Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Writer's Media Roadmap

The Howard County Chapter of the Maryland Writer's Association had its first meeting of 2018 on January 18.  We were treated to an excellent presentation entitled "Creating Your Social Media Roadmap" by Tiffany Carter.  More than just an introduction to creating a media platform, Tiffany gave us some insight into how to make it really work for us. 

Here is just a bit of what she shared, starting with her approach of:  Platform - Schedule - Automate - Connect.

Platform - She listed six platforms as high priority for writers and authors: a personal blog, Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, Goodreads, and Instagram.  The advice was to pick two of these and maintain them well, rather than try to do them all at a shallow level.  She suggested the two most powerful platforms were: (1) having a website "home" with a personal blog and (2) an active presence on Goodreads.  

Schedule - But the emphasis regardless of platform was on consistency.  Pick the platforms you can engage with the most robustly.  Her advice was to create a schedule for posts/tweets/content and stick to it.  This ensures that followers and fans know when and where to find your content.  When is somewhat flexible, although she had recommendations (like posting once a day if doing Facebook or Linked In) she said the key was making sure followers were getting the content when they had come to expect it.

Automate - Of course staying consistent with media is always a challenge.  Tiffany gave us some tips for automation, like connecting blog posts to Goodreads and Linked In, and using tools like Buffer.  I know I've used HootSuite in the past with some success to automate tweets.  She said that once set up, a writer could spend as little as an hour and have the rest of the week's media scheduled and automated to post.  I'd love to reach that point ... I'm certainly not that efficient now with posting.

Connect - Connecting with fans and followers is obviously the point of all of this.  Writers want to meet people and forge connections that lead to authentic interaction.  Being efficient about posting means that time can be spent in the kinds of interactions that are rewarding for both writers and their followers.  Tiffany said that a good foundation of quality content, delivered on schedule, including guest blogging, blog tours, and even pod casting would support more 'rapid' forms of exposure like live video/audio, book promotions, and giveaways.

Finally, she emphasized that we are of course all readers.  She reminded us that we already know what our fans want, because we are readers, too.  We know what works with us - how we get engaged, how we have fun, and what we are looking for from books and authors.  We just need to put those ideas into motion for ourselves as writers.

I thought her presentation was really valuable, and certainly the rest of the room received it enthusiastically.  I hope she comes back to the group and shows us more advanced techniques for making the most of our time online.

Image Credits:  Publicity image of Tiffany Carter from MWA HoCo flyer.  Image of Tiffany Carter from her workshop taken by myself and posted with permission.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Starting the New Year Right

Here's me with planetary astronomer and asteroid
scientist Andy Rivkin, waiting on the dais for the start
of our Mars exploration panel.
Someone said something nice to me on New Year's Day and I'm still floating with joy.

Here's some context.  I ended 2017 and started 2018 by attending an innovative private event with panels, talks, workshops, and much more - covering topics from science, to mental health, to social justice.  Even as a first timer I was a part of two panels and gave a workshop.  I met fantastic people and left with a mind full of ideas.

But one of those panels I was on was a bit daunting - it was a Mars exploration panel.  There were only two women (including myself) out of nine panelists, and represented on the panel were NASA officials past and present, an astronaut, and more.  I was the only person on the panel I'd call a planetary surface scientist.  I was the only one who could really speak to the research and analysis aspects specific to the lunar and Martian surfaces.  Because of these factors, I felt a strong responsibility to hold my own amidst some strong personalities.  I wanted to represent science and the women who do it, well.

So, okay.  The stage is literally set.  We are up on a dais before a lunchtime crowd of about 250 intelligent and attentive people.  My first major "intervention" is when someone on the other end of the panel says that basic science research is not as important to Mars exploration as engineering and propulsion research.  I can't let that sit, and take the microphone.  I remind him that without science we wouldn't even know something as basic as what we were landing on.  I briefly mention dust as an example - the dust the Apollo astronauts ended up breathing and even eating when it made its way via electrostatic effects right into the lunar module.  This is also the dust that will be gumming up gears and other mechanical devices in any exploration effort, lunar or Martian.  And given it's insulating properties, this is the dust that explorers may be hiding under to escape temperature extremes and radiation hazards.  We know a lot less about Martian dust than lunar.  Research science to characterize this stuff is critical.

My last major "intervention" happened when a panelist near me responded to the question, "What are the moral or ethical considerations of Mars exploration?"  His response was basically, "Well, if there is no life already on Mars, then there are no issues."  I was astonished and grabbed the mic, following up with something like, "Actually, there are a variety of moral or ethical considerations to space exploration.  Here is an example.  We impacted a spacecraft on the Moon that was also was carrying the ashes of a famous scientist.  No cultural dialog was engaged before the decision was made, and when certain communities found out after the fact, they were very unhappy.  Some Native American groups protested because they view the Moon as sacred, and did not feel placing someone's ashes there was appropriate.  We can't continue to make mistakes like this.  Scientists, engineers, and administrators are becoming more and more aware of the need to reach out and have diverse conversations as we continue to explore.  We must make these conversations a priority."

I left the dais at the end of the panel feeling a bit strange, and wondering if I'd done well in such august company, and achieved my goals of representing the voice of women scientists in a positive fashion.

Okay, so punchline finally after all this.  I was approached after midnight on New Year's Eve, just minutes into the start of 2018.  The woman who addressed me gushed about the Mars exploration panel.  She said how excited she was to see my good representation of women scientists, and how I'd done an excellent job - especially with the "morality and ethics" question.  She shook my hand enthusiastically.

Does this seem like a small thing to you?  Or maybe I just don't have a habit of taking compliments to heart ... but this one hit home with a nice warm sparkle.  Wow.  So I'm headed into the New Year with a huge boost to my sense of agency in the world, and just general good feels.  I'm wishing the same for you, as we continue to navigate our way through a challenging world this 2018.

Image Credit:  Andrew Rivkin pic of Jen and Andy.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Daily Twitter Challenge

A new sun rises - What shall we tweet about today?
So back in 2016 I gave my best friend a gift - it was a promise of a new twitter question each day to which the two of us could respond.  The idea was to get to know one another, and our interested followers, just a little bit better. 

Well, that lasted into March maybe, before we lost track and stopped.  But it was, as they say, fun while it lasted.  So now that the dust has settled on the start of 2018, we are going to give it another try this year.  This time around we are going to use monthly themes to give us something to focus our thoughts, and to hopefully keep us going through all of 2018.

The challenge, if you want to join in, is this:  I'll tweet a question, and you tweet an answer, citing the original question.  Give it the hashtag of #JATOTD - that's "Jen/Andy's Tweet of the Day."  And that's all there is to it.  Don't feel you need to take the question literally.  Actually, feel free to tweet whatever works for you, just using the question as inspiration, if you like.

We are going to try to see what we can do to be genuine, authentic, helpful, and maybe even uplifting.  It's just a small space to connect, express, and be real.

January's theme is "Travel" because it seems like that's pretty much what we do these days.  I'm wondering how we can refocus on all this travel, and remind ourselves what it can to open our eyes, and more.

Image Credit:  Sunrise, PublicDomainPictures.net

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 29-31

Halloween - Decorative Gourd Season
Well movie lovers, we have come to the end of the list!  Thirty-one movies for the thirty-one days of October!  More than enough to keep us all busy for this season and no doubt some years to come.  I thought I'd finish up with a few movies that are my kind of sheer Halloween fun.

As always, beware the SPOILERS below!

29.  The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

My love of all things stop-motion means I was already primed to love this claymation spoof of lycanthropic horror flicks.  If you've seen the short films starring the inventor Wallace and his loyal and clever dog Gromit, then you know the kind of humor that awaits you in this full length movie.

Wallace and Gromit appear to be the only means of pest control for a small town of dedicated vegetable lovers.  Self-proclaimed "simple folk," all the townspeople each dream that they might win the annual giant vegetable competition, and be awarded the golden carrot.  It's a dream Gromit shares, as he tucks in his giant cucumber each night.  "Pesto" pest control has the virtue of being humane, but this means that the house of W and G has now become home to what appear to be a hundred rambunctious rabbits.  This can't end well.

W gets the idea that to stop the rabbit pest problem he can brainwash the rabbits, that way they will no longer desire produce, and the town's competition will be saved.  W hooks himself up to a machine with him at one end and bunnies on the other.  Of course the experiment goes awry, and one rabbit named "Hutch" becomes rather much more than just a simple bunny.

All this is a great setup for an amazing romp through the limits of clay animation, and more.  The characters, like the clergyman, are engaging and fun.  The horror tropes are exactly as one might expect for a werewolf horror movie, except it's all surrounding a wererabbit instead.  The Clergyman makes a plea for repentance, saying it's the town's unnatural giant vegetables that have brought this curse down on them.  It is he that supplies the bad guy with golden bullets (24 "carrot") to kill the rampaging beast.  Meanwhile the hostess of the competition just wants everything to end humanely.  W and G come to the rescue and, well, you better just go watch the movie for the punchline because for once I'm not putting it here.

This may be the only really G rated movie on my list, because even Snow White or The Wizard of Oz are scarier than this.  But it is all done with such humor, insight, and perfect horror-trope jokes that it never misses a beat.  A definite must for Halloween viewing fun!

30.  Young Frankenstein (1974)

One of the greatest horror movie spoofs of all time, Young Frankenstein takes on the time honored Frankenstein's monster trope and takes it to the limit of comedic genius.  This movie has aged so well one could imagine it being made exactly like this today.  It gains much from being in black and white, just like the original movies it is ripping on.

First of all we encounter Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who does not believe any of that shlock about his grandfather trying to raise the dead.  Or does he?  After inheriting the castle, the young doctor can't resist playing around with the old man's notes and seeing what transpires.  It's clear from the beginning, watching him accidentally stab himself in the leg with a scalpel, that Fred is not entirely sane.

We meet his fiance Elizabeth, who cares more for her fine dresses than for Fred.  We meet Igor, who (in one of my very favorite scenes) tries to eat Elizabeth's fox stole.  We meet the assistant Inga, who becomes Fred's new love interest, and turns out to be surprisingly handy around the lab.  We also meet the over the top housekeeper Frau Bl├╝cher, whose name causes horses to whinny in fear throughout the movie.  Not to mention Inspector Kemp, who is hoping the new tenants of the castle aren't going to be raising any monsters.  A bit late for that.

In fact the new monster (created with an "Abby Normal" brain)  can sing and dance, and is generally a pretty nice guy until fire is involved.  He gets startled and rampages, encountering scenes from the first two major Frankenstein movies, and dealing with them in  his own fashion.  Eventually lured back to the lab, the monster and Fred have a bit of a mind meld that allows the monster to gain a measure of Fred's intellect.  This and the monster's rather overcharged libido attract Elizabeth's attention, and they eventually marry.  Fred ends up with Inga, and they get to enjoy the effects of the mind melt where Fred has gained some of the monster's rampant libido.

31.  The Addams Family (1991)

The Addams Family is one of my favorite Halloween movies, so it takes the position of number thirty-one on the Halloween list.  The plot is totally unimportant here.  What makes the film are the amazing characters, well acted and steeped in a fantastic environment.  I find this movie even more entertaining than the original series.

The couple of Gomez and Morticia are priceless.  Deeply in love in a totally creepy way (having met a funeral where Gomez was still a suspect for the murder) they are equally endearing and unsettling.  While Pugsley isn't given much of a part to work with, the character of Wednesday is fantastically, strangely goth and she plays it perfectly straight.  Include the freakish Fester who finds himself oddly compelled by the weird dynamic, and all is nearly complete.  Of course there is a disembodied hand called Thing, and some other key players to round it all out.

It is all so over the top that it shouldn't work, but I find it does.  The children playing in a lightning storm with a huge metal antenna, Wednesday trying to electrocute Pugsley to find out if there is a God, Morticia clipping the blooms off of roses and keeping the stems, Gomez driving golf balls into the neighbor's house, Morticia leading Fester through the family graveyard to help him understand the meaning of faith and unity ... it's all just too much fun.  So if you want some extra weird and wonderful movie viewing for Halloween, work this one into your schedule.    

Image Credits:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kuerbisauswahl_Markt.jpg  cc 4.0  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/wallace_and_gromit_curse_of_the_wererabbit/pictures/ https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/young_frankenstein/pictures/    https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/addams_family/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=n-843772

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 26-28

Sci-Fi Time!
Since I've included a number of fantasy films on my list, dark and otherwise, I've decided it's time to dip into the nexus of horror and science fiction.  So for today I have three sci-fi films that have something "good" to offer my Halloween movie list.  So let us march forward with the sci-fi movie fest!

Again, SPOILERS abound.

26.  The Fly (1986)

The modern remake of the old classic movie is a fantastic decent into monster madness.  Don't be fooled by the seemingly silly idea of a fly-man, because this is a truly gripping, gross, and gory horror classic.  The special effects are still effective today, and the love story serves to help drive the plot forward, rather than being superfluous as is the case with so much horror.

The performances by our protagonists Seth and Veronica are excellent, with Veronica acting in ways that make sense to us as Seth slowly undergoes his terrifying and inexplicable transformation.  Seth is of course the canonical brilliant but eccentric scientist who has created a means of teleportation via pods.  He accidentally transports himself along with a fly, and he and it get their DNA mixed together.  As the days go by, Veronica sees Seth at first seem more healthy and alive than ever, but soon he begins to degenerate.  It is the way this degeneration is handled that brings us some of the great horror in the film.  Seth's body (and mind) fall to pieces.  He is so gruesome by the end of the film that it is almost a relief to see the actual fly emerge from what is left of his body.

With good pacing and some serious social undertones about sex and more, this is a nail-biter of a film that's worth a place on anybody's seasonal viewing list.

27.  Mars Attacks (1996)

A dark comedy with wacky plot and even whackier characters, Mars Attacks is a wild romp of a "B" sci-fi horror homage.  Pretty much everybody dies in this ray-gun filled farce, which isn't a problem since many of the characters are so stereotypical they feel more like cut-outs than people.

So the Martians have arrived, and the world waits to see what this means for humanity.  We are introduced to our unbelievably star-studded cast, who are going about their various lives (including the President and his family, casino staff, scientists, reporters, and more).  It does not take long for the brain-headed Martians to reveal their intentions - complete annihilation of all sentient life on Earth.  They wipe out the US congress, and then move on to other nations, pretending to be interested in peace.  Eventually they just start destroying stuff rampantly and conducting experiments on hapless captured humans.  There is no hope until it is discovered that one piece of rather terrible music will make the Martians die gruesomely.  The Earth is saved, although most of our cast has been vaporized, or had their heads removed, or been crushed by falling lighting fixtures.

Expect a cameo from just about everybody in this film.  There are so many characters (some of which don't last very long) that there's space for a lot of names, like Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Natalie Portman, and even Tom Jones as Tom Jones.  The movie makes no apologies as it irreverently brings the "B" sci-fi movie of the past into the CGI of the "present."  It is just too bad that in the end the stop motion Burton wanted for this film was too expensive, but the Martians are still fun to watch, in spite of that.
  
28.  Alien (1979)

Well, I couldn't pass up the opportunity, especially on a sci-fi horror list, to put down my number one scariest flick of all.  Alien is still the freakiest thing I've ever seen, and the xenomorph is one of the best creepy life-forms.  Even after all this time, Alien feels relevant and even fresh.  The suspenseful pacing is still effective, and the horror scenes remain horrific as the crew of the Nostromo get picked off one by one until just Signorney Weaver and the cat are left.  (And thank God for that, I was really hoping the cat would make it ...)

Even the commercial for this movie was scary, carrying its now iconic tagline "In space, no one can hear you scream."  Geiger's artistic style and vision create an environment that is both organic and mechanical, fusing odd elements to generate an unsettled feeling.  And the alien?  The monster first grabs you on the face, invades your guts, and then (immortalized in the unforgettable "busting out" scene) the creature explodes out your innards to start its new life.  Who even knows what the thing is eating as it grows in size to seven feet high in the matter days.  Don't cut it, cause it's blood is acid and could punch a hole through the hull and vent your craft into space.  Just for grossness, it also drools goo and has two sets of jaws.

So if you haven't seen this one in a while, break it out and leave the lights on if necessary.  It makes for perfect viewing at Halloween or anytime you need to remember what a genuinely scary movie feels like.  Keep the cat close by.

Image Credits:  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1007602_fly? https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mars_attacks  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/alien/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=n-843762  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Space_Pilot_X_Ray_Gun_made_by_Taiyo.jpg

Friday, October 27, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 23-25

Ruben's Medusa
It's time for a massive monster mash!  Here are a few films filled with monsters that are good to break out during the Halloween season.  None are horror per se (in fact these are really fantasy and sci-fi) but each is filled with bizarre creatures, and there are even a few genuinely scary moments here and there.  So if you weren't over-saturated with monsters from The Cabin in the Woods, this is the place to be.

As always, many SPOILERS here.

23.  Clash of the Titans (1981)

My love of 80's speculative films and my love of stop motion animation converge here in one seriously campy romp through the mythological past.  Enter Perseus, son of Zeus, who gets embroiled in a plot to save the city of Joppa and its fair princess from the anger of the monstrous Calibos and his mother, the goddess Thetis.  The plot isn't terribly important, nor does it bear particular resemblance to myth (after all we encounter a mechanical golden owl made by Hephaestus, indeed we have to put up with the freaking thing through half the movie) but there are plenty of monsters and such to be had.  (Note that I haven't seen the remake of this film, which is fine since I can't imagine it could be this much goofy fun.)

We begin with Calibos himself, who was cursed by Zeus for hunting down his sacred winged horses, leaving only Pegasus.  Then there's the giant vulture that carries Andromeda's spirit about the swamp, the Stigian Witches who share one eye between them as they cook someone in their bubbling caldron, and a two headed dog nominally guarding the gorgon Medusa.  Medusa is of course a monster mix on her own, as she has writhing snakes for hair.  After Perseus nabs her head, there are some giant scorpions to defeat (along with Calibos) and then they have to take care of the Kraken itself.  Not bad for a monster mix. 

It isn't even a little scary (although the scenes with Medusa have a reasonable creep factor), but the animation is great fun, and the monsters have some fine personality.  So put this movie in your Halloween rotation as a good creature feature!

24.  Heavy Metal  (1981)

Now you are wondering what I'm really up to.  But seriously, I count 1981's Heavy Metal as both a monster movie and horror, at that.  Have you seen it recently?  If you can get past the sophomoric, juvenile need for busty babes in every scene, there is some truly creepy creature weirdness to be had in this film.  Not to mention the animation is fascinating and the soundtrack is actually pretty rocking.

The plot here is exceptionally loose.  A framing device was used to tie together mini-stories that otherwise have no relationship to one another.  The only commonality is the malevolent green orb known as the Loc-Nar.  This orb narrates its past conquests to a terrified girl, and each of these becomes a vignette in the film.  Having already melted her astronaut father to mush, the orb recounts stories such as how it converted plane-loads of soldiers into zombies, created war on several planets, and influenced people to act in malicious and evil ways.  Most stories are populated with a variety of monsters and weird alien creatures that keep things interesting even when the plot flags. 

It is the utter unknown that makes this movie so unsettling, as you can't even guess what's going to happen next, and it's usually something violent or otherwise unpleasant.  Animation lets you do pretty much anything you want, and in this case it runs wild.  So break out this old flick and see if its weird worlds and creepy creatures are what you need for a bit of Halloweeny viewing.

25.  Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King (2003)

Of course the Lord of the Rings trilogy is filled with fantastic monsters of all kinds, as well as some moments of true horror.  I wanted to pick one film in particular, not just point to the whole series, but this is indeed tough.  Still, this third and last installment seems to have tipped the balance on terrifying creatures.

So the first film has goblins, a cave troll, and then a demon known as a Balrog.  This in addition to the usual orcs, the quasi-monster Gollum, and then of course the terrifying Nazgul that are in all the films.  But the third movie has a few extra special monster encounters.  We start by learning Gollum's story - a once normal hobbit-ish person who was corrupted and cursed by the Ring to murder his only friend.  Then we end the film with Gollum's demise, a twisted moment of glee before the flames of Mount Doom take him as well as the Ring.  In the meantime, Aragorn has to obtain the help of the Dead Men of Dunharrow, ghost-skeletons of men who betrayed Aragon's ancestor Isildur, and who have been haunting the countryside for centuries.  Then there is an up close battle with the Witch-King, leader of the Nazgul, whom Eowyn finally dispatches. 

Finally, and what really makes the most monstery list for me, is the encounter that Frodo and Sam have with the giant spider Shelob.  This is a freakish and terrifying sequence, where Frodo finds himself lost in the webs, and only survives because loyal Sam shows up at just the right moment.  It's all quite gruesome and gross, which makes it perfect for a Halloween creature feature.  So depending on the amount of time you have for seasonal movie viewing (the extended versions of the trilogy add up to like 13 hours of film) put one or all of these fine monster movies on your list.

Image Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rubens_Medusa.jpeg https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/clash_of_the_titans/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=n-241117  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_lord_of_the_rings_the_return_of_the_king/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=h-6597

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 20-22

A ghostly time!
It is time for more horror tropes to follow up the vampires, zombies, and all the rest.  This installment is dedicated to 80's horror about ghostly hauntings!  I've chosen a few films that for me are prime Halloween viewing, with humor and horror both in the mix, as usual.

SPOILERS dost exist herein.  Beware.

20.  Ghostbusters (1984)

The sad truth is that I have yet to see the 'new' Ghostbusters movie made in 2016.  Perhaps when I do this slot in my Halloween movie cannon will change to include both movies, or will bump this one off, who knows?  But for now, the original Ghostbusters remains on my must view list for the season.

After all, who can resist the lineup of talented comedians playing the ridiculous roles of paranormal ghost eradicators?  The sexism is tedious, but there are enough really good moments that you can still enjoy the film.  The idea of the gate to hell being in one's refrigerator still cracks me up. 

The movie isn't about plot, although the scaffold hangs together well enough, it is about Murray's one liners and the astonishing situations in which the team find themselves.  (Like antagonizing the ghost of a librarian until she attacks them, destroying the ballroom of a five star hotel, negotiating with an ancient demon, and of course fighting off a giant marshmallow man.)  So once we get past the initial setup (which is slow paced) things get interesting as the actual ghostbusting begins.  The special effects are dated now, but because of that they work perfectly to up the camp factor of the film.  The ending, where they have to 'cross the streams' to shut the gates into Gozer's dimension, results in the explosion of said marshmallow man, coating the city in fluff.  An apt metaphor for this just-for-fun romp into iconic 80's Halloween movie territory.  

21.  Poltergeist (1982)

This movie scared the pants off of me as a kid.  It starts off with a 'normal' family, doing relatively normal things (although when I first saw the film I had no idea what was going on in the pot smoking scene).  Then all hell breaks loose, literally.  I didn't really get the details of the plot back then, but I certainly felt the impact of any number of horrifying scenes. 

Where to even begin with this movie?  Ok, how about the television?  TVs with static screens were always weird to begin with, but now imagine they are communication devices to the land of ghosts.  Then there is the scene where the gnarled, old tree busts into the children's bedroom during a lightning storm and actually grabs one of the kids.  After that, there is the scene where the guy has an hallucination that he's pulling all the flesh off of his face.  Then there is the mom going into the weird light and the terrifying monster face that emerges after her.  Wait, I'm not done yet.  Just when you think the house is clear we find mom rolling around on the ceiling and the son being attacked by the seriously most evil looking clown doll ever.  Then skeletons start erupting out of the muddy ground after which the entire house is destroyed as it is sucked into another dimension.  Recall this movie somehow got a PG rating.

Some of the film, now seen 35 years later, is unintentionally amusing.  But a lot of the horror still works because it plays well into childhood fears (and who ever thought that a clown doll was anything but scary ...).  When the dad pushes the TV set out of the hotel room in the last scene, it comes over as funny, but with a bite.  At that point, I'd do the same thing.  Overall, solid 80's Halloween ghostly viewing!

22.  Beetlejuice (1988)

Firmly ensconced on my Halloween movie list is Beetlejuice, an offbeat comedy that strays into horror territory just when you least expect it.  I love it for the total weirdness, the amazing visuals, and the excellent performances of the whole cast.  This is a ghost haunting not to be missed. 

If you remember this movie as having no bite to it, then give it another watch.  First of all our protagonists Barbara and Adam become ghosts by drowning right at the start of the film.  Then they realize they are trapped in their home by a no-man's land of desert and sand worm monsters.  When they meet their 'case worker' Juno, the woman's cigarette smoke is leaking out of her slit throat.  Helpless, our protagonists watch their home be invaded by new owners.  More disturbing content includes Lydia contemplating suicide, and our protagonists rotting before our eyes after a family friend accidentally performs an exorcism.  When Lydia summons Beetlejuice to save the day, he wreaks havoc of course, and ends up killing two of the family's guests.  Before he can force Lydia into marrying him (ewwww) Barbara manages to banish him by getting one of the sand worm snakes to eat him.  Combine this with Burton's bizarre visuals and you get a comedy that delivers some serous creepy content.

This one has aged well, I think.  The actors do a great job, and give us a great 80's Halloween ride from start to finish.

Image Credits:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Image_of_a_ghost,_produced_by_double_exposure_in_1899.jpg https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ghostbusters/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=h-121533  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/beetlejuice/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=n-248616

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 17-19

It's horror musical time!
So much catch up to do ... so onward with the Halloween viewing!  We've been through vampire and zombie themes, as well as some other fun tropes like the "Belle Dames sans Merci."  So it's time to take a side-step into that oh, so beloved realm of horror musicals.  What I list here are more than just movies, they were also stage performances that became iconic phenomena.  So dive in and see if you agree that these make fine comic and/or creepy Halloween viewing.

As always, SPOILERS!  So watch first, then read.

17.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

This is a true horror musical phenomenon.  Both a movie and a stage performance, Rocky Horror has been engaging people at midnight movie showings for decades.  It began as an onstage musical called The Rocky Horror Show in 1973, with Tim Curry playing the lead as the mad scientist Frank-n-Furter who creates "Rocky" - his vision of a perfect man.  Just two years later it was adapted into a film, fortunately with Curry back in his role.  It caught on as a cult classic almost immediately, with viewers getting into the act with props and dancing.  The movie has had the longest running release in film history.

Taken on it's own, it really isn't gripping viewing.  The pace is erratic, and at times you really just want to get on with the story (such as it is).  Fortunately Tim Curry is his usual fantastic self, and carries one scene after another.  He plays his character with gusto - seductive one minute and threatening the next.  There really isn't too much horror, just abject weirdness, although Frank the scientist does kill another character with what looks like an ice pick and then serves him for dinner.  Some of the songs are easily forgotten, while others are impossible-to-shake ear worms. 

What makes the experience is the zaniness and mayhem of it all.  Frank gets into almost everyone's bed at some point, and the lead characters of Janet and Brad play it wonderfully straight.  If you can manage to follow the plot, you find out that Frank and his estate staff are actually from another planet.  Frank is executed at the end since "his mission has failed" although we never find out what his mission was.  I can't say the movie needs to be viewed every Halloween, but certainly every few years or so it needs to be brought out and enjoyed for the unbridled chaos it lends to the season.

18.  Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

The Little Shop of Horrors started in 1960 as a black and white film potentially based on any number of books or stories.  I recall seeing it as a kid and enjoying the old-timey creepiness of it, especially the grim ending.  In the 1960 movie, and later in the 1982 stage performance, the ending has the heads of all the plant's victims budding from the plant and opening up like flowers.  This includes the head of the protagonist, who gets eaten along with everyone else in the film.

So I wasn't sure I'd like the campy, colorful, happier version of the film created in 1986.  Even the director Frank Oz wanted to keep the dark ending, but was defeated by pre-screenings where the viewers simply hated that the protagonist and his girlfriend get eaten.  Yet even changed to be more "digestible" this movie has won me over as perfect Halloween fare.

The movie has great music, fun performances, and enough horror to keep the viewer always off kilter.  For fun you have the hero singing lines like.  "I have so many strong reservations.  Shall I go and perform mutilations?"  Steve Martin as the abusive and torture-loving dentist is inspired casting, especially with a cameo by masochistic patient Bill Murray (there are a lot of cameos in this).  The three-woman "Greek Chorus" is fantastic, and some of their numbers are total sing-alongs, they are so catchy. 

The plant itself is much of the joy of the film.  With Oz as the director, it is no surprise that the plant is a puppet (many puppets, actually.)  "Audrey II" grows from small to large as the movie progresses.  By the end it's really an excellent monster, singing, demanding to be fed all the time, and way too lifelike.  (Actually, the stage version of the plant is even more impressive, busting out of the stage at the end and threatening to eat the audience.)  The voice of the plant is both crooning and cruel in turns, and it really works as another character.

So definitely keep this movie in your Halloween rotation as campy horror that won't quit, and be prepared to find yourself humming the soundtrack for the next week.

19.  Sweeney Todd (1982)

Although there have been stories, films, and productions that came both before and after, the version of this tale that fits my Halloween list is the movie that captures the 1982 musical stage performance.  This is the one with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn.  If you want to be truly entertained with a monstrous story told through mesmerizing music, this is the one to go for.  Wow.

So a serial killer (Todd) and a pie maker (Lovett) team up and start baking people into meat pies.  You can make a "serious" musical out of this?  Yep.  It works because around this gory concept is a convincing and talented cast of characters living out a tragic story. 

The deranged Todd was once Benjamin Barker, a man sent off to an Australian prison by a judge leering after Todd's wife, Lucy.  With the help of Anthony, a joyful and happy young man, Todd returns to London.  He has nothing but revenge on his mind from the very first.  You can see Todd is given plenty of moments where he could have made a different choice and changed his path, like when honest Anthony offers him his friendship.  Todd shakes hands, but has no intention of ever seeing Anthony again.  Indeed, it's not much later that Todd and Lovett talk about slitting Anthony's throat if that suits their purposes.  Hearn can act and Hearn can sing - haunting, funny, and everything in between.  His performance as Todd is chilling, and almost, almost has pathos.  And then he will do something horrific and you remember what he is allowing himself to become.  To be.

Ms. Lovett is lonely, greedy, and full of ideas.  She and Todd use and manipulate one another throughout their bizarre partnership, but it is Lovett who is holding information back from Todd, not the reverse.  They both live in different fantasies of their own making, but again Lovett's is the most wretchedly off-base, as she dreams herself to be the warm, maternal figure to young Toby, and the doting wife figure to Todd.  She is so invested in Todd that when Toby starts to figure out what is going on, she realizes she will have to arrange to have Todd kill him.  So much for motherhood.  Lansbury's performance is remarkable - alternately bouncing and bloodthirsty.

The Burton film has it's moments, but for pure performance gold, for both acting and singing, this version is superior.  The voices are stellar, especially from the supporting choral cast, who shine in the "narrative" numbers where they carry the story along.  The last number, where most of them are dead and with their throats still bloody, is creepy in the extreme.  All in all, a perfect choice for Halloween musical listening and viewing!   

Image Credits:  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/rocky_horror_picture_show/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=n-197585   https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1012515_little_shop_of_horrors/pictures#&gid=1&pid=n-214904  https://i.pinimg.com/236x/86/a5/f4/86a5f46bfa4b162cdfb0239b00627b86--len-cariou-angela-lansbury.jpg

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 13-16

An obvious homage to the
Evil Dead series.
It's a four-movie post today in order to get me almost all caught up.  I decided today's theme would be zombies!  Of course there are about a ten thousand zombie-related movies, so choosing just a four for one post was a daunting task.  The questions I asked myself were many.  Which seem the most Halloweeny?  Which are particularly fun or classic examples of the genre?  Which bear repeat viewings?  I'm sure my list will vary widely from yours, but below are those that for me stand out as either so classic, fun, bizarre, goofy, or even genuinely scary that I had to include them.

Note - Many SPOILERS below.  So, so many.

13.  Night of the Living Dead (1968)

My choice for "classic zombie movie" is Night of the Living Dead.  There are a bevy of "Night of Whatever" movies or "Day of the Whatever" or "Dead Whatever" movies, so it's almost impossible to keep track.  Still, this is the one I think establishes so much of the genre, and is still a really excellent creepy Halloween movie today.

This is a grim film from beginning to end, with no light humor to break things up.  It takes itself seriously, even though the scenes where people are eating entrails are not particularly realistic.  Still, they are pretty ooky and gory, even in black and white (definitely see the black and white version).  The zombies come from everywhere in this film, both inside and outside.  As the people in the house get killed, they get converted and start munching.  People do the now-canonical freak-out thing where they threaten each other.  When the ending comes, it is a total shock, watching how and why the hero loses.  The movie comes off as both horror and tragedy, and today, what with our sensibilities so shifted, it also has moments of unintentional humor.  For lots of creepy shambling zombie goodness, it doesn't get much better.  All together it makes for good Halloweeny viewing.

14.  Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies (2012)

This is just as good as a campy 'B' movie can get. Abe runs around through the whole thing with a specially "modified" scythe.  Abe broke the handle in half when he was a boy, and now wields it much like a giant switchblade, flicking it open and closed with ease. There are a plethora of wonderful scenes in slow motion, with fog or smoke blowing around and zombie heads flying. When the zombie heads are not flying, that's because the zombies are being bashed to "death" with rakes, hoes, sticks, and anything else that's lying around.

The movie works entirely because of the Abe Lincoln performance.  The actor plays it completely straight, no side chuckles or winks.  Whenever he is on the screen the movie is interesting, and there is no scene he does not steal.  Even when the movie has Abe meeting his former lover, now turned prostitute, it is presented as a serious scene.  The juxtaposition with the plot and all the zombie bashing is utter hilarity.

There are some regrettably slow paced sections that could easily have been edited out, but they are good spots to go get more popcorn.  The movie should also have ended ten minutes before it did, that is, right after Abe gives a very convincing Gettysburg Address.  This might even have been moving if you hadn't already heard Abe using these and other rather more ludicrous lines during zombie combat, (i.e. "Emancipate this!" - Yes. This is said.)  Overall, it's fantastic Halloween zombie fun.

15.  Evil Dead II (1987)

It took me a long time to come to the Evil Dead series, and I still haven't seen much of it.  But it is obvious even from one viewing that Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is amazing zombie spoof film making.  Some might argue that these creatures are possessed corpses, not zombies.  But since they do all the zombie trope things, and look like zombies, and no doubt smell like zombies, this film firmly fits the zombie category in my mind.

I already mentioned I like stop motion animation, and there is some wonderful and goofy animation here.  But the scene that sticks with me isn't filled with animation at all, it is our hero Ash struggling with his own possessed hand.  Before he manages to sever it from his body, the hand smashes plates over his head, beats him in the face, and even flips his whole body over.  It is an amazing bit of slapstick acting.   

There certainly isn't much of a plot - just a scaffold to get us from one zombie gore fest to another.  We eventually find Ash heavily armed with both a buzz saw and a sawed off shotgun, to which he says "Groovy" and continues his struggle with the forces of evil.  The ending is only there to tell us that there is going to be a sequel.  But the movie works because all the scenes are over the top fun.  For some trope-making zombie Halloween cinema, this is good popcorn viewing.

16.  The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Remember I said SPOILERS?  You have to go watch this one and then come back here.  Right?  Good.   

The Cabin in the Woods is a really stellar Halloween flick that starts with zombie attacks and ends up with more monsters than you can imagine.  The movie opens as your nominal horror film with a group of young friends headed into the woods for a fun weekend off the grid.  What's weird, though, is that the movie keeps bringing the viewer back to shots of the interior of some kind of high-tech facility, where people are milling about doing what might seem like mundane government jobs.  This juxtaposition of scenes makes for great viewing, even on repeat viewings when we know what is happening.

As the movie goes forward we see that the workers in the facility are manipulating the young people, and eventually lead them to unleash a horror on themselves.  We go through some standard movie zombie attacks, but they are handled really well, with good pacing.  And they are obviously designed to be so cliche that we are trapped between laughing and grossing out.  The scenes of the workers reacting with a mix of reverence and nonchalance to the death of the first student is super entertaining creepiness.  Some of the workers are just disgusting with their disregard for life, going so far as to bet on the means whereby the students will meet their end, and so you end up hoping they get some kind of comeuppance.

We begin to understand that all this horror is some kind of rite, with the workers making sure that the young people all die, and even in the "right" order.  The workers are gleeful when it seems that they have succeeded.  Alas for the workers, one of the students (the Fool) has resisted their manipulations through copious use of pot.  He and another of the students (the Virgin) find their way into the facility, which is built below the cabin.  For me this is the best and most Halloweeny part of the movie, as the students find imprisoned in the facility all kinds of horror movie monsters, from ghosts and werewolves to an obvious "Hellraiser" ripoff.  In an attempt to escape the workers trying to hunt them down, the students unleash all the monsters in an amazing scene of gory mayhem.

The students finally learn that the rite is actually a sacrifice to appease the old gods, who will destroy all of humanity if the ritual fails.  When she is put in a position to complete the rite (i.e. kill the Fool), the Virgin eventually declines, and she and her friend share some pot as the old gods come forth to finish off humanity.  I sure wish this last bit had been given some more time on film.  I wanted to see more of the old gods than just a giant hand.  Still, it all comes together fantastically, and the scenes with all the monsters munching through the workers is worth many Halloween viewings.

Image Credits:  Evil Dead Lego scene https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Will_you_be_ready..._(4786369715).jpg  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/abraham_lincoln_vs_zombies  https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/evil_dead_2_dead_by_dawn/pictures/#&gid=1&pid=n-537393  Cabin in the woods, movie and from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_cabin_in_the_woods/pictures/