Friday, October 31, 2014

HALLOWEEN IS HERE!

The Countdown has reached its end, and though it was fun while it lasted, Halloween being all up on us is even better. Time to go out and get some candy!!!

So in honor of the treat-acquiring on-deck for tonight, as well as the official mascot for 2014's Countdown to Halloween, here's a rad piece of art depicting the Creature from the Black Lagoon composed entirely of Halloween candy. This is the handiwork of Eric Milikin.

Happy Halloween, everyone! And thanks again to CountdownToHalloween.com for letting me be part of the parade - if you're bummed that this blog's countdown has concluded, feel free to check out any of the hundreds of other participants listed back at the HQ site!

Fight Club Friday! (5)

- You met me at a very strange time in my life.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

1 Day 'Til Halloween: Ready to suit up

There's an interesting duality about Halloween. The roots of the festival focused on the nearness of the netherworld, meaning both our own mortality and the unsettling mysteries of inhuman things that lurk in the shadows. It's the one celebration we perform mainly at night, in the dark. We don't try to escape the season, the way we look past winter to the rebirth of spring by bringing evergreen trees in from the cold at Christmas. And given all of that, there's an obvious association of Halloween with fear and the gruesome and macabre, so that a marathon of slasher flicks or a visit to a haunted house/cornfield/hayride feels holiday-appropriate. But then, on the flip side, there's the costumes worn for trick-or-treating or masquerade parties, and while it's a given that people will always dress up as vampires and witches (and, perhaps in questionable taste, invocations of real life fears from terrorists to Ebola) there's just as much wish-fulfillment and empowerment and goodness and light in costume choices as there is embodiment of and surrender to the darkness. Whatever the superstitious origins of dressing up as goblins or ghosts on All Hallow's Eve, it's now almost entirely about personal expression. Not that I have a problem with this in any way. As I say, I just find it interesting.

And I should point out that there's not a huge schism in the way people get into the spirit (ha ha) of Halloween, dividing into neat camps. Someone who looks forward all year to attending the local Carnival of Terror may be the kind of person who meticulously plans the perfect zombie costume, but may just as well be the kind of person who prefers to be a superhero or a goofy visual pun. Personally I like the monster costumes for myself, but that's just me, not an opening salvo in any kind of "you're doing it wrong" rant.

I'm not dressing up in any costume this year, no Halloween parties on the social calendar and no group/family theme for trick-or-treating. The latter possibility had the best chance of happening, and if it had happened, it would not have been anywhere near the horror end of the dress-up spectrum. Because obviously at this point in my life, my kids are the drivers of Halloween, and they are not quite (and may never be) as into the gothic and ghastly as much as dear old dad.

You probably could have pieced this together from the last few months of posts (in fact I'm not 100% sure I haven't mentioned it before) but there is going to be a large Lego influence in the Halloween costuming of my offspring tomorrow night. We've been planning it for months, basically for as long as the little guy has been obsessed with The Lego Movie. It occurred to us early on that all five members of the family could dress as characters from the film: the little guy called dibs on Benny the Spaceman, and the little girl wanted to be Princess Unikitty, which left Wyldstyle for my wife and Emmet for the bino. I was happy to take on Vitruvius (and probably would have brought along a sheet and switched over to Ghost Vitruvius about halfway through the night, because, come on, who are we trying to kid here).

The major snag that we encountered was that Lego does not produce officially licensed Halloween costumes which, given the potential gold mine that would be, seems borderline insane. We waited through the summer to see if they would eventually become available (they'd be brand new since there was no such thing as The Lego Movie last Halloween) but they never materialized. Still, with the little guy's heart set on the idea, that meant we'd have to somehow kitbash together homemade versions, and faced with the sheer amount of effort anticipated, the possibility of mom and dad dressing up with the kids went right out the window.

Then, as Halloween costumes for every other marketable property in the world started appearing (right around back-to-school), my wife was shopping with our daughter and they saw an Elsa costume and my wife asked the little girl if she'd like to be her for Halloween, and the little girl enthusiastically latched on to the idea. Aside from the fact that Princess Unikitty would be extremely hard to recreate, and a storebought Elsa costume is infinitely easier to acquire, it did seem only fair to let the little girl decide for herself and not constantly be steamrolled by her older brother's grandiose schemes. (Last year the little guy's heart's desire was to be Buzz Lightyear for Halloween, and he got his way, along with his sister as Jessie and baby bro as Mr. Potato Head. If he continued to get his way I'm sure this trend could have continued indefinitely.)

So that's the plan: basically our three kids are dressing as characters from the two highest-grossing children's movies in recent memory. The bino has a toddler-sized orange safety vest and construction hat, whereas the little guy has blue sneakers and blue gloves, a blue body suit that was part of a Toy Story alien costume (the green, three-eyed head has already become just another toy for everyday amusement), and a bootleg Benny mask from Etsy. Last night my wife and I stayed up late, her sorting Lego bricks (not for Halloween per se, just because it needed doing) and me working on the last few handmade elements of the boys' costumes. I made a blue posterboard torso front and back, glued a Lego Space symbol I had downloaded and printed to the front and a couple rolled pieces of posterboard as oxygen tanks to the back. I also wrapped a shoebox in red paper to make a Piece of Resistance that we will try to attach to the bino's safety vest, although I really don't know how long he's going to stay in costume. Hopefully long enough for a few pictures, at least.

Preparations have been made and now all there is to do is wait for the big night, and hope that the weather and the children's relative health all cooperate!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

2 Days 'Til Halloween: Power tool cuisine

We are actually having a chili cookoff here at the office today. Mmmmm, chili.

Wait, wasn't "chili" made from human remains one of the major plot points of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

What? No? That's actually from the dozen years later follow-up Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2?

My mistake. Carry on, then!

(And at least I got in the obligatory nod to the tendency of horror movies to metastasize into multiple ungainly, unloved sequels before the Countdown ran its course.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

3 Days 'Til Halloween: Trading Card Tuesday (Horrors!)

If this (nearly) month-long countdown, and this recurring feature in particular, have proven anything, hopefully it would be that I've just about always been into impulse-buy collecting, and I've just about always been into monsters and the overarching horror genre. And yet, I never directly married the two. In fact, I'm pretty sure growing up that I wasn't even really aware that stuff like this existed:

And yet, exist they did. Even if I had known they were out there, I'm not entirely sure I ever would have tracked them down, or picked them up if I happened to stumble across them. I guess it's a mood thing: I can pretty much always chuckle at the moronic humor of a good gross-out pun, or appreciate the whiz-bang escapism of comics, no matter what else is going on, but I take horror a lot more seriously. Or at the very least, I don't engage with horror casually. To separate the boogeyman from their surrounding narrative context, and freeze-frame them in glossy prints on cardboard, transforms them in a fundamental way which no longer interests me. As usual, I may be overthinking it a bit.

Monday, October 27, 2014

4 Days 'Til Halloween: The brew crew

As we enter the home stretch of the Countdown here, I am greatly looking forward to enjoying this particular treat on Friday night:

Which was on display at the Total when my wife and I stopped in a few weeks ago, and I promptly bought a six-pack as my contribution to the planned Halloween festivities. It has been sitting at home ever since (with other, non-holiday-themed beer bought and consumed since then) awaiting its designated purpose. I have no idea if I'm actually going to find it to be a transcendent drinking experience; I generally like Newcastle and I suspect I will find it palatable enough, but obviously I mainly bought it for the amusement factor, and that in and of itself should carry through as justification enough.

Speaking of amusements, one of my long-standing habits is following advice columns across various magazines and websites and so on. This in turn has alerted me to the fact that some people find it highly objectionable that some parents who walk around the neighborhood with a gaggle of kids on Halloween partake in adult beverages before or during said trick-or-treating. Which I suppose means I am part of the problem. I'll grant that it is both unseemly and irresponsible to get totally wasted and then attempt to supervise excitable small children who pose the near-constant risk of running into traffic in the dark while wearing bulky costumes and/or peripheral vision limiting masks. But rather than drawing a zero-tolerance line, I believe that moderation is as always the key. As I mentioned previously, for several years now we've been doing the multi-family get-together thing, and a selection of wines and beers for the legally of-age who choose to indulge is as much a part of the tradition at this point as the pizza dinner and the kids' never-say-die attempts to get us to start the trick-or-treating early (even though we ALWAYS wait until dark) and the post-trick-or-treating candy binges. If that makes me a bad parent or a bad community member then I guess I'll have to live with that.

But I'm totally keeping one of the Werewolf bottles as a display souvenir for my bar back home.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

5 Days 'Til Halloween: Candy Sunday (4)

It really wouldn't feel like an interwebboblog event if I didn't include a dose of snark and/or pointless complaining, and since we're at the five days remaining mark I'll go all in with a Five Things: specifically, the Five WORST Candies People Hand Out On Halloween:

5. Candy Corn.

It turns out my wife actually likes candy corn. Learn something new every year. I had failed to learn this any of the previous Halloweens we've been together, clearly because of a mental block based entirely upon how gross and weird these so-called confections are.

4. Peppermint Patties

My wife also likes these, but they taste like chocolate-covered toothpaste to me. Trade fodder at best, but fortunately they are pretty good for that because a lot of people enjoy them. They are welcome to them.

3. Bit-o-Honey

What ... I don't even ... what is this? A strange flavor which does not come remotely close to compensating for the risk of accidentally sucking out a filling that comes with stuffing a glob of adhesive in your mouth.

2. Tootsie Pops

Controversial? I just couldn't get into these when I was a kid. I was never really big on Tootsie Rolls, for that matter, because I felt like they were a bait-and-switch wherein my beloved milk chocolate was promised (really only implied, but KID LOGIC) and then a waxy choco-like gunk was delivered. Tootsie Pops were just tainted by association, especially since I was very much the impatient type of tot who would give a few licks and then bite into a lollipop. But biting through hard candy and into a Tootsie Roll was unthinkable.

1. Non-candy

Pretzels? Raisins? Pennies? Toothbrushes? All equally guilty of missing the point and generally being the worst of the worst. COSTUMES AND CANDY, PEOPLE. Come on. It's not that difficult.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

6 Days 'Til Halloween Grab Bag

This is the last reminder about the banner contest, but you can enter right up to midnight on Halloween!

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I mentioned a month or so ago that we finally got a DVR, but I don't think I've mentioned since then how much we're enjoying it. I can tangentially tie this to Halloween by pointing out that we DVR'ed this year's broadcast of Toy Story of Terror, which my wife has never seen (still hasn't, in fact, but it's waiting there for her whenever she's ready!) But mainly the big draw at this point is that we can watch time-delayed Jeopardy and do so very efficiently in about 15 minutes per episode by fast-forwarding the commercials, the awkward contestant interviews, and really everything except the clues and responses.

On a recent episode there was a cinema question referencing the Odessa Staircase sequence and I was super-excited to be able to yell out "Battleship Potemkin!" My wife smiled sweetly at me and called me a nerd, which honestly makes me feel like I've come a long way (to specifically being a movie-nerd).

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I almost used this panel to illustrate Thursday's post:

Since I went for a more literal visual aid, I was left wondering when I might be able to work this into what's left of the countdown. Clearly I am opting for the surreal and out-of-context answer.

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See you tomorrow for the final Candy Sunday of October!

Friday, October 24, 2014

7 Days 'Til Halloween: And the autumn moon is bright (The Wolf Man)

It’s a special Halloween-inspired edition of the 1001 Movies Blog Club, reaching back into the vaults for a horror icon from Universal's monster movie glory days: 1941's The Wolf Man. Despite my early efforts as a lad to familiarize myself with the classics, I had never seen The Wolf Man before this month. Blame the limited availability of home formats of the film when I was a kid, and the ever-ready excuse of limited availability of time in my adulthood. But the omission has been corrected, so let the reviewing proceed!

The interesting thing about The Wolf Man, to my mind, is that on the one hand it is usually thought of as part of a triumverate of archetypes along with Dracula and Frankenstein, but on the other hand if you start to break down the stories and the characters, The Wolf Man really follows its own path. That shouldn't be surprising, all things considered, especially source material: Dracula and Frankenstein both originated as novels written in the 19th century, whereas The Wolf Man jumps straight from werewolf folklore to screenplay in the 20th. If Curt Siodmak, who penned the film, was trying to craft a Gothic companion piece to the tales of the vampiric count or the mad scientist and his unholy creation, he did so only by preserving the elements of setting and a few key plot points, while subverting almost everything else.

Maybe the most telling difference is that while Count Dracula and Victor Frankenstein are decidedly European figures, Larry Talbot is American. Sure, he's the heir to an estate in Wales, where the entire movie takes place, and his father (played exquisitely by Claude Rains) is the lord of the manor, but Lon Chaney Jr. was from Oklahoma and plays prodigal son Larry as aw-shucks as he possibly can. Larry Talbot is (mostly) likable and relatable, and his non-lycanthropic struggles come down to pining for the girl next door who happens to already be engaged, and mending his relationship with his father after the tragic death of his brother. He's not a symbol of old world superstition, or the menace of unchecked and voracious sexuality, or the folly of hubris in the name of science. He's a regular guy, trying to find his way and maybe win the lady's love. He has no idea that his own story is going to become a tragedy.

And neither does the audience, at the outset, nor are we given any clues. I feel like I can't state this enough: Larry doesn't do anything wrong. He's a bit unserious, and a little aggressive and entitled in his initial pursuit of Gwen Conliffe (cultural mores have changed since the 40's, so what seems stalkerish to modern eyes is probably meant to be charmingly confident and essentially harmless). Ultimately Larry finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he and Gwen and Gwen's friend Jenny go to have the fortunes told by a gypsy (Bela Lugosi!), who unbeknownst to them has the curse of the werewolf. The gypsy transforms and attacks Jenny, and Larry rushes to her aid. Too late to save Jenny, he beats the wolf to death with his silver-headed walking stick, and is bitten during the fight. There's no real insinuation that Larry was too late coming to Jenny's aid through any punishable fault of his own, and the killing of the gypsy werewolf is treated as a mercy. Nevertheless, Larry is cursed, and becomes an unwitting and unwilling killer before finally being set free by death.

That makes The Wolf Man much more of a horror story than Dracula or Frankenstein, both of which are essentially morality plays in which events unfold but no one really undergoes growth or change, until inevitably evil is punished. Horror stories scare us because they imply that bad things happen for no real reason, and therefore could conceivably happen to us. I have never experimented in the realms beyond death where man was never meant to meddle, nor have I sold my soul to become a blood-drinking immortal. But could I be bitten by a wild animal while trying to help someone? If so, I could end up paying a disproportionately high price, and that is the genuine stuff of nightmares.

The sets used in The Wolf Man are all very Hollywood, but I think that actually serves the movie well in this case. Stepping away from the literal story about a man who becomes a savage beast, The Wolf Man is really a psychological drama about a man who feels he's losing touch with himself, or outright control over himself, and fears the uncertainty of the future. Most of the daytime shots are interiors, where everything is framed in straight lines, and the scenery stays properly out of the way. The nighttime exteriors, on the other hand, are chaotic, with dry-ice fog constantly swirling around the actors' feet, and gnarled tree trunks and branches making the spaces feel more claustrophobic, often interposing dark snaking shadows between the camera lens and the actors. It's a fantastic dichotomy that underlines the inner turmoil and mental tug-of-war Larry is going through.

And of course it's Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance as Larry that really makes or breaks the film. Despite the fact that he's the tallest, most broad-shouldered actor in the ensemble he projects such intense vulnerability and desperation that the woeful tale of his brief, terrifying time as a werewolf is heart-wrenching. The horror buffs who wrote the books I devoured as a kid praised Lon Chaney Jr. for the sheer mental and physical endurance it took to have the werewolf makeup applied, only to then skulk and lurch across the movie sets in an animalistic gait that sold the concept completely, but while all of that praise is deserved I think it shortchanges the humanistic acting the man delivered as Larry Talbot, the reason we care in the first place. Whichever side you come to the movie for, the wolf or the man, it's unlikely you'll walk away disappointed.

Fight Club Friday! (4)

- Hey, even the Mona Lisa's falling apart.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

8 Days 'Til Halloween: Grandma’s coat closet

(I am cheating and back-filling a Thursday post. I spent Wednesday and Thursday of this week at home with my 6-year-old and 3-year-old, both of whom had varying symptoms which were later either lab-confirmed or professionally-suspected to be strep. They're both on antibiotics and on the mend now, but they were kept home for two days for overabundantly cautious quarantine. Wednesday they were both able to abide by the "keep still and rest here watch some movies" rules but on Thursday it was obvious they both felt fine and needed to tear around the house. Hence, I can only make batter-late-then-never blog amends here and now.)

One of the vivid memories from my youth which illustrates the general principle that kids are dumb enough to be their own worst enemies (and believe me, my childhood recollections may be spotty but those particular stripe of self-recriminations are in seemingly inexhaustible supply) is set during a visit to my grandmother (on my mother's side) who often took Little Bro and I for a week in the summer for no reason other than to give our parents a bit of a break. Grandma's house was not particularly big, nor was it located someplace cool like on a beach or near an amusement park of whathaveyou, and we never befriended any of the other local kids, if there even were any. (NB: this story references my paternal grandparents.) Grandma would make up for the lack of environmental entertainments by straight up buying us new toys to keep us occupied for the week. And one year, my brother chose a small glow-in-the-dark plastic skull filled with rubber creepy crawlies.

I couldn't say why he made that particular selection at the toy store that particular visit. It just struck him as cool and fun, I imagine. It wasn't specifically associated with any name-brand toy line, just a generic cheap novelty that my grandmother was willing to indulge him in. So into the cart and back to grandma's it went.

My grandmother's house had a large walk-in closet on the ground floor which was used mostly as a coat closet, as well as a storage place for the numerous puzzles and board games that my uncles had collected over time. It was a square room, small but still spacious enough that Little Bro and I could both step in and close the door and stand in the center without touching each other and without touching any of the coats, either. Since it was enclosed and windowless, it seemed like a good place to test out just how glowy the glowing skull really was.

So we went into the closet and closed the door turned off the light. I was the one holding the skull, doubtless having invoked some nebulous form of big brother privilege, the upside for Little Bro being that he could just stand back and appreciate the spectacle. And for some reason it got into my head that I should hold the skull up and make it nod while giving a menacing laugh, there in the pitch black depths. Which of course freaked Little Bro OUT and in no small measure freaked me out, partly because Little Bro's reaction was so immediate and terror-filled but also just in and of itself, the nodding glowing floating skull laughing at both of us, even though I was the puppet-master behind it, it still evoked some primal fear of things that could come out of the dark and get us, gloating and snickering all the while.

For a brief horrifying second Little Bro and I were both so freaked we couldn't even find and open the doorknob to get back out of the closet, but then we were back in the sunlit living room again, crisis averted. Still, the self-inflicted mental wounds had been dealt. The scars are relatively tiny today, but they're there, thanks to a dumb kid who liked a good scare a little too much.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

9 Days 'Til Halloween: Genre rules (Green Lantern Annual)

I would be a bit remiss if I let an entire month-long countdown go by and didn't at least try to tie one geeky Wednesday post in to my favorite comic, Green Lantern. Of course, when the protagonist of a heavily sci-fi influenced series has a weapon so advanced it can do just about anything, it's hard to tell a proper horror story. Nonetheless some writers feel compelled to try (or are so compelled by editorial fiat). And thus I turn to Green Lantern Annual #7, from the summer of 1998, when all the DC Comics annuals were united by a storyline entitled GHOSTS, and heroes were forced to confront physical manifestations of their failures, as represented by unquiet spirits of old friends (or sometimes enemies) who had died.

Of course, in superhero comics death is something a revolving-door proposition, so on some meta-level it was almost as if DC were pulling out a bunch of references in order to say "Look! Here's some characters who died and actually stayed dead and can slot into stories about revenants and bad memories!"

In the case of Green Lantern circa the late 90's, it was even more complicated. The whole title had been retooled around 1994 or so with a massive housecleaning involving foremost GL Hal Jordan going crazy, wiping out the rest of the thousands of aliens in the Green Lantern Corps, and then disappearing (presumed dead), which allowed Kyle Rayner to then step up as the sole inheritor of the GL legacy. All well and good, but by 1998 they had already started playing around with bringing perennial favorite Hal back, and in fact when the GHOSTS annual was published, the regular monthly series was in the middle of a storyline where young Hal traveled forward from the past to hang out in a world that had buried him.

But for GHOSTS, which was supposed to be creepy, Kyle dealt with literal undead aliens:

Long story short, he defeats them by treating them exactly like zombies, and not letting his conflicted feelings about how his actions reflected on his slaughtered predecessors slow him down.

And then, to the surprise of no one, less than 10 years later almost all of those "dead" alien Green Lanterns were brought back to life, or revealed never to have actually died, or some plot-convenient craziness along those lines. (Comics, everybody!) But for a brief moment there, Green Lantern was an interesting ongoing story about doing good after a cataclysmic systemic failure, and all the uncertainty and struggle that goes along with that. I kind of miss following that particular chapter of the saga.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

10 Days 'Til Halloween: Trading Card Tuesday (Marvel Universe)

Marvel Comics started putting out sets of trading cards when I was in high school, which on the one hand was also right around the time my comic-collecting habit was getting its second wind, but on the other hand means I was arguably way too old to be helpless before the allure of opaque packets of mysteriously concealed cardboard rectangles. And yet, out of some misguided sense of loyalty to Marvel and any product they might care to license, not to mention residual fondness for card-collecting itself, I ended up acquiring tons of Marvel Universe cards. Most of them ended up getting glued collage-style to the longboxes I stored my comics in, so that the big, heavy oblongs in the corner of my room were less plain white and more funky and decorative. The rest sat in rubber-banded stacks on my dresser, serving absolutely no purpose whatsoever until they eventually got thrown away in an unsentimental purge.

At any rate, in keeping with the Halloween theme, what better Marvel character to highlight than the comic universe's own version of the Devil Himself: Mephisto!

Marvel Universe cards were more like baseball cards than just about anything else I ever collected, right down to the reverse of each card reading like a career overview for a journeyman athlete:

The front picture, though, is pretty non-dynamic. It gets across the idea that Mephisto is a ruler of the underworld, I suppose, and maybe hints at the themes that most of his appearances played around with: that whoever's in charge of Hell is a study in contradictions: gleefully sadistic in pursuing plans of others' ruination, yet also lonely, tormented, self-loathing; a cosmically powerful entity, yet at heart a coward and a bully who prefers to pick on the weak, dealing in lies and exploiting trickery. He might occasionally engage in epic physical battles, since we are talking about comic books here:

But he's just as likely to be scowling and sulking in some dark stygian corner, deeply dissatisfied with his place in the grand scheme of things, and unable to do much about that, other than distract himself with another attempt at corrupting a hero or somesuch.

Still, not trying to conjure up too much sympathy here. Being the devil in a superhero universe is a pretty good gig if you can get it. And to be honest, Mephisto knows theatrics, and how to look very bad and very cool making an entrance:

Can't beat the fire and brimstone for getting psyched for Halloween!

Monday, October 20, 2014

11 Days 'Til Halloween: Overdue books (Danse Macabre)

I've been wracking my brain trying to remember what the first Stephen King book I ever read was. Clearly I was not as obsessive way back then about cataloging my own consumption habits (and honestly, even if I had been I'm sure those quarter-century old lists would have long since been lost) and in my memory the whole "getting into Stephen King" process is a big 0-to-60 blur. I think IT is a likely candidate, for a few different reasons. I went through a phase (fueled mostly by the pretentiousness of early adolescence) where I was trying to read extremely long novels, just to prove I could. And a friend of mine (Boomer) had read it and talked it up a lot; I'm positive at the time the Boomer was devouring it and unleashing spoilers on me daily in the middle school cafeteria, I wasn't yet into King myself, but rather hung up on fantasy and sci-fi novels with all my forays into horror still ahead of me. When I did finally make the jump into King's works, I can see IT being top-of-mind. But then again, it could have been Pet Sematary, or Salem's Lot, or Misery. I read all of those in rapid succession, one way or the other.

All I know is that I got into Stephen King right around the beginning of high school, and at that time, late 1988, his body of work consisted of these novels: Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, The Gunslinger, Christine, Pet Sematary, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Talisman, IT, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Drawing of the Three, Misery, and The Tommyknockers. There were also a couple of short story collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, as well as the four-novella compilation Different Seasons and the quartet of short pseudonymous novels published in one volume as The Bachman Books. That's about 21 books altogether, and it really doesn't matter where I jumped in exactly, only that I dove in somewhere and was immediately hooked and proceeded to tear through (almost) everything as fast as I could.

Of course, Stephen King continued to write and publish just about as fast as he could, and I have distinct memories of receiving a hardcover copy of The Dark Half, the first novel published after my addiction kicked in, as well as the hardcover of The Stand - Complete and Uncut shortly after that (probably birthday and Christmas of 1990, respectively). I hadn't exhausted King's earlier works as I got into the habit of picking up his newer stuff on or close to release dates, nor did I necessarily give up on reading material by authors other than King, so eventually my consumption leveled off. At any given time I might be reading the latest Stephen King, or a cheap paperback reprint, or something else entirely.

Back in those early 90's days I used to spend a lot of time at the mall, and most of that time at the various bookstores. Stephen King was a hot enough property by then for there to usually be a pretty substantial amount of shelf space dedicated to him. Some of the older books, like Cycle of the Werewolf, proved weirdly elusive, and others proved almost as weirdly overabundant (I remember picking up a remaindered hardcover of Eyes of the Dragon super-cheap one idle summer afternoon). No matter how long it had been since my last Stephen King fix, though, I remember there was one book that I would see on the shelves all the time, one book I didn't mention in my mini King bibliography above but which was published in 1981, and yet I would never, ever (at the time) be remotely tempted to pick up: Danse Macabre.

The absurdly simple explanation for skipping over that particular paperback every time the opportunity to pick it up presented itself is that I knew it was non-fiction, not King writing a tale of characters confronting horror but King ruminating on horror as a genre across various formats and time periods, and that held no interest for me whatsoever. I roll my eyes at my younger self now, of course, but the truth is as a teen I only read fiction for pleasure, with zero exceptions. I did well enough in school, reading the assigned texts on historical events and scientific facts and whatnot, but I would never willingly choose to read something fact-based in my free time when there were so many works of pure imagination out there waiting for me. The irony, of course, is that nowadays I read plenty of non-fiction, partly because I don't draw such hard and fast distinctions about what constitutes pleasurable reading anymore, partly because I've made a conscious effort to balance my mental diet now that I'm so far outside the bounds of school. And within the walls of non-fiction, pop culture analysis in particular is something I happily eat up with a spoon. So here we have a book of pop-culture analysis, specifically addressing one of my favorite genres, and written by one of my all-time top authors. I just had to get over some youthful prejudices in order to appreciate it.

So I FINALLY got around to reading Danse Macabre this month. And of course I enjoyed it immensely, but the amount of time that I waited to correct the oversight means that the whole endeavor is now incredibly dated. Danse Macabre conducts a King's-eye overview of thirty years of horror history, from 1950 to 1980 (give or take a few highly influential classics from the previous century that more than merit serious consideration), and Danse Macabre is now thirty-three years old itself. Some of the references are quaint, some judgments are hasty, and some of the unintentional ironies are downright chilling. A couple of quick examples:

1. King is sneeringly dismissive of Wes Craven, which makes a lot of sense in context. As of 1980 Craven was best known for trashy exploitative horror films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. He hadn't yet unleashed A Nightmare on Elm Street into the world, let alone Scream. It's pretty much a given now that Craven belongs in the Horror Hall of Fame. I have to assume Steve has moderated his contempt somewhat over the past three decades.

2. The biggest recent tragedies in the news at the dawn of the 80's were the mass suicides at Jonestown and the hostage crisis in Iran. The word "terrorist" has a decidedly pre-9/11 flavor when King (frequently) drops it. But pushing the envelope even further, King considers a novel entitled The Fog by James Herbert, written in 1975, and notes how eerie it is that one of the chapters, about a town full of people who are driven insane by the titular miasma and commit mass suicide by stampeding lemming-like(*) into the sea, seems like a rehash of what happened in Guyana except that Herbert wrote his book first. During the same consideration King off-handedly references how another act of insane self-destruction is a commercial airline pilot crashing a jumbo jet into a downtown office building in London ... but of course to King in 1981 that's an example of Herbert's wicked imagination with no bearing on reality. Shudder.

(* = yes I know lemmings don't really run off cliffs and that's a lie propagated by Disney nature films.)

I can only imagine what King would be capable of producing if he were asked to produce a Danse Macabre volume 2, covering the 80's and 90's and new millennium in horror. I'm honestly a bit shocked that no publisher has asked him to do just that, given how many units it would move. Actually, chances are numerous publishers have already made the request and King has declined, citing that he's had his academic-ish non-fiction say on the genre and that's enough for a lifetime. Fair enough.

But there are plenty of good nuggets in Danse Macabre, and I'm still in the process myself of trying to figure out exactly how to parse them all. Especially helpful are the appendices, one for novels and one for movies, where King lists about 100 or so of each he recognizes as modern classics and then helpfully asterisks the ones which are also personal favorites. Clearly at some point I'm going to have to go through these lists and build out some reading/viewing lists of my own. Perhaps another Class Not Taken, with an imaginary syllabus of suspense and supernatural novels as selected by Professor King? Or maybe a large chunk of next year's Halloween Countdown will consist of a horror flick marathon curated by the man from Bangor? We shall see, my friends, we shall have to wait and see.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

12 Days 'Til Halloween: Candy Sunday (3)

Some kids are perfectly happy to eat their Halloween candy straight out of the plastic pumpkin, sticking their hands in blindly and unwrapping whatever comes out. And some kids prefer to dump the contents onto the kitchen table or the dining room floor and inventory their haul, the better to formulate some kind of optimized consumption strategy.

Clearly, given which approach could be described as "unthinking" and which might qualify as "overthinking", I fell (read: fall, who do I think I'm kidding) into the latter category. So, speaking as an insider, I know there are a few different motivations that lead to this kind of careful candy accounting.

One possibility is that the kid in question has one or two favorite candies, and the kid wants to first find out how many of those favorites he or she actually managed to score, and second ration those favorites accordingly. (Corollary: if there is a surplus of someone else's favorite candies and a deficit of one's own, some reciprocal candy exchange may be brokered.) It's dispiriting to discover without warning that there aren't any Peanut M&M's left in your stash, and simultaneously realize that you didn't properly appreciate the last of them, whenever past-you happened to gobble them down. I do have my favorites, and I do try to savor them, but this isn't really my main rationale.

Another possibility is that the kid has come to the sophisticated realization that not all candy goes together perfectly. It is gustatorially jarring to chase a mini Mounds with a strawberry Starburst (or any flavor of Starburst, at that). Laying out and tallying up the candy allows the kid to, at the very least, identify the chocolate/non-chocolate divide and proceed with some kind of flavor-profile coherence. This is getting closer to where I'm coming from ...

All right, look, the thing is, I like to eat Halloween candy in a very specific order. I enjoy smooth transitions from one combination of ingredients to the next. So I like to know exactly what I have on hand in order to arrange things in their proper order. If I can form a taste bridge between a fun-sized Milky Way and a Hershey's Special Dark by way of a fun size Milky Way Midnight, why wouldn't I obey that simple logic? Or start with a Milky Way, proceed to a Snickers (essentially a Milky Way plus peanuts), follow that with a Snickers PB Squared (the "PB" is for peanut butter), and stick the landing with a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup?

Don't judge me. I can't be the only person who does this. I'm just willing to admit it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

13 Days 'Til Halloween Grab Bag

Don't forget to enter the contest going on this month!

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I don't think I've got it in me to do a full write-up, but I did want to mention during this Halloween Countdown that I recently saw 28 Days Later, which is (fairly rightly) considered a modern horror classic and one I had missed out on the first time around. It's certainly another impressive entry in Danny Boyle's filmography, both on its own merits and in terms of just how different it is from his other work in Trainspotting and Sunshine (the presence of Cillian Murphy notwithstanding).

There are aspects of the plot that really don't make a ton of sense, mostly involving the zombies and how they work. I'm all for a new breed of zombie that moves with punishing speed and ferocity, and putting that down to a virus that manifests as pure rage and spreads via blood and saliva is as good an explanation as any. Except for the whole pandemic aspect, when you stop and think about it. By making the monsters living hosts for a neurological disease rather than reanimated corpses with a hunger for brains, it seems to me that the vectors get all screwed up. Undead zombie bites you, you die (of the bite or other causes), then you rise again as a zombie, that has a certain mythic logic to it. It doesn't matter if the zombie bites you once in the course of you fighting it off and escaping, or if multiple zombie bites are part of the zombie killing you. Rage-infected person bites you, you get infected as well, but you have to be alive in order to become one of them. If you die, you're just dead. So why would these rage-zombies leave any of their victims alive? If they are truly infected with pure rage, wouldn't that manifest as attacking someone and just savagely beating/biting them to death? Pure rage does not, to me, imply "and also they have an agenda of spreading the virus to other living hosts". It implies an initial outbreak of violence that would quickly burn itself out, as a small number of rage-zombies kill a bunch of people, then are contained, then turn on and kill each other (because why not? it's not like they crave the brains of the living and can't get any sustenance out of cannibalizing each other; rage is still rage directed at any target). It's as though the writer (Alex Garland) came up with a nifty pseudo-scientific explanation for a scarier kind of zombie, then plugged them into all the old tropes of zombie movies despite the fact that a game-changer does in fact change the game. By the latter portions of the movie, where Major West is bragging that he has one live, captive zombie as a kind of experiment to see how long it takes for their kind to starve to death, it's as if everyone has forgotten that the "zombies" are supposed to just be human beings infected with a fury-inducing virus, and presumably they'd starve to death about as fast as anyone else.

None of that matters, clearly. A zombie pandemic with different bells and whistles is just an excuse for an examination of how human beings get by in the world and what might happen if the extraneous elements of civilization were stripped away, and between that and the audacious visuals brought to the screen the movie has to be considered a success. But since it's October, I felt compelled to consider the creatures as a concept, just in the spirit of things. (That spirit is apparently "nitpicky".) Still, no version blood-spitting predators can really top Brendan Gleeson looking at the only unspoiled fruit in a post-apocalyptic grocery and delivering the immortal line, "Mmmmmm ... irradiated."

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This week I found out that a short story I've written has been accepted for a forthcoming anthology, which was an unexpected bit of good news. I won't get into too many details about it here, and for that matter probably won't until the book is much closer to a publication date, but I'm including it in the grab bag because it's at least tangentially Halloween-like. The tale I told (or retold, as it happens) is a horror-story twist on a classic fairy tale. Fun stuff. Updates to follow!

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We've made it more than halfway through the countdown and I haven't missed a day yet - can I keep it up for another 12 days? Come back tomorrow and find out!

Friday, October 17, 2014

14 Days 'Til Halloween: Weathering the storm

I can remember one October, probably fourth or fifth grade or thereabouts, hoping very hard that there would be a full moon on Halloween. Because I was going to be a werewolf that year, you see, and so I wanted every detail including the phases of heavenly objects to be just so in support of that. I think it also occurred to me that given the full moon's general association with supernatural doings beyond lycanthropy, it just was the optimal kind of moon to have on Halloween. And at that age I was vaguely aware of the existence of some holidays which always fell on the same date and some holidays which floated around, based on "lunar calendars", and I could not for the life of me figure out why Halloween fell in the former camp as opposed to the latter.

These days I'm less concerned with the relative positions of the sun and moon on the 31st and more focused on the weather. And of course my priorities have completely flip-flopped: I'll grant without question that a driving rain and thunder and lightning are atmospherically appropriate to just about any imaginary Halloween narrative, but at this point practicalities trump aesthetics and I would vastly prefer a clear, dry, unseasonably mild night on which to tromp around the neighborhood with my kids. Don't get me wrong, I would undertake said tromping with a golf umbrella in hand and endure the chill and damp without complaint, and the thought of telling my kids "no trick-or-treating in this downpour, better luck next year" would never cross my mind. But I was speaking of preferences.

It strikes me that this is yet another strange distinction that Halloween has in the childhood calendar, that it's an event entirely dependent on one's ability to get outside. Or, at least, in my middle-class suburban template-based childhood; I understand there are kids who live in highrises who can trick-or-treat up one hallway and down the other and never see what moon is up in the sky, and there are also kids who live in remote areas where the preferred nighttime activity is converging on some central location for a big party or somesuch. But go with me on this.

If Easter gets rained out, you can still hunt for eggs hidden around the rooms of your house. White Christmases are nice and all but nothing is ruined if December 25th is sunny and warm. Lousy, uncooperative weather on Halloween is just the worst. And it's been fairly lousy around here this week, massive storms on Wednesday, which just happen to translate into serious sinus headache aggravations for me as the waves of rapidly changing barometric pressure roll on through. So perhaps I've had seasonal weather on the mind even moreso than usual. Everybody talks about it, nobody ever seems to do anything about it, ain't it the truth.

Fight Club Friday! (3)

- WHOA! WHOA! WHOA! Ok, you are now firing a gun at your 'imaginary friend' near 400 GALLONS OF NITROGLYCERIN!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

15 Days 'Til Halloween: The little things (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble)

Since Halloween is both a holiday for kids and a festival of frights, I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about a storybook that scared the BEJEEZUS out of me when I was a wee lad of maybe six or seven years old:

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig is an award-winning children's book; but it's no Cat in the Hat or Where the Wild Things Are, so some of you may be familiar with it and some of you may not. It is not an intentionally scary book, as far as my adult mind can reckon. Like any truly worthwhile bit of children's entertainment, it has its moments, of course. It's not in the let's-all-cooperate-and-share vein (which has its own worth too, granted, but more as a pro-social teaching tool than as narrative art that can and should stick with someone past early elementary school or so), it actually has conflict and tension and stakes, but arguably still of a fairly manageable level, with brightly-colored and gently-rendered illustrations of the anthropomorphic animal characters. It's not unexpurgated Grimm's fairy tales. But for pure, abject existential terror, there's not much else in my childhood which stands out quite so hauntingly.

Sylvester is a young donkey who collects things, like interesting-looking pebbles. And one day he happens to find a magic, wish-granting pebble, which in the context of the story is a fairly unusual object. Human-like animals aside, it's a pretty mundane world that Sylvester inhabits, and the magic pebble is his special secret little treasure.

So clearly right off the bat we have a premise in which it was all too easy for me to project myself. Sylvester's not just a collector (ahem) but also a bit shy and quiet and maybe even nerdy, when suddenly an element of the utterly fantastical is introduced into his life in the course of indulging in his usual solitary pursuits (which, it goes without saying, was a daydream I had all the time growing up).

One day Sylvester is frightened by a lion (the implications of the co-existence of savage feral animals and domesticated civilized animal-people is never fully explored, not that this occurred to me as a young'un) and a panicked Sylvester wishes he were a rock, because the lion couldn't hurt a rock. His wish comes true, but since he now has no hands (he's not a statue donkey, he's a big oblong boulder) the magic pebble drops to the ground. And if he's not holding the pebble, or at least making physical contact with it, he can't make any more wishes, including the wish to turn back to normal. So he is stuck as an inert stone, but still very much mentally awake and (at least inwardly) aware.

WHICH IS HORRIFYING. This is basically the nightmare at the heart of Johnny Got His Gun, right? A nightmare so terrifying that Metallica wrote a song about it and then underlined it by making a video that referenced both film versions of that novel. Of course I didn't know about the Dalton Trumbo novel when I was a little kid, and Metallica's "One" came much later, but the concept struck a chord in me. I don't know why exactly this should be a particularly devastating fear of mine; maybe it's just the fact that I'm a natural extrovert and I need other people's attention and energy, and therefore extreme isolation strikes me as absolute torture. And maybe, too, in the case of Sylvester and how much I identified with him, I could see myself making a similar mistake, a reflexive mental spaz with dire consequences.

The book then spends a little time describing how Sylvester's parents looked all around for him when he didn't come home, but could never find him, and this also struck terror into my little heart. All well and good now in my rational adulthood to chuckle about how we used to freak out in the 80's about stranger danger and child abduction, blowing them out of all proportion, but living through those times was not always so fun. There was always an undercurrent in the PSAs and school assemblies and whatnot that we kids needed to be careful and protect ourselves not only for our own sakes, but for the sakes of our poor parents who would be so heartbroken if anything ever happened to us. Which must have worked on some level, whether via programming or due to social instinct, I don't know. I do know that when I was little and watched the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy is unafraid about running away from home, but then changes her mind when she imagines how distraught Auntie Em is, it made perfect sense to me. So the plight of Sylvester's parents, the horror of their loss as well as their not knowing what had happened or why, was pretty dang chilling to me.

The story has a happy ending, as one day Sylvester's parents (presumably now somewhere in the "acceptance" phase of their grieving process) go out for a picnic and discover a nice big rock to spread the lunch out on, which of course is the metamorphosed Sylvester. And they happen to notice the magic pebble in the grass, and think how it's the kind of thing Sylvester would have liked, and they set it on top of the boulder. Coincidentally, at the same time, Sylvester's consciousness, floating around in some mental limbo within his geologic prison, is thinking fondly of his mother and father and wishes he could be reunited with them. The pebble grants his wish, changing him back, and everyone is overjoyed and the picnic becomes a celebration.

But even at the tender age of six or seven, that resolution struck me as a bit pat. It was pure dumb luck that Sylvester's parents found him, found the pebble, and put the magic wishing object in contact with their transmuted son at the same time he was idly wishing. There was no comforting lesson about how devoted parental love, or Sylvester's own indomitable spirit or individualistic intelligence, or anything like that, led to his salvation. The message of the book did not seem to be "Disasters happen, but here's how to proactively navigate the storm" but rather "Self-inflicted disasters happen, and there's not much you can do except wait and see how it's all going to turn out due to forces beyond your control." Which, yikes.

I admit, I have not revisited Sylvester and the Magic Pebble at any point. I believe it was checked out of the public library for me and returned a couple of weeks later, so it's not like I could pull it down off my parents' shelves again when I was thirteen or nineteen or twenty-seven. It deeply creeped me out well through my childhood, just popping into my consciousness at random intervals to unsettle me. If I were to run across it again, maybe I'd find that it's perfectly benign, certainly much less sinister than I remember it. But that's assuming I could bring myself to open the cover and risk falling under its spell, and I'm not entirely sure that I could.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

16 Days 'Til Halloween: Sacrifices in vain

Last year, around the approach to Halloween, I read a collection of comics that were part of a crossover called Infestation, and I really only mentioned it here on the blog because it was vaguely seasonally appropriate, and because it gave me a chance to work in some cheap pops for beloved 80's properties like GI Joe and Transformers and also make fun of myself for being the kind of geek who hears about an interesting story concept that's actually the sequel to something else, and insists on going back to the beginning and doing the homework before checking out said attention-grabber. I held off on passing any kind of actual judgment on the Infestation storyline itself because the publisher (IDW) had split the whole crossover up into two volumes, and I had only read the first one, and couldn't fairly evaluate the whole.

A year later, and I finally can. It turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. The fundamental idea is solid enough, particularly if you look at things from a meta perspective (as is my wont). Zombies are such a flexible archetype, which can really fit into just about any setting, so they suggest themselves as a unifying element for telling stories in such disparate environments as the far reaches of Federation space and the New York City where the Ecto-1 is registered. IDW publishes comics based on all of these pre-existing standalone intellectual properties which represent discrete continuities, so they invented a cosmic force of evil called the Undermind, which is the source of all reanimation of the dead and is bigger than any one universe:

And events springboarded from there to the Undermind trying to invade and take over various realities, including those we would recognize as the settings of Star Trek and Ghostbusters and so on. As a result, the story never has to bear the weight of Captain Kirk meeting Peter Venkman, or any other tonal whiplash-inducing mash-up. Spock, Bones and Kirk fight zombies tailored to their milieu, and Ray, Egon, Peter and Winston do the same in theirs, and only the shared backstory weaves them together into the same tapestry.

Which is all well and good for some monster-ized retro pop, not to mention the spectacle of a zombified Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, but the freedom of the narrative's episodic nature becomes a drawback when the story requires an ending. Each group of heroes battles zombie hordes and fends off the invasion, but what about the Undermind? Who's going to deal with the Big Bad? The answer IDW provides is ... their own in-house intellectual property, a team of mystics and magical creatures working together as a government supernatural task force with the unlikely title of C.V.O. (Covert Vampiric Operations) It was in fact the C.V.O. that kicked off the whole Infestation by delving too deep and unleashing the Undermind, allowing their resident nice female vampire Britt to become the Undermind's thrall and point woman for invasion. (It was also the C.V.O.'s artillica, blending of magic and technology, which allowed the Undermind to develop the ability to infect robots and create zombie automatons, so that the Transformers could be part of the story, in case you were curious.) In the end, everything climaxes in a big showdown between the C.V.O. and the Undermind, with resident nice male vampire Cross heroically choosing to deliberately become infected by a zombie bite so he can match Britt's new power levels and ...

... and a whole buch of stuff that sounded like they were making it up as they went along. Cross, in addition to being a vampire, is also a magic-user, and so he uses magic to cast as spell that negates all magic in the universe, which renders the artillica useless and creates a feedback wave banishing the Undermind, or something like that, I don't know. Because I had never read a C.V.O. comic before in my life, so I'm a little fuzzy on the details of who was who and what they were capable of and whether or not it was supposed to be emotional and dramatic and noble that one vampire(-wizard?) would willingly undergo zombification to rescue another vampire and incidentally save the world and/or multiple universes. It was a classic bait-and-switch, in other words; I was lured into the story by the promise of revenant Decepticons and shambling corpses versus Ghostbusters and then asked to invest myself in a climax to the whole saga involving characters I had no attachment to whatsoever.

But, as with any good horror franchise (and as I alluded to above) there is a sequel out there, and I will no doubt wind up checking it out, because once I am into something I am in to the bitter end. Something to look forward to for Countdown 2015!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

17 Days 'Til Halloween: Trading Card Tuesday (Garbage Pail Kids)

Wacky Packages may be the first trading cards I can remember buying, but Garbage Pail Kids are the first ones I remember specifically collecting, as opposed to picking up at random intervals somewhere between impulse and habit. I've alluded to my pre-adolescent love of GPKs before (I think? Surely I've at least included an image tangentially related to a post at some point). Much like Wacky Packages, a lot of the appeal derived from the combination of punny wordplay and gross-out gags. And, I am forced to admit, I'm sure some of it was perhaps an unconscious bit of nose-thumbing at my father. To this day (as the blog can attest) it sticks in my craw that despite the insane popularity of Cabbage Patch Kids, to the point where it was not the slightest bit unusual for boys (including my male cousin) to own them, they were essentially verboten in our house because my fathers sons were not going to play with dolls. So doubtless some part of me got a kick out of over-indulging in a bit (read: a lot) of puerile humor, knowing my dad couldn't really object to poop and booger jokes as insufficiently boyish, even if the underlying imagery was inspired by the banned baby dolls.

Anyway, here's some Halloween-ish Garbage Pail Kids in all their nostalgic glory:

I grant you, in hindsight, the series was a bit one-note, which is especially true of later installments as the franchise was driven mercilessly into the ground. Honestly I gave up on collecting GPKs before they gave up on printing new series. But early on I was all in, because my sense of humor was neither refined nor sophisticated back in those halcyon days, and as a result today the nostalgia value is still pretty high. I roll my eyes at my younger self, but I smile all the same.

Monday, October 13, 2014

18 Days 'Til Halloween: Whiskers (Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil)

Last October I posted an overview of my more memorable costumes from Halloweens past. (In true warts-and-all spirit, I am including the preceding link even though going back to that year-old post proves my tendency to repeat the same stories over and over; you will find references there to the summertime haunted house I talked about on the 3rd of this month as well as some musings on how we don't trick-or-treat in our own neighborhood, as I elaborated upon on the 9th.) Towards the end of that retrospective I indicated that dressing up as a young adult (post-college and pre-kids) was a very different, and usually much less elaborate, affair than it had been as a kid, and you could reasonably conclude that this had something to do with an overall shift in priorities. I wanted to escape into monstrous fantasy as a child, and crazy tons of makeup and prosthetics facilitated that nicely. As I grew into my own skin, that need was lessened considerably, and moreover I wanted to be able to go to a party and drink and dance and have fun without negotiating a rubber werewolf muzzle or Godzilla gloves or whathaveyou.

But there's another element in play I didn't really talk about at all last year, which goes right along with growing up and growing into my own skin and factors heavily into Halloween costume choices, namely the fact that in college I grew out my vandyke and also grew a significant beer belly. Those things being the case, once you discard full latex face masks and/or monochrome make-up jobs, you find yourself with two choices: choose Halloween costumes which make sense for or outright refer to a portly beardy dude, or resign yourself to not really looking like the thing you're dressing up as. Given my inordinate love of communicating in pop culture touchstones, you can imagine that I'd rather not dress up at all than dress up wrong.

So, you know, the Devil is often depicted with a goatee, certainly, so that was a viable choice, and K-Fed sported a weird beard of his own that I was able to approximate. One year I dressed up as the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, just full-on showing off my belly in a too-tight shirt rather than trying to conceal it in any way. Trust me, there were times when I really wanted to go all in and dress up as The Crow, but while I could entertain the thought of getting some kind of man-girdle to give me the right gaunt avenging spirit profile, I knew I'd either end up looking like a hilarious Caesar Romero riff on the character, or I'd have to shave, in which case on November 1 when the gothic greasepaint came off I'd look 12 years old.

If only in the late 90's and early 00's I'd had the chance to dress up as Dale Dobson! I could have pulled that off, boy howdy. But, sadly, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil did not technically exist until 2010, more's the pity.

Well, not that big of a pity. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a movie I went into with high hopes not only because it stars Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, both of whom I like a lot, but because the premise seems like such a can't-miss: two rednecks (the script constantly refers to them as "hillbillies" but I have now lived in the South long enough to be fully aware of the huge difference; the movie is Canadian, what do they know, eh?) stumble across a bunch of attractive college kids on a camping trip, and when the kids start dying, the rednecks are automatically assumed to be the homicidal villains, even though it's all accidents and misunderstandings. I love slasher flicks, I love a good satire that sends up the tropes of a given genre, so I was predisposed to love the flick a lot. Unless it turned out to only be ok, which is in fact the case.

I will give the screenplay credit for this much: the title characters are handled really well. For a cheap, dumb horror comedy that exists mainly to invert/subvert the hoariest of slasher tropes, it would have been the path of least resistance to simply portray Tucker and Dale as ignorant backwoods dimwits plugged into the plot-recycling machine. But the performances of Tudyk and Labine, combined with the script itself, give the two semi-heroes a lot more depth. There are some genuinely good laughs to be had that grow out of character, between Tucker's know-it-all swagger and Dale's innocence and emotional over-sensitivity.

The problem, then, is that the movie works so hard to present these three-dimensional buddies who end up having one really, really bad weekend at their fishing cabin in a way that feels vaguely plausible and grounded, when it should have turned things up and gone into over-the-top overkill mode. I'm of the opinion that realistic characters can offset unrealistic plot complications and coincidences, particularly in a comedy (or horror-comedy) where the expectations are adjusted to be genre-specific. And I'm equally of the opinion that unrealistic plots can actually be funnier and more horrific, too, which make sit all the more disappointing that things unfold in such a prosaic way in Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil.

The movie starts out with nine college kids, and you would expect that as each of them (except the archetypal Final Girl, of course, who by the way in this flick is played by Katrina Bowden, aka Cerie from 30 Rock) dies over the course of the running time, the deaths would become more spectacular and elaborate and bizarre, again because this feeds the demands of both slapstick comedy and slasher horror. But instead the first three deaths are all Running Into Something Sharp, the next is Self-inflicted Gunshot Wound, the next three are In A Fire (one on-screen immolation, the other two off-screen), and the last one is Falling From a Great Height. To be fair, that climactic one comes about due to an absurdly elaborate set-up involving an asthma inhaler and chamomile tea and the loft of an abandoned saw mill, but that doesn't really make up for the uninspired body count preceding it.

And except for the very first impaling, all of the deaths are ultimately the direct result of the college kids mistakenly thinking the "hillbillies" are hunting them for sport or something, and the college kids choosing to fight back, but then failing miserably and basically causing the carnage themselves. I know it's too easy to sit here and say it could have been better, but we all know that's my thing, right? But if there had been just a few more clever coincidences, where the college kids were minding their own business or trying to run away, and yet horrible things happened at random that looked like the work of a slasher, even if that had covered only half the deaths, and then the back half was in fact all combat backfires that Tucker and Dale had to narrowly escape, that would have worked a lot better for me. The kid who shoots himself, stupidly looking down the barrel of a loaded gun trying to figure out if the safety is on, does so right in front of the other kids, and yet they continue carrying on as if everything is "all those hillbillies' faults".

That's largely, within the logic of the movie, because one particular college kid has an irrational hatred of hillbillies because his own parents were murdered (dad) and tortured (mom) by hillbillies 20 years ago. That in turn sets up the ultimate resolution of the movie where Chad the college kid is the real monster who's been urging everyone into kill-or-be-killed mode, and ultimately Dale has to play the hero and rescue final girl Allison from Chad's clutches. And (spoiler!) in the epilogue it turns out that, despite all the fairly on-point culture clash comedy mined from Allison's ivory tower background and Dale's salt-of-the-earth nature, the two are falling in love, which is presented completely unironically. Sadly, all of these course corrections into extremely formulaic narrative resolution undermine any subversive power the film generates in the earlier reels.

So, not exactly on my list of recommendations. Not a complete waste of time, but not brilliant or scathing or much of anything realizing the full potential it could have had. Oh well, I guess they can't all be Cabin in the Woods, can they?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

19 Days 'Til Halloween: Candy Sunday (2)

Talk about love/hate:

I love M&M's.

I loathe candy corn.

Gotta say on balance I'm gonna have to pass on this one.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

20 Days 'Til Halloween Grab Bag

Don't forget about the contest running all this month here at the blog!

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Speaking of the banner (up top!) which is the subject of said contest, my wife pointed out to me that I neglected to include any images of Homestar Runner characters dressed up in costume. She's absolutely right that there are no denizens of Free Country, USA hidden in the banner anywhere, and considering the massive fan-love we both had for those annual online festivities, it does seem like a glaring omission. But it's not exactly an oversight; I was deliberately going for not just a Halloween theme but a horror theme in the seasonal banner, and although my source material ranged from comic books to sitcoms to children's movies, I think I managed to keep it in that vein. The Homestar Runner Halloween costumes were always much more in the zone of "name the pop culture reference" which is of course very much in the spirit of this blog as well as something I loved about them, but not the direction I was going.

Still, this is for my wife:

Because Homsar. (Also bonus points for "Polk", my wife's favorite one-term U.S. president.)

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Bit of a follow-up to Thursday's post about how we don't decorate our house for Halloween: we do have some autumnal decorations for inside the house which make an appearance every year, but they are small understated little accent pieces. A scarecrow couple for the middle of the table, jack-o-lantern and ghost-shaped candle holders. Don't get me wrong, these decorations make me happy and I'm not in any way saying that it's a bad thing that they are unobtrusive and don't take over huge footprints of floorspace (we save that for Christmastime, obviously). I don't think I've mentioned this expressly but if you click on the Creature From the Black Lagoon over there to the right, you'll go to the hub website for Countdown to Halloween 2014, and find links to about a million other blogs who are doing their own. I've been perusing some of them myself and on one I found a nice write-up for a Halloween "mood table" which struck me as a cool way to put out a lot of Halloween decorations at once in the corner of a room, without having the black and orange take over the entire house. And for half a second I thought to myself "I should do something like that" and then I remembered oh right I have an 18 month old. Knick-knacks up on high shelves and in the middle of tall tables it is!

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OK one more Homestar reference in the spirit of the season, just 'cuz:

Marshie knows that tomorrow is another installment of Candy Sunday! See you then!

Friday, October 10, 2014

21 Days 'Til Halloween: Tick Tock

At least we get 59 minutes of leave today going into the long weekend.

Fight Club Friday! (2)

- It's just, when you buy furniture, you tell yourself, that's it. That's the last sofa I'm gonna need. Whatever else happens, I've got that sofa problem handled.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

22 Days 'Til Halloween: Communal experiences

We're almost a third of the way through the countdown here, so what better time for me to make a confession that may very well completely obliterate any and all of my credibility as a self-professed lover of all things All Hallow's Eve: it has been years and years since I've given out candy or decorated the exterior of my house for the night in question, and that includes every single Halloween that my wife and I (and our kids) have lived at our current address. Cue the righteous eggings!

This may or may not be excusable, but at the very least permit me to explain: among my circle of local friends, or at least the subset within that circle who have had children, my wife and I were among the last to get to baby-making. So by the time the little guy was old enough to trick-or-treat, my friends had already established something of an annual tradition in all families converging on my buddy Clutch's house at dinnertime on the 31st, scarfing some pizza, and then sending out all the kids in one big group to knock on doors, pumpkin pails in hand, while a few of the grown-ups ambled along behind them to supervise. And the primary reason for this is that Clutch's neighborhood is pretty ideal for trick-or-treating. Getting multiple families together at all has its own logical appeal, because the kids get along and have more fun in a big group outing, and many parental hands make for light work in what could otherwise be a boring trudge. But rather than rotate through everyone's neighborhood year-by-year, it's always Clutch who hosts, because he happens to live in a planned community where there are tons of families and the houses are all really close together on postage-stamp lots, which makes going door-to-door optimally efficient. On top of which, just about everyone who lives in that neighborhood goes crazy for Halloween, no doubt due to one of those self-perpetuating cycles where a couple of families do the whole bit with decorating the yard and handing out candy in costume, and that leads to all the kids who live in the neighborhood, who see the decorations go up weeks earlier, suggesting to their friends that everybody meet up at their house for trick-or-treating, so there's a lot of foot traffic on Halloween, which prompts everyone in the neighborhood to up their game a little and maybe put up lights or window decals or join the holiday arms race of full-scale haunted house conversions, and that in turn pushes the original trend-setters to greater heights of excess, which makes the neighborhood even more of a must-see destination for trick-or-treaters, &c. &c.

And that held a lot of appeal to me, as well, I admit. Much as I love it, Halloween is a children's holiday; it's my inner child that loves it to this day. My buddy Clutch's neighborhood is a veritable Halloween wonderland every October, and I'm thrilled that our friendship serves as my kids' entree to that. I get a huge kick out of the locals who erect entire graveyards on their front lawn, or prop up a giant inflatable spider straddling the SUV in their driveway, but I don't trek out there for my own sake. Hopefully my kids will look back on these Halloweens as something magical, the ultimate ideal of what trick-or-treating should be like.

And I kind of wish my family lived in Clutch's neighborhood, because there is not a doubt in my mind that I would be one of the homeowners spending the entire first weekend of every October rigging up elaborate set dressings, possibly with a different theme every year. But more to the point, I would feel like there was more give and take, that I was contributing to the overall fright fest and candy harvest instead of simply letting my kids consume it. But instead I've become a permanent mooching tourist.

On the flipside, because the whole family is elsewhere every Halloween, there's no one at home to give out candy to the kids who do live in our neighborhood. This is not as reprehensible as parents sending their kids out into the streets to get free candy from the neighbors, and while the kids are out pretending they're not at home so as to avoid giving out their own share of treats to the neighbors' kids ... but nobody actually does that, do they? Still, there's a tiny part of me that feels like I'm letting the children who live in my zip+4 down somehow, by making my street less target-rich for trick-or-treating. And that's why you won't see so much as a single pumpkin on my front steps in October, let alone any rubber bats or cardboard skeletons in the windows. Halloween decorations are essentially visual shorthand for "trick-or-treaters welcome here!" and I don't want to compound my bailing on my own neighborhood by being intentionally misleading to boot. To be fair, very few houses on my street decorate for Halloween, either, and there's not a ton of kids who live around us, but all the same, it weighs on my mind a bit. (I was raised Catholic, after all - what's a holiday without a heaping helping of guilt?)

Clutch's youngest is eleven years old, and someday in the not-too-distant future she will be too old to trick-or-treat. Maybe Clutch will still be happy to open his home as trick-or-treating HQ every fall, or maybe the tradition will shift and change. Or maybe my won kids will make friends in elementary school and put their feet down about trick-or-treating with their own pals, instead of the offspring of mine. For now, though, they do seem to like going out with "the big kids" and trick-or-treating through a sprawl of homes that look like the fever dream of a party store's Halloween catalog run riot. As is almost always the case when I step back and give myself advice, maybe I should just stop overthinking it and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

23 Days 'Til Halloween: We all go a little mad sometimes (Psycho)

End of last year, when I was wrapping up my pop culture highs and lows for 2013, I mentioned that it had been my intention to watch Hitchcock’s Psycho for the first time as part of my annual Spooktoberfest, but had been thwarted by its lack of physical availability through Netflix. Apparently everyone wants to watch Psycho around Halloween-time, and I was done in by my unoriginality. So this year, I made sure that I had the flick high in my queue in September, so that I could finally get that title crossed off.

Which makes this seasonally-appropriate post my official announcement thereof, because honestly, what am I going to do, write a review of Psycho? I know this is a drum I beat a lot, but there are some fixtures in pop culture that just LOOM like … like

Exactly. What at this point can I say about Psycho that hasn’t already been said? What facet of it can I analyze that hasn’t been analyzed to death? (Rimshot.) My usual instinct to declare serious SPOILERS a’comin’ is extra-heightened in this case by the fact that Psycho has not one but two huge twists to it, but then again those very twists are in fact the lion’s share of the movie’s claim to fame, right? There are a percentage of people who have never seen Psycho, and I was one of them until just a couple weeks ago. Despite the notoriety of the film, it’s probably a not insignificant number of folks, at that; I was an outlier but not an unheard of anomaly. But if there’s a percentage of people who have seen any Hollywood movie at some point in their lives and yet are utterly unaware that the nominal anti-hero protagonist Marion Crane is murdered halfway through Psycho in a shocking narrative swerve, and/or have no clue that Norman’s mother was dead all along and Norman was the cross-dressing murderer, that number must be much, much closer to zero. Maybe not exactly zero, but dang close.

So it turns out that after all this time, all my education both formal and on-the-fly, I still am really in it for the story whenever I sit down and engage with a movie. I can appreciate the artfulness of the cinematography, or the nuance of the acting performances, but ultimately it all comes down to the tale being told. Psycho is a doozy, of course, but I have to admit that it’s a very different experience knowing what’s coming than it must have been for the innocent (in several senses of the word) audiences back in 1960. The one thing I take exception with, if I may permit myself the minor blasphemy of criticizing the master, is the explanatory monologue by the forensic psychologist at the police station. And I know I’m really not the first person to say so, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus. The scene goes on too long and just sucks the energy right out of the film. It’s as if Hitchcock worried the audience would feel they had just been bamboozled by a double-whammy of plot twists that only succeeded because they flew in the face of internal logic, so he included a condescending exposition-dump to convey how it was all actually quite logical if you could see all the pieces of the trick from the other side. Even if the monologue were an explication of profound truths, it would still be a lousy way to bring down the curtain. And after five decades or so of developments in the field of criminal psychology, the whole speech sounds more like hogwash to me. Fortunately, that’s not exactly where the curtain comes down, as we get one more bracing dose of Norman’s eerie otherness that seems determined to defy easy explanations.

It may be impossible for Psycho to truly get under the skin now that it’s been thoroughly dissected and enshrined in the pop cult canon, but that’s all right. The aforementioned appreciation still comes into play, between Hitchcock’s visual genius and truly excellent portrayals of Marion and Norman by Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Psycho is on basically every Must-See list around, and that’s as it should be. If you’re in the subset that just hasn’t gotten around to seeing it yet, I recommend you correct that. The bates Motel is still worth a visit.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

24 Days 'Til Halloween: Trading Card Tuesday (Wacky Packages)

When I was a kid I spent a mind-boggling amount of pocket money on packages of trading cards. By which I mean it boggles my sober adult mind, of course; at the time, in my feckless youth, it seemed perfectly normal. A can of soda was a quarter and a chocolate bar was 50 cents, a comic book was 65 or 75 cents and a pack of cards was also somewhere in that under-a-dollar range. If I had five bucks, or maybe even only a couple of dollars, leftover birthday money or allowance for doing the dishes or just handed out with random largesse by the grandparents, then I could wander into the drug store and come back out again with a Whatchamacallit, a 7 Up Gold, and a few new squares of collectible cardboard, plus change. Such were my idle childhood pursuits. (Point of fact, that corner drugstore at the beach I mentioned in Friday's post, where plastic fangs and other cheap junk could be found at the toy counter? I know they made a ton of money off me year over year through sales of all of the sundries listed above, including waxy envelopes full of cards and bubble gum.)

This whole blog is a testament to my innate predisposition towards being an obsessive collector, so of course trading cards held a certain appeal to me by their very nature. I never had a complete set of any given series of cards, but despite that I was always susceptible to thinking that I could, maybe, make a run at it one of these times. Usually the company in question simply stopped printing the cards long before I ever got to that point, given my underfunded (or appropriately funded, over maybe even overfunded, depending on how much money you think an elementary-schooler should be wasting on disposable crap) catch-as-catch-can approach to the enterprise. But even without much hope of completeness, I just loved opening a package and riffling through the cards, seeing which ones were new to me, getting no small amount of amusement and pleasure from the whole ritual. Those are some pretty fond memories, to this day.

Wacky Packages are some of the earliest cards I can remembering collecting, and probably go a long way toward explaining my enduring love for bad puns. It didn't hurt that they were actually card-mounted stickers, and like any other red-blooded Gen X'er I loved defacing every surface within reach with adhesive artwork. In honor of the Halloween Countdown, here are some classic horror-themed Wacky Packages:

Some of these are from before my time, and some of them are probably from after I was too old for the gags anymore. Astonishingly enough Wacky Packages are still a thing, and they released a set in 2012! I think the little guy is just getting to the point where he might be old enough to appreciate the low-level humor, and now I'll have to keep an eye out for them on his behalf. I mean, not for myself. Obviously.