Monday, June 30, 2008

R.I.P. The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter

As a family that takes WAY too many theme park vacations, we're doing more than our fair share to keep tourism alive during this sluggish economy. This weekend, we returned to Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and naturally, I made a point of riding my long-time favorite, the Haunted Mansion, which stands as the foremost of the park's "dark" rides (including the Tower of Terror and Expedition Everest.) I never get tired of it. However, I have fond memories of a short-lived attraction that traumatized park visitors during the 1990s: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

I recall my first experience on this attraction, when my soon-to-be wife and I had no idea what it entailed. It quickly became the only Disney attraction that she refused to visit twice.

The attraction begins with a lengthy explanation of a new form of alien technology, one that, like the transporter on Star Trek, can be used to transport organisms across vast distances of space. The ride included the premise that Disney visitors would have a chance of witnessing this technology first hand--only something goes terribly wrong when the transporter's intended occupant becomes replaced by something with wings and an appetite for . . . people.

Not a ride, this attraction involved people sitting in several circular rows, all facing the platform that would eventually hold one of the most impressive--and frightening--animatronic figures I've ever seen at Disney. The obvious source of inspiration is H. R. Giger's Alien, but Disney enhanced this attraction with a number of clever effects, including the sensation of hot breath on one's neck when the creature escapes, as well as a splash of water that, in the dark, feels like the hot blood of the poor soul in the rafters who encounters the toothy alien.

Just a few years ago, Disney re-vamped the ride into something decidedly less disturbing based upon LILO AND STITCH. Each time I pass it, I regret that I can't experience the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter one more time. Fortunately, some crafty youtuber posted a video of the ride, which you can find by going here.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Maybe it's because of the episode about giant snakes that ran on MONSTERQUEST the other night. Or maybe it's because the family and I visited Universal Studios Hollywood mere DAYS after the fire that destroyed the "Kongfrontation" part of the tour ride, so now the kids won't ever know what's it like to have a life-sized Kong menace them. Whatever the case, I've been thinking about the 1976 version of KING KONG a lot lately, and I'm no longer going to hide in the closet: I love it. I think it's the SECOND best KONG film made, a lesser film to the original, but still lots of fun. When the film saw release in 1976, I was seven years old, and it had not been very long since I'd seen the original KONG on television. I was the right age to experience the media hype, to see the promo poster and wait breathlessly for the film to finally get into theaters. When it did, the disappointment I felt by the absence of dinosaurs was outweighed by the delight I took in the sheer spectacle of the film. Besides, there was that giant snake scene . . .

Watching the film as an adult, I'm still taken by some of the film's compositions, some of which have a certain beauty that the Peter Jackson remake failed to achieve. Granted, Jackson's film has stunning visual moments, but nothing like what we see in the shot of Kong's body framed by an orange sky. It lacks realism in the same gorgeous way that many Toho films do.

Then there's Dwan, a name I still can't used to. Jessica Lange's character bumbles around and lacks the grace of Fay Wray or the air of tragedy surrounding Naomi Watts' character. But the rapport she has with Kong manages to convince despite the often sloppy dialogue in the script. Plus, we have those priceless leering facial expressions of Kong, which, I swear, seem modeled on the expressions made by 70s porn actors.

Today, the climax on top of the Twin Towers has a particular resonance, thanks to 9/11, but even without that national tragedy, I still find Kong's death moving. So there you have it. As for KING KONG LIVES--that's another story.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Long Night of the Grave, by Charles L. Grant

I can recall a time when I could browse through a rack of books in a drugstore and find a healthy selection of horror paperbacks. Of course, this was the case during the "horror boom" of the 1980s, and I recall those days very fondly, especially when I could find shiny, uncreased copies of Charles Grant's novels. Grant, of course, passed away recently, and realizing that I hadn't read anything by him in a while, I decided to pick this well-worn, used paperback off the TBR pile. That, plus my son's recent interest in mummies.

The cover image does not lie; the book's narrative revolves around a mummy--the kind I love, wrapped in bandages, awakened by ancient rituals to stalk its victims in the fog. Grant succeeds beautifully in evoking the kind of atmosphere that one finds in the Universal and Hammer films from long ago through highly evocative prose, as well as stepped-up levels of characterization. As he does with several of his novels, Grant sets the story in Oxrun Station, a town that, like Lovecraft's Arkham, has seen more than its share of the weird and supernatural. This time, however, Grant sets the events during the turn of the century, when Oxrun Station is on the cusp of modernization through electricity and automobiles.

This decision allows Grant to play with some decidedly old fashioned horror tropes and pay homage to Universal and Hammer films, as he did with two other novels that share this setting: THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD (about the town's encounter with a European vampire), and THE DARK CRY OF THE MOON (a werewolf in this case). Significantly, Grant titles the foreword to the paperback edition of SOFT WHISPER "A Foreword for Those Who Remember Ralph Bates," alluding to the star of many later day Hammer movies, and he mourns over the passing of that particular style of horror film. Anyone who shares this sentiment will love these novels, especially those who already know Oxrun Station from other Grant works.

THE LONG NIGHT OF THE GRAVE does not necessarily hold great surprises. The pleasure in reading this novel comes from the re-acquaintance with a bygone era of horror storytelling, when atmosphere and dread created a thrilling experience. The story involves a number of Egyptian artifacts sold to the town's elite class, including the novel's hero, John Vicar. In the meantime, a series of strange and violent murders take place, leaving few clues aside from odd strips of ancient cloth. Grant occupies the novel with characters that will seem familiar to anyone who has seen a Universal Mummy movie, including Khirhal Bey, who gives Vicar a history lesson about Sakhtu, a powerful priest of Ra who held beliefs so scandalous that they resulted in his death. Somehow, the Egyptian artifacts connect to this ancient figure, and they figure into a plot to achieve immortality--if only their buyers will come to their senses and allow them to be re-united.

Once again, the events that transpire will likely not surprise an astute and experienced reader, but that's not the point. The joy of reading this text comes from seeing how a master of his craft can take these traditional tropes and have a bit of fun with them. Very much recommended.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

[REC] (2007)

Part of a recent crop of cinéma-vérité style horror films that includes CLOVERFIELD (2008) and George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007), Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC] (2007) arguably tops them all. While Balaguero’s previous films, like LOS SIN NOMBRE (1999) and DARKNESS (2002) offered a more quiet, slow-burning form of horror, [REC} grooves along like a fine-tuned scare machine, never slowing down but, in fact, building up to one of the most chilling climaxes I’ve seen in quite a while.

The host of a late-night television program, Angela, along with her cameraman, follow a fire crew to what should have amounted to a routine stop at an apartment building. Instead, they find that the occupants of the building have fallen victim to a virus of some sort—one that turns them into zombies. Paranoia sets in as the TV crew, the firemen, and apartment dwellers find that the government has sealed off the area, forcing them to deal with the emergency themselves as the infection spreads.

No doubt the plot will sound fairly run-of-the-mill, with surface-level similarities to Romero’s DIARY and the recent MULBERRY STREET (also about a zombie-like infection affecting an apartment building), but [REC]’s narrative takes markedly different course as the reasons for the outbreak become clear. Far from showing all its cards early, the film continues to surprise all the way up until the very end, featuring at least one goose-bump inducing scene that will likely have horror junkies talking for a long time.

(SPOILER AHEAD. SKIP TO LAST PARAGRAPH. To be sure, these are not carbon copies of Romero’s zombies, nor do they simply mirror the victims of the “rage” virus in 28 DAYS LATER. Balaguero and Plaza give us something more akin what Lucio Fulci presented in films like CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, with zombies that have their origins in Catholic anxiety.)

According to, the American remake of this film has been titled QUARANTINE and will be released in October of this year. As in many cases of American remakes, I don’t see the point in waiting for it and would encourage interested viewers to seek out the original. For American viewers with region-free DVD players, Xploited Cinema offers an import DVD of the film.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Vote on the Cover Art for the New Sony Hammer Set!

Apparently, Sony is letting viewers weigh in on the decision of what cover art to use in their upcoming Hammer set (see news item here). Vote here. At this point, I think I favor the first option.

Monday, June 23, 2008

CANNIBALS, Franco Style

In the documentary, "Franco Holocaust"--found on the Blue Underground DVD release of CANNIBALS--Jess Franco expresses his disdain for the Cannibal film genre that had become prominent during the 1980s, spawning such films as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST CANNIBAL FEROX, and his own 1980 film, CANNIBALS (otherwise known as MONDO CANNIBALE). Among other complaints, Franco argues that the films created by Ruggero Deodato and others had unforgivable pretensions of realism, presenting themselves as documentaries and thereby blurring the distinctions between the real and fabricated. That's a delightful observation since Franco's film aspires to nothing more than pulpy horror adventure, though Franco's direction seems to lack his usual passion. Most notably, he does little to disguise the Caucasian identity of his "natives," some of whom even have well-groomed mustaches with little more than circus paint to identify them as "other."

While some might cite this as evidence of Franco's sometimes lax habits as a film-maker, I prefer to think that Franco is intentionally undermining the conventions of this genre, which often gives lip service to the notion that the "real cannibal" is us (to paraphrase the closing statement of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.) Despite this expressed sentiment, the films by Deodato, Lenzi, and others tend to conflate the racialized "Other" as the savage cannibal, allowing the shifting lines between "us" and "them" to fall into a comfortable place at the end. While avoiding any direct political commentary, Franco's bizarre characterizations manage to make his film seem all the more subversive. While far from "good" or a Franco film I'd really recommend, it still has this going for it.

Oh, and it has Sabrina Siani looking like something that stepped out an old Margaret Brundage Weird Tales cover. That's worth something, no?

In Memory: George Carlin, 1937-2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Vampirella in my new comics haul

I took home a very modest comic book haul yesterday, and not only that, but I showed my age by picking up two "re-boot" titles from the 70s--VAMPIRELLA QUARTERLY and DC's HOUSE OF MYSTERY. I have yet to fully digest the latter, but as for VAMPIRELLA . . . I apparently missed a previous entry in the Harris series, so I don't know exactly how Adam Van Helsing became the God of Chaos, but I continue to be struck by how the passage of time has re-shaped the sexual politics of Vampirella. No longer quite her same demure self, Vampirella asserts herself more, and here, she snaps off a pretty good one-liner as a sex-cult member talks about how he'd like to use his "spear" against her. "Well," Vampirella replies, "that's about the grossest thing I've ever heard. And I grew up in Hell." Nice one, Vampi!

Growing up in the 1970s, VAMPIRELLA was one of the great forbidden comic books in my life, so I knew of her and her adventures mostly by hiding in the farthest corner of the newstand and taking as many peeks as I could before getting caught. Over time, I've picked up a few old issues here and there and have followed the Harris re-invention somewhat sporadically. CRIMSON CHRONICLES, the trade paperback reprints of the old Warren magazine, have helped me re-capture some of those lost 70s moments, and the art of Jose Gonzalez never loses its aura and mystery for me.

I've enjoyed some of the more recent renditions of Vampirella--Bruce Timm immediately comes to mind--but inevitably, this new stuff doesn't have what the old stuff brought to the table. VAMPIRELLA QUARTERLY #1 includes a "re-mastered" version of "Shadow of Dracula" and "When Wakes the Dead," which originally appeared in VAMPIRELLA 18 and 19 respectively. (Vols. 2 and 3 of CRIMSON CHRONICLES reprint them, by the way.) These colorized "re-masters" seem almost disorienting, at first, like something's gone askew, along the lines of seeing a favorite black and white movie colorized. After another glance through the pages, the added color seemed to make Gonzalez's art jump off the page more, and I have to admit, I kind of like it. I'm no purist, I guess. In any case, these reprints reminded me of what the new Vampirella is missing--stories that provide a Hammer sensibility, rather than the Buffy-inspired story-telling that seems to inform the newer incarnations.

It's no secret that Hammer intended to make a film version of VAMPIRELLA in the mid-70s featuring Barbara Leigh and Peter Cushing, but I can't help but think that Ingrid Pitt would have made a more fitting actress. In fact, I wonder if her sensual features might have provided some of the inspiration for Gonzalez in his earlier artwork.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Death Ships

Avast! Get yer tushes over to Final Girl and read Stacie's review of DEATH SHIP, perhaps the pinnacle of killer cruise ship movies with what is undoubtedly the greatest blood shower ever filmed. Her review put me in mind of our recent family trip to Southern California, where we ventured aboard the Queen Mary, one of the most haunted ships in the world. We ended up spending a whole afternoon aboard the ship, taking the ghost tour, as well as indulging in the "enhanced" experience that takes you into the eerie bow of the ship. The setting, combined with sound, light, and fog effects, left us all quivering, especially when the tour culminated in a simulated collision with another boat, causing water to flow through the hull. I have to say that it was one of the most effective "haunted attractions" I've ever experienced.

During our tour of the creepy, rusty boiler room, I took a picture that might be an orb, or it might (he admits sheepishly) be my thumb. I prefer to think it's an orb, but I'll let you be the judge. (You can find it at the top of this post.) Just don't spoil my illusions!

For more on the Queen Mary, go to

Curse of the Mummy's Tomb coming to R1 DVD!

No sooner do I mention it than we get an announcement that it's coming to region 1 DVD! Today, DVD Drive-in has announced that Sony is releasing Curse of the Mummy's Tomb in a set that will include three other Hammer titles: Scream (Taste) of Fear, The Gorgon, and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (yeah!). Apparently, this will be an "Icons of Horror Collection," presumably along the same lines of their previous Sam Katzman collection, and it will street October 14th with remastered transfers. Count me in!

THE Mummy vs. The Mummy

I harbor no ill will for Stephen Sommers. Really. Seriously. I know, I know, there’s the atrocity known as Van Helsing, yada yada. But when his 1999 version of THE Mummy presents opportunities for introducing my son, Werewolf Jr., into the delights of classic monsters, who I am to complain. Ok, maybe there’s lots to complain about. In any case, Werewolf Jr. loves THE Mummy (and yes, for him, it’s THE Mummy, largely because of how a 5 year is taught to pronounce that particular article.) He thinks Bendan Frasier’s character, O’Connell, is the bomb. He thinks Imhotep’s the scariest thing on the planet. He buys a Mummy cap on our recent trip to Universal Studios. Not tall enough to ride the (I admit) spankin’ ride, he poses for pictures by the mummy guards. I’m a good monster dad. I indulge.

But what else do I do as a good monster dad?

I introduce him to what I consider one of the greatest mummy movies ever—the 1959 Terence Fisher film starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I admit, it’s slower. No groovy scarabs that burrow under the skin. No swashbuckling heroes like O’Connell. But, my God, there’s Peter Cushing. There’s the eerie swamp. There’s the glass-breaking scene when Cushing’s character harpoons the rampaging, revenge-seeking mummy.

That’s scary, I said.

Sort of, he said.

He wore his Universal Studios hat while we watched the movie, and before I put him to bed, I pointed out the other Hammer Mummy movies we had waiting on the shelf—Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Shroud. He admitted that Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb looked pretty good, but we’ll have to save it for another night. I’ll keep Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. on hold for later.

Damn that Stephen Sommers. But at least he’s got Werewolf Jr. thinking about the beat of those cloth wrapped feet . . .