Wednesday, October 24, 2018

31 Days of Horror: The Blair Witch Project

A good deal of my childhood revolved around routines. Every Friday was a routine. Go to grandma's, eat pizza, watch Sci-Fi Channel. When it actually played the good shit- Mystery Science Theater 3000, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits. It was 1999 and so many avenues were opening up to me. A documentary called Curse of the Blair Witch premiered on Sci-Fi.

The level of hype was different from any other mother up to that point. Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, and other "event movies" built their reputation through word of mouth, director status and special effects "like you've never seen before". Nobody knew who Daniel Myrick or Eduardo Sanchez was before this.

Take into account that this hadn't really been done before with this level of publicity. Cannibal Holocaust was still haunting the underground circuit. Its own history of the director Ruggero Deodato being nearly charged with having his actors murdered. Only then having to have the actors show up in court to prove that they were very much alive. When Blair Witch hit, at least 40% thought that the actors ended up disappearing in the woods. That what they were going to see in mainstream theaters was a snuff film. The prospect of seeing peoples last remaining moments play out on film has a weird pull to it. What made this Project enticing is the folklore the documentary built around it. I've never seen a documentary built around the backstory of a movie prior to its release before or since.

The folkore pays off in the opening 15 minutes of the film when they interview the townsfolk about the Blair Witch. It is their encounter with Mary and her description of the woman covered head to toe in hair.

I would finally see The Blair Witch Project on July 17, 1999. A day removed from its premiere. It was at the drive in. Remember those? The man in the booth gave my dad the station to turn to in his car for the audio. The last movie I remember seeing before it at the same drive in was The Matrix. A movie I fell asleep to. "You missed the end when Keanu Reeves stopped the bullets with his hands." My dad would say to me during a groggy state. I dared not fall asleep during Blair Witch. This was my cup of tea. This was my Matrix.

The screening remains one of the scariest I've had. In today's streaming/digital culture there is so much distraction. Seeing a movie like this requires total immersion. 

Watching it after almost 20 years still leaves me haunted. Alone with those three filmmakers in the Burkitsville woods. Hungry. Cold. And hunted. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

31 Days of Horror: Albert Fish

In Brooklyn on February 11, 1927, a boy named William Gaffney was playing hide-and-seek with his friend Billy Beaton and Beaton's 12 year old brother. Gaffney ended up disappearing and was nowhere to be found. When Beaton was questioned by the police as to what happened to Billy Gaffney, he said "the boogeyman took him".

Born on May 19, 1870, Albert Fish's immediate family would be treated for mental afflictions and his mother suffered hallucinations. His parents would send him to an orphanage where he would receive beatings while Scripture would be read out loud. Permanently melding pain, pleasure and religion together. Pleasure because the beatings would happen so regularly, he began to look forward to them.

1898 saw him marry and father six children. All of whom would lead average lives until  1917 after Fish's wife ran off with another man. He would have his kids participate in sadomasochistic games. One called "Bucks Up Hands Up" would have him guess how many fingers his kids would be holding up. If he was wrong, they would have to spank him with a paddle. His masochism and depravity extended far beyond these games. He was known for eating his own feces, defacating on the floor in motels after he left them (the thought of someone having to clean up after him caused arousal), drinking urine, whipping himself with a cat-o-nine tails, sticking pins in his parinium, stuffing paper into ass and lighting in on fire and much more.

Taken altogether it paints a picture of a truly nightmarish figure. One that preyed on children and ended up committing the most heinous of acts: devouring the 10-year old Grace Budd. His letter to the parents detailing the crime. He was found guilty on the charge of premeditated murder and executed on January 16, 1936.

Out of all the major serial killers: the Dahmers, the Geins, the Gacys, the Bundys, it is Albert Fish who shakes me to my core. He seems like a nightmare transplanted into reality.

For more information check out Harold Schechter's book Deranged.

There is also an informative episode of Last Podcast on the Left:

Thursday, October 4, 2018

31 Days of Horror: Fire In the Sky abduction scene

Image result for fire in the sky

The funny thing about alien abduction is that it always happens in pockets of rural farmland.

Aliens or any advanced species will not come to us with smiles or warm greetings. It will be less Close Encounters and more Independence Day. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith may or may not save us. Before a blue laser blast decimated the White House, a more intimate and intense experience with the Third Kind happened.

Independence Day is loved for its visual effects (which still hold up today) and its spectacle. Mars Attacks! has enjoyable cameos, wild imagination and a solid score, even if it is lower tier Burton. FITS is a film whose best scene is on par with the likes of Jacob's Ladder.

It contains the sole abduction scene that remains convincing and terrifying in regards to aliens. Infuriatingly so. What makes it so effective is the way its done- cold yet curious about what this human specimen . I haven't seen this done, or at least achieved succesfully up until Annihilation which came out at the beginning of this year. The phenomena in that film came less as an evil entity from another planet and more as something that just is.

The set design from this FITS scence in particular is less futuristic based and more alien based. There's slimy walls, a horrifying set piece where the abductee feels around where he is and find his hands inside a man's body. The gray suits, the scattered books, shoes, glasses and other objects along the way. It's all foreplay to a scene that remains unmatched in alien abduction horror.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

31 Days of Horror: Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door

"Our job as writers who tend to progress from the dark side is to explore and chronicle and as best we can, through fiction, speak the truth."

In a Writer's workshop, Jack Ketchum brings up a story in which he talks about what scares him. He then goes into a story involving his encounter with a boa constrictor. Now if you've read the author, you will not find any snakes. Or any traditional monsters for that matter. 

"If you can't empathize. If you can't put yourself in someone else's place with all the compassion and insight you can muster- to find their character through your own character- you have no business being a fiction writer." This is what makes Ketchum such an effective storyteller. Ketchum's fiction has a rawness on every page. Stylistically, he pulls no punches. He looks into his own black abyss and reports back. What are people capable of? A vicious answer came in the form of his 1989 novel. One I've read once and never plan on reading again.


The Girl Next Door is based on the Sylvia Likens case that took place in Indianapolis, Indiana, in which a 16 year old girl was abused, tortured and murdered over a period of three months by Gertrude Baniszewski, her children and other neighborhood children. Classic works of horror have often drawn from true crime. You can trace a line from Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs to Ed Gein. The Girl Next Door however, captures sadism in a way entirely different from those works.

The story revolves around David, an 11 year old boy who takes a liking to Meg, a neighborhood girl. Meg's parents died in a car accident long ago and she is put in care of by her Aunt- Ruth Chandler, who is in the running for most repulsive villain in fiction. Ruth abuses Meg's little sister in order to emotionally blackmail Meg. Whenever she gets out of line, her little sister suffers for it. The psychological abuse turns into physical and then gets worse from there. 

Ketchum strips away any authority 'adults' may have in the situation by pitting us in the shoes of the narrator. When there are parents outside of Ruth, their default setting is to look the other way. It's the 50s. This stuff can't happen in our town. "Mind your own business and stay out of trouble" come as portent signs of despair. The now adult protagonist who tells his childhood story and of his shameful regret by not doing anything to stop the abuse. The horror of the situation made all the more palpable because of Ruth's influence on David's actions.

There's a natural curiosity in the mind of a child to take things further. How far could we go without suffering any consequences? Do you want to confront parts of yourself that are base and primal? You have to be willing to go to that place if you plan on reading this book. It's a ride through hell. At the end of it, hopefully you'll come away with some truth. 

If The Girl Next Door seems like not your cup of tea, then I will point you in the direction of where his fiction started: Off Season. A novel set in the woods with a clan of feral cannibals that will leave a permanent mark. Bleak, cynical and gruesome. If any of that strikes your fancy, look no further.

Here's the full Writer's Workshop lecture Jack Ketchum gave:

Monday, October 1, 2018

31 Days: Television Terror

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This is the episode I show to people who have never heard of Tales From the Crypt. J. Peter Robinson's score. The sleazy performance of Morton Downey Jr. as Horton Rivers. The incessant hatred toward Rivers' slimeball personality from the producer. It has everything required in the EC formula- antagonist gets his come uppance in a mix of scares and ghoulish laughs. What makes this episode stand out for me is how the scares build.

Ada Ritter, a black widow who collected husbands the way collectors procure baseball cards, haunts the house. Episodes in the first four seasons perfected a comedy/horror balance with liberal doses of sex and violence. They culled the stories that would best translate from panel to screen. When I think of Haunt of Fear, the comic which this episode is taken from, Graham Ingels immediately jumps to mind. The creator of the Old Witch the way Johnny Craig was the master of the Vault Keeper and Jack Davis drew the Crypt Keeper. However, those three masters would not be responsible for the writing or drawing of this story. That job would go to Harvey Kurtzman. An editor before becoming a full time story writer/illustrator for EC Comics.

Television was the new sensation back in the 50's, so it made sense for it to revolve around a live TV broadcast. This was early in my years of horror movie/TV watching. What strikes me now more than the visuals is the idea of the house recording the hauntings and murders of Ada Ritter on a loop.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Things That Go Bump In the Night

What scares you? As a kid I'd have this fear of strangers looking through my window while I slept. There's the sudden revulsion of spiders. The loss of control.

I could go the political route and say the Koch Brothers, the horrific injustices of the Central Park Five, the West Memphis Three, Trayvon Martin, and countless other pathways into discussions that lead to arguments that lead to angry trolls. There's the ecological route and how, according to Elizabeth Kolbert, we will be the arbiters of our own extinction. There's evil on a national scale: the Pol Pots, the Idi Amins, the gulags of the Soviet Union, and concentration camps. Human nature has no bottom and is capable of horrors vastly beyond anything produced in an artistic medium.

But that's getting too serious. And as a man with scars once said: why so serious?

For the month of October, I'm shining a flashlight on the topic of horror. I've decided to cast the net wide and let it encompass film, television, music, painting, literature, and true crime.

In doing this, it's important to note that the subjects discussed are not just things that get under my skin, but the kind of horror I respond to the most. I'm rarely scared by anything film related nowadays. Hereditary has its moments. Yet It Comes At Night's whole mood was unsettling. Even the marketing of it made it out to be a standard horror film when it was something else. What I'm after here, at the end of the day, is ideas. If I were to make a horror flick, many of these ideas and visual aesthetics would inform it either conciously or subconciously.

So pull up a chair and put a log on the fire. While the fire is kindling, we can keep the beasts at bay.

For now, at least...

Saturday, August 11, 2018


What is comfort food? It is so many things to so many people. Many of which will draw back from a time in their childhood. What they were religously eating. For me, McDonald's nuggets and a burger washed down with a coke was ceremonial for me. I had to have it each week. It wasn't complicated food by any means. After McDonald's I started branching out toward faux culture food (Taco Bell) and Chinese take out. Whenever I was sick or didn't feel the need to go out, the solution of what to eat was given to me in a bag of Instant Ramen. Now a punchline. Then a go to. The beef flavor was my favorite.

Thousands of miles away from me in Japan, a thing such as Instant Ramen was a mere microcosm of the possibilties of what you can do with flavorful noodles. In the same way the French are known for their bread, the Japanese have mastered the art of Umami, or the characteristics of a savory broth one gets in a bowl of Ramen. It's all about the special concoction of ingredients added to the broth.

The word Ramen came from Lo Mein, a Chinese dish. As it was taken into the Japanese tradition, it was refined. There are now 80,000 Ramen shops in Japan. And no seasonal specials. The dish you order in January will be the same dish you order in August. A guaranteed thing.

But that's Japan. This is Chicago.

My first experience with a bowl of Ramen was in 2017. The restaurant was Kizuki Ramen and Izakaya and is located in the Wicker Park district of Chicago. A cultural hub where you'll find restaurants serving Indian, Mediterranean, Sndtracke and Japanese dishes. Beyond just brewing up food, it's cultivated a community of working artists since the 80s. Street corners bustle with the local panhandler and the local Human Rights activist. The deep blue part of a city that has voted Democrat since 1927.

The philosophy of Kizuki Izakaya is to serve the most authentic, traditional, and delicious Japanese Ramen without having to fly to Japan. The Furious Spoon, a Ramen shop across the street from Kizuki Izakaya, combines the joys of eating great food while blasting hip hop. A great atmosphere to eat in. Another, Ramen Wasabi is situated two blocks away. What those places don't have is the big sign in white lettering VOTED BEST RAMEN IN CHICAGO 2016. Out of the three Ramen shops to choose from, it was obvious what one I'd choose.

Every Ramen shop has (or least should have) an individuality to it that is more important than what music plays in the background, or what atmosphere it's trying to achieve. It's the broth. In Japan, there are two types of Ramen shops: readymade and artisan. Readymade being a place that has all of its ingredients and mixes premade. Artisan shops make their own noodles and push for their own flavored broth. Only the owner knows the secret of how it is made. It's that secret ingredient that your family passes down generation to generation. Grandma's secret spaghetti sauce.

I don't think I would have been aware of Ramen or at least the art of it had I not watched Juzo Itami's Tampopo first. It's a love letter to food and the sensory experience that it brings. I can go on and on about how well it captures the spirit of the amateur and the craftsman. But Tony Zhou does a much better job in his video essay.

Tampopo kicks off by mocking the fetishized method of consuming food. A few scenes later a woman teaches a group how to properly eat spaghetti. Only to be interrupted by a man slurping down his noodles. Nails on a chalkboard? Far from it. Slurping noodles is actually preferred if you want to fully experience the flavor of the noodles. There is no right way to eat Ramen. There is no right way to eat pizza either. But you wouldn't be caught eating it with a fork or knife, now would you?

There are no special epiphanies in the movie. Tampopo circumvents the trope of the artist having to choose between staying true or selling out. Instead, her slow but steady accumulation and mastery of the craft drives her forward. The vignettes strewn throughout the film showcase various types of people and their love, inquistiveness and sensual need for food. All while surrounding the main storyline of Tampopo in the same way the ingredients add flavor to a bowl of Ramen.

5 to 8 minutes is the time it should take you to down a bowl. It's not a conversational food. Order. Receive. Down it. This immediacy coupled with the layers of flavor make this my go to dish.