Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Best Heavy Metal Albums of 2010, Part 3

And now, finally, the last six. These are all close to the top of the list, and are ranked just about in the order I'd set 'em in at the moment. This could change 15 minutes from now, so grain of salt and all that...

(6) Darkthrone – Circle the Wagons: And now, the latest in the “old school Norwegian Black Metal act” series. Lots of people abandoned Darkthrone since it became obvious that they had no interest in making another Transilvanian Hunger. And especially since they started incorporating more Punk influences. And especially since they released an album helpfully titled to instruct their critics to F.O.A.D. (fuck off and die). Darkthrone don’t care what you think. They only care to record what makes them happy. And what makes them happy these days? Old-school Thrash and Speed Metal, NWOBHM bands, Lemmy, and the classics from Bathory and Venom. The result is a blackened charge of adrenaline shot straight into your jugular. Are you supposed to drive really fast singing Black Metal lyrics at the top of your lungs? No? Then Darkthrone is doing everything wrong and having the time of their lives doing it, because this album is as much fun as you can be allowed to have.

(5) Electric Wizard – Black Masses: Groove is not a word you typically associate with the self-described Heaviest Band on the Planet. Instead, you expect to stand in awe of the colossal riffs looming directly before you before they bury you like an avalanche of boulders descending in slow motion through an ocean of wet concrete. But with leaps forward in songwriting and musicianship, the band locks into a Horror-soaked psychedelic groove that tightens and focuses their riffage to the point that it’s almost…gulp…accessible. While every stylistic shift has shaken off fans while garnering the band new ones, this album is sure to do the same. But for those who’ve followed the band all along, this should be a welcome new wrinkle in the cloak of the Electric Wizard.

(4) Triptykon – Eparistera Daimones: (Note: the above video is from the follow-up EP Shatter, because it's a great video.) I admit that I first approached this album with tentative ears. I mean, who knows what can happen when Celtic Frost’s Thomas Gabriel Fischer/Tom G. Warrior takes on a new project? You run the risk of winding up with another Cold Lake on your hands, and nobody wants that. But when you see the welcome work of H.R. Giger adorning the album cover, it’s with a welcome sigh of relief. Thankfully, this album picks up right where the unexpected return-to-form that was Frost’s 2006 release Monotheist left off. Epic, doom-encrusted and heavy. Tom is obviously really quite upset about Celtic Frost’s demise, and it’s that pent-up anger and boiling hatred that fuels this diabolical collection of songs. Plus, the new lineup that he’s assembled is nothing short of perfectly suited to the material, and by the time the first track is over (after 11 minutes!), you’ll cease mourning the demise of the almighty Celtic Frost and hailing the phoenix-like return of Tom G. Warrior.

(3) Rotting Christ – AEALO: I knew when I first heard this that this would be a contender for album of the year; that was back in February, and it’s held up all year long. Rotting Christ have definitely charted out a course that’s resulted in a sound unique to themselves. And here, they’ve incorporated everything from their past (which has ranged from Grindcore to Black Metal to Gothic Metal) to immaculate effect, while also evoking their Hellenic roots through Mediterranean/Eastern melodic influence. It starts off pounding and emotional with martial beats plowing insistently over a Greek chorus of lamentation, and never lets up throughout; conjuring up images of some alternate version of 300 that doesn’t completely suck. Closing with Diamanda Galas’ “Orders From the Dead” is a brilliant move; getting Galas to perform the vocals is a master stroke. I can’t stress enough how much I love this album.

(2) Ghost – Opus Eponymous: The band’s MySpace page describes them as “powerpop/Black Metal/progressive,” and as unlikely as that may sound, it’s not far off. A recent interview placed them as the missing link between ‘70s Hard Rock and Black Metal, and that’s also pretty close. You’ve got Sabbathian guitar chug running alongside Hammond organ and Moog synth lines while sweet harmonies float over the top delivering pop-laden hymns and hosannas to Our Dark Overlord. In other words, if you ever wondered what would happen if Black Sabbath, Kansas, Angel Witch, Sweet, and Mercyful Fate ever went through one of those teleportation things from The Fly at the same time, this is the unholy beast that would emerge from the other side.The attention that Darkthrone’s Fenriz directed to their MySpace page led to a label bidding war, with Rise Above Records being the lucky ducks to land these guys. I say “lucky” because if there’s any justice in this world, and if Satan truly holds sway over this earthly plane, Ghost will be the Next Big Thing. And this album came damned close to the top of the list, if it weren't for the next item...

(1) Enslaved – Axioma Ethica Odini: The more I listen to this, the better it gets. This definitely ups the heavy quotient from their previous album Vertebrae, and still manages to incorporate more progressive elements. The interplay between the blackened rasp of Grutle Kjellson and the clean vocals of Herbrand Larsen has never been better, and this time Herbrand doesn’t sound quite so much like the guy from 311. So it’s got that going for it over Vertebrae, which is nice. It’s album of the year. Easily. And it’s usually REALLY HARD for me to make these kind of calls.

The Best Heavy Metal Albums of 2010, Part 2

Continuing on from where we left off, more of some of what I thought was the best.

(12) Twilight – Monument to Time End: I was let down by the first Twilight album. The potential was so huge, though, that it was hard to *not* be let down by whatever resulted. A Black Metal supergroup featuring Blake Judd from Nachtmystium, Imperial from Krieg, Wrest from Leviathan, Malefic from Xasthur, and Hildolf from Draugar? You’re setting yourself up for disappointment no matter what happens. But with this album, they’ve mixed it up a bit. The Black Metal core of Blake, Imperial and Wrest remain, but augmented this time by the mighty Sludge/Stoner/Doom influences of Aaron Turner (Isis), Stavros Giannopolous (The Atlas Moth) and Sanford Parker (producer extraordinaire, Minsk, Buried at Sea). The result is what Nachtmystium’s Addicts: Black Meddle Pt. 2 should have been (and admittedly came close to being). Heavy, throbbing, powerful stuff that’s as adventurous as it is conscious of influence.

(11) Zoroaster – Matador: Two words: Hell. Yeah. They’ve successfully managed to amp up the psychedelia without sacrificing focus, resulting in an album that’s simultaneously spacey and tight, while crushing you under layers of thick, rich, doom-laden guitar tone. It’s not all up to them having one of the best producers in metal (Sanford Parker) on board, either – it’s the stuff that the band brings to the table that ups the ante. These are, simply, some of the best songs they’ve written thus far, and the band’s performances are completely on point throughout the album. The one-two-three punch of opening tracks “D.N.R,” “Ancient Ones” and “Odyssey” just pull you in and keep you furiously nodding along with the music for the rest of the record. Not a weak link to be found here. Yet another album of the year contender.

(10) Danzig – Deth Red Saboath: While this doesn’t really push any boundaries at all, reclaiming ground once lost is often just as worthwhile, if not more so. To get the obvious out of the way, that title is ridiculous. But get past that, and you have what should have basically been Danzig V, instead of the weird shift off the rails that happened between Danzig 4p and now (don’t get me wrong – there are things I like off of every album the guy’s released, but there have been an overabundance of bad ideas and bad production decisions along the way). The production is dry and warm (though this would be better achieved if Glenn and Rick Rubin could get over their differences and collaborate again), and this lineup rocks harder than any band backing Glenn in years. The only problem I have is that the vocals are mixed too high on a few tracks and seem to ride over the instruments rather than seem to be of a piece with them, but other than that, this is a welcome return to form.

(9) Iron Maiden – The Final Frontier: Now this is a change. There are few typical Maiden tracks in the line of “The Trooper” or “Two Minutes to Midnight.” Instead, this is an album of epics. Almost as if they decided to make an album completely of progressive “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”-style songs. As a result, this winds up being their most expansive and exploratory album in years. Some have found this record boring, but I found it a constantly compelling listen (though, admittedly, it did take a few listens to get to that point). I love it when a band pushes itself out of its comfort zone and pulls it off. It’s what makes Maiden a continually relevant band, rather than an entertaining nostalgia act. They still have the chops to challenge themselves and their listeners, and that’s vital to staying relevant in this disposable culture. The album admittedly starts off kind of slow, but it grows as it proceeds, and by the time we hit “The Isle of Avalon” the record is hitting all the peaks it should. Bruce’s voice might lack some of the punch of his earlier recordings, but he suits himself to this material admirably, and the rest of the band turns in solid – as usual! – performances. The production is a little on the soft side, but that’s a small complaint overall.

(8) Ihsahn – After: Just one from the lineup of Norwegian Black Metal veterans on parade this year, the former Emperor frontman has unleashed his most progressive album yet. Like Enslaved further up the list, Ihsahn has transcended the Black Metal genre to become something completely his own, following a logical path from Emperor’s last album Prometheus – The Discipline of Fire & Demise and its boundary-pushing explorations. The new weapon in Ihsahn’s arsenal is his utilization of 8-string guitars, beefing up the bottom end of his playing with the addition of essentially two bass guitar strings. It largely foregoes the obvious Opeth influence of his previous album angL (while still keeping some of that album’s Pink Floydisms) in favor of incorporating elements of Jazz with the addition of saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby from Norway’s “BlackJazz” ensemble Shining. As always, Ihsahn has created a work of art that’s both eye-opening and compulsively listenable. The performances – in particular Ihsahn’s strikingly melodic guitar leads – are astoundingly accomplished, and the production is polished, but not glossy enough to smooth over the more abrasive aspects of the music. Make no mistake: this is a more extreme album than angL, and Ihsahn comes across as angrier and more aggressive than he has in years past. It’s not a return to Wrath of the Tyrant levels of pissed-offness, but it’s a “harder” record than you’d expect from Ihsahn at this point in his life and career.

(7) Burzum – Belus: Okay, I’m not going to even try to justify this. I could go on and on for paragraphs about how I’m trying to separate the art from the artist, and how Varg Vikernes (the sole individual behind Burzum) is a murderous, racist sociopath, and that the ultimate quality of Belus the album makes me want to forget about Varg the person, but I won’t waste your time. Look up Burzum, and if you think you can isolate this man’s recorded work from the things he’s done and said elsewhere, steal the album.

The Best Heavy Metal Albums of 2010, Part 1

Once again, sorry for deviating from the subject at hand, but I needed a spot to host this, and to me, Heavy Metal and Horror go together like peanut butter and chocolate. So, in no particular order (except for maybe the top 2 or so spots), let's take a look back at what I consider the best heavy metal offerings of this year:

(18) Watain – Lawless Darkness: This is a controversial release amongst the Black Metal faithful. Some see Watain as having diluted and simplified their music to gain mainstream acceptance. Some see them as always having been posturing clowns playing up an Orthodox Satanism angle to come across as more Eeeeeevillllll, and thus, more marketable. Some are not me. This is a more melodic, yet more serious in tone, extension of their previous album, Sworn to the Dark. Alternating between “chunky, mid-paced” and “pummeling” in the tempo department, and mixing it up with a strong sense of craft in structure and technical ability, there’s a better sense of dymanics on display here than previous. E.’s vocals have evolved from the typical Black Metal shriek to a more raspy shout, still abrasive but more distinguishable from the din than before. And any album that finds a place for Fields of the Nephilim mastermind Carl McCoy (his first guest vocal appearance anywhere outside of the Nephilim universe) is okay in my book. The production is more professional-sounding and modern than many Black Metal purists will find comfortable, and its epic length (75 minutes) may put some off, but it’s like being come at with a polished chrome sledge hammer in slow motion. You can take the time to admire its sleek beauty before it proceeds to bash your skull in.

(17) Accept – Blood of the Nations: The bands that have managed to successfully replace their established frontmen are few and far between. Then there’s Accept. Who could have thought that they could replace Udo Dirkschneider, possessor of the Most Metal Name of All Time? Mention Accept to your garden variety metalhead, and the tiny Teuton is the first thing they’ll think of. But damn it all if Accept didn’t manage to do it, and manage to get it right after a 14-year absence. Blood of the Nations is instantly classic Accept, and classic Heavy Metal. Wolf Hoffmann and Herman Frank consistently deliver on mighty riffage, the rhythm section of Stefan Schwarzmann and Peter Baltes drive the band like a finely-tuned V-8, and new vocalist Mark Tornillo steps gamely into Udo’s shoes. He’s somewhat similar in style to Udo, keeping his delivery in the same range, but brings his own personality and energy to the mix. It’s a passionate and lively performance that sends this album over whatever expectations I had going in. It’s not the album of the year, but it’s the comeback of the year, hands down.

(16) Finntroll – Nifelvind: The darkness and seriousness of previous album Ur Jordens Djup has been abandoned – with great thanks. That album tried far too hard to scream “hey, we’re not a joke band, people!” and wound up as an accomplished record in purely technical terms, but lacked much of the joyful spirit that has always fueled their best works. It was a necessary move on their part, it seems, because now that they’ve established themselves as a serious force, they’ve regained their confidence. And for a band that’s basically performing songs about trolls, that lighter touch is certainly needed. It might not be as tankard-hoisting anthemic as Nattfodd or Jaktens Tid, but it’s damned fine ale-drinking music nonetheless.

(15) High on Fire – Snakes for the Divine: Stomping, brusing, crushing, rasping, thrashing, screaming, punishing, raging, heavy, heavy, heavy. HoF’s best album to date. No more need be said, because if you dig HoF, what more do you need to know? And if you don’t, I don’t want to hear about it. ‘Nuff said! Excelsior!

(14) Kvelertak – Kvelertak: Black Metal plus Punk plus the hooky melodicism of Turbonegro (minus the blatant Alice Cooper rip-offs of Turbonegro) equals this collection of shout-along (if you can shout along in Norwegian) anthems. Reminiscent at times of later Immortal (or in particular the Immortal sideband I), Kvelertak confidently blend high-octane rock and roll with Black Metal’s intensity with more success on this debut than many bands working this side of the street (I’m looking at you, Satyricon) have managed on any of their most recent albums. If their US label had any sense, they’d have had this out in the States this summer, and would have been pushing “Mjød” as the summer anthem of the year. In a just world, you’d be sick to death of these guys by now.

(13) Grand Magus – Hammer of the North: With no shortage of heavy riffing, wailing leads, and powerful vocals, GM keeps getting better and better with every album, and how they manage to break the law of diminishing returns is an inspiring thing to witness. They continue on their run of winningly combining Stoner/Doom elements with NWOBHM/Judas Priest-style energy and melody into an unrelenting and constantly driving battering ram of catchy, headbanging fury. Why these guys aren’t one of the biggest things going is a mystery to me.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Goodbye to Ro-Man

I first met W. Shawn Murphy on the set of Rob Zombie's Halloween 2. We'd just recently moved to the Atlanta area, and as I'd been working from home, I had been rarely leaving the house. After about a year-and-a-half, I desperately needed to socialize with someone besides my wife and my pugs. So I started going to the Plaza Theatre, mostly to check out the Splatter Cinema and Silver Scream Spook Show film series. Shawn was a fixture there, and I'd seen him a bunch of times, but had never met him proper. One night, the Plaza had a sign-up sheet for people to be extras in H2. So I signed up. I worried that work would conflict with it, so I was planning to take that day off. Turns out that immediately before the day we were to shoot, I got laid off. Solved that problem.

So I still didn't know a whole lot of people there. At the time, I knew a couple of the guys involved, but not that well, and they were off getting things set up for the sequence to be filmed. So I was sitting around eating and playing some zombie shootout game on my iPhone. Shawn came up and introduced himself. He was going to be dressed up as Ro-Man from Phil Tucker's amazing Robot Monster. Amazing. That'd always been one of my favorite movies, I said. We talked about how accurate vs. inaccurate his costume was, and that I thought it was astounding that he'd gotten as close as he had on next to no money. We talked for a while, and then he went off to get his stuff ready, and I went off to get costumed by the wardrobe department because I was lame and didn't come dressed up as anything.

After the shoot was over, Shawn sat with me on the interminable ride back and we talked some more. We had a ton of stuff in common, turns out. We liked the same movies. We liked the same music. We hated people as a general rule, but the folks we loved, we loved (though he was always a little more curmudgeonly than I am). We loved Tiki. We loved drive-ins. We loved tourist traps and roadside attractions. Side shows and carnivals. Poster art and Japanese toys. Mad Magazine and Dr. Pepper (which we both would stockpile). Pinball and Elvis. Bacon and liquor. Tattoos and pin-ups. Monsters and Redd Foxx. Regional soft drinks like Kentucky's Ale-8-One and Chick-Fil-A Dwarf Houses. Our birthdays were a day apart -- he was exactly one day younger than me. From one bus ride, I felt like I'd known this guy my entire life. And when I overslept the next day and missed the bus to the next day's shoot, I was disappointed. Not that I had missed the shoot, but that I wasn't going to get to hang out with Shawn again.

He found me on Facebook after that day, and we ended up constantly going back and forth on topics both there and whenever we'd get together. Which wasn't as often as I'd have liked -- I live outside the city, and it made getting together more difficult than it should have been. He always took pains to introduce me to whoever it was he knew when we'd see each other, and he knew *everybody.* And this was kind of unique for me. I'm a generally shy person by nature, and it's hard for me to meet people. I just never mastered that talent. As a result, most of my friends have always been people I've worked with. Shawn was the first person in a fairly long while to be my friend just because he wanted to. And most of the friends I have now, I have because I met them through him, or because we were at the same events at the same time. One of the last times we got together, he introduced me by saying, "this is my buddy Aleck. His birthday is one day before mine, so we agree on pretty much everything." It meant a lot to me that he considered me to be that close to him in mindset.

Just over a month ago, November 4, we were supposed to meet up to see Ghost Riders Car Club play at a local Vietnamese noodle house, Pho Truc. He never showed. I texted him from the show, asking him where the hell he was; that the band was great, and the pho was insane. I asked a friend of his at the show if he'd seen "the Professor" (Shawn's nickname) around. Someone else at the counter with us said, "The Professor? Where is he? Wherever he is, he ain't happy. He's complaining about it."

Saturday, November 7, people started posting on his Facebook wall, saying that they were going to miss him. I immediately grabbed my phone and texted him again; asking what the fuck was going on, and was he leaving town or something without telling me. Then someone posted a message ending in R.I.P. And I felt my brain disconnect from my body, and I broke down like a little girl. Like I've done regularly ever since. Like I'm doing now.

Shawn took his own life. I didn't know he was in pain. I don't think any of us really knew. I knew he'd gone through a lot of shit this year; stuff that would have wrecked anyone less superhuman than he. but he seemed to be coping exceptionally well with it all. My wife Jenn, though, could see through it. She told me long before anything happened that Shawn was putting on a "tough guy" act to cope with it all. I wrote it off. He couldn't be putting on *that* good an act, surely. Fucker deserved an Oscar.

The memorial service was this past Sunday. It was held at the Plaza, which was appropriate. He'd have complained about it. He'd have been a smart-ass about the technical goof-up with the slide show. He'd have scoffed at how emotional everyone was being. He'd have gone off a bunch of times to get more liquor out of his car. I swear, I saw the bastard twice walking up the Plaza's aisle to the exit, because if you were at the Plaza and Shawn was there, that's what you'd see. I will probably always see him out of the corner of my eye, striding up that aisle, heading to the exit. Just now, I know he won't be coming back.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Seconds of Terror

Hey, movie trailers! Stay tuned, kids! But before I get into the bulk of this post, let me clarify a tangential point I made in an earlier rambling bit of discourse...

I was reading back over my posts, as I do, and I realized that I'd said a few posts ago that my dad was never big on movies. I left out an important word there: "horror." My dad's never been huge on horror flicks. He's always been more of an action and comedy guy, and I can't tell you how many times we've sat together just drenched in tears of laughter watching old Pink Panther movies, or Wile E. Coyote employing every invention from ACME in hot desert pursuit of a scrawny blue bird, or the oft-mentioned Young Frankenstein. It's just that horror has never been his particular cup of tea. As evidence, there's the fact that he nearly leaped 9 feet in the air from a seated position during The Exorcist; a feat that nearly broke the world's record and for which there is still a memorial plaque in Lanett's city hall to stand proud testament to my pop's athletic achievement. So, no. Not big on the horror movies is my old man. Big on physical comedy, an unapologetic fan of "Road Runner" cartoons, devotee of action stars from Bruce Lee to JCVD and from Arnold to Sly. And hell, he's the main reason I ever watched one of the greatest films ever made, Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. So no complaints from this quarter on his taste. Just a bit of clarification there before we get to the meat of the matter...

Holy christ. Movie trailers. TV spots, particularly. These scared the bejeesus out of me back in the day. The above one, for Dario Argento's 1977 classic Suspiria is one that I remember. The great thing about these is that they felt free to just throw some nonsensical bullshit at you that wouldn't have anything in particular to have with the movie at hand, but would just scare you senseless. A similar approach to the above was used in the trailer for Roger Watkins' Last House on Dead End Street...

Or hell, maybe they ripped that off from Suspiria instead of vice versa. It was the same year, and they ripped off elements from at least two other movies in its promotion: the "It's only a movie..." tagline from the (similarly titled) Last House on the Left and the "demonic little girl with the turnaround head" from The Exorcist. So I'm going to assume that the unscrupulous bastards who distributed the movie (without Watkins' knowledge -- he didn't even know that the movie had been playing under that title, or that it had ever been released) just ripped all of that off from the get-go. But if you're a prepubescent kid and you're seeing this stuff just pop up all unannounced on TV, it's going to scare the unholy hell out of you. And that was what was so frightening about it all: there was no warning. You'd be watching Sanford and Son or something, having a grand old time, maybe you'd see some "John Davidson Sings the Hits of Tony Orlando & Dawn" commercial, and then, POW! -- you're reduced to a quivering blob of jelly trying to hide from the short, sharp shock of the unexpected TV spot. Man, the one that did me in, though, was this...

I mean seriously. Who does that to people? Just 30 seconds of a ventriloquist's dummy in extreme (and tightening) close-up, reciting some insane rhyme that tells you absolutely nothing about anything, which concludes with the line "Magic is fun!...when you're dead," and some ultra-realistic eye motion. Who were these goddamned monsters??? Can they be punished now for their past crimes???

Going way back, the first one that got me was this one...

It's 1974, and there's something wrong with the Davis baby...It's Alive. Even the posters got to me, based purely on this TV spot. And from the same year, there was this unrelenting montage of pure, unbridled eeeevillll...

Now, you'd think that maybe being traumatized by these things would have forced me to run like hell from anything having to do with horror movies. But instead, it had the opposite effect. Because the folks in advertising may be evil, but they're evil geniuses. There's something intoxicating about the buildup and release of adrenalin you'd get as a kid seeing these blasts of fear. It's like a minute-long rollercoaster ride that tempts you with the notion that if *these* things are bad, the movies themselves might just kill you! And so you'd dare yourself. You'd quietly wish that these TV spots would come on, just to see if you could make it through them without screaming this time. And the thing is, as completely silly as these ads are today, they still creep me the hell out. I'm sitting in a dimly-lit basement right now, typing this blog entry while watching and re-watching these clips, and I'm almost literally on the edge of my seat, looking over my shoulder at every random creak I hear. These traumas don't disappear. I don't know if kids today have anything comparable. Stuff might be more explicit now, and you can probably get away with a lot more in a trailer nowadays than you could back in the 1970s; but with most modern movie trailers, you get the feeling that you've been told the entire movie by the time it's over, even if it's just a minute-long TV spot.

So now that we've gotten movie trailers and TV spots out of the way, next time, I think I'll talk about longer-form horror on TV from my days as a kid. Including the golden age of the TV Movie of the Week.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Drive-Ins, Spook Shows, and Time Slip Away

The local drive-in was just outside Lanett, where I grew up, in the town of Shawmut, AL (which would later get incorporated into Valley, AL; a more nondescript name for a conglomeration of related burgs you couldn't come up with if you might as well have called it "City, AL"). At the time, the Hi-Way Drive-In seemed like paradise. You could go in your pajamas, watch movies, fall asleep in the back seat (hey, I was under 10, and not able to enjoy the more steamy attractions of the drive-in), and still come away with memories of great movies. Or at least memorable movies. And if your folks wouldn't let you go see certain movies, you at least had the titles to engage your imagination. Coupled with the ads in the local papers, and tossed around with a heaping helping of TV spots, you could pretty much come up with a pretty decent approximation of the lurid grotesqueries being projected on the billboard-sized screen. And folks who lived closer to the theater than I did swore that if you crawled through the right patch of kudzu, you could see (if not clearly hear) all the restricted entertainment you wanted.

I remember all sorts of movies coming through town. Sunn Classic Pictures' offerings, any number of Kung-Fu flicks, the almighty Young Frankenstein (which I finally got to see there after having to miss it during its first run), the Cheri Caffaro vehicle Too Hot To Handle, and the requisite onslaught of horror movies. I'd give my eye teeth to actually have a listing of everything they showed in my childhood. How many movies that I've "discovered" during the years had their titles planted in my brain by passing by that marquee every day? They'd also occasionally have a fair back there as well to keep things interesting. Rickety rides, spookhouses, games and the like. It was the place to be. It might not have been the classiest establishment, but the place was lousy with atmosphere. I probably didn't see that many movies there, but I know I slept through a whole hell of a lot, the tinny soundtracks pouring into my unconscious brain from the window-mounted speakers as my folks sat in the front.

Sitting right in front of the Hi-Way was the Royal Rocking Chair Theatre. The big enticement there, of course, was that the seats rocked. They were also falling apart, but nobody let that stop them. It was your classic one-room auditorium with an enormous screen the size of the back wall. It was the kind of place where the floors were so sticky that after you left, you could walk up walls. As much of a monolithic establishment the Hi-Way was, I actually have more memories of the Royal. I'm sure this is at least in large part because the movies at the Hi-Way started so late, it kind of prohibited me from being able to attend as much as I'd wanted. But there were two incidents that took place at the Royal that branded themselves on my brain...One was seeing a gorilla in a cage (okay, a guy in a gorilla suit) outside the theater's doors. I don't know what it was in regards to. I don't know what it was promoting. But there was a goddamned gorilla in a cage out there. This was the kind of thing I could get into. This was showmanship. I didn't care what movie was going to be showing, all I knew was that if there was a live gorilla involved, it had to be good. Unfortunately, I couldn't have been more than 3 or 4, and there was no way my folks were going to let me go to this thing. I know that I raised holy hell about it, much as I did demanding to see any horror movie that came through. Shortly afterward (it could have been a year, for all I know...the time flows together in these twilight days), a real live Spook Show came to town. I wish I could remember the name of the guy who put it on. I just remember the newspaper ads promising "live snakes crawling down the aisles!" and "monsters come alive and sit right next to you!" Again, as much as I demanded, this wasn't going to involve me. I distinctly remember either my mom or hers telling me that I could get bitten by the snakes if I went, in a futile effort to scare me out of wanting to go. They probably knew best, after all, seeing as how I once nearly had a nervous breakdown seeing some guy doing a ventriloquist act with a Frankenstein's Monster dummy. But that was the last time either one of those things happened when I was a kid, and in these recent years as I've learned more about the classic Spook Shows of old, I've come to regret that I never got to experience one of them firsthand. I'd have lost my mind in fear, I know. I'd have come away traumatized somehow, I'm sure. But knowing that the time when these showmen took their acts on the road and entertained theaters full of kids with monster movies, magic acts, and horror-related fun'n'games; and that those days were just outside of my close that I could see their set-ups outside the theater but far enough away that I could never realistically experience them...well, all I can do is sigh. That, and be happy that there's the Silver Scream Spookshow in Atlanta (last Saturday of every month at the Plaza Theatre!) to bring back those halcyon days of yore.

I eventually went to the Royal pretty often. I'd go along with my folks, with birthday parties, etc. Every now and then, they'd have the "kiddie shows" on early Saturday mornings, which is where I saw a lot of sci-fi flicks I don't really remember the names of, and the insanely beautiful Toho production of King Kong Escapes, which I couldn't forget if you brainwashed me. As I got older, when I didn't require my folks being with me all the time, they'd drop me off and I'd call to have them come pick me up outside after the show. Thank goodness that my parents were lenient and that the ticket sellers at the Royal didn't give a shit, because otherwise I'd have never gotten to check out stuff like Return of the Living Dead and see Linnea Quigley dancing nude in a graveyard in between bouts of zombies seeking out the brains of the living.

But the Hi-Way closed down eventually, in that post-'70s malaise when for some reason, the vast majority of drive-ins closed up shop across this great country. The Royal continued on, though, holding on for a few more years. But in the early '80s, the home video revolution got under way, and it cut a huge dent in their profits. There were nights when they just closed up shop because nobody showed up to see anything. Movies promised as "coming soon" never came. They set up some spinning racks of VHS tapes in the lobby, and eventually that's all anyone came in for. And seeing as how almost all of the tapes were "rented out" because the people working the theater would let their friends just take stuff and never return it, people stopped coming in for even *that*. If people wanted to go see movies, they'd head down to nearby Auburn or Columbus, where the theaters were built next to malls and restaurants instead of next to a bowling alley in Shawmut. Or they'd rent them from Video Land (and more on them in a later post).

With a sense of surrender, the Royal closed, and was torn down. For days, the only thing left standing was the wall with the screen on it. Taunting us all, as if to say "though you wouldn't come in to look at me, you'll all be forced to see me now, for this last time."

For a while, in the space once occupied by both theaters, a grocery store-centered strip mall operated. Now, I think it's some local telephone company call center or something.

 All good things come to an end. Even if you don't know that they were good things at the time.

(Note: I was going to illustrate this, but could find no photos of either theater. These places are nothing but memories now.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Uncle Forry

It seems only right and proper that I actually follow through in blogging about Forrest J. Ackerman today. It is, after all, his birthday. 93 years ago today, on 11/24/16, he came into the world and changed it for the better.

To really understand his importance to me, you have to know a bit about his history. Now, I could talk about his importance as a literary agent, representing over 200 science fiction authors and providing publishing assistance to scores of writers over the years. I could talk about his importance in the world of fandom, his appearance at Ground Zero of practically every major science fiction convention established in the Western world, his creation of the idea of fans costuming *at* conventions, and his unwavering support of fandom in general. But this blog being devoted to what it's devoted to, I must talk about what is probably his greatest achievement: the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.

FM started publishing in 1958 to capitalize on the emergence of the "Monster Kid." The previous year, a package of classic Universal horror films sold under the banner "Shock!" was distributed to TV stations across the country, and the success was phenomenal.

Kids tuned in like crazy, and it only made sense for Forry to team up with Warren Publications to put out a magazine devoted to the genre. After all, he was among the biggest horror fans around, and maintained an 18-room estate (the "Ackermansion") where he displayed wall-to-wall artifacts from across the history of horror and sci-fi filmdom. So the magazine went to press, and immediately sold out. What was meant, at first, to be a one-shot special issue tapped into something that neither Forry nor Warren expected. And why not? Kids couldn't get enough of the movies, and they were only on once a week, so they'd want something they could carry around with 'em to feed that obsessive need for monster action. So FM started on a 25-year path, spreading the pun-filled gospels of Bela, Lon and Boris to all who'd pick up an issue.

I think I started getting in in 1976. At the time, I was buying everything I could about King Kong. The Dino DeLaurentiis remake was making news all over the place, and I was rabid to learn as much as possible about it. So I'm fairly certain that issue #125 was my first. If not that, then #126 because of the great Basil Gogos cover painting of Mr. Sardonicus from the William Castle flick of the same name.

And once you started reading FM, it was almost impossible to stop. Sure, features would get reprinted with more than a little frequency. Sure, the same photos would pop up from time to time. And sure, Forry's puns might wear on you after a while, but he and his magazine served a vital role nonetheless. It was my constant companion. The next best thing to getting a new Gifford book every month. I read it faithfully 'til it stopped being published in '83. I bought a few issues of the revival line which started in '93, but it wasn't the same anymore, which I think was largely due to the behind-the-scenes conflict between new publisher Ray Ferry and FJA.

I moved to the Los Angeles area in 1998. At the time, I didn't know whether or not Forry was still welcoming all who made the trek to the Ackermansion inside. And in the two years I lived there, I never visited. I only realized that he was still giving eager visitors tours of his grand collection after I'd left and moved back to the East Coast. I always wanted to get back out there and make my pilgrimage to the Mecca of Monsters.

Forry died last year. I never made it. It's one of my biggest regrets.

Sleep well, dear Uncle.