Friday, October 26, 2012

My Halloween Special 2012

Welcome to the Halloween edition of my blog...

Well, it's a gay blog... what were you expecting? Casper?

History. Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1st. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest as well as the beginning of the dark, cold winter. Celts believed that on the night before the new year (October 31st), the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead became blurred and the spirits of the dead returned to Earth.

During the Samhain celebration, costumed Celts built huge sacred bonfires and burned crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities. When the celebrations were over, they returned home and lit their hearths with logs from the sacred bonfires. They believed this would help protect them during the coming winter.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory and co-opted their festivals and celebrations. As centuries passed, the influence of Christianity spread into Celtic lands, gradually blending with or supplanting older Celtic rites and rituals to create church-sanctioned holidays. Exit spirits of the dead, enter saints and martyrs. Goodbye Samhain, hello All Saints Day and All Hallows Eve, which would eventually be called Halloween. The origin of hallow is the Middle English word halowen; hallow is defined by Merriam-Webster as meaning "to make holy or set aside for holy use."

Halloween was not widely celebrated in the U.S. until the second half of the 19th century when European immigrants flooded America and revived the holiday. It started with costumes, ghost stories and going house to house asking for money or food. By the late 1800's, there was an attempt to scrub away the supernatural or religious overtones and turn Halloween into a holiday about celebrating the season with wholesome parties for adults and kids. Ultimately, the 1950s baby boom redirected Halloween into a holiday for the young -- and the supernatural trappings made a comeback. Going door to door for money or food evolved into the "new" American tradition of trick-or-treating.

Monster Tutorial.

This is a vampire...

A still from the 1922 German Expressionist silent horror classic Nosferatu.
Max Schreck starred as the nosferatu, a Romanian word synonymous with vampire.
Not a vampire...

Robert Pattinson as vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight film franchise.
Great hair, killer jawline and freakishly pale. But not scary; just bad boyfriend material. 
This is a zombie...

A photo from AMC's wildly popular zombie apocalypse saga The Walking Dead.  

Arguably the original zombie...

According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after crucifixion.
He hung out with lots of people for forty days before his ascension to Heaven.

If you believe that scenario, it sort of makes him the best and most benign zombie ever.

Not a zombie, but...

Gay porn star Francois Sagat in makeup for his starring role in 2009's gay porn epic L.A. Zombie.
What happens when gay porn and the zombie horror genre collide? You get L.A. Zombie, the creation of Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, an artist who specializes in art porn features. Here's the flick's synopsis, according to Wikipedia: A homeless schizophrenic (Francois Sagat) thinks he's an alien zombie sent to Earth. Roaming the streets of Los angeles, he tries to bring the dead back to life by engaging in homosexual sex. Did I mention it's hardcore? L.A. Zombie played a lot of international film festivals in 2010, where is was typically deemed too controversial for second screenings, but was sometimes shown illegally anyway. Subsequently, an uncut DVD version with 40 additional minutes of footage was released for sale. Here's the trailer...

A real monster... 

Ann Coulter. She wants us to believe she's merely a conservative political pundit who tells it like it is. No. Uh uh. At best, she's the most obnoxious drag queen in history. At worst, she's a modern-day Medusa, the hideous Greek monster with venomous snakes for hair. I'm going with the latter. Obviously, she's had a semi-successful, hair-taming makeover that eliminated her one special ability -- the power to turn onlookers into stone with her gaze. Today, she's simply an insane troll, making a living as a professional outrageous remark-maker. For instance, she recently called the President of the United States a retard on Twitter. For more of her, um, wisdom, go here.

It takes an extraordinary shampoo and conditioner to make her snake-hair do that.
Not coming to a theater near you, thankfully.

My First Halloween Costume. Casper the Friendly Ghost. I remember it well. The mask had "wide-vision eye-holes" and the costume was "flame retarded." See for yourself.

Okay, I'm calling it. Casper is gay. Really, it couldn't be more obvious.

The First Movie That Ever Scared Me. Black Sunday (1960). As a little kid. I turned on the television and found this gem of Italian horror cinema from celebrated director Mario Bava. Today, viewers will likely be distracted by the overacting and dubbing, but this story of a witch accidentally resurrected from death was brilliantly photographed and quite a shocker for 1960s audiences. Check out the original theatrical trailer.

Candy Corn Oreo. Yes, for a limited time, this product exists. It's sold exclusively at Target.

There's a strange amount of excitement about this on the Internet, with all kinds of people doing taste tests. These things are artificially flavored, naturally. It says so right there on the bag. Can you describe the flavor of candy corn? No, "sweet" is not a flavor. The only way to describe the taste of candy corn is sugary. But the Internet has spoken: Oreo Candy Corn cookie filling tastes like vanilla cake frosting.

The folks at mega-snack manufacturer Nabisco know a winning formula:
sugar + holiday theme = success

My Horror Movie Recommendations. We all know that the term "scary movie" is wildly subjective. Some of us like vampires and zombies; others prefer haunted houses, demonic kids or supernatural mutants. For the purposes of this list, I've divided things up into five categories of horror: comedy, camp, cult, chillers and classics. So, if you're planning a movie night to celebrate Halloween, consider one of these...

Comedy. For those who like to see familiar horror movie tropes played for laughs...

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). The late, great Don Knotts stars as a newspaper typesetter in a small Kansas town. He wants to be a reporter, so the editor gives him an assignment:  spend the night in a creepy -- and allegedly haunted -- old mansion on the 20th anniversary of its former occupants' murder and suicide. Knotts was in top form here, gently tweaking the beloved Barney Fife character he'd played on The Andy Griffith Show for five seasons before this film was made. He's surrounded by a crackling cast of pros, too. It's essentially a big-screen sitcom, but it still makes me chuckle today.

Shaun of the Dead (2004). If any horror genre is ripe for satire, it's zombie movies. With Shaun of the Dead, mission accomplished.  Actor/writer Simon Pegg stars as Shaun, "a man who decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother, and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living." It's a bit like watching your favorite sitcom characters having their lives interrupted by persistent flesh-eaters. Very British, quite brilliant.

A comedy/horror alternative... for something scary with a wicked satirical edge, check out The Howling (1981), a werewolf movie with fun creature effects (state-of-the-art for its time), a surprisingly good script and a nice performance by Dee Wallace (the mom in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial).

Camp. The filmmakers thought they'd made a serious movie. Audiences, not so much. Examples:

The Swarm (1978). After the phenomenal successes of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Warner Bros. let producer/director Irwin "Master of Disaster" Allen make a movie about African killer bees attacking Texas. The result? Embarrassing special effects, unintentionally hilarious dialogue and abominable performances from an all-star cast boasting literally no fewer than six Oscar winners, including Henry Fonda and Michael Caine. Seriously, it's like no one ever got a second take for any scene. The whole thing transcends awful to become utterly fabulous camp. It's hard to believe this got made fifteen years after Hitchcock's The Birds and three years after Spielberg's Jaws, two films with the genuine cinematic panache to convince you that nature has a mean streak. 

The Sentinel (1977). After the successes of Warner Bros.' The Exorcist and 20th Century Fox's The Omen, the powers-that-be at Universal Pictures decided it was time to make their own shocker with religious overtones. So they chose the story of a neurotic, suicidal fashion model who moves into a Brooklyn apartment building that is literally the gateway to hell, guarded by a blind priest. The star, Cristina Raines, gives one of the worst performances you'll ever see, and that's saying something, given that the rest of the cast is either hammy or arch. After 70 minutes, you get one of the most unpleasant movie climaxes in history, controversial in its day because the director chose to use real people with disfiguring diseases to represent the denizens of hell. Rather than being horrifying, as the director intended, you just kind of feel sorry for them... because they've quite obviously been cast in a really bad horror movie based on their appearance.

A camp/horror alternative... 1972's Blacula, about an 18th century African prince named Mamuwalde who is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula, locked in a coffin for two hundred years, then unwittingly released by two gay interior decorators. This was one of the more successful entries in a film genre that came to be known as blaxploitation. It's too absurd to be offensive.

Cult. These movies may not have connected with mainstream audiences upon initial release, but they've developed a devoted fan base over time.

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987). Although it was marketed as a sequel to 1981's The Evil Dead, it's essentially a reboot of the same story. The original was an effectively gory, darkly humorous low-budget nightmare; this one is hyper-kinetic, surreal and gory good fun. The set-up: a couple's romantic getaway to a remote cabin in the woods is ruined after they play a tape recording left by the previous occupant, an archeology professor. Unfortunately, the tape recording contains an incantation that awakens, you guessed it, a bunch of evil-dead-demon-spirit things. It's directed by Sam Raimi, the guy who would eventually helm the Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire.

Hellraiser (1987). Based on a book by celebrated fantasy/horror author Clive Barker, this is the story of a globe-trotting pervert who buys an antique puzzle box, fools around with it and ends up opening the door to a hellish alternate universe. He's hideously killed, accidentally (and grotesquely) resurrected, then chased by a trio of godawful sado-masochistic demons. I found this movie so unsettling, I've never been able to watch it again. Seriously. I skipped all the sequels, too.

A cult/horror alternative... Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971). Psychologically fragile Jessica has just been released from a mental hospital. Her husband thinks it would be a good idea to relocate her to an isolated Victorian farmhouse in rural Connecticut and start a quiet new life. Weird stuff happens... but how much of it is in Jessica's head? Quirky movie with a terrific idiosyncratic performance from the lead; the supernatural elements will leave you scratching your head.

Chillers. Sometimes all you need is a creepy old dwelling, a foreboding atmosphere and a good story.

The Orphanage (2007). Director Guillermo Del Toro is widely known for films like Hellboy and the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth, but in 2007 he produced The Orphanage, one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. The story: twenty-five years after leaving an orphanage on the Spanish coast, a woman returns there with her family and a plan to turn the dilapidated institution into a home for disabled children. One problem: it's haunted. This is a Spanish-language film with English subtitles, but don't let that discourage you from seeing it. This is the rare horror movie that's beautifully conceived, well-acted, gripping, eerie, frightening and even poignant.

The Changeling (1980). Celebrated, if not particularly successful when it was first released, this is a compelling ghost story that delivers subtle chills. A widowed composer moves into a dreary old mansion that appears to be haunted by the ghost of a child. Bringing considerable gravitas to the situation is legendary actor George C. Scott, who becomes obsessed with finding out what the ghost is trying to tell him.

A chiller/horror alternative... okay, this one doesn't involve a haunted building with a devastating secret, but it does have the next best thing: a creepy, evil kid. Orphan (2009) is a thriller about a couple who decide to adopt after the wife's miscarriage. They get a little girl named Esther, whose angelic persona turns nasty and brutal very quickly. It's wickedly entertaining (for those not easily offended or upset) and it has a genuinely twisted plot twist.

Classics. Let's be honest, many old horror movies just aren't scary anymore -- tastes change, techniques improve and audiences move on. But some films, when put in context and viewed with an open mind, still have the power to frighten you in the moment, leave you with a lingering dread, or even disrupt your sleep for a night or two. Here's a list of ten American films, in no particular order that I'd encourage you to see. They've earned their space on any list of classics.

The Haunting (1963). Incredibly, this is the movie director Robert Wise made between West Side Story and The Sound of Music. A paranormal investigator recruits an eclectic little group to experience the spirit life of an old mansion.  (Skip the terrible 1999 remake.)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). This remake of the excellent 1956 film of the same name is a terrific sci-fi/horror mash-up about aliens duplicating humans in San Francisco.

Night of the Living Dead (1968). The original low-budget, black and white zombie apocalypse movie that started it all. The recently dead are coming back to life and eating everybody; radiation may be involved, though writer/director George Romero is rather indifferent about that. Controversial in its day, it remains gruesome and shocking; even some of the stinging social commentary survives.

Carrie (1976). A very satisfying adaptation of Stephen King's novel about relentlessly taunted high-school outcast Carrie -- who discovers her telekinetic powers just in time for prom night. Director Brian DePalma embraces the lurid material, applies a mesmerizing visual style and takes it right over the top where it belongs. Sissy Spacek (as Carrie) and Piper Laurie (as her demented fundamentalist Christian mom) are splendid in their Oscar-nominated roles. (Be afraid: there's a new version coming in 2013.)

The Omen (1976). To truly appreciate this switched-at-birth movie about a couple that brings home the infant antichrist, you just need to go with the preposterous premise and enjoy what the stellar cast and ingenious filmmakers have to offer. The 2006 remake failed, probably because it was unable to improve on the original's inspired setpieces, unforgettable musical score or sheer verve.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Five kids in a van run out of gas in the wrong part of Texas. The rest is right there in the title. It's grisly and brutal and more of an endurance test than a film. Still, you can't deny the craft involved here or the fact that this is one of the most influential movies ever made.

The Exorcist (1973). If you weren't alive when this first hit theaters, it's nearly impossible to describe the frenzy surrounding this controversial blockbuster. It's the story of a little girl possessed by a demon, or demons. And whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, here's a movie that takes the possibility of it happening very seriously. What makes it so successful, beyond the extraordinary sound design and effects, is that it has the power to make you review/question your own beliefs.

Alien (1979). The idea here is brilliant. Take the most horrific creature imaginable and introduce it as shockingly as possible on board a spaceship with a small crew. Then let the games begin. Sure, it has a sci-fi feel since it takes place centuries in the future and in outer space, but the spaceship is more like a dark, cold and scary old haunted house.

Psycho (1960). The grandfather of all slasher movies still happens to be the best. A restless secretary (Janet Leigh, in one of her very finest performances) embarks on an impromptu road trip, takes the wrong exit and ends up at the Bates Motel, the worst (and most iconic) lodging in America. This is director Alfred Hitchcock at his best, working in black and white and determined to freak you the hell out forever.

Rosemary's Baby (1968). This brilliant adaptation of Ira Levin's novel still feels fresh almost 45 years later, and it just might be my all-time favorite horror film. Mia Farrow is naive, optimistic Rosemary; John Cassavetes is her hungry-for-success actor husband. They move into a Gothic Revival New York City apartment building with eccentric, meddlesome neighbors who appear to be harmless -- at first. Rosemary's desire for a child becomes part of a satanic conspiracy. Simultaneously celebrated and reviled director Roman Polanski draws out terrific performances (especially from Ruth Gordon, in an Oscar-winning role) and creates a vivid, macabre film that expertly mixes paranoia, absurdity and dread.

Puking Pumpkins. They're all the rage. I don't know why.

Tunes. Can a music video be scary? Take a look at "Dead Film Star" from Team Ghost and decide for yourself.

Peace out,

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