Category Archives: 1970s

Demon Dogs! The Guilty Pleasures of Thundarr the Barbarian

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Demon Dogs! The Guilty Pleasures of Thundarr the Barbarian

Aaand tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1994.

Yes, in 1977 Star Wars blew our minds, but we also had Saturday mornings where shows were hit or miss. Many of us were a captive audience for the sake of catching the good stuff like Superfriends, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (more on that show later if you behave yourselves), and Thundarr the Barbarian.

Thundarr left the deepest imprint upon my head. Perhaps the ferocious and bold inventiveness of the show is what drew me in, but it also taught crucial lessons about loyalty, uniqueness as strength, standing up to oppression, and learning from your mistakes (without judgement). The show was also the king of the cliffhangers.

Thundarr plays marvelously with archetypes–the friendship of Thundarr-Ookla parallels with Gilgamesh-Enkindu, and the third character Princess Ariel as advisor and wisecracking sage corresponds with the powerful but independent Merlin. There was never overt sexual tension between this trio of wanderers–this was a show for tweens, after all–but the unwavering friendship between the three principal characters was encouraging for kids to see, because no matter who they ended up fighting and how insurmountable the obstacle, they left no one behind, regardless of gender or species. It was a good lesson in friendship for kids–stand up to bullies, and the struggle gives you strength.

The show is rich in still deeper thematic content–renewal. The world isn’t dying–it frickin’ died, from natural disaster (the runaway planet is a bit liberal in its hard-scientific plausibility), but two millennia later we rise phoenix-like into–well–you know (or you should know) the opening quote, a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery.

The familiar sites of the old world–The Statue of Liberty, The Hollywood Sign, The New York Public Library–these also immersed the viewers, rooting them in the familiar world while also challenging us to imagine a possible future, albeit shattered, with less comforts but much higher adventure and excitement. It was a worthwhile trade-off if one could fall in with the right crowd.

I remember this show as a celebration of diversity as strength rather than  weakness, of one’s actions being the determining factor of one’s fate and growth of character, and best of all, it celebrated the underdogs–the outsiders–as the true heroes of the healing landscape, and the fight against oppression (most often on the behalf of others under siege) seemed to make Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel stronger with every viewing.

It all comes down to empathy, emotional identification. I know that sounds naive and whimsical, but in a world where willful ignorance is prized and rewarded over justice and duty, I’ll take the escapism of this show any day of the fucking week. Case closed, bring on that runaway planet and split the moon evenly in half.

 

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Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

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Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

Monsters.

So when my dad died I was five years old, and had precious little context to work with. I remember feeling numb, confused, unable to process the real implication of what it meant to lose a parent whom I’d barely gotten to really know. He’d been been sitting in his recliner one moment, and was gone the next, never to return. I stared out the window a lot, and watched the vultures congregate along the treeline ringing our house in Wauwinet (Nantucket, Massachusetts). I liked the vultures. They were the first birds I met. Carrion birds.

This memory stuck with me, however–my dad had told me something interesting about the image of King Kong breaking through his huge gate on Skull Island, where the natives scatter and Fay Wray, the intended sacrifice, writhes enchained, terrified by the “monster” raging in front of her. I identified with Kong immediately, because of what my dad had said: “He’s more afraid of them than they are of him.” And but hey let’s circle back to Ms. Wray a second here. The mere sight of this beauty enchants the beast, comforts him, allays his fear but does not compromise his strength (as we  see later in the jungles). This may have been the origins on my identification as female, but also the root of my blonde envy (I’m brunette). Here I took away a little something from both parties–identification with the beast, raging and powerful, and with beauty–passive, nurturing, forward-thinking, and yet somehow fateful, or even malignant. I think this is what one would call a paradox.

The recent passing of Keith Emerson (1944-2016) evoked memories of my initial gateway into a world of wonder when I needed it the most. Creature Double Feature [on Channel 56, for Boston] used the Emerson Lake & Palmer track “Toccata” [1973] as the ongoing theme song, and their creative edit of that percussive, diving synth tone made you think you were not only hearing a warning of a impending danger, but also an alien siren call, enticing you to the sticky web.

This show was the first exposure to speculative fiction for many of my generation, and I can only speak for myself when I tell you–finally it was so okay to be left alone.

Monsters became my escapism, actually a new sort of family. Monsters are outcasts but they’re also powerful as fuck, especially on a geopolitical level.

CDF tended to alternate their programming between a classic 1950s/1960s monster movie or a kaiju, a GIANT monster such as Godzilla or King Ghidorah. I was more captivated by kaiju than the “classic” monsters, perhaps because of their parallel with Kong. I must admit, many of these kaiju films don’t hold up very well anymore (often it takes forever to get the story rolling), but at least they made an impression on my young, impressionable brain.

The monsters are worth waiting for.

Best of all: combat between monsters. Sure, we’ll see the same city get squashed, but when monsters with unique, mutant characteristics and deadly biological weaponry do battle, it’s really fun to watch.

My CDF nostalgia runs deep–I’ll take the rubber suit and visible tethers over digital effects any day.

Top Five Scariest Classic Horror Film Scenes, 2015 edition

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The ancient air of New England shifted, and the winter leggings are readied. What better time than the first week of Autumn to lay out my Top Five Horror Film Scenes? Most of my selections are from the classics–overplayed perhaps–but there are reasons why they’ve endured. I assume most of you have seen these films already, and please do chime in with your own choices (and tell us why you love them).

1.) “The Exorcist” (1973, dir. William Friedkin) – Crucifuck

When this carnage of terrifying hidden forces, spiritual redemption, and pea soup was first released not long after the Watergate Scandal, it was the first horror film many “ordinary” people had gone to see. The United States has never been a stranger to anxiety, but for various reasons William Peter Blatty’s story hit a raw nerve in our collective psyche, became a smash box office hit, and popularized the horror genre exponentially.

What makes the Crucifuck scene work for me is not the scene itself but the buildup towards it–the scene of Lieutenant Kinderman’s interview with Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil. It’s a quiet conversation in which Kinderman is playing “good cop” to fulfill his duty as an homicide investigator whilst also being delicate with a mother agonizing over her daughter’s illness. So far he’s made useful contact with Father Karras but has turned up few details surrounding the death of Burke Dennings. The circumstantial evidence leaning toward young Regan’s value as a primary witness to Burke’s murder is plain to him. But Chris makes even more plain to Kinderman that Regan is in no condition to be interviewed until her health improves, Kinderman decently relents and attempts to diffuse her resistance with small talk. However, as Kinderman relays more details of the case, Chris grows increasingly nauseous with the realization that Regan has definitely murdered Dennings. She offers Kinderman more coffee and when he accepts gratefully, she turns to us with repressed hysteria etched on her face (“Why the hell did I offer?!?“). This is the role of her lifetime–keep cool until the cop leaves.

Once Kinderman departs and Chris MacNeil closes the door behind him, she looks like she’s about to shatter into a zillion screaming pieces. She paces towards her daughter’s room, traumatized and in shock. The demon plays on states of mind (especially dread and regret) of its nearby victims. So the best is yet to come, right then in the broad Georgetown daylight, and that’s when we all get slaughtered, and devoured. Then the real screaming begins.

“She screamed until she fainted.”

This is the final breath of free air for Regan until the ultimate martyrdom of Fathers Merrin and Karras.

2.) “Salem’s Lot” (1979, dir. Tobe Hooper) – Open the Window

I was eight years old, watching the newscaster announce the evening schedule, and qualified the premiere of “Salem’s Lot” with something to the effect of “If you think horror movies are just movies, tonight’s movie might just change your mind.” I was intrigued, hooked, and destroyed in fairly short order. Our nightmares and nocturnal fears can’t be written off so easily, especially during our pre-teen years. I still sleep with at least one ambient light on.

There are so many damn terrifying scenes in the 1979 original miniseries, but Ralphie Glick’s post-transformation window visit to his brother Danny in the middle of the night takes the prize. This sequence has no dialogue, just a subtly pulsating soundtrack and searing inevitability as the two brothers, both dressed in their PJs, reunite in the clouded darkness of Barlow’s corruption. I remember Clive Barker mentions during his  introduction to a later edition of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot that the town effectively commits suicide through its own corruption. This resonates, because I don’t think Straker nor Barlow are foreign, invading forces–rather they are from and of the township, the Marsten House, latent malignancies hatched out and giving the little petty world exactly what it is asking for (and deserves). They were summoned, and one could even say they’re on a mission of mercy.

The worst part of this? The scratching. Tell me you haven’t look at your window during the nighttime, briefly registering the deep darkness beyond, and half-expected to see this vampire child slowly approach in a shroud of vapor, fixating you with the terrible hunger of its eyes, and begin scratching, summoning.

3.) “Alien” (1979, dir. Ridley Scott) – Kane’s Son

Horror most certainly affects the body, a source of semi-automated natural processes and the most penetrating anxieties. We steer these apparent accidents of organismic evolution that give rise to both miracles of imagination and ingenuity along with the lowest depths of depravity. And none of us have an great shelf life, to begin with.

This is why I love body horror the most–we can entertain the idea of fleeing some bogey or maniac chasing after us with a weapon, but how do you escape your own body when it assaults itself [and I most certainly do include the mind, which seems to be the cause of most WTF]?

“Alien” is widely considered the most successful fusion of science fiction and horror, hence its canonical longevity. In this scene, all body hell breaks loose and from there on in, Ridley Scott’s film stands on the dread-accelerator pedal. Kane is first to wake, first to volunteer, first to discover, first to die. Ash doesn’t quite know what’s coming, but we can see him quietly observing Kane, cold and “still collating” during the small talk that precedes the beginning of this extended clip (which I am seeing for the first time, myself). Parker is so elated at the prospect of returning home, he’s bullshitting with his superiors rather than grumbling at them. Lambert, who throughout the film looks like the embodiment of crestfallen defeat, cracks a little smile. Kane is even jovial despite the coma. Ripley is quite deftly understated here, virtually a non-player.

A recent book-length study of “Alien” by Roger Luckhurst reveals many valuable insights into the film’s background. The actors, with the sole exception of John Hurt as Kane, had no real idea of what was about to happen in the scene–they knew about as much as the first-time audience. The script simply states, “The alien exits from Kane.”

And blood sprays into the face of Lambert, most vulnerable, and doomed to embody the ravening anxieties of the audience, the final crew member to perish in the clutches of this “perfect organism.”

4.) “Maniac” (1980, dir. William Lustig) – A little inconvenient

Although this film may be seen as dried-up grindhouse jizz, Frank Zito (played by Joe Spinell in the role of his life) is one creepy eek-a-zoid. Not only does he embody so many of the antisocial tendencies so prevalent in this day and age (oh hai Gamergate), he’s physically massive–Patrick Bateman has nothing on Frank Zito. Written and released not long after David Berkowitz “The Son of Sam” terrorized New York City, “Maniac” is the most authentic and terrifying portrayal of derangement, eclipsed only by a certain later movie with the name “Henry” in the title.

There’s no earthly need to waste time speculating on ideology, Frank’s inner world, mommy issues, or even the gratification of watching Tom Savini blow up his own head. While that subway scene with the nurse-chase is fairly absurd, Frank’s “conversation” with his victim’s scalp at 45:15 continues to give me the willies. Death at the hands of someone like Frank Zito is considerably more than just a little inconvenient.

5.) “The Evil Dead” (1981, dir. Sam Raimi) – The whole damn film

My filter. The first and final. Seeing the first “Evil Dead” film was like hearing Slayer “Reign in Blood” for the first time. You don’t recover. If aliens land and ask to be shown the quintessential horror film, this is the one I would show them.

Even though some of violence in this film plays out like “The Three Stooges” or “The Young Ones,” the imprint is undeniable. Anything can grab out at you, anywhere at any time, and swallow your soul. These are not just ghosts when they take possession of both living and dead flesh. They level-up to shit-spewing fear of what lurks beyond every navigable corner, the damnation layers of the woods, the latent energies that still make me afraid to do laundry in my basement at night.

Sure, the franchise turned funny and goofy. There is even a highly enjoyable musical adaptation of “Evil Dead.” But I’d say this first film was the first real horror of my childhood, and remains my filter until the bitter, tormented end.

I wanted to post the final scene, when Scott suddenly rises as Ash is battling Cheryl by the fireplace, but it doesn’t seem to be currently available. So let’s work with Cheryl’s card-guessing game and sudden talents of levitation.

Sweet dreams.

Diabolus ex Machina – The Guilty Pleasures of Damien Omen II

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We have a great deal more to fear from religious extremism than from any iteration of The Devil. My mom raised me Episcopalian but her influence formed me into more of a secular middle-class materialist, and one of the products I consumed was 1970s and 1980s schlock cinema. Today I’m not even an atheist–I feel no need to quantify myself within a system lain out by so many unpleasant people. So instead, I’ll go with something I actually care to know more about–horror fiction and cinema.

(LOL, here’s a question: is “Damien Omen II” a film or a movie?)

I’d be naive to suggest that religious themes are absent from horror–indeed, they form so many of its core elements. “The Exorcist” elevated the genre to blockbuster levels. Now, that film had the good luck of timing in the post-Vietnam/Watergate trauma America experienced at the time. Lurking Cold War fears gave rise to pervasive fear of violent invasion by the other from out there. Fear of the dark is timeless.

And who better to fear and scapegoat than the guy with the horns, the pointy tail, and the excellent taste in Black Sabbath?

Ka-ching!

This is not my place to give a history of the 1970s Hollywood film industry. Suffice it to say that horror and sci-fi had attained blockbuster status post-“Jaws” and “Star Wars,” and I was a very impressionable kid. “Damien Omen II” (1978, dir. Don Taylor) was the first of the Omen trilogy I saw, and to this day it remains my favorite, even though it’s as silly as a bag of rubber dicks.

Here are some reasons why I love this atrocity, and I won’t bother with too much summary or too many spoilers. You’ve never seen the film, you’ve seen the film and forgotten it, or you love it even more than I do.

1.) There are some very shitty ways to die when you find out that forbidden knowledge about Damien Thorn.

The writers of this follow-up to “The Omen” (1976, dir. Richard Donner) decided they would use a raven as an “uh-oh” plot device, instead of the Rottweiler[s] of the original and subsequent installments–not one Rottweiler here, booooo–and with the exception of one admittedly horrifying instance in the film, the bird makes no physical contact with victims. It shows up, a terrible “accident” occurs, then it flies away with the ramp-down of the Jerry Goldsmith score. Sometimes the raven tenders that “Damien eye” close-up to illustrate that supernatural malevolence and plot devices are afoot.

DO2 has quite a body count: buried alive, heart attack, eye gouging whilst in the direct path of a speeding Mack truck, drowning beneath ice, toxic asphyxiation, cut in half, aneurysm, impalement, stabbed, burned alive–arguably there is a higher body count in “Omen 3: The Final Conflict” (1981, dir. Graham Baker), but here we have some very dreadful ways to go when you’ve suddenly found your Christian truth. We get it, dude–Damien, now come of puberty, is the cause of all of the Evil in the world. Who better to lead the world?

Aaaaaand The Devil is really good with machines. There is more mechanized death in “Damien Omen II” than in any of the other film in the trilogy, and you begin to wonder “Wait, if he could move that gear shift, control that electrical system, why doesn’t he just cause more plane crashes while his enemies are commuting into their naughty? In some cases he could take them all out at once!”

That’s a much too vulgar display of power, Larissa.

2.) It is much more clear that Damien has infiltrated one of the most powerful family dynasties in the world.

Born of a jackal, Damien is the Jordan Belfort of changelings. He’s coming into puberty (huh-huh), and he’s not stupid–he knows when to be politic even if he thinks a person is odd or unpleasant. On the flipside, he also knows how to take care of bullies.

I splurged and read the 1978 Signet novelization by Joseph Howard because there is only so much the film is going to tell you. I wanted more backstory. The book isn’t an earth-shattering literary achievement, but it is immersive enough to convey that, in their own way, The Thorns have eclipsed The Kennedys. Reginald Thorn is the father of both the late Robert (played by Gregory Peck with admirable restraint and pathos in the original “Omen”) and Richard (William Holden, who seems to know what a turkey he’s starring in but is, to his credit, convincing and professional)–Grandpa Reginald also had ramped up the family’s industry but never lost sight of his true passion: archaeology. Down we go into the Biblical rabbit hole. 

3.) The film moves at a much faster pace than the first installment. There is a good deal of ground to cover.

DO2 opens with Jerry Goldsmith’s Main Title running at twice the clip as the brooding, almost Doom-Metal pace of the first film. Although the timeframe of this one appears to cover but a single winter, there is a global scope and immediacy to Damien’s growing power. The plot speeds along so fast, you may recognize the plot holes, but in order to keep up, you basically just have to roll with it. I wonder how cynically 20th Century Fox brass behaved during their conversations with Stanley Mann and Mike Hodges (who went on to direct Flash! Ah-ahhhh!).

“Coherence, schmo-herence, let’s shift some units before this ship sails!”

By the time Damien’s infernal destiny is revealed to him at about the midpoint, he initially (and understandably) freaks out. I’m not going to speculate at length about the unfortunate and imposed parallel of what queer kids go through with their devout, brainwashed monster-parents whose adherence to their religion and social standing at Wal-Mart is more important to them than the well-being of their child. But here we have a time capsule for that drama. Damien eventually comes around. Thanks, Obama!

4.) These are not such veiled references to the clandestine, questionable business practices of Thorn Industries. Can you say Monsanto?

“Our profitable future lies in famine,” says Paul Buher, a Slayer “Hell Awaits” apostate in training who looks like a cross between Stephen Lang (Harry Black, “Last Exit to Brooklyn”) and Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch dad).

In the beginning, we only know that Robert Thorn eschewed the executive levels of Thorn Industries in favor of DC politics–he eventually achieved success when he became American Ambassador to the Court of Saint James [let’s just call it Great Britain]. But then tragedies began to unravel his life– he lost his true progeny twice, lost his wife (whom he had obviously loved unconditionally), and after watching David Warner’s head make some disembodied gymnastics that would have made even Kurt Thomas (Gymkata) stand back in awe, he gets gunned down by the very human race he’s trying to protect from ruin.

Richard Thorn, on the other hand, toed the family line and became corporate head. Thorn is by this time massive on a global, geopolitical scale. But he is so traumatized by the loss of his brother, even after seven years, that the mere mention of Robert’s name sends him into a zone of melancholy and defensive rage. Richard’s love for his own son Mark by his first marriage eases the transition of adopting Damien into his immediate family.

But aside from this, Richard Thorn has enabled shady business practices to run rampant. Paul Buher is the new executive with his sights set on subjugating poor countries with Thorn-manufactured grain crops and despotism. Buher even goes so far as to start buying plots of land within the Indian subcontinent, behind Richard Thorn’s back, in order to enable Damien Thorn’s serfdoms.

“When you’ve got a knife at your belly,” he states early on, like a true humanitarian passionate about feeding the hungry, “you’ll keep your hands at your sides.”

What is all of this for? Why, Mr. Buher has finally been accepted, he realizes with an epic boner, when he finds three sixes on his ring finger one joyous night, the same night when Damien discovered the higher-echelon sixes on his own head.

5.) Why ask why? It’s just good, mindless horror fun.

There a good many things in DO2 that just don’t make sense–the most striking is Mark’s sudden change of heart about his cousin. Just because he’s the Antichrist doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have your back in a street brawl? Well, maybe not–I think the whole point is that when Damien’s underlying threat to the physical (and spiritual) safety of his family in order to move ahead like Anna Wintour with a 1970s mop-top military haircut, all bets are off. After so much death and a sense of unraveling not unlike his brother’s, Richard is finally convinced when he sees archeological evidence of Damien’s Truth. Obviously traumatized by the unfolding events, he resolves to kill his adopted child before he himself is killed. Good luck with that, dude. Lee Remick to the rescue! How else would we see a third movie?

Ka-ching!