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Tobe Hooper and the Aesthetics of Madness (Part I) by Jonny Numb

<img src="danceofthedead.jpg" alt="The Aesthetics of Madness Tobe Hooper’s Dance of the Dead">

The Aesthetics of Madness (Part 1): Tobe Hooper’s “Dance of the Dead.”

Madness and Cinema

Tobe Hooper’s career echoed that of many a seminal genre director from a particular, boundary-busting era. His struggles, his achievements, and his character iconography contributed to the horror canon. As with other directors who have passed on, his impact on cinema as a whole will continue to be felt.

George A. Romero gave us the black-and-white blood and guts of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, which also laid bare the genre’s potential to make social and political statements – in addition to subverting traditional notions of horror antagonism (“We have met the enemy, and he is us” indeed).

Wes Craven’s first feature, a take on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, brought grit, grunge, color, and a documentary-style aesthetic to a tale of criminal scumbags who subject two flower children to a “coming of age” that hinges on defilement, humiliation, and death. Last House on the Left, despite its self-doubting segues into humor and a banjo-twangin’ theme song, nonetheless brought savagery to the suburbs, breaking the illusions of “security” afforded to the upper class.

For me, this trinity always embodied the humanizing ups and downs of filmmaking business madness. You can find many interviews and commentaries of the late Craven and Romero looking back on scraping together funding, dealing with censor-happy studio heads, and succumbing to compromise when all other avenues failed. These are sadly familiar tales, but their recollections are imbued with a self-deprecating honesty that makes their stories all the more endearing and instructive.

Yet, while Craven and Romero had at least several critically conceded masterpieces under their belts, Tobe Hooper only had one.

But I don’t want to talk about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The conversation about who did or didn’t direct Poltergeist is the type of gossipy crap that bores me. And I’ll let Billy Crash write the apologias for the cult-beloved Lifeforce.

What I’m proposing here, is: While Hooper was just as much a product of a studio system that treated horror as disposable content to turn a profit, his projects over the years maintained signatures of style, characterization, and tonal sensibility. His films were always messy (in the literal and figurative sense), but not due to a lack of skill or temperament.

Maybe someday I’ll do a piece on the virtues of Spontaneous Combustion – the film and the phenomenon – but I’d wager that Brad Dourif’s flamethrower finger was a none-too-subtle reflection of what Hooper wanted to do to the money men who frequently, ahem, “mangled” his work. (Too bad the flames weren’t shooting from Dourif’s middle finger.)

While Tobe Hooper’s output in the new millennium produced successful, off-the-wall remakes of The Toolbox Murders and Mortuary, those films still remain divisive, with support that only falls in line with “cult” status. Even when left to his own devices, Hooper created his own form of madness by drawing wildly opposing reactions.

Dance of the Dead

And his first-season Masters of Horror episode, “Dance of the Dead,” was no exception.

Before I ever had a chance to watch it, I had noticed numerous negative user reviews cropping up on the IMDb. Many claimed that, if it wasn’t the worst episode of that first season, it was one of the worst.

I think Masters of Horror was ahead of the curve – a general precursor to the type of harder-edged, content-unrestricted fare that had been spearheaded by HBO, and later came to dominate Netflix’s programming roster. As a result, though, the show’s ability to push boundaries (with some network-mandated cuts to Dario Argento’s “Jenifer” and the outright banning of Takashi Miike’s “Imprint”) sometimes came off as leaning on gore or nudity for its own sake.

“Dance of the Dead,” however, felt like the one episode that embraced its own crazed boundlessness. Its gore was as organic as its nudity and skeevy presentation of sexuality (which is telling, since the closest it gets to sex is practically necrophilia). Its aesthetic – a series of hammering edits, heavy-metal music (courtesy of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan), and jittery “ghosting” effects – which most IMDb users decried, came across as perfectly fitting for the tale (an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic short story).

Consider some of Hooper’s previous works, and a pattern starts to appear: sets that resemble a claustrophobic notion of a hoarder’s lair. Characters with crazed motives, ranging from the external to the idiosyncratic. Action that storms its way into the frame with the recklessness of a wrecking ball through a brick wall.

Tobe Hooper’s detractors attributed the chaos of his films to a general lack of talent (“Texas Chainsaw was a fluke” being the laziest of article-starters), but less consideration was given to the possibility that Hooper’s brand of chaos was chaos by design.

To be continued…

(Photo of “Dance of the Dead” DVD cover via Undead Review.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

<img src="jonnynumb.jpg" alt="Jonny Numb">Jonny Numb

(Aka Jonathan Weidler), he only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

The Elevation of THE DARK TOWER (2017) by Jonny Numb

Idris Elba Matthew McConaughey[95 minutes. PG-13. Director: Nikolaj Arcel]

Adaptation is a funny thing.

Regardless of what route you take, you will take heat from fans of the source material.

Someone – online or elsewhere – will accuse you of “ruining the book(s) forever” (even though that’s total bullshit).

One example in particular that galled me – Christ, 17 years ago – occurred on a Yahoo! Club for author (and professional crank) Bret Easton Ellis. The forum was sparsely-populated, yet the conversation was always active. The long-gestating film version of American Psycho had finally seen release, and the consensus among the Club members was divided. I thought it was an excellent adaptation, but one of the other members took a different track, arguing that the excised extremes of sex and violence – which comprised the novel’s crude backbone – rendered it an unfaithful telling.

Making a 95-minute version of The Dark Tower is as counterintuitive as cracking a fortune cookie with a sledgehammer. It has no reason to work. King devoted seven novels of varying girth to this epic tale, and to capture its essence in such an abbreviated amount of time is madness.

Yet…if you’re looking for that essence, it works. Somehow.

“Good enough for Government work,” as the saying goes.

People who dig on the Harry Potter novels or Lord of the Rings are often vehemently unflagging in their enthusiasm: certain diehard fans will absolve a sacred series of any transgression, while some will raise issues that nonetheless don’t detract from the enjoyment of said series. In most cases, people who begin a book series finish it, and come to view the individual volumes as a cohesive whole, to the point where it’s just plain Harry Potter, not Harry Potter and Whatever Subtitle.

I’m in a unique position with The Dark Tower series because I’m not particularly fond of all its parts. The self-indulgence and running-on-fumes storytelling evident in Song of Susannah (book 6) and The Dark Tower (book 7) turned me off, and transformed something that had begun with great promise (not to mention storytelling economy – The Gunslinger (book 1) came in at well under 300 pages) into a disappointment by its end. With a devoted fanbase that would finish the series regardless, King’s kitchen-sink, “fuck it” mentality left a bitter aftertaste.

Based on this, I was willing to give Nikolaj Arcel’s film adaptation the benefit of the doubt, and embrace the streamlined approach to the tale.

This could be a reflection of my own ongoing fatigue with Hollywood’s current daze of “blockbuster brain,” epitomized by this year’s shiny – yet awfully empty – Guardians of the Galaxy sequel. (And how long will Avengers: Infinity War be? Six hours with three bathroom-break intermissions? But I digress.) With studios operating under the notions of dwindling box-office receipts and dried-up physical-media sales, the last option, outside of 3D and IMAX, is, well, making movies longer.

Because more minutes equals more entertainment, amirite?

Yes, The Dark Tower does signify a mass condensing of King’s prose. Taking bits and pieces from up to the fifth book (The Wolves of the Calla – my personal favorite), it simplifies the plot, doesn’t take enough time to establish the quirks and rules of its interdimensional logic, and relegates some characters (such as Jackie Earle Haley’s Sayre) to cameo status.

But I didn’t mind too much.

The tale of Roland Deschain – aka Roland of Gilead, the last in a long line of Gunslingers – and his quest to defend the fabled Dark Tower (which keeps life across all dimensions in balance) from ageless sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey), is engaging, old-fashioned fantasy-adventure stuff, told with a keen attention to aural and visual detail. The story begins, however, with Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy “blessed” with psychic visions of the titular Tower. When he discovers an interdimensional portal in a crumbling New York City mansion, he enters another world, where he quickly meets Roland and becomes an unlikely sidekick on his quest to defeat Walter, whose ultimate goal is to bring the Tower down, thus raining chaos on humanity.

The performers convey an eclecticism that’s fitting to King’s text: as Roland, Idris Elba possesses the imposing physical frame and a Spaghetti-Western stoicism, but is also tender and vulnerable – it’s a brilliant bit of casting. McConaughey is also good, resisting the urge to mug or fall back on his looks; Walter plays to his smugness in a perfectly apt way – with an incantation or a wave of a hand, he murders people without hesitation, sometimes cracking an impish one-liner after. There’s a spectral quality to Walter that adds an element of unpredictability to the proceedings, and Arcel makes fine use of simple camera pans to spring surprising reveals. As Jake, Taylor is a standout presence – never veering into precocious or obnoxious territory, he’s wise and astute and a more-than-worthy sidekick to the grizzled Roland.

In addition to Earle Haley lurking in the margins, I also appreciated the inclusion of genre faces Abbey Lee (The Neon Demon) and Fran Kranz (The Cabin in the Woods) as the grunts working behind the scenes at Walter’s lair.

Arcel handles the action with efficiency, and even the quieter character moments never feel sentimental or indulgent. Ditto his reverent winks to characters, monsters, and places from throughout King’s oeuvre. As adaptations go, Tower doesn’t lean on exposition like, say, Tim Burton’s dreary adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. We are given enough detail to keep the plot cohesive, enough character development to keep us invested, and enough action to keep us anticipating what will happen next.

The Dark Tower is not a masterpiece; it’s just enough.

3 out of 5 stars

(Photo of Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey via Desktop Wallpapers.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb

(Aka Jonathan Weidler), he only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

A Large Buttered Popcorn with Fiery Death, Please! by Ron Shaw

Recently, an excellent, thought-provoking article, “A Dinner with George” by Isaac Thorne, was featured at Crash Palace. Isaac’s nostalgic, heartfelt piece on George A. Romero and his iconic masterpiece (IMO) of Night of the Living Dead captured my thoughts and memories of yesteryear, launching me mentally into the past, reflecting somewhat on how and why horror and science fiction films impacted my life.

During my years of youth, the concoction of real-life horrors and fantasy ones on the big, white screen were indeed a strange brew that some may have suggested were unworthy of human consumption. The bitterness of reality is always a poor dish served, neither sweet nor savory.

I was born eighteen months before the end of the Korean War. Like post World War II, soldiers returning stateside proceeded as best and as quickly as they could to find hearth, home, and procreation, if they hadn’t done so before serving. After all, why would “Dear John” letters exist without pre-war girlfriends and sometimes, wives.

My youth was partially spent feasting on horror and science fiction movies of the day… while in a real way trying to find a path to minimally comprehend and survive the seemingly constant onslaught of reports of the gloomiest nature from here and abroad that we may be headed into another war ─ especially one featuring the unfettered use of nuclear weapons. As we were taught with alarming regularity, this next one would be the war that would truly end all wars and life on this blue planet as we had only begun to be taught, discover, and appreciate it.

Sound familiar?

In dimly-lit rooms of flickering fiction and most regrettably almost everywhere else in nonfiction, the atomic age of real or imagined horrors had landed on us. In frightening movies, we were fed disaster as salty and warm as a box of never-ending popcorn, and in our daily lives in school, we practiced, rehearsing our nuclear attack procedures even more often than our fire drills. A horrible, fiery death was either one atomic bomb, one gigantic, nuked insect, or a single assassin away.

Like most Americans who lived during these years, I’ll never forget the day our president was shot and killed. It had happened during a school day. After a school wide nuclear attack drill, we were called to the school’s auditorium for the dire announcement. John F. Kennedy’s assassination exacerbated the growing feelings of despair, fear and futility for us grade school kids in our tumultuous neighborhood, an Atlanta, governmental, housing project.

In addition to carrying a full lunch sack of horrors, back in the 60’s, during the national manhunt for another assassin, we’d learned from the news media that the fiend who had killed Martin Luther King, Jr. had abandoned his still warm and smoking getaway car, a Ford Mustang, on our turf, parking it on a city street beside our elementary school, Ed. S. Cook, in Atlanta, Georgia.

The deadly, racist serpent had escaped, slithering from this location beside our school playground. By the time his Mustang was located, reportedly, the crazed shooter was supposedly fleeing to a foreign country directly passed the front door of our apartment en route to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, heading north.

Death seemed to live and thrive within our Capitol Homes neighborhood. Surely, we and Atlanta were vital targets for atomic bombs raining down on us from the USSR!

Our warring history, present conflict maybes, and future prognosis had signaled to those in the universe beyond Earth that we were not worthy of club membership in a rational, intellectual, evolved, peace-loving, universal community of beings. In 1951, the sternest Einstein-worthy-ray-of-oblivion-across-the-bow-of-Earth to date was issued within the film classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Obviously, we were not feeling Gort.

Concurrently, during the fifties and sixties as fictional fodder fallout from our past use, continued testing, and potential abuse of atomic weapons, a plethora of gigantic creature features swept big screens of drive-in and air-conditioned, walk-in theaters across the country ─ Godzilla (1954), Them (1954), and Mothra (1961) to name a few. How many times and ways must we be warned?

From the nuclear testing grounds of the western USA, to the depths of the Pacific, and from the entirety of Japan and the seas around the island, came massive monsters like we’d not seen in such numbers, appetites, or propensity. All were bent on avenging that which reckless humans had wreaked. In self-preservation mode, nature was fighting back in horrific, non-nurturing ways.

It’s shocking how much difference ten to fifteen years in age can make where and when you view a great horror film or the works of a fine horror director like Isaac Thorne writes about. I very much enjoyed reading about Isaac’s life, feelings, and experiences in conjunction with Romero’s film.

Thorne’s article also caused the above and below reflections on my life when Night of the Living Dead hit the scene. Back in 1968, we were well accustomed to black and white films and television. In short, the use of classic black and white in photography and films held on for as long as the world in those days remained in its drab shades of carnage. I’d be inclined to think for some of these people, the true colors of it all may have been too harsh in an all too real way.

In 1968, I would turn seventeen and the potentiality of going away, experiencing Vietnam, was only a year off, if I didn’t volunteer first. But where I came from you didn’t volunteer for Jack or his rabbit because “the man” shopped for warm bodies and weak minds in our impoverished area with great regularity. The poor are easily forgotten.

So, in 1968, Night of the Living Dead became the perfect metaphor for the prospects of carnage and futility of a bright future we “boy-men” were experiencing daily.

In Atlanta, among other odd jobs, I worked as a soda jerk at a drug store located across the street from one of the oldest, busiest, and largest funeral homes in Atlanta. Back then, the boys, men now, were coming home in great numbers in pieces in body bags. Some were friends from high school and later, college.

It became increasingly difficult to be entertained by make believe death and fantasy mayhem in a movie during this bleak period. In some forms of entertainment such as films, like Night of the Living Dead, it seemed they took on a more sinister meaning than simply being a brief time spent enjoying something unreal.

At times, it felt as if the dead were all around us. During these moments, the “Barbras” in living color, moms, wives, daughters, friends, and girlfriends were as hysterical, fetal, and in frightened tears as the Barbra in black and white on the big screen.

Often, those brave soldiers who did make it home alive were reduced to a state of living while walking dead. Nobody seemed to care, but the funeral homes, alcohol, drug, and methadone clinics, and much more sadly, Veteran’s Administration hospitals, were thriving businesses.

In the sixties and seventies, a heroin epidemic was also sweeping the nation. Once again, death and destruction were as formidable as the dead rising from the grave. Many veterans who had made it back succumbed to a less obvious enemy, trying to “inject” and often drink their post traumatic stress disorder and nightmares of war away.

Yes. It can be both sad and obvious to see how at times art can imitate life and death, and comprehend why it becomes a direct reflection on the reality of life through films. In respect to Night of the Living Dead, these factors appeared to be mutually exclusive in comparison and even sensory numbing in the end when the living dead and living became merely target practice for robotic men with hair triggers on their weapons with plenty of ammo at the ready.

“They’re coming to get you Barbra (or Bob)” took on a true deadly meaning when Uncle Sam’s letter to report for your physical for the draft arrived in the mail. I would think most high school boys were ill-equipped to handle such potentially deadly realities.

Like hundreds of thousands of young boys, I had a 2S draft exemption status while attending college in Macon, Georgia. Slowly and methodically, the government began ending the draft exemption for most, if not all, students, depending on your date of birth and luck of the lottery draw. We’d soon learn bingo had never been so intense.

In 1971 while in college, my lottery time had arrived. As we know, several Vietnam draft lotteries were conducted, starting in 1970. The strong rumor mill, also implied by the media, had it that if your number was two hundred or lower, say goodbye frat row and hello Vietnam. It was a somber crew of boys that day at Mercer University watching the drawing live at our Kappa Sigma lodge. The atmosphere was a direct opposite – a dire, visceral, and visual juxtaposition of when we gathered at the lodge to enjoy Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” each week huddled close to our dates.

For those fighting the war, their potential Night of the Living Dead became at least one tour, if they survived that long. Life had become as black and white as death back then.

After that lottery, I think they drafted numbers up to around one hundred. At the time, I was somewhat optimistic with a guarded sigh of relief since my lottery number was above one hundred and fifty. To this day, I regret those feelings while so many had stepped up voluntarily to answer the call or had reported as ordered once drafted. To me at least, a debate on whether any war is just or not is almost as futile as Tom living beyond the day after his Night of the Living Dead.

Not serving my country during this time is one my greatest regrets in life. , I also cowered in the basement, unwilling to step forward, helping at minimum to join with those willing to stand and fight regardless of self.

Isaac, your piece was excellent!

(Photo of Night of the Living Dead from Pittsburgh Haunted Tours. Photo of Ron Shaw from the author.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Ron Shaw

Ron Shaw is an Atlanta, Georgia native who currently resides in metro Atlanta with his wife and daughter. In1974, he graduated from Georgia State University with a B.A. degree in English Literature. In 1996, he retired from the Atlanta Police Department with the rank of Captain. In 2013, with “Seven Fish Tree,” he began his writing career. Since writing his initial book, he has authored other novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, and poetry. As his published works indicate, Ron enjoys writing in a wide variety of genres like romance, horror, humor, travel, young adult, coming of age, science fiction, paranormal, erotica, visionary and metaphysical, among others.

Check out the man on Twitter, Amazon, and his website!

 

At Dinner with George by Isaac Thorne

I was having dinner with a good friend the evening of July 16 when I heard the news. As most folks do these days, my dinner guest and I occasionally glanced at our phones to check notifications and create replies on social media during our meal. Don’t judge. We’ve known each other for a long time now, and we’re comfortable that way. At one of her Twitter checks, my friend turned to me and said, “Some big horror person named George has died.” The name that automatically appeared in my head and from my lips was, unfortunately, the correct one. The father of the modern zombie apocalypse, George A. Romero, had passed away at the age of 77 after a brief battle with lung cancer.

It wasn’t long before the Twitterverse exploded with tributes, all well deserved.

Contrary to many kids of the 1970s and 1980s, my first encounter with Romero’s work was not an airing of Night of the Living Dead on late-night independent television. I believe the first Romero movie I ever saw was 1982’s Creepshow, the EC Comics tribute collaboration with Stephen King. I think I saw it in a hotel room while on a trip with my parents. The hotel in question just happened to have HBO – I believe that it was HBO, anyway – and that particular night HBO just happened to be showing Creepshow. I was both amused and terrified, and I think that might have been the point that I became not a fan of Romero, but of King.

I am ashamed to say that I learned little about Romero in the years after I first saw Creepshow, aside from what I later read in a mass market paperback edition of Stephen King’s 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre. I don’t know whether I should attribute that to my own teenage horror fan laziness, or the fact that Romero was routinely shafted and rebuffed by the larger film industry, so I was less likely to notice him. It was not until I started college in the very early 1990s that I first saw the original Night of the Living Dead. I believe I saw it on an episode of the Joe Bob Briggs B-movie showcase Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, back when it aired on The Movie Channel, which was Showtime’s other cable property at the time. Briggs aired Night of the Living Dead as a double feature along with the 1990 Tom Savini remake of the same name, bookended by interviews with some of the original cast.

Over time, Romero has developed an enormous iconoclastic reputation in horror filmmaking, and his films have been dissected over and over as social commentary. Although I was of college age the first time I saw the film and attending a liberal arts university, I didn’t at first get the apparent 1960s subtext of Night of the Living Dead. I grew up partially in the me decade, so I suppose my natural instinct at that time of my life was to try to make the films I watched somehow about me. And so it was with Night of the Living Dead.

My early college days were a dark time for me. Yes, the United States was engaged in the first Gulf War, and rushing headlong into an economic recession. However, above all that for me was the fact that I knew my childhood was officially at an end. In my youth, I doubt anyone could ever have accused me of wanting to grow up too fast. I was happy being a kid. At the time, my impression of being a grown up meant nearly killing yourself every day to make ends meet, feeling like you were a failure at family, and being angry all the time. I figured that was no way to live a life, but I could also see no way out of that eventuality. I knew that once I graduated college, the immediate expectations for me would be to nail down a comfortable salaried job, start a family, and buy a house. It was the American dream, yes, but it wasn’t my dream.

Watching Ben and Barbra board up that old farmhouse while the apocalypse shambled toward them, ready to eat them and their futures alive, felt like a metaphor for my existential crisis in those days. I was Ben and Barbra, furiously attempting to maintain a small pocket universe of normal by closing up any portal to the outside world I could find. I was building walls where walls were not supposed to exist to keep out the reality that was ever so slowly closing in on me from every side of my simple little existence.

If I wanted to extend that metaphor today, I would add that attempting to build such walls is useless. The world scrambles over those walls. In Night of the Living Dead, it comes through in emergency broadcasts on the radio and the television. It breaks through even more forcefully with the arrivals of Harry, Helen, Karen, and Tom, the extended emergency family of Ben and Barbra, who bring with them their wants and desires that are antagonistic to the dream of preservation pursued by Ben and Barbra. They are united in their desire to keep the dangerous world out, yet divided as to both the why and the how of it.

“That cellar’s a death trap,” Ben says when Karl insists on squirreling his family away in the lowest portion of the house. It turns out to be prophetic for Karl and family, but not for the reasons Ben fears.

After I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time, I immediately wanted to watch it again. Fortunately for me, I had recorded that episode of Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater. Not only did I enjoy both versions of the film over and over again while I was in college, but I returned to that tape many times in the years after I graduated. Perhaps I wanted to remind myself of what I had been so afraid of turning into back then. Maybe I wanted to tell myself that turning into what I feared is still and always will be a genuine danger.

I haven’t owned a working VCR for many years, but I’m pretty sure I still have that old VHS recording of Joe Bob’s Drive-In stored in a drawer somewhere. I’d love to dust it off again in memory of the man who, unbeknownst to him, helped me face some genuine fears in my past.

Thank you, Mr. Romero. The horror-loving world’s everlasting gratitude might not be enough to make up for the shaft you got from the film industry many times over, but in my heart, I do hope you understand what a difference you made in people’s lives; in mine, anyway.

Rest in peace.

(Photo of George Romero from Geek Tyrant. Photo of Isaac Thorne from the author.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

ISAAC THORNE

He’s the author of several short tales of dark comic horror. He’s a nice man who simply wants to provide you with a few fun frights. Over time, he has developed a modest ability to spin a good yarn. Really. He promises. His collection of short tales of dark horror, Road Kills, will be available in both paperback and ebook formats in October of 2017.

Check out the man on Amazon, IMDb, Facebook, and at his website.

 

TRUTH OR DARE (2013) by Jonny Numb

[84 minutes. Unrated. Director: Jessica Cameron]

I’ve only done one interview for THE LAST KNOCK podcast, but it was very special: back in early 2014, I spoke with Jessica Cameron, who was on a promotional kick for her directorial debut, Truth or Dare. I knew of her status as a prolific, hard-working actor and rabid adherent of the genre, but it wasn’t until I spent a fast-moving hour with her (via Skype) that I realized I was in the presence of a promising new horror filmmaker.

Truth or Dare is not without its flaws – which I’ll get to – but it also does a lot of things very well, considering the limited setting, cast, and resources. It’s hard to keep a feature-length movie confined to a single location interesting and exciting, but Cameron finds a way.

True to its title, the film doesn’t flinch from horrible things – it’s also so saturated with screams, shouting, and agony that my neighbors probably thought someone was being murdered in my apartment.

Other than some fleeting comedic asides and a satirical element that recalls the likes of Natural Born Killers and Funny Games, Truth or Dare takes its extremes seriously. The setup, however, is pure Saw territory that evolves, with mounting dread, into the no-(wo)man’s land found in the latter Human Centipede films.

The plot is simple: a group of friends gain online notoriety by staging “truth or dare” videos with simulated life-or-death consequences. During a local talk-show interview, the group is confronted by crazed fan Derek (Ryan Kizer), a screw-loose nutcase unable to discern fiction from reality. On the night of their latest recording session, the friends find themselves taken hostage by this obsessed fiend, who escalates the stakes by revealing everyone’s hidden secrets.

The script (by Jonathan Scott Higgins and Cameron) knows its audience, and aims squarely for the horror discomfort zone: while the initial “truth”-telling by the reluctant participants comes across as a string of contrived tabloid behaviors, fetishes, and misdeeds, the actors are committed to making these details pay off in ways both visceral and emotional. Late in the game, when a mutilated and brutalized (but still breathing) character is shocked into consciousness by a bucket of her friends’ blood, Cameron has reached a level of degradation that few horror filmmakers ever achieve. It ain’t pretty, but goddamn if it isn’t effective.

The flaws of Truth or Dare are mostly innate to the setup…and, in a weird way, could be subliminal strengths. When the reality of the game settles in, the performances take a little time to find their proper footing – sometimes the hysterical reactions are overdone, while others don’t resonate enough. There are also moments where characters, free from their constraints and armed, could conceivably get the drop on Derek, but do not (though by the time this happens, everyone is implicated and chugging along with the game’s twisted logic). And as the emcee of the festivities, Kizer (invoking a cross between Charles Manson and Brad Pitt’s character in 12 Monkeys) is charismatic, albeit the type of deranged fan we’ve seen in many films; he acquits himself well as someone you love to hate, but also whose presence outstays its welcome.

But if the intent was for the viewer’s experience to reflect to characters’, Cameron has succeeded in spades.

The consistent surprise, in addition to the character-based revelations, is the film’s unflinching embrace of bloodshed. Carrie Mercado’s practical effects in Truth or Dare are stunning in their in-your-face brutality, and the actors convey every wound with disquieting conviction – the violence here is not “cool,” but closer to the messy, handmade gore you’d experience in, say, a Jim VanBebber film. Throughout, I also found myself thinking the effects were a spiritual heir to the pioneering extremes of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Once the credits rolled, I was convinced of Cameron’s skills in front of and behind the camera, and in watching the supplemental interview footage on the DVD, was reminded of her genuine affection for the genre. Truth or Dare is a very distinct calling card that bodes well for her future directorial outings (including the Tristan Risk-starring Mania) – I can’t wait to see what horrible things she brings us next.

What’s Jessica Cameron up to now? A lot! Get the details at her website.

(Truth or Dare is available on DVD from Invincible Pictures, and digitally via online retailers.)

(Photo of Jessica Cameron via Nerdly.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

THE DARK TAPES (2017) by Dee Emm Elms

[98 minutes. Not rated. Directors: Vincent J. Guastini, Michael McQuown]

As soon as I finished watching the horror film The Dark Tapes, I realized that I had a big problem as a movie reviewer. I wanted to immediately get the word out to encourage other people to find the movie and see it – but I also didn’t want to give much of anything about it away to anyone. I came into the movie almost completely cold, and that’s how I think everyone should see it. And, believe me, I think everyone should see it. Just watch it. It’s that good. But for those who need more convincing, I’m offering as much of a spoiler-free review here as I can. That’s how much I want you to see The Dark Tapes.

In telling you that this movie joins the ranks of The Blair Witch ProjectThe Poughkeepsie Tapes, and Alien Abduction, you can probably guess that The Dark Tapes is a found-footage movie. The title kind of gives it away. And let me add that before pressing “Play” on my remote control, I thought the title seemed uninspired and bland. After watching it, I realized that the title is perfect, and I wouldn’t want anyone to make a change. Its rather-generic name belies its contents, which is kind of a central theme to much of the movie – that what you see isn’t what you get, that conventions can and will be subverted in ways a viewer may not expect, and that sometimes it’s the most unassuming things that can hide the biggest and most sinister secrets.

So many found-footage movies try to compensate for a limited budget by being loud and shocking. They throw things at the camera over and over, or feature loud “stinger” sound effects or screams to hide the hollowness of their contents.  The people who made The Dark Tapes know this, and they play with the audience’s expectations of this in a variety of ways throughout the movie. I didn’t jump in my seat even once during The Dark Tapes, and if you think that’s a bad thing… well, I submit that you don’t know much about horror beyond its ability to provide the odd adrenal rush.

The Dark Tapes is about the horror of dawning realization. It’s about the horror of creeping dread. Right from the first segment, it draws your interest and makes you question what it is you’re seeing. It drops you right into its world. That could be a weakness for less-aware filmmakers, but I suspect it’s done here with definitive intent. Because from the first moment to the last, The Dark Tapes pulls off a trick that only the absolute best found-footage movies can manage: keeping you in that perfect horror movie moment where you’re in a state of perpetual dread, in that feeling you get when you hear the clickity-clack ride up the roller coaster… right before the big drop. Except that The Dark Tapes isn’t about the big drop. It’s about the ride climbing and climbing… and then coming to a sudden stop, and leaving you there – waiting for a more existential drop. With The Dark Tapes, you don’t get to release the tension the movie builds until after you finish the movie. This film leaves you halfway up the climb – perhaps suspended there, perhaps hanging upside-down, and waiting for a rescue that you know in the back of your mind just isn’t coming because that’s not how the world really works. In the world of The Dark Tapes, there’s something deeply wrong with the roller coaster we’re all on, and observing how and why – unspoiled – is one of the movie’s great pleasures.

Credit directors Vincent J. Guastini and Michael McQuown for making beautiful use of budgetary limitations. The Dark Tapes reportedly cost around $65,000 to make, but you wouldn’t know it from watching because this movie shows how creative people can overcome the shortcomings of any budget. So much work, craft, and care are evident, and special note should be made of McQuown’s clear expertise at editing that brings all these well-crafted elements together – they not only transcend typical found footage movies, but horror movies in general. In The Dark Tapes, you get a film that takes you on a journey from calm to chaos and back with the guiding hand of someone truly creative who knows what they’re doing and isn’t wasting a second of what you see onscreen. And, in a way, even that deft editing could be interpreted as something sinister. But I’ve said too much already.

Performances throughout The Dark Tapes are natural when they’re supposed to be, and unnatural when… well, let’s say when you’re dealing with the unnatural. Again, my desire to keep your experience undiluted prevents me from saying much else.

However, I do want to give praise to Cortney Palm as Nicole Fallek, and David Roundtree as Martin Callahan. Both play characters who are dealing with fear, panic, and realization – while also keeping their heads in bizarre circumstances. Like everything else about The Dark Tapes, their work displays a delicate balancing act that ramps up the tension while remaining believable. Future found-footage moviemakers could learn a lot by observing how these two performers play out their reactions to what they’re experiencing.

I want to, mysteriously perhaps, levy praise on a pair of elements: the visible and audible in-movie work of Guastini, McQuown, and Ryan Allen Young that I simply can’t reveal further without spoiling. The things I’m talking about literally gave me goosebumps on five different occasions. You’ll know them when you see and hear them. And, if you’re like me, you’ll never forget them.

Likewise, I don’t think you’ll forget The Dark Tapes. It’s a movie made by legitimate talents that gets at the heart of what makes movies scary, and what makes horror movies both unnerving and delightful. When the film ended, I felt like I could watch five more movies set in the world of The Dark Tapes, each telling different stories. If more is to come, I’ll be waiting – with a blanket pulled over my head in that mix of anticipation and fear.

Because in the world of The Dark Tapes, the truth isn’t out there – it’s right behind you.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Dee Emm Elms was born in 1972 in Glens Falls, New York. Dee writes about many subjects ranging from social justice issues to Lost In Space, and often mixes them together. Her favorite topic is horror, and horror movies in particular. Her novel Sidlings may be read at sidlings.com, and she would be pleased for you to check it out.  Dee may be contacted at her email sidlingsnovel@gmail.com, or her Twitter: @d_m_elms.

(Movie poster from Teaser Trailer. Dee Emm Elms photo via Dee Emm Elms.)

The 2000s: Horror’s Best Decade (Part 3: The Final Chapter) by Paul J. Williams

Please allow me one last time to preface this article with a warning and a statement: Beware! Dozens of movies are discussed and spoilers may exist, so please keep that in mind as you read.

And, I’m not a movie historian or expert; I’m just a cinephile, probably like you, who enjoys horror movies. I also like to reflect upon times and situations in our history and ask: Why? I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic as well.

NOTABLE DIRECTORS

As we entered the 2000s, one filmmaker seemed to lead the charge for a resurgence in the horror genre: M. Night Shyamalan. Coming off the monumental success of 1999’s The Sixth Sense, he dipped slightly with 2000’s Unbreakable, before reconnecting with audiences with 2002’s Signs, which unfortunately has not stood the test of time in terms of its plot or an ending that makes sense. After that, poor Night descended that proverbial slippery slide with one miscalculation after another. However, I’m happy to report that the past few years have been a rebound for Mr. Shyamalan with the success of The Visit in 2015 and Split in 2017. While Night might have slumped in the 2000s, several other filmmakers rose to prominence in the horror genre, aside from the aforementioned Eli Roth, Neil Marshall, et. al.

TI WEST started with a couple of independent features before directing the sequel to Cabin Fever, which he now disowns. Afterwards, though, he started the run he has become known for with The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Sacrament, and segments on V/H/S and The ABCs of Death. His latest feature-length film was the 2016 non-horror, but critically acclaimed, In the Valley of Violence.

LUCKY McKEE brought us the now cult-classic May in 2002. Several years later, he returned with The Woods in 2006, followed by The Woman in 2011. His latest movie, Misfortune, is scheduled for release in 2017.

IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT: Post-Apocalypse

Another oldie but goodie subgenre that resurged in the 2000s was post-apocalyptic movies, with many in the zombie subgenre as well. Here are a few survivors, though admittedly, some are more drama than horror:

REIGN OF FIRE, starring the not-as-yet-popular Christian Bale and the always great Matthew McConaughey, in a 2002 UK movie where dragons emerge and destroy half the planet.

TIME OF THE WOLF is a 2003 Michael Haneke post-apocalyptic drama that nobody saw during its initial run, but has become appreciated years later.

WAR OF THE WORLDS is Steven Spielberg’s 2005 loosely-based adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel about an alien invasion. Tom Cruise plays a longshoremen from Newark, NJ (remember, this is science-fiction) who must flee with his kids as the war-machines destroy everything in their path. With awesome set-pieces and special effects, the movie went on to receive positive reviews and hundreds of millions of dollars.

CHILDREN OF MEN is a 2006 UK movie set in a near-future where women, inexplicably, can no longer become pregnant. Alfonso Cuarón directs Clive Owen to a great performance as the man who may be able to help mankind. Surprisingly not a hit at the box-office, the movie earned critical acclaim and always pops up on “Best of” lists.

THE ROAD is the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a father and son trekking along a post-apocalyptic landscape in search of that elusive safe-ground.

DAYBREAKERS is a 2009 vampire tale starring Ethan Hawke, who must love acting in these genre movies. Ultimately a fun ride, the film made double its budget.

STAKE LAND, from 2010, also sets us in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with vampires. A touching story executed on a low budget with some great scenes and a moving soundtrack.

“THE ORIGINAL WAS BETTER”…Yeah, No Shit…

Remakes, reboots, reimagining, whatever you call them, they were everywhere in the 2000s and the horror genre was the biggest victim. This was really the only low point, in my opinion, for the genre this decade.

Look, I like to think I’m not naïve or a prude; I get it, I really do. Hollywood is a business, and businesses’ goals are to earn profits. I’m an American trying to turn a buck as much as the next guy, so maybe if I were in these producers’ shoes I’d do the same, but they all reek of capitalism. There appears to be no artistic or creative goal to them at all… Okay, maybe I am a little naïve after all…

Anyway, let’s take a look at some of these:

THE FIRST: Announced in 2001 and realized in 2003, the first remake of an original horror classic in the 2000s was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Besides Jessica Biel running around in a skimpy white tank-top, the movie offers or adds nothing to the iconic 1974 original.

THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL: Touched upon in Part 2, after the relative successes of Rob Zombie’s early/mid 2000s horror-films, producers who owned the rights to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween, tasked Zombie with remaking it in 2006. He would go on to write, produce, and direct it entirely in his own broad, bloody vision, abandoning what made the original so special. It didn’t stop Millennials and scores of others from rushing the theaters, and the movie went on to huge box-office grosses, which spawned the 2009 sequel. A feud of some sort, that might be total nonsense, between Carpenter and Zombie has emerged over the years, but the two seem to have made amends recently.

THE WORST: Hands down, unequivocally, without any doubt, 2006’s unintentional spoof-remake of the 1973 UK classic, The Wicker Man, takes the prize. Nicholas Cage leads the way in this turd, playing the detective searching for a missing girl on a remote island. An unmitigated disaster all the way around… “Not the bees!”…

THE VICTIMS: All of these tried and essentially failed at remaking their original classics: Willard (2003), The Amityville Horror (2005), The Fog (2005), House of Wax (2005), The Omen (2006), When A Stranger Calls (2006), Black Christmas (2006), The Invasion (2007), April Fool’s Day (2008), My Bloody Valentine (2009), Friday the 13th (2009), The Last House On the Left (2009), The Stepfather (2009), The Wolfman (2010), I Spit On Your Grave (2010), and last but not least, A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010). That list is way too long.

THE EXCEPTION: Let Me In is the 2010 American remake of the 2008 Swedish vampire drama, Let the Right One In. Perhaps why this was one of the very few remake successes in the 2000s is the ingredients of talented professionals that collaborated to make it: Written and directed by Matt Reeves and starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloë Grace Moretz, and the always great, Richard Jenkins, the movie received critical acclaim, though wasn’t the biggest hit at the box-office.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Before we finish, I’d like to mention other movies of note that prove this was one of the best decades for horror:

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, a 2005 “young girl possessed” movie adds the unique aspect of also being a legal drama. That, along with great performances from both veteran and novice actors, separates this from other ubiquitous demonic possession stories.

HARD CANDY, a two-hander directed in 2005 by David Slade, stars Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page, a year before she would explode as Juno, in this disturbing revenge tale set in the modern, technological era.

BUG, a 2006 psychological horror from William Friedkin, who directs a sparse cast, made double its budget, and was well-received, despite many disappointed with its conclusion.

TRICK ‘R TREAT, technically a 2007 film, is a horror anthology directed by Michael Dougherty, set on Halloween, that was released straight-to-DVD in 2009. Of course, with hindsight being 20/20, not releasing this was a detrimental decision by Warner Brothers, as the movie was eventually received with critical acclaim and has gone on to develop a big cult following. It undoubtedly would have earned a significant profit at the box office.

THE MIST is a 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novella by director Frank Darabont, who seems to be one of the only filmmakers to successfully transfer King’s stories to movies. The film is faithful to the pages up until the ending, I’m sure most of you know by now, which is very different from the novella that had an ambiguous, yet hopeful finish. It’s a real kick in the balls.

THE ORPHANGE, in 2007, is a scary ghost story (with kids!) from Spain.

EDEN LAKE, a highly disturbing 2008 UK film, starring Kelly Reilly, a then little-known Michael Fassbender, and an unknown Jack O’Connell. A young couple are attempting to enjoy their vacation, but a gang of local hoods have other plans for them. Some scenes are hard to watch, for sure.

TRIANGLE, a UK release in 2009, is a mind-fuck of a movie that, despite Melissa George running around in short-shorts and heels, is a very cleverly structured film.

ANTICHRIST, a 2009 experimental horror from the mind of the infamous Lars von Trier, stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a grieving couple whose infant son dies in the prologue. No hyperbole: It’s some of the craziest shit you’ll ever see on screen.

GRACE, from 2009, stars Jordan Ladd as a grieving and pregnant widow, who may also lose her baby. Directed by Paul Solet, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

DRAG ME TO HELL is the 2009 supernatural movie written and directed by the accomplished, Sam Raimi.

BLACK SWAN, though not 100% horror, is Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 companion-piece with 2008’s The Wrestler, about a performer’s obsession with their craft, ultimately leading to their demise. Natalie Portman’s performance would go on to earn her an Oscar for Best Actress. Creepy scenes, mild “gore,” and foreboding atmosphere allows me to list this as a horror.

MONSTERS is the 2010 feature-film debut of Gareth Edwards, who would go on direct Godzilla in 2014 and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in 2016. It’s not surprising that Edwards would be selected to helm these big budget movies, considering what he does with the visuals and effects in Monsters with only $500,000. The movie puts a great twist on the alien “invasion” subgenre and explores themes way more relevant today than in 2010. Dialogue was adlibbed a la Before Sunrise, however, the actors in that film were much more up to the challenge than the cast in Monsters.

Last, I’m embarrassed to admit I omitted in Part 1, the South Korean movie, A Tale of Two Sisters, from 2003. Unseen by me until some years later, the film is loosely based on an old Korean fairytale and has since been adapted several times.

2010: THE BUBBLE BURSTS

With a decade like the 2000s filling up with so many notable horror movies, the inevitable bubble would burst, which it did, right on cue in 2010 with two films: Human Centipede and A Serbian Film.

One rare thing these two movies have in common is that in this modern, digital, social-media age, each film had an old-fashioned word-of-mouth aspect to them. This was more so with Human Centipede, which I think more US viewers have seen or at least heard of. 2009’s Paranormal Activity was the last horror movie I remember having more of that pre-internet dialogue amongst folks.

HUMAN CENTIPEDE Technically, it’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) and was written, produced, and directed by Dutch filmmaker, Tom Six (Oh, the Dutch!). Just from the movie poster, you know you’re in for it. The film starts out torture-porn-esque, with three tourists kidnapped in Germany by a deranged scientist, but devolves much lower than other movies of this ilk. If you haven’t watched it, I’ll just come out and say it: The victims are surgically attached to each other, mouth to anus, hence becoming his human centipede. Themes and inspirations in the film are evident and, of course, this received what you could call “mixed” reviews at best, but it has spawned two sequels which, admittedly, I’ve passed on.

Before we move on, I want to formally recognize three professionals. I’ve been on movie sets and have asked actors to reach down into some deep emotional and physical territory to accomplish a scene, but what is asked of the three actors in Human Centipede goes above and beyond. Here’s to Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, and Akihiro Kitamura for what they endured in this movie. It wasn’t for nothing.

A SERBIAN FILM Co-written, produced, and directed by Srđan Spasojević, A Serbian Film is an obvious indictment of the filmmaker’s country, Serbia, and its government. Also classified in the subgenre of “just when you thought you saw it all,” A Serbian Film tells the story of poor Milos, a financially strapped, retired porn actor called back to duty by the craziest fucker ever to live. Just how crazy? I’ll give you a hint: “Newborn porn” becomes a porn subcategory.

Somewhat surprisingly, the movie is photographed very nicely, and has way more of a professional look for a movie of this nature. A Serbian Film would ultimately become one of those movies defending itself against censorship in many countries, creating various edits. No matter which cut you’ve seen, or will see, the movie is like no other.

POST-MORTEM

So here comes the arbitrary part where I try to figure this all out. Why, in my assertion, was the 2000s a great decade for horror?

It could be because we became a global society and gained access to movies from around the world that we may have missed twenty years earlier. You’ll notice many, many of the films discussed did not originate in the United States.

It could be because cameras and equipment became much more affordable, opening up filmmaking to those who are truly independent and outside the Hollywood studio system. Everything went digital, as well. DSLR cameras shot HD and became an accepted norm. Expensive film-stock was no longer necessary. Editing software could be downloaded on a laptop. Creative, talented filmmakers were no longer on the outside looking in.

It could be because so many events of the 2000s were so painful, filmmakers thought they had to raise the bar in the movies they showed us. They didn’t want us to pause our movie to turn on CNN and watch something in the world more horrific.

It could be that filmmakers thought they could only explore themes with certain subgenres of horror. The zombie and post-apocalyptic movies jump to mind.

It could be just the ebb and flow of life. The 1980s were an important, prolific decade for the horror genre, which was then followed by a horror dearth in the 1990s.

But, enough of me blabbing. What do you think?

Before I go, I’d like to thank Billy Crash, proprietor of Crash Palace Productions and close friend, for hosting this series on 2000s Horror. I had a blast.

Until we meet again, everyone…

(Photo of Stake Land from Confessions of a Film Junkie.)

Crash Palace Support Team

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Paul J. Williams is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, and his short films have appeared in numerous festivals. Although Paul’s the man behind Rolling Dark Productions, he’s also a detective in Morris County, New Jersey. Paul’s a Medal of Honor recipient from the City of Newark for actions on December 14, 2002

Event Report: Monster Mania 36 by Jonny Numb

 

The long-running Monster-Mania Convention knows how to show horror fans a good time. For 3 days every March and August, genre stars and a wide variety of vendors descend upon Cherry Hill, New Jersey (just over the Ben Franklin Bridge) for a celebration of macabre delight.

Over the past decade, I’ve attended at least one MM con per year, and have never been disappointed. Between the guests (usually a mix of new blood and returning fan favorites) and the vendors spread across several rooms, this truly is a holiday for horror-hounds – a combination of celebrity wish-fulfillment and a cornucopia of dazzling material goodies awaiting discovery.

There are certain things that MM newbies should be cognizant of: Even if you get to the Crowne Plaza early, you may want to pack your walking shoes (or something that doesn’t lace up to the thigh). My best friend and I arrived at noon on Saturday, and were greeted by a mile-long backup of vehicles waiting to chance the packed parking lot. As veterans of the con, we had never seen MM this busy.

After an odd winter of wildly fluctuating temperatures (from balmy 60s to well below freezing), the day was a mix of sun and wind, the type of slap-you-in-the-face cold that Calvin’s dad would insist “builds character.” As we walked from our faraway parking spot, we speculated on the reason for the turnout (John Cusack being the headliner guest; our later arrival; the parking lot being taken up by out-of-towners in for the whole weekend) and stopped at a delicious* pit barbecue place for lunch.

Upon passing through the automatic lobby doors of the Crowne Plaza, we faced a scene of (mostly figurative) chaos: the extensive foyer/lounge area was packed with people. On first glance, it was overwhelming and obnoxious – a mass of bodies like something out of a Clive Barker novel – but my excitement over being there eventually trumped a sinking feeling of not enjoying the show on account of being unable to move.

The line for tickets moved with great efficiency (with at least 3 or 4 volunteers keeping on top of things), and good news for everyone whose favored ATMs were on the fritz prior to driving over (like me): the admission table does take credit cards. Following the acquisition of the much-coveted wristband, I progressed to the line for the lobby ATM. While a longer wait (maybe 15 minutes), those around me had a good sense of humor whenever somebody would sincerely ask, “Who are you in line for?”

Following my ATM adventure, I met my friend in the room where a majority of the celebrity guests were gathered. Forming a border along the wall, the center section was a swarm of fans looking to get up close and personal with stars as varied as Oscar winner Louise Fletcher, original “Buffy” Kristy Swanson, guys who played Jason Voorhees (Ted White and C.J. Graham), Lucas and “Toothless” from Stranger Things, and even con mainstay Doug “Pinhead” Bradley (whose line seemed permanently stretched halfway across the room).

We both had clear ideas of who we wanted to meet, and began with the lovely Ashley Bell (from Carnage Park and The Last Exorcism, among others), who possessed an energy and enthusiasm that was infectious. MM 36 was her first proper convention, and she was elated to meet her fans. She had nothing but glowing things to say about her collaboration with director Mickey Keating and co-star Pat Healy in Carnage Park, and told me of Psychopaths’ (another Keating project) April premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. After graciously posing for a picture, she suggested making a phone call to Billy Crash (proprietor of this fine site!) and concluded by pointing me in the direction of Love and Bananas – an elephant documentary she’s involved with (also her Twitter handle). Though I committed a faux pas that I will take to my grave, Miss Bell embodied everything a fan could want in a convention guest – down to earth, energetic, and clearly passionate about the genre.

Years ago, my friend had a great alternative poster from John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was unfortunately damaged beyond repair in a house fire. Needless to say, he acquired a reprint for MM, which hosted a mini-reunion of the men of Outpost 36 – Thomas Waites (Windows); Peter Maloney (Bennings); con newcomer Wilford Brimley (Blair); and a nearly-missed Richard Masur (Clark).

In addition to first-time convention guests Bell and Brimley, cinematographer Dean Cundey (who shot Carpenter’s most well-remembered films) was also on hand. Keeping within the same universe, synth wizard Alan Howarth was there with a diverse selection of scores, and also closed out Saturday night with a free concert.

At the end of the day, my friend accumulated five signatures for his The Thing poster – not too shabby.

Nestled within the same corner of the room was the wonderful Barbara Crampton, who has worked in (Re-Animator; From Beyond; Castle Freak) and out (various daytime soap operas) of the genre over the years, and has been enjoying a career renaissance as of late, with efforts like You’re Next, We Are Still Here, and Sun Choke expanding her fan base even further. A line of about a dozen waited patiently for her to return from lunch; when she did, she paused to address the fans: “Thank you so much for waiting! I had to get something to eat!” (I suspect that Mrs. Crampton was really visiting the Fountain of Youth – we should all hope to look so amazing at 58.) When it was my turn, my photo choice was a no-brainer – a still from 2015’s Sun Choke, which I told her was her best performance, “Better than Emma Stone in La La Land,” to which she gave a good-natured (yet doubtful) laugh. Mrs. Crampton asked me what I did for a living as we posed for a photo, and revealed that her sister in Vermont was also a civil servant, to which she recited the line that led me to state government: “It’s a steady paycheck, and you get benefits.” ** It was a very human moment that recalled my meeting with Ashley Bell, and another testament to how down-to-earth genre stars can be.

With our usual approach of getting autographs out of the way, we engaged with Phase Two of our MM experience: slowing our pace to a zombie shuffle to be dazzled and lured by the varied wares in the vendors’ area. Everything from horror-based fridge magnets, original art prints, vintage posters, enamel pins, DVDs and Blu-rays, and custom apparel – among many other tempting items – were available in this extensive section.

One of the things I enjoy most about MM is that many vendors are mainstays, so there is a predictability to the layout that is comforting. Troma Films, for instance, takes up permanent residence at a corner table, complete with an alcove for photo ops with Toxie, Sgt. Kabukiman, and the Troma Girls.

After collecting some new pins and magnets, I picked up an out-of-print copy of Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (from a consistently reliable used-DVD & Blu-ray vendor), and dropped considerable coin at the Severin Films table (who were giving away free DVD copies of Richard Stanley’s Hardware with multi-disc purchases). My last stop was Vinegar Syndrome, where I complained about how abysmal Massage Parlor Murders is, and made humorous small talk with one of the slightly inebriated guys, who told me, “When the ATM runs out of money, it beams a signal to the guy who has to put money in the ATM” and – regarding his cell-phone’s cracked screen: “I threw it at a guy once, that’s why it’s cracked; you laugh – it’s true!” If the celebrities started my experience off on a high note, this encounter brought MM 36 to an entertaining close.

Some cons champion quantity over quality, but insofar as personality is concerned, MM has the consistent feeling of a curated exhibition – by fans, for fans. Despite the added stress of an overcrowded hotel this time around, even that tension was fleeting in the name of the wonderful community that descended on Cherry Hill for yet another horrifically satisfying weekend.

 

(* = Billy Crash can attest to this.)

(** = CC: Karen “Plate of Shrimp” Rice-Young)

(Photos of Barbara Crampton and Ashley Bell via Twitter.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

From SamSam to Dick Pig by Cat LaCohie

SamSam Whirlwind

It’s been such a rush to hit the new year running, shooting the dark comedy/horror feature film, SamSam, in January 2017. LITERALLY starting the New Year the moment I got back to LA – landing in LAX January 10, 11:30am, having just finished a ten-hour flight from London. I left the airport at 12:30pm, squeezed in a modeling job in Downtown LA from 1:30-3:30pm, and then arrived on set to shoot my first scenes of SamSam at 5pm, diving headfirst into a night shoot and also (surprisingly) the best cure for jet-lag! Welcome home Cat!

SamSam, written and directed by Dallas Lee Blanton is a film compiled from the solicitation of real-life Bad Roommate stories. The essence of the worst of the worst stories, boiled down to create: SamSam – The Worst Roommate Ever.

I was so psyched to be working on this project, not only because the sense of humour in the script matches perfectly with my own, but that this character was not the typical sex bomb, mistress, Bond girl, evil villain, which I’ve previously been typecast to play. I got to portray the “sane voice among the crazies,” which is where my sarcastic, sardonic, “tell it how it is” sense of humour lies. Wearing little-to-no make-up, I was dressed down in most of my scenes wearing workout clothes and sweat pants, playing a sleep deprived, touring nurse (I totally nailed the sleep deprived part!). How freeing to no longer have to give a shit about what I looked like and just … do my job … act! I got to be sarcastically mean to the most annoying valley girl (the eponymous SamSam), eat SO much pizza (!) and drag a large, bloodied tree branch through the LA Abandoned Zoo, culminating with a girl-on-girl, blood-splattered showdown battle!

Yes! Life…Is…Good!

A Character’s Born

Taking on characters against my stereotype seems to be the theme this year, as it was during this shoot in the Abandoned Zoo, where I received a text from a dear old friend, Len Smith, who I hadn’t seen in four years. We had been in the theatre show, Clue together, he playing Colonel Mustard and I playing Miss Scarlet (of course – sex bomb, mistress, evil villain … ahem) and we hadn’t seen each other since.

Len, previously a cartoonist for Disney, had been following a character I’d created on Facebook, “Vixen Duckville” and sent me some artwork relating to the character saying, “Do you want to make her into a TV Show?” My response: “Absolutely, I do!”

We didn’t!

But we will… we got sidetracked!

As most people will, during development, Len asked the famous words, “What other ideas do you have?” Now, (in the words of Shakespeare), “by accident most strange, bountiful fortune,” found me shooting the shit a few days previous with the most amazing human being in this world, Keith Thompson, where when discussing an episode of Black Mirror (go watch this series NOW) and the unfortunate University escapades of David Cameron (please educate yourself on who this is), put the words “Dick” and “Pig” in the same sentence … and of course, Keith and I proceeded to joke about the connotations of this combination.

Hence, all in all, Dick Pig was born: “Bitter, cynical, and nonchalantly nihilistic, Dick Pig devotes his life to doing other’s dirty work for them. Should you find your day being disrespectfully disrupted, it may be that someone out there felt the burning desire to send you a Dick Pig!” Totally not a character in my wheelhouse – but someone who’s words I can still write. An actor is a storyteller, but can only go so far in his or her carnal vehicle. Yes, I can dress down and wear less make-up, but I will never be a male, late 40’s, cartoon pig with a chip on his shoulder about how the world around him is changing and won’t let him be. Dick Pig is the vehicle for me to access a whole other world of storytelling, and his Send A Dick Pig website will, in turn, give YOU the freedom and indeed, the permission, to live vicariously through Dick Pig, saying and doing all the mean, socially unacceptable, politically incorrect things, that, honestly … you really wish you could!

Dick Pig Wants You

“We’re allowing people the guilty pleasure of unabashedly behaving badly.”

Send A Dick Pig will allow users to select specific characters, decide their fate from numerous animated “Dick Pig” escapades, and send to friends and foes via text, email, and social media. A tongue-in-cheek and deliciously devilish alternative to the current array of sickly sweet E-Cards and, hopefully, picking up where Bitstrips left off.

Dick Pig: The Retaliative Telegram, delivering justice one DICK MOVE at a time.

We are currently running an Indiegogo Campaign to help us bring Dick Pig’s website to life, and you can check out the link here: https://igg.me/at/DickPig.

Even if you can’t contribute but love this concept, you can do the following things:

1) Start sending a Dick Pig … NOW!!! We have images on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that you are more than welcome to forward to anyone you think would appreciate the concept. (If you tag us and share us of course – don’t be a Dick Pig!).  The more people who know about Dick Pig, the more people will use the website once it’s up and running, and the thing we want most of all is an adoring audience.

 

2) Share the Dick Pig Indiegogo campaign!!!

Tweet us at Twitter

Follow us on Facebook

Gramster-gram us on Instagram

Subscribe to our mailing list for updates and Send a Dick Pig!

 

(Dick Pig art by Len Smith.)

Crash Palace Support Team

 

The multi-talented Cat LaCohie is not only an actress, producer, costume designer, and creative spirit, but a burlesque star known as Vixen DeVille. She also hosts her amazing Burlesque, Body Confidence, and Self-Imagery Discovery Experience and its value cannot be measured. And don’t miss her horror work, and much more, at her IMDb page.

The 2000s: Horror’s Best Decade (Part 2) by Paul J. Williams

Please allow me to preface this article with a warning and a statement: Beware! Dozens of movies are discussed and spoilers will exist, so please keep that in mind as you read.

And, I’m not a movie historian or expert; I’m just a cinephile, probably like you, who enjoys horror movies. I also like to reflect upon times and situations in our history and ask: why? I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, as well.

LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LATE 2000s: A (Very) Brief Summary

The late 2000s continued the trend of worldwide heartbreak and despair:

Hurricane Katrina ravished the southeast United States and other areas in 2005, making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, and the costliest in terms of damage.

The Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 became the U.S.’s deadliest mass shooting, up until the Orlando nightclub massacre in 2016, claiming thirty-two lives.

2008 brought the Great Recession, which was felt around the globe, with many still suffering from its fallout.

Haiti was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 2010, killing over 100,000 of its citizens and leveling scores of buildings, including the Presidential Palace.

LATE 2000s HORROR: Let the Fun Begin

2005 to 2010 gave us some of the best movies in the history of cinema, and especially horror. Low budget, huge budget, foreign and domestic; every demographic is represented and we are lucky to have been alive to catch it all…

A NEW SUBGENRE IS BORN: Torture Porn

Well, admittedly, it’s not my favorite, but we have to talk about it, don’t we? Film critic David Edelstein is credited with coining the term for a new subgenre (sub to the Slasher/Body Horror genres, I suppose) that emerged in the mid-2000s called “torture porn.” These films emphasized nudity, mutilation, and sadism, and though movies associated with this subgenre are not personal preferences, I can’t not mention them.

Eli Roth wrote and directed 2005’s Hostel, a story about a group of American college students traveling across eastern Europe, and historically, the first movie assigned to the torture-porn subgenre. These poor vacationers become kidnapped and sold off to be systematically tortured and killed. Over the years, proponents of this movie have tried to extract bigger meanings from it, most notably the socioeconomic implications and the consequences of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. Maybe; who knows? Quentin Tarantino, who was probably tangential to the production at best, smartly had his name plastered all over the promotion of the film that, despite mixed reviews, grossed over $80 million on a $5 million budget, and spawned two sequels: the second again being written and directed by Roth, who would then sit the third one out.

What followed was filmmakers trying more and more to gross out audiences:

Australia’s 2005’s Wolf Creek, using the tried-and-true promotion of being “based on a true story” has a Crocodile Dundee-type hunt and kill three backpackers in the outback. It received mixed reviews from critics, but was a hit at the box office, grossing $28 million on a $1 million budget. Wolf Creek 2 followed in 2013, but like most sequels, didn’t live up to the first film.

Turistas was released in 2006. This time harassing backpackers in Brazil, the film was received poorly by critics, but made a profit in ticket sales.

Captivity, from 2007, tried, mostly in vain, to ride the wave of success of Hostel and Saw, and ultimately grossed $11 million.

The Collector, released in 2009 from Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunston, winners of Project Greenlight a thousand years ago, is a distant cousin of Saw, and now considered a cult classic. It tripled its budget, despite negative reviews, and spawned the sequel: The Collection in 2012.

ELI ROTH

With a dearth of worthwhile horror, or any horror at all, really, in the late 1990s, the early 2000s was up for grabs for anyone looking to be the next horror maestro. Love him or hate him, Eli Roth was the someone who stepped up. Starting in 2002 with Cabin Fever, which has since been remade (more on that nonsense later), Roth followed in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project with its online marketing, showed everyone who his influences are, became a hit with audiences, grossed $30 million on a $1.5 million budget, and even managed to get a lot of good reviews.

He followed with the aforementioned Hostel in 2005, also launching the “torture-porn” subgenre, and followed with Hostel II in 2007.

Since then, he’s mostly worn the Producer’s hat, being the man behind such films as The Last Exorcism and The Sacrament, and dabbles in acting, as well, with his most notable performance of him chewing the scenery as “The Bear Jew” in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 fantasy, Inglorious Basterds.

His next film looks to be a departure from horror, remaking the 1974 Charles Bronson classis, Death Wish.

LOOK WHAT I FOUND: Another New Sub-genre is Born

Obviously kicking off the modern “found-footage” subgenre is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project (shout-outs recognizing Man Bites Dog and The Last Broadcast), but what’s odd is that it’ll take years before another recognizable film of this nature is released.

Fred Vogel starts his August Underground “franchise” in 2001, but these are extreme genre films only a select few can sit through.

Zero Day, from 2003, though not a horror, dramatizes the Columbine massacre of 1999.

Septem8er Tapes, also not a horror, was released in 2004, and makes use of every penny of its estimated $30,000 budget, and puts a War on Terror spin on the found-footage subgenre.

The U.K.’s The Last Horror Movie from 2003 is a very disturbing movie, sort of like the found-footage version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

2007’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes from brothers, John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, has become more about whether people are ever going to see it or not than about the movie itself, and in some ways, this has given more longevity to the film than if it was widely released as originally planned in 2007. First, I’ve seen it, and surprisingly, it lives up to the hype: it’s very disturbing and odd. Second, when is this ever going to be released permanently to the masses? Hell if I know, but it’d probably be the worst thing for it.

What starts off, what I guess we can call the postmodern “found-footage” frenzy, is Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. It originally premiered in 2007, then after a few ending changes suggested by Hollywood, and a fake story about Steven Spielberg being scared shitless of it, and we get the 2009 wide release, which you most likely viewed. If you don’t know what follows, then you must not be a horror fan: almost $200 million at the box office and, count them, six sequels to date. Not surprisingly, it has (almost) all the same ingredients that made Blair Witch a phenomenon: D.I.Y. filming and editing on a miniscule budget, amateur actors, more happening in the viewer’s mind than on screen, effective online and word-of-mouth marketing, and ultimately, perfect timing for a movie like this to come out.

[REC] is a 2007 Spanish found-footage/zombie film that shows just how much “fun” these types of movies can be. It doesn’t take long getting into the action with our attractive news reporter, watching the craziest 75 minutes of her life. [REC] became a huge hit and spawned a franchise.

Lake Mungo, from Australia, has several release dates between 2009 and 2010, but is ultimately a 2008 movie. More like one of these true-crime documentaries that are so popular today, the movie’s presented with interviews, news footage, etc. Ultimately a story about a family’s grief, Lake Mungo is very effective and downright creepy at times. I do see it listed on various “Top 10” lists every now and again, but I acknowledge it’s a divisive film and, admittedly, it’s a personal favorite.

Quarantine is the 2008 American remake of [REC] by the aforementioned Dowdle Brothers, and in my opinion, might actually be better. One thing I like about the movie is right from the beginning they shed the idea that this is actually real footage, using actors, including Jennifer Carpenter in the lead, that you have seen before. Just like [REC], we jump right into the action, following the reporter covering a local firehouse in L.A. Jump scares, creepy visuals, and claustrophobia follow, and it’s all a blast.

2008’s Cloverfield is what happens when you make a found-footage movie, which historically are independent and very low budget, by a Hollywood studio on a $170 million budget. A recipe for disaster, no? Nope. What you get is one of the best monster movies in horror cinema history. (Yeah, I said it.) J.J. Abrams and Co. make us hang out with a party of yuppies for a full half-hour before anything happens, but once it does, what a ride. Showing only glimpses of the monster throughout, he (or she) finally gets their close-up at the end (literally). A sequel has been talked about ever since, but it seems 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane and the upcoming 2017 movie God’s Particle, described as being in the “Cloverfield universe” is as close as we’re going to get…and that’s fine with me.

The Last Exorcism, produced by the aforementioned Eli Roth, is a 2010 “young girl possessed by a demon” movie presented in the same way as Lake Mungo in “documentary” format. It starts off great: perfectly casted and acted by Patrick Fabian as Cotton, a fraudulent Reverend, and Ashley Bell, as the aforementioned young girl. For me, the ending soured the movie, but it was received well by critics and movie-goers.

Though, not technically a horror, I feel I would be remiss not to mention 2010’s Troll Hunter from Norway. Another “documentary” where we follow some poor documentarians who wind up finding way more than they bargained for, the movie is a real fun take on Norwegian culture and folktales.

ROB ZOMBIE

Always a horror movie fan, musician, and former front-man of the band White Zombie, Rob Zombie started his filmmaking career with House of 1000 Corpses. Filmed in 2000, this movie would go on an odyssey before being theatrically released in 2003, after being acquired and dumped by one distribution company after another. The concern, not surprisingly, the content and potential for an NC-17 rating. Once released, you can guess the reception: critically panned, but it did manage to make a profit, most likely due to loyal Zombie and horror genre fans, and people finally getting to see a movie with so much mystique surrounding it over the previous few years.

Lions Gate Entertainment, seeing the financial potential they had with Zombie, quickly approached him inquiring about a sequel to Corpses. What follows is what is commonly regarded as Zombie’s best movie in his filmography, with Lords of Salem in the running as well: 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects. More grounded and visceral than Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects follows the Firefly Family who are on the run from just as crazy Sheriff Wydell. More successful with critics than Corpses and just as profitable in the box office.

When the Powers-That-Be decided it was time to remake one of the best horror movies of all time, they chose Rob Zombie in 2007 to do his take on John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween, and boy did he change things up. Despite my opinion about the movie (I prefer the original, to say the least), the film was a smash-hit with audiences and prompted the obligatory sequel in 2009, which fared far worse this time with both movie-goers and critics.

Zombie has remained in “the business” ever since, mostly with horror, but it seems he’s eager to reach out to other genres to write and direct.

KNOCK, KNOCK… Anybody Home?

Nobody was safe anywhere during the 2000s, and if you think locking yourself inside your house was the most secure place to be, you’d be dead wrong. The home invasion subgenre broke out big during this decade. Here are some victims:

2002 starts us off with Panic Room, though not exactly a horror. The famed David Fincher directs a stellar cast in this tale of a single mom, Jodie Foster, who protects herself and her daughter, the new Kristen Stewart, from a band of thieves. Ultimately not one of Fincher’s better films, the movie examines many themes and is still worth a watch.

Ils, the 2006 movie also listed in the New French Extremism category, opens with a great, Scream-esque prologue, then goes on to set-up a simple story of a young couple besieged in their huge home by a clique of criminals, who once their identities are revealed, turns out to have a pretty cool ending.

Funny Games is Michael Haneke’s 2007 American shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 Austrian movie, that does more than tell a terrifying home-invasion story, it plays with the audience. Characters break the fourth-wall, the movie rewinds to replay a scene giving it a different outcome, and ultimately, Mr. Haneke asks: If you think this movie is too nihilistic, then at what point did you stop watching?

2007’s Inside, also listed in the New French Extremism section, is a bloody revenge tale set on Christmas Eve as a very pregnant single mother fends off an intruder all night. The end reveal when the antagonist’s motivations are exposed is a really cool twist.

Strangers is a 2008 movie by first-time screenwriter/director Bryan Bertino, which also tells a depressing story of a young couple stalked and terrorized in their home for…well, just because. Taking inspiration from John Carpenter, the film is very effective and despite mixed reviews, grossed a sizable profit on its $9 million budget. Bertino was one of the rare spec-script stories of the 2000s, but oddly he has remained relatively dormant in the years since.

While, for whatever reason, Bertino did not produce any more low budget horrors for a while, other film-makers like himself sure did, which is where we’ll pick-up next time with Part 3 of 2000’s Horror…

(Photo of Lake Mungo from Pinterest.)

Crash Palace Support Team

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Paul J. Williams is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, and his short films have appeared in numerous festivals. Although Paul’s the man behind Rolling Dark Productions, he’s also a detective in Morris County, New Jersey. Paul’s a Medal of Honor recipient from the City of Newark for actions on December 14, 2002