My Newspaper Odyssey

IMG_3843Holy neglected blog, Batman! As I am fond of saying, life really does get in the way. I just realized that I haven’t blogged since February. Yikes.

As everyone who knows me can attest, I can be a bit, well, nostalgic. I get paid to live in the past in my profession as a historian. That’s not to say I don’t have knowledge and appreciation for technology, especially online news delivery. I was a digital media director for more than 15 years. That being written, I have a story to share.

My late father read the newspaper religiously every day. He read it back-to-front, front-to-back, cover-to-cover, every damn day. The only things I think he skipped were the Jumble, the advice columns, the Bridge tutorials, and the crossword puzzle. My hometown of Rochester, N.Y., had a morning paper (Democrat & Chronicle) and an evening paper (Times-Union). My dad read at least one. I don’t recall which he subscribed to. You couldn’t get his attention, he wouldn’t play ball or help with my homework, until he finished reading the paper.

Perhaps it represents a connection with my dear departed dad, maybe I like the way the paper is organized or the feeling of newsprint between my fingertips, or maybe I just like the funny papers, but I have been getting a Sunday paper delivered to my house ever since we purchased it in 2008. (As I write this, I have asked Alexa for a selection of jazz. My father often listened to jazz records while he read the paper).

I have a Sunday ritual. I get up, make my way downstairs, plop down on the couch with a cup of coffee and argue with the wife over when to fire up CBS Sunday Morning from the DVR while she makes breakfast. After CBS Sunday Morning’s “Moment of Nature,” I open the front door and walk out to the driveway a la Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. I pick up the Sunday paper and survey all that I can survey. A sly grin usually curls my lips as I think about the suburbanite existence, the normality of Sunday morning in my neighborhood. The pull-cough-start of lawnmowers, birds chirping, the sun slowly warming the air, my bare feet cold and wet from the dew on the usually fresh cut grass.

I read the paper pretty much cover-to-cover, starting with the comics.

Earlier this year, regular delivery of the East Bay Times became spotty at best. Finally, at its worst, I got one paper in a five-week span. Now, I get the local town paper for free every Friday and it is pretty serviceable, but it doesn’t have a Sunday edition with the inserts and coverage that a bigger paper has. After numerous unresolved complaints and the requisite begging from the circulation department, I cancelled the subscription. Unsure what to do, I decided to wait and evaluate the other options in the area before starting a new subscription.

Before I could, my wife and mother-in-law ventured into San Francisco on a Saturday to pick up their race packets for Bay to Breakers. The whole family was supposed to go, but the weather was awful and I didn’t feel well. While at the expo, I got a message from my wife. The San Francisco Chronicle was having a subscription drive and was offering a deal. Daily digital plus a physical Sunday paper. The price was right and I said, “let’s do it.”

That was May 18.

Every Sunday since I have made my trek to the driveway only to be disappointed, disheartened even. What the hell do I have to do to get a freakin’ Sunday paper around here?!?! I finally gave up. My wife has been complaining for weeks and I had taken to holding the local town paper until Sunday to read it. Blah. Credits have been promised and I have been contemplating cancelling this subscription too. The daily e-mails are great, the digital edition of the paper is a marvel – it’s organized and reads just like the physical edition.

But it’s not the same.

This past Sunday, I had the occasion to go check the mail. Our mailbox is part of one of those community contraptions with eight other compartments and it’s across the street. My wife quipped, “I wonder if we got a paper.” I chuckled and mumbled to myself as I opened the front door and made that walk to the driveway. A walk I had made hundreds of times before. And what should my wondering eyes behold? Not one newspaper, but TWO copies of the San Francisco Chronicle for Sunday, July 21, 2019. One was in plastic wrap and the other was loose. I scooped them up in my arms and giggled and cackled all the way to the mailbox and back.

When I walked into the house with my arms full of mail and newsprint, I proclaimed, “YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT WE GOT!” When I showed my 12-year-old, the incredulous look on his face spoke volumes and all he could do is put a finger to his temple and walk away.

Although my routine this week was tossed out the window by the time I got the paper(s), I read the Chronicle cover-to-cover reveling in my nostalgia and rubbing the newsprint between my fingers. I didn’t even bother to wash the transferred ink off my fingertips when I was done. I felt good, I felt right.

As I’ve gotten older, I just turned 50 recently, I have learned to appreciate small things, comfortable things, older things, pieces of my childhood, connections to bygone eras – a good glass of Scotch, jazz, reading a real book, the feel of a newspaper in my hands.

I bridge two worlds having been born in 1969, my breadth of pop culture knowledge spans six decades. So, I know analog and I know digital. I have a record player, a cassette deck, a DVD player, Smart TVs and several Alexa units. Since the age of 30, I have been a digital native. I love the Internet, I think it’s one of the greatest inventions of all-time. With some things, I’d never go back, but sometimes, modern technology can’t compare with the way things used to be.

Every so often you see one of those articles online about what kids today wouldn’t recognize – VCRs, VHS tapes, old video game cartridges, cassette tapes – I just hope newspapers don’t become one of those things. Who knows what I’ll find in the driveway this Sunday? There might be seven weeks of back issues or maybe this week’s snail races. I guess we’ll see, won’t we?

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Another Step Along the Way

dark-terror-book-mock.jpgI usually try to keep this blog and my novel writing endeavors separate but there always seems to be some crossover. The book creation process has so many milestones and touch points and I never seem to grow tired of them. Maybe it’ll wear off some day, but that day is not today. My latest novel, The Dark Terror, just went out for pre-order.

Let me break it down for you, at least the way I have done it.

Step 1: Write the story. I am what is commonly referred to as a “pantser.” I fly by the seat of my pants. Meaning, I don’t plot and I don’t outline. When I started The Dark Truth in 2016, I had a character and a premise in mind. It just went from there. Not outlining or using a complicated novel writing application like Scrivener did lead to some continuity errors, however.

Step 2: Editing. Lots and lots of editing. Not so much with the story, more spelling and grammar. As much as I’d like to say I have command of the English language I do still have trouble with sentence structure, word usage/choice and of course, spelling and grammar. Writing is a discipline. If you can’t spell, if you don’t know basic grammar and if you have no concept of sentence structure, then what are you doing? Funny, I can always tell the writing sessions when I had a few too many adult beverages, that’s where all the damn typos are.

22237098_10212510335852055_114300165_nStep 3: Query. I got lucky. I got a contract offer from a publisher on my first go-round. No rejections. I just had to agree to make some revisions. They weren’t unreasonable, so I added some things and re-wrote a few others and voila. You get your release date in your contract or shortly thereafter. In my case, we were able to release the first book early. Press releases go out and, once you have a release date, e-mails to bookstores for book signings go out.

Step 4: More editing.

Step 5: Cover design. This is fun. This is when it gets real. You start to see what the finished product is going to look like.

Step 6. Pre-Sale. Several weeks before publish day, the book goes up for pre-order. That’s where we are with my third book right now. The Dark Terror is now available for pre-order. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the prep work that went into getting ready for this stage with the creation of a brand and a social media presence. Hopefully there have been a few interviews here and there, blogs, podcasts, radio and TV and other outlets. I’ve been lucky that way. More press releases and media advisories go out to promote what hopefully is now a book tour.

Step 7. Author copies arrive. I am anxiously awaiting my copies of The Dark Terror, which should arrive sometime this coming week. This is the moment I relish. When I first received the book of copies of The Dark Truth, I lost my mind. My words, printed, in a book. Sweet, sweet nectar, and I’m not talking about the Scotch I drink when the box arrives.

IMG_3227.PNGStep 8. Publish day. Wooohooo! Readers start getting copies of the book they pre-ordered. This is a day that is also celebrated with a dram of good Scotch. My publisher, Trifecta Publishing House, and I have hosted online Facebook parties to celebrate my book launches.

Step 9. Marketing. Lots and lots of marketing. Book signings, social media posts, paid social ads, more press releases and media advisories. Full court press on getting the word out. I am a regular Vistaprint customer. Nothing makes me feel more like a rock star than a book signing, I can tell you that.

How long does all of this take you might ask? Good question. It took 13 months to write The Dark Truth. I finished in February 2017. The book was released in November 2017. I think it took roughly six-seven months to write The Dark Descent and it was published in April of 2018. My deadline was New Year’s Day. The Dark Terror took nine months to write, my deadline was the end of October 2018, I beat it by three weeks, and the book is due out March 18. In just over three years, I have written and had three novels (and two audiobook versions) published. I didn’t even mention the production that went into those audiobooks.

Not too bad for a guy with a day job and a hefty commute.

Check out my official web site, www.jerryknaak.com, for more information about the books and how to get them.

I’m Actually From this Planet

I have spent my first 49 1/2 years on this planet oblivious of my ethnicity. When I look in the mirror some things are self-evident. I am Caucasian, I have hazel-brown eyes and up until 20 years ago, I had brown hair. You might say I am an average white guy. However, unlike just about everyone else I know, I was unable to tell you where my ancestors originated. I couldn’t say, “Hey, I’m Italian,” or, “I’m Greek,” if anyone asked my heritage or ethnicity. All I could say was, “I have no idea.”

Why? I’m glad you asked. I was adopted when I was three days old. All my parents told me was that my biological mother was a single school teacher and couldn’t afford to keep me. Fair enough. I was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, but grew up in western New York. I never really wanted to pursue my biological family because I thought it would be an insult to my parents. The topic particularly upset my mother, who always felt that maybe I thought she wasn’t good enough (this couldn’t be farther from the truth). Pennsylvania is one of the few states that hasn’t loosened privacy restrictions when it comes to adopted kids looking for their biological parents.

Today, Erie’s 100,000 residents are a hodgepodge of every ancestry under the sun from German to Yugoslavian. No Scotch-Romanian however.

It has been more than a decade since my folks passed away, so I don’t feel like it is disrespectful to go hunting for blood relatives at this point. Many people have encouraged me to. I have some paperwork in my possession that I could start that would get my foot in the door with Pennsylvania’s record keepers but I am not quite there.

I have always wondered about my ethnicity. What am I, really? In today’s charged political climate and the hot debate about immigration, I have thirsted for this information because I don’t believe that being “white” is a thing. There is no heritage or culture in just being white. We all came from somewhere else. We are all immigrants. The only people in America who aren’t immigrants are Native Americans. Everyone else either came from Asia, Europe, Africa, or hell, even Australia. I’m no anthropologist but I find all of this fascinating. As Americans, we have developed our own unique culture, especially when it comes to regional traditions and language, but we haven’t been a country for all that long. But just being white? That’s not a thing.

So, what I am I? Who are my people?

My wife actually had the thought that maybe, just maybe, my dad was my biological father. We can’t find my adoption records. What we have found doesn’t make any sense.

Within the last 10 years, I have become the keeper on my family tree. I stood on the shoulders of one of my cousins and filled in the blanks after she and her father did the bulk of it. My father’s ancestors, the Knaaks, are very German. My great grandparents left Germany in 1900 and came through Ellis Island. I have traced the Knaaks back to 1803 or so, I know where they lived, Mecklenberg-Schwerin, I know they were Lutheran, and I know what parish they belonged to. My mother was Korean. Her family and ancestors are nothing but Korean (as far as I know).

My wife got me a 23 and Me ancestry kit for Christmas. A few days later I cracked it open, followed the instructions, and sent my spit off into the great beyond. About a month later I received an email indicating my reports were ready. I only had a few minutes before I had to rush out the door to work but I pulled up enough info to proclaim to the house that I am … wait for it … here it comes … not German … not Korean …

British/Irish with Scottish and Irish Ancestry

 

When you dive into the reports, within the last 200 years, 23 and Me points to London as the strongest concentration of my ancestors; 8 million people live in London today. Mixed in with the list of points of origin for my United Kingdom ancestors – Glasgow City, Scotland, and Belfast, Northern Ireland. My more recent Irish ancestors most likely hailed from County Cork in southern Ireland. Although the breakdown says French/German for No. 2 on the list, the Netherlands (north Holland) is a strong contender for likely ancestors. Apparently what was considered French is greater than I knew. Germany is barely a blip on the report.

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Facial reconstruction of my maternal Scottish ancestor from Achavanich, HIghland, Scotland. Copyright © Hew Morrison

23 and Me offers plenty of rabbit holes for you to dive into and perhaps the two that I find the most intriguing take me back a few thousand years. They can tell you about ancestors through paternal and maternal “haplogroups.” Apparently, I have a maternal ancestor scientists have dubbed “Ava,” who lived more than 4,200 years ago in Achavanich, Highland, Scotland. The paternal haplogroup points to ancestors who were part of the Uí Néill dynasty in northern Ireland, who also spread to northern Scotland.

This information certainly helps me make some sense of a few things.

I have always been fond of Scotch (Highland in particular) and Irish whisky (of course there is a Jameson distillery in County Cork), and gravitate to darker beers – porters, stouts (I love Guiness, and I named my first novel after an Imperial stout). I don’t know if it has anything to do with my taste in food.

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I guess there was a deeper reason why I enjoyed London.

I felt very comfortable walking the streets of London when I visited in 2014. I love books and pubs. I could live in an Irish or English pub. I’m drawn to the sea, I have a year of my life underway – Ava was discovered just west of Scotland’s northeastern shore on the North Sea. I enjoy dreary, rainy, foggy weather (I just hate being out in it).

 

I have always been fond of James Bond films, almost obsessively so, Bram Stoker’s Dracula had a profound affect on me. Stoker was Irish. I love the works of Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron. I adore Hammer Horror films – the aesthetic especially. I enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories and shows like Ripper Street. Boring period movies and TV series set in the Edwardian or Victorian eras don’t do much for me. Much of my favorite pop/rock music originates from England and Ireland. It’s possible I had ancestors in the last 200 years from Manchester, where my favorite band – New Order – hails from.  More likely, some of my forebears came from Merseyside where Liverpool is. I enjoy quite a bit of music that originated there. Everyone knows I am a fan of The Pogues, who hail from London.

Maybe my British/Irish heritage has nothing to do with my tastes at all. Maybe it has everything to do with them.

Bringing this full circle, I am very American. I love American things. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, cheeseburgers, amusement parks, all that – I am a patriot, I served my country. But I am not a wave-my-flag-in-your-face kind of patriot. I don’t believe in forced patriotism. I don’t run around telling everyone that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. I am not naive or blind to the horrible things we’ve done as a country, as a people, in the last 245 years or so. However, I know the great things we’ve done as well. I believe in the American dream and realize that it is different for everyone. It is especially relevant for the immigrants who have helped make our country great, those who have contributed to our scientific advances and our national security interests, those who have brought their culture to our shores and shared it and enriched our neighborhoods and communities with their language and song and dance and art and literature.

In my day job, I have become a professional historian and have been one for the past year and a half. In that position, I am like a dog with a bone with my research. I have been that way with the Knaak family tree. I am nowhere near done with that. I’ve just hit a temporary roadblock. I have no doubt that I will dive into what 23 and Me has revealed about me through my DNA. I will embrace my heritage, culture, and history, celebrate it and learn it. I now have reasons to study the history of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands and even Charlemagne and the Franks.

I’m not a fan of the royals, I think the colonies were right to rebel against England in the American revolution, British colonialism hurt more than it helped – but the history is fascinating and it is history that helped forge and shape the modern world as we know it today.

I now know what I’m not. I’m not German. But I finally know what I am. I am British and Irish with northern Scottish and Irish ancestry. I am also an American. But you know what? I am still a Knaak. And I always will be and I am proud to be.

I don’t think I’ll be trying haggis any time soon, I will always prefer American football (I might be talked into picking and following a favorite soccer team), I doubt I’ll learn Gaelic, but I may be convinced to wear a kilt.

Just remember, if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap.

 

An Evening with Bruce Campbell

First of all, let me get a little housekeeping out of the way. Please accept my humble apologies for not finishing the latest iteration of the countdown of my 100 favorite horror movies. I promise I’ll get to it. I was on deadline for my latest novel, and well, as they say, life got in the way. However, one of the films on that list is the reason for this post.

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The iconic Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

In 1987, I was on the verge of graduating high school and enlisting in the United States Navy. I had developed a friendship with a kindred spirit who liked some of the same horror novels and many of the same films that I enjoy. Our hometown of Rochester, N.Y., had a thriving midnight movie culture and we took them in on the the regular. These were not first run films mind you, not all of the them anyway.

Jean-Paul and I saw H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond and Re-Animator, Heavy Metal, Rocky Horror Picture Show and countless schlock “B” movies. Many times we were two of six movie goers in the theater, a few times we were the only two.

Evil Dead was released in 1981. We saw it as a midnight movie. What was intended to be a shocking gore fest and legitimate horror film had us rolling in the aisles. Then, in 1987, came Evil Dead 2. This second film plays more like a remake than a sequel and is closer to comedy than true horror. Buckets of blood are splashed across the screen, limbs are severed, and plenty of cheesy dialogue is spoken.

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Bruce Campbell introduces Evil Dead 2.

In what has become an iconic scene, the main character – Ash Williams played by Bruce Campbell – takes part in a typical gear up for battle scene. When he is ready to fight the evil with his new arsenal, which consists of a sawed off shotgun and a chainsaw, Campbell dead pans, “Groovy.”

Jean-Paul and I were stunned by the dialogue in this film, we couldn’t believe the lines Campbell was given. Cheesy was the only way we could describe it. Campbell taunted the demons possessing the living. This only got worse (or better depending on your perspective) in Army of Darkness in 1992 with lines like “Come get some,” “Gimme some sugar, baby,” and of course, “Hail to the King, baby.” Cheese yes, but part of the charm certainly, and one of the reasons why I love the films.

If I had to pick a year that forged our friendship, 1987 had to be it. Jean-Paul and I went to several concerts, I fixed my wardrobe and developed my musical tastes, and we bonded over our shared love of horror literature and films. Despite a gap in contact, and now a continent between us, we remain as close as we can be.

Last night, I attended “Who’s Laughing Now?” with Bruce Campbell at the iconic Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Campbell introduced a screening of Evil Dead 2 and then participated in a Q&A after the film. Sitting in a packed theater whose patrons cheered as if their team just won the championship when Campbell delivers, “Groovy,” was one of the highlights of the night.

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My view of Evil Dead 2.

Campbell was as funny, witty, and sharp-tongued as any stand-up comedian I’ve ever seen or heard. He regaled the audience of tales of the making of the Evil Dead films and the Ash vs the Evil Dead TV series and his place and turn in show business. It was a pleasure listening to him. I only wish Jean-Paul could have found his way out to California and experienced it with me.

It was a fun night. I put in for a beer at at the Twin Peaks Tavern before the show after taking BART and the Metro to get to the Castro District. I’ve lived in California for almost 19 years and this is the first time I have ever made it to that neighborhood or gone to that theater.

I’ve seen Campbell, a lifelong friend and co-conspirator of director Sam Raimi’s, in Raimi’s Spider-Man films, I’ve watched him in Bubba Ho-Tep, My Name is Bruce, Alien Apocalypse and a few other things. But with Ash Williams, he has created an iconic cult hero who I quote frequently. I use the word “groovy” in my vernacular because of him. I got tired of saying “cool.” “Groovy” means something to me.

More importantly, I bonded with my best friend over Campbell’s films and for that I am eternally grateful.

Naked. Space. Vampires.

The headline should tell you all you need to know. But for those of you out there reading this who don’t know me personally, vampires are kinda my thing. I love vampire fiction, I love vampire movies, I write vampire books. I can’t tell you how many vampire films grace this list. Maybe I should count them. The last entry in the series covered vampire movies from Hammer Films. Tonight, I offer something completely different.

MV5BMTU4MTMxOTQyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzU1NDk0NA@@._V1_59. Lifeforce
1985

Steve Railsback stars as an astronaut who brings back three naked space vampires, two male and one females. Directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, this film combines science fiction and horror in a way not seen before or since. Mathilda May plays the leader of the trio of deep space bloodsuckers. Okay, well, they don’t drink blood, they drain the “life force” of their victims. Same difference.

Patrick Stewart also stars as scientists and government officials try to discern the invaders’ end game and try to stave off a global apocalypse.

May, who was all of 20 years old when this was released, and her compatriots are inexplicably nude throughout most the film. This seems to distract the authorities and May is able to mesmerize Railsback’s character. Loud, different, stylish and influential, Lifeforce is much more than naked space vampires running around London. But who really cares?

MV5BMjEwMTE5MDY5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjY0ODM3Mg@@._V1_58. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
1931

This was a big year for horror on the big screen as Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein captivated audiences. At the same time, Frederic March was bringing Robert Louis Stevenson’s creation to life thanks to Paramount. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and also starring Miriam Hopkins, this movie stays acceptably close to the source material. Countless attempts have been made over the years to adapt this story to the cinema with varying degrees of success and twists and takes. I believe this is the best of the batch and it’s March’s transformation from mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll into the animalistic, almost demonic, Mr. Hyde that makes this go. One of the things I find interesting is how much science fiction is intertwined with Gothic horror.

One of the things in recent movies that drives me nuts is the portrayal of Mr. Hyde as some Incredible Hulk-type character, larger and stronger than normal human beings, with supernatural strength and muscles on top of muscles. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing are guilty of this. Hyde’s strength comes from his cruelty and rage, not physical size. He is repulsive and repugnant, yet indescribable.

I rarely read books more than once. Not that I am against it, it’s just that my to-be-read pile would give Jack’s beanstalk a run for its money. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the few novels/novellas I make an exception for.

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2007

I don’t know about you, but I like my vampires bloodthirsty. I like them homicidal. I like them violent. Anne Rice created the sympathetic, romantic vampire. Her books have sold millions of copies and have captivated readers for decades. I am a fan. And there is plenty of murder and mayhem in her stories. However, all manner of romantic vamps now fill the shelves of the “Teen Paranormal Romance” (yes, this is a thing) section of your local bookstore.

Left to my own devices, I prefer vampires more like the ones in 30 Days of Night. Based on the comic book/graphic novel series, a pack of vampires discovers it stays dark in Alaska for a whole month. The bloodsuckers descend on a small town and terrorize the local residents. Josh Hartnett plays the town’s sheriff who, along with his estranged wife (the regional fire inspector) and a small resistance band, try to prevent the extinction of their neighbors. And, oh yeah, try to survive themselves.

This is the first film featuring Josh Hartnett that I actually liked. Melissa George and her capped teeth play the estranged wife. Hollywood legend John Huston’s son Danny (American Horror Story) plays the leader of the vampires.

I like this because there is no pretense. You don’t feel for the vampires, you don’t sympathize or empathize with them. They are ruthless. They arrive in this town for one reason – the human blood smorgasbord. They are cruel and they don’t give a damn. Just stay away from the horrendous direct-to-video sequel. George is replaced as Stella and Kiele Sanchez just doesn’t fly in the role.

MV5BZmI1ODg4MjYtY2U4NS00NTRlLWJlMDEtYjY2YzJkNWVhMDdiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,641,1000_AL_56. Prince of Darkness
1987

Do you have Satan in a can? Well, you better let him out. Har-dee-har-har. Devil concentrate is what we have here in this Donald Pleasence vehicle written and directed by John Carpenter.  A group of researchers investigate a mysterious canister that just happens to contain … Satan?

It may sound like a ludicrous premise, but the mix of science and religion and strong performances from Pleasence (as usual), Victor Wong, Dirk Blocker (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Lisa Blount, plus a cast of deranged, possessed vagrants, makes this a thoroughly creepy, watchable movie. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it’s worth it.

If you like John Carpenter and 1980s horror, this one is definitely worth your time.

 

 

Eight-Pack of Hammer Horror Films as the Countdown of My 100 Favorites Continues

I really hate it when life or fatigue get in the way of posting this countdown on a daily basis. Last night, I had the occasion to watch The Limehouse Golem with Bill Nighy and a film called The Apostle with Michael Sheen (Underworld franchise). Let’s just say although watchable, these two won’t be making the list.

In February 2017, I finished my first novel, The Dark Truth. I may have been influenced as a horror novelist more by the films of the genre than the literature. From the birth of horror cinema with Universal to the lush technicolor of Hammer Studios, these movies have formed the foundation of my storytelling and my taste in entertainment.

The countdown continues.

MV5BNzEwZWE3MGYtZDYzZi00MmFhLWE2ODktYWRlMGU1MGQzNjc5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDc2NjEyMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,659,1000_AL_67. Countess Dracula
1971

Another Hammer film of this era with “Dracula” in the title that was sans Dracula. Horror queen Ingrid Pitt stars as Countess Eilsabeth, a crone who can make herself young by bathing in the blood of the local maidens. Very much based on Elisabeth Bathory, who allegedly killed or had killed more than 600 young girls for this very purpose.

Pitt is fantastic in this role. Her sensuality mixed with the pathos of the character almost make her sympathetic. But her double-crossing, bloodthirsty nature wins out and she gets what she deserves in the end.

This is another lush, colorful Hammer Horror production and Pitt definitely makes it go.

MV5BMTcyOTMwNjkwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTc1Nzg0NQ@@._V1_66. The Vampire Lovers
1970

A year before Countess Dracula, Ingrid Pitt starred in The Vampire Lovers. One of the vampire stories that has influenced me is Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. Hammer Films created a story arc based on Le Fanu’s novella. The Vampire Lovers is the best of the Karnstein bunch, mainly because of Pitt.

Pitt plays Carmilla/Mircalla, Marcilla, (it’s always an anagram for Carmilla), a vampire who terrorizes the local populace, usually young girls. Peter Cushing stars as a, you guessed it, vampire hunter. Okay, that’s a stretch. That’s not what he starts out as, but that is what he becomes along the way.

As much as I love Hammer’s Dracula films with Christopher Lee, I did enjoy it when they went off the rails a bit and used other source material or came up with original ideas.

MV5BMWRmYzAyOWItNDU2MS00MWIzLWI4MWEtZWU1MWIyODAyYzk2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDUxNjc5NjY@._V1_65. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
1974

This was another one of those movies I saw on a Saturday afternoon thanks to Commander USA’s Groovy Movies on USA Network. Horst Janson stars in the title role. His swashbuckling vampire slaying runs him afoul of Karnstein descendants.

Caroline Munro also stars in this rollicking adventure. More than one vampire meets their demise at the pointy end of Kronos’ sword. Another example of an original concept, Kronos would go on to influence numerous other films. He was refreshing after years of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Not that Cushing was bad, it was simply a case of needing fresh ideas, fresh blood if you will.

I recently rediscovered this movie and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it.

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1971

Are you sensing a theme for today yet? More Hammer Horror. The Twins of Evil does have Peter Cushing, but not in a role you’d expect. He plays a religious zealot convinced that witchcraft is the scourge of his community. When his voluptuous twin nieces come to live with him, they fall prey to a vampire.

Played by the Collinson twins (Mary and Madeleine), Frieda and Maria are of two minds when it comes to Count Karnstein. You would think that blood was thicker than water when it came to the twins, but you’d be wrong.

This is an interesting role for Cushing and he plays it well. The Collinson twins were Playmates of the Month for October 1970.

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1973

Hammer got the band back together for a few more Dracula films with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Cushing plays a descendant of Van Helsing and he now has not match wits with the immortal bloodsucker. Joanna Lumley stars as Jessica Van Helsing. Quite a few horror pictures in the late 1960s – early 1970s focused on Satanism and devil worship.

This one brings Dracula into the modern era as Scotland Yard gets involved in the fight against the legendary and infamous vampire who now finally appears to have some kind of end game.

Many vampire films up to this point, regardless of studio, were period pieces set in Victorian times. The fight between good and evil is brought into the bright lights of modern London in this one as the Lee/Cushing franchise winds down.

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1966

I watched this again the other night. Two married couples on vacation get adventurous and end up at Castle Dracula. Christopher Lee, who doesn’t deliver one line of dialog in the entire movie, needs to be reconstituted by his servant, Klove. How does he do this you ask? With the blood of one of the travelers of course.

Lee is particularly menacing as Dracula in this because of the lack of dialog. He uses his eyes and facial expressions to convey his malevolent message. Suzan Farmer and Barbara Shelley star as Dracula’s female victims.

The story takes place in a vacuum despite the appearance of Father Sandor who chastises the townsfolk for continuing to believe in the local superstitions after Dracula’s supposed demise.

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1970

More freeze-dried Dracula. But this time, a trio of gentlemen thrill-seekers get bored with their run-of-the-mill debauchery and fall in with broke-ass Lord Courtley. Courtley convinces them to purchase the dried blood of Dracula and participate in a ritual to bring the count back to life. The gentlemen panic and kill Courtley, but not before Dracula is resurrected.

Linda Hayden stars as Alice, the daughter of the leader of the trio of gentlemen. Dracula takes his revenge on those who killed Courtley, for whom he has an affinity for thanks to the resurrection.

This has to be my favorite of all of the Hammer Dracula films, and probably all of Hammer Horror.

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1968

Christopher Lee’s Dracula always seems to be out for revenge for some reason or another. In this film, Dracula seeks retribution for the exorcism of his castle by the regional monsignor. He turns a local priest to his cause indicating a level of corruption we have yet to see from the count.

One of the things I find interesting about the Hammer Dracula films, and perhaps it starts with Bram Stoker’s novel, is how Dracula has the balls to hide right under the noses of his would-be dispatchers. In the novel, he moves in next door to his intended victims. In Horror of Dracula, he takes up residence in the basement of the Holmwoods. In this, he invades the monsignor’s home and community.

Rupert Davies stars as the monsignor as Dracula sets out to claim his niece, Maria, played by Veronica Carlson.

I didn’t care for Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972 or the abysmal Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. Vampire Circus could very well fit right here but it has been some time since I’ve seen it from beginning to end and I need to before I can accurately assess its likability.

Now I can settle in for tonight’s offering of mummy movies from Turner Classic Movies as their run-up to Halloween continues.

That Time When Dee Wallace Turned Into a Pomeranian on Live Television

Earlier in the countdown I presented three werewolf movies. That doesn’t mean that I was done with the shapeshifting lycanthropes.

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1981

Dee Wallace has to be the most underrated Scream Queen in the history of cinema. From Cujo to ET The Extraterrestrial, she has been bubbly blonding her way through blockbuster after horror film. She also starred in the original The Hills Have Eyes and of course, The Howling.

The Howling features an all-star cast with Patrick Macnee, John Carradine and Slim Pickens. Wallace’s TV reporter character uncovers a pack of werewolves and does her best to expose their evil to the world. In the process, she transforms into the cutest pomeranian werewolf on live television.

This film spawned a full catalog of bad sequels. Stick to the original here.

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1985

Another from the 1980s, Fright Night is an iconic vampire film starring William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon and Amanda Bearse. Lest we forget the great Roddy McDowell. Sarandon’s Jerry Dandridge moves in next door to Charlie (Ragsdale) and his family, and Charlie immediately begins to witness strange goings on leading him to believe that Dandridge is a vampire. Charlie enlists the aid of McDowell’s late night horror movie host, Peter Vincent, to vanquish the bloodsucker next door.

Full of 1980s cheese, comic relief and memorable performances, Fright Night is one of those right of passage horror films. If someone tells you they love horror movies and they haven’t seen Fright Night, just walk away.

Sarandon is wonderful as Dandridge – handsome, charismatic and downright sadistic. McDowell is well, Roddy freaking McDowell. The remake with Colin Farrell was abysmal. Again, this is another case of leaving well enough alone.

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2003

Ah, the film that launched Kate Beckinsale’s career and a movie franchise. Beckinsale stars as Selene, a vampire “death dealer,” a soldier in a trumped up war against werewolves (lycans). Bill Nighy, Scott Speedman and Michael Sheen star. This atmospheric film has its issues. You have no idea exactly where the movie is set, somewhere in the Czech Republic if I had to hazard a guess. The genre rules get bent a bit, but director Len Wiseman makes it all work somehow.

I don’t know if I would so much call this a horror film as some kind of supernatural thriller. There are vampires and werewolves, so I suppose it qualifies. There is plenty of murder and mayhem and betrayal and blood.

The sequels are hit or miss. They aim to tell a complete story arc of the origin of the two species and the war between them and carry that into the future. You would be fine if you quit after Rise of the Lycans. Shane Brolly’s horrible overacting as Kraven damn near derails the movie. But it has plenty of redeeming qualities.

 

Nine-Pack of Horror to Get You Through the Week

LEGO Batman says he has nine-pack abs. Well, on this hump day, I have a nine-pack of horror classics (I use the term loosely) to add to my countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror Films. TCM is continuing their month-long run-up to Halloween with the films of Christopher Lee tonight and I have 1958’s Horror of Dracula on in the background as I write this. So, let’s get you caught up, shall we?

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1980

John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote and Carpenter directed this terrifying film starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Adrienne Barbeau. I make it a habit not to give too many spoilers away in these capsules and I don’t intend to with this. There is a real feeling of foreboding and dread as the fog rolls in. Barbeau’s local radio DJ character Stevie Wayne gives a harrowing play-by-play account of the otherworldly phenomenon. Before long, it becomes apparent something(s) malevolent has/have arrived with the cloud.

If you like Carpenter and his aesthetic, and his do-it-all-himself manner of film making, this is a must-watch. Two years removed from Halloween, and two years away from The Thing, Carpenter is really stretching his legs as a storyteller during this part of his prolific career.

What I will say, is avoid the 2005 remake. For the life of me, I don’t understand why film makers try to make the monsters sympathetic. They’re monsters for crying out loud. Tragic backstory be damned. Why do we have to feel sympathy for the ghosts/goblins/vampires/ghouls/science experiments gone wrong when they start killing the local populace? I don’t give a damn why the sailors in The Fog have come back. I don’t feel sorry for them. Karma is a bitch, let’s just leave it at that. Watch the original, leave the remake in the fog where it belongs.

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1933

From 1931 – 1945, Universal Pictures enjoyed an incredible run with their horror films that continue to stand the test of time, and get remade time and time again. The Invisible Man is a masterpiece of a film directed by James Whale that gets overlooked by Universal’s stable of Gothic monsters, Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. Each franchise is defined by an iconic performance by a master of his/her craft. Dracula – Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein – Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester, Wolf Man – Lon Chaney, Jr., the Mummy – Karloff.

It is Claude Rains who makes The Invisible Man go. He is the straw that stirs the drink as it were. Eight years before his turn as Larry Talbot’s father in The Wolf Man, Rains played the deranged scientist Dr. Jack Griffin who develops a a formula for invisibility. Rains’ depiction of Griffin’s descent into madness as a result of the not-approved-by-the-FDA human trials he conducts on himself is quite riveting and poignant.

This film, unlike the others, never did get a proper sequel or remake. And Universal just let The Invisible Man concept die on the vine while numerous sequels of The Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man were produced, most were foisted on the public for the money and couldn’t hold a candle to Rains. It was, however, parodied brilliantly by Ed Begley, Jr., in Amazon Women on the Moon.

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1990

I love Clive Barker. This won’t be the last of his work that appears on this countdown. This one seems to be a favorite among Barker devotees, and not many others. Written and directed by Barker, Craig Sheffer and David Cronenberg star in this creature feature, in which the humans are actually worse than the creatures. Charles Haid of Hill Street Blues fame also stars.

Based on the 1988 novella, Cabal, Barker weaves a tale of an underground society of monsters and their attempt to stay hidden from the world of men. In the end, it is the men who come for the monsters. This is one film I will make an exception for when it comes to empathy for the oppressed and persecuted creatures of the night.

One of my favorite scenes involves a porcupine hybrid woman who is both tantalizing and deadly.

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1989

The late 1980s – early 1990s was a great time for a wide variety of horror films. Another Stephen King adaptation, this one reinforces the notion that maybe, just maybe, sometimes dead is better.

Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby and Fred Gwynne (The Munsters) star in this tale of tragedy and demonic resurrection. After a couple’s young son is killed in a tragic accident, the husband and father finds a way to bring his boy back via the nearby native American burial ground. As you can imagine, this does not go well.

The movie begs the question, how far would you go to bring a deceased loved one back from the dead? Gwynne delivers an underrated performance as the next-door-neighbor who is all-to-willing to educate Midkiff’s character on the local folklore and the possibilities. A remake is in the works and it is due out next year. We’ll see, sometimes dead is better.

MV5BMTkwNDU0NTE0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzAzNzQyMTI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,675,1000_AL_75. Jeepers Creepers
2001

Justin Long and Gina Philips star in another horror film that dares to be different. They play brother and sister who run afoul of a hungry demon on the back roads. Written and directed by Victor Salva, this film launched a bit of a franchise that explores “The Creeper’s” mythology. It follows a similar pattern of hibernation as Stephen King’s Pennywise from IT.

There are plenty of tense moments as Long and Philips try to both solve the mystery of The Creeper and try to stay out of his clutches. His? It is a a “he,” no? Eileen Brennan’s cameo as a crazy cat lady is almost wasted in this film.

The second movie in the series is watchable, but doesn’t have the, dare I say, charm of the first. I have yet to see the third film in the franchise. Jeepers Creepers is an acquired taste, much like the taste for certain body parts The Creeper acquires along the way.

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1981

Talk about an all-star cast. Not just a good ensemble cast, we’re talking about cinematic legends here – Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Melvin Douglas star opposite Alice Krige, who makes her second appearance in the countdown (Sleepwalkers).

Four gentlemen fall in love with the same woman and kill her in a tragic accident. Rather than be honest about it and report it to the authorities, they cover it up to save their prep school, or Ivy League, or whatever reputations and high-falutin’ career aspirations. Sound familiar? Krige comes back to haunt her suitors turned killers.

I have an affinity for this because it was one of the first horror films I saw when my family first got cable in the early 1980s, and it has haunted me ever since. Spoilers be damned, this is one creepy movie. And one helluva ghost story.

MV5BNDk4MDM1NTI5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDkyMDc2MTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,614,1000_AL_73. Phantom of the Opera
1925

Okay, let’s get something straight. The Phantom of the Opera is a F*&!ing horror movie. It’s not some stupid musical starring I’ll work for food Gerard Butler. We all like to think the Universal Horror began in 1931 with Dracula, but in 1925, Lon Chaney, than man of 1,000 faces, brought the Phantom to life and scared the living daylights out of moviegoers with one of the greatest creature reveals ever filmed.

When I was 12, I attended what was called a “magnet”school in my hometown. We had electives and I took a class that had to do with monster movies. We made stop-motion claymation films and studied the techniques the masters of horror used. I had the opportunity to take my girlfriend to a screening of the film accompanied by a live orchestra. It was a thrilling experience and it cemented (like I needed another push) my love for horror.

Lon Chaney is brilliant as the Phantom. He was originally cast to play Dracula but died before filming started and the part eventually went to Bela Lugosi.

MV5BNjUyNjU0NDE0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNzcwMzg3._V1_72. House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects
2003, 2005

Once again, I give you a bonus. Ah, the saga of the Firefly family. Deranged, backwoods killers in the vein of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Firefly family lures unsuspecting travelers and legend hunters into their lair and visit unspeakable horrors on their unassuming guests.

Sid Haig, Bill Mosely, and writer/director Rob Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie make up the core of the Firefly clan. Leslie Easterbrook replaces Karen Black (House of 1,000 Corpses) as Mother Firefly in Rejects.

Zombie creates quite the dark, gritty, depraved universe with two films that could work independently of each other. House plays very much like Chainsaw, and Rejects, well, the Fireflys become a sort of rag-tag band of antiheroes we’re supposed to root for. Perhaps we’ll get some closure in the long-awaited third film in the franchise.

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1920

You gotta love German expressionism. The set pieces alone in this silent masterpiece are reason enough to watch it. You’ll also get an education. I love words (I have the best words). I had occasion to drop “Scholomance” in my second novel. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari taught me somnambulist – sleepwalker.

In the film, Dr. Caligari is a bit of a sideshow showman and he uses his charge, Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt), to commit murder at his behest, or does he? This is an early example of the unreliable narrator concept. It’s hard to get your head around that part of it because it is a silent film. This movie inspired a lot of early Gothic horror, and definitely had influence over F.W. Murnau who made Nosferatu two years later.

Veidt went on to star in The Man Who Laughs (1928), which is widely considered the model and inspiration for the look of iconic Batman villain, The Joker. Veidt also played a significant role in 1942’s film noir classic, Casablanca.

 

A Six-Pack of Horror Films on an October Sunday

I took yesterday as a college football/kid’s flag football game day so you get a six-pack of my favorite horror films for today’s blog entry. These six films are admittedly all over the place as far as genre, theme, and tone. But they are on the list for a reason.

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2002

I don’t know why exactly Wes Craven’s name is attached to this highly underrated film. Night terrors come to life in this Laura Regan vehicle directed by Robert Harmon. A group of kids are marked as youngsters by boogey men. Those boogey men, who were dismissed as night terrors, come to claim the kids when they become adults.

Another film that aims to be different, overacting by Marc Blucas damn near ruins the movie, but Regan is a delight as the main character, Julia. One of my favorite short stories, The Great God Pan by M. John Harrison (inspired by Arthur Machen’s groundbreaking novella of the same name), involves a group of friends who pulled back the veil, and brought something back. This has a similar feel.

We’ve established I like different and this one is good different.

MV5BMTczMDI5MzM3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTcxODgyMQ@@._V1_84. Mansquito or Mosquito Man
2005

Okay, so SyFy channel has produced some clunkers over the years. Ice Spiders, Python, Python II, and a whole host of Crockzilla vs Dinocroc Debbie Gibson/Tiffany mash-ups. The idea is science gone wrong. After Gothic Horror and dark science fiction, science gone wrong is right up there for me.

Corin Nemec, who never met a role he didn’t like, stars in probably the best feature film SyFy has ever produced. That’s not saying much but the title tells you all you need to know. Matt Jordon’s character is exposed to some experimental whatevers and becomes a, you guessed it, man-sized mosquito.

Look, a good horror film doesn’t need to have a big theatrical release or even a cult following to be a bloody good gore fest. Mansquito certainly qualifies.

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1997

We all believe that a genie is a good thing that grants wishes after you free him/her from his/her lamp. Well, not in the horror movie genre. This is one where the folklore is horribly under served. We know more about how to resurrect a mummy than we do the history of genies. Wishmaster taps into the dark side of that history and mythology.

Andrew Divoff tries his best to create an iconic bad guy as the Djinn, a truly evil genie from whom you really don’t want wishes granted. There’s always a twist and they usually cost you your soul. His chilling voice delivers the command that almost makes the movie, “Make your wishes.”

The sequels are hit or miss, but the first film is an interesting entry in the horror movie catalog thanks to Divoff’s performance. Tammy Lauren stars as the protagonist who matches wits with the Djinn.

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2000

This is the movie that introduced Vin Diesel as an action star to be reckoned with, I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing. This is a film I had to watch more than once before it really hooked me. Diesel is excellent as Riddick, Cole Hauser turns in his best performance as a bounty hunter, and Radha Mitchell makes her mark. Keith David also stars.

A spaceship crashes on a remote planet inhabited by light-sensitive baddies created by creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos (Godzilla 1998). The planet is plunged into darkness because of a lengthy total eclipse and the survivors of the crash have to band together as the indigenous flying monsters are unleashed.

This film was to launch the Riddick franchise of science fiction adventure films. This is the best of the three. I like this one because of the unique creatures and the human conflict among the people who find themselves relying on a career criminal and murderer for their very survival.

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1997

Most of tonight’s films are from roughly the same era. Horror was trying to find its way in the late 1990s in the wake of movies like Scream. Another science-gone-wrong film, Mimic involves altruistic scientists trying to solve a children-killing plague and accidently create six-foot-tall killer cockroaches in the process.

An ensemble cast including Mira Sorvino, Josh Brolin, Charles S. Dutton, Jeremy Northam, Giancarlo Giannini, and F. Murray Abraham pace this dark, gritty creature feature.

Of course, there are sequels and they are not very good. Stick with the original. It’s plenty gory and gooey.

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1997

Another from 1997, and instead of Mira Sorvino, it’s Penelope Ann Miller this time. Science mixes with jungle tribe folklore and mythology as an ancient creature is unleashed on unsuspecting museum-goers in Chicago. Potions and elixirs concocted from native plants take center stage as Miller and Tom Sizemore’s characters try to solve the mystery and slay the beast.

Now, I really like Tom Sizemore. It’s too bad that his personal life has been such a mess over the years. I think he is at his best in roles like this, a cop or a government agent, skeptical, wisecracking, but ultimately heroic. Miller has appeared in all kinds of productions throughout her career, and this appears to be the only horror film she’s done.

Linda Hunt and James Whitmore also star in yet another underrated horror movie.