching movies with 86 years of separation between then and now, you’re bound to find conflicts with storytelling and filmmaking that go against how you understand them. Things were done differently then. People held different beliefs and ideology than today. Different cultures and even customs. Some of those things are pleasant reminders of a simpler time, the way dialogue was crafted with care and chivalry, poetic in its own right. And there were also aspects that were uncomfortable to watch, such as sexism and discrimination towards women and those of African or even Asian descent. Remembering the historical context of the films can help relieve some of the conflicts we feel with those nostalgic glitches.
When Dracula released in February of 1931, the world was in a state of flux. The economic depression (known as The Great Depression) was setting root in not just America, but all over the world. In Germany, the first pangs of the rise of Nazism was felt. Though defeated by a majority win, in just two years time the elected German president, Hindenburg, will elect Adolf Hitler as chancellor . Eugenics was a pop science in which the sterilization of unfit parents and the “euthanasia” of “the defective” and “useless eaters” is making the rounds, not just in Nazi Germany, but also on the shores of the United States. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed (the first major steps in annihilation and extermination of European Jewry, ie, The Final Solution). In 1936, the Spanish Civil War begins. In 1937, the Rape of Nanjing, which is basically the systematic rape, torture, and murder of more than 300,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers as they invade China. 1939, Germany invades Poland, and by December 7th, 1941, the Day that will Live in Infamy, the once “civilized” world is thrown back into global conflict. These were uncertain times, to say the least. And we have to keep in mind that this was the backdrop during the production of the majority of the Universal Monster movies. Intentional or not, history shapes and continues to do so.
Every decade, every generation has had a take on the original Universal monsters. Thru the 1950s, into the 60s, 70s, 1980s, 90s, 2000s, and even today, those pillar stories are still being told. And that is a part of what we’ll discuss here today. Those movies we call remakes, the hits of those and the blunders, as well as what waits in store for those of, let’s say, my daughter’s generation. What will the monsters look like tomorrow? This is roughly about 60 years of film history, so we will not tackle each and every monster movie, but rather a survey of each decade. Savvy? Let us begin.
When the last of the Universal monsters, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), aired, a new generation of monsters was born. The 1950s was a strange era, filled with mutated creatures and aliens from other worlds. Big hits during this decade included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Godzilla, Forbidden Planet, and Them! (just to name a few). The classic Universal monsters faded into obscurity in America, becoming cult-B movies for those brave enough to venture into the movie theaters with duel Herman Cohen produced flicks, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and the return of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970, a mashup of classic Universal and atomic age science. While the monsters went B in America, they seem to thrive across the pond in the UK as major productions. Universal monsters were reborn in Hammer Production films and a great majority of these are still some of the best monster movies on the market, even by today’s standards. Movies, such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy captivated a new generation of monster lovers. The Mummy (1959) starring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I found was especially good and horrific compared to the original Universal films which were not beloved by many.
Trends from the 1950s continue on into the 1960s. The majority of monsters are the creations of mad science or invaders from other worlds. Godzilla and Mothra being some of the most popular monsters during this era, and other very unique monster created by a couple of rogue filmmakers in Pittsburg, Night of the Living Dead (1968). But that doesn’t mean the classics Universal monsters had died away, there some… Hammer Productions continued with The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Shroud, and NOT FORGETTING the best of the best, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In the United States, two classic Universal monsters were melded with the new age craze with the release of Atomic Age Vampire (1960) and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965) and super low-budget flick Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). Leaving only one major production, a made for children stop-motion animated musical comedy titled Mad Monster Party? (1967) starring Boris Karloff in his last appearance in any of the classic Universal Monster movies as the voice of Victor Frankenstein.
Hammer Productions continued to flourish with classic monster films such as The Horror of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. During this decade we’re introduced to a few well known B-Italian (and German and French included) classic monster movies with Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (starring Lon Chaney in his last reprisal in a “Universal” monster film), The Werewolf Versus The Vampire Women, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, and the very strange Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein). Now, for classic Universal monsters in the United States, the 1970s gave birth to a very interesting phase called Blaxploitation. In 1972, on the eve of Blaxploitation, we’re blessed with the likes of Blacula, the tale of an African prince (William Marshall) is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula (Charles McCauley). Sealed in a coffin for several lifetimes, “Blacula” reawakens in 1970’s Los Angeles. Leaving a trail of bloodless victims in his wake. And Blacula returns in 1973 with Scream Blacula Scream. Some other noteworthy Blaxploitation-classic-Universal-monster films include 1974’s Blackenstein and Ganja & Hess.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!!
In 1974, Mel Brooks produced and directed one of the greats spoofs set within the classic Universal monsters lexicon…Young Frankenstein, starring the late great Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Gar, and Marty Feldman (to name a few). Though I am a rabid fan of both Hammer and Blaxploitation films, my love for this era falls directly on Young Frankenstein. The film was absolutely respectful of the roots of Frankenstein and even used what remained of the original set. Not to mention was wonderfully written, directed, and acted. Less not forgetting a few other honorable mentions, Werewolves on Wheels, The Boy who Cried Werewolf, Werewolf Woman, and Legend of the Werewolf are all wonderfully gritty and fun to watch.
It’s really hard to hate the 1980s, especially regarding the volumes of horror movies produced during this VHS era. So many monster films and the birth of a new sub-genre, The Slasher, and the reclassification of Universal tropes, whereas the Gillman from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, became Swamp Thing and Toxic Avenger. One of the more obvious “Universal” carry-overs would be Jerry Warren’s Frankenstein Island, starring John Carradine, one of the last surviving members from the original Universal Monster films. But what made this era really great were three films that took the concepts developed by the traditional Universal tropes and created something new from the old.The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and Silver Bullet took what The Wolf Man did in 1941 and set it in a more reality-toned story if you can believe that. The rules of werewolfism became more complex and reminded audiences how fun these kinds of movies can be if done properly. Now…I’d be a horrible film historian/fan if I failed to mention the one single most recognizable “Universal” heavy monster movie from the 1980s. That’s right folks, I’m talking The Monster Squad (1987). This movie took every 80s cliche and every classic Universal Monster cliche, boiled it in a stew and served it with nard pudding. You either love it or you hate, and if you hate you’re probably too terrified to say so, considering how many damn people love this movie!
Looking back on the 90s is like looking through a kaleidoscope. There were so much realism and so much snark the 90s is often really hard to separate diamonds from the squares regarding monster flicks. The 90s gave us more creature features, not necessarily mutated or atomic…just…creatures. And as far as the use of classic “Universal” monster tropes, we have two different extremes. On one end, we get Frankenhooker (1990), a raunchy B-movie where a New Jersey mad doctor (James Lorinz) rebuilds his girlfriend (Patty Mullen) with body parts from exploded hookers. And not forgetting (though I wish I could) Mel Brooks directed Dracula: Dead and Loving It. But on the other extreme, we get these melodrama films such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), both of which did their best to follow the source material that inspired the original Universal Monsters. In the middle of all this dueling complexity, we have at least one movie that keeps to both melodramatic and B-ish action, one of my person favorites from this decade, NO, not Monster Mash, I’m talking 1998’s comic to film flick, Blade starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristoffer, and Stephen Dorff.
And I guess I’d be amiss if I did not mention one of the first more modern remakes directly linked to the Universal Monster classics. In 1999, The Mummy released starring (then loved now somewhat shunned) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, and America’s favorite weirdo Kevin J. O’Connor. The remake followed most of the basic tenets of the original Mummy while kicking up the action. I remember actually being really impressed with the film and truth be told…I had seen this one before screening the original. Unfortunately, it suffers from what most 1990s movies suffer from, the crappy use of CGI. But overall, The Mummy is still a fun romp on a late night.
(Shhhh…if we’re quiet and don’t make any sudden movements, no one will mention 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris…)
The 2000s were not entirely unkind to Universal Monster tropes. Strange…but not unkind. Universal Studios themselves had put out a what should have been a return or at least a nod to the classic hey-day with Van Helsing (2004)…and while they did capture the feeling of watching a Universal Monster flick, the story itself and odd choices with effects and the horribly outdated CGI dropped the bottom out on this movie. It’s amazing how much of a turd Van Helsing is, and it could have been so much more, a virtual House of Dracula, giving audiences werewolves and vampires and hunchbacks and even Frankenstein’s creature but instead filmmakers ignored the lore and added strange new rules that didn’t make sense, making a complete mess of a movie.
The decade was not without some gems. I thought Dog Soldiers (2002) was both brilliant and horrifying. There was also Ginger Snaps (2000) and Ginger Snaps II which were both smart. And, though not a lot of folks liked this one, I thought it was fun and an awesome throwback to the classic vibe of Universal Monsters, 2004’s Wes Craven directed Cursed starring Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, and Joshua Jackson. Another fan favorite during this decade was action-thriller Underworld (2003), starring the very leather-clad Kate Beckinsale and the always magnetic Bill Nighy. Underworld has developed into a series franchise, putting audiences into a world of vampires versus werewolves. The sequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans released back in 2009. All of which all fun and entertaining, though very obviously films in a post-Matrix world with all that leather and gun-play. Another vampire hit, for me at least, was 30 Days of Night (2007) which shed the “it’s fun to be a vampire” motif and actually allowed them to be monsters. And while sequels are not always a favorite subject matter, we cannot discount Blade II (2002), this round being directed by then up and coming monster director Guillermo del Toro… And be honest here, who doesn’t love a movie with Ron Pearlman in it? But let’s stop there. No need mentioning Blade: Trinity…ugh!
And as for the best of the 2000s decade, my hat goes off to Let the Right One In (2008), a Swedish “romantic” horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson, based on the 2004 novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist about a bullied 12-year-old boy named “Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli (Lina Leandersson), they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved they slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.” Let the Right One In was one of those “unknowns,” coming right out of left field. It was a slow burn, but so atmospheric and moody and dark…it gives me the chills just thinking about the movie.
Here we are…roughly 70 years of film history. And with just six (nearly 7) years into the new decade, it seems as if those classic Universal monster tropes are making an epic comeback. Or at least, that’s the vibe I’m getting. Let’s start things off here with my favorite, the 2010 direct remake of the original 1941 The Wolf Man, with a star-studded cast including Benicio del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and David Schofield to name a few. Now, I’m not saying the movie didn’t have some flaws. The fight scene between Hopkins and Toro is…well…a little odd, but for the majority of the film, the effects and even added CGI wasn’t too shabby. Considering the original is my preferred archetype regarding werewolf stories, I pretty much fell head over heels for this one. And wait, there’s more! Not only did we get a directly linked werewolf movie, but it looks as if the indie film community was filling in where Hollywood failed to capitalize. Consider this fan-favourite and truly underrated horror flick, Late Phases (2014), about a secluded retirement community plagued by mysterious and deadly attacks until a grizzled blind war veteran moves in, rallies the residents, and discovers a beast is behind the killings. Another unrated flick and extremely well done, Stake Land (2010) gives the classic vampire trope a plague-like treatment.
2013’s Wer was another surprise, giving lycanism a hereditary twist and 2012’s Werewolf: The Beast Among Us wasn’t too shabby for a largely unknown action thriller. And 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army was just bizarre enough to be entertaining. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) was a smart and surprise hit among monster fans, where residents of a worn-down Iranian city encounter a skateboarding vampire (Sheila Vand) who preys on men who disrespect women. And I thought Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was good for a late night screening.
Now…because I’m a dad (totally using this as an excuse), I have to mention one of my top favorites thus far for this decade before moving on to anything else. Hotel Transylvania (2012) was absolutely brilliant. Fun. Funny. And full of classic monster tropes. The story goes, “When monsters want to get away from it all, they go to Count Dracula’s (Adam Sandler) Hotel Transylvania, a lavish resort where they can be themselves without humans around to bother them. On one special weekend, Dracula invites creatures like the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and others to celebrate the 118th birthday of his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). However, an unforeseen complication unfolds when an ordinary human unwittingly crashes the party and falls in love with Mavis.” Say what you will, but I love this movie!
As for the duds…though I still haven’t screened this one, I’ve heard that the steady-cam take on the Mummy monster trope The Pyramid (2014) was not very good. The concept sounded interesting…maybe I’ll give this one a go before passing final judgment. The same for Dracula: Untold (2014), I just haven’t gotten around to watching it, but I’ve heard that it was decently entertaining. And I still haven’t caught up with We Are The Night (2010) or Byzantium (2012), both of which follow a more feminine-centric story trope. One dud that I did actually watch was comic-book based I, Frankenstein (2014). “Two centuries after Dr. Frankenstein assembles and reanimates his creature, Adam (Aaron Eckhart) is still living. He becomes embroiled in a war between two immortal races: gargoyles, the traditional protectors of mankind, and evil demons. Since Adam is neither human nor demon, gargoyle Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) and demon Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) each want him for their own purposes. It is up to Adam to discover his inner humanity and the reason for his continued existence.” The movie could have been so much more but casting pretty-boy Eckhart as the monster…well…it seemed to reek of trying too much to be like Underworld to have any real chance of being its own movie. The concept was fun and the addition to the Frankenstein lore…so, at least it had that going for it.
Also on my to watch list: What We Do in the Shadows (2015), and Freaks of Nature (2015). It just seems, part of my problem is that there are so many classic films to choice from my tastes typically shy away back to the 1970s or 80s. That’s not to say the 2010s have nothing to offer, just look at the list above and you’ll find more than one blockbuster worthy of your time. And the year is not even over yet. A think, largely, everyone has their own tastes for horror, and this is especially true for those of the classic Universal Monster breed. My biggest disappointment is the lackluster treatment of my favorite Universal Monster, The Mummy. While the 1999 remake did a rather bang-up job, that’s been…what, 17 years now? I have to wonder what the aversion is. I’m assuming it’s because the Mummy is not a “fan favorite.” Vampires and werewolves sell movie tickets, is that it? You put a screenwriter who loves the trope, some solid practical effects, and a director who knows what they’re doing, and I guarantee you a great film will be made.
And now…a peek into the FUTURE….
As you’ve no doubt heard, Universal Studios will be reviving from their vaults, the return of the classic Universal Monsters in a new series that will eventually tie together all our beloved baddies. This news has been generating for about two years now and it looks as if they’re finally getting the ball rolling. The first monster up for theatric return will be The Mummy, with a June 2017 release date, and starring none other than Tom “Top Gun” Cruise. It feels fortuitous that my favorite Universal monster will be up first in this new rival. The Wolf Man is said to be next, with a 2018 release date and rumors of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson taking on the lead role. Scarlett Johansson is rumored to be on Universal’s radar for the led in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Angelina Jolie for Bride of Frankenstein. Johnny Depp for The Invisible Man. And supposedly, Dracula: Untold‘s end sequence opens the door for what all these remakes will be leading towards. At first, I had my reservations. Some of the descriptions for what the producers wanted sounded un-horror and un-betrothed to what the originals were. But it seems those rumors were just that, rumors. As more information has released, the more excited and cautiously optimistic I’ve become. If you’ve tuned into any of the reviews in this series, you’ve no doubt noted how much of a fan I am of the classic Universal Monster. And by-Geroge, I’m glad they’ve finally decided to bring them back to their full glory.
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new paranormal series, The Subdue Books, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
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Swooping down from the Carpathian Mountains comes…Senior Drácula…. HOLD UP! You may be wondering, “But Thomas, haven’t you already published a review on Dracula?” Oh yes. I certainly have. If you’re brave enough to search the catacombs of Machine Mean, you’d be likely to stumble across a few. From memory, I’m fairly certain I’ve written a review on the Roxy Theater initial release of Dracula. I’ve written a post on Dwight Frye who played Renfield. And I’m pretty sure I’ve written a post celebrating Bela Lugosi, who we all know and was in fact buried as Dracula. But now comes the time, my friends, when we finally get to review the Spanish version of Dracula. According to film historians and most of everyone else in the biz, it was not uncommon for Universal Studios and most of Hollywood to produce Spanish or French or even German adaptations of their films. The unique thing about Drácula is that the Spanish version was filmed during the night on the same set and during the same time as the one we’ve all come to love and adore. That’s right folks, Dracula and Drácula were filmed at the same time, the American Todd Browning directed version during the day, and the Spanish George Melford during the night. The only real difference being the director, the cast, and subtle differences in wardrobe. In fact, according to Lupita Tovar, the Mexican-American actress who played Eva (love interest of both Harkin and Drácula), in the new introduction offered in the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, said that because the Spanish film was done on the same set as the American version, the actors used the same markings on the floor that directed them where to stand while being filmed. In this way, Drácula is a near perfect shot-for-shot version of the original.
Now, given the near perfect similarities between the two films, there’s been a rumor among horror fanatics and run-of-the-mill fans alike. The rumor is that the Spanish directed Dracula is better than the American shot version. There is no secret of the troubles Todd Browning’s version faced. Watching the movie even now, one can see how it seems pieced together with more than a few mishaps on stage. The one saving grace was the powerful magnetism of the cast of actors, mostly Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye (if you ask me). In transparency, I must confess, last night as I inserted the DVD, my thoughts went back to those rumors, of how the Spanish version was superior to the original. And after watching the wonderful Lupita Tovar give the introduction, one would think certainly the rumors were true. Well…I’m sure you’re asking by now, “Was it? Was the Spanish version better than the American?” Before we get into that, let’s back things up for a moment and fill in some gaps for those readers who have not yet watched Dracula or even read the Bram Stroker novelisation (poor souls).
Here is a synopsis of the American film:
The dashing, mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), after hypnotizing clerk Renfield (Dwight Frye) into his mindless slave, travels to London and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon Dracula begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires. When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to the count’s never-ending bloodlust.
And here is the synopsis of the Spanish film:
Soon after beginning work for Conde Dracula (Carlos Villarias), the clerk Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio) learns that his employer is, in fact, a vampire who lives on human blood. Now under Dracula’s spell, Renfield helps his master travel to London, where the vampire takes another victim (Carmen Guerrero). Dracula also has eyes on the lovely Eva (Lupita Tovar), but her fiancé, Juan Harker (Barry Norton), and a wise professor named Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) seek to stop him.
Some slight differences but otherwise pretty much the same. As it should be, given they’re both working with the same script. One of the biggest differences that I noticed right away was how much more easily it was to follow along with the plot of the Spanish version of Dracula. If that was more of my familiarity with the subject or not, I cannot say for certain, but I did find it easier this time around. And even though the Spanish crew was using the same sets as the American one, those sets seemed to have better lighting, maybe this has to do with them filming at night rather than during the day, but the mountains and rooms and villages looked brighter and I enjoyed getting another perspective of the uniqueness and craftsmanship of those designs. The costumes looked mirror image to those of the American version of the film, the one difference (that I noticed) was the design of dresses Eva and her friend wore, which is to say, a little more low cut in the breast region. Lupita Tovar comments on the same during her introduction of the film, quoting that the director had told her the dresses made them look sexy. Watching the film today, the design feels on point to what we normally see in more classy movies, however, I can imagine watching this back in 1931 during a more conservative film era.
The real nitty-gritty for me boils down, not to stages or costumes or scripts or lighting, but the actors themselves. Did the Spanish-American actors outdo the originals? Perhaps I’m bias, seeing how I’m a huge fan of the original…that being said, I had some qualms with some of the performances in the Spanish version. The biggest star of Dracula will inevitably be Dracula. In the original, we were introduced to Bela Lugosi, a very exotic actor (at the time). With Drácula we were introduced to Carlos Villarias. Both actors were largely unknown, and both were recent immigrants to California, Lugosi hailing from Belguim and Carlos from Spain. Despite Carlos’s advantage of being able to act while speaking his native tongue, Bela to me was the better of the two Draculas. It is even more amazing when we consider how Bela was not yet proficient with the English language during the time when Dracula was being filmed and recited the script phonetically from memory. Now, I’m not saying Carlos was a bad actor. He was good, it just…his portrayal as Dracula felt very comedic to me. His facial expressions were, to be frank, hilarious, and thus it was hard to take him seriously.
Secondly, both versions of the lawyer/clerk Renfield were played marvelously by both Dwight Frye and Pablo Alvaerez Rubio. They both felt very empathetic and loathsome…however, again perhaps due to my bias as a fan of the original, Dwight Frye gave the role the extra added creepiness that brought the movie to a whole other level. I was completely fine with Pablo as Renfield until the boat scene with the dock crews searching for survivors and discover the poor clerk below deck. That image of Fyre looking up from the staircase and his maniacal giggle still gives me chills. All Pablo offered was laugh like some loon. And there were a few other scenes, like when Renfield crawled on the ground toward the fainted nurse, Dwight seemed to me like a spider, Pablo…well, I don’t know what he was doing.
Third, the only other really important character to get right would be Professor Van Helsing. In the American version, we are treated to the likes of Edward Van Sloan. In the Spanish version, we get Eduardo Arozamena. Both performances were pretty much the same, in fact, both actors even looked a lot alike. The only difference being the subtle charismatic acting of Van Sloan versus a more pragmatic acting by Arozamena. For me, personally, again perhaps due to my bias, I prefer the American version of Van Helsing. As for the damsel, a truism for most Universal Monster movies during this era, again both Mina (Helen Chandler) and Eva (Lupita Tovar) were very well done. But, looking closer, a think I prefer Lupita Tovar’s performance over Helen Chandler’s. She was not only more exotic, but she was also more sympathetic, in my opinion.
So…who was better? Dracula or Drácula. Were the rumors true? No, and yes. There were many aspects of the Spanish version that I enjoyed. The sets. The more developed story structure. Even some of the acting. But, I think, there is more to love with the original Dracula. Bela and Frye, for starters. And despite the issues with filming, Todd Browning brought a sort of stylization and his own strange vision to the quality of direction in Dracula that George Melford did not have. That’s not saying Drácula is not good. It certainly is and ought to be screened by any fan of horror or fan of the Universal monsters. I’m actually really happy the creators of the 30-movie boxset included this version. Otherwise, I may have never given the movie a chance. But when compared to the Dracula filmed during the day, there just are no substitutes.
My review: 3.5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new Subdue Series, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.