A Crude and Rude Unlicensed Zap Gun Abomination for the NES: CHILLER

CHILLER for the Nintendo Entertainment System

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(0/5) bogus

Pros: Blood & Guts on the NES! A few clever moments.

Cons: Pointless and absurdly short; terrible response from zapper input; graphics and music are abysmal

One of the coolest yet most underutilized accessories for the Nintendo NES was the zap gun. Included with early versions of the console (in conjunction with the iconic Duck Hunt game), this device was shaped similarly to a futuristic pistol and allowed a player to “shoot” targets on the screen. As great as this prospect sounds, there were less than two dozen games that were compatible with the zapper by the time the NES has run its course, making the device seem (in much the same manner as the R.O.B.) more like a gimmick than an honest part of the NES gaming experience. Most of the light gun titles operated in essentially the same way: shoot all the stuff that pops up onscreen before time and/or life runs out. Despite the fact that it’s kind of hard to screw up this established formula, one title stands on its own as not only the worst zap gun game, but perhaps one of the most terrible NES games of any type: 1990’s Chiller.

be your own dirty harry
Nothing more satisfying that blasting ducks with the Zapper…er something like that.

Based on the controversial and potentially objectionable arcade cabinet of the same name, a game which promised – and delivered – some graphic violence and even brief nudity (note: the nudity was cut from the NES version), Chiller comes out of the horror movie universe and takes the premise of the player being a sort of ghost buster, blasting various ghosts and ghouls. Or at least that’s what the manual claims – in reality, one goes through the game not only shooting obvious monsters, but also people who have been strung up in various medieval torture devices. In case it wasn’t obvious given Nintendo’s history of censoring any title that didn’t fall in line with their strict policies with regard to content, Chiller was one of those unlicensed titles released without the Nintendo Seal of Approval, housed not in the traditional solid gray cartridge, but in a slightly misshapen one that’s a sickly-looking shade of light blue. Releasing this game without Nintendo’s approval did allow the developer (American Game Cartridges, who also released the similarly controversial Death Race, a crude predecessor to Carmageddon) to include as much outrageous content in the game as they wanted, but it also meant that the title as a whole plays like it was developed in about fifteen minutes in someone’s basement.

WTF
WTF?

Chiller includes all of four static screens during the entire course of its gameplay, starting off in a graveyard before moving into a haunted hallway and finally into two separate screens which are set in a dungeon. Each screen offers the player the chance to shoot various sprites that either pop up or roam across the screen before a time limit runs out – the graveyard, for instance, has a nun pushing a baby carriage, a hand tossing human skulls into a squirming pit of doom, and even a cheerleader who can be shot to pieces. On each screen, certain objects can be interacted with by targeting specific areas of the screen with the gun, leading to a few genuinely clever moments. In the hallway, a hole can be blasted into the floor so that a woman fleeing from a giant, ghostly face falls to her doom into it and a severed hand can be shot so that it falls to the ground only to be picked up and carried away by a dog. The torture chambers offer even more gruesome interactions: a man suspended above a river of blood can be fed to a crocodile swimming below by shooting the pulley that’s holding him up, while various people can be either blasted apart or tortured to death based on where the player aims the zapper. There’s nothing quite like reaching the final screen, only to be able to not only reduce two chained humans to piles of blood and viscera but also ensure that one unfortunate man’s skull is crushed in a vice.

double wtf
Double WTF???!?

Sound like fun? Well it is…to a certain extent. Unfortunately, a minimal amount of imagination or actual craft has gone into this title. Graphically speaking, Chiller is not only incredibly simplistic but also positively horrendous, appearing to have been one of the first titles made for the NES, not a title that was developed during the system’s heyday. It’s almost laughable to compare this to most anything else that was produced in 1990: games like the positively vibrant Ducktales, Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers, or frankly most any of the hundreds of other NES titles look even more stunning when placed alongside the drab, dull, and utterly lifeless Chiller. The game’s sound scheme (which consists of a single, heinously repetitive music track and a variety of crummy blip bloop sound effects) doesn’t improve the gaming experience at all and actually makes it all the more completely infuriating. Once the player reaches the end of the fourth screen, the game simply repeats an infinite number of times until the player no longer hits enough targets to continue, or he collects every one of a series off “talismans” that appear throughout the game. There’s no honest reward for collecting all the talismans since all one gets is a congratulatory screen of text. Woo! I sincerely doubt any player would honestly want to continue playing this game after a few minutes: there simply is no point.  Did I mention this game is two player?

look it those graphics!
Lookit those graphics!

Speaking from a technical standpoint, the game doesn’t impress either: each time the zap gun is fired, it initiates a black screen in which all potential targets momentarily show up (in a nut shell, this is how the gun detects where the player is targeting and is essential to the gun’s function). On most games which utilize the zapper, this screen appears for such a brief period of time that it’s all but imperceptible to the human eye. The corresponding screens in Chiller, on the other hand, definitely are visible, and since a player can see where all potential targets onscreen are, any sense of honest challenge in the game (at least relating to finding targets) is eliminated.

that makes me wanna play...
Well that certainly makes me wanna play the game….

Knowing that the zapper is incompatible with hi-def televisions, I broke out an old tube TV to test how well the zapper works on this game and was generally unimpressed with the game’s responsiveness. Honestly, this same problem exists on most zap gun games to some extent, but Chiller sets a new standard in how poorly a game responds to zapper input. I should point out that one can play this title using only the controller, but as is typically the case, the game becomes infinitely more difficult and nearly impossible at that point since a target reticule has to be manually (read: slowly) maneuvered around the screen. By the time a player using the controller has been lucky enough to hit a few targets, the time limit will almost certainly have been reached.

hallway
Every screen in the game is seen in this review. As Porky Pig would say…THAT’S ALL FOLKS!

I recall many times looking over the display box for Chiller at the local game rental shop and can now safely say that I am most glad that I did not choose to rent it at any point. (Considering that the cover art proudly proclaims that “Dead People Are Cool,” I’m unsure how I could possibly have resisted this temptation…) It boggles the mind that a game not only this short and unsubstantial but also this undeniably shoddy would even be sold at any point, and I can only imagine how disappointed I would have been had I wasted my hard-earned allowance on a complete P.o.S. like this. While some unlicensed NES titles were equally as good and maybe even better than their licensed counterparts, a truly reprehensible game like Chiller throws a bad light on these frequently quirky, very obscure titles as a whole (I can safely say that the infamous Bible Adventures – you know the game where you could throw Baby Moses into the drink – looks flawless in comparison). In the end, I would urge any vintage gamer – even those who, like myself, are fascinated with the unloved and neglected titles out there – to avoid Chiller at all costs; surely, there are much better ways to kill time than this.

guillotine

Most Bizarre Movie Ever? Maybe, But It’s Also Pure Genius: 1977’s HOUSE

HOUSE (a.k.a. HAUSU)

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(5/5) RAD

Pros: Cheerfully deranged and gloriously imaginative = shows the limitless potential of cinema.  DVD package is outstanding.

Cons: To say that some people wouldn’t like this movie is putting it nicely

Starting off with a fairly typical haunted house-type story, director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (released by the Japanese Toho Studio in 1977) from there ventures out into no man’s land, becoming one of the most wacky films ever produced in the process. Awash with unadulterated creativity, the film makes nary one lick of sense from a typical standpoint, but exists as a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that demonstrates the limitless possibilities of the cinematic medium. Undoubtedly, this movie would not be to all tastes: though a box-office hit upon release in Japan (despite the fact that it is thoroughly un-Japanese), it’s been dismissed by numerous critics over the years and has (admittedly, unsurprisingly) been declared by some to be completely unwatchable . For the select few who would “get” this movie in the first place though, House is a film that makes any and all others look hopelessly dull and a bit pathetic in comparison, a piece that would provide a jolt to the brain of audiences made apathetic by typical Hollywood drivel.

body

The film begins by introducing the viewer to seven Japanese teenagers who are planning their summer vacation. Each of the girls is identified by their defining characteristic: the smart one is called “Prof,” the chubby girl is “Mac” (short for stomach), the tough girl is known as “Kung Fu,” and so on. The main character here is called “Gorgeous,” who is having problems coming to terms with the fact that her widower father is planning to be remarried. When the girls’ collective vacation plans fall through, Gorgeous invites the gang to join her at a remote mansion owned by her enigmatic aunt. Once the group arrives however, they discover that the aunt’s house itself appears to have an appetite for young girls, and the teens begin to disappear one by one. As the survivors try to figure out a way to escape the estate, Gorgeous begins to discover how similar she and her aunt truly are…

house

Is that actually the story for this film? In a nutshell, yes, but the House experience is about much more than just the basic storyline which is has to be said is made all but irrelevant by about the five minute mark. In the hands of Obayashi, a director who was known primarily for work in television commercials prior to this feature, House becomes a gleefully gruesome, energetic thrill ride of innovative and playful cinematic technique that resembles what the results might have been had renegade Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki (known for his eccentric crime thrillers) made a horror flick. The script written by Chiho Katsura is little more than a framework which allows Obayashi to let his creative sense run wild and the director winds up unleashing some of the most mind-boggling visuals and sequences ever put to celluloid. The screen is frequently drenched in vivid color or overrun with crude (i.e. purposely imperfect and obviously artificial) but clever special effects, and the pace of the film is simply relentless. Virtually any camera and cinematic technique imaginable is showcased here: we have a truckload of iris effects, split screen sequences, marvelous painted backgrounds combined with live-action foregrounds, chroma key effects, stop-motion, straight-up animation and more. The optical printer certainly gets a workout during the course of this movie, and it leaves one with the notion that Obayashi can’t make it more than a minute without astounding the viewer with some cinematic magic. As wonderful as it is to marvel at all the eye candy though, it’s equally as tempting to focus on the small details, fascinating settings, and constantly evolving backgrounds. There really is a ridiculous amount of amazing things to behold when watching this film.

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As may be suggested by that description, it would be easy to point out that this film is entirely incoherent. I’d have to suggest however that viewers who would dismiss House on those grounds are completely missing the point of the film. It’s all but impossible to take this cheerfully demented film seriously on any sort of level, and declaring the wholly dream-like and surrealist piece to be “illogical” is not only stating the obvious but actually a ridiculous statement to make. House is quite clearly told from a young person’s perspective; the result of an imagination running wild and creating scenarios that wouldn’t make any sense to an adult who knows better than to be caught up in fits of fancy. I could easily make a case for this film being a fantasy derived from and taking place in the mind of a young teenager struggling to deal with “real world” or “big people” problems. Gorgeous seems not at all able to truly deal with her mother being “replaced” by the apparently random lover her father has introduced into her life, and many of her seemingly absurd actions in the film appear to the be the result of her unwillingness or inability to come to terms with her situation.

piano

In many ways, I think House was designed for viewing by younger audiences: the film exists as a pop culture nightmare of the type that kids (having been exposed to an endless string of advertisements) would (for better or worse) be accustomed to. Playing as a sort of live-action horror cartoon, House’s editing scheme is extremely manic to the point of resembling the music videos that would turn up a few years after this film’s production, and there’s a noticeable tendency to focus on idiosyncratic detail that most films would gloss over (again, this seems to fall in line with the film being told from a child’s perspective; hell, it might just be the best screen representation of what ADHD feels and looks like). Undoubtedly, the main problem for western audiences is that, in terms of what the majority of American viewers would classify as being acceptable viewing for children, House is way too sexual, violent, and downright subversive. Perhaps it goes without saying that this film defies classification or categorization, but since the film’s ideal target audience would probably have no way of seeing it, it’s not all that surprising that the film has often been misunderstood and marginalized. In the eyes of viewers accustomed to gritty ‘70s cinema like The French Connection, The Exorcist, or even Jaws, House is a true anomaly, a film that was decades ahead of its time when produced and may as well have been beamed in from another dimension.

blue

The actors assembled for this film were mostly amateurs, and it shows since they often seem positively oblivious to what’s going on around them. That said, I think the style suits the material: it would be really hard to swallow this film had the cast been entirely serious about it. All the younger females in the film are spunky and cute in their own way, and established actress Yōko Minamida, who plays the aunt, comes across as being very creepy at times. In terms of the horror movie elements, House takes a while to get going, but eventually unloads some fairly graphic and gory delights. During one scene, one of the girls is attacked by a piano which bites off her fingers and proceeds to devour her whole, and the final third of the film features quite a bit of blood flow and spray. Most of the gore sequences are more tongue-in-cheek amusing than outright horrific, but the film would be fairly shocking to some viewers (and not just because of the carnage). Music in the film (written by Mickie Yoshino and Asei Kobayashi and performed by Japanese rock group Godiego) is outstanding, continually blaring over any and all action taking place, and Yoshitaka Sakamoto’s photography is actually quite stunning, often shooting from unconventional angles. Finally, I have to commend Toho’s art department for creating some extremely eye-catching and colorful sets – the vast majority of which were constructed in studio. The background paintings seen throughout the film (check out how the skies look in many scenes) are particularly excellent.

head

At this point, I should point out that this film does have a few minor flaws. For one, I could do without the pointless asides during the final third of the picture which show a male teacher coming to the girls’ rescue. Almost slapstick in nature, these brief scenes take away from the momentum and pure insanity going on back at the titular abode. I’ve also got to say that most of the green screen effects seen in the film look pretty awful. I know I said earlier that the effects here were designed to be imperfect, but there are several scenes in which obvious outlines surround characters and objects, indicating that they’ve been superimposed onto other backgrounds. This is frequently annoying and quite distracting: Toho’s effects team had done better work in the mid-’60s on many of the Godzilla films and I’m not quite sure why they look so horrendous more than a decade later. Remember, Star Wars was made this same year.

swirl

I can’t stress enough that House is a film that has to be seen to be believed, one that seems to have inspired a multitude of Japanese films over the years, and one that possibly even led to the country’s enduring fascination with all things pop culture. It’s impossible even for me – a viewer well-versed in the wild worlds of cult films and Japanese cinema – to come up with another film that’s even remotely similar to this, and I’d be lying if I called this film anything less than one of my all time favorites – House has to make at least my top three. Absolutely marvelous in terms of its visuals, House deserves placement among the most artistically and creatively satisfying pieces of cinema ever produced, and I think most any viewer could appreciate that aspect of it even if they don’t like or are confused by the film as a whole. Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended – this singular classic of Japanese cinema is an absolute must for viewers who enjoy strange and/or cult movies.

Hausu

disc deets
A really nice selection of DVD extras – even for a Criterion disc. “Constructing a House” is a rewarding 45-minute featurette in which director Nobuhiko Obayashi, story scenarist Chigumi Obayashi (the director’s daughter), and screenwriter Chiho Katsura discuss and explain the project. The DVD also includes a short appreciation piece with film director Ti West and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s entire, 39-minute and suitably wacky 1966 experimental film Emotion. Picture quality on the disc (original full screen format, in Japanese with English subtitles) is outstanding.

blood & guts
7/10 : A fair amount of gore and extreme violence, but most of it is handled in a comic manner. This is not nearly as rigorous as many of today’s horror films.  Weirdness factor is out of the ballpark however.

smack talk
1/10 : Minimal profanity; some innuendo.

fap factor nice
6/10 : Underlying sexual themes exist throughout the film and there’s a decent amount of topless and rear nudity from some cute Japanese girls.

whack attack
10/10: Is this the most weirdo movie ever? Quite possibly, and it’s also one of the most impressive creative visions ever put to celluloid.

GI JOE
“Just let me eat you…”


TRAILER:

Safety Comes a Long Way in the World’s Premiere Motorsport: 1

1

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(4/5) cool

Pros: Nicely captures the sights and sounds of F1; crash course history is pretty decent; lots of amazing archival footage

Cons: I really mean that this is a “crash course” examination of F1…

It’s always seemed a bit odd to me, a longtime motor racing fan, that Formula 1, F1 for short and indisputably the most popular form of auto racing in the world, has never really taken hold in the United States. It’s easy to make an argument for F1 being a European-based sport (after all, most tracks, teams, and drivers are European), but while the vast majority of American race fans are content to watch drivers circle into infinity on the tracks of NASCAR, I remember many a day in my youth waking up at the crack of dawn to watch live F1 events (since they in many cases take place on the other side of the globe, F1 events usually play in the middle of the night or in the early morning in the United States). In recent years, Formula 1 seems to have gained a bit more prominence in the minds of the American race fan however, in part due to the construction of the United States’ first purpose-built F1 facility in Austin, Texas. Several films in recent years have capitalized on this new-found interest, including the excellent 2011 documentary Senna (about the man who became the sport’s biggest star before his death behind the wheel in 1994), the 2013 docudrama Rush (focusing on the famed rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt), and now the documentary 1 which deals largely with how the sport’s safety has improved over time.

fuk1lFrom bomb to missile…

Produced in 2013 and directed by Paul Crowder, 1 begins with a bang by presenting footage of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix in which the car of British driver Martin Brundle went airborne and flipped end over end before coming to rest in a gravel trap. In previous years, this accident almost certainly would have proven fatal, but Brundle not only escaped from the vehicle more or less under his own power, but actually returned to the pitlane and got into a backup car to continue the race. Anyone familiar with the sport of Formula 1 would know that this level of safety wasn’t always a guarantee – during a period from about 1967-78, an almost jaw-dropping number of drivers were killed while racing. As a documentary, 1 seeks not just to tell the basic story of Formula 1 from its early days as a thrilling and dangerous post-WWII diversion to the modern era in which incredible technology, glitz and glamour threaten to replace the racing as the sport’s primary point of interest, but rather to reveal how this premier form of motorsport cleaned up its safety record over the years.

german GP
Getting air while circling the immense Nürburgring circuit.

During the course of the documentary, 1 devotes significant time to detailing the history of some of the sport’s most recognizable drivers, teams, tracks, and situations. While it’s cool to hear about such legendary personalities as Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, and Graham Hill, I find the information relating to the classic racing venues to be more interesting. On that note, Crowder’s film chronicles some unforgettable moments from the legendary Monaco street circuit (undoubtedly the most famous and historic track still in use by Formula 1 today), the incredibly fast Monza track in Italy, the famous (or is it infamous?) Watkins Glen circuit in New York State, and the unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring in Germany. Twenty-two kilometers in length, there are few in the world that would challenge the Nürburgring’s reputation as the world’s greatest and most challenging race circuit, yet the ever-increasing speed of Formula 1 helped ensure that the sport no longer uses the facility. It’s also pretty amazing to watch throughout the film as the typical F1 car (each of which is hand-designed by the individual teams from top to bottom, including the engine) have evolved from being clunky and frail vehicles that were little more than bombs on wheels to seeming like jet fighters that are planted to the ground.

yikes!
That is an ugly F1 car.

Easily the best thing about 1 is the presentation of astonishing archival footage and photographs (wait until you experience a lap of the extremely hairy Monaco circuit from the perspective of Senna’s in-car camera). The program is assembled and edited quite well, occasionally taking a break from the chronological history to focus on more detailed discussion of various related topics. I also really appreciated the fine selection of classic and contemporary interviews that were conducted with various people who were involved with the sport. It’s always cool to hear from drivers like Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx, Damon Hill, and Mario Andretti as well as the those who worked behind the scenes: team owners, mechanics, and members of the F1 management. Along with the strong visuals provided in the film is a well-assembled soundtrack that contains some pretty classic tunes that serve to represent the time periods in which the story takes place very nicely.

USGP
F1 cars head through the esses at Watkins Glen.

On the downside, 1 almost plays like a blow-by-blow history of Formula 1 fatalities and checklist of safety innovations than as a more straight-forward history of the sport, spending the majority of its duration covering the period of the early to mid 1970s. At a certain juncture of the documentary, it seems like another driver is getting killed every three to five minutes in the chronology. Obviously, the material in this film was taken straight from actual history and the sport was overflowing with tragedy in the early 1970s. Still, it seems to me that the film could have perhaps been handled a little differently so as to ensure that the sense of loss comes through more poignantly. As it stands, I could almost see a viewer being turned off of F1 due to the “consistency of death” that surrounded the sport or even becoming numb to the tragedy that’s present in the film. To me, that doesn’t much do justice to the drivers who lost their lives while piloting F1 cars, and the final five minutes of the documentary, which play as one extended advertisement for the sport, just seems a hastily-executed and empty conclusion to a film that I would have wanted to be more substantial at the end of the day.

fire!
Driver Jackie Stewart speeds past a mess of burning cars in Spain, 1970.

An additional issue I had with the film was that there was too large an amount of time spent on the 1976 season – the same story was told by filmmaker Ron Howard in his fictionalized film Rush. Obviously, I can see why this was done – the tie-in factor probably would have helped both films gain some exposure, but considering that many championship seasons are barely mentioned during the program, it seems questionable to spend this much time on a season which wasn’t ultimately that noteworthy in the bigger picture of the sport. I should also point out that although this film does include footage of fatal racing accidents, it shies away from really presenting the grim reality of how some of these drivers were killed. This could either be a good or bad thing depending on an individual viewer’s point of view, but having done a substantial amount of research into racing accidents over the years, I thought the film seemed as if it was brushing the sport’s darkest moments under the rug a bit (the death of Roger Williamson for instance, was absolutely horrible in real life and played out under extremely dramatic circumstances; I don’t think the documentary does justice to just how bad it was). In truth, the producers of the film probably had to do this in order to secure the much-needed support of Formula 1 administration, but I didn’t much care for the sugar coating.

purley
A dejected David Purley walks away after failing to be able to pull fellow driver Roger Williamson from his burning vehicle. Purley, who stopped his car and thus abandoned the race in an attempt to save Williamson’s life, was awarded the George Medal for courage due to his actions.

In the end, 1 is outstanding for what it is, even though it perhaps isn’t the objective and comprehensive program that someone looking to be introduced to Formula 1 might have wanted. This program conveniently ignores large portions of the sport’s history in its attempt to detail the innumerable innovations that have made racing significantly more safe in recent decades, but I suppose it would be an agreeable (literal) crash course in F1 for interested viewers. Most longtime fans wouldn’t be learning much from the documentary, but as I mentioned, it’s always cool to see this vintage footage and hear from the people who experienced F1 during its glory days and helped make the sport what it is today. Though it’s imperfect, I’d still highly recommend the film to anyone interested in motor racing in general or Formula 1 specifically.

today's formula 1
Today’s F1 is a far cry from what it was in the 1970s.

** Final note: at one point during 1, the film presents a brief image of a trackside sign that exclaims a “warning” to race attendees that “motor racing is dangerous.” I feel this point is often forgotten in an era where auto racing for the most part has been relatively safe in recent years. The illusion of safety was shattered at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix which took place in early October: French driver Jules Bianchi was critically injured when his race car slammed into a crane removing a stranded car from the race course. I’ve studied this accident and there’s no doubt in my mind that modern F1 safety tech enabled Bianchi to survive an accident which at any other point in history would unquestionably have been fatal. Unfortunately, despite what race broadcasters, drivers, and documentary filmmakers would have us believe or like to believe themselves, there is always some element of risk involved in getting in any sort of car, especially one designed to travel and indeed race at speeds that often fall in the 150-200 mile per hour range. While the traditional causes of driver fatalities (basilar skull fractures; fire; internal injuries) have been mitigated, there is always the chance of “freak accidents” which can be very difficult to predict or prevent: there never should be a point at which driver safety is not improving.

bianchi
Bianchi being extricated from his car following a tremendous impact at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

disc deets
No extras on the DVD/Blu-ray, widescreen editions from the Millennium Studio. This film has screened numerous times this year on the NBC Sports Network as a supplement to their coverage of the 2014 Formula 1 season.

blood & guts
2/10 : Generally non-graphic but nonetheless violent footage of sometimes fatal auto racing accidents.

smack talk
1/10 : Minimal profanity; much of this is bleeped in the version of the film that’s played on television.

fap factor
1/10 : A few isolated instances of blurred topless nudity; I’m unsure as to whether this footage is similarly obscured on the DVD release.

whack attack
4/10 : Probably a must for auto racing enthusiasts, with a ton of fascinating archival footage and interviews.

GI JOE
“We want to see something exceptional, breathtaking; that we think can’t be done. We want to see gladiators, warriors, and let’s face it: we do like to see a bit of a shunt. But we don’t want to see deaths. It is incredible how this changed and suddenly it became unacceptable to die in the name of sport.”

The Weird Side of the Soviet Union: MONSTERS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

MONSTERS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN on Animal Planet

Animal Planet Website 

(4/5) cool

Pros: Well-organized; interesting variety of subjects; more level-headed and objective than is usual for this type of program

Cons: It’s a speculative documentary: some folks just won’t appreciate it; sensationalist title doesn’t represent the material very well

Refreshingly straight-forward in both its presentation and in the various hypotheses it proposes, the two-hour special Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain, which premiered October 26, 2014 on the Animal Planet Channel, stands in stark contrast to increasingly manipulative (and goofy) programs like the previous year’s Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives which handles some of the same subject matter. Directed by Gareth Sacala, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain operates in much the same manner as an episode of Monsters and Mysteries in America in that it features discussion of a half dozen or so stories of the unknown which originated in and around the former Soviet Union. A few of these stories specifically involve the existence of unknown creatures which seems to be a very popular subject on television these days, but the majority deal more generally with unexplained phenomena.

The real monster
Subliminal messaging: is this the REAL monster behind the Iron Curtain?

The program starts with what in my opinion is its most interesting segment, one which seems to have been pulled straight out of the pages of Dark Matters: Twisted but True: a brief examination of the history of rather unorthodox experiments that took place in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. While researching how organs were controlled by the brain and functioned, scientists Sergei Brukhonenko and Vladimir Demikhov developed the basic techniques by which organ transplants are conducted today, yet hearing about how this duo not only kept the hearts and whole heads of dogs alive after they had been separated from their corresponding bodies, but also created two-headed animals and very nearly reanimated a dead human suggests these scientists may have been willing to push the boundaries of science a bit too far in the name of progress. What’s more shocking perhaps is that even though the former Soviet Union has released some files relating to these experiments, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever really know how far these experiments went. After viewing some of the actual film footage seen here (which includes images of a heart beating independently of its body, one dog’s head being kept alive in a metal bowl and another animal having to fight off the snapping jaws of a second head that’s been grafted onto its neck), I’m not sure anyone would really want to uncover the true extent of these experiments even if the knowledge gained has proven to be invaluable.

WARNING: GRAPHIC! Footage of dog head grafting experiments.

From here, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain goes through an intriguing, if fairly typical collection of segments and stories, some of which seem more outrageous then others. A viewer hears about the legend of the Mongolian Death Worm, a subterranean creature who’s said to spit venom and be able to conduct electricity and delves into the legend of the so-called “Devil’s Cemetery” which exists in the remote Siberian forest. This plot of barren land apparently causes death and misery to anyone who ventures near it, leading scientists to debate its true nature as the site of a possible underground fire or maybe even the location where meteoric debris has settled. A mysterious incident from the Caucasus Mountains in which a group of mountaineers was severely burned by an unknown ball of light is investigated, as well as a tale from 1970s Romania in which a young medical student attacked fourteen women, killing four. In the wake of the attacks, it was speculated that the man was possessed by a demonic spirit called a Strigoi, a being which appears to have been at least partially responsible for the modern idea of the vampire. It’s almost expected that a program of this nature at least briefly focus on some sort of Bigfoot story, and this is provided in the form of an examination of the Russian Wildman. The documentary concludes with a substantial inquiry into the fascinating and enigmatic Dyatlov Incident in which nine mountaineers were killed under mysterious circumstances while skiing in the remote Russian wilderness in 1959.

remains
Remains of one of the Dyatlov expedition members. Half the mountaineers died from incredibly traumatic injuries which, according to official government reports, were caused by “a compelling natural force.”

Along with a steady narration provided by Eric Myers, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain is told largely through interviews with various researchers and investigators and occasionally, the actual people involved first-hand in the stories. Throughout the program, we have a number of well-handled recreations of the situations discussed which hammer home the subjects the talking heads are discussing. I think one of the best things about the program (as mentioned) was its use of sometimes gruesome and disturbing archival film footage and photographs. Some of the segments here are largely recounted through dialogue, but there has been an obvious effort made to add credibility to the eyewitness accounts and people making them whenever possible. Keeping in mind the undeniably sketchy evidence usually presented in these types of shows, I’d have to say that Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain does a fine job of honestly presenting its information. I also appreciated that the program doesn’t automatically go for the jugular and force the viewer to buy into some very outlandish explanation for what’s occurring in these stories. The program for instance proposes that the mysterious ball of light was actually the incredibly rare meteorological phenomenon known as ball lightning, which actually seems plausible in this circumstance, and the Dyatlov incident segment focuses on the notion that a top-secret parachute mine test caused the deaths of the mountaineers. Generally speaking and as might be expected, this documentary doesn’t come up with any real answers, leaving it up to the viewer to make up his own mind with regard to these cases. I thought this sense of ambiguity was welcome when the vast majority of crypto-reality TV shows jump to wild conclusions in five minutes or less.

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Artist’s rendering of the Mongolian Death Worm.

Even if it takes this program less that twenty minutes to conveniently introduce Idaho State University professor Dr. Jeff Meldrum (who shows up in virtually every Bigfoot-related documentary to explain that yes, there is a possibility that previously unknown creatures do exist in the world – just in case anyone needed that point reinforced) as the obligatory “voice of reason” to add some sort of scientific seal of approval for what’s being proposed here, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain is easily a more level-headed and ultimately better program than dozens of vaguely similar shows that have turned up in the last couple years. Compared to outright fabrications like the Russian Yeti, Megalodon, or Wrath of Submarine which choked viewers with phoniness, this one at least attempts to remain neutral and objective, simply presenting information in much the same manner as a program like Unsolved Mysteries. For that alone, it deserves commendation in an era where sensationalism goes a long way in making a program stand out from the crowd. Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain obviously wouldn’t be counted among the greatest documentaries of our time, but it’s well-done for what it is and should please viewers interested in the paranormal. Recommended.

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The True Story of The Amityville Horror Revealed! HIGH HOPES: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR MURDERS

HIGH HOPES: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR MURDERS on Reelz Channel

See it on the Reelz Channel Website 

(3.5/5) decent

Pros: A Comprehensive examination of a fascinating murder case; doesn’t get caught up in the ghost story

Cons: Awkward in the way the film is constructed; seems a bit like a self-serving project; clumsy reenactments

Just in time for Halloween comes a 90-minute (two hour with commercials) documentary on the Reelz Channel that’s all about America’s most infamous haunted house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. Contrary to what one might expect from a program of this nature showing up towards the end of October however, the 2014 doc High Hopes: The Amityville Horror Murders focuses not on the case relating to reported supernatural activity occurring on the property, but rather on the brutal crime that took place in the house in 1974. During that period, the iconic home with upper windows that resemble eyes was owned by the DeFeo family, which was made up of father Ron Sr., mother Louise and their five children: Ron Jr a.k.a. “Butch,” Dawn, Allison, Marc, and John Matthew. On November 12, 1974 and following years of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of his father (a man who reportedly had ties to the Mafia), 23-year old Butch entered the home and proceeded to kill every other member of his family with a .35 caliber rifle.

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The now-iconic 112 Ocean Avenue property.

The crimes earned Butch six consecutive life sentences upon conviction, but the typical stories told about the “Amityville Horror” usually only start at that juncture. Writer/director Ryan Katzenbach’s High Hopes documentary, to its credit, operates for its entire run time as a sort of investigative report about the DeFeo murders, examining in detail various aspects of the case. Butch DeFeo over the years has offered up numerous conflicting explanations of what happened on the night his entire family was murdered, making it almost impossible to find the real truth at the bottom of the fabrications. It’s also increasingly difficult to make sense of the case due to the sensationalism caused by the fact that in the years following the murders, George and Kathy Lutz who had purchased the property, claimed that the house was haunted, leading to a best-selling book and a still-ongoing successful horror film franchise. Katzenbach manages to cut through the hype and examine the crime itself, using the whole “haunted house” angle as merely a sidenote to a more serious and unfortunate story.

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Alleged ghost spotted during one investigation of the former DeFeo house.

The documentary begins with a sort of crash course history of all things Amityville Horror related, going over the basics of the criminal case, examining the history of the so-called haunting, and introducing the idea that the Amityville case has become more a marketing device than anything else. Following this introduction, Katzenbach begins a study of all the details in the murder case, starting with the rather startling history of the DeFeo family. Examining alleged Mafia ties and money laundering as well as the tales about how abusive Ron Sr. was to the rest of his family, Katzenbach paints a vivid picture of the situation leading up to the murders. While it’s difficult to feel any sort of sympathy towards Butch DeFeo (who admits in an in-camera interview during which he lacks any semblance of remorse, that he’s basically a manipulator and a liar), it is pretty easy to see a potential set of circumstances that led him down the path to murder his family. Aside from the abuse committed by a father who claimed to have pseudo-religious experiences in between bouts of extreme violence towards his own wife and kids, Butch was also by the time he was in his early twenties abusing drugs and alcohol quite heavily, leading him to increasingly unpredictable behavior.

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Ron Sr. and Louise DeFeo dead in bed.

By the time the murders are recounted in extraordinary detail based on one possible scenario of how they were committed, High Hopes heads into its money section, presenting a case of how prosecutors looking to land a quick conviction bungled up several aspects of the original case. In this manner, the documentary doesn’t play all that differently from a film like West of Memphis, which presented the frankly sickening story of how three outcast teens were (in my opinion, wrongly) convicted for the murder of several young boys. Writer/director Katzenbach obviously relishes the chance to present his own perspective on the criminal case relating to the prosecution of “Butch” DeFeo, and it’s probably during this section in which his film presents its best material and arguments. It seems like most crime films anymore have to have some sort of “miscarriage of justice” section just to seem legit, but examining the information provided here from a logical standpoint does seem to at least suggest that the police, prosecutors and judges had it out for Butch DeFeo from the start.

butch defeo
Butch DeFeo has invented numerous stories relating to the murders in the decades since his arrest. The documentary comes to its own conclusion, but is it actually the answer?

At this juncture, I should point out that from what I can tell, High Hopes was produced essentially by combining three short documentaries about the Amityville case that Katzenbach can been working on into one, longer and more comprehensive work. I say this because at a certain point, High Hopes really feels like its more or less abandons everything that it had been working towards and heads in an entirely different direction. Around the three-quarter mark, Katzenbach jettisons his previous arguments about how Butch DeFeo committed the murders with the aid of several accomplices and presents a “this is how it really happened” finale that makes a case for him doing the deed by himself. I can almost believe that this material was culled from the third and last short film since the way in which the feature documentary transitions into this material is very awkward and almost baffling: it’s not the best way to make a coherent, well-developed film, but I suppose it gets the job done. That said, it took me a second to realize that Katzenbach had essentially doubled back on himself and just assumed his viewer would be able to follow his zig-zagging train of thought, though the average TV viewer might not even notice the change in perspective and just “roll with the flow.”

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Admittedly, the original Amityville Horror movie is pretty creepy…but still “Jody, the demon pig??”

It was also around this point when I made a pretty telling observation about the documentary. Though the film is narrated by well-known actor Ed Asner, the primary interview subject throughout the production is none other than director Katzenbach himself, who basically sits there and explains to the viewer how everything in the Amityville murder case went down. On one hand, it’s not totally unprecedented for a director to include himself in his own documentary film: many documentary filmmakers almost exclusively focus on their own journey to the truth as it were (Michael Moore comes to mind). In the case of High Hopes however, I really got the idea that this documentary as a whole was more or less a self-serving project (looking at Katzenbach’s filmography on imdb.com reveals that virtually all his credits are programs relating to the Amityville murders – the guy seems more than a bit obsessed). This becomes especially apparent when, in the documentary’s final segment, Katzenbach himself conducts an investigation of the canal system that exists immediately behind the DeFeo home on Ocean Avenue in an attempt to find the long-missing second murder weapon. It really seems like the writer/director is pushing himself as a sort of criminal investigator and researcher and one almost gets the idea that Katzenbach fashions himself as a sort of neo Truman Capote in terms of how he’s represented in the film. When the discovery of a firearm at the bottom of the canal leads to an apparent, almost obligatory cover-up on the part of the Amityville police department, the positioning of Katzenbach as a sort of avenger for justice is complete, though I wasn’t completely sure I was willing to buy that assertion.

ultimate sad fact
The ultimate sad fact here is that the DeFeo children died horribly.  We shouldn’t forget that, no matter what Hollywood chooses to focus on.

As much as I could be overly critical of this documentary for its apparent ulterior motives, I have to say that High Hopes: The Amityville Horror Murders is pretty interesting for the material that it does present. This is a very comprehensive (though maybe not entirely objective) examination of the DeFeo murders, and the selection of archival video footage, sometimes graphic photos and testimony, as well as the contemporary analysis showcased here does a fine job of telling the story of this case and pleading the writer’s arguments. The film is well-organized for the most part and is generally quite compelling for a viewer. I rather appreciated the fact that this film not only doesn’t focus much attention on the whole “haunted house” angle, but that it actually goes a long way in proving that the whole “Amityville Horror” phenomenon (which began with Jay Anson’s best-selling 1977 novel) was a publicity stunt fabricated in order to make a profit for the folks involved. One would think that calling the haunting out as b.s. wouldn’t have been the best way to go for someone examining this case, but Katzenbach sticks to his guns. On the downside, the reenactments featured throughout the program are undeniably lousy: yes, they compliment the narration quite well, but the acting is awful and they just seem to have been completed very quickly in the most lazy, unimaginative manner possible. In the end, despite a few significant problems, High Hopes is perfect for what it is: an consistently interesting and compelling made-for-television documentary. This wouldn’t hold up against the best documentary films out there, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. For that fact alone, I’d call it worthwhile.

News Bulletin!

D.o.A.: KILLING BIGFOOT

KILLING BIGFOOT on Destination America

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Destination America Website 

(0.5/5) BOGUS!

Pros: Fairly serious and more credible than the lot of similar programs

Cons: Everything is very familiar and I simply can’t for the life of me condone this show’s message

With the current, rather pathetic wave of cryptozoological (read: monster) related reality television shows coming to an end and a few weeks before the new season of Finding Bigfoot starts, it was only a matter of time – a week to be exact – before the Destination America channel’s next monster show would turn up. Unfortunately, as this genre as a whole has become ever more phony, goofy and unbelievable, Killing Bigfoot, which premiered on Friday, October 24, 2014, appears to be deadly serious – and, in my opinion, completely reprehensible. Following the exploits of another acronym-defined paranormal research group (the GCBRO – Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization; they have their own hats so that means that must be legit), the show attempts not just to find one of the hairy, bipedal apes rumored to exist in the woodlands of Texas, Lousiana, and Arkansas, but kill one of the creatures to prove their existence once and for all.

yikes!

Yes, as one eyewitness points out with regard to the unknown hominids, “most people just let ‘em be.” Not our gang of trigger-happy bayou folk. That’s just not how they roll…

oh snap

Working off the same pattern that led to shows like Mountain Monsters, Swamp Monsters, Monsters Underground, and Alaska Monsters (UGH! – that has to be one of the worst quartets of shows imaginable), Killing Bigfoot begins with a brief, stylized introduction to the eight-man team the program revolves around, a group of “vets, ex-cops, and hardcore woodsmen” who are shown in the opening montage cocking huge shotguns and blowing away paper targets shaped like the (in)famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot. Multiple people featured in the show are identified as “snipers,” while a few – including one fella who’s name is given as “Grumpy” – are given the task of “investigator”; hell, I was cracking up imagining that the show existed as a deranged version of Snow White and the Seven Dorks. Mainly, this crew goes about the normal monster investigation routine – interviewing witnesses, looking for proof in the swamps and forests of western Louisiana, and conducting night investigations that tread suspiciously close to looking like what one would find on the typical hunting program since they involve multiple people traipsing through the woods with shotguns at the ready. What’s shocking about the show is that, unlike the increasingly preposterous monster-related shows on Destination America channel, the characters…er people featured in Killing Bigfoot don’t seem to believe they’re part of an ongoing hoax or comedic program. These guys really are trying to kill a Sasquatch.

leave it to texas
Leave it to Texas to declare that it’s legal to kill Bigfoot…

Right there, I’m already on the verge of writing this program off on principle alone. To me, that this group of supposed investigators’ first response when encountering an unknown creature – even one that reportedly is mighty similar in both appearance and behavior to human beings – is to “bag it and tag it,” is disgusting. It’s this kind of pompous, gung-ho attitude that has caused many problems in recent years (read into that what you like), and it’s about the most unscientific, irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard when mentioned in regard to the existence of unknown creatures. Sure, a Sasquatch corpse likely would silence all the critics – but I can’t in any way, shape, or form condone the wanton killing of an unknown creature just to prove its out there. In all likelihood, if these creatures do in fact exist (in which case, their habitat is rapidly decreasing due to human population expansion), they’re incredibly rare and by eliminating a breeding member of their population, the survival of the species as a whole is potentially put in jeopardy. All one has to do is examine the history of the dodo, quagga or thylacine to see what effect the kind of mentality put forth in this show can have on the animal kingdom.

I know harry, I know
I know Harry…I know.

By autumn 2014, television producers are old pros at making programs of this nature and the ultimate flaw of Killing Bigfoot (aside from its careless main theme of shoot first, brag about it later) is that everything here is painfully familiar. Despite that, I have to admit that this program seems substantially more credible than the likes of Mountain Monsters/Swamp Monsters/Alaska Monsters. First of all, the GCBRO members here don’t just conveniently stumble into the path of the creature they’re seeking: though the show’s narrator informs us that there are “signs of the creatures all around,” we never get any proof of Bigfoot’s existence – or a massive, fabricated pursuit of an unknown beast during the episode. This, in my mind, is indicative of the fact that the producers are at least to some extent attempting to make a more factual, level-headed program whose primary goal is not necessarily just to shock a viewer with how asinine the whole production is (as seems to be the case with most other monster shows).

um
Um…just what is that?

Refreshingly, though the show may feature some of the worst sighting reenactments I’ve ever seen, not one character featured in Killing Bigfoot falls in line with being labeled as the goofball, “wild card” or loose cannon (i.e. the Wild Bill, Face, or Bobo character) – this gang seems dead serious, although this has repercussions in the long run. Namely, the show is nowhere near as entertaining as some of its other, unbelievably ludicrous monster-hunting kin. There isn’t a whole lot of camaraderie on display between team member and there aren’t obvious jokes and wisecracks being traded around continuously – hell, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the GCBRO was made up of people who hate each other even if they are rather civil about it. As might also be expected, the climactic “night hunt” sequence is pretty low-key – not much of anything happens and the show’s conclusion is more or less ambiguous (even with the obligatory cliffhanger).

told ya
Told you – the GCBRO has its own line of stylish caps. It’s gotta be a legit organization, right?        RIGHT???!?

Ever since Mountain Monsters changed the very nature of the crypto-reality show through the use of obvious fabrication, I’ve been wondering if any producers of this type of program would have the balls to make a show in which a monster wasn’t instantly, inexplicably found and chased down. Dumb as it is, watching a group of actors … I mean “monster hunters” … stumble around in the dark chasing phantoms has its appeal on a purely stupid level. As some have pointed out in the commentary on my no star review of Alaska Monsters, watching the show is like looking at a car crash – and the statement is true. I’ve just never quite come to terms with the fact that in order to watch these shows, I had to give up an hour of my life that would be MUCH better served doing something more rewarding and/or worthwhile. Problematic though it is in many, many ways, Killing Bigfoot to its benefit doesn’t automatically assume its viewers are morons looking for supposed entertainment of the lowest, most idiotic variety (and let’s be honest – most of these monster shows are designed for people who would watch just about anything if it was on TV). In a way, I appreciate its serious tone and apparent focus on faux-authenticity – no documentary can ever be entirely objective, but this show seems vastly more reasonable than many similar shows and for that it deserves some measure of credit.

just what we need...
Just what we need: another monster show, and another bunch of gun-happy “investigators” trying to shoot phantoms…and each other.

Try as I might however, I don’t think anything could ever make up for this show’s main premise as it goes out of its way to pursue its own, unreasonable agenda: when you’ve got multiple persons attempting to convince a viewer that Bigfoot should be killed to protect the residents of Louisiana…and GASP! their grandchildren…I could do nothing except shake my head at the screen. This type of blatant and unfounded paranoia-inspiring fear-mongering is dangerous in terms of what affect it has on viewers and one of the main problems if not the main problem with American media. Is it really us humans who should be afraid of Sasquatch, a creature which, if we’re to judge upon reliable evidence, has never posed any serious threat to people? Or is it Sasquatch who should be afraid of us, a species who not only randomly kills virtually every other animal on earth, sometimes purely for sport, but even kills members of its own species for the most fickle reasons imaginable? You be the judge. I’m giving Killing Bigfoot a half a star and I’d urge most viewers to avoid it.

KILLING BIGFOOT TRAILER ** from Peter von Puttkamer on Vimeo.

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Nighttime Is My Time by Mary Higgins Clark – suffers from too many flaws

Nighttime Is My Time by Mary Higgins Clark

 

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See it at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: Started with a reasonable premise

Cons: but suffers from too many flaws

I usually enjoy Mary Higgins Clark’s books, even if they’re not examples of great writing. Normally they are at very least entertaining thrillers.  But Nighttime Is My Time failed to hold my interest.  By the end, I barely cared “who done it”.

The setting was intriguing enough – a 20-year class reunion. A weekend gathering of old classmates.  Some friends, some enemies, everyone bringing their own past demons.  There a small group of people with a shared past experience.  All were unhappy during their childhood.  For various reasons.  Some were “outsiders”, picked on by the other students.  Others had issues at home.  In any case, here it is, 20 years later.  You’d think they’d all be over it by now – risen above their past issues.  But one person is definitely NOT over it.  One person is out for revenge – making his classmates pay for past transgressions.

We get plenty of chapters from the bad guy’s point of view. Thus we understand his motivations, know what he’s up to, and we even learn that he’s committed some atrocious acts of revenge in the past.  Further, we know that he is one of the reunion attendees.  We just don’t know – until the end – which one he is.

That’s the premise, and it wasn’t a bad one. We’ve all known kids who were unhappy for one reason or another.  We knew who the “outsiders” were.  Perhaps we were the outsiders.  So it’s fun to imagine the “outsider” growing up and seeking revenge against those who hurt him in the past.

However, Nighttime Is My Time takes the concept way too far.  It was unrealistic to think that someone would go to the extremes we see in this book.  The ends did not justify the means – not even when viewed through the forgiving lens of a thriller.  In other words, it goes way beyond the pale – making the entire story ho-hum in my opinion.

Further hurting the story was the sheer unlikeability of nearly all of the characters. And believe me, there’s a huge list of characters for us to dislike.  Pretty much all of the reunion-goers.  And a few of the others.  Including an obnoxious kid who fancies himself a photo-journalist.  For the most part, he’s just a pain in the neck butting into everybody’s business.

Then there’s the rampant stupidity. Or, as I call it, the eye-rolling factor.  When you know that you’re in danger, do you take off, by yourself, just because someone calls you and tells you do so?  Or, do you arrange for backup, or at least let someone know where you plan to be and when you plan to be back.

Secondly, when you know you were duped once before by someone pretending to be someone else on the phone, do you fall for it again?  And again?

Lastly, we have our bad guy. He’s pretty clever. His crimes have been pretty much perfect over the years.  No one has ever considered him a suspect in anything.  Yet he feels the need to leave a single clue at every one of his crime scenes.  How those clues didn’t tie back to him in the past is a matter of sheer luck on his part (not to mention incompetence on the part of the authorities).  Yet, he continues this behavior, even knowing that it’s likely to get him in trouble, at some point.

So, as you can tell, I’m not overly fond of Nighttime Is My Time.  Mary Higgins Clark can do better – much better.

 

 

Also by Mary Higgins Clark:

Daddy’s Gone A Hunting

Daddy’s Little Girl

“The Lord is Sabata…” The Polished but Familiar Sequel ADIÓS, SABATA

ADIÓS, SABATA

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Sabata Trilogy DVD at Amazon 

(2.5/5) meh

Pros: Memorable ending, quirky details and a nice sense of scale

Cons: Extremely familiar story that makes it very nearly a remake of the first Sabata film

The somewhat strange middle entry in the Sabata Trilogy, 1970’s Adiós Sabata sees actor Yul Brynner take over the title role from Lee Van Cleef (who coincidentally couldn’t do this film because he was replacing Brynner in a Magnificent Seven sequel). This time around, the titular gunfighter joins forces with Mexican revolutionaries and an prankster American named Ballantine to steal a wealth of gold from an Austrian colonel hiding out south of the US border. Predictably, the plot to capture the gold (initiated by a guerrilla leader who’s trying to fund an uprising against Austrian emperor Maximilian I) doesn’t go exactly to plan – after capturing a wagon supposedly transporting the treasure, Sabata and his partners discover that they’ve been fooled into stealing a cart full of sand and are forced to come up with a more decisive plan of attack. This eventually leads to an all-out assault on the colonel’s fortress, but can Sabata really trust any of his sneaky co-conspirators considering that they all have their own motives and ambitions?

adios!
Sabata (in all black) discusses his plans with his compadres.

Compared to the first Sabata film, this sequel is probably a more serious affair, mostly due to the fact that Brynner takes an entirely different approach to the main character than did Van Cleef. While there was a playfulness to Van Cleef’s Sabata, an almost emotionless Brynner (sporting an all-black get-up and a continual scowl) is all business in the part and definitively appears like the more typical (and hence, somewhat tiresome) Italo-western protagonist. Due to his stoic performance, the tone of this sequel is a bit off: the same team of writers (Renato Izzo and Gianfranco Parolini, who also directed) wrote both these films, the first of which played almost as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Spaghetti Western genre. Adiós Sabata, originally planned as a standalone film dealing with a character named “Indio Black,” never quite seems to decide whether it wants to be a more serious film or a comic one. Parolini and Izzo throw in quite a few slightly offbeat and/or goofy details, but Brynner’s no-nonsense attitude doesn’t really allow a viewer to really buy into the efforts at comedy.

Austrians in Mexico?
Gerard Herter as Colonel Skimmel of Austria. Though the idea of Austrians in Mexico circa 1867 being the villains of this story seems odd, it’s historically accurate.

One of the more confusing aspects of this film is that a number of the same cast who appeared in the first Sabata film show up in this sequel in entirely different roles. This takes a bit of getting used to: at first, I was under the impression that the writers were trying to make a sequel that (gasp!) was generally consistent with the first film (albeit with a different actor in the title role), but it soon became apparent that there’s about no connection in the story between the original Sabata and this second series entry. That said, one could definitely make the argument that Adiós Sabata is very nearly a remake of the first film. The main villain of the piece (the Austrian colonel played by Gerard Herter) comes across as a virtual carbon copy of Stengel from the first film (hell, even the name of the Austrian is similar – “Skimmel”). Additionally, the Ballantine character (played as a conniving jokester by musician-turned-actor Dean Reed) seems almost identical to the Banjo character in the first film, and the returning Ignazio Spalla, playing another buffoonish Mexican who acts as Sabata’s main partner in crime, performs essentially the same duty that he did in the first film. Considering that Izzo and Parolini’s script isn’t exactly the most original thing I’ve ever seen in the first place, the fact that we’re getting mostly the same exact thing this second time around makes this sequel all the more disappointing and questionable.

musician Dean Reed
Dean Reed as Ballantine, the smart-ass gringo who may just run off with the gold himself.

On the plus side, Parolini’s handling of the direction seems a bit more sure-handed during this film. The original Sabata had a handful of stylish moments that suggested that Parolini did have some nifty tricks in his repertoire, but more often than not, the director played it relatively safe. Adiós Sabata sees Parolini let loose a few times with some eye-popping visuals and wild camera moves (check out the swirling camera suggesting the feeling of jubilation when Sabata and his crew first get their hands on what they think is gold) and also seems to have a more grandiose sense of scale. Contrary to the confined nature of the first film, the sequel features quite a few scenes filmed in extreme long shots in rather expansive locations which are nicely captured by cinematographer Sandro Mancori. Thus, the picture (boosted by a fine music score from the always-reliable Bruno Nicolai) feels bigger and more spectacular, even if the story leaves a lot to be desired.

Superb location photography
This sequel features superb location photography and a more grandiose sense of scale than the first Sabata film.

I love some of the quirky, eccentric details in the film – the mute gunslinger who’s claim to fame is his ability to fling rocks at his opponent with his feet; the handful of scenes where a gunfight erupts immediately after a cowboy stops his tap-dancing routine – and it’s not hard to see why this offbeat film was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino. The entire last act of the film is actually pretty impressive, with the loud and exciting raid on the colonel’s fortress being followed up by a genuinely clever final scene which is rather funny and positively memorable in the history of this genre. Even if it’s difficult to deny that the film saves its best ideas for last, I can’t help but wish some of this inspiration had found its way into earlier scenes in the movie which are pretty formulaic and forgettable. A little spark early on would have gone a long way in making this picture better as a whole.

ending shot
The film’s ending is outstanding…I just wish there were more genuine highlights on the way there.

Admittedly, a western has to be pretty outstanding for me to really fall in love with it – I usually find this genre of films to be relatively dull and predictable. Adiós Sabata is one that’s very watchable but nothing special: there are certainly some unique elements to this film, enough weird details to keep things interesting, and generally enjoyable acting performances (even if the English language dubbing is sometimes quite sketchy), but nothing can make up for the fact that everything in the film seems very familiar. Director Parolini was clearly capable as a filmmaker, but he simply doesn’t seem to possess the level of inspiration that led directors like Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci to produce what are easily the best films of the Spaghetti Western genre. The Sabata films then are better than many of the cheapo programmer westerns that were pumped out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and probably would be worth a look for genre fans, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to track any of them down.

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disc deets
Nice-looking widescreen DVD from 20th Century Fox as part of the Sabata Trilogy package offers no extras. This film can also be streamed individually on amazon.

blood & guts
5/10 : Standard western gun violence with brief glimpses of gore.

smack talk
1/10 : Maybe a few isolated instances of rough language; nothing major.

fap factor groan!
0/10 : Sabata doesn’t hang out too  much in the brothel this time around.

whack attack
3/10 : Even with some eccentricity to it, this doesn’t hold up to the best of the Spaghetti Western genre.

GI JOE
“Well gentlemen, it’s been fun, but I can’t waste any more time. I wanna wish you all the…uh…very best of luck, especially you Escudo. You’re going to have a hard time convincing the revolutionaries that you didn’t steal the gold. And you know what’ll happen – I’m afraid that you must just end up dripping the fat into the fire, with an apple up your big mouth and a spit up your caboose…”

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Is the Dyson Air Multiplier Fan worth the money?

Dyson Air Multiplier Table Fan

(3/5)

Pros: no blades, quiet, remote control, adjustable

Cons: outrageously expensive

I work in a second-floor area of a building that has no air conditioning and no breezes.  I have measured the temperature of my workspace in warm months at 90+ degrees at 8 am.  We are not allowed to have fans, though many coworkers break the rules on that one.  Unfortunately, I am a rule-follower so I’ve been suffering and feeling like I’m going to die in hot weather for the past several years.  I finally cracked in September and ordered the Dyson Air Multiplier which my husband explicitly forbade me to buy.  I blame it all on heat stroke.

The Product

The Dyson Air Multiplier Table Fan is a blade-less fan.  It has a round, column-like base that tilts forward and backward and a round circular output device from which a steady stream of air flows.  It has a remote control to turn it on/off, to make it oscillate, to increase/decrease the air flow, and even to put it on a sleep timer.  I paid $239 for mine at Overstock.com but I’ve seen them for closer to $200 recently on Amazon.

My Experience

The first few days I used this fan I was entirely unimpressed because it was 100 degrees out, 95 inside my work space, and even on the highest setting this product wasn’t keeping me totally cool.  Those were unrealistic expectations from a device that is just a fan and not an air conditioner.

I’ve been using my Dyson Fan several times per week now that the weather has cooled off a bit and it does a great job of sending a breeze my way and helping to keep me comfortable.  I also like the fact that it is very quiet and has no blades.  I’ve had people walk by my desk and say “what is that?” and then immediately thrust their arm through the circular top part.  If there were blades just spinning very quickly, they would have had their hands destroyed.

Final Opinion

I am very happy to have my Dyson Air Multiplier because it isn’t something that my employer can say isn’t allowed.  It has helped to keep me cool and comfortable at work in hot and humid conditions.  It works very well for my purposes.

That being said, it is outrageously overpriced at $239 when a $20 oscillating fan will work just as well for most people.  I also have to unplug it and hide it every day after work so it won’t get stolen.

This fancy Dyson fan isn’t worth all of the extra money unless you have a rule at your place of employment that makes fans with blades illegal.  Yeah it is quiet and cool-looking but it is soooooo overpriced for what it actually does.  If it was $139 I’d give it 5 stars, but it isn’t so I am going with 3 stars out of 5 and even that is being generous.

 

Hot Time in the City

The Chocolate League no park, no sparks

 

 x

  See it at Amazon 

(5/5)

 

Pros: fast paced, chapter book, easy listening, easy reading

Cons: none noted     

Same as every day, on their way to the park Jelly Bean Jason, Roster and his big brother Derrick stopped off at The Penny Candy Store. All the kids in the neighborhood did. The penny candy store sold lots of kinds of candy for just a penny along with ice cream cones, and cookies and other treats. Of course the other stuff all cost more than a penny.   The penny candy store was always crowded with kids on hot summer days.

Jason, an only child, lived with both his parents in their own home, Derrick and his 4 year old brother Roster lived with their Mom in a 2 family flat. Derrick is the storyteller in this work presented by brothers Rah and Jahi, ages 9 and 7.

This first in the series, The Chocolate League no park, no sparks is filled with the escapades, adventures and undertakings of neighborhood kids including Deedra, a somewhat older girl, Peaches who loves to sing, quiet Mike who is repeating first one grade and then another, Deja and more.   During vacation when school is done for the term summers are spent visiting the candy store and hanging out at the park.  All the kids in the neighborhood gravitate to both to wile away the days until it is time to return to study and teachers and responsibility.

This is the summer that everything is going to change. Derrick, Roster and JB are shocked to find a Condemned sign hanging on the locked gate.   Now what?

Chapter 2 Tag You’re It finds the kids playing tag in yards, or the street and on the sidewalk now that their park is closed. Life on the street filled with sounds of children was suddenly rent with noise of argument; Tasha and Mr Larry were apparently fighting. All Mr Larry’s clothes were laying out in the street, cars didn’t stop or go around, they just drove right over the pile that Tasha was dousing with syrup.   Nine year old Derrick was so overwhelmed with the sight of the syrup and clothes and cars he did not notice the street lights beginning to glow. Rule on the street was, kids on their own porch when those lights came on.

Chapter after chapter  introduces the reader to two touch football, Mr Frosty the ice cream truck, searching the sofa cushions for change for buying a treat, and sitting on the porch hoping tomorrow will be a better day.   And summer presses on with races and visits with cousins, sitting on the fire hydrant, Double Dutch jump rope, Better Made potato chips, water balloons and water fights, house parties, panhandlers, a boxing club, the beauty shop and more all appear on the pages of the fast paced children’s book filled with summer fun, and friends, and learning life lessons for how to get along, make do and the life of city kids.

The Chocolate League is the first in a series of books filled with the exploits of a group of friends who mostly get along, during one summer in Detroit where everyday life filled with innocence and hope seen through the eyes of a child is filled with action, imagination and optimism.

Osage County First Grade gives 12 thumbs up, listening to the book read chapter by chapter over several days gave my class of rural dwellers a little insight into how children in a big city live. And, helped my students understand that children whether in the city, or in a rural setting, in Detroit, or the middle of the continent, and maybe even those in other countries live and think, and plan pretty much the same. The names of children may differ, games and family make up may differ, but underneath life is  much the same and  we all enjoy many of the same kinds of things.

Filled with action, fast paced prose and compelling believable characters The Chocolate League no park no sparks is a read to for the younger set, read alone for middle grades. Listeners or readers are drawn into the antics of the children presented on the pages of the book.

Happy to recommend for the classroom book shelf, as one of a group of books used for social studies curriculum development, for the home book case, school and home library, and for gifting to a special child.

I was sent an ARC for review.    

Title: The Chocolate League No Park, No Spark

Genre: middle grade fiction

Read to for the 6 – 8 group,

Read Alone for 8 -10 group,

Read to siblings, mentor reading at school and to parents ages 8 -12

Author: Rah and Jahi Humphrey

Illustrator: Fanny Llem

Pages: 108

Line/Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Release Date: 2013

ISBN-10: 1490486860

ISBN-13: 978-1490486864

Available Kindle   Paperback

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