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Universal Monsters in Review: a monstrous survey

For the past nine months, my weekends have had the added benefit of screening a new Universal Monster movie on Saturday or sometimes Sunday nights, from Frankenstein to The Wolf Man and all the lesser known sequels and House specials. The majority of which I had not previously seen. They were new and largely unknown to me. And of those unknowns, yes a few were just god-awful, but for the most part, the majority were intriguing, a few breathtakingly mesmerizing, and fewer still, though odd and unusual, they held a certain charm about them. When watching movies with 86 years of separation between then and now, you’re bound to find conflicts with storytelling and filmmaking that go against how you understand them. Things were done differently then. People held different beliefs and ideology than today. Different cultures and even customs. Some of those things are pleasant reminders of a simpler time, the way dialogue was crafted with care and chivalry, poetic in its own right. And there were also aspects that were uncomfortable to watch, such as sexism and discrimination towards women and those of African or even Asian descent. Remembering the historical context of the films can help relieve some of the conflicts we feel with those nostalgic glitches.

When Dracula released in February of 1931, the world was in a state of flux. The economic depression (known as The Great Depression) was setting root in not just America, but all over the world. In Germany, the first pangs of the rise of Nazism was felt. Though defeated by a majority win, in just two years time the elected German president, Hindenburg, will elect Adolf Hitler as chancellor . Eugenics was a pop science in which the sterilization of unfit parents and the “euthanasia” of “the defective” and “useless eaters” is making the rounds, not just in Nazi Germany, but also on the shores of the United States. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed (the first major steps in annihilation and extermination of European Jewry, ie, The Final Solution). In 1936, the Spanish Civil War begins. In 1937, the Rape of Nanjing, which is basically the systematic rape, torture, and murder of more than 300,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers as they invade China. 1939, Germany invades Poland, and by December 7th, 1941, the Day that will Live in Infamy, the once “civilized” world is thrown back into global conflict. These were uncertain times, to say the least. And we have to keep in mind that this was the backdrop during the production of the majority of the Universal Monster movies. Intentional or not, history shapes and continues to do so.

Every decade, every generation has had a take on the original Universal monsters. Thru the 1950s, into the 60s, 70s, 1980s, 90s, 2000s, and even today, those pillar stories are still being told. And that is a part of what we’ll discuss here today. Those movies we call remakes, the hits of those and the blunders, as well as what waits in store for those of, let’s say, my daughter’s generation. What will the monsters look like tomorrow? This is roughly about 60 years of film history, so we will not tackle each and every monster movie, but rather a survey of each decade. Savvy? Let us begin.

The 1950s…

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When the last of the Universal monsters, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), aired, a new generation of monsters was born. The 1950s was a strange era, filled with mutated creatures and aliens from other worlds. Big hits during this decade included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Godzilla, Forbidden Planet, and Them! (just to name a few). The classic Universal monsters faded into obscurity in America, becoming cult-B movies for those brave enough to venture into the movie theaters with duel Herman Cohen produced flicks, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and the return of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970, a mashup of classic Universal and atomic age science. While the monsters went B in America, they seem to thrive across the pond in the UK as major productions.  Universal monsters were reborn in Hammer Production films and a great majority of these are still some of the best monster movies on the market, even by today’s standards. Movies, such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy captivated a new generation of monster lovers. The Mummy (1959) starring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I found was especially good and horrific compared to the original Universal films which were not beloved by many.

 

The 1960s…

curseofwerewolf

Trends from the 1950s continue on into the 1960s. The majority of monsters are the creations of mad science or invaders from other worlds. Godzilla and Mothra being some of the most popular monsters during this era, and other very unique monster created by a couple of rogue filmmakers in Pittsburg, Night of the Living Dead (1968). But that doesn’t mean the classics Universal monsters had died away, there some… Hammer Productions continued with The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Shroud, and NOT FORGETTING the best of the best, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In the United States, two classic Universal monsters were melded with the new age craze with the release of Atomic Age Vampire (1960) and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965) and super low-budget flick Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). Leaving only one major production, a made for children stop-motion animated musical comedy titled Mad Monster Party? (1967) starring Boris Karloff in his last appearance in any of the classic Universal Monster movies as the voice of Victor Frankenstein.

The 1970s…

youngfrank

Hammer Productions continued to flourish with classic monster films such as The Horror of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. During this decade we’re introduced to a few well known B-Italian (and German and French included) classic monster movies with Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (starring Lon Chaney in his last reprisal in a “Universal” monster film), The Werewolf Versus The Vampire Women, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, and the very strange Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein). Now, for classic Universal monsters in the United States, the 1970s gave birth to a very interesting phase called Blaxploitation. In 1972, on the eve of Blaxploitation, we’re blessed with the likes of Blacula, the tale of an African prince (William Marshall) is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula (Charles McCauley). Sealed in a coffin for several lifetimes, “Blacula” reawakens in 1970’s Los Angeles. Leaving a trail of bloodless victims in his wake. And Blacula returns in 1973 with Scream Blacula Scream. Some other noteworthy Blaxploitation-classic-Universal-monster films include 1974’s Blackenstein and Ganja & Hess.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!!

In 1974, Mel Brooks produced and directed one of the greats spoofs set within the classic Universal monsters lexicon…Young Frankenstein, starring the late great Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Gar, and Marty Feldman (to name a few). Though I am a rabid fan of both Hammer and Blaxploitation films, my love for this era falls directly on Young Frankenstein. The film was absolutely respectful of the roots of Frankenstein and even used what remained of the original set. Not to mention was wonderfully written, directed, and acted. Less not forgetting a few other honorable mentions, Werewolves on Wheels, The Boy who Cried Werewolf, Werewolf Woman, and Legend of the Werewolf are all wonderfully gritty and fun to watch.

The 1980s…

anamericanwerewolf

It’s really hard to hate the 1980s, especially regarding the volumes of horror movies produced during this VHS era. So many monster films and the birth of a new sub-genre, The Slasher, and the reclassification of Universal tropes, whereas the Gillman from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, became Swamp Thing and Toxic Avenger. One of the more obvious “Universal” carry-overs would be Jerry Warren’s Frankenstein Island, starring John Carradine, one of the last surviving members from the original Universal Monster films. But what made this era really great were three films that took the concepts developed by the traditional Universal tropes and created something new from the old.The HowlingAn American Werewolf in London and Silver Bullet took what The Wolf Man did in 1941 and set it in a more reality-toned story if you can believe that. The rules of werewolfism became more complex and reminded audiences how fun these kinds of movies can be if done properly. Now…I’d be a horrible film historian/fan if I failed to mention the one single most recognizable “Universal” heavy monster movie from the 1980s. That’s right folks, I’m talking The Monster Squad (1987). This movie took every 80s cliche and every classic Universal Monster cliche, boiled it in a stew and served it with nard pudding. You either love it or you hate, and if you hate you’re probably too terrified to say so, considering how many damn people love this movie!

The 1990s…

blade

Looking back on the 90s is like looking through a kaleidoscope. There were so much realism and so much snark the 90s is often really hard to separate diamonds from the squares regarding monster flicks. The 90s gave us more creature features, not necessarily mutated or atomic…just…creatures. And as far as the use of classic “Universal” monster tropes, we have two different extremes. On one end, we get Frankenhooker (1990), a raunchy B-movie where a New Jersey mad doctor (James Lorinz) rebuilds his girlfriend (Patty Mullen) with body parts from exploded hookers. And not forgetting (though I wish I could) Mel Brooks directed Dracula: Dead and Loving It. But on the other extreme, we get these melodrama films such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), both of which did their best to follow the source material that inspired the original Universal Monsters. In the middle of all this dueling complexity, we have at least one movie that keeps to both melodramatic and B-ish action, one of my person favorites from this decade, NO, not Monster Mash, I’m talking 1998’s comic to film flick, Blade starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristoffer, and Stephen Dorff.

And I guess I’d be amiss if I did not mention one of the first more modern remakes directly linked to the Universal Monster classics. In 1999, The Mummy released starring (then loved now somewhat shunned) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, and America’s favorite weirdo Kevin J. O’Connor. The remake followed most of the basic tenets of the original Mummy while kicking up the action. I remember actually being really impressed with the film and truth be told…I had seen this one before screening the original. Unfortunately, it suffers from what most 1990s movies suffer from, the crappy use of CGI. But overall, The Mummy is still a fun romp on a late night.

(Shhhh…if we’re quiet and don’t make any sudden movements, no one will mention 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris…)

The 2000s…

lettherightonein

The 2000s were not entirely unkind to Universal Monster tropes. Strange…but not unkind. Universal Studios themselves had put out a what should have been a return or at least a nod to the classic hey-day with Van Helsing (2004)…and while they did capture the feeling of watching a Universal Monster flick, the story itself and odd choices with effects and the horribly outdated CGI dropped the bottom out on this movie. It’s amazing how much of a turd Van Helsing is, and it could have been so much more, a virtual House of Dracula, giving audiences werewolves and vampires and hunchbacks and even Frankenstein’s creature but instead filmmakers ignored the lore and added strange new rules that didn’t make sense, making a complete mess of a movie.

The decade was not without some gems. I thought Dog Soldiers (2002) was both brilliant and horrifying. There was also Ginger Snaps (2000) and Ginger Snaps II which were both smart. And, though not a lot of folks liked this one, I thought it was fun and an awesome throwback to the classic vibe of Universal Monsters, 2004’s Wes Craven directed Cursed starring Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, and Joshua Jackson. Another fan favorite during this decade was action-thriller Underworld (2003), starring the very leather-clad Kate Beckinsale and the always magnetic Bill Nighy. Underworld has developed into a series franchise, putting audiences into a world of vampires versus werewolves. The sequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans released back in 2009. All of which all fun and entertaining, though very obviously films in a post-Matrix world with all that leather and gun-play. Another vampire hit, for me at least, was 30 Days of Night (2007) which shed the “it’s fun to be a vampire” motif and actually allowed them to be monsters. And while sequels are not always a favorite subject matter, we cannot discount Blade II (2002), this round being directed by then up and coming monster director Guillermo del Toro… And be honest here, who doesn’t love a movie with Ron Pearlman in it? But let’s stop there. No need mentioning Blade: Trinity…ugh!

And as for the best of the 2000s decade, my hat goes off to Let the Right One In (2008), a Swedish “romantic” horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson, based on the 2004 novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist about a bullied 12-year-old boy named “Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli (Lina Leandersson), they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved they slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.” Let the Right One In was one of those “unknowns,” coming right out of left field. It was a slow burn, but so atmospheric and moody and dark…it gives me the chills just thinking about the movie. 

The 2010s…

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Here we are…roughly 70 years of film history. And with just six (nearly 7) years into the new decade, it seems as if those classic Universal monster tropes are making an epic comeback. Or at least, that’s the vibe I’m getting. Let’s start things off here with my favorite, the 2010 direct remake of the original 1941 The Wolf Man, with a star-studded cast including Benicio del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and David Schofield to name a few. Now, I’m not saying the movie didn’t have some flaws. The fight scene between Hopkins and Toro is…well…a little odd, but for the majority of the film, the effects and even added CGI wasn’t too shabby. Considering the original is my preferred archetype regarding werewolf stories, I pretty much fell head over heels for this one. And wait, there’s more! Not only did we get a directly linked werewolf movie, but it looks as if the indie film community was filling in where Hollywood failed to capitalize. Consider this fan-favourite and truly underrated horror flick, Late Phases (2014), about a secluded retirement community plagued by mysterious and deadly attacks until a grizzled blind war veteran moves in, rallies the residents, and discovers a beast is behind the killings. Another unrated flick and extremely well done, Stake Land (2010) gives the classic vampire trope a plague-like treatment.

2013’s Wer was another surprise, giving lycanism a hereditary twist and 2012’s Werewolf: The Beast Among Us wasn’t too shabby for a largely unknown action thriller. And 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army was just bizarre enough to be entertaining. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) was a smart and surprise hit among monster fans, where residents of a worn-down Iranian city encounter a skateboarding vampire (Sheila Vand) who preys on men who disrespect women. And I thought Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was good for a late night screening.

Now…because I’m a dad (totally using this as an excuse), I have to mention one of my top favorites thus far for this decade before moving on to anything else. Hotel Transylvania (2012) was absolutely brilliant. Fun. Funny. And full of classic monster tropes. The story goes, “When monsters want to get away from it all, they go to Count Dracula’s (Adam Sandler) Hotel Transylvania, a lavish resort where they can be themselves without humans around to bother them. On one special weekend, Dracula invites creatures like the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and others to celebrate the 118th birthday of his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). However, an unforeseen complication unfolds when an ordinary human unwittingly crashes the party and falls in love with Mavis.” Say what you will, but I love this movie!

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As for the duds…though I still haven’t screened this one, I’ve heard that the steady-cam take on the Mummy monster trope The Pyramid (2014) was not very good. The concept sounded interesting…maybe I’ll give this one a go before passing final judgment. The same for Dracula: Untold (2014), I just haven’t gotten around to watching it, but I’ve heard that it was decently entertaining. And I still haven’t caught up with We Are The Night (2010) or Byzantium (2012), both of which follow a more feminine-centric story trope. One dud that I did actually watch was comic-book based I, Frankenstein (2014). “Two centuries after Dr. Frankenstein assembles and reanimates his creature, Adam (Aaron Eckhart) is still living. He becomes embroiled in a war between two immortal races: gargoyles, the traditional protectors of mankind, and evil demons. Since Adam is neither human nor demon, gargoyle Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) and demon Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) each want him for their own purposes. It is up to Adam to discover his inner humanity and the reason for his continued existence.” The movie could have been so much more but casting pretty-boy Eckhart as the monster…well…it seemed to reek of trying too much to be like Underworld to have any real chance of being its own movie. The concept was fun and the addition to the Frankenstein lore…so, at least it had that going for it. 

Also on my to watch list: What We Do in the Shadows (2015), and Freaks of Nature (2015). It just seems, part of my problem is that there are so many classic films to choice from my tastes typically shy away back to the 1970s or 80s. That’s not to say the 2010s have nothing to offer, just look at the list above and you’ll find more than one blockbuster worthy of your time. And the year is not even over yet. A think, largely, everyone has their own tastes for horror, and this is especially true for those of the classic Universal Monster breed. My biggest disappointment is the lackluster treatment of my favorite Universal Monster, The Mummy. While the 1999 remake did a rather bang-up job, that’s been…what, 17 years now? I have to wonder what the aversion is. I’m assuming it’s because the Mummy is not a “fan favorite.” Vampires and werewolves sell movie tickets, is that it? You put a screenwriter who loves the trope, some solid practical effects, and a director who knows what they’re doing, and I guarantee you a great film will be made.

And now…a peek into the FUTURE….

mummyremake

As you’ve no doubt heard, Universal Studios will be reviving from their vaults, the return of the classic Universal Monsters in a new series that will eventually tie together all our beloved baddies. This news has been generating for about two years now and it looks as if they’re finally getting the ball rolling. The first monster up for theatric return will be The Mummy, with a June 2017 release date, and starring none other than Tom “Top Gun” Cruise. It feels fortuitous that my favorite Universal monster will be up first in this new rival. The Wolf Man is said to be next, with a 2018 release date and rumors of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson taking on the lead role. Scarlett Johansson is rumored to be on Universal’s radar for the led in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Angelina Jolie for Bride of Frankenstein. Johnny Depp for The Invisible Man. And supposedly, Dracula: Untold‘s end sequence opens the door for what all these remakes will be leading towards. At first, I had my reservations. Some of the descriptions for what the producers wanted sounded un-horror and un-betrothed to what the originals were. But it seems those rumors were just that, rumors. As more information has released, the more excited and cautiously optimistic I’ve become. If you’ve tuned into any of the reviews in this series, you’ve no doubt noted how much of a fan I am of the classic Universal Monster. And by-Geroge, I’m glad they’ve finally decided to bring them back to their full glory.

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new paranormal series, The Subdue Books, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.

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Universal Monsters in Review: Pinball Wizard

monsterbashtall

The history of pinball games is an interesting subject. The 1930s, the same as the Universal Monster era, is ultimately when the game began, though an argument could be made for the development of the machine since the 1700s in the form of Bagatelle, a billiard indoor table game. Starting in the 1930s, there were Payout Pins, in which coins would drop out of the game, and Flippers, a Penny Arcade game where the players used a “bat” to launch balls into a scoring mechanism and even an early era pinball game called TILT! The exclamation point was to further the excitement one ought to feel when playing the game. By 1936, the invention of pinball bumper came about, consisting of coiled springs that allowed the ball to rapidly bounce around the playfield, forever changing the modus operandi of pinball. Pinball was also not without its enemies. In a 1957 article published by Better Homes and Gardens, advocates called for the ban of pinball games. Some American cities had already fallen suit, in January of 1942, New York mayor LaGuardia banned the game throughout his city, which wouldn’t be overturned until the 1970s. The issue advocates and lawmakers were having was a failure to distinguish slot machines from pinball machines and the fact that many just wanted to play pinball for the sheer enjoyment of the game. Starting in the 1980s and running through the 90s is when horror themed pinball machines really took off. Some of the most popular ones included Freddy: A Nightmare, The Addams Family, Gorgar, Scared Stiff, Elvira: Party Monster, Twilight Zone, and Monster Bash, just to name a few. These games gave players another way of experiencing the universe of their favorite monsters, including those of the 1930s-1940s Universal variety. Here to talk to us some more regarding Universal Monsters most infamous pinball game, Monster Bash, is our guest author, Kit Power.

Monster Bash

By: Kit Power

Because I know what y’all were really thinking as you slogged through my four thousand word essay on ‘The Bride Of Frankenstein’, back in March – ‘Yeah, yeah, Kit, all well and good, but can’t you tell me more about this pinball table?”

Your wish is my command.

Before I start, though, in the interests of honesty, I have to confess something important: I haven’t played the physical table. I love pinball but was born about ten years too late for the heyday. One of the very, very few positive things about growing up in the ass end of North Devon was that there were two local pubs that still had machines. So I got to play Star Trek: The Next Generation, Judge Dredd, and later the Tommy table (based on the musical). ST and JD just ate my money, for the most part, but Tommy I absolutely owned – I remember one afternoon going in there with a single pound coin (which back then got you 3 credits) and playing for over 3 hours.

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But that was ‘98 or ‘99, and the art of pinball was already dying. Seeing a table in the wild is a rarity these days, and the time when any arcade of a decent size had a whole rack of them is long gone.

Luckily for shut-ins like me, there is, at least, Farsight Studios and The Pinball Arcade.

The press release version is, they buy real tables, take them apart, photograph each bit, then render them in 3D software, emulating the actual ROM used in the original machine to simulate the experience with as much fidelity as possible. Now, I only have one data point for this, because the Star Trek table is so far the only one they’ve digitized that I’d previously spent any time with, but I can say with some confidence that they have absolutely nailed the physics and feel of that table, so I have no reason to suppose that their talents are not similarly in evidence on the other tables in the collection. So, what follows is based on the experience of playing a simulation of the table rather than the thing itself. That bucket list moment will have to wait for when Tarantino comes knocking for the film rights for GodBomb! Hey, I can dream. 🙂

So, Monster Bash – as previously noted, a 1997 table by Williams, of which 3361 units were manufactured, according to Farsight Studios. The plot of the table (no, really) is that six of the iconic Universal Monster crew – The Creature from The Black Lagoon (hereafter Gil), The Bride, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, Dracula, and The Wolfman – are putting a band together, with the end goal of playing a gig in ‘Transylvania Square Gardens’.

Of course.

To achieve this – well, it’s pinball. Keep the ball in play, and hit a lot of shots.

Or, in more detail…

monsterbash1

So there’s six creature games, each of which has ‘win’ states, which award the instrument for that creature (Gil plays Sax, The Bride is on vocals so claims a microphone, The Monster has an organ(!), Dracula is on lead guitar, with The Mummy on Bass and The Wolfman, of course, on drums). Playing all six games, win or lose, sets up the ‘Monster Bash’, which is the table’s wizard mode. Wizard mode is basically the ‘win’ state of a pinball game. Typically a multiball with a generous ball saver period (meaning 30 – 45 seconds where any balls you lose are replaced) and huge jackpots on all targets. If you’ve ever looked at the mind-boggling high scores on a pinball table and wondered how they were achieved – wizard mode is how. It’s always tough to achieve, and aside from Tommy, something I’ve never managed in real life (brag – though for Tommy, I managed it three times in one game).

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There is a fun wrinkle with Monster Bash, which is this: If you manage to ‘win’ each of the monster missions and claim the instruments, you enter a kind of super wizard mode called ‘Monsters Of Rock’, where the targets are worth even more, and the ball saver stays active for longer. If you can get that done before activating the Monster Bash, there’s a substantial bonus, but I’ve never managed that.

 

Here’s a quick breakdown of each of the monster missions:

FULL MOON FEVER: Shoot the left and/or right orbit 4 times to light a full moon and start the mode. You then have 45 seconds to shoot the orbits as many times as you can, scoring the full moon fever jackpot each time you do so. Score 4 full moon jackpots to claim the drum kit for ‘Wolfie’.

  • MUMMY MAYHEM: Hit the jets 45 times to uncover the sarcophagus and light mummy mania in the drop target. Once the drop target is hit to start the mode, shoot the orbits, ramps, and central spinner to score mummy mania jackpots. Score 7.5 million points to win the game and light the bass guitar.
  • BALL AND CHAIN: Shoot both ramps 3 times each to start the ball and chain game. Shoot both ramps a further 3 times each in 40 seconds to win the game and light the microphone.
  • DRAC ATTACK: Shoot the Dracula target on the right-hand side to spell the word DRACULA (the first time through you only need to do this 4 times, as the first three letters are lit for you). This lights Drac Attack in the drop target. Once you shoot that, a model Dracula will pop out of a coffin on the right-hand side of the play area and move slowly back and forth. Hit him five times with the ball to win the mode and light up his guitar.
  • CREATURE FEATURE: Shoot the far left target gully 4 times. On the fourth time, Creature Feature mode begins. Shoot each of the lit targets (both ramps, both orbits and the central spinner (though you can also shoot the left gully as a substitute) to win the mode and light the saxophone.
  • IT’S ALIVE MULTIBALL: To start this mode, shoot The Monster target in the center left of the playing field 7 times to build the monster. The target will then lift up, revealing a ramp. Shoot the ramp to start the multiball. Score jackpots by shooting the flashing targets, and score 6 super jackpots (by hitting the monster) to light the organ.

With me so far? Excellent. Now, let’s talk strategy…

Because beyond ‘keep the ball in play’, there are some useful tips. For example, if you complete three monster modes, an extra ball is lit, and if you go through to the Monster Bash mode and ‘loop’ the table, this chance is restored the second time through as well. Also, the monster game modes are stackable – as in more than one can be running at the same time. Even better – if you start the ‘It’s Alive!’ multiball the timer on the other games stops, which is really handy with games like Ball and Chain, where hitting 6 ramps in 40 seconds can often be a bit of an ask.

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Also, if you complete the skill shot by using the flippers to make sure the ball falls through the lit target post launch, you’ll get an item, such as a garlic clove or spear gun, that can be used to reduce the difficulty of the monster mission by one (A silver bullet, for example, scores you a free ‘full moon fever’ jackpot once that game mode has started). You use the items by pressing the launch button – pleasingly, there’s nothing in-game to tell you this, it’s just a neat little thing you discover through play – or, I guess, not.

And really, it’s a game of neat little touches. The sound is great throughout, with the side comments by the cast (“I hope he’s tall and handsome like you, doctor!” from The Bride, for instance, or “Somebody fetch me a razor!” from The Wolfman) amusing enough that they don’t grate on repeated playing. Similarly, while the table is relatively fast and the ramp entrances not over generous, it’s far from impossible to play, with a little practice. The single toughest shot is The Monster, not because he’s hard to hit but because the rebound tends to send the ball down the center gully with depressing frequency, but on the other hand, if you are anything like as bad as me at pinball, you’ll hit it with glancing blows enough times while aiming elsewhere to unlock the mode organically after a while.

And sure, it is both shlocky and goofy – they’re none of the horrors of the original tales here, this is strictly played for laughs, and if the idea of that offends you, this is probably not the pinball table you’re looking for. That said, there’s also an unmistakable ring of affection to the whole thing, if not outright love.

And if nothing else, it led me, by and unlikely and circuitous route involving the author of this blog, to finally actually watch The Bride Of Frankenstein on Blu-ray. For that alone, this pinball table will always hold a special place in my heart.

kitpower3

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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Nature’s Fury Blogathon: The Black Scorpion (1957)

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Narrator: For centuries, the prayers of Mexico’s peasants have been their only shield against the devastating furies that have wrecked their homes and destroyed their lives. And so today, again they kneel, terrified and helpless, as a new volcano is created by the mysterious and rebellious forces of nature. The Earth has split a thousand times. Whole acres of rich farmlands have cracked and dropped from sight. And millions of tons of molten lava are roaring down the slopes, in a quake recorded on the seismograph of the University of Mexico as the most violent of modern times. To the benighted citizenry of this remote countryside, the most alarming aspect of the phenomenon is the fact that its unabated hourly growth is without precedence, having reached a towering height of nine thousand feet within a few days. And with each added foot, it spreads its evil onslaught into a wider circumference. But what is now most feared is that rescue work will be severely hampered by the hazardous inaccessibility of the terrain.

As we enter into The Black Scorpion, we’re greeted with the above narration, giving no clues to the future horror in which we will soon behold. The premise is basic, and strangely different from a majority of sci-fi movies during this very Cold era. A volcano erupts in a little hamlet near Mexico City and the local villagers and animals, mostly cattle, are vanishing. The corpses that have been found are inflected with a strange wound and a puzzling poison, biological, natural, and otherworldly, found within their bloodstream.

As the story progresses, American geologist Hank Scott, played by well-known sci-fi actor Richard Denning (who looks a hell-of-a-lot like Kenneth Tobey from The Thing from Another World), and his local partner Dr. Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas), travel to the sight of the temperamental volcano to conduct research and investigate why the sleeping giant has decided to wake. Their investigations lead them into an odd series of findings that eventually reveal the true source of the disappearances of locals and cattle. On their initial venture, they stumble upon a small pueblo that has been completely decimated. They find only one survivor, an infant. The only other person the duo happen upon is the missing constable, eyes frozen in terror and an eerie puncture wound on the back of his neck.

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Team Hank then travel to San Lorenzo, which seems nearly overrun with panicked villagers who believe the disappearances and the destruction of their homes are the cause of a demon bull. Hank and Artur seem un-phased by the frenzy or by Major Cosio’s pleading for them to remain in San Lorenzo, not for the safety of the scientists, but so that if something were to happen to them, the Mexican army would not be forced to waste their time in a rescue mission instead of working where they are needed more, with the scared and frightened villagers. Hank simply laughs and continues on with his expedition, which to me seemed odd. They haven’t specified if he was there to investigate the vanishing people and cattle, only that they were there to survey and study the volcano.

Well, this wouldn’t be a quasi-American 1950s sci-fi movie without at least one damsel in distress. For this role were are given the lovely Sunset Boulevard showgirl, Playboy Playmate (1958) Mara Corday who plays cattle ranch owner Teresa Alvarez. No stranger to cult sci-fi movies, Mara has been in a few well known classics, including Tarantula, The Giant Claw, and a number of spaghetti westerns, such as, A Day of Fury and The Man from Bitter Ridge, to name a few. Teresa is thrown from her white horse and as one might expect, Hank comes to her rescue. The two seem to fall in love at first sight (barf) and are invited back to her ranch for…well, more than tea I imagine. Before venturing off, Dr. Artur discovers a strange volcanic rock and takes it back with them to the ranch.

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At this point, if you’re watching the film, you might be wondering, where are the giant bugs? And I would agree with you because this is what I was gripping about when I screened the movie late last night. Everything thus far has been “setup, setup, setup,” with little to no release. We’re given a little tease at the beginning, an eerie ringing off screen, but nothing satiable. Don’t worry. The movie is about to pick up the pace.

At the ranch, while Hank and Teresa nauseously flirt, Dr. Artur, after splitting open the rock, discovers what he originally thought to be a fossilized scorpion, is actually alive and scurrying about on the pool table. Here we can almost feel the mood of the film change, slightly. How can a scorpion survive being encapsulated in a rock inside a volcano? It doesn’t make sense. It breaks the laws of nature as we know it. Soon after, Teresa makes contact with her phone repair men who are suddenly attacked by the true villains of all these bizarre disappearances of people and cattle. Giant black scorpions strike and kill the repair men. Special effects guru Willis O’Brien, who created the stop-motion effects for the original King Kong, gave his talents to the creature of these creatures. And let me say, here and now, without his work, this movie would have absolutely flopped.

Why?

Well, for many reasons actually. The script was the oddest mod podge of traditional ‘50s sci-fi (think Atomic-age, mad science), western, horror, and a mix (rip off) of Them! and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Most of the acting was great, but there were cringe worthy moments when you’re going, “Did they really just say that?” Case in point, when Hank and Artur are with a local laboratory scientist, Dr. Velazco, the very “mad” looking fellow asks his assistant for alcohol, distilled water, salt solution, and tequila before conducting his experiment on the poison he found in the blood system of one of the found victims of the scorpions. Hank asks, “Well, the alcohol, the distilled water, the salt solution – I can understand that, but what’s the tequila for?” And, right on cue, the good doctor says, “Well, in your country I believe they call it a coffee break” (enter drum roll here).

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The mood of the movie is hard to place. Something strange is going on in the story. People are being horrifyingly eaten alive by giant freaking scorpions. Whole towns are vanishing. Cattle are being devoured. And when you see the scorpions on screen, it is insanely terrifying. O’Brien really did a phenomenal job. Stop-motion has a certain qualia about it that get under my skin, especially when used with horror. But the cast seem nonchalant about it all. Hank and Artur venture into the subterranean realm of these beasts, discovering a variety of forgotten species, a very Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth type place, made up mostly of only insects, making it even creepier. But still, these scientists don’t seem all that scared. They’re cool. Too cool.

The ending was even more scandalous. After discovering that the all the creatures were not destroyed with the cave-in, they watch as the “granddaddy” scorpion straight up murders the smaller scorpions, making him king scorpion, as if he wasn’t already. The witty humans lure the uber-giant scorpion into an arena, away from civilians. While the Mexican army batters the beast with tanks and gunfire, Hank manages to finish it off by using an electric cable attached to a spear, of which he somehow was able to thrust into the scorpion’s throat, it’s only vulnerable spot. Finally, electrocuted, the monster is slain.

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As the scorpion lays there, smoldering, Hank begins to walk away. Artur and Velasco beacons him to stop so that they can conduct research on the creature. And, I shit you not, in more or less words, Hank takes the voluptuous Teresa across her hips and smiles, “I’ve got my own research to do,” or something like that, and the two rush away for what we assume to be…well…you know, while the remaining cast and crew grin in that stupid way people did back in the day when something funny was said.

Ugh!

Okay, my tone is probably giving away more of my feeling of the film then needs warranting. And yes, mentioning again the fantastic work of special effects master Willis O’Brien, and how the scorpions on screen really were disturbing, especially that scene with the phone repair men, truly horrifying. The rest of the movie though seemed short on talent. I’m not saying it was the fault of the actors, most were really good, despite laughing to myself as it seems a habit of Hollywood to cast Anglo-American in roles that ought to belong to someone else. Also, the use of the ringing effect with the scorpions was (lets no dance around it) a total rip off of Them! Not to mention the whole idea of a prehistoric species surviving and returning to present day is very reminiscent of The Gillman movies.

The upside to all these failings eventually lead the movie to being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the early 1990s. So…there’s that. Overall, The Black Scorpion is mildly entertaining. Not the best of what the ‘50s had to offer in sci-fi; not the worst either.

My Rating: 3/5  

Tommy_Bride

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. His new series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.