Sunday, April 23, 2017

From Brewed Awakening to Galaxy Express

Extensive road and sidewalk construction in the district, not to mention the ever-present threat of rain, likely kept at least some patrons from Brewed Awakening's Spring Book Festival yesterday in Danville, VA, but it still drew a respectable crowd, and I moved enough scary books to ruin a good night's sleep for any number of folks. Since its early days as Binding Time in Martinsville, the café/bookstore, under the proprietorship of John and Bonnie Hale, has hosted the multi-author book event at least once, usually twice each year. I have missed one or two for various reasons, but as a regular participant, I have always enjoyed attending the festival, and — best of all — it has been, without exception, a profitable venue for me.
Jill Van Horn, author of Sheep Eaters, and friends

While I miss having the café right up the street from Mom's place in Martinsville, I certainly appreciate the newer location, in the restored tobacco district in Danville. There's still a lot of work going on in the area; in fact, until 24 hours prior to the festival, the sidewalk where a number of us set up our tables was non-existent — just a big old patch of mud (and there were plenty of big old patches of mud remaining all around the establishment). Happily, while some serious rain came down both before and after the event, the weather cooperated sufficiently to allow those of us who had set up outside to remain there, although the serious humidity did have a less-than-desirable effect on some copies of our books.

In addition to reading material, Brewed Awakening offers a fine selection of sandwiches, soups, coffees, sweets, and other treats that have earned them the 2016 Best of Virginia award, among others. For lunch, I had a delicious roast beef on naan sandwich, with BBQ mayo and jalapeno jack cheese, called The Dibrell, with literally the best potato salad I've ever tasted. And their coffee... oh yeah, it rocks.
Photo by Bonne Helms-Hale

The nice thing about the location in Danville is that it's close to a number of other attractions for both Ms. Brugger and I — namely, 2 Witches Winery and Brewery, which we enjoyed sampling; Vintages by the Dan, a classy little wine shop offering a fine selection of spirits and free wine and beer tastings; the extensive Lou's Antique Mall, where Ms. B. can get lost for hours; and Golden Leaf Bistro, where we had an excellent dinner last night and which we have enjoyed on any number of visits.

After all this, Kimberly and I returned to my place for a showing of Galaxy Express 999, which likely remains my all-time favorite example of classic animé. I've been a fan of Leiji Matsumoto's creations since discovering them via Space Cruiser Yamato (a.k.a. Star Blazers) in the late 1970s, and I've recently been watching the 2002 animé series, Captain Harlock: The Endless Odyssey, which I'd not seen before. While it may not be the best of the series, it has served to reignite my somewhat dormant interest in all things Harlock.

A much-needed good day, and we thank you.
Preparing for the opening (photo by Bonnie Helms-Hale)
Author Tom Perry, who specializes in volumes of Virginia and North Carolina history
A busy alley!
For me, tasty flight of local brew from 2 Witches: a sour wheat ale, a triple IPA, a coffee stout,
and a scotch ale; and for Ms. B., a glass of traminette

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"The Author Speaks" (or "How to Drive Dozens of Young Innocents into the Pit of Despair")

The author offers words of wisdom to prospective young writers: "I hear there's a lot of money
to be made servicing HVAC systems." (Photo by Stephen Varsi)

My good friend and educator par excellence, Suzy Albanese, recently invited me to speak on the subject of writing to her English and Creative Writing classes at Greensboro's Piedmont Classical High School. Now, I'm always honored when someone considers me worthy of sharing some wit and wisdom to a class full of impressionable young minds, but I will admit to having some trepidation about the prospect, for at various times in the past, I have taught and/or given presentations to human people of all age groups, from elementary school through college. It's not always pretty. There was that nine-year-old girl in a class at the local art center many years ago whose dad was a lawyer, and she assured me that he would sue the pants off me if I made her complete any assignment she didn't consider fun. To this day, I'm not sure how I managed to keep my pants. On the other hand, when I taught an art course for adults at a community college once long ago, one of my students turned out to be my toughest high school English teacher, and the payback was sweet delight. As often as not, though, I've had to nurse that continual worry about losing my pants, particularly when the students are of junior high to high-school age.

Happily, this most recent adventure rendered my concerns moot, for the crew of students attending my (totally improvised) talk proved intelligent, attentive, courteous, and personally engaging. (I suspect they have some good teachers and — clearly — more than a dash of home training.) Many of them were able to converse knowledgeably about not only the fundamentals of writing in general but about horror in particular. Now, some of them might have been disappointed to learn that I do not hang out regularly with Stephen King, or live in a huge haunted house overlooking an ancient graveyard, or write a bestseller every night so I might travel the world in luxury, but no one appeared to be discouraged from diving into the pit and exploring the various shadowy corridors of their own creative minds. Try as I might, I don't believe I convinced anyone to abandon their literary aspirations for more secure and exhilarating adventures in the world of certified public accountancy. More's the pity, for surely we need more accountants; I certainly do come tax time.

At the end of the scheduled talk, several of the students came to converse with me one-on-one, which I must say I appreciated. All in all, I came out of the school with a bit more faith in at least some members of the younger generation than I had going in.

Thank you, Mrs. Albanese, for the experience was a pleasure.
These young folks are actually listening and taking notes, not fiddling with their phones.
C'est magnifique! (Photo by Stephen Varsi)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

From Burger Warfare to Round Peak and Beyond

It's been one of those nonstop, on-the-go weekends involving lots of socializing, some wine, a bit of travel, occasional geocaching, and plenty of good food — not to mention making considerable progress on my current work-in-progress, the deadline for which is rapidly approaching. All very gratifying, but in the end more exhausting than relaxing, and damn if I don't need some time to rest and recuperate, for I am old.

It began on Friday evening, when Ms. B. and I met our friends Doug and Jenny for dinner at Greensboro's Burger Warefare, a reasonably decent joint with an entertaining military theme that includes numerous giant battle robots situated both within and without. Before we knew it, we were doing the middle-aged barhopping thing, stopping in at the nearby Tap Room to sample their wares, and finally 1618 Midtown, which Kimberly and I had visited several Halloweens ago, only to find ourselves not overly enthused by its fare or ambience. Things have changed there, however, all for the better, and we were both quite taken with the improvements. We shall no doubt return.
A couple of grumpy old people
A somewhat less grumpy couple
Saturday, it was up bright and early to meet our friends Terry and Beth for a picnic lunch at Round Peak Vineyard and Brewery out beyond Mount Airy, home of the beautifully named "Skull Camp" brands, which we enjoyed sampling. Here we found great atmosphere, beautiful views, and good wine, at least by North Carolina standards. From there, it was on to Mount Airy and Old North State Winery, which we've visited a number of times, though in the past we've been more taken with their offerings than the current. Only three dry reds available this time around, one of less-than-stellar taste, two of better but hardly superlative quality. After all that, we headed to Winston-Salem and a pizza dinner at The Mellow Mushroom. Well-stuffed, that would be us.

The geocaching, while not extensive on our western outing, was gratifying, at least. I was most taken with a cache called "Freeman Homeplace" (GC4P3ER), the search for which led us out to a wonderful old cabin on the lonely back roads not far from Round Peak. Years and years back, this was a favorite location for Round Peak musicians to gather and play their old-time music and hold weekly square dances. I can certainly see setting a good, old-time horror tale out in that area....

Today's geocaching outing with Bloody Rob took us out to the Union Cross/Wallburg area, southeast of Winston, where we picked up about a dozen mostly park & grab caches, with a couple of slightly more involved hides thrown in for good measure.

I figure if World War III is on the way, we may as well get in the good stuff now. But I tell you, it's tiring, this socializing thing.

Next week... the Brewed Awakening Spring Book Festival. Hope to see you there.
The Freeman Homeplace
A nice ride for Ms. B.
The view from the porch at Round Peak Vineyard
Terry, Beth, Old Man, and Ms. B. at Old North State in Mt. Airy

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

2017 Spring Book Festival at Brewed Awakening

COMING UP: Brewed Awakening's Spring Book Festival, on Saturday, April 22, at the store, located at 610 Craghead St., Danville, VA 24541 I'll be on location to sell and sign books (yes, my own; I get fussed at for signing other writers' books). I plan to have copies of The Monarchs, Blue Devil Island, Other Gods, The Gaki, and possibly others on hand, so if you are in traveling distance and possessed of exceptional intestinal fortitude, by all means, stop by. I'd love to see you.

Not only does Brewed Awakening sell books, they serve first-class sandwiches, wraps, and beverages (I'm especially fond of their hazelnut latte). And for you intrepid souls who enjoy geocaching as much as braving Rainey's terror tales, Danville offers plenty of caches — in fact, there's one ("The Crossing," GC1BR2C) directly across the street from the café. Good books, good refreshments, good geocaching.

Mark your calendar and join us.

Brewed Awakening Book Festival 
Saturday, April 22, 2016 • 10 AM–2 PM
610 Craghead St., Danville, VA 24541
(434) 483-2138

Friday, April 7, 2017

Softly Whispering I Love You

I did, I told you the other day that if you weren't good, there was more where "Soul Coaxing" came from. Well, I've been wondering about some of you, as the goings-on among my congregation of kindred souls have been somewhat suspicious. Thus I am posting another old "bad" favorite from my youthful days, and don't say I didn't warn you.

"Softly Whispering I Love You" by the English Congregation (1971) may be one of the most overwrought, saccharine pieces of music that anyone ever came up with, but when I was in seventh grade, I heard it on the radio from time to time, and it struck some meaningful chord in my then-lovesick little self. I was just discovering the crushing heartbreak of unrequited puppy love, and something about this song made me feel a little weepy (probably not for the same reasons it might make you feel weepy). Bear in mind, for my personal music library I have collected just about every 1970s hit that ever existed, good, bad, and bloody awful; there are worse things than this. Pray I don't foist them upon you.

But I did, I warned you. So here it is.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Damned Rodan's Buffalo Scorpion Wings

What You Need (for ten pieces):
For sauce:
  • 1 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1/4 tsp coarse black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup hot sauce (Frank's, Texas Pete, Tabasco, etc.)
  • 1/4 to 3/4 tsp scorpion pepper sauce (Tropical Pepper Co.'s is good, though not as hot as some; adjust amount to desired heat level)
For chicken:
  • 10 wing pieces (I prefer all drummies to flats)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp coarse black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp garlic salt
  • 1/4 tsp lemon pepper
What You Do:
  1. Preheat oven to 250°. While waiting, thoroughly mix the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.
  2. Drizzle the wings with the olive oil and rub to coat evenly. Pour the flour, salt, pepper, garlic salt, and lemon pepper into a lunch-size paper bag. Dump the wings into the bag, close securely, and shake vigorously until the wings are evenly coated.
  3. Place a wire rack in your baking tray and give it a good shot of cooking spray. Arrange the wings on the rack so air will circulate beneath the chicken. Bake at 250° for 30 minutes.
  4. Crank up the oven temperature to 450° and bake for 40 minutes. You may want to turn the wings about halfway through. These will be good and crispy.
  5. Just before the wings are done, pour the sauce into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Then drop each wing piece into the boiling sauce (two or three at a time is okay) for about a minute, turning with tongs every few seconds. Boiling the sauce allows the sugar in the honey to bond the sauce to the wings.
  6. Place the dead bird on a plate, devour, and holler.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Hanging with Bigfoot, and Other Amish Tales

Back home from a trip to the Ohio Amish country with Ms. Brugger, where we went for a few days to spend time with her parents, who enjoy visiting that area. I don't usually hear things like, "I'd like to visit Ohio" or even "Ohio doesn't suck," but I gotta tell you, in central Ohio, we found abundant beautiful scenery, with extensive flatlands that ended abruptly at dark, looming hills, laced with shadowy, winding country roads; numerous quaint, picturesque communities; and plenty of colorful characters, even though they dressed in black. Not to mention Bigfoot. Yes, he was there! Note the photo to the left. I can't say I had ever seriously considered going to visit Amish country, but when the Bruggers invited us to meet them there for a few days, taking them up on it seemed just the ticket.

We headed out at the ass-crack of dawn on Wednesday morning, bound for Zinck's Inn in Berlin, Ohio, where we planned to meet the Bruggers. Things started on a rather ominous note because, not long after we hit the interstate, we found ourselves behind a big old logging truck, whose trailer began swaying perilously in the wind, so that scenes from Final Destination 2 came flying fast and furious. It was quite the relief when we put some distance between that beast and us, and if it took out a slew of obnoxious young adults somewhere on the road, we were not around to bear witness. Or participate.
Oh, shit.
The Inn provided comfortable lodgings, very convenient to the central business district and other places of interest to antique treasure hunters, which comprised the majority of our party. I am hardly what one could call an aficionado of antiques, though I do rather enjoy wandering through antique shops and finding intriguing items from days of yore. And while this was not primarily a geocaching trip, you can bet I set my sights on all kinds of caches, which often kept me occupied during our antiquing trips. Oh, yes — there were a handful of wineries in the area, a couple of which we visited and enjoyed, particularly Silver Moon winery, near Dover.
Don't step too far backward, Ms. B!
Now, even though Ms. Brugger is anything but an avid geocacher, she does appreciate the unusual destinations to which geocaching often takes us. In this area of Ohio, oh, my lord, there are dead people everywhere, going back years and years, even centuries, and thus there are graveyards scattered all over the landscape, and at many of them, yes, caches to hunt. Geographically, this region is not all that far from the setting of the original Night of the Living Dead, so at most of the graveyards we visited, the landscapes appeared eerily (and agreeably) familiar. I didn't exactly see any walking dead at close range, but at one old church graveyard we explored this morning, I did notice a strange, shambling zombie wearing fluorescent tennis shoes and a fleece jacket from our workplace in Greensboro. Funny, that.
I had a hard time restraining myself at Lehman's,
so they did it for me.

Yesterday, we took a little road trip up to Kidron, a few miles north of Berlin, which is home to Lehman's Hardware, a huge, damn-near Lowe's-sized installation stocked mostly with old-fashioned hardware implements appropriate to the Amish way of life, not to mention all kinds of just plain cool specialty items (and caches on the premises). I even found a stock of Kickapoo Joy Juice (based on the moonshine in the old "Lil Abner" comics), actually a citrus soda kind of like Mountain Dew, which I enjoyed when I was a little kid. Apparently, it's still being produced.

And yes, there were Amish folks everywhere, their horses and buggies clip-clopping up and down the country roads, the men farming the land everywhere you looked beyond the limits of the little town, and all going about their lives almost as if the myriad tourists around them didn't even exist. In the darker reaches of Holmes and Stark counties where we ventured, I couldn't help but recall T.E.D. Klein's novella, "The Events at Poroth Farm" (and his novel, The Ceremonies, based on that work), which chronicled some frightening goings-on in a quaint, religion-based community — not Amish but similar enough in aspect that comparisons are inevitable. I doubt any such supernatural horrors simmered beneath the surface of mundane life here, but by God, there was Bigfoot, and that simply cannot be denied. Remember the photographic evidence, people!
Sunset over the Old Berlin Cemetery, March 29, 2017
I did find it amusing that, one night, I haphazardly left a copy of Stephen King's Salem's Lot on top of the Bible in our room at the Inn, and the next morning, after breakfast, I discovered that our housekeeper had moved the King novel elsewhere and placed the Bible prominently on a tabletop. Touché.
Ms. B. goes to church.

The only thing that might have spoiled our enjoyment of the trip was a barrage of physical infirmities — primarily age-related — that befell both Kimberly and I, which in some respects left us in less vigorous condition than her parents, which they no doubt found rather amusing. None of it was really funny, but hopefully all temporary, so that the lady and I will both be back to our typical, young-at-heart selves in the nearest of futures, barring trips to see back specialists, X-ray techs, and other related medical personnel. This getting older crap does get in the way of living sometimes, it really does.

The lot of us are safely back to our respective homes, with all kinds of wonderful memories of great company and experiences, and at least one of us twenty-some geocaches richer. I'm thinking a long soak in a hot bath might help relieve some of these blasted old-people pains.

Doncha just hate it when the older generation runs you ragged?

Click on the photos to enlarge.
There's a geocache in that photo.
Old gravestones in a cemetery off the Winklepleck Road
More graves in the cemetery off the Winklepleck Road
Hans is watching you!
A bridge, leading to nowhere, at which I located a nice little cache
Another bridge, leading to not quite nowhere, at which I also located a nice little cache
One of the most common sights on our trip

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Soul Coaxing

If you didn't grow up in the years between 1950-something and 1970-something, this one isn't for you. This one is for the old farts.

Thanks mostly to my dad, the soundtrack to my childhood was mostly easy listening — what many people might call elevator music. Now, he listened to all kinds of different music, from classical to folk to country to Broadway hits (he never came around to rock & roll, alas), but what I remember most was Dad retiring to his den after dinner, putting on the radio to one of the then-ubiquitous easy-listening stations, and engaging in whichever hobby he preferred at that particular time (early in my childhood, he built plastic model kits of sailing ships, rockets, airplanes, and such; later, he renewed his lifelong interest in stamp collecting and eventually started a lucrative business buying and selling postage stamps from around the world, which he called The Virginia Stamp Exchange). Due strictly to proximity, I became familiar with the sounds of Bert Kempfaert, Andre Kostelanetz, Paul Mauriat, Francis Lai, Percy Faith, and many others of that musical persuasion. I actually enjoyed much of it, and nowadays — since I prefer to have mellow music playing when I'm writing — I will oftentimes put on some of these tunes to provide the soundtrack to whatever fictional world I happen to be constructing at the time.

The other day, on Sirius XM, I heard a tune that hit me right in the heartstrings. It's Raymond LeFevre's "Soul Coaxing" from 1968, which I can't say I actually recall from childhood, yet it struck such an intense nerve of familiarity that I decided to track it down on YouTube. It's a fine instrumental, distinctly reminiscent of the Lai/Mauriat/Kempfaert sound I knew so well as a youngster. So, I'm sharing it here. Enjoy it if you're of a mind to listen. And do mind your manners because there's plenty more where that came from.

Going up.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

From Thingummies to Burlboro

You've no idea how far I had to crawl to reach that cache!

I spent the weekend on the go-go-go, with a trip to and from Martinsville, which included a fair bit of geocaching; our monthly supper club in Winston-Salem last night, which culminated in a little geocaching; and a nice geocaching outing today around Sedalia and southeastern Greensboro. Didn't have to perform any death-defying acrobatics this weekend, though I did turn up several particularly entertaining hides.

In Martinsville, there was a relatively new cache out on the nature trails at Patrick Henry Community College, in the area where I used to camp out when I was a Boy Scout. There's a bench out on the trail donated by Troop 63, which is actually the troop I was in, back in the early 1970s (a.k.a. the Dark Ages). I'm pretty sure the big field near the main entrance to the college is the same one where we Boy Scouts used to play capture the flag — where I ran face-first into a big pine tree that had had the audacity to plant itself in my way. I do recollect that one left a pretty good mark on my face, and I left a pretty good bit of Mark on the tree.

On the way back to Greensboro, I stopped for a few more around Oak Ridge and Summerfield, and then the madness took me. A couple of days earlier, I had DNF'd Skyhawk63's newest puzzle cache, "I Hate Puzzle Caches" (GC72H1C), way down Battleground Ave., and something possessed me to give it another look. Look I did... and look... and look... and look. After an hour or so, with mercilessly bouncing coordinates, I finally came upon the container, but then real fun commenced — trying to figure out the combination of the lock that sealed away the cache log. Eventually, I managed to see the light and claim the first-to-find. Bravo, old man!
The thingummy in Winston-Salem at 1:00 AM

Last night, Supper Club at Beth and Terry's place in Winston, which was, as usual, highly enjoyable, though overflowing (also as usual) with high-quality spirits. Upon our egress, Ms. B. and I stopped off for what proved to be another enjoyable hide, one called "Coming Home" (GC70Z3M), set at an unusual sculpted thingummy at the local Habitat for Humanity HQ. Happily, at one o'clock in the AM on a Saturday night, there were no muggles in evidence, so I was able to search quite unimpeded. And almost to my surprise, I turned up the container — a nano — quite quickly, which I'm sure relieved Ms. B., who was waiting dutifully for me in the car while I searched.

Today's outing began in Sedalia, just east of Greensboro, with Tom (Skyhawk63), Linda (Punkins19), Debbie (Cupdaisy), and I (Old Man Rodan), and took us out a few back roads for a total of 29 of the new Burlboro series that Night-Ranger placed a couple of weeks back. These were all simple park & grabs, but we did have a hootin' hollerin' good time. At once cache, the hint led us to believe we'd be looking for a white rock. Well, when we got out of the car, we saw what appeared to be a white rock a short distance into the woods. Cupdaisy, bound and determined to get to it first, shoved me out of the way and commenced to running. Since she is quite short, I easily outpaced her and reached the white rock first. Except... it wasn't a rock. It was a big old hunk of Styrofoam. Well, I still got to the Styrofoam first. And a short time after that, we turned up the actual cache.

Lunch broke out at the Fat Frogg in Elon, where I consumed a plate full of gator bites. Damned good gator bites. I should enjoy having those little reptilian bastards again.

A busy but mostly satisfying weekend after a hectic week filled with too much work and frustration, not enough writing, and one too many migraines. Mercy, I'd so love to shed those migraines permanently.

Adieu, and merci pour les caches!
The Caching Crewe (a.k.a. Team PCSD): Ol' Rodan, Skyhawk63, Cupdaisy, Punkins19
The city reservoir in Martinsville, viewed from the cache site

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Sinister Part Deux

After availing myself to the charms of the original Sinister the other evening, I went right into its sequel — titled Sinister 2, believe it or not — so I figured why not give it a little critique as well? Clearly, from the reviews and ratings out there, this one didn't earn much love, but I avoided reading any plot details so I could experience it with a reasonably open mind. I did presume it would go the way of most sequels — inferior to its predecessor — and on that count, my expectations were not wrong. However, somewhat to my surprise, I found it anything but deserving of all the hate heaped upon it. I suppose it goes without saying that people who didn't like the first film would likely not care for this one, and many of the reviews I saw came from that point of view, though I wonder, if someone detested the original, why they would bother to watch its follow-up, not to mention devote the time and energy to review it. While a few too-familiar, gimmicky plot devices rear their ugly heads, for the most part, Sinister 2 doesn't merely stomp along on a worn-out path; happily, it takes a bit of a detour and spends less time on Bughuul, the boogeyman from the first movie, than on the mental and emotional decline of a couple of young boys who are subjected to Mr. Boogie's influence.

Spoilers: Yes.

Whereas in the first movie Bughuul remained a creepy, shadowy figure with an intriguing origin, in this one, Bughuul is, unfortunately, the weakest link. From time to time, he pops up to remind us that he is actually the motivating force behind the dark events on the screen, but the scenes in which he appears leave little to the imagination. He's no longer a half-hidden background figure but a clearly seen, big-as-life cinematic bad guy, the ultimate effect being that he no longer has any power to disturb.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of disturbing moments in the movie. The on-screen murders actually are pretty unsettling, all the more so because, as in the first movie, they're committed by children. That fact having been established, Sinister 2 opens right up with some graphic violence perpetrated by minors. Evil children may have been done to death, and among reviewers there have been some apt comparisons to Children of the Corn, but in this movie, we're presented with some decent characterizations, featuring very good juvenile actors. In fact, all the actors, young and old, do a fine job with the material at hand, elevating this movie several notches above what it might have been in less capable hands.

Young Dylan Collins (Robert Daniel Sloan), his twin brother Zach (Dartanian Sloan), and their mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) have moved into an old farmhouse, apparently to escape the attention of her abusive ex-husband. Dylan has ongoing dreams of murders at an abandoned church on the property, and he begins seeing the ghosts of dead children, led by a boy named Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann), who show him movies of various grisly murders, telling him that the only way to make them stop is to watch all the movies to the end. These experiences horrify him, but he soon learns that Zach has also seen the ghosts, and unlike Dylan, Zach revels in the supernatural attention.

Ex-Deputy "So-and-So" (James Ransone), from the original film, knowing the truth about Bughuul, has gone about burning down houses where murders have occurred to prevent further killings at those sites. Unaware that the house is occupied, he comes to Courtney's place to destroy it. Surprised by her presence, he claims to be a private investigator, which prompts her to believe he is working for her ex-husband. However, he convinces her he is looking into old murders at the neighboring church.

Shortly afterward, Courtney's ex-husband, Clint (Lea Coco), does show up, intending to take the boys away from her, but Ex-Deputy intervenes and forces him to leave. Next, Ex-Deputy meets a young professor named Stomberg (Tate Ellington), who has been investigating the disappearance of Professor Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio, from the first movie). Stomberg possesses Jonas's old ham radio set, from which he has heard the voices of children and what he assumes to be Bughuul. Ex-Deputy urges Stomberg to destroy the set.

Clint once again comes around to Courtney's and this time successfully regains custody of the two boys. However, Zach, now under the influence of the ghostly children, drugs Clint, Courtney, and Dylan. Next thing we know, the three have been strung up on crosses, and Zach burns Clint to death while he films it on an 8mm camera. Before Zach can kill his brother and mother, Ex-Deputy arrives on the scene and destroys the camera, preventing Zach from completing the task his ghostly masters have demanded. Ex-Deputy frees Courtney and Dylan, but Zach is forced to flee from the ghosts as well as Bughuul, who appears to him in the flesh....

At the end of the film, Ex-Deputy is surprised to find Professor Jonas's ham radio set in his motel room, and even more surprised by what comes out of it.
Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) and Ex-Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone)
One of the home movies depicts a little fishing trip, complete with hungry, man-eating alligators....
The youthful subjects of Bughuul, on the prowl for souls to steal
Rather than Bughuul, the focus of the story is on the tension between the characters, particularly between Dylan and Zach and Courtney and Clint. While the ghosts make their awful demands on Dylan, he is less afraid of them than disgusted by what they want him to do. Zach, on the other hand, clearly having inherited his father's antisocial tendencies, actually desires to be part of that circle, though he is initially rebuffed. Both young actors play their parts to convincing effect, one sensitive and sympathetic, the other as cold and depraved as a hardened murderer — at one point deriding his mother and calling her a "cunt" with almost too-convincing viciousness.

James Ransone, returning from the first film as (now Ex-) Deputy "So-and-So," takes on leading duties, and the insecure, stuttering, and physically diminutive character comes across as a refreshing change from Ethan Hawke's crustier, cynical main character in the original Sinister. But every now and then, our deputy finds a burst of inner strength, such as when he stands up to Courtney's bullying ex-husband, Clint. The meeting between Deputy and Professor Stomberg plays like a nerd convention almost worthy of The Big Bang Theory, except for it being pretty scary. The scene in which Stomberg tells of having heard children's voices on the ham radio set is one of the creepier moments in the film.

Here, I find it sad that one of the neatest scenes in the movie is relegated to the "deleted" section of the Blu-ray. In the first film, the main title track by composer Christopher Young — reprised in this film — features a distorted child's voice calling out numbers,  which turn out to be the geographic coordinates of the various murder sites. As an avid geocacher, I am filled with all kinds of dark ideas for a new set of caches based on this very premise. (Cachers, beware!)

While distinctly inferior to its predecessor, Sinister 2 at the very least presents itself as much more than a mere retread of concepts introduced in the first film. It's a shame that the character of Bughuul is treated as sort of a throw-away Freddy Krueger, a mere prop to occasionally provide a jump scare or fill a few moments when the narrative has focused too long on actual characterization. Still, director Cirian Foy and the cast — especially the most youthful members — work hard to make you believe they're in this for real, and the 8mm "snuff films" really do depict cruel and unusual torture. Many of the harsher criticisms of the movie may have some justification (the current incarnation of Roger Ebert wrote that "Sinister 2 is so close to being a good movie that everything bad about it seems ten times worse.") but there's far more right about the film than it's generally given credit for.

Three out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
"I'm burnin', I'm burnin', I'm burnin' for you."
Nerd, meet the ex-deputy. Professor Stomberg (Tate Ellington) and Ex-Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone)
The ghostly Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann), a not-at-all nice boy
"Don't turn around, oh-oh-oh. Der Kommissar's in town, oh-oh-oh!"

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Sinister Menace

Sinister (2012) could easily join the ranks of movies I consider required viewing for the Halloween season, as it has all the proper elements: an obsessed, driven author attempting to connect a string of gruesome murders for a proposed true-crime novel; an abundance of unsettling imagery; an eerie soundtrack; and a creepy, memorable supernatural menace.

Ethan Hawke plays best-selling crime author Ellison Oswalt, who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants had been hanged from a tree in the backyard — a crime still unsolved — in hopes of using the murders as the subject of a new book. Shortly after moving in, he finds in the house's attic a box of 8mm film reels, which initially appear to be only a collection of old home movies. However, upon viewing them, he discovers that the films depict a numbers of families being killed in various horrifying ways, by party or parties unknown. With the assistance of an enthusiastic young sheriff's deputy, whom he calls "Deputy So-and-So" (James Ransone), he discovers that these murders took place over a number of years — dating back to the 1960s — and that one child from each murdered family had gone missing. Furthermore, each family had at some point lived in the same house as the previous victims.

On the inside lid of the box containing the film reels, Oswalt finds drawings rendered in a childish hand that clearly illustrate the murders, all appearing to be overseen by a figure labeled "Mr. Boogie." And once he re-examines the films, he discovers that there is indeed a sinister, pale-faced character lurking at the scene of each murder. Also left behind at the murder scenes is an odd, stylized symbol, painted in blood. Hoping to determine the meaning of the symbol, he contacts occult expert Professor Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio), who concludes the murders are ritualistic, the ubiquitous symbol implicating an obscure, ancient Sumerian deity named Bughuul, who was known for "eating the souls" of children.

As he delves deeper into this mystery, Oswalt's wife Tracy (Juliette Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) become increasingly distraught by his obsession and beg him to take them back to their previous home. He stubbornly refuses — until the entity Bughuul physically manifests itself to him. Realizing now that he may have drawn his own family into an unimaginable, supernatural horror, he relents, burns all the film reels, and retreats with his wife and children to their old home.

However, just when it seems life might return to normal, Oswalt discovers in his attic a new box of film reels and an envelope labeled "extended cut endings." It is only now that the horror truly begins....
# # #

Sinister succeeds largely due to its dark atmosphere, relatively slow reveal of the supernatural menace (Vincent D'Onofrio's character does not appear until about midway through the picture), and genuinely chilling imagery. While the various murders might be brutal, some shown in graphic detail, there is yet a sense of suggested rather than gratuitous violence. Best of all, the entity Bughuul — a.k.a. "Mr. Boogie" — remains ever mysterious, usually glimpsed quickly or, in the case of lingering close-ups, with features half-hidden by shadows. The fictional backstory of Bughuul being a Sumerian deity, who lured children to his domain so he could eat their souls, brings a distinctly supernatural presence to a narrative structured, at least in the beginning, more like a true-crime drama.

Screenwriters Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson fabricated an appealing origin for Bughuul, only partially revealed in the film, portraying him as the brother of the Canaanite god Moloch, to whom children were also sacrificed. Bughuul uses drawn symbols or images — in this case the children's artwork — as gateways from its dimension to ours, always leaving behind its rune-like symbol at the scene of its predations.

As is the tendency for most contemporary horror movies, a few unnecessary jump scares mar the suspense, but overall, the film employs nighttime settings, suggestive shadows, and the eerie musical score by prolific composer Christopher Young to unsettling effect. One of the best uses of music is a repetitive, synthesized grinding sound, simulating the sound of movie projector spindles turning after the film has run out, overlaid with distorted children's voices.

The character story is reasonably engaging, with Ethan Hawke convincing as a skeptical but dedicated investigator who slowly becomes aware that his research subject is anything but prosaic. Some critics have argued that his actions aren't logical, that a real human being wouldn't continue to delve more deeply into the realm he's discovered once its actual dangers become clear. I would disagree, particularly being a sometimes obsessive-compulsive writer-type individual. Author Oswalt, shown early on as pragmatic but driven to recapture the success of his earlier novel, becomes ensnared by images and sensations he experiences but doesn't dare believe. He clings stubbornly to reason, to the little voice that says, "no matter what you think you see, it simply can't be that, the world doesn't work that way." I think many of us are wired the same way, particularly those of us who are agnostic or atheistic, and might likely react perhaps just as "recklessly."

Oswalt's wife Tracy serves mostly as a prop, neither her personality nor her actions doing much to propel the story, though she does come across as "real," reacting to and influencing her husband's decisions based on her all-too-accurate intuition about the events overtaking them. Their son Trevor suffers chronic night horrors (an affliction I also suffered to some limited extent in my younger days), but he, too, is a two-dimensional character, and unfortunately more annoying than sympathetic. However, their daughter Ashley, a budding young artist with an engaging personality, well-portrayed by Clare Foley, plays a more critical role than is initially evident, bringing both pathos and chilling horror to the climax.

Actor/Senator Fred Dalton Thompson has a small, entertaining role as the local sheriff, but his deputy plays a much bigger part in the story, becoming both assistant and confidant to Oswalt during his investigation, though the author amusingly refers to him only as "Deputy So-and-So."

Despite its occasional shortcomings, Sinister's grim atmosphere, slow but deliberate pacing, and chilling imagery make it one of those rare movies involving the supernatural that actually has the power to disturb. The climax possesses a certain dark beauty, directed like a dance, with music playing a crucial part of its composition, leaving me with a genuine haunted feeling. As I mentioned early on, the film makes for excellent Halloween fare, and I suspect it will be appear frequently on my regular autumn film menu.

Four out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.

The brutal murder that begins the chain of events for writer Ellison Oswalt
Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is horrified by the images revealed in what he took to be old home movies.
A frame blow-up from one of the film reels reveals the face of "Mr. Boogie."
The sign of Bughuul, painted in blood, left behind at the site of each of the murders

Friday, February 24, 2017

Bloody Mayhem

In the early 1970s, from ages 10 to 15 or so — I, along with most of my young friends, was a bike-riding maniac, and by maniac I mean a fearless, death-defying, ever-aspiring stuntman with all the good sense of that redneck friend of yours who laughs and says "Hey, watch this!" If you've followed this blog, you've probably read about all kinds of juvenile tomfoolery that I was lucky enough to survive. But this is less about me than about my young friend Robert, a.k.a. "Rufert" (how that moniker came about I can't quite recall) who was far crazier than I when it came to daredevil bicycling.
The approach to the bridge: the ride began at the road,
seen in the upper right of the photo

You see that little bridge in the photo above? In my junior high school years, that was actually a different, even more rickety bridge, and after a long, if not terribly steep hill leading down to the bridge (see the photo on the left), there was a short, sharp incline just before the bridge. On this descent, the determined, energetic bicyclist could actually achieve some serious speed. We'd pedal hard, haul ass down the hill, hit that little incline in front of the bridge, and jump our bikes clear over the creek — at least if we did it properly. I accomplished this feat countless times, with picture-perfect form (I had earned my chops wiping out in spectacular fashion on any number of other makeshift jump ramps), and had there been a Boy Scout merit badge for Jumping Bicycles Over Long Distances, I'd have earned mine many times over.

Bear in mind, this was in the days before bikes were specifically made for rugged, off-road riding. Between Rufert, our friends Charles and Chuck, my brother, and I, we owned (or at least, thanks to our parents, had at our disposal) a fairly massive number of bicycles — mostly of the Stingray or Spyder bike variety — in various stages of repair. We'd ride one till there was little left of it, and either replace it or cannibalize parts from another to make it whole again. At any given time, I had at least two fully functional bicycles, usually built from the best-functioning parts of several. Now, I was pretty conscientious about putting together a solid bicycle, but not all of us paid such thorough attention to detail. More on this shortly.

One day, Rufert, my brother Phred, and I were riding at the area you see in the photos above. Rufert, having built a brand new bike, was keen on showing it off on a major jump over the creek. Now, there was no fault in the bicycle (this time), but one might not say the same for Rufert's situational awareness. He took off, pumping those pedals for all he was worth, and my brother and I, watching in admiration from the top of the hill, figured he was moving faster than we had ever seen him move. He hit the leading edge of that bridge at top speed, flew out into the air in perfect form — standing on the pedals, front wheel angled gracefully upward — and then yelled, "Oh, shiiiitttt!!!!" Little to our knowledge, since the last time we had come out to do some energetic bridge jumping, one of the boards about two-thirds of the way across had gone missing. Rufert's back tire came down squarely in the gap, and as if he had landed on a taut trampoline, his bike went — boiiiinnnng — straight up in the air and over the edge of the bridge. We saw a big explosion of water, heard a crunch-crack-splash, and then... naught but the dispassionate sun staring down through the trees and the peaceful chirping of birds.

Phred and I hauled ass down to the creek bank, looked down into the water, and there, sprawled like a casually tossed GI Joe figure upon a bed of not-so-comfortable-looking rocks, lay Rufert, staring dazedly skyward, the pieces of his bike scattered around him. His eyes rolled toward ours, and in a pained voice, he sputtered, "Wha- happened?"

Well, Rufert recovered just fine — he was bruised and bloodied, but there was nothing broken — and in no time at all, he had his bike put back together and was ready for the next challenge.

That next challenge was The Dirt Hill — a vacant lot up the road that was, as its given name might imply, a big dirt hill, or perhaps more accurately, an array of hills, some steep, some small, some tall. There was this beautiful, 20-foot sheer drop-off leading to a mound (where I now have a geocache called "Rodan's Jump" [GC1GEPF]) that you could ride down and then fly out into the air — far, far farther than the bridge jump. The key here was stopping before you went careening down another drop-off into big, jagged rocks a short distance from the end of the jump. Now, my first trip down this course resulted in me flying out into the air, looking up, and seeing my bicycle way up in the air, coming straight for me. I hit the ground, then got hit by my bike. Oww motherfucker, oww motherfucker, oww. But not unlike a little kid going off the high diving board for the first time, I decided to try again, and my next attempt went perfectly: a beautiful, stylish jump, and from then on, man, I was the master.

Rufert mastered this jump even more readily — he got it right the first time down. However, after his little mishap at the bridge, he may not have been as conscientious as he should have been when putting his bike back together. After several successful flights off the ramp, he mounted up again, pumped his way up to the top of the cliff, gave a premature cry of victory, and came barreling down in the grip of several Gs. He hit that mound, flew out in the air, standing on the pedals, looking for all the world like the king of all stuntmen — when his front wheel separated from the forks and went spiraling out into the air. As if in slow motion, Rufert and his bike arced downward, his eyes wider than dinner plates, and the now wheel-less forks burrowed into the ground, tossing him over the handlebars and into the rocks off the edge of the landing area. Phred and I went hauling down to check him out, peered down the hill, and saw him sprawled amid the rocks like a discarded Major Matt Mason figure whose internal wire framework had been twisted all out of shape. His eyes rolled toward ours, and in a voice that sounded like Mickey Mouse on helium, he piped, "Wha- happened?"

Well, Rufert recovered just fine. Again, he was bruised and bloodied, but he hadn't broken anything except his bike. I think at this point, he was forced to pressure his folks into buying him a new one because we were by now pretty much out of spare parts.

My understanding is that Rufert grew up to be a sane and reasonably responsible adult, and I don't think he has any weird scars or protruding bits of bone as evidence of our youthful exuberance. It's only a pity that this was in the days before video because, if we could have had videos of these, I'd have worn them out by now.

Oh, to bounce around with impunity the way we used to.