Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Dynamite 3-D Poster Book (1979, Neal Adams, Scholastic Book Services)

In grade school, I was a regular patron of the Scholastic Book Club, the children's reading program that let kids order books and records from a catalog once a month and have them delivered right to their classroom.

If receiving a copy of Norman Bridwell's How To Care for Your Monster, or C.B. Colby's Strangely Enough in front of all your envious classmates wasn't incentive enough to place an order, there was sometimes a special offer for a free poster as a bonus. Admittedly these were usually lame "cute animal" posters... kittens clustered in tall grass or a droopy bloodhound wearing reading glasses, the kind of thing you might glimpse on the wall of one of the Bradford children on an episode of Eight is Enough.

But on one occasion there was a truly magnificent piece of art offered with your book order... a huge illustration of Dracula, standing in a graveyard against a full moon and a sky swarming with bats. And better still... it was in 3-D!

Now, the item below IS NOT the same image. I've yet to track down the exact poster that loomed over my bed throughout my formative years only to mysteriously disappear in the wormhole connected to my parent's garage. But after laying eyes on this beauty, I'm convinced they were both by the same artist.

This specimen comes from the 1979 Dynamite 3-D Poster Book (which would place it around the same time I remember acquiring my poster), and wouldn't you know it, this is a Scholastic Book Services offering too! (Dynamite was a celebrity-focused kids magazine, published by Scholastic, Inc. beginning in 1974. Like People Magazine for the swing-set set.)

The artist is Neal Adams, who has wielded a pen for both Marvel and DC at various points throughout his comic drawing career, which began in the so-called Silver Age and continues today, drawing both superheroes (Batman, X-Men, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, et al) and monsters, sometimes for illustrated children's records like A Story of Dracula, The Wolfman and Frankenstein (Power Records, 1975).

The Dynamite 3-D Poster Book contains six posters by Adams (The Werewolf, The Horse aka "Run Free", The Vampire, Skateboard!, Clown aka "Look Out!", and The Sorcerer), which fold out to a size of approximately 16" x 22", a pair of cardboard red and blue anaglyph glasses, and a brief article about the history of 3-D (emphasizing its success as a 1950's movie fad, although the 1960 non-3-D William Castle film 13 Ghosts gets an honorable mention.)

These posters are really gorgeous... break out the 3D glasses and enjoy!

On a related note... does anyone happen to have a copy of this little poster visible on the wall of Nicholas Bradford's bedroom? I recognize it as one of a series of funny-caption posters that were about half-page in size and printed on cardstock, this one a baby orangutan caught in mid-screech, with the cartoon bubble reading "How Come I Always Have to Take Out the Garbage?" (or comparable hilarious sentiment.) The one directly above that is another in the same series, a baby with the caption "Bald is Beautiful".

Oh dear, I have to sit down before I collapse in a heap of mirth. Anyone have images of these things?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Fourth of July, 1972

Read about Fourth of July, 1963 here.
Read about Fourth of July, 1976 here.
Read about Fourth of July in classic animated specials and cartoons here.

It's July 4th, 1972, and Jason Crockett (Ray Milland, X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Escape To Witch Mountain) is throwing his annual family celebration on his private island estate in the swamplands of Eden Gardens, Florida. But it's not just America's birthday, as Jason and several of his family members have birthdays in July as well. So this is a combined celebration!

There will be fireworks, games, water sports and cake.

But something is different this year. There are frogs everywhere. You can't take a step on Crockett's carefully manicured lawn without scattering a few. Of course, being located in a Florida swamp, that's not terribly unexpected. But there seems to be more than usual this year, and they are... hopping mad!

The movie is Frogs (1972, AIP). Despite sensational promises made on the one-sheet and trailer, these are not giant-sized frogs that can swallow an entire human being. They are just normal-sized, the biggest ones not much larger than a man's fist.

They aren't mutant frogs, either. There's a clear conservation theme running through the film (the tag line from the trailer is "Suppose nature gave a war...") right from the opening titles, in which Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, The Legacy), a photographer for an ecology magazine, is documenting the effects of pollution on the lake. Later we'll hear about environmental issues with Mr. Crockett's paper mill, and see him contaminating his own estate with the overzealous use of pesticides. But there's never any indication these chemicals have triggered scary genetic changes in the frogs.

The frogs don't bite. In the real world, some species of frog are known to bite humans when handled aggressively. But these frogs are picked up repeatedly, sometimes by children, and never curl a lip.

There are several deaths, but none caused by the frogs. One partygoer is mangled by an alligator while wading through swampland. Another surrenders to a dozen web-spraying tarantulas after injuring his leg. In one horrifying death scene (an outtake found only in the trailer and not the film itself) an elderly women sinks in quicksand.

Snapping turtles, snakes, centipedes, leeches, crabs, birds, and reptiles of every stripe and scale join the assault at some point. The only animal that doesn't directly cause a single death are... the frogs!

So what do these frogs do, exactly?

They teem.

That's right. Teem. Swarm. Swell. Amass.

They are not a physical threat, really. Their presence is, instead, a harbinger... a warning that if you are arrogant enough to build a palatial house in the middle of the wild, the wild is not going to respect your "no trespassing" sign. That the border of your estate is not going to be recognized, no matter how many adorable cherub statues are delineating it.

The frogs massing at your doorstep are a reminder that no matter how geographically isolated you are from the rest of the world, you can't pretend you are living on a 17th-century plantation, complete with black servants (Lance Taylor Sr., Blacula; and Mae Mercer, The Beguiled) in uniforms that wouldn't look out of place a hundred years ago.

This is 1972, and if the march of time doesn't make your once stately living room unlivable... the march of amphibians will.

Happy Fourth of July!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Unsettling Simpsons

My name is Brother Bill and I am a Simpsons fan.

I can spout Simpsons quotes off the top of my head the way a revival tent minister can quote the Good Book (and with comparable fervor!) Sure, the show has had its ups and downs--its salad days and dry patches--and the occasional unwatchable episode, but I just can't stay mad at The Simpsons. It gives so much and asks so little in return.

The Simpsons is one of the rare (maybe only? Roesanne is perhaps another) television series to truly embrace the concept of the Halloween special. And while there have been several Christmas-themed episodes, and the occasional story set around Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, or Valentine's Day, only Halloween gets the blood-red carpet rolled out for it every year, consistently and thoroughly.

Titled "Treehouse of Horror" (the debut Halloween episode, first broadcast Oct. 25, 1990, was framed as a trilogy of ghost stories being told in Bart's treehouse, and the name stuck) these non-canon episodes reimagine the first family of Springfield in a wide variety of fantastic scenarios, evoking horror films (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Amityville Horror, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nightmare on Elm Street), science fiction (Fantastic Voyage, Demon Seed, The Omega Man, The Fly) classic anthology television (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), fantasy fiction (Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe), and even Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Even relatively obscure horror radio drama Lights Out is referenced in one episode depicting a mist that turns people inside out.

Sometimes these episodes were actually set on Halloween, with The Simpsons telling ghost stories, throwing costume parties, or going trick-or-treating. The best "Treehouse" episodes captured the spirit of the season with macabre imagery and situations while still retaining the classic Simpsons humor.

But the series did not save all its "scary" content for the Treehouse episodes. Several non-Halloween episodes dealt with spooky subject matter (relatively speaking--it is a sit-com, after all).

"The Springfield Files" (S8,E10), an X-Files themed episode, follows Homer's nightly close encounter with a glowing, supernatural presence lurking in the woods. Contributing to the suspenseful atmosphere is the spine-tingling staccato of Bernard Herrmann-esque strings that, in a truly surreal spectacle, are coming from live symphony musicians riding together on a bus.

Bart carelessly sells his soul (symbolically represented by his autograph on church stationary) to Milhouse, and soon regrets it, in "Bart Sells His Soul" (S7,E4), a genuinely uneasy episode that manages to tap into real anxiety about loss of agency and regret. You can feel the existential desperation as Bart first begs for, then tries to take by force, a replacement soul from a frightened Ralph.

A stage hypnotist using Homer as his subject accidentally unlocks repressed childhood horrors in "The Blunder Years" (S13,E5), sending him into a days-long seizure of non-stop shrieking that manages to be both hilarious and horrifying at the same time. Peer counseling (and some "Yaqui memory tea") eventually help Homer come to terms with a long forgotten incident involving a drowned corpse in a canal.

Sometimes isolated spooky elements would creep their way into otherwise non-scary storylines. "Lisa's First Word" (S4,E10), for example, is a funny flashback episode in which a toddler-aged Bart adjusts to the arrival of his new baby sister, Lisa. But when Homer tries to entice Bart to vacate the crib by building a homemade clown bed, the results are accidentally horrifying...

...even at a distance!

It's Lisa who is afraid to go to bed in "The Girl Who Slept Too Little" (S17,E2), after a cemetery is built next to the Simpson house, casting nightmarish shadows through her bedroom window.

In "The Ziff Who Came To Dinner" (S15,E14), Homer thoughtlessly takes the kids to R-rated horror film The Redeadening when the family-friendly cartoon they hoped to see is sold out. The children cower in their theater seats as the story of murderous possessed doll 'Baby Button Eyes' unfolds.

Sometimes these moments were not scary in a traditional sense, but were funny or weird or strange in vaguely unsettling ways.

Like this uncomfortable moment when the barber, who Bart has been working for part-time, tries to pay him with an envelope of hair, grinning vacantly as a frightened Bart backs out of the store ("Lisa the Tree Hugger", S12,E4).

In "Secrets of a Successful Marriage" (S5,E22), a fight with Marge finds Homer evicted from the house and forced to live in Bart's treehouse. Lisa pays him a visit only to find her disheveled father fashioning a substitute Marge out of a shrub. "You will respect your new mother. Now kiss her!" he insists, while shoving the effigy in Lisa's face.

Homer and Mr. Burns get a severe case of cabin-fever after becoming snowed in during a team building exercise in "Mountain of Madness" (S8,E12). Hungry and freezing, they build snowmen to pass the time. But their complete disconnection from reality comes to the fore when they decide to dress the snowmen in their own clothes, a portrait of madness as they stand shivering before their creation.

In "Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade" (S14,E3), Bart becomes so addicted to their new satellite TV that he can't concentrate at school. He hallucinates a giant TV remote while his schoolmates turn into various TV characters, including a clown (not Krusty, ironically) who informs him in a matter of fact voice that will send chills down your spine, "It's finally happened, Bart. You've lost your mind."

In another example of disturbing hallucinations, Homer imagines himself becoming wealthy through pearl diving ("Saddlesore Galactica", S11,E13), waking up in a pearl-encrusted house from a pearl-encrusted bed, being served by a pearl butler who pours him a bowl of pearls for breakfast. But even in this fairy-tale fantasy, the spoonful of pearls shatters all his teeth, causing Homer to laugh like a mad man while staring at his gaping mouth in a pearl-encrusted mirror.

In "I'm Going To Praiseland" (S12,E19), Ned Flanders builds a Bible-themed amusement park to honor the memory of his recently passed wife, Maude. The tribute takes a turn for the creepy when Ned dons a souvenir Maude mask and mimics her voice.

In that same episode, we find out Ned has been preserving the indentation of Maude's body in the bed sheets.

In "Homer vs. Dignity" (S12,E5), Mr. Burns declares war on the town of Springfield, enlisting Homer in a series of cruel and disgusting pranks, which culminate in Burns posing as Santa Claus for the Christmas parade so he can throw buckets of fish guts on the unsuspecting children gathered to see him. The deliberate spoiling with liquid viscera of what should have been a beautiful moment had me flashbacking to Carrie White's prom.

Finally, this vignette from "Colonel Homer" (S3,E20) plays like a ghost story of sorts. Homer is on a long road trip and passes a restaurant sign, "Flaming Pete's; 75 Miles". The sign entices him and he clearly looks forward to arriving there.

A while later, a second road sign, "Flaming Pete's; 30 Miles". Homer is too tired from driving to react this time.

A third sign: "Flaming Pete's; Next Exit!" Homer perks up with excitement. Flaming Pete has been beckoning to him all night and they are finally going to rendezvous.

But there is no Flaming Pete's. Flaming Pete burned down years ago, on a night just like this one. Not sure who you think you saw waving to you out there on the road, but it couldn't have been Flaming Pete.

(Yea, yea yea---I understand the actual punch-line is that a restaurant with "flaming" in its name literally went up in smoke. But I tell you, there's a ghost story buried in there!)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Please, Sign In! (1981, Weekly Reader)

Back in the olden days before Internet social media profiles and emoji voting buttons, if kids wanted to document and share their likes and dislikes within their circle of friends, they had to get a little creative.

Enter "Please, Sign In!", a Weekly Reader entry that I ordered through my grade school Scholastic Book Club sometime in the early 80s (the publishing date is 1981). It's "compiled" by Edward J. Zagorski and Robert F. Gaynor, although that's really nothing to brag about since it's little more than a list of bland survey questions printed on a ruled notepad.

Unless TV sitcoms have lied to me, this type of friend-friendly questionnaire is called a "slam book", (the idea being the respondents write in their answers anonymously, allowing them to "slam" their peers with brutally honest opinions). Questions are supposed to be personal, embarrassing and salacious.

I first heard the term "slam book" in a 1982 Facts of Life episode, "Kids Can Be Cruel", where the book is circulating campus and the gals of Eastland Boarding School snicker over some of the cruel nicknames written in for an acne-scarred boy at neighboring Bates Academy.

The emotional consequences of such unhindered opinion-posting were also dramatized in a 1987 young-adult novel "Slam Book" by Baby-Sitters Club author Ann M. Martin.

Mid-90s magazine Ben Is Dead deemed slam books to be a significant paper artifact of Generation-X history, featuring them alongside cootie-detectors and M.A.S.H. fortune-tellers in the first of what would become a three-issue long retro-nostalgia deep dive (Retro Hell! Issue #25, 1995).

But "Please, Sign In!" is just a kiddified and commodified version of this DIY phenomenon, so the term "slam book" is never used within its pages, and the questions are of the non-controversial variety (with some cute illustrations by Richard Maccabe.)

Unfortunately this is not the actual specimen from my youth, but a recently acquired unused copy, so I don't have the pleasure of presenting my grade-school classmates hand-written answers, just the original dull questions.