Monday, September 25, 2017

Introducing the SKULLastic Book Club

The Haunted Closet blog started with a book... Baleful Beasts and Eerie Creatures, and over the years several of my favorite out-of-print-good-luck-finding-a-copy-on-Ebay selections have since followed.

But for some time I've been meaning to do a post on newly published books that have found their way into my library. In fact, I've been "meaning to" for so long, some of these "new" books are several years old already (sad foghorn). But that's only a few minutes in Haunted Closet years. The important thing is these titles are relatively new releases that are still in print, so should be readily available to order.

And since I can't seem to mention ordering books without flashing back to my elementary school Scholastic Book Club, I'm presenting this month's selections as they might appear in a children's book club catalog.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the first installment of... the SKULLastic Book Club (ooh boy, am I good or what?)




Paperbacks from Hell (Grady Hendrix with Will Errickson, 2017)

One category of horror media on which I'm embarrassingly unversed is the "drugstore paperback", those provocatively-titled tomes whose covers used to proposition me, in all their full-color embossed glory, from across the 10-items-or-less checkout line. In fact, outside a few Stephen King titles, only one book of this pedigree every successfully completed the passage from carousel rack to shopping cart: Rick Hautala's Night Stone (1986)-- and that was only because the nifty 3-D skull hologram on the cover commanded me to buy it.


That hologram cover gimmick was, it turns out, an industry-first, according to Paperbacks From Hell (Grady Hendrix, 2017). In fact, there are so many nuggets of information about 70s and 80s horror fiction crammed between its pages that I can confidently fake some level of expertise on the topic the next time it comes up at the office happy hour that I never go to.

Paperbacks... kicks off with an origin story of the horror fiction phenomenon's humble beginnings as an attempt to capitalize on the lingering popularity of older gothic romance novels, before launching into plot summaries, author and artist profiles, and musings on how political and cultural shifts of the day were reflected in their lurid pages (from haunted-house-as-housing-crisis-metaphor to pagan-cult-as-urban-decay-anxiety). The chapters are divided by plot device, with Satan worship, murderous children, mutant animals and more getting their turn in the spotlight.

But Paperbacks... also functions as an art book, with full-color illustrated covers reproduced on every page. Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction provides a recommended reading strategy in the afterword.



Are You in the House Alone? (Amanda Reyes, 2017)

Are You In The House Alone is a love letter to that most unusual hybrid, the television movie. You'll find here essays on the medium from various contributors (editor is Amanda Reyes, of Made For TV Mayhem) but the meat of this book is the over 200 pages of micro-reviews, organized by era (the years 1964-1999 are covered), with a separate section reserved for Stephen King adaptations.

Being a killjoy, I naturally skipped right to the index first to see if they remembered to include my pet obscure TV movie, 1985's Final Jeopardy. They didn't. But I'm not going to complain about getting only one puppy for Christmas, because literally all my other favorite TV films get coverage here, including King adaptations Salem's Lot and It, true crime dramatizations Helter Skelter, The Legend of Lizzie Bordon and Guyana Tragedy: The Jim Jones Story, disturbing creepers Bad Ronald and Born Innocent, supernatural thrillers Baffled!, Don't Go To Sleep, Dark Night of the Scarecrow and This House Possessed, monster movies The Bermuda Depths, Gargoyles, Killdozer, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, The Last Dinosaur and Snowbeast, Satanic scare films Devil Dog: Hound of Hell, The Initiation of Sarah, Horror at 37,000 Feet and Satan's School For Girls, early Spielberg works Something Evil and Duel, slasheresques Home For The Holidays and John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me, the Kolchak series predecessors The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, and Dan Curtis anthologies Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night.

And for every one of those, there are a dozen entries for films that were completely unknown to me and have now been added to my ridiculously ambitious "watch list". This is a book you'll read at least once for pleasure, and then want to keep at hand for reference.


Art of Atari (Tim Lapetino, 2016)

This is how art books should be done. A heavy hardback with beautiful full color layouts on every thick glossy page, this magnificent brick of a book showcases the promotional and package art that launched a thousand ROM cartridges in the 1970s and 80s.

Early home video game graphics were often simplistic and crude thanks to the hardware limitations of the era, so the packaging art was not merely a marketing tool, but served as an extension of the game playing experience itself, priming the players' imagination with rich renderings of the characters and environments they would encounter as a mere grid of cubes on their TV screens.

Consoles, peripherals, and unreleased hardware prototypes are also presented here for your aesthetic consideration. But Art of Atari is not a mere picture book. The history of the Atari company is told here, one cartridge box at a time, along with artist bios, and peppered throughout with interesting bits of trivia (like the fact that the only reason a chess game was released for the Atari 2600, a system woefully inadequate for such a demanding piece of programming, was due to a threatened lawsuit prompted by the appearance of a chess piece graphic on the original system box art.)


Deep Dark Fears (Fran Krause, 2015)

I had not heard of Fran Krause or the website that inspired this kinda cute, kinda creepy book of comic strips depicting various phobias, anxieties and nightmares collected from his readers, but after reading Deep Dark Fears, I'm looking forward to the follow up volume. Some are funny, others resemble ghost stories or urban legends, and many tap into that collective Jungian swamp of shared nightmare tropes that have haunted us all at one time or another (teeth falling out, sudden nudity in public, etc.)



Monster Mash (Mark Voger, 2015)

Subtitled "The creepy kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972", Monster Mash opens with a forward by legendary horror host Zacherle, before diving head first into all aspects of the monster-kid phenomenon, with page after page of attractive, full-color magazine-style layouts. Topics range from the Universal monster dream team of Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf-Man, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man, whose package film reissues in the 1950s captivated a new generation of young fans, to horror magazines Famous Monsters of Filmland and Creepy, novelty music (the Del-Aires appearance in "Horror at Party Beach" and Bobby "Boris" Pickett's eponymous hit), television shows (The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Outer Limits, Dark Shadows), Aurora plastic model kits, Mars Attacks trading cards, Ben Cooper Halloween masks, spooky Saturday morning cartoons (Scooby Doo, Milton the Monster, and The Flintstone's new neighbors The Gruesomes), hot-rod culture (Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Weird-Oh and Rat Fink characters), and more, more, MORE!

I should add that the photo of the author as a child dressed as Dark Shadows vampire Barnabas Collins is adorable.



Collecting for Dragon's Lair & Space Ace (Syd Bolton, 2013)

I've previously expressed my love for the Don Bluth animated laserdisc games Dragon's Lair and Space Ace (you can add Dragon's Lair 2: Time Warp to that list as well, although having been released years later when video arcades were on the decline, it's the machine I've spent the least amount of time on).

To me, these games represented a cosmic merging of two great loves, video games and Disney animation (Bluth was a former Disney animator who left to form his own studio in the early 80s due to concerns about quality standards at the house of mouse).

Collecting Dragon's Lair & Space Ace catalogs every arcade cabinet variation, home system adaptation, promotional item, magazine cover and toy relating to Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. Save a few very rare items, everything is pictured in full color photographs. Most fascinating to me are the early computer adaptations that employed considerable artistic license in interpreting the unique motion-picture style game play on puny 8-bit and 16-bit systems that still relied on magnetic media (it wasn't until the early 90s, when CD-ROM technology started to become commonplace, that the home versions actually began to resemble their arcade inspiration.)

There are also sections briefly covering Don Bluth's feature animation work, references to the laserdisc games in pop-culture, and unofficial emulations and fan-made homage.

This book runs a little pricey but is a must have for any Don Bluth fan.



Rack Toys: Cheap, Crazed Playthings (Brian Heller, 2012)

There are plenty of books out there for toy collectors, but this is the only one focusing on those inexpensive, poorly-made pieces of junk that were found exclusively in what passed for the toy department at your neighborhood grocery store, pharmacy or gas station.

Rack Toys (by Brian Heller, of Plaid Stallions) is a celebration of those wonderful blister-packed bits of molded rubber and plastic from the 1970s and 80s that never seemed to turn down a branding opportunity, no matter how outlandish. It's almost as if the head of marketing picked a random licensed property from one hat and a toy from the other and demanded his staff to "make it work."


But you'll be too charmed by the full color photographs of these toys and their packaging to question the logic of a Popeye grooming kit, Rocky Balboa bubble-blowing set, Space 1999 water gun, Star Trek silly putty, Planet of the Apes stunt motorcycle, Spider Man bowling game, or parachuting Incredible Hulk doll.

There's even a chapter reserved for "knock off" toys that couldn't quite land the licensing agreement so just cranked out generic imitations (e.g. "Astro Ape", a doll clearly modeled after Planet of the Apes, and a "Star Fleet" space communicator that boldly goes where no officially licensed product has gone before.)

While still in print, I've found this book is sometimes unavailable at Amazon, so you might want to just go straight to the Plaid Stallions store instead.


Mail-Order Mysteries (Kirk Demarais, 2011)

In third grade, some friends and I conspired to order a set of pellet guns we saw advertised in the pages of a comic book. Really fires! 50 pellets included! Realistic gun action and sound! Convinced our parents wouldn't approve of us receiving dangerous firearms in the mail, we swore an oath of secrecy as we made an on-foot pilgrimage to the corner 7-11 to buy a money order (even at that young age we knew not to send cash in the mail!) and arranged to have the weapons delivered to a drop-house (i.e. a friend whose parents weren't as attentive as ours and less likely to intercept the package.)

Six to eight weeks later we took delivery of three plastic "old West" looking six-shooters and 150 white pellets that resembled Tic-Tacs. These were not the deadly pump-powered air guns we were hoping for. They were, in fact, rubber-band "powered", and if you took careful aim and held the gun level, the plastic Tic-Tac would skim out the end of the barrel with all the force of a finger flick.

It wasn't quite Stand By Me, but a little innocence was lost in that amusing episode from childhood, and it taught me to be skeptical of any deal that seemed too good to true.

Mail-Order Mysteries (by Kirk Demarais of Secret Fun Spot) compiles all those sensational over-promise, under-deliver comic book ads I remember from my youth, which walked that razor-thin line between hyperbole and straight-up mail fraud. They are all here: X-Ray specs, hypno-coins, 100 Toy Soldiers footlockers, "Monster-Sized" monsters and remote control ghosts, dollar-bill printers, secret agent spy scopes and Sea Monkeys.


If that was all there was, the book would warrant purchase. But Mail-Order Mysteries ups its game considerably by also presenting the actual items themselves alongside their respective ads, accompanied by the author's humorous color commentary (on the plastic soldier 'flat' figurines, Demarais observes they "lacked one of the three dimensions we typically look for in a toy.")

If you've ever wondered what exactly those "X-ray specs" were all about, or how they could possibly ship to your home a working nuclear submarine "big enough for two kids" for $6.98, this is a peek behind that curtain.

Special Offer! Order any 3 books and receive a free poster!


(book club order form graphics and poster were found at Branded In the 80s. Set aside a few days and take a look.)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Waiting for Star Tours (Time Voyager, 1986)

1985 was a long, long time ago...

It was a dark time for Star Wars fandom. The original trilogy had completed two years earlier, with no realistic prospect of new films on the twin-starred horizon. Fans desperate for new Star Wars content had to settle for made-for-TV kiddie fare like the Ewok movies (1984's The Ewok Adventure, and its next-year follow up, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor), and cutesy Saturday morning cartoon The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour. Print media spin-off material like the daily newspaper comic strip had ceased publication in March '84, although the Marvel comic book series trudged along for another year before finally wrapping it up in May 1986 after a 107-issue run.

There hadn't been a new Star Wars novel since 1983's Lando Calrissian adventures, and the Timothy Zahn books that would kick-start a new wave of Skywalker fiction wouldn't launch until the 1990's. Immersive Star Wars videogames as we know them today were not yet a thing, and the first role-playing game to tap the Star Wars universe was still two years away (West End Games' Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game book, published in Oct. 87.)

Star Wars, it seemed, was winding down.


Geeks had to work a little harder in those dark times before The Internet to stay in the loop with their favorite fantasy franchises. That sometimes meant ponying up real money for dues membership to fan organizations like The Official Star Wars Fan Club, which remained active through the 1980s. The club's printed newsletter, Bantha Tracks, was still published quarterly, although the focus had turned to other Lucas-related ventures like the Indiana Jones series, Labyrinth, and Howard the Duck, while Star Wars-related content was relegated to the occasional backwards-looking retrospective piece (the club would eventually transform into the more appropriately named Lucasfilm Fan Club in 1987.)

So the good news couldn't have come sooner when it was announced in the Winter 1985 issue (Bantha Tracks No. 27) that Lucasfilm would be collaborating with Disney Imagineers to develop a Star Wars theme park attraction!


Turns out Star Wars was alive, and in perfect hibernation!

The prospect of my two favorite childhood things--Disneyland and Star Wars--finally coming together, was too good to be true. My imagination was ignited with fantastic visions of Disneyland someday devoting an entire land to Star Wars, or maybe even partnering with Lucasfilm to release a slate of new Star Wars films.


But those were just pipedreams.

Naturally, I devoured whatever information I could find about this mysterious new Star Wars ride while it was in development. It was to be called Star Tours, and would use cutting edge flight simulator technology, in which a tilting theater and other interactive elements moved in synchronization with newly photographed special effects footage created by ILM, to send riders on a trip around the post-Return of the Jedi galaxy, made safe for tourism thanks to the defeat of the Empire.

The Bantha Tracks blurb teased a June 1986 opening date, which was later moved to January 1987. This seemed like a huge span of time to wait (much longer than the mere 6-8 weeks it took to receive my considerably less anticipated mail-in Kool-Aid Man videogame ...and in order to cope with that excruciating wait, I had thrown myself into a strange "Kool-Aid Man phase".)

How was I expected to bide my time until Star Tours opened?

Enter Time Voyager.


Opening Memorial Day, 1986, six months before Star Tours, Time Voyager was an "experience of astonishment and wonder" that took passengers on an "intergalactic time travel experience" that blended "special effects, advanced computer technology, three-dimensional imagery, and Dolby sound and motion in an interactive global theatre setting".


Time Voyager was commissioned by Wrather Port Properties, Ltd. as part of a campaign to reinvigorate the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose exhibits they managed in Long Beach, California. The attraction itself was designed by John F. Decuir, Jr., a special effects designer for film who had worked on Ghostbusters and Fright Night (his father, John Decuir, had done design work for Disneyland, Disney World, and EPCOT Center.)


Installed under the geodesic dome that housed Howard Hughes' H4-Hercules plane, Time Voyager consisted of a sixty-foot diameter, 100-seat carousel-style theater that rotated to face a circle-shaped movie screen (or "porthole"). Electronic tilting seats and in-theater laser effects promised an experience of flight through Earth's atmosphere and into space itself.


Additionally, riders could expect a "close encounter" with friendly aliens called Orbons, who lived in the colony of Orloxin, "known to Earthlings as Halley's Comet".

That a reference to Halley's Comet was worked into the ride narrative was a timely one in 1986, as the short-period comet was completing another 75-year circuit and was visible not only through astronomer's telescopes but in various pockets of pop-culture as well (the 1985 Claymation film The Adventure of Mark Twain depicted a fantastic attempt to visit Halley's Comet on a spaceship, while software publisher Mindscape had released an educational game, The Halley Project, for home computers.)


So we have intergalactic travel, aliens, a flight-simulator style motion theater, laser effects, "astonishment and wonder"... on paper, this sounds like it has all the elements of the anticipated Star Tours attraction. Time Voyager may very well offer a sneak preview into what to expect when Star Tours finally opened the following year, was my thinking, as I convinced my family to purchase tickets ($11.95 for adults, $7.95 for children) when we visited on our 1986 Summer vacation.


Now, I had a real hard time finding information about Time Voyager on the web, outside of promotional blurbs in archived travel magazines. No personal memories posted by riders or vintage vacation photos. No discussions about the history of the ride on fan sites, or virtual recreation videos. Even designer John Decuir Jr's on-line bios frequently omit it (the only mention I could find was at the bottom of his Attractions resume at his website, here.)


And I think I know why.

Time Voyage, it turns out, was very lame.

More disappointing than that awful Kool-Aid Man game!


First of all, the "porthole" screen was just too small. It didn't come anywhere close to filling your field of vision, so the intended immersive effect of a simulator was never achieved. It felt more like you were watching a large television screen than looking out a spaceship window.

Second, rather than the entire theater tilting to simulate the pitch and roll of flight, the theater remained stationary and only your seats moved, tilting jerkily left or right. This simply didn't work. The screen remained stationary as well, so you felt completely disconnected from the on-screen action while watching it from your uncomfortably tilted seat.

Finally, we have to talk about these Orbons. These were the friendly extra-terrestrials that we encounter as we pass Halley's Comet.

Too friendly.


The aliens looked like little bald gremlins, and appeared in person as a full-head costumed character. At some point in the ride, an Orbon would emerge from hiding and proceed to dance around and wave at the audience from the front of the theater.

The handicapped seating was also located towards the very front, putting any wheelchair-seated rider in uncomfortably close proximity to the Orbon's performance area. On my visit, the Orbon, perhaps conscious that a wheelchair rider was practically sharing the stage with him, kept hugging him, patting him on the head, and otherwise making the poor guy part of the show, whether he wanted to be or not. It was all a little cringey, even to this obnoxious teenager.

I have no idea how long Time Voyager lasted, but I did not find it mentioned in a Dec. 1988 blurb for the Queen Mary/Spruce Goose attraction, and it wouldn't surprise me if had closed sooner than that.

Later that day, while roaming around the Spruce Goose exhibit, I passed a mom and dad with a young boy of maybe six or seven, who was cheerfully singing to himself.

The words his sing-song voice was reciting were, "I hate Time Voyager." Ouch!

Anyone have memories of this short-lived, definitely-not-to-be-confused-with-Star-Tours attraction?

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!