My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: PUMPKINHEAD

Special Effects guru Stan Winston poured his best efforts into horror flicks ranging from the obscure or ill-regarded (The Bat People, Darkness Falls), to the cherished and influential (The Thing), but he only directed one horror movie during his career. Pumpkinhead is a well-built, country-gothic chiller with a memorable, somewhat laughable title that still makes me wonder if the general dearth humor in the film is a missed opportunity. Granted, it’s hard to inject humor into a premise that is essentially “What if the father from that Pet Sematary book couldn’t resurrect his son and resorted to conjuring a vengeance demon instead?”

The original trailer for Pumpkinhead is near perfect. It establishes the stakes, gives you everything you need to know about the story without spoiling much at all, sets the appropriate tone for the grimness of the movie, and gives us teasing glimpses of the creature, and lets us know that it plans to play with where the audience’s sympathy should lie,  all in less than 90-seconds. Only at the very end, with the forced, unnatural echo of the old witch saying, “Now it begins” while the shot choppily zooms out does the trailer trip itself up. Although I have to imagine that some audiences in 1988 might have snickered at the reveal of the film’s title after all of the shadowy, muggy, serious hellishness that preceded it.

Interestingly, hearing it spoken aloud by the great Don LaFontaine in the inferior follow-up trailer imbues the name with a befitting balance of gallows amusement. It sounds like some old, absurd-yet-dangerous backwoods cryptid. Something that doesn’t sound so intimidating in the light of day, but if you’re walking alone late at night and sense a creature stalking you, you might think to yourself, “Damn it, I’m going to be so embarrassed if I get killed by something called Pumpkinhead.”

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Short Story: “Thank You For Using Forced Honesty Assassinations”

This is a flash-fiction story I wrote that was originally published in From the Asylum, a good online mag that has been defunct for over ten years now. It’s rather short, so if I managed to place it somewhere as a reprint it wouldn’t fetch much. So instead of leaving it indefinitely on the shelf, I figured I might as well share it here.


Joel was sitting at a table with his co-workers in the company cafeteria—listening to Simmons’ humorless anecdotes about his daughter’s biker boyfriend—when the stranger in the dark suit approached him.

“Joel Pritchard?” the stranger asked.

“Yes,” Joel said, and immediately knew something was wrong. He had intended to respond with “Who’s asking?” The stranger’s voice had somehow pulled that simple “Yes” right out of him.

“Joel, do you care for most of your colleagues at this table?”

“Not…really,” he said. He wrenched his stare from the stranger’s gaze just long enough to make pleading, wordless eye-contact with Lawrence, who sat beside him. Lawrence gave him a clueless shrug and the stranger went on with his questioning.

“What of Mr. Daniels?” the stranger said, pointing to the grayed VP who sat across from Joel. “Or, specifically, what do you think of his wife?”

“She’d probably let us all screw her at the same time if we asked her to. She wouldn’t even need to be drunk.” He shuddered and tried to break the paralysis that fixed him to his chair. He heard Daniels gasp. The old man beamed his anger across the table and it stuck to the side of Joel’s face like hot tar.

“That’s all?” the stranger prodded.

“The money spent on inflating her tits would’ve been better spent on fixing her teeth—what the hell is this?”

Asking that last question left Joel’s throat sore. The words had been heavy and jagged, like he’d coughed up a giant, broken stone.

“Have you ever tried to kill a man?”

“No.”

“Have you ever given serious thought to killing a man?”

“Yes.”

“Someone at this very table?”

Yes.”

“Who?”

Joel hoped his withering voice would break before he could say the name.

“Lawrence.” In his periphery he saw his friend’s mouth drop open.

“Why Lawrence?”

“I got drunk one night and told him that I had tried to rape one of the admins at the company Christmas party six years ago. I was afraid he might tell someone.”

“And for that, you seriously contemplated killing him?”

Joel was reduced to nodding now.

The stranger’s mouth spread into a flat smirk. “Safe to say you’re pretty off in the head, huh Joel?”

Another nod.

“Likelihood of you keeping your job after this?”

“None,” Joel said, his voice strained and croaking.

“Likelihood of you killing yourself in the very near future?”

He sighed, exhausted. “Very high.”

The stranger gave a satisfied nod that indicated the end of questioning. He looked at the other men sitting at the table, offered them a polite valediction of, “Gentlemen,” and then left.

***

“Would you agree or disagree that our agent met your expectations?” the customer service operator asked.

“Definitely agree,” Simmons said. “He was even better than I expected. How did he do that?”

“Well, I’m not at liberty to discuss our agent’s methods, Mr. Simmons. But I’m glad to hear you were happy with the experience. Customer satisfaction is our number one priority. If you’re ever in need of our services again-”

“Actually, while I have you on the phone, I was wondering if you have any sort of preferred customer discount.”

The operator laughed. “Are you a man who collects enemies, Mr. Simmons?”

He smiled and looked out the living room window. A growling motorcycle pulled up in front of his house. Neither of its riders wore a helmet. The teenage girl on back of the motorcycle dismounted and gave the blond, heavily-tattooed driver a long, open-mouthed kiss before walking up the driveway toward the house.

“Nuisances more so than enemies,” Simmons said.

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“The Horrors of Travel”

Some of the scariest works I’ve read or seen didn’t come from a work of horror fiction, but from books about and accounts of historical disasters. The description of the sea suddenly overtaking an already flooded Galveston Island during the hurricane of 1900, as written in Isaac’s Storm, is as chilling as it is succinct. There are parts of Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire that are at least as terrifying as anything in the most affecting horror novels I’ve ever read.

While the above artwork from an issue of Harper’s Weekly, printed in September of 1865, isn’t supremely frightening, it is undoubtedly macabre. “[G]raphic, but by no means extravagant,” is how Harper’s described its illustration. The nonfiction book The Angola Horror–a recounting of the 1867 train wreck that occurred in Angola, New York–introduced me to “The Horrors of Travel.” The short article that accompanies the picture mentions the 1865 explosion of the steamship Sultana, and the drawing appears to reference it in the lower right hand corner.

In the upper left corner is a burning ship that might not to be a reference to anything specific, but the article is focused on accidents that occurred in 1865, even if it only mentions one by name. There were two other major maritime accidents that occurred in 1865: the Brother Jonathan sank off the coast of California, killing 225 people (92% of its passengers and crew) in July , and in August the SS Pewabic collided with her sister ship and took at least 100 people down with it in Lake Huron. The Sultana disaster was the deadliest maritime accident1 in world history to that point, and would remain so for at least half a century (depending on how one classifies the Halifax explosion).  It remains the deadliest maritime accident in United States History. The Brother Jonathan sinking was the tenth worst in U.S. history, and the Pewabic disaster was the fourth worst to occur in the Great Lakes. From April to August, a country that was barely exiting the Civil War witnessed three major marine shipwrecks occur along the West Coast, the Great Lakes, and in the Mississippi River, near Tennessee. So while there was no major incident involving a burning boat in 1865, it’s understandable that Harper’s would want to include one more dramatic image of a foundering vessel in this illustration, driving home the point that these incidents were taking place all over the country in a relatively compact time frame.

The train wreck references are a little harder to explain, given the article’s focus on 1865. The year saw no major, deadly railway accidents, although the head-on collision from the Shohola incident from a year prior might account for the crash depicted in top center of this illustration. The associated article makes no mention of a specific train disaster. Even without a more recent, major wreck to serve as inspiration, however, the specter of railway disasters–a relatively new and seemingly grislier spectacle at the time–still loomed so large that this illustration makes it a centerpiece steered by Death itself.

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The new “IT” Trailer isn’t half bad

The new full trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It came out today, and it’s a reasonably solid trailer. Nothing exceptional or new, no surprises, but we get some glimpses of some solid set pieces and what could be some effective scares. The carousel slide projector scene is the rightful centerpiece of this trailer, and I like that the trailer (and possibly the scene in the film, that remains to be seen) ends without a full reveal of Pennywise’s face. It maybe should have cut off just a bit sooner, leaving it as more of a hint in the trailer, particularly if that’s also how the scene plays out (I doubt that, but it’s possible), but I’m nitpicking there.

There’s also a scene involving hands trying and failing to break through a door that ties directly to one of the more harrowing moments from the book that I don’t believe was in the TV mini-series adaptation of It (been a while since I’ve seen that series, so I could be mistaken).

Some people are fond of saying that it’s pretty easy to come up with a good trailer, even for a bad movie, but I disagree with this. Perhaps it should be easy, but I’ve seen enough trailers that are either pitiful or forgettable to disbelieve that churning out a solid trailer requires little thought or effort. This trailer has its shortcomings and is fairly predictable, and as horror trailers go, it’s nowhere near as horrifically, hideously memorable as the first trailer for Sinister, for example. And its conventional approach means it can’t get within sight of the legendary, bizarre trailers for The ExorcistThe Shining and Alien. But it’s a solid trailer, nonetheless, and gives me at least an ounce of hope for the film, which means it’s doing its job.

Update: And now that a few weeks have passed and I’ve had a Pennywise-related nightmare, I might have to reconsider how memorable this trailer is. Something triggered the dream, after all. So well done, trailer-makers, well done.

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Today’s Short Story: “The Four-Fingered Hand”

Barry Pain’s short story “The Four-Fingered Hand,” initially published in 1911’s Here and Hereafter, is a great, swift tale that can be read on Project Gutenberg for free. You should, perhaps, read the story first, then come back to read this post because I’m going to dive into story details, including the ending.

Ready now? Let’s get to it.

If you read enough ghost stories, you know that supernatural omens and phantom harbingers are plentiful in ghostlore; banshees, La Llorona, black dogs, death coaches, The Flying Dutchman, and a host of others that I’m not naming, and plenty more that I’m sure I’ve never heard of. These entities and their freshly imagined stand-ins often pop up in horror fiction, because a being whose mere presence foretells death is ripe for producing frights. Given the familiarity of this character type, stories often add some twist to try to keep the audience on its toes, often utilizing dramatic irony that suggests predestination (the cursed person tries to avoid their death, only to accidentally cause their death through very actions meant to prevent it), or a plot turn involving a false presumption (the banshee appears, but the person sick in bed recovers, and someone else in the house ends up dead instead).

“The Four-Fingered Hand” has a simple, smart and horrifying twist on such a being. For any who didn’t take a moment to read the story, here’s a rundown: The titular four-fingered phantom is a hereditary haint that used to appear to the forebears of a man named Brackley. Any sighting of the spectral hand was a sign to “stop anything on which he was engaged.” Brackley’s now-deceased grandfather, a wealthy man, would cease specific business dealings or cancel planned journeys whenever he saw the hand. In the story, Brackley spies the hand, but is persuaded by his skeptical acquaintance, Yarrow, to ignore the hand’s warning, which on this night seems particularly mundane and silly. The hand appears to be warning Brackley not to continue playing a game of cards. Brackley disregards the warning, plays cards with Yarrow and another man named Blake, and nothing horrible befalls him while playing.

And then Brackley excuses himself to his room, where he’s promptly strangled to death. An imprint of the hand that choked the life out of him remains on his neck for his friends to see, and that handprint is missing a finger.

It’s simple and, I’ll go ahead and gush here, brilliant. A warning and a threat may not be synonyms, but they’re very close cousins, and one very can easily be mistaken for the other. Take the following sentence: “Do as I tell you, or you will be killed by me.” Shave the “by me” off the end and you’re still essentially saying the same thing, but that omission can lead someone to misinterpret your threat as a warning.

As Yarrow tells another man at the end of the story, there’s no reason to believe that an apparition that seemingly appears to caution people against danger or give advance notice of impending, possibly avoidable danger is actually doing anything of the sort. It could be in business for itself, showing up for “unfathomable reasons” that they don’t bother to explain. We read and write often about such specters and treat them as though they must be stuck on rails, set on a path leading to a destination everyone has marked on their map. I love this story for providing the simple reminder that even a ghostly, maimed hand might be more than just a plot device. It might have a motive, and might not care to share that motive with the reader, or any other characters.

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DON’T KNOCK TWICE Trailer Checks Off a Few of My Boxes

Spindly-limbed creature? Check.

Title that doubles as a warning? Check.

Black-and-white ink illustrations that look like they could be pulled from a fake grimoire? Pretty damn specific, and yet, that’s a check.

This isn’t a particularly great trailer. Pretty by the numbers, in fact. But I’m a sucker for the things that I am a sucker for, so it’s a given that I’ll be at least slightly interested in Don’t Knock Twice based just the small sample of it shown here.

There are some elements present here that I’ve come to  be wary of over the years, in particular the whole “incredibly powerful supernatural being is summoned by the most mundane action” thing. On one hand, I have a soft spot for such summoning, since Bloody Mary might be the first major fear I can remember in my life, and probably should be a subject of a future Confessions of a Fear Junkie entry. On the other hand, for many stories it makes very little sense, particularly when the supernatural creature is summoned to do someone’s specific bidding.  That said, the act of knocking on a door may not be what actually summons our supernatural antagonist at all, so I’ll won’t hold that against the movie just yet.

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45-minutes of Horror Stories From the Freddy Krueger Hotline

For a relatively brief period in the 80’s and early 90’s, back before every entertainment enterprise had a dedicated website, 1-900 numbers were ubiquitous. While some people might remember the 1-900 numbers being associated with phone sex operations, R&B singerspop stars, teen idols and cartoon characters had their own hotlines as well. This latter group of hotlinesd blatantly targeted children, with their commercials often closing with, “Kids, get your parents’ permission before you dial.” One of the other hotlines for fictional characters that targeted children, somewhat inexplicably, belonged to Freddy Krueger.

And now, courtesy of Dwayne Cathey’s Soundcloud account and the adolescence of actor/director Taylor Basinger, we have a 45-minute long archive of Freddy’s phone nightmares, recorded by a 14-year-old on his Darth Vader speakerphone.

Freddy doesn’t feature at all in any of these stories and for the most part only provides canned, repetitive introductions.  The stories themselves play out very much like super-condensed old-time radio horror stories. Just as gruesome as the darkest that Lights OutThe Witch’s Tale or Quiet, Please used to be, but with more swearing than you could get away with on the radio. The voice actors are all committed and once you get used to the rushed performances you might find the material more charming and entertaining than you’d expect.

Given the decidedly R-rated nature of the Elm Street movies, it might seem odd for Freddy to have a phone line that kids would be eager to call, but the Krueger character was always more popular with kids than with adults. Likewise, the character was bigger than the movies that spawned him, which paying adults made reasonably successful, but didn’t turn into breakout hits. Even adjusting for ticket-price inflation, none of the movies in the original Elm Street run come close to touching Scream, the original Halloween, or even Friday the 13th or I Know What You Did Last Summer when you’re looking strictly at the numbers. Many of the kids who thought Freddy looked scary and “cool,” and who dressed up in a hat, sweater and rubber-bladed glove for Halloween, often had to wait for the movies to come to home video or HBO to see their preferred horror icon in action.

Or they could dial a 900-number to get their Freddy fix, and hope that their parents wouldn’t notice those extra charges on the phone bill.

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Ellie Kemper Could’ve Been a Good Pennywise (At Least on Paper)

This occurred to me after I saw an image of Ellie Kemper today. Expressive, toothy grin. Proven ability to play a character who’s so impossibly cheerful it seems as if they’re from another world. She even has the red hair. Just let her play up the gleefulness until it’s unsettling, throw in some Kubrick stares, and I’m confident she could come off as perfectly menacing Pennywise the Clown.

I’m not one to suggest “gender swapping” characters at random, or just because it seems like the thing to say. I am, however, one to believe that certain characters needn’t be gender exclusive. There’s nothing particularly male about Pennywise. “It,” after all, is very much an “it.” Psycho clown, abominable pregnant spider, wolfman, mummy, incomprehensible eldritch being from another dimension. It can be anything It cares to be.

Pennywise being a man is, at absolute most, secondary to it being a creepy clown. And a part of It being a “creepy clown,” at least in screen, is that It looks a lot like a genuinely happy, friendly clown, who’s getting a kick out of doing horrible things.

pennywise-laughing

Some years ago, in my article about The Blair Witch project, I called out the fact that It and Poltergeist seemed to make adult coulrophobia sort of trendy. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, or that people who legitimately have this phobia should be ridiculed for it, but I do think it’s one of those things that other people commandeer because it somehow sounds cool nowadays to say, “Clowns are so creepy.” No, they’re not, and sometimes the more deliberately “frightening” they are, the sillier and, well, more clownish they end up being.

This, for instance, is not at all scary.

clowns-are-not-scary

And neither, really, is this.

clown-trying-to-be-scary

The most recent high-profile “scary clown” in pop culture came from American Horror Story: Freak Show, and “Twisty the Clown” has a design trying so hard to be scary he looks more like some sort of “edgy” Juggalo cosplayer. A hulking maniac wearing a human scalp over his head and a fake giant mouth to cover his shotgun-erased jaw doesn’t need the clown motif to be ostensibly menacing. It’s like giving Leatherface a clown outfit and face paint, as if the human-skin-headgear, chainsaw and homicidal childishness didn’t make him threatening enough.

Similarly, the new Jared Leto take on The Joker for the upcoming Suicide Squad isn’t even a clown anymore. He looks like the leader of some goth-metal-worshiping, heroin-freak street gang from the movie The Warriors.

I point all of this out because people seem to forget that what made Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise so iconic is that he often looked like this.

Pennywise_shower

If you were unfamiliar with the miniseries or novel, you might think he was delivering a harmless, misguided PSA about wearing shower shoes or something. He looks like the host of an 80’s Saturday morning kids show: Pennywise’s Playhouse. This picture of Pennywise has a lot more in common with the three goofy, mugging, Seussian clowns two pics up than that picture of the snaggletoothed fang monster with a colorful ‘fro. I can absolutely see Ellie Kemper exuding this kind of affability onscreen.

This guy that they actually picked for the part, meanwhile…

Bill-skarsgard

bill-skarsgard2

…look, hell, Bill Skarsgard might knock it out of the park*, but on first sight he gives me that Leto Joker vibe. Like he’s going to show up as Pennywise with “Deadlights” tattooed in cursive on his forehead.

I’d rather have the Tim Curry / Ellie Kemper type. Someone whose smile seems a little too big when you look at it for a few seconds. A little too friendly. Someone who appears sincerely happy, yet also looks like they’re up to something.

ellie-kemper-1

Yeah. That’s the face of someone who’s genuinely thrilled to be giving out a bunch of blood-filled balloons.

*Update: This was written before the first It trailer was released. Given what we’ve seen now and what the filmmakers are going for, Skarsgard certainly wasn’t the wrong choice for Pennywise.

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New Short Story Published in Devolution Z

The July 2016 edition of Devolution Z is available on Amazon now, either in Kindle format or paperback. My short story “TMI” appears second. It’s a story about the voices of history and the dead–specifically the ones located under and around a long bridge in Louisiana–and the modern outlets they can find in order to be heard.

Thanks to the Devolution Z staff for publishing the story.

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