27 Oct
2017

My Buddy, Frank

The last Friday of every October is reserved to honor one of and, in my opinion, the greatest of, Great Monsters. You know who The Greats are: Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Mummy, and The Wolfman. But who am I talking about? I'm talking, of course, about Frankenstein. Okay, okay, I KNOW, Frankenstein's monster. For this post, don't hate me, I'm going to call him Frankenstein. It's just easier that way, since Frankenstein's monster is a pain to type every time.

Look at how much emotion is in this still frame alone. Are any of the other great monsters so well-developed? No.

I really liked monster stories when I was little. The Monster at the End of the Book with loveable Grover was my favorite as a tot. Long before I should have been rebelling, I would sneak out after lights out while my parents were watching X-Files and watch from behind the couch, spooking myself with the supernatural. Now going for my MFA in Creative Writing, my very first stab at writing, in elementary school, was a picture book about a haunted house, the monsters who lived there, and how they weren't actually all that bad once you got to know them.

But what really encouraged my monster mania was the 1987 film, The Monster Squad. About a gang of young horror movie fans who learn that their town is being overrun by monsters (and of course the grownups won't believe them), they decide to take the matter into their own hands.

What the trailer doesn't really show, though, is how Frankenstein's role plays out in the film. The children befriend Frank, and, for a kids' movie, does a lot to explore just what it means to be human and what it means to be monster (it even has a subtle reference to the Holocaust, further muddling the line). The "monster" in the film resembles Boris Karloff's Frankenstein a bit more than Mary Shelley's (more on that later), and even plays on the famous scene in the 1931 film with the little girl near the river, but he is very human. The youngest member of the squad (the annoying younger sister, my favorite, since I was essentially this girl in my neighborhood) forces the older boys to see Frank in a new way. He is not scary. He is not evil. He is not a monster. He protects the children, essentially turning his back on the actual monsters that the world has grouped him with based on appearance alone.

This movie is one of the few movies that makes me cry.  Every time. Every. Time. The scene involves Frankenstein. It's sadder than what you're picturing. I'll pretend, though, that everyone lives happily ever after, and that this is the final shot of the movie:

Frankenstein is such a wonderful monster because he is so very human. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein set the bar for this way back in 1818. Shelley's monster is much more human-looking than Boris Karloff's. Tall, yes, misshapen and scarred, yes, but human. And, unlike some re-imaginings, he is intelligent. He is aware that his creator's disgust for him is wrong. That he shouldn't be judged by his appearance alone. I wrote a paper once about society's propensity toward 'othering' those whose appearances don't fit within societal norm. Shelley's Frankenstein was inextricable from my argument. Shelley makes the reader aware of just how deeply the so-called creature (as in, not human) feels, and how it's society that turns him into the actual monster he becomes. The novel has some of the most haunting lines I've ever read in literature.

He is so utterly alone he even envies the devil himself:

'Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.' Chapter 15.

I mean, come on. How can you not sympathize with this guy? Interestingly enough, one of the most-oft quoted lines on the internet is not, in fact, from the book, but from the 1994 Kenneth Branagh film, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:

But, man, is it a fine piece of writing (notice satisfy versus indulge). And that's the thing with Frankenstein, I've yet to see a reincarnation that lacks heart (ok, or at least is really fun to watch). So, if you are like me, and love all things Frankenstein, here are a few more ways to get your fix.

Books:

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley. The beloved classic. (Book Riot did a really awesome post       of the best covers printed, if you're interested in such nerdy things. It's here.)

The Frankenstein Series, Dean Koontz. A modern re-working of the tale focusing on a mysterious tattooed man who    teams with detectives to solve crimes.

Television:

Penny Dreadful, Showtime. This three-season show features both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation as main                   characters. It is gory, graphic, and incredibly engaging. My mom and I watched this show together. If you're                  familiar with the show, you'll probably know why it should have been more awkward than it actually was.

Films:

All of the Frankenstein adaptations: Boris Karloff's 1931 film, plus 1935's Bride of Frankenstein and '39's Son of              Frankenstein. More recently we've seen the Kenneth Branagh film and 2014's I, Frankenstein.

Young Frankenstein. The classic laugh-your-patootie-off comedic reinterpretation from Mel Brooks.

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. An even older comedic movie, part of a series in which the bumbling duo run    into monsters.

The Monster Squad. Not about Frankenstein's monster, per se, but super seriously worth a watch, anyway. Seriously.

23 Oct
2017

Hats for Sale!

 

9 Oct
2017

IT (2017)

SPOILERS!

I walked into work around 8:45 a.m.  I said out loud, to nobody in particular, "Hey! I saw the new IT!"  My coworkers gave me a strange look.  Adam, my manager, said, "Okay...how was it?"

"It was...good!"  There's a long pause after this.  My coworkers know me well enough to know that I'm not going to leave it at that.  Adam asks, "Is there any reason it wasn't great?"  And, in fact, there is a reason.  But the reason has less to do with the movie and more to do with the genre it occupies.

Let me get the short, fair review out of the way right now.  The 2017 movie is really good.  Bill Skarsgård delivers a much better rendition of Pennywise than Tim Curry.  The kids are hilarious and have great chemistry. The movie itself does a great job creating an incredibly tense and creepy atmosphere, and delivers plenty of jump-in-your-seat scares and gross-out scenes.  My experience was more than satisfactory.  There were a couple of moments where I was legitimately scared.  The scene with the film projector, in particular, had me grabbing my head with my mouth agape, letting out small whimpers.  Short answer: Go see this movie; you will not be disappointed.

I should probably get this out of the way, as well.  I'm not going to talk about the book.  The book is better than the swing-and-a-miss 1990 miniseries AND the new movie.  The general rule of film adaptations of iconic books still applies here.  If you are sitting in line at the DMV, or have a lengthy prison sentence coming up, I would recommend reading it (assuming the guards don't confiscate it.  The 1,000+ page novel is definitely big enough to be considered a weapon, even the soft cover).

This was the version my brother owned. I used to stare at it and wonder what it was about. Memories...

So I'm just going to compare the miniseries and the movie.  And, really, the deck is stacked against the miniseries.  IT (the monster) is a shape-shifting reality-bender who manifests itself as your greatest fears.  IT is a great antagonist.  But in 1990, the technology simply wasn't available to make IT look believable yet.  The miniseries relied heavily on practical effects, which is fine, but if you are going to have a character that can transform into your greatest fears, leaning heavily on digital effects isn't the worst idea.  The 2017 movie had decades of technological breakthroughs on its side, and used them to great effect.

The following clip puts scenes from each of the video versions side by side:

The creators of the movie also had the miniseries itself on their side.  A filmed adaptation of the novel acted as a guide for what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. The miniseries had the daunting task of turning a huge novel into a two-part television series without any visual aids other than storyboards and illustrations.

That's another thing to keep in mind.  2017's IT was given an R-rating and a theatrical release.  The miniseries was broadcast on ABC.  Looking at those facts alone as a consumer, which one would you like to see?

If there is one good thing to say about the miniseries, it's Tim Curry's performance.  A perfect blend of funny and disturbing, Tim Curry's rendition of Pennywise was almost universally praised by critics.  This can't be overstated. Any time he is on screen, it's hard to look away.  Director Tommy Lee Wallace said his job, basically, "was to give Tim the stage and not get in his way too much. He was like Robin Williams in the way he brought a spontaneous improvisation to the part."

So how does Bill Skarsgård's performance square up with the original?  Quite well, actually.  For one, he doesn't try to rip off Curry.  He interprets Pennywise in a much darker way. He's more menacing and less funny.  He's still goofy, but instead of relying on shtick and vaudeville comedy, he's more predatory.  And to be honest, I think it makes way more sense, considering that IT isn't a clown, but a timeless entity that poses as a clown in order to lure in its prey of choice, children.  Skarsgård's Pennywise just makes more sense, in general, even if he's a less-entertaining character than Curry.

The miniseries had one advantage, however, and I'd like to talk about it.  The miniseries didn't really feel like a horror movie.  The content was horrific, no doubt, but it caught you off guard.  The movie, on the other hand, felt like a standard horror film.  Even if you had no expectations walking into the theater, you knew within the first five minutes that frightening stuff was going to happen.  Everything indicates this.  The music, the lighting, the camera direction.  It all follows the conventions of modern-day horror movies.  The miniseries seemed more like an after-school special that was infected by some nefarious entity.  It may have been corny, but it had the element of surprise on its side.

I knew going in to the movie that it wasn't going to be a game changer.  It's a horror flick, and it has to answer to the people who funded it.  This means it's not going to be experimental.  It has to follow the conventions laid down by previous successful horror films so that it can make money.  If not, we may not get to see the sequel that the film sets up at the end.  Oh well, guess I'll keep waiting for the next Shining.

But even though it's pretty much a standard horror film, it does an exceptional job.  The horror content is visceral and plentiful.  Solid acting, good story, good pacing, really good camera direction.  Well worth the money.  I'll probably see it again.

 

6 Oct
2017

Gather Ye Round and I’ll Tell You a Tale

This weekend, October 6-8, is the annual National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. According to the International Storytelling Center, where the festival is held, studies in more than a dozen fields have concluded that storytelling is integral to effective human communication.

"People crave, remember, and honor stories," they say.

Sharing our stories creates empathy for one another. Sharing stories makes us feel connected.

One of my favorite activities is sitting around a bonfire in crisp autumn air, sharing stories, be they stories of the day, tall tales and folk tales, long-winded jokes, or stories of horror and mayhem. I can't remember each story I've told or listened to, nor, often, who I was even with, but I remember the feeling of leaning back in a lawn chair or on a stump or on the desert floor and listening to the cadence of others tell their stories.

In honor of storytelling day, I've asked my co-workers to help me put together a story. Each line was written based solely on the previous sentence, except the last paragraph, which is my own wonderful storytelling. So buckle in, this is the story of Kards Unlimited, in an alternate universe, at least.

Once upon a time,

in a magical realm called Pittsburgh, lay the wondrous kingdom of Kards Unlimited.

The kingdom was ruled by a kind and generous queen, but it held a dark secret. The queen was not the rightful heir; the circumstances of her inheritance are dubious at best.

People claiming to be the rightful heir kept popping up like flowers in the spring, which made for unsettled times in the kingdom: things were reaching a boiling point.

It didn't help that a mysterious rash was making its way over the hearts of the children, manifesting in the shape of a many-ringed planet.

"It's a good thing I hate children," grumbled Bernice, as she slurped down a poached egg. In her mind were thoughts of a cookbook featuring recipes of little children.

Finding them would be easy, but getting them to produce high quality food would be another story.

The next town over had, somehow, convinced the cows to skip milk entirely and produce cheese fresh from the udder, but no one considered it 'high quality.' The town had to act fast, and slaughtered all the cows before PETA could find any evidence of genetic animal testing.

This left the townspeople with a different problem entirely--how to explain the absence of so many cows?

It turns out the cows got sick of being treated like second-class citizens and went on livestock strike.

Which was super weird 'cause all the cows were dead, but zombie cows are cool, too. Anyway, going on strike for zombie cows is actually going on a murderous rampage, so they killed all the townspeople, the fake heir to the throne, and also the REAL heir to the throne, who was actually Bernice the child-eater.

They did not live happily ever after. The end.

What's your Kards Unlimited story? Let us know in the comments!

1 Oct
2017

October Events!

 

What up, y'all? Now, you may think that Halloween is the only thing to get excited about this month, but that's where you'd be wrong! October is absolutely chock full of fun, exciting events and I'm about to tell you what they are!

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24 Sep
2017

Happy Birthday, Jim Henson

A totally not creepy painting of Jim with his two greatest creations, Ernesto and Kermesto

The guy who voiced Kermit the Frog was fired in October of 2016.  Steve Whitmire had taken over voicing the famous frog after Jim Henson died unexpectedly in 1990.  Many who worked with Whitmire on Muppets-related projects said this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and that the voice actor and puppeteer was difficult to work with.  The drama unfolding behind the scenes doesn't actually have anything to do with the public at large, but take a look at this. 5:05.  That's when Jim Henson's version of Kermit the Frog ended and Steve Whitmire's began.  And it's...odd:

Sure, the Muppets are much too great a franchise to let go of, and Kermit is not a character that belongs to Henson exclusively.  He's a public figure, and he belongs to his fans just as much as he belongs to his creator.  But there is something off about Whitmire's performance.  It's hard to put into words, but I'm not alone.

To be clear, Whitmire's version of Kermit wasn't terrible.  But it wasn't great either.  He did the best job that he could, but it's not unusual to wonder what the Muppets and other Henson productions could have been if Jim had lived longer.

Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi.  He spent his early years in Leland, MS, before moving with his family to University Park, MD, when he was about 12.  When he was in high school, he was creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show called The Junior Morning Show.  He took a puppetry class in college while attending University of Maryland, College Park, where he graduated with a BS in home economics in 1960.  While a freshman, he created the show Sam and Friends.  The puppets in the show were forerunners of the Muppets, and included a prototype of Kermit the Frog.  (Familiar territory)

Very familiar.

Henson also came up with techniques to allow for greater control and expression over his puppets. He made his puppets out of foam rubber instead of wood.  He used rods to control their arms.  He used an awareness of a camera's frame to allow performers to manipulate their puppets off-camera. In other words, Henson transformed the art of puppeteering.  He was an innovator.  Henson not only created the Muppets, but actually coined the term "muppet," a portmanteau of "marionette" and "puppet."

Jim Henson's accomplishments are too many to list, but here goes!  He and his wife at the time, Jane, created the Muppets and Sesame Street.  He helped work on the Star Wars franchise, masterminding the design and look of Jedi master Yoda (the Henson group subsequently helped create and puppeteer Jabba the Hutt and other incidental alien characters).  He co-directed and co-wrote the excellent fantasy films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, along with Frank Oz.  In fact, if you see a large budget movie that features puppets, chances are better than not that either Jim Henson or the Jim Henson Muppet Group had something to do with it.  This, along with countless Muppets and Sesame Street movies, television specials, and many other projects, has made Jim Henson a gargantuan cultural influence. Oddly enough, most people don't know what he looks like.

This is Jim Henson!

My first blog post for Kards Unlimited was for Kermit the Frog, which is interesting because in a way I was actually writing about Jim Henson.  The creation and rise of Kermit and the Muppets goes hand in hand with Jim Henson's success in the entertainment industry.  They don't just share an arc, they are pretty much the same entity.  Jim Henson has said that Kermit is just an extension of himself, one that could say the things he was too shy to say.

On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died of pneumonia.  Many people blame his Christian Science upbringing for not going to the hospital, but according to my source (Wikipedia), he simply didn't want to bother anybody.

Oh, sure.  Of course.  I mean you're only Jim Henson, why would it be important for you to stay alive?  Ugh!  Oh well!  Hope Valhalla's nice!

Oh, and happy birthday, Jim!