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31 Monsters #31: Happy, Happy Halloween!

October 31st, 2009 No comments

All right, I’ll admit that for a series named “31 Monsters,” this last entry is a bit of a cheat. Even more so than Dr. Sheila Frankenstein. There’s no actual monster here, but I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to wish you a Happy Halloween than the following.

In 1982, the makers of the Halloween films had a couple of problems. One was that their star character–slasher prototype Michael Myers–had met what appeared to have been a very definite and explosive death at the end of Halloween II. The other was that there wasn’t much more to do with the concept. I mean, really, could you imagine making another seven movies about a mute in a Captain Kirk mask?

So, in what turned out to be an ill-considered attempt to keep afloat a Halloween film franchise, producer John Carpenter decided to reinvent it as a yearly anthology series, with each sequel a self-contained story themed around the holiday. (Honestly, I think the idea is fun.)

Carpenter hired British screenwriter Nigel Kneale, best known for his sci-fi TV serials featuring scientific investigator Prof. Quatermass, to pen Halloween III: Season of the Witch. And it has to be said that Kneale came up with something about as far removed from a knife-wielding William Shatner as possible.

Instead, horror fans were met by Dan O’Herlihy as Irish-born maskmaker Conal Cochran, whose “Silver Shamrock Novelties” company had saturated the airwaves with a relentless commercial campaign for his line of Halloween masks. The masks themselves–a witch, skeleton and pumpkin–were standard enough, but the gimmick was the “big giveaway” to be held live on Halloween Eve.

Happy, happy Halloween, Halloween, Halloween; happy, happy Halloween, Silver Shamrock!

Cochran turned out to be a warlock attempting to return the holiday to its alleged roots. His factory melded science and sorcery, with each mask sporting a microchip embedded with a fragment of stone from a stolen Stonehenge megalith. The final Silver Shamrock commercial was encoded with a signal that would activate the microchips and cause the head of anyone wearing one of the masks to erupt in a mass of bugs and snakes. That’s right, bugs and snakes.

Now, goodness knows that Halloween III is by no means a good film–Kneale had his name taken off the final product–but I’ll give them credit for trying something different, even if it plays like a particularly nasty episode of Scooby-Doo.

However, the main reason that anyone remembers it at all is the damnable Silver Shamrock jingle which plays repeatedly throughout the film. Seriously, it’s probably been at least two decades since I saw it, and that thing is still stuck in my head.

I wanted to embed the Silver Shamrock commercial, but it turned out that for all the times it was seen, it never played all the way through on-screen. And YouTube didn’t give me what I wanted. So here is my very own Silver Shamrock montage, created just for you.

You’re welcome.


This wraps up my look at ghoulies, ghosties and things that go stomp in the night. It was fun (for me), but I have to admit that I’ll never again commit myself to 31 consecutive daily blog posts, especially when I have a vacation scheduled in the middle of the month!

31 Monsters #30: The Iron Giant

October 30th, 2009 No comments

“But…but, Dave!” I hear you sputter. “The Iron Giant isn’t a monster!” Au contraire, mon frere. That’s my douchey way of saying that in the Halloween ecosystem, the Iron Giant fills the ecological niche of Misunderstood Monster. You know the type: too big for his own well-being, basically good-hearted until you cross him.

The Iron Giant was a 1999 animated film directed by Brad Bird, better known for his Pixar productions: The Incredibles and Ratatouille. It told the familiar tale of boy meets giant robot, military shoots giant robot, giant robot proves his good intentions, dies anyway.

While it’s since been recognized as a modern classic, it was a box-office flop. Fans like to believe that this was because Warner Bros. bungled its marketing, but I disagree. It was released at a time when Disney still completely dominated the animated feature film genre. It didn’t feature musical numbers, cute sidekicks or crowd-pleasing pop cultural references. Plus, it had a science-fiction theme; the animation field is littered with the bloated corpses of allegedly boy-friendly sci-fi adventures such as Treasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Titan A.E.

Based loosely on a fantasy novel by Ted Hughes entitled The Iron Man, it was reconceptualized as a ’50s sci-fi pastiche. The Iron Giant fell to earth from outer space, clonking his noggin on impact. Unable to recall his purpose, he wound up befriending a young boy with the highly implausible name of “Hogarth.” The kid did his best to hide the huge robot from a paranoid U.S. government agent, and also to instill the mechanical man with an understanding that he had the ability to choose who he would become.

Naturally, it all went pear-shaped by the third act, with the Iron Giant revealed to a frightened military. What I find interesting is that while the film obviously sided with the monster, it also made clear that the government’s distrust wasn’t entirely unjustified. I suspect that without that little dent in his metal melon, the giant would’ve happily burned Hogarth to ashes and gone on to conquer the world.

When Hogarth appeared dead, the Iron Giant shifted into offensive mode, and what a mode it was!

Hey, nice arm cannon! What about the other one?

Oh. Sweeeet! What else you got?

Okay, that’s a little freaky. Kind of a War of the Worlds thing you got goin’ there.

I’m not even sure what that spinny disc thing is.

The redonkulous chestzooka might be overkill there, mate.

Alright, don’t get mad. You’re a fine robot monster, you are.

Now, of course, the Iron Giant was ultimately given the chance to prove he was not a gun. (Or rather, not just a gun. ‘Cause, looking at the above, I’d say he was pretty clearly one.) And if you can get past his “Superman” moment (you’ll know it when you see it) without fighting back tears, then I want nothing to do with you.

Categories: Movies Tags: , ,

31 Monsters #29: The Mighty Peking Man

October 29th, 2009 No comments

I pick on Roger Ebert from time to time. One reason I do so is because of his maddening inconsistency. Another is because his more recent reviews have had a tendency to revel in their own cleverness. Mostly, it’s because if I picked on Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post, no one would care, not even me.

So it is that I point out Ebert’s three-star review of today’s featured film: 1977’s The Mighty Peking Man. He even has a pull-quote on the back of the DVD box.

Don’t get me wrong: I love The Mighty Peking Man as well. The reason that I know Ebert is quoted on the DVD cover is that I own a copy. It’s just that I wish the Roger Ebert who was enchanted by the cheesy charms of the Peking Man could call the one who panned Speed Racer and the recent Star Trek reboot.

However, I come here not to bury Roger Ebert, but to praise The Mighty Peking Man. This Hong Kong monster mash was produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio in order to cash in on the fever of 1976’s King Kong remake.

Kong was the most obvious influence on this story of a giant ape who got on civilization’s bad side. However, it also recalled Mighty Joe Young and female Tarzan knock-offs such as Sheena through the inclusion of a jungle girl who was best friends with the beast.

An expedition to India in search of the legendary Peking Man ran afoul of various jungle dangers which really have to be seen to be believed. Even then you’ll be running back the DVD just to make sure you really saw what you thought you saw.

First up was an elephant stampede enlivened by a scene in which a clearly rear-projected trained elephant obediently lay down in response to being “shot.” Even better was the following attempt at cinematic gore, involving a fake elephant foot and a bucket of red paint.

Next came a tiger attack that had me scrambling for the DVD remote. An immobile tiger head was pushed toward a victim’s leg, then pulled back to reveal that the entire lower half of the limb had simply disappeared.

Things got better (from a certain point of view) once the Peking Man and his jungle girl playmate were introduced. Samantha (the girl, not the ape) was left orphaned in the wilderness after a plane crash, and had grown into a majestically made-up and coiffed young woman with a remarkably precarious bikini top. Utam (the ape, not the girl) was released from his underground imprisonment after an earthquake, and wildly varied in height according to the needs of the filmmakers. Somehow, the two became roomies.

That woman/ape bond was threatened once Johnnie, the expedition leader, saved Samantha from a venomous snake bite and the two fell in love. They engaged in a slow-motion romantic montage that not only veered toward the absurd, but accelerated at full speed. The best moments came when Samantha pulled her pet leopard into the happy dance.

I can’t imagine my Maine Coon putting up with this, much less a fully-grown jungle cat. I suspect heavy sedation.

Somehow, Johnnie managed to talk Samantha and Utam into accompanying him back to civilization. Yes, everyone involved thought that this would turn out well.

To absolutely no one else’s surprise, Johnnie’s partner immediately put Utam on display. The primate (whose inexplicable power, you may recall, was to become as big as he needed to be for any given scene) was forced to battle an entire squadron of bulldozers.

Then the unscrupulous businessman went too far and–in an unnecessarily nasty detail for this sort of film–attempted to rape the jungle girl. This, good sirs, simply would not stand. There was nothing left for Utam but a hastily-planned rampage.

Things didn’t go well for anyone except for Johnnie, who got off quite easy given that he dumped Samantha for his old girlfriend the moment he returned to the city. Both Utam and his blonde goddess went up in a fireball as the Hong Kong military detonated the building upon which they stood. This time, it was Johnnie killed Beauty and the Beast.

31 Monsters #28: The Krynoid

October 28th, 2009 No comments

One of my favorite episodes of the original Doctor Who is the 1976 story “The Seeds of Doom.” It came during what is the considered by many as the high point of the British TV series’ 26-year run: Tom Baker’s second year as the Doctor. In addition to Baker’s barmy, magnetic portrayal of the time-travelling alien, it featured Elisabeth Sladen as sidekick Sarah Jane Smith. Sladen is so well-loved by Who fans that 31 years after her last appearance as a series regular she was awarded her own spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures.

“The Seeds of Doom” also took place during what is referred to as the show’s “Gothic horror” phase. A fair number of Tom Baker’s early episodes emulated classic monster stories, complete with spooky castles, Egyptian mummies and sewer-dwelling madmen.

However, “The Seeds of Doom” looked to early sci-fi for its inspiration. It drew heavily from the 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” and its 1951 film adaptation The Thing from Another World, both of which featured an Antarctic research station terrorized by an alien creature. In the movie, the monster was a humanoid plant, but in the original it was a shape-shifting organism with the ability to infect and transform humans.

For Doctor Who, the Krynoid was a bit of both. An interstellar seed pod buried deep in the Antarctic permafrost, it germinated when it came in contact with animal flesh. An infected host began to exhibit an increasingly plant-like appearance, eventually becoming a walking mound of vegetation.

The Doctor claimed that on worlds where the Krynoid became established, all animal life was destroyed. In its final form, it grew to titanic size and then erupted in thousands of new pods. What’s more, its malign intelligence had the power to psychically control other plants and use them to strangle and smother animalkind.

All of this was right up the alley of the story’s chief villain, millionaire Harrison Chase. Now, an effete, plant-happy collector may not have seemed like much of a threat, but Chase was arguably one of the maddest of Doctor Who madmen. Like his beloved Krynoid–which he had transported to his mansion/greenhouse in England–he hated all animal life. He happily used his staff botanist as a Krynoid host, and later tried to feed both the Doctor and Sarah to a compost shredder. And like every great maniac, he had a musical bent, performing his self-composed “Hymn of the Plants” on a Hammond organ. Yes, a Hammond organ…he was just that evil.

Many escapes and rescues later, Sarah and the Doctor were forced to flee Chase’s estate and its wayward foliage before the Royal Air Force made a napalm air strike against the mansion-sized Krynoid. The television terror may have ended, but a generation of English children never again trusted a salad.

Categories: Doctor Who Tags: ,

31 Monsters #27: The Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab

October 27th, 2009 No comments

The story of the 1959 sci-fi movie The Angry Red Planet was itself nothing new: astronauts visited Mars, Martians convinced them to leave. But the filmmakers were less lacking in creativity when it came to designing their pissed-off aliens.

Perhaps this was due to the presence of Alex Toth as the film’s storyboard artist. Toth is well-loved by adventure cartoon fans for his character designs on Jonny Quest, Space Ghost and Thundarr the Barbarian, among many others.

Among the denizens of The Angry Red Planet were a spiky, carnivorous planet; a colossal, one-eyed waterborne amoeba; and a 40-foot-tall walking horror colloquially known as “The Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab.” And just as advertised, the latter appeared to be the unholy love child of a zoological four-way: a rat’s body raised on membranous, spidery legs ending in pincer claws.

This unlikely creature (actually a wire-operated marionette) pursued the plucky astronauts across the landscape until one of them thought to shoot it in the face. The poor Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab pathetically attempted to cover its eyes with its tiny rat paws, cursing Darwin for the evolutionary missteps that caused it to sprout such absurdly short arms. Kinda sad, really.

The Angry Red Planet was also notable for its solarized, red-tinted Martian “exterior” scenes. The process, dubbed “Cinemagic,” was allegedly intended not only to give it a suitably alien look, but to blend the cartoony, hand-painted backgrounds with the live-action humans and puppets.

Producer Sid Pink later went on to make Denmark’s entry in the giant monster sweepstakes: Reptilicus, starring a prehistoric, acid-spitting, winged serpent that chased an entire Danish bicycling club off an open drawbridge. You may be surprised–and possibly disappointed–that I won’t be covering it for this Halloween month retrospective.

31 Monsters #26: The Judge

October 26th, 2009 No comments

Another “remember that?” pop-culture artifact of the ’90s was the late and occasionally lamented WB television network (1995-2006), which for a time was our nation’s chief exporter of angst-ridden fictional teens.

Perhaps no series better identified “the WB” than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a spin-off of the unpopular 1992 film of the same name. While it was never the network’s most-watched series (that distinction went to religious-themed family drama 7th Heaven), its success encouraged the WB to focus on shirtless and/or mascara-smeared teens for the remainder of its brief life.

For the uninitiated, Buffy was about a high-school girl who learned that she was the “chosen one” born to assume the mantle of the Slayer. Granted supernaturally enhanced strength, dexterity and recuperative powers, she was tasked with ridding the world of vampires and other demons until the day she died. And Slayers typically didn’t live long. Let the weeping commence.

In a not-especially-surprising twist, Buffy’s broody soulmate, the mysterious Angel, turned out to be a vampire himself. I mean, really, I too have genuflected at the Church of (Buffy creator) Joss Whedon, but when a guy in a black leather jacket shows up calling himself “Angel,” you know he’s gonna be anything but.

Angel had once been an especially vicious vampire named Angelus, but was cursed with a human soul after getting on the wrong side of some gypsies. (In Buffytown, vampires were soulless demons mimicking the personalities of the humans whose corpses they inhabited.) The idea was that he would be forced to live with all of the suffering he had caused. This made him sad.

It really wasn’t until the second season of the show that it found its stride, with the introduction of a pair of Sid-and-Nancy inspired vamps named Spike and Drusilla. But even more important was the development of the tormented relationship between Buffy and Angel.

It all came to a head in the two-part episode “Surprise”/”Innocence.” The two celebrated Buffy’s 17th birthday by getting funky. In the middle of the afterglow Angel ran off into the night, only to return a changed man corpse. You see, under the oddly complicated rules of the gypsy curse, Angel would lose his soul again should he experience one moment of pure happiness. (If you know what I mean, and I think you do.) It played as a metaphor for the way that men (allegedly) change personalities overnight after successfully planting their flag.

So evil Angelus was back, and he teamed up with Spike and Dru to resurrect The Judge, an ancient demon so powerful that “no weapon forged” could harm him. Defeated but not killed some six centuries earlier, the pieces of his body had to be physically separated to keep him dormant. The Judge had the ability to “burn the humanity” out of anyone less than 100%, Grade-A evil.

Buffy’s friends looked for a way to defeat The Judge. Ultimately, they brought her a mysterious “present.”

The final confrontation took place in the midst of a crowded shopping mall. As The Judge began to (er…) judge the humans present, a bolt twanged harmlessly into his chest. Buffy stood atop a mall kiosk, covering the demon with her trusty crossbow.

The Judge scoffed, “You’re a fool. No weapon forged can stop me.”

“That was then. This is now.” Buffy set down the crossbow and pulled out her “present”: a rocket launcher.

I admit it. I find this kinda hot.

The demon’s last words were “What’s that do?”

And then he blew up in an extremely satisfying manner.

I had originally thought that they might get around the “no weapon forged” rule by the old “by man” disclaimer. (Buffy, of course, not being a man.) Instead, the answer was simpler, and oh, so sweet. According to Joss Whedon’s DVD commentary, he never loved Buffy more than in the moment she hefted that rocket launcher, and I don’t disagree.

31 Monsters #25: Eugene Tooms

October 25th, 2009 No comments

Hey, remember when The X-Files was a thing? A lot of you didn’t last year, when the second feature film adaptation was released for a disastrous $10 million opening weekend.

But let’s go back to 1993, when the TV series premiered as the Friday night lead-out from Fox’s The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. While I found the pilot episode of The X-Files stylish and intriguing, I suspected that it wouldn’t hold my interest for long. The whole alien abduction/government conspiracy premise seemed like it would get old pretty fast. Week two was more of the same: another spaceship, another cover-up.

Then in week three we were introduced to Eugene Tooms.

Investigating a series of murders in which the livers of the victims had been removed–by hand–skeptical FBI agent Dana Scully and her “believer” partner Fox Mulder learned that similar deaths had occurred in 1963 and 1933. Staking out one of the crime scenes, they captured the unassuming Tooms attempting to enter the building’s air vents.

Mulder’s line of questioning, which attempted to link the suspect to the decades-old killings, led to Tooms’ early release. But Fox soon realized that the strangely elongated fingerprints found at the murder site were a match for Tooms’ if they were similarly stretched.

Sure enough, Eugene Tooms was revealed to be capable of abnormally squeezing and contorting his body. The weirdness didn’t stop there, either. Effectively immortal, Tooms needed to consume five human livers every 30 years before reentering a state of hibernation. The agents discovered his “nest” made of newspaper and bile.

Eventually Tooms was captured, but not before attempting to snack on Agent Scully’s liver. He came back for a rematch later that first season, dying when caught in the mechanical belt of an escalator.

The episode “Squeeze” proved that there would be more to The X-Files than the UFO of the Week. Over the next few years, there would be killer cockroaches, a detachable conjoined twin and a horrid flukeman among the bizarre parade of monsters.

Sadly, The X-Files eventually disappeared up its own ass as the underlying “mythology” of alien invaders and shadowy government types became so convoluted as to defy comprehension. After nine seasons, it finally went out in a blaze of unsatisfying, apathetic nonsense. But for several years, the scariest place to be was watching Fox on a Friday night.

Categories: TV Tags: , ,

31 Monsters #24: The Thing on the Fourble Board

October 24th, 2009 No comments

Normally, I don’t worry too much about giving away spoilers in these retrospectives. I figure that after two to six decades, any reasonable limitation on spoilers has long since passed. However, for this post–about one of the all-time great horror radio broadcasts–I wanted to at least offer you a heads-up, and a chance to listen to the show itself without me giving the whole damned thing away. Which I will do below.

So, if you have any interest in hearing a spooky classic from the Golden Age of Radio, I encourage you to follow the link before reading on. The drama starts a bit slow, but has a killer finish. Oh, and don’t forget to turn out the lights.

Read more…

31 Monsters #23: Orcs

October 23rd, 2009 No comments

Hail the Lowly Orc
by David Thiel

Hail the lowly Orc!

Created by Tolkien, a worthy foe
That might make a hobbit dinner
Yet for dwarf and elf
You find yourself
Merely score to prove a winner.

Fell Orc, you are basic currency
Of any fantasy campaign
When horns do sound
In lairs underground
You and yours are swiftly slain.

A complication, an obstacle
Twixt us and fiends of measure
Your possessions few
We will accrue
For our weighty bags of treasure.

So hail foul Orc! You are not much
Minion, lackey, henchman, goon
Yet without your kind
So much maligned
Heroic quests would end too soon.

Categories: Books Tags: , , ,

31 Monsters #22: The Giant Claw

October 22nd, 2009 No comments

Sometimes it’s the little things that trip us up. And sometimes, as in the case of The Giant Claw, it’s the big, honking things.

Producer Sam Katzman was credited with more than 240 films: westerns, serials, horror, sci-fi, teen exploitation and even a couple of Elvis musicals. More germane to this discussion, he brought together Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer for their first two collaborations, It Came from Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

But for The Giant Claw–the story of a colossal antimatter bird from outer space–Katzman went elsewhere for his special effects. Specifically, he went to Mexico, where he commissioned a low-budget effects house to craft his world-smashing interstellar beast.

And the results? Well, they were not good.

Now, truth to tell, The Giant Claw was otherwise a respectable entry in the late ’50s space monster sweepstakes. It had a solid cast of genre performers: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum and Robert Shayne. The story itself was pretty by-the-numbers, even a bit dull. If you come to it looking for a Plan Nine from Outer Space laugh fest you’ll find much of it disappointing.

But then there’s the bird, a ludicrous, mohawk-sporting, turkey buzzard marionette suspended by extremely visible wires. The lore has it that none of the cast had seen the monster footage until the movie was released, and that Jeff Morrow sneaked out of the theater halfway through the premiere.

And no wonder. For an overview of the special effects highlights, look no further than the trailer.

Unfortunately, it cut away just before one of the goofiest effects scenes, one in which the Claw carried off a train like a string of sausages.

The Giant Claw remains a poster child for how one aspect of a production can bring down the entire enterprise. If Harryhausen had been put to work on The Claw, the film would likely be a fondly remembered artifact of the ’50s. But he wasn’t, and therefore those who remember The Giant Claw do so for less charitable reasons.

Not that I would recommend such a thing, but if you really want to watch the scenes that don’t involve a Mexican turkey buzzard puppet, the entire flick is available on Google Video.