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Posts tagged “Creature Features in Review

Creature Features in Review: Jaws (1975)

What is your greatest fear? Everyone is afraid of something, everyone. Some people are skittish about insects, usually particular ones like roaches or spiders. I for one get bugged out, forgive the pun, over roaches. I don’t know why there’s just something about those six-legged bugs that freak me the hell out. Maybe it’s because they are so intrusive. Maybe it’s something on an instinctual level, something to do with the fact that roaches have been on the earth far longer than humans have. They’ve survived greater tests, while we humans, on the other hand, have fundamentally just begun our evolutionary journey. To be perfectly honest, roaches are not my greatest fear. I’m not really afraid of roaches. I get freaked out by them, sure. But to say they conjure from me that primitive nonsensical non-rational feeling of terror, they do not. Do you know what does? The ocean. More particular, sharks. Have been since I was young. And I blame two things for my unconditional dread of the deep blue, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week program…and Jaws. Why? Why not! Have you seen a shark? They are the apex predators in the water. And me, personally, I’m rather fond of land. Irrational or not, sharks are bloody huge with jagged rows of sharp teeth, the quintessential image of horror. And I’ll leave it to our guest author to tell you why Jaws is probably one of the most terrifying of all Creature Features.

Jaws (1975)

By: Chad A. Clark

In the history of cinematic scoring, there has been a ton of legendary work. The landscape is about as rich and varied as the movies themselves. However, one theme stands out above all the rest as one of the most evocative, one that, whenever you hear it, you’re going to have a reaction. And the composer, John Williams, managed to accomplish it with two notes. Daaaaa-dum.

Daaaaa-dum.

Seriously, chances are you already know what I’m referring to, just by reading it. It’s a movie theme that will stay with us until the end of time. And if you are roughly of my generation and disposition, it is a movie that has forever scarred you whenever you dare to swim in open water.

The irony about Jaws is that many people likely don’t even consider it to be a horror movie. Maybe because, instead of serial killers or vampires or zombie clown nazis, it’s about a fish.

And yes. Sharks are fish, not mammals.

Don’t lie, you were thinking it.

Anyway, while Jaws might not be a film that people would classify as horror, there has been no other film that has had such a long-lasting effect on my psyche. I wasn’t lying or being sarcastic at the outset. I have never been comfortable swimming in anything other than a pool. Even in fresh water ponds and lakes, I’m usually convinced that a twenty-five-foot shark is poised to drag me to a watery grave.

The shark in Jaws is no different than any other horror movie monster, it just happens to be based on a real world animal. But real sharks don’t act like that. Real sharks don’t have those kinds of proportions. Or at least, they’re very rare. The shots in the film of Richard Dreyfuss’ character underwater in the shark cage? They did that by putting a tiny person in a miniaturized cage to make the sharks look bigger than they really are. The shark in Jaws is a caricature.

It’s a monster. Of the worst kind.

Jaw’s (I’m just going to start using that as if it’s the shark’s name) is unrelenting. Jaw’s don’t give a damn who you are, what your hopes and dreams are. Jaw’s looks at you and he sees a warm-blooded, walking and talking snack. He sees you when you’re blissfully unaware, paddling away until those teeth clamp down and that’s all she wrote. Jaw’s comes along as a massive metaphor for our own mortality and takes anyone in its path and turns them into digestive material.

You can’t control him. You can’t fight him. You can’t beat him.

Well, unless you’re Roy Scheider. Then you can beat him. I guess.

I think part of what makes Jaws brilliant as a creature is how little we see of him in the film. Other than some images of his face and head, some teeth gnashing and blood and gurgling, we don’t really see him until the very end of the film. Otherwise, he is mostly an ominous presence in the water, something that can show up at any time.

One of my favorite moments in the film is so terrifying and graphic but at the same time is so straight forward, you almost miss it. It’s the shot of the boy being attacked while on his inflatable raft. It happens far off from shore and all you see, through the crowd of other swimmers is something come up out of the water. He’s knocked off the raft and as he rolls, there is this fountain of blood up into the air. It happens in a few seconds and almost goes unnoticed. There is this moment of shocked silence before the whole beach becomes bedlam as everyone scrambles for shore. That moment in the film has stayed with me for so long. Just seeing a casual, relaxing environment turned instantly into a killing field is classic and brilliantly done. The speed and viciousness of the kill is still chilling to watch for me, even after so many years.

I have been scared plenty of times by movies. The slasher movies of the eighties scared the crap out of me and there have been plenty of supernatural based films that have had me up at night. But for the most part, the effect of those films is temporary and fades with time. I have never lost the inherent, fundamental fear that was planted into my root programming by seeing Jaws. It is a movie that forever changed me, as well as my ability to ever comfortably swim again.

Thanks, Spielberg.

Chad A. Clark is a frequent flyer here on Machine Mean. He has reviewed for us before with commentary on House of Dracula (1945) and House of 1000 Corpses and Jeepers Creepers. Mr. Clark is a midwestern author of horror and science fiction. His artistic roots can be traced back to the golden era of horror literature, Stephen King and Robert McCammon being large influences. His love for horror began as well in the classic horror franchises of the eighties. He resides in Iowa with his wife and two sons. Clark’s debut novel, Borrowed Time, was published in 2014. His second novel, A Shade for Every Season was released in 2015, and in 2016 Clark published Behind Our Walls, a dark look at the human condition set in a post-apocalyptic world. You can keep up with all of Mr. Clark’s works by following him on Amazon here.

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Creature Features in Review: Alien (1979)

By now we must have realized, this subgenre, this oddly obscure realm we call “creature features,” that blends science fiction and horror together, is fantastically intelligent as it is perspicacious, understanding the needs of the times, the questions that demand to be (not necessarily answered) dragged out into the light. Questions of ecology, science, naturalism, humanism, and even biology, questions of our own innate taxonomy. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Which ultimately brings us to the chef d’œuvre question of all humanistic endeavor, what else is out there? Today’s movie up for review on Creature Features in Review is one of those rare gems that combined thrilling storytelling and special effects and atmosphere to have the most impact in raising those eerily human questions. While the sequel, Aliens, may have been the bigger blockbuster, some of the thrills had been lost, the question had already been answered. In Aliens, we knew what was out there. In Alien, storyteller Dan O’Bannon, and director Ridley Scott, not only forced us to question our place in the cosmos but also in the cosmos of our own flesh.

Alien: You’ll Get Whatever’s Coming to You…

by William D. Prystauk

In 1979, after much print-based-hype, especially if one was a fan of science fiction and read “Starlog” on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN hit screens that summer. It wasn’t hard for sci-fi and horror geeks to get worked up because many publications ran some of H. R. Giger’s conceptual art, which rocked many readers. Other conceptual drawings, from the look of the Nostromo, to space suits, and even land vehicles, kept those readers intrigued about what was to come.

The late, great Dan O’Bannon penned the script from a story he developed with Ron Shusett. Written with a budget in mind, he never expected the screenplay to get A-list support from 20th Century Fox – but they were hungry. After the unexpected blockbuster success of 1977’s STAR WARS, they wanted something else in a galaxy far, far away. And as the story goes, when O’Bannon said ALIEN was “JAWS in space,” that sealed the deal (O’Callaghan).

Originally entitled STAR BEAST (thank the stars they changed it), the story features the crew of the Nostromo (Italian for “shipmate”), a barge in space hauling megatons of ore across the cosmos, who are in hibernation as they await orders from “Mother,” their onboard computer, to wake them up once they get closer to Earth. Mother picks up a supposed distress signal, and the crew’s awakened prematurely to check it out. Landing on a cold dwarf planet, three members of the seven-person team head out to find the vessel to see if they can save any souls. Instead, they return with an infected crew member, and in short order, their souls need saving.

Although Dan O’Bannon said, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” the film stands as an original (Macek). Many have made comparisons to PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and even THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, but ALIEN brought audiences many new elements they had never seen before in a science fiction horror.

Here’s why ALIEN (including material from the 1979 theatrical release and 2003’s director’s cut) is one of the greatest films of all time…

A Stellar Cast, an Out of this World Director

It’s hard to find films in any genre where every cast member is a standout. Other than David Mamet’s remarkable GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, ALIEN ranks at the top: Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sigourney Weaver. (Helen Horton gave us the firm and foreboding, yet oddly seductive voice of Mother, and Bolaji Badejo, in his only film role, became Giger’s alien entity). Cartwright, Holm, Skerritt, and Stanton had been building their reputations on the small and silver screen since the fifties, Hurt and Kotto since the sixties, and after a couple of lesser roles, ALIEN proved to be Weaver’s breakout role as Lieutenant Ripley.

This acting foundation alone said much about the script’s value as well as 20th Century Fox’s commitment to the production. Some may say they were taking a chance with Scott, who only had his feature directorial debut two years before with THE DUELLISTS, but the film had received critical acclaim in short order – and all this after Scott had taken an eight-year hiatus from directing television episodes.

Galactic Feminism

If STAR WARS were one of the first science fantasy films to feature a woman who didn’t scream, hide behind a manly-man, or faint thanks to Carrie Fisher’s strong-willed and determined Princess Leia, ALIEN’s Lieutenant Ripley took the liberation to a whole new level.

Third officer Ripley and Cartwright’s Lambert are the only female team members, and they are simply a part of the crew. Lambert’s the co-pilot/navigator, and Ripley’s a communication’s officer, and the third in charge after Captain Dallas (Skerritt) and Kane (Hurt). The women are on equal terrain and respected, other than an innuendo from Parker (Kotto) because he may have been in space without a partner for too damn long.

Although Lambert may come undone in the film, this is because of her character and the traumas she’s experienced, not because she’s a woman. After all, even Parker’s waylaid by the death of his friend Brett (Stanton), and his strong exterior waivers on a couple of occasions regardless of his anger and determination.

Ripley, on the other hand, has several facets to her character: She’s logical and pragmatic, and respects command, even with her role in the officer food chain. When that rank is challenged by Ash, the science officer, she visits him in his lab for a private meeting to lay down the law. Though that turns out to be a wash, Ripley stands her ground and left nothing to the imagination. Later, when the issue of quarantine comes up again, Ripley’s passive-aggressive comment is her version of an “I told you so.” To make certain Parker and Brett are working on ship repairs, she once again walks into that crew member’s domain to make certain she’s heard and understood. When Lambert slaps Ripley for wanting to keep her, Dallas, and Kane in quarantine for 24-hours, Ripley goes to war, and Parker and Brett must break up the pair.

Even with all the hell from an attacked crew member to the whereabouts of the face-hugger, when Ripley’s freaked out, she pulls herself together in short order. When she finally takes command, instead of trying to define her role with a new idea to destroy the alien, her logic and pragmatism shine through. Since Dallas’ plan is a viable one, Ripley goes with it. However, as a leader, she’s comfortable enough to ask if there are any other suggestions. If anyone thinks this represents a lack of confidence on her part, Ripley’s quick and loud in drowning out an overly frustrated Parker, and she has no problem telling Ash that he hasn’t been doing a damn thing to help. (If she hadn’t asked Ash earlier for suggestions about capturing or killing the alien, he may not have done anything at all.)

Ultimately, Ripley has to be her own savior and to do so, she must overcome her fear of an unyielding enemy while under the strictest of deadlines, and even with that pressure and need for self-preservation she has enough humanity to try and save the Nostromo mascot, Jonesy the cat.

Atmosphere

Nothing works like isolation in a horror film. ALIEN features a small crew packed into the heart of a smaller ship, which is equivalent to a tug boat. And if that tugboat starts to capsize, there’s a small escape ship – a life raft – that can only fit three.

Even worse, the Nostromo is akin to being lost at sea. Due to the early wake up from Mother, they’re 70 million miles from the Milky Way and would have to go back to the old “freezerinos” for another ten-month sleep. There are no other ships in their part of the void. They are as alone as a group of people can get. And to add an exclamation point to the Nostromo crew’s predicament, ALIEN’s tagline says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream.”

Right from the beginning, from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, as well as Ian Whittaker’s set decoration, it’s clear the Nostromo is an all work and no play environment. Seating’s cramped at the front of the ship. And everything’s cold and dark. There may be light and white in the dining and sleeping quarters, but the remainder of the ship is either cavernous, though still encroaching, and the passageways are reminiscent of catacombs. Due to the small crew and the workload, the Nostromo is far from ship-shape. The equivalent of equipment based debris seems to appear at every turn, the lighting’s questionable in spots, and the nether regions of the vessel are cold and dank.

The only time we truly have any sense of peace and hope is at the very beginning and at the very end. Before ALIEN’s story gets underway, the hibernation area is all white with a center cylinder with each crew member extending from that “stem” to form the petals of a flower that blooms once they awaken. They each wear white undergarments, and they arise as if newborns from the bassinet of a hospital’s maternity ward. And they are born anew on a journey they never saw coming.

At the end, Ripley hibernates with Jonesy. A white glow emanates from her protective pod, another womb to nurture her, and we have the sense that she will awake as a new, stronger, and virtually fearless person. To add an exclamation to Ripley’s rebirth: Upon the annihilation of the Nostromo at her own hand, she bears witness to her own “Big Bang” and recreates herself. She becomes her own mother and gives birth to her new self as both creator, destroyer, and preserver, much like the Hindu goddess, Kali Ma. Once transformed, she not only overrides her fear in strong fashion but quickly forms a solid plan to vanquish her foe.

Space Relations

The status quo continues in ALIEN. Providing a dim look of the future, the white and blue collar mix of the crew remains stuck in the doldrums of working for “the company.” Regardless of the manual Ripley tries to cling onto, Captain Dallas is quick to point out that one does what the company tells one to do. This also means the object of fairness doesn’t hold up either. Both Parker and Brett signed on, but with their contracts, especially when it comes to “the bonus situation,” the pair won’t receive full shares.

Better still to make certain the Nostromo crew checks out that distress beacon, the fine print in their contract has a “full forfeiture of shares” clause if they decide to skip the alarm and head back home. (Mother, acting like Big Brother, would undoubtedly show through report tracking that the crew never left the vessel to check for survivors.)

We understand that as the crew is screwed by their employer, most of us have similar stories where the company that gives us a check every two weeks undermined us in some way, shape, or form. And when it comes to a cafeteria, and according to Parker, the only good thing on the ship is the coffee.

Parker wants to get home and party, but as team leader, Dallas has had it. At different times, he tells both Lambert and Parker to “knock it off” because as middle management, he’s just done. As he sits in the escape ship and tries to relax to classical music, we can imagine him trying to determine how the hell he’s going to write a report about this mess. But he has nothing to fear because a mole is amongst the crew who will help fulfill a different set of obligations for the company.

By not giving “the company” a name, it can be any entity we may work for on our little blue ball. Plus, with Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, we see the trouble of putting sponsors’ names on video phones and space ships, because Pan Am and The Bell System are long gone – though Hilton could build a space station in the next century.

Due to these items, and the wearing of many hats – those mining vehicles aren’t going to move themselves – the crews’ dissatisfaction may mirror our own.

Intercosmic Dialogue

Before ALIEN, most science fiction films were built on the backs of conservative, military-like communication full of boring conversation or scientific mumbo-jumbo or stiff reporting full of salutes. Right from the beginning, we can relate to the crew as “regular people” due to the dialogue and their exchanges. They curse, they rub each other the wrong way like children – “That’s not our system,” says Ripley, and Lambert almost sings her response as if a kid who doesn’t want to be bested, “I know that” – and Parker wants to get back home, with bonus in hand, and “party.”

However, the film goes one step further to make the dialogue and exchanges ring true. When the dead facehugger falls to the lab floor, Ash asks if it came from the overhead. Traumatized by the experience in his own way, Dallas peers down at their deceased guest and says in an annoyed fashion, “It was up there somewhere.”

When four crew members remain, a stressed out and now in command Ripley lays down the plan, which is a continuation of the old one. Parker’s also stressed and angered, and says, “Let’s hear it” as Ripley tries to speak, causing her to raise her voice and yell at Parker. Anxiety and frustration take their toll:

Ripley (to Parker): …We’ll move in pairs. We’ll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered, and then we’ll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you?

Parker: If it means killing it then it’s acceptable to me.

Ripley: Obviously it means killing it.

Having characters joke, speak over each other, and go from being ticked off to being accepting, serves as one of the best reflections of genuine dialogue and speaking patterns. This realness allows the audience to better connect with the characters due to this relatable and grounded communication. The crew may reside in the future, may live on a space vessel, but the audience knows exactly where they’re coming from.

The Universal Other

Like John Carpenter’s THE THING, ALIEN not only introduces “the Other,” the alien that must be assimilated or destroyed, but the Nostromo crew is “the Other” as well. Humans are not natural to space and the dwarf planet they land on is as alien to them as it is to the alien. Neither belong. But what Ash calls, “the perfect organism,” the creature’s as fearless as a honey badger and there’s no negotiation or assimilation. It’s kill or be killed. At no point does Parker try to sit down with the monster in a weak attempt to get the alien to help with the bonus situation.

No other monster from another planet in all the early science fiction fair has a life cycle like this one: From a leathery egg comes a spider-like facehugger that unleashes another egg through the mouth and down the throat of a host. Serving its purpose, and after the internal egg is protected and ready to hatch, the facehugger dies. Soon after, the young creature bursts from its host, killing the animal it leaves behind in the process and takes off on its own. In short order, the little monster that bleeds acid becomes a bipedal giant ready to kill, consume, and get the cycle up and running again. This means the Nostromo crew is left to fight an extraterrestrial endoparasitoid, which is an alien parasite that lives inside another creature and kills it. Wow.

Macrocosmos of Mysteries

ALIEN certainly has its mysteries. This doesn’t mean O’Bannon’s writing had flaws or that Scott overlooked things, but what follows are points to consider.

“Better break out the weapons”

Before heading outside to check on the distress beacon, Dallas uses that line before the away party suits up. Inside the Space Jockey’s vessel, Kane holds up a gun-like weapon right before the facehugger greets him with a kiss. The company supplied weapons are never mentioned again, and only primitive ones make from scratch are used. Why? Maybe the weapons were garbage, or more logically since the alien bleeds acid, which could burn through the hull, forcing it into the airlock with a flame thrower to send it into outer space is probably the best solution.

First Contact

If the company sent up a robot to protect the alien and bring it back to Earth, how did it know about the creature in the first place? Maybe another expedition came along, and unlike Kane, those miners in space suits decided not to break that layer of mist and get up close to those eggs. Then again, maybe they did. Maybe they lost a crew member (or two or three), but won in the end and made it home to give a full report. That report became the catalyst to send out another crew in that general area to unwittingly bring the creature home.

Ancient Computers

Often forgiven by fans and critics since the movie was made in pre-personal computer 1979, Mother, her special “Eyes Only” room, and the computer graphics raise questions. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, regardless of space flight, HAL 2000, and major technological advances, the astronauts still had to use clipboards as they sail towards Jupiter. When it comes to predicting what the hell we might have or create in a future world can prove daunting (follow the haircuts and clothing styles, as well as social interactions to help date films even more). Maybe the best reason one can use is that the Nostromo is an absolute worker bee of a ship, which means it doesn’t have state of the art anything. However, maybe as an homage to Kubrick, Scott created Mother and her room in HAL-esque style. Too bad the crew couldn’t speak to Mother, and she never even sang them a song.

The Signal

Why would Dallas and company venture out into the unknown when Mother hadn’t deciphered the beacon? If they had waited another hour or two, they would have had a better clue about what was awaiting them. The answer may be Dallas’ grumpiness, which on some level mimicked Parker’s, as well as that old favorite feeling that can bring fortune or failure: curiosity. And maybe due to their ho-hum mining drudgery, no one puts the breaks on the “rescue mission.”

“Why don’t you just freeze him?!”

Curiosity also reigns supreme when Kane and facehugger come on board. Parker says the “freeze him” line on several occasions, but Dallas and Ash take no heed or pay him no mind. The nature of discovery has taken them over.

Locked Up

How did Jonesy end up in that closed locker? Since this is the first time we see the Nostromo mascot, and Brett, Parker, and Ripley certainly didn’t expect to find him there, one of the others must have put him in there, which would have been cruel. Or, he could have been accidentally locked in when someone was working or getting some supplies by the locker.

How old are you now?

Interstellar space travel will either leave aging astronauts to die aboard ship with the next generation to take over the journey, or some sort of hibernation will exist. After returning from the dwarf planet, a ten-month journey remains for the crew. We don’t know how long they’ve been out there or how long their mining assignment has taken, but that had better be some pretty expensive or rare ore to send a crew so far out into the cosmos. Does this mean their families are in hibernation as well? If not, their spouses, partners, and children, if they have any, of course, are going to age every time they head out to gather some ore. Check out “The Long Morrow” from “The Twilight Zone” to see what will happen if you don’t get it right.

Space Rape

This thematic dynamic may not be the reason ALIEN is at the top of the science fiction horror list, but it’s quite notable. In an interview, O’Bannon made this frightening comment:

“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number’” (Dietle).

And O’Bannon does just that. Not only does the facehugger do the above, but the adult alien sports a phallic like head and behind its silvery, dripping teeth exists a phallic juggernaut of a secondary mouth that juts out in erect fashion to tear apart flesh and bone as it penetrates the heads of both Brett and Parker. Its phallic-esque tale rips into Lambert.

When searching for the facehugger, Ash and Dallas do so with long-lighted prods. As Ripley looks about, Ash tells her not to do so without “one of these,” and holds up his prod. Ripley doesn’t grasp one.

But the crew fights phallus with phallus from the cattle prods to give the creature “incentive,” to the pointed motion detector, to the flame throwers, and to the gun and its respective grappling hook. (Both Ripley and Lambert wield the phallic detectors – Ripley does this with ease, but Lambert has issues.)

Feminine imagery exists as well. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert enter the Space Jockey’s ship through a hole. And the Jockey has a hole in its chest, as Kane will soon have. Dallas enters the duct system with his flamethrower, and the round hatches shut him off as he enters the hollow shafts within the ship. Finally, when Ripley squares off against the creature, she uses that phallic grappling hook to propel her foe through the open hatch of her escape craft, and when the creature tries to enter through one of the open engine exhausts, Ripley turns on the afterburners and blows him away once and for all.

Celestial Conclusion

The story, acting, direction, music, dialogue, set and setting, make ALIEN a film to be reckoned with. Due to the realism of the characters, their emotions and reactions, Scott’s film transcends genre labels. In this sense, O’Bannon, Shusett, and company created a remarkable tale to capture the imagination – and fear – of any audience.

Sources
Dietle, David. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. Cracked, 02 Jan 2011. Web. 06 May 2017.
Macek, J. C., III. “Deconstructing the Star Beast: How the ‘Alien’ Saga Went
Wrong.” PopMatters. PopMatters.com, 04 May 2015. Web. 06 May 2017.
O’Callaghan, Paul. “Ridley Scott: Five Essential Films.” BFI. British Film Institute, 28 Nov 2014. Web. 06 May 2017.

William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.

You DO NOT want to miss a single episode of his award-winning podcast, The Last Knock!

 


Creature Features in Review: King Kong (1933)

I am going to assume you’ve seen this film so spoilers will abound. If you haven’t, for the love of God, go. Go now.

Well, now. Here we are again.

Last time, it was Bride of Frankenstein (check out THAT review here). Sure, Thomas, I’ll cover Bride’, thinking quick watch through of Frankenstein and the sequel, then 1500 words, bish bash bosh, job done. Then that sinking feeling, as I realized how ludicrously good Bride was, how much I’d have to say, would want to say, just how big the world of existing essays, books and criticism must already be.

You might have thought I’d have learned something from that.

Yeah.

Apparently not.

So, King Kong. In my defense, I had seen it before, and more in my defense, it had been well over a decade. So, my memory was simply that it was bloody brilliant, absurdly good for a movie made in 1933, a cracking, action packed monster movie with some bonus pathos and what have you.

And, you know, that wasn’t wrong, per se. Watching it again for this, I was forcibly struck by how sophisticated so much of the effects work was. The combination of stop frame and huge model work, for example, is incredibly impressive, as are the moments where the stop frame interacts with filmed actors at certain points (even if with modern eyes it’s painfully clear when the actor becomes a stop frame version of themselves, there’s still a certain not-quite-sure-how-they-did-that thrill to the transitions). Kong himself is glorious, especially in mid shot, fighting a T-Rex or giant snake. The giant model face isn’t quite as expressive or mobile as the stop frame equivalent, but it’s for the most part intelligently used for short close ups and is especially brilliant when he has some poor islander or explorer being used as a chew toy.

Similarly, Skull Island is as spectacular as I remembered. Bathed in the ethereal, slightly hazy black and white glow (my DVD copy of the movie was clearly a straight lift from the film stock, preserving even the cue marks signaling the need to swap reels), the island really does feel like a visitation to The Past. The giant wall, the extensive, gorgeous hand painted backgrounds, the cunning use of rear projection to show dinosaurs and explorers on camera together and the mighty, thunderous score, all combine to brilliant effect, creating a viewing experience that is utterly captivating. King Kong is a class act all the way.

Similarly, the acting is superb throughout, with special props going to the indefatigable Fay Wray, who has the absolutely thankless task of screaming in peril from basically the 30-minute mark to the close, with little pause for breath, but who nonetheless brings incredible depth, humanity, and interiority to her character. Her acting in her first big scene, when filmmaker Denham makes his pitch, is especially brilliant, her desperation and hunger warring with common sense and fear, her vulnerability genuinely heartbreaking. It packs an extra wallop when you consider that the Great Depression was both a current and ongoing event at the time the film was made, with many young actresses no doubt facing real world choices every bit as stark as Ann Darrow’s dilemma.

That’s a layer of sophistication the movie exhibits that had completely passed me by on prior viewings, actually. I’m so used to movie depictions of The Great Depression (The Sting being the example that immediately springs to mind, a movie I love unconditionally) that the contemporaneous nature of the film passed me by. And yet King Kong is, in part, a pretty pointed social commentary on the economics of that time – how people sought to escape from the crushing misery of the day to day by visiting movie theaters and getting blissed out on Hollywood. When you think about the essential amorality of filmmaker Carl Denham in King Kong, and the ultimate fate of the theatregoers eager to see the ‘8th wonder of the world’… well, let’s just say there was a to-me entirely unexpected level of anxiety and self-criticism from Hollywood that was both pointed and kind of thrilling. I mean, I was expecting – eagerly anticipating, even – the fifty-foot gorilla going ape. A movie displaying insecurity about the role of mass entertainment in the midsts of financial upheaval and social misery? That was a welcome and crunchy surprise.

There were other surprises that were less welcome. And here, I am going to wimp out by simply observing the painfully obvious; namely, that a movie that was made in the 1930’s and that depicts an island of ‘natives’ with brown skin contains racial politics that could charitably be described as ‘problematic’. I am both acknowledging and skipping that not because I don’t think it matters, or doesn’t deserve discussion, but because minds far superior to mine have already engaged with the subject with far more knowledge and insight than I could hope to bring, and you should go to Pop Matters and READ their article, and then read Angry Bitch Blog on the subject, and then Inverse’s take,  and don’t forget this bit of commentary. All I will say here is obvious; it’s there, and it’s ugly. And if you feel a discussion of Kong that doesn’t engage with the racial politics of the movie is woefully incomplete, you’re right, and I’m sorry, but I also know when a subject is too big for me, both in terms of concepts and word counts.

I think it’s worth taking just a quick look at the Kong-as-boy thing, though.

And let’s just start by observing that Kong clearly is male. It’s not just the name – though there is that – but his performative chest-beating displays are lifted directly from the behavior of the male silverbacks he’s modeled on. And let us further observe that this fifty-foot ape is, therefore, genetically speaking, a very close relative indeed.

Again, in full awareness that I’m dislocating my hip in order to sidestep the huuuuuuuge racial implications and encoding of the giant ape falling for a white woman, having previously eaten all the brown women he was offered (because, fucking yuck, let’s not), what we have here, therefore, is a love story. A violent, inarticulate, hugely powerful male is drawn to kidnap, then preserve and protect a small, vulnerable beautiful female from a hostile world.

Now, the movie itself draws an explicit parallel here between this situation and the story of Beauty and the Beast – indeed, it makes what looks suspiciously like a post-modern joke to that effect on the boat, with Denham fully saying out loud, apparently to himself ‘Say! I’m developing a theme here!’. But the film that I found myself going back to was Bride Of Frankenstein.

Because Kong, like The Monster, is, well, a monster. Powerful. Inarticulate. Angry. Violence-prone. Strong, yet vulnerable. Lonely.

Innocent.

That’s the real kicker, for me – the factor that gives both such amazing cinematic power and resonance. The innocence. Kong is innocent. Not good, you understand: he kidnaps women, seems to enjoy a spot of mortal combat rather too much, and certainly chews people to death, even if he doesn’t eat them. Like the other Monster, his anger is swift to rise and terrible to behold.

At the same time, he’s still innocent. In Kong’s case, he’s unarguably a product of his environment. In an ecosystem as hostile and violent as Skull Island, only the most ruthless and strong can possibly survive. Kong’s aggression and violence may be terrifying, but they are also understandable necessary survival mechanisms. He may have that considerable ape intelligence, but he’s still, as we’d understand it, a ‘dumb animal’.

Like the monster, we are invited to both fear Kong, but also pity him – perhaps even love him. It’s fundamentally Not His Fault, after all – he’s taken from a place where he belongs to a world he cannot hope to understand. Again, sidestepping the imagery of the chains (not enough yuck in the world, there), we’ve got the same notion seen in ‘Bride..’ of ‘civilisation’ colliding with a more primal force.

And this is where, I think, things get fundamentally fucked up. Because Kong is a monster. He kills indiscriminately, his obsession with Ann Darrow is the worst kind of stalker/woman as object behavior, and he appears to enjoy destruction and violence for its own sake. These are monstrous behaviors. Add in the whole fifty feet tall thing, and, well…

None of us would remotely dig having Kong in our town, and if he was coming down the street, the vast majority of us wouldn’t want the RSPCA (or ASPCA for my transatlantic friends). No, we’d want the army and a fucking bazooka.

But he’s not on our street. He’s on the screen. And there, knowing what we know about his history, safe in the knowledge that we’re not going to become Kong popcorn, we can feel for him. We can empathize with his pain. We can rationalize his obsession, forgive his violence. He’s a dumb animal. He doesn’t know any better. He’s been hurt and he’s lashing out. It’s the only behavior he understands.

And when the planes finally take him down, some of us may even weep.

I usually do.

And, you know, that’s okay, because he is an animal. If we take the fiction seriously, it’s not surprising to feel that way. But it is, also, undeniably unsettling. Kong’s behavior, his effect, is terrible, terrifying, horrendous. Yet he is innocent. As with that other monster, it’s the tension between those two facts that elicits such strong emotions, such powerful pathos.

Still, I can’t help feel like there’s a parable here, albeit not the one intended by the filmmakers. Because looked at as a list of traits, Kong is pretty much textbook toxic masculinity (yes, I know he’s an ape). And you can feel the racist barely-subtext tugging again if you note that the message seems to be that these traits are innate, a product of environment, and that ‘civilisation’ is ultimately to blame for transforming the environment to such an extent that these natural instincts no longer have relevance, have become destructive.

And, you know, fuck that, basically.

I think by far the more interesting read is to note that, yes, Kong has these horrible traits, but we as an audience can see them and still empathize with him, still feel sadness at his treatment and his passing. In the same way as we do for the Universal Monster, and interestingly, in a way that far fewer of us can for the real life, human monsters that share these traits.

Because, of course, Kong is innocent.

That’s the aspect of the movie that still gnaws away at my mind, the dichotomy that elevates this from merely brilliant period popcorn to something… ah, hell, we’ve come this far. Let us just call it art, shall we?

Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as, GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers.

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Creature Features in Review: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Spiders.

There is no middle ground. You love them or you hate them. You either gently put them back outside when you find one in the bathroom, or you go Ripley on the bastards with a can of aerosol deodorant and a lighter.

Having had a terrible, life-changing spider experience myself, I come down pretty firmly on the Screw the Biosphere, Annihilate All Arachnids side of things. And yet, I am compelled to watch the 1977 movie, Kingdom of the Spiders, three or four times a year. Why would I put myself through that psychological torture?

Because this movie is freakin’ amazing, that’s why.

The story is basic bio-horror, where humans and their usage of pesticides are the real enemies. All that wanton spraying of DDT has killed off the smaller animals usually eaten by tarantulas. Out of necessity, and possibly anger, the tarantulas have banded together into a supergroup, much like Asia or The Traveling Wilburys. Working together, they can take down much larger prey. Cows! Biplane pilots! William Shatner!

That’s right. William Shatner. Before you start doing that Captain Kirk impression in your mind, understand that out of all the Shatners that Bill Shatner has ever shat, this is the least Shatner of all the Shatners. He gives a fine, almost realistic, performance in this movie. No chewing scenery, no unfortunate soliloquies. He knows he’s in a crappy B-movie, yet he sets his histrionics on stun.

Shatner plays a veterinarian with the awesome name of Rack Hansen. Can you imagine all the stuff you could get away with if your name were Rack Hansen?

“I’m sorry, Golden Corral server named Marla, but I won’t be paying for this meal, for I am… RrrrrrrACK HANSENNnnnnn.”

“I understand, Mr. Hansen. Please come back and bring condoms, for I want to make sweet ham fat love to you by the meat carving station.”

It all starts with a calf, dead for reasons Hansen can’t quite comprehend. He sends a sample of the calf’s blood to the lab and the lab sends back a woman. Not the standard way to respond to blood samples, but it works in this case. The woman, Diane Ashley (Tiffany Boling), is an arachnologist… arachnidiatrist… a spider doctor person. Turns out the calf was killed by an insane amount of spider venom. The guy who owned the calf (Woody Strode) says something to the effect of, “Oh, that explains the giant fucking spider hill behind my house with thousands of tarantulas crawling around it.”

The puny humans make an attempt to burn the spider hill, but those clever tarantulas have an escape tunnel. They regroup and begin an attack on the town itself.

It’s never explained how the pesticides give the tarantulas human emotions, like anger or the desire for crawling revenge, but soon, the little bastards are on the rampage, tearing through a small town in Arizona. It’s like a small, eight-legged version of The Warriors, as the humans try to make their way to Camp Verde, a resort where they can hide and be safe. It’s their Coney Island. Meanwhile, the Gramercy Riffs (the spiders) are hot on their tails, leaving cocooned victims in the streets behind them.

There are so many spiders in this movie, most of them actual live tarantulas, and if you love the creepy-crawly little things, be warned. I think some of them get smashed on camera. They used fake spiders, too, so there’s no way of really knowing. It’s certainly not at the Cannibal Holocaust level of animal violence, but there’s your trigger warning.

If you can get past that, you’re in for a real treat with this movie. The spiders show up in waves, like the little aliens from Space Invaders. There’s a lengthy sequence where the tarantulas attack the center of town, and it’s surprisingly brutal. Bloody dead kids wrapped in webs lying on the sidewalk like Pez dispensers for spiders. Panic in the streets. One elderly man goes shuffling in front of the camera with a real tarantula on his Sunday hat. He just wanted to make it to Golden Corral before Rack Hansen used all the ham fat! Now he’ll never use that AARP discount.

What’s the deeper meaning of it all? Tarantulas are creepy. That’s it! There ya go. This is a movie for loving, not analyzing. As far as the eco-terror genre goes, Kingdom of the Spiders is one of the most effective entries because it doesn’t beat you in the face with any Silent Spring manifesto. It is way more concerned with dropping live tarantulas onto actors getting paid scale and recording their terrified reactions. Cruel? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yeah.

The ending, which involves an egregious matte painting, is rightfully infamous, but even that works within the context of things. For a film with no CGI and William Shatner, there’s no other way the movie could end.

Ridiculously entertaining while remaining fairly grounded in reality, Kingdom of the Spiders is a must-see. While it has been made fun of by professional movie riffers, watch it straight before you indulge in that kind of wackiness. Like your spouse’s siblings, Kingdom of the Spiders deserves respect and the benefit of the doubt before you make fun of it behind its back.

Jeffery X. Martin is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elders Keep universe. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work, including his latest novel, Hunting Witches, on Amazon’s blood-soaked altar. When Mr. X is not writing creepy mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and review sites, including but not limited to, Popshifter, Kiss the Goat, and the Cinema Beef Podcast. He is a frequent contributor to Machine Mean, reviewing for us The Wolf Man (1941), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Revenge of the Creature (1955), and Squirm (1976).

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LOVE NEVER DIES.
PEOPLE DO.
Everyone in Elders Keep knows you don’t wander into Parham’s Field at night. But when a body is discovered there in the heat of the summer, Sheriff Graham Strahan and historian Josie Nance must uncover the truth. Their meeting with a mysterious old man reveals a tragic and terrifying romance that stretches from the 1970’s to the present. It is a journey to the festering abscesses of the human heart, a dark love story told as only Jeffery X Martin can tell it.


Creature Features in Review: Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Wes Craven’s 1994 New Nightmare was a movie ahead of its times. In that I mean, the way the story was told, the significance of something we make-believe into being real (knowing it is actually fictional) and having it given back to us as this make-believe thing made real by our own imagination. That was kind of the genius of Craven’s New Nightmare. Freddy wasn’t real, but we pretended he was, as we do with all characters we watch on the big screen, small screen, or even in print, and yes even the horrorish ones. New Nightmare played on that, trapping the imaginative character Freddy in the make-believe world until the “movies” ended and thus releasing the bonds that kept imagination captive. Suddenly Freddy is real because WE made him real. Very clever, if you sit for a spell and think about it. Unfortunately, much like Jason Goes to Hell, audiences, and fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street series were expecting…well…what they have been accustomed to and not this metaphysical metaphor of fantasy meets reality through a sort of cognitive mythological construct. Not all movies fall prey to being ahead of their time. Take 2011’s Cabin in the Woods as a perfect example of the right kind of out of the box thinking movie coming out at the right moment in our social environment, which is to say at the very least uncertain.

Cabin in the Woods

By: Jeremy Flagg

I was raised on 80’s slasher films. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween filled my nights, and as an adolescent, they may have altered my childhood. However, these classic horror films provided ample education. I learned at an early age, you never separate from your friends, you never skinny dip, you never get drunk, and by all means, never lose your virginity in a sketchy locale. While a multitude of movies have attempted to recreate these classic tactics of terror, few have ever lived up to the original.

In walk Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard with Cabin in the Woods.

Horror movies have a recipe. With an ample suspension of disbelief, a movie builds tension, redirects our fear, and then in a moment of complacency, it scares. This recipe is repeated with variation for a little over an hour and somehow, at the end, our “final girl” perseveres by eliminating the big bad. We are put again into suspense as the credits end and claws emerge, or a hand rises from the grave, or a mask is picked up. There is a formula we’ve grown comfortable with, when it is tampered with, we get uneasy. However, Cabin in the Woods examines this formula, uses it, stomps on it, laughs at it, uses it again, and at the end, we’re left blinking in an entertained disbelief.

It starts with scientists talking about child safety cabinets and how only they and Japan remain viable options. What? Isn’t Cabin in the Woods a movie about a group of people going on a mini vacation to a vacant cabin in the middle of the, well, woods? Cue title scene and then onto the movie we expect.  A fun flirty vibe, filled with sunshine, dreams and the need for relaxation. We have all the expected character tropes necessary to make a mediocre horror film; the jock, the overachiever, the stoner, the sexy girl and the kind of nice guy who we instantly forget is in the movie. Everything about this post screams “middle of the road.” Or does it?

True to form, we’re ten minutes into the film and the group of soon to be killed young adults have met the old man who gives foreboding advice. However, in every scene, we see a hint of something. A man following them reports to his superiors. The old man makes a phone call asking for approval. A flying eagle crashes into an unseen wall. A room in the cabin holds a one-way mirror. There is a horror movie laid on top of something, perhaps a conspiracy? We’re barely into the movie and we already know we’re being played with and it’s not being subtle. Are we seeing hints of a twist? It must be a twist because goodness knows every movie has to have an obnoxious twist at the end. That’s how horror is done.

As the screen zooms out, we realize the scientists are watching the five young adults. Wait, that’s not how horror goes? These goons are watching them, luring them into this horrific situation. Lowering inhibitions with chemicals and increasing their libido, we have no idea to what end, but we know they’re setting them up for disaster. It’s only made more comical as they take bets on how the group will die. We have no idea why this is happening, but we know that the scientists can only lead them to a dangerous situation. The group must begin the catalyst that will set them up for death.

Now let’s recap, cause from here on out something serious changes in this movie. We know it’s a horror movie. We know the scientists are setting the scene for this horror movie. We know death is coming, but we’re still not entirely sure why. As they are led to the basement where a variety of talismans and treasures are stored, we discover they will choose their fate. Zombie redneck tortured family. Meanwhile, a similar fate is befalling a group of Japanese school children, a scenario competing with our movie for victims.

The movie adds a new element, horror movie as a spectator sport. However, the darker, and even more genius aspect is that we, the viewer are part of the movie. Much like the scientists watching their hidden cameras, we are rooting for the body count to begin. As danger looms on the horizon, we are hoping for a massacre. We want those partaking in dangerous activities such as drinking, drugs, or sex to fall victim to the classic horror deaths. And when the sex kitten is about to pull off her blouse, we want her to die. Then she resists and plays coy and we, along with a room full of watching spectators groan. Then science jumps in, releasing a pheromone mist.

Wait, does this potentially explain why in every horror movie stupid stuff happens? Were deranged scientists aiding Jason and those campers were all just victims of a mastermind game player? Did chemicals being pumped into the bedrooms of teenagers bring on Freddy as a hallucination? I’m left pondering if everything I’ve been told is a lie. But wait, I’ll worry about that later, because redneck zombies are about to start killing people. Did I just cheer? Maybe.

!!! Spoilers Below !!!

As redneck pain-loving zombies achieve their first kill (a girl about to get her groove on) we’re introduced to a new piece of the puzzle. Somehow, the scientists are culling the blood of the victims in some sort of ceremonial effort. Our next clue comes from the drug-addled hippy that is so used to altering his mind, the chemicals created by the scientists do little to affect him. Cue more classic death scenes, often times paired with comedic lines from the viewers in the bunker of scientists. When the victims refuse to split up, scientists manipulate the scene forcing the classic tropes to align to their 80’s horror counterpart.

Cabin in the Wood teaches us that a healthy addiction to Weed can save us in a horror movie.

The movie gets, even more, meta as the remaining two survivors find themselves in an elevator going down into the bunker hidden beneath the cabin. Locked in cages, we see a variety of classic horror monsters. Werewolves, giant bat things, even a unicorn are kept in cages, waiting to be called upon to slay the innocent. As the fool, our high-as-a-kite unlikely hero and the virgin unleash havoc on the underground bunker, releasing hordes of b-rate horror atrocities, we find ourselves cheering on the death yet again. We’re not quite right in the head.

As the final showdown begins, we’re not given a Final Girl showdown of immense proportions. Sigourney Weaver says that if the heroes live, they will destroy the world. The heroes, the ones we’ve been rooting for, either die, or we all die. I’m not sure if I’m annoyed or I commend them as they decide to live, thereby destroying the world. But, you know, it happens.

The snappy dialogue mixed with this meta look at horror creates something entirely new to the genre. We find ourselves cheering on the heroes, only to condemn them, and wanting more mayhem. We learn quickly that we, the viewers of this disaster, are really quite twisted. Most of all, we’re really excited that we got to watch a unicorn slaughter a man. At the start of the review, you had no idea a unicorn would be whom we cheered on. Cause you know, it’s a horror movie.

Jeremy Flagg is no stranger to Machine Mean, having reviewed for us Final Girls during our Freight Fest series, he also is the author of the CHILDREN OF NOSTRADAMUS dystopian science fiction series and SUBURBAN ZOMBIE HIGH young adult humor/horror series. Taking his love of pop culture and comic books, he focuses on fast paced, action packed novels with complex characters and contemporary themes. For more information about Jeremy, visit www.remyflagg.com.

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Creature Features in Review: Jurassic Park (1993)

I think we all have our list of movies that affected us in some way as a child. Both positive and I’m sure there are plenty of negative feelings towards movies out there too, either because they were horrible or horriful, depends on the person watching. Honestly, my bar is so low its hard to watch a movie, even a really cheesy one, and walk away hating it. There are plenty of other people more critical, and I’ll leave it to them to right the ship on movie reviews. There’s also a degree of separation we need to consider. The movies we 80s kids watched in either the late 80s or 90s that were totally awesome back in the day but watching them now almost feels embarrassing. 1997’s SPAWN is probably one of the best examples of that degree of separation. Back in the 90s, us fans of the demonic hero comic were more than ecstatic to watch the live-action version, but I challenge you to watch SPAWN (fan or no) now and not feel at least a smidge bit embarrassed that you at one point in your life thought this flick was the bee’s knees. However, there are some movies that surpass and shatter the nostalgic lens and are just great movies. Jurassic Park is one of those movies, for me at least. I have fond memories of seeing this movie as a 90s young teen. This was, in fact, the LAST movie I had gone to the theaters with my entire family (mom, dad, & sister) to see. So there’s that, a very nostalgic feeling, but Jurassic Park is also just a great movie all around, a classic Spielberg at the end of an era in which Spielberg actually made classics instead of rehashing old ones and ruining them. But, I’ll leave the review for this movie in more capable hands as our guest writer takes a swing at Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park

By: Kurt Thingvold

Dinosaurs have long captured the imagination of the world. Titans of the prehistoric era.  In 1912, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: “The Lost World” as the story a group of explorers led by Prof. Challenger who encounter a prehistoric world. Seventy-Eight years later Michael Crichton wrote of a similar premise where a group of scientists are invited to a prehistoric park where Dinosaurs are brought back to life by genetic engineering in the hopes of garnering a profit.  The book was a huge success!  And it dealt with issues of animal rights, genetics, and the repercussions of not paying attention to detail, and having constraints when it came to new advances in science. While the book was seen as a huge success, studios were bidding for the rights to make a movie. Universal ended up winning the bid and picked Steven Spielberg to direct, and Michael Crichton to draft the screenplay, which would later be co-written with David Koep. The film was in pre-production for 24 months before filming in August of 1992 and filming ended in November of 1992. A grueling 98 days of filming,  from Hawaii to soundstages in Hollywood.  With special effects taking over a year to develop.  The movie launched in June of 1993. Critics praised the movie for its action sequences, music, and most importantly the special effects.  The plot of the movie followed, somewhat, closely to the book.  A few characters were mixed around, and some of the more important characters from the novel had their screen time reduced to a mere minute and a half.  Parts of the story did remain untouched, with the exception of an awesome raft chase scene with the T-rex.

The story for the movie goes something like this:

A worker is killed on Isla Nublar, an island that holds a secret resort attraction. Three scientists and a lawyer are sent to investigate the attraction, Dr. Alan Grant (played by Sam Neil), Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum), and Donald Genaro (The money hungry and corrupt lawyer played by Martin Ferraro). Shortly after arriving, they find that the park is inhabited by creatures from another era: dinosaurs.  A greedy computer programmer sabotages the park, and the dinosaurs start to run loose, now everyone must survive until rescue arrives.

What made the movie different from the book? What made this movie a cultural success? It wasn’t an exact carbon copy of the novel, but it could stand on its own. (Spielberg isn’t known for being true to the source material. Peter Benchley was kicked off the set of Jaws after he found out that the shark was going to explode, instead of dying from its wounds, and dragging Quint down to his watery grave). A few things, actually, could be counted toward the movie’s success: dinosaurs and children.  Dinosaurs have always had popularity with the youth.  The movie also addressed a certain form of science that was growing in popularity at the time: Genetics. The novel went into great detail about genetics and genetic manipulation.  The movie did address a few key points.  The lunch scene, where Hammond addressed the scientists after viewing the velociraptors being fed. And the incubator scene where Malcolm berates Dr. Wu with questions about natural breeding. Wu states: “The dinosaurs could not be bred in the wild due to them all being female.”

(The following quotes are spoken during the lunch scene and address the lack of discipline involving the cloning process to bring the ancient species back.)

“I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it.”

(Another addition to Malcolm’s lines during the scene.)

“Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”

They resonate a serious tone about scientific power at the time, where, we tried to create what we could as fast as we could, without thinking of the danger of what we were doing; and it could be taken to another level without consulting with the public. It also portrays that uncontrolled science and technology could be a terrible thing. It also goes to show that just because you have obtained the knowledge and knew how to do it—doesn’t mean you should.  The main theme of this scene and the incubator scene are about control—which—the park lacked and that it is why it had its problems. Yet, the theme is downplayed in the movie compared to the book—Malcolm would and does rant about conservation, discipline, and taking what could happen into consideration.  While, novel Malcolm, is almost the complete opposite of movie Malcolm.

Spielberg, also, combined and changed characters from the novel.  In the film: Grant can’t stand to be around kids and the movie follows his coming to understand and love children (classic Spielberg, coming into fatherhood after reluctance). Genaro is another example of a character swap—in the novel, he is portrayed and somewhat timid and very cautious, and not so much caring about the money.  While, the film version, he is cowardly, greedy and not much into anything else. He was also mixed with another character from the novel: Ed Regis, a PR rep who takes the group on the tour of the park and causes the T-rex to escape its enclosure.  While in the film—Genaro runs from the vehicle setting off the infamous T-rex attack scene. And promptly, devoured on a toilet.  Genaro in the novel isn’t killed at all—In fact he comes around to be a hero—fighting off a velociraptor and calling a ship back and saving Costa Rica from a dinosaur invasion.  Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) is another character who survives the book and dies in the film.  In the book, Muldoon is a badass—he has his demons of being an alcoholic but makes up for it in his heroics. Also, Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler are an item. In the novel, she is a student and his assistant.  They also give a little backstory about her fiancé and how she plans to marry him after she graduates. Again, a lot of subtle differences between the book and the film.

So, what makes the book good, what makes it a good movie? The answer is simple: It’s different.  While the novel is mentally stimulating and fascinating to think about.  The movie creates an atmosphere—it shows you the wonder and awe of seeing what you’ve always wanted to lay your eyes upon, a dinosaur, and the movie treats the creatures as actual animals.  When the scientists first come to the park they are in awe. They become fascinated with their childhood dreams.  You see the creatures breathing, eating, and suffering from disease.

If anything, Jurassic Park is known for two things: The music and special effects. The special effects of the nineties were limited—computers had not been used too much for creatures, with the exception of the glass creature in Young Sherlock Holmes, and the main villain of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.  Spielberg hadn’t a clue which method he would take for full body shots of the dinosaurs—he was leaning towards the use of Stop Motion animation, and once he saw the tests for the stop—motion, he was not impressed.  However, he was blown away from the CGI tests and decided he would go with computer images for most of the full-bodied animals.  For the close-up shots, the film would use animatronic heads and partial bodies. What really made this work is how the CGI and the animatronics were blended together to create the illusion of a real life creature.  It brought the illusion of amazement and belief that an ancient creature could be brought back from the dead.

Music is another aspect that brought life into Jurassic Park.  John Williams, the composer created a masterpiece with his score; a score that can transport you to an ancient world.  What makes the soundtrack work is that the music, in itself, promotes power and wonder.  One of the few soundtracks to a movie that isn’t a piece of music but an addition to the scene, the music acts as a special effect; giving the scene the power to captivate. When you listen closely to the soundtrack. Scenes from the movie will come rushing back into your head, a rare feat. Williams didn’t compose music for the movie, he created the breath of the movie.  Of course, what ties the whole movie together is the direction of, Steven Spielberg. There are rumors floating around that he didn’t want to make the movie and that if he didn’t make it Schindlers’ List would have never seen the light of day.

Regardless, he created a family film and one that everyone could enjoy.  He worked with some of the top experts to make sure that the movie could stand the test of time and it did. Spielberg chose actors who weren’t top billed, he wanted to create characters that people would remember.  He didn’t just shoot at a movie studio.  He wanted a location that looked prehistoric and a place people could visit. Jurassic Park may not be one his best films, but it is one that is enjoyable. Spielberg took the chance to show us that a movie can bring a family together and a little journey to the past could be a wondrous thing. Even after twenty-four years, with the release of Jurassic World, people still flock to the theater with their children to share in a magical memory and to be blown away by special effects and the simple pleasure of seeing a dinosaur on the big screen.  Jurassic Park will be a movie that our kids will share with their kids and so-on.  It captures a piece of us, a time when we were all so innocent and could be captivated by a little make believe and a little science.

Jurassic Park will always be a part of my heart and will always be what got me to start writing at a young age.  The film, the novel, it all represents a dream of someone wanting something bigger, someone wanting something they could feel and touch.  Life will always find a way, and so will Jurassic Park.

Kurt Thingvold is no stranger to Machine Mean, having reviewed for us on several occasions, including his previous review on Godzilla (1954). Kurt 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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Creature Features in Review: Critters (1986)

Watch the skies! Keep your family close. A new terror is invading our world. They are…KRITES…no wait, sorry, CRITTERS…yeah, definitely that! If you’re a nerd, such as myself, then you are probably aware of such a movie called “Critters,” and the three other sequels that followed. Critters is not the first horror-comedy to grace this Creature Features series, but at the same time, it is something quite unique. When you think “monster movies” you kinda assume something like gigantic lizards that breath fire, or mutant genetically altered insects, or maybe even meteor shit that turns out to be some sort of alien slug that turns people into a mess of zombified conglomerated flesh. But when we get catch phrases like, “They bite,” and “When you got Critters, you need all the help you can get,” we sort of don’t know what to think. Is this movie serious? Or is it pure spoof comedy? Is it even horror? On one spectrum, you’ve got Roger Ebert giving this flick a thumbs up back in 1986 while on the other hand sporting a meager 43% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics have called Critters “Gremlins on acid,” (MovieHole) while others have said that “Critters [is] a franchise [that] has nothing on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, but it’s proven popular enough with Gen X-ers who forward ‘You know you’re a child of the ’80s if…’ emails to all their office mates” (Slate Magazine.) So what is it about Critters that appeals to some while turns away others?

Let’s take this one step at a time.

To get us started, here is a wonderful synopsis by our friends over at IMDb:

“A race of small, furry aliens make lunch out of the locals in a farming town.”

BRAVO!!!! Okay, well, my work here is done, folks. Furry aliens make lunch…oh, you can’t get any better than that people, that is pure gold. Well, as pure usual, they aren’t wrong. Here’s what I got while watching the movie for the…jeez…I don’t know, maybe twentieth time maybe? Somewhere around there. As our heroes over at IMDb pointed out, yes, furry aliens do make lunch, but as the New Line Cinema bold red screen appears, one Nightmare on Elm Street fans should recognize with a sense of glee, the screen opens on a giant space rock that so happens to also be a prison. We don’t really get to see much here, just a bunch of dialogue going on off screen. Supposedly, a violent criminal species known as Krites are being transported to the facility. Right away we’re told they “eat everything.” Just as my Magic 8-Ball predicted, the Krites escape the facility by stealing a space vessel and take off toward planet Earth. Here we get little (get it?) glimpses of the Krites, their claws and hear their language which has been thankfully translated for us via closed captioning.

The warden on this highly secured prison, who looks like the Caterpiller from Alice in Wonderland, hires “the bounty hunters” to track down these fiendish hungry villains and dispatch them. And it’s around here when the screen opens on a quaint small farm in a quiet small town. Nothing much to hate about this place. We’ve got our A typical American breed family. Pa and Ma and big sister and little mischevious bro Brown. A stark difference to the science fiction space opera going on in the beginning. Here we’ve got one of the most overused and iconic of horror and sci-fi backdrops, the American farming town. But given the opening, there’s already a feeling of helter skelter. What are we watching? Horror or sci-fi? Is this ET or “Gremlins on acid?” I have no idea, but I do know one thing, we’ve got  Dee Wallace, ET’s Henry Thomas’s mother in nearly the same dubious role as the harried Ma Brown of young Brad Brown (played by Scott Grimes who I believed was actually a younger Judd Nelson), our plucky kid hero who goes to battle against these Krites; Critter invaders.

Several scenes play out as we patiently wait for what we really came here to see. Aliens eating people and GORE. Spoiler: the latter you’re not going to get much of, sorry. My biggest concern watching this film was regarding young Brad. Now, yes, we all adore the stereotypical young boy who loves fireworks and plays with M-80s, whistlin’ bungholes, spleen splitters, whisker biscuits, honkey lighters, hoosker doos, hoosker don’ts, cherry bombs, nipsy daisers, scooter stick, and whistlin’ kitty chasers. But good God man, this kid is packing more than your typical firecracker. This thing is a bomb. His father reprimands him, also looking a bit weary about his son’s interest in explosives. Later, we see Brad sent to his room where he has a workbench of destruction and assembles what looks a lot like a stick of dynamite. Seriously, where are this kid’s parents?

Two highlights soon follow. Billy Zane and Bill Zane’s death. More on that to follow. Zane must have been just starting out acting when Critters came along. He looks quite young and only has a few lines. I did like that they made the big sister and girlfriend of Zane’s (played by Canada’s sweetheart Nadine Van der Velde) as the promiscuous one. She’d practically dragging young Zane up into the loft where she has prepared a sort of love nest, complete with 80s jams. Earlier, when Pa learns of his daughter’s new New York city boyfriend, he quickly asks his wife if they’ve had the talk on “how things are.” Jeez, I can only imagine what that talk as about consider sister Brown’s later behavior. But hey, who am I to judge the phenomenal romance of teenage love?

As far as horror movies go. I do not think this is such. This wasn’t horrifying. Even the going into the basement scary scene wasn’t really scary. It’s hard to be scared with Gremlin sized furballs cracking jokes in some strange intergalactic language. That’s not to say Critters wasn’t good. Critters is actually a fun movie to watch. The characters are not deep or complex, but their motivations are easy to understand and thus we do not have to invest a lot of brain power with them. Just as with the plot, though seemingly complex with the beforementioned space opera, it’s actually an oversimplification of several movies that came out in the space of 1986. Critters is without a doubt “Gremlins on acid,” it’s also got a touch of The Terminator with the machine-like bounty hunters and the garb they wear. And director Stephen Herek (director of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is not shy poking fun at ET. There’s a great scene with one of the Krites talking with a stuffed ET doll, yelling “Who are you!” And then ripping the doll’s head off. Looking back at Herek’s resume, it’s easy to see that he is mostly a fan of light hearted-humored movies. He wants to have fun and that mood is clearly carried throughout the film.

One of my favorite scenes involves Dee Wallace versus one the Critters that attack the family while they are retreating back into their house from the porch. The family gets back inside, and out on the porch one Critter turns to the other and warns that they “have weapons.” His Critter buddy replies, “So what?” Dee Wallace sticks out the barrel of her shotgun through the door and blows the “so what” Critter into goo. his buddy turns to his dispatched friend and screams “Fuck!” in his own intergalactic language, shown to use again by that marvelous closed captioning. It’s little moments like this sprinkled throughout the movie that makes Critters fun and funny to watch.

Oh, I also forgot. This town, as the sheriff (played by the fantastic M. Emmet Walsh) was quick to say, is a circus, and just like any good or decent circus, it comes complete with its very own town drunk/alien conspiracy nut/minor-leaguye baseball washout by the name of Charlie (played by Don Keith Opper). Charlie is quick to predict the arrival of the aliens, either by the feelings in his fillings or by dumb luck, the latter more like, and fumbles his way throughout the entire movie, stepping up at the very end by lofting a molotov cocktail into the alien spacecraft, destroying it and the creatures inside, thus saving the day. What I liked more about the end was the utter “fuck you” given by the Krites as they attempt to flee, firing a laser on the American Dream, portrayed in this movie with the Brown’s farm house, blowing brick and wood and shingles to smithereens. It’s usually in moments like this when I begin to formulate any possible meanings or questions the movie and or director are trying to convey. Seeing the destruction of the “American Dream” begs the question of what’s most important to us, was the “Dream” a lie all along? Was keeping the family together the most important part and that even when you’ve done everything right you will not necessarily get to ride off into the sunset?

Well…as I was pondering these questions I had believed the movie was asking, the preverbal reset button was pushed and the house rebuilt itself via a device given to Brad as a “thank you” from the aliens. In seconds, the house is restored to its original glory. Watching this and then seeing the credits roll I was left somewhat dumb stuck. Did the director just punk me, as I image he punked countless over movie reviewers before me? Maybe.

Regardless, Critters is certainly a classic film, one that kids of the 80’s without a doubt share in email and threads on social media as one of those flicks that defined an era. The mood was lighthearted, and despite certain scenes with F-bombs being dropped, I’d say Critters is family friendly. Could they have upped the gore and blood and violence and made this sucker even more of a satire than what it turned out to be? I think I would have loved it even more! But the lack of blood and guts doesn’t deter me from enjoying some 1980s nostalgia.

My rating: 4/5

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmo, and his latest release, THE HOBBSBURG HORROR. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon) 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 Bachelor’s 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. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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Creature Features in Review: Slither (2006)

 

Again I find myself mesmerized by the complexity of the creature features subgenre. And as a first, thus far in our little series, we find ourselves in the midst of a horror-comedy within the creature feature mythology. The gory ridiculous atmosphere of Slither (2006) is no doubt the responsibility of its creator, directed no less than by Guardian of the Galaxy symphonist James Gunn. Now, as most already probably know but I’ll mention it here again, Gunn has an interesting repertoire of cinematic exploits. He was the director who took on the remake to Dawn of the Dead (1978), keeping certain elements whilst still maintaining itself as a stand alone movie ALL THE WHILE pleasing not just audiences, but fans of George A. Romero’s beloved classic. But Gunn is not without question…he did have a hand in those live-action Scooby-Doo movies and the not so cult-classic Tales from the Crapper. This weekend, apparently The Belko Experiment, in which Gunn wrote the screenplay, will finally be released to theaters, having started playing trailers off and on as far back as November of 2016, has already come under fire from critics. So where does that leave Slither? Well…I think I’ll leave that explanation on the shoulders of our esteemed guest contributor, Jonny Numb.

Slither

By: Jonny Numb

 

Universal’s decision to let James Gunn direct Slither was an act of faith that spoke to the studio’s appreciation of how his Dawn of the Dead screenplay – coupled with Zack Snyder’s direction – led that film to box-office success.

The result – a 1950s-styled creature feature that combined practical FX with CGI – was a pastiche with a disparate cast (including cult favorites Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker, and rising star Elizabeth Banks) that had a mercilessly short theatrical run.

I get it because I wasn’t a fan of Slither when I first saw it on DVD. I can’t remember why it didn’t click for me – maybe because it leaned on “backwoods redneck” character types too much (and that specific type of humor); maybe because my taste in sci-fi is maddeningly specific; and maybe – just maybe – it was because I had yet to be exposed to the wonders of Captain Mal on Firefly.

In any event, I revisited the film last year (for the first time in a decade) and was surprised that my feelings toward it had improved. While problematic in places (mostly in the wobbly, tone-setting early going), Slither grows into a bizarre and sneakily subversive take on the sci-fi it’s paying loving homage to:

The Blob (either version). The Thing (Carpenter version). Invasion of the Body Snatchers (mostly the ‘50s version).

There are also subtle-to-obvious references to the works of David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski, as well as Gunn’s former tenure as a screenwriter for Troma (including a Lloyd Kaufman cameo); and keep an eye on the Main Street storefronts during the opening credits for more sly Easter Eggs.

Grant Grant (Rooker) is a macho sleazeball in cheesy glasses who’s married to trophy wife (and elementary-school teacher) Starla (Banks). Spurned by his wife’s refusal to fulfill her duty as willing sex object one night, Grant meets up with local bar girl Brenda (Brenda James). In a bit of cosmic irony, they find themselves in the woods, and Grant has feelings of remorse before he can consummate any carnal desires. More ironic still, this leads Grant to the discovery of a translucent egg-sac with a symbolically vaginal opening, one from which something shoots out, infecting him with an extraterrestrial parasite. After the transformed, meat-craving Grant impregnates Brenda, she becomes the “mother” to the alien invasion.

Once the parasites explode (literally), Slither really kicks into gear. Gleefully grotesque practical effects – and some CGI that hasn’t aged as well – ensue.

To make a hard right turn: does anyone really talk about Kylie (Tania Saulnier), and how she’s probably the smartest, most resourceful character in the movie?

Only on my most recent viewing did it occur to me that we see her not once (in the high-school classroom), but twice (in the crowd at the town’s “Deer Cheer” event) before being properly introduced around the family dinner table (where she makes reference to the “Japanese” design of her painted fingernails (tentacles much?). Her character is at the center of a great setpiece midway through, during which she’s taking a bath with her earbuds in, and winds up fending off a parasite with a curling iron. Even more so than the scene’s well-taken stylistic nods to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Shivers, notice how Gunn allows Kylie to react as rationally as the situation will allow, without turning it into an excuse for T&A or a gory money shot. When the tub parasite nearly shoots down her throat, Kylie briefly taps into the aliens’ shared consciousness – and the glimpses of havoc on an unnamed planet far, far away certainly foreshadows Gunn’s eventual segue into the world of high-budget comic-book blockbusters.

Rather ingeniously, the DVD cover for Slither – that of Kylie in the tub, being descended upon by thousands of squirming parasites – represents the film more accurately than most video-art concepts (which tend toward hyperbole). It’s unsubtle without really giving anything away, and Gunn subverts expectations for the scene itself by guiding it to a surprising conclusion. The sequence of events that follows the tub encounter is brilliantly rendered, and reminded me of Barbara’s full-moon escape from the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead (yes, the 1990 remake).

There are other things, as well:

The comic relief of Mayor Jack MacReady (played by Brian De Palma regular Gregg Henry), who – in look and demeanor – bears an eerie resemblance to a certain boorish ex-reality-TV star. He’s paranoid, perpetually angry, casually misogynistic, and at one point asks if the town’s being “invaded by the Russkies.” Gunn’s smart handling ensures that we’re always laughing at this clown, and Henry is definitely in on the joke.

Meanwhile, Starla transitions from Grant’s doormat to a model of marriage to, eventually, a woman who wakes up to the fact that her husband’s internal ugliness has manifested on the outside in a way that’s rather poetic. Their final confrontation is a fine demonstration of Beauty no longer tolerating the Beast’s shit.

So maybe, finally, the film resembles Bride of the Monster (but in title only. Thank God).

One nagging question, though: even with the padlock on the basement door, how did the stench of all those dead pets not make its way through the vents in the Grant household?

Jonny Numb’s Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Jon Weidler, aka Jonny Numb, is no stranger here on Machine Mean. He has contributed for us Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955) AND Clean, Shaven for our Fright Fest month back in October. Mr. 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). You can read his review of A&C Meet Mummyhere.

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Creature Features in Review: The Blob (1988)

!! CONTAINS SPOILERS !! CONTAINS SPOILERS !! CONTAINS SPOILERS !!

 The Blob (1988) is my second-favorite 1980s remake of a classic monster horror film, The Thing by John Carpenter being the first—and if the ALIEN Trilogy (yeah, I said ‘Trilogy’) didn’t exist, JC’s The Thing would be my all-time favorite film. Now, I’m usually the first to say that JC’s The Thing is not strictly a ‘remake’, because of its alternate take on Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.—but in his great Creature Features in Review piece on JC’s The Thing, William D. Prystauk beat me to it. John Carpenter’s take was a more accurate, more paranoid version of that novella than Howard Hawks’—and Christian Nyby’s and Edward Lasker’s and others’—The Thing from Another World, while also bringing in elements of amorphous, madness-inducing creature moments that—when paired with the snow-blasted, isolated Antarctic setting—came to draw well-earned and fair comparisons to aspects of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and creatures from his other works.

Okay, I’m not going the same route as my last Mean Machine guest review and framing my entire review of one film on elements of other works… but please bear with me a bit longer.

So, if John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? was the basis of John Carpenter’s The Thing for its setting, plot, paranoia, and dread—with a healthy dose of Lovecraftian vague, disturbing forms as well as cosmic fear and wonderment—I’m of the opinion that The Blob remake from 1988 and its 1958 predecessor take their starting premise at least loosely from Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.”

I know, I know… The inspiration is directly attributed to a genuinely weird, fishy sounding police report from Philadelphia in 1950 that was detailed in a local newspaper, so I have no way of knowing if Irvine H. Millgate had read Lovecraft as well—but that’s my trip and I’m running with it, you guys!

But while “The Colour Out of Space” is a subtle and measured build of a tale about a meteorite crashing to Earth at a farm and something in it tainting the soil and water for a good distance around as its semi-physical presence wears down the people and eventually takes them… The Blob is like a far less elegant and more (squishy) blunt instrument of terror. Lovecraft’s story is one of ‘other’-ness and truly alien elements infecting and rotting the mundane setting due to the mostly-unseen menace’s weird attributes. The Blob is about a big nasty growing glop puddle ‘eating’ everything. Both crashing down from space with no explanation—except in The Blob remake, but I’ll get back to that—but with different approaches and implied motivations or at least confused actions.

Then the remake ratchets up the clever uses of the amorphousness and menace of the creature and goes in hard on the creature effects. Both JC’s The Thing and The Blob (1988) elevate practical creature effects during what was already their heyday as a way to take their source material and really focus the horror and visceral thrills and stakes.

Leaving comparisons behind, though, I’d say what really stood out for me on this review re-watch—I’d seen it several times over the years, but never paid too much attention to the actual story or presentation, instead just taking in the creature effects—was how much the film relied on and seemed to celebrate the concepts of heavy foreshadowing and pay-off, as well as one shameless deus ex machina moment. Hold that thought…

SUMMARY:

A meteorite crashes just outside a mountain ski town in the offseason (or the film would have ended there, from its own logic), a strange substance glowing in the center of the cracked ball of hot metal. A hobo who saw the landing gets too close—the pink Blob substance gloms onto his hand. From there on out, it’s a succession of setups for the continuously growing, gloppy creature to rack up gruesome kills as the main characters try to survive and figure out how to stop it.

 REVIEW:

Reviewer self-sabotage or not, I’ll just say it outright—on the strength of the creature and makeup effects, and the kills alone, I love this movie. Always have. Some of the most incredibly graphic and messed up practical monster effects ever put on screen.

From the first death, we know this is going to be a dicey night for the characters. A high school football player and cheerleader—characters playfully introduced as a riff on the original film—accidentally run into the hobo with their car as he stumbles across the road clutching his own warped pink arm. They rush him to the hospital where he’s whisked away to a room in the ER. The football player goes to check on him… and the hobo’s body bulges strangely under a sheet. As the boy and a doctor approach, the body shifts, showing the hobo’s newly clouded-over white eyes. The doctor pulls the sheet off—the hobo’s body is mostly gone, having been dissolved and burned as if by powerful acid.

The second death follows this closely, and as the football player makes a phone call, the Blob drops onto him from the ceiling. When the cheerleader comes to find him, she takes a heavy SAN loss as she finds her beau almost entirely inside the quickly growing Blob’s mass—burning away at his flesh and pulling his skin and muscle from his face with its raw strength. This is one of the best practical creature/kill effects ever.

I won’t describe them all, but some other great ones are: a horny teenage friend and fellow football player of the cover kill kid who gets wrecked while trying to take advantage of a girl he got drunk at a make-out spot, a short order cook is pulled gruesomely into a kitchen drain, a movie theater projectionist is consumed on the projection booth ceiling, a sheriff’s deputy is snapped in half and pulled out through a barricade the remaining townspeople are trying to construct… Some quality carnage in this one.

I think my favorite kill involves a phone booth and a waitress who’s on the phone when the Blob starts pouring itself down over the whole booth. Other than being a nightmarish claustrophobic setup, before it crushes the booth into her from all around, she sees another recent victim floating in the thick, pink nastiness of the Blob’s formless body—and this last one leads me back to my intro remarks.

This review re-watch as I said really brought the story and its structure to the fore for me in a way it never has before. I’m not saying it’s an amazing story, but the way it’s all set up and executed felt way more deliberate than I’d ever given it credit for.

So, if you the reader will allow this reviewer the looser usage of a concept, I have to say this film is dominated by one interpretation of ‘Chekhov’s Rifle/Gun’ being repeatedly put into practice. That is in the form of constant foreshadowing—and this script is almost surgically precise and economical in its setups and payoffs. I bring this up because, in this most recent viewing, I couldn’t not see it. Knowing what would happen later from past viewings, I watched as every major scene was foreshadowed, sometimes down to the most unimportant seeming moments. My favorite example is what I’ll call Chekhov’s Zipper.

The cheerleader has a little brother—whose main purpose is to sneak into a late night horror movie showing (remember the projectionist?)—and almost get killed. When he’s introduced way back before the cheerleader and cover kill boy even leave so they can hit the hobo with the car, he’s supposed to be going out to his best friend’s house. As he’s getting ready to leave, he has trouble pulling his zipper up. What I have to imagine is at least 30-40 minutes of screen time—I checked; it’s 44 mins, 18 secs—later, the cheerleader, her little brother, and his best friend are escaping the movie theater and the exit doors slam closed on the back of the little brother’s jacket—and wouldn’t you know it? They can’t get the little brother’s jacket off to free him from almost certain death because… his zipper’s stuck. They get him out of his jacket and off for more survival shenanigans in the dark sewer system, but that was a planned, patient setup and follow-through, heavy-handed or not.

And that’s the second longest setup and payoff distance.

Tough kid (with bad hair) Brian (Kevin Dillon) is introduced in the early parts of the film smoking, drinking a beer, and lustfully gazing upon a ridiculously set up destroyed bridge with one side conveniently higher than the other… He discards his shameful chemical vices—especially for one so young, merciful heavens…—and he tries to jump the bridge gap on his motorcycle. He fails, of course, and his bike is damaged in the process of him eating shit.

That occurs 1 hour, 1 min, and 16 secs before he makes that same jump on his repaired motorcycle—while being chased by military helicopters and a pickup truck filled with biohazard suit wearing soldiers, no less.

Side Note: that unbelievable setup and jump will lead to something even sillier—after making the jump, Kevin Dillon hides by a huge storm drain opening as military vehicles search for him all around… and wouldn’t you know it? That tunnel is just large enough for a guy, a motorcycle, and the guy’s horrible, huge hair to fit in and comfortably ride down. And that’s just really serendipitous since the cheerleader and her brother are in dire need of rescuing down the same tunnel just a bit later… Yeah, there’s our shameless deus ex machina usage.

Another great setup and payoff takes us back to my favorite kill/death, the woman in the phone booth. This one was a layered setup and also made the already disturbing creature scene messed up emotionally. From early in the film, it’s established the town sheriff has a thing for the woman who runs the diner. They have a possible date setup for 11pm—before all that horrible monster stuff starts, ruining their evening—after she gets off work. When things get worse in town, the sheriff says he’s heading to the diner. That’s the second to last time we’ll see him. So, after the diner kitchen sink kill, all the people in it escape in different ways. The woman who works there runs out to the phone booth. As she’s on the phone, the Blob comes down to the booth and she starts losing it. On the phone, she hears the dispatcher say that the sheriff came down to the diner… and the victim floating up through the Blob over the phone booth—is wearing a badge. Boom. Cold-blooded business.

The projectionist in the theater sequence has a whistling yo-yo that later drops from the ceiling, causing the theater manager to look up and see him being consumed on the booth ceiling.

The whole resolution is set up in the establishing intro shots of the town, with signs for snow equipment and such all over. The Blob’s weakness is cold, as in the original, so those familiar with the first film probably chuckled at sight of those signs in the theater when it came out. Brian uses an artificial snow machine to save the day, so that might actually be the rightful longest setup, thinking about it now.

But going back a few steps, it might have seemed strange to those unfamiliar with this film—who for some reason are reading this quite spoiler-y review—that I hadn’t mentioned the military before the motorcycle jump. Wacky, right?

Sooooooo, like I’d mentioned early on, the menacing forces/creatures in “The Colour Out of Space” and The Blob (1958) both have unexplained origins. Not The Blob (1988), oh no!

This being a sci-fi/horror film from the 1980s, it’s revealed late in the second act that this Blob creature isn’t just some run of the mill space monster—it was the result of a germ warfare project from the Cold War that was launched into space because it was so dangerous. Good one, Cold War guys…

One last thought I’ll express about this film is that it differs from many other creature films in one major way—in ALIEN films, every stage of the creature is strange and frightening in its own right as what it is. In JC’s The Thing, the creature is most viscerally frightening as it goes between mimicked forms, becoming amorphous and disturbing as it changes. In The Blob, the pink glop is the creature. It grows and gets tentacles here and there in the remake, but the most gruesome and memorable shots in this film are victims inside the translucent muck of the creature’s form. Their bodies being burned and digested/absorbed—and the torture of that expressed on their disintegrating faces—are the truly haunting moments I always think of. Silly as the film can be, some of those images are genuinely classic and stick with me.

WHAT I LIKED:

  1. Creature effects and kills are glorious.
  2. Foreshadowing mini-meta-game is fun and rewarding.
  3. Setting up the beginning in a similar way to the original film, then completely going a different way with it.
  4. One of the best ‘But Wait…’ style horror ending scenes/shots ever.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  1. This movie and its predecessor probably having no relation to “The Colour Out of Space,” even though I want them to… I mean c’mon—the whole setup is like TCOoS, only a shoggoth-like thing comes out instead of the vanishing/infesting color. If Millgate didn’t read Lovecraft’s work, he should’ve. He would’ve loved it.
  2. Foreshadowing is fun and rewarding to find and watch play out, but it’s obvious and overdone enough it could turn people off because of its making light of the artifice.
  3. While I’m a big fan of 1980s cynicism about military science experiments gone awry as a plot frame, I think it had already been overdone, even by the time this film came out. Doesn’t ruin it and adds a layer and some “hew-manns are teh real monsturrs…” moments, but that’s some well-worn territory, even then.
  4. The motorcycle jump scene I mentioned before is fucking ridiculous, especially as an even more obvious deus ex machina setup.
  5. Kevin Dillon’s hair.

 RATING:

This is a very enjoyable piece of 80s creature horror with an almost dizzying series of setups and payoffs, usually of the disturbing and visceral kill type.

I’ll give The Blob (1988)……………..7.5/10.

PATRICK LOVELAND writes screenplays, novels, and short stories. By day, he works at a state college in Southern California, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. His stories have appeared in anthologies published by April Moon Books, Bold Venture Press, Sirens Call Publications, Indie Authors Press, PHANTAXIS, and the award-winning Crime Factory zine. Patrick’s first novel, A TEAR IN THE VEIL, will be published in early-to-mid 2017 by April Moon Books. Twitter: https://twitter.com/pmloveland   Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pmloveland/   Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00S78LF9M Blog: https://patrickloveland.com/

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Creature Features in Review: PHENOMENA (1985)

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The further we get into this new series, the more I realize just how versatile creature features really are. I’m not afraid to admit, though I love the sub-genre, I kinda always pigeon-holed them as simple monster movies. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So far we’ve seen the echoes of Hiroshima through the lens of Godzilla. We’ve walked the mythological soil of Midian in The Night Breed and we’ve walked the eco-horror swamps in Frogs. We bunkered ourselves in Outpost 31 in The Thing. We witnessed the destruction of New York City in Cloverfield. We were chased by the Creeper in Jeepers Creepers. And we’ve witnessed the birth of a new species of humanoid insect in Mimic, not to mention the transformation of a lonely scientist into a fly in The Fly. In each and every one of these, we’ve discovered that they are not just simple monster flicks, there’s something else going on behind the scenes. And we’ve only just begun. This is March. The last review for Creature Features in Review doesn’t post until December. So, in the words of doomed Ray Arnold, “Hold on to your butts,” cause this show is just getting started.

PHENOMENA (1985)

Kim McDonald

 

The supernatural is a factor in many of Dario Argento’s films. SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, and MOTHER OF TEARS all deal with witchcraft and, in DEEP RED, a psychic senses a serial killer. In PHENOMENA, Jennifer Corvino, (Jennifer Connelly,) uses her unique ability to communicate with insects to solve the disappearances and murders of several young girls in a remote part of the Swiss Alps. Jennifer, the daughter of a famous actor, is sent to the Richard Wagner School for Girls and immediately begins having nightmares and episodes of sleepwalking in which she is able to psychically witness the murders.

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The film is confusing at times, and it gets hard to keep up with all of the jumping around, but it’s still a good story. It begins with a young tourist, (Fiore Argento,) who gets left behind by the bus in the countryside. She goes to a local house for help and is speared by the killer and decapitated by a pane of glass, a typical Argento death.

PHENOMENA borrows elements from SUSPIRIA. There is a voiceover as Jennifer arrives at the school, and she must explain a delayed flight made her late. The Headmistress, (Dalila Di Lazzaro,) seems to take an instant dislike to her, and all of the girls think she’s odd, except her roommate Sophie, (Frederica Mastroianni,) The area around the school is eerie. There is a constant high wind that supposedly has driven people mad. Jennifer is told it is known as “The Swiss Transylvania.”

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During her first sleepwalking episode, in which she sees everything glowing and finds herself in a hallway of doors, Jennifer wanders to the house of entomologist, Professor John McGregor, and his chimp Inga, who is fascinated by her gift. After the disappearance of Sophie, he encourages Jennifer to help him investigate the disappearances using a peculiar insect called The Great Sarcophagus, which is attracted to corpses. With its help, Jennifer finds the house of the tourist’s murder but is scared away before discovering the truth.

Jennifer’s behavior after Sophie’s death convinces the HeadMistress and other girls that she is bizarre. They gang up on her and she calls down a swarm of flies on the house. The Head Mistress convinced that Jennifer is an evil “Lady of the Flies,” tries to have her committed. Jennifer runs away to the Professor, only to find he has been murdered. She is taken in by a teacher Frau Brukner, (Daria Nicolodi,) claiming to have been sent by her father’s agent.

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Jennifer quickly realizes the Frau has it in for her and ends up finding her way into an underground tunnel where the Frau has been keeping her deformed and deranged son, Patau. In a scene reminiscent of POLTERGEIST, Jennifer falls into a pool of rotting corpses and has to claw her way out. She tries to escape by boat but is attacked by Patau and has to call upon her insect friends to save her. It is never entirely clear if Patau or his mother are the ones who have been killing the girls.

Sound is important in PHENOMENA, directed, co-produced and co-written by Argento. The sound of the wind and of the different insects are pronounced. He also uses shots from the insects’ multi-lense perspective. Along with music by The Goblins, Argento uses songs by Iron Maiden and MotorHead during the murder scenes. PHENOMENA is cited as one of Argento’s favorite films. Perhaps he felt like a misfit like Jennifer growing up. The story she tells Sophie about how her mother left is based on Argento’s life. Unfortunately, it is uneven and often confusing. The ending feels pulled out of nowhere. The audience is left not knowing who is the real killer.

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Kim McDonald is no stranger to Machine Mean, having reviewed for us during our Fright Fest series back in October, The Thing (1982). And we here at Machine Mean hope to have her back on again soon! Kim lives in Charleston and loves all things horror, especially foreign horror. Kim also publishes reviews for LOUD GREEN BIRD, tackling some of horror’s greatest treasures, giving readers a deeper retrospective and often introspective on films like “The Iron Rose,” “Baskin,” “The Conjuring 2,” “The Witch,” and much more. As you can see, she is no stranger to the art of movie reviews. You can follow Kim @dixiefairy on Twitter and you can follow her blog, Fairy Musings, here.

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Creature Features in Review: The Thing (1982)

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Thirty-five years. On June 25th, we will be celebrating thirty-five years since the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The review you are about to read, written by the incredibly talented William D. Prystauk, aka Billy Crash, not only the second half of the infamously awesome The Last Knock podcast, but also a teacher, director, screenwriter, and loving husband and friend, has carefully crafted what I believe to be the definitive review of The Thing. I’m glad Bill decided to take on this “creature feature.” For those who know me will be quick to understand, The Thing is by far my most favorite movie.  Not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite overall film in its entirety. From score to cast to dialogue and landscape to practical effects and most of all its unabashed fearlessness towards nihilism. Disney has spoiled generations of audiences by spoon feeding them a resolution to the conflict and the always dominant hero. But in The Thing, we are denied those expectations, wonderfully so. Not everything has to have a resolution. Not every story must end with the hero defeating the monster. Ambiguity exists in nature and thus should representation on screen, at least sometimes, right?

The Thing

by William D. Prystauk

Introduction

When I first saw The Thing on the big screen, I was overwhelmed by the oppressive nature of John Carpenter’s film as well as its mystery, music, cinematography, and remarkable special effects from Rob Bottin and company, as well as the gripping writing from Bad News Bears scribe, Bill Lancaster. Unfortunately, 1982 was a banner year for strong movies so The Thing didn’t make the final cut when it came to earnings, and Carpenter is supposedly still bitter about his film’s poor performance in theaters. Today, however, the film’s considered a masterpiece by many horror cinephiles, and rightfully so.

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This is not a Remake

Carpenter’s version is not a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World with James Arness playing the alien version of Frankenstein’s monster. In this case, the movie deviates from the original tale, “Who Goes There?” a short story spun by John W. Campbell Jr., and leaves fighting the creature to the military still deservedly basking in the glow of a post-World War II world right before the horrors of The Korean War. In the story, scientists resolve the alien issue, though Lancaster’s script calls for scientists and military veterans to try and figure a way out.

Carpenter stayed closer to Campbell’s tale with its shape-shifting monster and the paranoia it caused. The director chose to have a much smaller staff at National Science Institute Station 4 instead of a larger component of men, but he kept most of the major characters’ names. As for Campbell’s tale, it’s actually a bad read due to repetition (he must have referred to MacReady as being “bronze” a hundred times) and from a sad overuse of “to be” verbs. For his part, Carpenter and Lancaster made Campbell’s story shine like gold.

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Who the Hell Are These Guys?

For a science station, the men who work there don’t really fit the bill. Sure, Billings (Peter Maloney) is a meteorologist, Norris (Charles Hallahan) has a broader mind beyond his geology degree, Windows (Thomas Waites) serves as the radioman, lumberjack looking Clark (Richard Masur) handles the dogsled team, Nauls (TK Carter) feeds the crew, and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) does his best to keep everyone healthy. The man who keeps the team in line is Garry (Donald Moffat), who for some reason has a six-gun strapped to his side with a gun belt to match and serves no other purpose than a security guard. Childs (Keith David) is one hell of a mechanic, who can obviously juggle boilers, tractors, and helicopters with ease. The pilots of the choppers are Vietnam vets Palmer (David Clennon), a stoner who one wouldn’t trust to fly a remote control whirlybird, and MacReady (Kurt Russel). Both men suffer from PTSD in their own way, and while Palmer socializes and engages in marijuana, MacReady isolates himself and indulges in scotch. The final part of the troupe is Blair (Wilford Brimley) and his understudy assistant, Fuchs (Joel Polis). At one point, Doc Copper orders Blair “… to start an autopsy right away.” In Campbell’s story, Blair’s a biologist, which makes sense for the movie version, but why would he be a master of autopsy? Since the dogs have no veterinarian, he may also play that role and could have performed necropsies on animals in the past.

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When witnessing the game room scene, it’s clear the men are often “standoffish.” Nauls, who a second ago was resting in his cot and watching TV with Palmer, plays pool with Clark. Windows fumbles with the newspaper from the couch, while Norris, Bennings, and Garry play poker. There’s no banter, no noise, and clearly no fun. It’s as if all these guys did something heinous and were sent to Antarctica to cool down for the “first goddamn week of winter.” Yet, they not only have handguns and shotguns at the ready, and at least one German rifle from a Norwegian, but they also have three flame throwers and dynamite. Doesn’t sound like a science station. Could it serve as some Cold War outpost? If so, this expansive complex can certainly support more men, and one wonders if abandonment of the facility looms on the horizon thanks to budget cuts.

The Thing Itself

The boogeyman in The Thing differs from the average creature feature antagonist. Each monster has a weakness, or so it seems, and once the human hero figures that out, the monster will be destroyed. In this case, the alien can replicate someone’s cells, absorb their language and mannerisms, and apparently the knowledge they have stored in their brains. Worst of all, it can seemingly infect anyone at any time (more about that later).

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Our intrepid crew doesn’t know which part of space the creature came from, but thanks to Norris, we know it’s ship crashed down onto the continent about 100,000 years ago. Beyond the being’s extensive hibernation, the ship proves to be a massive one, unlike the smaller craft in the 1951 film. What we don’t know is if this was a ship built by the Thing and his or her people, or if the creature got onboard and overwhelmed the entire crew with its cellular replication. Later in the narrative, we learn that the creature tries to recreate his craft on a smaller scale with the same look as the original. Since the Thing can absorb knowledge, and since we don’t know its age or where it’s been, this may be the optimal ship design it had discovered from its journeys across the cosmos.

Oddly enough, the creature ends up away from the ship on higher ground. This can certainly happen because the topography changed due to plate tectonics and maybe volcanism, but what did the Norwegian team actually dig up? If the creature crashed in Antarctica and went into hibernation after a short walk, it certainly didn’t overtake a human at the time. Too bad the Norwegians hadn’t filmed what this Thing actually looked like. But they did videotape the outline of the ship, and they unearthed the craft thanks to thermite charges. In the movie, one may think they blew up a massive hole the size of Rhode Island, but that would have displaced tons upon tons of ice and rock – and would have certainly registered on Norris’ seismograph at the station (there has to be one). The point is that MacReady and company, for some reason, land on a ridge above the ship and rappel down.

And once the creature thawed, it went to work on absorbing the Norwegians and its dogs.

The Other

The greatest element to the short story and both films is the element of “The Other.” As we discover in many science fiction and horror movies, the other is a xenomorph (“a strange form” by definition or an “alien” or “monster”) that either must be assimilated or destroyed. What is fantastic about this tale is both creature and human are “The Other.” Humans don’t belong in Antarctica and neither does that Thing. Since the “human others” can’t determine what the monster is, it can’t be assimilated and must be killed. The “alien other” wants to assimilate the humans, yet destroys them in the process.

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To see something like this in cinema is rare, though one finds such a human-xenomorph “other” combination in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The human component doesn’t thrive naturally in space, and though the alien creature comes off as the bad monster, the humans did bring this entity upon themselves in a “curiosity killed the cat” theme, though Jonesy lives to hiss another day. Unlike The Thing where destroy versus assimilate comes into play, Alien is all about kill or be killed.

Communication’s Down

Windows couldn’t connect with McMurdo (where he refers to the outpost as number 31 just like MacReady, instead of 4). The men of the station are in conflict about who should lead and who shouldn’t be trusted. But there is absolutely no communication between human and Thing.

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This horror turns into a cat-and-mouse game between human and alien. Yet, if the creature just wants to survive and escape in a ship, why didn’t it simply ask for help? When MacReady addressed the members of the camp and realized they all weren’t infected because they would have jumped him, why didn’t he ask what the creature wanted? After all, it’s a stranger in a strange land, and “probably not in the best of moods” after portraying a xenomorphic popsicle for too many centuries.

Without any women on the station, one may think the crew was being macho or stubborn, but the reason runs deeper than an emotional state and posturing, though both of those elements certainly exist in the narrative. Like the alien, the humans are also predators, and that’s why communication between them never took shape. It’s a fight to the end, pure and simple. Think of it as any competition where one squares off against an opponent – to the death.

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Even so, a little communication could have gone a long way, but that would have made for a different kind of film, and one that wouldn’t be worthy of review for this category. By the way, ET phoned home in 1982 on June 11, and Carpenter’s film came out two weeks later as Spielberg’s friendly alien continued to captivate little kids and their parents nationwide.

Getting Infected

This has been a point of contention for many The Thing fans: Who got infected when, how, and even why? A meme showed Blair tapping a pencil against his lips after the autopsy. Hmm… However, the answer is far simpler: They were all at risk of infection the moment they unwrapped the creature with two faces, akin to the theater masks of comedy and drama, looking outward with one connected tongue. Doc Copper in all his medical expertise asked, “Is that a man in there?” when he and MacReady dug up the monster and brought it home to infect everyone else. Clearly, no quarantine protocol was in effect.

When they unwrapped the frozen creature, with the heat of the room, water evaporated from the body and Blair backed off from the stench. After all, the Thing began to defrost once inside the warmer helicopter. Now, as MacReady proved later with another item from the book, that each cell was a creature on its own, who knows what flew into the air and made its way through the mouths and nostrils and into the lungs of the crew. Yes, some became infected (though we really don’t know when), and others did not (though we really don’t know why), but airborne infection seems to be just as likely as bloodborne in this case.

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Due to each component of the Thing being its own individual entity, this creature may be its own entire civilization. In 2015, Robin Corey, a biochemist, wrote that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, not including bacteria. This means that once the Thing takes over a human host, that can make for one hell of a population. Blair had calculated that we’d all be infected in 27,000 hours, which is a little over three years, but there’s an excellent chance that infection, or assimilation, would happen much faster.

The End

There are many more mysteries packed within Carpenter’s amazing horror, but that’s for another time. The important thing is to watch the film and become a prisoner like the others, trapped “a thousand miles from nowhere” without a radio, and a heavy storm that prevents anyone from escaping even on foot. This is what the horror genre is meant to be: isolated and frightening with a sense that there’s no way out.

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Carpenter tips his hand that there’s little hope for our characters right from the beginning. The opening shot after the credits is that of a sheer rock face. The camera lingers there as if to say it’s too foreboding and not scalable. We see the Norwegian helicopter flying over the rock as it heads towards its own doom, but it’s clear that our “science” crew won’t make it out of the station alive.

In the film, we’re left with a couple of characters waiting for what might possibly come next. We don’t know if one is infected or if either one of them is. We do know, however, that they’re both not infected because an alien greeting most definitely would have been different. And in the brownish light of a fiery night, the camera pulls back from the pair and we fade to black. In the television version, after the camera pulled back, we see a dog leaving the station, bookending the film in excellent fashion. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who was infected since all is lost.

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Thankfully, The Thing survived its poor and undeserved theatrical showing and keeps bringing the scares and incredible in-camera effects to new generations of horror fans. Whether you’ve seen the film once or a thousand times, keep your eyes peeled for the multitude of little mysteries that neither the characters nor the audience can answer (Who got to the blood anyway?). Revel in ambiguous horror that delivers on every level, including bottom end gloom from the renowned Ennio Morricone’s doom-ridden composition, and the excellent cinematography from one of the best, Dean Cundey. Carpenter created something for the ages, and for fans – human or otherwise.

WilliamP

William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.

Keep up with Billy Crash’s many exploits by following his site!

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Creature Features in Review: Mimic (1997)

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During the 1990s it felt as if horror movies had descended into the visceral and psychological methods of storytelling, such as In the Mouth of Madness, or Jacob’s Ladder, or Candy Man, or even Freddy Krueger exploring the realm of mythology in New Nightmare. Some monster flicks kept to their proverbial roots. The payout, of course, is what typically happens with most creature features, when the directors, producers, screenwriters turn on the cheese factor and make the movie a satire, such as Arachnophobia or Gremlins 2 or The Faculty. Seldom do we find anything that’s actually haunting. Anything that makes us sit on the edge of our seats. Anything that forces us to watch even though we want to look away. The horror pickins are slim. There is one director, however, who, up until this point in his career at least, did not bow to cheese in order to make a monster movie. Of course, I’m talking about 1997’s cult hit creature feature, MIMIC, directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro. Before del Toro was pitting giant robots versus behemoth sea monsters, his work was subtle and carefully crafted, honing in on character building and turning on the suspense until the deluge spilled over into a wonderfully cataclysmic conclusion. Thus was the work of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and also what we get with Mimic.

Before we begin, here is a classic IMDB synopsis:

“Three years ago, entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler genetically created an insect to kill cockroaches carrying a virulent disease. Now, the insects are out to destroy their only predator, mankind.”

Bravo IMDb, bravo. Yet again another astute generalization of one of my favorite creature features. You’re not wrong, IMDb, it just feels a tad oversimplified. For starters, if you’ve seen Mimic, but haven’t seen the Director’s Cut, stop now and go rent/buy/whatever you need to do to see this edition. Let me tell you, I was happy with the original version, but I LOVE this Director’s Cut. And sure, it really only adds about nine minutes or more of footage, but those added moments really help make the story shine all the better. I especially love the added bits at the beginning, the extended opening sequence that shows us this ravaging disease called Strickler’s, that is decimating a huge percentage of New York City children, and then we get Dr. Susan Tyler, played fantastically by Mira Sorvino . She genetically creates a new species of insect called the Judas breed. They target the city’s cockroach population, releasing an enzyme which causes the roaches metabolism to speed up and starve themselves to death. The Judas breed was created to be all-female with a short life expectancy. The last opening clip (from the Director’s Cut) shows Dr. Tyler releasing the Judas breed into the sewers. She kneels and watches as her “children” begin their work as she is stylistically swarmed by roaches. And a moment later we see a river of dead cockroaches and an announcement from the CDC that they have eliminated the “Strickler’s” disease.

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Cut scene. 

Fade to black.

Now we find ourselves three years after the release of the Judas breed. Just three years. What can happen in such a short span of time? Well, if there is any indication from the name of the insect, Judas, well…historically things have never really worked out with things named Judas. Not to mention any species introduced into the wild trusting that a genetic “all-female” plug will hold, I mean, haven’t these people seen Jurrasic Park? To quote Ian Malcolm, “Life will find a way.” And life certainly did find a way, as our scientists are soon to find out. After the fuzzy “all-is-well-with-the-world” moment, the movie opens again on a man being chased onto a roof at night in the rain. Here we get our first glimpse at what has become the Judas breed. Strange clicking sounds and an odd shadowy face and the outline of what looks like a man in a black trench coat. The movement of this mysterious “man” and the design are incredibly creepy, and no wonder, as legendary The Thing and The Howling practical effects master/guru Rob Bottin had a hand in the development of the creature.

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Let me stop here for a moment. I have a confession. Bugs freak me out. I think this is a well-known fact if you’ve read any part in my Subdue Series books you should know. I’m not sure why. I don’t recall being traumatized as a child, not with insects at least. The My Buddy doll my folks got me for Christmas is another subject entirely (thanks, Sis!). I think people have their own thresholds for fear. Some hate clowns. Others hate anything to do with eyeballs. Some teeth. For me, big nasty arthropods are what tickles my medulla oblongata (technically the amygdala, but medulla oblongata sounds cooler). Too many legs. Nightmare mouths. Multiple glass eyes. Ugh!!! And as the movie, Mimic, was so kind to point out in Dr. Tyler’s lab of horrors, certain species of insects can do some rather impressive stuff, such as certain warrior ants that even when injured will continue to attack. Wasps that turn prey into zombies. Spiders that lay eggs inside a host to be consumed as a snack when the babies hatch. It’s not evil in the sense of good or morality. There is no morality when it comes to insects. To quote another Jeff Goldblum line, “Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise.” And here perhaps is what trips my fear sensor the most, the absence of compassion, compromise, especially in something as large as what the Judas breed becomes.

Continuing…

Soon after the death of the man on the roof and some cut scenes of Dr. Tyler and her husband, Dr. Mann, and their on-screen hopes of becoming parents, solidifying again the overarching theme of Mimic, fertility, some well-meaning “hood-rat” children out to make a quick buck bring Dr. Tyler an “interesting” find they discovered below ground near one of New York’s many metro tracks. Dr. Tyler soon realizes just what this large bug really is. Though “just a baby,” as she says, the creature is as large as the palm of her hand. But Tyler isn’t alone in her lab. There’s a shape at the window, a mysterious “man” in a dark trenchcoat. Okay, pause. I have to once again give a nod to both Rob Bottin and the original author of the creature in this flick, Donald Allen Wollheim who came up with the short story, titled, “Mimic,” a first-person narrative about a dude who notices a strange “man” in a trenchcoat standing on the streets in his town but never says anything to anyone. Following the sound of screams, the narrator discovers the “man” dead in his apartment, but upon closer examination, he unveils that the mysterious “man” isn’t a man at all, but a large bug imitating a man. This, for me, adds to the creep factor here. Not only are we dealing with larger than normal insects, but we’re dealing with an insect that has evolved to “mimic” us.

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Stories begin to collide at this point. All leading back deep underground onto some abandoned metro tracks that would inspire curious urban spelunkers to explore. Dr. Tyler, Dr. Mann, officer Leonard (played wonderfully by Charles S. Dutton) and Manny (a father searching for his lost autistic son who “followed” the Judas breed into their underground metro hive). All these motivations would seem to make the movie feel too complicated, but in actuality, they add to the movie’s believability. That they happen upon each other, sure, could be a stretch, but otherwise getting a glimpse at their personalities and motivations actually benefits how audiences feel towards them. I wanted them to survive. There were no “villains” here. Even Dr. Mann’s doomed assistant, Josh (played by Josh Brolin), though kind of cocky and moronic, you don’t hate the guy and you felt something when he was killed off, fairly horribly I might add. All this was accomplished without a bunch of unnecessary backstory. At this stage in del Toro’s career, he had made a name for himself for interweaving likable heartfelt characters into his story, not through exposition, but dialogue and interaction.

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Mimic is not without some cheese. 

This is, after all, a creature feature. 

Whoever came up with the genius plan to get the old boxcar trolley operational is…a moron. Seriously. But, not altogether unrealistic. People come up with horrible ideas all the time. Consider the Shake Weight exercise dumbells. Yup. Someone thought that was a good idea too. No, though the trolley idea was moronic, it was not out of the realm of what someone in that situation would probably do. The real cheese for me was what the “King” Judas bug was doing at the end. But, let me explain the entry of this “new” character. Nearing the climax, we discover that part of the genetic code used to create the Judas breed came from a species of insect that has one male as the only fertile member of the colony. Of course, they had created the species as “all-female,” thus supposedly limiting the lifespan of the Judas breed exponentially. However, as fans of Jurrasic Park should know, “life finds a way,” and thus the species adapted. Part of the enzyme that gave Judas the ability to eliminate the cockroach infestation by accelerating the roaches reproduction rate, essentially burning them out, in turn, gave them the ability to mass reproduce at an alarming rate. Consider how in just three years the Judas went from cockroach size to human size, developing the necessary biology in order to grow. Reproduction, fertility and natural childbirth seem to be a motif in Mimic.

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Back to the cheese.

A big creep factor in this movie was the fact that these insects were not acting in any personal way. Insects do not have politics, remember. They simply…are. They do as their genetic makeup implies for them to do. They attack when provoked. They feed and breed for survival alone. There is no pleasure, “no compassion, no compromise (I’m telling you, Jeff Goldblum should have been cast in this movie as Dr. Mann).”  That said, in the end, the “King” Judas bug didn’t seem to be following the movies preestablished rules of insect politics. The “King” acted mightily pissed off. Before being mowed down by a subway car, that sucker “looked” like he wanted blood. Half-burnt, limping after Dr. Taylor. But, that’s just a small blip on an otherwise decent and definitely creepy creature feature flick. My only other “WTF” is the last line in the movie when Dr. Taylor and her bo Dr. Mann reunite, both are happy the other survived the subway fire that wiped out the Judas colony. Dr. Mann whispers in his wife’s ear, “We can have a baby,” or something to that extent. As the last line, this kinda has me in a loop. After everything they survived, the ordeal, that’s what he tells her? This, of course, brings the circle around regarding the theme of natural childbirth and fertility. But what did it answer? Or better yet, what question did it raise? Unnatural fertility will breed monsters? Seriously? Maybe I’m missing something.

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Regardless, Mimic was an excellent escape from the visceral and psychological methods of storytelling that seemed to dominate the 1990s. And Mimic was definitely one of del Toro’s best pictures if you ask me. This flick could have very feel come off as a cheap B-movie, it had the trappings for such a disaster, but it didn’t. Mimic came out as a genuinely creepy monster movie. If you haven’t seen this one, you need to, but be sure to watch the Director’s Cut. It’s only really nine minutes of added footage, but those added moments make the movie all the better.

My rating: 4 out of 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 Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving, 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. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

You can get Reinheit for $2.99 on Amazon!

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Creature Features in Review: Cloverfield (2008)

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Note: The below is written based on the assumption that you’ve seen Cloverfield. If you haven’t yet, go and see Cloverfield. Or be both spoiled and confused. Your choice.

I tried to resist the obvious pun. I really did. But I can’t do it. So, with apologies…

Cloverfield is a very odd beast.

Sorry.

But it is.

I mean, on the one hand, it isn’t, at all. Giant monsters have destroyed Manhattan Island since forever, after all. Like London, New York is one of those rare cities whose ‘centre of the universe’ mentality is actually somewhat borne out by reality (Tokyo is the other one that immediately jumps to mind, and oh, look…). So, I mean, of course, the aliens and monsters are going to start there. Why wouldn’t they? It’s where, as they say, the action is.

In that regard, Cloverfield is part of a long established tradition – none more trad, arguably, in the giant creature feature genre.

Similarly, found footage? It’s rare as a horror fan you’ll go through a month without someone complaining either on your Facebook feed or in a blog post about the ubiquity of the found footage movie and it’s disastrous impact on the genre – such complaints are almost a sub-genre themselves, at this point. Ever since the not-universally-popular-but-at-least-successful-and-then-somewhat-original Blair Witch Project rattled our tents and planted in our ears 17 years ago (yes, you’re old, get over it), seems like every indie wannabe superstar has been chasing that found footage Bigfoot, trying to recreate the magic. In musical terms, it reminds me of the rap/metal explosion that followed Rage Against The Machine – people trying to combine the same mechanical elements (hip-hop singer with a metal band) without the slightest clue as to what made Rage so damn special in the first place. Gifting the world Limp Bizkit and a million behind them that were even worse. Thanks, recording industry.

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But hang on, though, because we may just have stumbled over the point, there, while getting on our self-righteous nu-metal-bashing hobbyhorse (yeah, you were up here with me, don’t deny it). Because prior to Rage, there had been both Hip Hop and Metal (obviously), and both movements were, by ‘91, well established enough to have had mainstream successes, even while remaining musical subcultures as a whole. But aside from one-off songs like Aerosmith/Run D.M.C’s Walk This Way, nobody had thought to combine the elements – and certainly not in a fully functioning band unit, where neither style held obvious supremacy.

So, to finally get on topic, found footage movies weren’t unusual. Neither were giant creature features.

But a found footage giant creature feature?

That’s new.

And we might as well get this out of the way; one of the principle reasons it’s new is because it’s also an insane idea. If you’re making a giant creature feature in 2008 and wreaking Manhattan in the process, you’re doing it largely with CGI. However, if you’re making a found footage movie, especially with an in-fiction non-professional camera operator (as you are in Cloverfield) then you’re talking strictly handheld.

And to be fair, for your indie horror filmmaker, that’s an enormous plus, for the obvious reason that it’s dirt cheap. Slap cheap digital cameras into the hands of your actors, and then let loose the mayhem, and hilarity and awards ensue, right? And all the auto-focus fails, and blurry shots of the maybe-thing-maybe-person stalking or whatever, that all just adds to the atmosphere, right?

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Except, now, with Cloverfield, your shaky-cam is filming a skyscraper exploding, or your shutter speed is blurring the head of the Statue Of Liberty as it bounces down the street, or the autofocus is failing to decide which piece of the 200-foot monster to focus on.

And, of course, none of those things actually exist, outside of some computer whizzes laptop.

.That is what, frankly, blows my mind about Cloverfield, and why I wanted to write about it.

Because I do sometimes find myself wondering (outside of the total movie geek circles I am proud to inhabit) how many people really understand just what a staggering achievement this movie represents. I wonder if the average movie goer, benumbed as they must be by massive digital spectacles, fully appreciates how complex, how difficult, and how special Cloverfield is, in terms of what it achieves. How tough it is to integrate digital effects with handheld footage in such a way that the unreal appears so naturalistic that the only reason you know the creature isn’t really there is because it would be impossible to build.

It is, in the parlance of our times, fucking awe inspiring.

Of course, director Matt Reaves pulls every trick in the book to make it work. In 1975, a malfunctioning robot shark inadvertently forced Spielberg to the genius realisation that having the monster mostly be off camera made it WAY scarier, and while Reaves in a found footage format doesn’t have the luxury of cutting to the monster’s POV, accompanied by a John Williams score, we do see far more of the creature’s handiwork than we do the creature itself, in the scarred streets and skyline of the city. There’s also a return of the good old ground tremors from Jurassic Park, and a ton of similar tricks employed throughout to both build tension and, by happy coincidence, save money (another brilliant example is when the creature passes by the store our protagonists are cowering in – before it passes, the air outside becomes so full of brick dust and ash from a collapsing building that the monster itself is only heard and felt, not seen).

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It’s smart, savvy filmmaking, selling us on the scale and power of this thing without providing even a glimpse. Similar brilliance announces itself elsewhere in the storytelling. One of the central strengths of found footage is also its central weakness – you’re stuck with one perspective, one window on the world. This is compounded in Cloverfield by also ostensibly being unedited footage, the only cuts being when the camera operator turns the device off for some reason (during which segments we’re treated to bleed-through from the previous recording that is being overwritten – a cute device for delivering back story, albeit not one I’m convinced makes sense in a digital age – sure, a videotape would work this way, but digital files?).

Horror fans and writers will immediately grok to the appeal and strength of such an approach, but it can cause problems, not least when trying to transmit a sense of scale, or hints at a wider world response to events. There’s a superb moment where Rob, desperate to restore his mobile phone charge, runs into an electronics store that’s in the process of being looted. Our camera man follows him in, huffing and puffing (one of the funniest lines in the movie is his exclamation early on that ‘I don’t really do this running stuff!’) only to be pulled up short by the TV coverage. Via his camera pointing at the TV, we get a glimpse of how the news coverage is panning out, at least until he’s pulled away by his friends and off into the next part of the story.

Similar brilliant flourishes abound, from the camera perspective on the Brooklyn bridge as a tentacle (actually tail, we later learn) smashes into it, knocking the cameraman off his feet, to flickering or emergency lighting creating a dramatic, nightmarish strobe effect, to a brilliant sequence in the subway in which first the camera torch is employed, and later the night vision, in what is for my money one of the best jump scares of the last ten years – without cheating with some dramatic score or jump cut.

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And then there’s the creature.

The beast itself is on camera rarely – I’d bet less than five minutes of the total running time feature any glimpse of it, and most of that is exactly glimpses – a tale, an arm, and a stunning in motion underneath shot as our heroes plunge into the subway and the army engages in a fierce firefight. Even seen on the news footage or from the evacuation chopper, it’s partially obscured by buildings, or smoke, or just the trembling of the camera man. But in the closing minutes of the film, we’re finally treated to a full, uninterrupted view, and it’s just glorious – huge, organic, monstrous both in size and features, raining grotesque parasites – it really is brilliantly realized, the stuff of nightmares.

So, yeah, there’s a lot to recommend Cloverfield, and I think it’s a brilliant movie – or at least, near brilliant. There are some elements that don’t quite hang together, for me. There’s the technical stuff – I’ve already mentioned in passing how the ‘bleed-through’ of the old video footage only really makes sense in the analog age and given that mobile phone networks were disconnected across New York throughout 9/11, Rob’s suspiciously functioning mobile is, well, suspicious.

And as we’ve brought it up.. So, there’s the 9/11 thing.

Because prior to 2001, there were a lot of movies that indulged in disaster porn and specifically blowing up New York. And let’s be honest – it felt like good clean fun at the time. I vividly remember being utterly thrilled at the destruction of the Empire State Building and The White House in Independence Day when it came out – not even slightly in a ‘fuck America’ way, to be crystal clear, but in a totally generic ‘wow, big badda-BOOM!’ way.

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And I similarly vividly remember watching ID4 for the first time post-9/11. And it felt different. A lot less fun. Kind of a bummer, actually.

But, you know, historical artifact, innit? Like any seismic historical and cultural moment, there’s just a pre and post-9/11 divide in art, and you can’t judge one by the standard of the other.

Except then, there’s Cloverfield.

And it kind of explicitly plays with the imagery and atmosphere of that day. When the attacks first start, and all people can see is explosions, one of the voices at the party says ‘Is it another attack?’. The police evacuating people in the street, clearly well drilled in massive disaster response. The moment I talked about earlier, with the group hiding out in the store as the smoke and dust rolls past – that could almost be footage from the day.

Now, I’m pretty much a free speech absolutist, to be clear. This isn’t about what people should or shouldn’t be allowed to say or write or film. At the end of the day, the same rights that protect your right (hypothetically speaking) to be a racist fuckhole are the rights that protect me calling you out on your racist fuckhollery and telling others about it. That’s how it works, and, IMO, the only way it CAN work. Social change powers political change, not the other way around. So be the change you want to see in the world and all that.

So I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t make a piece of popcorn entertainment in 2008 that evokes the imagery of 9/11. Of course, you can. Equally, though, as Dr. Malcolm might say, it might be worth thinking about whether or not you should.

Not just because 9/11 was an event of global trauma, the repercussions of which are still shaping lives and getting people killed – though it is. But because… well, look – you can make a movie like World Trade Centre, which is a pretty straight telling of the events of the day. That’s one thing. But to take imagery and iconography from the day and chuck them into your, let’s face it, popcorn monster movie… well, it is, at least, a little uncomfortable, and at worst smacks of being tasteless, even exploitative.

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Again, to be clear, I’m not saying the movie shouldn’t have been made, or anything like that. And I can even sympathize with the filmmakers in some ways – with the found footage vibe, it’s all about verisimilitude, after all. And damn, now we’ve got real footage of what a demolished Manhattan skyline looks like at street level – how could you not use that information?  At the same time, as much as I like Cloverfield (and I do, a great deal) this aspect of the film always leaves me feeling a little queasy.

And you know what, that’s okay. It’s okay – healthy, even – to have ambiguous or conflicted reactions to art. It’s okay to like or even love a movie (or album, or book) even as it’s flawed make you sad, or angry, or uneasy. To climb back on the free speech soapbox one more time, that’s almost the point. Conversation, discussion, argument – that’s how we improve our understanding, refine our opinions, and yes, sometimes, learn something new that changes how we see the world or a facet of it.

Cloverfield is a very good movie, that for me edges on greatness (and in a technical sense, it is unambiguously great, I think). Far from flawless (aside from the above, the plot that drives the characters is as hack and obvious as it’s possible to be, and the actors, while solid, don’t quite manage to elevate that into something more), but the things it does well it does SO damn well that, especially first time through, it’s a total thrill ride of a movie, a classic popcorn rollercoaster.

And yeah, it’s a brilliant giant creature feature. Maybe even the best post-2000 one, what with the intelligent and expertly realized use of the found footage format and a brand new monster that looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

And if parts of it make me uncomfortable… well, how bad is that, in the final analysis?

After all, beats the shit out of being boring.

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Kit Power is no stranger to Machine Mean. He was reviewed for us both The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the forever classic Monster Mash Pinball Game. And participated during Fright Fest with a review on Parents. Mr. Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as the frontman (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as,GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers. You can read Kit’s review of Bride here.

You can get Breaking Point, Kit Power’s newest release, for $2.99 on Amazon!

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BREAKING POINT – THE LIFELINE TRILOGY

A Cyclist is knocked unconscious on his way home and wakes up in a nightmare…
A devoted husband begins to suspect all is not well with his marriage…
A desperate family man, running out of time and options, turns to an old schoolmate from the wrong side of the tracks – looking for work – any work…
A young man’s world is thrown into chaos as his father is abducted…
Four tales of people pushed to BREAKING POINT.

For ‘The Loving Husband’ – “Gripping, compelling and utterly nerve-wracking.” – DLS Reviews.

For ‘Lifeline’ – “More savage than Rottweiler on meths with its nads caught in barbed wire.” – zombiekebab, Amazon reviewer.

“One of the best novellas I’ve had the pleasure to read.” – Duncan Ralston – Author of Salvage.

“a sliver of sheer brutality and nastiness that is unbridled.” John Boden, author of DOMINOES.

“Power gets splatterpunk in a way that few do.” – Bracken MacLeod, author of Stranded and Mountain.

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Creature Features in Review: Nightbreed (1990)

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Nightbreed.

I think I responded mostly to what it was trying to accomplish, to make monsters into sympathetic characters and humans the villains, rather than what it lacked. Even as a kid, I knew there was something fundamentally flawed about it but I held firm to my love for Boone and the monsters of Midian and—maybe more so—to the coldblooded serial killer Dr. Decker. I’d often found myself fumbling to defend the movie I knew it could have been, not the film they’d given us.

Later interviews revealed Barker’s bickering with studio heads who had liked Hellraiser (or at least the money it made them) but felt audiences wouldn’t “get” a movie with monsters as the heroes. They thought it would be too confusing.

The finished film suffered greatly for their tampering. To Barker’s fans, the studio had entirely missed the point. Barker himself said of the theatrical cut, “The movie that was released in 1990 was not the movie I wanted to make philosophically or artistically.”

Still, Barker’s monsters shone through despite the deeply flawed theatrical cut. Barker has not only created some of the most iconic creatures in cinema history (Hellraiser‘s Cenobites, for example, or Candyman), but also the most complex. Barker’s script based on his own novel doesn’t paint these monsters as either wholly evil or tragic victims of an oppressive society. There are shades of gray here. You understand the “monsters” and even sympathize with them.

The first citizens Boone meets in Midian (“where the monsters live,” according to several characters) are Peloquin and Kinski. Peloquin merely sees the human interloper as “meat for the beast,” but his friend reminds him of Midian’s laws.

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In essence, Midian is a fully functioning society of “monsters” with all the flaws, culture, history and beliefs of any civilization—the only real difference is they must live out of sight for fear of human judgment and terrorism. Because of how they look. Because of how they live. And it’s not an irrational fear, as events prove in the latter half of the film.

Visionary director Alejandro Jodorowsky called Nightbreed “the first truly gay horror fantasy epic.” There are people who want the monsters of Midian hunted down and exterminated. Think about that. This movie was made and released during the tail end of America’s AIDS epidemic when many people erroneously believed it could be passed along simply by touching someone, and some still considered it a “gay disease.” Magic Johnson had yet to reveal his diagnosis, which some saw as a turning point in the AIDS scare, putting a human face (a very famous human face) on the tragedy.

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I can’t say whether or not Barker had this subtext in mind while making the film or if Jodorowsky was reaching, but it does add an interesting layer that makes Nightbreed transcend its flaws and the trappings of the “Creature Feature” subgenre. Another intended philosophy, that humans are the true monsters. Another that our fascination with monsters leads some to wish to be monsters and live among them. Barker spoke about this in a 2014 interview: “Why would you not want to change into an animal? Why would you not want to fly? Why would you not want to live forever? These are the things that monsters do.”

This adds layers to the Creature Feature aspect of the movie not found in many others. In addition to the “normal” monsters, we have Boone (do I need to say “spoilers”?) who is psychic-driven by his psychiatrist, played wonderfully icily by David Cronenberg, into believing he’s a serial killer. When he hides out in Midian he is bitten and transforms into the monster he thinks he is.

We have a man Boone meets in the hospital who so eager to become a monster that his cuts off pieces of his own face to join them in Midian. He seems to be accepted into their group without question, and later we see several more humanlike “monsters” below the cemetery where Midian lies.

We have the most heinous monster of them all Cronenberg’s psychiatrist, who kills families under the guise of his “buttonface” mask.

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We see glimpses of Midian’s citizens through the eyes of Boone’s partner Lori as she travels the underground city in search of Boone. Small lizard-like creatures feast on carrion. A sabre-toothed woman drums out a beat on a wall for some unknown reason. Monsters wash the penile humanoid head of a lumpy creature whose body resembles the Kool-Aid Man. A bulbous, greasy Jacob Marley lookalike limps around on a cane scaring people for fun. Another monster feeds his own blood to a jar of live eels. (The music that plays under this scene is phenomenal by the way, quintessential Danny Elfman. Watch the scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T11WcS64_M.)

Later we encounter their religious leader Dirk Lylesberg, played by Doug Bradley (Hellraiser‘s Pinhead). They even have their own god, Baphomet: a giant living statue far below the earth.

Other monsters have been imprisoned in the bowels of Midian, called the “Berserkers.” These slimy behemoths with football player padding are never explained. They could be criminals or protectors or both. Whichever they are they are let out to charge the intruders, easily overpowering them.

Title: NIGHTBREED ¥ Year: 1990 ¥ Dir: BARKER, CLIVE ¥ Ref: NIG096AO ¥ Credit: [ 20TH CENTURY FOX/MORGAN CREEK / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

In its creature creation, Nightbreed is difficult to top. The sheer amount of thought put into this world and its inhabitants are a creature designer’s wet dream. Lori’s descent into Midian in particular calls to mind the cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, one of the most iconic establishing scenes in movie history.

Nightbreed definitely has its flaws (the Director’s Cut fixed most of them while adding others), but as a Creature Feature, I’d list it among my favorites.

Bonus Review of Nightbreed: Director’s Cut for interested parties.

If you’re thinking of diving into Nightbreed for the first time I would suggest checking out the Director’s Cut instead. Critics pointed to the uneven direction and lack of characterization to the 1990 release. Little did they know 40 minutes of Barker’s original film had been cut. Until very recently it was thought this footage was lost.

The story of how Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut came to be started in 2008 when Mark Miller, co-head of Barker’s production company Seraphim Films, began to hunt down the extra footage. It was clear from the get-go the heads at Morgan Creek weren’t eager to help. When they finally relented Miller was left with a box full of VHS tapes. All the film they’d shot, according to Morgan Creek bigwigs, had vanished.

But the Monsters of Midian have a cult following. After a lucky group of fans saw the extra footage at something called the “Mad Monster Party” in 2010, the “Occupy Midian” campaign was born. That was the last I’d heard of it from Clive Barker’s Lost Souls website, aside from the occasional brief this-is-what-you’re-missing review from someone who’d seen the cut with the VHS footage inserted.

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Then in 2012 Morgan Creek officials miraculously “found” the originally filmed footage after seeing the potential audience (ie. dollar signs). From there, Shout! Factory put together the Blu-ray and DVD version with new interviews and featurettes and released it in 2014.

Fans asked for it and we got it.

I bought the Blu-ray on the day of release and popped it in the PS3 as soon as it arrived. For the most part, the additions work. It’s definitely closer thematically to what Clive Barker—and all of us diehard Cabal fans—had envisioned. There’s no doubt the monsters are the good guys here and there’s a massive amount of sympathy generated for them throughout, despite the few “lawbreakers” like Peloquin who just wants to eat the “Naturals” (humans).

The main villain as in the original cut is Dr. Decker (aka Button Face). He’s a maniac on par with some of the best, though he gets precious little screen time. I’d love to see a prequel movie about him and his murders, his adoption of the mask—which is pretty goddamned creepy—and if he’d blamed any of his previous murders on other patients, attempting to “psychic drive” them into taking the blame as he does to Boone. It doesn’t feel as though his part was beefed up at all from the Theatrical cut but it doesn’t feel like they’ve cut anything from his storyline.

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Many of the additions focus on the relationship between Boone and Lori; some work and some don’t. The scene where Dr. Decker has drugged Boone and Boone is hallucinating in his apartment, watching himself from outside his body having sex with Lori (who for some reason wears white lingerie, likely to symbolize her purity or “Natural”-ness), works much better in the original cut. In that cut, he takes the pills and suddenly he’s tripping balls, walking down the highway. We’ve seen all we need to. What they’ve added here doesn’t work, does nothing for the story and harms the film’s pace, front-loading it.

This sequence also features Lori singing to a sold-out crowd in a country bar. The song is “Johnny Get Angry,” whose lyrics suggest she wants a “real man,” but also that Boone could very well be a little abusive. The song itself works fine and has a very ‘90s feel, reminding me of those scenes in Twin Peaks with Julee Cruise—but it’s overlong. They play the entire song. During it, Boone, still tripping, wanders in and becomes confused and frightened. He stumbles off and that’s when we rejoin the theatrical cut where he’s about to be hit by a truck. I think it works well to establish Lori as a character, but it could have been pared down.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD:

The biggest changes are in the big final battle which is more of a bloodbath than anything since the Nightbreed barely get any shots in. This is The ATF Storms the Koresh Compound times a thousand. The police here act like paramilitary, lock-and-loading a plethora of automatic weapons (a Twitter friend remarked on the inordinate amount of guns in Canada since it’s meant to take place in Alberta). The scene in which the cops beat Ohnaka to death, a little man with his little dog, seems just about as traumatizing as in the original film.

Shot in slow motion this Rodney King-style beating during which the victim, dragged out into the sun and beaten, turns to dust, sets the stage for the slaughter to follow.

As Midian explodes it actually seems like a BIG thing, unlike in the theatrical cut where it felt and sounded like a Hollywood soundstage. We hear babies screaming, mothers crying. The earth cracks underfoot with huge, Surround Sound rumbles. By the time Boone finally unleashes the Berserkers we’re rooting for them to take out the human invaders—and they do, in classic monster-rampage style. Another good addition adds clarity to the scene where Boone inherits the spirit of Baphomet, the Nightbreed’s version of God, and becomes the living god “Cabal.”

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In the end, when Lori asks Boone to bite him so she can become Nightbreed and stay with Boone, the decision makes much more sense as their relationship is solidly established. Boone refuses, still the good guy even now he’s a full-on monster, and in her desperation Lori stabs herself, forcing him to bite her so she’ll live forever. Hidden in a barn, the surviving Nightbreed speak of Boone/Cabal returning “on the next wind.”  “Johnny Get Angry” plays us out into the credits.

If you’re a fan of the original cut you owe it to yourself to watch Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut. If you’re a horror fan who’s never seen it it’s worth a look. This is the movie that inspired Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, and in my opinion, it’s a far better film. For creature fans, the Director’s Cut has many more monsters to satisfy your deviant pleasure. All in all, the new cut is a more cohesive story with a lot more focus on Boone and Lori’s relationship and much more sympathy for the Nightbreed themselves.

If it had been released this way originally, it might have spawned its planned sequel instead of just a cult following, a comic series, and a terrible video game.

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Duncan Ralston was born in Toronto and spent his teens in small-town Canada. As a “grown up,” Duncan lives with his partner and their dog in Toronto, where he writes dark fiction about the things that disturb him. In addition to his twisted short stories found in GRISTLE & BONE, the anthologies EASTER EGGS & BUNNY BOILERS, WHAT GOES AROUND, DEATH BY CHOCOLATE, FLASH FEAR, and the charity anthologies BURGER VAN, BAH! HUMBUG!, VS: US vs UK HORROR, and THE BLACK ROOM MANUSCRIPTS Vol. 1, he is the author of the novels SALVAGE, EVERY PART OF THE ANIMAL, and WOOM, an extreme horror Black Cover book from Matt Shaw Publications.

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How far would you go for revenge? When a six-year-old girl is abused and left for dead by a pedophile known only as the “Rabbit Man” due to the claw marks left on her body, police follow every lead but reach only dead ends.Hungry for justice, her grieving father abandons wife and child on a harrowing journey deep undercover into Miami’s sex offender colony under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. His purpose is simple: to find the “Rabbit Man” among them, and put him in the ground. Months later, with no one to trust and the pedophiles he lives among growing suspicious of his actions, he learns nothing is simple where the monsters live.

Get YOUR copy of WHERE THE MONSTERS LIVE on Amazon for $1.39!!!

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Creature Features in Review: Frogs (1972)

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In an era known for lurid movie posters, the marketing plan for 1972’s eco-horror film, Frogs, stood out from the rest. Posters presented man-eating reptiles, showing a picture of a human hand hanging from a giant frog’s mouth. Pulpy text promised “slithering, slimy horror,” hellbent on devouring everything in its way, cutting a furious swath of reptilian destruction. Nature’s revenge against pollution, a cold-blooded stand against the wanton use of pesticides, the animals finally taking their rightful place upon the earth. Glory, glory, hallelujah!

As is often the case, promises are made to be broken. This is not to say that Frogs is a terrible movie. It isn’t. The replay value of this movie is practically immeasurable. But audiences looking for blood and gore, sinews being snapped by angry teeth, are going to be disappointed. What those who watch this film are presented with is more like people dying in the presence of assorted reptiles and amphibians.

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The reason for this so-called reptile rebellion is plainly laid out. It is the Fourth of July, and the family of Jason Crockett (the venerable Ray Milland) has gathered at the family plantation for the holiday. Photojournalist Pickett Smith (a mustache-free Sam Elliott) is injected into the situation when his canoe is toppled by Jason’s jackass son, Clint (the late Adam Roarke), who is hot-dogging in his speedboat. Smith is brought back to the house for dry clothes and is invited to spend the weekend.

Smith is investigating the disappearance of wildlife in the area, and quickly deduces the cause as the ridiculous amount of pesticides Crockett uses to keep his property bug-free. This is a place delightfully ignorant of the many uses of citronella. However, it does play into the headlines of the early Seventies, where chemicals like DDT and Agent Orange caused terrible damage to the environment worldwide. It was a time of mutations and increased birth defects. It was obvious we were destroying the planet, and filmmakers latched onto that, creating worst case scenarios, science fiction mixed with social commentary and, if one was lucky, a little bit of T&A.

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Frogs does offer a boisterous, scene-chewing performance by Milland. Bound by both a wheelchair and the strongly held convictions of the Old South, he barks orders to his family like a drill sergeant, demanding punctuality and subservience with every breath. This rigid structure is shown to us through the eyes of Elliott’s character, the stranger in town, rolling in like John the Baptist from the desert, extolling the virtues of ecology and bucking against the confines of the patriarchy. He is the voice of reason in this film, his message falling on deaf ears.

But it is the promise of animal attacks that lures us to this movie, and apart from a crocodile attack, actual critter-on-human violence is non-existent. We get a woman who wanders into a swamp, gets some leeches on her and falls down in front of a rattlesnake. The snake bites her and kills her, but is this really strange behavior? Snakes are going to behave like snakes. A man dies in a greenhouse when lizards knock over jars containing toxic chemicals, which combine to make breathable poison. However, even in these examples, none of the animal behavior seems particularly malevolent. It all seems accidental, casualties by causality, without any malice aforethought.

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That’s partially what makes Frogs so entertaining. There are frogs in the movie, even some abnormally large toads, but they simply do what frogs and toads do. They hop. They croak. They look slimy and weird. This makes Frogs less a movie about nature taking revenge on humanity and more of our fear of nature. It’s about how we’ve become comfortable in our homes, our cities, our conclaves. The sight of animals in what we conceive of as our natural habitat feels like an invasion. It knocks us off balance. We see a spider in the shower and that son of a bitch must die. A bee flies into our car while we’re driving, and lose control, veering back and forth until we can safely pull over and let the accursed beast out. We are imposed upon, the unclean thing daring to enter our sanctuaries and touch us.

That’s some heavy exposition for a drive-in programmer, but the movies that endure, even B-movies like Frogs, always have layers of thought and meaning beneath the exploitative surface. Certainly, Frogs can be enjoyed on that top level, where it’s all snakes and toads and wouldn’t it be gross to have tarantulas on your face. But there’s more here, and this little movie is a solid reminder of how far removed we are from the world around us, the world under and around the edifices we have constructed. There be no shelter here, and there is no safety.

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Frogs is available on glorious Blu-Ray from Scream Factory as a double feature with Food of the Gods, creating a dandy eco-horror double feature. Seek it out.

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Jeffery X. Martin is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elders Keep universe. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work, including his latest novel, Hunting Witches, on Amazon’s blood-soaked altar. When Mr. X is not writing creepy mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and review sites, including but not limited to, Popshifter, Kiss the Goat, and the Cinema Beef Podcast. He is a frequent contributor to Machine Mean, reviewing for us The Wolf Man (1941), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Revenge of the Creature (1955), and Squirm (1976).

You can pick up Hunting Witches on Amazon for $4.99!!

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Creature Features in Review: Jeepers Creepers (2001)

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Maybe I’m a bumbling fool to have forgotten to post this most excellent addition to Creature Features in Review…or perhaps a certain kind of mad genius. For those State-side and for those abroad, our neighbors to the north and our neighbors to the south, from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and it’s not all that terrific), the world awaits the inauguration of our (America’s) 45th President. Controversy. Disunity. Anger. Resentment. Strife. Uncertainly. It all feels at the moment to seep from the fabric of our country. That hidden fear of the unknown, the same fear H. P. Lovecraft spoke of in his many works, has captured, or should I say strangling, our attentions. This same mood thrives in the electrical grid of most Creature Features, especially Jeepers Creepers. There may be some criticisms and creepiness surrounding the infamous director Victor Salva, but separating the art from the artist, Jeepers Creepers (for me) is a perfect example of a modern American gothic tale. You can literally watch this movie in black and white and still enjoy it, probably more so. The moral compass of puritanism and rational versus irrational is present throughout the entire film. And it’s one of Justin Long’s best performances. Here to help us navigate these precarious times and this very precarious movie is our esteemed guest writer, Chad Clark.

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By: Chad Clark

When Jeepers Creepers came out in 2001, the cinematic horror landscape seemed to be in an interesting place, and not all of it was necessarily good. My memories of this time period were of mainly reboots and PG-13 horror films. Other than Final Destination, there seemed to no longer be such a thing as horror franchises anymore and even in the case of FD, there had only been one installment. So it was within this environment that I was generally suspicious of Jeepers Creepers. The way it was marketed and the vibe I got from it was that this was just another glossy, hollow interpretation of what made horror movies great. I remember seeing ads for this while it was in the theaters but I wasn’t sold and gave it a pass.

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Spoiler alert: that was a mistake.

I finally took the plunge with Jeepers Creepers, via the newly created online rental company at the time, Netflix. There wasn’t any streaming, only waiting for the physical DVD’s to arrive in the bright red celebratory envelopes. I was skeptical but to be honest, the first half hour or so of the film is one of the best openings I have ever seen. It starts out so innocently with a brother and sister leaving for the long drive home from school. Before they can get there, the movie takes a turn for the dark side and they quickly find themselves the target of a powerful creature that they don’t fully understand.

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The monster in Jeepers Creepers is fantastic and it seemed like they took a lesson from Jaws in that we don’t see it in its full glory until late in the film. What is great though is that even seeing quick flashes of it early on, it’s still scary as hell. I love the image the brother and sister arguing and then the brother (Justin Long) sees this thing dumping what looks like human bodies down a huge pipe in the yard of an old church. By all appearances, it’s just a tall guy wearing an overcoat and a large, wide-brimmed hat, but the design of that costume is incredibly creepy and evocative.

The pacing of the movie is very well done as the monster proceeds to chase the two of them across a rural landscape. Along the way, they get some bits and pieces of information that may give them some insight into the thing and how powerful it is. But mostly, I think we just gradually figure out how screwed they really are. I can tell you this, before seeing this movie, I would have never guessed that the song, Jeepers Creepers would ever feel foreboding. That said, they managed to accomplish that very thing, to the point that I can’t help but think of the film whenever I hear that song.

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The movie also has some pretty good acting, something that is occasionally glossed over in the horror franchise as being less important. The cast of actors was pretty much unknown at the time but I thought they all managed to fit in together pretty well. This was especially true with the main players, in that they managed to create two characters that I genuinely cared about and rooted for.  It’s a cliché, but I felt like I was on the edge of my seat for these two all throughout the movie, all the way up to the ending, which was brutal and brilliant. I don’t want to give anything away but the movie ends with a slow zoom out to a point and a perspective that left me with my jaw hanging open. It really was that good.

I’m not normally a viewer who pays a lot of attention to things like costume and makeup but I thought they did a phenomenal job making the monster authentic and scary. In a world that was increasingly becoming about CGI, this was a monster that felt physically present and the makeup department did a great job bringing a feeling of grittiness and gore to the monster.

In short, if you are looking for a great example of the modern monster movie, I would definitely start with this one. Jeepers Creepers is a fun film that gives you all the visceral escapism that great horror movies should provide. I can’t recommend it enough.

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There is an elephant in the room here, namely that of Victor Salva. He was the director of Jeepers Creepers.  Salva was convicted early on in his career for child molestation. I am not going to go into the specifics of his crime. If you are already aware of it, I don’t want to take column inches rehashing common ground. And if you happen to be unaware of what he did, Google can get you there in less than a minute.

The reason why I bring it up is because it has been commonly argued that Salva’s movies should be boycotted. And I want to make sure one thing is clear before I go on to state my position on this. I think that what Salva did was despicable. In no way would I ever want to imply support for or endorse that kind of behavior. I want to make sure that is absolutely clear before I move on. I also believe that he should have received a harsher punishment. The sentence passed down by the court was laughable and that doesn’t even take into consideration that he didn’t serve the full sentence that he was given. I think that a reasonable case could be made for not allowing him to work in movies, mostly due to the fact that he used his power and position as a film director in order to do the things he did.

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All that said, he was convicted in a court of law and he served the sentence that was passed down to him by our judicial system. I don’t think that this was right. I don’t think it was justice. And I absolutely support the victim and everything he does to try and make himself healthy again.

Still, I cannot bring myself to support the notion of a boycott, and my reasoning is as follows.

If there was a way to financially hurt Salva and only him, I think that would be one matter. But the fact is that when you were talking about a big budget Hollywood film, we aren’t talking about just Victor Salva anymore. There are literally hundreds of people employed in the process of developing and releasing a feature-length film. Obviously, there are the actors but also all the individual departments that are responsible for the physical look of the film as well as the process of filming. You have the people who spend countless hours with the actors in their studios applying makeup and costumes. There are the people who take the time to set up and dress the sets, keeping things in motion as production moves along. There are the musicians who develop a score for the film, one of the most important parts and record all of that music. Even the caterers who provide food and the marketing firms who promote the movies. There are a lot of people here.

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I have always thought that directors got a little too much credit for what ends up on the screen. They function as an organizing force with a global perspective, but there are a lot of different people who work hard at the ground level to make that finished product. The director is responsible for the totality of the thing but it is rarely their hands actually on the product, crafting it. So if I felt like a boycott would be destructive to Salva and only Salva, I might be more inclined to go along. But because of the countless other people who worked their butts off in order to create this film, I can’t support it.

Jeepers Creepers is a brilliant film, and my compliments go to all the cast and crew that dedicated themselves to the creation of it.

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Chad Clark is a frequent flyer here on Machine Mean. He has reviewed for us before with commentary on House of Dracula (1945) and House of 1000 Corpses. Mr. Clark is a midwestern author of horror and science fiction. His artistic roots can be traced back to the golden era of horror literature, Stephen King, and Robert McCammon being large influences. His love for horror began as well in the classic horror franchises of the eighties. He resides in Iowa with his wife and two sons. Clark’s debut novel, Borrowed Time, was published in 2014. His second novel, A Shade for Every Season was released in 2015, and in 2016 Clark published Behind Our Walls, a dark look at the human condition set in a post-apocalyptic world. His latest book, Down the Beaten Path, released in September 2016. You can keep up with all of Mr. Clark’s works by following him on Amazon here.

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Creature Features in Review: Godzilla (1954)

 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Creature Features in Review: The Fly (1986)

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Welcome, my friends to the start of a brand new series here on Machine Mean. I’m more than ecstatic to present to you the first of many Creature Features that will be reviewed during this duration. And what better way to kick things off than with one of my favorite horror sub-subgenres, mad science. Looking over the landscape of Creature Feature movies, there seem to be plenty that fit the bill of mad science, including, I would argue, those radiated atomic age giant sized monsters. How could we not include those? Did  Dr. Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project not considered (if not to each other to be) mad scientists? Following a successful test of his bomb, Oppenheimer dedicated his life to restricting the use of such a device. His intellect pursued the impossible and when said impossible was achieved, he drew back in quiet revulsion. Mad science…and even creatures of the macabre have a tendency to show us the things we most fear. Considering the mad scientists of the atomic era, they created and let loose upon the world a weapon so powerful that it changed the global culture and set us into a new age. Most had their own motivations, no doubt about it, but I would be confident to assume a majority of those motivations were intellectually based. Pushing the boundaries, so to speak. Creature Feature movies come from a similar vein. Unresolved fears gleaming into a new dawn. Numerous what if scenarios. Of invaders. Of the future. Of what lurks in the basement or in the woods or under the bed or out in the swamps. And some relate to our unresolved fears within our own bodies…and our minds. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) is a masterpiece of body horror, also known as venereal horror. Let’s take a closer look.

Here’s a synopsis of the film from the always wonderful IMDb:

“A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.”

This IMDb synopsis isn’t wrong. It just feels horribly simplified, right? There’s so much more to say about The Fly. One could point out the romantic triangle between the “mad” scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his newly minted lover/journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and her ex-lover/editor Stathis Borans (John Getz). One could also point out a possible allegory of puberty, as Seth undergoes “changes” in his body, pimples, and other oozing features while becoming obsessed with his physique and sexual intercourse. Or we could go with the basic plot of an eccentric scientist and his doomed experiment. But neither of those feels quite right, do they? No. Something deeper is going on.

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Before we consider The Fly, we ought to consider the director. David Cronenberg, also known as the King of Venereal Horror, back in the 80s and late 70s, set in motion a series on what film nerds refer to now as organic-horror, biological horror, or simply body horror. Anything to do with the horror of the human anatomy. For Cronenberg, we can look to Dead RingersVideodromeScannersShiversThe Brood, eXistenZ, and Rabid that could arguably be counted toward his run on body horror themed films. Each one taking on a different aspect or story regarding our humanistic fears about our own bodies juxtaposed to our vulnerability to disease or technology or parasites. In The Fly, this fear seems to be centered around the fear of mind versus body. Fear of what our minds create, that is technology, doesn’t feel dominate, though it definitely plays a part in Cronenberg’s philosophy.

We cannot ignore it.

Seth Brundle admits during the first hour of the movie that he has extreme motion sickness and he feels that this is a crippling condition. He cannot travel very far without getting sick. So, motivated by this horror he feels handicaps him by isolating him, scientist Brundle sets out to create a teleportation device, so that he may beam from one point to another without ever getting sick. His endeavor works. He has invented and created a teleportation pod, or tele-pod. But there’s a catch. The machine cannot properly read or understand flesh. This failure is clearly and disgustingly seen in the teleportation of Baboon #1 as the poor monkey is turned inside out. The machine doesn’t understand flesh, just as the character Seth does not understand flesh. He works exclusively alone, isolated from even his peers until he can no longer tolerate being alone. As he says to Veronica, the reason why he sought her out in the first place was because he had been alone for too long, he desires, craves, lusts for human contact. In a way, this illustrates the drama taking place between mind and body. His mind wants to continue its intellectual pursuits, but the body demands human interaction and thus intervenes and creates obstacles in the path of his goals.

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While the mind is presented as being purely objective, the body is thought of as being subjective. During the duration of the movie, these ideas of mind and body are turned inside out, just as the Baboon was, and exposed for the ugliness this philosophy can bring upon us. Ideas become twisted. Seth creates a machine to solve his motion sickness problem. Okay, but he’s alone and finds solace in journalist Veronica. His bodily craving is resolved, for now, until more fleshly desires present themselves when Veronica puts the moves on our bumbling scientist. Suddenly he understands the dilemma between mind and body due to his ignorance of body and correlates his discovery with the tele-pod machine. He then successfully transports Baboon #2. They celebrate. Unfortunately, Veronica has to, as she says, “scrape off the heel” of her shoe the problematic ex-lover/editor Borans. Unschooled in the ways of human interaction, let alone women, Seth believes his new girlfriend is cheating on him or whatever and gets drunk and decides to go through the pod himself. Abandoning mind for bodily created jealousy. Unknown to him, a fly joins him in the pod and away they go. The machine wasn’t programmed to account for two separate genetic codes and so decides on its own, or more likely a fallback program, to splice them together. Seth emerges from the other pod in a cloud of white smoke seemingly unharmed or changed, instead, he is glistening and muscular, perfection one might say of both mind and body…but as horror fans, we know all too well there are no such guarantees.

Something went wrong.

It is interesting how Cronenberg differed here from the original 1958 film. When scientist Andre Delambre (played by Al Hedison) emerges from his pod he is instantly changed. His head is that of a fly’s head and his once human hand is a mandible-like claw. Differing, in this 1986 adaptation, Seth Brundle emerges seemingly unchanged but then goes through a slow and grueling deformation of his flesh and eventually his mind too. At first, he denies what’s happening, as any good horror character will do. When Veronica realizes something is amiss and tries to make him realize he is different, Seth screams at her, “You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh. Drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring! Y’see what I’m saying? And I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!”

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The pacing of this film is magnificent. Shortly after the above scene, Seth witnesses the first of many parts of his body that begin to fall off. Slowly, with each stage of decomposition, which quickly is realized as a perverted form of evolution, his bodily-humanity is degraded, ruined, being transformed into something else. At first, Seth accepts this new discovery, jokingly referring to his medicine cabinet as a Brundle Museum of Natural History. But the more insect he becomes, the more he realizes his once beloved intellect will also slip away into the obscurity of a brutal body-dominate fly. This realization is made in one of the movies best lines when Seth asks Veronica is she “ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first… insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid, uh… I’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake. I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.”

Seth quickly goes to work to try and resolve this transformation before he loses his mind to the bug. The machine analysis in an algorithm that he would have to splice two or more pure humans to reverse the insectoid growth. Devastated over Veronica’s departure, Seth discovers she is pregnant and chases her down when she seeks an abortion. Ina  dream, Cronenberg himself plays the gynecologist, which is stoically brilliant. Seth, of course, crashes into the changing room and takes her away, imploring that she does not kill what remains of his humanity. She cannot and so he goes about his last-ditch attempt to reverse the progression of the insect with one of the best transformation effects ever conceived on screen as Brundle becomes a fully matured Brundlefly. The attempted abortion and the splicing algorithm give clues to this “other” possibility of resolving the conflict between mind and body. The mind can take action to destroy physical progression. Consider how people are outside of the movies. Why do people pursue cosmetic surgery? Why do we have organ transplants?

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The Fly calls to our extremes. The war between our minds and body’s. Seth ignored his body, pursuing only the mind, to end up pursuing his physical desires over the discovery his intellect had made, only to realize all too late the need for an equal relationship between both mind and body. The Fly is definitely one of my favorite 1980s horror flicks and one of my favorite Cronenberg films. Great composition. Amazing practical effects. Top notch character acting. And gratifying gross-out scenes. But not just that, The Fly also has a deeper meaning that I find equally satisfying to all the blood and guts and giant humanoid insects, what would I be without my mind? What would I be without my body?

My Rating: 5/5

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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 Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving (coming soon), 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. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.