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General Kong

I’m looking forward to the Art of the Apes show at Creature Features,the Planet of the Apes-themed art exhibition opening this Saturday (see “Appearances” on this website). I saw some very cool stuff when I dropped off my piece (see above for the black and white version; I’ll run the color version later this week). I’m looking forward to the new Planet of the Apes movie, too. That last one was killer.

I hope to see you there!

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The very best horror comedies all have one thing in common: besides being funny, they’re also very scary. They play the scares for real, making the comedy even funnier. Here is a baker’s dozen of my favorites, some well-known, some obscure and all terrific.

1) The Ghost Breakers (1940)
Bob Hope and the ravishing Paulette Goddard star in this knockout comedy, part of which takes place in voodoo-drenched Cuba. Their great supporting cast includes: Richard (It Came From Outer Space) Carlson, the hilarious Willie Best, Noble Johnson (the Skull Island chief in King Kong, here playing a scary zombie) and Anthony (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) Quinn.

2) Murder, He Says (1945)
Finally out on DVD, this screwball classic stars Fred (The Absent-Minded Professor) MacMurray as a pollster trying to find a missing colleague. His search takes him to the hillbilly domain of the criminal Fleagle family (it’s where the Frank Frazetta/Al Williamson/Roy Krenkel/Nick Meglin/Angelo Torres “Fleagle Gang” got their name), headed by matriarch Marjorie Main, who rules her wacky clan with a bullwhip. There’s hidden money, idiot twins (Mert and Bert), a glowing dog, a hay compactor and an inside wink-wink reference to The Ghost Breakers. The mysterious song that Elany Fleagle sings throughout the movie later became the musical theme for NPR. Non-stop wackiness!

3) Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
This classic Abbott and Costello hit never lets the humor get in the way of the genuine scares. Their best movie by far, it features Universal’s Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and even the Invisible Man (Vincent Price), who all play their horror roles straight. A fantastic comedy.

4) The Tenant (1976)
It might surprise a lot of you to find The Tenant on this list. The first time I saw this Roman Polanski film I was totally creeped-out and horrified. The second time I saw it, I laughed my ass off. This has to be just about the blackest comedy ever made. It stars Polanski, the exquisite Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas and Shelley Winters in a tale about Trelkovsky, a meek little guy (Polanski) in Paris who rents an apartment with an eerie history in a very strange and disturbing apartment building. Trelkovsky’s growing obsession with what went on in his apartment takes him into some extremely dark psychological places. I consider this Polanski’s best film.

5) An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director John Landis knows scary (Twilight Zone The Movie) and knows funny (Animal House) and combines both in this groundbreaking werewolf movie. The opening trek across the moors with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne is as well-crafted and funny/scary as Landis’ Twilight Zone opening with Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd. Rick Baker’s make-ups pushed his medium into exciting new places (his stunning new transformation effects were “borrowed” by Rob Bottin for The Howling, which beat American Werewolf to the screen). Not real fond of the ending, though — the film just kinda stops without a satisfying resolution. John told me that life is like that — often sloppy, abrupt and imperfect. I know it is; that’s why we make movies that aren’t.

6) Ghostbusters (1984)
Everybody’s seen this one. This huge Ivan Reitman-directed hit, written by its stars Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and (an uncredited) Rick Moranis, brought horror comedy to a new level with its big budget effects. The movie also stars, of course, Bill Murray and a very hot Sigourney Weaver. My pal Bernie (Swamp Thing) Wrightson designed many of the scary ghosts and creatures, launching his career as a well-respected creature designer.

7) The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Talk about combining horror and comedy, this one really delivers on both. Directed and written by the brilliant Dan (Alien) O’Bannon, this low budget little picture has become a huge cult classic, more popular today than when it first was released. The 1982 Godzilla that never got made and Return made me the youngest production designer in film history. I was pretty green but Dan and I had a strong vision. I also worked extremely hard and had lots of help. Our little movie really holds up and, amazingly, I’m still very close to my friends in the talented cast — something that has never happened on any of my other films.

Did I mention it’s got the Tarman?

PS: I’m the wino on the sidewalk that the punks walk past near the beginning of the film.

8) Vampire’s Kiss (1989)
I love Nicolas Cage. He’s at his over-the-top looniest (and that’s saying a lot) in this movie about a publishing executive who thinks he’s turning into a vampire. The delectable Jennifer Beals co-stars.

9) The Frighteners (1996)
This Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson-directed film showcases the amazing talents of Michael J. Fox as a man who can communicate with the dead. He gets great support from Dee (The Howling) Wallace, John (The Addams Family) Astin and a very creepy Jake Busey. The Weta effects are unusual and top-notch. Had it been released when Jackson and producer Robert Zemeckis wanted (Halloween), it would have been a huge hit. The studio insisted on a summer release, which pretty much tanked it.

10) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
This great funny zombie movie stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and is the first film in their “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy”. The other two are Hot Fuzz and The World’s End — both terrific as well. I love how Simon Pegg’s character is initially oblivious to the zombies all around him and that something is very, very wrong in the beginning of the film.

11) Black Sheep (2006)
You might not have seen this one about genetic engineering turning sheep into blood thirsty killers in New Zealand. As fun and wacky as it sounds! With scary sheep!

12) The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Just when you think your watching just another teen slasher flick… WHAM! The film takes a surprise 180 and then never lets up. A great cast, especially Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford — and cool creatures galore. Written by Joss (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) Whedon and Drew Goddard, Joss’ big budget super hero flick The Avengers was released at the same time. I think The Cabin in the Woods is the better of the two; it’s certainly more original.

13) Grabbers (2012)
This wonderful little Irish horror film is about bloodthirsty aliens arriving on an island off the coast of Ireland. The aliens have an aversion to feeding on anyone with alcohol in their system. Did I mention they landed in Ireland? Let the merriment (and drinking) begin! Cool creatures, by the way.

Arguments? Agreements? What films do you think should have been on the list that weren’t?

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ONE DOZEN Intertesting THRILLERS You May Have Missed

1) West of Zanzibar (1928)
This silent pre-code Lon Chaney film’s revenge plot is lurid in the extreme. I won’t spoil it for you with details but the tale involves a junkie doctor, a white girl turned prostitute in the steamy tropics and a white man fooling the local natives into believing he is a demi-god. Yikes!

This movie was remade with Walter Huston and Lupe Velez as the 1932 talkie Kongo. I prefer the Chaney version.

2) The Walking Dead (1936)
Fresh off of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff starred in this interesting yet underrated Universal Studios revenge tale, still looking very much like the Frankenstein monster courtesy of Jack Pierce’s make-up and haircut. A good Universal semi-horror film you may have missed — and a chance to spend some more time with an old friend.

3) Gaslight (1944)
This film became so popular that “gaslighting” someone became a verb. This tale of perceived madness stars a breathtakingly beautiful Ingrid Bergman, plus Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and a saucy Angela Lansbury.

4) The Spiral Staircase (1945)
Mute servant Dorothy McGuire discovers there is a murderer in the large, spooky house in which she works. She thinks she knows who it is  — but can’t tell anyone! This fine thriller also features Ethel Barrymore and Elsa (Bride of Frankenstein) Lanchester. Better, I think, than the blind girl variation on this theme, Wait Until Dark.

5) Nightmare Alley (1947)
Tyrone Power’s own personal favorite among his many roles, this lurid movie spends half its time in a seedy carnival that features a “geek” (the original meaning of the term: an alky who dresses up like a wild man and bites the heads off of live chickens in exchange for a bottle of cheap hooch) and the other half in slick nightclubs with a mentalist act that ends up crossing a very important line. Joan Blondell and Colleen Gray are terrific, as is Power. Another of Dave Stevens‘ favorite films.

6) Pretty Poison (1968)
This little sleeper garnered much critical acclaim upon its release. It stars the always interesting Anthony (Psycho) Perkins, with a superb Tuesday Weld as a sexy high-schooler. Is Perkins the creepy psycho everyone thinks he is?

7) Silent Partner (1978)
This Canadian film’s screenplay won the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar, and deservedly so. Elliott Gould is a bank teller who gets involved in a bank robbery executed by psychopath as portrayed by the brilliant Christopher Plummer. Despite his dire situation, Gould’s character never falls to playing the victim; he is constantly one-upping the murderous Plummer. The always-sexy Susannah York is the main female lead. My favorite on this list. Warning: this film has scenes of intense graphic violence.

8) Night of the Juggler (1980)
Shortly after this obscure little gem begins, this James Brolin thriller launches into one of the most suspenseful chases ever caught on film. Mandy Patinkin has a great cameo as a Puerto Rican cab driver. Not the nicest portrait of New York City.

9) The People Under the Stairs (1991)
This little Wes Craven thriller really touched me personally, as it tapped into recurring dream/nightmare images I had as a kid. I only met Wes once and we never talked about my dreams’ subject matter, so he came up with all that stuff coincidentally on his own. For those reasons, this movie simultaneously fascinates me and creeps me out.

10) Collateral (2004)
For my money, the best film Michael Mann ever directed with the best performance ever by Tom Cruise. Tom’s a hit man who forces cab driver Jamie Foxx to take him to each of Tom’s hits. This film sustains a great mood and it revealed to me and my fellow Angelenos that we actually have a subway system (Who knew?). My favorite scene is the Miles Davis one.

11) Tell No One (2006)
Here’s the set-up to this twisty-turny you-can’t guess-what’s-going-to-happen-next French thriller:
A doctor and his wife, crazy in love with each other, are vacationing at their cabin in the woods. While skinny-dipping in the lake, the wife realizes she has forgotten something and swims to shore. Her husband hears her bloodcurdling scream. He swims to shore as fast as he can, where he finds the battered bloody body of his wife. WHAM! He’s hit in the head and goes unconscious.

It’s years later. The horrible crime never solved, the doctor’s still very much feeling his loss. He checks his morning e-mails. There’s an odd one. He clicks on it and up comes a live video feed from a Paris metro exit. While wondering who in the heck sent this to him, when out of the streaming crowd walks his wife. She looks directly into the camera and says “Tell no one”, then disappears back into the crowd.

12) Point Blank (2010)
Not to be confused with the John Boorman/Lee Marvin Point Blank, this French thriller is like Alfred Hitchcock on steroids. The tales uses the classic Hitchcock “wrong man” theme. The more our innocent guy tries to extricate himself out of his terrible situation, the deeper into it he sinks. Yes, there are subtitles, but this highly visual film moves so damn fast it seems like there’s only about ten minutes of dialogue. The lead actor in this film is played by the same actor who is the street criminal who aids the doctor in Tell No One.

13) The Prey (La Proie) (2011)
This one’s a cheat: I haven’t seen the entire film yet — but what I’ve seen so far is incredibly compelling. And the fact that reviewers have found this film even better than Tell No One and Point Blank, made me want to include this one on my list.

I have the Blu-ray ordered. I haven’t been able to watch the whole film yet because when I try to stream this via Netflix, I only get to watch about a minute at a time; then, the movie goes into reload mode. Frustrating! And not the way to watch a taut thriller.

Here’s part of the film’s IMDB summary. I didn’t include the entire summary because there are some spoilers in it:

Bankrobber Franck Adrien serves a prison sentence after successfully robbing a national bank, but before he gets caught he manages to hide the money. His cellmate is a suspected rapist/child molester who claims complete innocence in regards to the crimes of which he has been accused. Someone gets a hold of Franck’s loot; Franck must bust out of prison if he has any hope in retrieving his dough.

If you’ve got favorite obscure thrillers of your own, I’d love to hear about them!

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Carnegie Art Museum Opening This Afternoon!

Empathy for Beauty in the 21st Century opens today at 4:00 PM at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 South C Street in Oxnard, California 93030.

The show features work by the Signature Members, the cream of the California Art Club, the best work of thirty artists. Today’s opening lasts until 6:00 PM. The exhibition runs until August 17, 2014.

One of my all-time favorite paintings, “Destiny in the Depths” (above) is featured in the exhibition.

I hope to see you there!

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I just got back from WonderFest in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s my favorite American convention. It’s large, but not too large. It’s very family friendly and the attendees as well as the folks who put on the show are all really nice folks. I go every year; in return, I create their T-shirt image each year. See above for the image to this year’s show.

For me, going to WonderFest is like returning home to visit family. I have so many friends there. My pal Donnie Waddell is especially fun to hang with, as is my buddy and Beatles expert Belmo, who drives down from Ohio for the show (and to have Famous Dave’s BBQ with me, a many year tradition for us.

I have the best conversations ever with Video Watchdog‘s Tim Lucas. WonderFest hosts the Rondo Awards each year, as well. This year’s Rondos were tough to get through but I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. So many of the recipients this year had either died or had strokes, a sign of all our advancing ages. I think our human fragility goes to make the Rondos even more important with each passing year.

A huge element of WonderFest is model kit building. The competition in the show’s model contest is fierce; people spend all year building, painting and customizing their models. The results are often spectacular.

They do a very smart thing at WonderFest. At the Edgar Rice Burroughs fan gatherings, I’m often “The Kid” — the youngest person in the room, which is scary. I don’t see a new generation of ERB fans coming up through the ranks.

WonderFest addresses that potential problem thus: Every kid who walks through the door gets a free model kit and is invited into a free workshop to help show them how to build their models (tools included) and another free workshop in which they are given tips on how to best paint their models (again, tools and paints included). WonderFest is building in the next generation of Monster Kids and model kit hobby enthusiasts.

I was sorry I couldn’t spend more than three days there (heavy work schedule). I flew home last night. Amusingly, Pauley Shore sat next to me on the the flight leg from Las Vegas. He was very enthusiastic about the new Eagles documentary. I shared some of my own Eagles stories with him ( I saw them way back when in a modest-sized studio, when they were the backing band for Linda Ronstadt and for Jackson Browne; years later I had a small private dinner with Don Henley).

This was WonderFest’s biggest turnout ever, and their 25th anniversary. I’m already looking forward to #26!