Anyone who knows me understands that my chosen forms of entertainment usually involve the macabre. I recently wrote a post for my official web site that described where the fascination with horror came from. It was a made for TV movie starring Jack Palance as Dracula. The first time I saw it I was four years old. I watched it for the first time in 45 years and found it to be surprisingly good.
Horror movies get a bad rap. Critics usually don’t care for them much and I never let a critic or lack of Academy Award recognition keep me from watching a horror film. I do have an eclectic palette when it comes to my horror films and I have found it necessary to expand the definition.
I started this countdown several years ago as a Facebook thing and brought it to my blog in 2015. It has been awhile since I updated the list. Several new films appear on the list and several didn’t make the, ahem, cut. Remember, these are my favorite horror films, not the “best.”
In the 1930s, prior to select showings of the titular Frankenstein, actor Edward Van Sloan would give a bit of a speech to the audience. I will borrow a line.
Mr. Jerry Knaak feels that it would be unkind to present this countdown without a word of friendly warning, “… I think it will thrill you, it may shock you, it might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to, uh, well, we warned you.”
So, without further ado, here are the first three films.
100. Horror of Dracula
Christopher Lee’s first outing as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing’s first turn as Van Helsing. I do love the Hammer horror films, but this is my least favorite of the Lee Dracula films. Not because of the performances. Both actors set new standards for both characters as Lee emerged from the shadows to put his own spin on the Prince of Darkness after Bela Lugosi had set the bar in 1931.
What I don’t like about this movie is the plot. It strays too far from the source material. Even Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931 didn’t adhere to Bram Stoker’s original novel.
Don’t get me wrong, it is stunning to see Dracula in technicolor for the first time and Lee is commanding as the Count, but even Lee himself longed to play the Transylvanian bloodsucker in all of Stoker’s glory and he never got the chance. The film stands on its own with Jimmy Sangster’s script but I would have liked to see a faithful adaptation for Lee’s first turn in the cape.
99. The Brides of Dracula
The follow up to Horror of Dracula didn’t even have Dracula in it. Peter Cushing reprised his role as Van Helsing, but Christopher Lee and Dracula are absent. Instead, David Peel takes a turn as Baron Meinster. The plot is absolutely ludicrous, but Hammer was trying to find their footing as a major player in the genre.
The ease with which the main character falls in love with and agrees to marry the vampire antagonist is laughable at best. But it is a Hammer vampire film and the cinematography and rich set design make it a very watchable film. Plenty of fangs and blood.
Once again, Jimmy Sangster et al penned the screenplay. Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher directed.
98. The Ritual
I have an affinity for horror films that focus on village superstition and folklore and I am not talking about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village either. The Old Ones, the Old Gods, ancient, prehistoric gods and monsters almost forgotten, make for great source material.
And every once in awhile, a film comes along that really surprises you. It’s better than you thought it was going to be, it flew under the radar, it was a Netflix release, something. The Ritual is one of those movies. A group of friends take a trip to the forest to memorialize a fallen comrade only to find something is stalking them, something inconceivable.
I need to watch it again, it probably should be much higher on this list.
This film is well-acted, well-written and beautifully shot. Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, David Bruckner directed.
So, join me each night for the next 31 days as I could down to Halloween. I’ll post three movies at a time.
When I first took up exercise and healthier eating and living five and half years ago, I started with walking. I tried to walk at least three miles per day but I got bored with it and lower leg injuries started to get me down. Four months in I turned to weight lifting as well.
A family friend who is an avid runner told me that I was going to catch the bug. I told her she was nuts. I enjoyed a nice bit of humble pie with a side of crow when I had to admit to her that she was right. I had caught the running bug. I started with my standard, pat distance of three miles. My dearest friend, who just happens to be a cross-country coach, and former cross-country teammate of mine, told me I better switch up distances and pace or else wasn’t going to get any better.
Over time, I gained an appreciation for running. It became therapy. It became an idea incubator for my fiction writing. It became a sanctuary. Me, my music and residence in my own head. I ran a few organized 5Ks and I was building up to bigger races.
When I hurt my back in 2015, one of the toughest parts of recovery after surgery was not being able to run. I busted my hump to be able to get back to it and even had a 5K to train for to keep me focused.
A 2014 run in England hatched an idea. Normally, I travel a lot for work, as I have chronicled in this space. So, my regular readers will recall that I set a goal to run in every city I visit. The first year, I missed a run in Detroit because of the flu, the second year, I missed a run in Denver because I had the flu, and last year I hit them all, including Mexico City for the second year in a row.
The last run of the year and of the travel schedule was in Los Angeles. After that I must have felt like I had accomplished something. I no longer had the fire or the energy to run. I washed my hands of it.
Now, I hadn’t become a marathoner, hell, I haven’t even tried a half yet. I never managed to run an organized 10K either. My longest run to date is eight miles in Baltimore. In five and a half years, I have logged nearly 1,400 miles walking and running using the Nike Running Club app. I know that mileage is some people’s one year total, but I’m pretty sure I have logged 1,398 more miles than a lot of people.
I tried to pick running back up in March. Back pain, fear of injury, cardio-vascular degradation because of lack of running, tight quads and a terrible pace kept me from getting back to it on a regular basis. My last run came along the beach in Carlsbad, Calif., during a vacation back in June. That was more “Jerry wants to run on the beach in Carlsbad” than “Jerry is running for exercise.”
But I suppose that has been the point all along, right? Enjoy it. Run in different places. Experience the world through a different lens. I had forgotten that.
After that run in Los Angeles, you could say I fell out of love with running. After today, I won’t say I have fallen for running again, but it was a good first date.
When you are a new author in the stable of a small, indie publishing house, a fair amount of the promotion and marketing for your books falls on you. That’s not a complaint, it’s just what is. Although there are many advantages to being traditionally published, promotional work is part of the author’s responsibilities. Building a brand and cultivating an audience are just part of it. I have crafted and sent press releases and media advisories, set up book signings, ordered bookmarks and postcards, written dozens upon dozens of social media posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and more.
As a digital media professional turned historian, I quite enjoy working with social media platforms. My podcast is fun, although I don’t produce episodes nearly often enough. Social media is also very visual. But, there are only so many posts of your book covers you can do.
I’ve traveled to some of the locations in my books and posted photos from those spots. Several readers have sent or posted selfies while reading the books. Folks have taken the books on vacation and taken photos of them in far-flung locations. I’ve interacted with the craft brewery whose beer inspired the title of the first book.
With Summer Reading season in full-swing, I have been encouraging readers to take a copy of The Dark Truth or The Dark Descent, either paperback or e-book, to the pool and read poolside. I thought a staged photo of the books by my pool would be fun and drive home the point.
As I was setting up up for the shot, a copy of The Dark Descent went tumbling into the pool. I knew it was going to happen. I watched it happen. It was in slow-motion. I fished the book out, moved the little table back fro the edge of the pool and re-staged the shot. It came out great. It’s amazing how much better the book stood on end while it was sopping wet.
Sorry, I know it’s been awhile since I penned a substantive Jerry Project blog. Life truly does get in the way sometimes. Between two book tours in support of my first two novels, working on the third, and the marketing that goes with all that, the day job and family life, the blog has fallen by the wayside a bit. I have gotten lazy with regard to memoirs and remembrances, content with just recycling previous posts about my parents on the anniversaries of their deaths and on special occasions such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
A thought occurred to me when my 11-year-old repeatedly asked for high-fives the other day. From the moment our children begin to interact with other human beings, one of the first things we teach them is the high-five. Meant as a greeting and also the exercise of some cognitive ability coupled with a motor skill, I’m sure it aids in some kind of early childhood development. The slapping of hands can evolve into a fist-bump perhaps, but it inevitably leads to learning a traditional handshake.
I like a good, strong, firm handshake. I can’t stand dead fish handshakes. Have you ever gotten one of those from someone? I think I’d rather hold a fish. The whole hand, firm grip, good squeeze. I like strong, whole-hand handshakes from women too, not the dainty finger grab. Is that weird?
The handshake was once meant to indicate to people meeting for the first time that their hands were empty. That’s to say they were unarmed. Over time it has come to signify many different things – a greeting between friends, a means of introduction, congratulations, or that a deal has been struck.
We Americans have become a society of high-fivers. We do it to celebrate a great play made by our favorite sports team, we do it when our friend agrees with us or we are passionately like-minded on a subject, and sometimes as a means to give respect for a quip or a zinger. The “bro hug” often takes the place of a traditional handshake with mini-chest bump added in for affectionate effect.
Did Los Angeles Dodger Glenn Burke really invent the up-top hand slap in 1977? The up-top back-around to low-five was popularized (for a minute) by the movie Top Gun. There’s the two-handed high-five, and then there’s the traditional low-five which was more common in the 1970s.
But this isn’t mean to be a history lesson on the handshake or the high-five.
My father, the late John Knaak, didn’t give credence to any of it. Oh, I don’t think he minded seeing it on the sports field or court. (We did joke about athletes’ propensity to slap each other on the ass after a great play.) He just didn’t care for it in life.
You see, you had to earn my father’s handshake. It was important. It meant something. Even when he met new people he gave it reluctantly. I think I saw him shake his friend Jim’s hand once and that was after Jim had come over to fix our furnace. He’d just as soon have you call him “Jack” before he gave you his hand.
My father died in February 2007 at age 71, four months shy of my 37th birthday. In the 36+ years I knew him and had him in my life, my father shook my hand exactly THREE times and I remember each one vividly.
I was 15 or 16 the first time. I was a pitcher for my little league team in the Northwest Youth Athletic Association, which played its games at what is now known as Paul Bianchi Park at the corner of Emerson and Glide streets in Rochester, N.Y. I was the starting pitcher in an all-star game. I was a wisp of a thing at the time. I was a good pitcher that year, I struck out a season-high 16 batters in one game, and I averaged 11 strikeouts an appearance. My high school coaches never fancied me a pitcher, so summer league is where I had the opportunity.
Admittedly, I didn’t have my best stuff in this all-star game. My fastball had no zip and I was hanging curveballs like they were paintings. Even my knuckleball wouldn’t dance. My fastball never had much velocity, but on this day, my normally live arm was anything but. However, I scratched and clawed and scuffled and kept the game close. We were up 4-2 late in the game and a couple of defensive errors put two men on. The go-ahead run came to the plate, the clean-up hitter, the guy I had trouble with all day. I threw everything at this guy, even a KY ball, but he kept fouling pitches off. Eventually, I made a mistake and hung a curve ball out over the heart of the plate. I don’t think it’s come down yet. The three-run home run gave them a 5-4 lead and was the difference in the game. Although I should have been out of the inning, I still felt like I could have salvaged it by getting this guy out.
Inexplicably my father greeted me behind the backstop after the game and shook my hand. I said something to the effect of, “but I lost. I just didn’t have it today.” He responded with something like, “but you battled, you didn’t give up. You fought hard.”
You see, dad was a high school legend at Scottsville High. Soccer, baseball and basketball – he had a page dedicated to him in his high school yearbook. He played college basketball. I never lived up to his standard as an athlete. I always managed to make the team, but I was never good enough to start. I was a bench warmer most of the time, I played CYO basketball for the playing time, and I gave up on Pop Warner football after two years. For him to shake my hand in this instance really meant something.
The second time he shook my hand was upon my gradation from Edison Technical and Occupational Education Center – fancy name for Edison Tech high school. In June of 1987, I graduated 15th in my class of 300, was already a member of the National Honor Society and earned the Presidential Academic Fitness Award. Also, I was already enlisted in the United States Navy’s delayed entry program. I had played basketball and baseball, and ran cross country. I was involved in student government.
After walking across the stage, collecting my diploma and exiting the George Eastman Theater, my father shook my hand. This one I understood, I had accomplished something. High school wasn’t exactly an easy time for me, but a lot of kids could say that. And considering the events of the past few years, there are thousands of kids who have had it way worse than I ever did.
A lot of good came of that time as well. I did graduate, I was accepted to the two colleges I applied to (even though I didn’t go), I eventually developed my musical taste (which has stuck with me for life) and I met my best friend, who is still that to this day.
The third time came in 1991. I had just returned from Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm aboard the USS Saratoga (CV 60). I had told my parents I didn’t want any fanfare when I landed at the Rochester International Airport. I told them to just pick me up. They didn’t listen. I didn’t feel like I had done anything during the Gulf War. I ran my squadron’s tool control program. Yes, I was a trained flight deck troubleshooter as an aviation electronics technician, but for whatever reason, I was given the tool control job. I can’t say it wasn’t important, there were major safety concerns when it came to tools and the techs and mechanics couldn’t do their jobs if they weren’t properly equipped.
But I didn’t fight. I didn’t shoot at anyone. I wasn’t shot at. Sure, there were those occasions when we had to wear gas masks on our hips when intelligence thought Saddam Hussein’s forces might launch a SCUD missile at our ship. And yes, we had a member of our squadron taken prisoner after his F-14 Tomcat was shot down. And yes, a member of the attack squadron next door was also taken prisoner after his A-6 Intruder was downed. But for the most part, I watched the war on television like everybody else.
My cousin Debbie had joined a support group of some kind if I recall, and one of our neighbors, who was a teacher (again, if I recall), had sent a ton of letters from her students. I was greeted by a throng of people at the airport. There were balloons and signs and hugs.
And a handshake from my father.
I guess it was because I had survived a deployment aboard an aircraft carrier in a combat zone. Maybe he was just happy to see me after eight months. Whatever the reason, he did it and it was the last time.
My father wasn’t what you would call an affectionate man. Oh, he wasn’t one of those men who are incapable of showing physical love, he was just choosy about how he did it. He never denied me a hug when I asked for one and I have fond memories of sitting with him watching football, basketball and baseball games on TV. He was even known to snuggle with my mother on the couch while watching movies.
But that handshake, that meant something. That was important. It wasn’t given often or lightly and if you were fortunate to get one from John Knaak, well, you must have earned it. And that places you in elite company.
On the eve of SF Comic Con at the Oakland Convention Center, fellow panelists and Trifecta Publishing House labelmates Mark London Williams and Samantha Heuwagen joined me for adult beverages and conversation at Sláinte in Jack London Square. We had a wonderful time at this literature-inspired Irish pub in the heart of the neighborhood named for Oakland’s native son and world-renown author, Jack London. Mark and I knew we had found a home for our occasional grub and libation get-togethers when we saw the portrait of Oscar Wilde on the wall during our first visit.
New sci-fi author Samantha Heuwagen makes her second appearance on the Get the Knaak podcast. We dive into the motivations and themes behind her debut novel, Dawn Among the Stars, which is due out May 21. You can pre-order the Kindle or e-book version now.
As much as I like to say that it is not a substitute for actual research, Google is a wonderful thing for all kinds of things. Maps, satellite and street view have been especially helpful to me as I embark on this new vocation as a novelist. However, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned location scouting.
Several people who have read my debut novel, The Dark Truth, have asked about my settings and locations. The story is set in modern-day San Francisco and many of the sites are real. I have used Google maps extensively as I have plotted my characters movements. In truth, I have made up very few establishments and businesses. I think in two dimensions. This has always limited my graphic and artistic endeavors. I could never be a 3D animator. I’m not sure if I could ever be a world builder either. My favorite Stephen King stories take place in fictional towns, with fictional streets and houses, and such. I fly by the seat of my pants when I write fiction. This seems to require too much planning.
I make up businesses and whatnot when the plot or the story demands. The Dark Truth in The Dark Truth is a fictional dance club that I conjured on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco. However, 98 percent of the story takes place in the real, actual, physical world you can visit today.
In the SFGate photo gallery, I came across Sutro Baths. The photos were stunning and I decided to use this as the location for the climax of the story. If you can call looking at photos and Google satellite and street view “sight unseen,” I wrote the scene without actually visiting Sutro Baths.
This past weekend, I had the occasion to check it out and to be honest, I did pretty well in my descriptions and I was further convinced that I made the right choice for the scene. Now, I did miss some key details you can only observe by visiting. I may have to bring the story back to this spot. A hike along the Coastal Trail has me thinking about all kinds of delicious possibilities for the third book in the series, The Dark Terror.
A similar location scout, albeit ahead of time or in the middle of, helped me write several scenes in the second book, The Dark Descent. I did not plan on making Golden Gate Park a major location, but after a site visit, I couldn’t help but expand the park’s significance in the story. The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood also features prominently in The Dark Descent, and a location scout really helped me capture the flavor and claustrophobia of the area.
Bram Stoker wrote the Transylvania scenes for Dracula without visiting the region, rather relying on the equivalent of the venerable Fodor’s Travel Guide and travelers’ descriptions of the Carpathian Mountains and rural Romania for background material. By all accounts, Stoker did a pretty good job of describing his vampire’s ancestral home.
As good as modern tools are for research and inspiration, there is no substitute for actual location scouting and I will endeavor to do as much as possible as my career as a novelist continues.
Those of you who have read The Dark Truth can now see where the climax takes place and hopefully visualize and understand that scene, and hopefully agree with my choice.