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Universal Monsters in Review: Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

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As we enter into the sophomore era of the Information Age, which began its infantilism back in the 1970s and slowly grew, finally exploding in the early 2000’s, ushering humanity into a new echelon, what is commonly referred to as the New Media Age, it has become incredibly easy to get lost in the heartbreak and horror the world has to offer. Be it a mass shooting at a nightclub. The murder of children. A flood destroying an entire town. And probably the worst, the constant flow of personal opinion and prejudiced. Its easy to get lost in all the chatter. In all the turmoil. These were my thoughts while I was screening Universal’s last of the slap-stick dynamite comedic duo, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. My own fears of where our country is going politically, why it seems no one is willing to meet on solid ground, and contemplating when the death moderates and compromise happened. To tell you the truth, I’m not a huuuge fan of the A&C act. Sure, I love the historic quality of vaudeville. I used to watch The Three Stooges religiously. And Charlie Chaplin…well, a legend, to be sure. But my mood wasn’t willing. It took some struggle to throw in the DVD instead of watching something else a little more nihilistic. I believed it would be boring. I’m glad to have been wrong. As soon was the film started, with that over-the-top circus performance, and Bud and Lou came on screen wearing those ridiculous safari hats, looking more like Dark Helmet, my disposition softened. My fears abated, at least for the time being. Sure, the movie played out way longer than needed. The plot, if there was one, could have been finished within 45 mins, and that’s being generous. Regardless, it was fun and lighthearted and perhaps that’s something we all need more of in our lives. Not to forget or ignore the tragedy, but to cope, to put things back in perspective. Anyhow, I shall delay no longer. We have a very special guest with us today, co-host of The Last Knock, Jon Weidler.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

By: Jon Weidler

[80 minutes. Unrated. Director: Charles Lamont]

Tom Servo: “Joel, what are ‘boobs’?”

Joel Robinson: “You know, like Jethro Bodine.”

  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“Pod People”)

My experience with the comedic oeuvre of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello is very limited; in fact, the closest I had ever gotten to experiencing their routines were the impersonations done by the comedians of the UK incarnation of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and descendants of the duo riffing on the “who’s on first” routine. I watched “The Three Stooges” as a child, and found humor in their brand of easily-accessible, over-the-top slapstick – Abbott and Costello simply eluded my radar. Even in the VHS era, when Universal was reissuing all of their classic monsters in fancy new packaging, Abbott & Costello seemed to have a lower profile than the more straightforward horror efforts (for what it’s worth, though, Amazon is still selling new VHS tapes of A & C’s various cinematic adventures).

In any case: my crash course in their brand of black-and-white comedy-horror begins with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

The second-to-last collaboration of the duo, the film comes late in the Universal Monsters cycle, and it shows (for a bit of perspective, Hammer would debut their own stylish, serious-minded, and colorized incarnation of The Mummy 4 years later): the production values have a stripped-down quality that conveys studio disinterest, the screenplay alternates between our bumbling buffoons and stilted scenes of dull exposition, and the synthesis of the comedic and horrific elements is lackluster at best.

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I have conflicted feelings toward the ensembles of successful film series (comedy or otherwise). For a recent example, consider the first sequel to Todd Phillips’ The Hangover, wherein the guys who laid waste (and wasted) to Vegas brought their culture-wrecking shenanigans to Bangkok. As with so many sequels, the result was an uninspired, watered-down retread of a far more endearing original, its formula poised to rake in easy box office dollars and line the pockets of its stars. Where I sympathize is in the expectations that the reprisal of such roles (and character types) instills in the actors, becoming typecast as smug douchebags (Bradley Cooper), mentally deficient man-children (Zach Galifianakis), or passive punching bags (Ed Helms). The complicity of the actors in these Xeroxed efforts is a point I sympathize far less with, especially when they know they could be doing so much more with their talents.

The same can be said for Abbott and Costello: perhaps the most successful of the comedic duos/trios of the early twentieth century, they bested their peers (The Three Stooges; Laurel and Hardy) with a presence in both television and high-profile films (indeed, they were the only comedians given access to the financially lucrative Universal Monsters vault). Their shtick subsisted on a mix of physical humor and bouts of wordplay that ostensibly appealed to a broader audience, but by the 1950s, had run its course as cinema in general moved toward Cold War-inspired horrors. Traditional monsters with a more romantic, literary sensibility gave way to everything that could be doused in radiation – for the most part, bigger didn’t equal better, but provided an evolution of the “spectacle” that filmgoers were seeking at the time.

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And perhaps that is why the musty aroma of antiquity seems to permeate each frame of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. I went into the film with an open mind – even a slight optimism – as the Mummy is one of my favorite monsters of all time (Christopher Lee’s rendition, especially, supplied considerable nightmare fuel for my childhood).

The film overall feels like one of those direct-to-DVD ventures wherein a top-billed “name” actor shows up for a few minutes before disappearing altogether. Despite a more pronounced presence, Abbott and Costello seem shoehorned into the plot. Our duo is wrongfully implicated in the death of Dr. Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch), who had recently excavated the Mummy of Klaris (Edwin Parker), who is subsequently stolen by a sect of followers to be resurrected and walk once more as their ruler…or something (extended scenes of ritual dance are involved). In the meantime, there are hijinks involving a priceless medallion belonging to Klaris, as Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) looks to pay our bumbling pair for said medallion, and Lou crashing into closets, through walls, and stumbling into secret passageways. Some of the gags elicit polite laughter, but none are genuinely hilarious because the setup is so labored.

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For example, there is a routine where Bud and Lou, upon having learned of the “death curse” of Klaris’s medallion, spend a couple minutes sneaking it to each other in a restaurant; while this sequence shines as an example of old-school comic timing, it culminates in a protracted punchline wherein Lou is left to chew on the medallion for a couple minutes, well past the point of it being funny. And while it’s interesting to see the origin of certain bits that have wormed themselves into more recent films – including a scene that precludes Macaulay Culkin’s use of a tough-talking gangster movie to intimidate the burglars in Home Alone – earlier doesn’t necessarily mean better in this case. The voice-over narration that begins the film uses a lame pun to get things rolling (“a boy’s best friend is his mummy”), and the late-occurring “pick and shovel” debate comes off as an uninspired gloss on “who’s on first?” Though, when Bud explains to Lou that “some mummies are men, some are women” to his partner’s exasperation and surprise, one can admire screenwriters Lee Loeb and John Grant for bringing LGBT awareness to light (though I’m guessing that was unintentional).

Much like our less-than-dynamic duo’s routine, the main plot also feels tired. Populated by a stiff supporting cast whose lines are uttered as though at gunpoint, the exposition-heavy dialog scenes are dull at best, and painful at worst. The main problem with the film is that it’s never creative enough to be truly interesting, and its pantsuit-wearing depiction of the Mummy as a growling, twitching – and sometimes running – beast is a far cry from the subtleties that Boris Karloff originally brought to the role.

4 out of 10 stars

jonW

Jon Weidler works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day, but is a podcast superhero by night. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast under the moniker “Jonny Numb,” and is a regular contributor to the Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird websites. His archived movie reviews can be found at numbviews.livejournal.com, and his social media handle is @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd).

 


Universal Monsters in Review: Abbot & Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)

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Vaudeville comedy has a certain kind of charm. An allure that brings in audiences for a quick laugh. An appeal developed by legendary talents, such as The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, to name a few of the pillars that made up the vaudeville slap-stick house. For Abbot & Costello, their era of fame started in 1940, with One Night in the Tropics, and ended with Dance with Me, Henry, in 1956. Lou Costello, the bumbling “dim-wit” of the duo, would eventually pass away in 1959, leaving Bud Abbot, the “straight man” of the pair, searching for a new partner in Candy Candido, but eventually calling it quits because, “No one could ever live up to Lou.” Bud passed away in 1974. For me, I think the 1940s is really when the duo shinned the brightest. It was an era of heighten stress due to the war in the Pacific and in Europe.  War time audiences were looking for distractions from the woes of loved ones deployed and of uncertain outcomes in the development of world powers. Our featured film for this review is Lou and Buds second to last Universal Monster flick, released in 1951, and you can begin to see the struggle of defining their roles in a new era. The movie itself plays out as part mad science, part detective/noir, part boxing, and part loony tunes. As our honor guest reviewer has pointed out in his review below, there moments of genuine entertainment, but for the most part, the film was dragged out and ultimately boring.  Well, I shall not delay any longer, lets see what our guest writer has to say.

 

Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man

By: Lewis Duncan

 

I have to admit, the Abbot and Costello films were never something I went out of my way to watch or indeed find copies of in recent years. They linger in my memory, part of my childhood, part of growing up and watching whatever the grown-ups were watching. In our house, it was either Westerns or War films, both which I hated until I discovered Clint Eastwood.  Black and white films were to be snubbed as old and boring. It wasn’t until I discovered the genius of the Marx Brothers that I gave black and white a chance. I think it was my Granny’s fault. She used to eat them up. I remember her doing the ironing in the living room with the television blaring on a wet Saturday afternoon. I would be on the sofa reading a Beano or playing with Star Wars figure and these great brays of laughter would echo around the room. It was the television. Something on there had got her going. I was intrigued.

The Marx brothers made me laugh out loud and although it wasn’t until my teens that I appreciated the genius timing of Groucho’s gags and the on-screen chemistry between the brothers,  I still needed to see everything they had done. Thankfully my uncle had just purchased a VHS video recorder and would rent various video tapes at the weekend. One of those tapes was ‘Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein’. I can remember enjoying it without knowing what I know now and how it featured some of the greatest names in cinematic history. Looking back, I really enjoyed watching it but don’t ask me to tell you the plot. Kids don’t do plot. They do slapstick and action and Bud Abbot and Lou Costello did it perfectly.

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Having been asked to write a review of a film I was given a list of possibles. I chose ‘Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man’ for one reason and one reason only. I had never seen the film. I had heard of it but I had never actually watched the thing. Also, I’ve never reviewed a damn thing in my life apart from a few lines here and there on Amazon about books I’ve read so bare with me.

The title itself suggests horror but we know it’s not going to be an all-out horror flick is it? No, of course not and to be honest there isn’t any horror in the film whatsoever. It’s a comedy, it’s a vehicle for Lou Costello and Bud Abbot to showcase their vaudeville skills and put them on the big screen and they do it perfectly. Don’t they always?

Since agreeing to review this, I’ve sat down with the laptop, loaded up the film and ate some crisps and drank some soft drinks, clear head required and I must say each time I’ve watched the movie it has been as enjoyable as the first. Even that Universal music during the opening credits gets me going. Big old Earth spinning around is a definite cue to go grab some nibbles because you know you’re in for a treat, you’re in for a quality hour and a half’s entertainment. They just do it right.

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So here we go, Lou Costello, or Lou Francis as he is called in the movie, is skipping, tripping and dancing up to graduate from Detective School, misses the chair and falls on his arse. The start of it. Lou is informed by his partner, the very brilliant straight guy of the duo, Bud Abbot, that he slipped them twenty bucks to let him graduate. I think this is the first time of many that Lou looks directly at the camera. I have my doubts about that though. It’s a fun thing to do in a film and an fourth wall effect I love but I sometimes wonder if Lou actually relies on prompts from off-screen. I guess we’ll never really know.

Anyway, the unlikely detective duo are in their office when the boxer, Tommy Nelson walks in, all cagey like and makes a phone call. It’s Lou that recognizes who he is. Bud is still in the dark. That old straight guy/fun guy thing really working full speed.

Tommy needs to go to the Doc’s place and ends up getting injected with invisibility serum. He needs the comedy duo to help find out who murdered his manager, a murder in which he has been convicted of. They agree and drive him to meet Dr. Phillip Gray, the posh doc played brilliantly by Gavin Muir. His accent is just sublime. I just wish he was in the film more.

The Doc refuses, the cops arrive, and Tommy takes the serum on his own. It doesn’t work straight away but it eventually does when he is alone with Lou and the handshake scene is priceless. It’s the first glimpse of how the invisibility effects are going to pan out. They work, there is no denying that. I don’t think there is one moment throughout the film that features the invisible man that you think, yeah, I know how they did that or I can see the strings. It doesn’t happen. I won’t list them here but each invisible man sequence is perfectly done and when you watch it you will agree. Be it spaghetti or playing cards.

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A character that has to be mentioned is the detective played by William Frawley. His lines are sharp, delivered well and his frustration with Lou is just class. He sends him to a psychiatrist and Lou ends up hypnotizing everyone he comes across in a scene which includes a reference to a nursery rhyme about mice running up a clock. Again, I don’t want to give much away but it’s funny as hell.

This is where the film falls into two segments, the build-up to the big fight and the fight itself. We find Lou and Bud in a fancy restaurant with Tommy (invisible) at the table. They order food and the food scenes are the funniest and best scenes in the whole film.  It is also the first time we see that Tommy might be starting to lose his mind a little. He gets this huge ego thing going and Lou and Bud try to keep him cool. It doesn’t work and all hell breaks loose in the restaurant, resulting in Tommy getting knocked out by some revolving doors. They get him back to the Doctors. Tommy is full of remorse, well acted by Arthur Franz who is a constant star throughout the film. A straight talking guy that compliments Lou and Buds slapstick brilliance.

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Here we go then, fight night. You know what’s going to happen. Fight scenes will ensue, Lou Costello will camp it up and bounce about the ring like a fool but it will entertain you, it will make you smirk, maybe not laugh, but smirk and the bad guys will get their just reward. I can’t be bothered detailing all the scenes and quotes that matter, there’s no point. If you want to watch it then do so. I recommend that you do.

I’d like to say one final thing about this film, Abbot and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, this is not a horror movie, it’s not even a comedy. It does entertain, it has those old moments, those, ‘Why, I outta…’ moments, but that’s standard with an Abbot and Costello film. You know what to expect. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, of course, I did but I’m not going out of my way to talk it up like a lot of folks do. It is what it is. I’m a fan but if I had the choice of spending my Saturday afternoons watching this or a Marx brothers film, I would go all out Groucho. That’s just me. I like horror and this isn’t. I like comedy and this is dated. Worth a watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon if you have nothing else to be doing but  don’t go out of your way to check it out. It is what it is. Too much film on a really slim plot.

My rating: 3/5

LewisDuncan

Lewis Duncan is an up and coming writer and graphic artist. You can find his work on numerous book covers recently released this year, including books by Dawn Cano, Duncan Ralston, and myself (Thomas S. Flowers). He also has upcoming projects with the likes of Kit Power and Rich Hawkins. Some of Lewis’s publishing work includes Violent Delights, in which he co-wrote with Dawn Cano. He is an avid reader and supporter of fellow indie writers. His artwork is stylized in a retro, space-age grunge, 70s grindhouse. You can follow Lewis on Facebook to keep up with all his latest work.


Universal Monsters in review: Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)

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I had the absolute pleasure of watching this film for the very first time last night. As chance would have it, a storm was passing through the area. Lightening flashed and thunder boomed, rattling the glass, as I watched, popcorn in hand, one of the last of the Universal Monster Classics to ever don the silver screen. 1948 in film must have been a very strange era, or at least for self-acclaimed film historians such as myself. Certainly there were plenty of post-war film noir going on, but even those would be fizzing out. The real change would be the approaching dawn of Atomic Age Cinema of the 1950s. Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein is truly the last Universal Monster picture before the monsters turned to the atom bomb. While enjoying the rambunctious comedy of 40s famed duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the return of both Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman and Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Chaney had played the role of every single classic monster, aside of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but when the role for the Wolfman came up in A&C meet Frank, and I’m paraphrasing here, the role could go to no one else, he owned the Wolfman as much as the Wolfman owned him, or so he said. And if I’m not mistaken, this would be his last entry as the mythical full moon howler. The role of Dracula however was more ambiguous. Believe it or not, Bela was not the original casting for the famed night stalker. Bela was 66 years old when we dawned the cape and cowl for the last time, and technically first since the original 1931 Dracula. He’d played Dracula-esk roles since 1931, but never technically Dracula himself. You can see from first glance how aged the actor was, but nevertheless, was still mesmerizing and a powerful presence on stage. Film historians have commented that while Chaney as Lawrence Talbot was wonderful, Bela returning as Dracula is what really stole the show. Regardless, A&C meet Frankenstein is a wonderful footnote in the history of film, an important tale at the precipice of another era to come. Today, we’re joined with a equally fantastic author who has a special love for the movie. So, without further delay, let us see what our guest has in store for us.

 

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Universal’s greatest horror comedy

 JR Park

 

In 1948 the classic Universal monsters Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, had long since reached the high tide mark of their popularity.  In order to maximize continual profits the three had been featured alongside each other in two films, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula (1941 and 1945); both of which had been commercial successes.  But their final swansong was yet to come.  Teaming up with America’s hottest comedy duo of the time, the originators of many a nightmare were to have one final goodbye.  And what could have been a terrible pastiche, a jumping of the shark long before The Fonz donned a set of water skis, turned out to be arguably one of the finest comedy-horrors ever produced.

Jump forward forty years and I was a wee child of no more than four or five.  At the time my Gran had some films recorded from the TV, designed to shut me and my brothers up when we came over to visit.  Of the features that had been taped there were two in particular I would watch over and over.  Both were black and white which even then felt like an outdated concept; black and white usually meant ‘boring’ to me, however these two enthralled me as equally as any modern movie could.  Those two films were ‘Them’ a feature about giant radioactive ants, and ‘Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.’

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host a month-long series of screenings of classic horror films with “Universal’s Legacy of Horror” in October.  The series is part of the studio’s year-long 100th anniversary celebration engaging Universal’s fans and all movie lovers in the art of moviemaking. Pictured: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Glenn Strange, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, 1948.

Back then I found the comedy funny and the monsters… well, not scary, but enthralling, fascinating, exciting.  Horrific would be too strong a word to describe the characters I’d seen watered down and aped on re-runs of shows like the Munsters.  But the action and danger was still there.  The pull to the nightmare inhabitants of the shadows had begun its influence.

Looking back I am pleasantly surprised at just how well this stands up.  It is an out and out good movie.  Not a good movie for its time, or a good movie because it inspired something greater, but a straight up, honest-to-God good movie.

The cast is as authentic as you are ever going to get: Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster and Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolf Man, and the opening credits that announces them is a cartoon sequence listing the monsters and setting things up nicely.  This is something that would have definitely provided a hook for my younger self, and a scene that still looks pretty cool now.  Once the role call is complete it dissolves into real footage, and within less than five minutes of the run time we are treated to a Lon Chaney Jr werewolf transformation, followed by the lycanthropic creature snarling with rage.

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Make no mistake, this is going to be a monster movie.

The plot of the feature revolves around Abbott & Costello working as baggage handlers.  One day two crates arrive and they are asked to deliver them to a horror museum by the unpleasant and bossy owner, leading to a few amusing exchanges. Below is just one in a list of highlights.

‘Well that’s gonna cost you over time because I’m a union man and I only work sixteen hours a day.’

‘A union man works only eight hours a day.’

‘I belong to two unions.’

Taking the crates to the museum and opening them up, the hapless Costello discovers their contents are nothing less than the two twins of terror, Count Dracula and the Frankenstein’s Monster!  To add more to his woes we discover that his stunning girlfriend is in fact working with the evil Count and plans to put Costello’s feeble brain into the Monster to make it more obedient.  Help is at hand as Lawrence Talbot arrives having chased the abominations from Europe, and tries to enlist the help of Abbott and Costello to thwart their dastardly plans.  If only he could stop turning into a wolf…

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The madness that ensues certainly makes for a tick list of old scary movie components: creepy castles, scary noises, chases, burning bodies, mad science labs, bat transformations, biting necks and possessed people.

But with all this horror where’s the comedy going to go?  The answer… all over it.

Abbott and Costello are absolutely superb in this film.  Their fast delivery of quick-fire patter is a joy to listen to.  Snappy one-liners go hand in hand with great physical comedy, stupid voices and hilarious impressions.  Costello’s impression of Dracula when he is so scared he struggles to talk makes me laugh even as I think about it, typing these words.  This is rare as there is always a danger that comedy only works in context; taking it out of its social and historic birthplace can render it flat and useless.  But not so with the gags and routines that literally fill this film from beginning to end.

However the success of a horror-comedy is dependent on striking that tricky balance between the two opposing genres.  The trick here, and is the case in two other fine examples of this genre mash An American Werewolf In London and Shaun Of The Dead, is that the teeth of the monsters are kept as sharp as the wit of the script.  All three monsters are in no way dumbed down.  Dracula is cunning, he transforms into a bat, he hypnotizes people with his powerful stare and seduces beautiful women before biting them on the neck.  Frankenstein’s Monster is lumbering and childlike, but still gruesome in appearance, brutish in strength and perfectly capable of throwing a screaming woman through a glass window, three stores up.  The Wolf Man, just like in his 1941 debut, is a tragic figure in human form, constantly in internal agony over the monster inside; and a snarling, uncontrollably ferocious creature when under the influence of the full moon.

The threat is always there. The horror taken seriously.  And that’s why this works so well.

The only scene to trivialize the monsters is a moment where Abbott believes the Wolf Man to be Costello dressed in his masquerade costume.  The Wolf Man gets stuck in a bush and tumbles over branches as he tries to reach for his victim, whilst unaware of the monster’s true identity Abbott is berating it as he would his friend.  This provides a good laugh, but is quickly extinguished when the creature finds its footing and chases the poor man.  Suddenly we are back in the realms of horror movies as the slavering beast runs after its prey.

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The mix is done right.  Each component is allowed to be fully realized and interacts well whilst deftly not tripping over each other.  Instead of piling up in a confused mess, the two elements run side by side, making for excellent companions.

 

The film is a fast moving feature, and all the better for it, with a building climax that doesn’t disappoint.  In the melee of the closing moments we have the bumbling duo escape from the scientist’s lab whilst being pursued by Frankenstein’s Monster, all the while trying to avoid the brawling pair of Dracula and the Wolf Man who tear up the castle in a fight to the death.  (I won’t tell you who wins).

There’s even room for a joke at the end delivered by master of horror, Vincent Price.

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Some films are considered classics, but they aren’t really that enjoyable to watch, and I could name a lot of Universal monster movies within that.  For every one that is genuine fun to sit through (eg The Wolf Man, Bride of Frankenstein), there are countless more that are not (eg Werewolf of London, Dracula, The Mummy).  Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein might not have the status of some of the others in cinema history, but I would wholly recommend it, not just as an introduction to the classic Universal monsters, but also as fine example of horror-comedy and most importantly because it’s a bloody good film.

‘What’s that?’

‘That’s the wind.’

‘It should get oiled.’

jrpark

JR Park draws from the crazy worlds of exploitation cinema and pulp literature for his literary inspiration. His family are both equally proud and disturbed by his literary output, dragged from a mind they helped to cultivate. He resides on the outskirts of Bristol in the UK and hopes one day they’ll let him in. Mr. Park is the author of several twisted tales of morbid doom, including Upon Waking and Terror Byte and Punch. He was also featured with a horrifyingly wonderful short in the horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. Besides giving his readers terrifying nightmares, Mr. Park is also one of the founding members of the up and coming UK Publishing team, The Sinister Horror Company, active in promoting other writers and attending numerous conventions.