Friday, October 24, 2014

Night of Terror #21: 'The Horror! The Horror!'

The Horror! The Horror! is a (little bit hackily-named) book of 1950s horror comics. When I bought in on sale a few months ago, I thought it was more of a collection of comics and covers than a commentary and history on the golden age of horror, but actually the fact that it turns out to be more of the latter and less of the former didn't really disappoint me since

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Night of Terror #20: 'Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories' - "Hole"

If you get right down to it, good horror stories are usually about taking the world we live in and accept as "normal" and distorting it by magnifying its dangers, but not so much that it's completely unrecognizable. In that context Tim & Eric have quite possibly been in the horror business from the get-go, but not until Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories have they made the connection between their brand of comedy and the horror genre quite so explicit.

I watched four episodes of Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories yesterday, and I'm selecting "Hole" as the one that's the most Halloween appropriate, although really any one of them would have done just as well. As far as that whole "distortion" theory goes, "Hole" takes the commonplace anxiety associated with social interaction with an overzealous stranger and takes it to first absurd then to terrifying places. The final shot might be the most disturbing thing I've seen this month, except maybe Bob Geldof shaving off his eyebrows and chest hair in The Wall.

Favorite things:

- Eric's hair. Tim & Eric are the masters of hair comedy, and this is a prime example. He's the straight man in this story, and his hair is wacky, while Tim the psycho's hair is pretty normal. Brilliant!

- Ridged chips.

- In this universe there's apparently a sports team called the "Fish." Or is there?

Night of Terror #19: 'The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein'

Project: Get Caught Up On 31 Nights of Terror As Quickly And Lazily As Possible Kicks Off Now!


Mad scientists used to be a crucial part of Halloween, but their favor has fallen in recent decades. Maybe it's because of the Science vs Religion culture war makes it not as much fun to watch evil scientists being taken down by God, or maybe the mad scientist just went too mainstream with Dexter's Lab and stuff like that. But I have an idea for bringing the mad scientist back in a form everyone can relate to - make him a good mad scientist, like Dr. Funkenstein.

Instead of trying to rule the world with an army of robot men or proving that evolution is real by mixing human and ape blood, Dr. Funkenstein just wants to free everyone's asses. Dr. Funkenstein is basically an enemy to everything in the world that's boring, dull, unimaginative, restrictive, and repressive. But, seeing as he's "played" by P-Funk maestro George Clinton, he's also truly insane. Even though he's a benign mad scientist, he probably gives your more famous evil mad scientists a run for their money in the madness department. The bigger the headache, the bigger the pill.

I'm not sure who the "Clones" are in the classic 1976 Parliament album The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein are, maybe they're the other people in the band? But they seem to be having a good time. Good for them!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Night of Terror #18: 'Swamp Thing' by Brian K. Vaughan

Whoa, I'm like 3 days behind. This never used to happen with movies. Well, actually since it just turned to the 21st like two hours ago I'm really only 2 days behind. Anyway, Swamp Thing is kind of scary, right?

There are huge reeds of Swamp Thing mythology that I'm very hazy on despite my rock solid education of having blown through most of the Alan Moore run at a Barnes and Noble several years ago and watching the two movies from the 80s. So when I picked up the two collected editions of Brian K. Vaughan's (one of my very favorite people in comics, although I'm not a very voracious comics reader by any standard other than my mom's) run on Swamp Thing, I was a little disheartened to see a bunch of shit about "The Green," "Elementals," and a "Tree of Knowledge." I don't really go for that sort of thing, but I needn't have worried, because one of Vaughan's specialties is taking convoluted comic book hokum and turning into something with real-world vibrations, surrounding completely believable characters (in this case, Swamp Thing's daughter Tefe Holland and friends), primed for some good old-fashioned emotional investment.

He pulls that trick off here almost as well as he does in stuff like Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, series over which he obviously had more control. By the end of his run on Swamp Thing, it has the smell of abrupt cancellation all over it, and I'm particularly disturbed by the notion that somewhere in the DC Universe there's an insane genocidal Senator running around with his daughter under lock and key, never to be heard from again.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Night of Terror #17: 'Stations of the Nightmare'

As the protestors outside my window will not let me forget, I've slipped a couple days behind in the old October blog. One of the things I've learned in this no-movies experiment is that it's not just harder than it sounds to write about a different thing every day, but it's hard to find a different thing to write about every day. All of that will have to suffice for an explanation as to why I'm including Stations of the Nightmare by Philip Jose Farmer, even though (despite its title) it isn't really a work of horror.

Or is it? Here's the plot: A regular blue-collar guy named Paul Eyre is out hunting when he sees a strange craft flying through the air. He does what every right-thinking America would do in such a situation, and shoots it. Then this weird yellow-colored mercury-like stuff stars spewing out, and it changes Paul Eyre forever. He gets a new set of Incredible Powers, his mind begins to sharpen, and he becomes more considerate and empathic. Paul's evolution from closed-off regular guy to interstellar demigod is one of the best feats of writing I've ever seen from Farmer, who pulls of a neat trick of making both the huge changes in Paul and the ways Paul has remained the same equally revelatory (as always, I'll try to avoid spoilers here, particularly regarding the nature of Paul's powers, since the discovery of those is a big part of the fun of this book).

The two works I thought of the most as I read Stations of the Nightmare were Flowers for Algernon and The Fly, both of which are about people who gradually transform into something the rest of humanity can't understand. Unlike The Fly, though, the horror here is mostly psychological, especially as Paul reaches the conclusion that he simply isn't human anymore, and has to decide on how to act from there.

That's a stretch though, and Stations of the Nightmare is for the most part a straightforward scifi novel (it's very to-the-point by Farmer standards, too). But it wasn't just the title that provoked me to read the book in October - another cool feature of the edition I got is the very creepy black and white illustrations that pop up over the course of the story. They range from a dark, expressionistic shot of a hospital corridor to a two-page psychedelic freakout, and the flavor of the book is undoubtedly enhanced by them.

My only complaint is that the story's serialized roots are very obvious, with the plot being capped, recapped and rerecapped so many times I started to feel like I was reading some TV critic.Talk about horror.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Night of Terror #16: 'Haunted House' Pinball

Yesterday morning I was inexplicably awake at like 7 AM, which gave me the opportunity to get a lot of work done before I'd normally even be awake. In a rare instance of time well-managed, I utilized the extra time for a quick trip to Pinballz in order to find something spooky. As I suspected, there are a ton of Halloween-appropriate machines in the Pinballz arsenal, from Freddy - A Nightmare on Elm Street (apparently the designers of that one were worried that Freddy Krueger's face and the Nightmare on Elm Street title wouldn't clue players in sufficiently to the fact that this is, indeed, a Freddy Krueger pinball machine) to Elvira and Twilight Zone machines. But my favorite was an original property - Haunted House, which I'm pleased to find out is considered by connoisseurs to be a classic of the pinball form.

That pleasure comes from the fact that I had a really great time playing Haunted House, and it's always nice to have your good taste confirmed. The most striking feature of the machine is the cool subterranean level, which looked to me like an inverted reflection of what was actually physically going on under the machine. It's a disorienting experience whenever your ball ends up down there, similar to a "hall of mirrors" effect in a haunted house. Thematically appropriate, and very addictive.

What else can one say about a pinball machine? Flippers seemed to work well, sound effects and music (Toccata and Fugue in D minor) were loud and clear. Probably better than the Wayans movie with the same name.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Night of Terror #15: 'The Real Ghostbusters Soundtrack' by Tahiti

We're at just about the midpoint of our grand experiment in 31 Nights of Terror, which means it's time for another fabulous guest post. This one is from Ira "The King" Brooker. You can check out his (excellent) blog, that for some reason is updated throughout the year and not just every day for a single month, here. Here's Ira:

Of all the cultural detritus we slather with nostalgia, few maintain as massive an imbalance between audience affection and actual quality than do 1980s cartoons. From Foofur to Kissyfur, Silverhawks to Bravestarr, Flintstone Kids to Pink Panther and Sons, you’d be hard-pressed to find a platter of cheaply produced Reagan-era animation that doesn’t have at least a small internet cult dedicated to its preservation. But most of it is awful. Like, objectively, unwatchably awful. I say this as a lover of indefensible trash and a guy who’s voluntarily watched and enjoyed almost every Andy Milligan movie in existence: 1980s cartoons are the goddamned worst.

That makes it all the more special when one rises above the rabble. The Real Ghostbusters is one of those. I saw Ghostbusters in the theater when it first came out and dug it, but I was still a little too young to really grasp its nuances. I was a sheltered, devoutly religious kid with little awareness of ghosts, the occult or demon possession (My parents only took me to see it in a mistaken belief that it was a straight-up kids’ movie and were quite abashed on the way home from the show) and the parts of it that didn’t go over my head kind of freaked me out.

The cartoon adaptation, though, was right up my alley – a smart, well-written ensemble show that managed a delicate balance of comedy, action and legitimately creepy content. I never missed an episode after school. For a while there the cartoon version of Dr. Egon Spengler – the blonde, rat-tailed and less nebbishy incarnation of Harold Ramis voiced by the incomparable Maurice LaMarche – was second only to Han Solo on my roster of fictional heroes. While The Real Ghostbusters was far from an educational show, I actually learned a lot from it. Like the also excellent Ducktales, the show often worked historical, literary and cultural references into its storylines. Off the top of my head, I remember getting my first tastes of Salvador Dali, H.P. Lovecraft, Citizen Kane and Norse mythology while sitting down for my nightly Ghostbusters fix, not to mention any number of paranormal theories and philosophies.

And so when I stumbled upon a box set of Real Ghostbusters episodes for five bucks at my local Menards, of all places, there was no way that wasn’t coming home with me. I’m happy to say it holds up quite nicely, just as smart and spooky as I remembered it being. Sure, Slimer is as annoying as he ever was, and the writers’ attempts to channel the Bill Murray charm through Lorenzo Music’s Peter Venkman are unfortunate but overall it’s a show I can still watch for genuine enjoyment, not just nostalgia value. 

On this recent rewatch I picked up on a few things that hadn’t caught my attention when I was nine. Some of these were minor flaws, like the numerous crowd scenes that are clearly re-colored, recycled stock footage from some other Korean animation project. Some were minor triumphs, like the attempts at providing semi-plausible scientific explanations for the mechanisms and metaphysics of the Real Ghostbusters universe, evidence of a respect for juvenile intellects that was shared by precious few ‘80s cartoons. 

But the oddest thing I noticed was the soundtrack. The show opens with a truncated rendition of Ray Parker, Jr’s iconic movie theme, of course, but most episodes also feature an original ‘80s pop-funk track, usually used as a backdrop for action sequences or montages. At first I assumed they were cheapie tunes recorded specifically as background filler for low-budget productions - the type of thing we used to score our projects in my high school TV production class - but when I paid closer attention I realized that the lyrics were often directly related to the themes of the episode. It became evident that these were songs written specifically as an episode-by-episode soundtrack to The Real Ghostbusters. That suggested a level of care even beyond the aforementioned stabs at scientific legitimacy. This was unheard of in the quick-buck world of 1980s animation.

As is my usual practice whenever I encounter a bit of fascinating minutia, I immediately tweeted a mildly snarky observation about the Ghostbusters song phenomenon. Within the hour, I was surprised to receive a response from a Ghostbusters archivist, complete with a link to the official Real Ghostbusters soundtrack album. Turns out the songs are all by the same group, a pop duo known as Tahiti, otherwise known as vocalists Tyren Perry and Tonya Townsend. Think about that: in the 1980s, being the house band for The Real Ghostbusters was a job that existed. Not only did Tahiti record songs for the show, ten of those tracks were compiled as an album and released commercially. My best guess was that the producers hoped to recapture some of the bottled lightning that made the Ray Parker song a massive hit. That didn’t happen, but the soundtrack is still plenty worthy of exploration.

Tahiti’s sound is very much in keeping with their decade, a bouncy, pop-R&B style heavy on drum machines and synth hits. Only a few of the album’s ten tracks are lyrically tied to their respective episodes, although the songwriting is generally broad enough that almost all could qualify for radio play. Even something explicitly character-themed like “The Boogieman” (named for one of The Real Ghostbusters’ most traumatizing big-bads, a hoofed ghoul with a gigantic joker head who specialized in terrifying defenseless children in their bedrooms) could have conceivably charted in the era of “Thriller” and “Ghostbusters.” “Mr. Sandman,” on the other hand, uses one of the show’s villains as a muse for a mild love ballad about the guy of your dreams. Other tunes, like the vaguely Prince-ish “Movie Star” or the power ballad “Remember Home” (yes, there were power ballads on The Real Ghostbusters) have less to do with ghosts but stand on their own as solid slices of ‘80s R&B production.

As a matter of fact, maybe the most surprising thing about the Real Ghostbusters soundtrack is how seldom it crosses over into goofiness, and how much more fun it gets when it does. My personal favorite track is probably “Midnight Action,” sort of an updated “Monster Mash” about a spooky late night dance party attended by Frankenstein, witches, “Slimy” (sic) and their monstrous pals. It even features a ghostbusting-themed rap break near the end. I’m also quite fond of the closing cut, “Hometown Hero,” a well-produced number that works just as well as a single as it does as a thematic complement to the show. It also boasts a brief guitar solo by special guest Ray Parker, Jr. complete with Tahiti  reverently chanting his name. I’m not going to say The Real Ghostbusters soundtrack is a lost classic of ‘80s pop, but it’s a fun little album that’s a considerable improvement on most shoddy TV tie-ins of the era (looking your way, The Simpsons Sing the Blues and Coming Out of Their Shells). If nothing else, it’s an indicator of how much care and craftsmanship went into its source material. My time curled up in front of my parents’ old tube TV may not have all been especially well spent - I could sing you the theme songs for Camp Candy and Gummi Bears as proof of that - but it’s at least comforting to know that a few of the objects glittering in the back of my memory really are gold.