Season Finale of the Get the Knaak Podcast

Listen in as my good friend and old Navy buddy Chris Ingalls of www.popmatters.com joins me for some conversation about anything and everything. Thanks for listening this year everyone. Hopefully you have enjoyed the conversation and interviews. The podcast will be back in January. In the meantime, here is an hour and eight minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

 

My Favorite Christmas Songs

Earlier, I posted my favorite fall/winter seasonal songs as I made the argument for separating seasonal and Christmas songs. For numerous reasons, Baby It’s Cold Outside, which is not even a Christmas song, will not be on this list. As I mentioned in the previous entry, I am curious to know in what year these songs were written, recorded and released. Many of them are just flat out timeless.

I, again, enjoy the original definitive version of these songs, and I really don’t care for any “new” Christmas music. I make one exception.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Brenda Lee recorded this song when she was all of 13 years old and it was released in 1958. I enjoy the rockabilly sound. One of the more popular Christmas tunes, it hit the Billboard charts more than once.

Silver Bells

When I was a kid, I loved the Bob Hope Christmas specials, mainly to see the Playboy (later Associated Press) college football team. I eventually learned about Hope and his efforts to entertain the troops. I also learned to appreciate Hope’s humor and his legacy. On every Christmas special, Hope would perform a duet of Silver Bells. The song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and released in 1950.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It may as well be a Christmas anthem. Upbeat and festive, this song, made famous by numerous singers, heralds the arrival of the Christmas season. I couldn’t have this list without something from Mr. Christmas himself, Andy Williams. Williams made Christmas his own cottage industry in Branson, Missouri. He too was known for television Christmas specials.

Mistletoe

This is my one exception. Colbie Caillat co-wrote this with Mikal Blue and Stacy Blue in 2007. I love this tune. I am a fan of Caillat’s music and this song has a story and a melancholy to it I really like.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Another Christmas anthem that rings in the season, this song was written in 1951 by Meredith Wilson. Numerous artists including Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and more recently, Michael Bublé, have recorded versions of this classic. I’ll leave you with Bublé’s version. His Christmas album from a few years ago is a treat.

Santa Claus and His Old Lady

When I was a disc jockey with Armed Forces Radio, we would start the season with one Christmas song an hour and build up the frequency as December 25 approached. I discovered Cheech and Chong’s Santa Claus and His Old Lady, played it for the first time, and fell out of my chair. More spoken word performance than song, it’s hilarious.

Christmas in Hollis

Okay, I lied. There’s another newer, original song I like. I grew up on hip hop music and one of the first groups of which I became a fan was Run DMC. And yes, they did a Christmas song. It has an infectious hook and a great beat. It’s different and a sign of the times, 1987 to be exact, the year I graduated high school.

Little Drummer Boy

I am not a big fan of this song, but Bing Crosby and David Bowie combined for an unexpected version of the song on Crosby’s last Christmas special, and I just had to include it. Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the tune in 1940 and it was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951.

Carol of the Bells

The song that everyone sets their computerized outdoor light display to, and the only song of its kind that I like.  Written by Mykola Leontovych and Peter J. Wilhousky in 1914, I prefer Trans Siberian Orchestra’s version.

The Christmas Song

Written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé (The Velvet Fog), this one has become an endearing Christmas classic. Covered by countless artists, this song evokes images of warm Christmas wishes. I prefer Nat King Cole’s version.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

I spent 10 years in the United States Navy and I spent many a Christmas away from home. I also traveled quite a bot for the profession I have been in for the last 20 years, and missed a few Christmases working. This song hits home for numerous reasons. Written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent in 1943, it was recorded by Bing Crosby the same year. I like Frank Sinatra’s version.

A Holly Jolly Christmas

I just had to have something from Burl Ives. Written by Johnny Marks in 1962 and included as part of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Ives recorded the definitive version. This is one of the more popular songs for current artists to cover.

White Christmas

I’ll end this list with what has become my favorite Christmas song. I don’t like musicals, can’t stand them, but a few years ago I finally gave White Christmas a shot and I was hooked. The song, written by Irving Berlin, debuts in 1942’s Holiday Inn, but it became a staple when Bing Crosby’s hit musical of the same name took off in 1954. This is one of the most popular songs of all-time. Here is Bing Crosby with Frank Sinatra.

 

Childhood Thanksgiving Memories

Norman-Rockwell_Freedom-from-Want

I wrote this a few years ago and I find it be pretty comprehensive. I can’t think of any specific one-off Thanksgiving memories so I thought I would re-post this piece.

I get nostalgic this time of year. I may live in Northern California where we barely have seasons – I think we may have two or three – but I grew up in western New York where we had all four in abundance. This year, 2017, seemed to feature the never-ending summer. Fall didn’t arrive until damn near Halloween.

Christmas creep, as much as I despise it and as bad at it has gotten, has me thinking about how things used to be.

I grew up thinking my Aunt Carole’s (my father’s only sibling) house was out in the country. The drive out to Scottsville, N.Y., seemed to take forever. It was picturesque as we drove past the horse farms that lined the road along the scenic route. For some reason I always took note of the rambling white fences that paralleled the road. As mom, dad and I approached the turn off, empty fields and barns dotted the landscape. The topography, architecture and open spaces cried country.

The house had once belonged to my grandparents, whom I never knew. My father’s father died in 1959, and my grandmother passed away in 1966, three years before I was born. My grandmother bequeathed the house to her two children – my father and his sister. I don’t know the whole story but Dad didn’t want to live in the house, my aunt ended up with it and lived in it with her husband, my Uncle Freddy, for the better part of her life.

The driveway wasn’t paved. A basketball hoop that hadn’t felt the touch of a net in years was loosely attached to the front of the rickety detached garage. There was well water. Eventually a pack of the meanest shepherd mix dogs I’ve ever known took up residence in that garage and adjacent fenced-in yard. You had to walk up a small embankment to get to the well-worn path to the house. I say path because the sidewalk that led away from the house went straight out to the road and had nothing for you if you were coming from the driveway.

This was my Aunt's house. It was built in 1906 and belonged to my grandparents. I spent many Thanksgivings in this house.
This was my Aunt’s house. It was built in 1906 and belonged to my grandparents. I spent many Thanksgivings in this house. This photo is a Google Maps street view from 2012.

My parents and I would carry our dishes to pass, mostly my parents carried them, and I was a lazy ass who couldn’t be bothered with such things as a child. Aside from pies, the only dish I remember Mom making was a sweet dressing made with prunes and apples. Mom made a great pie crust, however, her apple pie filling left a little to be desired. Apple pie filling isn’t supposed to be gray, is it? Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, it just could have been better. My aunt made a great apple pie filling that looked the part, golden honey. One year Mom and Aunt Carole combined forces…oh, man, was that a pie. I am partial to apple pie. I hate pumpkin pie, absolutely hate it.

More on pie later.

We had a rather old-fashioned, misogynistic (almost chauvinistic) kind of Thanksgiving, my four first cousins and I. My aunt and her three daughters – Tammy, Debbie and Shari – toiled in the kitchen with a little help from Mom, as we menfolk settled in for a day of feasting and football watching. Aunt Carole would tend to the bird, which I am sure routinely tipped the scales at 22 pounds or more. I don’t remember much of what the oldest, David, did while all of this was going on, I just remember what it was like when he was of working age. School friends, later boyfriends and girlfriends, then husbands/wives, and kids would join us for dinner.

My father, my uncle, my cousin David, my mom and I (and later other invited guests), eagerly awaited the feasting while watching the Detroit Lions in their annual Thanksgiving match-up. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade had already been watched at one house or the other. For whatever reason, I always seemed to root for the Lions no matter who they played. I still do.

I was a finicky eater as a child. And to this day, there are certain Thanksgiving staples I don’t like. I won’t touch cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes (yams) or squash. Just give me turkey, mashed potatoes with butter, salad, soft fresh rolls, and mom’s sweet dressing and I was a happy boy. David would pile his plate a mile high at least three times. The army of cats would benefit from the leftovers.

Then there was pie. Apple. Mincemeat. Lemon meringue. Key Lime. Pumpkin. Oh boy, was there pie.

Eventually, we’d settle down and watch the Lions, and maybe we’d catch some of the Dallas Cowboys game, have more turkey or pie. I never knew the Cowboys game was much of a Thanksgiving tradition – I would learn later that this was a mistaken belief. My cousins and I sometimes ended the day with board games. If I was feeling adventurous, and the ground was covered with snow, I’d go sledding in the dark and careen through the scrub brush.

We’d have as few as eight or nine, and as many damn near 20 for Thanksgiving dinner. As I got older, many of us took up smoking as a habit and we’d crowd on the enclosed porch (healthy) if it was too cold to go smoke outside.

The house itself had a distinct aroma, it was charming in some parts, dilapidated in others. It always seemed to be organized chaos. It certainly had something after the wood-burning stove was installed in the living room. Sometimes it felt like a sauna, even in the dead of winter. If it got cold, my uncle would just throw another piece of wood in.

All four parents are gone now. All that’s left of those Thanksgivings are memories. We didn’t take many photos of those events, despite my father’s shutterbug tendencies. I couldn’t find any pictures of Thanksgivings past. There could be slides somewhere, I’m still a little bit of a lazy ass. Maybe my cousins have some.

We weren’t rich people – far from it. We certainly were not the embodiment of the Norman Rockwell painting. But we did it this way every year with very few exceptions. I was in the Navy for 10 years, so I missed some. But when I did get back and attend, it was like I had never left.

Say what you want about what we did or how we did it. These were our Thanksgivings. We enjoyed them and each other.

The Expressway exit off 390 South.
The Expressway exit off 390 South.

I reset the trip-o-meter on a drive from my parents’ last house to my aunt’s house once. I had to know. I had driven out there a few times on my own as an adult. I still thought of it as the “country.” As I got older, it became less and less rural and more and more suburban. To me, that’s the saddest part aside from the dissolution of the get-togethers altogether.

Nine miles. An online driving directions site says just over 13. Not quite over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

You know what? I’ll always remember it as a drive in the country to Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house. Those fences and those horse farms will always line Route 31, that barn a few hundred yards from the corner of Scottsville Road and Chili Wheatland Town Line Road, will always signal the turn.

These were our Thanksgivings and I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.

I miss them.

Night Terrors, Science Gone Wrong and Bloody Revenge

As you can see already from my first nine films, my tastes in horror films are eclectic. I have actually decided to reclassify a couple of my favorite movies of all-time as horror movies. You’ll see those when we get closer to Halloween. I’ve got a triple-feature of, shall we say, different films for you on this Friday night, the first Friday of October.

MV5BNTk4YjVlNjUtMTFhZC00YmUxLWFhZDktODE0OWIzMmNiYzY3L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,667,1000_AL_91. They
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 boogeymen. Those boogeymen, who were dismissed as night terrors, come to claim the kids when they reach adulthood.

Another film that aims to be different, overacting by Marc Blucas as Regan’s character Julia’s boyfriend damn near ruins the movie, but Regan is a delight as the main character. 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_90. Mansquito or Mosquito Man
2005

Okay, so SyFy channel has produced some clunkers over the years. Ice Spiders (okay, maybe not Ice Spiders, I like that one), 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.

MV5BMTQ0YTQ2ZTUtNGFkOC00YzI2LTkwNDktN2Y0YjI4NGVjMDM3L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAyODkwOQ@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_89. Pumpkinhead
1988

I just watched this one again the other night. I love this movie. Longtime movie veteran Lance Henriksen stars as Ed Harley, a simple single country dad who lives in Appalachia. When his young son is killed in a tragic accident by “city folk,” Harley seeks country vengeance and visits the local crone. Of course he does. But at what cost? The death of Harley’s son is particularly gut-wrenching and you can certainly see why he does what he does.

What Harley unleashes is truly the stuff of nightmares. Special effects and creature designer, the legendary Stan Winston, actually directed this one. The 1980s were full of slasher films and franchise players like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, along with a host of other knife-wielding spree killers. The title monster is otherworldly, large, terrifying and impossible to stop. The sound design for the film alone will give you night terrors.

Henriksen has appeared in dozens of films, including installments in the Alien franchise, and aside from Bishop in Aliens, this might be his best role. Underrated and terrifying, this is a must-watch for any horror fan. I bet you didn’t know that The Big Bang Theory and Blossom star Mayim Bialik plays one of the dirt-poor Wallace kids. Now there’s a thing you know.

Folk Horror, Giant Snakes and a Young, Witchy Kelly Preston

Last night’s blog took the first bite out of my countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror Films. I gladly present the next three selections.

MV5BMjAzMzAyMDI4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODMwOTY2NDM@._V1_97. The Ritual
2017

I have an affinity for horror films that focus on village superstition, folklore and folk horror, 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 nightmare fuel.

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 (good ones are rare) … something … else. The Ritual is one of those movies. A group of friends take a trip to the forest to memorialize a pal killed during a convenience store robbery only to find something is stalking them, something inconceivable. That something is worshiped and tended to by a cult of true believers.

This film is well-acted, well-written and beautifully shot. Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, David Bruckner directed. I have become a big fan of Rafe Spall. He is an underrated actor and he is excellent in this.

MV5BY2NiNTkzN2YtY2IyOC00NjQwLWIyYTItYzc0OWIxMzc4YTBlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_96. The Lair of The White Worm
1988

The second film on the list that bends the vampire genre, much like Sleepwalkers, is The Lair of the White Worm, which is loosely based on a Bram Stoker novel.

Perhaps no other film I’ve seen plays on genre-bending concepts of the vampire mythos like Wasp Woman and The Reptile quite like The Lair of the White Worm. Universal Studios’ The Mummy is in effect a version of the 1931 Dracula, but more on that on another night. Virginal sacrifices, a giant snake, flashbacks to Roman debauchery, a young Hugh Grant, an emerging Sammi Davis, and Amanda Donohoe (with whom I happen to share a birthday) in all her pre-LA Law glory as a snake-like vampire creature. Donohoe really “vamps” it up while preying on and “enchanting” the populace of a small burg.

The plot involves a local legend, an archaeological discovery and small town folklore with Grant playing the role of the lord of the manor whose ancestor tangled with a predecessor of the title’s D’Ampton worm. Peter Capaldi, the 12th Doctor Who by the way, plays the archaeologist who discovers the fossilized skull of a previous D’Ampton worm. His cousin Lewis is a pop singer of some renown.

I personally find a lot of charm in this film. The pub band and song that tells the legend of the D’Ampton worm over the closing credits is one of the best parts of the movie. I’ll share it here.

MV5BMjIzNDkzMjY1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzgxMTM4NA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_95. Spellbinder
1988

I love telling the story of how I discovered this movie.

This film is one of the most pleasant surprises on this list. It flies so far below the radar and it is so good. Tim Daly (WingsStorm of the Century), Kelly Preston and Rick Rossovich star in this tale of witches, covens and devil worship.

I saw this when I was in the Navy after working hours during a detachment to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, in the TV lounge in the barracks and I was stunned. I had never seen anything like it. Daly and Rossovich play friends who come across a young woman (Preston) as she is being assaulted by her boyfriend. Daly’s character intervenes and before long is romantically involved with the young woman. However, nothing is as it seems.

Now, I hate Top Gun, but Rossovich redeems himself in this, never mind his guest spot on International House Hunters several years ago.

This one is hard because I don’t want to give any spoilers away. Janet Greek directed and Tracy Tormé penned the screenplay. Three’s Company’s Mrs. Roper Audra Lindley also co-stars.

So It Begins, Again

brides-of-dracula-1960-07

Let’s try this again, shall we? I re-booted this countdown last year and only got halfway through it. Hopefully, this time I’ll make it through like the “final girl” in so many horror movies.

Anyone who knows me understands that my chosen forms of entertainment usually involve the macabre. I wrote a post for my official web site awhile back that described where the fascination with horror came from. It was Dan Curtis’ Dracula, a made for TV movie starring Jack Palance as Dracula. The first time I saw it I was four years old. Last year, I watched it for the first time in 45 years and found it to be surprisingly good.

As a published author of horror fiction, my inspiration and influences have come from books, comic books/graphic novels, TV shows and movies, especially movies.

I started this countdown several years ago as a Facebook thing and brought it to my blog in 2015. 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.” You’ll find that I tend to lump certain franchises or original/re-makes together. Invariably, there will be more than 100 films on this countdown.

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.

MV5BYTQ0YTg2ZWEtYTI0My00YWNlLWFkMTAtN2M3MzAwNzJiNTI2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQzNzQxNzI@._V1_100. Brides of Dracula
1960

The follow up to Hammer Studio’s 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 the bloodsucking 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. Martita Hunt plays Meinster’s mother and captor. She is tormented as a tragic figure who tries to keep her son’s evil from the world.

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. The set pieces are gorgeous, something Hammer would  become known for during their run as the top horror film studio of the time.

Once again, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan and Edward Percy combine on the screenplay. Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher directed. I would have this higher on the list if the plot wasn’t so ridiculous.

99. Horror of Dracula
1958

Terence Fisher directed 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. Many find him to be the definitive Dracula, or at least their favorite. Michael Gough, who would go on to play Batman’s butler Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton’s Batman films, also stars.

What I don’t like about this movie is the plot. It strays too far from the source material. Although Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931 didn’t adhere to Bram Stoker’s original novel either (it follows Hamilton Deane’s stage play), this film features an all-new screenplay. Characters are mixed up or blended or omitted.

Don’t get me wrong, it is stunning to see Dracula in technicolor for the first time and Lee is commanding as the Count. The film stands on its own with Jimmy Sangster’s original screenplay but I would have liked to see a more faithful adaptation for Lee’s first turn in the cape. The funny thing is, when Dario Argento made his Dracula 3D in 2012, he used Horror of Dracula for inspiration for the screenplay and not the source novel.

MV5BNWY4N2ViZDAtMGU0MS00NDliLWE1NjktN2UyNGEyZjA0YzNhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,673,1000_AL_98. Sleepwalkers
1992

I am usually not one for genre bending when it comes to vampires. However, in the opening credit sequence of the first Stephen King adaptation on this list, a slate appears that connects the origin of the vampire myth to ancient Egypt. Anne Rice explored this connection deeply in the Vampire Chronicles. As a published author of vampire fiction myself, I am fascinated by the origin of the vampire legend.

Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick (Twin Peaks, American Horror Story) and Alice Krige (Carnival Row) star in what almost plays as a dark comedy. What I find interesting is the use of cats in the folklore. The antagonists fear and can be harmed by cats, which are revered in ancient Egyptian culture. King is a master at scratching the surface of a myth or a legend, peeling back the curtain and letting you see just enough beyond the veil to terrify you. You get just enough folklore and mythology to understand the pathos of the mother and son “vampire duo.”

I enjoy this because it is corny and cheesy, but it also has a certain charm. Released in 1992, it plays more like a a solid mid-1980s horror film. Krige adds a gravitas to this, as she does in all her performances. However, Krause has a tendency to overact. Ladies, if an attractive young man in a blue Trans Am invites you to the cemetery to do some gravestone rubbings, you might want to say “no.”

The venerable Mick Garris directed this one.

 

My Favorite Horror Comedies

As promised on social media, I will bring the countdown of my 100 favorite horror movies back from the dead starting tomorrow night. In the meantime, I thought I would whet your appetite with my five favorite horror comedies. This sub genre has produced a few of the most beloved films of all time and each of the movies I am about to present have a special place where my heart used to be. The funny thing is, some horror comedies were never intended to be funny, they just turned out that way. It’s a hard genre to pin down. Quick web searches for the term “horror comedies” produces head-scratching results. I better stop that and get to the list. They say nothing bleeds like a scalp wound.

MV5BMTEzNjkwMzIyMjZeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDI2NTU5ODYx._V1_SY1000_SX670_AL_5. Tremors

I love creature features. Monster movies are some of my favorite things to watch, especially the giant bug movies of the 1950s – Them, Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis, etc. Tremors, starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, is a send-up of all of the great b-movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Bacon and Ward live in a small desert community. The discovery of giant worm-like creatures dubbed “graboids” sends everyone into a tizzy. Michael Gross, Ariana Richards (Jurassic Park) and Reba McEntire also star. Finn Carter plays the scientist who first discovers the giant worms. The townsfolk gather together to fight the monsters with Gross and McEntire playing doomsday preppers who are armed to the teeth.

MV5BMTg5Mjk2NDMtZTk0Ny00YTQ0LWIzYWEtMWI5MGQ0Mjg1OTNkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzkwMjQ5NzM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,669,1000_AL_4. Shaun of the Dead

This is the film that put Simon Pegg on everyone’s radar. This send up of zombie films written by Pegg and Edgar Wright, and directed by Wright, is as much satire on the doldrums of every day life, loves and loves lost, as it is zombie film. Nick Frost co-stars with Pegg, a future frequent team-up, as two pals who are besieged by an outbreak of the undead. Hilarity ensues as Shaun and Ed (Frost) concoct a plan to rescue Shaun’s now ex-girlfriend Liz and his mom, and begrudgingly his step-father (played by the wonderful Bill Nighy) and his ex-girlfriend’s pals. The movie is well-written and well-acted with several side-splitting scenes. Many zombie movie tropes are skewered and one of the funniest scenes involves Shaun and Ed trying to kill a pair of zombies by flinging vinyl record albums at their heads. The music and pop culture references are enough to make this film enjoyable.

MV5BMjAwNDA5NzEwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTA1MDUyNDE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_3. What We Do in the Shadows

New Zealand’s Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame is becoming a Hollywood powerhouse. He has done some pretty good voice over work to go along with his acting. He is also a writer and a director. Perhaps his best work to date is the vampire film, What We Do in the Shadows. Written and directed by Clement and Taika Waititi, this irreverent take on vampire myth and lore is filmed documentary style, almost MTV Cribs style. A reality TV crew follows a group of idiot vampires who each has unique traits or abilities. The bottom line is, none of them really know how to vampire. IMDB describes the movie this way: “Viago, Deacon and Vladislav are vampires who are finding that modern life has them struggling with the mundane – like paying rent, keeping up with the chore wheel, trying to get into nightclubs and overcoming flatmate conflicts.” It’s like Friends meets Keeping Up with the Kardashians, only with vampires. The film has spawned a popular TV series of the same name. The film and the series are hilarious.

MV5BNTZiZTQ4YjItY2Y4ZC00MTVhLThmYTEtYWM5NmRlNDI5Y2JmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDY2MTk1ODk@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,657,1000_AL_2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

I almost forgot about this one. I grew up on Universal Horror, fell in love with Universal Horror. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and all their sequels. I also grew up on Abbott and Costello films and routines. Their “Who’s on first?” sketch remains one of the funniest and timeless bits ever written and performed. There wasn’t much taste for horror films in the 1940s because of World War II. The world had witnessed enough horror. Universal decided to trot their beloved monsters out for one more go-round, this time with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The best of the batch was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This film marked only the second time Bela Lugosi played Dracula on the big screen. And it would be his last. Lon Chaney, Jr., reprises his role as Larry Talbot/The Wolf-Man and he is as tragic as ever. Cowboy actor Glenn Strange takes a turn as Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. The boys run afoul of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and Talbot’s werewolf in what is more comedy than horror. This 1948 film just might be Abbott and Costello’s best.

MV5BMTEwNjg2MjM2ODFeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDQ1MDU5OTEx._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,645,1000_AL_1. Young Frankenstein

I can practically quote this one by heart. I adore this movie. Gene Wilder is at his best in this 1974 Mel Brooks film. The usual suspects – Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Terri Garr, Kenneth Mars, and Peter Boyle – are all pitch perfect in this send-up/mash-up of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Filmed in black and white, the movie pays tribute to the great Universal horror films of the 1930s and early 1940s. Feldman, as Igor, chews scenery, literally in one memorable moment with Kahn, and steals every scene he is in. Wilder’s exchange with Leachman’s Frau Blücher upon his arrival at the castle is hilarious. Boyle is wonderful as the monster and Mars’ Inspector Kemp pays homage to the original film’s sequels. Gene Hackman is a delight as the blind hermit. There are too many great scenes to mention and too many lines to quote here.

My Obsession with “IT”

EDUwYotU4AAtzCQIt takes quite a bit for me to obsess over a movie or a TV show. When it comes to TV, if I don’t finish a series, sometimes the show jumps the shark or loses me somehow. Sometimes, the show is cancelled prematurely. When it comes to Stephen King’s IT, I have been obsessed for the last two years. The last time a book or movie captivated me like this was the last time I watched Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America all the way through, the almost four-hour version. The film affected me. I had to read and research everything I could about it. That’s where my head has been since IT: Chapter One came out in 2017.

This is another one where we all think we know the story. A group of kids, the self-titled Losers Club, band together to fight a demonic clown. They make a blood oath to reunite and fight the evil again if they failed the first time and IT returns. IT comes back to terrorize Derry, Maine, every 27 years, it casts a pall on the residents of this accursed town, and finds its food tastier when the food is scared. The Losers Club reunites and fights IT again. All the while, Henry Bowers and his gang lurk around every corner. IT’s favorite form is Pennywise The Dancing Clown, because, hey, who’s afraid of a clown? Right? We all are now, thanks Stephen.

I call myself a Stephen King fan but to be honest, I haven’t read as much of King’s work as I thought I had. Sure, I have seen numerous movie and TV adaptations for stories I have never read – Pet Sematary, Carrie, Creepshow, The Dark Tower, The Storm of the Century, Golden Years, Castle Rock, The Stand, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Tommyknockers, The Longoliers, The Mist, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Children of the Corn, Silver Bullet, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, 1408, The Running Man … I am sure I am missing something.

As for novels or books, I have read ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, The Dark Half, Needful Things, Gerald’s Game, Bag of Bones, Dreamcatcher, Joyland, Revival, The Outsider, and On Writing. I have also read the short story collections Night Shift and Full Dark No Stars. In all, just 13 books. I made it my mission to read IT, all 1,153 pages of IT, before IT: Chapter Two hit theaters. I accomplished that goal. I put everything else I was reading on hold until I finished it. It took about a month. I read a bit of IT every night except for maybe two or three nights. So, make that 13.

Most of us remember the made for TV mini-series from 1990 starring Tim Reid, John Ritter, Richard Thomas, Annette O’Toole, Dennis Christopher, Richard Masur, Harry Anderson, et al. Ageless wonder Seth Green stars as Richie Tozier as a child. Emily Perkins plays young Beverly Marsh. She goes on to star in the cult favorite werewolf film Ginger Snaps as Ginger’s sister, Brigitte.

I watched the mini-series again when IT: Chapter One was on the horizon, and then again when IT: Chapter Two was nearing its recent release. It’s better than you remember, Tim Curry is, well, pretty darn good as Pennywise The Dancing Clown. He plays it pretty straight as a circus clown until the moments when he has to feed. Then he is downright monstrous. It is pretty faithful to the book. It transitions seamlessly between 1958 and 1988. You have to get past Harry Anderson’s shtick as he was riding high on Night Court, and the fact that Tim Reid once played a disc jockey named Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati.

The mini-series gets vilified for two reasons: 1. it was made for TV so it had to go light on the gore; 2. the special effects in the boss battle scene with IT at the end were comical at best. It gets a bad rap on the whole, it is worth a watch.

IT: Chapter One was pitch perfect. The young actors cast to play the Losers Club were on the money, including Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis is great as young Beverly Marsh. The timeline is shifted a bit. It is set in 1989, so the adults’ story that comes later can take place in our time. The decision was made to split the story into two parts – the kids’ part and the adults’ tale. Bill Skarsgard is wonderful as Pennywise. There is so much to like about this film. Director Andy Muschietti nailed the aesthetic, the 1980s nostalgia, the Easter eggs and homages to the book, especially for the things they left out of the narrative but found a way to incorporate. Bowers’ descent into madness, aided by IT of course, illustrated the bully’s pathology although it didn’t dive into the origins of his nature enough. His father was an asshole in the movie and that had to suffice.

IT: Chapter Two was a disappointment in my eyes. I had high hopes for the casting. James McAvoy as Bill, Bill Hader as Richie, Jessica Chastain as Bev, Old Spice pitch man and former football player Isaiah Mustafa as Mike, James Ransone as Eddie. McAvoy is miscast, as is Jay Ryan as the adult Ben Hanscom. Chastain misses the mark on her portrayal of Bev, who was tough and determined as a kid, but bursts into tears at the drop of a hat as an adult. Skarsgard is underused as Pennywise as he is replaced by bad CGI creature effects in many scenes. Mike is portrayed as a raving lunatic who lured his friends back to Derry on false pretenses, despite their blood oath. Hader is pretty good as Richie and Ransone is a pleasant surprise as Eddie. Teach Grant is completely wasted as the adult Henry Bowers. The attraction between Bill and Bev isn’t handled well, and Bev ending up with Ben makes no sense the way it’s filmed.

My mind was filling in the blanks while I watched this three-hour slough through the sewers and streets of Derry because I had read the book and it was fresh in my mind. I could go point for point on how the book differed from the movies and the mini-series, but there are plenty of YouTube videos that’ll do that for you. Trust me, I’ve watched them.

I think the following when it comes to the film makers on this one. They missed the point. Don’t get me wrong, I am as big a fan of creature features as the next person. But, the folks who made Chapter Two distilled all of what IT is into one monster – Pennywise. Pennywise is a great villain to be sure. In the book, however, IT is a shapeshifter and is rarely Pennywise. They also spent way too much time flashing back to the Losers Club as kids and not enough developing the adults’ stories. This is such a rich and layered story, to distill it down to a monster movie is downright sad. A big swing and a miss here.

I also thought they should have stuck to the source material a bit more in Chapter Two. I thought too many key elements were changed. I did like Stephen King’s cameo, however.

What they really missed was the whole point of the book. Trauma. Especially childhood trauma. Every single member of the Losers Club went through some sort of childhood trauma which is symbolized, in most cases, by an encounter with IT.

As adults, they repressed those memories, which was symbolized by their memory loss when they all left Derry (except Mike, who stayed behind). Beverly married an abusive man after growing up abused by her father, Eddie was brow beaten and turned into a hypochondriac by his mother and married practically the same woman, Bill lost his stutter but forgot how his brother had died and tries to work it all out by writing horror novels, Richie covers it all up with humor as a popular disc jockey (comedian in the movie and late night talk show host in the mini-series), Stan just can’t handle any of it so he chooses to end his life rather than face IT again, Ben obsesses over work and fitness after losing weight after being tormented as the fat kid and never publicly professing his love for Bev. And Mike, poor Mike, was left behind to pick up the pieces and prepare for the next round with the damn clown.

These elements are not present in the movie the way they should be. They’re there all right. You see them, you just don’t feel them or understand them.

The beauty of Stephen King’s story is that IT represents whatever it is that traumatized you as a kid. It really doesn’t matter what “IT” is. And the bottom line is, what “IT” is for you, “IT” has to be dealt with. And what better way to handle it than with the people who love you the most. The people who know everything about you and love you anyway.

That’s why I didn’t care for Chapter Two getting distilled down into a monster movie. Read the book, watch the mini-series, watch the two new films. Judge for yourself. The book is tremendous. It was exhausting, but I enjoyed it immensely.

So, now I am on a Stephen King kick. I immediately set to reading Doctor Sleep, so make that 15 King novels I have read. He’s only written 60+. Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, and a film adaptation is due out soon. I then started Mr. Mercedes.

There is a chart or a graph or something on the Internet that shows how all of King’s works are interconnected. He’s so much more than a horror writer. I think many people don’t realize that. He has created a multidimensional multimedia universe that the Marvel Cinematic Universe could only … marvel at.

Read it, watch it, enjoy it. Somewhere in the Stephen King universe, you’ll find something you like. Just don’t ask me to go to Maine.

You’ll float too.

 

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?